Hope Epic Zombie Loop pt 2

“It was too wonderful for words…

‘Do you think I’m a fool, Uncle Mike?’ asked Ernest suddenly.

‘If you think it the right thing to do, you are right to do it.’ replied Uncle Mike quietly. ‘I believe the experience will be valuable.’ (both of the book quotes were from the Mrs. Buncle series)

 

I picked up the CDT to Hope Pass and realized I could feel hot spots in my feet. I’ve had trench foot before, so I know the warning signs, and once you get hot spots you need to dry out your feet. I took off my shoes and socks, and rubbed my feet until the wrinkles dried out a bit. I gave Pippa some of the dinner I’d thankfully packed for her. I took out my headlamp, and realized I had no idea how much the batteries had in them, and had no spare batteries. I was really playing roulette here when I planned this loop. Or craps. I guess they call it Russian Roulette because of the alliteration? Because pretty much all the casino games are purely luck-based, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? I realize now, yes, that is the point. Because there’s no fun in doing something when you know how it’ll turn out. It’s the risk. You don’t have to risk your life to know that we want to be surprised. I suppose not literally everyone wants to be surprised, or they’d be out gambling or climbing mountains or squirrel suiting instead of going to work every day and having a glass of wine on the couch at night with their safe, loyal friends or spouses or whoever they hang out with.

 

When I was in California, I had been dying to go back to Leadville because California sucked for all the reasons I’ve already discussed and I just thought of all the possibilities of running in the Colorado mountains again. But since I’d been back, I had only done things that I knew I could do. There’s no doubt or fear or excitement anymore about running Mt. Elbert or Mt. Massive, even if you make a really interesting loop of it. Obviously, even when exhausted, I can complete those runs and there’s no mystery at all. The mystery of this loop is what was exciting, I guess subconsciously I planned it poorly on purpose. Who knows how many miles! Who cares! Will I even be able to complete the loop with the snow conditions? If not, what the fuck will I do? I DON’T KNOW! It might be miserable or amazing and certainly no one, including myself, will be able to predict how I will handle whatever obstacles might come my way.

 

I put my wet socks and wetter shoes back on and continue up. Once the CDT meets the CT, they both rise immediately, incredibly steeply, to climb to Hope Pass. I don’t remember the last time I ran, I’m so tired, I’ve been hiking ever since I got out of the Basin of Eternal Sadness. Zombie, zombie, zombie-e-e-e. I pass a campsite and keep climbing, but then I realize, the higher I climb, the colder it will get because that’s how both altitude and night work. My feet are soaked, and I’m well on my way to trench foot. I return to the campsite and put Pippa’s puffy coat on her. I take my shoes off and stuff my socks into my arm pits, leaving my feet bare to dry. I spoon Pip and wrap the emergency blanket around us. I’ve just been telling it like it is, and how it is sounds pretty grim. I stopped because I thought I’d feel better after a nap, and I knew stopping wouldn’t be possible if I went higher or later in the night, and I knew my feet had to dry out anyway. But it was fine. In your head, in your head, they are fighting.

 

Pip slept and I didn’t. I would say I “tossed and turned” all night, but that wouldn’t be accurate because emergency blankets don’t allow for any tossing or turning or they’ll rip and leave you uncovered. So, I had laid still but fitful for … not all night but however long we were there. I looked at my watch, and it was dead. I turned my phone on, it sprang to life, I think it was 2 or 2:30am. My socks were nearly dry, dry adjacent. Good enough. My shoes were cold and crispy, like if I tap danced in them, they might shatter. I didn’t try to tap dance in them. I just climbed slowly, slowly towards the pass. I had actually never done this side of the pass before, so in addition to the mysteries of mileage and snow conditions, there was the extra fun of being on a new trail. New to me. I reached a talus field covered in so much avalanche debris it takes a long time to cross, I can’t figure out where the trail has gone, my halo of light is too small, and my mind is too tired to find a way. I get above treeline and feel like I’ve been wrapped in the stars, like those gray wool blankets firefighters wrap around survivors. It’s in your head, in your head, zombie.

 

At the top of the pass, two extraordinary things happened (and I’m using extraordinary here in the literal sense as opposed to the cultural definition, extra ordinary as opposed to extremely good). I got cell service, for one. A couple texts came through and I hurriedly sent off messages to my parents, advising them of the adventure I was currently on, because I realized somewhere along the line that I hadn’t let anyone know where I was going (yet another symptom of biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew in an adventure that’s much bigger than you expected). I wanted some comfort, some familiarity. Though I had been doing all these miles this year, they were almost entirely on trail except for a couple small bushwacks. I hadn’t realized that my mental fortitude had waned so much, but of course it had. I hadn’t been training it and bodies and minds are very efficient. They get rid of whatever they don’t use regularly, like when your phone is all, “Critically low storage! Archive items that haven’t been used recently???!?” And you’re like, yeah, sure, if I haven’t used it recently I probably don’t need it. Your brain makes those decisions without giving you an “Okay” message to click on. And now, your Nolan’s-level resilience has been archived, and nobody told you. And that is exactly how computers are different from human bodies. Man, I should go back to school just so I can write a thesis about AI.

 

I stood at the edge of the snow, it reflected vividly in the little moonlight there was, as snow does, because snow reflects 80% of any light shined upon it. Whereas the ground reflects, I don’t know, none? My headlamp was off, and I just stood there, taking it in, too tired to really formulate, wtf am I going to do? Oh right, the other extra ordinary thing. The ridge is lined with a brutally steep snowfield that is actually, at 3:30am or whatever time it might be, pure ice. And I have socks and La Sportiva Akashas with which to cross it. [look up more Zombie lyrics, because when you sing them, they’re undoubtedly wrong]. I traverse as far as I can towards whatever mountain is east of Hope Pass, and find a place to descend the steepest part of the ice. A couple hundred feet down, the ice softens to shitty snow and I’m back on it, descending and post holing into icy water yet again. The snow ends just before treeline and I realize, I have no idea where the trail is. I traverse left and right, hoping to cross it. The ground is a swamp, though, a snowmelt-cold swamp, which is just as bad as an ice-cold swamp, and looking back I realize that I probably was crossing it but wouldn’t have been able to see any trail under the water and mud and plants and slush. I descend a labyrinth of felled trees, to find a dead end and waterfalls and cliffs. I ascend and traverse and descend again only to find the same cliffy dead ends over and over again. I find a high point in the swamp and sit down, wrap the space blanket around Pip and I, hoping to wait it out until sunrise. In five minutes, I feel numb.

 

I get up and ascend and descend over and over again, but getting a little further down each time like a chameleon, unsure of its next step and trying to be calculated but ultimately all the moving backwards and forward will finally inch it to its destination. I stumble upon the trail and cry out with relief and gratitude. I am too tired, or dehydrated, or tired, or zombie, to cry. Now that I’m on the trail, the dense, jungley forest of Willis Gulch feels infested with something terrifying. I’m not really that scared of lions and bears, but when you’re tired your eyes or your brain play tricks on you. I felt paranoid. I began to sing, devotional songs in Sanskrit and Play it Right by Sylvan Esso, the songs I can think of at this moment. “Oh I feel like an animal in the night [because we are] play it right.” The dirt trail is plagued by tree roots but it is refreshingly soft on my knees. I feel the hot spots, but know it’s too cold to stop. The animals I’m hallucinating aren’t mountain lions or bears, they’re prehistoric. They’re saber-tooth tigers, their enormous presence so heavy and taking up so much space, I can feel them there. I’m sure they are there. “And I will be more than a small human with her head pressed against your mouth in motion.” The miles add up. My watch isn’t adding them anymore, but I know how many more miles it is to get home now. With their tanks and their bombs, and their bombs, and their guns, in your head, in your head, they are crying.

 

At the base of the Willis Gulch trail, there is a hint of light over the Mosquito Range. I turn right, towards “Interlaken”, not yet realizing my mistake. Two and a half miles later, I arrive at Interlaken, and it is no place at all. The CT continues directly to the east, and I realize I have to go all the way back to Willis Gulch and west to the Willis Gulch trailhead, where the bridge is to cross Lake Creek. My feet burn and sting and rage, I know it’s too late now and I have trench foot. You know when your feet get all wrinkly in the bath? The skin is swollen and stretched and sensitive from the water it’s soaked up. If you let your feet be swollen and sensitive for long enough, and in fact bear your weight on them step after step while they’re in that condition, those wrinkles will begin to blister. That is trench foot, hundreds of blisters, and raw, swollen skin.

 

I wake up, my face feels rough and my neck is stiff, but I am bathed in sunlight, and warm. Pip is standing a few feet away, looking at me. My arms are wrapped around a large, rather flat rock that I’m cradling like a teddy bear (or if I’m being honest, a Popples, or a Figment) and the rest of my body is splayed out, completely blocking the trail. Apparently, I found this nice cozy rock and laid down to snuggle it, and fell asleep in the sun. It is 8am, and my phone has something like 9% battery left (do you remember when there was mystery to gas tanks and phone batteries? Now you always know how many miles left and how many seconds left and what is the fun in that? I used to never have any idea when my phone would die. Although, since I still drive an ‘89, and the gas gauge has never worked properly as long as I’ve had it, so I guess I still have some mystery there. And what’s the fun in driving, really, if you always know exactly when you’re going to run out of gas?). Is my life a little *too* exciting?

 

I’m hiking again, and I’m quite miserable and stiff but in slightly better spirits. Once I reach Twin Lakes, I know I only have 8 miles left. Each step is blindingly painful, but hey, 8 miles is better than 13! It’s more than the five I wasted this morning taking a wrong turn to Interlaken (WTF IS INTERLAKEN? And WHERE does the trail ever cross 82!? I still don’t know). I wander around Twin Lakes looking for the Jeep road that links back to the CT. I had done this before, but I stopped before I reached Twin Lakes itself. Now, I realize I don’t know just exactly where it comes out. I meet a group of old folks, who in the typical old folks/small town way, give me these directions “Follow this street, see, to the pitch. Climb the pitch, cross through a gully then a ditch, then take a right. But don’t be too eager with that right or you’ll end up trespassing. Be patient about that right turn, you hear?” And they stride off, clearly in better shape than me.

 

I climb the pitch, cross through a gully, then a ditch, arrive at a road, and turn right. It dead ends at someone’s garage and I realize I’ve not been patient enough, I backtrack. I patiently wait for another right, and as it materializes I see a through hiker, who confirms I’ve found the right, less eager, right turn. I shuffle up the climb from 82. Zombie, zombie, zombie. After all, there’s nothing to do but walk the eight miles back to my bike stashed at the Elbert TH. Nothing, nothing, nothing else to do. I start to see through hikers who are, relative to me, bright-eyed and chipper on a sunny, blue-skied morning. We great each other warmly. They don’t ask me what I’m up to, struggling like I’m dragging my hapless body through honey and wincing as if a dozen miniature miners are hacking into my feet, looking for valuable ore that they might sell to fancy bike manufacturers. And I don’t volunteer it.

 

A few miles later, I’m taking a break on the side of the trail with my shoes off, knowing it’s too late but looking at the ruins of my feet and hoping I might prevent it from continuing to get worse with each step. A woman approaches, another through hiker. She asks, “What are you doing?” so sincerely that I tell her exactly what I’m doing, or what I’ve just done. The short version, which is something like: I climbed Mt. Elbert by the standard route, then descended southwest over Bull Hill to Echo Canyon. I crossed 82 and climbed La Plata in the evening, and descended to Winfield. I took the CDT to Hope Pass, crossed through Twin Lakes, and now I’m here, trying to make my way back to camp, to close the loop. I was out all night. I have trench foot (of course, I left in these important details, and I am exhausted.

 

“Wow! What an accomplishment!” She says. I’m so tired. Zombie, zombie, zombie. For miles and hours, or hours of miles, the trial of miles, miles and miles of trials, I though about what had gone wrong. About how lousy I felt. About how poor of shape I was in and how un-resilient my mind was. About how I had accidentally come to run and walk and stagger for 50 miles. I say, “Thank you.” She goes on her way and I put my shoes on with no wet socks anymore, I get up and shuffle. I know she’s right. I think about how my GPS track laid over a satellite map on Strava will tell so little of this story. I laugh out loud.

Hope Epic Zombie Loop & Wild-Cat Ideas pt 1

“’I suppose you have got one of your wild-cat ideas.’
‘Yes, I have,’ Earnest owned, smiling a little, ‘at least you will probably think it’s a wild-cat idea.’”

I was camping at Half Moon, two miles from where the Colorado Trail crosses it and heads up towards Mt. Massive in one direction and Mt. Elbert in the other. I had already done a series of small loops by utilizing the CT, loops I’ve done before and loops that I hadn’t yet thought of. I’m not sure where the loop thing came from, but suddenly I’m obsessed with loops. I guess, I hate the inefficiency of a one-way, which necessitates getting rides and stashing cars. But an out-and-back is even less appealing, especially when you’re doing parts of the Nolan’s route. It’s all the Grand Canyon’s fault, really. Those damn well-organized and maintained bike paths and extremely convenient shuttles would ruin the thing for anyone.

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From La Plata, looking SW at the ridge I would take to the basin

So that’s how I suddenly came to think, what if I left from my campsite and did Elbert and La Plata on the Nolan’s course, then used the CDT and the CT to loop it back (I’m still relatively new to Strava, you guys, and just imagine what a loop like that would look like overlayed on a satellite map! Damn Strava, it’s your fault, too). You know how you get an idea and it’s obviously the best and most brilliant idea you’ve ever had? I mean, I was planning a run. A rather grand run, but still. It played up in my mind. I must run this wonderful loop! And in the way of all the best and brightest ideas, I planned extremely poorly and set out as soon as I could.

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From Massive, a couple days before I did the Loop

The first week I had been back in Leadville, I did 25,000 feet of elevation, which wasn’t unusual for my training, and I was so exhausted that I was cutting every run short and existing in the world like a zombie. I took two days off, because I could hardly imagine how I could get out to run at all (I’ll talk more about this in the next post, which will be called something like over training: How to Lose Everything). Then I made a hard effort on Elbert, and the next day I planned to do my loop. Without doing the math or looking anything up, I had loosely added up miles in my head and determined vaguely that the loop was probably somewhere in the 30’s. As I had just done the Broken Arrow in 6:28, I imagined that such a loop should take me 8 to 12 hours, making allowances for what I expected to be rather poor snow conditions (and poor, they were). I packed my headlamp, some bars, and an emergency blanket in addition to the stuff I normally carry on mountain runs (shell jacket, life straw, sunglasses) and rode my bike to the north Elbert trailhead. At, like, 10:30am. Alpine starts are for organized, responsible people who want to get back at a reasonable time and avoid afternoon storms. “And you, button, are none of those things.”

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from Elbert summit

It was a beautiful day and the Elbert ascent went fast and easy. I cruised over the summit to the confusion of startled summit-sitters and passed a large group of annoyed teenagers that had probably come from the Black Cloud trailhead on the talus, before I dropped out of sight, off trail, toward Bull Hill. I got a view of the ridge. “I’m worried that the snow conditions in the basin off La Plata will be so bad I’ll get stuck.” I said days ago, to a friend who knows the route. He said, “No, Hope Pass is going to be the snow crux.” We were both wrong, I thought, as I looked over the steep slopes covered in heavy, sun-wet snow just begging to slide off the ridge to Bull Hill. As I traversed I also descended, aiming for lower angle snow at least to cross in, knowing how steep it was above me. I kept thinking, I should turn back, I should turn back, but I thought, no it’ll get better, it’ll get better as it got worse and worse. Because I couldn’t find a place to safely ascend Bull Hill itself, I went further south and tried to ascend its south ridge. As I climbed the snow towards it, I could finally see the cornices at the top, and the cracks in the snow beneath them. At this point, Pippa had already crossed over and I knew that was the fastest way out of this situation. So I did, too.

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Bull Hill

As I predicted, on the other side of the corniced snow was bare tundra and rocks and the Bull Hill descent was no trouble at all. As I crossed 82, I looked at my mileage so far and realized that I had under calculated. But, that’s ok. Even if it adds up and I end up at 40, it’ll still be okay. But, if I don’t want to go on, I should really decide that now because this is probably the point of no return. Once I cross over La Plata, I’ll be committed to this loop. Committed, I was. Because of my late morning start, I hit the La Plata trailhead late enough that I only saw one group still making their way down on the 100 switchbacks. We stopped to chat about dogs and weather and things, and one of the guys said, “I bet you could still make it to the summit if you pushed it.” Hahahahaha. It was 5:45pm. I said, “Well, I sure hope so because I’m going over to the other side.” I hoped, at that point, that I’d make it to 390A on the other side of the SW La Plata TH before dark, as I was still worried about the unknown snow conditions and also about route finding in the basin.

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the ridge to Bull Hill

“What’s on the other side?” He asked, incredulous. I thought for a moment, the probably snow-filled basin? 390A? Winfield? Salvation? A cold, honest night alone in the mountains? “Nothing at all.” I said, and went on climbing, my thighs were burning and progress slowing. My first yoga teacher was always saying when a pose was hard and your legs were burning, it’s “Burning Enthusiasm.” Because you can choose it to be burning enthusiasm instead of burning misery. And the burning, besides, is what burns up all the garbage, all the thoughts and worries and fears and past you’re gripping, tapas, the physical struggle, can burn them out and leave you alone with yourself. Each slow step burns and I try to think, “Burning Enthusiasm.”

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from La Plata, looking west at the setting sun

I had started thinking about what I’d call the loop. I love naming routes. And the longer and more strenuous they are, the more you suffer and the more the mountains abuse you, the easier it is to just know suddenly what they should be called. Something always pops into mind, or makes itself apparent. At this point, after the carefree, sunny Bull Hill descent and the casual, if slow, La Plata ascent, I had in my mind that song that’s by Fallout Boy or Panic at the Disco that the chorus is like, “Always had high, high hopes …” [we’ll see if I remember to look up the lyrics to this song, because you know how you can get a catchy song stuck in your head just from hearing it on the radio or in a store or something even if you don’t know exactly the words?] And of course, it seemed obvious to use a play on Hope Pass, as that was the hinge that made the loop possible. I trudged upward as the sun got lower in the sky, oblivious to the miles adding up freely and much more quickly than my harried math had allowed for. “I’ll call this the High High Hopes loop.” It’s a lot easier to be positive and delighted when the sun is still up.

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This is my GPS track, up until the point my watch died partway up Hope Pass

The ascent took so long that I rushed down the talus towards the basin, just blindly hoping to get off that heinous trail and onto the road before dark at this point, thinking that once I was, any potential troubles would probably be over and I’d be easily navigating clean trail in the dark. My knees were really bothering me, and I was exhausted. Still exhausted from last week or the altitude or whatever it was that had been hindering my performance. Like everyone that’s crossed the threshold and is suffering from over training (but do not know it yet, because they do not wear a heart rate monitor regularly as God and Steve House agree everyone should), I believed I must be unfit and continued to push harder to make up for it. I arrived at the steep gully I had to descend into the basin, the place I was worried about the snow being the most dangerous. But, I was in luck, because though full of snow, I could skirt it and come down on undesirable but not particularly dangerous very steep mud instead. I switched to snow as the angle lessened at the bottom and skated a little into the flat part of the basin. It was completely full of snow, like the end of a bowl of Cheerios when you had piled on white sugar at the start, and now it had soaked in milk for the 10 minutes or so it took to eat the cereal.

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I know I already posted a similar picture from La Plata looking SW but I’m out of pictures, these were the last I took

Unlike milky sugar, however, the approximately two feet of snow was just a front to disguise a foot, and in some places 2.5 feet, of standing water and willows. And the snow, being what, July? Was not weight bearing at all. So with every step, I broke through the wet, granular snow and into the standing water and tangled willows and the sun continued to set. “Don’t give in to the sadness, Artex!” I yelled at Pippa, but Pippa is Pippa and she frolicked and rolled and thrashed about in the Basin of Eternal Sadness as happy as a Pippa could be, as that’s how Pippas do. Just when I was accepting my fate, that I would live here forever, until I died here, I came to the edge of the snow and happened upon the trail. The trail that would weave down between the cliffs and the river and carry me to 390A, the dry Winfield promised land. It was when I set foot on this beautiful road that I looked at my watch and realized, while I had also under accounted for the miles on both the Elbert and La Plata traverses by a few, I had not included a single mile of 390A or the CDT that would take me to Hope Pass in my mileage number. I tiredly tried to add in my head, guessing mostly but knowing that from the top of Hope Pass, I knew for sure I’d have 13 still to go. …And miles to go before I sleep.

The sun was setting, I was soaked to my thighs, I had a half a bar left, and I was getting painfully near the 12 hour mark (upon which my Garmin watch would give up and die, as anyone would after working constantly for 12 hours, even a tiny computer), with an end that wasn’t nearly in sight. Suddenly I could hear something, which was crazy because I hadn’t seen anyone since those folks on the other side of La Plata which felt like days and many conditions and mental states ago. There was a large group, with maybe five or six tents, camped near the road. A bunch of 30-something front-rangers were talking and laughing and playing that bean bag game and drinking beer and playing music. The music was Zombie by the Cranberries. (To be continued…)

1,400 Miles

Funny thing is, I wrote a similar post last year, and the real truth is I didn’t fully learn my lesson and spent 1,400 miles learning it all over again this year. Last year by August, I was sick of running, I had just come off a lousy performance at the Speedgoat (in every possible way, really), I went to the Tetons and had the best time climbing, and I realized I loved the running/climbing combo, I needed to get better at climbing, and I would focus on that. Somewhere in the next couple of months I decided I wanted to apply to RMI to guide Rainier for summer 2019 (the one we’re currently in) they enthusiastically responded immediately that I’m an excellent candidate and scheduled me for my test date in person in March. I scheduled the prereqs I didn’t yet have (WFR and avalanche) and set up in Ouray for the winter to climb ice and ski.

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winter in Ouray

Then suddenly, in January or February, I had this thought, am I sure I want to guide? Like, this seemed like an obvious career path if I was done racing and ready to climb more and bigger mountains. I’ve never been able to find a consistent partner to go to big mountains and definitely not for the bigger projects of my dreams, nor could I afford many of these trips in my current lifestyle, and guiding was the obvious answer. But my favorite thing in the world is to camp in remote places and run new and old big mountain routes alone! So now I’m confused, I’m sitting here thinking about the actual day to day of guiding and what I would be giving up should I go that route. I make a pro/con list with three categories:

  1. Finally committing full time to training and racing
  2. Personal projects
  3. Guiding

 

So I’ve always wondered what would happen if I actually trained. I’ve posted several times about that this year already, so I suppose the cat is out of the bag. But the clincher on the pro/con list was, under training/racing, I will always regret it if I don’t give it a shot and see what I’m capable of. I told RMI I’m not coming and started training immediately. I left Colorado early and went to AZ to train on the actual ground. I lived in the Grand Canyon for a month, doing the 5,000 foot south rim climb from the river 3 or 4 times a week. I put in 90 mile weeks with 20,000ft of climbing. I ran laps at Mt. Whitney and at the Druid Stones in Bishop. I ran boring roads and awkward trails just to get the miles in. I skipped over climbing in the Sierras because I needed to be running and didn’t have the time for daily snow climbs and scrambles and definitely not roped climbing in favor of these lesser, boring runs.

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This post has a disturbing lack of its own pictures, this is from the Mt. Whitney Portal, where I ran 180 miles

Then I drove to Truckee, California, for a race. As the Blazer climbed out of Reno and into the mountains, my heart was raging around like a barefoot contemporary dancer inside my rib cage from the excitement of going all the way to California for a big race. It really lends a sense of gravity. I worried that all that ice climbing over the winter, and lack of winter training, would be the thing that made me fail. I wondered if I would be good enough. I wondered wtf to eat because I am always getting sick in races, although I can’t say that I’ve done that terribly many. I tried to strategize and visualize and plan the perfect three week gradual taper. I watched half of the 15th season of Gray’s Anatomy trying to distract myself the day before. I showed up to the Broken Arrow Skyrace and had an amazing run. The course was beautiful, I met lots of amazing people, and although the last major climb and the last four miles of blasting downhill hurt a little, I barely suffered at all. I ran 6:28, which I considered to be a very respectable time for a 50k with 10,000ft of climbing and placed 14th, which was the harsh reality of a stacked elite field. But I looked back on it and thought, I know I did not suffer enough to say I gave it my best. But that’s okay, because the Speedgoat is coming and that is why I ran the 1,400 miles. At the Speedgoat, I will do my best.

 

And besides, the Speedgoat is more my kind of race anyway. The brutal climbs and the horrific descents are things that I’m stronger in, and the miles and miles of soft, easy, rolling trails at Broken Arrow were a great advantage for everyone else. The kind of training I’ve been doing and the type of running I like to do are all aimed at the Speedgoat. I have done an incredible amount of research entailing last year’s splits, my competitor’s training and their last year’s splits, and I think, if I go out and work harder than I’ve ever worked, I could get a really great time. Then I immediately begin to dread it. You know on old rollercoasters, the first hill the train is dragged up slowly, click, click, click, and there’s that pause as you’re going over the top as the weight of the cars transitions to the downhill and it feels like your stomach is reaching for the sky and your whole body is wild with the anxiety and excitement and anticipation? That fucking hill was 1,400 miles long, and now, as I’m driving to SLC, arriving at the campground, packing up my vest, setting the alarm, I’m in the last car of the train and we’re just hanging there, waiting to go over.

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I don’t have photos from SLC, I took this yesterday

The first almost 4,000 climb goes well. There’s more flat miles mixed into it than I remember, but I’m on a good pace and I’m feeling strong and great. I come through the first aid station and carefully don’t eat or drink much before the upcoming almost 4,000ft descent. It is a nightmare that never ends. It’s hard to explain how bad it is, it’s an old creek bed that is basically a trough of loose baseball and volleyball sized rocks, and there is a jeep road next to it that we are not allowed to run on, because at every opportunity when building this course he said, “How could I make this worse?”. And it goes on for almost 4,000ft. By the time I reach Pacific Mine, my whole body is battered (although I thankfully did not fall) and my mental status is already in a garbage disposal. I grab snacks and water and gel and start the next climb, 3,700 feet of entirely unscenic jeep road to nowhere in particular and I immediately realize, my gas tank is empty.

 

During the Broken Arrow, I consumed four gels, copious amounts of water, sips of coke and gingerale, and almost nothing else (I think maybe a cookie, a chip, and a strawberry but regular food makes me sick and that day I learned that GU doesn’t). I am 1/3 of the way into the Speedgoat and I’ve already eaten all of my gels and am now relying fully on the aid stations and I have somehow underconsumed both calories and water to the extent that in addition to feeling mentally void, I’m starving and my well trained legs have nothing to give. That’s ok, I tell myself, because it’s 99% mental anyway, and there’s time to fix this. Then maybe 1,500 miserable feet into this climb I realize, I don’t want it.

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I don’t have any photos from Broken Arrow or Speedgoat. This is just me running in my Speedgoat shirt in Jackson, photo by Mark

““You’ve gotta want it!” Yelled Sten Fjeldheim, and there was the whole truth. In the first five syllables, in the first few seconds of the first day of school, Sten told us all we really had to know about cross-country ski racing or likely anything else. “And if you want it bad enough you can train on the moon. But if you don’t want it bad enough you may as well head for the dorms … If you don’t want it bad enough to show up on time, you don’t need me.”” From Momentum, Pete Vordenberg’s memoirs of Olympic ski racing. I read those words this morning before I went out to run. Although I’ve read that book a dozen times, it both stings and feels liberating now. Nothing is more true than that, the whole truth.

 

I didn’t want it. With perfect clarity, I looked around myself at the completely uninspiring landscape, I looked at my feet as they shuffled up this dirt road and the sweat from my forehead dripped onto the dust, and I looked in myself as my morale spiralled lower and lower and I realized that I would never be a great race runner because competition wasn’t what inspired me. I knew going into it that I would have to work harder than I’ve ever worked, and it terrified me because I knew I didn’t love racing or the Speedgoat or this course enough to max myself out, to work as hard as I could. I knew this already. I know I did, I had to have. I can only run hard because I love something, because I want to stand on top of it, because it’s a route so aesthetic that it inspires me, because it’s so beautiful I can’t even stand it and the only response I could possibly have is to give my body over to it at whatever the cost.

 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I found myself telling someone out loud that boy was my morale spiraling down the toilet (clockwise or counterclockwise, US or Australia style, it doesn’t matter), that I felt a profound sense of deja vu. All of this had happened last year, and I had blocked it all out in my mind. I had walked away saying it was the worst day of my life, and all I remembered about why was because I was undertrained and the course is heinous. And now here I was again, trudging up the same boring, Godforsaken climb, feeling beaten and ready to give up running forever, exactly like last year. Blowing it, unwilling to give it my best, exactly like last year.

 

I learned the price of a podium finish, and I neither could nor would pay it. I hiked the rest of the climbs and jogged the downs with lackluster and finished faster than last year in a time I don’t remember and don’t care enough about to look up, and it turned out I was 10th but that doesn’t matter either. I spent the last descent thinking, just please let it be over. Let it be over, let it be over. And then it was, and I was so relieved to cross that finish line but I didn’t feel proud, just elated to sit the fuck down and drink my recovery drink and eat my pizza and chat with my new friends. That is one thing, I’ve met really good folks at every race I’ve done. And the Speedgoat especially, for all its misery and the cruelty and brutally that Karl put into the course, it brings us together, because at least we’re traveling through that ring of hell together.

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From just below the saddle of the Grand, taken this year

I drive straight to the Tetons, and just like last year I spend about a week playing the guitar and reading and eating pastries at the Jackson Lake Lodge and pizza from Jackson Whole Grocer and mountain biking with Pippa, and of course I still run, but I only ran 40 miles that week and only one of those runs was in the park. I don’t climb a Teton until the day before I’m set to leave. I go up Disappointment Peak with my friend Mark. I suppose I should tell you, in case you aren’t familiar, Disappointment is a peak so directly in front of the Grand that it’s very difficult to see its summit within the Grand’s big, beautiful face. It’s so named because the first ascent attempt of the Grand ended when they summitted Disappointment Peak and realized that there is a cavernous and impossible gap between their bodies and the Grand Teton. Disappointment is certainly one of my favorites, there’s no long miserable talus hopping and you get straight to the good stuff, very exposed but easy scrambling. I’ve done this route enough times now that I know all the parts of it, and I know that because we’ve been climbing the east side, and the Grand is on the west side, when we finally crest the ridge that we’ll take to the summit, suddenly we’ll be face to face, eye to eye with the Grand.

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I reach it first and I just stand there for a moment, staring, then step aside and usher Mark into my spot so he can experience that bigness, that sense of fullness and awe for his first time, that I still get every time but of course I remember the first especially keenly. And I begin to weep. Because it’s just all come down on me like the roof of an old, closed down bowling alley in a heavy snow year. I’ve wasted this whole year, for nothing. I should’ve been doing this, this thing that I love so much. Climbing mountains, bigger mountains, harder mountains. Climbing at all. Playing around in and doing alpine things. And instead, there were all those 12, 14, 16 mile runs. There was day after day of the trial of miles, just filling in the boxes of my training log. And all of those 1,400 miles (and something like 350,000 feet, mind you, which was no small thing either) led up to this miserable day on which I proved that I am mediocre at running [racing] and I always will be.

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looking SW from Disappointment Peak

I say the short version of this to Mark. And he reminds me, but I had to do it. I needed to know, I would’ve always regretted it if I didn’t give it my best shot and see what I could accomplish. Then I realize, I hadn’t thought I might fail. Of course, when you set out to do something big, you could succeed or you could fail. I’m still struggling to put my finger on this, because it’s not yet clear if all of that work, all that 1,400 miles, is built up in my body just waiting to do something useful. Because on neither race day did I push myself to my limit and come up short. I blew it at the Speedgoat on the second climb and I knew I was blowing it and I just couldn’t make myself care. Which is still failing at my objective, but I think it’s more of a principles thing and now that the race season is over, I’m free to do with my fitness what I want and work on these personal projects that were and are so much more important to me. When I summit Disappointment, I stand there on the edge, over that huge, sheer gap that’s so deep and vertical that it gives you vertigo. I close my eyes and feel the wind and the bigness of the Grand and I’m so full of delight, it’s like my body can’t hold itself together and might just evaporate. And although my heart is beating so hard I can feel my pulse in every part of my body, it slows, because now I am perfectly calm.

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I’m sitting on the couch in the camper as I write this, we’re in the middle of nowhere at Clear Creek now, and both so relieved to be out of Jackson because now Pip can run in any mountains she wants again and we don’t have neighbors and there’s water and it’s not so hot. I’m drinking coke over snow I carried down from the mountains earlier today and eating a big hunk of Tillamook cheese and trying not to think about all that time I could’ve been doing fun shit. Today we did a linkup in a big loop, not as big as the Epic Zombie Loop and not nearly as disastrous [why haven’t I written about the Epic Zombie Loop!? It’s like I blocked that 24 hours out of my brain completely. God I have been thinking I should write about something and not being able to think of ANYTHING interesting I’ve done lately, and there’s that juicy topic, just sitting there]. I could feel the altitude even though we were at 7k for three weeks, I guess I only went up really high twice in that time. I jogged descents, I stopped for snacks and water filtering, I filmed Pip rolling around in the snow, I cavorted, I looked for a new route and failed to find it, I sprinted the last mile, and I burned one of the ascents nearly as hard as I could, we got rained on when the sky opened up just as we got below treeline. I’m crying into my snow-cold coke right now in relief, because when you’re free to do whatever you want in the world again, you look back and see that when you couldn’t, it was all in your own mind to begin with.

DOUBT

I ran my first ultra distance race, and it was so much harder than I expected (what was it that I expected exactly?? I don’t seem to remember anymore) (also, I didn’t want to do a recap but I did finish, 50 miles and 12,000ft gain, just so you’re caught up).

Then I scoped out the off trail parts of Nolan’s and who knew that the miles BETWEEN the mountains would be the most terrifying and dangerous. And I feel like I’m in over my head (and maybe a little post ultra depression).

This is literally the route from the summit of Huron to Missouri.  It's reminiscent of jumping off a cliff, then you might notice there are several miles of other mountains between here and there.  Just saying.

This is literally the route from the summit of Huron to Missouri. It’s reminiscent of jumping off a cliff, then you might notice there are several miles of other mountains between here and there. Just saying.

DOUBT.

All week I’ve faced the decision over and over again: am I really going to do this? It’s on a level of hard that’s beyond what I could have believed, let alone what I’m equipped to face. If I’m going to do this I have so much to do. So much to do. So so so much to do.

The last time I was going through a crisis like this I taped up notes all over my house, as is my tradition. “timshel-this is the ladder to climb to the stars” and “THIS IS YOUR LIFE!” They’re still there and sometimes they motivate me and sometimes they mock me. During the race I said to myself more than once STOP MAKING EXCUSES AND MOVE YOUR FUCKING FEET and I think that deserves a new sign on my door.

I searched on the internet about how to overcome self doubt and pretty much all the internets has to say about it is about acceptance. I feel like that’s one of those things that sounds all very nice but is much different in practice. I think I read something too about using the fear and doubt to fuel you. HOW DO YOU DO THAT?!

this is the only picture I took during the Pike's Peak Ultra, from the summit of Mt. Rosa

this is the only picture I took during the Pike’s Peak Ultra, from the summit of Mt. Rosa

I realized I don’t think I’ve had to deal with self doubt of this kind before…I was raised with a solid belief that I can do anything at all, and most of my endeavors (though some very challenging) I’ve seen within the scope of my capabilities. Even the 50 mile race- I was very confident going in and that turn was very hard for my self esteem to take.

Doubt is fear based, obviously. I’ve faced my fears so many times and different ways that I wouldn’t say I’m fearless but I’d say my perspective is a lot different than it used to be (how about the time I slipped and almost fell off the Sawtooth ridge and conquered my fear of spiders, the time I was charged by a bear, when we started an avalanche, or one of multiple times I was lost in the winter on Pike’s). But doubt is such a different kind of fear. I’m used to risking my body or my well being. But what about trying when you don’t believe you’ll do anything but fail? Gosh seeing that on screen brings tears to my eyes. I’ve given up everything else in my life to move here for Nolan’s, basically, it’s about time that I admit that it’s why I moved here. And if I can’t do it? What will my life be then?

See, now we’ve gotten to the heart of darkness here. Not only have I spent the last NINE MONTHS with the single point of focus of training for Nolan’s, but I’ve made it my life, too. Can I really not look back on all the thousands of hours of training and say that I had fun? That I suffered but I also felt the greatest joy? I struggled, I fought, I believed; I saw the most beautiful places, I touched the sky, and I triumphed. The highest highs and the lowest of lows. Is the trial of miles really just about the end point? No. I’m underestimating and devaluing myself. It’s the miles and miles of trials. If I finish Nolan’s it will be the greatest moment of my life. But if I don’t, it’s not as if I don’t have so many smaller triumphs to look back on. To be proud of. I RUN MOUNTAINS. I mean I run mountains, 14,000ft mountains. I am stronger and tougher than I ever have been. As rough as it was, I crossed the 50 mile finish line running strong. I’ve earned every piece of these accomplishments.

glorious fucking summits.  I am mad in love with summits.

glorious fucking summits. I am mad in love with summits.

The thing that I love about long distance running (that I think is also the hardest for people that don’t do it to understand) is when you have nothing left to give, you wish you could lay down and die rather than keep going, and you dig into the deepest bits of yourself…that’s when you see who you are, what you’re made of. When I’m there, in the lowest of soul crushing lows, and I see what’s really in there, it’s I WILL NEVER GIVE UP. I see now that that’s what really matters. The finish line is a great moment for anyone, but it’s not the only moment, and the finish of Nolan’s is not my life. Every piece, every minute, every new friend, every brutal climb, every perfect blue sky, every painful struggle and every summit that brought me this far-THAT is my life.

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just another day in paradise

just another day in paradise