Overtraining: The first few months

I was climbing Hope Pass from Clear Creek. I had wanted to put up a hard effort in Missouri Gulch, but while riding my bike from camp to the TH, a Subaru stopped me to ask if I had happened to see their bikes anywhere, or anything related to them getting stolen off their rack in the parking lot while they were hiking. I hadn’t seen anything, and it put a sour taste in my mouth for MO Gulch so I kept riding on to the Sheep TH and hid my bike in the woods there instead.

I could see the top of the pass, I was on that last long switchback, and I was feeling like I really might’ve pushed it so hard that I might actually explode this time when I looked at my watch for my heart rate. I had put on a heart rate monitor today finally, in an effort to find more data that might explain why I felt so bad. I had felt bad for over a month. It read 201. I finished the final steps and collapsed. I had put up a solid time, but at a price. Later that night, I was relaxing and watching TV. My heart rate monitor read 110. Something was really wrong, and I had the evidence now but no actual understanding. This was one year ago.

I actually had a photo from that very night on Hope Pass

Once again, I’ve done a poor job of lightening up this experience and this post is not very funny, but I think it’s important to get more information about OTS out there for anyone who needs it. Check your heart rate, people! It’s preventable.

My first clue was when I arrived in Provo, Utah the day before the Speedgoat. I walked Pippa around the campground and went for a short swim. I was exhausted. After a three week progressive taper. I knew something was wrong then, but it was easy to explain it away. It’s just that heavy feeling after taper, I told myself. I didn’t keep it sharp enough this week. It’s from the drive. I’ll be fine. Once I get started, I’ll be fine. The first steps off the start line, I was exhausted. The first mile ticked by, I was exhausted. I descended and was exhausted. By the time I got to the second big climb, I wanted to give up. I wrote about it after. I said I wasn’t strong enough, that I didn’t train hard enough, that I didn’t want it badly enough and I mentally gave up. I told myself every disparaging thing I could rather than getting curious enough to look into that something was really wrong with my body.

Pip modeling how I felt

This is a common problem with OTS and it’s how it goes so far so fast, that you start underperforming, you start feeling bad, and instead of backing off and looking into what might be wrong, you push harder. You blame yourself. You train harder, you try to dig deeper. Is that cultural? Dig deeper, dig deeper. Show your soul. What are you really made of? I am made of blood and bone and skin and muscles controlled by a failing nervous system, but I don’t bother to look into it, because the only reason I could fail is that I didn’t try hard enough.

Random picture from this year actually

I arrived in Jackson and I didn’t want to run. I was depressed. I assumed it was because I failed at Speedgoat, coming in 10th. It is not a natural state for me. Actually, depression is a symptom. I slept 12 hours every night, also a symptom. [bingeing Netflix and Lofthouse cookies is not a symptom though, it’s an American pastime] I half heartedly tried to train, but I felt so bad. I raced Rendezvous and slipped back to 8th, running five minutes slower than the previous year. I felt like I was losing my gears, like I couldn’t push. Like an ’89 trying to drive up Teton Pass. I had run 1,400 miles in 2019 by the end of July, and I thought I still must be undertrained.

Shadow Mountain, I did some running in the Tetons in ’19 but a lot of biking to get Pips out

I went back to Leadville and tried to run twice a week. I was aware that I wasn’t recovering between runs, and I guess I thought that would be enough time to make it up. It wasn’t. I felt worse every day, whether I ran or not. One day, I slept all day and woke up in the afternoon at like 3pm, I saw my sister had texted and I started tapping out a response, but I couldn’t hold my phone up with my arm long enough. I collapsed back onto the couch and slept through till the next morning. I hadn’t learned the difference yet between like, tired from running versus full body fatigue. Fatigue makes your fingernails and your ears feel tingley and brutally exhausted, along with every other piece of your body. I put a heart rate monitor on.

When I got back that night from my Hope Pass run, I pulled out Training for the New Alpinism. There was something in there, I knew it, I had read it, about heart rates and if your heart rate won’t go down between runs. What was it? “Avoid this at all costs, you will lose everything.” It said. I would eventually get confirmation, but I knew it the moment I read it and reread it and reread it. The parasympathetic nervous system symptoms, the heart rate, the sleeping, the depression, the underperforming. He said overtrained runners would try to compensate for their underperformance by training harder and pushing more. He ain’t kidding.

Nez Perce and the South Teton group from the lower saddle

Later I would learn about the hormone production imbalances, particularly that I would have no cortisol in my body, then suddenly my adrenal system would just dump it and my heart would rush like it was really going to explode and I would suddenly feel this whole body tightness. And what a relief to find out what was happening because it happened for about the first three months and it was TERRIFYING! I would be watching a rom com and suddenly my heart rate is 185, and it comes on like a wave in your whole body. Like something is definitively happening, but wtf is it?

Hope Pass was my last run until November, I think it was. Steve House said the only cure is complete rest until your nervous system sort of resets itself and everyone and everything else I could find agreed. It was hard to believe I might ever feel better. I would wake up every morning and my resting heart rate was in the 90s, then the 80s for a while, then eventually got stuck in the 70s. After a few months, it got back down to the low 60s, and that was around the same time the other symptoms started going away. I could feel the depression leave like an evil spirit peeling out of my body.

Looking for pictures for this, I realized before I was fully better I tried to go ice climbing bc Lincoln Falls was in on Oct 15th. The 500ft hike up just about killed me, but the morale boost was probably worth it (photo by Chris Jewell)

I progressively slept and ate less, [inflated appetite was also a symptom, and since I was filling in at the coffee shop during that time, I had no shortage of quiche and scones available]. After a couple months, I was basically eating and sleeping like a regular person, even dipping below eight hours naturally sometimes. The full body fatigue went from being constant and pervasive to in and out, and that would continue for another six months or so, fatigue being a definite signal that I had overdone it either physically or stress-wise.

I say I was on complete rest, but I was walking and biking w/ Pip still to get her out, just taking it EXTREMELY easy and only a couple miles here and there.

I had read things that had hinted that you would wake up one day and feel better. I had been tracking my symptoms and noting such significant improvement, then one day in November I did wake up and feel better. They say to stay on complete rest until you suddenly have the strong desire to go out and do something, and I did suddenly have the desire. I went for a short, easy skate ski. It was amazing to move again. A song came on by Tokyo Police Club that I’d never heard before, “And I’m still amazed you made it out alive, after what you did / It’s good to be back, it’s good to be back, it’s good to be back.”

It’s good to be back, says Pippa

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.

ouray in the snow

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.

The Tetons: remembering why I do this, over again

It’s sunny and the skies are clear, except for the haze coming from the fires in Montana.  I’m kickstepping, kickstepping, climbing class 3 rock that is wet from snow melt, an axe in one hand and the other absently brushing again the wall of snow next to me for balance.  I’m in a couloir maybe 100 feet below the summit, I’m so alone up here that I haven’t seen anyone since leaving the canyon, and I think, “I would do anything, for you, to be here right now.”

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summit of the South

Going to the Tetons this year was something I had meant to plan and be ready for all summer, and as time slipped away and the season disappeared under the weight and tragedy of my unhealable psoas injury, this trip ended up being a last ditch effort to do something meaningful with my summer.  I was worried I wasn’t in shape, I was going without a partner, and I had something like 4 days of climbing if the weather cooperated.  Weather in the Tetons is notoriously uncooperative.

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I arrived in the Garnet Canyon parking lot at night after driving most of the day, and climbed in the back of the truck to sleep.  In the morning I headed up Teewinot.  You gain 5,550ft in 2.5 miles, so it felt a little brutal.  The routefinding is somewhat hard, the steep, super exposed kickstepping is a new and exciting scary thing, and the climbing is terrifying.  There was a lot of chameleon-ing, where you make a move, then reverse the move, over and over again until the future where you have to downclimb that move isn’t nauseating.  My mom was watching this hysteria on the internet via my SPOT tracker and she said something later like, “you were really moving until a certain point, then it’s like you weren’t moving at all, what happened?”  Well, shit got hard.  And scary af, to be honest.

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I read later that people like to take a rope up Teewinot to rap the downclimbs of nightmares, and that, though it’s technically classified as 4, it’s the hardest and most sustained “4” in the Tetons.  Anyway, I learned things about being brave that day.  That I can downclimb anything I can climb up, and that I am the master of my own nervous system. I also learned, BRING A FUCKING AXE NO MATTER WHAT.  Because you don’t realize how much you want an axe until you need it, when you’re turned around downclimbing your vertical kicksteps like a ladder and trying not to cry.

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On the second day, I headed up to Garnet Canyon to check out the South Teton.  Because This involves a long trail approach and a lot of elevation gain, some climbers camp in the canyon to shorten their approaches on climbing days.  I ran this approach three days in a row (that’s exactly how pent-up I was after spending most of my summer injured).  It was a perfect sunny day, and the high snow cover made some of the weird part of the route slightly less mankey (between Garnet Canyon and the Boulderfield, alongside and above that southern glacier if you really want to know).  What I hadn’t counted on was, the boulderfield was still snow filled, and there were two shitty snow climbs.  I had an axe (lesson learned) and started kickstepping on the lower climb, and it felt okay, but I remembered the Teewinot snowfield down climb and something felt weird.  I felt uneasy, I was thinking about the upper snowclimb and the fact that it could be worse, that I was in Dynafit trailrunners with no additional traction to speak of, and I just knew I didn’t want to do the downclimb.  I turned around.

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Back to Garnet Canyon, then on up to the saddle of the Grand.  Running down from the saddle, I came across a nice guy who turned out to be an off duty Exum guide waiting for his friends to catch up, and we chatted a bit.  I told him I turned around at the lower snowclimb en route to the saddle between South and Middle, choosing to come back the following day with crampons because I knew I’d feel 100% comfortable and I would just go for Middle and South in the same day.  I knew it sounded silly, but I was honest, it felt too spicy.  He told me a girl had slipped in that snowfield yesterday and died on the rocks below, they just finished recovering her body.

 

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On the way down, I chatted with some folks about a secret lake and they told me how to get to the social trail.  I can’t remember what it was called, but I found it.  It was incredible.

 

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On the third day, I headed up to the South again, with crampons and boots.  It was overkill, but I felt totally secure.  The weather was perfect again, and there was just no one else around on either route.  And it was here, on the South, that I remembered how I felt last year.  That I would do anything to be here.  That it was my responsibility to honor these routes, these mountains, with my intention, bravery, body, heart.  That I would sacrifice anything, everything to feel like I might evaporate between earth and sky; where everything is possible, where risk and pain are currency, where freedom and joy are boundless.  Grating bits of my heart and body off on rocks and snow so the prana of the Tetons could fill me back up again and I could be a part of their bigness for just a moment.

 

I read this great article about Cory Richards and his PTSD from an avalanche he survived [https://www.outsideonline.com/2234616/life-after-near-death-cory-richards].  The author has a lot of opinions about the way the alpinist community handles this.  I’ve been thinking about darkness; how and why it compels us, a lot lately, and I think it boils down to 2 things: alpinists are people that are so intense they would sacrifice everything to stand on top of the mountains, to live in the sky. We can choose [I’m pretty sure it’s a choice, but it doesn’t always feel that way] to risk and suffer because our demons compel us to do hard shit and risk and ride the edge of our abilities, or because we want to use their demons to make ourselves stronger, meet fear and rise above it, and find freedom.  Both are scary as fuck; nobody likes to talk about either.

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Like anyone, I’m inclined towards both, after years of trying I like to think I’m more of the later, but it’s a constant struggle to understand my motivation and intention, to be intimate with fear, and to understand why I risk everything.  It’s sort of like walking on two tight ropes that are just beside each other, and you could hop from one to the other as it suits you.  Why is it so important to stand on top of a mountain?

 

After a beautifully successful third day, I headed up high again on day 4, this time to Disappointment Peak.  The first couple moves to get into this low angle crack started on an overhanging roof (I would love someone to explain to me how climbing a roof could possibly be class 4).  The rest of the climb was pretty easy, except the end where you’re climbing this obscenely exposed catwalk with sporadic class 4 moves.  After the previous four days though, the exposure and climbing both felt good (even if the wind made it feel like you could easily be blown off and away into infinity).  The summit block, being accessed by this narrow catwalk, is like a 340 degree Teton panorama.  Breathtaking.  I actually stood up on it at one point and got vertigo.  Every time I get a close up of the Grand, my heart grows three sizes, and seeing the whole range at once like this, the big, scary beautiful mountains that had asked so much, the sacrifices already made, and whose bigness had filled me up when I stood on their summits;  the whole Traverse just laid out in one perfect, aesthetic line…I see why I devote my life to this, and why I’ll never stop.

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R2R2R: run across the Grand Canyon twice…overnight.

It’s something like 5am and the sun is coming up and an older Japanese man is standing timidly like 10ft away from me, his enormous tourist camera in one hand, the other outstretched as if to offer me support without being nearly close enough to actually touch me.

“Are you…okay?” He asks tentatively.

Fair enough, I was probably screaming or coughing or weeping, I don’t remember.  Actually, it’s been…four months?  And I’m still crying as I type this.

“I’m okay, I just had a really long night.”  What to say?  To a random stranger.  What could I say that would make this kindly man understand?  The sun is coming up and it’s 20 degrees and I just ran across the Grand Canyon twice, and I have to get to the kennel the moment they open because Luna had never been boarded.  “I’m okay, really, thank you.”

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It’s been four months and I haven’t written this yet, this write up of one of my favorite projects and greatest runs of all time, because when we got back from this trip I found out that Luna had a very aggressive form of squamous cell carcinoma, and this trip was my last big one with her and it is so hard to relive what an extraordinary trip it was without tinging it in the resulting tragedy.  But I’ll try.

We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park just before sunset on Sunday, and spent most of Monday lounging in the back of the truck reading and eating and keeping my legs up.  Sometime in the afternoon, I ventured to the ranger station to discuss trail conditions and water.  There had been a rock slide that damaged the pipes that bring water to the North Rim, and apparently a significant portion of the trail.  The North Rim was scheduled to open that day, and it still did.  If you didn’t already know this, the very remote North Rim of the park relied on those pipes for their water supply.  While they worked to rebuild the damaged pipes, the NPS had contracted a company to deliver water to the North Rim by truck, by the 10’s of thousands of gallons per day.  Incredible, right?

Anyway, a very helpful ranger discussed trail work and water availability and mule train schedules with me, and all the while I carefully did not disclose I was planning to run it that very night.  From the ranger station, I drove to the kennel to leave Luna for the night, then off to the S Kaibab Trailhead.

The S Kaibab trail is spectacular, maxing out around 60% grade, and highly technical both by nature and by the erosion from millions of feets tracking it in the mud.  It follows a steep ridgeline almost all the way to the Colorado River.  An extraordinary amount of tourists attempt to hike down it despite these difficulties, resulting in an average of 250 rescues per year and a lot of very dramatic signage.

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I took a picture of another one that I can’t find; it’s a similar illustrated man on his knees with vomit spewing on the ground.

Update: I found it. KIMG0169.jpeg

So anyway, there was a lot of tourist dodging and while I was still very friendly and courteous, it scares the bejesus out of tourists to pass them at 12mph.  Views were great though:

Just before leaving CO for this trip, I remember voicing my significant concerns that I had only been running for one month before this and while I was in banging shape from all the alpine touring and skate skiing, the impact resistance might be a big problem.  You can do infinity elevation gain, but joints need to assimilate to impact of running technical downhill.  So spoiler alert, 5k later, I see the river and my knees are trashed, the little stabilizer muscles feeling so taut it made me wonder if popping them was something I actually had to worry about.

But anyway, arriving at the river in under an hour looked like this:

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and felt like pure joy.  The trail here becomes softer and is banked for the last almost mile or so, allowing me to hit almost 15mph however briefly.

Crossing the bridge over the river, the sun was setting and there was a large crew on Boaters Beach cheering me on; I would find out later that they were from Leadville, and I knew many of them!  All kismet.

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After the river, the trail begins a steady low grade incline that lasts for 7 or 8 miles.  It’s like a jungle down there, with creeks and all kinds of foliage everywhere.  No exaggeration, it is the most vibrant environment I’ve ever had the pleasure of running with.  If my knees weren’t hurting so much that I was questioning ever being able to walk again, I would have felt I could run forever.  It started to rain, but here at the bottom of the canyon it was the warmest and despite and the dark and storm it was still around 60 degrees and the rain felt like it could restore new life to a body that gets broken by ultrarunning time after time.

Mile after mile ticked on, but so did the time, as the clock was getting on towards 3:30 I realized I hadn’t even started the proper ascent of the North Rim, thus thoroughly jeopardizing the 4hr crossing I had hoped for.  The North Rim trail was actually super exciting, with tons of exposure, making a full dark ascent interesting indeed.  I passed a large group of tourists, maybe 7 or so, that had headlamps mysteriously but were otherwise struggling so majorly that I asked them if they wanted me to call the ranger station when I reached the top.  But, they didn’t speak English.  And they were still moving, so.

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I hit the North Rim at just over 5h.  It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, to see the TH sign reflected in my headlamp.  21 miles down, and hard earned.  I sat in the sand and ate a Larabar and contemplated how far behind I was timewise.  It just didn’t seem to matter anymore, like the number of hours could possibly describe the experience.  As I started the descent and my knees reeled, I made the call to take it easy before I caused serious damage and didn’t come down balls to the wall.

Crossing the 7 miles on the bottom of the canyon to the river was absolutely surreal.  It had stopped raining, but was cloudy, so the dark was complete.  Just me and my headlamp and the plants and creatures and water rushing; the backpackers all tucked into bed and it felt as though they ceased to exist, and I was all alone.  Do you remember that Third Eye Blind song, Motorcycle Drive By?  1999.  “I’ve never been so alone.  And I’ve…I’ve never been so alive.”  The balls of my feet just sweeping the sand, and I, cruising the darkness.

Crossing the river for the second time it felt like I was on another planet, my headlamp barely illuminating the bridge around me but the feeling of being swallowed up in the rushing movement of the river overwhelming.  And so, with knees that were barely holding my weight, quads that had properly been banged, and 35 miles already come and gone, I ascend the brutally steep and long south side of the Grand Canyon.

Kripa in Sanskrit is the word for Grace.  We have this idea of grace in the west, like it’s all about ballerinas or beautiful things.  I suppose the idea of saying Grace is closer to the real concept, that holds up in basically every other language.  Kripa, anyway, is to honor something with your presence.  With your attention, your devotion, your will, your intentions, your body.  Last year, in the Tetons, I got really into the idea of honoring a landscape, a line, a mountain with my presence, intention, and body.  To put so much time and effort into finely tuning this instrument to cross any terrain seamlessly and in style,  [I used something similar when describing this run to another person and she assumed by “in style” I meant “looking good”] so that when the time comes, I can properly honor the landscape and its’ lifeforce.  I believed [believe] there is nothing more perfect.

This double crossing was imperfect; I trashed my knees so early on that I couldn’t do the whole 42 miles full out as I had intended.  However.  About halfway up the south side, there was a light behind me so bright I was sure that a large group of people with headlamps must have somehow just caught me without my noticing until they were right behind me.  I whipped around, startled, and saw, instead:

the clouds had finally parted, revealing an almost full moon, a sky full of stars, that so thoroughly bathed the canyons below me in light that all depth, rock, water, shadow was now made of liquid silver; iridescent and fluidly moving with the energy of life within.  I can think of few times in my life that I actually found something breath-taking literally.  So overwhelming, I couldn’t even be moved to weep [or perhaps too exhausted and dehydrated?].  And once again, as I had emptied myself, given everything of myself, sacrificed and destroyed, to and for this environment in the name of divine Grace, the environment filled me back up.  Have you ever thought about what it really means to be FUL-FILLED?

And then, if you really want to know what happened next, I knew I was getting near the top, a group of runners was on their way down.  Or, I guess I think of them that way because they were wearing running vests and running shoes and backward hats, but they weren’t running at all.  They were attempting a R2R2R as well, and told me they hoped to finish in less than 30 hours.  I smiled.  Then, at like 430, the sun came up:

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And I staggered to the Trailhead.  And I screamed or wept or coughed, I don’t really remember, causing that poor tourist to reach out to help.  I walked to the car.  It was so cold, and I didn’t really have the energy left to homeostasis my body temperature, so I shook wildly.  I drove to the kennel.  I got a coke from one of those NPS vending machines that features old photo inlays of whatever park you’re in and isn’t labelled brand-wise.  It was 75 cents.  I was there to get Lu the moment they opened.  And we carried on.

The time has come

I don’t have anything real to say. All week I’ve been so full of every kind of emotion I don’t even know what to tell people when they ask how I am. At this point I’m strangely calm, and it’s like in the Simpsons when the doctor tells Mr Burns that he has so many diseases that they’re all in some kind of crowded balance, and Mr Burns says “you mean I’m indestructible?”
And the doctor says “No Mr Burns, the slightest breeze could kill you”
And Mr Burns says “I’M INDESTRUCTIBLE!”

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I don’t doubt that I can do it. I don’t actually have a concept of what it would feel like to be “ready”, but it is what is, it’s what I’ve trained for, and it’s time to go. I can hardly wait to go.

Everything else is done, except the place I was going to rent a SPOT from was overbooked so I won’t be carrying a tracker. Which is okay, because I’m the only one that needs to know I did it. I’m leaving early on Sunday morning from the Fish Hatchery to climb 14 14,000ft mountains in 60 hours and 100 miles. Whatever happens, Tuesday night will be a hell of a celebration.

Ready or not, here we go.

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BUSHWACKING (if you feel lost, get lost)

Off trail is great for getting sticks in your hair, falling in rivers, discovering knee deep bogs, generally being terrified of fauna and the potential for never getting home, and adventuring in new ways that requires so much of your faculties that you can’t think about your other problems.

I’ve been having a lot of problems lately; feeling isolated, being incredibly stressed out by and generally hating my job, trying to manage my training schedule and upcoming trips, and a variety of smaller things. I’m finally doing the Nolan’s 14 un-official run through the first week of August and I have just realized how terrified I am to face such a big adventure when I really haven’t done much big and scary stuff all year. The two things that scare me the most about Nolan’s are navigating off trail and running through the night. I decided to tackle bushwacking today.

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In the winter, I did tons of backcountry snowshoeing and skiing with no apparent trails, but with 5 feet of snow everything is different. I discovered today that I have a totally unfounded fear of stepping on a rattlesnake. Plus, I apparently have decided that I’m relatively safe from bears and mountain lions only on trails (because why would bears and mountain lions hang out near trails? I don’t know, but thats when I’ve seen the most bears so nobody knows where the illusion of safety came from!)

The biggest thing I noticed about bushwacking back from Mt Massive was my heightened senses and focus. There was no time of effort left over worrying or stressing or thinking. Adventuring should always be like this, and was for me last year but now most of my day trips are kind of same old and I’m not so focused.

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Other perks included: finding all sorts of wildflowers I’ve never seen before, crossing the same river 5 times (only falling in it once!), climbing a veritable jungle gym of fallen trees, and seeing the unexpected. At one point we were wading through a bog in the willows and I stumbled upon what looked almost like a trail. There were many fresh footprints in the mud- none of them human. Game trail! Also, piles of poop EVERYWHERE. Clearly the animals of the wilderness poop a lot and they’re not doing it near trails.

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Finally, there’s the distinct fear of not knowing where you are. Yeah, you can get lost on trails. But it is a world of difference being lost in the wild. Because at least the trail goes somewhere. And that, I’m pretty sure, is that magical feeling of exploration. Once you’ve mastered it, you can go anywhere.

We stumbled across the Colorado trail quite suddenly and by accident, and at first I was relieved. 30 seconds later, I was almost disappointed, and I bet Luna that we could find a more interesting way home. (And we did)

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BONKED (hitting the wall)

Hiking 30 miles and running 30 miles are incredibly different endeavors.

I’m used to very long distance hikes, and in those cases I carry food and eat along the way. When running, though, I adopted the philosophy over the winter that if I’m going out for less than 20 miles I don’t need to carry food or water. When it’s cold I lose less water and it’s available to me periodically in the form of snow and snowmelt [yeah yeah, it’s dangerous to drink wild water, I don’t care]. In the case of a big ascent, I might bring a little snack but I definitely haven’t spent much time considering my “refueling plans”..until now.

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I suppose it’s about right that I set 20 miles as the magic number, because now that I’m regularly exceeding it I’ve noticed that something terrible happens right around 21. I’m feeling great, then suddenly I’m barely dragging myself along; in pain and miserable. I don’t hang out with other long distance runners, so I’m figuring it out as I go and during my first 30 mile run, I learned about THE WALL.

First, let’s talk about how our muscles get energy [WARNING: shit’s about to get science-y. If that sounds boring, skip the next 5 paragraphs]

Digestion breaks down energy containing nutrients and sends them to your cells via blood. Once they’re in your cells, the nutrients are either built up into proteins, lipids, and glycogen OR converted [to pyruvic acid or Acetyl CoA] for energy production. If you’re wondering why people say B vitamins are important for energy, it’s because they’re very important in conversions to Acetyl CoA. There’s more detail here that we just won’t go into.

So now we head to the mitochondria. There’s basically two ways your body creates energy (and by energy I mean ATP- the official energy currency of your body). Glycolysis is quick and dirty- it gets results fast but isn’t very efficient, and there’s a lactic acid problem. Kreb’s Cycle is the tortoise- slow and steady, and much more efficient. This stuff is cool because it explains exactly why lactic acid (what makes muscles stiff and sore) happens. Glycolysis is anaerobic, it can happen without oxygen (like during strenuous activity when you just can’t breathe enough in) BUT it creates extra hydrogen, and that hydrogen needs to be pawned off somewhere. If oxygen is available, hydrogen will go home with him (creating water-nbd) but otherwise hydrogen gets dumped on pyruvic acid, and that’s how we end up with sad little lactic acid, gumming up the works.

Basically, when you start running your body is going to use ATP it’s already made to make your muscles work. It’s constantly working to produce more, but you’ll use it faster than you can make it. Desperately, glycolysis will bust ass for you (most of us are at this point when we exercise). But what happens if you keep going? Incidentally, your body stores enough glycogen to keep producing ATP for 20 miles of running. (I fucking knew it)

Once you’ve used your ATP stores, your cells raid the glycogen stores to make more. But WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR GLYCOGEN STORES ARE GONE!?

That’s when you “hit the wall”. Your liver will start converting fat and protein to use in the energy making process but it’s not terribly efficient and takes up energy. Now refueling makes a whole lot of sense: GET MORE GLUCOSE INTO YOUR BLOODSTREAM!

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So I did a lot of research about refueling and I have to say, most of it sounds gross. Eating while you’re running sucks. Period. The big problem I guess is getting food down without puking it back up. Yuck. So you need things that are palatable and go down easily. You’ll also want a good mix of simple carbs that get into your bloodstream asap (in minutes) and complex carbs that break down slowly and release small amounts of glucose into your blood over a long time. You don’t want to refuel with protein or fat; those two are the professional ebay sellers at the post office-holding everybody else up.

Here’s a knowledge bomb for you: compared to the type of machines we can build, our body is EPICALLY efficient. Through these processes we capture a whopping 38% of the energy available from what we consume (and the rest is RELEASED AS HEAT-boom. Why do you get hot when you work out? That’s why. You’re welcome.)

There’s a psychological aspect to hitting the wall for sure. I read somewhere that your discomfort when you’re dehydrated or under-fueled has a bigger effect on your performance than the physiological problems themselves. I’ll say firsthand that hitting the wall HURTS EVERYWHERE. I’ve noticed that I’m basically never sore anymore, muscle-wise, but when I’m on really long runs everything starts to ache. I get dizzy and woozy. My legs don’t feel like jelly, it’s more that I become the tin man. Yeah, it’s so uncomfortable it’s hard to continue. To cope, I’ve started counting. At first I count up to high numbers, and the deal is that when I get to 780 or something I can stop, but when I get to 780 I tell myself okay, now you just have to get to 780 again. Then when it gets really, REALLY bad I’m counting to 20. Interestingly, the promise of a fuel down is not an incentive anymore when I’ve made it past the wall; the idea of eating anything is gross and horrible and the only thing I can stomach the idea of is bananas or plain romaine lettuce.

Yeah, I know this post sounds terrible to those of you who haven’t experienced it. It’s so very hard to explain why we do what we do, especially when there’s a fair amount of suffering. I like to think of my training program as RELENTLESS. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love doing it. That first 30 mile run that I mentioned earlier; yeah it was painful and terrible and taught me lessons I’ll never forget. It was also when I realized that I can do Nolan’s. As far as I can tell, there are two barriers to cross: long distance and elevation gain. But you only need to cross them each once, after that you’re just building. Long distance mountain running is the highest of epic, joyous highs. And it’s the lowest of soul crushing, wish-you-were-dead lows. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.
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Nolan’s 14 (do the mountains make you want to be a better person?)

I’ve said before that when I’m in the mountains I feel like I can do anything, be anything. And I want a simpler life. I make all sorts of resolutions, about how when I get home I’m going to stop watching TV and be more sustainable and appreciate every moment. That generally fades sometime on the drive home and after a long day and a lot of mileage I generally end up watching something like Ugly Betty, drinking Coke, and eating everything I can find.

I’ve been wondering if prolonged exposure to the mountains would lengthen that feeling, or wanting to be a better person and waste less time vegging out and dinking around

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In the wake of the 28 (which, although not “technically” over, feels mostly finished) I certainly felt good about my ability to test my limits. I want my only limits to be my imagination, and never my perception of who I am. Trying to decide what my next adventure would be started towards the end of the 28. I don’t remember exactly when I started thinking about Nolan’s, but I do distinctly remember spending the entire long Princeton descent fantasizing about it.

Nolan’s 14 was thought up in 1991, although the first actual event was in 1998. It’s an 88-108 mile course, according to Matt Mahoney’s website. It takes about 44,000ft gain and loss to summit FOURTEEN 14,000+ft mountains. It’s the most grueling course I know of, and the elevation gain is much, much higher than any 100mile ultra race I’ve heard of (including hardrock). The Forest Service apparently shut down the idea of holding a regular race on the course, but hardcore ultrarunners still attempt to finish the course within the cutoff time of 60hrs.

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As far as I can tell from the records, 13 men have completed the course since 1998. But. There IS NO FKT (fastest known time) set by a female yet. The most summits completed by a woman is 12.

Why? I estimate you’d have to move about 1.5 mph over 60 hours to finish this course. Thats not even that fast. But, and it’s a BIG but, 44,000ft gain is gnarly. And when I say gnarly, I mean epic. To continue dragging yourself up summit after summit (not even to mention high altitude problems) is so incredibly difficult.

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I’ve been a bit apprehensive about putting my intention to set a FKT on Nolan’s when the weather breaks because it is so huge. But, I learned something during the 28. It was a pipe dream of sorts, that I thought up while in the mountains (of course, because I feel unlimited in the mountains). At the time, I didn’t believe I could do 28 summits in a couple months, but then I did it, and along the way I broke all sorts of barriers that I believed would hold me back. I dreamed up setting a FKT while in the mountains too, and while it seems so huge, the first step is to put it in writing and get down to training.

And there will be some adventures along the way.

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