The Rockies have sufficiently humbled me.
Yesterday, I went on a planned 50ish mile run with Jesse Scott and his friend Ely. We planned to run from Boulder to Nederland, CO using a network of trails that wind through the mountains. Here’s the blow-by-blow of the adventure:
We leave Jesse place at about 7:45 am, run about a mile to meet Ely on the UC Boulder campus. We run a few miles to the trail head of Gregory Canyon (~5000 feet), run the canyon, then head up Green Mountain. This was the first sign of trouble. Ely and Jesse were nimbly cruising over the rocks. I was struggling as my heart rate hit 90%… while walking. We got withing about a quarter mile of the summit (~8000 feet), then cut off on the trails toward Ned.
The next few miles were run down a steady decline to around 6000′, then we hit some trails and started climbing again. We hit several forks on what appeared to be private land. Jesse and Ely, using the map we were carrying, expertly navigated until we hit single track. Prior to the run, we searched for directions from others that made this trip. We found very little useful information. As it turns out, the route is anything but direct. We made a few wrong turns that required back-tracking, but the amazing scenery made it worthwhile.
Eventually we came to a running stream. Ely guessed it would be the only opportunity to replenish our water supply. We were a little nervous about drinking from the stream, but Ely had some water purification drops. As Jesse was dumping the remainder of his clean water over his head, Ely realized the cap on one of the two-part drops was loose and the liquid had evaporated. Shit. I remembered a conversation I had with my friend Heather regarding drinking from questionable sources. She said filtering water through a bandana would be good enough. I convinced the other two to fill their bottles through my buff I had wrapped around my wrist.
As it turns out, Heather told me to use the filter before purifying with something like iodine. All three of us drank a liberal amount of the stream water. Silver lining- I bet dysentery will help me get down to race weight. How long is that incubation period again?
Anyway, the next 8 miles or so were uneventful. We were having a good time soaking up the expansive views, running the interesting trails, and joking about the dumbass stuff ultrarunners talk about on long runs. Life was good.
Around mile 18 or so, I began feeling shitty. I had been conserving water for a few miles since we had a long way to go with no opportunity to refresh our supply. The altitude was also having an effect. The run followed several ridges and roads around 8000-8500′. I had hoped my mountain running in Southern California would have prepared me, but it was clear I wasn’t acclimated to the altitude. I was reduced to a slow walk for long stretches of climbs, which dramatically slowed our progress. I was definitely the weak link in our chain.
With at least six miles to go, I considered calling Shelly to pick me up at one of the intersections. I was developing a headache, felt nauseous, and was beginning to cramp. Is it just dehydration or is there some altitude sickness mixed in there? We were still quite far from Nederland and my condition could go from “uncomfortable” to “dangerous” rapidly. Every time I was about to throw in the towel, Jesse and Ely’s encouraging words convinced me to continue a little further. I decided not to tell them about all the symptoms; they seemed too confident in my ability to keep pressing on.
By some strange miracle, we came across a hiker in a parking lot about six miles from Ned. He had a huge jug of water and was filling his bottles. He cheerfully fulfilled my request to fill one of my bottles. I suspect my haggard appearance had something to do with it. That one bottle saved me. I now had enough water to ration over the remainder of the trip.
The remaining miles were as tough as any I have experienced in a race. We slowly twisted our way through the network of trails leading to Ned. Eventually we came to the reservoir on the edge of the town. It was excruciating knowing we were so close, yet had at least two miles of winding trails and roads that snaked up and down the bluff of the reservoir. At this point, the muscles between my ribs were cramping whenever I tried running. The thoughts of beer (or any liquid for that matter) pushed me to “run” the downhills.
When we entered the town, I was flooded with… relief. There was no wave of self-congratulation or sense of accomplishment. I was content with simply having survived.
We quickly settled on a bar. The beer/water/Coke combination did wonders to revive my state of dehydration. We lounged around for about an hour filling ourselves with bar food and more beer.
The original plan was for Ely to take the bus back to Boulder (he was supposed to work that afternoon), and Jesse and I would run back down. Even though I was feeling better, there was no way I could run even the 16 mile canyon route back to Boulder. I had to break the news to Jesse. Luckily we’ve done enough runs together to gauge each others’ condition. When I told him we’d be taking the bus with Ely, the look of relief on his face confirmed what I suspected- the run had been tougher than he expected, too.
The decision to leave was confirmed when we were forced to run a few hundred yards to catch the bus (we got carried away drinking beer and lost track of time). My rib muscles immediately cramped making breathing nearly impossible, my legs cramped, and I thought I was going to poop myself. I clearly was in no condition to run anywhere.
The run definitely humbled me. Having spent the last five months running up and down mountains, I expected these mountains to be A LOT easier. The actual climbing and descending was easy, and my body feels great one day later. However, the elevation kicked my ass. So did the dehydration.
Jesse and Ely also humbled me. Their effortless running over the vast majority of the course reinforced one simple fact- I have a long way to go to train for mountain running at altitude. Luckily Shelly and I will be running every day as we explore the trails up and down the Front Range. Hopefully it will provide a decent base for our month-long trip back to the Midwest and East Coast.
The run was one of the toughest I’ve ever done, but it was a great experience. I learned a lot about my need for water and state of altitude acclimation. Even though it was cut much shorter than planned, it still ranks as one of my favorite epic stupid runs.
What are we doing for an encore? How about a ten mile run up Green Mountain this morning. Gotta get back on the horse.
Run stats: 28.69 miles, 7,466′ of climbing, 4,501′ of descending.