Sifting through images I came across this video I shot in mid June during a 4 day backpack trip. It was one of the best hours of the past year. A gentle uphill trail, butterflies afloat filling the air around me, wildflowers in abundance and aspens 🌳 hitting their early chartreuse green. It was a magical morning on trail.
This is Part Two of R2R2R – For Part One click here!
Monday morning, six days from the R2R2R run date my legs felt sorer than I had hoped they would. Not surprising, but not confidence inspiring either. My hope after a 10 miler and 8 miler over the weekend was that it would “shock my system” and serve as a wake-up call that there was still some work to be done yet this year.
With only a short run scheduled Wednesday I went about getting my mental game together. I bought a NatGeo Trails Illustrated map of the Canyon so I could get a visual overview of the trails. I double checked information from the very helpful Facebook group Grand Canyon R2R2R Run! for the latest water information from people that had run the route over the previous weekend. The weather forecast looked to be ideal.
I spent some time in a favorite activity which is my best indicator of current level of focus; putting arrows into a paper target with my Samick Sage recurve bow. I felt that the mental preparation would be critical toward success. Mahting and I had already discussed that negative talk would not be allowed during the run; get busy and get focused. I felt that from a safety standpoint this was vitally important.
Mahting and his wife, and my family and myself all flew out of Denver for Phoenix at 7:00am Saturday morning. We drove a rental in a leisurely fashion to the South Rim and arrived just at sunset. After looking down into the canyon we checked into our respective abodes and met for dinner at Bright Angel Lodge.
Following dinner as we walked out of the lodge we saw two women hobbling and listing a bit. “Have you just run R2R2R?”
“Yes”, came the reply, and then a comment that it was harder than they thought it would be. We proffered congratulations, and this confirmed much of what I’d read from completers of the effort. As I walked toward my room I was slightly envious that they were done.
I gathered my things in my pack and laid everything out on the floor. Scheduled departure from South Kaibab trailhead was 0400. Mahting would pick me up at 0345 and his wife would drop us at SK.
I didn’t sleep very well after initially crashing. The little monkeys in my head had me double checking my list and day ahead. I really wanted to be 10 miles into the thing and started.
Up at 0305 for two cups of coffee, other necessary morning duties and at 0400 precisely we had our photo taken at the South Kaibab trailhead. A slight hitch came as Mahting realized he left his watch back at the hotel. We started Strava apps on our phones but packed them away. Off we walked and soon began bobbing down the trail under a clear, starry, crescent moonlit sky.
The strategy was ultra conservative on the initial descent for safety sake and preserving our quads from the stressful eccentric contractions that result in tearing up muscle fibers. We stopped a few times to look at the awesome vastness of the sky from below the rim. It was almost a blessing not seeing the grandeur of the canyon and task that lie ahead of us. At this point, little step by step chunks seemed enough for us.
Below the cutoff to Tonto Trail we spied a light but had no idea where it was coming from. A few minutes later I said, “Hey, there’s a bunch of lights down there”.
Mahting chuckled and replied, “Yeah, there are two lights. When all you see is black for a period of time I guess two seems like a bunch.”
We quickly arrived at the Black Bridge and crossed the Colorado River in the dark. Soon thereafter we encountered a hiker looking out toward the river. In short order we were coming into Phantom Ranch and there was pre-dawn activity of campers walking back to Bright Angel Campground and what seemed like Phantom Ranch employees beginning their day. We had to ask where the water was and did a lap around the canteen until we found it. Dawn was threatening but we still needed headlamps as we began to knock out the 14 miles to the North Rim.
For the next seven miles, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the trail was. While it was rising in elevation it was completely runnable and I felt every mile we could run was a mile we didn’t need to powerhike. Four hours and 14 miles in we stopped at the Ribbon Falls area to mix some Tailwind in our bottles and double check the map. I commented that after we covered our next 14 miles, we would be at this exact spot. I’m not sure if that was daunting or encouraging.
By the time we came to Manzanita we had pulled out our trekking poles to get over the little “humps” and then swoop on the downhills until we hit a little uphill again. We were able to chat with some backpackers at this water stop who had knowledge of the trail from the north rim. We were just over five miles from the north rim trailhead and one said it was a bit of a grind until we got to Supai tunnel. We loaded up on water hoping not to need it again until we came back to this spot in just over 10 miles.
We began the chug away from Manzanita and Mahting was easily powering away from me on the uphill sections. A few miles before I had begun to feel a little less than stellar. Part of the problem was lower abdominal pain. My lower abs are my weakness and I felt I had given a little back during the two week layoff, even with doing some plank work and dolphin yoga poses during my period of inactivity. Additionally, I ate a little bit too much on the travel day Saturday so there was a little bit stress from that. But we pushed along, shuffling and jogging along on the occasional flat sections of trail. It became evident that the push to the north rim trailhead would be a grind.
We took a quick break at Supai tunnel and the last 1.7 miles to the top was quite nice. We began seeing people both dayhiking and backpacking down from the rim and this was a nice spirit lifter for both of us. We topped out at exactly 7 hours into the day at 11:00am. We didn’t dally long as the gnats were horrendous and we had plenty of water to make it back to Manzanita. The weather was overcast and the temps were perfect. We could not have asked for a better day.
As we now ran back toward the canyon bottom I hit my high point of the day. At 24 miles everything felt good from foot to head. The trail was good, the views were awesome and barring emergency we were going to finish. How else would we get back to the south rim?
We filled water again at Manzanita and made off for Phantom Ranch nine miles away. Through here Mahting’s knee began to give him some fits, so I set pace and we cruised along. We passed by Ribbon Falls again and at this point the biggest challenge was the water bars. At points they seem like they are two feet off the trail and I continually had to assess whether I stepped over them or bounced off the top of them. Again and again, either way I wanted to get over them without tripping. At one point I commented that I didn’t feel it was necessary to parkour in order to get over the highest water bars, but after 30ish miles it sure felt like I was doing that.
Somewhere just before Phantom Ranch I made a comment that I hoped would not bite me in the ass. I told my running pal that after ten hours I felt I could make an assessment on R2R2R. The run was not turning out to be as difficult as I had imagined it would be. Now, lest anyone reading this thinks “Hey, sweet, I can easily do this crazy thang!” let me explain. Our weather was perfecto. The trails were clear of any potential winter detritus. The sun never shone brightly, keeping temperatures in the 60’s or maybe low 70’s for highs midday in the canyon. I can’t remember there being any significant wind. There were enough people on the trails to keep our spirits high but not so many that we felt it impeded our pace. Finally, we went super conservative on pace. We never stopped for long, but we also never ran too fast. Granted, we didn’t get full appreciation for the sights of the canyon because we were fairly focused on good foot touches all day long and the sun didn’t present us with the brilliant colors off the rocks because of the cloudy conditions.
I had estimated that we’d make Phantom Ranch at 2:30 and when we came in I grabbed my phone and it was right on the nose! Sweet! We grabbed some candy bars, pretzels, lemonade and settled into a nice snack time at a picnic table. With nine miles to head out of the canyon via Bright Angel we even laid back on the picnic benches to rest our eyes. We spent 30 minutes there and then headed up toward the south rim.
As we made way to depart, another runner that we’d seen earlier heading to the north rim caught and passed us. We met him again shortly where he was filling water at a spigot below Bright Angel Campground. He had spent the whole day alone and asked if he could join us. Sure thing! The three of us journeyed on and took some photos crossing the silver bridge, with the turbulent green waters of the Colorado river coursing underneath our feet.
The first few miles were runnable here and we encountered a couple just off the trail. They seemed to be hiking, but the gentleman was laid out and did not look real well. Upon inquiring if they were okay, she said they were just going to the campground and that they would be fine. But when our third amigo, Mark, passed by them just after us, she said they were heading to Indian Garden, miles further and up! That sort of puzzled us and I’ve thought often about them, hoping they got on okay.
It brought up an interesting feeling for me. With 36 miles under foot at that point I was feeling fine, yet I’d been out there for a very long time already. It’s a little harder processing situations after that much time afoot. The reality of the canyon is that you accept quite the responsibility for yourself when you head down. If she had said, “Hey, we really need some help here.” I certainly would have stopped. But I don’t think I was in the state of mind to make an honest assessment of how they really were.
We had a DeLorme InReach for shooting off messages to our wives so they would know we were doing well and not in trouble. It also gave them coordinates with each message so they could see exactly where we were at. Had it been necessary we could have sent an SOS, heaven forbid. But since the run I’ve thought about people that climb Everest and pass by climbers that may literally be dying before their eyes. I cannot fathom what that must be like. I was grateful for having an emergency beacon/device with us, for I rarely head out without it anymore.
The remainder of the trek was perhaps a little anticlimactic. Put one foot in front of another. Keep moving. Keep eating. Keep drinking. We didn’t catch many more folks as most of the day trippers were out of the canyon. A mile from the top we donned the lights to finish in the dark, hitting the top 14 hours and 44 minutes after we started.
Mahting wondered whether we would really come back out to eat if we headed for showers at our respective lodging. Wisely, we opted to head right into Bright Angel Lodge for dinner with our wives. It was a wonderful way to end the day.
Come Monday I moved more gingerly and slowly than I ever have in my life, requesting help to get down off the curb at one point in the day! But it was all muscle damage. Neither of us suffered blisters and while Mahting had a tweaky knee and foot we were pretty well off considering what we’d done.
Some notes for those either doing this for the first time or even a 2nd time.
- In my opinion it is wise to calculate and know how many calories per hour you will need and stick to a plan on fueling and drinking.
- In the week before, begin making a concerted effort to hydrate the body. Especially if you are flying into the area from out of state.
- Tailwind worked really well for Mahting and me. He used three PB&J’s in addition to Tailwind and I used primarily gels with the Tailwind plus some pretzels for solid food.
- Pick a general pacing plan but don’t stress if it goes long on the outward leg. Taking into account it was two miles longer and we stopped for 30 minutes at Phantom Ranch we did negative splits coming back.
- Not having GPS or watches on our wrists was very freeing. We moved by feel and trusted our bodies. It worked out great.
- Strongly consider taking along either a Spot or InReach device. It provides tremendous peace of mind and it’s nice to be able to shoot off a pre-loaded text indicating to loved ones, friends or support that you are doing fine, maybe behind schedule but still fine or send a real time message if you are having problems or issues.
- The Facebook group has all the information needed to do this and was an invaluable resource but was not overwhelming if you use the search function on the group page to find out the answers to the questions you might have!
- Respect the canyon, prepare for it to be harder than anticipated but hope for it to be better than that. Be positive and know if will involve discomfort and some suffering. I felt, that given some unknowns around my downtime just before the run that I could always just hike out with my headlamp given that I do a lot of backpacking and hiking.
The sensation is intense, like needles being plunged in and out of nerve endings in the area of my left hamstring. I try to breathe through the burning, knowing this is not the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I attempt to relax my grip so as to become one with the discomfort.
The nurse practitioner gently tugs the gauze packing out of my leg and says “This isn’t getting better. I’m going to ask your doctor what she thinks”.
It’s now Tuesday and I’m in the sixth day of a serious staph infection. I’d been to the ER on Sunday and even after numerous antibiotics and a now open 3.5 centimeter wound in my leg where they dug out pus and infection, an area from the back of my knee moving toward my hip is red, inflamed, taut and warm to the touch. A culture has indicated staph infection resulting in cellulitis. I have no idea how I picked this up, but it’s putting a serious kink in my activity level.
I’m 20 days away from running down into the Grand Canyon, up the other side to the north rim and a return trip to the south rim. It’s a trail run (not a race) that is known as Rim to Rim to Rim, or R2R2R. The route is 44.2 miles long with over 10,000 feet of elevation loss AND gain. Trail runners complete it as a sort of “rite of passage”.
I think I first heard about this when a friend of mine, many years younger, ran it for the first time in 2015. He then did it a second time in 2016. When I read about his account it was the first year that I had taken up running and backpacking. I believe I secretly thought to myself, “That is pretty darn impressive.” I probably googled around on the subject and quickly discovered that this was not something for the faint of heart.
Sometime in 2016 a client shared with me how she had also done R2R2R. I was helping her through an injury as she was preparing for another trail marathon up and down Pikes Peak. I was duly impressed that she, too, had conquered the Grand Canyon. Again, I investigated online about this demonic run, and again, realized that this was currently far beyond my physical capabilities. In 2016 I had done my 3rd and 4th trail half marathons, but less than ⅓ of the distance that would be required to complete the Grand Canyon run.
However, sometime last year I think I first voiced my secret desire to try and do this. I felt that the old biological clock was ticking and I needed to do it sooner rather than later. (I later found this not to be true, at least for me) I confided in my good friend and running partner, Mahting, but pretty much left it at that.
With a hole in the back of my leg vast enough to stick the entirety of my thumb into, it is necessary to have gauze stuffed into the wound on a daily basis. It’s called a wound, like I’ve been shot, or I have diabetes and I now need wound care. Gratefully, a good friend, who is a physician’s assistant has acquiesced in helping with the daily chore. Actually, she didn’t really acquiesce because when I asked for her help she replied, “Oh, you don’t need to twist my arm, I love pus!”. This was a statement that I found to be true of most nuts in the medical community. As a different medical professional shared with me, “We feel like we’re doing real good when we can take pus and infection out of a wound, because it happens right before our eyes.”
I’m now in my home as my friend changes the packing and my wife observes, somewhat aghast, hence the reason to recruit the friend to do such dirty work. “How soon before I can run, exercise, sweat, etc?” I ask.
“Matt”, she patiently replies, “I can see your hamstring, that is how deep the wound is. I don’t think you should be doing any running at this point.”
I begin to fully comprehend the severity of what has been going on with this infection and my leg. I’m fine with possibly not doing the Grand Canyon run and to be quite honest, maybe even a little relieved. I’m very grateful at this point for the medical community, their knowledge and expertise and the fact that if I lived in a different country, this could have been quite, quite serious. I begin to find peace in the fact that the run may not happen. But I decide that I won’t out and out cancel the trip. My whole family and Mahting and his wife are going as well. At the very least it will be a family vacation for four days.
One of the morose attractions of attempting R2R2R is the fact that people die in the Grand Canyon; a lot. Once dumping into the “Big Ditch” and beginning to cross to the other side there is no option of calling ones significant other and asking to be picked up. If there is an emergency it involves a Search and Rescue team and substantial financial resources in order for a person to be pulled out of the canyon. I read at an interpretive sign on the south rim that there are 250 rescues a year in the Grand Canyon. Upon investigation I find that there are rather interesting maps such as this one.
770 people have died in the Grand Canyon since John Wesley Powell and his crew made the first river exploration in 1869. On average 12 people die in the canyon each year by suicide, accidental falls, exposure, drowning, aviation accidents, rockfall and even mules falling on people. This ain’t no walk in the park folks.
I shared with a cycling and running friend earlier this year that Mahting and I were going to attempt to do this challenge. “You’re crazy! You’re going to hate the training involved, you’re going to hate the preparation and you’re going to hate actually doing it.” Gee, what a buzzkill.
In reality I enjoyed the training all summer and even the preparatory 40 mile Grand Traverse race that I had done over Labor Day weekend. But truth be told, I was running on fumes in preparing for this endeavor. I had archery hunted ten days in the month of September in weather that at times was snowy, foggy, rainy and cold. While I had succeeded in filling the freezer full of venison for our family, I had lost about five pounds over the course of the month. I was a little mentally burned out from a long year of running, hiking, camping, etc. I believe now that my body and immune system was effectively wrung out; creating a prime situation for a crazy bug to nab me.
I knew that I had all the base mileage I needed for the GC run, but I felt my remaining training was best invested in runs involving heavy elevation gains and losses. So I spent my time on the trails around Boulder, finding 5 mile loops that afforded me at least a thousand feet of vertical per lap. My last long run was to be five loops around Mt. Sanitas in Boulder. It would be about 27 miles with over 6800’ of elevation gain and loss. What typically has worked for me in past preparation for long endurance events has been topping out my training at 70% of the distance required. With the running, I try and match that number for the elevation as well. It worked fine for the Grand Traverse, so I was comfortable with the R2R2R preparation. And it was during the time after the Grand Traverse that this whole ultrarunning thing became much less mysterious and scary to me. At a point in the summer I had moved beyond the distance of 18 miles in my runs which had been a bit of a hurdle. My body had become accustomed to the steady tap of many hour runs and miles beyond 20 in a single shot. The body is amazing. And I’ve been fortunate to have a body that has always adapted well to hard work and long hours. I’ve also become wise enough in how my body works that at 52 I have much more confidence in my ability than I did 30 years ago. But the staph infection put its grip on me two days before that last long run which in fact would never materialize. I would not have the mental peace of mind that I had put in the proper physical preparation for the R2R2R.
However, I was at peace as to whether it was necessary to accomplish the feat this calendar year. I decided that if it wasn’t meant to be on November 12th, I would just come back in the spring and do it. On October 25th Mahting and I exchanged some messages about my predicament. I assured him I was still on for the trip and going to be doing something in the canyon and I was sure to be rested!
After just over two weeks of no running or physical activity related to exercise the gash in my leg had healed enough I felt that I needed to do a few runs to see what transpired. Eight days out from our run date in the canyon I drove to Boulder to do a few laps on Sanitas. With the music motivating me on the drive up I decided that this was going to happen. I couldn’t go into this with any doubts about completing the run. I just had to decide to do it. And at that point there was no turning back mentally. I was all in.
For part 2 of this story, you can jump right to it by clicking here.
Pam and I drive past Western State College in Gunnison, my first time here, and make the right hand turn on Highway 135 toward Crested Butte. Cruising into town with Mt. Crested Butte off to our right, I look at Pam and say, “What the hell was I thinking? There is no way out of this place but up!”
Of course I knew this. When I signed up for the Grand Traverse 40 mile mountain trail running race a few months ago I saw that the first 17 miles were largely uphill; with miles 10-17 gaining altitude from 9300’ to 12,340’. Yet, on paper it always seems benign compared to literal feet on the ground. In total the race had about 7,000’ in elevation gain. For 20 miles from 15 to 35 it would never dip below 11,000’. It was a classic mountain trail running race. In the previous two years I had run four half marathon trail races and have done a large amount of backpacking. This year I have had eyes on running R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. My friend Mahting felt the Grand Traverse would be a good prep run for R2R2R.
The alarm starts singing at 4:20 am. The race starts at 6:00. As per my usual training I forego eating before the race. The glycogen stores are full. Eating now will just create digestive issues later. I have two cups of coffee and we’re off to Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Along with Pam, are Mahting and his wife, Erika. Mahting suffered a foot issue a few weeks back so he is here as good friend and giver of race advice. He has finished various ultras and a 50 miler last year. It pains him to not be running today. Along with Erika, we have had some training runs together in the weeks before this.
There are a few things I wrestled with regarding equipment in the past week. Largely which shoes to wear, bringing along trekking poles and using a headlamp at the start. The sky is brightening and I don’t want to bring the headlamp for just the first 20 minutes or so. My three cohorts tell me it’s foolish to risk a fall and not using it. I go with the headlamp. I also opt for the trekking poles even though the majority of folks do not have them. I want something to help me keep pace on the steep climb to Star Pass. I go with an old set of shoes that already have 450 miles of wear on them and have a newer cushier pair in a drop bag at an aid station 23.5 miles into the race.
6:00 comes and the race is off. It is slightly downhill the first mile before turning into single track as we wind our way through aspen forest. I’m forced into a pace. Hundreds of runners line out and I have no choice but to follow. I feel like I am on a elementary school trip and we are in a line “indian file” jogging through the forest.
I’m not used to running in a line with so many people as 95% of my trail ventures have been solo this year. We’re maybe four or five miles into the race and I’m trying to watch the roots, rocks and things that might trip me up. We come along a slight downhill bend and I see barbed wire on the right edge of the trail. I think to myself, “Don’t fall on that” and immediately I am on the ground! Thankfully, I fall straight on the trail and I bounce up immediately knowing people are right behind me. I am dirty, cut up but have mostly just hurt my pride. From behind I hear “You’ve gotten your fall out of the way early, you’re good to go”.
The first aid station is at mile 9.5 and I’m slightly alarmed. The pace has been faster than I want, mainly because we’ve been on some forest service road and also because everybody is running really fast in my opinion. I have a pretty good idea of what kind of average pace I can maintain for the race. According to last year’s results it would have meant about 35th place overall. But I was running way faster than that pace and there were well over a hundred people in front of me, probably more. One of two things was happening. Either a lot of people were going to blow up, or because there were almost twice the entrants from the year before, there was greater depth to the field.
Mahting’s sage advice to me, which was also repeated by Erika numerous times was that in the early parts I needed to A) go slow and B) eat a lot. I cover the first 9 miles in about 1:36 and change, translating to a 10:43 pace. This is way too fast for this early considering how much elevation needs to be ascended. I’m slightly panicked but fill up my water, move some things in my pack and move on. The aid station has broken up the single file action and after just a short while I need to step off the trail anyway. Even with not eating before the race and usual morning rituals, there is some rumbling in my gut. Nature calls. I spend what I feel is too much time resolving this issue but am much better in the digestive area when I get back on the trail.
I finally put the trekking poles to use with the steeper trail ahead. For a while it is a mix between short jogs and power hiking. I begin leap frogging with a few runners and one is a young lady in a tutu. I remember seeing her in the first few miles. As she comes by me I say “I’m nicknaming you ‘The Bishop’. Think about that for a few hours and let me know when you figure it out.” Nothing like some older guy throwing riddles about in the midst of a high altitude endurance event. (After the race I saw her again and she had to ask her parents what I meant. She was overthinking it!)
The trail is now really steep and it is pure hiking at this point, with the exception of one person coming behind. A woman on the shorter side, light in weight and my age or a little better is actually jogging up the mountain toward the aid station and Star Pass. She goes by me and I never see her again the rest of the race. She is impressive!
I reach Star Pass, 17.5 miles into the race. This is what I consider my first of three phases of the race for me. I arrive here about 15 minutes later than I had hoped. But I’m happy to be here and at the highest point of the race. I strap my trekking poles to my pack, finished with them for the day. The first bit of downhill off the pass is still not easy. The trail is very rocky and it’s a shuffle going down. But now I’m mentally preparing for what I feel will be the hardest part of the race; undulating terrain for 17 more miles all between 11,000-12,300’. In fact we’ll hit 12,300’ two more times during this stretch.
I now begin to pull people back. My strength is the long haul. I’ve sacrificed all speed in my training for endurance, the ability to diesel along for many hours at a time. This is where a life of being an endurance athlete reaps benefits. I’ve ridden long miles on bikes, and covered long miles with a backpack. Now, I only need to keep moving forward, with a relatively light pack on my back.
The next aid station is at mile 23.5 and I’ve been contemplating whether I will change out my shoes and socks. Earlier on there were numerous creek crossings, with two of them in shin deep water. The wet terrain was now largely behind. When I get to the aid station I decide to switch out my shoes and socks; for no other reason than to have a few more minutes to sit down. I’ve now been gone for over five hours and it’s all becoming a blur. By placing a “drop bag” of things I might need, I am able to don the new footwear, leave my poles here and get rid of some other items like my headlamp and a base layer that I know I won’t need because the weather is absolutely perfect. I keep the rain shell in my bag just in case and finally get out of the aid station, probably having spent too much time here. I grab a handful of potato chips from the food table and power hike up the remaining bit to Taylor Pass.
Things have really stretched out now with the participants. I can see just a few people ahead of me and the vistas are long. Where is everybody? I climb the pass with two others and we begin a “shuffle” down the other side. I am with a guy and a girl, the guy commenting that his stomach is in a bad way. I leave them behind and have two men in front of me for the next five miles. They are only a few minutes ahead of me most of the way until we arrive at the next aid station at 28.5 miles. They get in and out ahead of me and a younger guy arrives just before I leave, as I had passed him a mile or so before. I wolf down half a dozen slices of watermelon before departing and this is the best tasting thing I’ve had all day. My fuel has consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the first five hours and now I’ve switched to stroop waffles and gels.
A half mile out of this aid station I realize that I have foregone hourly stretching during the race. I stop, doing some horse stretches, deep squats and twist my lower back while opening my shoulders. This feels soooooo good. When I begin running again I feel anew! On a rocky downhill section my legs feel really stable and I motor by one of the two men that had been just in front of me for the previous six miles or so.
The other of the two is ahead of me on a long climb shortly thereafter and he and I link up with about nine miles to go. I spend more time with him than anybody else all day. Before the race I had looked at the registrants and the majority of runners were younger than me. I roughly figured that I was probably one of the 20 oldest in a race of 226 registrants. This is slightly unusual because in the world of ultrarunning there are more and more people over 50 running these longer distances. My new friend John tells me about a young lady of probably 20 or so that he saw vomiting after about 15 miles. “Those of us that are older tend to do better in these ultras. We’ve experienced a lot of “suck” in our lives. So this doesn’t seem that bad”, he says.
Interestingly I had thought about this a few miles before catching John. I was far enough into the race to make an evaluation on the effort required to finish. My assessment was that while it was challenging it was not the hardest thing I had ever done physically. When compared with emotional challenges I have had in my life, it was a piece of cake. It was mainly about patience, good sense, proper fueling and perseverance. I had coined my own mantra for the day. JKM, or Just Keep Moving. As long as I moved in a forward motion it would eventually be over.
John and I worked well together and with about six miles to go a number of people popped into view. Most of them were walking and none of them looked well. There was one sitting just off the trail, head in his hands. A kid of about 19 was walking and not having a good time of it. I could now “smell the barn” and began to jog up a slight hill. I passed two more guys, one of which was holding his hip and visually limping along. All of this motivated me as I picked up the pace.
Since I’ve been a teenager I’ve always been a racer. And I’ve learned over the years how to become a good finisher. I found a true stride for the first time in 34 miles and opened up the throttle. I flew into the last aid station with one thing in mind, Coca-Cola. The gentleman at the aid station exclaimed, “It’s a 35 mile warm up and a 5 mile race”. I drank some coke, filled my 500ml bottle with the same and set off flying down the mountain. The final five miles dropped 3200’ zig zagging on single track down the Aspen ski hills. The first mile after the aid station was through dark timber, on soft peat trail. Emotion began to well up inside of me as I began sobbing thinking about my son, Ben, my wife, Pam, Mahting, Erika and a host of others that had been more intimately involved in helping me prepare for this race.
I began to catch people all the way down the mountain as I ebbed in and out of this crazy emotion that would rise in my throat and then subside. Finally with a mile to go, I was caught by a young man and I followed him in to the finish. I saw Pam holding her phone for a picture as I crossed the line. I stumbled for a bit and then fell on the grass, fairly exhausted but feeling more emotion than I have in any other endurance event I’ve ever done. The race did require an intense amount of concentration and it was a relief to relax. In the end I was correct in the fact that the field held an incredible amount of depth. I ended up being 90th across the line. The same finishing time a year before would have yielded 34th place. I remain in awe of how fast people can move across high mountains on a trail run. It is a testament to the high level of fitness people maintain. In short, it’s just pretty damn cool to be a part of it.
- Notes on my training plan in the months leading up to the event for those that find that interesting.
Having been an endurance athlete most of my life, I have experience about how my body works. However, it has taken three years to adapt to being a runner from having been a lifelong cyclist. About ten years ago I began practicing yoga, but never maintained the practice during summer months. Last November I took yoga up again and have maintained the practice all summer for the first time in my life. Yoga played a huge part in me finishing this race.
I ran throughout the spring building an aerobic base, running maybe 2-3 times a week. In mid June I did a four day backpack trip then took one week completely off before more specific training for this race. I used a very rough plan over 13 weeks to prepare for this race, mostly in 2-3 week blocks and largely going off perception of how my body felt. I do not use a heart rate monitor while running but go by perceived rate of exertion. I did this race wholly “by feel” as my Garmin watch battery won’t last for nearly ten hours. I tracked my race using the Strava app on my phone which I looked at periodically throughout the race.
My totals and averages of activity over the 13 weeks leading up to the race and including the race were as follows. I ran three days a week only four times during the 13 weeks. I consumed roughly 225-250 calories per hour during the whole of the event. I ate one last gel with 5.5 miles to go and finished it out on Coca-Cola. I never came close to bonking.
- 312 miles of total running
- 24 miles per week average running
- 2 runs per week average
- My highest week was 36.8 miles of running three weeks out from the race
- My longest run was also that week and was 28 miles and just under 7 hours
- 167 miles of total hiking
- 12.84 miles per week average hiking (this is a bit skewed b/c the backpack trip was 84 miles in four days) which was week 2 of the 13 weeks
- 35 days of yoga
- Average of 2.7 days a week of yoga
- Link to Strava Data
I uncharacteristically took my time getting ready to head off to set up camp for a short archery deer hunt on Friday morning. Awakening at my usual time of 4:30, I did my journaling, walked the dogs with my wife, Pam, and then made myself breakfast. Just before 7:00 I was on the road to the Roosevelt National Forest.
As I pulled into the huge parking lot my Subaru Forester was the only vehicle. I took advantage of the toilet, strapped my Mathews Switchback bow to my backpack and hit the trail. I had supplies for three nights, but for some reason I wasn’t itching to hunt like I typically am. The season started tomorrow morning.
Walking the two and a half miles back to where I would set up camp I took in the scenery with two different views of the big mountain where the elk like to play. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t more excited for the hunt. I was unsuccessful in drawing an elk tag for the second year in a row for this area. Since I am running a 40 mile mountain trail race in one week I didn’t want to pack deep in to the area where I’ll hunt elk (9 miles one way) so I am hunting deer on this trip. There are far more elk high in this area ranging from 9500’ in elevation to 11,500’. The last two years I’ve hunted deer lower, but it is warm there and tends to have more people milling about in the areas. This would hopefully be quieter and a little more remote.
After an hour I arrived at the area I had surveyed on the map for decent camping. I didn’t have water at my site but a five minute walk farther down the trail gave me access to fresh water. I went about pitching my tent and found the spot ideal. I was far enough off the trail that no hikers would notice my camp, but if you knew where to look you could see it from the trail. While in timber, 99% of hikers never look more than a few feet in front of them, so I was confident my biggest concern would be errant bears in the area. Even though I was seven miles as the crow flies from where this incident happened earlier this year and the culprit had been dispatched of.
After filtering enough water for this day and the next morning I went back and took a few shots with my bow at a stump to make sure nothing got knocked out of whack on the hike in. I found a suitable dried out stump that would stop my designated practice broadhead but not damage it. I was walking about eating some Fritos Scoops when I set up the stump. Needing a small aiming point I wedged a Scoop into the stump and walked about 25 yards away. As I surveyed the target, a camp robber came flying onto the stump. The Clark’s Nutcracker proceeded to steal my Frito and fly away! I had to laugh out loud at how these birds will find a camp within minutes knowing that people mean easy food. They are noisy birds and make a regular racket in the forest. Fortunately, I brought along a two inch orange dot for this very purpose. After shooting a bit, my long shot at 35 yards landed just a few inches to the right.
By now it was mid morning and I gathered my pack, some food and other items to hike to where I’d be hunting for a little scouting. I was forced to make my camp outside of a specific perimeter which meant my area for the morning hunt would be a 2 1/2 to 3 mile hike from where I slept. I wanted to do a dry run and check the area again. After an hour’s walk I was at treeline and sitting in a spot where I had seen three mule deer bucks a week ago, one a very nice 4×4 and quite large. But it was now midday and nothing was about that I could see. Not a worry, because tomorrow was when I wanted to see game. I headed back toward my camp but this time headed over the mountain and bushwhacked versus the road I had come up on.
That is what separates this kind of trip from a trail backpacking trip. While backpacking, the trail is not always easy but it is always a trail. Scouting to hunt and hunting involve miles across backcountry; off trail and in rough country. Areas can be steep, so steep you can reach out and touch the mountain in front of you. Deadfall typically is everywhere and makes it difficult to walk a straight line. On this trip, my clothes were constantly sticky with sap from limber pines and got on everything. Once above tree line, steps have to be chosen carefully so rocks don’t dislodge and trap a leg or worse. Backpacking is tiring, but predictable. Backcountry hunting is hard work and exhausting and mentally draining at times. But the physical nature is much more intense than trail backpacking; at least in my opinion.
I soon was in an area where I had written a post from a week ago. I sat for a while, now late afternoon, and after glassing an area that I knew contained elk, and hoping to also see deer, nothing seemed about. Hmmm…maybe everything moved to a different area. Large game animals move about in patterns and don’t always just stick to one area, hence the challenge of hunting them. It was approaching 5:30 and I decided to begin moving back to camp to make myself some dinner before dark.
I stood up, donned my pack and began to slowly walk. I hadn’t moved much when I heard animals. Only elk make so much noise. There was some gentle mewing which sounded like a calf or cow. I turned my attention down the mountain where it seemed like the elk were at. Then I heard what sounded like antlers banging into branches and clacking about. I was positioned in a very small opening with none of the Limber Pines or Englemann Spruce right by me. I caught movement to my right and saw antlers flash and elk moving toward me. I quickly crouched down to make myself invisible or at least as small as possible! Pulling my camera out I hoped to capture the unfolding scene. The elk were moving and feeding at the same time, heads down, intent on ingesting calories. One bull was on his way to where he would cross right in front of me. He finally cleared a tree where he saw me and stopped on a dime. Guess what? I was not invisible! Thus began the staredown as I pressed the shutter on my camera. I was operating on the fly, not being able to make adjustments, just trying to get as many shots of him as possible. He had five points on his right beam and four on his left, the top point on that side not splitting like the right did and he qualified as a “raghorn”.
As we had our little staredown another bull was on a path where he would walk right into me. But he, too, saw things were not as they should be on this stroll to their feeding
ground. He now was directly off to my right and I gently turned the camera toward him to snap off some shots.
Meanwhile three more bulls were milling about behind bull #1, two were small raghorns and another was still in the velvet with small spikes that split up high and he was probably a one and a half year old, mabye two and a half.
After a few minutes they decided I was out of the ordinary enough to warrant heading back to where they came from. Bull #2 actually wheeled a bit and was more spooked than bull #1. Likely, he had caught my scent.
After they left I heard two barks and decided the exciting event of the last few minutes was now just a memory. I sort of sat there, gathered myself and allowed my adrenaline to settle back down. Again I heard some gentle mewing and knocking of antlers below me. I slowly proceeded ahead and was able to look down into a large park, about 400 yards long running up the mountain in an east/west fashion. Down below were the five elk, they had not fled the area but merely circled lower to get to their feeding ground. I now recognized the different racks and viewed them through the binoculars. As I checked them out, more bulls now came into view. One had an either broken or misformed right main branch, another seemed to be a nicer 5×5 and a two more small bulls. This group of four headed into a slightly different area. So near as I could tell I had nine bulls within a few hundred yards of me. I was literally surrounded by elk, which is an incredible experience in the wild. It is one thing to see the elk bugle at Rocky Mountain National Park but to have a 15-20 yard encounter with a bull elk is someting different altogether. It is a treat, an experience to treasure, and something that doesn’t happen when you walk on designated hiking trails. Below is a slideshow of Bull #1.
With the wind blowing up the mountain I was happy the elk were not disturbed. I would not be hunting them tomorrow but somebody might be (however, I doubted this) and I felt it prudent to sneak out of there without them getting bumped out of the area.
While finishing up watching them (it is difficult to break away from such magnificence!) I heard a few snorts. My mind was so intent on the elk that I didn’t weigh its significance. While elk will bellow, bugle, mew, bark and are very vocal, they do not snort. Deer snort. As I looked up I saw a small mule deer buck bounding back across the large meadow toward the dark timber. I am sure he did not see or hear me, but he may have been bothered by all of the bulls. I watched as he bounded lightly across the grassy meadow in the evening light. So…this would be an okay area for deer as well. However, I was already set on spending the morning up higher.
I made my way straight down the mountain, mentally making a note how much easier it is to drop down in a line 856 vertical feet in the distance of six tenths of a mile. Hiking back up that way is much, much slower, especially off trail!
I arrived in camp at dusk, having just enough light to heat water for dinner. I donned my headlamp to go filter water. This is my least favorite part of the backcountry hunting solo experience; doing all the camp chores in the dark. The best hunting is at first and last light, often meaning 16 hours away from camp if one is covering ground looking for game. Naps help but I never am able to sleep for more than 20 minutes during the day. This is where having a buddy along would be a lot of fun. Instead, I crawled in my tent and never even opened my book on my phone. I shot a satellite text to Pam that I was safe for the night and made sure the alarm was set for 4:00am. It was before 9:00 as I fell asleep after an adventurous first day.
- Friday, 18 August 2017
- Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve, Roosevelt NF, Boulder County, Colorado
- Time 1324
- Elevation – 11,016’
- Blue skies, warm temperatures, high friendly clouds
As I look to my left and north I see Niwot Mountain, 11,471’ high. A saddle runs southwest of the peak to another peak that is unnamed, yet is higher than Niwot standing 11,557’ above sea level. Running southeast of the saddle is a drainage that becomes Fourmile Creek and I am sitting on the south side of the drainage looking down into it. As the crow flies, the peak of Niwot Mountain is .7 of a mile away on a 26 degree bearing. That perplexes me because it seems that it should be slightly northwest, but later as I look at a map I see I was tricked by the terrain.
I first made my way to this mountain in the fall of 1991, coming from the southeast, miles away and walking largely off trail. In recent weeks I have re-familiarized myself with the area, one day running completely around the mountain. Today, I have come two and a half miles on trail and then another mile or so up and a thousand feet higher. Surprisingly, the direct ascent up the mountain was not too difficult, but it was necessary to take frequent breaks in order to allow my breathing to catch up to my pace.
I’m here in the area looking for a place to camp next weekend and waiting for game to start moving about. The wind blows upon my back, but also swirls as the minutes pass. The mountain, mostly bathed in sunlight, occasionally becomes shrouded in cloud cover; big, puffy white clouds pose no threat to me as I flirt with the treeline and tundra.
I realize that my left forearm and my pants are sticky with pine resin. I battle the residue on my arm and then grab some dirt, form a fine dust and rub it over the annoying spot. Problem resolved! Back on August 1st I had glassed (used binoculars from a distance) the mountain from two miles away and saw 14 elk grazing on the mountainside. As I sit on the ground the musky smell of elk permeates the area as it mixes with the scent of pine. I regret not having my tree guide with me as I look at the different fir trees. I do know, however, that my very pokey next door neighbor is a juniper. Aspen shoots no more than a foot high grace the hillside along with willows that are knee high, a favorite food for elk and especially moose. A few Engelmann Spruce stand tall and upright but are outumbered by the dominant scrubby and bent Limber Pines. I walk over to get some close up photos for positive identification later (I was initially wrong on the spruce and pine). The Limber Pine has needles in clusters of five. The Engelmann needles grow individually directly off the branches. There is so much I do not know about the flora of Colorado. Each year I try to learn more, but I think I forget more than I learn. Below are close ups of the Engelmann Spruce, left, and Limber Pine, right.
I’m enjoying this time just at treeline, where the high alpine forest turns to tundra. The breeze changes and I’m overwhelmed by a pungent whiff of elk. The tundra holds delicate grasses and plants. The elk have come high to feed on the most tender of plants that contain the highest nutrients. Close by is a pine branch
that has been battered by a bull elk, who are just weeks away from the magical time of year when they will begin to bugle, establishing dominance in the herd and the right to breed the cows of their harem.
Wildflowers still bloom here. Yellow sedum grows by me as well as blue harebell. A raucous Gray Jay screams out at 33 minutes into the hour. They are abundant here and rather noisy at times. White yarrow also dots the landscape.
I observe a tiny sparrow alight on a branch fifteen yards away. Through the binoculars I see the wind ruffle his feathers and hairdo, creating a tiny mohawk courtesy of the local stylist, Mother Nature. He is there for maybe a minute before flying away. Big fat flies buzz around my knees but don’t really bother me.
The hour begins to tick down quietly. The afternoon drawing longer, shadows creating a different canvas across the vast, large drainage. It’s peaceful here this afternoon, a welcome break from the many violent storms and rain that have been prevalent over the past weeks. White billowy clouds pass easily overhead, no threat at this time to change the current serene landscape high in the tundra.
- Friday, 11 August 2017
- Bald Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado
- Time 1017
- Elevation – 9,031’
- Warm, sunshine, clouds, and inversion below
After a long hiatus from sitting still for an hour, I am back. Spring came, the world outside came alive and I needed to be moving. I’ve spent much of my time this summer on the move, covering many miles in the mountains, running, hiking, backpacking. In a few weeks the activity will become a dichotomy. On Labor Day weekend I will be running a one day mountain trail race called the Grand Traverse, 40 miles of high country running from Crested Butte to Aspen. During the month of September I will also be spending a number of nights in the backcountry pursuing Mule Deer and Elk during the archery season. Hunting is a part of me and has been for most of my life. There are many opinions on it, but it is where I found my first connections to the wilderness. It involves immense amounts of time not moving, being still, listening and tuned in to creatures that move at a very slow pace, slower than the human race and in turn completely tuned in to their surroundings. I think I’ll share the experience of being outside, vulnerable and alone during those times in September. So I invite you to stay tuned for that. It will not be a story of a harvest as much as a story of the experience of pursuing something elusive.
This morning, however, I am sitting on Bald Mountain facing east looking at Sugarloaf Mountain. I drove up out of a cloudy, foggy Boulder and rose above the inversion. This is a strange area. In all directions I can see residences of people that live in the hills above Boulder. To them, I am sure they feel like they are “getting away” from the city. But in short order, one crosses many different roads in this area. It is busy with campers, hikers, locals, transients and a weird existence where they all come together. I don’t find much comfort here because man has imposed so much of himself into this area that it doesn’t seem wild, only weird. Behind the mountain to the southwest is a huge scar from a wildfire that was caused by an out of town transient visitor last summer that had to have a campfire. Many are drawn to this area because Colorado has become a land of milk and honey, or, weed and edibles.
But I am literally above all of this. It feels great to sit back directly on the damp ground. My butt gets a little wet, but today it’s sunny and summertime. I’ll dry out quickly. The breeze is soft, the sun warm. Insects buzz about, birds chirp and grasshoppers flutter and buzz about like dying helicopters. An insect I cannot identify goes ‘tick, tick’. A cacophony of flying bugs creates a chorus of music here in this meadow atop the mountain.
The hillside is gorgeous. Tall grasses tickle my arms. Mountain Mahogany lies off to my left and slightly uphill. Butterflies flit about, one being an American Lady, who upon
inspection of a photo, later reveals that it has been battered about here on the mountain. There are various wildflowers including dwarf lupine and asters. Berries are also close by and reminds me that the bears of the mountains are entering into hyperphagia, a period where they consume up to 20,000 calories a day in preparation to fatten up before hibernation in the winter. As berries ripen they will feast on them and be happier than Yogi Bear at a pick-a-nic!
Sinister clouds begin to form behind me to the west, rolling in from the Continental Divide. It is the monsoon season and while on the front range we do not experience the deluges like they do in the deeper San Juan mountains, we have had some heavy rains in the previous days. An inversion remains below me in the Boulder Valley and I sit in sunshine between the threatening high clouds above and the oppression of higher humidity below. Cooler air blows up from the valley below me.
It’s now 10:59 and I realize that everything is moving quickly and I have not stopped enough in the past months to see all that is happening around me! Summer is fleeting and it leaves a sad pit in my heart. There is now immense calm on the mountainside and it seems a storm is imminent. Voices carry up to me from below, either hikers, locals or campers. Tiny raindrops begin to dot my pants at 11:04.
As I finish out my hour I’m thankful for the time here. It is a new place and one I wanted to check out. Yet, I doubt that I will come back here anytime soon. The views are fantastic, but there is too much actiivty for my liking. Perhaps I’ll bring a friend back for a winter hike, but in summer, the high country calls to me more. I desire places where the air is thinner, the weather a bit more unpredictable and the solitude easier to find.
Thursday, August 10th, 2017 – 5:10am
The pen feels especially good in my hand these days. The ink flows easily to the paper and is smooth compared to the scratchiness of the fountain pen. The Bic Ultra Round Stic Grip, a "cheap" pen bought in a multi pack does a better job. For more than a year I have been forcing the issue with the fountain pen, a gift from Wilson, my father-in-law. Sentimental reasons contribute to my attachment of the the pen as well as nostalgia and a connection to the "old ways" of doing things.
I would take the fountain pen apart, clean it, allow it to dry and the load a new cartridge into it. The pen never was happy with this particular paper from this journal, an exact replica of the journal I received from Wilson during Christmas of 2015. For a time I had a journal with paper that had a sheen and the ink moved more freely along those pages.
I glance now at the blue and silver Cross pen, picking it up, its touch cool to my thumb and forefinger, the surface temperature also the same as the room temperature which has cooled from the night air. I uncap it to write and I am pleased as ink flows, but by the fifth word it ceases to finish the task. I give it chance upon chance, a shake, a twist, a squeeze of the cartridge, taking it apart and putting it back together again. At times it has made an outright mess of my journal, a big blue blob masquerading as a Rorschach ink spot.
We hold on to imperfect things in our lives. Giving perhaps so many second chances we lose track of the times we pardon. Perhaps these become boundaries and the pen burns us repeatedly. I don't know. I'm a big believer in second chances even if they become exponential. I want to see the pen succeed, but sometimes the "cheap one" performs better and might win the job in the long run.
I’ve done this trip enough times in the last three years that I can almost do it in my sleep. The ritual goes like this; set the alarm for 3:30, out the driveway by 4:00 and hiking from the trailhead at first light just after 5:00 during this time of year.
When I first began making my way back into the reaches of Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Arapaho Pass I would have trouble sleeping. Last night I awoke only once at 1:30 and looked at the clock, toyed with the idea of leaving early but quickly went back to my slumber.
Part of the restlessness is the nature of the trip. The first three miles gain in elevation from 10,100′ to 11,900′, so it’s a gasper right out of the parking lot. The trail is fair enough and the views are phenomenal. This time of year if you know where to look and have good binoculars you can see elk feeding at dawn above timber line on the high ridges to the south. This morning I could see three elk silhouettes with the naked eye and my binoculars revealed they were three bulls hanging out in a “bachelor group”.
However, the stopping and looking at wildlife extends the trip to the Continental Divide at Arapaho Pass. So I make my way west and up, now fully exposed to the wind on the ridge top, but not so cold as to stop and put on my light wool gloves. I make my way 1,000′ down in elevation switching back and forth on the trail until I am down into the area of Caribou Lake. The trail has been snow free to this point, but wet off and on. Because this area is notoriously wet I have worn boots today. I rarely do this anymore choosing to do most of my hiking in Altra Lone Peak trail runners. Very light, very comfortable and quick on the tread. However, during my archery elk hunting trips last year my feet were wet for five days straight on two separate occasions, thus the need to go with waterproof footwear. Today is a trial run of the Gore-Tex boots, yes waterproof, but much heavier and very clunky.
As I move north of Caribou Lake I now head off trail through the swampy, grassy meadow area. I’m heading to a shortcut that the elk use that I discovered two years ago. However, there are still heavy snow fields here and I see that the elk have not used this route as of yet. We had very heavy snows in May and it has made it difficult for summer to fully shine through. Once I navigate my way to the bottom of the draw I see a set of elk tracks that seem rather large. They could be moose, but I think they are elk because the tracks go higher in the direction I am moving. The elk has left behind two large cloven hoof marks with dew claws dotting directly behind. It seems that maybe two elk moved through the area.
I know exactly the route the elk take and it also provides me with the easiest way to a little spot that rests higher above the dark timber. I note that quite a few trees have fallen since last fall as I pick my way up the mountain. As I come closer to an area that the elk “play” in during the warmer summer temperatures I slow my pace more out of habit than really expecting to see any elk in the area. As I peek out into a small meadow that is typically a bog in the summer I see that it is completely covered in snow and frozen over. There are two lines of tracks moving through the area, but it looks like one elk came and went and the tracks are frozen hard in the snow.
I pull my pack off my back and am glad to put the 18 pounder on the ground. It’s heavier than necessary but I was liberal with throwing things into it, so that I could get some light “training” with the heavier boots instead of the usual light trail runners and a running pack. I pull out a trail camera which operates on a motion sensor that I will place over the area. It will be a while before the elk frequent this area, but I want it in place so I don’t have to worry about it. Last summer, I had hundreds of images and video of elk playing in the swampy area, typically on rainy days.
The one drawback to this area is the distance required to get here. I’m now six miles from the car and it’s been a haul to get here; and that was taking a bushwhack shortcut. The advantage to it being so remote is that I rarely see anyone once I am off the trail. In fact, where I am at right now, I have never seen another human, which is why the elk like the area.
I get the camera set and having felt fatigued from the beginning of the hike I decide to begin to make my way back to the car. I drop off the mountain eventually gaining the Arapaho Creek trail. It still holds plenty of snow and there are a few old boot tracks on the trail. I pick my way along the trail climbing back up to Caribou Lake and meet my first person of the morning. We greet each other and I begin the hike back up to the Continental Divide.
It’s a nice walk back and I now encounter more hikers making their way in. Numerous folks ask me about trail conditions, how far I went and just what time did I start? I’m back at the car just before noon. Seven hours, 12 miles and time to get home and catch a well deserved afternoon nap before turning on the switch to give a massage this evening to a client. Business has been slow this year; not so great for paying bills but great for enjoying the mountains and beauty of Colorado! I’ll always enjoy the latter!