May was extremely frustrating. With my first 50-mile race looming less than a fortnight hence, May was supposed to be my big month of training; getting out every weekend into the high country, fine-tuning my body and logistical systems into an efficient running machine on 30 mile training runs at five-digit elevations. But I had toe surgery on the 1st of the month, then was out of commission for a week with a stomach bug and strong antibiotic which, combined, acted to rerout my colon through the fourth circle of hell. Just as that was clearing up, a bunch of chronic hip pain gave me that rolling gate seen on career mariners and made running particularly painful. Soon it became clear that the other shoe dropped and I was reminded that May, in Colorado, is a terrible month. While it's beautiful and sunny in the cities (and has been now for a month or two), the high country is very much still grappling with winter with not enough snow to ski on but too much for hiking. This winter in particular was rough with above-average snowfalls and lingering drifts, turning even the most modest runs into postholing fiestas of hurt.
Being the single-minded masochist that I am (not to mention scared silly about what 50 miles is going to feel like) I persevered through all these setbacks, getting in what mileage I could, fretting, and counting down the weeks.
T-7 Weeks: Lumpy Ridge LoopRecovering from toe surgery, I ran a nice loop around Lumpy Ridge in Estes Park with Fritjof, Mike, Louisa, and Eric. I've climbed at Lumpy a couple times now, but never been to Gem Lake or around the north side of the massif. It's a very nice loop and quite runnable. We took a quick detour up to see Bridal Veil Falls which was still partly frozen over. Despite the altitude (8-9 thousand feet), it felt pretty good except for the mile of deep snow slogging about 2/3rds of the way around. So far, so good.
After an impressive 2nd place finish in the Crazy Legs 10k, Eric is understandably tired on the steep trail near Gem Lake.
The Good: Running the CT 10 miles from Kenosha Pass.
The Bad: Postholing near Lost Gulch.
The Ugly: This is what postholing for miles through icy crust does to your legs.
Chris, Kari, and Stephanie at the Arestua Hut.
Descending from Guinn Mountain. Rollins Pass still has plenty of snow.
Freshly-built Picture Rock Trail. Note the especially large, hand-picked boulder we placed.
Eric on Fall River Road
The road isn't all that steep and, if it had been a few thousand feet lower, I could have run up it like a champ. As it was, we were reduced to a "spirited hiking pace" pretty much all the way. It was a spectacular day and the mountains really looked like spring was finally here. Perhaps my luck was turning! There were big cornices and some extensive snowfields, but a lot of the stuff above treeline was totally clear. At mile six, we encountered big drifts covering the road. Mostly they were hard enough to walk on... except where they weren't and we wallowed like hogs. We trudged up another three miles to the Alpine Visitor's Center where two bulldozers were working hard to clear the 12' of snow from the leeward face of the ridge.
After all the solitude, it was jarring to suddenly encounter bus-loads of tourists on Trail Ridge Road. We stood outside changing into windbreakers and had a very strange conversation with a lady straight off the bus.
The weather was gorgeous and conditions looked good, so we decided to try to climb Mt. Chapin, the first of the Mummy Range peaks, at the very least. It was mostly free of snow and our eyes teared up a bit at the idea of some nice tundra running. We trotted up the lowly Marmot Point (11,900') and started the steep descent to Chapin Pass. But it was not to be. Our way was blocked by a mile of trees and, while the alpine tundra was mostly dry, the trees hid copious, hip-deep snow which was rapidly softening in the bright sun. So much for good karma! After half a mile of this, realizing we'd need to do at least another mile to get there and back, we decided we didn't want it that much after all and bailed out down to the road. At least we got a nice seven miles of fast downhill back to the car and it was very nice to see the mountains up close in an almost-summery condition (sort of).
Still plenty of snow up at 11,700'
Story of my freakin' life!
The group grew to include ten people when all was said and done; all with different goals and none with any clear penchant for concrete plans. We met up in Manitou Springs on Sunday morning under gloomy skies. It turns out that Chris was the only one now planning on driving to the summit although a lot of people were going to run up and then hitch a ride with him back down. I still planned on running up as far as I felt like, then coming back down under my own power.
The ascent group all convened at the Barr Trail trailhead near the Cog Railway station. Instead of taking the three miles of switchbacking Barr Trail to (near) the top of Mount Manitou, we elected to run the Incline to the same place. Decades ago, a tourist railway ascended the slopes pulled by a cable. The cable and tracks are gone, but the railroad ties remain and are a very popular tourist test-peice. Gung-ho runners all, we tackled the Incline and quickly tempered our ambitions. I have climbed a lot of steep grades in my life, but this is by far the most unrelenting climb I've ever done short of certain snow couloirs. We climbed 2800-some railroad ties, gaining over 2000' in a mile of trail, at a grade of up to 68%. The exposure is pretty intense as you can see the entire way down from any given point and Manitou Springs starts to look very far below you very quickly.
Starting up the brutal Incline.
Pausing at the top of the Incline, we got a call from Chris; the road to the summit was closed due to snow and 60 mph winds. Even down here at 8500' it was starting to rain and the weather looked pretty bad. Plans were remixed on the fly with some people turning around to run a few more laps on the Incline (!) while others kept heading upward. I still planned to run up to Barr Camp about half-way up the mountain and just come back down with whoever wanted to join me.
About half kept going and we made good time up the relatively flat middle section of the trail. This is definitely the most runnable portion of the ascent, but, to my dismay, it felt a lot harder than it had last year. I'd really hoped for a significant fitness increase to go along with training at least twice as hard this season, but perhaps it was not to be. And it was really nice to be able to take my time, take pictures, and poke around. There were a lot of other runners and hikers out and everything became quite social. The higher we got, the better the weather became. By the time I got to Barr Camp (another place I'd never actually visited during the races), it was actively nice out and the summit could be seen above against a mostly clear sky.
Dispersion was happening with the faster runners (Eric and Pete) taking off ahead and the slower ones falling relatively behind. Kari and I ended up hiking together up to the A-Frame at 11,900' before deciding we'd had enough for the day. With only two weeks to go, I didn't want to overdo it. We gingerly set off down the trail, but were soon running down at a great pace. A mile down, we suddenly ran into Kristen and Stephanie headed up. Kari and Stephanie (who'd run Pikes the day before and was feeling mellow), headed down while I turned around and accompanied Kristen back up to the A-Frame. The weather wasn't quite as good this time with clouds shrouding the summit again and light graupel starting to fall. We started back down again. At the exact same spot, I ran into Chris coming up... so I turned around again and made my third trip to the A-Frame. I guess doing repeats at 11,000' is good training.
One of the views I missed on my previous ascents of Pikes.
Pete, Chris and Caroline hammering down the Barr Trail.
With no other runners from our cadre coming up, we made quick work of the descent. Eric, Caroline, and Pete had headed for the summit and Eric caught us on the way to Barr Camp. After an extended break at Barr, we pounded down the trail at a fantastic rate. While I'd felt that my conditioning on the way up was below what it was last year, I felt considerably better on the way down. Perhaps my endurance has improved in the 10 months since I ran Pikes Peak last. After six weeks of torpor and frustration, I was finally feeling really really good and hammered down the trail at some tremendous rate. I paused at the Incline turn-off and waited a few minutes for Chris who had meanwhile collected Pete and Caroline coming down from the Summit. We then all tore off on a break-neck, adrenaline-soaked, and entirely awesome hammer-fest down the W's, past the hikers and other runners, and whipping around one turn after another finally arriving at the trailhead with flames whipping around our ankles from the speed of our descent.
Despite the weather monkey-wrenches and the large, poorly-coordinated group with different speeds and goals, we all managed to reconvene at the trailhead almost simultaneously. Everyone had gotten in the workout he or she was looking for, more or less. And, ironically, the only person who had ended up running ladders high on the slopes of Pikes Peak was me, sworn enemy of trail repeats! Ah well.
The downside of this intensive training is that I am thoroughly burned out on this kind of intensive running. I realized that there are plenty of hobbies I've been neglecting--rock climbing, skiing, mountaineering--that I miss quite a lot. This spring was split equally between race training and baby preparation and it's gotten me quite a bit out of balance. The baby is going to irreversibly change things, but I'm definitely going to work on rebalancing my life after this. Balance is good... or so I'm told.