Archive for July, 2013

“I met an old man dying on a train
No more destination, no more pain
Well, he said ‘one thing before I graduate,
Never let your fear decide your fate
I say you kill your hero’s and fly’
Awol Nation

me in 2003 on my first 14er adventure on the side of Longs Peak, totally unprepared!

On March 3rd, 2007, one of my best friends, Jason, and I decided to try and climb as far up Long’s Peak as possible.  A year before I had started hiking the mountains around Boulder, and we decided it was time to start playing above treeline.  We were so ridiculously unprepared for March conditions in the alpine it wasn’t even funny.  We made it just shy of Chasm Junction before we turned back, but I was hooked.

At the time, I was an angry kid (and I am perfectly fine with referring to myself as a kid at that time).  I had a huge chip on my shoulder, and spent the majority of my time in an industrial band, screaming into microphones and creating the angriest, most discordant music I could in hopes that I would someday be a rock star ala Skinny Puppy or Ministry.  I was doing this as a way of dealing with all the wrongs I felt life had tossed my way.  I was also ready to stop being so angry, and so miserable.  I wanted to wipe that chip off my shoulder.  I wanted to find a way to be happy.

I had never been super active until a couple of years before because of the asthma and other medical issues I had grown up with.  I had also struggled for years with depression and eating issues, and blamed most of my own issues on other people or my circumstances as a kid.  The music industry was full of people, many of whom were, and continue to be, good friends, who struggled with similar issues, but that world was also one that led to dealing with them in less than healthy ways; many of which I had happily joined in on.  I had also reached a point where I wanted nothing more than to let go of all of that.  As I stood on the side of that mountain with Jason, looking out at the snow capped mountains, I knew how I was going to do that.  This place, these mountains were going to be my salvation.  I was going to let go of the fear that I had let rule my life, I was going to move forward.  These mountains were going to be the path, the way to that goal.

me back in 2003 on my first foray on a 14er on the side of longs peak

me back in 2003 on my first foray on a 14er on the side of longs peak

I spent the next 10 years doing just that.  As time went by, I became more and more fit, discovered climbing, yoga, found myself in amazing places all over the Americas, found my greatest passion, Mountain Running, and most importantly found a sense of inner peace.  I also met so many incredible people, many who became great friends, some were friends for a time, and then went their own way, most I still see, all of whom I consider some of the most incredible people I have shared time with in my life.

Needless to say, I have been somewhat hesitant to complete my 14er list.  I had finished the last of the ‘ranked’ 14ers in the summer of 2011, and had let myself float on that for a while, knowing I had just one more to finish my list, and I was honestly somewhat comfortable with that.  It had, for so long, felt like I would be finishing the last page of an amazing book that had defined the person I had become.  But when Jesse and I spontaneously planned this trip up North Maroon, the last on my list, it didn’t feel that way.  I was excited.  In the 2 years since I had climbed a difficult 14er I had discovered ultra and mountain running, so I knew that this would actually just be the last part of a beautiful transition into a broader world.  I invited a couple of close friends I thought might be able to get a Wednesday off to drive to Aspen with only a days notice, and prepared my gear for the trip up to the high country.

The Climb

Jesse and I drove up to Aspen after work on Tuesday and met Phil, after some confusion, at the overnight parking lot.  I managed to get to sleep around 1045pm, and was ready, and was excited for the morning.

We woke up at 5am, and took a little longer getting rolling then we expected, and were on the trail by 6am.  To be honest, I was all right with this since we had a fantastic forecast and it meant that the Bells were lit up in Alpen Glow as we started off.

Looking over at the peaks on the approach

Looking over at the peaks on the approach

The hike in was beautiful.  It was warm, and there was light cloud cover from the humidity, which was causing me to sweat an enormous amount on the early part of the hike, which also meant I was blowing through my 3 liters of water more rapidly than I would have preferred, but the views were amazing.  Once we crossed Minnehaha Creek and were happy to find a new, and much nicer trail up to the Rock Glacier than was previously there a couple of years prior.  Gone was the hard to follow trail, and now it was a well-defined trail of rocks to the upper basin.

We followed the cairns across the rocks, and before we knew it were traversing around the mountain, making our way to the first gully.  We took a quick break to put on our helmets and headed up.

The first gully flew by, and I was starting to wander what all the hype was about.  When we made our way to the second, I knew immediately what it was about.  We paused to get some water and take some photos before starting up this long steep, and very obviously loose gully.

Jesse as we worked out way up to the ridge in the upper part of the second gully

Jesse as we worked out way up to the ridge in the upper part of the second gully

We worked out way to the base of the gully and followed the cairns as they we worked our way up the slope, careful not to send any of the millions of loose rocks down the slope below.  Up to this point we had not seen any other climbers, which we saw as a blessing.  There was plenty of scrambling to be had as we moved higher and higher up.  As we neared the top, we caught sight of a couple of climbers descending off the ridge. Some clouds were moving in, so we checked in with the climber and his guide, who let us know the clouds were not looking too bad up top, and as we climbed our way up to the ridge, we saw how right they were.  There were lots of clouds, but nothing threatening.  The forecast was definitely holding true!

The chimney was definitely spicy.  Up to that point I had done a great job centering myself and shaking off the nerves that had been building as we moved higher and higher on the steep climb up the second gully.  The reality was, I had not climbed in the high country in almost 2 years, and it was showing in my nerves and confidence in my skills that I knew I just had to dig deep and pull out.

Phil led the climb, and I went up second.  As I reached into the narrow chimney and found the holds I planned to use, I felt my heart rate shoot up, I found footing and pulled myself up, but when it came time to move my hand hold to the next hold I froze.  I lowered myself back down with some amount of vulgarity.  I took some deep breaths, told myself that this was nothing in comparison to what I could do.  I reminded myself that this was nothing to the difficulty of other mental challenges I had faced in races and other climbs.  I reached up, took a breath and climbed into the chimney.

Jesse and Phil looking at the route ahead

Jesse and Phil looking at the route ahead

That first move was by far the worst.  Once up on the first small ledge in the chimney, I felt my confidence re-emerge and the last two moves, the last of which was far more exposed than the first, were surprisingly easy and much more fun because I had let go of the mental baggage and fear.

Once we were all up, we looked above and could see climbers on the summit not far off.  Some rain and grapple fell on us as we worked our way along the ridge to the summit, but had stopped by the time we topped out.

I could not have been happier to be there, on top of that mountain, with two of my close friends, and we hung out for quite chatting, watching some climbers work their way across the traverse and being happy to be where we were before heading out.

The descent seemed to go by slowly as we carefully worked our way down the chimney, as well as the second gully.  I kept the fact that we were not really done climbing until we were done descending in the forefront of my mind, but also descending with a confidence I hadn’t had on the way up.

Phil climbing the chimney and me at the bottom - photo by Jesse Benn

Phil climbing the chimney and me at the bottom – photo by Jesse Benn

When we arrived at the far side of the Rock Glacier, we chilled out for a while, filtering some of the ice cold water and enjoying the beautiful day.  When we got to the far side of the creek, and back to runnable trail, I found myself picking up the pace, excited to be so close to the trailhead and to know I had completed the tangible goal I had set for myself 10 years before on the side of Longs Peak.

Moreover, I feel like my other goals I have come a long way on as well, due to these amazing mountains we all love so much.  Climbing, and running in the mountains has taught me that the world we live in is larger than any one of us.  When we are in the mountains, we are in a world that will continue on without regard to our existence, but that fact can, and will give us a strength that is hard to find anywhere else.  As we run, hike, or climb through the mountains, I have found that we are in charge of our own destiny; that knowledge can make us better, and happier people when we are in the larger world.  In addition, while we all have to be responsible for ourselves, and have to be accountable for our own actions and choices; we are all reliant on the people around us as well.  When we are in a world that will not stop for us, we must be willing to rely on the kindness of not just our friends, but also total strangers at times.  That reliance on each other as we pursue our individual goals, makes us all stronger, happier, and more complete people.

I want to thank everyone who has been a part of my journey.  You all know who you are!  Now I am inserting some more photos of the trip!  Enjoy!

Left to right: Phil, me and Jesse on the Summit

Left to right: Phil, me and Jesse on the Summit

me as we started up the ridge propper
me as we started up the ridge propper

Jesse topping out on the Chimney

Jesse topping out on the Chimney

Phil climbing the upper ridge

Phil climbing the upper ridge

Me maneuvering around a corner on he ridge - Photo by Jesse Benn

Me maneuvering around a corner on he ridge – Photo by Jesse Benn

Phil and Jesse traversing away from the bottom out the second gully on the descent

Phil and Jesse traversing away from the bottom out the second gully on the descent

*I know I am posting this late, but better late than never!*

As Jenn and I drove out of the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico, I looked at my dash to see where the next turn was and caught a glimpse of the temperature outside the car, 89 degrees.  I looked at it dumbfounded for a moment, and then watched it steadily climb to 92 degrees as we travelled down the road.

Jemez 50k Race Gear

I had been looking forward to this race for quite a while now.  It would be my first ultra since RR100 in February, and after running Fea

r the Deer Half Marathon in Denver two weeks earlier, I was feeling really good about this one.  The Jemez Mountain Trail Races have a special reputation of being the training ground for aspiring Hard Rock 100 runners.

With roughly 7000ft of total elevation gain and loss, as well as steep, unrelenting and very technical trails, this 50k was not one to be at all underestimated, and the heat would only add to the challenge.  My girlfriend, Jenn, would also be running the half marathon, along with our good friend Heather, and realizing how hot it was going to probably be prompted us to begin planning for the worst case heat scenario.  Since Jenn is reasonably new to trail running, I felt some responsibility for her being out in what looked like it might end up a repeat of the conditions we had for JJ100, only with super technical trails.

For a good part of the remainder of the night we talked strategy, and packed I made sure she had enough Saltstik Caps, which we had luckily stocked up on at Runner’s Roost in Colorado the day before we headed out.

The prerace pasta dinner (which was happily included in our race fees), was nice, and was an opportunity to get one last update on the course, as well as meet up with Heather, her husband Darrin and their kids.  After the long drive, my brain was not really functional, and I did my best to get myself focused for the race ahead so after a quick shopping trip we hit the hotel room, and I went into my normal pre-race routine.

Since Jenn was worried about her race, I gave her the smaller mala bead bracelet I wear, and pulled out the larger set of beads I keep in my messenger bag.  I decided I really, more than anything, needed to have something I could look at throughout the race to remind me of the mantra that I swore I would use in hard races to keep myself going (and went into at length in a previous entry), “My mind is empty and my body is as vast and as expansive as the sky”.  Then as I prepped, my mind also went to another mantra that a man Jenn and I had met at Mt. Everest Imports in Downtown Denver gave me to use when races got hard. I had used this in my meditation practice, and yoga, so I knew it would be an easy mantra to bring my mind back to focus mid race and remind me of why I was out there in the first place so I pulled out a bright red Sharpe and proceeded to draw the Sanskrit syllable Om on the inside of my right arm, as this would remind me of the two mantra’s, as well as bring my back to the purpose of these races for me.

Roost runners at Jemez before the race

Roost runners at Jemez before the race

I went to sleep ready to run, ready to give this race my all, and to have fun along the way.

When I woke in the morning, I quietly got my things together since Jenn had wisely decided to take advantage of a couple extra hours of precious sleep before her race.  I pulled my stuff together and headed out.

I got a great parking spot near the Posse Shack at the race start/finish.  Everything was very well organized, checking in and dropping off drop bags was super straightforward, and the race even set up porta-potties that were gender specific which made the lines go really fast.

I found my fellow Roost teammates, we took a photo and before we knew it we were off.

The Race

I honestly had few expectations in regards to the course other than it would be hard.  Running through stables certainly made the first quarter mile, well, fragrant… but before we knew it the course made a hard left, and was headed down into the canyon on really nice trails that had some technical moments that would foreshadow what was to come.

I was excited, and feeling good until a mile in when I felt my left quad start to throb.  In my head I told myself this was probably nothing, and that it was not worth letting this get in my head.  Dan Archuletta and I ran together briefly, but we were both running our own races and we parted ways about 3 miles in.  Despite the first section between the start and Mitchell Aid Station at mile 4-ish having 900 ft of elevation gain, I kept a solid pace and felt pretty good.  I was also doing a good job with keeping my mind off my quad, which was not getting any better, but I kept plugging away.

the start of the race with Dan A. right in front of me

the start of the race with Dan A. right in front of me

Right after the first aid station I found some other runners to chat with as we descended into and climbed back out of canyon’s as we worked our way around the base of the mountain.  As we climbed out of the last steep gorge, I decided it was time to think carefully about hills before I tried running up them and since I had rolled my right ankle heading down into it, I really wanted to my head on what I was doing.  I paid less attention to whether other runners were pulling ahead or not and stayed focused on my race.

I found another runner, who I would start referring to as “Golden” (since she said she was from Golden, Colorado) right before the second aid station.  When we came into Camp May Aid Station I could not have been happier.  I knew that the second worst section of climbing was done.  Between the Mitchell Aid Station and Camp May was 1500ft of climbing, which meant we were ready for the big climb up Pajarito Mountain ski area.  This meant only one BIG climb was left, and I was actually feeling jazzed, as I was not feeling too bad.  I had managed to pull my focus away from the soreness in my left quad, and my right ankle

The Camp May aid station was fantastic, well stocked, and they even had a portable shower that they had set up to let runners dump water on their heads before heading out.

This was a huge bonus that I made certain to use before heading out as the heat was settling in.

It was time to settle into the long climb.  Myself and Golden hung together for a large portion of the climb, which started out as a subtle uphill.  Initially, I wandered what the hype of this section was as we worked our way up towards the base of the ski lift.  Then the real climbing began.  After a few switchbacks we connected to a mountain bike trail that, with pretty minimal switchbacks went straight up the hill.

I quickly regretted not carrying my trekking poles, and knew they would have made a huge difference here.  A runner ahead of me (soon to be called Florida), had picked up a stick, which I quickly mimicked, and made a huge difference in balancing the exertion on my hamstrings and quads, which I wanted to save for the long descent in my hopefully not too distant future.  I was also running low on water and hoping the aid station wasn’t too far away as I started rationing.  As I climbed higher and higher, I reminded myself of the mantra.  Now that I had a stick in my hand, and my eyes were down, they fell squarely on my forearm where I had drawn the symbol ‘Om’, I started chanting mantra quietly to myself.  As we topped out near the ski patrol hut, I saw Prayer Flags and I suddenly had a centered hippy moment!  The initial gentle downhill was a great section to run, then it turned down the black diamond ski run.  Straight down…

Looking Over Los Alamos, where we started, and the climbing isnt half over yet!

Looking Over Los Alamos, where we started, and the climbing isnt half over yet!

I really underestimated this section and ran straight down it.  Near the bottom that left quad that had been talking to me the whole race, it started screaming.  I was also out of water and with the heat, was getting very thirsty.  The single track trail we turned onto would have normally been a blast for me, but with my quad, I just couldn’t get my left leg up high enough without real pain to feel confident in my ability to dodge the many rocks and obstacles on the trail.    I reminded myself that aid would be coming up soon, I would get water, and things would get better.

As we came out of the trees, and saw the Ski Lodge ahead, my heart soared.  I needed water pretty badly, and the biggest bonus, Rachael and Heather were still there.  They helped me get some coke, my stuff from my drop bag, gave me huge smiles and I was off!  Having them there was fantastic,  and the boost was immeasurable.  They kept me from spending way too much time there, and having smiling faces you know at any aid station is always a boost.

I headed out on another uphill, which would normally be runnable, but my quad was now really not cooperating.  The section between Ski Lodge and Pipeline was mostly up, and the down was the first notice that this quad issue was not going away.  Despite this, I was determined to stay positive.  At the last major uphill for a long time  (described as a couple bumps by Aid Station Staff, which was a beautiful was to minimize to keep runners positive), I pulled out my ipod, and focused.  Once I got to the top, I thought to myself how much downhill I had to go.  I was, for the first time in my trail running career, dreading the long technical down I knew I had ahead, but centered myself and went.

The trail was rocky, and I had not tightened my shoes, which led to me pounding my toes into the front of my toebox for the first quarter mile, then, in my sloppiness, my left foot missed a rock, my left big toe jammed into the front of my shoe and I could feel my toenail lift.  I pulled the pain back inside, stopped and tightened my shoes.  I wanted to take it off to assess the damage, but knew better, and kept going.  At one point, Florida passed me along with one of her friends, and was nice enough to give me a Tylenol, which I had forgotten at home.  Thanks Florida!

I called this 'the wastelands' after a while, the heat was brutal as we continued across to the canyon before 'Last Chance Aid Station

I called this ‘the wastelands’ after a while, the heat was brutal as we continued across to the canyon before ‘Last Chance Aid Station

The remaining run between that point and the Last Chance Aid Station was dusty, very hot, and technical.  I was now also feeling very timid about doing anymore damage, so I was running this technical trail very slowly.  I was averaging 12-13 minuet miles on this downhill, which for me on this type of terrain is very slow.  This is normally where I feel at home, but I was focused on keeping moving.

As we dropped into the canyon leading to the last chance aid station, the heat settled in a whole new way since it was blocking all of the breeze, but the signs the aid station staff put out were not only funny, but encouraging.

When I got there, I found that the rumors of beer were not only true, but they had homebrew one of the volunteers made.  Not only was it good home brew, it was amazing home brew, and I made sure to drink enough to mellow the soreness.  I was now determined to pass anyone I saw.  I knew we had some uphills left, but this type of friendly competition always keeps me going in hard races.  I started bringing runners into sight, and reeled them in, running as many ups as possible to do so.

Eventually I caught up to Florida and her friend, and we had a fun back and forth for the remaining mile and a half.  We were now on the trail we had gone out on, so the fun rocky gully up to the end was not really a surprise, and made me chuckle as I thought to myself this must be the Race Directors opportunity to remind us of what we had done already at the very end.  My friend Darrin was at the top taking some photos, and cheering me on.  Happily, we did not have to go back through the stables, and before I knew it, I was done.

the last climb out of the canyon right before the finish - Photo by Darrin Coffman

the last climb out of the canyon right before the finish – Photo by Darrin Coffman

I have to admit, this was a really tough race, for a lot of reasons.  That being said, it was an incredibly well run race, with fantastic volunteers and great aid stations.  This is a race I would do again, and think I would do better knowing what to expect.  The best part, I achieved my goal of running this very tough race without ever letting myself go down the road of negativity.  That was an important goal at this race for me. Ironically, this race, though tough, at least as tough as Dirty 30 in Colorado, really was the most confidence building race I have had this year.  After some of my struggles early in the year at Houston Marathon and Rocky Raccoon, I needed to remember why I love running ultra’s so much and this race did that!  I should also say that Jenn and Heather did amazing in their half marathons.  This was their first real mountain trail race and they kicked butt!

The drive back was a beautiful tour through Southern Colorado and New Mexico, and I have to say if I run this race again, I will drive again.  Jenn and I hit the Great Sand Dunes National Park ad the Stupa in Crestone, Colorado then got to drive through the Colorado Mountains all the way back home.  Life is good.

I want to put out one last thank you to my friends who were out there cheering me, and the other runners on, especially Darrin at the end and Rachael and Heather at Ski Lodge.  It was totally unexpected, and was the biggest boost in the world.  Thank you so much!!!

Jenn and Heather after kicking butt in the Half Marathon

Jenn and Heather after kicking butt in the Half Marathon