As the new year approached, I knew I wanted to start the year up in thin air. I had freshly acquired a zero degree sleeping bag that needed to be broken in; my urge to be in the mountains remains regardless of the how minuscule the temperature is. A drive to Breckenridge for a day of skiing doubled as an opportunity to summit Quandary, and I decided to take it. After a day of taking lifts to the top, and skiing down, I drove to the Quandary trailhead to switch it up in the morning; hike up, run down.
I arrived about 7:30pm after finally finding a gas station that hesitantly agreed to let me bum a refill of my 3 gallon water jug- an act which I had received some peculiar looks for. Later, as I stood in the trailhead parking lot, dividing the water up into bottles, I chatted with a couple of skiiers who had just returned from the summit. Conditions sounded to be good, as reported online, though the clear night sky would surely be dropping the temperature.
I laid out a sleeping pad, blanket, and bag across my trunk in anticipation of a cold night, and tried to fall asleep much earlier than normal. All night long, it was either me sweating, or the water bottles I was sleeping with… but never at the same time. I started off abnormally warm and layered down to get comfortable. Then around midnight, I was too cold and layered back up, while at the same time my water bottles began sweating. Either I kept them to the side in my sleeping bag and tried not to touch them, or I would have no liquid water. It was an uncomfortable night trying to find creative sleeping positions inside of a mummy bag while my breath crystallized to every surface of my vehicle.
At 5am I woke up with windows completely frosted over; even the interior plastics had frost on them. I was happy to see my water was still liquid. With it, I washed down an icy Clif bar and rock solid cranberries for breakfast. I added some Tailwind mix to my water, and a pinch of salt to aid in keeping the water from freezing on my trip to the summit.
With this being my first dead-of-winter 14er attempt, I was indecisive about what to pack/wear for layering. I’m one to normally opt for light-and-fast pack preferences, so I went through the options what seemed like a hundred times. I’d be wearing the Altra Neoshell trail shoes and some mid-high gaiters, a choice many times lighter than boots. What benefit I gain from weight, I lose in warmth with that option, so I wore two pairs of wool socks, one medium and one light weight. I used similar strategy with tights, wearing an ultralight pair underneath my medium weight Goretex tights. On top, I had a LS compression, LS quarter zip, and puffy jacket. I packed along my Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket and snow pants… just in case the weather got away.
After checking that I had my keys a dozen times (I locked them in the Jeep a few weeks ago with the engine on… it’s an expensive lesson you don’t forget) I shut the door, turned on my headlamp, and wandered into the forest. I couldn’t get over how many stars were out that morning, compared to the lackluster metro Denver area sky. I stopped at the trailhead sign, and on the ground beside it, traced “Yonke 5:30am 1/2/17” into the snow with my shoes. Passing the Quandary Peak: East Ridge sign, I felt a tranquility come over me. I was right where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I love to do; following a headlamp-lit trail into the sky while the rest of the world is still.
I switchbacked my way through the forest as the sky shone through the towering evergreens around me. I quickly realized I had made the terrible winter mountaineering mistake of layering too warm. I dressed down to just my compression top, and shed my goretex tights. I paused for a couple of minutes to let my temperature catch up with me, and continued upward. Within minutes, I was heating up again and could feel sweat cooling my legs. I then became that guy standing in the forest with just my drawers on. Finally, after slowing down a bit and getting my layers right, I stopped perspiring and gradually layered back into a comfortable-cool.
As I emerged from treeline, I could see the silhouette of Mt. Silverheels and the surrounding range behind me. The range was a black outline on a dull purple canvas, changing its hue with each passing moment. Light “phantom” snow streaked through my headlamp beam, even with a sky void of clouds.
I topped out the false summit and continued on toward the saddle, where the trail turned to wind blown rock as a result of the consistent wind. The slope ahead of me started to glow a dull red. Behind, the sun was just about to rise in a fiery lightshow. Looking toward the sunrise and down the mountain, the only contrast I saw against the snow were the trees below. Nothing else moved. I was the only person on the mountain, an increasingly rare claim, especially on mountains more proximate to municipalities. Even the Quandary goats were residing elsewhere; having decided to give up their post as king of the hill.
The skies were clear until about ten minutes past sunrise when the snow rolled in. The hastily moving clouds shot right over the summit, enshrouding it in a grey mass. The wind picked up noticeably, and was picking up little bits of the snow pack with it. I was quickly reminded I had lowered the mask of my balaclava earlier. The blowing snow stung my bare skin and I pulled the mask up to cover back up again.
The path to the top remained defined and packed the whole way to the top, with minimal snow coverage and visible cairns for the likely-unnecessary reassurance. I gained elevation with relative ease. Microspikes were not necessary, but they provided just enough additional traction to move with a bit more of a powerful step.
In the final hundred feet, I was fully in the clouds. The snow system was still moving fast over the peak, and bringing the wind along with it. I tagged the top and had a look at what little there was to see. The Tenmile range continued in its jagged manner toward Breckenridge, disappearing a couple hundred yards out. It was near identical views as my last summit here about two months prior- limited sight, foggy/cloudy, and colder than average. I turned and walked the frosted, wind blown rocks of the summit back to the snow packed slope and began my descent.
Coming down, the clouds gave way to a bit a clarity, and the sun shone through in streaks for a few minutes. I didn’t see anybody else until about a mile before the trailhead- a couple of hikers snowshoeing their way upward. We exchanged a few words on trail condition as I tried to break up the ice in my water bottles to no avail. I chewed on a chucky, ice-shardy mouthful of Tailwind as we parted ways, looking forward to finding some liquid water back at my vehicle.
The trail from treeline was straightforward, and again I layered down once out of the wind. Turning around and looking up, the summit was still in the clouds, hiding in its mystery, while snow fell gently in partial sun here. I emerged from the trail not long after, erasing my “sign in” from the snow on my way out. The weather had generally cooperated, with its moments of wind and cold.
I chugged down some frigid, but liquid water back at my Jeep at the expense of a moment of brain freeze. I sat on the rear bumper, steam coming from my body, staring back up at the summit. Beside me, I Jetboiled some instant coffee to keep starting the day right (ha). Despite the almost sleepless night and undeniable cold, all was good. I wouldn’t want it any other way than to experience sunrise on a silent mountain. I’ll look forward to next time; maybe the goats will decide to rendezvous too.
(Are you racing this? Check out the tips/thoughts at the bottom of the page)
Now that I am back to “civilization”, have slept, and am air conditioned, I am probably obliged to tell the story of the Javelina Jundred experience. Truth be told, I took not a single picture of my own this weekend once the race had started. I’ve started to track down and receive some from third parties that were on the course, but I think the story can be told even better through other mediums; the laughs, emotions, and support that perpetuated the race. And so it begins…
-Pre Race Shenanigans-
Kaitlyn, Jeremy, Anna, Kim, and I all flew out of Denver to Phoenix on Thursday morning, same flight, by design. Sara joined on Friday, having flown in just in time to make it to the race expo with the rest of us. Kim, Jeremy, and I were all running the race; the others were playing the part of world’s best pace/crew squad.
After the race expo that evening, we all went to spectate the Javelina Jundred beer mile. In this event, the participants drink a beer, run a quarter mile, and repeat the set until a mile is achieved. Anna, in classic fashion, won the women’s side of the race, then went on to run seven more miles with Kaitlyn and Sara.
In the meantime, Jeremy, Kim, and I went back to Kim’s hotel room and abused the ice machine across the hall, filling the bathtub with two separate ice machine’s-worth of ice. This was my idea, since I was feeling the heat of the 100-degree Arizona sun, and my legs were getting pre-race nerves. Jeremy and I took turns sharing the misery of probably the coldest ice bath ever, while laughing at each other as we screamed as our legs turned fire-red from the frigid water. Oh, but it felt so good after the fact.
Per normal, I sniffed out the local Little Caesars, and Kaitlyn and I thought it an appropriate carboloading dinner.
I woke on my own due to pre-race nerves at about 2am, and failed to fall asleep again before the alarm went off at 3am. I spent my time strategizing how I might react to different situations of the race, noting that the weather report was claiming a possible record high around 3pm. I felt mentally prepared for the race, having done multiple heat training sessions in the past few weeks. This entailed going for long runs in the mid day heat with wind proof tights, and multiple winter jackets on in order to mimic the desert heat while training in Denver. I had also done dozens and dozens of loops on a 1.9 mile loop across from my place in the past month to get my mind ready for the redundancy of a loop course. I felt pretty good about the upcoming day- not a hard task while laying in bed with a gentle breeze coming though the window.
Kaitlyn and I left the house around 4am and drove out to McDowell Mountain Park to get the day moving. Before long, I was standing at the start line with some 600 other runners. A clock hung above us all, with 05:59:30 on it, rapidly counting the seconds upward. “Ladies and gentlemen, lets give these runners a count down to start the race! Nine, eight, seven…” I looked up at the clock, and smiled. Here I was, doing what I love so much to do. I felt the energy of the crown pump through my veins. “Three. Two. Go!”
Hundreds of headlamps illuminated the dark as the sky began to turn faintly pink over the mountain range far ahead of us. I went out pretty hard the first half mile, ensuring not to be bottlenecked where the parking lot became single track. I looked back to see the line of lights in follow. It was an inspiring sight.
I settled in to a 8:00/mi pace, feeling comfortable on the course before the sun unleashed its fury. I reached the first aid station, Coyote Camp, and grabbed my first of many rounds of PBJ sandwiches for the day. The trail started a very gradual uphill at this point; one of those uphills you don’t realize exists until you get annoyed that your pace has steadily dropped against your perceived effort.
I arrived to Jackass Junction another six miles later. This aid station is especially unique, in that it is very much in the middle of nowhere in the desert, and has its own dance party raging through the whole day. Everybody volunteering was in Halloween costumes as well. This is the halfway point of the race. From here, it is all downhill, with about 1,500ft of loss back to the finish/lap point.
I took off for the next aid station, winding down a two track road. After about ten minutes, I realized that I hadn’t seen any course markings in quite some time. Usually there is always a marker visible on the course in the form of a piece of ribbon tied to a rock or tree. I stopped and looked around, not seeing one in any direction. At that moment, about four or five trucks appeared from around the corner. I ran up to them, seeing the Aravaipa Running logo slapped on the side of the door. “Is this the course?!” I asked. “Nope. You’ve got to head back to Jackass and hang a sharp left at the fork.”
The fork!? I had totally missed it. I was pretty annoyed with myself, and gunned my way back the mile or so I had gone off track. I saw where I had missed the course; to the untrained eye, the desert itself doesn’t look a whole lot different than single track running through it.
Once back on the course, I spent half an hour or so convincing myself that losing twenty minutes or so was not going to have an effect on the next 90 miles ahead of me, and to calm my pace down.
Back at Jeadquarters, I tossed my bottles to Kaitlyn and went to check in for the lap. I changed out my loose shirt to a compression shirt since it held ice much better. I tucked in the shirt, and dumped ice down it, which kept my stomach and back nice and chilled. Similarly, I put on my Ultimate Direction SJ pack, with every pocket filled to the max with ice. Ice in the hat and sleeves as well… everywhere.
I was off for lap two. The temperature was nearing 80 at this point- tolerable, but not about to get any cooler. Each lap is just a reversal of the previous, so I began the gentle, runnable climb back to Jackass Junction. I not far into this lap, near mile 24, I was getting really sore, feeling sleepy, and getting demotivated. I made every excuse possible to walk everything, not realizing I was actually just bonking really hard. In my first lap, I had drank just water and ate only PBJs, not taking in any salt. Once I realized this, I opened up my pack to find my bag of salt pills, and downed three or four of them, as well as an energy shot.
I checked into lap three, and again loaded up on ice before heading out. I was expecting for this to be the most mentally demanding lap of the day, with the heat to reach its peak. By the time I reached Coyote Camp just 4 miles later, I had downed 40oz of water, depleting my bottles, and had melted all of the ice in my pack. I was amazed, and admittedly a bit frightened that there was still an hour before the sun peaked. I filled one of my bottles at the aid station and downed all of it, refilling it once again. I had multiple salt covered potatoes, and ate watermelon like nobody’s business. I refilled everything with ice again, and went with only water and ice in the bottles.
About halfway through the six mile stretch to Jackass Junction, I saw Jeremy for the first time that day. He was looking strong as I spotted him rounding the corner and descending toward be. “Ayyyyyye!! What’s going on man!? How do you feel?” I asked. His reply was straightforward and agreeable. “It’s hot.” The only response I could think to say in that rocky, barren landscape, completely absent of shade, was “Welcome to Hell.” I gave him hug and a quick congrats before we parted ways, wishing each other the best.
As I trudged up the rocky hill, I finally started to feel the heat. I looked down at my watch to see it reading 98 degrees, which, assuming accuracy, had broken the day’s all time high by four degrees. I doused my hat and sleeves with ice water from my bottles, which were half empty just a mile from the last aid station. It felt like I had my face against a space heater. The heat was so dry and intense. I could feel it as I would breathe, and began to keep ice in my mouth to try to cool down the air before it entered my lungs. Whether it was a beneficial, I don’t know, but if it wasn’t, it had a strong placebo effect.
I made it back to Jackass Junctionand took down as much salted watermelon as I could. Again, ice on/in everything, and I took advantage of the bucket of ice water/sponges to thoroughly soak myself again. I definitely felt a benefit from having ice sitting around my waist/tucked in shirt on this lap. I melted through that in about 15 minutes, and started taking ice from my pack to stuff down my shirt. The light gloves were a notable benefit as well; I kept them soaked and chilly by just patting them against my shirt, which was of course soaked from the ice. I was very happy that the ice strategy was working so well.
Back at Jeadquarters, I swapped out my Altra Lone Peaks for a fresh dry pair, and put on another pair of socks. I took off my desert hat and gloves for this lap, thankful that the sun was quickly setting and yielding some relief form the treacherous heat. I loosened my sleeves and wore them around my wrists, but still kept them soaked.
I felt amazing going into this fourth lap. I personally disliked the counterclockwise laps, preferring the opposite. I took advantage of my surge of energy and good mood to push a bit harder up the gradual 10 miles up to Jackass Junction. I had picked up my phone for this lap, and got some music going to add to the good vibes. I was singing out loud along to Metallica’s Enter Sandman as I ran and passed people coming from the opposite direction. “We’re off to never-never laaa—“ I took a huge breath of dusty air and choked so hard that I nearly threw up. I’m sure the whole situation looked ridiculous to the other runners. I took a drink of water to wash down the dust, laughed at myself, and went back to my momentary stint as a rockstar.
I made it to Jackass much quicker than expected on this lap. I grabbed some Huma Gels from my drop bag, which seemed to be working excellently the past couple of hours… of course, had typical ice water and salt as well.
I got out of there really fast, and was feeling amazing. I ran into Myke Hermsmeyer, who was working his photographic magic shortly after the aid station. I had last seen him at my (only, thankfully) low point of the day during lap two. In my euphoric runners high, I yelled out “Myke!! It’s rally time!! Woo!” and thrashed through the desert, looking absolutely ridiculous in the process.
Gosh, I felt so good. I knew there was 50k left in the race, the sun was almost down, and it was almost headlamp time. I’m a strong night runner, so I couldn’t wait to get fully in my element. “I’m Gonna Do My Thing” by The Royal Deluxe came on (check out this video. It’s the background music. you’ll understand the vibe.) and sent a surge of adrenaline through me. I let out a resounding “Yeeaaaauuhhhh!!!” as I disappeared into the dark.
I hit Coyote Camp in what felt like minutes. I shouted at Siri (iPhone) to text Kaitlyn that I’m coming in hot and will see her in a few miles. She was going to be pacing me for the final lap. My only request for her was another energy shot and some more Huma Gels. She assured me they were ready to go.
I came around the base of a shallow mountain and could see Jeadquarters straight ahead. I entered the crew area, which was packed full of hundreds of people crewing, pacing, partying, and spectating at this point. I spotted Kaitlyn and threw my bag and bottles to her to prep while I checked in a the lap point. I stopped real quick to chug some Pedialyte, just to be sure of my electrolyte levels before heading into this final lap. (Bleh. My tastebuds were tired of anything that was sweet.) Kaitlyn put my bottles onto my hands as I tried to stuff an entire PBJ in my mouth, and, spitting it all over, mumbled/yelled “lehhffs guuhh!” (“Let’s go”, with a mouth full of food).
We were out. I was stoked to be heading in the clockwise direction, my preferred of the two. With 80 miles down, I was still feeling good mentally and physically. We tried to keep the pace around 10 minute miles heading up the gradual hill for the first half of the lap. I power hiked the hills to save my legs for the last half.
We got back to coyote camp again in what felt like minutes. I came in totally focused on running, and had no idea what I wanted. Ice sounded great, so I grabbed some from the cooler with my hands. Apparently this is frowned upon, and I got a quick tongue lashing for it. Whatever. My mind was 85 miles worth of exhausted and ice is at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. It’s not that I wanted it. I needed it, and at that time, I knew nothing else.
I crunched on the ice, grabbed my bottles from Kaitlyn, and we headed out. Even though it was completely dark, it was still very warm. I continued to douse myself with water as we navigated the rolling uphill grade. About halfway between aid stations, I ran out of water. I got pretty moody at that point. Even though I could snag some sips from Kaitlyn’s bottles, it wasn’t a fun headspace to be in. That, and my tastebuds were not happy about the sports drink that she had in her bottles. It more or less felt like it was burning my mouth due to the constant intake of sugary carbs and grains throughout the day.
Jackass Junction sits in a little bowl in the hills, so it isn’t visible until you are right on top of it. This is a blessing an a curse, depending on what time point of the race you are at. At the time, I just wanted water. I scanned the horizon constantly, but knew I wasn’t going to see anything. Then, I heard it. The low humming of speakers cranking out some bass-heavy music. That was, without a doubt, Jackass Junction after dark. “Kaitlyn, ‘ya hear that?! Let’s go!”
We picked up the pace, and just around the corner found ourselves at the aid station. It was in full party mode there, with dancing, music, strobe lights, loud cheering, and a crop-top/bathing suit costume theme going amongst the majority of the volunteers. I swapped out to fresh socks, feeling slightly bad for Kaitlyn having to touch my current pair. God knows what was lurking in those things. I left them in my drop bag (which i wound up forgetting, sorry Jamil (race director), especially if you do another mystery drop bag challenge)
I yelled out a thank you to all the volunteers and partiers as we left, with bittersweet feelings that I wouldn’t be returning again (this year).
And we ran. Did we ever run. “Kaitlyn, five point seven miles to Rattlesnake, three point seven more to JQ. Let’s finish this!” I could feel some gnarly blisters on my feet, and definitely one wrapping between my toes. I immediately decided I didn’t care. Awolnation’s “Run” came on the playlist, which was perfectly fitting. Kaitlyn’s voice could be heard over the music, announcing to other runners that we were passing. There was so much support that came from these runners, cheering us on the whole way down the gradual descent to JQ. If you are reading this, you were awesome, and your cheers did not go unnoticed. What a huge mental boost!
I could see the glow of the day’s very last aid station about a mile ahead. Before I knew it, we crossed the road. I grabbed some salt, and almost forgot to pick my bottles up in my excitement. I’m glad I turned around, because I also would have missed Jeremy, who was also fueling back up at the aid station. He looked good, and I was so glad to see him still on his feet. We wished each other the best, and I headed out.
I shattered the night silence with a long, loud “WOOO!” as we passed the sign that read “Jeadquarters- 3.7 Miles”. I dropped the hammer. I was able to kick the pace down to 7:50, completely ignorant of what my burning legs, swollen feet, and ballooning blisters tried to tell me. I turned my headlamp up to what I call “bear melting mode”, which pitches over 900 lumens across about 200 yards (This nickname came to life back in 2015’s Cloudsplitter 100, when I needed mental reassurance that I had some kind of defense while running through one of the eastern US’s most bear-dense areas) shameless plug to Fenix Headlamps).
The cheers continued from each runner we passed by, and we spotted Kim about two miles from into her lap. Again, I was so glad to see that our whole crew was still in the race. My body had the adrenaline shivers, as I realized that I had ONE.9 miles left. At this same moment, from behind the silhouette of the mountain to my right, I could see glowing dust rising into the sky, with a few light towers jutting into the sky. Jeadquarters.
I took a couple more mouthfuls of water and sprayed a bit on myself, then emptied the rest to the dust beneath me. Kaitlyn let me take the lead, and being the boss that she is, followed right behind as I opened the throttle. We went down and out of a couple of washes. This landmark was a point I had memorized throughout the race that I was just around the corner from Jeadquarters. I slowed my pace drastically here, and as kaitlyn passed me, I shouted “Hey! Hold up. Come back here.” I gave her a big hug and thanked her for all the support. Beneath the clear, star scattered sky, we looked up at the light tower that marked where the trail met the Headquarters parking lot. “Go get it.”
I rounded the corner into the light, and could see all the tents and crowds ahead. They cheered. I cheered back. I crossed through the gate. I looked at my watch. I felt like I was at a dead sprint, riding a cloud of adrenaline. Sure enough, at a 6:00 pace, my body decided it had enough left for one last go. As I passed through the tent area, I crossed through dozens of slivers of light coming from between tents, each one revealing the finish line on the other side of the oval-shaped finish chute getting closer and closer.
And there it was. My throat hurt as bad as my legs from the incessant from the cheer I’d been letting out since practically three miles ago. I could hardly believe I was staring down the finish line just feet above me. At 6AM, I was standing here, looking up at the clock, smiling. Here I was again, at 11:17pm, doing the same, but running at a pace I had no clue how I could possibly be doing.
With both fists in the air, I crossed that line. I can’t even begin to count all the emotions I felt. Joy. Happiness. Relief. Pain. Gratefulness. It was incredible. It came and went like a blur. I could hardly believe the clock reading 17h:17mm, let alone the 4th place finish. I was presented with the belt buckle by one of the volunteers. I told her “before I take this, I want you to know that I am sweaty and gross, but you are amazing and deserve a hug” she laughed and I hugged her with a “thank you for all that you volunteers have done” before taking the buckle. I followed with the same for Kaitlyn, who had kicked my ass for the past three hours or so, just as she had promised she would.
I looked at my watch, which read 99.9 miles. I went out for a lap around the finish aid station just to fit 100 miles into one file. When I returned to the timing tent, Kaitlyn had the brilliant idea that I should take a seat and get some rest. After a moment of consideration, I agreed.
I laid down (read: happily collapsed) on a sleeping bag at our crew station. Sara got me a couple of pieces of pizza (thank you Freak Brothers Pizza for catering the event!) which tasted amazing. Kaitlyn pulled my shoes and socks off (eww) and we purged my blisters (fun, and eww). I was still really warm, so I covered up in a few bags of ice while Kaitlyn took a roller stick to my legs. She made me force down the rest of the bottle of Pedialyte just to be safe.
We stole Kim’s hotel door key, which was just a five minute drive away. The quarter mile walk to the car took 45 minutes- Kaitlyn timed it. At the hotel I took a shower which kindly revealed every place I chafed. I promptly went to bed after. I got almost no sleep because I was just as hungry as I was sore. We decided to “wake up” at about 3:30 to go to the grocery store, which was of course closed, as well as every fast food joint in town. We took a nap in the grocery store lot until they opened at 5.
We wound up getting some food there, and six burritos from McDonalds before heading back to watch for Jeremy and Kim’s finish. I watched the fiery sunrise over the mountains again, and fell asleep for a couple of hours in my sleeping bag on the dirt.
We spotted Jeremy coming through the desert just before 9am (I think). He had tears of happiness on his face as he ran toward the finish line of his first 100 mile race. I was so proud of him for fighting through the heat and the miles, not to mention the night. I could tell he was too.
Kim followed just 20 minutes behind, and again, we gathered the whole crew to cheer her in. She finished her third 100 mile in an incredible effort, and again, I was amazed at the job well done.
All in all, this was easily one of the best races I have done, and organized at a level near perfection. There was constant support from spectators, volunteers, and other runners on the course. The festive, positive atmosphere made it easy(er) to get in and our of aid stations quickly, which, of course, were stocked full of all kinds of food. I look forward to doing this race again in the future. My congrats go out to all the finishers and volunteers who persevered through the heat and the miles, and achieved the incredible.
I extend a thanks to Kaitlyn, Sara, Anna for putting up with us runners over the weekend. Also to Altra Running and Ultimate Direction for the support, as well as all the friends, family, and onlookers that sent encouragement and good vibes over the weekend. Thanks to Andrew @ Lifelong Endurance for all your input and top-notch coaching skills going into this race, and for keeping me motivated to get out and suffer well.
Doing this race? Some extra thoughts:
–Make sure you train for lots of loops. Being able to accept that yes, you have to do that again is a good skill to have for these long loops. Get out of the crew area.
–Train with wet feet. Yes, it’s a desert, but you’ll probably want to be melting ice all over & all day.
–I started training with winter attire on a few times per week about four weeks out. I do feel that this had a benefit when dealing with the heat.
–I tried to purposely annoy/surprise myself while training, and never accept comfort. Some tactics I used: -Almost home? Too bad. Turn around for another mile.
-Dry feet? Jump in the stream.
-On the couch? Go do a mile, just because.
-Even worse: 11pm? Go do a workout.
-Putting sand in my socks. -If you plan to be out at night, it is critical to do some long runs starting at your normal bed time. -Try to figure out what you might want at each lap/aid station before the race starts. I wrote a plan of this down and studied it a bit before the race, and it helped to minimize wasted time. Of course your mind will change, but i think it mitigated this. -You can do it.
Even under the light of the moon, I’d have had no idea he was there if it weren’t for the spotlight and blue lights suddenly illuminating the dull shadows around me. I flipped my headlamp back on, as if any more light was needed, and, slightly surprised, greeted “good evening officer.” As he slowly stepped out of his car, he asked, bewildered at the sight of a guy in short shorts running up Berthoud Pass after midnight, “are you okay?”
I thought to myself, okay is a relative term. By most standards, probably not. In this situation at this time of night, certainly not. I replied “you know, I’m in the mountains, which is perfect, but my hopes of hitching a ride back to the top of the pass have been shattered…”
Let me rewind to the start.
Since last summer, I’ve been eyeballing the Continental Divide from Berthoud Pass to Winter Park. Today was the day I would take a shot at checking this one of many mountain traverse dreams off my list. I drove out to the top of Berthoud Pass (11,400’) late in the afternoon to start prepping my gear. Overhead, intermittent clouds from a distant rain storm passed over the sun, varying the vibrancy of colors found on the Divide about 1,500’ above me. I took a long gulp from my water jug before snapping the top back on, and tossing it into the black hole of gear in the back of my Jeep. Here we go.
I started the climb upward toward the weather station, where I would intersect with the Continental Divide trail. After a short 10 minutes, I joined with the trail, and turned my bearings toward the north. The trail was fairly runnable as I wound beneath along the edge of the summit of Berthoud Pass, ultimately adjoining the proper Continental Divide. Beneath to my right was an alpine lake, still partially coated with fissured ice, and blue as could be. The sun, low in the sky, pitched a shade of orange to the top of the lake, making the scene all the more Colorado authentic.
I watched the weather station, perched atop a precipitous cliff, grow increasingly small as I neared the top of my first of five 13,000’ points, Flora Peak (13,127’). The peak was dotted with cairns and wind bunkers, some of them surprisingly deep. I could imagine how hard the wind must howl up here in the winter; those must feel miraculous to hide out in during skimo adventures.
I broke trail and took the meadow across the next ridge toward Mt. Eva (13,130’). Around this time, I saw my first wild Ptarmigan, a seasonally camouflaged bird that elusively wanders above treeline. Actually, I nearly stepped on it; I’m glad it decided to move when it did!
At the top of Mt. Eva are the ruins of a dilapidated radio tower, completely toppled over and in shambles. The base building is accessible from holes in its foundation, or a jump up to the non-existent door, about five feet from the ground. Again, a great opportunity for some shelter if weather were to suddenly turn, or a place to throw a bivvy for the night.
The sun was setting on my left, emitting a deep red lightshow, pierced by the distant mountains of the Gore Range. For the next 30 minutes, I was able to navigate in the afterglow, before ultimately turning on my Fenix headlamp and flipping up my Oakley Trail Prizms around the top of Parry Peak. From Parry Peak (13,397), the lights of Winter Park and its ski area flickered far beneath me, with James Peak towering above me, across a sizable valley.
I took a moment to enjoy the solidarity and take in the views, everything now a dull grey color, with the moon just starting to rise behind me. I pulled out my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest to combat the increasingly chilling breeze atop the divide. After a couple of fig bars and gulps of water, I clicked my headlamp back on and descended the talus toward my final 13er, James Peak.
Honestly, descending on talus is my nemesis. I hate when it shifts, occasionally catching an ankle, or winding me on a sore tailbone. It was that way multiple times on the way to the bottom of the valley between Parry/James, and I was so happy to have that twenty minutes of careful footwork behind me, and also that my brand new Altra Lone Peak 3.0’s had held up to the beating.
Ascending James, previously unseen, in the dark, was a pretty arduous task. Coming up the valley involved a few big moves on large talus along a thin ridge, and a bit of route spotting along a steep edge. Things didn’t get easier when I ran into a steep snowfield not far from the top. The snow, judging from the welling around large rocks, was still between 5-8 feet deep, slick, and steep, though malleable. I climbed up and over what few rocks stuck through the surface to avoid as much snow as possible, and spotted a route that would require me to cross about 30 feet of snow to get back to the dry ground above.
These were the most precise, calculated steps I may have even taken in my life. I jammed my poles into the snow as support on the steep angle beneath me. I slowly kicked out foot placements, one by one. Moving my poles forward, maintaining three points of contact, I kicked out another foothold. I was tingling with adrenaline. After a tense, slow 10 minutes, my feet hit rock. I looked back, and saw my line of footholds across the snow, with light reflecting all the way down. I trudged up the muddy grade to the top of James, and once again could see Winter Park, my next destination, far beneath.
It was quarter to eleven PM. I had been out for 3h20mm, and had covered just 8 miles in that time, with only about 60% of the route done. I took the talus field down to the CDT. I welcomed its buffered, simple surface and finally got some quicker movement in. I ran the CDT for about a mile and a half, just by the light of the moon. My Suunto beeped to let me know I hit my checkpoint; from here, it was an off-trail descent to the Jim River, where I would intersect a forest service road.
I was once again introduced to a talus field for about 1,500ft of descending in the dark. A couple of times I slipped, landing on my poles, which surprisingly didn’t break. Frustrated yells periodically broke the silence, until I ultimately reached treeline.
The James Peak Wilderness is interesting to me, in that it is dense with tall (living) trees, but also equally dense with dead trees lining the forest floor that can at times be incredibly fragile. While bushwhacking, I stuck my foot straight through multiple trees which were approximately 4-5 inches thick. It is also a good idea to keep your sights high for overhanging branches; I had one take my hat and headlamp off.
I met with a stream around midnight, just beneath the forest service road. I slipped on one of the rocks while just steps from the other side, and went down in the snowmelt water, soaking myself up to my stomach in water that was just a foot deep. Nice. (It evaporated within the next hour… no big worries here)
I finally joined with the forest road, and was able to spot campfires along the way. Relieved to be done bushwhacking and navigating talus, I finally started to run again, until I met Winter Park’s Highway 40, at the northern terminus of Berthoud Pass. I looked up at the Continental Divide’s silhouette high above me, and let out a smile and little “woo!”
I started jogging up the pass, shining my headlamp on an extended thumb for the passing cars.
One. Two. Ten. Twenty. Nobody was stopping. People get picked up all the time on Loveland Pass, just across I-70 from here. Come on. Then, nothing. I didn’t see a car pass for what seemed like an eternity. It was almost 1am, and I’d not even gone two miles on the pass. I turned my headlamp off, and walked by the light of the moon, awaiting my next potential ride. Then, from the back of a pull off, a spotlight shone into my face, and blue lights bounced off off of my surroundings. As I shielded my eyes, for whatever reason, I turned on my headlamp, perhaps in retaliation for burning my retinas. As if it did anything.
As soon as the lights appeared, they turned off, and a police officer climbed from his car, turning on his Maglite. “Are you okay?” I thought to myself, okay is a relative term. By most standards, probably not. I replied “you know, I’m in the mountains, which is perfect, but my hopes of hitching a ride back to the top of the pass have been shattered…”
“How did you get out here?”
“The Divide from the top off the Pass.”
“Wait, you’re trying to tell me you ran down the pass to here”
*Pointing into the dark* “No, the actual Continental Divide, up there.”
“Of course I can give you a ride, man!”
The officer took my poles and pack, and patted me down before opening the door to the back of the car. I thanked him profusely for putting me in the back of a squad car. He radioed back to HQ, “I’ve got a pedestrian that’s been running the CD all night and needs a ride to the top, so I’m taking him back there.”
He asked the typical questions. What made you want to do this, are you training for something, did you eat or drink anything up there, how do you train…” We had a pretty good conversation out of it on the ten minute ride to the top. We rendezvoused with another officer in the summit parking lot, whom I was introduced to after getting out of the car. Apparently yet another officer had spotted me in the forest earlier that night and told him I was heading toward town. Where do these guys hide??!!
Grateful to be back to where I started, I shook hands with everybody and wished them best of luck and safety. I demolished the PBJ sandwich and bag of peanut-caramel trail mix I had stashed in my Jeep. I looked at the traverse, far above me, and reminisced on the misadventures of the day, thankful for each step in this vast, colorful wilderness. I pointed my wheels toward home, put on the radio, and drove into the night.
When I moved to Colorado in March, one of the first items on my to-do list was to find a race in my new home state. Having been previously enamored with the Sawatch range and the surrounding areas, Collegiate Peaks 50 mile seemed like the logical choice. The history of the race, fast times, challenging terrain, and the horizon of immense peaks summed up my choice; I was registered in almost no time.
Being fresh out of Michigan, I slated elevation training to the top of my training objectives, followed by distance. I spent five of the six of the weekends of my short training/acclimatization period enjoying the vast landscapes of oxygen deprived Guanella Pass and Loveland Pass. My most memorable training run was 15 miles of the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass, at midnight, on April’s full moon; no headlamp required. The 12,000ft average elevation of this training run was a confidence boost as the race approached. For a “flatlander”, I was glad to be getting acclimatized well in this land of giants.
Before I knew it, I was driving toward Buena Vista on the night before the race, stuffing garlic-herb rigatoni and fig bars down my throat. I’ve only laid eyes on the Collegiate Peaks once before, about a year ago. Tonight, they were lost behind a blanket of darkness, waiting to be unveiled in the quickly approaching golden-orange rays of sunrise.
I practically sleepwalked into the Buena Vista Community Center to check in the next morning, to find out I had arrived about 30 minutes early. I found my tag, and filled the time with a nap on the floor.
Bill Dooper, “superfan” of trail running, walked through the door as my alarm went off. I greeted him and caught up with him for the first time since last year’s Hardrock 100. His love for the sport and genuine charisma can fill a room; it’s always a pleasure to see Bill at races.
Outside, dawn was in full effect, and the rays were about to light the tops of the peaks. I headed out to line the start with the rest of the athletes. The snowcapped Collegiate Peaks corroborated thechilly air in town, even some 6,000+ feet below. I stuffed my Ultimate Direction Fastdraw handhelds with water and plenty of electrolytes, as well as fig bars, because, heck, they’re amazing (notice the pattern?).
Legs started turning at 6:30am. From the start, the race was interesting. Tim Parr, Travis Macy, a few others, and myself were running through the first section of dirt, roughly a quarter mile into the race, when one of them snagged a poorly-laid trip wire to the stomach. Luckily, no injuries ensued. I stayed back to unwind the heavy wire from the tree branch and set it aside, bewildered that somebody would do such a thing. I am optimistic that this was a one-off scenario and that people are generally much humane than to do this.
A few minutes later I was back with the front group of assumed-to-be 50 milers, and we blazed our way into the real single track. A fun, rocky first decent emptied into one of many sandy, dry river bed crossings to would be found on the course. A herd of about a dozen deer jumped single-file over a fence beside us and crossed our path as the sun reflected off the dew covered field just to the other side of a stream beside us. It was a relaxing start to what would be an exhausting day.
The group of four of us took turns leading the way for the first 12 miles or so. We hurdled some cattle grates, joking about being subpartrack/field hurdlers in high school, just before triple-jumping the rocks across a stream….. I’ve still got it. We separated at aid station two. I ran into Travis Macy again not long after, and he verified that everybody ahead of us was in the marathon. Woops. At least they were cool guys to go out way too fast with. I wound the corners of the next mile with Travis, and he too took off ahead. I ultimately made my way back up to one of the first guys I ran with, and we tackled the first major hill- about 7 miles long- together.
At the top, much to my thankfulness, an aid station awaited. I dumped the canister of salt into my palms and ate it straight, followed by about 30oz of water. The dry, desert-like landscape combined with a cloudless sky had been evaporating sweat faster than I could sweat it. I took a moment to lay in the nearby stream crossing to cool myself off. I was dry again in about half an hour.
From there, I was left with my mind and my shadow under the cloudless sky. The back half of the course grew thin as it passed through massive boulders. The seven miles I had just come up was now a seven mile descent, plus a mile give or take back down to town. I paced with a local track athlete who was getting in a workout for a few minutes. It was a good mental boost to run into another person!
I was welcomed back to town by a crowd cheering as I ran across the bridge that links the course to the Community Center parking lot. At the lap, I stopped to swap out bottles (mainly for the resupply of fig bars and salt caps that was in the little storage pocket 😀 ) and sloppily slathered myself in SPF 70 sunscreen; it’s a necessity out there. I turned around and began my second lap, which is just a reversal of the first.
My race strategy was pretty simple for this race: run smart on lap one, then run fast and take chances on lap two. That implied the 7-8 mile hill I just came down would be a tough climb back up. I focused on may leg turnover and breathing; the elevation was inevitably starting to creep up on me. I knew I’d have to minimize any unnecessary energy expenditure on the long climb. My situation didn’t get any easier once I caught a glimpse of the second place runner just ahead. From then on, I ran every step of the hill in pursuit of second place, rising up into the horizon. Behind me, the Collegiate Peaks put it all in perspective; it could definitely be steeper. Run fast and take chances…
I was just as happy to see the aid station at top as the first time around. Again, I had a few more rounds of Coca Cola and a handful of salt as I trash-talked the hill with the aid station crew. They wished me luck, and I began bombing down the other side of the hill at a pace that surprised me. It was such a contrast to the previous lap, coming up this steeper side of the hill. It felt good to move fast down the sandy slope and to hurdle over the rocks that reduced me to a walk/hike a few hours prior. Speaking of contrast… it started snowing. Last time I was here, I had just dunked my body in the river to cool off. It stopped stopped snowing as soon as it started, thankfully. I was warm again in no time.
I still could see second place ahead of me. I knew the road was about four miles ahead now, and from there, two miles to the finish. I did my best to reel him in, but it looks like he did an equal effort of staying ahead. We had our own race going within the race, and it continued at the aid station. I was about ten seconds behind at the aid station, watching and evaluating every move of second place as I approached. Water. Salt. Pretzels. Back to the chase.
We both wound our way through the sandy, dried river bed and back to the road, burning out our last energy reserves as the race grew ever closer to the finish. Reaching the road felt so good, but also was the longest two miles of the race. It made me realize how much everything hurt, and on the other hand, just how far I had come.
The final section of the race went along the banks of the river, begging for me to soak my swollen legs in it. The finish line stood across the parking lot from me; It’s been a while since I’ve seen metal barricades and chalk lines that looked so beautiful.
I ran down the finish chute, relieved to be here, falling right into the guy who had the medals. I was so lightheaded and nauseated from a combination of racing harder than ever before, and the elevation. Kaitlyn, my awesome girlfriend and running buddy, grabbed me under the arms and helped me walk off the course. I immediately found the guy who finished in second, about five minutes ahead of me. Colton and I shared an exhausted handshake and hug, and exchanged our congrats. I’m proud of him for earning a well deserved second place, and thanked him, with a laugh, for staying within my view and keeping me pushing my way toward the finish. He was an awesome competitor, and I feel we both ran a bit harder because of each other vying for the position.
As a finishing note, I’ll say that there is so much power in having a supportive, tight-knit community like that of trail running. The volunteers at the race were incredible and always ready to help, the spectators were supportive, and the athletes there to encourage each other to be the best they can be. Cheers to all the people out there for making the race everything it was. It’s one for the books, and I look forward to returning!
Altra Lone Peak 2.5 & calf sleeves Ultimate Direction Fastdraw 10 Oakley Flak 2.0 Trail Prizm & compression top Salomon S-Lab Exo short Cloudine merino socks Patagonia hat I feel Morton Salt deserves a note here as well.
It is here! The Marathon Vest from Ultimate Direction is the perfect vest for somebody who is looking to get into hydration vests for either road or trail. A bottle pocket, nutrition pocket, phone pocket, and a stuff pocket make up just a few of the features on this vest. Don’t forget about the reservoir compartment as well! I review this vest in the video below.
Also out this month are the Jenny V2, a higher-capacity take on the original, women’s specific Jenny vest. Also, the Groove system is a new line specifically for use with the body-conforming soft bottles. Check it all out HERE!
There are few places that I enjoy running at more than on the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass, CO. Choose one direction, and within 5 miles you have climbed nearly 3,000ft over a 13er, then Grey’s and Torrey’s, both over 14,000 ft. Choose the other direction, and follow ridges that tower over forests and lakes for as far as the eye can see.
I found myself in the vicinity of Loveland Pass this week during a quick trip to Colorado. I always have a change of running clothes and shoes in the car, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to drive a little bit out of the way to run in my favorite places. (Okay, so it was 3.5 hours round trip out of the way… worth it.)
I arrived at the Loveland Pass summit exactly at noon. I stepped out of my rental car, silently applauding it for somehow making to the top. The sky was a blanket of blue above me, seemingly being held up only by the countless mountain peaks that lined the horizon in every direction. Per normal, there was a significant breeze. This time, it was carrying a wintery chill with it.
I reached in to my Ultimate Direction SJ Vest and grabbed the Ultra Jacket, which was tucked away effortlessly inside. I typically keep it stored in my vest this time of year in case I need it for unexpected weather; at just over 3oz, it goes unnoticed.
I started heading up Cupid’s peak, the nearest mountain to the summit of the pass. Footing was better than expected for this time of year. A hard, thin layer of snow dotted the trail in places, mixed in with the equally present rocky dirt. It was a perfect situation to be wearing the Altra Lone Peak Neoshell’s, which are waterproof and gritty enough to claw their way through any sort of terrain.
After a short few minutes, I was plenty warm and started shedding layers. I folded up my lightweight sweater and slid it between the bungees on the SJ Vest, securely out of the way but easily accessible if needed. I never had to reach back for it though. Even with the mid-teen windchill temperatures, I stayed perfectly comfortable in a long sleeve tech shirt and the Ultra Jacket. Being waterproof and windproof, it truly is a great barrier from the elements.
I continued my way up Cupid, alternating between hiking and running. Gasp. I was reminded that at just shy of 13,000ft, I was about 25 times higher elevation than Michigan. From the top, I gazed at the Continental Divide, watching it pass over Grey’s Peak, which was vibrantly reflecting the sunshine from it’s snowcapped peak. Meanwhile, I did my best to hold my ground as the wind whipped into me. I unrolled the built-in mittens from inside the jacket and put them over my gloves, helping to keep my hands a bit warmer.
I turned around to run back, the wind now in my face. I put on the hood of the Ultra Jacket and tightened it up. I realized that even through all the effort expended in climbing up here, running, and pushing through snow, I was still completely dry in the jacket. It was nice to know that it was breathable enough not to collect condensation, especially at a time of year and location where hypothermia could be a very real threat.
I bombed down the valley I had just come up, and was back to Cupid in no time. One other hiker was nearly to the top. I passed her on my way down. We exchanged something like “hey! its a beautiful day to be out here!” screaming, still inaudibly, over the wind. We understood each other’s efforts and just smiled and nodded in comprehension.
-Extremely lightweight and packable -surprisingly good at keeping you warm -built in mittens are a lifesaver when your fingers get cold -Waterproof and windproof, yet breathable -the hood is an added bonus, especially the visor and air-channel that keeps your hair from getting sweaty. -has an internal pocket to store a phone, tissues, calories, or anything you don’t want exposed to the elements. -bungees at the waist and in the hoodie to cinch the jacket down to a personalized fit.
It’s an honor to have my content posted on Trail Runner Magazines home page, as well as at the top of their email blasts today. These photos and amazing stories wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the resilience and dedication that these athletes had as they tackled one of the most treacherous ultra courses out there. My applaud once again goes out to them; I hope I can bring more of the trail/ultra running spirit to readers again in the future!