Monday, 24 July 2017

Never Summer 100 kilometre race

Where to begin? The lovely name, maybe, Never Summer 100 kilometres. I'm a 'never summer' person, always chasing a winter somewhere, so the race had my name all over it. I knew it was going to be hard and I suspected it was going to be awe inspiringly beautiful. I love a loop course. 

Even though I read the info on the website carefully I was caught unawares by just how difficult and just how beautiful it was. But I had come here for beauty and I had done the training; I kept reminding myself that I had done the training.

Not that I was able to train for the specific demands of this high altitude, midsummer Colorado race in the Australian winter, living at sea level, with a distinct shortage of talus, snow and mountains near my house. Downed trees are unusual at home. Bog dries out. Shade is plentiful. But you prepare as best you can.

In running well over six hundred kilometres in a six week period before I left for the US I had already outdone any previous burst of training in my entire life. In my Colorado four week lead up to the race I ran two half marathons and two trail races (10 km and 9.5 miles) followed by a fifty miler (Leadville Silver Rush) just two weeks before my goal race. During this same period I hiked up eight mountains over fourteen thousand feet, so called fourteeners, and hiked to numerous mountain lakes. I slept as high as I could. I should have been exhausted come race day; I told myself that I wasn't exhausted, I was prepared.

Because I hate getting up early, as ever my major challenge was to get to the race start, 5.30am, feeling at least half human. I left my accommodation decision too late and had to stay twenty something miles from the Gould race start, in Walden, where I think I was lucky to snag a hotel room. I gathered there was plenty of opportunity for camping nearer to the race start and I seriously contemplated either sleeping in my car the night before the race or buying camping gear; I spent a long time at Walmart surveying the sleeping bags and tents and for days I could not make a decision either way. Then I convinced myself that it would be silly to sabotage my race by having a bad night's sleep the night before, and as I have only camped out once this century and not slept all night in a car since 1981, now was not the time for experimenting.

The historic hotel in Walden was lovely, I think, but after getting ticked off by a police officer for doing a U-turn in the main street in front of a 'no U-turn' sign I slunk into my room and spent the remainder of the day trying to take myself out of the nerve-riddled present and into a place of calm. The weather that day was atrocious: wet, thunderstorms and very hot.

I made it to the race start on what looked like the dawning of a beautiful day. I felt calm and hopeful, with just a lingering fear that I would never be able to find my car again (a fear which proved to be justified, as I would find out the next day). 

We set out and did some climbing. People were chatty and in the first half hour I managed to practise some French, German and even English. I ran at a relaxed pace and took the climb to Seven Utes in my stride. The sun was not yet out and it was pleasantly cool. The descent from Seven Utes (what's a Ute?) was rough and I was passed by lots of runners, but instead of getting despondent I was pleased to have some scalps to aim for later on. We rounded a corner and there was Agnes Lake; it was spectacular, a word that came to mind all day long. There was still a little snow to navigate, maybe intended as a reminder of how high we were (around 11,000 feet). Then came the only boring section of the day, a long dirt road seemingly traversing the hillsides for ever.

I spent minimal time at the first aid station and embarked on the jaunt towards American Lakes. How beautiful was the mountain landscape, and the lakes were, as they say, like jewels in the green cloth. 

There was a treat waiting at the second aid station: freshly grilled bacon. I've seen many foods at race aid stations in my time but never bacon. Never even thought of it. It was so delicious I gobbled a whole handful and was endlessly thankful to the volunteers, who I don't think understood that I had never seen this foodstuff during a race; ten hours later on when I encountered another consumable I had not seen before I left the volunteers in no doubt about this fact, but I'll get to that. So I scoffed a lot of bacon and spent the rest of the race trying to get bits of bacon out of my teeth.

The third section offered up the hardest climb of the day. Was I glad I had not read about this on the website. Who wants to have their fun spoilt? After a brief bit of skirting around the mountain, North Diamond Peak, we hit the above tree line mountainside and went straight up. Straight up. No trail, just up. In the extreme distance were what looked like a line of ants, but were actually runners who had achieved the summit. I paced on up, slipping at one point and rotating 360 degrees before regaining my poise. 

This is where I benefitted from hiking all those fourteeners; I held a picture of Mt Quandary in my mind, where the ascent is similarly steep although there is a well defined trail, and went for it. It sounded like there was a party on the summit and I badly wanted to be a part of it. A Coloradan runner complimented me on crushing the mountain, and when we saw each other subsequently she called me the mountain crusher. I'll take that nickname any day.

Beyond the summit there followed a delightful several miles of ridgeline running with fabulous views and easiness underfoot. I could have continued forever but I suspected there were more mountains to climb. Before that were miles of rough ground with a lot of creek crossings and boggy terrain, and another aid station with bacon, but I declined this time as I was still sorting out my teeth from the earlier dose.

I went the wrong way once during this section. The course was well marked; good marking was essential really as there was no defined trail much of the way.  But I managed to cross a creek unnecessarily and I was very lucky that a group of runners saw me do this and yelled out to me that I had gone against the flow of the route markers.

On a day of beautiful lakes, Kelly Lake was the best, in the next section, maybe in part because it was totally unexpected; it just appeared out of nowhere in all its azure blueness. The beauty compensated greatly for the deterioration of underfoot conditions - the trail was by now just talus, and wobbly talus at that. And snow, slippery snow.

Conditions were to return to mountainous as we embarked on the infamous Yurt Trail. I say infamous because the description of this trail was something I remembered very clearly from the race description. I had read that the ten miles could take four hours. By now it was really hot and seemingly no shade.

The climb lived up to its promise, all five miles of it. Light relief came when I spied a runner dressed as Santa Claus ahead of me. I was dying to catch up to him and ask why he felt a need to be dressed this way well out of the Christmas season. Unfortunately he was chatting to a runner who was injured and had decided to turn back when I reached him so I couldn't butt in. Probably a good thing as my question might have been inappropriate. I mean, I wouldn't be making the fashion headlines myself in my calf sleeves and clashing colours. 

At the top was a small campsite with a group of llamas relaxing; I presume they had packed in the gear of their human companions. And then the five mile downhill was most welcome. The field had spread out a lot and I passed much time alone. The whole area had an amazing wilderness feel. For the record I was happy that this section took me way less than four hours. For the last mile there were many crew members and pacers out on the trail, hiking or running in to the trailhead where they would be commencing duties, and it was funny to see a bunch of fresh seeming runners.

I felt I had not been eating enough and decided to remedy this at the next aid station, at the base of the Clear Lake climb. But first a drink. I had been drinking a yellow soft drink all day and I eagerly grabbed a cup at this aid station. Oh my God! What was that? It was revolting, the likes of which I have never tasted. Apparently it was pickle juice. It was just horrible. I told the volunteer what I thought. I'm ashamed to say I asked if they were trying to poison us! She told me that people have asked for it. What kind of people are these? To be fair, I'm not an American and I don't share their love of pickles. I rarely eat those long green things that seem to be as essential to a burger as the bun. Non Australians probably react like this to Vegemite. But Vegemite is tasty. (This aid station was at either end of an out and back section and when I returned there a few hours later that same volunteer carefully directed my hands away from the pickle juice. I hope she has forgiven me for my reaction.) 

I grabbed cookies and started out on the climb up to the lake. This was another section of the course I had not anticipated. The climb was hot, narrow and steep. A big struggle. And a double whammy because I couldn't swallow down the cookies either. Runners were descending as we climbed so the trail was congested, and I felt that the descending runners were unjustifiably cheerful. This was mentally the low point of my day. I grunted as runners said 'good job' and I never reciprocated until I started to descend myself. I soon realised how they managed to be so cheerful. Descending with a fabulous memory in your head is fun. Clear Lake was lovely, when I finally got there after the endless ascent. I asked the volunteers to take my picture by the lake because I need to remember times like this when the going seems really tough but all turns out well.

This was the day's hardest part over. After avoiding the pickle juice I headed out on the descent to the so called Cowtown. I soon found out why this area had that name. The trail traversed the hillsides above meadows and aspen copses filled with cows; cows who were loudly indicating they had recently been separated from their calves. They were almost deafening, and it was quite an eerie experience in the fading daylight. Also there was a lot of waste product on the ground. I use this term because a runner had politely explained to me what a cow pat was! I'm pleased to say I only stepped into one, and almost immediately I had a stream to wade through so my shoe did not stay dirty for long.

The light was almost gone as I came into the fifty mile aid station. I still wasn't eating enough but I couldn't swallow anything solid and they didn't have those usual packets of gels or chews. This isn't a criticism: packets are bad and I can never open them anyway. I scooped the soft stuff off the top of a slice of pumpkin pie. I was keeping up the fluids well. I had been to the bathroom twice in fifteen hours, and I was satisfied with that. (At the Leadville race it had been fourteen hours between visits.) 

I didn't want to travel - I can hardly use the word 'run' - alone in the dark so I latched onto a runner and his pacer who left the aid station at the same time as me. I soon worked out that they were moving quite fast, especially the pacer, who incidentally had done the Leadville race I had just done, but in ten hours to my twelve. I was pleased with myself for keeping up with them on the rough and boggy trail almost seven miles to the next aid station. Mostly at a walk. 

For me this is the biggest challenge of these longer ultras: the walking. The races I do at home rarely involve much walking, and if they do then it's only for ten minutes or so. I find this sustained walking difficult, mainly mentally. The distance passes so slowly. I have to accept the prospect of hours and hours of walking. That's why I did so much hiking when I came to Colorado, to practise for hiking during races. I think it paid off.

After the next aid station we had another long climb. Aren't we there yet? Part of the time I was alone and it was spooky. Sometimes I stopped and waited until other runners caught up to me. I summited this last peak in a big group, which was nice, and the descent was wonderful. It was possible to run most of it. I came into the penultimate aid station, at right on one hundred kilometres, feeling good. And I was actually ahead of the pair of runners with whom I had recently failed to keep up! But they soon passed me. Guys twenty years younger than me, of course they passed me.

I would have blown through this aid station two miles before the finish, as everyone else did, but they had quesadillas. That's one of my favourite foods. I wanted to enter into the spirit of this thing. So I grabbed a wedge, and then two more. I managed, for the first time in about ten hours, to chew and swallow. This was heaven.

I was a new person for the final push. Almost. It still seemed a very long two miles. I swore aloud (honestly, if you need to swear then doing it after midnight in a forest with nobody around is probably not a hanging offence) as the trail went on and on, around bend after  bend and I could not see the finish line. A runner yelled out 'I see it!'. Never have I been so pleased to hear this. Within several heartbeats I was there. It was just past 1am. I have to say it was a bit of an anticlimax as nobody called out names, but at least I had made it, in 19 hours 32 minutes, which was fairly in line with my hopes, bearing in mind that I had expected the course to be easier than it turned out to be.

I hadn't even put on warmer clothes for the final hours of darkness, when the hot summer day turned chilly, so when I finished I was really cold. And I couldn't find my car. I sheepishly asked for help. I told the guy my car was blue. Like, really useful info in the pitch black. 

But we did find it. I know that because I slept in it that night. I got so cold and I was so squashed but I managed to sleep about two hours. I woke up with daybreak (no curtains in that car) and I felt so uncomfortable I had to get up. I wanted to stay around for the awards ceremony at 10 am, and I wanted to know how I had fared in my age group, but I also wanted to get to Denver without falling asleep at the wheel, so I left. A truly remarkable experience.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Mt Sherman

I got up early for my hike up Mt Sherman, left the hotel before 6am and was parked at 7am. In between I drove 11 miles on the worst dirt road of this trip, it was horrible and scary with so many obstacles sticking up and loose rocks.

The first part of the hike was on the continuation of this same road, and with so many mountains ahead of me I didn't know which was Mt Sherman, and as it turned out none of them were. It was freezing cold and this is the first hike I've done where I wore my fleece right from the start and only took it off half an hour before I finished. The road passed several derelict mining buildings and climbed steadily. I was already above the tree line and there was plenty of patchy snow.

Once I left the road there were two snowfields to cross and then a long section of talus and dirt leading up onto a ridge. It was bitterly cold on the ridge with a strong wind but sometimes the trail went below the ridge and that was great as it was protected. The condition of the ridge deteriorated and became loose talus. The climbing was not too steep and I felt so much better than yesterday, even at the same altitude.

At the top of the ridge were several hundred metres of flattish walking to the summit. There was a nice surprise for me at the summit. On the way up I had noticed a town far off to my left. On the summit some hikers told me it was Leadville. But what was really great about this was that I was looking down on the very trails and road I had been on during the race; I recognised the area easily as it was the section between the 7 mile and 14 mile aid stations. It didn't look as hot as it had been when I was there!

The day was warming up as I descended, but clouds were appearing. I walked slowly back down the valley and was pleased with the scenic parking spot I had chosen for the car.

I think this will be my final hike for this trip, and final dirt road; yay!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Mt Belford fourteener

I thought about hiking Mt Belford in the Collegiate range several times but the weather hadn't cooperated. Today it was sunny and clear in Gunnison so I took the plunge and drove the hundred or so miles to the Missouri Gulch trailhead near Buena Vista. On the way I had to stop unexpectedly for a herd of cows to cross the road. 

The road to the trailhead was, of course, a dirt road and the last four miles were very rough. I'm sick of these dirt roads, and the ones I dare to drive on are regarded as the better ones. The trailhead car park was, of course, busy and I think I was the last person for today to embark on this hike.

The hike started in forest around ten thousand feet and climbed sharply right from the gun. There were a couple of creek crossings (on logs) and then after a while I came out of the forest into the Missouri Gulch which was lovely. It was a broad valley with the creek running through the middle and green mountain slopes all around, isolated conifers dotting the landscape and lots of columbines. I don't think Mt Belford summit could be seen at this point, or indeed for the next two hours.

This climb is known for the 105 switchbacks on the trail to the summit. People complain about these but I found the stretches of trail that went straight up to be even more irritating. For some reason I wasn't feeling the best and I struggled at several points along the climb, stopping more than usual. Looking up I could see where I had to go and it was daunting, although I made height relatively fast. There was a frozen waterfall in the gully next to the trail and the views into Missouri Gulch continued to be awesome. For a long time I could look back and see where I had come from. Parts were steep and parts were more gradual, but I knew I had to make four thousand feet of elevation gain (including the forest bit) so it wasn't going to be easy.

I made it up to a saddle and from here it wasn't so painful, even though I had some talus to scramble over. The summit ridge was short and pleasant (the summit was out of sight for a long time but it wasn't a big distance from where you could see it to where you reached it, unlike some of the other peaks I've climbed). 

There was only one other person on top and he was making a phone call so I couldn't ask for a photo. The views were great in all directions: mountains. I still can't get over the volume of mountains here in Colorado.

There were a few clouds already when I was on top and I only stayed fifteen minutes. On the descent I slipped several times but I came down fast. As I left the Gulch there were a few raindrops and also sounds of thunder. A group of hikers were discussing thunderstorms and I wanted to get off the mountain. The thunder claps, not loud, continued as I descended and I saw one streak of lightning. The rain was only light. I was relieved to get back to the car, and even more relieved to have the dirt road driving over and done. By the time I got onto the highway it was raining heavily so I think I was very lucky with my hike.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Crested Butte

Grin and Bear It 9.7 mile trail race yesterday at Crested Butte. It was on the Green Lake Trail and I did wonder why I was paying $30 to do a trail painfully (running) when I could have done the same trail at my leisure for free, and the race only started at 9 so I was going to get rather hot out there.

However, it was a fun trail if rather hard work and there was an abundance of food for runners at the finish. The trail started in forest, after a nasty climb up from the race start line and although mostly uphill, there were a few undulations. There was only one really steep pitch in the stretch before the 2.5 mile aid station, but I found running quite uncomfortable. I tried to run as much as I could but my breathing became a problem quite soon. I persevered but had to do a fair bit of walking.

After the aid station the trail was intermittently across meadows and on open hillsides, my perfect kind of trail. There was a big mountain right there and it was all very beautiful under the blue sky. I didn't feel too hot. I was near the back of the field but even going slowly back there I had moments of heaving breath. The lake was nice (and green) but there wasn't time to linger.

Once I started on the downhill I felt, as I would have expected, a million dollars. I took the trail at a steady comfortable pace and the distance passed easily. I was surprised how soon I reached the aid station and turned back into the forest. This last stretch passed quickly too. From about half way down I could hear the noise on the finish line, and a gap in the trees gave a welcome view of downtown Crested Butte. As I was arriving at the finish the announcer said "seems like we have a race on". I knew thee was a guy who was close behind me but I thought I had dropped him so I was surprised. I raced to the finish, looked around and saw that the race was between two runners behind me!

At the finish there was beer, soft drinks, French toast, burritos, yoghurt but no spoons and bananas. A real feast! I sneaked my beer out of the race venue illegally for consumption later, and had my burrito later for a picnic lunch sitting by the river on the way back to Gunnison.

The weather was beautiful today when I got up at 6 and I headed excitedly to Crested Butte to do the Copper Lake trail. Even the drive to the trailhead, past the tiny hamlet of Gothic, was spectacular: lots of green mountainsides and wildflowers by the roadside. I parked at the trailhead, chatted briefly to a couple of women who were heading out on the same trail and was on my way.

The first stop on the trail was at Judd Falls, a narrow waterfall of impressive power. From here the Copper Lake trail was well signed, to my surprise. I continued on until I came to another sign and a place to get wilderness permits. 

Here my fortunes changed. The sign had no arrows on it but behind it a trail led down towards the creek (Copper Creek). It seemed to me a no-brainer that this was the trail I needed, and when I came almost immediately to a roaring creek with obvious signs of having been crossed by hikers I crossed it, getting wet feet and legs. I had read that there were creek crossings without bridges or logs on the trail. The trail became sketchy after this but I could follow it, until I came to a T junction with no indication of which way to go. I opted to turn left and the trail, now much improved, crossed an open mountainside then went into an aspen forest. It was lovely but I wasn't sure if it was the right trail. I paused, walked on, paused again and after maybe half a mile I decided to turn back to the T junction. I figured I would either see the women I had met at the car park coming towards me or deduce that I should have turned right at that junction. (And it was Sunday so I knew the trails would be busy.) But I sailed past the junction and next thing I knew I saw a sign saying I was on Deer Creek trail. I knew this wasn't right so I backtracked to the T junction and went back on the rough trail, recrossing the rushing creek, to the sign that had caused all the problems.

I then stayed on the rough road/ track I had originally been on and within a minute a trail runner came towards me. I asked her if I was on the Copper Creek trail and she said yes. So I knew where to go. All in all I had wasted at least an hour.

The real trail was wonderful. It was easy going until the last mile and passed through the best scenery. It wasn't much in the forest and there were high peaks all around. Everything was so green. The wild flowers were abundant and fairly tall (though not as tall as I had seen them on my previous visit to Crested Butte five years ago). There were five creek crossings in all, all ankle deep but I just walked through the water with not a care in the world. Other hikers had brought spare shoes, towels and other luxuries!

The final mile was steep and rougher, and in the forest so less enjoyable. I kept hoping to see the lake around the next switchback but it took its time. Eventually I reached it and it was one of the nicer ones of this trip. High mountains descended to the lake shores and there was a large grassy area for hikers to sit. Jutting into the lake was a promontory with a path to its highest point so that was the obvious place to rest and take in the sights. From here the lake appeared to be a horseshoe shape. The view was different in each direction: green mountainsides, talus slopes and a snow bowl.

I decided to run back down since the descent would be mostly gradual after the initial steep part. This was fun. I felt some drops of rain about ten minutes into the descent; that stopped, then half an hour later a real shower started. The rain felt nice and cooled me down. This also meant that I was wet all over rather than just my feet.

When I got to the sign where I had gone wrong I decided to write a note on one of the wilderness permit forms, just so the parks people would know about what I thought of their badly positioned sign. It was raining so I had difficulty writing. As I was trying to post the paper in the box some hikers came by needing permits. I explained what I was doing and one of them thought I was clearly nuts to think the trail behind the sign could be the Copper Lake trail; the other one was sympathetic. I had the impression they felt a lot better about me when they realised I had done the correct trail already.

Then I had a piece of good fortune. As I was getting back to the car park a dog rushed up behind me and then turned down a side trail I had not noticed before. This was a short cut to the car park. 

Friday, 14 July 2017

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Very odd day for weather. I drove a long way from Gunnison to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River and did a hot hike above the canyon. Not long after I got back to Gunnison it was pouring rain and ten degrees colder.

The drive out to the canyon was almost as impressive as the canyon itself, with several reservoirs, mountains everywhere - many with buttes and high craggy rock faces. But it took a long time and what with six miles of dirt road at the end, I was glad to arrive. I had chosen to go to the north rim and it was pretty quiet there. 

I set out on the trail up Green Mountain, stopping at the cutely named Exclamation Point lookout on the way. This was my first chance to see what makes this place special: the amazing steep, high canyon walls and tiny ribbon of river at the base. I was surprised at the absence of guard rails or warning signs, because the drop off was sudden.

The trail didn't allow for any more views into the canyon and it was a bit of a slog in the heat. There was no shade. As I got higher there were good views over the top of the canyon and the upper parts of the canyon walls. I could see cars on the south rim, not far away at all. From the very top you could see a long way in all directions, but what I really wanted to see was the inside of the canyon so I rushed back down.

I drove to several lookouts to check out the canyon. I couldn't see any signs of people going down into it. I was fed up with the oppressive heat so I left.

Yesterday by contrast wasn't particularly warm in the morning when I hiked to a couple of lakes near Monarch Mountain. I hiked up a terrible dirt road in the forest for over a mile to the trailhead, noticing well hidden cabins on the way. From the trailhead I hiked up to Boss Lake where several people were fishing; I saw fish in the shallow water. It was a big lake. Then I continued up to Hunts Lake which was smaller and prettier. There were snowbanks not far from the lake and the surrounding meadow was swampy. The mozzies were unbelievable in their numbers and in the din they made. This made me reluctant to linger. Even here in this out of the way place I was surprised how many other hikers I saw.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Trail run in Salida

The weather again wasn't promising this morning so I decided against doing any hiking and hung around for breakfast at the hotel (in Salida) and went for a trail run, about 16 kilometres on a mountain bike trail. I could drive to a starting point which was in the middle of the trail and run an out and back in two directions. Altitude around 9,000 feet.

The trail was below Methodist Mountain and went through a mixture of scrubby dry gullies and light pine forest. The going wasn't too bad, it was an undulating and winding trail, and every time I thought I couldn't keep running uphill any longer the trail would dip down for a while. So I was able to run pretty much the whole way, stopping a few times for bikes to go past and seeing several runners. I ran ten kilometres in the first direction, then stopped at the car to refill my water bottle and ran six kilometres in the other direction.

There was a view over Salida almost all the way, but the best views were on the first section with mountains on every horizon. And I had made a good call about the weather as the Collegiate peaks were all in cloud. They looked pretty with their streaks of snow but it wasn't a day for hiking.

It got warm very quickly (my car said 29 degrees when I finished) and I was drenched. That was without the sun coming out. I couldn't believe how much I drank on such a short run. It was very still. Although I had seen a deer by the roadside just before I parked, I saw no birds or wildlife on the trail.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Mt Elbert

This morning the weather looked overcast and windy but I had already decided that today was the day for going up Mt Elbert, at 14,433 feet Colorado's highest peak and the second highest peak in the main part of the USA. I had to drive almost back to Leadville from Buena Vista, where I was staying, and then took a dirt road to the trailhead, fortunately the road was in pretty good condition. The main part of the car park was full at my 8am arrival but I got a spot on a stony patch of ground nearby.

This trail makes a far greater elevation gain than the trails up the other fourteeners I've already done, over four thousand feet in four and a half miles. I started in dense forest of spruce, ascending immediately at a fair rate. There were a couple of trail junctions which, amazingly in my experience so far of Colorado, were signed, and the first landmark was a view down over Emerald Lake, well hidden in the forest. I could already see the trail was going to be very busy. I came out of the forest for a brief glimpse of the surrounding mountains, and the dark clouds above, then headed back into the relative darkness of the trees.

About half way up in time the trail came above the tree line. I felt I had a tail wind. Here, and for a lot more of the route up, the summit was hidden from view by nearby lower peaks I would have to scale first. The trail became a bit more rocky and loose, but it was a very good trail compared with Quandary and Democrat. None of it was as steep as those others, and the direction kept changing so I couldn't see too far in the distance and thus couldn't see an endless line of hikers ahead of me.

I enjoyed the climb, with mountain views (surprise!), lots of tiny wildflowers, marmots and chipmunks for company. I found the last stretch hard just because of the altitude, but hikers coming down were very encouraging and I was pleasantly surprised when they started saying I only had ten minutes to go to the summit. I knew there were several false summits but I wasn't sure just how many. It was windy and the wind was cold on my skin but with all the effort my core was warm. I saw a trail coming in from another direction, had a brief chat with some hikers approaching the summit who commented on my just wearing a T shirt, and made the final push to the summit. 

It was truly cold there, a fierce wind and my hands were getting numb. I quickly put on my fleece. I checked out the views in all directions. Mt Democrat was standing there looking very obvious. There was clearly bad weather coming. I had my photo taken and didn't stay long on top; it was in any case only a small summit area.

As I started my descent I felt it was raining a little. The views were better coming down than going up, cirques below the summit, tiny lake - the sort of thing you can't appreciate when putting all energy into forward motion - and the dusty path was damped down a little. Pretty soon I was warm again, well before I reached the tree line. The wind must have dropped completely.

The descent felt long. It was long. The sun was coming out and there was some blue sky. I enjoyed the view over Emerald Lake again, and this time I noticed that you could also see the car park from there, way, way below. I finally ate the Skittles I have been carrying around with me forever; I bought them as emergency food for the Saintélyon last December and I have taken them to lots of places! 

It was a five hour round trip by the time I got back to the car. The predicted thunderstorm started two hours later.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Leadville Silver Rush 50 Mile race

This was a hard race. Hard. A fifty mile out and back run all above 10,000 feet altitude under the hot Colorado sun. Basically the route involved two hard climbs on the way out and the same on the way home. In between were numerous ascents and descents, too many to count. The race blurb billed the event as 'all runnable' and that would technically be correct, were it not for the altitude putting paid to most people' aspirations. 

They threw us in the deep end right off the start line with an ascent of the very steep (but short) Dutch Henri hill. I had practised walking up this hill a couple of times the previous day and I was glad of that as I knew just how slowly to take it so my heart rate wouldn't go sky high. I couldn't see the point of starting with a climb like that, to get you off kilter right at the beginning.

The early miles were not very exciting, a fairly gentle climb through forest in the cool morning. It seemed a long way to the first aid station at seven miles. But by the time I got there the sun was out and the day was already heating up fast. I wasn't feeling too good, maybe apprehension about what was to come. 

I had decided beforehand that I would walk the uphills and run the downhills, and in that way I would be able to make the cutoffs along the course. As it transpired there wasn't any flat terrain on the route so I didn't have to consider how to tackle this. Even though I was probably as acclimatised as I could be for a run that is all above 10,000 feet I still couldn't run uphill without great discomfort. But nobody was running the uphills. Nobody. I didn't hear the awful gasping I had heard from the runners at the Breckenridge race but I could hear some people were having a hard time breathing. Luckily for me I did not have an issue with my breathing all day.

We were out in a long valley littered with mining ruins and tailings heaps. As soon as the sun was over the tops of the mountains it was warm and for the rest of the day there was virtually no respite from the heat. We climbed through the valley following a creek and sometimes having to dodge the water as it coursed down the trail. I could see runners far above us on the road that we would eventually reach. It was wonderful to finally reach that road as it marked the first high point of the day (12,000 feet) and the end of the race's longest climb, pretty much a relentless ten miles. From here was a gradual downhill alongside snow banks and then forest to the second aid station, mile fourteen.

The stretch out of this second aid station was a delightful winding downhill in the forest. I think it was the nicest section of trail of the day. I was feeling good by now and prepared for what the day would throw at me. There followed a lengthy climb which I powered along until we emerged out in the open among meadows. I asked another runner if he thought this was the top of the second big climb and he said "yes, it looks toppish" which I thought was a nice expression. But the helper at the aid station we reached said no, it wasn't the top, in a tone that suggested silliness on my part. 

I made a bad mistake at this aid station: I filled my handheld bottle, picked up a couple of gels but forget to actually have a drink. That was really stupid and I was glad it was only four miles to the next aid station. If it had been the usual seven miles I would have been in trouble.

As we left this aid station I could see the helper had been correct. The trail wound upwards across the mountainside. Excellent views in all directions. Later on there were more mining blemishes on the hillsides: dilapidated huts, gravel heaps, remnants of rail lines, general rusting junk. After a brief descent into forest we climbed again, crossed a little snow and arrived at the high pass that marked the highest point of the run, over 12,000 feet. Here the views were great - basically green mountainsides in all directions. We ran on single trails for a while and had some lovely descents. It was rough but not too slippery. I must have been very far back in the field at this stage and I was passing people, which felt good as I wasn't yet suffering much.

The last few miles to the half way turnaround aid station were a bit tortuous. We came very close to the aid station then had to turn away from it for over a mile and then on the eventual approach to it there was a horrendous short hill to climb. But it was a great feeling to be past half way. We wound back across the mountains, and then had what again seemed like a cruel detour as we approached the next aid station. We were right there, then had to turn away and the marshal at this corner said "see you in four miles". What! And off this detour was another extra loop, about half an hour according to the marshal there. Finally we reached the pass and started the descent. Apparently this section was added in new for this year's race.

I was still feeling good and I was passing lots of runners, well, walkers. I maintained my run downhill - walk uphill strategy and I think all the hiking I'd been doing was paying off. I could walk quite fast relative to other people.

After the penultimate aid station with about fourteen miles to go we had a horrendous stretch of dirt road, gently uphill and fully in the open, hot sun beating down. This was the hardest part of the day for me. It was a stretch of about three to four miles, which I walked. I could see walkers way off in the distance and I just kept waiting to not be able to see anyone as this would mean they had finally turned downhill and out of sight. But around every bend I could still see them. I was just hanging in for the long descent. I knew it was coming but it took its time. 

By this time, with under fourteen miles to go, I was telling myself I could do a three hour half marathon and be finished in under twelve hours. It didn't sound too bad. In retrospect I believe the course was a touch longer than I thought at that point.

The descent, when it finally came, was all I had anticipated. Suddenly I could run again and it felt good, even though the path was quite rough with jagged rocks. Again I passed lots of people. But I was really, really hot. At the last aid station I said to the helper I would have one of every drink: water, coke, sprite, lemon electrolyte and it still wasn't enough. They said it was seven miles to go but I believe it was at least eight.

The descent continued but more gradually and I was feeling tired. I continued to persevere with running downhill and chasing my sub twelve goal but it was very hard. I was alone for long stretches and it was so nice to spot a runner in the distance. The trail wound through the forest and in occasional glimpses I could see there was still a long way down to go. After a long time a crew for some runners appeared from nowhere and told them it was two and a half miles to go, but again I think this was understated. I wasn't so sure about the sub twelve now.

Light relief was provided as the trail went alongside a trail bike park with some big ramps. I watched the bikes do their stunts as I ran/ ambled along. Finally, finally I reached the town's sealed bike path that signalled the end was near. I thought I could just get my goal. But my hopes were dashed when a spectator offered me some water; I said no thanks, isn't this the finish, and he informed me I still had a mile and a half loop to do. This was totally unexpected. 

And it was a horrid loop, a mountain bike trail snaking through the trees, turning back on itself repeatedly and all in all totally unnecessary. Then I ran under the 'Race across the sky' archway and I knew I was coming home for real. I could hear a runner close behind me and I was surprised as I had known I was alone for several minutes. I wondered how he had got close to me without me noticing. I didn't want him stealing my thunder on the finish line so I absolutely went for it down a steep hill and along the finishing chute carpet. I missed twelve hours by only a little, doing 12:11:22. And the announcer called me "Julia Thorn from Breckenridge'. I have no idea where that came from, and it was a bit disappointing not to get credit for having come all the way from Australia.

I was in a daze after that. I tried to eat and tried to drink, and collapsed onto a chair. I chatted with people and managed to drink a beer. By now it was raining lightly and I envied the runners still out on the course. Well, sort of, for getting the rain. The rain just made me cold and I had to walk back to the hotel. I had a hot bath and went to bed.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Several more fourteeners

Another good long hike today. I'd heard about a loop you could do involving summitting four fourteeners (Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross) in one hike but I wasn't sure I wanted to do something that long. I decided to head out and play it by ear, doing one fourteener at a time and making a decision about the next one on the fly. So I located the dirt road leading to the trailhead from Alma. It was in pretty bad condition and I wasn't sure I should be driving on it in my rental car but I did anyway. About five miles in a road worker stopped me and said I should soon park as they were doing road works and the road was closed further up. This left me with about a two kilometre walk to the trailhead.

The trailhead was by a lovely lake, Kite Lake, snow on one shore reflecting in the water. The trailhead was busy. I embarked on the climb up Mt Democrat, my first peak. I hoped it wouldn't be as steep as Quandary. It climbed fairly steeply at first, already above the tree line, and levelled off, then steepened again as I reached a saddle. From the saddle it was left to Democrat and right to Lincoln and Cameron. There was a great view from the saddle towards the backside of Democrat, a steepsided elongated bowl. 

I turned left and continued climbing. The mountainside was scree, and there was a marked trail but I kept losing it and finding myself scrambling up the scree, which was actually good fun. Near the top I got back on the trail and it was really steep, but not for long. The summit area was compact and I did not linger long. But I did get someone to take my photo while I was holding their placard with the name of the mountain on it. Lots of hikers had carried these placards up Bierstadt but I hadn't seen any on Quandary.

I came back down to the saddle, again completely losing the trail and scrambling down. At one point I could see the trail but there was a large patch of snow between me and the trail so I couldn't access it. 

When I got back to the saddle I decided to head up towards Cameron. I had seen the trail from the top of Democrat but when I was down on it I couldn't manage to follow it; it kept vanishing. So I did lots more scrambling before I got back onto it. Eventually it went along the ridge top and I could see Cameron clearly ahead. The landscape was almost volcanic, barren with patches of snow. Cameron itself was not very exciting as it was just a mound on the trail; in other words you had to go over the top of it to reach Lincoln. 

I continued on to Lincoln because the going did not appear very strenuous. And it wasn't too bad, rising and falling a little with a short steep pitch up to the summit. The summit area was a funny little craggy thing, with a lovely view back to Democrat. It was nice, I got my photo taken up there too with a placard. 

I could see the weather was deteriorating - there were rain or storm clouds above all the distant mountain ranges. Bross was clearly in view, with its rather boring looking rounded summit. Technically you aren't supposed to summit it as it is on private land, but we could see people sitting on top. 

The path towards Bross looked inviting and not steep at all but in a way I had done enough summits for one day. But I realised that if I walked some of the way towards Bross I could return to the trailhead by a different route rather than backtracking to the Democrat saddle and heading down the way I had come up. So I walked, and ran a little, towards Bross without summitting it. But I did get very close. There were tiny clumps of alpine flowers in the dirt.

The trail down was clearly marked. This was not a pleasant trail at all; it was really steep in places with loose dirt and loose rocks all the way down. It required extreme concentration all the way. I slipped and slid a lot and my shoes were full of dirt and stones. Looking down it seemed I could always see the trail continuing to descend without end. The only good part was the view of Kite Lake all the way down. Finally I got down.

Then I had to do the road part back to my car. I ran some of it as it was mostly downhill. A girl who got back to her car at the same time as me came over and congratulated me on my climbing, but I don't know how she knew what I had done! I didn't enjoy the drive back to Alma at all. The road seemed even worse than before.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Mt Quandary

Fabulous hike up Mt Quandary, my second fourteener of the trip. After a false start when I parked in the wrong place, I was on the way up this strenuous trail. It started in fir forest, quite steep and right from the beginning I had problems with my breathing. The start was above 12,000 feet. Soon this settled down and I felt good again. After not that much climbing the trail came out into a meadow before returning briefly into the forest. I took advantage of the trees to make a pit stop and I was later very glad of that! 

Emerging from the forest at the tree line I had my first real view of the peak. It didn't look that distant, or steep either, but I realised that appearances could be deceptive. There were mild switchbacks and then the more serious ascent began. This was steep and a lot of loose dirt and small rocks. I realised pretty soon that it was a long way to the top. I could only see one section of the trail at a time but with every new section that came into view there appeared to be a lot of climbing. 

About half way up, in terms of time but not distance (I was well over half way in distance), I came onto a saddle. This was a welcome respite after the climbing, but for the first time I could properly see what lay ahead. I also noticed some mountain goats well away from the trail. There were increasing patches of snow as I climbed on; I had to walk on the snow a bit but not much. I was passing a lot of people, which was very satisfying and also indicated good things about my altitude acclimatisation.

From the saddle onward there were nice mountain views, some lakes in one direction and distant mountains in the other. But I had to concentrate on the climbing as there was a lot of scree and sharp rocks. The summit looked very distant but I persevered.

Close to the top was a large remnant of snow which was tricky, and then almost suddenly I found myself on the summit. The view to my right into a huge bowl was just stupendous. I've never seen anything like it. There were two tiny lakes and steep mountainsides striped with snow. Beyond the bowl was tier after tier of mountains. To my left and ahead were endless mountain ranges with plenty of snow. Looking back in the direction I had come the mountains were misty and lacking snow. It had taken me two hours to the summit (3 1/2 miles) which I reckoned was pretty good going. It was cold on top.

Coming down was so much easier despite the scree and snow. Soon I was back approaching the saddle and there were a lot more mountain goats. They were close to the trail. They had sharp looking horns but didn't seem aggressive. At one point a goat was on the trail and I needed to pass it but I was a bit nervous as another hiker had just told me he read about someone being gored to death by the horns of a mountain goat. Luckily the goat just blinked at me as I passed. There were marmots too and chipmunks lower down.

I was happy to get back into the forest as the weather was warming up. However the forest didn't offer much shade. It was hot work. I was surprised how many people were just starting on the hike. For me a four hour round trip in total.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Breckenridge trail race

Today I did the Breckenridge Independence Day 10 km trail race. It was only 4 degrees when I arrived in Breck at 6.30am but the day was clear and still. This was a big race with 400 people but was conducted in a very low key fashion. I parked right by the start line and it was so cold I stayed in my car until the start.

We began with a street out and back, obviously to make up the distance, and then started out on what was to become a huge climb. We went into the forest and ran on single track with many rough patches: tree roots and small rocks made for some treacherous footing. I couldn't take in the views because I was afraid of tripping and had to look down almost all the time. We were climbing in a long line and it was hard to pass other runners, but occasionally I just had to skip past someone, risking falling off the trail in the process. 

The climbing was on a twisting route with lots of switchbacks. The sound of all our combined loud breathing was something quite amazing that I had never heard before in a race. From time to time there would be a brief downhill interlude but it never lasted long. I tried to resist walking but towards the top I just had to. At one point I was really in trouble with my breathing, and I was relieved when I was over the unpleasant sensation of not being able to get enough air into my lungs.

Suddenly the forest spat us out onto a sealed road and a drinks table. I had forgotten about drinking and the water was welcome. I was also pleased to hear someone say it was all downhill from here. It had been impossible to judge the distance we had come. I think there were some nice views of mountain peaks but I was too tired to look around.

Within a few metres we were back on a trail in the forest and a long series of switchbacks. The ground was still rough and filled with obstacles and the field had thinned out so much that I only had glimpses of runners ahead of me. I loved the downhill even though I couldn't do it fast. At least the breathing problems were gone. 

We came to a trail junction and I thought the marshal there said we had two miles to go; this didn't seem right but I could not work out what else he could have said. Then almost immediately I caught sight of the finish area through the trees and it wasn't far below. Then the next marshal said all we had to do was run around the outside of the tennis courts. We came out into the open and a few runners who had been tailing me closely all the way down shot past. The finish line was most welcome and I saw that it had taken me 1:09. 

Afterwards I had a sinful cinnamon roll and a coffee. Which I had earned. I watched the Fourth of July parade in Breck and then went back to Frisco where I was staying to watch their parade too.