Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Try the Hot Pockets, They're breathtaking...

Let me set the scene first. Four half-opened eyes in a borrowed Toyota Tacoma on I-70 at 0315 heading from Denver to Aspen. Specifically the Maroon Lake Trailhead. 
Patrick: "Dude, I made some excellent grilled cheese sandwiches for this run. Thick cheddar melted to perfection in between two pieces of double buttered bread. Probably still warm." He didn't leave out a detail.
Image result for spongebob transition
Cut to the trial head (with a Spongebob-esque transition), Patrick (my partner in crime's name... not the cartoon starfish) searching thru his bags. "Dang! Must have forgotten the sandwiches! What a let down!" 

The whole day was filled with these movie-type goofy transitions that felt like they were to be accompanied by a laugh-track.

It is now 0715. Just a few minutes past sunrise. "Oh, well." I said. "At least the trail is clear and we can get started before it gets crowded."

Image result for spongebob transition
0.15 miles later... "Oh yeah, we just had to close the trail. There is an injured moose right up ahead. You can wait him out or go home."
End story. We went home...
Image result for spongebob transition
"Any other options?" I asked with a little bit of left over Boston smartassery that is usually never appreciated.
"You could bush-wack around the lake a bit but you better go deep because you're in some real danger. That would definitely be ill advised though."
Cue the off trail adventure. After about a half a mile, we circumnavigated the moose and got back on trail. The sun rose at 0640, meaning it was light out, but just like Patrick and I, it was still slowly making its way over the mountains and struggling to break the horizons of the peaks and ridge lines that surrounded us. At the very moment that I started to get into a running groove, I simultaneously made the mistake of thinking, "Hmm, at least the super steep stuff hasn't started yet."
The increase in grade dope slapped me almost literally as the side of the mountain shoots up 26-42% grade for the next 2.7miles. Trying to run from 10,200ft to 12,500ft in such a short distance brings about a few Seinfeld-esque chess matches.

Image result for seinfeld chess match
The first is whether your eyes should try and take in the surrounding views that are so astounding that even seeing them makes you question if they are real OR should you stare at the ground and navigate the rocks and place your foot on a surface that will keep your ankle right-side-down.

A couple big keys to ultra-trail-running is breathing and eating. Seems simple, but the second chess match consists of your stomach vs your lungs. The air is so scarce that it often takes 2-3 breaths to get the oxygen of a normal breath... Sometimes I have no idea whether it is better to get the needed -oh-two or try and get some sugar down.

Trying to keep pace as your body desperately craves both and only being able to fully satisfy one at a time is sometimes a sport in itself. Gasping, stepping, taking a small bite, gasping, gasping, stepping, "Look at those mountains!"... repeat...

We made it to the top of Buckskin Pass a few minutes before 9am. Not a bad pace for the moose detour but still slower than we anticipated. I guess I should describe the "we" as Patrick was a stranger to me all but two weeks ago and this adventure was probably the 5th or 6th time we have talked. The first was right outside my Denver apartment. He had just moved in to the same complex and was exiting with the same bike-over-the-shoulder mannerisms I was entering in. He was also looking for a job in the area at the time which made it easy to meet up for a day-drinking session. Long story short is that I mentioned my idea of hitting this loop in 4 days... He said he hadn't been running in a while but was over-ecstatic about joining me (not sure if it was the beer or the trail running he was pumped about). A day drinking, bike riding, job-less dude not afraid to take on a colossal Colorado trail on little training... Bro-mance at first sight one might say.

And here we stand - Four days later 4.5 miles into a 27mile trail and at 12,500ft. Patrick made the next mistake of saying, "OK cool - let's eat quick and try and make up some time on this descent."

The trail replied with a resounding "NO"

Or rather "(S)NO(W)"...

It had hailed last night and then froze over. The sun rays hadn't made it's way over the backside of the pass yet. Damn you, Fermat. We slowly slid down the next 3.5 miles as gracefully as Ryan Lochte slid into that sponsorship from a crime prevention program. 

Rolling hills for the next mile and half were brought us to the start of our next pass climb. But not before the epic sight of Snowmass lake. We turned a corner and the thing popped out at us like a jack-in-the-box.

Once I got over the overwhelming feeling of the sight of the lake I got to thinking about the past week. The combination of the mountains and the lake reminded me of Coeur d'Alene and the Ironman race that I took on 9 days prior. I was disappointed in the result mostly because the marathon didn't go as planned and I knew deep down I could have done a lot better. The feeling of being so sure I could have done better and not being able to prove it on race days threw in into a semi-depressed state. It was a rough 9days and anyone who has texted or called me since knows that I have been a less than perfect friend.

I try to shake things like this off but it gets to me like nothing else does. It's easy to say things like, "It's just a race." and "You still did great"... blah blah blah. As much as I hate to admit it, these races mean a ton to me. I don't quite know why yet. 

The only way to describe the very real post race depression I go thru is this: Imagine you are tasked with baking the worlds best cake. Every day you are only allowed to put in a little tiny bit of one ingredient. You keep putting in a bit of flour every day. A tiny bit of sugar the next. And you repeat this every day for nine months. Towards the end you put in an egg and the bigger stuff. (I realize this is an absurd way to bake a cake but bear with me)... The batter tastes delicious and you are getting ready to put it into the oven... You wait even more as the thing bakes. You started this cake at the beginning of the year and you know you have made the world's best batter.

The oven dings and you get mitts on to take this perfect piece of confection out and taste it and present it to friends and family.

Except when you open the oven a midget doppelgänger of Zoltan Mesko jumps out and punts you in the groin sending you 60yards downfield in a perfect human spiral and you slowly roll to a stop at the half yard line.

Ironically the last time that I was really proud of a race was Ironman Mont Tremblant back in 2014. The time was exactly the same as Ironman Coeur d'Alene. 10hours 11 minutes. The only difference being that this was the last race where I know deep down that I gave every last bit of energy (physically, mentally, and emotionall) I had to finish with the best possible time. I emptied the tank 100% and dug deeper than I ever conceived possible back in August, 2 years ago. Though I have raced faster times since; I haven't really had that feeling since. I'm after it like a junkie after their next fix.

Yeah. It's like that... but this run was the yang to the race yin. So I chose to write about this instead. I still don't know how I do these mountain runs for hours on end but I can't put together a 3hr 15min at the end of an Ironman but I will figure it out. Runs like these are just how I bounce back from the post-race low.

Hitting the ridge of Trail Rider Pass was just as glorious as Buckskin and even a little warmer than the first. It is now almost noon.
This was my favorite section of the trail. We really opened up and got into an amazing flow. The mountains threw us through this valley with warm sun shine and a nice gentle breeze. They spoke to us in a way that two foreign people exchange laughs. Laughs are universal throughout the world even if they can't speak to each other with words. It was like the way babies will instinctually dance or bop their heads when music is playing... This isn't a learned behavior. It is just what feels right and needs no further description.

"It is awesome to be warming up a bit, eh?" I declared to Patrick...

"Oops... my bad." I thought as we jumped right through the river thwarting the trail.
At least I clean my legs off? We refilled bottles via a water filter at the next river. I am not sure if the filter actually worked or not but I think I was doing it right... If I come down with jhardia next week I will know what it's from... worth it though.

The trail beats on to Frigid Air Pass. Mile 17.5. 12,400feet high. It lives up to it's name even in August.
Can you follow the trail down the switchbacks...

We got asked more than once by back packers and hikers, "Where is the rest of your stuff? Are you guys doing the whole loop in a day?" 
After we smiled or laughed to confirm, they'd reply, "That's crazy!"
That got me thinking... and it gave me the opportunity to perch myself on top a soap box for a minute: What's crazy to me is that these breathtaking trails are out there all the time and more people are NOT running them! These pictures are all of real things, damnit... Go see them. Or something like them. As often as possible.

I am convinced that the opposite of happiness is not sadness. Happiness and sadness go hand and hand with one another and are both feelings that deserve equal attention. Just as the opposite of love is not hate. As the Lumineers sang me through a break up a while back, "The opposite of love is indifference." The opposite of happiness is definitely not sadness... but boredom. The realization of time passing is a horrendous thought to me.
 Things are looking up at this point. 
Image result for several bad puns later

Yup... I did just pull that pun off. One more pass to climb...

 Maroon Pass came next right about at mile 20. It was welcomed. We had been running a while. And were ready to cruise back down to the trail head. We were both smart enough not to mention how ready we were to be head back and I am convinced if we did, something else may have come up to make that a little more difficult!
 It was all downhill from there. Everything in me rejoiced. Except for my quads... They screamed at me to keep going up but they were out voted by every other part of my body. It was like the youngest sibling trying to negotiate their way out of sitting on the hump of the middle seat on a long trip in the car with the AC broken... probably to a funeral.
Passing Crater Lake. 2 miles to go.
Closing the lollipop. 1.4 miles to go and we were still running! Luckily the moose was off the trail...
Finish line. A little over 9hrs. 27 miles. 8,000ft of elevation gain between 10,000 and 12,500 ft.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Mount of the Holy Cross: Blindly Taking Baby Steps

(Preamble): after writing this and reading it thru, it reads more like a diary entry to me than a usual story of mine. It's not a long read but not a quick read: There are a lot of pictures at the end so fear not of the tiny scroll bar on the right, oh yee of little attention span... but the moral of my self centered ramblings is in the last two paragraphs if you are as attention deficited as me and want to fast forward and just look at pictures... yay pictures...(click to make them bigger)!

"This is going to be your last piece if you keep farting all ride." Suz groaned as she handed me a piece of toasty focaccia bread from the passenger seat. "And I won't be walking behind you all day, that's for sure." She rolled the window down a crack.

I shrugged my shoulders and glanced back at her with a chunk of the tasty loaf still hanging out of my mouth. It was quarter to four in the morning and we were cruising up Vail Pass in a Honda-CRV Zipcar with our packs ready for the day and iced coffees that just weren't fairing well at all in the battle against the inhumanely early wake up call.

That was pretty much the extent of our conversation on our way to the trailhead for the first half of the ride. I was exhausted. The second half of the ride was even less conversation as we switch places on the side of I-70 and I promptly fell back asleep as soon as I reclined the passenger seat.

I awoke to the rumbling of the car as we turned onto a bumpy, seemingly vertical,  dirt road. We swapped places again and the next 8 miles to the trailhead took over a half an hour to navigate. The fog was thick and we had no idea where we were and couldn't see more than 20-30feet (which we later agreed was for the best). Finally though, little city Zipcar reached 10,314ft, the muddy trailhead, but most importantly for yours truly, the toilet.

The Zipcar was clearly out of place in the parking lot full of Subarus and Jeeps which was true to form in the land of the 14ers. It wasn't an ideal ride for the road but it was the only option. My old beat up pick up truck didn't make the cut a few months ago as I methodically started to whittle possessions out of my life with a goal of being as little "tied-down" or "limited" by my belongings as possible. I am not quite sure what started this urge of mine to downsize but it just felt right. As the truck was replaced by the pedals; the house was rented out and I down sized to a small apartment. There was no end-game or rhyme or reason at the time; it just felt like the right thing to do. I got rid of a ton of crap and clutter I don't even know why I had in the first place.

I also quit a pretty cushy, lucrative, secure sales job last year and took a pay cut to try a role in the construction world. I have honestly no idea why. Blindly taking baby steps... I guess I was just bored and unknowingly unfulfilled. I don't really enjoy construction management but I am good at negotiation and talking to people (read: babysitting with a dash of common sense). I knew I wasn't going to be thrilled with the job because I am never thrilled with any job but, (1) I used what I had to convince someone that I'd be good at the job; and (2) it was going to get me a little closer to where I wanted to be... out west in Colorado. Construction was/is booming out here (I am here now). The next baby step was trying to get help with relocation. I didn't want a huge salary, I just wanted to be relocated. I negotiated a trade off with yet another employer that deep down, I knew I wasn't going to enjoy, but at least they would pay for me to get out to where I wanted to be. More baby steps.

But I honestly gave the new position a serious effort. In the end the pay vs hours sacrificed wasn't worth it to me. And finally realizing that after the methodical whittling of "stuff" my only true expenses were housing and food - these were manageable for me and there is an outline of a plan set in place. So about two weeks ago I up and quit. It'd be a gross and untrue statement to say that I wasn't nervous about the future a bit or that I had thoughts of jumping back on board the traditional work 9-5 grind but I just don't think anyone out there values my time as much as I value my time. And after writing this, it just reaffirmed to me that everything is not only going to be OK but also pretty freakin' awesome.

The plan that Suz and I vaguely set in place was a 12 mile hike along the north ridge trail to the summit of Mt. of the Holy Cross. It is not an insanely difficult climb - neither one of us have any actual climbing equipment, let alone hiking boots, but it definitely isn't a walk in the park. We packed the bags, set the intention, and tried to prep ourselves as best we could. We couldn't control the fog that rolled over and minimal visibilty, the potential for thunderstorms that rolled in the morning of, or the colder than normal temperatures. We hastily checked the weather but didn't pay it the attention it deserved. The forecast wasn't great 70% chance of thunderstorms. Rain probable. But we were both there, at the trailhead, having already woken and drove 2.5hrs so we were likely going to at least start barring something crazy.

The only problem was we were both just plain exhausted. Early wake up calls aren't a huge deal for me to fight thru usually but this time was just a butt-kicker. "Just a quickie... then we will go... if you still want..." I said as my left hand put the drivers seat horizontal, my right hand slid it all the way back, my eyes shut, and my mind hit it's own off switch immediately.

We both woke up 50minutes later and our 7am start time was long gone. "UUUUUUGGGGGGHHHHH...." seemed to just instinctively come out of my tired jaw bones. The nap set us back so much that we knew at the time we weren't going to summit the mountain.

"Yup..." Suz replied drowsily wiping her eyes open, "but let's just take a few steps and see what happens. We probably won't make it all the way but we drove all this way and ate an entire loaf of bread  - we need to do something. We ditched the sunglasses and put on the rain gear. It wasn't raining more so than the cloud that engulfed us was just "clouding"... (as clouds often do)...  the moisture just kind of condensed on us. Neither one of us really wanted to start the 12 mile journey to 14,011ft but neither one of us wanted to be the reason that the other didn't actually do it. I am not sure who said which but there was a number of exchanges along the lines of, "Do you want to still do this?" and "I guess so, if you do, but I am OK if you don't want to" then, "Seriously, it's OK if you don't want to keep going"... until we both knew the other wasn't going to confide to consolidation tactics.

"A few steps but we will definitely turn back if things get too crappy..." the first mile was steep but clicked by pretty quickly. "I wonder what I am going to be thinking at this point on the way back..." I always tend to think when I start a long out-and-back. The trail ascends thru the trees for the next half a mile then dips back down to 10,000ft at mile 3 so you have the pleasure of starting it all over again after crossing a river. We hadn't seen any other hikers on the trail up until this point. Being pretty green, this worried me but I didn't open my mouth to let it worry my counterpart up ahead. Instead we talked about how weird it would be if you sneezed and farted at the same time, wondered what an apple-mushroom (not an actual thing) would taste like, and confirmed that it would be cool if the Olympics had an "average" person compete alongside all the athletes so people could appreciate how awesomely talented the Olympians are. You know, normal hiking stuff.

We saw our first person coming in the opposite direction.
"How is it up there?!" We asked with a little life implying he made it to the top.
"Didn't make it up today. There's some nasty weather rolling in but once you get up to 12,000ft there's a good pond you can filter water from..." he said in reply confirming our newbie-status.
"Oh cool! Thanks bro. Have a good day." We both didn't even really acknowledge the first part of his statement because we were too busy laughing at the fact that we didn't have a filter. Just three liters of water; two in a bottle and one in the bladder of my pack.

The trail is very manageable to the 4mile mark. We passed two more chicks that look pretty bad-ass hiker type.
"These clouds are crazy, huh?"
"Yeah, we stopped and turned around about a mile from the summit. It started to get nasty. Maybe next time. We overheard that there was even worse stuff coming in soon. Be careful."
"Ugh, thanks! Have a good one."

We started to worry. We weren't that cold yet but after hearing these reports from people who looked a lot more experienced at this stuff. Two more couples passed; two more reports of not hitting the summit. "How bad could it get? This stuff isn't horrible. Let's keep going a little further." It was good to hear Suz's encouragement as we broke the tree line and the wind delivered it's first blows. The trail deviously steepens at the 4 mile mark and gains about 1,000ft thru some dizzying switchbacks.

We finally crossed paths with a semi-positive smile. "How'd you hit it?" I inquired positively. "Ugh, made it up to the top but it's hardly worth it. You can't see a thing. It's too bad. Good luck though. Pressure is falling."

Suz looked at me with a glance that I knew said, "How good is a rainy summit without a view?" I was thinking the same. The dirt trail turns to even steeper rock steps. The fifth mile is straight up gaining 1500ft. We still couldn't see a damn thing except the next few steps. This time it was my turn to return the favor and spur Suz along a little. We knew there was a false summit a little after mile five and I used this to keep her spirits up. "If you're not cold or dizzy we should definitely make it to the false summit." I said speaking over the gusts of wind. My hands we starting to get really cold.

She replied only by taking more steps upward. We couldn't see the cairns marking the trail that were often only 20-30ft apart and we got of the trail a number of times. This worked against us not only as a moral blow to the mind but also causing us to climb with hands on the rocks. The rocks were cold. The hands got colder even thru the gloves. Three more people passed us one by one with negative reports of either turning around early or not being able to see anything from the top. All in all we got about 8 of these pessimistic reports over the course of the hike.

We hit the false summit right around 11:30am; about 4hrs since we said, "Let's take a few steps." Right as the trail leveled off, I stopped dead in my tracks and my jaw dropped.
"What's up? Did you see a ghost or something?" Suz asked.
Silence. I pointed thru the rocks at what I could only describe as "the opposite of a ghost". The thick grey fog thinned out just enough to reveal an ungodly silhouette of what I refused to believe was the rest of the climb. I only responded to Suz's inquirey by pointing in silence with my eyes; conveying with my dead-pan stare to look behind her. She would later tell me that she had never ever seen me so purely scared before. She was right. The ghastly site of the final mile of this mountain thru clouds that were now raining on us, albeit lightly, was the mountain saying, "What have you got?"

"Are we good here?" my now beady eyes said to Suz. She answered with a laser like stare to the next cairn and a murmur, "Next rock pile."

A couple more baby steps and we were there; still cold, still wet. Another passerby. "How is it up there?" I inquired.
"Just an accomplishment thing, I guess. You can't see the hand in front of your face. But you have a half a mile of ridgeline then a half a mile of scrambling so you should be there in about 45."

I am a sucker for a ridge line and even though I really couldn't see the cold fingers of the hand in front of my face. We were at 13,100ft. No stopping now. I even said to Suz, "This wind is blowing pretty hard. These clouds are either going to dump on us or the sky will open up. Whatever is going to happen to us, I think it should happen at the summit." We marched on with more steps. The same steps we took at the start. The ridge line went by fast.

The last half a mile involved more getting off trail due to lack of sighting cairns. However, "it" was happening. "It" was happening so awesomely that I yelled like the same little kid that was scared just an hour previously, "IT'S HAPPENING!" The sky was opening up a little. We could see a few glimpses of the trial we came up. HOLY SHIT. HOLY CROSS. But how long was it going to last?

We both scrambled up a little faster. The view was flickering on and off.

At sleep-overs in junior high after we were done lighting things on fire in the backyard or running around town with a universal remote changing the neighbors TV station thru the window we were gathered around the host's TV dialed to PayPerView channel. The channel would come in fuzzy or scrmbled until you actually called to pay for the feature. Getting caught calling to order these types of channels that only air between midnight and 4am would surely lead to a grounding so that left us eagerly and patiently trying to catch a glimpse of the scenes of the show thru fuzzy filters and "TV snow". That was this feeling all over again.

We hit the narrow summit and it was like Henry Winkler beat his fist on the jukebox. The skies opened up and the sun congratulated us with some warm rays. Cold hands warmed. Smiles immediately beamed. Neither one of us actually believing the epic order of "untimely" events that resulted in us being at the summit at the exact moment the clouds decided to peel away. We had the whole summit of a fourteen thousand eleven foot mountain to ourselves.

Little did we know that getting off to a "late" start was actually the only perfect time to start that day. We didn't know that not being able to see the summit of the massive pile of rocks was actually the only reason we made it up; both agreeing afterwards that we most likely would not have continued if we actually saw the terrain we needed to cross. It was "unfortunate" that we didn't check the weather more carefully, but if we did, we would have seen the forecasts and bailed not knowing that the forecasts were wrong. Along the way we planned on hiking about 20-25min/mile but fell far below that pace; this was definitely slower than we wanted but neither of us knew that out 40min/mile was the precise speed needed to have the most epic turn of events and scenery.

We were the only people to witness the view from the top that day. The clouds rolled back in and it started to rain about a half an hour after we headed on the reverse trek home. We blindly took baby steps in the direction we wanted to go having faith that we would end up where we needed to be. Sometimes you may think a lot of things are "going wrong" in life but if you take a step back and know how to look at events objectively, as big or small as they may seem, I think you will most always find that you are exactly where you need to be. You may not even ever see the result of "right" in the "wrong" that happened but all you can do and control at that very moment is how you will react to the situation. Take another baby step in the direction you want to go. Make it to the next cairn (even if you can't see it at the time). Detaching yourself from "the way it was supposed to be" in your mind is one of the most powerful tools you can have over your attitude, emotions, and ultimate situation in life.

Nothing is ever perfect and the timing is never right.

Or is everything exactly where it needs to be and the time is now?

Isn't it funny to think about that when you are driving a car in the middle of the night, there is so much darkness. The headlights only shine on the road immediately 50ft-ish in front of you. But if you only worry about what you can see within the lights you can turn that 50ft of visibility into a trip of a thousand miles. Focus your energy on the things you can handle right now; the rest will fall into place as you need it to whether you know it or not.

The following pictures were taken on the way down from the summit. It was like someone blindfolded us on the way up. Then revealed these amazing sights on the way down. Enjoy. We did.