When I did a Longs Peak Triathlon last summer, I remember thinking it was only logical to apply the same tactics in the calendar winter season. Maybe unsurprisingly, there simply didn’t seem to be many attempts at such a thing, let alone actual completions of the task. To be sure, even in the age of the Internet, we don’t always know what exciting things people have been up to, but the only completions I could find were by Justin Simoni (a constant inspiration when it comes to bikes and mountains) and Tina Lewis, both in the 18-19hr range. Maybe I’m weak for wanting to wait for at least decent conditions—call me crazy, but this seems to be an important part of the tradition of mountaineering—but I couldn’t figure out how it should take quite that long. And riding dark roads at night doesn’t hold a huge amount of appeal for me. So I waited for good conditions.
Well, that was worthwhile.
It’s not like I’m realizing anything ground-breaking here—in fact, mountain and ultrarunners crossing over to skimo in the winter months is treading perilously close to the tipping point of being cliche—but holy shit, what an absolutely fantastic sport! If you like moving quickly and efficiently* in the mountains, this style and format of activity is the only one that makes sense in the winter. *(I prefer the “efficiently” adverb, because I believe it is one’s mindset and intent—not absolute velocity—that positively or negatively shapes the experience.)
Of course, the Euros have known this for a long time; they have a deep, intense pool of athletes over there who have been going at this for decades. Backcountry skiing or alpine touring in general is certainly nothing new here in the States, but it is definitely a growing sector, and with big advances in lightweight gear, runners (and others) with a bent for the mountains are increasingly being attracted to the sport’s extreme light-n-fast sector—skimo racing. So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that Ultimate Direction is making the logical cross-over, too. Garment-like hydration vests/packs with front carrying capacity have become the norm in running; why not apply the same design principles to skimo-specific packs? I’ve certainly been enjoying testing the new products.
Last month I was out at dinner with some friends when my friend Roch started talking about his hope to one day ski the length of the John Muir Trail. The JMT—the classic 200+ mile route through the High Sierra from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley—is an extremely popular summer hike, but Roch figured it had only been skied a couple of times. This conversation was quite inspirational for me—Roch is an undeniably compelling and confidence-inducing orator— and I started thinking about the kinds of things I could reasonably do on skis.
I doubt I’ll ever have the skills or confidence to be scratching and jump-turning my way down the really steep stuff in the mountains, but the thought of covering a lot of miles over the mountains on more mellow terrain holds a distinct appeal. More “ski touring” I suppose, than “ski mountaineering”. This appeal is facilitated in no small part by the fact that such activity relies on a physical capacity—all day endurance—that I’ve been honing my entire life, as opposed to the more skilled and technical requirements of steeper descents. Skills I certainly don’t currently possess. Maybe I’ll get there one day.
This summer, from mid-April to mid-August, I had a bone stress injury in my right tibia (reaction, fracture, it doesn’t really matter, treatment is the same) that prevented me from not only running, but really, precluded almost any pain-free, bipedal perambulation. Because I was necessarily relegated to biking for those four months, I had a real awakening with regards to the wonders and merits of it as a means of satisfying, continuous movement in the mountains.
Despite a fairly negative attitude towards biking (at least, as anything other than pure commuting) over the past few years, I actually have a bit of experience with the activity from my college days. In my first 10 years of running (1995-2005), I sustained something like 12 stress fractures. In high school, I was young and healed quickly and as a means of coping, I would haphazardly spend some time cross-training on my mom’s stationary bike in our basement. Soon enough I was back out pounding the gravel and dirt.
In college, however, I distinctly remember having a conversation with the school’s athletic trainer, Bruce, asking him why this particular stress fracture was taking longer than the four weeks of downtime I would typically require in high school. His response?
“Tony, your’e not 15 anymore; your body takes longer to heal now.”
This was a depressing thing to hear at a mere 19 years of age.
Funny, that actually went about as well as I could’ve realistically hoped. TGC had been on my to-do list for a couple of years now. Friends’ descriptions intrigued me, and I found the surface-level details to be attractive: a route that logically traverses a geographic feature (the entire island!), travel to a foreign land, high-level competition, a long but still sub-100mi distance. Nevertheless, I barely made the trip due to a lingering shin twinge that left me woefully underprepared for so much running so early in the season. However, when my shin showed signs of affirmative health two weeks before race day, I put my faith in my consistent uphill skiing over the past two months and several reports that the track was steep and technical (i.e. giving me lots of hiking breaks), and began making some last-minute plans to race. Continue reading
In late October 2001 I was on I-70 driving east through the Eisenhower Tunnels with three fellow Colorado College freshmen. Our destination that evening was the Grays and Torreys trailhead, just a few miles down the hill (they would become only my 2nd and 3rd 14ers the next day; I’d been living in Colorado for all of two months), but as we emerged from the tunnel and glanced to our right, the driver immediately exited the freeway and careened into the Loveland Ski Area parking lot. One lift was running, two runs were open (due to copious manufactured snow), the cost was free (seriously, who would charge for less than an hour of artificial snice?) and the bed of our truck just happened to be lined with approximately half a dozen pairs of skis because, Colorado.
I didn’t commit to running UTMB this year until two weeks before race day. During the second week of July my historically-troublesome right shin became a worry once again, and I was able to do very little true running for all of July and August. In early August, in hopes of keeping my Hardrock Qualifier chances alive, but wanting to buy myself a little more time, I had even signed up for the Bear 100 and given up on racing UTMB altogether. However, my shin unexpectedly experienced a turnaround a couple weeks before the race, which made the opportunity to head back to Chamonix too appealing to pass up. Continue reading
While Hardrock is generally referred to as an “Endurance Run”, and while it is very much that, each year there is unavoidably a competitive component to the event as well. Having been a part of the event five of the last seven years as crew/pacer, I definitely appreciate the community-oriented vibe that the Hardrock Board has so assiduously cultivated over the years; it’s a huge part of what makes Hardrock so special. However, to anyone who wants to dispute the fact that there is at least a small bit of competitiveness going on down in the San Juans, I say, ok, then stop timing finishers and publishing the results (and basically every possible permutation of the finishers’ splits).
There’s nothing wrong with caring about one’s performance. I submit that doing so is even at least a small part of what makes running in the mountains so instructive—we try to be the best versions of ourselves, and in the mountains that means, of course, physically, but also mentally and emotionally. But that’s a discussion for a different time and place.
There is basically no debate that at the pointy end of the field, this year’s men’s entrants represent the highest quality and depth ever assembled. It all happens literally by the luck of the draw, so, as a fan of the sport, I feel pretty damn lucky this year.
After taking six of the previous eight months off, I finally started daily running again on April 23rd, the day I got back from a trip to Japan. The first week I began with 35-60min flat jogs, but only a month on I did my first race of the year—the Jemez 50mi—and after that knew that I wanted to find some kind of focus event for the first half of the summer. Ever since I DNFed in Trient, Switzerland (140km) last year, UTMB was always going to be the goal race for the second half of the 2014 summer.
A couple weeks ago I did a bit of a tester long run on my home trails in Boulder—31mi, 4h26min, 7k’ vert—to see how/if my hip would hold up on a longer effort. It did, and afterwards I started thinking about what I could race on the upcoming calendar, despite the fact that I’d only been running pain-free for all of 16 days. Originally, I’d planned on racing the Zegama Skymarathon in the Basque country in late May, but despite that being an incredible event, there was no way that I could be fit enough in time to justify the international travel.
The Jemez 50 miler in northern New Mexico, however, was the same weekend, and it is an event that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, mostly because of Kyle Skaggs’ recommendation. Unfortunately, the original course—which reportedly featured a tasty mandatory hike up a boulder field on one of the route’s three 10k’+ summits—burned down in 2011, so the current course has seen a couple of different renditions. This year’s route would retain many of the original’s defining features: an ascent of 10,400′ Pajarito Mountain (which we would actually do twice), a loop through the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a rugged cross-country ascent to access Pajarito Canyon, and the classic 3000′ finishing descent of Guaje Ridge.
My main objectives going into the race were: 1) to not lose any training before or after the race—I basically wanted to put out a solid training effort, 2) not re-injure myself. As such, I didn’t rest at all leading up to the weekend. My sister was moving into her new house in Colorado Springs, so I headed down to help her with that and took the opportunity to run up and down Pikes Peak on Wednesday, an almost 4hr effort with 8000′ of pounding on the pins. Friday morning I felt terrible on my nearly 2hr run, and I calculated that in the seven days leading up to the race I’d run 40k’ vert and 125mi. Ok, so, not rested. Let’s see if I can achieve my other goal.
I ran the first 10mi at a relaxed pace with birthday boy Joe Grant. Neither of us were feeling much pep in our legs on the uphills (and it would stay that way, at least for me), and we soon realized that this was very much a running course—there wouldn’t be many steep, hiking grades to vary the leg muscle recruitment. While I prefer the steep and techy stuff as much as Joe, I’m able to hold my own on the smoother, flatter stuff, too, so began to push out a bit of a gap as we made our way up Pajarito Mt for the first time. This climb was on a moderately-graded, but freshly cut trail before traversing over the top of the mountain past ski lifts and descending in a circuitous fashion down to the Pajarito Lodge at mile 18.6. I enjoyed this flowy singletrack downhill and felt firmly ensconced in training run effort.
Joe’s wife, Deanne, was gracious enough to hand us gels at the Lodge all day (we would pass through this aid twice), so after picking up an extra water bottle and some sugar there, it was off to the Valle Grande. I skipped the Pipeline Aid as I had more than enough water, but I doubt it was a full 4mi from there to the aid station in the Caldera (mile 25.4) as I covered this smooth double-track in only 24min (3:27 at Pipeline, 3:51 in the Caldera).
A short while later, the route left the double-track and headed across the grass and up the hill to a low pass between Cerro Grande and Pajarito Mountain. After 4hr of basically continuous, up-tempo running, I was ready for this short hike uphill. The grade wasn’t particularly steep, but the route was flagged off of any discernible trail, directly up the fall-line, over rubbly footing and many burned, downed trees. If there had been a trail (solid footing), it would’ve definitely been runnable. I’m glad there wasn’t; I was tired of running. I hit the pass at 4:18 (it was only a 1000′ climb) and immediately enjoyed a rollicking descent down Pajarito Canyon. It began as more cross-country fare over grass, but eventually we picked up a trail that only got smoother and smoother and was at the absolute perfect grade for fast, unbridled descending. This was one of my favorite sections of the course.
I reached the Pajarito Canyon aid (31.4mi) in 4:51. I was having a blast, but after a solid 50K, running starts to feel a bit redundant no matter what. Nevertheless, with a pair of full bottles and another summit of Pajarito between me and the next aid I took off with continued enthusiasm and energy. The climb back up the mountain went better than expected—I did it only 1min slower than earlier in the morning—and now there were 50K runners to exchange encouragement with along the way. When I saw Deanne back at the Lodge again (38.6mi, 6:11), I knew there was frequent aid the rest of the way, so picked up a couple extra gels and left my extra bottle. When she asked how I was feeling, though, I think I mostly responded with a desultory grunt about how it was going to be work from here on out.
It definitely felt that way on the jog back over to the Pipeline aid—I was thoroughly uninspired and just ready to be done—but if I’d known just how sweet the upcoming Guaje Ridge singletrack was going to be, I would’ve been operating with a whole lot more enthusiasm. This descent was spectacular. A carpety trail traversed along the gently descending ridge for miles and miles at a grade perfectly suited for running downhill fast. Seriously, it is one of the more quality descents I’ve experienced in the sport.
Eventually, the terrain flattened out for a couple of frustrating, wandering miles through an extensive burn zone, but by now I could smell the barn and soon enough I was back on singletrack dropping into Rendija Canyon (mile 50.6 in 7:48) before the interminable final two miles leading to my 8:07:07 finish in the now full-on rain. Unfortunately, it was snowing up high and they ended up having to pull runners from the course early. Considering it had been exactly only a month since my first run back from my hip injury (a flat 33min outing on the creek path the day after I got back from Japan), I was satisfied with the effort.
Even with the rain, the finish was a perfect example of the intimate, community feel to this event, which was a big reason I wanted to run it. Selfless volunteers, tables and tables of very good Southwestern food, and general mirth defined the atmosphere. I’ve always respected my friends who will run all kinds of races—big and small, local and international—while it seems I’ve mostly gravitated towards the competitive and high-profile.
Running hard and fast against the best competition will always be my number one priority in the competitive realm, but I hope to do more low-key, less intense events, too, where there is as much emphasis on the camaraderie and fellowship and community as there is on the top runners at the higher-profile races. Obviously, our sport is large enough to accommodate both types, and I hope I can begin to fit more of each into my schedule.
You could say that going to a local event like this for an easy win is cherry pickin’, but I would argue that that term works in more ways than one. Cherry pickin’ is often used to refer to scouting for weak fields where one can snag an easy victory, pad the ol’ win-loss column. A slightly different use of the phrase, however, refers to selecting the best out of a bunch, and in than sense, the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs certainly qualify. I would highly recommend them to anyone looking for a fun, flawlessly-organized, friendly race with an above-average course.
Finally, a huge thanks to all the volunteers—I mean, really, who wants to stand out in the woods all day waiting for runners to come through?!—to Deanne for putting up with Joe and I all day, and to Blake for so kindly opening his home. That shower felt incredible.