Life is fraught with challenges. Tests. Someone I served in the Navy with once called adversity an "opportunity to excel." That's kind of how I feel about running long distances on mountain trails because on a good run, you will be tested. Your body will, at times, ask you to put forth more effort than you might have thought was possible. Your spirit will wane from fatigue and your body may ache. You might bleed and you might suffer. And you might have to remind yourself that you WANTED to do this and, therefore, can blame no one but yourself for your suffering. Indeed, running is life and on a good day, you will experience a microcosm of all life has to offer.
Katy and I made plans to run a route I had drawn up that travelled from Clark to Steamboat on a dirt road, wilderness trails and county roads on the Fourth of July. I could only estimate the mileage from the maps I had and the run would be just over 30 miles. This was my last long run before going to run Tahoe, so I was excited for the big mileage.
The morning of the 4th was beautiful here in Steamboat Springs and I spent it with Benihana and some of my best friends, the Buschmanns, watching the annual parade of locals down Lincoln Avenue. After that, I went over to the Tread of Pioneers Museum (Steamboat's historical epicenter) to see Katy (In costume! She works at the museum.) and enjoy the block party, music, food and revelry that was part of the museum's annual festivities. The morning weather was sunny and slightly cool. "A perfect day for a run.", I kept telling myself. Benny, being the beautiful husky that he is, drew a lot of attention from kids to grandparents, and I some met wonderful people that morning. Katy and I met up a little later and packed food and gear until we were ready to leave for the trail around 2:30 p.m. About that time, the weather started to change and clouds started to roll in. The forecast had called for a 30% chance of afternoon thundershowers, which usually means fast moving storms at the end of the day. We staged Katy's car in town for the end of the run, then I drove us north to Clark's Greenville Mine Road to start our run. By now, there was a nice, uniform layer of clouds darkening the sky and I was doubting how fast this front would move through. We were in good spirits, though, and felt prepared for anything, so we started off down the dirt road to meet up with Roaring Fork Trailhead some eight or nine hilly, winding miles later. Early on, I felt like I had eaten too much in prepartion for this run and it took me a few miles to hit my stride and come correct. Katy was running very well, particularly on the uphills. Around the 6 mile mark the road begins a steep half mile, 400' descent down to a small, hidden valley. This is one of my favorite place to go camping in Routt County. Through the middle of the valley runs Big Creek, which was still running a little quick (read: dangerously) and which we had to de-shoe and cross in order to reach the trail head. Just after we crossed, about 2 hours and 9 miles into the run, it began to rain. Steadily. Straight up, the weather got gloomy.
Roaring Fork is a tough trail. It is 3.4 miles long, ending at Swamp Park, and gains 1400' of vert, most it in the first mile and a half. The beginning of the trail is also overgrown with raspberry bushes (which are delicious later in the summer). On this day, the overgrown foliage just soaked and stabbed at us. On this section, we passed a single hiker with a dog whose truck we had passed at the top of the valley. "Nice day for a run." he says as we pass on the trail. At the time, I was able to offer a chipper reply and smile. His dog looked cool with his little pack on. We trudged evenly, with minimal rain gear on, higher up the mountainside until the trail finally started to flatten out a little. Downed trees littered the trail for it's entire length. Some were very large. This ruined any kind of consistent pace we might've achieved. We both had thoroughly soaked feet and the cooler air temperatures had us running to stay warm. We stopped to eat briefly after a couple miles but I was beginning to get irritated with the rain and just wanted to keep moving. After a much welcome downhill, about 11 miles and 3.25 hours into our run, we reached the open meadow known as Swamp Park, and the trail we were on came to a complete dead end. At that point, I think it began to rain a little harder.
We both stood at the edge of the park, perplexed and dissappointed. We should have met up with Swamp Park Trail here, which is a major artery through the Zirkel Wilderness, and by all rights, should have been a very distinct trail. Instead, we saw nothing. No evidence of a trail junction. No signage. Just a vast meadow of green plants with 2 inches of standing water in it. In hindsight, the trail junction should have come a little uphill of where we ended but we still should have seen it. How we missed it, I still have no idea. Considering the weather and fact that it was now 7:30 p.m., we agreed that turning around was our only option. To spend time trying to find the trail and then make our way 9 miles through the Wilderness Area to our drop bag at Mad Creek was just too risky. Even after that we would have had to run another 10 miles of trail and road back to town.
On the reverse leg of Roaring Fork, we re-encountered every downed tree and puddle all over again. At least this time around it wasn't a surprise. We managed to keep our spirits up by joking about our misery and accepting the situation and kept moving through the worst of it. Like all the low points in life, this one had it's end and after an hour or so we arrived back at the trail head, which gave us a much needed morale boost. We didn't bother taking our shoes off crossing Big Creek this time. Once we were across and running, the weather finally gave us a break from the rain. We ran another mile and then began the climb out of the valley. By the time we reached the top, darkness was falling. Fortunately, Katy had packed her headlamp and a hand held lamp because I had left my headlamps in the drop bag at Mad Creek. The running in the dark together was actually good prep for Leadville, since we will be running through the entire night together at that race. Just for a little extra challenge, Mother Nature threw in some dense fog at this point and we ran in a cloud in the dark for the next hour. Although we ran in silence for many stretches, as the run demanded it, we were still able to laugh and joke through it all. When we finally descended below the fog, we were relieved to run the final mile-plus back to my truck with a focused view of the road in our lights. My legs were tired but I could have easily sprinted to the truck at the end. I don't think I've ever been more relieved to have a run behind me. 21.9 miles, 4:48 running time and over 4000' vertical.
A good run has all the elements of life in it, the good and the bad, and this run certainly had them all in spades. And as miserable as I felt during parts of the run, it will stand out as a memorable experience for the joy we got to feel and share, as we overcame the rough spots together. (Thanks, babe. Couldn't have done that one without you.)
Then, there was the next day...