Sunday, July 8, 2012

Running in Colorado

This summer I will be spending about 5 weeks in Colorado, and I just arrived three days ago. It's a glorious, vastly different world from Davidson, North Carolina. While the morning temperatures are as much as 20 degrees cooler, the elevation where I am is over 5,000 feet higher. Within a short drive (or run), there is the opportunity to get much, much higher!

As I discovered last summer, running at altitude can turn an "easy" run into a nightmare. I'm still planning on racing here, but I'm hoping to be more prepared. We arrived in Colorado two and a half weeks before my race, and I'll take that time to not only acclimatize to the altitude, but also to the running conditions here.

My first two runs were easy, flat runs, just to get a feeling for what the elevation does to me.

Today I took it to the next level with a planned 17-mile trail run including over 4,000 feet of vertical gain.

The hitch in my plan was that my wife Greta was coming with me, and she is not a runner! The trail is an out-and-back, so we decided to split up at the start, with me running ahead and she walking as far as she could. When we met up, I'd walk the rest of the way down with her.

The other hitch in my plan was that I was using a new piece of equipment: A CamelBak hydration system. I've never run with one, so I wasn't quite sure of all its pitfalls. More on that later.

I started off running up the trail at an elevation of 7,800 feet. The trail immediately began climbing. The trail was narrow and the damp undergrowth that overhung the trail quickly rendered my shoes soaked through. I was hoping to average 15-minute miles for the 8.5-mile ascent. After a 13:54 first mile, I could tell that was going to be a challenge. I had gained 495 feet in just one mile, and I was sucking some serious wind. Mile 2 was even steeper, gaining 617 feet. The new plan was to try to keep each mile under 20 minutes.

Then things got interesting. I knew the hike was pretty much a steady climb all the way to the top, and I found myself heading down a jeep road. I stopped and looked in my trail guide, which had anticipated this wrong turn "Stay to the left as the road heads back downhill." Oops. I walked back about a quarter-mile and saw a faint trail heading upwards. Could that be it? I ran up it a ways and saw that the trail opened up. This was it!

But with Greta following behind, I didn't want her to make the same mistake. I found some sticks and tried to make a giant arrow in the road pointing the right direction, but it just wasn't very visible.

I took off my orange running cap and strapped it to a tree about 20 yards up the trail. Hopefully she wouldn't be looking down at the trail and miss it!

All in all I had gone about three-quarters of a mile off course. I knew Greta didn't want to be out all day, so we had agreed that I would turn around about 2.5 hours into the run, whether or not I reached the top.

As I headed up the trail, things got progressively rougher. There were lots of downed trees, and they still had their branches, so negotiating my way through them was difficult. Here's a photo Greta took of a particularly gnarly log-jam:

The typical runner will need to modify his stride for obstacles such as this!

Behind one downed tree was a very surprised bear, who dashed up the trail about 30 yards ahead of me! I decided I'd try to make more noise as I ran/walked up these difficult trails, in case another surprised bear decided to fight instead of flee!

As I made my way higher up the mountain, I could tell that I didn't have the strength I had had at the start. Between the elevation, the trail, and the cumulative effects of hard trail running, I was steadily losing my battle to maintain even a sub-20-minute pace. Very little of the trail was actually runnable. Here's another section of the trail so you can see what I was up against:

Yes, there is a trail in there, honest!

My goal was a spectacular viewpoint at Mile 8.5 on the trail, but given my wrong turn, it would have actually been around Mile 9.25. After 7 miles of climbing, my GPS showed I'd been at it for 2 hours and 15 minutes. My pace was still around 20 minutes per mile, so running 2.25 miles in 15 minutes to make my 2:30 deadline was out of the question. I decided I'd turn around at Mile 8, no matter what. Mile 8 ended up being in the middle of the forest (at 11,200 feet!), so I turned around and headed back down to a nice viewpoint to take my "summit" self-portrait:

I look surprisingly less exhausted than I feel!

There really were some spectacular views on this trail, and I knew I was missing out on a 360-degree view at the top, but this would have to do. Not bad!

Unfortunately I wasn't able to pick up the pace much on the way down. The trail was very rough, and I had to stop and pick my way through downed trees. Oh, and I was also just dog-tired. But when I did find a rare open section of trail, I was always able to open things, up, so I'm pretty sure I could descend quite a bit faster at these elevations if the trail was a little friendlier. I did manage to keep my miles under 20 minutes, but only just barely.

Then, somewhere around Mile 11, I was surprised to find that sipping my CamelBak provided no water. That didn't seem possible! I had 70 ounces of water, which is more than I typically drink in any long run. I guess because I had no visual feedback of how much I was drinking, it didn't seem like I was going through the water that quickly. Lesson learned: Monitor your CamelBak!

Fortunately there were only a little over 4 downhill miles remaining, so I would be fine, but running out of water in the middle of the wilderness is very disconcerting!

About 2 miles later, I found Greta, who had already started back down the mountain. Amazingly, we had been able to say in contact via text message, so I wasn't very concerned about her. She had spotted my hat just fine and knew what to do. She looked pretty worn out; I can attest that just walking this trail was a very tough workout. Fortunately there were just 2 miles left, and Greta had done a better job managing her water than I had. We took those miles nice and easy, and got back to the car without further incident.

On the drive home, Greta declared that she would be participating in no 5 1/2 hour hikes during the rest of our trip. I can't see why -- this one had come off with hardly any hitches!

Details of today's workout are below.

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