In Pursuit of Winter

January 2018 Training Update

Dirt trails are one of my favorite things. The right trail is like a good friend, it is there if you need a good start to your day, and is there at the end of a long day when you just need to refocus. I am extremely fortunate to have a fabulous trail system just a short jaunt from my apartment in Gunnison, cutting contour lines through the sage-covered hills behind campus.

IMG_1734
The Contour Trails

This proximity to amazing dirt can also make winter training especially challenging, as the trails become unrunnable and close due to snow cover, restricting our training runs to the roads. So, as my roommate and I cruise along the packed snow trail at the end of January, we had to ask ourselves…which wrathful god took winter away? 

IMG_3902
Playing on the trail ©Christian Kerr

True, the ability to run trails through the winter will be an invaluable asset to my preparation for a 100k trail race in April and break some dreaded monotony of winter training. However, the intense cold and frequent snows are a part of living in Gunnison, and despite my complaints about both, their absence is both obvious and uncomfortable. Efforts to find actual snow for backcountry ski cross-training become frustrating and difficult, while in previous years actual snow was all but unavoidable.

IMG_1775
Rock avoidance has turned into a training staple this season

So I will continue to run the trails, but with hope that soon I will soon be forced to ski them. In Colorado, winter snowpack is crucial to providing moisture to the land through dry summers, with the slow release of stored precipitation from the high country. As we roll into February, we can still see dirt in the mountains, and that is cause for great concern. Appease the snow gods; let it snow!

IMG_3909
Enjoying the nearby backcountry ©Christian Kerr
Advertisements

Desert R&R

The desert has always been my retreat. Some of my earliest and fondest memories involve birding trips to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, six year old me tenderly skirting to avoid the innumerable species of giant spiky plants. I now find myself living in another, very different desert, the high sagebrush desert of the Gunnison Basin. While lacking in large cacti or quite the same amazing avian diversity, whenever the moment presents itself, I venture outside in search of some customary recovery and relaxation from the stresses of school.

canyonrespite-3
Weekend lead climbing at Hartman Rocks, near Gunnison

As the semester has progressed, and the stress of final projects and exams looms, these weekend outings have become all the more important to me. Even so, the R&R has turned largely from “recovery and relaxation” to “running and running.” The nearby canyon country of Utah provides yet another amazing avenue for weekend adventuring. One weekend found me racing a very technical half marathon in Moab, the course taking me so far out of my comfort zone and experience level as a track athlete that I was left bleeding and shaking at the finish line.

canyonrespite-2
Moab Marathon Finish Line Festivities

About three days after swearing off running for the season, I found myself training for yet another race. In just a handful of days, I would be competing in the Dead Horse Ultra 50k. This race would take place on a completely different trail system in Moab, the course thankfully featuring much less severe levels of technicality. Halfway through the 31 miles of spectacularly scenic singletrack and slickrock trails, I believe I have finally found something I was meant to do.

canyonrespite-5
Teammate Gordon Gianinny and I looking smooth through mile 7 of 31 – photo by Renée Haip

At mile 18, my teammate Gordon finds another gear that I did not know existed, and soon disappears down the twisting and meandering trail, leaving me to my own thoughts and pain. Having only downed a couple of energy gels and a handful of oreo cookies in the previous miles, I am finally starting to feel the toll of the miles on my legs…skipping through the slickrock now feels much more arduous and trecherous than it did earlier. This feeling of total fatigue continues to increase with every step, and by the time I roll through what I imagine must be about 26.2 miles, I know that if I stop I will not be able to get my stiff legs moving again. So I keep putting one foot in front of the other, knowing with a dead certainty that each step brings me closer to home. My R&R may not be what you would normally imagine it to be, but it brings life to my soul, and it is views and memories like this that I will be dreaming of through the upcoming trials of the semester.

canyonrespite-6
Photo by Renée Haip

One Step at a Time

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -J.R.R. Tolkein, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

14115448_10154431604206894_4778710400582766009_o
Descending from Star Pass, mile 17.5 – photo courtesy Crested Butte Nordic

I had just under twelve miles of trail left to cover, and had just finished running through the fourth roadside aid station in the 2016 Grand Traverse Mountain Race. My knees feel as though I had just stolen them from a 90 year old great-grandfather. With an incredible mental effort, I persuaded my body back into the steady loping rhythm I had adopted over the last 29 miles. The pain and stiffness of regaining this stride after a brief pause for food is incredible, and the resulting stream of swear words was fortunately muffled by the handfuls of pretzels and gummy worms I was stuffing into my mouth.

IMG_1435

Five hours earlier, in the darkness immediately before dawn, I was already running. Chatting light-heartedly with teammates, I had no clue of the ordeal I had just started. Thinking back on that moment now, it may as well have been years ago.

CourseMap
The course map, 40.7 miles with 6,179 feet in elevation gain – courtesy thegrandtraverse.org

Just a few very long miles ago, I was running at over 12,000 feet in elevation, hunched over to brace against a biting wind and blinding snow, listening for the all too close cracks of thunder as I fought to get back below timber line. Having packed as lightly as possible, my only clothing consisted of super light trail shoes, shorts, a t-shirt, a baseball hat, and a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses. At the point I thought I would not be able to continue, the sun broke through the clouds, the wind calmed, and I heard a ptarmigan go “chuck” somewhere on my stretch of the alpine. With that, my will to compete returned.

IMG_1438
“The road goes ever on and on.”

Over the next dozen miles, I discovered levels of pain and discomfort I did not believe existed previously. The slightest uphill grade in the trail completely humbled my ability as a runner, rendering me to a slow, painful shuffling walk. In the end, I found my way to the end of the road, crossing the finish line in Aspen, 40.7 miles and just under 7 hours after leaving Crested Butte that morning.

I stepped onto the road, kept my feet, and was swept into an adventure of the ages.