In just a few weeks, I will run my first-ever 50k race at an event in Big Sky, Montana called the Rut. It is a steep race that doesn’t shy away from elevation gain. In January, I could only wrap my head around signing up because I allowed myself 8 full months to train. Now, it has been over 7 months since I signed my name to that blood oath (a very messy registration procedure). I have trained consistently and I have trained hard. This years’ training sits atop a multi-year progression of mountain hiking and running, which sits atop the previous ten years of on-and-off road running and a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I promise I bring this stuff up to set the stage, not to brag. This is where life has taken me. I decide it is time to put a cherry on top of all this, and then I flip open my laptop to search for an objective that will present a sufficient challenge and bring ample rewards.
I think back to the long loop I ran through Rocky Mountain National Park last week. I wasn’t completely satisfied. Realizing this makes me feel ungrateful, but there’s no point denying the truth. There wasn’t much above-treeline running, and I want to frolic through sprawling alpine paintings. There wasn’t much climbing after the initial push toward Longs Peak, and I need to subject myself to a hearty challenge if I want to feel confident that I’m prepared for the race, which will only be more rugged. What series of trails can I follow that will give me the feelings I’m imagining? Being me, I have a spreadsheet to try and answer this question. Over the past year I’ve assembled a list of dream trail runs, with columns for distance, elevation gain, comments, and a link to the route description on the Trail Run Project. Finding my favorite trails has always included an element of trial and error which I like to minimize through research. I want to stay close by, so I can make the most of the day. I consider some options near the mountain town of Nederland before recalling that roadwork in Boulder Canyon would make the drive hell. My options narrow. Soon it becomes clear. There is one objective outshining all the others. The Pawnee-Buchanan Loop.
I never knew for sure if I would take a shot at the Pawnee-Buchanan loop this summer. And yet here I sit, virtually staring it down. My eyes scan the elevation profile. Three distinct long climbs. Looping into remote portions of Indian Peaks Wilderness. Spending a lot of time above treeline. Presenting a challenge so big I don’t even know how I will do. Overcoming that small sense of uncertainty is what makes me feel like I am growing. So I mentally commit to it and try to calm down so I can sleep.
The next day, I drop my girlfriend off at work and head straight for Brainard Lake Recreation Area. My main source of nerves is whether or not I will get back in time to pick her up at the end of the day. It is very tough to estimate how quickly I can complete a trail run I’ve never done before. The terrain is variable and the trail surface affects my speed a lot too. Sitting at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead, I do a quick number-crunch: how long I can take and still get back in time to get Sarah, divided by the distance of the route. Oof...this will be close. I am so jazzed about the run that I cannot consider bailing. However, I try not to think too much about hurrying, because it’s counterproductive; it is much faster to run an evenly-paced long route than to go out too hard and burn up with many miles still to go. I pore over my map again - I will be bringing it along, but it helps to have the twists and turns quasi-memorized or I could still get lost. During my map study session, I notice a young woman in the car next to me putting on makeup. She leaves her car with a cat in a see-through backpack. What different days we are going to have.
I do an uncharacteristically good job of clearing my mind for the task ahead. There’s nothing more to do, so I just...start. The initial trail is a familiar one, which always helps my nerves. The beginnings and ends of runs tend to be the toughest for me, but I can pretend I’m just headed for a quick jaunt on Mount Audubon. The trail is busy, but hikers tend to move aside for me when I’m running. I’m pretty sure people unconsciously give me precedence when I’m running, because they sure don’t get out of my way when I’m hiking with a backpack. There’s some kind of meritocracy in people’s minds, and trail runners are the most badass of all. My philosophy is that everyone is out there doing their own thing, starting from where they are, and trying to objectively compare any two trail users is pointless. I still take advantage of people’s deference, and move up the trail with few obstructions.
The run begins in earnest as the trail crests and I take the turnoff for the Beaver Creek Trail: new territory for me. The first climb of the day is done. But it was a little too easy. In the back of my mind, I know there must be some bigger climbs in my future. That doesn’t present as a worry, because long runs and hikes are best taken one bite at a time. I soak in the surroundings. Because my starting point sat high at 10,000 feet, I have gotten above treeline very quickly. Downhill running allows me to relax and take in the wide views. I am near the edge of the mountains so I can see all the way to the cities on the plains. I can see Longs Peak, the highest for hundreds of miles. I bear witness to new mountains. This is exactly the trail run I was imagining. I can tell already. My pace quickens but is nonetheless slowed down by the softball-sized rocks and knee-height alpine shrubbery. Moving as fast as possible takes a backseat again; it would be impossible to complete the trail if I break my ankle or fall hard. Running downhill has gotten a lot easier with practice. It’s kind of like downhill skiing, in that I had to learn to manage my momentum and even to become comfortable not being in control all the time. Those that know me will understand my difficulties with that second one.
I bottom out at Coney Flats Trailhead, where I deal with a bit of tricky route-finding and pause by a lake. There’s nothing uniquely beautiful about the scene, at least as far as Colorado goes. I derive my joy from never having been here before and from being the only person around for what feels like miles. I’m on the backside of the Indian Peaks Wilderness now, the side sheltered from the crowds of the Front Range cities. It is one thing to happen not to run into many people on a trail, it is another thing to expect not to run into many people. That second type of solitude is more complete and enjoyable. And here I am bathing in it. I’ve long known this is my preference, but it can be hard to come by. I typically get it by getting up very early or traveling to a remote corner of the state. This time, I just ran away from everyone for a long time. Self-propelled solitude. Leave me alone. Bye.
Next up is the climb to Buchanan Pass, so I mentally switch gears from downhill to uphill. Variety is always nice, even if I’m working harder now. The trees once again fall away behind me, and I’m staring at the pass. It feels very high above me, but I have learned to just put my head down and move rather than thinking about distances or elevations. I don’t know even know how high the pass is; I failed to note the relative size of the three main climbs on the route. All I know is, the first climb was not very big. I don’t know how long I’ve been going because my phone is tucked away in a zippered pocket of my running vest, and checking the time would mean stopping and taking the vest off. I’d rather conserve momentum. I make an agreement with myself to stop for a water refill at the first opportunity on the other side of the pass. I am in very high spirits. Lately I’ve felt like I have an inexhaustible engine, the result of months of consistent training. I’m feeling a little cocky, even. Confidence is helpful when you’re out on the remote backside of a long trail loop, though. A few backpackers are stopped for a break along the trail, their massive packs sitting next to them. We snap right into one of those scripted conversations:
“You’re moving at a pretty good pace!”
“I’ve got a significantly lighter load!”
Par for the course, and I haven’t wasted any mental energy. I focus on motoring up the ever-steepening trail. The terrain has forced me to give up any ideas of running; I’m squarely in power-hiking territory now. Relatively speaking, I think I’m a faster hiker than runner. What’s more, it feels like switching disciplines when I change how I’m moving. New muscles are engaged, allowing the other ones to rest. My pace slows, slows, slows as the trail gains more vert - a typical pattern as one gets to the top of a climb.
Moments like cresting Buchanan Pass are why I go into the mountains. One minute I’m trapped in a mountainous bowl with views I’ve been staring at for an hour, and the next my vision opens up to 360 degrees. I flip my hat backwards as the wind threatens to claw it off my head. It was hot a second ago, but the wind changes everything. I have precious little time to savor the view. That’s just fine, because the next valley looks even more beautiful. Lakes and persistent patches of snow dot the lush green landscape. Looking down from a ridge is the closest I can get to flying. Thousands of feet below, I spot a stream crossing the trail. A beautiful spot for a break! And before I know it, the steep switchbacks drop me into the valley flatness. Somehow I got off the ridge as fast as if I glided down. Or at least that’s how it feels when I consider how long it would take to climb back up.
Break time is the best. I’m in a meadow by a stream surrounded by dense thickets of wildflowers in every conceivable color. Every color seems richer up here. The sky, the grass, the water. The mountains just seem vivid in a way I can’t describe or capture on a camera. Guess you gotta go see them! The water from the stream is ice cold, and I drink a bottles’ worth while it is still fresh. I tuck away my dual water bottles, chomp in vain on a Clif Bar due to lack of saliva, and mosey on down the trail. The scenery doesn’t let up. I’m soon down below treeline though, and I start to wonder about the final climb of the day - Pawnee Pass. I’m really running blind at this point. Sure, I could pull out my map and wrap my head around things, but I’m in a flow. Running downhill is one of those things you don’t want to interrupt unless you don’t have a choice. My mind does start to fixate on the elevation loss. Down...down...down. Surely I’m at my lowest point of the day (elevation-wise), and I’m still dropping. God damn, this last climb is gonna be a beast. Take it as it comes, though.
I hit the bottom finally, finally, when I come to the Cascade Creek Trail. I infer this because a) the trail starts going uphill, b) the trail is parallelling Cascade Creek opposite the flow direction, and c) it is just time to start going uphill now. My legs actually welcome the uphill work, but it becomes clear they aren’t what they used to be. It takes more mental energy to summon uphill momentum now. Bodies are all interconnected, so I equate the psychological effort to the physiological. A couple of backpackers appears every now and then, glowing from the light of solitude just like me. You don’t see many grumpy backcountry hikers. My mood is slowly turning a corner I’d rather not see. The trail switches often from steep to shallow, making it hard to get into a flow of hiking or running. At this relatively low elevation, it’s the hottest point in my day. I’ve been good about drinking water, but urine inspection reveals I could be doing better. I can tell I’m starting to struggle because these are the most magnificent series of waterfalls I’ve come across in Colorado, and it feels hard to appreciate them. Intellectually I know they are wonderful, but the emotions aren’t there. I feel a bit hollow. My emotions are a representation of my larger internal state, and I wish they were telling me something different.
A younger, less wise version of myself would have stubbornly kept pushing. The old man of the mountain has learned better. I stop next to a tranquil bend in Cascade Creek for a water refill and a snack. I gulp down more cold water, more this time. Another Clif Bar somehow navigates its way down my gullet. The sun beams down and I hope to absorb some photonic energy to power my climb, which I know is not a thing. Mental tricks though. My curiosity overwhelms me and I pull out the map. Locating my position, I note the nearest contour lines, then, I flip the map over to find the elevation at Pawnee Pass. A piece of information penetrates my now-thick skull: I have 3000 feet of climbing left. This is totally outside the realm of possibilities I have been considering. There is just no way that is possible. I have done a lot of climbing today, a lot. I go from feeling gassed but prepared for a challenge, to completely hopeless but prepared for a death march. The photons aren’t giving me any energy, and mosquitoes are everywhere. It’s time to keep moving.
Maybe I should have actually kept that break longer. I have a lot of trouble running at all - I have a severe case of the burps. Long-distance trail runners will tell you about the bloat. The burps are a welcome relief, but they point to gastric distress. It seems that the mixture of Clif Bar and water in my stomach is not sitting right. I jog a bit, stop to bend over and burp, and keep jogging. It’s not a fun game. And I am telling you, these are burps are LOUD. Like think of an obnoxious teenage boy trying to burp as loud as he can. They just keep coming. But that’s better than making my digestive system deal with all the extra air. It’s all I can think about for the next miserable hour and a half. Being tired, being gassy, wanting to be done. I’ve regressed to toddlerhood. The views are just stellar though, as I make my way into another sunny valley with some of the most jagged Indian Peaks towering above me. I just wish I could enjoy them more. BRAAAAAAP go my burps, echoing off the topography. Please, how much air can be inside me? I feel sicker as I imagine indistinct chemical reactions in my stomach producing this weird swamp gas.
The downside of gastric upset, apart from its own unpleasantness, is how difficult it makes fueling, which has energetic repercussions. I have no appetite for anything in my vest, water included. So I just keep power hiking. But now I feel so beaten down by this day that I experience little flashes of “oh-fuck-this-I-give-up”. I’m generally feeling resolute and determined to still make it back in time to pick Sarah up from work, but interspersed are these moments of agony. I’ll look up at the trail ahead, and some unidentifiable negative emotion washes over me for a few seconds. I spontaneously sit down, just for a tiny bit, and get back up. To my surprise, I feel rejuvenated. The cycle repeats with increasing frequency. Finally, I turn a corner and can see the walls that define the end of my climbing. Pawnee Pass is up there. But where? I cannot for the life of me imagine where a trail could possibly pick its way up those steep rocky slopes. How will I get up to Pawnee Pass, I keep asking. There is no visible trail up there, and all I see is rockfall and sheer cliffs. But there must be a way, which the trail will reveal to me when it is time. Maybe it would help to see the trail above me, or maybe not. But I’m feeling cranky and I choose to blame everything on the circumstances. Surely I would be running right up the walls if I could just see the trail ahead. Once I get to that pass, I can cruise downhill the rest of the way to the car. In a sense, my entire day effectively culminates in reaching Pawnee Pass. From there, I’ve made the return hike a few times before. I know I can do it then.
I’m still in Pawnee Pass Hell. The trail switchbacks up and up the rockfall. More breaks for me. More questions about the timeline: will I make it? Worries cloud my mind. But somehow I just keep going. That’s perhaps the silver lining of the whole ordeal: when I feel like I’m going to break, I learn that there’s always a little more. I pass a trail runner hiding out in a little cave, under-dressed for the windy day. “You’re crushing this climb!” he exclaims. I don’t have words to tell him how far from the truth that feels for me. It’s all relative. However, his words give me the little touch of encouragement that makes finishing the climb seem not only possible, but inevitable. And it turns out I am almost at the top. In the most welcome surprise of the day, the trail flattens and becomes grassy. I’ve been to Pawnee Pass before, and I know what this means. Soon, a wooden sign comes into view, marking the high point. I find the energy to jog. The wind tries to rip my hat off again, so I jam it into my pocket. My hair flows and swirls wildly, something it doesn’t get the chance to do often. I’m effectively rendered blind and pray I don’t trip on the rocks. But then there I am, leaning exhausted against the sign. You might be imagining an embrace, but I just need the support. And like that, I am done climbing.
But if you think that’s the end of the challenge, you are as wrong as I am. It turns out my entire body has been profoundly weakened by 5 hours of running and hiking. The jostling and pounding of running down steep stone steps challenges my core muscles to provide stability, and they scream out in agony. I pause intermittently just because I can’t take it for that long. But I know I need to get home. The worst part is that I can see the entire remaining route from my perch on the ridge. My entire remaining journey will consist of covering these miles with as much dignity as possible. I catch up to a hiker wearing headphones, which strip him of the ability to hear me, as far as I can tell. “Nothing wrong with me!” he bellows along to the music he is listening to. Oh, if only you could hear me, I’d tell you how wrong you are, buddy. I wait patiently until his buddy cues him in to the person trying to pass him. My mood is at its most sour of grapes, and I ruminate on how humans are the only animals who willingly deprive ourselves of our senses when we need them. Just BE in the mountains, buddy. You might need to hear something. But I say nothing and continue along. Nothing good would come out of my mouth. It might even be puke, I am not sure anymore.
The trail flattens out. The pounding lessens. But as the conditions improve, I deteriorate. Flat running is hard now. I am close to a trailhead, and day hikers with sunny dispositions are now complimenting me on my speed. I think they are lying, but their comments buoy my spirits. I just keep shuffling. When I move too fast, my body quickly lets me know and I double over for a couple seconds. I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure what system is in distress. It might still be my core muscles, or my digestive system, or maybe my soul. One thing is for sure, and that is how exciting the finish is. Cruelly, I must pass by a parking lot on my way to my own car. It feels like pulling on a locked bathroom door when you thought you were done holding it. I dare not look at the cars sitting there. No sense fantasizing. A little more gentle downhill running and...there. I’m back on the road to Mitchell Lake Trailhead. I decide to walk it in; the road is going uphill and I’m not sure there’s a choice anyway. But then I jog to regain some dignity. But then I walk. It’s over. I’m at the car. I strip of everything except my shorts and collapse into the driver’s seat.
I make it back to Sarah’s work 3 minutes before she gets off. My dream has come true. In the Pantheon of trail running routes in Colorado’s Front Range, the Pawnee-Buchanan loop sits highest. There, I said it. It is the best, most epic trail run for hundreds of miles. If you disagree, come fight me. Or better yet, tell me what trail run is better and I will go check it out.