Back when I was a budding trail-runner, races were the main goal and highlight of each season. I ran my first race, my first marathon, my first ultra, and my first 50 miler with obsessive anticipation. The shininess has worn off a bit since. Racing is fun, but the thrill and jitters from “gosh, can I actually run for N miles?!” is largely gone. With a few exceptions, my favorite runs in each of the last four or five years were the ambitious, exploratory, mountain link-ups I did in preparation for the main event; sometimes solo, sometimes with a like-minded group of people. By the time the race came, it was a little anticlimactic.
The rules surrounding federal wilderness lands and National Parks generally don’t allow organized races, so the races are squeezed in amongst the peripheral public (and sometimes private) land. There are a lot of beautiful places out there, but the top-shelf spectacular areas are usually gobbled as part of one Park or Wilderness or another and thus off-limits for organized trail races.
Put another way, it’s getting harder and harder for me to find a really compelling race. I know I can run 30-50 miles with sufficient training and the idea of shelling out significant cash for the race and logistics to run a long distance in something which isn’t the most spectacular of areas is less and less appealing to me. The support and camaraderie of a race is, of course, wonderful, but oftentimes what really sets my heart aflutter is devising a Big Stupid Mountain Run with my friends. Unlike a race, the date is also flexible to get optimal weather.
After a winter of thinking it over, I decided that the Big Stupid Mountain Run would be the end rather than the means this season. There’s a popular loop in Rocky Mountain National Park from Bear Lake on the east side of the park, up and over the Continental Divide via Flattop Mountain, then down to the town of Grand Lake on the west side of the Park via the Tonahutu Creek Trail. After a resupply there, you return to Flattop via the North Inlet Trail and trot triumphantly back down to Bear Lake again. It’s on the order of 35 miles with about seven thousand feet of elevation gain along the way. Unlike a lot of the big runs I’ve done in seasons past, it’s entirely on good(ish) trail and should be pretty runnable. I trained modestly all summer on a series of nice-in-their-own-right mountain runs of varying levels of big and stupid and felt pretty prepared by the end of August.
One thing lacking was partners. I’ve got dozens of like-minded running buddies, but somehow everyone had plans for the target weekend of August 31st. No matter. Some of my best runs have been solo efforts and what they lack in companionship they make up for in ease and flexibility of planning. I set out on my own plan and here is what happened.
In the Park, In the Dark
Rising at 3am under a beautifully starry sky, I packed up, fueled up, warmed up, and headed out, fully loaded, at 4am from Bear Lake. The weather forecast called for the usual 40% chance of afternoon thunderstorms typical of late summer this year. With this possibility in mind, I wanted to get to the Divide (and subsequent speedy run down the Tonahutu Creek Trail) by first light. I erred on the side of caution with a waterproof shell, thermal leggings, and various other emergency gear I normally carry only in the most dire of contingencies.
While I run at night quite a lot, I don’t normally start my big runs before daylight. It was oddly focusing and beautiful to hike up the Flattop Trail in the pool of light from my headlamp thinking ahead to the planned big mileage day. By 5am, I’d broken tree line and was admiring the view down onto the city lights of the plains below and the celestial lights of Jupiter and Venus rising on the eastern horizon in advance of the sun. Suddenly, it started snowing on me. What the hell? It was a short-lived storm, so I continued ascending at a good, sustainable rate.
By quarter of six I was nearing, for lack of a better word, the summit cone of Flattop. It was pretty windy and cold as you’d expect at dawn at 12,000’. Is that cloud ahead or is it just still dark out? No, that’s definitely a cloud. First light on the summit revealed a wall of blackness stretching out to the west braced by a 40 mph wind. It wasn’t bad enough that I had to turn back; less than an hour of concerted running into the headwind would get me across the broad tundra plateau and down below tree line on the western side of the Divide into the relative calm near Haynach Lake. The trick was to not remain trapped over there if conditions got more malignant (which they did).
Discretion is the better part of valor, I’m told and while calling for a spousal pickup from the other side of a major mountain range is possible, it’s certainly not advisable for more reasons than loss of style points. I turned around and headed back down the mountain formulating a plan B along the way. I was trained and ready for a big run and another weekend wasn’t likely to come together. Time to get some good miles in on the east side of RMNP!
Of course, as soon as I’d dropped a mile down the trail, the sun came out to the east and it was looking moderately nice over here. Figures! But a glance back up at the Divide from Bear Lake made me not regret my decision at all.
At Some Point You’re Not Going to Get Any Wetter
Weather up on the Divide was grim, but down at Bear Lake, it was actually pretty nice. I quickly restocked, ditched the raincoat and thermal layers… and then thought better of it. Heck, the raincoat doesn’t weigh much. I might as well bring it along.
There was a brief rain shower as I left Bear Lake for the second lap and headed up toward Nymph and Dream Lakes. By the time I’d made the nice traverse around the eastern buttress of Hallet Peak and was heading for Lake Haiyaha, it was sunny and nice again. By the time I was half-way down the newly-built trail from Haiyaha to the Mills/Loch Junction, another brief rainstorm had started up. By the time I got to Mills Lake, the brief rainstorm was still in effect and, it would turn out, would remain so for at least three more hours. It never rained particularly hard, but it was the steady kind of rain that gardeners love that gets everything, trailrunners included, really really moist.
The largely flat, runnable trail up Glacier Gorge above Mills and Jewel Lakes turned out to actually be extremely technical (the rain-slicked rocks and logs didn’t help) and just steep enough that I couldn’t run it in any sort of endurance mode. Black Lake is pretty dark and dreary (though impressive) in the best of circumstances and this time it was doubly so with rain and being whipped across the lake on the teeth of some of that same wind I’d experienced up on the Divide. Shreds of cloud wrapped artistically around the various spires that make upper Glacier Gorge such an amazing place and if I hadn’t been so damned cold and wet, it would have been rather artistic and dramatic moment. Instead, I turned tail, put on my warmest outfit, and resolved to run as much of the return leg as possible just to keep warm.
By the time I’d gotten back to Mills Lake, the rain was definitely slowing down and it was actually sunny by the time I dodged my way through the tourists at Alberta Falls.
Once More Into the Breach
With twenty miles under my belt, I was feeling pretty satisfied that I hadn’t wasted a day. But I was also feeling remarkably good. The original intent was to run 30+ miles and I saw no reason to not carry through now. Again, I restocked at the car, changing out of soaked shoes and socks into my back-up pair. While the heavy traffic in the Moraine Park to Bear Lake corridor in RMNP can be annoying in the summer, it does provide a nice logistical boost in the form of a shuttle bus system connecting the different trailheads. Enough of this out-and-back nonsense, time for a through-trip!
Again, around the trail on the east side of Bear Lake and up the moraine to the north. This time I passed by the turn-off for Flattop and continued north up a long, gradual climb running more of it than I would have expected given the miles I’d already put in. Around mile 22 it started hailing briefly and I was again glad that I’d packed the raincoat. At mile 23 I encountered the decent-sized group of elk which I’d heard bugling earlier. As usual, the weather cleared a little bit just as I got to Lake Helene and I got a nice, dramatic view of Notchtop (all views of Notchtop are dramatic) and dropped into Odessa Gorge.
I did this same through-trip once in the winter, but the terrain looks extremely different in the summer. From Odessa, the trail dropped some more to the lovely Fern Lake (more light rain) and I took a break with a lovely pair of rangers at the Fern patrol cabin (I didn’t know people still lived there in-season!). More trail pounding down the steep descent into Forest Canyon and eventually I reached the crowd of people gathered around The Pool.
I was at mile 26-something at this point and the remaining 1.7 miles of flat, runnable terrain out to the Fern Lake trailhead would leave me still a little shy of my 30+ mile goal. I was definitely feeling like I’d had enough miles at this point, but in for a penny, in for a pound. Tacking on the climb up to Cub Lake and subsequent three miles of easy downhill to Moraine Park should bring me up above 50k pretty easily. Plus, I’d seen 10 lakes already today, why not add one more and make it a prime number?
I won’t say it was my best running, but the one mile climb up through the Cub Lake burn area of last season wasn’t too bad. Cub Lake is not among the finest in RMNP by any stretch, but it’s okay. The trail is a lot rougher and muddier than people think and it’s not the easy family hike it’s billed as by any means!
The sun was finally out for real and, for the first time in 10 hours, I finally broke out my sunglasses on the final mile of trail rounding a rocky ridge in Moraine Park and heading north to the Cub Lake trailhead. The bus showed up moments later and I was whisked, in due course, back up to Bear Lake.
Loves Labor Day Lost
So that puts a cap on the 2014 mountain running season! As the culmination of a moderate season of mountain running, it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped in terms of adventure and exploration. However, I felt pretty good (by trail running standards) the whole time and am satisfied with myself. Total mileage for the day came in at 30.6 miles (and yes, I would have jogged down the road for half a mile to break the 50k mark if the bus hadn’t been right there). Despite only one major climb, I managed over 6700’ of climbing and about 8000’ of descent (Cub Lake is quite a bit lower than Bear Lake).
Next year? Who knows? I miss the shininess of ultra-running and the idea of pushing my distance limits is definitely appealing to me again. For years I swore I had no interest in running a hundred miler and I’m surprised to find that is no longer true. The challenge will be to find something compelling enough to really grab my interest and logistically feasible enough to fit in with my work and family life. Long ago I realized that my own recreation is, and has to be, no higher than third on my priorities in life. Still, there are a couple 100 mile and 100 km options I’m mulling over. In the meantime, I’ve racked up a lot of miles this season without really meaning to and am in decent shape. If I can maintain a reasonable fitness level over the winter, I can hopefully pick up close to where I’m leaving it off this year.
Over and out!