Photo courtesy of Andrew King - D4 Productions

Friday, December 12, 2014

South Africa

I came to South Africa to use running as a vehicle for self-discovery, adventure, and to expose myself to vulnerability.  As I explore new cultures and environments, I learn that my normal isn’t necessarily normal.  Nice cars, name brand clothing, jewelry, and every electronic known to man surround my normal life; the more I have, the more I want.  A Hippocratic lifestyle, for sure, compared to the simplicity that running offers.  I know this is wrong deep in my heart but I don’t know how to change it.  This trip helped me take the first step.

I arrived in Cape Town after traveling half way around the world from Colorado, USA.  Tired and hollowed from jet lag I journeyed 5 hours inland with an agenda to share and seek knowledge from the people and learn about their culture along the way.  I stopped in Montagu, Calitzdorp, Oudshoorn (oats-win), and Prince Albert with the Swartberg Mountains as my final destination.  The Cape Nature Conservation is the agency that manages the natural heritage of the land that gave me a great an overview of the area.  While researching I also learned about people living in the area at the turn of the century, which intrigued me even more.  Who were these people and how did they survive in such a rugged and isolated environment?  More importantly, why not live closer to towns where the conveniences of life are much more plentiful?

The one –most striking- common thread was the optimism everyone displayed.  I felt a sense of genuine happiness.  People live deliberately with only the essentials of life in mind, whereas, I’ve been living unnecessarily by overindulgence.  One image I’ll never forget as I was leaving Calitzdorp, was a young boy –no more than 4 years old- walking down the road with two bottles of water, which he had just retrieved from the local river.  Very humbling.  I would imagine this was his daily chore, and to him, this was normal.

The first couple of nights I was hosted by Living Waters Farm (Erika and Johann) curators of the Donkey Trail. This farm, among many others, is situated in a small valley above Calitzdorp that’s brimming with life: vineyards, olive trees and expansive gardens, but no electricity. This is simple living at its finest.  Erika and Johann provided me an in-depth history of the Donkey Trail, which turned out to be used primarily as a trading route over the spine of the Swartberg Mountains to connect the Gamkaskloof valley on the other side.  Donkeys were used to carry heavy loads in trains and would sometimes traverse the 26km trail by themselves and arrive at the other end as expected.  Children from the Gamkaskloof also used the trail so they could regularly attend school in the opposite valley.  After my introduction to the area I went out on the trail and simply took my time to observe and explore. As the sun was setting I hiked to the highest point around and marveled at what I saw.  I envisioned the early settlers excitement as they crested the ridge to see the lush and expansive valley below.  This place was rugged and isolated but so beautiful at the same time.  I have never been so humbled thinking about what it took to survive here.

Sunset on the first day (All photos courtesy Andrew King D4 Productions)

On my second day of exploring I came across a couple of local guides who had donkeys in tow.  I joined them as they made their way to Elands pass.  Along the way they reiterated the history and further pointed out some shrubs and plants and the usefulness of each.  Short of the pass, I parted ways with the guides and my thoughts suddenly shifted to all the modern conveniences in my life that I consider necessary. Is there a way to curb my appetite for conveniences and overindulgence?  What I think of as burdens, such as walking to town over a few miles or getting water from the river, others think of as necessities for survival.  How do I get back to appreciate my primal instincts of survival and rid myself of the material things in which I think are necessary?  Experiences like this help to put things in perspective.  Over-privileged, under-privileged, whatever privileged, doesn't matter; I have found those with less to be more thankful, optimistic, and enthusiastic towards everyone.  The trail running community is very much like this, with a sense of mutual respect and a we’re all in this together mentality.  I wanted to feel vulnerability during my time in South Africa because I feel it’s a powerful way to grow exponentially and help change all aspects of my life.

Guides on The Donkey Trail

I consider myself an average family man with average running talent and a huge appetite for adventure.  I have a corporate job that provides for my family while trail running fuels my need for adventure. I started running trail races to redefine my limits and what I lacked in talent I made up with hard work.  This type of mentality has spilled over into every aspect of my life, approaching everything with possibility.  I continually ask myself “I wonder if..?”  I ran my first marathon at the age of 11 because I wondered if it was possible. I ran the 500-mile Colorado Trail –twice- because after the first time I wondered if  I could do it faster than anyone else.  With the right mindset combined with hard work, I believe anything is possible.

I reluctantly left Living Waters Farm and made my way to Oudtshoorn (oats-win), which is known as the Ostrich capital of the world. I had lunch in town, picked up supplies and checked in with Cape Nature, the environmental agency managing the Swartberg Nature Reserve. For the next 3 nights I rented a house near Swartberg Pass, which had been built for the crews during the construction of the road through the Swartberg range.  This road, built by Thomas Bain and crew, took 6 years to complete and officially opened in 1888.  The amount of rock placed to support flat stable portions of road on cliff edges is an amazing piece of engineering for all time.

Cape Nature provided me with maps showing a series of trails traversing the Swartberg Nature Reserve.  The Swartberg Mountains are part of the Cape Fold Belt, which is a fold and thrust belt formed over 250 million years ago. The fold creates amazing layers in the rocks looking much like ribbon candy, while the thrust creates huge slabs of rocks piled upon each other exposing rocky jagged edges. Now I was in my element with endless possibilities.  Each day I planned to explore a different trail, heading in different directions.

The first morning I ran up and down the main Swartberg pass road to get the legs talking to the lungs.  After a long journey in the car, the feeling of lactic acid building in my legs was enough to clear my mind.  Later that day I headed to Prince Albert to learn about the town and little more about the area.  Why had it been settled and why did people stay in this remote town?  Simply stated on a sign entering the town “If wide-open spaces and the deafening stillness inspire you then Prince Albert is your place”. It was founded over 250 years ago by Dutch Settlers and still - to this day - provides a source of vibrant culture and necessities of life, much as it did in the beginning.

In my element - Swartberg Mountains
I spent the day walking around town and talking with the locals.  I found a local blacksmith who was eager to talk and share his story.  This was the hardest working man I have ever seen, and yet, very giving with his time.  As he taught me how to hammer out a piece of glowing red-hot steel, it was clear he was very passionate about his craft.  Later I visited a local factory and watched workers play a game of dominos during their lunch.  They played with such enthusiasm as they called out their numbers and smacked down their dominos.  This was Prince Albert: hard working, passionate and enthusiastic people who enjoyed the simplicity of their community. A simple game of dominos and the working of a hot piece of steel, simple and deliberate and equally as happy.  People live here for the same reason I trail run; the simplicity and happiness it provides.

Now that I’ve gotten a feel of the land and culture I decided to head deeper into the range; to the Gamkaskloof, also known as Die Hel.  I left the comfort of the house and ran 30km in search of this secluded valley on a road that went as far as I could see, dipping behind several bends and ridges, each providing a new valley of exploration and further built the anticipation of the Gamkaskloof. Then, just as I had imagined, I came around a bend and there it was, the Gamkaskloof.  Several hundred meters below, a sliver of paradise 20-kilometers long, 300-meters wide and teaming with green vegetation from end to end.   I ran the winding road down to the valley with the same excitement as finishing a race, smiling from ear to ear with anticipation of what I would encounter.

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to run all over the world. Not because I’m the most talented runner but because I’ve been in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocks.  I run to live and do my best thinking on the run in the isolation and peacefulness of nature.  This is what centers me.  I feel I become a better father, husband, friend and colleague.  The remote nature of extreme environments makes me feel more alive, whereas living in a metropolitan area surrounded by material things only offers false pretenses of true happiness. 

The valley was thought to be discovered in the early 19th century and later grew to about 160 people living in complete isolation. Their only access routes –initially-  where through a steep river valley or over the top of the mountains via a couple of rough trails, one of which I had explored a few days previously, the Donkey Trail. As the community grew in the Gamkaskloof, they decided to build a school, which meant they would stay in the valley for nearly everything except for trading goods.  They farmed grain, vegetables, fruit, tobacco, beer made from wild honey, and even distilling something call Witblits (or white lightning) made from corn mash.

Once the road was built in 1962 people began to leave.  The children attended high schools in nearby villages and most of them did not return to the subsistence life in the valley.  The elderly returned to retirement villages outside the valley and overall the number of residents diminished.  The valley was declared a national monument in 1997 and was included into the Swartberg Nature Reserve.  Subsequently the cottages in the valley have been renovated and equipped with solar power and bathrooms.  Because of the improvements, the Gamkaskloof has become a tourist attraction as well as an adventurer paradise. 

Today, a few people still live in the valley and even operate a restaurant, which serves food from their subsistence farms.  The loaf of bread I ate for lunch was made in an outdoor oven by a woman who learned the craft of bread making passed down from many generations.  You don’t know what you don’t know so these people choose to stay secluded, and just like everyone else that I spoke to, there was a genuine happiness and enjoyment about their life.  They wanted to share their story as much as I wanted to learn.  Simple living is their normal.  It’s hard work to live a simple life but provides so much gratification and happiness.  If that’s the point in life then why know anything else. 

I started ultra running because of two passions of mine: backpacking and running.  As a boy scout I used to take long backpacking trips deep into remote areas with a heavy backpack loaded down with some of the conveniences of modern life.  As my sense of exploration expanded I wondered if I could lighten the load and go farther? Pretty soon I was leaving the house with just a fanny pack and a water bottle.  I was doing more with less.  Much like the people I encountered in and around the Swartberg Mountains; they travel long distances on foot for the essentials and through the process live deliberately and happy. If I can achieve happiness by simplifying my life then why not remove some of the modern conveniences that have become part of my normal life?  I honestly think I don’t want to expose myself to vulnerability because of my fear of failure. 

All of this made me realize how far away we’ve gotten from what normal should be for human beings. Adaptation is a strength that has allowed us to survive as a society and yet today we have gotten so far away from the primal essence of life.  I live with so many comforts in my life, thinking I’m thriving.  Yet these people live with so much less while leading a happy and successful life.   Modern conveniences have crossed the line into overindulgence and created a sense of entitlement.  I can –and should do- with far less.  As a father I should be teaching my kids about subsistence living, not providing all the latest modern conveniences.  I am not doing them any favors if the next generation is to be better than the last, but as a species, we must be better than the last in order to survive.  The image of the little boy walking down the road with two water bottles under his arms will forever be etched in mind.  He will someday teach his kids to the same.
Contemplating it all
I leave South Africa with everything I was looking for: self-discovery, adventure, and most importantly to expose myself to vulnerability.  I run in remote places to gain a sense of freedom and center myself, this makes me happy.  South Africa is an absolutely beautiful and diverse place filled with a rich and vibrant culture.  Whether in the city centers or in the remote bush, people I encountered are enthusiastic, deliberate, and happy. I recognize that I’ve been living with a mentality of once I’m successful I’ll be happy and need to change it around to Once I’m happy I’ll be successful.  Being aware of the difference will allow me to live simply and pass it on to the next generation. Now, I wonder if I’m strong enough to be the change I want to see in my family. Running has been at the center of my life for quite some time and I never really figured out why I did it because it’s such hard work.  But that’s the point; the result of hard work is more hard work and the gratification of progress.  Well, simple living is hard work but yet so gratifying.  So running is very much like life should be: simple, deliberate and provide genuine happiness along the way.  Running is -and always has been- my gateway to living a simple, happy life.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Colorado Trail Day 8+ - Gold Hill to Waterton Canyon

The line between a dream and reality is completely blurred.  Let the outer body experiences begin.

I must have passed out because I woke up in that -all too familiar- stupor of not knowing where I was and if I had somewhere to be.  Those few minutes were terrifying and exhilarating all wrapped up in one emotion.  When I finally had the sense of where I was, I reached for my phone hoping that I had not overslept....  12:30 AM?!?  Yep, it was one of those 30 minute power naps that somehow revitalizes every fiber of your being.  "This is it!" I mumbled while stretching.  From here all the way to Waterton Canyon will be one continuous push.  No more sleeping, just relentless forward motion (RFM).  I didn't actually get vertical until 1:15 AM but my mind was racing so I could not fall back asleep.  With no sleep from the night before, plus 30 minutes tonight, and nothing planned for the next 39 hours, I was going to need all the help I could get to stay coherent and upright.

Thank goodness Robert Kunz volunteered to leave Gold Hill with me.  It was 2:15 AM and we were on our way to the Middle Fork of Swan River, the first crew stop so I thought.  The storm had passed but it was pretty chilly so I elected to wear tights - Manpris with long socks nonetheless....  At least I was warm and dry.  I had 105.1 myles in 38 hours and 59 minutes to break the record, and according to my smart friends (Nick Pedatella and Brian Fisher), I only had to manage 3 MPH with a total of 4 hours of down time.  But that 4 hours had to be broken up over the next 6 crew points, which gave me a maximum of 40 minutes per stop with no stopping on the trail.  No more sleeping, planning, or thinking,  just RFM!

A little bewildered
Starting to smile @ 3:30 AM.  With Rob Kunz
It was dark and damp but the moon was our beacon once again, which seemed to lift our spirits a bit.  We were talking and keeping a pretty good pace over the first hill and continued to do so with a succession of rollers in the pre-dawn hours.  Four hours in the dark -for once- seemed to pass by in minutes and once nautical twilight arrived, our pace quickened.  We started our descent into the Middle Fork of the Swan River and as I carelessly slapped my right foot down on the trail, I felt a little pop or some sort of tweak.  I stopped to massage it out but as I started up again the uncomfortable pain was all too familiar.  The shin splints I was so carefully avoiding may have reared its ugly head.  Walking on flat terrain didn't hurt, it was when I tried to lift my toe uphill or heel strike on a downhill that it hurt.  With the crew being no more than a mile away I could deal with it at that point.  To top things off, the Mexican food I ate late last night was not agreeing with me, stopping several times to clear out my system.  I've never been one to go fast in the woods so that took some time.  I should have learned my lesson from a few days ago when the same thing happened after eating Mexican food.  But I can't help it, I'm Mexican and I was eating everything that was put in front of me.

We arrived at the Middle Fork of the Swan River, crossing the road and then through the campground, and the crew were nowhere to be found.  We didn't have a map because I knew where we were going and I knew this was the spot to meet.  We had passed a couple of campers and before trudging along to what I thought was Georgia Pass next, Robert went back and asked the campers for a map or at least give us a snapshot of what lay ahead.  According to their map we still had to get to the North Fork of the Swan River before we started the climb to Georgia Pass.  That's when we realized the crew must be waiting at the North Fork and NOT the Middle Fork.  We had wasted at least 15 minutes of that precious 4 hours of downtime on a silly mental mistake of mine.  In my mind, the North and Middle Fork were one in the same.

It was only a couple of myles to the North Fork but with my bum right shin, those myles dragged on waaay too long.  From quite a distance away as we -unknowingly- paralleled the Middle Fork road, Robert and I heard the strangest noises, sounded like a chorus of humming or howling but we couldn't quite make it out.  Good thing Robert turned and acknowledged the noise because I was gonna pretend I didn't hear it...  I certainly didn't want to talk about something that really wasn't there so early in the day.  Finally we saw the source .  Whew!  It was a dog sledding camp with literally hundreds of Alaskan Malamute type dogs standing on their houses howling because it was breakfast time.  That occupied my mind long enough to take us to the waiting crew in no time at all.

Eating while massaging
North Fork of the Swan River.  Not happy and a little concerned with my shin

It was just after 7 AM, which means I was traveling at least 3 MPHs but I still sensed the urgency from the crew as I sat to scarf down my breakfast burrito.  I changed shoes to alleviate some of the pain I was experiencing in my shin, briefly put some ice on it and we were off within 20 minutes.  A little time back into the bank.  Sylvia now joined me to Kenosha pass and just as I wanted, her positive can-do attitude came along for the ride.  She was excited so that got me excited as we started the 5 mile climb up to Georgia Pass.  About midway through the climb we passed a couple of backpackers and from a distance Sylvia tells them "This guy is going to break the record on the Colorado Trail!  Check him out, his name is Scott Jaime".  I don't remember if they responded or not because I was so embarrassed.  A little while later as we approached Georgia Pass we passed another couple and Sylvia -excitingly- blurted out the same thing.  All I could think was "maybe with my Manpris and long socks they didn't think she was serious..."  I knew as we got closer to Kenosha Pass that we'd inevitably see more people so I asked if she not say that, I just didn't know how to respond and with my timeline I didn't have the time to stop and talk.  She obliged as we passed several other people, just giving the customary nod and a "hey".

What I didn't realize was that those episodes were giving me a jolt of energy and as soon as the stimulation disappeared, so did the energy.  Right as we crested Georgia Pass I could not stay awake.  Very similar to when you're falling asleep while driving so you open the windows to let some fresh air in.  Well I was gulping air and breathing deep to help get me out of this trans of falling asleep on my feet.  Finally I couldn't take it anymore so I sat down on a rock, hung my head and shut my eyes for a few minutes.  Once I got up I pounded the EFS liquid shot along with a Snickers bar and stumbled along.  Just as we got to tree-line the nutrition started to translate into energy and it was just like that I entered into a euphoric running spurt.  Albeit, it was downhill but I was running and all around was a blur.  More and more people were coming up and we just sailed on past.  I had done this run from Kenosha to Georgia several times over the summer so the territory was familiar along with my splits.  It was a fun mental game to see how close, or in reality, how far off I was from the summer splits and managed to pass the time really well.  Shortly before crossing Jefferson Lake road I looked up to find a familiar face smiling from ear to ear - it was Todd Gangelhoff!  It was one of those moments when I realized how close I was to home.  When I planned the trip from Durango to Denver I had hoped my friends would come out to run with me.  And they did.  I gave him a hug and quickly continued towards Kenosha Pass.  His plan was to go out as far as he needed to reach us and turn back around to Kenosha where he started.

Six myles left to Kenosha after crossing Jefferson Lake road and it was ridiculously hot in my long sleeve shirt and Manpris.  But as hot as it seemed right now there were still piles of hail on the side of the trail -some a foot deep- that was a good reminder of how miserable we were on top of Tenmile yesterday. According to Todd that storm was just as nasty on the front range.  Finally we arrived at Kenosha just after 1 PM and I was hot and tired.   But after I saw and heard the crowd of people there to support me, it all went away.  I already wear my emotions on my sleeve and now being stripped to the core it was easy to get choked up behind my Smith Optics glasses.  Although I didn't want to expose any of these emotions to anyone because everyone else was tired and stripped to the core so it would only become a sob-fest.  I nearly broke down the last time Nicole broke down at Clear Creek.  I needed to guard against that so as we crossed Hwy 285 I grit my teeth and swallowed my flowing tears.  Once there,  I was quickly shuttled into the RV to change out of those ridiculously hot clothes, ate some food, and on my way within 20 minutes.  I REALLY wanted to stay and talk with people but this timeline was so tight every minute/second counted against me.

Rick and I at Kenosha

Alyssa and I on our way to Long Gulch
So long to the Kunz' as they were really on their way back home now.  What a treat to have them part of this journey.  Now I was leaving Kenosha Pass with Alyssa Wildeboer (who had traveled over from Winter Park with Travis) and Todd Gangelhoff.  The conversation was non-stop -mostly them- while I listened in enjoying the companionship.  Up to this point I had only been alone on the trail for the very first segment of day one.  It's truly astonishing the support everyone has given to me and my crew - so grateful!  Fifteen myles till we see the crew again at Long Gulch, Todd would turn around a few myles in because of an upcoming race (he'd be back later) and I would continue on with Alyssa to Long Gulch.  Surprisingly, my parents and Travis stopped to give us aid at Rock Creek, half way to Long Gulch.  This was against crew instructions because every stop took time... time I didn't have.  I didn't care - what a welcome sight!  It was still hot and exposed so my Dad traveled down the trail a bit and handed off some much needed cold water and an Ensure.  My parents did a lot of behind the scene stuff, i.e. crew the crew, and now make critical stops along the trail.  For the next 8 myles Alyssa was great.  I never once had to respond to a question with more than "yes or no", all the while she kept the conversation interesting and entertaining.  Roughly 4 and 1/2 hours after leaving Kenosha we arrived Long Gulch, right around 5:45 PM.  I was constantly doing the math in my head and got pretty good predicting time I would arrive at the next aid.  I was a little behind on this one but still averaging over 3.25 MPHs so I was banking a little time here and there despite the continued bathroom breaks.

Sort looks like I'm wearing a skirt.  Nope big boy shorts.

Concern as I leave Long Gulch heading into another night
Since leaving Gold Hill I have traveled 48 myles in 15hr and 30mins (3.1mph) -usually a normal day- but I still had 57 to get to Waterton canyon.  I need an extended break but my crew way too efficient.  They had pancakes and potatoes all ready to go when I arrived.  I probably ate too much and would suffer a subsequent food coma but eating bought time, so I feasted.  Within 15 minutes they had me out of the chair and on the way to Wellington Lake road with Rick Hessek.  Rick had gone home for the week to work and came back up with his wife to finish the trail with me.  The impending food coma never came as we crested the top of Long Gulch and for the next 6 myles Rick and I would cruise down a very gentle slope paralleling the Long -open- Gulch.  As I mentioned before, nautical twilight at both ends of the day were my favorite times and with the scenery and mild temps, we had a lot of positive energy flowing.  Just as we arrived at North Fork and entered the trees we stopped to get ready for the night and a bite to eat.

We still had 8 myles to reach Wellington Lake Road and from what I remembered last time I did this section during the day was a short climb then a gradual downhill on a primitive road to the crew.  It was about this time when I started questioning everything and became severely agitated because -once again- the darkness was messing with my ability to judge distance.  I fell once on a slippery boulder section just as the rain started and I could not get up, basically upside down stuck in a rut.  Rick had to pull me out and that incident further fueled my anger.  The road was straight enough that we could see 1/2 mile at times with our lights and every turn would present another straight away.  I began to throw rocks at random trees on the side of the road (which startled Rick as the rock clashed against the trees) to release some of the pent up anger.  I certainly felt relieved once I hurled the rock -grunting- with fury (ahhh).  I kept looking for signs that I'd remember but nothing looked familiar.  Nine o'clock became 10 and there was no end in sight.  Finally we made a turn onto single track that would lead us to the Rock Creek TH.  It must have been almost midnight before we made it to Wellington Lake road. We had traveling 17 myles in ~6 hours which was just below the magic number of 3MPHs.

The crew in Bailey
When the crew saw our lights they started cheering and whistling and the emotion once again overtook me.  Same thing as last time, I wiped away the tears and grit my teeth.  I couldn't see any faces but counted no less than 15 people there.  I still get emotional even as I write this because I'm processing the significance of the support.  Kathy Darnold, whom I met while prepping for Hardrock a few years back, and is currently a camp host with her husband outside of Telluride, had been part of this caravan from the very beginning.  She was there with her brother to show support.  The Wildeboer's were there, along with my parents, Jill Hessek, and good friend Brian Fisher.  This is a remote Forest Service road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night!  I am overwhelmed with this show of support.  Quickly into the RV I sensed more urgency this time because I was little late.  Nicole came in and said "look who came up to run with you...  Brian Fisher"  Nicole knew he would spark motivation in me.  And he did!  I hid my emotions and gave him a hug.  Rick and I ate as quickly as possible, changed the batteries in my headlamp and we were on our way.  But before we left, my Mom came up to give me a hug and she was sobbing.  She knows a son's pain and it didn't help that I was stumbling.  They wanted this suffering to end just as much as I did, but also knew how close I was to breaking the record.

If there was any fun left in this adventure, I wasn't seeing it.   I just wanted it to be over.  The succession of pacers were always a welcome sight but shortly after leaving Wellington Lake Road with Brian and Rick I had to sit down because I couldn't see straight.  Nearly 24 hours on my feet and a belly full of food was too much to handle.  Although each time I sat down it was no longer than 5 minutes and yet so revitalizing.  As we got going again the pace felt slow and methodical but it was all I could do.  The moon had a made a full circle around the earth and came back up to make the night pleasant with mild temps.  The span between Wellington Lake Road and Buffalo Creek is always a long one -mentally- so I prepared my mind not worry about distance, just enjoy the time with Brian and Rick.  In reality, it's only 12 myles but almost feels like the movie "Groundhog Day" where the terrain is identical around every corner and you ask yourself "wasn't I just here..."  Unfortunately this happened several times and ended up being further away than we thought.   Finally we crossed a road (FS 550) and knew Buffalo Creek CG was just a mile up the trail.

It was around 4:30 AM and not a soul was stirring about as we arrived at the parking lot, although it didn't take long for a couple of headlamps to come out and greet us.  I know I was slurring my speech and couldn't really articulate what I wanted, I just wanted to lay down.  I got into the RV and slumped over the table.  For the first time in the RV I didn't care about food, just sleep.  Pumpkin pie, oatmeal, breakfast burritos...  they were all put in front of me and I just didn't have the desire to eat.  I'm not sure how much time went by but I finally came to with Nicole saying "are you alright?", and Rick saying "you gotta eat..."  I may have slurped down some oatmeal and some pumpkin pie but just as my body and mind were getting comfortable, it was time to go.  Maybe 4:45 AM and I was baby stepping down the trail with Brian and Rick.  I basically had to do the next 28 myles in 12 hours to break the record.  By now you all know (if you've been reading) there's a pattern, after a slump/pass out comes a euphoric running spurt...  no different here but these spurts are getting shorter and requiring a lot more focus than I have right now.  I needed the sun or something else to jump start me to the finish, I was losing a sense of reality.

Head down, shuffling towards the Hwy 126 crossing I hear some sort of "YeeHaw and bang-bang" commotion and out from behind me comes two dudes running dressed in Cowboy and Indian outfits.  My headlamp picked up a yellow Speedo with "goodbye" tattooed on the butt and a couple of feathers....  What the hell is going on?!?  It scared me at first and really didn't know what was happening but then Brandon Stapanowich and Harsha Nagaraj turned around...  I had quite a good laugh!   Both of them had been on the trail earlier in the trip and had come back to run in with me.  Here I have 4 friends who put everything else aside for the day to come out and support me.  This was really happening!   In less than 8 hours I'd be finishing the Colorado Trail in record time and this caused me to internalize what it all meant: family, friendship, adventure, memories, limits, community.  Running -in of itself- is a very selfish sport and I have always struggled with the time commitment involved.  But in this long trail/multi-day/FKT adventure I have found a place to make it "not so selfish" by creating these adventures to form bonds and lifelong memories that will forever be etched in all of our minds.  I have found the importance of a loving and supportive family and the meaning of true friendships that will last a lifetime.  It takes a community of like-minded people to pull off one of these adventures and everyone who takes part knows it can't be done without them, which makes the success/completion just as much theirs as it does mine.  I walk away knowing that "WE" did this together and "I" could not have done this alone.

Cowboy and Indian pacers
The spike of emotion was taking it's toll on my energy state, almost as if I'd burn up any and all endorphins I had stored and nothing left to tap into.  Shortly before sunrise I was stumbling forward and remember thinking (third person) "wake up!  you are walking on a trail and if you fall asleep you're gonna fall down and bash your head on a rock"  It was truly an outer body experience and I was not controlling my physical body anymore.  I finally threw my pack down and told the guys I needed to shut my eyes for a few minutes so I found a grassy area and passed out.  I mean passed out -my mouth wide open and heavy breathing within seconds- kind of passed out.  I had gone 80 myles in 27 straight hours with only 30 minutes of sleep the prior two days - I was nutty.  My pacers told me that I literally slept for 5 minutes or so and shot up and said "Let's go".  I don't remember falling asleep but I do remember waking up in a panic not knowing how I'd got there and somehow thinking I wasn't going to get the record.  I started running the best I could, trying to dismiss the pain in my right shin and shrug off my overall malaise.

The music faintly playing in the background is the "walk it out" rap song from Day 2.  Harsha is hilarious!  "I'll just eat Basmati (rice)"  A joke that goes back to Day 5.

Completely passed out

Another view
The sun helped a lot
The sun!
The sun had come up, the trail was a downward trend, and my determination was at an all time high.  I remember the next 10 myles through segment two being playful, sort of a pre-celebratory type of atmosphere.  I was having a sword fight with Harsha with my hiking sticks while he had "war paint" all over his body to make the Indian outfit come to life.  Meanwhile I couldn't help but stare at Brandon's butt...  how could this not be fun and lively!  The one downer was that my shin was a constantly nagging at me and I could tell blood was starting to pool up below my calf sleeves.  At this point, I wanted to go as light as possible so I gave my poles to Harsha and was just carrying my Ultraspire pack with two half filled water bottles.  Earlier in the year Bryce from Ultraspire had sent me the latest version of the Fastpack, and to be quite honest, I haven't said much about how I carried all my calories until now.  The reason is that I didn't feel like I had anything on my back, just forgot about it.  The weight distribution and the big angled pockets allowed for a perfect anatomically correct fitting pack.  Not once during this entire journey did I have any sort of issues with this pack.  I can't wait for this Fastpack (II) to hit the market, I think you'll like it.  At any rate, it was time to go light and get rid of everything (except the pack) for the final segment of the Colorado Trail.


Brian Fisher with the escort

Fighting like Jedi's

Buffalo Creek burnout with Brandon Stapanowich
It was right around 8 AM when we finally crossed the big steel bridge over the South Platte.  Greeted first by my dog (Livvy) as she herded me across the bridge.  I sat down in the chair and had nothing but a big smile on my face and a Coke in my hand.  The record was going to be broken.  But now the question was by how much?  On a good day I could do this segment in less than 2 and 1/2 hours but I had 470 myles on this old body so maybe I'd shoot for double that time.  The South Platte canyon was filled with excitement all the way around; instead of tears of sorrow, they were tears of joy.  I wanted to celebrate too but I quickly changed into my "race kit" (you know, it's kinda like picking a girl up for the prom, you wanna make a good impression),  ate some food, had another Coke and the five of us started on the final segment of the Colorado Trail.  My plan was to run -almost- the entire segment and give this trail everything I had.

Crossing over the South Platte.  Amazed at the sight of my crew
The crew at South Platte

What's not to love about these guys?

Making our way

Coming up on Bear Creek
Noon was my initial goal as we trudged up the 1500 ft climb out of the canyon.  Once we started on the flat contour of the trail, we really picked up the pace.  Even though I couldn't feel my legs I was running with a sort of reckless abandon.  We passed a couple of bikers who were amazed seeing runners this far from Waterton.  One made the comment "man, you guys are hard core running all the way back here".  You have no idea, I thought, as I snickered.  We finally took a break about 11 myles from the end and we all were pretty silent, just taking in some calories and soaking in the day.  My mind was scanning the last 8+ days and could not take in all that had transpired.  I had no more emotion to give and sort of had to remind myself to stop and enjoy it.  Waterton is a very busy place on the weekend so we started to see a succession of mountain bikers, along with a few runners, make there way past.  With the costumes, people started asking what we were doing and I heard Brian tell one guy the story.  People were probably thinking "yeah right...."  I didn't care what anybody thought, I knew the significance of this trip defining what my limits where both mentally and physically.

Start of Waterton Canyon
Taking up the road
Soon enough we were on the final 6 mile stretch along the Waterton canyon road.  The 5 of us spaced out across the road -as if we owned it- and no one really asked any questions.  Just a couple of awkward stares after which I'd take a look around at us and laugh myself.  This was a very surreal moment, one I played it out in mind over a thousand times and none of them could have prepared me for the joy and relief I was feeling.  Last time I finished the trail I cried like a baby on Gudy's rest for a good 20 minutes but this time I just didn't have any more tears.   I had so many of my private little moments over the past 48 hours that all I could do now was smile, look around at all the support and know that this was a moment to be etched in my memory forever.  Alyssa came running up the road to meet us, a little closer Todd was back, and now my Father In Law would run the final mile to the finish. I raised my hands and pumped my first in the air and said "We did it!", as I hugged Rick.  I was running the best I could but realize it was slow because everyone in front of me was walking faster than I was running.   I think Rick finally said "look at all the friends here supporting you".  Pretty amazing.   We turned the final corner where I saw my wife, my boys, my parents, and more friends.  I stopped to hug my wife but she said "come on, let's go".  She was still cracking the whip so continued on with everyone all the way to the official Colorado Trail sign.  Stopped the SPOT, declared my time, and put my hands on my knees.  8 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes and 17 seconds to be exact.  I gave this everything I had and my crew gave everything they had.  Short of my original goal of under 8 days but I have achieved so much more.

The crew during the final mile

Rick and I the final mile
The Crew Chief
Someday this FKT will be lowered, by how much no one really knows, my guess is a few hours.  The record is really tight and does not allow for any errors at this point.  I defined my limits and will be satisfied regardless how long -or short- this records stands.  My hope is that someone will look at this record and say "I can do better".  That's what the human spirit is about, making each other better by pushing limits.  Everyday I hope to make a better version of myself and continually push my own genetic makeup in some way.  We won't be here forever so never look back on your life and say "should have, could have, would have" but rather say "I did that".  Hopefully I've set a good enough example for my boys to know they can achieve anything they set their minds to and live their lives to the fullest.

The escorts

The final steps
A hug from my wife.  Matt with his ever-present camera
The crew

Myles giving me a hug
Jaxon telling how proud he is of me
Look for a film by Matt Trappe this coming Spring.  
Time to rest the feet

Myles: 105.1 (485.8)
Time: 34h 25m (152h 34m trail time)
199 hours 40 minutes and 17 seconds total time
(8 days 7 hours, 40 minutes and 17 seconds)
Elevation: 15,184 (88,895)
Myles to go: ZERO

Total Avg. MPH: 2.43
Avg. moving MPH: 3.18
Total sleep: 14 hours

Segment mileage start/finish time time on feet MPH Elevation gain
Day 1 Jxn Creek to Molas Pass 73.9 5:00 A to 12:35 A 19h 35m 3.77 15,608
Day 2 Molas Pass to Spring Creek Pass 53.3 6:11 A to 11:41 P 17h 31m 3.05 10,843
Day 3 Spring Creek Pass to Hwy 114 55 5:59 A to 10:39 P 16h 40m 3.3 8,611
Day 4 Hwy 114 to US Hwy 50 49.9 5:48 A to 9:21 P 15h 33m 3.21 8,826
Day 5 US Hwy 50 to N. Cottonwood crk 43.2 5:40 A to 7:40 P 14h 0m 3.09 8,874
Day 6 N. Cottonwood crk to Timberline  53.6 4:45 A to 9:45 P 17h 0m 3.15 11,082
Day 7 Timberline Lake to Gold Hill 51.8 3:55 A to 9:45 P 17h 50m 2.9 9,867
Day 8 Gold Hill to Waterton Canyon 105.1 2:15 A to 12:40 P 34h 25m 3.05 15,184
TOTAL 485.8 8d 7h 40m 17s 152h 34m 3.18 88,895

Monday, December 30, 2013

Colorado Trail Day 7 - Timberline to Gold Hill

Patience and perseverance has gotten me through the last 6 days.  With 150 myles to go there is no more patience, it's all out now.  Little did I know this would be the most challenging day yet.

Up before my 3 AM alarm, I didn't get a wink of sleep last night.  Thinking about everything that has transpired and what lay ahead - my mind was racing.  I was exhausted mentally and physically.  But as weird as it may seem, I didn't have to think about what I was doing anymore, everything was automatic.  My shins were holding up (thanks -in part- to the painful ice bath) and the energy from the crew started to grow as we got closer to Denver.

Setting the SPOT
Matt and I loaded up the truck around 3:45 and headed to the Timberline TH just a quarter of mile down the road.  At 3:55 we set off with a full moon as our beacon.  For the next hour and 5 minutes was banked time into day 6.  My original schedule had me starting from Tennessee Pass today so I was still 13 myles behind the plan.  Just like most days, we started off with a climb, this one was 1500 ft over the next 4 myles.  By the time 5 AM came around to officially start day 7, I had only gone 3 myles, meaning I was still 10 myles behind schedule.  It was great having Matt back on the trail with nonstop conversation about this adventure from different perspectives.  When he wasn't with me on the trail, he was helping the crew out with logistics and made the comment "It's much easier being out here on the trail..."  No doubt.  All I had to do was to get from A to B.  The crew had to risk driving with weary minds, organize logistics, and prepare food.

Timberline TH about to begin with Matt Trappe
The sun was starting to come up over the Ten Mile range as we worked our way through Holy Cross Wilderness.  What a beautiful stretch!  Shortly after we exited the wilderness area, we entered the 10th Mountain Division Hut area while crossing a myriad of roads and some very nice bridges.  The amount of work that went into constructing and maintaining the Colorado Trail was -and is- a Herculean effort.  Just before getting to Tennessee Pass, as we crossed over one of these nice bridges, we encountered a couple of overnight backpackers and it was clear they wanted to talk.  I was always reluctant to tell anybody what we were doing but it always came out when they wanted to know where we started....  (sheepishly) "uh... Durango? 7 days ago..."  I knew once it was known, the conversation would be extended and that takes time, time we didn't have.  At any rate, I never wanted to be rude so we stopped and talked to these two -very nice- gentlemen who were doing the entire CT over several summers.  Everyone has a story on the CT, all a little different, but we share something in common: the thirst for beauty, adventure, and solitude.

Holy Cross Wilderness just after sunrise

One of the nice bridges along the way

A little blurry but the two backpackers insisted on taking our picture

Just past 8:30 AM we arrived at Tennessee Pass.  Not particularly fast for the last segment (~3 MPH) but I was happy.  The crew was set up with the same breakfast burritos as Clear Creek from yesterday...  been thinking about those burritos ever since.  I've also been thinking about time.  If I were to stay on pace with the schedule I would now arrive at Waterton Canyon ~8 days 2 hours and some odd minutes.  Thinking to myself "I still have a really good shot of getting under 8 days...."  My thoughts really weren't that clear, it took me the better part of the day to sort that out but I knew I was in the ballpark.  At any rate, I wanted to be quick with the stop while my energy was up and the day was young.  I was pretty sure we'd see Bill Dooper again at TN Pass but he was nowhere to be found.  I later found out that he'd been there around 7:30 AM and had since left because he thought he'd missed us.  Makes sense, 8:30 AM is kinda late for Bill.

Rick greeting me at Tennessee Pass

Down the railroad grade paralleling Hwy 24, we were running side by side on the double track.  It was clear with the chatter that I was buzzing with energy.  I wouldn't call it one of those euphoric running spurts, but we were running and everything else around was a blur.  Double track turned into single track and this trail started curving away from Hwy 24 back to the 10th Mountain Division Huts.  I made a comment that this didn't seem right because we should be making our way back to Hwy 24 and cross over to Camp Hale.  We kept going, the trail kept looping back around, and finally I knew this trail wasn't right.  Matt had his cell phone and looked up our location on Google Maps...  sure enough we were way off.  Matt ran back toward the double track -probably just over a mile- and located where we went wrong.  It was an older CT blaze but clear as day.  I was pissed!  More-so because we had been making good time for the last few myles and all that time was lost - 45 minutes and a couple myles out of our way.  I became silent and processed what had just happened.  At the same time, Matt was good about verbalizing reality "we can't do anything about it. It's over and just need to move forward"  Words of simple wisdom.  It was my own mistake for not paying attention and with Matt's words, I let it go, at least I tried to.

Focused and trying to move forward
The 7th day and a little smile.  All better.

Soon enough, we arrived at the Hwy 24 crossing with a very familiar -and unique- vehicle sitting on the side of the road at a pull out.  No mistaking this green VW Westfalia - it was the Kunz'!  They were on their way to their scheduled event when they decided to turn the bus around and continue on this adventure.  Rob jumped out and said "Do you mind if Sylvia goes with you for the next section?"  I was a little perplexed but Rob put it in perspective "what you are doing here is far more amazing and we want to help you as much as possible".  I was blown away.  Twenty minutes ago I was pissed off and now I felt ashamed.  Even though the anger I felt was towards myself and never let it be known, I felt like that negative energy replaced all of the gratitude I should be feeling towards everyone.  Poof!  It was gone when the Kunz' once again joined the caravan and Sylvia brought her positivity as we made our way to Camp Hale and then further to Copper Mountain.

Through Camp Hale on our way to Kokomo Pass
The CT parallels the road leading through Camp Hale so Rob was able to give us a couple of water stops and "a show" along the way.  I'm still laughing as I type this because it's -obviously- etched in my mind.  I think Sylvia was a little mortified.  He would have been a great cheerleader the way he was jumping around hootin' and a hollerin'.  It helped pass the time through Camp Hale - very boring and flat.  You'd think the pass is no more than a mile away based on the ridge line, but it's actually 5 myles while being hot and exposed.  Rob finally met us at the last possible place before the trail turned uphill for the grunt over Kokomo Pass.  I was a little concerned because my crew was supposed to meet us somewhere in here.  Rob had driven up the road as far as he could and turned around because he said it was nasty and couldn't find them.  Later I found out that they thought they missed us so they made their way to Copper Mountain.  In reality, because of our detour, we hadn't crossed Hwy 24 yet.  The Kunz' saved our bacon there because that stretch is nearly 20 myles from Camp Hale to Copper Mountain.

Four myles and 2500 feet to get to Kokomo pass.  I felt solid on the climb, and if I remember correct, we got to the pass in an hour and 15 minutes (3.2 MPH).  My climbing ability gave me confidence for what lay ahead but once at the pass I felt dizzy and a little out of sorts.  I remember very vividly eating a huge brownie with frosting to cure the dizziness.  Oh man, it tasted sooo good but it hit my gut like a lead weight as we made our way to Searle Pass.  I once again entered a food coma.  At the time I didn't know what was happening because I was dizzy and couldn't stay awake.  I finally sat down on the side of the trail and could not move for about 10 minutes.  I should of stuck to my standards of EFS liquid shot, Justin's nut butter, and Peter Rabbit fruit and veggie liquified packs.   I finally got moving and soon arrived at Searle Pass as the clouds were thickening with lightning and thunder cracking really close.  We stopped to put on the rain gear -quickly- and were on our way down to Copper Mountain.  Within minutes it was pouring and the lighting was striking very, very close - scary stuff.  That was enough to get me out of my food coma and enter into a euphoric running spurt.

Pulling into the Copper Mountain parking lot
I really don't know how fast I was running but I did not feel anything.  I was floating over the rocks like a hovercraft, legs were numb, and lungs felt as big as hot air balloons.  It was now around 4 PM and within cell phone coverage so Matt had been in contact with the crew.  Because we were running low on water my Dad made his way up the trail from Copper Mountain to give some aid.  Not really stopping (just long enough to down a bottle of water) because I didn't want to lose my mojo.  We made our way past Copper Mountain, across Hwy 91, and were greeted by Rick.  I turned into the parking lot where the caravan of cars were circled and only wanted to sit for a little bit because of the nasty looking clouds coming our way.  Just before sitting down both my son's, Myles and Jaxon, came out from behind one of the vehicles and gave me the best hugs I have ever received.  I still get emotional thinking about this moment.  This was the defining moment of this adventure and would give me the momentum to get up over Ten Mile range and finish strong.

Myles greeting me

Most memorable moment of the Colorado Trail
So much for a quick stop, I wanted to stay forever.  These comfortable pit stops were already hard to leave, and now adding my boys to mix, it becomes heart wrenching.  But I know it's still nip and tuck with the time so our conversation shifted to what time I needed to be to Gold Hill and how much further I need to go today.  The crew wanted me to push past Gold Hill another 5 myles with an easy access road, which sounded like a good plan to me.  As I left, now with Rob Kunz and Gavin McKenzie, my boys escorted us out and shortly after parted ways.  I needed music to keep this powerful emotion going over the top of Ten Mile range so I put my headphones back on.  We were climbing really well and as we cleared the trees a couple of guys were coming down so I took out my headphones just in case they said something.  Sure enough, they said something to the effect "you guys going over the top?" followed up by a "well, good luck".  Those nasty lighting and thunder producing clouds that chased us off of Searle Pass earlier were now growing in size and following us along the top of the Ten Mile range.  Uh-oh.  Before we could start our descent down the Breckenridge side, the rain started to come down hard and we were soaked immediately.  I had left all my barrier stuff at Copper because it was already wet and it was hot.  Not only was the rain coming down but lightning was all around us and for a brief moment -very brief- I thought about going back down to the comfort of my family.  We were in trouble with 10 myles to get to Gold Hill.  Our only hope was for the rain to stop and get into the trees.  We hustled the best we could but I was frozen and had no energy.

Atop Ten Mile range right before it started to rain

We made it into the trees, and for the moment, the rain had stopped as we turned on our headlamps.  It didn't last.  Within 10 minutes it started back again and I was still soaked from the first round.  We were in trouble, better yet, I was trouble as I started to shiver.  I needed a miracle and got it from a lone mountain biker who had set up camp and made a fire right next to the trail.  He invited us in to huddle around his fire and I cannot tell you what a flame does to the soul.  We spent 5 or 10 minutes, not totally dry or warm, and were on our way with a little pep in our step.  Before we left I gave that guy some cookies, Justin's almond nut butter, and some other goodies for igniting our soul to which he was ecstatic.

What had happened to our friend - the Sun?
Off and on rain all the way down to Gold Hill but the good thing was that we were at lower elevation so it wasn't as cold.  Although now my headlight was dying and I couldn't keep the pace.  Just about that time Gavin took out one of the brightest spotlights, I mean headlamps, I have ever seen.  This thing lit up the mountain side but also gave me enough energy to make it to Gold Hill.  We saw the lights of Hwy 9 and Breckenridge below so that also helped, but as the trail zig and zagged the lights weren't getting any closer.  The darkness once again was messing with my ability to judge distance - the last 3 myles seemingly took a few hours.  It was very frustrating while being completely soaked.

Finally the lights from our crew vehicles came into view and were once again circled up at Gold Hill.  As soon as they saw our headlamps, they all started honking and cheering.  We had made it!  Once there, people got out to greet us -briefly- as we were whisked away to the warm and dry RV.  I sensed concern as they saw how soaked we were and the ten mile stare in my eyes.  It was 9:45 PM and the rain was coming down in sheets at this point so I did not want to go the additional 5 myles as suggested earlier.  As I scarfed down my food with dry clothes on we quickly discussed the timeline.  If I were to keep going that night I should have arrived at the next access around 12:30 AM and then the North Fork of the Swan River at 3 AM.  I couldn't do it.  My drive and will power were crushed and decided I needed a few hours to get warm and refuel.  We came to the decision that I would be on back on the trail at 2 AM with Rob and hopefully the storm would pass.  I finally got horizontal at 11:30 PM and set my alarm for 1 AM.  The night before I hadn't slept and tonight, if I'm lucky, I'd pass out for an hour.  This would turn out to be the last time I get horizontal in the RV.  A total of 6 days 16 hours and 45 minutes to this point.  A little over 100 myles and 44 hours to break the record.

Myles: 51.8 (380.7)
Time: 17h 50m (118h 9m)
Elevation: 9,867 (73,711)
Myles to go: 105.1