Upon arriving in Missoula this weekend, Beat reminded me ever-so-gently that I had signed up for a 50K trail run in Rodeo Beach, California, on Dec. 18, which is (gulp) two weeks away. The point of the 50K is to see whether I have a snowball's chance of surviving the Susitna 100 on foot. But before I survive the Susitna 100, I kinda have to get through this 50K. Better get out for a training run.
Beat caught a nasty stomach flu the last time he traveled to the frigid north, and was sick for the entire past week. Saturday was his first attempt to exercise in many days, so we decided to keep it "close" to home. We planned a couple loops in the vicinity of Mount Sentinel. My goal was to stay out for at least 5 hours, but assumed Beat would cut out pretty early in the run.
The temperature was in the mid-20s, but was accompanied by the first direct sunlight Missoula has seen in what feels like many weeks (at least from my perspective. I had to travel 700 miles south and later 400 miles north to find the sun in November.) So today's weather felt like a simulation of California (at least from my perspective. Even a single layer of black polypro was too much for mid-day.) We climbed the south and north summits of Mount Sentinel.
The Rodeo Beach 50K also has something like 6,000 feet of climbing, so I advocated for more climbing even though there weren't any good climbing routes nearby. The problem with trail running in the winter, at least in the Missoula vicinity, is that you can go for a run or you can play in the mountains, but you can't do both. There just aren't enough packed trails around here, at least ones that haven't already been commandeered by skiers, so you're forced to break trail - which is much more strenuous than running, but doesn't exactly build the same muscles.
Still, it was a beautiful day to slog up University Mountain in knee- to thigh-deep powder ... beautiful enough that I didn't once ask myself how this particular slog was going to help me survive 31 miles of pounding on concrete-like trails in the Marin Headlands. I just sipped my icy water and soaked it all in.
The top of University Mountain was washed in ice. I feel a special affinity for trees perched on mountain tops - the "ghost trees" - for their ability to thrive in the worst conditions.
We powder-kicked back down the mountain and descended the Gut of Sentinel at sunset.
Beat cut off near the Hidden Treasure trail intersection, having survived four hours of run/slogging despite his ongoing battle with stomach flu.
He dropped back to town and I headed out for a solo run back up the Mount Sentinel Ridge. I turned on my iPod and climbed to reflective music by Sufjan Stevens as the winter light faded behind me.
The temperature plummeted rapidly and beads of ice formed along strands of sweat-soaked hair. I was completely content, feeling better and better as the hours fell behind me, wishing there was a way to just keep climbing, to some far-away mountain I'd never imagined I could reach at all, let alone on foot. In a direct line, the mileage I had run that day would have taken me far; the effort without the added strain of snow even farther. And the best thing about Saturday's run was its trajectory. I convinced myself that with the passing miles I could only become stronger, not weaker. I felt the surge of strength in places that had never before felt strong during a run - my feet and my knees. My legs carried me up the South Summit and back across the ridge as ice built on my head and a grin seemingly froze to my face.
I ran down the North Summit ridge into a blaze of city lights, striving to let go of my inhibitions and let my legs surrender to steep gravity. I couldn't quite give in completely, but tonight I came as close as I ever have to flying on my feet.
I jogged toward home just in time to catch the tail end of a holiday parade on Higgins Avenue. I stood on the sidewalk, taking photos and large gulps of frigid air until I could no longer feel my toes, then turned toward home. I finished my run just after 6:30, for a total time of six hours. My GPS cut out early and I'm not sure of the mileage, but probably in the vicinity of 20 miles with 5,000 feet of climbing. A good day to be out in world.