Wednesday, July 25, 2018

As the Hardrock Turns

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Roger asked whether I'd be interested in joining his Hardrock 100 crew, as a sort of liaison / shuttle driver. I think Roger would readily agree that it's ridiculous for any amateur race runner to require an entourage, but the overarching idea behind crews and pacers (at least outside the sharp end of competition) is a fun weekend for everyone involved. My desire to actually run Hardrock came and went a few years ago — the exclusivity of this race turns me off a bit, and I'm now operating under acceptance that I am a terrible mountain runner whose only unfulfilled racing goal left in life is to finish the Tor des Geants (oh, and Iditarod Trail South Route.) Still, I love lurking on the periphery of these events. It's a sort of interactive front-row seat to an oddball soap opera full of drama and intrigue. 

On Thursday I headed toward Silverton, hoping to tag a mountain on the way. When cramming an adventure into an eight-hour drive with a deadline, proximity to the highway and straightforward routes are paramount, so I chose Mount Harvard. At 14,421 feet, it's the third highest peak in Colorado and fourth in the contiguous U.S. The standard route gains nearly 5,000 feet in 13 miles round trip, so it's not exactly a brief jaunt. But it is solid trail, even through the talus, with only about 50 meters of scrambling. Easy peasy.

I was having a good day — no labored breathing, and a reasonably relaxed pace that got me to the top in 2:48. The mountain was all but abandoned on a late Thursday morning — I saw three other hikers above tree line — and the weather was unbelievably ideal. Temperatures were in the 70s and there wasn't a wisp of dark clouds or a breath of wind.

About a mile from the summit, I smugly thought "I've been hiking less than two hours and there's only a mile left." Then I switched my GPS screen to altitude and realized I was still below 13,000 feet. Oh.

That last mile is blissfully brutal, with the soaring altitude and frequent 45-percent grades. Although I was breathing well, my body still felt like it was being crushed by an invisible force, and I ran out of water more than a thousand feet above the nearest creek (because I'd frozen two liters of water overnight, and six hours later most of it was still ice. Doh.) So I was chuffed when I still hit the top in under three hours, and grateful that I'd budgeted six for the trip. It took me just as long to walk down — between the mild dehydration and altitude, I was a little too nauseated to do any running.

The Hardrock 100 started at 6 a.m. Friday, under clear skies and what I imagine for runners were disconcertingly warm temperatures. A hot day on these high mountains does not make for a comfortable run. This photo shows Australian contingent Andy Hewat and Roger Hanney. Our crew for both of them was Roger's girlfriend Hailey, Andy's daughter Larnie, and me, token American with cultural and geographical understanding of the region. Also on the periphery of our entourage was Jean-Luc Diard, one of the founders of Hoka One One who was in Colorado for Outdoor Retailer, and his assistant Amanda. Jean-Luc contacted me multiple times to connect with Roger but became more of a ghost, filtering in and out of view while embarking on his own strange adventures. But Amanda was welcome company late in the race.

Larnie, Hailey and I drove the rented camper van around to Telluride. With several hours to kill before Roger's arrival, I headed up Virginius Pass to spectate the race leaders. Among the Hardrock crowd, Virginius is a famously steep and rubbly pass, but I was going up and down the "easy" side — only 4,000 feet of climbing in eight miles round trip.

There were still a few sphincter-clenching traverses near the top, only because I hate loose scree and sand on steep side slopes. Good views, though.

The weather had been iffy with bursts of rain (surprisingly no thunder, though.) I didn't linger long at the top, not wanting to descend the steep rubble in wet conditions.

With the rubble behind me, I caught my first glimpse of the race leader, Xavier Thévenard. What struck me most about him in this section was his body language — hunched and straining, and his breathing — noticeably labored as he passed. Clearly he was dominating the race, but I was surprised how hard he appeared to be working, just a little over 30 miles into 100. Whenever I'm as taxed as he appeared to be, I'm dangerously close to a cracking point. Perhaps he was not as strung out as he appeared, or perhaps that's a key difference between elite athletes and clumsy hikers with asthma.

Anyone who cares even remotely about this sport already knows about the drama that went down with Thévenard's disqualification for taking ice and water from his crew a few miles beyond the Ouray checkpoint, so I won't rehash it here. My opinion falls in line with those who believe the consequence was overly harsh for what amounted to a poor choice, but he did break a important rule necessary to establish more fair parameters for all of the competitors. Crews and pacers are a unique aspect of this sport. Ultrarunning requires complete self-sufficiency in extreme environments, then allows moments where an entourage of people are removing your shoes, spoon-feeding you soup, and massaging your legs at designated spots. I find it humorous, and a little bit ridiculous. Although I truly enjoy being a crewperson or pacer for friends, I'm not as inclined to use them myself. Of course I've had pacers in the form of Beat running entire races with me, and there was the Bear 100 sleepover party with my friend Danni. But I tend to shy away. There's a lot of satisfaction to doing something near your personal limit and entirely on your own, as I experienced when I gutted my way through the 350-mile Iditarod Trail hike this past March.

Eventual race winner Jeff Browning. He was more than a mile behind Xavier at the time, but appeared much more relaxed.

Eventual second-place finisher Jeff Rome. All of these guys were more chatty than I was expecting, asking me how my day was going as they hiked past.

Eventual women's winner Sabrina Stanley. I asked if I could take her photo and she responded, "Oh, my mouth is full, let me finish chewing." I admittedly did not let her finish chewing, as she was moving too quickly to wait.

Bryon Powell, editor of iRunFar, with whom I spent some time in Fairbanks before the White Mountains 100 last March. At one point during that week in Alaska, he did a training run on soft, new snow and declared the WM100 would be "absolutely harder than Hardrock" if those trail conditions held. Following this race, I teased him to reassess the two courses, and he admitted that Hardrock is much tougher.

Beat's frequent PTL partner, Daniel Benhammou. He's run Hardrock seven or eight times, and nearly always finishes between 36 and 37 hours. This year he finished in 37:06.

Roger leaving Grouse Gulch, around mile 60, on Saturday morning. Surrounding every brief instance of 10 quality minutes with your runner are prolonged periods of hurry-up-and-wait. Larnie and I left Hailey in Ouray to pace Roger for a 14-mile, seven-hour segment, grabbed maybe three hours of sleep on the floor of a hotel room in Silverton, and then fired up the camper van for the rugged approach to Grouse. Along a narrow bench with a cliff on one side and a gorge on the other, we encountered an oncoming vehicle around a tight corner, where neither of us had enough space to yield. The other driver pulled over as far as possible and I attempted to creep around him, but misjudged the clearance on this unfamiliar vehicle, so the front wheel slipped into the embankment. Larnie yelped, no doubt aware that she was about to die in a fiery explosion, but I yanked the stick in reverse and managed to recover it before we toppled down the gorge. Scary. 

Roger rolled in looking sleepy but strong. After a few bites of food and a 20-minute nap, he seemed good to go. Team Australia Crew did serve a more useful purpose when Larnie's dad stumbled in, declaring his intent to quit. He hadn't kept any food down since Ouray, and couldn't fathom the next 40 miles. Hailey is a personal trainer who has a relaxed but insistent coaching style, and laid down direct orders involving sleep, soup and a rough plan for the next climb. Andy ended up leaving Grouse, something I'm skeptical he would have done on his own.

In Silverton, Hailey and Larnie went back to bed, which is something I suppose I should have done. But it was another beautiful morning, and I wanted to check out another iconic Hardrock setting that I haven't yet seen, Grant Swamp Pass. This hike has huge scenery bang for your buck, and popularity to match. Even though I live in the Front Range, I haven't hiked through crowds that thick in a while. Worth it? Yeah, worth it.

Nearing Grant Swamp Pass. The colors in the San Juans are unreal. Cloud cover washed out some of the intensity, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Views from Grant Swamp, looking toward the zig-zagging ascent to what I believe is Oscar Pass.

The iconic Island Lake, shadowed by the nasty clouds that were bearing down on me. I intended to climb a small peak above Grant Swamp Pass, but sudden thunder claps prompted a quick retreat instead. Two people on the ridge above the pass decided to bound down a scree slope directly toward me, knocking several not-small rocks my way. One rock sounded so close that I dropped onto the narrow trail and put my hands over my head, sadly my only defense. As soon as I stood, I went off on a screaming rant that would probably alarm and amuse anyone who knows me as my usual mild-mannered self, then took off running down the trail. Between the thunder and the idiots on the scree, my adrenaline surged to near record highs, and I was off the mountain in an instant. Perhaps I can learn to be an efficient downhill runner — I just need to operate in a persistent state of high stress.

Back on the tundra, my adrenaline calmed and the worst of the storm moved away, so I took the opportunity to detour over to Ice Lake.

Along the shoreline of Ice Lake, all anxiety and anger washed away completely, and I felt satiated and tranquil. So blue! Photographs under the overcast sky do not capture the intensity of the blue, but the otherworldly hue had a calming effect that was greatly appreciated in my sleep-deprived, slightly strung-out state.

The clouds settled in and it rained for much of the descent. I was surprised to see many of the folks I'd passed early in the climb, before I detoured up Grant Swamp Pass and Island Lake, still working their way up to Ice Lake amid the rain and thunder.

In the evening our crew — now four women in an amusing state of overtired silliness — headed to the final checkpoint at Cunningham Gulch, mile 91. Roger had been moving so well that we anticipated seeing him before sunset, rather than previously anticipated midnight. We watched an eerie sunset as ominous clouds gathered (sadly I have no photos of this on my camera, even though I was certain I took some.) Then the lightning started — blinding bursts followed within a second by deafening thunder. This storm was very close. Roger, I knew, was somewhere along the high traverse above us, well above treeline. My heightened state of stress came roaring back. Hailey mused that she was worried about Roger being cold, and I said nothing, because I was worried about Roger being a lightning rod.

We huddled in the camper van and the storm continued raging for more than a half hour — longer than I've ever sat directly underneath an electrical storm that refused to move on. Twilight faded to darkness, the patter of rain quieted, and we emerged finally to clearing skies. We stood under the open hatch and watched moonlight stretch across rain-saturated cliffs. The air was still, and I was viscerally reminded of the Iditarod Trail earlier this year, when I walked through the subzero night beside the moonlit cliffs of the Happy River Gorge. This became one of my favorite experiences ever. But I couldn't quite relax and relish the memories, because Roger was now overdue. An extra half hour passed. Then another.

Finally, we saw a headlamp bobbing far overhead along the cliffs. Hailey called out "Cooo-eee!" — something I've only ever heard my friend Leslie shout when hiking in bear country, but just learned is a common Australian bush call. To our relief, the person on the cliff called back in his distinct tone, "Coooo-eeee!" He hit the final descent, hundreds of feet overhead, and took off at a full sprint. The headlamp was flying down the rocky trail and we heard an amusing barrage of shouting and cursing: "$@!*@# LIGHTNING!" Turns out Roger and several others hunkered down in a depression on the other side of the ridge as the storm raged all around, throwing bolts into the valley both below and above them. They'd been above treeline for hours, so hunkering down near rock outcroppings was their only option. I've been there before — just a few meters below Utah's highest mountain, Kings Peak, in the Uintas — and few experiences of my life have been more frightening. This is another reason I have little desire to run Hardrock. I'll just stick to smaller, more escapable doses of Colorado mountains, thanks.

Hailey joined Roger to pace the final segment, and Amanda and I loaded back into the camper van to wait for them at the finish. Along the rough road out of Cunningham, we encountered a runner far off course, who turned out to be our friend Dima. Dima escaped from the storm down a drainage and then followed a jeep road to Cunningham. He told us he was lost and asked where the aid station was. It all happened quickly, and Dima walked away before I had a chance to clarify anything. My assumption at the time was that he was already out of the race but refused a ride just in case he could return to the spot where he went off course. Another vehicle drove toward us, so I waved them down and asked them to relay the news to his wife, who was no doubt also worried about him being overdue. They alerted the aid station volunteers about Dima's situation, and he found himself disqualified by the time he'd arrived. He was supremely unhappy about this, but accepted it and went on to finish the race — unofficially, but he traveled the whole distance under his own power. It was an admirable move, but I inadvertently found myself mixed up in his upset about being only the second person to be disqualified from Hardrock, ever, and may have lost a friend.

Hardrock: The Drama and the Intrigue. Roger and Hailey strode into the finish just after 3 a.m. For a rookie from low altitudes on the other side of the world, Roger seemed to have a nearly flawless race. Difficult, sure, and dangerous — that lightning storm was the real deal. But he executed it about as well as one can. I'm really stoked for him

Andy became the runaway Cinderella story, though. After barely leaving Grouse Gulch, he surged for a while and then faltered again. By the time he reached Cunningham, it was just 11 minutes before the cutoff. Although the cutoff is 2 a.m., it's generally accepted that at that point, traversing the final section in four hours is almost impossible. It took Roger four and a half, while feeling good. As the clock crept toward 6 a.m. and we waited for Andy, I went through the chart to assess how long that segment took most of the runners. There weren't many sub-four-hour segments after those who finished in 36 hours, let alone 48. We stood in the emerging dawn, watched, and waited. Andy's daughter was so nervous. Finally, a headlamp rounded the street corner. With less than four minutes to spare, Andy sprinted full-speed into the finish with his Kiwi pacer in tow.

It was a beautiful moment, of which there are many in an event such as Hardrock. Thanks, Roger, for the opportunity to tune in this year. I hope to catch the next episode.

Monday, July 16, 2018

I am so infinitesimal

Nearly 90 degrees at 10,000 feet, and a steady flow of sunscreen-saturated sweat reduced my field of vision to bursts of light between rapid-fire blinks. After a hard left the road shot skyward at a 20 percent grade, its surface a backward conveyor made of moon dust and loose rocks. With impaired vision and Jello legs, my path resembled a drunken meander, carved in the sand. As has been my recent habit, I conjured an obnoxious but catchy song in my mind to force better cadence. This time, it was "Infinitesimal" by Mother Mother. 

There’s a million, billion, trillion stars 
but I’m down here low 
Fussin’ over scars 
on my soul (on my soul)
on my soul (on my soul)
On my soul, I am so

The rear wheel bounced and skidded in place. I mashed harder. My heart pumped sludge, my blinking vision narrowed and my head spun, but this sensation felt right again — power-generating desperation, rather than poor oxygen saturation. Then I heard the sound that was my only fear in this tunnel-vision place: a vehicle rumbling uphill behind me. The narrow road forced me to veer to the impossibly soft edge, where I applied every last strand of strength to keep my line straight through inches of chunder. After an agonizing span of time, the small sedan rumbled past at 5 mph (meanwhile, I was clocking about 2 mph.) Finally free of the oppressor, my legs faltered. The bike's rear wheel skidded sideways and I was forced to throw a foot down. Gah! 

The road was far too steep to generate new momentum, so I commenced pushing. Even walking in this heat, under this harsh sun, up this steep chundery road, pushed the limits of my fitness. I barely had the strength to look up when I passed a parked truck flanked by an older gentleman — most likely 70-something — with baggy overalls and white whiskers. He was working on firing up a small chainsaw, and paused as I passed. 

"You're supposed to ride that bike, not push it!" he exclaimed with playful gruffness.

"I'm not strong enough to ride here," I panted in reply. 

"You've got another mile to walk before the top. Good riding up there, though. Worth it." 

The "top"
I thanked the chainsaw-wielding local and continued the upward trudge. I smiled at the thought of how pathetic I probably looked, because that morning, for once, I woke up feeling strong. So strong that I decided to launch my weekly long ride into Boulder on the hottest day of July so far, starting at 9 a.m. when the temperature was already 85 degrees, then head up high to scout new-to-me terrain. My route would require at least 70 miles and close to 9,000 feet of climbing, thus the early start (the goal in these weekday rides is to race the clock so I can cram as much mileage as possible before a sharp 5 p.m. deadline.) My interpretation of fitness vacillates so frequently that it doesn't even mean much to me anymore, to say "I feel strong today." But I try to embrace sensations of strength when they occur, even on the hottest day of summer. 

Since I spent four hours climbing up here, I figured it was time to head down, but vowed to return as soon as possible to explore higher. During the long descent on Sugarloaf Road, my speed topped 40mph as I approached two animals racing along the paved shoulder. Just barely moving faster than them, I soon saw it was a doe chasing a large coyote, with a bushy tail flicking rapidly as it darted into the grass and back into the road. For more than a mile this continued — the kind of thing I would have had time to photograph had I not been descending at break-neck speed myself. The doe was not relenting and none of the coyote's evasion tactics worked. Coyote didn't have a fawn in its jaws, so I figured the deer was winning this battle. I was rooting for her. Finally coyote spotted an escape route and took a hard right into brush, the doe still hot on its heels. 

I reached Boulder Canyon with an hour to spare. Even though I was by then well-toasted, I veered up Chapman trail for an extraneous thousand-foot climb as the temperature soared past 98 degrees. Usually this popular route is crowded with runners and cyclists by 4:30 p.m., but on this afternoon, sweat was my only companion. There were no cyclists on Flagstaff Road, either, which is downright eery. I felt fantastic. Usually heat is kryptonite, but eventually there's a tipping point where it's so bad that it taps into my ridiculousness ethic, and then I thrive (as long as I have access to four-plus liters of water, that is.) 

Our friend Gabi was in town all week, and Beat set up elaborate shuttles to guide her on all of his favorite run-commutes from work to home. My Achilles was tight after all of last week's mountain adventures, so I couldn't join the running fun, but was happy to help with the necessary one-way bike commutes. Thursday brought steady afternoon showers. I thought I'd be thrilled to beat the heat and ride in the rain, but I underestimated how cooked I remained after Wednesday's ride. Dust mixed with light rain turns into an irritatingly sticky paste that bogs down wheels, and I was admittedly a grumpy bear for most of the three-and-a-half-hour slog I'd chosen. 

Notable from this ride was the way I worked so hard to grind up a climb that has become one of my cherished Strava segments, then later learned I'd botched it more than 11 minutes off my PR — the slowest I've ever ridden this route outside the winter months between 2016 and 2017, which included slush and snow. Strava is known for its kudos and achievements and PRs, so I joked with Beat that someone should write an app to send an e-mail that plays sad trombone with the message "You really sucked this time" for every personal worst. I would pay for this app. One needs to have balance in life. 

On Saturday I swiftly made good on my promise to return to the Apex Valley/James Peak region with more time to explore a compelling maze of jeep roads. My body felt better but my bike kept dropping its chain during the slow churning climb — probably my fault for mounting the rear wheel incorrectly; it's always something simple like that. No matter, as soon everything would be solid granny gear terrain, no shifting necessary.

Next time I decided to go jeep road exploring, I will try to find a weekday to do so, as four-wheeler traffic was thick on Saturday. I stopped at this viewpoint to admire James Peak, where a family in a red jeep expressed amazement at seeing me, since they'd passed me near the bottom of the hill at Tolland and had barely arrived themselves. (That's another positive of rugged roads. With the exception of the occasional dare-devil motorcycle, most traffic is creeping along so slowly that they don't even kick up dust.) The man urged me to ride down the trail they were about to hike, and I explained that the trail entered a wilderness area where bikes weren't allowed. It was clear he didn't understand what I meant by this, and continued to express confidence that I could handle it.

"You rode all the way up here, that would be nothing for you."

Instead I pushed my bike up a gut-busting ladder of rocks (that I would later walk down as well.) I crested a saddle just below Kingston Peak. The weather up here was unbelievably perfect — no wind, few clouds, and 70+ degrees at 12,000 feet in mid-afternoon. Exploration possibilities on the other side seemed almost endless, but on this day I was racing daylight, thanks to a 12:30 p.m. start. I mostly doubted I'd make it around for a loop, but I was going to try.

I found a delicious piece of tundra singletrack to ride toward the town of Saint Marys. I could see dirt roads climbing hills in the distance and convinced myself I'd connect them, so I descended a long way.

Then the trail ended at the tongue of Saint Marys Glacier. The snowfield was surprisingly solid and icy for a hot summer afternoon, and it became clear I wouldn't be able to negotiate it short of butt-scooting with my bike. I stubbornly persisted, hiking along the boulder-strewn edge. But as this became more arduous, I also questioned the legality of dragging my bike down a glacier to the crowded access trails at the mouth. The prospect of breaking the law — not the slogarific hike-a-bike — eventually turned me around.

The steep return was nearly all bike-pushing. By the time I crested the Kingston Peak saddle again, it was after 5 p.m. The simple option would be to go back the way I came, but then I met some nice motorcyclists ("Wow," one greeted me. "You are a long, long way up here." ... after I'd descended a thousand feet) who described a way to descend into Central City, where I knew I could connect back to Apex Valley. I must have taken a wrong turn, because I veered onto a steep and baby-head-strewn doubletrack through a deep and buggy canyon, aptly named Mosquito Creek. This was slow, slow descending, and by the time I hit Upper Apex Valley Road, it was after 6 p.m. I used my brand new Garmin InReach Mini (which I love!) to text Beat. "Running really late. You should probably go ahead and have dinner without me."

At Apex Valley, I could have easily descended into Central City and taken the highway home, but curiosity drove me skyward, from 9,000 feet back up to nearly 11,000 feet in the rich evening light. The road surface deteriorated and steepened, until I was again churning on a bed of loose boulders, applying most of my upper-body strength just to maintain a minimally straight forward line. The air was still and utterly silent. I enjoyed gazing over the ripple of foothills and sprawling plains to the east, feeling dwarfed by the grandeur. Some people go to the mountains to feel they've conquered something big. I come here to embrace my reality as an insignificant piece in a big, spectacular world.

Of course, I am still human, and can't always prevent my useless ego from roaring back to life. The bumpy descent atop a primitive road bed filled with loose babyheads was so exhausting that I was on the verge of tears. I took increasingly extended walking breaks — while descending a hill I could technically ride — just to "rest." Finally at the bottom, I texted Beat again to let him know I was still alive. "Finally back at Rollinsville. That ride was so hard. 34 miles in seven and a half hours."

You can bet I'll be back for more.

Sunday was Beat's turn for a long effort — his last long training run before the Ouray 100 in two weeks. Beat has this thing he calls the "InFERNo Half Marathon," which is five times down and up Fern Canyon with a three-mile round-trip approach on the west ridge of Bear Peak. Those 13 miles include 10,000 feet of climbing, and it's difficult to emphasize how difficult the whole thing must be, spending hours negotiating a 40-percent grade either up or down. (I've only ever managed two Ferns, so I don't even know.) Beat thrives in this kind of ridiculousness, and did the whole thing — 10,000 feet of climbing — in less than seven hours.

Conditions were close to perfect on Sunday, with fog and steady warm rain that cooled the air, cleared out the crowds, and coated the dirt parts of the trail (admittedly rare between the rocks) in sticky hero mud. I set out in the mid-afternoon to do just one lap — still 3,000 feet of climbing in five miles — and noted the rarity of these ideal conditions. "PR conditions," I thought.

I descended from Bear Peak extra slowly, and bid Beat goodbye on his fifth climb, since I couldn't even keep up with him then. At the lower trail post, I dawdled in the warm mist until my watch hit 1:20:00, then launched up the muddy trail. With determined focus to keep a steady pace and not drift off the occasionally perplexing route, I marched in a near-red-lined daze until I hit the top, some 2,000 feet higher. My watch read 1:57:xx. 37 minutes! My old PR is over 40 minutes, so that was solid! I was giddy.

Then, at home, a downloaded my track and saw that my GPS had a major hiccup and instead recorded an erratic spider track all over the walls beside Fern Canyon, so the actual segment never recorded. I was mildly devastated, because if it's not on Strava, it didn't happen.

I suppose I'll have to wait for the next rainy afternoon to try it again. You can bet I'll be back for more. 
Monday, July 09, 2018

Bit of a mountain bender

Every week, when I say I want to take it easy and spend more time sitting in air-conditioned coffee shops and catching up on writing I want to do, I really mean it. A weary moodiness sets in, and I can only conclude that my cumbrous body just doesn't want to do a bunch of stuff right now. Then there's the other side that asserts this is just a hormonal wave, we can ride it, no big deal. Then friends from out of town come to visit, and we want to show them our favorite places. Adventure desire burns hot enough to snuff out the weariness. 

Then another seven days pass, and I realize I've schlepped this clunker body through 95 mountain miles, with their exhausting rocky descents and 13,000-foot summits and wheezy meanders through pine forests. It sometimes takes a few hours, but I'm always grateful I went out, and not necessarily worse for the wear afterward. So I get up and do it again the next day.

 Friends from Australia, Roger and Hailey, came into town on the Fourth of July. After serving up a bunch of " 'Merica food" — burgers, sausage, corn on the cob, watermelon, and ice cream — we dragged our severely jet-lagged friends up Bear Peak to watch fireworks displays over a wide swath of the Front Range. While we awaited the close-range show over Boulder, a thunderstorm moved through and graced us with beautiful natural fireworks. This lasted about five minutes before we decided the lightning strikes were too close for comfort, and beat a quick retreat in the rain.

 Roger is in Colorado to race the Hardrock 100 in two weeks, so we helped him jumpstart his acclimation with a trip to the Indian Peaks Wilderness on Thursday. The loop between Buchanan and Pawnee passes is a local classic that I hadn't yet experienced. The route covers 27 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing through a variety of gorgeous settings. There's not a bad mile on that route, but they're all hard.

Roger started out strong, then was noticeably hit by the altitude. I imagine this was a little frustrating for him, with Hardrock on the horizon. Altitude affects everyone differently, and the lucky can handle big jumps more easily (Hailey, who has been injured and opted for a shorter trip over Mount Audubon that morning, had few issues with her jaunt over 13,000 feet.) Roger still has two weeks to acclimate before his race, but I don't envy him. I remember how much I struggled when I jumped from sea level in the Bay Area to much more moderate races at 8,000-9,000 feet.

 Roger was able to experience a best-of-Colorado tour, though, including a moose family along Buchanan Creek.
 Lunch break near a roaring waterfall.

 Hiking in the shadow of Thunderbolt Peak as thunder began to rumble in the distance.

 Heading toward Pawnee Pass. Looking at the wall of mountains in front of us, I wondered where, exactly, the pass even was. I continued to be confused until we were standing on top of it.

Nearing the pass, and still just walls in front of us. 

 Nasty weather to the northwest. The clouds and thunder seemed to be moving laterally to the east so we continued toward the pass, but there was a bit of urgency in the talus ascent.

 Views from Pawnee Pass. It was well-hidden but surprisingly non-technical.

 Descending toward Brainard Lakes to close out the loop. One of the advantages of being out all day — beautiful evening light. With thunderstorms surrounding us all afternoon, we didn't experience even a drop of rain, so lucky all around.

 On Friday we took Roger and Hailey on another alpine jaunt to South Arapahoe Peak. I admittedly felt awful for the first two miles. It was like last summer all over again, with labored breathing and stumbling dizziness. Although I continue to have ups and downs with my fitness, I really believed I was past this level of weakness. It was a case where I would have turned around had I been alone, but I do have that unfortunate fear of missing out.

 Happily, I perked up as we gained altitude. Possibly a reaction to pine pollen? The frequent question of "why can't I breathe?" has so many possibilities, and the answers most people expect — like high altitude or fatigue — often don't have much correlation. During my recent outings, I've felt the worst early on, and improve with distance and time outside, so fatigue or exposure to allergens don't offer much of an explanation. The lack of understanding frustrates me, so I just continue to be grateful when I can breathe.

 Beat and Hailey at the summit of South Arapahoe — 4,083 meters, which is the number that impresses our friends from across the ponds. (14,000 feet doesn't mean as much to them, so they're just as happy with a 13'er north of the 4,000-meter mark.)

 Roger and Hailey were on their way to Durango as our friend Gabi from Switzerland arrived, so we had another friend to drag around the mountains. On Sunday, Beat wanted to show Gabi his favorite route, climbing to James Peak (4,054 meters) then continuing along the Continental Divide before descending into the lush and magical valley of Forest Lakes.

 From the start I said I was just going to hike slowly to James Peak and back while they did the 21-mile loop. My breathing was better than the previous day, but my mood was in shambles. Why? I don't know. Nighttime temperatures have been quite hot and I haven't been sleeping well, but I have been overly moody for a few weeks now. Sunday morning rivaled the sadness I felt after I returned from the Iditarod Trail in March, when the world was such a dark place and life was unravelling. Meanwhile, my body was just hiking through a beautiful forest, and the logical side of my mind was chiding me, "What is your problem? There is no problem." I've mentioned before that I believe these brief bouts of what might be mild depression are related to a hormonal cycle, but I have no concrete evidence. There probably is a connection to physical fatigue as well. What I do have is confidence that these moods go away, and so I don't give them any credence. Shut up, stupid sadness.

 Even though I felt like I was just plodding along in a gray fog (that also included a real hail storm), I somehow reached the summit just minutes after Gabi and Beat. Gabi was exuberant in the high mountain air, and urged me to join them on a traverse along the Divide. The thought of stumbling along uneven tundra in my already ponderous state made me want to cry, but I held back on pouring my dumb emotions onto this beautiful place. I considered the traverse as we descended James Peak, and concluded that I didn't have anything to lose by spending more time in the mountains with friends.

 Predictably, I perked up as I followed Beat and Gabi along the ridge, where we stopped with frequency to gaze down the cliffs and express awe.

 For the rest of the day, my mood continued to improve. The darkness retreated as swiftly as it moved in. The real weather shifted from gray and drizzly to sunny again. My legs felt strong and I didn't roll my ankle once. My breathing was calm, and I ran the descent better than I had during our outing here two weeks earlier.
By the end of 21 miles I felt great, and grateful that I pushed through the low point and emerged triumphant on the other side. As I concluded last week, resting and hiding indoors really isn't what's best for me, but I realize there's a better balance between nothing and all mountains all the time. Now it's Monday following a long holiday weekend, and I need to spend the day indoors catching up on tasks I neglected last week. This place is nicely air-conditioned and the coffee is delicious, but what sparks a smile is new memories of scrambling up the loose rocks of South Arapahoe, laughing at marmot antics, listening to Roger say "Woooow" at least eight dozen times, drinking sweet water from a stream, nailing a rocky descent on the other side of weariness. Bodies are a frustrating mystery but they still take us through life, which is what matters.