Monday, April 29, 2019

Art in motion

 This past week of training went well. With 18 more days until the Bryce 100, I'm feeling strong and reasonably well conditioned for marching over rocks and sand for the better part of a hundred miles. Several nagging issues, such as a tight Achilles tendon and sore hamstrings, are now largely ironed out, and I can manage a difficult run and be ready to run again the next day. This isn't my usual state, as I usually spend so much time cycling that I'm not as well conditioned for the continuous impact of running. But I've spent precious little time on my bike this month, and I have to admit it shows. This week I filled my goal of twenty hours with 65 miles on foot and 16,000 feet of climbing — almost entirely on trail —and two tough weight-lifting sessions. My legs are feeling snappy, even if laced with the fatigue of these hard efforts.

 Despite zooming the focus on motion for the sake of training, rather than the other way around, I still managed a couple of adventures. On Wednesday I had to drive to Longmont for a windshield replacement. Since I was heading out there anyway, I looked into potential running routes nearby. I planned the standard loop at Hall Ranch, but in scrolling through the map, I noticed a blank-looking patch of green to the west between the popular tourism destinations of Lyons and Estes Park. A quick Internet search revealed the existence of semi-secret trails generally used by mountain bikers, but they were legal and public on National Forest land. I left the auto glass place with a plan to find my way to a knoll called Button Rock Mountain.

I felt extremely nervous about this run. I couldn't even say why, exactly, but I was so physically anxious while driving through Lyons that I asked myself whether this sick feeling might be intuition picking up the radar of unknown dangers, and perhaps I should just run at Hall Ranch as planned. But no, I thought, exploring the unknown is more rewarding than comfortable routine. Why, though? To this I also had no answer.

There was nowhere to leave my car in the small neighborhood of Pinewood Springs, so I parked two miles outside of town on a forest road where I hoped to close my loop, and jogged along busy Highway 36. The trailhead was delightfully nondescript — just a faded driveway across an empty lot in the middle of a neighborhood. For a secret trail, the first few miles were surprisingly well-defined. For a while I was convinced it would be fun to return at some point with my mountain bike. That is, until the secret trail did the usual Front Range Colorado thing of cutting across steep side slopes in and out of drainages, passing directly over sharp rock outcroppings and through a barely-shoulder-wide gauntlet of tree trunks. It was a little nerve wracking even without a bike, I admit, and I took to the exaggerated knee bends that I sometimes engage when I'm terrified of tripping.

The trail climbed to the top of a ridge, where it faded into rock outcroppings and vaguely branched off in multiple directions. I took wrong turns, picked my way up loose slopes, backtracked, and gave up on any semblance of running motions as I bashed through brush and checked my arms and legs for ticks. I felt like a small child, wandering through the woods for the sake of wandering, letting curiosity overpower a vague sense of fear. A patchwork of dark clouds billowed overhead, releasing a persistent drizzle. All the while, sunlight filtered through the falling rain, as it does here in Colorado. The air tasted like sweet grass and cedar. Spring.

Eventually I found my way to the top of Button Rock Mountain, with its dramatic views of the Divide and Longs Peak. From there was an established trail (at least, a trail drawn out on the map) that snaked down to a jeep road, where I met the only other humans I'd encounter in five hours — two older men, wearing big leather boots, flannel jackets and canvas pants, out for their own explorations. They asked me whether I was "one of those crazy 200-milers," as they'd already met an ultrarunner training for a 200-mile race. To this I could honestly reply "no." I told them I was "exploring" and gave a vague description of my route from Pinewood Springs, as the specifics were already lost to me. But I think they were more impressed with this than they would have been if I were a crazy 200-miler.

"Lots to explore," one said. "I've lived here most of my life." He followed with a speculation about a direct route to the top of the mountain, as he hadn't yet found one. I looked up at Button Rock, which from that stance loomed as a vertical wall rising out of the forested slope.

"I see what you mean. Looks very steep," I replied. They did seem disappointed that I hadn't descended directly from the mountain, but rather taken the same established trail as them — given I was "exploring" and all.

I imagined living my entire life among these foothills, and how even a lifetime of such explorations wouldn't begin to scratch the surface of the place. We become so hung up on ever-expanding horizons, but true intimacy with even our most familiar surroundings is almost impossible to achieve.

Beat and I set Sunday aside for our long run. A popular route in Boulder is the "Skyline Traverse," spanning the five most prominent peaks over the city: Santias, Flagstaff, Green, Bear and South Boulder mountains. We've long wanted to run all of these peaks starting and finishing at home, so Beat mapped out the shortest way to do so, which was still 23 miles with 8,000 feet of climbing. I planned to take full rest days on both Saturday and Monday, so I could confidently give my best effort to this outing. A winter storm was forecast to move in on Monday, so Sunday's weather was volatile: Strong gusting winds and thunderheads interspersed with blue skies and sunshine.

 Green was our first mountain, followed by Flag, where Beat located the random boulder that is (most likely) the actual geographical high point on this flat mesa of a "summit." He was feeling off with stomach issues and cramping, but didn't want to back down on our goal. If we were just out for a typical long run, I imagine he'd have been more likely to cut it short, but the "Skyline Traverse" gave the outing some intrigue.

We jogged over to Santias for Beat's first ascent of Boulder's most popular mountain, after three years of residency here. I climb Sanitas fairly often, as it makes for a good "lunch run" when I need to spend the day in town, and features my favorite aspects of hiking and running all condensed into a perfect five-mile loop: A steep and rocky ascent gaining 1,300 feet in 1.2 miles, followed by a four-mile descent on a gently graded singletrack winding through the woods. Here we planned to climb the South Ridge and drop down the steep East Ridge, so no swooping descent. Also, it was a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon, so as predicted there was a veritable Conga line all the way to the summit. My description of the climb up Sanitas as "short" may have thrown Beat off a bit, and he charged up the spine well ahead of me. We were sand-blasted by strong gusts of wind as we nudged around huge groups of hikers. At the peak, Beat appeared slightly shattered. As this was the furthest point on our route, we were both in for the long haul now.

 Our route back followed the always interminable Mesa Trail to Fern Canyon, our Stairway to Heaven. With 2,000 feet of climbing in a mile, Fern is always going to hurt no matter how fresh your legs might be, or how slow you take it. To me, Fern always hurts about the same whether I'm pushing hard or backing off, whether it's raining or blowing or there's several feet of snow burying the trail. Apparently Fern always meets my limit regardless. Beat has actually accomplished *five* Fern ascents and descents in one effort, during a self-styled "InFERNo Half Marathon" that has more than 10,000 feet of climbing. After all that, he still said this one was one of his hardest days in the canyon.

 I had a comparatively effortless run — started out feeling good, and as a downtrodden Beat set what for me was a stout but comfortable pace, I only felt better as we went. By the time we were trundling up Fern, I was thinking about how I need to attempt five of these someday, which is *never* how I envision my future in this canyon when I'm relatively fresh. Something about well-managed fatigue takes a soft brush to my thoughts and emotions, adding depth to the little discoveries along the way and scope to the memories and dreams on the horizons.

After my last blog post, friends weighed in with perspectives on "why spend so much time trying to be a runner?" Since then, I've thought about the ways that running is a creative act. Unlike most outdoor sports where one relies on equipment and therefore turns a lot of focus toward it — my first love, cycling, being the one of the most egregious among them — running is largely self-contained. Sure, there's still a ton of gear in running and runners can talk all day about the merits of different shoes and backpacks ... but by choice this gear can still be an afterthought rather than a necessity. Shock-absorbing shoes aside, every motion in running must come from within, and every body part must flow in harmony to prevent the pitfalls of injuries and mistakes such as trail splats. This flow is something I find only occasionally and with great difficulty, but when it happens, it's nothing short of magical. My body feels perfectly tuned and the miles unroll behind me, beautiful new brush strokes on the canvas of my life.

I could ramble on about "running as art" and probably will at some point, but that has become my current best explanation for the "why." Having fun is a nice perk but it's not my motivation. I need the difficulties to give weight to the magic — shadows contrasting color and light. When I think back to the most beautiful moments I've experienced, one of the first that comes to mind are the Northern Lights — ethereal and fleeting waves of light flowing across the expansive darkness of a winter night. I've endured much physical discomfort for never-certain opportunities to experience a few seconds of such beauty. Running, for me, is a similar pursuit.

This week I hope to put in two more longer efforts. After that I intend to respect the taper, as I'm still full of doubt about Bryce 100 and want to give myself the best chance there is. But I am pleased with how this particular "work" is shaping up so far. 


  1. can't wait to read your bryce 100 story!
    how did you fix your tight achilles? asking for a friend....

    1. Mostly by applying Kinesio tape. There's a good video of the technique at this YouTube link. My right Achilles has been bothering me on and off since last summer, but so far I've managed to stave off full-blown tendonitis.

    2. Note that the function of the tape is to increase circulation and speed healing etc - not to mechanically stabilize anything. It seems a bit like fluff, but in our experience it seems to have some positive impact. We use Rocktape H2O which sticks very well, though we tape edges with Leukotape P (which sticks even better, but is not flexible) and we use benzoine tincture as a base. That can last for a week.

  2. "I need the difficulties to give weight to the magic." Ergo the challenge..which drives motivation...which drives performance. As a "casual" runner, I never anticipated the "mental" aspects the come with competitive events. And by "competitive events," I don't necessarily mean races because I am always competing with myself or my watch. There's just "something," like a switch, inside "some" people that, even when they start off fully intending on a "take my time/easy trot," that gets flipped. "Oh, I feel good...I should push it," or "Oh, I don't 'feel it' today...I should push it."
    Your confidence is beginning to show: You must be ready. :)

    1. A switch is a good way to describe that energy that ignites during a race. I still don't consider myself all that competitive of a person, but when a goal comes up and I go for it, the feeling is electric. Thanks for the vote of confidence. :-)

  3. "My body feels perfectly tuned and the miles unroll behind me, beautiful new brush strokes on the canvas of my life."

    "I need the difficulties to give weight to the magic — shadows contrasting color and light"
    Jill Homer

    So cool!!:) I have to start a wiki quote page of you!

    Jeff C

  4. Pinewood is amazing and trails can be accessed from different locations in that general area....have fun! Check out Coulson Gulch down to N St Vrain river as well via Johnny Park.

    1. I look forward to returning for more explorations. I returned on the Johnny Park road and checked out some of those farther trailheads. Next time!

  5. I always think that in its purest form, running is meditation. Not the perfect 'flow' but the more practical 'person in place dealing with things' form. Which is the only type I can ever do, and I fail at it regularly; but negotiating a rooty, knobbly, woodland path is the best focus I know.

    1. I agree. The knobbly (love that word) paths can be so frustrating for me, and when I'm struggling I wonder if I should forgo my more adventurous urges in the name of bodily safety. But when it clicks, and I'm actually running such terrain ... such an incredible experience of flow motion.


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