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“You Can’t Get Lost in Colorado,” he says to the lost runner.

September 3, 2012

That’s what I was reassured by the hunter after I woke him in his tent around 4pm on Saturday, somewhere well off the trail and many miles from anything.  I had been running since about 7:30am, up and down the Continental Divide, thousands of feet up and thousands of feet down, taking the reverse, clock-wise route of the loop I ran exactly 3 weeks prior.  With an assortment of friends and strangers, I started the day with the intention of running a challenging but fairly straightforward 27-mile route called the Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Loop.

Photo: Silke

Most of the day had been perfect – sustained energy, favorable weather, post-card scenery, and great company – and I was just a few miles from the end.  Our group had started with 11 runners, with 5 of us continuing on for the full loop (the others “only” running something like 18 miles).  Though everyone in the group (everyone who I’ve run with in Colorado, actually) is strong and fairly experienced, on any given run there are some who are stronger overall and/or over specific stretches or types of terrain.

Photo: Silke

There was some leapfrogging all day long but the overall pecking order was pretty clear and two of my running buddies, Silke and Alfred, were clearly quicker and I was smart enough to let them pull ahead rather than running beyond my ability.  [Side note: I have been having some serious running-and-blogging envy of Silke.  She is remarkable, as much for her ability to capture the essence of her outdoors experiences on her blog as for her strength and boundless energy on the trails.  Her own post about this run is along the lines of what I hope my blog can eventually be.]

Photo: Silke

Towards the end of the run they were up front, out of sight, and the other two in our group were running independently.  On my own, maybe 24 miles in, I power-hiked up the final climb, knowing the parking lot couldn’t be far off.  But after going up and up and up, I felt something was wrong.  I was without a map (super dumb) but quite sure that we’d be only climbing about 1000 feet for that stretch.  1400, maybe 1500 feet up and still nothing/nobody in sight, I made a tough decision to double back down the mountain to see if one of the small side trails was the way to go.  17 minutes of hard running down and I did find a small offshoot and I took it for a while until it ended in a small seasonal hunting camp.  That’s where I met TJ Williams, the kind of guy a slightly scared, embarrassingly lost, and woefully inexperienced mountain trail runner hopes to meet.

Photo: Silke

TJ is a real outdoorsman, even refers to the trickle of mountain water as a “crick” and has a man’s beard and seems to be a master of wherever he is in nature.  All cammo-covered and mountain fit, he made it clear I was not at risk,  there was plenty of daylight to get back, and even smart guys can get turned around.  Then he gave me his map, filled my water, handed me some candy, and pointed me the right direction, which happened to be right back where I had been.  Turns out I was going the right way all along, my big mistake being that I second-guessed myself.  The idea of making that same 1000′ climb again, 27 miles and 7000′ of climbing into the day, was daunting but map in hand I knew it was time to make time.  Surely my fellow runners would be worried (and possibly annoyed), and I knew that Alison would be concerned, too.

Photo: Silke

Much of my own worry could have been diminished with a bit of better planning.  You see, my GPS watch power died halfway up my first shot at that final climb, giving me no indication of how far I’d still need to go or current elevation or anything else.  I hadn’t brought a light, thinking I’d be well off the mountains by 4pm.  I had no map, my phone was without service, and my food was running low.  I’d even left my ID bracelet back home since I was to be running with others.  For a stretch, I had thoughts of being out at 11-12k’ in the dark, by myself, without food, water, shelter, or light.  I felt dumb.  I was unprepared.  I now know better.

Photo: Lara

I covered the remaining trail as efficiently as possible, bounding down the final descent, making myself smile (I do that regularly regardless of how I feel or the conditions), and eventually made it back about 10 hours after I started.  Something like 8.5 hours of moving time covering about 31 rugged miles with over 8000′ of climbing (and 8000′ of descending, of course).  My running companions were, in fact, quite concerned but totally understanding and they didn’t make me feel even a fraction as stupid as they could (and maybe should) have.

Even with my unplanned solo diversion, the day was all sorts of fun and incredibly satisfying.  When tired and turned around, I remained calm and determined.  My body held up great – I never worried that I’d have to stop from fatigue – and the only physical issue I had was some carsickness on the drive home.

In fact, I bounced back fast enough to run with Alison on Sunday at the Devil Dash, where we both did well on the legit obstacle-and-mud-course 5k, crossing the line together in 51 minutes.

I’m now in the thickest part of Cactus Rose 100 training, looking to see what sort of mileage I can handle in September, before tapering down in October.  Mentally, I’m ready for the final push and my legs will just have to come along for the ride.

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