(Forest Service sign commemorating Father Dyer on top of Mosquito Pass.)
I've always been interested in the activity of transporting myself from A to B completely under my own power. The thing about running is that at the end of a run, I typically find myself exactly back where I started, whether my route was a simple out and back, a loop, or some complicated mix thereof. This is not to say that I don't find inherent value in the usually geospatially purposeless completion of a run; it is just that there is something satisfying and alluring about using my mind and body's ability to efficiently cover great distances that might otherwise be achieved via mechanized assistance.
I remember 13 years ago, in August of 1996, pulling weeds in the garden with my Dad, and discussing how--with the advent of the new school year--I was going to mesh the three predominant activities in my life at the time: school, running, and football practice. I had just run my first marathon a month earlier and was more excited than ever about logging a lot of miles on northeast Nebraska's plethora of dirt roads and pasture trails.
However, Nebraska--thanks to the occasional NCAA successes of the Cornhuskers--is a football-crazed state, and as a teenage boy going to school in a small, rural town, there was simply no choice about playing football. It wasn't even a question that made sense to ask. If someone had asked me if I was going to play junior high football, it would've been like asking me if I were going to eat breakfast that morning. Of course, why wouldn't I? (Maybe the fact that I was 4'10" and 78 lbs, for starters.) This wasn't a peer or parental pressure situation (though my Dad had been a star runningback as a Niobrara High student, he couldn't have cared less whether I was or not); it was simply the order of the universe.
Anyways, back to the garden conversation. Football practice was starting in a few days, I had just logged my first 80 mile week, I would soon have to spend all day in classes...Dad was wondering how I might fit it all in. Inspired by the rampant folk tales in all running literature of the East African running dieties, my answer was simple: I'll just run to and from school every day, Dad. Mom (a teacher at the high school) can drive my books and clothes back and forth, but wouldn't have to wait for me to finish with football practice before driving back home for the evening. And, at a distance of seven miles each way, I'd be getting in some killer miles!
And thus began a full year of doing just that. Alas, on the very first day of 8th grade I took a tumble while playing hide-and-seek in the dark and was granted a quite intimate view of the inner workings of my left knee, which precluded any football for the season, but after a few days didn't stop me from hop/crutching a mile every morning before school.
Nevertheless, by the end of September I was back in the swing of things and running to and from town became as regular as doing my homework. I was full into my Lydiard obsession at this point as well, so I supplemented the week day runs with hilly 22 mile sojourns that climbed in and out of all of the surrounding major drainages--Bazille and Verdigre Creek, and the Missouri River--trying to mimic Lydiard/Snell/Halberg's legendary Waiatarua Loop in New Zealand. One hundred mile weeks were the norm through that winter, I was clearly obsessed, and I gained a healthy love for going places on my own two feet. Literally.
(Lydiard tested his training principles on himself.)
Which brings me to today's run. The towns of Leadville and Alma are the two highest in the country and are also only separated by the nontrivial geographical feature of the Mosquito Range. Anyone who has visited the crest of 13,185' Mosquito Pass is familiar with the legend of Father Dyer, courtesy of the Forest Service sign posted there and Dyer's nearby gravestone. The thought of regularly traversing a 13,000+' pass on snowshoes simply to deliver some mail is astounding to me. These days there is the much-propagandized and glorified Outside Magazine glossy version of the "active outdoor lifestyle", but give me a break. Guys like Father Dyer were the real deal; and duly inspirational.
(Father Dyer's gravestone atop Mosquito Pass.)
My own attempt at running to Alma and back to Leadville began...sluggishly. As I lay in the Roost this morning, I alternately flexed and relaxed my quads beneath the covers, checking for soreness from Saturday's marathon. It was there, but not bad. As I trotted up the hill into town, I could tell that today was going to be a tolerably inglorious effort. Good enough for me; I wanted to get to Alma.
The body's response to stress is often puzzlingly unpredictable. Embarking on the final impossibly rocky, three mile, 2200' ascent to the top of Mosquito, my expectations for my ability to struggle up the hill on my tired legs were low. Just get up there, I thought to myself. Today is all about just getting in 6hrs on your feet. And yet, somewhere in my body--on the unconscious, molecular level--neurons were firing, oxygen was being absorbed, and a sort of homeostasis occured that said, running uphill is okay today; we can do this. Before I knew it, I was atop the mountain, taking in the glorious bluebird view of the Sawatch Range, and sitting at the base of Father Dyer's stagecoach cut-out sucking on my water bottle. I'd scaled that slope only 45 seconds slower than during the race on Saturday.
Heading down the east side, I was giddy. I love new trails and exploration, and the eastern slope of the Mosquitos promised just that. A mile below the summit, however, was a sight that could not go unexamined. A single small stretch of maybe 20 yards of snow remained just before the road split around London Mountain, and sitting here, perched ever so ignominiously, was maybe the most foreign object imaginable: a Lexus RX300 luxury SUV.
The driver had clearly given up at the last possible moment, i.e. just before the only obvious move remaining would be that of tipping over and rolling violently down the mountainside in some sort of deranged glissade. What the hell was he/she thinking? "Colorado Native" and "Soccer" stickers adorned the bumper. Really? Why is it always a little bit astonishing when a stereotype is so accurately corroborated?
As I resumed my downhill progress I strained to resist the portions of my brain that were--stuck in their default setting--stubbornly reacting with a shameful mix of indignant disgust (how dare one be so disrespectful of my mountains? go learn some common sense already!) and sinister delight at the notion of some bumbling yuppie obviously receiving his or her comeuppance. These are not sentiments of which I am proud, and I was only partly successful. Luckily, there were abundant wildflowers in the verdant 12,000' meadow to keep me distracted.
(A typical view while running down the east side of the Mosquitos.)
The rest of the run into Alma was uneventful, bordering on monotonous. I knew going into this traverse that it was going to be 100% road, but even with this prior knowledge I struggled a bit to deal with the wide, flat, graded gravel surface I found myself running down the last few miles into Alma. Additionally, my core muscle cramps from Saturday were enjoying an uninvited encore act. Soon enough, though, I hit Highway 9--Alma's main drag--exactly 2h30min after departing Harrison Ave/Highway 24 in Leadville.
I made a quick stop in a coffeeshop to chug 30ish ounces of water and refill my bottle and then was back from whence I came. The run back up the county road was, for some reason, much more tolerable in the uphill direction, mostly because my mind was more than a little concerned with the gradually darkening sky. On the return trip, I elected to take the northern route around London Mountain--the true Mosquito Pass Road--and by the time I had reached the "parking lot" approximately three miles from the summit a light smattering of rain drops were splatting on my shoulders.
Once again my legs enjoyed the marked upturn in grade, but my thoughts were consumed with just what the hell I should do. At first I tried to tell myself that those rumblings were just distant jeeps, or rocks rolling through the abundant culverts on the road, but soon the proximity and intensity of the incoming storm was undeniable.
Just as I passed the ruins of old mine buildings and workings, the heavens unleashed their fury. Wind whipped rain and occasional pea-sized hail in all directions and I seriously feared for my life. Hands-down, lightning scares the shit out of me. As an accomplished and capable mountain runner, I confidently travel light--even above treeline--because I know that the intensity of my efforts that stoke my inner furnace will often ward off the majority of even the most inhospitable above-treeline conditions. Plus, I move quickly and can usually efficiently make my way down to lower elevations in a hurry. Even in this storm, I wore only a singlet on my upper body but didn't feel unduly distressed.
None of this, however, does anything to ward off lightning. I think of people who toy with lightning above treeline as hubristic idiots. Lightning does not care. And if your number is up, it will find you, that tiny little insignificant speck up there dancing amongst the talus. I hate gambling, and yet that's what I was doing. But, none of my options were appealing. Run back down all that vertical I just labored so intensively to gain? Seek shelter in a tumbledown mining shack? Cower amongst the boulders? Cry in fear? The LEXUS!
For the next mile, all I thought about was reaching that wretched vehicle, and if its doors weren't open (the likely case), lying in fear beneath its carriage, waiting for the squall to pass. In retrospect, this was a pretty dumb plan of action (lying under the vehicle, I would still be profoundly grounded, afterall, and that car was primarily constructed of highly conductive steel), but it's all I could come up with.
Alas, as I rounded the final bend, there was the car, being towed! The intensity of the storm had abated and in a moment I resolved to just keep chugging to the top of the pass, rain and hail be damned. As I cruised up past the positively crawling duo of tow truck and wounded SUV, the visions of my mind's stereotype were, of course, confirmed. The owner of the vehicle was stumbling around adorned in a T-shirt, Nantucket shorts, and flip-flops, and was desperately trying to shield himself from the onslaught of precip by using a beach towel as an umbrella. Not lost on me, however, was the irony of my attitude. How was I any less stupid for putting myself in the current situation, atop a 13,000' mountain in a thunderstorm wearing only shoes, shorts, and a singlet?
The run down the other side of the pass was defined by contrasts. At first I suffered repeated lashings from the mountain gods, but eventually, around 11,000' the clouds scuttled away, the sun broke out, and I was soon cruising down the road bare-chested and fancy-free once again. I padded past an alpine lake where fishermen flicked their poles with unconcerned aplomb, completely oblivious to the mind-rending depths of fear and despair I'd just experienced at the hands of the elements. How would or should they know or care?
A mile or two from town, the tow truck and SUV limped past me. Ten minutes later, as I finally made my return to Leadville, 4h58m after leaving its main street that morning, I happened to run past the owner of the SUV. "How far did you run today?" he asked, seemingly shocked to see me yet again. "Over to Alma and back," I replied. I like to think Father Dyer would have been proud.