Monday, June 29, 2009

Leadville 100 Course Weekend

(Looking south from Hope Pass: 14ers Oxford, Belford, and Missouri on the left.)
I awoke this morning with an ache in my legs. I burrowed down into my bag, rolled onto my right side in a semi-fetal position, and fully extended my legs. Grooooaaan, that feels nice, but still that same ache. Due to all my injuries over the past year, I haven't had the pleasure of that type of early morning sensation in my legs for quite some time. It is a feeling that is only brought on by lots and lots of running.

The running I did over the weekend was planned to give me a sense for where I am fitness-wise on the Leadville 100 course. This is ground that I've run quite extensively, and often while in the best shape of my life, so it offers a useful barometer for ascertaining where I am and what I need to work on.

Saturday's run covered the first 40 miles of the course: starting in Leadville at the corner of 6th and Harrison, down the Boulevard, around Turquoise Lake, up and over Sugarloaf, through the dreaded road section, and then finally finishing with nine rolling miles of buttery singletrack into Twin Lakes. It's a fast 40 miles of running to be sure, with only about 3000' of vertical spread over two semi-significant climbs.

Prior to this past weekend I hadn't run over four hours since a double-crossing of the Grand Canyon way back in November, so I didn't have a lot of confidence in going this far. Nevertheless, in the past, I've been a bit slow and maybe too relaxed on the run down to Mayqueen during the race, so on Saturday I decided to experiment a bit with a marginally faster initial pace.

A run like this assumes a very specific, goal-oriented nature. If this particular route weren't that of a race, I would never run it. It's simply too uninteresting, and quite frankly, includes too much road (especially when there's a perfectly good singletrack trail that would get you to the same place; alas, it resides in the Mt. Massive Wilderness Area, where organized races aren't typically allowed) and not enough hills. Yet, I have goals, and am willing and curious enough to occassionally sacrifice a little aesthetic appeal and running pleasure to satisfy such priorities.

The day went well with me covering the Leadville to Twin Lakes portion of the LT100 in 5:06. I may have been running off a little angst about not running in California that morning (nothing but complete respect and admiration for my buddy Hal, however). Life became difficult in the expected spots (long, monotonous sections of smooth road), but I was reminded of quite possibly the number one rule of ultrarunning: it doesn't always keep getting worse. One hundred mile runs, and even a forty mile run, are so long that the body tends to go through multiple peaks and valleys of energy and metabolism. The mind's will ebbs and flows. One's legs can ache irritatingly and seemingly without reason, and then be completely rejuvenated by sometimes the most confounding of stimuli (a precipitously steep uphill? a handful of salt? what kind of world is this that I live in?).

But this is (part of) the beauty of the endeavor. If I simply persevere, it is likely that something satisfying will occur. That "thing" may only be a mere finish of the ordeal--the run, the race, the climb--but when that run or race continues for hours upon hours upon miles, or that climb extends for thousands of vertical feet, merely finishing takes on a much greater depth of meaning.

Of course, for some of us, we like to operate with the hubris that "just finishing" is no longer such a big deal and that "finishing this thing as fast as possible" is a worthy objective. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. I do know that striving to "finish as fast as possible" takes me much, much closer to flirting with that fringe-laden edge where life can either quite quickly go to shit or propel you into an indescribably satisfying blaze of achievement, personal transcendence.

And so Saturday went. I scooted surprisingly effortlessly down the final hill into Twin Lakes, a hill I had not run for two years--not since my participation in the 2007 Leadville Trail 100--punched my watch at the aid station garage, sat down in the shade, peeled my filthy shoes off, and reveled in the glow of a distance well run. For sure, I could not have run another 60 miles at a similar intensity, but it was a satisfying confidence-builder nonetheless.

Sunday's run was essentially the antithesis of Saturday's. Hope Pass is at once terrifying and inspiring. It sits there at the mid-point of the Leadville 100, waiting to be scaled not once but twice, precisely when things are just typically starting to get a little bit above-average tough--due to the accreted mileage--anyways. So, running that pass twice is a good thing to rehearse. Additonally, it is gorgeous. The 12,600' pass enjoys grand views of numerous 14,000' peaks and boasts extremely well-constructed--but still steep--trail nearly the entire way.

On Sunday, I was happy to be running with tired legs. Saturday's forty miler would give Sunday's Hope Double-Crossing a more authentic tinge of tightness, soreness, and fatigue as to what could be expected in the actual event. The first 3400' climb went well. Maybe better than it has ever gone before. My diligent scaling of the area's 14ers seemed to have been paying off and I trotted up and over the alpine summit with unexpected ease.

(Coming into the ~12k' meadow on the north side of Hope; LT100 '07)
The descent down the other side never ceases to shock me. Every year, my first run down the south side of Hope Pass almost always disheartens me. The bottom half is steep. It pounds the shit out of my quads. And the entire time you know that you just have to turn around--after visiting Winfield--and grunt back up the thing.

Which, of course, is exactly what I did. However, somewhere in the pounding descent, a gel--100 calories of life-giving sugar--managed to shake itself loose from my shorts pocket, leaving me to fend for myself among the rocks and roots and leaves. What, oh what, was I going to do without my sugar? Bonk, that's what. I started the second, 2800' (in 2.5 miles) climb with optimism: the first climb had gone well, why shouldn't this one? I thought for sure my snail's pace ascent would allow me to re-locate my errant Tri-Berry Gu foil packet amongst it's exceedingly more organic surroundings and I would just get the opportunity to slurp it down anyways. Finally, I knew I should complete the climb before three hours of running was up--my usual longest gel-less run length.

Some marmot must've happened upon a tasty breakfast. I did not spot the gel, and I suffered. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it did bring into stark relief the absurdity that ultrarunning can bring out in life. How can a packet of Gu become so important? The trickle of a spring? The relief of some shade? I was happily skittering giddily along that fringed edge.

Ultimately, the final climb of the day did not suffer too badly. I climbed as quickly as I ever have during a double crossing and the descent down the gentler northern side was enjoyed. The shallowness of one's energy reserves are not as easily exploited when gravity is on your team and not the opposing's.

Afterwards, in the positively raging Lake Creek, I sat, braced against the snowmelt rush. The hot, high-altitude sun on my upper body could not stave off the goose-bumps brought on by the swirling water. Chafing under my arms smarted. From whence my fitness has come I am still not sure.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mt. Elbert

The public radio station (91.7FM, out of...Golden? Maybe?) is broadcasting the fantastic music program, World Cafe. Wisconisin band Bon Iver's excellent track Skinny Love strums through the speakers. I sit and read about the revolution occurring in Iran. I try to imagine what it would be like to live in a society where the government gets away with killing protesters. Relatively, running to the top of a mountain doesn't seem so important.

And yet, that is what I do the next morning. Mt. Elbert beckons. The highest point in the state at 14,440', and only 65 feet below California's Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. As a geologist, I wish I had a more coherent--or any, actually--explanation for why so many mountains fall within in the seemingly arbitrary 14000-14,500' range. Something to do with weathering and age of orogeny I'm sure.

As a result of this distinction, the Elbert trails are well-traveled, even mid-week. I pass my first hikers well before treeline, but they certainly aren't the last. I fight the desire to feel so possessive of the mountain, as if I should have it all to myself. There is nothing special about me or my chosen activity for this trail, and yet, this default selfishness is hard to fight past in my mind. I harbor a low-level dread for the customary, trivial interactions that I am forced to engage in upon meeting/passing each hiker.

Part of this, I suppose, has to do with the relationship I have with running in the mountains. I am not likely to be mistaken for a religous person, but upon reflection--while awash in a post-run glow, maybe lying beside a rushing mountain stream--running up a mountain takes on a meaning of almost sacred dimensions. The mountains are where I worship, where I honor and experience whatever greater oneness or connectedness there is in the world. As a result, disruptions can be...just that. Plus, there ain't a lot of extra air to waste with talking.

Above tree-line, the switchbacks seem to take on a predictable rhthym: I turn to my right and am greeted with steepness, a slight overdraft on my account of available energy and general muscular responsiveness; I turn to my left and the trail is discernibly flatter, my stride subtly lengthens and I am allowed a slight recovery.

At about 12,700', the trail flattens considerably in preparation for skirting a formerly glacial cirque, the headwaters of Box Creek. From my current vantage point, the top of this cirque erroneously appears to be the top of the mountain--the first of many false summits on this peak. The flat section reminds me of a stretch of the South Kaibab Trail on the Skeleton Ridge of the Grand Canyon in that it offers a brief respite at approximately the half-way point of a consummately arduous ascent, and then proceeds to climb even more steeply. Mt. Elbert is conspicuously without oppressive heat, ankle-deep red dust, and mules, however.

(Flat trail leading to the steep climb past the cirque, to a false summit.)

The summit cone of Elbert is still mostly covered in snow, but previous footprints afford a convenient if inconsistent staircase of sorts to the top. After much effort and multiple wellings of false hope, I am finally there: the highest point in Colorado, the apex of the morning's run, the cessation of significant effort. But, someone forgot to tell me about the party. The top of the mountain is veritably crawling with people. Nearly a dozen or so folks from Wichita alone. A portly fellow sporting an enormous backpack, full ear-coverage noise-canceling headphones, and a t-shirt with a "Polska" insignia. Can I take his picture? Sure, why not.

Again with the selfishness. Am I really that bad of a person? I guess so. It doesn't help that I--wearing only shoes, shorts, and a watch, with a 3 oz. jacket stashed in my waistband--am so obviously different from every other person up there. But so it goes. The morning is stunning in its beauty. The sky is indescribably blue. Royal blue. Like the blue you would paint a house. There is not a hint of haze. And eventually the crowd leaves, disperses, descends.

And eventually I do to, after a few moments alone. On the descent it occurs to me that running up a mountain could be seen, in its own way, as an act of protest. A temporary flinging aside of all the things that constantly clamor for our attention. An outrageous confirmation of agency in a world where we can often feel a little lost in the shuffle. At its core, for me it is the most authentic expression of personal freedom I can conceive. And, if nothing else, it is selfish. But, for now, I am okay with that.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kokomo Pass and Area Peaks

Sometimes you must wait. I had planned on doing this run on the Colorado Trail on Saturday, but when I awoke the day was cloudy and dark even though the sun should've already been making it's daily arc across the sky. Low clouds, heavy with moisture, scooted past the surrounding peaks. I anticipated thunderstorms and lightning, which is never a fun thing above tree-line, so instead opted for a comparatively tame thirty miles on the Leadville 100 course around Turquoise Lake and up and over Sugarloaf Pass. Shortly after my run it began raining and didn't stop until the sun went down. I had made a good decision.

Sunday morning started in much the same way, however. When I awoke to rain tapping lightly on The Roost's roof I merely grunted and rolled over, taking refuge beneath a thick layer of goose-down. Thirty minutes later, I gave up sleeping and resorted to reading; waiting, waiting for the rain to stop. Of course, it eventually did.

The Colorado Trail between Camp Hale and Copper Mountain Resort has two 12,000' high points, Kokomo and Searle Passes. I eyed this section of trail on the map mostly because it promised a substantial amount of time above tree-line and because of its proximity to Leadville. Plus, a double-crossing of a mountain range between two highways (Highways 24 and 91) sounded neat.

I made quick work of the 2700' climb to 12,022' Kokomo Pass. Whenever I am on the Colorado Trail my mind inevitably wanders to the prospect of running the entire length in one go. My friends Hal and Ian had run a then-record effort of nine days or so back in 2003, and I tried to imagine what it must've been like to toil up a pass such as this with so many miles behind you and so many more lying ahead. Daunting, I would guess.

(Looking towards the northern Sawatch, from Kokomo Pass)

At Kokomo, the trail traverses the northeast-facing side of Elk Ridge, contouring at 12,000'. This is where the snow began. Colorado's unseasonably wet and cool spring has delayed melting in the high country, and the portion of the CT between Kokomo and Searle Pass was no exception.

No matter. One of my favorite things about running is its versatile nature, its infinite adaptability. Before mechanized travel and the domestication of beasts the best way to get around quickly was on one's own two feet at a steady, sustainable aerobic pace. Our own soles were the first--and are still the best, in my opinion--all-terrain vehicle.

By sticking to the grassy tundra of the high ridges and peaks in the area--12,000 to 12,600'--I was able to stay clear of any significant snow and enjoy the unfettered freedom of true cross-country running. Additionally, I was afforded the luxury of unparalleled views of Mount of the Holy Cross and the Mosquito and Ten-Mile Ranges.

In high school and college "cross-country" had meant relatively flat and fast anaerobic sufferfests of 5K or 8K in length, typically over an outrageously manicured and watered, golf-course grass surface. Conversely, cross-country running on the alpine tundra of Colorado hews a bit closer to the phrase's literal meaning: I'm standing "here" and I'm going to run across that majestic landscape to "over there" and maybe come back. I much prefer the latter.

As a result of my off-trail exploits, I was granted the view from many lesser summits in the 12,400-12,600' range: Corbett Peak, Sheep Mountain, and North and East Sheep Mountains. Despite the snow, it was still an idyllic day with almost 2hrs of above-treeline time followed by a requisite dip in the Eagle River. And I now know that waiting for this particular section of trail to fully melt out will be worth it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Mt. Antero and Boulder Peaks

The past two days have granted me the fortune of many a summit view. I am often queried by folks for advice regarding running training, usually for ultramarathons, and I almost always feel somewhat sheepish in my response. I know that people are merely interested in what, empirically, has worked for at least one individual to achieve a certain measure of success in a discipline that they themselves are interested in maximizing their respective potentials, but I'm always afraid that people will feel a bit miffed when they hear my seemingly overly-simple approach.

When I left the frustrations of my collegiate running and racing career behind, I resolved to follow a much more intuitive, mountain/trail-based, often excessive, typically fueled-by-joy, approach to my running that doesn't easily lend itself to the logic and rationality of more typical running performance programs.

So, my advice is typically: think of what inspires you and use that to fuel your running. I happen to be pretty intensely inspired by mountains, so as a result of doing it consistently, and doing it with joy, over the course of a season I tend to improve at the singular skill of running up and down mountains. Which is typically what trail ultramarathons ask us to do. So that is what I do in my training. I run up and down mountains. Not coincidentally, I enjoy it. To a certain degree, I believe in doing the things that make me happy. (I'm not entirely prepared for an in-depth discussion of the finer points of John Stuart Mills' theory of Utilitarianism, so I'll just leave it at that.)

This week has seen me run up and down a lot of mountains.

On Wednesday I needed to be in Boulder for a meeting regarding my graduate research, so I planned for an early morning of running up mountains before my 9:30am appointment. Boulder's western skyline is dominated by the uniquely slicing profiles of the Flatiron peaks, three in particular: Green Mountain, Bear Peak, and South Boulder Peak, all of which top out somewhere between approximately 8100' and 8500'.

(Flatirons of Boulder, CO)

I've run Bear and Green a few times before, but there seemed to be a certain pleasing symmetry or aesthetic to summiting all three in the course of a single run. Additionally, I wanted a full tour of what will soon become my backyard, home ascents. However, after 2:20 minutes of running, and a total of four summits (Bear twice), I knew that I'd be attempting the next day's run with an unadvised level of residual fatigue.

(Mt. Antero, 14,269')

On Wednesday evening, my buddy Alex and I sat on the tail gate of my S-10 pickup with its convenient, hinged loft and fiberglass cap--my cozy living quarters of The Roost--and ingested our respective dinners. I chowed on PB&J after PB&J while Alex drank cold soup from the can. Deep in the valley carved by Chalk Creek, Mt. Antero and Mt. Princeton looked down on us from either side. The occasional mosquito buzzed. We discussed the possibility of giardia in Baldwin Creek. I contemplated a third PB&J.

Suddenly, a beat-up red Jeep Wrangler came bombing down the rough Mt. Antero road at an alarming rate. The vehicle rolled to a stop at our roadside pull-out and bobbed ominously. Alex commented on the clearly broken front left shock.

The driver leapt from his seat with a swagger as if the endless jouncing of his downhill ride had affected his inner ear. It probably had. With his stringy hair in a ponytail, John Lennon glasses, a Lebowski goatee, and dust-covered clothes, this man was a sight.

"You fellas headed up the hill tomorrow?"

"Yup." I'd decided on the third sandwich and was in mid-construction.

"What for?"

A worthy question, but a bit strange coming from another human being that had clearly just been somewhere up on that hill. Indeed, why were Alex and I going to run up that hill tomorrow morning?

"To see the view." The smart-ass in me takes over sometimes.

"A lot folks go up there for a lot of different reasons. I've got a claim up there with aquamarine in it. I'll give you guys something with zero agenda and expecting nothing in return."

With that he reached into the pockets of his filthy jeans and pulled out two of the tiniest crystals of somewhat bluish-colored, quartz-looking material. Neat. He happily roared away in his Jeep that was visibly listing to the left.

The next morning, we enjoyed precisely 19 seconds of flat warm-up before leaning into the 8 1/2 mile hill that lay before us and getting to work. Antero features an excellent mining/jeep road for 7 1/2 miles of the climb. At 13,700' the road ends on a flat shoulder where the aquamarine can be found. Alex commented on how the surrounding mountains looked like the Alps. A certain amount of snow is decidedly aesthetically pleasing.

(Final switchbacks leading to the 13,700' shoulder.)

A certain amount of wind is not. For the last mile of the climb, our existence became that of merely surviving the wind. Fighting, defying, pleading with the wind. The trail climbed straight up a steep talus ridge for the last 500' of vertical and on this we entered that world where emotional objectivity disappears and only the screaming, unflinching, uncaring wail of the cosmos can be heard. It could be terrifying if one lets it.

And then, as if we'd entered the eye of a hurricane, the very pinnacle of the mountain was an incredible, eery refuge from the battle being waged immediately below. Alex and I sat at the summit, amazed. Sitting on the summit of a 14,000' mountain in central Colorado is like standing on a bluff on the California coast and staring west into the incomprehensible vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The immensity of the void, the sheer scale of the landscape, the unquantifiable nature of what you are viewing, is, most of all, humbling. I am nothing. These mountains simply don't care. Despite all usual evidence to the contrary, I am clearly not the center of the universe.

But then the Canadians we'd passed on the way up huff their way to the summit, the spell is broken, and it is time to go. Alex and I step not three feet below the peak and the raging hurricane returns. The next 10 minutes are, upon reflection, comically hair-raising with the wind trying with all its might to send us spiraling into the great beyond, but soon enough we are back down to the road, have once again shed our shirts, and tuck into the glorious descent with the giddy glee that can only be induced by having just touched the top of a mountain. It never gets old.

(A view of the descent.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mt. Massive

(Was a mountain ever more appropriately named?)

Running up a big mountain is dramatic on so many levels. But, Mt. Massive sneaks up on you. The drama is given a chance to build gradually, first climbing easily out of the creek valley, then striding oh-so-comfortably contouring through the trees with the morning sunlight filtering through to occasionally warm my numb hands, and then the trail turns upward and I'm out of the trees and on the tundra and holy shit, THAT is a mountain, until suddenly there I am toiling up an impossibly steep slope, stubbornly refusing to give into the storm raging inside my skull, the world seems to be screaming so loudly that eventually it drowns out even the internal voices imploring me to walk, stop, sit, repose, rest.

Like I said, dramatic. If one could simply summon the presence of mind to objectively look at the situation, the absurdity and general calm would be obvious. However, stuck in my head, in my situational psychic reality, it feels as if the world is falling to pieces around my ears. A pleasant breeze is elevated to the level of howling gale, every simple rock step-up becomes a nearly insurmountable obstacle. If only the trail were always as consistently smooth and forgiving as this short stretch of sublime alpine singletrack I could emotionally bear the thought of continuing my cadence all the way to the summit. But it's not, it quickly turns back into the rock-strewn, ice-encrusted rut that is the norm.

But therein lies the beauty of grinding inexorably up a mountain face. Eventually, thought is forced to cease existence. It can no longer be born. It is the only way I can cope. I somehow even forget that I want to walk. Don't look up, don't look at the summit--for chrissakes don't look at the summit!--it's simply too soul-crushing to contemplate the objective, the final reprieve, whilst laboring at what feels to be the absolute zenith of effort. At what cannot possibly be a sustainable effort. But, of course, by turning off one's goal-oriented brain, it becomes sustainable.

Why? Because, all I really have to do is take one more calculated, perfectly-placed, as-efficient-as-possible footstep. Certainly I can take one more step? Of course, and, little by little, the ground is covered, the delta elevation is scaled, the absolute presence is experienced. Nothing else even exists but the here and now of inching my way up this goddamn mountain. And that, my friends (a phrase I will never look at the same way again, courtesy of John McCain), is an indescribably beautiful, important thing. It is living. In the end, it's all there really is.

And, thankfully, running (uphill, without much oxygen, it seems usually) is the one thing I've been fortunate enough in this life to find that reliably transports me to that psychic/emotional space of living, relentless, rife with effort (suffering?), but somehow, unexplainably fulfilled. Filled with life.

And then I get to the top. And my organism can't even express how ecstatic it is to be asked to do nothing else but BREATHE. Enormous, gulping, body-consuming breaths that each originate somewhere deep in my thorax, my spine, my soul. Hands on knees, elbows locked, praying to the decomposed granite between the toes of my shoes, I sway slightly, dizzily, in the ubiquitous mountaintop wind and, not so much inhale but consume the delicious, sweet, chilled air.

Finally, gradually again, on the downhill, making my way back into the valley carved by Halfmoon Creek between Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, I re-enter the world where the mind wanders, thinking of other things than the task at hand, deftly stepping over roots and rocks, so unconsciously engrossed in something else that I forget to stop and drink from the spring that saturates the trail just after Willow Creek. But, that's okay, because for at least the next 24 hours, my psyche will be nourished by the fact that--for at least some, nontrivial amount of time--I was there, I was in it--life--and nowhere else.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


(14,421' Mt. Massive watching over the town of Leadville)
This morning, on my jaunt down to Turquoise Lake, I noticed that the leaves on the aspen trees lining The Boulevard have only just reached a stage that could be considered anything beyond merely "budding". It is mid-June. Down on the Front Range, or in my home state of Nebraska, temps have typically moved on to the consistent 90F range by now, and the fact that it feels like summer is generally without dispute. Not in Leadville, at 10,152'.

(Mt. Massive as seen from the shores of Turquoise Lake)

It rained here briefly yesterday evening, as I was snugly burrowed into my sleeping bag, nose in a book (David Foster Wallace's mammoth opus, Infinite Jest), dry, courtesy of the fiberglass shell a foot above my head. I thought nothing of the quick (but shockingly violent, as most high mountain weather cells are) shower, but as I strided comfortably shirtless down my narrow dirt path this morning I was mildly surprised to see a fresh dusting of snow above tree-line on the Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges, shimmering in the morning sun.

The gently undulating profile and soft, decomposed pine needle padding of the trail on the shores of Turquoise Lake provided my legs with a welcome respite from the more rugged surfaces and arduous grades that I've pursued this week.
(Sugarloaf Pass, 11,200': mile 20, LT100 '06)
On Mount Princeton, Bald Eagle Mountain (reached by ascending the Leadville 100's famed Powerlines climb to Sugarloaf Pass), and Prospect Mountain earlier in the week I'd begun the process of acclimating my legs and chest to the rigors of running extended up- and downhills without the aid of more standard amounts of barometric pressure to force the oxygen into my lungs.

(Padding around Turquoise Lake, mile 94, LT100 '06)

I remember a camping trip that my family took to the Canadian Rockies in 1995, my first summer of running. Doing loops around the campgrounds in the evenings, I couldn't figure out why I was never able to achieve the same feelings of relaxation and comfort that I could while running at home in Nebraska. It wasn't until later that I learned of the effects of altitude on aerobic performance. Nevertheless, it was trips like that--hiking to alpine, glacial lakes, sitting around campfires at night--that unconsciously provided the impetus for me to permanently gravitate towards the higher elevations as an adult.

Of all the towns that I've been to, in my mind Leadville's geography is only rivaled by Silverton or Ouray in it's ability to provide inspiration and instant access to the contiguous U.S.'s highest mountains. And I would argue that Leadville has the single best 360 degree skyline with the towering Sawatch Range to the west, the Continental Divide wrapping around to the north, and the 13-14,000' ridge of the Mosquito Range directly to the east. Leadville sits so high, and the peaks of the two highest mountains in Colorado--Elbert and Massive--are so imposing, that it's easy to forget that the bump of Mt. Sherman right behind town crests 14,000' as well. I am grateful to be here.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Mountain stream water is not supposed to be orange. Yet, the water flowing out of the Commodore Mine’s Nelson Tunnel portal and into West Willow Creek (which, in turn empties into the mighty Rio Grande about a mile and a half later) about one mile north and upstream from Creede, CO makes the adjective “rusty” seem quaint. “Intriguing”, “repulsive”, and “toxic” seem more appropriate.

As a runner whose preferred environment is the alpine landscapes of Colorado, I have been an unfortunate witness to innumerable examples of this type of water due to Colorado’s rich mining history. Most of my favorite launching pads for trail runs in this state—Leadville, Aspen, Silverton, Ouray—began as mining boom towns where environmental concerns (The mountains are so big! We could never permanently mess them up!) couldn’t be bothered with when there was so much money to make.

As a result, waste rock from mines was piled where ever was most convenient and watershed hydrology was never even considered. In the case of the Commodore Mine in Creede—as with all kinds of mines all over the Mountain West—thousands upon thousands of cubic yards of waste material was dumped directly into West Willow Creek where exposure to air and water oxidizes the iron pyrite (FeS2) and other sulfides in the ore resulting in extremely acidic creek water (typically a pH of 3 or 4) that in turn sends the heavy metals in the waste rock (all sorts of frightening stuff: zinc, lead, copper, cadmium, manganese, even arsenic) into solution where it then flows downstream and typically disallows the existence of any kind of significant organic life. Vegetation and fish cease to exist. The water is clearly unfit for human consumption. It can’t even be used to irrigate crops as it kills the crops and/or collects in them in unhealthy levels. Fun stuff.

This sort of blowback from Colorado’s mining heritage makes mining easy to hate. However, the fact is, mining is an integral part of human history in the state, and most towns’ historical identities revolve around it. This cannot easily be ignored or trivialized. Nevertheless, it also doesn’t do anything about the ongoing ecological disasters that continue to occur across the state.

Now, as part of my becoming a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I will be spending the next two years learning a lot and ultimately contributing to the reclamation of Creede’s Commodore Mine by parsing out the finer details of the hydrology of the West Willow Creek watershed and ultimately of the Commodore Mine itself. The goal is to come up with a sustainable, workable solution to stopping the flow of acidic water out of the mine and into the creek.

Creede, like many Colorado mining towns, is a visually stunning place. The region’s extensive historical volcanic activity has resulted in a landscape of towering volcanic tuff cliffs that are several hundred feet tall, idyllic aspen-covered mountains, and roiling mountain streams that is all located at the foot of the impossibly high reaches of the snow-capped Continental Divide a few miles out of town.

The mountain running is outstanding. The town itself sits at 8800’ on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The single track Wason trail is available one block off of Main Street and climbs immediately into the surrounding mountains. Within 1h15 I was above treeline in Wason Park—a strange, perfectly flat tundra plateau at 11,800’—and marveling at the cloud-enshrouded reaches of La Garita Peak (13,707') and the Continental Divide directly in front of me as a herd of a dozen elk galloped away from me across the massive meadow.

Additonally, Creede--for an old mining town--has a pretty vibrant tourism industry. Although only about 300 people live there, the town maintains a downtown/Main Street with varied shops and classic, old Victorian buildings and there is even a fair bit of culture. There are a number of art galleries, but the main draw is the historic Creede Repertory Theatre. I look forward to going back.

My participation in this project is not an accident. It is all motivated by my deep connection and appreciation for the mountains that I am privileged enough to run in on a daily basis, and I expect that working to improve the health of those mountain’s watersheds—all while learning, respecting, and preserving the cultural history endemic to the region—will be as fulfilling an activity as actually running through them.