Monday, September 30, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

What a weird summer. After spending the last month of summer in Europe, the night I returned was the beginning of the torrential rains here in Boulder and the next night I was evacuated from my apartment. Honestly, other than losing electricity in my apartment for over a week, I was personally essentially unaffected by the deluge that tore apart the northern Front Range of Colorado. Many people's lives were---if not completely torn apart---at least massively disrupted. I feel fortunate, especially considering the location of my home on the west side of town at the mouth of Boulder Canyon only a few dozen yards from the creek.

In the wake of the destruction and subsequent closure of all of Boulder's iconic open space, I escaped north last week to visit my sister in Wyoming. She and her husband (and my three week old nephew!) live only a 1hr20 drive from the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, so any time I'm up there it feels like a crime if I don't drive over for some fun in Teton National Park.

As I drove into the valley I was treated to a spectacular display of alpenglow on the high peaks, but they were also shrouded in thick clouds and a fresh coat of snow reaching all the way down to 8500' or so. Scrambling the perpetually iced-up chimneys of the Grand Teton's Owen-Spalding route is tenuous enough in splitter conditions, so I quickly changed my plans to instead run maybe the most classic trail loop in the park---a link-up of Cascade Canyon and Paintbrush Canyon via the Paintbrush Divide. From my parking spot at Lupine Meadows, this ~25mi outing on buffed trails would hopefully test my compromised achilles and hamstring but not hurt them.

Fall colors in Cascade Canyon.
The first time I ran this loop was seven years ago, July 2006. I had yet to run an ultra of any kind, but I was in the midst of a six-week gap between the end of college classes and the beginning of a new job so had lots of time to run in the mountains. A friend was driving to Montana to visit family, so I tagged along, sharing the driving and having her drop me in the park for a few days of running and camping, to be picked up again on her return to Colorado.

I'd visited the Tetons with my family 10 or 12 years earlier, but this was my first time as a runner.  On my first foray up Paintbrush Canyon, I was surprised and a bit dismayed to encounter significant snowfields still covering the trail high up in the canyon. Back home in Colorado, I'd been running to 14,000' without snow for almost a month, what was this? Despite this, I completed the loop the next day as well, in the opposite direction, and came away from the week with a couple conclusions: 1) I really enjoyed really long runs in the mountains (these outings were only the third or fourth times I'd run for more than 4hr), and 2) the Tetons were not your typical Colorado talus heaps. They held snow a lot longer and featured an abundance of dramatic granite faces, spires and ridges. It would be a puzzling six years before I made it back to the Tetons, but in that time I had made good on my resolution to try out this whole mountain ultra running thing. It's funny how much things can change in a relatively short amount of time.

A ray of sunlight breaks through the low clouds in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon.
As it would turn out, last week's run of Cascade and Paintbrush Canyons in the Tetons was a nice trip down memory lane, but it wasn't very good on the physical side of things. I had no energy on the long, gradual uphill into the clouds and snow on the Paintbrush Divide, and once I headed downhill, it became obvious that my hamstring was nowhere near being able to comfortably handle an outing of this length, with that much continuous running. And the next morning, my achilles was frustratingly tight, clearly upset with the longer effort. The injuries that caused my drop at UTMB were still lingering and my energy levels had also seemed to descend into the end-of-summer malaise that I predictably experience every September/October. The only sensible thing to do was to take more time off, so I did.

Despite not being ready to race at UROC this past weekend, it was still a lot of fun chasing the leaders from aid station to aid station and watching the action unfold. I found the men's podium performances to be particularly inspiring and I can't wait to get back out there. While the mountains will always be my primary motivation, racing is an aspect of running that I really enjoy---I simply love competing, laying it all out there, and going as hard as I can, and you never get as much out of yourself as you do when you're amongst it, being pushed by your fellow competitors.  This summer has left me quite unsatisfied on the competitive front, so I'm pretty motivated to pursue that next year.

Today marked one full month since UTMB, and in that month I only ran 10 times, taking two weeks completely off after the race. An hour jog this morning revealed some exciting pep in my legs, though, and with the First Flatiron finally being re-opened over the weekend (oddly, all trails and climbing was closed due to flood damage), I couldn't resist summiting this afternoon in the magnificent fall weather.

Downclimb on the backside of the First Flatiron. Photo: Joe Grant.
Before I begin training in earnest, however, later this week I'll be hitting the road for a spate of screenings of In The High Country.  I'll jog my way through that, but when I return it will have been six weeks since UTMB and I know I'll be super excited to begin ramping the training back up in earnest and hopefully start re-building some fitness.