The Marabana

Somehow, I never really connected that Cuba is a third world country.  That changed before I ever left Miami.

Which was about twelve hours late.

hangingAtCubasAirport

1am, waiting for our luggage

I’m not sure what time we were supposed to leave originally–some say the flight was originally scheduled for 11am, which is when I first arrived at Miami airport for the meet-and-greet with other runners.  I arrived in Miami the day before, because, well, Murphy is a good friend.  

I need not have worried.

Like many travel passionate Americans, I wanted to see Cuba before it became Americanized.  The myth and mystery that is Cuba.  The eclectic architecture. The spicy flavorful beans and rice staples.  The rum.  The classic cars.  The coffee.  The clashing irreverent colors And of course, the dancing, sensual, uninhibited.  All romance all nostalgia.  Did I mention the coffee?

I had originally started looking for excuses to go about a year prior, early November.  I remember the date because it was a week after the Marabana: the Marathon Habana.  As soon as I saw the advertisement on InsightCuba, I knew I had found my excuse.  I signed up for the notification that the trip was open again for the next year, which of course never came.  Seasoned traveler that I am, though, I had a monthly reminder set up before I ever left the page.

Not long after I submitted my registration, President Obama began the process of opening the borders.  It was both good news and bad, in many senses, personal and political. I knew intuitively the culture wouldn’t change overnight, but I didn’t want to see a single Mickey-Dees or Starbucks in my four days away.  For Cubans, the news was all good: it was the first place I have ever visited where people were truly excited by the idea of being “invaded” by Americans.  They see our democracy as their salvation, their freedom.  But I imagine they’re not entirely sure what they’re in for.  In many aspects, the romance we feel towards them is the same tinted, slightly skewed view they have of us.

capital

Cuban architecture

I wasn’t long at the meet and greet before I noticed a familiar face.  I asked the hostess, Jenny,  if that was really THE John Bingham and she (his wife, it turns out) confirmed it.  Mr Bingham is the face of us “penguins”, the back-of-packers, the turtles, the never-winners, the slow ones..  He single-handedly turned being slow into cool.  He’s a big hero of mine.  In typical introvert style, I smiled politely at him and then studiously avoided eye contact the rest of the hour. But John is outgoing and friendly, and we shared a couple of conversations over the weekend.  Jenny was coaching many of the runners that weekend.  In the first few minutes of meeting, she made jokes about ultra runners and comments on how hilly the Marabana is, not knowing I am a Colorado ultra runner.  We got along famously.

As an introduction to Cuba, we were entertained and taught by Cuban dancer Lilian Lombera, a professor of Cuban Music and a member of 3Tres Musas Producciones, a network of female producers in America,  about the history of dancing and the many types of dancing in Cuba.  Dancing is more natural in Cuba than walking here–or maybe it would be more appropriate to say driving.  Her enthusiasm and passion were contagious and she had many of us out of our seats and reliving our awkward teenage years trying to follow as she confidently and seductively maramba’d throughout the room.

Locating the check-in for the flight was next mini adventure.  Turning left when I should have turned right is how I met Dallas Smith, a fellow runner in the group.  It was one of the best wrong turns I’ve ever made.  Dallas is a fellow ultrarunner, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard him describe himself as such.  At this time, he has completed the VolState 500k twice, the oldest person to do so.  He’s also a big hero of mine.

Dallas and I stuck together and eventually found where we needed to be, got our neon green t-shirts and our visas.  Our athlete visas.  As a certified penguin,  it made me feel pretty special to have an athlete visa.  Like I was a real athlete.  

nino

“Ninos” sounds like a better category than “Masters C”

It was 2pm.  The flight was now scheduled for sometime around 4pm.   We decided not to push our luck and kept together to locate the gate.  Which of course changed shortly before we got there and is how we met the final two of the quartet that completed the weekend.  John is from Seattle and Laura from Houston.  They were self-appointed gate directors to keep people from going to the wrong gate.  The flight now scheduled for six, Dallas and I opted to assist them in their duties rather than spend more time on the cozy airport seating.

 

Six became ten o’clock.  Sensing a mutiny, the InsightCuba representative gave everyone all the cash he had on hand, which came to about $16 per person.  Most headed straight to the one bar in the remote Miami terminal.  

The four of us decided to bet on the American Airlines club, where $20 each got us unlimited access to food and beverage.  Dallas kept us entertained with stories from his life in Tennessee. Marveling at his storytelling skill, Laura told him he should really write a book.  “Oh I have! Two of them!”  

They are both well worth the read.

Finally around 10pm, nearly twelve hours later, the plane took off, landing a mere ninety minutes later and the adventure truly began.

Customs.  

A Cuban stamp on my passport!

And ended.

With a two hour wait for luggage at the airport (with any checked electronics never to be reunited with their owners), Dallas, who had everything packed in a small well-loved backpack that he brought on the plane, waited patiently with us.  We still are not sure why, but what a friend.

And began again.

And ended again.  

I had paid extra for my single supplement (the always needling “single tax”) which that earned me an extra bus ride at 1am to another hotel, the first hotel having run out of rooms.  That is how I met Luke, a Las Vegas fire fighter.  The magic of Cuba–every negative event leading to an encounter with a never-to-forget friend.

My work project at the time was in Clark County, NV, and he had heard of it.  We met for drinks and a bite to eat at 2am.  I’m sure we chatted about building codes and running but my muddled mind didn’t retain much of the conversation.  Just the marvel of meeting someone else I knew would stay in my life, if only for a short while.

7:30am cruel wakeup call.  It was one of the swankiest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, a true five star.  I heard no English being spoken at the breakfast buffet which went on farther than I was due to run that day.  Continental treats, eggs in every shape and form, fruit from around the world  Breads from the same.  Coffees. Teas. Juices. Oh my.  My stomach refused to play along, the three hour sleep fogging my entire body.

I was deeply regretful at having committed to the 9am pre-marathon 5k fun run–actually the kid’s run, but really open to kids of all ages.  I dropped off my bag and met up with Laura, having left her the night at the original hotel. We enjoyed a nice easy run in the heat and humidity of the Havana streets, the joyful abandon of the local kids running propelling us along.

theFoursomeRunning

Shortly after the run, I checked into Hotel Gran Caribe, walking distance from the capital and the marathon start the next day.  My room was on the third floor, one floor shy of the only two floors currently with running water.  I’m not entirely certain how only the top floors ended up with water, but, well, Cuba.  The difference between a four and five star hotel.  The building itself was classic Cuban, a courtyard in the center, high ceilings and limited furniture which lent space to otherwise efficient rooms. I was happy to see I had my own bathroom, even if I couldn’t use the toilet until running water returned  I’ve no idea how to properly describe architecture, but the lobby itself is worth the Google search.  Walking the hallways was a step back in time, I could almost hear Hemingway’s typewriter.  

The other upside to being on an athlete’s visa (aside from the heightened ego) and slow opening of the borders was that all we were required to do was run the race.  Normally when visiting Cuba as an American, you’re required to have every waking second filled with cultural activities: lectures during meals, visits to cultural centers, tours of the areas of Cuba the government wanted you to see. We however were free to walk the streets with no plans and no chaperones.

The first order of course was lunch.  The quartet had met up for our first real Cuban meal at a small restaurant not too far from the hotel.   We were not feeling too daring the day before our marathon, but like many countries, following the directions of the locals proved beyond our abilities, so we ended up where we ended up.  The food was delicious, not too spicy, but proved to be the downfall of Dallas.  He excused himself from our afternoon excursion and spent much of the day in his room, hoping to recover before the race.

The remaining trio went first to La Prado, the art gallery on the street.  The artwork varied from the mundane to the obscene to the overtly political.  We each searched for a piece that defined how we felt about Cuba, all of us falling short.  We wandered the length of it, debating where to go next.  

laPrada

I don’t know if it was the mystique of Cuba or simply the desire for forbidden fruit, but it many things are better from Cuba.  Laura and I were in quest for Cuban coffee and Laura was searching for Cuban music as well.  John and I were after Cuban cigars, and John wanted to partake of a real Cuban sandwich.

GPS devices are mostly prohibited in Cuba, so we made our way around with our old-fashioned paper tourist map.  Only partly intentional, we circuitously made our way Old Towne Square, where we found three of the four–all but the Cuban sandwich.  One of the interesting side effects of a communist way of life is that there is little motivation to sell. Unlike the markets of Mexico, one is not bombarded by hawkers selling their wares.  It’s rather a pleasant silence, being able to peruse without pressure.  John and I made our cigar purchases and Laura and I our coffee purchases. Laura held off on a music purchase, wanting to make sure what she purchased was legitimate Cuban music, not government issue.

We found some side shops and chatted with the shop owners. Laura and I ended up buying Cuban hats, which made for interesting coincidences in other adventures (including meeting a Cuban in Nashville).

It was a long day of walking the day before a marathon, but with limited time, we wanted to make the most of it, and we continued to meander through Havana, the amazement of truly being there never far from our hearts.  

Our feet stopped outside of a bar, only to start some American “dancing”.  The best music we would hear all weekend was dancing through the air.  Laura immediately ducked inside to purchase a CD. I wasn’t far behind her.  Heartbreakingly, once home, we learned it didn’t play.  But the music was already a memory, a feeling.  Lively, uninhibited, passionate.

treeInBuilding

You’ve heard of a tree house…

Not far from there, we saw possibly the most bizarre sight of the weekend: a tree growing out of a dilapidated building.  The next day, I was talking with Luke, who had spent the day talking with local fire fighters, countries and language not separating this brotherhood.  They had told him that building regulations were more than a bit lax.  Many tourists came for the architecture, so buildings that should have been condemned weren’t, and were left until they collapsed or burned.  The true tragedy being the families using them as homes who were killed in these events.

 

Dinner was late at the hotel.  It was then we learned the tragic truth about Cuban sandwiches.  In Cuba, there is no such thing.  Another American fabrication.  John was heartbroken.

The 7am race start meant that breakfast was from a box.  I hadn’t slept well again and couldn’t eat much of the stale, strange nourishment. I had no problem, however, downing a couple cups of generously sugared Cuban coffee.  The water was again not working at the hotel, so we went in search of public restrooms.  

What we found will never be erased from our brains.  As a runner, you have a certain jadedness when it comes to port-a-potties. But this exceeded anything in running lore.  We had no choice–we had to pee.  I still have nightmares.

theRace

Somewhere around five thousand souls were out in that humid morning, running once again erasing the barriers between all of us.  Less than 500 were from the States, up from less than one hundred in years prior.  I had worn my t-shirt from a race in a French territory and found myself speaking French to a couple race participants and locals.  I had to smile.

We four started together, ducking under a barrier to avoid walking an extra half mile to the end of mass of runners, but quickly lost each other in the bustle.  I put on my music and started my slow pace, knowing the heat and humidity would hurt more than the flat would help.  The race began by the capital and headed past La Prado onto the Malecon.  It wound around the city featuring only the best, much like any city marathon.  I had read that Castro, with the potential of new relationships with the US, was attempting to put communism a bit underground.  There was still some propaganda on the streets and building, but it seemed to me to be not much different from any other city.

The marathon was two loops which was a little disappointing. I would have loved to have seen 26 different miles of the city.  But the second loop did give me a chance to pick up the pace a bit to see if I could possibly beat the 5 hour cut-off, a lofty goal just two weeks past a hundred mile race.  Not long after the start of the second loop, Dallas surprised me, coming up from behind. I was surprised to think he was behind me–he owns many age group records–and was passing me but he had stopped at an aid station and saw me running by.  We spent a few minutes together, but his stomach was still bothering him.  It was probably a good thing for him that the aid stations did not serve food, only plain and oddly flavored water.  

A few miles later and John jumped in beside me, giving me a start.  He too was lagging a bit, so we enjoyed a couple miles together before parting ways again.  Jenny, there as support only, was a couple miles away from the finish, cheering us the last little bit.  She had already told me she wasn’t too worried about me, and I was happy not to disappoint.

I finished five minutes before the cutoff, Dallas and John not far behind.  Laura was already at the hotel.  She had completed her own race, having unintentionally turned around  at the 10k cutoff, but deciding to complete the half anyway, for a nice 30k race.  

It was another hour before the water was on at the hotel and another two before it was hot.  I was still too warm to care about a hot shower.   The after was open and we decided to hit a few highlights of the city, including Hemingway’s favorite bar, La Floridita.  We were hoping to have a drink but the crowd drove us back out.

There were several museums we wanted to visit, but trying to visit them on a Sunday proved fruitless.  We were able to get into the Museum of the Revolution and a memorial to the Bay of Pigs.  Both were stark reminders of how history is written by the victors.  The Museum of the Revolution was in Spanish, but the memorial was in English.  Reading what seemed to me to be a grossly slanted perspective made me wonder how slanted are the views with which I’m familiar.

Dinner was a group event, the only one of the weekend.  We had not seen much of the other runners outside a couple chance meetings at the hotel.  We all dressed up in our post-race finest, which mainly meant we didn’t wear the race shirt to dinner.  Luke was in the lobby when we met up, so we dragged him with us to dinner.  The Havana rum served with dinner came with an appropriate warning–it was definitely not for the faint of heart.  I don’t know if it was the race that day or just the mystique, but the rice and beans dinner was better than any I’d ever had.  We were treated to meeting native runners, one who sought me out in particular, having heard I am a fellow ultra runner.  He had won a 100k in Havana, so in a different class but still a fellow runner.  

He invited me to dance and I was grateful I had risked ridicule at the airport for the practice for a perfectly romantic Cuban moment.

theFoursome

The First Annual Silverton Double Dirty 30

I sat in my car, watching it snow, as I chatted with my friend Dale, world renowned weather nerd. I was trying to get a feel for just how bad it was going to be. “Not great but improving” was about as good a forecast as we could come up with–Dale always emphasizing the difference between a “good” forecast and an “accurate” one. If I had only known when I signed up in February–who am I kidding, I still would have signed up.

I had heard rumors of this race for a couple years. A 100k in the breathtaking–literally and figuratively–San Juan mountains.  Like many, I am in love with this corner of Colorado. The mountains are fiercely beautiful, steep, rugged, unforgiving.  Her sister race, the Dirty 30, had her own reputation for being challenging, but this race–this race would far exceed that.

I had crossed paths with race director, Megan, over the years, first at Leadville, then as support at the Dirty 30. I loved her approach to races: that she wanted, strove for, planned on everyone finishing. I’m a confirmed back-of-the-packer, so this is of special significance to me. I have a DNF on every race I’ve attempted in that area, missing cutoffs on the San Juan Solstice and the Ouray 100. Ultras are hard to coordinate, to balance not abusing your volunteers, the souls of ultra races, with the desires of all runners to be able to finish. Megan’s passion, knowledge and experience makes this balance seem almost effortless.

I signed up as soon as I heard registration was open. It wasn’t really even a conscious thought. I knew this race was something I was going to do. I trained. I read every email. I studied the course.

I trained.

When Megan added fund raising for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, it just made a great race even better. Ultra running is considered to be one of the most selfish pursuits a person can undertake, and for good reason.  But the members of this community are among the most giving people I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.  

“Go big or go home.” It was the perfect motto for the fundraiser, taken straight from the ultra-runner’s how-to-manual.   It was truly inspiring how many of the runners jumped in and helped out.  I wish that I could count myself among those who raised thousands for this cause.  

And now I was at the start.  I was way overdressed, as usual, at least for the start, my pack full of items I hoped I wouldn’t need–extra food and clothes, a satellite messenger for contacting people in case I was lost or injured, first aid kit. The headlamp, though, I was pretty sure I was going to need.  A 22 hour cutoff almost guaranteed that. And I knew much of this race was remote and would climb twice to 12,000 feet, above treeline, exposed.  

There was the potential for a lot to go wrong.  

An easy six miles, belying the rest of the course, was a welcome beginning–at least I would run some of this race. The climb began in the aspens, the yellow leaves accented against the newly white mountains in the distance.  My phone refused to take photos, so I had to content myself with simply absorbing the view.  I would like to say the course climbed quickly to the vistas for which Silverton is famous–and, really, the course did, but I didn’t.

With thirty runners, I quickly found myself DFL (dead f—– last).  It’s not my ego that’s bothered–I do count those sitting on the couch as my competitors and I was definitely beating them.  But with so few runners and so many volunteers, I hated that I was keeping them out potentially hours after they could have been back.  Their cheering and words of encouragement had me believing that they really did want me to finish as much as I did, and I did my best to keep my pace, eat lots, and keep moving.

The course is in a figure 8, the center point also the high point at 12,000.  It was still cloudy but thankfully not windy when I finally reached it for the first go-round.  The upside to being last: I got to drink all the remaining Coke and take all the chocolate, being no one else to feed and the aid station volunteers all too happy to not carry it down.  

I welcomed the downhill–at least for the first couple miles. I settled into a steady pace, finishing out the southern loop of the figure 8.  The sun, finally coming out, was now beginning to set as I entered the fourth aid station, the last before the final climb.  I took the time to change into warmer clothes, mine damp,  with sweat and maybe a bit smelly.

As I left the aid station and began the second and final climb to 12,000 feet, I started to feel nauseous. I had eaten a lot at the aid station (being last again and getting all of the quesadillas), but in retrospect, I didn’t drink enough. I swallowed a couple of Tums which seemed to help a little.  I sipped at my water, finding it hard to drink and breath at the same time as I climbed out of the trees and into the wind.

I glanced at my watch and realized four hours had passed since I left the aid station.  I stopped immediately and fished some gels out of my pack, forcing myself to eat them. I waited a few more minutes, then gathered myself up and continued the slog to the top of the pass.  It was well into nighttime now and I was heartened to see a headlamp not too far in front of me, respite from the loneliness. I continued up, watching the light, my small beacon in the dark.  

The winds picked up and I burrowed as best I could into my clothes, watching for the glowing trail markers and the footsteps that preceded me in the snow.  Soon the wind had obliterated the prints, and I alternated between following the headlamp ahead and the glowsticks. It was close to midnight.

Not soon enough, I was over the pass, and headed gratefully down and out of the wind.  I heard later it was about 10 degrees on the pass, and I would not argue with that number.  Not much later, I overtook the headlamp, attached to a very fatigued runner.  After making sure he had food and water and was, if not warm enough, at least not hypothermic, I continued to pick my way down, fatigue and the dark making progress slow.  

I knew it was only a couple miles from there to the next aid station and I was sincerely looking forward to the people and more food, my nausea finally subsiding.  The two miles passed, and no aid station.  I went another mile.  Still nothing.  Concern began to creep into the back of my addled mind.  I should have known the area, having done the July trail maintenance weekend in the same area. But the snow and darkness and fatigue rendered everything unrecognizable.

I pulled out my GPS, the route provided by Megan, proving her experience as a race directorin providing the download to all the runners.  I saw that I was about a mile from the third aid station.  Momentary confusion morphed into slight panic as I realized what I had done.  The course was a figure 8–I had missed the turn on the pass.  It was at least three miles back up, then another couple down to the fifth aid station.  I wasn’t looking forward to the wind and the climb, but I didn’t have a choice. I’ve run hundred mile races. I knew I could do this if I stayed smart.

As I was putting my pack back on, two headlamps appeared on the trail in front of me and a voice called out hopefully “Are you looking for us?”  It was Dan, a runner I had chatted with at the beginning of the race and his pacer, whose name I have regrettably forgotten. They had been lost for four house, attempting twice to go back to the pass and find the correct route down. Their GPS had long since died and they were cold and tired from the effort.

Half expecting their response (the one I was leaning towards), I told them I had a GPS and could get us back on track, but they were finished and looking for a quick way out.  Unfortunately, at that location, there wasn’t a quick way. The closest aid station was a long drive from Silverton and finding a closer trailhead would require miles of hiking.

Once at a trailhead, getting a ride would fortunately be to do.  Ever prepared, Megan had sent out in one of her numerous pre-race emails (it had been tempting to say ‘enough of emails!’ but they were so informative and upbeat) an email address to load into our satellite messengers.  Someone in a warm room somewhere was monitoring the inbox, and I quickly had a response to my slow-typed text.

Stay put. Megan was on her way.

We paced back and forth in an almost futile attempt to keep warm in the dropping temperatures, dipping before the dawn that was due in a couple hours. Food and water just seemed impossible at that point, s \o there was much relief when the headlights appeared.

But the saga was to continue.

The runner I had passed had never caught up to us and was officially declared missing, along with two aid station volunteers who had been dispatched to search for him.  The San Juan Search and  Rescue team had been alerted and now needed help with communications, and of course, Megan is a HAMM radio operator.  The three of us didn’t care that we had to stay until they were found–we were in a warm car and minutes from sleeping sitting up in the back.

Soon enough, though, everyone was found and we headed down, into the sunrise.  We reached Silverton at 7am, a full twenty-four hours after we had begun our journey.  Coffee from an ever-selfless volunteer, then a shower in the room the wife of the last runner to return, and I was almost normal.

I was bitterly disappointed in not finishing the race. I felt I had let down Megan and her amazing crew.  I can’t say I regretted missing the turn, because I know it led to helping a couple of fellow runners, and that is ultimately what this trail running community is all about.  There is always another year for the race and another adventure. I’ve already started the training for September 2017.

Switzerland and Italy – Part Due

152

It was fitting that the one day it rained, my friend Linda left to head back to reality.  It wasn’t fun to bid her farewell, but she had a family to be with and I had mountains to climb.

It was equally good timing with my trip. A forced rest day between adventures.  I’m never quite as invincible as I fancy when I plan these trips. I had planned one rest day between my three day trail run and my five days of mountaineering. I can run one hundred miles in a day; certainly eighty in three wouldn’t be so bad.

Focused in the Gorner Gorge.jpg

So I could blame the rain for the extra day.  Instead of taking the gondola–teleferique–up into the sweeping mountain vistas, we dove down into the gorge.  Gorner Gorge has been in the making for thousands of years, carved patiently by the Gornera River.  There is a guide-required route which utilizes some sketchy looking planks and logs and include one Spiderman-type swing and a few rappels.  The turquoise layered rock was exquisite.  Steve had gone the day before to check out the route and said I really missed some amazing blue water.  That day, it was muddied from the rain.

It’s a three hour excursion, leaving time for a coffee on the way back down and time to pack and re-pack and pack once again for four days in the mountains.  A different experience from backpacking in the US, the only food I had to take was snacks for the day.  One outfit for the four days, plus an extra, semi-clean shirt for the huts made up my clothing allotment.  I brought a silk sleeping bag liner, which was not really necessary, but a nice alternative to contact with the scratchy blankets provided at the huts.

I slept surprising well that night. It didn’t hurt that everything happens at a civilized hour in Switzerland.  Coffee and croissant for breakfast and a brief walk to the gondola.  It was still overcast, but the snow had stopped above, so it was a good time to begin.

The gondola carried us away from grey dreariness into blinding sunlight reflecting tenfold off the new snow.  The Matterhorn’s so-familiar silhouette commanded the view. It was the 150th anniversary of the first ascent and we had met the winners of Backcountry’s online contest to summit the eternal peak.  It didn’t look like they would be successful in that regard, but they weren’t ones to complain, after first class tickets from Colorado to Switzerland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The day could not have been more spectacular.  It was late in the season and the new snow replaced the hard ice we would have otherwise been climbing.  Sardines had more room than we did that morning, people catching up from the bad weather, and I strained to peer around, taking in as much as I could, forgetting  I would have four glorious days to absorb it all.  I didn’t want to blink and miss a second of it.

Steve and I took our time with final preparations once the gondola deposited us at 12,000 ft.  We were happy to let other teams break trail.  We put on crampons and helmets, pulling out our ice axes.  He showed me how to use the Mammut RescYou, a system for getting yourself or someone else out of a cravasse.  It is an odd feeling to hope, if it had to happen, that you would be the one that fell.  I had complete faith in Steve’s ability to get me out safely–not so much faith in myself to do the same for him.  We were both counting on people being around to help.

Most teams on the mountain were five or more, so we move more quickly than most, able to time our breaks and keep pretty good pace.  Pollux was the first–and only–peak of the day.  My first 4000 meter European peak.  A steep and slightly icy climb, a bergschrund (the crevasse that forms when the moving ice pulls away from the stagnant ice at the top of a ridge or mountain, often very difficult to cross), and a knife edge  preceded the summit, making it all the more rewarding to achieve the summit.

As I discovered on the run, downhill isn’t any easier on European peaks, and it was a long descent to the first hut.  Not that I can really complain.  If you ever want to mountaineer in comfort and relative ease, huts are the way to do it.  Our mountain climbing was done by about 2pm.  There is soup and light snacks available for purchase when you get there, then it’s nap time.  I was too excited to sleep that first day–a problem I did not have after that–and pulled out my journal to write down all the poems and adventures that were playing in my head.

136

I wanted to share my amazing day with fellow travelers, but language proved to be a formidable barrier.  Not to mention attitude.  I’m just not cool enough to be European. I was almost bouncing with my enthusiasm but it wasn’t shared.  So I found a quiet place in the sun and kept writing.  A couple of Germans joined me after a bit and we held a short conversation, not sharing many words in either language. I would share a room with one of them again on the last evening of my trip, his laughter over my paper journal (he wrote everything in his phone for his blog) cut short by a very serious bout of altitude illness-all over the floor of the room we shared.

Breakfast was toast and coffee–there is no shortage of carbs in the Alps. Best, they filled our thermoses with hot tea to take with us into the cool morning.  I was still full from dinner (soup, pasta, meat, veggies and dessert), so I didn’t mind.  I was appreciative of Steve’s suggestion that I bring dried fruit and nuts to counterbalance the bread laden diet.  It was another one peak day–the Naso de Lyskamm: Lyskamm’s Nose.  Below the gloriously intimidating summit of Lyskamm, it was another knife edge traverse, more straightforward than Pollux and every bit as breath-taking.

Done again with time for a snack and nap. After a short nap, I went back outside and soacked in the sun and the view.  I half wished I had brought my nice camera, but was equally relieved to be able to sit there and simply enjoy the view.  As the sun set, I pulled out my little camera to take some shots.  Steve walked up behind me and scoffed “What are you taking pictures of?”  My mouth worked, unable to find words for exactly what I was photographing. I turned in time to see his smirk.

117

“Another shitty sunset.”

The next two days were the big days, in opposite ways. The first day was all up–five peaks up to the Margherita Hut at 14,941.  Now three days past the storm, the tracks from the many groups crisscrossed over the snow–shorter trips and shorter routes crossing the more leisurely expeditions.  The first peak had a larger-than-life statue of Jesus.  In Italy, all peaks have some sort of religious statues.  It seemed somehow fitting, but a ritual I was glad had not been adopted everywhere, although I have often thought of leaving a small Buddha statue behind on a peak or two.

The short descent of one of the peaks had my attention, the snow soft and the pitch steep.  Not having secure steps is one of my nemeses in the mountains.  I pulled the first happy song out of my head. “Raindrops on roses; whiskers on kittens.”  I didn’t realize I was singing aloud. Steve’s mouth twisted as he said “This is the only down of the day–I can’t believe you’re not enjoying it.”

Margherita Hut was our last hut stop–and the best.Sitting atop the summit of Signalkuppe, completely renovated in the 1970s, it is one of the largest huts in Europe.  It was dedicated to Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy, in 1893.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They had just gotten a supply of food, and the fresh vegetables had the exquisite taste that only completely fresh food after a hard day of physical exertion can have.  Fresh fruit and chocolate completed the meal. The meals are served “family style” with everyone sharing the courses.  No one was eating much and I found myself finishing everything, half embarrassed and half envious that these people were so used to this kind of flavor that they didn’t partake more.

It wasn’t until I was awaken by my roommate’s vomiting that I realized what was probably the real reason no one was eating.  Coming from Colorado and used to climbing 14,000 ft mountains, I was one of the few not suffering from the altitude.  It made me love my home state all the more.

An interesting aside: the nearest settlement to the Margherita Hut is Macugnaga–the third stop on my three day trail run.

113

The last day contained the highest peak of the trip, Zumsteinspitze, which is on the way to Dufourspitze, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in Europe.  A small statue of St Mary greeted us at the summit.  From this point, it was a long hike back down to the gondola back to Zermatt, nearly ten thousand feet below where we stood.  I reluctantly began the journey.

It didn’t take long for us to be in the crevasse ridden glacier.  Steve’s tone had gotten more abrupt, warning me that this was real.  Each step was carefully placed, my arm quickly growing tired from the death grip I had on my ice ax  My left brain reviewed how the Resc-You worked as my right brain cycled through more “Sound of Music” tunes.

At one point, we were following a group speaking a unique dialect of Italian-German, very sexy to hear in kind of a scary way.  The trio stopped as the first climber came to what seemed to be a bit of a precarious step.  I couldn’t understand a word that was spoken, but I understood every intonation and body movement made.  He was convinced death would be immediate if he continued.  The guide, patience worn thin, recited I’m sure the same words Steve had said to me many times.  The climber refused to move.  The guide, pushed now past his patience, grabbed the rope, raised it above his head, shaking it and shouting. The climber finally took the step–and lived.  As did the next climber and the guide.

143

My turn now and I could see what had given the climber significant pause.  Eventually, that one step across the crevasse would fail, an obvious crack between the step and semi-firm ground. “Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” and I made the step–and lived.  As did Steve, happily. I hadn’t gotten any more confident that I could save him, but I know I would have given everything if it had come to that.

We weren’t down yet, but the crevasses became shallower, and soon we were able to discard the rope.  Where we stopped, Steve pointed out that we were at the absolute beginning of the Gorner Gorge.  Full circle again.

We came to the Monte Rosa hut, our last stop.  Coffee, removal of all external layers and the application of sunscreen.  We were off the glacier and on solid ground.

149

 

Switzerland and Italy – Part Uno

I can’t say I’m a big fan of math, but I’ve found it helps pass the time when running a long distance.  Trying to figure out my average pace (without looking at the GPS), how long it will take me to reach the finish line or the next aid station, by how much I will beat the cutoff (or not).  I’m getting pretty good, too, at converting kilometers into miles.

But as I stood at Colle Del Turlo, the final high point of day two, I was really hoping my math was completely off.

The Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR) was the first race I signed up for in 2015.  It was also my first stage race–a race across multiple days.  My first true international race (yes, Canada is not the United States, but as far as travel goes, it’s as close as you can get to staying home without actually staying home).  The days between paying the entry fee and boarding the plane to Geneva put molasses in January to shame.

This was the zero edition of the race, something else that was new to me.  I just assumed the first running was the first edition.  For me, a new race is appealing, with more potential for unforeseen challenges.  This one, it turned out, had an incredible crew behind the scenes, and it went off pretty much without a hitch.  The race was three days, beginning in Cervinia, Italy, and ending in Grachen, Switzerland. It promised spectacular views of the Monte Rosa mountain range, home of the Matterhorn and Dufourspitz, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in the Alps.  I would see both during Part Due of this trip.

My friend, Linda, who had crewed for me in Zion, had also decided at the last minute to join me for the race, for the trip if not the actual running.    We met up in DC and boarded the plane.  An understaffed flight meant free alcohol for the entire trip, and it wasn’t long before we were singing along to the golden oldies supplied by the seat radios.

We spent a couple days touring Geneva (I was thrilled the French I had learned for another trip was holding up) before boarding the bus to Cervinia.  Transportation was our first learning curve.  In Geneva–all of Switzerland for that matter–public transportation was a science that bordered on a work of art.  Not so much in Italy.  We did find bus routes between the cities of the race, but we were hoping for something more reliable.

I had reached out on Facebook a couple weeks prior and had received a couple of responses from people with a spare seat, but had not finalized any arrangements.  Fortunately, what they make lack in public transportation, the Italians make up for in hospitality and genuine friendliness.  By dinner the evening before the first day, Linda had secured a ride at least to Macugnaga.  Which, while a huge relief, Macugnaga was the one place where we could not figure out how to get her back out again.  I like to be prepared, especially when it comes to my friends (who wants to be friends with someone willing to desert you an a small Italian village?), but for now, it was the best we could do.

Fabio and Daniella were the stereotypical perfect Italian couple.  Fabio was dark complected with a perfect runner’s body. Daniella was as beautiful as her name, dark hair and lovely eyes. She spoke five languages, which came in handy in this area–on the last day of the race, whenever a hiker would step to the side to allow me passage, I would murmer “Grazie, Merci, Danka and Thank You,” not certain which language would be understood.

So the next morning at 6am, Fabio and I toed the line, while Linda and Daniella cheered.  This was the shortest day, at 16 miles.  In addition to a map and GPS, I had an Italian language app on my phone, just in case. But the trail was perfectly marked and the weather even more perfect.  Each day contained two high points, with an aid station between them. With the lower elevation, I easily kept up on the uphill, but quickly fell behind these mountain goats on the downhills.  I was still done a couple hours before I expected. Fabio was well ahead of me, and Daniella and Linda, driving the steep winding roads showed up a few minutes later.

We were spoiled by having almost the entire afternoon to relax.  The bus ride the day before had gotten us to Cervinia late in the afternoon.  The packet pickup and obligatory gear check took another couple of hours. We had just a few minutes to relax before dinner at 7pm.  I was doing my best to not be completely stressed out, but quickly lost that battle.  It took the race actually beginning before my nerves finally calmed down enough for me to say without lying that I was having fun.

An amazing lunch of ravioli and fondue was followed by a gondola ride up to a glacier lake.  We had the unbelievable luck of staying with our new Italian friends in a beautiful bed and breakfast.  I sat while the other three walked to the lake and back.  We took a few minutes to enjoy a drink before taking the last gondola back down.

Our three other suite mates had settled in by the time we returned. Another perfect coincidence: it was the Cecilia, the other person who had responded to our plea for transportation.  She was there running with her good friend, Sylvia, and crewed by Riccardo, another good friend.  All Italians, they were currently living in London.  It was Sylvia’s and Cecilia’s first stage race as well.  Sylvia had extended her day by getting lost a couple of times–I knew her pain.

Dinner was another wonderful affair, the five of them slipping easily between Italian and English, Linda and I doing our best to hang on to the English parts, exchanging bemused looks.  I was envious of the lingual skills, and the ease in which they all became fast friends.   I was fading quickly quickly with the wine, rich food and lack of sleep, but managed to make it through dessert.  Even an Italian espresso did not keep me from sleep that night.

Another 4:30am wake-up and 6am start.  Linda got up to see me off, then unapologetically went back to bed for a more reasonable wake-up and breakfast.  Another straight up climb out of the village.  Another spectacular sunrise over the Italian Alps.  Another day devoted to nothing but running.  I could not imagine it growing old ever.

 

The aid station that day is one that will never be met in terms of quality. Meats and cheeses, squares of sugar, petit fours, muesli–even wine!–everything but the normal packaged tasteless bars normally associated with a food station.  I didn’t want to leave. It didn’t help the biggest climb was yet to come.

I fortunately knew that and was prepared. At the race briefing, they had assured us the highest point was the first one.  What they didn’t mention was the aid station in between was three thousand feet lower than the start, so the thousand foot difference, still left and extra two thousand feet of climbing for the last half.

And an extra six miles of running.

Which is why I was standing at the pass, hoping my math was wrong. If it was correct, I had four thousand feet of elevation to lose in two miles.  It also meant I had missed the last aid station, which was a few kilometers before the end of the stage.  Which pretty much meant I was lost.

IMG_1707

But the now familiar pink dots and black dotted pink flagging were obvious, so I knew lost was not an option.  The day would be long, at least at that point I was hoping.  I would take a couple extra miles over that much drop in that little distance.  With my lack of downhill skill, it would take a lot less time.

My only glimmer of hope was overhearing someone mention that the pass was ten kilometers (six miles) from the end of the stage.  It made the day four miles longer than it was supposed to be, but made the downhill much more bearable.

So I began the relentless downhill, switchback after switchback.  A couple I had passed long ago on the uphill quickly overtook me on this terrain.  I was battling my internal impatience.  All I knew for certain was I had four thousand feet to lose.  I had no idea how many miles–and therefore how many hours–it would take.  I just ran and stumbled best I could.  I turned up my music and stepped into the moment. I ran and ran and kept running.

The six miles was beginning to look like a reality.

IMG_1699

Finally, miraculously, after five miles, the aid station came into view. Another mile to go.  It was already past three o’clock–no leisurely lunch and tour today.  “Just another five kilometers to go!” chirped the aid station attendant.  Wait, what?  That’s three miles, not one.  I still had another three miles to go?

I did. And of course the last kilometer was uphill.  For some  unknown reason, it became critical to run that last kilometer, end the day running.  I passed the couple at the beginning of the final kilometer. I saw them begin running again, which only pushed me to go faster.  At that moment, I didn’t care I had one more day of this. I just wanted to be finished and in front of my pasta dinner and wine.

Fabio had finished just ahead of me, looking as ragged as I felt.  Riccardo asked me how the day was.  The endorphins had kicked in–or maybe hypoglycemia–and I told him it was an amazing but tough tough tough day.  Amazing maybe that I had finished.  Daniella and Linda told me that people were walking across the finish line and dropping their chip into a bucket–taking themselves out of the race.

macugnaga

Photo by Linda Charron

I wanted to wait for Sylvia and Cecilia, and I didn’t want to move, but  Daniella was our ride to our room a mile (uphill) away, and I didn’t want to delay them.  Our luck had not held and all of us were in different hotels that night.  I had seen the two ladies early in the day, but not again. The extended cutoff time for the extra miles meant the Cecilia made the cutoff but Sylvia missed it by a hair. Sylvia immediately dropped, but Cecilia took the evening to think about it before deciding to try again the next year.  London is a hard place to train for a race with this kind of elevation.  It speaks volumes to their tenacity that they made it through the two days.

The last day came the earliest. Daniella had decided to make the drive to Grachen and Linda and I were grateful, both for the ride and for more time with these dear people.  I had no design on the day, happy and sad it was the last day.  I had easily made the cutoffs so far, so my plan was simply to enjoy whatever the day brought.

 

The first pass came and went quickly if not easily, and welcomed us back into Switzerland.  Comparatively, I was moving more quickly than many of the others and found myself passing different people than I had the two days prior.   We had to bring our passports with us (I had had it with me the whole time anyway, afraid to leave it anywhere), in case of a border patrol at the pass, but all we saw were clouds.  And gondolas–it didn’t seem fair that people could simply ride to where we had just run.

IMG_1726

The aid station was in Saas Fee, a Swiss town know for perennial skiing on the glacier.  The people in warm winter clothing and ski boots were a sharp contrast to  the runners in shorts and t-shirts. I had pretty much worn the same outfit every day, switching out my t-shirt and sports bra only, but keeping the same long shirt, jacket and leggings.  The up-to six thousand feet of elevation difference made it hard to predict the weather, and I’d much rather be over- than under-prepared. I had managed a shower every day, but I still did not smell good.  Another contrast to these skiers.

As I left the station, I was warned of an imminent “terribly technical, very exposed” section. I swallowed my panic, exposure being my nemesis.  My legs were shaky at best.  I wasn’t going to turn around at this point, so I had no choice but to face it.   And worrying wasn’t going to do me a bit of good.

IMG_1733

The final leg of the journey was of course the longest.  Fabio had been at the aid station while I was there, then I didn’t see him again, and assumed he was long gone. The course weaved in and out of gulleys.  As each far edge was reached, more of the trail revealed itself, each time a little higher than before. Again and again and again.

IMG_1743

I turned yet another corner and saw the sign, warning of the exposure.  I looked at the section.  Really? That’s it? I was equally relieved and annoyed–I had dealt with way worse without a thought.  But I still held on to the proffered handline, not willing to risk karma.

Finally, finally. We reached the second high peak of the day. The second aid station was a short ways down and was managed by the race director, Lizzy Hawker’s mother.  I had been reading Lizzy’s book “A Short Story About A Long Run” and told Lizzy’s Mother that she had an amazing daughter.  She gave a short laugh, and said in a clipped British accent that she was a bit odd as well.  I laughed as well and said my dad said the same about me.

Another two kilometers and the finish line.  The race was supposed to have been four days, but in that moment, I did not mind at all.  I crossed the last of the prayer flags and I was done. Linda, Daniella, Cecilia, Sylvia and Riccardo were there to receive sweaty, happy hugs.  My crossing before Fabio added to what I found out was Daniella’s great concern.  She flitted around nervously until Fabio finally appeared.  Linda brought me a glass of wine and the most delicious melted cheese snack.  Pure heaven.

utmrFinish

Dinner and awards that evening.  We all met the next morning for a goodbye espresso.  We had already found each other on Facebook and were mentioning upcoming races sure to be of interest to such a strong, passion group.  It made the goodbye less difficult turning it into “until the next time”.

IMG_1752

A Crusty Butt Weekend

“Don’t worry, I’ll make solid steps.” It wasn’t exactly the solidity of the steps that worried me. It was the fact that the width of the snow onto which we were stepping was more narrow than my feet.

The fact that I have pretty big feet didn’t help my feelings.

IMG_1500

The Life Bus deposited me in Crested Butte for a sunny late May this past summer. Crusty Butt for some. It’s just too beautiful for such a nickname. This was my first times spending any time in CB. I had ridden my bike there several times from Gunnison, with a brief stop for coffee. This weekend was to be spent participating in one of my two passions: mountaineering.

From the Crested Butte website (http://www.crestedbutte-co.gov/): The Town of Crested Butte, fondly referred to as the Gateway to the Elk Mountains, sits at an elevation of 8,885 feet and is located 28 miles north of the City of Gunnison in the County of Gunnison. Crested Butte and the surrounding area was originally home to the Ute Indians. Placer miners were present in the area as early as the 1860’s. The Town of Crested Butte was named because in 1873 a geologist named Ferdinand Hayden was on expedition surveying the Elk Mountains and from the top of what is today known as Teocalli Peak referred to present day Crested Butte Mountain and Gothic Mountain as “the crested buttes.” Howard F. Smith, the founding father of Crested Butte, laid out the Town by 1878. While Smith was originally attracted to the area because of the extensive coal deposits, he first built a smelter and sawmill to service the hard rock mining camps located in the surrounding areas. This established Crested Butte as a major supply center prior to becoming a long-term coal producer.

IMG_1501

Crested Butte is on my way to Switzerland. It’s not as circuitous as it sounds. I am doing a trail run there near the end of August. As I’ve never been to Europe, I decided to add in some mountain climbing, so started the hunt for a guide. Most guiding agencies design tours that anyone could complete. I wanted something more.

Irwin Guides of Crested Butte ended up being the only guiding service that gave me a personal response to my query–and eventually a personal itinerary. But more on that later.

IMG_1507

Thanks to a very odd May–the wettest on record–there was still snow at the end of May to climb. The bad news was that there was too much snow in many places. Crested Butte ended up being the best place to go. Steve of Irwin Guides, my guide for Switzerland, found two really “fun” peaks to play on: Purple Peak and Ruby Peak.
I arrived in CB Friday afternoon and met briefly with Steve to sign all the requisite paperwork: the waivers promising that, if I die, I won’t sue anyone. Always my favorite part of any activity. It’s “just a formality”, but it always gives me pause, especially if the lawyers get creative listing the ways one could die doing said sport.

Since it was early enough in the season, I stayed in the CB Hostel–clean, inexpensive and quiet due to my being the only person there. The open sitting and kitchen area gave me a nice place to read and relax between adventures.
Dinner at the Ginger, a small and delicious Thai restaurant, then back to organize my backpack. Crampons, ice ax, warm jacket, even warmer jacket, food, water, helmet, and several pairs of gloves made up the bulk of it. Couloir climbs can get wet, so lots of dry clothing can save one from a miserable day. Then an early bedtime and seemingly earlier wakeup.
The best part of hiring a guide is having someone’s footsteps to follow in the snow. Snowshoes work on the flatter parts, but the couloir is very steep and crampons are usually necessary. The first person has to “build” the steps that the rest follow. Sometimes, you luck out and someone was there the day before, but often your team is doing it on their own, taking turns as people tire out.
While I am happy to pull my weight, it’s also a matter of balancing strengths. Steve, as a professional guide, is obviously stronger and faster, so for expediency, which can equate to safety in the mountains, he went first and set the steps. Also, as the more experienced (and stronger) one, he could catch my fall. On Purple Peak, Saturday’s goal, I was comfortable enough for the first part to be without the rope.

Which is a huge accomplishment for me. I have learned that, while attached to a rope, I can do almost anything. No rope, and every move feels much more critical. It’s a matter of risk. And it’s hard to explain and I’m not entirely certain the explanation is logical.

Too much risk and the fun factor starts heading to zero. It happened a couple times that day. The first was when the couloir slope became close to vertical. I felt like I was standing on snow instead of solid ground, and all I could picture was the snow falling out from under me. I asked and received the end of a rope and pulled myself up to where Steve was sitting.
The view as I pulled myself over the edge almost literally took my breath away. It looked like a glass slope, the snow untouched across the entire steep surface. It hardly seemed possible that I could step on the snow and not slide down into oblivion. But of course it was possible and I encouraged my shaking limbs to trust the snow and found that the climbing was actually easier for a few moments. I stole glances around to take in the views but my eyes always returned quickly to what was immediately in front of me. Up there, where each step seemed life-or-death, I couldn’t walk and chew bubble gum.

“That far”, however, included a sliver of a knife edge, and short scramble over some rocks (always fun with sharp pointy things on your boots), a slightly wider (albeit longer) knife edge. Steve has a wry sense of humor and it’s often hard to tell when he’s joking. So I wasn’t sure what to think when he told me to throw myself on the opposite of the ridge if he happened to fall. It became a theme for me to worry more about something happening to him than to myself. I was pretty sure he was fine without me. I, however,….
Then the summit.
Halfway there.
Many years ago, I hired a guide to teach my navigation. We had a lot of time to chat, and I asked him what it was like to guide. I always remember his response when I’m with a guide. “Most people think you hire a guide to get you to the summit,” he said. “That’s not why you hire a guide. You hire a guide to get you back to your car.”
Steve and I joked about the figurative ups and downs of mountaineering. How it went so quickly from “Mountaineering is AWESOME!” to “Mountaineering SUCKS!”. Standing on the summit was most definitly an awesome moment, in the true sense of the word: pure awe. It is not just the view, but the effort made to appreciate the view. To overcome fear, to develop new skills, to reach a goal–is there anything more rewarding?

Colorado is where I learned that downhill isn’t necessarily the easy part. It’s sometimes faster, but not always. This time was no exception. It was more my lack of confidence thinly disguised as caution that slowed progress. Now, I was in front, so Steve could still catch my fall, and I jad no footsteps to follow. Snow is not a well understood medium, at least by me. It can hang out in one spot indefinitely or seemingly change its mind and suddenly decide to be elsewhere, in the form of an avalanche. Softer snow can catch your fall–ice-like and you’ll just keep going. I don’t know the difference, so each step is placed with great purpose–the closest I ever come to a life of  purposeful intention.

IMG_1513.JPG

(all photos of me by Steve Banks)

I don’t know how each step can be an eternity yet get you back to the beginning with no time passing. Already we were back at our stashed snowshoes, then back to the snow machine, the car, and back to town. I bid Steve a short adieu until the morrow and went back to the hostel for a shower and to dry my gear.
It was early in the afternoon, so I was able to get in a little site seeing. Lots of cute shops and friendly people. The majority of my money was spent in the local bookstore and coffee shop, Rumors, my biggest retail weakness. Three books and a large latte later, I went in search of dinner. I found a good American bar and restaurant, The Last Steep, and enjoyed soup and salad for dinner. It was’t a long day, but it had been strenuous, and my appetite hadn’t quite caught up.

 

Sunday was as breathtaking as the day before. Ruby Peak. Compared to Purple, it was less technical and my comfort level was much higher on the steep terrain. The up was much more “mountaineering is awesome!”, but the down definitely sucked. The snow was soft and thigh-to-waist deep. The sun was warm and I could feel my cheeks burning even as I wiggled my toes in a futile attempt to warm them.

Even with the suckiness, the climb–and now the weekend–were over much too quickly. We drove in silence back to town, me happy at having found the perfect guide for my Switzerland/Italy trip, and excited for our next climb in July. A quick stop at Camp4Coffee for the best cup of coffee in Crested Butte and I was on my way back to reality.

IMG_1508

Zion Not Zion

“I’m just here to see what it takes,” he says, the look of disbelief spilling into the tone of his voice.

I’ve completed four one hundred mile races and I’m still not sure how to answer that statement.  What does it take?

The race start

The race start

It takes friends. That I have learned.  I have completed four one hundred mile races.  I’ve not completed two.  The difference?  For the latter two, I had no support.  No one cheering for me.  No concerned looks. No one to distract me.  No one to tell me how great I looked, no matter how painful the lie.

The person making the statement is Dave, a brothers-in-law of my co-worker slash friend, Linda-with-an-I.  She and my friend slash massage therapist, Jackie, have joined me in Zion.  I’m there to see if I can reach 4 of 6 instead of only half the one hundreds I’ve started.  Dave joined because he had never heard of such insanity and had to see how it’s done.  He was going to find out.

The location of this event is in Virgin, UT, just outside of Zion National Park.  I’m sure there are a lot of cheap jokes that can be made at these names, but I’ll avoid them.   I feel like I am stepping back in time.  Millions of years ago, maybe even thousands, the landscape was much different, but not much over the last few hundred.  It’s spectacular.  The full one hundred miles is spread out at my feet, reds, browns, greens, blues, and whites.

Not just running

Not just running

 

It take a whole lot of stubbornness.  Part of it is just inherent in my personality, but part of it was learned.  My dad was equal parts kiss-the-boo-boo and cry-and-I’ll-give-you-something-to-cry-about. I remember getting stuck in a tree one day. I didn’t realize how far up I had climbed when I finally turned around, and learned quite quickly that I had a fear of heights.  Failing to find our mother, my kid brother brought my dad instead to help.

“Get out of that tree, else I’m going to get you out of that tree.”

That had been the whole point, but now I was pretty sure figuring it out myself was the better of the current options.  To this day, I derive great satisfaction figuring out anything for myself, usually to the great annoyance of everyone who already knows how.  To ask for assistance is paramount to failure, and yet I know I can’t do a hundred without it.  Life is full of fascinating contradictions.

So now I find myself at a gawdawful time of day in one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s six in the morning so none of the beauty is revealed just yet, which is fine with me.  All I care about is getting started.

The pre-race meeting included a “fireside” chat by a local geologist and historian.  He was one of those people you really wished you had had as a high school teacher.  The tedious became fascinating through his eyes.  He explained the history of “Virgin”, which turns out to be a someone and not a something.  Hurricane was named after the fierce winds that have been known to sweep through the area.

Ah, the views

Ah, the views

The sun comes up as I’m make the first ascent.  The views are amazing.  The course meanders through the scenery, up on top of the mesas, then back down again.  During the day, it’s a relief to be in the coolness of the elevation; at night, I’m happy to be back down again in the relative warmth.

He also explained the names of a couple of the aid stations.  Turns out, there really were flying monkeys around the Flying Monkey aid station, courtesy of the military testing of ejection seats during the cold war.   Damn flying monkeys, as a coworker exclaims in frustration. I can only imagine their astonishment at suddenly finding themselves airborne.

The other story I tell of my childhood is of joining the basketball team.  All my life, I’d been told how great I’d be at basketball because of my generous height.  So me and my best friend, also tall,  joined.  She quit after the first practice, and I was ready to follow her. Turns out, there’s a whole lot more to basketball than being tall.  Like coordination.  And physical stamina.  Stuff with which I was not blessed.

When I told my parents, I was duly informed that quitting was not an option.  I had committed to being on the basketball team, and I would see it through for the entire season.  It was one of the most miserable times of my life.  I was convinced the coach hated me. I played all of three seconds for the entire season.  And I wasn’t allowed to miss a single practice. Not one.  I hated every horrid second of it.  No one had to ask if I was going back the following season.

I learned two valuable lessons.  The first of course was, if you commit to something, you give it everything you have.  There was no partial commitment.  There is no reward in half-assed.

The second, equally important lesson: be very careful what you commit to.

That is in all likelihood why I am single.  It is definitely why I am an ultra-runner.  Running doesn’t require much, and I find my life so much the better for it.  Running is uncomplicated.  Running doesn’t ask stupid questions–running understands.

There is the possibility that guacamole really was involved at the naming of the Guacamole aid station, but in all likelihood, it was the landscape that reminded them of the tasty treat. Green, undulating, lumpy, with weird brown spots all over.

Sunset

Sunset

The sun is setting as I head towards the Grafton aid station.  I take a moment to take in the entire view.  There are clouds casting shadows across part of the landscape and the resulting colors are fantastic.  I have nine hours of my world shrunk to the glow of my headlamp and I need this memory, along with my friends, to make it through.

There was no explanation–and probably none needed–for the Cemetery aid station.

Linda accompanies back to the Goosebump aid station (named presumably for the shape of the mesa–goosebumps).  She’s determined to do at least a tenth the distance–no small feat.  Jackie is at Goosebump to rub life back into my legs.  Dave helps out with food and logistics, the bemused look of disbelief never leaving his face.

The Mormons were among the first to “discover” this area.  Some of the settlers believed it to be Zion, but Brigham Young, during his initial visit, announced that “it was not Zion”.  Some of his more literal followers then began to call it Not Zion. For me, it was either and both equally throughout the race.

In the beginning, it was Zion, the landscape, color, contours kept my legs moving forward.  In the dead of night and the heat of the days, it was most decidedly Not Zion. In the cool evening sunset and warming gentle sunrise, it became Zion again. As the blisters on the bottom of my feet grew, it was back to Not Zion.  The pancakes and bacon at the aid stations were very Zion-esque.  After there was no denying that I had sprained my foot,  it was firmly, definitely, and irrevocably NOT. ZION.  On the Bueno scale, it was a “No”.

More views

More views

Then, slowly, as I half walked, half limped the final, eternal stretch to the finish line, it grew once again and finally, purely and simply, Zion.  I turned to Dave and grinned after long last. “So that’s how it’s done.  Any questions?”  He shook his head no. “I’ve seen enough”.

High Lonesome Trail, Day Four (Aug 8)

Our route

Wes and I scratched our heads in puzzlement.  Nothing made sense.  We had to call a mulligan on the GPS and get our exact point, but it still didn’t make the maps mesh with what we saw around us.  We pointed this way and that, wandered over one edge of the ridge and the other, but we just could not put it all together.

It was another ambitious day.  Even sitting in McDonalds, drinking Starbucks, I was a little intimidated by the route. It used to be I could never get a true sense of a route from staring at a piece of paper.  After many years of following those little squiggly lines, I now have a true appreciation of the teeny tiny spaces between them, and the relative differences between the numbers on those lines.

A resting spot

A resting spot

But commit to the day we did.  My car was left just outside of Empire, and we drove Wes’s car up Virginia Canyon Road.  It was a real option to just drive all the way up to the ridge line and go from there.  But where’s the fun and challenge in that, and this hike was nothing if not fun and challenging.

I wonder what the story is here.

I wonder what the story is here.

We found our beginning point relatively easily, with all the barbed wire fences, old roads and mines scattered about. It was always a little bit of a celebration to reach that point and begin the “real” hike.  The route continued along the Clear Creek/Gilpin county line, but the classic stones had been replaced with long plastic markings, like the snow route markings along the highways.  More practical I’m sure, but not near as quaint.

Because of the lack of open space, we stuck close to the county line, thinking it was a good indication of property lines and our best bet for staying off private property.  For the same reason, our hike was quieter than usual, as we paid more attention than usual, while also trying to keep attention off us.  The few people that spied us simply stared in curiosity.

Seeing ourselves through other’s eyes is not often consoling.  What seems like a great idea and adventure to us was a source of the head tilt for others. There are people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, both over 2000 miles long, who should make us seem quite normal.  Four days in over three months, covering not quite fifty miles, off trail, through the mud and bramble.  That isn’t all that crazy.

Ah, the odd signs we find

Ah, the odd signs we find

Ah, the odd signs we find

We crossed Virginia Canyon road.  We could see down into Central City.  One multi-storied building stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Or maybe pink elephant. But not a pretty pink  elephant.  The line between the old and the new was painful.  It made me wonder for the future of small town Colorado.

So many small towns, with rich histories and not much to protect them.  What would it take to turn other towns into casinos and ski resorts?  Or worse, into mining wrecks? Everywhere we hiked that day, the landscape looked like giant prairie dogs had had a field day, hole after massive hole.  Mountains and valleys have already been lost in the name of progress, and there’s not much stopping it.

It was after crossing Fall River Road and traversing a ridge back into another valley that we’d found ourselves scratching our heads.  In retrospect, part of the issue was tunnel vision.  We had looked straight at where we thought we were on the ridge and where we wanted to go.  When we looked less closely, we realized our main feature–a Y where two streams intersected–was repeated in a couple of places, and trying to pick out exactly which one was proving to be impossible.

This is the challenge of navigation.  You never really know where you are.  It’s kind of like life in that regard.  You follow your chosen path the best you can, based on the map given you, but a shortcut here, a detour there, a quick look over another ridge, and suddenly you are not where you had planned.  And tunnel vision.  That’s never a good thing in life.

More scenery!

More scenery!

And like life again, Wes and I plunged forward, hoping that eventually it would all make sense.

And it did. Another ridge showed us a four wheel drive road that was easily identified on the map, and on we went.

But now the day was slipping away and we had to face our over-ambition. We found a peak we could reach relatively quickly on our next day, and plunged down into Dumont, three miles shy of our car in Empire.

To add insult to injury, the heavens decided to shower us.  We were a sad sight, walking along the road, tired and soaking wet.  We made a halfhearted attempt at hitchhiking, but decided it really wasn’t that far.

A dreary end

A dreary end

And of course, with our car in sight, a sweet couple pulled over and offered us a ride.  I hope the rest of their day was amazing for their thoughtfulness.