After the stellar success I had running the 4 Pass Loop in Aspen [click that link, then you’ll understand just how much sarcasm I’m using there] I decided to give this run-in-a-circle-and-up-mountain-passes thing another try. This time I headed to Indian Peaks Wilderness to run the Pawnee/Buchanan Pass loop with a group of runners and strict instructions to bail out if it hurt. For the most part I did a fantastic job of listening to my body and playing it safe! Sort of. Mostly.
I was really nervous going into this run. I didn’t know many of the people running and the ones I did know where a heck of a lot more experienced on the trail than I am. There really was nothing expected of me but in my head I had some standards to live up to [or down to…] and I didn’t want to disappoint. I didn’t want to whine too much or be the idiot that ran right through pain and into an injury just to save face. Yea, I was scared to run with these people…but I also knew it would be good to run with some more experienced people, so I showed up and ran.
We left the Long Lake Trailhead around 6:30am and started the loop counter clockwise. I had done minimal research on the route and just tucked in and followed for the first few miles. Every once in a while I’d stop to work out a trigger point in my hip but it was more preventative a this point. My knee was only a little achy and I was being hyperaware of it.
It didn’t take long before our chatter turned from a friendly “oh, so, how’s your life going” conversation to a strongly headed “no, you’re wrong!” debate. Sometimes I’d throw in my two cents but mostly I just gnawed on my tongue, smirked and rolled my eyes. It’s extremely entertaining to listen to a few very opinionated people argue, especially when they are both throwing out very valid, yet subjective, points.
We climbed our way up to the Pawnee Pass summit at about 4.5 miles in under 2 hours. We took a few minutes to shovel some food in our faces, stare down the chatty marmots and marvel at where we were. It was an absolutely gorgeous day! The skies were cloudy in the best way possible and the sun was rising over the mountains. The marmots were squeaking and the spiders were quick to skidder under rocks. But it was still an oddly anticlimactic pass…until you reached the other side of the open alpine meadow!
The drop off of Pawnee Pass was steep…and rocky…and unstable. What started out as a “yay, let’s run downhill” quickly turned into a scramble with an occasional yell of “rock!” as the scree tumbled down the mountain. No one was quite sensible enough to have a true fear of the scree so it was an comical decent. Eventually the drop become more shallow and we were running on narrow single track along mountain streams surrounded by wildflowers!
This is about the time things got interesting for me…and not because my body was falling apart. I kept tripping and falling and sliding…for no freaking reason! Well, sometimes there was a reason [um, invisible roots…] but usually I’d just randomly lose my footing and squawk loudly before dropping to the ground or falling into the nearest tree in slow motion. There were no bloody falls and since I keep [stupidly] bragging about my lack of trail scars I feel compelled to recap the next few miles one trail mishap at a time…
It all started with a log bridge across a rather wide river cascading over boulders. I was near the back of the group and everyone else confidently scooted across the bridge. Not me. I started out confidently then nearly ate it hard just feet from the safety of far shore. Had I actually biffed it on the bridge I would have tumbled a few feet down to a rocky rush of water, it would have been bad. Luckily everyone with me thought it was hilarious…at least they volunteered to rescue my cellphone for it’s photos if I did start drowning!
Up next was about a mile of tripping over my own feet for no apparent reason. I’d just randomly keel forward, curse and awkwardly regain my footing. If there was a tree near by I’d give it a big ol’ hug and it would usually stab me with a branch or toss me into a nearby sticker bush. If there wasn’t a tree nearby I’d attempt to save myself by grabbing useless air or I’d just be awkwardly crouched on the ground when the next runner rounded the corner. It wasn’t embarrassing at all. Nope, not at all!
The real kicker came after I committed to focusing on my feet in an effort to keep myself upright – rather than trip I ran head first into a low, broken branch. Seriously, I can not make this crap up! I didn’t even have to be running to be stumbling along like a drunkard. The only benefit to all of this clumsy stupidity is that next time – when I run like a normal, sane person – everyone who ran with me at Indian Peaks will be impressed by my awesome. Right?!
About 9 miles in I realized the pain in my knee had become a dull ache…but my calf and Achilles were not happy with me at all. I tried to give my leg a little love but by the time we stopped near a waterfall at mile 10 I knew I needed to bail on the full loop. Sure, I could have covered the distance but I would have slowed the group down and I’d probably end up with a legitimate injury rather than an ache. The group headed out to take on the last 16 miles and Buchanan Pass while I turned tail and headed back up Pawnee Pass. It was a steep climb but I knew what to expect and would be able to take my time covering the 10 miles.
As I climbed and scrambled my way up Pawness Pass a few bouts of clouds rolled in but they were all fluffy and lightening free so I got to take in their massively delicate beauty. I was literally climbing my way up into the clouds. It was so cool to feel the humidity change as a cloud swept over you! This time around the rolling clouds made the summit of Pawness Pass beautiful. I was surrounded by fluffy marshmallow clouds that were actively flowing around and over the mountains! One second I’d see a mountain top, the next the clouds cut it off with a clean line of fluff.
[Disclaimer: It is risky to be this close to the clouds, especially if storms are in the forecast. Not once did we hear thunder, see lightening or even feel rain so these clouds were relatively safe. Even so, if the car was not on the other side of this pass I would have avoided this pass all together. Albeit, it was and I had to go up and over Pawnee Pass…which I did as quickly as possible.]
The descent down Pawness Pass wasn’t very eventful but it was gorgeous! I saw views I had completely missed on the way up which made turning around worth it! My right leg was upset with me and I repeatedly stopped to stretch and massage my aching muscles. I was still running anything that wasn’t too technical but my right leg felt like it was at mile 49, not 19. I’m definitely learning exactly how much work it is to recover from a 50 Mile race, especially when you jump right into long, technical mountain runs!
I was more than a little elated to see the trail widen and fill with hikers, I knew I was close when a two year old was tripping along the trail. By the time I made it back to the trailhead I’d covered 21 miles with over 5,000 feet of climbing. Once again it took me forever [roughly 10 hours, my GPS watch died] but this time it wasn’t because I was limping for 8 miles…it was because I was voluntarily dilly dallying along, literally smelling flowers an even napping on my pack from time to time. Yea, trail running is hard!
So, I did survive my first group trail run with seasoned ultra runners. I did have to bail early but they all understood the “uh oh, my ache became a pain” explanation and supported it. Will I be scared the next time I show up for a run like this? Heck yes! But I’ll worry about that when I get invited to another…or if I get invited?
Did I learn a thing or two about trail running? No one said anything earth shattering but I did pick up on little things – like what people eat while running a self supported loop, how different people pack their bags, how some people billy goat their way down scree and others tip toe… So, heck yea, I learned a lot. Most importantly I learned that the Indian Peaks Wilderness area is absolutely gorgeous! I will be back, many times! In my opinion the 10 miles I saw of the Pawnee/Buchanan Pass Loop beats out the beauty of the 4 Pass Loop, no questions asked!