At the beginning of our trip to Colorado, I didn’t really have any plans to climb a 14er. But after the 416 fire foiled our initial backpacking plans, our trip turned into a choose your own adventure planned with the advice of helpful Coloradoans. During a brief stay in Carbondale, we mentioned that we were looking for ideas for what to do after our Conundrum Hot Springs backpacking overnight before driving back to Denver. The guy at the local running/hiking shop where we were looking for trekking poles suggested a 14er and rattled off several that were in between Aspen and Denver. I tried to remember what all he said but I’m pretty sure I forgot most of it. All I really took away from our conversation was “Mt. Elbert” and “driving over Independence Pass is way more fun than I-70”. When I looked up Mt. Elbert, I saw that it was near Leadville, home of the famous Leadville 100 ultra and mountain bike race. At an elevation of 10,152′, Leadville is also the highest incorporated city in North America. If all those things hadn’t already sold me on a trip to Leadville, the fact that it’s an old mining town with none of the glitz and glamour of nearby ski towns sealed the deal. I was more than ready to trade in rich people and fancy shops for outlaws and 150 year old houses.
Before I could climb Elbert, first we had to get to Leadville. Remember how the guy in Carbondale said driving over Independence Pass was fun? Yeah, well that’s not exactly the adjective I would use to describe riding in a car at 12,000 feet on the edge of a mountain with no guardrail and a bunch of other cars that can’t seem to drive in a straight line. While terrifying, the drive was definitely beautiful and thankfully we made it to Leadville in once piece. As soon as we arrived, I knew I was going to love it. Pretty much every building in Leadville is at least 100 years old and there aren’t 50 meter maids out ticketing people the second their parking expires (cough cough Aspen). A trip to one of the local watering holes, Periodic (Pb) Brewing (get it?) where we drank delicious beers, chatted with locals, and watched the Stanley Cup Finals followed by a pizza from High Mountain Pies pretty much confirmed it: Leadville is Heaven on Earth.
When people ask what’s a “good” 14er for someone’s first one, a lot of times Mt. Elbert gets thrown out there. It’s a class 1 hike all the way to the summit, the trailhead is easy to get to, and you’re sure to have plenty of company. Despite the fact that many people consider it an “easier” 14er, it’s still 4700′ of gain in 4.5 miles (via the North Elbert Trail). And then of course, you have to go back down, which is a lot less fun than going up in my opinion. Depending on who or what website you consult, it takes the majority of people 6-10 hours roundtrip. In the interest of my fellow plane passengers, I was hoping to do it in 5 or less so that I could take a quick shower afterward.
Since our flight departed Denver at around 5pm and we were at least two hours from the airport, I knew I was going to have to get an early start if I wanted a successful summit. I set my alarm for 4am hoping to be on the trail at first light at 5. It seemed that everyone else decided to sleep in that day, because I was one of only six cars in the parking lot when I started up the trail at 5:30. On the drive in, my car thermometer had read 27 degrees but I felt pretty comfortable in shorts, a tank, a long sleeve, and a rain/wind jacket. The huge temperature swings in Colorado were something that really surprised me. It can be 30 degrees at 6am, but by 9 it’s almost 70. The key is to have lots of layers and I used all of mine.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect trail-wise, but the first couple miles up to the treeline were pretty tame compared to what lay beyond. You just kind of gradually switchback through a forest for awhile. In hindsight, I probably could have run the first couple miles, but I didn’t want to risk sacrificing reaching the summit because I was trying to gain a few minutes. Because of this, I settled for a brisk walk. Even though the entirety of the hike is above 10,000 feet, I felt great on the first section simply because I wasn’t carrying a 25 pound pack on my back. After four days of backpacking, I felt positively light, even at 14,000 feet.
I didn’t see many people on the way up as so few people had gotten an early start, but I did pass around 10 people. My trekking poles that I had gotten a few days earlier at an outdoor consignment shop were proving to be the best investment of my life. At times, I was pretty much using only my arms to pull myself up the mountain. There’s one section in particular that’s about a mile from the summit that looks like a wall. It’s about a 35-40% incline up loose dirt and rocks. I wasn’t looking forward to going back down this section. Honestly, I’d take scrambling over a loose, 40% controlled fall any day. But anyway, I was still going up. As I began the super steep section, there were two guys in their late 20’s who were each carrying a large rock (~10lbs) presumably from the summit. I was simultaneously amazed that they were able to go down this section with a giant rock in their arms and also angry at them for not practicing Leave No Trace principles. Leave it where you found it, people!
The way up has a few false summits before you reach the actual summit and at the last one it seemed as though a few guys thought they had reached the top already. I wanted to be like “Uhh, guys, we’re going to the highest point in Colorado. Those rocks over there are above us so…” Instead, I just kept climbing the last little bit, leading the way. Just before I reached the summit, there was a group coming down. Since all the people I had passed were still behind me, I had the summit all to myself for about two minutes during which I was the highest person in Colorado (altitude-wise of course). After I quickly snapped some photos sans people, everyone else arrived and they were all very prepared to hang out on the summit. People pulled out down jackets, beers, herbs, and snacks, and settled in to enjoy the views. Since I was still hoping to shower, I only stayed long enough to eat a granola bar and have someone take a non-selfie of me. It had taken about 2 hours and 45 minutes to reach the top and I lingered for about 15 minutes which meant I had about 2 hours to make it back down.
As I began making my way down, I saw more and more people coming up. Here were the crowds of people I had been told to expect. There were families, children, dogs of all sizes, old people, young people, fit people, not so fit people. So. Many. People. My plan was to hike/roll my way down to the treeline and then run the rest of the way down. On the super steep section on the way down, some guy going up advised me to put away my trekking poles. Uhh, no thanks, these things just saved my life. Twice. After the steep section, the way down was mostly uneventful. I kept stopping to remove layers until I was just in shorts and a tank top. I reached the now crowded parking lot just under 5 hours after I had begun. Just in time to take a shower!
Climbing Elbert was definitely a memorable experience. The view from 14,000 feet is unlike any of the other things I saw in Colorado. However, there wasn’t a whole lot to look at on the way up. Trail-scenery wise, there was plenty more to look at on every other hike and run we did. I understand though that a lot of people don’t climb 14ers for the journey, they do it to check another thing off their list. I’d like to try a more technical 14er on a return trip just to see what it’s like though. The good news is, if climbing 14ers doesn’t turn out to be my favorite, there’s plenty of other things to do in Colorado.
If you are thinking about climbing Elbert or any other 14er for that matter, here’s some tips:
Start early – While this early on in the summer, mid-afternoon thunderstorms aren’t that common, it’s still best to have more time than you think you’ll need to complete the hike. On my way down, I saw plenty of people that were just starting out that had no hope of finishing before dark.
Bring lots of water/electrolytes – In contrast to every other trail I was on in Colorado, there are no water sources on this trail. You are going to be out there for a long time. Bring more than you think you’ll need.
Choose the pace that’s right for you – I read someone else’s story the other day where they said something I 110% agree with. If you’re having to stop and gasp for air every ten steps, you need to slow down. A more moderate pace that you can sustain for long periods of time is less taxing on your body.
Take the time to acclimate – If you live at sea level, it’s probably not the best idea to start climbing a 14er the second you get off the plane. I think the fact that I had been hiking and sleeping between 9500′ and 11,000′ for the week leading up to this helped a ton. So maybe plan your big 14er hike for the end of trip. It’ll be the perfect finale for your trip in more ways than one!
After a successful first day of Trail Weekend, Day 2 dawned pretty much the same with one slight difference. There was actually sun this time! Despite the sun though, it was still cold and windy and I spent a while debating on my outfit. As Sunday’s race was 50 kilometers, I knew it would be much warmer by the time I finished. Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to wear shorts and a tank top from the start since the wind chill was only in the high 20’s. I decided to start out in warmer clothes and then change into other clothes later on if needed.
Just before heading to the start line, I saw someone who looked mysteriously like my college friend/former roommate walk by me. I yelled his name and started running toward him before I was 100% sure it was him. Thankfully, it was. Otherwise it would’ve made for a pretty awkward hug. Even though he lives in the area, I was surprised to see him there because he is a super fast swimmer and triathlete and not so much a trail lover (or so I thought). It was about one minute before race start at this point and he informed me he still had to go collect his bib so I left him to it. At the start line, I was excited to find that the 50k/marathon crowd was significantly smaller than Saturday’s half marathon. Hooray for having more space!
A mile or two into the race when there was still a decent size “pack” of us running together, I felt someone elbow me in the side multiple times. I was about to tell whoever this idiot was to either go by me or get back behind me before I realized it was my friend I had spotted earlier. He had thought the race started at 8 instead of 7:30, which explained his tardiness in picking up his bib. Despite starting the race a few minutes late, he had already caught up with me. Not having seen each other in several months, we ended up having plenty to talk about over the next 20ish miles. I knew he was basically jogging to keep pace with me so I told him to feel free to leave me in the dust at any time, which he did eventually with 10k to go in his marathon.
My plan for this race was to run the first 13.1-mile loop at a relaxed pace, the second one hopefully at the same pace, and then just go as fast as I could for the last 5 miles. I told my husband who was on sherpa duty to expect me to finish each half marathon loop in about 2:15. At 2:13, my friend and I finished our first lap and I decided to do a wardrobe change into shorts and a t-shirt, and I was so glad I did.
As we continued on to our second loop, I was still feeling great and started to think that the day might have potential to be a huge PR. I kept focused on eating and drinking Coke on loop 2 as well as using the downhills to pick up a little extra time. Around mile 20, my friend decided to go ahead on his own for his final miles to the finish. Thirty seconds after he went ahead, I decided to get a picture of him but he was already just a speck in the distance. For the last couple miles of loop two, I decided to pick up the pace as well in preparation for the final 5-mile “sprint”. I came through the start/finish area after 26ish miles in exactly 4:30, right on my predicted pace. My goal for the day had been to finish in under 5:30, and it was at this point I realized I had the chance to shatter my goal with a good last five miles. I ditched my pack as I came through for the last lap and had one last swig of Coke.
The last five miles ended up being the fastest five miles I’ve ever run in an ultra. Looking at the results afterward, there were only a few people who ran the last loop faster than I did, and all of them finished way before me. Oops. Maybe I should’ve started running faster earlier. At any rate, I was cruising through the last few miles, including up the “giant hill” one last time. I passed several people on the last loop but had no idea what race or lap these people were on as the shortened loop merged with the longer loop at some point. Having had the benefit of running the final stretch of the course three times in the previous two days, I knew when I was getting to the close and gave it everything I had to the finish. According to Strava, I was running 5:45 min/mile pace when I crossed the finish line. This led to some really attractive finish line photos and also a huge PR of over 30 minutes compared to my last 50k. While every ultra course is different and it’s hard (impossible, actually) to compare times across courses, I think it’s safe to say that I’m probably at least in slightly better shape than I was a month or two ago. After the struggle that was the Glass City Marathon the previous weekend, I was super excited to have a race where everything went right. It definitely helped to have someone to run with to keep me moving a little bit faster in the early stages of the race. Being so familiar with this trail and the course definitely was a benefit as well. Most of all though, I just had a fun day being on beautiful trails. I think anytime you can enjoy yourself in a race, you’re going to have an awesome day and for me, that means being on trails, not a flat, paved road or sidewalk.
Last weekend I was supposed to run the Zane Grey 50 Mile near Payson, Arizona. With nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain at an average elevation of 6,500 feet, and a course that’s littered with giant rocks, rocks, and more rocks, many people have deemed it one of the toughest 50-mile runs in the country. Living in Phoenix was the perfect opportunity to train for this race. Close proximity to lots of rocky mountain trails and the ability to go check out the course in person ahead of time were ideal for training for this race. Everything was going great until I ended up returning home to Michigan sooner than I’d planned. Not having the funds to fly back to Arizona and rent a car for the weekend, I decided to do the next best thing: run on one of my favorite trails in Michigan as part of one of my favorite events.
Trail Weekend, which is hosted by local running shop/event company Running Fit has long been one of my favorite races. It takes place at the end of April ever year near Ann Arbor, Michigan, mostly on the Potowatomi Trail in the Pinckney Recreation Area. This trail is a favorite for many people in the area including mountain bikers, trail runners, backpackers, and wildlife enthusiasts. Like most trails and areas of Michigan, Poto (as the locals call it) passes near numerous lakes, through forests, and also contains some of the biggest hills in the area, which is to say they take about 4 minutes to power-hike up. They’re definitely not big hills by most people’s standards but the number of hills and the fact that you’re constantly going either up or down is what most people find challenging about it. My favorite part of this trail is the remote feeling and being able to cool off in the lake after a hot summer run.
Trail Weekend consists of a half marathon on Saturday and a 5-miler, marathon, and 50k on Sunday. For the most fun possible, you can sign up for both the half marathon and the 50k, which is what I usually do and this year was no exception. I originally wasn’t sure about signing up for this race since I had done the Glass City Marathon the previous weekend. When my friend asked me to run the half marathon with her as her first official half marathon, how could I say no?
On race day, after about an hour’s drive, we arrived at the park and got our bibs. The weather for the day was typical Michigan spring weather, which is to say it was 35 degrees, gray, and windy. We sat in the car listening to not very pump-up music keeping warm before going to the start line. There seemed to be even more people than I remembered there being in previous years (turns out there were actually fewer people than the last time I did this race, but there were still 580 finishers this year). After making our way through the crowd, we decided to start with a random group a group that looked about the pace we were planning to run.
After about a minute of running through an open field, we hit the singletrack, and the inevitable standstill that comes with just about every trail race. As we slowly made our way through the first mile, a guy behind us asked “I’ve never run a trail race before. Is it going to be like this the whole time?” I reassured him that it usually spreads out pretty quick, although that didn’t really turn out to be the case on this day. It ended up being at least 4 or 5 miles before we got some breathing room near our spot in the middle of the pack. Except for the bumper to bumper traffic on the trail, things were going really well for the first 6 or so miles. We were keeping a steady pace and we had perfect running conditions. It was around this time, my friend started to get a headache.
About a month ago, on a half marathon distance “training run” in the desert, we discovered that my friend loses an extreme amount of salt. She loses so much salt in fact that I was feeding her S Caps every 30 minutes and she doused all her food in salt for the next few days. She thought in milder (read: cold) temperatures, she wouldn’t need salt pills and hadn’t brought any. Thankfully, I knew better and had packed plenty for the occasion. After I told her I had packed salt pills and she could have as many as she wanted she told me “I’d hug you right now if you weren’t so far away.” After a quick stop for a life-changing salt pill, we were on our way again.
We continued on at a steady pace and around mile 9 we could hear lots of yelling in the distance. There turned out to be a large group of kids (scouts maybe?) who were walking along the trail cheering on runners and giving out liberal amounts of high-fives. After passing through the cheering section, someone (maybe me) said something like “Only 5k to go – piece of cake!” A guy who we had been running near all day warned us not to get too excited as there was a really big hill coming up. I spent the next several minutes trying to think of what hill he could be talking about. As someone who had run this trail at least a hundred times, I thought I would have remembered a hill with that kind of reputation. Turns out, I did remember the hill once I saw it. Usually when I’m on this trail, I’m going downhill though as that is the normal direction for foot traffic. By this time we were around mile 11 and my friend was finally starting to get tired. Barely. She even appeared to be having fun while going up the “monster” hill, although this is probably because I had just said something incredibly funny.
The last couple miles of the course somehow seemed the longest/I think they actually were the longest based on course markings. Just before mile 13 (which was definitely more than 0.1 miles from the finish), we heard some 80’s music blasting from a guy carrying around a giant speaker. I can’t remember what song it was but I’m pretty sure it was one of the songs found in Happy Gilmore, which obviously means it was great.
After we turned off the trail onto the grass field toward the finish, my friend tried to walk up the last (small) hill. “No more walking!” I yelled. “We’re almost there.” Bystanders probably thought I was a mean friend but whatever, you’ve got to run the final stretch.
After crossing the finish line, we walked around for a few minutes and looked for a willing volunteer to take our picture. The wind blowing off the lake and still-gray skies made it not a very hospitable environment to hang out in after finishing a race. There was one guy though who decided to brave the elements even further by wading into the lake. I’ll be the first person to say there’s nothing better than being able to lounge in a lake after a run, but usually I prefer to do that when it’s warmer than 40 degrees outside.
Despite his dip in the lake, he at least seemed to have avoided hypothermia as he managed to hold his hands steady enough to take a great picture of us. Running this race with my friend for her first half marathon (and on a trail no less) made Day 1 of Trail Weekend especially memorable this year. After nearly 16 years of running, sometimes I forget about what it’s like to be new-ish to the sport. Being with friends and helping others to reach their goals are two of my favorite things about running, and I was able to do both on this day. This might have been her first half marathon and first trail race, but it definitely won’t be her last as evidenced by the permanent smile attached to her face and the number of times she said “This is so fun!”.
After the freak mid-April snowstorm that covered half the country a couple weeks ago, it seems as though it’s finally spring. If you’re not fortunate enough to live somewhere like Arizona, this probably means rain, and plenty of it. Don’t be discouraged though, soon enough, people in Arizona will be baking cookies in their cars while the rest of us are enjoying more “mild” summers in the 80’s and 90’s. Until then though, we have rain and mud to deal with.
Every year around mid- to late-May, I start seeing tons of runners everywhere. “Wow, so many people! I wonder where they were a month or two or five ago” I think. Inside is the answer. Although people from the Midwest seem to be somewhat more hardy than people from more mild climates, people here have their “weather rules” too. Oh, it’s too cold out, it’s cloudy, there’s snow on the ground. The list goes on and on. The most extreme case of this I heard was from a friend who moved to Texas whose triathlon club there instituted rules such as:
If it’s colder than 70 degrees, we don’t bike outside
If it’s colder than 50 degrees, we don’t run outside
For swimming, the water temperature must be at least 75 degrees and everyone must wear a wetsuit and neoprene booties and cap at all times
I just made that last one up but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of them. The truth is there’s (almost) no weather that’s bad enough to forgo an outdoor activity. With the right wardrobe and the right attitude, it can even be fun! For a true representation of sporting weather badass-ery, check out surfer Dan and his beard. This guy surfs in Lake Superior in the winter time. If you’ve never been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, trust me when I say Lake Superior is freezing cold even at the height of summer. While we can’t all be surfer Dans, we can try a little bit harder to get outside in all types of weather. See below for some tips on how to embrace the rain and mud this spring!
Mentally prepare yourself – **This is the most important one** If you find yourself looking out the window formulating excuses about why you should probably just skip today’s workout or thinking about how if you do go out there, you’re going to be cold and wet and miserable, stop right now. Instead, tell yourself what a badass you’ll be for going out there on a day when everyone else is huddled inside. Tell yourself how fun it’ll be to splash through puddles and feel the rain hit your face. Going into anything with the right mindset will set you up for a better chance at success. In 2016, it rained during every single race I did over half marathon distance (that’s roughly 15 races and no, I don’t live in the Pacific Northwest). If I had stayed home every time it rained that year, I would’ve barely done anything at all. You never know what the weather is going to be like on race day so you need to be ready for anything and everything.
Phone a friend – If you already tried to mentally prepare yourself and still can’t seem to convince yourself to do it, try calling a friend. In this case, the dumber the better. On days with terrible weather when I make my husband join me my husband voluntarily joins me, I always tell him how awesome he is for being out there, but usually he says “I’m not awesome, just dumb.”
Dress for success – Usually I don’t wear a rain jacket while running unless it’s under 45 degrees, and even then I might not wear one depending on how fast I’m going. I have an Ultimate Direction Ultra jacket which I love. It keeps me dry in all but the most monsoon-ish weather, its super light, and it packs down small so I can put it away when I inevitably get too hot.
Bring a change of clothes and a towel – If you’re driving to a trail or some other place, bring a towel and a change of clothes with you. You’ll get cold fast after sitting in your car sopping wet for a few minutes.
Leave the phone at home – Since phones and water don’t really mix, it’s best to leave it at home. If you’re out for a longer adventure or in a more remote area where this isn’t feasible, try putting your phone in a ziploc bag before putting it in your pack.
Embrace the mud – I recently did a trail half marathon in Arizona of all places where most of the course was covered in mud. Throughout the race, I watched people tiptoe carefully around the “muddy areas”, which I repeat, was most of the course. If you think there’s a chance the mud in front of you might be quicksand that will drag you underground, by all means, find a way around. But when it’s pouring rain and everything is sloppy, you’re going to get dirty eventually so just embrace it. One of my favorite mottos is “If you ain’t dirty, you ain’t having fun” so it comes as no surprise that I’m usually the dirtiest person at the end of every race.
One of the most important aspects of participating in endurance sports is nutrition. I’m not talking about how many servings of vegetables you had yesterday or whether you’ve been eating a rainbow of fruits although I guess that’s important too. I’m talking about consuming adequate nutrition on a 3 or 4 or 5 or 24 hour long adventure. It’s not enough to check all the boxes on your training schedule, you have to practice eating too. Wait. Practice eating? That’s something everyone could get into.
Some people have stomachs of steel and can consume packaged bars and energy gels all day long and feel great. Some people eat nothing but fruit a la Fruitarian and feel great. While these options might work for some people, the best way to find out what works for you is to experiment. Most ultra runners I know will consume at least some “real” food during a race (i.e. they don’t subsist only on gels and bars). And let’s face it, eating the things commonly found at ultra aid stations sounds way more appetizing anyway.
My current favorite things to eat on long training runs/races/adventures are:
Justin’s Almond Butter packets – I actually just discovered these and I can’t believe it’s taken so long. They’re 200 calories each and barely take up any space at all. They definitely need to be eaten with water though unless you want that whole nut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth thing
PB&J sandwiches – Outside Online just wrote an article about the amazing properties of the PBJ sammy and I couldn’t agree more. You just cant go wrong with these, except for of course if you’re at a 100k that requires you to make your own sandwiches and they have honey instead of jelly, and you get immediately swarmed by bees, but I digress.
Fruit/Chia bars by KIND – kind of like a grown up fruit roll-up except you know, made with actual fruit
Watermelon – There’s nothing better during a hot summer race than some delicious watermelon. Bonus: it hydrates you too
Popsicles – On the topic of summer races, last year I did a race where the race director stood in the middle of the woods with a cooler full of popsicles while playing ice cream truck music from her phone. Needless to say, it’s now my favorite race
Salted Almonds – Salted almonds are another one I recently discovered. I shared some of mine with a fellow racer at a recent 50 miler and he loved them too so it’s not just me. Lots of calories in just a few bites, and electrolytes too
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches – aka The Holy Grail of ultra food. Anytime I do a race where they have grilled cheese sandwiches, I know it’s going to be a great day. They taste even better if it’s dark and cold outside
Beer – Just kidding about this one. Kind of. While I personally can’t fathom drinking a beer during a run, I recently volunteered at a 100k where a woman rolled into the aid station at mile 37, ate a pizza and drank a can of PBR, then continued on her way. Lady, if you’re reading this, you’re my hero.
What are your favorite foods to eat while training/racing/adventuring? I’m always looking for new ideas! Leave your answer in the comments.
Where to begin with this one… I signed up a few days in advance for a road marathon in Toledo, Ohio. After spending the first 3.5 months of the year running big miles on big mountains, I wanted to see how my trail fitness would translate to a flat, fast road marathon. If I can run for 12+ hours up and down mountains in the desert with relative ease, surely I should be able to run my way to a new road marathon PR, right? The only catch really is that I haven’t really pounded the pavement much this year. Of the 700+ miles I had run so far this year going into this race, approximately 30 of them were run on the road. No matter though, this was going to be great.
I decided to try for a sub-3:20 time since the last time I raced a road marathon (in March 2017), I ran a 3:23 on a course that was a quarter-mile long in a rainstorm. I definitely feel like my fitness is better now than it was then, so 3:20 seemed doable. Officially, a 3:20 equates to 7:38 pace but I decided to go with 7:30-7:35 pace because it sounded good.
I chose this race primarily because it was soon and it was close enough to home that I could sleep in my own bed the night before. I originally wasn’t planning on driving down until race day but once I looked up the location of race day packet pick up (a mile from the start line) and all the parking restrictions on race day, I decided to just drive down the day before to get my bib. And I was glad I did, primarily because I discovered that one of the most traveled sections of highway in Southeast Michigan is shut down. I’ve been afraid to do more research on just how long it’s closed but I can guarantee it’s months, possibly even years and I’m not exaggerating. Closing sections of expressway in Michigan for years at a time is actually a thing. But anyway, after an hour and 40 minute drive that should’ve taken and hour and ten minutes, I finally arrived. It was just like every other marathon expo I’ve ever been to: loud and crowded. Guess what one of my least favorite things is? Crowds. I got out of there in about five minutes asking myself why I had decided to sign up for this again.
Race day dawned bright and early and my sherpa, I mean husband, and I were on our way. There was a ton of traffic near the University of Toledo campus where the start/finish was, so we ultimately parked in a neighborhood just off campus. After waiting in the requisite super-long bathroom line and dropping my bag off at gear check, I went to the starting line, since it was now about 10 minutes before race start.
I lined up between the markers that said 7-minute and 8-minute pace, expecting to run 7:30’s. The gun finally sounded and we took off at a jog. I never understand why people ignore corral/start line assignments, but at every road race there are always plenty of people who just start wherever the hell they feel like. Bumping around with thousands of my closest friends in the first 400 meters was really really making me question why I was doing this. I mean yay, I’m having so much fun!
Thankfully I started to get some more space as we went on although I was still looking forward to mile 8 when the half and full courses diverged. Running 7:30’s was feeling pretty comfortable and I was confident things were going to go well. But of course all good things must come to an end right, and mine pretty much ended around mile 14. I came through the half right on pace in about 1:40. Unfortunately this “knee thing” I’ve had going on for awhile did not appreciate being repeatedly slammed against unforgiving asphalt and concrete. I knew it wasn’t going to subside and would probably only get worse, so I came up with Plan B, which was to go for a BQ. I’m not even sure whether I want to run Boston next year but if this was going to be my one and only road marathon for the year (because let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly having the time of my life), I decided I might as well at least try to salvage the day with a BQ.
From miles 14-25, I jogged/hobbled/walked my way forward. My right knee issue was causing me to run with a really weird gait that was leading to my left quad locking up and also a blister on my left foot in a place where I’ve never in my life gotten a blister. I was a pretty sorry sight. Marathoners and relay runners were passing me left and right. Usually in races, I run even or even negative splits and am usually passing people towards the end. It was a humbling experience to be literally giving it everything I had while feeling like I was barely moving. I thought several times about throwing in the towel on my BQ attempt, and walking or jogging ever more slowly into the finish, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t at least try. If it wasn’t enough, fine, but at least I had tried.
It was right around this time there was another runner near me whose husband had been waiting for her at a road crossing. She told him “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Based on the time the clock was at, I’m guessing she was trying to go for a BQ as well. If I had had any extra energy to spare I would have told her, “You know what, maybe you can’t. But maybe you can. All you can do is what you can do, and if it’s not enough, it’s not enough. All you can do on any day is give it your best effort and that means not giving up until it’s over.” For me, when I know I’ve given it everything it a race, I will always be satisfied regardless of what the clock says or what place I come in. Sometimes we have great days, but sometimes we drink too much beer the night before a race (not that I’ve done that), or go into a race with a nagging injury or illness. On any given day your best effort is enough because it’s what you can do.
But enough philosophy for one day. After a long, grueling journey I had finally reached mile 25. I decided to just run as fast as I could to the finish and see what happened. Thankfully there was a slight downhill, also I guess considered a significant downhill in Midwestern road marathon terms. The race finished on the 50-yard line of UT’s football field so the last few steps were on astroturf. I crossed the line with an official time of 3:32:07, a far cry from the 3:20 I was hoping for, but technically a BQ (but still only fast enough to gain entry into Boston in 2012-2017, not so much this year in 2018).
After laying on a bench and then laying on the ground for a while, I decided to go in search of my drop bag with warm clothes and some food. They also had this nifty BQ bell to ring. On the roughly mile long walk back to the car, of course my knee barely hurt at all. I guess it’s only upset when I’m exerting a force of 7x my body weight on it.
At the end of the day, like I said before, I can’t be disappointed with my performance in this race because I did everything I could do on the day I was given. Do I wish that my body had agreed with my idea to race a road marathon and that everything else could’ve gone perfectly and I skipped away merrily with a PR? Of course, who wouldn’t want that. But the reality is that very few races follow that story. And let’s be honest, the most memorable races are never the ones that feel effortless or where you ran the fastest, it’s always the ones where you have to endure aches and pains, upset stomachs, foul weather, and just general bad days. After all, if running was easy, no one would do it.
When it came time to drive back to Michigan after a brief stint in Arizona, the first question my husband and I had to answer was “Which way are we going?”. I told him our options were to take the boring route again that we had taken through New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma or we could take what I deemed the “fun” route, which would take us through Utah, Colorado, and then some other less fun states. But still, it was less boring than the alternative.
“OK”, my husband said, “Well we don’t have to decide right now. ”
I told him “Actually, we have about 30 seconds to decide.”
Unfortunately for us the point where the boring route and the fun routes diverged were at the entrance to the neighborhood. A half mile into our drive, we had to decide. Guess which route won? The fun route of course! Off we went, north through Arizona toward Utah. After a brief stop in Flagstaff to run and eat lunch, we finally made it to Utah.
At first, it definitely didn’t seem like we had chosen the more fun route. It was desolate and dusty (and then snowy) and we basically saw nothing for the first couple hours. Then we got to Moab. Moab is a surprisingly busy and somewhat large town for being in the middle of nowhere. I suppose that’s no surprise given that Moab is home to two national parks, a state park, and has a huge offroad driving scene. After getting some food and beer (4% ABV as per Utah state law of course) at the Moab Brewery, it was time to plan the next day’s adventure. Since I had just been to the Grand Canyon, the opportunity to visit two national parks in one week was enticing. I knew that Arches National Park didn’t really have much in the way of trails, it was more of a drive your car and park and take pictures kind of place, but there was one trail I thought would be worthwhile.
All the way at the back of Arches NP, there’s a campground and a trailhead for Devil’s Garden and the Primitive Trail. Combined together these two trails are supposed to be about 7 miles and you’re supposed to see a ton of different arches. Perfect, I thought, for a short excursion before getting back on the road. Leaving the trailhead, the trail is a wide, crushed gravel path packed with people. Even though we had gotten there pretty early in the morning and it was kind of chilly, there were already plenty of people out. After seeing Landscape Arch, we hopped on the Primitive Trail in order to get away from the crowds.
According to the NPS, “the primitive trail is most difficult. Expect difficult route finding, steep slopes, narrow drop-offs, and rock scrambling.” The trail is supposedly marked with cairns although we didn’t see many, at least in the beginning. It probably doesn’t help that some of the cairns are about six inches tall. Immediately after turning onto the primitive trail, we found ourselves with a group of people who didn’t know where to go. “I think we’re supposed to scramble up that rock face.” The group seemed skeptical but I checked Trailforks which had a dotted line for this trail and confirmed, we were supposed to go up. At the time, it seemed like kind of a sketchy scramble, but as it turned out there were steeper and more exposed stretches later on down the trail.
We continued on while route finding and occasionally leading others off trail on accident. We saw some more arches, but for both of us our favorite part was the scrambling, the exposed sections, and the general views of cool rock formations.
one of the few signs on the trail
there’s a steep drop off on either side of the “trail” here
Overall, this was a cool excursion since it was basically on our way. I can’t say I would go out of my way to go to Arches NP again since it’s not really my style. I much prefer places where you can get out on the trail and experience things instead of just taking pictures of stuff from a parking lot. If you ever find yourself in Moab with a couple hours to kill and aren’t afraid of some exposed trail and a little route finding, you’ll definitely have fun here.
I call those things in the distance Dr. Seuss rocks
Running from rim to rim to rim was really never on my radar. Honestly, before moving to Arizona, going to the Grand Canyon at all wasn’t really even on my bucket list. This wasn’t for any particular reason, I just never really found myself in this part of the country. After seeing pictures of lots of friends enjoying the Canyon from the rim this year as well as a few people who did extended runs and hikes below the rim, I decided what better way to see the Grand Canyon than on foot..twice..in the same day. Never mind the fact that I would be going by myself and had zero knowledge of anything Grand Canyon related except that it was a huge hole in the ground. Enter: the internet. This was one of the few times I’ve been grateful to live in an age where you can find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about a faraway place all while sitting behind your computer. Thankfully, tons of people had already run or hiked R2R2R before me and they all have blogs, so information was plentiful. Everyone has their own opinion and advice: Go down this trail, start at this time, bring X liters of water, stop for lemonade at Phantom Ranch (the best advice really). After reading through the first several pages of google search results regarding people’s R2R2R adventures, I had formulated a plan.
Planning to run from rim to rim to rim isn’t just like running around your local park with plentiful drinking fountains, cell phone service, and the chance to bail early if you’re not having a good day. You can’t just go out there and hope for the best. There are warning signs posted all over the park saying don’t do this, don’t do that, bring food, bring water, it’s hot out there…as they should. Despite all the warnings, some people still choose to go down into the canyon unprepared. I met one such person around mile 42 of my journey. As I was coming up the final climb of the day, there was a woman saying she had called the emergency phone because she didn’t have enough water. I spent a few minutes trying to help her open a box that supposedly had “emergency water” in it, but had to continue on if I had any hope of getting myself out of the canyon before I ran out of water (spoiler alert: I ran out of water just before the top). Anyway, moral of the story is you can’t be over prepared for a journey across the Grand Canyon and back or any journey below the rim for that matter.
Beware of puking?
Summary: it’s hot and you can fall off the trail into the canyon
Where to stay
There are tons of places to stay both within and nearby the park. I won’t begin to pretend that I looked into all of them and since I was planning this about a week in advance during peak times, I didn’t exactly have a lot of options. Originally, I was planning on camping for two nights, both the night prior to and the night after my R2R2R excursion. After thinking about it some more, I decided to get a room at one of the lodges within the park for the night before which turned out to be the right move. I was so glad to be able to charge my phone and drink a cup of coffee before this adventure. I also spent the two nights after my run at Mather Campground within the park. My campsite was huge, the bathrooms were relatively clean, and they even had nice reflective signs so you could find your spot easily in the dark (attention Michigan State Parks: we need these). It was also one of the quietest busy campgrounds I’ve ever been to, people-wise that is anyway. My fellow campers were all pretty quiet, but my site turned out to be approximately 50 feet from a busy road which basically had people whizzing by at all hours of the night. It was really fun to try and sleep with the constant road noise and lights flashing through my tent. I would probably stay at this campground again since for $18/night you can’t really go wrong, but I would definitely choose a different site far, far away from the road. But then I guess when you plan more than a week in advance, there might be more than two options.
I decided my route would be to go down Bright Angel, up and down North Kaibab (non-negotiable really since it’s the only trail), and then up South Kaibab to end the day. Most (or at least many) people who choose to do both trails go down South Kaibab and up Bright Angel and for most that’s probably the way to go. There is more shade, more water, and the trail is less steep than South Kaibab, however, it’s also a couple miles longer. Personally, and I’m probably in the minority, but I prefer steep uphills to steep downhills. Especially since I was going to be starting in the dark, I wanted to go down the less steep, more runnable trail. It all boils down to choosing the best route for you. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I’d do the same thing because I have more confidence in myself doing a steep climb at the end of the day than going down a steep, rutted downhill in the dark.
Even though I was happy with my trail choice, it came with a price, which I new going in. The main logistical concern regarding anything South Kaibab related is the lack of parking. You cannot park at the trailhead (or even drive and drop someone off directly in front of the trailhead) if you’re not a shuttle bus. Right now within the park, there’s a ton of construction and even the shuttle bus doesn’t even drop you off right in front of the trailhead. I think technically you could park your car in a parking spot along the main road approximately a mile from the trailhead, but I felt bad taking up limited parking spots for an all day excursion. I was sure I wanted to end here though so I was left with a few options since I was all by myself. All the options involved parking near Bright Angel Trailhead at the beginning of my day. To get back to my car after coming up South Kaibab, I could either:
Take the orange kaibab shuttle to the visitors center and then take the blue village shuttle back to bright angel
Call the Grand Canyon Taxi Service (which operates 24/7) for a ride back to my car
Hitch a ride from some poor unfortunate soul who happened to have a working vehicle and was willing to transport a dirty, smelly, slightly delirious runner to any point at all closer to my car than the South Kaibab Trailhead
Run along the rim either to the visitors center to hop on the blue shuttle (2.5-3 miles) or if I was feeling really ambitious, run along the rim all the way back to Bright Angel (5ish miles)
When I came up with these options, I didn’t really think that option 4 was a likely scenario. One of the other options was sure to pan out right? Yeah, not so much. But more about that later.
The Big Day
The morning of April 9, 2018, I woke up at 3:30am with the plan to eat breakfast, fill up my pack with water and Coke, throw everything else in my car, and be headed down the trail at 4:30. So, at 4:55, after some minor confusion navigating the one way, construction-filled streets, and a brief call to my husband, I finally made it to the trailhead. Being thousands of miles away, I had given him my full plans including what trails I would be taking and approximated that it would take anywhere from 12-15 hours before he would be hearing from me again.
With all the details taken care of, I was finally on my way down the Bright Angel Trail! I had been running for no more than 10 minutes when I saw three pairs of glowing eyes staring back at me through the darkness. I stopped in my tracks and started talking to whatever they were. Mountain lions was the first thing that came to mind because wouldn’t it just be fitting to get mauled by wild cats 10 minutes into a 50 mile run? Thankfully, they were the first of many mule deer I saw that day. I told them I was just passing through and wouldn’t bother them. They seemed to be using the trail as well and stepped politely to the side so I could continue.
A few minutes later, I came upon something else reflecting up ahead but thankfully this time it was just a hiker coming up from Indian Garden campground. We chatted for a few minutes and he told me a little bit of what lay ahead and told me to have a great day. Continuing on down the trail, I had already warmed up to the point where I didn’t really need my jacket anymore. It was also getting lighter out and soon I wouldn’t need my headlamp either. The lighter it got, the better the views got.
looking down the Bright Angel Trail
1 and a half mile resthouse
Last significant downhill portion of Bright Angel
The further I got down Bright Angel, the more people I started to see. They all appeared to be hiking out from either Indian Garden or Bright Angel Campgrounds or Phantom Ranch. They also told me I was the first person they saw descending the trail that morning (since everyone else who was running R2R2R that day had started down South Kaibab). Eventually, I arrived at the mighty Colorado River! And it was..very green. For a second I thought I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day. This must be why certain water spigots near Phantom say “Water from River. Not for Drinking”. Nevertheless, it was a pretty cool sight to see. After about 10ish miles and 2 hours and 40 minutes, I crossed the first bridge of the day, the Silver Bridge! I didn’t take any pictures while actually on the bridge because I couldn’t stop visualizing my phone falling into the abyss and ending up washing ashore in Mexico or something.
Coming into the Bright Angel Campground/Phantom Ranch area was exciting because I felt like I had found “civilization”. There were people and buildings, and of course, the canteen! As it was still before 8am, there weren’t many people out and about yet and the canteen was closed, but I had my sights on a cold glass of lemonade later in the day after my return from the North Rim.
The first few miles on North Kaibab after leaving Phantom was one of my favorite sections of trail. There were huge walls on either side and the trail ran along a stream for a while. This section was also very runnable (i.e. it’s basically the flattest stretch of trail all day). Through here I didn’t see a ton of people, but I did see a few guys carrying mountain bikes on their backs (since bike wheels are not allowed to touch the ground in GCNP). I can’t even imagine carrying a mountain bike on my bike for a few minutes, let alone all the way across the Grand Canyon. My 10 pound pack was plenty.
After passing through Cottonwood Campground, I started to see some people leaving the campground for day hikes. I kept forgetting that it was still early in the morning since I had already been out on the trail for over 4 hours. Since it was still early, it was also still “chilly”, by Phoenix standards anyway. I had ditched my jacket hours before but it was the perfect temperature for shorts and a tank top. After Cottonwood, I arrived at Manzanita Rest Area, site of the last water on the trail this time of year before topping out at the North Rim. After filling up with water, I started to climb! After the initial climb past Manzanita, there’s a section of trail that’s probably the most exposed part on this route. Although I’m not afraid of heights, it was a little unsettling to be next to a several thousand foot drop off. Thankfully, the trail is plenty wide so I kept to the inside. This time of year, there isn’t much traffic on NK, so I didn’t have to dodge people either. Around here, I ran into a fellow R2R2R runner who was already on his way down from the top. When I saw him, for some reason I thought that meant the rim was near ish, but as it turned out there was probably still a good hour and a half of climbing to go past that point. Luckily, I ended up having plenty of company en route to the North Rim. There were a couple guys hiking up from Cottonwood and also two more R2R2R runners from Texas. The six of us climbed for a while in the same vicinity up and up and up. Just when I started thinking the North Rim was elusive, we finally made it to the top. And best of all, there was water – ice cold water right at the trailhead! After refilling my water that was basically gone, eating a quick snack, and attempting (unsuccessfully) to get a phone signal to text my worried husband, I set off back down the trail.
Made it to the North Kaibab Trailhead
The way down went by much more quickly than the way up. After spending hours (or at least what felt like hours) trudging up from Manzanita, I made it back to Manzanita from the North Rim in just over an hour. After a quick refill, I was back on the trail. At this point, I started to realize that getting back to Phantom prior to 4pm for my glass of lemonade was going to be cutting it close. But as always happens when you start thinking about how delicious a nice cold glass of anything sounds on a long run, I was committed. In the runnable stretch between Cottonwood and Phantom, I took fewer pictures and picked up the pace in hopes of making it on time. I was so excited when at 3:57pm, I arrived and the sign outside the canteen said “OPEN”. It had definitely heated up a little bit since the morning and I can’t think of a single time in my life I’ve been so excited to drink a glass of anything, especially after working so hard to get there on time. To my dismay, when I walked into the canteen, a bunch of people started walking out and a girl who was working was setting tables saying “We’re closed, come back tomorrow.” Despite the crowd streaming out, I stood by the counter looking sad. Eventually a man came over and asked me what I wanted. I ordered and paid for my $4.75 glass of lemonade while telling him my story of how I had run extra fast to get there just so I could drink this delicious ice cold beverage. He seemed unmoved by my story, but thankfully handed me a cup anyway. I almost cried I was so happy. I then went outside to sit down and enjoy my drink. While I was sitting under some shade, I started talking with a few people who were staying at Phantom who were asking me all kinds of questions about what I was doing out there, how long it would take, what was I eating, you’re all by yourself?? They were mostly nice but there was one woman who seemed to think she was an ultrarunning expert. “You’re eating pretzels? That can’t be enough.” “You know there’s signs posted everywhere saying you’re not supposed to go to the river and back in a day.” “You’re not drinking plain water, are you?” I wanted to be like, Listen lady, I’ve made it over 3/4 of the way across the canyon and back already and I’m currently just fine so it seems like I know what I’m doing. Instead, I told them it was great chatting with them and thanked them for sharing their shade with me. All that was left now was a 7.5 mile, 5000-foot climb back out of the canyon – piece of cake!
When I was leaving Phantom, I crossed paths again with the guys from Texas who I had climbed up to the North Rim with. They had come down SK in the morning and were going back up BA, the opposite of what I was doing. I wished them good luck on their last climb and we parted ways. Immediately after crossing the River again (via the Black Bridge this time), I started to climb, like really climbing. Ten minutes after I started, the Black Bridge was already a tiny speck below me.
It also was finally what I would consider “hot” and sunny. Remember earlier how I said most people go back up Bright Angel because it’s more shaded and has water stops? That definitely started making more sense for the first few miles of the climb out. I don’t know what exactly was causing me to feel so terrible during this stretch but I had to sit down on rocks/the ground a few times in the first hour or so of the climb. Thankfully after that, the sun started to go down resulting in a lot more shade along the trail. The damage was done though, and I noticed that I was starting to run low on water with a few miles to go. It was around this time that I ran into the hiker who had run out of water who was using the emergency phone. While it might seem kind of mean to not offer someone more help than I did, I had to make my own safety a priority. Running low on water after 12 hours on the trail with darkness approaching, I had to keep moving. The only thing worse than sending an emergency helicopter for one person is sending an emergency helicopter for two people. She seemed perfectly fine and coherent and had successfully made contact with whoever was manning the emergency phone, so I felt that she was going to be just fine.
As I continued to climb, I started to feel better, although my lower back was starting to hurt from being hunched over climbing for so long. As it got closer to sunset, there were amazing views in every direction. I knew I was getting close to being done and really wanted to avoid having to put my headlamp back on so I kept moving at a pretty quick pace. I had to convince myself to stop and take pictures because how could I do this entire journey and then not take pictures of the best part.
As I got closer to the top, I started hearing cars up on the park road. You know you’re getting close when you hear cars! Despite the fact that it was getting somewhat dark, I still didn’t get my headlamp out because I was “almost there”. Eventually I was actually there. When I emerged from the trail to the South Kaibab trailhead, I saw absolutely nothing and no one. It was also finally dark enough to require a headlamp. Now that I had completed the “official” part of my R2R2R run, I had to figure out part 2 which was: How the hell am I going to get back to my car/civilization on the other side of the South Rim? Luckily for me, I was prepared with my trusty list of 4 options as outlined above. One by one, I started going through them.
If you read around in the Grand Canyon literature and ask various people, they’ll say the Kaibab shuttle runs until approximately a half hour to an hour after sunset. By the time I finished I wasn’t sure if the shuttle was still running and didn’t really want to wait and find out since it was getting colder by the minute. I also couldn’t really figure out where the shuttle picked up. There was construction at the trailhead and the road leading to it so the pick up spot turned out to be about a quarter mile away as I found out the next day. Option 2 (a taxi) was also a no go: according to my phone there was “No Service” to be had. With those options crossed off, I started walking along the rim trail toward the road. Since it was dark out at this point, there were only a couple cars and none of them seemed especially friendly (i.e. they didn’t ask me what the hell I was doing staggering around in the dark). At this point, resigned to my fate, I decided to just suck it up and start running the rest of the way to the visitors center still without water since I had run out just before finishing the climb.
Finally, after making it to the visitors center, I ran onto a blue village-bound bus and then proceed to sit and wait and wait for 15 minutes until the bus finally started moving. Still, I was thankful to be on a nice warm bus and to not have to run the remaining 2 miles. At long last, I made it to my car. I chugged a bunch of water and ate a couple pieces of pizza before changing clothes in a bathroom and setting off to find my campsite and get my tent set up.
After a few hours of fitful sleep, I woke up and decided to be a traditional Grand Canyon tourist for the day. But first, it was time to shower. For the low, low price of $2 in quarters, I got 8 minutes of hot water at the Mather Campground shower/laundry building. After that I rode the bus around and wandered along the Rim Trail while indulging in pizza and ice cream. Looking at the canyon from the rim is awesome in its own right but to be in the canyon, especially to go all the way across and back, is something I’ll never forget.