Sunday, January 29, 2012

Frozen Front Range Marathon

I follow a very good blog by a fellow runner John Sherpa. Two weeks ago I noticed an entry on his site about some early season Fat Ass events. A Fat Ass event is an informal event/group run designed to keep runners motivated in the winter time. They are, by definition, unsupported (no aid) and minimally organized. The first event that caught my eye was the Frozen Front Range Marathon. In particular, I was excited about the elevation gain. The goal of this event was to hit six of the peaks in the Boulder open space and run close to a marathon length. If completed, it would net almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain. I don't get enough of that in my training, particularly early in the season. And, I suspected Nico would join me since it is right in his backyard. (I was right about that.)

The plan for the run was to start and end in different places. Everyone was to meet at 7 am at the Dowdy Draw Trail Head in Eldorado Springs where the event would end. We would leave a few cars there and carpool in the rest to the start line near Sanitas. As we congregated at Dowdy waiting for everyone to show up, we were FREEZING. It didn't really matter how much you had on because the wind was cold and just pierced right through. At this point, I was second guessing my decision to wear shorts (the only runner to do so). I don't think we ever really got totally comfortable with the elements all day. One of the runners I met was Bryan. He is a super nice guy and a talented runner.  More on that later. After waiting around for some stragglers, we just headed to the start line.

Once we arrived at the start line, we waited around a bit more. Finally, John said a few words and we were off up the Sanitas trail. One of the reasons that I wanted to do this "event" was to meet more ultra runners. After the start, my initial reaction was to remain with the group. But it became apparent that they were going to be SLOW due to a large variety in skill and experience within the group. Just a few minutes into the run, Nico started pushing toward the front to get some blood flowing and warm up. Bryan and I gladly followed him. And a fourth member, Brad, that none of us had met also joined the group. I was sort of hoping the group would catch us at some point, but that never happened. Fortunately, both Nico and Bryan are familiar with the trails and did a great job keeping us moving in the right direction.

About half way up Sanitas, we ran into another runner that had gotten confused because of the delayed start. His name was Todd (in green below). Todd kept up with us to the top and we never saw him again either. We later learned he didn't want to push the pace with us. That became our group of four for most of the day. In that group was a ton of talent and trail experience. I was easily the least experienced trail runner. And Nico was the only non-ultra vet. Brad (in blue) completed five 100 milers last year (Western States, Vermont, Leadville, Wasatch, and Ozark). Bryan (in black) has competed in several shorter ultras (including a phenomenal 8:35 at Leadville Silver Rush) and has a huge line up of races this year that includes the Leadville 100.

Top of Sanitas

After we stood around for a few at the summit, we started down. Brad and Bryan were screaming down the descent. Their trail experience and fitness were most clear right here. The trail took us by our cars at the start line and we stopped to take of some clothes -- it had suddenly become very warm. Then we headed up the trail for our next summit, Flagstaff. This section of trail was my favorite in the entire run. The grade was mostly runnable. The surroundings were heavily wooded. And, the trail was covered in a very fine powder of snow, but no ice. In fact, the powder was so fine that you could see the red rock coming through almost the entire way. John had placed three gallons of water near the summit as "aid" for us. However, he had done it the night before and it was frozen solid. No luck. We continued on toward Green Mountain.

Green Mountain is one of the more famous peaks in the area -- at least as far as I can tell from reading blogs. It is Anton Krupicka's favorite summit. Climbing up green was punishingly hard. It is a hard climb to begin with, but it was also on icy packed trails and the wind kicked up (probably 30 - 40 MPH with gusts). There were sections of trail there were less than a foot wide in the snow pack. Part of the way up we all stopped and put on our spikes/YakTrax. Brad did not bring any traction with him and would later express regret. We were rewarded at the summit with some reprieve from the wind and beautiful views.

The Summit of Green Mountain, our next Summit (Bear) is in the background.

The decent down Green Mountain was a definite change from earlier descents. Brad had been leading the charge and was now the laggard because he had no traction. The conditions on the next two peaks were horrible and he could not afford a misstep. We would push ahead and then wait to make sure he caught up. Finally we arrived in the canyon and found a stream at the base just before heading up Bear Peak. Nico, Brad and Bryan all filled their water bottles in the stream. Bryan carries a water purifier/filter that they all used. No more standing around, time for the toughest summit yet.

Once again this ascent was pretty miserable. In fact, I was freezing. At one point I became a bit concerned about my hands getting frost bite. Motivated by the miserable conditions, we pushed the ascent hard. Brad and Bryan led the charge again. We were able to get reprieve from the wind by sitting on the East side of the rock formations at the top. It was like two different climates: windy and horrible to the West and sunny and calm to the East. Sitting on the rocks at the summit I started to get REALLY cold. I was shivering and generally not in a happy place.  It was at this point I knew we were not going the full distance today.

Top of Bear Peak

Similar to our experience after Green, we ran down quickly to get out of the wind conditions. The further we got away from a summit, the more the trees blocked the wind. Brad was again struggling to keep up due to the poor footing. We reached a fork in the trail where the trail heads down toward Shadow Canyon -- where we would eventually go. It was obvious that down was the direction to go to get warm because it was both East and low. But first we had to continue up to the South Boulder Peak. Fortunately, South Boulder is a short ascent. By this point, I had my hands balled up in fists inside my gloves. I was hopeful that I wouldn't fall because I would not be able to break my fall without use of my hands. Not much changed at the summit of South Boulder Peak -- cold and windy!

Top of South Boulder Peak

We tried to rapidly descend off of South Boulder Peak and into Shadow Canyon. The descent was very difficult. It is extremely steep and designed almost like a stair case made of rocks and boulders. This descent would be difficult in good conditions, but it was down right insane with the icy conditions. At one point Nico fell and banged his knee. It didn't appear to cause too much damage, but I became extra careful after that. My YakTrax started bugging the hell out of during this descent. They were causing the front of my shoes to curl up and really squeeze my toes together. A toe on my right foot was digging into the toe next to it and cutting through the skin. I could feel it bleeding. To make matters worse, they only provided traction on ice (maybe 25% of the trail at this point). Anytime I was on bare rock, the sole of my trail shoe was a better option for traction because the metal coils on YakTrax just slid on the rock. I finally took my YakTrax off my right foot and ran the rest of the trail with one on and one off.

We had a rather lengthy wait at the bottom as Brad carefully made his way down. I took the opportunity to take my shoe off and do some trailside damage control. The toe that was digging had a long nail that was digging into the other toe. I ripped the nail off and put my YakTrax away. I was also getting low on fluids in my Nathan. The valve had been leaking all day and I had to run holding it up right to keep from losing all my fluid. Fortunately, John had left some aid in Eldorado (only a few miles away). Bryan decided to excuse himself at this point and took the shortest route back to his car, leaving only three of us and with only Nico knowing the way.

Once Brad rejoined us, we regrouped and headed out toward Eldorado Springs. Nico showed us a little informal trail that bridges the trail systems of Boulder and Eldorado Springs together. This reminded of the trails from The Sound of Music -- sort of grassy and rolling. During this section we finally got HOT and stopped to take off another layer of clothes. I was now in short sleeves and shorts. Suddenly, we popped out into Eldorado Springs and we immediately began looking for the aid that John had left. Despite detailed instructions from John, we never found it! In town, the Eldorado Springs Water Company has a faucet/tap where you can refill your 5 gallon bottles for 50 cents. There was a gentleman filling his jugs and Nico politely asked him to top off our water bottle. He did so, but not without a little grumbling and barking orders. 

We had long since decided not to attempt Eldorado Peak for a couple of reasons. The first is that a good portion of the trail is unmaintained and required "bushwhacking" your way to the top. But the main reason was time. It was already after 1pm and both Nico and I wanted to get home. His wife was not feeling well and I had an hour drive home.  Instead of heading right, we headed left for the Fowler trail that would eventually zig-zag toward the car. The ascent was once again icy. We went up without putting traction back on. There was a gentle climb that was mostly runnable for me. Brad decided to make conversation and began telling us a rather long and funny joke about an elderly couple. Nico ran ahead to catch a photo of us coming through a rock formation.

Brad and I running on the Fowler Trail in Eldorado Springs

We crossed the mesa and found the Springbrook Trail. The wind was picking up again and we were pretty exposed. At least we were doing more running than hiking/power walking for the first time since Flagstaff. The initial section of Springbrook brought back memories of the last few miles of the Leadville Silver Rush because it was lightly wooded with a fairly well groomed trail. But, like the Silver Rush, I was getting tired and hungry. There weren't many obstacles in the trail, but each one was an opportunity to trip if you didn't pick up your feet. The trail eventually turned into an exposed prairie and I was ready to be done.

Near the finish, the Springbrook Trail in Eldorado Springs.

We descended another couple of miles in dirt, mud, and snow and finally made it back to the car. Garmin says the total was 20.15 miles with 6600 feet of elevation gain.  I would guess it was actually closer to 21 miles with 6800 - 7000 feet of elevation gain. Bryan has a Garmin 310xt and he was registering a half mile more than me before he departed the group.

John sent an email later in the evening summarizing the day. Many of the runners dropped long before attempting all six peaks. In fact, he was the only one to try, coming a quarter mile short, and he finished after dark. After him, our group hit the most peaks (five). We finished a little after 2 pm. It sounds like John was probably an hour (or more) behind us into Eldorado Springs.

I can imagine that reading this blog you would wonder why I like to do this. After all, some of it just sounds hard and my "report" probably doesn't seem very enthusiastic. The truth is that I love it. The adventure of it all is so different than my regular life and I learn a lot about myself on these adventures. Despite the sore muscles, bruised feet, and black toenails, I am ready for more! I have seen more of my native state in the past 12 months than I saw in my first 30 years. I won't lie though, I am dying for Spring/Summer trail conditions to emerge. Trail running is hard enough without dealing with so much wind and ice. During the run I consumed two Big 100 protein bars (they are about 400 calories each), 65 ounces of Powerade, and 20 ounces of water.

I am skipping John's next event, but may consider the Highline Canal 100K in March. He is going to run the Highline Canal from beginning to end, covering more than 64 miles. We'll see.

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