Long Run (Finally)03/19/2010
It was time for a test. The last time I did a four hour run was on December 11th, the day after turning in my final paper for the Fall semester. It was a Backside Loop with some fairly significant post-holing through Walker Ranch (and some poaching of the excellent Kneale Road going through South Boulder Creek Canyon just behind Eldorado); the post-holing combined with the duration proved to be too much for the knee and two days later I submitted by taking a day off (but, I haven’t missed a day since).
After that run I resolved to get this knee figured out by going back to see Jeremy Rodgers (I had wanted to run the Bandera 100K, then the Rocky Raccoon 100, then…well, due to my recalcitrant knee, I finally stopped planning for races) and committing to building back up in an ever-vigilant and gradual fashion. Ultimately, the desire to temper the length of my runs is what planted the Green Mountain seed in my mind.
Yesterday, though, after a few weeks with successful runs in the three hour range, I figured it was time for another shot at four hours–the length of run that I, A) start packing a couple gels for fueling purposes, and therefore, B) consider the shortest legitimate “long run”. Not so coincidentally, four hours is also a fairly standard time for a mountain 50K, the shortest of the “ultra” distances.
It didn’t hurt that the weather has been spectacular this week, which, of course, being spring-time on the Front Range, means that we’re due for a snowstorm now. But not yesterday. I started out the run with a singlet and no gloves and would spend the majority of the run shirtless.
My route was an arduous one, consisting of three major climbs (and corresponding descents) of 2800′, 1200′, and 2500′ over the course of 17 miles. This involved summiting Green Mountain, Bear Peak, and then finally returning for another run up the front side of Green before ultimately descending the circuitous old road-bed that would dump me out in Boulder Canyon by the Red Lion Inn and allow me to take the Creek Path back to my doorstep. Being St. Patrick’s Day, I figured Green Mt. deserved multiple ascents.
The first long run of the racing season is always a glorious affair. For me, it’s a time of reawakening old habits and senses, reminding myself what this whole game is all about, and refamiliarizing myself with the vagaries of running all (or, a large portion of the) day in the mountains.
The mind’s ability to anticipate and project expectations into the future plays a large role in undertaking a long run. Headed up Green Mountain for the first time via Gregory Canyon and the Ranger Trail I was on a path that I’ve run literally nearly every day since Janurary 1. However, with the specter of several more hours of running ahead of me, the climb presented itself to me in a different tenor than usual. I relaxed through the technical and steep sections in Gregory Canyon, paused to don my Microspikes at the stone cabin that signifies the half-way point (but is really a bit short, timewise), and then continued crunching up the hill enjoying the solitude after wading through a crowd of CU students on the lower reaches of the mountain.
My legs had only average pep in them on this morning, but due to my prudent pacing and the excitement of the day’s endeavor they easily carried me through Ranger’s upper switchbacks and then finally, the three-ish minutes that it takes to ascend the Elliott Stairs from the four-way junction. This section of trail is a wench. Steep, rocky, and crudely stair-stepped, it often fails to even look like a trail. However, over the past two and a half months I have become intimately familiar with literally every significant rock and root. Every footplant is placed exactly as it was the morning before; each tricky sequence is traversed smoothly with a well-rehearsed pattern of push-offs, high-steps, grunts, and puffs.
Once atop Green’s summit I paused only to quickly climb its pinnacle boulder, for I was planning to be back in a couple of hours.
The descent down the Green-Bear trail to Bear Creek/Canyon was quick and effortless. Normally, my quads are a little fatigued on this steep downhill (1000′ in ~1mi) due to having just ascended Green with significant effort, but on this day things clicked and in less than ten minutes (sounds slow, I know, but one has to try actually running on Boulder’s mountain trails before making accurate judgments about pace over this terrain) I was skipping across the creek to start the 1200′ climb to the summit of Bear Peak.
Bear Peak’s West Ridge trail is maybe my favorite path in all of Boulder’s OSMP. This ribbon of single track winds along the ridge amongst gnarled trees and granite outcroppings all the while gaining altitude without the runner really noticing. Additionally, the views are superb. Boulder itself lies down to the northeast at the mouth of Bear Canyon while Eldorado Canyon and Walker Ranch unfold to the south and west. Although the altitude is only ~7500′, the vegetation, exposure, and views give a sense of being much higher. On today’s run, though, this much-less-traveled path offered significant snow and ice to slow my progress and once the route pitched up considerably for the final nine minutes of climbing to Bear’s airy apex I was reduced to tiny baby-steps in order to maintain a running cadence. Bear will do that to you.
On the summit, I enjoyed maybe the best vantage point in Boulder County. The Indian Peaks and Rocky Mountain National Park dominate the western horizon, Pikes Peak is visible to the south, and when gazing east to the plains the view is so expansive that the curve of the earth almost seems discernible. I, however, had more running to do. Fern Canyon is another of those trails that typically causes one to at least curse repeatedly, if not actually tumble head-over-heels downhill. The few inches of snow last Sunday, though, had reseasoned the surface with a grippy epidermis that received the Microspikes well. The 2000′ descent (in ~1.5 miles!) passed quickly without endangerment to limb.
Once on the iconic Mesa Trail I removed the ‘spikes, ate a GU, and enjoyed the fast, open running of the rolling terrain. I haven’t eaten a gel in over three months. Which might seem like a trivial thing, but yesterday, when I popped that Strawberry-Banana packet, it tasted more like Hope Pass, Leadville, and most of all summer than maltodextrin and synthetic flavoring.
Back at Chautauqua I stopped briefly to refill my water bottle and then set out across the meadow looking to take on Green a second time. Typically, at this point in a run–2h17min from my doorstep–I’m either done running or on the verge of bonking. However, today I could feel the power of 100 calories of sugar coursing through the system, so I put the Microspikes back on and tackled the steep Amp/Saddle/Greenman route up Green instead of the more mellow Gregory Canyon option. The less-than-ideal slush/ice conditions combined with the accumulated miles and vertical definitely took their toll and this more or less turned into a get-‘er-done survival effort. Nevertheless, 35min later I was once again atop the summit of Green and looking forward to nothing but heading down Ranger and home.
One hour, 15 minutes and approximately 10 miles later I was back at Scott Carpenter and enduring a well-earned soak in the frigid waters of Boulder Creek.
In the early season, everything is fresh and exciting again. Even modest gains in fitness are easily noticed and occur with seemingly little effort. I know (hope?) that eventually a run like this will become commonplace, but most importantly, these runs are essential stepping stones that make even more strenuous outings in the near future possible. And, after today’s (Thursday) 82nd ascent of Green Mountain, I think I can say with confidence that my knee even survived. Which, given the past year (I first hurt it on Easter of last year), is not trivial at all.