Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Two sides of my story

I've had an exhausting and renewing week, and if those two seem at odds, then in a way, so were the two activities. I think both show the constant teeter-tottering between what I call my two lives.

It had been such a long day. I went to KISS the day before at the Cheyenne Frontier Days and got four hours of sleep before I got up to run 13 miles as part of my training for the Pikes Peak Ascent. Now I was falling asleep in a tent while my 5-year-old tried to keep me awake.

Jayden and I headed up for his first-ever, long-promised camping trip that Saturday. He passed last year’s test, in the backyard, despite clouds of mosquitoes and battles with a couple piles of dog poop in the backyard.

I took him up Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park before the camping trip. I think it's the perfect hike for kids Jayden's age. The waterfall is pretty awesome and yet the hike is only two miles.

The only problem is I’m not exactly alone in that thinking. In fact, from the looks of things, about 5 million others agree, or at least they did that Saturday in late July. The park was so full of people that not only were the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge parking lots closed, the huge Park ‘N’ Ride that gives you shuttle bus access to both points was full as well. Wow.

He scampered up the trail like one of the many ground squirrels we saw, stopping only to stare, fascinated, into one of the streams along the trail or beg me to feed the squirrels. It didn't help that many other, shall we say, less qualified outdoorsy folks were giving the creatures peanuts by hand. It just doesn't seem to be enough for these people to see beautiful sights. Nah, they've just gotta fuck with nature. I tried not to let it piss me off. Getting on a high horse was not what this day was about, since, as a journalist, it's about that a lot.

I can see why some thought the place was there for their personal kicks and figured it was more like a Disneyland than a national park since it was just as crowded, even when most people won't hike a quarter-mile beyond the trailhead. I'll never complain too much about crowds, though, as this usually means there will be more people to fight for the wilderness if it gets threatened by "progress."

After some much-needed pizza and a long drive - or it seemed pretty long after the day - we made it up to the campsite, set up the tent and had a snack before bed.

It took him a while to settle down. It took me considerably less time. But as the sun went down, a full moon went up, bathing the landscape in a silver light that helped calm his nerves about sleeping in the dark.

I woke up with a start around 11 p.m., turned my head and saw Jayden snoring and clutching his Cars flashlight.

I knew I would not sleep that soundly the rest of the night. This may surprise people, but I've never really slept well in a tent. But I snuggled in my pillow with a smile on my face.

Thursday my alarm buzzed at 4 a.m. This, I thought, was actually early.

I usually expect to get up much earlier for a peak, and we were doing two. But this day was going to be different than any other day in the mountains. I was planning to run them.

Before you think I'm completely nuts, let's talk. The mountains were Grays and Torreys. These are two 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado and they are easily some of the most-visited peaks in the state. In fact there are very few that get more footfalls per year. The reasons for that are simple. These are 14ers, and the 14ers in Colorado are kind of a craze. More than a half million visit the summit of one of the 54 every year. I'll admit that I'm one of them: I finished them a few years ago, something more and more want to do. The other reason is even if most don't want to climb them all, they are curious what all the fuss is about and want to try one or two. And Grays and Torreys is a good place to start. It's sort of like blackjack face up. There's an easy trail all the way to the top, they're flooded with people, and they're close to Denver, with a good road that leads to the 11,000-foot start.

Still, they ARE 14,000 feet, and though I knew the terrain wouldn't really be an issue, running at that altitude worried me. I've been to 14,000 feet many times, and it's always a struggle. The air is thin, and I gasp even when I'm walking above 13,000, even when I've been up there many times. And I hadn't been up there at ALL this year. The mountains were only a part of my life now, even during the summer climbing season (the few months when they weren't full of snow), and that's a little sad to me.

Not today. I picked up a couple training partners - one who was renowned for his mountain running and climbing - and we were off.

I expected to get blown away, and my expectations were fulfilled almost right away as I took off at a shuffle. I knew I would not be able to run fast, but I was determined to keep a shuffle going for as long as I could. I was doing this, after all, to train for my next big race, the Pikes Peak Ascent, and I was hoping to run on that race as long as possible.

Right away, I felt like I was revving the red line. My heart rate hovered around 140, which isn't bad at all, but my lungs seemed to be stuffed with cotton. No matter how hard I breathed, it didn't seem like I was getting enough oxygen into my body. I did my best to keep moving, as that's always the key when you're climbing any mountain, running or not. I passed many hikers along the way, gasping for air, many of them expressing awe at what I was doing. I usually answered by telling them they may pass me near the top. I wasn't expressing false modesty. I was serious. At times I felt like I could combust at any second. My partners were already far ahead of me.

But when I watched them, I saw them speed hiking more than running. It took some pressure off me. When the trails got impossibly steep, I backed off, allowing myself to at least breathe somewhat controlled (if not still fast), and at one point I told myself to make it to a sign and then I would re-evaluate how I felt there.

When I did that, hiking fast enough to pass others starting at around 13,000 feet, my body seemed to relax, and I found a groove. I popped a few energy chews in my mouth, and that seemed to help, too. I flew by the sign and saw some girls sitting in a circle talking.

Could that mean???

Yep, all of a sudden I found myself on the summit of Grays. My time was 1:35 to the top. I didn't think that was too bad after all. Sure, my partners were gone, but they're elite runners. I spotted them heading over to Torreys just a few hundred feet away.

I waited for them at the saddle between the two peaks, figuring them to want to move on when they came down, but they surprised me when they came back down, encouraging me to head up. I decided to tag Torreys and we headed up and back down to the saddle.

Then we ran all the way down in under an hour. This really felt good, making me think that the only reason I struggled was the altitude and not the uphill climbing or the mileage. I guess that means my training was going well.

We got back to the car in about three hours and 15 minutes after we started. That was more than 9 miles and 3,700 feet of elevation gain. The last time I did these two peaks, I was leading a bunch of rookies, and it took more than seven hours. And I was pleased with that. Today I felt pretty proud, even if I did get blown away too.

These two trips, both in a week's time, are who I am. I'm an endurance athlete and a father and husband. Sometimes the teeter-totter stays right in the middle. I have to appreciate the steadiness when I can.

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