22 November 2011

Rocky Mountain Reward

John Denver obviously wasn’t a runner, or if he was, he was acclimated. I’ve just returned from a week in mile-high Westminster, Colorado, a space on the map about ten miles north of Denver who’s city limits sign claims the same five-thousand-two-hundred-eighty foot elevation as its famed urban cousin. This is somewhat disingenuous, as unlike Denver, which has a city center at which to measure, I was entirely unable to locate such a thing in Westminster. Locals confirm that the place has no center, it is merely a district of sprawl without a heart, so to speak, and it’s relatively hilly, so claiming to be exactly a mile high is clearly marketing. I could be cruel and say that it’s got all the charm of Dallas’ northern suburbs but with better scenery, but as I said, that would be cruel.

In any event, I really didn’t expect that mile-high bit to be a factor. I hike four-to-five-thousand-footers regularly, and that’s strenuous. I’ve never noticed the effects of altitude anywhere south of seven-thousand feet. But then again, the only other time I’ve run at altitude was the very first summer I’d returned to the sport, and truth be told, with the pace I was running at that point, I probably couldn’t have told the difference. A glance at my log shows only three runs on that wonderful trip to Yellowstone, one slow, two untimed, so who knew?

Monday morning’s outing chalked up the eighteenth state I’ve run in. I’ve set foot in forty-nine, and flown over Alaska, but “have run in” is another tally altogether. Yes, another useless statistic. As the Doobie Brothers once sang, it keeps you runnin’… But putting another notch in the sole of my shoes was about the end of the goodness. It was one of those just plain awful runs, and if I hadn’t found a trail to get me off of the abysmal six-lane speedways and maddeningly winding secondary streets, laid out intentionally to break the grid but resulting in a maze you don’t dare penetrate for fear of never escaping, well, other than getting off-road, it was just awful. Stiff, slow, uncomfortable, unpleasant. And even the trail, a spot of hope, faded from dirtness and petered into leg-crushing concrete.

Ever wanting to be the optimist (but not always succeeding), I wrote it off to the stiffness of hours crammed into a middle seat on a packed plane, the resulting soreness in hips, knees, and various other parts, and the nasty fact that our conference convened at a nearly unconstitutional seven-thirty AM. With sunrise at six-forty-five and work running till well after dark (recall those six-lane speedways, evening runs were right out), you do the math, squeezing runs in was clearly going to be a challenge all week.

It’s got to get better, right? The stiffness will wear off in a day, it couldn’t have been altitude as we’re not really that high, right? And even if it was, give me a day or two, I’ll get over it, Tuesday will be grand, right?


Six-twenty AM. Back to the trail. Whereas on Monday’s short jaunt I’d found an access point and followed it inbound back toward the hotel, Tuesday I ventured outbound. Must be some scenery out there, it’s a trail, right? Well, perhaps there is if you come in May, but in November, it’s dry, brown, bleak. Nothing but dirtness. Not to mention incessantly windy and cold. Traversing a moonscape pock-marked with prairie dog holes, the residents of which are very tough to photograph with a cell phone camera, though I tried over lunch one day. And never far enough to escape the sound of the speedways. And passing by the wastewater plant, to boot. Another miserable run. Close to seven-forties. Highly unpleasant. Friends, it was a trend.

Another day, lather, rinse, repeat. Colder. Bleaker. Ventured further, passing under one of the many six-lane speedways. Near a creek, a trickle, providing life to a few brushy trees, barren not due to lack of leaves as would be the case back east, but simply barren in general character due to the near-desert conditions.

Two more days in this place, and knowing that the hotel’s location offered no other even remotely attractive or mildly safe alternate routes, the upcoming two more slogs down the trail didn’t beckon, they hung like a duty. So Thursday demanded a change. A mile north, a sprawling high school, oddly with three tracks. Why three? Beats me. I picked the one furthest away to get more of a warm up.

Six-thirty AM, on the track. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. Started beating out eight-hundreds, my pace workout of choice. And like Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, pretty much awful. By this time I’d resigned myself to the fact that fifty-two-hundred feet has an impact. So does a twenty-mile headwind in the backstretch. And the half-dozen intervals I had time for would have ended in yet another unsatisfying workout, save one thing.

By luck, not by choice, I’d picked the track that was perched on the side of a long west-facing slope leading down to a wide lowland expanse, stretching fifteen miles or so to the front range. Beyond, the summits of Rocky Mountain National Park scraped the pre-dawn sky. I’d gotten glimpses of them throughout the week, but only now had the alpine-induced cloudbanks cleared. As they were, they were simply spectacular. Longs Peak piercing the center of the range, Fairchild Mountain, at thirteen-five, the highest summit I’ve hiked (photo circa 1992), to the north, and Wild Basin and it’s cadre of summits, where on that same trip nearly twenty years ago, my hiking companion and I went off-trail through the summer snow nearly to the Continental Divide. All painted in brilliant fresh white. All bringing back fabulous memories. Already a worthy reward.

The west-facing slope didn’t just slope down to the west. It might seem obvious, but it sloped up to the east. With my attention on the summits, and the windy backstretch, and my inability to get more than one of those eight-hundreds under three minutes, I wasn’t really thinking about
that fact. But what it meant was that before the sun rose on me, it shone over the top of the slope and simply ignited those summits in a downright brilliant yellow-orange that rivaled the richest color you’re ever lucky to see at sunset. And then some. The effect exceeded intense. The week’s misery wiped away in a moment. For as much time as I’ve spent in the mountains, still, shock and awe. Fulfillment. Oh, if I’d had a camera then, rather than the lame shot taken mid-day from the office with mid-day lighting, not that it would have captured the intensity anyway, but just to try.

So that’s what John Denver was thinking.

Trapped in suburbia, beaten down by a week of short nights, bad runs, wrecked sinuses from half-percent humidity, solid days of sitting, the inevitable excess of business-travel food, trying desperately to work the slugs out with some speedwork that wasn’t producing much of the word speed, and, oh yeah, losing feeling in my hands from the cold to boot…It just didn’t matter. Those mountains on fire made the trip worthwhile.

Friday’s run? Back to the trail. Simply didn’t matter. Reward already gained.

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