Highlights from Summer Hiking and Running in the San Juan Mountains

Traveling back from Colorado to California while Morgan drives, I use my iPhone to skim the sites I didn’t pay much attention to during the past four weeks. I’ve been so out of the loop on social media, free from the buzz of notifications. Do I really want to wade back in?

I don’t want the trivial status updates, but I do want to read long-form race reports and posts from trail-running friends who spent the past month racing ultras around Colorado and Tahoe, or traversing the Sierra. I hang onto their words and feel a kinship, because they articulate ways in which the mountains, combined with summer’s too-fleeting escape from routines, inspires and humbles them.

After spending four weeks living outside of Telluride and trekking around the San Juan Mountains, I can relate to their feelings—but it’s not only the mountains that inspire and humble me. It’s the other runners, too. I was fortunate to witness up close some of today’s best mountain runners, who made me realize how average I am when I’m on a mountainside in high altitude, and how much I want to improve.

I took a couple of weeks off from running following June 20’s 24-hour event (see race report), which thrashed my Achilles due to the repetitive right-hand turns. Then I started hiking. The first hike to kick my butt took place July 4, a couple of days after we arrived in Colorado. Not yet acclimated to the altitude, Morgan and I entered the “Rundola”—a 1.5 mile hill challenge that goes straight up Telluride’s ski slopes, under the town gondola. My lungs felt the pain of gaining 1800 feet in such a short distance and at such high elevation!

My friend Yitka Winn, a former associate editor at Trail Runner, and me before the July 4 Rundola in Telluride.

My friend Yitka Winn, a former associate editor at Trail Runner, and me before the July 4 Rundola in Telluride.

I slowly hiked the hill challenge, using it as an opportunity to acclimate to altitude.

I slowly hiked the hill challenge, using it as an opportunity to acclimate to altitude.

Then I gradually mixed some running into hiking, reminded of the fact that in the mountains, hiking acts as a lower gear of running, and the most efficient way to traverse the rocky, snowy slopes is to seamlessly transition between the two.

A week later, I felt ready and eager to play a small part in the Hardrock 100 odyssey by pacing my friend Clare Abram on the stretch from Ouray to Telluride. I wanted to pace her only those 16 miles, because my legs were still in recovery mode from the June ultra. Thankfully, I got to go over one of the most exciting passes: the snowy, icy Virginius, at 13,100 feet.

As detailed in earlier posts, I am in awe of the Hardrock challenge—13 ridges above 12,000 feet, hitting a high of 14,048 feet while climbing and descending a total of about 66,000 feet. Extreme weather poses threats as daunting as the altitude and terrain.

I wrote this article for Trail Runner that detailed some of the more intriguing elements of this year’s event, and then I spent part of the first day helping iRunFar.com with their coverage by taking photos of the front runners and tweeting updates from the Ouray Aid Station.

New Zealand's Anna Frost, the eventual women's winner, around the halfway point. I hung out on a trail and took pics of her and other front runners for a few hours.

New Zealand’s Anna Frost, the eventual women’s winner, around the halfway point. I hung out on a trail and took pics of her and other front runners for a few hours.

The Ouray Aid Station was a great place to hang out and see a who’s who of ultrarunning. Everyone looked ridiculously unkempt and bundled in layers. It sounds corny, but I felt the warm-fuzzies of this sport big time.

It was so great to see these ladies' smiling faces! Gretchen Brugman, pacing Meghan Hicks, at Ouray.

It was great to see these ladies’ smiling faces! Gretchen Brugman, pacing Meghan Hicks, at Ouray.

Then I welcomed Clare into the Ouray Aid Station at around 2:30 p.m. and hit the trail with her in the dark. Her timing was perfect, as it meant we got to do the relatively easy part of Camp Bird Mine Road in the dark and then tackle the harder parts in the orange-and-pink light of sunrise.

Getting Clare some food in Ouray, which was mile 56 in the 100-mile loop.

Getting Clare some food in Ouray, which was mile 56 in the 100-mile loop.

Along the way, we met up with a mutual friend, Jamie Frink, who was pacing another runner. The following photos of Virginius Pass really don’t show the steepness or slipperiness of the snow, nor do they convey the challenge of fast hiking in that thin air. For the best look at this pass and the aid station perched on the ridge, take seven minutes to watch this video by Salomon Running on Kroger’s Canteen aid station!

Trekking up part of Virginius.

Trekking up part of Virginius.

Clare, just ahead of me, going up the snowfield to the ridge.

Clare, just ahead of me, going up the snowfield to the ridge. The Kroger’s Canteen aid station is at the top.

Jamie, me and Clare taking a break at Kroger's Canteen.

Jamie, me and Clare taking a break at Kroger’s Canteen.

The plunge on the backside of Virginius that we had to go down. It's about 5 miles to Telluride from here.

The plunge on the backside of Virginius that we had to go down. It’s about 5 miles to Telluride from here.

Clare and I ran into Telluride's Aid Station around 9 a.m.

Clare and I ran into Telluride’s Aid Station around 9 a.m.

I said good-bye to Clare in Telluride and marveled at how she could get over three more humongous mountain passes in the final 27 miles of the race—through periodic hail and lightning storms, over snow and talus and through thigh-high streams. She finished triumphantly after 42 hours.

Meanwhile, I was in Telluride and my van was back in Ouray. Having no easy mode of transportation to go get it, Morgan and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s hike over Imogene!”

Imogene is a Jeep pass road that connects Telluride and Ouray. I drove it numerous times with my dad when I was a kid, and did the Imogene Pass Run back in 2009. Along the way, I love going past the century-old ruins at Tomboy Mine above Telluride. Morgan and I hiked over the ridge for about 12 miles and then thumbed a ride the remaining way into Ouray.

Morgan and me above the Tomboy Mines on Imogene Pass.

Morgan and me above the Tomboy Mines on Imogene Pass.

That's an old mailbox on the Imogene summit. I asked Morgan to take this pic as an homage to my great-grandfather Ed Lavender, who ran a mule train that carried mail and supplies to Tomboy Mine in the early 1900s.

That’s an old mailbox on the Imogene summit. I asked Morgan to take this pic as an homage to my great-grandfather Ed Lavender, who ran a mule train that carried mail and supplies to Tomboy Mine in the early 1900s.

We stayed in Ouray as guests at Trail Runner magazine’s annual Photo Camp—a fantastic opportunity for aspiring photographers to improve their outdoor and sports photography skills. Morgan volunteered as an assistant and took advantage of the opportunity to learn from photographers David Clifford, Randy Levensaler and Fred Marmsater. I was one of ten or so runner/models, decked out in sponsor Adidas’s clothing and gear, who ran back and forth for the photographers, which proved to be a tough but good workout.

See the guy in the tree to the right? He was shooting me as I ran back and forth.

See the guy in the tree to the right? He was shooting me as I ran back and forth.

Sarah and AndyW

David Clifford took this shot of me and trail running champ Andy Wacker. It’s funny to me that I’m ahead of him, since obviously he’s so much faster! The best photos from the shoot will be published in an upcoming issue of Trail Runner.

One of the nice aspects of the photo camp was the chance to get to know Jenn Shelton, a fellow writer at Trail Runner and the holder of the JMT FKT (and, of course, a character in Born to Run) [whoops — correction: Sue Johnston still holds the women’s John Muir Trail Fastest Known Time; Jenn has boldly attempted it four times]. She lit up when she saw my van because she recognized it from the days when Rod Bien owned it in Bend, Oregon. Jenn is super nice, smart and more low key than her outsized reputation might suggest.

Jenn with my van. They're both so cool!

Jenn with my van. They’re both so cool!

Feeling better acclimated to the altitude after two weeks, I thought I could do relatively well at a 12-mile race in Silverton. The Kendall Mountain Run is part of the national Skyrunning series, and it gains 4000 feet in elevation—from about 9000 in downtown Silverton to 13,000 at the summit—in 6 miles, then drops down again.

Alas, this race showed that I have a great deal to learn and practice as a true mountain runner. I was way back in the middle of the pack, struggling on talus (wobbly, soccer-ball-sized rock fragments) and tensing with fear on the summit scramble in the final one-third mile. While others scampered up the summit and surfed the scree back down, I picked my way up slowly and crab-walked the downhill (butt low to ground, hands behind me to prevent slipping).

Here is perhaps the worst-ever race photo taken of me, with bubbles added to show how I felt at the moment:

Approaching the summit of the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton.

Approaching the summit of the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton.

Here are better-skilled runners showing how it’s done:

Kendall Mountain summit

The most amazing thing was seeing men’s winner Sage Canaday and women’s winner Stevie Kremer virtually fly by me, miles ahead! I’m excited to interview them this week for UltraRunnerPodcast; I’ll add the links to the interviews when the episodes are available.

What are the take-aways from this magical month in the San Juans? Two big ones:

– I want to get better as a mountain runner and do Hardrock—the whole thing, not just parts of it as I’ve done as a pacer three times now. It’s a long shot to get in, given the <2% lottery odds, but I’ll try. To get my name in the lottery, I need to finish a qualifying race, so I’ve decided to do Wasatch 100 on September 11. That means these next four weeks of training, before the taper, really have to count.

– I feel drawn to live here, at least part of the year. It’s where I spent childhood summers and where my brother and sister-in-law now live, in the cabin my dad built in the early ’70s. My mom lives nearby, in Montrose, in assisted living; my dad is buried in Telluride. My grandfather was born and raised here. I feel more connected to this corner of Colorado than even to my real hometown of Ojai or my current home in the Bay Area. For these reasons and more, Morgan and I would like to try to figure out a way to spend significantly more time on Last Dollar Road, near my brother’s cabin, in the years to come.

A bird's-eye view of Last Dollar Road, six miles outside of the town of Telluride, with my brother's cabin right near the center. I took this photo on a hike on our last day.

A bird’s-eye view of Last Dollar Road, six miles outside of the town of Telluride, with my brother’s cabin right near the center. I took this photo on a hike on our last day.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to practice and live out Hardrock’s “Wild & Tough” motto year round, even at sea level a thousand miles away.

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10 Responses to Highlights from Summer Hiking and Running in the San Juan Mountains

  1. olga July 28, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    These are awesome highlights on all counts! And yes, Jenn is fun and shy at the same time , and I want to live in San Juans as well.:) As far as the photoshoot – you look in amazing shape!
    olga recently posted..TRT – getting focusedMy Profile

  2. David July 29, 2015 at 4:36 pm #

    Great post! (especially the pic of your hike with Morgan over Imogene. I miss you guys!

  3. David July 29, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

    Great post! (especially the pic of your hike with Morgan over Imogene). I miss you guys!

  4. Charity July 29, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

    My family has spent July in Colorado the last two summers… Last year in Telluride and this year a tiny town called Alma. We live in Santa Barbara so its a very welcome change to see green forests and big mountains! I relate very much to your love of the San Juan mountains… I grew up visiting that region each summer as well. I love sharing it with my 2-year-old son and husband. Running means something so different in those mountains compared to southern Cali trails, not better/worse just a nice change for the body. Thanks for sharing your stories!

  5. Mark July 30, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    Great article, as always. In the word bubble photo, I think I’ve uttered those exact same words. 🙂

  6. Jason July 30, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    Amazing pictures!! That looks like such a great adventure!!
    Jason recently posted..Throwback Thursday.My Profile

  7. Jennifer O'Connor August 5, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Great piece, as usual, Sarah, and gorgeous pictures! Gee, wobbling on talus and surfing scree – those things sound pretty scary to me, and I admire you for embracing the challenge. I selfishly hope you and Morgan do figure a way to live in CO part-time, if only so I can come visit. 🙂

  8. DJ October 14, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    Fun blog!
    DJ recently posted..Spring 2015 Recap: My Profile

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ultramarathon Daily News, Thurs, July 30 - July 30, 2015

    […] This is what it looks like when you spend a month in Colorado pacing at Hardrock, going to trail running photo camp, and hanging out in your cool van with Jenn Shelton.  Sarah, I’m officially jealous. […]

  2. Stupid Me: A Wasatch 100-Mile Race Report | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More - September 18, 2015

    […] get a qualifier to enter the Hardrock 100 lottery. I thought I could handle the challenge because I hiked and ran a good amount in July while at high altitude in Colorado. In August, my training was not too shabby—if I were training for a 50-miler. Weekly mileage […]

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