July 11, 2020

Weekend Recap: Independence on the Trails

I wrote last week how I was really dreading the holiday weekend. Mostly, I think it was because I’ve been looking forward to the long break from work for weeks… but now that it was here, I was disappointed in the plans I had made. However, it ended up all turning out much better than I expected! (Hooray for low expectations!)

On Thursday, I had wanted to do the Skyline Traverse – an 18.5 mile hike that covers 5774 feet of vert. It’s no joke! I’ve wanted to do this hike for years, and was hoping this would be the year I finally did it… but now it’s made much more daunting by the fact that it’s point-to-point. In years past, I planned to just Uber from one end back to the other, but now with COVID19, that’s out of the question. It’s possible to do it as a roundtrip, but that adds another 11 miles on. While I’m game to try that at some point, I’m not sure I’m ready for it yet, and I especially wasn’t on Thursday, when the high temps were going to be in the 90s. Maybe on a cooler day!

I went to bed thinking maybe I’d once again do the first three peaks, like I had done before? But then woke up not really wanting to do that – I wanted a different challenge, and I wanted to do more running than hiking. It occurred to me that there was another long trail run I could try – Fowler Trail to Walker Ranch loop and back. I first heard about this from a Boulder trail running club (on a group run I didn’t go on), and they described it as long but “very runnable.” Well, I looked it up on AllTrails, and saw that it was 17.5 miles and 4084 feet of vert… but somehow, those numbers didn’t really register in my head, and I didn’t realize that 4084 feet meant it was almost as much hiking as the Skyline Traverse. This was definitely a solid climb!

The first two miles were terrain I was quite used to, having run to Rattlesnake Gulch numerous times. But it was unusual for me to keep running past the uphill turnoff to the Continental Divide overlook, and a quarter mile when I reached the Eldorado State Park parking lot, I was in uncharted waters. Luckily, after my misadventure getting lost on the wrong trail in Holy Cross Wilderness last week, this time, I had learned how to program my route into my Garmin – and by setting it to navigate, the little compass showed me which direction I should be running, and also alerted me by vibrating if I got off course. So convenient!

I headed down a slight hill to the Eldorado State Park visitor center, and then began the uphill climb that would take me to Walker Ranch. This was the first major climb of three I would encounter on the run, and I definitely took my time and slowed to a hike… but also tried to go back to a run whenever the terrain flattened out again. I gained 800 feet in a mile, so this was definitely not a walk in the park! But as I neared the top, the views were phenomenal, and I took advantage of my newly-learned skill in taking panoramic photos to try to capture as much as I could.

I still don’t think the panorama totally captures how incredible the views are, but it’s closer than a regular pic!

There was a slightly flatter section for about a half mile that I was able to mostly run, and then the trail went plunging down 600 feet in about a half mile, and then back up from the depths of the creek – which brought me to Walker Ranch. 6 miles in, and I was feeling pretty good! I debated turning around (12 miles would still be a pretty significant trail run, especially with this vert), but decided to keep going and do the entire Walker Ranch loop as planned.

The loop was eight miles around, and while I hadn’t seen a single person on the connector from Eldorado State Park to Walker Ranch, there were plenty of mountain bikers and runners on the Walker Ranch loop. Although the trail was really well-defined and nearly impossible to go off-course, my Garmin told me I was off-course at one point – validating the people on All Trails who had said that the entire route was not 17.5 miles but closer to 19 miles. I am guessing the trail maybe used to go another way, and they’ve changed it? Over the first half of the loop, my Garmin kept telling me I was getting off course just a little bit at a time, but I mostly ignored it since I knew I was going the right way. We’d see what distance I’d end with!

The beginning of the loop (going counterclockwise) was a rather gradual uphill, and I was proud of myself for being able to navigate the ups and downs at a jog. That took me to the peak of the second big climb (7200 feet), and it was starting to get pretty hot and sunny. But on the bright side, I knew there was a creek coming up in a little bit – and I was looking forward to getting a drink there.

One of the things on my camping list for Friday was a water purifier; I had bought a Steripen, but also borrowed a friend’s water filter straw, and put it in my pocket to try out on my run. When I got to the creek, I was so excited to try it! Fresh, cold water… this was going to taste good with the day heating up. I laughed at myself as I laid down on the ground, sticking the straw into the water and trying to drink directly from it. I have come a long way from the Manhattan girl who hated the outdoors! I found the most success, though, when I filled the little collapsible water bottle, then attached the straw to drink from there – and it was more comfortable too. The filter straw I had was a little bit slow and hard to get water out, but I think that’s because it’s older and may need a filter cleaning or replacement. I am definitely getting one of these for myself for future trail runs – so convenient to not have to carry a ton of water but still be able to get a good, cold drink!

Never thought I’d see the day…

From the creek, I had a big uphill that I mostly hiked, but then I was able to start running again – this time through fields of flowers. Ah! I got a little bit lost on a single track social trail that was not the main trail, but since my Garmin was vibrating and pointing me toward the real trail, I wasn’t too worried about it. I thought the two would link up, but then when my social trail started going in the complete opposite direction, I gave up and cut across to get back to it pretty quickly. I didn’t know if I’d made my run shorter or longer, but either way, I don’t think I was too far off.

The trail was nicely rolling on this side of the big hill, but I was just thrilled to have three major hills done; now I just needed to get back up and over from Walker Ranch to Eldorado when I got back to the stick part of the lollipop route. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but at least I knew what to expect there! Just before getting there, I went by the lower portion of Boulder Creek, and I stopped once again for a drink.

Soooo good to be able to get cold water on a hike; I am definitely getting my own filter straw!

The final big uphill was even tougher than I remembered. However, when I finally made it to the top, it felt amazing. I still had five miles to go, but it was mostly flat to downhill. I switched from listening to podcasts (I have been devouring Rachel Hollis’ Rise podcast lately, though I know she’s pretty controversial) to listening to music, and put on Billy Joel to carry me home. When I started playing that first song as I took off running along the ridge line, it felt amazing – I found myself drumming along, smiling, and even making jazz hands at times. I’ve been so down lately, but this solo trail run was exactly what I needed to make me feel happy again!

Rolling terrain from here on out… time to fly!

It’s interesting to me to see how my mood has changed throughout the pandemic. At first, when we were in complete lockdown, I was forced to be alone – and I adapted and had an amazing time focusing on myself, my workouts, my work, and reading. Now that things are a little bit more open, I’ve felt like I should focus on spending time with others while I can, particularly with the looming threat of another lockdown that’s sure to come later this year. But this trail run reminded me that I don’t need to be afraid of being alone; I think I might actually be happier just me and the mountains! (Shh, don’t tell my friends.)

I was so proud of myself for finishing the 19 mile trail run, and while I’m sure y’all think I’m being fake modest, this run made me feel like “a real trail runner” rather than a beginner who’s just dabbling. 19 miles and 3800 feet of climb is no joke, and I was proud of both my effort and the pace I managed to keep. I’ve never quite gotten the hang of when I’m supposed to log an activity as a hike vs a trail run in my Garmin, but I feel confident that this was indeed a legitimate trail run, and I am really proud of myself for it.

After getting home, I took a quick shower and had lunch, then headed down the street to meet up with Amanda for a socially distant walk. Amazingly, my legs weren’t tired and I felt good? I think the soft trails make long runs much easier! I then spent the rest of the night refueling a bit, but more importantly, packing up for the group adventure that was to come on Friday.

On Friday morning, I hit the Peloton for the All For One special spin class with all the instructors, showered and had breakfast, and then was out the door by 7:30am so I could meet my friends down in Buffalo Peaks for my very first backpacking trip. My friends Kirk and Heather backpack quite a bit, and they had generously offered to show a small group of us the ropes.

Unfortunately, even though I allowed 2.5 hours for the 105 minute drive, I hit nasty traffic getting down 285. I thought I’d be safe driving down on a Friday morning, but I had totally neglected to realize that it was a holiday weekend and a lot of people had Friday off. While sitting at a complete standstill on 285, I texted my friends to let them know I was running late, all the while stressing about making them wait. How had everyone else avoided this traffic jam?!

Because there was no service where we were actually meeting, I wasn’t entirely sure who had gotten to the trailhead when, but I was definitely the last to arrive, more than 30 minutes after our meeting time, and I felt terrible. I quickly grabbed my pack out of the trunk and was ready to go less than a minute after pulling up, to try to make up for it, but I carried the guilt with me for the first several miles 🙁

And on top of that guilt… man, backpacking is hard! I thought all the hiking and trail running I’ve done would have me well-prepared, but I felt absolutely terrible for the first few miles, and was regretting that I had ever come. Everyone else was chattering away, but I felt like I couldn’t breathe from the combo of the high altitude and my heavy pack. I did my best to suck it up and not complain, since I was already feeling like “the complainer” in this group of friends after not wanting to eat indoors at a restaurant the previous weekend. But I just felt so isolated and miserable 🙁

I put on a brave face for Kirk to snap a pic, though!

Finally, mercifully, we stopped for lunch – and not only did the delicious salad wraps that Kelly and Den made totally hit the spot, but Heather gave me an oxygen canister that I took a few puffs from. Between the two of those and the fact that the trail flattened out a lot, I felt significantly better after lunch, and was able to chat with everyone on the next portion of the hike – which helped my mood a lot!

We had a little bit of trouble finding the perfect spot to camp, since we were looking to be close to a water source and were expecting to find it earlier. But 7.5 miles in, we found our spot and quickly got our tents set up. We set up our camp chairs and hung out for a while (wine tasted delicious), but when a storm came in, had to retreat to our separate tents. Now, this was where camping solo really sucked! Everyone else was paired up, and while I had packed my iPad as my luxury item (so I could read), I wished I had someone to talk to in the tent.

Kirk took this awesome photo of my tent, though, under a double rainbow! On the bright side of being alone, I am proud that I carried everything I needed on my own back rather than relying on anyone else. Independence Day, indeed!

Unfortunately, the rain brought much cooler weather with it, and after the storm, it was pretty chilly. I had brought two pairs of socks, so I doubled them up to try to get warmer. One thing I definitely prefer about car camping is that you can bring extra gear just in case – it would have been nice to have some extra sweats! Instead, I settled for layering up every piece of clothing that I had, and then drinking an extra portion of the peanut ramen soup we made for dinner (which was a pretty good recipe – same link as before).

But I just could not get warm the rest of the night – especially when I realized that wearing both my pairs of socks meant they both got damp. My other fatal flaw was not realizing that my “light” sleeping bag was also only rated for 50 degrees, whereas temps at night got into the 30s. I shivered my way through the night, waking up quite a bit to shift around and try to get warm. I also heard some animals moving around through our campsite (thank goodness for bare canisters), causing me to sleepily ponder what I should do if an animal tried to get into my tent. Again, I wished I had someone with me! Although it was fun to go backpacking with friends, it also made me feel a little bit lonelier that I was the only one not paired up.

Fortunately, everything looked brighter in the morning! We had camp coffee and peanut butter bagel sandwiches (we got too lazy to cook the pancake mix I had brought), and then tried to pack up quickly to get on our way. A storm was supposed to be hitting around noon, and while we thought we only had about 90 minutes of hiking back to the car, better safe than sorry.

Love white puffy cloud days! How can you be sad when it’s so beautiful?!

And that turned out to be the right move, since our route planning was wildly inaccurate. Although we thought the loop was 11 miles, it turned out to be 13.5 miles – so we were tromping along much further than expected. By the time we hit mile 12, and saw the storm clouds rolling in, I started asking any hikers we passed about how far it was to the trailhead. No one had an exact answer, but I figured if we averaged a few, we’d have a general idea. This sparked controversy amongst the group, though, some of whom didn’t want to know how much we had left. I am definitely in the camp that I’d rather know – I am always obsessively calculating how much I have left of a workout, so I can pace myself appropriately! Which camp (ha) do you fall in?

Kelly and I ran ahead for the last few hundred feet, getting back to our cars just as the hailstorm started. This too, I learned, was controversial – while I thought it would be okay for us to go ahead in this last little bit since we were all hiking in pairs, the consensus seemed to be that it’s rude to do so – which I felt guilty about again. So much guilt on this trip! I was looking forward to a bit of time to myself when we all finally drove away. I am totally becoming a recluse!

I couldn’t get my GPS to load when I left the trailhead, so while I knew it was slightly faster to go down through Leadville to get up to my mountain house, I followed Heather and Kirk to go through Breckenridge, thinking I’d stop at the little crepe place there for a tasty lunch on the way. However, I had forgotten that it was a holiday weekend, and Breck was absolutely packed with tourists, many of whom were not keeping their distance or wearing masks. No thank you! I hightailed it out of there, driving up to Vail and picking up some ingredients for soup and salad at the grocery instead.

After a glorious shower and some time catching up on email / work, I headed down the road to Vail Brewing Company to meet up with Kirk and Heather for a drink before we went to Vail Village for the fireworks. Instead, though, we hatched a different plan – heading to my house for a Mexican dinner, which all of us were craving. I stopped at the grocery again to pick up what we needed, then headed home to start cooking.

Our night ended up being really low key – the three of us enjoyed taco salad and margaritas (FYI – Walmart’s Spicy Guacamole Tortilla Chips are amazing and have become my new favorite tortilla chips), my roommate Michell joined us for a drink before heading out, and then we watched the fireworks on our phones, since Vail was livestreaming their show to try to prevent people from congregating. It worked – and I was really happy to spend my July 4th with such great friends!

The next morning, though, I was ready for some solo trail time – especially after eating far too many chips and guac. (Seriously, those chips are good. You’ll thank me once you try them…. or maybe you’ll rue the day I told you about them and you gained 10 pounds.) I remembered not getting out till late the week before, so I forced myself to get out for an early run – and this time, I programmed the route into my Garmin so I couldn’t get lost. Well, kind of at least – I put in the Meadow Mountain loop, but I started at a different trailhead that connected to it, so the start and end were a little bit different and I’d be running a little longer.

With views like these, though? I could run for days!

The first five miles were basically pure uphill, so I was hiking a ton as I listened to podcasts. But then I saw something rustling in the trees off to my left and realized… it was a bear!! Halfway up a tree and looking right at me.

Pic not great because I didn’t stop and was trying to just get away, but… there he is.

Although I had been going at a decent clip uphill, I immediately picked up the pace to beat a hasty getaway, trying to remember what the rules were for bears. Each mountain predator is so different – some you run, some you hide, some you make yourself big… which one was a bear?! But luckily, Heather and I had just been texting about something, so I knew she was up and also that I had cell service, so I quickly called her. Me: “I’m having a bit of an emergency. I’m fine right now, but… there is a bear. Remind me exactly what I do again?!” Heather reassured me that I was doing the right thing in moving away quickly, and reminded me that he (or worse, his mom) came after me, I should make myself big and talk in a deep voice. Fortunately, that was the last I saw of Fuzzy Wuzzy.

It was only about another mile or so to the top, where I turned downhill from the line shack into some gorgeous fields of wildflowers. After the line shack, everything else was totally runnable, and as with Thursday, I had a huge burst of happiness relaxing and listening to music as I ran down.

Stunning views, and complete solitude!

I hadn’t seen a soul on my hike up, and aside from one mountain biker who passed me around mile 8, I didn’t see anyone else until the very bottom. Meanwhile, I got to zone out and listen to music. Although it was a holiday weekend, I did a lot of thinking about work – and it made me realize that trail time is actually really effective for me to think about the vision for a few of the products I am developing and selling. It’s not ideal that I can’t easily capture my ideas on the run, but the big picture things I thought about are things I’ve been able to take action on once we all went back to the office, and I’m really excited about some of the work I’m doing and the possibilities for the future.

I didn’t think entirely about work, though! I think more generally, trail time for me is a good way to let my brain sort things out on a lot of different fronts. I tend to do a mix of listening to podcasts and listening to music, and each of those can be inspiring to me in different ways, depending on my mood. But as antisocial as it is, I think this time to myself is critical to me being my best self – and I need to make sure I don’t give it short shrift just because of some FOMO on time with friends. A lockdown may be coming, but this long weekend really taught me that not only am I okay on my own, but I can actually thrive by myself.

The end of the run got a little hot, and having a steep uphill back to my alternate trailhead at mile 10 was not easy, but I was proud of myself that I stuck with it. 11.5 miles and another 2400 feet of vert done!

After the run, I dashed back to my house for a quick rinse off and to throw my stuff in the car, then hightailed it out of Minturn, hoping I could beat the holiday traffic back to Denver. Despite leaving at 10:30am, no such luck – there was already quite a traffic jam getting into the tunnel. Yuck! The mountain traffic seems to get worse and worse every weekend… I’m hopeful the next time I’m up there (when it’s not a holiday weekend) won’t be as bad.

I closed out the holiday weekend with some chores, catching up with a friend on the phone, and then one final friend get together – a socially distant birthday party for my friend Karlin. My friend Elisabeth hosted this at her house, and once again, did an outstanding job making me feel totally safe, with chairs spaced all over her yard and then each of us having our own personal snacks at our seat so we wouldn’t need to get up and mingle. It was lovely!

All in all, this weekend had quite a few ups and downs to it (both literally on the trails, and metaphorically with my mood). However, my big learning was that I am even more independent than I think I am – and it’s not a bad idea for me to protect that time to myself. I don’t need to be afraid that being alone might make me lonely or sad; it’s actually quite the opposite! I am so happy when I’m by myself and enjoying the mountains… and I have to say, I am just so grateful right now that I took a chance and moved to Colorado. I can’t imagine riding this out anywhere else!


2 thoughts on “Weekend Recap: Independence on the Trails”

  1. I remember when I was thinking of moving here, you said you thought I’d love CA the way you love CO. And…yup. Like you said, I can’t imagine riding this out anywhere else.

    Also, I had to look up so many words/phrases. Car camping? Social trails? Oxygen canister? (I mean I could imagine what the last one was, I just didn’t know what it would look like.)

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