August 3, 2018, near Buena Vista, Colorado, in a field at the base of Mt. Princeton, 6am. This was the start of the second running of High Lonesome 100, up in the Sawatch Mountains of Colorado.
It seemed the entire Southwest on fire. Smoke was thick through southern Utah and even thicker around Montrose Colorado when I’d driven through a few days earlier. The daily monsoon rains had lessened it here in the Sawatch Mountains, but we could still taste a little smoke in the air as about 100 of us headed down Rodeo Road just after sunrise.
I didn’t remember signing up for the race. A friend reminded me I was on the waitlist, although pretty far down for such a small field, but a month or so before the race I got in. Since that day, it had been a crash course in elevation training up in the Eastern Sierra. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but there I was, running down Rodeo Road, figuring I’d soon catch my breath. We turned on CR162 for 3 miles before turning onto singletrack. The road sections and the singletrack are all part of the Colorado Trail, segment 13. This singletrack heads up and then levels off at Raspberry aid station, mile 7. The road segments are no fun, and the pack of 100 runners had to dodge a huge pickup truck that refused to move over and sent us all diving into the ditch. There would be many more encounters with folks on motorized stuff – mostly ATVs and dirtbikes on the many miles of jeep road on the course, but those guys were all respectful and shared the trail. The singletrack took us through a few miles of beautiful aspen trees.
High Lonesome Start, me on right, Ken Gordon second from left
Next comes the first long climb, 4,000 feet in 7 miles, up to a pass at 13,200 feet on Mt. Antero. The first five miles or so are through forest, and as you rise in the forest, you start to catch glimpses of Tabeguache through the trees on your left (south). It’s a raw, rugged slab of grey rock; impressive, and one of Nolan’s 14, a route of 14 14’ers in the Sawatch Range. Finally you break through the trees and then there are a couple of false summits after which you hit the top of the pass. Views here are stunning. There were storm clouds above. The trail was rough and rocky, but nowhere near unrunnable. To the right, single track snakes up the side of the mountain to the peak of Antero. I despaired when I saw this but then realized that no runners were going up it. Tabeguache summit is at 14,155 ft, Antero, 14,269 ft, but the pass between them is mercifully a thousand feet lower, at 13,200. This would be the highest elevation of the race. The air was thin. Breathing was a little difficult. I knew I was up high.
Approaching Antero Pass, 13,200 feet
The pass was difficult. It was also stunning. I looked around and laughed, delighted by the views, the air, my ability to get up there. Life was exceptional at that point, even if I hurt a little.
Next came a long switchbacking jeep road down to Antero aid station. This section was good for sustained running, if you were careful not to blow out your quads, but the road was pretty rutted and steep. I took more than a few short walk breaks.
This was not a section of the course that particularly filled me with delight. Jeep roads just don’t ever seem to do that. Nor did it particularly suck. It was just a bad jeep road, no more, no less. A life full of bad jeep roads still beats a life full of pavement, both in reality and in metaphor.
From the top of the pass at 15 miles through the Antero aid station to a half mile or so beyond St. Elmo aid station, mile 25 – 26, we stayed on the jeep road. This stretch is about 10 miles long. The last few miles are slightly uphill, gaining about 1000 feet in about 3-4 miles. Elevation bottoms out at 9,300 feet.
Antero was the second aid station on the course, and after the long climb and elevation, some runners were already having trouble. I was not yet one of them. My train would not derail for another forty miles.
Me cresting Antero Pass, by Mile 90 photography.
Antero Jeep Road near the Pass
Antero jeep road switchbacking down the mountain
I started to see a lot of atvs on this section, and wondered a few times if in their dusty wakes I’d missed a turn onto trail. It seemed like a lot of road. The course was well marked, though, so I never needed to go much more than half a mile before seeing another ribbon.
St. Elmo is a ghost town that’s popular with the ATV and dirtbike crowd. The dirt roads were full of these guys, and they weren’t doing much to get out of anybody’s way. The course markers were harder to find in this mess, but following the main road through the town worked. St Elmo aid station was located just outside of town.
Ruins in St. Elmo
St. Elmo to Cottonwood is an out-and-back section, 6 miles long in each direction. It starts with a somewhat rooty, more-or-less flat, trail through the forest. About a mile up the trail I started to see the front runners on their return. They were running it pretty hard. The trail is runnable, too, especially near the bottom. You follow a stream up. After about 2.5 – 3 miles of climbing, you get above tree line. The climb gets steeper as you get higher, and the trail is rocky and rutted. Rain hit on this climb, but I was prepared and the light shower did not bother me at all, nor should it if I were a normal human being, but it seems I am not. I’m a wired a little different, with an atypical operating system, one that struggles a bit with tactile sensations such as getting wet, wind against me skin, or sadistically placed clothing labels. Being wet kind kind of freaks me out.
The St. Elmo to Cottonwood climb gets steep above tree line, and the trail is a rocky trench, not easy running. You gain 2,200 feet in those 4 miles, topping out at 12,200 at the unnamed pass. It was still stunning up at this pass, but I was feeling a bit more miserable than I had my last time above tree line. I was also not taking in enough calories, and probably bonking. At the high point I was somewhere near 29 miles into the run.
Selfie in the rain
Descending into Cottonwood, by mile 90 photography
Monkey let the hogs out.
At the top of the unnamed pass is when I first started thinking about a DNF, and for a while stopped enjoying the course. The grade on the way down is steep and rocky and a pretty tough run. We dropped quickly into thick forest. The trail was rocky and difficult.
I came into Cottonwood tired and unhappy. I was carrying a lot of gels, which meant I hadn’t been eating properly and was bonking, which might explain my misery…or, perhaps, the awfulness of the trail did – I had not expected the course to be so unrunnable. I told Andrea she might want to get a run in before she saw me next at Hancock, just to make sure she got her time on the trails because pacing me from Monarch seemed unlikely. She made me eat and change socks. Chris Price suggested the worst was over, Blake Wood did as well, and they are all people worth listening to. I headed back up the unnamed pass.
The way back from Cottonwood to St Elmo is not as bad. The rain had stopped (it was actually pretty warm) and the climb up to the unnamed pass is shorter in the return direction, but also steeper: Cottonwood is not that much higher than St. Elmo. I took in the beauty again and started heading back down.
Ken Gordon was at St. Elmo looking pretty shaky. I left St. Elmo feeling determined. Tin Cup was a water and tailwind only aid station 3 miles up a gentle fire road. There were campers all along the left of the road, in the grassy stretch between the road and Chalk Creek. This was a beautiful stretch.
At Tin Cup, the course rejoins the Colorado Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, on the Collegiate West section, a newer, alternate stretch that takes you higher than the traditional Collegiate East. I felt good at Tin Cup, and relieved to be getting back on the Colorado Trail, which at this point was relatively smooth. I was not quite halfway done, and dusk was approaching. This had without question been the slowest 43 miles I’d ever done, but there’d also been a lot of climbing and all at elevation. Things were looking up.
Colorado Trail at Tin Cup
From Tin Cup came a few miles of switchbacks through forest up to Chalk Creek Pass. Elevation here was a little over 12,000 feet. I’d reached a difficult mental spot with elevation. I was sufficiently acclimated that I wasn’t really aware that I was cruising along at 12,000 feet. There was no shortage of breath, nothing to really remind me of how high I was. I was, however, nowhere near at full sea level strength. There was a lot more hiking and a lot less running going on. My muscles would be really tired at the top of climbs. It would have been better had I understood what was causing this exhaustion. Instead, I attributed it being undertrained and getting old.
The pass was gorgeous. I hit it just after sunset. The light was low, and I stopped to get my headlamp out. One genuine age related problem is that I don’t have the vision I had in my twenties. I need a lot of light. Training at night would probably be a great idea, helping me get familiar with running by headlamp, but for some reason I never seem to do it, and so I always slow down a lot at night. I was moving pretty well through this stretch and down into Hancock Aid Station at mile 49, pretty much the middle of the race.
Coming out of the trees
It hadn’t ever taken me as long to get to the middle of a race, and I was about an hour behind schedule. I’m not sure, but I believe the aid station is near the Hancock Lakes. I was very cold and bundled up quickly at the aid station. At Cottonwood, twenty miles earlier, I’d been miserable. Here, I was just determined and kind of in a hurry to get back on the trail. Andrea got me on my way and then headed off somewhere to sleep so that she would be ready to pace me at Monarch.
From photos I’ve seen, the stretch from Hancock to Monarch is some of the most beautiful stuff on the course. In person, I couldn’t see a thing except for the small circle lit by my headlamp and handheld, a handheld I’d bought the evening before at Walmart because a battery had swollen in my fenix and we hadn’t been able to get it out to change it. This light had never been tested. It turned out to go through batteries in a hurry.
I could see that the trail was on the edge of a drop off. Whether it dropped 20 feet or 200 I’ve no idea. I could also see headlamps not too far ahead but very high above me, which let me know there was another pass just ahead. Once I reached the top of it my legs were aching.
Nutrition: My garmin had died, so I was guessing at the intervals in which to take another gel. I was trying to take a gel every half an hour, and the closer I stuck to that schedule (I’d gotten well off it coming into Cottonwood) the better I felt and the better my mood. In the dark, on a trail that seemed to be getting despairingly worse after the false hope the stretch after Tin Cup gave me, avoiding a foul or frightened mood was imperative.
I’d made several nutrition mistakes. I was using a single flavor of V-Fuel, and that never works because whatever flavor I’m using, it starts to disgust me pretty quickly and I need to keep mixing them up. I was also using V-Fuel, which has no electrolytes, instead of the GU I normally use, so to balance that I was drinking more Tailwind than usual. Tailwind also disgusts me in a hurry, and washing GU down with Tailwind means more calories going down than the body can digest at once while trying to hurry through the mountains, which probably explains why I suddenly started feeling really, really nauseous. Lack of oxygen due to thin air at 12,000 feet might also explain some of the digestion problems. I was not nauseous enough to puke – I am not a puker – but nauseous enough to make me back off on liquid and have a hard time swallowing down that every-half-an-hour gel. Also, neither the V-Fuel nor the Tailwind had any caffeine. Usually by nightfall I’ve started using gels with caffeine in them. Perhaps this was even more important in an especially slow and tiring 100 miler at 12,000 feet above sea level.
I tried to pick up speed after the pass, but soon enough I hit a scree and talus field. This slowed me to a crawl. I couldn’t see any signs of trail, so I would shine my light around until I found the next trail marker and try to pick a good line to it. I’m not sure the lines I picked were the good ones. The trail was very well marked in this area, which was really important.
I was relieved once I got out of the scree and talus field…and then I hit another scree and talus field. At some point I slipped and fell. No damage was done, but I was feeling less and less sure of myself. At the third scree and talus field I decided I’d had enough.
I’ve been to three state fairs and a goat f*cking.
“I’ve been to three state fairs and a goat fucking” is southern colloquialism meaning “I’ve seen many wondrous sights” or, more appropriate in my case, “I’ve seen almost everything and can say with authority that shit is about to get weird.” A goat fucking, or a goat rodeo if you are feeling a bit more genteel, is a situation that is hopelessly fucked up. Divine Intervention usually seems like the only way out of a goat fuck. If you don’t believe in God, this can be a problem. No matter how self reliant you may be, self reliance does not seem to contain any answers when you are stuck in the middle of a goat fucking.
Surrender, perhaps to a higher authority, whether it’s God or your pacer, is sometimes your only way out. This may be doubly true if you are an Aspie, for those of us with Aspergers often demand that areas of doubt and uncertainty be rigidly defined. It seems it takes a lot less for things to turn into goat fuckings for us. Surrendering to that reality isn’t always easy.
So there I was, picking my way through a scree in talus field in the pitch black dead of night. This was taking me deep into areas of doubt and uncertainty, and I was quickly getting miserable and panicked. The panic was not just about the terrain itself, which was giving me problems and seeming dangerous, but also about the uncertainty. I was not expecting any of this. I had no idea how long it would last. I had been told by a well meaning friend nearly 30 miles back that the worst part of the course was over, and while that helped get me out of the aid station at Cottonwood, it had proven to be wrong. Because I couldn’t see more than 50 feet ahead of me in the dark, I couldn’t even gather information on the fly. Am I on a ridge? In a canyon? Was that drop-off I just passed ten feet, or a thousand? Where the fuck am I? How much worse will this get?
In what might very well have been and 35 – 36 hour race, an hour of pure misery isn’t all that much. An hour of pure misery in the middle of the night with no vision and a trail that was starting to seem frightening is a little more serious, especially if you are an Aspie who panics a little when things go wrong. Humans deal with change only slightly better than cats do, and people with aspergers are notable even for humans at really struggling with change and uncontrollable circumstances. For those of us with Aspergers, “Change, whether in one’s self or the environment, typically causes sensory overload, since change affects the person’s ability to process the sensations accompanying that change.”(click here for more).
I got passed by a couple of guys. “How old are you?” one of them asked me. “Fifty-eight”. “Oh wow. That’s awesome. My dad is your age, and he could never do anything like this!”
They told me the scree fields were almost over, but “I’m not gonna lie,” said one of them. “It doesn’t get any better for a while. The climb up to Purgatory is really steep and rocky.” They suggested I should stick with them, but after I while I couldn’t; they were moving too fast.
Yep, this had turned into a goat rodeo.
I dropped at Wonderhut. I was physically more than capable of going on, and still a few hours ahead of cut-off, but mentally I’d had it. It was a breakdown like the one at AC100 in 2014. I hate these breakdowns. I don’t beat myself up quite so much about them because I have become somewhat resigned to them. The meditation work and half-assed Buddhist practice go a long way towards softening both the breakdowns and my subsequent reactions to them, but it seems they will never truly be gone: they are a function of the way my brain is wired.
There were many wondrous sights to see, but I could not see any of them, not in that dark.
I was not the first person to give up there. The aid station already had a number of numbers huddled under sleeping bags who’d decided they’d had enough. There would be a handful more who would quit, and then a bunch who would miss the cut-off a few hours later.
One surrendered runner’s pacer offered to pace me. I should have taken him up on it but didn’t. There was nothing wrong with me physically aside from being tired, just like everyone else was in that stretch and at that time of the night. My defeat was a mental one.
It was impossible at that moment, just two and a half hours after leaving Hancock aid station determined and in good spirits, to realize just how quickly everything had unraveled, and given that, could probably be put back together without much more than a little determination: “This too shall pass.”
At that moment, at Wonderhut aid station, I was overwhelmed and incapable of any kind of rational analysis. It seemed that everything had gone wrong because at that very moment nearly everything had.
When I am able to navigate my way out of these situations, it’s because I’ve anticipated them. With a lot of work, I’ve taught myself how to segue awkwardly into Plan B, or even Plan C if things are really going down the shitter. The problem is if I have no plan to segue to. Improvising is not one of my talents.
I need the in-case-of-emergency plan, the goat rodeo plan, and I’m really not sure what that plan looks like but it’s probably something relatively simple like I take a few deep breaths, calm myself down, recognize that I am all out of ideas, and let someone else take charge, like the guy who offered to pace me to Monarch.
Sarah Lavender Smith recently ran Ouray 100. She made it further than I did at High Lonesome, dropping at mile 75. Her mental experience was not unlike mine. She writes about it in a blog post, here. There are a couple of quotes that stand out because I relate to them so much. Arguing her case with her crew, knowing that she was physically capable of continuing but had lost all desire, determined not to be talked out of dropping, she writes “The fact that part of me knew they were right just made me … feel like more of a failure.” That is a terrible feeling. I’ve come up with all sorts of reasons why I was struggling, and all of them are right: high elevation causing weak muscles and stomach troubles, old man’s bad eyesight which had me too tentative on the technical downhills and almost blind at night, lack of experience on these types of trails, undertrained… Every one of these things was real. None of them, not even in combination, added up to anything near reason to drop.
I’ve come to appreciate my unconventionally wired Aspie brain. I enjoy seeing a world that consists of nothing but patterns. There’s an elegance to that, that I liken to the beautiful geometric patterns of Arabic art, which for religious reasons mostly avoids figurative images to avoid those becoming objects of worship; I was born in Libya and spent my teen years in Egypt, this is the art I grew up with. It’s so much more fascinating to me than, say, a landscape, or a painting of a reclining nude being fed by a cherub. I’m not terribly bothered by my inability to deal well with people who are not much more than a malfunctioning limbic system with arms, legs, a mouth and an asshole. (Those walking, talking, shitting limbic systems elected Donald Trump. Rational people did not). This is why succumbing to my own frustration and the sensory overload caused by things going in accordance with reality and in disregard of my “plans” not only derails whatever train I’m trying to drive but really fucks up my self esteem. I beat myself up for these lapses. There are wires in the Aspie brain that are just a little too live, in need of insulation to prevent melting or short circuiting. I try to use meditation as a kind of electrician’s tape, and it’s effective half the time. The other half is a fucking meltdown. This is the problem.
There is something else that Sarah Lavender Smith talks about in her Ouray 100 race report: about how much more it seemed that others wanted the race. Meeting up at an aid station with another runner who was also struggling, Sarah notes “She really cares about this race. I’m not her.” This was also true for me. I’d forgotten having registered for High Lonesome until Ken Gordon reminded me I was on the waitlist. I came off the waitlist a month before the race. I said to myself “Well, it’s worth a shot” but I was never sure that I was capable of finishing, and I started the race partially defeated by that doubt.
Here are some photos of what was around me at the moment I dropped, and what was ahead of me in the next 15 miles or so. In the dark, I’d have seen none of it, and if I run this race again next year, one thing I will make sure I do is familiarize myself with the night section of the course, both so that I know what’s coming up and fear it less, and also so that when I am standing on the ridge in the middle of the night, I can conjure up visions of it in the daylight and feel a little awe. Andrea Feucht took these while thru-hiking the Colorado Trail last year:
I imagine I will run this race again. I imagine I will finish it the next time. Those moments in the passes up above tree line were truly stunning. The not-so-fun stuff deep in the forests – well, in order to get above tree line there must first be trees – so that serves a purpose as well. There are moments in those passes and on those ridges that are absolutely freeing. I am not always up to the challenges of the unexpected and of the dark. That’s where my game needs more work.
I haven’t access to any toddlers of my own, but the internet is full of lists of lessons that those-who-can-barely-stumble-around-the-room-and-still-shit-themselves-without-making-a-big-deal-about-it can teach us. Here’s a short list:
1). It’s okay to ask for help. 2). Allowing yourself to be vulnerable will help you make friends. 3). It’s important to acknowledge your emotions. 4). You don’t know everything. 5). You can try new experiences before you’re fully prepared. 6).There’s a whole world out there to explore. 7). Acceptance without prejudice: Unfamiliar people and ideas aren’t scary.