Running the 4 Pass Loop [Maroon Bells]

This past weekend I wandered west on a bit of an adventure…to Aspen and the Maroon Bells with plans to run the 4 Pass Loop with Ann, Holly, Paula and Logan. I’ve spent the last few days recuperating and I think I’m finally ready to actually tell the story. The story of a beautifully ass kicking trail run with some bad ass ladies!

The little adventure was born on Twitter when Logan got us all excited about her run-all-the-trails Colorado adventure and it became real on Friday night when Logan and I spent about 6 hours making the trek from Fort Collins to Glenwood Springs! SIX HOURS! Our late arrival at Ann’s was made even more exciting when the alarms starting going off at 3:37am. We drug our butts out of bed, slathered on the sunscreen and chugged double shots of espresso.

After a little “uh, do I have enough stuff packed?!” panicking we made our way to the Maroon Lake trailhead and were running toward stunning alpenglow mountains before 6am rolled around. We hit the 4 Pass Loop counter clockwise and spent the first few miles scooting along the trail making our way toward Buckskin Pass.

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen
Photo Credit: Ann Driggers4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen

I quickly realized that my heart has not spent nearly enough time at altitude this summer! My legs were happy to be moving right along but my heart rate was out of control! I felt like such a mountain girl poser getting my butt kicked my Logan, a flatlander dominating the mountain trails.

As usual, as soon as I made my way to the top of the Buckskin Pass it was all worth it – the views were stunning! And the downhill looked like so much fun! We snagged a few photos, said goodbye to Ann [who was bailing early to nurse an injury] then headed on down the trail.

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen

We dropped into the valley to be chased through an unusually lush forest by a pack of mosquitos. The bugs were insane – it felt like the MidWest! This stretch was a weird balance of keeping the pace conservative and moving faster than the biting bugs. At the top of Buckskin Ann and Holly pointed out Trail Rider Pass off in the distance…it looked SO far away but it didn’t take long for our descent to turn into a climb. Once again I was feeling like a pansy as my heart got all jumpy as we got higher.

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen
Snowmass Lake between Buckskin Pass and Trail Rider Pass

The Trail Rider Pass was just as beautiful as Buckskin. The trail ahead zig zagged through an open meadow that was nearly overgrown with wildflowers. The trail was technical and steep with a lot of loose rock and by this time of day we were meeting more and more backpackers. It felt cool when they complimented our insanity but greatly increased the chance of having an audience when we came close to tripping and sprawling across the trail. Lucky for me the people I choose to nearly face plant in front of was a group of trail runners…who applauded my graceful save.

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen
Photo Credit: Paula Mahlburg

[With the volatile weather Colorado has had we made Trail Rider our check point – if the clouds looked threatening we were going to bail off the 4 Pass Loop toward Lake Geneva and Snowmass. The weather was loving on us so we continued on toward Frigid Air]

Once we dropped back into the valley we had a few miles of easy trail along the river and past Kings Falls. Even though Ann had to drop her friend, Holly, stuck with us for the run. It was great having someone who knew the area with us – it took off some pressure to follow the [very clearly marked] trail and made us all look smarter when backpackers asked for directions. It also meant we got a heads up for things like Kings Falls! Holly had us looking forward to it about a mile before it came into view!

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen

After we passed the falls we started climbing. We first had a quick, steep climb that took us up along the falls then opened out to another flower laden meadow just above treeline. By this time darker clouds were overhead but did not appear to be threatening so we continued on…not that we had a lot of other options, we were well past our only bail out option!

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen
Photo Credit: Logan Boon

It was on this climb that my body started to get cranky. Well, to be fair, the ornery parts of my right leg made their presence known before we made all the way down Buckskin Pass but they were manageable at that point. Now the niggles were making their way from my Achilles to my knee, something that had never happened before. I wasn’t sure what to do…so I stretch, poked and prodded the muscles and kept moving forward. What other option did I have?!

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen
Photo Credit: Paula Mahlburg

At the summit of Frigid Air I found the grassiest spot possible and flopped on the ground. I was letting the mountains beat me…I didn’t even take a photo at the top! Instead I crammed some Honey Stingers in my mouth and dramatically whined. It was getting breezy so we snagged a group shot then started down the steep, rocky section of trail that would take us over to the West Maroon Pass. We dropped quickly onto a smooth stretch of single track that took us through fields of wildflowers and to the base of the West Maroon Pass climb. The trail was fun and runnable…and at this point I could still run with only a dull ache in my knee, so I ran!

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen

It was on this climb up to West Maroon Pass that my knee starting pitching a fit. I was okay running through the fields of flowers but once we started climbing again every step became painful. I stopped at a patch of snow to do a little strategic icing but it didn’t help much. The climb up West Maroon Pass was not that difficult but I was struggling. It was extremely irritating to have every.single.step. hurt. And not just ache…I can handle ache and I can handle consistent pain. This was different and I was not prepared, mentally or physically.

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen
Photo Credit: Paula Mahlburg

Paula was kind enough to stick with me as I whined my way up the pass. Once again I was toast when I got there and took zero photos…oops. We grabbed some trash other idiots had left behind and started down the mountain. I had high hopes for the downhill being easier than the up but the mountain crushed them. My forward movement started to look a lot more like a weak limp than a confident step and the next 7ish miles were…stupid.

I had no choice but to more forward propelled by my own two feet [no one wanted me to become their backpack, how rude!] so I just kept going. Looking back it was painful and it was rather demoralizing, but it was not unbearable. Sure, I was insanely ornery – I was wasting perfectly runnable downhill on a leg I had no idea how to fix. I felt like a failure as a runner and like an idiot as a mountain girl. I even cried a few times. But I kept on moving. There was no doubt I’d get back to the trailhead…but it wasn’t going to be the fun, smiley finish I wanted!

4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen4 Pass Loop -- Maroon Bells -- Aspen

By the time my slow ass made it’s way back to Maroon Lake it was over 12 hours since we started running. We had predicted a 10 hour finish at the most. Had I been able to actually run that last stretch we would have all made it back to the car in under 10 hours…but no, my body hates me! Or I just haven’t quite figured out how to understand all of it’s little niggles and fix them on the trail! I’m working on that, so I guess I should thank my body for giving me a chance to figure out knee issues BEFORE my 100 mile run, right!?

All complaining aside, it was a fan-freaking-tastic day to be in the mountains! If you ever get the chance to run [or backpack] the 4 Pass Loop…do it! Seriously, it is an absolutely gorgeous part of the Colorado! As for our day? The weather was perfect, the people we met on the trails were friendly, the scenery was stunning and I survived another rough training run with one more item on my “to learn” list. Up next, a visit to Matt at Handled with Care Massage for a insanely painful deep tissue sports massage and a good long discussion about how to prevent a niggle from getting this out of control!

The Count Down Begins… [RRR100]

In case anyone else is counting I am currently less than 9 weeks away from the Run, Rabbit, Run 100 miler. Yup, that’s something like 60 days left for 100 mile training. As in less time than the standard “probationary period” at your new job. Or the same amount of notice you need to give most landlords if you want to move out. Or…not very much freaking time!

*que panic attack*

No, seriously, I’m freaking out over here. But only if I think about it, so I try really hard not to think about it. Which is counterproductive because I need to think about it if I’m going to train for it. My solution to that problem? Think about the race but forget that there is an actual date attached to it…instead I’m focusing on the miles, the trails, the time on my feet and keeping everything “in the moment”.

100 Mile Training -- Trail Running -- Mt Falcon -- Red RocksAlong the Mt Falcon trails, looking at Red Rocks

Last week I sat down at the computer and stared at a spreadsheet until I came up with a 10 week game plan. I added up weekly miles, convinced myself sandwich run weekends [back-to-back-to-back long runs] probably wouldn’t kill me, scheduled out “mountain weekends” and penciled in this funny thing calls “strength training”.

When I finally finished up my color coordinating I realized nearly every weekend in July and August will be spent in the mountains…which lead to a happy dance. Until I scrolled over to the “total weekly miles” column, at which point I threw up a little. Every week tops out with at least 50 miles run, often much more. I still haven’t done the miles to hours math because I know it’s going to scare the crap out of me!

Once again I’m choosing to focus on the exciting part of reality – many, many weekends in the mountains with lots of scenic trail miles. The miles won’t all be magical and my whining may get a little out of control, but at the very least I’ll be able to finish every mountain run with beautiful photos!

100 Mile Training -- Trail Running -- Horsetooth ResevoirA muddy run at Horsetooth Reservoir 

It’ll all start this weekend when I head west to Aspen to run the 4 Pass Loop with Logan, Ann and Paula. It’ll be my first go at an unsupported long run in the mountains where elevation, weather and terrain can truly beat a person up. It’s a 25 mile loop, which sounds attainable…however we are going over four mountain passes so the elevation is real. It might kick my butt, but I’ll walk [or hobble] away from the Maroon Bells knowing exactly what I need to work on in the coming weeks! Hopefully the reality check isn’t too painful!

The following weekend I’m venturing north to Rocky Mountain National Park for a 50 mile backpacking trip. I’ll be tagging along with Natalie, Ann, Chris and Andy. This trip is the brain child of Chris, the YouTube’er I work with, and has been modified more than once but I think we’ve come up with a pretty solid, albeit ambitious, route.  We’ll be spending quality time in the backcountry, learning all sorts of new things about each other [+ reaffirming things we already knew, like just how much I piss and moan when I’m tired] and come back with good a bunch of great photos and entertaining stories!

100 Mile Training -- Trail Running -- Horsetooth ResevoirLooking out over the Horsetooth Reservoir

If I survive those two trips I will have high hopes for the rest of my 100 mile training! I’m not entirely certain what the other weekends hold but there will be sandwich runs at elevation with a lot of nutrition testing, some backcountry camping and many miles on my trail shoes. At the very least I’ll be doing some quality bonding with the mountain scenery! If all goes well I’ll even get around to running another marathon, this time on the trails of Steamboat Springs!

I’ll be posting just enough photos to make you wish you were suffering with me, I’m nice like that. And I’m sure there will be a story or six about getting lost or face planting on the trail or failing miserably with nutrition – it wouldn’t be legit training if I didn’t make a fool of myself at some point!

If you want to take a peek at my made up training plan it’s all prettied up in a Google Drive doc. You’re welcome to look and I’m open to constructive criticism, but keep in mind…I have no idea what I’m doing so if you’re looking for a legit training plan you may want to look else where. Just saying.