Saturday, September 11, 2010

Soul Searching Part II: The Backbone Story

The Backbone Trail is something I've had on my radar for a long time now. I've spent a lot of time out there this summer on different sections and knew that before the end of the summer it was just something I had to do. And I wanted to do it alone. So after three days off to recover from the Colorado adventure, I tested the old climbing legs up Los Liones. I felt perfectly awesome, so I decided that two days later I would finally tackle this adventure.
What exactly is the adventure, you say? Well, allow me to enlighten you... the Backbone is a collection of various trails that runs from Santa Monica to Oxnard, covering about 69 miles. Let's add a few other noteworthy points:
  • The signage is not so hot, sometimes not marked at all in sections. Basically, you've got to talk to your forefathers to officially understand the trail and all the sections where you "run next to the fence by the water tank at the school" or "pick up the unmarked trail to the right where the main trail banks left". You know, highly descriptive shit like that. Personally, this is a huge draw to me, as I like feeling as if I'm doing something covert and possibly illegal.
  • The creators of what is deemed the official Backbone Trail only picked the hardest ways to get anywhere - up and over the highest peaks in the Santa Monica range. Basically, you are either going up or down the entire time for a total of over 19,000 feet of climbing and a similar decent feature. This hurts.
You can see why I was psyched to do this. Here's the story...

I headed out friday night to hide stuff in bushes, as the only place to refill water was at mile 13.5 and I planned to do the whole trail in a self-supported fashion. I was like the Easter Bunny of Topanga, but with less Cadbury Eggs and more Lemon Sublime GU. That may seem awesome, but in reality I was completely annoyed that I had to drive all the way to Malibu, and that it took almost three hours to drive around to the trailheads; which I realize is completely ridiculous considering the fact that I was perfectly okay with running past Malibu for 16-20 hours. Actually I was freaking amped to do that.

After a few hours of sleep, the tax man (Krogmann) graciously picked me up around 3:40 am and dropped me off at Will Rogers State Park, where I'd run about a mile in to reach the official start of the Backbone Trail. Official start time: 4:24 am.


So, the moon was all but a sliver which meant unfortunately I had to use my headlamp for the hour and a half of darkness. I had lost my beginning scary dark-time* pacer as of 3:15 this morning, so I put on my big girl pants (the saucony elite split shorts, for inquiring minds) and began the initial seven mile climb at a nice, relaxed pace. All alone, just like I always envisioned it.
*also referred to as "night"

I reached the hub, a place I have been many a times, at first light and took a brief moment to take it all in. What I would be doing today... why I was doing it... what I hoped it would bring me. The answers to those questions, respectively were:
a) running from Santa Monica to Oxnard;
b) because the boys did it and I want to do it too; and
c) clarity

Hey Santa Monica Mountains... you're preeeetty.

My thinking rock.

On the way to Dead Horse, I saw the first person of the day and he was utterly confused by me, the fact I had a light on my head and that I actually already knew the tricky section around the school. He was not confused by the fact that I was running to Point Mugu however, because he flat out didn't believe me. Like actually said the words, "I'll check the news in the morning to see if they've found you yet." That was comforting.

I refilled my water at the end of Musch and rolled into Dead Horse, mile 13.3, at 7:15a. I'd already done a LOT of climbing, and I was about to embark upon one of the hardest, longest ascents of the day. I felt remarkably fresh though, and went in vowing to run as many sections as I could without my heart going super out of control. I also love this section, because it's one of the places that's very twisty, turny and better know where you're going-y. It made me feel like I was in on some secret path due north and one of the few who loved these mountains so much that I took the time to learn how they worked. Like I really knew these mountains. It was all pretty spectacular.

The climb up Hondo went a lot better than expected. See, what I expected was 2,000 feet of pain and torture. What I got was a quick little jaunt up a mountain smiling 1.21 jigawatts and singing some Good Old War at the top of my lungs. As a result of this official high, I made it up to Stunt/Scheuren 25 minutes faster than expected and geared myself up for the loooong decent to Tapia with my first solid food of the day. I left in the best of moods and picked my way through the large boulders that always spawn a 20 minute conversation between me and myself concerning how they got there. They just don't make any sense! Another hour clipped away without any knowledge of the passing of time. I was floating.

Said weird rocks, obviously placed here by a T-Rex back in the day and then used as a claw sharpener.

Tortilla chips are number one.

The one and only Peter Williams was waiting for me at Tapia, ready and psyched to hit the last of the truly terrible climbs of the day. Bulldog loomed ahead and we got right to it. Now I'll tell you what, that Peter Williams has a way of making time pass - even when said time should be totally shitty. This climb is relentless, but I was having the grandest of times hiking, talking, laughing, not stepping on a snake and altogether loving life. I can't imagine a friend I'd have rather been out there with at that point. Like myself, for Peter THIS is the shit that it's all about. Not winning races, not a big production, not a finish line to cross to the cheers of fans and friends and family. Nope. Just me and the mountains. Getting out there and trying just because I want to see if I can. Truly being there for each of the moments the day was made of, not for the single victorious step at the end. Peter "P-Dubs" Williams was a great reminder to live every single stride of my journey and not to take a single second for granted. He also tells me butt jokes. The dichotomy is off the charts.

The true "spine" of the Backbone.

I hit Corral a little after noon, and after a brief hip stretching attempt on a log, I was ready to get out of the blaring sun and into the shade of Solstice Canyon. After such a great climb up Bulldog, the last thing I expected was for a little incline out of the canyon to provide any trouble. But alas, trouble it was. I think the cumulative effect of these mountains was starting to take its toll, and to whether or not I was consuming enough calories and up on my salt is debatable. Probably not.

Either way, I tried to run what I could and altogether, just be. Sometimes this is an extremely hard task for me, and lately, it's been altogether impossible. It's like someone took all the components of my life, put them in a giant Yahtzee cup, shook it for about two months give or take and then dumped out the results. Now I'm supposed to figure out which dice to save and which to re-roll. And I hate both decisions and math.

Now you understand why I am seeking clarity out here. You see, I really, really like the idea of learning to live my life without expectations. Living, running and loving - giving my all and expecting absolutely nothing in return. Focusing solely on the moments and the process. But it's hard. It's natural to expect outcomes, reciprocation and to get what you deserve. If you live a good, moral life and work hard - you should have a good job, people should treat you with respect and bad things shouldn't happen. If you train hard, recover properly and race with your heart - you should run well. If you love someone with every fiber of your being and believe in them utterly - that should be enough. I'm learning more and more each day that should is a nasty, nasty word. Could is better. Is is best. Actually is is all there is.

Maybe that's why I hit this low point and it didn't phase me. I know that in most every long run or race I have, at some point it will become mentally draining and I will hate life for a bit. The stage was set physically, but mentally it didn't bother me. In fact, nothing had been mentally phasing me on my runs as of late. Perhaps that is my draw to running - perhaps I was figuring this "no expectations" thing out on a small scale. I've always believed that part of my draw to the 100 mile distance is the experience of a lifetime of emotions in one day. And in life, I'm able to stay zen for a few days at a time before everything goes to shit again. So maybe that was it: I'd figured out how to just be in the running context. In fact, compared to everything else going on, I was relieved to just be in the running context.

And so I was.

Just living the dream...

Peter and I cruised into Kanan just as Caitlin and Dolly pulled up in the ninja car.* I decided to take a real break, cool down a bit and get some legitimate calories down. I was really thankful for a few sips of cold gatorade (rather than my nasty, hot, from the bushes variety) and also that Mrs. Williams is awesome and drove all the way out there to pick up her husband so that he could run with me for awhile on my long journey. I've got some pretty amazing people in my life, no doubt. I hated to say goodbye, but it would be good for me to have a section to myself to reconnect with the trail and what I was doing. So after a few more bites of Mojo bar and a refill of the pack, I was off to Encinal.

*i.e. Prius. Seriously, I've almost been hit by one of these silent motherfuckers like at least ten times.

P-Dubs and I at Kanan: mile 39ish.

I don't remember a lot from this section, other than I was starting to get my legs back, perhaps even what one could describe as "a pep in my step", and that a hiker was remarkably disturbed that I ran on these "dangerous" trails all by myself.

But you're a woman!

You're goddamn right I am.

I'm a woman who is interested in finding her limits. I am a woman capable of independence. I am a woman who constantly seeks what is right and true, not what will fill her childish girl's ego. I am a woman who confronts lack of confidence head on, rather than seeking validity from others and by putting others down. When uncomfortable, I force further discomfort until a point is reached where I finally understand. I am a woman who never fails to ask questions for fear of an undesirable answer... both from others or from myself. I am compassionate. I am loyal. I am forgiving. I am fierce. I am strong. I am incredible. No, I am not a girl. I am a fucking woman. And that's why I'm here.

About a mile out of Mulholland, I encountered a nearly naked man in neon green sunglasses cawing like a bird. Dominic. I was excited for some company once again and even more excited to learn that there were ice cold beverages waiting for me at the trailhead. Thank heaven almighty. Here's the thing about the Easter Bunny water: it gets hot. Like so hot that no matter how much I drink, I never really feel satiated. Welcome to the last four hours of my life. WELL, little did I know that ice cold beverage actually meant it was ic-y, like with ice literally blended into it. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the McDonald's Real Fruit Smoothie - i.e. half-melted deliciousness in a plastic cup. There were also french fries, and let me tell you, there are few things more precious than salt and fat after a day in the heat filled with nothing but sugary gels and chews. I've got to hand it to him, though I normally despise McDonald's and feel somewhat dirty when I have to buy his McChickens at mile 80, Dom really came through on this one. Fry boy ran with me up to the fire road and we laughed and joked and talked about the relative safety of Osprey helicopters. My legs were definitely feeling better after the legit sustenance and I was surprised at my newfound ability to climb again.

Atop the fireroad in the late afternoon sun, I found myself alone again and just altogether happy. That was a feeling I hadn't felt in a long time and I let it sink in as I cruised the next few miles on one of the most beautiful stretches the Backbone has to offer. Can I name this section Big Sky? Because I am. The only bad part about Big Sky was that I did not remember how long it was. I had only run this section once before, and I'm pretty sure I was zoned out and not paying attention. Big shocker. This definitely resulted in a little bit of a freak out as the long stretch of trail jutted in and out of a seemingly endless mountainside. To make matters worse, Dom was going to meet me at the road crossing and I was absolutely positive I wasn't running fast enough to have missed him.* Numbers began melting together and I began imagining turns that were never there - actually they would have been impossible unless they were either: a) through a cave, or b) off a cliff. As I began descending on the opposite side of the range, I swore I heard the familiar "ca-caw" down below. I tried to respond as Katie-bird, but alas, my throat was dry and caked with dust and I was unable to get any volume on it. I sounded more like a dying ant.

*Apparently, I was.

Anyway, I got to a sharp left fork that I didn't remember and got scared. I ran up to the road and tried to call Dom, but his phone wasn't getting service. Now completely confused, I sat on a rock for 10 minutes and tried to gather my thoughts. Luckily, a ranger came by and assured me that Mishe Mokwa was down the road and encouraged me to take the pavement. I wasn't having any of that. No way was I giving up on the trail here, at mile 50, after the heat of the day and all those long climbs. So I resolved to take the unfamiliar turn and just hope that it would lead me to the trailhead. I mean, it had to right? It was the only way to go.

Well, I had indeed heard a caw and after one more freak out that admittedly brought a stinging to my eyes (no tears fell, I swear!), I surfaced at Mishe Mokwa more excited to see that black Volvo than I have been maybe ever. After only a few minutes of standing around collecting my brain, I began to get a little cold, as the sun was already going down. I had only about 15-16 miles to go, but Dom informed me that this was the last time he would be seeing me until the top of old Ray Miller. Nutso. The one section I don't know well, and I would be left to navigate in the dark by myself. NOTE: THIS IS WHAT THEY CALL FORESHADOWING. So I ate some pretzels, refilled my drop and Dom highlighted a map for me of all the turns I'd be facing "just in case." MORE FORESHADOWING. I probably spent a good 15 minutes or so prepping for the night and talking myself into running alone for the next few hours in the dark and not missing any turns. Dom figured I'd be done between 9 and 10 - in time for a celebratory Arrogant Bastard at the bottom and then off for some food. I said it could be 10:30 at the latest, since I'd probably be over cautious about not missing a turn on the section I'd never run. After a big old hug and reassembling my headlamp, I took off for the climb up Sandstone Peak - the highest point in the Santa Monicas.

Sunset at Mishe Mokwa - mile 52

It's about to get weird.

I reached the top just as the sun was going down, and let me tell you, it was magical. The sky was a fiery red with the black outlines of all the mountains I had come up and over resting quietly in the foreground. My heart, once empty yet heavy, was now full and weightless. Interesting how that works. I began the descent knowing that I was right when I decided that this was something I had to do.

OK, remember that last paragraph where I got all meta on you and maybe even made you cry? Yes well, that all went to shit in the matter of about ten minutes. First, it became immediately apparent to me that running for a few more hours on a desolate trail that I don't really know... alone.. in the dark was not really the best idea in the world... especially considering that my cell had died and was now in the car. Hmmmm. Next, my stomach completely shut down and refused to do anything other than feel like I was going to puke, without actually just letting me puke. I knew this was probably due to the downhill this late in the game, and fortunately, I had about seven miles and 2,000+ feet of descent in which to contend with. I resorted to running with my arms clenched tightly around my waist to prevent some of the jostling. Now, this was particularly interesting if you consider that the mountain I was running down is called Boney and I'm sure that has something to do with the sharp bone-like items* jutting this way and that way and every which way that is not underground. Needless to say, losing the use of your arms is a little difficult while running an extremely technical downhill after 55 miles of relentless up and down. Also, I was having to stop every five minutes or so for a little dry heaving and trying to get what was most assuredly the bubonic plague out of me by whatever means possible. Here are the additional problems: not eating and slowing down was making me cold. (We all know what happens when I get cold.) My achilles were killing me from wearing heavier shoes all day, and I was having trouble focusing on my form. Things were certainly getting interesting.

*You might call these "rocks".

Well, that was nothing compared to the little surprise I had waiting for me at the bottom of the canyon. I got to the turn that would send me into unchartered territory, consulted my trusty map for a double check and dove in. I was twisting and turning in an overgrown mess, paying attention to every inch, stomach still wretching. After about 20 minutes or so, I began to notice the air getting remarkably heavy. I was chilly and not sweating much, yet I was soaking wet. Weird. Oh it was about to get weirder.... moments later, the thickest fog I have ever encountered thus far in life rolled in. I am not exaggerating - I have two witnesses. Dom and the ranger out looking for me when he alerted the dispatch for a possible search and rescue. You see where I am going with this.

By the time I got to Danielson Ranch, my last stop before home, I couldn't see anything at all. There were muted lights throughout the area but I couldn't tell what anything was until I was right on it. It was some horror movie shit for sure.* I quickly became very disoriented and I was unable to pick up the trail out of the ranch. Flat out couldn't find it. I spent about a half hour wandering around and briefly considered banging on an RV door for help, but decided to keep looking. By this time, it was already past 9 and I was supposed to be done. Uh, not so much.

*RV or alien abduction? At this point, does it really even matter?

Aha, finally! Sycamore Canyon Trail. But wait, which way do I go? Where the hell am I? God? Despite the racing contradictory thoughts, I remained remarkably calm and just figured I'd start running the direction that felt right, and if I was wrong, I'd just have to turn around. Simple as that. There was really no other option. Unfortunately, I wasn't going to be able to see any of the landmarks that let me know I was going the right way. Mainly because I couldn't see anything at all. Opposite of unfortunately,* I eventually reached the intersection with Old Boney, which let me know I had chosen right... I mean left, which was right. Are you confused yet? Good, now you understand. Next challenge: find the connector up to Outlook and I'd be golden. I began running on the right side of the trail, scanning with my headlight in order to reflect off the trail markers. It was in this way that I saw my first set of eyes in the fog... and then the eyes disappeared before I could ascertain if they belonged to a deer, coyote, bird or serial killer. Yet again, I was bizarrely calm. In my head, it kind of all came down to this: people had been out in the wilderness in the dark with possible predators by themselves (can we add another preposition here? can we?!) since the beginning of time. (nailed it!) What I was doing was not dangerous; it was natural. It would only become dangerous if I lost my cool, my sense of intuition and started making stupid mistakes. So, I just kept moving and figured I'd cross the "attacked by an animal" bridge when I got there. That is, if I could see it.


Before long, I passed the first joining trail - Wood Canyon. Awesome. That meant just a few more minutes and I'd hit the Backbone connector, aptly named "Backbone Trail," according to the map and website. Next trail: not aptly named Backbone. Surprise, surprise. Actually, there were three separate markers with various names: Wood Canyon, To Outlook and CAUTION. It was here that I was faced with some choices.

1. Run back and make sure I really did pass Wood Canyon already. Done, and I did.

2. Okaaaaaay... run up ahead for five minutes and make sure there isn't another connector. Ran for seven, there was not.

3. Fine, this shit says Outlook, that's where I want to go. Even if it's not the BBT, it will get you out of this godforsaken canyon and you'd rather be alive than dead, having stayed on the technically correct trail.

Well, I was out of options, so I took door #3. At first, I was trying to justify every twist and turn with how the squiggly line was drawn on the map. That was, until I noticed the very large "MAP NOT GUARANTEED FOR ACCURACY" printed across the top. OK, why the fuck would you give me a map if it's not accurate? Doesn't the very act of one buying a map preclude that they will, at some point, need a guide to point them in the correct direction? Accurately? No sir. Personally, I would prefer a map that will not necessarily get me to where I'd like to go. Just guesstimates, please.

At any rate, I climbed and climbed, as did my level of worrying from "probably fine" to "officially concerned." Not about myself and my ability to get back. Moreso about the fact that I knew by this point, Dominic would be worried sick about me, a full hour past due at Ray Miller and I still wasn't there. It was too cold for him to wait up at the top for too long, and I just prayed that he wasn't off the trail looking in the wrong direction - or worse, that I wasn't off the trail and we'd miss each other. He'd stay out here all night trying to find me, and then we'd both be in trouble. Putting myself in imminent danger? Fine. Putting someone else in said danger? Not cool.

Knowing that there was nothing I could do at this point other than continue to move forward, I reassessed the situation. The good news is that I was running again, but the bad news is that I was out of calories and didn't want to risk more stomach failure by trying to get some back in. I wouldn't be out there that much longer... I just had to keep going. The next fantastic thing that happened was that I reached the top! Woohoo the Outlook Fire Road to take me home! Oh wait. This is not the fire road. This is a random split in the trail. This is not on the map. This is a problem.

Technically, I should be heading left, but for some reason that didn't feel right. So I veered right, again knowing that worst case scenario: I would simply turn around and head back the other way and would just be out there a little longer. The one awesome thing was that I checked the marker on the trail I just came off of and it said Backbone! So technically it WAS marked Backbone, just not at the end I was coming from. Thanks, map. After a few more minutes of blind running I dumped out on a large expanse... Bam. Fireroad. Three cheers for Katie's directional instincts.

This next part of the run was hands-down my favorite experience of the entire day. I had reached a section of trail I knew so well that even though I could not see a few inches in front of my face, I knew exactly where I was at all times. I felt every turn, every slightest incline, every minimal change in terrain and could perfectly picture my surroundings. It was kind of amazing. At this point, I was running like a woman possessed; exhausted, beat up, depleted and wholly focused on getting myself to the end of this trail. I was amazed at how calm and unemotional I had remained throughout the day and especially the night, and I realized a strength that I always suspected was in me, but doubted given the way my previous 100's had crumbled towards the end. Maybe since it was September 11, I thought about my brother serving in Afghanistan many times, especially now. I had lived on edge, focused and hyper aware for the last few hours. He and his battalion had been living like that for over six months in a type of danger that was far worse than what I had found myself in tonight. I felt such pride for his strength and courage and knew that while it was on an entirely different level, I had that blood in me too.

This section was also awesome, because I imagine it largely to resemble what an acid trip would be like. I was completely disoriented, lost in a cloud, running like a mad woman and eyes were flashing in and out of the fog as coyotes howled all around me, unable to perceive time, space or relativity. I kept thinking that the eyes were Dominic's headlamp and I would shout out only to never discover what animal was staring me down. Basically, it was some really weird shit.

At this point, I had entered the fog vortex, and I legitimately could not even see my feet. I knew I was getting close to the Ray Miller turn off and I was beginning to fear I might miss it, so I resorted to running on the far right side of the trail with my shoulder literally in the scrapy bushes. My thought process was that when they stopped tearing the shit out of my arm I would know I had reached the turn.

This.... actually worked.

Descending Mugu, I began dipping in and out of the fog getting crazy views of the lights out to sea. I was cawing and calling out for Dom the whole way down, thinking maybe he was searching the area, but as it was I was perfectly alone. There was an eerie view of the lights out to sea and I reveled in the moments where the fog gave me a bit of reprieve and allowed me a glimpse of how beautiful the night was up here, far, far away from the city. The city I had run from. My body was aching and my FKT had gone to shit long ago down in Danielson, but let's be honest: that wasn't the reason I was here. I had spent the wee-est hours of the morning to the blackest part of the night on a journey that served no purpose but for the journey itself. I had been truly happy in every single moment. I had persevered and kept my head through a really bad and dangerous situation and got myself home in one, not too wrecked piece. The confidence I had gained in the last few hours was something I knew would make all the difference in my upcoming races and adventures (I realize that I only say this now that I know I'm safe...) and well, life. I had been doubting my strength for months now and needed this kind of physical reminder - one that I had begun in Colorado, but was not quite yet certain of. Now I was certain. So yeah... I'd say mission accomplished.

With a million thoughts swirling through my head, I opened my stride and ran assuredly to the end of the Backbone Trail in Point Mugu State Park. As suspected, there was no one there, as the park was closed and a gate assured vehicles could not enter. It was perfectly uneventful. Just as I had always imagined it.

After a few moments of happiness and gratitude, my mind immediately snapped back into survival mode. I was out there alone, depleted in the cold, damp night. This wasn't over yet. I ran to the end of the park, praying to every god I'd ever heard of that Dominic would be parked on PCH and not off looking for me somewhere. I was three hours past due. As I exited the gate, I saw nothing and the fog engulfed me once again. I fumbled to turn my headlamp on flash and ran out into the middle of the highway screaming for him, still absolved not to panic (though I realize the description I've painted of myself over the last few paragraphs could easily double as a police blotter). I knew where a campsite was. I was only a few hour's run from civilization. I would not die out here tonight.

Luckily, a set of headlights flashed on and my journey ended here. I ran over to the side of the road and was immediately enveloped in a hug of mutual relief and gratitude. Apparently, 'ole Indiana Grossman had been atop Ray Miller, crawling in the dirt trying to track my footprints on the fire road for a long time. Eventually he decided to head back down and alert the dispatch, as he hoped that I was just slowed down by the fog, but couldn't dismiss the alternatives. I feel terrible that I made him worry so much, as I know what that's like to worry about him - trusting that he's most likely okay, but never being able to completely shut out the what-ifs. It's a terrible, terrible feeling and is why I often like to do things alone and under the radar and try to keep my loved ones out of it. I don't ever want people to worry about me like that over something I chose to do.

Speaking of what I chose to do... I did it! And all said and done, I wouldn't have changed a single thing. Though weeks later (as I finally finish writing this), I feel more lost than I've ever been, for one entire day I felt whole and completely happy again. And just like when I was lost in the dark of the La Jolla fog, I know that I will find my way again if I remain calm, confident and just simply believe. In short, I needed this. I needed this so fucking bad and while a run can't fix me, it can sure do one hell of a job in reminding me how to fix myself.

So, thank you Backbone. Thank you for attempting to kill me, but being so damn beautiful that I could never be mad at you. You rule.

OFFICIAL START TIME: 4:24 am, 9/11/10 - Will Rogers State Park

OFFICIAL END TIME: 12:14 am, 9/12/10 - Point Mugu State Park

19 hours, 50 minutes. Yikes.

Thank-you Peter, Caitlin, Dominic and Mountains.

"You're a mountain that I'd like to climb. Not to conquer, but to share in the view." ~Incubus

Friday, September 3, 2010

Soul Searching Part I: The Colorado Adventure

"All I need is this right now. I've got the wind at my back, sun standing tall. All I need is this. Right. Now."

Early this spring I went on a date consisting of sitting on my couch, drinking a few beers and looking at a pictorial journey of the Hardrock course on my laptop. I know, I know, I’m a lucky girl. Obviously, we decided that we simply must go to Colorado this year and check out the goods ourselves.

Fortunately, one of my best friends was getting married in Denver come September, so though there would be a little wait – the trip was officially in the works. This adventure became a pending milestone for me, as I had recently made a few non-negotiables with myself concerning a timeline for regaining my health and happiness:

1. By the end of the summer, the company at which I had been slaving away to start for years at a criminal rate of pay would either take off, or I would have another job.

2. Due to number one, I would be able to pay for the flight to get me to Colorado straight up, without having to starve or sell my car and/or soul.

3. This trip would be a celebration of perseverance.

Well… life definitely changed in those six months. Actually, life changed last month. I did get a new job and I was able to buy that flight outright. But I’d be heading to Colorado alone. At first, I was horribly sad by this and also thought my goal trip had been ruined. What, was I supposed to camp and go on these long, hard, potentially dangerous runs all by myself? Well, yes. That’s exactly what I was supposed to do. Perseverance, baby.

I flew into Denver Thursday night, and after waiting over an hour for my bag of pertinent gear, I headed over to pick up my rental and drive to Colorado Springs. Luckily, I caught the Albertson’s five minutes before they closed and the nice woman allowed me to run and grab the remaining essentials: two gallons of water, a Gatorade and some Nutella. Party time. I made it to the Springs before midnight and headed up to find some dispersed camping off Rampart Range Road for a few hours of sleep. Unfortunately, before there were any places to set up my tent, the road turned into dirt, which turned into rock, which turned into a problem. William Shatner had given me a Yaris. And we weren’t going any further. I had a choice here: either drive to Manitou and sleep at the trail head (illegal) or pull off the road and just sleep in the back. By now, it was 1 am and I was going to be off and running in just a few hours. Sleep needed to happen now. So I pulledoff the road, spent a few minutes looking at the most amazing abundance of stars I’ve ever seen, and then climbed in the back to toss and turn and not sleep. I was in a Yaris, for chrissakes. A fucking squirrel wouldn’t have been comfortable.

I would suggest starting the song now, for dramatic effect.

With excited, albeit bloodshot eyes, I left for the town of Manitou around 4:30am, where I’d find the Barr Trailhead. Starting at around 6,800 feet, this trail climbs 13 miles up to Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain, standing at a majestic 14,115. Yes, that’s 7,258 ft, and I was planning on doing this today before the rehearsal dinner. Here is yet another example of my failure to understand and respect my little adventures, which are largely deemed massive undertakings by the general public. I’d never been much over 10,000 feet, it is highly suspect that I wasn’t carrying enough water and I really had no back-up plan. I wouldn’t call it so much lack of planning, as complete and blatant disregard for any semblance of planning at all.

Regardless, I got to it in the wee pre-dawn hours and was looking forward to a day of total solitude climbing my first 14-er. I was confused and looking for answers, and as per usual, I thought a big mountain could give them to me. And given that I was more confused than I’ve ever been, it was fitting that I picked the highest mountain I’ve ever climbed. (I apologize now if you don’t like metaphors. This whole trip is one big metaphor.) Anyway…. not at all to my surprise, the climbing started immediately and I huffed and puffed and blew my house down up to the incline. I was surprised at how many people I saw running down and jealous that their Friday morning pre-office workout could be something so terribly epic. Would I get bored of that if I could do it everyday? Nah, not a chance. Reason number 712 why I should move to Colorado immediately.*

*No really, there are 712. I've been counting.

I experienced an amazing sunrise and soon thereafter, the sky opened up to a bright, clear and insanely beautiful day. I ran along happily, keeping a good pace and snapping a few pictures here and there, but my head was still a mess. Why was this not enough for me? Why couldn’t I just accept? I was trying to force the answers to come. But we all know it doesn’t work like that. Hell, even I know that, but you can’t blame a girl for trying.

Reason #713.

I got up to Barr camp about 45 minutes quicker than expected and was actually amazed that so far, the altitude really wasn’t messing with me much at all. I felt great and I couldn’t believe I only had six miles to go to reach the summit. The next stop was the timberline, which also marked the point where I followed some dudes and lost the trail for a bit, resulting in some crazy boulder scrambling, resulting in me needing a little break. My lungs were definitely screaming now, and this hands and knees climbing shit was for the birds. So I sat on a rock for a bit, and I started to tear up. And then I started to sob uncontrollably. I was just so incredibly sad. And so incredibly frustrated that while I was surrounded by beauty for which I was deeply appreciative, I could not truly just be in those moments. The ghosts would not let me, and I was not ready to let go.

Eventually, I spotted the “trail” again and after a quick scramble was officially back in business. I ran as much as I could, now over 13,000 feet and actually enjoying the new burning sensation in my lungs, and after a fierce hike up the Golden Stairs the top appeared. A group of tourists that had taken the train up cheered as I ran the last few steps to the summit and took pictures of me as I dramatically cheered back… you know, for good effect. This has become a theme in my life: people asking to take my picture because they can’t believe I’ve just ran somewhere/something/for so long. Then they ask me if I’ve ever heard of Dean Karnazas.


Far, far above the timberline lies a place that feels like home.

I got up to the top with plenty of time to spare, so I took my time looking around from this new viewpoint. America the Beautiful, indeed. After circling the peak to make sure I saw absolutely every single vantage point, I headed inside the gift shop to refill my pack, eat a world famous doughnut and hit the restroom… and that’s where the trouble started. It began as a dull ache in my head and by the time I was heading back down the mountain had developed into a full on pounding migraine, inducing dizziness and the feeling of my skull imploding with every rocky step. This was quite troublesome, and resulted in my literally laying down on the trail squeezing my temples and praying that this altitude sickness would go away if I could just get down below 10. Oh my.

Baby's first 14-er!

Eventually, I decided that there was nothing else I could do to fix the pain so I should just run as hard as I could, lest I be late to the rehearsal dinner. This induced a few blackout moments, but my will to party was strong. I wish I could have enjoyed the descent a little more, but my head was pounding and I was really stressed out about being late. I made it off the mountain, but had to scramble to grab the Yaris and get on the highway. At this point I was looking at a baby wipe shower in the venue’s bathroom. Typical.

Made it.

Unfortunately, my phone sent me in the wrong direction on the highway and I lost a good 45 minutes back tracking in the now forming traffic. Here was my first breakdown of the trip. So far, nothing was going right and I had no one to help me. And I realized that I had been celebrating a trip of solitude, when in reality, I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to be here by myself. I didn’t even get a baby wipe shower! I was just so angry. How was it that I had just run up and down Pike’s Peak on an incredibly beautiful day out away from it all, and yet all I could feel was anger and sadness? However, I reminded myself that I had been here less than 24 hours – there was still plenty of time to decompress and get my brain all sorted out.

Before things got better, they had to get a little worse. I quickly pulled on a dress and ran into the venue with my heels unbuckled, hair flying and dirt still caked up my legs - but alas, missed the rehearsal. Luckily, Kristin just laughed and got me a beer. Ah, what a good friend... one that knows me all too well. Then, on the morning of the wedding I killed the Yaris. Yep… some SUV ran me straight into a beam in the parking garage and the thing crumpled like a Big Mac wrapper. Are you kidding me, life? No, life was not kidding, but fortunately the next thing it had in store was to get all fancy and have a great time with my friends and celebrating Kristin’s big day. I’ve never cried at a wedding, but then again, I’ve never truly understood and felt the words that were being said. A few of the happiest tears I’ve ever known fell for my friends standing there in realization that sometimes love really just isn’t enough, but for them, it was. It was beautiful.

The infamous trio reunites: Bux, Shoeless and Jamz - two dirty pirates and one awesome ninja.

After that, I partied my ass off all night, slept hard and woke up feeling surprisingly chipper. For my first trick of Sunday, I decided to try and race Kristin and Sam’s lab around the neighborhood. He was pretty much dragging me the whole way, even though I was running at about a 6:00 clip. Then, I got smart. I took him around again and about halfway through, ole Ox the dog slowed down. That’s endurance, bitch.

For my second trick, I remembered that one of the guys at my table had told me about some glacier, and I was going to go find it. So I packed up the wounded Yaris and headed out of town to St. Mary’s Glacier for another Colorado adventure. Yee-haw.

What I knew about this run was that it was a quick, mile in and then I could go climb on the ice. I had no idea what was next or how long I’d be out there. Now, the part of me that doesn’t trust the rest of me for one minute thought:

Katie, you know you’re going to find some shit to climb or some random trail that you have to see where it goes. You should probably carry more than one handheld and 2 GUs.

However, the rest of me said:

Ah, fuck it. …. But I’ll take a jacket.

Well, this is precisely what happened and exactly why I ended up with another headache. It was a quick little jaunt up to the lake, where I stood for a few moments totally amazed. Holy shit, that’s actually a glacier! I don’t know if I just didn’t believe the signs, maps and internet or what, but I was seriously amazed – kind of like a little kid seeing the ocean for the first time. This thing was from the ICE AGE for chrissakes. First thing’s first: Imma go climb it.

"St. Mary's Glacier" by Katie, not National Geographic

I spent a great deal of time looking in every crevasse, trying to run, sliding and falling because I was trying to run, and punching the ice to see how hard it was and if I could crack a glacier with my raw Katie power. In case you were wondering, I was largely unsuccessful at the latter. I got to the place where most people were turning around, but noticed that I could go a bit further. OK, well let’s just see where it ends and what’s up there. The end of the glacier was kind of anticlimactic, and stopped before I got to the top of anything. I don’t know if I expected a pot of gold or an alternate universe or what, but I’ve never seen the end of a glacier, so how could I know? At any rate, it seemed logical to go a bit further and peak out on this climb to see what was on the other side.

I'm in a glacier, bitch.

As I leveled back with the horizon, a wide meadow opened before me with two domineering false summits standing before me and one higher peak behind those. Well, game over on being responsible today. I knew immediately what my plans for the rest of the afternoon would be. Even still, I picked my way through the beautiful meadow and reasoned that maybe I would just complete this next climb and be sufficed. I’d take some photos, have a look around and then get back down before I got too dehydrated and low on calories. Haha, I’m so funny with my false sense of responsibility.

A little ways up the climb, I ran into an older couple who happened to have a guide book on them. Apparently, it was only a couple miles to the top – the top being the 13,294 ft James Peak. Also, I had not learned anything from my Pikes Peak adventure and therefore was completely unaware that the last two miles of a tall ass mountain weren’t anything like a quick little jaunt around the golf course. Is anyone actually surprised at my decision to carry on and that if I ran out of water and started feeling bad I would turn around? Maybe the last part? Well now, let’s define these parameters in Katie terms:

  • Running out of water – Not in my body, but in the physical bottle. Therefore, if I always keep one sip left then I have not run out of water.
  • Feeling Bad – Unable to move/dead.

Alright then. Up we go. Honestly, I definitely got really dehydrated and definitely got another killer headache, but I’m soooooo glad I climbed up James. Check this out:

You see my point, yes?

How about now?

No? Nothing?


It got super cold once I reached the exposed portion of the trip, which was largely due to the crazy gusts of wind that were trying to blow me off the side of a cliff. Haha! I brought a jacket, bitches. I’m so smart. Anyway, I was particularly enjoying these facts: 1.) the original peaks that I had seen were waaaaaay below me; 2.) I was now also looking down on the second peaks that initiated a “wow, I’m not going to go all the way up there today;” and 3.) I was still fucking climbing. Also, there were lakes straight from Amazing Town and they were making me happy and giving me a false sense of adequate water in my life.

Ref: Amazing Town.

I didn’t hang out long at the top due to the wind, but I definitely took some time to soak it all in and be appreciative of what was laid out before me. And also to be appreciative of myself and my ability to physically get there, to be independent even when I didn’t want to be and my newfound understanding that no matter what happens, my life goes on. I can either choose to ignore it or live it. And here I was, completely and totally living it.

I hammered back down in the late afternoon sun, surprised by the sudden life in my legs after all the climbing and celebrating and not sleeping I had done in the past few days. I even stopped to give directions to a set of backpackers like I was some kind of mountaineering local. Soon. Also on the descent agenda was lots and lots of thinking. I had one of those overwhelming feelings of just knowing the truth, with no confirmation needed. When taken to an air of clarity, my heart always seems to know without anyone telling me. The truth was hard and the truth was ugly, but it was not unbearable. While I definitely didn’t have the answers I was looking for, I had come to a place of acceptance without understanding – which much like my surroundings, was definitely a place I had never been. It’s interesting, instead of this truth setting me back and upsetting me further, it created a sense of empowerment. I could choose how to move forward. And I was choosing to plunge down another mountain and across a golden field, hopping over a babbling creek and into the great unknown. I can’t control outcomes and I have no use for controlling the people I love. Things will be what they will be and I will let them. That’s the only way I will find happiness. And right now, happiness was all around me.

I hit the glacier and instantly became an idiot. The trail-skiing skills I had invented/developed on the spring’s training trips to Mt. Baldy were definitely helpful, as I ran and slid and rolled down the large expanse of ice. I was shrieking and laughing and vaguely attempting not to kill myself, which elicited scornful looks and a passive aggressive repremand from a seven-year-old. "Daddy, she’s not being safe." Well… probably not. But my dad isn’t here to tell me no. Nanny nanny boo boo.

Then, I ran back down to the wounded soldier, drank half a gallon of water and ate about a bajillion lime tortilla chips. However, my day was far from being over and with the sun rapidly going down, I knew I needed to get food and set up camp immediately. I drove back down to Idaho Springs and ran into the visitor’s center to get some camping information. I ate at an awesome little place in town and had a blast talking to some locals at the bar as I inhaled a buffalo burger and local microbrew. I really wanted to walk around the amazing little mountain town a bit longer, but I knew I had to get up to camp before dark.

Camp was an interesting place. I drove up to the remnants of some hippie concert – there was a minefiled of rubber trashcans overflowing with beer cans and a dude was still jamming on an electric guitar on the stage with one cracked-out chick dancing all Phish-like and shit. I had no idea what was going on, but I prayed that the camping area was not close to this funny business. Luckily it wasn’t, but things got even weirder. So I walked into this ranch – yep, just walked right in – no one to be found. Um, OK. Is this squatter style camping? Well, I don’t want to get killed, so after a few hello? Helloooooooo?’s I tried calling the number. This apparently initiated World War III between a woman and her son in the back about who was too lazy or too overworked to get the damn phone. I have never before heard those sorts of words come out of a 70 year old woman’s mouth. Wow.

Then the awesome part was that she turned sweet as pie as soon as she saw me standing there. It was weird. I was kind of scared. But I was tired and wanted to go to sleep. She told me I could basically camp wherever I wanted on the property which was great, and even allowed me to use the upstairs bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. Very cool.

I set up my tent near a little pond and climbed in just as it was getting dark. I was freaking wiped, so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to go to bed early. It was awesomely quiet and I felt pretty safe knowing there was a couple camping not too far from me. However, it wasn’t too long until I started hearing some animals rooting around outside my door. Wow. They sound big. Oh shit… it’s totally a moose. Mind you, I am deathly afraid of encountering a moose. Bears? Been there. Snakes? Whatever. Mountain lion? Meh. Moose? Fuck that.

I mean, I don’t even know what to do if I run into one. Can I outrun it? Can I climb a tree? Is it like a T-Rex and if I stand perfectly still can it not see me? I sat there reasoning that what I was probably supposed to ignore it. You know, act like I didn’t care and that it was silly if it thought it was better than me. So I’d have to be nonchalant, not authoritative. That seemed right. However, I couldn’t help myself and unzipped the door a little to have a peek.

Ohmygosh HORSES! YAY! There were two of them and they had strolled over to get a drink and see what’s up. The moonlight was reflecting off their backs as they acknowledged my presence, now standing outside in the cool, clear night. This is the third encounter I’ve had with wild horses at night, and each one is magical and for some reason, completely calming to my soul. I went back to my sleeping bag, grateful for the visitors, and soon fell back asleep. Soon after, I was awoken to what I thought were footsteps outside of my tent. After listening for a bit longer, a smile crept over my face as I realized what was taking place. I unzipped the door slightly to see one of my new friends kneeling down to turn in for the night… right outside my tent. It was pretty special.

"Wiiiiiiild horses.... couldn't drag me away...."

The next morning I rose early, planning to get a run in and then drive back to Colorado Springs for a tour of the Air Force Academy. The crazy/nice old woman had told me I could use the bathroom again in the morning, so I hiked over with my stuff to wash up. She must have heard me and came out with a cup of coffee, which officially turned the table for me that this woman was awesome. Oh wait it gets better…

She asked me a bit about my trip – what I was doing, where I was going, what my job was like in LA. When I mentioned that I had been out in Colorado running up and down the mountains, she got really excited. She pointed out “monkey rock,” an exposed face of the mountain in front of me that did, legitimately look like a monkey. Apparently, it was customary to have races on the ranch which involved hanging a confederate flag from the monkey’s mouth and then running up the mountain to capture the flag and back down.

“The best is 18 minutes. You know, with legs like that, I bet you could beat the boys.”

That was all I needed to hear. I did it in 16:20 and am now a star at the ranch. I left before signing autographs.

The rest of the day was very enjoyable, with a little running, relaxing, eating a delicious lunch and getting a first class tour of the Air Force Academy from Miss Jolie G. The other awesome thing that happened was that I got my first real shower for awhile and let me tell you, that felt amazing. I knew whomever was sitting on the plane with me the next day would be appreciative as well. I hated the fact that my head was still a wreck, and I tried not to focus on what should be happening, but rather what was. But it was hard. I had tried to forgive and forget. I had tried to move on from what was consuming me. But I was not yet ready. And something just wasn’t letting me truly let go. If you know me at all, you understand that I am a big believer in signs – and let me tell you, the universe was throwing some heavy shit in my direction that I just couldn’t ignore. At one point, it even got biblical. The message was clear: I was not yet done enduring, and I was not allowed to stop loving. Sure, I could just ignore the truth – but what was happening to me was a direct result of others doing this. If I, too, ignored the truth, my pain would only be transferred to someone else. Not in this life, people.

As I boarded the plane Monday morning, after turning in the broken Yaris and checking the dirt encrusted remains of my adventure, I was torn. On one hand, I felt remarkably blessed and accomplished. All said and done, I had just thrown together an adventure through some of the most treasured and revered landmarks in our country and spent time celebrating happiness with some of my very best friends. On the other, I had been fully convinced that I would find peace out here, and instead my heart was now at war. I was desperately looking for the answers of what to do next, and I had done everything I could think of to find them. I searched high and low across grassy meadows, through aspen groves, out over beautiful expanses, in sparkling lakes and up and over peak after peak. Shit. I even searched under glaciers, but in the words of Bono – I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

One thing's for sure though: I'm not going to quit looking. This is a journey of distance, space and time and unlike a race, none of these things are fixed. And the course isn't marked. And I declined a pacer.