Thursday, March 10, 2011

Colorado: Day 5 - New Heights and Remembrance

Today Delaware and I woke up exceedingly early to do something I've never done before. Our goal for today was to climb a mountain. A 14,000 foot peak. I've never climbed a mountain, nor have I ever been higher than about 10,000 ft(not counting airplane rides or Loveland Pass on I-70). I have never done anything physically demanding above 10,000 ft. There, that's more accurate.

I had many concerns going in. First of all, 5 days ago I was in Kansas City, elevation 1000 ft. This is a recurring theme of my week...ALTITUDE! Secondly, I have no mountaineering experience, so an obvious first choice is to do at 14er that's covered in snow. Brilliant, Daniel! Other minor concerns had to do with the little things like layering and what to bring, and that all ended up working out just fine. I also did a quick bit of research on HAPE(High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), a life threatening acute syndrome. It turns out you'd have to spend several days at altitude and it only affects roughly 1% of the population. With all of those matters settled, Delaware and I headed out for the front range to have an adventure.

We started the hike in around 7ish. I didn't bring a watch. The road to the trailhead was impassable due to being buried in snow, so we had an extra few miles of uphill trudging just to get to the "start of the hike". We both wore yaktrax and they worked pretty well. It was slow going and I was definitely breathing hard. Once we reached the trailhead, we stopped for some touristy pictures and then strapped on our snowshoes because we found we were sinking thigh deep into the snow in spots.

Another First for Danny: Snowshoeing. Never done it. And it was mighty awkward at first. The video footage of me taking my first few steps in them is pretty classic. I'll have that video edited and posted as some point, but it's gonna take awhile(It's up now). I more or less was walking like a duck.

We snowshoed through a long gulley and around a large mound and then our prize came into sight. Grays Peak. The 9th highest peak in Colorado. It is said to be one of the easiest 14ers in Colorado, which makes it quite popular. I've heard it described as an "interstate highway" due to the usual amount of traffic going up and down it. These things are all true about this peak....during the Summer. As it was, on this particular day in March, it was covered in snow and we had the entire mountain to ourselves. This was both good and bad. Good because, you know, solitude, becoming one with nature, getting to yell silly things and listen for the echo. Bad because...well...we didn't exactly know where we were going and the trail was really hard to locate, especially since parts of it were under snow.

After snowshoeing for a few miles, we switched back to our yaktrax for the business end of the ascent. It was a mixture of snow and rocks and the showshoes would have just gotten in the way at that point. We also each had brought an ice axe. Neither of us had ever used one, but we understood the basic principles of its use and how to use one to arrest a fall down a steep snowy slope. I just hoped I wouldn't have to put that knowledge to the test.

The first technical section presented itself. A steeply slanted traverse on hard packed snow. It was difficult to kick footholds into the snow and there was much slipping, sliding, and possibly cursing. As the traverse progressed, the theoretical unpleasantness of a full-on fall increased dramatically. I was very nervous that I might actually have to put some of my unpracticed ice axe knowledge into use. Several times I stopped to contemplate exactly what the hell I was doing there. It was these moments when I would look to Delaware for some sign that he wanted to turn around as well. "What do you think?" "Is this the right way?" "Should be even be up here in these conditions?" From way back in our climbing days this was always the hierarchy. Jake and Del were always gung-ho and I was the voice of "reason", or the voice of "Will this kill us?". I presented legitimate concerns, and they always told me that we were all gonna be like The Fonz. And then they'd ask me "What's The Fonz like?". And I would respond, "He's cool." And they would then say, "Exactamundo. He's cool, and we're gonna be cool."

For some reason it always calmed me down, and we were always ok in the end, despite being in more than a handful of hairy situations.

This was no different. I was nervous and Delaware was reassuring. I decided we'd get to the end of this traverse and see what it looked like before we made any decisions. I think there were at least 5 separate moments like this during our day.

So we continued. As I mentioned before, the trail was difficult to follow sometimes, and we definitely got WAY off route on the way up. We followed a trail up to a rock cairn and then the trail disappeared. We contemplated mobbing this way or that way, but none of the options seemed any good, but we picked one and traversed across an unsettling and blank snow face. And then mobbed straight uphill on a rocky section until we found the real-deal trail. And keep in mind that I'm gasping for air the entire time and I've never done anything like this before. Ever. And definitely not at 13,000 feet.

Once we found The Trail, a cursory glance downward showed us where we had gone wrong and reassured us that the descent wouldn't be quite as much of a clusterf*ck. The new concern was this: "Uh, what time is it?"

1:30 pm. Our absolute fail-safe, no-questions-asked cutoff time was Summit By 2 pm. Or turn around. We were already well past 13k, but the summit still appeared to be so far away. I began worrying that the descent might take longer than we thought. I imagined getting stranded on the mountain overnight and dying of hypothermia. My mind was already creating the headlines, "Yahoo Midwesterner Dies During Winter Attempt Of His First 14er.".

We soldiered on anyways. Being on the correct trail was very reassuring however, and the final switchbacks came and went relatively quickly. Suddenly, we were on the ridge. It was a short 30-40 yards to the summit. I couldn't freaking believe it! We were there!

Delaware hung back and allowed me to summit first, meanwhile getting out his video camera to document the moment properly. I strode up to the small pile of rocks that represented the highest point on the mountain. I stepped on top of the pile and let out a hearty yell in celebration. I then swept the horizon and took in the view.

We had reached the summit at 1:45...15 minutes to spare! We took some triumphant summit photos and goofed around a little bit and then I remembered something that I hadn't thought about in a long time. An old climbing buddy.

Bowen Pope was a heck of a guy. Always smiling, always upbeat, always up for an adventure. I remembered on one particular climbing trip, we were all hiking around when he approached a small pile of rocks, climbed on top of them and proudly proclaimed, "I have summited." We all giggled, but he insisted that any time you stand on the highest point of any object, be it a mountain, a small hill, or a lowly pile of rocks...that constituted "summiting".

Bowen died of cancer in Fall 2008 at the age of 30. I decided at that exact moment that this summit, my first summit, my first 14er....this summit was for him. I made a little video dedication to him on the summit and then thought about him. And I thought about myself. And I thought about where I was, both at that moment as well as in life. I thought about what I was doing. Bowen's life was cut tragically short, yet I am fortunate enough to have incredible health and opportunities to do amazing things. I contemplated whether I was doing his memory justice in the way that I was living my life.

This moment for me was an emotional punch to the solar plexus as I was overwhelmed with these thoughts. I missed my old friend, I was thankful for the life I've been given, I felt humbled and awestruck by the beauty that surrounded me in every direction, and for just a moment, I broke down.

After I composed myself, Del and I pointed our feet downhill and began the descent. One thing I know for a fact is that more mountaineers die on the descent than on the ascent. This makes sense because of the fact that many climbers let their guards down and get careless after the "hard part" is over. I was eager to get back to the car because I was downright exhausted, but I kept this in mind...sorta. I found the descent to be 100% easier, both as far as exertion and as far as keeping my footing. Maybe that had to do with the fact that we were actually on the proper trail this time, but who could honestly tell? The descent FLEW by, with the exception that Delaware's yaktrax kept coming off. We marched down the hill, got through the first tricky traverse from earlier...this part was actually just as tricky the 2nd time through and I actually legitimately fell a few times, but I was able to avoid sliding down the slope due to my totally awesome ice axe skillzz. We got back to snowshoe territory, strapped in, and settled in for the long trudge back to the trailhead, down the snow-covered road, and back to the car. We were both exhausted and hungry but utterly satisfied with how our day had gone.

The weather was absolutely perfect. Chilly, but not too cold. Not a cloud in the sky. Occasional mild winds, and barely a light breeze on the summit. I will admit that we both overlooked sunscreen and we both are now incredibly sunburned on our faces.

Worth it.

I couldn't have asked for a better experience for my first time climbing a mountain, and I was thrilled to have a guy like Delaware along for the adventure.

Here's the GPS readout from our journey.

A good friend of mine, a below-the-knee amputee, is training for an Ironman and raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, so if you'd like to support the cause please make a donation in memory of Bowen Pope(or anybody else you know who has suffered from this horrible disease).

As always, thanks so much for reading! It has been one hell of a week, and it's back to the Midwest for me!

Danny Loental

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Colorado: Day 4

Today more or less consisted of half of an actual rest day and then a training day. Del and I pretty much lounged around the apartment complaining about how sore this or that was from yesterday's "restful" activities. We were planning on meeting up with Jess and another friend for a 7 mile trail run around 3:30. When we got out there, we were met with incredibly strong winds which convinced the girls to turn around halfway and head back to their cars, but Del and I soldiered on into the tempest.

Honestly, it felt like I was dragging a parachute. After a while longer we found some shelter as the trail wound through some trees and then mercifully changed direction and went downhill. It was a great trail with some fun technical sections and it wound through some large fields that allegedly contained free-range livestock, but we never saw any. The views of the Flatirons and the front-range were quite breathtaking...or maybe that was the altitude punching me in the solar plexus again....hard to tell. It was another huffing-and-puffing run for me as Delaware again flaunted the fact that he is more acclimated to the altitude than I am. I took some video and after I edit it down and add some music to drown out the horrible wind noise, I'll post it HERE. But it won't be there quite yet, as I have to go to bed very soon.
(UPDATE: Video is now posted)

Tomorrow, Del and I are getting up bright and early to do something I've never done before. I won't spoil it just yet, but I'll give you a hint.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Colorado: Day 3....the "rest day"

After yesterday's unexpectedly high mileage, I thought it might be prudent to take a day off from running and do some of what they call "cross training". For a very long time I thought cross training referred to cross country running or biking. But as it turns out, it just means doing something other than what you usually do with the goal of being a more well-rounded athletic dude or being a less-injured athletic dude.

Today, my goal was get some more of that precious high-altitude exercise but give my running gears a break so I don't end up with any of the following absolutely delightful physical afflictions: ITBS(ilio-tibial band syndrome...been there), achilles tendonitis(been there), plantar fasciitis(been there, noticing a pattern?), or a stress fracture(luckily have NOT been there, fingers crossed). The plan for the day was some swimming, some yoga, and maybe something else non-impact if the opportunity presented itself.

This trip has really turned into what seems to be the official beginning of my training season. And what better way to kickstart a year of training and racing than with a week with a great buddy at altitude? Except here's the funny part. I've already done a 50k this season. Is it weird to anybody else that I'm "starting my training" after I've already completed one of the hardest races I'll do all year?

But I digress...

The day started off with a 5:30 am reveille to make it to Jess's swim class on time. We paid $7 for our day pass to the North Boulder Rec Center and were determined to get our money's worth. The swim class was an hour long and I got in 1400 yards, also my first swim since Julyish. My form is still more or less what it was when I did the Ironman, I was just a little shorter of breath than I remembered. Altitude and neglect will do that. One interesting thing for me is that I've never had anybody watching me swim before. Or maybe they watched, but they didn't know diddly squat about what a swimmer should look like, and if they did, they certainly never mentioned anything to me. I've always assumed that my form sucked, but it worked well enough to accomplish my goals, so I didn't sweat it too much. Long story short, I was curious what horrible things the swim coach would have to say.

"You don't kick much. And when you do kick your legs flail like a drowning horse(paraphrasing here). If you're going to not kick, at least 'not kick' more smoothly."

So I tried and I can't really tell if it was helping or not because I was fatiguing and everything else was getting sloppy too. Regardless, I appreciated the advice and it was a good workout.

Jess went to work, Del and I had some lunch and then returned to the gym. We ended up foregoing yoga for something else. Racquetball!

"Hey Danny, wasn't today supposed to be a low-impac..."

RACQUETBALL!?!?!? I haven't played racquetball in YEARS!!! We got a couple racquets and hit the courts. I was surprised to find out that I'm still halfway decent at the game. I still have some of my old technique and strategy and by the end of a 4 game series split 2-2, my serves were even starting to look less shitty. It should be noted that in my long and illustrious career of competitive sports, I have personally won ONE trophy. I got 2nd place in a racquetball tournament in high school. The guy who won had a mullet and was dating the girl I had a crush on, so we can safely assume he was an asshole through and through.

"That's great, but this doesn't really sound like much of a rest da..."

After racquetball, we spied the empty basketball courts next door and decided that we needed to be reminded how awful we are at it. The results are in. We are abysmal. I spent some time attempting to make 2 free throws in a row. It never happened. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what effect all of this running had had on my jumping abilities. I was absolutely floored to find that I can get TWO knuckles above the rim of a 10 foot basketball goal. It used to be a "graze the rim with my fingers" affair. I'm making arrangements to enter next year's NBA draft. Either that or I'll walk-on at KU. We ended this embarrassment with a rousing game of HORSE that may or may not have lasted 30 minutes. The high point, though, was my insistence that I win with a half-court shot. Which I did. It was epic in absolutely every way imaginable.

"Um...Danny, you're kind of an idiot. All of these activities are high impact...more high impact than running even....seriously....jumping and trying to touch the rim of a basketball goal? More than an hour of racquetball? You're a moron."

I'm calling my rest day a full success. I admit that tomorrow I'm probably going to be sore in new and exciting ways, but I'm ready to run again.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Colorado: Day 2

As predicted, the weather today was indeed sketchy. Del and I went for a run around noon, but not before he spent a good 10 minutes scraping his car windows. The plan was to follow the trail up Boulder Canyon and get in 5-6 miles. It was below freezing and it was intermittently spitting snow, sleet, and "other". The pavement was slick, so we ran in the dirt whenever possible. After a few miles, we hit a section that had apparently been in the shade all winter and was frozen solid. Then the trail more or less ended, so we just ran along the road.

I need to say something about the town of Boulder. It is a severe understatement to state that this is a "pedestrian friendly town". Cars will come to a screeching halt if you are anywhere near a crosswalk. Bikes pretty much always have the right-of-way. There are "power-trip crosswalks", as Delaware calls them, where you press the button and cars immediately get the signal to stop. It's refreshing to live in a town where such a large majority of the inhabitants spend at least some of their time being pedestrians, either on foot or on wheels. This gives them a heightened awareness and appreciation of other walkers/runners/cyclists when they are driving their cars.

So, there we are running on the shoulder of a two-lane, twisty-turny highway that winds through Boulder Canyon. As the cars approach, my mind prepares to tell my body to dive into the bushes in the event that a car buzzes us uncomfortably close. This doesn't happen. Every single car that passes us slows down and moves over, giving us more room than we actually need, just to be safe. Nobody honks at us. Nobody yells profanities out the window or tells us to "get the f#ck off the damn road".

This is NOT the Midwest.

As we approach the halfway point for a 5-6 mile run, we spy a trail. We didn't know where it went, but we could only tell that it went "up". Steeply. Keep in mind, we had already been going uphill for the entirety of the run up to this point. Why not do a little exploring and turnaround after another half mile or so?

So we went up. And up. And up some more. I have to say that Del is a monster and was running up these 30-40 degree inclines. I ran some of it, but walked quite a bit. We passed 4 miles and realized that we were almost at the top of something, so why the hell not keep following the trail? The trail met up with a road and we decided that it seemed like an agreeable point to head back down the way we had come. The descent was exhilarating! Del and I flew down and were back to the road in no time. The stretch back to the car was downhill the whole way, but I was tired and still had difficulty keeping pace with Delaware. We ended our "5-6 mile run" at close to 9 miles. Oh well....planning is for the poor.

One thing that was made clear to me today is this: If you want to become "hard" like so many other Boulder-based do stuff like this constantly. You find monstrous hills and you run up them. If I lived here, this would easily be a go-to route for me.

This is the elevation profile for today's run. Yes, it looks like a tit. I giggled too. 4 more days of this, and then I'm back to Kansas of oxygen-rich air and angry motorists.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Colorado: Arrival and Day 1

This trip has been a long time coming for me. After quite a stressful OB/Peds rotation, I was ready for a break and some time away. Colorado seemed like an obvious choice because I have good friends here, there are mountains, trails, and clean, crisp air.

I arrived Saturday afternoon, running on about an hour of sleep because of a late bar shift the night before and my decision to volunteer at a trail race that morning. Del picked me up and we grabbed some food and then headed to Nederland, CO where they were holding the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days. This is otherwise known as "the one day every year when Nederland, CO has more than 100 people in it". From a polar plunge with "costumes encouraged" to a hearse parade, to "coffin races", and frozen turkey ice bowling, this festival had "it all". I won't go into detail about what "it all" was, but I will mention that in the coffin races, they had very few criteria about what constituted a "coffin". It more or less had to be an open container of some kind with a person, representing the deceased, lying in it while their teammates negotiated a snowy obstacle course. The thin air up here(~9000-10,000 ft) certainly has a strange effect on what people deem to be entertainment.

That night we met up with some friends in Ft. Collins, had some food and beers, and then headed home for some well-deserved sleep.

Sunday morning I woke up just in time for some oooold climbing club friends from back in the day to show up. Chris and Michelle Brooks(The Brooki) were the climbing club officers when I first took up the sport back in 2000. In other words, they knew me back when I was Awkward Danny. After roughly an hour of talking about climbing, somebody suggested that we actually do some of it. So we did. We drove up to the Flatirons trailhead, guidebook in hand, and set out to free-solo the 2nd Flatiron. It was a 5.0 700 foot slab with tons of 4th class scrambling. It was my first climb in a year and a half as well as my first free-solo. Neither Jess nor Michelle had ever free-soloed either. I brought my camera and took some video which you can watch here.
It was nice to be climbing again, especially on such easy terrain that wouldn't aggravate my shoulders which are more or less useless for difficult climbing these days. I still had all the technique that I had back then, but my nerves were shot. Periodically, I would simply freeze and my mind wouldn't let me do the move. It was all super easy climbing, but it was hard to put certain thoughts out of my head in order to get through it. Thoughts of losing my footing, a hold breaking...tumbling down a slab for several hundred feet. Obviously, I'm writing this, so everybody knows that none of those things happened. I had my little moments and I got through them.

It was just surreal being back in that world after so long and finding myself moving over stone again. And without ropes. :-)

After climbing we ate lunch and sampled some delicious stouts at a local brewpub. The Brooki headed back to Ft. Collins and we headed home. Jess headed into the office to get a head start on work for the week and Del and I geared up for my first Colorado trail run, a 5 mile out-and-back.

Kansas City's elevation is roughly 1000 feet. Boulder, CO is around 5500 feet. Those two numbers, it should be noted, are not the same. It should also be noted that apparently there is a lower percentage of oxygen in the air at higher elevations. I was huffing air within the first quarter mile(which was actually quite a steep uphill), but nonetheless, I was at a breathing deficit compared to what I'm used to. Delaware had not been running all season and was easily outpacing me as I pitifully gasped for air. I wasn't able to catch my breath until we hit the turnaround and I stopped to relieve myself. Once we turned back towards the trailhead, I found I was breathing easier and able to keep up with Delaware much easier. Though that could also be due to the fact that he got a nasty stitch in his side and might have eased up on the pace. Either way, I was running comfortably and I beat him back to the car by maybe a minute. Great run, no pain, plenty of painfully obvious physiological responses to the altitude by my body. Among these are: "Dude, where's the oxygen?" and "Dear kidneys, we'd like some more red blood cells. We kan haz erythropoiesis?"

All in all, a fantastic first day! I hope to get in some more, longer trail runs and really explore what Boulder has to offer! Tomorrow's weather is expected to be sketchy, so we'll see what happens.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Favorite new word...

Got this one from Sophie and Ben...

Couch Po-taper: The week of rest leading up to a race that you didn't actually train for.