Colorado Episode 1

I've been in Colorado for four days now and I have been making good use of my time.

On my first day here I ran a lovely half marathon. And I'm afraid I have already spoiled the story! I don't often do half marathons but this one appealed to me because it was billed as America's highest downhill half marathon. My desired participation cost me more anxious moments in my planning than any other aspect of this trip. So many different things could go wrong and stop me reaching the start line. The problem was that my flight from Melbourne was supposed to touch down in Dallas, Texas on Friday afternoon and by Saturday 7.15am I had to be at the parking lot for the race organiser's bus to take me to the race start. The parking lot was in Georgetown, Colorado. It was a point to point race, Loveland ski area to Georgetown, and you had to take the bus from the finish line to the start.

I had it all planned down to a T, at least in my head. I booked a flight from Dallas to Denver, hoping my flight from Melbourne would arrive in Dallas roughly on time. I booked a rental car at Denver airport. I didn't pre-enter the race and I didn't book a hotel for the night before the race, just in case something went wrong. This was my version of hedging my bets.

It all worked out, although my flight to Dallas left two hours late. My budget flight from Dallas to Denver was dead on time. I drove from Denver 40 kms to a town half way between the airport and the race location as I had intended; I didn't want to drive too far that evening with all the flying I had just done and the 15 hour time difference, but I wanted to get out of the Denver metro area so my drive early on Saturday morning would be straightforward. I had a hotel in mind but when I got there it was full. Luckily I soon found another hotel close by. I stepped across the road to eat at Village Inn; unfortunately they were under staffed that evening and my meal took forever. I was so hungry, and also so tired.

Mount Bierstadt

Saturday morning I found the race bus pickup location in Georgetown easily, registered for the race and had a nice chat with a local runner on the bus on the way - uphill - to the race start. It was cold at the start at the Loveland ski hill but there was a prospect of a warm day. I didn't feel nervous at all, and was able to breathe up at the 12,000 ft elevation, quite a relief. The start area was a huge parking lot with an antiquated chairlift, and there were traces of snow on the surrounding mountains.

We started on a dirt trail heading into the woods. Fir trees all around. There were some waterfalls and an old bridge to cross. I struggled at the start and ran very slowly, but as fast as I could manage. I must have been surrounded by acclimatized locals as they all poured past me. Never mind, I had no time goals and it was a bit of an experiment to run at such high altitude 14 hours after arriving in Colorado. The early part was distinctly downhill. 

After a while we moved onto a sealed bike path. I had thought that the middle section of the route would be more rolling with some uphill, but even this had little real uphill. Then we moved onto the frontage road alongside I-70. As we turned onto this road there was a longish gradual uphill and I really struggled with that. I walked for a bit. I started running again and almost immediately I noticed a race bib fly out of the waist pack of a runner ahead of me; she continued on, oblivious. As I drew alongside the fallen bib (which had the timing chip attached) I picked it up to give to her when I could catch up; she wasn't much ahead of me but catching anyone was hard for me. She was rummaging in her pack and then settled back into her stride. All of a sudden she stopped and looked around in panic. I waved the bib in the air and finally managed to return it. She sped on ahead of me and from then on it became my goal to catch up to her, although she pulled well away.

We ran alongside the very noisy Clear Creek for several kilometres, through a gorge. It was lovely. I didn't feel too bad, maybe because we had descended a lot. I picked up the pace a bit. We ran through a small town, Silver Plume, and then had the real downhill of the race. It was wonderful, not too steep but definitely downhill. I passed lots of runners. I felt great. 

Then there was a flat portion as we came into Georgetown, which was hard, but nothing like as hard as the final 400 metres to the finish line: uphill! My legs just refused to play the game. It was a gargantuan effort to get them moving and I slowed to a snail's pace. This was obviously due to the effects of trying to make an uphill effort at altitude. What was maybe even worse, I had just in those last few metres passed the runner whose bib I had picked up, and I didn't want to be re-passed on the finish line. Reader, I made it. I was hot and exhausted. 

In quick succession I had a popsicle, got my race time from the computer (2:07), ate a bagel and a bratwurst and tried (but failed) to drink a beer. Then I drove to my hotel in Idaho Springs feeling very pleased with myself.

The next day, Sunday, I drove to Echo Lake to do the Chicago Lakes hike. There were already thirty or forty cars in the parking lot by 8:30am. It was a beautiful day. The hike was busy. After initial stretches in forest and then following a dirt road I came out into the open and the real stuff: an endless alpine meadow, views of mountains in every direction and a perfect blue sky. Lots of little wildflowers, some birds. This is why I came to Colorado.

I ambled along happily, not really affected by the altitude even though I was pretty high up. Eventually I came to the first of the two lakes, it was bigger than I expected and the trail didn't go especially close. At the far end was a steep hillside still covered in snow which I had to ascend. Beyond this ridge top was the second lake. It was one of those perfect alpine lakes, flanked by mountains. I sat on a rock overlooking the lake, but not for long as it was very windy.

The walk back was more tiring. I hadn't brought enough water. For the record I also hadn't brought my camera and I had forgotten to put on my trail shoes. I think I was still suffering from jet lag. For a complete contrast I went to Starbucks when I got back into town.

On Monday morning I decided to hike my first 14er (Colorado mountain over 14,000 ft), Mt Bierstadt (although I did Pikes Peak in 2011). About a million other people had the same idea. It was again a beautiful day. I could see the summit from the parking lot but it was three and a half miles away.

We were above the tree line right from the start. The first stretch involved extensive boardwalks and a river crossing on slippery stepping stones. The worst part of the climbing came in two sections, both very steep steps of switchbacks and completely draining. I tried not to stop and rest but I was at the limit of my fitness. In between was easy, level hiking. Thee was only one substantial patch of snow to cross. As we were above the tree line the views were magnificent, snow-speckled mountains, tier upon tier, and for a long time I could look back and see my starting point.

Eventually I got to the final slope, covered in boulders. The path became quite indistinct but it was easy to scramble on the rocks, despite the altitude. I remember on Pikes Peak I could hardly move forward once I got above 13,000 ft but here I felt ok. There was a full house on the summit, at least thirty people. From here we could see the top of adjacent Mt Evans (which can be reached by road) and hundreds of other peaks. There was a frozen lake just below the summit and other small lakes.

I came down slowly. It was by now very hot but many people were just setting out. On the way back to town I stopped to eat lunch by a rushing creek, just below a waterfall.

On Tuesday I thought I would do something easier but it never turns out that way. Instead of taking it easy I headed for Mt Stanley, which is only a 12er, on a path leaving from the parking area at Berthoud Pass. The weather forecast was for wind.

I had the path to myself, for a change, and as it turned out this could have been a real shame. The path started in fir forest, climbing fairly sharply; then after crossing the day's only patch of snow there was a wonderful stretch of ridge line with expansive views. At the end of this ridge were a series of steep switchbacks. This part was nicely sheltered but at the top of the switchbacks I suddenly turned into a strong wind, and the trail remained windy like this until I returned to the switchbacks. I couldn't wear my hat.

The walking was along a series of ridges; I could see the path far into the distance and I kept wondering which peak was my destination. After about 90 minutes I thought I should be getting close (it was 3 1/2 miles to Mt Stanley) but the path kept heading into the distance. I was delighted to see a woman with her dog walking towards me. I asked her if she had been to Mt Stanley and she said no, she was looking for it but the trail went downhill and then she couldn't work out which way to continue so she had turned back. This was a pity but I decided to go forward in the hope of finding my destination. As the woman had said, the path started to go steeply downhill, which didn't make sense according to what I had read about the hike, and also I couldn't see anything within a mile ahead of me that looked any higher than where I was walking, ie a mountain summit, so reluctantly I turned back. But first I did some descending, which caused me to do some unnecessary, difficult ascending when I decided to turn back.

As I was again approaching the place where I had stopped to chat I noticed that there was a rock-strewn peak jutting up to my right. On a whim I went off the trail and scrambled up the rocks. This was Mt Stanley! There was a geological survey inscription confirming this and also the feature of the summit that I had read about: a 'throne' made up of small rocks, which you can sit on to admire the views, making a sheltered spot on the windswept peak. The path didn't go right to the summit, it seems, but sidled past it.

So when I stopped to chat to the woman we had already passed the peak. It was sad that she would never know I had found it and I would never know if she had noticed it on her way back, unless I bumped into her on my way down, which was unlikely as I had wasted so much time going ahead on the trail. I was happy, anyway.


On my way down, ironically, I encountered several groups of hikers coming up. The wind was getting stronger and I rushed down. I noticed lakes I had not spotted on the way up, and a waterfall becoming a river. Because of the wind it was very pleasant to return into the forest.

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