Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Plan B on the Spanish Peaks: 2020 MURCA Virtual 50K


The Spanish Peaks first caught my attention in 2003. Searching for a hiking destination, I stumbled upon a picture of the eastern most 13’er & 12’er in the U.S. and instantly became obsessed with the two impressive peaks.  Not yet an ultra-runner, the idea that someone could run up a mountain would not have occurred to me and at the time I had never hiked above 11,000 feet.  That first trip to the Cuchara valley was life changing. I would return to explore the area over the next few summers hiking both West & East Spanish Peaks, Teddy’s Peak, Trinchera Peak, Quatro Peak, Leaning Peak, & Boyd’s mountain, and had made nearby trips north to the Wet Mountains and west to the Sangre de Christo’s around Blanca Peak. A deep love of the mountains was born in the Cuchara Valley. Becoming a trail and ultrarunner in the years since first setting eyes on “the Wahatoya”, I discovered that running in the mountains is not only possible, but that I was pretty good at it. I’ve been fortunate to run in many other mountain ranges since those early days; but lately had been feeling a strong pull back to the Spanish Peaks. When MURCA announced a 3rd annual Virtual 50K, it was just the excuse I needed for a return to the Cuchara Valley after 12 years away.

MURCA, or the Marine Ultra Runners Club of America, is a group of Ultra-Running Marine Veterans. Made up of current and former Marines, it’s a group of legitimate bad-asses. It doesn’t take a long look at the MURCA Facebook page to understand these men & women are awesome. There are huge, epic, & humbling accomplishments posted every day! I am honored to be a member and have met great people both online and in-person since joining their ranks. As I said in last year's V50K run report; more than just a Facebook group, MURCAns across the country (and around the world) reach out, encourage, and support each other; it’s tangible. It’s a positive and motivating environment that also provides me with the connection to Marines that I'd been missing since leaving active duty ten years ago. 

One Marine who especially embodied this MURCA spirit was Bob “Iceman” Coolidge. In many ways, the Iceman is MURCA. Never having met in person, we developed a great relationship over face book. I became accustomed to seeing his input and positivity on my feed about not only ultra-running, but life in general. He was interested in my family, my work, and me not just as a runner but as a former Marine. We exchanged messages about running and anything else. Just brimming with positive vibes and encouragement, his phrases like “Getchu-some” and “nothing but a thang” started to weave their way into my vocabulary. And it wasn’t just me, many MURCAns have described a similar relationship with the Iceman and many more were fortunate enough to meet him in person. I too, looked forward to meeting him in the flesh at a future race. Bob passed away while travelling in February. A Marine’s Marine and instant friend to all Murcans; it is beyond fitting that the Murca V50K Most Epic Award is now named for him (an award he won in 2019 when he rocked out a 50K shortly after surviving a heart attack!). 

The 2020 MURCA V50K is also once again a fundraiser for the Warriors Keep, a non-profit organization whose “…mission is to unite, empower, and enhance the quality of life for veterans with the use of outdoor adventure and recreational therapies”.  The 2020 MURCA V50k window was here; it was time to run for Warriors Keep, time to run for the Iceman, and time to go on an epic adventure worthy of MURCA!  

With a 3am wake-up on Sunday morning, I set out for the Cuchara valley from my home in Topeka Kansas. I’d recently made some minor “overland” modifications to the X-Terra making it more suitable for trips to the wilderness and car camping and was excited to see it in action. It was good to get out on the open road. As the Director of a Health Center, I’d been going a thousand miles an hour since February due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a deep exhale as I drove out of Topeka, it was like a weight was lifting. For weeks it had looked like this adventure wouldn’t be able to happen among travel bans and quarantines. Kansas had moved into “phase three” of the re-opening plan and Colorado had no Kansas travel restrictions in place. The case rates in the counties I would be visiting were very low (or zero) and going dirt-bag style would mean very limited human interaction. I had also left the health center in the more-than-capable hands of a leadership team who had been right there doing great things on the front lines of the pandemic. As a Healthcare professional, I felt confident my adventure was safe and responsible but more than anything, I felt grateful that it was happening. After a 10-hour drive I was in the Cuchara Valley scouting out the trail head and doing a short run around 11,000 feet. Feeling good to be back in the mountains, I drove down to around 8,000 feet, found a good camping spot on the shores of Monument Lake, ate one of my Wife’s awesome sandwiches, got my gear ready for the next day, and tried to get some sleep.  

The original plan was to set out from the Cordova Pass Trailhead (11,243 ft) and summit West Spanish Peak (WSP) via the Southwest ridge route, drop back down the ridge route and hit the Apishapa Trail connecting it to the long and unforgiving Wahatoya Trail that, according to the map, descends around the south side of WSP only to climb up again to the saddle between WSP and East Spanish Peak (ESP). From there it would be a scramble up the west ridge of ESP and retracing the path back on the Wahatoya, the Apishapa, and finally, the WSP trail to the trail head. According to my official map, this would put me right at 32 miles and around 10,000 – 12,000 feet of vert. But things don’t always go as planned in the mountains.  It already started going awry on Sunday night as I climbed into the sleeping bag nursing a massive headache. This was new for me. My modus operandi for running at altitude is to arrive and immediately do some running & hiking around 10,000 to 11,000 feet, forcing my body to work. I then drop down to around 8,000 feet or below to sleep. The next day, I’m always good-to-go for ultras up high. Climb high, sleep low. Doing this on more trips than I can remember, altitude had just never caused any issues beyond slowing my pace a little. However, past performance at altitude never predicts future success or so I’d heard…I was about to see for myself.

I awoke headache-free at 0330 on Monday morning and made the drive back up to the Cordova Pass trail-head for a “first-light” start. Normally, I prefer Alpine starts but with WSP’s intimidating west ridge only a couple miles from the trail head, it would be better to not climb in the dark. With no actual trail up the steep ridge, it is class 2 unless you wander off course in which case there is plenty of class 3 & 4 to be found. I stepped off at 0520 and made short work of the approach trail and the switchbacks up to tree-line. At 13,628 feet, WSP looms over the whole region and while the standard route starts at 11,243 feet, it gains the final 1,600 feet to the summit in less than 1 mile. Hitting the ridge, my pace really fell off. Even in the morning light, I somehow got off route and ended up doing a lot of class 3 scrambling. I knew it was a bad start to the day as the minutes were ticking…     

Looking back down the class 2 portion.
Finally, I hit the summit ridge and ran up to the top, took some pictures and enjoyed one of the finest views in all of Colorado as I looked back home to Kansas, south to New Mexico and Wheeler Peak, west to the snow covered Culebra range, northwest to Blanca, Lindsey, and the Sangre de Christos, and North to the Wet Mountains and Pike’s Peak just barely visible beyond. On the way up, I had gotten frustrated about losing so much time, but standing there on the Summit it didn’t matter. There would be a chance to make up time with a quick descent; besides, the summit was a reminder of why I was there…of what I was doing. It was supposed to be hard. As I usually do in the mountains, I thought of Anatoli Boukreev’s words

“…mountains are a completely different world…You cannot conquer them, only rise to their height for a short time; and for that they demand a great deal. The struggle is not with the enemy, or a competitor like in sports, but with yourself, with the feelings of weakness and inadequacy. That struggle appeals to me”

I was certainly feeling slow and inadequate but like Iceman would say, “ain’t nothin but a thang”. It was time to get moving again. Dropping down the west ridge was fast. Maybe too fast as the quads were really working. Having just decided in a moment of Zen on the summit that time didn’t matter, I looked at my  COROS anyways as I hit the WSP/Apishapa trail junction; it read 13:49 pacing. Cool. If I could keep the pace reading between 10:00 & 16:00 on the roller coaster Wahatoya trail, it would more than make up for the time I lost scrambling up the class 3 crap. From the WSP/Apishapa trail junction, it was an uneventful 2-mile low grade descent to the junction with the Wahatoya trail. Actually, “uneventful” is not a word to use in the mountains. The views to the south and west were phenomenal and demanded a few picture stops!

Looking NW from the Summit. Blanca Massif in the distance.

At the 7.3-mile mark I hit the Apishapa/Wahatoya trail junction hoping to refill my water bottles. I was counting on the many stream crossings for water refills. As it turned out, the entire area was in a drought and had a burn ban in effect. The streams were bone dry. I hoped that water wouldn’t be an issue but at that point I was still feeling fine and also had on my hydration vest w/2L of water. I turned onto the Wahatoya trail and kept moving.

Not a part of either peak’s standard route, the Wahatoya trail does not get much traffic beyond out and back day-hikers from the Apishapa trail head looking for quick views of the many large dikes that jut out from all sides of the peaks. The trail climbs and descends many times as it navigates around, over, and through some of these dikes. The terrain was extremely variable. It alternated runnable single track with some of the most gnarly talus and scree I’ve ever had to run over. Running the flats & descents and power hiking the steeper talus covered climbs, the miles were now ticking off. I was feeling decent but also felt the temperature increasing. It had been windy & cold on the summit of WSP but down on the south flank of the mountain it was starting to get pretty warm. About 10 miles in, the Wahatoya trail started to fade & got tough to follow. The lack of use was really becoming apparent. At the point my watch read 12 miles the trail was completely gone and I was travelling overland, bush-whacking through wretchedly difficult terrain. All my senses were on alert and I started to worry about getting lost. The WSP wilderness is vast and unforgiving. Legend says Spanish militia never made it out of the wilderness. Supposedly, their treasure from the lost Spanish Mine is still out there somewhere.

Trail got really gnarly in places

Attempting to follow what seemed to be the most logical path, I lost a ton of time going cross country. When I climbed to the top of one of the dikes to get a look at the surrounding terrain my heart sank. It was obvious I was way off track. Achieving the saddle would be possible but would likely take many hours bushwhacking over brutal country and would put me on the ESP summit way too late in the day for a Colorado summer that’s notorious for storms. Being already far behind schedule and far off course, I decided to reverse and make my way back to the point the Wahatoya trail disappeared into the wild.

Feeling a little dejected, I followed my mental map backwards and emerged onto the trail about 45-minutes later. Now I knew why no one had ever connected the two peaks by this route. A double summit was off the table. As I ran back west along the Wahatoya trail, some mental math revealed that a run back to the trail-head without the planned ESP summit would leave me 9 miles short of a 50k. The previous night’s headache had also come back. My pace slowed dramatically and with a couple of hours already lost to bushwhacking it was shaping into a long day. The inner monologue was telling me a 22-mile day would be fine and the solo 50k at Lake Perry I had run in April would be a good MURCA 50k to turn in. The inner monologue can act like a little bitch sometimes. A bad day in the mountains is still a day in the mountains. I had the Spanish Peaks Wilderness all around and decided I would find a way to get the full distance, no matter how long it took or what route I had to run.     

Hitting the Apishapa/Wahatoya Junction again, I realized that I could run down 1.5 miles south to the Apishapa trail-head. This “little” out-and-back would leave 6 miles to make up instead of 9. Descending the 1,000 feet could also be good for the headache. I took off down Apishapa with a renewed sense of energy, bombing the many switchbacks and enjoying the changing variety of trees and geology with the descent. 
   
Apishapa/Wahatoya Junction
Whenever I’m running alone in the mountains, I talk out load to myself about decisions, options, or even just nonsense. I try to verbalize something every few minutes in order to alert big, bad animals (cougars, bears, moose, etc.) to my presence. Most of the bad encounters that humans have with these animals are due to surprising them. Bears especially want nothing to do with us and if they hear you first, you’ll never know they were there since they go in the opposite direction. Quietly hauling ass down a heavily forested mountain trail is a great way to throw a surprise party. I came off a switchback and turned onto what looked like a straight section ahead for at least 80-100 yards. I slowed my pace planning to pull out an energy gel. As soon as I switched from running to walking, I heard a sound to the right and a big black bear burst out of the bushes, crossed the trail just two feet in front of me (the way a squirrel darts in front of a car) running back into the trees on my left and launching itself up the side of a steep hill. This dude ran up that hill at full speed. It was impressive how fast something so big could move. At the moment it crossed the trail in front of me, I heard someone yell “Jesus!”, turns out it was me. The Bear stopped about 30 feet up the hill and turned to look back at me. I started talking to it:
         “dang dude…you’re big and fast…you should play football, you would be an awesome pulling guard on a sweep play…how about you go up that hill, and I’ll just keep going down this hill…nice to meet you”.

It resumed its fast climbing into the thick forest and was quickly out of view. It suddenly occurred to me to get my phone out for a quick picture or video but I wasn’t fast enough. Snapping a picture isn’t the priority when you’re trying to determine whether or not you’ll need to fight off a bear but I wish I could’ve gotten at least one picture. I’ve had one cougar, four bear, and two angry moose encounters in the mountains over the years and all I have to show for it is some low-quality video footage of a blurry cougar. With a nice shot of adrenalin from the sudden Bear-scare, I hit the Apishapa trail-head pretty fast and then turned around and started the 1,000 ft climb back up to the Wahatoya junction. I slowed down and talked loudly as I went through the Bear encounter area but Fozzie seemed to be long gone (I was hoping for a picture this time and had the camera at the ready).  

Arriving back at the junction, I made the left turn on Apishapa and started around the South-west side of the Mountain enjoying the views as much as I had earlier in the day. The rapid descent had helped the headache a little but as I made my way along the Apishapa trail in the sun, the headache returned. I was also starting to feel dehydrated as the water supply was about gone. By the time I hit the Apishapa/West Peak trail junction, I felt full-blown AMS and was having some serious nausea. My pace had gotten really slow again and I knew the clock was ticking. My Plan B “make-up” mileage plan had me going back up WSP but when I got through the switch-backs I paused at tree line to yack a little bit…that was not going to help with the dehydration.  Mentally I was ok. I could probably do a double summit of WSP but math matters and the risk/benefit just didn’t add up. Summiting again would only make-up two miles and would require going straight up over 1,600 feet again and I already had AMS pretty bad. As Ed Viesturs says “…the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory”. I had already bagged WSP today, what was I trying to prove? It was time to go down.

The second trip down the WSP switchbacks was pretty quick. Even feeling crappy, gravity helped and I was able to get into a decent flow back down the WSP trail. Out of water for the last three miles, I was very happy to see the X-Terra and getting back down to 11,000 feet seemed to help the AMS a little. I spoke for a moment with the first humans I’d seen all day. They had just come back from hiking, saw my truck stickers (and my devastated physical state) and were curious about what I was doing. I gave a quick pitch about MURCA and the Warriors Keep and told them how the day was going. They were locals and said the Wahatoya trail isn’t maintained anymore on the south side of the WSP/ESP saddle (now they tell me!). I re-filled the water, forced down a little food, made a t-shirt change, and took a moment to study the map for a plan of attack to get the remaining miles for a 50k.

The map revealed that Cordova Pass was in between two high-points. A side trail off of the WSP trail went .8 mile north and 170 feet up to UN 11,412 and some cross-country travel to the south would lead me up 350 feet to UN 11,594. These looked like interesting unofficial summits that would probably have great views. As I stepped off to the South the temperature dropped and it started to sprinkle. UN 11,594 was a wide summit with decent views to the west. The sudden pop-up rain had obscured the view a little so I didn’t spend much time on top. I bombed back down to Cordova pass and kept going north to UN 11,412. While it’s only 170 feet above the pass, this summit view was impressive. A small sign called it “Vista Point” and as the rain had cleared out as fast as it had moved in, it was obvious why. The view to WSP was awesome. It was a great perspective of the steep ridge that had kicked my ass that morning. After pausing for a few minutes to have a “sound of music” moment, I descended back to Cordova pass.

Mighty West Spanish Peak from the top of Vista Point

“Twenty-nine miles”?! Either my Coros GPS had High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and didn’t know where it was; or, I was three miles short and would need to keep going a little. Speaking of HACE, I really needed to get off this mountain so the best option was to simply run 1.5 miles out & 1.5 miles back on mountain road 46 to the Schaffer Trail head. I moved at a pretty aggressive pace on the way out, probably too aggressive because despite descending several hundred feet, the nausea returned at the Schaffer turn-around. It was then a really long mile and a half back up to Cordova pass. Hiking most of the way, I reflected on the day. I had started out hoping for an ambitious double summit and an FKT (or at least an OKT) on a link-up route that only an ultra-runner would consider doing. On some levels, the day felt like a failure. I didn’t do exactly what I had set out to do and that always leaves me second guessing my decisions and ability. Sometimes, this is what we need. Starting in 2017 I’d had a streak of wicked success running in the mountains and maybe had grown a bit cocky. I was due for a day like this.

I hit the Cordova Pass trail head and the Coros said “11:58:35”. The slowest 50K I’d ever run by far. My previous slowest was a 9:20:00 in the Kachina Peaks near Flagstaff in the summer of 2017 & my PR is 5:19:10 on the flat Shunga/Landon trails in Kansas. I didn’t even care. A bad day in the mountains is still a great day in the mountains and sometimes you learn and grow more from a suffer fest than you do if everything goes right. It didn’t go as planned but it was satisfying to get the distance done in a challenging environment. 32 miles, over 9,000 feet of gain with the majority of the day above 10,000 feet. The lowest elevation was 9,770 at the South Apishapa trailhead and the high point was the WSP summit at 13,628. A long, tough day up high. 

Feeling just completely spent, I made it down to monument lake and found a shower house in the developed side of the campgrounds. I threw down a quick sandwich and my headache and I went to sleep pretty quick.  Driving out of the Cuchara Valley and back towards home the next morning, I had plenty of time to reflect back on the run and also on those first few trips to the Spanish Peaks region. In some ways, this trip was a great lesson as an ultrarunner. Even after 15 years in the sport, nothing is ever guaranteed and that’s ok. If you succeed with no problems every time you head out the door, you don’t grow. In this way, Iceman and I had a similar outlook. You need to pick goals that scare you and are hard. Suffer fests remind us why we do this, they teach us and they give us something to fall back on later when it gets tough again. Days like this stick with us. Days like this are how ultrarunners are made. Besides, coming up short of the original plan just means I have another excuse to go back to the Cuchara Valley and do it all again!   

Thanks for reading this long run report. Thanks to MURCA for such a great event. I’ve ran all three V50k’s and am already thinking of adventures for a fourth! A huge thanks to everyone who offered words of motivation and support. Thanks to all my fellow MURCAns, I can’t wait to meet more of you in person at various races and events (assuming we ever get to race again...dang COVID). Thanks to Iceman! Even though it was short, I’m grateful for the time we were associated. Thanks to the Warriors Keep for taking on their noble mission. Please consider contributing to this worthy cause at www.thewarriorskeep.org.  

Most of all and as always huge thanks and so much love to Jessica, Alyena, Ayden, & Tristyn; you guys are with me on every mile of every run!

See you on the trails!

The final route. 

Looking North from the WSP Summit Ridge. You can see one of the Dykes straight ahead. 


Looking SW from somewhere on the Wahatoya Trail. Culebra Peak on the horizon.

East Spanish Peak....not in the cards today.

Not a bad end to a grueling day.


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