Confessions of a Trail Runner

The numbness that began in my fingers now filled my arms with a tingling sensation. Not numbness of cold but of oxygen deprivation in the body. My heart and lungs could no longer keep up with what I was asking them to do. I’d been running at altitude for some two and a half hours, and the last climb I hammered really got the brain juices flowing. I knew I was close to getting a big blast of endorphins and the only way to do it was to “cross the edge”. The battle inside my body was at its peak. Heart rate… max…. breathing…. max… and one more big climb to go. Bounding up to the ridge, I felt the rush coming. Keep hammering, baby. An enormous surge started deep inside and filled my whole body within seconds.  I forgot about my pain and felt only pure adrenaline. The numbness faded and I became ecstatic as my hair stood on end and I briefly floated above the mountain. I had reached a state of being that is elusive, but more powerful than any drug known to man…the “runner’s high”.

Trail running in Utah is as good as it gets. Huge opportunity exists for mountain adventure, whether you’re doing alpine ascents, or moderate strides through tall fields of wildflowers. Over my 25 years in the Wasatch I’ve have had my share of epic moments, including numerous run-ins with wild animals, a few bonks, and a couple of tumbles that luckily didn’t end disastrously.

My first big run started at Snowbird and headed up Gad Valley to Hidden Peak, then on to Baldy, Sugarloaf Peak to the exposed ridge of Devil’s Castle. Still feeling good I negotiated the intricacies of the Castle and continued past with my mind set on making the loop of upper Little Cottonwood. I hadn’t planned that big of a run so I was a little light on food (one PowerBar) and water (one bottle). Climbing the last ridge before dropping down into Grizzly Gulch I began to feel strange. My hands were tingling and the noggin’ seemed a little foggy. My foot work deteriorated and the stumble factor increased dramatically. As I dropped down towards Grizzly both arms were now engulfed in this tingling sensation.  What was happening? I still planned on the continuing up the ridge to complete the circuit but had to sit down for a second. I finally realized the burning sensation in my empty stomach. Was I bonking?  I stood up and started walking again, but couldn’t keep a straight line and my hamstrings cramped and I hit the dirt crumbling into a ball. I laid there contemplating my situation, and then heard the voices.  Not the hallucinatory kind but that of approaching hikers. Within minutes the hikers spotted me and asked if I was OK. “I think I’m bonking, kinda over did it”, I responded. They busted out a PowerBar (that’s all there was back then) and gave me half and some water to wash it down, I felt better in minutes. After I assured them I’d be OK, I gave up on the circuit and headed down Grizzly towards Alta. I stumbled down the road, finally reaching my car and vowing to never let that happen again….it did.

A tremendous amount of knowledge seeped into my brain that day. I knew I had felt great for most of the run but when the tank goes dry a human is no different than a car. Empty is Empty. I started carrying more food and bought a sweet Lone Peak fanny pack that held two water bottles.

After a couple seasons I had my systems pretty wired, I lived near Bells Canyon so that was a frequent run for me. On one particular outing my juju was in sync as I reached the middle plateau. I hadn’t been to the upper reservoir in awhile so I busted a move and continued upward. Upper Bells is an immense alpine cathedral surrounded by lofty granite walls. It’s hard to believe a sprawling suburbia lay just beyond this alpine oasis. I’d been up Lone Peak before but from the other side and camping with backpacks and climbing gear. I looked up at the peak and then in my fanny pack- one orange. “Man- its right there- you should go for it!” Youthful enthusiasm once again trumped the reality of my situation.  I pressed on bounding from boulder to boulder as no trail continues past the reservoir. The lake dropped away and I quickly gained altitude and reeled in the massive views. After considerable more time than I expected I finally reached the ridge and my heart sank. Lone Peak was still at least a mile away and who knows how much higher than my current position. I snarfed half the orange and powered on- to close to give up. I felt lucky to be up here and sat down to enjoy my second half of the orange. I felt pretty good but in the back of my brain I knew it was going to be close. I still had to descend some 6,000+ ft and cover a lot of steep rocky terrain.

As any seasoned runner knows… the uphill is the easy part. The shock one takes on the downhill to the knees, hips and lower back can be uncomfortable without good technique. Half way down the massive headwall my “good technique” started to waver. I backed off knowing that a stumble could be detrimental to me returning home for dinner. Finally back at the reservoir I loaded my empty bottles and continued down. The trail between upper Bells and the middle plateau is faint at its best. Roots, loose rock and mud guard against any speeding or sloppy running. “I’m actually doing pretty well”, I thought a split second before a root tripped me up and sent me sprawling. Luckily a rock into my knee stopped me from tumbling down the ravine and into the creek-is that blood or mud? I took out my water bottle and gave the gouge a little squirt, just a flesh wound. By the time I reached the lower reservoir my knee throbbed, my lower back had seized and my arms were numb. Five minutes to go.  Walking the final steps up the driveway my roommate walked outside and asked, “How was the run?” oblivious that I’d been gone nearly five hours. “Awesome!” I said, grinning.

Other hazards exist in trail running beside bonking, loose rocks and snow covered trails for example. On one fast descent I hit a section with a series of big firs making for a natural Super G course. Using the trees as gates I imagined my skis flexing and accelerating me forward faster and faster. As I cut one tree particularly tight I noticed my next foot placement was a 20 pound porcupine. I screamed as I lost my edge and went airborne, doing a “Herminator” over the top of the prickly beast, landing in heap of dirt, grass and brush 10 feet from the quilled speed trap. I looked back and the critter didn’t even flinch, he just kinda looked at me then continued to waddle up the trail. Bruised but not seriously injured I cautiously backed away and bid him farewell.

On a descent of Superior I rounded a fridge size boulder only to come face to face with an enormous mountain goat. This hulk of tufting fir and flesh was spittin’ distance from me and he had the uphill advantage- I froze. Do mountain goats attack humans? His harem was just behind and seemed a little more spooked than the horned gate keeper. He stomped twice and gave me a stern gaze and time turned to molasses. Then giving me permission to pass, he nodded and took a step back. I nodded back and slowly moved past until I had a bit of breathing room, then turned and skedaddled.

Moose are another hazard and are definitely the most dangerous. A moose stomping can be disastrous, even deadly. Cruising the Albion Basin one early fall, catching the last of the fading wildflowers I was on alert. The moist meadow near the campground is known territory and fall rut was coming, making moose particularly feisty. I worked my way thru the hot zone and was starting to relax when I saw “the big guy” coming right down the trail towards me-I froze. He moved to within 30 yards before he noticed me and stopped. I couldn’t remember if it was good nose- bad eyesight or bad nose-good eyesight? It didn’t matter, he was on to me. He snorted loudly and the cool fall air rose in a big fog from his shiny, wet nose. I looked for cover-nothing. I took a slow step back and he snorted again, louder. Another step back, another snort. I wheeled around and hit the throttle…. foot on the gas, ass in the trunk! I didn’t let up ‘til I saw people hiking up a 1/4 mile below. I slowed my pace enough to let them know a moose was ahead and continued down the trail. I never heard any report of a moose attack so I guess they made out O.K.

One can get a bit exposed out on the trail also. Once I left my girl at the White Pine trailhead to read while I went “for an hour or so.” White Pine turned to Red Pine turned to Maybird and I finally found myself on the ridge between Hogum and Maybird. Above rose the north ridge of the Pfeifferhorn, crown jewel of the Wasatch, beckoning all who approach. I’d heard the route had a couple “hard” moves but was mostly a scramble. Exposure has an interesting way of making one focus; I quickly found a committing move and paused. Another hard move lay ahead so I positioned my feet and reached for the hand hold just beyond my fingertips. As I rose on my toes to gain the hold I needed, my foot slipped and my life flashed. Gravity took over, and for a split second carried me towards my maker. Then my hand was on rock. Somehow I had stopped. I struggled to find a place for my flailing feet. Finally I found a foothold, then another. I remained here for minutes, waiting for the adrenaline to subside and for me to make my first good decision of the day. Slowly the task of inching my way down began. Time was irrelevant. Each step downward was carefully planned and well thought out, but I remember none of it.  The fog lifted and I found myself back in the Maybird basin analyzing a more reasonable route up the Pfeiff. I scrambled upward and onward and soon found myself looking down the ridge I had just attempted to come up. It looked pretty hairy.

Finally breaking stride as I crossed the bridge back to the White Pine parking lot I saw my girl up ahead and she didn’t look pleased. “You’ve been gone four hours!” I guess it was my turn to be oblivious to time. I chose my words more carefully than my foothold earlier…”I just felt really good, honey.”  I think she knew I was coming off a big “high” so she let it slide- this time…

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