Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lion Lake, RMNP

I know of few trail runners who run in pairs or groups. Occasionally they might make an arrangement to run with someone, but it appears, at least from my experience, to be a solitary pursuit. Part of this is expediency as we seek to exploit whatever small time window we might have, but I think it is also part of the psyche of the outdoor trail runner. On the rare occasions when I have met another runner in the mountains they have always been on their own.

It was a similar pattern back in the UK. Although on the days when fell races were held I would see a bunch of familiar faces waiting at the start, invariably these were individuals out doing their own thing in their own company. Members of a club might "pack" together one evening a week, but this was an exception to the rule and most weekly mileage was solitary. "Club" was a very loose concept.

I don't think this is because all fell and trail runners are socially dysfunctional, somehow lacking the basic elements enabling them to relate to humanity. Indeed some of the very best runners have a fearsome reputation for partying and having a good time. But running is a serious business and the focus required for trail and mountain running doesn't exactly lend itself to regular social interaction. At the more extreme end of the scale there are people like me who see this as a major virtue. The more remote and isolated a trail...the further away from the crowds I can get...the happier I seem to be.

Maybe my dogs provide some kind of social placebo. Perhaps I really want company, although not the kind that talks to me? It's certainly true that I prefer running with a dog than on my own, but this doesn't minimize the sense of isolation and solitude that is so much a part of what makes trail running so important to me and serves as a primary motivation.

I once heard someone postulate the theory that those in extreme occupations tended to engage in extreme leisure pursuits. The more demanding a person's job the more they sought a release - work hard, play harder. I'm not sure this theory holds true although it has some face validity. Unfortunately it leaves little room for those who find certain pursuits genuinely engaging despite being full-time basket weavers and bell-ringers - and who am I to suppose these aren't demanding jobs in their own right? The only "theory" that explains the trail runner to me is based on a sense of challenge, enjoyment of risk, aesthetics and personal drive.

For some unfathomable reason the Rocky Mountain National Park prohibits dogs from its entire trail system and ventures there deprive me of even my social placebo. I wish I could understand the rationale. One concern I have had described to me speaks of the threat to wildlife posed by unleashed dogs. OK, impose a compulsory leash requirement. Well, not all dog owners comply. OK, have Park Rangers issue tickets to the ones they catch in violation. And are the anticipated dangers posed by dogs so different in RMNP compared to the adjacent Indian Peaks Wilderness where they enjoy full access? Take the trail from Allenspark to St Vrain mountain summit - here is a trail that starts outside RMNP, crosses into the Indian Peaks Wilderness, the goes through a section of RMNP before finishing back inside the IPW. I can take my dog on this trail, which is great. How is it that different from the RMNP?

A few weeks ago, on a day when both dogs needed to rest after a week of high mileage, I went to the Allenspark trailhead for a trip up Wild Basin to...however far I could get. The weather forecast wasn't exactly great and there were storms expected in the higher elevations with 100% cloudcover. The Allenspark Trail heads due west and is a rolling trail that encourages fast running across the Northern shoulder of Meadow mountain. With no dog to consider I found myself varying my pace too much and struggling to find an effective rhythm.

After a couple of miles uphill there is a fantastic, fast descent to Calypso Falls and the trail switches back and forth for another mile to Ouzel Falls and shortly after to the junction with the Bluebird Falls Trail.

It was cloudy and cool, but the trail wasn't holding too much water and I wasn't seeing too much difficulty ahead. But one of the frustrating aspects of this particular trail was how much mileage I was covering for such little elevation gain. 5 miles into my run and I was still no higher than my starting point and all those undulations hadn't helped me climb any higher. Joining the Wild Basin trail didn't seem to change anything and it wasn't until the Lion Lake Trail branched off that the serious climbing began...and it began immediately, with a steep, long pull across rock slabs, narrow gulch's and rocky defiles. I went at too slow a pace, yet didn't feel I had much choice.

It was with some relief that I emerged onto the grassy plateau that preceded Lion Lake No. 1, and I jogged around to the North-East corner for a break and some refueling.

I'd lost more time than I was happy with as I considered how much further to go. With a clear sky and warmer weather I would have headed for Mount Alice and the route that Kraig Koski described so well on his blog ( The contrast between the conditions we each faced could not have been more different and the onset of heavy rain (the first drops of which are visible in the lake on this picture) made my decision easier. A couple of flashes of lightening and cracks of thunder rapidly confirmed my decision and I began to retrace my route home.

With so many years running in the UK I'm no stranger to bad weather running and it made me feel at home to be plodding through a downpour running through small streams that were growing to rivers, trail surfaces squelching into mud and brushing through foliage that provided a literal cold shower experience. Lost in my thoughts I nearly stumbled into a couple who were map reading under a tree and their question caught me by surprise - "Is uphill this way or that way?" I considered, for a moment, the slope we were standing on and pondered my reply and decided on a deductive response. I pointed down the hill in the direction I was running and said, "Well, if that is downhill..." I then pivoted around and pointed up the hill from where I had come and pointed..."that must be uphill." Their thanks were both genuine and profuse and I could only wonder. A few more years and either could run for President.

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