Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sourdough - Niwot - Brainard

I've fallen flat on my face plenty times when running to be not too surprised when it happens again. This was my initial reaction yesterday when clicking along the Sourdough trail skipping over the thick icy sections. All is sweetness and light then - bam - I am full stretch across the ice and rocks wondering how it happened while marveling that nothing serious seemed to have occurred - or had it? I took a few seconds to mentally check the extremities and make sure I felt OK then stood up. A quick glance at the usual body parts and I was off running again in no time. Livvy, as always, patiently waited, keen to keep going. That was it.
Early section on the Sourdough trail before my fall

It's not as though this pattern hasn't been consistent. This is pretty much what I have done every time I have fallen over. Admittedly, the extent of nausea has been more varied (sometimes nearly causing me to pass out in short term pain), but I've always been running again within a minute or two of the event. So I wasn't too concerned yesterday. In fact, I seemed to pick up the pace a little afterwards and Livvy dropped in behind me as evidence for that. And maybe I just put it out of mind, because I had always put it out of my mind. Descending from Niwot ridge to Brainard Lake it didn't register there was a slightly different problem to usual when I began to feel a tightening in my right groin muscle. When I hit the final two mile section - the one that should have been the fastest (slightly downhill with a very strong wind at my back) - I couldn't work out why I was clocking miles 2 minutes slower than I should have been. But more about this later.
Long, uphill section on Niwot ridge trail below the tree line

It was so cold yesterday - the air temperature was around 28F when I set off (a good 15 degress colder at altitude) - because of wind chill. Slipping my barefeet into my running shoes at Red Rocks trailhead at Brainard told me all I needed to know about what was to come. There were only three cars in the lot and a really bad sign was that none of the occupants had got out. Whether they were collaborating or not, their collective inaction spoke volumes about the conditions. The must have enjoyed the spectacle of me doing a one-legged dance as I hopped around trying to put my shoes on. Thick cloud covered the mountains at around 12,000 feet and a steady stream of snow and ice particles were being carried by the wind. These were peppering my face as I struggled to gear up and I knew this would make for tough conditions crossing the col high on Niwot ridge. Still, as I reasoned, most of my run would be in sheltered terrain and through woodland - it was only the three or four miles of high terrain that would be hard going.
Towards North and South Arapaho Peaks in the cloud. Taken from near the col at 11,400 feet

The four and a half miles south along the Sourdough trail - both before and after my fall - is pleasant enough running and the dense woodland did protect me from the worst of the wind. Horrible sections of packed ice slowed us down a lot, but we emerged onto the track that led up into the mountains and the Niwot ecological preserve and research center. I've been up here a few times, always in bad weather. Some sections of this trail are long and straight and the trees thin out considerably as elevation is gained. The wind was unbelievable. Granted, I wasn't plucked in the air and deposited 20 yards away, as happened on Arapaho Pass last week, but it felt just as brutal.
Punishing and exposed high traverse before the descent to Long Lake

Another three and a half miles and the trail swings to the north for the final ascent to the high point at around 11,400 feet. I thought this section would have been the worst but it was actually OK. I was afforded some protection by a higher ridge to my left and I only got a serious buffeting rather than a constant battering. And when I reached the trail junction (where Niwot ridge goes west towards Niwot Mountain and Navajo Peak) and turned east, the wind was at my back for the most exposed section...until I reached the col of course when I would turn back towards the north west and run into the face of the storm.

I recall at the time thinking that I was spending too much time for the conditions above 11,000 feet - 4 miles and about an hour of time. The going was difficult because the wind had sculpted huge drifts and ridges of snow that stretched like fingers across the landscape and obscured the trail. This isn't a very popular trail in the heat of summer (I have never met anyone on it...ever) and it made navigation tricky. Sometimes I would cross these snow patches easily by skating across the top of the hard-crusted snow, but some of the sections were soft and I would sink up to my thighs. Poor Livvy disappeared a couple of times under the surface. My whole lower jaw was frozen and my mouth and nose were encrusted with ice. I was conscious the whole time of how much exposure I was experiencing and this pushed me to keep moving as quickly as I could.

We eventually reached the tree line at the top of the descent to Long Lake. The Lake wasn't visible. Unfortunately, there was a lot of snow in the woodland on this north-facing slope and it became impossible to follow the trail. We lost the trail after about half a mile and began to pick our way down the quickest and easiest route. It wasn't too bad, but Livvy picked up a cut on her right foreleg from a sharp rock - she didn't seem to notice and it didn't affect her running, but it was disconcerting seeing small blobs of blood on the pristine snow. It was slow going.
Long Lake from the clearing. Mount Audubon obscured by cloud behind

We came to a clearing and saw Long Lake about 500 feet below. The last section was very rocky and I was really pleased to be able to run again once I reached the Jean Lunning trail. We were a little off route on the descent - too far west by about a half mile. But I found it difficult to keep a decent pace. This brings me back to the twinges in my groin muscle. I know enough about these things to realize that they nearly always result from overcompensating for another problem. But I couldn't feel any other painful areas - not a huge surprise as I was so cold.
View from the Brainard outlet

Here's what the view should look like
We crossed the footbridge at the Long Lake outlet and reached the Long Lake parking lot - completely closed in winter of course. Not a soul in sight. We tracked along the access road to the north of Brainard Lake and then reached the newly constructed Pawnee Campground and the final two and a half miles back to the car. It became obvious along this final stretch that my left knee had a problem and this was causing the strain in my right groin. It was a slow jog and it should have been a much faster run back to the car.

Later that night, fully thawed out, I had a searing pain on my left patella. It seems that when I fell over I must have cracked it on a rock. Despite all my falls on mountain trails...and there have been plenty...this was the first that had resulted in direct injury. I really hope I am not out of action very long.

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