Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Colorado Mountain Running Camp: How to Create a Running Camp

We were reminiscing about Matthew’s amazing experience at Geoff Roes’ Alaska MountainUltra Running Camp. It’s 5 days of running in the mountains above Juneau with evenings spent in cabins with hearty meals and lots and lots of fun. In Matthew’s opinion, as well as many others, Geoff has developed a camp that’s near to perfect: insane setting, epic running, comfortable accommodations, delicious food and drink, and camaraderie with runners of every (fit) level. And Geoff has kept it affordable.

We started thinking, instead of trying to find a new camp to attend the coming summer, what if we tried to make our own camp? And if we did it, where could we run that would be breathtakingly amazing? So, with Geoff’s camp model in mind, and with the key word being breathtaking, we began to plan Colorado Mountain Running Camp. 

We would run a different route every day. And we would make amazing meals at night and drink great beer. We picked Rocky Mountain National Park as our base and began to research camps and trails.

You enter the south end of Rocky Mountain National Park by way of Granby, Colorado, home to Lake Granby and Grand Lake. We chose to base our camp in the more laid back Grandby over the bustling Estes Park, which sits at the north end of RMNP. 

So, our base camp turned out to be a base glamp. The large condo had a balcony with an amazing view, fireplace, a pool and a hot tub, foozball, the very very beneficial washer and dryer, and complimentary coffee each morning. My parents-in-law would serve as our Camp Counselors, helping out with meals and shuttling us back and forth and generally providing support. Jeff, Matthew and I would run and hike our hearts out. And we'd also invite a very special friend who happens to be Matthew's coach. He is an insanely accomplished ultra runner and triathlete. With luck, we'd survive running in the Rockies so we could end the week with a celebratory visit with Tim.   

It was time to plan out the runs. We had a variety of running experience amongst our campers:

Matthew: Has run the Boulder100, The Bull Run 50 Miler, Stump Jump 50k, The North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon two times, and he has run most of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia as well. And as I mentioned, he’s run with Geoff Roes in the mountains above Juneau in the summer snow.

Jeff: Does not run much but he hiked 800 kilometers from the French border in the Pyrenees across Spain. Twice. He also race walked the San Diego RNR Marathon and has run a few trail races. He has traversed most of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

And then there’s me. I have 2 Marathons, 5 Half Marathons, Stump Jump 11, tons of running time on the Appalachian Trail, and countless runs up and down Old Rag under my belt. I’ve hiked across Spain as well. I’ve run and hiked 80 miles of the C&O Canal. 

So, while we were all comfortable on trails, we were all severely lacking in high altitude running experience. Or even altitude hiking experience. We had all skied Colorado, and we had all run and hiked in Colorado before, but could we handle a full week at altitude? How high could we go? Could our legs and lungs handle it? Would we be able to keep going day after day?  

We had no idea if we had the skills, but we had the desire, so we set out the goals for Colorado Running Camp: have fun, run to amazing vistas, conquer big mountains, do not get injured, come home with the desire to return. And with all this in mind, we set a run itinerary that none of us were quite sure we could achieve:

Saturday: Fly into Denver, p/u SUV, drive to Granby
Saturday Sunset Run: Doe Creek Trail 8,200-9,000 ft.
Sunday: Ute Trail 10,759-11,796 ft. 9 miles 
Monday: Mt. Flora 11,307-13,132 ft. 6.5 miles
Tuesday: Lone Pine Lake 8,391-9,885 ft. 11 miles
Wednesday: Devil’s Thumb 11,671-12,000 ft. 8 miles
Thursday: Watanga Lake 8,475-10,771 ft. 9 miles
Friday: Arrival of Extra Special Celebrity Runner 
Saturday: Drive Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park 
Sunday: Fly home from Denver

Day 1 - Doe Creek:

After getting settled at Base Camp, Matthew and I headed out for a warm up run at sunset on the Doe Creek Trail. Access is from Lake Granby and the loop trail is classified as a "good intermediate workout." We started at 8,200 feet and climbed up to 9,000 feet, mostly running through gorgeous meadows and quiet woods. Though it's a loop trail, we were fighting darkness so we made it a 1.5 hour out and back, each at our own pace. Our first breathless run was in the books. Here's what I noted that day:

Doe Creek Sunset Run: 
The terrain is forgiving but the 
altitude is a bit of a challenge. 
And by a bit, I mean a bitch. Such a blast! 

Doe Creek Trail at Sunset

Day 2 - Ute Trail - Milner Pass to Alpine Visitors Center:

Day two took us up into Rocky Mountain National Park. Jeff, Matthew and I left a car at Milner Pass ready to tackle some altitude. 

We headed up the trail up to Alpine Visitors Center, the highest elevated Visitors Center in the US National Park Service, located at Fall River Pass, 11,796 feet. 

We each kept our own pace, with Matthew doubling back to run down and up again with Jeff and me. 

The trail headed up up up through the woods and eventually became more and more exposed. 

At Alpine we had amazing views of gorgeous snow fields, Longs Peak, and gigantic sandwiches.  

gigantic sandwiches

Before we headed back down to Milner Pass, we climbed up above the Visitors Center to 12,005 feet, making it up to the highest elevation ever achieved in all of our lives. 

The run down was genius, with each step taking us lower and lower  with more and more air available to our screaming lungs.  

Day Two at Colorado Running Camp was in the books. 

Day Three - Mt. Flora

We had all survived 12,000 feet but how would we fare up above 13,000 feet? None of us were sure, and we were all a bit weary when we headed up from Berthoud Pass at 11,307 feet to make a summit attempt on Mt. Flora. The entire route is exposed. Views are of the Continental Divide Trail and mountains that stretch to the horizon. We had checked the weather carefully as lightning strikes are common up there and there was little chance of a storm but we hustled the best we could just to be sure. 

Jeff making his way to the summit
 Matthew on his way to the summit. 

It's just over 3 miles to the summit. Near the top, the climb winds through a boulder field and then up and around big boulders, finally ending with a spectacular 360 degree view. We had reached 13,132 feet - again achieving the highest place we'd ever been on earth. 

 Summit achieved! Matthew on Mt. Flora

Jeff summits with a dance on Mt. Flora

Coming down was once again a joy. Taking care to keep our footing, we still were able to crush the 3+ miles back to the trail head. 

Matthew running down off of the summit of Mt. Flora

Running back down from Mt. Flora - air is SO GOOD!

Day Four: Lone Pine Lake 

We were starting to get a little tired, and though we now had fantasies of tagging a Fourteener we were thrilled that the schedule called for a more comfortable run to Lone Pine Lake. 

Here's what I wrote that day:

We started at the now comfortable 8,500 feet today and climbed up to Lone Pine Lake at 10,000. It was much more forgiving from a breathing standpoint, but we still climbed and climbed all the way from Grand Lake to Lone Pine Lake and as usual my heart was pounding. 10.6 miles with quite a bit of run ability. The trail felt like home (rocky) but with different trees and very strange wild animal scat (eeks!) And it poured on us for awhile too. Epic adventure. Can we go to the Hot Springs tomorrow??

Jeff had stayed back at Base Camp, so Matthew and I set off, as usual at our own paces, planning to meet up at the lake. It was a gorgeous route, with gentle terrain, a waterfall and a climb that felt similar to our home routes in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. It was a perfect run for our tired legs and lungs and even the late afternoon rain felt great. 

On the trail to Lone Pine Lake

 Matthew on the trail to Lone Pine Lake, with our start/end point, Grand Lake, in the distance

We met at Lone Pine Lake for a brief rest before heading back down to Grand Lake, another amazing day behind us. 

Quick break at Lone Pine Lake

 Matthew makes it to Lone Pine Lake

Day Five: Devil's Thumb

I wrote this about the Devil's Thumb: 

Today we ran the never ending trail to the Devil's Thumb. High point was just under 12,000 feet. Climbed up from 9,600 feet on noodle legs for my favorite run so far. 8 miles.

The route to Devil's Thumb is gorgeous. The pay off is unbelievable. It just feels like forever getting there because you start in a meadow with the Thumb far, far away.  

Then you run through the woods for a couple of miles and then pop out into an exposed valley that is summited via switch backs. Next you climb straight up for a half mile or so to the Thumb. 

And you can see the thumb for so long but you have to keep running, up, up, up to get there. It feels like you'll never arrive. 

When I reached the top, Matthew was lying in the sun, with piles of snow here and there, the Devil's Thumb looming above him. Jeff joined us in moments and we all collapsed on top the mountain, looking down both sides, amazed that we were so fortunate to make it up this high and to see such beauty again today.

Day Six: Watanga Lake

Today we climbed 4,800 feet up from Grand Lake to the gorgeous Watanga Lake which sits at 10,900 feet. Nine miles of complete insanity. My legs are absolutely trashed. Such a great adventure. 

God we were tired. I'm not sure any of us *really* wanted to head out on this run, but it was our last running day at Camp and no one was going to speak up to suggest a rest day. We briefly considered something a bit more forgiving, and then decided to go for it. The route was described as one mile straight up, followed by 3.5 miles of easier climbing up to the lake. Sure enough the trail immediately climbed so steeply that I had to hold on to keep myself from sliding back down the trail at times. I kept looking at my Garmin, hoping I would make it to that one mile mark and get some relief. 

My super powers are making the 1st 8/10 mile climb feel like 8-10 miles & the ability to ultra-flare my nostrils.

But when we made it to the top, Watanga Lake appeared out of nowhere, a secret oasis high up in the Rockies.

With Watanga Lake behind us, we ran down the mountain and headed back to camp, six days of adventure in our hearts and we were feeling every mile. The next day our extra special guest, Matthew's coach, and our friend, Tim arrived with his wonderful wife Joanna and their boys. They are the kind of friends where even if you haven't seen them in a couple of years, you hug and start right back up where you left off. We went swimming and made a gigantic dinner and we talked running and cycling and training and family and heard and told stories and laughed into the night. No trip to Colorado would be complete without spending time with Tim and his family and it was the perfect way to top off six days of adventure. 

The next day we said goodbye to Tim, and gave my in-laws a HUGE thank you for taking such good care of us as we traipsed around the Rockies for a week, and we headed once again into RMNP, along Trail Ridge Road, but this time by car. We made our way slowly to Estes Park, enjoying the views while sitting down for the first time in a week. Luck was in our favor when we got a notification from Facebook that we had a friend who was nearby. Turns out, two of our friends from Virginia, Gomer and Jiamie Pyles, were in Estes Park at that very moment, celebrating a reunion with a group of their friends who had walked across America in 1980, when Jiamie was just a year old. Her dad Gomer wheeled her in a wheelbarrow across the country. The extra bonus was that it was also Jiamie's birthday. 

An unexpected birthday celebration with Jiamie in Estes Park. 

It was a perfect ending to a perfect week. Colorado Mountain Running Camp met all of our expectations and then some and our bodies held up just fine, especially our hearts that may have been tested a bit up at altitude but are now forever filled with gratitude for big mountains and amazing friends. 

If you want any more advice on doing a DIY running camp, I'm on twitter. And if you want to see any more of my Colorado pictures, I'm on Instagram

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