An elite trail runner explains how the challenge of the mountains opened his eyes to new routes, new movements, new experiences and a totally new perspective on running.
Scrambling The Flatirons
When I first started trail running, I was set on the idea that no matter the grade or the terrain, I had to run every step, even if that meant barely moving up the hill, reduced to the most pathetic semblance of a jog. Little by little, I learned how to work the trail, where to push, where to hold back, where to run and quicken my step or where to hike, hands on knees for the most efficacy. Running the challenging route up Fern Canyon, one of my favorite trails in Boulder, Colo., taught me adaptability and to utilize my strengths more judiciously according to the terrain. It was the beginning of a shift in my perception in how to move most efficiently in the mountains.
Running, in its basic form, is a linear activity. You put one foot in front of the other. On the road or on a groomed trail, the movement of running remains systematic, allowing us to disassociate from the environment. This does not hold true in the mountains.
It is common to approach the mountains with a “running bias,” meaning that we apply the basic mechanics of running to more complex terrain only to find that this limited perspective is quite restrictive and at times even frustrating. It is not only hard to run everything, but also it is often impractical to scale steep, rocky terrain without falling into a hike or using our hands.
Mountain running is for me first and foremost defined by place, where physical ability and skill meet at the intersection of imagination and creativity.
While the subtleties of efficient movement and need for adaptability started to reveal themselves for me in Fern Canyon, I was still bound to an experience defined by a built trail, an engineered network of paths that presents one way of interacting with a place. This is when my attention began to shift from the trail to the large fountain formations that dominate the Boulder skyline, the Flatirons.
My first experience scrambling in the Flatirons was on The Slab, a 500-foot-high formation at the mouth of Fern Canyon. I would run by this rock every time I went up Fern Canyon, and it only seemed appropriate to venture up it to add some variety to my routine.
My first steps on the rock were tentative. I doubted the stickiness of the rubber on my running shoes. I searched for holds, gradually picking my way up the rock, following the path of least resistance. I paused midway on a large ledge. I was filled with exhilaration and wonder, surrounded by an ocean of rock.
I had suddenly been exposed to a completely different way of seeing a place that I felt I knew so well. For me, this novel route brought insight into the myriad possibilities that exist in exploring a place beyond the limits of the tracked path I had previously been following.I was no longer running in a traditional sense, but nor was I rock climbing. The elevated technical difficulty of moving in a vertical plane also added a layer of interest in needing to hone my skills to more comfortably—and safely— progress in this environment.
Meanwhile, my friend Tony Krupicka was also cutting his teeth on the Flatirons, under the tutelage of Buzz Burrell, an experienced ultra trail runner and now brand director for Ultimate Direction. He had long been an inspiration to Tony and I, not solely for his athletic ability, but for his knack at finding and pursuing uncommon routes. His vision of mountain running was expansive, not limited to defined paths. He would seamlessly incorporate climbing and scrambling into his outings, matching skill and fitness to continuously broader and more complex objectives, driven by a mix of fun, curiosity and purpose.
Tony and I began to add a scramble up the Second Flatiron to our frequent ascents of Green Mountain. The subdued technical difficulty of the route allowed us to rapidly perfect the scrambling and focus on speed. The limiting factor while ascending the rock was our lungs and the power in our legs rather than searching for hand holds. We would sprint up the rock in an effort similar to an 800-meter track workout.
Scrambling requires full-body engagement with hands and feet in direct contact with the rock. Progression over the terrain becomes nearly artisanal where the environment shapes our movement. The exposure, as well as the high consequences of a fall, demands acute concentration and the ability to continually adapt. Perhaps what makes scrambling so compelling is the union of elevated awareness and physical effort that confers a deeper interaction with a place.
I scramble extensively these days, linking multiple routes in the Flatirons, running between the rocks, unraveling the maze of aesthetic lines these formations present and searching for the most fluid and logical way to sequence my outings. What I find most fascinating is the thought process involved in each run. The nature of the terrain demands my attention as does the general aesthetics of the run. I get a higher sense of creativity from picking my own lines and I have a much broader pool of options to choose from than I would simply from following a trail.
Ascending Longs Peak
On a mid-April morning, just before sun up, I sit at my computer checking the weather one final time. The sky looks clear on Longs Peak today and the wind appears to remain under 10 miles per hour from 11,000 feet to the summit. The coffee in my stovetop espresso maker comes to a boil just as Tony pulls up in my driveway.
From my house in Gold Hill, it is about a 40-minute drive to the East Longs Peak Trail. We favor a non-technical ascent via the Lamb’s Slide Couloir, a moderate 40-degree snow slope, so as to keep our gear needs to a minimum. It has not snowed in a while and with the recent warm weather we are confident for a stable, consolidated snowpack.
At the start, the trail through the trees is a mix of firm snow and ice. We do not speak much, focusing instead on settling into a steady pace, switching between hiking and running as the terrain permits. Having spent a lot of time skiing up and downhill this winter, the tug on the lungs from the altitude is not quite as bad as usual in the early season.
Above tree line, we push through the blustery section to the Chasm Lake Trail, where The Diamond, the majestic east face of Longs Peak, comes into sight. I always pause to take in this view and snap a shot, even though a photo can’t quite capture the visceral energy of the moment.
At the base of Lamb’s Slide, we put on our crampons and pull out our ice axes to safely ascend the slope. We use hiking crampons that are not suited for technical climbing, but mesh well with running shoes and are perfect on snow. With each step, we punch through the crust to about mid-calf, making progress slow and strenuous. We are vigilant to any changes in the snowpack, but the stability feels consistent all the way to the top of the couloir. The rest of the climb is uneventful with only short stretches of ice and harder snow to be cautiously negotiated. There is barely a breeze at the top, and it is even quite warm for the few minutes we stop to sign the summit register.
We descend the north face, mainly plunge-stepping down the slope until we reach a short rappel, on what is known as the Cables Route. In the right conditions, this section is an easy down-climb, but we find it preferable to bring a rope due to the treacherous ice that forms on the granite slab. At the bottom, I coil the rope and we remove our crampons for the rest of the run back to the truck. Tony and I exchange words of congratulatory stoke.
Longs Peak is very much alive, always dynamic in its changing conditions, which bring continuous intrigue. It is a complex mountain that commands respect and an eclectic set of skills to meet its challenge. After a successful ascent, I have often thought that I have unraveled the secrets of a particular route, only to realize the next time how little I know. Longs Peak tries me and elevates me. The mountain helps me build confidence in my abilities, while keeping me doubting through its ever-changing nature. The lessons that emerge from each outing, gradually shaping my character and body, are the essence of why I love to run mountains and are what keep me coming back time after time.
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About the Author: Joe Grant is a skilled mountain runner, writer, photographer and coach who lives and trains in the mountains above Boulder, Colo. He has been running ultra-distance races for more than a decade, competing in places such as Colorado, the French Alps, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Alaska and Japan. He derives his inspiration from exploring wild places on foot and writes a blog documenting his many adventures at Alpineworks.com.