I recently found myself explaining my running partner relationships to some dudes at a bar. It basically boiled down to the reality that I’m a currently a very monogamous mountain runner. Julie and I have a great partnership. It works. We can talk for hours on end and we can also suffer silently in parallel in perfect harmony. I can pace us for a long time and Julie doesn’t mind going my speed even though she could be moving much faster. We’ve also had some pretty intense experiences together. Like when we did the short version of the Evolution loop with Brittany and I was so deeply bonked that I was puking peanut butter and Sour Patch Kids on top of Bishop Pass and physically could not run the final 6 downhill miles, even though my leg muscles felt fine. Or the last 6 miles of our Zion Traverse when Julie couldn’t breathe and we were both so deep in the pain cave that we could only communicate in single syllable grunts. It’s hard to imagine letting someone else share those moments when I’ve pushed myself into such a raw and dark and vulnerable place. In theory, there are plenty of relatively mellow running adventures that would be ideal for sussing out new running partners, but that would require choosing to do one of those runs instead of Something More Epic. [That said, the Sunrise – Cloud’s Rest – Nevada Fall – Happy Isles linkup is incredible, only 16 miles, mostly downhill, and I would do it again any number of times.]
So it’s in this context that I found myself blinking at my phone alarm at 5am after getting about 3.5 hours of sleep, scraping myself out of bed, and driving to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead with a few powernap pit stops on the way. Sometimes I just need to commit to something big and cathartic and running/hiking my first 14er solo seemed like a thing I should do. Peak summer thunderstorm season usually calls for alpine starts, but I hadn’t wanted to miss girls’ night and I don’t sleep at 10,000ft anyways, so there I was at the trailhead, not-quite-caffeinated-enough, with a bit of an elevation headache already, at 10:30am.
But the magic of getting out on the trail in the High Sierra is that as soon as you leave the trailhead, none of the other bullshit matters any more. I start and I’m immediately gasping for breath and it is amazing and I feel alive and present and myself again; I remember that this is why I come here to do stuff like this and I carefully store this realization away for later on when the inevitable suffering kicks in. I passed lots of hikers and backpackers on their way in and out, telling the ones who asked that I was just doing a loop up to New/Old Army Passes. I know that I should have just said I was going to Langley, but sometimes it just takes too much energy to deal with people’s consternation/concern/judgy-ness at how far you’re going, especially when you’ve gotten a decidedly non-alpine start to the kind of 20+ mile day that non-runners would be starting at dawn or pre-dawn.
I made good time to New Army Pass and was feeling pretty great for being above 12,000 ft, but I knew that the final push to the summit was going to be the crux of the day for sure – the trail only gains 2,000 ft in the first ~8.5 miles, but then you have the remaining 2,000 ft of elevation gain in the final 3 miles and at this point an altitude-sensitive person like me is really feeling it. I caught up to a couple dudes in the last mile and we made it to the summit together just before 3pm, about 4 hours and 20 minutes after I’d left the parking lot. I’d thought I’d been making better time than this, but I think time dilation occurred in the final 1,000 ft of elevation gain. I felt giddy and awesome at the summit thanks to hypoxia high and kept forgetting the names of Langley and Whitney when I was trying to take a video of myself.
Euphoria continued thanks to the lovely combination of hypoxia and runner’s high endorphins as I started back down to Old Army Pass – after I’d passed my summit buddies I started singing out loud to my music and practically skipping down the trail. I think time dilation must have struck again, because by the time I was descending Old Army Pass to the Cottonwood Lakes, I was feeling exhausted and grumpy. I stopped to check my water levels and empty gravel out of my shoes (running shoe gaiters would have been a solid choice on this day) in between the highest two lakes and seriously considered letting myself take a half hour nap on a rock. I was struggling to keep my eyes open and I assumed it was the negligible amount of sleep from the night before.
I managed to keep going, but was walking on perfectly runnable sections of trail and despairing about the unfathomable distance that the remaining 6 miles represented – it might as well have been 100. As I was doing this mental math, I realized that I had way more calories left than I was supposed to – I was probably at least an hour and a half behind the amount of food I should have consumed by this point. I was also hallucinating a lot of bears. Pretty much every stump was definitely a bear. Hmm, huge mood swing from euphoric to angry, hallucinating bears in broad daylight, wanting to take naps on rocks mid-run, too much food left… I had an hour’s worth of calories in 5 minutes, felt pretty great again (if tired) about 10 minutes later, and proceeded to run the vast majority of the last 5 miles, including most of the uphill. Oops.
I made it back to the trailhead after 7 hr 24 minutes, having traveled 21+ miles with 4500 ft of elevation gained/lost, and was on the road down to refuel on Coke and a giant California burrito in Lone Pine by 6pm. Somehow, with the help of a lot of caffeine, I made it back to Pasadena by 10:30pm, for a 17 hour door-to-door day. I’m sure this loop could go much faster if I hadn’t done it with off-the-couch fitness and had spent more than one day above 8,000 ft this summer, but I wasn’t exactly out there to set a speed record. As much as I do want to find some other running partners who don’t live in New England, solo adventures are pretty awesome. It’s nice to be able to be so efficient and self-sufficient and it’s cathartic to have to dig myself out of my own bad attitude cave.
This one was for you, Ben.