Last week I posted about my biggest goal in the mountains in the last four years coming to completion. It was a running traverse of the eight summits in the photo above and I claimed something in that post that came from my heart. I felt I had lifted myself from a plateau of failure and reached a new level of skill, one that balanced life with ambition, patience and a healthier attitude toward risk. On Thursday, I opened the door to that possibility again with a secret goal I have had coming up on September 15—my first 50-mile ultra marathon trail race.
Running a 50-miler on trails I have never seen did not just spring from thin air this summer, it is definitely something I would not recommend to attempt impulsively “off the couch” even for a cardio and power hiking enthusiast with an altitude and trail resume like the modest one I have fought hard to attain. As big as it sounds, in fact, 50 miles isn’t even elite to the world of ultra marathon running. Elite athletes and average Joe’s and Jane’s often participate in several 100-mile races a year. Nonetheless, it holds a great amount of respect and some trepidation for me, a crusty mountaineer used to moving the slowest paces known to man in the highest mountains on earth and claiming to be “fast”. We may have moved quickly for dudes with packs marching above 20,000 feet to ski but fast is… well, fast is something totally different on this scale. Last month, I witnessed firsthand some of the world’s best ultra runners—Thomas Lorblanchet, Tony Krupicka and Nick Clark—dominate a field of competitors in the Leadville 100. The winner, Mr. Lorblanchet averaged a 9:53 mile, 100 of them actually. To put that in perspective, that is about 6 miles an hour for 16 and a half hours, mostly on trails above 10,000 feet. That is fast.
So how does one get that fast? Hiking in the mountains is part of it, but running on the road is equally important. I learned this summer that hiking, rather than running is often far more efficient for uphill and running flat roads is the key to gaining speed and better mechanics. I learned this working with and chasing an Olympic runner on road and trails with a camera in my hand and in the process meeting one of the best ultra runners of all time, 68-year-old Frank Bozanich. Frank is full of advice and experience having won ultra races in his 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. I felt lucky to meet him at 68 when I could keep up with him… sort of.
A couple of weeks ago, I recruited my friend Narcus Tudor for a massive loop of three alpine passes that had 8000 feet or so of elevation gain, two ridgelines over 13,400 feet and somewhere between 25-to-30 miles of distance. He is a pretty awesome guy in general and definitely a partner who despite a mature ability to suffer, does not in any way show signs of suffering when that is exactly what our hearts were reminding us with every exacerbated thump. We started at 6:30 a.m. and at 8750 feet, power hiking 4,600 feet in just over 2 hours to start the day on top of Imogene Pass. It’s pretty amazing being up there that early before anything or anyone else is there and above ominous and stirring clouds. As a mountaineer with storms brewing, summiting and then heading down and completing a 14-mile loop would have been just fine, but as a runner, knowing that we had a whole world of alpine peaks before us to explore… it drove us to take the risk and get wet and quite dirty.
Narcus and I, knowing that storms were looming and blessed with knowledge of a thunderstorm forecast, tread lightly on top of high-alpine scree across three peaks and two summits to get to Black Bear pass before meeting our most difficult technical point, a 13,400-foot summit above the pass on a ridgeline that cleaves Black Bear Basin from Bridal Veil Basin. Pace slowed to a crawl as moments rolled by and sharp chicken-headed rocks covering a steep sandy wash challenged our route to the top. We went up it anyway, handhold by handhold. After we arrived at the summit, we rested for 20 minutes. I am grateful to spend time with friends in places like these, I feel lucky to have great friends, my health and a wife who blesses these activities understanding how important they are to me, to us. This is what crosses my mind while I am out there, not the scale of what we are doing, a subtle reminder that I will spend more hours on my back in a grave than hours I am spending on my feet cruising peaks.
Getting up off the rough ground of this obscure and overlooked summit and beginning again, our furnaces were cranking and our final distance spread out as miles and miles of wet wilderness before us.
At least on this day we were greeted with one last ray of sunshine, an immediately gratifying reward that offered a quick drying session as we began an 1,800-foot push in saturated mud and weed-covered running shoes to the 13,200-foot Oscar Pass, our final pass of the day. I ran hard the last 1/4 mile to the top and sat down, wrapping myself not in the finest Gore Tex materials known to man but in a $3 emergency poncho to block the driving wind and rain and relish in my own body’s heat trapped in my hunter orange cacoon. As it turns out, all the techy gear in the world can’t lighten up enough for a day like this and it felt good to know that everything we needed was there in a couple of small 10-litre Osprey Viper packs full of water, food and the bare essentials—all that was really necessary was a bond to push each other through it and execute.
It began to rain more heavily after that last pass and our day went longer than expected as the trail descent back to Telluride was gnarly and gushing. Such is life, such is nature and such is adventure. I really have to thank Narcus for joining me and making it possible, doing it alone I don’t think would have been possible in that kind of threatening weather. I think I am really ready to do a 50-mile trail ultra marathon now and will keep you all updated over the next three weeks as I up the intensity and then go out and give it a shot.
Ben Clark is a mountaineer and native of Clarksville, Tennessee, though he is based in the mountains of SW Colorado. He starting rock climbing as a boy and progressed to larger, more challenging mountains in his early twenties. At the age of 23, Ben became the second youngest American to summit Mount Everest, via the North-Northeast Ridge Route. Today, Ben climbs and skis the Himalayas for the pure joy of what may happen, but trains in his home mountains in between edits and when not on location documenting an adventure.