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Running To The Top Of The World

The run: Mt. Antero (14,208 ft)

5360ft. elevation gain and loss

15 miles

4 hrs 28 min

If 2020 showed us anything, it's what we do when we are faced with a challenge. Just outside your comfort zone, outside your normal, is where you learn how capable you are and how much of a challenge you can handle.

I was far from comfortable when I decided to run up a 14,000ft mountain. In my quest to tackle the 14ers of Colorado, I faced Mt. Antero, at 15 miles round trip, with little enthusiasm. Hiking would take too long (for an impatient person like myself) so I decided running would be more efficient, and a challenge. During my treks up 14ers, I had seen runners springing up and barreling down the mountains, and I thought “Wow, THEY are crazy.”

Now I was about to join the club.

I bought my first pair of trail shoes and a hydration vest, both of which I was inexperienced with. I picked some snacks that I thought I could stomach on the trail, but eating while running was also new to me. I drove 3 hours into the mountains to camp near the trailhead as I always do. Sitting around a campfire with my pasta dinner and plastic cup of wine, I stared at the milky way, distracted by the night show overhead instead of thinking of the feat I had ahead of me in the morning. I figured the worst case scenario was that I’d hike the trail instead of run. But that also meant I’d be fairly unprepared with clothing, food, and water.

The sun was already up when I arrived at the trailhead. The thing to know about running mountains versus any other trail run: it’s ALL uphill. I ran until my heart pounded through my chest, and then hiked until I could breathe again. Run, hike, run, hike. It was all by feel, not by pace or distance. As a road runner, I resisted the instinct to stop my watch whenever I stopped running, and just let the seconds tick as I walked, gasping for air. My pace per mile was double what I'm used to seeing when I glance down -- but I’m learning not to pay attention on the trail.

Just two miles in I thought “Why did I think this was a good idea. There’s no way I can do this. It already hurts.” But as my mom told me long ago: “You start with one mile, then two…” You can’t tackle the distance, or any feat, all at once. So by miles 3-4 I told myself to just stay in the moment, focusing on one segment and one mile at a time, rather than how far I had left to go.

I took bites of clif bar and dried mango during the walks, drank from my hydration reservoir, and calculated how many more hours that water had to last. (Although there was a cold alpine stream along the trail, should I get desperate).

By mile 6 I was running up the 4WD jeep road, thinking “I’m almost there. I’ve made it this far, now just over that ridge.” A few hikers in their jeeps stopped as they passed to say “good job!” “Crushing it!” One offered me extra water and another offered gummy bears. Their kudos kept me going through each section of switchback as I kept climbing. It felt like running in slow motion since each step didn’t cover much ground.

I crested over the ridge that I had been watching from 2000ft below, and realized I was not, in fact, “almost there,” as I stared at the half mile of class 2 rocky ridge that would take me to the summit. This section looked a lot less like running, and more like fast, bouncy hiking, as I scrambled across and up boulders.

At the summit I was relieved to finally sit down, and identified the other 14ers I knew and had climbed. Only a few surrounding peaks were sitting as tall as I was now. The view never gets old from on top of the world. I put my windbreaker on as the mountain winds chilled my sweaty clothes. I snacked on gummy bears, another clif bar, and sipped more water, knowing I wouldn't need as much reserve for the run downhill. I was quickly joined by two other runners, who had biked part way up the mountain. I told them this was my first mountain run, partly wondering “am I doing this right?” They told me about other peaks they had done, encouraging me to try another. We took summit photos, and then it was time to head down before our sweat chilled us any more, although I'm always reluctant to leave, especially after working so hard to get there.

I bounded down the mountain, deciding it was easier to go with gravity than to fight it. It’s also an easy way to destroy your quads. I could feel the impact of pounding downhill after a couple miles, my quads throbbing and quivering. But the quicker I ran, the sooner I’d be done and back to the car -- and I was more than ready to be done. So I quickened my steps, trying to stay agile and watch my footing over the rocky trail. Again I was boosted by the words of strangers I saw along the way. A group of women we’re impressed as they cleared the path for me to pass. When I told them how exhausted I was, they responded with cheers: “You’re almost there, you got this!” And after another mile, I was there, exhausted, and coated with sweat and dirt. I wouldn’t say I had “fun,” though I felt accomplished. I did something I didn’t know I could do until that day. And thought “I won’t be doing that again.” One and done.

But the funny thing about endurance sports is that given enough time, the sore muscles recover, the energy returns, and the brain forgets just how painful that experience was.

And once it fades, a new thought creeps in: I did it once, I can do it again. I can do hard things.

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