Monday, August 21, 2017

Rocky Mountain National Park "Lake Bagging"

I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park last weekend, primarily to run the Rocky Mountain Half Marathon, but also ended up exploring some great trails while there, which I think warrant their own post. I ended up hiking/trail running to three different lakes - and given that "Peak Bagging" is such a big thing in Colorado, I decided to name this post "Lake Bagging" (yes, I'm that cool).

Trail #1: Sky Pond
Mileage: About 10 Miles R.T.
Elevation Gain: Approximately 2000'
High Point: 10,964'

I don't remember where I first saw a picture from Sky Pond, but ever since then I've been wanting to go check it out. It's a 9ish mile trek up from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. I posted on a Front Range running group about my plans to do this on Friday morning and was pleasantly surprised to see my friend and fellow Skirt Sports Sister Dawn was up for joining me! We ran last year's Skirt Sports 13er together, so I was excited to get to catch up with her again!

We met up in Estes Park at 6:45am on Friday morning to carpool into the park. As one of the top visited National Parks in the country, parking can be a bit of an issue, but we hoped with our early start time we would be okay. Unfortunately, when we got to the Glacier Gorge Trail Head it was ALREADY full! Thankfully, you can also park at Bear Lake and it only adds about a quarter mile round trip and luckily that one had not filled up yet!

Once we got parked, we quickly headed out onto the trail. There were people out but not too many at this hour and we were able to settle into a nice run/walk pace. With just about 2000 feet of elevation gain over the course of the trail, it's constant uphill but nothing overly strenuous or steep for the first 4 miles. Along the trail you'll pass by Alberta Falls and Loch Lake. Around the 4 mile mark you reach the only "technical" part of the trek - climbing up along the side of a waterfall. It's a little intimidating, but we eventually made it to the top!

Alberta Falls

Loch Lake

The only "technical" part of this hike - climbing up this!

Above the waterfall climb is "Lake of Glass". We spent a few minutes there trying to figure out if this was Sky Pond or not (as we didn't see where the trail continued on), but we quickly realized it was not and got some direction from other hikers on where to go from there. It was just a 1/2 mile or so over to Sky Pond! We made out way around the side of the Pond and stopped for a few pictures before heading back down. It truly was beautiful! I love spending time above treeline!

Lake of Glass
In between Lake of Glass and Sky Pond - so pretty!

Me made it!

We ran most of the route down with the exception of a few technical areas and bottlenecked areas as the trails were getting crowded the closer we got to the trailhead. With a couple miles to go the rain started and lasted for about 20 minutes. As we got back to the trailhead, I saw that my Garmin was at about 9.5 miles, so we also did a loop around Bear Lake so I could reach 10 miles. Bear Lake is a short, very popular loop trail right off of the main trailhead.

Map and Elevation Profile

Trail #2: Gem Lake
Mileage: 3.5 R.T.
Elevation Gain: 1000'
High Point: 8,879'

On Friday afternoon I had some time to kill so I decided it would be the perfect time to go hike Gem Lake again. I have hiked Gem Lake in the past - many years ago, back before I started running and hiking regularly. I remember Gem Lake being SO, so hard back then, and so I had wanted to do it again to see how it felt now that I run trails all the time. This is a short but fairly steep hike - 1.7 miles one-way up to the lake with over 1000' of elevation gain.

Well, it was still a lot of uphill as I remembered, but compared to some of the hikes I've done, it was very doable. I made it to the top in just about 35 minutes. The weather was perfect, so I decided to just hang out for awhile at the top and enjoy it before running back down.

Views from the trail!

I decided to get in the water - it was freezing!

Map and Elevation Profile

Trail #3: Bierstadt Lake
Mileage: 2.5 to 4.5 miles depending on what route you take
Elevation Gain: 800'
High Point: 9,454'

After running the Rocky Mountain Half, Kellee and I headed into the park for what we thought would be a short hike. The trail starts out hiking straight up for the first mile. I had thought you'd be able to see Bierstadt Lake from the top of the climb, but it turned out you had to take a loop around to the other side of the lake to be able to see it. I'm glad we made it though because it was beautiful - especially with the rainy weather that was going on.

Candid shot at the lake!

Long's Peak towering over Bierstadt Lake

After stopping for a few pictures at the lake, we continued on around the lake, thinking we would meet back up at the junction to take us back down the way we came up... well we must have missed it because we somehow ended up on a very different trail - quite a bit steeper and much more rocky. Thankfully I recently downloaded the REI Trail Run Project app which maps to all the popular trails in the area pre-downloaded so you don't need to worry about having cell service. I pulled that up and found that, as we thought, we were not on the same trail we had gone up, but that this would still take us back - it would just add about a mile and a half! So not quite the short little jaunt we had planned, but still a great hike!

Along the other trail we accidently ended up on!

Map and Elevation Profile - you can see the thin outline of the trail we should have taken to make this a "lollipop loop"

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Grand Mesa 55K {Race Recap}

If I had one phrase to describe the Grand Mesa Ultras, it would be "deceivingly hard". I'm pretty sure I went over this in last years 50 mile recap, but my thoughts remain the same this year. Look solely at the elevation profile of this course and you think it'll be easy...yeah, it's not. Not only is the entire course above 10,000 feet, but it is super rocky and technical...making you run at least 25% slower than you think you will. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful race, close to home, and so I'm sure I'll be back again next year...

As mentioned, I did the 50 miler last year. I was tempted to do the 50 again because my favorite part of the course is only in the 50 and 100 (and I definitely wasn't going to do to do the 100!), except my running kind of dwindled off after early June's Revel Rockies Marathon. I've probably been running about 15 mile weeks or so for the last month and a I had to choose between 30K and 55K. Given said 15 mile weeks with very little of that being on trail, I probably should have done the 30K... but I like a challenge, and had been missing the ultra world, so I figured, might as well give the 55K a shot!

The race started Saturday morning at 6am, so I headed up the night before and stayed with some friends in a cabin. It was my first time staying overnight up there and I loved our little lodge - I will definitely look into staying up there again!

The course is best described broken up into 5 total sections, so without further ado, here they are:

SECTION 1 - Grand Mesa Lodge Trail, Outbound
Miles 1 - 3.5

The race starts out on the Grand Mesa Lodge Trail, which connects the Mesa Top parking lot to the Crag Crest Trailhead/Parking Lot. This section is a little tricky because it's not very well defined and is a bit overgrown. Heading "outbound" isn't too bad though because it's more downhill and it's at the very beginning of the race.

Since there were a lot more participants this year, this section was much more bottle necked than last year which kept me going nice and slow. This was probably for the best, and I enjoyed the easy pace out. After about a mile and a half, you get some awesome, very runnable downhill which is a blast (just try not to think about how you have to come back up it later)! That downhill takes you down around the Grand Mesa Lodge where you then cross Highway 65 (they have volunteers watching traffic for you) and have another short quarter mile or so before you get to the first aid station, and thus the end of section 1.

Coming into the Grand Mesa Lodge area on the super fun downhill section!

SECTION 2 - Crag Crest Loop
Miles 3.5 - 14.5

If you have never been on the Grand Mesa, or hiked Crag Crest Trail, section two is going to be the BEST section by far, in terms of views. It's the high point of the course and you come out around Mile 10 right on the "crest" where you have 360 degree views. It's pretty incredible!

But I'm getting ahead of myself... section two is a "lollipop", where you have a short out section and then a loop, with the "lower loop" first, which winds it's way through trees and some beautiful wildflower sections before you finally start your ascent to the crest around Mile 8. If you're a mid-to-back of the packer like me, this is where you can plan to have a nice couple miles of consistent hiking without much running.

Finally, around Mile 10, you hit the crest! It's beautiful, and yet, still nice and rocky, making running still a bit of challenge. Nevertheless, you can kind of jog/walk for the next 2 miles along the crest, stopping to take lots of pictures if you feel so inclined (like I always do)! Finally, around Mile 12 starts the descent back to the Crag Crest Parking Lot / Aid Station at Mile 14.5. This is one of the most runnable sections of the course (aside from Mile 2-3 at the beginning).

I had the pleasure of running most of the lower loop with run club friends Karla and Penny. It definitely helped pass the time having "#ultrabuddies" to chat with!

Karla running through wildflowers along the lower section of the loop
One of the MANY lakes on top of the Grand Mesa!

We made it to the Crest!

SECTION 3 - Grand Mesa Lodge Trail, Inbound
Miles 14.5-18

Section 3 is BY FAR my least favorite section of the entire course. It was last year, and it was again this year. The only good news was that I was more mentally prepared for it this year. I knew ahead of time it was going to be miserable. It's mostly uphill, the trail is not well defined, I always stumble on a million rocks, and it is seriously the. longest. 3. and. a. half. miles. EVER.

But nevertheless, you get through it.

Since I knew going into it that I was going to struggle on this section, I decided to get out my music about a mile in. Only my headphones were not working! What to do?? I never want to be "THAT" person with the annoying music playing on their speaker instead of headphones...but there wasn't anyone super close by, aside for the occasional 30K runner passing me (the 30K starts 1 hour later, so the really speedy racers pass you), so I decided to just go for it... And I'm glad I did. This section was still a struggle for me, but this helped immensely. I eventually got through the worst 3.5 miles and made it into the Mesa Top aid station!

SECTION 4 - Mesa Top, Outbound
Miles 18-26

I was now 18 miles into the race with 16 to go. I quickly grabbed some food from the aid station, some mango's out my car, and headed onto the Mesa Top Trail. I had just under 8 miles to the final aid station - Flowing Park.

I've ran Mesa Top several times and it's amazing how much "easier" this trail feels on fresh legs, vs. 18+ miles in. It's slightly downhill so I was hoping to run most of this, but just like last year it was much more of a run/walk. Nevertheless, I kept on mile at a time. One foot in front of the other.

This section is mostly trees, but there are a few sections that open out to beautiful wildflowers and some great overlooks! With a couple miles to go, I looked out from the edge of the mesa and saw the coolest site: all of this fog was rolling in towards the mesa, eventually just settling right on the edge. I stopped for several minutes just enjoying the scenery and taking way too many pictures!

Beautiful wildflowers!

The fog rolling in.

I love this picture!

SECTION 5 - Mesa Top, Inbound
Miles 26-34

As I got to the Flowing Park aid station I grabbed some coke and chips, chatted for a minute with some friends who were volunteering, and then began the trek back towards the finish!

Given my lack of training this was kind of painfully slow. I wanted to run more and yet I also didn't.
The fog was still lingering in places, so I stopped for more photo's as I made my way back. With about two and a half miles to go my watch died. A little over a mile to go and I started chatting with a fellow Skirt Sports Ambassador who I hadn't met in real life before. She actually kept me motivated pretty well and I managed to pick up my pace a little. Finally we passed by the small pond that signals you've got just over a mile to the finish line. I tried to run as much as I could (for the longest mile ever) until finally finishing in 8 hours, 34 minutes, 18 seconds!

Race: Grand Mesa Ultras
Distance: 55K
Date: 07/29/2017
Weather: 50's - 60's and overcast
Elevation Low/High: 10,031' / 11,133'
Elevation Gain: 3,161'
Bib Number: 301
Official Time: 8:34:18
Overall Rank: 33 of 45
Gender Rank: 14 of 22
Age Rank: Unknown

All finished!

After the race, I volunteered Saturday night working an overnight aid station for the 100 milers. I still want to try a 100 again someday (haven't decided when attempt #2 will be just yet), so I thought it would be fun and inspiring to give back a little and help out! I'm not sure how inspiring it actually was (it actually more made me seriously question ever wanting to do a 100!), but it was still fun to help out. This is seriously a beast of a course, so HUGE congrats to those who finish the 100!

View from the Land's End Aid Station

Flattop Mountain & Hallett Peak

I've been wanting to hike to the top of Hallett Peak ever since I found out it was the gorgeous mountain towering above Dream and Emera...