Taking a page from Sean O'Day's 36 mile birthday run from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek, I wanted to commemorate the anniversary of my first day on earth with a similar monumental undertaking. Fortunately, being born at the tail end of September offers a literal lifetime of opportunities to celebrate during the spectacular changing of the guards as summer gives way to fall. A time where temperatures ease but the sun remains strong. A time characterized less by trepidation of afternoon thunderstorms but marked instead by real excitement over the prospect of a snowstorm. And, most obviously, a time when mother nature presents her vibrant color wheel as if throwing her own party where everyone is invited to enjoy the outdoors. As an added bonus, word of an epic 26-28ish mile loop, which coincided perfectly with the one mile for every year theme, had been circulating in my group of running friends for several weeks.Where you ask?
And so Friday evening, with little more than a week's preparation, I set out west to White River National Forest and the Maroon Lake parking lot. The drive alone was absolutely amazing as hints of fall gave way to explosions of yellows. Not "just yellow" as some may innocently yet mistakenly have you believe, but yellow with subtle undertones of green, red, and orange that from afar create a magnificent golden spectacle. However self absorbed it may be, I couldn't help but picture the skinny, blanched aspen trunks, adorned with their teardrop-shaped flames, as nature's birthday candles for me! Rolling in around 8:00 with the sun long since retired, I found myself with a handful of other cars, some vacant, others occupied, and anxiously awaited daybreak. Night passed surprisingly quickly and comfortably as I stretched out in the back of my Honda Element and entertained thoughts, however unrealistic, about traveling the country and living out of the back of my car.
Fortunately, I was not planning on being alone for what could easily be a 10 hour day according to some reports. Ryan Morgan would be accompanying me, although due to a lapse or two in ironing out the details, we wouldn't locate one another until the next morning. Now, arriving after dark the night before meant waking up in awe without even leaving the parking lot as I caught my first glimpse of the three giants, Pyramid, Maroon, and North Maroon Peaks, who had kept watch the night before. With no initial sign of Ryan, I was beginning to mentally prepare for a long solo day when he knocked on my window at about 6:30 am. A sigh of relief was exhaled and I continued putting the final touches on my waterbottles and running paraphenalia that would get me through the day.
Though the adventure began at dawn, a small army of tourists and locals outfitted with tripods and cameras had already beaten us to the trail- proving that the Maroon Bells really are the most photographed mountains in Colorado. Finally, after donning a running pack and two handheld water bottles, it was time to hit the trail. After quickly passing the wilderness papparazi at Maroon Lake, the trail rolled along to the next obvious junction, Crater Lake where the masses had not yet reached. With the sun rising higher, the Aspen began to show their true beauty potential.
From a raven's point of view, the route was a lasso and we opted for the counterclockwise journey. About an hour and a half of steady mountain running and a healthy dose of hiking lead us to BUCKSKIN PASS, the first of four.
And after a momentary pause to take in the scenery, back down to the trees we ran, quickly losing the elevation we had worked so hard for.
What I saw next rivals all natural beauty I've ever seen. "Unbelievable" was all I could say as I gazed upon the turquoise water of SNOWMASS LAKE. Luckily, a steady climb at this point justified slowing the pace to a leisurely ambling, allowing additional time to permanently ingrain the images for which no words can adequately describe into my hippocampus.
The trail continued up an over the second pass of the day, TRAIL RIDER PASS which provided even more stellar views.
And like the Noble Duke of Yore, we "marched right down again" taking a quick detour to Geneva Lake before returning to the loop and cruising along the Fravert Basin.
The next pass, FRIGID AIR, would be the last long climb of the day. At this point though, a combination of fatigue and sensory overload meant forfeiting cliche adjectives. A head shake and an ear to ear grin was the only thing I could muster in a feeble attempt to appropriately respond to the overwhelming surrounding beauty.
During the trip to the final pass massive elevation loss and gain was supplanted with a relatively more gentle trip across the valley with one last short and sweetly steep climb for good measure.
WEST MAROON PASS was bittersweet as the crowd of clockwise hikers crowding the summit signified the closing act of the journey.
The homestretch, though downhill, was covered at a pedestrian pace due to tricky terrain, Ryan tweaking an ankle, and a reluctance to trade trail for traffic (probably mostly by the latter). But alas, all good things must end.
So here are the numbers: 7.5 hours of moving time (9 hours from start to finish), 9,000 ft of elevation gain, 27 plus 1 to grow on miles. And I'll wrap this up with one last closing thought on a fantastic birthday: On September 24th I found the FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH. It's not in a pill and you can't find it on QVC or anywhere on televsion for that matter. It's not in St. Augustine Florida, at least its not exclusively in Florida. No, eternal youth is rediscovering or holding strong to your childlike wonder and a spirit for adventure. It's doing what you love because you truly love it. Drinking from an alpine stream, basking in the warmth of the sun, filling your lungs with thin mountain air, and collapsing in exhaustion at the end of the day. That's refusing to grow old. (Happy Birthday to my mom who also celebrated her birthday on September 24th.)
Nothing beats a post run dip and a guzzle from the growler (thanks Ryan).