High Sierra Camps 50 mile Loop

Until this weekend, my experience with ultrarunning had been limited to a handful of 50km (are these still considered ‘ultra’?) and 50mi races.  The latter of those two distances had been met with mixed success, but the framework was generally the same: trying to reach the finish line faster than anyone else.  I was curious what would happen when there was nobody else at the starting line, let alone the finish line… no podium hopes, aid stations, or irunfar coverage?  I was curious how stripping all that stuff away would change the experience of ultrarunning.  So this weekend i set off on the 50 mile High Sierra Camps Loop in Yosemite,  alone, with virtually zero planning, specific training, or expectations.  Just a desire to go out for a big day in a beautiful place.Mt Conness as viewed from Glen Aulin

As the name suggests, the route connects the 6 High Sierra camps of the Yosemite high country.  While the camps themselves are of little note to a runner, they define a highly aesthetic, well-marked route that covers a nice cross section of the region’s scenic wonders. Granite domes and spires, glassy alpine lakes and quiet meadows that tempt even the most ambitious runner to stop and have a picnic. The Yosemite high country is a special place indeed.

The High Sierra Camps Loop

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For being a 50 mile route in the mountains, the terrain is relatively mellow – only 7600-ft of vertical (without any of the optional side excursions) and all between 7,000 and 10,000-ft in elevation.   Given its popularity with backpackers, the well-trodden path is always very runnable, allowing attention to be allocated toward the incredible scenery.

Classic high sierra meadow

Sub-alpine terrain

This time of year, the rivers and waterfalls are gushing with such force that the roar of their descent is heard throughout the route.  This was a perfect occasion to test out my new Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest (thanks dad!).  At every river crossing, i simply pulled out one of the front bottles and scooped up the freshest, tastiest water money can buy.  No excuses for dehydration on this run!

Gushing creek bed

Loving the UD gear!

Despite my inspiring surroundings, i found myself struggling with the effort most of the day.  Early on, my steps felt labored and  I found my thoughts turning to work-anxiety and other life stresses.  Hiking seemed like a fine idea.  Reading a book back at the campground with a sandwich even better.  Clearly i was not in race mode.

But as the day went on, my connection to the landscape grew stronger, and with it my resolve to keep running. It felt awesome to be self-reliant out there in the wilderness, not just for resources, but also for motivation.  It’s easy to keep running when you know 4th place is hunting you down and a podium finish is at stake.  But the factors that motivate one to keep running 8 hours into a route that nobody knows you’re doing are a bit more complex — or perhaps subtle.  I’d like to say it’s the sheer enjoyment of it, but honestly that doesn’t quite capture the essence of it.  I found out that running 50 miles is darn hard whether competing or not.  And when things get that hard, the feelings of joy start to be replaced by something else more elusive.  It’s an exploration of sorts, and one i’m immensely curious about as i feel i have only scratched the surface of it.

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My favorite post run food groups: fat, salt, protein, and beer. Favorite post run food groups: fat, salt, protein, and beer.

More details of the route can be found on my Strava page:

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Pikes Peak and Yosemite

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Running near the summit of Pikes Peak in 2003

Each year when Pikes Peak race weekend nears, I feel a deep yearning to return. It’s as if all the years of training and racing up that mountain have left something inside me, (or more likely I left something on the mountain), and there is a sense of wanting to reconnect. I discovered myself as a runner on its slopes during the 4 consecutive years that i ran the marathon (9th in 2003, 1st in 2004, 2nd in 2005, 2nd in 2006). During those years, I discovered the patience, focus, and determination necessary to succeed on the mountain, and those qualities have defined my approach to training ever since.

I look forward to returning to my favorite race on my favorite mountain, but this year it was not to be.

So this past weekend I looked for an alternative mountain endeavor to take its place. Coincidentally, 6 month old Autumn was clearly jonesing for an adventure and Kristin’s brother Logan was visiting from mountain-deprived Michigan. So on Saturday morning, Kristin, Autumn, Logan and I packed the car and set off to Yosemite for the weekend.

For me, arriving in Yosemite is like a Catholic arriving at St. Peters Cathedral: An architectural masterpiece presided over by powers higher than your own. It’s at once humbling and empowering. No other place inspires me to explore its reaches more than Yosemite.

Pleasure to see you again mr sentinel.

Yosemite Valley from the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point

Once arriving in Yosemite Valley, we immediately set off on foot toward Glacier Point on the Four Mile Trail (it’s actually 4.6 miles to the top). Kristin and Logan hiked up with Autumn in the baby bjorne while I ran. Once the valley rim is achieved 3200′ of climbing later, spectacular views of Half Dome, Nevada/Vernal Falls, and the rest of the Valley are awarded. Tour groups and buses notwithstanding, it is one of the finest viewpoints in the Valley. [see the Strava route]

The Mist Trail. One of the finest short hikes in the world.

On Sunday, we collected our free coffee from the Lodge and ate breakfast while pouring over maps to plan the day’s adventures. Kristin would do a 10-mile loop around the valley’s scenic bike paths with the baby jogger, while Logan would do his own hike up to Mirror Lake. My objective for the day, was to run from Yosemite Valley (4000′ elev) to Tenaya Lake (8200′) via Clouds Rest (10,000′), 18 miles in total with 7000′ of climbing. The route was gloriously scenic, following the Mist Trail past Nevada and Vernal Falls and the John Muir Trail around Half Dome. The views from Clouds Rest, a massive granite formation perched high above the valley, are stunning. [see Strava route]

Yosemite, steeped in climbing lore and tradition, is also an ideal playground for the vertically inclined runner. The view from Clouds Rest.

The run finished at Tenaya Lake, where I took a bus back down to the Valley after a cool dip in the water.

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Tenaya Lake. Where rock climbers meet mountain runners meet standup paddle boarders.

It was a wonderful weekend in Yosemite. Only downside was not being able to do the hikes with the fam…

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Kristin & Autumn hiking up the Four Mile Trail. Autumn’s first visit to Yosemite!