My Weekend Adventure on the Colorado Trail
If you asked me in December for my running goals, I’d quickly respond with the following:
- Stay healthy
- Qualify for the Olympic Trials in the 5k
- Never run a marathon
I was a 5k runner with the heart of a miler. My long runs were 12 miles and my weekly mileage was never more than 60 miles. I didn’t like long runs and I lived for the fast track days.
But here we are, seven months later, where I just finished fast-packing the weekend on Colorado Trail. In 3 days I covered 90 miles and climbed just over 16,000ft. My first marathon, my first 50k, and my first 100 mile week.
I decided in January to leave the world of competitive running as I knew it – track, cross country, road. I wanted to enjoy the sport for what it is. That’s where I really fell hard (figuratively and sometimes literally) for the trails. By April, the idea of fast-packing the Colorado Trail was born.
What is the Colorado Trail?
It is a 486 mile trail where you climb just over 89,000ft while making your way from Denver to Durango. The highest point is 13,271ft above sea level and most of the trail is above 10,000ft.
What is fast-packing?
It’s where the wonderful world of trail running meets the beautiful world of ultralight backpacking. You hike the ups, you run the downs, you combo the flats, and you carry your everything needed on your back – shelter, clothes, first aid/repair/toiletry kit, sleeping pad and bag, water, and food.
How do you prepare for something like this?
Well…you can’t. But what you can do, is give yourself a mini experience that will teach you A LOT so you’re even more prepared when the time comes to give the whole thing a go. And that’s what I did this weekend.
Day 1: Kenosha Pass to Breckenridge (31.7mi, 5,106ft)
I woke up incredibly excited to get going. First day attempting this fast-packing thing! I’d been training hard the last few months and couldn’t wait to put my training to a mini test.
Unfortunately for future me, that excitement had me moving too fast. It may sound odd but running 14:20/mi is REALLY quick. And by mile 21, I paid for it.
I was enjoying the sights and moving along pretty quick until a massive climb started 19 and a bit miles in. I’d never run more than 20 and hitting that new mark while on a “500ft in one mile” climb was not ideal. I got to the top of the climb and had to take a break. My heart was pounding, I couldn’t catch my breath, I had a headache, and I felt like I was going to vom. I had my first ever “bonk”.
After a few minutes, I got back up and got going. I struggled to eat the rest of the day. And when you’re burning 3,000 calories during activity, you need to eat. I drank a lot of water but that didn’t help my stomach. My only thought the last 11 miles was “please don’t throw up”.
By the end of the day I felt so sick, I was more tired than I ever had been before, my feet were achy, and my back/shoulders were incredibly sore. Who knew carrying my gear plus 3 days’ worth of food would feel so heavy?
I had a ton of doubts that night. “Can I really do this? The whole thing? I don’t even know if I’ll make it through the weekend. There’s no way I can do this. I’m not strong enough. I’m not mentally tough enough. My shoulder hurt so much. I can’t…. I guess I’ll sleep on it. We’ll see.”
Day 2: Breckenridge to Copper + some (29.6mi, 6,572ft)
I woke up and I was shocked – my legs didn’t feel too bad and my shoulders felt a lot less sore. I took a minute to gather myself before getting ready for the day. I may have 31 miles in my legs but I was feeling ready to give it another go.
My goal for the day was to apply the lessons I learned the previous day.
- Take the climbs slower
- Just because it’s a flat section, doesn’t mean it needs to be rushed
- Use trekking pokes
- Eat your food even if you have to force yourself to
The day was much better. I started out slower after learning that running fast early could be the downfall later. I took the climbs at a much better pace focusing more on my breathing patterns than the splits on my watch. And it was worth it.
Not pushing it so much made me enjoy the whole day more. Which was good because the views on day 2 were some of the best views I’d ever seen in my life. I don’t know what was more breath taking: attempting to jog at 12,500ft or looking around at my surroundings.
Overall, the day was much better. I ate more. I drank more. I paced better (17:18/mi). However, I fell once (my only fall the whole time!), I got a small headache 10 miles to go, and bonked the last 2. Even though the day was better, I still wasn’t sure whether or not I could really do all 486 miles. My shoulders hurt a ton, my feet hated me, and I just felt so exhausted. Sleeping on those thoughts worked before, so I thought maybe it’d work again.
Day 3: Copper to Leadville + some (28.7mi, 4,951ft)
Once again, I woke up feeling surprisingly okay. I was moving slow but I was moving. My legs weren’t giving up on me, my shoulders were fine, my hips (although probably bruised) weren’t feeling as tight, and my feet weren’t screaming at me anymore. I got myself together and got going.
I wanted to apply everything I had learned the previous days to day 3. And I did.
Hike the climbs, run the downs if it’s not too steep and the terrain is okay, jog/hike the flats, use the trekking poles, eat your food every hour, drink your water more often than you think you need to, chat with others on the trail, take a short break if it means you’ll be able to travel farther later.
Day 3 was incredible. From start to finish, I felt like a new trail adventurer. I ate all my snacks. I drank SO much water. I figured out my trekking poles. And by mile 20, I found my hiking legs.
I finished the day feeling like I could keep going. 30 miles? 35 miles? 40 miles? Who knows! What I did know was that my doubts were all wrong.
Just because something is new and hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just because you’re the smallest person on the trail, doesn’t mean you’re not strong enough. Just because you have doubts, doesn’t mean you aren’t mentally tough enough.
I learned a lot from just a short 3 days fast-packing the trail. I applied my new lessons each day and I have many more to apply when the real “race” comes.
My goal this August is to fast-pack the entire Colorado Trail in under two weeks. I’ll carry everything I need in my 30L pack. I’ll pre-send packages to resupply along the way. My mini experience was the perfect weekend, but I cannot wait for my two week adventure.