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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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Boulder

Mar 07, 2017

Days in the Life of Professional Ultra Runner Krissy Moehl

Being a professional ultra-distance runner is certainly not the planet’s worst job.

WRITTEN BY

Krissy Moehl

You may not sign advertising contracts worth millions, but you get to do some serious travelling. This is a firsthand account of a trip Krissy Moehl took to Chile to compete in the 63km ultra leg of the Patagonian International Marathon.

I woke up early and did a double take on where I was. Frequent travel often leads to unfamiliar wake up situations. A quick scan of the room and recalling what I did to arrive in that bed usually helps to calm that initial eerily unfamiliar feeling. As I scanned the room, I saw the running clothes I had laid out in my exhausted state the night before, complete with my bib number folded and pinned to my shorts. I smiled a big smile. I was in Patagonia, South America. The mountains I photographed from the airplane window only a few hours ago were now looming in the predawn darkness right outside my window. After 30 hours of travel—including a cancelled flight—from my home in Boulder, Colorado, I was in Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and biosphere reserve in southern Chile. This would be the first event of its type in Chile’s most visited park.

VERY BAD GOOD TRIP

I retraced the vaguely familiar path back to the lobby to find the friendly faces of fellow racers. Long hours of travel followed by less than 5 hours sleep had left my head a bit foggy, but with a 63 km run awaiting me in an hour’s time, I had to quickly snap back into reality. The sun was starting to illuminate the Patagonian mountains as the coffee worked its way into my blood stream. I’d only viewed these mountains in photos and now their grand silhouettes made me tip my head back to take in their full shape. It was a reality I was more than happy to wake up in. Though hungry from the long journey, I tried to make smart decisions about how much breakfast to enjoy, knowing that I had to race soon. Coffee first to stimulate the foggy mind, toast with jam for carbs and sugar, a banana because that always seems like a good breakfast item and a few fancy figs just because they looked delicious. The lodge did well to accommodate foreign travellers with strong coffee—a rarity in Chile. The opportunity to race in foreign countries is a special way to experience the terrain and people in the different corners of the world. I have wanted to travel since I was a little girl. At 18, when my mom asked me what I wanted to do, I told her I just wanted to see the world. Her advice? “Just find someone to pay for it.” The path I followed in the ensuing 18 years that eventually led me to Patagonia is a unique one, with luck being in the right place at the right time. I worked for Scott McCoubrey, owner of the Seattle Running Company and race director of an 80-km trail race on Mount Rainier. I also worked with American ultra-running legend Scott Jurek at the onslaught of trail running in Seattle. Committing time to lots of training, racing and travelling while managing my private life and a job was never easy. Tough risky decisions were taken, involving a divorce and leaving a full-time job. But that’s how I managed to give this life as an athlete a fair shot.

Photo from Patagonia International Marathon

The 7:15am call for the bus prompted us to hoist our backpacks onto our hips and head out to the parking lot to wait for the bus in the chilly morning breeze, which seemed to hover around 4°C. Thirty minutes later, a 15-passenger bus arrived to retrieve the nearly frozen group of awaiting runners. We piled in with our backpacks and goose bumpy legs for the short drive. We then had 10 minutes to cover the 20-minute walk to the scenic start line on Lago Grey (Grey Lake) beach. Our point-to-point course started on the beach and followed the dirt road we’d just driven on, turning instead towards the Torres del Paine 63 km away. We stripped down to our running shorts and T-shirts and utilized the short journey to the start as a warm up. We descended the marked walkway onto the rocky beach that opened up to icy waters and glacier views. Huge glacial chunks bopped along in the lake like ice cubes in a fancy blue cocktail drink. No wonder they chose this magnificent beach to kick-off the Patagonian International Marathon. It was soon 8am, and we started running back across the beach, up the marked trail and through the parking lot we had left minutes ago. I was now running in Patagonia!

LOS CINCO CABALLOS BLANCOS

In addition to this 63 km ultra, there was a 44 km, a 22 km and a 10 km race. Each started at the appropriate point and time along our 63 km course so that all 350 runners could reach the finish within a few hours that afternoon. The lead men of my 63 km race took off at what felt like a sprint, maybe to keep warm, maybe to compete. I got a little caught up in both and moved along at a fast pace that allowed me to warm my icy legs and stop the shivers. I soon settled into a slower pace that felt more manageable for the long miles ahead. It is no secret that I am not a fan of running on roads; my body just doesn’t manage the repetitive nature. I prefer to bounce around, change direction, climb and descend. But if I am going to run on the roads, I decided I want to run on the roads…in Patagonia! With my camera in the van, the many stunning images were burned into my memory and have often reappeared in my dreams since. Travelling opens the mind to adventure and different realities, pulling the explorer out of his routine to understand that there is more than his own little world and little life. Each time I exit a plane in a new land, I am reminded of how lucky I am to witness a new place with my own eyes, to shake new hands and lace up my shoes to cover miles over new terrain, sometimes where no one has ever run before. Each place offers its special taste, vibe and awakening of the senses. Of the many highlights that filled the morning and early afternoon, the most magnificent happened in the first 5 km. On the long road ahead, off to the right, I saw five white horses, or los cinco caballos blancos in Spanish, burst into motion as one. The sun illuminated their manes like a silver lining and the magnificent force of their movement nearly stopped me in my tracks. The surge of rippling muscles joined the runners on the road just ahead and continued up the track. The road curved to the left and then climbed the hill in a switchback, enabling me to admire their smooth stride as they climbed, reached the top and moved out of sight. A few minutes later when I finally reached the top, los cinco were on my left in a golden field. I kept my head turned to watch them instead of the road ahead until it was too much for my neck. I continued to glance back and soon saw them surge into motion again, this time through the field and further away. Absolutely magical… what a way to start!

The marathon benefits conservation in the National Park through its association with the Corre y Reforesta campaign. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon
The marathon benefits conservation in the National Park through its association with the Corre y Reforesta campaign. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon

RUNNING CAN BE MEDITATIVE

The snowcapped peaks rose up in front of me at every turn as the gravel road twisted, turned and rolled along as dictated by the terrain. The rhythm of the repetitive turns was meditative, allowing thoughts to come, be processed and forgotten. This state of mind is one of the many wonderful gifts of running. I made it my goal to run every step knowing that the climbs were relatively gradual. Running vs. walking would help me cover the 40 miles a bit quicker and hopefully keep me in position for a win. With only water and fruit provided along the way I was thankful for the energy gels and bars I had stuffed into the pockets of a new tester pair of Patagonia shorts. I carried a single UltrAspire isomeric pocket handheld water bottle for easy refilling and hydration along the way. The combination was just enough for the hours spent traversing the 63 km of the race.

Earlier that morning, during my race, I had passed through the starting points of the marathon and half marathon a few minutes before these races began. Running through each starting area brought a surge of energy from the cheers by the runners as they jogged around and stripped down to their own racing attire. Soon after I passed through, the lead men of each of those races passed me in beautiful form. The leader of the marathon slowed his pace to chat with me a bit and I soon realized that we knew each other from prior email communications. And off he went to win the marathon. The lead men of the half surged past me in a group of three, as quiet and efficient as can be.

In the final miles I started weaving through a variety of runners, some that had passed me before, some that started the 10 k before I had reached their start. All brought energy to the experience. After the final rise, the view of Hotel de los Torres was a welcome sight to all of us. The grand archway of the finish was apparent even with a kilometer to go. I tried to quicken my pace in spite of my tight, limited hamstrings. Running 63 km after 30 hours of sitting in planes and cars does little for my flexibility. Covering these final strides, along with the realization that this was my final race for the season, brought a smile to my face. As much as I love racing and travelling, I also thrive in being at home, finding routine, cooking meals and sleeping in my own bed. After a full 18 months of travelling and racing, I was looking forward to a bit of downtime and having time for other passions like cooking, yoga, reading, climbing, kickboxing and sewing. But before letting my mind wander too much I snapped back to the hay bales that lined the finish line and hi-fived the spectators alongside who looked at my bib number to realize that I was finishing the 63 k. “La primera mujer!” they exclaimed. “The first woman!”

The celebrations were grand. That afternoon after a hearty barbecue lunch, the organization put on a show complete with corking the champagne for all age groups and overall winners. The women I stood with all agreed to not spray each other and instead aimed at the awaiting crowd. Stiff and sore we found our way to dinner and bed without much hesitation. The next morning marked the second portion of our Chilean adventure: a difficult and scenic trek.

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Krissy participates in races worldwide. Here, she becomes the first woman to cross the finish line. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon

TRAVEL, RACE, WIN, TRAIN, REPEAT

Some people thought we were crazy. We finished the 63 k and after one night’s sleep—my first full night since leaving Colorado—our small group started a 3-day hike on the “W” route, which most people completed over a week, or more! To me, this knowledge of my physical ability is empowering. When you know that no matter what, those pistons and engine can carry you wherever you want to go… that is a kind of power few know and cherish. It is not something that ultra-runners take for granted as we know it is something we develop and train for.

The way the landscape unfolded before us was completely unexpected. We started on the southeast “corner” of the W and headed west along the bottom of the W, planning to cap off our adventure with the final east arm of the W when we returned. From the start we marveled at the way the lakes met the mountains and the latter screamed up to the sky without hesitation. We had no idea that terrain could be so stunning every step of the way. I have seen many gorgeous places in the world, but I heard myself repeat, “This is the most beautiful place ever.” I loved that everyone we met on the remote and amazing trail had to arrive by foot and therefore on their own leg power. This created a sense of unity that transcended the barriers of language. We were all in the same place on the same power—our own. My hiking buddy and friend of many years, Yassine Diboun (placed 4th male in the 63 km race) and I carried a continuous conversation during the entire hike, constantly interrupted by the beauty around us: “Can you believe this?” Or “Wait, did you see that?” Each time we picked up from where we had left, sharing stories, pondering issues, recounting race stories and—like only good friends can do—getting to know each other better while enjoying this new discovery of the Chilean trails.

PIM1309_Ariel-Traipe_0012
The race route has views of snow-capped mountains, glacier-fed lakes and unique wildlife of the area. Photo: Patagonia International Marathon

THERE IS NO PERFECT WAY TO ARRIVE SOMEWHERE NEW

Every race and travel experience gives me opportunities to open my mind and to learn something. It might be a lesson that I needed to be reminded of, it might be a new one, but there always is at least one. One that I have had to learn over the years is that there is no perfect way to prepare for any event. Planes might be delayed, people might change their minds and you might cook your favorite meal… or not. We can only influence our approach, execution and attitude. The arrival in Patagonia was a challenging experience. My first flight was cancelled and I was delayed a full 24 hours. I arrived at the race start at midnight, before a 5am wakeup call, and managed only a piece of cheesy pizza at the airport bar before the four hour drive into the park. But persistence and optimism led me to an experience of a lifetime. To see the mountains I’ve only heard stories about, to experience the international race at the furthest southern point I’ve ever travelled to and to spend the extra days hiking the “W” and viewing the mountains up close, was the perfect way to wrap up a long season of racing and travelling. It is an experience I know I will not be able to repeat, nor do I want to with the crazy travels involved to get there, but Chile is a place that I want to revisit to hopefully explore deeper in the mountains, perhaps to climb and definitely to complete the “O” route. Maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the end goal in mind are the two things that drive me through life. It worked on this trip and has mostly guided me through my time on this planet.

Through the bumps and twists, highs and lows, I continue to fulfill my dream to see the world. Someone isn’t always picking up the tab, as my mother had advised, but I have found my (running) mode to explore the world.


Feature Image: Runners from North and South America, Africa, Europe, Australia and Asia fly in around the world to participate. Photo by Christian Miranda / Patagonia International Marathon

 

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Boulder

Feb 28, 2019

The Legend of Longs Peak, One of Colorado’s Most Popular 14ers

Longs Peak enthralls weekend warriors and veteran mountaineers alike. It’s been called “Colorado’s deadliest peak”, but do the numbers support the nickname?

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Longs Peaks, viewed from the metropolitan centers of the northern Front Range, is a prominent knuckle of gnarled granite foregrounded by Mt. Meeker’s dramatic east face. The 14,255 foot behemoth is the indisputable crown jewel of the Front Range Rockies, and it occupies a mythic place in Colorado mountain lore. From geologic formation to modern mountaineering, Longs Peak is a hallowed repository of sediment and stories. As Rocky Mountain National Park’s sole 14er, Longs Peak enthralls weekend warriors and veteran mountaineers alike.

An advanced and arduous venture.

Today, social media reveals the mountain’s popularity. The deluge of Instagram summit selfies may boost tourism in the area, but the increased exposure can lure the unprepared to seek the summit, an advanced and arduous venture. Despite the dramatic uptick in Longs Peak tourism and sensational headlines highlighting hiker fatalities, deaths have actually remained relatively stable in the past several decades. In other words, given the increasing number of attempts and steady overall incident count, the rate of fatal accidents has actually decreased.  

Alpenglow on the Diamond face of Longs Peak, foregrounded by Chasm Lake. Photo by Dusty J via Flickr.

The legend of Longs begins with its geologic inception nearly 2 billion years ago. The metamorphic schist and gneiss of its slopes evince ancient matrimony of plate movements, intense pressure, and scorching heat. 1.4 billion years ago, magma intrusions cooled and crystallized into Rocky Mountain granite. The latent peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park were comprised of this swirl of sediments, launched skyward 70 million years ago by an uplift. Situated at more or less their current elevations, the mountains developed sharp precipes, veined grooves, and deep cirques by way of glaciation. The famous Diamond face of Longs Peak, a shear wall anchored by Mills Glacier and illumined by rosy morning alpenglow, is testimony to the carnal power of erosion. As Colorado’s northernmost 14er, with a summit as large and flat as a football field, Longs Peak dominates the surrounding skyline and calls adventurers to its heights.

It’s born a handful of names and millions of bootprints. To the Native Americans, it was Nesotaiuexthe Two Guides. After they were driven from the plains into the mountains by white settlers in the early 19th century, they reportedly caught eagles from its crags, using their feathers for adornment. French trappers proclaimed it Les Deux Oreilles, or Two Ears, a reference to its forked summit. Isabella Bird, who became the third woman ever to summit the peak, dubbed it both the “Mont Blanc of Northern Colorado” and the “American Matterhorn’’ in her 1879 autobiography A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. The enduring moniker, Longs Peak, is a nod to Stephen Harriman Long, an explorer who became the first American to sight and describe the mountain for the government in 1820. Major John Wesley Powell notched the first official ascent of the peak on August 23, 1868, commencing a flood of summit fever that would swell in volume over the next century and a half to the 10,000 annual total that attain Long’s pinnacle today. Most summit bids trace the standard Keyhole Route, which necessitates exposed scrambling and ascends 5,000 vertical feet in 7 miles. Unprepared hikers may find themselves getting more than they bargained for, but that hasn’t deterred the crowds.

The Boulderfield below the Keyhole Route, in summer and winter. Photo from the National Park Service.

The lure of Longs is understandablethe trailhead is just 90 minutes from Denver International Airport and the standard Keyhole Route to the summit is doable for most fit, prepared hikers in a long day. Though its reputation as a non-technical challenge and proximity to big cities makes it one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers, the sheer number of summit attempts has also made it one of the country’s most deadly hikes, according to an Outside Magazine article from 2014. Spokeswoman Kyle Patterson says that Rocky Mountain National Park runs the third busiest search-and-rescue operation in the Park Service, and 20 percent of their efforts are concentrated in the Longs Peak region. Since 1884, Longs has claimed 67 lives, with over 70% of fatalities resulting from a fall. This past summer was particularly deadly, with four hikers losing their lives on or near the mountain. 2018’s fatalities, combined with ten others since 2010, make this past decade the deadliest ever in recorded history, eclipsing the 13 deaths of the 1970s. But to take these statistics at face value would be to misjudge the threat.

By some estimates, over 25,000 hopefuls set out from the trailhead every summer—less than half of them summit. Just a sliver of hikes end in fatalities, but as overall trail traffic increases, so do overall incidents. A dive into the decades reveals a small increase in fatalities, but that increase comes with a caveat:

  • 17 deaths from 1961–1980
  • 18 deaths from 1981–2000
  • 19 deaths from 2001–2020 (assuming a projected rate of one death per year in 2019 and 2020)


The caveat
: Summit attempts have increased assiduously, tracking overall park visitation. In 2017 alone, Rocky saw 4 million tourists–that’s a 40% uptick since 2014. According to Patterson, around 10,000 hikers hit the summit in 2002. Those numbers are based on a research project undertaken from May through October of that year. Successful summits have likely increased in the following two decades. But fatalities haven’t skyrocketed. If incidences tracked overall attempts, Longs would be on the short-list for the world’s deadliest mountain. The executive editor of the American Alpine Club Dougald MacDonald suggests that “visitation has roughly doubled in the last fifty years,” but, coincidingly, “there certainly has not been an enormous surge in fatalities”. The most remarkable characteristic of recent fatality reports is their scantiness, given the crescive swell of summit-seekers.

Given the increasing number of attempts and steady overall incident count, the rate of fatal accidents has actually decreased.

What might be heralded as a triumph of public safety is often diluted by headlines corroborating Longs deadly legacy. Bernard Gillett, local climber and guidebook writer, remarks that “Accounts of deaths in the media are sensationalized; that’s what sells newspapers and increases advertising revenue”. This past year’s fatality reports contributed to the sentiment of increasing peril, with four highly publicized search-and-rescue operations carried out by the park service in the Longs Peak area. This task force, working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to keep visitors safe, is most visible during times of crisis.

Patterson says that the Longs Peak rangers rely on the current infrastructure to limit crowding on Longs. “Due to the size of the parking lot at the Longs Peak Trailhead as well as spillover parking on the County Road, parking is limited,” she reports. The lot is at capacity most days mid-July through early September. “Compared to ten years ago, there are more weekdays now that the parking lot is full, so overall attempts have likely increased,” she continues. But parking space hasn’t expanded in a decade, enforcing some semblance of carrying capacity. For now, that’s the slyest ace up the forest-green sleeves of the Park Service.

Rocky Mountain National Park personnel implemented an interdivisional task force in the Longs Peak area in 2011 to address the still-daunting crowds who do find parking. They’ve orchestrated a robust safety outreach program, both online and on-site. They added a signpost in the Boulderfield, 1.5 miles from the summit, to warn hikers of the perils ahead. “We also are concerned with the increase of social media, websites, and “trip planning” sites that highlight experiences and photographs, but often do not provide accurate information or safety messages and very little context as to overall preparedness,” Patterson disclosed.

Close-up of the Keyhole Route sign in the Boulderfield. Photo provided by Kyle Patterson.

More tourism is a boon to local business, but city-sponsored events may attract summit-seekers who underestimate the extreme mountain environment.

Safety on Longs Peak may be a feather in the felt caps of the Park Service, but overcrowding in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a pressing concern. The annual 4 million that tromp the trails bring in big revenue, at the cost of congestion and crowding. “RMNP benefits from the increase in the number of visitors,” Gillett opines. “[They] get to keep 80% of the revenue generated from the park entrance fees, with the rest distributed to lesser-visited parks in the National Park System.” To the city of Estes Park, which functions as the gateway to RMNP, more tourism is a boon to local business. Park-goers buttress the economy, and as such, “[they’ve] got a huge incentive to bring as many people to the Park as they can,”. Gillett says that in the past 40 years, he’s noticed an uptick in city-sponsored events catered to out-of-towners. “It used to be that the town got pretty quiet once summer was over and everyone went back to school.  But now there’s an event every weekend in September, and its spilt over into October and even the middle of winter.” Now, even in the winter months when average daytime highs are a brisk 25°, the Longs Peak Trail sees a respectable stream of snowshoers. The winter warriors and summer hordes are good business, but the exposure may attract summit-seekers who are, in Patterson’s words, “unprepared for the conditions on Longs Peak and underestimate extreme mountain environments”.

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The “Longs Peak Superhighway” of headlamp-clad hikers huffing upward in the predawn darkness of most summer mornings is both spectacle and scourge. Trail traffic, remarkably congruous to car congestion on popular Trail Ridge Road, is an inevitability of a Park as popular as Rocky. Longs is and will continue to be one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers; those vying for solitude on the northern giant can try their hand at one of the less popular routes, which see just a fraction of the traffic as the classic Keyhole route and offer sustained, exposed scrambling. Whatever the route, diligent preparation and smart decision-making are mandatory to safely enjoy the legendary Longs Peak.

The Diamond face of Longs. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

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