Editor’s Note: This piece is a finalist in our call-out for EO readers to send us their best stories of life-changing Colorado adventure. Read all of our winner’s stories at blog.colorado.com.
A lifetime of endurance sports had taken its toll. Who knew that swimming, cycling and running steadily for nearly 10 years—on top of various competitive pursuits previously—would turn my body into a tangled mass of fibers and bones?
I felt 39 going on 65. Since I’d finished countless running and swimming races in a lifetime as an athlete, including six Ironman triathlons and six marathons, my body went into revolt, like it sensed the milestone ahead and sought to rein me in. A balky knee one day, a stiff neck the next, a calf muscle in a knot another day.
That in turn affected my mind. Mental toughness was never a strong suit with me—in races I typically plunge into the abyss of negativity whenever something goes wrong—but with each day bringing another ailment I wondered if I’d ever have a body worthy of these previous tasks. Every pain and niggle pulled a thread from my fraying psyche.
So I looked to the horizon. And there were mountains.
More and more I woke up cringing at the prospect of another hundred laps in the petri dish of a pool I frequented, or another three hours in the saddle on our pockmarked roads. But I did it because notwithstanding the looming burnout my days felt incomplete if I didn’t elevate the heart rate—and I still had races on the docket that year. And I truly love swimming, cycling and running.
One night I found myself at an outdoor retailer listening to one of their experts talk about Colorado’s 14ers. I don’t know that I assumed each one required an Everest-level outing, but I wondered at times if I could muster the courage and general wherewithal to get to the top of one of those. I expected the expert to talk about crampons, belays, helmets and Gore-Tex.
Instead, he talked fitness. He talked at length about the importance of a regular fitness regimen to handle the thin air, the unstable ground and the inevitable sore muscles, to say nothing of the impact of the walk down. Huh, what do you know? Turns out daily pre-dawn wake-ups and sweat sessions had a real-life application.
He mentioned the constant weather changes, that thunderstorms lash the summits daily and that hikers needed to be below the treeline by noon. That means hike day brings an early wake-up. For a guy who wakes up at 4 a.m. on race days, that’s no big deal.
He mentioned nutrition, to take more water than you think you need. And don’t forget real food, he said. It’s a long day and you can’t scrimp on replacing the energy you burn. Another lesson I’d already learned from triathlons and running. And I already had a CamelBak, one more piece of equipment I wouldn’t need to purchase.
I left the store heartened that I had (at least on paper) what it took to make the walk and achieve a summit. The hiking boots that had previously carried me to work in dodgy weather would work fine, and thanks to all that time in endurance sports I had enough temperature-regulating technical clothing to keep me comfortable from trailhead to summit.
Now, I needed a target. Maps constitute reading material for me, and I pored over my gazetteer like a biblical scholar parsing Deuteronomy. The lush greens of national forests and barren browns of mountains came alive for me even before I looked for pictures because I’d imagined them in my probably over-idealized way—a definite treeline yielding to rocks and scrub brush on the way up, then the green canopy looming over me on the way back down. Snow, too, even in the middle of summer. The whole prospect gave me a thrill, one that carried me through the subsequent winter.
Nearly a year later, in the middle of that last summer of my non-40s, I set an alarm for 3:00 a.m. Just like the night before race day, I couldn’t sleep and I stared at the ceiling fan for hours before catching nothing more than a glorified nap. The alarm sounded, I got dressed, grabbed food and water, and left in the darkness.
Two hours later I got off I-70 at Bakerville and parked at the base of the rutted dirt road. The guide I had advised anyone driving anything without four-wheel drive to park just off the highway and walk up the gulch—and add an hour or so to the time you’ll need to gain the summits and get back down. I stuffed some food into the CamelBak, threw it over my shoulders and clasped it at my chest as I set off on my odyssey.
Presumably the sun had risen when I got to the trailhead, but cloud cover rendered the light dull and mysterious. I smelled eggs and bacon from the nearby campsite and I paused a little because here it got real. I made the right turn onto the trail and headed up.
All morning long I kept looking at my watch but there was no need. I’d not read of any record times in my research because this wasn’t a race, wasn’t someplace to try and beat people. I just made note of the clouds breaking and casting sunlight on my walk, checked out the marmots playing between the rocks, stopped for snacks and other breaks, chatted with my fellow hikers and kept making progress. My progress was my own, not to be measured by some semi-arbitrary distance or time. It felt liberating.
I gained the summit of Torreys Peak in around three hours, which I note because old Type-A habits die hard. About 20 other people shared the summit with me, taking pictures of their signs and just catching their breaths. I sat and had a banana, tuning out the chatter around me and soaking up the now-bright sunshine.
It never occurred to me to just bag one summit and call it a day. All my research indicated anyone in reasonable shape could get both before the storms rolled in. I considered myself in more than reasonable shape, so I headed for the saddle between Torreys and Grays Peaks. I made it down and up easily and in another hour I stood on the summit of Grays, chatting up a young couple who had a sign with the altitude and the date on it. They snapped me with the sign and the three of us kind of zenned out in the moment, eating our lunches and swapping tales of the walk up, animals and plants seen, our plans for the next summit.
The cloud obscuring the sun for less than a second snapped us back to reality. Seriously, just a moment of darkness reminded us that we had to get back down before those afternoon thunderstorms. I certainly didn’t want to get hit by lightning, but I also wanted to stick around and enjoy the view from 14,278 feet. I trudged down the hill anyway, processing the day as I went along.
No, there was no official finish line other than my car below the trailhead. There was no bib number, no competition, no T-shirt, no entry fee (a huge plus, really). Athletes talk a good game about part of competition pitting you against… the course, the day, the conditions. As long as there’s a start line and an entry fee, you do compete against others. But that’s not the case on these mountains. You just do it. Maybe you have pictures and a journal entry or some other acknowledgement, but the accomplishment is truly yours alone. And I had found a way to use my fitness to do something I previously hadn’t considered.
I made it back to the car with my eyes opened and sore toes, thanks to gravity slamming them into the toe box of my hiking boots, yet another similarity between race day and hike day. For once, though, I didn’t need a T-shirt or a finisher’s medal.
I summited two mountains and beat the storms, but the mountains won that day.