Walking to the doorstep of heaven

Near the summit of Cupid, Loveland Pass, Colorado.

I’ve been going through some old photos lately, and have found myself drawn to a particular set of images. They’re the ones depicting mountain scenes, but those in which the mountains and the clouds mix in ways that bring together a sense of mystery and foreboding.

There was one hike I did about four years ago when the summer monsoons were on full blast, bringing rain and storms daily, often from morning until sunset. It was hard finding a day to go out when the weather gave me a window where a summit hike was even possible.

But it worked out on that day, even for the briefest amount of time. The hike was short, just a few miles round trip, and the summit was a minor one, a mountain simply called Cupid that tops out at 13,117 feet in Colorado’s Front Range.

On that day, heavy clouds were moving in, at times covering the sky. Only occasionally did any blue peek through.

At those altitudes, the clouds themselves don’t hover very high over the mountains. Sometimes they even pass below.

The more I thought about it, the more I could appreciate these places where the elements of earth and sky meet, and sometimes intermingle.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience this a few times. Lucky in that I was able to take it in and not suffer from the dreary and sometimes dangerous aspects of storms. There’s a sweet spot here, one in which the skies are painted gray and white, but the fury of the atmosphere is mercifully held at bay. In those times, the mountains become otherworldly, even ethereal.

I understand why ancient people felt that it was in the mountains that the gods lived. Most people never ventured that high. The inaccessibility of the heights and the sorcerous dance of the mists above seemingly drew wonder and fear.

Summit ridge, Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Moses went up Sinai to see God and receive the Ten Commandments. The ancient Greeks looked toward Mount Olympus and its lofty heights as the home of their deities. In the Himalayas, the mountains themselves are seen as gods.

The mountains and their massive bulk, their imposing ramparts, and in some cases, fiery calderas only fuel dreams of the supernatural.

These days, we’ve climbed these peaks and have seen that there are no divine palaces on their summits. Zeus cannot be found. We’ve prayed to the mountains and consistent to their nature, they’ve answered with stony silence.

But that doesn’t mean their misty heights can’t inspire awe.

Years before that Cupid hike, I was up on Missouri Mountain in Colorado on a day in which the weather looked dicey. Clouds swirled all around, but for some reason, the rains and snows never came. I hiked up the mountain’s northwest ridge, then walked toward its summit in a cloud bank, the trail disappearing into a gray haze. It was otherworldly.

Once on its summit, I looked around. The surrounding mountains were in the midst of the same dance, like a giant ballroom of clouds writhing and floating around the high peaks, steely spirits at times graceful, and other times more urgent in their movements, depending on the nature of the winds. Below me, were miles of alpine tundra, willows and forests.

Everyone reacts differently, but to me, I felt close to God. Intimately, and maybe dangerously close.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

I’ve felt that a few times, times when hiking the Loveland Pass peaks, times when I’ve wandered in the Smokies, times when I’ve watched the sun rise over a cloud inversion in Rocky Mountain National Park. And yes, that day on Missouri Mountain, on my own, with nothing but me, my thoughts, and the dance of God whirling around me in the grandest scale.

It’s where heaven and earth meet, a window into another world beyond our own. Only rarely does this opportunity rise for me. It’s an honor just to be there.

Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Running Home,’ by Katie Arnold

I’ll admit to being a sucker for New Mexico landscapes. So when I started turning the pages in Katie Arnold’s memoir “Running Home,” I got treated to big dose of it. And then there was this zinger about running:

“People think long-distance running is about speed, about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, but really it’s about slowing down. In the quiet of prolonged effort, time stretches, elongates. I look around at the hot blue sky, summer settling down on northern New Mexico, and feel my legs moving automatically and do what comes naturally. I run.”

And that’s all it took. I was hooked.

Much of Arnold’s book is about running, and it skillfully loops her earliest running experience back to a more recent memory, tying together a lifetime of experiences involving family, running, and how people evolve.

Like any good memoir, Arnold allows for vulnerability, admitting doubts and fears. And she’s transparent about her family history, which is at once heartbreaking but also common to the experiences of many in her generation: growing up like most families, then seeing things change, balancing jolting new realities while not totally understanding why things turned out as they did.

In the midst of this is her account of a fascinating but complicated father who, during a battle with cancer, must go through the pains of reconciling his own decisions and how they affected his children.

And woven into this is the mechanism that serves as Arnold’s tool to work out her past – mostly questions about her family – and her present, becoming a writer, a wife, and a mother. For her, it’s running, and she’s accomplished more there than most could in a lifetime.

Arnold has been a podium finisher at several ultramarathon trail races, including the grueling Leadville 100 trail race in Colorado where, in 2018, she was the women’s champion. The outdoors has long been an integral part of her life, but it’s in trail running that she found the medium in which to work out her biggest challenges. In between the description of her non-running life are accounts of casual mountain runs, the labors of training, and all the joy, doubt, pain and elation that comes with races, many of which are set in the mountains in and around her New Mexico home.

Arnold paces the story well, not rushing through anything, but providing the right amount of punch to give you a sense of the magnitude of what she’s describing. It’s a common theme among trail runners – using the sport to stay at even keel. But it’s uncommon to see it told so naturally. Nothing is overstated or melodramatic: Life events are told as they are. Her prose ranges from essay to conversational, and that’s not an easy mix for most writers, but Arnold pulls it off.

There are plenty of running memoirs out there, and they all have their merits. As an athlete, Arnold is a person who has accomplished a great deal. But in reading her story, she feels like one of us.

Bob Doucette

Running the Tulsa Run, and learning to trust the process

Me and a coworker, Corey Jones, after the Tulsa Run 15K. He’s a lot faster than me.

I’m eight weeks into the fall training season, and the thing I need to keep telling myself is this: Trust the process.

I say this a little less than a week after running the annual Tulsa Run 15K. There’s a lot to like about this race — its long history, its penchant for attracting costumed runners, and the fact that some really fast runners come out every year (it’s the host race for the USATF Masters 15K championships).

The race goes through cool neighborhoods, into scenic parks and finishes on a long, uphill stretch that goes right into the heart of downtown. Tulsa firefighters park ladder trucks on either side of Boston Avenue, the race’s final stretch, and hang a huge American flag that you run under just a few blocks from the finish. The city embraces this run as it has for more than four decades, Tulsa’s first “long” distance endurance event, the race that all other local races are built on.

While the Tulsa Run doesn’t hold the place it once did in terms of distance (there are numerous half marathon, marathon and ultramarathon-length races in town now), thousands still come out for it. For those of us running the half and full races at the Route 66 Marathon, it’s the last tune-up before November’s big show.

I came into this one with high hopes. I’ve been training hard, not only with the distances, but also with speed work. I’m lighter and faster than I was at this time last year.

That doesn’t mean I’m fast, but I really thought I had a shot at breaking my 15K PR, a 1:28 showing in 2013 when I was training for a full marathon.

Long story short, that didn’t happen. Not even close, really. I clocked in at 1:34.33. Just two years ago, I was three minutes better than that.

When it comes to running — or anything, really — unmet goals are a good time to reassess. What went right? What went wrong? What could be different? As far as I can tell, I went out to fast and underestimated the course. It could also be true that on my training days I’m not pushing hard enough. My speed days are plenty hard — more strenuous than any speed workouts I’ve ever done. But those other runs? Maybe I need to pick it up a little.

But as is usually the case, there are silver linings. For starters, this year’s Tulsa Run finish was almost a minute-and-a-half faster than last year’s. That’s a great sign, seeing that last year I snagged my second-fastest half marathon ever. I’m way ahead of the game, by that standard.

And then there are the peripheral things that make it all worth it. There is satisfaction in doing hard things and seeing them through. Weekly bike rides — installed in the training program as cross-training — are a joy. Plus little things — running past parks as some dudes embark on a drum circle jam session, or a Mexican band throwing it down at a block party-style event, or spotting a bald eagle soaring above, searching the waters of the Arkansas River for a meal.

When you take up running, most people don’t quantify these as benefits, but they are.

And running has a way of making you laugh at its minor hardships. On Tuesday, I was set to pound out eight miles before work, but a cold front with scattered rain was in the mix. Fine mist fell on me most of the way, but for about a half hour on the back end of the run I got the indignity of running in the rain. A cold rain, mind you. By the time I got back to the house, I was soaked pretty good. I got a chuckle out of how much all my drenched clothes weighed once I stripped down. Part of the deal, I guess. A hot shower never felt so good.

Anyway, the end of Saturday’s race featured free beer and a massage, along with some conversation with a couple of coworkers who ran that day, too. Both faster than me, by the way.

But I guess we all run our own race, learn from it what we can, and move on to the next thing.

I’m in the heart of my training season, when the miles are piling up and the workouts are getting harder. The next thing, in three weeks, is that half marathon. Until then, it’s time to put in the work, enjoy the ride and see what happens on race day,

Bob Doucette

Sometimes, you should hike without an agenda. Sometimes, you should just wander.

Fall is showing up at last.

It’s late October, and tomorrow I have a 15K race to run. It’s the last tune-up race before a planned half marathon I’ve been busting my butt to train for, and pretty much every day has some sort of plan that needs to be executed.

It would be one thing if I was just running to finish. But I’m neurotic when it comes to performance. While I’m solidly a midpack runner, I try to get faster every year. That means training harder, and maybe smarter, every fall in an attempt to shave off each second I can and squeeze just a little more athleticism out of this aging body. It’s a solidly personal aim that won’t win me anything but some self satisfaction, and as shallow as that might sound, I’m all in. Me and thousands of others who will be racing on Nov. 24.

One thing I take seriously: rest days. Once a week there needs to be a day where I shut it down, relax, eat well and let my body catch up. Tempo runs, long runs, hill run, speed work — all of it is tough stuff that comes with a price, one that gets a little costlier each week as planned runs get longer and those dreaded speed days go a little faster. By the time my rest day shows up, I’m more than ready for it.

But rest days can include something other than sitting on my tush watching ball games or Netflix. Sometimes it includes a walk in the woods.

I’m lucky that I have a good trail system close to home. But usually when I hike, I’m blasting through trails at a good clip, sometimes with a loaded pack, for the purposes of training for something. But last week, that wasn’t the case.

Instead, I rolled up to the trailhead parking lot and started down the easiest trail I could find and just… wandered.

No goals. No real pace. Only moving forward, toward whatever seemed interesting.

When you slow down, you see things you’d ordinarily miss. Little details. Like what happens to foliage when certain worms have a feast.

What’s left after a bug buffet is over.

I saw a Rough Green Snake on the trail, and the little sucker refused to move. Fine by me. He was there first.

Maybe a couple feet long? A Rough Green Snake I saw the other day.

About halfway through the hike, I stopped off at a spot that is one of my favorite places to ponder life or whatever. The rocks, the trees and the sky opens up a little more in the fall.

Rocky outcrops, fall colors, blue skies.

Walking back toward the trailhead, I couldn’t help but notice how much the changing colors contrasted the brightness of the clear, clean, blue skies of the day. It was brilliant.

Beautiful, mellow singletrack.

It’s easy to get caught up in your goals, whatever they might be. Career, family, or something entirely personal — these things can dominate your life. When you find yourself in need of a small break, take it. You never know what you’ll notice when you slow down.

Happy trails, folks.

Bob Doucette

Regaining fitness: Hard work and a few wise words that did me some good

Near the finish line. I’ve dropped some weight and improved my times, but I can get faster. And as you can see, I could stand to lose a few more pounds.

I’m just over halfway through training for the Route 66 half marathon this fall, and let me tell ya, motivation is a funny thing.

Over the summer, I liked where I was going in terms of strength. But conditioning? Not so much. In late July, I made a change. A commitment to not just train for the race, but regain my fitness that I let lapse so badly over the year.

Ringing in my ears were the words of my friend Bill, who under somewhat similar circumstances called it a “forced refocus.” I liked the sound of that.

A lot of it has been things that are familiar to me: Intermediate runs, long runs, bike rides and strength training. But I’m taking speed work more seriously now. It used to be that I dreaded the long run the most in any given week. Now? It’s definitely the speed days.

What I’ve been doing: Run a specific distance at a goal race pace, then take it down to a slow jog for 400 meters. The workout is called a ladder, or in this case, a “baby ladder,” because it’s not quite the whole enchilada. I warm up for a quarter mile, then get going: 400 meters at race pace, then 400 meters at a slow jog. Then 800 meters at race pace, 400 meter jog. Followed by 1,200 meters at race pace, and a 400 meter jog. After that, it goes down to 800 meters, then 400 meters, then a quarter mile cool-down run. You get the drift.

It’s tougher than I imagined, and any time I add speed or another race pace interval, it trashes me.

But it’s also paying off. For starters: I’ve lost about 10 pounds since summer. This is good, considering I’m still eating a bunch. And my speed is improving. I’ve never been a fast runner, so take these numbers for what they are.

Back in September, my gym did a treadmill 5K fundraiser. I signed up, got a T-shirt, and finished it in 28:48. Not a great time, but faster than what I did last year.

Last weekend, my training schedule called for a 5K race. I entered this thing called The Wizarding Run — a Harry Potter-themed 5K that drew a bunch of people dressed in Hogwarts garb who were there for the theme as much as for the race. It made for a mellower field, so when I crossed the line at 27:30, it was good enough for second in my age group.

A rarity for me: Placing in my age division. I took second.

I took it with a grain of salt, but the improved time in a course where the last 2K was almost all uphill was a win in my book. And the slower field gave the mid-pack runner that I am the chance to see what it’s like to hang out for the awards portion of the event to hear my name called, collect a medal, and snap a celebratory photo. Runners like me don’t get this pleasure often.

All the while, I took some wise words to heart. Des Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion, said that training is the building of fitness while racing is the test of fitness. And really, that’s how I took it. I’ve got goals for the half marathon, and I can honestly say I haven’t worked this hard at a race since the 2013 Route 66 Marathon. The little gains — the weight loss, the improved training pace, the better race results — are encouraging. It’s also a good reminder of how bad off I was in July, and how difficult it’s been to come back from the consequences of my own making.

That’s the thing I love about training. A lot of it isn’t fun, but the juice worth the squeeze. You make a plan, follow the plan and test the plan. And barring injuries or illness, the results of hard work are usually positive.

So for another five weeks, I’ll follow the schedule and its five runs per week. I’ll do the speed work and endure the long run. I’ll lift some weights and do a weekly bike ride. My mid-pack quest for speed will continue.

Why? Because for now, I can. We’re not promised tomorrow. May as well make the best of it now.

Time on the bike. It counts for half marathon training.

Bob Doucette

Personal safety on the trail: What to know, what to do, and how to carry yourself

Looking down the trail on Cupid Peak. Front Range, Colorado. Everyone should be able to enjoy trails like this, or the streets where they run, without fear of being harassed — or worse. Even so, there are things you can do to keep yourself safe.

NOTE: This is an adaptation of a piece I wrote for the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition a few weeks ago. While it bothers me that we must discuss these topics, it is also a reality. And for further reading, take a look at this article via Runner’s World.

One of the last things we want to think about on the trail is what we’d do if confronted with an unwelcome or hostile person. You’re out there for a run, a ride or a hike, looking for exercise or a retreat away from daily life. A confrontation is not on the agenda.

But the fact is this: The world has a lot of good people in it, but there are some bad ones, too. And sometimes they make their way to our trails.

How do you deal with a situation like this? Here are some ideas:

Keep your car clutter free

The less junk in your car you have to deal with, the quicker you can get on the trails and once done, get home. Most people are at their most vulnerable while fussing with the clutter that can pile up in your car. This is when you drop your guard. A great side effect to a clean car: If there is nothing in the car to steal, thieves tend to move on.

Hit the trail with a friend

The old cliché is that there is safety in numbers. But it’s also true. A person with bad intentions is much less likely to bother a group of people.

When you’re solo, be situationally aware

We love to lose ourselves in the moment when we’re in nature, but it’s wise to keep your eyes and ears open. Be aware of other people. That way you don’t get surprised.

Ditch the earbuds

Music and podcasts are great on a long ride or run, but the problem with that is you take one of your senses out of the picture. This is especially important on the trail, where you might not hear a bike coming behind you, or people around the bend. Earbuds even at a low volume put you at risk for an accidental collision with other trail users, and certainly leaves you more vulnerable to people with unsavory motives.

Be purposeful in your movement

You’ve got places to be, goals to achieve, a pace to keep. Show that. People are less likely to bother someone who is moving down the trail with a sense of purpose and confidence.

Bring your dog

If you have a dog that likes to run or hike trail with you, bring it along. The presence of a dog can be a good deterrent, especially if it’s a bigger dog.

Tell someone your plans

Before hitting the trail, let someone know where you’re going, your planned route, and how long you expect to be out there. That way there is a person out there who knows something could be wrong if you don’t check in.

Trust your instincts, and act accordingly

Listen to that prickly feeling on the back of your neck. If there are people on the trail who make you feel uneasy, reroute to an area that is more open or heavily trafficked. Then find your way back to a trailhead parking lot.

Bring your phone

A simple phone call or text could be vital to alerting friends or the authorities if something is amiss. You can use your smartphone camera to document unwanted interactions, which in turn can be used if the incident is one in which law enforcement needs to be called.

Consider personal protection

Plenty of hand-held devices like pepper spray exist that can be easily carried. Be familiar with how to use it and bring it with you.

If faced with a potential assailant, leave the area as quickly as possible

Make noise. Shout, yell for help, etc. If a physical confrontation is unavoidable, fight back. Strike at sensitive areas like the eyes, groin, nose and throat, using your fists, elbows and knees. You might be in the fight for your life, so there are no rules. An attacker will be more likely to give up if a potential victim becomes difficult to handle. Whatever the outcome, alert police as soon as you can, and be ready to give a description of the assailant, what happened and where.

THE FLIP SIDE OF THE COIN

All these ideas can help keep you safe. But it’s only one side of the coin. As a trail user, there are ways you should handle yourself to prevent the perception of being a threat. Some thoughts on that:

Let others do their thing

Remember that other trail users are there for a reason and might not be open to having their run, ride or hike interrupted, even if your intentions are benign.

A simple “hello,” a wave or a nod are good ways to acknowledge other trail users in an unobtrusive way.

If your greeting, wave or nod is not acknowledged, don’t make a thing of it.

Someone on a hard run or ride might be concentrating on the workout. Don’t take it as being disrespectful. Just move on and do your thing. If the person wants to reciprocate a greeting, they will. If they don’t, it’s their choice – and their right. Leave it be.

Be mindful of trail users who are solo

They may be less welcome to talking to people they don’t know on the trail. Give them their space.

And this should go without saying, but here it is: The trail is not a place to pick up dates.

Any amorous advances toward someone you don’t know on the trail very likely to be rejected and may be perceived as threatening. Save your game for more appropriate places; the trail isn’t it.

One last thing, just to wrap things up: There are remarkably few bad interactions and incidents occurring on our trail systems. But because people are involved, there is always the potential for bad actors to show up. Be aware of your surroundings and take the precautions you believe to be appropriate, and be mindful of how you might be perceived by others you meet.

Bob Doucette

Fred Beckey’s embrace of ‘the process’: Lessons for climbing, running and life

Fred Beckey is seen at the right. His eight-decade career in climbing included first ascents of difficult mountains including Mount Deborah and Mount Hunter. His embracing of the difficulties of mountaineering and climbing has lessons for all of us. (Ray Borbon photo)

This past weekend, I watched a documentary called “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey.” Even though I’m not a regular climber, I’m a sucker for good climbing movies. It probably has to do something with all those mountains.

Anyway, there was one line in the movie in which an interview subject tries to answer a question about why Beckey put himself through so much hardship, right into his 90s, just to climb.

But first, a bit about Beckey: Before his death, he wrote numerous climbing guidebooks. Most notable first ascents in the Pacific Northwest are his. He eschewed a normal life and lived on the road, working a few odd jobs while driving to climbing sites, sleeping on the ground, and enduring some at-times heinous bushwhacks just to get to the wall or mountain he sought to climb.

And another bit about mountaineering: it’s hard. Damn hard. Suffering is part of the equation as you log miles underfoot with a beefy pack on your back, dodging storms, sleeping cold (if at all), testing your nerve and putting your body through rigors most people will never understand. Even the most basic ascents are hard work. Add some difficulty and it’s a wonder anyone climbs mountains at all. We use light-hearted euphemisms like “type 2 fun” and “sufferfest” to describe mountain climbs, but the pain involved can include serious illness, injury and death.

But going back to Beckey, and the quote about why he spent close to eight decades dedicated to the climb: The interviewee said above all else, even when it was clear he couldn’t do a lot of the climbs he planned anymore, Fred Beckey enjoyed the process.

“The process,” in case you don’t know, is the hardship. And if there is a key to enjoying climbing mountains, it is embracing the hardship so you can attain your goal. Otherwise, you’d never do it again.

The quote itself was a short aside, but it got me thinking, and not just about climbing mountains. “The process” is involved in so many things that are tough but ultimately worthwhile.

Right now, I’m a month into training for a half marathon, and as is the case every year, my goal isn’t just to finish. I want to finish faster than the year before.

The process is in two parts. Part 1 is the training schedule. The schedule includes how many miles I’m supposed to run on any given day, and what each workout should look like. Shorter runs are fine. Longer ones are a grind. Speed work is always difficult, and really, no fun at all. As the mileage increases week by week, the process hammers you anew each day with greater intensity.

Part 2 of the process involves the elements. I started building up my base in August and began the program in earnest in September. August was hot. Real hot. This September in Tulsa was the hottest since 1931, back in the Dust Bowl days. Nineteen days above 90 degrees, and with the humidity, heat indices were regularly in the 90s and 100s. Getting your long runs done in conditions like that flirts with demoralizing.

But there is also an excitement to doing it. When I got back from my ill-fated Colorado trip in July, I leaned in on conditioning. I found the hilliest routes around my home and ran in the heat. Putting together my training program was fun in a nerdy way. I knew those weekly speed workouts would suck, but I plugged them in anyway. And in the back of my mind, I realized that if I forced myself out the door, despite what the thermometer might say, all that heat training would make me faster. And probably tougher. By the time things cool off, I’m counting on a performance dividend because my past shows me that heat training works.

So my lungs burn on speed days, and my heart feels like it’s going to beat out of my chest. My brain boils on hot-weather runs that take a good 45 minutes from which to cool down. I feel like I could sleep 10 or more hours most days because of the toll the sun takes.

But that’s the process. Like Fred Beckey’s relentless pursuit of new lines on unclimbed peaks, success doesn’t just happen – some suffering must occur, a tempered-by-fire ritual of hours, days and weeks to reach that summit. Or in my case this fall, hopefully cross a finish line faster than last year.

In either case, it’s entirely personal. No one forces people to climb a mountain, and no one is putting a gun to my head to train for this race. But I think it’s healthy to test yourself. Pushing boundaries has a carryover into other areas of life. Learning to love the process, and all the highs and lows that it brings, is a worthy habit.

Bob Doucette