When life was falling apart, it was running that put me back together

Me and Mike on Mount Elbert. I miss this dude.

I got into an online discussion with a friend who was trying to weigh her desire to join her running buddies in a longer road race versus the time commitment needed to train for it. She’s a busy gal, with a full-time job, lots of family around and plenty of things to worry about.

Something she said struck me. She said that when she runs, it clears her head. And that over the past year, it may have saved her. “I think I would have fallen apart without it,” she admitted.

That resonated with me. I’ve had similar thoughts, sometimes recently, and it became even more clear as a dreaded anniversary crept near.

Six years ago, my oldest brother died. And when everything settled down and I was left to my own thoughts, it was the alone time pounding the pavement or coursing through wooded trails that pulled me from an abyss.

Running may have saved me, too.

***

Mike and I were close. Some of it had to do with the fact that we shared a number of interests. We loved the mountains. Fishing for trout was a favorite, and later on, I got hooked on climbing Colorado’s high peaks after hearing his tales of high mountain summits. We climbed a few peaks together, including my first three 14,000-footers, and made a thing of it with all the brothers – Mike, Steve, and myself – are few years back.

From left, Mike, me and Steve on the summit of Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike and I were also gym rats. I bumbled around the weight room with a little success while he mastered the art of weight training and bodybuilding. Naturally, we’d talk about all things lifting, and more often than not I’d be the one doing the listening as he offered tips and told of his experiences. Years later, I still can’t sniff the PRs he managed on the big lifts.

But I keep plugging away, and sometimes I’ll learn something new or set my own PR. Instinctively, I look around for my phone, thinking about shooting him a text or a phone call to talk about it. But that gets shot down pretty quick.

Shit. I can’t call Mike. I can’t call him because he’s gone.

***

Around the time when Mike was diagnosed with cancer (it was a blood disease similar to leukemia), other crises were afoot. My job was going down the crapper, and as he got sicker, my own prospects worsened. In January of 2011, I flew to Denver to visit him, not knowing if he’d make it for the next few days or if he’d pull through. A couple days after arriving, Mike grew stronger.

But then I got a call. My employer had a layoff, and I was caught in it. Twelve mostly good years there were over. It’s a hell of a thing to learn you’re on the street via a long-distance phone call from a hospital hallway.

The silver lining was being able to spend more time with Mike. I hoped he’d pull out of it, recover and then we’d be back at it, hiking up mountains and traveling the West. But it was not to be.

Mike’s condition eventually won. His death was slow – agonizingly so – and from everything I saw, miserable. Cruel, even. The whole family was there when he passed. The final moments unleashed our sorrows in a flood of tears and hugs, all of us hating the fact that he was gone yet glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. In the hours and days following Mike’s passing, we shuffled from here to there, buying clothes for the funeral, heading to the church to say our last good-byes, and then settling into the finality of it all.

A few days later, after being out of work for four months, I got a call. The guy who is now my boss, Tim, wondered if I’d like to interview for a job in Tulsa. I said yes, and we arranged for an interview time. I got the job, which necessitated a move. So I moved up to Tulsa while my wife Becca stayed in our soon-to-be ex-hometown east of Oklahoma City to get our house ready for sale. I’d come back on the weekends, then drive back to Tulsa before my Monday shift began.

During the week, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in a Tulsa suburb. She and her family had moved to Texas and were trying to sell their Oklahoma home, and they kindly let me stay there until we found a place of our own. The house, somewhere short of 3,000 square feet, was empty – no furniture, no TV, nothing. I made my home in the master bedroom, a cavernous space where I occupied a tiny sliver, sleeping on an air mattress and playing Angry Birds on my phone or reading a book when I got home from work. Aside from the job, I had a lot of alone time, time to worry about the future and mourn Mike’s death.

Before work, I’d head to the gym, and then two miles down the road I’d go to a local park that had a gravel trail a little over a mile long. Work was a great distraction, but my demons were there in that empty house on those long nights after work. I fought back on the trails. Running, it seemed, drove them away.

***

Running became a sorely needed habit — and refuge — during one of the more challenging periods of my life.

I’d gotten into a running habit before Mike got sick, but things took off once I moved to Tulsa. It was cheap – the price of shoes, socks and some tech clothes. It turned out to be a great way to explore my new hometown. Every slow, lumbering run was interesting. I’d see something new, work up my miles and get a little faster.

Not long after, I discovered a park that had a huge network of trails that ran wild through wooded hills that were left as close as possible to their natural state. I’d run plenty on pavement, but this trail running thing was brand new. I learned that trail runners were different. Most runners obsess over mile times, distances and splits. Trail runners get into vertical gain a little, but mostly run hard, have fun and replace all the calories they burned with burritos and beer. This was something I could get into.

For a brief period, I ran with a weekly run group, but most times I explored the trails by myself – in the furnace of the Oklahoma summer, in the rain and mud, and even in the snow. I’d run myself ragged on big hills, trip over tree roots and rocks and go through the painstaking process of tick-checks. I spied snakes, lizards, deer and hawks. Squirrels and rabbits, too. I watched sunsets through the trees, breathed in the scents of fresh redbud blooms and listened to cicadas blast their noisy calls on sweltering summer days. I loved running with friends, but these were experiences I mostly had on my own.

These were the times I’d think. Sometimes pray. I’d rage at God for how Mike died, then calm down and express gratitude that I was still healthy, and able to enjoy these runs on the trails when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I’d like to tell you that I found peace and healing inside the folds of a new church congregation, but it never worked out that way for me. Too many places of worship were too busy fighting the culture wars for my taste. But I found God anyway. God was in those woods, tolerating my griping, reminding me of my blessings, and listening in. Being there when I was unlovable. That sort of thing matters when you reach a point of being a jerk, something I can testify to rather well. Sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around, prone to poor judgment and selfishness. Things that Mike wasn’t but I was.

Over time, running became bigger. Slow two-mile jaunts around the neighborhood turned into five-milers. And then 10. Or 12. Within a few years, I was knocking our half marathons, 25Ks, and on a bitterly cold November day, my first marathon. The process was one that required some mental toughening, sharpening your mind in the middle of 20-mile training runs, and the day-long recovery periods that followed.

But I found something out there. I found a rhythm, a meditative cadence that cleared my busy mind of the stresses and insecurities that confronted me daily. I’m not one of those crazies who pounds out 80 or more miles a week, or runs insanely long races, or any of that. But I miss it when I stop. Normally I come back from a run feeling spent, and in a good way, like I went to war with my demons, beat them back and stood atop a hill looking at the battlefield when it’s over, me still alive and my foes in retreat. I’m not one to make easy war metaphors; that dishonors real warriors. But when negativity and grief and self-loathing and worry rage at your gates, it feels like a fight. You use the tools at your disposal in order to win.

***

Sunset in the woods at the end of a fun trail run.

Mike wasn’t much of a runner, at least not in his final years. More of a cyclist, a hiker and a lifter. But I think he could appreciate it just the same, like he would after a long day in the mountains or right after coming off the saddle after a 30-mile ride through Denver. He’d get it. He battled through plenty of his own struggles and won them all except for the one that finally claimed him.

I was thinking of Mike at the end of my last trail run. It was a short trip, just a few miles on mostly empty trails near dusk. When I got through and reached the trailhead, the sun was dipping into the horizon, setting the skies and their clouds afire with hues of yellow, orange and red. I snapped a photo with my phone and suddenly got the urge to text it to Mike. Look how beautiful it is out here, dude! And then I’d remember.

But I grinned anyway. I knew that Mike would understand, that he knew running for me was a gift from God, the salve I needed – and still need – in this stage of life. I was sweaty, dirty and spent and more content than I’d ever be, even if only for a few minutes. I was at peace.

I hope my friend decides to do that longer race, mostly because I know where she’s at, and have felt that calming, inner-warmth that comes from a good run.

Bob Doucette

Race report: ‘Experimenting’ at the 10th annual Snake Run

I’m still a trail runner, dangit! (Clint Green photo)

Leave it to me to play the stupid card.

Sometimes I try things just because I can. You know, that whole “I do what I want” attitude that all the kids playfully throw around when they do something they know is kinda dumb but still get away with it.

I’m no kid, so I don’t get away with it, at least not very often.

I spent the winter focusing on strength and dialing back my running. Gaining strength and keeping up a high volume of miles don’t mix well. Most of us must choose one or the other. So for this winter, strength won out, with decent results. It also made it to where I was running nine or 10 miles a week.

Going back a year ago, my running volume was higher, but still not high. On a lark, I decided to enter the six-hour event at the annual Snake Run in Tulsa. No real goal, just get out there and run some trails for awhile to see how many miles I could log before the gun went off. Keep in mind, I hadn’t trained to run that long on my feet or for any significant distance for months. Even when hiking the last big loop, I still logged 25 miles, just short of a marathon. Not that impressive by that race’s standards, but hey, a little extra effort would be a pretty easy way to snag another 26.2 without having to bother with 18-21 weeks of training. My kinda plan!

It got me to thinking about things. I hiked the last loop of that race, chatting it up with another runner who was also done running but wanted to finish one last lap before calling it a day. When we finished, I managed to have plenty of energy to do a few short loops to get my total mileage to 25. Had I not shown up late and maybe ran at least a part of that last loop, a marathon and change was in the bag, right? So that was my plan for this year.

Or more like my experiment. Knowing the course, the event and a few tricks of slow distance racing, I figured it might be possible to get that distance or more with minimal training. Never mind that I am also about 10 pounds heavier than last year (gotta eat to get those gains!) and was running less.

The event

The Snake Run had been going on in Tulsa for 10 years now. It has two events: The 3-hour race and the 6-hour. The race director designed a course on the easiest trails of Turkey Mountain, meaning that the course is built for speed. Runners try to get as many miles as they can by running on a 3.75-mile loop, and if time is almost up, they can switch to a half-mile loop to finish up.

Course map.

The catch: If you don’t finish a loop before the final gun, that lap doesn’t count, even if you were within sight of the finish line. So there’s a lot of strategy in this one, banking miles and knowing when to peel off the big loop and start doing laps on the short course.

I did my first 25K distance on this race a few years ago in the 3-hour event and improved slightly the next year. Last year was my first shot at the 6-hour event, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. What would happen if I pushed it a little harder?

I knew that no matter what, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the leaders. The top male runner logged 40 miles. The top female, 36.

Uh oh

The starting gun sounded and I took my place in the back of the pack. No sense feigning greatness here. I was experimenting, and my weird goals didn’t need to get in everyone else’s way. The first lap went OK, the temps in the mid-50s and plenty of sun.

But there were some early problems. I found myself tripping a bunch, which is stupid, because I know these trails. “Keep your feet!” I yelled at myself more than once.

Normally, that’s not a big deal because trips and falls happen when you run trails. But a couple of weeks ago, I hurt my back twice in one week: Mid-back doing cleans and a few days later, lower back doing deadlifts. It’s been twitchy ever since. Stumbling forward to catch myself before face-planting got my back angry. Not good when you’re less than four miles into something projected to go much longer.

Also around that time, the familiar burn of a blister started making its presence known on the arch of my left foot. And maybe about 10 miles after that, my right knee was barking at me. I think the two may have been related.

The temps began to climb, my body ached and griped and moaned and pitched a world-class fit after the third lap was done. I popped some ibuprofen and decided to break things up between speedier running and power-hiking.

The fourth lap went like a charm, and I finished it with two hours and 45 minutes left on the clock. I told myself that if I could finish Lap 5 by the 4:10 mark, I’d have a marathon in the bag. Score one for the lazy runners!

Sadly, things started falling apart. My body wasn’t used to going this long and this far. Those pleasant temps raced through the 50s, the 60s and the 70s – pretty hot for a long-distance event. Every muscle around my hips was screaming. And by the time Lap 5 was done, the clock read 4:20. The race director, Ken “TZ” Childress, told me jokingly, “I’ve got bad news: You’re probably not going to win today.”

Best quote of the day, and great humor to take the edge off the facts.

I was trashed and getting slower by the minute. My left foot was barking loudly. So was my right knee. The temps had crossed 80 degrees, and the trees were still too bare to provide any meaningful shade to blunt the sun’s rays. Seven laps weren’t happening. No 26.2 that day.

Yes, even back-of-the-pack, untrained runners get a little bling when it’s over.

I finished my sixth lap, ate some barbecue, and with some time still left on the clock did one last half-mile loop to finish things off at 22.5 miles. Squarely back of the pack. They gave me a medal anyway and didn’t make fun of me, which was awful sporting of them.

Silver linings

That’s not to say the day was a bust. After all, this was an experiment. And the results showed me that no, you can’t run marathon-length races without a passing attempt at training. Your body needs the pounding of miles and time on your feet to perform, something no amount of squats, deadlifts and cleans will give you.

Additionally, I got to see a bunch of running buds. My friends Tyler and Miranda were there, with Tyler cheering on his bride as she gutted out her first-ever half-marathon in the 3-hour event.

Another running couple, Steve and Brooke, were slaying miles together, also on the 3-hour race. Both did well, fighting off the heat and running strong. Runners I don’t know, whether they were fast or slow, would say “good job!” or “great work, keep it up!” when we passed. Lots of high-fives were shared.

Clint took photos of all of us while helping Ken and the gang with the logistics of the race. Bryan and a bunch of local trail runners kept track of people’s loops and times.

And those aid stations. One of the best things about this race is they don’t mess around with the aid stations. They do them right, stocking them with plenty of drinks and food.

I met some new faces, and even got a lift to the parking lot when it was over so I didn’t have to stumble down the hill to my car. Good souls, these trail runner types.

Oh, and I got a sweet dirt tan line.

The dirt tan line. And if you look close, you’ll see the mondo blister I ran with for about 19 miles.

Lessons learned

So what do I make of this?

Well, if you’re going to run long distances, you should prepare accordingly.

Running in the heat sucks.

And as I write this, I’m a hurtin’ unit.

But it’s tough to beat a day running around in the woods. The fact that I can do that is more than a lot of people can say, given health problems, time constraints or something else.

And you can’t top the crowd at a trail race, or a group run, or even just a couple of friends who decide to go pound out some miles in the dirt. I’m gimpy today, but I’m good.

Next year, though, I should actually train.

Bob Doucette

A conservation win: Master lease plan would keep Turkey Mountain wild for the long term

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

An important announcement about the future of Tulsa’s wild green spaces and park lands was made on Monday. At a news conference at the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness’ trailhead parking lot, Mayor G.T. Bynum said he’s proposing a 50-year “master lease” be given to property currently managed and developed by the city’s River Parks Authority. Inside that inventory of park lands is Turkey Mountain, a trail system of minimally developed woodlands that’s popular with runners, cyclists, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The proposed master lease would consolidate a bunch of individual leases the city currently has on about 900 acres of land under the River Parks umbrella. The thought behind this idea would be to simplify and solidify any planning that has to do with some of the most treasured green spaces in the city.

To me, this is such a stark contrast to what we saw back in 2014, when developers and some folks in City Hall, including former mayor Dewey Bartlett, were talking about building an outlet mall on Turkey Mountain’s west edge. Now instead of developing it, the new mayor, Bynum, is talking about preserving it for at least half a century. Talk about an about face!

There is some unpacking to do here, given what was said on Monday afternoon. So here goes…

I don’t think most people realized how tenuous the status of Turkey Mountain and the rest of the River Parks System really is. As it stands, every parcel leased by the city must be renewed every 30 days. In theory, every square inch of Turkey Mountain could have been sold off to the highest bidder if the lease was allowed to lapse. In reality, that would be politically difficult – we saw how hard a lot of people fought plans for Helmerich Park, which is essentially a strip of open grass and sand volleyball courts. But it would have been possible under the lease structure now used by the city. And don’t think there aren’t people who’d love to plop a subdivision or some restaurants/office space/retail stores on a hill with a view. It wasn’t long ago a developer wanted to put an amusement park at Turkey Mountain, and Mr. Bartlett last year even mused about stuffing a restaurant at the top of the hill. The master lease proposal would effectively end that possibility.

If the proposal is approved, it’s going to make it a lot easier for RPA to spend money on land acquisition, which could expand the footprint of Turkey Mountain. Some $6 million has already been set aside for that purpose, and if the existing park land is secure, adding to it will become simpler and more attractive. Another $1.6 million is set aside for making improvements, which would be easier to commit to if you know the land in question isn’t going to be changing hands anytime soon. Most people who use Turkey Mountain wouldn’t mind seeing more woodlands to explore, more trails to ride, and more elbow room for an increasingly popular – and crowded – trail system.

Conventional wisdom says the master lease will invite more private investment. Whether it’s donations for park enhancements or possibly something else done on the privately owned sections of Turkey Mountain, Bynum made a point to say that the stability of a master lease would encourage philanthropic donations and more. The terms “zip lines” and “climbing boulders” were tossed about, so you could see a more diversified land-use plan unfold if this idea goes through.

With that said, serious conversations about land use need to start. Zip lines are a blast, and climbing is fun. But what will a canopy tour zip line do to the overall park user experience? Will the presence of such things detract from the “wild” nature of Turkey Mountain? And I imagine “climbing boulders” would need to be installed. I’ve seen all the rock faces at Turkey Mountain, and they’re not good for climbing. You’d also have to consider wildlife impact. The park is there for us to use, but a number of species call Turkey Mountain home. Any development inside its confines will need to answer these questions, and do so with all stakeholders in mind.

In any case, these are good things to be talking about. It’s rare that a Great Plains city like Tulsa has a parks system like we have, and especially a place like Turkey Mountain. The table appears to be set to preserve urban wild lands for the long haul, and also substantially invest in them. That in turn will help make the city’s residents healthier, boost tourism and enhance efforts to recruit new businesses and residents. Conservation also wins here, and wins big.

It’s not often you can look at government and say, “they’re on the right track.” But in this case, that appears to be true.

Bob Doucette

Mountain Reads, part 1: ‘Halfway to Heaven’

Humor, history and mountain adventure collide with this one.

I go on reading spurts and droughts, and after a lengthy drought, I figured it was time to read something other than someone’s link on Facebook. So I bought a bunch of books that looked interesting to me – some of them older, some of them newer – and plopped my butt down for a read, this time with my nose in a book and not pointed down toward a glowing screen.

With that in mind, I’m going to do an occasional series called Mountain Reads. The books involved will be some good ones I’ve picked up recently and over the years, stuff from authors whose writings will fill you up with mountain stoke for the spring and summer.

First up is a 2010 title from author Mark Obmascik called “Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High.”

This is an autobiographical account about how the longtime Denver Post reporter decided one summer to hike and climb all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

Climbing the 14ers, as they’re called, is serious business, but not as serious as high-altitude mountaineering in the Himalayas. Lots of people in Colorado try these peaks, and a select few climb them all. Almost all of these people make their living doing something other than climbing, meaning that mountaineering in Colorado is an “everyman’s” sport.

And that’s the route the writer takes. His humorous and self-deprecating style lets you know that’s he’s not the second coming of Edmund Hillary. Instead, Obmascik takes you through the humbling process of willing yourself up the mountain at ridiculous hours in the morning, of trying a little too hard to find hiking partners and otherwise trying to fit this new obsession into the confines of a suburban family man’s life. It gets pretty funny.

That said, Obmascik is a journalist by trade, and every chapter is studded with deeply researched facts on the peaks, on Colorado history, on the people who first settled the state, and of mountaineering in the Rockies. Included are plenty of anecdotes from more recent times, and some straightforward accounts of what can (and did) go wrong in the high country. You walk away from this book understanding how wild the West could get, and how deadly serious its mountains can be.

He also takes care to make sure the story is not just his own. The array of subjects in this book include anyone from weekend warriors to serious endurance athletes, each with stories all their own as to what drives them into the Rockies to test themselves on the peaks.

You can also see how Obmascik progressed, gaining confidence, strength and skill as he topped out on tougher peaks. It echoes a journey so many people have made – painfully trudging uphill, fleeing electrical storms, glorious summit days and near-death close calls.

I relate to this guy. We’re both ordinary dudes with an exceptional obsession with the mountains. The book captures that spirit well while treating you to some great storytelling throughout. If you dig the outdoor life but haven’t read this one yet, give it a look.

Bob Doucette

Happy feet: Some of my favorite scenes from the trail

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo.

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo.

Spring is upon us, and that means a bunch of people are going to crawl out of their winter holes and hit the trails. Some of us like those winter trails, too, but for most of the public, spring and summer is where it’s at.

With that in mind, I think it’s time for some trail stoke. In this case, some of my favorite images of trails. So here goes…

It’s hard to beat a bluebird day above treeline…

Summit trail on Mount Lincoln, Colo.

Summit trail on Mount Lincoln, Colo.

A tough walk up can lead to pleasant valleys below…

The route down from Broken Hand Pass to Cottonwood Lake, Colo., Sangre de Cristo Range.

The route down from Broken Hand Pass to Cottonwood Lake, Colo., Sangre de Cristo Range.

A good snow can make the woods come alive in new ways…

Snowy scene from near the trailhead at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

Snowy scene from near the trailhead at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

And similarly, the ethereal feel of cloud cover will make some routes feel mysterious…

Summit ridge trail on Missouri Mountain, Colo.

Summit ridge trail on Missouri Mountain, Colo.

When your path points toward the dramatic, it become fuel to push on…

Happy backpackers on the trail up to Chicago Basin, Colo., Weminuche Wilderness.

Happy backpackers on the trail up to Chicago Basin, Colo., Weminuche Wilderness.

And a little bit of air can be pretty exciting…

Ledge-y section on the Southwest RIdge of Mount Sneffels, Colo.

Ledge-y section on the Southwest Ridge of Mount Sneffels, Colo.

Long shadows of daybreak signal the encouragement that comes with the dawn…

Denney Creek Trail up the slopes of Mount Yale, Colo.

Denney Creek Trail up the slopes of Mount Yale, Colo.

And then there are scenes ahead of you that blow your mind…

Going up toward the summit pitch on Uncompahgre Peak, Colo.

Going up toward the summit pitch on Uncompahgre Peak, Colo.

They make you feel more alive…

Approaching the saddle on Mount Shavano. Colo.

Approaching the saddle on Mount Shavano, Colo.

As it turns out, a great memory on the trail is all about timing…

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain, Tulsa, Okla.

These are just a sampling. I’ve got a lot of good hiking memories. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hit the trail right now. Happy hiking, folks!

Bob Doucette

The eternal excitement, glory and joy of being a noob

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we're wearing.

My friend Rick (left) and I at the top of Wheeler Peak, NM, in 2003. Check out that cottony, newbie goodness we’re wearing.

If there is a title that nobody wants but everyone’s had, it’s that of being the newbie.

The noob.

A rookie.

We’ve all had our turn at being a beginner, a gaper, or whatever other term that is used to describe someone who is new to climbing, skiing, mountaineering or whatever. Usually we’re desperate to shuck that label, learning the lingo of the sport, buying all the right gear and going for “the look” of someone who has been there and done that, as if wearing/using the right brand of stuff will give us an outdoorsy version of “the thousand-yard stare” or something.

As for me, guilty as charged. Years later I ask myself, why the hell did I do that?

One of the glories of being a noob is the excitement of the “new.” You might remember it: You saw something that looked awesome, and decided you wanted to try it. So you made your plans, prepared for the task, and then got it done. The anticipation of the reaching the goal, and the satisfaction of having done it, is one of the sweetest rewards in life.

I remember a few years ago, I’d just gotten into the peak-bagging thing and was consuming stories and books about it like a starving man at Thanksgiving. Many of the most compelling stories I saw involved ascending on snow, and in my book, I couldn’t be a “real mountaineer” unless I attempted a snow climb. (For the record, I still don’t consider myself a “real mountaineer”).

I hit up my buddy Johnny on the idea. Being the kind of guy he is, he agreed to play along. We picked a mountain, found a date, and let those newbie vibes propel us toward an adventure neither of us had ever done before.

It felt awesome.

***

I’ve been drawn to the mountains ever since I was a kid, growing up in the suburbs of Denver with the Rockies an ever-present visual any time I looked toward the west. But for all the childhood camping, fishing and other adventures in the high country, I never visited to top of one of these titanic piles of rock.

Years later, my brother Mike got into hiking and climbing the Fourteeners, Colorado’s peaks that top 14,000 feet. He’d tell stories of the hardships and rewards of reaching these high summits, and the photographs he showed me – glorious vistas, dizzying drop-offs, and other amazing sights – compelled me to consider taking on that challenge.

But it was one I knew next to nothing about.

I remember going on vacation in Red River, New Mexico, having a good time exploring that town and some of the others in a region called the Enchanted Circle of that state’s Sangre de Cristo range. Included in that was a whitewater rafting trip, which would normally be the highlight of such a vacation.

But what stuck out was the morning I looked outside my window, stared at Red River’s ski mountain, and decided I was going to hike to its summit.

So that’s what I did. I don’t remember how long it took, how lengthy the route was, or anything like that. But I do remember feeling pretty rad hiking to the top – somewhere over 10,000 feet – and waiting on all the people who taken a ski-lift ride to the top. They rode up. I got there under my own power.

My gear: Jeans, a cotton T-shirt, a jacket and a pair of steel-toed work boots, with a dead tree branch used as a walking stick. You know, typical noob stuff.

***

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

Me on Mount Shavano, going up the summit pitch.

A lot of planning went into that snow climb. I wasn’t so dumb as to pick a mountain that was out of my league. We chose familiar ground – Mount Shavano, a mountain I’d summited five years before in summer conditions with my oldest brother. In the winter and spring, there are three ribbons of snow that look like a stick figure with its arms signaling “touchdown!” in a gully leading to a saddle between Shavano’s summit and another nearby, lesser peak.

It’s called the Angel of Shavano, and if you’re going to pick a first-time snow climb on the Fourteeners, this is the route you choose. It’s not too steep, and in late spring, avalanche danger is minimal. If you catch it early enough in the spring, more snow will be with you all the way to the summit.

Here’s the problem: Johnny and I don’t live anywhere near a mountain where you could practice snow climbing. Sure, you can buy the gear – crampons, an ice axe, a helmet, etc. – but that won’t mean anything unless you get to actually use that gear.

Of course, that didn’t stop us. We bought the gear online and watched videos on how to self-arrest. That would work, right?

So in early June, we packed up my rig and drove to Buena Vista, Colorado, checked into a hotel and tried on our crampons for the first time. The next day, we’d see what this whole “snow climbing” thing was all about.

***

That New Mexico trip lit a bit of a fire in me. The day after hiking that ski mountain, I picked up a brochure on some of the more popular hikes in the Red River area. One of them was Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest mountain, described as “extremely strenuous” and a good 20 miles round-trip from the East Fork trailhead. I hiked a little of that trail that day, clearly not expecting to top out, but just wanting to see what it looked like.

The next year, I was back. I did some serious planning for this one, picking up real hiking boots (as it turns out, steel-toed work boots are not ideal), a day pack (complete with water bladder!) and what more or less qualified as the ten essentials. I recruited my brother Mike and a friend named Rick to give it a shot.

The one thing we had going for us was we were all in excellent shape. It helped that Mike had done hikes like this many times before, so this wouldn’t be the blind leading the blind, so to speak.

But our noob-ness showed. In choosing to return to Wheeler Peak, I’d picked a walk-up (good choice!) but also one with what turned out to be 21 miles of hiking, all of it over 9,000 feet. That’s a big day for anyone, especially for a couple of beginners. And while my footwear choice was good, I was still wearing cotton clothing and sporting a dead tree branch as a walking stick.

But our hubris was rewarded. The weather held out, our conditioning was adequate, and we reached Wheeler’s summit and got back to the car in less than 10 hours. To this day, it ranks as one of my favorite summit hikes, and it turned a curiosity into an obsession. In the months to come, I devoured all things mountaineering.

I was going full-on noob.

***

Johnny and I hiked awhile before we spotted a place where we could traverse and reach the snowfield of the Angel of Shavano Couloir. We’d missed the place where we were supposed to turn, but no matter. We could get there now.

Soon we were at the couloir’s base. We stopped, ate some food, and strapped on our crampons. The helmet came next. Winds were barreling down on us through the gap in the saddle above, but the skies were mostly clear as we, for the first time in our lives, kick-stepped our way up the couloir.

There is a rhythm to this type of hiking that is far different than the normal slog up a trail: Kick, set the ice axe in the snow, step up, then kick again. Traction was good, and we methodically reached the saddle, then turned our attention to the summit pitch. Mixed snow and rock lay before us until we reached the summit slopes, and then a thick blanket of snow all the way to the top. It was as if the lords of winter had set a path upward, covering the rocks and tundra of the mountain with a magical substance that made the climb easier, more interesting, and even a bit more scenic.

It taxed us – neither of us were in great shape, but before long, we’d topped out. Two snow-climbing newbies from Oklahoma showed up and got it done. It felt pretty rad, that I might be able to graduate from being a mere hiker to being christened a “mountaineer.” Years later, I know better. But on that summit, it was a real consideration.

Might we be recognized for our outdoor excellence? Did we finally have that thousand-yard stare? Had we earned the right to be elevated from the ranks of the newbies?

Nope. Not yet. That would become apparent soon enough.

***

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

So. Much. Noob. And so much awesome. The crew on Mount Belford, 2004.

The excitement of the noob takes on many forms, but there are a few common threads. One of those has to do with gear.

A lot of time is spent researching what gear you need, what brands work best, and the kinds of outer wear that will keep you warm and dry during your time in the alpine. I remember spending significant time online, shopping different retailers for all the stuff I wanted: Tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, socks, boots, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and so forth. When not online, I haunted a few local outdoor shops, spending far too long drooling over gear I could never afford but eventually walking out with something I figured I needed. Many lifelong gear junkies are born during this stage of noobism, and I now possess enough stuff to lend to like-minded friends.

I also recall spending hours on online forums and different hiking and mountaineering websites, perusing trip reports, route descriptions and topical discussions, even weighing in a few times when I felt I had enough knowledge to actually add something to the conversation. I believe I reached this level of expertise and wisdom after collecting four summits. Or was it five? Anyway…

You would figure that all this preparation, time and monetary expense would have quickened the learning curve, but it ain’t so. Noobism tends to hang around awhile, sticking to you like a bad cold. And that brings me to a second thread: Learning the hard way.

It took me a few mistakes to get a better handle on how to do the backpacking/hiking/mountaineering thing. I remember being annoyed at the mosquitoes below treeline while hiking Mount Elbert, so I reached into my bag and applied plenty of DEET-infused bug spray to keep the little buggers away. Wanting to be sure every bit of exposed skin was protected, I sprayed some on my hands, then rubbed the stuff onto my neck, cheeks and forehead.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Mike and I on Mount Elbert in 2005. By then, some of the noob had worn off of me, but not much.

Total noob move. Anytime I’m hiking uphill (especially at elevation), my body is working hard. I’ve long contended that I’m one of the sweatiest humans on earth, and this is true even on a cool alpine morning. The combination of my sweat and newly applied DEET was not a good one, as the stuff ran down my face and into my mouth. I can tell you through experience that DEET tastes terrible and will make your lips go numb. You can thank me for that pro tip later.

I also learned that when choosing foods for a backpacking trip, canned tuna, MREs and self-heating dinners aren’t the best options. All of them have a good deal of water in them, and that extra weight will make your pack go from a reasonable 35 to 40 pounds to 50 to 60 in a hurry. That, and the extra cotton hoodies and whatever other extra crap I used to bring.

Speaking of crap, it’s also wise to bring toilet paper, and to make sure that your toilet paper is in a waterproof container. Backpacks usually aren’t waterproof, and toilet paper loses its effectiveness when getting drenched by rain. A self-sealing baggie will do wonders to solve that problem, unless you simply omit bringing it altogether.

On the backpacking trip where I was learning these valuable nuggets of knowledge, some of my buddies were getting the hard-knocks treatment as well. For some reason, everyone on the newbie crowd thinks it’s cool – nay, even necessary – to attach as much shit as possible to the outside of your pack. I don’t advise that, especially if your gear is hanging on the bottom of your pack. All that junk swinging around and hitting the back of your legs is no way to hike.

And then there was the gun. Another member of my party sported an enormous pack, strapped a hydration pack to his chest, and a leather holster with a .40-caliber revolver, loaded and ready to roll. Revolvers ain’t light, and it took about a quarter mile of hiking, huffing and puffing before the decision was made to go back to the trailhead, hide the gun in the van and lock it up tight.

We survived all these newbie mistakes. Not only that, but both trips ended up being a good time. Most of us ended up topping out and coming back with good stories about the mountain. Some of us even decided that we should keep doing this stuff, even though camping on the cold ground is decidedly uncomfortable, as is straining for breath above 12,000 feet and running away from afternoon thunderstorms that toss hail and lightning upon you out of the blue. I guess we could just do an all-inclusive tropical vacation in the Caribbean, but really, where is the fun in that?

You can’t summit a beach, and the gear for a week at Sandals isn’t nearly as cool. But that’s probably the noob in me talking.

***

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He's the least noobish noob I've ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

Johnny on Mount Shavano. He’s the least noobish noob I’ve ever known. He did awesome on what was our first snow climb in 2009.

I’d be lying if I said everything went according to plan for Johnny and I. Yes, we did properly use our new-fangled snow gear, and we summited Mount Shavano without skidding down a slope and breaking our necks. It’s not a huge accomplishment, given the ease of this particular snow climb. But we do get credit for a successful outing.

However, we broke a couple of rules. For one, we topped out well after noon. Maybe something like 1:30 in the afternoon, which will get a whole lot of finger-wagging, dismissive looks and maybe a couple of lectures from the non-noob crowd. I’m OK with that. We dodged a bullet, or more precisely, an afternoon storm.

But we were admittedly not in the best shape of our lives, and we felt it going down. Shavano’s trail is rough, and we arrived back at the trailhead beat up. Our knees, backs and ankles were all singing a chorus of “why do you do this crap to us?” in an angry harmony.

But that wasn’t my worst sin (Johnny gets a pass here). Not even close. And it’s something I wouldn’t realize until later that night.

We were far too tired to do the big victory dinner back in Salida. Instead, we opted to hit a Subway, crawl back to the motel in Buena Vista and turn in early. Gluttony at a local pizzeria would have to wait.

But as I was sleeping, I woke up feeling dampness on my face. I figured it might be sweat, but I wasn’t hot, nor did I feel sick. And the stuff was sticky to the touch.

As it turns out, the moisture I was feeling was the gunk that normally appears when you become so sunburned that your skin blisters. And that makes sense, because that’s what happened. Worst of all, it was totally avoidable. Let’s rewind.

Back on the ascent, when we stopped to don our mighty crampons and unhitch our fearsome ice axes from our packs, I left one small detail out. Even though it was in my pack, I forgot to apply sunscreen.

In the words of Rick Perry, “Oops.”

This is a multifaceted problem. First, all noobs are told to bring – and use – sunscreen, because the sun at high altitudes is particularly intense. Thinner air and closer proximity to that giant ball of atomic fire means more radiation is zapping your unsuspecting epidermis. Sunburns are easy to get in the high country.

But wait! There’s more. When you’re on a snowfield, you get double the pleasure as rays from the sun are reflected off the snow. If the direct sunlight doesn’t get you, the reflected sunlight will.

And we’re not done yet! Remember how I said how windy it was that day? As it happens, the wind was blowing right in our face at a steady 35 mph, gusting to over 50. Chafing from wind burns is actually a thing.

The predictable result was my face turning into a blistered, scabbed-up mess that made me look like a monster. An inexperienced, noobified gaper of a monster.

I’m more careful about sunscreen now.

Years later, I’ve tackled more peaks, done tougher ascents and perhaps, in the minds of some, finally moved on from the newbie stage. But in my mind, I’m still there. I don’t feel too far removed from noobland because I know where I stand in comparison to some of my friends who have climbed most or all 58 of the Fourteeners (I’m not even halfway there). And for them, they are a few steps behind those who climb these things in winter. Or those who have climbed the glaciated giants of the Cascades, Alaska, Mexico and South America. And those people look like lightweights compared to the mountaineers who ply their skills in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Karakoram.

Besides, there are benefits to keeping the newbie spirit alive. I’d hate to get to the point where some mountain hikes are “beneath me,” or I get too jaded because of the growing crowds of first-timers clogging the trails. I never want to lose the enthusiasm I had when I hiked Wheeler Peak back in 2003, or when my friends joined me a year later on our Colorado backpacking trip.

The mountains offer varying degrees of sufferfests – sometimes by their nature, other times by our own hand – but for a bunch of us, the allure never dies unless we let it. And I don’t want to. Experience is awesome, and it makes you safer, more capable, and able to do more in the peaks. My wish, no matter how many mountains I climb, is to keep the sense of wonder alive as long as I can, to view each summit through the eyes of a guy who is a newcomer to the high country, much like I was years ago in northern New Mexico on a fine July day.

I’ll just remember to leave the cotton T-shirt at home and to apply the sunscreen. Liberally.

Want to read more great newbie stories? Lose yourself in this glorious thread.

Bob Doucette

Common sense can prevent a pedestrian ban on Oklahoma City trails

Runners and hikers can coexist with these guys. I promise.

Runners and hikers can coexist with these guys. I promise.

There’s some good news and some bad news coming out of Oklahoma City.

The good news: Much like many communities across the country (including my hometown of Tulsa), more people are spending time on trails to hike, run or ride bikes. This is a good trend for urban and suburban communities, which for decades have been zoned and sectioned to death, leaving residents stuck with seas of rooftops with the occasional park thrown in. Trail systems in our cities are getting more people back in touch with the natural world, as opposed to the more sanitized version of the outdoors that we normally see.

Now the bad news: Friction between different trail users has caused city officials in Oklahoma City to propose banning pedestrians from Bluff Creek Park, as popular place for local trail users. In doing so, they’re hoping to avoid accidents between people on foot and those on bikes.

According to this recent report, no one is happy with this. Runners and hikers feel like they’re being unfairly targeted, and cyclists feel like they’re being turned into a public safety scapegoat. All sides believe the proposal was rushed, without getting input on solutions from people who use the trails. The matter is being brought up at an Oklahoma City Parks Commission meeting on Wednesday.

When I look at this, I do it from the vantage point of someone who uses a busy urban trail system regularly. Here in Tulsa, we have a couple: Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area in south Tulsa, and the trails on the west side of Chandler Park, in west Tulsa. In the former, our users are runners, hikers, cyclists and equestrians. In the latter, a lot of hikers, runners and in one area, rock climbers.

I’m most often at Turkey Mountain, and it is by far the busier of the two trail systems. It’s also become more popular every year. And yet its users manage to get by just fine without one specific group being told to stay away. (One small counterpoint, however – Turkey Mountain is a much larger trail system than Bluff Creek Park.)

So, when I look at the proposal floating around Oklahoma City, it seems like the solution was long on overreach and short on common sense. When it comes to common sense, execution is in the hands of the trail users. So here are some suggestions:

First, people need to keep their ears and eyes open. Be listening and looking for the sounds of bikes or pedestrians and don’t get too lost in the moment in what you’re doing.

Second, it’s far easier for the person on foot to give way to a rider. Do that and avoid a lot of confusion, and take care to give way to the person going downhill.

Third, if you have dogs, keep them leashed. I know it’s more fun for the pups to be off-leash, and maybe they’re trained to obey voice commands very well. But you have more control with they’re leashed, especially when a cyclist is rounding a corner.

Fourth, if you’re on a bike, verbally announce yourself if you’re coming up behind people on foot and slow down.

Fifth, lose the earbuds. In tighter spaces with trees obstructing views, you need to be able to hear what’s going on around you. This applies whether you’re on foot or on the saddle. A compromise might be having an earbud in only one ear, keeping the other free to hear outside noises. But I’d say it’s better to go without.

It should be noted that the proposal to make the trail system for mountain bikers only came as a result of a user survey, one in which less than a third of respondents wanted to ban pedestrians, and less than 2 percent had reported an accident with another user. And yet, the pedestrian ban is what’s being floated as a result of the survey.

Oklahoma City parks planners would do well to avoid discouraging trail usage from its residents, which is exactly what this proposal would do. We need more people getting outside and moving, not less. It sounds like what is needed here is a strong effort from the city and trail user groups to educate people on how to be safe when they’re on the trails, and to learn a little trail etiquette. Banning entire groups of trail users is overkill.

Bob Doucette