Friday, January 17, 2014

The Art of Winter Trail Running

The white Dodge Ram creaks and rumbles into the snow packed parking lot before the morning sun reveals itself from a long night's slumber.  It's often difficult to summon the will power to leave the confines of the artificially heated vehicle and break the barrier separating humanity from nature.  Sometimes I sit and let the truck idle while I mentally prepare myself for the rush I will experience when the locks click up and the handle of the door is lifted.  The radio plays at an inaudible level while some dreary graveyard DJ signs off.  Despite the constriction of the driver's seat I power on my headlamp and begin to move my limbs.  By the time the first rays of sun breach the horizon I am committed to what lies ahead.  In the swiftest of motions I pop open the door and when my feet touch the frozen platform I'm already moving.
The first three steps are the hardest, after that there's no turning back.  Delicate foot placements are precisely located as I navigate the slippery surface.  Once I make it to the trees the snow will soften and I can open my stride a little more.  Inhalation is a forced effort that also requires a cautious start.  If your first breath is too deep you will choke on the harshness of the frosty air as it desiccates the alveoli of your lungs.  Gradual progression is a requirement despite the desire to quicken your movement to keep pace with the cold.  The crisp breaking of the snow's surface is like crunching into an apple that is at the peak of ripeness.  A newspaper is ruffled with each step.  My breath is heavy with the weight of the air and the characteristic inclines prevalent at the start of many of Summit County's trailheads.  This trail leads out of the parking lot and up a winding mountainside.  The solitary line of a hard packed trail cuts through the fresh snow and I follow the prints formed by a parade of snowshoers as they floated over the clouds that are inaccessible to the man on foot.
The sun is rising now as the grapefruit colored peaks stretch throughout the daylight world.  The sun is felt immediately through the fibers of my dark clothing.  This warmth is a hug from Mother Nature thanking me for spending the morning with her.  This feeling originates in my heart and radiates throughout my body.  I'm in the trees and moving swiftly now.  Light flashes intermittently through the gaps and shadows formed by the barren aspen trees.  Daybreak is my favorite part of Earth's rotation from West to East.  The snow softens as the sun soars into the sky and replaces the pink and purple on the snow laden peaks with a golden welcome to a new day.  Inevitably mountains will transition back to the pristine white that will remain until the sun bids this part of the world goodnight.
At a certain elevation the trail has seen fewer travelers and the snow is deeper.  Despite gentle steps there exists a point in every winter run between 10,000 and 11,000 feet where there is no respite for the foot traveler.  A soft footfall or balancing attempts between patches of firm snow may buy me some time. Eventually I will end up post holing if I am lucky or swimming through the mixture of air and water if I am unfortunate.  The turnaround point is usually reached when the ratio from running to swimming changes from 1:1 to 1:3.  I usually end up flopping out of my snow hole like a beached marine mammal in the wrong environment.  I always end up laughing as I try to catch my breath and pondering how ridiculous it is for me to attempt some of these trails in the heart of winter.
On a stable patch of snow I let the sun take over my thermoregulation as shake off the snow and smile while looking over the isolated patch of Earth I have found myself on.  Sparkles of light reflecting off of the snow crystals  perform a ballet in a virgin meadow untouched except for the paws of an elk.  I stare into the trees where they are most dense and I wonder what stares back.  Brief moments of nirvana are what push me to wake up early in the morning and find the warmth to run.
When you can't go further physically it's a great time to see where you can go mentally as you let your thoughts drift over the snow and up the mountains.  Heading down the trail I am able to notice the things I missed due to the darkness and exertion on the way up.  The shadows of trees fall over the snow in a thick tangle and, a trickle of water reveals itself through the snow.
I reach the car and come across the next crop of skiers strapping up to lay their tracks on top of mine.  Snow is so beautiful because it can preserves a footprint meticulously while holding the ability to erase the image within a matter of hours.  The transient nature of human impact is where I find beauty on these winter trails.
I strip down in the truck, toss my damp clothes on the dirtbag dryer, and I think to myself, "Man  I've earned this morning's cup of coffee."


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