This Run Gets to be "Epic": Pawnee Buchanan loop in Indian Peaks


Not a recipe post this time, folks, but somewhat food related, and very fitness relevant! Sometimes, experimenting with reductions and alternatives to granulated sugar in cooking and baking, I play this little mental game with myself. I pretend I'm at an impasse with a logical hard-liner who relentlessly quips, "sugar is sugar". Attempting to not become frazzled, I try to muster knowledge of facts and studies about why the sum-up statement  is generic and misleading, especially when we're talking about high fructose "corn sugar" and its proliferation in our food supply. I rehash this game, and then one day I have an experience that switches up the perspective for a moment in time, when sugar is quick fuel and simply exactly what I need, any kind at all. Yesterday, for example,was a "sugar is sugar and you better get some down you now" kind of day. Dave and I have been preparing for an attempt on the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim run in mid-October, along with our friends Dave S, Mike, and Artie. Yesterday the five of us set aside the day to run The Buchanan-Pawnee Pass loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. We actually anticipated about nine hours on our feet, based on the blogs we'd read, and analysis of the terrain (Dave's and Mike's, mostly). Secret hopes set the time frame as low as an optimistic seven hours, while the worst case scenario was that it would take a full twelve.

The loop, which is approximately 27 miles in distance (for us, it was 28 due to some lost circling mid-way), contains around 7000 feet  in elevation change and is incredibly, stunningly scenic.  In spite of the steep gradient of Pawnee Pass, and the rocky descent down the shoulder of Audubon, a huge proportion is very runnable, even with my inferior descending skills... or would have been, if it hadn't been for the conditions on the day.

We met at the Mitchell Lake Trail parking lot at 6:45, ready to get started promptly at 7. Driving up to the trailhead just as dawn was breaking, the mountains looked serene, imposing, and much more substantially snow-capped than we expected. The trees were shaking and rattling in their pinewood bones, too. On reflection, first impressions, making all the difference, were crucial, as we were all well prepared in terms of gear. Had any one of us opted for shorts only, we'd have had an inevitable disaster.

We jogged gently for several miles, interspersing a couple short stretches of hiking, until we reached lovely Lake Isabelle.  From here, not only did the trail begin to get steadily steeper, the snow became progressively more blanketing, and deeper. By the time we hit the climb up to Pawnee, we were dealing with mostly slippery snow and occasional icy face blasts that hinted of the howling winds we were being protected from on the slope, ready to lash at the top and down the other side. This stretch marked the first of many moments of thankfulness for a recent purchase, ultra distance trekking poles from Black Diamond. I hadn't used poles before, but they made a world of difference, aiding everything from descending and climbing when fatigued, to river crossings and mere confidence. I'm much more of a road runner, though I love the trails, and my descending skills leave much to be desired. It is rare I have a trail run without one face plant!

When we reached the top of Pawnee, we briefly congratulated ourselves on having thus far made good time, took a few pictures, and quickly started down, bent almost double. The wind was fierce and howling like banshees, and my hat got blown off my head once. Luckily, Dave was able to retrieve it, as I really needed it. Everyone's goal was to get down the pass pronto, but my aforementioned descending skills made speed rather frustratingly elusive. Dave stayed with me, and was a saint for bearing with the major meltdown I had halfway down, so frustrated and sapped by the combination of wind, cold, and descending. At one point, I bit my glove, trying to pull my fingers down a little in order to ball them up. It felt like I was biting on something wooden, and hard, inside the glove, and I realized I'd clamped down on my fingers. When, about five interminable minutes later, at a lower elevation that boasted not only greenness, but actual wildflowers, sensation returned to my fingers, the pain was almost unbearable. In fact, I lost it in front of two strangers. Tears, sobs, and even a little dry heaving.

Mike and Dave were waiting for us not far beyond the spot selected for my dramatic meltdown, close enough that I can't say for certain if they were graciously pretending they hadn't heard it. We started off again and rejoined Artie, waiting a little further up. The singletrack trail descended much more moderately through forest and meadow, passing Cascade Creek and its beautiful bridal veil waterfalls.

My energy, having been drained with the extended panic-attack experience down Pawnee, felt fully restored by the time we hit Buchanan Pass Trail, and began a steady, but very manageable climb up the second pass. The momentum was somewhat interrupted, however, when we came to what appeared to be a creek crossing that was washed out. We crossed further up the trail instead, and spent some time circling and avoiding accepting that we were lost, having left the actual trail in search of a trail stemming from the would-be crossing we thought we'd missed. The time spent lingering by the creek wasn't wasteful despite the circles, however, as we were able to refill our packs with clear mountain water.

At the top of Buchanan Pass, the wind was whipping ferociously, and Artie and I hunkered behind a big rock cairn for a minute to put on extra clothing. Funnily, though, just a few yards down the other side, there was zero wind. Sitting along a rock wall, taking some time to refuel and reflect, the biggest danger is how easily a little content complacency can be stirred. It was all too easy to feel home free. The reality was, however, that there were still 9 miles to go, including one more decently significant ascent, up the shoulder of Audubon, storm clouds were menacing, and light wasn't going to last forever. The conditions on Pawnee had added substantially to our day.

In spite of the billing I've given Pawnee and its horrors of the day (for me, that snowy, cold descent really, really just sucked), I think the slog up and over Audobon was the most difficult. We were tired, and after a point, just ready to be done. It's not hard, but it's a slog, when you're spent. Amazingly, though we had tears and panic (mine, and mine) within the first two hours of the route, we all managed to keep cheerful spirits going for the whole of what became...nearly twelve hours of run/trekking. That was supposed to be "worst case scenario"!

I know the adjective "epic" tends to be over-used and can be a little pompous even, in some cases, but this run/hike sunrise to sunset adventure definitely deserves the term, in my book. It was a challenging day, and it had a bit of everything: exertion and tears, but most significantly, unforgettable, awe-inspiring scenery that makes you forget yourself and be one with the world. Glorious color, long, languid lakes, pockets of wildflowers, soaring peaks stretching to the changing sky. Highly recommended.

Quick fuel notes: Since this is (almost exclusively) a food blog, I'd feel remiss if I didn't make a quick list of the fuel I brought, and how it took, yesterday, in addition to lots of water and liquid calories in the form of a cytomax/carbo pro combo.

Power Bar Energy Bites (Brought 1 pack of approx 12 oatmeal raisin bites, ate 10): I chomped on these throughout the day, and now I know it will be a little while before I eat anything maltball shaped again. We've really enjoyed these during long training runs, but the cold temps on Pawnee made them get a little hard to chew.

Gu gels (Brought 4, ate 2, raspberry and blackberry):  So, this will still be my pick for during-race fuel, and I really like this product, but they held no appeal this time.

Clif bar (Cool mint chocolate)(brought 1, ate 0):  Brought it, know I like it, just didn't eat it.

Fig bars (brought 2, ate 1): Quick and easy, you know what you're getting, and what can be over-poweringly sweet some days is most welcome on an outing like this. Being the edge of dehydration, though, I found the one I ate a little dry.

Peanut Butter and Honey-Dark Chocolate Grizzly Bar from Kate's Real Food (brought 1, ate 1): This was by far the best munchie I had all day, outside of the real food we had waiting for us when the adventure was finally complete. At about $2 a bar with a discount, this was the most expensive product I brought, but it was sooo appreciated. It's all natural and organic, too. So even when "sugar is sugar and that's what you need", not just any sugar floats your boat the same way.

Lucozade tablets (brought 1/2 pack, approx 6 tablets, at all 6): These are just straight glucose in a rectangular tablet that tastes a little like a sweet tart. They were awesome, keeping me from bonking when I couldn't face anything. We had them for long runs while we were living in England, and they are great! We can't find them here (we get them from relatives in the UK), but Mike brought a bag of glucose tablets he purchased at Rite-Aid, and they seemed just as well-received.