Anton Krupicka (4:46). Ricky Gates (4:35). Lance Armstrong (5:40). These are just a few names that have put down some solid efforts on the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop. This iconic Colorado mountain run just outside of Aspen navigates four mountain passes above 12,000’ and has close to 8000’ of climbing over a 27-mile stretch of trail. It’s a rollercoaster of ups and downs with spectacular views of distinct mountains, clear lakes, and a wide-variety of trails. The loop contains some rather technical rocky sections and steep ascents/descents, but is almost entirely runnable (if you can catch your breath!). Most hikers dedicate 3 or 4 days to this loop if it is done as a hike with camping stops along the way
When I scouted the route out 2 weeks earlier with Sandi we thoroughly enjoyed the views, took our time, and snapped a lot of photos and this video:
However, on Sept. 5th, 2013 I decided to do a “hard long run” as part of my UROC 100km training…I set my sights on Ricky Gates’s FKT time of 4:35.
The following is my account (video version is pretty long…the text below sums things up):
It felt like a clamp was slowly squeezing together my temples. This slow, drawn-out torture clouded my thoughts and distracted me from the emptiness in my legs. The sun’s rays bore-down their brilliance, revealing dried-up spring beds. I gasped with parched lips.
“Make the suffering stop and slow down now!” This thought came through with clarity; it was a mantra that I ignored. The sun didn’t seem to care though…. She shined on….
I was looking up 460’ of vertical towards the rocky craig that marked the summit of W. Maroon Pass. It would be my final pass of the day (and on paper by far the easiest and shortest). But it was here that I was reduced to complete powerhiking. In the 7500’ of climbing up to this point I had been running 98% of the time, while only lapsing into pow-hike mode for a few steps here and there (something I was very proud of). But this last climb humbled me. I had just run out of liquid to drink and my upper thighs and hip flexors protested with any aggressive upward motion. I checked my watch and was relieved to see I had a 6-minute cushion on Ricky’s split at this point in the run.
3.5 hours earlier:
At the start of the run I checked splits obsessively. Much like an ultra race I seized up my effort and pace at each check-point and key juncture….imagining the ghost of a course record-holder out on the trail with me in a duel. For the first aggressive climb up Buckskin Pass I was neck and neck with the ghost of Ricky coming in just under 55minutes. The effort was already intense and I had burned through 3 gels and about 16 ounces of Gatorade. I knew I had my work cut out for me at that point so I bombed down the next 3 miles or so of downhill. At a water crossing I took solace in the fact that Ricky’s ghost stopped to fill up his handheld, while I cruised on past without stopping!
The second pass climb was my best as I managed to gain a couple minutes on Ricky. Snowmass Lake shimmered in all it’s glory but I only had the energy to manage a couple glances back as I pushed the more runnable incline.
Going into the third pass I hit a low patch on the long approach. It was then that I realized my fluid status was desperately low and the heat of the day began to wear on me. My major muscle groups felt stiff and my head began to pound. However, I somehow managed to shuffle up the hill and put another minute of cushion on Ricky…but that effort is what lead me to the aforementioned sufferfest of powerhiking.
For the final downhill 7 miles I took my care to not twist an ankle on the somewhat technical rocky sections as I dreamt about drinking ice-cold water. I forced my last [expresso] gel in order to stay mentally alert so I could navigate the descent….it was disgusting to take without fluid. There were several creek crossings that teased my thirst and so I splashed water on my face to dissipate heat through evaporative cooling. Though I was tempted to drink from these rivers, I deeply feared ingesting a parasite and getting sick again (much like I did last year 2.5 weeks before UROC). Taking care as to not crash into hikers on my way back down to Crater Lake I savored the pain and the joy that comes from such fatigue and physical struggle. The last 1.7 miles back to the parking lot brought a flood of emotion and joy. I checked my watch to read 4hrs, 27min and 10seconds…a new FKT by over 8-minutes!
Crater Lake: 16:17
Buckskin Pass: 54:53
Snowmass Lake Split 1:22
Trail Rider Pass: 1:49
North Fork River: 2:16
Frigid Air Pass: 3:05
W. Maroon Pass: 3:32
Crater Lake split: 4:12
Finish: 4:27:10 (parking lot pavement).
After chugging a good 40 ounces of water fountain water at the parking lot I brought my camping chair out to Maroon Lake to reflect on my effort. Snacking on potato chips and sipping an ice-cold Avery IPA, I watched people flock around lake taking pictures, sharing stories, and making memories. I continued with my reflection:
In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter how many hours, minutes and seconds it takes for me (or anyone) to run the Four pass loop. While obviously it was a part of a goal setting process and a run that I derive some personal accomplishment and pride from, the numbers aren’t important at all. Anyone on any given day and any given route can go out and push themselves to transcend their own preconceived “limits.” One can get a lot of self-satisfaction from an experience of crossing such a threshold…
But what I thought about the most was how a diverse group of individuals (aged 2 to 82 if I had to guess) shared an experience together in that single hour I spent sitting at the water’s edge; we gasped in awe together at the view of Maroon Lake and the surrounding mountains reflected in the water. We inhaled the fresh alpine air and savored the few oxygen molecules we could extract from it. We took pictures, videos and told stories about earlier times. We created life-enriching, positive memories together. I think it’s an amazingly inspiring thing to witness: how as a collective, we are bonded by these same natural views. Views we can finally all agree on as being beautiful. That in of itself is a positive thing worth running (and living) for.
And Remember: The View is Worth the Climb!
About the Author (Author Profile)2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mountain runner, Author of "Running For The Hansons," trail runner, videos for Vo2max Productioins, LLC.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Sage Canaday blog on UROC 100k training | September 12, 2013
- Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop | brentkocis | July 26, 2015
- Hike Training for the Maroon Bells | Denver Fitness Journal | September 10, 2016