Been slow posting this since I did it back on July 5 but since it’s the highest elevation I’ve ever run up to I wanted to document it for posterity.
After the local 4th of July 5k in Pagosa Springs, I spoke to the RD who is a local endurance sports enthusiast and ultra runner about nearby trails I could run that would have some significant climbs. He suggested either going out to the Continental Divide Trail by Wolf Creek or Pagosa Peak – a local peak that looms over Pagosa Springs and summits at 12,636 ft. My brother in law had already mentioned Pagosa Peak and since it is such a prominent landmark for the area and fit all my other criteria I got excited to run it.
The next morning Carrie said the best time for me to do this kind of adventure would be that day and so I grabbed a couple of water bottles, put on some sun screen and headed out. The route to the trail head is not super well marked. You take a couple of country roads out to the mountains and then there is a four mile road that is pretty much impossible to travel on if you don’t have a 4×4. I figured my rental Mazda 5 probably should not attempt it. So instead I left the car at the start of the rough road so I could get the extra running mileage. I told Carrie not to call the search and rescue unless she didn’t hear from me for more than 4 hours. I figured it would be about 45 minutes to get out there, 45 minutes to get back, 45 minutes to get up to the trailhead from the start of the rough road, 1 hour to run the 3 miles roundtrip to the peak and back and then 30 minutes to run back to the car. That would give me 15 minutes of buffer. In retrospect I should have given more buffer but everything worked out since I was able to call Carrie from the summit since I got pretty good cell phone service from up there. In the end the whole adventure took about 4 hours and 15 minutes.
After parking at the trailhead the run up the rocky road was actually pretty technical and had a significant climb. It started out forested which was nice since it was about 11:00 AM when I started and the sun was starting to beat down. I should have started earlier due to the risk of thunderstorms during the Colorado monsoon season – but this was a bit spur of the moment and I had to grab the chance when the opportunity arose. I immediately felt the 8,000 ft elevation as I started to climb. My lungs were working extra hard and I was a touch light headed. I could not push the pace as much as I might have liked to push it. I ended up averaging about 13 minute miles on the 4 miles up. There were a few nice views of the mountains. I ran into a few hikers who asked me if the horse flys were bothering me – they actually were a bit of a nuisance, I had five or so following me around – but I responded that they weren’t bothering me since I was trying to outrun them. On the way up the road I also had a jeep pass me on it’s way back down – the driver looked at me and said – you’re crazy and drove off.
The trailhead when the single track begins is not well marked. There is a trail that leads off into the forest by a stump with a few hiking sticks stacked up by it. Luckily there was a white jeep parked nearby that tipped me off I was in the right place. The single track was great but I couldn’t really run up much of it. The grade was just too steep and I was feeling the altitude more and more. I was at nearly 11,000 feet and even when I was just speed hiking up my heart rate was hitting the high 160s. The trail is not super well maintained which gave it some character. Lots of blow downs and other obstacles to work through. About a mile in the trail gets more exposed and you start to emerge from the tree line and get your first views of the peak and the surrounding countryside. It was breathtaking. The sheer number of huge mountains on the horizon was astounding.
I slowed down to enjoy the views and to try to regulate my heart rate / dizziness as I was now over 12,000 ft. My sea level lungs were really feeling the burden of the elevation. It gave me more appreciation for what the folks who run really high ultras like Hardrock or the UTMB must feel like just dealing with the intensity of the elevation – not to mention the extreme climbs and distance. I trudged up the scrabble and enjoyed the views. I was running behind schedule just a bit at this point but I received a text message from my mom and noticed I had coverage so I called Carrie and told her I was fine and to give me a bit more time. She was understanding and supportive and told me to be careful. It was awesome to be able to text her a few photos of what I was seeing.
I was a bit worried about the weather as it was getting close to 12:30 PM now and I could see some dark clouds gathering. I didn’t see any lighting strikes in the distance but being exposed at that elevation I didn’t want to press my luck. On my way up to the summit I ran into a couple of hikers who had some experience in the area and they said I should be fine if I went up to the summit and turned around relatively quickly. They also clued me in that what I thought was the summit was actually a false summit which was a bit discouraging. I made decent time up to the false summit and it turned out the actual summit was only about a quarter of a mile further. The summit was spectacular. A true on top of the world feeling – rugged mountains as far as I could see. I took a few pictures and was going to eat my energy bar up there but a few raindrops started falling so I decided to start my descent immediately. Plus I was already going to be out longer than my original agreement with Carrie and hoped to get back to town to do some tubing with the kids.
The initial part of the descent over the loose rocky terrain was pretty slow going. I had one small stumble but just scraped my hand a bit. Once I got back to firmer ground I made decent time. It started to sprinkle and I heard a few thunderclaps so I was glad that I had left as quickly as I did. I passed the couple that I had passed on the way up relatively quickly. It was fun stuff to run down – technical and steep but good footing to where you can get a good rhythm. I got back down to the start of the single track about 2:30 into the run. I made a goal to try to get back down to the car by the 3 hour mark. I hammered it down but couldn’t quite make it – I finished the 11.25 mile run in 3:05. I beat the significant part of the storm by about 20 minutes. On the way home I ran into a really intense rain storm.
It was a pretty fun adventure for the Colorado trip and just what I was looking for. Great views, crazy climbs and intense elevation. Overall a fun way to spend an afternoon. It’s crazy easy to run at altitude here and as much as I love the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle trail running scene it’s hard to compete with the sheer number of really tall and steep mountains in Colorado. It’s a different kind of beauty. I would never trade my dense mossy forests and soft needle covered trails for the rocky vistas of Colorado but I’m feeling pretty lucky to have some relatives that live in Pagosa Springs.
Gear Used: Solomon Wings 2 shoes, Nike running shorts, Outdoor Research shirt, Brooks visor