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How to spend a decent day running in the mountains

Yours for a limited time only. Yours for a limited time only.

Provided the day goes well, spending a day alone running long in the mountains feels almost as good as a weeklong vacation without an attached work backlog. How do you increase chances that your day will go well? Here are a few suggestions….

BEFORE YOU GO: BE NEUROTIC

1. Check wind and weather forecasts at the highest and lowest altitudes for your trail run.

Nothing puts grit on your teeth like 70 m.p.h. gusts across a couple of 12,000-foot passes, but if you're not actively trying to spend all day stepping forward and being blown backward while chewing dirt, a weather check and one-day delay sometimes works wonders. The National Weather Service offers clickable maps and hourly weather graphs--not 100 percent accurate, but much better than waiting until your hat flutters away at the trailhead.

Watch for developing thunderstorms at high altitudes. Watch for developing thunderstorms at high altitudes.

2. Plan your itinerary obsessively, and write it down.

We're not our most rational selves when we run long distances at high altitudes. Unless you live at 12,000', your lungs and red blood cells will struggle to give your noggin enough oxygen. On a long, difficult run, it's also hard to eat enough to maintain decent blood sugar levels. Add high endorphin levels and beautiful views to an oxygen-deprived, sugar-starved brain, and it can be easy to convince yourself that you don't need to slow down to eat, drink, check your water supply, or examine that nagging pain in your forefoot. Ever seen the manic grins on some of the actors in the 1930s movie Reefer Madness? They were probably imitating people they'd seen running in the mountains.

Give your future endorphin-addled, oxygen-deprived, low-blood-sugar-impaired brain a helping hand by telling it what to expect and how to cope in advance; even better, write down a simple itinerary to take with you. A pocket-size itinerary is easier to glance at on the run than a full-size, folded map, which means that you're more likely to consult your itinerary, more likely to notice if your path appears to have gone uphill when it should've gone down, and more likely to invest time pulling out your map when you really ought to.

Among the things you might want to include in your itinerary:

A. Route and mileage

A ticket to a good day. A ticket to a good day.

Estimate how far you'll be going, if and where you'll be going cross-country, how much elevation gain and loss you're facing, and where your most significant elevation gains and losses occur. Break your run down by upward sections, downward sections, and forks in the trail. Record the sections on a small index card or piece of paper that lists, in columns, 1) location, 2) mileage from point to point, 3) elevation gain or loss from point to point, and 4) cumulative mileage.

B. Water stops

Note whether or not there are any long sections where no water is available. If so, note the most important places to resupply your water.

Watch for water hazards near your water sources... Watch for water hazards near your water sources...
...and check topo lines near intended resupply points to be sure you can actually reach the source. ...and check topo lines near intended resupply points to be sure you can reach the source.

C. Approximate timing. Estimate how long it'll take you to complete each upward and downward segment in (A), and write it down on your card. Base your estimates on a speed at least two miles per hour slower than your usual speed at lower altitudes on shorter routes so that you don't stress out if someone stops you on the trail (more on that later), you need to pull a pebble out of your shoe, you have to outwait a lightning storm hovering on the ridge, or you need to filter water out of a particularly mucky source. Allow yourself even more time for cross-country routes. If you're time-limited, set a strict cut-off time for your halfway point so that if you have to turn around, you'll still get back long before anyone calls Search and Rescue.

D. A menu. Set minimum goals for the amount of food you're going to eat while you're running so that you don't putter out and have to catch up afterwards. (For example, I carry at least 65 calories per mile and eat a candy bar for every pass.) Take food--a lot--that you'll enjoy eating. Gels, salt capsules, and energy bars are great, but add more substantial stuff, too: pretzels, fresh fruit, or a tortilla wrapped around your favorite ingredients (whether that means peanut butter and ginger, black beans and green chile, or pure chocolate).

3. Take a paper map. Yes, GPS devices are amazing, invaluable, cutting-edge, etc. Unfortunately, GPS devices don't work everywhere, particularly in deep canyons out of satellite reception. Furthermore, when you're a little off-course, seeing the big picture (e.g., that ridge line off to your left that should be on your right) can save hours.

4. Compile and print a pre-run checklist that you can glance over just before you go. This list can include extremely important things, such as "topo maps" or "tape for chafed spots on shoulders," but it should also include really obvious things, such as "water," "sunglasses," and "sunscreen." (You're not likely to forget your shoes and socks, but all things are possible at four o'clock in the morning, especially if you're tiptoeing around in the dark to avoid disturbing a sleeping housemate.) You can reuse a good pre-run checklist for years; I've been using the same list--slightly modified with an occasional note in the margin--for more than a decade.

5. Make a copy of your approximate route, particularly if you're going cross-country. Give this to a friend who's willing to look for you if you're egregiously and inexplicably late.

Note that unless you already know the terrain, you should leave a large and extremely generous time gap between when you think you'll be finished and when you want your friend to categorize you as "late." For example, if there's one section of your run that should only be completed in daylight, and it's during the latter part of your run, allow yourself a time cushion--in addition to the extra time in your itinerary-- for an uncomfortable night out and a long, slow, potentially sleep-deprived finish the next day. Why? Mountain runs are almost always more difficult than a topo map says they are, and you don't want to risk your life trying to meet an unrealistic deadline. On the other hand, you don't want your friends risking their lives or--at the very least--missing work when you don't turn up simply because you didn't allow yourself enough time to get back. Instead, allow yourself plenty of extra time and then pat yourself on the back (or ask your friends to) if you return before your generous deadline.

WHILE YOU'RE THERE: EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY. ALSO, CHILL OUT.

Congratulations! If you've planned carefully, your running day should feel like a luxurious, mostly stress-free, one-day vacation.

1. Relax, breathe deeply, and run slowly enough to look around without injuring yourself. Don't hunch your shoulders on uphills, and relax your legs and torso as much as possible on downhills.

2. Eat frequently and enthusiastically while continuing to move forward. Don't wait until you're so tired and hungry that you need to sit down on that comfortable-looking granite boulder.

3. In fact, don't sit down on comfortable-looking boulders unless you have to rearrange your pack, treat water, check your feet, or enjoy a spectacular view. It's easier to move forward if you're still standing.

4. Drink frequently, and replace electrolytes with salty food or salt capsules. Don't make your heart pump sludge instead of blood.

5. Walk when necessary. No, really. No one's going to point at you and scream if you walk. You'll get plenty of running in; there's no sense in being an idiot about it. Also, you're much less likely to choke on that peanut butter and ginger burrito while walking.

6. Correct small, nagging pains to the best of your ability as soon as you notice them. If you treat hot spots before they turn into blisters, you'll save a lot more time and have much more fun than you will sprinting gleefully down a long downhill stretch while your heels turn into hamburger.

7. Stick to your itinerary, within reason.

Remember that you're working with an altered brain. If your itinerary says you ought to stop and refill your water container, stop and refill your water container while you know you're near water, no matter how good you feel, no matter how well you're doing, and no matter how far ahead of your schedule you seem to be. Don't succumb to the temptation to keep going until you're out of water, or--worse--to "ration" water for a while until you're dehydrated and brain fried. If your water container is still full, and your itinerary says it should be empty, drink something before your brain turns into fruit leather. If, however, your itinerary says you should be going uphill and you're going downhill, check your map to see whether you misread it earlier or simply missed a turn west when you should've gone east. We all make mistakes, even when we're planning a run in the comfort of our own homes.

8. Expect delays, and be polite.

Yes, you're running late because your water filter blew out at the last lake. Yes, the person standing directly in front of you and asking where you're from and where you're going is steadily murdering the fifteen minutes you hoped to spend basking in views on the next pass, looking at your map, or pouring dirt out of your shoes. However, the people you meet on your run won't be acquainted with your dehydration problems, the blisters springing up on your forefoot, or your worries about missing your ride at the other end. They will think you are as grateful and happy as they are to be out there. They will want to say hello because they are in the midst of the experience of a lifetime (and you are, too). Sometimes they'll ask you to carry a message to someone else in their group.

Be firm, but kind.

 ...especially to small, vulnerable animals hiding underfoot. ...especially to small, vulnerable animals hiding underfoot.

When you're running in the mountains, people see you as representative of all runners. You don't have to stop and sit down with anyone, but it doesn't hurt (most of the time) to be friendly and polite. If someone keeps you too long, glance at your watch, smile, and say that you have to go because you have a hot date or you don't want to miss your ride. If you can't afford to stop because you really are in danger of missing your ride or a hot date, smile and call out a greeting as you sidle gently around and past people camped on the trail. If you choose to carry a message or two, be sure to tell people that you can't guarantee you'll find the recipient. If you meet someone who truly needs help, do whatever's in your power to provide it, and remember that you may save a life. Also, watch your feet--some of your companions on the trail are small animals who won't be able to get out of the way.

Above all, please don't be that one special person who thinks their quest for a personal best time rushing blindly through a national park is so noble it justifies being rude to someone else who's on their first backpacking trip ever.

9. Perhaps most important, remember: You're having fun.

Stop and smell the shooting stars. Stop and smell the shooting stars.

Enjoy the view, breathe the clean air, sniff polemonium, and bask in the fact that you're spending a day off running in an amazing place. Be grateful that, unlike local marmots, pikas, mountain yellow-legged frogs, and bighorn sheep, you can enjoy the view without having to eat enough to survive a winter in the mountains. Speaking of winter, pay attention to small details so that you can warm yourself with your memories from this trip during those short dark days at the end of the year.

AFTER YOU GET BACK: EAT, DRINK, BE MERRY SOME MORE, AND TAKE NOTES

1. As soon as you can after your return, eat, drink, and rest. It's important to replace all those extra calories you burned as quickly as possible, before your body decides to start digesting muscle protein.

2. On your pre-run checklist, make notes about anything you'd like to take on your next trip. Draw a line through any foods or equipment that didn't work for you, and add a brief note explaining why so that you don't try the same thing again in a year or two.

3. On your itinerary card, record approximately how long you took from point to point, what you ate, and anything else you want to remember about that particular run. Save it with your maps and checklist to help plan your next long mountain run.

Ceal Klingler has been enjoying long runs in the Sierra Nevada and White-Inyo mountains since 1998.

3 thoughts on “How to spend a decent day running in the mountains”

  • Linda Dewees

    Great article Ceal!! I can't wait to "run" in the Sierras this summer. I learned some good tips. I totally agree about adding subtracting 2mph from your usual pace for sightseeing and altitude issues...which makes my pace 2mph! So much beauty it is like a week's vacation in a day!

    Reply
    • Ceal Klingler

      Thanks, Linda! I should've been more honest and simply called it "mountain shuffling" or "mountain gawping" (I think I spend more time looking than actually moving). As long as we get back with wide grins on our faces and...er, approximately no injuries before someone decides to look for us, it's one of the best vacations that time can buy :-)

      Reply
  • Lisa

    What a great article. I ran 24 yesterday out in the desert, all by myself, and it was so awesome! I chose to not listen to music, but to nature and my surroundings. (mostly a mountain lion). I couldn't have asked for a better day. I learned a few things from your article I will do next time. Thanks.

    Reply
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