You just ran 24 miles this Saturday morning. So far this winter, that makes 1 marathon, 2 half marathons, and 40 miles of the Colorado Trail – because where you come from it’s not spring ’till Easter. You meet up with your ‘ole trail buddy A Lo Hawk about 8 miles east of Bailey. Except he’s changed his trail moniker now to Tumbleweed. You’re still working on your trail name while he’s on his 3rd. New trail, new trail name. To your knowledge, only Guides can change trail names like that, so Tumbleweed must be a Guide. You’ll refer to him as Tumbleweed at times, and as Guide at others. Before this hike got too far along, you collected the trail name, Sled Dog.
Like segment 1, you got up early and picked up a 20 oz coffee at Vics before heading down Hwy 287 at 6am. 90 minutes later you were at what would be the end of the hike, at the Rolling Creek trailhead ending segment 3. You leave your car here and drive with Tumbleweed to the start of today’s hike/run at the South Platte River trailhead marking segment 2. You stop half way though to drop off food and water at the Little Scraggy trailhead – hiding a cooler behind a tree. This is a brilliant plan to avoid having to carry so much weight. Today’s CT endeavor will consist of both the 11.3 mile segment 2, and the 12.7 mile segment 3 – two epic adventures in one. A twofer.
Epic I begins with the climb. The pic to the right of Tumbleweed standing on dramatically slanted ground is not a trick camera angle – that’s the slope. You run when you can but you probably walk here as much as anywhere during the entire day. Out of 24 miles, you might have walked 4 of them. Probably less. You come to learn that you have to run the inclines when possible because there isn’t much else and you’d like to finish before sundown. You adapt your running form to the up-slope shuffle.
This climb is a marathon unto itself. Seemingly endless, you feel your calves strain to a bursting point until saved by numbness. You believe you might be nearing the top as the trees thin and the sun becomes bright. You remove your top shirt – the blue Moab high-tech racing t-shirt. You still wear your long-sleeve Under Armour all weather gear because the early morning air is chilly and there’s a slight breeze, although you roll up the sleeves.
The mix of cold air and searing sun is climate you strongly associate with the Colorado mountains. One of your favorite dichotomies. Dressing properly for it requires experience and a bit of luck. You can’t control the weather, and you don’t know what temperature variances to expect as you rise in elevation. Pockets of cold air drop on you as you rise up the trail and feel as thick as liquid. But you have good gear and the single shirt serves as the perfect shield.
The never-ending climb appears to reach a summit. This appears several times from what turn out to be false hopes. You count these as humps. After many humps, you ultimately summit the apex of this climb. The view isn’t what you expect. You’re overlooking the Buffalo Creek Fire of ’96. The view could be depressing, but it’s not. It’s eerie but interesting. Even beautiful, but overwhelmingly dead. You wonder if later you’ll encounter a cadaverous herd of animals slaughtered by the fire.
You survey the burned out valley below. Treeless, you easily spot the trail as it drops into the valley before you and rises on the opposite side – crossing this deceased hollow. You enjoy a good rest at this summit, replenishing food and water. And you replace your long-sleeve shirt with the short-sleeve Moab jersey. The blood is flowing strong enough through your veins now that you consider running shirtless – but the wind suggests otherwise. Tumbleweed led the entire climb. He’s simply so much stronger than you on trails and you appreciate his pace setting. You lead as you start back down the other side into the Buffalo Creek Fire.
You’d been climbing for so long that your downhill muscles are atrophied and it takes awhile to warm-up. You go slow on steep sections but speed up as the grade flattens. The scenery is surreal. You run through a huge swath of forest – miles of burned down tree stumps enveloped in new grasses. But the grass is dead too from the winter. This would be something to see in the spring as the grasses turn green.
The occasional blooming cactus flower causes you to pause to admire and take a pic. Segment 2 of the CT has been as absent of fellow hikers and bikers as the first segment. You finally encounter people as you near the Little Scraggy trailhead. The first person is a lone woman biker. Both athletic and attractive, she resembles Erika Nepolitano. As far as you know, she might be the Redhead Writer herself as Erika is known for her local mountain climbing exploits. Doubtful though as this lady doesn’t drop any F bombs. You chat for a minute on the trail and continue onward – into a virtual thicket of human activity at the trailhead. You’ve reached the end of segment 2 and search for your stash of food and drinks.
This is a much needed rest. You sit down to eat and drink. The 11 miles felt like a marathon and took 3 hours. For the first time, you try protein drinks. Probably smart. You drink Muscle Milk – although it states it isn’t milk. And if it contained a drop of lactose, you wouldn’t be drinking it. It’s chocolate milk as far as you know and it goes down like dessert. Yum. Another drink you try for the first time is Venom Mojave Rattler. You discover it’s lightly carbonated and don’t finish it. You also leave it behind as the can is fairly hefty.
You start back up for the remaining 12.7 miles. The trail is gorgeous and you understand why it’s popular for mountain bikers. It’s nice to be in trees again after having traversed Buffalo Creek Fire. You note the thick bark over-growing the old CT trail signs. You expect to walk much of the second half – epic II. But you start off running, shuffling really. Segment 3 appears to contain more rolling hills than segment 2. There’s some decent downhills where you gather momentum.
But there’s also as much uphill climbs. Your uphill running form improves with repetition, although it’s a very short-stride shuffle. You know you won’t ever finish if you don’t run the climbs along with the easy stuff. It’s a relentless slog to the finish.
Epic II is continuous. You’re surprised to find yourself running it with so little walking, but it’s a slow run. The shuffle. The trail is extremely well groomed and easy to follow. It’s this amazing splendor, knowing how fortunate you are to be in these woods, that keeps you from thinking of your aching calves and tender feet. You have pain everywhere from your toes to your hips, but you’re mostly oblivious to it. You are however thinking of lunch. You’re tired of trail food and want something real. After forever, Tumbleweed begins to recognize the trail from where he camped out the night before. You’re nearing the end. It’s downhill and you finish strong. You pop off your backpack and stumble on your walking legs. You’re done in more ways than one.
On the ride to pick up your cooler at Little Scraggy trailhead and Tumbleweed’s car at the South Platte trailhead, you think and talk a great deal about your hunger and where you’ll find a decent restaurant out here. The run took you 6 hours and 45 minutes, so it’s no longer lunch – it’s dinner. It makes sense to turn right at Buffalo Creek onto Hwy 126 toward Hwy 285. There will be plenty of choices once you reach the larger highway. But halfway there, nestled among one of the prettiest valleys in Colorado, you come upon Zoka’s Restaurant & Bar in Pine Grove. Your rule is to stop at the first place that looks open, and here the parking lot is full. And for good reason. This place earns no less than 3 Puerco Pibil awards. One for the beer. The owner Kurt has blended Maharaja and Avery IPA for what he calls a Maharipa. Other than a Black and Tan, who does that? This beer is punchy and spirited. Outstanding! The second award goes for the salsa. You don’t know what Kurt did for this but the tomatoes in this dish must be God’s tomatoes. Actually, they might be black heirlooms. The salsa isn’t hot, but it has the absolute best flavor imaginable. The third award goes for your dinner, a Zoka burger. OMG! The Kobe beef was infused with a triple cream brie. You ordered it rare with the flesh seared and it was cooked perfectly. It came with sauteed onions that added a sweetness on top of the satisfying cheesiness. This burger could compete with any in the world for the most delicious sandwich ever. If you ever find yourself sporting around the Colorado trails of Buffalo Creek and Pine Grove again, you plan to stop by Zokas. Shoot, this place is worth driving out of your way for.