THE ULTIMATE TRAIL CHALLENGE
By Brian Metzler
Laura Cortez admits that the first time she trudged up Colorado’s Mt. Elbert, it was quite a laborious task.
And who can blame her? Reaching 14,433 feet above sea level, Mt. Elbert the highest of the state’s 53 peaks that rise above 14,000 feet and the second highest mountain in the contiguous, lower 48 states of the U.S., behind California’s Mt. Whitney (14,505 feet). Oxygen is more scarce up there and it’s harder to breathe, so hiking at a slow walking pace can be a struggle for anyone, but especially someone who had recently moved from the lowlands of Texas to suburban Denver.
But more so than the thin air and the amazing scenery, Cortez was impressed by something else.
“We were hiking it at a slow pace and I saw a lot of people running down it when we were going up, and I thought that was pretty amazing,” says Cortez, 26, who works for JackRabbit.com as a brand retention strategist. “At the time, the concept of running up and down a mountain like that was a bit foreign to me. But then I started to hear people talk about and thought it was pretty cool.”
A few weeks later, when Cortez was with some friends in the San Juan Mountains in the southwestern part of the state, they decided to do a speedy summit of Wilson Peak.
“We kind of ran and speed hiked it and it was a lot of fun,” Cortez says. “To me it’s just fun to move fast on the trails and time is kind of irrelevant, but it’s amazing how much faster you can go up and down running than just walking.”
RUNNING 14ERS: WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT
Running up and down Colorado 14ers has become all the rage this summer given that most races have been canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While there are no official records for each of the peaks, there are “fastest known times” recorded with a combination of GPS tracking devices and the honor system. And it’s not just Colorado 14ers, it’s also high peaks in every state across the country.
Why run up and down 14ers? Well, first, because there are trails leading to the top, and why not? It’s one of the ultimate challenges in running. Secondly, the scenery is almost always stunning. But mostly, it’s because the elective grind through the wild environment typically leads to an existential experience. Or at least the question: Why don’t I do this more often?
RESPECT THE 14ER
The key thing to remember with any high-altitude running adventure — but especially with 14ers — is the mountain almost always wins, even if you’re super fit. You’ve got to head into every 14er experience with realistic expectations, being properly prepared for changing conditions and other variables and, of course, be willing to be humbled by the slow pace and the possibility of not reaching the top. Be sure to read trail descriptions, trip reports and maps about the peak you’ll be running before you go.
Wearing proper attire and carrying essential gear is paramount to a successful 14er experience. It’s best to dress for a cool-weather trail run — because it’s often cool and windy on top — and carry a small backpack with a hydration pack, a waterproof running jacket, a hat, gloves and some energy snacks. But first things first, you need a sturdy trail running shoe with exceptional traction, like the Hoka Stinson ATR 6, La Sportiva Bushido II, Altra Superior 4.5 or the Nike Wildhorse 6.
No matter if you’re running fast or mostly hiking and running where you can, the act of moving up and down mountains quickly can be an exhilarating experience, says Nike Trail athlete Tayte Pollman, who started running Colorado 14ers in 2020.
“The reward is different hiking a 14er than it is running,” Pollman says. “When I’m running, I’m more focused and get into a flow where I don’t even really think about stopping or taking things in. I just try to go and hold my pace, do my base to stick to my rhythm and listen to my breathing. Then once I get to the top, I can click out of that and know that I made it and take in the reward at the end. And then the downhill can be just fast and fun.”
Understanding pacing and when to walk is important, too, Pollman says.
“I think the biggest thing about running 14ers is that you get fatigued fairly easy, so I think it’s really important to make each step intentional and look where you’re going to place each foot,” Pollman says. “And if you’re using trekking poles, you should know exactly where you’re going to place each pole. You don’t want to do things that will waste your energy or cause you to slip at all.”
8 RUNNABLE 14ERS
There are a lot of runnable 14ers in Colorado, but these are at the top of the list.
Mt. Belford (Buena Vista), 14,197 feet, 8 miles roundtrip
There are several routes up this peak located northwest of Buena Vista, but the best one to run is the northwest ridge.
Mt. Bierstadt (Georgetown), 14,060 feet, 7 miles roundtrip
The first mile is a combination of downhill and flat, but the switchbacking route up the 2,900-foot ascent is pretty runnable until about 13,200 feet.
Handies Peak (Silverton), 14,048 feet, 5.5-8.0 miles roundtrip
You might never get a chance to run the Hardrock 100, but you can explore the course and go up and down this peak in the heart of the San Juan Mountains from either Grizzly Gulch or American Basin.
Pikes Peak (Colorado Springs/Manitou Springs), 14,110 feet, 26 miles roundtrip
Running up and/or down Pikes is a must-do adventure for every trail runner, either in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon in mid-August or as a do-it-yourself excursion.
Mt. Elbert (Leadville), 14,433 feet, 9 miles roundtrip
This is the highest peak in the state and definitely worthy, but there are some very steep sections that will require power hiking. For a bigger challenge, go up Elbert and adjacent Mt. Massive in the same day!
Mt. Princeton (Buena Vista), 14,197 feet, 6.0-8.0 miles roundtrip
You can start at the trailhead at 8,900 feet or you can drive part of the way up the mountain on an old mining road to a small parking area at about 10,800 feet. Best of all, there is two hot springs resorts in the valley below.
San Luis Peak (Creede), 14,014 feet, 11.5-13.5 miles roundtrip
This little-known peak located in the Gunnison National Forest portion of the La Garita Wilderness has two long, but mild routes. It’s a bit out of the way, but worth the drive.
Longs Peak (Estes Park), 14,255 feet, 15 miles roundtrip
There are several routes up and down this majestic peak in Rocky Mountain National Park and each one of them is fairly long. The Keyhole Route is the most straightforward, but the Loft Route and the Cables Route offer unique, white-knuckle scrambling challenges.
TIPS FOR RUNNING COLORADO 14ERS
1. Respect the Elevation
Elevation is a real thing and it affects everyone differently on different days. You can smash yourself early if you start out too hard, even if the terrain isn’t super steep. Start with a moderate, low-key approach and see how you feel as you get into it. If you’re not from a high-altitude environment, try to acclimate by arriving a few days ahead of time, drinking a lot of water, avoiding too much alcohol and getting a lot of rest. It’s not uncommon to get lightheaded, dizzy, disoriented or sick to your stomach — even when things are going pretty well. If those symptoms occur, take a rest break, refuel and rehydrate a bit and keep a realistic (and humble) outlook. Turning around and coming back another day is better than risking injury, illness or death.
2. Gear Up
As trail runners, we like to do everything light and fast and that’s what makes it fun. But you should always dress in moisture-wicking layers (because you’ll alternately be warm and cold often) and carry a small running pack with essential gear, including a lightweight rain shell, sufficient hydration, energy snacks, a first-aid kit, a mobile phone and a map of the route (possibly downloaded as a .gpx file). Wearing the right pair of trail running shoes for the terrain is key, and opting for a pair that offers more durability and protection. Lightweight, collapsible trekking poles (for example, like Black Diamond’s Distance Carbon Z) can come in handy, both going uphill and downhill.
3. Know the Route
Most 14ers have several routes and each are typically vastly different in terrain and difficulty. Study the route you plan to run and understand where terrain changes and where it becomes difficult, but also take a paper map or digital map with you. Keep in mind that up 14ers include every type of surface imaginable — loose dirt, packed dirt, mud, sand, streams, talus and scree — and often routes can head off in different directions from the summit.
4. Mind the Weather
Weather changes quickly in the mountains, especially above 12,000 feet. What might start like a calm, clear, sunny morning can turn stormy with snow and lightning in less than an hour. Also, wind patterns and directions can change at various elevations. It might be calm with no wind in your first 1,500 feet of elevation, but then you can encounter huge gusts during the next 1,500 feet of ascent, only to have it peaceful and calm on top. Check the weather the night before and the morning of your run and, most importantly, look for signs of dark clouds bunching up quickly, big wind gusts and lightning off in the distance.
5. Safety First
Always tell someone in advance where you’re heading and when you think you’ll be back, even if that means sending a last-minute text or email. Then be sure to check in when you get back. Weather, injuries, navigational challenges and other variables can easily turn a 4- to 6-hour high-altitude run into a 7- to 10-hour ordeal. You can get a rough estimate of your time on the mountain by checking the FKT of each peak at the FastestKnowTime site and then add 1-3 hours for your expected pace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Metzler has run races at every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of shoes, is a three-time Ironman finisher. He occasionally participates in the quirky sport of pack burro racing in Colorado.
He’s the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, is a former senior editor at Running Times. He was and editor in chief at Competitor Magazine.
As an author, he has penned “Kicksology“, “Running Colorado’s Front Range” and the co-author of “Natural Running: The Simple Path to Stronger Healthier Running” and “Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach for Every Runner.”