By Christopher Cudworth
Toward the end of a week camping in the Maroon Bells of Colorado, that deliciously beautiful chunk of mountain range above Aspen, it occurred to me that a 12 mile run down the mountain might be a bit of fun.
I was very fit at the time, in 31:00 10K shape. And though I started out slowly, the road was so invitingly sloped that the pace just picked up naturally. Soon I was fairly sprinting down the hill, whooping and hollering as I went. It takes a bit of courage to run so fast that you know you can’t stop. But it was the opposite of everything I’d ever experienced in running. A downhill that long does not happen in Illinois. So I ran and ran, not knowing the exact mile points and unable to gauge my pace by any normal means. The watch meant nothing. I had no GPS or iPhone or any other gadget. It was just me and the shoes and tiny pair of shorts. Elemental running at its best.
The air warmed a little as I slipped through the aspens and down in elevation. 4 miles went by. Then 6. I was nowhere near tired. It was just run run run.
A bike ride down the same slope would either be exhilarating or terrifying. Or both. You could easily top 50 mph on the 6-9 degree hills of that road between the Maroon Bells campground and Aspen. I’ve gone that fast on similar slopes in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. And when you’re going 50 mph and turn your head a little, the slants in your helmet can actually make you feel like the bike wants to turn. Go any faster than that on the bike and you had better know damn well what you’re doing, or else have the guts to go where no fool like you has gone before.
Rather than slow down on the run from Maroon Bells to Aspen I kept picking up the pace. The altitude did not really bug me by that time. We’d hiked up to 12,800 feet a few days before. A week in the mountains had my whole body feeling good. Clean. Ready to run. So I did. Without limits.
Turning into Aspen the sweat finally started to pour off my bare skin. The air was warmer now, not cooled by the higher elevation or subject to breezes off the cool streams in the mountains. It was humid and the Colorado sun pounded my shoulders.
But I was rolling. 10 miles now. Then 11. The entire run would turn out to be 12.4 miles. Right on 20k.
The time on my watch is forgotten. But I know it was about 3:00 faster than my PR for 20K at the time. It was such a gas just letting go like that I do not want the stain of a fixed time to even compromise the sensation. How many times in your life can you just open up and run like that? Nothing holding you back. Not competitors. Not a flat or hilly road. Just you and the downhill and the aspens flinging by like pennies from heaven.
As I rolled into town I could see my wife and her sister standing on the street. I ran right past and waved before slowing in the next block. They seemed to understand. My wife always seemed to understand my running. She knew it was my salvation from the pain of life.
It’s been exactly a week to this minute since she died. 15 feet from where I type these words she quietly ceased breathing with her hands being held by her children and her husband. A few minutes later the young overnight nurse checked my wife’s pulse and told us the inevitable truth that she was gone.
My heart has been running just to stay in place this entire week since she passed away. It keeps lagging behind the demands of life. Wanting to go back in time, somehow, yet time is a downhill slope, it seems, on which we must always keep running.
I should have known. Years go past like seconds. You recall quick segments of time and favorite moments. Memories flitter and flutter like aspen leaves in the mountain sunshine. It’s all we can do to keep our legs moving fast enough to keep up with what we need to do. Our minds constantly race ahead to the future when we should be looking all around us at the mountain scenery and the high, high Maroon Bells at dawn and sunset. Between those holy moments there is day, and there is night. Canyons and roads. A quick run down the deep slope. That is life.
And soreness for days afterward. That’s what I recall. And what I’m feeling now.