Rekindling the Flame in the Yosemite High Country

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by Kevin Skiles

It was 7 a.m., six miles out in the high country above Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The four of us struggled up Koip Pass, gasping for oxygen at 11,000 feet.

Our route was a scramble up 2,000 feet of switchbacks over a scree field, peaking at about 12,000 feet. We tightened our formation and braced against the 60-mile-per-hour blasts of wind. My trucker hat whipped off my head, taking my sunglasses with it. I retrieved my glasses, but as I ventured toward a steep ledge for the hat, Jerome, the ranking alpine runner in our group, shouted over the wind to me, “Don’t. Not worth it.” Ever the voice of experience, he was right. Another San Francisco Running Co. hat gifted to the trail gods. This “fun run” had its conception three months earlier at the finish line of my first Western States Endurance Run, where I had just fulfilled my “ultra” ultrarunning goal of breaking 24 hours. Two of my best friends, Erika and Jerome, had also raced really well and exceeded their stretch goals at States, too.

However, as I have often found with this sport, the higher the high at the finish line, the lower the post-race low tends to be. Whether it is a chemical response to the endorphins that flood our bodies or a psychological response to the mental investment we make, I have no idea. All I know is that post-WSER, none of us could generate any enthusiasm for running.

We each took vacations with our respective families, took time off running and even tried road running (ugh), but nothing seemed to shake the blues. I was secretly glad that I was not the only one suffering, as it somehow made it more “normal” having company.

We would gather for our Wednesday night run and talk about the rut we were in. Sure, we ran, but it was decidedly uninspired. We joked about “retiring,” with WSER as our walk-off shot. Nervous laughter followed those jokes. Was this the end? What would it take to get our running back on track?

Then Jerome mentioned that he had reserved a campsite in Yosemite at the end of September. Maybe some camping and high country trail running would beat the running blues? I jumped at the chance.

Jerome and I planned our route, Erika cleared the weekend and it wasn’t long before our friend Tony, a 2012 WSER finisher, joined in. He, too, had fallen into a running funk. Between a string of DNFs and some big life events (marriage, first kid, new job, new house), he had a lot on his plate. But he was game.

Our route was a 40-mile loop going south from Tioga Road along the ridgeline above Mono Basin before dropping down to Gem Lake and hooking up with the John Muir Trail (JMT) to return to Tuolumne Meadows via Lyell Canyon.

Tony and Erika on the John Muir Trail. Photo: Kevin Skiles

Tony and Erika on the John Muir Trail. Photo: Kevin Skiles

We camped in Tuolumne Meadows to acclimatize. Shortly after daybreak, we drove five miles east to the Dana Meadows trailhead. Within a mile, the sun started illuminating the high country flowers and rock fields in a reddish orange glow. Climbing toward Parker Pass, within an hour we were totally immersed in the wilderness. In comparison to other Yosemite trail networks, the Parker Pass trails are decidedly the road less traveled. The four of us spread out, enjoying the solitude and serenity of the high country.

The steady downhill from the windswept Koip Pass to Gem Lake passes several vistas of the dry Mono Basin far below. The trails were well-packed with crushed granite and were an absolute joy to run. I even found the more technical switchbacks down to Gem Lake very runnable in my favorite Montrails and much easier running than more popular trails closer to Yosemite Valley. We broke for lunch while enjoying breathtaking views of the peaks above the sparkling water of Gem Lake.

The serenity and beauty of the awesome granite landscape seemed to cleanse my spirit and clear my mind. I reflected how in three short years, I went from being a road runner happy to finish a half marathon to a 100 miler finishing Western States in under 24 hours. I had been so enthusiastic about ultrarunning that I was piling on the training miles and entering eight to 10 ultras a year. But it dawned on me: maybe even a mid-packer like me can fall victim to over-racing and burn out. Around mile 20, we hit the JMT and started climbing the exposed Donohue Pass. The climb was only about 1,500 feet, but in the heat of the afternoon, the 10,000-foot elevation took a constant toll on our energy. I hiked with Erika for most of this; we were in the same “digging deep” mode, bickering with each other about who was in worse shape. The JMT, in this section, has notorious 18” high stone steps that seem designed for mules, or maybe hikers, but certainly not trail runners. The steps weren’t bothering Tony as he skipped up the pass like a mountain goat. He summited at least 10 minutes before the rest of us and was halfway through his snack when we arrived exhausted.

Kevin on top of Donohue Pass. Photo: Tony Marshall

Kevin on top of Donohue Pass. Photo: Tony Marshall

The view from the top of Donohue Pass is incredible. You can see several prominent peaks, such as Mount Lyell, Amelia Earhart Peak and the Ritter Range. Far off in the distance, 13 miles away, we could see Tuolumne Meadows. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t looking forward to reaching the finish line.

As the trail descends down Lyell Canyon, paralleling a gently flowing stream, it rolls over small granite boulders and a buffed single-track through glades of Douglas fir and mountain flowers. Somewhere along this trail, our group spread out again. The flow in my running returned for the first time since WS. I began to notice the stillness of the air and the sounds of the birds and flowing creek. I was struck by the incredible blueness of the sky. I felt as if I was being carried along the trail by an invisible force. As I came upon a granite formation, I leapt off it like a kid on a skateboard. Hey, this is fun!

Kevin above Lyell Canyon. Photo: Tony Marshall

Kevin above Lyell Canyon. Photo: Tony Marshall

Entering Tuolumne Meadows, the trail can get a little confusing, and I was worried, as not everyone had a map with them. Predictably, someone in our group did get lost. As to not embarrass this person, she will remain nameless. Erika has earned a reputation for showing up on our wilderness adventures with nothing but a sleeping bag, running shoes and an insane level of fitness that gets her out of any trouble. Fortunately, when we got to the campground and noticed our missing friend, Jerome drove to an alternate trailhead and quickly found her. All together again, we shared a post-run beer, a quick dinner and then blissfully sweet sleep under the stars.

Packing up the next day, each of us had a satisfied look. Tony had proved to himself once again that he is a tough mountain runner and can overcome the effects of altitude and hours of grinding effort. Erika and I seemed to have pulled out of our funk and were now discussing an upcoming fall hundred. Jerome, a native of the French Alps, seemed at home as he always does in the mountains, running the trails and enjoying the easy rituals of camping and hiking. No single run can solve everything, and it might be a while before I am excited for a race as I was for Western States, but our Yosemite adventure run had rekindled a flame – the simple joy of running.

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