Sunday, April 24, 2011

Saturday at Iron Mountain: A brief geography of running

I am not new to running. I understand vaguely that it burns calories, refreshes the mind, and allows us to be in the land around us. I have enjoyed routes in high places, traversed deserts, and stumbled in the darkness of tropical trails. But something changed in all that today. I think I get it.

Recently my brother, an ultra-runner, opened the door to a new kind of running.  Because I knew he was out there covering mile after mile in the hills around Reno, I began to believe I should get out too. Add to this the fact that my parents have taken avidly to the trail and track to augment their backcountry prowess and ensure coming years of good health. So I began running, again, not in a sense of familial competition, but to grasp the challenge and occasional pleasure of the run. And to join in a shared practice with our little team, the Young Mountain Runners.

I now run about four times a week, sometimes reaching 25 miles in that interval.  Hoping to see my weekly totals increase, I clamber out of my office before lunch to break up the day and loosen the cobwebs of concentration. I save Saturdays for what I call a "moderate run", typically another four to six somewhere around Virginia City. I once joined Darren on a "long" one to Fort Churchill and I got in a personal best of just over 17 miles (Darren jogged to a comfortable 30 miles somewhere ahead of me). To my surprise I have started to enjoy the time on the road or, preferably, the trail. Pain creeps in, of course, some days are good, some bad, but I have now been reminded that suffering is optional (borrowing from Haruki Murakami).

Today I set out for an unknown distance with the goal of circumnavigating Iron Mountain, a low volcanic bump east of Dayton, NV. Virginia City, my home, was veiled in a wetness of cold Spring clouds, but a six-mile drive down Six-Mile Canyon brought me to a relatively dry start-point at Highway 50 and the Road to Fort Churchill. Drizzle touched the windshield and teased me as I laced up. It was enough to make me put on a shell, but after this first mile I stowed it away as I watched the clouds retreat to the mountain tops. As the overcast thinned, the desert warmed nicely. The sandy track of the road passed quickly, I thought. Soon I turned to climb the low pass on the eastern side of Iron Mountain, padding through the shorelines of an extinct glacial lake and the dunes of the Carson River. The trail changed at abrupt intervals from packed silt to loose sand to volcanic talus, and the pattern reversed itself as I dropped down the north side of the pass toward Highway 50.
East side of Iron Mountain, north toward Highway 50.
My pace was steady and easy and I soon turned onto a beat-up trace of the Carson River Route of the Overland Stageline. Though marked by little crosses of recycled railroad track (there's an irony here somehwere; the railroad chose another route), the supposed stageline is now a motorcycle highway paralleling 50 and shows little resemblance to romantic visions of horse teams, wagons, and, more often than not, dire emigrants. Thankfully, neither motorcycles nor wagons were on the trail today.

I traversed my route's highpoints along the mountain's north flanks and began to realize that I felt exceptionally well. I was hoping I would hit a total of 10 miles, but I was feeling like I had hardly been out at all. Dark clouds still covered the mountains, but I could see a gap to my house in Virginia City high above me; maybe I should go that way. Although my legs told me they'd been busy, I began to feel something like exhilaration.  It's not quite that. It's more like the feeling you have after you've been laughing one of those good laughs that drowns your breath in spasms, yet now you can finally breathe, but don't think of the punchline because that will bring the fits again; you're happy and you breathe deeply feeling momentarily euphoric. At Iron Mountain, as I jogged up to my end-point at the truck, I endeavored to hold onto that feeling. It is one of the simpler pieces of how and why running becomes a part of our lives. Whether we go around the block, moderately around a hill, or along the physical and mental geography of an Ultra, we come back to the bits of happiness wrapped up in challenging and maintaining our selves.

Get out, and keep going.

Iron Mountain Loop: 10.74 miles (+500 ft); 11-minute pace  (seemed quicker, but trails don't lie)


  1. And yet many people find running boring...I don't understand how!

  2. Craig, your writing brings me gently, though excitingly via many memories, to the landscape and the joy of running. My imagination is poised to take me running, and though the time of day and my body may argue against actually getting out there, your words will capture my drive and I will barely cajole Lily and out the door we will go!

  3. We don't even get very bored on the stadium and high school tracks. We love the longer straight out and back and loop trails on weekends but with time constraints we enjoy watching our progress on our Garmin time/pace charts as we grab a 3 or 5 miler on the oval before or after work. The sun strike, as it comes up over the Grand Mesa in the summer, is a great sight as you sprint the back stretch. Very little can go wrong in the day after that.