A View from the Top
Altitude Attitude


Gordon Cherr,


Visiting in Colorado, from sea level in Florida. Then we will be driving to New Mexico and back to Colorado.

I go out for a run from where we are staying, just outside of Boulder. Hey, why don’t my lungs work? Oh, I get it, they are rationing oxygen up here, geez…one hour later, after communing with the prairie dogs, I am back. What a headache and I am thoroughly dehydrated. Nice little trails, not too hilly, just looking at the front range off in the distance, that’s where I need to go. There is still snow at the higher elevations. It is beautiful and it is beckoning. But, I gave no thought to the changed conditions, and afterwards I will be paying the price. Running at 5900′ is not at all the same as running at sea level, and you’d better remember to respect it. I did not. Time to pay the piper.


It is my second day out and the first 5 steps are the same as yesterday, I am immediately in oxygen debt. But it is less of a surprise this morning and the body and mind adjust quickly, and I settle in for the duration. Unconcerned about pace, more concerned about time on my feet. My breathing feels easier after a while, but an interesting phenomenon…the downhills feel like uphills, or is that an optical illusion? Tackling more rigorous terrain this morning, the trails are tougher but the footing is good, not at all gnarly like back east and down south. Two hours later I am back to the start, this altitude induced headache is like a metal strap being tightened around my head. I remembered to hydrate better though, it may not be hot like Florida but the altitude and relatively low humidity will sap you dry in no time flat.


OK, heading for New Mexico today, Taos and Santa Fe. Back on the road. The drive to Santa Fe is nothing to write home about. That is what you get for taking the interstate. Then again, there are places of jaw dropping beauty interspersed along the flat, featureless (from the road) prairie, at least from I-25, south. The hard and unforgiving front range of the Rockies stands in sharp contrast to the land of soft and smaller table top mesas and encroaching desert, but I appreciate it all. In fact, there is hardly anywhere that I go, that I don’t see places where I want to run. Simply stop the car, get out, and run. You’d think after nearly 50 years of running that the urge would finally die a slow death, but sometimes the addiction and compulsion is worse then ever. Or better than ever.


The sun rises early out west for those of us living on eastern time. It is 5 AM in Santa Fe, but it is still 7 AM on my clock and I am out the door to explore at first light. I talked to the desk clerk last night, she claimed to be a runner and suggested where to go, and what the distances would be, what to look out for, what to avoid. I learned a long, long time ago, to not trust desk clerks with important matters like that, so I take it all with a grain of salt. Maybe two grains…and thank God for GMaps, because you can at least get a look and a gauge on altitude and elevations if you are running the unfamiliar roads, which I am this morning. So, I plot a little route in my head and go out to recon for tomorrow’s real run, up to the low country Dale Ball wilderness trails.

As luck would have it, I change my itinerary at the very first road and uphill that I encounter, and 35 minutes later I am still climbing. This fun run started at 7100′ this morning, it is a cool 58 degrees and the humidity is low, maybe 40%. Feels bone dry to this Florida boy who would otherwise be swimming through 100% humidity and the rain as it has been raining on and off for four days now back home. Sometimes you just like the road you are on, sometimes you don’t. I like this road. I find myself out of town quickly, and inexplicably wake up to passing a few houses and lots of desert. The pueblo architecture fits the landscape so unobtrusively, the land is soft and comforting, it curves and rises and falls so very gently, or so it seems. Can the land be sensuous? I am surely losing my mind out here already. Maybe someone dissolved a peyote button in my water bottle? Where exactly have I been for the last while? My Garmin claims almost an hour has passed. A old car or beat up pick up truck passes slowly from time to time. There is no time any longer, no agenda, no thoughts, just being. I don’t know where I am, how I got there, what day, month or year it is. And I don’t care. Maybe the air is so thin that my mind has ceased to fully function. If so, hypoxia is good. Ultimately, I will find my way back.


The next morning comes equally early and I am so ready. I have decided on another route and promise myself to stick with it. Up east Alameda until the trail runs out, then up Canyon to upper Canyon and if I go far enough, to some forest area of pinion and juniper. This seems to be a popular area to run and walk and there are quite a few people out with the morning sun. Some time later the other runners and walkers have fallen away and I have the road to myself. The climb is utterly relentless, the air even thinner, and after more than an hour the altimeter on my GPS is hinting at 9100′. That can’t be right but it is enough to psyche me out, and the forest area is closed too, due to extreme fire danger, so there is nothing to do, but turn around and head back down.

The remoteness of the land scares me momentarily, do they have mountain lions around here? Of course they do. Oh boy, how did this place get do unfriendly so quickly? I am running downhill as fast as I can with a large can of 17% pepper spray in my hand. I will testify under oath that you can run downhill in one direction with your eyes facing a full 180 degrees behind you. And not trip. It is a talent I perfected many years ago while running at Yosemite, convinced that a big grizzly bear was chasing me. Of course, no bear was chasing me or you wouldn’t be reading this. And there was no mountain lion stalking me this day, either. But I wasn’t sad to see the roof tops of small houses along the road, as I re-entered the city limits a while later. I didn’t feel it then, but the next day my quads were on fire. It was well earned.


We are on the road to Taos. I have high expectations for running there. My expectations are dashed. If you get one block off the main drive, there are neighborhoods of beat up and tired looking mobile homes and wandering packs of mobile home/trailer park dogs. Actually, the poverty here is striking and sad. I have no doubt that had I found another side of town, I would feel totally differently about it, but I couldn’t.

We did drive to a bridge over the Rio Grande River, and in fact, one running bud had given me a map to a trail run from this bridge along the gorge wherein the Rio Grande runs free. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact, I couldn’t even walk to the middle of the bridge to look at the river, hundreds of feet below. The view was exquisite, the river canyon must rival the Grande Canyon. At least Sharri said that it did. When it comes to heights, that girl’s got game. My legs turn to rubber and my stomach turns to stone. And I wasn’t going to run that trail. 4′ wide, and the first step down is at least 500′ below. Thanks, no thanks!


The return drive through Colorado was done on incredible back roads. The Rocky Mountains rise majestically in front of you for many miles before you finally get to them. Do you know what the Nolan’s 14 is? It is a run through the Sawatch Mountains, of 14 peaks each over 14,000′. I cannot imagine. Few have attempted it, fewer have accomplished it. A very good ultra runner recently attempted it and failed. He was derided in the ultra running media for his failure. I say, I cannot believe anyone would have the audacity to even try, much less to run, one 14er. Even one 14er would be an accomplishment beyond imagination. Beyond mine anyway. He failed at nothing. Just to try…


I am, of course, glad to be home. Back into the land of hot and humid. Carrying the heat like a warm uncomfortable blanket. Stump jumping and tripping over roots as usual. But still dreaming, more than ever so slightly, of my running adventures in the magical land of Carlos Castenada, of flat top mesas and sandstone and desert. Of pinion pine and juniper and the soft aroma of mesquite.

And always, the inexorable pull of the big mountains. Rocky Mountain high. Colorado.