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CDT, Ultra-Style

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A couple kicks into high gear for the latter half of their 187-mile journey across rugged Colorado terrain on the Continental Divide Trail

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“How many miles do we have left?”

“80.”

“And when are we supposed to meet them?”

“Friday at 6:00 p.m. I know they’ll be there on time.”

It was Wednesday evening and my husband, Matt, and I were lying shoulder-to-shoulder in our one-person tarp tent, having stopped for the evening because we’d lost the trail in the dark. We were deep in the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado on the Continental Divide Trail, headed for Spring Creek Pass, where our friends from nearby Creede, Colorado would be waiting for us in less than 48 hours. Without a cell signal to call our friends to reschedule, and with the likelihood that they’d call Search and Rescue if we didn’t show up, we needed a plan for covering so many miles in such little time.

We never meant to put ourselves in such a predicament.

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Sitting atop Grays Peak.

Four days prior, we left Cumbres Pass in Southern Colorado at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, 187 miles and five and a half days from Spring Creek Pass. At a glance, the section is remote, rugged and involves cross-country navigation. To cap it off, the section ranges between 11,000 and 13,000 feet. I was slightly concerned but still confident, as it was just one section of our entire thru-hike of the CDT. Still, the area deserved a healthy dose of respect.

The first three and a half days were humbling.

Over the course of high, exposed terrain, we dealt with headaches and nausea, difficulty in route finding, pop-up hailstorms and thunderstorms, and exhausting climbs and descents. We managed to hike 13 miles that first half day, then 30, 35 and 29 miles for the next three days. While the numbers were something to be proud of, they left us with 80 miles to cover in less than two days.

As we lay in the tent on Wednesday evening, our egos deflated, we weighed the pros and cons of not showing up on time. Our friends knew what kind of hikers we were but they also knew this area, so we guessed they would call Search and Rescue if we didn’t show. Since we were only down, not yet defeated, we came up with a plan.

We would kick it into gear, ultra-style.

The plan was to go straight through the next 80 miles. In our favor was the fact that we’d soon share tread with the Colorado Trail, a well-defined trail from Denver to Durango.

On Thursday morning, we got moving quickly, vowing to each other that with the exception of snack breaks, we wouldn’t stop until Spring Creek Pass.

“Ultra training,” we said to each other at the start.

The day started over lumpy grass, leading us over small, yet tiring, dips in the terrain. In the afternoon the trail obliged with manageable climbs and a clear afternoon for the 2,000-foot climb up to The Window, a missing tooth in the mountains. Just before dark, we ate a dinner of dehydrated refried beans out of a peanut-butter jar, a daily staple of our stove-less cooking system.

Mentally and physically, we felt strong yet doubtful. While we were committed to the task, we’d never pulled an all-nighter on previous hikes, only in ultras with aid stations and course markings. Complete darkness surrounded us as we took our last bites of dinner and suited up in wind gear and headlamps to prepare for the chilly evening.

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Heading down to water on the portion north of Monarch Pass, Colorado.

Around midnight, we reached the Colorado Trail, leaving us 40 miles to cover in 18 hours. We rarely covered three miles an hour in the toughest sections of hiking, so we didn’t have much wiggle room. Just after the Colorado Trail junction, we passed other campers off the side of the trail and three dogs barked into the night. My heart nearly stopped for fear that the dogs would come after us, but they never did. I felt half-crazy walking in the dark as the dogs’ barking faded behind us, quietly repeating to myself, “ultra training … ultra training.”

Both of us lead 90-minute shifts in the darkness, allowing the person in the back to relax and zone out, before taking a 10-minute break between shifts to sit down and eat a snack. With our lights turned off to rest our eyes, we ate energy bars in the thick, silent darkness. The chill in the air above 11,000 feet always got us up and moving again. Besides our occasional exchange of words, mainly to keep us awake, the only sound was that of our wind pants swooshing in rhythm as we hiked.

Around 3:30 a.m., we looked to our right, down into a canyon, and saw three sets of eyes look up at us. Guessing they belonged to moose by what little of an outline we could see of their bodies, we kept moving without further observation, hesitant to wait for the animals to check us out.

“I wonder if this is what Hardrock is like,” I said jokingly to Matt.

I petitioned for a real break around 4:15 a.m. Rather than set up the tent, we threw our three-foot long sleeping mats on the ground and draped our sleeping quilts over top of us, closing our eyes for 45 glorious minutes. The cold got us moving once again and we walked the pre-dawn hours in a slow, drunken stupor, neither of us successfully gathering our wits until the sun came up.

While we felt triumphant in having pulled an all-nighter, we realized just how slow the nighttime pace had been when we reached a high point at noon, only to discover that we still had 21 miles to cover. With only six hours left in our countdown, we dug deep to move faster over the ever-changing terrain, from smooth tread, to dirt roads, to fields of slippery, lichen-covered rocks. Our hiking poles were a blessing. Wind was a constant presence, pulling the water out of my eyes while it brought in late-afternoon storms. All day I felt like Captain Hook, hearing the tick-tock of the clock like it was a race cutoff nipping at my heels.

Two hours from our deadline, with eight miles left and goofiness settling in, we ran whatever portions the trail would allow. The afternoon rains held out until we were a mile and a half from Spring Creek Pass. With just 20 minutes left, we made all-out run for it. We were giddy with laughter as we bounced along a dirt road, using our hiking poles to propel us forward while heavy rains blew us sideways. At 6:00 p.m. on the dot, 35 hours since we started this ultra-style push, we arrived at Spring Creek Pass, arms stretched out in elation as we crossed the imaginary finish line. Our friends were there, awaiting our arrival with freshly baked cookies and bottled water.

The first thing we said to them as we slung our packs into the trunk of their car was, “You’ll never believe what we just did.”

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Julie and Matt Urbanski, runners local to Seattle, have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail (2007, 2011, 2012, 2013) and have published books about their PCT and AT hikes, The Trail Life: How I Loved it, Hated it, and Learned from It and Between a Rock and a White Blaze: Searching for Significance on the Appalachian Trail, with a book about the CDT due out this April. Follow more of their adventures at http://urbyville.com.