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Trail Stoke: Why The Early Wake Up Is Always Worth It

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Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! … 

The alarm on my phone is set to that incessant, blaring “Alarm” sound and it always annoys me when it goes off, but it always wakes me up.

(If you don’t know the sound, look it up in your iPhone iOS under the “Classic” sounds and you’ll know what I mean by being annoyed.)

I picked up my phone in the dark, saw that it was 4:30 a.m. and fumbled to turn off that horrible noise. Once successful, I opened my weather app to check the temperature in Leadville.

18 degrees! Yikes!

The night before, I ambitiously planned a dawn patrol excursion up and down Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak at 14,433 feet. For such a big peak, it’s a relatively easy “get” if you’re crashing or camping in or around Leadville or Twin Lakes. That is, if you’re willing to wake up an hour or two early to live an hour or two more.

The Best Laid Plans

It seems like a simple concept, but that’s often the key to adding one or two extraordinary trail running experiences every week. While the challenges of the mountains or trails are real, the real crux is sometimes answering the simple question: Are you willing?

Yet, so often life gets in the way. Sometimes it’s work or family or fatigue that keeps us from getting out early. Sometimes it’s the inability to find someone to go with you. Sometimes it’s the weather. And let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just laziness. It’s not always easy to put all of that aside, but it’s often worth it when we do.

The morning in question was kind of a combination of several or those things for me. I had a lot of work to do, I was tired and, yup, it was frigid outside.

Two days earlier, I had planned a different trail run with the hopes of seeing the sun rise and linking several other high peaks. But when I woke that morning, it was 21 degrees and I wimped out, opting instead to wait until the sun appeared and warmed everything up. I eventually got out there and rambled around on a fun and rigorous 10-mile route, but it seemed anticlimactic because the sun was high in the sky and, quite frankly, it seemed like a rather average day.

Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! Bahzzz! … 

Uggh! There’s that sound again! So annoying!

I had inadvertently dozed off, but, fortunately, my back-up “safety” alarm woke me up at 4:33 a.m. and I was immediately struck at how disappointed I was to get a late start two days earlier. Would I once again give in to sleepiness and again miss the opportunity for a truly special morning? Or would I seize the moment and make it happen?

“Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me,” I thought to myself, even though it was only me in that conversation.

Time to rise and grind! If I wanted to catch the sunrise somewhere above tree line, I had to grab the pack I organized the night before, get dressed and get out the door.

Within 20 minutes, I was driving out of town in the dark to Half Moon Road, gnawing on a Clif Bar, pounding a 5 Hour Energy and chasing it all with a few gulps of water. Soon I was at the dark and quiet trailhead for the northeast approach of Mt. Elbert.

After hopping out of my truck, I slung my back on my back, cinched up the laces of my Hoka Speedgoat 4s and hit the trail. From there, it was pure joy. Yes, I was tired, it was cold, the trail got steep in a hurry and it’s hard to breathe at high elevations, but the idea of chugging through the forest behind the beam of my headlamp before the rest of the world was awake was thoroughly invigorating.

As I meandered higher and higher along the trail and finally got close to tree line, I sensed the morning’s first light starting to brighten my surroundings. I stopped briefly to snap a pic as an orange glow became visible on the eastern horizon line behind me, but I knew the best was yet to come so I kept running.

I passed a foursome of young hikers who marveled aloud that I was running, just as I quietly marveled inside at how early they must have started to be that far along the trail. I wondered briefly if they battled the same early morning dilemmas I did, though it really didn’t matter because at that point I was stoked to be moving well and feeling so good.

After 20 more minutes of running, it had gotten noticeably lighter and I crested 13,000 feet. At some point, I looked back and saw a tiny yellow-orange dot appear above the horizon and was instantly filled with a burst of energy. I have said many times, nothing compares to seeing the sun rise on a morning trail run. I soon started to feel a bit of warmth, and that proved to be extra motivation in my final slog to the summit.

I continued on my way up the mountain on the steepest sections of the trail, despite cold wind whipping around my face. Behind me, the sun was fully up and the day had officially begun. Ahead of me, there was the solitary peak, a lone summit with no one around. After one final incline, I literally pranced the final few yards to the top, soaked in the scenery and relished that I had seized the day.

Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and now serves as a contributing editor.