I recently took a run up Shadow Mountain just outside of Grand Lake, Colorado. It’s a great out-and-back trail, about 9.5 miles round-trip with about 1,800 feet of elevation gain. If you’re not into trail running, it would be a great hike as well. I’ll break this into two sections, as this was also a bit of a nutrition experiment for me. So, I’ll talk about the run itself first, then the nutrition part.
The trailhead is easy to find, just know that it is the East Shore Trailhead that you are looking for. To get to it from Highway 34, head into town, turning at the Chamber of Commerce building off of the highway. There’s only one way to go. Take the first right onto Center Drive, which will turn into Elk Lane and eventually intersect Shadow Mountain Drive. Turn right onto Shadow Mountain Drive, which then joins Lakeside Drive. Turn left onto Jericho Road and cross the bridge. Keep going past the boat launch area then just where you start seeing the private road signs, the trailhead will be on your left. It’s big and well marked. It has no bathroom facilities, so plan ahead.
The trail and the run.
The trail starts just behind the welcome signs at the back of the parking area and is well maintained and with some gentle ups and downs. It dips down to just a few feet from the lake a couple of times, but generally stays higher up on the slope. After about .75 miles, you’ll enter Rocky Mountain National Park. This is good to note, because pets, bikes, motorcycles, etc. are not allowed in the park. So, if you brought any of those with you, turn around now! Continue on the trail for another .75 miles or so and you’ll hit the junction with the Shadow Mountain trail, which turns to the left and climbs for a little over 3 miles.
From here, the trail is much more difficult, primarily because of the incline. From the trailhead, this route has about 1,600 feet of elevation gain. To this point, the ups and and downs haven’t amounted to much and the actual elevation is about 100 feet less than the trailhead. So, most of that elevation gain happens in the upcoming 3+ miles, at about 500 feet per mile. The trail itself is well maintained, but it is a remote trail so it does have plenty of rocks and roots. I encountered a half dozen or so trees across the trail, too, but you may or may not have to deal with that. The trail ends at a fire watch tower, which is pretty cool.
It was closed due to structural issues, but the views are impressive all around the tower.
I felt pretty good for the whole run. This was definitely my longest and hardest run. My previous longest run was a little over 6 miles, so this was about 50% longer than that. Definitely a challenge for me. I had to walk quite a bit of the uphill in order to keep my heart rate under control, but was at least able to walk at a pretty good pace. And, while I felt fine energy-wise afterward, my legs were telling me that they were d-o-n-e! My hamstrings were starting to talk to me at about mile 4, which was just about at the top of the mountain. I don’t know if they quit hurting on the way down, or if the ache in my quads was just out shouting them! I have read a lot from experienced trail runners that the downhills are easily the hardest on your body and I believe it now. I’m writing this on Wednesday after doing the run on Sunday morning and my thighs are still aching. I may go on a nice slow run tonight to keep things moving. Training-wise, I thought I was doing pretty good at getting out on the trails, cross training on my bike, and doing body weight exercises. Now, I think I need to incorporate a lot more trail running into my routine. Hitting this trail was a blast, but I don’t want to be achy for three days every time I’m able to run an awesome trail. My upper body felt fine, though, which was nice and maybe an indication that my core exercises are paying off.
You can read more on the trail at Trail Running Project.
As for my nutrition experiment, I did this run on a fairly empty stomach and ate nothing during. I know from experience that a year ago, I would have needed fueling at least once during the run, and probably would have taken along some diluted sports drink. I probably would have eaten a couple granola bars, some fruit and maybe some jerky at the top, then had a regular SAD (Standard American Diet) lunch afterward. But, I wanted to see if my body is adapting to burning fat as a fuel more readily than it used to be. I already can go much longer between meals, and do shorter 3+ mile runs on an empty stomach, but I wanted to see how I did on a longer run, when I would definitely be getting past the point of using my on-hand sugar stores and my mind and muscles would be needing more. I was pretty confident it would work, but I did bring along some food – some nut and honey butter, a few pieces of chocolate and some beef jerky just in case. And I planned to eat them if I needed them – I wasn’t looking for trouble! I figured food-wise, the worst case was a bonk and a hungry walk back to the trailhead.
I actually started the experiment the night before. I’ve long been a doubter of carb loading the night before an event, but I wanted to make sure I did this run on as close to my normal situation as possible. So, the night before I had a fat and protein heavy meal with beef and fish, a small serving of mashed white potatoes and a big ass salad (BAS) with olive oil and vinegar at about 8p. For breakfast, I had two mugs of coffee with about 25% heavy cream in each about an hour and a half before the run. I drank water steadily throughout the run, but didn’t start getting hungry until about 12:30p, which was when I was about halfway down the mountain. And that hunger was literally just a hunger pang in my stomach, not the headache, dizzy, can’t-think-of-anything-but-food type of hunger I used to get (more on that here). I was still mentally sharp (as mentally sharp as I ever am, any way!) and felt great, I was just getting hungry. I finished the run feeling good, except for tired legs, and then had a lunch of two Scotch eggs which held me fine until dinner.
I’m calling this a successful experiment. It wasn’t a scientific, random, double-blind, government approved, dietician designed, and physician monitored study, but it gave me some good information on how my own body is working. I take this to show that my body is adapting to more readily using my ample supply of fat for fuel, rather than waiting for the sugar train to roll in. And roll in again and again and again. I’ll continue experimenting with this, as I’d like to see how it works on longer runs or rides. I know I’ll need to start adding in some carbs when/if I start getting out for longer times, but I don’t think I’ll ever need to get back where I was.
Finally, I’m pretty happy about this run, even though I had to hike a lot. I did it in less than 3 hours, without needing to deviate from my diet. A year ago I wouldn’t even have considered running this trail, but might have thought about going on a light, fairly quick hike. Two years, I would’ve done it at a slow pace but with no plans for anything but a nap and big dinner afterward. Progress…slow, but steady progress.