On Top of the World – A Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

The mountains are calling and I must go.

– John Muir

We like living in Florida.  While the weather during the summer is atrocious – hot and humid and rainy – the weather from October through April is glorious.  And, besides, summer in Florida is no worse than winter in New York.  We have found the people to be open and friendly where we live.  There is so much to do, especially with kids, that we are constantly on the go.  Overall, moving here has been a very positive experience.

I miss the mountains, though.  I grew up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.  While the Ozarks don’t have the lofty elevations of the Rocky Mountains, or even the Appalachian Mountains, they are quite rugged and beautiful.  My childhood was an outdoor childhood, and those mountains are a place I understand.  They are home, in a real way.  The mountains in New York are similar.  We never lived far from a good, rugged, up-and-down hike, with waterfalls and bluffs and incredible views merely a short drive away.

Florida doesn’t have much of that.  The area around here is beautiful in its own way.  The wildlife is spectacular, especially the birds.  There is little to match the thrill of a non-Floridian encountering the sight of a medium-to-large sized alligator floating in the water, or lounging next to a golf course water feature.  The sunsets and particularly the sunrises can be incredible.  The swamps, while claustrophobic and somewhat scary places to me, can be majestic, with tall cypress trees looking like columns stretching out to the horizon.

But there aren’t any mountains.

I have decided that the mountains are going to remain a feature of my life.  I am unwilling to let them go.  But I am also going to be living in Florida for the foreseeable future, so I am going to have to figure out what to do about that.  And the answer is that I am going to have to be willing to travel and make time to make that happen.  Recently, I got a chance to do that by extending a work trip out West – I got a chance to go for a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Entering the park a few hundred feet from the Allenspark Trailhead

For all of the time I’ve spent in “the mountains,” I have had very little exposure to the Rockies.  I went to a wedding in Winter Park once, but that was in February so I didn’t wind up leaving the resort all that much.  I spent a week in Boulder once that featured a hike up into the mountains, but I was 18 and really wasn’t paying attention like I should have been, or would now.  So when this trip came along and I realized I could flex my schedule and make it work, I got excited.  I spent a lot of time researching areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, and then looking at possible hikes and trails.  I worried about my ability to hike at elevation, especially with pretty severe changes in elevation – for a guy that lives in Florida, 2,000’ of elevation change is, um, a lot.  But I got it all planned up, and in late August the day finally came, and I was headed to the mountains.

The feedback you always get about hiking in the Rockies during the summer is that by late morning or early afternoon you are likely to get thunderstorms up on the mountains.  Apparently the afternoon thunderstorm is not just a feature of the tropical Florida climate.  And I was worried about timing for the day, anyway – I wanted to get my hike in and also get a chance to go to a visitor’s center and poke around – so I left my hotel room in Denver at 4:30am and headed up to the mountains.

I had chosen the southern area of the park for my hike, a place that they call the Wild Basin.  The trailhead was out of a little mountain town called Allenspark, and I was parked and on the trail before sunrise.  The trailhead was at about 8,500 feet, and I was hiking to a place called Pear Lake, which was at about 10,600 feet.  I had chosen that route for a couple of reasons.  First, it looked awesome.  Second, the reviews all said that it was relatively lightly traveled and also represented a good chance for spotting wildlife.  And third, I was worried about my performance at elevation, and there is another lake, called Finch Lake, about halfway up the mountain that would have represented a fulfilling and beautiful destination for me if I felt I needed to turn around before I got all the way up to the top.  The total hike was going to be right at 12 miles – 6 miles up, and 6 miles back.

I was on the trail before sunrise, probably around a quarter to six.  The first 1.5 – 2 miles of this hike was nice, but relatively featureless.  The trail can be quite rocky, and initially climbs through a thick forest that seems pretty impenetrable.  At just under a mile in, the trail from the Finch Lake Trailhead joins in … with a very steep approach … and then at just under two miles the trail comes to its first major junction and open view of the Wild Basin.

At the junction from the Finch Lake Trailhead

A pretty magical thing happened about 30 minutes into my hike.  The sun was starting to rise over the mountains behind me.  That initial morning light comes in at an angle, and it lacks the strength of the overhead sun that will come later in the day.  The first sunrise light allows itself to be manipulated by things – trees, mountains, the quality of the air.  As I was walking, the sun officially rose behind me, and the light did not bathe the area fully.  Instead, it lay down a path, directly on my trail, and curving with the trail as I walked.

The sun lit my path directly, as though to tell me, “Go this way.  This is the way.”

On very lucky days the trail tells you that you can relax and know that you are on the right path…

There are some days when you wonder if you are on the right path.  When you worry that the path you have chosen is going the wrong way.  And on those days, knowing how way leads on to way, you begin to doubt if you can ever get back.  On this day, though, I did not have to wonder or worry.  On this day, the sun came up behind me and said, “Go this way.  This is the way.”

Anyway.

I began to see wildlife almost immediately, and I was very much hoping – though not really expecting – to see a moose.  One day I will see a moose in the wild, and I hoped that this was the day.  Initially, though, it was the squirrels, and the birds.  Regular readers know I am crazy about birds, and this park did not disappoint.  In the first hour or so, I encountered my first Stellar’s Jay, and then a few minutes later a male/female pair of American Three-Toed Woodpeckers.

Stellar’s Jay

Struggled to make this picture work, but this is a male American three-toed woodpecker

I also was beginning to get views of the mountains.  Mt. Meeker was the most clearly visible, with Longs Peak peeking over its shoulder.  There was an interesting triangular peak that I discovered later was very appropriately called Pagoda Mountain.  And the basin itself was wild and deep and amazing to see for a guy that currently lives in Florida and grew up around mountains that topped out at under 3,000 feet.

Mt. Meeker, with Longs Peak saying “hi” in the background

Pagoda Mountain

The trail was climbing all of this time, sometimes steeply.  Rocks were everywhere, which is particularly OK on the steep sections – they almost act as stairs.  I climbed through a section that had once experienced a large forest fire and is still re-growing the forest.  And then, after I had climbed probably 1,000 feet, the trail turned and headed downhill for a half mile or so, losing 200 – 300 feet as it dropped down toward Finch Lake.  This downhill section was very steep, the only section of the whole trail that had switchbacks, and even steps, cut into the mountain.  While I appreciated the downhill, I also knew that I was going to have to climb this on the way back out, so … yeah.

When an otherwise very steep trail resorts to steps … buckle up

Finch Lake was about four miles into the six it was going to take to get to the top of my hike.  I approached the lake at about 8am, and had the entire view to myself.  This was my first ever experience with a sub-alpine lake, and – and I know this is cliché but I don’t care because the clichés are clichés for a reason – it was breathtaking.  There was a mist coming off of the water in the soft morning light, with the sunrise lighting Copeland Mountain, Ogalalla Peak, and Elk Tooth in the background.  Copeland Mountain, in particular, loomed over everything.  Here was my first real chance to see a moose, though it was not meant to be.  A flock of ducks landed on the water as I watched, though, and I could have sat there and smelled the forest and listened to the quiet for hours.

Finch Lake, with Copeland Mountain and Ogalalla Peak in the background

But I was making good time, and I had promises to keep (and miles to go before I sleep…).  In the first four miles I had gained probably just under 1,000 feet of elevation.  I was going to gain the next 1,000 feet in the next two miles.  Here was where I worried about my fitness, especially at elevation.  The trail was about to get steep, and I was already at well over 9,000 feet.  But I was not feeling any obvious impact from lack of oxygen, so I headed out around Finch Lake and started up the mountain.

The trail didn’t disappoint in terms of steepness, either.  Almost immediately I came upon a long, steep section that was more like climbing stairs than hiking a trail.  On the way back down, while I was at the top of this section, I met a couple of hikers that were just topping out right there.  They had clearly struggled with that section, and were hoping I would tell them that was the hardest part and that they were almost there.  It hurt to tell them that they still had over a mile and a half of climbing to go.  They looked … cowed.  I hope they made it to the top.

The trail then began to work through an area that had little bogs on the side.  This area looked very moose-y to me, and I slowed down and did a little exploring.  At one point, the trail bottle-necked in a section that was steep on both sides – no good way up, and no good way down.  Right in the middle of the trail at this point I found a moose print as big as my hand.  This got my heart-rate up.  They say to fish where the fish are, and that was clearly happening here.  But, alas, that print was all I saw of the moose that day.  Still a thrill, but I’m going to have to save the excitement of actually encountering one of the creatures for a different day.

Fish where the fish are … with my foot for scale

Eventually, the forest started to change.  I could tell I was gaining elevation when the big trees started to thin out a little, and in some cases give way to more open areas.  There were more bushes and shrubs, and the sunlight was able to penetrate much more heavily.  It was in this area that I encountered a bird that I did not recognize at all.  It was about the size of a large chicken, but colored perfectly like the bark of the trees it was living near.  The bird never did fly – when I asked a ranger about it later, that was the first question he asked me – but ran away slowly.  That ranger told me it was called a dusky grouse, recently recognized as a distinct species from a bird called the sooty grouse.  Together, they had been called blue grouse until fairly recently.  I love birds.

Dusky Grouse, disappearing into the tree behind it

And then, a short climb later, I topped out at Pear Lake, at about 10,600 feet.  Pear Lake is below the tree line, and stunning. Copeland Mountain and Ogalalla Peak are no longer looming off in the background – they stand guard right there, watching over the lake.  I was the only person there at about 9:15am, and I took the opportunity to head down by the water and explore around the edge.  I sat down to eat my breakfast / lunch (don’t granola bars and trail mix taste so much better when you’re out hiking?), and after a while began to see the wildlife around me.   There were goldfinch in the bushes, and little rodents that I assumed by their coloration were some kind of chipmunk – they looked like chipmunks, anyway, but were a bit bigger and less skittish than any chipmunk I’ve ever seen.  It turns out that they aren’t chipmunks at all, but are called golden-mantled ground squirrels.  Pro-tip – a chipmunk’s stripes go through its eyes.  If what you are seeing doesn’t have stripes on its face, it is a ground squirrel.

Pear Lake

A different angle, focusing on Ogalalla Peak

The outflow from Pear Lake

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

I probably spent 30 to 45 minutes at Pear Lake, just enjoying the scenery and exploring.  I tried to take pictures from multiple angles, in multiple directions.  I wandered down by the outflow of the lake and marveled at the view back down the trail, toward the mountains.  I tried to soak in everything – because, as beautiful as this place is, knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.  After a time, and before I’d gotten my fill, I knew I had to head back down the mountain to make sure I didn’t get rained on and to give myself plenty of time to get up to the visitor’s centers.  I headed back down the mountain and, for the first time, began seeing people.  On my way down I met several groups headed up, which reinforced a lesson to me – the early bird gets the worm.  I was glad I had left so early.

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Painted Lady butterfly, at about 10,000 feet

Words are inadequate to explain the feeling that I had on my way down the mountain – though they are all I have, so I’ll try.  18 months and about 75 pounds prior to the day I stepped out of my car in the Rocky Mountains, I would have not been physically capable of completing that hike.  12 miles would have been a challenge.  2,000 feet of elevation gain would have been an extreme challenge.  2,000 feet of elevation gain starting at 8,500 feet would have been nearly unthinkable.  But instead of physically failing, or even really struggling, I felt strong the whole day.  The lack of oxygen was not noticeable, and while the steep climbs were challenging, that was going to be true regardless of oxygen levels.  I powered up that mountain, finishing a 12 mile hike, including stops for food and mountain-gazing, in just over 6 hours, and was back to my car by noon.  Knowing that my physical abilities now include strenuous hiking in the mountains?  Priceless.

But I learned other things that day, too.  I learned that I love the mountains.  I learned that my home, regardless of where I live, is out in the woods, exploring and climbing and breathing the fresh air.  I badly wanted my wife and kids to be there, though I don’t think any of them would have been comfortable physically doing this climb.  I want to show them these places.  I want them to know what mist on a mountain lake looks like, and smells like.  I want them to know what rushing water at elevation sounds like.  I want them to know the anticipation of slipping up on a mountain bog hoping there is a moose out there looking back.  I want them to feel the sense of elation and satisfaction and pride that you feel when you reach your destination at the top of the mountain and get to bask in the beauty.  I want all of this for me, as much as I can get it, and I want to give it to them, too.

My soul is restored when I go outside.  The mountains, in particular, remind me what a beautiful world I live in.  At a time when people are fighting, and tension and uncertainty are high, and work is stressful, and life feels challenging – being alone in the wilderness is a tonic.  I can focus, and relax, and remember what I love to do.

And remember who I am.

Take a hike.  Go outside.  The world is an awesome place.

An Anniversary

On April 18, 2016, one year ago today, I attended my first Couch-to-Crossfit class – and it began.  Three weeks later, on May 9, I walked into my first regular Crossfit class.  6am, Monday morning, Celebration Crossfit.  I didn’t know anybody.  I couldn’t do most of the movements.  I weighed about 315 pounds – I was enormous.  And I was scared to death.

Holy shit, was I scared to death.

That first day of regular class, I walked into a gym full of people that could actually do all of these things I simply could not physically do.  I was excited and ashamed and scared and nervous and embarrassed and a whole list of emotions all at once.  My shirts were too big because I couldn’t risk my belly hanging out.  I was wearing big thick running shoes.  I had no idea what I was doing – and I knew it.   And in some communities, when a newbie walks in like that they had better be ready to run the gauntlet.  The veterans make them earn it, every step of the way.  I was prepared to have to deal with being laughed at or getting the side-eye or feeling inadequate.  When you’re a fat guy trying to do something physical you have to approach it with a big dose of humility.

Very few pictures of me around that time – this was taken about two weeks prior to my first 6am class.  Probably around 315 – 320 here.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, I was welcomed in like I had been there forever.   I thought I would dislike the social aspect of Crossfit, that I would have to push through that discomfort indefinitely if I wanted the results.  I have come to like the social aspect the most – these people help me be a better me.  The 6am crew at Celebration Crossfit has become an integral support group.  They cheer me on when I succeed, and they encourage me when I am struggling. They help make it more fun.  They’ve taught me that I can push harder and go farther when I work with other people.  They (you, if you’re reading this) make it easier for me and help me on my path and never ask for anything other than that I keep working hard – and for that, I am eternally grateful.

The coaches, too, were a surprise for me.  I played basketball in high school, and our coaches were tough and aloof and gave the sense that they had a lot of things to be worrying about OTHER than me.  But regularly in class, and especially during the Open, I get the sense that Erik, JC, and Kaycie genuinely care about how I’m doing – care in a way that nobody else does except me.  They are invested in my success in all facets – as gym owners, yes, but also as human beings that personally want me to be a better me.  They are legitimately proud of the work I’ve done, in a way I could never have expected.

One of my favorite pictures from the Open is not the most technically sound or flattering shot.  It is a picture of me at the bottom of an overhead squat in 17.3 with JC sitting right in front of me, talking me through it.  He was there like that in every Open WOD – he and Erik cheered when I sped up to finish 17.1, and he was sitting right next to me during the row on 17.4.  Everybody else was encouraging and yelling – he was calmly talking me through the whole thing.  And Erik and Kaycie were the first two over to congratulate me after 17.4 – they were as happy as I was about my performance in that workout.  I work harder because I want to make them proud of me.  One year ago today I would have rolled my eyes if I had read that sentence from somebody else, and here I am writing it.  But it is true.  I didn’t expect to find a special thing, but I found it.

Coach. Coaching.

In the last year, I’ve accomplished more physically than I ever thought possible in this amount of time.  I can lift heavier weights, run longer distances – and run them faster – and generally move through the world in ways that were previously beyond me.  I have not missed a Monday since that one a year ago – a few times I’ve had to run because I was traveling, but I have not missed a Monday.  I have lost over 60 pounds out of the 100 that I plan to lose.  I look better than I have in maybe ever, and I feel like a million dollars.

Like one million damn dollars.

I freaking love deadlifts … and bacon

When I got the email from Erik about my membership renewal, I didn’t blink – I’d pay it at twice the cost (though they shouldn’t get any ideas).  I have a lot of goals still.  I have to get to work on that last 40 or so pounds.  And at next year’s open I’m going to have to be able to do pullups, double unders, and handstand pushups if my Rx scores are going to be meaningful.  I have drunk the Kool-aid on Crossfit, in a big way.

There have been many steps since that first one, 6am, Monday morning, just over one year ago. There will be many more, but I can say without reservation that that first one was the hardest one.  Maybe one of the hardest steps I’ve ever taken in my whole life.

In a Facebook post a few weeks ago Kaycie said that they were with me every step of the way.

So I guess I need to keep stepping.

See you guys at 6am.

Taken about 4 weeks ago. Like one million damn dollars.

And then this happened:

Friend, fellow Crossfitter, and super-talented photographer Guillermo Cummings took a picture of me doing 17.3 on Friday that I still don’t quite have a handle on.  He posted it across his social media last night, and shortly thereafter:

It is hard to know what even to say except that I wouldn’t believe this was even a picture of me if it weren’t for those socks…

So … this happened:

A couple of days ago the owner and head coach at my Crossfit box emailed and asked if they could use my before and now pictures for a post in their social media.  I agreed – I don’t like my fat picture, but, as I told him, if I didn’t want it out there I shouldn’t have put it out there.  I offered to take a current “now” picture, so I did that this morning and sent the pictures over.  The post below is the one they made on Instagram – they also posted this on Facebook.

I never dreamed I’d be the guy getting air time on a Crossfit gym’s social media, but it is happening.  I kind of don’t even know what to think – it feels surreal.  The best part has been the comments, both from my peers at the box as well as complete strangers.  The universal positivity and happy-for-me-ness is very gratifying.  Crossfit is a group effort, and I feel that more now than ever.  It makes a difference knowing all of those people are really rooting for me.

Now this, this is just pure HARD WORK & DEDICATION. @woody_mw1 works HARD! He didn't use magic pills or gimmicks, and he didn't do anything to take the easy road. He took the road that ensures a healthy lifelong habit is formed. That road is not easy. It is HARD! But, nothing good in life comes easy. Matt's journey has included coming to @celebrationcrossfit 5 days a week at 6am over the past year while also eating a nutritionally sound and consistent diet. And, his results show just that! Due to Matt's HARD WORK and DEDICATION he is down 60lbs a few weeks short of his 1 year mark into CrossFit. When Matt first started with us, he couldn't do a single sit up. Now he finishes each workout at the Box with 100 full range of motion Sit Ups. Keep up the great work, Matt! We are here every step of the way! #crossfit #crossfitter #crossfitathlete #weightloss #weightlossjourney #healthy #healthylifestyle #fitlife #fitfam #fitness #functionalfitness #crossfitbox #crossfitopen #crossfitlife #crossfitfamily #crossfitcommunity #crossfitlifestyle #crossfitdad #down60lbs #hardwork #dedication #celebrationfl #celebrationflorida #celebrationcrossfit #kissimmeefl #kissimmeeflorida #disneyworld #disneycrossfit #crossfitneardisney

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Deadlift

I realize I never added this video.  As much as I’m loving Crossfit, what I’m really loving are the days when we do the big powerlifts.  This was a month or so ago, and we worked up to 90% of our one rep max.  This is 365#.  If things go right, I’m running a half marathon this morning, and then I’m going to start spending some more time on these power lifts.  Big fun.

More “During” Photos

Holy shit, it has been a month since I posted anything.  Life gets in the way sometimes. You’ll be forgiven for thinking so, but I have not – repeat, have NOT – fallen off the wagon.  Things have slowed down considerably.  I’m going to have to start getting more formal with my food plan.  And I still have a ways to go.  BUT:

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I have lost just under 60 pounds, and I’m now smaller than I’ve been in over 10 years.  For reference:

before-after-front

before-after-side

Pictures are funny things.  There is some definition in my shoulders and arms (and even maybe just a little (a little – little) in my chest, squee!) that doesn’t really show up here.  And I still think the pictures today make me look like an enormous fat guy, though compared to those original ones, holy moly.

I can buy clothes in the regular person’s part of the store now.  I just had to buy a new belt – my third since I started this.  I’m running a half marathon on Sunday.  And this morning I squatted 325# for two reps.  We’re getting there – we are absolutely getting there.

Averages

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  – Jim Rohn

Wednesday morning at the gym (still can’t call it a box), and we had our normal 6am crew.  We show up, we work hard, we go about the rest of our day.  The coach this week is JC, who also does all of the programming, and can be beasty – he’s a great coach, and he pushes hard and expects maximum effort.  So we did the WOD, which this day included lots of power cleans and an interesting front rack carry that was harder than it had any right to be is going to have me sore for days.  We got done about 10 minutes early, so he had us cool down with a bunch of band pull-aparts, and then I started gathering my stuff to go.

At this point, two of the guys get on the floor and start doing situps.  I’m sure the look on my face was interesting – “what fresh hell is this?”  When I asked, they said that they wanted to get in 100 situps, so that’s what they were doing.

Well, hell.  Now I’VE got do situps or I feel like a lazy bum.  So I get down and start doing situps.  And then an extraordinary thing happened.

The whole class started doing situps.  Nobody left.  The 7am class had to start their warmups while dodging us, because we were all doing situps.  We could have left, but we didn’t – there was work still to do.

From now on, when somebody asks me how I’ve been successful at my weight loss and health journey –even if somebody asks me how I’ve been successful in my career or anything else in life – my answer is going to be that I upped my average.  We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, and my average has gone way, way up since I started Crossfit.  So here’s a question – do the people around you push your average up or bring it down?

Progress Pictures

Finally busted through a little plateau in my weigh-in this morning.  I’ve now lost 53.6 pounds, and I’m three weeks ahead of where my schedule says I need to be.  I’m also now officially smaller than the smallest I got when I was training for the Ragnar & half marathons in 2013 / 2014.  So I’m smaller than I’ve been in 10 years.  The next goal is another 15 pounds and I’ll be smaller than I’ve been in probably 15 – 20 years.  This is 269 pounds.

The progress, it is happening.  Woot!

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For reference:

Initial Pictures – about 320 pounds

 

Thanksgiving Throwdown

Gallery

This gallery contains 13 photos.

I did something this morning that would have befuddled me from a year or two ago.  I participated in a Crossfit competition.  This was Celebration Crossfit’s Thanksgiving Throwdown – my partner, Winston, and I squared off against five other teams, … Continue reading