As night fell in the Colorado Rockies, Matt Hart sat in a cramped, smoke filled trailer with an old man and his wife.
Hart wore the sweaty t-shirt, shorts, and trail shoes he’d been running in for 58 miles that day. As the old man chain-smoked one cigarette after another, the woman offered Hart a bowl of soup. Hart politely declined. He didn’t feel like eating. It was 10 p.m. on Day One of his Colorado Trail speed attempt, he had no idea where his 19-year-old crew member was, and he was sitting with two strangers in a ramshackle trailer in a remote mountain town. His quest for the Colorado Trail record, Hart figured, was over.
That morning, July 15, began on a promising note. Fellow Montrail teammate and teen running wonder Dakota Jones sent him off at 4:30 a.m. at Waterton Canyon, where he’d begin the first leg of the 484-mile Colorado Trail (CT). Hart felt fresh, rested, and determined to beat the eight day, 12 hour current CT record.
58 miles later, at 7 p.m. in the evening, an exhausted Hart reached the junction where Jones planned to meet him. He couldn’t wait for clean clothes, hot food, and his warm sleeping bag. Figuring Jones was late for the pick-up, Hart laid down by the trailhead to wait. As time ticked on, the mosquitoes started biting, and Hart became increasingly worried about where Jones was. With no cell phone, Hart had no way of contacting his young crew member.
Eventually, Hart decided to run three miles downhill to the nearby campground. He found a group of 20-somethings drinking beer. They were less than eager to move from their campsite, but Hart finally talked them into giving him a lift to town. He borrowed their cell phone and used 411 information services to locate the Denver home phone number of adventure racer Ben Reeves, who planned to join their crew in a few days. Since Reeves didn’t have Jones’ cell number, he agreed to drive nearly two hours from Denver to rescue Hart in the small town of Jefferson.
Hart’s rescue crew of campers, still thoroughly uninterested in wasting time on the disheveled ultra runner, dropped him off at the first inhabited structure they came to. The 10-foot by 10-foot trailer served as both a bait shop and living quarters for a man and his wife, with shelves of merchandise up front and a blow up mattress in the back. They welcomed Hart to take a seat at their kitchen table. Breathing in the smoky air and making small talk with the couple, Hart wondered how long he’d have to wait.
But far sooner than expected, he heard the sound of tires pulling up on the dirt out front. The old man peered out the trailer door. “You got a white van?” he asked Hart. “I think your people are outside.”
Sure enough, Dakota Jones had driven Hart’s Euro van to the trailer. He’d phoned Reeves, figured out where Hart was, and driven to town. Apologetic and frustrated with his own mistake, Jones worried that Hart would be mad. Jones hadn’t double checked the directions and drove to the wrong trailhead to collect his runner.
Hart, however, felt nothing but relief. He wouldn’t have to explain to the Jones family that he’d lost their 19-year-old son in the Colorado Rockies. They’d sacrificed a few hours and wasted energy, but they could get on track. The Colorado Trail attempt was back on.
This July, Matt Hart ran the Colorado Trail in nine days, seven hours, and 48 minutes. He didn’t set the speed record, and the first day’s mishap was just one of many mistakes, but both he and Jones consider the trip a success. Hart finished the journey, pushed himself as fast as he could go, and perhaps most importantly, the unlikely duo of 35-year-old Hart and the teenage Jones became close friends.
“One of the great things about a 19-year-old is he’s almost delusionally positive,” Hart said of Jones, who he dubbed “Young Money.” “He was like, ‘hell yeah, you’re breaking the record!’ I loved it.”
As an ultra runner and former adventure racer, Hart relished the challenge of tackling a trail from start to finish. He’s accustomed to sleep deprivation and navigation, and he’s willing to accept prolonged suffering.
On the Colorado Trail, he found plenty of it. He ran for 15 to 24 hours a day, sleeping just three or four hours a night. Worried about the side effects of too much ibuprofen, Hart endured ever increasing foot pain, which he likened to the sensation of someone whacking them with a sledge hammer. At night, he often couldn’t sleep at all, and would instead roll around moaning because of the pain.
On the fourth day, a sudden afternoon thunderstorm rolled in while Hart was running above 12,000 feet. Figuring he’d continue on so long he didn’t feel his hair standing up with electricity, Hart powered through hail and rain for two full hours. He wore just a light windbreaker, tank top, and running shorts. Running as fast he could just to stay warm, Hart strained his hip muscle, adding to his list of aches and pains for the rest of the week.
Hart remembers sweet moments too. After averaging 60 miles a day for the first three days, he could only manage 38 miles on Day Four. Even though he knew he might have just sacrificed his shot at the record, he delighted in spending an evening at camp with Jones and Reeves. The three adventurers cooked salmon, swapped stories, and slept a full eight hours.
“That was the best night we had together,” Hart said.
As always, the finish line proved to be one of the best moments. Hart hadn’t slept for most of the past two days. Girlfriend Linda Barton joined him for the last segment of the run, and they struggled together through a tough section of trail.
At the very end, though, Hart started smelling the barn. He picked up the pace and began running as hard as he could, leaving Barton behind. Jones and Reeves ran with him on the last stretch, cheering and filming with video cameras.
“I was elated,” Hart said.
Hart plans to tackle similar adventures down the road. Here then, are a few of the take aways from Colorado:
The Colorado Trail expedition came together in just three days. Hart originally plotted a July adventure in Washington State that included climbing Mt. Rainier and then running the entire Wonderland Trail around the base of the mountain. However, a cold west coast spring left far too much snow on the Wonderland. Hart shifted gears and dreamed up the Colorado Trail challenge at the last minute. With more planning, he could have better prepared his crew members with trailhead driving directions, figured out which roads weren’t accessible in his Euro van, and gathered more tips from Colorado Trail veterans.
Jones agrees. “The lack of preparation definitely made it more difficult,” Jones said. “We were winging it a lot of the time.”
Hart began the trip on the right track. He spent $300 at Whole Foods to stock the van’s pantry before the adventure. At Jones’ urging, he ate until almost uncomfortably full at every pit stop. Hart gobbled tortillas filled with tuna, avocado and spinach. He ate PB&J wraps, salty chips and pretzels, and chicken noodle soup. But halfway through the trip, Hart began to take less interest in food, and he believes he should have forced in more calories. The resulting energy loss cost him, he feels.
Among the trail adventures Hart would consider next are the Highline Trail in Utah, the Wonderland Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Appalachian Trail.
As for Jones, he’s not planning a similar quest any time soon.
“I watched him run and thought, ‘This doesn’t look fun,’” Jones said. “It looked painful. It might be a few years before I want to do something like run the Colorado Trail.”
Heidi Dietrich is a writer, journalist and trail runner living in Seattle, Washington. Learn more about her writing at www.heidiseattle.com.