THE COLORADO CRUSH
63 days | 1,200 miles | 308,000ft of elevation gain
*This article will read a bit different than most accounts published here on The Audacious Report due to the fact that the author is also the athlete being featured. I hope you enjoy this firsthand account of The Colorado Crush as we look forward to bringing you more in-depth coverage of Audacious efforts from around the globe. - Founding contributor, Robbie Balenger
The Colorado Crush was a challenge born out of necessity. A necessity to live my fullest life and get back to what fuels me: pushing my limits. This effort showcases much of the challenge and beauty that Colorado has to offer, and it also put me to the test.
The Colorado Crush was defined by three separate components and completed in a single summer:
1. Traversing the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile trail from Denver to Durango.
2. Summiting all 58 peaks in CO over 14,000ft.
3. The Leadville Trail Series, marking the beginning (Trail Marathon), middle (Silver Rush 50), and finale (The Leadville 100) of the entire summer.
As with any big effort the Colorado Crush was filled with its share of highs and lows. The real magic of it all occurs when you realize and embrace the reality that the highs and lows always go hand in hand. Lows breed triumphs, and feeling good is usually temporary. It is all cyclical. What happens next can be predicted by what preceded. The very reason to put oneself in such taxing and uncomfortable situations is to become familiar with impermanence and accept it. Through arduous tasks the mind and soul become comfortable with and invite resistance, knowing such experiences will create something of value. Lessons well-learned. These are the times and experiences that alter our thoughts and change us at our core. The moments that make us stronger and make the act worth it.
In retrospect each of the three aspects of The Colorado Crush provided their own distinct and clear mechanisms for growth.
While traversing the Colorado Trail I worked through a lot of my past. More specifically my relationship with the legacy of my father and how it has shaped me into the man I have become. My father died when I was two years old, so my relationship with him has always been one of remembrance. Remembrance for a man I have been told about.
In February of 2021 one of his two brothers died of Covid-19. My uncle was someone that had been there for me as a child, but we didn't keep in touch as I became an adult. His death was a very hard blow. I regretted the distance that had grown between us and wished I had learned more from him. More about who he was, his motivations, more about my father, and in return, more about me.
As I made my way from Waterton Canyon outside of Denver en route to Durango on the Colorado Trail (CT) my paternal family quickly took center stage of my thoughts. I pondered and grew strength from their legacy as I made my way along the first half of the trail. Conditions were somewhat miserable. I dealt with torrential downpours, lots of cold temps and mud, and the usual discomforts of a big effort's adjustment period. I spent a lot of time with the memories of the men in my family, and I came to terms with a lot of what had tormented me for many years. These patriarchal figures were hard, memorable characters, but their legacy was not all of honor. I needed to free myself from their baggage, and I began to do it as I slid across muddy mountainsides. I decided I would hold onto the good memories of them, but let go of the aspects that didn’t resonate with me. Who they were and the choices they made are not parts of me. But how I let their legacy affect my character is my choice, and my choice alone. This liberating realization gave me the confidence I needed to carve out my own sense of self as I pushed closer to the rawest form of suffering. It’s amazing how easily and almost poetically you are able to work through stuff and come out the other side a changed and improved person when you’re pushing your mind and body to the limits day after day.
The day I reconciled with these aspects of my past was July 1st, day 10 of the CT, through segments 22-24. In fact, these segments were the only parts of the trail that were familiar to me before taking on the Crush. One year prior, in late September, I traversed these same segments as an homage to my father on what would have been his 60th birthday. See post about that day here. In retrospect, that was the beginning of a 10-month process to get right back there and let go of what needed to be left behind and fully embrace the strength and legacy of my father. In other words, that tribute run for my father’s birthday ultimately led to the creation of The Colorado Crush.
As I reflect on the 63 days of the Crush, I am reminded of how often I felt intoxicatingly happy. I spent so much time thinking about how lucky I was to be doing what I was doing. The opportunity to chase one's dreams is a gift. Gratitude was in abundance, especially during the 58 summits. With every sunrise summit of a 14’er, I would say to John, my trusted companion, “How lucky are we?” and I truly meant it. I was overtaken with the joy and majesty that these amazing mountains provide.
Though every single 14’er is memorable, one day on one mountain stands out to me in my 40 days of summits. Climbing mountains safely takes a degree of calculation and patience that my history with long running efforts never really required. Being at high altitudes navigating technical terrain where the slightest error could result in death was brand new to me. It was a blessing to have John with me for many of the more technical/dangerous peaks so we could work together and keep each other safe. But the danger still existed for us both. This was made very real for us the day we reached the summit of Capitol Peak.
Capitol Peak is undisputedly the most technical and dangerous of all the 14’ers in Colorado. There is a section called The Knife's Edge that requires you to straddle the edge of the peak and scoot across slowly only to have to return the way you came on the descent. To both sides of the ridge is sheer rock face with nothing to stop your fall for thousands of feet. We saved this peak until we were more comfortable with severe exposure and felt confident that we could safely navigate it.
The day we chose to summit was a somber one. Search and rescue was actively flying overhead in a helicopter assessing how to retrieve the body of a young man who had fallen to his death from the Knife's Edge just days prior. The sadness and seriousness on the mountain that day was palpable. The young man was out for an adventure, living his life to the fullest when it was tragically cut short. This reality weighed heavily on me and helped to bring home the notion that we are blessed with each day we get here on earth and it is our duty to make the best of it. More than any other moment in life I simultaneously understood the beauty and fragility of life. The only guarantee is this life we are living now. So it’s our obligation to make the absolute best we can out of every moment we are given.
The Leadville Trail series provided an opportunity to celebrate running in the way only trail races can. I looked forward to both the Silver Rush 50 and the Leadville 100 for a host of reasons but one in particular was just simply to commune with others. Many of my days on the CT and 23 of the 14’ers were solo endeavors. If you have never experienced the Trail Ultra community you are missing out. It is made up of all walks that come together with a shared love of the outdoors and a good time. This community lifts each other up and competition comes second to communion.
Over the years I have experienced and witnessed so many selfless acts in the midst of an Ultra. This summer, it was the kindness and immediate friendship that Sam Schwaller showed me during the Leadville 100 that will forever stay with me and remind me how much good there is in strangers. We began running together at mile 46 on the descent from Hope Pass into the Winfield aid station, the turnaround point in the race. I was sinking into one of my lowest points of the race (and the whole summer for that matter). Not only was I completely exhausted from the routine intensity of my efforts over the previous two months, but now I was facing the fear that deep fatigue would set in and crush me. Sam recognized me and had heard about The Colorado Crush. After some chatting, he realized where I was headed emotionally and mentally and told me he would stay with me until we made it back up and over Hope Pass for the second time and down into the Twin Lakes aid station. For the next 15 miles he slowed his pace just to stay with me. He basically gave up his race to assure I made it back to my crew, where I would pick up my first official pacer.
Sam’s selflessness is something that I will never forget. His actions were a testament to his kindness, generosity, and overall true character. To me it was also a reminder that people are good and it’s best to be open to others – more times than not, people will surprise you. The human spirit is beautiful and awesome.
Sam, you are the man and I will forever be thankful for you.
Experiences like these are what keep me coming back to big efforts. It is nothing short of guaranteed that if you pick something big, maybe even a bit out of reach, and you strive for it with all you’ve got, you will come out the other side stronger and better for it. The Colorado Crush helped me to find some inner peace, inspired me to live life for all its worth, and reminded me that the human spirit is alive, dynamic, and worth believing in. Reasons and lessons like this are what motivate me to share my experiences with you. So get out there, open your heart and mind, and live. Live it until you can’t anymore.