Getting kids away from the glare of video game world domination and minute-by-minute updates is a challenge to most parents these days. For me, this trip was a way to connect with my kids, capture their imagination and bring them into my world of adventure. No button pushing and silly teen gossip. “Points” are collected by real steps and real action. Every step gained and every interaction made is a point in their favor.
The National Parks are a great source of family entertainment and can provide exceptional cross training for every trail or ultrarunner need. These oft forgotten lands set aside decades ago when the smell of grass and the thunder of horse hooves mattered. Now, the perfumed smell of campfire and bacon render the early morning air. We’re 25 miles from the nearest gas station where we can refill our marshmallow supply and the kids rough it with their sleeping bags and Nalgene water bottles filled with boiling water wrapped in extra shirts from my pack.
The Great Sand Dunes of Colorado are the landlocked version of a mountainous beach, a marriage of altitude and sand, sun and cold, arid and water. It lies approximately 3 hours south of Denver in the valley floor of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
I was fortunate to visit the Sand Dunes over Spring Break with my two kids, ages 13 and 10. After establishing camp and eating an early lunch we headed to the Dunes with our hydration packs, nutrition, hats, jackets and sunscreen. The temps were in the low 50’s and the sun-warmed sand beneath our feet gave way as we slowly made our way up the first dune.
The kids soon took off their shoes in lieu of emptying out the sand that seeped through the mesh of their sneakers. I was more comfortable in my trail Saucony’s than without and opted to ignore the sand that I transported over the hours.
My son assessed the landscape and decided that it was his right and duty to scramble up the steepest, most unstable part of every Dune he encountered on our way to the High Dune. My ADHD boy took great pleasure in hurtling himself into action, pitting his strength against Mother Nature and her great bounty of earthen sand. My 13-year-old daughter chose a more conservative route and hiked slowly, letting the wind play with her short, spiky hair. She rested when her heart rate got too high and her asthmatic cough made breathing difficult.
Over the next five hours I alternated between power hiking up the Dunes, running the flats with sand pulling at my feet, barrel rolling down the descents, and scrambling up sand slides with hands and feet buried inches below the surface. My heart rate soared at times and settled into a comfortable cardio burn at others.
When my daughter tired and returned to camp I headed back up the Dune with my son in search of a camera, misplaced after cart-wheeling down a particularly steep dune. This time we ran each Dune with as much gusto as we could muster; as we summited High Dune and the cold wind shocked the breath from our lungs I counted that tempo run as a win for both of us.
The next day I loaded my backpack with water, fixings for grilled cheese sandwiches and my handy pocket rocket stove. The kids wore their hydration packs and we hiked into the forest. More rock climbing ensued, as well as running and leap-frogging past each other on the trail. When they ran out of steam and got cold, warm clothing was distributed and I fired up the camp stove, cooking a hot sandwich for each and a second sandwich for my daughter. Refreshed and happy with full bellies, we finished the hike to the top of Mosca Pass and returned to lower elevations in the midst of a small hailstorm, telling jokes and laughing hysterically at the middle school humor that entertained us all. In this short time our tightly knit group of sand bandits grew closer with each earned step and crested view until we were one and the same; utterly connected and in synch with our moods and emotions for the rest of our waking breaths on that special day.
On the third morning we headed back to the sand and scrambled up the Star Dune. Again, everyone carried their own pack but used mine as the dumping ground for shoes, socks and miscellaneous jackets, hats and snacks. I crewed my small people and felt the muscles in my back and glutes grow stronger with the extra gear weight as my feet sunk into unstable ground. The sand and gear weight forced me to slow down and work essential hill-climbing muscles as well as my core.
At the end of the vacation I tallied the numbers:
Time on the Trail: 4.5 hrs
Time on the Dunes: 7 hrs
Time HR in cardio zone: 6 hrs
Time HR in tempo zone: 3 hrs
Time HR in active recovery zone: 2.5 hrs
Average weigh of my pack: 12 pounds
Elevation gain/loss: +/-4050
My kids know about the ultra adventures I go on. They know when I go away for the weekend and come back exhausted after three days of camping, running and playing as hard as a body can play. They’ve asked to be included on these excursions and finally I’m opening Pandora’s box. They soaked in the sun, wind and sand that crusted ears, embedded pores and threatened to choke throats with its viscosity. They yelled, cried and begged for more. I’ve raised a new generation of ultra runners; their names are Sophie and Connor and they’ll be back for more.