Sage Canaday: A Rite of Passage

Navigating Colorado's Maroon Bells Loop and life's twists and turns.

Written by
Sage Canaday
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As a mountain-trail runner in Colorado, there is a certain “rite of passage” ultra-marathon distance trail run that involves covering a 26.5-mile loop trail containing four breathtaking passes each over 12,000’ in elevation. The total climbing of the loop is nearly 8000’ and the trail features epic mountain lakes, views of 14,000’ peaks, a river crossing, a waterfall, and some of the best high alpine views Colorado has to offer.

It is known as the “Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop” by trail runners and hikers alike. As a classic hike, the route traditionally takes most people 3-4 days to cover and requires backpacking permits as well as a long-term reservation. It is not for the faint of heart, and like most things in life that require some sacrifice and dedication, completing the loop can pay dividends in quenching the soul’s desire for growth, adventure, and reflection.

While many experienced mountain-trail runners have flocked to this loop and are able to complete it in a single day, the lessons often endured on such an arduous ultramarathon route can somewhat parallel the obstacles we may face during life. With each peak and valley, with each ebb and flow of energy and fatigue, the journey requires mettle, resilience, and being able to embrace the unknown. Changes in the time of year, variable weather conditions, and wildlife, as well as shifts within our bodies and minds, can drastically influence our experience and perceptions.

When I first ran the loop in 2012, I had just moved to Colorado from sea level, and the daunting challenge of doing such a high altitude, ultra-marathon distance captivated me. I also was drawn to the sheer beauty of new mountain landscapes and the sense of a wild adventure in such a pristine wilderness area. I’ve found that from doing a lot of race efforts on “any surface and any distance” that there is always the constant of facing new challenges with such endeavors. When we push our body and mind (even past our preconceived limits) during these endurance efforts, we can find opportunities to grow. I think that’s what keeps me coming back over and over to pushing hard in the mountains.

"With each peak and valley, with each ebb and flow of energy and fatigue, the journey requires mettle, resilience, and being able to embrace the unknown."

Having run the loop many times before, I mostly know what to expect from each of the four ascents into the thin air above 12,000’; the landmark pass names; Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air, and West Maroon. Each pass represents a massive climb, and each is unique with distinguishing features that are in constant flux. There might be variations like the wildflowers, snow, animals, and unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms—but, for the most part, it is known to me. If only the same could be said for what lies before me as I enter the third and fourth “passes” of my life.

The first pass of my life—growing up in rural Oregon, moving across the country to attend Cornell, and becoming a professional road runner—has been much like how runners start the loop: full of energy and fast, perhaps too fast. In a time too short, that first pass gets completed and with it, the fleeting feeling of youth. A bit of recklessness is to be expected and even embraced, so long as it doesn't completely compromise the passes that come next. I often ask myself (somewhat rhetorically): Did I make all the right decisions and pace myself accordingly? Unlikely, but that fresh start is always exciting, and I usually have fun without sustaining too many scars.

The second pass of my life—moving to Colorado, transitioning from roads to trails, buying a first home, meeting my life partner, building a successful small business—is not unlike how one ought to approach the second pass of the loop: a little more discerning and with a little more planning and patience for what lies ahead. One should take account of how they feel and may need to adjust their pace or begin to anticipate bad weather. Similarly, on the second pass of life, I’ve encountered some unexpected storms: a life-threatening illness and the loss of my physical home. Doubts and disappointments creep in during times like these and goals might have to be adjusted or postponed. Our core strength and the strength of our resilience “muscle” is tested when we hit these lows between the mountain peaks. But, like the beauty that comes after a storm, I was able to move on and find a new home closer to the mountains I love. I also realized just how lucky I am to have the support of my family, friends, and the running community. Staying focused on the present, I can remember the past two passes fondly while starting to dream again about the future.

"Our core strength and the strength of our resilience “muscle” is tested when we hit these lows between the mountain peaks."

The third and fourth passes of life are climbs I still must do, even though I only have a rough idea of where I am heading now. I don't know where I may travel next, or where my running career may lead me, or whom exactly I will travel alongside on these next few passes. I’m also not sure what my exact time will be and how I might slow or speed up. But that is okay now, because I’ve been far enough into this journey to now have a perspective with panoramic mountain views. I feel a deeper connection to the rocks, roots, and soil that I've traversed.

Though parents, friends, and society have set expectations for what to expect in the years going forward, I know the variations along the route may be much greater than which wildflowers are growing during these remaining mountain climbs. But if the first half of running this loop (or any long-distance running event) has taught me anything, it's to embrace the unknown with excitement and a sense of adventure.

I know the passes ahead can be even more beautiful, if I am open to it.
















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Author Bio

Sage Canaday

Sage Canaday has the fastest time on the full Strava segment for completing the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop, the counter-clockwise direction, which he ran in 4 hours and 24 minutes. He is also a coach at Higher Running and a 2-time XTERRA Half Marathon World Championship Runner-Up.

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