Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What a Difference a Season Makes: Three Ts in the Snow

On September 28, I ran the Three Ts with Dave and Matt.  I did it again, solo, on November 16.  Those two runs were similar, cold but no snow.  Marshall and I ran the same route again on December 21, and it was a completely different course, almost entirely covered in snow. 

We reached the snow a mile or two up Ice House Canyon.  We put on our micro spikes there, and kept them on until we reached the Notch five hours later.

We lost the trail almost immediately after leaving the saddle at about mile 4.5, reaching Timber by way of our own private route.  From there on, we kept losing the trail under the snow, and we did almost no running until we reached Thunder and headed down the fire road.  At times, our feet fell through the snow up to our knees.

At one point, before Telegraph, we ended up climbing directly up the side of the mountain on all fours.  It was noon, we were at least 3.5 hours into the run, and we were only about half way done.  I have to admit that I was a bit scared.  But, we found the trail again at the ridge line (and we were never truly lost).

The rickety old ski lift was running when we reached Thunder, and skiers passed us as we ran down the fire road back to the Notch.

In all, we spent 6.5 hours tramping through the snow on a beautiful day.  Exhausting, to say the least, but worth it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cactus to Clouds

I'd planned on spending this past weekend in the Grand Canyon with a group of friends, but had to cancel because of a scheduling conflict that required me to be in town Saturday.  So, I made last minute plans to run the Cactus to Clouds route solo on Sunday.  It turned out to be a beautiful day, and a great experience.

Cactus to Clouds starts in the parking lot of the Desert Museum  in Palms Springs. The trail head feels a bit like Platform 9 3/4, a portal to a magical realm hiding in plain view in a public space.  I started around 6:20 am, just before sunrise.  I saw a few sets of headlamps above me on the trail, hikers who had started before me.

The Sign Marking the Start of the Skyline Ridge Trail

The well-marked trail climbs steeply out of the parking lot, and the first two miles or so are arguably the toughest.  It does not take long to reach views like this:

Palm Springs Just Before Sunrise

The first mile or so are steep, and very difficult to run.  After the picnic benches, however, the trail starts to moderate and there are a few spots that are more runnable.  I took advantage of some of them, but did not push too hard.

Around 8am

About four miles in, the trail becomes harder to follow, with lots of intersecting shortcuts.  Fortunately, they all seem lead to the same place, and it is difficult to get lost.  

The majority Skyline Ridge Trail offers views over the desert, much like the photo above.  The trail enters the forest in the final mile or so, and becomes steep again for the final climb into Long Valley, the location of the upper tram terminal.

Near the top of the Skyline Ridge Trail
The Skyline Ridge Trail ends in Long Valley, having climbed approximately 8,000 in about nine miles.  After that, the landscape changes drastically, mostly forest.

Entry to Long Valley, Top of the Skyline Ridge Trail

I exhausted my hydration pack just as I entered Long Valley, perfect timing.  I filled up at the Ranger Station, got some advice from a friendly ranger and had a quick lunch before heading for the summit of San Jacinto.  

2.3 Miles from the Top

The five and a half miles from the Long Valley to the Summit are much more runnable, although the final approach to the actual Summit requires some bouldering.

The Summit

I ran down almost the entire way from the Summit to the tram station, grabbed a quick beer at the bar and then took the tram down back to Palm Springs.

The Bar at the Upper Tram Terminal

In all, it took me eight hours and forty minutes to run about 20 miles, with roughly 10,000 of climbing.  I felt great almost the entire way, although I am quite tired today.  All in, it was a wonderful day.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mt. Baldy: The Three Ts

It was 47 degrees and clear yesterday morning when Matt, Dave and I set out from the Ice House Trailhead, headed for the Three Ts: Timber, Telegraph and Thunder Mountain.  It is a 3.6 mile steady climb up to the saddle.  The shady trail follows a stream bed much of the way.

After a long hot few weeks, we were prepared for the heat, but it never came.  It was cool all day.  And, the wind picked up when we reached the saddle, and followed us as we turned North towards the peaks.  It was nearly perfect running weather, if anything a bit too cool at times.

Ice House Trailhead is at just below 5,000 feet elevation.  After reaching the saddle, at 7,560 feet,  we turned North along the ridge line, following the single track towards Timber Mountain, the lowest of the Three Ts at 8,303 feet.

Next up was Telegraph, the highest of the Three Ts, at 8,985 feet. By the time we got there, the wind was blowing in puffy white clouds.

Looking East for Telegraph Peak

On Top of Telegraph, the Tallest of the Three Ts

The Northern-most of the three Ts is Thunder, at 8,591 feet, with its dilapidated sky lift.  After that, the trail becomes a fire road and drops down to the Notch restaurant, where we sat at the bar and paid $2.50 each for cans of Coke -- and it was worth it.  

We finished up by running down the fire road back to Manker Flats, then down the road back to the car, just over 16 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing altogether.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hood to Coast 2014

I've been wanting to run the Hood to Coast Relay for years.   It is the oldest relay of its kind, and very popular; 3,000 teams apply for 1,050 spots in the race.  I had no plans to go this year but was lucky enough to be invited to join a team that already had an entry, when one of their runners had to cancel.  

As the name suggests, the race starts on Mt. Hood and winds nearly 200 miles down to the coast at Seaside, Oregon, passing through downtown Portland at about the half way point.  

The Starting Line at 6:30 am

The race is divided into 36 legs,  most of which are about six miles long.  Teams consist of anywhere from eight to 12 runners.  Our team had nine runners, so we each ran four legs about five or six hours apart.

I ran legs 2, 11, 20 and 29.  My first leg was all downhill, nearly at the top of Mt. Hood, starting around 8:30 on Friday morning.  My second leg was in the heat of the day, and my third was in the dark of night.  My final leg began in the dark, around 5am, and ended in the early morning light.

David and Natalie


Hood to Coast is madhouse.  A thousand teams participating means that 2,000 vans and approximately 10,000 runners crowd onto the two lane roads leading down from Mt. Hood towards Seaside, Oregon.  Exchange points can be very crowded.  In fact, the traffic leading into exchange point 24 was so bad that it took us well over an hour to drive the final mile, and our runner had to wait for us to arrive. 

Most of the teams come up with creative names and decorate their vans.  Some also run in costumes.

Where's Waldo Theme Van

Cereal Killers Van

Every Van from Seattle to Medford Gets Rented for HTC
Hertz Knows What Happens to those Vans

 Start times for the race are staggered, with the slower teams starting as early as 6:00am and the fastest teams starting in the afternoon.  But either way, all of the teams run through the night.  And, for most teams, the race takes more than 24 hours.  So, that means lots of sleeping, eating and changing dirty clothes in the vans.

Dan Getting Some Much Need Sleep

College Women Sacked Out at Exchange Point 28

The long day and the close quarters are part of what makes Hood to Coast so much fun.  I had a great time with my teammates, and also met quite a few other runners along the route.

One thing I would change, however, is the walkers.  The walkers start their event in Portland.  When they joined in, the roads became even more crowded.  And, for the most part, the walkers have little in common with the runners.  It would be nice if they could hold the walking event on a different day.

Our team finished in 27:31, 185th place out of 1,050 teams.  I was happy with the way I ran.  I've been quite tired since the Bryce 100, but I felt much better this past weekend.  It was also good to run relatively fast.  Ultras involve a lot of shuffling and a lot of walking. Hood to Coast has some of the endurance aspects of an ultra, such as staying up all night, but it also allows runners to move faster.

The Finish Line

Me and John at Seaside, After the Race

Overall, it was a great weekend.  I am still not quite ready to start hard training again, although I will slowly work my way back into that.  Next race is still TBA.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Angeles Crest 100 Miler - 2014

Tiffany and I spent this past weekend crewing and pacing Michael at the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run.  The race starts at 5am in Wrightwood, and then winds its way through the San Gabriel Mountains to Pasadena.  It is a tough course, climbing up to nearly 10,000 at Mt. Baden-Powell.  

Michael at about Mile 40
Michael had run the Western States 100 seven weeks earlier, then hiked 19 days across Iceland, so he was tired coming into the race. Yet, he hung on, overcame some particularly unpleasant stomach issues, and made it to the finish line.  Thank you, Michael, for letting me tag along for part of your big run.

Michael's gear

How to fold an ice bandanna -- I think

AC is, in effect, the home meet for the SoCal Coyotes, as well as other local ultra running clubs.  Almost all the local runners are there, either racing, pacing, crewing or spectating.  

Power hiking is key to ultras, and no one is better at power hiking than Keira

David on his way to a great performance, finishing 7th overall

Andy and his pacer

Steven and Brian at Chantry Flats Aid Station, Mile 75

The course turns into moving party, with everyone following their runners from aid station to aid station.  It is a long day, and a long night -- and yet another morning after that -- but it is a heck of a lot of fun.  

Tiffany and Jeff

Kim and Gwen

Newlyweds Annie and George

Tiffany, me and Craig

Pedro and Erin, spectating at AC after their big performances at Tahoe Rim Trail

It was particularly heartwarming to see parents who came out to support the race:

Katie, with her mom and dad

Kelley, with her dad

Next up: I'm not quite sure yet!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler - 2014

Pacing is a great way to experience an ultra marathon without having to run 100 miles.  This past weekend, I paced and crewed for Ryan, who ran the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler in just over 31 hours.  It was a long, beautiful, fun weekend.  I got to see most of the course, and hang out with a number of good friends.

View of Lake Tahoe in the early morning

The race started at 5am, but my day started a bit later.  My first stop was the Tunnel Creek Aid Station.  The course passes through that aid station six different times, the first of which is Mile 11.  I got there by 7:15am, too late to see the leaders go through the first time, but in time to see all of my friends who were in the race: Erin, Pedro, Neil and Ryan (and Kim, who was running the 50 Miler).  I then moved on to Diamond Peak Aid Station, at Mile 30, before going back to the condo to take a quick nap.

On the Walk Down from Tunnel Creek

Ultra running requires a great deal of planning.  Almost all runners wear a hydration pack to make sure that they have enough to drink, but eating is also important.  Most people, including me, have trouble getting enough calories during runs over 30 or so miles.  Ryan set his watch to vibrate every half hour to remind him to eat a Gu pack, which contains 100 calories.  He also used a sports drink and ate at the aid stations.  

As I was reminded at Bryce, it is also crucial to have extra clothing to deal with cold (or wet) weather.  Tahoe was hot and humid most of the day, but at about 5:30pm there was a heavy afternoon thundershower, featuring a downpour of rain and hail, and a lightening show.  Ryan was just short of the Mile 50 aid station and got soaked, as did many of the runners.  But, like most of the runners, he just toughed it out and kept on running, then changed into dry clothing as soon as he could.  

Rachael assisting Pedro at Mile 50
Pedro is one tough guy.  He does not do well in the heat, but he hung in there through the daytime, then picked up steam after the sun set.  Rachael paced him from Mile 50 to 80; that 30 mile stretch represents the longest she had ever run, and most or all of it was in the dark.  And, Pedro was sick during the early part her pacing leg, then recovered and took off on the downhill at the end.  She did a great job, and Pedro ending up finishing strong, in part thanks to her.

I paced the same leg as Rachel, from Mile 50 to 80, but had an easier time of it, as Ryan did not get sick (nor did he not take off down the final hill).  I started around 6:15pm, just after the thunderstorm, and finished around 4:45am.   So, I was able to watch the sun set, and I got about an hour of sleep between 6am and 7am before we went back out towards the finish line.

The Thunderstorm
Photo by Jonathan Bretan

Ryan on the climb out of Hobart Aid Station
Mile 62

It would be unfair to write about the day with mentioning Erin's great performance.  She ran strong all day and night, moving up through the pack and finishing in a PR of 29:17.  

Erin, with Helen pacing her

For those of you thinking of running the race: the course is similar to Bryce in terms of difficulty.  Altitude is about the same, generally over 7,000 with a high around 9,200.  The trails are significantly less technical and rocky at Tahoe.  The Race Director did a great job. The course was very well marked, the aid stations were excellent and the volunteers were friendly and knowledgeable.  Crew access is tough at Tunnel Creek, requiring a three mile walk up hill.  It is also a double loop course, but that is not such a bad thing, as half of the race in the dark anyway.  

Ryan at Mile 99.9

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Bryce 100

In March 2010, my father, who had been healthy and active, had 20 hours of emergency surgery and nearly died after his aorta dissected.   He survived and is doing well, but the incident had a lasting effect on me.  Here is a man who shares half of my DNA, and who had taken as good care of himself as can reasonably be expected.  Yet, without warning, he was nearly dead at age 77.  I was 47, and began thinking about my own life, and how I want to live my remaining years, however many they may be. 

The four years since my dad's heart incident have been difficult for me in many respects.  I've questioned myself, and pretty much every aspect of my life and relationships to others.  My dad's incident had opened up all sorts of emotions that had been dormant for decades.

The Bryce 100 ripped into that emotional opening.  It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, an intensely personal experience that helped me remember who I am, and that, in the end, I must answer to and rely upon myself.  It's a lesson I learned long ago, but somehow forgot these past few years.

The Bryce 100 is challenging, even for a 100 miler.  The entire course is above 7,000 feet, with a high of 9,400 feet, and a total of 19,000 of climbing and descending.  It includes a mixture of rocky, sandy and smooth trails and fire roads.  But, the race also has a very generous 36 hour time limit.  The trick to ultra running is to go really slow; that applies double at Bryce.  

As with most ultra running events, the day did not go anything like it was planned.  I had planned on running the entire 100 miles with Jack, who was attempting the distance for the third time.  I did not expect him to push me, and was anticipating a pleasant, if rather long, social event in beautiful Bryce Canyon.  I assumed that Jack and I would do much more hiking than running, and finish between 30 and 36 hours.  

My only concern going into the race was my right heel.  About four weeks before race day, I bruised my heel running down the Upper Luna trail.  I was on crutches for three days.  It was just a few days before the race by the time I could run again.  On race day, I was no longer in pain, but was concerned that my heel would not tolerate 100 miles of trails.  I took an extra dose of Meloxicam, an anti-inflammatory, and carried a bottle of ibuprofen as well.

On the Shuttle from Ruby's Inn to the Starting Line
Note the Peruvian Beanie 

We started off at 6am, in a parking lot a few miles outside of the town of Bryce.  As we jogged down the fire road towards the trails, a small family of three ungulates (Deer?  Elk? Someone said they were Antelope) bounded into the forest a few hundred yards ahead. 

After two miles of fire road, the course turned right onto the Thunder Mountain trail.

Mile 2

Around Mile 7

We started off gently, enjoying the scenery with the other runners, many of whom were also stopping frequently to take pictures. Nevertheless, quite early on, it became clear to me that Jack was in trouble, as we were moving slower and slower.  This gave me time to take pictures, and to chat with other runners and aid station volunteers.  

Blubber Aid station, Mile 27

Ed the Jester
If you don't see Ed, it probably isn't a 100 miler

We arrived at the Straight Canyon Aid Station, at Mile 40, the first spot with crew access, late in the day and I was already thinking about cut-off times.  But I was also feeling strong.  The only difficulty was my heel, which was beginning to hurt.  I decided to change into my new Hokas, extra padded shoes, even though I had never run in them before.  I figured we were walking anyway, and I could change back into my Inov8 295s at the 50 mile marker, if need be.

A friendly runner named Nick joined us for the next leg, a five mile climb to the Pink Cliffs Aid Station, the highest point on the course.

It was slow going up the hill, and it was clear that Jack would not complete the course that day.  At Mile 45, at Pink Cliffs, he told me has dropping out.  I did not argue with him and instead asked permission to be released to finish the race alone.  He immediately agreed.  The real adventure started at that moment.

I was still feeling fresh, but concerned about the fact that I was near the cut-off times.  I said goodbye to Jack and Nick, and ran fairly hard to the Crawford Pass Aid Station, the 50 mile marker and the turn around point for the Bryce 100.  It was just getting dark when I came into the camp ground and gave my number to the volunteer at the entrance to the aid station.

And I couldn't find my crew.  I looked all throughout the aid station area, at the fire, and even into the parking lot.  I called out. Nothing.  No crew, and thus no warm night gear.  I tried the cell phone but there was no reception.  I asked the aid station volunteers, but they could not help me.  

My crew had assumed that I would stay on the same pace that Jack and I had been walking, so I had arrived an hour or so earlier than they had anticipated, and they were sitting in the car to stay warm. I hadn't seen or recognized the car in the dark, and they had the windows rolled up, so they did not hear me.  

After about five minutes I gave up looking for help from others and decided to do what I needed to finish the race.  It was getting cold and I was wearing only a sweaty technical shirt and running shorts but I took off, still moving fast, towards the 55 mile marker back at Pink Cliffs.

It was 9:41 p.m. and dark when I left Crawford Pass.  When I saw Jack at about Mile 48, he told me that he had spoken to our crew and they were indeed at Crawford Pass.  He promised to talk to them, and make sure that they met me at Straight Canyon with my night gear.

I felt fine when I passed Pink Cliffs.  About half way between Pink Cliffs and Straight Canyon, however, I began to feel slightly woozy.  It did not occur to me right away, but by the time I was within a mile of Straight Canyon I knew I was in the beginning stages of hypothermia.  It turns out it was about 32 degrees outside. I was cold, and none too pleased.  

I began hyperventilating at or about the time I sat down at the fire. And things went down hill from there.  I started thinking that I would not be able to finish, and for the third time in my life, had a panic attack, which manifested in more hyperventilating.   All I wanted to do was finish, and it seemed that that was in doubt.

I spent an hour in the car, with the heater and seat-heater on full blast, blankets and warm clothes.  It was at about that time that I had my first hallucination.    David handed me my black beanie, but what I saw was the Peruvian beanie, pictured above.  I even asked David how the Peruvian beanie had gotten into the car, as I knew he had taken it back to the hotel room after the race began. 

It was 2am when I got out of the car and got back on the course. No, it was not a wise move.  There were 40 more miles of trails, and no more crew access.  I knew I had a heart condition, albeit one that is under control.  I wish I had had a coach to rely on to make the decision for me.  

I thought about my high school coach, Richard Kampmann, and what he would have said if he had been there.  I knew that he would have told me to call it a day, and that I would have accepted it coming from him.  Coach K is a kind and wise man, and I love and trust him.  But Coach was not there.

In the end, I made my own decision.  And I decided to finish if I possibly could.  I had worked too hard and invested too much to simply give up.  I was going to finish the course, and beat the cut-off time, if at all possible.  That was the goal I set for myself when I started, and that was the goal I had in mind at 2am.

Maybe it is a good thing that Coach was not there.  I had asked to run with Jack, which turned out to be a bad decision.  I had asked for my crew to bring my night gear, and that had not worked well either.  Perhaps it is a good thing that, instead of relying on someone else, I made my own decision for my own reasons.

I slogged it out through the night, walking the uphills and shuffling the downhills and most of the flat ground.  David did his usual great job of pacing, urging me along and trying to get me to eat, which I didn't want to do.  I had mild hallucinations the remainder of the run.  For example, I thought a charred log was a black bear cub, and was concerned because I couldn't see it's mother.   After a while I questioned much of what I saw on the course.

We reached Blubber Aid Station at Mile 73 after sunrise, but it was still too cold to remove all the cold weather clothing I'd put on back at Straight Canyon.  At the Mile 82 aid station a volunteer made me an impromptu drop bag and I finally stripped back to just the technical shirt and shorts in which I'd started the race. 

At Mile 90 we still had six hours left before the cut off and I finally felt confident that I'd finish.  I started to let off a bit, as my feet were badly blistered from the Hokas.  We saw ultra running legend Tim Olson around Mile 95.  He smiled and cheered me on, which made me feel really good.

I finally dragged myself across the finish line at 3:39pm, 33 hours and 39 minutes after I'd set out the day before.  It's a truly embarrassing time, in some respects, but I'm proud of myself.  It was a very tough run, in various respects, and things did not go as planned. Yet I stuck to my goal.  Maybe I whined a bit at times, and there was certainly some unnecessary drama at Straight Canyon, but in the end I did not give up or make excuses.

It's difficult to put into words the emotional aspect of a run like Bryce.   Some combination of the physical effort and exhaustion, and the emotional turmoil, create an altered mental state that seems to last several days.  I feel like my personality has been permanently altered, and I'm on to the next stage of my life.

Surprisingly, my body seems to have come through Bryce quite well. I'm tired quite a bit, but not a single muscle strain or other bodily injury other than some nasty blisters.  Now it's time to rest up and get ready for the next adventure.