Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Little Plain

My toenails have almost fully grown back.

This can only mean one thing. It’s time for another 100 mile run in the mountains. Of course, with that comes the inevitable: planning, preparation and–in my case–finally writing up the report from my previous 100 mile race.
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The Swan Crest 100 was a special event: a first time race and the first 100 miler held in Montana. By design, it promised to be a very low-key event. Even so, it was not without a bit of prerace controversy that nearly kept it from starting. It had something to do with wilderness, bears and a certain individual’s belief that he should be the one to designate how others enjoy a shared natural resource. I won’t go into the details here except to add the following disclaimer:

No grizzlies were harmed in the writing of this race report.

To understand Swan Crest it might be best to first compare it to 3 of its neighboring 100-mile races all of which I have been privileged to complete.

Like Bighorn, Swan Crest is a true mountain 100. Elevations topping 8000 feet, vistas of far-off peaks and weather patterns capable of dropping a storm at a moment’s notice, all contribute to the sense of remoteness that this race shares with its neighbor to the southeast in Wyoming. Both mud and snow were present here too, though significantly less of both. Finally, each of the two has their unique wildlife concerns, Moose at Bighorn and the aforementioned grizzlies here. While we had to watch a mandatory “bear safety” video before the race and carry pepper spray throughout, there were no actual encounters; in fact, no sightings whatsoever. While the concept of meeting one of the great bears is frightening, in reality, Moose encounters are far more likely and more dangerous. Personally I was quit happy that the most dangerous animal with which I actually had to contend was the pesky mosquito.

Swan Crest also seems to share a few of the characteristics that make Cascade Crest such a unique event. However, in a state whose motto begins with the word ‘Big”, the challenges are just a tad larger. The overgrown trails are grown quite a bit more over –right over my head in places. There was a section traveling right on top of the un-cleared remains of an avalanche field that makes the famous “trail through hell” seem like a paved road. And then, there are the downed trees. Cascade has a few, but parts of the Swan Crest are a veritable obstacle course. Climbing over, crawling under or navigating through trees that appeared to have only recently crashed across the trail, this course takes more out of you than the simple analysis of distance and elevation change would imply.

Then there is Plain. This particular comparison was made right in the race pamphlet. The existence of course markings, aid stations and drop bags clearly makes Swan Crest a bit less a matter of self-reliance. However, with sections of 26, 24 and 14 miles between checkpoints, the necessity to take water from the course and the need to consult the map at numerous points, the comparison was not unwarranted. Even the initial gradual climb up gravel road brought back memories of its closest neighbor. One could treat this race as good training or a warm-up for the one in Eastern Washington. In fact, that was pretty much my thought going into it.

Despite the comparisons and similarities, Swan Crest stands on its own.  Like all great races it has a particular identity expressing the uniqueness of the land in which it is run – a certain “trail terroir”, if you will. Traversing the entire ridge that bears its name, this race gives the participants a taste of what the area has to offer: wild and beautiful, rugged and remote. Yet, despite all its challenges you are constantly reminded that the ridge along which you are travelling is but a taste, a mere hint at what Northwest Montana has to offer.

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Since I'm sitting in my hotel room in Logan, UT with 10-1/2 hours to go before the start of The Bear 100, I am going to take a bit of a cop-out on finishing this race report. I remembered to take my camera along with me for a change. So, I'm going to let the photos do most of the talking.

Beat and I traveled to Montana together and rented a cabin in Columbia Falls. Not only was it a quaint little  place to stay, it was also the location of the race finish. Since Swan Crest is a point-to-point race, the shuttle picked us up here in the morning for to drive to the start.
Our Cabin

The start of the race was near Swan Lake, about an hour's drive away. The shuttle got us there early so we muddled about, chatting with other runners in the cold morning, waiting for the race to start.

Jon Burg was the other Bay Area local running the race

Looking around at the start, I had another Déjà vu moment from Plain. I definitely felt like one of the least fit people there. As Beat put it the day before at the pre-race meeting, "geez, we're the fat people here."

Panorama of the 50 runners waiting at the start

Eventually we hit the road for about a mile before taking a left and beginning the gradual grind up the gravel double-wide.

Long gravel road

Some nice views along the way

For my last comparison to Plain (I promise), Beat and I started the race near the back of the pack. I was hopeful that the strategy would work out as well as it had there.

Beat and I stuck together in the early miles

Pretty easy going

After about 10 miles, we finally arrived at the first aid station. It was a beautiful morning and I was ready to take on some single-track. At least, I thought I was ready. Little did I know that "single-track" in Montana means pretty much no track.

Apologies to the lady in the photo, this is only intended to show the aid station


About as much trail as I was going to see for a while

For a little perspective, my head is just over Beat's shoulder
I began to feel more than a little intimidated when I could see neither my feet nor the sky above my head. Overgrowth is one thing, but being completely enveloped was something altogether new. On top of that, the lower brambles seemed a bit predatory or at least playful. About a dozen times, they snagged my laces and de-knotted them.

OK, so two but shots is probably going overboard, but there's a story here
As the shrubbery on steroids gave way, we breathed a short sigh of relief. This only because we were blissfully unaware that up ahead it had all been crushed beneath a mass of avalanche-downed trees. We came upon the first fallen tree and Beat worked his way gingerly over it. Impatiently, and perhaps a bit showy, I hopped up on top and over both him and the tree. I'm not sure what name he called me, but it was all in good fun.

The fun was about to end
Hopping over one tree like a youthful sprite is fine, but after the next tree, and the next, it grew a bit old. Then tree turned into trees until the ground completely disappeared and we found ourselves navigating over a virtual canopy of branches, brush and logs.

Trail? What trail?

Those red flags are the trail!

Exhausting doesn't even begin to describe it.
I never thought I would be so happy to see the overgrowth again.
After what seemed hours, we were finally on a real trail. Switchbacking up the hill, the mountains unveiled themselves. In truth, they were probably there all along, but I hadn't set my eyes above waste-level for some time.

Ahhh, mountains.
In fact, there was beauty all around both near and far. One just had to look.



Finally, upon reaching the ledge, we caught a slight downhill. Beat was a bit behind me at this point, but I'd no idea how far.


Catching a glimpse of the other side was the first reminder that we were indeed in "the mountains." The gathering clouds made clear their intention.



The second aid station, mile 19, was at the end of an out-and-back along a narrow ridge. It rolled and meandered offering views of distant peaks for distraction.



Shortly, the rain fell. I put on my light jacket and took a photo of what could be the first in a series of fashion shots for my favorite piece of gear, The Buff.

First rain, let it fall where may
The aid station was just the other side of some woods at the end of the ridge. I made good time in and out as it was raining more stiffly and I was getting a bit cold. Not a quarter mile on, Beat was heading the other direction and looking good. We both remarked how much the avalanche section had taken out of us.

Looking like a happy camper at mile 19
Back out along the ridge we'd just traveled, but things always look a little different in the opposite direction.

The ridge is narrow in parts
The rain stopped, the sun came out, it got warm and it was time for fashion shot #2. Pull up The Buff and let it dangle back Pirate-style.



This was the beginning of the first of the "long sections" without aid. It was also the longest such section at a little over 24 miles. The aid station volunteers told us that there was plenty of water on the course. What they didn't tell us was that most of it was in the first 10 miles. By the time I reached the snow banks, I'd drunk most of what I'd filled from streams.

Snow bank in the distance
At the snow bank
Looking back from where I'd just come I could see Beat
I ended up filling my water bottle from the snow. Unfortunately, one of the advantages of the insulated bottle became a disadvantage here. The snow did not easily melt!

Swan Crest pass through an awe-inspiring variety of terrain. One minute we were in a wide open meadow, the next snow, then fields of flowers followed by a burnt-out forest. Each had its charms. Unfortunately, none of them had any large flowing bodies of water.

Summer is like spring in these mountains
More snow
Looking back again

Another field in bloom

Water, but not near

Gratuitous Buff fashion shot - sweat band mode!

Rock-filled section

Burnt forest

These were all over

Return to lush, overgrown trail
Another ridge with great views

I distracted myself with taking photos, but I estimated it had been around 12 miles since I'd filled my water. I was totally dry. Unfortunately, I had in my head that the section was 2 miles shorter than actual. This is the excuse I give for automatically taking a left at a Y when the marker seemed right in the middle. I knew there was a split coming up and I knew it was a left.

There's always a point after taking a wrong turn when a voice in the back of your head tells you "this isn't right" and you think you should maybe go back to check. I need to learn to listen to this voice. The trail I was on narrowed to the point of a mere deer path. It then went over and through some brush. Normally this would give me bigger pause, but having run through the avalanche field, it seemed par for the course (except for the lack of markers). Once the  trail disappeared altogether, I knew it was the wrong way.

Back on the right path, I was even more thirsty than ever. I took a photo.

Nice shot, eh?
Another 1/2 mile or so, I met up with another runner. We cursed and commiserated the absence of water. Right around the next turn was a stream. I filled, drank and filled again ignoring the flying pests that took interest whenever I stopped for more than a few seconds.

With water comes happy
I felt much better, but there was still that matter of the under-estimated distance. I figured to be at the aid station shortly so I passed the next couple of streams and ran out again. As the climb started, my hydration dipped further. Thirsty, cranky and tired, I took a random spill onto my right side. You can only imagine how happy I was to finally reach the aid station at Six Mile Junction.

Very welcome faces after a long journey
I took a bit of time here, assuring recovery. Once I felt well enough, I pushed myself on as there was just a short 3 miles to the peak and back before I would return. Feeling good, I pushed the climb.

Red-faced at the peak

Peak Panarama

Feeling great, I bombed back down. Somewhere close to the aid station I saw Beat. He wasn't having a great day, stating he didn't feel good, he was heading to the peak carrying his water bladder in his hand. I told him head recover and then continued down. I was anxious to start the big descent before dark.

With 6 mostly-downhill miles, this next section to Quintonkon was expected to be fairly fast. I thought I might make it by nightfall. I was wrong.

The downhill went pretty quick at least the initial "free flow" descent. I recall a section of wide gradual downhill and then a rather sizable river. I didn't see any ribbon across the river, but there was really no other place to go so I made my way. This lead to a short path to a road. The route headed up the road. Guess work and hope would put the aid station not too far off.

The road seemed to go on and on. There was no evidence of any campground or other obvious location where an aid station might be. After a couple of more miles, I could hear something off in the distance. Slowly, the noises and then light grew closer. The aid station was here.

It turns out they had to move it a couple of miles further along the road making it 8 miles. I gave Brad, the RD, a bit of good natured ribbing. However, it sounded like some people took it a bit more seriously. It's funny, I don't quite understand how someone could be upset about 2 extra miles on a 6 mile section after having route that has sections of 24, 22 and 14 miles.

At any rate, I was surprised to find Jon Burg here waiting for me. A much faster runner (and walker), I didn't expect  to see him after the start. Everyone has their lows and his came while running with the above referenced complainers who dropped at this station. Jon and I headed out to tackle the 14+ miles together. With an initial climb and a nighttime descent, it promised to be a long go. It was nice to have a bit of company.

Obligatory night photo somewhere round mile 55

I felt good at the start, but I had yet to have my real low and I could feel fatigue kicking in. Jon let me take the lead at first, which worked OK since it let me set the pace. He is a very strident walker (excuse the pun) as I learned pacing him at a race last year. I worked to keep a good clip and we made a bit of time on a couple of runners ahead of us. It turns out that they were both Statistics professors at a local university. Jon is an actuary. I felt woefully out of place.

I'm not sure if it was just normal fatigue or pushing up the gradual climb, but my energy was waning. I let Jon go in front and shortly thereafter told him I was gonna have to take a break. I sat to try and gather my head for a second and then continued at my own pace. I was definitely getting tired as I was having trouble focusing my eyes on the trail and was weaving a bit.

I finally decided to sit for a little longer and try something new. I sat on a rock and closed my eyes. I let my mind wander the drift. I faded. I woke when my flashlight hit the ground.

According to my watch it had been perhaps a few minutes, 5 at most. However, when I stood up and headed out, my eyes were focused, my head was clear and I was moving much better. I always enjoy the night and this one was no exception. The stars were out.

I promised my wife I'd look at the stars. They were wonderful. Shortly, though the moon became jealous and came to outshine them. Later the moon would be overshadowed by the clouds obscuring show. I occupied myself with this play in the sky.

Not that it shows, but the moon and clouds put on quite a show
I felt good, but the night section is always a bit strange. So many things come and go through your mind that in reflection your never sure which was thought and which random association. I recall a rocky ridge and the view of many lights below. Mostly, I remember enjoying it immensely. Eventually there was a long descent to the aid station.

Of this, I have no idea. I must have thought I saw something.
The next aid station was the only time we came out of the mountains during the race. Mile 70 is always a telling point in a 100-miler and I was feeling good. I didn't waste time at Broken Leg because I knew the next 8 miles was a lot of road and would seem longer than it was.

I set my mind on auto-pilot and marched from dirt road to paved to dirt again. The last couple of miles began the ascent that would follow after the next aid station. Strawberry Trail would be our last major climb though it was also the beginning of our last long section without aid.

Morning was breaking at this aid station and I asked about the weather forecast. I should have known better when they told me it was supposed to be warm in the morning and showers in the late afternoon. We were in the mountains after-all. I dropped all my warm and rain gear in my drop bag reasoning that it would just incentize me to finish before late afternoon. I also should have known better than to try and reason anything the second day of an overnight race.

The initial climb was a grind, but at least it was over in a few miles. I felt fine and was ready to enjoy the sights and sounds of a second day on the trail.

OK, maybe I was just a wee bit tired as well
The overgrowth was back...

...so was all the natural beauty
I'm not sure when it started, but I do recall still being dry at this one confusing intersection. It was just a drizzle at first, but the sound of thunder in the distance was a clear indicator. You can't see the rain coming down in this series of pictures, but you can definitely see the muddy trail in the last one.



Perhaps you can see the wet and cold permeating my Buff and my normally upbeat persona.


To put it bluntly, it started dumping and I was freezing. I ran. I ran hard. I ran harder than I ever would have were I not trying to escape the rain and stay warm. I suppose I have that. The mud didn't help, but I had already dealt with much worse at Bighorn.

The good thing about being in the mountains for a summer shower is that it is generally short lived. I knew it would let up eventually and it did. The rain turned to mist and as the sun came out we were running in a dense fog.

The ever-changing mountain climate

I doubt the snow is fresh, but the cold rain certainly didn't melt it.
The sun eventually burned off the fog. The promised-heat was going to show up after all, only out of order from the storm.


 My running-crazed in the rain took a big chunk of time out of this 22 mile section. However, I wasn't exactly sure how much. There was a lot of talk about the final downhill and how "treacherous" it was. 5 miles of steep descent switchbacking down the mountain. I was so looking forward to it.

Having not studied the course, I believed that once I reached the ridge where I could see the town below, that the descent would not be far. Well, I could see that I was on the ridge.


When I arrived at what appeared to be the apex, I took one last panorama. The peaks of Glacier National Park to the East and Columbia Falls to the West. I was ready to fly down this mountain.


From that point on, every slight downhill slope was, to me, the start of the path down. Over and over I repeated the cycle of excitement and disappointment. Had I taken a moment to look at the hills in front of me, I would have realized that the trail wasn't about to descend until the near the final peak. Part of the beauty of this course is that it travels the distance of a visible ridge line.

Of course, the descent did arrive after awhile and i was so ready for it. I let it fly. Fast downhills at the end of long races are one of my favorite things on the planet. This, I have to say, was one of the best. Not only was it steep enough to just "let go," the switchbacks were wide enough to bank without slowing down. I can't imagine how fun it would be to run this while fresh.

I really should have committed more of the profile to memory. I had this idea in my head that the downhill ended right at the aid station. When the switchbacks stopped I expected a short ride down the more gradual grade to the break before the final 2 miles. One last dip and I ran right through a wide creak before a short uphill. Just a bump before some further descent.

When another uphill came, I was a bit annoyed, but still believed it would be brief. It continued up. It went around a curve and then up some more. I stopped. This was ridiculous! I'd gone up a couple hundred more feet and I could see we still had plenty of descent before being at the level of the town. I won't repeat the curse words here, but suffice to say, I said them all.

I took the rest of the trail easy realizing that I had no clue how long it actually was to the aid station. A change of perspective can do wonders. Once I stopped expecting, I was upon it in short order. At this point, I was very much ready to be done.

One thing I have learned from running 100 mile trail races is that nearly all of them end on the road. Whether its 1 mile of road or 5, it always seems long. The end of Swan Crest isn't long, but it does seem to wander a bit. I had a vague idea where the finish was, but really was pretty unaware. It was hot, the road was long, I took it slow.

I had no real time goals at this point. 30 hours and 31 had both come and gone. 31-1/2 didn't seem worth the effort so I just trotted on in for 31:34.

It was great to be done. It was a wonderful event. I took a shower, took a rest and then took a short nap. When I awoke, the BBQ was just getting underway and friends were starting to come in. The field was sparse and spread out. I actually finished top-10, but only 20 people total finished the race. Beat came in 34+ and just under 35 Jon Burg finished. I was surprised by this last as I didn't remember passing him. It turns out that Jon took the very long course with a long detour in the midst of an already-long section. I give him special kudos for continuing on to finish when the short path would have been to head back after finding the trail again.

Swan Crest is an adventure. Low key and filled with challenges. Minimal aid, trail obstacles, difficult course tracking, all part of the package. A highly recommended and highly successful first running.

Finally, when it comes right down to it, there is absolutely nothing Plain about this race.

10 comments:

meredith said...

Incredible Pictures!! I will look forward to running with you at Firetrails this weekend :)

Eudemus said...

Thanks Meridith. It will be good to see you at Firetrails, but I doubt I will be doing any "running with you" given your recent performances. Even if I didn't have the added excuse of being 2-weeks post and 2-weeks pre a couple of 100 milers, I wouldn't be able to keep up with you.

I will look for you at the start and coming back from the turnaround. I think you are going to rock that course!

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Great race and report. It was worth the wait! You make it sound so easy in a matter-of-fact manner. Somehow I suspect this was a pretty difficult course. Congrats on a solid performance.

I may catch a glimpse of you at Firetrails before you zoom off.

Cynthia

chris mcpeake said...

great race report. This looked like it was a lot of fun. Really awesome pics. Well done

Danni said...

Awesome report. I'm so so so glad you came. You're good people :-)

olga said...

Fat Guys? I was going to comment you look skinny! What woulod I be, Fat Gal?
Beautiful views, totally a through-hike calling. You did good, brother. You did very god. Loved the self-portraits:)
Happy upcoming to you, my firend!

Anonymous said...

Wow, awesome! Steve, I always love your reports. Can't wait to see the next one, and congrats again on what sounds like a tough race!

Janet

kelly said...

Wow, Steve, I might have to run that race next year! It looks like one I would love. You are doing so well this year, I am impressed. Great race report and good luck at Firetrails. I am not running it this time. Hope to see you out on the trails soon.

ultrajim said...

It was indeed an awesome run. Even though I dnf'd I had a great time. Next year I'll finish.

marmot said...

Love looking ta your photos..