Sunday, November 11, 2012

Failing into Success (part two of a few)

A big climb lay ahead, but before arriving at its start there was a seemingly short section described in the official guidebook as follows:
Go to the end of the car‐park and take the path called "Voie Francigena" (old route running from Rome to the abbey at Canterbury) which leads to Bovernier and which follows the river Dranse
I think, in my mind, I had some sort of well-laid, ancient "Roman Road" running alongside a river side. What we had instead was a forest trail that seemed to be under construction, running through the hills above the river. It went up, and then went down. Then it went up, up and then down and then up, up, get the point. It all seemed very pointless. I mean, there was the river down below us going about its business in a relatively direct manner and here we were wandering all over the hillside. This seemed the most ridiculous manner to "follow" it. The trail wasn't terribly difficult, just enough so to be annoying. In a way it reminded me of the trail at the beginning of the horrific "Section 4" at TDG that took 3 miles of crazy climbing up and down to end up about a mile or so from where we'd started. Unfortunately, the parallels with that section of that race would not end here. We were headed into a very long night.

Eventually the trail ended along some grape vines which led to the bridge across the river. We found the water spigot that Harry had so thoughtfully added as a waypoint to your GPX track then went about trying to find our way to the start of the trail. This was our first lesson in realizing that even with a GPS and detailed track, it was still possible to get lost. What it did do was to make sure we could eventually find our way back. When Harry and I first discussed this section we had talked about napping before this big climb. It had just gone dark and there was a really nice shelter at the trailhead that would have been an ideal spot. Indeed, we found Beat and Daniel just getting up from a nap. Why we didn't take their place before heading up I really can't say now. We hadn't slept yet, we were certainly tired and we had more than 6000 feet of climbing before us. The only thing I can think is that perhaps the lure of the first checkpoint on the other side was just too much to resist.

Unfortunately, what lay between us and that checkpoint was Le Catogna. It isn't a very pretty mountain. It's not especially dramatic and it doesn't seem to be connected to any other range if peaks. It's basically just this giant mass of dirt and granite plopped in the middle of the valley. Any reasonable person would surely just go around it to get to the other side. Anybody familiar with the path we were about to take would question whether anything on the other side was worth the trip. By the time we finished it, Harry would re-dedicate this mass as "Bitch Mountain". I'm not sure if that's meat as an adjective describing the mound or a verb explaining what we did while traversing it.

Le Catogne
Our approximate path over (right to left) after the steep ascent through the forest
The beginning of the path didn't seem so bad. It was a steep, but well marked path leading up through the woods. It didn't take us long to get sleepy and Beat and Daniel passed by then disappeared ahead as we took a 15 minute sit/snooze break. After the initial direct climb, the path began to meander. Every time I thought we'd be heading up to break through the trees, we would head back down a bit or meander in one direction or the other. I had the distinct impression that we weren't actually going anywhere. There were a couple false paths and a few places where we had to climb over downed trees or push through thick brush, but in general it just seemed endless. No doubt having been awake for 2 days straight coupled with the deep woods masked any sense of where we were or the direction we were heading.

Eventually, though, we did come out into the clear. We stood in what appeared to be a large grassy field. We knew that we had to traverse over to the "Col de Guides", but it really seemed like we were on one side of the mountain and the discernible ridge where we were headed was on the complete other side. It seemed this way because it was basically true. This traverse basically consisted of following any one of a dozen paths cambered along the hillside not much wider than my feet. These paths would occasionally end and we would have to find another or sometimes just stare at he GPS track zoomed in to the 30ft range and just follow it regardless of trail. I had (false) hopes that the traverse would go directly to the ridge and then just head down. Unfortunately, as we approached it we could see headlights going up the ridge far above, but could not tell where they went over. It didn't become any clearer the closer we went.

When we arrived at the rocky section along the ridge it was clear why. There wasn't really any trail to speak of. There were markers on the rocks above and there was the GPS track. There was lots of scrambling, bushwhacking and cursing as we headed up into the seemingly endless pile of boulders above us. Had we looked at our guidebooks we would have seen the following description: Attention, steep sections! You need to understand that this is the Alps and everything is steep. To give an idea of what this warning might indicate, nowhere did this caution appear in the 3.6 mile, 5000ft climb up Le Buet. It did not appear on the cabled descent from that summit either. But, for Le Catogne it was reiterated about the upcoming descent for which it would be a drastic understatement. For now, however, we climbed. We could see two lights moving up above us. As we picked and scratched our way up this beast, one of them pointed back toward us and from it came Beat's voice. "How do you like Le Catogne?" The response I gave, is really not suitable for print.

Of course, we did reach the "col" for what its worth. It didn't seem much of a pass, just the point at which the path decided to head over. We took a break before heading down. I'm not even sure I can do justice to the descent from the Col des Guides. We'd climbed up on mostly large boulders. The route down was mostly over gardens of rocks. Sharp rocks. I remember thinking that many of the descents were we had used chains or cables to assist us seemed far, far less dangerous than this mess. Sure, there was no sheer cliff from which to fall, but tumbling into a bed of large pointy rocks was no less perilous. Once we survived the rocky section, it went from insane to simply absurd. There was a trail. However, it appeared to have been constructed by rolling giant boulders down the steepest part of the mountain. I literally had to jump down on parts of it and use tree branches to support me on others. Harry was even less happy than me about this wreck of a trail. To keep our growing fowl moods from amplifying one another, I went ahead.

Despite the incredible steepness, I started to just go with it. Hopping, scrambling, almost tumbling my way down. That was a mistake. When I got far enough ahead to need to wait for Harry, he caught up only to let me know we had missed a turn. We both looked at our GPSes and while it appeared the direction we were headed would bring us more directly to town, it clearly wasn't the way we were supposed to go. Before either of us could get too much into the cursing that the situation rightly deserved, I immediately headed up. It was literally a climb to get back up the trail which made it seem even longer than it was. We were less than 1/2 mile off, but it was extra distance and difficulty that neither of us needed after all we had been through this night. (To give a sense of this descent, a look at my GPS track from the section reveals that we'd dropped over 2,200 feet in a about 1.1 miles.)

The only saving grace was that the proper trail, while significantly less direct, did become less technical. In fact, the final section of it was basically a dirt road. When that ended at a paved road we found ourselves at the edge of town. The town was silent and sound asleep. I believe it was approaching 5am by this point. Catogne had taken us all night. After wandering about the streets staring at our GPSes we eventually found came upon the big white tents of the checkpoint. After sorting through a few items in our drop bags and choking down a plate of the worst pasta I've ever tasted in my life, we were shown to our cots to enjoy a glorious couple hours of much needed sleep.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Failing into Success (part One of Some)

You would expect that an extreme event covering 180 miles of very rough mountain trails with more than 72,000ft of climbing and very little in the way of support to require equally extremes level of training, preparation and execution. Add to that the physical fatigue and sleeplessness necessary to do finish in 5-1/2 days and you'd think that everything would have to go nearly perfectly in order to succeed. Training I wrote about previously. Using mostly high-sierra hiking and no 100-mile races would either turn out brilliantly or disastrously as training for the Alps. As for preparation, it consisted mostly of time we spent on the course the week prior to the race and Harry's meticulous studying of every mile of the maps down to the exact location of water sources on the outskirts of the tiniest little alpine towns through which we'd pass. Execution, however, is a funny thing. Success in long events, and especially in these VERY long events, often has less to do with executing every single aspect of your plan to the letter than it does with how you handle and recover from the missteps, mistakes, and even complete lapses in judgement that seem inevitable in such an undertaking. In short, success often comes from how you deal with failures along the way. We had a few.

Photo courtesy of Chris Marolf

After spending most of Monday on last minute preparations, race check-in, attending briefings, eating spaghetti and then sitting around fretting until the 10pm start time, we finally donned our packs and headed over to the start line in the middle of town. While PTL is the big brother race of the UTMB in terms of distance and difficulty, it shares none of the fame of its famous sibling. In fact, it's virtually unheard of by most people...except, that is, those in Chamonix during a certain week in late August. While there were fewer than 200 runners in the race, the number of people lining the streets of town must have been at least triple that. It seemed like the sort of send-off one might for a famous road race featuring world-class speedsters, not a bunch of amateurs heading out to hike a bunch of remote mountains in an event that isn't even technical considered a race. It was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm, running through town and slapping hands with cheering spectators. That is, until, the climbing started before we even left the road.

View from initial climb (during the day)
Having covered most of the initial 50K of the race during our reconnaissance trip, we knew to expect this 3-1/2 mile "warm-up" to ascend at rate of 1000ft per mile. Harry and I set ourselves nearer the back of the pack to keep from pushing too hard in the cool night air, but inevitably, the conga-line chain of runners necessitated passing a few parties just to keep an even pace. As I warmed up from both effort and excitement, I felt sweat running down my back. Then I realized something wasn't quite right. The amount of moisture was too much. I told Harry and we pulled over to check my pack.

Sure enough, it was dripping. I confirmed the lid on my bladder was fine so it was a leak. I'd had an issue earlier in the week, but it stopped after some adjustment so I thought all was OK. I was wrong. I tried turning the pack upside down in case it was leaking from the bottom. It seemed to help a little, but made it difficult to drink. Harry and I agreed to share his water which was going to be a challenge. Less than an hour into an event that was to go on for days and I'd already managed an equipment failure. We headed out. We were now officially the last people in the race.

I tried to keep my head straight as we continued the climb to the top of the pass. Many people stopped here to take pictures or enjoy the view. Since we'd been here before we headed straight down. Down is good. At least, it was here. For the most part things went along smoothly for a while. Down to the river, up to the refuge where Harry topped off his water, then up and over the next pass. After that it was a long downhill.before the monster climb up Le Buet. During these wee hours of the first night time passed unnoticed and was nearly morning before we'd start up the 5000 foot climb (in a little over 3.5 miles).

It's difficult to explain just how steep some of these climbs are unless you've been there. I think "relentless" is the first word that comes to mind though there are a couple breaks. It starts up from a river along a fairly exposed rock cliff. It then cuts inward and cuts up a deeply overgrown trail. During our pre-race trip, this section was quite warm. It is steep enough that were the ground muddy, it would become almost impassible. There's a short break as the trail crosses some streams (the last water for a long while) and then it heads straight up a dirt slope. There are actually some slight switchbacks on this bit, but the path straight up the middle actually had better footing on occasion thanks to occasional rocks. After climbing for what seems like an eternity you reach a big plateau. You may think you are done, but really it is maybe half-way to the peak. In fact, you can't even see the peak from here.

Looking down from the initial part of the climb
The trail is in that brush somewhere

View down from the plateau

This is where we put the poles away and head up to the right.

From this point, the trail starts to get "interesting". Harry and I put our poles away because we knew it was now scrambling time. We would also need to have our hands free for the cables on the other side of the rocks. They were mainly for safety, but there were some places where you had to pull on them a bit. This was actually the tamest cabled section we would cross. Once past the cables there was a brief traverse followed by more steep climbing to the 10,000+ foot peak.

A view of the exposure on the cable-protected part of the trail
The blue dot just to the lower-right of the middle in this photo is actually a trail marker
In our preparation hike we had a beautiful warm day at the peak. During the race it was still early and there was a strong, cold wind. We didn't stick around. We also wanted to head down the next set of cables leading down. We didn't want to chance being stuck behind a team that was less than confident in their descending skills. Luckily, a hearty and capable group of Brits were the only ones in front of us. This part of the "trail" was the steepest thing I have ever descended without wearing a harness.

The British team heading down in front of me (photo Harry)
That ridge-line along the right side is basically the path we descended (photo Harry)

From here there was a brief traverse followed by more cables and then a narrow trail along the side of a steep slope. The trail was pretty mellow, but the drop-off continued to be both daunting and beautiful. After a bit of meandering between cairn markers the "trail" led to a large plateau known as Le Cheval Blanc. Here sat a large post marking the border between France and Switzerland. It also marked the beginning of our long descent. We could see all the way to the dam on the far side of the lake where our first checkpoint lay some 12 kilometers away. W'd first have a chain-protected drop followed by a steep, loose-scree downhill before a fairly technical descent through a canyon. The stream through which would be our first water source since the big climb. Harry and I had managed our water well, but I was definitely going to need it by the time we reached the stream.

Our destination is the other side of the lake. The route went the other side of the ridge to the right. (photo Harry)
The descent went without incident, but by the time we began filling our water, I was starting to feel my first spell of sleepiness. I tend to get my most significant tired spells in the mornings after not sleeping. It already approaching noon, but the climbing and technical trail had kept my adrenaline going through the early hours. I decided to mix myself a cold coffee to get some caffeine into my system. We were heading onto some easier trails so it was good to have a little "kick".

I've no problem in general going for long periods in silence and enjoy my solitude more often than not. However, I can get quite "chatty" when sharing my passions with other like-minded people or when simply trying to pass the time on the trail. It seems this trait tends to amplify when I'm tired perhaps as a sub-conscious impulse to keep myself awake. I'm afraid that my little dose of stimulant from the coffee sent it into overdrive as we fell in line behind the British team who had caught up during our stop at the stream. I wasn't really even aware of it until Harry piped in behind me, surprised by how much I was babbling on and on.

Despite my annoying trail demeanor, it did pass the time. We arrived at the checkpoint before I knew it. As soon as we walked into the restaurant area I saw a surprisingly familiar face. It was Daniel, Beat's team partner. We expected them to be quite far ahead of us. Apparently, Beat had met with some blister issues and was tending to them. He was a bit concerned about them so early in the race and we even talked about the possibility of needing to take Daniel onto our team if things went south further on. I didn't consider it too seriously because I know Beat too well. He doesn't have an issue finishing races regardless of suffering. In fact he tends to do better the more suffering there is (he would go on to finish not only this race, but the 200-mile TdG a week later).

Harry and I were feeling good and didn't want to stop just yet especially since we had packed nice sandwiches for this first day's lunch. We continued along the trail which was quite mellow a while and stopped in a sunny spot among wild blueberry bushes.  Beat and Daniel passed us here and we figured we wouldn't see them again though they were less certain. The trail from here descended gradually into the next valley at Les Marecottes. From there we had a relatively small climb up and over Le Coeur before descending into Martigny Croix.

Photo Sylenius

Though the initial descent was quite steep (as usual), Martigny is a beautiful, serene wine-growing region of Switzerland. While we would just be skirting the edge of town here, we decided it would be a good opportunity to check for some food. As it happens we saw Beat and Daniel coming out of town and they told us about a little store with a small cafe that served pizza. We made our way there purchased some soda and ordered a pizza to split.

It turned out that the girl working in this shop was signed up for UTMB and was very enthusiastic to discuss our race and her excitement about her upcoming challenge. I have to think that we were perhaps in some of our highest spirits at this point in the race. The weather was good. We'd tackled the initial tough sections without problem and the remainder of the day had been relatively mellow. Now we were enjoying some hot food and good conversation with this cute, young Swiss girl in this wonderful setting. Life was good.

We knew there was a massive 6000ft climb coming up, but it stretched over a longer distance and was at a much lower altitude than Le Buet. It just didn't seem nearly as daunting, at least, not on paper. Of course the reality would be quite different than expectation. We'd be 45 miles into the race having already climbed and descended more than 19,000ft each before heading up that pass. On top of that, we had yet to sleep and we were heading into our second night.

For the time being we may have been feeling good, but the truth is, we had no idea what lay ahead...

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Waiting Game

The mountains on the other side of the valley where our climb will begin

For those wanting to play along at home you can begin checking whatever updates they post at the following URL beginning on Monday, August 27th at 10:00pm Central Europe Time (aka 1:00pm PST). I have no idea how or how often the tracking will be done. However, between our expected pace and the inevitable delays with tracking technology in remote mountain locations, it's unlikely to be a very exciting site to watch unless, you enjoy waiting.

We are in the PTL race under the team name "Quit is a 4-Letter Word"

For us, the game has already begun. We've made our arrangements and rearrangements, multiple shopping trips to town with one more to come yet and still there are 3 hours (3pm) until we can pickup our bibs. After that it's another 3 hours (6pm) until the briefing, then dinner (7pm) which is, of course, another 3 hours before the start. Resting, relaxing and lounging around are unfortunately not on the pre-race agenda.

With time on my hands, I've not much to do but review the initial part of the trail in my head. Trail, of course, is a relative term







Saturday, August 25, 2012

Non-hundred training

Sitting here in Chamonix, France with only four short days between now and an event covering nearly 200 miles over some of the toughest mountain passes that can be crossed without the aid of technical gear, I cannot help but concern myself with the training I've put in leading up to this point. Last year, before undertaking the equally daunting Tor des Geants race, I had run 5 hundred milers in as many months leading up to the race. While I, of course, ran (or rather sludged) 135 miles across the snow in January, I found myself very early in the year with only a single hundred miler confirmed on my schedule and just about every opportunity filled to capacity or utilizing a lottery.  When the one 100 that I did attempt, Santa Barbara Endurance Run, was cancelled due to thunderstorms and flooding after only 31 miles (actually it was cancelled much sooner, but 4 of us were making our own off-course adventure), I suddenly realized that I may be attempting a massive mountain race without a single serious training run in the mountains.

Harry and I had discussed the idea of trying to get up into The Sierras as much as possible during the couple months before the race. In many ways travelling slow with bigger packs over technical, high-altitude terrain would likely be more specific preparation than running through the woods from aid station to aid station. I did manage to fit in three 50 mile races including a hot, crampy Leona Divide in Southern California (10:29) followed by a hotter, crampier Quicksilver 50M in San Jose (10:24) and the (finally) cool-weathered, but tough Marin Ultra Challenge (10:45). Each of these were great events and probably worthy of a solid race report of their own, but I really approached them almost exclusively as training. I threw in an odd 50K and a couple long runs, but mostly my training has been sporadic this year. I've both raced and run less than previous years, but I have gotten in quite a bit of hiking (and even some hike/runs).

Mid-June - Tahoe
Photos available here
Day 1
Our friend, Heather, was taking a week to do the entire Tahoe Rim Trail. Her plan was to knock it off over a full week in segments with support so they had reserved a camp ground and invited us to come along for the first weekend. I took Friday off work and headed up for the initial segment from xxx Pass to Echo. Lake Heather and her friend had parked cars at each end. The trail was about 16 miles. By Harry and I agreeing to start a bit later from one end of the trail they could go together and we figured our faster pace would have us meeting them somewhere in the middle to exchange keys. That was the plan. It began with us meeting Heather at our side of the trail so the timing was off from the start. Not a problem it just meant meeting a bit further along the trail and perhaps some quality time at a Starbucks afterwards for Harry and I.

We ran a good portion of the initial trail and then took a long leisurely lunch waiting for the ladies to show up around 10 miles in. When they didn't, we just continued along without to much thought. 5 miles from the end, we became a little concerned. Another mile and it grew. With only 3 miles to the end of the trail, we were pretty certain something had gone wrong and we only hopped it wasn't serious. That's right about when they showed up. Apparently, they had gone in the wrong direction from the start. To make things worse Heather's friend wasn't feeling well. After discussing various options, we decided that she would return to their starting point and Harry, Heather and myself would continue back in the direction from which we came assuring that Heather didn't miss out on her planned TRT segment. In the end we completed 26 miles, about 8 miles more than planned.

Day 2
For the second day, Harry and I wanted to get an overnight trek in. I always feel like there's something about pushing oneself through the night and into the next day. It puts you at a level of exhaustion well beyond just the physical feat of covering the miles. At the end of such effort, I feel as if I've hit the 'reset button' on my training. For this day, we split into two groups. Martina and Heather's boyfriend John, drove up Friday night. John would join Harry and I starting from Tahoe City going to Barker Pass and then continuing along most of the section to Echo Lake, but cutting back along an alternate route back to the campground overnight. Martina and Heather started from Barker and shuttled to meet Heather's friend along trail.

Since we wouldn't be staying strictly to the TRT, Harry had plotted out planned course using some mapping software. This was a good chance for us both to test out our new GPS units (Garmin eTrex 30) that we would be using for PTL. They turned out to be most useful. We weren't totally certain of the distance, but estimated around 45 with an option to add mileage with a second high peak after Dick's Pass. Our travel was a bit longer and slower than expected with some water challenges, a number of battles with mosquitoes and then some very interesting navigation over the pass at midnight. We made it down safely on some very technical trail that we decided was perfect training to discover one of the wonderful surprises of plotting a course using digital maps. Our route back to camp had us sneaking through some large, private resort. At the end of the road there was a sign for the trail so it was definitely the planned path. However, this so-called trail consisted of an hour of bushwhacking through brush along a rather exposed ledge over the lack. We were never quite sure where we were or if we were even still on the trail until we dumped back out the Fallen Leaf Road.

I'd never been so happy to be on asphalt. A tired trudge along the road brought us back to camp by dawn with around 48 miles under our belts. It turned out the ladies had some bigger navigation challenges (sans GPS) and had only been back for a few hours. We slept for a bit and then saw Heather off for another segment before grabbing a some eats and heading home.

Approx. Weekend Stats
Distance: 74 miles
Time: 28hrs
High Point: 9000ft
Ave. Altitude: 7500ft
Total Climb: 13,000ft

Early July - Emigrants Wilderness
Photos available here
Day 1
Harry came up with the great idea to spend a weekend doing fast-packing in the Emigrants Wilderness which lies almost directly between Tuolumne and Tahoe in the Sierras. I'd never been and was excited to explore a new area. With a busy work schedule I decided to work through the mid-week 4th of July holiday and make a very early Saturday departure. Since we would be camping on trail, this trip would require much more full packs including sleeping bags, pads, a lightweight tarp shelter and enough food for at least 2 days. The trail started out around 7000ft and went straight up from there staying around 9000ft most of the time. It's a beautiful area with large granite outcroppings between high-mountain meadows. Unfortunately, the meadows meant that the mosquitoes were even more prevalent (and somehow more aggressive) than in Tahoe. We were pretty much plagued by them the entire first day even spending an extra hour wandering off trail in a vain attempt to find a campsite that wasn't infested. Eventually, we simply gave in, dawned our long pants. jackets and just sat crouching trying to wait them out as the temperature slowly dropped. They mostly (though not completely) left us alone at night though we both had near sleepless nights up at 9000ft after our 26 mile day.

Day 2
The next morning we rose early and decided to just do one long push rather than stay over another night. We ditched our plan to take on another pass, but headed up to 10,000ft before turning around and heading back down the way we came. Truth be told, it wasn't exactly what we set out to do, but we adjusted expectations along the trail and made it the plan of record. after finishing the 10 mile out-and-back we headed down into Upper Relief Valley. This was the most beautiful section of the entire hike consisting of steep granite walls descending into a deep canyon. Best of all, it was almost completely mosquito free! After climbing back out of the valley into the rising heat of the day we hooked back up with the trail we took the day before. As is often the case, it seemed longer on the return, the final descent even steeper and the trail a bit harder to follow. We totaled 31 miles for the second day, but weren't on our feet much longer than the first. Still, it was two long days of solid mountain hiking.

Approx. Weekend Stats
Distance: 57 miles
Moving time: 24hrs
High Point: 10,000ft
Ave. Altitude: 9000ft
Total Climb: 9800ft

Mid July - Tuolumne Meadows
Photos available here
Day 1
For our third Sierra excursion we wanted to get in a bit higher altitude training. Harry suggested we spend one day summiting Mt. Dana at 13,000ft and do something different on the other day. Tuolumne Meadows is one of my favorite places and I remembered having a great run out to the XXX Lakes starting from Lambert Dome. I knew that Mt. Conness was a classic hike in that area and some research showed a route continuing along the path I had taken before. We decided to tackle this 12,500ft summit the first day making it the longer of the two. Again we set out on a pre-dawn Saturday drive and hit the trail from my car.
There isn't a clearly defined trail all the way to Conness, but there between the info we found online and Harry's creative map-work, we had only slight route finding along the way. The climb leading to Conness was quite steep with very loose footing. More than once we commented on how familiar it felt in comparison to some of the trails we'd done at TDG. The top of peak is accessed via a bolder field that claims Class 2 scrambling, but includes one section of pretty significant exposure. However, the view from the peak was more than worth it. We made haste on the way down and even ran a bit of the final descent for a 21 mile day all above 9000ft.

Day 2
Since this trip was planned last minute, we ended up driving to Mammoth Lakes to stay for the night. The next day we headed up Mt. Dana which goes directly up from 10,000ft to the peak 3000ft higher in just about 3 miles. There's no way to do that without an extremely steep climb and the final parts was all find-your-own-way boulder scrambling. The amazing thing was that both Harry and I felt great the entire time. I know that heading up to altitude every other weekend isn't really supposed to do much for your physiological acclimation. However, I believe there is a large mental aspect to how you feel at altitude and how you react to the signals your body is giving you. My anecdotal experience tells me that repeated trips, even with some layoff between, do have great benefits in this realm.
Harry descended the backside of Dana which consisted of trail-less scree down an extremely steep slope. It was disconcerting and probably not the best idea for avoiding possible ankle injury. We had intended continuing up the saddle of the sister peak XXX. However, with a strong wind blowing and some potential storm clouds gathering in the distance, we opted to just  head down the saddle cross-country. While maybe not the best for our training, it turned out to be one of the most pleasant hikes. We ended the day with only 9 miles or so, but our spirits were quite lifted. We'd summited two high peaks, spent a lot of time up above 10,000ft and had a weekend of great hiking through beautiful country.

Approx. Weekend Stats
Distance: 30 miles
Moving time: 15hrs
High Point: 13,000ft
Ave. Altitude: 10,500ft
Total Climb: 9000ft

End of July - Donner Pass to Squaw and back
Photos not yet uploaded
Three weeks before our trip to Europe, Harry and Martina were staying at Harry's mother's place at Donner Lake and planning one last training run in the Sierras. They invited me along. I couldn't afford an entire weekend so I drove to Auburn late Friday night and met them at thee summit Saturday morning. With a turnaround at the Squaw Valley resort this was a small-pack trip so Harry and I intended to do a lot more running and just wait for Martina at various points. She was planning to go just one direction meeting up with Harry's and her mom (visiting from Germany) for lunch on the other side. We ended up waiting around for about an hour at the resort where some sort of "Yoga Fest" was being held. Despite the layover, I really didn't take care of my nutrition very well beyond sucking down a Starbuck's Frappucino as the afternoon quickly warmed up.

The climb out of Squaw was hot and long. We continued running back once reaching the top and still marveled at how good we felt at altitude. However, the heat, lack of calories and then running out of water a few miles before the end had me sitting down beside the trail before the final descent. Of course, I questioned all of my training and whether I just had illusions about my abilities "up high". After all, here I was on a mellow 9 hour, 50K training run being slapped down by the altitude and my own bad planning. We both finished and agreed it was a sufficient workout, but the doubts lingered just as they still do now. However, if these events were anything but uncertain, what would the fun be?

Approx. Weekend Stats
Distance: 31 miles
Moving time: 9 hours
High Point: 9,900ft
Ave. Altitude: 8,000ft
Total Climb: 6500ft

And now....
We made a three day hike covering the first 50K of the PTL course upon arriving here in Chamonix. It covered 14,000ft of climbing and included some of the most technical "trail" you can do without harness and rope. The cabled section going up to the high point on Le Buet (10,000ft) wasn't so bad, but the cables going down the other side were quite harrowing. Martina has a picture up on facebook, but I haven't been able to upload any of mine yet. The scary part is that we will need to cover this much trail each day for more than 5 days in order to just make the cutoffs for this event.

After our hiking trip, we spent one more day up at altitude sleeping in a refuge 7000ft above the Chamonix valley. We took the gondola up and did a mellow run down this morning.

The $20/night room had a $500/night view. Of this I will post one picture because it was simply spectacular.

View from our window at Refuge Plan de l'Aiguille

I will try to make one last post before the race including any info we learn about following it online.

Monday, August 13, 2012

PTL 2012 Regulation

From the website:



The route taken by the la Petite Trotte à Léon contains passages which are technically more difficult than those met on most Trails (in particular the UTMB®).

Those wishing to participate require a good knowledge of the ‘middle’ mountain environment. Some parts of the route can present objective dangers: steep slopes, risk of falling rocks, very narrow paths, scree or bolder fields and firns (snow pockets), and at intervals no clearly defined path or track...

The route is not WAY-MARKED and is mostly FAR FROM INHABITED ZONES. It is to be realized IN COMPLETE AUTONOMY, every team adapting its progressional tactics to suit the profile of the ground and conditions of the moment. To progress in safety competitors have to master the techniques of navigation with a GPS and possess the necessary knowledge in order to use a map, compass and altimeter.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: being able to cope with facing bad weather, lack of sleep, fatigue, the cold, the heat, hunger, thirst…


If that isn't enough to instill appropriate amounts of fear, there are the photos from the course recon:


Frankly, I'm still trying to wrap my skull around the whole concept of the first major pass which consists of 5300+ft of climbing in about 3.5 miles. How is that even possible?!?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

White Line Fever

Traditionally, the defining characteristics of the Arrowhead race are extreme cold and travelling 135 miles across snow. With temperatures well into the positive degrees Fahrenheit and even threatening to creep north of freezing, there was something a bit lacking from this year's event. It seems strange to lament the absence of  truly life-threatening weather, and that isn't to say that the race was without its challenges including some unique to the warmer temps. However, one of the aspects that lends appeal to extreme, winter racing is the mental focus and clarity required to keep oneself safe in the conditions. I hate to say it, but without this, some aspects of the Arrowhead 135 were a bit boring, challenging certainly, but very long, and, at times, quite monotonous.

I tried to keep things interesting by making a number of stupid mistakes early on.

The pre-dawn, pre-race
Just like Susitna, I missed the actual start...

Starting in the dark and early hours of Monday morning, the temperature hovered around  high single-digits, about the lowest we'd see all race. I started out with a guy named Lee from Scotland, who was staying at the same hotel as me. We'd met a couple days prior and had been hanging out and making final preparations. We talked and moved along at a good clip as the sun came up. The first shelter was upon us at mile 9.5 in just 2-1/2 hours which is quite a stiff pass for a race such as this. However, Lee was such an entertaining chap that I didn't think pay it much attention.


As the day warmed up, softening the snow, I began to feel the effects of my early enthusiasm. The perceived level of effort slowly began to increase and I felt a growing tightness in my thighs. This was a very long race and cramping-up one's quads at only 15 miles was an extraordinarily bad idea. It was clear that Lee's walking pace was well outside my comfort zone, especially given my ill conditioning and lack of training for this event. I bid him farewell and watched him march away down the trail.

Goodbye, Lee

By mile 20, I had to strip down to my tights as my legs had become quite warm. I had been wearing only my thin liner gloves and eventually took even those off. A few miles later, I drained my water. I hadn't expected to be drinking much in the early miles and, stupidly, didn't fill my supplemental bottle. There I was, hours to go before the checkpoint, sweating, dehydrating and fighting off cramps in a race that was supposedly renown for its frigid temperatures.

Those few hours turned out to be more like 5. Luckily, I linked up with another very generous runner who had plenty of extra water and was happy to share. Unfortunately, I don't recall the kind gentleman's name, but he provided more than just hydration as he regaled me with tales of completing the Iditasport 350 back in the 90's.
A bit warm, but still happy
 The one upside of my planning failure, is that it killed any further over-exuberance in my pace. I trudged along towards the first checkpoint, decided to just take it easy and enjoy the trail.

This is the trail...pretty much all of it.

I also enjoyed seeing other races (mostly as they passed me) and their creative sled designs--much more varied than at Susitna.

This design pays huge dividends during the hilly, later miles.
As the day's light fell and the checkpoint failed to appear, I became a bit concerned about my pace. Consulting with some other runners, it seemed there were differing opinions about the exact mileage to this first stop, but it was clear that my assumption of 30 miles was inaccurate. Lack of course knowledge, another inexcusable mistake.

Despite all my dumb mistakes, arriving at the Gateway Store, I felt pretty good. My spirits were further lifted when I learned we'd already completed 36 miles. Some soup, some coffee and filling all my water to the brim, I made haste at the checkpoint. I wanted to take advantage of my improved mood and get back out on the trail to cover some of those night miles before fatigue kicked in.

Bring on the night!
The early night hours went well, if uneventful. The trail travelling through the woods provided even less variety than your average night ultra. A couple of trail shelters (basically 3-sided sheds) along the way offered some welcome distraction, but I was determined to make it through this first night without sleep. Beyond the 2nd shelter of this section (Shelter 4 of the race), I was travelling alone. A short time later, the first real hill appeared and my first wave of sleepiness along with it. I'm sure it wasn't that long, but it seemed nearly endless as I was dipping into the early morning hours; always a tough time for me. I took some short breaks nearly dozing off while leaning on my poles and then pressed on, looking forward to the next checkpoint which was described as being across a lake. The change of scenery would be welcome.

Do I look tired?
The Lake!

As promised, the checkpoint was in a cabin directly across a big lake. As I headed out, I was looking forward to enjoying the wide, open perspective. It felt different from at Susitna where the lakes were often little centers of activity with snowmobiles, ice fishing and airplane runways. This was a big, empty, expansive space. Unfortunately, the view didn't last long as it began to snow.

On the lake... the snow.
By the time I arrived at the cabin, the it was coming down quite hard. I was happy to head inside for some warm food. The cabin was welcoming, but--consistent with the flavor of this race--minimal in terms of support. I relaxed for a bit on the couch and restocked my supplies from my one and only drop bag. As I fussed with my gear, I heard a Scottish accent to my right. It was Lee! He'd apparently had some leg issues and was getting the necessary care before heading back out on the trail. After catching up a bit, we decided to head out together. His leg would keep him down at my slower pace.

Heading out with a smile.
My spirits were up heading back on the trail. It was good to have some company with the hilly sections coming up. The hills at Arrowhead can be a literal drag until--that is--you realize you are towing a downhill toboggan. At the top of each hill, I started throwing off my waste belt, flipping my polls backwards over the sled and riding it down. I would then use my trekking poles to steer and to extend the ride as long as I could at the bottom. Lee and I were having a blast. Perhaps this was part of the reason we opted to skip the next shelter and push on before sleep. Besides, it wasn't yet dark out.

The rare chance to have fun during this long and sometimes arduous trek was irresistible. However, it was probably a mistake as the next opportunity for shelter was further off than we realized. Also, much of the fun ended for me when I crashed into Lee's sled at the bottom of one of the hills and cracked the front of mine. Lee continued to ride down to save his leg as much as possible, while I gave chase on foot. As the night went on fatigue began to kick in and the shelter didn't seem to be getting any closer.

There's a bit of confusion in my memory about this section. I distinctly remember our searching for and passing Shelter 6 while it was still light. Our exact reasoning for pushing on to the next shelter seems to escape me now. Perhaps due to the light, maybe we underestimated our pace over the coming 12 miles or it could just have been the allure of closing in on that 100 mile mark before sleep. At any rate, it was approaching midnight before we reached our stopping point.

Somehow, I had it in my head that we couldn't afford much time for sleep. I set my alarm for an hour, but by the time I dragged my sleeping bag (most of the way) out of its stuff sack and settled in on the hard ground, I doubt I got 30 minutes in before trying to put it all back together in a foggy daze. I went and woke Lee and we headed out after some more futzing about.

I think one of my biggest failures in these very long events is failing to balance the equation of sleep versus pace. It's very difficult to convince yourself that an extra hour (or even 2) of snoozing will easily pay dividends in the ability to move forward at a consistent rate. It's a lesson I should have learned at TDG. It's a lesson of which I was going to be reminded in this race during the hours to come.

I know we made at least a few hours before it caught up to us. The first was about 10 minutes, the next, maybe 15. These were basically what's known as a "shiver bivy" where you sleep until awoken by the cold. I would take my sleeping pad off the sled, then just lay partially on it and partially the sled until I snapped awake, ready to move. However, these clearly weren't doing the trick, so the third time, I pulled out my giant  down jacket and snoozed for a full 1/2 hour.

During this time our moving pace couldn't have maxed more than 2mph as Lee and I basically took turns stumbling forward or stopping and nearly nodding off. We were passed by at least a half dozen people during this period, a further testament to our poor decision making at the shelter. Eventually we exited the dense woods and the sun started to rise. The waking light was more than welcome as was the realization that we finally seemed to be making progress towards the third and final checkpoint.

However, along with brightening sky, the morning brought a snow storm.
The one and only time I needed to don my shell

Luckily, we shortly passed the next shelter indicating that we weren't far from the checkpoint. The final checkpoint was basically nothing more than tall, narrow tent. In past its been nicknamed the Teepee of despair due to the area being renown for strong winds and stormy weather...well, and also being 115 miles into a grueling race. While being the most minimalist of the minimal "aid stations" at Arrowhead, for me it was a bright spot since I remember it as The Teepee of HOT CHOCOLATE!

Lee looking happy
Me, a bit weary

We sat and collected our wits.

There were still more than 20 miles to go with one big climb followed by a long straight shot to the finish. Lee's leg was bothering him quite a bit so we discussed that we probably wouldn't be together to the end. I wanted to get out of there by 8am and, luckily, the snow let up just before that out we went.

A bit of snow had gathered on our sleds
Lee and I stuck together up to Wakemup Hill. I was actually looking forward to the climb (and descent) to wake me up. It turned out to be less of a challenge than expected probably due to all the anticipation. Cruising to the bottom of the hill, I wanted to continue running for a bit so I bid Lee farewell after he finished his ride down. He's a tough one, so I knew I'd be seeing him at the finish.

However, it wasn't long before I'd be missing the companionship. This last section had a reputation for seeming to go on forever. It was long, flat, straight and devoid of any interesting distractions. The final 9 miles of Susitna were mentally tough in this same way, but at Arrowhead, the final stretch was more than twice the distance.

At first it wasn't so bad...

Staring off across a distant field

Wide open expanses help keep me distracted

But, things were about to change.

Crossing a deserted road

The last trail sign I'd see.
The trail turned into the all-too-familiar medium-wide path lined with trees. Furthermore, as far as the eye could see, it was straight and just ever-so-slightly uphill. This definitely felt like a re-run of the Susitna finish, but without the crazy night-mode hallucinations to entertain me. Also, twice as long. I was ready to be done, but the finish line was still hours away.

Ultra-runners are used to the many silly comments and questions about our sport, from "why the hell would you do that?" to "I don't even like to drive that far." One of the most common is "don't you get bored?" I've always prided myself in being able to provide a definitive "no" to that question. I don't listen to music or require pacers for company. I enjoy being out there on the trail with only the sounds of the world and the conversations in my own mind to keep me going. I enjoy the scenery during the day and the quiet solace of the night. But something about the dragging snow and the endless row of trees in this race got to me.

Trees, trees, and more trees
More trees...
...and still more. OK, its the same photo as before, but you get the idea.

I passed one other racer who had stopped to fiddle with his sled. After confirming he was OK, I told him that I was so bored I wanted to "tear out my own eyeballs!" A short while later I started singing out loud. This is something I had never done before in a race, but I started the previous night in this one. It wasn't actually singing, but more humming and dum-dee-dumming random tunes some of which I'm not even sure were real songs.

There was no real struggle to keep going--that might have provided some sort of distraction. It was just that with my extreme tired, the lack of variety in the scenery and the absence of even the smallest form of wildlife to enjoy, I felt like I was going numb. After another hour or so, I needed to do something to snap myself out of it.

I took out my camera and decided to make myself laugh.


Call it a momentary lapse in sanity. At least the absurdity of it kept me moving. As you can guess, what was ahead next was...
Eventually, the trail leveled out from its slight uphill bent and then made a turn into a more sparsely forested section. I was so happy for the change that I decided to run a little. Before I knew it, I had arrived at the second-to-last road crossing. A snowmobile came by and told me it was around 9 miles to the finish. This still meant hours, but my spirits were up a bit because I could see that the terrain was in for a change as we were approaching the bay.

A trudged along as the climb steepened a bit estimating in my head when I might finish. I decided that when I came within an hour of my estimate I would start running. The next couple hours passed more quickly and with a little luck, the trail leveled out just as I reached the time I agreed to start running. It wasn't a run by any non-winter ultra standards, but at mile 130-something into a sled-dragging event, it represented a solid effort.

The final road crossing meant about 2 miles to the end. I was greeted on the other side by the first sign of life outside idiot racers and snowmobilers.

Poor guy had been confused out of hibernation by the temperate winter 
Clearly, wanted nothing to do with these idiots running around his domain

I caught up with one final racer as we entered an area with fences indicating that we had reached whatever this part of the country considers civilization. I tried to get him to run in with me, but he said he was hurting and was just going to take it slow to the finish.

As usual, the final turns, twists and little bumps always seem to increase just before the end, but it wasn't long until it was in sight. I slogged it across the line and unhitched my harness more happy just to be done than elated at having finished.

The finish of the race is at a casino set out on a large bay which provided its own level of surrealism. Despite my lack of sleep, I didn't feel the total pass-out type of exhaustion that I did at Susitna, perhaps due to just the time of day. I waited around with other racers in various states of fatigue. Lee finished a couple hours after me looking strong as ever despite the injury.

Certainly, I consider Arrowhead a major accomplishment. The absence of extreme temperatures left me feeling a slight bit ambivalent. It wasn't quite the visceral winter experience that I had hope for, but without it, I probably wouldn't be sitting with my name on this list.


OK. So I am publishing this report 6 months late (and ironically sitting in Arizona in 116-degree temps). However, I have a rule that I need to publish my big race reports before my next big race. This year has been nearly devoid of big races thus far. Due to the prevalence of races filling up and using lotteries along with one cancellation, there have been no 100-milers on my schedule. I've done 3 50-milers and a host of other specific training, but ready or not, I'll be heading to Europe next week for PTL. It's sort of the "big brother" race to UTMB and a good step up in challenge from last year's TdG given that it is almost completely unsupported. I'm started to get excited about it and hope to find time in the coming week to post at least a few more things before heading out.