Monday, August 11, 2014

Second look

For my second preview of the course, there weren't many options that offered easy logistics. The first two sections of the course were either too far away or offered pretty poor access. My friends would arrive on Monday and we agreed to check out the final section no Tuesday. That left either doing part of Leg 5 which was listed as the easiest section or some of Leg 4 which would represent the final descent from the climb I did on Saturday. I opted for the latter

Since I would be going opposite the race direction, I was to head up the Hope Pass trail and then hook up for a bit more climbing on Grainger Creek Trail. I planned for a shorter day so I wouldn't be hitting the steeper bits of the trail near the top.

If the Bonnevier Trail was a single-lane country road, then Hope Pass was like a two-lane highway. Though the soft ground made it feel more like a wide, padded track. In reality, it's actually a historic wagon trail.

Again the trail was in deep tree cover, but this one much more reminiscent of something you might see in the Tahoe area. Big coniferous trees, lots of shade, but with a more open feeling.

It was also a much more popular trail as I passed at least a half dozen backpackers heading in from one or other of the trail camps. However, as soon as I turned off the wide path around 4-1/2 miles in, I didn't see another soul.

Grainger Creek was a more narrow single-track trail winding its way up the side of the mountains. Where the previous day's path didn't follow any obvious topographical feature (in fact, it appeared as if someone just decided to make their way through the woods), this trail contoured along the side of the hill slowly climbing above its namesake creek (though it might be considered a raging river in California right now given our drought).

Many offshoot streams crossed the trail feeding down to the creek often creating short muddy bits to step over.

This well maintained trail, included bridges built over any longer sections of muck.

Of course, this meant for lush and green surroundings and an all around enjoyable hike up the trail.

While there once again was very little view due to the dense cover, I was always aware of it teasing just beyond the curtain of trees. I kept expecting to come out into a clearing at some point. This is probably why I ended up going further up trail than planned. In the end, I only ended up with one brief view of the surrounding area.

When I finally turned around after 8-1/2 miles (a mile longer than intended), I couldn't help myself. This trail was pretty much just the sort I love to bomb downhill. A soft, easy surface, but with just enough rocks, roots, twists and turns to keep it interesting. I did manage to reel in the proverbial reins, forcing myself to walk anything that was flat or slightly uphill. I also kept the downhill pace in check, but felt light on my feet the whole way.

With the two days combined, I'd covered well over 1/4 of the race distance. Unfortunately, though, since I had to do everything as an out-and-back, I'd only seen around 1/7 of the course. I'm also a little worried that I picked sections that were a bit easy, building a little false confidence. No matter, it will give me something to look forward to as I grind through the first couple climbs.

Also, I wouldn't want to have the race completely devoid of surprises (as if that would be possible in an event this long).

Saturday, August 09, 2014

First Impressions

I'm up in Canada a week before the Fat Dog 120 mile race. Since I'm typically under-trained, I thought I would come up a week before and at least get a bit of a preview. I haven't done a mountain 100 since Bryce last year and have only managed a few trips up to the Sierras this summer. Luckily, the altitude isn't a huge issue (high point around 7500ft), but it does have plenty of climbing (28,000ft) and there's that extra 20 miles. While there's not much I can do in terms of training at this point, I figured seeing some of the course and getting my head in the right space might help.

My friends who are also doing the race don't arrive until Monday and we agreed to check out the last section of the course (purportedly one of the most difficult) together. So, I looked for another section for my solo preview today. I chose the third section labeled Bonnevier. It was accessible right off the highway and starts about 41 miles or so into the race. With a 10am start time, that puts it squarely into the night hours for my pace. This would give me a chance to see some of it in the day and also give me some familiarity with trail that I'll be doing just as fatigue and sleepiness become part of the race experience.

The first 2-1/2 miles are on a forest service road and mostly (almost*) all climbing. Then you take a sharp left off the road and onto trail that narrows down to singletrack in the next 1/2 mile.

This is "real deal" singletrack. In fact, with the significant overgrowth in parts, the path nearly disappears altogether. I would venture that this trail sees less traffic than even the least visited trails in most of California's mountains.

The trail was quite good. Beneath the overgrowth there were a few roots, but it was not super technical. There weren't many rocks nor downed trees across the trail. This last, apparently, due to the heroic effort by some volunteers. In numerous places along the trail there was evidence of recently cut trees that would have lain cross the trail. The area is quite ripe with downed trees.

The other thing that made the trail pretty mellow was the ease of navigation. The GPX track I downloaded (and Harry edited) was excellent, but almost completely unnecessary. The course was already marked and the markings were beyond superb. Almost excessive, even. If this section is any indication, if I don't see a ribbon for more than 2 minutes, I should turn around and go back.

Overall, the climb was not especially steep, accumulating just under 2000ft in the first 4-1/2 miles before dropping down a bit and climbing another 1200ft before I turned around after about 10 miles. Of course, that's on fresh legs in the middle of the day. We'll see what story those legs tell in the middle of the night after 40+ miles that include two of the biggest climbs on the course.

The views from up top were quite wonderful. However, the vast majority of the miles I did were completely contained within a thick forest with little in the way of grand vistas. I guess that's appropriate for a section that I'll be starting at night.

Overall, I took it pretty easy, treating it more as a hike than a run. Anyone who knows me knows that I am pretty much incapable of not running downhill, but even on the downhills I kept it constrained and conservative. Keeping things easy a week before the race was obviously part of it. However, I was also running solo and I was the only person on the trail. In fact, after leaving the road, I didn't see another single human being in the 5 hours I was out there. Amazing to be just 10 miles from the road and feel completely isolated.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Frozen Tearsicles

The Iditarod Trail is an ephemeral thing, lasting for just one season each year. It is also essentially perpetual, renewed again the following winter after inevitable spring thaws. Unfortunately, the continuity of our own lives is never quite so certain and none of us knows exactly how many seasons we will have.

I arrived at the final checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Invitational to learn that my father had passed away the previous night. He'd been dealing with a number of health issues with significant degeneration over the past couple years, but I did get to spend time with him before departing for Alaska. He had just been released from the hospital and we were hopeful to see this as just another minor setback. It was, apparently, not to be.

Encouraged by my family to finish the race, I knew I would not be able to get much sleep at that point so I headed back out into the night. Walking the frozen trail, watching the northern lights and, eventually, falling asleep in my bivy beneath the star-filled Alaskan sky, I thought about my dad.

The next morning, I continued down the remainder of the final 50-mile stretch with a lifetime of memories as my companion. There were some difficult moments and one near-complete breakdown, but I'm glad that I was able to spend this time "with him" on the trail.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Well, it's been another winter of fits and starts. Since the "Fear and Loathing" race, I've had a setbacks on a number of fronts. With almost no training at all the rest of December and a single 50K race in January, I decided to go ahead with my plan to attempt a repeat at the Arrowhead 135.

It went well enough for the first 24 hours or so, toughing it through temps down into the -40s. Leaving the 72 mile checkpoint Tuesday afternoon my lungs weren't feeling great, but I managed to convince myself it was just the lack of sleep and it would work itself out if I could sneak in a bit of rest the next night. However, it didn't take long to realize that my hacking and coughing was not going to clear up so easily especially given that I only had a single hour on the cutoff time. After 2-1/2 miles I made the decision to turn back rather than risk a potentially more serious illness along with my plans for returning to the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile race less than 4 weeks hence.

Given my past history, friends of mine have always predicted that my first DNF would either be because I was dragged kicking-and-screaming from the course or carried off in a stretcher. In the end, it was actually a fairly easy decision. Every now and then I like to make the smart choice, but I don't generally make a habit of it. After around 90 ultra-marathons and 27 of them of 100 miles or longer, it was inevitable that I would eventually not finish one.

And now, since my main motivation for accepting those three letters was for a larger and more fulfilling goal, I am about to head north to Alaska. I don't feel at all prepared and trail conditions (though quite the opposite of what we experienced in Minnesota) are not looking great. Alaska experienced a significant melt down in January followed by a re-freeze the course is more ice and frozen ground than snow. However, the Iditarod trail is never the same any two given years anyways so one simply has to take it in stride.

Despite significant reservations, I'm looking forward to being out there on the trail, moving forward through the last great frontier. At least the time pressures won't be what they were at Arrowhead and I'm excited about returning to the "expedition mentality" that is an integral aspect of this event.

Updates will be infrequent, but available here:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fear and Loathing in the dead of night

The Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing 50K/50M is one of those classic ultrarunning events that's been on my "to do" list for some time. It's been around for around 30 years and follows the San Francisco 49 mile Scenic Drive as it winds it's way through the city. Running 50 miles on roads certainly doesn't sounds like it fits in my wheelhouse. However, I really love events that have a certain "organic" aspect to them and the idea of a long race that tours the city I've lived near most of my life, is simply irresistible. Now that I live in the San Francisco and the route goes right by my place, I had no excuse not to join the fun.

Well, I actually did have one excuse. I wanted to run the entire course, but I had some things I wanted to do in the afternoon and didn't want to kill my entire Sunday. Not only would it likely take at least 9 hours to run the course, but I would have to travel to and from the start at Twin Peaks which is about 5 miles from my house and an hour by public transit. So, rather than opting to just run the 50K route, I hit upon the somewhat crazy idea of starting my run in the middle of the night from home so I could finish there the following morning.

Leaving my house near Fort Mason right around midnight, it was interesting to be running such common paths while dark and empty. Coming out of the Presidio I saw a coyote running in the middle of the street with something in its mouth. Further on the path in a residential neighborhood heading towards Ocean Beach, I was surprised by a group of raccoons that came tumbling around a corner in the midst of a fight. A bit more wildlife than I expected especially since I wasn't even in the park.

The path along the beach and up and over The Great Highway was quite peaceful with nary a bit of traffic which would be impossible in the daylight. After that it was out and around Lake Merced and then on towards Golden Gate Park. The normally-crowded Sunset Blvd also devoid of vehicles in the wee hours of the a.m. However, once the route took me into the Park, the solitude turned from pleasant to creepy. Its one thing to not see another living thing that isn't scavenging for leftover morsels. It's quite another to be continuously haunted by the thought that that emptiness might just be an illusion and you may just wake someone sleeping in those bushes next to the path. I opted to run in the middle of the street instead.

I was glad to finally be leaving the park and heading up towards UCSF Medical, but looking at the route to the "start" had me a wee concerned. The official race began at 7:00am. It wasn't even 5 yet and I was only a few miles from the base of the final climb up Twin Peaks. It was around 5:30am when I arrived at Portola Drive. It was Sunday and I imagined myself cowering in a doorway for the next hour. Then I noticed the Starbucks across the street with a light on and someone going in the door. I hustled across and smiled as I headed inside. A much better venue to spend my waiting time.

Despite overnight temps in the 30s, I hadn't really been cold for the entire run. Taking over an hour break and then heading back out took care of that. I cowered at the top of the hill with everyone else anxiously awaiting the start. It was good to get caught up with old friends though once we were underway, the extra miles on my legs kept me far in the back of the pack. No problem. I was still enjoying running solo as the morning came upon us and we headed mostly downhill through Dolores Hights to Cesar Chavez and towards the bay.

I knew the night was taking a toll when I was running along the Embarcadero and needed to use a bathroom. I stopped at one of the little public stalls, but then read the sign reading "vacant", uttered a "damn it" to myself and ran on. It was about 1/2 mile before I realized that my brain had translated that to "occupied". Of course, every other one I came upon either was occupied or out of order. Figures.

Just as I was really starting to feel the fatigue, I was lucky enough to hook up with another runner, Billy McCarty, who is a really interesting guy and helped pass the time as we wound our way through the shopping district, Japan Town, China Town and then up to Coit Tower before descending down to Fisherman's Warf and then back towards home.

I finished up about 11 hours after I started with my GPS registering around 48 miles for the full 49-mile Scenic Drive. I'm not sure if I'd do it again, certainly not in the same fashion. However, it was probably the most fun I've ever had running that many miles on road. My legs definitely felt like they do after a normal 50 miler, but my feet hurt much, much more.

In the end, the goal was accomplished. I got in some solid miles and made it back home in time for a nap before the start of the 49ers game :-)