Saturday, February 25, 2017

Loss and Hope

I just finished re-reading my thoughts after my first finish at the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2013. While the theme of "enough" was partly metaphorical, it would not be difficult to conclude that perhaps I should have taken it more literally. The next two years, first my father and then my wife passed away while I was out on the same trail.  It's difficult enough to explain why such an event attracts me in the first place, let alone the reason I'm returning to Alaska and an event associated with some of the most painful events in my life.

In truth, I have more than just a bit of ambivalence about being here right now. On top of that, these past couple of years have seen my enthusiasm for long-distance racing on a continual decline. Looking back at the two major events I entered last year, Hardrock 100 and Ultra Fiord, I enjoyed the time around the events—training and hiking in Colorado and Chile—much more than I did the actual races. In many ways, I feel like I'm ready to be done with ultrarunning. Looking back, I've accomplished everything I wanted to in the sport. Looking forward, there aren't any races for which I feel motivated to sign up. I still like running for it's own sake and will always love the trails, but long-distance racing seems to be losing its draw for me.

However, the ITI is different and it's different in a myriad of ways. While it is a race, I never think of it as such, not even in the sense of a race against the clock. Certainly, it takes great effort and there are times when I have to push to make it to a checkpoint before I sleep, but there is almost no actual running in it for me. Walking for up to 16 hours a day, I'm able to enjoy and take in my surroundings in a way that I cannot during other events. Even when the trail is bad and I struggle to gain ground, I am still surrounded by immense natural beauty in a remote and disconnected environment. Of course, I do have to stay aware out there, but there are also long periods of time absorbed in nothing but simple forward motion. In the remotest sections there is an almost unbelievable quiet and tranquility; hours can pass, even days, without encountering another living being.

In the stillness of the Alaskan wild there are mental landscapes to be explored as well. Going on foot provides more than ample time and space for introspection. In 2015, before I learned of the tragedy awaiting me—before my life fell apart—I had started a mental journey that parallelled my physical one. At some point out there on the trail I hit on the idea of looking back. Beginning with my very earliest childhood memories, I started "walking" through my life. Year by year, I reviewed what I could recall about events, people, things I did and, more importantly, what it felt like to be the person I was at that time. I found myself connecting different points in time, things that had happened, decisions I'd made and their effects on my life over time.

The most surprising thing was not any big self-revelations or discovery of changes I wanted to make in my life, because neither of those were the goal. The goal was simply to understand and accept that life and those choices that had brought me there, walking the Alaskan tundra. The most surprising thing was just how engaging this process became. Normally, I occupy much of the long days on the trail with my headphones on listening to music, comedy acts or audio books. Somehow, I didn't need any of that. My mind was completely engaged in the review and telling of my own story. It was a mental state that I can't imagine achieving in any other place, or time.

I never did complete that mental review. In the end, it didn't matter. In the end, I would learn that the life I was reviewing was, in a sense, no more. I realize that may sound dramatic, but it's nearly impossible to convey what it's like losing someone with whom you've spent the greater part of your adult life. So much of your individual identity becomes intertwined with that other person, the relationship you had and the life you built together, not to mention expectations for the future. When that person is gone, and especially if it happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it really is like losing a part of your self. What I've learned over the past two years is that the only way to begin healing from such a loss is to accept that, in many ways, you are starting a new life.

I don't expect or even plan to try and pick up my "life story" on the trail again; I've spent too much time focusing on the past as it is. So the question still remains as to why I am returning to this race. Part of starting a new life entails being open to seeing yourself in a different light and letting go of certain things from your past even, sometimes, things that seem part of your self-identity. Letting go of mountain races such as Hardrock isn't quite so difficult, especially when your body is telling you that maybe you aren't cut out for them anyways. But, like I said before, the ITI is different. In many ways, it is the sort of challenge that motivated my getting into endurance events in the first place, being able to complete an epic adventure under nothing but my own motive power.

So, if I am beginning a new life of sorts then I need to see what part, if any, adventures such as this might have in it. I've no expectations for the race other than to see what the trail brings me. I'm undertrained and not feeling 100% so I'm actually fine if I end up having to stop well short of the finish. I've also no expectations as to how I will feel about being out there. My first trip to McGrath was an overwhelmingly positive event. I'd love to recapture some bit of that initial feeling. If this does end up being my final time here, I'd for it to be on my own terms. Of course, I am well aware that part of the lure of this trail is that you don't get to set the terms.

If I enter this with the attitude of simply being happy with one more experience of the Iditarod Trail's vast expanse then there is no reason to come away disappointed with whatever that experience may be. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Seeking Simplicity

I'm an engineer. I like to measure, track, record and analyze. I almost always wear a watch when I run. Usually I have a GPS as well which tells me not just time, but pace, distance, altitude climbed and descended. All of this data goes into my running log which I have maintained for more than 16 years.

I'm not especially strict about planning my training, but in terms of measuring and tracking it, I can be downright OCD. I've been known to make an extra trip around the block at the end of a run to round out to a specific mileage number or hit an extra hill in the middle in order to pad my climbing numbers. If I forget my watch, I can use an app on my phone. If I don't have that, I can be found pouring over maps to estimate the distance of my run.

After the DNF at Hardrock, my motivation was close to an all time low. Not that it mattered much as I was relegated to near complete inactivity for a full two weeks due to my lungs. I finally braved a trial run after that. I put my watch away and headed out with only the vaguest of plans. I headed towards one of my normal 8 mile routes with lots of options to cut short. I was prepared to turn round even after the first mile if necessary.

Overall, the run went well. My lungs were definitely not at 100%, but then neither was anything else. I finished with tight legs, with a nagging hip and walking. The walking was partially by intent. I wanted to make sure I didn't push too hard and also to take a bit of recovery time. I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting going into this first run back and I finished with no better understanding. I enjoyed the run, I felt mostly relaxed and—it being August—I partook of some trail-side blackberries along the way. However, I can't say I was particularly inspired.

My runs over the next few weeks were about the same. A few plodding runs on my standard routes, one wandering run/hike on some uncommon trails in The Headlands and an unusually short run in the redwoods with friends. My legs and hips started feeling better and I became more accustomed to not wearing my watch. My runs no longer felt like an obligation, but I still felt like, in some ways, I was just going through the motions...until, that is, last weekend.

On Saturday I set out towards the Golden Gate Bridge, but made a last minute decision at the beach to head out onto the sand. Sand running is generally something I only do during the winter months when training for races on snow. I was just looking to shake things up and maybe take some impact off a foot problem that had been developing. However, the feeling of pointlessness—like running in place—brought a smile to my face.

The next day, I drove to the Headlands. I figured only to be out for an hour or so, heading out of Rodeo Valley and up the Bobcat Trail with the intent of doing a short loop using the Alta Trail back to Rodeo. However, I was feeling good so continued all the way up Bobcat and onto Miwok and the high point of the area. Not only was I able to run the whole way, but, more importantly, I was able to do so while going easy and feeling relaxed. On the way back I took a single-track connector trail to Alta and then opted to continue onto the SCA trail rather than heading down.

It was a typical cool, cloudy Headlands day and the running felt effortless. From SCA, I ran up the Coastal Trail then down and across McCullough Road to the intersection with Conzelman. As I ran down the trail back towards the valley, I even considered turning left at the bottom to continue extending the run. I didn't want to stop. However, I reasoned it was getting close to two hours and I did have things to do in the afternoon so I headed back to the car.

In the end, I finished feeling good, like I could have kept going. I think that this is what I was ultimately looking for, to simply finish a run wanting more.

It's been a long time since I've felt that.

That simplicity.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Schemes Unlaid

Part of the attraction to long endurance events is that so many things can (and oft' do) go awry. The ability to adapt to the unplanned is a big part of the challenge. However, finishing is never a certainty and that too is part of the lure. This I have told both myself and others on numerous occasions. But, I've also been keenly aware that if I was forced to stop a race before I finished, none of those words would really hold any weight. I expected the looking back to be full of self-analysis and doubt. What I perhaps did not expect was that acceptance may come more easily than anticipated, leaving the forward gaze to hold the greater questions.

Early morning light looking back during the initial climb
My Hardrock race began well enough, I suppose. I set myself appropriately in the back to start. I took it very easy in the initial miles, but passed a few people on some short downhill sections. Then we started the long, gradual climb and something didn't feel quite right. Neither my heart rate nor, especially, my breathing were where I wanted them to be. I wasn't pushing the pace, but I was in a "conga line" of people making up the final 1/3 of the runners. I'm quite adamant about going my own pace and like to feel as if I am preserving rather than expending energy in the early miles of a 100. Sometimes even a 1/10th of a miler per hour faster than your body wants to go, is enough to slowly drain the reserves. I slowed down.

John coming up behind me after I slowed my pace.
I let a number of people pass me and tried to find a pace that seemed effortless (or at least less effortful). My friend John caught up to me and I matched pace with him for a while. John was one of the oldest competitors in the race, but had also trained and planned meticulously for this event so I knew I was in good company. There was a bit of route confusion as we approached and then crested the final climb, but I got myself back on course for the downhill and then passed a number of people before finding myself in a comfortable position, nobody pushing from behind and no one in front to chase. My natural downhill ability just sort of took over and I let gravity do the work. The terrain was perfectly suited to my strengths and the KT aid station was in view before I knew it.

Looking back towards KT after departing
I felt pretty good at the aid station and knew that the Kamm Traverse would offer some easier terrain for a while before it started to climb over the first serious pass. I had put a bit of a gap behind myself on the downhill so I caught up to and chatted with a few runners including one guy who had flown almost directly from Ireland and was already struggling with the altitude. Not that I like to take pleasure in other's suffering, but it does sometimes help to put things into perspective when you aren't feeling quite as well as you'd like yourself.

The Traverse
But, just as others may be feeling worse than you, the perspective can be shared from the other direction as well. Watching a woman run past me as we started to climb was fairly sobering. However, I would see her later and we would do a bit of yo-yoing in the coming miles as she couldn't run much on the downhills. To each his (or her) strength. The climb continued, winding up past Island Lake.

Island Lake completely thawed which is unusual
Then, as usual, the steepest bit of climbing came just below the pass. I slowed my pace letting people catch and pass assuring myself that my time would be made on the other side.

I was petty happy at the top.

Smiling at the top of Grant Swamp Pass
However, my demeanor changed pretty quickly once I got a glimpse of the "route" down. (Those scare quotes are there to indicate actual fear.) It was basically a near vertical descent down a scree slope. The picture can't do it justice, but if you lean over your computer screen facing down you may be able to simulate what it looked like.

This passes as a trail at Hardrock
I chose to find the most continuous sections of uncleared scree and use my trekking poles to ski down, occasionally stopping to gingerly move across the barren dirt and find the next skiable section. Some people slid down on their behinds which seemed unwise to me, but then I guess they didn't have the constant paranoia of falling and breaking an ankle or imagining that their shoes were completely shreading beneath the dirt and rock.

Shoes intact, but filled with trail
Looking back up, I was glad to have made it down without any mishaps and everything in place minus maybe a bit of skin here and there.

If you look at this in full size you get a bit of perspective on how people descended
I put my camera away for the remainder of the descent to Chapman. What I recall was cruising down, taking it easy and running out of water. The day was warming up and I knew that Chapman was in the midst of a dense and swampy area. I tanked up and headed out knowing that the climb up and over Oscar's Pass was NOT going to be fun. In fact, it was downright brutal. It went from hot and humid in the woods to steep and exposed on top of rocks, rocks and more rocks.

I went slow vowing to keep a pace that felt sustainable. I kept telling myself that any progress was better than no progress and actually passed a couple of people mid-way up. They were making no progress. Ahead of me was a series of steep switchbacks and a line of people trudging along. I felt like I was going so slow, but the gap in front remained the same. I looked back and no ground was being lost there either. At that point I simply went heads down, utilizing all of my mental games to try and make time disappear. Eventually, the pass arrived.

May not look it, but I was very glad to be over Oscar's
After that, I enjoyed the run down to Telluride. I worked hard to keep the descent as casual as possible and tried to enjoy the view as much as I could. It was late afternoon and warm. I caught up with Jonathan Shark (Shark Man!) whom I'd shared some miles with last year. I asked him "Who is this Oscar guy and why does he hate us so much?" We shared a laugh and a few more trail miles before he decided to stop for a soak in one of the creek crossings. It sounded like a nice idea, but I had my sights set on the aid station.

Heading down to Telluride
The rest of the descent went well and I was feeling fine upon arrival. Harry was there along with Heather who was waiting for John. They both told me I was looking good, better than most. Jill was also there and said that Beat had left about 1/2 hour prior. Seeing all my friends and taking a bit of time I was in good spirits heading out despite knowing it was going to be a solid climb in pretty warm conditions. I once again focused on keeping my own pace and was glad to be in the shade for a while.

Looking back on Telluride as the climb started

I had to take a pit stop at the edge of the woods and found myself within a larger group of people as we headed up above treeline. The exposure, temps and altitude slowed me quite a bit after that and all I could think about was making it to Kroger's. I remember coming down from there last year and it seemed a fairly gradual descent. Memories can be deceiving. The climb was unrelenting, but at least I wasn't the only one struggling.

Often seeing how long a climb goes on makes it worse.
Kroger's Canteen is an ionic aid station. It is set at 13,100ft right at the top of a pass. Everything has to be hiked in up a steep snowfield on the other side, but somehow they manage to have some of the best support on the course. There is even a movie about it. I couldn't wait to be there, but I also couldn't move any faster. As I ascended slower and slower, it finally came into view.

So close, but so not
The last, rocky switchbacks are so steep it still seemed like forever. I remember on that section reminding myself that this is what Hardrock was. You struggle up each climb, certain that you won't make it, but somehow you do. Then as you make it to the other side and start down, you begin to feel better. You fill yourself with the knowledge that you are in a place and having experiences that are possible to only a few people in the world. You try to just take it all in, hold onto it and hope that it's something you can retain when the struggle begins on the next climb.

Arriving with these thoughts in mind, I'm have to say I welled up a bit as they welcomed me with a ringing bell and a cheer.

Kroger's. No place I'd rather be.
Leaving Kroger's is done by a fixed rope down a snowfield. It was now dusk and the snow was mush. I put my poles away and donned my gloves for the descent, but the rope was the easy part.

End of the line
After the rope, things got messy. Then they got worse. The remainder of the descent was pretty much a sh*t-show of slushy, punchy snow, loose dirt and streaming water. Everyone just made it down however they could which was a combination of slipping, skiing, butt-sliding, glissading and the most dangerous of all, carefully stepping over unstable footing.

Eventually I made it to the fireroad that would finish the descent into Governor Basin. I was tired and took it as a combination of walking and easy running. The basin is a pretty amazing place, but I don't think any photo could do it justice as you really have to be down in it looking up and around to appreciate it. It was also starting to get dark.

I felt fine at the Governor aid station, but didn't tarry as I was mostly interested in the proximity of the nearest outhouse. I couldn't really run until business was taken care of, but after I continued my pattern of walking the flats and letting the downhills dictate my pace. It was a long road down to Ouray and I didn't want to tax my legs as we approached the halfway point of the race.

I remember feeling fine, but I also remember being quite unhappy about the amount of dust that was kicked up everytime a car went past on the dirt road. It's possible that was the start of my slow degradation, but as I said at the start of this, so many things are possible in a race of this length. A runner from Texas caught up with me as we headed into town and we chatted a bit as we found our way to the aid station. Harry was waiting to pace me here and he also helped me sort myself to get going into the night.

It was later than I'd hoped and I didn't feel as good as I would have liked. Ouray is the lowest elevation of the course and I was so hoping that it would feel like it. The air was certainly thicker, but nothing else felt much better. After gathering myself and fueling up, Harry and I departed the aid station and walked through town. As we headed up into the longest climb of the race, it was clear things were not quite right.

We were barely above 8000ft and my breathing was labored. My lungs felt constrained and congested. I recognized this feeling. It was exactly what I had felt the year before when departing Telluride, but that was at mile 73. This was mile 48. It wasn't good.

There isn't much to tell about the climb up through the canyon. It's not all that steep, but we moved slowly. We took breaks and people passed us. I kept waiting for the even steeper climb to begin as I knew there'd be an aid station stop before it became really bad. We eventually made it there and sat by the fire for a spell. It felt good to sit there, but did nothing for my feeling once we left.

I wasn't relishing the even steeper climb up to Engineer Pass. However, I did tell myself that there was a nice long road down the other side and morning would be on its way. It was cold and I was moving very slowly, In fact, I felt like I was barely moving. As Harry is generally colder than me and route finding was a bit of a challenge here, we settled on him pushing ahead to keep some warmth in his body and then waiting for me after finding the way.

It seemed excruciatingly slow, but we made it to the road and I was still trying to think good thoughts about going down and the sun coming up. Unfortunately, neither of those things seemed to help my condition. The road felt like a pretty gradual downhill and running felt like an effort that strained my breathing and started me coughing which got my heart racing. So, we descended slowly.

About halfway down we saw a runner coming behind us who was moving very well. He looked familiar. As he approached we realized it was John and he looked great. I felt like crap. We chatted for a bit and then he continued down. He wasn't running, but I still couldn't keep up with him. I know that he was at least an hour behind at Ouray so I was definitely losing quite a bit of time. It didn't matter. I just had to make it to Grouse Gulch and then reassess. I couldn't even think about what was to come after that.

Harry and I coming into Grouse. I felt (and looked) awful. [photo Jill Homer]
I sat down at Grouse and didn't know how I would continue. I wanted to try and sleep, but I knew that wouldn't be possible at such a busy aid station. I ate what I could which wasn't much, but mainly I was worried about my breathing. Even resting there I couldn't get a full breath in. What would it feel like going over Handies, the high point of the course over 14,000ft?

Jill was there and offered to let me try her inhaler. My symptoms sounded pretty much like what she experiences with exercise-induced asthma. I gave it a couple tries and it did seem to feel better. Maybe that was it? Maybe that's what I needed? Jill insisted that I take it with me arguing that I needed it more than her at this point.

So it was, tentatively, we departed and headed up towards American Basin. As soon as we started the steeper climbing my symptoms immediately returned. More attempts with the inhaler didn't really change much and I felt bad for taking it.

I have to give Harry credit, because he was amazing at this point. I'd never used a pacer before and never felt I needed one, but Harry and I have done enough of these long events together that we know each other pretty well. Rather than sit behind making me feel pushed or right in front of me worrying about setting the pace, Harry just continued to go a bit ahead and wait. I couldn't talk anyways so this was pretty much the best thing. It gave me continuous itty, bitty little goals of about 50 feet at a time.

I don't know how, but somehow I made it to the top of Handies. It was extremely windy up there so Harry had to go up and over the peak to wait for me to make it. He did however capture the summit photo.

65 miles in. Feeling completely wrecked. Somehow—I don't know how—still moving...

Top of Handies, 14,058'
The initial descent was rocky and rough. The remainder disheartening. I still could barely run though my legs felt fine. It was clear my lungs were holding me back. It was warm. No, it was hot. The descent seemed endless. It was going to amount to more than 6 hours total up and over Handies to the aid station at Burrows Park and I wasn't speeding up at all. There was, however, still a small bit of hope.

Harry reminded me that I wasn't moving any slower than the other people around me going over the peak. In fact, strange though it seemed, he claimed I wasn't really moving any worse at 14,000ft than I was at 10,000ft or even 8000ft. Of course, the problem is that I wasn't really moving any better either. I thought that maybe we could get through Burrows to Sherman at mile 72 and then maybe continue on to Maggie Gulch. Though, even if we could make it that far, I doubted that my speed would let us do it before cutoff.

Burrows is followed by about 3 miles of dirt road that's gradually downhill before the final mile descent to Sherman. It isn't long, but it was around 90F at that point. This road is also a popular drive for Jeeps and ATVs. The vehicle traffic was continuous and even the most considerate of driver filled the air with dirt and dust as they passed. I kept putting my buff around my face, but it didn't help much. Breathing that in for an hour was the last straw.

I was hot, I was tired and I couldn't breathe. I was basically stumbling and falling asleep on my feet. My pace was at a crawl. Even when we left the road for the short trail descent I was barely moving. I walked into Sherman and simply uttered, "I need to lie down".

The aid station volunteers were awesome. They found me a tent, set down a couple of pads and I flopped onto them face down. It was steamy in the tent, but I dozed off for a solid 15 minutes or so. When I awoke I rolled over onto my side and coughed uncontrollably. I stumbled out of the tent, hacked up a bunch of junk and then made it over to the aid station to sit down in a chair.

Everyone was encouraging and I didn't want to admit it, but I think I already knew I was done. I asked someone how far it was to Maggie's and they said 18 miles. As Harry described it my "face dropped."

The volunteers continued trying to encourage me, telling me I could continue, asking if I was certain. I remember just looking at them as if they were speaking across a void. None if it made sense to me. Didn't they see how I felt? I couldn't breathe just sitting there. Even if there was some way for me to manage 18 more miles, I knew that it would be at the cost of my health.

My race was over.

We had to sit there to wait for a ride for a long time and then the ride itself took hours. I thought that I would be anguishing over my decision, but acceptance sank in pretty quickly. I just wanted to get back, get some sleep and then...what?


I've been checked out by the doctor with no real conclusions which is not a surprise. She prescribed a rescue inhaler because it did help a little and it can be a useful diagnostic tool. However, if I only have problems after 50 miles spent at an average altitude of 11,000ft, it's not really something we can diagnose in my backyard. I don't know why I have this specific issue at Hardrock. I had no problems training up to 13,000ft. It isn't linked to being at a specific elevation. Maybe it's cumulative time at altitude or some specific allergen in the area or the dust or dry air or some combination of these or something else altogether.

Though I've never been one to think of it this way myself, some people like to say we do ultras to discover our limits. Maybe this is mine.

I'd written a fairly somber pre-race piece and maybe that mood was foreshadowing.  However, I really don't feel that "down" about the race overall, more reflective than anything.

I did say that I was looking forward to the experience.

It certainly was an experience.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


On a less solemn pre-race note, I thought I'd post some pictures from our training and acclimation runs during our visit to Colorado.

It all started rather awfully with Harry, Martina and I arriving from sea level on Saturday, July 2nd to stay at Beat and Jill's place only to be cajoled into a 26 mile "run" the next day. The Pawnee-Buchanan Loop starts at 10,500ft and has over 7,000ft of climbing crossing three high passes (12,500ft, 11,800ft and 11,300ft). Needless to say, it was quite the "shock to the system" for us flatlanders.

Harry looks very happy up here at 12,000ft
However, at least the loop offered no shortage of awesome scenery to distract us from the misery of low-oxygen adventures. Once over the first pass, the views were pretty much continuous

It also had numerous waterfalls

and more than a few snow fields to cross

We managed to finish the loop, very slowly, and not without a bit of drama trying to make our way over the final pass. Despite the struggles it was probably a pretty good way to kick-start our systems into getting used to the altitude.

We made the 4th of July a pretty relaxed day with our only adventure being a stroll around part of Beat's 35 acre property. By "stroll" I mean bushwhacking and near crawling up steep slopes. I've had to work remotely during my time here so getting out for anything significant during the week was hard. However, where Beat lives up above Boulder, there are no shortage of trails right out his door so hitting a couple of peaks during the week wasn't too much trouble.

The Flatirons

We headed up Bear Peak via the Fern Canyon trail which only went up to around 8,300ft, but first dropped down to 6,300ft before making the 2,000ft climb to the summit in 1.4 miles.

Start of the run goes by a sign that says no "jogging" which was funny

Harry and Beat discussing something before the big climb
Beat chilling at the top
Obligatory summit selfie 
Harry making his way to the peak

We hung out at the peak for a bit, but I did have to get back to Beat's to work so I headed down before all five of us made it to the top. The next day I joined Jill in the evening heading up Green Mountain so we could meet Beat on his run home from work. It was a bit more mellow and shorter run, but I have to say that it is a pretty sweet commute that Beat has.

Didn't take any pictures from the run, but it's the peak on the left in this picture from Beat's house
We did another very short run at Walker Ranch which is a beautiful little trail less than a mile from Beat's house. After that we took some rest until Saturday where the plan was to do around 15 miles round trip hitting James Peak at just over 13,000ft. Beat had come down with a bit of a stomach bug so it was just Jill, Martina, Harry and I on this run. It was a more mellow trail and a lot more mellow pace as Harry and I stuck together and then took multiple long breaks waiting on Jill and then Martina. Spending rest time at 11, 12 and then 13,000ft was probably pretty good for our acclimation and didn't beat either of us up too much. We bounded down the final bit of trail back to the car which was rocky, rooty and loads of fun.

We waited by this nice alpine lake as our first stop
We waited for Martina at the top of a very steep climb then Harry went and met her for the final bit enabling this photo op
The peak isn't especially spectacular, but the views in the distance were excellent and the weather perfect
Sunday morning we had an early morning wake up to drive back to Denver and catch flights, Martina for home and Harry and I down to Silverton. For the days leading to the race we would stay at 9,300ft where the race starts. We met up with a few other friends doing the race on Sunday, but mostly rested and got used to the air a little higher up.

On Monday we decided to do a short (but steep, everything here is steep) hike part-way up the final climb of the race. This started at Cunningham Gulch (around mile 90 in the race) in the race and gained 1000ft in the first 0.8 miles. We continued on up to around 12,500ft and hung out for a bit before returning to the car.

I like this shot where Harry appears to be sitting on a flower!

The pass behind my head is what will come over first before making this climb sometime late Saturday

I was still trying to get as much work done in the week before the race as I could and we also didn't want to push ourselves too much so we only planned one more real jaunt up to higher ground. On Tuesday we headed out to Grouse Gulch which is close to mile 60 in the race and the start of the climb up to Handies Peak over 14,000ft. We will likely be doing this sometime early Saturday morning (hopefully very early). We decided not to go all the way up to the summit, but headed over the 13,000ft pass into American Basin where we sat and enjoyed our lunch.

View heading up
Harry coming up the trail
Lake part way up
We had to share our lunch spot
It really was a pretty nice lunch spot

We spent the next couple of days just resting in town, taking care of pre-race business and getting more work done (for me). It's now the night before the race and whether the preparation I've done is enough will play out over the next couple days. The weather has warmed up which generally isn't good for me, but the evenings have been quite cool. I will just try to take it as easy as possible during the warmth of the day and try to move well in the cooler temps. No matter what, I will try to enjoy my time in the mountains and make the best of this experience called Hardrock.

Race web site link
Tracking website to follow my progress (#46)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fading passions

In the days before, my thoughts sometimes turn inwards...

I'm sure it may seem a bit odd that I'd be sitting here a couple days before the start of the Hardrock 100  writing about something that may sound the exact opposite of pre-race excitement. It isn't that I'm not looking forward to the run. It's just that there's been a growing ambivalence in my feelings towards more traditional ultramarathon races over the past few years. Perhaps it can be traced back to my thoughts after my first finish of the ITI 350 more than 3 years ago. So much has transpired since that time and there are other areas of my life that need a bit of focus.

With that said, I really cannot say that my enjoyment of traveling long distances on foot, spending time in wild places and undertaking challenging adventures is any less than it's ever been. I am signed up in ITI for next year, but I do put that event in a category by itself. Also, my motivation for that race is something I will probably spend the next 6 months examining. I suppose what I'm saying is that this seems somewhat of a turning point and Hardrock feels, in some ways, more a bookend than a progression.

However, Hardrock itself is unique in it's own right. It stands alone not only in ruggedness, beauty and challenges, but—more than any other 100 miler in the US—it feels like a journey rather than a race. Just spending time out in these mountains feels pretty special and being able to complete such a journey is a privilege as much as it is an accomplishment. Last year's run was a bit of a downer both for the mental state in which I entered and the illness that overtook me during the last 25 miles. It was an emotional journey that should have culminated in feelings of either elation or somber contemplation, but instead I just felt sick.

Yet, I did finish as I seem to do more often than I probably have any reasonable right to and somehow I managed to be selected to give it another go. So, I'm going to make the best of this journey that I can. I even managed to do something resembling training. I'm in my second week in Colorado acclimating. After a week staying with my friend Beat at 7,200ft and taking a few trips up higher, I've been in Silverton since Sunday getting a bit more altitude before the start. Last, but certainly not least, Harry is with me. After around 100 ultras and at least 30 of those 100 miles or longer, I am going to have a pacer for the first time. I obviously don't need a pacer, but I do want my friend to experience these trails and, frankly, I want to share the experience.

So, despite all the seemingly contradictory emotions smouldering about inside me, I am actually pretty excited to get out there.

In the waning light of my desire, perhaps a new spark can be lit.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Scrambled Legs

Going up Miwok Trail from Rodeo Valley then left onto Wolf Ridge, just as you hit the road there's a trail heading steeply down to the right going to Tennessee Valley that I like to call "The Leg Beater". Not only is it one of the few trails that hasn't been "improved" in the area (so it still has lots of rocks and uneven terrain), it also descends 800ft in a little over a mile, most of that in a 1/2 mile section about mid-way down. I've gone down this trail numerous times as part of some of my normal Headlands' routes and Harry and I did a run that went up it a couple weeks ago. However, last Wednesday I did the run down and then back up it and decided it was going to be part of my Hardrock training, whatever that may be.

Anyone who knows me well is aware of my distaste for formal training. But, Hardrock is a beast. Aside from heading to Colorado 2 weeks before the race, some sort of "specific" training is probably prudent if I don't want to just squeak by with less than 45 minutes to spare like I did last year. There's still too much snow in Tahoe, so I can't really get any significant runs in at altitude yet. The only other thing I can do right now is try to work on my hill climbing (and hope some endurance carries forward from the Ultra Fiord).

Last week after the down-and-back to Tennessee Valley via "Leg Beater",  I hit up the full PG&E trail at Rancho after work the next evening. I was heading to Tucson for the weekend to visit my son who just finished his undergraduate degree at UofA so I was limited for time. However, I endeavored to get up early while I was there and check out some runs in the mountains outside Tucson.

I got up early Saturday morning and drove up towards Mt. Lemmon. Since we were to spend the day car shopping I only managed a short run starting around 7000ft and topping out at 8000ft. It ended with less than 5 miles and was more hike than run including some scrambling and route finding which made it longer time-wise than expected.

After finally finish the car purchase at 10pm and doing a bit of celebrating after, it was pretty tough getting up Sunday morning, but I managed to drag myself out and head 45 minutes south to Madera Canyon. The run up to Mt. Wrightson goes from around 5400ft to 9400ft in 5.3 miles. Those miles were slow going and took me 2 solid hours, but at least I had fun making it back down the rocky, winding trail in 1/2 that time.

While the total miles for the week wasn't much over 30 miles, it did count for well over 9000ft of climbing which still makes it reasonable Hardrock-grade training.

It's hard for me to schedule in much trail time during the week other than Wednesdays when I work from home so I decided to try to make the best of it. I thought I'd give a shot at motivating myself to do some repeats on "Leg Beater". After the up and over from Miwok I manage to coax myself through three repeats up that middle bit. It is definitely a grind, but it is pretty nice to add 500ft to the total climb count every 1/2 mile. The run came out to just over 9 miles with 3000ft of climbing. Do that 11 times and you've got Hardrock....only at sea level...sigh.

The hills did seem to pay off as the ascents seemed a bit easier than normal on my two runs this weekend even if they only totalled about 6000ft over 30 miles. However, I did manage to hit 55 miles for the week which is around where I want to be at this point.

Hopefully I can get up to Tahoe at least once or twice in the next month. Either way, we'll see if I can mentally manage a few more repeats each week. Not much time left so I guess I better just get out the beater and scramble some legs!

Saturday, May 07, 2016

A few words

This is not a race report. I'm not quite sure what it is, or rather what it will become. I don't really feel a strong desire to "resurrect" this blog, but I do want to write some words about my time in Patagonia. However, given the focus of most of my recent writing, I cannot promise it won't devolve into self-indulgent navel-gazing.

Caveat lector.

I'll try to include some of the few photos I took. So there's something.

It's been over 10 years since I first visited Patagonia and I've always wanted a reason to return, especially to Puerto Natales and the region around Torres del Paine. The Ultra Fiord race offered an attractive excuse. It was billed as wild, rugged and sparsely supported. Right up my alley especially since I've been feeling less and less inspired by races closer to home. Also, my friend Harry had never been to the area so we (Harry, Martina and I) decided to make a vacation of it. Harry and I planned to tackle the 100 miler while Martina would do the 70K.

Aside from the race and plans for some hiking/sightseeing the timing of the event coincided with an unhappy personal anniversary so I was also hoping for a bit of a diversion. This fact, more than any pre-race concerns probably explained my edginess during the early part of the trip (it certainly explains spending Wednesday afternoon in my room shedding tears). But, inevitably, as race day rolled around all concerns narrowed to just that one.

These days I tend to feel pretty calm once start time finally rolls around. It's not that I've become blasé about it, or think I've got it all "figured out". On the contrary, my experience has taught me to be keenly aware of all that can go wrong. It's more a feeling that the time for worry is past since all the preparation has (or has not) been done and things are going to play out as they will. My only job (over the next 30 hours or so) is to take care of those few things that are within my control: eating, drinking, staying warm and metering out my energy at a rate sufficient to keep me moving forward over the miles ahead.

Overall, the event went well enough for me. Anyone who has read about the event knows that a runner died of hypothermia during the event and I really don't have much to add of substance to all that has been written. I felt "relatively" comfortable given my experience in remote regions and extreme conditions. I had the gear I felt necessary to manage the conditions as best possible. The only thing I can say is that while it is always easy to second-guess what might have been different after the fact, it is true that the race organization did leave itself open to much of the criticism that it has received. Though they did shorten the races, all went over the high pass in severe weather conditions, there was no checking of mandatory gear, checkpoints were minimal or even non-existent, and there didn't seem to be emergency personnel or contingency evacuation plans which seem prudent given the type of event it was.

However, during the race, we were not overly aware of all these issues. Harry and I have both done some pretty extreme and minimally-supported events. We did what we knew how to do. We started at the back with maybe 4-5 people behind us as everyone took off at a pace that seemed way to fast for 100 (or even 88) miles. We came into the first aid station after a short bit of course confusion even further back and then started passing people. We hooked up with fellow American Kate Woodard and came into the 50K aid station around 54th place (out of around 90 starters) and would eventually finish in 31st (out of 67 finishers). The course was tough and technical with lots of overgrowth, rocks, roots and steep climbs. The conditions were severe with high winds, snow, sleet and frozen rain over the high pass followed by miles of unavoidable mud  and ankle turning peat bogs. Support was minimal especially after the first 30 miles and even more than advertized. But, it was–as promised–remote and amazingly beautiful.

With all that, probably the toughest part was the midnight start. We ran through the night, slogged through the day and then trudged and stumbled through the second night to the finish. Harry and I stuck together for almost the entire event which always makes it seem less like a race and more like a shared experience. However, after the last real aid station, the final 24 miles were easy dirt road, but mentally as brutal going as anything in the race. The second night without sleep is always unseemingly tough.

There was a missing aid station and the "sleep monster" had me by the throat. Harry was moving well and seemed motivated to get to the finish as he was very worried about Martina, this being a significantly tougher course than anything she had ever attempted. I finally couldn't take it so I dropped back, put on all my extra clothing and sat by the trail to take a 10 minute nap. When the crazed images had finished running through my mind, I forced myself up and stumbled on. I was still falling asleep on my feet, but apparently moving faster. I started to pass people. That finally woke me out of my zombie-like stupor. I moved even faster and even started to jog. Everytime I saw a light ahead of me I thought it might be Harry, but when it wasn't I reasoned that he had kept moving along due to his concerns and the fact that there was no real shelter from the 30-mph winds and near-freezing temperatures.

After stopping very briefly at the last aid station (basically a table with water and a couple of cookie packages), I was motivated to just get this thing done. I alternated running and walking for the final 12 miles. I probably passed 7 other runners all in various states of the infamous ultramarathon "death march'. The final miles were especially tough as you could see the lights of Puerto Natales from a long way off–too long a way off. I tried to run the whole way, but just couldn't manage it, mentally more than physically. Eventually I made it into town, wandered my way to the finish area and found the one person there recording times before heading back to our place.

I thought Harry was there at the gate as I approached, but it was some other random person outside at 6:30am. When I made it to our cabin, I opened the door to see Martina who was freshly showered. My brain wasn't working right in terms of realizing that she would have had plenty of time to finish and get back to town via boat/bus so I first asked if she finished. Then I immediately asked "where's Harry?"

Martina was certain I was joking and replied, "very funny, where is he? outside?"

I then looked at her concerned, "No! He should have finished at least 20 minutes ago."

Concern then worry set in, but I had already let my mental guard down giving my body permission to slipping into recovery mode. I was in no condition to go wandering around town. I showered while Martina went to figure out what had happened. Eventually, she returned with Harry in tow.

Apparently, he had actually tried to wait for me. He was probably even at the vicinity of the final aid station trying to find a sheltered place to sit when I (quickly) went through. True friend that he was, he must have sat waiting and worrying about both me and Martina even while we were both safe and warm in the cabin. It's especially unfortunate because Harry is generally a much faster runner than me, but I do tend to out last him in the really long stuff (i.e. 100+ miles). However, this is one where I thought he had–and he rightfully should have–finished before me.

In the end, as I said before, all went well in this race for me...and my friends.

OK, so this was already many more words than I had intended to post and I suppose there is actually something resembling a race report in there. So, as promised,  here are some pictures from our time before, during and after the race down at the bottom of the civilized world.

Very cool forest on the hike up to Mirador Cerro Derrota a few days before the race.

Martina coming out of the woods during Cerro Derrota hike.

View from Mirador Cerro Derrota

Harry and Martina at the top

View from town looking out onto the water
Out the window of a coffee shop in Puerto Natales

...and some other things around town:

"Real Jeep"
Martina's "place"

Kitty in the pet food aisle

H & M being cute!

Here's what I have from the race it isn't much due to the midnight start, the weather, the technical trail and the amount of time spent in the woods:

Start picture from the race organization

Lots of fall colors on the trees

Approaching the high point as it starts to snow

Beautiful view up top just before heading into the storm

"Trail" looking back

"Trail" looking forward

Not sure if this is the glacier we were supposed to come over or not

It's not obvious, but the wind was blowing around 30 mph here at times

Finally into the descent which was basically a mud-slide not shown here

Cold, but pretty...

...but, cold!

Harry just coming off the pass and into the woods which amounted to about 15 miles of mud
When there wasn't mud, there were these peat bogs that look innocent, but definitely were not. 

Mostly, though, there was!!!

After the race, and a day of recovery, we headed out to Torres del Paine for a couple days. We stayed in a cool hotel on Lago Pehoé and then did the 12 mile classic hike up to the towers.

Salto Grande near our hotel
We did a short 4-mile hike, but the weather and views weren't great

Wet and cloudy during our short hike to view Los Cuernos

Our hotel on an island the next morning in better weather and a great view

Lago Pehoé

Making the hike up to Los Torres
Through the woods...

...past the falls...

...and through meadows with the first hint of the towers.

Martina and Harry in front of Lago Torres

Classic pic in the classic local

Similar spot, 10 years earlier