Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On the road again

Well, Mount Whitney left me with shin splints. In truth it was a while coming, but after descending 7,000 feet of rocks last Tuesday, I was fully hobbled for a few days. Rest, ice, repeat. It's really only my right shin that's causing me grief, but enough that I had to cut running out of my routine. Ah, well — what better time to go on a bike tour?

My friend Leah, a school teacher in San Francisco, is all about making the most of her summer break. Even though she just returned from San Diego at about the same time I was limping home from the Sierras, she's raring to go again and the window is perfect for both of us to spend a few days pedaling through the ancient forests of Humboldt County. She outfitted her Surly Long Haul Trucker with mountain bike tires, dropped the stem, and installed a front rack for her own ideal bikepacking rig. We headed out to the Marin Headlands on Sunday afternoon for a test ride, and were treated to a rare brilliantly clear day.

Leah's friend Dylan, a former resident of Northern California and fellow Stagecoach 400 finisher, designed a dirt and backroad route for us. He even threw in the location of secret swimming holes and blueberry farms, and made sure to route us through the Avenue of the Giants.

This is a comfort tour; we're only riding about forty to fifty miles a day — tough and hilly miles, no doubt — but still, there will be actual down time. As such, I needed to load my Moots for "comfort touring," no easy task when you're not running racks. I figured out a way to hang my tent and sleeping pad off the handlebars, and packed plenty of warm clothing and a sleeping bag in the back. Leah is carrying the stove, and I managed to stuff my repair kit, pot, coffee, one hot meal, lunch, and snacks in the tiny frame bag. I took it on a test ride up Black Mountain and man, comfort touring gets heavy (I still have to carry my water, water filter, Kindle, and a few other small items in a pack.) I'll probably use my gas tank as well so I can pack my big camera and Sour Patch Kids. We'll be mostly out of cell phone range and entirely away from computers for the better part of five days. I don't often really get away like this, and I'm looking forward to it.

As for the shin, it manages okay as long as I mostly stay in the saddle and of course don't use pedals that I have to click in and out of. I'm also bringing a compression sleeve and bandage in case it flares up. Hoping for the best. I can't really afford a prolonged shin injury at this point in the summer, but I don't think the bike tour will put too much pressure on it.

Because I'll be out of range for a few days, I wanted to post a pre-emptive congratulations to Eszter Horanyi, who executed a brilliant ride in this year's Tour Divide. As I write this, she's only about 200 miles from Antelope Wells, and will undoubtedly come in somewhere in the sub-19-day range. Can't say I didn't call it. And if her call-ins are any indication, she's probably almost disappointed that the limitless smorgasbord of junk food is about to come to an end. Nice work, Eszter. Way to make the course record unattainable for the rest of us. Ha!

I also wanted to send my respect to the current "Red Lantern" of the 2012 Tour Divide, Tracy Burge, who is pedaling her way through southern Montana. Tracy battled flu and possible giardia infection early in the race, decided to scratch in Butte, and then suddenly changed her mind. A friend of mine in Missoula, Ed, camped with her the other day and sent me an e-mail:

"She is back on and while she won't finish the race in the 30 days, she is going to ride the whole thing. She is a wonderful woman. We camped with her, and I rode a bit with her the next day. We of course mentioned you and she admires you greatly, and has read your book. She has been thinking about you on the trail, knew a few places you bivy'ed, and admires your toughness even more."

I do hear from readers from time to time, and am always touched by their notes. If any words I write somehow inspire or boost others during great adventures, I consider that my highest success. Thanks, Tracy. I admire your strength and perseverance, and I'll be cheering for you all the way to Mexico. 
Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mount Whitney

It was to be my most ambitious endurance effort yet — a single-day climb to the top of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. Twenty-two miles, more than 7,000 feet of climbing, to an altitude of 14,500 feet. The date was August 2001, and I was 21 years old. My dad had applied for a permit back in January and invited me along. When he landed what was even then a difficult permit to get, he said, "It's once in a lifetime, but it won't be easy. Do you think you're up for it?"

I enjoy taking solo trips from time to time. Beat was in Switzerland on business, and I decided to spend two or three days in the Sierras for UTMB practice — working on techniques in uphill "speed hiking" and downhill jogging. But after two days of solid five-hour efforts at altitude, and a rough night in of sleep in camp, I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling partially shattered. Sunlight was just beginning to touch the floor of the canyon, and I felt a familiar empty-stomach anxiety that I still associate with waking up early to go on big hikes with my dad. "It's only hiking," I told myself. "Just 22 miles."

A lot happened in the interim between January and August 2001. I landed my first post-college, career-type job as an editor at a weekly newspaper in Murray, Utah, and then lost it and four weeks' pay when the publisher abruptly shut the doors. I started working as a graphic designer and convinced myself corporate logos and real-estate brochures were the right path for me. And I met a guy who convinced me that I should put the whole career thing on hold and see the world, or at least the United States, before I descended too deep into adulthood. I dropped everything and loaded up my Geo Prism in May. We trekked across Zion National Park, swam across lakes in Texas, and dug trenches around our tent in the torrential rains of North Carolina. I sprinted away from a pit bull attack in Maine, climbed the highest peak in Idaho during a July snowstorm, and helped row a raft more than two hundred miles down the Green River. After the trip was over, I emerged with an actual tan on my legs, definition in my biceps, and a conviction that I had never before and would possibly never again be so strong. 

My start was still what most people would consider late, around 8:45 a.m., which is a good time to begin a trek up Mount Whitney. Most of the day hikers leave much earlier but the backpackers haven't yet hit the trail. Despite a full quota of permits for the day, it seemed like I had the trail almost to myself. Because I felt so lousy, and because reaching the summit was the ultimate goal, I had already decided I wasn't going to focus on "training." I wouldn't stress when my paced dropped below 20-minute miles, and I'd stop and take more breaks if I had another coughing fit like the one I experienced early that morning. Mount Whitney really is a rare opportunity — the kind of experience one should savor.

Our hiking party was me, my dad, and my dad's friend Tom. We drove from Salt Lake City to Lone Pine on "America's Loneliest Highway" across central Nevada. My cross-country road trip had inspired me to purchase new high-tech hiking gear that I was quite proud of. The last time my dad and I embarked on a long hike, I was still wearing cotton T-shirts and jean shorts, and hoisting a school backpack full of refilled Gatorade bottles. Now I had convertible nylon pants, polar fleece, a Camelback, even a Katadyn water filter. I was styling. 

The weather was close to perfect, perhaps on the warm side of ideal, but it's hard to complain about sunshine in the Sierras. Even after I broke out of my morning funk, I wasn't in a rush to increase my pace. I set my legs on cruise control and gazed up at the granite walls rising thousands of feet over my head. The chiseled spires and crumbling slopes had an air of familiarity, much more recent than I knew them to be. I was surprised by how much I remembered from my first visit here, and it was interesting to revisit the memories through the vibrant filter of a decade of experiences.

For all of the strength I had built during the summer of 2001, I was still prone to making mistakes. For starters, I thought wasabi peas sounded like great trail food, and brought an eight-ounce bag. I managed two or three handfuls before I felt ill. I also had a half pound of banana chips. As I sat down next to my dad for our mid-morning snack, an opportunistic marmot scuttled up from behind and snatched them right out of my lap, the entire bag. Undeterred by my yelling and chasing, the marmot scurried away with most of my edible food. My dad took pity on me and handed me a granola bar. 

My legs' cruise control stayed steady until I reached the trail's infamous hundred switchbacks, and then my strength started to falter. GPS registered over 12,000 feet now, and my lungs began to burn.  Even with everything I've learned about appreciating life for its fleeting moments, there are still times, sometimes, when I just put my head down and trudge.

We passed through a notch and climbed over the sharp edge of the summit ridge at Trail Crest, elevation 13,600. It was already as high as I'd ever been in my life, and I paused to take in the vista. For what seemed like hundreds of miles, all I could see was stark granite, lifeless lakes, and snow. It struck me as eerie that a landscape too high to support most life was now far below. I wondered what it must be like to climb the world's truly high mountains — almost like touching the moon. 

From Trail Crest there are only another 900 feet of elevation gain to the summit, spread out over 2.5 miles. The trail runner in me wanted to write this stretch off as easy, but in Whitney's context, I was being pummeled. I don't know why I brought that GPS, because it only seemed to taunt me. My pace dropped to 31-minute-miles, and then 39. I actually felt like I often do at the end of a long endurance ride — vaguely nauseated, achy muscles, dehydration headache. I sipped on my water, but I didn't really expect it to help. Trudge, trudge, trudge.

My dad and Tom were now far ahead. The peak looked close enough to touch, but the trail sign warned it was still 1.9 miles away. Other hikers were strewn along the ridge like refugees, leaning on their packs, sipping water bottles, waiting for breaths they knew they wouldn't catch. Part of me longed to sit down next to them, wait it out, not worry about seeing the top. I'd heard that, short of proper acclimation, most people have an individual elevation limit under which they operate just fine, and over which they fall apart. I suspected mine was right around 13,000 feet. It was as high as I'd ever been. 

Even with my slow pace, I caught and passed most of the hikers who were still making their way to the peak. I ended up reaching the top in the midst of a large group of young adults, likely college students. As a hundred-year-old stone summit hut came into view, the woman right in front of me blubbered, "Oh my god, I'm getting all emotional. Oh, I think I'm going to start crying." I kind of wanted to roll my eyes, but I couldn't deny the rush of energized blood that was sweeping through my own heart.

My dad waited for me for a bit, and the three of us walked to the top together. We shared hugs of congratulations, pictures of the geographic marker — with a reading of 14,496 feet — and more granola bars. "It's the top of the country," my dad said. "Well, except for Alaska." I grinned with a sense of accomplishment. It was a struggle to get there, which I realized made it all the more rewarding. I'd never been so high, or felt so strong. 

Standing at the the highest elevation of my life yet for a second time, I suddenly wished that I hadn't climbed this mountain alone. It would have been better to share this moment again with my father, or with Beat, who I guiltily remembered was still busy doing actual work on the other side of the world. As much as I enjoy and need my solo outings to re-energize, my best memories remain with the people I love. Just then, a coughing fit erupted, and for a moment panicked that I might see blood on the rocks. I didn't feel all that bad, but I also know that I've spent a lot of energy over the past decade conditioning my mind to ignore my body's warning signs, and I don't have any real experience with pulmonary edema to know when it actually hits. But no, my cough was clear. I was fine. I was as high as I'd ever been.

We were less than three minutes into our descent when disaster struck. As a large group of hikers approached the peak, my dad stepped off the trail to let them pass. He caught his foot on a boulder and tumbled into the rocks. Tom helped him up as my dad clutched his own hand. His thumb was grotesquely twisted, almost dangling off the joint. We still had 11 miles and more than 6,000 feet to descend. Tom collected snow in a plastic grocery bag, and passed chunks to my dad so he could ice his broken thumb as we worked our way down the rocky trail. I don't even remember our pace slowing all that much, and my dad still chatted amicably through what I can only imagine was excruciating pain. 

Even though it was at the time my most difficult endurance effort yet, I still didn't remember this trail being so difficult. It was steep, strewn with rocks, and the footing was bad, which made for equally slow descending. I couldn't believe my dad had hiked all the way down here with a badly broken thumb. Sometimes I tell the "Whitney broken thumb" story to my friends to illustrate where I got my clumsy gene, and why I have to be so overcautious. My dad laughs about it now, but his injury took many months to heal, several surgeries, and I'm not sure he ever got his full range of motion back. On the trail, my dad didn't complain once. He's strong like that.

I felt a little better as I lost elevation, but by this point my possible shin splints were acting up, and it was all I could do to not limp, let alone try to run. The 22-mile hike took me 9.5 hours, a pace that, sadly, would amount to a big DNF at UTMB. Not that I viewed these much higher elevations as a realistic gauge of my fitness, but the experience was eye-opening about difficulty of the goals I've set. Sometimes I think I'm so much stronger than I was a decade ago, and sometimes I wonder if that's really the case. But then I remember that I'm exactly as strong as I need to be, when I still have the opportunity to visit places like Mount Whitney.
Thursday, June 21, 2012

Give me oxygen

 My car thermometer registered 102 degrees when I arrived at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor's Center in Lone Pine. A furnace wind whipped through the air as a motorcyclist pulled in beside me. His face and helmet were coated in ochre dust that was streaked with sweat, and he was wearing a leather jacket despite the heat. He told me he just rode in from Death Valley, where the mercury topped 120.

"Wow, I've only been to Death Valley in January," I said. "I should head out there just to see what it's like."

"Are you going that direction?" he asked.

"No, I'm here to get a permit for Mount Whitney," I said. "I'm hiking there tomorrow."

"In one day?"


"Have you heard of that race where people run from the bottom of Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney in a day?" he asked.

I laughed. "You mean Badwater?" I found it humorous that this random motorcyclist had heard of this esoteric 135-mile ultramarathon. "Yeah, I've heard of it. That's too hellish for my taste. I'm only interested in the last 11 miles on trail, which I get to climb tomorrow. I'm excited."

"I wouldn't even want to do that," he said. "It's cold in the mountains. I'm all for the desert, love the heat, even when it's 120. But a couple years ago I was driving through when those Badwater people were running. And I just thought, damn. Yeah, that's what I thought. Damn."

 Damn indeed. I'm endlessly intrigued by the world's extremes, even the scorched desert, although it frightens me even more than deep-frozen tundra. In a way, this fear makes the desert all the more alluring. After the motorcyclist left, I collected my Whitney permit and mulled what I wanted to do with the afternoon. Should I head out to the sun-baked lowlands of Death Valley, or stick with my original plan of another acclimation hike? I was genuinely torn. But I just didn't have time to do it all, and this short trip was about mountains. I purchased a map at the visitors center and studied nearby options. There was a trailhead right at the campground where I was planning to stay called Meysan Lakes, which climbed the next major drainage over from Mount Whitney. Perfect.

 Despite its proximity to Whitney Portal, the Meysan Lakes trail was almost deserted. I only saw two other hikers, both solo like me. The first was an older gentleman who lectured me for starting so late in the day, for wearing "sneakers," and for not carrying bear spray. He told me to watch out for a European man who was farther up the trail, and who would surely be half-dead when I came across him because, "He has no shirt, no hat, and he's not carrying any water."

"Perhaps he's drinking out of the streams," I said. "They do that in Europe."

The older gentleman just shook his head. "I can't believe how far up the trail he made it. I'm worried about him." A few miles later, I crossed paths with the European man, who I think might have been German. He was indeed shirtless, deeply tanned, not carrying a single bottle or backpack, and looked as happy as can be.

"Hallo," he said after I greeted him. "Is very nice, beautiful here."


 The Meysan Lakes Trail had a consistently steep grade, and since it started at 7,500 feet, I couldn't process enough oxygen to run. Still, my hope was to hike up and run down, which was about the pace I'd need to keep in order to reach the upper lake and make it back to the campground by sundown. The European man was right about the beauty of the canyon, surrounded by sheer granite walls and filled with bright wildflowers. It's still spring up here, and early spring at that. Even at 102 degrees in Lone Pine, the weather was great above 10,000 feet — low 70s, calm breeze, and sunshine.

 I scrambled to the upper lake, which filled an entire basin at 11,400 feet. There was a lot less snow than I expected, almost none, and I wished I had the forethought to bring overnight gear with me and allot an extra day. I felt so comfortable that I wished I could stay for a long while — on this windswept moonscape of crumbling granite, devoid of habitable terrain, and barren except for the icy water of a snowmelt lake. And yet, I felt content. What is it that's so endlessly intriguing about these extremes?

 What was left of the faint trail technically ended at the lake, and even though the sun was drifting lower on the horizon, the allure of extremes tempted me higher. I scanned the ridge for weaknesses that would allow easy passage for a clumsy solo hiker like myself, and found what looked like a ramp cut into the cliffs. As I approached it, I saw tracks in the talus that did not look like human tracks. They were too small and close together, and I wondered if I had found a goat trail. I followed the tracks, which turned out to be the perfect route to the ridge. Not harrowing at all. Thanks, goats.

I reached the ridge at an elevation of 12,300 feet, next to two peaks that definitely looked like the domain of more sure-footed mountaineers than I. Plus, it was getting late — and yet the forces of desire pulled at me to climb higher. The wind was fierce now, and noticeably cold. From my perch I could still see the 100-degree valley 9,000 feet below, bordered by the red Inyo Mountains, and beyond that the scorched desert. I pulled a jacket out of my pack to stave off shivering and gazed at the unknown peaks above me, wishing I was a climber.

 Still, the ridge afforded a stunning vista of Mount Whitney, with its steep and intimidating east face. It was also a sobering view of just how far I'd have to climb the following day.

 Looking back on the Lone Pine Valley and the approach to Mount Whitney. My lungs burned as I breathed the sharp wind, and for the first time I noticed that I was struggling with the altitude — which was encouraging, because I was already above 12,000 feet.

As soon as I descended the talus, boulders and more technical trail from the ridge to the lower lake, I tried running. My legs were strong and it felt great to move quickly down the trail, even though the downhill exertion necessitated gasping breaths. I finished with 45 minutes of daylight to spare, 12.5 miles and 4,900 feet of climbing — just a little warm-up hike. My lungs were burning. I set up my tent at the campground, altitude 7,700, and hoped I'd be able to get some sleep. 
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Take me higher

Why is elevation so alluring? What is it about a distressing lack of oxygen, cold temperatures, rugged terrain, high winds, and harsh exposure that continually lure me to higher heights? I'm not even a rock climber and likely will never try to become one (too klutzy, oh so klutzy.) But like John Muir who once traveled these same granite mounds, the mountains are calling — and I must go.

Earlier this week, I went in search of ideas for two to three days of trail running possibilities around the Yosemite Valley, and stumbled across an open permit for Mount Whitney — a broad mountain that reigns over a beautiful cathedral of granite spires, and also happens to be the highest point in the Lower 48 United States. It was the sole Whitney opening in the entire month of June, a single day permit for June 19. Too serendipitous to bypass, I grabbed it and began scheming an acclimating/hiking trip instead.

I've been to Mount Whitney, elevation 14,505, once before, way back in 2001. That's also the only time I've been above 14,000 feet in my life — and I remember it being a harsh struggle, back when I lived at 4,500 feet in Salt Lake City. Now I live next to the ocean and know of other sea level dwellers who have developed high altitude pulmonary edema as low as 11,000 feet when ascending too quickly. I wanted to be cautious about the altitude and do a bit of acclimating on the way to the Eastern Sierras. Luckily, Yosemite National Park is right on route. On Sunday afternoon, I took on the climb to Clouds Rest. From the Sunrise trailhead on Highway 120, there's only about 3,500 feet of climbing in 15 rolling miles, and my plan was to run the runnable portions of trail. However, starting my run at 8,000 feet proved to be even tougher than I anticipated. I was sucking wind before the first quarter mile. After pushing hard for two miles I took much-needed "picture break," only to realize that I left the camera's battery plugged into its charger at home, 200 miles away. There was a spare camera in my car, but retrieving it necessitated four bonus miles. I debated it for a while but finally decided it was too beautiful of a day for no picture taking. I ran the two miles back and after that felt pretty deflated. It's interesting how quickly elevation can strip away my delusions of fitness — those four relatively flat miles could have easily done it for me in terms of perceived exertion. I knew I had 15 more miles in me, but it was getting to the point where limited daylight necessitated a continued strong pace.

I continued the attempted running until I surpassed 9,000 feet; then every breath felt like dragging a grater across my lungs. A pace I view as easy-going jogging at sea level just wasn't achievable for me at this elevation. Even hiking was extra tough. What that foretold for 14,000 feet in a day and a half, I tried not to imagine. I plodded to the top of Cloud's Rest, elevation 9,931 feet, and immediately lost all regret I had been feeling about my four-mile bonus camera run. It was a hazy day, but I still had great views of the Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point and Half Dome.

On the left is the area where I started running, Tenaya Lake, and a broad view of the eastern Sierras. As much as I love ascending to the top of mountains, my heart breaks every time I do so. From these heights I can see the true reach of places I will never experience, and realize just how insignificant of a bystander I am in this expansive world.

I ended with 19 miles in 5.5 hours, with about a half hour on the peak. But I had to work hard to average those 15-minute miles. I finished up about an hour before sunset and started driving east and south toward Lone Pine, in a slim valley wedged between the High Sierras and the low basins of Death Valley. I enjoy taking solo drives through scenic places, and the route from Yosemite to Lone Pine was one of the better drives I've had in a long time. This is Tuolume Meadows, a place where several long trails link together. Yosemite National Park is a trail runner's paradise, with an expansive network of runnable, scenic routes that stretch out for dozens and even hundreds of miles (John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail.) I'm developing more interest in linking up these long routes someday.

I stopped for a restroom break at this stream near Tioga Lake. An outhouse with a view.

Ellery Lake.

Highway 120 at Tioga Pass.

Waterfall near Tioga Pass.

Descending Deadman Pass, this was the view from my dash of the Eastern Sierras — the drier and in my opinion more stunning side of this mountain range. My destination for the night was the unspectacular town of Bishop, elevation 4,200, because Lone Pine was still hours away and I wanted a little time at lower elevation to recover from my high-altitude Yosemite run. I had one more day to acclimate and I was almost as excited about the possibilities as I was about my Mount Whitney permit. 
Sunday, June 17, 2012

By the numbers

On Friday, Jan and I set out for an afternoon ride through the enchanted woods, also known as Forest of the Nisene Marks. Jan wanted a much-needed break from his job search and was looking for some solid hours on the bike. I'm always game for adventure but in order to agree to a five-hour ride, I needed to disclose my growing list of disclaimers: Hamstrings tight; Calves still cramping; Tired and prone to timidity; May walk the steeper hills. We logged 13 miles and 3,200 feet of climbing on the Aptos Creek Fire Road before launching into the technical singletrack of Soquel Demonstration Forest for an eight-mile loop with 2,000 feet of heart-pounding descents and climbs.

We decided to climb back to Aptos Creek on a trail rather than take the long road around, which nearly proved to be my undoing. Grades that were sphincter-clenching during descents proved to be nearly unclimbable for my weakling legs. I mashed the granny gear until my hammies bunched into tight knots, then used a kind of sidestep to drag my bike up walls of loose dirt. When I arrived at the top Jan was drenched in sweat but had a cool smile on his face, satisfied with the hard effort. "Is running ruining your biking legs?" he joked.

"Well, actually, yes. Yes it is." Recovery from the Laurel Highlands Ultra aside, I really do feel weaker on my bike even as I become progressively stronger on foot. Maybe it's because lately I've been using cycling mainly as a recovery and recreation activity, and haven't been pushing myself as hard. Either way, my legs felt more sore after Jan's and my little mountain bike ride than they did after nineteen hours of pounding in Pennsylvania. I went for short run today in 100-degree heat (okay, okay, I waited until 7:30 p.m. when the fierce sun had drifted behind enough haze to drop temps into the low 90s) in hopes of loosening them up. My hamstrings and calves actually feel better now that they've had a little run time. I'm not sure how I feel about this development of becoming a stronger runner at the expense of having enough power left over to hang with my cycling friends. Honestly, it's a little discouraging.

Yeah, we both went around the jump. Next time. Ha!
But the actual thing I wanted to post about today was the one-anniversary of my book release. "Be Brave, Be Strong: A Journey Across the Great Divide" officially came out on June 15, 2011. This week I worked on tracking down as many numbers as I could in hopes of figuring out how many copies have sold. It's stretched out over a wide string of distribution channels and it's almost impossible for me to track down all of them. But what I found was encouraging. In its first year, this book sold at least 683 paperbacks and 2,840 eBooks for a total of 3,523 sales. Modest numbers for sure, but not bad for a self-published title in which nearly all of the profit goes to me. I wanted to say thanks to anyone who has purchased the book, for making this first year a good one. And if you have any opinion about it, I always appreciate the posting of reviews.

It's understandably a question I get all of the time: What are you working on now? Someday soon I plan to write a post delving into this more, but the quick answer is, "A lot of different things, but not making as much progress on any of them as I'd like." From this blog, it probably seems like I spend all of my time biking, running and traveling. But really there are still plenty of hours in the day to work, and I often don't make the best use of all of them. I'm still working on several book projects. My idea of a small independent publishing group has yet to spark, but interest has resulted in a few editing jobs (and I'm working on landing more of those.) I'm very close to releasing a blog compilation of essays from the past seven years, with added commentary to tie it all together. I still write the occasional short article here and there, and right now am pursuing more copy writing gigs to pass the time while I wallow in bouts of writer's block.

But things are clicking along. My main goal right now is creating more books; even if they're not as successful, ultimately I believe the work will pay off. I have to say, I do love having the salmon wheel that is Amazon.com out scooping up fish and keeping me in grocery funds while I indulge in five-hour bike rides. Life is good right now, even though my bike legs are weak and slow. Beat is in Zurich on business for a week and I'm hoping to head to the Sierras for a couple of days of solid UTMB practice. The main reason I signed up for a crazy race like UTMB is because the training gives me excuse to pursue one of my favorite things in the world ... climbing big mountains. And the best part is, right now, my legs are good at that. 
Thursday, June 14, 2012

Because it's beautiful, that's why

Ultrarunning is an eccentric sport, so it makes sense that people have their own eccentric reasons for getting into it. I was exposed to this community for years before I developed any interest in participating. My first glimmer of intrigue sparked about three years ago, when I was traversing Heinzelman Ridge in Juneau. From a high point I could see mountain ridges rippling like waves across the Juneau Ice Field — all of these mountains I wanted to visit but would never be able to reach in a day. For my own reasons — bears, wolves, unpredictable weather, and the potential onset of disorienting fog overnight — I didn't want to attempt solo backpacking trips in the alpine of Southeast Alaska. But if I had the ability to move faster, I realized, the possibilities would be greater. The more efficient my steps became, the more mountains I could visit. Distance — not speed — was my overlying motivation to become "a runner."

Ultra-racing is a fun and challenging way to develop distance skills, and the Laurel Highlands Ultra was an ideal test. The 70.5-mile race traverses the entire distance of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in southwestern Pennsylvania. The race launched in 1979 when two brothers set out to see how far they could get in a day. The following year, seven people showed up for the challenge, and a tradition was born. The current race directors, Iditarod veterans Tim Hewitt and Rick Freeman, invited Beat to come out to Pennsylvania and run their race. Beat in turn convinced me that the Laurel Highlands Ultra would be a good shakedown run for UTMB. I also liked the idea of a point-to-point course — 70 miles is a decent amount of ground to cover in a day, and I expected a scenic tour of one of the more remote regions of the eastern United States. Just a few years ago, seventy miles was well beyond my scope of what I could cover on foot in one day. Laurel Highlands was an opportunity to see how far I've come.

Of course, by race morning, I was less than enthused about all of it. We flew into Pittsburgh in the early morning hours on Friday, slept hardly at all, spent the rest of the day socializing and prepping, finally made our way home around 11 p.m., and then set our alarm for 3 a.m. Saturday so we could travel to the start with the race directors. Still operating in Pacific time, I groaned to Beat, "Why do we have to wake up at midnight to run on rocks and roots?" Beat pointed out that a few days worth of sleep deprivation and jet lag was also good training for UTMB. True, true.

About 130 racers were gathered for the dawn start of the seventy-mile race, which began at the parking lot of a small park and quickly funneled onto the narrow singletrack at mile zero of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. Beat had hurt his hip the weekend before during the Diablo 60K, and the injury was still causing him quite a bit of pain. Before the race, he taped his hip extensively with kinesio tape, but he was noticeably limping in the first mile. I think he only bothered to start the race because we had already made all these arrangements to travel to Pennsylvania, not to mention self-imposed peer pressure from his friends. Beat promised he would drop at the first signs of real trouble, but I doubted this was going to happen. We ran together for the first eight miles, following the racer conga line up the rocky trail. As soon as the pack began to break up, I surged ahead. At the first aid station, mile 11, I waited for five or so minutes before deciding that Beat would likely catch me soon if he didn't drop. And if he was contemplating quitting, he probably didn't want me around to try to talk him into it.

The Laurel Highlands are the remnants of some old and crumbling mountains, leaving behind piles of massive boulders that the trail often wove through like a maze. The mountains themselves are actually the highest in Pennsylvania, and the high point on the trail is close to 3,000 feet. Though the giant rock gardens were my favorite aspect of the route, I'm a vista person at heart, and I was constantly scanning for spots to break out of the forest. I admit I wandered off the trail and onto the rocks once or twice in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Youghiogheny River or even downtown Pittsburgh, which I'm told can be seen across fifty-odd miles of mostly open green space. At one point I broke off from a small group I had been running with to locate the vista in the picture above this one, and then sped up to catch them again. "Stop and smell the roses type?" an older man asked as I passed. "Yup," I replied. "This is my motivation. I wouldn't be out here otherwise."

I passed the 50K mark while running with a friend of my friends Leslie and Keith, Kendra. We never got around to talking about just how small of a world this ultrarunning community is, but we did joke about veering toward the 31-mile finish and pretending we thought we entered the 50K all along. For me these were hollow words, because I was actually feeling pretty good. All the miles beyond 31 were mostly unknown territory for me, but I was consciously working on staying "light as a feather" in order to avoid pounding my feet while still lifting them enough to stay off the rocks. But by mile 40 I was beginning to regularly fail at this goal, stumbling more frequently until I finally took my first crashing blow into the rocks, hitting my left shoulder hard. This made me angry and I got up and started sprinting, trying to race off the pain that was coursing through my arm. I noticed I actually balanced much better when I moved faster, but I could hardly keep up that speed for thirty more miles. I vowed to pull out my trekking poles at the next aid station.

I had been aiming to hit the fifty-mile marker at twelve hours and was convinced I had it as late as mile 40. But the rocky section where I crashed slowed me down substantially, and I actually hit mile 50 closer to thirteen hours into the race. The Laurel Highlands Trail is marked with mile posts for the entire distance. Some runners find these marks of (slow) progress annoying, but I use GPS anyway so they mostly just gave me something to look forward to. At the mile 46 checkpoint, Tim gave me Beat's status — still in the race, about a half hour behind. I grabbed my trekking poles and began the long climb from a lower point on the course back to the 3,000-foot range.

Over the course of the race I had been eating what I might call a "50K diet" — mainly sugar, with salt tabs, and less than a hundred calories per hour on average. This works fine for me for seven hours or so, but by hour twelve I could feel the all-too-familiar onset of a bonk. In luckier situations, bonking simply means an energy hole that is relatively easy to dig out of. But a combination of the intensity of the effort, warm temperatures (mid-80s with high humidity), and mild dehydration sent my stomach into revolt and I couldn't put more calories down without heavy consequences. In less than two miles I went from feeling great to using every ounce of my diminishing willpower to avoid laying down in oh-so-soft-looking beds of ferns. Nausea wracked my stomach until I gave into vomiting, which made my gut feel marginally better but my head about ten times worse. I slowed to a near-crawl. There were definitely some 25-minute miles in that section, even after I finished the climb and re-entered the rolling terrain of the high ridge. I felt horrible, but strangely, I wasn't upset about it. The sun was drifting low in the sky beyond the canopy of trees, casting rich light and stark shadows across the carpets of ferns. Laurel bushes in peak bloom lined the narrow trail, creating purple-and-white walls of blossoms. The earthy sweet aroma probably would have been wonderful if I wasn't so nauseated, but even still it wasn't terrible. I could walk it off, I told myself, and in the meantime I felt entertainingly loopy, almost high.

But beauty can only sustain a poor physical state for so long. I slouched into the 57-mile checkpoint feeling so depleted that if I had been attempting a hundred-miler, I would have given strong consideration to dropping. Even with just a measly half marathon left, I still found it difficult to contemplate the miles ahead. I held onto Beat's sage advice for all similar ultra situations — "It will get better, before it gets worse, but then it gets better again. It always does." I forced down a cup of ramen soup, which proved to be my rapid turning point. Before I even left the aid station I was feeling okay enough to eat a few cookies and several cups of iced ginger ale. Darkness was settling in, so I switched on my headlamp and set into the final stretch a renewed runner — well, at least I was running again.

At mile 61 we hit the sole stretch of road on the course, about three-quarters of a mile of gravel. I was really excited to see this short section of easy travel, as I was becoming weary of stumbling on rocks. But sure enough, it only took about a quarter mile of unrealized tedium before I was struggling with the sleep monster. Funny how that happens. I slowed to a walk and occupied myself by shuffling through the screens on my Garmin eTrex ... smiling at the 14,000 feet of climbing it had registered so far and zooming out on the map to see just how far I had traveled, on a wrinkled line drawn over an impressive swath of southwestern Pennsylvania. At the top of the road was the last aid station, and I had no energy so I ate some more soup and wasted a little more time. Turnaround number two came, along with the resolve to run, the conquering of the rocky descent, and feeling the best that I had felt, arguably, all day long. (The race started so early that I did not feel awake until 9 a.m. Pacific time, which was nearly 25 miles into the race, and by then I had, well, 25 miles under my feet.) I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute of those last eight miles to the mile 70 marker, and finished feeling strong. Which, for my own eccentric reasons, is the ideal way to finish a race. I don't do this kind of thing to empty my tank ... I do it to feel full.

Rick handed me my trophy, an impressive mahogany replica of a trail marker with the number 70 inscribed in the wood. He said they'd mail me a plaque with my finishing time, 19:01. It was well ahead of my goal and good enough to be respectably midpack — 46th of 130 starters and 85 finishers, and 10th of 17 women. Beat limped into the finish at 20:27, having endured his hip pain that entire time. He had an experienced friend help him diagnose the injury today — tightness and strain in several muscles in and around his glutes. It sounded miserable and I think Beat ground it out only because he has so much respect and admiration for Tim that he didn't want to disappoint him ... awww.

My shoulder, which started to feel better after I began using my poles, is still a bit sore. I also have been feeling under the weather, which is more likely a result of travel-induced insomnia than running. Otherwise, I don't feel worse for the wear, and don't think it could have gone a whole lot better given my limited experiences with longer distances.

Plus, the Laurel Highlands are intensely beautiful. Experiencing the entire trail in a day amid the challenges and endorphins of long-distance running was all the more rewarding. For me, those are the best reasons to run the Laurel Highlands Ultra — cool trophies aside.