Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shake it out

The formidable Mont Blanc, as seen from 12,600 feet at Aiguille du Midi. 
I've had a tough time starting a pre-race blog post, clouded as my mind is in a fluctuating haze of anxiety and awe. I feel peaceful and content when I go into the mountains, and less so when I wander through the crowded streets of town or sort through a growing mountain of gear that I want to pack with me in UTMB. The weather forecast has progressively deteriorated from ominous to downright apocalyptic. The race is expected to launch under steady rain and temperatures around 5C (41F), turning to snow on the first pass around 1,800 meters, and throughout the night the higher elevations on the course are expected to receive about 5 cm of snow, temperatures around -5C (23F) and 45 kph winds. So, basically, we're going to get soaked at the start and then climb into snow and subfreezing temperatures with flash-freezing winds, then slip and slide down the wet snow until the ice crusted to our clothing melts and we can be soaked anew at lower elevations. Having experienced long endurance efforts in temperatures down to 40 below, blizzards, and similarly wet and cold conditions at shorter intervals, I feel like I can express with some authority that this could potentially be as bad as weather can be for such an endeavor. The UTMB is well supported with water and a somewhat limited selection of European food, but we must carry all of our other gear. The fear has set in and I've exchange my formally large backpack for an even larger one. My friend Martina lectured me about its weight but I was undeterred. I would drag my Susitna sled if I thought that was at all possible. 

In memory, the coldest I've ever been — the deepest I've descended into hypothermia — happened about three years ago in Juneau, during a climb up Mount Jumbo in an October storm. I planned to hike hard so I packed fairly light, although I still had quite a bit of gear — Gortex jacket, rain pants, gloves, hat. I ascended soaked to the bone, hit snowline, and kept ascending, feeling slightly chilled but not really thinking about what that meant for the descent. On the ridge I was blasted with wind until my jacket froze, stupidly decided to still tag the peak, and was fully shivering by the time I started down. My traction in the wet snow was so bad, and a fall so potentially treacherous, that I moved painfully slow on the descent. My body stopped making heat, and I reached a point where I couldn't feel my feet, face, or my arms, at all. My teeth stopped chattering and my heart started murmuring in the way that it does when survival instinct tells me that something is really wrong. I made it down, but the experience shook me up so much that I didn't even really talk about it at the time. That was the weather. The weather we're supposed to see this weekend. For a hundred some freaking miles. 

I'd be lying if I put my game face on and pretended to be optimistic. I'm not. That's not to say I'm not excited. I'm going to show up at the start, as prepared as possible, ready and anxious for a grand adventure. Beat has been out there since Monday night. I've only received a few short text updates, so I'm not sure exactly how he's dealing with these conditions. But he's still pushing through it, and if he can, I can. Hopefully fast enough to stay in the race. But I'm not willing to take any big chances. So there it is. Tomorrow I'll post another update with links to where you can follow UTMB online, and hopefully a slightly more positive outlook. 

Gondola to Le Brevent
That's not to say I haven't been loving my time in Chamonix. The weather for the first two days was fantastic and I took advantage of it by visiting popular spots around town, and that includes cafes and restaurants. But of course what everyone comes her for are the mountains. Martina and I set out for a walk on Tuesday, and I predictably got carried away and climbed 5,500 feet to to the base of the cliffs of Aiguilles Rouges. But it was okay, because just a mile away was a gondola that carried me all the way down to the valley. It's not considered breaking your taper if you don't run downhill. On Wednesday Martina, her friend Sandra, and I purchased a gondola pass and visited La Brevet on one side of the valley and Aiguille du Midi on the other, then took the train to Mer de Glace. The train broke down so we ended up having to run 2,500 feet down the trail to town. I guess that's what I get for cheating. But the places those gondolas reach are breathtaking. Simply unbelievable. I was all kinds of happy on Wednesday, despite the ominous clouds looming on the horizon. I'm hoping for the same in UTMB.

I'm still working through my process of accepting what UTMB means to me. I don't have near the time I need to even start writing it out (before the soul-crushing reality of the race unravels all of it), but did think of (another) Florence and the Machine song whose lyrics approach my own thoughts. I know, it's annoying when bloggers post lyrics of songs verbatim. But it's part of my process, which I need right now to calm the roiling panic that threatens to bubble to the surface. So here are photographs of some of the places I visited on Wednesday, and "Shake It Out" by Florence and the Machine.

View toward Rochers des Fiz
Regrets collect like old friends.
Here to relive your darkest moments.
I can see no way, I can see no way,
And all of the ghouls come out to play.

Massif des Aiguilles Rouges
And every demon wants his pound of flesh,
But I like to keep some things to myself.
I like to keep my issues drawn.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

The Chamonix Valley and Mont Blanc as seen from Le Brevent
And I've been a fool and I've been blind.
I can never leave the past behind.
I can see no way, I can see no way.

Dent du Geant (Tooth of the Giant)
I'm always dragging that horse around,
And our love is pastured such a mournful sound.
Tonight I'm going to bury that horse in the ground.
So I like to keep my issues drawn.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

Glacier des Bossons
Shake it out, shake it out ...
And it's hard to dance with the devil on your back,
So shake him off.

The Aiguille du Midi station, built into a pinnacle at 12,000 feet before the invention of helicopters
I am done with my graceless heart,
So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart.
Cause I like to keep my issues drawn.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

Climbers ascend the final ridge to Aiguille du Midi
And given half a chance, would I take any of it back?
It's a fine romance but it's left me so undone.
It's always darkest before the dawn.

Glacier du Geant
And I'm damned if I do, and I'm damned if I don't,
So here's to drinks in the dark at the end of my road.
And I'm ready to suffer, and I'm ready to hope.
It's a shot in the dark right at my throat,

Aig le Verte
Cause looking for heaven, found the devil in me.
Looking for heaven, found the devil in me.
Well what the hell, I'm gonna let it happen to me.

Monday, August 27, 2012


The town center is crowded and the backdrop is jaw-dropping — but there's a surreal tint to Chamonix that I haven't experienced in the similarly set national parks of North America. Maybe it's hints of old-world culture, European richness, or the simple fact that, crowds notwithstanding, the Alps have to be one of the most ruggedly beautiful mountain ranges in the world. The Himalayas, no contest; the Andes and Cordillera Blanca, of course; the Canadian Rockies and the Alaska Range, my personal favorites— but the Alps, the Alps have this way of extracting tears of joy amid cries of pain; a haven of pinnacles both inaccessible and endlessly inviting. I can't wait to attempt to hike and jog for a hundred miles in the shadow of Mont Blanc.

I'm writing a quick blog post while Beat packs up for La Petite Trotte a Leon, which starts today (Monday) at 10 p.m. Chamonix time (1 p.m. PDT.) PTL is 290 kilometers of trail with some 22,000 meters of elevation gain. Some of the steep ascents and descents are on class-four and even low class-five terrain assisted by fixed ropes and cables — essentially climbing routes without the harness, called via ferrata. UTMB is likely going to be the toughest single-effort physical challenge I've ever taken on, but PTL is at least three times as difficult. Beat told me he will be carrying a tracker and I am hoping to follow him on the PTL map page. There is also a "Live Page" that may have updates.

Meanwhile, I have the fear firmly planted in my heart, and so I am going to make every effort to approach Friday as well-rested and healthy as possible. I plan to get out for a few short hikes in the next three days, but it's honestly going to be a mental battle to refrain from binging heavily on these beautiful mountains before my race begins Friday evening. I keep telling myself I'll have plenty of exposure to the Alps this weekend, but the Chamonix backdrop makes it hard to sit still. The rest of the plan includes lots of sleeping, eating pasta and bread, and watching Beat's updates as he makes his way through these amazing mountains.

Edit: The tracking site is located here, showing a Google Earth image of the course and the racers' locations. Beat and Daniel's team is "Too Dumb To Quit." Our friends Steve and Harry also are racing PTL, and their team is "Quit Is A Four-Letter Word." 
Saturday, August 25, 2012


Beat and I have spent the past few days visiting Beat's family in Switzerland. Thursday was Beat's brother Andy's fiftieth birthday. We traveled to Interlaken, a idyllic little village in the foothills of the Bernese Alps, where Andy and his wife went skydiving in the morning. We had previously declined an invitation to join them, citing nervousness about injuries before our big races (About seven years ago, I went on a tandem skydive where the instructor misjudged the landing and put us down extremely hard, bruising my tailbone. I was unable to walk normally for a week after that.) Of course, as soon as I saw those parachutes sailing through the clear blue sky amid glacier-capped peaks, I regretted passing up the opportunity. I'm not even an adrenaline junkie (I'm an endorphin junkie, and there's a huge difference.) But I can only imagine what the views were like from those heights, in free-fall.

We did get a glimpse of the views, minus the free-fall, when we took a helicopter ride from Interlaken back to Andy's house, where it landed in a farm field next door. A thick haze had moved in before we took off, so I wasn't able to capture a good aerial photograph. But it was my first time in a helicopter, and also an opportunity to see rural Switzerland from the sky. Even the "flat" region is a continuous ripple of hills covered in a patchwork of forest, green fields, and clusters of villages woven together by veins of roads. Besides the the airborne adventures, there has been a steady stream of awesome food — pizza, cheese, cake, crusty bread, salad, cheese (the Swiss love their cheese. This love is completely justified.) I don't have to worry about showing up for UTMB without ample calorie reserves.

I've also been able to do a few taper runs. I try to keep them to ninety minutes or less, but it's been difficult to restrain myself since I found a scenic network of logging roads a couple of miles from Andy's house. Despite generally low energy levels (I always struggle with jet lag, and even after three days I still haven't been able to sleep through a night), all I want to do is explore these hills all day long. It's a beautiful region full of adorable farmhouses, narrow roads, green hillsides, lush forests, and old churches. I've really enjoyed my runs here, and we haven't even gotten into the real mountains yet.

We leave Sunday morning for Chamonix. Beat's race, La Petite Trot a Leon, starts Monday evening. My race doesn't start until Friday evening, so I'll have a bit more time to fret before the big hurt begins. I'll probably write blog posts about the gear in my huge backpack and how I plan to ration my limited supply of peanut butter cups to pass the nervous time. I finally packed up all of my gear today and the verdict — nine pounds without water, but including food. I'm going to try to think about ways to pare that down as best I can without sacrificing too much of my "safe" food (I'd hate to time out of UTMB because I can't eat anything.) On to France. 
Monday, August 20, 2012

Packing up

This weekend has been a frenzy of packing, shopping, and re-packing. We leave for Switzerland on Tuesday, so I need to have everything ready to go before then. Beat hoisted my UTMB pack and proclaimed, "There's way too much stuff in there. You need to get rid of some of that."

"I can't," I protested. "That's just the required gear. I don't even have any food in there yet, and except for some meds and batteries, it's all obligatory." I'm not yet willing to rely entirely on fontina cheese and dried meats for the duration of a hundred-mile foot race, so I will be packing my own supply of gummy candies. This backpack is heavy. I try to put it in perspective, remind myself of my Susitna sled, of all the water I carried on my back during the Stagecoach 400, but that doesn't make me feel much better. The backpack is my first tangible dose of truth — this thing is about to get real.

So what is UTMB? It occurred to me that I've never really explained this whole endeavor. UTMB stands for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and it's a 166-kilometer foot race on a route that begins in Chamonix, France, and circumnavigates the highest mountain in the Alps, the 4,808-meter (15,774-foot) Mont Blanc. The Trail du Mont Blanc travels through France, Switzerland, and Italy, ascending and descending a series of cols (passes) and ridge traverses for a total of 9,500 meters (31,168 feet) of climbing. The raw numbers rival the Hardrock 100 and UTMB is regarded as one of the toughest ~100-mile-distance foot races out there.

It's also undoubtedly the largest race of this distance, drawing a limit of 2,000 runners. It's a big crowd. I have little knowledge about who's lining up for the 2012 race. I do know an overwhelming majority of them are European men. In 2011, out of about 2,000 starters, 1,133 finished. Of those 1,133 finishers, only 72 were women. The first man, trail-running legend Kilian Jornet, finished in 20 hours and 36 minutes. The first woman, Elisabeth Hawker, finished in 25 hours and 2 minutes. A sub-36-hour finish would have landed a man in the top 175, and a woman in the top ten. Nearly 700 of the finishers needed more than 40 hours to return to Chamonix. Forty-seven of the 72 women had 40-plus-hour finishes. Everyone in the race is given 46 hours to complete the distance. Those who fall behind the pace are stopped by checkpoint cut-offs.

Yes, numbers show that this is a prohibitively difficult race. So how did I get involved in this? It started about a year ago, when I timed out at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, because of slowness caused by disruptive foot pain. I decried the TRT100 for being too "runnable" and declared that a hiker like myself might actually fare better in a tough mountain hundred where solid climbing ability paired with persistence can make up for less-than-stellar running skills. Plus, I love the idea of a long-distance endurance hike, which is why I've had so much enthusiasm and relative success in the foot division of the Susitna 100. I didn't choose UTMB because it's one of the "hardest" races, I chose it because it matches both my desires (long trip through beautiful mountains) and my abilities (endurance, persistence, and climbing.) But it's still a really, really hard race.

Today I did my last run up Black Mountain before we leave for Europe. Black Mountain has become a go-to training route — the trail is a five-mile, 3,000-foot climb of variable steepness that requires some walking even at max effort, followed by a fun five-mile descent. For my birthday, Beat bought me a new pair of Hoka Mafate shoes that I'm loving, as well as a pair of Salomon calf sleeves to help support my weak shins and also so I will fit in with the Euro runners. I'm in taper mode right now and feeling strong, so I logged a good time for the ten-mile run today: 2:00:01 with stops. It was fairly effortless (no hard pushing because of taper mode and also self-preservation on the descent), so I was feeling a bit smug at the bottom. "Ha, Black Mountain was easy today. It's basically a tenth of UTMB. I just need to add a lot more technical terrain, at higher elevations, over two nights, with potentially awful weather, times ten." Yeah, that shut my smugness up real quick.

Panic will resume soon enough. But I genuinely am excited for all of it. I'm excited to travel a hundred miles through three different countries on my own two feet, to gaze up at the stunning profile of Mont Blanc, to try to decipher French at aid stations, to experience the grandeur of the Alps and the energy of 2,000 racers. Friends have asked me why I would even want to participate in a mountain event with so many people, but to me, that's all part of the experience — the crowds, the glaciers, the cheese and dried meat, the unbelievable vistas, the soaring highs and emotional breakdowns, and the crushing, crushing foot pain.

Everyone who attempts these hundred-mile foot races has their own reasons. I've described my motivation as a desire "to paint the canvas of my memories with bold red brush strokes." If this were purely about the beauty of the Alps, I would backpack the route over eight days like a normal person. And if it were purely about ego, honestly, I would probably be attempting something decidedly more suited to my actual talents. The UTMB project is about paring down all the complicated facets of myself to a stark minimum, to silence the excess noise and embrace the bare thoughts and emotions that remain. To be alone in a crowd of 2,000. To feel the energy of 2,000 people when I feel alone. To fight for every hour and surrender my ego to the beauty. As Florence and the Machine sings: "Leave all your loving and your longing behind; you can't carry it with you if you want to survive." ("Dog Days" is becoming my UTMB training theme song.)

But that's still a week and a half away. For now I'm just trying to quell panic and maybe get in one last pre-UTMB bike ride on my birthday, which is today (Monday.) 
Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The consequences of experience

I don't have any of my own photos of Michael Popov, only a few from the day I met him, during my first ultramarathon, the Rodeo Beach 50K in December 2010. 
One week ago, a man who is well-known in the Northern California trail-running community died from complications of heat stroke in Death Valley. Like many do in this social media age, I learned of his death through vaguely worded Facebook posts and wondered what could have possibly happened. Michael Popov was an experienced endurance athlete, a formidably built Russian with a long resume of adventure racing and self-supported fastpacking treks. When initial reports said he ran out of water during a recreational, six-mile traverse between two parallel roads, I thought "that doesn't sound right." Today, Outside Magazine published a more detailed account of what happened during a "routine run" in one of the most extreme environments in North America. The story is enough to bring pause to anyone who considers themselves an adventure athlete — the experience we take for granted, and the decisions we make every day.

Although I didn't know Michael well, his death resonated deeply. He and I were about the same age, and shared many of the same passions. He was co-director for Pacific Coast Trail Runs before that venture closed its doors earlier this summer, so my memories of him are from chats after 50K trail races. Our conversations usually centered around endurance bikepacking, and he told me he wanted to ride the Colorado Trail Race in 2013. The last time I saw Michael was at the Diablo Marathon in June. He handed me a coaster for winning the race and teased me about showing up in Banff the following week for the Tour Divide. "Who knows?" I replied. "Maybe I will. What's your next big adventure?" He just shrugged and broke into a disarming smile. "Maybe see you at Tour Divide?" he joked. From others' accounts of Michael, this seemed to be a big part of his personality — lightheartedness, but with an underlying focus and intensity.

Michael's last run was a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel cross-country between West Side and Badwater roads in Death Valley. He estimated the distance would be about ten kilometers, and likely thought the run across flat terrain would take about an hour. His partner was set to pick him up on the other side of the traverse. He packed four bottles of water, and only a cell phone as an emergency measure. It was approximately 2 p.m. and the temperature was 123 degrees. Two and a half hours later, passersby found him lying on the side of the road. He was conscious but delusional and combative. After emergency crews were summoned, he lost consciousness, and died during resuscitation efforts. The doctor who performed the autopsy speculated that Michael likely encountered subsurface moisture beneath a thin crust layer, which can make footing extremely difficult. If he had to find a way around it, his route would have been significantly lengthened. His water bottles were empty when he was found.

Those of us who don't know Michael well can only wonder what he was thinking when he decided to embark on his run, as well as what went through his mind when he realized he was in much deeper than he anticipated. Michael, who has completed the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon, probably had good reason to believe that his relatively light kit was more than enough for conditions he had dealt with before. His experience rightfully gave him confidence, and still a stark misjudgment occurred. It's a sobering lesson for anyone drawn to these extreme environments, where the margin for error is so thin.

On Monday, our friend Daniel came to visit from Colorado and we went for a run on Black Mountain. He told me he had been reading my book "Ghost Trails" and was curious about the incident during the 2008 Iditarod race when I dropped my bike in an open stream in the Dalzell Gorge at 20 below, and soaked my leg as I retrieved it. What he didn't understand, he said, is why I didn't get frostbite when that happened, but did in a similar incident the following year.

"Well, it's interesting," I replied. "I realize now how many poor decisions I made after I went through the ice on Flathorn Lake in 2009. But at the time, that incident in the Dalzell Gorge was still fresh in my mind. The year before, I completely soaked my boot in temperatures far below zero, and proceeded to push my bike to Rohn over the next eight hours with no consequences. So you see, there was that precedent that made me think I'd be okay."

Only the second time around, I wasn't as lucky. I was still lucky that I was able to walk away with moderate frostbite and not something much worse, but still, I sometimes wonder — what was so different about conditions in 2009 that my foot froze in eight hours? Was it because it was a few degrees colder? Was it because of wind? Was it because I both pedaled and pushed my bike, where in 2008 I walked the entire way? What will I do if I encounter similar conditions again? I love the frozen Alaska tundra more than any other landscape I've experienced, and I'm not going to stay away. Instead, I want to be prepared. I want to be alert. I want to make good decisions.

Still, I recognize that I can gather all the experience and knowledge possible, and still make a disastrous mistake in a relatively routine situation. It's even more likely to happen if experience gives my mind precedent to believe that a particular situation is okay. But of course, situations can change stunningly fast. And when conditions shift outside one's experience, even small miscalculations can turn deadly. Michael's final run has been a sobering reminder of that reality.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Deep fried

Given my cold-weather preference, I tend to wonder what type of climate is actually a more physically taxing environment — excessive heat, or extreme cold. Of course these descriptions are relative to what a person is accustomed to, but for my purposes I'll call excessive heat "over 90F" and extreme cold "below 10F." During my residency in Alaska, I would have cited excessive heat as the tougher environment, without hesitation. Sure, extreme cold requires quite a bit of energy just to breathe; you're consistently ravenous, your muscles feel sluggish, and you're so preoccupied with staying alive that it's surprisingly easy to push past your physical limits and do things you might regret later, like riding a bicycle a hundred miles with a severely inflamed knee. But heat — heat just sucks the life force right out of me. It makes me lose interest in biking, running, until eventually even moving becomes a chore. I tell people that I can't ever move back to the desert, because I'd become a complete slug during the summer months. At least the Bay Area, I say, is relatively mild in the summer. Except for when it's not.

This is my long way of saying that I wasn't thrilled that the heat wave coincided with my planned "peak training week." It's not like I need heat training for UTMB — that race seems to be perpetually plagued with cold, wet weather. No, the only thing the heat meant for me was more suffering. By Friday, I was well cooked. Beat and I went for a 6.5-mile run at Rancho San Antonio on nearly empty trails, a rarity in that popular preserve. It was 88 degrees and I commented about how "cool" it felt, because I'd been out for long hours in the 90s all week. But that misguided relief lasted about a mile, and then I was dizzy and grumpy again. I resolved to schedule no big goals in the summer ever again, so should I encounter another 90-degree week, I could just spend it sitting on the couch eating shaved ice. 

So, yeah, Beat and I were both fairly shattered after a measly 6.5 miles. The next morning was the Crystal Springs 50K. A low-lying fog clung to the valley, but the slightly elevated race start was brilliantly clear and already baking by 8 a.m. Beat brought his big pack so he could test it out for PTL; the thing must have weighed at least twenty pounds, and included a spare pair of shoes. I did not envy the prospect of running 31 miles with that thing.

Despite temperatures forecast in the nineties, there was still a decent turnout for Crystal Springs — 41 people for the 50K. The race begins with a long, gradual climb to Skyline Ridge, on a trail that is infuriatingly runnable. A high-pressure inversion seemed to increase the temperature as we climbed. Volunteers reported seeing 95-degree temperature readings on the ridge, and it easily felt hotter than 100 in some of the sun-exposed sections. My head was boiling and I could hardly keep my eyes open for all the sweat that was streaming into them, but the whole pack was running so I felt like I had to run. I probably would have shuffled along at about 1.5 miles per hour if I hadn't been part of a "race." This is the main reason why I believe racing is a beneficial activity, even when the race is nothing more than a "training run." Racing never fails to motivate me to venture outside of my comfort zone and try new things, and potentially find new strengths, whether it's riding a bike through the snow at ten below or forcing my slug-like body into something more intense than a slow walk at a hundred degrees.

Eventually, similar to my reaction to the extreme cold, my body's discomfort zones started to go numb and my head began to feel fuzzy — responses that make these baked-grass slopes appear "so beautiful" and weaving through the harsh shadows of partially shaded singletrack "so trippy." These kinds of responses are exactly what make hard efforts "fun." The one discomfort I couldn't shake was nausea, which shut down my stomach completely. It accepted water, mostly because I'm pretty sure all that water evaporated before it reached my stomach, but I was unable to eat. I figured, "Oh well, it's only 50K. Six or seven hours? I can run that long without bonking." I managed to get about two to four ounces of Coke down at the aid stations every five to nine miles, and figured that was good enough.

I caught up to Beat in Wunderlich Park, near mile eighteen. His big pack was bringing him down and he was drenched in sweat. I suggested dropping it at the next aid station, but he reminded me that he "can't do that in PTL." We ran together for ten or so minutes, but then he gave me the rest of his gummy bears, which added an extra snap to my step. Even though the heat was oppressive and twelve gummy bears don't have all that many calories, I realized I was only feeling better as the miles went by. Eventually I pulled ahead and once we were at the top of the long climb, I picked up my pace. 

Photo by Coastal Trail Runs
I passed more than a dozen people in the last eleven miles, because everyone seemed to be struggling with this above-normal heat. I was actually on a nice equilibrium, not feeling good enough to "crush it," but also not feeling any worse than I did at the beginning of the race. I hadn't been tracking the time that closely and was shocked when I rolled into the finish in 5:55, which is just four minutes slower than my 50K PR (on this same course, in January.) I was the third woman and eighth overall, out of 36 finishers. It was surprising because this was supposed to be my "tired legs 50K," the last big push at the end of a hard week, while consuming all of ten ounces of Coke and twelve gummy bears, and it was ninety-plus degrees. There was really no reason at all to have a good race, and I did anyway. Go figure. 

On Sunday for "recovery," Beat and I met up with friends for an afternoon of bikram mountain biking. The heat was still brutal, and because we rode to the trailhead to meet them, we ended up with a loop encompassing thirty miles and 3,700 feet of climbing. I was truly cooked by the end; I couldn't even pedal it up small hills before a deluge of lactic acid flooded my legs. But it's good to feel this way, sometimes. It means I really did work hard this week. It wasn't all just a heat-induced hallucination. 
Friday, August 10, 2012

August beatdown

I am trying to "peak" my UTMB training this week — "peak" simply meaning I do a relatively high volume of tough outdoor workouts in an effort to get my mind ready for the long slog ahead. Oh, and to reintroduce the legs to chronic fatigue. Since the week started with Sunday's 50K, this is what I have so far:

Sunday: Trail running, 32 miles, 7,070 feet of climbing
Monday: Road cycling, 18 miles, 2,772 feet of climbing
Tuesday: Trail running, 7 miles, 1,414 feet of climbing
Wednesday: Trail running, 8.5 miles, 1,605 feet of climbing
Thursday: Mountain biking, 57 miles, 7,291 feet of climbing
Five-day total: 47.5 miles trail running, 75 miles cycling, 20,152 feet of climbing

For Friday I'm planning another run of indeterminate length and then on Saturday Beat and I have another 50K trail race. If I finish the race, this week could end up being one of my largest seven-day running totals yet. I love doing these "peak" weeks, but as it turns out, August is not my favorite time of year for a beatdown. After the Steep Ravine 50K, local temperatures shot into the 90s. I generally do my exercising around 5 p.m., of course the hottest time of day. I realize it would be wise to wake up early and try to take advantage of that thin wisp of a marine layer that helps keep morning temperatures more reasonable. But since I'm training to toughen up my head game, I figured I might as well make it tough. So I went out for my afternoon runs with my tired legs, little water bottle, and sweat-drenched sad face. Then, today, two of my crazier bike friends had the time and desire for an all-day mountain bike ride.

Leah, Jan and I met up at Saratoga Gap for an 11 a.m. start. My car dashboard thermometer indicated it was already 89 degrees. Jan has been fighting a sinus infection and I've only been on a bicycle twice in the last three weeks. We set out on the dried-out, loose chunder, steep rolling trails of Skyline Ridge. Leah, who brought her cross bike because I said, "Yeah, this would be a good ride for a cross bike," skidded on several of the descents. We all fought the chundery climbs with what felt like twice the amount of force that I usually need when these trails are tacky. Seriously, August is a mean month.

We spent ninety minutes working hard for the first nine miles, and by then I was nearly out of water. Just like that, seventy ounces, gone. Leah was out, too. We'd spend the entire rest of the ride rationing our way from water stop to water stop, because we only had a finite number of known water stops (all ranger stations and a camp site, so no retail resupply) and limited carrying capacity. It was of course a mistake to bring only a two-liter bladder, but I didn't understand how much water I'd be burning through — significantly more than I'm used to. All of that liquid just evaporated into the hot air, scarcely moving through my system before it disappeared. Mean, mean August.

But we had a fun ride, descending into Portola Redwoods State Park, slicing through the dark woods of Pescadero on an old logging road, chasing a slightly cooling breeze along coastal farm roads, climbing the sandy Butano Ridge, and descending into Big Basin Redwoods before our final climb to Skyline. The whole area is remote — as remote as you can be in the immediate Bay Area. We were never far from civilization, but we were just far enough that we saw few people, heard few engines, and looked across sweeping vistas to see nothing but mountains, ocean, and trees.

We were also far from water, surface or treated. We filled up at every stop, and still we had to accept that amount was less than we wanted. In Big Basin we decided that we would likely need to go off route for four miles and back to ranger station for our last resupply, but then I remembered a backpacker camp on the Skyline to the Sea Trail that was off limits to bikes — but we were in need. That backpacker camp resupply was heavenly, even though the water was lukewarm and the spigot was surrounded by dozens of angry kamikaze bees. But it was there that we could finally drink all we wanted, and not feel too sick, because at that point it was 5:30 p.m. and the hard sun was finally starting to wane.

A combination of the relentless heat, dry air, loose dirt, and water rationing had us all lulling our necks toward the end, exhausted. We agreed our Big Basin Beatdown was quite a bit tougher than a 57-mile ride with 7,200 feet of climbing should be. Oh, August, you sure know how to administer a proper peak week thrashing. I can't wait for my fifty-kilometer run on Saturday.
Monday, August 06, 2012

Steep Ravine 50K

 On Sunday I ran this fifty-kilometer trail race. At least, I'm pretty sure I did. I have flickers of memories from the run and a T-shirt that proves I was physically there, but my mind slipped into a gray sort of trance and now I find it difficult to fathom how I was out there, running, for a full seven hours. Thick fog shrouded the mountain and I let my thoughts disappear into it. My body continued on autopilot, rudimentarily aware of my directives to "keep moving," "lift your feet," "watch where you're stepping." I didn't feel much in the way of fatigue and only mild pain in my banged-up knee. I stopped at every aid station to eat exactly two peanut butter sandwich quarters and a swig of pink electrolyte drink, which was the perfect amount of fuel. And I must have been relaxed because I didn't fall on my face or even stumble that many times, despite the technical nature of much of the course. Although there often wasn't much to see, it was a beautiful way to spend a morning — taking meditative steps through a peaceful fog. It was really the perfect kind of mindset for a long haul like UTMB; I hope I can figure out how to put my mind in in that place again.

 Beat and I ran the Steep Ravine 50K because it made for a great training run. The course is set in two twenty-five-kilometer loops; it begins at Stinson Beach and ascends Mount Tam in a thickly forested canyon on the Steep Ravine Trail, drops down the bald side of the mountain on an overgrown strip of singletrack, skirts around the Muir Valley and climbs Mount Tam again on the root-choked Dipsea Trail, then descends Dipsea's mud and slimy wooden stairs. Repeat. You end up with 32 miles and 7,070 feet of climbing, although in my opinion the technical descents are the toughest aspect of Steep Ravine. Due to my clumsy accidents earlier this week, I showed up for the race in heavy armor: Gauze wrapped around my raw right knee, basketball player elbow pads as insurance against a likely slip, and poles strapped to my pack in case my knee or shins bothered me enough to require support. Beat wore a large overnight pack stuffed with food and all the gear he'll need in the 200-mile Petite Trotte a Leon in France later this month. We must have looked fairly neurotic to the other runners lining up for a heavily supported 25K/50K race on well-used trails.

Autopilot survival instincts kept me from "bombing" any of the descents, so all-in-all it was a slow 50K. However, I felt I climbed well, maintaining a consistent pace and working hard enough that I was drenched to the point of saturation for most of the run — although this was probably more fog condensation than sweat. I hit fairly even splits — 3:25 for the first 25K and 3:40 for the last. The main issue that slowed me down in the last half of the race was my right knee, which stiffened up considerably. The pain wasn't terrible but it got to the point that if I didn't think about it, I wouldn't bend it. During the final climb up the steep Dipsea Trail, I'd catch myself stopping before a rooty "step" to lift my right leg sideways and swing it like a peg leg over the obstacle. The gauze on my knee was dirty, slightly blood stained and wrapped haphazardly around my leg like mummy rags thanks to multiple attempts to re-tape it when it loosened in the moist air. A couple of times I caught hikers regarding me with sad eyes, so I must have looked fairly pathetic. But I didn't really feel all that bad, and when when I snapped out of autopilot long enough to remind myself to stop walking like a pirate, I was able to bend my knee just fine.

Beat and his huge backpack finished in 6:28. I took 7:05, which despite injuries is about ten minutes faster than I ran a slightly different Steep Ravine course in better weather back in January. (This is one of the anomalies of San Francisco and the Marin Headlands; the weather is often sunnier and warmer in winter than it is during the summer.) Honestly, I wanted to do a little better than seven hours, but for a relatively pain-free 50K — one in which I did not fall on my face — I'll take it. 
Saturday, August 04, 2012


When I was in fifth grade, I remember taking an aptitude test to vie for a spot in my school's "gifted" program. I managed high scores in math and logic games, establishing a track that I assumed I would pursue all the way through college and a career. (When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "either an animator or an engineer" until halfway through high school, which is humorous to me now as I don't have an engineer's mind at all.)

Fifth grade was also the year I remember being tested in the Presidential Fitness Challenge, which establishes children's athletic abilities through activities such as sit-ups, a one-mile run, pull-ups, a shuttle run, and an agony-inducing-if-you-have-tight-hamstrings stretch called the V-sit. I also recall other impossible challenges such as a rope climb and hurdles, although this might just be a mash of memories from the overall humiliation that was my grade school physical education. I was able to crush the academic aptitude test but couldn't even fake my way into passing this one — too slow in the mile, too stiff in the V-sit, and I never managed a single pull-up (I still haven't.) It was a tough pill to swallow as a ten-year-old, but I swallowed it well: "So I'm a math geek who can't run a mile. Fine. I'll just stop placing any of my self-worth in my athletic abilities. Who cares if I can't pull my chin up over a stupid bar? It's a useless ability anyway."

The fact that I used to show aptitude for math and completely abandoned it after eleventh grade doesn't bother me at all, and yet my childhood athletic failures do. I remember tripping over hurdles, dangling helplessly from the bottom of a rope, and struggling mightily for the ten-minute mile I needed just to receive a passing grade in seventh-grade P.E. There are a lot of athletic adults who were bad athletes as children, but I was really bad. Whenever I experience setbacks in my athletic pursuits, I can't help but wonder why I pour so much time and energy into activities in which I never showed the slightest aptitude. Children who don't test well in math aren't expected to excel in advanced placement calculus, and yet fitness culture establishes that anybody can achieve athletic awesomeness if only they work hard enough.

This week, I went running every day but one, because my elbow injury from last weekend kept me off my bike. The daily trail runs ranged from six to ten miles; the first couple I ran with my left arm in a sling at a slightly slower pace than usual. Then I started to feel better, removed my sling, and picked up the pace. On Friday evening, Beat and I went for a steep run up Black Mountain, a trail that gains 3,000 feet in five miles. I felt great after I started the descent and ran hard, until I rounded a tight switchback going a little too fast. My right foot slid on the moon-dust-gravel that dominates Bay-area trails in August, and I went down hard. The impact tore up the skin on my right knee and hip, and if that wasn't enough, I finally took a fall that I rolled out of only to land hard on my injured left elbow. Owwwww.

The two times I've hit the deck hard this week showed me the main mistakes I am making, including running with my shoulders back and legs too far in front of me, so when my feet slip it's almost impossible to recover my balance. Also, I brake too hard during steep descents, which is why I slip in the first place. I know I need to loosen up, lean forward, and resist the urge to lock up my knees. But as I limp-jogged down Black Mountain with an immobilized left arm, a throbbing hip, and blood streaming down my dirt-crusted leg, I wasn't thinking about ways to deprogram my naturally bad running technique. I was thinking about ways to deprogram the part of my brain that wants my poor, awkward body to run.

Three and a half slow miles down Black Mountain was enough to numb the pain a bit and cause me to back-pedal on my decision to quit these body-battering hobbies forever. Tonight Beat and I are preparing for a 50K training race on Sunday in Stinson Beach. Steep Ravine has 7,000 feet of climbing, and is about 95 percent singletrack with a mixture of shaded Redwood forest mud, roots, rocks, and classic Marin Headlands concrete dirt coated in August dust — it's a mean 50K. To get ready I've packed my soft elbow pads, trekking poles (under the guise of "UTMB training," but really because I need the support), a shin brace (because the "splints" are still a bit of a problem), and a roll of gauze to deal with the painfully raw road rash on my right leg. Yeah, that's stiff and bruised, too. I feel like a walking disaster, who can only hope Steep Ravine doesn't become yet another running disaster.

I don't want to talk about UTMB right now. It starts in four weeks. Yeah. Beat says I should start taking yoga classes as one approach to solving my balance issues. I admit when I think of yoga, the first thing I picture is my ten-year-old-self in the Presidential Fitness Challenge, sitting with my legs spread out and reaching, so earnestly, for that ruler between my feet — and not coming remotely close to touching it. Do I really need to go through that humiliation again? Why didn't I just stick with math?

But in case the mild sarcasm isn't apparent in this blog post, I'm not actually going to give up running just because I'm comically bad at it. I am going to keep working on my issues. I'm probably going to get a lot more road rash, bruises, and injuries — hopefully all minor. I might start going to yoga classes although I am serious about pubic humiliation. I am also serious about being terrified of UTMB but ... ah, well. What doesn't kill me can only leave me with more disfiguring scars. If only my fifth-grade gym teacher could see me now. 
Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Zion Narrows

As the echo of a distant jet thundered through the canyon, I thought of a metaphor for the unique experience of hiking the Zion Narrows — it's as close as I'll likely ever get to the sensation of being swallowed by the Earth. The route begins at a bucolic ranch in an grassy valley, a place not unlike any of the cow-populated properties spread throughout the American West. A sun-baked jeep track parallels the Virgin "River," which is little more than a gurgling brook at this elevation. Were it not for the red cliffs surrounding the valley, this place could easily be mistaken for Montana or Wyoming or even central California. The setting lulls me into a sense of complacency until the road ends and we wade into copper-colored, ankle-deep water. This is where the effort ceases to feel like hiking and more like a balance exercise.

The river crossings become more numerous until my focus narrows to the obstacles directly in front of me. So engrossed am I in the fine details of the terrain that I fail to notice as the sandstone walls close in around us.

When I finally look up, I can't help but imagine the esophagus of a monster. The stark change from desert ranch to slot canyon feels almost unnaturally abrupt, as though we're actually being swallowed. The river water deepens and the walls rise until there's no way to quickly escape. I begin to imagine a scenario in which we never leave the canyon, but instead grind our way deeper into the gut of the planet.

The Zion Narrows is such a unique place; I highly recommend the through-hike for a spot on anybody's bucket list. This excursion was particularly satisfying for me because of the people I was able to share it with — my mom and dad, Beat, and my dad's long-time friend Chad. Chad introduced my dad to mountain hiking twenty years ago — and my dad subsequently introduced me to the hobby a few years later. In a way, I have Chad to thank for my passion for the outdoors; I'm not sure I would have become so drawn to the mountains as a teenager if it wasn't for my dad.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my mom worked hard all summer to get into shape for the sixteen-mile trek on highly difficult terrain. My mom keeps relatively active — I'm pretty sure she's been going to the same Jazzercise class for more than twenty-five years. But I think she finds outdoor activity intimidating and doesn't have nearly the level of experience as my father. When my dad and I decided to plan another Narrows trip, she was determined to join us and vowed to come prepared. She embarked on training hikes, tested knee braces, and established a regime of painkillers after getting the okay from my sister, who's a nurse.

My mom joked that the Narrows is "all downhill" and thus "easier than climbing mountains." I actually disagree. Although the effort is not as much of a cardiovascular workout as steep climbing or running, the strain on muscles and tendons when negotiating the endless bowling-ball-size boulders, slippery stones, and sand — all while fighting the strange resistance of flowing water — isn't trivial. I'm of the opinion that a person would have to be a fairly talented technical runner to average more than two miles per hour down this canyon. As far as fitness levels go, the technicality of the Zion Narrows is a great equalizer. My mom sometimes apologized for going "slow," and I was telling the truth when I assured her that I wouldn't be able to move much faster.

I think my mom was near her physical limit for much of the day. She struggled with knee pain and afternoon fatigue. And my dad was pushing the pace in an effort to keep ahead of both afternoon thunderstorms and potential nightfall. Even I thought the pace was a little too brisk — a couple of times Beat, Chad and I stopped to shoot a few photos and needed ten or more minutes to catch back up to my parents. But I could tell my mom was having fun amid the difficulty.

This was Beat's first time in Zion National Park, and true to form he jokingly urged the group to push the pace and spoke of carving out slivers of time to experience as much other stuff as possible. We even gave some serious consideration to making a quick run up Angel's Landing in the evening. The group logistics made this unrealistic — not to mention our rented canyoneering boots and the triple-digit temperatures outside the canyon would have made for a wholly unpleasant run — so reason prevailed.

The narrowest corridor of the canyon, known as Wall Street, begins just after Big Springs, about four miles from the end. The name seems apt because moving through this part of the canyon actually gave me memory flashes of downtown San Francisco, surrounded by walls of concrete buildings that block out the sun. I always think it's funny when incredible, wild places give me flashbacks of mundane man-made things, but it happens all the time.

The aforementioned triple-digit temperatures made any forays into more open and sunlit areas of the canyon feel quite uncomfortable. Although I was terrified to do so with my injured arm, backpack and heavy boots, we started taking every chance we had to go for a swim. My swollen left elbow didn't end up being much of a problem. There were a few times when we had to down-climb something, and I had to swing around awkwardly to grip with my right arm. Also, I should have made more of an effort to protect the wound, as there's a good chance my infection was exacerbated by the river water. But all in all, I learned you only need one arm (and a big wooden stick) to negotiate the Narrows.

My mom really showed some grit during the hike. She never complained and hardly slowed her pace. Right above Big Springs she mentioned her feet were bothering her and she wanted to fix her boots, but refused to make a special stop. When we finally made our planned stop, she pulled off her neoprene socks and unleashed an impressive stream of blood. My dad helped wash her socks and compared it to cleaning a trout. She made the classic mistake of neglecting to cut her toenails before the hike, and the tight socks caused them to dig deep gashes into her toes. Anyone who has made this same mistake (raises hand) knows how much this hurts. I tried to convince her to put duct tape around her toes, but Beat — the foot expert — insisted duct tape would just fall off and bunch up in the river water, causing more problems. So my mom just had to pull those tight socks back on her feet and gut it out. She's a tough old bird (her words.)

I'm really proud of my mom. Watching her complete the journey was the most satisfying thing about this trek, amid all of the fun survival swimming and incredible scenery. I love that we could all experience it together.