Tuesday, July 31, 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. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Elbows

Overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, veiled by a rainstorm near the summit of Mount Olympus.
Beat's and my trip to Utah was exceedingly short, so much so that we spent more time en route to Zion National Park via plane and car than we did actually in the park. Still, we thought we could squeeze in a quick "training hike" up Mount Olympus in Salt Lake City on Friday morning before our 11 a.m. departure for Springdale. Although not the most majestic climb in the Wasatch Range, the main route up Mount Olympus ideal for mountain training — it starts less than twenty minutes from most anywhere in the Salt Lake Valley, gains 4,200 feet in 3.5 miles, contains about three quarters of a mile total of class-three scrambling, and ascends to an elevation of 9,026 feet. We optimistically estimated we'd need three hours to wrap up the hike (I hoped for 1:45 up and 1:15 down), and hit the trail at 7 a.m.

We had some difficulty route-finding during the final half mile of scrambling and had to backtrack (not to mention I am out of practice with the whole scrambling thing, not that ever had any climbing skills to speak of), and the resulting setbacks netted a 1:57 summit time. Although rain sprinkled on us for most of the climb, a larger shower unleashed right as we were beginning the descent and added a slippery extra layer of difficulty to the scramble. I felt a bit frazzled by the time we cleared the most intimidating down-climbs, and of course by then we only had forty minutes to complete the descent on schedule.

Beat attempts a contemplative expression on the summit.
His face is a good illustration for how I felt thirty minutes later.
So, yeah. Of course I fell. I was attempting my best shuffle down the steep, loose dirt when my feet slipped forward and I landed hard on both of my elbows. My right elbow has been extremely sensitive since a rock ripped a large chunk of flesh out of my arm during a mountain bike crash last August, and the resulting quarter-sized scar is still in the process of slow healing one year later. Hitting my scar directly on the rocks caused an electric shock of pain that took my breath away. I had to take more than a minute to compose myself enough just to speak two words to Beat. The terrible pain still hadn't subsided much when I finally picked myself up from the dirt, so I didn't notice anything else was wrong until I felt hot liquid on my thigh and realized that blood was gushing out of my left (other) elbow and soaking into my pants.

After the hike, I tried to clean out the wound as best as I could before we hit the road south. The swelling and pain in my left elbow only worsened until I had no range of motion without pain the morning of our Narrows hike. Luckily my right elbow was only bruised, so I could negotiate the wet boulders just fine with a single wooden walking stick while I let my left arm dangle lifelessly for most of the day. By Monday the joint was still swollen so I went in to see my doctor, worried that I might have chipped a bone. An X-ray thankfully ruled out that possibility, but I do have a moderate infection in the wound. Antibiotics will hopefully clear that out before it becomes a problem; it's never good to have an infection so close to a joint.

So there won't be any cycling for at least a week as per my doctor's request, and when I go running, I'll have to sling my left arm, as opposed to my right arm, which is how I ran for several weeks last summer. Beat has started calling me by the nickname "Elbows," which is both humiliating and completely appropriate.

I'll post my photos from the Zion Narrows soon, as my family and I had an amazing hiking experience. But for now I just needed to lament my continuing trials as a hopeless klutz. My mom, who has clumsy tendencies herself, said to me, "I don't know why you would admit these things. I would just say 'I fell' and try to change the subject." Because I never seem to take glorious falls; I take really stupid falls, and my injuries usually far outweigh the simplicity of the fall. How did I manage to jab both of my elbows behind me instead of just sliding onto my butt? The extent of my clumsiness baffles me, almost as if it were subconsciously deliberate, as though my body hates me and wants to take me down despite my best overcautious efforts.

Ah, well. Beat's recommendation is "learn to dance." Maybe he's onto something there. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Social ride

 On Wednesday morning, my friend Jan invited me out for a "social ride." Knowing Jan, it seemed likely this nice, easy ride would include at least 5,000 feet of climbing, so I showed up prepared with a few energy bars. We set out from Woodside to ride new-to-me trails in Purisima Creek Redwoods. I love the simple surprises afforded by exploring new places. Even though I've lived in the Bay area for more than a year, there are still large tracts of open space within a twenty-mile radius that I have yet to see. Each new discovery continues to surprise me, both in the reminder that I'm far behind the curve in my hometown explorations, and the fact that there is so much scenic park land within spitting distance of a population center of seven million people.

 Jan is currently searching for a new job in the biotechnology sector, which has been a source of both frustration (that he seems to vent by going for awesomely tough bike rides) and inspiration. As we discussed some of his intriguing ideas for start-ups, I realized that Jan was among my growing list of biking and running friends who work in compelling and complicated professions — I would categorize their work as "stuff I'd really need to read several books about first before I feel comfortable asking questions." There's Daniel in Frisco, whose start-up company aims to draw patterns from the wild chaos of human behavior through tracking technology. And of course I have Beat, the theoretical physicist who just spent the evening soldering tiny parts on a circuit board for the electronics of a prototype device for his friend's start-up company. These days I seem to frequently meet brilliant people, and the reason I'm even on the periphery of their world is because I like to ride and run long distances.

I have been mulling my own career path recently and wondering if I'm on the right track. I have no doubt in my mind that I want to be a journalist, which is another way of saying I want to observe life and tell stories. If Jan ever does discover a hormone that he can turn into an anti-obesity miracle drug, I'd honestly rather write his biography than serve a research role and rake in a piece of the billions (okay, maybe that's not true about the billions.) But the point is, I am secure in what I want to be. I'm just not sure whether I'm on the right path to make it happen — not only from a financially viable standpoint, but also in regard to my ongoing struggles to be the prolific producer I know I can be. Do I ride and run too much? Do I spend too much creative and intellectual capital on my adventure scheming and this blog? Am I more afraid of failure, or possibly success?

I admit spending time with my brilliant friends sometimes leads to me feeling some professional guilt. The fact they create what they do while avidly pursuing their outdoor passions means I should be able to do the same. But right now I'm still in my "deciding" phase. I guess this blog post is really just another part in my recent "Why is Jill feeling so insecure this month?" series. It feels good to air them out.

But Jan and I had a great ride today. We wended through the redwood forest and a tight ribbon of singletrack and emerged on a grassy hillside, dropped to the coast on a farm road and then climbed again. There were more downs and ups, 37 miles and 6,200 feet of climbing. Just an easy social ride.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Family vacation

The morning after: The start/finish of the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colorado
I get the hint that the remnant readers of my blog don't really care about my UTMB training. This makes sense, of course, and I thought I'd give fair warning that August 2012 may contain little else. Just in case anyone was looking to clean out their blog reader ...

 With the exception of my first showing at the Iditarod 350, I don't think I've ever felt so insecure about one of my goals. Even my first Susitna 100, when I had never even entered a race before, my attitude was "Why shouldn't I be able to ride my woefully inadequate mountain bike on slush trails for a hundred miles?" And then there was Susitna 2011, when I was still struggling to eke out seven-mile "practice" runs, and when I was so bad at running that I sprained my ankle while jogging along a perfectly smooth, flat trail — I still held onto the delusion attitude that "I already finished this with a woefully inadequate mountain bike. Why shouldn't I be able to do the same without the bike?"

 But UTMB is a different monster. I'm frightened, because I realize that any training at this point isn't going to add much padding to my armor. I pretty much have what I have, which feels like woefully inadequate legs and soft feet that are really going to miss the cushioning effect of snow after ten or so hours, which, if I'm extremely lucky, is only a quarter of the time I'll be out there.

Alas, I'll stop myself before I write another of what Beat calls "whiny" blog posts. Yesterday and today I had one horrible and one pretty good training run, eight and nine miles respectively. Monday's run was horrible because I ate some Asian dumpling leftovers for lunch and ... let's just say I had to fight with them for six of those miles. Today I felt much stronger and tried to push the pace on the descent, only to have my shins protest painfully. My main problem with running fast downhill is that I strike with my heels. My normal stride is midfoot, and I climb on my toes, but I can't seem to quicken my stride on descents without pounding those heels. I haven't yet figured out how to avoid this, and it's obvious my shins can't take it. Not that I'm planning to run any of the UTMB miles "fast," but I do have many issues with my form that I'd eventually like to correct.

I am excited for this coming weekend. Beat and I are making a quick trip to Utah to hike the Zion Narrows with my mom and dad. The canyon itself is worth the trip, and sharing this spectacular outing with Beat and both of my parents is a unique opportunity. In my family, my dad and I have long been the "outdoorsy" ones. My mother and younger sister are more tolerant than enthusiastic; they enjoy outdoor excursions but don't seek them out. My youngest sister is less tolerant; I'm pretty sure she'd choose a few of the recognized methods of torture over my hobbies. This is fine; we've been on family vacations in the past where my dad and I went hiking and my sisters and mom went shopping. The outdoors is something we don't often bond over, as a family.

But my mom loves the Narrows. She actually hiked the entire canyon a few years ago and suffered substantially. I was surprised when she expressed interest in going back, and this year she vowed to train for it. She joined my dad for a series of training hikes in the Wasatch Mountains that culminated in a "test" on Mount Timpanogos. Her stipulation was, if she didn't make it to the top of Timp, she wasn't going to join us in the Narrows. This plan made me nervous for my mother, who until recently only embarked on hikes once or twice a year. The climb up Timpanogos is fifteen miles round trip, with 4,500 feet of elevation gain. It's a good trail but I wouldn't consider it a "beginner" hike by any stretch of the imagination. But my mom must have rocked it because she and my dad made a celebratory cell phone call from the summit — interestingly while Beat and I were sitting in the Hardrock 100 pre-race meeting. When I called back a few minutes later, my mom's voice rang with elation as she recounted their climb. I was so proud of her accomplishment ... it felt cathartic after all those times that my dad and I used to call her from "some peak" in the Wasatch. (The "some peak" phrase is a long-standing family joke, because my dad and I once called home from the top of the Broads Fork Twin Peaks — at age 19 it was my hardest climb yet — and my youngest sister, then 12, answered the phone and called out to my mother in a derisive tone, "Dad and Jill are calling from some peak again.") Now my mom was calling from "some peak" of her own.

Anyway, I'm really excited to share the Narrows experience with all of them on Saturday. And even better, it will probably keep my mind off of UTMB for a few more days. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Summertime lulls

Mountain biking on Boreas Pass near Breckenridge, Colorado
It's come to that point again, the one where Beat points out that my blog is going stagnant. I reasoned that "I haven't take a good photo since we came home from Colorado." I haven't taken any photos since we came home from Colorado. I've fallen back into my routine, including baby steps back into training. But now, I have an icy fear in my heart — almost frigid enough to break through the ninety(+)-degree weather we've been having, but not quite.

Spending a weekend at the Hardrock 100 was that cold shot of reality. Tip-toeing around the perimeter of that race was enough to realize that my own odds in such an endeavor were likely quite small, and yet I'm slated to line up for a similarly unruly event in less than six weeks. The Hardrock 100 stats are 102 miles of mountain travel on foot, with 34,000 feet of climbing. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is 103 miles with 31,000 feet of climbing — and, based on reports I've heard and small portions of the route I hiked while visiting Italy last fall, traverses somewhat similar terrain. Hardrock gives participants 48 hours to finish, UTMB only 46. Hardrock starts at 6 a.m., UTMB at 6 p.m. — guaranteeing two full nights out and approaching a third. Why oh why oh why did I think this was an achievable goal? Oh yeah, because I love hiking in the mountains. UTMB seemed like a lot of awesome hiking in the Alps. Why oh why oh why?

Because of shin splints I effectively have not run in a month. Nothing I can do about that now but hope my time mostly off my feet helped the injury heal, hope that biking helped me hold onto my endurance, and venture back into running. I've completed three largely pain-free eight milers this week. On Saturday I hoped to head out for a long run, but then the temperature shot up to 98 degrees. I figured that shuffling along at the maximum speeds I'm able to achieve in that kind of heat wasn't going to do much for my "training," so I shortened it to one of my usual eight-mile loops. I set out with Beat, who is already mostly recovered from the Hardrock 100 and running a lot stronger than me. I suffered, and then felt completely exhausted once I got home — more so than any of my fifteen-mile hike/runs in Colorado, and a lot more so than I should after eight miles. It's silly to gripe about weather, but let's just say I'm substantially happier and stronger when temperatures are below zero versus above ninety. There's a reason I consider summer my "off season." Winter's a good time for me and it was winter when I signed up for this UTMB thing. Why oh why oh why?

Today Beat and I joined friends for a four-hour mountain bike ride. The temperature was still in the nineties but it's a bit easier to generate a breeze on a bike. We pounded out the 3,000-foot grunt to Black Mountain, rode fun trails above Steven's Creek Canyon, and then for good measure threw in a money climb near the end — a thousand feet of gain in 1.5 miles. That was the best I've felt since we returned to California. It gave me an idea for training — continue to build up gently on my runs, and two or three times a week, do intensity intervals on my bike. I can't trust myself with speed work on my feet. At this point, the chance of injury — from overuse, misuse, or most likely, blunt trauma — is just too high. But working up time on my feet through long slow distance, punctuated by lung-searing cycling intervals, seems like my best recipe for cram-training success. For a race that's in six weeks from now. Yeah, I know. Why oh why oh why?

But another thing Hardrock showed me is that I don't want to back out of this. In fact, I think I want a UTMB finish even more than before. It's the very unruliness of it that injects daily inspiration into my work routine and giddy anticipation into my flailing efforts beneath the July sun. Why indeed. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hardrock from the sidelines, part 3

A San Juans marmot, apparently with Hardrock aspirations
The night before the Hardrock 100, I left Beat alone to his pre-race fretting, jogged away from our riverside campsite, and climbed Kendall Mountain. This was perhaps my favorite hike/run of our visit to Colorado, despite its lowly status. The path up the mountain was a nondescript jeep road that's still open to vehicle use. The mountain itself was really just a broad ridge towering over the town to Silverton, a benchmark with an elevation of 13,066 feet. The only wildlife I saw was a frantic marmot who had excellent running form. The only other hiker I saw was another Hardrock bystander who climbed up an avalanche path to reach the peak, got spooked by the exposure on his route, and then balked at me when I told him the road down was six miles long. He wanted to return to Silverton in time for the pre-race spaghetti feed, so he set out in another direction to look for a trail (good luck with that.) I too wanted to descend the mountain in an hour or less, so I made like Marmot and loped into my best steep-rocky-downhill "sprint."

Forty-eight hours later, I drove the dust-smeared Ford Fusion toward the last checkpoint on the Hardrock course. Cunningham was located in a narrow valley lined with wildflowers and steep canyon walls. It was ninety-one miles into the race, and I knew the last nine would likely take Beat four or five hours to complete. This math was accurate, but I managed to botch the equations for his arrival time. I thought he'd roll in around 6 p.m., so I arrived at 5, set up my tent, and laid on the cool grass to stare serenely at the white puffy clouds. I hadn't seen Beat since he started his death march out of Grouse Gulch, thirty miles and thirteen hours earlier, so I was still able to convince myself that he had somehow turned things around. When 6 p.m. neared, a racer who left Grouse Gulch around the same time as Beat arrived at Cunningham. Julian looked strong and said he felt great. "How do you think Beat is faring?" I asked, because Julian and Beat traveled together some before. "Dunno," Julian said. "But I can tell you I passed probably twenty people on that last section. It's rough, especially if you're not feeling well."

 Cunningham was fairly close to Kendall Mountain when I looked at it on a map, although maps have a way of making everything look close ... flat ... accessible. The map is what brought me to Kendall Mountain, because I wanted a three-hour hike that I could start right from Silverton. Google Earth made it look easy. So up I went.

I remember this from my days of consistently showing up late for work in Juneau — once I start to climb with a goal in mind, I'm essentially incapable of stopping until I reach the top. It's not that I'm a crazed peak-bagger, not really. I'm just as happy to reach a broad pass or a mountain meadow. It's the goal that drives me forward. When realities trump my expectations, I'll just adjust my expectations, often to the detriment of being on time to prior commitments. I had been lured onto this path by the common misconception that "roads are easy," but the jeep road to Kendall was a road only in the most rudimentary sense. The narrow path was strewn with ankle-wrenching loose rocks and gained altitude at a rate of a thousand feet per mile. As far as footing goes, it was my most difficult climb in the San Juans. But I had committed, and I was not going to concede my three-hour tour of Kendall. So I put my ragged lungs to work, and climbed hard.

Silverton as seen from Kendall Mountain
Shortly after I settled into my tent at Cunningham, the sky opened up. I couldn't fathom how a storm already moved in amid the blue sky I was basking in minutes earlier, but it was intense. Rain fell in sheets, lightning pulsed in the sky like a strobe light, and wind gusted to upwards of sixty miles per hour, enough to nearly collapse the walls of my Seedhouse 2 tent. I braced my arms on the poles to keep it from buckling and shivered, because even though I knew I was in a relatively safe position, it was a scary storm — and Beat was still up there, somewhere far above timberline, in the fierce heart of it.

Twenty minutes went by and the rain finally diminished to a trickle, but the fear remained. I crawled out of my tent and saw a group of four racers jogging along the wall of the adjacent cliff — the trail cut a switchbacking path down it, and they descended in plain view for more than ten minutes. When I realized that the course line of sight was that large, I abandoned the meager comfort of my tent and set up a standing vigil.

I can't say I've experienced the "runner's high" very many times in my life. Biking highs most definitely, hiking highs on great climbs, and snowboarding highs back when I was less risk-adverse to gravity sports. But the runner's high eludes me. I wonder if this is because, among all of these activities, I'm poorest at running. Running is hard for me, both physically and mentally. My form is awkward, my legs get wobbly, my feet stumble and I fall. I'm working on this, but the steps don't come naturally, and I often spend much of my running time stressed and over-focused. Rarely can I just let go and run, free and unhindered, to the point of bliss.

The obstacles that made Kendall Mountain a tough climb created an even tougher descent. Loose rocks rolled like wheels under my feet, the steep pitches somehow seemed even steeper, and 6 p.m. was much too soon. I'd have to do something like ten-minute miles to make it, which seemed laughable when I was side-stepping down boulders. But I wanted to try. I grasped my secret-weapon poles, tightened the laces on my Cascadias, and let go of everything else.

I kept my Cunningham vigil for hours, horrible hours. I should have done better math or put more faith in Beat's experience, but instead I watched racer after racer who weren't Beat and Daniel descending the cliff, and I fretted. I wandered over to the aid station and watched as the other racers huddled shivering in blankets. I listened to their accounts of the terrible storm, of hail and lightning, of crouching next to rocks smaller than them, of picking their way along exposed cliffs slicked with sleet, of hypothermia and fear. Twilight arrived imperceptibly beneath a sheet of dark clouds. "Beat should have been here two hours ago," I fretted. Darkness came. I stood vigil next to the trail as bobbing headlamps descended into the valley. And still Beat and Daniel weren't among them.

Still sleep-deprived and slightly irrational, I was close to panic after a long lull in headlamp lights, when finally a set of six emerged from the rim. The final two in the small group took quite a bit longer than the others to descend, but at 10:14, Beat finally emerged onto the road, followed closely by Daniel. I can't say I've seen Beat so shattered before. He didn't notice me walking alongside him for some minutes, and slumped over immediately once we reached the aid station. I tried to coax him with soup and ginger ale, but he wasn't interested in anything. His pack was still full of uneaten food. Beat was soaked and Daniel was shivering. I gave Daniel a down coat and took Beat to the car to warm up. He fell asleep with a cup of soup still in his hands.

It's easy to say "there's only nine more miles," but in Beat's state it might as well have been another hundred. Even his fumes were long spent, he couldn't eat without puking, and even slow steps caused his heart rate to spike to the point of exhaustion. I decided I was going to try to let him sleep until an average of one and a half miles per hour wouldn't allow him to finish in time — which was midnight. He woke up after ten minutes and began to gather up the remaining dry clothes in his drop bag. He wanted it all for the push into Silverton.

I'm not often comfortable while running, but when I am, I feel like the whole world is moving with me. Descending Kendall, the daunting vastness of the San Juans closed in and my vision narrowed to the delicate puzzle of every footfall. My lungs burned with the effort and my shins ached slightly, but my feet were dancing around the rocks and I felt so free that each step seemed beyond consequence. I didn't have to fall on my face or break my ankle. I didn't have to accept that I wasn't "born to run." I could be invincible if I wanted to be.

After setting my alarm for 2:30 a.m., I crawled into the tent and collapsed in my own exhaustion for two more hours. The drive back to Silverton was silent and dark, and I took strange comfort in an idea that Beat was so deep into his struggle that he had reached the point of apathy, and wasn't suffering any more. The finish line at the Silverton High School gym was like a morgue, with people sleeping beneath sheets on the bleachers and successful Hardrockers shuffling like zombies around the food table.

I took one trip to the bathroom and managed to miss Beat's own shuffle into the finish line at 4:16 a.m. for a finishing time of 46 hours and 16 minutes. I missed the opportunity to take a picture of him kissing the famous Hardrock rock, and had to settle for a hug and a portrait taken shortly after he sat down. The triumphant rock-kissing picture is the popular image for this race, but in my opinion, this portrait is more telling. The Hardrock 100 pummeled Beat, slowly and forcefully. He fought back in the only way he knows how, by not quitting, by continuing to move forward, even when it was the last thing he wanted to do. He was the fighter with bloodshot eyes and a swollen face, horizontal on the mat after a near-certain knockout blow, only to struggle upward at the ninth second and deliver his last decisive punch. And when it was all over, he did, ever so slightly, manage a smile.

I'm so proud of him, and inspired, too, to try harder in my own running. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hardrock from the sidelines, part 2

Crewing for an ultramarathon can be an unrelenting job, especially when it stretches out for nearly two days. Luckily for me, Beat is really low maintenance (probably too much so, because I didn't pick up on the red flags of his food problems until it was too late.) So for me, crewing was just a good excuse to travel to the different communities of the San Juans and spectate the race in the best way possible — by hiking against it.

My first chance to see Beat was at mile 29, in Telluride. I last visited Telluride in 2002 during a bike tour, and still retain many wistful recollections of the little town tucked away in a nook surrounded by huge mountain walls. My return did not disappoint — skies were blue, temperatures were warm, and the race checkpoint was buzzing with excitement as volunteers and other crew members awaited the first runners. When I visited Telluride ten years ago, I remember looking up from the campground at a trail switchbacking up an adjacent cliff. We had too many bike miles to cover to go exploring, but I vowed to return. "Someday," I said, "I'm going to climb that and see what's up there."

That trail was the Bridal Veil Falls road, which, at 10 a.m., was just the place to watch the leaders knock out the first 50K. Because my shin had a few good days, and because I wanted to do some "intensity" training for UTMB, I hiked as hard as I could. Although I was "low" at 9,000 feet, the air still scoured my lungs like steel wool. My legs, however, felt great. I even dabbled with uphill running, but my lungs couldn't process enough oxygen to make it work. There's a consistent degree of difficulty to the Hardrock course that is tough to quantify against other trail events. Even though there's no technical climbing and relatively minimal off-trail travel, I'd still rate Hardrock as closer to a mountaineering traverse than a trail run. The fact that only one runner has finished in less than 24 hours in the history of the event is telling — Hardrock is a "race" happening at four miles per hour, or less. On anything uphill, whenever I was moving faster than three miles per hour, I was working as hard as I could for a pace that felt downright speedy. This is one aspect of Hardrock I can really get behind — a person can finish the event, and even do relatively well, by perfecting their power hiking.

I was looking forward to seeing the first runners pass, and hoping that Joe Grant would be among them. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Joe in Alaska during the week between the Susitna 100 and the Iditarod 350. We had a great time commiserating about the Su100, and you could say Joe was my fan-girl favorite. Unfortunately, no one passed until I had reached a cross-country traverse, and by then I was unintentionally so far off course that all I could see were a spread-out series of bright T-shirts descending a green slope in the distance. Joe would go on to finish second at Hardrock in 25:06 (for what it's worth, more than an hour faster than he finished the Susitna 100 ... not that I'm arguing the Alaska race is more difficult by any means. Ha!) Anyway, I worked my way back to the course in time to see Karl Meltzer cruise by in sixth or seventh position, running downhill — with poles! Another one of my favorite unconventional techniques validated by a fast guy.

In those early, friendly hours, it was easy to see why Hardrock is such a popular event among distance runners. The setting was stunning, the miles were rewarding, and the challenges were variable enough to create a more level playing field between typically fast runners and determined mountain hikers. Hardrock is sometimes criticized for being overly risky, but I appreciate the fact that there are still popular endurance venues that haven't been sanitized with heavy-handed safety measures or relegated to tedious loops of well-traveled trails. The adventurous spirit still flows freely through the Hardrock 100, and although it is certainly a different kind of adventure than true mountaineering or wilderness travel, it is most definitely an adventure.

At the top of Oscar's Pass, elevation 13,100, I left a message for Beat near a rock cairn. I was bursting with adrenaline from my eight-mile climb and so excited that Beat was lucky enough to have a good excuse to travel these trails for a full hundred miles. Of course these thoughts changed dramatically as I watched his physical state deteriorate, but at the time I could still let myself believe that Hardrock was simple fun.

I launched down the pass at a full run, determined to at least jog the entire descent if my shin was up for it. Less than a half mile from the pass, a previously unnoticed black cloud overhead unleashed a deluge of hail unlike anything I've experienced in a while. It beat my exposed skin like air gun pellets and accumulated on the ground like snow. I think later in the race, such a storm would be disheartening, but for these front-runners at mile twenty-five, it was still a source of glee. Two runners passed me sprinting and giggling, one holding a shirt over her head like a child dodging the rain.

The descent went remarkably well for me. I ran most of the way — at eight miles my longest run post-shin injury, and mostly downhill to boot. It also rained the entire time, leaving me soaked to the skin and buzzing with endorphins. I was so excited that I couldn't wait to tell Beat, and had to remind myself to restrain my desire to brag about a tiny downhill run when he was in the midst of battling the Hardrock 100.

I never had a chance to see any of that same excitement in Beat. By the time he descended into Telluride at 3:30 p.m., he was already sick. I'm still second-guessing what I could have done to help deflect this downward sprial. I could have made a run to buy him a sandwich in Telluride, or purchased a pizza in Ouray. His strategy had been to rely on aid station food, but clearly this wasn't working. He wasn't eating, and neither of us had prepared anything to fall back on. Once a stomach goes completely empty it can be almost impossible to get it back — hard enough to cope with if you're out for a day run, and close to unfathomable when you have what would turn out to be thirty-six hours left in a high-intensity, often high-risk mountain effort. I have one prior experience with trying to function for long periods of time on bonked-out fumes: My 2008 Iditarod ride. It was a complicated situation — there were times I felt so depleted that I truly believed I might just pass out and die of exposure, but when I tried to stuff down any of the food I had with me, I felt so nauseated that the death option seemed more desirable. I was quite new to endurance efforts at the time, and I certainly made my share of mistakes, but I still remember that feeling vividly. It is the worst kind of pain — because it hurts immensely, and yet you know you can keep moving through it, so your decisions aren't as easy as being forced to quit.

I've alluded several times to the irrationality of all of this, the search for motivation in something like the Hardrock 100. Since I've never run the Hardrock 100, it's not my place to say. I know there were times in the night, while waiting desperately to see Beat's headlamp bobbing along the high cliffs, that I vowed to withdraw from UTMB. "It's all ridiculous," I lamented to myself. "Impossible and ridiculous." But in the next minute, I would turn to see a break in the inky storm clouds, framing an incredible depth of stars, and I imagined Beat high on the ridge looking at those same stars and feeling an even greater gratitude, hoping the storms had broken. Really, life is ridiculous and irrational. Why do we get up every morning, make coffee, beat the streets with efforts that time will erase effortlessly, in a generation? It's because these lives are all we have, they're what we are, and the things we do are as meaningful or pointless as they are to us. I believe a life spent in search of awe is not a bad life. To quote Annie Dillard (yes, again): "You don't have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary."


To be continued, again ... I know, I know. There's still more I want to write. And this is my blog. :-)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hardrock from the sidelines

After two hours of sleep I was back on the circuitous crew course, bouncing a Ford Fusion up a boulder-choked jeep road. The narrow road hugged a rock wall on one side and a yawning black abyss on the other. When there wasn't a good line down the middle, I just gunned the gas and drove the tires directly over the larger boulders rather than risk severing the car's exhaust system. I was glad Beat wasn't around to see me driving the rental car this way — although I wondered if he'd even care at this point. Say what you will about the complete irrationality of a hundred-mile mountain traverse, but there's real merit to the simple yet profound realizations that emerge when you reduce yourself to survival mode. For example, one might realize just how silly it can be to fret about car rental insurance fees, and just how powerful of a gift it can be convert a lukewarm cup of soup into the energy to run up mountains. When you've lost the ability to do the latter, the former seems like a monumentally small price in contrast.

Grouse Gulch had the feel of a refugee camp, with mud-and-blood-stained runners slumped over chairs and huddled in blankets while well-meaning volunteers rushed about in mostly futile efforts to be helpful. It was the kind of atmosphere I would expect at 4 a.m., hour 23 and mile 61 of the Hardrock 100. A large majority of the U.S. population has never heard of this hundred-mile endurance run in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, and yet it's a legend among a few. The run — emphatically not a "race" according to organizers — was conceived as a tribute to the hard men (and a few women) who beat their way through these rugged mountains in search of silver and gold.  The paths these miners blazed a hundred years ago linger today as abandoned, half-eroded roads and steep trails, sometimes literally blasted into the side of granite cliffs. The Hardrock 100 course climbs 13,000-foot passes and plummets into valleys thousands of feet below, thirteen times. The 33,000 feet of accumulated climbing might seem like a cakewalk if it was all on nice trail, but much of this course traverses cross-country, on steep talus, or along treacherously exposed cliffs. Few people travel most of these routes anymore, save for a few hikers, and, once a year, the 140 "lucky" winners of a lottery for what seems to have become North America's most notorious ultramarathon. 

Beat and his pacer, Daniel, stumbled into Grouse Gulch at 4:42 a.m. Daniel, a four-time Hardrock finisher who had been traveling with Beat since Ouray, fifteen miles ago, promptly collapsed in a chair and fell asleep with his head between his knees. Beat seemed too shattered to sleep. "My stomach is fucked," he lamented. I dug through his Camelpak and found what I was pretty sure was all of the food I had stuffed in the pockets back in Ouray, uneaten. I watched him vomit up the meager food he'd eaten in Ouray, so as far as I knew he hadn't successfully digested a single calorie since Telluride, twelve hours earlier. I asked him what he wanted to eat. "Give me a minute," he said, his own head lolling dangerously close to his knees. "You need to eat something," I said sternly, but I felt helpless.

It was late, and the aid station was running low on everything. Beat already told me he wasn't going to touch any of the snack stuff. I found a stack of half-petrified, cold quesadillas and soup with coagulated fat floating on top, a light yellow broth, and an unidentifiable starch that had solidified at the bottom. I wasn't even nauseated — in fact I was almost desperately hungry myself — but I didn't want to eat that food. Predictably, Beat wouldn't touch it, either. He did sip a few cups of ginger ale and ate a bite of Power Bar. Beat admitted he had been reduced to dry heaving for several hours, something with a strange taste that he assumed was phlegm that he coughed up and swallowed again, and consequently was the only substance in his stomach. Beyond the obvious misery he was subjecting himself too, his condition was beginning to seem dangerous. When a person is that depleted, they're more likely to make bad decisions, and their motor functions begin to falter — which, on terrain with so much exposure, can lead to deadly mistakes. Beat is experienced and he hates to quit anything, no matter how miserable he is. As for me, I was a little scared. I wished he would quit. I didn't say this to him.

I stuffed a couple more packets of Gu Chomps into Beat's pack, knowing full well they were basically dead weight. After rousing Daniel from his comatose state, I asked Beat if he wanted me to meet him at Sherman, an aid station that was fourteen miles away by trail and more than three hours away by two-wheel-drive rental car. "No," he said. "I have a drop bag at Sherman. You should hike up Handies. Go enjoy yourself. I'll be fine."

Beat was far from fine, but I felt better knowing Daniel was with him. Still, I actually did not want to climb Handies Peak. I didn't tell Beat this, but I was deep in the cranky cave. For starters, it was 5 a.m., and I hate 5 a.m. pretty much no matter what. I didn't prepare well for the amount of driving and waiting and the sheer time it took to simply crew the Hardrock 100, and I wasn't adequately supplied myself. The only thing I had eaten since the pre-race breakfast at 5 a.m. the day before was two granola bars during a fifteen-mile hike/run, a small packet of tuna and two ounces of Pringles at 4 p.m., an espresso-laced chai tea at 7 p.m., and a brownie that I rescued from Beat's pile of rejected food in Ouray at 10 p.m. I had already inventoried my hiking food and knew I was down to two granola bars and a one-ounce bag of Goldfish crackers, which was all I had for both breakfast and the hike to Handies — about fourteen miles round trip and probably a lot of climbing, because this was, after all, the Hardrock course. What I really wanted to do was return to Silverton for a big breakfast, but the bloodshot look in Beat's eyes punctured my internal whining. Say what you will about the irrationality of feeling inspired by others' suffering, but I knew as long as Beat was out there stomping out these near-impossible miles, I could at least make a small effort. 


I ate one of my granola bars and left about a half hour after Beat and Daniel, just as the first rays of sunlight graced the tops of the canyon walls. The climb up Grouse Basin was scenic and pleasantly cool. My mood steadily improved until I crested the Continental Divide at 13,000 feet, only to see another deep basin between me and the massive mountain that was most certainly Handies. "Beat didn't tell me there was a thousand-foot drop in the way," I whined to myself, until I realized how silly this sounded. I resisted the urge to devour my second granola bar right away and — because it's good UTMB training anyway — started running down the steep descent. 


The climb to Handies is actually quite easy if you're not entrenched in a hundred-mile endurance run. As a fourteener — elevation 14,088 — it has a well-traveled trail and solid footing all the way to the top. And when I saw the view from the top — not a sign of civilization in all directions and rippling mountains as far as I could see — I felt even sillier about being so reluctant to go there. While savoring my last granola bar, I remained on the peak for fifteen more minutes to cheer on passing Hardrock racers. Handies is the highest point on the Hardrock course, so I greeted them by saying "Congratulations, you made it!" Every one of them regarded me with a resigned smile and a variation of, "There's still a long way to go." 


On the descent from Handies, I encountered the last remaining runners — the back of the pack, the survivors. Their demeanours were telling — ashen faced, limping, hunched over hiking poles, a few almost entirely unresponsive. Others would laugh and make jokes as I stepped off the trail to cheer them on, but their march was unmistakable. The journalist in me wanted to photograph this harsh progression, but I kept my camera stowed out of respect. I felt a rush of emotion for these men and women, a combination of awe and empathy that was amplified by my own sleep- and calorie-deprivation. This is actually one of the reasons I enjoy endurance efforts myself — because physical depletion opens the gates for powerful emotions.

On this morning, I was tired, hungry, and trying to speed-hike my way through fourteen miles and 5,500 feet of elevation gain to an altitude of 14,000 feet — and that was nothing, nothing compared to the efforts of the Hardrockers. The emotions I felt were similar to listening to a meaningful song or viewing a moving piece of artwork. On the surface the Hardrockers were simply marching, for no rational reason. But to this observer, their movements were a kind of dance, a tribute to the human condition — one of determination and perseverance, beautiful and inspiring.

I greeted the second to last women I passed with my usual, "Way to go. You're doing awesome." She looked up at me with a pained look on her face and said, "You have no idea how hard this is."

Her eyes were terrible, almost frightening, and in them I saw a reflection of Beat's suffering that I had been trying to put out of my mind. I couldn't help it. The tear ducts opened and I looked down to hide the moisture in my own eyes. "You're right," I said with a slight stammer. "I can only imagine."

Say what you will about the irrationality of it all, but that is the experience of being alive.


... to be continued






Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Evening on Peak One

From the spare bedroom where Beat and I are staying, the window frames an unobstructed view of a pyramid-shaped peak that captured our attention. When we asked Daniel about it, he said "Oh, that's Peak One. There's a trail you can access from here. It's steep, though." 

 Peak One, elevation 12,805, is the unimaginatively named first peak in Colorado's Tenmile Range. Beat and I liked the idea of climbing a mountain straight from Daniel's house, so we made it the objective for our casual Tuesday evening after-work jaunt — which turned out to be a rather strenuous affair. It was beautiful, though. I took a lot of photos I liked, so I'm indulging in another picture post. 

We left the house at 6:15 p.m., and by 7:15 we had gained more than 2,000 feet elevation.  

 There were a few storm clouds that we managed to dodge.

Late evening shadows over the valley.

 At 7:30, the scramble is about to begin.

The boys kept a solid pace that I struggled to maintain, and consequently fell into oxygen deprivation mode again. By the time the real scrambling began, I had a serious case of the wobbly legs. In all honesty, I felt like I was under the influence of heavy painkillers, or drunk. Beat caught me staggering around and said, "If you fall off this mountain, I'm going to break up with you." Luckily there was no stark exposure, but in hindsight, it would have been smarter for me to slow down or turn around. My already questionable coordination was seriously compromised.

 Finally nearing the peak, looking back over Dillon Reservoir.

 The boys on top.

 Sunset from the peak.

 Starting down the scramble, with I-70 far below.

 Better hurry if we want to get off this ridge before dark.

Savoring the last hints of daylight. It was a great evening on the mountain.