Sunday, April 21, 2013

Layering up for summer

As we geared up for a 31-mile run on Saturday, I remarked to Beat that it takes longer to prepare for a summer run than a winter run, because summer running requires even more layers. First comes the anti-chafing layer on feet, arms, back, neck, butt, and upper legs. I like to use chamois cream but lately have been experimenting with a lard-like substance made in Australia called Gurney Goo. Then I apply a double layer of sunscreen, SPF 50, so there's three. Then comes the clothing layer — I generally favor a more robust combination of sleeves and three-quarter-length tights because it prevents the chafing I otherwise get on my thighs and armpits, and also adds more sun protection. Finally, during the run I add the inevitable layers of sweat, dust, bugs, and more sunscreen that eventually blends together into a coarse, disgusting paste. Altogether, I count four to six sticky, sweat-soaked layers on top of my skin. To be honest, I prefer fleece and Gortex.

Summer is the default condition here in the South Bay, with six months of solid summery weather followed by six months of indeterminate season that often resembles summer. Summer is also not a season in which I particularly thrive, what with my heat aversion, pale skin and sun sensitivity, allergic reactions to lots of green things and insects, and often voracious thirst. I won't go into the jealousy I feel at every photograph I see of more northerly and mountainous climes with their late spring snow, even when accompanied by less than cheerful captions. I get that most people prefer summer. I can work with it but it takes me a while to adapt.

Beat and I, along with our friends Steve and Harry, wanted to get in a longer run this weekend as a shakedown for the Quicksilver 50. Since we're missing out on the annual "spring" tradition of running the Ohlone 50K next month, we decided to set up an independent 31-miler on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, which crosses the steep rolling hills that separate the East Bay from California's Central Valley. Although not wilderness in the John Muir sense, the area is relatively remote and some of the hills are nearly 4,000 feet high (actually, it's the Diablo Mountain Range, and reminds me a bit of the grassy ridges of the Italian Alps.)It's a great spot to stage a long run, except for there's almost no shade, and the weather forecast was calling for temperatures in the 80s. Some of those narrow windless canyons trap heat like an oven and make it feel at least 15 degrees warmer. I braced myself for full immersion into summer ... immersion by fire.

With plans for multi-day adventures this summer, Beat and I decided to test out the Jam 50-liter packs we just got from the 50-percent off sale at Golite. We wanted to load them up with a fair amount of weight to test the feel of the pack. I figured as long as I was packing a load, I might as well pack something useful — ice. I froze a three-liter bladder solid, and carried three 20-ounce bottles that were two thirds ice and one third water, along with one more 20-liter bottle of water just in case I drank all of the liquid water before enough ice melted. All in all, it was an obnoxious 180 ounces — or nearly 15 pounds — of fluid. And of course there was a day's worth of food, meds, electronic gadgets, trekking poles that stayed in my pack the whole day, and just because I could — a small windbreaker jacket, gloves, and hat.

In addition to being uniquely anti-summer, I also have a rare anti-lightweight mentality. I'm much more of a pack rat, or as I like to think of it, a pack mule. I love feeling prepared for all contingencies and will happily hoist a bunch of arguably unnecessary stuff if I believe it will make me more comfortable later on. At one point during the run we descended into a canyon where the lack of wind made it feel like it was a hundred degrees, which would normally make me feel uneasy about dehydration and heat exhaustion. But on Saturday, I was happy and relaxed — "I have 15 pounds of ice water; that's going to last me all day. Wheeee!" For me, over-preparation is freedom. Anything else is tempting fate. I often wonder how many outdoorsy people share my views in this day and age of extreme minimalism and ultra-uber-light backpacking. I feel like we should form a support group. "Maximalists Anonymous."

Of course, if I wasn't at disadvantage enough with my ability and speed compared to my friends, I had to go and pack 25 pounds of stuff and water. They set what for them was a friendly and relaxed pace, but it was often a struggle for me to keep up. Sometimes I was comfortable but often I felt like I was racing the Ohlone 50K, and avoiding stopping so as to not lose more ground. As a result, I didn't eat much for the first four hours. We didn't start our run until around noon, as we had another group of friends who were out for a very long run (a hundred kilometers), starting from the other end of the trail, and we hoped to meet them along the way. Due to daylight concerns we just missed them, but ensured a good long run on a tough trail at the hottest part of the day.

Still, it was such an enjoyable day for me. We climbed 2,000 feet to the saddle of Mission Peak, dropped into the Sunol Valley, and tromped another 3,000 rolling feet up the next ridge, maintaining a brisk but not painful pace. We took a long lunch break in the shade as I ravenously mowed through about a thousand calories of Goldfish, shortbread cookies, and granola trail mix. And I didn't even get sick. Whenever I started to feel a bit down or woozy, all I had to do was sip on my icy water bladder and the whole world became beautiful and good again. I only refilled bottles at the water stops, so the ice block in my bladder remained until late into the day, and I had cold water right up until the bladder was entirely empty. It was a wonderful treat, and felt well-earned. I'm going to start doing that all the time — freezing way more water than I need so I have a steady stream of cold water. As though my backpacks aren't already heavy enough.

It was also gratifying to get out for most of a day where the only thing I had to do was run. I've been spending more time working lately, which is good, but I've been missing the less structured, always-in-motion lifestyle I enjoyed during the month I spent in Alaska. It's been interesting as I've come to understand more about myself, to discover which aspects of life I find most fulfilling. Although I value many things that most people gauge success by, it's often these arduous, arguably fruitless activities like running 31 miles that I find most rewarding. It's nice to find balance, but I think I might always prioritize my time to wander.

Beat and I fell behind Steve and Harry when we started to dawdle even more on the final descent. It was a beautiful evening, with the sun setting over the Santa Cruz mountains and the San Francisco Bay surrounded by glittering city lights. "What's the rush?" I thought. Never mind our friends were probably starving because it was well past dinner time and my sense of urgency was tempered by the 2,000 calories I still had in my pack. I like being in a state where I know I can just keep going. I knew we were going to drop back into the valley because that was always the plan. But I had food, water, lights, and just the slightest desire to turn around and keep running. Just having the option to do that is freeing.

Monday: Road bike, 18 miles, 2,447 feet climbing
Tuesday: Trail run, 7.1 miles, 847 feet climbing
Wednesday: Trail run, 8.0 miles, 1,012 feet climbing
Thursday: Road bike, 18.2 miles, 2,451 feet climbing
Friday: Road bike, 16.3 miles, 2,114 feet climbing
Saturday: Trail run, 31.4 miles, 7,445 feet climbing
Total: 52.5 miles ride, 46.5 miles run, 16,316 feet climbing


  1. Beautiful photos and report. I'm glad to hear that someone else is interested in having enough stuff to be comfortable rather than just always cutting it so close to try and gain a small advantage. Good stuff!

    I'm curious how the Go-Lite bag was and if you have any suggestions for other bags (smaller, larger) that are good for long-distance trips like this, involving running not just hiking.


  2. Holy carp, 25 pounds is what I hope to have my pack under when I backpack for 283 miles this summer. Running with that load? Whoa! What did you think of the pack? Two of my JMT companions carried them and complained of extreme nerve pain in their back and shoulders. It is allegedly rated up to 40 lbs but I think it carries poorly at that weight.

  3. Beautiful! I wish I could have been there to run with you guys.

    I had a carb binge Friday night so I'd be ready to go... :-)

  4. Yeah, the pack really only ~25 pounds at the beginning of the run. I went through the bottles of water pretty fast and after that the most I carried was three liters of water at a time. The average weight of my pack was probably closer to 15-18 pounds. The most I'd hope to carry in a multiday trip is also about 25 pounds. We'll see if I can resist the temptation to pack more.

    Initial impressions are mostly good. The pack fit very comfortably and cinched up nicely without causing any rubbing or chafing over 8 hours on a hot day. The bottom of the pack hung too low, but this may have been a result of poor weight distribution. 15 pounds of water doesn't take up much space; I think the pack might fit and hang better with a more typical weight distribution, but of course I'll have to test this. This run was the first time I used this pack.

    When running with packs, the biggest problem for me is the rattling and jiggling. I have to tighten a pack as much as possible to minimize movement, which often feels uncomfortable and rubs my skin raw. With this pack, it felt fine and I didn't have any chafing. It still rattled a bit because I carried a container of Goldfish crackers. If you plan to run with a big pack, you just kinda have to plan on your friends complaining about all the noise you're making.

    I'll probably write more about my summer packing ideas as I get more testing in. The idea is a pack that feels comfortable for long days of hiking and running, that can fit the amount of gear a maximalist like me prefers. I don't think I'd put 40 pounds in this pack. As I mentioned before, I'm hoping 25 is my ceiling.

    Danni — wasn't this weekend your long run in Washington. How did it go?

    Thanks for the feedback. I'd love to hear more pack suggestions if you have any.

  5. As I sit here scratching at the poison oak rash (so hard to not scratch it!!) on my ankles, I can't help wish we got winter here too. It would do a good job at killing off all the things I'm allergic to.

    Thankfully I live on the right side of the coastal mountains that it only gets into the low 60s here at the hottest part of the year. Makes me even more of a pussy in the heat than I was before.

  6. I will always choose a cold snowy day over a beautiful 80 degree day. And if it is hot and humid ... yuck ... forget it. Thanks for reminding me that the Bay Area is warm to hot much of the year. It made me thankful for the 55 degree weather in New Mexico today ... even it it included 35 - 50 mph winds.

  7. Wait wait wait - here I've been avoiding running in shorts ever since my unfortunate chafing incident which led me to believe I'll have to lose 40-50 lbs before I can run in them. Are you saying that even slim people have issues with chub rub?? I'll have to get hold of some of that "lard-like substance" and give shorts another go.

  8. I bailed due to travel overload. I went skiing yesterday.

  9. "Chub rub," funny. :) I'm pretty sure I'd have to drop to <8 percent body fat to prevent this; I think the chub in my thighs and butt would hold out to the end. So, yes, anti-chafing cream is easier. I'm a fan but usually go with clothing protection for longer runs.

  10. Love the pictures. 80 is really as hot as I like it, whether it be running, walking, or chasing my child.


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