Monday, May 05, 2014

Adventures, with and without anchors

Photo by Liehann Loots
This was an enjoyable but full week effort-wise. I'm hoping to pull a sort of "peak" week in two weeks, but this one will be hard to top — 28 hours, 29,178 feet climbing, 26.1 miles running and 214.2 miles cycling in all of five workouts. And yet the fun, beautiful and adventurous nature of those five workouts made them feel like no work at all — abundant playtime, tempered by above-average work productivity because I've more than satisfied my outdoor cravings and am grateful for the couch time. 

On Saturday Beat and I set out to run the Slate Creek Trail down to Portola Redwoods State Park. Portola is a place you can drive to, but we like to pretend it's only accessible by descending from the grassy spine of Long Ridge into the bowels of an ancient forest.

Portola is home to some Coast Redwoods that have seen some things in their time, including the decimation of most of their kin. A few big trees still stand, and it's always awe-inspiring to stand at the foot of primordial giants. 

We dilly-dallied on a meandering loop around the base of the park, and went to visit Old Tree, a 297-foot monster that's estimated to be more than 1,200 years old.

Beat was buzzed about the chance to touch something that's been alive since the year 800. There are very few objects of any sort in North America that are that old, and it's interesting to contemplate something so enduring as a 1,200-year-old tree. The wildfires it's seen, the storms, the earthquakes, the succession of hundreds of generations of animals, the climate changes, and finally the plague of people that chopped down everything surrounding it. I have much respect for Old Tree.

Slate Creek Trail is such a fantastic place to run — loamy soil, rich green vegetation, swoopy singletrack and the shelter of hundred-foot-high "young" redwoods. Add another to the list of trails I want to run as often as possible this coming summer ... Slate Creek, Lonely Trail, Black Mountain, the list keeps on growing. This run was sixteen miles and had 4,000 feet of climbing — not a small effort, but relatively relaxed compared to what I had in store the next day (Beat would opt to run a 50K loop around this area with Steve on Sunday, rather than submit himself to my plan.)

Meanwhile, Liehann and I headed out to Henry Coe State Park. Coe is an idiosyncratic spot in the Bay Area —an isolated and surprisingly remote enclave just a half hour south of San Jose. It's an arid place that comes alive for a very short time in the spring, and sees few visitors for such close proximity to a heavily populated valley. Coe's biggest tourism draw is the Fall Tarantula Festival, and visitors are also likely to run into rattlesnakes, territorial turkeys, wild pigs, bobcats, coyotes, and lots and lots of ticks. The topography of the southern Diablo Range is relentlessly steep, and remote enough that if you fell and broke a leg somewhere farther back in the park, it's possible you wouldn't be found for days. Coe is also mountain bike friendly, and is uncharacteristically relaxed (for California) with its rules — giving wheels almost free reign of many trails and fire roads throughout the park.

 The reason Coe isn't overrun by mountain bikers is because not everyone with a mountain bike will find this kind of riding to be "fun" — at least in terms of Type One fun. Gluttons for 30-percent grades, skilled downhillers who don't mind paying a steep price for their descents, geocachers, and dirt tourists with camping gear and no fear are the main citizens of the Coe cycling community. I can't honestly say I fit into any of these categories. I love a good relentless climb, but all some point bikes become more of an anchor than a useful machine. Unless you want to burn all of your leg matches on the first climb, hike-a-bike is usually in order. Singletrack is always steep, often loose, and cut for hikers and horses rather than wheels, so descending is also a strenuous affair. Five miles per hour is a reasonable average speed at Coe; I can maintain a running pace near that fast for long distances, and it tends to be less stressful for me than wrangling a bike. Still, hike-a-biking is a good training practice, and damn if I shouldn't take a few more chances with downhilling ... so I agreed to my first Coe outing since I visited the park with a bike in August 2011 and have been purposefully avoiding it ever since.

 It was a beautiful day at Coe, with green hills and wildflowers blooming. One aspect about Coe that I appreciate is the vistas — thanks to the relentlessly steep terrain, there are many, and at each one you can look out over the rippling hillsides and see no sign of civilization. Cities, buildings, highways, smog, and people are all safely tucked away beyond the horizon.

 We parked at Hunting Hollow and started the day by climbing 1,500 feet in 1.5 miles because, well, what else is there in Coe? My hike-a-bike muscles are clearly lacking, as my shoulders ached within minutes. I had also frozen three liters of my water to a block of ice, then stuck it in my 25-liter Salomon pack that I am testing out for biking purposes (It's a newer version of my PTL pack, which is robust and waterproof, and I am a glutton for big packs.) But the resulting looseness of the pack caused the ice block to bounce against my spine, and I soon regretted my brilliant plan to ensure cold water for the entire ride. Okay, it's going to a hurty sort of day. At least expectations were cemented early.

 Cresting a 2,500-foot hill was rewarded by a fun singletrack descent. As soon as we dropped into the woods, we were inundated with poison oak, which is flourishing in late spring moisture and had overgrown across the narrow trail like a poisonous tunnel. Yikes. Even though I was wearing pants, I skidded to a stop in front of the thickest patches so I could tiptoe through the minefield. Great, downhill hike-a-biking to go along with the uphill pushing. At least expectations were cemented early.

 The most fun sections were along the grassy hillsides, navigating barely-there trails across steep rollers. We'd plummet down one pitch and surge up the next, punching the pedals and breathing fire. I tended to lose heart while trying to pedal up the many steep fireroad climbs, but was more willing to give that extra rocket boost for singletrack, where it's more difficult to push a bike.

 For about two miles we followed the bed of Coyote Creek. For much of the year, the creek is dry and bikers just ride the cobbles. Dab-free lines are harder accomplish when there are several inches of water, and wet feet resulted in blisters later in the day.

Riding through hub-deep eddies and over wet cobbles made for one of the most fun sections of the route, although just as exhausting as the rest of it. Only about four percent of Coe is what one might consider flat, and even flat terrain provides little reprieve from the shoulder-burning climbs and focused technical descents. I feel the need to explain my outfit since it was visibly dorky. I wore hiking pants because baggy nylon is more effective than tights at warding off brushes with poison oak and stinging nettle, as well as another (as yet unidentified) spiny plant that I'm allergic to, and causes a rash when it cuts my skin. Hiking gaiters to keep out ticks. And sleeved elbow pads because I took a hard fall while running with Beat in Portola the day before, and bashed up my right elbow. This elbow has been extremely sensitive since I ripped it open in a mountain bike crash three years ago. Now, every time I fall on the scar tissue, the resulting bruising and bleeding hurts much more than it should. It already felt like raw nerves were exposed, and I feared another fall would render the arm too painful to use. The light elbow pads were a precaution against further damage, and three Aleve pills helped temper the remnant pain from my running crash.

 We diverged away from Coyote Creek and began the climb up Bear Mountain, on a fall-line road so steep it's ridiculous. Seriously, who drives up this stuff? First you climb 1,100 feet in one mile, and then proceed along a series of heartlessly steep rollers for the next two miles to gain a mere 300 extra feet of elevation. Mean, mean, mean. Liehann took the challenge to ride most of it. I had a tough walk, having just re-upped my water supply in Coyote Creek and feeling acute soreness in my shoulders and elbow. The upper body, as usual, needs work, which is why it's good to do such silly things as hike-a-bike training ... but also why I greatly prefer my hikes without bikes.

One of the early pitches of the Bear Mountain fire road. Hard to depict the steepness, really. Liehann did walk the sections that were nearly impossible (25-percent grades on loose dirt and chunky gravel.) But he did ride most of it, arriving at the top fifteen minutes before me.

 Bear Mountain is one of those places you can look around and see nothing but oak-dotted mountains and grassy hillsides, over every horizon. It's a cool spot to stand in coastal California.

 At the top of Bear Mountain, we had traveled a whole 23 miles in nearly six hours, after much strain and only enough stops to filter water and take a few snapshots. At this rate on our original planned route, we weren't going to find our way home until nearly midnight. So we made some route adjustments and cut out some trail to finish up with a rolling fireroad descent. I won't call it a long fireroad descent, because nothing in Coe is that flat. Every mile was punctured with multiple climbs of one or two hundred feet, and we didn't really start to lose elevation until the sun was low on the horizon.

Still, it was wicked fun, after such a grueling day, to just sit in the saddle and flow, even for a relatively short period of time. The ride clocked in at 45.5 miles with 8,200 feet of climbing, nine hours total and 7:51 of that moving time (I think moving time was actually higher than that. There were probably just times I was moving so slowly that GPS thought I was stopped.) Route map here.

There's something inherently ridiculous about working as hard as you can for nine hours to ride (and haul) a bike 45 miles, and yet also something so satisfying about it. I still wonder if I'd fare better on foot, but the next time I return to visit Coe, it will probably be with a bike.