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.