Monday, October 12, 2015

Bustin' out at the Firetrails 50-mile

Mountain biking at Tilden Park outside Berkeley earlier this month. I really need to get back on a bike.
Every September, Beat returns from the Tor des Geants buzzing on run-bliss and eager to sign up for all of the fall races. This is also about the time he acknowledges he doesn't have any vacation days left, so the smattering of hundred-milers left in the year are scratched out, and we usually end up at a local 50K. My Ultra Signup profile contains a handful of October and November races that have caused me to wonder, "Wait, why did I run that one? Oh, yeah, Beat's TDG chaser."

October is also the month when I need to launch my winter training. It's the "on" season, when I need to mentally and physically prepare for the grueling Alaska slog that always comprises my favorite endeavor of the year. I haven't wanted to talk or write about 2016 because of the level of cognitive dissonance it takes to contemplate a thousand miles to Nome. Beat hasn't enjoyed hearing me talk about it either, because the conversation always devolves into sniveling about the many uncertainties surrounding my health and strength and resolve. He makes an inarguable point, though — my insecurities are pointless. The Iditarod Trail does not care. Either I'm all in, or I'm out. I need to decide.

It's difficult to decide how to train, because I want to be conservative but the goal is so audacious. I want to increase my muscle strength and endurance so I can manage heavy loads in deep or drifted snow, while continuing to build cardiovascular strength and endurance so I can travel long distances — or at least long hours — every day for most of a month. I want to stay conditioned for both walking/running and cycling, since taking a bike to Nome — if that's what I choose to do, and I want to keep my options open during this El NiƱo season — involves plenty of both. I've been reading books and blogs on strength training and trying to formulate a plan that won't interfere with endurance training — the many hours in the saddle that I know I need. Of course resting is a big part of building strength, so I need to figure out where and how to focus my efforts. Helpful guidance has been difficult to find. People have all kinds of things they train for, but a month-long, heavy-lifting expedition isn't usually one of them.

Meanwhile, summer inertia lingers, as I've been frightened of most workouts since the Tour Divide. Every time my heart rate pegs or my breathing becomes heavy, I panic just a little bit. Earlier this month, I was at Tilden Park in Berkeley for what was only my second mountain bike ride since the Tour Divide, largely because I'm so intimidated by mountain biking right now. Each time I started up a steep hill, I'd get nervous about my breathing, step off the bike, and walk. The thing is — I'm not even sure I have any kind of conventional breathing problem. I become less convinced of this every day. Maybe — probably — I'd be just fine at higher intensities, but I'm still a little too scared of asthma attacks to try. I'm going to see an allergist on Thursday, and hope some guidance in that regard will help.

This is turning into a long intro, but it's my attempt to summarize where I'm at. Cautiously optimistic? That's not really the right phrase, but I'm not so hopelessly pessimistic as I have been in the past few months. I do feel myself becoming progressively stronger, which is what I'd hope and expect if I was recovering from a bout of pneumonia. That's why, when Beat suggested the Dick Collins Firetrails 50-mile run as a fun TDG chaser, I jumped on board. It would be good for me, I reasoned, to take on a frightening and yet not too risky challenge. I've been doing a lot of hiking over the past two months, so my legs and feet are in good shape, and the cut-offs where tight enough to force a solid effort.

Then I thought, "Wait, those cut-offs are pretty tight. I've been hiking a lot but not running that much. When I do run, it's been fairly slow relative to my usual paces. Can I actually hit those cut-offs? What if I don't? What if I DNF the Firetrails 50? There goes my last shred of confidence."

On Wednesday, after my weekend in the Grand Canyon, I set out for a practice run on one of my regular loops — eight miles up PG&E and down the High Meadow and Wildcat trails in Rancho San Antonio park. I pushed the pace just a bit too hard on the climb and developed cramping in my hamstrings, which expanded to a horrible side-stitch on the descent. From there everything deteriorated into one of those "worst runs ever" that included shuffling awkwardly to a pit toilet and still needing to effectively walk the last mile of an eight-mile run. Oof. That was not a confidence builder.

And with that, I took two days off and woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning for 50 miles of hills in Oakland. Firetrails is one of the classic Bay Area trail races, dating back to 1983. It's more or less an out-and-back, from Lake Chabot to Tilden Regional Park through the redwood forests and oaken hillsides along the suburban communities surrounding Oakland. There are 8,000 feet of climbing over the duration, which makes for a tough but mostly runnable course. Given it takes place within shouting distance of such a large metro area, Firetrails is uniquely secluded — the course covers 26 miles of bike paths, narrow fire roads, and singletrack, all closed to motorized traffic, and only crosses two or three roads. It's scenic as well, if I do say so myself, although I don't have any pictures because I unintentionally forgot my camera (and it's funny how no photos deflates my desire to post on social media.) But there are miles of mossy forests, views of rippling golden hills and blue reservoirs, and occasional glimpses into the fog-shrouded San Francisco skyline.

The race started in pre-dawn darkness at 6:30 a.m. It was foggy and warm, already over 70 degrees. I opted to bring a headlamp because dawn was still 30 minutes away, and I fully expected to be out after the 6:30 p.m. sunset. This race is well-structured for more limited daylight with paved bike paths at both the beginning and end, so most runners forgo headlamps, but the last thing I needed was to trip on a curb and break a wrist at mile 0.5.

Firetrails is fairly large for a trail race — last year there were more than 300 people at the starting line, and probably a similar number this year. The group fanned out and after eight miles I caught up to Beat and also Iris, a woman from Calgary who I frequently see at these Bay Area trail races. Iris and I have run together at the Woodside Ramble and Golden Gate 50K, and it's gotten to the point where I almost expect to see her out there, even though she travels all the way from Canada and we never plan these meet-ups. She was running with her friend Scott, and I made an effort to keep up with them, chatting the morning away. I felt really good. I wasn't about to push my luck with a 50-miler, but by mile 20 I was cautiously optimistic that I might finish this thing pretty well.

Temperatures rose into the 80s and the fog burned off, but humidity stayed high. After Beat ran ahead for the last time, Iris commented on how drenched he was in sweat. Her hair was soaked, and when I looked down at my own sweat-beaded skin and dripping shirt, I had to conclude that we all looked like we had jumped into lakes. The hot humidity made things difficult, but there were aid stations every five miles with Clif Shot Bloks, ice and salt tabs. I was enamored with these luxuries that really took the edge off.

At the 26-mile turnaround, I changed my socks and made the mistake of eating one of those boiled potatoes, which tasted rotten. I had shoved the whole thing in my mouth, and the garbage can was surrounded by runners, so I made myself swallow it, which was a larger mistake. I stuck around for five or so more minutes gagging and trying to wash the horrible taste away with Coke. Should have stuck with Shot Bloks. Always stick with Shot Bloks.

Despite a now-iffy stomach, the next section coming up was the only one for which I was reasonable trained: a 1,300-foot climb. I marched up the steep fireroad that was harshly exposed to the hot, hot sun, and actually felt better by the time I reached the top. I coasted into the 31-mile aid station thinking I had this race in the bag.

The problem is, most of my long trail runs have been 50Ks, and my body seems to have this pre-set kill button once 50 kilometers have passed. Fifty miles is really a whole lot further, so struggles out of the blue with 19 miles to go are frustrating. Just as soon as I left the aid station, my IT band started acting up. This didn't come as a surprise, since I had IT-band pain in Europe, but it certainly wasn't welcome. I started shuffling the downhills more slowly, then walked a few. Climbs were my only relief. I wasn't about to turn this IT band aggravation into a more long-term thing, so I kept the pressure off, but I continued to monitor my watch. DNF might still be worse. Yes, it might.

Iris and Scott caught and passed me, and I became more and more grumpy toward the end as my knee ached and aid station after aid station told me they had no toilet (I really wanted one, but knew I could keep going without, so I didn't go rushing off into the suburban woods.)

I arrived at the finish in 11 hours and 35 minutes. It was mildly disappointing after I'd briefly convinced myself that sub-11 was within my reach, but at the same time I can only shake my head at these thoughts because it's all so arbitrary. Beat finished an hour before me, and fetched me a cup of peach gelato as I rubbed my aching legs and complained, "So much running. That was just so much running." But it was all gone within a few hours; even the IT band pain had settled, and all that was left was that warm glow. "You didn't DNF. You're still okay. Hopefully." 
Thursday, October 08, 2015

Adventures in roadtripping

I love long drives. I love traveling at 80 miles per hour across vast empty landscapes, shamelessly guzzling cheap gas station coffee, listening to NPR and singing out loud with pop radio. I love glancing toward the mountains and imagining adventures along their contours. I make the commute between California and Utah at least a couple times per year, and recently decided to start acting out some of these daydreams. Twelve hours is a long time to sit in a car, and I've found it goes a lot smoother if I punctuate the drive with two or three hours of off-highway adventuring somewhere in the middle.

Light rain pattered the windshield as I pulled off an exit near Donner Pass on the eastbound trip. Castle Peak is a prominent landmark just off I-80, but I didn't know exactly how to get there. The Pacific Crest Trail climbs to Castle Pass here, so it seemed like the appropriate route. With the long Grand Canyon trek coming up, I was feeling lazy. Although I set out with an intention to run, I mostly jogged and hiked as the path meandered through the woods and under the freeway via a dark pedestrian tunnel.

Through this flat, forested basin, the trail became less defined. Although it seemed odd to be crossing over increasing deadfall and brush, a fair amount of distance passed before I realized I wasn't on a trail at all. From what I've read about it, the PCT is one of the most manicured trails in the American West, and I'd managed to lose it. And although I'd turned on my Garmin eTrex at the start, two miles later it had yet to find satellites, so I had no points of reference. I continued to meander through the deadfall-strewn forest until I found a dirt road, climbing gradually in the direction of Castle Peak. From there I located a fantastic trail that was definitely not the PCT — the dust was rippled with bike tracks and there wasn't a footprint to be found — and followed it uphill.

When I reached the ridge, Castle Peak looked to still be at least a half hour away, and I'd already burned up nearly 90 minutes bumbling around for five miles. I took a couple of photos from what I later learned was Andesite Peak, and started down. The sky opened up with hard rain just as I passed two mountain bikers who were stopped at an overlook, so I picked up my pace on the fun, swooping descent (trails built for mountain biking are also generally the most enjoyable to run. Banked turns are the best.) I could hear the mountain bikers' brakes screeching as they descended somewhere close overhead, and constantly looked over my shoulder to let them by, but strangely they didn't catch me. They finally passed on the road, yelling, "Rain! Run away!" (I was dressed like a hiker with baggy pants and a fleece top, and was walking when they first saw me.)  I pushed to maintain my relative sprint because I was soaked, a little bit cold and hadn't planned my supplies well for this impromptu trip (I had a 12-liter pack full of pretty much all of my Grand Canyon snacks and two liters of water, but no rain jacket.) All the steam went out about a half mile from my car. Although I didn't reach my intended peak, it turned out to be a diverse little outing with jogging, 'shwacking, hiking, a tiny bit of scrambling, fast downhilling, road sprinting, and back to plodding when the bonk hit hard (yeah, all those snacks in my pack. I didn't eat any of them.)

Oh well, more room for gas station M&Ms.

For the westbound trip on Monday, I decided to exit I-80 at Wells, Nevada. I first learned about this mountain paradise last December during another road-trip outing, a snowy run on Angel Lake Road. October is early enough in the season to climb snow-free peaks in the Humboldt Range, so I set my sights on Greys Peak, elevation 10,674. SummitPost informed me that the peak was only two miles from the campground, there was no trail, but the route was Class 2 scrambling with cairns leading the way. Easy peasy, right? I budgeted two hours and set out under clear skies with temperatures in the low 60s.

Sometimes I think the contributors to SummitPost are either elitist mountaineers or liars. Okay, so the information in the Greys Peak entry was mostly accurate, except for the cairns part. This image is the only photo I took during the approach, because I was either sliding backward in ankle-deep loose dirt down a 40-degree slope, squinting for the slightest evidence of a rock cairn while squatting on all fours atop a boulder, or clinging precipitously to a rock ledge. Still, I think this photo gives a snapshot of the scrambling experience. I had to pick my way along this ridge, traversing boulder-strewn slopes and then climbing ledges to cross over the spine and look for another traversable slope on the other side. None of the scrambling was exposed, but there were enough sheer drop-offs to make route-finding tricky. There were not enough cairns to be helpful, but just enough that I could occasionally confirm — with a baffled shake of my head — that I was still following the intended route. On this ridge, unless one was willing to venture onto some pretty harrowing Class 4 terrain, there probably was just one viable route. But it wasn't easy to find.

I stayed on the ridge for far longer than I needed to, and crawled over a bunch of car-sized boulders that I didn't have to, because I'd become so spooked about leaving the ridge (the terrain on the slope below was steep, often loose, and occasionally ended in cliffs.) I admit I had my Delorme out and readily accessible so I could alert Beat in what seemed to be the likely event of breaking a wrist or ankle. But when I reached the summit ridge, it was all worth it — empty ranges and basins as far as the eye can see. I love Nevada. I'm always rushing through this state, and every time I stop for even a moment, I promise that I will return soon for an extended stay.

Looking down at Angel Lake and a splash of fall color in the desert. My time for the ascent was 95 minutes, which was more than I'd budgeted, but how long could the descent take, now that I knew the way? An hour, maybe?

The summit ridge itself would actually be a relatively easy and fun ridge walk. Someday I will return with more than just a few hours to burn.

For the descent, I switched my GPS watch to its tracking mode so I could follow my own breadcrumb trail. Even with an exact line to follow that was easily viewable on my wrist, I still frequently lost the route while crabwalking down loose, boulder-strewn dirt. The footing was just really bad. It definitely wasn't my shoes — worn-out, torn uppers, almost-bald Hokas (maybe the shoes were a little bit to blame.) Back on the knife ridge, I frequently found myself standing at the edge of a cliff, with my GPS watch telling me I was 50 feet away from the spot where I climbed up, and I was completely baffled as to where that was. In hindsight, I probably would have been better off feeling out the route rather than tethering myself to the GPS track, although who knows where I would have ended up if I just descended freely. Probably in the wrong basin. Or at the bottom of one of those cliffs.

Anyway, by the time I returned to my car, 3 hours and 34 minutes had passed, which means it took me two hours to descend two miles. My triceps and lats were quite sore, which was another important reminder that I need to focus on upper-body strengthening this season. I also had to call Beat and let him know I was going to home a little later than I hoped.

Still, those last 9 hours of driving went by really fast. I was buzzing on adrenaline, and before I knew it, I was home. These road trip side-adventures are not only fun, but they're also a great way to generate driving energy. Even better than gas station coffee!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The tradition

When I tell friends I'm heading to Arizona to hike across the Grand Canyon, I've heard the response, "Didn't you do that last year?"

"Well, yes," I'd answer. "I do this most every year."


"I go there with my dad. We hike together."

"Don't you and your dad want to do something different one of these years?"

"Well, no. It wouldn't be the same. Rim-to-rim is the tradition."

 Tradition is an interesting concept, isn't it? Repeating the same activities, year after year, generation after generation. Tradition has perpetuated things nobody likes, such as fruit cake and Black Friday, but it also generates a sense of familial belonging and stability. One could argue that the best traditions combine the warm fuzzies of familiarity with elements of awe and wonder. Fall Grand Canyon is top shelf in this regard.

 I'm not sure my dad was setting out to create a tradition when he invited me to join him and a group of family friends for my first rim-to-rim hike in October 2004. Among this group was a guy my age who was something of a childhood nemesis when we were classmates at Sprucewood Elementary School. He would openly mock me for being bad at the team sports were were compelled to play together in gym, and I would quietly seethe about it and then scrawl his name in my Trapper Keeper with "I hate" in bold letters on top. By my mid-20s, these playground events no longer had any meaning, but it's funny how the emotions stay fresh long after the context has faded. I was a little bit mortified when I found out he was going to hike with us.

 At the time I hadn't yet ventured into endurance sports, and had real and strong doubts about my ability to crank out a 24-mile hike with 6,000 feet of climbing that was all at the end, in 100-degree temperatures. Dad had been training hard all summer. My life was in a bit of disarray, and I was at the highest weight I've ever been. Even without admitting to my dad just how inadequate my preparations had been, he reminded me about the terrible ramifications — the "mule of shame" — if I couldn't haul myself out of the canyon. It's funny how far determination can take a person. With the dark shadows of my nonathletic childhood trailing me, there was no way I was going to let myself fail this time. When I set foot on the South Rim at the end of a tough but incredible day, I couldn't help but wonder — what other "really hard" things were within my reach?

 Completing a difficult challenge is always rewarding, but what really made that first trip special was spending that time with my dad. We're both verbally reserved, and I think we both struggle with interpersonal communication. The stunning expanse of the Grand Canyon can only open hearts and minds. As I sloughed off childhood hurt, I opened up to my dad about some of my current struggles. I told him I was interviewing for a job and considering relocating to Idaho Falls, by myself, which is something I hadn't even yet admitted to my boyfriend at the time. Looking up from the depths of the canyon, I could visualize the chasms I'd created in my life. I resolved to pursue more openness, less stagnation.

Life didn't really become less volatile as I decided to stay with the boyfriend and move to Alaska the following year. I moved 3,000 miles away and started a new job just one month before the trip, but I wasn't about to pass up another Grand Canyon hike with my dad. It continued that way for years, even as my life lurched and shifted directions with the wind. Fall Grand Canyon was one anchor of familiarity that helped keep me from going completely adrift. All the years I was in Alaska, I never went home for Christmas, but I was back in Utah every year for Fall Grand Canyon. It's my favorite tradition.

Now it's been a few years since I've been back, at least to the depths of the canyon. In 2013, a government shutdown prevented us from entering the national park. In 2014, I'd torn a ligament in my knee and couldn't hike, so instead did the drive-around with my mom, who joins every year to support the crossing. This year, my dad proposed a rim-to-rim-to-rim, hiking north to south one day and then back, south to north, the next. I suppose one might argue that a true R2R2R must be done in a day, so this is more like a back-to-back R2R. I'd still never completed the out-and-back, and was excited to see the canyon from both directions in the same weekend.

 Dad always invites his hiking buddies, and this year we were joined by his friend Raj. Another friend, Tom, was forced by injury to decline at the last minute. When Tom found out that the weather forecast called for temperatures in the 100s that weekend, he said to my dad in a prophetic tone: "May you rise like a golden biscuit from the oven floor to the canyon rim." We got a lot of laughs out of that statement. Dad immortalized Tom's words on the message board at the Manzanita rest area on the North Kaibab Trail.

 Another tradition of Fall Grand Canyon is the side-trip to Ribbon Falls for a snack and a light shower. The canyon had already cranked on the oven, so it's a welcome respite.

 Looking through Ribbon Falls toward the canyon. I have no doubt I've posted a set of very similar photographs on my blog before. I don't care; this is my blog.

We crossed the Colorado River on the "Silver Bridge," which leads to the Bright Angel Trail. There's another pedestrian bridge across the river just a quarter mile away. The "Black Bridge" leads to the South Kaibab Trail, which is shorter but has no water sources along its length, making for a tough climb when temperatures are in the 90s. Besides these two bridges, the only span across the Grand Canyon is the Navajo Bridge on U.S. Route 89A at Lee's Ferry. (The Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam bridges are technically outside the canyon.) This is why my mother has to drive for four hours just to link up a 24-mile hike. (Thanks, Mom!) One of my favorite rim-to-rim accounts, from another family who has this annual tradition, is by a woman who accidentally took a different bridge than her companions in 2012. I was telling my dad about this hilarious blog post, so here's the link: Rim-to-Rim, A Tragecomedy.

 The classic trail sign at Indian Gardens, warning people not to descend any further lest they become thirsty and dizzy and die. Although temperatures didn't quite reach the forecasted 100s, I thought it was plenty hot on this day, and this is about the point where I ran out of ice. (I always haul a ton of ice on hot-weather outings, if I can. Worth it.)

 Evening light and dusty haze on the South Rim. Hiking into the canyon is a worthwhile experience, but you really can't beat the views from just a few meters off the main road.

 We were up bright and early the following morning to hike the South Kaibab Trail back into the canyon. Dad had some foot pain — I offered up Beat's magic lube as a remedy — and otherwise wasn't worse for the wear on the second day.

 Raj decided he wanted to try running rim to rim, so it was just me and Dad on Saturday. At the trailhead, we were approached by a group of volunteers from the University of New Mexico who were conducting a study of rim-to-rim hikers and runners. They were gathering data such as before and after body weight, blood oxygen levels, water intake, and calorie consumption, in an effort to gain more insight into hyponatremia and other maladies that make hikers and runners ill. We agreed, but ten minutes of questioning threw off our purposeful schedule, and we ended up behind both a full bus of people and a mule train. Doh.

 The South Kaibab switchbacks. Similar to the Bright Angel and North Kaibab Trails, this trail is an engineering marvel and a thing of beauty, turning rather rugged and exposed terrain into an easy walk. It gets a little crowded sometimes, but I don't think anyone can complain about such a unique opportunity.

 We took a leisurely break at Phantom Ranch for a morning "lemmy" (a glass of iced lemonade. These were one dollar on my first rim-to-rim hike, and now cost three dollars.) I purchased two more refills of just ice to top off my three-liter bladder. We took another break for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, collecting our trash in a plastic bag for the study. (I ate two fruit snacks, one granola bar, one pita bread with Nutella, 10 ounces of lemonade, three ounces of saltine crackers, three ounces of tuna, and a handful of nuts for our S-N hike. Plus about 3 liters of water, total.) I thought about the ways this journey has changed for me since 2004. It's no longer this arduous, intimidating thing — actually, it's become rather relaxing, strolling through this gorgeous canyon on such a well-built, nicely graded trail. Sure, there's a 6,000-foot climb, but only one. It's so ingrained into my muscle memory that my legs no longer become tired or sore. I'm not trying to brag by calling the rim-to-rim hike easy, just making a personal observation about the ways perspectives change with experience. And still this is every bit as enjoyable, every bit as incredible, and still something I'd love to do again and again.

 It's also interesting to observe how strong my dad has become. He's always been strong, but he seems to only get stronger. I almost forget that he's 62 years old — out on the trail we're so evenly matched that my youth and even my ultra-running experience don't give me much of an advantage. We kept a steady, fast pace on the 4,000-foot, five-mile climb from Manzanita rest area to the rim, enough so that we passed a few trail runners who we watched fly past us earlier. Dad jokes about his senior citizen status, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine us doing this together 15 years from now, when I'm the age Dad was when we first started our Fall Grand Canyon tradition, and Dad is nearing 80.

It's a beautiful dream. I hope it comes true.