Sunday, September 14, 2014

Iceland Traverse

I'll start by stating that my preferred backpacking terrain is mountainous.  Iceland was a 170 degree turn (the 40 km of the hilly Laugavegur salvaged the final 10 degrees) and I was debating for a while with The Onion if it was something I wanted to commit to.  Well, after 40+ emails we made it official and headed over to Reykjavik.  Our plan was to follow Jonathan Lay's route he came up with in 2006 and we had Trauma's 30+ detailed maps with us but turned out to be completely useless weight in my pack.  After spending a day in the capital mailing re-supply packages via bus to Myvatn, Nyidalur, and Landmannalaguar I took a small propeller plan to Akureyri to meet Onion.  After meeting at the bus "terminal" we bussed it to the whale capital of Iceland, Husavik, in the hopes of catching a ride to the "official" starting point of Hraunhafnartangi.  I got restless after an hour of failing to get a hitch that would probably take us another day so I convinced Onion to start from Husavik which is still on the Greenland Sea and hike east until we meet the original route.  Instead of a blow-by-blow account, I'll talk about what was unique and I'll let the photos and videos below paint a picture.

It took us a little over a day to reach this beautiful canyon while hiking in a seemingly endless cloud to reach this canyon and meet back up with Ley's route.  The route hugged the cliff side and we were awarded with a great views with the culmination of a great waterfall.

 Dettifoss, at the end of the canyon, was a powerful waterfall filled with black sediment.  A sight to behold.

After our first re-supply, we finally start heading into the barren Highlands of Iceland.  Nothing exists here except glacier, rock, and volcanic ash.  A black desert exposed to the harsh weather of erosion: wind and water.  

Another characteristic of the trek that was unique was the 24 hours of light.  For the entire trip I never once saw darkness so items like an eye cover were critical to get some sleep.  The natural rhythms of light and dark usually dictate when to start and stop hiking.  Without darkness as a guide we usually got late starts, starting between 8-9 and usually didn't stop until 9-10.  The below clip shows what it would be like at 3am.  And there was nowhere to hide from the wind and rain.  Protection for our shelter were hard to come by.

Headwinds with pelting rain seemed to be more common as we ventured further south.  Sometimes it would be quite piercing as it would coming off the massive glacier of Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður.  Good luck with that word.

The character of the landscape changed almost suddenly, as the Highlands gave way to beautiful colorful hills where the popular Laugavegurs northern terminus is located.  We would actually be on trail for the next 40-50km.  It was the most spectacular section of the trek. 

Several times during the trek we encountered steaming vents that had the odor of sulfur.  The entire country is a breeding ground of geothermal activity but none was so visible to us then on this section of the trek.

If we ever hang out you can ask me about the last day of the trek and what hell we went through to get to the North Atlantic Ocean.  It was certainly the worst weather (hurricane headwinds, sub-freezing temps, sleet for 7 hours) by far I've ever encountered and it involved getting lost, saving a French couple, and being close to hypothermia.  When Onion had a chance to pull out his camera he took some clips.  They don't tell the full tale but they're fun to watch.

The final walk to the North Atlantic was a time of reflection on the journey and what the trip was about. 

Another main reason why I did this trek was because I didn't think I would ever get a chance to again.  It's something I had no interest in doing alone and I honestly don't know any other person that would do this besides The Onion.  I'm glad to have taken advantage of the opportunity to walk across a country unlike most others I will probably ever see. We heard that some volcanoes were ready to go and hoped they would hold off until we left.  It turns out a volcano under the massive glacier we walked several kilometers from decided to erupt several weeks after we left.

To see the full photo album, click here.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to The Onion for convincing me to go on this trek and for providing good company, some extra food, and the videos above.  

Stats: The route was around 300 miles but it's impossible to get an exact number and it took us 12 days and change to complete it.  I brought a low amount of calories, roughly 2000/day, and it took a toll on me and my body, especially being 1 week post Western States 100.

Gear:  I used my regular 3 season gear with a few exceptions.  I used a synthetic quilt by Enlightened Equipment Prodigy that proved light and useful in the wet conditions, the ULA Circuit: a larger 68L pack than I'm used to using to accomodate the extra gear, Marmot Scree softshell pants that proved to work quite well for the trip.  My gear list for this trip without the weights.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Western States 100

Squaw Valley. Start of WS 100 Photo: KMF
The training leading up to this race wasn't great.  I got hurt after Leona Divide 50 that kept me on the sidelines for a month, finally being able to run by the end of May, just in time for WS Training Camp.  The rest of the buildup was "meh" at best but I had a good base since February so I thought I would be fine to achieve my "A" goal, which was sub-24.  After a couple of nights at Squaw taking in the scene and hanging out with several friends who were running/crewing we were off before dawn up to Emigrant Pass.  Hiking all of the way up, a beautiful sunrise greeted us while being surrounded by bright yellow wildflowers.  Then the descent started and got stuck behind a congo line of runners who were so keen early on up the climb but didn't have the same adeptness to go downhill.  So after a lot of "Excuse me, on your left" talk I finally got some running room and developed into a good rhythm.  I altered my running gait to keep my stride short, thinking it would keep me conservative, but it would later be the culprit.  After getting through mile ~30 at Robinson Flat and seeing my crew (Marshall and Megan) for the first time I knew what was ahead. Lots of open and hot downhill.  I felt good and kept an easy pace until mile 40 and that's when signs of alien life entered the back of my knee. It felt like a small strain and it had me concerned knowing full well how small things become gargantuan things later in a 100.  However, it didn't really affect my running so I got a quick (albeit, ineffective) massage at the mile 40ish aid station hoping it would help.  It didn't matter at this point anyway because I started to get a drop in energy.  Feeling this way on the climb up Devils Thumb sucked and I plopped in a chair once I got to the aid station and started the caffeine train.  I got a small pick me up and was able to get to Last Chance feeling pretty good.  Then the climb started to Michigan Bluff and the feelings of crap came rushing back again.  Now my knee started to bother me a little more.  So I got to the aid station and had some medical staff help me.  I told them what I thought it was and a fellow PT tried to help me out.  Nothing really worked and I was still feeling like crap.  So I got some food down, saw my crew, and got out of there to the final canyon.  I started to feel a lot better going down Volcano Canyon but slowed on the next climb to Bath Road.  I saw Garret, picked him up and we made good time to Foresthill, where I was in better spirits.  After a fun pit stop we continued down the infamous Cal Street.  It took me a little while to get into a rhythm.  At Cal St 2 Aid I finally let out a large belch and instantly felt better.  Now I was ready to run.  We made great time to the river where I met Marshall and Megan.  Garret really helped push me on this section and I finally came back to life a little.  I sat down, took down some calories (I think), and picked up Marshall.  We had plenty of time to get to the finish for a sub-24 buckle.  I got up and my knee was even worse now.  We crossed the bone-chilling river and started the slog up to Green Gate.  It's not even steep and I felt bad just barely walking but the back of my knee and feet were killing me.  This is where my gait started to be affected.  I couldn't run normally anymore but I could "shuffle-limp" so I did that.  I wasn't taking in calories either so that compounded things but all I could focus on was my knee. Actually at this point, "stupid knee" is how I referred to it.  The next 12 miles were a blur and we arrived at mile 90 and I was completely spent.  I sat down and tried to eat something but I became really nauseous at anything I took.  Hal Koerner helped me a bit and seemed too excited for me. I wish I felt half as enthusiastic.  10 miles seemed an eternity but I had a comfortable 3.5 hours to do it in.  And it was an easy ten.  Simple right? I got up and knew instantly that the back of my knee could take no more.  I couldn't straighten it and I couldn't bend it without pain and trying to run was laughable.  So I limped out with Marshall and was pretty discouraged.  I knew it wasn't going to get any better.  On top of that the lack of calories caught up and I stopped in the middle of the trail.  I couldn't go anymore.  After arguing with Marshall on how I wanted to go back or take a nap "right now" he finally allowed me to rest and reset mentally.  After 15 minutes of lying down I got up and felt better.  But it was a slow limp walk and it was pretty pathetic.  Knowing that my "A" goal would not be achieved this close to the end and knowing I could hurt myself more considering I had a long backpacking trip in a week I had the intention to stop at Hwy 49: mile 93.5.  I got there, dejected, and asked Megan if I should drop.  I didn't know.  The injury now had affected my entire leg.  The back of the knee was swollen as well as the rest of the leg on down.  An MD looked at me and thought I tore a calf muscle.  So I lay in the cot contemplating whether it was worth continuing or not.  30 minutes passed and I was still unsure.  I got up and tried to walk but that was really hard to do.  The look of concern on Megan made me aware that I didn't look good either.  As I walked more though the knee started to loosen up, just enough.  I called out to Marshall and gave a quick nod toward the trail.  We would limp it on in.  The next 6 miles took forever and I finally made my way around the track and to the finish.  26:46.  The last 10 miles took me 6 hours.  The feelings of jubilation for making it and completing this historic race weren't there.  I felt sad on how this race ended and even bitter.  I didn't even want the buckle because it would only remind me of the way that race ended.  What it did leave me with is a hunger and need to run another 100.  And run it well.  I'm over slogging it out.  It gets old quick.  It's not how I want to race and I have no more interest in finishing races like that.  Little did I know....
My crew and pacers were great out there, dedicating their weekend for me.  I'm disappointed I couldn't put it together in the end and get the silver buckle for them, but I promise that won't be the case next time.  The community and support of Western States is huge and unlike I had ever seen.  Maybe one of these years, if I should be so lucky, I'll return and do this race some justice. 

Off to Robinson Flat Photo: ULTV

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Leona Divide 50, Auburn, Iceland...oh my

I'm writing this a second time because my computer decided it was going a different direction.  Without further ado...The plan has been going as hoped with the LA Marathon back in March serving as my first prep race in which flat road speed would be my primary focus.  For Leona, I wanted to start my long training runs early in the season and avoid playing catch-up, as I normally seem to be doing before 100s.
But as soon as my name was miraculously plucked from a hat in Auburn back in December I knew I had to put in my due diligence.  How many chances does a runner get to run Western States in this evolving world of ultrarunning? The straight answer is not many. 
Fortunately, I have an awesome group of local ultrarunners that are always willing to spend a whole day running and the mountains to boot. 
The last 25 meters of LD50
My birthday on 3/29 kicked off my first long run of the season, a 31 miler (to commemorate turning that age) on the old Ray Miller 50km course (on a side note, pleeeaasse bring back Ray Miller 50!). The subsequent weeks leading up to LD50 saw long runs in the San Gabriel mountains in uncommonly cool temps.  This is some of the best prep I've done for a 50 and it showed on race day.  I entered Leona in the hopes of running in the heat and I chose the course because of its runnability.  However, due to permitting issues the RD, Keira Henninger, had to re-route the course.  Usually, that ends up making the course redundant and less scenic.  The opposite was true for this race.  On an unusually cool day, the race began.  My intention was to run via my HR and use it as a tool to understand if I was going too easy, too hard, not taking enough calories, and overall stress levels.  Also, the goal for this race was to run splits as even as possible, allowing for a +10 minute split on the second half.  But with that I broke one of the cardinal rules of running: don't try anything new on race day.  To hell with it though, this was a WS trial run.  I used a utility belt (UD SJ Essential) and new gels I've never tried (V-fuel).  Overall the race went as about good as I was hoping.  Almost exactly even splits between the first and second half of the race while running about 95% of the time.  I thought I could finish under 8 and the final time of 7:58(PR) was on the mark, earning me an 11th place finish.  I finished the race on a high and drove 2 hours home.  As soon as I got out of the car I started limping because of severe pain in my R quad region.  I took the next 4 days off with mild improvement in the pain but there was still no way I could walk, let alone run.  So I tried to self-diagnose (after all I'm a PT) but the pain was so diffuse and I couldn't perform some of the tests on myself that I went to a couple PT colleagues.  Turns out it's most likely an adductor magnus GII strain/tear.  So I decided to stop running for 1 more week hoping that going to gym, getting some massage therapy, biking, hopping on the elliptical (which were all pain free) would help improve the healing process.  Well, it helped but still not enough where I could run.  Anytime I would try I'd had shooting pain when I landed and so my gait started to change.  Walking hurt.  So now 3 weeks had passed and I hadn't done much.  With WS approaching and training camp only 5 days away I started to worry: that basically involved watching Unbreakable and moping.  As a last resort I tried a local acupuncturist, hoping dry needling would live up to the current research.  It worked.  Maybe not in that moment but in 3 days I was able to run, with no symptoms, the 70 miles of Western States training camp in 3 days.  It was such a blast. 
Volcano Canyon (photo: Chris Price)
The WS organization knows how to put on an event.  Having perfected logistics, they have incredible aid stations and great volunteers.  To me it felt like what sleep-away camp would be for trail runners; running, playing in the creeks and rivers, and hanging out.  I was sad to see it end and had a great time with my carpool buddy Prizzle and the rest of the SoCal gang: Keira, Jesse, Dom, and Katie.  The town of Auburn certainly has a special appeal and now I understand the mystique of Western States 100.  It's not so much the course itself but what surrounds it: Easy going, friendly locals, who open up their home to you (thank you to the Curly's for putting up two strangers), legends of ultrarunning taking no qualm in asking what you need at aid stations, and runners with a common interest of letting things go in the surrounding wilderness.  Now that I'm back home, the training will continue in the form of long runs, sauna time, and strength training with the hopes of being as prepared as I ever have for a 100 and producing my best run yet. 
M7 (Jesse Haynes), Keira, me, Prizzle (photo: Chris Price)
On a quick note I've decided to backpack across the entire country of Iceland (north to south) in July with my backpacking and ultrarunning friend, The Onion.  We will be following J. Ley's route right through the heart of the country with the intention of experiencing some of the most unique and strange wilderness this world has to showcase.  Further details in another post.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Year in Review: 2013

This is one of my favorite times to write on this blog.  A healthy reflection on what the past year encompassed and the exciting unknowns of the upcoming year.  Exactly one year ago, I ran up and down Mt. Wilson and got injured at the end of the run.  That lingered and affected the first half of the year (running-related) for 6 months afterwards, mostly due to my procrastination in dealing with it.  I was determined to start this year on a different note.  First a look back on 2013:
-I stopped working at the orthopedic clinic I had been a part of for the past year and continued full-time with home health allowing me to dictate my schedule and allowing for time to be spent elsewhere.  That is something that I treasure above most things.
-An underwhelming effort at the Los Angeles Marathon in March, and subsequent passing over of the Backbone Trail race I was signed up for a few weeks later.
-The realization that not everything you read or see gives the whole story.  Megan went to Sri Lanka after the marathon after soundly beating me and I didn´t want to because I didn´t think it was worth it.  After she told me about the trip and I saw her photos, I was dead wrong.
-I payed off all my student loans on my birthday.  It took less than a year of work and that was a major victory for me.  Thanks to the low tuition of the Cal State system (although now the tuition is MUCH higher), FAFSA grants for easing the burden throughout the years, and the ability to be extremely frugal with money.
-I turned 30.  Looking back on my 20´s, I can say without any doubt it included the biggest turning point in my life.  I went from being lost, out of school, and working odd jobs to discovering my passion in life and working hard (along with the fortunate doors that opened at the right time) to allow myself to live my life through those passions.  Maximizing the time that I have on this earth became priority and I intend to continue that trend.
-Pacing my good friend, Marshall, to his first sub-24 hour finish at Zion 100.  Running that Guacamole Loop with him was like a slow version of Space Mountain ride in Disneyland. 
-Spending the late spring and early summer hiking, running, and hanging out with friends in my most favorite of mountains: the Sierra Nevada.
-Backpacking the JMT for the 3rd time, and the quickest for me so far, with another good friend, Chris.  I suffered quite a bit at times, but it was wonderful to share these mountains with another mountain-lover.
-Pacing Chris the final 18 miles at Hardrock 100.  That was one of the most fun pacing jobs I´ve ever had.  He had enough confidence in me to give me that privilege and he ran a spectacular race.
-Having amazing friends that flew and drove from all over the US to crew and pace me at Leadville Trail 100.  On top of that I was able to come away with the sub-25 buckle.  However, still loads to learn and actually implement in regards to running and training for 100´s.  Those same friends are coming out for my Western States 100 attempt in June and I cannot wait to be in top form for them.
-Backpacking ¨The Walker´s Haute Route,¨ a 115 mile trail from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland.  Mile for mile the toughest trek I´ve been on, with 43,000 ft in climbing (same amount descending too).  It was a highlight-filled trek that included day hike/runs in both Chamonix and Zermatt.  Simply spectacular.  Highlight of the year.
-Able to break 3 hours (2:57:45) in the marathon for the first time at CIM in December.  This was my fifth marathon (in 6 attempts).
-Spending 5 weeks in Patagonia; first with my original backpacking partner, Joel Peach, and soon with my girlfriend, Megan.

As I ran along Punta Arenas´ version of a boardwalk and looked out into the windswept ocean I was able to contemplate what 2014 will shape up to be (in no particular order):
-Run WS 100 as well as I could possibly run it.  I have a goal time in mind and with the right lead up and perfect race it can be achieved. This includes a nutrition plan, training plan etc.
-Backpack a long-distance route solo in the Arctic Circle.  I am super excited about a particular one.  It will be revealed when plane tickets are confirmed.
-Break my marathon PR.  I'll probably attempt one in the fall, but not too sure yet. 
-Backpack the splendid Sierra High Route in its entirety in August and in one push.  I have backpacked most of it (200 miles) but broke it up into 2 seasons.  It´s the big brother to the JMT.  Mostly above 10k ft, with 20+ passes, and 75% off trail.  One of the best I´ve ever backpacked.  This years trek would mark my 10 year anniversary/love affair with backpacking.  An idealistic kid with dreams of the wilderness in the Sierras back in the summer of 2004. I owe a lot to that solo experience.  This would be an appropriate way to celebrate it.
-Finally, run the length of the Backbone Trail.  I´ve been ignoring the one long(ish) trail that´s in my own backyard!
-There are a few other backpacking and running trips this year but they are not set in stone quite yet.  Probably some 3 dayers in spring and potentially a thru hike. Maybe introduce some friends to what backpacking is all about?
-Sub-24 at Angeles Crest 100.  Not really my style to run two 100 mile races close to each other so this might be the only year I do it.
-Be a more thorough therapist.  I occasionally see runners at my place from time to time and I usually give the basic stuff but I frankly think it needs more day to day evaluation and treatment.  In light of that I´m going to start seeing patients weekly until I feel their issues are either resolved or I´ve given my best effort.  I´ve received way too much good in this short life so far to not give back.  I can only take a couple at a time to be effective with my current schedule but it will be pro-bono.  So contact me if you´re interested.  I´ll start at the end of the month.
-And one more thing I can´t reveal quite yet.  Hopefully soon though.

So a great morning run with no injuries.  Just cold wind, skeletons of rusted ships right on shore, and the first rays of light of 2014. Alright, time to get on this.  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

California International Marathon: Race Report

 Trust.  That´s what this entire training program and race came down to.  Should I trust in the training I set up for myself? Should I trust the strategy I wanted to run in the marathon without getting nervous as to whether it was going to work out or not?  Should I trust I was fully prepared to reach my goal?  Instead of my usual worrying and letting uncertainty control the outcome I decided to let go and trust that everything was going to work out.
Earlier this year the Los Angeles Marathon put a dent in my confidence to run a marathon well.  I had put 16 weeks of 80-90 miles to break the invisible sub-3 barrier and I thought I was fit enough to do it. After faltering early in the race, I struggled to finish and crossed the line in a disappointing 3:12.  Faulty race day execution, a poorly thought out and executed training plan, and nagging injuries due to said training plan all contributed to that result.  Sick, literally and figuratively, in the weeks after the race I looked back on what went wrong and things started to pop up immediately.  I decided to use those lessons I learned and apply them to the next marathon I would run.  Lessons such as:
-Limiting my weekly mileage.  I didn´t need 80-90 mile weeks.  I only ended up needing around 60/week with a well thought out plan.
-Having a very limited amount of hard runs during the week, but with each one having a precise purpose.  In a training program, constantly running hard without purpose is detrimental to the overall picture in long distance events.  For me, two high quality runs per week was enough.   
-Running the weekend long run at aerobic capacity.  Running with TCLA on Saturday is difficult because they tend to go out faster than my aerobic pace from the get go and most of the time I would end up running alone.  At times I would get pissed off at my heart rate because I wanted to run with them but I wanted to give this plan a fair chance.  Looking back, this was a downfall in the lead up to the LA Marathon. For the goal pace I wanted to run in the marathon this long run pace was simply too fast .
-Having a mix of road and trail runs.
-Limiting my long run to 2-3 hours total, maximum.
-Run a marathon negative split.  If I couldn´t run the first half at marathon goal pace without pushing on the gas pedal then I had no business running that pace.
-Taper and carbohydrate load properly.  2 weeks worked for this training cycle. The first week was little running, the second week mostly not running with some walking.  I was rewarded with light legs and plenty of energy.

Surprised but happy to see Megan and Elissa at mile 13.1
On a frigid morning of 20 degrees I shivered until the start of the race.  I couldn´t feel my hands or feet.  Off we went.  I heeded numerous warnings of not going out too fast on the first downhill mile. 6:56 first mile.  If my goal pace was 6:52 then this would be considered a slow start.  I was determined to run the first 13.1 miles at goal pace or even several seconds slower.  If I couldn´t do that then I should forget about sub-3.  I was feeling quite good and itching to run faster.  I held back though and I knew if I was able to run this seemingly easy pace for the first 20 then I could let it out for the final 6.2.  So the marathon became a waiting game and was quite boring but I had music to keep me company.  I reached the halfway mark in 1:29:35 which was a 6:52 pace and was surprised to see Megan and Elissa cheering me on.  Now that the hills were done I decided to let it out a notch for the next 7 miles and see how that felt.  I continued to feel great and started to average 6:45 for that stretch.  I was happy to see mile 20 because that meant I could empty out the tank for the next 6.2 miles.  I clicked off a 6:31 mile from mile 20-21 but felt a little over zealous so I reigned it back a bit.  My form started to break down at mile 22 and I started to use everything I had to maintain pace, which was around 6:40.  I felt my IT band on my left knee starting to tighten and I hoped with all my might that it wouldn´t be a factor.  Everything was hurting but I knew the end was close.  These miles seemed to take a while but soon mile 26 was reached and I picked it up the final .2 miles because I simply had the energy.  I crossed the line in 2:57:45, about 2 minuted under my goal pace.  I was happy but exhausted and weaving a bit.  I averaged 6:40 the final 6.2.  Trusting the training and race strategy paid off.  I saw Megan at the finish, gave her a hug and declared, ¨"I retire from marathons!"

I still couldn´t feel my hands and was cold but was really satisfied.  Thank you to Elissa, Chris, and her family for letting us stay over the night before.  Thanks to all my TCLA and trail running friends.  The above lessons worked for me through trial and error, prior failures, advise from other runners, and exercise physiology research.  I´m really excited to head back to ultras for the time being until Fall 2014 where I hope to lower this current mark.  Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Classic Walker's Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt

There's a reason I've backpacked over 650 miles in the Alps.  They are some of the most accessible yet stunning mountains to wander in, a rare combination to have.  It seems like every couple of years I find my way back to France excited to explore a new section of the Alps.  After thoroughly exploring the French Alp chain (via GTA, 2011) I was looking for something in a different direction. Perusing the section of "International-Walks" of Cicerone Publishing, The Walker's Haute Route seemed like a perfect fit for a fall trek.  This trek was born from the original spring ski-touring Haute Route first completed in 1911.  Skipping glacier travel and skis, this takes a backpacker ~180km from the base of Mont Blanc, in the Chamonix Valley, to the iconic Matterhorn, in the Mattertal Valley in Switzerland, over eleven passes and meandering through some of the most stunning 4000 meter peaks the Pennine Alps had to offer.  As Kev Reynolds put it: "...a gourmet extravaganza of scenic wonders from the first day until the last."
I get extremely giddy when I travel solo with only my backpack and this trip was no different.  Twenty-four hours of travel via airplane, train, and bus got me in my tent and asleep by 11pm at Les Arolles campground (my go-to in Chamonix).  As I peeled back the tent flap, clear skies and Mont Blanc greeted me in the early morning light.  I was home.
I planned on spending the first few days in the valley doing day hike/runs.  I started that morning going up the stunning La Jonction route and it was quick to refresh my memory that the trails here are much steeper than anywhere I've hiked.  Upon finally reaching La Jonction a stunning view revealed itself.  I simply couldn't be in a happier place.  The next day I started up the Mont Blanc route from the valley floor and rented boots, crampons, and ice-ax hoping to get as high as possible.  I got to about the Tete Rousse hut in about 3 hours of hiking up before I turned back.  A recent storm made the route much icier and I felt unsafe heading up alone.  I was loving this clear weather, which based on my previous experiences was a treat.  Realizing that, I decided to head out on the trek the next day with the hope of maximizing this good fortune.  I welcomed the first day of Fall and bid farewell to Chamonix the next morning.  Col de Balme was my first pass of the day and it was the Swiss/French border.  From now on I would be solely in Switzerland.  To my surprise there was no one on the trail, a departure from previous experiences in the summer.  I wondered why at first and I soon saw why: the refuge on the pass was closed for the year.  People would be missing the fall colors and good weather but I would not be missing them.  I was happy with the solitude.
Taking the high-level variante from Col de Balme, of which there are plenty of on this trek, I camped at Col de la Forclaz.  I ate my emergency food (can of ravioli) because of the unexpected difficulty of acquiring food that day.  The next day took me through the Fenetre d'Arpette that allowed for stunning views of frozen cascades of the Glacier de Trient.  A rocky descent soon got me to Champex and I continued the relatively undemanding day to Le Chable where I camped for the night and was able to stock up on food.  Looking at the guidebook, the next day would be the most demanding of the trip: 5 passes, 25 miles, and about 11.5K feet in climbing (most of it in 17 miles).  I started at 645am and hiked hard until dark (~8pm) with two 5 minute breaks.  When I arrived at Arolla I was exhausted but extremely relieved.  The reason for this long day was because there was no food at all on this whole section and I once again had to dip into my emergency ration for dinner.  However, I had one of the best days of mountain trekking I've ever done.  The steep and ledge-like Sentier des Chamois (Trail of the Chamois) which gave impressive views of the Grand Combin massif; the large and lonely Grand Desert Glacier, the snow and icy traverse of Col de Louvie and Prafleuri, Lac des Dix, the imposing Mont Blanc de Cheilon and it's pronged glacier, and the steep talus climb up the the tiny ledge of Col de Riedmatten. 
Grand Desert Glacier
Col de Sorebois (Above), Mont Blanc de Cheilon (Below)
I started late the next day, still trying to recover off little food.  I briefly got lost when a kind farmer directed me the right way up Col de Torrent.  The weather was starting to change and the clouds threatened with rain.  After some hot chocolate at a small shop at the Barrage de Moiry, the climb up to Col de Sorebois offered amazing views of the surrounding high peaks and the shrouded Weisshorn.  I was soon descending into the Val de Zinal where I was glad to treat myself to a proper dinner and a store where food could be bought.  Rain and strong winds greeted me in the morning light and continued up the climb to the barren (Col) Forcletta.  Hail pelted me and I soon descended into the little-known Turtmanntal Valley and arrived in Gruben (or Meiden) the first German speaking town.  Everything was closed however, and after a brief stop for lunch I started the climb up Augstbordpass, an passageway since the Middle Ages that allowed access from the Rhone Valley to Italy.  This was one of the finest climbs of the trip and as the strong winds cleared away clouds I finally arrived at the pass where a wild and rocky wilderness revealed itself; this became my favorite pass.  In the distance the Reid Glacier and the incredible Mischabel wall towered over all.  An open and gently winding talus-filled descent guided me to Twara, a viewpoint where the long and deep Mattertal Valley and surrounding great peaks left an image in the mind that will never be forgotten.  Dom (the highest peak in Switzerland), Nadelhorn, and Lenzspitze tower to the east, Weisshorn to the west, and the Monte Rosa massif in the far south.
View east from Augstbordpass
After a long steep descent I finally arrived in St. Niklaus at the end of the day.  Since there was no camping allowed anywhere in the village I stayed in a dormitory and planned the final days hike.  I wanted to take the challenging high-level route of the Europaweg into Zermatt.  Winding 4600 feet above the valley floor, it hugs the east side of the Mattertal valley and showcases the spectacular mountains of the valley.  After a long steep climb I finally crested the Europaweg and saw what I've been waiting to see for the past week: the Matterhorn.  This route to Zermatt is ever-changing due to constant rockfalls and constant exposure.  The guidebook as well as signs on the trail gave constant warnings, but I wasn't terribly concerned.  No one was on the trail (as usual) but I expected people because the one hut on this route was supposed to be open until the middle of the month.  Vista after stunning vista made this route awe-inspiring and the fact I was alone made it all the more intimate and special. After getting lost after climbing down a rock slide chute on accident and having to scramble back up class 3 terrain (which got me nervous) I finally reached the hut. To my surprise it was closed.  I was hoping to get water here as there was none on the trail and I had run out.  I wondered why it was closed but not 200 yards later I found out why: one of the two suspension bridges spanning 250 meters was damaged by the constant rock fall and thus the trail closed.  Odd because that was the whole reason for the bridge.  The route sent me back way down into the valley and due to the lack of water and not wanting to climb 4K up again, I stuck the valley route the final 6 uneventful miles.  Finally arriving in Zermatt and seeing the Matterhorn put an end to the Walker's Haute Route.  I was extremely satisfied and the numbers total to: 115 miles, 43K of climbing, 43K of descent. Mile for mile the most physically challenging trek and one of the most rewarding.  I set up camp at the lone campground there (one of 2 people) and ate a burger to celebrate.  Using the campground as a base I spent the next 4 days in Zermatt doing day-trip hikes/runs that got me close to the Matterhorn and the incredible Monte Rosa massif.
At the end of that stay, Zermatt and the surrounding peaks have become one of my favorite places to play in.  These experiences give way to a deep satisfaction, joy, and freedom that I've only been able to have on these types of trips.  In particular, this is the epitome of my philosophy of experiencing this world: have everything you need on your back, minimal gear, live in a tent, explore the surrounding nature, and spend as little as possible.  Life becomes more meaningful, has more depth, and ultimately shapes perspective. (See right-hand column for photos)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Leadville Trail 100: Race Report

Course Profile: A high altitude race
The history and altitude of Leadville beckons the ultrarunner.  Six years ago my good friend Joel and I backpacked the 486-mile Colorado Trail so I  have some personal history with the Colorado Rockies as well. After 13 months of not running an ultra because of the “Mental Burnout of 2012” I was toeing the line at 10,200ft.  I was feeling good, mentally engaged, and ready which was pretty much the opposite of last year at Angeles Crest 100.  How’d that happen?

The buildup to this race was fairly average with my primary concern being the altitude.  I’ve had some good experiences at altitude but running 100 miles that high was a question mark for me.  My acclimation started in mid-late May with weekends in the beloved Sierra Nevada.  I hadn’t run anything over a marathon (done 1 time) for about 10 months so I was nervous about getting back into long running, however I maintained a great base throughout the year.  I kick started my training with a 7 day JMT thru-hike with Prizzle in late June, knowing 30 miles a day for 7 consecutive days in the high country would kick my ass into shape; with the added benefits of being at altitude, having 12-14 hrs/day on my feet, and developing pure leg strength.   All of that came true.  My feet were hamburger meat and hurting by the end of that trip but they soon toughened up with some rest to withstand one hundred mile punishment.  After a couple of days of hobbling due to some skin breakdown in the bottoms of my feet, the training continued.  I had about 6 weeks until the race and that was the perfect amount of time for me to get in race-specific running.  After two 30 milers on consecutive weekends, three 90-105 mile weeks, spending several days in Silverton, pacing Prizzle at Hardrock, track workouts every Tuesday, I felt mentally ready to run.  That’s really not a lot of training for a 100 but based on previous experience, the base I came in with, and the need to feel fresh on race day I thought it was enough for me to accomplish my goal of running sub-25 and getting that gold and silver buckle. 

The guns fired at the obscene hour of 4am and the mob of 900+ (!) runners made their way down 6th Street.  I decided to use my heart rate monitor to gauge my efforts through the first half of the race.  This was especially important because the altitude (or frankly any race of this distance) will make you pay dearly if you go out too hard.  It turned out to be a great tool.  I had to allow my HR to be a little higher than usual because of the thinner air.  My breath was surprisingly slow and deep and that was a good sign.  The numbing cold in the opening miles was highly welcome and I was weaving around runners when I could.  I expected to see Marshall at Tabor Boat Ramp at mile 7 to get a refill on the one bottle I had but with the hoards of crew there was no way he was going to get there.  I luckily saw him at mile 3 with the news he’ll see me at May Queen at mile 13.5.  Dropping my warm clothes off I continued running.  Little did I know there was no water until that point and I was playing with 4oz for the next 10 miles.  Shit.  I hoped with all my might that there would be a creek someplace.  About mile 8 my hopes were answered and I filled up.  At that point I had finally broken free of the congo line of people and had some breathing room. I was feeling good and trying to run steady all while being very patient.  It’s a looong race.  May Queen was the first aid station and the crowds were a small introduction of what was to come.  I was stunned. As I made my way on a .25 mile paved road, people 2-3 deep lined either side waiting for their runner.  I had no clue where my crew was so I slowed down to a crawl and just gazed from left to right, hoping to spot someone.  As I kept going, I started to get nervous that maybe I passed them and I should go back.  It was like playing “Where’s Waldo?” while running.  I was relieved when I barely spotted Marshall and grabbed my pack and trekking poles to ascend my way up Sugarloaf Pass. 
"Wizard Sticks" in hand

I decided on using trekking poles (aka “wizard sticks”) for this race on the climbs, figuring it would help my hiking over the passes.  It turns out LT100 just isn’t that steep to justify using them. Who cares though, I felt cool.  I had fun running down Powerline and was soon on the tarmac heading into Fish Hatchery.

Reaching Fish Hatchery #1 (mile 23.5) was an even bigger clusterfuck.  The amount of cars and people lined up for at least ¾ of a mile along the road and in a big group circle around the aid station was mind-boggling.  I had no clue where anyone was so I assumed they weren’t there after looking around and yelling out their names.  Frustrated, I didn’t want to waste any more time looking for them, so I filled up my pack, stuffed some gels, and off I went.  A quarter mile out of the aid station, I spot them on the side of the road.  We all agreed it was a nightmare for crews and that they would be waiting for me AFTER the aid station from now on.  I grabbed a bottle, ditched the pack and was off running still feeling good. 

Half Pipe Crew Access came quickly (27.5 miles, 5:02) and this is where I would need my pack again.  I arrived ready to just grab the pack and run but there was no one from the team in sight.  I ran all the way to the far end of the crew access point and didn’t see anyone.  I backtracked (which I supremely hate doing) and kept looking around. No crew.  With no fuel and one bottle for the next 12 mile section I was starting to get quite irritated.  I waited five more minutes, trying to score fuel off people, and trying to get some water.  I was about to leave in a poor mental state when I finally see Marshall.  He says it took over an hour just to drive several miles from Fish Hatchery.  I was stunned, but with my pack and fuel I wanted to make up the 20 places I lost waiting around.  I was still feeling good and kept running at a steady effort.  I soon caught everyone who passed me with no extra effort and the bonk I usually get after 30 miles never showed up.  I was excited at that prospect and when I finally started the descent into Twin Lakes I let it out a notch. 

I arrived at Twin Lakes #1 (mile 39) feeling on fire and with thoughts creeping into my head that this could be a really good race for me.  I arrived at the checkpoint in 6:47 and was hoping I could continue this great timing going over the crux of the day, Hope Pass (twice).  I quickly saw The Onion and I asked where everyone was. He says, “No one else is here.” Me: “Ok, do you have my pack and trekking poles?” Onion: “No, I don’t have anything, it’s with Marshall.”  With my adrenaline already on high, my irritation started to increase.  I backtracked again to the aid station to fill up my pack and grab whatever gels I could get.  How could they not be there? It’s almost been two hours since I last saw them; why weren’t they there?  Honestly, I was extremely pissed off and for the next 7 minutes, which felt like an eternity, I was venting to The Onion.  I was about to leave when I finally see Marshall running towards me.  Without saying a word, I took my poles and tried not to show my emotions.  I was quickly informed that it was a nightmare for crews.  Not only did they have to drive through an hour of traffic, they had to park 2 miles away. However, it took a while for my emotions to dissipate after I left them.   

Leaving Twin Lakes, I was extremely looking forward to the climb up to Hope Pass, at 12,600 ft.  I felt that no one could touch me on this.  This was my territory: high altitude fast hiking.  I uncorked my sticks and within the first several yards of the climb, I had NOTHING.  My eyelids immediately became droopy, I had no energy anywhere in my body, I couldn’t even get my HR past 130 uphill even though I had been running the race around 155.  I didn’t understand what was happening.  I started to weave and feel tired.  I sat down several times, just wanting to take a nap.  By the way, it’s 11am.  I tried to force myself to vomit, to no avail, take 2 salts (which I didn’t plan on using at all, but I was desperate for a solution).  Nothing made anything better.  People were passing me by the droves.  By the time I got to Hopeless Aid Station, at least 20 people passed me.  I was slow and demoralized. 

After spending at least 10 minutes at Hopeless taking in soda (ie caffeine) I continued on to the pass.  I didn’t feel any better.  Forever went by before I finally reached the pass.  The downhill wasn’t any better and after 5 more miles of feeling like crap, I arrived at Winfield in 10:45, ready to pick up Marshall and hopefully turn this thing around.  The great timing I once had went out the window.  I arrive at the weigh-in station and immediately recognize Diana Finkel as the volunteer. I burst out, “Are you OK?!”  This was because Chris and I saw her extremely pale, walking the downhill after Grant-Swamp Pass at Hardrock 100.  She laughed and returned the question.  I, clearly, was not as good as her.  After sitting for 15min, trying to regroup, complaining about the left side of my chest during inhalation, getting my O2 Sat taken (97-98%), and taking in Red Bull I apologized to Marshall for anything I may have said at Twin Lakes and I was extremely happy to have him there.  From this point on, a bottle of Coke and cups broth would be my fuel source.
Cresting Hope Pass 1
Heading back out I really wasn’t feeling any better.  We finally started a downhill section and all of a sudden I started to get life back in my body and mind.  I yelled to Marshall, “You’ve brought me back from the dead!”  We cruised the downhill section to the beginning of the Hope Pass climb.  This side of the pass was steep but the first 500 yards went well.  And that’s about how long those good feelings lasted.  This side of the pass turned out to be much worse.  Sitting down at every switchback, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, I didn’t understand what was happening.  After a 47-minute mile, I finally saw the pass.  It was probably not more than .5 miles away but it might as well been 5 miles.  We crested and soon stumbled into Hopeless #2.  I sat for 15 min trying to restart my whole system.  We finally left and as we made our way down I slowly started to feel better and better.  We were soon flying down, yelling “on your left!” constantly, and talking about awful the last several hours were.  We cruised down into Twin Lakes #2 where we immediately spotted Megan and Joel.  I was chipper and recounting them of the debacle that was the last 22 miles.  It took an astounding 7.5 hours for that section.

We left quickly and were soon hiking up the hill out of Twin Lakes well.  We are just grinding and soon hit a long downhill section where I started to really make up some ground.  I was feeling fantastic and we were having a good time talking about random things.  We got to mile 71, Half Pipe Aid Station, in 16:40, where I would pick up The Onion in a couple miles at the crew access. 

Dragging trekking poles up the long slog up Hope Pass 2
I hugged Marshall and after several minutes I was off with The Onion.  Marshall has been has paced me through my last 3 hundreds so he knows what he’s in for: for good or ill.  For whatever reason he still says “Sure!” when I ask him to pace.  Great friend.
This was the road section of the course and we were soon at Fish Hatchery #2, mile 76.5, in 18:14.  Finding the crew wasn’t hard this time and I sat down getting updates, refueling with soda, and getting ready for the next section up Powerline.  With Kate Martini Freeman telling me that her husband, Jimmy Dean Freeman (JDF), was “…right behind” me I got out of the chair immediately and was soon off with The Onion (It turned out to be an hour, but it was a huge motivating force).  I had a ton of juice in my legs and felt damn good, so we pushed it on the road, and it turns out, for the entire section.  This was my best section of the race.

While running the road section hard I remember saying to The Onion, “Whatever happens, I don’t want JDF catching me!”  And my pacer didn’t disappoint.  We hiked hard up the steep Powerline section and whenever the terrain got flat or even a short/mild ascent we ran.  We started passing folks by the droves roughly 2 dozen by The Onion’s count.  By the top of Powerline there was no one else in sight so we pushed the downhill looking for more.  Simply put, The Onion pushed me. He gave me some tough love and he saved me a bunch of time.  My headlamp started to fail on the downhill and with his sun-like flashlight he literally became my guiding light.  He led the way for me and with some tough moments due to poor lighting on the technical downhill section we arrived in May Queen, mile 86.5, with a 2:30 split, which turned out to be very solid. I told The Onion on the way down that I really wanted to break 24.  It was now 20:44 into the race with 13.5 miles to go, and I needed to average 14 min/miles from here on out towards the uphill finish.  It was doable.

After about 6 minutes, I was off with my good backpacking buddy, Joel.  I had run the last 30 miles quite well and all I needed were over a dozen more.  However, as soon as I started running, I could feel the wheels starting to fall off.  I started walking more and I knew what was coming.  I started to get slower, more fatigued, my eyelids drooping again, and the worst of it all, I started sitting down.  This was the exact same feeling going up Hope and I was stuck.  I didn’t know what to do.  I tried to make myself vomit again, I was apologizing to Joel for how pathetic I was, and I was sitting constantly now.  After seeing a 20-minute mile buzz on my watch I felt 24 hours slip away.  11 miles seemed like 50 now and I was sure that breaking 25 hours would be highly improbable.  I was desperate and I couldn’t figure it out.  I sat down again and just wanted to sleep.  Even though The Onion denies it, I swear I heard him say to down 3 Gu gels in a row.  So maybe this really rough patch could be fixed with a strong influx of sugar.  1 Gu down, 2 Gu down, 3 Gu….nope, I immediately started vomiting profusely.  Tons of water and Gu exited my system: One time, then a second.  I sat down: a third time. And a fourth.  It was nasty and exhausting work.  But lo and behold, I started to get my head back.  I said to Joel, “I can start running again.” We started running/hiking and I continued to feel better.  We still had at least 10 miles to go and I was adamant that I would not ingest anything else for the rest of the race.  I was hiking and running better and even ran some of the ups.  It was amazing how immediately my body responded once the stomach emptied.  It was the first time I’ve thrown up in a race. Now I wish it happened on Hope Pass.
We hit the tarmac and could smell the finish.  I thanked Joel profusely for putting up with my crap and I hoped I redeemed myself the last several miles.  It was his first time pacing, and his first time at an ultra event.  He did great, and to my amazement he would soon sign up for his first trail run soon thereafter.  We saw the finish line lights in the far distance, and we ran hard until the end, passing runners holding hands, walking, and celebrating in their accomplishment.  I crossed the finish line in 24:24, securing the sub-25 buckle.  I was feeling good, uninjured, and joyous to see Megan and Marshall, bundled up in the bleachers.  I was simply happy and carefree, and for the briefest moments there was nothing else in the world to weigh me down.  I found a chair and with my crew, I sat.

Finish w/Joel
Thank you to Megan, Marshall, The Onion (Garret Christensen), and Joel.  You got me through this. I love you guys.

Thanks to JDF and KMF for letting us use your house after the race as a place to crash and shower. Jimmy, you were a great motivation force at the end and to run two difficult 100’s within 2 weeks is nuts.  I still don’t know how you did it.  Thanks to Jason Healey for saving the first 40 of my race and letting me use your HR monitor (I left mine at home). 

With every 100, I learn new lessons that help me on the subsequent run.  Here are a few:

-90% of being successful at these races is race management.  It doesn’t matter how fit you are if you can’t manage your race well.  I’m talking about nutrition, pace, strategy, troubleshooting, managing low points etc.

-Don’t look at your watch. It’s just too damn long a race, with way too many variables to worry about pace.  I used my watch to monitor my effort, using the HRM, for the first 40.  Then the strategy became, “do what you can.”

-Better undertrained than over-trained.  It’s a fine line and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out unless you’re honest with yourself and are sensitive to it.

-Be patient; not only during the race, but during your training period as well.  You don’t have to redline every run in order to improve.  I ran 2 hard runs per week for leg turnover and max aerobic capacity with the rest hiking, slow running. After all, the race is 100% aerobic. My body was able to recover with each subsequent run building on the other.  The hole was never too deep to get out of in a manner of days.  I don’t think I ever had a bad run during the 6 weeks of race-specific training and each run had a purpose to the overall picture.

-Sleep. It’s extremely important during the last week.  I cannot stress this enough.  I’m talking 8-9hours.

-Keep the race-specific training to a minimum (6-8wks) but have a great base coming into that training period.

-Have different fuel sources throughout the race.  Maybe the first x-miles should have been gels, followed by liquid fuel, followed by……you get the point.  I’ll try that next time.

Post race BBQ at Joel's house with the great crew. (The Onion is not here. He continues to remain elusive to all, preferring to spend his time in the vast unknowns.)

Large and in-charge buckle