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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

John Muir Trail 2013

Glory
     The experience that changed the trajectory of my life in 2006 was once again on the agenda for 2013.  Having done it twice before, with the last one being in 2010, I felt I needed to give it another go.  Whether it's to reminisce, reflect, commune with nature, it's a trail that will always call out to me.  In my opinion, the Sierra's are the most raw and majestic mountains in the lower 48.  So when my friend Chris Price was accepted into the Hardrock 100 I figured there was no better trail to hike as a prep for that race than the JMT.  Its layout of pass, valley, pass, valley (repeat) at higher altitudes would be perfect for his training (my selling point to him) and that also means I would have someone to show the surrounding beauty this two foot path wanders through.  However, this journey would be more a challenge of endurance than the previous trips.  The plan was to complete the trail in 7 days, which is an average of 30 miles per day.  A daunting sum to some, quizzically questioned by others, and utter confusion as to why by many.  I admit that I could fall into any of those categories.  I love to reference page 155 of The Last Season when the idea of "miles" overtakes the entire point of being out there.  Here's a short excerpt by the books main character, Randy Morgenson:
     "What is the infatuation with 'est? Why are we beating our brains on a hard surface to be fastest, biggest, richest, on and on ad infinitum ad nauseam? I asked how many Audubon's warblers he'd seen or hermit thrushes he'd heard and he (JMT speed record inquirer and hiker) grinned sheepishly, looking down at his bootlaces. But this was an unfair question.  Such a hiker has probably never slowed enough to notice, but I continued: 'Have you tried meadow sitting or cloud watching?' 'Anyone can do that,' was his response.  There it is again. Machismo. This fellow is going to achieve, be a first, do things not everyone does or even can do.  That becomes his goal.  We're a restless breed, we moderns.  Hardest it is to sit still and be attentive to our surroundings.  Boredom comes to most of us very quickly."
     This quote certainly was certainly on the forefront of my mind when I told Chris, "Sure, we can do it in 7 days.  It'll just require us to hike all day long."  The interesting thing about long distance backpacking or ultrarunning is that the pain experienced out there is quickly forgot.  Chris had only seven days due to work and other arrangements but I knew we could be successful in that amount of time.  Fast forward 7 months later and we're kindly being driven to Yosemite Valley by Elissa, Chris's wife.  The first few days are always the more difficult due to the need to adjust to the routine of hiking 12-14hrs/day, having 25 pounds on your back, dealing with mosquitoes, eating dried foods, etc.  I admit the first few days were quite difficult as the bottoms of my feet were sore and tired and that dragged on me mentally a bit.  Chris was handling things quite well, especially for someone who has not taken a trip like this before. 
    
The first few days started at 630-645 with continuous hiking until 630-830pm with 20-30 minuted of rest intermingled for the entire day.  Fairly grueling work if I may say.  After Red's Meadow (mile 60) we started taking 45-60min at lunch to put the feet up and rest.  It was a very welcome change of routine that proved quite important to the longevity out there and to the health of the feet.  I was surprised on how warm it was out there even at the higher elevations.  I never once wore my down jacket and wasn't even needing a sleeping bag for most nights.  The mosquitoes never let up and my deduction that it would be a quiet skeeter season due to the low water levels were completely wrong.  We were swarmed most of the trip with temporary relief on certain passes.
    
The complete absence of snow was another surprise, especially on Muir Pass, where the snow tends to linger until August.  The beauty of these places, however, was not diminished, and experiencing the trip with someone who hasn't done it before is quite satisfying.  It's almost as seeing it for the first time again.  We kept pace, didn't run into bad weather (except the last day when we walked into a hail storm), and were successful at 630pm on top of Mt. Whitney 7 days later.
     Reflecting on this trip, the style of this trip is not something I would have interest in doing consistently.  I enjoy hiking most of the day but love the moments sitting in the late afternoon reflecting, enjoying my surroundings, and just being.  I didn't have time for that on this trip and I admit a twang of jealousy seeing the northbound PCTers stop at 4pm and lazying around until the evening.  This isn't to diminish the accomplishment of this trip.  I was glad to experience this, especially with Chris who was unflappable and an excellent backpacking partner.  I remember most of the trip but the things that stand out are: the fading sun giving way to a spectacular vista on top of Mather Pass and the high we were both on,  the amount of attractive single young PCT women heading north who DIDN'T read Wild, the storm to the east of Silver Pass as we were headed up, the lunch stop after Virginia Lake as we rested with our eyes closed in the shade with our feet up and a cool breeze coming over us, the stunning farts we both endured from each other depending on who was leading, and the climb up to Whitney, where a small storm cell was grumbling just to the west of us as we made our way to the summit where not one other person was present.
A big thanks to Chris for being a part of this, Elissa for driving us all the way up after a long drive the weekend before, and Marshall for being a great friend and picking us up on a random Wednesday after spending the night at the Whitney Portal.
     The fall and winter will bring exciting new adventures and treks: from the French/Swiss Alps to the South American Andes.  Oh, and the Leadville Trail 100 in mid-August. Stay tuned! (Click here for the full photo album.)

7 days later






Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Nepal: Solukhumbu (Everest) Region

Every year I try to find a new region where I can backpack, spending my time simply living day to day and experiencing more of this planet.  After some brainstorming Megan suggested Nepal and after a brief moment of contemplation I was off planning.  I say 'I' because I enjoy planning and Megan simply enjoys going on the trip. It works out well because there is only one chef in the kitchen so to speak.  After debating between the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek we decided to go with the latter for a number of reasons including: 1) It's freaking Everest 2) There is a road being built alongside the Annapurna Circuit 3) Less crowds on EBC (even though both are considered busy during the peak season).

I usually backpack during the summer season so having to plan for a late fall campaign was different plus going to a third-world country I had no background in.  We set our dates for the 'best weather' season because who wants to go to the Everest region and see clouds all day.  After an seemingly agonizingly long 1.25 years between trips we were both eager to get the hell out of dodge.  Our 20 hour flight (+ 12 hr layover) had us landing in the darkness in Kathmandu where lights were sparse and the air warm greeted us.  Ganesh Sharma, whom a friend hooked us up with, met us at the airport at 11pm, waiting 1 hour due to our procurement of a Nepalese Visa.  The adventure started as we drove through the quite and dark streets of Kathmandu to our stop at 'Sacred Valley Inn' in the district of Thamel (i.e: tourist district).  After a lovely breakfast the next morning Ganesh helped us weave through the organized chaos of Kathmandu helping us acquire TIMS permits, bus tickets to Jiri, and some knock-off (The North Fake) clothing.  We were prepared to depart the following morning at 5am to find our bus in a huge lot of chaotic unmarked (to us at least) buses.  It was almost like playing Marco Polo to find it. We would yell out "Jiri!" and a person would point one way then we would yell again follow another direction and continue on like this until we found the bus.  As for the bus ride: wow.  Close your eyes and imagine riding in a bus from the 60's (tires and brakes too) for people who are 5'3", crammed to the brink, blaring Indian music, the ecclectic horn honking every 2.3 sec, with people vomiting in small plastic bags (then neatly tying them up and chucking them out the window) for 8 hours to cover 120 miles all on windy unkept dirt/broken asphalt roads.  It was quite the experience and I planned never to ride that again after we made our landing in Jiri that late afternoon.

As far as our trip plans we wanted an extended trek and to start from the village where hiking to the Everest region began, in the days before the construction of the landing strip in Lukla.  We started out meandering on unmarked paths ascending and descending steep paths at lower altitudes, passing through small villages through the valley littered with rice patty farms and many suspension bridges spanning rivers.  Besides a curious dog following us for the first two hours we ended up at the abode of Ang Dawa Sherpa.  Located in the village of Bhandar and situated next to a Buddhist monastery we ordered tea (mint was my favorite) and took in the views.  We were finally on the trail.
A restful night had us descending down to Kenja where the steepest climb of the entire trek met us. A 6000 ft climb in less than 5 miles to the pass of Lamjura La situated at 11,500 ft.  It was a slog and was weaving near the end needing sustenance. Fortunately after a bite to eat at a family's home we crested the prayer flag filled pass and continued into the dark and light rain to another family's home in Tragdabuk where we spent the night. After four more days of winding our way through steep valleys, gorges, and small villages we found ourselves in Lukla.  Boy, what an entirely different world.  Freshly showered tourists and their clean clothes dominated the scene. They had just come off the quick 30 min flight from Kathmandu and had porters and guides at their beckon carrying their overstuffed packs.  The journey had been quite and mellow up until this point and now it was filled with tons of lazy hikers (as I call them).  We were both quite annoyed and ready to escape the rather unpleasant and dirty village of Lukla.

This part of the trek is mostly uphill for several days and reaching altitudes greater than either of us have ever risen to.  After five days of being teased by the intermittent views of far away white peaks we were now going to be able to trek through the highest mountains in the planet.  After some lunch we continued to the village of Phakding.  The next morning we continued our trek to Namche, the so-called Sherpa 'capital', situated in this amphitheater-like setting with snow-white mountains surrounding it.  After lunch and realizing we had more daylight we continued onto the higher, less populated (preferable) Khumjung (12,402 ft).  Arriving in the misty and cold village we quickly settled into a teahouse.  We asked for a ' hot shower' which involved waiting 20 min for the water to heat up to a lukewarm temperature and when we entered the cold concrete bunker the water pressure was next to nothing.  In the 30-40 degree temps we attempted to get water all over our bodies with lots of "ooo,ooo,", "ahh,haha" sounds coming from both of us.

The next frigid morning we were treated to the wonderfully clear view of the 22,000+ ft Ama Dablam.  It was magnificent! I couldn't stop taking photos, gazing, and fully appreciating what was before me.  That was the beginning.  After a short day we arrived in the magnificent village of Thyangboche (12,687 ft) and had our first far off glimpse of Lhotse, Nuptse, and Everest.  Words can't describe the feelings that welled up in me when I saw what was before me.  I sat at a table, ordered a pot of mint tea and stared away.

After another night at 12,000+ ft. we decided it was OK for us to move up to 14,272 ft. to Dingboche.  We slowly made our way up while the giants of the Himalaya looked down.  We learned that at the far end of the village it was 'warmer' because first light hit that area of the village first.  After dinner in the dung-fueled den we went to bed and Megan took her first Diamox to offset any potential altitude effects.  It was both our first time sleeping this high, which is completely different than a quick 15 min stay followed by a descent (ie Whitney).  Megan woke up at 3:45 am complaining about a severe headache that came on suddenly and almost incapacitated her.  The only option for me to do was to get her down as quickly as possible (I assumed altitude sickness).  So we quickly got our coats on and stepped out into the sub-freezing cold and tried to descend at least 1000 ft. in the dark with dark gleaming yak eyes staring at us.  Because it was a gradual trail it took us 1.75 hrs to get down to the adequate altitude and all while our water bottles froze.  We stopped at a lonely teahouse and waited in the windy early morning for it to open, which was no particular time.  I was very worried but Megan showed signs of improvement.  After disturbing the family that operated the teahouse they were so kind as to give us tea and let us stay in their home.  Megan started to feel better and after some time we decided to slowly trek back to Dingboche.  Fortunately we made it and got Megan to rest; we were planning on staying one more night anyway to acclimatize.  That night we met two English brothers, Pete and Tony, and their Sherpa guide, Gyaljen Sherpa, who summit Everest twice.  We soon became friends and shared many laughs. 

The next day Megan was feeling better so we decided to head to Lobuche at 16,175 ft.  Well above treeline now, we trekked with expansive views in all directions on a crystal clear day.  After a climb up a steep moraine there lay an area of prayer flags and mani walls that commemorate the lives lost in the mountains.  Scott Fisher is there and if anyone has read Into Thin Air or The Climb knows who that is.  As an avid reader of these accounts it's a powerful feeling to experience it in person.

While searching for his memorial we met two Aussie girls who had been traveling for months:  Suzanna and Georgia.  They would be a great part of our journey for most of the trip.
We all arrived in Lobuche and thanks the Gyaljen's clout he was able to procure all of us rooms, which is a hard commodity in this small settlement.  A mild headache revealed itself and continued until about dinner time but Megan was doing quite well.  We all had dinner together and had tons of laughs the whole night.  We all decided to not stay any longer than 1 day in Lobuche and take a short hike straight to the final 2-3 settlements of Gorak Shep at 17,008 ft.  After the long SLOW slog we dropped off our gear, carried essentials, and headed for what we've been dreaming of since the conception of this trip: Everest Base Camp (EBC). 

For 1.5 hours we meandered our way from Gorak Shep and crossed the Khumbu Glacier and finally found ourselves in the desolate EBC at 17,400 ft.  I wasn't sure what to expect when we finally arrived there but we could immediately sense an energy, almost magical, and now understood the allure of climbing Mt. Everest.  We snapped photos, wandered around the now empty camp, sat with thoughts in our head, and took in the full magnitude of where were.  It took 20hours of flying, 8 hours of bus, plus 10 days of backpacking to get to this point.  The draw of this place was clearly very powerful and it did not disappoint.  The trip felt completely fulfilled once this place was reached.

The hike back down was exhausting and I succumbed to taking 400mg of ibuprofen in the night due to my headache and inability to sleep.  The next morning every task demanded a ton of effort; things like getting out of the sleeping bag or spooning food in my mouth.  I needed rest breaks while putting my clothes on for crying out loud.  The first order of business today was climbing up to the high point of the trip, Kala Pattar ('Black Rock') at 18,300ft, to offer unbelievable vistas of the Everest massif.  The climb up was quite difficult and I needed many rest breaks after only a few steps at times.  My breathing labored and it was very slow going.  After an 1.5 hours the prayer-flag strewn pinnacle was reached and the panoramic views of Everest and the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and valleys were simply stunning.

After our descent we bid farewell to our friends and hiked to the settlement of Dzongla, which was at the base of Cho La Pass our major obstacle the following day.  I left Megan on the hike and sped my way as fast as I could to the one teahouse there in hopes of getting a room, because I had a strong feeling that there may be 1 left and I certainly wanted to get there before those few groups ahead of us.  Hiking fast was nauseating at 15,600ft but it turned out my instincts were correct.  I had passed several groups of 2 and was able to procure the last room.  Megan arrived a bit later and we settled in.  She was not feeling well. 

The next morning she couldn't get out of bed.  Anytime she attempted to sit up she was in a very bad place and had to immediately lie down.  She had the chills, fever, and very low energy. There was no way she would be able to hike, let alone climb an 18,000 pass, so we had to stay an extra night.  Our trip at that point was dependent on us backpacking a certain amount per day and this ended the possibility of continuing to different regions and returning to Namche via a loop I was hoping to do.  As she lay in bed all day I decided to make a day hike up to Cho La Pass which turned out to be quite challenging and icy near the top.  After the day hike I returned to find that Megan was not any better.  This was a cause for serious concern because the only way out is by hiking or on the back of a horse which inquired about.  That night Megan recovered enough for her to entertain the idea of hiking down the next day.  She was able to shoulder a pack and felt OK the next morning to the relief of both of us.  We descended to Pheriche (14.000ft) and Megan instantly felt much better.  We continued our descent and stayed at Pangboche that night.  The next day we would arrive in Namche.  There was a little regret that we weren't able to see Gokyo, Renjo La Pass and the amazing views they command but it was not meant to be.  As I mentioned above, the trip felt fulfilled once EBC was reached; anything after that icing on the cake. 

We made it back to Namche the next day and low and behold ran into Suzanne and Georgia having tea in a random place! We were so happy and excited to see them so we spent the next two days hanging out with them, shopping for gifts, and hanging out.  It was election day in the USA and I kept tabs on that throughout the day, admiring the pristine clear skies and views of the surrounding mountains.  The next challenge was getting plane tickets out to Kathmandu for Friday morning (30 min flight) from Lukla so we could fly back to the states that same evening.  Since we didn't know what day we would be returning to Lukla we decided to just purchase them the day of.  Turns out that was a huge mistake because the flights were all booked for the past 3 weeks!

The Aussies left a day early to Lukla because they already had reservations and plane tickets.  We left the following day (Thursday) and hiked all the way back to Lukla hoping by some miracle we would be able to fly out the next day.  We stayed at a teahouse next to the airport strip that the one in Namche recommended and our lodge keeper basically said that it was "no problem" that we get a flight out.  The Sherpa who runs the teahouse would be able to get us tickets.  By now we're both stressed that we won't be able to fly out in time for our international flight that evening.  Things get even more hopeless when we bump into Suzanne and Georgia! The airline they had tickets for didn't feel like flying out Thursday. Or Friday. Or any other day in the near future.  They were stuck too.  After hours of stressing out and figuring out all possibilities the owner approaches us and says he has a friend with a single engine plane that could fly us out to this village in the middle of nowhere.  Then we would could hop on a bus to Kathmandu and make it in time for our flight! Woohoo!

This plane was an 8 seater and we needed 8 people to fill the plane.  As luck (maybe something else is at play too) would have it Megan, me, Suzanne, Georgia, and this group of 4 that stayed in the teahouse in Namche and were promised the same thing made 8!  We wake up the next morning and the owner says, "We must go now!" We drop what we're eating for breakfast and start running to the small airport which is littered with people anxious to leave as well.  We manage our way through 'security' and run onto the tarmac where a tiny plane awaits all of us.  We quickly load and start heading down the steep downhill runway off the edge of a 6000 ft cliff.  In all the frenzy of figuring out how to get a flight out we forgot that this is the worlds most dangerous airport and it's common for planes to not make it safely off the runway.  There already was a fatal accident 5 weeks prior.  Megan and I look at each other and start laughing hysterically.  We soon are airborne without a cloud in sight (this airport is only operational on clear days). We take in the views and soon land on a farmfield 20 minutes later.  We board a crampped bus, something I vowed never to go on in Nepal after the first experience, and take another 9 awful hours to get to Kathmandu.  It was even worse than that first bus ride 3 weeks prior.  There is only one way to fully appreciate it and that's by taking one yourself.

We arrive in the bustling and polluted Kathmandu with the plan of having dinner with the gals before taking off to the airport 2 hours later.  Turns out Georgia left her wallet at one of the bus stops on our way to Kathmandu! She fortunately had her passport and Suz was able to give her some money.  We said farewell and Megan and I had dinner one last in Nepal before heading to the airport.  The past 3 weeks felt like a lot more mainly because each day is a new experience and the perception of time somehow slows.  I will never forget my time in this country, its people, and the wonderful Himalaya mountains that we were able to backpack through.  Namasté.
(A few of the photos below but more on Nepal link in the right hand column)