Saturday, October 29, 2011

Squaw to Michigan Buff - The Hard Way

There's a story out there, loosely titled "A Man in the Hole", that is a parable of friendship and solidarity in difficult times:
"This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"
Last week it shone true during a brutal but awesome 56+ miles in the mountains and canyons of the Sierra Nevada.

I've had this run on my schedule since July: to head back to California and run the "original" (non-snow route) Western States course, from its start at Squaw Valley to Michigan Bluff.  I was pumped to have Jacob Rydman along for this ride, as he is equally passionate and enthuasiastic about ultra running and this event as I.

On Friday morning, I made the drive from Eugene (>7.5 hours) to Auburn, where I met Jake.  We thought it'd be fun to get in a "short run", so we met at Placer High and drove to Robie Point.  Departing just before 6PM, we ran down to No Hands and across, then up the fabled "K2" hill that Jake likes to work.  Midway up we encountered a guy and two dogs, who spotted a bear in area.  We cautiously proceeded with lots of loud talking and saw nothing. 

The prairie atop K2 on the "Olmstead Loop" was incredible at twilight, in the warm central California air.  Felt great to be back.  We chattered quite a bit, and I filled in every possible gap with a reminsce about my race. 

By the time we finished, it was nearly dark.  But our night wasn't over: we drove to Michigan Bluff to drop off Jake's truck for our post-run ride.  Back in town, we ate, had a couple beers, then returned to his place.  By then it was already well past 10PM, so it was quickly to bed for the early rise.

4:45AM came quickly.  We assembled our gear and hopped in Jake's dad-in-law Mike's truck for the ride up to Squaw.  I caught some valuable shut-eye in back on the dark ride up, and when I awoke it was nearly dawn in Truckee, and chilly - mid-30s at best. 

Mike dropped us off at the Lodge, snapped our "starting pic", then watched us ascend the big mountain for the start of our run.  Start time: 0715.

We ran-hiked the dirt roads up Escarpment.  The idea, I told Jake, was "to not feel like we're working hard" until the end, or the two big canyon climbs.  As such, I tried to keep the effort subdued.  However, we were both feeling fatigued, even with the conservative walk-jog.  Nonetheless, it was a crisp, beautifiul ascent up to Escarpment - albeit slightly longer since we took a circuitous route upward.  We hit Watson Monument about an hour in 0815.  A couple pics, then descending into Granite Chief, looking forward to a long, smooth descent. 

Watson Monument - 95% covered in snow on June 25th

 This section was completely covered in snow last year, and within that first mile I was saying, "This was easier covered in snow!" -- rutted, washed-out tread, rocks, roots, foliage.  Lots.  Our descent was slow and measured.  Over those ensuing miles we embraced the few times the track opened to runnable, otherwise we were back on the reigns.

Jake reported the mountain got 12-18" of snow approximately two weeks ago; however, the only traces that remained were the creeks that ran fairly heavy with snow melt, inundating the trail in a couple places.  We side-stepped them and kept on our way.

In no time, we were out of the Chief and were dumped onto a 4x4 road.  It seemed too soon to be out of the wilderness, but a check of the map confirmed it.  Thankfully, there was still flagging up from the Tevis race (October 8th), so we followed that cautiously into a maze of 4x4 roads.  Some of it looked familiar, but it was much different without a snowy blanket.  On a couple ocassions we had to pause and scope out the direction, before spotting more flagging.  Once we ran the wrong direction for a quarter mile, then got back on track.  Then, with little fanfare, we reached the start of Lyon Ridge.  It was mid-morning, by then, and warming.  We had a quick snack, took some pics, and lost some layers, then pressed on.

Lyon Ridge

Neither of us were feeling - or moving - that great at this point.  But we were hopeful that sustained running on consistent trail would turn the legs around. 

The Ridges - Lyon, then Red Star - were beautiful, with my first-ever views of both ends of the Foresthill Divide on this clear, warming morning.  But the running was rough and tough -- rock- and scree-filled tread and far more climbing than I ever imagined for what seemed like a flat area on the profile.  The running was slow, and Jake and I alternated with periods of energy and fatigue.  Fairly well-hydrated with my 70-oz Nathan pack, I was feeling fairly strong, picking my way through the rocks and making decent time on the flat sections, working the "pelvic mechanics" fairly well. 

Before long we came to what looked Red Star AS -- an intersection with a dirt road; however, the flagging simply took us up the road, so we followed it.  We ran for at least a kilo before we had second thoughts: a re-check of the map revealed that the course did not follow a road, so we had to back track before finding a thin ribbon that first paralleled the road before descending.  Two hunters confirmed that we were on the Red Star trail, and within another quarter mile we arrived at the real trail / road crossing of Red Star across the road to Robinson. 
Red Star was more hot, more steep, and more rough than Lyon.  Climb, climb, climb!  Silent thoughts became vocalizations: "This is much harder than the snow course!" - scores of eighth- to quarter-mile climbs on stone-filled tread with increasing heat.  Jake picked his way up the climbs and I did my best to follow; I felt like my ascending speed was faster than his, but more fatiguing. 
Red Star
As the ridge dragged on, it occurred to me that we were going to run out of water.  Our idea was our personal stashes - Jake with 32 oz and me with a stout 70 - could last to Robinson (30 miles).  In fact, on Sunday I ran over four hours with just 30 oz of water; at worst I though we'd run low at Duncan and get water there. 

By Lyon we were already conserving; by Red Star, we were low, then out completely.  By the time we'd finally summitted the high-point of Red Star and began to descent, we were both bone-dry.  On the descent, I was running mouth closed, trying to conserve vapor.  And by the time we made the turn to the Duncan trail it was a full-on suffer-fest for me: legs were dead, the stomach was starting to go, and even the flats were tough to run.

Miserable!  My gosh!  Looking at my watch, it's nearly 1PM - it's taken us nearly six hours to get to this point.  It's times like these that I begin to question my true abilities in this sport -- how can I expect to be any good if I can't even run 25 miles without crumbling into a heap?  After an eigth-mile of walking, I pulled it together and got a stride going on a downhill toward Duncan.

About a half-mile from the bottom, we hit a small creek and, unlike the creeks in Granite Chief, we did not pass this one by.  I whipped out the Steripen and got to work treating several bottles-worth of water, making sure that both Jake and I drank at least a whole bottle.  I pounded a bottle, then half-filled my pack, knowing we were only a bit from Duncan Creek and eventually the pump at Robinson.

We took more water at the Duncan crossing - a legitimately wide creek - but did not treat it, too tired and irritated with the fickle Steripen.  I guzzled a whole bottle of Jake's, refilled it and handed it back.  Then, across the creek it was uphill to Robinson.
Duncan Creek

While I had water, I still felt like garbage.  Jake pressed on, chipping up the trail, and I began to go about "fixing myself".

I'd been absolutely minimalist with intake: in six hours, I'd taken a Clif Bar, maybe two gels, and no salt.  I knew I needed salt and calories but I've learned my lesson: none of either 'til I had enough water.  Now with a full stomach and a half-full pack in balance, I took my first S-cap, carefully pouring on my tongue first.  It tasted good!  (New rule: "If pure salt in your mouth tastes good, you need it!").  Then water.  Then a whole gel.  More water. 

I tried to run the climb up to Robinson, but nothing doing.  Exhaustion.  I'd run, then be so spent, the resulting hike would be a slow stagger.  So I just hiked.  I'd run every few minutes, short bursts.  Miserable.

I was spent. Worst of all: it was past 2PM.  It'd taken us nearly seven hours to go less than 30 miles, and at the top we'd have 26 miles to go!  The leaders usually only split 4.5 hours from Robinson to Michigan Bluff, and we'd have only about 4 hours of daylight.

I was so done, and on that climb up was so ready to flag a car down at the usually-busy Robinson Flat camping/hiking area and get a ride back to the truck.  Or just to MB road.  Or...just walk down the road to MB.  I didn't care. 

Up ahead I saw Jake waiting for me, and I began to run a bit more.  He fell in behind me.  We were at Little Robinson Valley - a false-summit with another kilo of uphill running before the mercy of Robinson Flat.  There we found a populated campground filled with RVs and tents.  I shuffled past two gentlemen in lawnchairs asking how we were doing, and if we'd seen any deer.  Finally, the pump.
The pump at Robinson Flat

We filled, drank, and filled again.  I laid down, stretching my back.  We talked numbers: it's 2:45, and we've got 26 miles to go.  I felt terrible, Jake was tired but OK. I asked him what he wanted to do.  His replied that it was an "easy 17 miles downhill, and our legs should feel better".  In my year of ultra running, I still didn't believe there was such a thing as an "easy 17 miles".  As we discussed this, I peered across the meadow to the parking lot, where a family of Menonites were tying down a load of [poached?] timber in a trailer.  Had I possessed the legs or the lungs to get their attention, I might've wound up in the back of their truck headed downhill, but before the neurons could fire, the truck was pulling away.

2:50.  Time to get moving.  I moved stiffly from my prone position beside the pump and mounted up, readying for Sufferfest II.  We hiked up the road, along some newer campsites, then onto N43.  In order to save time -- and in my mind, save any possibility of losing the trail, again -- we stuck to the road, intending to take it straight down to Miller's Defeat.  The road climbed for a good kilo.  Another truck passed - a man and woman, heading the easy way.  The cab looked inviting.  Two yellows labs in back - I could hang out with them.  It passed.  We pressed on.

The road crested, and Jake began to jog.  So did I.  We jogged, then the road descended.  I got to work on my stride - recognizing that the most efficient mechanics equals fastest and least pain, so before long we'd descended from 8:00s to mid-7s.  Jake joked about taking our mile splits, so I hit my watch at the 5 and got to work.

The surface was light gravel and firm dirt - a welcome relief from the hardscrabble rock and wash-out.  I worked the deficiencies of my stride:  feel the abs drive the left pelvis up, nice push with the right leg, left heel up and over, bend the knee.  It didn't feel good, but it didn't feel bad.  Indifferent.  More downhill but perfect grade.  Rolling along silently for a while, Jake added, "This is a great workout: run 31 miles, then cut seven-minute miles...". 

Over the course of N43, even as the road leveled off and climbed a bit, our pace quickened: from 7:40s, all the way to a 6:45 last mile, before jumping onto the WS course right before Miller's Defeat.  In that 30 minutes we covered a "stout" 4+ miles, but more importantly, I no longer felt like death.  Not good, just OK. 

On the descent to Dusty Corner's, another treat: loggers had wetted and tamped the road within the last week, turning a dusty sandbox into a firm double track.  As we rolled along, I continued to patch things up: more water and S-Caps, again titrating the dosage by taking 1/4-caps -- literally separating the capsule in two, dumping a portion on my tongue ("Still taste good?  Yup!"), then re-sealing and back in the pouch. 

"OK" turned into "pretty OK", and as I continued to work on the turnover, the pace improved.  Jake began to fall back, but since Red Star we'd developed and understanding: "If you feel good, go -- just wait up every once in a while.".  So I went for it, maintaining a quick but aerobic pace on the descent through logged-out forest until the steep descent.  Jake caught back up and we hammered down to Dusy Corners (38M) together. 

I was happy with my stride, and -- like it was on race-day -- the closer I got to Last Chance, and the familiar sights of The Canyons -- better and more comfortable I became.  Moreover, we were now making incredible time: after 30 miles in 7+ hours, we'd just covered close to eight in under an hour - screaming pace for us.  However, we were still under the gun for sunlight and overtly cautious about physical survival, so we bypassed the wonderful Pucker Point trail in favor of continuing on the road straight to Last Chance. 

My body was now feeling its best all day and the turnover was tremendous.  As we cruised down the road toward LC, I kept finding myself pulling away from Jake.  Finally, I just stopped.  I could tell he wasn't quite "workin' the pelvis", so I said, "Try this."  I showed him the upward and forward elevation of the pelvis that we'd first talked about (seemingly days ago) on the climb to Escarpment: use the abs to propel the pelvis and leg.  Jake was a quick study, and he immediately kept a quick 7:00s pace along the road, his stride perking with the minor cue. 

By the time we rolling into Last Chance, I was feeling awesome - as if we'd just received a table dance from the fabled "Hurdy Gurdy Girls".  We'd covered Robinson to Last Chance in just over 1:30, which included several stops - a screaming pace (albiet on roads). 

We climbed out of Last Chance, and into the descent to Pacific Slab and the start of Deadwood Canyon.  There's something about this stretch I just love: maybe it's the familiarity, and the "smelling" of civilization at Michigan Bluff, and the leaving behind the formidable mountain wilderness; or maybe it's because it was at this spot last May, where I went from seven weeks of no running, to a straight run of twelve miles - a resurrection or sorts. 

Today was another resurrection, and I felt legitimate joy and excitement as we made our way to the Slab.  Jake made a pit stop, and I continued to fuel: more water, half an S-Cap, a gel pull.  Then it was time to descend.

The second - and equally exciting - mechanical lesson I've recently picked up was put to the test on this descent:   the notion that by using the same trunk and pelvic mechanics (e.g. abs elevate one side, the opposite side is stabilized downward), you can use your pelvis and trunk to brake instead of your quad.

It. Was. Awesome!  As I plugged downhill along the rough, recently washed-out trail down to Swinging Bridge, I lifting the pelvis on my swing leg, resulting a strong, firm, stabilzing action on my plant leg.  The end result: improved stability, faster turnover, less tripping (upward pelvis = "toes up!"), quad soreness!  The proof was eventually come days later - when I literally had no "dead quad" whatsoever. 

We both made quick work down to Swinging Bridge, then crossed and ran to the spring on the other side.  I still had a bit of water left from my Robinson fill, but I drank it all, then refilled completely (another 70 oz), also filling a bottle for Jake before starting the ascent.

We power-hiked together.  This trail was also washed out; I surmised the snow storm three weeks ago resulted in hard precipitation that washed through rapidly (either rain, or melting snow).  As such, it made a normally rough trail even rougher.  We hiked on; I, using the same "abs lift" techniques in the hike.  Jake tried some running, first among the steep, rugged sections, then again midway up when it leveled off.  I was fine power-hiking; though feeling much better, I didn't want to risk a hard run here, then not be able to run the gentle downs to El Dorado, and if anything, I'd love to run up to Michigan Bluff.  Besides, I still made excellent time with the power-hike.

Jake pulled away and I entertained myself with some of Johnny Cash's "Deadwood Canyon Blues".  Near the top I did a bit of running and pulled within about a minute of Jake.  I did the DT climb in 35 minutes; a pretty stout time. 
Climbing up to Devil's Thumbs

At the top we did some repairs: Jake was a little "cooked" - low on everything.  I gave him the rest of my sandwich and an S-Cap.  I took another half, more water, and we were on our way.  We ran nearly all the way to the Pump; my legs again feeling terrific.  We got in one last fill before our descent and final climb.  It was there, after nearly 150 oz of water, that I finally peed somewhat-clear.  I left the Deadwood pump with about 30 oz of water and we hit the trail.

Again, awesome legs and great energy.  "The Barn" was close.  It was an amazing day: death at Robinson, and resurrection at Last Chance.  Jake and I talked about what a "Good day" split from Devil's Thumb to MB is: we agreed 1:30 is solid.  I felt confident that I could've busted that: I was descending terrific with my new "pelvic power" and I had the energy to run more of MB that I ever did. 

We rolled out of the pump, passing a camper with a horsetrailer parked along the road, two guys in recliner lawn chairs, half-full Coors Lights rising and lowering on their near-full bellies.  "I'd like to be reclined with a Coors Light!"

Pressing on, we hiked up a slight grade, letting the last pulls of water and Clif bar settle before descending toward Deadwood Cemetary as the sun disappeared over the western hills.  I let 'er open up again -- ...left abs, lift the heel, right leg push... -- and got a nice pace going.  But Jake was still feeling haggard, so I held up and we descended El Dorado along with the last remaining rays of sun.

Knowing we were truly smelling the barn, I felt a great sense of relief and excitement.  I felt great about the day -- of struggling, of being helped along when I was ready to give up, and of having the privilege of spending an entire daylight on the trail with a great guy like Jake.  So rather than hammer this final 10K, we settled back and -- perhaps for the first time all day -- relaxed, chatted and enjoyed ourselves. 

To pass the time, I decided we'd play "Random Seinfeld Trivia".  The rules are simple: you think of a question about an episode -- the more multi-faceted the better -- and the other guy answers, then thinks of his question based on yours.  An example:

"How did Elaine get her job with Mr Pitt?  And how did she lose it?"*, or
"How did George's fiance Susan die, and how did that karma come back at him later on?"**

(*Interviewing for Jackie Onassis's's's job at The New Yorker; *Mr Pitt thinks she and Jerry are trying to kill him.)
(**Licking toxic wedding envelopes; slipping on Jerry's girlfriend's party envelopes and hurting himself)
We also chatted about life in general, our significant others, and other areas as we floated down to the river. 

By the time we fully descend, it was near total-darkness.  I was thankful to have my Black Diamond Sprinter, as it illuminated enough of the trail for the both of us.

I was hoping to do a bit of running up MB, but Jake was in bonk mode; but once he killed the rest of his water, he was feeling better and we were power-hiking, then running, the last kilo up and over into Michigan Bluff.

Long day: 12h30m for a "measley" 56+ miles.  We changed at his truck, in the darkness and cold, then made our way into Foresthill.


In Foresthill, we stopped at "The Sportsman's Club" for a cold Sierra Nevada.  We felt a bit off entering in tights and running clothes, but I assured him that, if any small town in America is "OK" with having ultra runners infiltrate, it's Foresthill.  Before we even entered, we were treated by the sights and sounds of two locals grinding one another on the "dance floor" to some Tupac hits.  We enjoyed the ambiance and the hops, celebrating the completion of a long day.

The "local talent" at Foresthill Sportsman's Club
After that beer, it was back to Auburn for some In N Out before heading back to Jake's in Rocklin. 


Post-Run Assessment:

The Good:
  • It was a great (and humbling) learning experience to get on the ridges and into Robinson.  I will, no doubt, run those sections conservitavely in the future and continue to work on my sustained climbing gears.
  • As Jake said, running "hard" (sub 8s, sub 7s) after 50K of trail was excellent training.
  • Nutritional minimalism:  I took very little on this run:
    • 6 gels
    • 1.75 Clif bars
    • 1/4th sandwich
    • 3 S-caps (taken in bits and pieces)
  • Mechanics: I was able to focus on pelvic mobility/stability for flat, ups and downs with tremendous success: it made me get the most out of runnable flats, opening the stride; it propelled me uphill, and most awesomely: I was able to actually brake using my trunk and gluts with very little quad soreness post-run!  This, indeed, may be the "Holy Grail" of run mechanics! 

 The Bad:

We were brutally slow from SV to Robinson.  I don't know for sure why.  Some theories:
  • Lack of rest leading into the run: I did a 6-mile tempo on Monday, and repeat 400s on Thursday.  We did a pretty aggressive trail run on K2 late Friday night.  Jake ran and coached earlier on Friday. We were tired going in, no doubt.
  • Some route-finding, especially from Escarpment to Red Star
  • Poor tread conditions - washout, tons of rocks and very slow running.  But I'm not sure this isn't the actual race-day condition.  I truly felt the snow was much, much faster on the same trail
  • The heat and water shortage.  While it wasn't oppressively hot, it was warm enough to make my poison-oak-preventing black pants fairly uncomfortable.  We were also significantly low on water; once I got low, it took hours to right the ship.
  • Hydration: I needed a TON of water.  After my 70 oz went dry from 0-25, it took 70 oz from Duncan, then another 30+ oz at Robinson and onward to begin to feel OK.  And then another 70 oz at the spring at Devil's Thumb to finally pee clear-ish!  That's a TON of fluid for a run in fair conditions. 
  • Mechanics: I'm still overloading the L leg a bit - the L quad and calf were more sore this week since the run, but this disparity has improved immensely.
However, like all things ultra running in the past year, the best part of it all was sharing it with others.  Not only was it fun to spend the day with Jake and get to know each other, but it went beyond that: in our low points, we helped each other through them -- and that made it more than just "a run" for me.

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