Sunday, October 30, 2011

Autumn Leaves 50K

A year ago, in my search for a last-minute Western States qualifier, I found this race.  Located at a state park outside Portland, it was a convenient location for my first ultra run.  And the course and race organization made it a terrific experience in 2010. 

At summer's end, I registered, with the idea to return and run the 50K option (five x 10K laps, instead of eight) as a workout for a possible late-fall marathon. While those marathon dreams (at least for 2011) have dissipated, I was looking forward to doing an "honest effort" on a flat, fast, yet "honest course".

Going in, my condition wasn't optimal.  It's been a busy month: a 50M run around the Sisters, and 56+M on the WS trail just one week ago.  I wasn't all too concerned about dead legs; however, my left achilles was irritable all week preceding race day.

Britt and I drove up, leaving just before 5AM for the 7AM start.  It was a long week for lus both, so the wake-up was tough.  But I was happy to have her come, not just to spectate, but also to race the 10K that would commence at 10AM.  We arrived around 6:30 (cutting it a bit close for my liking), but with just enough time for me to check-in, suit-up, and get in a quick stretch.  I chose to run in a new pair of Mizuno Ronins; however, I slipped in a heel lift into each shoes for the achilles'.

It was dark, foggy, yet surprisingly warm as we assembled at the chip mat.

For fueling, I decided to take a minor risk and go without any hydration device - no "sandwich-carrying jet pack", not even hand-helds.  Instead, I decided I'd try fueling with disposable bottles filled with Coke: I filled four bottles and kept them by the start/finish AS, with the idea I'd drink one after the first four laps.  I've done well with Coke -- and I've been doing better with "less" recently: it has water, sugar and salt.  With that as a base, I'd then augment with anything else I might need from the two AS'.

First Lap
Without any significantly speedy competition, it was me out front at the 7AM start.  Very dark, quite foggy.  I made my way down the "start/finish grade" and onto the paved path for the start of the first of five-10K loops, donning my Sprinter headlamp to cut the fog.

Just the day before, I connected with Mike Baum at Oregon Neurosport Physical Therapy, to work on some mechanical issues.  Mike is one of the pre-eminent purveyors of Functional Manual Therapy and PNF techniques.  He did significant work on my right lower quarter, then gave me some exercises and areas of focus going into the race -- primarily designed to get my right leg doing its share, and overall, to get me to engage my lower abdominals more effectively for propulsion.  We also worked on breathing.

As such, my primary areas of focus were: 1. Deep breathing (which functioned as pace control), and 2. lower abdominal engagement (plus right leg push-off). 

I felt very relaxed, so I was a bit surprised to hit 5:50s for the first mile.  I eased off slightly, passing the 2nd AS and heading on the path along the Willamette.  The 2nd mile split was at least 100m short, as I  passed it in around 11:40, despite slowing.  Mile 3, into the woods and gentle, speed-bump rollers, was more accurate (~18:10).  The turnaround was at the end of a fairly significant (by "road" standards) upgrade of about 150m, then right back down the hill, back-tracking on the course until AS 2, before forking right to the trail segment to the finish grade.

It was quite dark until the trail; the oncoming headlamps at the turnaround were almost disconcerting, reminding me of running against traffic in the dark.  I was happy to have usable daylight when I emerged from the woods to complete the first lap.  I ran up the grade and handed-off my headlamp to Britt.  The wooded segment is a bit slow; as such, my 10K split slowed to 39:05.

Second Lap
This loop course, while comforting in its routine, can be monotonous.  As such, the little issues I would encounter over the rest of the day made me think of "Fred", the nerdy guy from Seinfeld who, by ignoring and forgetting about Elaine, attracts her:

Jerry: "  foot's falling asleep..."
Fred:  "At least you have something to do!"

After clocking in, I rolled down the grade into lap two, grabbing my first bottle of Coke.  Drinking out of a non-squeeze bottle at 10mph was more challenging than I remembered, but I choked it down within the first mile, then got back to work.

About midway through the 2nd lap, I began to get a significant "pre-cramp" in my right upper abdomen.  Away from the AS and without any fluid, I focused on breathing deeply and managed to keep it settled through 8K before grabbing a half-glass of HEED at AS 2 on my way back in.  Legs felt great, but because of the cramp, I slowed a bit: 39:16.

Third Lap
Same routine for the third lap: another bottle of Coke.  It wasn't tasting particularlty good, and by mid-lap I began to feel some significant gut-rot.  Uh-oh.  I had a "fussy tummy" the night before, as well, which likely didn't help.  I made it to the wooded section before making an impromptu "pop-squat" in the woods.  Thankfully there were these damp, mega-huge maple leaves that made for easy clean-up.  I lost maybe 20 seconds from the deuce -- and probably several more from the general malaise -- and was back on my way, feeling much better.  At the check-in, I got my visor from Britt, and ready for the "toughest lap": 40:14.

Fourth Lap
Despite the set-up: a long month, the 56M last Saturday, and the cranky heel, I was still gunning for the CR.  Matt Lonergan clocked at ~3:18 here a couple years ago, and my thoughts were on that time and what I need -- 39ish 10Ks -- all morning.  Going into #4 my legs felt great and energy solid; however my stomach was still iffy.

Then, I had something else to think about: cramps!  Mid-third lap I began to feel some soreness in my right calf.  This was a nice change; I've been overloading my left leg for over a year, so to have any loading-issue on the right was a nice change.  But, again, I found myself pastt AS 2 with mounting pre-cramp sensations in my right (then left) calf.  And, without fluid, I had to "think them away".  I managed a respectable pace to the 5K turnaround, but then the gut-rot came back again!  Shit!  So, without wanting to deal with it, I stepped right off the trail and squatted quickly, got going again, and made it back to AS 2. 

I wasn't sure what I needed, but I knew I'd had no real salt all day, so once there, I pounded water and asked for some S-Caps...but they couldn't find them -- they weren't out!  So I took three fingers and shoveled table salt from a paper plate, pounded some water, and was off.  The last mile went fine, and the calf better.  But I knew I was still low.  So at the penultimate start/finish I obtained water and two S-caps.  40:16, with a clock time of about 2:38 for 40K.

Fifth Lap
Despite the issues, my energy and overall leg-feel was awesome.  I was excited, because I hadn't been breathing hard all day, and I knew that if I threw down even an "OK" last 10K, I'd sneak under the record.  So, I relatively hammered the first mile, splitting a 5:55 and feeling great going past AS 2.  I grabbed a single water (and no salt, having just taken my third S-cap); I got some cheers from LB, working AS 2, as well as Meghan, who helped pace Pam Smith in the 50K. 

As I cruised NE along the Willamette, I used a lot of positive self-talk: "Running strong!  I feel great!".  Then...not so much.  Out of nowhere, the right abdominals went into a near-full cramp, reducing me to a half-hunched shuffle.  F!  Not again! 

Back in 2010, I got into big trouble with cramps in-between AS' and had to beg water from fellow runners.  As I shuffled along, I scanned for runners in- and out-bound for fluild.  A half-mile later I came across two women and asked if they could spare; I took a good three pulls of a random concoction and shuffled up to the last turnaround.  The turnaround officials had a Nalgene bottle, but I didn't ask for any, unsure if it was "illegal" to take aid outside the AS. 

On the in-bound section, I was doing slightly better but was still 3K from the AS, so when I came across another woman, I also begged some Gatorade from her before finally rebounding.  I pushed fairly hard to the AS, where I pounded two HEEDs and took a water from LB before taking off for the last 2K on the trail.

I pushed about as hard as I ever have at the end of an ultra, knowing I needed at least a <40min 10K for the CR.  Runners yielded the singletrack when I came by, and I pushed as hard as I could on the trail before it spit me out on the road for the last 400m to the finishing grade. 

I crossed the chip mat at 3:18:45, happy with the effort but immediately disappointed, knowing I'd just missed the CR of 3:17:59.  My last 10K was 39:55 - respectible for being even-paced, but stymied by the cramps.  Bummer! 

The Grades:
Pacing: B+.  I paced well, but I could and should have run a faster last 10K.
Mechanics: B+.  Pretty good: I felt like I got more out of my right leg, and I was able to "use the abs" to keep the legs going near the end. Not cramping on the left was nice.  But I still had some negative feedback, postrace:
  • A sore back - I finally realized, with Mike's help, how poorly I engage my abs, and how often I go into lumbar extension. 
  • While improved, I'm still landing on the outsides of my feet too much.
  • Left quad is more sore than the right, so still overloading left, a bit. 
  • Right medial knee soreness: still some knee valgus with the poopy push-off on the right
Hydration/Fuel/Electrolyes: B-.  Not great.  I like how I was able to go minimal (three bottles of coke, forgoing the last due to stomach rot; two gels, maybe 12oz of HEED and gatorade), but I was clearly short on water and salt.  Who knows how much faster I could've run if I "nailed it"?
Mental Toughness: B+. Fine. This course plays into my strengths.  I can't say I did anything amazing, but I was happy with my last lap push.
Post-race, I hung out with Meghan, who gave me my winners swag, and shmoozed with RD Bret and stood by the fire (nice touch!) and stayed warm while the 10K runners rolled through.  I timed it well to be off the main course just as the 10Kers got on.  Britt came through in 49min and won her age group.  We cleaned up a bit, hung out and chatted more, then took off.
Overall, I was really happy with the effort - to be able to run relatively fast without having hard-core marathon training.  My rough marathon split was about a 2:45, which is pretty solid!  But the recurring thought I have is, "If someone held a gun to my head and made me run three more laps, what could I have done for 50M?"
I was on 5:20 pace for 50M. While it would've taken a monumental effort to maintain that pace for three more laps, I do feel that (if the cramps were resolved) I could cut back to 43s and still run 5:30, which would be, as they say, "a stout time".  :)
Thanks to friends and family for all the well-wishes, and to Bret and Co for another great Autumn race.  Congrats to Pam Smith on breaking her own CR.  We both agreed that Autumn Leaves makes for a great "fall marathon-plus"!

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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Three Sisters Circumnavigation

The full album of pictures can be found HERE

The Three Sisters Circumnavigation has been on my to-do list for at least a year, when I first found out it was possible.  It helped that LB did it a few weeks prior, so I was able to pick his brain beforehand about some logistics and route-finding.

On Friday night Britt and I drove up to Lava Camp Lake, just off OR 242, and only meters from the PCT and the start of the loop.  The plan was to run at day-break, and for Britt to come pick me up when finished.  When, exactly, was less math and more luck.  LB had guessed (and T-Bag and "Jesus" confirmed via GPS) that this loop was in fact 50 miles, and a slow 50.  LB did it in 15 hours, albeit quite leisurely.  Since I'd done 50 on the WS trail through the canyons, walking all the ups, in <11 hours, I figured on 9 to 11 hours for this loop without any huge climbers.

Camp, Friday night
Woke up on Saturday to clouds and the lightest mist.  Not great, but thoughts were that it'd burn off by sun-up.  Had tea, ate a bunch, and was on the trail at 0705.  I brought with me a lot of stuff for this 99.9% wilderness, 100% unsupported 50-miler:

- Nathan hydration pack with 70 oz capacity, filled
- Backcountry first aid pack (small, maybe 3/4lb)
- 1 Half sandwich
- 8-12oz mixed nuts
- 8oz dried fruit (apricots, cranberries)
- 1 Clif Bar
- 2 GU packs
- 1 gel flask w/5 GU packs therein
- 4 Nuun tabs
- 8-10 E-caps
- 8-10 S-caps
- Three Sisters Wilderness map
- Compass
- Lighter
- Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp
- Steripen Adventurer water treatment wand
- Camelbak Delaney Plus belt + empty bottle (for filtering water and other carriage)

A lot of stuff, indeed, but all necessary for an enjoyable and safe wilderness outing.  And all, surprisingly, quite comfortable split between the Nathan pack and the waist pack.  I also had along a jacket and a skull cap that I wore in the AM, intending to doff when it warmed up.  It never did.

I slowly ascended the ridge to the Mathieu Lakes, feeling pretty good.  It was about three miles' worth of "lollipop stick" to the actual loop, which I'd run clockwise (E -> S -> W -> N).  I had some new gait techniques to work on, so I focused on those while chipping away at the uphill.  I was thankful that it was cool, but hopeful the fog would burn-off.  The typical views from Scott Pass were shrouded in fog, which was slightly disappointing, but perhaps a "different kind of beauty". 

A normally awesome view of North Sister
 Hit the junction with Scott Pass trail and descended, seeing the "climber" trail LB took by accident.  I also reminisced about taking "the kids" here back in 2005 and taking Scott Pass trail instead of PCT, and the "Jimmy" that was scarcely averted! 

Scott Camp trail to the left, the climber to the right...
 Nice downhill along Scott Pass, but roughed up a bit by horses.  Passed the false trail junction, through burned forest, finally to the junction of Green Lakes trail, on which I'd run all the way to its name-sake.

The first half of Green Lakes was deceptively tough: terrain alternating between loose volcanic sands or rough rock, and a relentless 2-3% uphill grade.  That, plus >6,000' elevation made for some sluggish miles.  Mid-way through this section I came across a dried creek bed resembling Alder Creek.  It were here that LB pointed out as his location of his "Solo / Fast" that he and Dan-O were undertaking at that very moment: 36 hours of....sitting in the woods, not doing anything.  Including eating.  I didn't yelp or going searching along the creek bed, but in a show of solidarity, I did leave a marking.

Fueling: I set my watch for 25 minutes to beep for gels, which has seemed to work well.  I also took water then, but not much.  I didn't feel the need to drink, given how cold it was.  But a couple hours in, I was feeling sluggish.  I took an E-cap and felt better. 

Finally the climbs ended momentarily and we got some of our first consistent views of North Sister.  Cool.  Then the first of several creek crossings.  All of them were bridged with logs, so the feet stayed dry.  On the second creek, I stopped, intending to treat some water, just in case I needed it. Moreover, I was in the mood for non-Nuun liquid.

Mistake #1: I got out my Steripen and turned it on.  It came on for 3 seconds, then switched off, never to turn on again.  F.  No filtration.  I'd have to wing it.  There were several mountain springs on this loop -- pure, nature-filtered water that comes literally from the base of the Sisters -- all of which you can tap directly at the source.  However, the two I knew of were on the other side of the loop 30 miles away.  My 40 oz of nuun was not going to last that long.  So I filled the bottle and carried it, to drink just in case.

Unfiltered water source, #1 - probably the most suspect, if any.
 I rolled along, but now beginning to conserve water.  Bad move.  I began to feel a little worse.  Now three hours in, I took my first S-cap, dissolving in my mouth first.  It didn't taste good, which is a sign that I wasn't very low on salt.  Uh-oh.  Mistake #2.

My legs felt a little better, but soon I was approaching Park Meadows and the climb up to the ridge over Green Lakes, one of two high points topping 7,000' on the route.  I felt very tired and sluggish, walking for the first time all day.  Walk-jogging, I finally crested to a plain that, presumably, was the pass.  The sun teased me a bit with a couple appearances here, but quickly was lost in a wave of clouds and strengthening south winds.  Saw the first of several hikers here before beginning the descent to Green Lakes. 

Park Meadow, approaching the climb up to Green Lakes
Saw the Green Lakes just before 1100.  Before making it to water level, I stopped at a volcanic creek feeding the lakes.  It was small, frigid, and looked awesome.  I drank here, then completely filled my pack - there's no way I'm making it to Obsidian on 20 oz of water.  My body temp dropped during this refuel; does not look like it's gonna warm up.  I hope it doesn't rain...

A feeder stream to the Green Lakes. More unfiltered water.
I descended to Green Lakes and kept rolling, still feeling sluggish in the legs and increasingly so in the gut.  Not good.  By the time I traversed the gorgeous plateau with dotted lakes, it was time to fertilize the pumice.  Relieved, I began the descent down Fall Creek trail, feeling hardly better than before the pit-stop. 

Saw several more hikers -- including a pair with a rifle (apparently hunting is legal in this wilderness area) -- and then came across a trio of horsemen, who asked about my run.  It pained me to tell them, because it forced me to vocally admit what was in front of me:  "I'm running the whole loop, about 50 miles, and I'm not quite half-done".  I was not feeling good. At all.

By the time I got to the junction with Moraine Lake Trail, which would take me West to the PCT, I was nearly dizzy.  There, while walking and eating my sandwich, I make a fateful decision: another S-cap.  Mistake #3

I walked a ton of Moraine Lake Trail, which climbed back up the ridge to its namesake lake.  I shuffled the flats and walked nearly all ups, even the slightest ones.  I drank water, but at this point my pack was its usual light-Nuun mix.  More walking, more misery.  Really, this bad, only 20-some miles in?  Guess I'm really not fit. 
Moraine Lake
After crossing the South Sister climber, the trail bombs down to Wickiup Plain - a desert-like pumice field at "7 o'clock" on the map.  The gut got much worse.  Another pit stop, but little relief.  I was struggling.  The weather remained cloudy and cool, and the south wind persisted.  My only solace was knowing I'd have a tailwind coming in just a few miles. 

Wickiup Plain
The PCT cut-off trail connected the remains of Moraine Lake trail and the PCT.  Through the Plain, it was a double-track of pumice dust and more wooded descent before spitting out finally onto the PCT.  "The home stretch!".  It was 1300.  I told Britt I'd be back between 4 and 6.  I had no idea how much mileage to go, but I knew: A.) the mileage was off, anyway, and B.) I was sick of getting out my map.  So off I went, battling debilitating gut-rot and shuffling along as best I could  Miserable. 
PCT at Wickiup Plain, "the home stretch"
The trail in this section, all PCT, was, in retrospect, pretty incredible: periods of wooded rollers with many short to medium meadow crossings - some grassy, but others rocky and pumice.  It made for terrific running -- if you had a fresh gut and legs -- but for me, they were unappreciated.  For me, it was all about getting to Obsidian area, a very popular hiking area -- for its beauty and relative ease of entry (only 5 miles one way from OR 242).  It was here that there'd be fresh spring water, and familiar turf - I'd run this stretch of PCT several times in the past decade, including my first-ever "real" trail run.

Contemplating my situation, it finally occurred to me what happened: I mistook dehydration for salt shortage.  I'd over-salted, like I did at AR.  So now I was stuck on a long stretch from Wickiup to Obsidian with nasty gut rot, without a reliable water source, and with my only fluid being, essentially, saline.  Without a salt-washout, I'd be doomed to 15 minute mile pace (or slower!) for those last 20+ miles. Moreover, the weather was not good: maybe 50F and windy.  I was cold, having never doffed my jacket or hat.  If I slowed, I would only get colder.  Much colder.

So, on the second creek I came across, I hiked up trail  - away from any horse evidence - and filled my gut and my bottle with water.  The gut still hurt, but I pressed on.  An hour later, I came across another creek, almost passing it before taking out my map.  I had a long way to go, and, still behind, needed more water.  Another fill. 

Those next miles were the toughest.  Officially, this run became my second-hardest run of all time.  I was praying to get to Obsidian.  I thought about how T-Bag got to Obsidian, and bailed down the Obsidian Trail - a smooth 5-mile descent to the highway, rather than finish the final ten miles.  This plan crossed my mind many times over as I inched my way north.
Linton Meadow: beautiful, but unappreciated
I passed several more beautiful but unappreciated meadows before finally, finally hitting Obsidian!  Yes!  I snapped a single pic of the falls, resisted the strong physical urge to fertilize yet again, and made my way to the source of the spring to dump the saline for fresh Oregon spring water. 
The falls!
From here: ten miles back to a warm tent, a warmer truck, and beer.  I plotted:  "OK, it's a nice downhill to Glacier Trail, then a tough hiker-uphill in the woods, then lava up to Opie Diddock, then a bunch of downhill again, then a half-uphill to Yapoah, down again, a slight up to Scott Pass, then all downhill!  Just three climbs!"  It was that easy.  I left Obsidian buoyed with pure water and the hope of familiarity and a plan.

I quickly descended to Glacier Way, which is a direct hiker trail to North Sister, ascended more to the base of Opie Diddock, then began that "Long, Lonely Climb of Lonelieness".  It was actually pretty surreal because of the thick, fast-moving fog that enveloped the pass.  This section is nothing more than some lava rock slightly leveled into something resembling..."not a pile".  I power hiked the rocky switchbacks with a nice wall of "tail-fog" pushing me upward.  I could feel the gut rot and salt-overload finally ebbing; the powerhike climb felt good, and I was anxiously awaiting the runnable flats.  I ran as best I could on this stretch, which was essentially a trail made of volcanic ball-bearings of various sizes, with just enough friction to not freely spin beneath your feet.  I only stumbled once, though, and kept my feet, before descending once more. 
The Climb up the lava-tastic Opie
Yes, there's a trail in there. Maybe six switchbacks up this saddle.
To compare to ideal conditions, check out LB's second-to-last picture
From there, a terrific descent through woods and gentler terrain -- I was finally feeling OK, so I really opened it up, approaching Minnie Scott Spring.  No stops, just flying, over very brief ups and many steeper downs until bottoming out at the fog-filled Scott Meadow.  I was about 5 miles away, but...I couldn't hold it, so I had to fertilize again.  I lucked out this time: to wipe, I had "alpine wild flowers" (already deceased), but by then, my backside was far too raw to appreciate the delicate leaves. 
Scott Pass trail junction, in Scott Meadow
After Scott, one last significant climb, up and over the side of Yapoah, then some legitimately fun snaking through lava to Scott Pass and the home stretch!  It was 1700 with 3ish miles to go. 

In a bizarre move, I found myself with full bars on my camera phone, so I texted Britt to say I was almost home.  Another view of South Mathieu then a long descent to Lava Camp, where I opened it up as best I could to the finish.

I got to the Lava Camp TH at 1725.  Total time: 10h20m. 
Tough, tough run: second-hardest of all-time.  You could say I messed up my gut with too much salt.  And I did.  But it was a more nuanced one: mistaking dehydration for salt depletion.  And, arguably, I "ruined" this run by having such a terrible stomach for the bulk of it.  I could've trimmed an hour simply by cutting out two S-Caps.  But it was a terrific experience: 50 miles, unsupported, in the wilderness, with a little spice of adversity. 

The full album of pictures can be found HERE.