Friday, May 22, 2015

Zion Traverse



When Brandon asked if I wanted to run 48 miles across Zion National Park it took about one second for me to respond with a firm “Yes.” I’d heard of the Zion Traverse but had no idea it was such an epic run. It’s not as talked-about as the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, but it allows you to see the entire park from east to west in a day. There are all sorts of pros and cons for choosing a particular direction but in general it probably doesn’t matter. We opted to get the climbing out of the way early and start running at the East Rim.

From a weather standpoint, we were expecting highs in the 90’s - it’s May in southern Utah, after all. We were instead treated to partly cloudy skies and a high barely pushing 70. It was by all accounts the best weather we could have had.

 The East Rim, just after the "rock test".

The sandy East Rim Trail climbs gently through the cedar trees, succulents, and grasses, occasionally passing a dry creek bed. It’s a strange part of the park – the canyons are shallow and snake their way around, so you’re only ever able to see so far. Eric’s metatarsals had been a problem in the weeks before the run and we pulled ahead of him on this section so that he could at least enjoy the sunrise over the canyon without killing his feet.

Starting the descent into the main canyon.


 

 The main canyon in the distance.

As you climb up and over the canyon rim the landscape rapidly shifts to alpine forest and hummocky scrubland. The hollows were shrouded in an icy mist that sparkled in the dawn light peering out over the pines. Steeply-sloped red rock cliffs filtered into view through the trees as we snaked along the rim of a massive canyon, the curvy sandstone strata forming shelves for scrub and gnarled pine trees. The initial descent here was rapid and extremely technical. When we reached the bottom we snaked through the looping rock shelves and trickling streams.

The slot canyon on the East Rim. I ruin my own pictures.
After running through a slot canyon and riverbed we stumbled into view of the main canyon, with Angel’s Landing and craggy rock walls towering over us. The amount of time it took to run down this steep canyon trail made clear the amount of effort it was going to take to get back out on the other side. After a short run on the park road to the Grotto, where we refilled water, we connected with the trail up to the top of Angel’s Landing.

 Word.

 The main canyon.

Paved trails make knees sad.

At this point the crowds were starting to arrive, and we had to dance around people over the next two miles up what is likely the most popular trail in a park that pulls in 2.1 million visitors per year. After reaching the overlook we turned west and continued climbing up and over Angel’s Landing to the behemoth mesas above. The rocks became more misshapen and we found ourselves in a sort of meta-canyon atop the mesas above the canyon. When we finally topped out on the West Rim we had climbed well over 3,000 feet above the main canyon floor. 

 Past Angel's Landing and still climbing.

 Almost to the top...

 The West Rim summit. The main canyon is barely in view, somewhere to the right and around the corner.

The West Rim is an alien landscape. The views fade quickly and you find yourself running through grassy meadows sheltered by rolling hills, the so-called "Potato Hollow" - I guess because its oblong shape makes you think a giant potato left the indentation in the hills? A mileage sign read “Lava Point: 4 miles”, so rather than detouring to find a spring or water source, we pushed on to meet our one-man aid station at Lava Point. This would turn out to be a mistake, as the actual distance was almost 8 miles. The last 3 miles to Lava Point are exposed ridgelines with little reprieve from the relentless sun and wind, and we found ourselves without water nearly an hour before our rendezvous with Chris at 25 miles. 

 Peering out over Hop Valley.

 Rock...

...on.

So of course our mile 25 aid station turned into a massive feast. I slammed an IPA and an obscene amount of solid food while Brandon tended to his blisters. We made really good time on the gently-sloping descent through Wildcat Canyon and into Hop Valley. Running this direction gives you an amazing view of the valley and its contrasting lush green trees, sandy scrubland, and red rock spires. As we descended the temperature started to climb, and when we met Chris again at 35 miles it was baking.

 Looking back east over Hop Valley to the main canyon mesas in the distance.

Brad’s IT-band started to flare up but we pressed on after more refueling. The first couple of miles after the Hop Valley trailhead are desert: very dry, sandy trails that arrest any forward progress. We accepted a slower pace and shuffled along under the blinding sun, catching the occasional glimpse of a lizard or beetle.

 Heading deeper into Hop Valley. The far canyon wall is our target. For perspective, it's probably about 2000 feet tall.


 Paying respect to the lone tree on the bottom. We think he's survived more than a few flash floods in his time.

Soon the trail dips into trees and slopes downward to the river valley below. The river in Hop Valley is perhaps the most well-kept secret in Zion and the most beautiful area in the park. The river itself is barely an inch or two deep and maybe ten feet wide, and it meanders gently through the greenest valley carpeted with grass, pine, and dogwood. We saw white frogs leaping through patches of swampy grass and aquatic plants. It’s truly an oasis.

 Running the canyon walls.

Beautiful.

Watch where you step!

Almost at that far canyon wall...

As we ran down the valley the walls deepened and the river widened, its sandy banks growing steeper. We picked up the trail as it wound its way up and over a small, rocky ridge to the smoky-blue La Verkin River, its dark red banks shaded by mesquite and dogwood. The trail ran along its shore for a couple of miles until abruptly turning north and beginning the relentless climb to Lee Pass. At this point the sun had settled behind the hillside enclosing Zion’s borders. 

 The walls near Lee Pass.

After far too many river crossings, steep embankments, and downed trees, we caught a glimpse of a road, and then a culvert, and then a parking lot. The last few miles going this direction are painful but I think they build some character. You know you're getting close but you can't really guess how much you have left. All you can do is watch canyon after canyon pass by to the east.

The Zion Traverse is incredible. You will see parts of the park that almost no one does, and Hop Valley and the La Verkin River are sorely underrated. I think finishing with those river valleys, despite the uphill at the end, makes the entire trip worth it.

I’m proud of everyone else that ran this, because to show up to such an undertaking with an injury and gut it out as long as you could, or to hang on when you get injured and have to slog it in, takes enormous will and dedication. It was inspiring to be out there with Eric, Brandon, and Brad, and Chris is a life-saver.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Long run mania

Reservoir Ridge 26, March Madness 37, Round Mountain 30, Crosier 26, Quad Rock 25...

Just over a month of consistent long runs every weekend in the 5+ hour range has left me energized rather than toasted. Part of the journey has been re-learning my pacing and working on my form late in the run. The other part has been just showing up, putting in the miles, and letting the benefits come rolling in.

I think it's all coming together. Yesterday I ran 3:50 at the Quad Rock course preview, subsisting on 2 gels and a couple of 13oz bottles with a single refill at 10 miles. I ended up running my fastest splits over the last 8 miles, and I felt so energized coming into Soldier Canyon, I'm confident I can play the first lap out exactly the same way on race day and turn around for a good second lap.

It was really simple: I took it easy on the first climb up Sawmill/Stout/Towers and the first descent down Spring Creek into Horsetooth. I stayed in control on Horsetooth and opened it up a bit on Mill Creek. And then I started to push on Howard and Timber. Amazingly, by not blowing it all in the first 90 minutes, I was able to steadily crank the dial from start to finish. I have gone out too hard in these races early on, and in the past I have not put in enough of a gauntlet of long runs. Because Round and Crosier were so vert-heavy, the Quad Rock course feels way more cruise-able. I think that's the best part of the Spring Vertical Series: you get so used to this steep, gnarly stuff that when you finally get runnable terrain, it's bliss.

So that's the plan for Quad Rock: come into the turn-around in 3:50 or so, having slowly increased the pace all morning, and then start dropping the hammer. Hard. I want my energy to snowball that second lap. None of this power hiking crap, which comes from running too hard too early. No stomach issues from running hard at the start and not getting my nutrition dialed in early.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Week ending March 22

Monday: 16 miles (2500 ft), Foothills trail out to Reservoir Ridge and back with the Laporte dam ascent/descent.

Tuesday: 8 miles (1000 ft), Foothills trail. 90 minutes heavy weight training.

Wednesday: 18 miles (3000 ft), 2x Mill Creek repeats. Starting at the Arthur's Rock trailhead, I did two laps up and down Mill Creek+Towers Summit.

Thursday: Off. 90 minutes heavy weight training.

Friday: 10 miles (2000 ft), Foothills trail + Laporte dam ascent/descent.

Saturday: 37 miles (6500+ ft) March Madness Horsetooth Reservoir circumnavigation, via Pete's insanity route, tagging Horsetooth and Arthur's Rocks along the way for a good chunk of vertical. Ran with Mike Hinterberg, Mike Aish, and Nick Clark for a bit until about mile 22, when I started to feel a bit dehydrated. Took a break at Lory Visitor's center to chug water and slogged it over to Reservoir Ridge with Sam for a bit until I felt better. I caught back up to Mike H. and brought it home under the scorching sun. Beer never tasted so good.

Sunday: Off.

Total: 89 miles, with a respectable 15,000 ft of vert and lots of quality technical trail. I'm not shooting for a weekly mileage at this point, just want to feel like I'm working hard and getting quality runs in at a variety of distances without feeling wasted by the end of the week. I think next week's mileage will be a bit reduced, but not much. A trip to Greyrock plus the Round Mountain Ladder will probably up the vert at the expense of mileage, but that's good. I need everything I can get - Quad Rock, Bighorn, and Bigfoot are races with big ass climbs and relentless terrain. This sort of weekly mileage with 20,000 ft of very would be ideal and I think it's on the cards next week.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Training

My calendar is more sparse this year than in the past, but the races from here on out are ballbusters: Quad Rock 50 in May, Bighorn 100 in June, and the insane Bigfoot 200 in August.

I've retooled my training a lot to focus on three things:
-Long runs at a variety of paces
-Building muscular strength and general body-hardiness
-Raw mileage

My workouts vary incredibly in distance, intensity, and focus from day to day, and this has allowed me to pack on quality miles and workouts without getting injured. It's like microcycling within microcycling, or basically what every coach probably tells their athletes to do - whatever, reinventing the wheel works.

The past couple of weeks I've been pushing harder and harder, without feeling exhausted or over my head. The pi-day group run up and down Towers Road 3.14 times (for just shy of 22 miles and 6000ft of gain) was sandwiched at the end of a high-mileage week:

Sunday: 6 miles to the gym, 90 minutes of lifting.
Monday: 12 miles out to Reservoir Ridge and back, easy
Tuesday: 10 miles on the Foothills trail, 5 miles at tempo
Wednesday: 14 miles out to Reservoir Ridge and back, easy
Thursday: 6 miles to the gym, 90 minutes of lifting
Friday: 8+4 miles double, both easy
Saturday: 22 miles up and down Towers @ 35-40 min up, 30 min down.

This past week has been equally intense. I followed up the Towers long run with repeats up the Mill Creek climb, the infamous, body-destroying penultimate climb of Quad Rock. I think I'll keep hitting that and Spring Creek hard in the coming months, sort of a weekday grinder.

I've put on about 25 pounds since I started weight lifting a year and a half ago. I've focused on deadlifts, incline/decline bench, shoulder work (rows, hanging pulls, Arnold press), and a miscellaneous assortment of other free weight movements. I think deadlifts, more than anything, have helped me get to the point where I can train at high mileage and remain injury free. I just needed more back, glute, and upper body strength to balance my legs and strengthen the entire running motion chain.

Quad Rock is coming up, and the end of March and April is shaping up to a big mileage month with lots of vert and miles - March Madness (37?) miler, the Crosier Triple Bagger, Quad Rock training run, and Round Mountain Ladder are all on my agenda.

I'll be doing the Zion Traverse about 10 days after Quad Rock, followed up by some high-er country runs to get those big climbs/descents I need for Bighorn.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Hagg Lake 50K



It’s been a few years since I’ve run Hagg Lake, but the lack of mud in my life in arid Colorado finally got to me. Unfortunately, the weather gods decided to give Oregon a week of sunshine without rain and, tragically, the course was relatively dry. No mud-slicked hills, no careening around corners, just a few muddy, wet spots here and there. Most sane people would say that’s great, but really, this course and race is the best when it’s a slog-fest the whole way. 

I also love Hagg Lake because it’s one of those early-season races that brings out good competition every year. This year I toed the line with the likes of Tom Brooks, Jeff Browning, Jason Lemon, and Neil Olsen, and for the first time got to experience the race way up front.

It all starts with a 3 mile out-and-back up a 1,000 foot hill on a muddy gravel road. As always, the pace was enthusiastic, but it was a good way to feel out who was in the running. I stuck with a lead pack of 6 guys on the hill and then tucked into formation as we started the first lap around the lake. The first section after the out-and-back is always a bit of whiplash as you’re thrust onto the steep rolling hills and hairpin corners of the trail as it hugs the rugged coastline of Hagg Lake. The mud was conspicuously absent, with wet leaves and wooden bridges proving more of a challenge for footing.

 First lap around the lake, photo by ORRC's official photographer.

At the 8 mile Dam aid station, Jeff and Jason made a fast break down the hill and I gave chase, with Tom Brooks close behind. This was the definitive move that split this lead pack from the rest of the racers. It got pretty conversational here as we navigated through mossy forests, green meadows, and the occasional drainage creek that had washed over the trail. Shortly after the 13 mile aid station at Tanner Creek, things got a little less conversational as everyone sized each other up and thought about making a push into the second lap. Instead of a tight formation, we were becoming more elastic, with Tom Brooks leading the charge and absolutely floating over each hill. It was already clear he was going to have a good day and we weren’t even halfway through.

Jeff and I were first through the start/finish to kick off the second lap, and he pushed hard to pull into the lead. Tom passed me not a few minutes later and disappeared into the twisty singletrack. I kept stealing glimpses of both of them ahead, but I knew I needed to hold my pace steady or else I’d crash. Jason and I kept within a close distance of each other until the Dam aid station, where he pulled ahead. From here on out, we’d stay separated by about a minute.

 Lead pack, yikes.

The last two sections, from the Dam at mile 21 to Tanner at mile 26, and from Tanner to the finish at mile 31, were lonely and really, really hurt. I got a little bit dizzy and realized I hadn’t been super diligent with water or gel. I was toying with a bonk and it felt awful, but I did what you have to do and just pushed through it. Of course, when you have to scramble up steep 100 foot hills and immediately run back down over wet leaves and mud, arms flailing wildly, the extra effort doesn’t get you much in the pace department.

As I neared Tanner I could see Jason just ahead and Neil closing the gap behind me. This was a panicked stretch of trail as we all realized that 3rd-5th were up in the air. I ate an extra gel at Tanner and got the heck out of there as fast as I could, and pushed really hard up until the last mile, trying my best to make up time on Jason and hold Neil off.

But not all goes to plan. If I had fueled better over the previous section I might’ve been able to push harder, but trying to make up a calorie deficit while simultaneously kicking it in doesn’t work forever. I hit the sloppy mud along the lake in that last mile and really started to get sluggish. The mud had started to dry out in the now warm morning sun and every step was like trying to pull my foot out of thick molasses. Soon I was running with an extra couple of pounds caked on each shoe. In my totally trashed state I had serious trouble producing any sort of forward momentum as I careened to and fro through the mud. Neil worked his way past me and we exchanged some words about that darn mud, and how ridiculous this last stretch always feels, but as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t hang on to him. 

 There was in fact some mud out there, photo by ORRC's official photographer.

I finally mustered a little kick through the dry, twist singletrack into the finish and gave myself a soft landing on the grass hill just feet past the finish line. My feet and ankles were so toasted that I could barely stand up. It’s not often that a race so short can leave you so destroyed, but such is Hagg Lake.

At any rate, this was a good way to start the year. For a while I tried to just race the longer stuff but I’ve realized that 50K’s are one of the most valuable distances to throw in the race schedule. I feel like I’ve relearned pacing and nutrition (hey, no stomach problems or bathroom issues this time) and I got to run with some really cool folks.

The finish times tell a story: 3:47:21, 3:51:29, 3:56:22, 3:56:43, 3:57:04, 3:58:21, 4:09:43…Tom and Jeff took first and second with decent margins, and 3-6th were within 2 minutes of each other and a full 11 minutes ahead of 7th, which was another 7 minutes ahead of 8th. Seriously unreal in a trail 50K to have that intense of a lead pack.

Pace for the first 17 miles: 7:11
Pace for the last 13 miles: 7:35
Elevation gain: 4000ft
Time: 3:57:04
Place: 5th

North Face 50 Mile Championship



Capping off a disappointing year with a mediocre race isn’t exactly the sort of thing you look forward to, but I’d rather try and fail than never try at all. Of course, losers whine about trying to do their best (or so Sean Connery said), so I’ll just say that this year is one big series of lessons.

Number 1: gastrointestinal issues have become the main obstacle for me when racing. Ultras are in part a test of your ability to refuel over long distances, so it should present some difficulty. This race was really a kicker, as you’ll read, so I’ve decided to finally give in and go the route numerous others have and just take Imodium before the start. It’s not an issue with my stomach – I had no sloshing or anything like that, so my hydration and amount of calories ingested is fine – it’s just one really messed up GI tract.

Number 2: an Achilles injury takes a long time to heal. I’ve been dealing with it for nearly 2 years now, and it has been healing. Slowly. I still felt it at North Face, albeit for a short 4 mile stretch, but it’s amazing to me that it can be so insidious and crop up when you least expect it. If you ever feel a stiff or sore Achilles, back off immediately or prepare for years of physical therapy and sub-par racing.

So, the race. I hit the porta-potty at every aid station; it’s not possible to just run faster between aid stations to make up for the hour you waste crapping water away. It’s also quite hard to stay hydrated when you are losing copious amounts of water to the blue-brown depths. This probably comes off as gross, but I think it’s better to be honest and just illustrate how much of an issue your butt can be during a long race.
Besides this, I had a good time when I was able to actually run. I love the Marin Headlands. The trails are just technical enough in spots to keep you on your toes, but they are infinitely runnable.

Not a great race, barely scraping in under 9 hours, but whatever.

 Fighting a rebellious stomach around mile 12, photo by Nate Dunn.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Blue Sky



After taking second place for two years in a row, I finally landed a win at the Blue Sky Marathon this year.
This year, more than ever, I went in with some iffy training. I had run all summer, focusing on long outings with lots of vert and doing very little in the way of speedwork. This was all in preparation for the Bighorn 100 and Leadville 100, the former of which went well and the latter of which…well, didn’t go very far before I pulled out with early symptoms of a hernia.

I had taken a month off of running, from mid-August to mid-September, but I had done at least one Tower’s time trial. Add in a century ride up to Estes Park the weekend before and I was skating a fine line between being modestly prepared and totally out of racing shape.

It’s amazing what a long period of rest does for you, though. You reanalyze your training, your attitude toward racing, and your strategy. I realized I’d been playing things far too conservatively during the last year of racing, in the process screwing up my race-day nutrition and finishing races without the satisfaction of having really pushed myself to the limit. I think it’s far too easy to overthink racing, because in the end it’s still just running. You should just go.

So I showed up Sunday and threw it down from the starting line. It was cool but not cold at the start, which predictably involved a sprint down the Soderberg trail that I willfully indulged in. There was someone way out front but I happily settled into second on the way up Towers. I kept the pace relaxed up the first few steep pitches while others pushed around me and I drifted back a bit. However, by the Herrington turnoff I’d moved back into second behind Kory. From there until the Stout turnoff onto Towers I kept close behind him. I took the lead for about 20 seconds until Tony stormed past. I gave chase and kept him within sight on the way back to the start/finish area.

 Running or...crashing...down Stout trail less than an hour into the race. Photo by Erin Bibeau.

The Blue Sky trail on the way out always seems so easy, but it’s easy to overwork yourself there. I let Tony build a lead on me until he was basically out of sight behind the many switchbacks and rocky outcroppings, wanting to bank some energy for the return trip.

By Indian Summer North Tony was about 2 minutes ahead of me, and I was 2 minutes ahead of Kory. On the way up Indian Summer Tony pulled ahead even further, but I managed to reel him back in a bit on the descent after a quick pee break.

The Devil’s Backbone section was unnaturally hot. When I crested the short scramble up the ridge I could feel the slickrock and jagged boulders heating up fast. I’ve never been great at running on this section, with its tricky footing and abrupt drops off rock ledges, but I settled into what could be called a groove and, soon enough, started catching glimpses of Tony once again. By the time we started climbing back up to the ridgeline he was only 45 seconds ahead.

He’d grow that lead for the moment, though. I had to stop at Indian Summer South and chug ice water. I left the aid station with one gel’s worth left in my flask and popped that just before the climb. I also sprayed my head with ice water and it was like I lit a fire inside. 

I went to work on that hill and passed Tony about halfway up the switchback-y section near the aid station. When I hit the meandering contour trail on top of the hillside I really started to open it up. My stop at Indian Summer North was just to refill with Tailwind and head on out. I could still see Kory and Tony in the distance, but I had momentum.

And very little energy. With about half an hour left to go and only a bottle of Tailwind, I was redlining the whole way back. As always, the Blue Sky trail back to the finish is psychologically torturing and physically demanding, despite the shallow grade. Because of the jarring, jackknife curves and abrupt, rolling terrain, there’s no way to tell how much of a lead you may or may not have. Horsetooth Rock, looming in the distance, never seems to get much closer, either.

I knew I had it in the bag when I looked back at the tunnel under the highway and saw no one behind me. It wasn’t going to be a battle over the last hundred yards, but I was still going to finish strong. Crossing the line in first after two years of near-misses was exciting, but it did feel like it had an asterisk next to it. I had a real slow winning time and my slowest finish at this race. 

Blue Sky: the only race where you can win a corgi. Photo from the Coloradoan.

I think I need to look back on this past year and try to learn from it, because not a lot went right. But at least I can say I ran Blue Sky with the intensity that I’d been lacking all year, and I’m just happy to be in the mix again.