Sunday, July 27, 2014

White River 50 2014 Report

Photo of the WR50 Start Line.  Photo Credit/Stolen from Eric Sach


The day after a long race is always the best because beer, pizza and sitting around all day.  Makes for a great recipe for race report writing!

I signed up for this race on a whim last week.  Angel and I ran our first 50 miler there two years ago and had a great experience, but for some reason it fell off of the radar this year.  I thought I had to work race weekend for some reason, and then lost track of when it was until folks started posting on the old F'book and I put two and two together and I threw my name in the hat.  In brief, I'm stoked that I signed up because the race experience exceeded expectations.

The Fast People

Being that I'm one of the biggest WA ultra fanboys around, I was looking at the race entrants a few weeks ago, and I didn't expect a particularly fast race at the front of the pack.  Matt Flaherty was signed up, as was Vajin Armstrong from New Zealand.  Both of those guys are international-quality runners, but I didn't expect that either of them would have enough top-end speed to challenge Sage Canaday's 6:16 record from two years ago.  (Despite the 8500 feet of elevation gain, White River is generally a runner's race because of the comfortable grade and the 7 mile stretch of fire road downhill near the end where fast marathoners can throw down 5 minute miles and make up for oodles of time lost on the steep-ish last climb to Sun Top.)  I knew that my buddy (and 7 Hills runner) Matt Urbansky was running, and I expected that he had a shot at the podium if he had a good day.  Then, last week, Uli Steidl and some guy named Justin Houck from Mercer Island signed up and their names shot to the top of the Ultrasignup predicted finish list.  Uli was running his first ultra in years, but he was a long-time record holder at White River, and he threw down a 2:19 marathon earlier in the year, so the race suddenly became intriguing.  I don't think anyone in the ultra community outside of his circle of family and friends expected anything major out of Justin Houck - he had only run one previous ultra, setting a course record at the decidedly un-prestigious and un-mountainous Vashon Island 50k earlier in the year.  He admittedly ran a crazy fast time there in 3:11, but it was a sample size of one, and ultrasignup frequently creates inflated predictions for runners without many results.  I was expecting a winning time in the 6:45 range based on the field.

On the women's side, Jodee Adams-Moore was the only name that I recognized.  She has the speed to put the 7:32 course record at risk on a good day, but for some reason I was under the impression that she wasn't actually planning to run (she's a Scott Athlete, and WR is a Scott race, so I was thinking it was a free entry situation).  I hadn't heard of anyone else in the race, so didn't expect anything sub-8 hours this year. 

The race shook out to be much more interesting than my pessimistic expectations.

On the men's side:

The first 27 mile loop of the race features a short out and back, so when you're in the middle of the pack you get to see the position of the front runners about 10 miles into the race.  The first runner I saw coming through was Houck, who I only recognized because he was wearing a Seattle Running Club singlet.  Flaherty was a couple minutes behind with Armstrong, Steidl and Urbansky spaced pretty evenly behind him.  Of the front runners, Flaherty, Uli, Armstrong and Urbansky all looked more comfortable when I saw them than Houck, so I kind of expected that Houck had made the typical rookie mistake of going out too fast, and would drop back as the race went on.  With his experience, I was kind of expecting that Uli would pass everyone except maybe Flaherty and Armstrong.

Ultimately, things didn't fall out like I'd expected at all.  It turns out that the look on Houck's face might have been fear rather than exhaustion, because he reported that he was running scared of Flaherty and others catching him from miles 3 through 50, and had never planned to run out front.  But from reports, Houck only got stronger as the race went on, and made up huge ground on other runners on the final long climb up to Sun Top, and managed to finish with the third fastest time ever on the course, in 6:26 - he said he had no idea how far ahead he was from the rest of the pack.  Flaherty and Armstrong both finished in the 6:50's (roughly as expected) for 2nd/3rd, and Matt Urbansky passed Uli in the final flat 6 miles on Skookum Flats for 4th with Uli finishing in 5th.  (Uli told me after the race that he hadn't run more than 2 hours in months, and the race was a complete suffer-fest.  Props to him for finishing though, and a complete suffer fest three years after his last ultra was still good enough for 5th place in a surprisingly fast field.)   

For the women:

It turns out that Jodee Adams-Moore did show up for the race, and as generally expected, pulled out the win in a solid if unspectacular 7:59:58.  Again, looks were deceiving when I saw the runners early in the race.  Jodee was several minutes ahead of 2nd place at that point, and looking really strong.  Aliza Lapierre, from Vermont, was running in second but looked generally miserable.  By the end, Lapierre had essentially set up a photo finish, and came in 2nd in 8:00:29, just 30 seconds behind Jodee.  Local Olga Nevtrinos finished 3rd in solid 8:50.

I was a bit surprised that the women's race was as close as it was, but after doing a bit of resume research it made sense. Jodee has world-class top-end speed, and at the 50k distance she's a threat to win any race in the country. (She ran a 4:46 at Orcas this year, which is crazy fast at an under-the-radar but seriously tough race, and came close in 2013 to being the first woman breaking the 4 hour mark at Chuckanut.)  But you get the feeling that she hasn't yet nailed the 50 mile distance the way she has 50k's.  Its just her second race at the distance, and while she's been solid, she probably hasn't raced fully to her potential at 50 miles yet.  Lapierre is very experienced at 50 miles+, (she's won big races - Leona Divide and Vermont, and finished on the podium at Western States in 2012) and clearly ran a really smart race.  Props to Jodee though for holding on for the win against a tough, and much more experienced competitor. 

As a Washington running fan, the thing I was most excited about was that Washington runners won on both the men's and women's side in our biggest race for the first time in years.  People have started to recognize Jodee's talent already, so Houck's performance was particularly notable.  It wasn't as big as newbie Zach Miller winning JFK and Sonoma last year, but it was potentially a major statement.  I personally don't think there's any such thing as a fluke at the 50 mile distance, and Houck ran the race faster than anyone besides Sage Canaday and Anton Krupicka.  Those guys are two of the biggest names in the trail world, and if Houck sticks with ultras, yesterday's race might represent the birth of a new nationally competitive trail runner.  Justin provided some comments for this report via email, and he noted that he was most proud of having run the fastest time by a Washington runner (Krupicka and Canaday were based out of CO when they ran), and it's true that he put himself squarely at the front of the pack of Washington men's runners with just one race.

From Houck's comments, it sounds like more trails are in the plans.  He'll be racing the USATF Trail Half in Bellingham in October, and may race McCoubrey's Sky Marathon at Crystal in September.  Excitingly, he lists it as one of his goals to help put Seattle back on the map in the ultra scene, so if things go well me might see some great things out of Houck in the next few years. 

The Crazy People

This summer, it seems like Van Phan and Jess Mullen are on a quest to prove that they're the baddest-ass mofos in the world.  They completed the local self-supported Hardrock-lite Issy Alps 100 miler about a month ago, and this weekend, instead of running one White River 50, they started the night before and ran two White River 50s - finishing a preview run of the full course before the start time on Saturday morning, then running the race.  Megan Kogut and Kelly Woznicki also ran the full course the day before to both complete their first 50 milers before running the Best Aid Station on the Course (TM) at Corral Pass, because why not (High Heelers have the most fun)?  Also of note is that old-school ultra badass William Emerson ran the race again this year, and finished in the top-10 at 50 years old. And 7 Hills' Phil Kochik ran his first 50 since 2012, lending the race the kind of old-school cred it deserves. 

Me 

I've noted that I jumped into the race at the last minute, so I didn't have many expectations other than to have fun.  Two years ago I raced this one as my first 50, did all of the proper training and tapering, previewed the course, did my research, and generally ran the best race I could have at the time - finishing just under 10 hours.  I'm a much more experienced trail runner this year, and although I didn't do any focused training or preparation, I secretly hoped to improve on my time/come out feeling like I haven't lost anything despite the fact that I've been much less disciplined and organized this year in my running routine.

Although I generally carry more than I need to in races, for this one I decided to just take one 20 oz water bottle and some preferred gels (Honey Stinger Chews) and bank on the well-placed aid stations for real food and refills (I like to alternate real food with gels for races over 50k - eating about 150 calories of both every hour - for real food, mostly fruit with an occasional salty potato).  Aid stations are spaced about an hour to 90 minutes apart at my pace, so I figured I could get by without my normal 50-mile stock of food and extra water weighing me down.  That worked out generally well - although I did run out of water a bit early on the way up to Sun Top and on Skookum Flats at the end (damn you Skookum!).  I finished the race a little dehydrated, but I don't think it affected my performance.  I was able to take about 9 minutes off of my time from the last race, and finished in 9:50.  My biggest problem: butt chafing.

In general I followed Angel's race strategy, which is to have as much fun as you can on the course and let time be a secondary consideration.  I generally tried to act as stupid as I could whenever there was a camera around, and to get hung up at aid stations shoving food in my face and talking to friends.  In the first half of ultras, it seems like it's essentially impossible to go out too slow or to eat too much food, so I started at the back of the pack and tried to not be too impatient when I ended up behind people moving more slowly than I would have been otherwise.  Coming up the first climb to Corral Pass, I cheered on the faster runners and was stoked to see a Seattle Running Club runner in first place and my buddy Matt Urbansky looking strong in 5th (and wearing an S&M inspired getup - black Salomon vest, no shirt, black shorts). I stopped for a bit at the aid station to complement Megan Kogut on her hand-painted cowboy hat and green leather cowboy boots, and to shove so much food in my mouth that I couldn't close it.  After a good laugh I moved on, and enjoyed running most of the downhill with an entourage of good people, including new FB friend Mike Henson and a young lady named Anya who proved that barefoot running is not dead by finishing her first 50 (well ahead of me) in Luna Sandals.  I'd somehow forgotten how pretty this first loop of the course is, with miles of ridge running and fantastic views of Rainier and surrounding mountains.  I'm a firm believer in the superiority of James Varner's Rainshadow Running race courses, but White River keeps up with any Washington race in terms of the beauty of the course.  Scott McCoubrey doesn't always put on races, but when he does, they're amazing.

On the second climb to Sun Top, the weather started to heat up and the miles started to seem longer.  The climb is steeper in places than the first, but there are also multiple downhills to break up the ascent, so overall I thought it was a generally enjoyable section.  I'm a better hiker than runner anyway, so I enjoyed chugging along slowly up the hill. The view at Suntop is probably the most spectacular on the course, so despite the fact that I was feeling the 37 miles behind me, I was happy to get to be there on a perfectly clear day.  An added bonus was getting watermelon and ice water from Brian Morrison and crew from Fleet Feet in Seattle, and seeing folks decked out in Hillbillies gear - a new trail running team Brian's organized which has the potential to be a great new development on the local trail scene and some healthy competition for Phil Kochik's Team 7 Hills, which has already established itself as a fixture at both local and national races.

On the seven mile fire road descent from Sun Top to Skookum flats, I decided to open things up (as much as anything I do can be referred to as 'opening it up') and averaged about 7:30 miles down the hill.  I'm not sure it was a good decision not to hold back, because I didn't have a great run on the last 6 miles through Skookum.  I didn't totally blow up, but I did take about five minutes longer on that section than the last time I ran the race - about 1:05 this year vs. about 60 minutes last time.  (Although that race I did have the then-solid-now-awesome runner Chris Chamberlin pulling me along.)  And it was the only section of the race that I didn't particularly enjoy, spending most of my time cursing Skookum Hell and neglecting my nutrition because I was 'almost there', which one never is in an ultra.  In any case, I finished faster than last time, and didn't suffer through 90% of a 50 miler, which is a big net win. (Plus, hating Skookum is an essential part of the White River experience that I didn't get last time.)

Summarization

In summary, it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised, and this year I went into White River with no real expectations. (I'm not sure why - the first time I ran was among the best race experiences I've ever had).  Turns out it was an amazing event as usual, a ton of fun, beautiful, and exciting at the front of the pack.  Congrats again to the finishers and thanks to the cast and crew who continue to make this WA's standard-setting race!

You should run it. 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2014 Hardrock 100 Week Rundown

Sunday, July 6th:  

Flew to Denver.  Instead of investigating veracity of Reptoid stories, read an entire book (Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford) during an 8 hour layover. Flew to Durango.  In bed by midnight.  The book is recommended - great adventure.

Monday, July 7th:

Picked up by Deby Kumasaka at hotel, then picked up Wendy Wheeler-Jacobs and ate pizza.  Starting to feel a bit sick.  Met up with Softrockers in Silverton.  Heard story about wife hitchhiking across Colorado with Australian Lacrosse Team and naturist.  Prepped to get started running the Hardrock course the next day.  In bed by 10.

Tuesday, July 8th:

Got started with group at Ice Lake trailhead to join up with Hardrock course.  Nauseous and febrile in less than a mile.  Hitchhiked back to Silverton with a nice nurse from Maine.  Luckily caught friends James and Vivian before they headed out to crew the running group.  Spent day sleeping in the back of James' truck.  Vomited violently multiple times.  Didn't look or feel okay.  Paid for a hotel in Telluride (arranged by booking manager Alicia).  Vomited more.

Wednesday, July 9th:

Caught ride back to Silverton.  Got room at Teller House Inn.  Napped. Feeling better.  Watched part of World Cup Match.  Ate first meal in 2 days.  Saw the Hardrock finish line.  Watched Scott Jaime movie "Running the Edge." Movie is recommended - great adventure.  Met David Horton, thanked him for quotes for article. 

Thursday, July 10th:

Woke up feeling mostly well.  Tested stomach with giant breakfast burrito and coffee.  Both stayed down.  Sat down with some of the WA crew at Mobius Coffee and realized that Anna Frost - famous ultrarunner from Dunedin, NZ - was sitting at the same table.  When told I'd lived in Dunedin, she gave very Dunedin response of bemused "Why?".  Wandered the streets of Silverton.  Went to runners' briefing and events.  Volunteered to pace last 15 miles of race with random person I hadn't met - Tina Ure from CA.  Lunch with James to drown his sorrows in BBQ and beer after finding out he didn't make it off of the wait list.  Joined James to meet Softrock crew as they were finishing.  Ran from Maggie's Gulch to approximately Pole Creek aid station before meeting them (about 8 miles out/back).  Celebrated at Avalanche with pizza.

Beer and BBQ Sundae to dull the pain of not making it off of the wait list


Friday, July 11th:

Up at 5 to watch the race start.  Breakfast, lunch, then drove to Ouray with Brian (Tina's BF and first pacer). Watched leaders come through.  Paid Adam Hewey's son to handcuff himself to strangers.  Apologized to Adam Hewey's wife for being a bad influence.  Cheered for friends running, including Jeason Murphy, who eventually finished in 16th after camping out for an hour waiting out a lightning storm.  Ate a Reuben.  Slept in the tent.

Saturday, July 12th:

Up at 345 to go to start.  Watch Killian Jornet finishing, breaking the course record by 40 minutes.  Immediately begins joking, laughing, and gives 45 minute interview in multiple languages like he wasn't even tired.  Watch Julian Chorier finish in 2nd, hobbling, near death. Miss Adam Campbell finishing (eating breakfast).  Came in 3rd despite being hit by lightning.  Organize running pack.  Drive to Maggie's Gulch, then hike 4 miles uphill to wait to meet Tina.  Wait 4 hours, making friends with Aid Station volunteers, getting rained on, and eating food.  Take a nap.  Join Tina, who had some kind of significant knee injury, at 5:30.  Hike a lot of hills at altitude.  Go over 13k feet for the first time.  Enjoy the sunset.  Decide that running Hardrock is eventual life destiny. Talk to Dave Swoish at Cunningham AS and eat soup mixed with Mac and Cheese.  Try not to fall off of any cliffs and die.  Tina finishes her 4th Hardrock at 12:44 like it were no big deal, finishing as 4th woman.

Killian at the finish


Sunday, July 13th:

Breakfast burritos at Avalanche Cafe because awards breakfast is a madhouse.  Watch awards presentation.  Lunch and goodbyes to most Softrockers. Group hugs. Decide to go for run up Boulder Mountain (part of James' former Epic 50k course) with Angel, James and Alicia.  Started by hopping a fence into a cemetery. Noted that first tombstone we saw was from a death on July 13th about 100 years ago.  Note the creepy coincidence that today is also July 13th.  Climb big mountain, hopping river, admiring spectacular scenery.  Over 13k feet again. Begin running downhill once we reach the top.  Note that there is, surprisingly, a giant goat with sharp horns running within arms' reach.  Scream profanity.  Group stops to scream, scare goat off. Goat continues to approach while group backs away slowly. Alicia attempts to develop plans to kill the goat.  Eventually group scares goat away by throwing rocks at it.  Group runs when given opportunity.  It is noted that the goat is once again in pursuit.  Rock throwing is repeated.  Goat continues to stalk group at a distance.  Group continues to throw rocks and retreat whenever goat approaches. Goat stalks group until they are able to retreat into the treeline, bushwhacking like lunatics several miles down the mountain.  Hop fence back into cemetery.  Make goat horror movie jokes.  Arrive back at camp after dark, noting that a man in fatigues is sleeping in the middle of the road a few feet from our tent.  Group notes that earlier he had been wandering around with a machete and screaming profanities.  Get in truck.  Truck won't start, just like in horror movies.  Walk into town to Montanya's distillery for food and drinks and good conversation.  More goat jokes.  Return to camp, where fatigue machete guy is still sleeping in road.  Advise Alicia to sleep in truck rather than in bivvy three feet from machete guy.  Go to sleep at about midnight, hoping not to die in sleep r/t goat or machete.

Blood Thirsty Goat


Monday, July 14th:

Pack up, then breakfast, which turns into brunch.  Get tickets for narrow gauge railroad trip back to Durango.  Finish packing, then visit famous Avon Hotel to pick up some of James' stuff. Ride old timey steam train to Durango.  Catch trolley to hotel.  Run back into town along old timey railroad tracks. Eat at Steamworks brewery.  Ride back to hotel on bus.  Girls are dancing.  Driver yells, accuses them of "smoking dope" when he smells a skunk.  Sleep.

Tuesday, July 15th:

Up at 5 for the flight home.  Dunkin Donuts in the Denver Airport.  Alicia sits next to person from Boulder on way to Squamish who hangs out w/Scott Jurek and knows a bunch of the ultra community.  Train/bus home from SeaTac. Lunch from the Co-op then take Alicia to her car.  Group hugs.

This was on the tail of our plane from Durango, with the note "Today you're flying with Dale":


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge: Olympic Coast, or Fun Times DNF


Angel and I are headed to Colorado next week to hang out for the Hardrock 100 and try to run the course over three days with some friends, but before we do I wanted to get out a report on last weekend's adventure - an attempt with our friends Nathan and Julie at completing the Olympic Coast Northern and Southern Routes in one push as part of the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge - a semi-formal competition organized by our friends Ras and Kathy Vaughan that encourages runners, fastpackers, hikers etc. to tackle specific wilderness routes for time, style, and creativity.  I don't have a lot of time to put this together, but I wanted to get out some beta for other people who want to do it while it's fresh in my mind, and, um...to offer up a bit of a warning. So I'll stay up late sacrificing once again for you, my beloved readers.

The Route, or Mother Nature's Cruel Traps

For some basic background, the route tracks along Washington's Olympic Coast between Shi Shi Beach in the North and the Oil City trailhead in the South, and is indeed a route - for the most part you aren't on trail, but are following beaches and/or boulder hopping.  You round a bunch of headlands and go over a fair number of overland crossings in places that aren't passable due to tide or coastal geography.  The route is spectacular, tough, and a real logistical challenge, and although it's a somewhat well-known hiking route, prior to a runner named John Barrickman posting his report last week, I wasn't able to find anyone who'd done it as one push.  (I would put up the link here, but Facebook seems to be broken right now and that's where it's located.  If you're interested in info on a successful completion of the route, join "Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge" on the BookFace and find John's post on the wall!) 

The route is 56-odd miles, and for the challenge, you are able to approach it either as a north to south or south to north run. Because our group wanted to do a car swap to aid with logistics, we tried both: Angel and Julie ran the course south to north, and Nathan and I attempted it north to south.  The idea was that we would meet in the middle and provide each other with tips about the road ahead, and we actually did meet almost exactly halfway through.

This particular part of the UPWChallenge was designed by Pacific Crest Trail speed record holder Heather Anderson to be a logistical challenge, and the major obstacle (or one of them, anyway) is the tide.  While there are a lot of overland crossings, there are also more than a dozen points that are only passable at low to medium tide, so one finds oneself in a giant real-life game of Frogger, where timing is everything and clever planning is essential.  If you time things incorrectly and get caught by a tide cycle that you didn't expect, you will lose at least 2 hours of time.  If that cycle is in the evening, you will probably be adding on a night's sleep, because the myriad wet boulder crossings are sketchy even during the day, and legitimately dangerous at night. And the overland trails are frequently not well marked - difficult to find during daylight, pretty much invisible without it. 

Another major concern is that it is essentially impossible to run for a huge percentage of the route because you are navigating wet boulders, sand that gives way, or overgrown overland trails.  As such, it's really best approached as a fastpack as much as a "run".  Your feet will be constantly wet from stepping in endless tidal pools. And of course the weather can be terrible - cold and rainy is pretty average there, and you can get soaked and cold really quickly - if it were raining and you ended up out overnight stuck by the tide, hypothermia could be a real concern even in the Summer.  There are only two realistic bail out points, and at various points you go for miles without seeing other humans.  And while the Greentrails maps show a bunch of ranger stations, we only saw one that was actually there - which is to say, help might well not be close by if anything goes wrong.  All elements to make for a real adventure, and enough potential peril for one to get oneself in actual trouble.     

On top of all of that, permitting is a minor pain - the Shi Shi trailhead starts on Makah land, so it is necessary to purchase a Makah recreation pass along with a national parks or Olympic pass, along with obtaining wilderness camping permits - all of which have to be procured at different locations that are open only at unpredictable hours, and all of which will fall within the time that you need to be at work or travelling.  And you are supposed to carry a bear canister if you plan to ever leave your food unattended or go to sleep.  And there is a large section of the beach where you can't sleep without a reservation.  And you can't actually park at the Shi Shi trailhead overnight, so you have to pay for private parking about a half mile away.

So, if you haven't been talked into it yet, I'll give you a rundown of my experience, which ended with Nate and I tapping out halfway, to see if that helps.

The Experience

By sheer luck and the good graces of John Barrickman, on the Wednesday before our run we found ourselves with a report that suggested that it was humanly possible (at least for a human like John) to complete the course in about 18 hours, if moving from North to South, and a plan for how to do so. There was a large tidal window starting around 4 am and stretching through to 2 pm that would allow one to (potentially) pass all of the low-tide crossings on the Northern part of the coast (about 30 miles) before high tide.  Then, during the high tide cycle, one could run a 9 mile segment of the course that is on road, which is required to cross the unfordable Quillaute River, before using the next low tide cycle to push through the southern part of the route (about 17 miles). (This southern section has more overland options and less low-tide crossings - though they are still a significant factor.)  We took John's advice, and planned to get up before the crack of dawn to hit the beach.

3:30 AM comes early when you don't get to the campsite until 12:30, so we got going maybe a little bit slowly.  By the time we got to the trail, signed in, and on the road, it was about 4:45 - about 45 minutes later than we should have started, it turned out. 

Nathan loves 4 AM
We had decent weather, and the Shi Shi end of the route is probably the prettiest part of the whole course, so we were in good spirits at the start.  We quickly started spotting wildlife - eagles, starfish, crabs - and some random deer standing amongst the tidal pools, eating sea urchins or something.

Nate and Wilderness Friend
 A lot of the beach at the beginning was fairly runnable, but before long we found ourselves bogged down with miles of wet, mossy boulder hopping.  We were keeping the pace that we needed to, but particularly south of Ozette (the first bailout point), a several mile stretch of boulders slowed our pace to a crawl.

Stupid Rocks
We had fun though, and took time to stop and enjoy the detritus.

You can never be too clean.
Whale Rider 2: It's Easier When They're Dead
Nothing dramatic happened to cause the attempt to turn south, thankfully, but across several hours of rough terrain and unstable footing, Nathan's ACL (which had been surgically reconstructed several months ago) started to flare up unexpectedly, and continued to get worse across time.  By about noon Nate was hobbling (read: moving as slowly as I do on a good day because of intense nauseating pain) and we were talking about potentially bailing.  I'm not a big DNF fan, but I'm even less of a fan of pushing your friend to potentially ruin his ACL to experience a few more miles of sand and rocks.  We were making decent time, and I could've gone on myself, but I knew that I would feel terrible if my partner had to get burgers by himself while I was out enjoying the cold, wet, pain and suffering of the southern Olympic coast.  We came within about a half hour of making all of the low tide crossings on the Northern part of the route, but high tide did finally catch us at about 2:30, which meant that we'd be forced to nap for a couple of hours to wait it out, and would have no chance of beating John's time.  By that point though, Nate had made the decision that he would have to drop, and I had decided that I would drop with him.

That's when Mother Nature decided to grab us by the neck and shake us around a bit.

All joking aside, once the tide started to roll in, things got a bit sketchy. Our tendency was to try to push things, and to test out whether we could make it around headlands in places that were questionable because speed was a consideration and we were hoping to get to the next bailout point ASAP.  Because of that, we sometimes found ourselves standing in water several feet deep, with waves crashing against us, trying to scramble over wet rocks instead of waiting a few minutes for the tide to drop.  I took a fall that was hard enough that I had to stop and assess for a minute that everything was okay, and at one point I found myself wondering why I'd made the decision to boulder across wet rocks above crashing waves.  This was at the end of our last, and probably sketchiest headland rounding:


Shortly after we made it around this one (near "Hole in the Wall" north of Rialto Beach), we met up with Julie and Angel, who had been held up similarly by the tides.  They were in great spirits, but I think we were personally feeling a bit down about having to drop out.  I personally was also a bit worried about them continuing on into the night - knowing that we'd taken some risks that were at least close to reasonable during the day, but would be genuinely dangerous in the dark.  They were prepped for a two day trip though, and are smarter than I am, so I was pretty sure they wouldn't take unnecessary risks. (Turns out they didn't - they holed up for the night just at dark, and moved at a comfortable pace the whole way, finishing the full south to north course in around 40 hours.  That's a story for one of them to tell though!) 


At that point though we were finished with all of the headland crossings, and were on the homestretch south down Rialto Beach - the spot of the best bailout point on the route due to the paved road and parking lot full of cars just waiting for some hitchhikers, and about 30 miles from where we'd started.

About a mile from the parking lot, running at least 10 feet above the tide line on the beach, we were chatting away when a rogue wave randomly smashed into us, knocked us both over, dislodged a large log directly in front of us, and put us both into a brief panic before we realized that we were totally soaked and that a small family was pointing and laughing at us.  Mother nature is a saucy wench who sent us home with our tails between our legs, but we were thankful that the wave had hit then, when we were far up the beach, rather than 30 minutes earlier, when we were crossing rocks and occasionally in the surf.  

From the parking lot at Rialto, we changed into dry clothes from our packs and hitchhiked to Forks, which was thankfully the location of the only taxi between Port Angeles and Aberdeen.  The driver and her teenage daughter drove us the 45 minutes or so of dirt road to the Oil City trailhead to pick up Julie's truck, and head back up the coast to our campsite near Shi Shi.

Reflections

A few summary thoughts:

1) This route is really no joke.  It's an amazing experience, but you have to be prepared because it would be easy to get yourself in trouble for a variety of reasons, and help is rarely accessible.  Being prepared to keep fed, warm and dry overnight is key, because you essentially have to thread a needle to be able to complete in a day.  If you're an average or slower runner, it might not be possible in a day.

2) John's 18 hour finish was stout because it required impeccable timing.

3) We wouldn't have finished under his time in best case scenario, but would have been out overnight - likely finishing around 30 hours after we started if we'd continued on.  We finished the North Coast Route in about 12 hours.

4)  Do your homework if you're planning to do this route.

5)  It would be very hard (or maybe impossible?) to time a South to North trip that could be completed more quickly than John's approach due to the locations of low tide crossings.

6) This was one of the most interesting running experiences I've had.  The tides create all kinds of drama.

7) The Olympic Coast is crazy beautiful.

8)  I took just a bivvy and we had a tarp.  If I were to do this again, I'd probably approach it as a two day and bring a light tent and maybe a sleeping bag in a larger pack.  Running doesn't happen that often on this route, unless you have crazy technical skills over wet rocks.

9) I've run a lot of races, but I've actually only ever DNF'd events organized by Ras.  (If you don't include a Ragnar Relay where my team imploded.)  You know what they say: If you haven't DNF'd, you haven't been trying enough of the crazy ass shit that Ras plans.

10) I really like this Wilderness Challenge idea. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Issy Alps 100k Overview, or, We Started Our Anniversary Somewhere in the Woods on Rattlesnake Mountain

Roped in on Mailbox

The Surprise

Last Wednesday I had the day off, so I texted Angel to tell her that I was headed to Rattlesnake Mountain for the day.  She texted back, saying, "Have fun, but don't wear yourself out.  I have a surprise planned for this weekend."  Our anniversary weekend was coming up, and in some marriages such a message might connote something sexy.  In ours, promises of "surprise" are nothing but ominous.

When I saw her later in the day, she said, "So, I have a plan for this weekend.  Do you want to keep it a surprise?"

"I don't know - is it something I need to prepare for?"

She smirked in a way that implied "You don't even want to know..."

I asked, "Is it going to be hard?"

"Maybe...Well, yeah."

I hate painful surprises.

It turns out that the plan was to take a crack at the Issy Alps 100k Endurance Challenge - an approximately 65 mile route connecting some of the most iconic peaks along the I-90 corridor in the Cascade foothills: Mailbox Peak, Mt. Teneriffe, Mt Si, Little Si, Rattlesnake Mountain, and Tiger Mountain.  There's a 100 mile route as well, and that was initially Angel's 'surprise'.  Having done the first 50k before, I couldn't bring myself to even consider the 100 miler on a whim, so I talked her down to a shot at the 100k. 

It's a relatively new route designed by local mountain man George Orozco, and completed by only a few to this point.  A crew of about a dozen attempted it last year (myself included), but everyone quit.  Then the legendary Van Phan took on the 100 miler last summer, and for some time was the only person to have completed it.  (Her report is here.)  This year Ras "Ultrapedestrian" Vaughan took on the course in spring in unsupported fashion, navigating snow to finish in just over 67 hours.  Then, a few weeks ago, Jennifer Hughes took on the 100 miler - both she and Van have official finishing times of 37h58m.  Jess Mullen is the only runner to have a recorded time on the 100k, which she completed in 21h51m.  We knew that - no matter how long it took - if we could manage to finish we would be in illustrious company.  (Spoiler alert: We did manage to finish.)

George designed the course, in part, as a local counterpart and proving ground for races like the Hardrock 100 in CO, and there's an amazing amount of elevation gain for a route that could almost be described as 'suburban' , utilizing a combination of extremely well-heeled trails and boot trail connectors to traverse some of the best-known local peaks.  The elevation gain on the 50k: about 13,500 feet.  On the 100k: about 20,000 feet.  On the 100 mile: about 30,000 feet.  These routes are no effin joke.

The Planning    

Because we didn't decide to do this until mid-week before the attempt, we didn't do a lot of planning.  However, we have amazing friends which makes up for a lot in life.  We started organizing on Thursday by way of Facebook invite, and by Saturday had a good sense of the course due to tips from George Orozco and the maps available on his site, a ride to the start, five volunteer aid stations, accompaniment almost the entire way, a personal bush guide for the most complicated section (which we started at 2 am, BTDubs), random cheering sections at multiple points along the way, an impromptu pacer for the last three miles, and a ride to breakfast afterwards. 

Expecting that the course would take us around 24 hours, we packed basically for a two day fastpack.  We used our Solomon Skin Pro 14 +3 packs, filled mostly with just the food we'd need for the first 50k, along with small first aid kits, a water filter, some Body Glide, and Patagonia Houdini jackets.  We had a drop bag at the end of that first section at the Little Si trailhead, so there we picked up food resupplies, flashlights, jackets/thermals/hats, and SOL Bivvy's in case we decided to sleep (which we didn't).  We also tried out our new anniversary gifts to one another for the first time: Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles

The Experience

I always get a bit bored with blow-by-blow recountings of runs, so I'll try to spare you that with a bit of a narrative overview.

First, the spirit of the event:

We decided to take on this course for a couple of reasons:

1) In our 12 years of marriage, we've learned that the family that does epic things together, stays together.  It's kind of become our theme, and it seemed more appropriate than going out for stupid romantic dinner or something.

2) Running through the woods overnight is our idea of a party.

3) The course, I think, will develop into a local classic.  The combination of difficulty and accessibility make it a perfect route for Cascadians looking for a real physical challenge with straightforward logistics.  We couldn't resist getting in on that action early.

Now, the run details: 

In short, the course was both brutal and beautiful, and I came away feeling like we'd had a low-country peak-bagging adventure as much as a run. 

After dropping a bag at the midway point (I twisted my ankle trying to find a hiding spot behind a tree), our friend Trey Bailey was gracious enough to drop us off at the Mailbox Peak Trailhead, where we were joined by a group of friends for the first section - Adam and Broeck and Brandon and Bennett.

Trey, in the spirit of the event.

The first two peaks cover about 8,000 feet of climbing, and are completed within about 12 miles of the start, which means that your quads and hamstrings have been set up for destruction before you've really even started knocking out mileage.  Mailbox is locally known as a really steep, really tough hike, but the boot trail up Teneriffe is steeper and tougher.  The two mountains are connected via pleasant trail and old logging road (even if it was overgrown with nettles during this part of the year).  A few notes: our completion should have an asterisk attached, because the intended route follows the Granite Creek Trail for a couple of miles after Mailbox, and it was closed for bridge construction. We took an alternate route along SE Middle Fork Road which probably took off a half mile of distance and several hundred feet of elevation change.  Also, the climbs on this section made me a huge convert to hiking poles on steep terrain: it's like having good hand-holds to pull up on with each step.  Broeck, Bennett and Brandon went up Mailbox with us, and Adam accompanied us for this whole section.  Our friend Julie joined us at the base of Teneriffe with a bunch of food, which was amazing.

Friends on Teneriffe
The next two hills - Mt Si and Little Si - felt like minor inconveniences after the former two, though at this stage we were definitely getting tired.  Of all of the trails on the route, Mt Si is both the most straightforward and the one I know the best, but we still managed to get off course. We stepped off of the Old Si trail onto the new Mt Si trail accidentally, commenting about how much the trail seemed to have improved before noticing some landmarks after a quarter mile or so and realizing we were dumb. 

Just before getting lost on a mountain with only one trail intersection.

On Si, one of our inspirations - Van Phan - also met us with a roving aid station of coke, watermelon, burritos, and homemade energy bites, among other things.  We had to bow down to her as a 100 mile finisher.  We were already realizing the ridiculous magnitude of that accomplishment.  By sheer coincidence, on Little Si we ran into Will Thomas, who did the 50k route last year.  "Are you guys out for a sunset hike?"  Sort of.  Also a sunrise hike.

Roving aid station by Van.  Can't beat that support.
The Little Si trailhead marks the end of the 50k, and the pull to quit was really strong.  We had no friends joining us on the next section, 13,500 feet of climbing were behind us, both of us felt exhausted, the sun was going down, and our friends were there with pizza and a potential ride back to our car (Thanks Callista, Reyna, Andy and Pat!).  But that's the reason you tell people you're doing this sort of thing before you do it: we didn't want our friends Van and Jess and Jenn and Ras thinking we are wimps.  (Then again, maybe we're hanging out with the wrong people.)

After Little Si you take the Snoqualmie Valley trail all the way to Rattlesnake Lake - a pleasant 6 miles in the dark for us, and a nice reminder that what we were doing was actually a run, as it was a flat gradual uphill the whole way.  Just before we started this section, some creep in an SUV drove up slowly behind us.  We realized quickly that the creep was our friend Susie, who had also brought a bunch of food and drinks but had been parked in a different lot at Little Si and had missed us!  While she was waiting for us she threw a party by herself, dressed like this:

As Susie pointed out, a pink hard hat would be a fashionable and practical accompaniment to a pink unitard.
I heard from a reliable source that the next section is a route that Scott Jurek used to use when he'd connect Rattlesnake to Tiger on training runs.  Starting at the lake, you can follow the Rattlesnake Mountain Trail over the mountain before turning off to the left at the powerlines about a mile from the Snoqualmie Point Trailhead, and follow them all of the way to Tiger.  Our friend Jenn met us at the powerlines to act as our tourguide, because who wouldn't want to go for a nice stumble through the blackberry bushes at 2 am?  This section is the only place where we got anything like "lost", because though you follow a powerline road for a significant portion, there is a network of boot trails that you have to follow at one point to navigate around a ledge.  We spent at least 30 minutes wandering unmarked trails in the dark (Jenn said I could give her shit for leading us in a circle and not realizing it) before finding a trail (which was blocked by a tree-fall and we didn't notice initially, leading, in part, to the aforementioned circles) that took us to the right place.  (Some debate here about whether we were exactly on the official course, but it was something approximating it...)

We finally came off of Rattlesnake and onto Tiger at about 5 AM, and were greeted by our friend Greg Manciagli and his delicious, delicious coffee before starting our final ascent, to East Tiger Summit.  Having stayed up all night, one naturally perks up when the sun rises, but having climbed 18,000 feet, one's legs don't naturally perk up at the prospect of 2,000 more.  So, from the base of Tiger, we were slow (if usually optimistic), and the last 13.5 miles took us over 5 hours to complete.

Along the way though we started running into friends: near the top of East Tiger we ran into Ben Leudke, Simon Gale, Kevin Smythe, and Lars Larson, who'd been out for a run and were apparently looking for us.  The small cheering section was just what we needed to get to the peak.

Kevin, Ben, and Simon.  Friends are a good excuse to take a break from climbing.
We didn't, however, need to discover on the way down from the peak that the trail we were planning to take (East Tiger Trail) no longer officially exists between Preston Railroad Grade and the peak.  East Tiger Summit Trail is not the same thing, it seems, and we ended up off track by about a half-mile - which sucks when you just want to get out of the stupid, stupid woods, sleep forever and never run again.   

The look of a trail angel
Though we got back on track, my navigational ability was pretty much totally gone due to lack of sleep and physical exhaustion, and for a mile or so I was cursing Tiger Mountain (with it's uncanny ability to get me lost even under the best circumstances).  In the midst of a minor emotional breakdown, we ran into Lars Larson, sitting like one of Tolkien's elves on a log listening to the sound of a creek.  (Not making this ish up.)

 "Hey, do you guys want a pacer?! I'm just headed out."

I wanted to cry and hug him.  Knowing the kind of guy Lars is, he probably would have been fine with that, but I would have been embarrassed later.  And so, for the next three miles we just tried to keep up with him (Thanks for the distracting stories, and sorry for all of the cursing Lars!) and made our way out to the High Point Trailhead - our finish line - at about 10:25 AM - just under 26 hours after we started.

After the run we were just taking our shoes off and collapsing behind our car when our friends Broeck and Adam ran up to celebrate and make fun of how bad we looked and smelled.  Friends, from beginning to end.


The Reflections

Today, the day after the run, we are so tired and everything hurts.  We are "Oh crap that was as hard as Cascade Crest (and took us only about 10 minutes less time)" tired and sore.     

Also, we're feeling that glow you only feel after doing something really difficult. 

And, we're feeling that cheesy sense of gratitude you only feel after doing something really difficult that you couldn't have done without the help of a bunch of other people.  We kind of set out for this to be an adventure we did together as a couple (it was our anniversary, after all).  But the reality is that, in marriage, life, and trail running, no couple is an island.

We're profoundly thankful for all of the work George Orozco did laying out this challenge, and even marking sections of the course for us when he heard we were going to be doing it.

And we're of course profoundly thankful for the friends who provided inspiration and support from the time we started planning until we were gorging ourselves at a restaurant afterwards. 

And maybe most of all we're thankful to have worked our way into this weird little community of people who like to experience life in a microcosm by going out into the mountains, testing their limits, and getting back to the basics of eating and moving through nature.
  

Monday, February 10, 2014

A quick update from outer space

Hey everyone -

I've been absent from this space the last few months.  Partly that's b/c night shift makes my brain stop working, but mostly it's that I'm focusing in 2014 on trying to write for other people's publications and "publications" besides my own blog to make people think I'm a legitimate writer.  I will continue to post some personal entries here, but I'm playing around trying to practice more journalistic styles and write some local history/news stories.

I'm running way behind on updates, but I'm excited about a couple of partnerships/connections that have been taking shape lately.  You'll probably see me writing most frequently at www.ultrapedestrian.com these days.  Our multi-talented friends Ras and Kathy are developing an interesting, innovative and fun multimedia presence there, and I'm excited to be contributing from time to time.   

I'm also really excited that in the March "Dirt" issue of Trail Runner Magazine I have an 8 page feature on the development of the Seattle ultra running community.  It's a double issue focused on the  culture of trail running, and it's a cool honor to be included.  You should buy it and/or get a subscription now!  The issue the story will be in comes out in stores on March 13th, and a ton of readers here contributed and were quoted in the story!

And in December Trey Bailey and I put together the first annual Washington Trail Ultra Awards - the WA Ultra Grimey's.  I'm hoping to develop some more projects with Trey for his site, Uphill Running.  

I have a bunch more ideas than I have time to produce, but I'm hoping 2014 is a year of fun writing projects alongside a lot more fun running adventures.

Thanks for reading everyone!




Friday, November 22, 2013

The Discovery Park Loop

Just got back from a walk around the Loop Trail at Discovery (please don't call it "Disco") Park, including the side trip to North Beach and around the lighthouse.

Four years ago, almost exactly, I did the same thing on a clear sunny day a lot like today.  On that particular walk, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life (and definitely of the last ten years) - to upend my whole existence by quitting my career track and shifting the focus of my life away from religion.  At the time I didn't know what my new focus was going to be.  At this point I'd say that it's health, but I'm not actually interested in writing about that decision, so that's neither here nor there.  What I'm writing about, I think, is the way that those kinds of experiences - where places become associated with important events - create a sense of home.

My walk at Discovery today brought the topic to mind, but I've been thinking about it a bit lately for other reasons.  Not least is that Salomon Running posted the video at the end of this post about Anna Frost, an ultra runner from New Zealand, reflecting on the importance of her home, Dunedin - a place that also felt like home for me at one point in life, and a place where Angel and I will be returning to visit for a few days in the spring.  The scenery in the video is almost all of places we went - hiking or living - and it brings back memories of two of the better years of my life.  

I've also been aware across the last few years that our connection with trail running has made the Pacific Northwest feel a lot more like home than it did previously.  In part that's because we've become a part of a community through running, but I actually think it's a part of the nature of the experience.  There's something essentially human about moving through nature on your feet, and for whatever reason, I've found that running (and walking) on trails has made me feel connected and grounded in the place.  The Just-so Story that I tell myself to explain why is that it's part of a biological reward system in place to encourage people to continue doing things like moving quickly through nature.  It's harder work than sitting on a couch finally getting caught up on Breaking Bad, but we've had to do it in order to survive for millions of years, so we've evolved into creatures that feel at home when we're on our feet.  It's also because, I think, some of the most meaningful experiences I've had during the last four years have been on the trails - completing a first 50k at Yakima Skyline Rim, completing a 50 mile race at White River, completing a 100 mile run at Cascade Crest.  There's a lot of place associated with those experiences, both in training and on the runs themselves.

And I also got back from Ohio a few weeks ago, where I spent the first 18 years of my life, and which always feels kind of surreal.  The experience that made me feel viscerally connected again was a short trail run in Germantown, near my parents house and the town where I lived.  

One thing I've lost through moving around a bit is a sense of having any one home.  One thing I've gained through running (and more accurately, moving through my environment on my feet) is the sense that being home is as much about experience as it is about place.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Pee Pee Peak: The Birth of the New Squak Mt. - Tiger Mt. Connector Trail

For the last several years, directly across from the Chirico Trailhead (aka the Poo Poo Point Trail), this sign has been enticing hikers and runners with the prospect of connecting the Tiger Mountain trail system with the Squak Mountain trail system in the Issaquah Alps with nary a road mile betwixt them:


In the current trail configuration, connecting Cougar and Squak in the Issaquah Alps is simple, but connecting Squak to Tiger is a suburban road run pain in the butt, despite the fact that the two mountains are directly adjacent to one another, and despite the fact that King County Parks owns the land connecting West Tiger to East Squak.  (This map illustrates nicely how intuitive a Tiger/Squak Connection would be, with a trail running through the corridor from the Squak trails to Chirico.)   Trail runners in particular have devised workarounds to complete Issaquah Alps traverses, but the lack of direct connection between the trail systems has meant that Tiger/Squak combo runs have been impractical for anyone without an Issaquah road map.   

It looks like that problem is on the verge of being fixed.  Due to some diligent work from the trail running community, a boot trail has been cut in which starts directly to the right of the sign above and connects to the Squak system at the East Ridge Trail (I believe that is what the trail is called where it connects - can anyone confirm?), and some folks from the Seattle Running Club have been working with King County Parks to get approval, and my understanding is that they are supportive of developing this trail for public usage.  Today, I took a self-guided tour to see how things are shaping up. 

The trail itself is still a work in progress, but it is shaping  up nicely, and its main problem, in my opinion, is the lack of an exciting name to get the kids excited about the project.  It's going to be a fantastic addition to the Issaquah Alps trail system, and folks should hear about it.  That's why I suggest that it be christened the "Pee Pee Peak" trail.  While Tiger - Squak Connector Trail is definitely informative, who wouldn't want to run or hike the "Poo Poo Pee Pee" corridor on at least a weekly basis?  The trail climbs to a high point with peekaboo views of Tiger to the East before connecting in to the larger Squak System, and I see no reason that this area shouldn't have a plaque and a bench and an official title of Pee Pee Peak.  This might be TMI, but I even relieved myself there to make sure the title is accurate.  (Apologies to all involved for everything in that paragraph, and special apologies if this name sticks.) 

I don't know that I should be officially encouraging people to use this trail yet, because it is still being developed, but if one were interested in such a thing they might find the following logistics helpful.

The trail starts directly to the right of the sign above (you can actually vaguely see the trail in that picture), and immediately crosses a small stream, and then a larger one that requires you to either ford and get your shoes wet, or use this precarious dead tree bridge which will eventually break and send someone tumbling into the icy depths below:


 I chose the tree bridge, but ominously, the river had already claimed one victim:

This lady was clearly much too big for this stream.
After the stream crossing, you wind through several bunches of blackberry bushes to the only place on the trail that is slightly difficult to navigate, even with fall leaves covering the trail - a powerline road where  you need to turn left and look for the trail, which veers off to the right after about 1/8th of a mile.  The only thing tricky here is being sure to turn left at the road rather than right, but that isn't really that tricky because if you turn right you quickly end up at a gate and 'private property' sign, which is clearly not the trail.  After you find the trail into the woods (it's basically at the first point that there aren't blackberry bushes), it's easy to navigate, and is already worn in enough to follow more easily than, say, the trail to the top of Mt Teneriffe at night, or the trail up Mailbox in the snow - which is to say I never lost the trail.  At this stage enough folks have been up it to have worn things in really well, and people have clearly been hard at work clearing trees and so forth:

If that isn't a clearly demarcated trail, I don't know what is.
The logistics of the trail after you get into the woods are straightforward - you follow a series of reasonably graded switchbacks through old growth up the side of Squak, over a couple of small crests, until you get to the intersection.  It's currently still probably best experienced as a hike rather than a run (I found myself tripping on brush and slipping on loose ground even at hiking pace), but it's a great piece of forest.  It was foggy today so the woods had an ethereal feel about them, I'm pretty sure I heard a pileated woodpecker (didn't spot it so can't be sure), and there are some nice peekaboo views through the trees at the top (although my camera didn't do a great job of capturing them.  I heard you can see Rainier from a spot on the trail as well, but the sky was socked in to the south, so I can't verify.  I'd estimate that this section of trail is about 3 miles long, and it took me a little over 2.5 hours to do the out and back.  It is being developed for pragmatic reasons as a connector trail, but I really feel like it stands on its own as an out and back if you're looking for a more rugged trip and more dense woods than Chirico offers. 

I actually don't have a clear idea about whether there is still more permitting work that needs to be done to make this trail 'official'.  They took down the old road barriers that you used to have to jump to get into the area, and there has clearly been a ton of work done on the trail, so it seems like the project is a go.  If any readers know more details about the project, or how folks can help with the trail's development, it would be great if you could leave info in the comments below! 

In the meantime, here are some photo highlights from the trail:






Just the right elevation gain to get above today's fog line.


This is the view at the Peak - my camera didn't capture the low fog and Tiger in the background, unfortunately.


This tree is at the top of the trail, where it intersects with the rest of the Squak System.