Monday, September 22, 2014

How to Run Around Mt. Rainier: Wonderland Trail 94ish Mile Fun Run

Me, Brandon, Adam at the start

Background

One of my more recent posts here was about our trip to Colorado to run the Hardrock course in July, which for me turned into a trip to Colorado to get sick, barf on the side of the Hardrock course, and then sleep in the back of Jeason Murphy's truck.  That series of runs had previously been the big summer focus for me, and because it wasn't panning out, at some point on that trip I settled on re-focusing my goals on running the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier.  This year was all about going to new places and doing more self-organized events rather than "training" or focusing on races, so it fit right in. 

So, I did what you do in those situations, and started a Facebook group to try to find people to crew and pace, and maybe run with me. Almost immediately my friend Brandon Sack volunteered to join on the run (despite the fact that at that point he hadn't run further than a 50k), and a group of crew started to form.

Then, a couple months later, my favorite adventure partner Adam Gaston had to drop from his big Summer race at the Ultra-trail du Mont Blanc, and I immediately started plotting to get him to join at Rainier.  It wasn't too difficult to get him to agree, although he did keep trying to find excuses to back out.  "I want you to know if the weather's bad, I'm not doing this" and "I've already done this before so I have to figure out why I should do it again!" Luckily we happened upon one of the best weekends of the year, so Adam didn't have any valid excuses, and our trio was set.

In the meantime, Angel (my wife) and Broeck (Adam's girlfriend) headed up the crew effort, and made sure everyone was organized to provide enough ramen and moonshine at each aid spot to make it around the mountain.  I was originally hoping to gather 4 - 5 folks to help support, but these things escalate, and by the end about a dozen friends signed up to crew or pace for the weekend.



Approach

For the uninitiated, the Wonderland is a (officially 93 but there's a short detour that I don't think is factored in so I'm going to say) 94 mile loop trail that circumnavigates Mt Rainier, and it's one of Washington's iconic hikes, as well as one of the prettiest trails in the world.  It's also really tough, with about 23,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and an elevation profile that looks like a heart monitor reading.

Backpackers seem to usually take 10 days to do the route, but runners will frequently approach it as a 3 day trip, or will take it on in one push.  At this point, a few people have finished in under 24 hours, but most take in the range of 36.  The fastest anyone has ever run it is Kyle Skaggs 20 hour 53 minutes in 2006. Some people do it in unsupported fashion (i.e. carrying everything they need from the start to finish), some self-supported (i.e. dropping their own caches along the way but not enlisting others' help), and some supported with a crew meeting them at spots along the way.  And among runners, people seem to usually start at Longmire and move in a clockwise direction, though I haven't heard strong rationale for the superiority of any starting/finishing point or a clockwise vs. counterclockwise approach. 

Personally, I wanted to organize a supported attempt, run counterclockwise, and start/finish at White River for some specific reasons.

Some of the Crew at the Start: Broeck, Eric, me, Brandon "I could do this with my eyes closed" Sack, Adam, Emilee, Jon

1) Running Supported

I run, basically, because I like it. And I know that I prefer hanging out with friends when I'm running to doing it on my own.  I also know that I have a lot of friends who like to camp out in the woods, and who would have fun either crewing or pacing for something like this even if they don't necessarily have the time or desire to run the whole thing themselves.  (Some of my own more meaningful experiences with running have actually been crewing, pacing or volunteering to help other people meet goals, so I don't have much trouble asking for help with this sort of 'selfish' thing.)  So, I wanted this to be a weekend party for and with friends as much as a personal challenge.  It's important to keep the 'fest' in 'Sufferfest'.  

2) Running Counterclockwise from White River

When I thought about running the Wonderland in one push, my hesitation was always that I wanted to see the whole thing in the daylight because it's so beautiful.  But then, I realized that if I approached it correctly, I could accomplish that goal.  A group of us did the Longmire to Mowich River section last year, so if I set up our approach to put that section in the middle, we would be there overnight and have daylight for everything I hadn't seen.  (We also could have gone clockwise and still placed the Longmire-Mowich section in the middle, but we went clockwise last year so that's no fun.)  This maybe was a little selfish, because it did mean that Adam and Brandon would have to tackle the longest, toughest climb (from Box Canyon to Summerland) at the end of the run, but suffering builds character, and they both need it, so in that way I was looking out for them.

Our approach did have some advantages.  As our friend Jenn Hughes pointed out, it has you moving through the most beautiful section (Indian Bar-Summerland) at the end of the trip, so you have something to look forward to.  It also allowed for three crew access points in the last 32 miles (Longmire, Reflection Lakes, and Box Canyon), when you most need it.  Adam said it was harder than the clockwise run he took last time, but in the end I think the approach we took made for a great experience. The trail is brutal any way you divide it up.

I'll work in some other data and logistical stuff in an appendix below for those who are interested in that kind of thing, or might be interested in doing this yourself.

Experience

Start: White River to Mowich

Our plan was to meet on Saturday morning at the White River campground, and to get started promptly at 7 am to maximize our daylight. My friend Emilee from nursing school (who we've been working on tricking into becoming a trail runner for a few years) was planning to meet us there to pace, but at 7 everyone was there except for her (and Eric, who she'd carpooled with). While we were finishing up the last of our packing, Angel went to find her at her campsite, and came back reporting that she was still asleep.  About 30 minutes later she walked up and apologized, "Hi guys.  I took an Ambien."  Lulz.  Obligatory crew photos, and we were off.



Our first section between crew access points was about 27 miles long, with some amazing views of Rainier and Mystic Lake.

Rainier
and Mystic Lake
Our strategy was to start out slowly and continue to move slowly pretty much forever.  We aren't all exactly evenly paced, but we were close enough, and more importantly had all run together enough to know that we'd be able to get along and work it out if someone needed to move ahead of the group, or drop behind. While I'd tend to push ahead on climbs, and Brandon would push ahead on descents, for the most part, we stuck together the entire time, only splitting up for any amount of time on the final descent with about 6 miles to go.  If we'd separated and moved our own paces earlier, Brandon in particular probably could have finished significantly more quickly, but then we would have missed out on experiences like this:

I'm not sure why this happened, but it did.
My favorite story from this section: we were moving along, chugging down a random hill, when Brandon stopped to read a sign posted on the side of the trail.  "Caution: Yellow Jack...OW! S%*#!! BEES!!"  Hornets proceeded to swarm and sting all of us while we tried to simultaneously run away, shout profanities, and swat them off of our skin.  We established a safe distance, and waited for Emilee (who was a few minutes back) to repeat our experience.  We thought about warning her, but we were all too scared of the hornets to go back, and there was really nothing we could do to spare her anyway.  She came calmly down the hill with red welts on her arms.  "There are hornets back there.  I got stung when I stopped to read the stupid sign."  We did all learn two important lessons: 1) Never read warning signs, and 2) None of us have anaphylactic reactions to hornet stings. 

About an hour out from Mowich, we ran into Broeck, Angel, and our friend Sol (another recent trail running convert) who had come out to meet us and run back to the crew spot with us.   We ended up with pacers for the entire route (Emilee from WR to Mowich (along w/Sol, Broeck and Angel for a few miles), Jon Karlen from Mowich to Longmire, Angel and Broeck from Longmire to Box Canyon, and Scott Caparelli - intrepid hiker/cyclist who hadn't previously done much trail running - from Box Canyon to the end.)  We definitely loved the fresh energy, and all of those changes of face allowed Brandon to recycle the raunchy jokes he told the whole run.   

 Nighttime: Mowich to Longmire

It turned out that my plan to do the Mowich section in the dark worked pretty perfectly.  We left Mowich Lake campground at about 4:15 in the afternoon, so were at the lovely Golden Lakes area at sunset, arrived at Longmire around the 4:15 in the morning, and napped for a bit before leaving about an hour before the sun started to come up.

In the immortal words of Whodini, the freaks come out at night, and on this section we ran into a great cast of characters. 

1) Just after we left Mowich Lake, we ran into a couple of Canadians who were also running the loop, but in the opposite direction.  I took this as a good omen, because Canadians are my spirit animal.  "How's it going?"  "Good, but slow!"  Yep. 

2) Many trail runners have stories about being confronted by unfriendly or suspicious rangers - particularly while out for the kind of questionable endeavor that we were engaging in on this trip - so I was a bit nervous when we arrived at Golden Lakes and approached the ranger cabin to ask about nearby water sources. In this case though, the ranger, who had the affect of a friendly Hempfest participant, was incredibly excited.  "What?! You're running the whole thing!  That's so rad!  How long will it take you?!",  and my favorite, "Can I ask you a question? When you're out doing this, what kind of munchies do you get hungry for?" (I swear he said munchies.)  In a side note, I realized that as I was talking to him, I was simultaneously applying vaseline to my nether-regions without even thinking about the social impropriety involved.  He didn't seem fazed, which will only encourage me to engage in this kind of behavior in public in the future.

3) At 2 a.m., shortly before we arrived at a wilderness camp site called Devil's Dream, Jon (who was pacing through this section) was running ahead about 100 yards when I heard him shout, startled, and begin talking to some one. When the rest of us caught up, we saw that he was talking to an older, grey haired woman, maybe 65, dressed in pajama pants and a puffy jacket.  She wasn't physically injured, and being that it was 2 a.m., and she was sitting in some random bushes on top of a mountain, I immediately kicked into psych nurse gear and begun doing a silent mental health assessment.  Does her conversation make sense?  Does she know who she is, and who we are?  Is her mood congruent with the situation?  She was odd, but the answer to all of those questions was "Sort of".

The story she told was believable (if strange and unfortunate).  She was hiking the Wonderland with a friend, and they had gotten separated earlier in the day and so she was on her own.  At nightfall she had turned on her flashlight, but it had died, and she wasn't able to see the trail.  She stumbled off trail, and fell into a creek, such that her clothes had gotten wet and she wasn't able to get herself out of the water with her pack on, and now her pack and sleeping bag were both wet and still in the creek.  She hadn't been able to see the trail in the dark, so had stopped for the night to hole up in a sheltered area in a bush.  We'd happened to run by and she caught our attention by shouting at Jon.

Weird, but you can understand how something like that could happen.  The strangest thing about the situation was her friend, though (another 65-ish year old woman).  The woman had plopped down in bushes less than a mile from her camp site, so we shared our lights and warm gear to help her get there to meet up with her friend.  When we arrived, the friend seemed completely unfazed, like this kind of thing happens all the time.  "Oh yeah, I figured you were camped out somewhere."  When the bush lady told her friend the story about her gear being in the creek, she said, "Well, I don't have enough room to share my sleeping bag."  And we determined that it hadn't even crossed her mind to go looking for her friend when she didn't show up after dark.  (She would have found her if she'd taken even a 10 minute walk up trail.) The friend was being completely unhelpful, so we gave bush lady a warm hat and emergency blanket so we could carry on our way with confidence that her friend wouldn't let her die in the cold.    

My theories: either the friend was trying to sabotage bush lady and was disappointed that we'd brought her back, or the two were really committed and terrible scam artists who hang out in bushes in isolated locations in hopes of grifting hikers out of $5 emergency blankets.

(Update: in a strange twist of karmic balancing, today I received a free emergency blanket in the mail from the Washington Trails Association). 

Day 2: Longmire to White River

We arrived at the Longmire crew point at about 4:30 am, greeted by cheers and cowbells and crew who were clearly just as committed and tired as we were.  Here's what we 4:30 looks like:

I came real close to barfing up that pizza a few minutes after this photo
Jon pretty quickly crashed out in his truck:


And I took a 15 minute nap/opportunity to drool all over Angel's sleeping bag:


After about an hour at the crew point, we got moving on the final section, which was (in my opinion), the most beautiful. Personally, I was in pretty good spirits because I was feeling physically tired, but not injured in any worrying way.  The nap had helped, and we were still moving along well, at the upper end of the pace that I thought we might go.

If you haven't done a long run like this, an important thing to know is that in the middle, you always think you are going to finish in less time than you ultimately do, because the end is always slow and it always hurts.  And we did slow down significantly - we had been moving at a bit more than 3 miles an hour (believe it or not, pretty good for the Wonderland), but in the last section dropped to less than 2.5 mph (except for Brandon, who is tougher than Adam and I).

Still though, the overall experience during this section was great, in large part because we had such great support.  Angel and Broeck kept us company for about a half-marathon to Box Canyon, and Scott hiked/ran with us the final 18-ish miles to the finish.  We also had a lot of crew intersections, with Jon setting up an unannounced aid station at Reflection Lakes after a big climb, Scott and crew meeting us at Box Canyon, and our friends Kelly and Roger setting up a roving aid station on their own out and back run from Box Canyon to Indian Bar.

Reflection Lake
It was also, I think, the most beautiful section of the course.  We had already moved through a beautiful section near Indian Bar, with massive views of the mountain and a fantastic spring to cool ourselves off in, when we ran into the Canadian runners again.  "You guys are about to move through some epic shit", they told us.  They were right - the portion of the trail through Summerland was some of the prettiest terrain I've seen anywhere in the world. Really spectacular. 

Here are some mediocre pictures I took of the beautiful things we saw during this final push:




After Summerland, the trail drops down into the White River drainage for about a 6 mile stretch, and for me this meant for the last 6 miles I felt like I was almost done which meant that suddenly I was thinking about how much I was suffering and wished I was sitting in camp with a beer and sleeping bag.  Brandon, Adam, Scott and I had allowed ourselves to split up as we finished, so I was by myself, which is usually when I suffer the most.  I was chugging along really slowly, running some on downhills, but walking most flats and uphills.  I also kept seeing phantom signs for the turnoff to White River campground, which I knew should be coming sometime soon, and cursed every time I realized it was just another sign-height branch. And I made a very slight wrong turn (about .1 mile added) and ended up on a road, and very seriously thought about hitching back to camp. The only thing that stopped me was the thought that "No, wait a minute, that would mean that you couldn't tell people you finished the Wonderland because you weren't willing to walk 2 miles at the end."  Honestly though, that sort of feeling is familiar from the end of just about every long race I've done, so it was a pretty par-for-the-course type of suffering.

When I finally crossed the river into camp, I had a weird wave of nostalgia wash over, as I was passing over a point that I've been to a bunch of times, with a view of the mountain I really love.  The crew were posted up at the campground parking lot with cowbells and drinks ready to mark the official end of the trail, but the emotional finish was that almost contemplative moment of passing over the river and looking up at that big effin' mountain we just ran around.

Crossing the "finish line"

Big effin mountain we just ran around


Appendix A: Some Random Concluding Thoughts

- Brandon, Adam and I got along remarkably well, all things considered.  That's a long time to do anything with anyone, but we had a ton of fun. It's good to run with friends.

- Maybe for that reason, the whole thing had the atmosphere of another long summer fun run rather than a crazy endurance challenge.  Very high ratio of fun to suffering on this one. I'm pretty sure Adam, Brandon and the crew felt the same way, although last night after dinner, instead of saying goodbye, Adam did point at me aggressively and snarl,  "I'm never F&%$ing doing the Wonderland again!"

- Our crew and pacers were so awesome, and I'm not just saying that because it's obligatory.  They took care of us, surprised us with fun things, and generally convinced us that we were amazing and that we should keep going, despite the fact that we were often hobbling around the mountain like men three times our age.  I wanted the weekend to be a party with friends for everyone, so I hope that's how everyone experienced it!

- This is a seriously hard trail.  I think the Issy Alps 100k was more difficult, pound for pound (20k elevation gain over 65 or so miles vs. 23k over 94), but I agree with a lot of other trail reporters in saying that overall this was the hardest run I've done.  Steep climbing and lots of moderately technical descending.

Appendix B: Facts, Figures, Gear List and so forth

Finishing times: Brandon: Just over 34 hours.  Me: Just over 35 hours.  Adam: just over 35:30.

Crew Access Points: Mowich Lake Campground, Longmire road crossing, Reflection Lakes, Box Canyon parking lot.

Gear:

Salomon Skin Pro 14+3 pack
Sawyer squeeze filter
Brooks Cascadia shoes
Patagonia Houdini jacket
Filthy Seven Hills trucker hat
Synthetic race shirts
Smartwool long sleeve shirt and sock hat, North Face gloves (didn't use any of 'em- crazy warm night!)
Thrift store shorts
Green Trails Wonderland map
SPOT transponder (Thanks Broeck!)
Socks (only changed once)
2x Ultimate Direction bottles (total of only 40 oz - so many water sources on the trail!)
Pretty generic headlamps
Sol emergency bivvy
Lighter, just in case
A bunch of vaseline
 

Nutrition Strategy

Eat constantly and eat a wide variety.  Ate a total of probably 9 -10,000 calories! Carried way more, which I always do because I'm either a bad planner or like to be prepared for worst case scenarios. 

12x half turkey sandwiches
3 safeway pastries
A bunch of honey stinger gels
A bunch of rice krispie treats (my favorite)
A bunch of pop tarts
Some Twizzlers
1.5 slices of Big Mario's pepperoni pizza
A couple of Cokes
2 bananas
A bit of ramen
A bunch of Starbucks chilled coffee
2 packages of Nutty Buddy's (tasted great but made me sick!)
1 swig of gas station apple moonshine


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Red Mountain Scramble


I started to write this post because I went on a great run/hike/scramble yesterday on Red Mountain, which I had problems finding information about online beforehand.  For some reason my Google search failed me, and I could only find one or two sketchy descriptions of the route.  Today I realized that there is an awesome description right here.

Oh well, the internet needs a little more redundancy anyway.

The trailhead is the PCT trailhead off of exit 52. Coming from Seattle, head left at the T off of the exit, then an immediate right - it's signed for the Pacific Crest Trail.  You need a National Forest Pass for the lot.

The trip is basically a 4 mile gradual uphill run followed by a half-mile, 1000 foot straight up scramble to the top of Red Mountain - a peak that I've wondered about climbing for a while, because it is conspicuous on the popular hike up to Kendall Katwalk.  The whole return trip took me right at 3.5 hours, moving at a relatively leisurely pace on the running portion, and then hanging out on the peak for about 15 minutes. 

View of Red Mt from the PCT
Routefinding is relatively straightforward.  Just go up the PCT for about 2.5 miles, and take a left on the big, visible and marked Commonwealth Basin Trail (it's the first trail off to the left that you'll come to, I believe.)    You'll descend for a bit before crossing a nice cool stream and a wilderness campsite, then ascend up Red Mountain for a mile or so (and a thousand feet or so of elevation) on well-maintained trail.  Once the trail levels out, you'll see a conspicuous trail off to the right which is marked with a cairn.  This is the route to the top.  (If you come to a pond, you've gone just a little too far.)  The summit trail isn't on the Greentrails map, but it starts close to where the main trail (Commonwealth Basin/1033) comes closest to the marked summit of Red Mountain. 

(Pro/bandit tip: there is an alternate route that is shorter to the Commonwealth basin trail on the old Cascade Crest trail, now officially abandoned/unmaintained.  Just after the PCT trailhead parking lot, you'll see a "no horses" sign.  Just after it is a gravel trail off to the left, heading into overgrown bush.  Follow that until it dead ends into the Commonwealth Basin trail, and take a left. Don't know if it's any faster due to occasional overgrowth, but it's in good shape and I think takes about a mile of distance off the route.)  

"Abandoned" Cascade Crest trail starts just ahead, on the left.

The route to the top changes from easily visible trail, to boot trail, to "it seems like there's no trail here so I'm just going to scramble the way that seems safest".  There does actually seem to be at least one route that is used consistently, but it's often hard to follow on the way up (it's more visible from above, so I didn't have any problems following on the way down).  When in doubt, I just scrambled up and looked for spots to switchback, and the route usually became visible.  I don't know much about climb ratings, but I've heard it rates as Class 2 or 3.  No ropes required, but you'll be clinging to the wall with hands and feet a lot of the time.  I was nervous at points, and even had to talk myself out of turning around at one point, but never felt genuinely unsafe.  As a thoroughly untrained climber, I'm not sure I'd do it in rain or snow though.  There were a fair number of big, loose rocks all the way up, so it's important to take time to be sure of your footing and hand-holds, even when you're grabbing on to big rocks.  (I also read in one of the reports that red rock usually indicates loose rock - at least in the Cascades - and there was definitely a lot of that.)  I thought a few times that it would be safer to do this with a partner in case anything happened, but you wouldn't want it to be a partner that you liked very much, in case you knocked loose rock down on them.

The summit offers amazing panoramas and quite a bit of room to spread out, sunbathe, have a picnic, etc.  Here are some sample pics of what you'll see:

Steep scramble up red rocks

Thomson giving a thumbs up.

The view west, I believe

Southeast view, from left to right: Kendall Peak, Lake Kechelus, Rainier in the distance

Little closer view of Kendall Peak, with the PCT in view.
 

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.