Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pulling The Upset of Upsets at the Kodiak 100

BIG BEAR LAKE, CA -- If not for a chance meeting four years ago, I would never have known about a new 100-mile race set to debut this year in Big Bear Lake, CA, called the Kodiak 100-Mile Ultra Marathon. Four years ago, on the first day of Spring in 2009, I was climbing Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48, with a friend when we ran into Paul Romero, who was on Whitney with his 13-year-old son, Jordan, training for what would be their epic and record-breaking summit of Mount Everest later that year, when Jordan became the youngest person ever to stand on top of the world. When I meet interesting people like that, I like to maintain a friendship with them. That day I was climbing with Zachary Bookman, whom I had met on a volcano in Mexico the year before. I had stayed in touch with him, and have since gone on a five-day hike through Yosemite and climbed on Rainier with Zac and his brother and dad. I stayed in touch with Paul, visiting their house in Big Bear Lake the following winter when I was rolling through, and again this past March when I dropped in on him at his camper on Lake Mead in Boulder City, NV. It was then that Paul told me about the awesome new 100-mile race he had planned for September on the "sick" single-track around Big Bear Lake, and, knowing that I was an ultra-marathoner myself, he invited me to come out and run it. The timing of the race was perfect for me, it appeared, as it fell during mid-September, when I knew I would be on a three-week layoff from my job driving for UPS in Keene, NH, and at a time when I had planned to be out West anyway. Sp I quickly signed up and began training. However, some time during the summer it was drawn to my attention that new rules being instituted by the Hardrock 100 regarding qualifying to enter that lottery had left me, apparently, without a qualifying race and without the ability to enter the Hardrock lottery for the 2014 race, which is always my target race. In four years of applying for Hardrock, I have gotten in just once, in 2012, and wound up dropping at 85 miles with blisters. At the time, I was assured that if I dropped from that race, my status for reapplying would not be any different than if I had completed the race, but that turned out not to be true and I suddenly had a dilemma on my hands. Kodiak, by virtue of it being a first-year event, was not a Hardrock qualifier, and the only race that was which had not already filled was The Bear 100 in Utah. The only problem with that was that The Bear was the week after Kodiak, so how could I possibly run both? Some people suggested that I drop out of Kodiak to run The Bear as getting a Hardrock qualifier was more important, and others suggested that I drop down to the 50-miler at Kodiak so I would have something left to run The Bear the next weekend. But in the end I decided to sign up for The Bear despite also being set on the Kodiak 100 and I just prayed that somehow I might be able to recover in time to run two 100-milers in back-to-back weekends. Considering I had only finished two 100-milers in my life, I'm not sure how I thought I was going to be able to match that in just eight days. The reason I did not want to drop out of Kodiak or drop down to the 50-miler is that I had a feeling that something special was going to happen at the race. Perhaps not to me, but something special enough that I would want to be a part of it. Though I must admit, I had a deep-seated, nagging feeling that I was going to have an incredible race, though I certainly was not confident enough to say anything to anybody. Especially not to Paul when I arrived the Monday before the race to start acclimatizing to the 7000-9000-foot altitude that would be running on race day, which was Friday night at 6 p.m. under a full moon. That was another reason I was excited for this race! When I arrived, I asked Paul what I could do to help and he quickly got me busy putting together some chairs and tables he had purchased for the finish line area the night before at IKEA. Then he had me run some errands and bring supplies to his course-marking crew of Matt and Eric, who had been out on the course for days marking it for the race. A couple days later, Eric Sullivan arrived from Aspen, CO, and it was clear Paul had brought Eric in to beef up the quality of the field for the race, as first-year events tend not to attract particularly strong fields. Top runners wait for a race to establish itself and work out any kinks before entering. In fact, based on the rankings on UltraSignup, I was seeded sixth coming into the race, which was what led me to secretly believe I could have myself a strong result with a good effort. "Sully," though, was a strong runner, having recently placed seventh at the Leadville 100, and it was clear that he was the favorite going in. On Thursday, I drove back to Orange County Airport to pick up Nancy Hobbs, who was going to crew me for the race. Most of you know that Nancy and I had been living together in Colorado prior to our breakup in May and my return to New Hampshire, but many of you are also hopeful that we will be able to work things out and get back together. This would be our second weekend spent together working on this, though both were at races as she had come to New Hampshire in August to crew me at the More & More Difficult 50K (a fat-ass event in the White Mountains with 17,000 feet of climbing), which I had won as well. I certainly didn't tell Nancy that I had secret notions of a top finish, either. I woke up on race day with a pounding headache which I did not seem to be able to shake. But I have found in the past at ultra events, the worse I feel before the race, the better I end up doing in the race. Not sure why. Anyway, I got to the starting line for the 6 p.m. start feeling a little better. We began the race by making a one-mile lap around "The Village" as the course had come up a mile short at 99 miles so the problem was resolved by having everyone do a "warm-up" lap at the start before heading up the first of many fire roads to a high point, where darkness fell and the single-track began. I ran this section slowly, walking much of it, and then picking it up only slightly on the single-track. I ran for a while with my friend Keira Henninger, whom I had met at a previous race in SoCal, through the first water station which was located in a neighborhood next to the zoo. I would not have wanted to live here, as the animals in the zoo were howling and screaming continuously, perhaps because of the full moon, but it was quite overwhelming to listen to. The first aid station, Camp 1, was located about 12 miles into the race, and marked a spot where we would start to climb to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, at 9,900 feet the high point of the course. This was about a five-mile climb up to a saddle and then out-and-back along a ridge to the summit. I had been to the saddle on Wednesday checking things out, and I saw that much of the footing was loose shale and sharp rock -- not the place you want to fall while running in the dark. As we approached the summit, I started counting the returning runners and saw that one person was well out ahead of the field already, but the next four were closer together. Suddenly, I saw someone sitting on a rock pile atop a little rise and I asked how far it was to the summit. When he said, "This is it!," I was quite surprised. Not only had I gotten there sooner than I expected, but I was both surprised and elated to discover I was in sixth place! It was at this moment that I thought perhaps something special might be possible after all. The descent back to the aid station takes a different route from the saddle and I quickly passed the fifth-place runner as he was being cautious on the rocky footing. Arriving back at the aid station, I quickly refueled and headed out. Because of an unexpected course change that brought us back to the first aid station a second time, it was only about five miles to the second aid station at Camp Oakes, a YMCA camp nestled in the ponderosa pines. I arrived there quickly, had some soup, and got back out in fourth place, passing a runner still in the aid station. From here began perhaps the best part of the course. For then next 35 miles or so, we would be on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the middle of the night, under a brilliant full moon. It was exquisite! I had told Nancy I would probably be hiking most of the next 20 miles to the next aid station, Camp 3, at the 50-mile mark, where the 50-milers would be waiting to start their race at 6 a.m. However, the PCT along this section was so immaculate and well-groomed, and all rolling single-track, it was completely runnable, and I found myself running almost the entire 20 miles. I could see the lights of two other runners behind me, but none in front of me, so I even turned mine off from time to time to trick my pursuers into thinking I had pulled away out of sight. But I also saw that I was moving very fast and feeling strong, and it was then that I determined that if any of the three runners ahead of me faltered, I was going to catch them. That meant a podium finish was possible! It buoyed my spirits and carried me onward. I knew one of the three runners ahead of me had to be "Sully," and, unfortunately for him, this was confirmed to me when I happened upon him lying beside the trail groaning. A mountain biker patrolling the course was with him and Sully told me he had twisted his ankle and fallen into some cactus bushes and was pulling out thorns. I did not stop, but I also did not discount Sully's ability to rebound from this mishap later in the race. Now in third place, I pushed on, and came into the Camp 3 aid station at Holcomb Valley Campground sooner than Nancy expected, as she was not there waiting for me, having gone to find the outhouse in the dark about 800 yards from the aid station. She came running when I called to her in the darkness and I got resupplied, but I also noticed that the second-place runner, Ken Ringled, has also in the aid station, and he left with only about a five-minute lead on me. From the aid station, you run a mile or two down Van Deusen Canyon Road and get back onto the PCT for another long, beautiful section of single track. I had reached the 50-mile mark in under 10 and a half hours and still felt great as I headed back out intent on hunting Ken down. However, he was also determined not to be caught, and it was a couple hours, it seemed, before I first saw his headlamp. I would guess it took me almost 10 miles to catch him, which I did during another nice single-track section of ponderosa pines just as the first signs of dawn were creeping over the valley rim. He was not moving particularly fast when I passed him, so my guess is that he was fading and would not be a factor later in the race. But I also knew the first-place runner, a German named Harald Zundel from Cardiff, CA, had been well ahead at the turnaround atop Sugarloaf so many hours ago. Not long after I passed Ken, I came upon a fire road crossing where two women were sitting on the hood of a car cheering on runners. I asked how long ago the leader went by, and the response was, "Oh, about 15 or 20 minutes ago!" About what I expected. Not that I yet thought I actually had a chance to win this race. But certainly even if Sully were somehow able to come back on me, that would not knock me off the podium. However, everything changed moments later when I arrived at a remote water stop at mile 59.5 at the Coxey Truck Trail. I was reaching for some food at the table and asked how long ago the leader came through. The woman responded, "He's right over there," pointing to a nearby car, "and he's not feeling too well!" I looked up and saw Harald looking like he had just thrown up. I dropped whatever I was holding and immediately took off, wanting to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. "Oh, my, God," I thought, "I am in the lead of a 100-mile race!" We were quickly back on rolling single-track and as I got about a quarter-mile or more down the trail, I looked back and saw that Harald was just leaving the aid station, but was not running. I took off as fast as I dared, not really knowing how far it was to the next aid station. In fact, this section of trail was not very well marked and I ran long sections without seeing any course markings. As it turned out, there was only one trail and no way to get off it, but when you are unfamiliar with the course, you begin to doubt whether you might have missed a turn somewhere, somehow, and are always in need of a "confidence" marker on the trail. There was no way I wanted to stop or even go back to make sure I was on the right trail, so I pushed forward, and every time -- sometimes after a seeming eternity -- I would come upon another flag to indicate I was still on course. At Crab Flats Road, at mile 65.5, we left the PCT and started climbing up some fire roads that were too steep to run, but I was confident no one else could run them either. Until I got near the top and suddenly turned to see someone running past me. "The gig is up," I thought. "Oh, well, it was great while it lasted." But in talking to the runner, it turns out he was the first 50-miler, though I found it hard to believe anyone of the 50-milers, who started an hour and a half behind me just 15 miles ago, could have caught me so quickly. His name was Michele Graglia from Italy, and he would go on to win the 50-mile race in 9:32:28, crushing the field by nearly two hours. I was so elated not only to find that he was a 50-miler, but also that he told me my two nearest pursuers were also walking and not looking so well. This buoyed me even more! We got to the next water stop at mile 70 and I was shocked to discover I still had six miles to the Rim Nordic aid station -- Camp 4 -- at mile 76. I was sure that I had to be much closer, but it was still a long ways away, with more climbing on fire roads -- not my favorite terrain -- and then a sharp downhill to the aid station. I arrived to much fanfare from the crowd assembled there and took some additional time there to get a complete resupply and even a quick leg massage before heading back out, crossing Route 18 and heading for the crux of the entire race, the section affectionately being called Hades by Paul and his crew. Hades was a section of trail called Siberia Creek that had not been open for like 40 years! Matt and Eric had spent countless hours down in this steep ravine clearing the old trail of overgrowth, but they could only do so much and the trail was still incredibly thick with overhanging debris ... Matt, it turns out, is only 5-8, so anyone taller than that was going to struggle with the canopy. I am 6-1, and was constantly leaning one way or the other to avoid the roof of the "tunnel" we were climbing through, even losing my sunglasses at one point, only to have them returned to me by one of the 50-milers at the final aid station. Leaving Camp 4, first you must descend more than 2000 feet on narrow switchbacks to Bear Creek, the creek that comes out of the Big Bear Lake Dam above you. This is the low point of the course, at about 5000 feet where you cross the creek on a log bridge while holding a safety rope, and then begins the long, six-mile, 3000-foot climb out of Hades into the Siberia Creek Canyon. This is where I thought I had blown the race. I got to the top of the first long climb through all the overgrowth and somehow, in my constant push to keep moving forward, I got off trail. Now, this happened to me in the dark at Hardrock in 2012 and ruined my whole race, because I pushed onward not knowing where the trail was and soon found myself on top of a ridge on the wrong mountain! And now I found myself on a steep side hill with lots of loose, sliding scree and caught up in the buckthorns -- thick, unrelenting, needle-sharp bushes blocking my path. It did not immediately dawn on me that I was off trail, because I knew this was a recently recovered trail, but also because I saw a flag marker up on the side hill that simply should not have been there. I am not sure how it got there, but it caused me to believe I was still headed in the right direction when I was not. Soon, I realized that I could not possibly be on the trail and started to climb higher up the ridge to my right in hopes of finding the trail. But that was not the right direction -- the trail was actually below me to the left -- yet I bushwhacked through the buckthorns to climb higher, and my legs and hands were getting sliced to ribbons. About the time I got thoroughly dejected, I heard some voices far below me and called down to them, but they did not answer. So then I busted my way back through the buckthorns, getting cut up some more, as I headed down toward the voices, calling out as I went. Suddenly, someone responded and told me they were on the trail, so I headed straight down the scree field, getting my shoes full of rocks as I went. I reached the trail just as three runners arrived and while I was relieved to be on the trail again, the news they gave me discouraged me -- I had told them I had been lost for a half hour up there and had surely blown the lead I had worked so hard to build, and they informed me that, yes, there were two runners ahead of me somewhere. We still had about 1500 feet of climbing to get out of Siberia Creek and while I felt I was still climbing well, I could not shake these three runners. So I accepted the fact that I could not be gaining on the two runners they said were ahead of me. But, hey, if I could hold them off, I could still finish on the podium, I thought. As far approached the top of the climb and the steepness leveled off, I caught two runners and was encouraged again. I asked them if they were the two 100-milers the others said I was chasing and they said, no, they were in the 50-mile race. I was confused at this point, thinking perhaps there must be two other runners still ahead of me. But all six of us reached the water stop at Champing Lodgepole Pine at the same time and when I asked the woman there how many 100-milers had come through, she said I was the first! Turns out the 50-milers had all thought I was the lead 50-miler, not the lead 100-miler, so they thought we were all in the same race! When they learned I was the lead 100-miler, all came clear, and they said they had indeed passed the second-place 100-miler -- Harald -- soon after the crossing at Bear Creek and he had been sitting beside the trail not looking very well. Suddenly, I was encouraged again! From here, we had a long, mostly descent into the Camp 5 aid station at Aspen Glen Picnic Area, at mile 91.5 or 92.5, depending on which mileage chart you looked at. Anyway, I arrived there still feeling pretty good, though my feet were starting to hurt as my shoes were still full of rocks (which shredded my socks, it turned out, but only gave me a small blister). At the aid station, I had expected to find out that my getting lost had cost me any chance of breaking 24 hours, which had been my goal since before the race. But Nancy informed me it was only 3:53 when I arrived and I still had more than two hours to cover the remaining eight or nine miles. She also had been talking to Catra Corbett, who was at the aid station, about finding me a pacer for the final section, and Catra's friend, Corina Smith, was pressed into duty to pace me to the finish, even though she herself had been throwing up earlier that day. We left the aid station not knowing exactly how many miles were left to go and not knowing how close my nearest pursuer was. But we had a 1600-foot climb over the next five or six miles to complete our big loop around Big Bear Lake and a three-mile decent to the finish line. I was climbing well, and Corina, who was a retired 21-year veteran of the LAPD, was perfect for the task of pacing me, as she set a strong pace which I was able to maintain for the most part. We went through the final water stop at the top of the climb and got onto the single-track of the Skyline Trail, which would take us to the final turn and the decent to the finish. The problem was we didn't seem to be getting anywhere, and then suddenly there were no course markers anywhere to be found. We went several miles not knowing if we had somehow taken a wrong turn, but we knew we were still on the Skyline Trail and even though I was about 96 miles into the race, I was still cognizant enough to remember that we took the Skyline all the way to the Coyote Trail, which I had been on at the start of the race almost 24 hours ago. I told her we needed to keep going until we reached this turn, which I would recognize, but she wasn't so certain. Corina ran ahead on a straight line, while I stayed on the trail, which was a mountain bike trail and wound back and forth on itself like ribbon candy. Suddenly, I heard a whoop from Corina, who had found the Coyote junction and she yelled for me to get up there. Only thing was, with all the twists and turns of the trail it still took me a while to reach her and to being the final decent. I had calculated during the ascent that I needed to be at the top of Coyote by 5:20 p.m. in order to assure myself a sub-24-hour finish, and would prefer to get there by 5:10 so as not to have to push it. However, we did not arrive until 5:32 and I felt there was no way I had enough left in the tank to cover the final three miles in less than 28 minutes. But Corina got me to start running and I found I could run faster than I thought. But, still, I could not imagine that I would have enough time to break 24. As we neared the bottom, we saw Catra coming up the road, and she said we still had about a mile to go, but that included a short little uphill section as well. But I kicked it in, and ran harder down the final grade to the paved road and then shuffled up the hill to reach the final turn to the finish, still more than a quarter mile away. I told Corina that I needed two minutes and did not expect that I still had two minutes left, but she said I had four minutes left and I kicked it in. Soon, I saw Nancy and could hear the crowd at the finish line yelling. Matt was on the microphone whipping the crowd into a frenzy to cheer me on to a sub-24 finish and I was running as hard as I could as I made it into the finish chute amongst all the calamity. Nancy was there, and she said I might have just missed 24 hours, but then Matt came on the mike again and announced my winning time: "Twenty-three hours, 58 minutes and 55 seconds!" I had made it with 65 seconds to spare! I was so excited and the moment was too surreal. I could not believe I had just won a 100-mile race! Corina later congratulated me and told me I had turned in a 7:55 final mile in order to get in under the 24-hour mark. I sat for a while, enjoyed my complimentary Dos Equis, and was helped to the car by Nancy so I could go take a shower at our cabin about a mile away on the lakeshore. Then I came back to the finish area to learn that Paul Jesse of San Diego had rallied to finish second in 24:42:28, meaning I had won by almost 45 minutes. Harald Zundel, despite his stomach issues, held on to finish third in 26:12:48 and Ken Ringled, who had been second when I passed him would up fourth in 27:44:14. Sully, it turned out, had dropped at the 50-mile mark, as had most of the field. As it turned out, only 19 of the 73 starters finished the race, the high attrition rate being because the race was much, much harder than even the race directors anticipated. Before the race, Paul had suggested that the winning time would be about 19 hours. I knew better. I thought maybe 21 hours. But I also knew that I was capable, on a good day, of doing this course in under 24 hours. I was right about that, but what I did not know was that that was going to be good enough to post the greatest achievement of my running career. Because so many people were still out on the course, there was no way to hold the awards ceremony Saturday night as anticipated, and Paul rescheduled it for Sunday morning. By then, my legs were feeling the effects of going 100 miles, but I was still so euphoric that I somehow did not notice. During the awards ceremony, Paul said never in a million years would he have picked me to win the inaugural Kodiak 100. I understand his point. How many 53-year-olds are winning 100-mile races? "It was like the Cubs winning the World Series!" Paul exclaimed as he brought me onstage for my award, which was a beautifully hand-carved wooden bear that I will treasure forever. Nancy and I flew back to Colorado after the race and began getting ready for The Bear the following weekend. We drove nine hours to Logan, Utah, for the race, and I felt pretty good considering. But I was lacking the mental edge I would need to cover 100 miles again with just six days of rest. I was moving fairly well for quite a while, however, getting beyond the 45 miles which is where I dropped at this race last year. Unable to run much, I was mostly power hiking, but sometime around midnight and the 18-hour mark the wheels came off and I limped into the aid station at mile 61 with nothing left. Nancy and Steve Pero helped me to the truck and we drove back to Logan and a hot bath at the motel. It was a long drive back to Colorado that afternoon, but my disappointment of not finishing The Bear -- and in not securing a qualifying race -- paled in comparison to what I had accomplished the week before at the Kodiak 100. And to think, none of it would ever have happened if not for a chance encounter on top of a mountain four years before! You meet so many people in your life, but you just never know which of them are going to have an impact on your future. Thank you, Paul, for your friendship and for inviting me to the inaugural Kodiak 100. I will treasure the moment forever.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Taking on the beast called Hardrock

OK, so I know I am delinquent. I have not posted on here in nearly two years. But as many of you know, I have spent much of that time battling a chronic case of plantar fasciitis. That suddenly went away last fall just in time for the Hardrock 100 lottery last December when I was lucky enough to get chosen for the 19th running of what many of us ultrarunners consider not only the hardest test of endurance out there, but the most fun as well. I arrived in Silverton a full week before the race, not entirely just to acclimatize. Living in Colorado Springs now, I didn't feel at a disadvantage regarding the altitude. Colorado Springs is at 6000 feet and I had not been back to sea level since April except for a 30-hour failed mission to climb Rainier a month ago. And of course there I was only at sea level long enough to fly in and out. Another reason to arrive early at Hardrock is the people. Silverton is overtaken by lean bodies for two weeks every summer and many of them all stay at the Avon Hotel on 10th St. owned by Tom Burrell and opened only to Hardrockers for those two weeks each year. Other that that, the Avon sits silent for the rest of the year. A great group of ultrarunners calls the Avon home each year, including Steve and Deb Pero, the couple who first introduced me to ultrarunning 10 years ago when I was pretty much a newbie to the trails. Old friend Jeff List, whom I paced last year, was also there, as well as James Varner, Liz Bauer, Scott Brockmeier, Billy Simpson, Blake Wood and Mark and Margaret Heaphy, all of whom I got to know better. Great people all. My training for Hardrock admittedly did not go as well as I had planned leading up to the race. Minor leg issues still nagged me and with two of the adventure films I help promote having just premiered in early June, I was busy these last few weeks working too much. My last training race was the Dirty Thirty in Golden, CO, on June 2 and after that I think I only did three more training runs the final six weeks leading up to Hardrock. However, I did do some mountain climbing, bagging a half-dozen Centennial 13ers during that span. Hardrock is about climbing and I think the hiking was more beneficial for me at that point than any more running was going to be. But I still showed up in Silverton without a real indication of how my Hardrock effort was going to go. Having only paced the course before -- two years ago in this direction and last year in the opposite direction -- I had come to respect this course as a killer of dreams. Both years foot problems derailed me -- two years ago the plantar was still raging and last year my feet pruned badly because of the horrible conditions. Since last year's race I had talked to my friend Marshall Ulrich about the pruning problem and he recommended Sportslick, which he used during his record-setting cross-country run a few years ago. Unfortunately, living in bone-dry Colorado Springs I never got a chance to put it to use even during a training run, but Marshall's recommendation was good enough for me. The only problem was, in my effort to be calm and relaxed the morning of the race I forgot to apply it! I got two miles into the race on Friday and was coming to the first water crossing and realized I had not applied the Sportslick! In retrospect, perhaps I should have stopped before crossing and put it on, but I was already falling into a comfortable rhythm and waded across. I knew I had dry shoes and socks in Telluride, but that was still about 18 miles away over three major climbs. The feet in fact did start to prune coming down the Bridalveil Falls section into Telluride and I had to walk the switchbacks coming down from the falls and all the way into town as my feet were already started to prune up a bit from being wet. I was majorly concerned. I had planned a change of shoes in Telluride as I had three pairs of my favorite running shoes in my drop bags along the course. I run in Inov-8 Roclite 295s and they have served me well, even at the Massanutten 100 two years ago when I set an age-group course record running in the same pair the entire way over MMT's notorious rocks. So I thought they would be up to the challenge of Hardrock. Note No. 1 to self: Next time, run in a beefier shoe. The 295s just couldn't prevent my feet from turning to hamburg, which eventually happened along with the blistering. But, if I had applied the Sportslick from the start, perhaps my feet never would have started pruning and would not have been susceptible to being tenderized as they were. Anyway, my fortunes changed coming out of Telluride. Later, I found out I was in 80th place in Telluride, which was not a bad position to be in. After all, the first year I ran Massanutten in 2009 I started out in last place -- I purposely walked the first three miles on downhill pavement as instructed by Steve Pero -- and then started moving my way up through the pack, eventually finishing 11th and getting passed by no one the final 97 miles. I left Telluride and immediately began passing people who had gone by me while I walked into town. Making the long climb up to Virginius Pass breezed by and I was standing at the Kroger Aid Station with hosts Sue Johnson and Roch Horton in just 2:15. I then blasted down the "Black Diamond" run out of the tiny pass and made my way to Ouray 11 miles away down Camp Bird Road. I got into Ouray and immediately saw Rick Hessick from Colorado Springs who told me I looked remarkable strong, which was confirmation to me that my race was coming together. He was there to pace Steve Bremner, but Steve never got the memo about having to duck entering the cave crossing Box Canyon Falls and he had split his head open above the eyebrow. This didn't do Steve in, however, as he tried to continue, but stomach problems brought him down by the time he got to Grouse. Now, I had had no stomach issues whatsoever, and I attribute that to the new product called Vi Endurance gels that I was using. I was taking about one an hour and virtually nothing else except water. They tasted great, kept the stomach settled and gave me incredible energy. I really did not have to give my stomach a single thought during the entire race. Each time I felt a hunger pang, I popped a Vi gel and that was that. Vi will be coming on the market very soon and I am working as a rep for them, so if you would like to order some, let me know! I left Ouray incredibly at the same instant as Ken from Pasadena whom I had run with all the way into Ouray after he caught me on Camp Bird Road. But as we started up Bear Creek Trail with a half-dozen other people, Blake Wood and his pacer sprinted by all of us. I lit out in pursuit of them, partly because Blake is in my age group but also because I know he is strong (with more than 10 Hardrock finishes) and going to run a solid pace. They were moving fast ahead of me, but they stopped to get water at a stream and I cranked past them. I kept up this strong pace -- I was climbing like a madman, I felt -- through Engineer aid station and over the pass and down to Grouse. Later, I was told I had moved from 80th place in Telluride to 41st place in Grouse in a span of about 35 miles. I bolted out of Grouse just as Blake arrived and headed up Grouse Gulch toward Handies Peak, a 14er that you have to go over the summit of which represents the high point of the race. Or, in my case, maybe it was the low point. Because that's where my entire race went south. At first I continued climbing strong and passed 5 or 6 more people going up Grouse Gulch. But when I crossed American Basin and started up Handies, I made a critical mistake. I lost the trail in the utter darkness -- it was about 2 a.m. and there was absolutely no moon -- and with no runners in front of me up on Handies to light the way, I was clueless as to my whereabouts. This is where having a pacer would have come in handy. Note No. 2 to self: Use a pacer next year! A pacer right here would have kept me from making a huge mistake. I was off trail, but instead of retracing my steps to locate it again, I plunged forward, confident that the trail was to my right and was going to cut across my path as it headed to Handies. Boy, was I wrong. There was no trail and I continued to climb hoping to find it until I discovered I was on the ridge of the peak next to Handies. I had climbed the wrong mountain! You may ask how I could have done this, but it seemed so sensible when I did it. But in your mild delirium of running a race, the cool-headedness of a pacer certainly would have prevented this foolhardy mistake. But I had never once considered backtracking as I was in total "relentless forward momentum" mode and continued up the wrong mountain in despite of my mind telling me this was all very wrong. When I got the the ridge, I obviously discovered my mistake and thought I could simply go over the summit and along the saddle on the other side and summit Handies that way -- after all, I had done enough bonus mileage. But when I went over the summit I discovered that the ridge cliffed out. I had no choice but to retreat over the summit and scamper off the mountain through a terrible pile of scree. By now the people coming up behind me were on the trail and I could see the way to Handies, so I made my way down my peak to the trail at about 12,500 feet or so, and then trudged to the summit kicking myself the entire way for my stupidity. Now, here's where I compounded the problem. Once I summitted, I was still feeling exceedingly strong ... my climbing legs were solid and I thought I could make up the hour or so I had lost. I took off on a fast run down the steep Grizzly Gulch side of Handies all the way to Burrows Park at the trailhead, catching many of the people I had passed hours earlier. However, this took a toll I had not considered in my madness. I think this is where my heels got extremely chafed by the downhill pace and the blisters sprung up. I was already feeling this by the time I got to Burrows and it was a difficult time just getting the four miles down the dirt road to the Sherman aid station. Jon Teischer of Colorado Springs, who would go on to get his fourth Hardrock finish, was sleeping behind the tent at Burrows when I got there, but he and his pacer Ryan soon caught me on the dirt road and I ran into Sherman with them. But I already knew that my race which was so promising when I started up Handies Peak just a few hours ago was now on life support. I took off my shoes to find massive blisters on both heels and my feet were also pretty raw from the pounding on the rocks. I nonetheless headed up the Cataract Creek trail toward Pole Creek -- the next aid station -- as you don't want to drop out at Sherman. It's the most inaccessible aid station and you might be waiting hours to get brought back to Silverton. I still climbed fairly well and kept JT and Ryan in sight until we got above the waterfall and the trail flattens out ... once there, they took off and I could only stumble along at a slow walk. I never saw them again. Getting into Pole Creek was very long and painful, but not as long and painful as covering the next four and a half miles to the Maggie's Gulch aid station was. It only took me two and a half hours to get there, but the pain was unrelenting. I decided before I even started the long descent into Maggie's that it made little sense for me to continue beyond there and I informed Ken from Pasadena, who had caught up to me again, to tell the aid station I was going to drop. Now, many of you might say that I should have kept going. After all, it was only 1:45 in the afternoon on Saturday, meaning I still had more than 16 hours to hobble the final 14 or so miles. But there were three big climbs followed by steep descents still ahead of me, not to mention that the weather was about to turn nasty again. It rained and hailed much of the remainder of the night during which I would have been out there trudging along. No, I didn't want to finish my first Hardrock like that. I want to finish this race the way I was running through so much of it. From Telluride to the base of Handies, only Ken and Blake passed me and I passed both of them back and was pulling away. I felt strong, my legs had no issues above the ankles and my stomach was not even a concern. I was in "the zone" and who knows if I would have prevented all the painful foot problems to come if I had not gotten lost on Handies and then tried to make up all the lost time. Certainly a level-minded pacer would have helped keep me from these mistakes. I have no regrets (right now) for not finishing. I know I certainly could have finished if I had continued. I would have easily made it from Maggie's to the finish line in the 16 hours I had left. My guess is I would have needed only 10 of those hours and finished around midnight with a 42-hour time. Most would have considered that a respectable finish and applauded me for my success. But finishing Hardrock in 42 hours is not what I came to do. I came to challenge myself to see if I could conquer this beast of a race. Was it going to chew me up and spit me out like it has so many others who I have seen seemingly near death in an aid station these past two years? No, Hardrock didn't chew me up ... despite my failure to finish I feel I was the victor on this weekend. I felt strong and confident the entire way and realize the mistakes that ultimately undermined what would have been, I believe, a sub-35-hour finish: not using blister preventative tape (I have not had blister problems in the past, so it was not a concern coming in), not applying the Sportslick from the start, not using a beefy enough shoe, and not having a pacer to keep me from making the critical mistake I made on Handies. Yes, that's a lot of mistakes. But you only learn from those mistakes and hopefully, if I am lucky enough to get in Hardrock again next year, I will find myself in a similar position and will be able to follow through to the finish and get the result I proved to myself this weekend that I am capable of. Hardrock, I am not through with you yet!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Defeating the Three-Headed Monster



“Don’t slip here.” The words were merely rhetorical, as I could plainly see – well, actually I couldn’t see at all – that a fall from this spot on Triglav, the three-headed highest-point of Slovenia, would be fatal.
The via ferrata – the cable, and rungs and pegs – attached to the sheer cliff face gave it away, even though the cloud-encased mountainside prevented us from seeing more than 50 feet in any direction. The near-vertical wall that we were about to climb disappeared straight down some unknown distance, but when you’ve climbed enough in the mountains, you can literally “feel” the dizzying exposure hidden by the clouds all around you.
“I won’t,” I promised Tomo Sarf (pronounced Sharf), who was my hiking companion on Monday as we climbed Triglav, at 9,396 feet the highest point in the country of rugged Alpine beauty. But there was more than a little trepidation in my voice.
The week before, I had summitted the highest points of Poland and Slovakia, the latter a similarly treacherous climb up a near-vertical face of Gerlach stit, where I also had to negotiate metal rungs and chains attached to the mountainside.
In between, I had also “climbed” the highest point in Hungary, which meant a winding drive up a dreary mountain road to the parking lot of a ski area, and a quick three-minute stroll up a ski slope to the “summit,” which had a large hotel perched beside it. The only trouble encountered on that trip was the unexpected fee at the entrance – a hunch-backed old man of at least 70 appeared from a little toll booth that suddenly appeared out of the thick, eerie fog that had suddenly turned day into night.
He spoke no English, but wrote the number “200” on a slip of paper and shoved it in my face. I thought he was looking for two Euros (about $2.60), so Nancy, my girlfriend, handed him a 20 Euro bill. He handed us back two coins and I was about to drive off when Nancy exclaimed, “What are these?” Seems he had handed us back 300 of whatever the currency of Hungary was, and since we had no clue as to the exchange rate, could not question the old man.
Not until we stopped for dinner later that day did we find out that 20 Euro was the equivalent of 2500 in Hungarian currency, and he had given us an exchange rate of only 500 … we got taken by the old geezer by a factor of 5 to 1. I felt like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber when he entrusted his groceries to the old woman in the scooter.
We spent that night in Maribor, the second-largest city in Slovenia, before continuing on to Kamnik outside the capital of Ljubjana, where the World Mountain Running Championships were being held that weekend. As the U.S. delegate to the World Mountain Running Association, Nancy needed to be there for the race. I was there to help out as I could – I think I made four trips to the airport to shuttle athletes – but I was also there to climb.
On Saturday, the day before the race, I climbed nearby Grintavec, which at 7,700 feet is the eighth-highest mountain in Slovenia, but is the tallest outside Triglav National Park, where I would be climbing with Tomo on Monday. Tomo is also on the WMRA council and was largely responsible for bringing the world championships to his homeland, which did a remarkable job hosting the event. It was a great weekend for the Americans, as the U.S. men surprised even themselves by claiming the silver medal behind Eritrea, the best finish ever by the Yanks.
Grintavec is nothing like Triglav, which is a massive mountain comprised entirely of one solid block of limestone, and is bleached white by the sun, making it look like snow is on it yearround. Grintovec is simply a steep grind, climbing steadily to a hut at about 5,000 feet before easing a bit over the second half to a summit that I also found socked in by the clouds. No views were to be found in Slovenia on this trip!
Tomo was obviously reluctant to simply take a stranger to Triglav, where he has literally watched people fall to their death. So he had to test me out first. The day after we arrived, Tomo had me meet him at Smarna Gora, a smaller, well-hiked mountain outside Ljubjana that has a large restaurant on the summit. Hundreds of Slovenians make daily treks up the road to the summit, but Tomo took me up the technical route – littered with more rungs and posts and bone-crushing drops – to test out my resolve. I scampered right up the route right behind him and he was satisfied that I had the ability and fitness to handle Triglav.
The morning of the climb was cold, at least on the summit. Tomo had checked the forecast in the morning and learned it was 0 degrees on the summit (fortunately that was Celsius!) and that while the mountain was going to be socked in all day, rain wasn’t going to be a problem. We met at a gas station and he drove the 45 minutes to the national park and paid the 8 Euro entry fee.
His intent was to take us up the Luknya Route rather than the standard trail, which would mean we would do a complete loop over all three summits rather than the safer up-and-back Prag Route outlined in my guidebook. This we could do, he said, if the weather held, and it looked fine, so we headed up the northern flank of the mountain, and eventually reached a small saddle called “The Window” because the wind rushed through there like an open window as it forced its way over the Julian Alps toward the Adriatic Sea about 60 kilometers off in the distance.
This is where the real fun began. This is where he told me not to fall. This is where I probably would not have continued had I been alone! The “trail” immediately climbed up a steep ridgeline with exposure on both sides, and only pegs protruding from the rocks to hold on to. Most of these steel pegs had been painstakingly hammered into the solid rock more than 100 years ago.
Soon, we were traversing a narrow one-foot-wide ledge and holding onto cable that was bolted to the rock face. Now, usually climbers are supposed to use via ferrata equipment here, meaning they wear a harness with a short rope and a clip system to attach themselves to the cable. But we simply free-climbed it. Nothing to worry about. You just didn’t look down, and even if you did, all you were going to see was gray nothingness.
We climbed this way for about an hour, overtaking another solo climber on the cliff face who looked like he shouldn’t have been there … certainly not alone anyway. The climbing was exuberant, clawing and scratching our way up the mountainside. Eventually, we reached the “plateau,” as Tomo called it, between Triglav’s northernmost peak and the main massif, which loomed directly in front of us in the clouds. Here, Tomo said it was easy to lose the trail if the clouds were any thicker, and, in fact, he said a party of three men had done just that not more than a week before. This isn’t a place to go wandering around looking for cairns, as one of the sheerest cliff faces in Europe looms just to the hiker’s left. So they called for help on their cell phone.
Tomo said the Triglavski Dom (or hut) on the other side of the summit was called and the caretaker there asked the hikers gathered there if any dared venture out in the bad weather to rescue their fellow climbers. Everyone just shrugged their shoulders and went back to eating their hot soup. But a 14-year-old girl answered the call, scaled the peak and found the missing hikers and led them back to safety. Each week, a local Slovenian radio station has its callers vote for the “national person of the week,” and last week this girl was the winner because of her heroism.
There was still one more hard section of via ferrata to negotiate as we climbed the main summit of Triglav, and then suddenly we were on top, where the weather showed a little promise of clearing. There is a conical building, called the Aljavez Stolp, about five feet in diameter on the summit with a metal flag on top that acts as a weather vane. The year of its construction – in 1895, by Jakob Aljazu, the father of Slovenian climbing – adorns the flag and the building, which looks like a phone booth or port-a-potty, has withstood the elements ever since. Tomo showed me a picture on his cell phone of a winter hike he did a year or two ago to the summit and just the flag was sticking out of the snow, which was about four meters thick!
Inside the building, someone has meticulously painted a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding mountains, but that was my only view of them as the weather quickly changed its mind and I had to put my sunglasses away after only a minute or so. The register book at the summit had been replaced just that day and I was the third person to sign into the new one. Pretty cool!
Then we headed down via the standard route, which meant we continued over the ridgeline toward the Triglavski Dom (at 8,251 feet) over Mala Triglav, or Little Triglav, which was a sharp spine that narrowed to just a few meters wide in some spots, with steep drop-offs on both sides. A cable ran down the middle of this spine, but of course, we had no gear to clip us safely in. In fact, on several occasions we had to maneuver around other groups of hikers that we were overtaking – some on their way down or some still headed up. As Tomo said often during the trip, “Our speed is our safety.” If the weather turned, we had the physical ability to hightail it off the mountain in time.
Soon thereafter, Tomo stopped at a particularly narrow place to tell me about an incident that happened a few years ago in that exact spot. He had met an Italian climber on the trail and they had been standing there talking when Tomo said goodbye and turned to head to the summit. He took no more than a single step when he heard a shout of “Mama mia!” and turned in time to watch the Italian plummet 400 meters to his death.
Tomo has a long history with Triglav and has been climbing it for more than 30 years. About 25 years ago, when he was about 25 years old, he was drinking with some cycling friends at a bar when it was proposed that no one could climb Triglav in less than two days. Tomo scoffed at the idea and insisted he could climb it in a single day. In addition, he said he would bicycle the roughly 75 kilometers from Ljubjana to Triglav, climb the mountain, and ride home. A few friends joined him, and soon their challenge became a national sensation. A local TV station got wind of it and filmed the entire adventure and they all made national news. Tomo had completed the entire expedition in just 11 hours!
Not long after, he and five others decided another grander adventure was needed, and they bicycled from Slovenia to Chamonix, France, and climbed Mount Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. That expedition took 16 days.
As we continued our descent, we ran into members of the Canadian mountain running team heading for the summit, who were surprised to find an American on the mountain. When I explained that my girlfriend was the liaison to U.S. team, they responded, “Nancy?” Seems I can’t even go to the top of a remote mountain in a far-off land without running into someone who knows Nancy!
Later, we reached another area where via ferrata cable ran along a narrow ledge above a steep fall. Tomo said that he had fallen here in the winter a few years ago, slipping on the ice and rocketing toward a cliff not 60 meters away. Fortunately, he had his ice axe and was able to self-arrest. Unfortunately, another climber who slipped at the exact same spot the very next day was not, and plummeted to his death.
Many climbers have lost their lives on Triglav. This mountain is for real. There are plaques attached to the rock all over the mountain erected as tributes to fallen climbers. Some were just teenagers.
After making our way past several more climbing parties – including a large group from Bulgaria – we were finally off the mountain and headed back to the car. It had been another epic climb, my 10th international high point. And, more importantly, it had cemented a bond between Tomo and I that will endure. He said that if Nancy and I are able to come back next year for the International Mountain Challenge, which Slovenia is hosting, he will show me some more of his country’s high peaks. And just maybe this time we’ll get some views!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Keeping My Promise on Gerlach Stit -- Barely!



I made a promise that I wouldn’t climb up anything that I didn’t feel I could climb down. But I forgot to consider what might happen if the rocks I had climbed up became wet before I came down.

That oversight made the descent off Gerlachovsky stit, the highest point in the Slovak Republic at 2,654 meters (about 8,000 feet) a bit more than I bargained for. Those metal rungs in the overhanging rock and the chains bolted to the cliff face were not so easily negotiated in a snowstorm that swept in over the summit on what up till then had been a nice late-August morning.

Suddenly, the warning in the guidebook that Gerlach was not to be climbed without a rope-carrying guide made a little more sense.

I had come to Strbske Pleso, a quaint little mountain town in the High Tatras region of Slovakia, to climb the highest points in both Poland and the Slovak Republic. The Polish high point, Rysy, at 2,500 meters, sits literally on the border between the two countries, but the standard hiking route is from Strebske Pleso on the Slovak side.

Nancy and I had come to Poland for the World Masters Mountain Running Championships only a couple of hours northwest of here over the weekend. The intent was for both of us to run the five-mile uphill-only course, but since I have been nursing too many leg injuries to count, I decided not to race. A good decision, since the course was brutally steep and a cold, unrelenting rain fell throughout the Saturday morning race. It was about all I could manage just to hike up the course to the finish line – well, actually, I never saw the finish line, as I was advised to stop at the restaurant one kilometer shy of the summit – the top of the ski area where the race finished was shrouded in a thick, impenetrable fog created by the incessant rain.

It’s beyond me how some of these runners – one of them 80 years old – managed to run this course, but they did. Nancy ran a spectacular race – her first since turning 50 the week before – and was in line for a podium finish when she roared by me in third place in her age division at the hut with 1.5 kilometers to go. But the final track up to the finish was on a mud-splattered ski slope and she was stopped dead in her tracks by a previous finisher trying to pick his way down from the top who slammed right into her. Moments later another woman sped past her and Nancy was relegated to fourth place for the second year in a row. It was disappointing seeing her train so hard for a medal and then having it slip away in such fashion.

By the time I hiked back down to our hotel at the starting line, I was soaked to the bone and near hypothermic … so were many of the runners who finished the race in just over an hour, but had to wait another hour and a half, in some instances, for their drop backs – and their warm clothes – to arrive at the finish. But this posting is not about criticizing the Polish officials for a poorly organized race. After all, everyone seemed to leave happy, though those Europeans were well-insulated from the cold by the time the final medals were finally handed out well after dark!

The next day, Nancy and I headed back into Slovakia and to Strebske Pleso. We had a few days until we had to be in Kamnick, Slovenia, for the World Mountain Running Championships that will be held this Sunday. Nancy is on the World Mountain Running Association’s board and one of the U.S. coaches for the two senior and two junior teams that are to compete in the world championships.

The weather was a little better when we arrived and we found a great, modern hotel not far from the Rysy trailhead. The Hotel Crocus gave us an incredible room for less than 100 Euros. This place was so modern that not only did we need someone from the front desk to come up to show us how to turn on our futuristic stove, but he had to come back up a while later to show us how to turn it off! Stupid Americans, he must’ve thought!

I immediately headed for Rysy, which the guidebook said was a 4.5-hour ascent. I made the roundtrip in that time, but then again, I’ve never found hiking times to be overly accurate. The hike up took me first to Popradske Pleso (or lake) and then turned north and then northeast up a series of switchbacks on a fairly routine trail to the Chata pod Rysmi hut at 2,250 meters. Being a Sunday, there were hundreds of hikers on the trail and dozens more at the hut when I arrived – only to be met by a full-scale blizzard. And this was August!

The final ascent to the summit was a bit tricky on wet rocks and with so many others scampering and sliding about, but I made it to the saddle between Rysy’s two high points, one of which is in Slovakia and the other of which is the high point of Poland. The Polish summit was a few meters lower than the Slovakian one, but seemed to attract just as many of the ascending climbers, many of them probably like me – a peakbagger in search of the white cement post with the red top marking the Polish high point. I had someone take a couple of pictures of me and then I immediately headed down, as I wasn’t particularly prepared for snow in August!

I got back to the hut and found its deck completely filled with hikers enjoying a snack or some drinks from the store at the hut. So I continued down, meeting a guy from Longmont, Colorado, on my way, and limping back to the hotel in the late afternoon. Seems my sore left heel was acting up again from all the foot-pounding from the very rocky trail.

Nancy wasn’t particularly pleased with my decision to climb Gerlach stit the next morning … not after she heard from someone at the information booth next to our hotel that you could only climb the Slovakian high point with a paid guide. I explained to her that my guidebook said that anyone who was a member of a mountaineering club could climb without a guide – which was later confirmed for me by Michael at the front desk – and that since I was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, I qualified.

Now, I can imagine how silly me flashing my AMC membership card would have been had a guide stopped me on the trail and demanded to know what I was doing there without a guide. Well, silly if he knew that any couch potato with $50 can fork it over to the AMC and become an official “mountaineer.” I’ve seen AMC members who have had to be rescued off Mount Monadnock!

But no one was likely to see me anyway as the most accessible trailhead for Gerlach stit is from the tiny village of Vysne Hagy, which is not the same town the guides take their clients out of. Though they might have run into me after the two trails converge at Batizoske Pleso, the tiny lake just below where the real climbing was to begin.

I had to take the train from Strebske Pleso to Vysne Hagy and it left at 6:43 a.m. – on the dot! I was running out of the hotel to the train station next door just in time for the conductor to check my ticket and pull away. These trains in Slovakia are modern (you should see their roads! Spectacular in comparison to ours) and they run on a tidy schedule. I got dropped off at Vysne Hagy about 7 a.m. and the trailhead ran right past the station, up a side road and then disappeared into the woods. It climbed steadily and eventually topped out amongst the stunted high-alpine fir trees – I think it’s called krummholz – that would remind you of any hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Once at the lake, I sat down and had some of the breakfast the hotel had prepared for me, which I had grabbed as I dashed for the train. An apple, some bread and an orange juice box hit the spot and then I hit the trail, which wound around the lake and headed up a waterfall toward the towering headwall that was still in shadows even at 8:30 a.m. The guidebook said there is no set trail up this waterfall, which was right, but you could see where others had climbed before and it lead directly to the solid rock wall of Batizovske Zlab! There was a narrow chute running up from the bottom at a near-vertical angle and as I got closer I could see a series of chains hanging down from above that were to be used to climb up the craggy cliff face.

Once above this section, you continue to scramble for a while until a second set of chains is met to get you up an even nastier stretch. Above this came the rungs hammered into the rock face – some at least 100 years ago – that you climbed like a ladder up and over a protruding overhang. Now at least you were in a gully, but the severity of the ascent did not slacken. I climbed up this gully, switching from side to side to follow the path of least resistance, until after an eternity I topped out in a chute and stared over the other side into a gray, shapeless abyss!

It had started to snow again just before I reached the summit, with the unexpected storm rolling in from the north over the top of the mountain while I still was looking back into relative sunshine. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to waste, so I scanned around for the summit, and then I saw it. About 100 meters away in the swirling fog I could see the apex of the mountain – a four-foot high metal crucifix embedded into a stone slab sticking straight into the heavens!

To get over to it required some scrambling over the ridgeline and the very edge of the abyss to my right, which could easily have been a drop of more than 3,000 feet.

I made my way up the final push to the summit and found a metal box bolted to the side of a rock which housed the best register book I have ever seen – it was even hardbound! Usually, you have to dig around under a rock or a cairn to find a PCP tube wired with a nut to a rock and then when you unscrew the cap, the register “book” is just a wet, soggy rolled up notebook from Staples with a pen that won’t write crammed in the spiral webbing. I gave the book only a quick scan for anyone who had signed in English, but could find none, so I logged in, put the book away and then peered out at the crucifix like I was Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade looking across the “leap of faith” chasm in the final scene.

The crucifix was at the end of a 10-foot-long catwalk that was roughly two feet wide with exposure dropping away on both sides and the summit marker cemented to a one-foot-square block which constituted the entire summit. I swallowed hard and eased out to the crucifix and grabbed hold of it like it was a life preserver. Nothing was going to pry this thing from my hands. I swung around and actually stood up on the block – just for a second – before I quickly sat down and snapped off a few self-portraits. That done, I figured it was time to get off this mountain!

Starting down I immediately noticed another series of chains that was supposed to have guided me to the summit … I had missed them by going up the right-hand chute instead of the left when the chute suddenly split about 50 meters from the summit. I rappelled myself down these 25 meters of chains and back into the chute I had climbed up – a steep gully that was now glistening with wet rocks from the snow that was falling. I had to be extremely careful as I picked my way back down this gully, knowing that one slip was going to result in a fall that would leave me far from rescue.

Then, of course, there were still the ladders and long sections of chains down below to deal with. I got to the rungs, which were extremely slippery, and backed my foot off into nothingness in search of the next rung below. Since they weren’t exactly lined up, this took some doing and some care not to slip. But I made it down past the overhang safely to hear some voices not far below me – loud and concerned voices at that. I envisioned that it was a guide and his reluctant client deciding to bail rather than try to ascend in a snowstorm, which was now abating.

But when I turned the next corner and could get a good look below me – careful not to dislodge even a pebble – I saw no one, and never did come across the source of the voices. Maybe they were in a parallel chute … or a parallel universe. Who knows?
I made it down the next sketchy series of chains by rappelling again and thought I has home free. But I had forgotten that the first climbing I did after leaving the waterfall was a series of chains, and to my dismay they were now entirely wet and hard to hold as I arrived at the top of a 50-meter section that separated me from safety. With knees knocking, I rappelled off this final section and let out a huge sigh of relief when I touched down at the bottom of the cliff face.

From here, it was an easy hike back down the edge of the waterfall to the lake and from there another hour and a half back down the trail to Vysne Hagy to the train station – where I arrived just in time to see the next train for Strebske Pleso pulling out of the station. Damn efficient Slovakian trains!

Turns out the next train didn’t come for another hour, so I hunkered down in the now steady drizzle and staved off the shivers until it finally arrived 60 minutes later right on schedule. Soon I was back in Strebske Pleso, safe and sound despite perhaps the most adrenaline-pumping climb I’ve ever done.

Well, at least I kept my word. I didn’t climb anything that I couldn’t climb down. I had to!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Haulin' Ass!




I think she meant it more as a joke, but when my girlfriend suggested that I might actually want to run the pack burro race we were going to watch Sunday in Buena Vista, Colorado, I wasn't really laughing. I knew she was setting me up to make an ass of myself (yes, all these puns will be intended), but I figured, Why not? I'll try anything once!
So she called her friend Hal Walter in Westcliffe, Colorado, and inquired as to where I might get a burro. Hal has several, but he said they were all spoken for already. So he told Nancy to have me call a guy named Bill Lee, someone whom she has known for years and has been racing burros probably as long as Hal has -- which is 30 years. Hal actually has written the book on pack burro racing, which is subtitled, naturally, "Haulin' Ass." No, nothing I write in this blog today will be original.
So I called Bill, whom Nancy refers to as Santa Claus because of his long, white beard, and he told me, yes indeedy, he in fact did have a burro I could run on Sunday. Not the fast one that he had loaned some triathlete from Texas the week before in Leadville, where the two of them had raced to a second-place finish. But he had a nice little gray burro named Smoky who might just fit my needs. He did warn me that Smoky likes to run. I didn't realize that he meant four-minute miles!

Nancy called Hal back a few minutes later to tell him I was in and I could hear Hal's uncontrollable laughter from half a room away!
The next morning, we made the two-hour drive from Colorado Springs to Buena Vista and had plenty of time ... to reconsider. But I didn't. I sought out Bill, who was easy to recognize as there aren't many Santa Clauses running around rural Colorado in August. He was at the registration table signing up and had already had my saddle "weighed in" and approved. Apparently everyone has to carry at least 33 pounds on their burros -- no matter how big or small -- and my saddle and pack weighed in at 34 pounds.

Then I met Smoky. What a cute little feller! His ears perked right up and I tried to bond with him before the race by bribing him with an apple treat I brought from home. Many of the racers in this frenetic sport -- which they are trying to get named Colorado's "official" sport -- have burros as large as horses, but Smoky was only the size of a pony.

Bill saddled him up and gave me and another burro racing "virgin" named Brian, who was borrowing his other burro named Jack, a quick course in Burro Racing 101. He told us how to get the darn thing to go left or right, and hopefully even forward -- at least at a favorable pace. "These burros are just like my granddaughter over there," Bill said, pointing at a cute 8-year-old near the trailer. "They'll try to test you to see what they can get away with."
Then he warned us about the start. "These animals have a herd mentality, and when the gun goes off and they all start to running ...." Well, let's just say good luck holding on! There's one rule in burro racing. If you let go of the rope because the burro is about to drag you down the pavement on Main Street like so many Westerns (sans the pavement), or through the chaparral because he simply decided he doesn't like the trail anymore, well, not only are you going to be bloodied and bruised, but once you retrieve your teammate -- wherever you locate him -- you have to retrace your path to where you lost the rope and start from there.

Now, this was a 12-mile course on dirt roads leading out of town on the opposite side of a foot bridge over the Arkansas River. And this was a short race -- the week before they went 20 miles in Leadville. Much of the course was on single-track trails and the rest on forest service and county roads, finishing back along Main Street, oh, two or three hours later, depending on your burro!

There was a good crowd at the starting line as it was also farmer's market day, so the burros and all the racers -- all 25 of us -- made quite a scene. Just getting Smoky to the starting line was a bit of a chore as he immediately began testing me as Bill said he would. But he was pretty well-behaved to this point. Before the start, a priest came around and sprinkled Holy water in the faces of all the burros to bless them and wish them well. How come he didn't have any words for the racers!
Then the gun suddenly went off and all hell broke loose. Just as Bill warned, the beasts exploded from the starting line like a pack of wolves was in hot pursuit. Even little ol' Smoky. Bill warned me that Smoky could run, but I wasn't expecting this. This little burro took off as if he was Usain Bolt and I was hanging on to the end of my 15-foot rope for dear life, running at a clip I could not imagine! It was all I could do to keep from falling on my face and eating asphalt -- and it would've been my ass's fault!

I pulled hard on the rope, which was attached to his halter, but Smoky seemed to pay me no attention. Apparently me screaming, "Whoa," a thousand times went unheard. There were only three other burros ahead of us as we sped down Main Street and I knew I was in big trouble -- I was already in oxygen debt a quarter mile into the race! Finally, my frantic tugging on the rope caught Smoky's attention and he slowed to a sprint. By now we were at the end of Main Street and heading downhill to the bridge crossing and onto a single-track trail that would wind its way up through the chaparral to County Road 304. Smoky never broke stride as he raced across the bridge and onto the trail. I was still holding on for dear life.

I had been able to reel Smoky in enough to drop us back comfortably into about 12th place after we crossed the bridge, but he was still charging hard uphill on the single-track. Suddenly, I heard a scream behind me and saw a women tumbling into the rocks without a rope in her hand. Her burro was quickly beside me so I grabbed its rope, but I was having a hard enough time controlling one burro, so what was I doing thinking I could handle two! They quickly headed in opposite directions off the trail, with me trying to hold desperately at least to Smoky's rope. I wasn't letting that thing go at any cost!

The woman's burro finally dragged me off into the bushes, carrying me over trees and rocks and roots, scraping up my right shin. I had to let go in order to regain control of Smoky. Later, the woman, named Amber, came past me with her burro and a bloody knee, but was otherwise okay. I, on the other hand, had a problem with my ass. No, not my burro, either.

I've been recovering from hip and leg issues for two months now after running the Massanutten 100 in May, and I didn't get more than two or three miles into the race Sunday before I pulled a muscle in my left butt cheek! And with my hips already ailing, and a bruise on my heel that I now think might not be a bruise but plantar fasciitis, I was pretty much done racing right there.

But not Smoky! Oh, no, that herd mentality was still ever-present as every time another racer would storm past me, Smoky would pick up the pace to try to keep up ... even though I was still screaming "Whoa" between every chest-pounding breath! Finally, after about three miles, I got Smoky under control and realized that since I couldn't run at his pace, and he wouldn't slow down to run at mine, we were just going to have to walk for a while.

We actually walked for quite a while, through some gorgeous single-track and back onto a forest service road where Smoky did decide he wanted to trot along behind me whenever I could get my own legs to cooperate. The long section back along County Road 304 was when things began to fall apart. (Well, maybe that happened when the gun went off!).

Smoky decided that since I hadn't allowed him to run at the pace he wanted, then he wasn't going to walk at the pace I wanted. So back he dropped until the entire 15 feet of the rope was now stretched out between us and I was literally dragging him. Bill had told me that when this happens, I am to take my end of the rope and start whipping him on the behind to get him moving ... but everytime I tried, Smoky would just spin around as if he was going to head off in the opposite direction.

So I just threw the rope over my shoulder and leaned into the trail and pulled the reluctant burro the length of the road until we turned off on the single-track headed back to town. This is where he dug in his hooves for the first time. Up until now, I felt as if I had let Smoky down by not being able to keep up with him ... now he was letting me down by refusing to keep up.

It was pretty much a tug-of-war from that point out, the final two miles to the finish line. I finally got him back to the bridge, but it was now full of tourists watching the swift-flowing Arkansas River flow underneath, and when Smoky saw the bridge, he stopped in his tracks and dug in for war. I tried to remind him that he had sped across this very same bridge at breakneck speed only about three hours before, but he turned a deaf ear.

No matter what I did, he wasn't budging. I pulled on his rope, grabbed his harness and tugged, leaned against him to push him onto the bridge, and reluctantly even whipped his backside. Nothing. Some other racers and organizers came across the bridge and tried to push him from behind, but Smoky has been known to kick a bit so they didn't get too close. Finally, we had all the people clear the bridge and with the help of two or three others, I was able to drag Smoky onto the bridge and then across to the other side.

I was exhausted by this time, but we still had one more uphill to climb to get back on Main Street and then a half-mile of pavement to reach the finish line. Fortunately, Smoky wanted to walk again, and we trudged up Main Street together, in 20th place of the 24 racers who would eventually finish. Not too bad, I thought, even though Brian, who had Bill's other burro named Jack, had turned in an impressive 10th-place finish in his burro racing debut. Hal had finished third, but had been with the leaders until he took a nasty spill and came up bloody.

As Smoky and I neared the finish line, some skateboarders came up behind us, spooking Smoky and off he went into a trot again. Fortunately, it wasn't a repeat of the start. We crossed the finish line and I bent over and gave Smoky a great big hug! We had made it! My first burro race was in the bag -- oh, and probably my last, too! Unless it becomes Colorado's official sport. Then we might have to reconsider.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Massanutten 100 2010: Course Record, Baby!

I did not have a lot of optimism going into this year's Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 in Front Royal, Virginia. Ever since limping the final 16 miles of the Way Too Cool 50K in Cool, California, back in March because of a pulled calf muscle, I have been nursing one injury or another for nearly two months.

The main problem has been my hips, which have been woefully out of alignment since a near-tragic waterfall incident last summer in which I was swept over a 30-foot falls while cliff-jumping in Vermont and was smashed on the rocks below. Right on my tailbone! Ouch! To add insult to injury, I was then swept over a smaller 10-foot falls and then had to drive 20 miles home in incredible pain without my contact lenses, which were flushed out of my eyes as the waterfall swirled me around like I was in a washing machine.

My ass looked the color of Barnie the Dinosaur for weeks afterward and I couldn't sit down without excruciating pain ... but it could have been worse ... much worse.

I thought I had rebounded from that injury months ago ... I began running again two months after the injury and after just two weeks of training, ran the Green Mountain Marathon in South Hero, Vermont, as a training run and got a Boston qualifying time of 3:28. But no one told me that Boston was going to fill up so fast and I failed to apply for the 2010 race ... so my time was rolled over and I'll run my one and only Boston next spring.

In December I had a pretty good effort in finishing second in a Fat Ass 40-miler in the Fells just north of Boston, and then after moving to Colorado at the end of the year, I was running fairly well out here despite the altitude. Then I drove to California to run the San Juan Trails 50K and Way Too Cool 50K on back-to-back weekends. San Juan Trails is a very difficult race, but despite some leg issues I was still in second place with about 6 miles to go when I followed the ribbons into some scrub brush and up a steep hill, causing me to cramp. I knew it was the wrong way, but that's where the ribbons went ... seems some dumbass mountain bikers thought they would have some fun and change the course. I waited five minutes for the next runners to arrive to find out which way to go and took off ahead of them, but I soon started to experience cramping and had to shut it down -- both runners passed me and I barely limped home in fourth place, matching last year's finish.

In the week between the two races I attempted to summit three 14,000-footers in the Sierra Nevada, but couldn't get into Stevens Pass to bag Williamson and Tyndall because of the deep snow and my trashed legs, and two days later was turned back within sight of the summit of Split Mountain by high winds and threatening weather ... and did I mention trashed legs?

The next day I turned 50 and hoped for a better result at Way Too Cool that weekend, my debut in a new age division. But at the 15-mile mark I repulled a calf muscle and pretty much limped it in from there. It seemed like 100 people passed me over the final half of the race, but I still ended up in 80th place out of almost 500 runners in a "decent" time of 5:01.

But upon returning to Colorado, everything below the waist hurt and it was very difficult to run. I began undergoing weekly PT to realign my hips, which I think were the main culprit, causing compensation issues down into my calves. But six weeks later as I boarded a plane to head back to New Hampshire for two big races and my daughter's college graduation, I was still in considerable pain and not the "race shape" I needed to be in to obtain my goals.

The first weekend home I ran one of my all-time favorite races, the Seven Sisters Trail Run in Amherst, Mass. This is the ninth straight year I've run this 12 miles of hell, probably the toughest race of its size anywhere, and with more than 250 people signed up to torture themselves!

The race starts with a half-mile climb up the same scree field you will finish on about two-plus hours later. By the top I already knew I was in trouble, and was faltering somewhere back in about 22nd place. At the three-mile mark of the six-mile outward leg, I repulled that damn calf muscle. I can usually work through this and it took me about a mile to work the pain out of my head to the point I could run, though climbing was painful. But at about the four-mile mark I decided I was either going to cash it in for the day as my friend Bojo decided to do, or see if I had anything in the tank. And suddenly I took off!

On the last, long mile and a half to the turnaround I picked off about six runners, including all the other masters ahead of me, and then picked up the pace on the way back, despite it being 87 degrees and very humid. I ended up picking off about four more runners -- including the guy with the ski poles who actually (Nick Cash!) led the first couple of miles -- and finished 11th overall in 2:10:31. Quite a ways off my goal time of becoming only the seventh master -- and second 50-year-old -- to ever break two hours on this course, but still a respectible race considering that most people were at least 10 minutes or more off their best times because of the intense heat.

But the main thing I came out of the race with was that I had no hip pain at all for the first time in two months! And when I overcame the calf strain, I was able to pick it up and start passing people, which I attributed to my altitude training here in Colorado Springs.

So I headed to Virginia two weeks later not knowing how I would feel -- other than hungover since I spent my last night in Keene drinking until 1 a.m. with friends who I won't see probably until I run Boston next April. The course at Massanutten had been changed since last year as the start/finish was now at Caroline's Furnace Lutheran Camp rather than the Skyline Ranch and this made for a different race.

Last year, Steve Pero had instructed me to WALK out of the Skyline Ranch at the start, warning me NOT to run the 2.5-mile paved road to the trailhead at Buzzard's Rock. He knew that if I ran it, I would get caught up in too fast of a pace and probably would not finish my debut 100. He was right. I spent the remaining nearly 100 miles slowly catching the entire field and was still moving well at the finish line as I placed 11th in 25 hours, 8 minutes, a remarkable debut for an MMT 100.

Since this year's race began on a three-mile uphill dirt road, I told myself to walk it this time as well. The problem was the gun went off ... and so did I. Like a shot. It didn't take five seconds for me to get caught up in the competitiveness of the race, as everyone seemed to go out fast and run the entire three-mile uphill to Moreland Gap where we turned right and eventually headed for Short Mountain, which I had never seen before since we ran it in the dark last year.

I found myself in with a group of about seven which I figured were all in 20th to 25th place or thereabouts. I then broke ahead with a guy named John Gove from Macon, Georgia, and we ran together until about 8-10 miles into the race I noticed that my rain jacket and long-sleeved shirt had fallen off the back of my new Nathan 2.0 pack. The last thing I wanted to do was turn around and run back in the opposite direction, but that's what I had to do ... I would likely need both those items later in the race as there was a chance of rain and temps were supposed to drop into the 40s overnight. Neither happened, as it turned out, but I didn't want to lose either of those items either.

Fortunately, one of the others in the group we had been running with had picked up the two items and was carrying them only about a quarter-mile back, so I only lost about five minutes or so total. But I had to tie the shirt around my waist for the remainder of the race and stuff the rain jacket into the pack against the water bladder.

Now I found myself running with this group into Powell's Fort at 25.1 miles -- only to be told by one of them that we had covered the first quarter of the race in less than five hours!!! WAY TOO FAST!! By now, though, our pack was breaking up. John Gove took off, but I had to walk a ways and found myself with Ryan Henry from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and we ran together all the way to the next aid station at Elizabeth Furnace at mile 32.6. I waited for Ryan, who had a crew waiting for him, and then we started running the lower part of the long climb up to the ridgeline ... at some point Ryan fell off the pace and I never saw him again ... I heard later he dropped out at Habron Gap, or was it Roosevelt Camp?

I ran on to Shawl Gap and then ran/walked the 3.1 miles of tar/dirt road to the Veach Gap parking lot. I HATE roads, even dirt roads, and was glad to see the turnin to Veach Gap, where I chowed down on some tasty quesadillas and a piece of cake, passing both John Gove and another runner who were sitting at the aid station soaking their heads under washcloths in an ice tub. It was getting hot, that's for sure.

Heading out of Veach Gap you have another long climb back to the ridgeline and then you follow the ridge for miles before hitting the purple trail that drops you back down to another dreaded dirt road, the four-mile slog into Habron Gap aid station at mile 53.6. I walked the final 3.5 miles of this road, same as last year, even though last year the road came within the first 20 miles of the race. In the aid station I saw my two pre-race picks to win the race -- Sean Andrish and Mike Mason -- in a world of trouble. Sean was being coaxed back out on the course and Mike was in a chair and didn't look like he was going to move. But he did get up and followed me onto the trail that leads to the next long climb back to the ridgeline.

I was running again and feeling better and soon passed Sean Andrish who was sitting beside the trail with his head in his hands, in obvious pain. He gave me a "Great job!" as I went by and I never saw him again, either. Mike Mason, though, recovered enough to pass me just before the top of the climb and then he was able to run some along the ridgeline while I was again reduced to walking. Having gone out so fast at the beginning had placed my hopes of breaking 24 hours and breaking the senior division (50-59) record in serious doubt.

But when I hit the never-ending Stevens Trail that goes on and on and on before it reaches Roosevelt Camp at mile 63.1, I found I could run again and I ran this entire six-mile section, passing a cooked Mike Mason along the way, and got to Roosevelt Camp much faster than expected. However, I could still not consistently run after this and hiked the entire muddy road and big climb that led me to the top of the ridge again before the descent into Gap Creek aid station at mile 68.7. It was on this long downhill that I started to run again, but not very fast, and I came into the aid station a bit delirious and not in the best of shape, based on the questions I was getting from the medical person there.

I was having intestinal problems and generally had a sour stomach the entire race, but I got some hot soup into me and promised the medical person that I would pee before the next aid station, as it seemingly had been several hours since the last time I went. I also had stopped sweating, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, we had the major climb up Jawbone coming up next and by the time I got to the top, I was certainly sweating again, even if running was a bit of a stretch. I hiked most of Kerns Ridge to the two-mile downhill tar road into Visitor's Center at mile 77.1 and then as much as I tried, could not run hardly any of this road and walked into Visitor's Center having been passed by Dan Rosenberg of New Jersey and his pacer on the road coming down.

The problem wasn't so much my legs as it was my arms -- my arms hurt like hell from the straps of the Nathan pack, as this was the first time I had attempted a long race with a hydration backpack. But I was at least glad to be back on singletrack and headed at a fair clip down the cinder path to the turn up Bird's Knob, which most people were dreading. But even though I couldn't run the flats or even the downhills, one thing I could still do was climb and I was a climbing fool going up Bird Knob. Chalk that up to the training at altitude as well. I quickly passed two runners and then re-caught Dan Rosenberg, who commented that I was a "Climbing Mojo." Or was that "MoFo?"

Either way, I opened up a good-sized gap on them and raced right through the Bird Knob aid station and down the dirt road to the turnin to the next long climb, a new section we had trained on back in January. Reaching the top, I refueled quickly and downed several more electrolytes, and then peed again -- the second time since Gap Creek. Things were working better now. Suddenly, I heard voices coming up the trail and knew that Dan and his pacer were re-catching me. I didn't want to be in a duel with this guy for the remaining 20 miles of the race, so I took off fast down the switchbacks and when I heard them still close, I turned my Fenix light down to its lowest setting so they couldn't see me ahead of them. I made the turn onto the pink trail that led back to Picnic Area aid station and suddenly I found I could run again!

I ran and ran and ran for several miles, forgetting how long this stretch of trail is. Even when you bottom out and start back up to the aid station, it was a hell of a long hike before reaching Picnic Area at 86.9 miles. When I got there, I was told I was in 12th place, but since I passed no one else the remainder of the race and ended up 11th, I'm not sure what happened to the other runner who was supposed to be ahead of me. Maybe he was sitting in the final aid station at Gap Creek when I went back through as I didn't spend more than a moment there.

From Picnic Area, there is a 1.7-mile runnable section to where you cross Route 211, which I was able to fly through, and then you start up a grass-covered dirt road to the next climb and I found I was able to run this entire section as well, even though it was almost entirely uphill. Things were looking up! I had already pretty much decided I was not going to become the first 50-year-old to ever break 24 hours at Massanutten, but I calculated that if I could maintain this pace, I could still get the age group course record which was 24:47 and had stood since 1997, the long-standing course record at MMT, I believe.

There was considerable climbing ahead before reaching a four-way crossroads and a left-hand turn that led you down a rock-strewn (any description of the Massanutten course with the word 'rock' in it is of course redundant) road that dumped you out on Crissman Hollow Road and about a two-mile run back to the Gap Creek aid station.

I felt considerably better coming into this aid station this time as compared to several hours earlier. I did little more than a NASCAR pit stop, a splash of fuel and then I was out of there. Back up Jawbone, the long climb to the ridgeline and then over the top and back down to Moreland Gap, only about four miles from the finish line. I did not remember this section of trail being so incredibly nasty ... it was not safely runnable in the dark as it was strewn with menacing rocks and boulders, but I tried to run it anyway as I knew I was flirting with the course record. The problem was, where was that Moreland Gap Road? It took absolutely forever to reach the road again and to the familiar territory we had covered all too fast 24 hours before.

Now, however, I found that my legs were finally giving out, and while I was able to run this road uphill the morning before, I could not run it downhill now ... and the clock was ticking. I was able to run for quarter-mile increments and then walk for a quarter-mile and it seemed forever again before I reached the front gate of the Caroline's Furnance Lutheran Camp and the finish. However, we didn't finish by running the half-mile up the road into the camp which would have reversed our journey from the morning before ... this time we entered the woods and followed a trail that much to my disbelief and discomfort snaked its way toward the finish line and never seemed to get any closer.

I was fearing that the minutes I needed to break the record were being wasted trying to find out which hanging reflector to head towards as I groped my way over the last half-mile in the final darkness before dawn. But I was able to scramble my way up the final little hill and heard cheers coming from the finish as my light penetrated the darkness. I followed some yellow ribbing that seemed to pen me into a box for a moment before realizing where the finish line was and then sprinted for the clock which I could see was fortunately well under the 24:47 limit I needed to beat. I raced across two seconds before the clock ticked off the next half hour as I finished in 24 hours, 29 minutes and 58 seconds, a new course record for the 50-59 senior division by over 17 minutes.

Unlike last year, when an infected toenail that would need to be surgically removed two days later caused me to hobble around the rest of the day waiting for the awards, this time I was able to walk fairly well, though my attempts to sleep were dashed by shooting pains throughout my legs. It was a long, tiring day waiting and watching the remaining 100-plus finishers come across, capped by Caroline Williams who emerged from the woods and made it to the finish line with about 65 seconds to spare before the 36-hour cutoff! Great job, Caroline! Especially since we were later told she made it from Gap Creek the final 6.3 miles in 2:07, a remarkable time for the last-place finisher since it took me 1:47 to cover that final distance.

It's now five days later and I'm back in Colorado Springs and my legs feel pretty good. I am walking up and down stairs with no pain and no struggle and generally feeling fine. I hope to be able to start running again in another week and be ready for the San Juan Solstice 50-miler on June 19. Then after pacing at Hardrock, I should be set for Swan Crest 100, a first-year race in Montana, on July 29. Wish me luck!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mount Rainier ... The Real Deal


Over the Fourth of July Weekend, I got high. Real high.

Like over 14,000-feet high. Again.

While most of you were watching fireworks displays, I was stuffed like a sardine with 17 other “teammates” at the John Muir Camp situated at 10,000 feet up Mount Rainier, the most massive single mountain in terms of sheer size in North America. And let me tell you it is impressive.

I summited Rainier on Sunday morning after an all-night climb over glaciers and around bottomless crevasses, up steep snowfields and under cliffs that threatened to release rocky missiles at the least provocation.

At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest point in Washington and represented the 43rd high point in my current quest to stand atop the highest points of all 50 states.

But this story doesn’t start in Washington and when it did start, last September, I only had seven high points to my credit – the six New England states and New Jersey. This high-point obsession had yet to become even an idea. Last fall I was in Colorado hoping to finish off the 23 remaining 14ers I needed to complete that list, a three-year odyssey to get all 54 official and five unofficial 14,000-footers in Colorado.

I had just failed to find the summit of Crestone Peak in a whiteout and was dejectedly headed back to the parking lot realizing that with my tight itinerary, I would have to return to Colorado again this September, probably just to bag one last peak. Then I made an amazing discovery behind a large boulder at the bottom of Crestone Peak … I ran into Tom and Sandi Yukman, a couple from Colorado Springs who were momentarily ducking out of the wind after having successfully summited the same mountain I had just bailed off of.

They told me the correct way to find the precipitous summit – I should have stayed in the “red gully” all the way to the top, but my guidebook had said to climb on the rock wall to its right, which led me to a dead end and a 3,000-foot drop if I took another step. But since the storm that was raging was picking up, I decided to hike out with Tom and Sandi instead of rescaling the ice-coated peak. When we reached Broken Hand Pass, they talked me into climbing the Crestone Needle – rated as one of the hardest 14ers in Colorado – with them instead of hiking out to the trailhead. I reluctantly agreed, since I was already figuring a return trip for Crestone Peak would probably include the Needle as well. We talked about climbing on the way up – they also were close to finishing off all the 14ers – and when we got to the summit, we found the weather improving. By the time we got back to Broken Hand Pass and the hike out, the sun had come out and the sky was blue. And as Tom pointed out, it was still only 1 p.m. Plenty of time to go back and bag Crestone Peak.

So that’s what I did, following the red gully to the top and taking a sharp left and scrambling the final 200 feet to the summit. Elated, I hiked back to my car to find Tom’s business card tucked to my windshield. I had hoped they would do that … they wanted me to give them an update when I finished my trip. Incredibly, the weather over the remaining two weeks was absolutely perfect and I knocked off the final 17 peaks I needed over an 11-day span, completing all 59 of Colorado’s 14ers – both official and unofficial – and was headed for the airport in Denver with the first major snowstorm of the season giving chase.

So two months later when Tom and Sandi called and asked if I wanted to go climb Mount Rainier with them in July, it was a no-brainer. I figured they had saved me paying for a return trip to Colorado, so why not spend the money and go to Rainier, a peak I was eventually going to need to bag anyway? But I had told them even before then that the next time I saw them I owed them dinner for saving my Colorado trip.

I arrived in Seattle two Fridays ago with plans to run the inaugural Seattle Rock’N’Roll Marathon that Saturday, but an Achilles tendon injury caused by running my first 100-miler at Massanutten in Virginia the month before convinced me to leave all of my running gear at home so I wouldn’t talk myself into something stupid at the last minute. I did show up at the marathon expo to pick up my T-shirt, but when someone overheard me say that I wasn’t going to run, they immediately begged me to give them my bib number. Seems this sold-out show was in hot demand. I gave him the number, but when I got to my friend Charles’ house later that day, he said he wished he had emailed me about the bib number as he had a friend who was hankering to run. I also could have sold the number on craigslist and recouped some of the $100 entry fee and $10 parking fee I lost. I told the guy who I gave the number to to email me to let me know how we did, but I never got word.

Charles is the head of the Department of Transportation for the city of Seattle and he and his wife, along with sons Zac and Ty, had a wedding to go to on the Olympic peninsula on Saturday, so I held down the fort at Charles’ house until they returned on Sunday afternoon. Zac and Charles I had first met on a volcano in Mexico two winters ago and we had stayed in touch; Zac had climbed Mount Whitney with me last March and we’re planning an Aconcagua trip for either this January or next. Charles had already told me that whenever I got out to Seattle, base camp would be waiting for me in the form of his beautiful little house in the hilly Queen Anne section of Seattle overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic range beyond. A short walk from his house was the Kerry Park Overlook which offered stupendous views of the city skyline with the Space Needle in the front left and Mount Rainier hovering in the right in the far distance, looming over the city like the monolith it is.

After a couple of short day hikes up Kendall Peak in Snoqualmie Pass and to the ever-popular Mount Si, and of course the mid-week excursion with my new friend Doug to bag Mount Hood, the highest point in Oregon, I headed to Mount Rainier on a Thursday afternoon excited about climbing what would be my most impressive mountain to date. Well, that or Mount Whitney. I’m not sure which was the tougher climb.

I arrived at Rainier Mountaineering’s headquarters next to Whittaker’s Bunkhouse where I was staying in time for the 3 p.m. first-day meeting with the entire team and our main guide, Mark. First, though, we all went inside to watch a slide show presentation about the climb. After that, we went back outside and unloaded the contents of our backpacks on the ground. Mark then went over every item on his checklist to make sure we had all the gear necessary to climb Rainier.

Satisfied, he dismissed us and Tom, Sandi and I went out to dinner at the Copper Creek Inn about five miles up the road so I could take care of a little matter of a dinner I owed them. I couldn’t convince Sandi to order anything more than a hamburger, but Tom had a delicious salmon dinner. Then came dessert, which was Copper Creek’s famous blackberry pie topped by a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. Normally, I never eat dessert at a restaurant, but this pie was not to pass up!

Friday they bused us up to Paradise which is the Visitor’s Center on the south side of Rainier. Then we went to school. Mark and fellow guide Mailey hiked us up onto a snowfield about a mile from Paradise and we began to learn how to hike a mountain. Like I don’t know how to hike a mountain!! I was expecting to be bored silly, but I found the day interesting and informative, learning many of the techniques that will come in handy when I head to some bigger mountains (Denali in 2011?) and understanding why things are done a certain way.

First we learned several different types of steps for varied terrain; and pressure breathing, to get enough oxygen into your lungs … I’ve never had a problem at altitude with my cardio, so I don’t recall ever pressure breathing once on the climb, but it was a good technique to know. Then they asked us if we knew what the two types of arrest were: the only one I could think of was “house arrest.” Just kidding. We spent the next couple of hours flopping around in the soft, wet snow getting soaked as we learned how to self-arrest if you fell down yourself, and how to team-arrest, if someone else on your rope fell.

We all hoped these techniques would not come into play over the following two days, and thankfully they did not.

After that, we all got roped up for the first time and were shown how to maintain proper spacing on the rope in case someone did fall so that a team arrest could successfully keep everyone on the rope from being swept off the mountain simultaneously. Something like that would ruin your whole day! We learned how to take corners and step over the rope without snagging it on our crampons, another no-no.

On Saturday, we began our ascent, climbing from Paradise in tandem the 4,600 or so feet up to Muir Camp at about 10,000 feet. We didn’t need crampons or ropes for this part of the climb as the trail was relatively moderate and the snow soft from the nearly 70-degree temperatures … I even got some sunburn up the sleeves of my T-shirt from the sun reflecting off the snow.

We took nearly six hours to climb to Muir Camp, though there were trail runners going by us in shorts and no shirts that probably made it in two hours … I secretly wished to be one of them. But we finally arrived and set up camp, which was to throw our sleeping bags on one of the 18 foam pads in the hut. We also prepared our packs for the summit climb, making sure that they were packed in the reverse order of when we expected to need certain pieces of gear and clothing. They brought out hot water so we could all eat our pre-packed dehydrated meals (yummy!) and then we were instructed to try to get some sleep – even though it was only 6:30 p.m. and it wouldn’t get dark until about 10.

With 18 people in a cramped bunkhouse, the place soon took on the smell of one of the outhouses out back, for the obvious reasons. Why is it that when you get a bunch of guys together (and a couple women) everyone just starts letting ‘em rip!

The wakeup call came at 11:10 p.m. and I had yet to sleep a wink – just like on Hood earlier in the week. We all ate breakfast and waited for the guides to call us out for departure. We left Muir Camp with crampons on and roped up as we crossed the top of the Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap and then climbed on loose rock and scree behind the Cathedral Rocks. We took our first break at a flat spot at the top of the second glacier we climbed, and then headed for the crux up the climb, Disappointment Cleaver, which is where we would cross under a steep cliff face and then zig-zag our way up it to the top. It was the steepest climbing of the day (though it was still the middle of the night) and after another break, we crossed another large glacier and had to circumnavigate several monstrous crevasses, a couple of them only a foot or two wide but with bottomless abysses … as you stepped over the chasm you couldn’t see the bottom below!

By now the sun was coming up and our pace seemed to be slowing. Mark, our guide, had put the two least-experienced climbers, Brian and Ryan, on his rope, with me as the fourth person pulling up the rear. I understood what he was doing … putting his strongest climber as anchor on the rope with the two weakest climbers … and it made for a bit of a frustrating day for me. I knew when I signed up for this trip, however, that we would be moving at the pace of the slowest climber and that’s exactly what happened.

That person happened to be Brian. As we got to 13,000 feet, Brian was about spent. He could barely move and was often incoherent when asked a question … the altitude, the amount of energy expended and the lack of proper nutritional intake combined with his inexperience to make Brian a liability on the rope. But the guides assessed his condition continuously and prodded him up the mountain, even though I once urged our third guide, Tyler, to send him back down. While I must admit that I was a bit concerned that Brian was going to keep us all from summiting – especially me, I must selfishly admit – I truly felt that Brian was completely spent and would have trouble getting down.

But the guides knew what they were doing and though it was about 7:30 in the morning, we finally made it into the crater rim at the top of Mount Rainier – all nine of us in our group made it (we later learned that two people in the other group of nine turned back). Finally we were let off our leashes and everyone scurried to various places on the open crater to pee – except in order to turn your back to everyone you had to stand facing the 40 mph wind, so it was a bit of a tricky maneuver. I guess it’s better to be pissed on than pissed off!

Then, those who wanted to, crossed the crater and climbed the far rim, where the actual high point is. On our way, we stopped to log into the register book, and then hit the summit. I was elated as it meant state high-point No. 43 for me, leaving me only seven more to go, but it was great to see some of the others in our group who had never climbed a mountain before stand so proudly on the top. Like Ty and Jason, who had hatched the plan to climb Rainier over a bottle of whiskey with Ryan.

And then there were Tom and Sandi, who each took a can of Rainier beer from Ty, who had carried up a six-pack, and broke one open, toasting the summit in style. Another spot along the rim looked higher and Mark bet me it wasn’t, so we hiked over there and looked back at the others and I realized he was right. I lost the bet, but there was nothing riding on it, as he said he had made the same mistake the first time he summited Rainier.

We then all headed back to where we left our packs and roped up for the descent. This time, Mark put me in the front and told me to set a strong and steady pace on the way down … this I liked!! It was my reward, I guess, for being on the end of the slowest rope team coming up. Tyler had already started back down with Brian, and we caught them part-way down the mountain. The hardest part was descending the steep and rocky Disappointment Cleaver, which was just nasty down-climbing. Then we had to scoot quickly under the lip of the cleaver hoping the warming temperatures wouldn’t dislodge any ice or rocks and rain them down on us. We safely made our way across and back past all the crevasses that now appeared even more massive in the daylight than they had in the darkness of night.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we were back at Muir Camp and could finally take our crampons off. I can tell you that your feet are never happier than to have crampons removed from them! At least my feet were feeling much better than they had on Hood, thanks to the pair of Koflach plastic double-boots I had purchased in Seattle the day before I arrived. On Hood, I wore a pair of borrowed boots that were too narrow in the toe box and my feet were in agony, especially on the descent, just as they were on Whitney last March in a pair of similar boots. I think I will be very happy with the Koflach’s, which I picked up on sale for $150, about half price.

We were all excited to be back at Muir Camp, but we still had to pack up everything and hike the 4,600 feet back down to Paradise, which was a couple hours away still. But this was some of the most fun we had on the trip as there were several steep down sections and with the softening snow, it made for some excellent boot skiing. We arrived at Paradise with sore, wet feet, but it was all worth it.

After the 45-minute bus ride back to Ashford and RMI headquarters, we had a short awards ceremony where we were all issued a certificate of achievement for climbing Rainier. And Brian was now feeling much better and announced that beer was on him since he had slowed us all down so much on the way up. The beer was greatly appreciated, though I could only have a couple as I still had to re-pack everything in my car for the plane trip home the following morning. Fortunately, everything fit in and I drove back to Doug’s house in Seattle where I stayed again on Sunday night. I went to say goodbye to Tom and Sandi, but they had apparently already gone to dinner and I missed them. They were going to start a six-day hike of the Wonderland Trail – a 93-mile trail circumnavigating the entire base of Mount Rainier, the next morning. I hope they had good weather.

I arrived at Doug’s just as he pulled in with his girlfriend, Kristia, and we all went out to dinner along with his roommate Aaron at an Indian restaurant and then I crashed on their couch – hard. The next morning, I headed for the airport and as I flew out of Seattle I got one last long look at Mount Rainier out the window. An amazing sight and one hell of a mountain that I am glad to have checked off my bucket list.