Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sleepless in Seattle, or the Post-Massanutten Blues

It’s Friday, and I am in Seattle, where I was supposed to run the inaugural Rock’N’Roll Marathon here on Saturday. But I am not running. My running shoes and gears are 3,000 miles away back in Keene where I purposely left them so I wouldn’t be enticed into running by the euphoria created by thousands of runners picking up their race packets Friday at Qwest Stadium.

What I DO have with me is an Achilles tendon that has been bucking and screaming ever since I strained it three weeks ago during a recovery run from the Massanutten 100, which was five weeks ago in Virginia. My left Achilles is swollen, tender and very painful … and that’s coming from someone who ENJOY’S pain!

I went into Massanutten feeling really strong and my result, I guess, showed that I was ready for my first 100, both mentally and physically. Mentally, I was able to hold off the urge to race from the word “Go” and start out slowly, as my friend Steve Pero had instructed. Physically, the strategy paid off in that from Mile 60 on I felt fantastic and was slowly moving up through the field right to the end, which resulted in an 11th-place finish in 25:08.

That result was what I thought I had been prepared for … what I wasn’t prepared for was the recovery. The down time of the past five weeks and my stupid attempt last weekend to race despite the problem has not been easy to handle either mentally or physically.

I am a runner … therefore I run. God built us to move. Fast. Those ancestors of ours that didn’t, well let’s just say they weren’t around long enough to pass on their genes. When I can’t run, usually I can at least hike, but even walking around the sidewalks of Keene has left me in pain on this one. Let’s just say I’ve not been a happy camper.

The downtime, however, HAS allowed me to do a couple of things … well the downtime coupled with the fact that I am currently out of work at UPS and my girlfriend broke up with me because she thinks I’m a “slacker.” How many slackers do you know that run 100-mile races? That’s what I thought.

I’ve caught up on my reading for one. I had about three or four months worth of Outside and NG Adventure magazines piled up unread when I returned in April from my three-month, cross-country road trip that saw me high-point 34 states and drive 14,321 miles. I’m on my latest issue of NG Adventure now.

It’s also allowed me to jump feet first into Efusjon, the new all-natural energy drink club that is going to be marketed through Facebook when the opportunity is officially launched next month. I am so fortunate to have found an incredible mentor in Erskien Lenier of Corona, California, the barefoot ultrarunner who is not only an inspiration to us all, but a great leader. Many of you are skeptical of Efusjon and rightly so after all of the shameful MLM’s of the past, but this one is light years ahead of anything we have seen before. I have complete confidence that our growing group of runners who are teaming up to take advantage of this opportunity will do just that … because runners NEVER GIVE UP!!

We can’t! It’s programmed into our amygdala! If any of you read the article entitled, “This Is Your Brain on Adventure,” in the April issue of Outside magazine, you’d understand why runners and adventurers are natural and pre-programmed risk takers and why an opportunity like Efusjon would be one that would instantly grab the attention of us ultrarunners … our brains are programmed that way!

The story equated running to drug abuse … it’s the same chemical reaction that body creates when it red-lines into risk-taking mode … the adrenaline rush, the endorphin kick of a long run or grand adventure is not much different than a junkie looking for his next fix of heroin. He can’t help himself!

That’s why when Ted Davenport broke his leg in half in a crash while using a wingsuit the first thing he said afterward was that he couldn’t wait to do it again!! You can’t make us quit doing the things we love … just look at another story in the newspaper this week about the economy. The sale of running shoes and race entries has remained constant while just about everything else is in a financial freefall. Why? Because runners won’t stop running no matter if the economy tanks or not … it’s in their blood, their minds and their souls.

My girlfriend couldn’t understand why I didn’t race right out and grab the first job that came along (there was a part-time gig mowing lawns at a cemetery), and when I didn’t, her response was predictable: she dumped me. But for us dreamers, we are looking deeper into the future and we are more willing to gamble and take the risk that things will work out for us … somehow, someway.

That’s why I know this Achilles problem won’t be around forever … I’ve just got to be smarter and let it heal (no pun intended). Last weekend, I thought I would “force” it to get better by racing on it, and I didn’t do too badly by most standards, but certainly not by my own. I went to upstate New York with my friend George to run in the Adirondacks Trail Run, a great little race over a harsh course with a unique format: runners are sent off not in a mass start, like every other race, but at one-minute intervals. The course is all single-track covering 11.5 miles of steep climbs, treacherous descents, roots, rocks and the deepest mud I’ve ever run in … calf deep in places. Except for ending on a long downhill gravel road that kills your quads, the race is a great diversion from the regular fare.

Last year I ran it for the first time and finished third, and this year I was ordered by my doctor not to do any running for a while … but since when do I listen. I told George I would drive him even if I didn’t run, because his eyesight isn’t the greatest, and I kept my word, knowing in the back of my mind that I would at least lace up the shoes Saturday morning to see what I could do. It was that mentality that finally convinced me to leave my shoes home instead of bringing them to Seattle, by the way.

George has a climbing buddy who owns a house three miles north of Keene Valley. His friend, Joe, was in Chamonix climbing ice on Mount Blanc, but that doesn’t matter there. Joe has a garage next to his house called “The Bivy” and it’s basically a bunkhouse with a wood stove and kitchen where all his fellow climbing buddies come to crash whenever they want … even when he’s off in Europe. On this night, six friends from New Jersey showed up and four of them ran the race on Sunday.

The race was not pretty for me … at no time during the 11.5 miles did I feel like I was racing … more of a controlled limp. I was unable to run any of the uphills – and there were many – and my Achilles was balking at every step. I struggling home in 17th place, not bad considering 65 started, but after finishing third last year, I had loftier goals. What a joke it was when I later learned that I finished second in my age group and won a new pair of Salomon XT Wings, the same prize I got last year when I was third. I was almost too embarrassed to accept them!

But I have not run a step since, though since I’ve arrived in Seattle I’ve gone on two nice hikes and leave later today for Oregon to climb Mount Hood beginning about 2 a.m. tomorrow morning under what should be gorgeous conditions (the moon is nearly three-quarters full!). I did pick up my race packet at Qwest Stadium last Friday, but a race volunteer heard me say I wasn’t going to run and begged my bib off of me so he could do the half-marathon. This race has been sold out for months and turns out I could have sold my bib on craigslist if I had only known … giving it away was profitless and the more so because I had to pay a $10 fee to park my car to go pick up the number!

I found my friend Charles’ house in the nice Queen Anne section of Seattle easy enough and it was beautiful, with great views overlooking Puget Sound and within a short walk was a park with a view of all of downtown Seattle and Mount Ranier lurking over the city on the horizon. Ranier is an impressive sight – perhaps the most impressive-looking mountain I have ever seen – and that’s where I’ll be next weekend looking to bag state high-point No. 43.

The first day, last Saturday, Charles and his wife Andrea headed to Olympia for a wedding and would be gone until Sunday, so he sent me off to hike what is called the Kendall Catwalk Trail … it was about 50 miles east of Seattle on I-90 in Snoqualmie Pass and a five-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail up to a spot where they had blasted the trail out of solid granite to link two mountains. Most people were turned back by what I was told by one hiker was “an impenetrable wall of snow” blocking the trail, but when I got there, I saw that many others had crossed the steeply angled snowfield and the steps they had cut in the snow were level and true. There were several such snowfields to cross to get to the catwalk, which was interesting if for no other reason than they cut the PCT through solid granite at over 5,000 feet. Nice job!

I returned over the snowfields and then scrambled up Kendall Peak to the summit and had lunch while staring straight at Mount Ranier, which looms as a massive monolith from just about everywhere within a hundred miles of it. I could even see Mount Adams off in the distance to the south. Mount Adams is only 12,000 feet, compared to the 14,000 feet of Ranier, but it is nearly as majestic.

The hiking really didn’t bother my Achilles, but breaking in my new Asolo boots was pure agony. I’ve never worn such a stiff boot and the uppers were digging into my ankles and causing so much pain that I had to unlace them for the descent. I seem to do much better with the cheapest pair of boots I can find … at least they’re flexible!

On Sunday, Charles and gang returned from the wedding, along with his son Zac, who had climbed Mount Whitney with me last spring. I drove Zac and his friend to the airport … Zac had to get back to LA and his friend had to take a red-eye to New York just in time to go to work Monday morning. Work??

On Monday, Charles had hoped to hike with me, but with a short week (he has Friday off for the Fourth and has a hike of his own planned, plus he works for the Transportation Department in Seattle which is under a lot of scrutiny by the local newspaper for the way it handled a particularly rough winter … in an election year, no doubt) he had to work and I was on my own again. This time he sent me to Mount Si, about 30 miles west on I-90, and again it was a good choice.

This mountain was only about 4,000 feet and had about the most graded trail I have ever hiked on as it switchbacked four miles to the top. It kind of reminded me of the Piper Trail on Mount Chocurua, that’s how manicured it was. At the top, you come to an overview where most people stop. But if you want to keep going, there is a steep, rocky promontory called the Haystack Scramble with is a large block of solid granite that rises to a sharp, precipitous point about 500 feet higher up. This is all Class 3-4 scrambling and a lot of fun … it reminded me of climbing the Crestone Needle in Colorado except without all the ice coating the rock!

The summit was grand, with spectacular views of Ranier and all the way to Puget Sound. It was a glorious day, with no wind to speak of, and an excellent lunch was had on the summit. Then I explored a little and came back down, meeting a guy from Russia who had never climbed before and was scared out of his wits on the scramble up. I saw a lot of people still coming up mid-day on my way down … I take it that Mount Si is to Washingtonians what Mount Monadnock is to New Englanders … the place to go for a nice, not-too-strenuous hike.

I had resigned myself to heading to Mount Hood alone today (which I didn’t want to do since I know how serious a mountain Hood can be), when suddenly on Monday night I got a call from Doug, who lives here in Seattle and is a friend of the afore-mentioned Darlene. Now she had told me Doug wasn’t available to hike with me, but he called and said he was eager to go … so that is a big relief for me. He has climbed Hood twice and we will go down there this afternoon, camp for the night and leave for the summit around 2-3 in the morning. Then we’ll come back to Seattle, I’ll crash at his place Wednesday night and head for Ranier on Thursday to begin my four-day expedition with Ranier Mountaineering. Going with a guided group is going to feel like I have a leash on – literally, as we’ll be roped up – but I felt obliged to do it after being invited by Tom and Sandi, whom I met that day in Colorado last September on Crestone Needle and who saved my vacation when they gave me accurate directions to go back later that day and get Crestone Peak as well.

I had failed to find the summit of Crestone Peak in a white-out early that morning, but met Tom and Sandi on my way down – defeated – thinking I would have to come back to Colorado again in 2009 to finish off the final two 14ers I missed – the Crestones. But thanks to them, I bagged them both, and the rest of the trip went absolutely like clockwork, nailing my 59th and final Colorado 14er (only 54 of them “count” on the list) on the final day before my flight and the final day before winter arrived in the Rockies. The timing couldn’t have better and I told Tom and Sandi dinner was on me the next time we met … so I’ll sign off by saying that Thursday night at Ranier I will be paying the dinner tab!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clingmans Dome Or Bust ...

Hi readers ... I know you've been looking for more trail and race reports, but haven't had a lot to write about since coming home from Massanutten with an Achilles problem ... so here is a story that I wrote last January on my high-pointers trip that was republished in the High-Pointers Club quarterly magazine:

“I’m sorry, but the road is closed. It may be days before you can get up the mountain.”

Those were not the words I wanted to hear when I arrived at the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Jan. 20 with plans to summit Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. I was on a schedule – no, it was more like a mission – to high-point every state on a cross-country drive to California and back. Thirty-five in all, and Tennessee was next, come hell or high water.

Or nearly a foot of snow.

It had fallen the day before, when I was in Virginia bagging Mount Rogers, where about eight inches of fresh, unbroken powder had made for a magical day. But after high-pointing Kentucky in the morning, my arrival in Gatlinburg to climb Clingmans Dome was met by a roadblock in the form of a barricaded road.

Highway 441 that climbs through Newfound Gap for 13 miles to the turnoff to the Clingmans Dome Road was closed and no matter how much I pleaded with the park rangers, they weren’t going to let me drive up it. The only way up, the ranger said, was to hike it, and since it was already mid-afternoon, was snowing heavily again, and was expected to dip well below zero in a few hours, he threw it out there mostly as a joke.

But I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking. Thinking that it just might be possible to hike the 40-plus miles to the summit and back instead of waiting up to two days for the road to reopen. “Yeah, I can do that,” I finally decided and headed for the parking lot to pack up every shred of winter gear I had with me. Fortunately, I was well-prepared, but most of the gear I was stuffing into my pack were things I didn’t expect to need until Mount Whitney in California, not here in Tennessee.

When I returned to the Visitor’s Center 20 minutes later to secure my permit, the rangers there saw I wasn’t kidding. An older ranger advised me against this suicide march, telling me it was more than 17 miles to the Mount Collins Shelter where I was required to camp and it would be dark soon. Undaunted, though, I ignored the warning, having hiked in far worse conditions in my home state of New Hampshire on many occasions. In hindsight, I probably should have listened, because as it turned out, only dumb luck – or as I called it, superb intuition – enabled me to find the shelter in a raging blizzard, preventing probable disaster.

I started up the road to Newfound Gap at 3:40 p.m. just as the snow began falling with a more serious urgency. It was not a hard climb, as the road had been plowed earlier in the day, but now snow was piling up on it again, and it was getting dark. Then I discovered what was going to turn out to be a problem with life-or-death consequences: Once it got dark, I turned on my headlamp, only to see – nothing! Nothing, except blowing, swirling snow a foot in front of my face, rendering my headlamp useless.

So I turned it off and continued climbing in the dark, using the complete blackness of the treeline on either side of the road as my only reference point. Finally, the road leveled and I figured that I had reached Newfound Gap, but it was still impossible to see the Clingmans Dome Road that branched to my right. Continuing to use the treeline as my guide, I found the unplowed road and began trudging up it. The ranger had told me that I’d find a parking lot on my left about halfway up this summit road, and a sign opposite it leading to the Appalachian Trail and the Mount Collins Shelter. But I doubted I would be able to see any of this and knew I ran the disastrous risk of walking right by this trail in the darkness.

So I checked the time. It was 7:45 and pitch black, but I calculated that I could hike the three-plus miles to the trail sign in about an hour. So when I checked the time again an hour later, I began looking for this supposed parking lot. But in the blizzard, it had been swallowed up. I started hiking closer to the left side of the road in hopes of seeing something … anything … but knew if I missed this turnoff, I would have no choice but to keep hiking or…. I didn’t want to think about the “or.”

The temperature was now well-below zero and it was still snowing hard when suddenly I saw something on my left that did not look like a tree, but rather man-made. I walked over to it and leaned close. It was a trail sign! I turned on my headlamp again and could just make out the name of the trail. This was it! I knew the spur to the AT and the shelter was directly across the road from this sign and easily found it.

Once in the woods, under the canopy of the trees, the blizzard abated, and I found I could use my headlamp. I almost immediately noticed fresh footsteps in the snow and followed them straight to the shelter, where I arrived at 9:40 p.m. – six hours after I started – cold and hungry. Two college-aged brothers from Massachusetts, through-hiking the AT, were already in the shelter trying to sleep, but mostly shivering. They would tell me in the morning it was the coldest night they had spent since they left Katahdin in Maine back in August.

My hands were almost useless as I pulled everything I could out of my pack and prepared for a long, cold night. The wind was whipping into the open side of the shelter and I could barely get my stove lit, but I had no choice … I still had to eat. After melting snow for my pre-packaged meal, I pulled on every bit of clothing I had with me, topped by a thick, down jacket.

I wolfed down my dinner and climbed into my sleeping back, having already stuffed my boots into the bottom to dry them out. As I zipped myself in, though, I noticed something disconcerting. Two of the fingertips on my right hand, exposed to the cold thanks to holes worn through the thin, cotton gloves I had on, were frozen completely solid! Like rocks!

I struggled back out of my bag and somehow re-lit my stove, painfully thawing out the two fingertips before they were entirely lost to frostbite. Thankfully, this worked and I was soon back in my bag. Surprisingly, I was not cold as all the layers I had on were just enough to keep me toasty. My hands got so hot in my overmitts that they started to sweat and get cold, so I spent the night comfortably without any gloves on!

But the morning dawned cold and clear. And did I mention cold? Later, I was told it dipped to minus-6 that night, but with the wind, it was much colder. I pulled my boots out of the bottom of my sleeping bag to find that none of the snow that had bonded to them had melted! Not a smidgen!

The brothers had broken camp ahead of me, heading south and over the summit, still nearly four miles away. I thought I would catch them, but they got to the summit and were back on the trail before I arrived.

Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet, may be one of the highest points east of the Mississippi, but there is still a road to the top and because of that, there is a spiraling cement observation tower on the summit. Upon reaching it, I took out my camera and it promptly told me that it had not survived the night. Well, at least its battery hadn’t. All this work and no pictures … who would believe I was ever there! I went up the spiral walkway of the observation tower, banging my head on a tree branch I had to duck under.

The views were amazing on this perfectly still morning. The Smoky’s were smoking this morning, with mist seemingly rising from every valley from here to the horizon. The blue of the cloudless sky stood out in absolute brilliance against the pure-white mountaintops all covered in another six inches of fresh powder.

It was a long, grueling hike down the road through all the fresh-fallen snow. About halfway down Clingmans Dome Road I found the trail sign that had saved me the night before … and saw no parking lot next to it. I had been in search of an illusion the night before … I knew now that finding that sign by pure chance had probably saved my life!

When I got back to Newfound Gap, I felt much better, but I still had 13 miles to go to get back to the Visitor’s Center. Soon, the constant downhill turned into an excruciating ordeal. My feet were wet and it became almost tortuous to continue. I stopped twice to take my boots off, airing out my wrinkled feet and changing into a slightly drier pair of socks.

With about five miles to go, I heard the sound of an engine somewhere down in the valley. A snowplow, perhaps? But could I speed up enough to get to it before it left for the day, as it was now getting to be late-afternoon again.

I reached the side road just as the snowplow was driving out. I was never so thankful to see someone in my life. The driver let me throw my pack in the back and he gave me a ride the final four miles to the Visitor’s Center and my car.

Then I hobbled inside and told the rangers my story and they were amazed. All they could do was shake their heads and be thankful they hadn’t been called out to rescue me.

Tennessee now behind me, I got in the car and headed for North Carolina and Mount Mitchell, grabbing the first hotel I could find after leaving Gatlinburg. After having spent a surprisingly comfortable night in below-zero temperatures the night before, I went out to eat at a local Applebee’s and as I was sitting there, I started shivering uncontrollably.

Maybe it was just the events of the previous 24 hours catching up to me.

Next up on my high-pointers list: Mounts Hood and Ranier next week.