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!