Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Travel Run Update #5 – Salt Lake City / Wasatch 09/13/2012 – 09/15/2012

We arrived home from Napa Monday morning.  I had just enough time to unpack, repack, and head back to the airport 2 hours later to go to Dallas for work.  Two days of meetings there went very long and I did not run as I had hoped.  But no worries, I will be back there next week for pleasure and plan to run Lake Grapevine.  From Dallas, I headed out to Salt Lake City for more meetings.  I have never been to SLC before, but I had been on the ground less than an hour before I decided I was in love with the place.  The vistas are spectacular, especially the Wasatch front to the east, and there are trails, paved and unpaved everywhere

Thursday morning I had meetings, so had no time to get up into the mountains.  But I set out from my hotel and within ½ mile was running along the Jordan River Trail which bisects the city north-south and is 39 miles long.  The trail is flat for most of the distance, so the easier terrain made for some faster (as always, this is a relative term for me) running.  Sometimes the trail ran right next to the river, sometimes it meandered away with dozen of yards of cattails and river grasses in between.  I couldn’t believe what a natural setting it made right in the middle of the city.  Up above, I could see the mountains in every direction (except Great Salt Lake itself, well off to the northwest).  And around me, it appeared I was in the country.  I passed cow fields and horse pastures, with both stopping to watch me pass by.   The river way could easily be called a bird sanctuary as there were thousands of them, of every kind, passing overhead and drowning me in their calls.  Just before my turnaround 6 miles south, I even saw a red fox cross the trail ahead of me just after passing several deer.  12.1 miles in 1:45, this was my fastest run of my travels.

Less than 24 hours later, I was back at it Friday morning.  This time I arose early and started pre-dawn from the entrance to Bells Canyon west, and just a little north from my hotel.  The trailhead starts at 5,200 feet and eventually climbs to over 11,000 feet and the peak of Thunder Mountain.  I knew I didn’t have time to get all the way up and back down before work, but I thought I could make much of it.  I soon knew I was wrong.  The websites I had read described alpine meadows, and I had visions of open fields with long vistas, like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music.   Less than a mile in, the trail turned into one long, mad rock scramble.   I didn’t so much run or walk, as I did hop.  I was feeling both the climb and the altitude as I ascended, and had to stop around the 7,300 foot mark.  By now, the sun had just risen and I had a beautiful early morning view back down into the valley.

I turned back down the mountain, and found I had a harder time going down than I had going up.  Most of the trail parallels a stream cascading down the mountain.  The running water, and little waterfalls proved a frequent, and often dangerous distraction from focusing on my footing.   I eventually reached the base of the rocky section and looked back up the trail into the canyon Ihad just climbed. 

Only 6.5 miles in 2:10 of running.  But as I drove back to my hotel, I was amazed this kind of trail was accessible less than 15 minutes from the center of the city, and I would be on time for work afterwards.  Just 8 hours later, I was headed out for a Friday afternoon jaunt up another mountain.  This time I was headed west and south and intended to run the BST trail which meanders around the foothills along the edge of the Wasatch without nearly as much elevation change.  I figured I needed an easier run to recover from the morning’s effort.  But less than ½ mile in I saw a sign for “Copper Canyon Logging Trail”.  Looking up, I could see the switchback going straight up the mountain. 

I suddenly had a flashback to running the Vortex with the “harder / easier” signs.  And as all FURs know, always choose Harder.  So up I went.   At first, I thought I would only go up for 30 minutes, and then return back down to run the flatter sections.  But 45 minutes passed, and then an hour.  Each time I crested a ridge, I would see another slope that didn’t look too far ahead and I pressed on.  Soon I passed the 2 hour mark of climbing and had finally reached my alpine meadows.  Lone Peak was just ahead and above me.

It was spectacular.  But I knew it was probably several more miles of trekking and a couple thousand feet above me.  I looked back and saw the sun headed down towards the Uinta mountains to the west.  I was running out of daylight.  I had a flashlight with me, but didn’t particularly want to descend that mountain in the dark.  I had climbed from 4,800 feet up to just over 8,600 when I turned back.  I descended faster than I thought I could, and still had time to do a quick 2-mile jaunt on the flatter sections in the fading twilight. 

 11.5 miles in 3:48 this time, with over 4,000 feet of elevation change.  I felt great.  Less than 10 hours later, I was back in the car, Saturday morning, headed for another run.  This time, I went to Dimple Dell, which bisects the city east/west, and was less than 5 minutes from my hotel.   The park is a deep ravine through the valley that was not suitable for housing.  So instead, it became another beautiful park with miles and miles of single track crisscrossing it. I danced back and forth across the stream at the bottom in the pre-dawn light and spooked a huge, 8-point buck just in front of me.  I am not sure why he ran, he outweighed me by 100 lbs. and his rack would have gored me through and through.  Alas, I could not get the camera out in time for a shot.   On the way west and then north through the L-shaped park, I found there were 4 primary trails (with many other connectors and offshoots).    

One followed the stream at the bottom, one followed the hillside near the bottom, a third tracked the ravine closer to the top, and the last tracked along the top on flat ground.  I stayed on the third trail as much as possible which wound in and around one bluff after another and up and down dozens of little ascents.  At the far north of the park, I circled around and down into the ravine at the bottom and returned alongside the stream.  I was having so much fun, I took every offshoot trail I could find and often found myself doubling back to repeat.  13 miles and 2:42 later, I was back at the rental car with just enough time to shower and get to the airport for my return to Tampa.  13 miles in a city park, and I don’t think I even saw half the trails. 

In the end, I did 4 runs in just over 48 hours totaling 43 miles and almost 7,000 feet of elevation change.  All of that was within 30 minutes of downtown and the airport.  I am in love with SLC.  And the Wasatch 100 just moved way up my bucket list.

Travel Run Update #4: Napa Valley 09/06/2012 & 09/08/2012

We spent the next week in Napa and Sonoma valleys, touring wineries, and doing what you are supposed to do there.  We rented a house just outside of the town of Napa in Wild Horse Valley.  We were at the very end of the road, tucked away in the hills on a horse farm next to a lake, with no noise and no neighbors.  The owner told me about a trail he had created over the years that led to the ridgeline behind us and overlooked Napa Valley.  He said you can see all the way to Mt Helena in the north end of the valley, and to the south, you could see to San Francisco Bay (and supposedly on a clear day all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge).

Unfortunately, my intake of the Napa product line led to me only running two mornings.  But one chilly morning I did run up and along the ridgeline as suggested.  He had cut a rough trail, so the going was slow, and I got pretty scratched up from the bushes.  I tried a number of the game trails that cut across it, only to hit dead ends when the trail required a creature much shorter than me to pass.  5 miles of rocky ups and downs later, I  was back at the chalet and ready for my next winery.  On our final morning, I decided to run the road down towards Napa, and back.  The first mile was a little bit of ups and downs, and I worked up the pace slowly, trying to overcome wine grogginess.  But the road descends 1200 feet towards the valley floor in the next 2 miles, and I was soon pounding down the pavement at breakneck speed (for me) trying to hold the switchback curves on the road.  I reached 3 miles in just under 23  minutes and decided that was far enough.  I turned and headed back up the hill and was soon huffing and puffing.  The return trip took 35 minutes, over 50% slower than the descent.  6 miles in 58 minutes total.  Only 2 runs in 6 days in Napa, but I was happy with the effort.

Travel Run Update #3: Half-Dome Yosemite 09/03/2012

I guess it is a sign that I am getting that older that not only do I have a formal bucket-list, but I am adding more items each year than crossing off.   On the running front, I have a list of MUST-do’s which are mostly races.  I will run the Western States 100 if it takes me 10 consecutive entries to get in.  Leadville, Hardrock, Wasatch, and Mont Blanc are all on the list too.   But there are other incredible places to run that don’t involve a race.  Yosemite has always been high on that list for me, and if you are going to Yosemite, the climb to Half-Dome is clearly the premier opportunity.    I did as much research as I could and found that the last 600 feet to the summit involves a cable climb for which there is a lottery.  Each spring, roughly 300 daily spots are given out for the season, I had long missed that.  But as the season wears on, people drop, and a new, smaller lottery is held daily, 48 hours in advance for the last 40-60 spots.   I put my entry in Saturday morning (best $5.50 I ever spent) and received my winning email that night.  Needless to say, the 5 hour flight from DC to San Francisco was stressful for Sandra as she sat next to me.  I was a jittery mess as I planned and re-planned my route, timing and strategy; as well as trying to memorize the course.  We drove to Yosemite that afternoon, toured much of the valley and walked several miles to Yosemite Falls (dry), Yosemite lodge (unremarkable except for the views), hung out with the forest rangers watching a black bear searching for apples in a tree, and had dinner at the Ahwahnee Lodge (spectacular).    But at every turn, I would look up at Half-Dome looming over the valley, and start chattering.  I think when she dropped me off the next morning, Sandra would have been OK with the idea that I got lost in the woods for a few days.

The next morning, she dropped me off at Curry Village campground (the very same campground where 3 people recently died from the Han-tu virus contracted from mice urine in tents)  just before 5 AM. We were meeting friends in Napa Valley for the balance of our vacation that afternoon, and I had a limited time window to get to the top.  The guidebooks and online info, all said it is a full day hike, 10-12 hours at a minimum,  But I had also found that the all-time record is under 3 hours.  I figured I would try to do it in 5-6 hours, with 3+ up and 2+ coming down.  I told Sandra I would be back by 11 AM at the latest and would meet her at Ahwahnee lodge where we had dinner the night before.   I fretted over my supplies, making sure everything was just so; until Sandra pointed out that several people had gone by on the trail and were building a lead on me.  I had vowed to be the first person at the cables that morning, and now that was in jeopardy.  Sandra's prompt worked, and off I went.

The first mile up to Happy Isles is a gentle incline and I trotted along at a slow pace.   But the trail turned steeply uphill after that, and I was reduced to walking for much of the climb.  Yosemite Valley itself is around 4,000 feet in elevation, and the 8 mile climb to Half-Dome ascends 4,800 feet to 8,800.  I tried to balance giddy exuberance against relentless forward progress.  Just a couple miles up the trail, it splits.  You can take the longer, but less steep John Muir Trail, or proceed on the shorter, steeper Mist Trail, which as the name implies, takes you through the shadow of two waterfalls.   I took the Mist Trail as planned and reached the first of the falls, still in the pitch black after passing a number of hikers (I WILL be first up).  Vernal Falls drop 317 feet, and from below are fantastic, even in the deep gloom of night.  The series of stone stairs carved in the rock face to the right was one long quad-burning session to reach the top.   I paused at the top to remove my long sleeve shirt that was now drenched in sweat, despite the below 50 degree temps. 

When I started back up again, I got a little mixed up.  I struggled for a few minutes to find the trail above the falls, and when a bridge crossed over the Merced River, I was sure I was in the wrong place.  I was (mistakenly) certain the trail stayed on the right side of the falls.  When the second waterfall, Nevada Falls came into view ahead I was sure (but still mistaken) I was in the wrong place.  I humped back downhill 10 minutes, fretting I had lost ground on other hikers.    I crossed back over the bridge and embarked on what turned out to be the Clark Trail which bisects the other two trails between the falls.  But it wasn’t until I reach the top of Nevada Falls that I was sure of my mistake.  Now, I had added at least a mile or two to my journey, and endangered my total time.   I had committed to turning around at 3.5 hours, whether I had reached the top or not.   Fortunately, the next couple miles  around the back side of Half-Dome were a shallower ascent and somewhat runnable.  I passed a few backpackers breaking camp after their breakfast, and their compliments on running only spurred me to go faster.  I stopped once to get a good shot of the dome in the early dawn light.

By now, I was approaching 7,000 feet and being to really work for oxygen intake.  I pushed forward as best I could, but there was less and less running.  Finally, I reached “The Stairs”, a series of switchbacks up the north shoulder of the dome.  For all intents and purposes, it was a continuous series of stone stairs dynamited into the mountain (you could still see the drill holes for the blasts in places).   Now I was really sucking air.  I had to stop every 2-3 minutes and let my heart calm down.  It would beat so hard, at times, I felt like a drum was beating in my head.  I got dizzy once, and swayed backwards as I made a turn on a switchback.  I caught my balance and bent over for a minute, cursing myself for being careless.  I knew a fall could mean a broken ankle or leg.  When I stood back up, I look over my shoulder to see how bad the fall would have been.  Which is when I realized I was standing at the top of a 500 foot precipice.

No broken leg here, it would have been Over.  I chuckled at the near miss and headed on up.   Finally I reached the top of the stairs and the base of The Cables.  I was disappointed to find no ranger in waiting.  What did I need a lottery pass for?  I hid my handhelds in a crevice and prepared to make the final climb with just my camelbak.   The 400 foot ascent to the top goes up what varies between a 45 and 60 degree slope.  It is aided by cables which are fixed by bolts in the rock and raised on three foot metal poles placed every dozen feet or so.  There are no safety harnesses, no safety net, in fact, little regard for personal welfare at all.  Amazingly, only 6 people have died falling from the cables in the 93 years since they were installed.   I watched several backpackers descending (who had camped halfway up the mountain the night before, and so by definition, had not beaten me to the top that morning) and marveled that the federal government didn’t worry more about its liability here.    The only thing I could compare it to for risk factor was the Haiku Stairs in Oahu (which should also be on everyone’s bucket list.  The stairs have been closed for years due to safety considerations, and thus illegal to climb.  But the view from the top was well worth the climbing chain link and barb wire fences, hiking thru dense, unmarked bamboo forest, and risking life and limb on metal stairs made slick from moisture by frequent passing clouds.  http://www.haikustairs.com or http://www.friendsofhaikustairs.org )

I tried to use good form going up, always making sure one hand was in contact with a cable at all times.  I don’t know if it was the strength required to pull up the incline, the lack of oxygen, excitement, or fear; but my heart raced around 200 bpm the whole way up.  It was a riveting experience.  When I reached the top, there was just one other person on the far side of the dome, and he descended a few minutes later.  For nearly 20 minutes, I stood on what felt like the roof of Yosemite enjoying the panoramic views in every direction.    I refueled for the first time with a granola bar and walked out onto the ledge of rock called “The Visor”, below which there is a 3,000 foot drop. 

Amazingly, I had cell reception (I never bring a cell phone with me when running, not ever.  Running in the woods is my one respite from the responsibilities of the real world, no one can reach me out there.  But I had brought it this time to show my lottery pass to the ranger who wasn’t there.) , I assume because I had direct line of sight to the lodges nearly one mile below. I couldn’t reach Sandra by phone, but sent her a text that I would be late.  It had taken me 3 ½ hours to ascend, I was taking my time at the top, and I knew I needed at least 2 hours to get down.   I called my daughter Rebecca, and gushed whatever nonsense you tell your child when you’re sitting on top of the world.  Soon I was headed back down The Cables, and then The Stairs, passing the ever growing number of hikers coming the other way.  Once out of the stairs, I was determined to take the downhill as hard as my quads would let me.  I turned a corner, and a ranger stepped out to intercept me to verify my lottery pass (the assumption being if I was above him in the morning, I needed a pass).  When he told me how amazed hikers always were of people running the trail, my pace only picked up from there.  As I descended, I stopped briefly to take pictures of a doe and her fawn who had zero fear of me,

Nevada Falls,

And even caught a rainbow at the bottom of Vernal Falls.

Towards the bottom, my quads were absolutely screaming and my breathing was ragged, but I never stumbled (no horse manure).  I ran all the downhill sections, but promised myself I’d walk every uphill, no matter how brief.  As I came across the bridge below Vernal Falls, I saw a steep uphill which I remembered from the darkness hours earlier.  Here would be my 2-3 minute respite of walking.  Just then, with dozens of onlookers, the leader of some hiking group yelled out from beside the trail, “Great job dude!  Rock-On!”  My peripheral vision told me everyone had turned to watch, and I was left with no choice.   I sprinted the uphill until I turned a corner and was luckily out of sight in time to stop running before I needed to vomit.  I made a wrong turn down in the valley and almost went to Mirror Lake by mistake.  But eventually I found the lodge, and then Sandra.  Almost 21 miles in 6:48 with over 5,000 feet of elevation change and numerous unusual challenges.  I highly (is there a word stronger than highly?) recommend this run to anyone who gets the chance.  This wasn’t just one of my best runs ever, this ranks high on my list of “Life events”. 

Travel Run Update #2: Great Falls, VA 09/01/2012

I first started running ultras in 2007, and in August of that year, my third race was the North Face 50K at Great Falls, VA.  Still new to ultras, my race strategy was terrible, I started way too fast.  When the temperatures hit 98 degrees, I really suffered, limping home in 6:33.   But I still love the course, and run there whenever I can when visiting home.  Saturday, 9/1 I got up in the wee hours and parked alongside Difficult Run about a mile up from where it empties into the Potomac River north of Washington DC.    It is about a mile of scampering and uphill climb to reach the river at the bottom end of the gorge below the falls.

From there, it is several more miles of stiff climbs and descents on the rocks to the fall themselves.

The views are beautiful, and the sound of the falls dominates everything as you wind your way closer.  It was especially rewarding to run this section of the park before it opened to the public (I had come in through a back way on the trails), and pretty much had it to myself before the throngs began to arrive.   Not one mile above the falls, the water is serene, and in the early morning sunlight, no warning of the downstream dangers were apparent.

From there, I continued north, but cut inland where some of the hills includes some wicked climbs and descents, although none very long.  I eventually hit the river again north of Riverview Park and returned south on the riverside trail that was mostly flat almost all the way back to the car.  The temps and humidity were cooler than Florida, but not by much.  I was glad I had taken both my camelback and 2 handhelds for the longish trek as I emptied everything during the run.  19.5 miles in 3:45, and another satisfying run (with no horse manure sightings the entire run).

Travel Run Update #1 - Difficult Run Stream Valley Park 08/30/2012

August 30 started an 18 day, 5 state, 9 flight, 13,000+ mile trip for me, the first 13 days being vacation, followed immediately by a 5 day business trip.  Some of my running friends heard me go on ad nauseum about this trip as I have been giddy about the chance to run in Virginia, California, Texas, and Utah during this stretch.  Wednesday, Sandra and I flew to DC, put the finishing touches on Saturday night’s party to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and had dinner with my parents on their back porchThursday morning I headed over to the trail that passes within a mile of my parents’ house, and followed the Difficult Run Stream Valley.  There are some short crushed gravel sections, but it is mostly single-track, twisty, rooty, and frequently climbing and descending the hills along the valley.  I started at first light, and picked my way carefully through the gloom.  I was rewarded with some early morning sightings of deer, owls and even two red foxes (actually burnt orange with white tufts on their tails).  The entire valley is shrouded in 100+ foot tall oaks and poplar trees, it is an emerald paradise, augmented with audio produced from a thousand songbirds.   My thoughts wandered back over the events of the night before, and I was having a wonderful time until I got careless.  I had just crested a steep hill at a decent clip, and the following downhill led to a sudden acceleration just before my toe clipped a rock and I went down headfirst.  Straight into a giant pile of horse manure.  I was carrying two handheld water bottles which I used to break my fall – right in the pile.  One bottle burst open from the impact, and my water supply was cut in half.  I was covered in horseshit – it was on my hands, arms, handhelds, shorts, legs, and even on my knee where a rock had cut it open in 3 places.  I used my shirt to clean off my hands as best I could, but the rest just stayed.  I am sure I looked quite the mess to the handful of hikers I passed after that.  Every time I brought my remaining water bottle up for a drink, I got a fresh breath of manure.    Fortunately, I sweat most of it off before I got back to the car.  I didn’t cut the run short, and still explored some new side trails, including one that will need further investigation next time I run here.  13+ miles in 2:06 in my new, New Balance minimalist shoes.  That is 8 miles longer than my previous runs in them, time will tell if that was too big of a jump up in mileage.  The spill aside, my first run of vacation was a (smelly) success.