Monday, September 29, 2014

IMTUF 100 mile race

I had the privilege to run the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival (IMTUF) 100 miler last weekend. The event is billed as a true mountain run and I would have to say that it lives up to that advertising. The fantastic loop course starts and ends at the Burgdorf Hot Springs and covers rough mountain territory with scenery comparable to what I would expect if I were planning an adventure run. Although the scenery is very different between the two, IMTUF and Big Horn would rank at the top of the 100 milers that I have done in terms of mountain scenery.

My Ambit stopped after capturing the route for the first 98.5 miles (despite re-charging)
The route is fairly remote with greater distances between aid stations than typical 100 milers and many of the aid stations have minimal food support given the difficulty in packing in supplies. This was exemplified by the Box Creek aid station at ~mile 74 which packed in supplies with goats and the hot grilled peanut butter sandwich they provided in the middle of the night was a lifesaver! If you plan to do this race, be sure to have ample quantities of food in your drop bags and carry plenty of food with you.

One of the goats which packed in aid for the Box Creek station (photo Irene Saphra)
In considering whether to sign up for this race, I was disconcerted by how long the previous finishing times were. I think the race is probably significantly longer than 100 miles which would explain some of the long finishing times. My watched stopped at at mile 98.5 with about 6 miles of the course left. Another runner's watch recorded 106.8 miles. My experience has been that GPS watches usually record distances shorter than the true distance since the watches tend to shortcut switchbacks in the trail. Whatever the real distance is, just be mentally prepared for the course to be a little long. In addition to the length, the course is more technical than any other 100 miler that I have done. There are some highly runnable sections of buttery single track (particularly in the first 20 miles of the clockwise direction) and some runnable dirt road sections, but much of the course is highly technical with rocky, difficult footing. This is particularly true on the tough climbs. The climbs do not last as long as some of the other big mountain 100s, but they make up for that with their steepness and technicality. For me, the hardest climb was the two miles out of the Snowslide Aid station. I hit this section in the late afternoon and the tough climb was compounded by heat of the sun. I made better time in the early evening darkness on the next tough climb up Fall Creek which is similarly steep. I do recommend poles for the course if you like poles. I picked up my poles at the Snowslide Aid station and kept them until the end.

Snowslide Lake (the climb continues over the ridge to the left)
A few more things to consider if you are preparing for this race. Although there are numerous sections with trees, several of the sections with trees have been burned and overall there is not a lot of cover from sunshine. There is a LOT of dust on the course. In some sections of jeep track at the top of Fall Creek, my foot would sink down several inches in the dust almost causing me to trip. Jeremy (the race director) warned that the combination of "moon dust" and water could be lethal to your feet. Fortunately, water levels were low and I was able to make the numerous stream crossings without getting my feet wet. Whether it was keeping my feet dry, or choice of shoe (Hoka Rapa Nui), or luck, my feet felt better than ever during a 100 miler and I never changed shoes or socks and had no blisters or feet issues. A couple of my Seattle friends did not have such good luck and you can read about and see the damaged feet in Linda's report. This is a course where you might want to wear gaiters.

I was fortunate to have a great day on the course and was able to maintain good energy and the ability to run all the way through the course to finish in 28:12. I had signed up for this event without realizing that they don't give out a belt buckle. Initially, I was disappointed, but the belt that they do give out is pretty cool. Even cooler, starting this year they decided to give out a belt buckle to runners who have finished the event twice. So I think I will be going back next year to run the loop in the counter clockwise direction, see the parts of the course that were in darkness this year and get a belt buckle!

Jeremy handing me my belt at the finish

Thanks to Jeremy and Brandi for organizing such an amazing event and to all the participants and volunteers for making the journey so much fun. Another feature of this event that stands out is the extraordinary course marking. At the briefing we were told that markers had been placed every 0.2 miles (or closer). I never had any doubts about whether I was on course or which way to turn which is much more pleasant than blundering around in the dark wondering which way to go which can happen to me much too easily.

I also highly recommend staying in one of the cabins at the Burgdorf Springs. My cabin was a short walk to the starting line which made Saturday morning super easy. The cabins do not have running water relaxing in the hot springs after the race made up for that and I was able to take a solid 3 hour nap after the race before driving back to civilization for food and a shower.

Beautiful trail along the Secesh River (~mile 15)

Looking back down into the Victor Creek Basin near the top of the 1st climb

Diamond Rock near top of Victor Creek Basin

Meadow along the twenty mile creek trail

Looking northeast near Duck Lake into the canyon containing the North Fork of the Salmon River

View from the ridge along Bear Pete Mountain before the final downhill to the finish

Friday, September 26, 2014

RIdge running in Glacier Peak Wilderness

My favorite guidebook to running routes in Washington State, Trekking Washington, by Mike Woodmansee has a 46 mile route through the Glacier Peak Wilderness that I have been wanting to do for several years. Matthew and I wanted to run in the area but wanted a shorter route so Matthew found a way to shorten the route down to about 31 miles with 8,000 feet of climbing. The original route starts at the North Fork Sauk Trailhead and ascends the Pilot Ridge trail before connecting to the PCT and then returning on the Lost Creek Ridge trail returning you to the North Fork Sauk Road four miles away from the trailhead where you started. Our alternative route starts and ends at the the North Fork Sauk Trailhead without any need for a car shuttle or running on the road. There are several additional ways one could connect the trails in this area to make a variety of loops. We started on the North Fork Sauk Trail and followed it along the river for about 6 miles when the trail turns and climbs steeply up for about 3 miles before a junction with the PCT. We turned left on the PCT and went about a mile to Red Pass. After a short break to eat and take in the views of Glacier Peak and the White Chuck River Basin we turned around and backtracked on the PCT, crossing White Pass and going another 7 miles or so to Dishpan Gap where we turned onto the Bald Eagle Trail and then onto the Blue Lake Trail. The climb up to the ridge above Blue Lake is incredibly steep and technical as is the climb down on the other side, but it is totally worth it. After exploring Blue Lake a bit, we proceeded on to the Pilot Ridge trail which took us on a long ridgeline high above the valley containing the North Fork Sauk river. After about 5 miles on the ridgeline the trail plunged down the side of the ridge and ultimately takes you back to a crossing of the North Fork Sauk river and the trail we started on about 2 miles from the trailhead. We spent about 9 and half hours exploring these trails near Glacier Peak and I think this was my favorite adventure run of the 2014. I highly recommend exploring the trails in this area, particularly if you like ridge running.

Route map starting from forest road NF-49 off of the Mountain Loop Highway
Trail climbing out of North Fork Sauk River Basin
PCT descending from Red Pass

White Chuck River Basin below Red Pass

Sloan Peak from Red Pass

White Pass

Matthew on the PCT with Glacier Peak in the background
Glacier Peak
Floating Ice in Blue Lake

Evolution Valley

I first learned of the Evolution Valley loop from my friend Shad. It is a 55 mile route with about 10K of climbing through the southern Sierras going over three high passes (Bishop, Muir and Piute) and including roughly 25 miles on the John Muir Trail. Subsequently, I read about the route in Trail Runner Magazine and have been itching to run it for a couple of years. When my friend BJ mentioned that he was planning to run it in early July I was all in. I flew down to southern California to meet BJ and Steve in Bishop. We stopped by the local running store, Sage to Summit, to get a few last minute items and check with them on trail conditions. I highly recommend stopping at the store if you are hiking or running in the area since they are super friendly and have great advice/information about trails in the area. Based on their advice, we decided to do the loop starting at the South Lake trailhead and finishing at the North Lake trailhead. We dropped one rental car at the North Lake trailhead Friday night and got ready for an early start on Saturday morning. The distance between trailheads is about 8 miles so it is possible to do the route completely as a loop without a car shuttle, but I highly recommend NOT trying to run between the trailheads. The day of running was too long as it was without adding a long road section on top of it. My badass friend Shad ran the road section to complete the loop solo and you can read about his experience here.

The scenery on this route is unparalleled, especially if you like the Sierras. Almost all of the trail is above treeline and there are lakes and granite everywhere. For me the day was incredibly difficult. I don't know how much of it was the altitude and how much was lack of fitness. The trailhead is at about 9,000 feet of elevation and we stayed between nine and twelve thousand feet the entire day. The climbs were very sustained with 8-12 miles uphill (or downhill) in a row. It ended up taking us almost 20 hours to arrive at the north lake trailhead. I highly recommend this route, but be prepared for a very difficult 55 miles. You can read another writeup on the route from Leor Pantilat here.

The route map
LeConte Canyon

Approaching Muir Pass

Helen Lake

Steve topping out at Muir Pass

Descending from Muir Pass

Black Giant

Sapphire Lake

Evolution Lake

Evolution Valley

McClure Meadow

Joaquin River

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Kauai running

In April we spent a week on Kauai with a group of trail running friends and got to do several amazing trail runs. We started with the iconic Kalalau trail along the Napali coast. Unfortunately, my camera went on the fritz so I didn't get any pictures from this amazing run but you can see the route in the map below.

Kalalau trail route
The trail starts at Haena state park and goes along the coast for 11 miles to Kalalau beach where we hung out for a while before turning around to run back. The round trip has about 7,000 feet of climbing and took us just under 9 hours at a casual pace with plenty of stops to admire the scenery and have fun. Although this route had been on my bucket list for a long time, I was worried that the trail would have too much exposure to sheer cliffs dropping off over the ocean and that I would be suffering too much from my fear of heights. But the trail was quite wide and in the mile or so that is relatively exposed I was fine keeping one hand on the cliff wall next to the trail and I had one hiking pole in the other hand firmly planted in the ground. If you are a trail runner and headed to Kauai, you definitely need to run this route. A permit is required to be on the trail more than 6 miles from the trailhead (whether you are camping or just on a day trip) and you can reserve the permit online here.

We also drove around to the south side of the island and up into the Waimea canyon area and ran out on the Nualolo trail which gave us magnificent views back down onto the Napali Coast area. We thought we would be able to make a loop from the Nualolo trail along the Cliff trail and then return on the Awa'awapuhi Trail, but the Cliff trail was closed and fenced off so we did an out and back for a total of 7.5 miles and got some fantastic views and there are some photos below:

Nualolo trail route

View from the Nualolo trail

View down onto the Napali coast from the end of the Nualolo trail
View into Waimea canyon (from the drive to the Nualolo trailhead

Another view into Waimea canyon

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Running cadence

I have read numerous times over the years about the importance of running cadence but had never paid it too much attention. Earlier this year in January I strained my calf muscle and when I was working with my physical therapist to get over the injury, one of his recommendations was to increase my cadence. When he observed me running on the treadmill he could tell that my leg turnover was too slow and that I was taking strides that were too long. The longer strides can result in braking when your foot lands too far in front of your center of mass. This is inefficient and can lead to injuries. It turned out that I had recently purchased a new to the market Garmin 620 watch and one of its features is that it can measure running cadence as well as vertical oscillation and ground contact time (full review here). I looked back over the data collected when I was running with the 620 and it turned out that my average cadence was about 160 steps a minute, much slower than the recommended 180 steps a minute. As you can read in this article from Kinetic Revolution, it is a good idea to try to increase your cadence gradually, in increments of 5 or 10% improvements. Although the magical number of 180 steps a minute was derived by observation of elite athletes, it is not clear that this number will be optimal for all runners. I think increasing your cadence in 5-10% increments makes more sense than trying for a specific number. However, in my case, the physical therapist really wanted me to get and keep my cadence above 170 and preferably as close to 180 as possible. I found increasing the cadence quite difficult but given that I was running very limited mileage as part of the injury recovery process, it made adjusting the cadence more manageable. The most difficult part for me was learning to shorten my stride and decouple cadence and pace. My tendency when trying to increase cadence was to run faster. You don't have to run faster if you shorten your stride. You can even run slower at a faster cadence if your stride is short enough. The following three ways can be used to monitor your cadence.

1) Look at your watch and then count the number of times your right (or left) foot hits the ground for 10 seconds. Multiply by 12 to get your cadence per minute. You should try to reach 14 or 15 footfalls per 10 seconds. I found this method troublesome. I think I usually increased my cadence because I knew I was measuring it, but I wasn't sure this was representative of my cadence over the course of an entire run.

2) Download a free metronome app on your phone, set it to 90, and time your foot strike or arm swing on either your left or right side with the beat. I tried this a couple of years ago and found it very easy to ignore the beat, but I have not tried this recently.

3) Use a watch or footpod which measures cadence for you. With this method you can determine your cadence with a glance or record the cadence without ever monitoring it during a run to check how well you are really learning to run at a higher cadence.

The following pictures show representative data from the Garmin 620 of my cadence, vertical oscillation, and ground contact time before working to improve my cadence and then after having worked for a couple of months to improve the cadence. Interestingly, as the cadence improved, the vertical oscillation and ground contact time improved as well. So it's not clear to me how much value there is to measuring all three parameters versus simply measuring cadence.

Typical graphs showing cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time from a workout in December before I began to work on improving my cadence.

Graphs from a recent run after working for a couple of months to improve cadence. The average cadence for this run was XX. All 3 parameters improved as cadence improved.

My conclusion at this point is that increasing cadence is beneficial although it is hard to justify this with any hard data. I think I am running faster now than I was 6 months ago, but is that due to increasing cadence or the additional 6 months of training? During trail runs, the increased cadence feels like it is decreasing the impact on my legs during downhill running, and maintaining short strides with high cadence helps me to continue running rather than switch to hiking on uphill sections. The bottom line is that if your cadence is low, I encourage you to experiment with increasing the cadence and see if you notice benefits.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Kepler Challenge 60K

I had a fantastic time running the Kepler Challenge 60K in New Zealand last weekend. The loop course starts alongside Lake Te Anau before climbing up to about 5,000 feet near the top of Mt. Luxmore. As we passed the treeline on the way up, we had views of mountains in all directions and back down to the huge sprawling lake below. Running along the ridge tops above tree line is my favorite type of running and I knew the day was going to be a complete success whatever happened next. I was sad to start dropping down towards the trees and lose the views even though I like downhill running. The downhill section had a fair bit of technical trail and a ton of stairs which I was too chicken to really run. The course also had so many twists and turns in this section that it significantly slowed you down. As you can see in the elevation profile below, once you finish the downhill the second half of the race is relatively flat. My strategy going into the race was to treat the 2nd half of the course as a fast finish long run, really trying to maintain a hard effort until the finish. This turned out to be one of the hardest mental challenges that I have ever had in a race. The 2nd half was very scenic following along two rivers and Lake Manapouri, but it just seemed to go on forever. Although the wheels didn't fall off, I was convinced at the time that the air was coming out of the tires since I felt that I was running slower and slower as I approached the finish line which you could tauntingly hear at least a mile before reaching it. However, in looking back at the data recorded by my watch, I maintained the same speed over the last few miles of the race. Overall, I think this was the hardest effort I achieved in a race of this length, finishing in 6:44 with an average heart rate of 155 good for 59th place out of 477.

Race route

Elevation profile
This was the 26th running of the Kepler Challenge and the race is super well organized. There were a few things at this race that I had never seen before. The first was a helicopter buzzing over the race keeping track of the action. I assume this was primarily for safety in case a runner needed to be evacuated, but wonder if they weren't also filming some of the action. There were lots of friendly volunteers at each of the 10 aid stations, 3 of which were on the exposed ridge top. I have no idea how the volunteers got to these stations since there was no road access. Due to highly variable and often extreme weather on the ridge top, the race has a compulsory gear list. Two long sleeve tops, waterproof jacket and pants, thermal pants, emergency blanket as well has hat and gloves were all required. We were fortunate to have nice weather with temperatures of about 50 degrees with good visibility on the ridgetop although there was some wind. Two days prior to the race it was over 90 degrees and the night before it rained hard. The compulsory gear seemed kind of overkill since I have never carried that much gear even in races that had terrible weather, but with the difficulty of getting runners off the ridgetop it is probably for the best. The gear was checked the day prior to the race as well as at the first aid station on top of the ridge. I managed to cram all of the gear into my ultimate direction AK vest along with one bottle in the front pocket, my camera in the other front pocket and 14 gels and 2 packs of chews which I think resulted in a much lighter load than most people carried. I think this was the largest trail race that I have ever participated in and given that it starts directly onto single track, they made good use of a system to spread the runners out by expected finish time. The approach was simply to have signs along the road where we lined up marking expected finishing times of 6 hours, 7 hours, etc. But by having a good distance between the signs and asking people to line up appropriately I think it did a much better job of spreading runners out than the typical mass start.

If you have any interest in running in New Zealand, I would highly recommend both the Kepler race as well as many other trails we explored on the south island. It seemed like there were trails everywhere which were very well maintained. Traveling to New Zealand was much easier than I expected, primarily due to the minimal 3 hour time change compared to the west coast of the US. You can learn more about the Kepler from Ian Sharman's description here or Jason Schlarb's race report here or you could sign up for a guided trail running vacation on the south island here. Jason Schlarb's blog also has descriptions of running many other routes in New Zealand.

Race start/finish
Sun rising over the lake before the 6am start

Approaching the tree line on the climb

Mt. Luxmore on the right

Looking back down on Lake Te Anau

Crossing the finish line