Monday, October 24, 2011

Grand Canyon Running

The Grand Canyon had been a bit of a letdown for me on my last visit. We had spent a week visiting parks in the southwest including Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Canyonlands, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Bryce and Zion were my favorites by far. This time, however, instead of doing a moderate day hike down and back from the north rim, I was making the ultrarunner pilgrimage from the south rim to the north rim and back. Experiencing the Grand Canyon from one side to the other was incredibly awesome and completely worth it. Highly recommended, not that it needs it given the vast numbers of runners and hikers we encountered. That was actually the biggest surprise to me, the number of runners and day hikers all along the route. I had expected large numbers of people near the trailheads but was shocked by what seemed like multiple busloads of people in the middle of Bright Angel Canyon, ten or so miles from either trailhead.

We parked about 1/2 mile from the South Kaibab trailhead a little after 6am and jogged the 1/2 mile to the trailhead to start the run. I had read a lot of reports suggesting a 4am start from this trailhead in order to leave before the first mule train. I highly recommend starting at 6am or first light, whichever is later since the first mule train reached the bottom before us with this timing. We did meet a mule train coming towards us just after we crossed the bridge at the bottom but that did not cause much of a delay. The second reason for leaving at daylight is that I would rather finish the final climb at the end of the day with a headlamp (which I did) than run down the trail by headlamp. For some reason, I am thinking maybe the color of the dirt, depth perception was very difficult on this trail despite the bright headlamp I used. Kudos to everyone who goes down by headlamp, but given the steepness and the number of logs/steps built into the trail I would think going down in the dark would really slow you down a lot whereas I was going to be moving slowly climbing back up to the rim at the end of the day regardless.

I lucked out to tag along with Shad and a group of great runners from Las Vegas which meant the logistics were all taken care of for me. However, if you are looking for logistical help, Andrew Skurka's website has lots of great information. The Garmin recording of my run is here.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wonderland Running

Reflection Lake
I have been dreaming about running the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier since moving to Seattle and learning about the trail. This year was supposed to be the year and I had planned to run the trail with three friends over three days in early August. Well the late snowpack blocked that plan, so I came up with a second chance, which was to run the trail with another friend, Bruce, in two days, Sept. 10-11. We had decided to start at Box Canyon and run clockwise, stopping at Mowich Lake where Bruce's wife would set up camp for us and get us re-fueled and ready to run the second half on Sunday back to Box Canyon.

We started at 5:45am in the dark from Box Canyon and now I wonder if we were running this section of trail the same morning that Joe got stalked by the cougar. Fortunately, we did not see any dangerous wildlife and the day started out well. We made a slight diversion from the Wonderland Trail at Longmire in order to fill up on water without having to purify it and then began what my guide book calls the pie crust section of the trail. As you can see in the elevation profile below, there is one climb followed by another and then another.

Each climb took us to a slightly higher elevation than the one before and we spent more and more time exposed in the sun. Unfortunately for a heat wimp like myself, the beautiful day we had was accompanied by temperatures in the high 80s which was more or less unprecedented in Seattle this summer. The heat combined with the tough climbing really took its toll on me and despite the stunning views of the mountain and its glaciers, I began thinking they had chosen the name Wonderland for the trail more out of wondering if people could survive it than for the sense of wonder the views inspired.

St. Andrews Lake

As we dropped down the last major downhill section of the day to the Mowich River, I began wondering whether I really wanted to run another day like this the following day. I sat by the river waiting for Bruce before starting up the final climb to Mowich lake and I could hear large rocks thudding against obstacles as the river swept them downstream. The power of the mountain, glaciers and rivers is amazing.

Suspension bridge over Tahoma river
We had to turn on headlamps not long before reaching the campground at Mowich and we were overjoyed to find camp set up for us including a shower tent! I didn't know such a thing existed, much less that it would be waiting for us. We got cleaned up and fueled, but ultimately decided we were not up to running another 40+ miles the following day with little or no option to bail along the way if things weren't going well. I think this may have been the hardest ~50 mile day I have ever done. 47 miles with 14,372 feet of climbing took us 14 hours and 9 minutes (Click here to see Garmin recording).

Puyallup Glacier
To see some of the section of the Wonderland Trail we skipped, we went back two weeks later to run the Northern Loop. I highly recommend this route as a great introduction to the Wonderland Trail that doesn't require any overnights or complicated logistics. We drove from Seattle on Sunday morning to the Sunrise trailhead at 6400 feet and started running just before 8am. The weather was forecast for rain and it had in fact rained the whole time we were driving from Seattle making us question whether we really wanted to run or not. About the time we started running, fully dressed in rain pants, jackets, hats and gloves, the rain stopped and we eventually got enough break in the clouds to see the mountain at times. We took the Sourdough Ridge trail for a mile or so to connect to the Wonderland Trail headed west. The Wonderland Trail gets much closer to the glaciers on the north side of the mountain than it does on the south and western sides. The trail goes right next to the Winthrop Glacier followed by the Carbon Glacier. Seeing both the upper icy regions of the glaciers broken by crevasses as well as the lower parts covered in dirt and rocks and ending in a river pouring out of an ice cave was spectacular. Unfortunately, I didn't bring a camera due to the poor weather.

Route map of the northern loop. Double click for more detail.
When we got to the Carbon River, rather than crossing the suspension bridge and continuing on the Wonderland trail, we turned right onto the Northern Loop trail and started heading back towards Sunrise. The first climb was killer! About 3000 feet of climbing and I made the mistake of trying to hike as fast as possible for about the first 1000 feet to try and stay up with Bruce, but I eventually realized that I was burning my legs out and we were not yet half way through the miles for the day. The northern loop trail has fewer views of Rainier and the glaciers, but there are two basins with lakes followed by the Grand Park which is an amazingly flat broad open meadow which just seems bizarre after all the glaciated river valleys we had been crossing all day. We passed numerous hikers on the Wonderland Trail, but not a person all day on the Northern Loop trail. It was a bit of a death march at the end as we climbed the last hill through Berkeley Park and back to the Sourdough Ridge trail. Overall, it was 33 miles with 10,363 feet of climbing which took us 9hr 43 min (Click here to see Garmin recording).

One of many bridges the park service establishes each year.
I'm not sure what my next Wonderland run will be but I know I will try to run some or all of it every summer. I don't think I could ever get tired of the scenery on the Wonderland Trail, even though you have to work hard to experience it. I think my next attempt will be to run the complete trail in three days. If you have enough cars and camping gear you could leave a car with camping gear at Mowich and then start at White River campground going to Mowich on day 1, on to Longmire on day 2 to stay at the Park Inn, and then back to Mowich on day 3. This should be feasible without recruiting crew assistance.

Online resources for running Rainier:

We benefited from Jason's description of how he did the trail in two days.
More detailed resources are available at the volcano running website.
Fastest known times are posted here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Circumnavigating Mt. St. Helens

I had thought off and on for a couple of years about running the Loowit trail around Mt. St. Helens, but had never made it a very high priority. We were planning to run the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier the first weekend of August, but the late snow this year ruined that plan. Running around Mt. St. Helens rather than Rainier seemed like a great replacement plan, but it wasn't clear that the Loowit trail had melted out enough to run it either. After a week of web searches and calls to the ranger station (reports ranged from completely snow free, to sections of the trail completely snow covered), we decided to give it a go.

I found a couple of great guides to running the Loowit trail here and here, so I won't attempt to make this blog post into a complete guide. I will say that if you are an ultrarunner living in the NW, you should really make a point of doing this run. It is truly spectacular! The varied scenery ranging from moonscape, to wildflower meadows, to deep canyons and forest combined with the incredible views, not only of Mt. St. Helens but also Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier make this a compelling experience.

The route around the mountain. We did get lost and significantly off trail for a mile or so at the north-east end of the loop.
We decided to start our run from the Windy Ridge trailhead on the northeast corner of the mountain and to follow the Loowit trail counter-clockwise around the mountain. We started about 6:45am after getting a decent night's sleep in the truck despite the continual screaming wind for which the trailhead is aptly named. A dense fog had settled in overnight and we started out hoping we would not make it around the mountain without ever seeing it! However, within a few hours the sun started breaking through the clouds and we could see the glorious mountain we were traveling around.

The scenery on this run turned out to be so much better than I could have imagined, but the pictures below can do better justice to this than I can with words (additional photos here). I think we lucked out in running this route at pretty much the optimal time this year--the snow had melted just to the point that the trails were passable (despite the need for some snow field crossing) but there were still many streams flowing so that water availability was never a problem and the mountain was incredibly green with many wildflowers. The Loowit trail is difficult to follow as the markings (primarily cairns and posts) tend to be frequent near popular day hiking spots and pretty much nonexistent in between. We managed to get off trail and thoroughly lost for a mile or so on the Studebaker Ridge before realizing we were below the trail. After hiking directly up the ridge for what seemed like way too long, we rejoiced to find the trail again. There are many steep gullies to climb in and out of and in many places the trail is fairly sketchy in that the trail is extremely narrow on a steep slope with loose footing. However, even with my agoraphobia, I managed without any problems other than going very slowly in these sections. I think my least favorite section was traversing the field of large lava rocks on the south side of the mountain where each step seemed like a russian roulette shot at an ankle injury. We were fortunate to finish before darkness fell just under 14 hours after we started with the Garmin racking up 36 miles and about 7500 feet of climbing. Big thanks to Rich for making this adventure happen!

View of Mt. St. Helens from the parking lot at the Windy Ridge trail head the night before.

Rich as we are about to start in the fog.

The first few miles were a foggy moonscape.

Mt. St. Helens from the north as the fog begins to break up.

Some of the elk that we saw. They create many false trails which adds to the difficulty of staying on the proper route.

I'm guessing we encountered peak wildflower season.

Mt. St. Helens from the North.

The Toutle River canyon.

Plunging down the sheer walls at the bottom of the Toutle canyon.

East side of Mt. St. Helens

Twin Buttes at the south-east corner of the mountain.

Mt St. Helens from the South.

Lots of water was flowing in the gullies.

Picking our way across the fields of lava rocks.

Mt. Hood

Mt. St. Helens from the east.

Rich on Windy Pass (4885 ft).

Mt. Rainier

The sun setting on Mt. Adams

Mt St. Helens from the north as we finish the loop.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Stumbling through the snow at Knee Knacker

The Knee Knacker course.
I've been wanting to visit Vancouver for what seems like forever. I'm not sure why it took so long, but we finally got our chance. Gary Robbins had suggested the Knee Knacker as a good event to run in the Vancouver area so I put my name in the lottery back in February and was lucky enough to get accepted into the race.

This is really a must-do event. I'm not sure why it hasn't received more publicity south of the border. Not that it needs more participants. It is already so popular that you have to enter a lottery to get the chance to run. But most of the participants are from British Columbia. In fact it's so popular that people that don't get to run volunteer in droves--there were more volunteers than runners and they even turned volunteers away.  It's easy enough to do the trip in a 3 day weekend, but the Vancouver area is so beautiful and there are so many things to see and do, I would suggest adding a few more days onto your trip as we did.

Downtown Vancouver with the mountains in the background.
The course is extremely technical--rocks, roots, staircases with lots of climbing. It was hands-down the hardest 50K I have done. It is a point to point course following the Baden-Powell trail from west to east starting near Horseshoe Bay and finishing in Deep Cove. There are magnificent views of the Vancouver area as one summits the first major climb, Black Mountain and even though it feels like you are deep in the wilderness, one is never far from the North Vancouver suburbs and several times the trail dips down into residential areas before climbing back into the hills.

The race started at 6am which seemed on the early side given that the race is over by 4pm. For those of us who prefer to sleep a littler later, insult was added to injury by having the buses leave the finish line at 4:35am to take us to the starting line in time for the 6am start. I met Scotty in the parking lot at 4:30am and we took the first bus together. It was good to hang out with him prior to the start especially since there were so few familiar faces.

Runners at the starting line.

and climbing.
Climbing . . .

 The course includes over 8,000 feet of climbing, about half of which comes within the first 6 miles. It had only been three weeks since Big Horn, so I tried to take it easy on the first climb and then assess how I felt. Nothing felt easy about the first climb other than stopping to take pictures, but soon enough we were reaching the top to be greeted by the large amount of snow still on the top of the mountain.

View from the ascent up Black Mt.

Vancouver obscured by the clouds.
 The snow section was my slowest split (relative to the rest of the field) of the day. I'm not sure how much of it was my lack of experience running on that much snow and how much was the lack of traction on my Hoka shoes. The other funny thing about the shoes was that the cushiony material in the sole hardens up considerably in the snow so when we finally cleared the snow and started down the dirt road, it felt like I was running on slabs of brick. However, that quickly went away and the shoes were excellent cushioning to prevent the knees from being knackered by all of the technical downhill sections still to come.

Elves greeted us at the top of the hill signaling the first aid station.

Slippery running.

Stairs down as far as you can see.

Technical? They weren't kidding.
 I felt the best over the second half of the course--probably because it is a lot easier than the first half and finished in 7 hr 9 min in 81st place. The race finishes in a beautiful park with a beach which made it easy to soak tired legs in cold water. I can't recommend this event highly enough--put it on your bucket list now!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2011 Big Horn 100 miler

I entered the Big Horn 100 miler to make up for the empty feeling I was left with at Coyote Two Moon when the race was canceled as I reached mile 84 in March. At the time it seemed important to finish a 100 miler and I wanted to leverage all the training I had already invested so I entered Big Horn. It turned out to be exactly what I needed. A big part of my motivation to run ultras comes from the scenery I am running through. Over the last year and a half without any real plan to do so, I ended up entering many more events than I ever had before. I think training had begun to supersede having fun this year and mentally I didn't feel motivated going into Big Horn. It didn't take long running in scenery like the pictures below to remind me why I love ultrarunning. How many chances will one have to spend a day running in mountains like Big Horn?

The Big Horn race is early in the season for a high altitude mountain course and this year the deep snowpack and late spring in the west left the race directors in a scramble to find a workable course. They did an amazing job to find a route that maintained most of the normal course while allowing the volunteers to pack in supplies to the many aid stations needed to supply not just the 100 mile race, but also 50 mile, 50 km and 30 km races. The new course route replaced the final 7.5 miles of the normal course (thus reducing the maximum elevation from 10,000 down to 8,000 ft) with a 7.5 mile out and back section (the lower spur in the picture below) which we did both on the way out and on the way back in. According to the map corrected elevation from my Garmin recording, the course had about 17,000 feet of climbing (see elevation profile below). Prior to running this race, I had considered an out and back course design much less appealing than a loop course, but it actually worked out really well. I reached the 50 mile turnaround point just as it got dark enough to turn on my headlamp so I got to see all of the course in daylight and it was nice during the night to have some familiarity with the course already.
Course route, starting and ending in Dayton, WY

I'm not going to try to give a blow by blow of running the course. As usual my goal was to go out easy, especially for the first big climb which took us from 4000 ft to 7500 ft within the first 10 miles of the start and then try to maintain as steady a pace as possible while taking as much advantage as I could of the downhills. The weather was pretty much perfect except for an intense wind. It seemed that the wind would suck the last bit of oxygen left at altitude away before we could get any on the first climb. The course was perfectly marked so route finding was never a distraction. I tried to maintain a fueling schedule of alternating a gel with either honey stinger chews, lara bars, or honey stinger waffles every 30 minutes but it was only a few hours before everything started tasting too sweet leading me to rely more on gels (still sweet, but easier to get down), perpetuem and turkey/cheese sandwiches whenever the aid stations had them. I got a  big mental boost during the first half of the race when Dan Paquette offered me some unanticipated crew support at Dryfork and Footbridge aid stations. Dan was at the race to pace Seattle speedster Jon Robinson who finished in 4th but before pacing he gave me some great positive mental energy.

My favorite section of the course was from about mile 40 where we had our first major descent down to the Little Big Horn River (pictured below). The views down into the canyon were amazing and it was a blast to fly down the hill even knowing we would have to climb back up it later. After crossing the river at the Footbridge aid station we got to run back up the canyon along the other side. The leaders of the race passed me on their way back to the finish line as I headed up the canyon as darkness approached. For some reason I always look forward to night falling during these events--maybe to use the darkness as an excuse to slow down? The cooler night air felt great and I had renewed energy as I started downhill and towards the finish line for the first time. Later during the night the full moon made for a beautiful view. One of the odd things about the race for me was that from mile 40 to the end I hardly saw anyone except for people going the opposite direction. I was surprised when I finished in 25 hr and 10 min or so (the time has changed on the race website results) to find that I was in 14th place.


Little Big Horn River
Overall, I cannot recommend this race highly enough. The beauty of the scenery was just stunning and the race was extremely well run. If you don't feel like doing the whole 100 miles, you can always sign up for the 50 mile, 50 km or 30 km events. After finishing, I spent most of the day in Scott Park cheering on finishers and hanging out with the large contingent of Seattle runners who had made the trip out to Wyoming.