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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Abel Tasman Running

Our New Zealand adventure started with an amazing trail run on the Abel Tasman track through the Abel Tasman National Park. I highly recommend visiting this park if you are on the south island. The trail is very well maintained and the views are stunning. The trail is very accessible since there are numerous water taxi services that will take you by boat to whatever beach you want to start at. You can run the trail back to Marahau, or schedule a boat pickup if you only want to run a section. If you wanted to be completely self-powered, you could kayak out to one of the beaches and have the water taxi pick return the kayak while you run back to Marahau. The map below shows you the trail with some of the water taxi stops. If you don't want to run the trail on your own, there is also a race on the trail in September. Our guide book had suggested that the trail might be overrun by hordes of tourists. There were a fair number of people, but they were well spread out over the ~50 km of trail and most of the beaches seemed empty. I started at Onetahuti and ran back to Marahua which was about 16 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing according to my Ambit.

Map of the park
Starting at the Onetahuti beach

Suspension bridge

Trail alternates between beaches and coastal hills

Well maintained trails are highly runnable

I can't get enough of the views

Islands and never ending beaches

Following the orange signs across the beach. Sections such as this are impassable at high tide (there is an inland alternative).

Kaiteri with Abel Tasman behind on a perfect day.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mountain Lakes 100

Last weekend I participated in the inaugural Mountain Lakes 100, er 71 miler. The National Weather service issued a special weather advisory on Thursday warning of possible record rainfall from Friday through Sunday with almost continuous rain accompanied by heavy winds. They were not wrong. It didn't sound like the nicest way to run 100 miles, but my fundamental stubbornness (thanks Mom) didn't let me seriously consider not starting.

Somewhere in the first loop. Photo by Michael Lebowitz, Long Run Picture Company
It rained almost all of the time with occasional high winds, particularly in a few sections where the trail wasn't sheltered by trees. Astounding amounts of water either pooled on or ran over the trails keeping the lower half of your body well soaked and chilly most of the time. The PCT was generally an exception to this which I interpreted to mean that the construction and maintenance of the PCT was done to a much higher standard to minimize erosion to the trail. Running through so much water was definitely hazardous since you couldn't see potential obstacles under the water but I was fortunate to only fall once. This race video gives a good feeling for the conditions.

Despite the poor conditions, I had a really good day of running. I stayed on top of my nutrition mixing in a significant amount of real food for the first time. I had recently purchased Feed Zone Portables, and made rice souffles, basically scrambled eggs mixed with rice which went down really easily and were more satisfying than constant gels, although I ate plenty of those as well. I really didn't have any major low points and did a much better job of staying in the moment, focused on taking care of myself and running as well as I felt. I did not spend really any time calculating how much time or mileage was left and this made the day much easier mentally. Unfortunately, when I reached the Clackamas aid station for the second time at mile 71, I was told the Race Directors had decided to cancel the race due to the poor weather and concern that runners were having trouble staying warm as the temperature dropped during the night. I was very fortunate to get a ride with another runner's pacer (Thanks Kirby!) almost immediately. By the time we got back to the starting line an hour and a half later, the rain was turning to snow and my car had an inch or two of snow on it. This is the second time that I have been in a hundred mile race that got canceled and it pretty much establishes me as the hundred miler weather jinx. You might want to be sure that I am not signed up for any races that you are contemplating next year.

The portion of the course that I ran. The remainder of the course was to finish the out and back down from the red loop at the top back to the arrow by the green loop at the bottom.
For readers who might be curious about the course and whether they should enter this race in 2014, I will attempt to describe the course and scenery although there is a big caveat that the bad weather limited our views and may have negatively prejudiced my impression of the scenery. The course is a double out and back, or more properly a double lollipop since each out and back ends with a loop. The course sits between Mt. Jefferson to the south and Mt. Hood to the north, neither of which we ever saw but I am assuming on a clear day there would be some good views of one or both mountains. Approximately 60 miles of the course is run on the PCT which was highly runnable sweet single track with modest grades and minimal technical sections. The two loops at either end had more technical sections, but not bad. The first loop had a lot of dirt road, but it also had one of my favorite sections of the race, trail 719. This trail was more technical with some climbing but it passes by a bunch of nice lakes. The second loop is relatively flat as it goes around Timothy Lake which I got a few brief glimpses of before darkness set in. Overall, it was the most runnable 100 mile course that I have done (despite not finishing the race, I did run all of the trails that the course covered). The PCT generally stayed well under the trees with only a few spots with the potential for broad views. The course does not really climb any mountains per se, although there is about 12,000 feet of climbing (if we had been able to finish the entire course) according to my Suunto.

Elevation profile
This was a first year event and for the most part the logistics worked okay and the course was marked reasonably well. The distances and elevation profile posted on the web site seemed accurate, or at least consistent with what my Suunto recorded. There were some great volunteers working at the aid stations and I suspect that they suffered from the weather conditions more than the runners did. However, there were a number of issues that the race directors could improve upon next year.

1) Consistent trail marking--most of the turns were marked extremely well with big white signs. But that made the turns which were more casually marked much easier to miss. A bunch of us missed the turn onto trail 719. My one serious complaint about the race was an almost complete lack of trail markings between Timothy Lake Dam and Clackamas. I can only imagine that the person marking ran out of markers, but I am not sure why that could not have been fixed or at least why we weren't warned. The trail markings that were used in this section did not have any reflectors so they were extremely difficult to find in the dark. I guess it is possible someone vandalized the markings, but the section affected lasted several miles. At one trail intersection, there were no markings on either possible trail for a half a mile or more resulting in the following trace on my GPS recording:

Portrait of an unmarked turn
2) Chairs at aid stations--I know people warn to beware the chair, but when I get to an aid station with a drop bag, I want to sit down briefly while I get the stuff I need out of the bag, change socks, etc. Given the weather, I really want to do this in a dry place. Inexplicably to me, the largest aid station (Clackamas), did not have a good dry space with chairs to do this.

3) Better course description on the website--the website had really nice maps and elevation profiles, but no details on what trails the course would take beyond the PCT. At the two turns where I got lost, having a written table listing the specific trails/turns we would take would have solved the problem very quickly. I took the printed out maps with me, but they were no help.

Overall, I would recommend this race to people who are checking it out and I think it has the potential to be a really outstanding event. I am disappointed that we did not get to finish, but I still had a positive experience and would consider running the event again one day.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Copper Ridge Loop

This summer I have consistently managed to get into the backcountry for some stellar running adventures. The Copper Ridge Loop in the north cascades is definitely one of the summer highlights, in part due to the sockeye salmon we saw spawning in the Chiliwack River. It's one thing to see this on a nature show, but it was awesome to see it in person. There were so many fish you could practically walk across the river on them (although in reality they quickly swam away when we started fording the river).

Salmon spawning in the Chilliwack River.
To start at the beginning, we met in Mt. Vernon at 5am and arrived at the Hannegan Pass trailhead east of Bellingham and north of Mt. Baker around 7:30am. The route starts with a 4 mile uphill climb to Hannegan Pass and then shortly afterwards the trail divides. We opted to continue uphill on the Copper Ridge trail and then return via the Chilliwack River Trail. The approximate distance of the loop is 34 miles with about 9,000 feet of climbing. The views from the higher elevations on the Copper Ridge were magnificent, although we did not have a clear day and I will definitely need to run this loop again (or even an out back to the lookout) on a clear day. There was good availability for water and I only carried two bottles, although once you get onto Copper Ridge there was a 5-6 mile section without water until we got to Copper Lake. We refilled with water just past the lake where an outlet stream crosses the trail, and then again at the bottom of the long downhill shortly before the junction with the Chilliwack River trail. If one really needed water along Copper Ridge, there were a couple of lakes at campgrounds that were available although you would have to go a mile or so out of the way to get the water.

Elevation Profile

Scotty, myself and Rich at the trail head

In the valley leading up to Hannegan Pass

Looking back at Hannegan Pass

Views from Copper Ridge

The ranger's lookout at the high point on the ridge

Scotty descending

Copper Lake

I don't know what valley this is, but I want to explore it sometime

Looking north into Canada with a glimpse of Chillwack lake on the right

Chilliwack river, upstream of the salmon spawning

View down the valley towards the trailhead

Moon over Hannegan pass

Garibaldi Lake

I spent the past few days in Vancouver and decided to take advantage of a free day to do a backcountry run. I got the idea from the course for the Rubble Creek Classic race which is held at the end of September and looks like a very cool event. The race is an approximately 24 km point to point run from Cheakamus Lake to Garibaldi Lake. Since I needed a longer workout and didn't have a car shuttle, I decided to start at the trailhead for Garibaldi Lake and do an out and back run. The trails were incredibly well marked and although I had printed out a map from the park website, I never looked at it during the run. Water was plentiful and I took 2 water bottles which I refilled at a stream a little past the halfway point of my run. I did not make it quite all the way to the trailhead at Cheakamus Lake. If I were to do a similar run in the future, I would turn around at Helm Creek Campground before descending down into the trees towards Cheakamus Lake, and add on the trail to the top of Panorama Ridge. Another option is to climb Black Tusk, but it sounds too technical for me. There is pretty incredible scenery in the middle of the route once you have climbed above treeline. The views were somewhat limited by swirling clouds and fog but I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Route map-I stopped a mile or two short of the entire route used in the race.

The route starts off with a long and fairly intense climb.

Helm Lake

Crossing a field of volcanic rock

Helm Creek meadow

Stream crossing beneath the Cinder Cone

Black Tusk appears briefly when the clouds clear

Panorama Ridge

Garibaldi Lake

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Devil's Dome Loop

Jen, Bruce and myself ready to start the run.
Last weekend I went with Jen and Bruce to run the Devil's Dome Loop in the Northern Cascades. This is the second time that I had run the loop and it was fun to return to such a beautiful area on a day with different weather, at a different time of year, etc. You can read Scotty's blog post on our previous trip here. I'm not going to write a narrative of our day in this blog post, but I did want to share some logistical data, particularly information on places where water was available. The guide book I have with a writeup of the route cautions that water can be scarce. The previous time I ran the loop we ran it in early August and water and snow were plentiful. Considering that it was a month later that we were running the loop this year I was concerned that many of the water sources we used the previous trip might be dried up. We all ended up carrying big loads of water that it turns out we didn't need. We started at the East Bank trailhead on Highway 20 and did the loop counterclockwise which as you can see in the elevation profile below puts most of the climbing at the beginning of the day. Next time I will have to run the loop clockwise and see how much harder it is with the climbing at the end of the day.

Route map starting at the East Bank Trailhead and running counter clockwise

Elevation profile
The following list shows the approximate mileage based on my GPS watch recording to water sources all of which seemed fairly reliable although clearly if you go late enough in the year some of these could be dried up. I am confident that the loop can be done with a couple of bottles instead of a hydration pack, but if you do want to take a hydration pack, wait until mile 6 or 7.8 and then fill it up once you have done a lot of the initial climbing.

Distance Name Note
4.5 miles Unknown stream About 3000 feet elevation
6 miles Unknown stream ~5,000 feet near top of initial climb
7.8 miles Nickol Creek McMillan Park
14.6 miles Middle Fork Devil's Creek
15.1 miles North Fork Devil's Creek
17.5 miles Spring near Devil's Pass We didn't use this since it requires a slight detour off the route onto trail 752 (turn right instead of left at the pass)
22 miles Snowmelt just past Devil's Dome on the way down Presumably dries up late in the season but good amount of water now with snow still on the ridge above
25 miles Unknown stream
25.5 miles Unknown stream
32.6 miles May Creek First place to get water after dropping down to the lake (5 miles after turning onto East Bank trail)
37 miles Unknown stream Several stream crossings in the last few miles

A few pictures from the run:

McMillan Park meadow

Lots of beautiful ridge running
Bruce and Jen descending the scree field

More ridge running

Looking at Devil's Dome (highest peak) and north from the saddle below

The route circumnavigates Jack Mt. This is the view from Devil's Dome.