Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Navigation Error Requires Early Exit from Record Attempt

I had heard about the new section of Colorado Trail known as "Collegiate West." It follows the Continental Divide Trail on a spectacular, exposed and steep 80 mile alternative to the "Collegiate East" trail of the original Colorado Trail. I knew that we would need to stay on the original section in order to compare finish times and claim the record. My (mistaken) impression, however, was that the new section of trail wasn't marked as CT yet and that even if it was the split in the trail would be obvious and I would know which branch to follow.

As you know by the title of this post I followed CT markings along the wrong alternative, bypassing my crew and proceeding for miles along a route for which I had no map and no resources. Once I realized my mistake I had no good alternative but to turn around and backtrack to find my crew and end my attempt.

There is much to be said about the 4 1/2 days I spent on this team mission -- and I will soon enough. For now let me say that I'm glad we are all well and left with a potent feeling of unfinished business. A couple more fourteeners before leaving CO may provide some outlet...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Colorado Trail - Days 3 and 4 (Part I)

Day 3, Original Goal:  61 miles; Actual mileage:  45 miles (16 miles behind original plan), Carson Saddle to Eddiesville Trailhead, July 20, 2013

5:30 am When I asked Eric the night before what time he wanted to rise for day 3, he said he didn’t want to set the alarm.  He was bushed from epic day 2, but when 5:30 am around, he and Troy were ready to get up and get moving.

6:25 am  Eric and Troy leave Carson Saddle for what adventures await them today.  Crew access is planned for Highway 149, Spring Creek Pass, 17 miles in, and again at Eddiesville Trailhead, 27 miles further down the trail.  Eric and Troy anticipate they may want to stop at Eddiesville Trailhead, instead of continuing on to Saguache Park Road, 14 miles beyond Eddiesville Trailhead.  With Eric and Troy on their way, Guy and I pack camp and begin heading back down the mountain to meet up with Stephanie who slept in her car the night before, not knowing anything about how Troy and Eric were doing.  Needless to say, she is  glad to see us and to hear that Troy and Eric have pressed on. 

10:45 am Eric and Troy arrive together at Highway 149, Spring Creek Pass.  They take a good break, consuming lots of calories and resting in the shade for a bit.  They are in good spirits.

11:25 am Eric heads out for the next 27 miles to Eddiesville Trailhead.  Troy holds back a bit to finish eating and take a quick nap.  Eric anticipates it will take him 6.5 hours to get to Eddiesville.

11:55 am Troy heads down the trail.  We pack up and head into Lake City to refresh supplies, including gas, chocolate milk for Troy and a sweet find of homemade banana bread, and then head over to the library to update the blog on Day 1 and Day 2 happenings.  After that we’re on the road again for a long drive out winding, narrow Colorado roads to get to our next access point at Eddiesville.

4:00 pm  We arrive at Eddiesville and estimate that the guys will be arriving about 6 pm.  At 5 pm, I head out on the trail thinking that I’ll meet up with them and join them on the trek back into the crew access point.  I hike until 6 pm with no sign of Eric or Troy. This was disconcerting because I was expecting at least Eric to arrive to the trailhead by 6:30 pm.  I wait until 6:20 pm and then start heading back to the trailhead.  On my way back, I see Guy.  I had mentioned to Stephanie and Guy that I thought I would be back in about one hour.  When two hours have passed and I have not yet returned, Guy decides to head out on the trail.  When we meet up, Guy mentions that it is looking more and more likely that Troy and Eric will not want to press on the additional 14 miles to Saguache Park Rd. and we might want to start setting up camp.

7:30 pm Stephanie and I park our chairs with a clear, long view of the trail, straining our eyes to see Troy and Eric coming our way.  At 8:15 pm, we determine we better get the tents set up because it’s looking less and less likely that they will want to push on.

8:30 pm  Eric arrives at camp looking pretty beat.  That section took more out of him than he anticipated.  He said his engine just wasn’t working like he wanted it to.  At some point during the day, he lay down on the trail and took a rest, thinking that Troy might catch up to him.  Eric got into some dry clothes, ate a cheeseburger and stew, took a sponge bath, and got in his sleeping bag.  He expressed concern that he and Troy had dug themselves too deep a hole with day 2 and wondered about their plan for making up the lost 16 miles from today.

9:00 pm Troy arrives into camp looking pretty upbeat.  He said that he had decided he was not going beyond Eddiesville Trailhead and determined to just take his time and enjoy the 27 miles.  He stopped along the way and washed off in a creek.  He’s been having frequent nosebleeds, due to the altitude, I suppose.  Just as he was about to go to sleep, Eric heard Troy arrive into camp.  He asked me to talk with Troy and find out what the plan was for Day 4 so they could determine what time to get up in the morning. Troy ate his dinner and got ready for bed.  Guy has been studying the maps and  was able to tell us that in order to make up for lost mileage today, Eric and Troy should at least try to make it to a point 9 miles before Marshall Pass Trailhead. The only concern about that though is crew access.  We’d have to do another hike in to get to them, carrying all of their supplies and what we’d need for the overnight.  Troy was resistant, saying he wants to be able to access all his gear.  We determine we’ll get up at 5:30 in the morning and make some final decisions about day 4 then.  I make sure Eric’s Garmin data is uploaded to the computer and head to bed about 10:30 pm.

Day 4, Original Goal:  48 miles; Revised Goal (Note: Day 4 still in progress):  55 miles (9 miles behind original plan), Eddiesville Trailhead to point on trail 9 miles before Marshall Pass, July 21, 2013

2:50 am  Eric wakes me and tells me he’s ready to get up and get moving.  He’s been lying there awake for a while and just wants to get on the trail.  I express concern about Troy and the notion of Eric leaving before him.  How would the crew access both of them?  What if Troy doesn’t want to go as far as Eric today?  Eric is focused on the goal of finishing the CT in record time (of course).  He tells me he’ll go talk with Troy.  A few minutes later, here comes Troy raring to go for the day.  Stephanie, Guy, and I help with breakfast and preparations as Troy and Eric set out to begin day 4 in the middle of the night.

3:40 am Eric and Troy head off into the night.

7:00 am Eric arrives at Saguache Rd., 14 miles in for the day.  Troy arrives 5 minutes later.  They both eat an egg and tomato sandwich and other snacks before heading out at 7:25 and 7:35 respectively.


10:50 am Eric arrives at Highway 114, 27 miles in for the day.  Troy arrives at 11 am.  Eric eats, rests, and heads out about 11:15 am, telling Troy he plans to take a rest along the trail somewhere.  Troy eats and rests, but doesn’t eat as much as the crew would like him to.  Eric and Troy can’t afford to get behind on their calories.  Troy is having a low point mentally.  Knowing that he still has 30 miles to go for the day and no crew access can’t help.  Eventually though,  he gets up out of the chair, straps on his pack, and takes the first step.  Guy walks with him the ¼ mile to the trailhead and off he goes.  I think one thing that is disconcerting to Troy is that he is having to depend on us to remember everything he needs for the night since we’ll be having to hike in again to them tonight.  Guy and I will hike in to camp, while Stephanie goes on to Marshall Pass so Eric and Troy will be assured of aid at the 9 mile point tomorrow, Day 5. What else will Day 4 hold for us?  We're heading back out to the mountains to see. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Days 0 - 2 on the Colorado Trail

Colorado Trail – Day 0, July 17, 2013
Eric, Troy, and I are settled in at our camp site at Junction Creek Trailhead.  We arrived here around 2 pm this afternoon after a large grocery shopping trip in preparation for the massive amounts of calories that will be consumed in the coming days.  With Troy’s gu’s, gels, crackers, and other snacks laid out on the table, I figured he was surely assessing food items for the coming days.  Nope.  That was all for tomorrow!  He estimates he needs to consume 300 calories per hour and tomorrow is projected to be a 15 hour day, so 4500 calories in food have been stuffed into his Solomon hydration pack.  Eric marveled at Troy’s pack but after his hour long packing process, a quick double blindfold test revealed that the packs are pretty close to equal in weight.  It’s 7:30 pm now.  Dinner is done, dishes are washed, packs are ready for tomorrow, tents are set up, and maps have been studied.  A good portion of the afternoon was spent reviewing maps, guidebooks, and a Colorado Gazeteer to ascertain crew access points, elevation profiles,  and water availability.  Mike Ambrose and Jamie Solberg should be arriving before too long.  They both had to work today and were driving down from Leadville.  Mike, Eric, and Troy will be starting at 6 am tomorrow morning at the westernmost terminus of the Colorado Trail and traveling 53 or so miles to Bolam Pass.  We’ll be depending on Jamie’s Toyota Tacoma to extract the boys from Bolam Pass tomorrow night.  We’re grateful for Jamie’s help in the coming couple of days since many access points require a 4x4.   Eric and I had quite the adventure yesterday in our trusty 2002 VW Eurovan.  After scouting the night 2 overnight near Carson Pass, we attempted to travel over  Cinnamon Pass to get to Silverton and then head on to Durango to meet up with Troy.  A  large ATV staging area should have been a clue we might be getting in over our heads.  After 45 minutes of a valiant effort to summit the mountain, we were forced to turn back. We then had to drive an additional 3 hours around the mountain to get to Silverton, accompanied by some new jingles  on the underbelly of the van.  The upside of this outing was that we learned this would not be a good crew route on Day 3 and we enjoyed seeing mountain goats bounding along in their natural habitat. 


Day 1, 53 miles, Junction Creek Trailhead to Bolam Pass,  July 19, 2013
6:05 am - Eric, Mike, and Troy began their journey at the westernmost point on the Colorado Trail, Junction Creek Trailhead near Durango.  Jamie Solberg and I were crewing but did not have access to see the guys all day.  We were left to wonder how their first day on the CT was going.  Jamie and I headed on to Bolam Pass to search out a campsite and wait for the runners to come in that night.  After an hour long drive up Hermosa Peak Road, we came to a campsite, still 2 miles below Bolam Pass at 11,350 feet, the end point for the day.  Jamie took her Tacoma on up the mountain while I set up camp.  About 7:30 pm, Jamie arrived with Eric and Mike and then headed back up the mountain to retrieve Troy.  Eric and Mike finished day 1 at 7 pm, with Troy finishing at 8 pm.  Troy was suffering the ill effects of his first day at altitude with intense headache and nausea.  Eric cleaned up, ate, some dinner, prepped his bag for the next day, and settled in.  Everyone was in their tents by about 9:30 pm.  So far, so good.

Day 2, 57 miles, Bolam Pass to Carson Saddle,  July 20, 2013
4:00 am - Camp wakes up and begins preparations for Day 2 on the Colorado Trail.  Jamie heads up the remaining 2 miles to Bolam Pass with the fellows about 4:45 am.
5:10 am - Eric, Mike, and Troy begin their day 2 trek.
9:40 am - Eric and Mike arrive at the parking lot near Little Molas Lake to a great surprise.  David Horton, Allysa Wildeboar, her husband Travis, and friend George are all at the parking area waiting on the arrival of Eric, Troy, and Mike.  Eric couldn't have been more surprised and happy to see Horton.  After some nagging hamstring issues, Mike decided to call it a day and planned to join Jamie en route to the next crew access point 20 miles further down the trail.  Horton recommended we could meet the Eric and Troy at Stony Pass, near Silverton.  We thought that Jamie's Tacoma could make it.
10:10 am - Troy arrives at the Little Molas Lake aid station and is looking strong.  He refuels and heads on his way.  
4 pm - Crew members Stephanie Wissing and Guy Love arrive in Lake City and meet me at the library.  We plan to head out to the Mill Creek Campground to find Jamie and Mike who will be retrieving Eric and Troy off the mountain at Carson Saddle.  
4:45 pm - I receive a phone call from Mike telling me that he and Jamie are still in Silverton.  They had made it to Stony Pass, but had to leave supplies for Eric and Troy and get back down the mountain due to the pouring rain and storms.  They said Silverton was in floodlike conditions.  At this point, Stephanie, Troy, and I have to figure out how we're going to get Eric and Troy off the mountain.  We went to two jeep rental places and even asked someone at a campground if they would want to take us up the mountain.  When those plans fell through, Guy and I decided we'd just have to hike the five miles up the mountain with Eric and Troy's overnight supplies, food, and water ourselves.  Carson Saddle sits at 12,366 feet.
6:45 pm - Guy and I head out to begin our trek up the mountain to Carson Saddle.  I know what Eric and Troy are doing is beyond belief and requires an extreme amount of endurance, but carrying that 30+ pound duffle bag 5 miles up the mountain was no easy task. 
8:45 and 9 pm - Guy arrives and then I arrive at Carson Saddle.  We're wet, cold, and it's nearly dark.  We hurriedly set up the two tents we've brought and get sleeping bags ready.  I stand for a long time searching in the dark for two headlamps coming our way, but eventually get in the tent to warm up.
9:45 pm - I hear Eric talking and am so grateful he and Troy have arrived.  They couldn't have known to expect to see Guy and me at the saddle.  Our plan was for Jamie to pick them up at the saddle and drive them back down the mountain, camp overnight at Mill Creek, and allow Troy some more time to acclimate. Regardless, they were grateful we were there and quickly got out of their wet clothes and into their sleeping bags.  I got some hot food ready which they ate while lying in their bags. If you read Eric's blog regularly you know what a great writer he is.  It will be interesting to read his account of yesterday's epic adventure, but for now, I can just tell you that Eric and Troy both used the word "epic" many times to describe their adventures yesterday.  They suffered for four hours in the rain and cold without adequate clothing. Eric did appreciate his shell he got from Mt. Rogers Outfitters but could have used more clothing.  After some time, Troy was cold and becoming incoherent.  His self assessment was that he was nearly hypothermic.  Eric said they had little choice but to carry on and make it to Carson Saddle.  Carry on they did, but not without having suffered greatly.  We're only 2 days in to this adventure.  What will day 3 hold?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Craziest 15 Days Since I was 15 Years Old

Fifteen days ago I arrived in Frisco Colorado. All I needed was to be at elevation in order to acclimatize. I played a round of disc golf and then settled behind the garage of Mike Ambrose and Ryan Krisch. We barbecued and drank beers. All seemed calm, but something -- reposed like a distant king of beasts -- beckoned from the distance. As Mike rattled off all the routes we might do before embarking on the mission (the potential achievement of a lifetime to set a speed record of the 480 mile Colorado Trail) I pointed over the back fence and said simply: "why don't we go up that?"

Peak 1 pictured from Mike's garage
So began the craziest 15 days since I was 15 years old. Mike and I jogged to the trailhead from his house the next morning and the ascended steadily for almost 2 hours. The climb was steep and technical gaining nearly 4000'. I felt lightheaded once we were over about 12,000'. The mountain peaks at about 12,800'. Once down from the mountain good sense should have dictated that I rest and recover. I recall saying aloud that the next time I would bring my camera and spend the whole day, sauntering lazily, hovering over wildflowers and mountain streams. Ah, but where did my good sense go?

For the next day Mike suggested a more modest sounding trek up the Peaks Trail to the CT and across the pass to Copper Mountain. He said we could easily hop the bus from there back to Frisco. This was indeed a beautiful route, and I got my first taste of the footing on the CT (deceptively runnable). We were inbound into Copper when the outbound bus passed us, waving us off as we tried to flag the driver. Mike said it would be easy to hitch a ride, so we stuck our thumbs out. Twenty minutes later we decided to run the 8 miles of bike trail back. This would have been an easy hour except that it was now midday and the sun blazed down without tree cover or the 9000' of extra atmosphere enjoyed by flatlanders. We got baked.

The Colorado Trail above Copper Mountain
One might have hoped that my lesson was learned. Little did I know that I had stepped into a current that was quickly sweeping me out to deeper water. I was quietly recovering and working on my computer at Mike's when Jamie Solberg happened by and lured me like a Siren to climb Mt. Harvard with Sal, another of Mike's friends. I drove to the relatively remote trailhead past Buena Vista and spent the night in my van. The next day I went over 14,000' for the first time in my life. I'll never be the same.

On the way up Mt. Harvard, my first fourteener

The faint resistance I could muster was no match for Sal's next suggestion: La Plata peak. We spent the night at the trailhead and got another early start lest we get caught again -- as we had descending from Harvard -- by an afternoon thunderstorm.

Sal leading the way up La Plata
Sal, Jamie, and Mike finally returned to a quasi-normal work schedule and I was left to my own devices. I set up camp on Half Moon Road outside of Leadville, finally granted the freedom of solitude. I wasn't aware that my demons were awaiting just such an opportunity. Travelling alone at the foot of Massive mountain I was seized by them. This isn't the place to reveal those struggles, but suffice to say that I feel like, as the Avett Brother's sing: "you may have to drag me from my demons, kicking and screaming...been so long now, I've been with them, don't know where they stop and I begin." [Paul Newman vs. The Demons: The Carpenter]

The struggle, alas, drew me upward twice more: The Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive trailheads are on Half Moon road just miles from my campsite.

The long walk up the 2nd highest peak in the lower 48: Mt. Elbert

The never ending view from Mt. Massive
Thankfully I had a propitious plan for the end of the week. When I first arrived in Frisco Mike helped me make arrangements to get tickets to go to the Avett Brother's concert at Rock Rocks near Denver. We set up a tailgate-style barbecue well before the show started. By the time we got around to filing into the amazing amphitheater there were no good spaces left to occupy. Instead we found ourselves in the far back corner, along with a group of a dozen women enjoying a bachelorette party.

Mike turns as we climb the stairs into the Red Rocks amphitheater

This could have made sense as a birthday celebration except that Sal and Jamie had already convinced me to trek the Tenmile traverse between Frisco and Breckenridge starting at 5am the next morning – the dawn of my actual birthday. After ascending nearly 4000’ up Peak 1 the route goes directly over 9 more peaks as it follows the rocky ridgeline. The trek was absolutely beautiful and we truly had a blast, but it was also very difficult. I am not particularly sure-footed on rock, and I will nearly always favor caution over speed. So I took my time on this technical terrain. By the time I got to Peak 8 my left Achilles was tweaked and my mind wandered from sleep deprivation. In perhaps my first wise decision in nearly two weeks I opted to head down the ski slope from the peak into Breckenridge.

Jamie and Sal right at home on the Tenmile traverse
I took the two days after that easy having already arranged to travel with Jon Harrison to Aspen’s international gem: the Maroon Bells Four Pass loop. This is likely the only route I could have done that would top what I had already seen. I had originally intended to spend summer vacation in Glacier National Park again this summer because that area is so alluring for trail running. The Maroon Bells has a very similar attraction – it has to be one of the world’s greatest natural attractions. Jon is a fantastic running partner: strong, smart, funny, and spontaneous.

Jon climbing toward the second of four passes around the Maroon Bells

Mike, Jon, Sal, and Jamie squeeze every bit of activity they can into the summer months in the high Rockies. The climate, both geographically and socially, pulls the able-bodied outward and upward. I feel completely at home here, sucking every molecule of oxygen out of the air in order to ascend to the highest possible point. So despite my need to rest prior to the speed record attempt, I began looking for a way to invest in Leadville. Jon and Mike need a place to live, and I’d like a base camp for adventures in the coming summers – for me and my kids. I employed a real estate agent and was showed multiple properties.  I drew up a contract to purchase a house – one that the seller has not yet agreed to. I’m afraid I don’t have time to put any more energy into it before the CT trek. That I would come to a place and within 15 days put an offer on a house should provide a clue about the intensity of the experiences I’ve had here. They really only compare to those of childhood -- a childhood I gave up by about the age of 15.

Will I have a place in Leadville?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Getting Ready for the Elevation in CO



After several days of running around and squawking like a kindergartner at recess I have finally settled into an appropriate high elevation encampment on Half Moon Road just outside of Leadville. My Sierra Designs Mondo Condo now occupies a site on the squatter’s camp established by Miles of Leadville Running Company. Mike Ambrose set up his North Face tent between mine and Miles’. They've both headed into Leadville to attend to business this morning. The quiet, in combination with a restful night last night, is allowing me -- for the first time since I made the cross-country trek to Colorado -- to collect my thoughts and begin to ready myself in earnest for the speed record attempt.

Just by being here – I’m at just about 10,000’ elevation – I am gaining the last bit of fitness needed to trek 50 – 60 miles per day on the Colorado Trail. Although the trail climbs and descends about 90,000’, the average elevation is just over 10,000’. Sensitivity to high elevation may differ from person to person, but the physics is simple: oxygen exerts less pressure up here. A person going from low to high elevation has to adjust. I have been most aware of the difference when climbing. I can either put a lot more effort into going my usual pace or I can slow my pace and exert my usual effort.

Fortunately I have not been affected by the adverse symptoms experienced by some who travel to high elevation. I haven’t had headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, etc. Until last night (my fifth night) I did have difficulty sleeping, however. Also I noticed that above 12,000’ I feel lightheaded when climbing quickly. Based on a similar trip I made to Colorado several years ago I know that after just a couple of weeks I will be able to perform at a higher level with the same effort. That is why we are here.

I find myself surrounded by legions of people who go to Colorado to get the benefits of training at elevation and, of course, to play in these spectacular mountains. I can see how people get caught up in recreational pursuits here. I’m parked near the Mt. Elbert trail head and don’t know how long I can resist the pull of this high summit. I met Tony Krupicka yesterday in Leadville. For now he has the great fortune of being perhaps the only person with enough sponsorship support to run full-time in the Colorado mountains. Although tired from his recent incomplete attempt at a speed record of Nolan’s 14 (The 14 summits above 14,000’ in the Sawatch range) Tony was already talking about the next set of summits that he’d like to string together. He told me that running below tree-line -- as I’ll be doing for much of the Colorado Trail -- doesn’t hold much appeal for him. If I was a younger guy I’d have a hard time coming down from above tree-line too.

For now the two big summits I couldn’t resist will have to do. It’s time to rest and think about what will be required to establish a speed record of the Colorado Trail. We will likely be at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Wildfires have already caused closures of multiple sections along the trail. As of this writing there are detours that appear equitable with the standard route. We’ll write more about our decisions as we know more about what the status of the trail will be at the time of our attempt.

In the meantime enjoy the video illustrating my playtime so far in Colorado! 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Cruel Jewel in My Crown


Riddle: I’m running away from myself and toward myself at the same time. What am I doing?
Answer: See below

A lot can be written here. There is something mysteriously soul-drenching about smearing oneself across countless miles of serrated wilderness. Those of us who do it know what it really means to be exposed. I could try and fool you -- convince you that once shed of flesh the spirit rises free. I could spin a story about resisting or even defying gravity, not just in one miraculous moment but step after step for well over 100 miles across a lush and notched landscape -- on a course that lures runners upward over 30,000 feet only to be dropped back down again. And while I do have a heightened sense of what glory feels like, I know better the basest attributes left when the body has been defaced.

Here’s the beginning: Guy Love asks me to help him run the Cruel Jewel 100 in northern Georgia. He says he wants to run it in 25 hours. Guy Love and I go back. He grew up in the tiny town where I now teach, the only son of two college professors. He approached me wanting to know about running ultras. I gave him the brief and some s-caps. Amongst his fellow trail runners at Virginia Tech Guy Love has blossomed. He crewed for me at the inaugural UROC a year and a half ago. So I want to help. And here is where the truth flashes subliminally across my cortical screen: I only want to help so much. In an instant I know that I won’t be waiting at remote aid stations working completely in service to someone else’s goals. I won’t be locked in a death-march with an imaginary short-rope connecting me to someone who barely has the will to continue. I see the overlap in our goals and that is about as far as I can stretch. I suggest to Guy that I enter the Cruel Jewel so that we can start and try to run the same pace together. Because I will be attempting a speed record of the 480-mile long Colorado Trail in July, most of my training is at 4 miles per hour, the same pace that Guy will need to maintain in order to complete the Cruel Jewel in 25 hours. And so we are agreed.

At only one point during the run was I aware of a significant tension between my stated goal of training for the Colorado Trail and a desire to compete in the Cruel Jewel. Guy and I have been trekking steadily for about 2 1/2 hours and are on our way down from Scroggin Knob toward Weaver Creek. At the bottom we will simply turn around and climb back up. We cross paths with the leader (Gabe Wishnie) early on the descent, so we know that he is already ahead by a significant distance (as much as 3 miles). Although I never consciously acknowledge engaging competitively, I find myself pressing hard when we turn around and begin to climb. Guy, who up until then had been running right with me, began to lag behind. Only gradually did I realize that I was glowing from the heat generated by the work of my many mitochondria at full bore. I was 15 miles into a 100 mile “training run” and I was causing the wheels to come off of my running partner. I had to consciously pull back and disengage. What Gabe, or anyone else, did on this run would be theirs. My job was to lock in a sustainable trekking pace to the end.

Many hours later, with darkness fully upon us, I had settled behind Guy. We worked mechanically up and down monstrous climbs, locked into the beam of our headlamps. Ours was a slow and gradual disintegration. The pace ground down like a machine with ball bearings stripped of lubricant. We rusted under the steady fog and drizzle, squeaking noisily across slick rocks and under fallen trees. At 2am we reached Buckeye Knob having covered 48 miles in 12 hours. We shook slightly with the cold and complete depletion of the effort. The two guys at the White Oak Stomp Aid Station literally gave us the jackets off their backs, and that may have been exactly what was required to keep us going. It got colder and rainier as we crossed over Coosa Bald. The descent to Vogel State Park was slow and torturous. We could imagine little that would keep us going. Race director Willy Syndram had listed that aid station as a quitter location, and we began to accept the real possibility that we would not proceed beyond it.

I had already hatched a plan to stop and take a nap, because I knew the turnaround was a cabin at the park. Guy finally said aloud that he had serious doubts about continuing, and that he was at least going to stop for a rest. When at long last we made the cabin after 58 miles and over 15 hours we met with what once again turned out to be exactly what we needed to continue -- though it would turn out to be an hour and a half later. The two women at the aid station had prepared hot peppery soup, and then grilled cheese sandwiches. We sat and ate and warmed ourselves. They would hear none of our sob stories, though, and simply left no room for us to quit. Although they threatened to shoo us out quickly, they eventually made way for us to doze on the soft beds long enough to recover our wits and see daylight again. I was still thinking that Guy was going to quit, and if he did, that I would probably quit too. But I wasn’t injured and I knew I could go on. But once again, the truth about myself emerged in an instant.

The way back would have to be driven by my goal. My trekking pace would get me back at just before dark. That was the motivation I needed to finish: a race against the darkness. And it implied a naked truth: I could not work in service to Guy Love. I had to tell him so, baldly -- I will leave you if you aren’t able to keep up. It sounds cruel because it is. I can see another kind of mountain top: the moral elevation of working for someone else, I just can’t get there. I have cried listening to the lyrics of Mumford & Sons “I will wait for you” because of what that really means: offering up yourself. The only thing that troubles me more than my selfishness is the possibility that I could fool myself into thinking myself better than that. At least, and it is cold comfort, when I put myself on an exposed and uncaring mountain ridgeline some distance from a challenging goal I will have to be honest. All of my success as an ultrarunner comes down to this -- I know myself.

Let me illustrate with a simple contrast that occurred to me about 85 miles into the Cruel Jewel. Almost 15 years ago I ran my first ultra. Although I had run competitively for 15 years before that, and had hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, I still got it wrong. The Mountain Masochist is about 53 miles long and requires about 8000 feet of climbing. Although there are substantial stretches of trail, much of the run is on gravel forest service road. I won’t recount the race -- you can read a more detailed account here -- but there came a point when I simply could not sustain my race as I had imagined it. I slowed to a crawl and limped along completely disillusioned. I had overshot, tackling what seemed the most challenging possible event and letting it literally cripple me.  It took around 8 hours and I did not run again for the next two years. At mile 85 of the Cruel Jewel I had been running for about 24 hours including something like 25,000 feet of climbing on terrain far more challenging than that of Mountain Masochist. I was methodically -- and effectively -- rolling out my plan to stay on my intended pace. I swung my arms to power up the climbs and immediately transitioned to a run on the descents. I stayed alert to my hydration and energy, anticipating and correcting any downward trajectory. I knew in that moment that, despite the apparent craziness of the endeavor, I at least could say that I had gotten it right. The extremity of the demand meant that I had little margin to be wrong -- in that case I would have slowed or stopped. I feel uplifted that I can claim that kind of certitude. I can do what I had set out to.

That jewel may be a lump of coal, I don’t know. The goals I set for myself are often couched in comparisons with others -- and I want to be better. It may be an inescapable truth that I am disposed to seek status at others’ expense. I know that I cannot completely give up myself in service to someone else -- that I cannot climb such a sacred mountain. My highest aspiration is for the kind of integrity required to climb the most difficult earthly mountains. What I glean from that may be a cruel jewel, but I hope it is at least real.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Whether and Running -- and Thunder Rock 100 preview


Sunday, May 5. Beautiful crimson sunrise this morning – something like a rose. Somehow that corner of sky had made way -- everywhere else the gray of early dawn was giving way to the heavy and darkened shadows of clouds billowy with moisture. I awakened unusually alone in the house and faced point blank the toughest aspect of being human: the whether.


Whether or not to run. That is the question, infrequently posed. Most of the time the question is settled. Each season we commit to a team or a race – and the workouts follow. Some programs are more flexible than others, but any good program will not readily yield to the predictable shifts in atmospheric conditions.


Running events, likewise, go on rain or shine – and thank goodness. We do not want to hand over our decisions to a capricious nature. I ran in the Promise Land 50K in 2006 – held in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia and directed by David Horton. Thunderstorms were forecast and delivered. As we climbed 2600’ up Onion Mountain before dawn the skies unleashed an absolute fury at our insolence. We reveled in it.


Last weekend I traveled to the Hiawassee drainage basin in southern TN. The precept was a 100 mile event -- called Thunder Rock 100, planned for 2014 by Rock/Creek Outfitters in Chattanooga. Randy Whorton put together a 3-day version and invited enthusiasts to preview his course. The start and finish are along the Ocoee River, and the course crosses the Hiawassee River and runs along numerous smaller waterways. The area is as lush and wild as anything on earth. The weekend got progressively wetter with rain falling much of Sunday. Of course there was never a question of whether to proceed.


Matt Hawkins, John Wiygul, Eric Loffland, and Eric Grossman after day 3 of Thunder Rock 100


When we came to the Hiawassee River crossing 18 miles in on day 1, the wide traverse was supposed to be knee deep. We scoured the steep bank for a suitable entry. Everywhere we looked the water ran deep and fast. I was with Matt Hawkins, John O’Brien, and John Wiygul. We are parents except for Wiygul, who is one fit 23-year-old. He runs for the Rock/Creek team, competing in ultras and triathlons. I’m down in waist-deep water, slowly placing my chicken-thin legs to find footing against the torrent of icy water, when Wiygul plunges past me. When the water is chest deep and sweeps him off his feet he makes 6 or 7 strong strokes to cross the channel and regain his footing to a small island in the river. Whorton has cleared a trail on the island to the launch point for crossing the main channel of the river, where a rope has been fixed.

Along with Hawkins, I try to follow Wiygul’s lead. When I get swept off my feet I flail my spindly arms through the water. As I’m being swept downstream it is instantly clear that I can’t make it to the island, so I settle for a large blown down tree extending into the channel from the island and “straining” objects, like me, out of the water. Hawkins has done the same thing and after some attempts at gymnastic maneuvers we scramble across the tree and emerge onto the island, shaken but also invigorated by the adrenaline surge that goes along with visions of being carried away in swollen rivers.

We have landed in a thorny thicket, from which we have to very gradually move to get to the cleared trail. When we finally make it we see Dawson Wheeler, the owner of Rock/Creek, who is en route to setting rope across the small channel. Smiling with excitement, he says water is being released early from the dam in anticipation of all the rain that is supposed to fall over the weekend.

We have the rope to cross the main channel, but when the river sweeps us off our feet it becomes a hand-over-hand traverse. I didn’t give too much thought to what would happen if I lost my grip, but suffice to say that swept along with the swift current was the remainder of my adrenaline as well as most of my body heat.
Our small group recollected itself and probed around for the next section of trail. The drop in core body temperature was disorienting. Wiygul had downloaded the course onto his phone and was using an app to track our progress. It wasn’t perfect though, as we had learned earlier when the indicated course took us on an extended bushwhack. When he told us this time we needed to backtrack a considerable distance, we were skeptical. We ended up asking a passing ranger about any nearby trail that went up the mountain and were quickly directed right across the road. At least the climb warmed us back up.

After running several miles, we were approaching 6 hours on the day -- and, I thought, likely getting toward the end of the 30 miles we were supposed to cover. Sure enough, we soon see Randy’s truck where the trail emerges onto a dirt road. We aren’t finished, though. When we ask how far to go, he says “some number of miles.” When pressed he says maybe 6 or 7 miles. When Wiygul says that we have already done 27 miles (according to his GPS) on a day that is supposed to be 30 miles long, he says OK, maybe it is 3 miles. (I’m not making this up). An hour and a half of survival shuffle later we finally finish. Randy finds us at the trailhead and before racing off to check on another runner locates some recovery drink in his truck for us: bottles of microbrew. I felt better almost immediately.

Fortunately I missed the evening libations, which I heard later included moonshine. I had proceeded directly from the finish to Knoxville to catch my son’s soccer match, take him and a friend to the Melton Dam campground, spend the night, and then return for another morning match. That concluded, (two wins) I returned to the heart of the rainforest, and joined the second stage in-progress.

I started at the finish of day 2 and ran backwards along the course so that I could turn around when I crossed paths with the runners and just finish with them. I didn’t realize that I’d be running the John Muir and Coker Creek trails twice, thereby getting a double dose of the wildest, most treacherous, and most beautiful parts of the Thunder Rock 100 course. I felt immediately rejuvenated and happily bounded upward in elevation, taking the technical stream crossings in stride and feeling no ill effects from day 1. I ran about 2 1/2 hours before crossing paths with Wiygul, who was again in the lead group. I turned and ran with them until the next turn and then reversed direction again to find the main group.

Randy was running with several others so I joined them for the long descent past Coker falls and then along the John Muir trail. We were along the Hiwassee river when the guys started showing signs of wearing down a little. They asked Randy how much running was left. He said “about a mile.” Four miles later we finished for the day.

The group had reserved cabins near the river where we retreated for showers, beer, and dinner. I’ve met some unique folks, and groups, associated with ultrarunning, but with these guys I was ready to start taking notes for a future ethnography: The Rock/Creek Tribe of the Hiwassee Basin. Before I could even get started, though, I went native: discussing the advantages of scheduling my Colorado Trail record attempt around the full moon, swapping homemade energy bar recipes, recalling Appalachian Trail thru-hiking adventures.  As soon as I’d start to think these people are crazy I’d also realize I fit right in with these people. I got up early for day 3 to cook my usual pre-run oatmeal with nuts and raisins and everybody else was doing the same thing.

So I was a bit surprised when out of the group of around 20 revelers only 4 of us actually ended up starting the 3rd and final stage from the little town of Reliance to the Ocoee Whitewater Center. I knew better than to heed any quantification of the mileage for the day. I did pay attention, though, when Randy said “follow the Benton MackayTrail the entire way.” He was, notably, not among the 4 of us. Our group from day 1 was reconstituted with one substitution: John O’brien had gone home and Eric Loffland had joined. We banded together a bit more tightly than the previous two days. We had assumed a more methodical shuffle, and the near constant rain dampened any feelings of spryness we might have still had.

One long stretch of double track had been recently bulldozed so that the exposed clay grabbed tenaciously at our shoes. We couldn’t avoid it, and as we toiled for footing I thought this would surely be the definitive difficulty posed by the final stage. As we ran through pleasantly graded single track in the Little Frog wilderness my suspicion seemed confirmed. We emerged onto Highway 64 knowing that we had one loop on the opposite side of the Ocoee to complete to arrive just a couple of miles upstream at the Whitewater Center. Kris Whorton and Wendy Parker were there to offer aid and encouragement, having finished a shorter route. Kris said the loop should be about 10 miles. That seemed long, but I was used to going further than expected.

We got a good pace going, even up the climb, and just shrugged when 2 miles up we passed a sign for a side-trail to the Whitewater Center. It said “2 miles” and we knew our loop was supposed to be longer and that we were supposed to go another 8 miles. Wiygul must have got an itch, because he started pushing the pace. He and I snaked around the wet and winding trails as fast as we could go. We splashed through creek crossings and ducked around branches. I figured we’d be done in less than an hour at that pace, so what the heck. When the trail ended at an absolutely torrential creek crossing even Wiymur hesitated, throwing his arms up and looking back at me. The he turned, spotted the trail on the opposite side, and waded in. I waded in after him, not wanting to give it too much thought. I was immediately transfixed by the necessity to stay upright despite a LOT of molecules of water bent on toppling me. We crossed the same creek 2 more times and then started climbing in earnest.

Wiymur stopped and checked his phone. He said we were way off the track shown. That had happened, before, though, even when we weren’t. We rationalized that maybe Randy had accidentally entered in a shorter route that wasn’t the intended race route. We were certainly still on the Benton Mackaye Trail -- we had been scrupulous about following the signs. I told Wiymur that if we got 1 1/2 hours out on this loop and still hadn’t starting curling around to go back downhill that we would know we were indeed off course. We kept climbing until we were 1 1/2 hours out. My altimeter said we were at 3600 feet. The Ocoee River is at around 800 feet. We were nearly to the top of Big Frog Mountain and headed toward Georgia.

We descended a lot faster than we had climbed. We picked up Hawkins and Loffland and turned them around as well. We crossed the creek, now raging even more swiftly, 3 more times. A little over an hour later, when we finally crossed the bridge to the Ocoee Whitewater Center, we were spent, cold, and hungry. Hawkins and I had been fantasizing about Chicago style deep dish pizzas, and now we sped off in opposite directions to find the closest high-calorie joint. I settled for McDonalds. It was getting late in the day and I didn’t want to do a lot of driving after dark. I can be pragmatic -- just not about whether to run. So of course I will run today, and simply soak up whatever the weather throws at me.