Monday, 25 May 2009

Western States Training Camp

States legend - Tim Twietmayer - 4 times winner and 25 times finisher

The title makes it sound rather austere – the reality is that this is a weekend where, for a small fee, you get transported to various parts of the
WS100 course and given the opportunity to run on marked trails with aid stations in-situ.

Some 350 people had signed up for this pleasure including Lynn and me. As we left the foggy, cold bay area on Friday evening we were rewarded with clear skies, temperatures in the low 80s, expansive views of the still snow-clad Sierras, great trails and some good company.

Perhaps surprisingly, many taking part are not racing at States this year; in fact, quite a few were relative newcomers to Ultra having perhaps run a 50k or two and wondering what the Western States course and a 100 miles in one day might be like.

Saturday we were bussed up to Robinson Flat to run the 32 miles to Foresthill. This is the toughest part of the course; taking in the 3 canyons and with around 5000ft climb. Recent changes mean more single track and it was great to catch up with some familiar faces from years gone by – Tim Twietmayer, veteran of 25 events and 4 times winner was there as were folk I have previously met in Hawaii and Marty who I paced at States in 2007. The hardcore folk weren’t content with the 32 miles – they ran on to the river but for us that was Sundays fare – a mostly descending section of 18 miles to the river crossing then a 3-mile uphill grind to the waiting buses.

Best bits about the weekend
  • being able to linger awhile and savour the food at the aid stations. In races I’m always trying to blow through as fast as possible; grabbing handfuls of food to force down and mostly smearing it on my face
  • chatting to plenty of newcomers to distance all with dozens of questions and a lot of enthusiasm
  • chilling out (literally) in the American River
  • missing 2 days of the Bay Area fog
  • trying out the new Vasque Transistor shoes: super light, very stable and very comfortable
No time to do this in the race!

....and then on the homeward journey I found out that Steve Birkinshaw was forced to abandon his Lake District 24 hour attempt in low cloud and steady rain. I feel for him as I know the frustration of intense preparation brought to nought by the vagaries of the British weather. Bad luck Steve and I hope you find the time and the confidence to have another go. It sounds like you had the basic speed so you gotta try!! Next up – a 34 mile long “50k race” just outside Yosemite next Saturday – running amongst the 3000 year old Redwoods.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Desert Country

Zion - overlooking Wildcat Canyon

In October 2008 we took a 2-day hike down Buckskin Gulch in southern Utah with friends – this spawned ideas for a whistle-stop 5 day tour of the Southwest desert country to take in Zion National Park in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Linking lots of existing trails gives the possibility of a trans-Zion trek of around 50 miles and the ultra-runner way to “do” Grand Canyon for those in the know seems to be a R2R2R. In fact, since the North Rim remains closed until mid-May this is about the only way to see all that it has to offer.Cheap flights, cheap car hire, a light pack and a new Steripen for water filtration and we were good to go!

Of course the logistics are a little trickier than that and we had a carefully choreographed sequence of events that saw us fed, permit’ed and packed ready for our trip by 7.15am on Thursday morning waiting a shuttle bus that would take us to the most remote North Western part of Zion. Our driver was an experienced MTB downhiller with many broken bones on his CV and a wealth of good information about the trails we would be taking – Mountain Lions “oh yes, there’s lots of those”, Rattlesnakes and Scorpions “oh yes, there’s lots of those”, Pterodactyls “oh yes.....”. You get the idea.

La Verkin Creek - entrance to NW Zion

Temperatures as we departed Lee Pass on the La Verkin creek trail were pleasant but it soon hotted up in the valley floor as a sharp contrast to the week of grey rainy skies and 60degree temps we had experienced in San Francisco. Right from the off, the scenery was dramatic – 1000ft sandstone towers abound and the whole is a visual lesson in sedimentary geology – bedding planes, dune formations and the like. Seven miles down the La Verkin and the terrain changes a little for the Hop Valley – around ½ mile wide and sandwiched between steep canyon walls this is a very gently inclined valley used for cattle crazing and sporting a very sluggish stream which we had to cross numerous times. Our first snake encounters occurred here and water was difficult to come by in the upper reaches so that by the time we reached the road crossing at the head of the valley we were silently praying for a tap. No such luck however and it looked as though we might have another 4 miles to the start of the Wildcat Canyon trail before we could get liquid – in the event we were lucky and found a clear cool stream to slake our thirst after only a mile or so. Planning water sources is a serious consideration in this part of the world – especially later in the season as some of the springs dry up. By now it was mid-afternoon, well into the 90s and we were both feeling the strain of little sleep, high temps, many miles in the legs and a rucksack on our back. We continued on until 7pm where we finally found a great little water source and a shaded camp spot. 10 ½ hours had been a tough first day but we were, as planned, poised to start the West Rim Trail on day 2.

At this point the trail starts to become truly spectacular – the sandstone and limestone formation of the main Valley and Wildcat Canyon run almost parallel and the trail takes a high ridgeline between the two. Behind lie igneous extrusive (lava) and intrusive (Granite) formations with columnar basalt and then the whole lot is massively sculpted by the wind and water forces – it’s an almost unearthly sight but with just enough greenery (pine and aspen) to make it beautiful rather than barren.

At first sight the flat valley floor seems impossibly far below and the slopes too precipitous but some ingenuous trails – taking advantange of natural lines of weakness – weave their way down past a couple of late season snow patches to the take-off point for Angels Landing and then directly down a very ambitiously built set of staircases – Willys wiggles – to the valley floor itself. After two 10 hour days and with a big day on the GC coming up we decided to skip the start of the East Rim trail which involves a brutal 3500ft climb out of the valley and instead head for sustenance and then a second nights wild camp by walking back in from the East rim trailhead; almost a full traverse of this stunning and varied but compact park. It’s strange – within 5 miles of exiting the park you are driving through unremarkable scrubland and rolling hills – stumbling on the massive valleys must have been a real eye-opener for the pioneers.

East Rim Slickrock

So – a “rest” day then – pack-up the camp, hike out a mile or so to the trailhead, drive almost 5 hours to the Grand Canyon, get checked into Mather Campground and wait. The 2-way crossing is around 47 miles with around 13,000ft ascent and descent. It is commonly completed in April or October – mid May is beginning to get a bit too hot for comfort so we had a cunning plan; switch the usually 5am start for a midnight start. This should land us on the North Rim at dawn and avoid the worst heat of the day. By the time we deal with minor navigational issues getting to the trailhead and gag down the breakfast buns it’s actually 12.40 at the trailhead and within yards we have bumped into two worried people who ask us to look out for members of their group who are still finishing their R2R2R from the previous day!! As we descend we meet more of the group until we are eventually carrying water, Gatorade and a fleece Jacket for these guys. We finally bump into “Mich”, still a good 2 hours from the top at about 2am. His is going to be a 24 hour epic and, with hindsight, we should have perhaps reflected a little more on what that might mean for us.

The South Kaibab trail is difficult to run – endless log steps make the rhythm difficult but finally we are crossing the Colorado river and tip-toeing past the campgrounds in the base of the canyon. An almost full moon casts beautiful silvery light on the canyon walls and on the ebbing surface of the river. Dozens of bats flit at the periphery or our torchlight and a pungent but sweet smell of night jasmine fills the base of the canyon. As we sneak past Phantom ranch it seems that there are many other people already stirring at 2.30am. The next few miles are enclosed in a narrow section of canyon with massive rock walls rising sheer above us for hundreds and thousands of feet – as the first light of dawn starts to finger its way into the Eastern sky the valley broadens and we reach Cottonwood Camp

The climb starts for real here and it’s another 4000ft to the North Rim – gradually ascending through a veritable rainbow of sandstones hued in green, pink, yellow and a deep red. Some layers crumble and look as though they should bring the whole edifice down. Just before 8am we crest the Northern rim for the obligatory photo shot and a quick snack of trail mix before heading off down trying to beat the heat. As soon as we step into the sun the temperatures rise by 20 degrees and the final 2-3 miles back to Phantom Ranch are suffocating in the enclosed canyon where the breeze doesn’t really reach - the shade temperature down here is 97 degrees. A lemonade at the ranch is very welcome and we load up with 6 litres of water for the climb back out. The first half mile after the ranch is the hottest and does some damage as Lynn is feeling nauseous. We learn though that the only real way out for those unable to find their own strength is to arrange a mule “drag” at a cost of almost $900!

Descending the North Kaibab - starting to warm up now!

Suddenly our schedule is cast aside as we climb slowly but methodically up switchback after switchback in the brutal heat. It’s a good job we did start in the middle of the night – otherwise we may have ended up like so many who have true epics getting up out of the canyon they so easily descended into. Each year that challenge proves a little too much for some and deaths result.

Finally, at around 4.30pm two very tired, dusty but elated runners hit the trailhead, head for the showers and take the 4 hour drive to Vegas for.....a damn good sleep!!

We're done - truly. 15 hours and 40 minutes of hot fun!

Coming up – a few runs along the Western States course and a 34mile “50k” race just outside Yosemite. Watch this space.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Muck and Bullets

Who would have thought that my first race of the season out here in "sunny" California would turn into a mudfest worthy of well known UK mountain marathons?

I had rather hoped that the "rain boy" tag I acquired many years ago had departed me but, no, it seems to have followed me dutifully across the pond.

The Miwok 100 takes place on the Marin Headlands area just over the Golden Gate bridge from San Fransicsco and it is a beautiful course. I know this because as soon as I got here I put some time on on the trails and saw the beaches, the headlands, the glimpses of the SF city skyline through the hills, the wildflowers (oh, and of course the snakes!!)

To be fair, as we drove over to Marin in the pre-dawn it was, at least, dry with a little hill fog rolled in from the Pacific. Starting at 05.40 I was quickly strippped to my sleeveless top as it felt quite mild too. The rain really started at about 7am but really only got going properly about 8am. But then that was it for pretty much the rest of the day.

A bit of background, Miwok 100 is 100km/62miles, has been going for at least 13 years but like so many other races is now well oversubscribed so just getting an entry means being successful in the lottery for the 350 runner spots accepted. The course starts on the beach about 20 metres from the Pacific at an elevation of, oh about 2 metres, and consists of around 5% tarmac, 40% singletrack and 45% fire/jeep road. Much of it is pretty smooth and runnable but there is 10,000ft of height gain. So, it's Fellsman distance with a little less height, a lot less tussocks and, ordinarily a lot less mud but not this time!!

The record for the course is 7 hours 52 minutes!!

So, I mentioned that the rain really set in around 8am, initially it was quite refreshing but by the time I got to the section of singletrack between Pan Toll and Bolinas ridge it was a stady downpour, fully clagged in and with 30mph side winds. I was wearing my windproof and a buff on my head (because thats all I had!) and it was quite chilly. The next section heads out to a turnaround point where you retrace your steps for 15 miles before heading off onto different trails for the return home. This section, Bolinas Ridge, was quite comedy as is on forest track - all in the trees - and presented a series of increasingly difficult to avoid and deep puddles. By the time I was returning it was simply wet wet wet so I and everyone else on the return leg was ploughing through the water, muck and bullets in survival mode - those on the outbound leg were rather more circumspect - still tippy toeing arounf the minor lakes in the vain hope that they might stay Californian.

So, I am really glad I had some great music lined up. With no views and a very spread out field I spent much of the time running in my own little world. The shoes (Vasque Blur) were fantastic and Ihad no hint of blisters or hot spots, I ate reasonably well all race (being fired up by around 20 caffeinated gels and Shot Bloks) BUT all that was "only" good enough for 16th spot and 2 days later I feel worked.

I guess I just have to accept that the days of things like a back-to-back Fellsman and Scottish Islands race are behind me - the body demands more recovery and rest. I am very impressed by the standard of the field out here and most people ran a pretty smart race (I was passed by no-one from mile 20 and only passed 3 people). Once I realised I would be well out of the top 10 I was shooting for a sub 10 hour time (because I have never managed that for 100km). The one section of the course I had not run was the final one so I pushed hard up what I thought was the final climb only to find that there was a little more...and a little more. Finally saw a sign for Rodeo Beach; 1.7 miles and I had 14 minutes according to my watch. OK - lets go for it! Finish comes into view, careening down steps, tarmac, tight bends on trail and I finally haul over the line with 28 seconds to spare on my watch but about 6 minutes to spare on the race clock! Interesting though - it showed me that my body can still respond when the adrenaline and the desire are there. So 9hrs 54mins and a few seconds.

OK - gotta rest up now as we are off to Utah - Zion National Park - on Wednesday for a 50 mile trek across the park and then a Grand Canyon crossing at the weekend. More on that in a few days.

Now go running!!