Sunday, 28 June 2009

Western States - scorching competition

Close competition in the early states of WS100

Western States 100 mile took place yesterday and what a race it was - after the mild spring temperatures rocketed in the days before the race with downtown Auburn (the finish) recording over 100degrees. It wasn't just the heat that was fierce either - the competition for top spots saw racing closer than ever experienced in the 35 year history of the race. IN the mens category - 7 minutes separated positions 2 through 5 after 100 miles of racing and, as a result, there were 5 men home in under 17 hours. One of these was Jez Bragg - one of the UKs leading ultrarunners both on road and trail - trying his luck at the oldest 100 miler for the first time. After the disappointment of 2008 where the race was cancelled due to widespread forest fires, Jez came back with fire in his belly and recorded comfortably the best British time and position - 3rd place with 16 hours and 54 minutes. You can read more about his exploits on his blog here.....

Jez Bragg - in control coming into Foresthill - mile 61

On a personal level it was a busy and tiring but satisfying weekend. We watched the race, supported Jez and took a bunch of pictures in the early stages and then I paced Eric Johnson on his first 100 mile event from mile 61 through to the Finish. Meanwhile Lynn was pacing Andy Black on what, for him, is meerely the first of 4 * 100 mile races he plans to tackle this summer as Andy is attempting the Grand Slam which I completed in 2005. In essenceit's been a hot weekend with little sleep, too many gels and not enough fruit and veg. Time for some de-tox and, in my case, an epic journey across California, Nevada and Utah into Colorado for the next chapter - Hardrock acclimatisation training. Watch this space in a few days for news of thunderstorms, snowmelt, bears and breathlessness.

Second Lady - Krissy Moehl - cruising the early trails

Foot note - anyone in the top 50 or so spots in the race just after Robinson Flat, mile 33, I have pictures of you traversing little Bald mountain. Contact me if you are interested - I will try to upload them sometime later this week.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Shastastic Summer Solstice

Above Helen Lake - early morning on the longest day

What would you expect from summer solstice in California – blue skies, sandy beaches, “beach boys” on the stereo? How about snow, ice axe, crampons and frozen water bottles? Mt Shasta is “only” 14,000 and a few feet but sure packs a punch. From an elevation of around 3000 a road rises up from the town of the same name to a trailhead at 7000ft. A 45 minute hike from here takes you to Horse Camp at 7800 feet and a great setting off point for the ascent. Mt.Shasta is part of the Cascade chain of volcanoes that includes Lassen and Rainier – it’s in the north of California but only around 4hrs driving from the bay area. The “ordinary” route up Avalanche Gully (actually a lot safer than it sounds at this time of year) is just a snow plod but the amazing thing is that it’s on the SW face and yet has complete snow cover from 8500ft right to the summit at 14179ft!!

Chatting to another happy camper at the water tap I enquired as to his intended start time – 12.30am was his answer!! We decided to lie in ‘till 4.30am and were away at 5.20. Even at under 8000ft there was a frost and within 30 minutes we were on snow – nice crisp snow. Apart from 2 other laggards everybody else seemed to have been away hours before us and little dots of light could be seen all the way up towards the Red Banks – a band of rocks broken by some easy gullies which we would climb through. The sun was slow to reach our line of ascent and we were wearing pretty much all we had. We eventually reeled in quite a few of the early starters and there were a steady stream of people who had turned back – mostly because of altitude problems – something we were alert to having left the Bay Area at around 50ft of elevation at 1pm the previous afternoon (this was the whistle stop trip!).

Nearing the Summit

Through the rhythmic plod of crampons on crisp snow our attention was suddenly focused by shouts of “rock, rock” and the first of a few missiles came bounding down the slope. All followed the same fall-line though so it was easy to select a safer line. Above the Red Banks the angle eases but a keen NW breeze blew up and kept the temperatures low. Shasta is a huge but isolated mountain and gets a lot of weather – hence the amount of snow in mid June – so, with almost 6,500 to climb from our camp it had a high mountain feel that you simply don’t get on the Colorado 14ers or even Whitney. Approaching the summit pyramid a stench of sulphur reminded us that Shasta is a dormant, not extinct, volcano – with a sea of clouds below us we summited at around 11.20 and signed the logbook. It seemed that many of the guided groups had turned around below the Red Banks and of around 150 starters perhaps only 50-60 had reached the top. Some had started from higher up the mountain at Helen Lake but whilst this shortens the summit day it means that:

- You carry the camp kit up higher

- You camp on snow

- You probably start with a headache from the elevation

On balance we figured that the Horse Camp option was the right one. A steady descent with increasing headaches and lots of sunburn (we should have stopped sooner to put sunblock on!!) saw us taking down camp around 3pm. Back at the car at 4pm and on the road back to the Bay area for about 9.30pm – so, somewhere around a 33hr round trip from San Francisco and a memorable solstice. Next time we might take a little longer to relax in Shasta town after the climb but it was fun!!

Not far now - soon be time for tea!

Next up – pacing at States and then off to Colorado for more altitude and less comfort – it’s got to be done!!

Friday, 12 June 2009

Donner and Blitzen (Lightning on Donner Pass)

After the storm

With Bay area weather grey and the prospect of racing at 14,000ft of elevation starting to loom large in my plans it seemed about time to head to the Sierra and tackle some hills. Also a good chance to see how the “new” transport works – I figured that buying an old but solid Subaru and selling it again at the end of 6 months would work out way cheaper than the Hertz/Avis options. A quick scan of maps reveals that the Pacific Crest Trail runs right over Donner pass on the I80 east to Reno at the 8-9,000 ft level – accessible in less than 3 hours and, since the PCT is 2,300 miles long, plenty to go at!!

A 9 ½ hour day took me down to Squaw and Emigrant pass where the Western States course starts and then a big loop over to a lake which the map showed as a possible overnight stop only the lake is still frozen and there is extensive snow cover under the trees. I need to get onto the South and West facing slopes where it has melted to higher elevations. In the end, a loop back to the far side of Emigrant pass provides the ideal spot at just over 8,000ft. I quickly chill off whilst setting up the tent and put on every scrap of clothing I have inside the sleeping bag – including a shirt over my head on account of having forgotten a hat. Still, there has been hardly a spot of rain all ay despite an unpromising forecast and now it’s clearing out with a few last rays of evening sunshine. After worrying about bears and mountain lions plus the odd “thwump” as pine cones fall from the trees I fall into a good sleep until – 2.08am and I am woken by an enormous noise reverberating from the hills. A thunderstorm seems to be about 4miles away – that is until there is an almost simultaneous flash and bang, crack, fizzle, pop – now I am scared!! I quickly figure that when the lightning is zero distance away you never hear the bang and rationally figure that I can’t do anything about that – I chose a safe looking spot anyway – the bigger worry is that hailstones a little bigger than marbles have started to hit the tent and the wind is picking up big time. OK – better put on full waterproofs and pack everything just in case I have to make a rapid exit. The “fun” lasted around 2 hours and apparently made newspaper headlines down in Sacramento where they figured it was a pretty big storm.

One month to WS100 - snow likely on the course!!

Early next morning a hasty retreat seems appropriate only the clag is down now, there are 2 inches of hailstones everywhere and the early part of the previous days route I need to retrace is mostly under snow – I’m all geared up for a map and compass epic but this is June in California so it’s not long before patches of blue sky appear and it becomes quite atmospheric. Back to the car shortly after lunch and my first little Sierras trip is complete. Still grey in the Bay and about 20 degrees cooler than usual in Auburn though – those training for states are running around in woolly hats and fleeces convinced that by race day we will be in 105 degrees: El Nino maybe? Back to the UK for a few days now and then starts the build up to Hardrock – some time on the States course with Jez Bragg then pacing at the race then a road-trip to Colorado and fastpack the Hardrock course (always brutal but effective in getting fit and acclimatised).

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Shadow of the Giants

Just how we like it!

“Shadow of the Giants” is one of the few trail races around here (California) that you can enter without submitting to a lottery, doing trail work or achieving a qualifying race – strange really because it is a gem. Host Baz provides a relaxed atmosphere and, as an expat Brit who has spent time in Australia, is very welcoming to people from the “homeland”.

It’s billed as a 50k but turns out to be almost 34 miles. Every step of the course is runnable provided you have saved a little for the climb back up from the river crossing at mile 27. This year temperatures were pretty ideal with mid 60’s/low 70’s. Actually anyone out longer than 6 hours may disagree since they would have got a good drenching from the thunder showers that rolled in.

The race takes its name from the giant Sequoia trees, up to 3000 years old and the first time you see these giants it’s a real stop and stare moment - the trunks of some approach 20ft in diameter.

Having run the race last year I realised that this would provide good evidence as to my relative speed and was not expecting to like the results. From the off I was feeling the mild altitude (around 6500ft), puffing and huffing and my legs did not feel strong. Sometimes this is a good thing – strength builds after the first few miles and the day is good. This time it just felt like a lot of effort all the way but I was pleased to hold it together relatively well and came home in 4hrs 52mins – only about 5 minutes down on my 2008 time. Still good for first over 40 and a medallion to cherish :)

A finishing burst !!

Lynn went strong and consolidated her return to running form - slower than she remembered having done in the past but completed in good style and with a smile!

With a group of local runners we stayed over at the Forest Camp and ventured into Yosemite park the next morning for a quick circuit of the Nevada/Vernal falls loop. At this time of year the waterfalls are at their most spectacular and the “mist” trail should really be renamed the “drench” trail.

On the mist trail - Yosemite

Back at home it was a good weekend for my buddy, Tim Laney, who completed the set of “rounds” with a 23hour and 17 minute Paddy Buckley round done in fine style with low key but experienced support. Over the same weekend, Tom Gibbs was mounting a challenge on my Paddy Buckley record time of 18hrs 10mins. On a very hot day where he struggled to eat, Tom managed 18hrs 55mins to record the 3rd fastest time overall.

The plan now is to head off to Donner/Tahoe area go get a couple of good hill days in my legs – long days, lots of up and down. Shortly after that a quick return to the UK and then I will be out with Jez Bragg – showing him the Western States course and hoping that he has the kind of run he is capable of. I will be pacing a new but superfast guy in the race – assuming I can keep up – Eric Johnson is local and has a 6 hour 50 mile time to his credit but this will be his first 100 miler.