Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Mt Pinos and Other Adventures

a "sea" of indian paintbrush

Last weekend was July 4th – a big deal over here in the USA . As in the UK this means a long weekend but also loads of crowds and traffic so the trick is to get away but avoid the melee.

Realising that the more accessible part of the Sierra would be packed and with Lynn not keen on a 5 hour each way drive, I was excited to discover that the Wilderness and National Forest areas inland from us reach heights of almost 9000ft. A short trip down the coastal freeway and then a longer twisty, hilly road inland would take us to the Mt Pinos/Mt Abel area which hosts x-country skiing in the winter and offers an opportunity to get up into Pine forest ecosystem in the summer. This is what I was looking for as the sagebrush/chaparral environment is ever present here in Santa Barbara.

After a great breakfast in Ojai we were at the trailhead at the crack of 11.30am – just as the temperatures were really cranking up. I had somewhat underestimated just how hot it gets inland and we were probably hiking in 100 degrees – it certainly felt that way on a mostly uphill trail anyway.

The principal attractions of this area are the flowers – Indian Paintbrush, Lupines, Iris, Snow plants and many many more – in fact, as you can see below – their profusion paints the mountainside.

Overall, it was a pretty chilled weekend apart from an exciting couple of minutes encountering one of my slithery friends. Whilst Lynn took a nap I hiked up to the top of Sawtooth Mountain on the Saturday afternoon – just a few steps before the summit cairn I heard that cricket/cicada/rattling sound that a dimply recognised as a rattlesnakes warning. I saw it move at the same time – just off to the left of the trail, under a small rock ledge. I moved away quickly!! Seeing he was a pretty large specimen I was keen to get a picture but even from 10ft away he was rattling, coiled and poised to strike. I don’t know their strike range but am not keen to find out first hand so let him be.

Prior to last weekend I have had a couple of challenges. The first of these was an extended run into the backcountry locally – setting off up my usual, the Jesusita trail, I continued down to the bottom of Tunnel trail and the ascent all the way to the ridge. Expecting fog (and therefore low temps) all the way to the ridge I was surprised to break through into sun almost immediately. So – the brief record of the day goes something like this – trail uphill for 3000ft – hot – dusty – reach ridge – half of water already gone – getting hotter – decide to shorten planned route – progress along ridge road overtaken by 3 guys on long boards ripping it up – arrive at trailhead for Arroyo Burro trail, no trail in evidence – temporary panic as if I can’t find a trail here I have some unpalatable alternatives – eventually find trail/trod and proceed down – head high thistles – see (yet another) snake – a “racer” this time – trail fades in and out – entering dram/nightmare world of dehydration, heatstroke and lost world landscape – trail at times completely overgrown – start renascent and into dryer more arid terrain – now means overgrown and prickly – birds of prey overhead – they seem to be circling over me – am I lunch. Of course, with hindsight, it was a great mini-adventure and a few people I have spoken to since (but didn’t think to ask before) have all said “Oh yes, the Arroyo Burro trail is pretty sketchy”.

Descending the summit of Mt Pinos in the cool evening

The other challenge is the one of hanging onto the Santa Barbara cycling group who head out Tuesdays and Thursdays on a 35 mile loop from downtown. It all starts innocently enough – steady pace – turns at front – me learning to pack ride – and then at some invisible signal it goes mental and the pack accelerates. Tuesday I hung on – helped by a couple of 60-70 year olds. Thursday they were at Bingo and I was dropped like a dog. I am assured it was nothing personal – not my lack of bike riding skills, not the impertinence of having Campagnolo kit on a bike in the USA – just that these SB guys like to hammer it.

Oh, and then yesterday. I had made a passing comment about times for Gibraltar Road so found out that there is a time trial race up it in February and that the record time is around 49 minutes with 1hr 10 being regarded as half decent for a training ride and showing potential to beat the hour in the race. Well, you know me. That meant I had to go for a little ride – just to see. Well, I think I know why they hold it in February – I boiled my head, scorched my lungs, broke down all the muscle fibres in my legs and damn near threw up at the top. Suffice to say – the hour looks possible for the race but 49 minutes might require some serious EPO type “vitamins” or some contaminated meat :)

Lupins carpet the forest floor

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


As my good friend and experienced ultra-runner said to me at mile 59, “training, it’s a good idea to do some”

That pretty much sums up the weekend – you can’t fake being fit enough to run 100 miles so Saturday exposed that fact that I was 50 mile or 60 mile fit but not 100 mile fit.

How was that? A combination of factors – the Lake Sonoma 50 mile got cancelled, I had a chest infection that affected my training in the 3 weeks up to Fellsman, withdrew from that race after 12 miles with a torn hamstring and thus did no more than about 25 miles per week over the past 4 weeks. So more rested than trained then!!

On the day there were some schoolboy errors too – I dimly registered that the race would be up at 6000ft but dismissed it. In truth the altitude was not significant although you do just about fee it uphill. More significant is that a semi desert environment at altitude has some important characteristics the runner needs to prepare for – very low humidity, high day-time temperatures, low night-time temperatures and a stronger exposure to the sun. These were the main factors that caused the “drop” as I only covered 65 of the 100 miles.

In essence, I got a little dehydrated early on although I did pull this back and was good by the early evening, I got fried by the sun during the day and should have worn a hat or visor and, once the sun set, I simply could not keep warm. As others powered into the night in vest and shorts I was wearing long sleeved top, windproof, hat, gloves and buff and still shivering whilst climbing uphill. These are the circumstances when it makes sense to avoid becoming a liability and so, around 1 mile after leaving the mile 64 aid station I turned around and headed back down the hill.

You may think that I would be really down about yet another DNF but strangely not. I need to reflect a little longer on the reasons it bugs me less and on what actions I will take as a result but the experience of the weekend was overwhelmingly positive for a number of reasons:

  • The course and scenery were amazing and well exceeded my mental picture of what it would be like. Nearly all singletrack, sometimes technical, trail through mature open forest with shallow lakes giving way to rocky sometimes barren open ridges with expansive views down several thousand feet to the Anza Borrego desert
  • Wonderful support and crewing from Lynn who kept me going, persuasively countered my whinging and was all set to get up at 3am to pace me the final 13 miles
  • The community of Ultra and catching up with some great people who I haven’t seen for a while
  • Sustained effort and concentration with a single purpose. Our lives are so fractured, dissected and distracted that its almost a luxury to thing “today I will be mostly running” and nothing else.

The aftermath has been exquisite stiffness but no injuries and, on the journey back from San Diego, the purchase of my US wheels – a VW Passat Estate/Wagon – the 4wheel drive version all ready for the mountains and the ski season.

Enough for now – gotta run!!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Plan B takes shape

Well, today's little 5 mile run out to the local park and along the beach confirmed that the offending Hamstring is now feeling fine. The rest of the body feels wrecked but that's another matter.

So, Plan B will be put into effect - that is to say that this Saturday I will try to run a 100 mile race in San Diego. Those who know me may recall that I officially gave up running 100 mile races about 3 years ago so I fear this may turn into yet another one of those multiple "retirements" from a sport where the comebacks are gradually less memorable!!

Anyway - first thing is that it is actually 100.1 miles (and that's before I add any detours and navigation errors). The second thing is that I don't intend to race this one. Several people have instructions to trip me up or knock me to the ground if I am remotely near the front of the race.

It seems unlikely but I actually want to take this one pretty slow, soak up a course and a part of the world I have never visited before and see if I can finish feeling good. You see, behind the Plan B there is a Plan C lurking in the wings and whilst it would be too early to "open my kimono" about that; suffice to say that finishing a 100 feeling like you could tackle another one is pretty important.

So, Saturday 7am in the Al Bahr campground, Laguna - inland from San Diego - should see me having fun for all of Saturday and a reasonable bit of Sunday.

Heron and Bobcat visit the back yard

Meantime, I am keen to rave about the wildlife we have in our back yard here in Santa Barbara - lizards we like, snakes we don't, Coyotes we have seen but yesterday we were blessed with a double. In the morning a Blue Heron and in the evening twilight a young Bobcat. Check the pictures. More will follow on Monday. 'till then - happy trails!

Monday, 16 May 2011


Disappointment - yes, frustration - yes!! I pulled out of the Fellsman on Saturday at mile 12 with a hamstring tear.

It had been tight coming off Ingleborough but quite suddenly "went" on the steep part of the descent off Whernside. Whilst it is only twinging today it cut my pace in half at the time and was clearly not going to appreciate another 50 miles of use.

There is the obvious disappointment that we all feel when getting injured and having to pull out of a race but there is also the fact that I felt great on the day and was massively looking forward to a right good battle with Jez. Going back a couple of months it looked as though Duncan Harris would be with us too and that would have been epic but he got sidelined with a stress fracture. Now, I am not saying I could have beaten Jez - he is a very classy performer - but I am saying I wanted to really push it and take it to the wire. It's the terrain I would choose for a friendly showdown and having a couple of people pushing each other is the way to get best performances.

It also puts a big question mark on my other plans for the summer.

After a days reflection (and moping around) here's my thinking...Looking positively, it was the Fellsman that motivated my training for the past 3 months. The cancellation of Sonoma 50 and the drop on Saturday mean that the fitness has not really been tested but everything else tells me that it's good and that I am in better shape than for the past few years.

Of course I now need patience, I need to address the root cause of the injury (my posture) rather than the symptoms and I need to retain the focus to do whatever I can whilst it heals so that the damage won't be too bad. Finally, each day that I can't run I need to commit to memory the re-discovered enjoyment I found this spring from being able and motivated to run so that I get right back into it when I can.

I need a few days to see how the recovery is and figure out a Plan B. Meanwhile I must congratulate both Jez Braggs and Nicky Spinks - both ran wonderful, well paced races to set new course records. In Nicky's case she knocked over 40 minutes off her own best time and Jez, without the diversions around Middle Tongue would surely have posted the mythical sub-10 hour time. Well done both!!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A road to the sky and Miwok Indians

OK, so the ride of the Camino Cielo went great. The climb up from the town is about 3500ft in 6 to 7 miles along the Gibraltar Road. For the most part it was well graded and an “in saddle” job rather than standing on the pedals. I didn’t take a time for just the climb but that might be a good thing because I have since discovered that Lance Armstrong and the Discovery team used to train on this climb and also that its part of a century ride in which the leading riders complete the ascent in around 40 minutes. I think I was a little more pedestrian than that!!

The reward – a ride along the rolling ridge for several miles was sweet and the descent of “Painted Cave” road was steep and, in parts, a bit rough but nothing worse than I am used to on Staffordshire lanes so I was surprised to read that the
Painted Cave descent is a bit notorious for being dangerous. Maybe that’s true if you have confidence – I just took it all at snail’s pace.

That was at the beginning of the week since when my explorations of the local area have continued a little, my collection of poison oak itches
and scratches has grown a little and my cough has slowly improved. I’ll admit to a great degree of frustration – training this spring has gone really well and I was looking forward to really pushing for a good time at Fellsman next Saturday. Of course I will be there but I really feel that the chest infection of the past 2 weeks has scuppered my chances of doing the kind of time I was looking for. Still, it is what it is and I just need to keep the focus and make the most of the fitness I hope I have developed.

5:40am beach start for the 400+ Miwok 100km runners

This weekend was fun – pacing Krissy Moehl at the 100km Miwok race in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco. I did this race in 2009 and it was truly, awfully wet and cold. Wasn’t supposed to be, in fact I had been warned it might be really hot but, on the day, mild hypothermia was the result and a finish in just under 10 hours. Almost identical, in fact, to the time Krissy posted yesterday. She had high hopes of a win and maybe a course record but nausea decided to have a say in the matter and it seemed that the course changes had made things harder as neither the men or the women approached record times.

Race leaders still packed together at mile 41
Still, super fun to see the racing, great to spend some time with Krissy and watch the single minded determination that has seen her win UTMB and many other races and good to catch up with Topher, Kim and other running friends over here.

Ian Sharman - fastest 100 miler on US soil (12hrs 44mins!) scores a top 10 spot as Elvis

So, next Saturday is the Fellsman. I was going to suggest some odds for leading men and women but since the start list is not available I will just state the blindingly obvious which is that Jez has to be favourite in the men – part of his build up for Western States in about 6 weeks and Nicky Spinks is looking pretty invincible for the ladies. I believe that Duncan Harris is unfortunately side-lined with injury and yours truly is certainly making excuses about the recent illness but will probably still push for a time that starts with 10 somthing to improve on last year’s 11.30 Let’s see – as I understand it the conditions are pretty dry underfoot so if it’s not too hot, it could be a fast one.

Monday, 2 May 2011

First Steps

The big move - Truckin' USA

So, the big news is that I will be spending some time in Santa Barbara, California. Lynn found work down here and it’s a great place to get fit and pursue my business ideas.

The past 10 days have been a little crazy. We got about 4 days notice of the job start so rushed to find accommodation, rent a truck, pack everything up in the Bay Area and head down here. On top of the all-nighter I regularly pull before going away and an extended flight over here as the original one was cancelled due to the storms in the east of the USA, this was the ideal recipe for getting sick. It’s very frustrating because I have been fine all winter and looking after myself but is seems as though I will never learn. Getting overtired before taking long plane journeys really is a recipe for picking up infections.

The bike ride I wrote about last time really helped the infection set-in and so the past week has been characterised by my spluttering and hacking, useless cough. Doubly frustrating because all the hard training leading to Fellsman seems like it’s going to waste and also because there is a wonderful range of hills/mountains on my doorstep and I can hardly get out there to do them justice.

My new back garden - trailhead 2 miles from house

Things improving, however, and I made my first steps into the Front Country – as it is called. This is a range of hills going up to about 4,000ft from sea level. Plenty of trails, some a little overgrown, mostly well graded, some quite rocky.The terrain is pretty rugged with lots of sandstone outcroppings. Reminiscent of the high chaparral - imagine native american indians behind every bluff with bow and arrow. Much of the area I have run in so far was burned by the big Jesusita fire two years ago - it took out about 300 houses and, believe it or not, we met someone yesterday who managed to take out insurance AFTER the fire started and 8 hours before his house got burned!!

Inspiration point - 1750' up from the coast

Much more exploring to do but today is a bike day (with no bees hopefully) to climb from the sea to the Camino Cielo road that runs along the first ridge inland at about 3,500ft. Given the clear blue sky that greets every day and the midday temps of around 80-85F, I expect a roasting!!