Golden Gate 50K (and a little extra) – Race #4 of 2019

Last weekend was the Golden Gate 50k, with my favorite Coastal Trail Runs. I ran it with my friend Ingrid, who you may remember from Lake Chabot last year (where we tied for third!). We decided to run this race together – she is currently training for a 100-mile race, and I was recovering from my Surf City Marathon six days earlier, so neither of us were planning to go fast for this race (which ended up being a good thing, since it was a hard course!).

The course consisted of a half-marathon loop, which we did twice. On the first loop, we would add on another, smaller loop for an extra 4.9 miles, which theoretically would bring a total of 31 miles (or 50k). It has about 7,000 feet of climbing.

Lap 1

Climbing up the first hill – we are so happy!

The first lap was good – we started slow up the first major hill, then descended into Tennessee Valley before starting on the 4.9 mile loop. This 4.9 miles was probably the most beautiful part of the course – running south on single-track trail along the cliffs, overlooking the ocean. The light was beautiful as well, with the rain clouds holding their distance and the sun streaming through them.

We hit the Tennessee Valley aid station again at the end of our 4.9 mile loop, then started up the second major climb – a slow ascent of about 1.5-2 miles, which we mostly walked.

The weather in NorCal had been pretty bad the last few weeks – lots of rain. I was optimistically banking on having a brief respite during this race. Which we did, for the first three hours or so. It was around this time that it started hailing. Hail hurts on skin, I learned, but sounds cool on hats.

We reached an intersection at some point on this loop – a fairly significant decision juncture, we’d learn later. It was super clearly marked to go to the left. This surprised Ingrid, who has run these trails a bunch of times – most of the races she’s done have gone to the right at this intersection. So, without even thinking about it, she had veered off to the right. We paused for a moment and looked at the markings together, and decided left was correct – and another runner behind us agreed, so we headed left.

The trail to the left took us down to a road, then up that road a ways (if you’re familiar with SF, it’s the road you’d take to get to Hawk Hill). The course was really well marked the whole way along this stretch, and all other runners had taken this same route. When we got to a roundabout (by Slacker Hill), we crossed the street, hit the aid station, and ran back down to finish off the loop. So far, so good.

As we hit another road, the course took two not-super-fun side trips up steep, very muddy trails to the left. There was … a lot of mud. Going down these hills felt almost more like skiing than like running. We took it slow.

 

Coming down these muddy hills was no joke!

Runners who were just finishing shorter distances (e.g. 30k) were pretty grumpy about this side trip, and kept saying “just one mile to go!” I knew that, from where we were on the trail, they definitely more than just one mile – maybe like 2.5 or 3 more. However, there’s a lot of sensitivity in ultras around talking about distances. While racing, thinking about distances is such a psychological game – one that people approach very differently. Giving wrong information (or right information at the wrong time) can be very demoralizing for a runner. So, I didn’t correct them.

End of the first lap

As we passed by Ingrid’s car, I picked up my rain jacket. This is the second time ever I needed my rain jacket during a race (the first being this awesome race in Philly). It was pretty cold, and still raining intermittently, so I was glad to have it on the second lap. I was also glad to have an aid station attendant just up ahead, as my fingers were to cold to operate the zipper. Thanks, aid station guy!

Lap 2

We climbed up the first hill again, then down into Tennessee Valley. The folks at the aid station made a very jokingly-serious attempt to get us to head out on the 4.9-mile loop (not required for the second lap), and we jokingly considered doing it.

It was raining on and off for pretty much the rest of the race, at this point.

Up the second big hill, then along the ridge again. Then we got to that turnoff that had caused us to pause last time around – remember the one, where we all went left? This time, it was clearly marked to the right. Like, no ambiguity here – go to the right.

So we shrugged and headed to the right, coming up to that next aid station much more quickly than on the first lap.

Ingrid had a GPS watch and was kind of looking at it periodically, but not saying anything. Remember how knowing distance is a bit of a psychological game? We have an agreement that she doesn’t tell me the total distance we’ve run – I don’t like to know during ultras, usually, since the hills just throw off the pacing, which makes thinking about the total distance very depressing at times. She finally said, laughingly, that she wouldn’t tell me the distance – but we were definitely going to be doing a little extra today.

We headed up the two little hills on our way to the finish. During this stretch, we saw a little rainbow – a bit of recompense for the not-great weather that this day had provided.

We finished the race in just under 7 hours – definitely towards the slower end for both of us, but right in the middle of the pack for this race. It was a hard day on a hard course.

We done and we cold!

Afterwards

We immediately headed to the car and pumped the heat up as high as possible. Neither of us could really feel our extremities, so we sat in the car and held our hands to the vents for a few minutes before heading out.

Ingrid uploaded her watch data to Garmin, and you can see it here. I’ll give you a preview, though – this was not a 31 mile race. We ended up running 33 and some change.

Remember that left vs right intersection? My theory is that they mismarked the course at this point. See below for the route that we ran (and you can see on her Garmin). The first lap is a takes this detour, adding … just about two miles.

Just to be clear, Ingrid and I are pretty great at following trail markings – this was not a case of runners misreading the signs. We both have run a lot of races and did not misinterpret the course markings. Also, all the other runners went this way, too! So this is a mystery that may forever remain unsolved.

You can see the different routes – specifically, on Lap 1, we definitely ran an extra two miles.

 

We wrapped up the day with some sweet, sweet, post-race Mexican food at Tacko in San Francisco (where Cyndi took me after we ran New Year’s One Day!)

This wraps up my early 2019 racing season – four races this year so far. It’s been a lot of work, but I feel like I’m in really good shape, and running faster than ever. My target race is still about 7 months away, so as long as I stay injury free, there’s a lot of opportunity to get even faster.

As a reminder, I’m also an ambassador for the San Francisco Marathon (Sunday, June 28). I’ll be running the ultra again, which I really enjoyed three years ago. I also have a discount code for the race (all distances!) so let me know if you’re planning to sign up and I can share it!

North Face 50m, round II

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More speed, less grace than four years ago. I’ll take that trade off. Still running happy.

On Saturday, I broke a personal rule: I ran the same race a second time. The last time I ran it, I had gotten stitches out of my leg the day before. It was a brutal, 12-hour slog, beginning and ending in the dark. This time, I was hoping for a slightly better performance.

This was the North Face 50 mile championship race, in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco. Long story short, I’m proud of the race I ran on Saturday. I finished in 10:40, which is much faster than my time in 2011. I felt very strong, and my spirits were high the entire time. Overall, a good day.

Here are some pictures.

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Crossing the start line at 5:03 a.m. They started us in waves, with each one going off a minute after the previous one. I was technically in wave 4, but they didn’t seem to be aggressively checking our bibs, so I started with 3.

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Running in the dark, before the sun came up. The trail here was pretty easy to navigate, in that it was wider fire roads and not extremely steep. That said, the rains earlier in the week had shaken a lot of debris off of the trees, so there were leaves, branches, and twigs dotting some of the downhill portions. My headlamp’s light was insufficiently bright for the task, so I trusted my night vision and the much more useful headlamps of my fellow runners.

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Sunrise photo, courtesy of Will. The pre-dawn light was welcome – no more headlamp! And the sunrise was gorgeous.

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Heading downhill early in the race. Not actually sure where on the trail this was.

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Charging up some single track.

The course featured lots of hills, and many of this hills were on single track. This meant that you got into place between a couple of runners and were pretty much stuck there until the trail got wider again. This was actually a blessing in disguise; the single-file nature of these hills meant I had to keep pace with the runners around me. No slacking off! This kept me moving at a very brisk pace. Early in the race, I thought I’d regret the speed up these hills, but it turned out I was up for the task.

This dynamic also meant more of an opportunity to get to know other runners, and there were some very cool people out there! They kept me motivated, even as we leapfrogged ahead of each other on different parts of the course.

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Will joining me at the finish line. He came in at 9:18 – a 50-mile PR for him!

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Me at the finish. There was actually a heel click here, but the photographer missed it!

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More finish line joy.

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Will got me a present!
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And here are some of my favorite people on the day after the race. Several Antarctica marathon buddies came out to CA to participate in the weekend running fun as well. It was fantastic to be able to hang out with them, especially during this post-race karaoke session.

North Face 50-miler in D.C. – a race in three parts

I signed up for this race a few months ago because it seemed like a good weekend to run – with Boston also happening, I knew I wanted to get in some non-road-race mileage in a slightly logistically easier way. This race seemed like a good option.

Part 1 – running in the dawn

The race started at the uncomfortably early hour of 5am. Even though it would reach >70*F that day, it was cold in the morning, and we huddled around fire pits in the darkness before the race started.

This was a larger 50-mile field, with about 300 runners. Because we’d immediately clog the single-track dirt trail, we started in three waves, each a minute apart. They’d slotted me to start in wave 3 – I don’t know how they assigned these – but I snuck up to wave 2, which was a good plan; there was a significant amount of non-passable trail that we had to navigate in the dark, so it was nice to get a decent pace going at the beginning.

The first mile was around a very wet and muddy field. Given that this course was actually 50.9 miles, I’m convinced the race organizers just added this part in with sadistic intentions – we were wet and muddy, with shoes thoroughly soaked through, within five minutes of starting. They’d also set up a photographer at the biggest of these mud puddles, reinforcing my interpretation of these early tortuous motivations.

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Leading a train of headlights

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Running through the mud

When the sun started to come up, it illuminated a gorgeous, lush forest, bordered on one side by the rushing Potomac River. We continued to dance along single-track trail, still energetic with early-race adrenaline, as mist wove between the trees and settled over fields of tall green grass. Bright blue flowers hung from knee-high stalks all around us, carpeting the forest floor.

It was quite the contrast with Philly, and that made it so much more spectacular.

The first 13ish miles were hilly, but not excessively so. I walked the steeper parts and took it easy on the less steep parts, speeding up on the downhills and flats to conserve energy.

After a few hours, we entered Great Falls Park, which looks like this photo below.

Great Falls Park (source: National Parks Service)

It was a great start to a beautiful race.

Part 2 – three loops

The next part of the race would involve running the most convoluted 7-mile loop three times. See below for the illustrative map, which was intended to be helpful.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

We started at the end of the first leg, then ran long a wider path for a bit, which had a slight uphill. We turned onto some single track, did an out-and back to a turnaround where someone marked our bib, then came back to the wide path. We crossed that, did another out-and-back to an aid-station, then took a side path back to the main, wider path, and headed back towards the start of the loop … only to take a sharp right, down to another out-and-back, then come partway back but take another detour to the start of the loop. Then do that two more times. Honestly, even though I’ve done it three times, I don’t think I could retrace my steps if I went back today. That’s how confusing it was.  The map is still not clear to me.

Look how pretty the park was!

The first loop was exciting, because we hadn’t done it before. By the 2nd loop, the 50k racers joined us, which was fun – they were pretty energetic, and many of them were excellent cheer captains. I paused at the mid-way aid station to take off my socks and shake the rocks out of my shoes – it was a great feeling to get the grit out, and I felt rejuvenated to knock off the third lap.

Third lap … tired of running … let’s try something different!

Part 3 – the long road home

Passing through the end of the last loop, having run about 35 miles, I felt ready to take on the remaining ~15 miles of the race. That feeling quickly faded … when I realized I still had to take on another 15 miles. Food seemed undesirable – not that there was anything wrong with the aid station options, which were great – my stomach just didn’t seem keen on any of it. I was mostly subsisting on Mountain Dew and water, and maybe a Gu if I could force one down.

The first four miles to the next aid station were challenging because they were flat, so there was no excuse to walk. At this point, it hurt to do anything – walk, run, or sit down – but the fastest way to the finish line was running, so I kept moving at a slow trot.

The remaining ten miles were very warm and humid, and seemed to take a very long time. Even though I was hurting, I seemed to be doing okay – I was passing some of the slower marathoners and 50k runners, and several 50-mile runners as well. Most frustratingly, the trail was completely perfect for running – soft, mostly flat single-track, pretty easy to navigate – which meant there were no excuses to walk. At least with hilly courses you get an externally-imposed walk-break. I found myself longing for the vertical ascents characteristic of West Coast races.

That is, until we hit the final hilly section. Then I immediately hated the hills – they’re hard to climb! – and yearned for the flat trails I’d been on just moments before.

The last few miles were pretty rough. At one point, we reached an aid station where all the shorter distance runners went straight for another mile or so to the finish, but we had to take a sharp right and do a two-mile out-and-back – that was pretty disheartening, because the finish line was right there!

Seriously … I can basically see the finish line.

I fell into pace with a younger runner – Naval Academy student doing his first 50-miler. We picked up the pace and were doing 9ish-minute-miles for about two or three miles during this out-and-back, which is really fast for the end of a long race! He dropped back at one point with just a mile to go. Feeling strong, I pushed hard to the finish.

At one point, I thought I saw the finish-line – it looks like a big red arch. Turned out I just saw a red back-hoe. Disappointing.

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Just a few minutes later, I saw the actual finish-line. And crossing it was great. I had some enthusiastic friends – fellow Wharton students, running the 13.1 the next day – waiting at the finish line, and it was so fun to see them.

Crossing the finish line with #mywharton girls!

Friends at the finish-line!

Overall, it was a pretty great race. Tough towards the end – but what 50-miler isn’t? – yet I’m proud of my performance. I came in 3rd for my age group, and in the top quarter overall [including men!] which is pretty good. My final finish time was 10:28, which isn’t my fasted 50-miler, but isn’t bad considering the hills.

North Face is a pretty commercial ultra series, which means there are a lot of new or first-time runners. It’s always great to indoctrinate newbies into the sport. However, it also means that the spirit of the ultra community isn’t as present at these sorts of races – there’s a sort of camaraderie on the trails that arises from having done a lot of these. It’s an understanding that we’re all out here together, and a great way to get through the pain is to rely on each other for conversation, pacing, and support. North Face didn’t – doesn’t – really have that vibe. But being down there with friends, who would be running the next day, more than made up for it.

On to the next challenge …

Bring it on.

Into the Mist – San Francisco 50-mile race report

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After finishing!

As some of you know, I’m training for Pine Creek 100-miler, a flat 100-mile trail race in northern Pennsylvania in early September. As part of my training, I like to get in some long, hard runs – so the San Francisco 50-miler in the Marin Headlands seemed like a great fit.

The out-and-back 50-mile course covered some familiar ground in the gorgeous hills just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It also included quite a bit of climbing, with almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain over the 50 miles. Check out the course profile:

 

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My theory behind tackling this race was that if I could handle this much climbing over this distance, I’d be pretty well prepared for a flat 100-miler in September. For me, hill climbing can be psychologically devastating; you’re working very hard and moving very slowly. For this race, I was prepared for the worst.

There were 72 registered runners for the 50-mile race, and 18 runners taking on the 100-mile race. We’d all run together for the first 50 miles, after which the crazy people would stop, and the crazier people would keep moving for another 50 miles, on sightly different but equally challenging terrain, to finish their 100.

This was basically what it looked like at the start line. Our first ascent was up those hills on the far side of the beach. Source: http://forallmyfriends.com/page/309/

The morning was characteristically foggy. We followed our intrepid race director out of the parking lot, and he laid out two orange cones as our relatively informal start line while explaining how to follow the ribbons to stay on course. “We’ll have a mat at the finish line to record your time … we haven’t put it out yet, but it will be there.” “You’ve got plenty of time!” one of the runners called back. The course record for the 50-miler was just under 8 hours, which, while fast, certainly left them some time to set up.

We took off on a flat road, heading south into the fog. It’s always tempting at the beginning of a race to run quickly – after all, it is a *race* – but in ultras, speeding up that early can tire you out really quickly. I reigned in my enthusiasm for the first mile or so, listening to a couple of runners chatting behind me.

A few of them were using this race as a training run too, as they were preparing for various 100-milers around the same time as mine. Training for a 100 can logistically challenging, as there are very few people to compare training plans with. Marathon training plans are pretty well-established and straightforward in their mileage, frequency of runs, and distribution of long runs, but there’s no formula like that for a 100. It was good confirmation to hear that other runners had the same idea I did about this race.

Ultrarunners have a very particular way of running that is pretty easy to identify. There’s zero wasted motion, and the range of movement is also very tight – again, the goal is to conserve as much energy as possible. We spotted one runner way out in front – he had a big backpack on, and it looked like he had to overcompensate his body movement to keep it in place. I learned that he’d biked almost 20 miles to get to the start, and, today, was taking on the 100-mile distance. Internally, I raised my eyebrows (actually raising them would have taken up a lot of energy 😉 and wished him luck. We passed him at one point, and despite much speculation amongst runners on the course, I’m not sure how he ended up.

In ultras, my mantra is “if it looks like a hill, walk it.” This gives me permission to interpret any surface as a hill – even if it isn’t one – and walk it. The surface only has to *look* like a hill, not actually *be* a hill. So, when we hit an easy hill very early in the course – it was a shallow, 200-foot climb – and I knew I could run it, I dropped to a brisk walk – I’d need that energy later.

One of the runners behind me caught up and started walking, as well. We shared the same hill philosophy – walk all of them. He introduced himself as Rick, and was using this run as a training run for the exceptionally challenging Wasatch 100; it has something like 27,000 feet of climbing at ~5,000 feet of altitude. This guy was a speed demon hiking up hills – I kept telling him to take off when he’d inch ahead, but we ended up running together for the rest of the race, which was really cool!

The first 8-12 miles weren’t bad at all. The fog was incredibly thick – one of my friends once likened these conditions to running inside a ping pong ball, because all you can see is the ground in front of you and a greyish orb everywhere else. Having run those hills before, I knew the views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge could be beautiful and expansive. However, it was a relief to not see the huge stretch of trail extending miles into the distance, knowing that I’d have to run it. Instead, I focused on the trail just in front of me and the deep, vibrant greens and browns around us.

As part of the race, we had to descend, then climb on the way back, this ladder, a famous feature of the Dipsea trail. Source: http://adventurerun.wordpress.com

Around mile 20, after a few aid stations and a lot of climbing, we hit a the high point of the course and an aid station. We then left the rolling hills and plunged into a wet, green forest. This was part of the infamous Dipsea Trail, which is known for its challenging climbs, including 688 steps over 7.5 miles.

The turn-around was at mile 27, at Stinson Beach. On the way in, we had some beautiful views of Stinson’s long stretch of white sand. While the sun was clearing out the clouds a bit, it still wasn’t too hot, which was also great.

Usually I carry an Amphipod water bottle, which has a hand strap and is curved to fit into a palm so the runner doesn’t have to squeeze to carry it. However, I’d left mine back in Philly – traveling with carry-on only isn’t conducive to toting around lots of gear. Instead, I was using a cheap 16-oz disposable plastic water bottle and refilling it at the aid stations, to the confusion and consternation of the aid station crew. I also didn’t bring a jacket, arm warmers, compression socks, or a Camelbak backpack; I was definitely (and proudly!) the runner with the least gear.

After taking a quick minute to refuel, Rick and I turned around, looking forward to retracing our steps along now familiar trails. We’d done the first 27 miles in 6 hours and 10 minutes; not bad at all.

The third quarter of the race is always the most challenging for me. It’s tough to face the fact that I’ve got to do double the mileage I’ve already done. While I’m more than half way, there’s still so far to go.

To compound that feeling, we faced one of the steepest climbs of the course on the way out of the turnaround. The course profile shows it as vertical line, which inspires little confidence. I remembered tackling that climb around the same mileage at Northface and feeling completely defeated. I assumed I was going to be wrecked on this climb, too. However, the combination of my summer training mileage and having a fellow runner along for the pain of the climb made it completely manageable.

We re-climbed Dipsea, which was conveniently shaded. Once we hit the aid station just after that, we had a 4-mile downhill stretch. This was the first time my muscles started really complaining – the downhill can be hard on quads, and I was just starting to feel it. We had some switchbacks on this portion that were really brutal – I had to take some downhill walk breaks. However, it meant that the biggest climbs were behind us.

I’d done no hill training in the past three months; New York City is pretty flat. I’d been very worried about how I’d hold up during this race, but all the climbing seemed okay; I guess running in crazy heat and humidity will train muscles pretty well, too.

The last few hills were challenging; we encountered freezing winds on the ridges, which we’d also found on the way in. This time, though, we were running downhill and looking forward to being done, so we stretched out our arms as if we were flying down the mountain.

That being said, miles are miles; 12 isn’t a lot, but you still have to run them. When we only had 8 to go, it seemed like we were almost done – but we still had to actually run the miles. Mile 42 to 43 seemed very, very long to me. I was so lucky to have found a compatible running partner; we’d been sharing stories throughout the race, and our chatter really motivated me through this tough spot. Mostly, we were looking forward to finding the final “shortcut.”

As mentioned, the turn-around was at mile 27, and this was a 50-mile race. So, we weren’t perfectly retracing our steps; the last few miles would take us off of our original path along a shorter trail to the finish line. Even though 50 miles is 50 miles, we – Rick especially – were really looking forward to finding this shortcut.

The last aid station was 3.2 miles before the finish line, and they pointed us to the shortcut. We left the original out-and-back and trotted on the final stretch to the finish line.

We ran as much of the last ~5k as we could. With a bit over a mile to go, we could see the finish line, and, while still moving, spent several minutes speculating how we’d get there and where the course would take us. At one point, a 50-mile runner *blasted* past us – he was seriously flying. “I’m trying to come in under 12 hours!” he shouted, and blazed down the hill. We didn’t know what mile we were at, but we estimated he’d have to be doing an ~8 minute/mile pace or so to get there, which is really fast after ~48 other miles before it. (He made it in 12:01:49 – very close!).

Rick and I agreed he’d have to really push it to make it, and we kept our steady trot.

We descended into the beach area and turned off the trail and onto the road. The fog was still blanketing the area, and it was getting a little darker – it was about 7pm now. There were two runners behind us as we took on the final stretch.

Motivated to not be passed within a half mile of the finish, we “picked up the pace” – i.e. didn’t walk – and made the final turn into the parking lot.  The timing mat had, as promised, been laid out. Rick and I crossed the finish line simultaneously at 12:07:54. Pizza, soup, and hotdogs waited for us at the finish line. Delicious.

Lisa and Rick just after crossing the finish line. That fog’s still out there!

One runner we’d been trading places with back and forth took off; he was a 100-miler.

Overall results: 7 of the original 18 runners in the 100-mile race finished. 7 additional 100-milers dropped to the 50-mile. Of the original 72 runners in the 50-miler, 61 (excluding the 100s) finished. I finished right in the middle of the women’s pack, and came in 2nd for my age group (… okay, there were only two of us. She was about 30-seconds per mile faster than me).

One of the hardest parts of running long distances is the psychological challenge. There can be some serious, serious lows, where you feel completely demotivated to continue and even doing another mile seems completely out of the question. I was fearing that I’d face that on this run, but this was actually one of the easiest races, mentally, I’ve ever run. I chalk it up to good company, good weather, great scenery, and long, solo training runs over the last several months.

I’m not quite sure what my training plan is for the next five weeks. I’d like to get a couple of 20 or 30 mile runs in without overdoing it. Since I’ll be traveling through the southwest with my equally crazy boyfriend, who is also training for this 100, I’m sure we can fit that in – the challenge will be making sure to get the rest and the taper.

Overall, great race – I feel well-prepared for what comes next.

Delicious post-race meal. California, you rock.

Pole Pole – Running (slowly) with the Kenyans.

Just after the marathon!

My watch alarm sang a gentle tingle. I quickly silenced it. I was already awake.

I lay in bed, warm under the Maasai blanket except for my nose. It was sticking out from my blanket bunker so I could breathe, smelling the cold wind, carrying smells of dew and nature and fire.

A much louder alarm sounded. Molly, a few feet away in her bed, turned over to silence it.

It was marathon day, in Kenya. We’d be running Lewa Marathon with the fastest people on earth.

“Ready?” I asked her, in the darkness.

“As I’ll ever be,” she said, her British accent surprisingly alert for 5:00 a.m. She’d been lying in bed since 3:00 a.m., unable to sleep; her husband had sent her a text message from Spain that morning, waking her up.

About seven months ago, I was running hills one morning as a training exercise. I tweaked something in my right knee on a steep downhill. I deserved it; just moments before, someone had warned me to take the downhills easy, and I had cavalierly ignored him. However, since then, I’d not run more than eight consecutive miles – the knee pain was unbearable. My last “long run” before coming to Kenya was maybe a 5k (3.1 miles) in March, along with a few more just a few days ago. I ran a total of seven miles on Wednesday before the race. That was it. Continue reading

Never Save Anything for the Way Back (or: how we climbed Whitney in the snow)

As I clipped my backpack on, I checked my phone one last time before turning it off for the weekend. Where we were going, there would be no reception.

There was a text message from my mom, who had recently done the climb:

Mom: “Please use good judgment on Whitney …”
Me: “Will do. : ) “

That exchange would linger in the back of my mind for the next 36 hours.

Myself and five other intrepid wanderers were about to hike Mount Whitney. With an elevation of 14,505 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Also, even though it’s May, it’s still winter up there. Only one in three hikers who attempt to summit Whitney in May are successful.

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At the trailhead

We took two days, opting to camp about half way up. As such, the first day was relatively easy; we hiked six miles to Trail Camp, situated 12,000 feet above sea level. That six miles was enough altitude for one of our party, and he decided he would not attempt the summit the next morning.

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Stopping for lunch on the way up

As it grew dark on the mountain side, we boiled water and ate our freeze-dried pasta, while observing the route we would take the next day to the summit. Off to the right, a couple of rocks broke loose from the mountain, causing a small rockslide down into the valley.

The sun sets on our camp. The snow on the left is the path we took.

Prior to leaving, we’d done our research. Per earlier, only about one out of three hikers who attempted the Whitney Summit in this season would reach the top. Those who didn’t make it would be rebuffed by snow, ice, thunderstorms, and altitude sickness. While licking our spoons clean, we talked with hikers who were descending. Many of them hadn’t successfully summited that day.

That night, I crawled out of my tent. It was close to midnight. The Milky Way dusted the moonless sky, lighting up the entire canyon. I just caught a shooting star out of the corner of my eye, and made a wish.

On summit day, the dawn broke clear into our canyon. This was good news, as it meant no storms, and we could make an attempt at the summit.

Sunrise on summit day.

We had two options: we could either climb the dreaded 96 Switchbacks – the traditional route – or take on The Chute – a massive snowfield with a vertical ascent of 1,800 feet.

After reviewing the stories from hikers who had attempted the summit yesterday, we decided we’d have better luck with The Chute. The switchbacks were icy – and few hikers who tried to take the switchbacks yesterday had summited.

As we strapped on our unfamiliar crampons, I wondered if we were “Using Good Judgement.” The Chute, blanketed with probably 40 inches of snow, was definitely the road-less-travelled. Most of us hadn’t worn crampons before, and the inch-long metal spikes on our boots felt more like weapons than hiking tools. I had also recently read an excellent article on on the dangers of human-induced avalanches and was wondering if we were going to be on the wrong end  -or the cause- of just such a phenomenon.

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Climbing the Chute

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Remember the angle of ascent here … we had to slide down this later.

Until, at last, I reached the crest. I took a few deep breaths of thin air to slow my pulse. After a moment, I looked around – and it was beautiful. We could see our camp far below, and two frozen lakes on the other side of the mountain. After a quick celebratory snack, we kept moving towards the summit.

The last two miles to the summit were very difficult. We inched along a tiny path, which was framed by a rock face on one side and a sheer vertical drop on the other. The path was no more than ten inches wide in some places, and was covered in ice or snow in most places. One false step would have sent one of us plummeting. I tried not to think about how I’d regain the path if I fell … part of my mind knew that I wouldn’t have made it back to the path. The rock face was just too steep to attempt a climb.

At one point, I was stopping for a rest with one of the girls in my party. She looked as exhausted as I felt. We were both struggling with the thin air – each step at altitude seemed as difficult as four at sea level. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it back down,” she said. I asked her if she had seen Gattaca, and she nodded. “I never saved anything for the swim back,” I quoted. She smiled.

A few minutes later, our team of five took the last few steps to the summit. Suddenly, everything seemed wonderful – no more altitude sickness, dehydration-induced nausea, or fatigue from sleeping on the ground the previous night – we had made it to the top.

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We made it!

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Henry, another camper we met – he was super helpful during our overnight attempts to cook

We descended a bit to find a spot out of the wind and eat our lunches. It was about 1pm.

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View from the top

The feeling of invincibility wore off too quickly. Those two miles we’d just done to the summit? Suddenly, it became clear exactly how dangerous those sheer cliffs were, and how far of a drop it was to the valley floor just to our right. We were exhausted … and much more likely to make a mistake now than we had been an hour ago. Now, there was no motivation to get to the top – we’d already done that. Now we just had to get home. And it was a long, hard trek ahead of us.

When we reached the ridge at the top of The Chute, it was time for the next challenge – glissading down to camp. Glissading is basically sliding down snow on your butt, using an ice axe as a brake. I’d definitely never done it before, and all I knew about it was from a cautionary article I’d read several years ago about how dangerous it was and how many deaths were attributed to glissading each year.

I looked over the edge, down the snowfield we’d climbed up just a few hours earlier. It somehow seemed a lot steeper from this angle.

But – one of our party had trekked 350 kilometers across the North Pole, glissading parts of it along the way. Surely his expertise would be sufficient to get us down the mountain. In our tired minds, this made sense.

I ignored the “Good Judgement” voice in my head and stuck my butt firmly in the snow. A slight scoot forward, and …

Nothing happened. I was just a few inches further down the mountain. Another scoot, and … still nothing. I gave myself one more good shove …

And I was off! There was a luge-like trail from an earlier glissader, and I followed the snow-channel down. As chunks of white powder tumbled around me, little snowballs crunched down the snowfield. It was like the really big slide at a playground … but for adults, and with incredible scenery.

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Glissading – I’m the one on the right. Do not recommend trying this without practicing first, which we didn’t do and was a bad idea.

It took far less time to make it down the snowfield than it did to climb it earlier in the day. The bottom of the slope was still a mile from the campsite; we bouldered through a rocky path get there. We later learned that the rocky path was just about where the rockslide had crumbled the day before. When I found that out, I wondered what other dangerous we had cavalierly been ignorant to.

We reached our campsite around 4pm – much later than we anticipated. Fatigued, dehydrated, and mostly delirious, we packed up camp and made our way down the mountain, finishing the full trek just about a half hour after darkness and descended.

Those last six miles were brutal. Everyone was digging deep, and suffering much more than any of us would let on. We hadn’t saved anything for the way back.

All in all, it was an amazing trip. I wouldn’t call what we did “hiking,” per se – it was much more of a “backpacking” or a “mountaineering” expedition. It was very technical, and very little of it was trekking on easy trails. It was my first time hiking in the snow, using crampons, and glissading, and my second time on an overnight backpacking trip.

Make no mistake: this was a hard hike. We absolutely needed all the snow gear we brought. This was the wrong season to do it, and it probably would have been easier to do it in one day rather than two – less gear to carry. I was shivering in my sleeping bag the entire night – while wearing every piece of clothing I had brought.

There was also a subtle difference between this climb and any of the adventure running I’ve done. While Whitney was similarly challenging altitude-wise to the Inca Trail Marathon, this trip was much more of a team-based. Only I could get myself to the top of the mountain, but we had to work together to make sure we all made it safely. We were looking out for each other, looking for signs of dehydration or altitude sickness. We had crampon experts, glissading experts, water purification experts … everyone had something to bring, and everyone had to rely on someone else for help with something at one point or another.

I’m learning there are adventures out there that don’t necessarily involve running … and they’re just as fun, and just as challenging.

Next stop: Everest?

Top of the world.

Inca Trail Marathon

The course profile, as annotated by me prior to the race. The profile isn’t 100% correct – we added some flatter parts at the beginning to make the 26.2 miles.

Super long race report.

The Inca Trail is 32k and ends in Machu Picchu. It starts at 9,000 feet and peaks around 13,800 feet above sea level. Most people hike it in four days.

The Inca Trail Marathon ins a 42k course. It’s run on the same trail and also ends in Machu Picchu. 42 competitors attempted to run it in less than a day.

For the last week or so, I’ve been traveling around Peru, prepping for the first annual Inca Trail Marathon. The race is the first marathon-length race that includes the Inca Trail, so in a lot of ways, this was a pretty big deal.

The race is 26.2 miles [obviously]. It starts at KM 88 of the Inca Trail, which is about 8,500 feet above sea level. It peaks at Dead Woman’s Pass – Warmiwanusqa – around 13,800 feet, then plunges quickly to 11,800 feet, then quickly back up to 13,000 feet. After that it’s basically downhill to the finish – around 8,000 feet.

The race started yesterday morning, and it was substantially more difficult than any of us anticipated.

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