A marathon on the coldest, iciest continent – Antarctica

Late afternoon sunlight in Antarctica

I just got back from what can only be described as one of the most epic escapades I’ve been privileged to undertake – a two-week expedition to the loneliest place on earth, where myself and about 150 others explored, adventured, and, of course, ran a marathon.

If the title didn’t give it away, we went to Antarctica.

[Warning – probably a long and rambling post. It was an awesome trip, and the marathon was just a small part of it. It will be hard to do it justice.]

Backstory. I first heard about the Seven Continents Club when I ran the Inca Trail Marathon in 2012. The club is for those who are in the process of running, or have completed, a marathon on every continent. Obviously, the most logistically challenging continent to run a race on is Antarctica. In 2012, I also learned that there’s a 3-5 year wait list to get on a voyage down there, so I put down a small deposit – I figured I’d decide to take that journey if, and when, the time came. Putting down the Antartica Marathon deposit was choosing more of an option to participate rather than a firm commitment to this outrageous expedition.

Since then, I’ve run races on two other continents: Australia and and Africa. Antarctica makes six (although my Europe marathon was a solo, unsupported run, so I’ll probably have to go back and do that one again).

When I finally got off the wait list for Antarctica, the timing couldn’t have been better: it overlapped with my school’s spring break, and I’d get to train through Philly’s miserable winter (that last part turned out to be especially helpful during the race).

Before the race. Two weeks ago, four hundred of us met up in Buenos Aires with our Marathon Tours organizers. We divided into two ships: The Akademik Ioffe, which left one day early and whose runners would race on March 9th, and my ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, sister ship to the Ioffe, whose runners would race on March 10th. The results from the two days would be aggregated (important for later).

We had a few days in Buenos Aires – padding for those whose flights had been delayed – and a small group of us visited Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for a day. That trip led to some shenanigans, such as a 20k training run in Uruguay which was actually only 1.5k. This silliness quickly solidified the friendship of this group of 9, and we affectionally named ourselves “The Colonials.”

The Colonial 9, atop the Uruguayan lighthouse

That day in Uruguay foreshadowed the depth of some of the friendships that would form over the course of the trip. Runners are a strange bunch, but there are some deep commonalities we have which makes it easy, and rewarding, to become fast friends with fellow running travelers.

The first two days were spent crossing the infamous Drake Passage. Many of us, myself included, spent significant time in our bunks attempting to avoid seasickness, with mixed success. We spent the time in-between getting to know each other, taking photos of the open ocean, and attending lectures on everything Antarctic, from penguins, to whales, to ice.

There was more than a little nervous energy onboard. Everyone was thinking about the race, and that manifested itself in a variety of ways. Most notably, we discussed every single aspect of the day-of race logistics ad nauseam. A couple of components were just unique enough that they made for interesting talking points. For example, we had to provide all of our own food and water during the race, and nothing could have a wrapper. Traditional food items, like Clif bars and Gus, were ruled out. Everyone had their own workaround, and we heard about all of them. I planned to use unwrapped Snickers bars shoved into a front pocket, operating under the assumption that they wouldn’t melt due to the frigid temperatures.

I was also not 100% convinced we’d even be running the race at all, so I was trying to avoid getting my hopes up too much. The entire lead up to the race was filled with weather warnings – inclement weather could cancel the race completely, and, in Antarctica, weather is not something you gamble with. I’d been reading the Ernest Shackleton story in my spare time, and, based on his harrowing 17-month survival experience stranded on the continent, I was more than convinced that the race should be called off in the case of poor weather. Nobody wants to get stuck ashore in Antarctica and forced to eat dog pemmican.

However, our first day ashore in Antartica – the day before the race – was amazing. We visited Half Moon Island, known for  its fur seals and chinstrap penguins. There’s also one, lone macaroni penguin – named Kenneth – who thinks he’s part of the chinstrap colony. The island itself was stunning – a little, white crescent surrounded by pounding, grey waves. It was our first taste of what Antarctic isolation is really about.

First shore day. The Vavilov is behind me

That day, the runners on the Ioffe were running their race. We learned that part of the course was drowned under about a foot of water due to melted snow, so they’d had to re-route, but they’d all made it safely back to the boat after running. That night, after our pre-race briefing, I removed myself from the rabble and anxiety – I didn’t want to discuss race-day nutrition for the 800th time – and went to bed early.

The race.

The official race map.

I woke up multiple times during the night. Just outside the porthole, massive snow flurries blinked in the dim deck lights. I kept trying to convince myself that it definitely wasn’t snow, but every time I woke up, it was definitely still snow, and it was piling up on the deck railings.

By the time we made our way to breakfast, it had stopped snowing, although the winds were holding steady at about 30 knots, with gusts to 35 knots. Even as we packed our dry-bags with warm clothes, filled up our water bottles, and donned our foul-weather gear for the boat ride over, I still wasn’t convinced they weren’t going to call it off due to weather.

We were aiming for a 9am start, which meant we had to start offloading 100 runners around 8am. Many of the Colonials were in a later boat – second or third-to-last. It seemed prudent not to wait in the cold for an hour.

The boats – called Zodiacs – were little rubber contraptions. During any expedition away from our ship, even if it was a very short trip to shore, each Zodiac carried ample extra fuel, enough food for all ~12 passengers for three days, and basic shelter supplies. We all wore lifejackets and waterproof foul-weather-gear at all times when on the Zodiacs. Again, no messing around down here.

On the boat ahead of us, a group of runners, including a family, were navigating the gangway down to a Zodiac. One woman was extremely terrified to step off of the ship and onto the gangway, which was shaking rather violently. She let her son and daughter escort her slowly down to the Zodiac, but the Zodiac was pitching and rolling on the choppy swells. I saw her reach a shaking hand out to cross from the gangway to the Zodiac, but she couldn’t take that step across onto the boat. She turned around and came back onboard the Vavilov. The Zodiac finished loading – without her – and took off for shore. (I found out later that she gave it another go, made it to shore, and finished the half marathon. The whole trip was full of inspirational stories like this).

Our trip over on the Zodiac took about 15 minutes, and the winds were fierce. We huddled together on the rubber seats, and I rubbed strategically-placed hand warmers to keep my fingers mobile. We all hoped that when we started moving, we’d warm up.

When we got to shore, we jumped out of the boat and into the freezing water, feet protected by rubber boots. We waded to shore and then up to the start line.

A couple of us at the start line

Even then, divesting of our foul-weather gear, we were still debating how many layers we should wear. I opted to trust my Philly training, and stripped down to just three layers: a long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, and a light jacket. I also had on running tights, a neck buff, a baseball-like hat to protect from any possible precipitation, a headband for ear warmth, and a warmer hat on top of that. I wore heavy ski gloves on my hands and tucked hand warmers into each one, and my normal trail shoes on my feet.

The start was anticlimactic (and I have never seen so many GoPros – mine included – recording it). Thom, our intrepid race director, counted us down from five, and we started trotting down the  muddy course.

The course would be a six-loop out-and-back course. Basically, we’d run 2.18 miles to a turn-around, then run back to the start, and do that six times. I tend to like loop courses, and I think this is because my powers of observation are pretty weak during a race – I’m discovering something new on every lap.

Just after the start

The first lap or two felt easy. The scenery was gorgeous at parts – the first mile or so was through the Russian and Chilean research bases, and after that we passed a glacial lake and ran right near the shore of the island, until we turned around at a Chinese research base. Despite how windy and overcast it was, it was very cool to be running past these towering mountains – in Antarctica!

I was powering up the hills and keeping pace with some runners that looked pretty fast to me. I didn’t think I had a chance of placing, but I do like to count how far back I am from the lead women … and after the first lap, there were only four women in front of me. My roommate, Erin, was in 3rd, and in 4th was another girl from Philly, named Taylor.

I was pretty sure I’d hit a wall at some point and fall back, so I didn’t think too much about it. However, at the end of lap 2, I was feeling pretty good – I’d been pacing off of another runner, and at the turn-around, he took a bit longer at the aid station than I did, so I kept going. The runner in 2nd had fallen back, which meant Erin was in 2nd now. Taylor, in 3rd, was just ahead of me … so I kept trotting along.

Even though I was keeping an eye on the competition, I, like most runners, was really just in it to finish. Because all of the runners knew each other by this point, the cheering throughout our short course was so enthusiastic and genuine. The course was only a few miles, so we saw our new friends frequently, and we all took the opportunity to encourage each other loudly, to the amusement of on-base researchers. They looked at us with what I like to imagine was admiration, but more likely confusion and worry for these crazy people who’d be out in these conditions.

Every so often, I would just appreciate how ludicrous the whole construct was – running a marathon on Antarctica is pretty crazy, when considered in the absolute. In my running career, it was also the race that I’d been thinking about for the longest – three years is a serious chunk of time, and this race was the culmination of that preparation.

Getting after it on the muddy trails.

Around lap 4, I was feeling a little fatigued, but Taylor was still just ahead, so I kept pushing. I passed her at one point, but then she passed me back, and I was pretty sure that was the end of things. It didn’t matter anyway – there was no way that, after combining our times with the other boat’s, the third-place person on our boat would also place overall.

However, I then passed her again, and with only 10k to go, I felt like I could maybe push it to the end and finish 3rd on my boat.

The next six miles were a slog. The hills were starting to feel steeper than before, and there were two short ones that I would walk for a quick recovery. The weather had also taken a turn for the worse, and it seemed like, no matter which direction we were heading, we were facing a stiff headwind. It had also started sleeting, and little particles of ice were now driving into any unexposed skin. I moved my buff up to cover my nose and mouth, but all that did was restrict my breathing, so I left it around my neck and faced the storm.

The last lap was rough. At the turnaround, with only 2 miles to go, I had my GoPro running. I crouched down to show off my favorite race sign – it said “Penguin Crossing” – and saw my Philly compatriot right behind me. I kicked it into gear and didn’t look back.

I felt like I was flying through the last two miles, although I’m sure it looked more like a limping slog than an Olympic sprint.

 

Running through the research bases.

The last 0.2 miles were up a shallow hill. I saw the 26-mile marker, and for some reason, turned around – I think I didn’t want to get passed at the last second. Taylor was right behind me! I turned back and sprinted to the finish line. She came in just a few seconds after me.

We high-fived and hugged it out, taking a finish-line photo (with Erin, who had finished 2nd and about 20 minutes ahead of Taylor and I. The first-place woman had already gotten back on a Zodiac and was headed for a hot shower). Taylor and I agreed that there was no way we’d be in contention for an overall podium spot, but we appreciated the competition.

After the finish

Volunteers bundled us into our foul-weather gear and back onto a Zodiac before we knew what was happening. My fingers, warm throughout the race, immediately became numb when I started handling zippers and velcro, and the Zodiac ride was pretty rough as a result.

After the race. That night, we learned that our boat had dominated the rankings. The men on Vavilov swept the top three spots, and the woman had grabbed the top two … and maybe the third! For the next twelve hours, I was constantly checking to see if they’d posted the results … and found out that a girl on the other boat beat me by two minutes. Very disappointing. I like to think that they had easier weather – it was very sunny! – but I know she also ran a great race.

The next several days were a combination of calm appreciation of our success and evening parties of wild, reckless abandon. Days ashore were happier and more relaxed. A few highlights:

  • A double-rainbow over icebergs.

What does it mean?

 

  • Quiet kayaking on reflective water (after a messy capsize due to inclement weather the day before).

I’m in that kayak on the right.

  • Whale watching – literally 20 feet from our boat – in the calm waters of Wilhelmina Bay on the last day.

Whale tail – so close to our Zodiac!

Whale next to a Zodiac

So peaceful and serene.

Epilogue. The whole experience was amazing. I focused here on the race because this is a blog about running, although, as mentioned, the race just became one part of a much broader, more epic adventure, which really deserves its own blog. Just like summer camp, we made memories and forged friendships that we’ll remember for a lifetime.

Antarctica is a pristine, unspoiled place. It is stark and isolated, and unlike anywhere else on earth. I am grateful that humanity was only able to reach it after developing an appreciation for preserving natural beauty – the continent is governed by a multinational research treaty – although I fear for the day that the lucrativeness of mineral rights overshadows this agreement.

The staff concluded our voyage with this quote:

Out here is where the magic happens, here in the quiet hills.
Here is where you have cried out with moans as deep as the earth.
Here is where you have found your long lost self that the madness took away.
So when you get back to those who talk loud in small rooms,
Remember that you have been to a place too beautiful for words.

-Anonymous

Here’s to the adventurers.

My favorite photo I took on this trip. Hi penguin!


Flap flap flap.

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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.

Barefoot Running – Not Actually that Great for You

So, it turns out running barefoot has no scientifically proven benefits. Not only that, barefoot running may actually cause you harm.

Vibram has been hit with a $3.75m lawsuit regarding the claims that their barefoot shoe  “reduce[s] foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles.”

However, the American College of Sports Medicine recently released a study that “showed that increases in bone marrow edema [the precursor to a stress fracture] are more common in subjects who were transitioning to the [Vibram FiveFingers]”

The study is specifically about running (aka my relevant sport and why I’m interested) rather than lifting or Crossfit.

My opinion – I bought a pair of Vibrams … because everyone else was doing it. (Weak, I know.) I tried one or two short runs in them, but it always felt uncomfortable due to the high impact. I was afraid I was going to get injured. So, I switched back to my normal shoes – because if it isn’t broke, why fix it? Running in normal shoes felt like being excluded from a cool club – but I guess it was worth it.

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:

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.

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.

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.

Climbing The Chute. I’m the one on the right.

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

I don’t know how long it took us to climb The Chute, but that’s because it was an adventure. As I climbed, I would jab my spike-laden toes into the snow, one step at a time, for twenty steps, then stop to catch my breath for ten seconds, and repeat. It was fun, but at points, it felt like the endless running scene from Monty Python. Despite how long the knight is running, he never seems to get closer to his destination…

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.

We made it!

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

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.

Glissading! I’m the one on the right.

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.

Just keep Swimming … How to Finish a Marathon in the Rain

CIM startline. Look how reflective the pavement is – it was wet!

Yesterday, I ran California International Marathon, reputed to be one of the marathon fastest courses in the world. With gentle rolling hills and a net downhill elevation, runners sign up to run CIM in hopes of a PR, a Boston Qualifying time, or just a fast day.

Unless it’s raining.

The last week, Northern California saw unprecedented amounts of rain, and Sacramento was no exception. The start line was buffeted by wind, and runners were hiding against walls and underneath gas station awnings to stay dry. Thousands of trashbags glowed in the artificial light.

This marathon was a reunion of sorts – six of us who ran the Inca Trail Marathon converged on Sacramento in the hopes of running a race slightly easier than Inca Trail, and spend some time together. We’d eaten dinner together the night before and discussed race-day tactics, such as wearing trash bags, hiding in pace groups to block the wind, and wearing short sleeves, long sleeves, no sleeves, jackets … the permutations were endless.

Trashbags glowing in the pre-race artificial light.

Despite the rain, the start line was festive. 8000 runners couldn’t believe how ridiculous the weather was, and the only thing to do was laugh and run.

My goal in this race was to run somewhere in the 4:00 range. I’ve been running a 50k or marathon a month for the last few months, and I have another 50k in early January, so I didn’t want to go out too strong that I couldn’t recover in time.

The first few miles of the race featured the rolling hills, and we were fortunate that the wind wasn’t terrible. I dropped my trashbag around mile three, and was soaked through moments later. Running in the rain was actually exciting. A hat kept the water mostly out of my eyes, and, once I mentally committed to being soaked through for the next several hours, running through ankle-deep puddles didn’t seem so much of a hardship.

The strangest part of the race wasn’t the weather oddly – I grew to like that component. every so often, I would hear a dog barking … eventually, I realized it was a racer making those sounds. I was keeping pace-ish with a member of “Team Ah-some,” who was wearing a vibrant neon yellow shirt, and he seemed to be randomly barking every five or ten minutes. Around mile 18, I heard an actual dog barking, which was even more confusing.

Those cheering on the slidelines were amazing. Not only were they out in the rain, but they were creative and enthusiastic in their encouragement. One group was handing out beer. One woman was holding a “Just Keep Swimming” sign – so appropriate. My favorite was a guy who was yelling out things like “I’m making loud noises!” and “These are words of encouragement!” and “You are running, I am standing here watching you run!”

The last 8 miles were pretty rough. Road races aren’t my forte – the pounding of the pavement and the monotony of the terrain make it easy to get sore quickly (I qualified for Boston on a trail marathon – my favorite!). Around mile 21 I ran into one of the other Inca veterans, and we ran together for about a mile or so.

At mile 22, I saw a teeny tiny strip of blue in the sky.

A flooded Sacramento street a few blocks from the race.

The last three miles of a marathon, I don’t give myself any excuse to walk. Even slow running is better than no running.

Trail runners are strange creatures. Even though we run extremely solitary races with sometimes fewer than 60 runners, we tend to glom together for vast stretches, sometimes up to hours. We talk, exchange stories, and encourage each other to keep moving. This camaraderie doesn’t crop in in marathons; there are just too many people trying to go fast, and runners tend to keep to themselves and leave other runners to their own goals.

At mile 24.5, off to my right shoulder, I saw a runner slow to a walk. Without thinking, I turned to him and encouraged him to join me – the race was almost over, and he could definitely do this last bit. He fell into step with me and we started running.

The last few miles of a race are always a bit strange. I want nothing more than to be done with the race, but at the same time, once it’s over, it’s over, and gone forever. In my mind, I play this game where I tell myself it’s only forty more minutes of running … only twenty more minutes of running … only ten, five, three, two … and suddenly the finish line is there.

At the finish line!

This other runner and I kept each other going into the city, through tree-lined streets now streaming with shiny wet sunlight, and past the motivational music thumping through the air. He almost stopped twice, but we pushed through to the last 1/10th of a mile. When they split out men and women finishers, we grasped hands quickly and smiled, then split up to our respective finishing chutes. I didn’t see him again afterwards, and don’t know his name.

In elementary school, teachers say that when you point at someone, whatever you say to them comes back three times to you. Encouragement feels that way; sometimes, encouraging someone else is just as motivating to ourselves.

It was a mixed race for my friends. Several of them PRd despite the rain, and two of my girlfriends qualified for Boston. My Inca Trail team also did okay; a slow race for most of us, a DNF for one, and a wet (now non-functional) phone for another.

Overall, definitely a memorable, fun race. I finished in 4:06, which is close enough to what I wanted to do. The rain made it exciting, and getting together with friends, old and new, from all parts of my life, gave the weekend a festival-like feel. Not bad for marathon number 28.

Inca Trail Runners celebrating in Old Town Sacramento.

Inca Trail Runners celebrating in Old Town Sacramento.

No Excuses -or- How to Finish A Race

I went running at Lake Tahoe this morning, not far from where I ran my first ultramarathon. It got me thinking about my first few years as a runner.

Lake Tahoe just before sunrise. I woke up early to snap this with the Galaxy Nexus.

For my first few years of running, I made a very concerted effort not to read anything about running. I didn’t know what Runner’s World was, or that there was at least one magazine completely dedicated to trail running. I didn’t have any close friends who were runners. I read nothing on the Internet about tapering, nutrition, shoes, gear, or anything else.

I didn’t want to give myself any excuses for failure.

At the end of the day, the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it. There are no shortcuts. The only way to improve is to put in extreme amounts of hours. Some people have genetic predispositions towards certain skills, but that doesn’t mean they don’t practice.

Running, to me, is putting one foot in front of the other, and doing that over and over. Everything else is secondary.

If you’re making excuses for not putting one foot in front of the other, you’re not getting better at running.

Running my first ultramarathon

Sports writing provides excuses for failure. Did you not finish that race? Don’t worry about it – your pre-race meal probably wasn’t the right balance of carbohydrates and protein. Oh, it was? What did you eat the night before? Those extra vegetables could have been the problem. What shoes are you wearing? Could be the wrong ones for the terrain, or for your feet, or for your stride. You may have needed more expensive clothing. Maybe you ran too many miles, or too few, to train for this race.

Tips for improvement can just as easily be excuses for failure.  Obviously, this isn’t always the case. I’m definitely not advocating for not educating yourself about running.  As with almost everything, more knowledge is better.

That being said, don’t give yourself excuses. There is no “secret sauce” for running.  There’s only starting and finishing.

You win if you finish.