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.

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.

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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How to Walk at the Speed of Light

The sun never set when we were in Alaska. It just skirted along the mountain tops until morning, keeping the sky bright - even at 3am. I took this photo from a ship, bound for glaciers.

The best stories are the ones that arise from the unexpected. Often, being caught off-guard comes from a lack of preparation. In the case of our hike around Anchorage a few years ago, that was certainly the case.

After spending a few days on a boat exploring the inlets around Anchorage, my mom and I were ready to stretch our legs. In an afternoon walk around the city, we found a huge, blotchy, yellow and orange hemisphere sitting in the middle of an urban park. It was probably 12 feet in diameter.

A plaque nearby informed us that it was a scale model of the sun. About a block away, we found a marble-sized Mercury, also near a plaque. These space objects were scale models of their celestial counterparts, arranged by distance from the sun. Mom and I decided that, the next morning, we would walk to Pluto (which, at that point, was still a planet).

The next morning, we each grabbed a 16-oz bottle of water. She had a credit card, a form of photo ID, and $5 in cash.  Off we went.

We made it through Mercury, Venus, and Earth in about 8 minutes. Mars was just beyond that. We didn’t see Jupiter or Saturn for a while, but we eventually found them along the path.

We were now fairly far outside the city, and had been walking for a few hours. The scenery was gorgeous. On our right was the water, and on our left was a lush green forest, from which moose would occasionally emerge.

By the time we got to Neptune, we’d been walking for about four and a half hours. If you remember, we’d only brought 16 ounces of water each, and that was long gone. Desperately,we hoped that Pluto would be orbiting near some sort of of Alaskan oasis.

Five and a half hours after we started walking, we found Pluto. It was near a multi-purpose recreation center.  In our exhausted mental state, this recreation center was paradise.

We refilled our waterbottles in a bathroom sink, standing next to a gaggle of beautiful bridesmaids prepping for a nearby wedding. There was a vending machine, and we bought those single-serving cheese-dip and cracker packets – the ones that traditionally showed up in 4th graders’ lunch boxes. (Edit: Handi-Snacks!)

Refueled and somewhat refreshed, we made our way back – another five and a half hours – to the sun statue. The real sun was just starting to set when we stumbled back into Anchorage.

Proud of ourselves, and feeling somewhat resentful of the planet walk, we returned to the plaque by the sun statue, this time reading it with a bit more care.

It turns out we had completed the Lightspeed Planet Walk. The scale models of each planet were placed in such a way that, if you were to walk between then, you’d be walking at the speed of light. It took us eight minutes to get from the sun statue to Earth, because that’s how long it takes light to get from the real sun to the real Earth.

And it took us five and a half hours to get to Pluto, because that’s how long it takes light to travel from the sun to Pluto.

We had been walking for about 11 hours.

The moral of the story: Do your research. Preparedness helps avoid all kinds of problems. For example, we probably could have stood to bring more than 16 ounces of water.

That being said, sometimes it’s fun not to know what’s going to happen next. I often don’t look at the course profile of my races until after I’ve run the race. The sense of mystery, and discovery, keeps me entertained for miles at a time.

In preparing for a big trip, or race, have you ever missed something important? What happened?