Tuesday, August 4, 2015

“You Can’t Pick Up Any White Women Driving Slow” – My Hardrock Experience (Part 1 – Before the Race)

            I fell in love with the San Juans in the summer of 2007 on my first trip to Telluride.  I had just finished my first year as a teacher and decided to travel to Colorado for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and to explore places I’d only heard about.  The minute I crested the pass and saw Trout Lake ringed by snow-capped peaks just outside Telluride, I knew I had found paradise.  This place was special.  I have since spent many hours in the mountains, exploring some of the most beautiful scenery this country has to offer, but I still find myself drawn to the San Juans.  If you’ve been there, you get it.  If not, well, it’s difficult to explain.  They are massive, rugged, and undeniably beautiful.  I am in awe every time I go.  It truly feels like home.  I have since gone back to the Bluegrass Festival 6 times, and it never gets old.  I look forward to my yearly trip and can’t think about anything else the last few months of school.  I get to run in the most beautiful mountains in the U.S. for hours, then listen to bluegrass music until the early morning hours.  It doesn’t get much better than that.
(Trout Lake)

            The summer of 2007 also marked my first mountain ultra, the White River 50 Miler in Washington.  I suffered quite a bit that day, but I was hooked.  2 years later I signed up for my first 100 mile trail race, the Wasatch Front 100 in Utah.  It was rugged and beautiful, and it just happened to be a Hardrock qualifier (although this was the furthest thing on my mind when I registered).  I decided to put my name in the Hardrock lottery, but I was not chosen.  Nor was I chosen the next 5 times I tried, and with each passing year (accompanied by more trips to the San Juans) my fascination with Hardrock grew until I could barely contain myself.  I HAD to run that race.  It was the perfect combination of rugged beauty and extreme challenge.  As the race grew in popularity, the chances of getting selected in the lottery grew smaller and smaller.  I was lucky enough to pace a friend (John Sharp) in 2012, so I got to experience firsthand the final 54 miles in the clockwise direction (the race alternates direction each year).  I was both frightened and enthralled by the experience.  Finally, after 6 tries, my name was called.
 (Finishing the White River 50 in 2007 - my first mountain ultra)

          I had followed the previous 5 lotteries via Twitter, waiting anxiously with friends to see if any of our names were called.  This year I was in the mountains of northern Georgia running a 50k with a friend in some of the most horrendous conditions (the mud was laughable), so there would be no waiting by the phone or constantly hitting refresh on my computer screen.  I knew that friends and family would let me know if my name was drawn, and I anxiously awaited the end of my race so I could check my messages.  When I got back to the car (and had time for my numb hands to dry and thaw out), I saw dozens of messages congratulating me on being selected for the 2015 running of Hardrock.  I was speechless.  I had been waiting 6 years for this.  After the euphoria wore off, I was left with a slight sense of dread and worriedness.  How would I train for this race, with it’s 67,000’ of cumulative elevation change and average elevation of 11,400’, in San Antonio?  I had hills, but no mountains.  This was going to be quite the challenge, one I was ready to tackle.
            After sitting down with my coach and close friend Joe Sulak, we hammered out a plan that would prepare me for 100 miles of “wild and tough”, as the race’s motto states.  We carved out weekend trips to the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas, countless hours of incline work on the treadmill, and a couple mountain races to test my fitness along the way.  I totally trust what Joe says, so I knew that whatever he had me doing would work.  I would continue my weekly strength workouts with Joe, which I firmly believe have made me a better runner over the years.  I would arrive in Colorado 3 weeks before the race, giving me ample time to acclimatize to the altitude.  With the plan in place, I began counting down the days until school was out and I headed West.  I spent hours watching You Tube videos of the race, reading reports from past years, and talking with Joe Prusaitis (who has 7 Hardrock finishes and offered a wealth of information).  I studied maps and memorized elevation  profiles.  Although the course is marked (“sparsely marked” in the words of Course Director Charlie Thorn), there are section where navigating can be difficult.  Snow, fog, and animals eating flagging all wreak havoc on the marking, so anyone attempting Hardrock should have a fairly good understanding of where the should be and where the course goes.  I prepared for this race like none before, because it was a race like none I had ever run before.  I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.  I had to do it right.  
(The Guadalupe Mountains - my "local" mountain)

(Fun at 40%)

            The second semester of school whizzed by, and before I knew it I was wishing my students a happy summer and packing my car for the month-long adventure.  The plan was to spend 5-6 days in Telluride (by way of Taos and Rico), another few in Ridgway, followed by 10 days in Crested Butte before moving over to Silverton the week of the race.  We had received an email in mid April detailing the snowpack conditions on the course and predictions for the race.  Snow had been sparse in the San Juans and we could expect a mostly dry course come July 10.  But then a funny thing happened in May in Colorado (and elsewhere) – it snowed…a lot.  By some accounts the San Juans received more snow in May than any other month this season.  Now the rumor was that this could be one of the snowiest Hardrocks ever.  Since I live in South Texas, I have limited experience with training and running in snow, especially the deep stuff.  I made my mental plans of routes I wanted to hit, peaks I wanted to bag, sections of the course I wanted to scout.  But when I stopped in Taos, NM on my way out to Colorado, I realized the snow in the high country was going to make these tasks very difficult, if not impossible. 
(Lots of this while I was in Colorado)

            I tried (unsuccessfully) to summit Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest peak at over 13,000’.  I made it to just under 11,000’ before the waist-deep post holing began.  After a few minutes of this I realized I was fighting a losing battle and headed back down to try another approach.  I made it all the way (through snow) to Williams Lake at 11,000’ before turning back.  I would repeat this same scenario numerous times over the next 10 days as I trudged up and down the peaks around Telluride and Ouray.  The days were warm and clear, and the snow was melting fast, but there was a whole lot of snow to melt.  I ran solo most days and enjoyed the solitude, although it was nice to have a familiar face join me a time or two.  I spent a few days in Crested Butte before one of my pacers, Dave Brown, arrived with his family and dog (who apparently is immune to leaps from second floor balconies).  We explored the Elk Mountains and Maroon Bells surrounding Crested Butte, a place I would move to in a heartbeat.  I am obsessed with that town, maybe more so than any in Colorado.  Everything was so green, and the contrast against the reddish hue of the Maroon Bells was spectacular.  It made tapering very difficult, and I found myself cutting a few outings “short” at 16 miles and wanting more.  I can’t resist summittng a pass, and I’m a sucker for high mountain lakes.  

(Copper the Wonderdog) 

(The Maroon Bells)

          Cindy joined us in Crested Butte for a few days before we headed to Silverton.  I had experienced great weather for 95% of my trip, but that all changed in Silverton, where it rained for much of the week leading up to the race.  I guess this could be seen as a blessing, as I wasn’t tempted to spend countless hours exploring the mountains so close to Hardrock.  I hiked the 4 mile section from the Bear Creek (Ouray – there are 3 different Bear Creeks on the HR course) trailhead to Ouray AS and out to Camp Bird Road with Dave and Eric White since Dave and I would be hitting that at night and wanted to be familiar with it.  Chris (crew, chief napper) and Liza (pacer) drove up from San Antonio a couple days prior to the race, and we all had fun seeing other runners and crews walking around town.  We sat through the “shortened” (2 hours instead of the typical 4+) course briefing, during which Charlie Thorn detailed the various ways we could die on the “sparsely marked” course, none of which made Cindy laugh.  Several of us walked the last few miles of the course to make sure we knew the route and could find our way home in our oxygen-depleted state at the end of the race.  I packed my drop bags (ask Chris for a detailed account of this), bought some souvenirs, and stopped at the local coffee shop/brewery for one final beer before settling down at the house for what I knew would be a very restless night.  In what I can only describe as one of the funniest conversations I’ve ever overheard, a local miner detailed life in Silverton to Cindy.  After boasting that he had once driven from Silverton to Ouray in 17 minutes (if you’ve ever driven this road, you know how ridiculous that sounds), our new friend remarked (with a sheepish grin) that “you can’t pick up any white women driving slow”. 

 (Helping the local economy)

 (Dave exploring the climb out of Ouray)

 (Mineral Creek - mile 98.5)

(Even aliens want a picture with the Cactus Kid)

(Ready to go)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Goin' Out West - Week 1

Tuesday (6/16)

            After spending the night with friends outside Taos, NM (very different town than I had envisioned), I drove to the Taos Ski Valley to make an attempt to summit Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest mountain at just over 13,000’.  I had summited the previous year from the other (Red River) side, but I wanted to see the Bull of the Woods Trail and its beautiful ridges from the Taos side.  The same storms that have brought devastating flooding to Texas dumped massive amounts of spring snow in the mountains, so I had my work cut out for me.  Sure enough, after only 3.5 miles, I hit impassable (for me) amounts of snow, still 5 miles from the summit.  Disappointed, I turned and headed back down the mountain, unsure how I would get my 15 miles in for the day.  Once at the Ski Valley again, I explored and found another trailhead (Williams Lake) and followed it up to the lake at 11,000’.  I encountered a good bit of snow along the way in the woods, forcing me to follow the blue blazes on the tress since the trail was buried much of the time.  I passed several groups of people who were coming down from the lake, and they warned me that there was a bear and her cub roaming around the lake.  Much to my dismay, the bears were nowhere to be found when I arrived at the lake, which was beautiful and ringed by high snow-covered peaks.  With a storm approaching, I quickly made my way back down through the snow to my car, hit the local brewery for a burger and beer, and made the drive to Rico, CO, where I had managed to find a hostel run by a guy who went to my high school in Memphis. 

Mileage – 14.8
Time – 4:36
Ascent – 3967’
Descent – 3967’
Total Vertical - 7934'
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – N/A

(Lots of Snow)

(Williams Lake)

 (Rio Grande Gorge)

Wednesday (6/17)

            I chose Rico in part because the hostel was cheap and owned by a guy from Memphis, but also because it offered quick access to the trails in the Lizard Head Wilderness.  I have been coming to the San Juans for 7 summers, but I have yet to explore this area around Lizard Head Peak.  I decided I would try to make it to the pass (12,600’) but knew I might not be able to due to the snowpack.  I set out under a clear blue sky and cool temps, and sure enough, I turned back after 2.5 miles and headed down to my car due to the snow.  I drove a few miles to another trailhead, hoping for better luck.  I made it another couple miles before I had to cross several snowfields in which the snow came up to my waist at times.  After 30 minutes of this (and seeing no break in the snow ahead), I again turned back and headed to the car.  Although I only logged 10 miles, my legs were worked.  It isn’t easy (at least not for me) to work your way up the mountain through deep snow, and the run back down was no picnic either as the melting snow created rivers of mud and cold water.  My stabilizer muscles got quite a workout.  After my run I drove to Trout Lake and soaked my feet in the water while soaking up some Rocky Mountain sun.  It was a beautiful day, and I was headed to Telluride for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, my annual journey into the San Juans.  To see how well I was acclimating to the altitude, I brought a pulse oximeter and would be measuring my waking heart rate and oxygen saturation in my blood.

Mileage – 10.3
Time – 3:34
Ascent – 2234’
Descent – 2234’
Total Vertical - 4468'
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 66/90

(Theme For the Trip)

(Love the San Juans)

(Lizard Head Peak)

 (Trout Lake)

Thursday (6/18)

Telluride, what more can I say.  I was hooked the first time I saw that box canyon.  If you’ve ever been, you get it.  Waking up early a bit tired and stiff after late night of music, I looked out the window to see bright blue skies and snow-covered peaks inviting me to come play.  My goal was to log about 4 hours of running/hiking, so I took the gondola down into town and headed for Tomboy Road in hopes of making it up to Imogene Pass at 13,100’.  The road is fairly tame by CO jeep road standards in terms of footing, but it gets steep.  I made it all the way to the abandoned mining town of Tomboy (roughly 11,400’) before running into a snowplow that was clearing the road.  The snow drifts on either side were well above my head.  This road is popular with jeep enthusiasts in the summer, as it links the towns of Telluride and Ouray.  I turned around and headed back down, then hopped on the Jud Wiebe trail for a couple more hours of fun.  All in all it was a good first day in Telluride.

Mileage – 15.2
Time – 4:14
Ascent – 4334’
Descent – 4334’
Total Vertical – 8668’
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 80/89

(Probably the Only Property In Telluride I Could Afford)

(Looking Up Towards Imogene Pass)

(Almost To the Snowplow)

 (Looking Down On the Festival)

Friday (6/19)

            Friday’s workout was just that – a workout.  There was nothing “fun” about this one, just a quad-pounding downhill-focused couple hours.  The shortest “trail” from the top of the gondola (10,500’) down into Telluride (8,750’) drops roughly 1800’ in 2.6 miles.  My day would consist of running down and taking the gondola back up, a total of 5 times.  My legs felt surprisingly good, and I even managed to get faster on the 3rd rep and maintain a decent pace.  This is definitely something I couldn’t have done in San Antonio. 

Mileage – 13.1
Time – 1:43
Ascent - 0
Descent – 8264’
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 79/90

(Headed Down There x5)

Saturday (6/20)
            I took today off.  My quads were screaming, and the lineup of good bluegrass music was long.  I’d spend my day baking in the sun listening to good music.

Mileage – 0
Time – 0
Ascent - 0
Descent – 0
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 73/90

(Beautiful Festival Weather)

 (Hard To Beat Telluride Sunsets)

Sunday (6/21)

            Today was scheduled as a longer (8 hour) day.  My friend Eric drove over from Durango (he lives in SA) to meet me and see the San Juans.  It was his first time here, and I was eager to show him around some of my favorite trails.   We started from the St. Sophia gondola station at 10,500’ and headed up a service road aiming to hit the top of the Gold Hill ski life (just under 12,000’) and then head down to town.  We were close to the top when I noticed a deer (maybe an elk) atop the hill.  There was some snow to cross, but we decided to follow the hoofprints to the top.  When we got there, much to our surprise we saw a figure standing on a mound of snow, staring off into the distance.  It turned out to be local runner Ricky Denesik, who knows the trail around Telluride better than anyone.  He showed us around and led us on a rather scary scramble up some loose rock (we had to down climb using cables on the return trip), but the view from the top of Gold Hill (over 12,500’) was incredible.  Snow surrounded us, and the perfectly blue sky provided the perfect backdrop to the towering San Juan peaks.  Ricky told us about his race that he is putting on in August and then led us down the mountain towards a trail that would take us to Bear Creek.  We said goodbye, and Eric and I headed up to view the falls at Bear Creek.  Mostly because it’s relatively easy and convenient to access from town, this trail was full of people wanting to catch a glimpse of the impressive falls.  We took a few pictures and cooled off in the spray of the falls, then headed to the other side of town and up Tomboy Rd.  We made it a few miles before Eric and I both decided that we were ready to turn around.  We cruised back to town and grabbed fries and a beer at the local pub.  Afterwards, Eric got on the gondola to head back to his car and drive to Durango, while I took the trail up and did a fee more hours of hiking/running.  All in all, it was a very productive training day for me.

Mileage – 26.8
Time – 7:56
Ascent – 7956’
Descent – 8917’
Total Vertical – 16,873’
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 76/90

A great kickoff to my mountain training.  Totals for the week…

Mileage – 80.2
Time – 21:53
Ascent – 18,491’
Descent – 27,716’
Total Vertical – 46,207’

 (Another Great Sunset)

 (Top of Gold Hill)

(Running Down With Eric and Ricky)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

One Crazy Week - Georgia Death Race Report Part 1

It's been awhile since I've posted anything, but here is part 1 of my race report from the Georgia Death Race.  It was my second year in a row running the race, which occurs during my spring break and is a lot of fun.

Monday (3/9)
            I caught an evening flight into Memphis to spend a few days with family before flying to Atlanta for the Georgia Death Race in the mountains of northern Georgia.  Before I leave I call to confirm my reservations at the lodge at Amicalola Fall State Park, where packet pickup is on Friday and the race will end sometime around midnight on Saturday.  I chose to stay here so I wouldn’t have to drive anywhere post race and wouldn’t need to move my car, choosing instead to catch the 3:30AM shuttle over to the race start at Vogel State Park at 6AM.  After a short layover in Houston, I arrive in Memphis to find my bags soaking wet from the rain. 

Tuesday (3/10)
            I didn’t set an alarm and slept in for the first time in a long time.  It felt great.  My parents and I went to breakfast (breakfast is hands down my favorite meal) and then ran some errands with my sister.  I received an email from the RD letting us know a big announcement was forthcoming later that evening.  Not thinking much about it, I visited with my sister and then had dinner with more family.  After dinner I checked my messages and saw the announcement.  Due to issues with the Forest Service (heavy rain in the forecast was creating concern over potential trail damage), the race would now be run in the opposite direction and start at 8AM instead of 6.  This may sound like an fairly insignificant change, but it meant the race would now begin with 50K of forest service roads, with lots of climbing but still pretty runnable.  The big change would be the finish, which would consist of 35(ish) miles of super steep and gnarly singletrack.  Instead of getting this section (half of which is run on the infamous Duncan Ridge Trail) done early in the race while the legs are still fresh, we would tackle it at night on tired quads.  Over 60% of the elevation change (roughly 25,000’ of the 40k total) would occur in the last 25 miles.  Also, since we would now start at Vogel and finish at Amicalola, they would be busing us from Vogel over to the start.  So, I could keep my room at the lodge and sleep in, or I could get a room closer to the finish so I would have my car there.  The later start meant more time running at night and a later finish, thus less sleep post race.  I quickly searched around a found a small cottage located inside Vogel State Park, about 100 yards from where I would finish.  This would be perfect!  I booked this and canceled my reservations at Amicalola.

(Nothing Beats A Good Breakfast)
Wednesday (3/11)
            I slept in again and felt great when I woke up.  Well, great except for the horrible chest cold and cough I had.  With the course now reversing directions, I had to re-work my drop bags and pacing chart.  The more I thought about it, the more I got excited about the new challenge, which the RD promised would be much harder than the originally planned direction that I completed last year.  I spent much of the day visiting with family and relaxing, even managing to squeeze a little work and a nice 6 mile run.

(Hanging With My Niece Hannah)

 (See the Resemblance)

Thursday (3/12)
            Awakening to rain for the 3rd straight morning was getting old, and when I checked the forecast for the race I saw that I could expect more of the same.  Of course, my last 4 races had been run in sloppy rain and mud, so this shouldn’t have been surprising.  I stuffed myself with some good Memphis BBQ (pork, the way it should be) and then headed to the airport to catch my flight to Atlanta.  Luckily for me, I connected through Baltimore (sarcasm intended).  I could have driven to Atlanta in less time.  After 2 uneventful flights, I arrived in Atlanta, picked up my rental car (was mistakenly given a Jeep Wrangler), and drove to a high school friend’s house to grab a few hours of sleep.

(My Buddy Lance Guarding My Door in Atlanta)
Friday (3/13)
            After a restless night, I awoke (tired) and visited with Doug, a good friend from high school who paced me last year at the GDR and ran a 50K with me in these same mountains last December (where it poured rain and was incredibly muddy).  After spending the morning with Doug and his wife and kids, I headed to meet 2 friends from college for lunch.  Scott, Walt, and myself had graduated together and played basketball at Washington & Lee, where we were the only 3 seniors from our class that played all 4 years (11 started together as freshmen).  I hadn’t seen them in several years, so we had plenty to talk about.  After lunch I stopped in to a growler store to sample some local brew.  The keg ran out as he was filling my growler, so he gave me the imperial porter for free.  This had to be a good sign of things to come.
            After making the hour and a half drive north into the Georgia mountains, I arrived at Amicalola State Park for packet pickup and the race briefing.  Like many European races, the GDR requires runners to carry a number of mandatory items at all times throughout the race, ranging from a rain jacket and thermal top to headlamp and space blanket (plus spare batteries, water bottle, warm hat, and whistle).  For the most part, I deem these items as “things no idiot would go into a mountain race without”, but some people show up totally unprepared for the changing weather the mountains like to dish out.  The RD runs quite a few races in Europe (I met him at a 100K around the Eiger), and it is typical of Euro races to require certain gear.  I picked up my bib and sat through the trail briefing from RD Sean “Run Bum” Blanton.  The briefing can best be described as a PG-13 rant against the Forest Service.  He explained why he needed to reverse the route (totally justified in my opinion) and apologized for any inconvenience.  He also stressed that the word of the day (I learned this when I ran the race last year) would be “ish”.  As in, it is 8ish miles from one aid station to another.  The race would be anywhere from 63 to 68 “ish” miles and no one should complain if their Garmin said something different.  

            After the briefing, I quickly made my way to the car, wanting to complete as much of the hour plus drive to Vogel State Park (where my cottage awaited) in the fading daylight.  I knew the road was winding and would fill with fog and rain, so I wanted to get going.  Sure enough, the rain came down harder and the fog thickened as I wound my way up to the top of the mountain and over the other side towards Vogel.  I was going 20mph at times in an effort to keep my Wrangler on the road.  Eventually I pulled into Vogel and went to the office to grab my key.  I had called earlier in the day to let them know I’d be there well after they closed.  I was told it was no problem, that they would leave an envelope on the board with all my info and key.  I scanned the bulletin board for my name, but it wasn’t there.  Hmmmm, this is weird.  I looked again, and nothing.  I knew which cottage I had rented, so I walked into the pitch black night to find it.  I quickly located it and checked the door – locked.  The windows were locked too.  This wasn’t good.  I went back to my car to see if I could muster any cell signal.  I had just enough to find the reservations number and call.  All I got was a recording telling me they were closed for the day.  I opened the email containing my reservation and noticed that I had indeed booked the cottage for Friday and Saturday nights --- of the following week.  Awesome.  Now I was sitting in the parking lot in the rain with no room.  I knew there were hotels (not many and none that were decent) in the small town of Blairsville 20 minutes away.  I remembered passing the Blood Mountain Cabins at the top of the mountain a few miles away and thought it would be worth giving them a call.  The man who answered informed me that he could help me out and had a cabin available, but that it was a few miles down the road.  No problem, I just needed a place to stay.  I headed back up the mountain into the fog and knocked on the door at the general store that served as the front desk for cabin rentals.  The man gave me a map and explained where my cabin was.  He even apologized for not having anything smaller, but I wasn’t complaining since I now had a bed to sleep in and the price was cheaper than a hotel room.  I drove back up the road and turned off the main highway.  To say this area was desolate would be an understatement.  I’m pretty sure this is where the guys from Deliverance go to unwind and relax.  After several wrong turns, I found the cabin and pulled into the driveway, careful to keep my car running with the headlights on in case I needed to make a quick getaway from a bear or these guys...

The cabin was great, equipped with a fireplace and full kitchen to go along with the 3 bedrooms.  I unloaded and re-packed my race gear and settled in for a few hours of restless sleep.  I got up and drove back down the mountain to Vogel to catch the 6AM shuttle (Sean told us the buses would leave at 6 sharp).  I got on the bus at 5:55 along with several other runners.  The rain was coming down, and we chatted about the adventure that lay ahead.  When the bus was still parked at 6:15, the bus driver told us he was waiting for the RD to come give him the ok to depart.  That would have been great, except the RD was at the start, over an hours drive away.  We ended up leaving just after 6:30 and made the long (we were in school buses) drive over the mountains to Amicalola, where Sean informed us the start would be delayed.  Great, this meant more time running in the dark of night and less sleep post race.  Oh well.  I made one final bathroom stop and said hi to Jason Bryant.  At 8:15, we headed off up the road to the stairs that would take us to the top of the falls.