Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Weekend, 2009

A pretty solid Thanksgiving Weekend at the Kennedy household, with gorgeous weather, great food, several outdoor adventures, a little bit of travel, and a near-total avoidance of anything resembling Christmas shopping!

Thanksgiving Thursday opened up with a crisp morning and a trip to IHOP for breakfast. Matt and Andy took one look at the Funny Face pancake on the menu (big pancake with chocolate chips and whipped cream), and what kid wouldn't want that to eat? Dad of course drank plenty of coffee and opted for healthy pancakes and an omelet with vegetables; I can't be eating that stuff anymore! Because they are boys and have far too much energy, we took a trip to the Land Trust's 3 Caves site, explored the quarry entry to the caves, took a walk around the loop and even went a bit up the Waterline trail before I turned them around.

Back at home, Kirsten and I got into our annual Thanksgiving garage and attic cleaning. This year was punctuated by the fact that we just finished building an studio/room in the attic, complete with stairs, separate ac/heating unit, the works, and the garage was a mess from all the construction efforts. I put the shop vac to serious use and cleaned up the layer of drywall dust on nearly everything, moved most of our stuff back into attic storage space, and generally made room to start parking our cars back in the garage after being banished outside for the past two months!

This year we bought our turkey direct from Goose Pond Farms over in Hartselle, AL (actually, three of them for Thankgiving, Christmas, and an extra for whenever). Pretty interesting to see your turkey in the field in the morning, then drive home with it still warm in the trunk in the afternoon. It cooked a little faster than past holidays, so we had ourselves a great meal starting a wee bit early at 2pm! So much for meal planning and our anal-retentive planning efforts.

Following our Thanksgiving tradition, we took the crew for a post-meal walk. This year the boys are old enough for something more than a lap around the neighborhood, so we headed up to Blevins Gap and hiked along the Certain Trail to the powerlines and back. For their efforts climbing up the trail to the ridgeline on Green Mtn, we were rewarded with a great view down towards our home and into the historic Big Cove area and a fantastic sunset over the Tennessee River. The boys generally enjoyed the hike and we were thinking "they will sleep well tonight!" From there we also went down to the Huntsville Botanical Gardens and took the driving tour along the Galaxy of Lights before calling it a night.

I took the day off work Friday and instead treated myself to a little outdoor adventure that did not involve shopping. First I wanted to try out Gibson's BBQ for breakfast and found the place crammed with folks getting ready (or taking a break from) Black Friday shopping. The country ham and biscuits were great, I can heartily recommend it. Now being amply fueled, I headed for the south side of the Tennessee River and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. I had been wanted to explore the 4WD drive roads via mountain bike there for the past year, and the weather and day off afforded me the chance. I'll credit Eric Schotz of the River City Runners for the idea of this route, he's been thinking of starting a 50k race along this part of the Wheeler NWR.

Headed east along the Truck Trail, my first real mountain bike ride in months. It was still pretty brisk outside, but didn't take long to get warmed up in the wonderful sunshine. First stop was the small beaver swamp at Cave Springs Cave for a look at the grey bat habitat. The creek running out of the spring there produced was 18" deep across the rocky 4WD road and about 50m long, so I couldn't quite make it with putting a foot down, so ended up walking in the stream, vdery cold water up about mid-calf. Alas, I suffered through totally soaked, numbe feet for the next 2 hours (whereupon I got back to the spring, feet almost dry, and dunked them again!)

A great ride from there to the end of the Truck Trail, plenty of great riding, the obligatory detour down Mussel Camp Rd to the river, some nice technical spots, creek crossings, even a few short climbs. At the end, I detoured down Madden Branch Rd to some fishing spots, then headed out to the Talucah boat launch via Talley Bottoms and came back via a clockwise teardrop route on Sharp’s Ford Rd. The return trip back to my XTerra was still plenty of fun and went by fast. I was surprised how well my legs held up, longest I’ve been in the saddle in years! Ended up with about 39 miles riding in about 3.5 hours with stops and detours. I believe Eric Schotz is going to have a great 50k race on that route. I stopped at Moe's on the way home for a burrito, make a quick stop into Fleet Feet Huntsville to find it crammed with customers (good for them!) and home to hang out with the boys for the rest of the day. We watched the Iron Bowl from both our place and the party at our next-door neighbor's house.

On Saturday we awoke to another day of great weather, so packed up the boys and headed for the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga for the day. Being annual members there is money well-spent, for the boys enjoy it immensely and a trip every few months gives enough time where all the exhibits and activities are still fresh and new to them. After a few hours there, we enjoyed a nice picnic on the grassy hill behind the complex with a view into downtown Chattanooga, the boys rolling down the hills as boys are wont to do!

And so finally on Sunday we settled down a bit. After church services and Sunday School in the morning, Kirsten I got busy with the rest of garage cleaning, as well as taking a shop-vac to the cars (where I found old, stale Cheerios and other snacks in the most obscure places). And then (drum roll, please), we actually managed to park both vehicles back in the garage for the first time in two months. Novel concept! Dinner menu was.....(wait for it)....leftover turkey!
And the bad part of the whole weekend? I was a fighting some sort of viral infection and a horrendous sore throat the whole time. I couldn’t sleep because of it, and that sucked! Oh well, still a darn fine weekend with good memories. I hope everyone out there had enjoyable times with friends, family and loved ones. On to Christmas!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Arkansas Traveller 100, 3-4 Oct 09

The road to my finish at this year’s AT100 actually began two years ago. In the 2007 event, I suffered a DNF there along with Blake Thompson and John Nevels. After a certain measure of redemption at the Inaugural Pinhoti 100 last year, all three of us vowed to go back to Arkansas and complete some unfinished business. Alas, time demands on John at Auburn kept him from this race, heading back to Pinhoti instead. So it was up to Blake and I to gain a full measure of redemption on a course that shook us off pretty hard.

As with the Pinhoti 100, I was quite fortunate to be crewed by Allan Besselink. We first met back in 2001, and I’m proud to be a charter member of SmartSport Int’l team and his SmartLife Institute. Over the years we’ve arrived at a training protocol that balances family and professional demands but also has produced many strong ultra finishes, and this AT100 may hopefully be an example of that. I heartily recommend his book, RunSmart. We’ve often joked about writing an article titled, “Ways that a Husband and Father of 3 Boys Can Train for a 100mi Race and Not Have Your Wife Leave You

So before this story goes any further, I will send a hearty thanks to wife, Kirsten, and our three boys. She graciously gave me some extra training time at the local Tuesday Night Cross-Country Runs all summer, plus missing several Saturdays and pulling Friday evening training runs during the 8-week ramp up to this race. Thanks also goes Rob Youngren and Eric Fritz for crewing/pacing Blake during good humor and help during the race. They helped me as well at several points, so always nice to share both the temporary misery and long-term joy of success!

The Gear/Equipment/Fuel
· ASICS dual-layer trail running shorts (internal compression shorts
· Shoes: Montrail Streak, with several pairs on Injinji socks
· Brave Soldier lube (available at ZombieRunner), great stuff!
· Multiple (5-6) shirts through the race
· Nathan Hydration vest
· Cheap wrist bands on my lower calves (keep sweat from draining into my socks)
· Oakley Rx sunglasses
· Black Diamond headlamp (had it since 2001, time to upgrade to something brighter), plus a cheap Garrity flashlight
· Fuel: Hammer Perpetuem, mixed as paste (4 scoops per flask), plus Endurolytes

Race morning started 0500, clear and relatively cool, which is great running weather. Got over to race HQ, checked in again to pick up my number, grabbed some last minute gear from the truck before the race start. Then Stan Ferguson (RD) starts to get the crowd at the start line whooping and hollering (Good Times Running!) and come 6am, we are off. I caught right up to Blake and we begin to steadily chew up some miles, feeling strong and jabbering away in the dark. The first aid station came and went as we worked a steady climb up to Flatside Pinnacle. Weather was gorgeous, couldn’t ask for much better. I made a quick stop to recycle some fluids while Blake continued the climb, but caught right up to him past the aid station as we entered the Ouachita Trail section of the race. We were around 10th place or so at this point, well ahead of most runners. But that was the plan, as we wanted unfettered running on the trail, not to be in a conga line out there. So we crossed back through Brown’s Creek, continuing to jabber away as we climbed back up the trail and pushed the pace a bit on the trail.

Alas, that short-term strategy has a minor disadvantage for me, as we rolled into the Lake Sylvia aid station around 9am, 45min ahead of schedule. Rob and Eric were there, but Allan nowhere to be seen! No big deal, I had another Perpetuem flask on me, grabbed some gels packets and headed back out. Funny interlude here as we came out of the trail and into the aid station, a very friendly volunteer pointed us along a big arrow in the left-hand road, waving us left, and kept saying, “Turn Right” (i.e. her right, our left). Feeling somewhat humorous, I poked a little fun and called out “You mean turn LEFT” as we made the obvious turn, the crowd getting a good chuckle. I felt somewhat bad after, the humor was at her expense, but we were feeling good in the early stages of the race. Out of the aid station I took a little walk break while Blake cruised right up the road and headed for glory!

So enjoyed a good pace as I went through Pumpkin Patch, Electronic Tower, and Rocky Gap aid stations, recalling the terrain features from two years ago and how I felt then as compared to today. Ran out of Perp around 10:30am, so switched the HammerGel packets, and could start to feel why difference shortly: slight grind in my quads, in my knees, etc. Hammergel is great, but nothing compared to the Perpetuem. Crested a nice rise just past the 30mi marker and made the descent and approach to the Lake Winona aid station. Allan was waiting for me there, along with Rob and Eric. We re-taped my heels, changed socks, changed, re-loaded with Perp flasks, water, and Endurolytes before heading out.

I pressed smoothly to Pigtrail and Club Flamingo uneventfully and with a steady pace and steady fueling. Out of Flamingo, another runner (younger kid) pulled up alongside to chat and said that we were “27 minutes ahead of 22-hour pace”. Man, I didn’t even want to hear that shit, and tried to let him kindly know that such pacing charts were all BS at this point, there were lots of miles to run, etc, etc. No way I was going to start thinking about finishing times so prematurely; though he fell well off the pace, little did I know the kid was a damn prophet (at least in my case!)

I pulled up to Blake somewhere between Flamingo and Smith Mountain, and we enjoyed a mutual jawboning session as we pulled into the marvelous Smith Mountain aid station. The folks there sported a Peace-Love-Happiness theme and offered L.S.D. (Lemon-lime Sports Drink), plus were cranking some sweet 70s music (Michael Jackson as I recall). After that we made the climb over the carved trail that goes over Smith Mountain to the next aid station, and the jawboning gave way to some minor cursing and the weeds and grassed grabbed at our legs and we tripped through holes covered by leaves. But the shallow descent down the far side was nice, and we cruised through the BM Road aid station and headed for the Powerlines.

Interesting side-story on the race began in the section of the day, as we passed a guy coming back along the trail out of Powerlines. At the time, we presumed he was the leader, and we were impressed with his time! However, as we gave him a “Way to Go!” he simply ignored us and kept his head down. ‘What a prick!’ we were saying to ourselves. More to follow….

So into the Powerlines we rolled, about 2 hours ahead of my 24-hr race plan, but feeling good. I swapped shirts again, but decided to keep current tape job and socks. I was started to feel this could turn out to be a good race, so wanted to keep some momentum going and move on to a very runnable section of the course. Weight-in at Powerlines went smooth, down to 181 (from pre-race weigh in of 188). Rob picked up pacer duties for Blake, and we pressed on for Copperhead Rd (formerly Chili Pepper).

It was here we found out from Rob the dude we passed heading back was formerly in 2d place, but got missed a turn on the course and was back-tracking an extra 14 miles! Oh my gosh, I don’t know the dude could have gotten off-course out here (esp. after Winona and missing so many aid stations), but I also don’t know that I wouldn’t have DNF’ed on the spot! So we decided to forgive his poor running manners and intransigence on the course, we might not have been real friendly either. More to follow….

Eric picked up pacer duties for Blake at Chili Pepper and we began the long haul out to the turn-around aid station, 5.8m hence. I stayed with them for a bit, but the downhill stretches were calling me, so I let gravity do its job on this larger-than-normal-ultrarunner body and slowly pulled ahead, adding on about 400m by the turn-around. There I corrected a mistake from two years ago, stopping only to make a quick shirt change then boogie out of there as fast as possible. This spot is the first of the mental boosts, because it signals you have finally turned for home, instead of running away from the start. I considered it the true halfway mark of the race, 58 miles down and 42 more to go. I first passed the 14-miles-extra-guy, still rather silent, and that was the last I saw of him the rest of the race. Right after that came Blake and Eric, grinding away the climb to the turn-around and still smiling.

The next notable (and alarming) event of my race came about 62-63mi point where I felt a slight twinge in my right calf, somewhere at the upper soleus area where it goes under the gastroc. I couldn’t tell if it was a muscle strain or a cramp, but I dumped an Endurolyte about 30min early to so if that would help. Cruised well back into Chili Pepper with Allan to greet me. There I swallowed down three more Endurolytes to see if the calf was a cramp or a strain, and it seemed to edge over the next hour. We re-taped my heels, got new socks, re-loaded Perp, picked up flashlights. Now comes the first of two decision points where Allan was worth his weight in gold. He urged me to change shirts again, but I demurred, thinking I was good-to-go for now. However, after being in the chair (for foot taping and new socks), I caught a shiver and chills within one minute, and changed my mind on his urging right there. A good call, for the fresh/dry shirt as the sun went down and a slight breeze picking up was the right way to go, keeping away a cold-clammy chest, one of the issues that brought me to a DNF two years ago.

So on went the lights and I pressed back to the Powerlines and another successful weigh in (up to 182 lbs now). Now comes Allan’s number 2 weight-in-gold, crewing-expert moment. It’s about 7:45pm in the evening and I’m a full two hours ahead of schedule (having a A-game as Allan was beginning to say by now). The race plan called for me to pick up flasks of Caffe Latte (caffeinated) Perpetuem for use overnight, thinking I’ll need them sometime after midnight to keep me alert. But I’m two hours early and thinking I don’t need them until later. But Allan rather sharply chides me to get with it, “this is the ball game, and you need to pull out the rocket fuel, the best stuff you got. What the heck are you gonna save it for?!” And you know, he was spot-on correct, as we will come to see. So I grabbed up two flasks of that stuff from the cooler and headed out.

Two years, this is the aid station where I cashed it in. I was falling asleep on my feet, without a crew or any support, and demoralized from the day. But tonight is way different, 180° the other way. I got to tell you, now I was starting to faintly grasp that a sub-24hr race is within my grasp. I’m running well, fuel is working, no stomach issues, no cramps. But even with that idea twinkling at the back of my brain, firmly planted at the fore of my brain was the fact that I had 33 miles to go, over some rough terrain, in the dark, and running alone for the next four hours. Way too early to be getting the smell of the barn in your nose.

A quick hop back to the BM Road aid station, shook Stan Ferguson’s hand and headed out for the gnarly little climb back over Smith Mtn. I’m starting to get a good rhythm going with my headlamp and flashlight (yeah baby, I bring both to the game), seeking out the holes and roots and rocks and trees that can bring me crashing to the ground and hurting myself. A strong, steady descent from the mowed path, plenty of chem lights, and finally I can hear the music coursing out of the upcoming aid station. A tight swing of the trail to the right and out come the disco lights and sweet strains of ELO’s Illegal Woman pouring out of the speakers. Though all the aid station at AT100 are great, Smith Mtn takes the prize.

Now the aid station pattern is getting set for the night, as I bypass everything but a water refill; no soup, so pretzels, no nothing. I’ve got momentum, adrenaline is flowing, I’m joking with the aid station personnel and thanking them for their time, but I am also OUTTA THERE! I make the short descent down the chewed up forest ‘road’ past a few hunters/campers listening to the ballgame late on the radio, and turn left for a solid climb. I can hardly believe it, but I’m still power-walking the hell of the climbs (ever running the shallow ones when I can figure out they are shallow, hard to do in the dark), and running steady on the flats and descent. I stayed with another guy coming out Smith Mtn, but he faded away as I pushed the descents. The caffeinated Perpetuem that allow forced on me is paying serious dividends as I am both well-fueled and wide-awake, plus feeling the adrenaline in my system.

The final approach to Club Flamingo was marked by tiki torches, a very nice touch. There I grabbed my drop bag, changed into a long sleeve shirt (Mountain Mist 50K), got some water, and headed out. I quickly passed through Pigtrail and pushed the rolling hills on the approach back to Lake Winona. At this point caffeinated Perp shows its lone disadvantage, as I had to make a pitstop! (Apologies to the RDs, but difficult to get more than a few feet on the road in the dark). Popped up from that and a few minutes later I passed a pair of dudes in the dark (probably runner and pacer). They were seemingly dicking around in the dark, standing on side of the forest road. Friendly as can be when I passed, just not covering any ground. Beyond those two I began the long descent towards Lake Winona. I can’t believe I am still running well, thinking that any minute now the wheels are going to fall off. The whole race I’ve got an internal monologue on and off. Most of it is just checking my body and stride, keeping an eye on the watch and putting down more fuel every 10min, remembering to take a mandatory walk break (working a 25min run, 5min walk cycle most of the race), getting electrolytes down every hour, etc. Some of it is checking the time schedule, doing the aid-station math in my head. Pieces of it are internal prayers to keep steady, keep me safe, watch over my wife and my boys, and thank Him for staying with me through the long night. Other pieces were just positive self-talk about running light and smooth, staying focused, and reminders that this can be done, it is within your capabilities. It’s great to have someone running with you to pass the miles, but when that’s not possible, I’ve found that I cannot afford to let my mind wander too much.

The aid station is lit up like a Christmas tree and looks great as I rolled in there just about midnight, a full 2 hours ahead of schedule. I jawboning out loud, animated, giddy, but managed to step over to the scale for the final weigh in (183 now). Eric Fritz kindly refills my water, I grab the last of the Perpetuem flask I will need, change into a final long-sleeve short (the Pinhoti 100!) and just haul ass out of there. Allan and Eric started to take about my probable finish time, and I begged them to “shut up, I don’t even want to think about that.” They started to talk about pace, and I say “please don’t, I can do the math in my head, but I can’t be thinking about that right now!” Even as good as I’m feeling, so deep into this race, there are 16mi of tough running to go. It ain’t over yet.

The climb out of Lake Winona is a grind and I push up and over it, cruising another descent and then grinding a climb to Rocky Gap. The poor roads get a little frustrating in the dark, searching back and forth with the flashlight trying to find a decent running line. At one point I rolled my ankle a bit and nearly fell over in a big rut, screaming a loud F-bomb in frustration. I blow in, get water, pass on coffee/soup, etc, thank the folks profusely and head out. This section heading to Electronic Tower is the second-worst piece of the course, little more than an ATV trail swerving back and forth on a climb towards the next aid station. The weather forecaster proves his/her unbelievable incompetence, as the rain starts in about 1:30am, at least 6 hours ahead of schedule, and beginning a steady rain shower that would continue until Monday morning. But in my case, it didn’t matter. I was feeling a good groove, plenty warm in the fresh shirt, and maintaining enough effort to keep me warm. I passed the 90mi marker somewhat in shock that I’m still moving strong after so many miles; it has never gone this well so deep into a race.

The folks at Electronic Tower were great, reminding me of the steady downhill to come with a series of right-hand turn at intersections. I ran steady the whole way, walk breaks nearly unthinkable in this wonderful groove I’ve got going. I blew through the Pumpkin Patch aid station in a tear, but grabbed a piece of pumpkin pie for the road! The last section of the course is among the worst in my mind (Smith Mtn ranks #3), as it goes down into this gnarly hollow along an ATV trail. The route is pitted with holes full of water across the path, fallen trees reaching out to poke you in the legs and faces, the lone creek crossing of the race, and other niceties. Nothing really bad, but a tough spot to be if you are really hurting mere miles from the finish. Those who came through this after being in the rain for 4-6-8 hours were really sucking. I just ground through that crap, spotting the 95mi marker and screaming a huge “F*** YEAH!” in the dark and kept pressing. Now I am smelling the barn, not thinking about blowing out anymore, just pushing more fuel into my system and the pace as much as I can stand. The only thing I am even holding back for is the final 2-mi descent to Lake Sylvia before the finish. Once I get over the creek it’s a shallow climb up the crossroads and final position where the radio operators call my position in. But I’m pushing hard and run it anyway, up over the top, push down some more fuel and lengthen the stride just a touch (how the hell am I actually running at this point) and cruise down towards Lake Sylvia. Screw the flashlight, turn that sucker off. Screw the headlamp, turn that sucker off too. Flying nearly blind in the dark, I’m re-doing the math in my head for the 89th time tonight and thinking, “Holy Cow, I’m gonna go under 22 hours!”

I cruise past the eerily silent campgrounds and Lake Sylvia day area, and start to ground the ¼ mi climb up towards the finish at Camp Ouachita. I take about a minute of walking, just trying to calm myself down, trying to take a moment to let it sink in, wiping off my watch in the rain and reading the time (!). But screw it, I pick up the run again, grind out that last climb, so the lights at the finish another 300-400m up, and POP!....there goes the right calf! Ooh oooh oooh, that hurts. A few limping strides, and oh yeah, I did a number on it this time. But screw it, there’s the line, it’s 3:45am, I strip off that wonderful hydration vest, strip off that headlamp, scream out loud “#61 IS COMING IN!” and baby it is done.

21 hours, 45 minutes, 45 seconds.

100 miles

A personal best by 5 hours, 40 minutes.

Quite probably the finest athletic performance of my life

Stan Ferguson plays the music for me, shakes my hands, and I head inside the lodge. Alas, Allan and Rob are nowhere to be found. After about 20min in the lodge, wrapped up in a blanket and eating some chicken soup, I borrow a cell phone (from a young kid who came in 2min ahead of me) to call Allan. Turns out he was not expecting me until 4:30am and was napping in the truck. When I called it said it was done, he initially thought “oh no, it’s over, he dropped out”. I say no dude, I’m finished, in the lodge. Can you bring me some dry clothes and a towel!

After that we head down to the campground and I grab a hot shower (heavenly), though I’ll admit to using the fold-down handicap bench in there to wash my feet! The Montrail Streak shoes had served me exceptionally well, covering all 100mi, but it was time to put them out of their misery and were left in the trash can at Lake Sylvia. Back at the lodge I managed to snack on some fruit, though I had little appetite at the moment. Rob came around 5:30am anticipating Blake’s arrival. We talked a while, Allan zoning out, I’m still flying on adrenaline. Funnier part of the morning was watching Chrissy Ferguson being escorted with an absolutely blank, expressionless look on her face, getting settled into a cot. She then got animated and spouted something to the effect “I am never f***ing doing that again”. Sure, Chrissy, sure.

Breakfast was served about 7:15am, tasted great but I still had little appetite. Napped fitfully in a lounge chair until 8am, when Rob grabbed me and we headed out to watch Blake roll in with Eric Fritz. His pace fell off after midnight, but he stayed steady, grabbed a trash bag to ward off the wet and cold, and made it to the line for redemption of our previous DNF, all with a huge smile on his face [insert his finish line photo].

Rest of the morning went by slow. Tried to eat some more, nut still little appetite. Tried to nap, with little success. Blake grabbed his buckle and headed out for Huntsville with Rob/Eric. Allan and I had a planned stay in Little Rock before his flight home the next morning, so we stayed for the awards ceremony at 12:30pm. Drove to Little Rock, check into the Embassy Suites, limped up to the room. Still not sleepy, I headed down to the swimming pool and soaked my legs in the semi-cold water there; the Jacuzzi looked inviting, but that would be foolish right about now. We grabbed some dinner, checked some email, posted photos and status to FB and Flickr, then Allan crashed out. Sleep come with difficulty for me, finally settled down around midnight.

Up around 4am Monday, Allan had a 5:40am flight back to Austin, so I drove him to the airport, then took a nap back at the hotel. Grabbed a huge (and well-earned) Embassy Suites breakfast before loading the truck and heading out (via Starbucks across the street from the hotel). The drive to Huntsville went fairly well, grabbed some more Starbucks in Memphis, but got home easier than anticipated. As it normal in a house with three boys, Kirsten was hammered from me being gone the past 4 days, and one child was coming down sick!

I still had trouble sleeping Monday night, so zombie’d through work on Tuesday and another restless night. Took Wednesday off and finally settled into a deep sleep that night; gracious how these races can screw up your internal mechanisms! I went to ART (physical therapy) appointments right away on Tuesday and Thursday, but it is going to be at least a month of no running with this right calf. Oh well, the line from The Replacements seems appropriate: Pain heal, chicks dig scars, glory…lasts forever.

So, anybody up for some mountain racing in Colorado next summer? ;-)

So where began the seeds of this success? Besides the mental fixation on my past DNF here, let us dial back 18 months to March 2008 at the Mississippi Trail 50-Miler, a fairly easy and run-able course in the DeSoto National Forest. Despite a series of ultras through the winter, my performance was less-than-stellar. It took me 10+ hours to get through a fast course. I was steady but just could not muster the speed and power of past times. It was very frustrating. So Allan and I kicked it around, then went back to the drawing board and re-tooled the training program, focusing on long-lost 10K speed. So through last Summer I ran speed, power, speed, power, and more of the same. No long stuff over an hour, every workout focusing on higher tempo pace pushing right through anaerobic threshold. I used some of that renewed speed to power success at the Inaugural Pinhoti 100 last November.

As I got into the Spring of 2009, Allan and I upped the ante and re-tooled a training program targeted at a 40min 10K pace. Through the Summer I again hammered track workouts, grueling tempo and fartlek runs, and hill sprint workouts, along with explosive power efforts in the weight room and via plyometrics. I threw in the Strolling Jim 40 (always a good time) in May plus a few some 2-3 hour trail runs in the early Summer to keep a taste of long work. Also in there was about half of Rob’s Dysmal 50K training effort on Monte Sano in prep for his trip to Hardrock.

The ramp-up for AT100 lasted eight weeks, and I got right out of the gate with a 50k at the Bartlett Park ultras in early August. That long run was the baseline, and I built in mileage from there in multiple ways. Training runs were restricted to 4 days a week (M, W, F, Sun) with two days lifting and one day of complete rest. Mon, Wed, Sun contained all the speed and power workouts. After Bartlett, the same workouts just got longer with more distance and intensity: longer fartlek, more/longer intervals, longer tempo, more hill repeats, etc. In addition, I incorporated a great lesson from Ray the K. He advocated the simple measure of adding on a few extra miles after your normal workout or elsewhere on the same training day. So I did that, adding on as much a 45min of “cool down” running after a hard track workout, an extra few miles at cruise pace after the tempo run, and pulling a ‘double’ (two-a-day) about once a week. Some might call this junk miles, but I say the definition of junk miles get real loose when it comes to ultrarunning. Or as DeWayne Satterfield aptly stated it once when we training down at Pinhoti: “Ain’t no such thing as junk miles when you’re training for a 100.” Mind you, I kept the non-running rest days in the schedule; I’ve learned that I’ve got to rest or I’ll blow out.

As with the successful run at Pinhoti, I planned for several day-long runs in this cycle to try to cement the AT100 success. Past the Bartlett Park 50K (where I pulled a steady 5:20 in the heat/humidity), Fridays (sometimes Saturdays) were the long runs, and I started extending those out. I basically went +2 hours every other week, going from 6hrs (initial plan at Bartlett) out through a plan for 12 hours. Some folks like the back-to-back long runs over the weekend; I go with the single long run at the same combined mileage. It works better in my schedule (back-to-back runs and 3 boys at home? No way), and I firmly believe for me it is superior physical and mental preparation for a 100. So I built longer and longer through August and September, culminating in a 103-mi week in mid-September; it was the biggest volume training week of my life, and included 56mi monster run at Wheeler NWR with Rob, Kathy, Blake, et al. I also put in long days of 50+ at Monte Sano, and 45+ at the Ocoee River area.

I believe another factor worth mentioning is how I incorporated a shift in my stride pattern starting in the early Summer. I had been steadily shifting towards lighter weight, more minimal running shoes, then a colleague at work handed me a copy of Chris McDougall’s Born to Run.[link]. Besides that it is just a fascinating book and a great read, it cemented for me the need to shift my normal running stride up off the heel and work a slightly shorter, faster tempo while striking at the midfoot and forefoot. I started with the fartlek workout in May and within a few weeks could feel the difference, and then see it in the times as I quickly chopped off a minute from my normal 6mi fartlek route. After pounding the last breaths of life from my old shoes, I switched back to a lighter trail shoe (the Montrail Streak I already had), plus a pair of NB904 for road work. It took several more weeks to get my feet used to the stride pattern, and I still need to concentrate on it some when I get tired, but it is permanent.

Next up on my training calendar? A few weeks of rest and therapy for the strained calf muscle. After that I might take some spin classes to do something different, plus get back in the weight room. We have aid station duties at the upcoming Pinhoti 100 (Nov 7-8), something I am hoping the Huntsville Track Club and Fleet Feet sponsor every year as well make our only 100 a permanent fixture in the UR calendar. But the next adventure should a 3-day crossing of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail, led by the fearless Rob Youngren. Stay tuned….

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bartlett Park Ultras 50K, 8 Aug 09

In my preparation for the Arkansas Traveller 100 (AT100) this year, I opted to head over the Bartlett Park Ultras just outside Memphis, TN this year a good training run for two reasons. First, my experience from the run-up to my eventual DNF at the 2007 AT100, I passed on this prep event in order to spend more time at home. Alas, I only managed long runs upwards of 5-6 hours that year, and that was one of several contributing factors to my DNF then. The weather and family demands kept me from really pushing long training days then. Second, I wanted to start my 2009 AT100 run-up with a 50k run and build from that foundation. This is primarily from my success last year at the Pinhoti 100, where I had five long runs all further than my longest events from the year before (including a 50mi race and a 12hr training run on back-to-back weekends). Thus, the intent this year is to start around 50k and build up to a 12+ hr training run in late September.

Fortunately for me, I got to link up with Eric Charette and Eric Schotz and the packet pickup, fresh off their epic Run Across Alabama for Elliott a month prior. I also got to meet Christy Scott from Huntsville, and it turns out we both have 4th grade boy in the same elementary school. We all headed to a local Italian place for the traditional pre-race pasta dinner.

Race morning I was up at 0500, grabbed my gear and headed out. Crossing the hotel parking lot at a humid 80deg pre-dawn signaled the challenges of the morning to come! The race started at 0630. The course make a 1.6mi loop on the blue trail before coming back to the parking lot in 14min. There I grabbed my water bottle (didn’t need it until then) and was surprised to find myself in about 8th place, far from the norm for me. The rest of the race consists of 4 loops on a 7.45mi course winding about the park.

The trails had their good and bad points. On the good column was the complete lack of rocks, tons of shade, and no major climbs. The only real obstacles to contend with were a lot of tree roots and about a dozen ditches to jump into and then climb back out of; some were a foot deep, others were 10-12’ deep with 50-60deg slopes to climb out. On bad column was the near-total lack of any straight piece of course to get a running rhythm. I’d bet there wasn’t but 100m of straight-line trail the entire morning. Constant turning, weaving in and around the trails and between trees. Which is a ton of fun, but I ain’t gonna be chasing my 50k PR out here!

Moved steadily on the first loop to complete in 1:15 (now 1:29 elapsed), and then the second loop in 1:16 (including 5+min break at my XTerra). At the midpoint I had to sit down to change shoes and socks, strip off shirt, etc. All were soaked in sweat from the heat and humidity, and the turns created a blister-under-callous on my right foot. I swapped into a pair of Montrails I had as backups, but I may have been better off sticking with the road shoes I was wearing.
I felt fine through the third loop, pushing fluids (40+ oz) and fuel hard (nearly 500 cal) in the 1:15 it took the make it. I was pretty happy with the even splits to this point, still jawboning with other folks on the course as I was beginning to lap some folks. Posture and form were still good, but starting to get a little sloppy in some spots so had to concentrate on keeping it clean and light-on-feet. I rolled out of the parking lot at 4hrs even for the last loop, knowing I would slow down on the last loop as the heat-humidity controlled to work their magic. Sure enough, I tripped and fell not once, not twice, but three times before I got halfway through the final loop! But I hit the final aid station, tightened up my concentration and got a higher tempo rhythm going again to get after the final 3 miles. Luckily, I felt pretty well from there on out, and completed the final piece of the course without any falls in 1:20 for a total time of 5hr 20min and 7th place (out of 38 finishers in the 50k, don’t know about DNFs). It was just shy of high noon and estimates were now about 100+ on the heat index. Alas, I had a very nice blood blister under a callous on my right foot that would require minor surgery at home later that night to remove, as well as a nasty blister on my heel caused by the Montrail shoes (those things need to go). I had toyed with the idea of pressing on to 40mi (maybe even 50mi) if I felt good through 50K, but decided to go out on a high note and call it a day.

Eric Charette and Eric Schotz put in a darn fine race, finishing 1-2 in 4:07 and 4:11 respectively. Kudos to them for hammering it out in the heat and humidity, though they suffered some bruised and bloody toes for their efforts!

So my thanks to the Hampton Inn for their ice machines, because I took a cooler full of it that morning and now was rubbing handfuls of it over my neck, chest, and legs to start cooling down! I thought about imitating Kathy Youngren and sitting in the cooler with a bag of ice over my chest, but not sure if I would have been able to get out. And my thanks again to the Hampton Inn, for after a quick shower they allowed me a late check-out and I headed for home.

After farting around south Memphis trying to find a Quiznos (that’s what I was hungry for, but my by Google-BB application gave me two bad locations before I finally found one on third try), I headed into Mississippi. But the adventure is not over yet. I don’t get over to Memphis that often, to decided to take a detour from Corinth, MS and head up to the Shiloh National Military Park just over the MS-TN state line. Because I’m a National Parks nut (105+ stamps and still going), I deemed it a worthy side-excursion. There I pulled out my mountain bike and cruised the 12mi battlefield tour on two wheels (instead of by car), learning about one of the bloodiest events of the Civil War and where Gen. US Grant and a host of other Union Army leader began to experience real success against the Confederates in the western front of the war. The mtn bike ride was good, as it warmed up my now-stiffening knees and made the remaining drive home a little more comfortable.

The drive home from there was long and frustrating through back roads of lower TN over to I-65; in hindsight, I should have gone south back to US-72 at Corinth, but my wandering genes kicked in to see something different. Trust me, not much to see on US-64 through Southern Tennessee! Arriving home around 8:30pm after an adventurous day, Matthew (my 9yr old) asks incredulously, “Daddy, did you really run 31 miles in that heat today? You’re crazy.” Got to hand it to the kid, calls ‘em likes he sees ‘em.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

2009 Strolling Jim “40”

The grand-daddy of Southern Ultrarunning is the Strolling Jim held in the little town of Wartrace, TN nestled in the hills of Bedford County. Going on its 31st running this year, I made the trek again to brave Gary Cantrell's "FOUR SMALL HILLS"

Hauled my butt out of bed about 0345, flipped on the kitchen lights, then began a minor visit from Murphy as the power went out! So I spent a few minutes fumbling around to get the flashlight out of its designated spot and start getting my gear in the truck and something to eat (everything goes slower when working by flashlight). Left the house about 0415, but while heading up US-431, the highway was closed because of a wreck! I had to divert to some side roads before climbing up to Monte Sano and the Youngren's place. There I linked up with them, Blake, and the Charette's for the caravan to Wartrace. Oh BTW – it was raining the entire time.

I was heartened to see a bunch of familiar faces at the starting line, most of us huddled under the gazebo in the town square to avoid the rain for a few extra minutes. Then Dink Taylor blasts out of there and we realize that Aimee Cantrell has blown the conch shell and we almost missed it. As the rain continued to roll down, all clothes and shoes were soaked through in the first few miles, so no worries, at least it won't get hot today.

I was plenty hydrated (even though I tried not to drink too much beforehand), so had to pull over several times in the first two hours, include a long pit stop just out of Normandy. By then I was well on my own on the course, so pulled out my mp3 player and was listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows most of the day. I cruised fairly comfortably at a 9-10min/mile pace (including pit stops, climbs, and aid stations). Caught up to and passed Mike O'Melia around Mile 18; he had a pretty good day himself on the course, looking much more relaxed than last year.

Not much to tell through the middle miles as I ground out the climb over Hilltop Rd again and headed for Cathey Rd and The Walls. I hit the 30mi mark right at 5 hr keeping me at a 10:00/mile pace and possible 7hr finish. But the Walls always slow you down some as you muscle out the short climbs and then grunt through the quad-busting descents right after. Luckily the rain had stopped by now and it was just overcast with some light drizzle.

After lolly-gagging a bit too much in the Walls, Mike pulled me within shouting distance, so I got a better rhythm going again as we headed for the US-41A crossing and the 35mi marker, arriving there just after 1pm. Now it's 10k to go and I flirted briefly with the possibility of making a sub-7hr finish, even going so far as to keep running the shallow grades where the RD famously spray paints "Only Wimps Walk this Hill". Dave Riddle is out on the course logging some miles, and even without my glasses I could see him coming from a ½ mile away with that perfect, wide-open stride of his. Now I was getting motivated to push through.

But then the effects of the heavy rains the past few days become seriously evident as fields are completely flooded and creeks are just rolling with muddy water. Then just before I got back to Hwy 64 and the final turn for Wartrace, we had to take a "DETUR" for the road was covered in about 5 feet of rolling water ahead. Well that detour was about an extra mile (plus some more climbing), so that was the end of my flirtation with a sub-7 hr day. So I said "Screw it!" and took some long walk breaks with the hopes of actually being functional at home tonight and playing with the boys some. I finally rolled in around 7:24 and change, not far behind the Youngren's (my ride home) it turns out.

After cleaning up in the bathroom of the local Laundromat, I sat down to enjoy some barbecued chicken and jawboned with Dave Riddle and Chrissy Ferguson a while. Party Animal Blake Thompson broke out a 40oz Miller High Life to celebrate (you know it's coming), a 40-mile run! (actually about 42+ with the detour). Had a nice time talking with David Jones and Janice Anderson, as Rob and Kathy picked their brain about Badwater logistics. The drive home was a bit uncomfortable as I was sitting on a nasty welt in my nether-regions. The conversation was entertaining and mostly kept my mind off of it. Log one more ultra in the books, glad to be able to come to Wartrace again.

MOUNT CHEAHA 50K, 28 Feb 09

Ah yes, the quickly-becoming-infamous Mount Cheaha, now fully able to claim the title of "Alabama's Toughest Trail Race" (whereas the Mountain Mist is Alabama's Premiere Trail Race). The winning time and distribution of finishing times makes a clear case, and having spent plenty of time on this section in both directions, it is truly some darn tough trail running.

I drove down to Mount Cheaha the day afternoon before, heading through a serious rainstorm that would swell the creek crossings the following day. I pulled off I-20 onto US-431 and then US-281 right behind Dink Taylor and Rob Youngren and followed them up to Bald Rock Lodge at Mount Cheaha State Park. There RD Todd Henderson had laid on a good pre-race dinner spread and regaled us with race brief. It was great to spend the evening jawboning with Rob, Dink, Dana Overton, John Nevels, and meet several other folks.

On race day, I woke 0600, grabbed a little breakfast and some coffee, and then got a ride from the Nevels crew to the start line (instead of going up to Cheaha only to catch a bus to the start line).

Alas, the buses got stuck in the mud, so race start was not until 0900 (instead of 0730). No worries though: had the opportunity to meet William and Emily Ansick, do some jawboning with John Nevels, younger brother, and newcomer Marcus Farris (Grissom HS grad and current freshman at Auburn). Luckily the rain which had been going steadily all Friday and through the night stopped about 0600.

Figure 1. Brothers Nevels at the starting area.

Figure 2. Rob Youngren at the starting area. My man unicycled a good chunk of the course!

Race got started 0900 under sunny skies, hoops and hollers, and high hopes! I got out towards the front-packers and pushed my pace beyond norm for a while because I knew the trail was narrow and I wanted to do some clean running before we got to the tougher, rockier sections.

I got some extra water at Chandler Springs and couple cups of HEED, walked across the tracks and bridge and up to the trail entrance back onto Talladega Mountain. This is where the Pinhoti trail gets tougher, eschewing the ridgeline and moving up higher hills and small peaks and then down into narrow gulleys and stream crossings and then doing it over and over again. One time Todd Henderson (RD) told me there were but 3 miles of flat running on the course, but that is crap; there ain't but one mile of flat running on that course. Even where we came to forest roads for a bit there was an insidious shallow climb or descent to work the legs.
At Clairmont Gap I took some more water, HEED, and pretzels before moving into one of the toughest legs of the Pinhoti Trail, 6 miles to Adam's Gap of nasty, rock-laden, on-a-cant, narrow, muddy trail. Out of the aid station we climbed right back up to the ridgeline, over it, and a descent to mid-slope before going further down and out of several seasonal streams. The scenery along the ridgeline was nice as we had great views south into some farming valleys and further on into the Ashland/Lineville area. Took me about 80min to cover it, and I wasn't screwing around. Had my mp3 player and a solid running rhythm going, just not covering ground that fast! Great trail running, but not meant for speed records. An added bonus was running into Rob Youngren as we crossed over the Talladega Motorway. He opted for the mountain unicycling option that day and was riding portions of the course and Motorway up to the finish line. We shot some photos and talked smack for a few minutes before bidding adieu and getting back on the course. I was glad to have the excuse to stop running for a few minutes.

Figure 3. Senor Youngren grimacing that his unicycle ain't gonna take him down this stretch of the trail. Had to settle for a nice ride down the Talladega Motorway instead (lower left corner)

Figure 4. Rob and his uni, going to head up the Talladega Motorway to the finish.

Once I got into Adam's Gap (about halfway), I had clearly experienced my fun for the day and knew it was time to back off the pace lest I pop later in the day. Hard to say, but I figure the effects of the Reverse Double at Mtn Mist and a tough few weeks at work were taking their toll. So jawboned with Todd and Jamie Henderson for a bit, ate some food, and took my time in the aid station. It was actually fun to watch folks trying to 'race ' this thing, while I was definitely taking on a much more run-as-you-please attitude as the day went on.

As we got onto the 10mile stretch of the Chinnabee/Silent Trail, it got a little more overcast and I knew the creek crossings and wet feet episodes would start. As it turns out, I was not disappointed! For this is one darn and adventurous 50k course with little in the way of easy sections. The first major crossings were around Hubbard Creek, about knee deep and moving pretty good from all the rain, but nothing dangerous. I had slowed down my pace and was
working more calories into my system to make sure I could function tonight and tomorrow at home, but still very much enjoying the trails and the scenery.

Now the crossing at Lake Chinnabee was something to be remembered. During the pre-race briefing, Todd had said the creek would be up and a rope would be strung out. I was thinking, "I don't need no stinking rope! That shit is for sissies." But no lie, when I got down to the small lake and the falls that feed it, I wasn't about to pass up the offered rope! The water was moving pretty good and I went in up to my navel when I first stepped into the water, getting easier about halfway across. The rope was certainly handy, and I used it well to get across. Of course, about halfway there, I slipped on a rock under the water, cut up my lower left shin to the bone, and dunked myself up to the neck before using that rope to get upright. My mp3 player (attached to the chest strap of my Nathan vest) went under along with my disposable camera. I'm glad to report both still worked later on! So I enjoyed the mini-adventure of the rushing creek and got to the aid station on the far side with a bleeding shin; fortunately the cold water kept the swelling and bleeding under control, but I'll have a nice scar for my troubles. My feet were perpetually wet for the rest of the course after that. The trails out of Chinnabee Lake doubled as impromptu streams and the route crossed over the same creek about 2 miles later for another good dunking up to mid-thigh.

Figure 5. Crossing Chinnabee Creek, they even put out a rope to aid matters.

Figure 6. Me losing footing and taking a dunk.

The section on the FS 600-3 and Cheaha Road was a nice respite, and coming into the aid station at Cheaha Lake. The folks there were rather effervescent and promised "only one small climb" up to the finish line. Of course, now the course goes into the infamous BLUE HELL trail, an approx 1000' climb over 0.8 miles right up the side of Mt Cheaha to the top. The a last half-mile of it isn't a trail so much as a bunch of blue paint marks guiding runners ever-upward through massive rock formations on the way to the top. It is a hellacious little piece of trail that helps give the Cheaha 50K its uniqueness.

So finally I emerged out of Blue Hell and began the final section of the course on top of the mountain. Now, if you think that once you're up Blue Hell that the single-track trail is all done and it's just a jaunt to the finish line, you have it all wrong. Todd has special surprises in store for us intrepid runners by throwing in some more nasty little pieces of trail as he climbs you right to the observation tower at the Top of Alabama, 2407' above sea level. On this day, you can't see a thing as a cloud bank has taken up residence on the mountain in the afternoon. I can barely see the course markers 25m apart much less the normally-gorgeous views into the valleys to the north and south. From there, we take some more trail for good measure before finally dumping out near the Bald Rock Lodge and the finish line, about 7hr 3min after I started this little venture.

Turns out other Huntsville natives Dink Taylor and DeWayne Satterfield finished 1st and 2d, while Dana Overton took the ladies' prize. John Nevels turned in a fine performance of 5:48. But the surprise of the day was young Marcus Farris out of Huntsville and Auburn Univ, the 18-year old freshman clocking 5:28 on a damn tough course. I think that young man is ready to tackle the Pinhoti 100 should he take up the challenge.

I get across the finish line, get my shirt, and start to head for the lodge entrance when out pops Dink and Rob, my ride back down Oxford and my XTerra. They ask, "You ready to go?" I mean, shit dudes, I literally just finished. You mind terribly if I get a piece of freakin' pizza or something first?! They relent, offer to get the food for me as I grab my drop bag from the trailer. Thanks fellas, I know you have my best interests in mind. I managed to finagle another 5min delay so I can go in the bathroom and clean myself up a bit. Of course, once I get in there and manage to strip off all my wet, stinking gear, in walks Rob and gets a peek at me buck nekkid. Of course, he's seen it all from years of ultras and an earlier life at VMI, so we have a good chuckle. Later at dinner back in Huntsville, the usually-charming Dink announces to the table of 16+ people that Josh stripped down nude in the bathroom just for Rob! How the heck does he make that leap? ;-)

So 2 hours and a few coordination phone calls later, I met Kirsten and many of the other local running crew at El Olmeca for some good food and fellowship. An excellent way to wind up a good day on the Alabama trails! Congrats to Todd and Jamie Henderson for another superb race.

So the real question is, "When are we going to do a Reverse Double Mount Cheaha 100K?"

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reporting Day (R-Day) at West Point

The infamous R-Day for the Class of 2013 at USMA (West Point) is 29 June 2009, and thus nearly 1300 anxious youngsters (and their parents) are eating a final meal together this evening and will likely stare at the ceiling of their hotel rooms in a futile attempt to sleep. Alas, my own R-Day experiences are pretty vague and with only a few clear recollections on just what the heck happened all day.

These days I get the much-nicer job of being an Admissions Officer for USMA. This year I put 31 kids from Alabama into the system, including 16 from the Huntsville metro area. Oh how well I remember my own R-Day 19 years ago, and glad I'm not doing that again! Here is a photo with one of my candidates, placed in an advertisement recruiting others to join the Admissions team.

Best of luck to the Class of 2013. Surf into West Point's website for details and photos.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

30 May 1994: 15 years and 3 children later (not to mention about 12 moves and 50+ marathons and ultras), she is still hanging around me. Married at the Old Cadet Chapel, West Point, NY. Happy Anniversary, Beautiful.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day

In honor of Mother's Day, I encourage all to read the words of President Teddy Roosevelt. His speech of 1905 is perhaps the finest ever given on the trials, tribulations, and utter necessity of mothers. This is one of my favorite parts, though there are many to quote.

“No ordinary work done by a man is either as hard or as responsible as the work of a woman who is bringing up a family of small children…for the lives of these women are often led on the lonely heights of quiet, self-sacrificing heroism.”

You can read the full text at many locations, here is one:

Of course, I got lucky and married a fantastic woman who is a wonderful mother. So even though we recognize the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day, just remember: every day is a good day to celebrate her and motherhood in general.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Grand Canyon - The Rest of the Trip!

An earlier post detailed one of the highlights of our recent Grand Canyon vacation (my Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim [R2R2R] running adventure), but we actually managed some other fun-filled days in Northern Arizona as well!

After flying into Phoenix on April 5th and driving north to the South Rim, we got to stay in the Bright Angel Lodge right on the canyon edge, a mere 100 feet from the rim. We took it relat
ively easy on the 6th, mostly taking the shuttle bus around the various south rim locations, seeing the multiple visitor centers, gift shops, and spots to view down into the canyon. We even went over to Yaki Point and took this photo just to prove we went on vacation together!
Kirsten and Josh at Yaki Point, Grand Canyon South Rim, 6 Apr 09

Of course, on 7 Apr I did the R2R2R trip, but Kirsten got a great opportunity to hike down the Bright Angel Trail through Indian Gardens and out to Plateau Point.
View of the South Rim from Indian Garden

On Wed, 8 Apr we headed out the eastern entrance of the park and traveled up US-89 for the Page, AZ and the Glen Canyon NRA to take a rafting trip on the Colorado River. Alas, high winds that day forced the guide company to cancel the trip, so we spent some time at the Glen Canyon Dam and Visitor Center, hiked in and around a slot canyon, and made another side trip to the Lee's Ferry portion of the Grand Canyon.

Kirsten climbing down into a slot canyon

Josh soaking his tired and swollen feet in the quite cold Colorado River at Lee's Ferry

Then came the next major highlight of the trip. Kirsten had placed us on the wait-list for Phantom Ranch on Tues afternoon, and by Wed evening we had pretty good odds at scoring an opening. So on Thurs morning Kirsten hopped up at 6am, walked over to the lodging office, and sure enough, we were able to score a cabin with queen bed! After sitting down for a solid breakfast, we made arrangement to check out of our rim lodging a day early, and went about packing our Camelbaks for an overnight hiking trip down to the River and the oasis there. The rest of our gear went into the rental car, which we left parked next to our South Rim cabin.

We caught the shuttle over the South Kaibab Trail head and started the hike down about 11:45. This trail into the Colorado River is known for its stunning mix of pain and pleasure. It provides absolutely stunning views of the Canyon and the River, but it is also unrelenting with probably not 1/10 mile of level hiking. It is a constant, switch-backing descent with hundreds of erosion control logs and stones, but not one piece of shade. So it will eat up your quads and knees on the 7.3mi descent to the Black Bridge over the Colorado River, 0.5 mile beyond which is Phantom Ranch.

Looking west down the Canyon from the South Kaibab Trail

About halfway down the trail

Kirsten, then Josh, on the Black Bridge over the Colorado River

We got into Phantom Ranch in about 3 hours, taking some time to get the obligatory stamp for our National Parks Passport book before checking into our cabin.

At the canteen we grabbed some cold lemonade and then walked over to Bright Angel Creek to soak our feet in the cool waters.

We enjoyed a nice family-style steak dinner at the canteen, meeting a couple from Baltimore at the table with. Afterwards, we wandered up the North Kaibab Trail to see a mile or of The Box and probably one of the nicest pieces of trail you'll ever have the pleasure of hiking or running.

We crashed for the night with the sounds of the creek running nearby. The next morning we had a huge breakfast at the canteen (family-style again), and this time met a great couple from England. The husband was an aerospace engineer and his wife a special education teacher, so we had plenty to talk about. Kirsten and I loaded our Camelbaks up and hit the trail for hike out about 7:45am. This time we crossed over Silver Bridge and made the return up the Bright Angel Trail in just over six hours. Our golden chariot (aka Dodge Charger rental car) was awaiting us about 200' away, so we threw our gear in the trunk and headed out. Next stop was a well-earned treat from Carvel Ice Cream out in Tusayan before we drove to Flagstaff for the night.

Josh and Kirsten at the Bright Angel Trail head, made it all the way out on foot!

After enjoying a hot shower at the hotel in Flagstaff, we wandered over to the Beaver Creek Brewery and proceeded to do some carb replenishment with the local brews and some brick-oven pizza; great place to spend the evening. After sleeping rather soundly that night, we woke up to a snowstorm on Saturday morning. Got out of the Canyon just in the nick of time! Would have hated to hike out in that.

6" of snowfall between midnight and noon in Flagstaff, 11 Apr 09

Despite the snow, we still managed to hop multiple national park sites around Flagstaff and Central Arizona, including Sunset Crater, Walnut Canyon, Wupatki, Montezuma Castle, and Tuzigoot. We enjoyed a nice soak in the hotel hot tub in Phoenix, then flew home the next day.

A great vacation and some lifelong memories. Heck, it took us about three more days at home to recover from the vacation! Is it OK not to miss your kids while on vacation?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

R2R2R, Grand Canyon - 7 Apr 09

The National Park Service (NPS) says that 3 million folks visit the Grand Canyon (GC) every year. I figure about 2 million will never leave the South Rim, merely drive up from Flagstaff, look over the edge, and say, “Wow!” NPS further says that only about 10% of GC visitors (300,000) will drive over the North Rim side of the park, a far more remote site about 4+ hour drive away from the South Rim (yet only 10 miles as the crow flies). Perhaps another 500,000 will come to the South Rim and actually hike down into the canyon for a few miles, stopping at the Indian Gardens or other rest spots. Heck, maybe 100,000 souls go elsewhere in the National Park site beside the two main sites (like the Hulapai Nation Skywalk or Desert View). I’ll further posit that 75,000 folks actually make it to the Colorado River via mule ride or on foot, typically staying the night at Phantom Ranch or other nearby campgrounds; good for them, because in most places on the South Rim you can’t even see the River way down in the Inner Gorge of the GC.

But only a precious few will look across that expanse, that “big hole in the ground”, and wonder if they could go by foot to the other side. Even fewer still look across (from the South or North Rim) and ask “I wonder if I could get there and back in just one day?” And that, my friends, is why it feels right and true and good to be an ultrarunner, an adventurer, a wanderer. You are among the ultimate outliers. Remember the words of Tolkien, as printed on t-shirts here and there: ‘Not all those who wander are lost.”

Kirsten and I were very fortunate to line up a vacation to the Grand Canyon this year, taking a week in early April and cashing in a chit with her parents to look after our three boys while we were off wandering. So thanks to Oma and Opa; the boys loved having you there, and we appreciate the heck out of getting a great vacation! In the Fall of 2008, Kirsten and I planned to get out in Spring 2009 and starting looking at places in the SW USA. Well, after I pulled out the National Park map, the Grand Canyon immediately stood out, and subsequently the chance to do the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) presented itself after over a decade of since I heard about it. We spent two prized frequent flier tickets with Southwest, and were able to make reservations at the Bright Angel Lodge right on the South Rim, perhaps 100’ from the Bright Angel Trailhead. Needless to say, we were stoked about the vacation! We flew in on Sunday, April 5th, and I did the R2R2R on April 7th.

Kirsten and I had other cool adventures that week, including Glen Canyon NRA, the Lee’s Ferry portion of GC, hiking down to Phantom Ranch and spending the night, and dodging a snowstorm in Flagstaff! All will be the subject of another post. But first, my R2R2R experience

THE GEAR: Asics trail running shorts (with built-in compression liner, so very little chafing problems all day), Montrail Hardrock shoes with Montrail Endurosoles, injinji socks, HIND cold-weather top, LS t-shirt from Rocket City Marathon, RRS Goretex running jacket, gloves (two layers), skull cap, small flashlight, and Black Diamond headlamp. I had a Camelbak HAWG with 100oz water bladder, with a spare LS tech shirt, some anti-chafe lube, cell phone, and all my calories.
** By the way: if any of my compadres from Fleet Feet Huntsville happen to read this, after this trip to GC I had to put the Hardrock shoes out of their misery. After 650 miles, culminating with my R2R2R and a hike later in the week to Phantom Ranch and back, I just sucked all the useful life out of them! About 25% of the outsole had been ripped away, and you could feel the midsole were just shot. Donated to the garbage in Flagstaff.

THE FUEL: Mostly Hammer Perpetuem in paste form crammed into flasks, a flask of HammerGel, and a few Hammer bars just to eat something different. Also had plenty of Endurolytes. What can I say: I get a 20% discount from Hammer because of my team membership with SmartSport Int’l, and for me their fuels have proven the best available, i.e. the ultrarunning ‘experiment of one, I know from experience and experimentation what works for me, but it may not work for you!

So after arriving early evening on 5 Apr and generally just taking it easy on the South on 6 Apr, the day of the R2R2R has arrived. I woke at 0315, restless from the coming epic. Actually, I never slept all that well during the week, which I chalk up to the altitude (7100’) and the dryness (woke up thirsty and dry mouth 3-4 times a night). I got the last remnants of my Camelbak ready, put some tape on my feet, Brave Soldier lube in the right places, and had a little something to eat. Then I kissed my slumbering wife and headed out the door of our cabin. Because of the awesome lodging arrangements, I walked 100’ to the Bright Angel Trailhead and over the edge 0400.

The first hour was relatively uneventful as I headed down the steep trail into the dark. Getting a rhythm over the erosion control logs took some time, but all part of the journey. However, I ended up having to make four pit stops between wake-up and 3mi resthouse to get my pipes all cleaned out! That likely cost me 15-20min on the descent. I went through Indian Garden in the dark, and then the trail dropped into this righteous little canyon, where I could hear the washing rushing thru the small flumes in the dark.

Figure 1. The Colorado River as seen from Plateau Point. Kirsten took this photo while I was on the R2R2R. She had a solid day of hiking herself!

Now I’m about halfway to the river crossing, and the trail begins the nasty, twisting descent into the Inner Gorge of the GC. This portion is known as the Devils’ Corkscrew. With the first light of day now getting into the canyon, and temperature starting to pick up, the view of this piece of trail is downright exciting as it winds down, down, down. About halfway down the Corkscrew, I stopped at a creek crossing to strip off the hat, gloves, and jacket, packing them away and continued to head down to the Colorado River. It will be one of the lessons learned for others to consider, but I ended up carrying a lot of extra weight. Not just the weight of water, for I can handle that, but all the extra gear filling up my Camelbak. I carried a lot of extra gear, likely unnecessary stuff all the way up the North Rim and back. I had the option of caching my jacket, gloves, headlamp, etc, but I opted to hang on to it to hedge against unforeseen events on the trail. Maybe I would twist and ankle and need to jacket, extra clothes, and lights to deal with the night? I carried that weight and volume out of risk mitigation more than anything, but likely could have gotten away without it.

I got to the Colorado River 0615, made a right turn to head up the River Trail. Though it just follows the river, half of the trail is loose sand, so the going can be slow and you slog through it. Two miles later the lovely Silver Bridge across the river came into sight, and its companion Black Bridge another ½ mile beyond that. The oasis at Phantom Ranch is across; I took an enjoyable stroll over the footbridge. At Phantom Ranch I re-loaded water in my Camelbak and called Kirsten with a status report about 0645 from the pay phone there (cell phone completely useless down here).

Figure 2. Silver Bridge and the Colorado River. Photo was taken with a disposable camera at about 0630, so not a lot of sunlight yet.

Figure 3. My big forehead, messed up hair, and you can just see the Silver Bridge.

As the sun continued to rise, I passed through Phantom Ranch, the slumbering campers, and the few gawkers that were leaving breakfast at the canteen. The North Kaibab Trail waited. The first 2-3 miles venture into a section known as The Box. Perhaps one of the best trails I have ever run, simply unforgettable. Bright Angel Creek is rushing down a very narrow canyon that is feeding the Colorado River and the trails winds up the creek back and forth over several bridges. Just a great piece of running up very shallow but steady climb through the tight canyon before it opened up and continued the climb up Bright Angel Canyon.

Figure 4. Trail sign heading out of Phantom Ranch up the North Kaibab Trail. Just a half-marathon to the top, right? Never mind the 6000' net elevation gain! I actually took this photo two days later when Kirsten and I stayed the night at Phantom Ranch.

The Box eventually opens up into Bright Angel Canyon and the shallow climb continues up the creek past Ribbon Falls and into the Cottonwood campground. The sun was now overhead, so I pulled out a ballcap, sunglasses, and put on some sunscreen. I passed through Cottonwood and got some strange looks from the few campers and NPS crews doing trail maintenance; you’d think they’d never heard of someone pulling the R2R2R stunt before. The climb gradient increased a bit on the way up to the house below Roaring Spring. There I made the mistake of passing up the year-round water source in favor of heading further up to the Suppai Tunnel; more on this in a bit.

Figure 5. Bridge over Bright Angel Creek that will take you to Ribbon Falls.

Now the climbing is just beginning to get tough. Out of Roaring Springs the trail leaves Bright Angel Creek/Canyon and starts the climb up to the North Rim. The trail is about 3-4’ wide in most places, with rock wall on your left shoulder but a 1000’ dropoff off your right shoulder! I was doing more power walking than running now, too steep and the altitude preventing a quick ascent. But the view of Roaring Spring pouring out of the rock face is just amazing, as I wind around the canyon walls and through many switchbacks going up, up, up.

Figure 6. Roaring Springs pouring out of the rim wall. Below it forms Bright Angel Creek/Canyon and is the source of the Transcanyon Water Pipeline that brings all the fresh water to the South Rim.

I got to the Suppai Tunnel around 1030, but discover the water there is turned off, and my camelback bladder is now dry. So after letting out a loud F-bomb to no one in particular, I slip back on the camelback and press on; there is supposed to be water at the north rim trailhead. There is still plenty of snow right off the trail on the way up, so I take some and throw it in my cap to cool my head off, and another handful of snow to eat! I ran into two hikers heading down from the rim to cottonwood, and they slip me about 25oz of water. Probably could have gotten away without it, but helped make things a little easier later on.

Figure 7. Approaching the Suppai Tunnel

I reached the North Rim about 1145, sitting at about 8400’ elevation (vs. 2400’ at the river). The final three miles is just a brutal climb, up and up and up. I hardly ran at all, just tried to put one foot in front of the other and not let heart and breathing rate get out of control. At last, I begin to see blue sky through the trees and know the top is near. As with so many ultrarunning, hiking, bicycling, or even unicycling adventures, I just fixed in my mind that the top is near and kept pushing to the top. But with a mindfulness to not ‘pop’ on the way up, for that is only the halfway point!

At the trailhead I took a 10-15min break. There were two other hikers up there that were up there sunning themselves and taking a break (one from Birmingham of all places). I changed shirts, took some photos (got to have proof!), scooped up a few handfuls of snow and shoved into the hydration bladder. Here the water the dudes below gave me came in handy because it helped melt the snow easier.

Figure 8. North Kaibab Trailhead at the North Rim. Yes by golly, there is still plenty of snow hanging around!

Figure 9. Just to prove I didn't steal the last photo from a website or something....

Having made it the North Rim, there is only one way back, and that’s 23.9 miles across the Grand Canyon! No sweat, right! So I headed back down the trail around noon. Lo and behold, I enjoyed somewhat steady running most of the way down. But even then the long, grinding descent, the constant switchbacks and erosion controls made the running tough as you changed directions and speed constantly to take it easier on the legs that are just taking a beating.

Figure 10. View down into Bright Angel Canyon from below the Suppai Tunnel. It is still about 4 miles and 2500’ net elevation gain to the North Rim.

I cruised through the Suppai Tunnel and down, down, down to Roaring Springs. I met up with the two hikers that passed me some water and thanked them for ‘paying it forward’ and promised lunch on me should we link up at the South Rim. Those guys were great, showing the spirit and friendliness that makes meeting folks in the backcountry a lot of fun. We must have jawboned for 15min before I got going again. At Roaring Springs I pulled off the Camelbak, dumped out the unmelted snow and completely filled it with clear, fresh water. Dunked my head, cooled most of the body off. Probably around 80deg now, so not really hot, but all that cold alpine water felt nice anyway.

Continued the descent as it leveled out some and the trail met back up with the Bright Angel Creek. Now the running is really good, a shallow descent with few erosion controls or switchbacks. Down I went back into The Box with probably the nicest piece of running in the entire trip; the sun overhead, a smooth trail (even a little very shallow descent), canyon walls around me, a rushing creek filling my ears. Even after nearly 12 hours on the move, this section felt great. With enough fuel/water/salt, I wished this could go on for hours. The Box and the entire Grand Canyon is truly one of His greatest creations

I ran back through Phantom Ranch 1530-1545, now getting dozens of stupid looks from the folks that had likely taken the mule train down, but smiles from the obvious hikers. I stopped 1545 to refill my camelbak bladder and pour a bunch of water over me. I consider taking a dunk in the Colorado River, but I knew I did not have a ton of daylight to spend. But I did have to wait about 15min for the lone payphone down there to free up (cell phones worthless here and North Rim) to call Kirsten and let her I know where I was.

I crossed back over the river on the Silver Bridge (saving the Black Bridge and South Kaibab Trail for later in the week) about 1605-1610 and traversed the River Trail. Then began the climb back up into Devil’s Corkscrew and Pipe Creek. As I crossed through the creek 2-3 times, I soaked my feet in the cool water creek to give my feet some minimal cooling; felt nice and dried out quickly in the Arizona desert. Then up I climbed through the multiple switchbacks as I headed up to Indian Gardens. This time I got to see the wonderful mini-canyon in the daylight, that water rushing through a very narrow slot, maybe 1-2 feet wide, winding downhill towards the main river. Drank a dozen mouthfuls of water at Indian Garden. I didn’t need to touch my Camelbak, and didn’t want the extra or unnecessary water on the last push out of the canyon. I had carried enough extra weight all day, and knew I needed enough water and fuel to last me about two hours to the top.

It was at Indian Gardens I saw this sign that I missed in the dark on the way down. Whoops!

Figure 11. Sign at Indian Gardens. Thanks to Sandiway Fong at Univ Arizona for posting it to his website so I could borrow it. My shot was grainy and in poor light.

As it passed 1800 and I climbed out of Indian Gardens, the realization of what I was about to do was starting to sink just a little bit. I could see the flagpole of the Kolb Studio on the South Rim, and my cell phone chirped as I came into range of the towers up there. Thus I called Kirsten to make dinner reservations for later in the evening!

So up I climbed, back into the innumerable switchbacks, grinding away back and forth, running as able, but mostly walking as the pitch of the trail and altitude increased, and the erosion control made it difficult to get any sort of stride going. The last rays of light were starting to wane as I passed the 1.5mi rest house. Now I was starting to get stoked, the adrenaline flowing from the knowledge that it is almost done. I pulled out my mp3 player and turned on some sweet tunes to accompany the climb, a smile on my face despite the efforts of the past days and the growing darkness.

Right about 1920 or so the last of the sunlight fell away, but the timing was almost perfect, as just then a near-full moon rose over the canyon rim and gave me beautiful moonlight up the trail and reflected across the canyon walls. Just a wonderful sight, I wish I had a camera that was capable of capturing it. I even managed to getting a running pace growing again as the trail shallowed out just a bit in the final ½ mile and I pressed for the end, arriving about 1945.

Twelve years I had been waiting for this day’s journey, ever since I got into ultrarunning and heard about the R2R2R adventure. The first time I read about it, I knew I had to do that someday. As I’ve talked about with my wife and several good friends, the idea of doing it simply resonated with me, deep in my guts. And now I am here, the trailhead in sight, my lovely wife waiting there to greet me with a wry smile and beaming eyes, a smile on my face from now knowing what I just pulled off, and IT IS DONE.

We took some photos at the Bright Angel trailhead, and then headed back to our cabin just a bit away. I stripped off all the gear and took a heavenly shower, though had to be careful as a few choice locations in my legs threatened to cramp up.

To cap off a great day, we meandered about 400 meters up the rim the famous El Tovar Hotel. Enjoyed a beer and appetizer in the lounge, then had a late dinner at the El Tovar Restaurant, celebrating the day’s journey in fine style. This was a really great piece of the day, talking with Kirsten and sharing both of our experiences that day; she herself hiked down the Indian Gardens and Plateau Point and got some views even I would never see. After I finished the Pinhoti 100, the time after the race was really anti-climactic as I drove home then was back at work the next day as if one of the biggest events in my life had never happened. It was a month later we got to celebrate the Pinhoti when Rob and Kathy Youngren hosted a great party at their place on Monte Sano. So after the R2R2R, tired or not, by gosh I was going to have a nice dinner with my wonderful wife and do a little celebrating. It was great, and I am so glad she was there; a perfect way to end the day. Of course, I wasn’t worth a s*** in the sack later on, but oh well! We got back to the cabin, both of us starting to get really feel the effects of the day, and crashed out around 2245.

Why do we do it? One possible answer is that adventures like the R2R2R (or any 100miler, the JMT, Long Trail, A.T., PCT, etc.) confirm in us the need, the drive to be an outlier, to be in a very small group of wanderers way outside the ‘average’ human being. Our day-to-day existence as professionals, as husbands/wives, father/mothers, and more, while wonderful and important and rewarding, does not quite meet our deep longing to be fulfilled in ways like these adventures. To prove to ourselves that it can be done once you commit your mind and body to it. And when completed, that deep-down knowing that you have done it…and knowing you could do it again despite the difficulty.