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If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you really need to go.  No seriously, like RIGHT NOW! It doesn’t matter that we’ve all seen it in countless photos, videos and movies, including the iconic final scene in Thelma and Louise.  It’s truly a magical place that’s beyond description and to see it in person will blow you away.

My original intention wasn’t to go to the Grand Canyon on this trip.  The plan was to relax and do some bird watching in southern Arizona.  I’d discovered birding a few years ago and found that it’s a nice complement to my love of nature and travel.  Plus, it’s a very civilized activity for a middle aged dude such as myself.

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But this plan changed when I bumped into the owners of Animal Athletics.  They had just gotten back from doing the Rim to Rim to Rim (R2R2R) in the Grand Canyon.  The R2R2R is a run from the South Rim, down to the Colorado  River, up the North Rim and then back again.  It’s about 46 miles roundtrip with more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.  These guys made it sound like it was a life-altering experience and an absolute rite of passage for ultrarunners.  Oh well, so much for the bird watching.

With my flight leaving in less than a week I didn’t have much time to work out the logistics or to train for the specific demands of the route.  The R2R2R has a little bit of everything: technical trail, exposure, long distance, high altitude, extreme heat, and two huge ascents/descents.  But other than that, it’s pretty straightforward.

The fastest known time for the route was set by ultrarunning stud, Rob Krar, in 6 hrs. 21 mins.  I was thinking (hoping) it would take me about twice that long.  To get a real sense of the scale and beauty of the run, check out this VIDEO.

My adventure began on April 3rd (Good Friday) while waiting for the shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead.  The temperature was in the 20’s and I thought I was going to freeze to death in my thin little running shorts and windbreaker.  But by 6:30am I was on the trail, slowly warming up and working my way towards the river.  The South Kaibab trail is a steeper more direct route to the river and because it’s along a ridgeline, has 360 degree views.

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One of the biggest challenges was to NOT check out the view while running.  Every step on the rocky trail is a potential twisted ankle, so there would be no multitasking.  If I wanted to look, I had to stop.

Both the South Kaibab and the more popular, Bright Angel Trail, connect the South Rim with the river.  I thought it would be fun to start off with the lesser-traveled South Kaibab and then finish with the Bright Angel, when most of the tourist traffic was done for the day.

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At about 2 hours I crossed the river and soon thereafter was at the Phantom Ranch, a historic lodge built in 1922.  All guests must arrive either on foot, raft or mule.  These cool rustic cabins often get booked up more than a year in advance.  I was surprised to see they had a little canteen, so I took advantage of the situation and bought some pretzels and a Snickers.  From here it was 14 miles and nearly 7,000 feet of elevation gain till the North Rim.  Those extra calories would definitely come in handy.

This next section was pure bliss: smooth, mostly flat trail winding along an idyllic creek in a narrow box canyon. I got into a flow state and the miles passed easily.  After the Cottonwood Campground the grade steepened and I had to switch to power hike mode.  As I got closer to the North Rim you could see the flora slowly change from desert cactus to alpine fir and birch.

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I got to the North Rim in 6 hrs. 30 min. and even though I was pretty wiped out it was a relief to know that I was halfway done.  There was still some lingering patches of snow, but I was happy to see that there was running water from the spigot at the trailhead.  I chugged a bottle of water to celebrate.

It was 14 miles from here to the river, all downhill.  My goal was to run at a modest, but consistent pace and not take any breaks.  The canteen closed at 4pm and another Snicker would have really hit the spot.

It’s funny how the same trail can feel so different just a few hours later.  I now had gravity to my advantage, but nevertheless, the cumulative fatigue was starting to take its toll.  I never run with an iPod, but this would have been a good time for some inspiring music, maybe Chariots of Fire or the Rocky soundtrack.

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It was 5pm when I finally arrived at Phantom Ranch.  The canteen and their stash of Snickers was closed for the night.  And to make matters worse the guests were all hanging out drinking beer while their steak dinners were being barbecued.  It was a cruel form of torture.

As I crossed the river once again, I told myself that there was good news (less than 10 miles to go) and bad news (all uphill).  Plus only about two more hours of daylight.  I powerhiked this next section up to the Indian Garden campground, where I met a nice Canadian couple.  They gave me a chocolate chip Cliff Bar and told me about a great pizza place right outside of the park.  They weren’t sure what time it closed, but if I really pushed it maybe I could make it.

It’s a challenge to stay motivated once darkness sets in.  Nothing to see, but the bubble of light emitting from your headlamp.  As I got closer to the top, the light from the full moon began peeking over the rim.  Eventually it got so bright that I didn’t need my headlamp at all.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself near the end of the long hard day, but here I was about to complete an epic adventure in the Grand Canyon under the light of the full moon.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

As I drove into Tusayan, I knew the pizza place would already be closed.  The only other choices were Texaco station hot dogs or the ramen back at my campsite.  Neither option very appealing.

But wait, what is that on the horizon?  Are those golden arches just a mirage?  I hadn’t eaten at McDonald’s in years, but was thrilled to see that it was still open.  The Quarter Pounder meal with its savory/salty mix of carbs, fat and protein was just what my body needed.  I even went back through the drive thru again to pick up a chocolate shake for dessert.  Thank you McDonald’s!  You saved my life and I promise to never make fun of you again.

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My life has been a series of obsessions.  The first was tennis, back in the late seventies when the sport was in its heyday.  I grew up across the street from a set of courts and my brother and I would be there everyday honing our skills and taking on all comers.  The only breaks we took during the summer were to watch Wimbledon on TV.

I was a huge Bjorn Borg fan and probably the only kid in my little western Pennsylvania town that had Fila clothes, Diadora shoes and a Donnay racket.  Borg would forego shaving during the tournament and would look so cool by the time he reached the finals.  I couldn’t wait to be old enough to shave, so then I could NOT shave during Wimbledon.

My brother and I are only 13 months apart and extremely competitive.  This intense rivalry pushed our games to new levels and it wasn’t until he started beating me regularly that I began to lose interest.  However, his love of tennis has continued and now he’s one of the head teaching pros at Family Circle Tennis Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

After tennis, my obsessions continued one after another through the years: Kurt Vonnegut, golf, Jack Kerouac, the Grateful Dead, snowboarding, Tom Waits, mountain climbing, Haruki Murakami, travel writing, and then for the last several years, running.  This parade of random obsessions has been a great source of fun.  Life is never boring while you’re in the grip of an all-consuming activity.

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I didn’t consciously choose any of these obsessions.  They chose me and would eventually pass just as mysteriously as they appeared.  I never used to worry when my interest in one of these activities started to wane because I knew that something else would soon appear to take its place.

At the end of last year, without any sort of warning, running started to lose its appeal.  It made me sad to think that this thing which has given me so much pleasure may no longer be a part of my life.

Looking back on 2014, I think of all the places running has taken me.  There were races in Texas hill country and in the mountains of Oregon and Washington.  While traveling I was able to do training runs though Sabino Canyon in southern Arizona, along the River Walk in San Antonio, around Central Park in New York, through O’Keeffe Country outside of Santa Fe and over a seven mile bridge linking the Florida Keys.

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One day I saw a bald eagle scoop a fish out of the Willamette during a morning run along the river and another day watched the sun rise and then set while circumnavigating Mount St. Helens.  I feel so lucky to have had these experiences and know that they wouldn’t have been possible without running being such a big part of my life.

So for the first time I decided to not sit back and let an obsession pass.  I tried instead to come up with a plan so running could remain my focus.  Initially the plan involved taking some time off and only running when the mood struck.  For a few months I only ran 2-3 times a week and some weeks not at all.  As time went on, I wanted to run less and less.

Running, they say, is addictive, but you want to know what else is addictive?  Not running.  As my fitness level decreased, running became harder and less enjoyable.  I understood for the first time why most people think of running as a chore, as something to be endured.

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So I started 2015 with a new plan.  Instead of running only when I felt like it, I would now run everyday, no excuses.  It doesn’t matter if it is cold, dark, or windy, I’ll be out there putting in the miles.

It really sucked at first, but then slowly my fitness level started to improve and it started to suck a bit less.  As it got less difficult, it became more enjoyable (funny how that works).  It was a solution so obvious I’m still shocked it actually worked.

Now that March has arrived and the days are getting brighter, I find myself obsessing about running again.  I’ve starting checking all my favorite websites and am now planning my summer racing schedule.  Recently I had a dream come true by having my photo appear in two different running magazines.

The first was in an issue of Ultrarunning and is somewhat embarrassing.

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The photographer caught me at a low point in the race and while the woman next to me appears to be out on a Sunday stroll, I look like a broken down old man with a walking stick.  Luckily in this photo from Trail Runner magazine, I’m looking a little more determined.

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These pictures appearing one after the other felt like fate.  I now know that it’s too soon for me to give up and move on to something new.  There’s still so much I want to see and do in this sport.  And even though this old man may sometimes need a walking stick to get up the hill, I’m going to keep plugging away no matter what.

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I’m a big fan of traditions, but not of the traditional kind. Maybe this is because Yoshimi and I come from different cultures with very different types of traditions.

So instead of celebrating all of the traditions from each of our cultures, we choose to celebrate none of the usual traditions and only those that we’ve creating for ourselves.

One of the traditions that we’ve created together are regular stays in our favorite fire lookouts (see previous post).  Another is an annual trip to Florida in January to visit my parents and to get a little sun on our pale winter skin.

We also have a tradition of staying at our favorite camping spot on the McKenzie River in same campground (Paradise) and site (#6) every summer. And finally, there’s our annual December pilgrimage to Manzanita on the Oregon Coast.

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We both work in retail, so in order to take a well-needed break during the holiday season craziness, we head out to the coast in mid-December for 3 nights at the Sunset Surf Motel, staying in the same second floor corner room every year. Sunset Surf may be a little rough around the edges, but it’s right on the beach (you can see the surf while laying in bed), comes equipped with a full kitchen, and is only $80 a night.

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This is the tenth year in a row we’ve gone in Manzanita. And like all traditions there is a joy in the familiar combined with the only-once-a-year novelty. The winter, I feel, is the best time to go to the Oregon Coast.  Summer trips can often be cold, windy and disappointing.  In the winter, you expect the weather to be crappy, so when you get the inevitable break (and you do most days), it feels like a special treat.  And there’s nothing better than a bonus winter sunset at the end of the long rainy day.

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We always bring along our own food with Yoshimi planning in advance all of our meals.  My personal favorite is Japanese nabe hot pot stews filled with lots of mushrooms, veggies, and some type of fish or meat.  The perfect warm and cozy winter meal. There’s also plenty of time for long drawn out brunches that always end with us both napping on the couches.  And then waking up for an early evening wine and cheese party.

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This year we had a bloody mary smackdown with each of us taking a radically different approach. I started things off with the Bloody Viking, a clamato variation with a base of aquavit, a Scandinavian anise-based liquor from Portland’s House Spirits Distillery. Yoshimi countered with a Japanese twist, incorporating soy sauce, wasabi, and shochu, a sweet potato liquor. And then christening this crazy concoction the Bloody Ninja.

So, who wins in a battle between a viking and a ninja?  It was a close fight and while both versions definitely had their strengths, in the end the Bloody Ninja prevailed.

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No matter what the weather is like I try and get out for a run everyday when we’re at the coast. Mazanita has a long beautiful beach, but for some reason I don’t really like beach running. It always looks so idyllic in photos, but in reality I find the flat out-and-back beach run to be so boring, like a treadmill of sand. I much prefer to run the hilly trails to Cape Falcon and Neahkahnie Mountain in nearby Oswald West State Park. There’s also a cool run out to Nehalem Bay where you can see of a bunch of lounging harbor seals during low tide.

Unlike some of the larger coastal communities, Mazanita is a small town with only a single street of commercial development. Even though we haven’t frequented any of the local restaurants, we always visit some of our favorite shops. The Little Apple grocery store has a surprisingly good selection of gourmet products. We usually pick up a pint (or two) of our favorite Haagen-Dazs flavors.

The Cloud and Leaf Bookstore is one of those perfectly curated shops that has everything they should and none of what they shouldn’t. And then there’s the San Dune pub, established in 1935. I’m sure they get a fair number of tourists in the summer, especially on weekends, but when we usually pop in, mid-week in winter, it feels like a real local hangout. There’s often live music and always good people watching. The staff is also super welcoming and friendly.

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Hanging out at the coast is a great time to catch up on reading, sleeping and rewatching your favorite movies. We make full use of the big screen TV and DVD player in the room and pick one director each trip to focus on. This year it was Terrence Malick. The Tree of Life definitely needs to be seen on a big screen to fully appreciate the scale of this incredible film. In years past the featured directors have been Frederico Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Wong Kar-wai.

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After several days of beach-induced decompression, we leave behind the laid back coastal lifestyle and return to the city, ready to tackle the rest of the holiday retail rush. Thank you all for following along on my adventures this year and I hope you have a wonderful (traditional or nontraditional) holiday season.

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” You wake up in the morning to the finest views of all, breathed the freshest air in the world, and have a whole mountain to call your own.”  –Ray Kresek, Fire Lookouts of the Northwest


 

Like many people I first become aware of fire lookouts through the writings of Jack Kerouac. In Dharma Bums, he recounts the summer he spent on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades. He went there to escape from society (and its temptations) and to focus on his writing.

Edward Abbey, Norman Maclean, Gary Synder and other famous authors have also found the solitude of lookouts to be conducive to the writing process. In fact, one of my favorite books from the last few years, Fire Season by Philip Connors, tells the story of his time as a lookout in New Mexico, about as far as you can get from his previous job at the Wall Street Journal.

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There were once more than 8000 fire lookouts in this country, but now less than 2000 remain. Those that are no longer used for wild fire detection are decommissioned and often get vandalized over time.

The Forest Fire Lookout Association was started in 1990 with a goal to preserve these beautiful historic structures. They created a National Historic Lookout Register and organize volunteers to renovate distressed lookouts. To help finance upkeep, some lookouts are available for rental.

The idea of spending time away from civilization, surrounded by nature on a remote peak has always been incredibly appealing to me. Yoshimi and I have been renting lookouts since 2002 and have now stayed in about a dozen different structures in the Pacific Northwest.

The rental process used to involve lotteries and wait lists, all conducted via snail mail with local ranger stations. It was so confusing and inconvenient that few people went through the hassle, which was an advantage if you were willing to put up with the clunky system.

Now all lookouts can be rented through a single website that shows all available dates. The process has become so convenient that competition for rentals has increased substantially. To get a reservation now you must book it six months beforehand during the very first minute a lookout becomes available online. We’ve figured out how to play the game and now just make our plans way in advance.

Recently we spent four days at Gold Butte lookout in the Willamette National Forest. Here are some photos from the trip:

Home sweet home

Home Sweet Home

Mt. Jefferson to the east

Mt. Jefferson and other Cascade volcanoes along the eastern horizon

Nothing cosier than a wood burning stove

Nothing cosier than a wood burning stove

Gold Butte lookout was built in 1934 and like many others is 14′ x 14′ square with 360 degree views. There’s no electricity or running water, just a wood burning stove for heat and a little Coleman propane stove for cooking. Every morning I’d hike a mile down to the car to get enough water and firewood to get us through the day. I felt like a pioneer prepping the homestead to survive another day.

Sunrise view from bed

Sunrise view from bed

Specialty of the House

Specialty of the House

Another lazy day in paradise

Another lazy day in paradise

We’ve stayed at lookouts in good weather and bad and both have their appeal. The key is to bring along lots of food, drinks, books and games. That way you’ll be prepared for any possible mood or whim.

An otherworldly sunset

An otherworldly sunset

Who doesn't love a good knot tying game

Who doesn’t love a good knot tying game

A rainy hike back down to civilization

A rainy hike back down to civilization

While staying at a lookout, life is reduced to the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, reading, walking and sleeping. We didn’t see or hear anyone in our four days there and hardly thought of the outside world at all. I can think of no better way to spend a vacation.

logo_colorIn February of this year while visiting family in Florida I received notification that I had won the lottery.  No, no, not THAT lottery…the Cascade Crest lottery.  Every year hundreds of runners register for this beautiful 100 mile mountain race in Washington state.  To retain its pure wilderness integrity, the organizers limit the number of participants to 150 and hold a lottery to determine who gets in.  I was one of the “lucky” ones.

I spent the last six months training with this one goal in mind.  It was a long slow buildup with a few tune up races along the way.  It’s a struggle to find the right balance between too much and not enough training.  I’ve found that the biggest challenge for me isn’t getting the finish line, but rather, figuring out how to get to the starting line feeling healthy, rested and injury-free.

cascade_crest-760x400Two years ago I ran my first 100 mile race in Arizona.  It was an incredible experience running through the Sonoran desert for nearly 24 hours.  That race, however, was pretty straightforward–multiple 15 mile loops on smooth trail with minimal elevation change.  Cascade Crest, on the other hand, is one giant 100 mile loop through the mountains, much of it on technical single-track trail and with over 21,000 feet of elevation gain.  Aesthetically it’s an amazingly beautiful course, but also one of the toughest races in the country.

9432337My plan was to take it slow, power hike the steep uphill sections and keep my competitive instincts in check.  It was the first time in any race where my goal was simply to finish.  I didn’t care about my time or place.  I just wanted to get in done before the 32 hour cutoff time.  And hopefully have a (relatively) good time in the process.

The race has three volunteers for every one runner and the 15 aid stations were staffed and stocked to the gills.  A tremendous amount of energy is needed for a race of this length, so I used these pit stops as an opportunity to consume calories like my life depended on it.  Some of the many things I ate along the way were: pizza, guacamole, bacon, ramen, quesadillas, turkey avocado wraps, PB&J’s, pretzels, Pringles, M&M’s, granola bars, hummus, watermelon, chicken noodle soup, and pierogies.  I might be the only runner in history to put on weight during a 100 mile race.

Ultramarathon Aid StationI hit the halfway mark at around 12 hours, at which point I got to experience one of the unique aspects of this race–a 2.3 mile abandoned railroad tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass.  This section is part of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, which runs from Seattle to the Idaho border.  It was cool, damp and kind of creepy inside the tunnel.  I ran in the bubble of light created by my headlamp and could hear the echo of footsteps behind me.  It was nice to run on smooth flat terrain for a change, but still,  I was happy to finally see that light at the end of the tunnel.

irontMy buddy Jon met me at the next aid station and would run with me for the rest of the race.  Having a pacer is a traditional component of 100 mile races.  Not everyone chooses to have one, but it’s nice to have a friend along to share the experience and to help get you to the finish.  Jon is a veteran of nine 100 mile races, so I was thrilled when he offered to pace me.

Running through the night was psychologically the most difficult part of the race.  Jon and I spent hours swapping stories and then sometimes went miles without saying a single word.  Every once in a while we’d shut off our headlamps and gaze up at the cloud-like density of the stars overhead.  The miles really started to drag in the last few hours before sunrise and one section, nicknamed the Trail from Hell, took us more than 3 hours to go just 5 miles.

I caught a second wind with the rising sun (and a bottle of Starbucks Frappuccino someone gave me at an aid station).  That stuff is like jet fuel!  We started passing other runners, using the Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin” as our mantra.  The No Name Ridge aid station was staffed by several women dressed in Hooters uniforms, serving fresh-off-the-skillet chicken quesadillas.  It was like a dream, and now in hindsight, I wonder if I was, in fact, hallucinating.

hooters_tshirtsThe next 10 mile section of trail was referred to as the Cardiac Needles, an intimidating-sounding proposition 80 miles into a race.  This series of steep ascents and descents completely trashed my legs.  Many people used trekking poles to get through this section.  I was happy to find a walking stick to help take some of the pressure off my quads.

The highest point on the course is the Thorpe Mountain fire lookout.  Everyone was required take a paper ticket from the base of the lookout to prove that you actually tagged this high point.  I felt like Charlie from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, running down the trail clutching my golden ticket.

thorploOnce the Cardiac Needles were behind me, I knew I’d have no trouble finishing before the 32 hour cutoff.  As we dropped back down to civilization an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in.  It cooled things off and dampened down the trail dust.  The rain was cleansing and gave the nature surrounding us a newfound freshness.  I felt revitalized and started to fully savor the magnitude of this journey.  In a world filled with near-constant stimulation, there is a noticeable lack of time for contemplation.  I feel incredibly blessed to have had this opportunity to let my mind and body aimlessly wonder for more than 30 hours.

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Some races, like certain individuals, are preceded by formidable reputations.  I first heard of the White River 50 when I lived in Seattle in the early 90’s.  One of my roommate’s co-workers at REI was an early adapter of the endurance junkie lifestyle.  He spent every non-working hour climbing glaciated peaks, cycle touring the Pacific coast and running Forrest Gump-like distances.  When he told me that he was doing a 50 mile mountain race, I assumed it was one of those multi-day Eco Challenge events.  I couldn’t imagine anyone running that far in a single day.

These were the days when the marathon had yet to go mainstream–before Oprah inspired thousands of her followers to take up the challenge.  At the time I considered myself to be a serious runner because I used to jog around Green Lake a few times a week.  And like many others I thought 26.2 miles to be the ultimate running goal.  The thought of going nearly twice that far seemed absurd.

When this guy told me how fun it was to spend the whole day running through the mountains, I can remember thinking, “Yeah, I’d like to do that someday (not a real soon kind of someday, more like an eventually kind of someday).”  Well, twenty years later that someday has finally come.  A few weeks ago I ran the White River 50 and now it’s my turn to try and convince you how fun can be to run up and over mountains.

white_river_50My buddy Greg and I drove up there the day before and camped just outside of Mt. Rainier National Park.  The campground was beautiful, right on the White River and filled with old growth Douglas fir, including a 700 year old behemoth with a 9.5 foot diameter.

The 6am starting time corresponded perfectly with sunrise, so there was no need for a headlamp.  At the pre-race briefing the director described the course as having only two hills and then pointed to the pair of mountains towering over us on either side.  Race veterans smiled and chuckled to themselves, while us virgins adopted looks of greater concern.

The starting line with the first "hill" above us

The starting line with the first “hill” 3300 feet above us

My goal was to start out slow, get up and down that first hill and save as much energy as possible for the second half of the race.  There were more than 300 people who started the race this year, making it one the biggest 50 mile trail races in the country.  It was fun having so many people to run with and gave the race a real social feel to it.

Early on I met a guy from Portland who lives just a few minutes away from me.  We spent several miles talking about some of our favorite bars and restaurants, which helped to make the elevation gain seem a bit easier.  The climb up that first hill was long (about 8 miles) and steep in places.  Many times we were reduced to power hiking.

The top had some great views of Mt. Rainier and the White River valley below us.  Just before the second aid station we were greeted by Glenn Tachiyama, probably the most famous trail running photographer.  I don’t normally buy race photos, but I could resist one of Glenn’s classics.

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The long cruise back down into the valley was not as fun as you’d think.  The trail was super technical and a momentary lapse of concentration could easily result in some airtime.  A group of 5 of us charged down the trail together like a runaway train.  We got into a collective zone state, not talking at all and just concentrating on the feet of the runner in front of each of us.

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I was happy when the trail eventually leveled out just before the 4th aid station.  The first half of the race was now finished and I was feeling a bit more beat up than I should have at that point.  Psychologically it was tough to be back where we’d started and for a moment I thought how nice it would be to stop now, go back to camp and take an afternoon nap.  But no, there was still one more hill that needed to be climbed before any naps could be embarked upon.

The trail up to Sun Top Mountain was 8.5 miles and had nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain.  It was now almost noon and the climb was long, hot and exposed.  I started to get frustrated and feel sorry for myself.  These are the times when I begin to wonder why I don’t partake in more typical middle aged pursuits like golf or tennis.  Or maybe I should grow a goatee and a ponytail and buy a Harley.  With every step these ideas sounded better and better.

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The volunteers at the aid station on the summit of Sun Top Mountain were having a blast watching our battered bodies roll in.  I chowed down on two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before announcing that these were the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.  That mix of sweet and salty, carb and protein was just what my body was craving.  I grabbed one more for the long descent down into the valley.

The last 13 miles were a bit of a death march.  Even though there were no more climbs, the downhills trashed my quads.  The goal now was to just hang on and keep it together through the finish.  I eventually lost track of the distance and asked a guy hiking the trail how much further till the finish.  He said, “half mile, three quarters of a mile at the most.”  I don’t normally place too much trust in other people’s estimates, but this guy’s answer was so definite.

I cranked up the pace now knowing that there were only about 5 more minutes of suffering to endure.  I passed a runner, then another and then a third and fourth.  The last “half mile” was more like two miles and wanted to kill that guy and his seriously flawed estimate.  But I also wanted to thank him for inadvertently causing me to push harder and finish strong.

Nine hours and thirty six minutes is a long time to run through the mountains (and unfortunately didn’t leave me with enough afternoon for an afternoon nap).  It was, however, a lot of fun and a completely different feel than the rolling hills of many of the ultras I’ve done in the last few years.  In two weeks, I’ll get the chance to see how much fun mountain running really can be when I take on twice the distance in the Cascade Crest 100.  Wish me luck…I’ll definitely need it.

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The focus of my fifth grade science class was natural disasters and like many kids I thought earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes and tsunamis were the coolest things EVER!  What was not cool, however, was living in boring western Pennsylvania where none of these crazy catastrophic events occurred.  All we had was the stupid Johnstown Flood and that was almost a hundred years ago.

But then right before the end of the school year, Mount St. Helens erupted.  It may have been on the other side of the country, but still, it was an American volcano–the biggest eruption this country has ever seen.  Then and there I promised myself that as soon as I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I would go and see this ash-spewing American icon.  And since I’d be in the neighborhood, maybe discover Bigfoot as well.

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It took a bit longer than expected, but eventually I did move to the Pacific Northwest and have since climbed, hiked and snowboarded the slopes of Mount St. Helens many times (though I never did find Bigfoot).

Despite its flattened top, St. Helens is still a beautiful mountain, like a Cascadian Kilimanjaro.  On a clear day it’s visible from many parts of Portland and it always makes me smile when it catches my eye.

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Recently my soul has been craving some form of adventure.  Too many 40 hour weeks in an office behind a computer will do that to you.  On a run-commute home from work last week, I got a glimpse of St. Helens and thought it might be fun to spend a day running around that bad boy.

A few days later I got up at 2am, had quick breakfast and was at the trailhead by 4:30.  The excursion started with a short run up to June Lake before connecting to the round-the-mountain Loowit Trail.  I touched the trail sign for good luck and paused for a few minutes to decide if I should go right or left.  Thinking that it might be best to get through dry and exposed sections before it got too hot, I opted to go counter clockwise.  Not realizing at that point that the whole day would be hot, dry and exposed.

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I got over the first ridge just as the sun was starting to rise.  It lit up a beautiful meadow that stretched down to treeline and roused a herd of elk warming up to a new day.  Above me a few mountain goats scrambled along crumbling cliffs.  It was like being in some type of fairy tale land.

The first section of trail goes through an area called the Plains of Abraham.  This flat moon-like landscape extends for miles along the eastern side of the mountain.  The trail then crosses over Windy Pass, which is in the blast zone, an area still being actively studied by volcanologists.  For hours I ran across this vast empty plain.  Without any trees or other identifying features you can’t help but feel small and insignificant.

The raging Toutle River brought me back to reality.  The trail descended more than a thousand feet and then deadended with a steep dropoff down to the river.  A tattered old climbing rope tied around a tree was the only indication that this was the right way to go.  I rappelled down to the river, filled up my hydration pack and ate my last energy bar.  I’d been running for 8 hours and still had more than 10 miles to go.

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The miles now seemed to drag on forever as the trail meandered through boulder-strewn lava fields.  Everytime I looked at my watch another hour or two had passed despite little forward progress being made.  I had gone the whole day without seeing a single person and then when I finally did, it was as if I had forgotten all the rules of society.  Like I had reverted to some primitive animalistic state.

Without thinking I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head, “Do you have any food?”  He was a bit taken back by my directness, but then asked me if I liked Fig Newtons.  I could have eaten a whole supermarket aisle of Fig Newtons at that point.  After scarfing down the cookies, I remembered my manners and learned that he was from Atlanta and was spending a few days hiking around the mountain.  He was happy to lighten his load and offered me some more snacks before heading on his way.

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The Fig Newtons powered me through the rest of the run.  Once again I touched the Loowit Trail sign, this time in appreciation of a safe passage.  It had taken me more than 13 hours to complete the loop around the mountain.  My soul had been craving an adventure and it most definitely got one.

Would I do this St. Helens run again?  Probably not.  Would I recommend it?  Without a doubt.  To paraphrase an old Japanese expression regarding Mt. Fuji:  It is foolish not to climb Fuji-San, but only a fool climbs it more than once.

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Few people outside of the climbing community realize that one the best rock climbing areas in the world can be found just a few hours from Portland at Smith Rock in central Oregon.  In the mid-80’s pioneers like Alan Watts began putting up bolted routes and Smith (as it’s known locally) became a mecca for climbers willing to push it to new levels.

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You don’t, however, need to a be a climber to enjoy this wonderful state park.  There are miles of hiking trails along the aptly named Crooked River with views of the snow-capped Cascade volcanoes lined up along the horizon.  For the rock climbing curious, I’d highly recommend a hike up Misery Ridge for a look up at the iconic Monkey Face tower.  The exhilarating view will either turn you into a climbing junkie or put you off of the sport forever.

'Monkey Face'

In 2013 Go Beyond Racing organized the inaugural 15 mile Smith Rock Ascent.  It was so successful that this year they added a 32 mile option.  Both races are part of the popular Northwest Mountain Trail Series.

My buddy Greg and I drove down the day before and camped at Pelton Park.  The campground is managed by PGE (Portland General Electric), which built a dam that created Lake Simtustus.  Our site was right across from a friendly family from Guam that was spending the whole month camping, partying and catching up with various members of their large extended family.

The day of the race turned out to be cool, cloudy and with a recent dose of rain to keep the high desert dust under control.  For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel nervous beforehand.  My plan was to use this race as part of the buildup towards my ultimate goal for the year, the Cascade Crest 100 in August.

I recognized a few faces at the starting line including Kami Semick, a North Face sponsored athlete who lives in nearby Bend.  One look at the muscles in her twisted cable-like legs and you immediately understand why she’s one of the top trail runners in the country.

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The race started out with a nice meander along the Crooked River before gaining 2000 feet up to Grey Butte.  From there it was a gradual descent down into the grasslands north of Smith.  At around mile twelve I got into a groove and was content in my solitude.  But then a blond ponytail cruised by me like I was standing still.  Well, actually I was standing still, peeing behind a bush alongside the trail.

My ego doesn’t like to be passed and it forced me to catch up with her.  She looked strong and had great form.  I snuck by her on a technical section and thought that would be the last I’d see of her.  But sure enough she caught up few miles later on a wide forest road and I figured we might as well have a chat.

The first thing she said was, ‘Wow, I thought this was going to be harder.”  That’s an idea that honestly has never popped into my head while running long distances.  She went on to say that this was her first race.  Not her first ultra race…her first running race…at any distance.

It turns out that she’s an elite level rower and after ten years of extensive training narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Olympics.  That made me feel a little better.  We had a nice conversation over the next few miles, talking about traveling, books (including The Boys in the Boat) and this crazy sport of running.  Eventually I got to a point where I couldn’t focus on the trail and the conversation at the same time, so I moved on ahead.

The last aid station at mile 27 was run by the fine folks at Animal Athletics, a Portland-based running club whose Thursday night social runs are always a good time.  We exchanged a few hi’s and goodbye’s and they told me that if I pushed it I could still break five hours.

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This next section had some great views of the Cascade volcanoes and as much as I wanted to stop and admire the view I knew I had to keep cranking it.  The last few miles turned out to be a quad-burning descent down a rocky forest road.  I was happy to pass a couple of guys, but still really wanted to finish in under five hours.

After huffing it up the final hill I turned the corner just as the first digit on the finish line clock turned from 4 to 5.  I crossed the line at 5:00:04 and the first thought that entered my head was, “Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have stopped to pee.”

The rower got in a few minutes later and I congratulated her on running a great race and being the third place women’s finisher.  This girl has a serious future in ultra running.

Over burgers and beers I caught up with a few local runners, including the men’s winner, Jeff Browning.  Jeff is a 100 mile specialist (he’s won more than ten races at that distance).  What I find even more impressive in following his blog is how he manages to balance family, work and running.  That is a greater accomplishment than any 100 mile victory.

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A few years ago on a cross country road trip we completely lost track of time in southern Utah (trust me, it’s easy to do).  Over breakfast at a cafe in Moab I realized that we still had more than 1000 miles to drive and less than 24 hours to be back at work.  We paid the bill, hit the road and made it to back to Portland with a few hours to spare.

Afterwards it blew my mind that we could traverse so quickly across several rugged western states.  What took us less than a day would have taken early American pioneers many difficult months.  And while we had to put up with bad gas station coffee and greasy fast food, they had to endure horrendous weather, attacks from Native American tribes and the constant threat of starvation.   One of my favorite books of 2014, Astoria by Peter Stark, tells the story of just such a journey.

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In 1810 John Jacob Astor financed an expedition to establish the first commercial settlement on the west coast.  His plan was to funnel all the western fur trade down the Columbia River to where it meets the Pacific Ocean in present-day Astoria.  He would collect these furs, transport them across the Pacific and sell them at a huge markup in Hong Kong.

He would then purchase porcelain, tea and other Chinese luxury goods that he would send to London and sell for a substantial profit.  That money would be used to buy manufactured trade goods that he would ship across the Atlantic and sell at, you guessed it, another enormous markup.  The plan was ingenious and incredibly ambitious.  It was also an epic failure.  And failure, I’m sure you’ll agree, makes for a much more compelling read than success.

Peter Stark is a long-time correspondent for Outside Magazine and his book, Astoria, has the flow of a well-written and well-researched magazine piece.  Like many of my favorite non-fiction titles, it contains elements of several genre:  science, history, exploration, adventure and survival.  After finishing the book in a single weekend I was left with a desire to talk to Peter and hear more about this incredible story.

Recently he was in Portland on a book tour and we got together for a chat.  He was a super nice guy and had the look of someone who’s spent much of his life playing in the outdoors.  We had a lot in common and immediately hit it off.  He even invited me to stay at his home in Montana.  I’ll have to remember to put aside a little extra time at the end of my next road trip.

Here’s a link to my interview with Peter…enjoy!

 

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It’s been another long wet winter here in the Pacific Northwest.  I took an extended break from running and was slow to begin training again.  There were some dark times when I seriously began to question the role running plays in my life.  But I have since seen the error in my ways and have once again embraced the long run as a path to a higher consciousness.  It’s good to be back.

Last week I was in San Antonio for a children’s book conference and thought it would be fun to kick off the season with a race in the Lone Star State.  There’s a series of ultra distance races there called Tejas Trails that are run by a guy named Joe Prusaitis.  Joe puts on well organized races, including several national championships and is known for his unique sense of humor (“If you get lost during the race, please be sure to tell me afterwards so I can charge you for the extra distance.”)

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Hell’s Hills is a multi-distance trail race in Smithville, Texas, about 40 miles south of Austin.  It was my first race in six months and I really didn’t know what to expect.  My goal was to put in a decent showing so I’d have the confidence to keep training and racing hard through the summer.

The 50k (31 miles) started at 6am, which meant that we’d be running the twisty trails for an hour before sunrise.  I don’t run well in the dark, so I decided to take it out at a slow pace and wait for the sun to rise.

During the first mile, there was a guy running right on my heels.  I asked him if he wanted to pass.  He said that he had forgotten his headlamp and asked if I wouldn’t mind if we ran together until it was light out.  No worries, I had certainly forgotten a fair bit a gear in races past.  He was a nice kid, an engineer from France named Victor.  This was his first ultra trail run, making the transition from being a road marathon runner.

We hit the first aid station at mile 6, just as the sun was starting to peek through the pine trees.  Victor took off, no longer in need of me and my handlamp.  I went with him and we ran a few miles together with me doing the tailgating this time.  Eventually we caught up to another speedster and the three of us started to really push it.  I soon realized, however, they were taking it way too fast for me and I let them go.

When they took off I remember thinking, “Go on boys.  You have your fun.  But just you remember that this old buck’s got some hair on his antlers and I just might have to teach you youngins a thing or two before this day is done.”  For some weird reason this thought had a Texas accent.  My thoughts don’t usually have accents, do yours?

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The most beautiful section of that first 15.5 mile loop was a field exploding with Texas bluebonnet wildflowers.  It was like running through a dream.  Everyone slowed down and had big smiles plastered across their faces.  If I wasn’t running this race I would have rolled around in the meadow like a big old labrador retriever.

After the first loop I dropped off my headlamp and grabbed a few energy gels to get me through round two.  The sun was now fully up, but luckily the temperature still remained pretty comfortable.  I got unto a zone and tried to run at a consistent pace.  The miles fly by at the beginning of a race, but the closer you get to the finish, the more…they seem…to drag.  The field of bluebonnets once again picked up my spirits.  Come on man, only 5 more miles to go.

Soon thereafter I saw Victor and the speedster still running together.  I wasn’t feeling that great, but  figured if I had caught up to them they must be feeling even worse.  I bid my time, trying to keep my heart rate in check, waiting for the perfect moment.  I snuck up on them at the base of a little hill and zoomed by without any of the normal, “how’s it going?” “looking good” or “almost there” pleasantries.  I wanted to appear strong (even though I was far from it) and put as much distance between them and me as possible.

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I was now running scared and fear, I’ve found, is a very effective motivator.  The antelope has a greater incentive to escape than the cheetah does to capture.  Survival will always trump hunger when push comes to shove.  With a mile to go the trail left the pine forest and opened up onto a wide dirt road.  If I was still in sight of the speedsters I knew they would hunt me down.  Finally with about a half mile to go I took a quick glance over my shoulder.  The cheetahs were no where to be found.  I would survive another day.

Even though the ultra scene in Texas is not quite at the same level as it is here in Oregon, I was still happy to finish in 8th place overall.  Victor finished two minutes behind me and said that he enjoyed the friendly competition during the race.  We hung out together afterwards, sharing snacks and stories about running and traveling.  I’m convinced that he won’t be going back to road racing.  Another happy trail running convert.

 

 

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