Archives for posts with tag: Trail Running

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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Mount-St.-Helens-eruption-1980

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.

texas state

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.”)

hellshills

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?

blue bonnets

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.

Cheetah Antelope

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.

 

 

The 12th annual Hagg Lake Trail Run was held last weekend with a 50k(31 miles) on Saturday, which is part of the Oregon Trail Ultramarathon Series, and a 25k(15.5 miles) on Sunday.  There were more than 300 runners in the 25k this year and even though the weather was alright, the trail was still incredibly sloppy.

The race started out with a quick out-and-back section on road before hopping on to the 14 mile trail around the lake.  My plan was to use this race as a training run, but nevertheless I went out at a quick pace so I wouldn’t get stuck behind slower runners on the single track trail.  The conditions didn’t seem so bad at first, until I came to a steep downhill section that looked like a Slip ‘n Slide made of mud.  Everyone had different strategies for getting down.  Some more successful than others.  Mine was to use my shoes like a pair of skis and mudplow to the bottom.

What started out as fun, quickly progressed to funny, and then to simply ridiculous.  At one of the aid stations I heard about a guy who had his shoe sucked off by the ankle deep mud.  It was difficult to sustain any type of pace or rhythm when it feels like you’re tromping through a trough of pig slop.  However, my Saucony Peregrine trail running shoes and Dirty Girl gaiters(with the rainbow Wild Cat print…MEOW!) managed to hold up pretty well.

By the halfway point, I had completely given up on trying to keep my feet dry and just ran straight through one puddle after another.  I kept expecting to fall apart in the last few miles, but was able to keep it together and finish in 23rd place overall.  This was the most solid race I’ve run  since October.  Well, solid may not be the right word with all that mud, but anyway I was real happy with the way things worked out.

Afterwards there were hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chicken noodle soup–good ole American comfort food.  Runners who completed both the 50k and the 25k were rewarded with a growler of Double Runner Ale.

On Saturday, Ryan Bak from Bend won the 50k(fresh off his 23rd place finish at last month’s Olympic Marathon Trials).  Cassie Scallon from Wisconsin kicked some serious ass in winning both the women’s 50k and 25k.  Click here to check out a video made by a guy who ran with a camera strapped to his head.  I like his use of the classic Cake tune, “The Distance.”

So, would I recommend the Hagg Lake Trail Run?

Without a doubt…but you definitely need to have the right attitude.  Me, I felt like a little kid again, stomping through puddles, playing in the mud, and running around without a care in the world.  That is, until you get home and your Mom freaks out because you tracked mud all through the house.  Sorry Yoshimi, next year I’ll make sure to hose off afterwards.

A few months ago Outside Magazine ran an article on America’s Best Trails.  I was thrilled (but not totally surprised) to see the Wildwood Trail chosen as the best trail within city limits.  The Wildwood is a 30 mile trail that zigs and zags its way along the spine of the Tualatin Mountains in Portland’s Forest Park, one of North America’s largest urban parks.

I first become aware of Forest Park soon after moving to Portland in 2000 and was shocked to discover that it is much more forest than park.  In fact, it’s much too dense for a game of Frisbee, a summertime picnic or other typical park activities.  Forest Park is a full on wilderness experience and all within the city limits.

There are more than 70 miles of trails within the park, but the real showpiece is the Wildwood.  It has numerous trailheads, the closest of which is about 5 miles from my home and just two miles from my workplace.  I can access the trail on foot, by bike, bus, or light rail.  For a trail-running urban dweller without a car, it’s a dream come true.  In the last twelve years, I’ve logged hundreds of miles on its hard packed switchbacks sometimes before work, sometimes after, and occasionally even sneaking in a “quicky” on my lunch break.

The Wildwood does get a little crowded on weekends and in certain sections, but the further you get from the popular trailheads the less people (and more animals) you’ll see.  Once while in the depths of the park I came across a couple of elk.  If you’ve never seen an elk before, let me tell you, there’s no mistaking these guys for deer.  They’re HUGE.  Supposedly there are also bear and mountain lions hiding out in there somewhere.  However, if I had to nominate one animal to be the Wildwood’s official mascot, it would have to be the giant slug.  These slimy critters use the trail almost as much as runners do and can grow to about half the length of my size 12.5 Sauconys.

If you live in Portland, I highly recommend checking out this gem of a trail or taking part in one of the races that utilize it.  Next month the Oregon Road Runners Club is putting on its annual Wildwood 10K.  There is also a 50K ultra marathon in May and for the first time this year, a trail marathon in October.  Proceeds from the marathon will benefit the Forest Park Conservancy, the non-profit caretakers of this urban forest reserve.  Because of its size and density, Forest Park can be a bit intimidating at first.  Before diving in, you should pick up one of Green Trail’s waterproof Forest Park maps or a copy of the book, One City’s Wilderness, and then you’ll be all set to get wild on the Wildwood.