Sunday, December 16, 2012

Winter Views

I took a hike yesterday on the Lost Horse Mine Loop yesterday.  It's the first time I've been back out on the trail since the race two weeks ago.  I've run a few times, but I'm not rushing anything; I want to be sure my recovery is complete before I fully engulf myself in training again in January.  Besides, it's a good time to just do some recreational running and outdoor activities and just enjoy the holidays. 
I have to admit, I was surprised to find snow (yes, you can see from the pictures, that around here, we call that snowfall) on some of the peaks surrounding the trail.  While it may not have been much, it was something, and brought back memories reminiscent of the early in the season dustings we used to get back home.  I know here we won't get much snow, but I'll take what's available, while it's available.  Something about snow just excites me, makes me nostalgic, and at the same time leaves me with a feeling of childhood wonderment.  Want to make a grown man giddy like a schoolchild?  Give him snow for the first time, or at least the first time in awhile...results guaranteed. 
This is the first time in the National Park that I've been over there to have cloud cover low enough to be able to actually be above some of it.  The thick clouds above felt so close, that you could reach out and grab them.  Lost Horse Mine is quickly becoming my favorite place in the park.  The views here are hard to match in any other place that I've found.


Throw snow on the mountains, and it adds a complete new layer to the effect.  A 10,000' + peak may appear majestic, ominous, even powerful without snow, but add a snow cap to that peak, and it changes things all together.  Something about a snow capped peak on a mountain peering through the cloud tops screams power.  Mount(s) San Gorgonio and San Jacinto, snow-capped, lurking intensely over the Coachella Valley, as if to say "We own this.  This is our land."  A snow capped mountain just appears hardened; like it shows it's toughness and it's success at weathering millions of years in this land, only to say "I am still here."
Mt. San Gorgonio peaking above the clouds.
Mt. San Gorgonio in the distance.
Mt San Jacinto lost in the clouds.

Mt San Gorgonio looming over the valley.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Miserably Fantastic: The TNF SF Marathon.

Brutally awesome.  Miserably fantastic.  Inspirationally demoralizing. 

These are all descriptions that come to mind when I look back at this race.  In the days leading up to the event, my prerace jitters came, went, and came back the night before the race.  I was nervous; not because of the distance, I felt confident I was able to complete the 26+ miles, even with the climbing involved.  What made me second guess myself, along with what was probably the same reason for many others, was the weather.

I don't think I have spent more time checking the weather than in the 10 days prior to this race.  As soon as it was realized that there was going to be flooding rains and gusting wind, I started second guessing my abilities.  This was going to me a 26 mile mud run through the Marin Headlands.  I wasn't sure I was prepared for that.  But, alas, I was committed. 

The family and I drove up to Mill Valley the day before the race from Twentynine Palms and checked into our hotel.  I didn't check twitter or facebook all day, because I really didn't want to give myself a reason to turn around if there were reports of how epically bad the trails were.  I'd spent too much time and effort training for this to not do it. 

To my surprise, when we got to the bay area, the weather didn't seem that bad.  There was a light misting rain, but it was in the low 60s.  We checked into our hotel, and then decided to head to The North Face store in SF to do packet pickup.  When we got downtown (and managed to find parking), we walked to the store, and the weather was actually pretty nice, if not windy.  Packet pickup went pretty smooth, even if it was crowded.  Not crowded because so many people were there, more just because there doesn't seem to be much extra space inside that store to support the number of runners that would be stopping in.

After I got my bib and swag, we got some lunch, and bummed around town for a bit, with the intent of hanging out for a few hours, and then going to the pre-race panel that evening.  As it would turn out, waking up at 3 am and driving 8 hours took it out of me, and I was happy to just return to the hotel and relax until dinner, and finally update myself on the trail conditions via social media. 

At the hotel, I checked twitter, only to find that due to trail conditions, the 50 mile and 50k course would be modified, essentially putting all the runners on the marathon course for multiple loops.  TNF also stated that while they had every intention of continuing the races, to be prepared for the NPS to cancel them if the weather and the trail conditions deteriorate.

It was at this point, sitting in the hotel room talking with my wife, that I decided I had to just "embrace the suck" and show up to the race with the intent of finishing, and enjoying it the best I could.  I'm glad that's the choice I made.  After the traditional pre-race meal of pizza and beer, I did my best to get to bed early in preparation for the race the next morning.

We got up around 6 am, and ate a breakfast of oatmeal, a banana, and a red bull.  Then, after double and triple checking to make sure I had everything I needed, and had some dry clothes packed in a bag the wife would keep for after the race, we left the hotel to go catch the shuttle to the start line. 

It was dark, windy, and pouring down rain when we got outside.  This was going to be quite the experience.

Riding the shuttle to the starting line, we saw the 50 mile runners on the trails, about 3 hours into their race.  My first thought, "At least the race is happening."  My second thought, "those guys must be pretty tough to be out there this early in these conditions."

The start line looked rough; not what I expected for a TNFEC finish line festival.  But, given the conditions, I suppose it was probably a good thing they had much set up at all.  What they did have, was places for people to get out of the weather in the form of some moving trucks and school buses, and they had fire pits set up to keep people warm.  Kudos, TNF, those fire pits were money.

The start/finish line

My wife and son toughing it out.

There weren't near as many runners hanging out as I thought there would be, even though the 50 milers and 50k'ers were already on the course.  I expected to see far more marathon distance runners hanging out than there were, but given the weather, I'm not really surprised.  I found out later that more than half of the marathon runners did not start.  I suppose if you were a local runner, it probably wasn't such a hard decision to pass on this one.  I, however, was determined to start, and finish my first marathon here, no matter the race day conditions. 

We toed the starting line, and my heart was racing already.  5...4...3...2...1...and we were off.  I was running my first marathon, and at that moment, I wouldn't have cared if it was blizzard conditions...I was pumped.

The first section of the course, just shy of a mile, was run on the road leading to Fort Barry, before we turned onto the trails.  The rabbits took off, but the largest group of runners was still pretty much hanging together when we turned onto the trail system.  We hit the first climb at around 1.1 miles, and over the course of about 1.2 miles, we climbed ~650 feet.  This is where the field started to spread out.  Some people ran the whole hill, some walked it, I, like many others, did a combination of running and pow' hiking to the top.  The hill had my calves burning, but as soon as I got to the top, a decent of around 1.5 miles had me picking up the pace and I was feeling good. 

First turn onto the trail.

Views through the fog.

Going up the first climb.

I've got to be honest, the first 7 miles or so are kind of blurry in my mind.  I know there was some good climbs and descents, but I was feeling strong, despite the conditions.  I spent most of the time playing leapfrog on the ups and downs with pretty much the same group of people, chatting along the way, and snapping a few photos here and there while keeping a positive attitude. 

I do remember that at mile 7.1 (I marked it on my garmin) was when I took (surprisingly) my only spill.  I guess I stepped a little to heavily on what appeared to be more solid ground, when it gave way.  I don't know how far I slid down the hill, but it was a good bit.  That was easily the softest fall I've ever had while trail running!  I got back up, did the cursory look to see if anyone saw me, and found a 50-miler right behind me. 

"That's probably the fastest way down any of these hills today," he said.  I was inclined to agree with him.

I got back up, continued down hill (albeit more carefully this time), and then was back around to the first climb again, having just completed the first loop.  Some more climbing and descending in the mud, wind, and rain, and at around mile 12 I was rolling into the Tennessee Valley aid station.  I spent a few minutes here, browsing the buffet of candy, soda, fruit, potatoes, water, electrolyte drink, and various other snacks, before deciding on Mountain Dew and bananas.  With that, and my first refill of my water bottle, I was off again, this time setting off down toward Tennessee Beach. 

There was a short section of downhill road here, and that's where I met the fellow trail runner who I would spend the better part of the next 14 miles running with or very close to.  I regret I never got his name, but we chatted for a bit, and he told me this was the first marathon he had run in 17 years, and that he was from Washington state.  I shared my fact that this was my first marathon, and despite the weather, and the several large climbs we had already done, we were both in great spirits. 

Next came the climb out of Tennessee Beach, which was short, but steep.  This was pretty much the first time the weather broke for a bit, and I could actually see the ocean.  I got a picture or two, and a fellow runner snapped a picture of me standing on the climb with the ocean in the background.  Having that rain stop and clouds clear, even if just for a little while, was a huge morale booster.

Climbing out of Tennessee Valley.


Me and Tennessee Beach in the background.

I continued on, again, with pretty much the same group of runners that I had been with since the beginning, and after the climb out of TN beach, we finally hit the single track section of the trail down around Pirates Cove.  That section was amazing.  The views were unlike anything I've seen on the trail before (when we could see them).  Don't get me wrong, some of the downhill sections were pretty damn sketchy, and very slow moving, but having people around to chat with, and just laugh with, made it all easier.

Views from the singletrack section.

Then came Muir Beach. 

The descent into Muir Beach was straight ridiculous.  A little over a half mile descent of 400' after hundreds of other runners had already gone through (50 mi, 50k, and lead marathon group), became the toughest downhill of the day.  The mud was that slick, snotty, sticky stuff that gives you no traction, no matter what shoes you are wearing.  Even a pair of cleats wouldn't have helped here.

Descent into Muir Beach.
Muir Beach

A 50-miler near me, going down to Muir for his second time, just told me "you just have to go with it and hope for the best."  That's exactly what I did.  I didn't fall, but there were some real close calls.  After walking/sliding/running down that hill, I arrived at the Muir Beach aid station, approximately 16 miles in.  I spent probably 5 minutes at that aid station, getting some more Mountain Dew, popping a gel, eating a banana, and a PB&J sandwich (note to self: PB&J is not a good race food for me), and then pushed on.  After a short loop around a road, it was time to head back up.

This was the demoralizing part. 

It was tough enough to try and climb the hill that just took me what seemed like forever to get down.  There was some time spent with hands-on-ground climbing.  When you get to the top of where the descent started before, you turn left, and just keep going up.  The fog had rolled back in, and you couldn't see more than probably 50-60 feet in front of you.  That was what was demoralizing.  There was just no way to know where the climb just kept going up. 

I distinctly remember a runner near me screaming "FUCK! Is this ever going to end!?!"  I felt the same, and while it was a definite kick to my positive attitude, I knew I couldn't stop.  That hill was killer.  Total climb was around 1000' over nearly 2 miles through fog, mud, and rain.  It took me 45 minutes. 

Climbing out of Muir Beach.

Despite having just come through an aid station and eating, I was on the verge of bonking.  I stopped, popped two Gu Roctanes, and continued to hike it out.  My calves were on fire, and my hamstrings were getting tight.  I was longing for a downhill section.  After I hit the top, I got what I asked for.

It was two miles of sloppy downhill, through some really beautiful forest sections back into TN Valley aid station for the last time.  Here, I met back up with my newly found running buddy, and after spending a few minutes at the aid station refueling, I started up the last climb to the Alta aid station, knowing at this point, that I may not run the uphill, but I was sure as hell going to give it my best hiking effort.  The end was close.

Forest section on the way to Alta water stop.

I made a brief stop at the Alta water stop, and then began the last downhill section.  From there, it was pretty much all down into the finish.  I pushed as hard as I could, still managing (despite my muscle fatigue) to push out some sections at near 7:30/mi pace.  I hit the last water stop, and then turned onto the road back to Fort Barry, and the finish line.

As I was on the road, I rounded the curve to where I could hear the music playing, and see the finish line.  That's when the adrenaline hit came.  I ran.  I don't know how fast I was going, but it felt faster than I had run all day.  I turned the corner off the road and ran the last 50 meters across the finish line.

And I was done. 

My legs were burning, my arms were tired, my back was sore, and I didn't really know how I felt.  It was for sure the hardest run I've ever done.  I was wet, muddy, sweaty, cold, fatigued...and proud.  I did it.  I didn't set a time goal for myself publicly, because I just wanted to finish.  I knew the conditions were going to be shit, and I didn't want to say that on a course that hard in that weather I was going to hold myself to a time standard.  But, in my head, in a place where only I knew, I had set a time before I started: 5 hours and 30 minutes was where I wanted to be. 

My finishing time:  5:31.  Perfect.

Worth every minute.

I can thank enough the event staff and volunteers for what they did out there.  I know how hard it was to be in those conditions for the time I was out there, but they were out there on the course, manning aid stations, and helping runners for hours before I got there and hours after.  They were awesome.  They were uplifting to all the runners, and supported all runners equally, no matter their distance.  The North Face puts on an outstanding event, and all things considered, I don't know who could have done it better.  Sure, there were some hiccups due to the weather and last minute course changes, etc., but overall it was an amazing experience. 

Things I learned about myself?  Well, there were several. 

1.  I can run over 26 miles, and still function afterwards. 
2.  Mt. Dew is awesome.
3.  Bananas are awesome. 
4.  Keeping a positive attitude in adverse conditions can make it fun.
5.  I can run 26 miles, and still function afterwards.

So, the question I suppose every runner asks themselves after their first marathon:  Will I run it again?  My answer, no.  I won't be back there next year to run the marathon...but I will see you for the 50 miler.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pre-race jitters...

It's two days before my "A" race of the season, The North Face Endurance Challenge Trail Marathon in San Francisco.  Pretty much since I started my taper a week and a half ago, I've started second guessing every choice I've made regarding this race since I started training for it in August. 

Did I do enough flat speed work?

Did I do enough hill training?

Did I do enough and long enough long runs?

Is my fueling strategy solid?

Is my gear selection right?

Am I really ready to run 26+ miles on trails with 4500' elevation gain?

To add to an already frustrating taper period, plagued with second guessing, the weather in SF has taken a turn for the worse.  It was bad enough worrying about everything when weather was going to be good, but now there is a storm front moving through that area that is adding flooding rains and wind to the equation.  Now I ask myself even more questions....

Will my shoes give me enough traction?

How much more difficult is poor weather and deteriorating trail conditions going to make the race?

Do I change my gear selection?

Should I wear a jacket that may keep me dry on the outside, but make me sweat excessively?

Am I really ready to run 26+ miles on the MUDDY trails with 4500' elevation gain in the rain and wind?

Truth is, I won't know the answer to any of those questions until I run my race.  I did speed work when my training plan called for it or when I felt it was appropriate.  I am faster than I was 3 months ago.  I have done more hill training (by running local mountain trails) than I had conceived doing up to this point.  I've got 3 solid 20+ mile long runs, with shorter 12-15 mile runs the day prior under my legs in the past few months.  I've done long runs fueling to the max, and I've done long runs allowing myself to bonk, just to know the feeling and how to push through it. 

Even with the foul weather on tap, the other questions are somewhat irrelevant.  My shoes are what they are; comfortable.  I know I can run the distance in them.  Are their shoes out there with more traction available?  Yep, sure are.  I even own a pair.  But I'm not comfortable enough in them yet (they are fairly new), and don't have the confidence in them that I have in my old trusty MT110s.  Will it affect me on the trail?  Maybe, but I don't expect everyone out there is going to be cruising in some Mudclaws or Speedcross 3s. 

The weather will undoubtedly make the race harder, of that I am sure.  But guess what?  It's going to make it harder for everyone, not just me.  All I have to do is go out there and run my own race...nothing more, nothing less.

Fact:  I am ready for this race.  I am the fittest I have ever been.  I am the fastest I have ever been.  My legs are the strongest they have ever been.  A week and a half ago I was nervous about gear, and weather, and training.  Today, I'm not nervous.  I'm ready. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Last Long Run of the Season: Covington Crest and Covington Flats

I've now officially run all but one portion of the California Riding and Hiking Trail as it runs through Joshua Tree National Park.  Some (Juniper Flats area), I've run several times.  Of all the sections, this is by far my favorite.

This section of the trail has some epic views, that honestly, can't even be done justice in least not any photograph I would take.  There is just something about standing on the side of a mountain, alone, taking in some breath-taking views.  Standing there and letting the crisp, cool, mountain wind bite at your ears and cheeks is such an awakening experience that only those who have stood in that spot can know. 

When people ask,  "Why do you run trails?" it's because of moments like that.  The amazing view, the fresh air, the absolute freedom of it all...that's why.  But for those of us who do it, we know that there's even something more that can't be placed into words. Only another purveyor of the trail understands how you feel.

View of Mt San Jacinto from Covington Crest

Overlooking the Coachella Valley


Panoramic view from the crest

San Jacinto above the Clouds

Descending through the bushes

Down into the Flats

Heading down into the canyon
The trail winding into the Canyon floor


Rocky wash as the trail gets more technical

Tall Yucca plants everywhere!

Found a friend on the trail


This was my last long run of the season before beginning my taper.  Have to admit, there was some good climbing and descending, but the trail was pretty amazing.  Great views, great weather, and a great run.

In the meantime...Keep Running!

Desert Queen Mine

Nothing too fancy here, but I just dig some of the history you find here in the desert Southwest.  As it turns out, the area now occupied by Joshua Tree National Park used to be a pretty active gold mining area.

A brief little side history (for those who care), the Desert Queen Mine was the longest operating, and one of the most profitable mines in the area.  It ran from 1895-1961, and during that time produced 3,845 ounces of gold, that yielded several million dollars (according to the US Bureau of Mines...didn't even know there was such a thing).  There's not much left of it now, as you can tell from the pics, just some ruins and old mine shafts and machinery. 

I do like running on trails like this, not because they are particularly difficult or technical, but because you can get a history lesson at the same time!


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Juniper Flats

Did a 20-miler today through the Juniper Flats and Stubbe Springs area of Joshua Tree National Park today.  I've been through the area before to get to Quail Mountain (see my Quail Mountain post), but this time I went a little further, and took some pictures of the area that burned during the fire earlier in the year.  It's very interesting to see the cycle of fire then rebirth that takes place all the time throughout nature.

View of Little San Bernadinos from Juniper Flats

San Jacinto in the distance

Clouds rolling over to range

Trail Down into the canyon

California Riding and Hiking Trail through Juniper Flats.

Burnt Juniper Bush in Juniper Flats from the 2012 fire. 
Scorched Joshua Trees near Quail Springs.

Burnt Joshua Tree Near Juniper Flats.

Scorched Joshua tree...struck by lightning?

Good run overall, and it was beautiful weather.  Amazing, how in a place like this, even if I run in areas I've run before, I always find something different to see!

In the meantime....Keep Running!