Saturday, July 31, 2010

Wet and Wild in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness

This weekend the GeekGrl and I went for a run through the San Pedro Parks Wilderness. It is one of our favorite places to run together because there isn’t any significant climbing but it all takes place at pretty good elevation, between about 9250 feet and 10,450 feet. It is also an incredibly beautiful area of mixed conifer forests interspersed with groves of aspen, open grasslands and highland marshes.

However, because the trails we run start about 10 miles north of the small town of Cuba, NM, which is about a two hour drove from our home, we don’t get out there much. Because there are the highland marshes there is always some water to contend with even apart from the numerous little streams that run through the area but for the most part the trails are dry. That was definitely not the case today. There was water, water, water and even on the segments of trail that didn’t have standing water there was mud, some of which had been churned up by the several cows that roam the area.

As we were starting our little run I thought a nice big loop would be a nice change from the out and back that we have done in the past. The main trail we take is the Vacas trail so we took that for a couple miles until we hit the Damian trail…that should have been an omen.

Shortly after heading out on the Damian trail we discovered that the trail quickly became a thin trace of bent grass which became a trackless wilderness. I never run wilderness trails without a topo map. Coupled with my Garmin from which I can get elevation I always feel confident in finding my way around. If I really feel like I’m going to somewhere remote I’ll also bring along a compass. My experience with the San Pedro Parks is that the trails are clear and very well marked. I was not familiar with the miles of space that were generously called trails so there I was without a compass.

In order to make sure the GeekGrl and I remained living members of the civilized world I had to reach back 20 years to my Marine Corps days when I didn’t just drink and cuss and play Rugby but I was also an expert in Land Navigation. My skills were rusty at first and I led us off track once for about 100 yards or so but then things started to click. Before I knew it I was running along map in hand making note of the way the land rose and fell around me and keeping alert for any of the tell-tale signs of prior human presence in the wilds. Our progress was slower but I was having a great time.

Of course it wasn’t all a trackless wilderness. There was plenty of premier New Mexican trail, two foot bridges built strictly to instill a sense of irony in the soggy sojourner and even a bit of forest porn for those lonely nights on the trail.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Last Big Leadville Training Weekend

This past weekend the GeekGrl and I headed to Leadville with friends for the last big training weekend before the race. The weekend workouts went great! We ran hard and ran far and nobody was injured. Between Friday and Sunday mornings I got in 58.75 miles with a total of 18, 636 feet of climbing and am now pretty much exhausted.

Thursday evening we drove as far as Monte Vista, CO and stayed over night in a super kitschy hotel. The GeekGrl took several pics so I'll let her post those. Friday morning we drove the rest of the way to Leadville and the ran the section of trail from the Twin Lakes aid station up and over Hope pass and then back. We didn't run the additional 2.5 miles out to Winfield because in the grand scheme of our weekend it would have just been added junk mileage. The double crossing of hope pass just never gets any easier.

Saturday morning we ran from Treeline, just a few miles past Fish Hatchery, to Twin Lakes and back to Treeline. That was a hard run. During the training camp I covered that same ground in the outbound direction so I had never run it inbound from Twin Lakes back to Treeline. The inbound direction is going to be really hard on race day after already having 60 miles in my legs as well as the double crossing of Hope.

Saturday night beginning around 10:00 we ran from the base of Sugar Loaf over to May Queen. The climb over Sugar Loaf comes at about mile 80 and despite being far less than Hope it is still pretty brutal. The night run was really nice and the weather was perfect.

The final run was Sunday morning and it was a short one from May Queen to the Tabor boat ramp. That is one section that I had never run before and I am really glad to have run it. I can see how you could completely ruin your entire race by running from the start to May Queen too fast. This year there has been a lot of concern among runners that too many people have been let into Leadville this year. No numbers have been published as yet but people are saying that over 800 people are registered. The big worry for most is that they will get stuck way back in a string of 800 people, probably 400 of whom have no business being there, and they their race will be doomed because it has taken them too much time to get from the start to May Queen.

Personally, my concern is that I could get swept up too far forward and then be pressed too hard for the first 13.5 miles and then I'll suffer for the early speed late in the race. I think that if I try to start somewhere between 50-75% back in the pack and then just run easy for the first few miles then I'll be in just the right place when things narrow down to single track. I'm not concerned about taking too much time in getting to May Queen because I know that I can make it up late in the race.

I really need to get to bed. Holly's taper time for Leadville!

Just in:
I just got some pics from our Leadville training weekend. I failed to mention that the people I ran with are the fastest ultrarunners I personally know so trying to hang with them all weekend was no mean feat but it was a great experience.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Devil is in the Details: A Devil Mountain 50K Race Report

Devil Mountain is a very well done set of races by people who know and love trail running. There are three races going on at the same time, the 50-mile, 50K and half-marathon. The run pretty much offered everything in equal measure, fast dirt roads, good single track and ATV trails, fairly significant climbs, fun descents and sections that were very rocky and challenging. However, this race is challenging to the degree that a road runner out to try the trails would probably completely freak out and given the pastoral pictures posted on the website, many trail runners will be taken aback.

For example, as one reviewer from last year put it “There were wild flowers that stood shoulder high in places.” Well, that was certainly true, there were sections that had such dense undergrowth that you could not see the trail you were running on and the path opened and closed around you like a zipper of green. In that section there were also bugs the size of walnuts zipping around your head as you ran if you were strong enough to run that segment of trail. If not, well, I suppose you would have expended a lot of energy slapping and flailing your arms.

I also discovered early on that it is a good idea to carry enough of your own nutrition to last through about mile 18. The first two aid stations only had water and HEED. I can't drink HEED. I was thinking to myself as I sucked down my last gel, “This could be a particularly difficult day. I wonder what all these plants around me taste like and more importantly, how many are likely to kill me if eaten?” Well, I eventually got the answer to that last question; at least one. It just so happens that on Devil Mountain hemlock grows wild. Indeed, some of the aforementioned dense foliage that I was running through was hemlock. I did not discover the existence of hemlock on the mountain because I am a botanist or because I found Socrates dying in some mountain meadow; no, I came upon a great stench and as I rounded a bend in the trail was treated to the lovely sight posted herein. The partially eaten and decomposed body of a cow, who apparently had as little training in botany as I.

Though the trail is well marked there are also live cows roaming the area who tend to eat not only incredibly toxic plants but trail markers as well. When they aren't eating the trail markers they are trampling them. There was one junction where all markings were stripped away and you just had to guess which way to go. Me and a couple people came to this intersection where the ATV trail we had been running on went sharply right and a narrow little track continued straight through a big clearing. We had been told that in sections where there were junctions there would be markers all over indicating where to go. This intersection had a clothes pin with about ¼ inch of ribbon on it hanging in the branch of a dead tree that was sitting near the middle of the intersection. To make matters more confusing the little track that went straight had a couple logs laid across it as if to say “don't go this way” and the marker flags that we were told would mark the trail when it crossed open field were nowhere to be seen in this, or any, field. However, the ATV trail we had been on didn't have any markers either. Apparently getting lost is not uncommon on Devil Mountain.

Anyway, when I got to that intersection there were already two guys there puzzling over the situation. They kind of set the stage for the confusion by already having decided that the clothes pin “was slightly more toward the narrow track than the ATV trail but these logs seem to indicate that we shouldn't go that way.” I'm not sure what I would have decided had I come upon it alone but I didn't come across it first so there we were.

There was a woman running the 50-mile who decided to run the narrow trail across the field and I thought “What the hell, we haven't run across a field yet and there are supposed to be some out here so why not.” I followed her for about a mile until we reached the woods again and there were still no markings. I turned back and she kept going. She ended up making the right decision and I ended up running the field twice and picking up some bonus miles. When I got back to the cow ravaged intersection there was a group of about 10 runners standing around scratching their heads with more coming up the trail. Things were just getting more confusing so I just turned around and went back and was, of course, eventually rewarded by unmolested trail markings.

Shortly after getting back on course though, there was suddenly a lot of whooping and hollering. I was running along oblivious to all but the trail and happily listening to my iPod. I wondered what all the commotion was about and suddenly a cowboy on horseback burst from the woods waving and yelling. Like any good (stupid) tourist I immediately stopped, pulled out my camera and snapped a shot of the cowboy in the woods. This action didn't seem very satisfactory to him. In fact it seemed to agitate him further. It occurred to me that maybe I should have asked his permission to snap his picture after all he is some kind of old west guy, right? Maybe he thought I stole his soul with my magical flashing box.

It turns out he probably wasn't too worried about the picture. As I was standing in the trail, iPod blasting and camera in hand another noise began to encroach on my senses and I casually glanced to my left in time to see a heard of cattle surging up the trail with a group of other cowboys in hot pursuit. Snapped from my reverie I sprinted into the woods for all I was worth crashing through brush and branch, hurdling fallen trees and leapfrogging desk-sized rocks. Now breathless and safely out of harms way I turned to see the trail I had just been standing on churned into a pall of dust and freshly released chlorophyll. The cowboy I has seen first smiled, tipped his hat and quietly disappeared into the woods.

Are you getting the picture yet? This wasn't any double mochachino, ciabatta bread serving psudo-trail race; no, this was the real deal.

I realize that my little story here isn't exactly selling this race but I do want to stress that the race management is both earnest in their love of honest to god trail running and flatly honest about what you can expect once out on the course. As stated in the race information, there are some longish sections between aid that can take a lot of time and this year it got really hot so it was indeed a good idea to bring plenty of capacity to carry your own fluids. During the last six miles of the race it was absolutely baking and there were few segments with shade. I was carrying a hydration pack and two water bottles and was sure to top everything off with water and ice. I probably passed five or six people all of whom were carrying only one bottle. I was able to drink from the pack and keep myself somewhat cool with the two hand held bottles by spraying myself and soaking my hat. I was basically running through the heat of the day smiling with my own personal water wiggle while the others were miserably baking in their own personal hell.

It really was a good race and is one that I recommend to all my friends (and enemies but without any warning). The rest of the aid stations had plenty of stuff including Hammer Gels, cookies, S-caps, ice, M&M's etc...and the volunteers were very helpful and got you through the aid station quickly and efficiently. The hand crafted “over-all” winner awards were absolutely to die for; big devil figures made from red painted rail-road spikes carrying a pitch fork with one foot up on a rock so it really looked like it was climbing up rough trail. The whole thing was mounted on a mountain bike chainring. Holy cow I have never wished more to be faster.

My race, aside from all the adventure, went really well. My time of 6:37:34 (by my Garmin for a distance of 32.38 miles) was good enough to land me in 4th place in my age group and, if I counted right, 12th place overall. It was a very tough training run for Leadville but it is the last tough run I have left. Now I have a couple more high, but relatively easy, mileage weeks and then it's taper time!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Higher Than Hope

Since the Leadville training camp two weeks ago I have kept training hard and have put in about 130 miles. Not only that but I was introduced to a route that takes off from the Santa Fe ski area and works as a fair approximation of Leadville's famous double crossing of Hope Pass. The main difference in the Santa Fe route and the double crossing of Hope is that the Santa Fe route is actually harder, well, except for the fact that the first crossing of Hope comes at about mile 42 and the second crossing comes at about mile 52.

I have run this route twice in the past two weekends, last weekend ended up being about a 33 mile run with the heavy climbing up front. The run begins at the ski area elevation 10,300 and heads out on the Windsor trail. The first major climb takes place about ¾ of a mile into the run and goes up to Lake Peak elevation 12,404 and then descends a bit and jumps over Penitente Peak elevation 12, 249. This is followed by a 2.5 mile descent down to 10, 925 before the 2.6 mile climb to the highest point in the run, Santa Fe Baldy at 12, 622, about 300 feet higher in elevation than Hope Pass.

The remainder of the long run that I did a week ago then continued along the Skyline trail and ran past Lake Katheryn then Stewart Lake and the turn around point was Johnson Lake, it was a beautiful run but it was probably the hardest 33 miles I have ever run. This weekend I only had to get about 22 miles so took the same route but just went about a mile and a half past Lake Katheryn.

With my training being so heavy now and the runs so difficult it is hard to feel strong but I know this is just a phase and once I taper everything should come together. Next weekend I've decided to break the routine a bit and head for Colorado to run a 50K just outside Pagosa Springs. The race is called the Devil Mountain 50K and while it only goes to about 9,800 feet it will be a good run for my recovery week. It's also supposed to be an exceptionally beautiful run so it will be nice to get out of town with the GeekGrl and see somewhere new. The GeekGrl will be running the half-marathon at the same race and then we will turn right around and return to Albuquerque to run the Chunky Monkey 10K on Sunday. That race will be topped off with some free Chunky Monkey ice cream...mmmmmm!

For now, enjoy the pictures of my epic run.