Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First Ice 2010/11 Season

Photo by Courtney Ley

Resuming an activity after a long break is always puts me through a range of emotions. After many months without ice climbing (or motorcycling, or trad climbing, or whatever), I find myself a bit hesitant to start back up again. Not only do I feel rusty, but the time away allows me to inflate the dangers in my own mind. Fear of avalanches and falling ice, inattentive drivers, and cams zippering out of the rock grow out of proportion until I wonder why I ever did that activity in the first place. Nightmares makes this feel quite vivid at times.

I start out by going through the motions: packing my gear, walking up the trail, and racking up - anything to procrastinate a little longer. Maybe, I think, if I drag my feet enough the weather will get worse and I'll be able to save face and weasel out of this without having to admit to being such a pussy. This is where a good partner comes in - some reinforce this fear and make it easier to find an excuse - others have no mercy. Given my natural level of caution, the latter is usually just what I need. When the moment of truth comes I say, "yep, looks good to me - let's do it."

It takes a few feet of climbing before the elvis-leg starts to go away. A bit higher, I've placed a few screws and the urge to down climb with my tail between my legs is steadily fading. Each swing feels solid, I look at things more rationally, and realize how much damn fun this is. By the top I'm building an anchor and fighting through the painful rush of blood back into my cold hands. Circulation isn't the only thing coming back, and I'm now looking forward to my best season of ice climbing yet.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


In the interest of being a little bit more versatile as runner, I took it upon myself to run a road marathon last year. I figured that for someone who's run 100 trail miles in a single day, a respectable time on 26.2 miles of road should be no sweat. Somewhere around mile 18, when I found myself bent over a guard rail and retching rather vocally, it dawned on me that I might have gone out a little too hard. It might have been a good idea to eat something as well, because running a 7 minute/mile pace for 3 hours will make your energy reserves run dry a lot faster than 3 hours at a 12 minute/mile pace will. After staggering to the finish in 3 hours and 45 minutes, a drooling mess, I knew I had a score to settle.

Road races, as opposed to trail, are supposed to for a needier sort of runner - the kind of person who wears a heart rate monitor and compression socks and jogs in place at traffic lights, or so I thought. Yet, somehow a mere marathon got the best of me. To salvage some of my honor, I promptly signed up for a second marathon held 7 days later and ran the exact same time, within 30 seconds. Despite pulling this off with only a week of recovery time, I still didn't feel quite right...

Fast forward to Halloween of this year and I'm waiting to start the Cape Cod Marathon, the same race I crashed and burned at last year. Coming off a strong Vermont 50 finish as well as a month of fast road training, I felt pretty good about my chances of laying down a fast time. My goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon which is not an easy task. A male runner under 35 years old needs to do better than 3:10:59. While this is a fairly lofty standard, I've heard you need to be in the top 8% or so, I think it's still a fair and obtainable minimum. It just takes work.

As with most road races, I felt a little out of place. This time I was at least wearing road-shoes, even if they were McDonald's colored. Everyone else looked fresh and neatly groomed - I'm growing out my hair and was sporting a healthy case of bed-head. No stretching or warming up for me. Soon enough the cannon was fired and we were on our way.

I'll spare the blow by blow of this race but, suffice to say, I ran a solid race from start to finish. The halfway mark went by in 1:29 and I began reeling in many of the people who had passed me early on. Much of the race I was completely alone. At one point I couldn't see anyone ahead of or behind me and experienced a brief moment of panic when I though I might have spaced out and lost the course. The last few miles were tough, as they tend to be, but I held off a few challengers in the homestretch to finish in 3:06:18. With a 7:07 minute/mile average pace, I was quite pleased.

While I now feel good about my marathon time, each race always leads to another, and I'm wondering if breaking 3 hours is in the cards for me. Perhaps with a more training and a flatter course I could pull it off, but that will have to wait until next near.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Colorado - August 2010

I'm in love with American West. One by one, over the last few years, I've been slowly ticking off each state. Rather than a simple over-and- done-with checklist, I feel like I've barely touched on each in my brief vacation-time-limited visits. This year I got to spend some time in Colorado and do a little exploring.

Our first stop was Rocky Mountain National Park. While the park doesn't have a huge concentration of high peaks, it is very accessible from the Denver area (a quick escape!) and provides an opportunity for visitors of all ambition levels to see the mountains.

Shown below is a tourist road that brings you as high as 12,000 feet. It cuts through alpine tundra where, even in August, the snow cornices of winter haven't completely melted. It also includes the requisite visitor center and gift shop, which I have mixed feelings about given the location.

Beyond the RV and tour bus staples of cheap trinket hawkers, scenic turnouts and interpretive nature trails, the park has a very dense concentration of accessible alpine climbing. Unfortunately, climbing was not in the cards for me on this trip.

We did, however, get in some light hiking on Long's Peak. Catching a sunrise like this requires an alpine start.

Later on, an approaching thunderstorm turned us around before we got too far. After a harrowing experience with lightning above treeline earlier this summer, I didn't feel like pushing my luck. Of course, once we had reversed course and gone back far enough to be committed to going down, things began to clear up. Weather patterns here are not the same as in New England.

The thunder didn't seem to bother the ptarmigan too much, though.

On our way down we stopped to scope out the fabled wall of the Diamond, in all its glory. Big wall climbing at 14,000 feet.

Back in nearby Estes Park, mule deer in an intersection resulted in a solid 20 minutes of pandemonium. I haven't decided which is more erratic, a rental ca traffic jam or a herd of semi-skittish wildlife. It was damn fun to watch from the deck of a nearby Mexican restaurant, though.

Our next stop was in Leadville where we got to check out an old ghost town near Hagerman Pass. This place was once known as Douglass City, where immigrant railroad workers were housed. Read the sign below for a description of some of the Wild West stuff that went on here.

There's not a whole lot left of the place beyond some collapsing cabins and iron bits strewn about.

A ways uphill from the ghost town was the old Hagerman Tunnel. "DANGER DON'T ENTER"... of course I did, being such a rebellious free-spirit and all (or something). There was a three foot layer of ice coating the floor of the tunnel, which I thought was really cool. Not having a headlamp, I didn't go any farther than the partial collapse up ahead.

The next day we took a rather long drive to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. To get here you drive through miles upon miles of cow-country, with no forewarning that such a huge gash in the earth is lurking somewhere up ahead. This place was nice and mellow for a national park, with no concessions and minimal development. It's also one of the more legendary climbing destinations in the U.S.

There are some pretty cool view locations in the Black Canyon that let you get right up to the edge for a peek into the bottom.

Then it was back to Leadville, where I joined up with buddy Nate for a little run up Mt. Sherman, my first Fourteener. Our route followed an old abandoned transmission line up a loose gully.

After some huffing and puffing in the altitude, we gained a ridge where the views improved.

Looking back toward the city of Leadville, at 10,200 feet it's the highest city in America.

View from the summit.

Later on, Nate and I made another run - this time up over Hope Pass on the Leadville Trail 100 course. Nate went on to finish that race in under 23 hours later in the week.

Along the way we discovered an old ruined cabin and I just had to investigate.

A bit further, we begin to break out above treeline for some sweet running on alpine single track.

Finally, we reached the top of Hope Pass and were rewarded with the view from the top.

While the scenery is gorgeous, if you're going to take it all in from your car, please remember to stay in the right hand lane. Perhaps this explains all the left-lane campers on the highway here.

Remember kids, "drive right, pass left". It's not that hard.

Though our trip seemed short, I got enough of a taste of Colorado to know that I'll be back, probably not for Leadville, but the HardRock 100 in the San Juan Range has a persistent hold on my imagination right now...

Salt Lake City - August 2010

Back in August I got the chance to go to a trade show in Salt Lake City. Going through my pictures today, I though some of them should see the light of day.

Rain clouds in the Wasatch Range just outside of town.

A beautiful place.

Some sort of atmospheric effect going on with the light here.

The most intense colors I've ever see in a rainbow.

I took an early morning run into the hills on the edge of the city.

The trail I followed goes along the rolling terrain in the picture all the the way to the hill in the center. It looked a lot closer than it really was.

Looking back, I got a pretty good view of the city and the Salt Lake.

I came all the way from downtown.

The view into the Wasatch from my hill. The Wasatch Front Endurance Run is held out there. A return trip might be in order.

Back in town, I took a side trip past the Mormon Temple.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

2010 Vermont 50

Last weekend further solidified the Vermont 50 as my favorite race. The course is challenging yet fast, and it has miles of my favorite kind of trail; twisty mountain bike single track. The location is excellent, with gorgeous scenery and the late September date makes for beautiful foliage and ideal running temperatures.

I wore a GPS this time around, to get a good map and elevation profile of the course. I think some of the tightly winding sections of trail under tree-cover may have confused it a bit, as I came up about 1.5 miles short by the time I hit the finish. I trust Course Director Zeke Zucker's measurements more than my own, however.

Going into the race, I felt like it was time to redeem some past failures - Failure to start the race last year, a DNF at mile 95 of this year's Vermont 100, and a pacing performance at Leadville that I can't say I'm proud of. I have last year's VT50 race shirt, as well as this year's VT100 race shirt sitting in my drawer at home and I don't feel comfortable enough to wear either one. If there was ever a time to lay down a solid performance, this was it. With plenty of time to recover, a solid 2 month block of training, and no injuries, I was feeling as strong as I ever have.

I took a spot near the front of the line for the start and quickly found myself on the heels of the lead pack. With 5 miles or so of easy road to start the race, I knew I could bank some significant time. The risk of going out too fast seemed low, as I've been running fast 5 milers at lunch during the work week and I've gotten to the point where they take very little energy out of me. I did have to let my experience and better judgment take over once we began to hit the hills and focus on my own pace as other people passed me frequently. Still, I ran all but the steepest of hills throughout the race. While it was tempting to try to keep up with others, especially new friends I was enjoying conversation with, I had to let them go.

There were a few notable spots along the way that helped me keep my motivation up. The first of these was a small section of trail that's shared with some of the later miles of the Vermont 100. There's one particular section where the trail goes by a small pond, past a gate, and along a woods road. It was here, a few months ago that I was reduced to a hobbling, blubbering mess just before dropping from the Vermont 100. I felt a hell of a lot better this time and revisiting the same spot only made me more determined to make up for that failure.

The second spot was in a particularly winding section of trail that goes through a house's back yard. Right out by the trail was cooler, with a sign saying "for runners only" that contained glorious beer. At first glance, there were only a few cans of Bud Lite remaining, but my eyes caught a glimpse of a familiar bottle cap sticking out from the ice; Long Trail Blackbeary Wheat, my favorite. I downed half the bottle in a matter seconds and thought about taking the whole thing with me, but decided to leave the rest for someone else. With so little beer left, only runners who hustle would get one today.

For this race I opted to go much lighter than usual and to try some fine tuning of my nutrition strategy. Instead of a waist-pack, I carried only a single water bottle in my hand and I wore a pair of hand-me-down basketball shorts with large pockets that allowed me to carry 8 gels at a time. This provided a noticeable freedom over the larger loads I've carried in the past. Having suffered from persistent blood-sugar problems in other races, I decided to up my gel intake. It used to be 1 Gu every 60 minutes, then 45 minutes, and with this race, every 30. While my teeth felt disgusting, I never bonked and my energy level was consistently high from start to finish. At aid stations, I only took water, filling up my bottle as quickly as possible. This time around I didn't browse the food table at all, I was in too much of a hurry. At handler stations, Miriam and I performed a fast bottle and gel exchange with less than 30 seconds wasted.

Stopping for aid makes me so ANGRY! I'm not sure what prompted this facial expression.

For footwear I wore my trusty Brooks Cascadias, though I may have kept them laced a little too loosely as I suffered from toe-bang throughout the race. I didn't get any blisters, but two of my toenails are turning black. Other than that, they performed superbly whether we were running steep downhill trail, or pounding out stretches of dirt road. As much as the whole minimalism trend is fashionable among running shoes, and I agree with much of the thinking behind it, my relatively heavy Cascadias continue to get me through races.

With only 5 miles to go, I found myself in a very strong position, and I began to see that an 8 hour finish was within reach. Many of the people who had looked so fresh when they passed me early on were now looking a little worse for wear. I smelled blood in the water and kicked it up a notch, picking them off one by one. I left them a few words of encouragement, but then did my best to leave them behind.

The last few miles were tough. Despite my best efforts, I had to walk some of the final hills, all while watching my watch tick closer to the 8 hour mark. Just as it was looking like I might not make it, the course made its final downhill turn and I was able to blast to the finish as fast as my legs would carry me.

Final time: 7:56:35, a new personal best for the 50 mile distance by over a half hour, as well as a new PR on the the VT50 course by over 90 minutes. This works out to an average pace of 9:31 minutes per mile. Thinking back, had I used a more leisurely aid station strategy I might not have gotten a time starting with a 7. Also, as an unexpected bonus, I somehow managed to win the men's 20-29 age group. Looking at the results, I pulled this off only by passing a handful of other people my age in the last few miles. For my trouble I was awarded a plaque and a jar of honey, the first prizes I've ever truly won.

While there was no mud, the course was very dusty. My stolen, I mean borrowed, gaiters worked wonderfully for keeping my feet clean.

At this point I'd like to think that I've fully redeemed my most recent shortcomings. With recovery going well, I'm psyched up and trying to decided what to do next.

Tired but happy family showed up just in time to see me finish.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

AMC Huts Traverse 7/3/2010

In the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire the Appalachian Mountain Club operates a chain of eight mountain refuges known as huts. They extend from East to West across the highest parts of the range including the famous Mount Washington Massif and the Franconia Ridge and are situated roughly "a day's hike apart". Dating back to the 1930s it has been a traditional challenge for strong AMC Croo members to enchain all the huts into a single monster day hike in under 24 hours. With roughly 50 miles and 15,000 feet of elevation gain over extremely rugged terrain, the traverse has also become a fun challenge for hikers looking for something beyond the Presidential Traverse and Pemi-Loop.

When I first heard about the Huts Traverse I was just beginning my hiking career and I had almost no way to fathom what it really meant. Traveling that far, that fast seemed inconceivable to the point where I wrote it off as something I would never subject myself to. As time went on and I got stronger and more experienced, I began to wonder. The turning point came with a vote of confidence from someone experienced in these sorts of things that I both admire and respect, though it would take a few years and false starts before I finally got around to attempting the traverse for myself.

I've been debating whether to post a report of the traverse for some time, but ultimately decided to because I've been unable to find a complete published account of a summer Huts Traverse anywhere and it's something I would enjoy reading if someone else did it.

At 12:15 AM I finished my final preparations and set off alone in the dark at a leisurely pace up the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail to Carter Notch Hut. I was equipped very lightly with the following items:

Gregory Stimulus hydration pack with a 2 liter water bladder
GoLite hand-held bottle with Succeed Clip2 sports drink
Brooks Cascadia 3 trail running shoes
synthetic material running shorts and t-shirt
Drymax socks
Wild Things Epic wind shirt
Dirty Girl gaiters
lycra arm sleeves
wool skull cap
LED headlamp
1 bagel and about a dozen gels
a handful of electrolyte tablets
digital point-and-shoot camera

I borrowed the gaiters... They're not mine! I swear!

My past experiences have shown me that this is all I need to for this sort occasion. I never was cold enough that I required my wind shirt or hat and my plan for an unforcasted weather change was to simply bail down one of the many side trails and hitchhike back to the car.

I arrived to a dark and quiet Carter Notch Hut where I topped up my fluids, and rested with my light off for a few minutes. Judging by the squeaking and scurrying noises around me, the hut seems to have a sizable rodent population.

Just before 2:00 am I stepped outside and stood looking up at the stars and moon through a partly cloudy sky. The hulking dark masses of Carter Dome and the Wildcats bracketed me on either side. At 2 on the dot I started my watch timer, stepped away from the door and jogged down the trail back toward route 16. The trail wassomewhat rocky but descended at a moderate grade and I was able to make good time by running most of it. 45 minutes later I ran past my car at the trail head and took off down the centerline of the deserted highway.

The Great Gulf Trail came quickly and I took it to the Osgood Trail which runs steeply up to Mount Madison. The night time critters were out and I saw a lot of big toads hopping around on the trail. Many of the rocks were covered in slugs and I accidentally smashed one with the palm of my hand while clambering over a boulder. Gross.

Breaking out above tree line I got a wonderful view of the lights of Goreham. The Eastern horizon began to lighten and turn red while the birds began to tweet as they do at dawn. There was a bit of a breeze but I was able to stay comfortable with just my arm sleeves which are very warm considering their size and weight. On a bit of an impulse I opted to take the Parapet trail, bypassing the summit cone of Mount Madison. The popular advice I heard was the the Parapet is so rough that the extra 500 vertical feet over Madison's summit is worth while. I didn't find the trail too bad at all and, after exploring the over-the-top variation last weekend, I'm firmly convinced that the Parapet is the faster way to go.

I arrived at Madison Springs hut in 3:01, at 5:01 AM according to the time stamp from my camera, signed the guest log, refilled my water and stowed my headlamp before quickly heading out the door on the Gulfside Trail.

By now it was fully light out and I made quick progress past Mount Adams, Jefferson, Clay and Washington, bypassing each summit.

I was particularly impressed with the Westside Trail, which I'd never been on before. At a mostly level grade, the footing better than nearly any other trail in the Presidential range.

As I descended Mount Washington I began to see other hikers, the first of many I'd see on this holiday beautiful weekend. I made it to Lakes of the Clouds Hut from Madison in 2:10 at 7:11 AM where I again signed in and refilled. The Croo was busy giving their morning spiel to the guests and paid me no mind. Gone as quickly as I came, I jogged down the Crawford Path past the summits of Madison, Franklin and Eisenhower. I didn't feel bad bypassing the summit loops as my goal today was huts, not summits, and I've been to each many times before.

Two and a half hours later, after passing over the top of Mount Pierce, I arrived at Mitzpah Hut at 8:31 in the morning. One of the croo members noticed my entry in the log and congratulated me on my fast pace so far. We talked about the traverse for a few minutes, he told me he was planning one of his own for Monday, before he wished me good luck and I was on my way again. The Mitzpah Cutoff quickly deposited me back on the Crawford Path where I began to run into a bit more traffic. Fortunately, every encounter was mutually polite, a pattern that mercifully held true for the entire day. Running a bit too fast over one rough section of trail I stubbed my toe pretty hard which threw me off balance. Trying to catch myself I accidentally kicked my ankle with other other foot before toppling headfirst into a dead tree on the side of the trail. Its branches snapped off against my rib cage and made a crashing sound which I found rather comical. Laughing a bit to myself, I gathered my water bottle and hat from the ground, before resuming my descent at a more moderated pace.

Once at Crawford Notch I retrieved my roadside stash of food and dry socks out of the bushes. I took a minor breather here, re-lubing my feet and eating a granola bar before remembering to check the time. It was 9:18 in the morning, or ~7 hours elapsed. Not bad for a Presi Traverse (minus summits, plus Mitzpah Hut).

Avalon to the A-Z trail was where things began to fall apart a bit. Distance-wise, this was the halfway point of my trek. However, I found that hard part was just getting started. I'd been on the A-Z trail a few times before, but it seemed to have gotten much steeper since my last visit and I struggled a bit with heat of the day now making its presence felt. I sweat like a slob and felt a little woozy with the beginnings of a bonk coming on. After cresting the Willey Range and heading back downhill, I still made slow progress as the trail here was very muddy and overgrown. What runnable sections there were, I struggled to take advantage of. At one point I made a minor misstep and was rewarded with an unexpected dunk into a stream. So much for dry feet. My only comfort was knowing that I'd been through this before, low spots are just a part of all day exertions and I can wait them out.

At 11:07 I arrived at Zealand Hut to a very accommodating member of the croo. He provided me with lemonade and offered me my choice of any of the snacks they had. Other than the water and lemonade, I stuck to my own supplies. The Twinway turned out to be another trail that was more rugged that I remembered and I began to think that with the Garfield Ridge coming up, the second half of this traverse must be the more difficult of the two; not what I anticipated while planning.

The brief open sections on Guyot and South Twin offered a refreshing breeze despite the lack of shade and I made my way down to Galehead Hut at 1:55 PM. This section was a bit of a time-eater but I was still making very good progress. Next up: the infamous Garfield Ridge. It was here where I began to have minor hallucinations. Nothing crazy, mind you. No talking to non-existent people or anything, but I was 100% convinced that I saw yellow lab in the trail in front of me. I stared at it for a minute then shook my head and blinked. When I looked again, there was only a tree stump. I suppose 3 hours of sleep will do that do you. I've never had my eyes play tricks on me quite so well in all my races. Nonetheless, I still felt fully competent and was beginning to get some of my mojo back.

Garfield Ridge never feels easy, but I've traveled it enough times in the last couple years to know exactly how many more hills I have to go over before reaching Garfield and Lafayette. The pointless ups and downs aren't so discouraging when they're expected. Soon enough I had powered up the long climb to treeline on Lafayette and was at the Skookumchuck Trail junction. I stopped for a moment to call my wife and let her know that I was going to finish and that I would need a ride soon.

From Lafayette's summit, looking back where I came from on the far horizon...

...and where I'm going. Lonesome Lake Hut is on the pond in the center of the picture.:

Lafayette's summit was as busy as you would expect for a holiday weekend but I was able to easily weave my way through the crowds on the trail. At Greenleaf Hut at 5:53 I ate my last gel, downed my last electrolyte tablets and plunged down the Old Bridle Path. I knew that if I pushed I might make it to Lonesome Lake in under 17 Hours, which would be almost on par with the times of some heavy hitters that have run the traverse in recent years. While I had to be very careful in a few places, I found the path quite runnable and I was at the trail head in no time.

I crossed through the tunnel under I93 and nearly sprinted across the parking lot to the Lonesome Lake trail head. With the temperatures once again back to comfortable evening levels I was able to push hard up the trail, despite my aching legs. 17 hours was drawing close and I wanted to finish badly. I finally crested the top of the trail at the lake and began to run the boardwalks around the shoreline with the hut in sight. Dodging a few muddy spots, I got to the last uphill and ran up the door where I could finally stop my watch at 6:48 PM and sit down. 16:48:10, I'd done it!

Shortly thereafter my wife, Miriam, arrived with my dog. The croo all gave me their congratulations and, after the guests had been served dinner, plied me with leftover turkey pot pie, rice, and peas. After 17 hours of gels, I fairly devoured that, as well a turkey sandwich Miriam had brought me.

I lounged around on the porch for a bit, reflecting on all the wonderful places I'd been in one day. Rather than a senseless blitz, this run made me appreciate these mountains even more. I feel immensely fortunate to have such a wonderful place virtually in my back yard.