Cowiche Birthday Party

My friend, Will Run for Whisky (aka Ana), and I have birthdays that are one day apart, so we decided to invite a bunch of friends to join us for a birthday run. Since pretty much everybody is tired of wet feet and rain, we decided to head to Yakima—on the east side of the Cascades—and Cowiche Canyon for some desert landscape and dry trails.

Fortunately, we have really cool and awfully nice friends, and despite the 2-1/2 hour drive (each way) a big crew ended up showing up for the party.

Kelly W., who is a master at making all occasions festive, gave And and me sombrerito headbands and sombrero-sparkle-bead necklaces since we were the birthday girls. We had a couple of mountain bikers and then folks wanting everything from 6–8 to 16 miles and after trying to figure out a route, we just decided to run. Once again I forgot my Garmin—seems to be a trend since Black Canyon—and we set out.

It was a joy to run on dry trails and to even see spring flowers polka-dotting the grasses and sage brush.

One problem/benefit of deciding to “just run” is that I promptly got us semi-lost. As I took out my map and tried to figure out how to get down into Cowiche Canyon itself, Kelly announced another feature of our party: it was piñata time! Ana and I tried punching it and hitting it with a rock, but that little guy was tough! We resorted to tearing off its legs, and everyone scrambled for the candy.

We found our way down into the canyon and headed our way upstream. The canyon itself is just a few miles long, but has ancient basalt columns on one side and some kind of andesite formations on the other. (We actually did stop and read an information sign that had pictures and everything.) At the end of the canyon, we decided to explore some more and we headed back up and found another trail system that wound around and around and around. We put Tim of Boldly Went Adventures in front to get us back to the canyon, and sure enough we got to have an adventure as he picked up a deer trail (or something similarly unmaintained and fairly indistinct). He had a good sense of direction, though, and we eventually got back to the trail we had come up. From there, it was back downstream, and then back up to where we started.

Oh—and why the sombrero theme? Because after our run we headed to Yakima proper and feasted on James Beard award-winning tamales. Yum!!

I’m still loving these little adventure “jaunts,” but I’ve got a training plan that will kick into gear after my kids’ spring break and will be logging more time on longer trails soon. And I’m happy to report that I’m looking forward to it.

Post script and pretty much totally unrelated except it happened on this trip: On my way home, I stopped at a McDonalds to use the restroom. Sadly, this guy was hanging out at the door begging for food. I’ve never seen a duck do that before, aside from at duck ponds where people throw them bread. It was kind of surprising to have him just walk up to my feet and stare at me when I walked outside.

 

A Little Jaunt

Sometimes it’s nice to just go out for a little jaunt in the woods. No training, no GPS-enabled watch, no required mileage or time … just a little jaunt.

Sometimes I head out on my own for a little jaunt. I like being able to stop to take a picture or absorb the view (or the trees, which are often the “view” here in the Pacific Northwest) or just breathe. Sometimes I’ll see a woodpecker or a gray jay or a chipmunk or—in the summer, when venturing farther is more feasible—a marmot. Other times I’ll just enjoy the rays of the sun illuminating the forest and peeking through tree branches to highlight the frond of a fern or some crazy-green moss.

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Other times it’s fun to venture out with a group for a little jaunt in the woods. The introspection that comes with solo discoveries in the woods turns into shared celebrations of the wonders the forests and mountains hold, and laughter is frequent as we gather these experiences close to our souls. When you all see the snow-laden branches of a tree as the outside of a Hobbit house, or pop out at a viewpoint or the top of a pass and universally hear in your minds the “ahhhhhh” of the choir in heaven, or you all are stunned and thrilled to see a bear suddenly tear across a meadow, somehow that experience is amplified … the energy expands exponentially … it becomes solid and real and forever.

I cannot count how many times these little group jaunts have soothed our souls as individually each of us has faced the demons life presents all of us—work troubles, the illness or death of a loved one, marriage problems, the angst that comes with raising children. And other times, I have found solace alone, listening to my breath and my heart beat, my feet touching the ground, and the wind and the birds and the life in the woods.

Maybe this is the unifying force that makes the trail running community embrace and encourage and inspire its members. We have all had our little jaunts, and we all know the mystical power and joy that come with them.

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Imposter Syndrome and Microinequities: A Rant

I’ve been hearing about imposter syndrome a lot recently. And I’m pissed off about it! What is imposter syndrome? It’s when people don’t feel like they belong doing what they’re doing. They’re too slow, too fat, too female, too old to be credible in their endeavors, and since I read a lot about outdoor life and recreation, I hear about it most in that context. I’m too [fill in the blank] to join that group for a run/hike/climb/etc. or to even just be out there.

On a women-only outdoor page on facebook, a woman shared a selfie and said, “I hate this picture of myself ’cause I look fat, but look at that view!” Or you read about Mirna Valerio and the crap that’s said to her. Or how many messages come in to a women’s running club inbox asking, “Is it OK to come if I’m slow? I’m afraid I’ll hold people back.”

It’s ridiculous! And insulting … and pervasive … and unacceptable! And that’s not OK!

So where does it come from?

Well, let me give you a few examples. They’re my own examples, and they happened recently. And I’m still so riled up that I’m pounding on my keyboard as I type!

Here’s one. I walk into the packet pickup room for Black Canyon 100K and head straight to the line for the bibs for the 100K. Guy behind the table asks, “60K?” FU. No, I’m here to do the goddamn 100K. He doesn’t engage in discussion, just hands me my packet and looks away. Well, OK, so I’m not super-social either, and maybe overly sensitive, but I felt dismissed.

Microinequity. Unintended. But it hurt.

Here’s another one. I often run with a group of women—whose ages range from probably late-20s to mid-50s (I’m 52 for another three weeks) on Saturday mornings. This Saturday we got to talking about blogs, and I asked one woman whose blog I follow where she was hoping to go with it as she’s made some changes recently. She then asked me what I was hoping to accomplish with this blog.

“I think I just want people to know that you can be in your 50s, be a late-in-life parent to young kids, and still get out there and kill it,” was my response. In all honesty, I’m not sure that that was my initial vision, but it is kind of how I’m thinking about it lately.

She responded, “Oh wow, I was listening to this podcast, and it was all interviews with women 50 and older, and when I was listening to it I thought, ‘This is the women I run with!’ I’ll send you the link.” So, she sent me the link and it was all these interviews with women accepting that they need to slow down, carry less weight, smell the flowers, take more pictures. I barely got through 10 minutes of it.

Trust me, this woman is awesome and I consider her a very good friend. We’ve gone on amazing and hard adventures together. She has NEVER been demeaning or condescending. We talked about it later and she said, “What I’m taking away from this is that I have badass friends who aren’t allowing anything to dictate their ambitions.”  Hell ya! Nobody should! Her message was so appreciated. Because I don’t want to hear about how being middle-aged means that I’m giving up! I hated that podcast because to me that was part of the message. Am I an imposter because I’m focused on staying strong and kicking ass as long as I can?!

Microinequity. Unintended. But it hurt.

And here’s the latest. On Sunday I was doing two laps on Cable Line Trail on West Tiger. Two laps (per my Garmin) = approximately 4,200 in 6.4 miles. I’m there with two friends, both women (one in her early 40s and one in her early 50s). After our first climb up, we’re headed back down and pass a group of four or five young men who are going up. We say, “Good morning!” They say, “Good morning!” And then one said, “Are you part of a club?” The three of us were like, um, that’s a weird question. But we say, “No, just running friends.” And the young man replied, “Oh, like a moms’ group?” Because clearly any group of middle-aged (ouch to even say that!) women can’t be out there kicking butt in the mountains … they must be moms out for bonding time.

Microinequity. Unintended. And clueless! But it hurt. And enraged us!

We then had a hell of a good time the rest of the way back down going on a rant about the time the male REI employee explained to one of us what “25% off clearance prices” meant—speaking very s-l-o-w-l-y as he did so—or the time we passed a man going up Cable Line, and he warned us not to go down the same way because it was way too treacherous for us.

Then we decided that if we were going to be labeled a “moms’ group,” we needed a name—so now we are the FUMs. Think about it.

Race Volunteers Make the World Go ’Round (and trail runners have the best manners)!

After a long stretch in the darkness at Black Canyon 100K earlier this month, I was thrilled to see in the distance a tiny spark of light on the horizon. It would disappear and reappear many times as the trail I was on undulated along the contours of ravines and hillsides. Gradually, it grew and grew until ultimately that spark of light materialized into a brightly lit tent. When I arrived, I found it full of cheerful and helpful volunteers whose only goal right then was to take care of me: food? water? electrolytes? Yes please!

Race volunteers are there before the race starts, marking the course, setting up aid stations, checking runners in, and—perhaps the most thankless job—directing traffic. They’re doing whatever’s needed so runners have a great experience, everything goes smoothly, nobody gets lost, and the race starts on time.

Once the race has begun, they’re touching slobbered-on, sweated on, and just in general disgusting water battles, hydration packs, you name it. They’re offering cheer and support and concern. Many times they’re dressed in costumes and have taken the time to create personality for their particular aid station: beach theme? shark week? 80s nerd? pierogie heaven? There’s no end to the creativity! And when you stagger out of the woods or the dark and into one of these amazing havens, the race feels a little easier and spirits are higher.

At Volcanic 50 on Mt. St. Helens, these volunteers not only staffed aid stations but in many cases also hiked in their supplies and decorations and signs and music. All so the racers could have an amazing experience. At Beacon Rock 50K, there was one aid station at the middle of a double figure eight loop—so it was just this group of guys, all day, helping everyone multiple times. I was wearing a running dress at that race, and after a while they got to know me and I still smile when I remember their whoops and their hollers of “Yay running dress!” as I’d come back through.

Volunteers also stay long after the runners do. They tear down aid stations, clean up trash, sweep the course, and ultimately dismantle race HQ and the finish line. It doesn’t pay in money; it’s all just part of volunteering and the role volunteers play in making races awesome.

Some race volunteers are locals who enjoy supporting the runners who come from all over to be a part of their community for a day, or a weekend, or longer. Others are friends or family members who have found a role for themselves as their loved ones take on the course. And others are runners who are giving back … it’s their chance to create cheer, to fill bottles, to make endless PBJs and cut up hundreds of bananas and oranges, to offer words of encouragement, to simply be there and make a difference.

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Melting peanut butter on a freezing morning before PBJs can be made

As a race volunteer, I’ve worn a knight costume, dressed up like a cowboy, and spent hours decked out as a shark while tracking runners on a 100-mile course through the night. I’ve been covered in trail markers that stuck to me as I swept on a 100-degree day. I’ve done trailside first aid on a dislocated shoulder. And I don’t think I can ever give back as much as I’ve been given when I’ve been the runner. But always, the best part of being a race volunteer is the thank yous and the smiles—because trail runners are the best and, while they may blow snot rockets and go to the bathroom in the woods, they always have the best manners.

 

Race Report: Black Canyon 100K

The Black Canyon Ultras—put on by Aravaipa Running, which also hosts the ultra party known as Javelina Jundred—offers 60K and 100K courses through the desert paralleling I-17 just north of Phoenix in Arizona. While it has a net elevation loss (total loss about 9,000 feet and total gain around 7,000 feet), much of the climbing is in the second half.

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Image (c) Aravaipa Running

In the past two years, the weather has been extreme—with heat afflicting runners in 2016 and cold, wind, and rain causing a course reroute and reportedly miserable conditions in 2017. This year was perfect, with a high around 70°F and mostly sunny skies all day.

I was lucky to have Mike and the girls as my crew. They all got up at 5 a.m. to drive me to the race start and then spent the day driving around to meet me at the Bumblee Bee Ranch, Black Canyon City, and Table Mesa aid stations and, of course, at the finish.

Aid Station Cumulative Mileage Segment Length
1. Antelope Mesa 7.3 7.3
2. Hidden Treasure Mine 12.5 5.2
3. Bumble Bee (crew) 19.2 6.7
4. Gloriana Mine 23.7 4.5
5. Soap Creek 31.2 7.5
6. Black Canyon City (crew) 37.4 6.2
7. Cottonwood Gulch 46.2 8.8
8. Table Mesa (crew) 50.9 4.7
9. Doe Spring 58.6 7.7
10. Finish 62.2 3.6

If you’ve read some of my recent posts, you know that I’ve struggled in longer distances. To prepare for this event, I spent a fair amount of time working through Sage Rountree’s race plan “questionnaire,” thinking about how I would approach this race. One of the questions is, “List three training workouts where you learned something about your mental/physical abilities,” and this one question ended up being invaluable as I faced a few (inevitable) tough spots during the race. Here’s my list:

  1. Owyhigh Loop: I can keep going even after throwing up. (I didn’t throw up, but I attribute that to number 2, below.)
  2. Grand Canyon: I need to take care of issues as soon as they crop up. (Issues cropped up, but I didn’t panic and took care of them early.)
  3. Bridle Trails: Mantras really work, especially when I add F words to them! (I actually didn’t need this that much—but I was happy to know I could use it when I needed to.)

Segment 1: Start to Bumble Bee Ranch Aid Station—miles 0 through 19.2

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Just before the start—dawn at Mayer High School

The run starts at Mayer High School with a lap around the track. Mike was there to see me off, the girls were sleeping in the car, and I was thinking about how weird it was to know absolutely nobody at a race. Then, about a third of the way around the track, I saw my friend, Gretchen (who was there to pace a friend of hers later in the day), and with a cheer and a hug I continued my very slow ultra-shuffle around the track.

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Slowest lap around a track ever!

We were then off through a couple of local neighborhood streets and into the desert. There were some easy uphills on dirt roads and I appreciated everyone who immediately started walking them. It’s so hard to be patient and conservative at the beginning of a race, but group solidarity helped a lot.

In short order we hit the official Black Canyon Trail trailhead; we’d remain on the trail for the remainder of the day. For a while we were out on what I’d describe as open plains, rolling gently, mostly on double track. Then, a quick turn, and the promised downhill kicked in with fun-to-run but almost always rocky singletrack. We’d occasionally pop back out onto dirt roads briefly, and then make another turn onto more singletrack.

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I remember the first aid station—Antelope Mesa—where my strategy (thank you, Heidi Flora) of keeping a flask prefilled with Tailwind powder in the back pocket of my pack made for a quick refill and transition back onto the trail, but oddly I don’t remember the next aid station at Hidden Treasure Mine at all. Regardless, as I neared Bumble Bee, I was excited to see my family and had mapped out what I wanted/needed in the transition.

Bumble Bee might just be my favorite aid station from any race to date: it’s a ranch, and as you come in you see the windmill that is featured in the race logo, you cross a nice open lawn, and everyone’s hanging out in an open, covered picnic area. Meg was holding up a sign with my face (long story that I just don’t know if I could do justice to, so suffice to say I knew my friends back home were there with me in spirit as soon as I saw it), Mike helped me with my transition, I ate some potato chips and salted potatoes, and was ready to head back out. I did decide to change my shoes here since I was getting a worrisome hot spot on my right foot: I’ve had some problems finding the perfect shoes since my previous ones were redesigned and no longer fit, so I’ve been switching three different pairs around for each training run, trying to figure out a good system. Since I knew this might be an issue, I had brought backup pairs for Mike to have at the ready at each crew-accessible aid station.

As I left Bumble Bee, I gave the man eating cows the evil eye, I think they rolled their eyes back at me in disgust, and that was that.

Section 2: Bumble Bee Ranch to Black Canyon City—miles 19.2 through 37.4

Initially there was a bit of dirt road and then long stretches of exposed singletrack. Our first climb of the day was right out of Bumble Bee, and it seemed everyone around me was slowing down. I was fully down with that, as the day was now warm and, for me, feeling pretty hot. We passed through many fascinating areas here—I remember going through a longish burnt-out section, with cacti blackened and crumpled along the trail. There was a dike maybe 20 or 30 feet wide of bright white quartz in the middle of miles of dark rock. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, it was so bright and out of place. And trail markers, rather than dangling from trees, were knee to maybe hip-height, and carefully tied to a cactus or some other cranky plant covered with sharp things. I spent some time wondering if they were actually tied on or whether the trail marking crew simply threw them at the bushes and they stuck.

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I decided to regroup at Soap Creek Aid Station since my stomach was feeling just a little bit off and I was feeling more than just a little bit hot. Most of my standard food wasn’t appealing, and my stash of stomach-soothing oyster crackers was waiting for me at Black Canyon City. I sat down in a chair and gnawed on some pretzels and drank, then took my phone out of airplane mode to text Mike and let him know I was slowing down and taking a break. My phone immediately starting dinging, and dinging, and dinging, as I was inundated with well wishes and cheer from friends back home—I cannot describe how uplifting it was to see those come in. I then filled the OR ActiveIce Ubertube (aka a special-fabric buff) Heidi had loaned me with ice. That ended up being a lifesaver!

From there, the trail remained rocky. And then it got rockier. Seriously.

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There were a few rocks.

As we neared Black Canyon City, I finally fully understood the name of the trail and area. Ahead the bluff was a solid black rock: the sun reflected off of it, and it was really quite pretty. Just past that bluff was a muddy river crossing. I really didn’t want to get my feet wet and resigned myself to it anyway as I watched others plod through, but a guy in a green shirt showed me a way across just downstream, and I kept my feet dry. (Thanks Green Shirt Guy!) By now, we also had made it down to saguaro country. I tried to get good photos of them, but mostly wanted to keep moving. The one time I did stop completely, a guy ran into the middle of my picture. Ergh.

Finally, I hit the downhill to Black Canyon City. Downhill is always awesome! … except when you know it’s an out-and-back and you’re gonna have to turn around and go back up it.

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Coming into Black Canyon Aid Station. I’m behind Green Shirt Guy.

Black Canyon Aid Station was a mental test. First, it marked the end of the 60K course, so there were all these runners eating pizza, drinking beer, and sharing “my race is done” trail stories, but I wasn’t done. I tried to take it as a power anthem: you’re not done because you’re totally badass and going the full distance. That didn’t really work—I just wanted to be done and join the party! Also, shortly before my arrival, Abby had biffed on rocks in the parking lot (have I mentioned yet that there were lots of rocks?) and skinned basically her entire right knee. Mike had taken her to the first aid tent and they’d done a nice job of cleaning her up and bandaging her, but there were still crocodile tears pouring out now and again. She told me she just wanted to go back to the hotel, and going back out on the course was a serious battle of personal commitment and mommy instinct—I wanted to take care of my baby!

But back out I went. I was over halfway, and I was determined to finish!

Section 3: Black Canyon City to Table Mesa—miles 37.4 to 50.9

After leaving the aid station stocked with pretzels, vanilla gu, and oyster crackers, as well as extra water and Tailwind as the next aid station was nearly 9 miles ahead, I started climbing. I knew I had an immediate climb up what I had descended; what I didn’t know was that past the out and back there was a lot more climbing. I was a little worried about pushing hard on the climbs and not having enough for the finish, so another woman and I buddied up for the next hour or so. Chatting with someone else helped pass the time and it was fun to share stories of her trail adventures near her hometown of Calgary and talk about our favorite races.

Once the climbing was done I kicked into running again. But, oy! the rocks! My feet were pretty unhappy, and my fear of stumbling grew as my legs tired. I had seen many people with scrapes from falling on rocks throughout the day (and Mike said he saw several people at the Black Canyon first aid station getting cactus pulled out—ouch!) and I really really didn’t want to become another statistic. So, power walking to the beat of tunes provided by my bootcamp coach when it was rocky or uphill, and shuffle running through a growing blister and aching feet when it wasn’t—that became the name of the game.

The sun set and headlamps came out, making the rocks appear even more treacherous. But the sun setting brought the gift of colors in the sky, and the darkness brought out stars that were huge in the deep dark of the desert and a sliver of a crescent moon that took forever to set on the western horizon. I think my favorite thing running through this part of trail in the dark was the forests of saguaro cacti, silhouetted by the sky and sometimes illuminated in the beam of my headlamp.

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For a time I was running alone, and then I briefly joined another group of runners. One woman and I speculated on how much farther that next aid station would be—this would be a very long nearly 9 miles for many of us!—she was out of water and despite stocking up for this section I was running low. Here we heard what we thought were people cheering and we got excited thinking the aid station would be just around the next bend, but no, it was a pack of coyotes howling. Dammit! But, finally we saw it, and we were all so happy.

The bit between Cottonwood Gulch and Table Mesa is a blur. I remember lots of rocks and consequently lots of walking. I remember needing to pee and—keeping in mind Ana’s story of getting prickers from a bush in her pants at Javelina that she shared at a recent Boldly Went storytelling event in Seattle—looking for a spot well away from anything that looked sharp, and then stumbling straight into two bushes in the dark before I got my lights back on. Doh! I remember two guys ahead of me suddenly stumbling around trying to find the trail, and how much they appreciated my timely arrival and call of “trail’s over here!” I also met a guy from Wisconsin at some point; he asked if I was focused on a sub-17 and I remember saying “I have no idea anymore, I just want to finish!”

Finally, Table Mesa—and my family—appeared out of the darkness. I dropped my pack, told Mike exactly what I wanted (pretzels, 1 gu, oyster crackers, 2 waters and 1 Tailwind, nothing else), and headed to a porta pot to pee. (Apparently, after getting behind on fluids after Bumble Bee, I had finally caught back up!) And in the porta pot, I leaned my head in my hands and briefly let myself cry. I wanted to be done so badly, and my feet were just worked from the rocks. I got myself together, had a cup of ramen noodles and broth (soooo good!), and headed back out. It was a glorious moment to hug each of my kids and Mike and say, “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

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Meg’s there to greet me as I come in to Table Mesa Aid Station. I don’t think I’ve seen her yet and I clearly am pretty beat at this point.

Section 4: Table Mesa to finish line—miles 50.9 to 62

I now had a 7.7-mile section to Doe Spring, and then a 3.6 mile final section to the finish line. Oddly, I had passed a few people between the top of the climb out of Black Canyon and before Table Mesa, and again I passed some folks. It was like a snail race! Once again coyotes serenaded from the surrounding hillsides. The crescent moon glowed red as it finally made its final descent beyond the horizon. Crickets chirped. I peed somewhere off the trail again.

And then there was rustling in a big bush of some sort right beside the trail. My first thought? Oh my gawd, it’s a javelina! Now, seriously, I have no idea why that was my first thought, but it was. I quickly turned my head, and there was a cow munching on that bush. I laughed at myself, and enjoyed the rush of positive energy that came from laughter. I’m such a dork!

I ran with the guy from Wisconsin for much of this final section, and he commented that it looked like I was going to get my sub-17 after all. I was pleased, but more than anything I was happy that I was going to finish this crazy endeavor I had set out on. I was creating new curse words for every rock I encountered in the trail (owie owie owie), but outside of that I took time to look up in the sky and marvel over the brilliance of the stars, and I shined my light up and down saguaros that caught my attention. It was miserable and mystical and exhilarating at the same time.

At Doe Spring aid station, I inhaled a cup of ramen and broth—briefly stopping to eject a moth that flew into my cup—and then set out for my final 3.6 miles. At first the trail was a relatively smooth dirt road: could it be that I was done with rocks and could run it in to the finish?! Dammit, no, the trail once again cut off onto a final section of single track and I was back to powerwalking and trying to avoid kicking rocks.

But now there were more smooth sections, and Wisconsin guy and I could hear a generator in the distance. Could that be it?! Are those cheers or more coyotes?! Finally, it was real: there was the finish! In the last 50 yards, Wisconsin and I passed two more guys, and then I stopped just before the finish line to call for Meg, and they passed me as I waited for her and I lost two places (oh well!), and then Meg and I ran across the finish line together. Mike gave me a huge hug, Abby gave me a huge hug, someone gave me my finisher’s belt buckle, a photo was taken, and then I fell apart. It was a happy and relieved and exhausted kind of falling apart though!

Postmortem

My brother said the funniest thing to me yesterday, as he watched me struggle to walk into a restaurant at the hotel we’re staying at. He said, “It’s amazing that you’re in such good shape that you can hurt yourself so badly.” It’s one of those oxymoronic statements that capture ultra running so perfectly. This run hurt a lot: but it also gave a lot.

We get to run in beautiful places, and because we go far, we get to see a lot in a shorter period of time. I went through several microclimates, saw different flora (no fauna except the cow), and saw incredible rock formations.

I was able to prove to myself that I could turn my experiences, especially last year’s struggles, into lessons learned that allowed me to perform better and do something harder than I’d done before. When I couldn’t find my inner bunny last fall, I was worried—but I think I found a stronger bunny (or am I carrying this whole bunny thing too far?). I definitely found a stronger me through this journey.

And best of all, I got to share it with my family. Training for ultras often means long periods away from them. I feel selfish sometimes, pursuing a sport that takes me away on weekends, something that I rarely share with them directly. To have Mike and the girls there, and seeing their joy for me, simply amplified my personal joy and made it a deeper and more meaningful experience.

Oh, and my friends back home? From prerace notes and gifts, to those goofy heads on a stick, to a postrace care package and notes of caring, to finding out Mike was managing an all-day text stream updating them on my progress along with all the messages I received directly with all those dings on my phone up at Soap Creek—just wow! I am so lucky! Mike said, “You have a lot of friends, Ellen,” and I said, “And they’re freaking awesome!”

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Bridle Trails Winter Running Festival 50K … or, How Did I Get So Lucky?

Yesterday I ponied up to a starting line for the first time since my DNF at White River 50 last summer. I’ve had some wonderful runs on gorgeous trails since that DNF—including a weekend in the Olympics, the UltraPedestrian Owyhigh Loop, and of course R2R2R—but still feeling the sting of that DNF, doing a race (!!) felt intimidating.

Bridle Trails is kind of a winter lark. The 50K is six loops of a 5-ish mile course, and there are options for a 5 miler, 10 miler, and 50K relay too. And, it starts at 3 p.m., so if you’re doing anything longer than 10 miles, you’re pretty much guaranteed some time chasing the beam of your headlamp through the woods.

I signed up a few weeks ago, as it fit well into my training plan. I’ve done a few long runs on my own lately, and podcasts—while nice distractions—cannot replace the camaraderie of running with other people. This would be an easier way to get in those miles.

I started the day with a fun late holiday party with some wonderful friends I’ve met through road running. Every year we set aside a Saturday morning for a quick run or walk followed by a potluck of all sorts of yumminess, and then we have a crazy, out-of-control gift exchange. We all randomly get a gift, share what’s in our package, and then pass two pairs of dice (in opposite directions) around the circle. If you get doubles, you have to exchange your gift for someone else’s—even if you don’t want to. For 5 minutes, it’s hilarious mayhem!

After the party, I headed home and started getting my gear together for the 50K. So this starting at 3 p.m. introduced all sorts of weird challenges: when should I eat? What should I eat? When should I eat what? With my gear finally organized, it was off to a local school to cheer one of my daughters as she played basketball. Her team was short players this week, so she played the entire game. It was like she did her own version of an ultra.

I then headed to Bridle Trails State Park. I was there about 1:30, which meant 90 minutes of sitting around in my car worrying. I knew Rich would be there, but wasn’t expecting to see anyone else. I texted Wendy and shared how nervous I was. She replied, “Well, I signed up for the 10-miler at the last minute. I’ll run the first two laps with you.” Shazam! I was so happy!

Little did I know that that was only the first surprise of the night.

Lap 1 was the typical jockeying for a place on the trail until folks got spread out. Wendy reminded me to watch my pace (I’m known for going out a bit too fast) and had fun trying to run in the muddy parts to squish down mud lumps. Rich was out on the course ringing a crazy loud and obnoxious cowbell, which was fun to hear and made me smile. As we set out on lap 2, he joined us for a mile or so until we hit a trail that cut out to the street—that was his turnoff to head home, so he waved goodbye and Wendy and I continued on.

Wendy kept me company for the rest of the lap, and we had a good time chitchatting and passing the time. As I finished our second lap, I starting thinking about what it would take mentally to run four more laps on my own. As we headed over to where the drop bags were for me to restock on food, there was Sarah … ready to run! That stinker! Such a surprise! Sarah, who’s just back running after a knee injury suffered during our R2R2R, chattered away and made lap 3 a breeze. Sarah was only up for one lap, and I was back to thinking about three more laps on my own …. this lap after lap thing is mentally tough!

I hugged Sarah goodbye, still feeling the love, and headed out for lap 4. I ran for a while with Sonja, who also has a race in February. Wendy introduced us before the race, but it was our first time running together. Our eating/walking schedules on the trail were off by just enough that we spent the lap leap-frogging each other, and then at some point I lost her in the dark of the forest and didn’t see her again. She accepted my FB friend request this morning, so she must have made it out. 🙂

As I came back in from lap 4, I was practicing my race mantra (“You are strong! You’re going to finish this!” but it was evolving to “You are strong! You are going to finish this f’er!”). I love race courses that feature big climbs, and this course has a lot of flat—which means waaaay more running than I’m used to. My February race will have a lot of running, hence the choice to use this race as a training run, but stil.…

As I start to head out for lap 5, I turned around and got surprise no. 3: there was Ana, grinning from ear to ear, and holding out a Pepsi and a package of Oreos. Another stinker!! It was amazing, and by now I was feeling in the love of my friends and their support. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated them!

I said farewell to Ana, but was quickly shortstopped by Christy and Sharon, along with Sadie Blue (Sharon’s dog). I was starting to figure out that my friends had been making plans behind my back!

Loop 5 felt a bit longer. By this time I knew the trail well—where the mud pits were, where the hills were, turn left, turn right, over the fallen tree there, almost back!, down the hill, yay! another lap done.

As I came back in, I was thrilled to see Christy, Ana, and Sharon still there. Christy and Sharon were decked out in strings of Christmas lights—I cannot tell you what a happy sight that was!! As I took an Oreo from Ana and Christy handed me a little Halloween-candy-sized package of Sour Patch Kids, Sadie Blue licked the sweat from my legs (ewwww!), and then we exchanged hugs all around and they headed home while I headed out for that last lap.

Lap 6, not surprisingly, was a bit of a chore. Same hills, same flats, same mud pits. Maybe I found myself mentally whiny, but I focused on my mantra (which was now, “You are strong! You’re gonna finish this mother f’er!”) and felt my focus return. I found myself cheering on some runners I passed, sharing “woot woots!” and encouraging one guy who was walking that he was gonna get it done.

I finished in 6:17ish—my fastest 50K on my least-hilly and least-technical course. And, as I drove home, all I could think was, “How did I get so lucky?” I have this crazy supportive and wonderful husband who lets me take the time to train, I have these silly and spontaneous daughters who are proud of me despite complaining about my training time, and my friends? Seriously, they’re awesome.

Special call outs to:

Wendy Abbey, Rich Bennett, Sarah Brouwer, Ana Hinz, Christy Cherrier, Sharon Hendricks, Sadie Blue, all the Running Lattes, Mike Maude, Abby Maude, and Meg Maude.

And afterward I learned of more people who wanted to cheer me on but couldn’t, including Elly Searle, Callista Salazar, Heidi Flora, Kelly Woznicki, and Nina Hadley.

You guys rock! I love you all. And, I think I’m ready for that next one. I will dedicate miles to each of you!

And to Seattle Running Club and Northwest Trail Runs—thanks for a great event! My horse-loving daughter has absconded with my finisher’s horseshoe. And I had a blast.

Winter Wanderings

It’s been cold in Seattle lately. Not Minnesota cold, or Canada cold, but pretty cold for us. An awesome thing about cold weather in Seattle is that we can see all those gorgeous, snow-covered peaks that hide behind the clouds most of the winter. The other thing it means is that all those muddy trails freeze, and the forest takes on a new aura: no longer dripping and dark and mysterious, it becomes bright and sharp and gives me the sense of living things just waiting for warmth to wake up again.

This weekend my friend Christy and I headed out for a planned 24-mile run on the Middle Fork Trail, which runs alongside the Snoqualmie River, and discovered a wonderland.

We pulled into a frost-covered parking lot around 9 a.m. and were on the trail by 9:15. The trail is accessed by a beautiful arching bridge over the Snoqualmie River, and it was covered in layers of frost. The trail then noodles its way upstream, sometimes up, and sometimes down, through many little drainages, winding through the forest, always offering beauty along the way.

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The forest giveth

We marveled over the many microclimates we ran through—gloves and hat on, off, on, off, and so on, throughout the day. Sometimes we were surrounding by green, and other times the world was white with frost.

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Natural tree flocking

Ice curlicues that grow out of the mud were everywhere in the frosty sections.

We enjoyed venturing through the changing forest, and marveled over how there would be distinct boundaries marking areas of frost. Then we were surprised to find the world encased in ice.

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Weeeeee! Skating rink on the Middle Fork!

We speculated at length over where the ice came from—frost that melted and then refroze? last week’s rain shifted to sleet as the weather changed? It became a v-e-r-y slow mile or so as we hoped the ice would end and we could continue our run, and then became a photo session for me as I went from discovery to discovery.

 

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We gave up when we reached the log bridge just before Goldmyer Hot Springs.

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Uh, no, not crossing that. Coated in ice and frost, it looked like a recipe for disaster.

So back through the ice field, and then back up and down, noodling our way along the river and through the woods.

The day’s tally: 21.5 miles, 2700′ gross gain, and uncountable discoveries.

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The sun hangs low in December.

 

Seeking My Inner Bunny

I have a friend who is one of those people who is a bright light in the world. She wears colorful clothes and always has a bright, lipsticked smile. When I’ve run with her, she’s talked about finding your inner bunny—that part of you that lets you bound along the trail with joy, bombing down hills without fear.

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Photo from Factzoo.com.

Since the Grand Canyon, I’ve been seeking my inner bunny. I honored my body’s need to recover, and took some time off, slept more than usual, and mixed things up by getting back into the gym.

But my inner bunny has been shy about reemerging.

I served as the team volunteer for a two-day relay race on Orcas Island, spending several hours in 40-degree rain and wind directing traffic as different teams’ shuttle vehicles came and went. I loved spending the weekend in a beautiful place with awesome people, but on Day 2, when I had planned to go for an easy run my bunny turned into a slug and I said, “Nah.” (By the way, volunteering at races rocks—I’ve put it on my list to do more of that.)

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She’s gonna kill me for this picture!

I went to a cyclocross race to cheer my friend, Laura. She’s been kicking butt this year, her second in cyclocross, and has gone from ranking 44th in her category in 2016 to 9th this year. Heck ya!! She’s been encouraging me to give it a try and even offered to loan me a bike and give the beginner’s round a try. Uh … no thanks.

My friend Wendy is rallying folks to go back to Diez Vista 50K next April. I was seriously traumatized by Diez Vista last year: not because I had a bad race and not because it was a bad race. It’s a seriously awesome race. But last year it was pouring rain when we woke up and it never stopped raining. Sometimes it rained harder. The puddles on the trails were literally yards’ long, and sometimes deep enough that I would trip on the water if I didn’t lift my feet high enough. It was the first time I’ve seen people racing wrapped up in space blankets! So when Wendy said, “Let’s do it again,” my bunny said “nononono!” and my slug said, “Meh.”

So I’ve been trying to enjoy little jaunts in the woods and trying a little road running to mix things up.

 

Then a quick 10 miler on Rattlesnake Ridge turned out to be a slog uphill in the snow and my inner slug got very grumpy. However, my bunny was happy to make an appearance after I donned my microspikes and bombed back down the ridge. Yay! The bunny’s still in there somewhere!

 

Then Ana sent me a message to see if I’d join her for the Black Canyon 100K in Arizona in mid-February. And dammit, you know what? I said yes! So once I did that, you know what I did? I said yes to Diez Vista too.

That bunny had better come out soon!

So the days of the little jaunts are over for a while, again. Today was a planned 22, and unfortunately the slug ruled. It may have been a bit of a hangover from overeating rich foods for Thanksgiving or because my hamstrings were still in shock from Wednesday’s football-workout-themed bootcamp class at the Y. I started out with the ladies from the High Heel Running Group, where Edith led us through 10 miles on a new Saturday loop for the group. It felt pretty good, and I mostly hung out at the back and took it easy. After that group run was done, I headed out for another 12 … and the slug said, “Uh uh.” I dug in for another 9.3, but couldn’t find the remaining 2.7 anywhere.

While I was out there, I thought a lot about how to find my inner bunny again. It can be hard in the winter, when workouts often involve laps up and down the same climbs and/or loops around the same lower-elevation parks over and over. I thought about all the destination runs and hikes planned for next summer, and I pondered whether not hitting my target mileage for today fell under the category of “10% undertrained is always better than 10% overtrained” or under the category of wimp … or maybe under the category of “just take care of yourself and the bunny will find you again.”

Whatever it is, I realized something I think will be important in the coming months: For me, the joy in running comes from being outdoors—often with friends and sometimes alone—in the forest or the desert, it doesn’t matter. As long as I attend to the details of my surroundings and take time to stop and photograph the waterfalls … well, all will be good and I will find my inner bunny again.

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Sky Country Falls, Cougar Mountain Regional Park

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

So, we did it! Heidi, Sarah, Wendy, and I completed the R2R2R on Friday. It’s now Sunday, and I’m finally starting to be able to pull my thoughts together enough to at least try to articulate what I experienced—from the never-ending vistas that just kept unfolding to the physical challenge, the jokes and hilarity we shared, and definitely the pain we all experienced too. (Update: It’s now Thursday … and maybe this will go up today. I’ve been sucked back into “real life” so quickly that time is flying.)

R2R2R was fun, amazing, horrible, awesome, painful, all the things! I think I’m going to try to unpack this by parceling the experience by sections of the trails, but first I’ll share the list of feedback we developed for the NPS. Developing this list was unendingly funny to us: you know, funny in that way that only an intense shared group experience can create. I had that on a two-week backpacking trip in the Sierras with my brother and two of his friends back in college, where we still quote some pieces from the Mad Libs we did on that trip. I hope some of the ones from the Grand Canyon stick as long.

  • The Phantom Ranch canteen hours really need to be expanded. We came through too early for snacks and caffeine in the morning, and we came in too late for anything in the evening. Boo!
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Phantom Ranch
  • The NPS should allow Amazon Prime drone orders to be delivered in the canyon. They’d make a killing on a cut of the take: We would have paid a premium for an ice-cold Coke our second time through Phantom Ranch.
  • They may not realize it, but they’ve done a poor job of housekeeping on the lower parts of the Bright Angel Trail. I mean, really, they’ve let the sand build up to several inches deep! And that SUCKED after close to 40 miles. Some serious trail work with a broom is desperately needed!
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Bright Angel Trail—the dreaded sandpit!
  • Why don’t they have emergency mule service? Like 1-800-MULE-CAB? They could make a killing on that too.
  • Back to the Phantom Ranch canteen—they have beer but no sodas? What’s up with that?!
  • Thumbs up on the ventilated, very clean composting toilets that are spaced every few miles, along with the potable spring water nearly as frequently provided.

For me, doing R2R2R was a goal—but perhaps more of a dream, because “goal” sounds like something you check off and this was more something that fed my heart and soul—for a couple of years. I don’t really remember when I first heard of people running it, but once I did it stuck. And last year, when my friends and I started talking about focusing on going on great adventures with great friends rather than always looking for something with a race bib and timer, I brought this up as an option. Over the spring and summer, it started firming up, and then a Facebook event page was created, and then we booked plane tickets, and then all of a sudden it was time to go do it!

R2R2R Background

R2R2R basically means you start at one side of the Grand Canyon, go down to the bottom, go up the other side, and then turn around and go right back down and then up to the side you started on. We decided to start on the South Rim, descending the South Kaibab Trail, going up the North Kaibab Trail to the North Rim, and then back down the North Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail. This involves some 47ish miles and somewhere in the range of 11,000–12,000 feet of gross elevation gain and loss.

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Map copyright National Park Service. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/intro-bc-hike.pdf

Some people run all or most of it, and complete it in very short order. The current fastest known time (FKT) for the full R2R2R is 5 hours, 55 minutes, and 20 seconds. It would be awesome to be able to run like that! We finished in just under 20 hours, and I’m not sure I would call it a run: Sure we wore our trail runners, and we used our running packs, and we did run parts, but we also did a lot of “purposeful hiking.” No shame there, but for those for whom technicalities matter I want to be clear that it’s hard for me to call this a run even though I’ll refer to it as a run throughout.

Preparation: Thursday, October 5, Phoenix to Grand Canyon Village

IMG_0100We started the day with a quick shake-down run in South Mountain Park, on a trail that started just outside the door of our condo. It was good to move after packing and traveling most of the day before.

After a quick trip to REI because someone couldn’t find her sunglasses when she was packing (yep, that’d be me—doh!), and a yummy breakfast at Biscuits (I totally recommend them if you’re in Phoenix), we packed up the rental car and started heading north. For lunch, we detoured to Sedona (gorgeous!) and started some new dreams looking at the trails there … but no, we had to focus on this trip’s objective first! We drove up the lovely Oak Creek Canyon, and then after running into some road construction that delayed us by 15 or 20 minutes, we were back on the main highway. We stopped in Williams to stock up on food and got a kick out of the Route 66 signs. We finally arrived at Grand Canyon Village right at sunset.

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Classic Sedona
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Grand Canyon sunset: that oh-my-gawd moment when you remember just how striking and BIG this place is!

With four of us trying to sort gear and make decisions about food, clothing layers, emergency supplies (read: 10 essentials), and water, every surface in our hotel room at the Maswick Lodge was covered. How many calories would we need? What would appeal and what would we be able to eat during the run? What clothes would we need with a temperature range of 36 degrees in the morning and 85 to 90-plus degrees in the afternoon? There were some hilarious moments as we found, lost, and then refound stuff we had laid out on the beds, but we finally got it together and were in bed around 10 p.m.

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South Rim: South Kaibab Trail to Bright Angel Creek (6.4 miles, net –4,860 feet)

Alarms rang at 3 a.m., and we got ready pretty efficiently. We had the phone number for a taxi service that runs in Grand Canyon Village, and the taxi picked us up right at our planned 3:45 to take us to the trailhead. Our taxi driver was a bit odd, but he got us to our destination at 3:59 a.m. (We were one minute early—a miracle!) When we asked the taxi driver to take our picture, he said no, he had another call waiting for him, and he took off. Hmmmph! Fortunately, a couple walked up just then, and we got our preadventure group picture after all.

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A little sleepy but ready to go at the South Kaibab Trailhead

To us city-dwellers, it was dark-dark out, but once our eyes adjusted the harvest moon illuminated the outlines of the canyon and various formations as we descended. There was lots of whooping and hollering, we were so excited to finally be on the trail!

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Waterbars at night do not make for easy running

 

 

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Night sky and hints of the canyon rim
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Moon on one horizon, sunrise on the other
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Beauty shot

It was such a thrill to see the Colorado River as the sun rose, realizing we were close to our first major milestone of the trip. After another 20 (or 30? or 40? or 500?) switchbacks we crossed the Colorado River on the Black Bridge.

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The river is brownish from the sediment it carries downstream and flowing fast. There are plenty of signs suggesting that trying to swim in it is a really bad idea. My National Geographic map warns that “Swimming [in the Colorado River] can be fatal.” Guess I’ll skip that adventure!

As I look back on it, I think I found South Kaibab to be more challenging than I had anticipated. I’m the one who loves letting loose on the downhills, right?, but it was steep, with lots of waterbars and rocks, and I know I was being conservative because I was worried about getting injured so early into the adventure. It was also kind of emotional, because it marked the first leg of the adventure that I had dreamed about for so long, and there were times when I couldn’t help but stop and soak it in, thinking, “We’re finally really doing this!!!”

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After crossing the Colorado, it was a quick scamper down the trail to Bright Angel campground. The campground sits along the banks of Bright Angel Creek, just upstream from where it joins the Colorado River. We’d be following Bright Angel Creek for much of the next portion of our journey. After our first water refill of the day, and a quick stop in the fully plumbed bathroom, we turned toward North Kaibab Trail and Phantom Ranch.

I loved seeing Phantom Ranch; it’s been kind of mysterious and “far away” since I had first visited the Grand Canyon with my mom on a mother-daughter trip some 20+ years ago. It’s actually not that exciting of a place, but I enjoyed the resident deer nibbling on the ranch’s trees and grass … especially this determined one who was using the fence designed to protect the trees as a way to reach the tree’s apparently yummy leaves.

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Colorado River to North Rim via the North Kaibab Trail (14.3 miles, net +5,790 feet)

The Grand Canyon isn’t a canyon that’s singular. Everywhere you go, new canyons appear, new features are exposed, and new springs and creeks pop up. For the next seven and a half miles we trekked along the cheery and gurgling Bright Angel Creek, which has carved its own subcanyon that veers away from the Colorado River to the northeast.

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Bright Angel Creek

These seven-plus miles are a delight, with around a 1,000–2,000 feet gain spread over the distance. Bridges took us across the creek numerous times, and we encountered probably 30+ day hikers, backpackers, and trail runners along the way. We were able to see Ribbon Falls from the trail and decided to skip the side trip because we were behind schedule.

 

We refilled all our water bladders and flasks at Cottonwood Campground, prepping for the big climb as the sun (and the temps) continued to rise. The climbing is gradual at first, and slowly steepens toward Manzanita, which has water and a ranger facility, and then gets serious about ascending from there.

It’s really hard to put the climb to the climb up North Kaibab Trail up to the North Rim into any kind of coherent sequence or frame.

I remember marveling over the changing colors of the earth—reds, whites, blues, greens, oranges, blacks—not only on the cliffs towering above but even in the dirt of the trail. I’d hike on orange dirt, and then it’d turn black, and then white, and then orange again.

 

There were cliffs that I can’t even describe, towering above us and carved by wind and water over the millennia.

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There were places where the trail was carved into the cliffside, with a huge drop on one side and more towering cliffs above us.

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There was Roaring Springs, another place for water—which we foolishly skipped—where a spring-fed waterfall cascaded down the cliff across from us.

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And there was heat, and sun, and I started to suffer. I was hot and starting to feel a little woozy and off kilter. With about four miles still to go before the top, I started to worry about whether my water would hold out. I tried to just keep plugging away, but with about two and a half miles to go, I called out to the rest of the group and sat down in the shade.

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Friends are wonderful, and going on adventures with friends is wonderful. But, I think sometimes you realize the depth of the friendship you have with some people only when you’re at a dark moment. Heidi handed me a flask of Tailwind, Wendy gave me some gulps of water from her flask and some life-saving Sour Patch Kids (who knew? in “real life” I think those things are disgusting!), and I suddenly felt better.

In this section of trail, the earth is orange-red but above us the cliffs were a fascinating white striped with blacks, grays, and greens. This was one of my favorite features, so striking. We continued on and after another half mile or so, we hit our next landmark, the Supai Tunnel.

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Just beyond the tunnel is another water fountain—hallelujah!—and we doused our OR ice sleeves in water, filled up again, and headed up. We hit our first mule train a few minutes later, but they passed us quickly, and we were quickly able to continue.

As we gained altitude on North Kaibab, we moved from cactus and manzanita to juniper trees and other high desert plants. In the last mile, we were surprised with the red and yellows of fall colors decorating aspen and maple trees.

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As we climbed, I tried to avoid thinking “I’m almost there,” because as the canyon unfolds there seems to always be another layer to ascend that you couldn’t see before. But as the number of day hikers increased and the sky opened up again, I knew we had made it! We popped out at the trailhead of the North Rim and oohed and aahed over the views, ate some, and refilled water (although little was needed since we’d refilled only two miles previously).

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Topping out on the North Rim

There’s a bit of a side story here too. Our friends, Angel and Tim Mathis, have a venture called Boldly Went. They host adventure storytelling forums, connect adventurers, and produce a weekly podcast, among many other related things. On our drive from Phoenix the day before, we had listened to a few episodes of the Boldly Went podcast. In one, Angel describe the term “yogi-ing”; it’s used by through-hikers (people going the full length of trails like the PCT or Appalacian Trail) to describe the subtle approach to bumming yummy snacks off other hikers. Well, at the North Rim, we encountered a couple of people who were supporting several R2R2Rers and who just happened to have a cooler of cold drinks. We decided to give yogi-ing a try, and managed to bum an ice-cold can of Coke from them. Seriously, this Coke—which the four of us shared—was the best thing in the universe.

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Wendy texted this picture to Angel, celebrating our success with yogi-ing, and I texted my husband, Mike, with a progress update, and then we were off!

You would think that going downhill would be easier than up. In a way it is, but it also becomes grueling when you’re doing it for miles. My BD z-poles became crutches as I navigated hundreds of rock drops and water bars.

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No trip hazard here!

We were now descending the same nearly 6,000 feet that we had climbed over the previous several hours. Our landmarks were the same, but they came up more quickly, and we focused on maintaining our fluids and food as we still had a long way to go. At a water stop at Manzanita, we signed the message board: HHRG R2R2R Wendy, Heidi, Sarah, Ellen. Who knows how long it will be there or who will see it?

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After Cottonwood Campground, we had the seven and a half miles along the Bright Angel Creek to traverse again. Here, Sarah and I felt the urgency of the waning daylight and set getting to Phantom Ranch before needing headlamps as a goal. Sarah and I ran most of this section together. It was fun to run a bit and feel good, and the four of us did arrive at Phantom Ranch without needing to don the headlamps.

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The canteen at Phantom was once again closed, so we dug into our packs desperate to find something that would appeal and did some sharing and comparing. With water refilled, headlamps on, and stomachs sort of filled, we headed off to the Silver Bridge to cross the Colorado River again and start our journey along and up the Bright Angel Trail.

Bright Angel Trail to South Rim (9.6 miles, net +4,460 feet)

After Silver Bridge, we encountered the beach trail. As in lots and lots of sand. In all honestly, the sand was HORRIBLE after 40 miles and on now-tired legs. This is when we started getting goofy and detailing our list of improvements that we would send the NPS once we finished this thing. Seriously, didn’t they know there was this much sand on their trail? They needed to do a much better job sweeping the sand away for us!

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We traversed the gently rolling trail along the Colorado for about a mile and then started heading up along Garden Creek. It was pitch-dark at first and we paused to turn off our headlamps and gaze at the stars. It was beautiful. The moon rose again and started to show us the shadows of the cliffs above us. The rocks continued to radiate the heat of the day, and we stayed warm despite the sun’s having set. Garden Creek gurgled along next to the trail, the crickets chirped, and despite being tired, I think we were all excited to be on the last leg of our journey.

Bright Angel Trail is a much gentler trail than South Kaibab. The trailhead is a bit lower, and it spreads the elevation over a greater distance. Thank goodness it was gentler! Everyone’s feet and legs were starting to hurt, we were becoming less eager to eat, and it became an act of discipline to keep moving purposefully, keep hydrating, and keep eating.

Another nice thing about Bright Angel is that the campgrounds, bathrooms, and water sources are placed closely along the trail—I think the longest stretch was a bit more than three miles. As we drained our hydration bladders, we all shifted to going with less water, which lightened our packs and made for happier backs and shoulders.

There was a fair amount of delirious hilarity as we counted scorpions and mice and other creatures on the trail. There were too many crickets to count, but we did see three mice, five live and one dead scorpions, one black widow spider, and one bat. We refined our improvement suggestions for the park service and mourned the lack of emergency mules that could have carried us the rest of the way to the South Rim. And then we grew quieter and hit that silent place, where you are suffering and just want to be done, so you set yourself to the job of getting it done and we got it done.

As we neared the top, the next day’s runners and hikers started their descents, and we watched a few runners as well as ten or so hikers heading down. The wind started to blow, and I remembering noting the folks coming down were wearing a lot of clothes compared with our shorts and t-shirts. And when we topped out, oh my gawd it was cold! Our bodies were taxed and had no ability to manage the wind and cold, and we were instantly frozen.

A woman who was sitting on a bench bundled up in blankets at the trailhead asked us about two older gentlemen she was waiting for, and we provided an update on their status (they were probably still at least an hour from topping out), and then she took our picture.

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Happy and tired!

 

Done! 12:02 a.m. Saturday, October 7

A quarter mile walk that felt like 100 miles took us to our room, and we pulled on jackets, blasted the heat, and basically fell apart. Heidi and I sat on a bed with the comforter over our legs, inhaling chips and mango salsa. Wendy filled the tub with hot water and Epsom salt and we somehow all squeezed in to soak our aching feet. We tried to open bottles of Mexican Coke and Wendy finally found a handy lamp on the wall to pry the cap off, but ended up spraying two-thirds of the bottle on the floor in the process.

We managed quick showers and then collapsed into bed. I remember Heidi fell asleep instantly, and I’m not sure about Wendy and Sarah, but my feet were throbbing and I had a rough time getting my body to relax enough to sleep. Despite our 2 a.m. bed time, we were all up by 7:30 the next morning. Stomachs were still dealing with 20 hours of trail food, and it was difficult to eat. Walking around was an exercise in mind-over-body control, and we staggered around to a few sights and gift shops. We searched everywhere for R2R2R stickers but had to settle for a MacGyvered version.

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Our adventure ended with a stay in a resort in Phoenix, where we lazed by the poolside and let our bodies recover while our minds processed all we had seen and done.

 

Reflections

Before we left Seattle, we all took the time to think about and share our goals for R2R2R. Among our top goals were simply finishing and not rushing—taking the time to savor the sights and experiences, take pictures, and have fun together. We all agree that our trip was a resounding success! If you’re going on something big with a group, I think sharing your goals in advance is imperative. If our goals weren’t aligned, it wouldn’t have been as much fun as it was.

We were also realistic about our physical abilities and the possibility that one or more of us might struggle. Being able to be open about how I was doing on North Kaibab was so important: I was able to address the issue early on, which kept me from digging myself into a hole and having a harder time recovering.

Good group dynamics are another key to a successful adventure. Whether it was easy going and tough, we laughed and appreciated our friendship and sharing that incredible place together.

As I write, I laugh a bit at all of us too: We have a list going for 2018’s adventures, and as we suffered up the last few miles and through the past couple of days of recovery, we were crossing things off the list. I bet they’re back on there within a couple of weeks!

20258430_10155777849179905_7412224924257020464_nFinally, as always, I want to recognize the support of my husband, Mike, who encourages me to pursue my dreams and covers things on the home front for my training and adventure time. I love you, babe.

My kids put up with a lot too. Abs and Meggy, you’re the best! I love you.

 

Plants! I always have plant pictures, but this time saved them for the end.

 

And Trail Signs! That’s the other thing I always include, so here they are.

 

 

NOTE: Photo credit and copyright—Wendy Abbey, Sarah Brouwer, Heidi Flora, and me. Text copyright me.

A Weekend in the Olympics

This weekend I teamed up with five awesome adventure buddies for back-to-back days in the mountains of Olympic National Forest and Park. Day 1 was designed by a coach two of the women work with—so the rest of us were just tagging along for fun —and Day 2 was a repeat of Heidi’s birthday run route of a few years ago. Both days took us to beautiful places, so be ready for lots of pictures!

Day 1—Upper Dungeness River Trail to Goat Lake and Marmot Pass

In the old days, before kids, when I mountain biked instead of running everywhere, one of my favorite fall rides was the Lower Dungeness River Trail/Gold Creek Loop. I always wondered where the Upper Dungeness River Trail went (it’s closed to bikes), and on Friday I found out.

Sarah, Wendy, Heidi, Meredith, Nina, and I caravanned to the trailhead for a chilly 9 a.m. start. After our warm and sunny summer, it was weird dig out the jackets and gloves again.

The trail starts out much like Lower Dungeness, rolling and gently up through the forest, along the river, through carpets of green moss and elegant evergreens.

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Debating “Bush-Whacky Stuff and That Way”

Our route directions told us to hang a couple of rights on unmarked trails at about 3.3 miles, and then make our way across the river on a log jam to find a boot track that would take us to Goat Lake. We missed the logjam and ended up wandering around a bit at Camp Handy—where we walked through the season’s first frost—but we finally found the way.

The climb up to Goat Lake is stiff: steep, unmaintained, and unrelenting, with roughly 3,000 feet gained in around 2 miles. I think it made a record for my slowest mile ever! It’s a bit of a blur of up-up-up, with some funky bushwhacking, some loose sandy stuff, some rocky stuff, some climb over trees stuff, and a few false summits.

Good thing the payoff is pretty spectacular!

The way down was a hoot and fast, and next thing we knew we were bushwhacking again to get to our log crossing. The plan was to continue up the trail to Marmot Pass for some more climbing, and Heidi, Wendy, and Meredith made the trek. (I hear that from Marmot Pass you can see out to the Sound, and a look at the map tantalizes with more mountains and trails to explore. Next time, definitely!) Nina and Sarah hung out and explored Goat Lake a bit and then headed into Port Angeles. I went up toward Marmot Pass a couple of miles, but just wasn’t feeling the mojo and turned around. Since I knew I’d have a long wait at the car, I puttered along, taking photos and enjoying the solitude along the river.

It was chilly by the time Heidi, Wendy, and Meredith reached the car, and they were thrilled I had the seat warmers on and the heater blowing. We munched on some Superhero Muffins and Cokes before packing up and heading back Highway 101.

We tracked down Nina and Sarah at the Next Door Gastropub in Port Angeles (yum!) and then went straight to our uber-functional and -utilitarian motel, showered and zonked for the night.

Day 2—High Divide/Seven Lakes Basin

After an early start (haha—actually on-trail time was 11:10 a.m. and Strava labeled it as a “lunch run”), we were off exploring again. We were supposed to meet up with our friends Lisa, Sharon, Belia, and Carol at 9:00, but they wisely chose to leave without us. We went counter-clockwise, which based on chatter on Seattle Mountain Running Group recently is the way just about everyone out for the day goes.

A short mile of rolly stuff takes you to Sol Duc Falls and the turn off to Deer Lake Trail. It’s about 3 miles to Deer Lake, and while you climb consistently the gain is only 1,600 feet so you can keep a nice pace. The lake is so pretty, but with our late start we were on a mission and kept going, now on the High Divide Trail.

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Deer Lake

There are a few little tarns above Deer Lake, and as we passed one tarn a group of five backpackers resting beside it said, “Hi,” and one said, “Hi Mom!” Amazingly, Wendy’s son was among the group—neither knew the other would be on the trail that day—and it made for a happy but brief reunion before we continued on.

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Wendy and Jake (#momgoals)

As you get above these tarns, the terrain becomes more alpiney and the views continually more breathtaking. High Divide Trail traverses up, first to the intersection with the Seven Lakes Basin Trail 3.3 miles after Deer Lake (last time I was there, we took this turn and feted Heidi’s birthday at Lunch Lake) and then Bogachiel Peak about a mile later (where you can do a quick detour up for more views). We skipped both in the name of onward progress and the hope that we might catch up with the other group (but we didn’t), and especially as we had spent a lot of time distracted by the best of all trail snacks: The blueberries along High Divide Trail are ripe, and all of us—and everyone we met—had fingers and mouths stained purple from the berries.

As we skirted above the Seven Lakes Basin on one side and the Hoh River Valley and Mt. Olympus on the other (wowowowowowow!), Wendy was out front and suddenly
shouted, “Holy shit! Look at that bear!” The bear, apparently flushed by a group of backpackers diagonalling up from the lakes and then further startled by us coming from another direction, was running, like a full-on gallop, except I don’t think bears gallop precisely. You know how they say bears are fast? Yup, they are! It was wonderfully exciting and so impressive to see him run! He crossed the trail some 100 yards in front of us. As we passed where he disappeared into the bushes, we all chanted “hey bear hey bear” just to be sure he knew exactly where we were.

Before High Divide Trail starts heading down around mile 10, there are some nice ups and downs with continued 360-degree wowowowow views.

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Nature and Me, Just Hanging Out
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Looking Back Toward Seven Lakes Basin from High Divide Trail. This is the meadow the bear ran across.

As we turned onto Sol Duc River Trail, I was toward the back of our group because I kept taking pictures, and I spied another bear up toward the Cat Basin Primitive Trail. This one was a big one and looked fat and content munching on berries.

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Mt. Olympus
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The black dot is a bear.
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Time to Go Down!

We regrouped at Heart Lake (truly heart shaped), filtered water, and then headed
down. From here, we followed a drainage and soon returned to the forest. The downhill was fun, with rocks and water bars that certainly kept me focused and fewer views to distract.

The last four miles of the loop are quite runnable—a delightful way to end the day. And as we neared the end of our trail and the intersection we had turned off on to Deer Creek several hours before, the evening sun illuminated the forest and seemed to put a spotlight on the warmth of the camaraderie we all felt from being with great friends on a grand adventure outdoors.IMG_0226

And then, suddenly, there were a lot more people on the trail and we quickly popped up into the parking lot.

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A few trail notes:

  • We went to Goat Lake because the climb was part of a training goal. The lake was very pretty and would be a great place to lounge and swim on a warm day, but I’m not sure I would put it on a must-do list. The trail up is kind of a pain in the butt.
  • For the future, exploring the area beyond Marmot Pass is definitely on the list.
  • For a long day, it might be fun to run the lower Dungeness River Trail and then continue on to the part we did.
  • Heidi’s birthday run at High Divide/Seven Lakes was a few years ago and on a Friday. I’m not sure if it was because this time we were out there on a Saturday, or if the word has gotten out on how spectacular this area is, but it was busy. There were tents at every possible camping spot and quite a few trail runners doing the loop like we were. I always find myself torn by being a trail user and the desire to keep wild places wild. As the population continues to increase, I think one key will be for all of us to practice the Leave No Trace  principles.
  • Day 1—The full route with Marmot Pass is 22 miles and 6,900 feet gain. I had 16 miles and just over 5,000 feet gain.
    Day 2—The loop was a bit over 18 miles and 4,400 feet gain.
  • There are still some wildflowers to be found if you’re willing to work for it. And lots of “fun guys” hiding out in the woods too.