Training Time

I’ve never had a running coach or followed a real training plan for running. I did not run regularly or competitively in high school or college, and really only started trail running in 2010 to get ready for my first 50k. I went back to mostly climbing for a couple years, and then started trail running more again while training for the JMT in 2012-2014. I’ve done some short periods of pretty high mileage, but never did any interval or tempo workouts, or even ran 5-6 days a week for more than a few weeks at a time.

Mostly I trained by feel, went pretty hard when I did get out, tried to train as specifically as possible, and took lots of rest days instead of doing easy recovery runs. I’ve gotten reasonably good results from this approach (intensity works after all), but I think I’ve got a lot of room for improvement with a smarter, more disciplined approach.

So after another few months of  fairly sporadic training, I decided it is time to get serious, disciplined, and consistent. I also signed up for my first 100 mile race – the Wasatch 100 in September.  The Wasatch was actually my second choice – like many people, I tried and failed to get into the iconic and ultra-popular Western States 100, which is almost in my backyard.

I’m pretty excited about the Wasatch – with around 24K feet of gain, it is  one of the harder 100 mile races in the country. There is also a real possibility of both 100 degree temperatures during the day and snow/sleet/hail and 20 degree temps at night. Very few people finish in under 24 hours – it seems that 30-36 hours is much more common –  and about 1/3 don’t finish at all.   My goal right now is to finish in under 30 hours, and as close to 24 hours as possible.

Toward this end, I recently bought Jason Koop’s excellent book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” and spent a couple days reading and re-reading it. Then I put together a rough training plan for the next 7 months based on the principles he outlines. I’m less than a week into, it but so far I like having the additional structure and focus to my training for a change, and the short, hard interval workouts are a nice change of pace. As I’m a relative beginner when it comes to both racing ultras and consistent/focused training, I should have a lot of room to improve with the right training stimulus.

Basically the plan is 3-4 weeks of focusing on high intensity, uphill VO2Max intervals, followed by 8-12 weeks of Lactate Threshold intervals, and finally 8-12 weeks of high mileage, lower intensity endurance work. Each phase also includes easy recovery runs, and longer endurance runs, and a total of 6 days a week of running.

So, now I’ve got a goal and a plan, let’s see what I can do with it!

 

High Sierra Trail Eastbound FKT and Yo-Yo FKT

20160813_102147
Ready to go!

The 61-mile long High Sierra Trail has the unfortunate distinction of being both overshadowed by the John Muir Trail and frequently confused with the rugged and mainly off-trail Sierra High Route. It is quite a trail in its own right however, crossing the Southern Sierra Nevada from Crescent Meadows in Sequoia National Park to its terminus at the summit of Mount Whitney. While the scenery is exceptional by most standards, it does not quite measure up to the continually mind-blowing awesomeness and variety of the JMT, or the rugged alpine character of the SHR. However, compared to the JMT, the HST has the advantages of being less crowded, shorter, and easier to get a permit for. The High Sierra Trail actually joins the JMT at Wallace Creek for the final 11 miles to the summit of Mount Whitney, which is the only section of the HST that I had done prior to this trip.

Most people who backpack the HST seem to go from West to East, taking a few days to a week to cover the 72 miles (including the 11 mile descent from Mount Whitney to the trailhead at Whitney Portal which is not part of the “official” HST). This typically involves either a 300-mile car shuttle, or getting dropped off at the start and picked up at the end. For this reason, as well as its relatively short length, I decided it would be a fun challenge to do a Yo-Yo (ie round-trip) on the High Sierra Trail.

HST Profile
High Sierra trail Elevation Profile – generated by Sierra Mapper

The Yo-Yo approach eliminates both the car shuttle and the steep, crowded 11-mile descent on the Whitney Trail, leaving an aesthetic 122-mile double crossing of the Southern Sierra, with the mid-point being the highest point in the continental U.S.

According to the FKT website, a handful people including Leor Pantilat, Brett Maune, Brian Robinson and Peter Bakwin have run the HST from East to West, and at least one has tried a West to East run. Although she skipped the 4 mile section to the summit of Mount Whitney, Sarah’s Thompson’s time of 23:05 going West to East (the harder direction) is still impressive. Leor’s very fast time of 15:46 from Whitney Portal to Crescent Meadows is the current FKT, while Brett’s previous FKT of 18:39 seemed like a more reasonable approximation of what might be possible for me on a one way trip.

There were no reported round trip times in either direction, but I estimated that it would take me about 36-40 hours, if all went well. While perhaps a bit optimistic, this was right at the limit of what I thought I could do without sleep, so hiking through the night instead of carrying camping gear and stopping to sleep seemed like a no-brainer – as long as the weather was stable. As an added bonus, since I would be hiking in both directions, any scenery that I missed in the dark I would see in the daylight on the return trip, and vice versa – and if I timed it right, I could see the sunrise from the summit of Mount Whitney at the halfway point. Also, since I would not be “camping” I would not have to worry about getting a wilderness permit or carrying a bear canister.

Given all this, I could hardly believe that no one had done it already – or if someone has they did not report it on the FKT website. Regardless, I decided to go for it, when the time and the weather forecast were right. And so it was that I found myself packing for another solo trip to the mountains.

I drove to Sequoia the afternoon of Friday August 12, and managed to get the second to last campsite in the park. I got a good 10 hours of sleep and woke up at 6:30, planning to start between 8:30-9:30 am, hoping to arrive at the summit of Mount whitney around 6:30am for sunrise. I had a big breakfast, packed up my camp and tried to drive to the Crescent Meadows trailhead, only to find that the road is closed on weekends and you have to take a shuttle bus to the trailhead. However, if you have a wilderness permit you can park at the trailhead.

So I had to drive back to the permit office at Lodgepole, and explain my rather unconventional trip plan to the ranger, in order to get an overnight wilderness permit for my dayhike, all so I could drive to the trailhead and my car would be waiting for me there when I finished my epic in the middle of the night.

I told the ranger I was going to Wallace Creek, and would either turn around there, or go all the way to Whitney and back if I was feeling good. This was all true – my backup plan was to turn around at Wallace Creek or any point along the way if things were not going as planned, and I knew that I could bail at Whitney Portal if necessary. Realizing the mileage involved, the ranger seemed a bit skeptical, but his main concern was that I would not leave any food wrappers on the trail – he mentioned that they have had problems with runners leaving trash behind.  I assured him that I am always super careful to pack out my trash, and he issued the permit.

As a result of all this, I didn’t start till 10:30 am. I planned to be out for 36-40 hours and brought enough food to have 200 calories per hour for 37 hours – about 24 Clif shot blocks with a bunch of Clif and Honey Stinger gels and 4 Lara bars, or 7400 calories total. With rain jacket and pants, hat, gloves, phone, map, 1L water and a few other odds and ends my Ultimate Direction AK running pack weighed about 10 lbs starting out.

The first 11 miles or so to the Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp was very dry and dusty, rolling and fairly easy trail, and I enjoyed running quite a bit of it at an easy pace, trying to conserve energy while covering the easy miles as quickly as possible. I reached Bearpaw Meadow at mile 11 feeling good. A few miles later I reached Hamilton lakes and started climbing up towards Kaweah gap. The scenery started getting good and the climbing felt easy with my light pack. I started passing backpackers and eventually reached the beautiful Precipice Lake, which I instantly recognized from Leor’s pictures.

Before I knew it I was at Kaweah Gap, 20 miles in and only 100 miles to go. I checked my watch and the elapsed time was 5:38. This may seem like an overly fast pace, and it may have been, but I knew that when it got dark I would slow down quite a bit and I wanted to cover as much ground in the daylight as possible.

Somewhere along the way I started feeling a hotspot on the ball of my left foot. I stopped to check it and realized that it was not a blister, but so much fine dust had gotten through my gaiters, shoes, and 2 pairs of socks that my feet were black and the dust had accumulated under my foot and was slowly rubbing it raw. I cleaned up as best I could and put a second skin bandage on it and continued. Over the next few hours I had to stop numerous times for foot care due to the amount of dust that was getting into my shoes. I used up most of my blister care supplies in an effort to prevent minor issues from becoming major ones, realizing a bit too late that I should have brought a fresh roll of Leukotape. The small roll I have had in my blister kit for a year or more had degraded to a useless, sticky mess. Fortunately I also had a few scraps of kinesiotape which was just enough to do the trick.

From this point on, the amount of running I was able to do was quite limited – I was pretty sure that if I ran much I would end up with bad blisters before the halfway point, and may not be able to finish. My primary goal was to finish the HST Yo-Yo – time goals were secondary and I did not want to make any mistakes that would force me to bail or make finishing more painful than necessary. And anyway it was going to be getting dark soon, so I resigned myself to a fast hiking pace for the foreseeable future.

I’m guessing that since I was only carrying a daypack, I was running more than I usually do on my long efforts, which kicked up more dust than usual. I’ve spent a lot of time on the JMT, which is also a fairly dusty trail, but this seemed quite a bit worse than usual. If I was going to do this trail again I would seriously consider drastic measures to keep the dust out as that was definitely the limiting factor.

gaiters.jpg
I want this guy’s gaiters.

It got dark as I was nearing the Lower Kern Canyon Junction at Funston Meadow (mile 35, elapsed time 10:09). Only 25 miles to go to Whitney, and then another 60 to get back to the start! I hiked up through Kern Canyon in the dark, thankful that it was cool but thinking that it would have been nice to be able to see it in the daylight and perhaps run some of the smooth, relatively flat trail through this reportedly very nice section. But no matter, I would be back soon enough in full daylight!

20160813_203938
The time is correct but the mileage on the watch is short due the GPS tracking at 1 minute intervals to save battery life. Actual mileage at this point is about 35, only 25 miles to go to Mount whitney and then only 60 more to get back!

I reached Wallace Creek at around mile 49, elapsed time 14:54 and was elated to realize that I had less than 12 miles to go. I felt good enough to continue, so off I went.

20160814_012403

I reached Crabtree – still in the dark of course – (mile 53, elapsed time unknown) and continued on. As I neared Guitar lake I saw the familiar line of headlamps making their way up the backside of Whitney – the convergence of JMT hikers finishing their 2-4 week treks and Whitney hikers, all trudging their way up to see the sunrise from the highest point in the lower 48. It was just staring to get light as I reached Trail Crest, and it was cold enough that I put on my rain jacket and vest, and soon stopped again to put on my rain pants. I was now wearing all the clothing I had (including hat and gloves), hiking fast uphill, and still a bit cold. It is chilly up there at dawn!

As I passed by the first windows down to the east side, I caught a few glimpses of the sunrise, but by the time I reached the summit the spectacle was over and day had broken. I had missed sunrise on the summit by about 15 minutes!

20160814_064655
Better late than never!
20160814_064907
Not my best look, but I had been up for 24 hours and moving for 20 hours and 60 miles!

Not wanting to make a spectacle of myself, I only mentioned what I was doing if someone asked, so most of the people on the summit likely assumed I was just another dayhiker. The few people I told what I was doing had a hard time comprehending, which is to be expected – I still wasn’t sure how or if I was going to be able to finish this thing, but I was at the halfway point, feeling pretty good overall, and it was daylight again, so I had a few things going for me! Elapsed time on arrival at Whitney summit was 20:06 (10:30 am to 6:36 am) and I stayed there for 20 minutes, heading back down at 6:56am.

I stopped at one of the Tarns above guitar lake to take care of my feet, and used up the last of my blister prevention/treatment supplies. As it turns out this was the last time I took off my shoes as well, but I did have some decent sized blisters by the end of the hike. I figured there wasn’t much I could do to stop them at this point so I just popped 3 ibuprofen every 6 hours and pushed on.

20160814_084818
I like to think of this as Whale Rock

By the time I reached the Kern Canyon again it was midday and kind of a furnace, or it would have been quite pleasant.  I eventually remembered to dip my hat in the streams and get my hair wet, which helped cool me down a bit. Periodically I passed some backpackers; most didn’t ask questions beyond the usual “how’s it going” but I got some interesting looks as they tried to figure out what the hell I was doing so far out there with such a tiny pack. I still felt surprisingly good at this point considering I was about 80 miles in with 40 more to go, although the heat was definitely taking a toll. I am not sure of the time or exact location here but it was probably in the 28-30 hour range.

20160814_121537

20160814_121530
This must have been on the way down into Kern Canyon, or on the way back up out of it. It is all kind of a blur at this point.

Eventually I passed the Kern Hot Springs (I had missed it in the dark on the way in) and thought about stopping for a dip. At this point I was so hot that the cold river sounded a lot better, but with 37 miles to go I didn’t want to take the time to stop and take my shoes off, so I kept going. All my focus now was on getting back to the car, real food, sleep, clean clothes.

It started to cool down, the pressure dropped, and a restless wind bounced around the canyon. The huge trees around me were suddenly swaying and groaning, and a pine cone with a tuft of needles still attached landed at my feet. I was reminded of the many dead branches and dead trees swaying high above me, just waiting for the right push from the wind to let go and come crashing down to earth.

The storm alarm on my watch started beeping insistently. I examined the sky and saw a few clouds behind me to the north, and clear blue sky everywhere else. It didn’t look like a storm was coming, and in my state I sure hoped it wasn’t – but it was a bit disconcerting to say the least. Fortunately the wind soon died down and I headed up and out of Kern Canyon, thankful for the breeze and the slightly cooler temperatures.

I wanted to get as far as I could in the daylight before darkness and sleep deprivation joined forces to throw me off course – I knew it could get ugly real quick and the longer I was out here the more likely I would be to get lost or screw up in any number of other ways. So I doggedly plodded up out of Kern Canyon and onto the Chagoopa Plateau in the evening light. It was dark well before I reached Kaweah gap, but I knew once I got there I had only 20 miles to go. It didn’t really register that I had just hiked 100 miles in one push – all my focus was now on staying upright, and continuing to move forward.

Once it was dark my balance started to go. I found that when I turned my head to look at something, I would get a little dizzy when I turned back and have to stop to keep from falling over. As much of this section is on a trail that is less than 3 feet wide, with a huge dropoff on one side, I tried to focus on staying right, and not falling off the cliff on the left.

This was all familiar and expected after my JMT efforts last year, so I didn’t worry too much, just tried to stay focused on the trail and not to look around more than necessary. This is harder than it sounds. Rocks look like tents, trees look like people, all sorts of animals make noises in the woods, and in the dark there is a constant desire to look around and get your bearings. At one point a bird flew out of a bush as I brushed past and flapped and squawked angrily at my head, defending it home from the unbalanced intruder who had the nerve to disturb its home. I ignored it and kept moving.

Heading down past Precipice Lake towards Hamilton Lakes, I started having some serious thoughts about rocks. I literally remembered nothing about this section of trail, and could not believe how many rocks there were. In my mind for hours I had been envisioning a smooth if somewhat dusty last 20 miles back to the car. I remember thinking that there were just too many rocks, they looked like all the other rocks I had already been over and I had already seen quite enough rocks and I did not order these rocks! Still the rocks just kept coming. I was so sick of stepping over, on, and around these pointy, unbalanced, poorly arranged rocks with my battered, blistered, and tired feet.

I also had periodic episodes where I would forget why my feet had to keep stepping on the rocks, it seemed there had to be a better way and it all seemed so pointless and interminable. And yet the rocks continued. My knees hurt, my feet hurt – oh yeah, it must be time for ibuprofen again. My food supply was starting to run low so I switched from eating every 30 minutes to every 45-60 minutes. I started checking the map more often to make sure I did not get lost and knew where the next water would be. The trail seemed to go on forever, but eventually I reached Bearpaw meadow and filled up both my bottles for the final 11 mile stretch. This also went on forever. Every little hill was a struggle – and there were LOTS of little hills. The trail at this point is pasted on to a steep hillside/cliff and goes up and down over and over again as it winds in and out of innumerable side canyons.

Sometime around 4am my headlamp battery died suddenly (this was battery #2 so I was glad I had decided to bring battery #3 at the last minute). I changed it in the light of the moon and continued on. I saw a smallish bear on the hillside above me foraging for food, and decided that this was a good omen.

Around 5:30am it started to get light in the forest and the birds woke up and began making cheerful noises, which lifted my spirits a bit. I turned off the headlamp and put it away. I had now hiked through two full nights, and dawn was here again. I had to be close but the trail just kept going on and on. I was now checking my GPS app on my phone compulsively to make sure I was still on the right trail. I was, but it simply refused to end. Eventually I got to Eagle View and realized with both both horror and relief that I had one more mile to go.

20160815_062052
Eagle View – if it wasn’t so blurry you could see that the rock behind me looks like an Eagle. only 1 mile to go!
20160815_063508
All done!! Not looking too bad after 44 hours and 122 miles…not much worse than usual anyway!

Then it was over and I had to decide whether to eat, sleep or shower first, and where and how and in what order. I managed to drive to Lodgepole without crashing, took my shoes and filthy clothes off, examined my swollen feet, got some food and a shower, found a place to sleep for a few hours and then drove home. All told I was awake for 54 hours straight, moving more or less continuously for about 44 hours, covering 122 miles and approximately 28,000 feet of ascent and another 28,000 feet of descent.

My times were as follows:

Crescent Meadows to Whitney Summit: 10:30AM to 6:36 AM (20:06)

20 min spent on Whitney Summit

Whitney Summit to Crescent Meadows: 6:56AM to 6:32 AM (23:36)

Total time 44:02

I believe this is an FKT for both the Crescent Meadows to Whitney segment as well as the full Yo-Yo.

It was a grand adventure, and one that I will not be repeating anytime soon.

Gear:

  • Ultimate Direction AK pack with 2 UD body bottles (worked great, highly recommend)
  • BD distance carbon poles
  • Altra Olympus 2.0 shoes
  • Injinji toesocks plus farm to feet wool socks
  • Dirty Girl gaiters
  • CEP calf sleeves
  • Nike running shorts
  • Patagonia Capilene 1 long sleeve shirt
  • Ultimate Direction sun hat
  • Montane Pullover rain jacket
  • Homemade synthetic vest
  • Patagonia Alpine Houdini rain pants
  • Mountain Hardwear powerstretch beanie
  • OR warm running gloves
  • OR fingerless sun gloves
  • Zebralight headlamp with 3 CR123 batteries
  • Ibuprofen, caffeine pills, salt tablets, 2 starbucks via packets
  • lip balm and sunscreen
  • small blister kit
  • TP and ziplock baggies
  • Phone with US Topo GPS app (not the best app but it works)
  • Paper Map
  • Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS watch
  • Food – 24 packages of clif shot blocks, 4 lara bars, and about 18 gel packets (consumed all but 3 of the lara bars)

GPS track:

[edit 12/4/2016: Original GPX files were sent to Peter Bakwin and Adam White for verification etc shortly after this trip. Adam combined the two files into one GPX file and using programming magic, added data points exactly halfway between each existing data point in both time and space, in order to increase the accuracy of the Strava data for per mile pace etc as it was wildly inaccurate in the original files due to the 1 minute GPS sampling rate I used in order to preserve battery life on my GPS watch.]

https://www.strava.com/activities/793562376

Desolation Wilderness 6 Summits – July 4, 2016

20160705_092150
A taste of what was to come…

So about a month ago I set out to do the Desolation 7 Summits Bay-to-Bay in a Day. I got up at 2am, had a quick shower and breakfast, drove to the Ralston Peak trailhead (about a 2.5 hour drive), and got ready to roll. During the final packing procedures, I made the call to bring the ice axe and microspikes to make sure I would not get shut down by snow. I then ran down Highway 50 dodging speeding cars and tractor trailers in what I hoped would be the most dangerous part of my day.

After a mile or two of this, I started up what I thought was the Rocky Creek Trail towards Pyramid Peak. As it turned out, I had missed the trail entirely and ended up bushwacking up a steep, rocky, manzanita-covered hill for an hour or two before eventually finding the trail on the final ascent to Pyramid, my first summit of the day.

Nice summit blocks!

20160705_093753

From there I mostly stayed high and followed the talus/scree-covered ridge line to Agassiz and Price, as there was quite a bit of snow on the slabs below. I think most people descend to the slabs for easier travel here, and I did go down in one or two spots but didn’t stay down long. I ended up going under the snow briefly here:

20160705_094934
Don’t go in there!!!!

The travel was a bit slow/arduous but the views off both sides of the ridge line were stunning!

20160705_09380120160705_105815

20160705_105921
Why I stayed high

On reaching the summit of Price it took a bit of time to find the best way off the ridge down towards Mosquito Pass at the top of Lake Aloha.

20160705_112546
Not this way!

A bit of easy down-climbing eventually got me down to the snow, at which point I took out my ice axe and microspikes and descended the soft snow via a combination of downclimbing, plunge-stepping, and some pretty fun glissading. The spikes were probably not necessary, but the snow was steep enough that I was glad to have the ice axe to control my glissade speed. There were also multiple convex drop-offs ending in rocks that I did not particularly want to meet at high speed.

20160705_113326
Steeper than it looks and a long way down to the lake.

Eventually I got off the snow and reached the discontinuous slabs that descend to Mosquito pass. Here I met the first people I had seen all day, a group day-hiking with their dog from a campsite somewhere nearby, who were in the middle of a snowball fight. We chatted briefly and I headed up the long, loose scree slope towards Jack’s peak.

I crossed some snowfields on the way up, which was a relief as they didn’t slide like the scree. Eventually I reached the summit via a loose, sliding scree chute that I was happy to be out of as soon as possible.

20160705_134757
Someone shattered a whole lot of rock and dumped it up here.

20160705_134804

The traverse from Jacks to Dick’s peak was more scree/talus hopping but much more stable and went without incident. From the summit of Dick’s there is a loose gully followed by a long scree field with a faint trail that leads to Dick’s Pass, where I got engaged to Amy in the moonlight, about 3 years ago. It’s a pretty cool spot and there was more snow this time.

20160705_134826
Not sure what we’re seeing here, but it sure is pretty

On reaching the trail at Dick’s pass, I was happy to be done with the talus and managed to do some running down the trail towards Gilmore lake. I was starting to feel the weigh of the axe and spikes in my pack at this point, and knew I had quite a few miles to go yet.

I filled up my water for the first time at Gilmore lake, while a bunch of college students frolicked on the shore near their campsite. From there I headed up the trail towards Mount Tallac – the only summit of the day that I had actually been on before. I have skied up and down Tallac a handful of times over the years, always from the Lake Tahoe side, so I was on new terrain coming up the west side through grasses and flowers instead of snow.

20160705_165632
I skied this a few months ago!

 

20160705_143622
Tallac Summit view

It was beautiful, the trail was a bit wet in spots but overall in good shape, and the views of lake Tahoe from the summit were stunning as usual.

20160705_165553
Lake Tahoe with Emerald Bay and Fallen Leaf Lake from the summit of Tallac

Coming back down the trail from Tallac, I realized I would be racing the daylight and tried to run as much as my tired legs would allow, which wasn’t a whole lot. The extra weight of the ice axe and microspikes in my new UD AK adventure running pack weren’t helping matters, but I eventually made it back down to Gilmore lake and then to Lake Aloha after passing Suzie and Heather Lakes.

20160705_180449
Trees, mountains, lake, grass, rocks, and god rays.
20160705_182656
This reminds me of a pirate island
20160705_165610
Gilmore lake and the Pyramid-Agassiz-Price Ridge plus Jack’s peak from Tallac
20160705_165606
This one shows Dick’s Peak as well at center right ( I think)

As I hiked down the shore of Lake Aloha, the trail signs were less than clear and I ended up missing a turn that would have taken me on the most direct route towards Ralston peak and the trailhead where I had parked my car. I realized my error pretty quickly (using both a paper map and quick GPS check on my phone); but rather than backtrack I decided to take the slightly longer route via Lake of the Woods since I had never been there. I eventually reached the Ralston Peak Spur trail just as it was about to get dark.

20160705_203615
Lake Aloha sunset

It is only about a half mile each way to the peak on the spur trail, but I had a few more miles of unfamiliar descent back to the car so I opted to skip Ralston and do as much of the descent in the daylight as possible. As it turned out, the descent trail was easy to follow even in the dark, so next time I would opt to tag the Ralston summit as well for the full Desolation 7.

GPS route here (watch died at Lake Aloha so the route is incomplete): Strava Link

Total time was about 15+ hours of bushwacking, hiking, scrambling, running, navigating, and traversing some amazing ridges over an absolutely ridiculous quantity of talus/scree/choss. Five hours of driving, with about 5 cups of coffee to wake me up on the drive up and then keep me awake on the drive home. It was a bit early for the traverse due to the amount of snow still present, but it definitely made for spectacular views and a very alpine feel.

Thanks to Leor Pantilat for the inspiration (and for making it OK to skip Ralston on the first try). Also thanks to my good friends Dan Krotz, Brian Zeitler, and Jon Brooks, for doing it first and sharing some beta although I likely forgot all of it before actually getting up there. This was one I have been meaning to do for a while and it was a good one!

More pictures:

20160705_09375920160705_10582120160705_10583020160705_10584520160705_10590920160705_10592720160705_10593020160705_10593920160705_10594820160705_10595020160705_11000820160705_11001420160705_11231720160705_11232120160705_11332220160705_11333020160705_11335020160705_11335520160705_11340420160705_11340720160705_11342420160705_11350620160705_11351020160705_13490420160705_14360020160705_14360520160705_14362620160705_16561320160705_18045220160705_184805

 

Full Circle on the Skyline to Sea Trail

The Skyline to Sea trail is pretty special. As its name implies, it starts at the top of the coastal range at Saratoga Gap, and rolls gently through the gorgeous forests of Big Basin Redwoods national park on its way to a picturesque finish at the Pacific Ocean. Below are a few gorgeous pictures from David Baselt’s page that give a nice feel for what this trail is like:

Skyline redwoodsskyline startskyline roadskyline end

The trail is quite popular for backpackers, as it is beautiful, convenient to most locations in the bay area, has smooth trails and plentiful shade, and is overall a fairly easy 2-3 day trip suitable for beginner backpackers, families with children, etc. It is used by many as a training or shakeout trip to test their gear and fitness prior to longer trips in Yosemite or other wilderness areas. It is typically done as a one way trip with a car shuttle, over 2-3 days – and in fact Amy and I backpacked this trail in 2009 as our first backpacking trip together. We packed light and ended up running many of the downhill sections, partly for fun and partly because we had less than a day and a half to finish. Somewhere along the way, I decided it would be more fun to just run the whole thing in one day without carrying overnight gear.

Map:

skyline map

So the following year, (2010) I signed up for the Skyline to sea 50k trail race. I trained for about 2 months but as this was my first race and I really had no idea what I was doing, I was somewhat underprepared. I think my longest run in training was about 15 miles. When the race came, I ran a strong first half, enjoying the long downhills and pushing perhaps a bit too hard given my inexperience. I had forgotten my watch so I had no idea what my time or pace was, but I think for the first half of the race I was running fairly close to the front of the pack.

At about the halfway point in the trail, there is an additional 5 mile loop that turns the Marathon into a 50k (31 miles). I had decided to run the 50K so I headed out on this loop which grinds up a long steep hill to an exposed ridge, and eventually brings you back to the same point on the course where you left the main trail. It was on this loop that things started to go downhill for me. My legs were starting to cramp up and I had to stop to stretch them out a number of times. People started passing me. I had to slow my pace and walk a lot more than I planned. By the time I got back on the main course, I was cooked. My legs were now cramping every time I tried to run, so I was reduced to a fast walk with occasional attempts to jog down a slight incline. I started getting passed, first by the faster runners I had been seeing all day, and then by others I had not seen since the start. There must have been 30-50 people who passed me in the last 10 miles.

At some point a kind woman gave me a few salt tablets, which I had no idea people used to prevent cramping – and it was too late at that point to make much difference. As I approached the last aid station, I was dehydrated, my legs were destroyed, and my whirlwind of exhilaration had rapidly turned into a whirlpool of despair. Instead of flying down hills, I was now reduced to walking just fast enough that my thighs would not completely lock up. Running was no longer an option. I had run out of water miles before, and my quads and hamstrings were both on the verge of complete tetany. I had never pushed my legs like this before, and they were in full revolt.

The last aid station is only 3 miles from the finish line, but a full 10 miles after the previous one. When I reached it they had run out of both food and water – all they had left were a few cans of mountain dew. I sat down for the first time and chugged an entire can. After a few minutes I got up and shuffled on. Slightly rejuvenated after the sugar/water/caffeine infusion, I was able to intermittently walk and run the final 3 miles to the finish line, and even passed a woman who was struggling just like I was. As I approached the finish line, I was overcome with a surge of emotions, and the tears started flowing freely.

In spite of inexperience and numerous mistakes, I had managed to finish 71st out of 191 with a respectable time of 5:42:12 for my first 50k and first organized race of any sort. I was basically unable to walk for the next week, but the joy of flying down the trails and the sense of accomplishment made it all worthwhile.

Fast forward to 2016, with a few more races and adventure runs under my belt, and I came back for another run on the Skyline to Sea Trail. This time I decided to do the Marathon, as I had never actually run a Marathon before and besides, it seems like the natural “directissima” way to run this trail, rather than artificially making it longer and harder by adding an arbitrary loop up and down a huge hill in the middle of the course.

This time Amy and my friend Nico were also running the Marathon, and my friends Bryan and Jennifer Zeitler were running the 50k. Nico and I started near the front of the pack, and I kept a fast pace on the smooth rolling downhill sections, as I knew I would be hiking some of the hills later on. I was in much better shape this time, feeling strong but pacing myself so I would be able to finish strong as well. Nico took the start a bit slower – he prefers a more consistent pace as he runs up the hills and takes the downhills a bit slower.

Soon I left Nico behind, and as I crossed a road a few miles in, a volunteer told me I was in about 10th place – right where I wanted to be. I was hoping to finish in under 4 hours, which based on the last few year’s results should be good for anywhere between a 3rd and 12th place finish. The course plays to my strengths, with only  2500′ of climbing and a full 4000′ of descending on smooth, fast trails. I’m not the fastest on the climbs but I can usually make it up on the descents. And of course, this is a smaller race, so the competition was not as strong as in some of the larger races that attract lots of sponsored professional runners.

I stuck to my strategy of running the smaller hills and hiking the big ones, and making up time on the downhills. As I hiked up the largest hill, near the middle of the course, Nico and a woman he was running with both passed me – but I kept them in sight. Reaching the top of the hill I felt rested and strong, and soon I was passing them and a few other runners, as I settled into my downhill pace. I was about halfway done with the race and it was mostly downhill from here, with just a few small climbs to go.

Elevation profile:

Skyline to sea profile

On the second half of the course I occasionally passed someone but didn’t see many runners. The 50k runners were off doing their ridiculous extra loop and I must have been near the front of the Marathon pack. About 5 miles from the finish the singletrack trail turns into a fire road and I started to see people hiking, riding bikes and even horses. I passed a few backpackers and weirdly saw Erica Namba hiking up with a friend – I knew Erica from climbing at Berkeley Ironworks, and we actually carpooled to the race together in 2010 (she finished way ahead of me). Sometime after that she started dating Leor Pantilat, and in 2013 I ran into Erica and Leor at Road’s end as I got ready to “run” the Rae Lakes Loop and they were starting an adventure run of their own to some nearby peaks. Seeing a familiar face gave me a small boost, and I was happy to still be running and feeling pretty good.

A few minutes later, an equestrian informed me that I was in 4th place, so I immediately picked up the pace, thinking I might have a chance at 3rd place if I pushed it. Out of the blue I was passed by a guy going so fast he could not possibly be in the race. I found out later that he was the first place 50k runner, but at the time I assumed he must have been out for a solo 5-6 mile run – he had no bottle and I didn’t see his race bib and he was running what seemed more like a 10k pace than a 50k or marathon pace. I was running 9-10 minute miles at this point and he passed me like I was standing still. I never caught the 3rd place runner, but I did manage to finish in 3:47:37, 4th overall for the marathon, 3rd male, and 1st in my age group. So technically I had my first ever podium finish, in my first marathon!

Nico finished right behind me just a few minutes later, and it was fun hanging out at the finish line with him, talking about the race and cheering for all the other runners as they finished. Eventually Nico had to head home, but soon enough Brian and Amy and Jennifer finished their races, and we all celebrated a day well spent on the Skyline to Sea trail. I was ecstatic with my performance, especially as compared with my epic meltdown 6 years prior – and it was all the more special sharing it with Amy and a few good friends.

It was truly a special day for me – running full circle on the best point-to-point trail in the bay area.

20160612_171449

 

20160612_171253

Miwok 100K – May 7, 2016

Miwok Photo1The Miwok 100k is an iconic trail race in the Marin Headlands. For me, Marin is a great place to race – and of the few races I have done, half of them have been in Marin. I love running in the Marin Headlands for a few reasons: The trails are generally smooth and well graded, the views are amazing, it is generally cool with a nice sea breeze, the hills are large and plentiful, and the scenery varies dramatically from lush forest with ferns and moss to rugged sea cliffs and manzanita. The Miwok follows some of the same trails as the North Face 50 mile race that I did in December, but is 12 miles longer and has much more history and personality.

On this particular day, I was feeling strong and well trained, and while I didn’t want to go out too hard I also didn’t want to get stuck behind a bunch of slow people going up the infamous Dipsea trail. So I made my way to the front of the pack just before the start, and ran with a fast group of 5 or 6 for the first few miles up to the Cardiac aid station. Arriving with the dawn to the sound of bagpipes piercing the fog and mist was an unexpectedly magical experience.

I ran a smart but aggressive pace, running more of the hills than I usually do but saving some energy for the second half. As I approached the confusing junction near the Bobcat trail I was very happy to see my good friend Brian Daly directing traffic, keeping the runners on track. Brian was injured this year but has run Miwok a number of times in the past and was volunteering instead of running this one. It gave me a nice boost to see a friendly face on the trail and I cruised down towards the next aid station.

Miwok1

As I reached Tennessee Valley for the second time at mile 26, I realized I had just run one of my fastest Marathon times and was still feeling good with “only” 36 miles to go. I changed into a dry shirt, evaluated the sky, left my rain jacket in my drop bag, and pressed on. Leaving Muir Beach, at about the halfway point, I was passed by Bree Lambert, who ended up finishing 2nd Female and 21st overall. Apparently she’s kind of a big deal but I was strategically hiking up the hills to save energy, so I let her go.

Right as I topped out at Cardiac, at mile 35.5, the weather turned from sunny to blowing cold wind and rain. I put on my Houdini wind jacket (definitely not waterproof) and pressed on. I was surprised how many runners had no jacket; the weather forecast was unstable and when it turned it got pretty uncomfortable for those with no protection. There were lots of people running with just a T-shirt or Sports Bra – or no shirt at all – and looking pretty miserable.  It was wet and windy for the rest of the race – apparently a lot of people dropped due to the weather and/or inadequate clothing. With my jacket on, I was wet but warm, which made a huge difference.

After the second pass through Cardiac, the race was basically a muddy, wet, and windy 14 miles out to Bolinas Ridge and the Randall turnaround, followed by 13 miles back to Bolinas and then down to the finishe line at Stinson Beach. It was windy and rainy nearly the entire time, although the rain did let up as I approached the lower elevation section near the Randall aid station turnaround. With my shoes (and everything else) already soaked, I ran through numerous puddles that were 6 inches deep, and 20-50 feet long, covering the entire trail.  It was kind of fun to just plow through the mud and water rather than try to stay dry.

Coming down the long windy hill to the Randall turnaround, the rain stopped and the trail was smooth and fast. This was probably my favorite section of the course and I flew down it, grateful for the respite from the wind and rain and mud.

 

As I was changing into a dry shirt at Randall I heard a familiar voice – Nico Raffo was there waiting to pace his friend on the last 13 miles and he was telling me how great I was doing – this was another nice pick-me-up! I felt good after the long cruiser downhill and took off hiking fast up the hill back towards Bolinas. Shortly I was passed by Nico and his friend, but I kept to my strategy of hiking the big hills and going harder on the downs.

My strategy seemed to work, as I started passing people on the rolling hills going back into Bolinas. Unfortunately I had to stop to poop there – so I lost a few minutes at the aid station porta-potty. I then re-passed a few runners on the way back towards Stinson Beach, which confused a couple of them. Eventually I passed Nico and his friend, as well as a few more runners on the long, fun, final downhill to Stinson Beach.

Miwok5Miwok Photo 2

In the end I finished in 11:33:22, for 44th place out of 288 finishers. I think there were about 400 people who started but quite a few dropped due to the weather conditions. This was my best race experience so far – in addition to the amazing course and scenery, it was well organized and well marked, and I had probably my best race performance to date. It was fun to push hard and have to deal with some adverse weather conditions, but I was well prepared, ran a smart race, and managed to stay warm and in control. My friend Jack Hsueh did well also, finishing in just over 12 hours. It was great to hang out at the finish line with Jack, Brian, Nico and a few other friendly faces. I’m not sure if I’ll do this race again,  but I would highly recommend it due to the amazing course and excellent organization.

Extreme Trail Running (from the archives)

iceOur camera froze so no pictures survived, but it was pretty much just like this.

This was 6 years ago today, but the memory still haunts me. We will never be the same, after this near death experience at Rodeo Beach.

We ran for 2+ hours in gradually worsening conditions. Dan’s fashionable running shorts unfortunately proved inadequate for the wind, driving rain, and near freezing temperatures. We were forced to abandon our grandiose plans for a massive ridge traverse linkup as the hurricane force winds threatened to blow us off the ridge, pelting us with freezing rain and spindrift.

Once we gained the main ridge, every exposed surface of our bodies was soon coated with rime ice, inhibiting limb function, while the wind began picking us up and tossing us about like rag dolls. With heavy hearts and beards thick with ice, we reluctantly headed down in a desperate bid for survival. Disappointment and desperation set in when we were unable to locate the high camp the Austrian team had abandoned back in ’75, when 2 members of their party perished.

Dan bravely soldiered on in spite of quickly worsening symptoms of frostbite and severe hypothermia. Meanwhile, I was suffering from the worst case of Low-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (LAPE) either of us had ever seen. However, I selflessly offered Dan my extra hat, enabling him to retain enough heat that his limbs continued to somehow function, and he regaled me with off-color jokes about the disastrous Austrian ascent, enabling me to cough up the worst of the sputum. We rapidly descended the french col, and my coughing subsided with the dramatic change in altitude from 400′ to 150′. After sucking down another Mocha Clif Shot with 25 mg caffeine, we somehow mustered enough energy to continue.

And so it was that, in continually worsening conditions, now soaked to the bone, completely and utterly exhausted from our 2 hour and 18 minute ordeal, we staggered back to the car, heroically and miraculously completing our self-rescue. More than anything, we were thankful to be alive, and glad we had once again escaped the cruel grasp of the reaper. Also, we were happy to have avoided the horrible choice that we would have had to make, had we been out there in those conditions any longer: certain death at the hands of this cruel spring storm, or summoning the courage to ask a middle-aged woman race-walking in capris  if we could use her cellphone to call for help.

TNF 50 Mile, Marin Headlands – December 5, 2015

I don’t always pay good money to run 50 miles. But when I do it is in Marin and it is awesome. My average speed on this one was was 5.8659 mph, which for me was pretty fast.

My target average speed with overnight gear on the JMT is about 3mph. I’ve actually hiked/run every step of the JMT more times (5 or 6, I’ve kind of lost count) than I’ve paid to run an ultramarathon race (exactly 3). I’ve actually never run an official Marathon – that would be too conventional I guess.

My first Ultra was the Skyline to Sea 50K in 2010, which I finished in about 5:42 despite massive leg cramps that forced me to walk much of the last 5-10 miles. (This works out to about 5.44 MPH). I had no idea what I was doing – I went out hard and fast, bombed the downhills, and hiked the uphills so my knees wouldn’t blow up. I think my longest run before that was about 16 miles. I learned about salt tablets at about mile 25 from a passing woman who was nice enough to share a couple with me. At that point I could barely walk -my hamstrings and quads were so locked up, bending my knees was not really an option. A lot of people (maybe 50? I’m not sure) passed me in the last 5 miles, which was all easy downhill. This was frustrating,  but my exuberant start still placed me at a respectable 71st out of 191.  It’s kind of crazy to think how well I could have done had I not blown up in the last few miles. It’s also crazy to note that Leor won the 50K with a time of 3:25, beating the fastest Marathoner by about 13 minutes!

Fast forward to 5 years later, with a bit more experience and a dime-bag of salt tabs in my well-used, salt-stained hydration vest, I signed up for the North Face 50 Mile race in Marin. It’s close to home so I was able to train on the course and I talked my wife Amy into running the 50k on the same day. That worked out well since she was motivated to train with me, but my race started 2 hours before hers so I still had to drive over there alone for the 5am start – she likes her sleep. I ran most of the course solo a few months beforehand, carried too much water and got a bit lost but managed to do 50 miles and 10k feet of gain in around 11 hours, so I was hoping to get under 10 hours on race day.

As it turned out, conditions were pretty much ideal, with very little mud on the course, and I ran a smart, fairly conservative race. I started with the 2nd wave, a bit above my pay grade considering the caliber of runners that sign up for this race. The first mile or so is a gentle uphill on the road, but soon turns into one of many long uphill grinds that add up to 10k feet of gain over the 50 mile course. I stuck to my plan and hiked that first long hill, but I hiked it FAST. Anywhere it got a bit less steep I’d run. My goal was to conserve energy and demoralize those who were running up the whole thing as they were barely going faster than me.

One guy who was trying to pass me on the second big hill, as I was power-hiking and he was running (at nearly the same speed!), said something like, “You must be a big hiker”. “You have no idea…”, I thought. Then it flattened out a bit and I left him behind.

A little while later, as I was cruising down into Muir Beach, the sun rose and I turned off the headlamps. I was feeling good so I ran some of the less-steep sections up the Heather Cutoff. It was fun to not let people pass me on the uphills, and then pass other people on the downhills and flats. A few miles before the turnaround point I started seeing the elite, sponsored runners heading back the other way. I passed a few more runners on the way to the turnaround. Halfway there, still feeling good – lots left in the tank.

At each aid station I was in and out, grab a couple gels and a cup of coke, fill up my bottle with pink water and GO. Efficiency, relentless forward progress. After a summer of speed hiking alone in the mountains, aid stations stocked with encouraging volunteers and food and premixed electrolyte drink were a nice luxury.

I got back to the Cardiac aid station and forgot to fill my bottle. There was a long downhill coming up and I was psyched but distracted. A few switchbacks later I was passing a bunch of 50K runners and soon enough there was Amy, 16 miles into her 50K. She was doing well, we said hello and I kept charging down the hill. I picked up a random pacer who just happened to be running this section on his own, and let him clear a path for me. We glided our way down miles of the best singletrack in the world, at a fast but sustainable pace, and he eventually peeled off onto another trail. As I neared the Old Inn Aid station I started to cramp up and had to walk a bit. I lost a few minutes and one guy passed me. I managed to bounce back once I rehydrated, and I pushed hard for Muir Beach and then up the seemingly endless Coyote Ridge.

Coming back down to Tennessee Valley, my legs came alive again. I’ve always loved the downhills and this was no exception. I was passing other runners like they were standing still, and eventually caught up to a small but fast woman who was doing the same. I settled in behind her, letting her set the pace, impressed at her downhill speed. I may have said “You are CRUSHING IT!” at one point…and she was. I later learned her name – Kristin Neland – but at the time I just thought of her as that woman who was crushing it in style.

Eventually I passed her, and cruised into Tennessee Valley. Hiking up the long Marincello hill to the Alta Aid station, I passed a couple guys, and eventually started hearing footsteps. Kristin was on my tail now, with a pacer. I could hear them whispering, trying to sneak up on me. I didn’t look back.

I kept hiking fast, and they kept gaining ground, little by little. I ran a bit whenever it flattened out, to open up a gap. Then it would get steeper, I’d revert to hiking, and they’d start to catch up. They were relentless. Finally I let them pass me near the top of the hill, just before the aid station. They had been trying so hard for so long, I figured I’d let them have the lead just long enough to blow by them again and demoralize them on the last downhill.

I was out of the aid station right behind them and passed them almost immediately. I was flying down this last long hill, passing so many people I lost count. There was a marathon and a 50 K distance going on as well, and all the courses used this same trail for the last few miles, so there were lots of runners on this section.

I was watching the time and knew I had a chance to get in under 9 hours, so I went all out. My average time on the last 5 miles was 8:09 per mile, with a 6:22 split for mile 48.  I got to the flats at the bottom and struggled to keep up the pace after 3 miles of downhill at my 5k pace. One guy passed me but I thought he was doing the marathon or 50k and he looked like he was in high school so I let him go.

The last mile or so had some uphill and my legs were done. With no one right behind me I decided to walk a bit and save some energy for the finish. Kristin and her pacer were closing the gap though. I let them get close enough that I could hear them breathing, and I started running. The short walking recovery had worked – I accelerated through the last half mile, opened the gap again, sprinting to the finish. They finished about 25 seconds behind me.

Once we had all recovered a bit, I gave Kristin a spontaneous hug and thanked her for pushing me – she finished 5th in her age group and 25th female overall. She seriously crushed it, with legs about half as long as mine. Her husband and their two little kids were there at the finish line too, I think they ran the last 100 yards or so with her. It must be tough to train for a 50 mile race with young kids at home, but she pulled it off.

An hour or so later, Amy finished her 50K and we ate a massive chicken dinner and talked about the race. She did great on her first 50K in spite of injuring her knee while training which set her back a few weeks. We checked the results and my official time was 8:57:03, 118th overall (out of 481), 25th in my age group. Not too bad for my first 50 mile race, although I kind of cheated and did a few 50 mile days on my own here and there.

My next race is the Miwok 100K in May, how hard could an extra 12 miles really be?

 

Oops, I did it again

Whitney Summit

Whitney Summit, changing batteries.

I am writing this on Feb 15, 5 months after the fact. It has taken me this long to sit down and flesh out my trip report, for reasons that I won’t get into – but I’m hoping to update this blog more regularly going forward. Some of the details are a bit fuzzy at this point but I will do my best to be accurate. My initial summary TR and Adam’s chart etc is here: https://backpackinglight.com/forums/topic/106927/

This was my 2nd JMT attempt for the year, and 4th overall. I started at Whitney Portal at 2:30 AM on September 12, 2015 after spending about two weeks at elevation to acclimate.

This trip came at the tail end of a busy summer, about 6 weeks after my previous attempt. On this trip I had started with a 2 night loop trip from Tuolumne Meadows to near where I got disoriented on the third night of my the last trip. This trip allowed me to spend a rather cold and windy night at one of my favorite spots on the JMT – Thousand Island Lake. But as usual, the sunrise on Banner Peak warmed me right up:

Thousand Island sunrise

I then spent a few days trail running with Amy and camping with some friends in Tuolumne, during which we did a beautiful ridge traverse at sunrise in the Cathedral Range.

The Cathedral traverse deserves its own post so I will just say that I would definitely do that again.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0575.
DCIM100GOPROGOPR0575.

 

Then labor day weekend was over, everyone left and I headed down to rest up at Horseshoe Meadows till I was ready.

I was hoping to start on the 11th, but as I drove into town on the 10th, there were some slightly ominous looking clouds over the crest. The forecast seemed to be improving, so I decided to wait a day.

Whitney zone Sep 10  2015

Whitney Zone 9/11/15

On the 11th the forecast was for afternoon thunderstorms for the next couple days and then clearing with no mention of a storm system in the forecast. So I got a room in town for the night and prepared for the now all too familiar predawn start. As it was now nearly mid-September, the days were getting shorter and the nights were colder. I decided to bring an extra couple pounds of food this time so I would not risk running out – last time I cut it a bit too close and did not want to take any chances. I also brought a full length Neo-Air pad, and a light hooded down jacket instead of the 3-ounce homemade vest I had brought the last time. I knew it would be colder and the nights would be longer. I decided to start a bit later this time, timing it so that I would reach the summit of Whitney just after sunrise. I also decided to take it a bit slower the first day, since I was carrying more weight and wanted to save my quads for the 3rd and 4th day when my pack would be lighter and the terrain more runnable.

All went as planned, at first. I started at 2:30 and made steady progress up the Whitney trail, passing quite a few dayhikers, but fewer than I had seen in July. I caught a few choice views of a beautiful sunrise from various notches on the ridge before the summit plateau and reached the summit at about 6:30am,  4 hours to cover the 10 miles and 6000 feet or so of elevation gain. There were a crowd of friendly hikers at the summit enjoying the sunrise – when they heard what I was doing, they were very supportive and enthusiastically cheered me on.

 

By this time my Spot was already acting up, and one guy was kind enough to give me some new batteries for it. I had just replaced them the night before but they seemed to be dead already. I coasted down the back side of whitney, trying to move as fast as possible without running – although I am sure I did jog a bit here and there. Last time I had run down much of this section and I think it hurt me in the long run.

While I thought I had a better strategy, I had a few things going against me: the weather report was borderline, the days were shorter and the nights colder, my pack was heavier. But the big question mark this time was the fires that had been burning for weeks now. The smoke had been a significant issue for both Gavin Woody and Amber Monforte on their trips recently. Amber broke the women’s unsupported FKT in spite of the smoke and Gavin put in an impressive effort, although he did not manage to set a new FKT. I was hearing mixed reports about how bad it was, it seemed to be getting better after some showers. Regardless, I decided that I would have to give it a shot in spite of the smoke as the season was drawing to a close and I might not get another chance.

Day 1 was great, I felt much better at Forester Pass this time at 10:35 elapsed time. Pacing myself seemed to be helping. I made it over Glen Pass and down to Rae Lakes in daylight for a change, and stopped at Woods Creek after just over 17 hours on he move. So far I was averaging over 3.1 MPH with no mishaps and feeling pretty good. I washed up in the creek and got about 3.5 hours rest – luxury.

Day 2 over Pinchot and Mather was good, steady progress. Then apocalyptic smoke from Palisade Basin onward. The haze was disconcerting and bizarre, the smell was constant. I felt like I was alone in a post-disaster wasteland. There were signs warning hikers to exit the trail, and it appeared most had taken this advice.

There was some wind and light rain going over Muir pass in the afternoon, but nothing major. The second night I camped near Senger Creek, got about 2 hours of rest and headed up towards Selden Pass. The effect of getting over 5 hours of sleep over 2 nights was quite noticeable – I still felt relatively good overall.

Day 3 was going well in spite of the smoke.  I reached Selden pass near sunrise, and enjoyed a gorgeous view down into the basin below. The smoke was still an issue but as the day wore on and I headed up towards Silver Pass, the wind really started to pick up and a light rain began to fall.

Silver Pass

At the pass,  I was still wearing T-shirt and shorts, but as I jogged down the easy switchbacks, the pleasant sprinkles turned into a cold, wet rainstorm. As I descended, I layered up to stay warm – rain jacket, hat, gloves, and finally windpants.

By the time I reached Tully Hole I was wearing everything except my down jacket. I was cold and getting colder. My gloves, shoes and socks had all soaked through, and I was losing heat in spite of walking quite fast. I didn’t want my down jacket to get wet, but at this point my core was getting cold, my hands were numb and losing dexterity, and I still had to go back up to over 10,000 feet in order to get down to Red’s Meadow. I could have stopped and crawled into my bivy if necessary – but I doubted that it would keep me dry all night, and the rain showed no sign of letting up. I decided it was best to press on to Red’s Meadow while I still had daylight.

I stopped under a big tree and put on the down jacket, managing to keep it mostly dry. My hands were numb and barely able to work the zipper, but once it was on I put my rain shell over it and started moving fast again. The extra warmth was immediately noticeable, and helped to offset the fact that my feet were now completely soaked as the trail was flowing with water. With every step I gripped my poles and tried to squeeze the water out of my gloves, and soon the feeling began returning to my fingers. I was very glad I brought the puffy – I would have been flirting with hypothermia without it. Soon I was headed uphill again, climbing out of Tully Hole and generating heat, both good things.

I knew I only had 6-7 hours to Red’s Meadow, and charged up to Virginia Lakes like my life depended on it. On the way up the rain changed to snow. The few other hikers I saw were in full on rain gear and their expressions ranged from wonder to shell-shock. I was not the only one surprised by this storm, and while I had the clothing and experience to deal with it, I did not have a tent to crawl into, a stove to light up, or dry clothes to change into. I had a very small margin of safety, and I was tired and depleted from 60+ hours of near constant movement. So I was probably more on the shell-shock end of the spectrum.

As I passed 10,000 feet the rain turned to snow and began accumulating on the ground and on the trees. It was beautiful, cold and wet. It reminded me of Christmas, if one was to spend Christmas alone in the mountains in a snowstorm, wet and tired and cold and hungry. Which reminded me – I had stopped eating a while back, and I needed to start taking in some calories again to keep the furnace going.

As I neared Lake Virginia,  I was struck by how beautiful and peaceful it was – there was no one else around, and everything was covered in a coat of white. Near Lake Virginia

Snow continued to gently fall, although it seemed that the worst of the storm had passed, or I had climbed up out of it. I was grateful for the snow: freezing rain is far more dangerous, and far less beautiful. The cold fog blanketing Lake Virginia was mystical.

My pace had slowed significantly due to the weather conditions. I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of continuing on into the night, so I focused on reaching Red’s Meadow as quickly as possible.  Shelter, and a bowl of hot soup were starting to sound appealing, but I had miles and hours to go.

After taking a few pictures, I pressed on past Lake Virginia and Purple Lake, and down towards Reds Meadow. While it was no longer raining, I was still in the clouds and night was approaching. My pace improved as I descended. My clothes went from wet to merely damp – things were looking up. As I passed the last creek crossing there was a young couple making dinner, and they offered me some hot food. I thanked them but declined, but I did ask them what time the restaurant  closed. A quick phone call revealed that it had closed already so I was out of luck – I still had a few miles to go.

I continued down, and soon it was dark. Half jogging down the trail with my headlamp on, I reached the area above Red’s that had burned a few years back. Meter-thick trees strewn about like toothpicks in various stages of decay; adolescent trees and bushes growing up to replace their the fallen elders. Memories of my journey and other trips began to flow – the trail is smooth and fast and familiar, I was on autopilot. I remembered that just a month before, I had been running down this section when I accidentally kicked a chipmunk. It had darted out in front of me, too quickly for either of us to react, startling us both equally. It scampered off apparently unhurt, but I felt a little bad nonetheless.

I was jolted out of my meditative shuffle-jog by a massive, snorting Volkswagen-sized bear charging up the trail at me like the most graceful freight train you ever saw. It was probably 40 feet away, engrossed in its task of tearing into a huge fallen tree, when I came around a corner. The bear saw my headlamp and charged directly at me. I had no time to react – in the fraction of a second that it took me to register what was happening, the bear halved the distance between us. All I could do was stop in my tracks and breathe a terrified “Holy Shit!” as it abruptly turned and crashed off into the bushes.

I was left frozen on the trail, heart pounding, in awe of the speed and incredible power of this beast. This bear could have run right through me, destroyed me without even trying, just as surely as I would have crushed that innocent chipmunk had our paths intersected in a just slightly different way.

I reached Red’s Meadow after dark. The cabins were chock-full of soggy hikers, and everything was closed. No room in the inn, no soup for me. I sat down to think about my options, but I was pretty sure I was done. I could press on into the night – it wasn’t raining here, but heading back out into a wet, cold storm for another 18 hours, crossing over Donahue pass at midnight when it was likely to be below freezing with a mix of rain and snow at 11,000 feet seemed like a pretty bad idea in the state I was in.

By this time, the FKT was definitely out of reach. The storm had slowed me down quite a bit, and it would not have been safe or smart to continue in the condition I was in – alone, sleep deprived, exhausted, wet, with no stove, and a minimal shelter and insulation. Basically not much of a margin of safety if the weather got worse, or I got lost or injured.

When I started on Saturday morning, about 65 hours and 165 miles earlier, the weather report was for some afternoon showers Saturday/Sunday and then clear skies and cooling temps on Monday and Tuesday. Somehow this evolved into a very real rain/snow storm on Monday into Tuesday as the remnants of Hurricane Linda decided to hang out and have some fun in the mountains. So I made the smart decision, and bailed. I called a taxi and got a ride to mammoth, called Amy and she got me a hotel for the night. I had a nice hot meal and a glass of wine, and managed to get a decent night’s sleep in a real bed.

The next day was consumed by bus rides and hitch-hiking back to Whitney Portal followed by a long drive back home to the bay. It was nice to be home after a pretty epic 2+ weeks in the Sierras. While I was ultimately unsuccessful in my quest, it was a great experience. I am of course disappointed that I didn’t set a new FKT, or even finish the trail. But I am also at peace with the decision to bail at Red’s Meadow, and I’m incredibly happy that I was able to give it another great effort, and grateful that I have been lucky enough to enjoy the health, fitness, and support that have enabled me to push my limits and have these amazing adventures in the mountains.

This trip report is a fleshed-out version of the report I wrote on BPL when I got home. All the positive comments and encouragement have been amazing.  It is really awesome to read all of your thoughts and encouraging words, and the interactions with those of you I have met along the way were amazing as well – THANK YOU!!!!!

I’ll leave you with these two quotes from Yvonne Chouinard, whose many adventures continue to inspire me:

“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”

“So, it’s kind of like the quest for the Holy Grail. Well, you know, who gives a shit what the Holy Grail is. It’s the quest is what’s important.”

 

JMT FKT attempt #3 (now with extra suffering and 50% less sleep!)

Blog entry: August 13, 2015

July 28-30, 2015 – JMT Unsupported FKT attempt #3

IMG_7578

I am never, ever, ever doing this again.

I know I said that the last time, and the time before that, but this time I mean it. I’m done with this trail, this all-consuming vision that I’ve spent much of the last 3 years training for, planning, and obsessing over.  I’ve now covered every step of this trail at least 4 or 5 times, in both directions, in daylight and darkness, in all kinds of weather, alone and with partners. I know it intimately – every junction, every twist and turn, every stream crossing. Even individual rocks and roots are old friends now.

The JMT is full of raw beauty, breathtaking views, austere moonscapes, and endless ups and downs. Doing the trail in 3-4 weeks is casual, 2 weeks is a challenge, 1 week was an accomplishment, and 3.5 days has proved to be somewhere between elusive and impossible, not to mention painful, expensive, time-consuming, frustrating, and overall a ridiculous obsession. So this is the last time I’m doing this. EVER. That’s what I told my brain, anyway.

The JMT has been my obsession, my nemesis, my inspiration, my teacher, my motivation to run up and down hills with a pack, do ridiculous workouts in my garage all winter, spend hours driving to the mountains to do 20, 30, 40, and 50 mile days all spring and into the summer, and countless more hours obsessing over timesheets, sleep strategies, and gear choices. The JMT is gorgeous, difficult, and easily underestimated.

The failure rate of Unsupported FKT (Fastest Known Time) attempts on the JMT is appalling – my own included. FKT’s and FKT attempts for various trails and mountains including the JMT are tracked by Peter Bakwin at his FKT site.

The current Usupported FKT (82:59) was set in 2014 by Andrew Bentz, who beat Brett Maune’s groundbreaking 2009 time of 86:13. Brett had smashed the previous records (beating both the Supported and Unsupported FKT simultaneously) by such a wide margin that people had a hard time believing it at first.

Aside from these two, and new Supported FKT’s by Leor Pantilat in 2014 and Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe in 2013, there have been a string of spectacular failures, caused by everything from sleep deprivation-induced mental breakdowns to illness, Giardia and GI distress to snowstorms and altitude sickness.

On my first try, in 2013, I made it 48 miles in 20 hours before bailing over Kearsarge pass, destoyed and demoralized. In 2014 I tried again, and bailed after about 85 miles, exiting at Bishop Pass in a rain/snow/hail storm that tested the limits of my ultralight gear and clothing. While I did my best to train and prepare for both of these attempts, I had a lot to learn, and the demands of my job and my personal life made it difficult to train, plan, and stage a serious FKT attempt with any hope of success.

This year, I was more prepared, better trained, and better acclimated. This was to be my last try, no matter the outcome. It was time to put up or shut up, and either do this thing or move on to more productive efforts.

So I joined forces with Ralph Burgess, who was planning his own FKT attempt. He had established the SOBO unsupported FKT in 2014, and apparently had nothing better to do than do it backwards this time around. So we trained and strategized together, and he kindly let me crash in his motel room in Mammoth for a few nights in between training trips. We were both knocking off big sections of the trail at FKT pace in 1-2 day chunks: Tuolumne to Happy Isles, Red’s Meadow to Tuolumne, Red’s to Happy Isles, Bishop Pass to Red’s, etc.

We did Whitney Portal to Bishop Pass together – it was fun to have a fast and motivated partner after all the solo trips. Ralph did a bunch of other trips for research and acclimation, and just to be in the backcountry, as he was basically living out of the Best Western in Mammoth. I was driving back and forth to the Bay Area for a few days to a week at a time, recovering and taking care of business at home in between my trips.

Ralph came up with a detailed spreadsheet of split times and sleep locations and then tweaked it until it seemed at least somewhat reasonable, at least in the theoretical sense. His splits added up to a time of about 81.5 hours, with 4 hours of rest each of the first two nights, and either no rest or a short nap the third night if necessary. I carried a card with these split times, but I mostly focused on the big chunks, trying to reach each pass on schedule and hoping I could continue to function on 3 hours of sleep or less each night.

After rehearsing each section of the trail at least once this year, and doing the final Red’s to Happy Isles section overnight in just over 18 hours, I felt as prepared as I was ever going to be, both physically and mentally. I had decided to start at the end of July, to take advantage of the long days and full moon.  Of course, the weather forecast had to be good as well.

Amy and I had planned a nice easy 5 day trip from Onion Valley/Kearsarge Pass to Mount Whitney  – on our 2011 SOBO JMT trip we bailed at Kearsarge pass, so we wanted to go back and do the final section together. I figured it would be good for acclimation without stressing my system too much – and it was. We invited our friend Jackie along, and after 5 days of about 10-12 miles per day, we finished on July 26 at Whitney Portal. Amy had some trouble with the altitude starting around 13,500′ but she persevered and made it to the summit.

P1050686P1050642P1050785P1050771

With the weather report showing afternoon thunderstorms starting on the 30th, I decided to start my FKT attempt on July 28 – I wanted to be done with most of the high elevation sections by the time the thunderstorms materialized.

I’ve been in enough storms in the Sierras that I do my best to avoid them if at all possible.  A passing afternoon thunderstorm is typically no big deal, but heading into a real storm can be downright dangerous when you are traveling light, with minimal gear to keep you warm and dry. And the forecast is sometimes dead wrong – a “slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms” can easily morph into a full on storm that socks in the entire crest, with freezing rain, lightning, hail, 50-80 mph winds, and a foot or more of snow at 12,000 feet – I’ve seen it happen more than once. I definitely did not want to be going over Mather or Muir Pass into that kind of weather.

This turned out to be a good call from a weather standpoint, however it gave me less than 48 hours to rest and recover before starting my attempt, in addition to securing a walk-in permit, packing, sleeping, etc. I spent 2 nights in hotels in Lone Pine, which was tough for my inner dirtbag to swallow, but I wanted to bank as much sleep as possible before starting and keep things simple. As it turned out I still only managed about 8 hours each night – barely adequate, but it would have to do.

At the permit office in Lone Pine there is a lottery each morning at 11am for the unclaimed Whitney permits for the following day. I somehow managed to draw the #1 ticket, so I got my permit on the first try. Also among the crowd of permit seekers was Matt Dubberly, who set a new FKT for both one way and round trip on the Mountaineers Route just a few days later.

Permit in hand, I checked into the Comfort Inn, did some last minute packing and preparation, ate a couple of big meals at the Grill, and went to bed around 8pm. I slept pretty well, and woke up before my alarm went off at 4am. Breakfast was coffee, bananas, and cold, vaguely egg-like patties, with a builder bar on the side.

On the way up to the portal I was rocking out to the Beastie Boys “Ill Communication” on the car stereo. To save weight and simplify, I had decided not to bring my phone or paper maps, so I would have no music, no maps, and no GPS for navigation. The songs in my head and my knowledge of the trail would have to do.  This is my JMT Gear List.

I’m not one of those guys that meditates daily and repeats positive affirmations in the mirror each morning, but for this trip I made a bit of an exception. From early on, I was hooting, grunting, and singing out loud to keep myself motivated and distracted through the tough climbs and inevitable low points. My mantras were “Because you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t stop” and “Gotta Keep it Together” because “Technically, I’m as hard as steel”.

At the portal, I turned on the Spot, hit the restroom one last time, did some quick stretches and mobility exercises, and started hiking at 5:36 am. I summitted Whitney in 3:52 (my fastest time so far), and felt great. As usual, there were hundreds of people on the trail, and I passed all of them. Some were struggling, some were going strong; many commented on how fast I was going. I just told them I had a long way to go yet, and wished them a great trip.

Leaving the crowds behind to run down the back side of Whitney toward Guitar lake felt great. My pack was light, I was feeling strong and acclimated, and it was fun to run down the well graded switchbacks after trudging up 6000 feet all morning. I had around 17 lbs of food, water, and gear, but all my food for the first day was in a small homemade waist pack, so my pack only weighed about 14.5 lbs. I knew from experience that anything over 15 lbs in my pack would quickly lead to sore shoulders/traps, so I tried to keep the pack as light as possible, and it paid off.

I continued to pass Southbound JMT hikers quite frequently – there were a lot of people on the trail. Many commented on my small pack, and a few asked if I was day-hiking, or if I had everything I needed. One guy was amazed that I would go without a tent. I tried to be friendly but kept the conversations brief unless they seemed genuinely interested rather than just perplexed.

I made good time, reaching Forester Pass (mile 32.2) in 10:17, faster than Brett Maune’s 2009 time of 10:30, which had seemed all but impossible on my last attempt. This put me in good spirits, and I was hooting and hollering as I powered up the final switchbacks to the pass. There I met Liz Watters and David Van Quest, a very cool couple who I had met a couple weeks prior at Red’s Meadow as I was getting ready to start an overnight training run to Happy Isles. They were kind enough to take some video, and their excitement and words of encouragement helped keep me motivated for the rest of the day. The were planning 2 more days to finish their 22-day JMT trip, although I tried to tell them they were really only 10 hours from the portal.

Coming down Forester Pass, I began to notice some upper hamstring tightness/pain/borderline cramping. It never got really bad, but it forced me to stop and stretch periodically, and definitely limited the amount of running I was able to do for the rest of the trip. I was able to coast/jog down much of the descent from Forester, and made it to Bubbs Creek/Vidette Meadow (mile 40.5) at about 12:35 elapsed time. I reached Glen Pass (mile 44.5) at about 14:10 – over an hour ahead of schedule – and had enough daylight to get down to the Rae Lakes just before dark.

This is where things started to go a bit downhill.

At Rae lakes there is a clearly marked junction with a trail that leads up to the 60 Lakes Basin. I reached this junction at twilight, saw the sign, and turned towards the Rae Lakes. Unfortunately, I somehow still managed to end up back on the 60 lakes basin trail instead of going between the lakes. At this point the JMT goes around a corner, and squeezes in between the upper two Rae Lakes over a jumble of logs – it can be a bit confusing in the dark if you’ve never done it before, but I had been through there at least 4 times, so I should have known better.

60lakessignPhoto Courtesy of Adam White

It was getting dark and I was in a hurry, and I just blew it. Navigating in the dark never was my strong suit; not bringing a map or GPS was the biggest mistake I made on this trip. I thought I knew the trail well enough that I wouldn’t need a map; in hindsight, this was clearly entering into stupid light territory.

As the trail alternately climbed up and headed north, taking me further from the lakes and higher than I should have been, I kept wondering if I’d screwed up.  I should have gone back to check, but kept thinking I had to be on the right trail, it would take me back down in just another few minutes. Escalation of commitment got to me – I knew it didn’t seem right but kept thinking I must be remembering it wrong, since I saw the sign and turned the right way. In the end I wasted about 45 minutes on this scenic detour. I had been about an hour ahead of the splits I was targeting, and this mistake erased most of that lead. This was pretty demoralizing, but eventually I reasoned that I was still ahead of the splits, and still had a good shot at the FKT, if I could just keep it together for the next 67 hours. No problem, right?

I left the Rae Lakes behind, passing Arrowhead Lake and Dollar Lake in the moonlight, and reached Woods Creek (mile 53.8) at about 17:45 elapsed time – still 10 minutes ahead of schedule in spite of my error. I quickly washed up and laid down to get some rest. I had planned 3 hours of sleep here, but woke up after about 90 minutes and was unable to get back to sleep. My new Klymit pad was half the weight, but I should have brought the Neoair for better sleep. Stupid Light strikes again.

I tossed and turned for another hour or so, and eventually just got up and started moving again at about 21:15 elapsed time. Crossing the swaying suspension bridge in the middle of the night is always a bit unnerving, but I managed it with no mishaps and started the long slog up towards Pinchot in the soft light of the full moon. I reached Pinchot Pass (mile 61.4) after sunrise, about 24:45 after starting, still a few minutes ahead of schedule.

From Pinchot I walked and ran down and then trudged back up to Mather Pass (mile 71.7), arriving at 28:35 elapsed time, or about 10:11 am. I must have been slowing down because I was 15 minutes behind schedule at Mather.

I don’t remember much about this section except that it was hot, I was tired and my hamstrings were acting up again. The Palisade Lakes were beautiful as always, and trail crews were swarming the Golden Staircase. By the time I reached the Bishop Pass junction in Leconte Canyon, I was over an hour behind schedule and hurting. This was definitely not fun anymore. I finally found the Rock Monster (which I somehow missed the last few trips through here) but by that time I felt like this guy:

rockmonster

My brain was starting to come up with all kinds of excuses for why I should quit: too hard, too hot, too long, feet hurt, knees hurt, legs hurt, butt hurts, back hurts, shoulders hurt, this is pointless, who cares, long term damage, etc etc. I tried to let these thoughts pass, and told my brain again that I would NEVER, EVER, EVER DO THIS AGAIN, but I needed to finish just this one time so I can move on. It also didn’t hurt that a lot of people were following my spot and I didn’t want to have to explain why I quit without a really, really good reason. So I told my brain to shut up and kept going.

The climb up to Muir pass in the afternoon heat was the toughest one yet, but I grunted and groaned and gritted my way up it with the Beastie Boys egging me on. The sky got ominous and cloudy; it never rained but it did cool off a bit which was a welcome relief. By the time I reached Muir Pass (mile 94.7) I had been going for 36:51 with less than 2 hours of sleep, I was about 1:22 behind schedule, and I was worked. I quickly peeked inside the Muir Hut, which was deserted, aside from a lone pair of boots inside and an old external frame pack leaning on the wall outside. I wasted no time pondering these mysteries – it was 7:45 PM and I had over 22 miles to go. (NO SLEEP TILL MTR).

Passing by Wanda Lake and down through the Evolution Basin as the sun set was sublime, and I was reminded of Heather “Anish” Anderson describing how on her FKT attempt in 2014, she was so sleep deprived that became disoriented and hiked the wrong way for an hour or more in the middle of the night. Although tired, I was still feeling reasonably coherent. I drank deeply from the lakes and pressed on into the night.

I crossed Evolution Creek barefoot and in the dark (for at least the 3rd time!) at about 40:53, losing a few more minutes and a unit of blood to the mosquitos while getting my shoes back on. At this point I was about 1:50 behind schedule but I felt like I was starting to gain ground going downhill in the cool evening conditions . The broken shale and rubble that litters the trail down to MTR was especially aggravating in my rapidly deteriorating state.

I pushed on and eventually reached the southern MTR cutoff (Mile 115) just past 43 hours. After wasting a few minutes looking for a good spot to sleep, I gave up and pressed on a bit further. A mile or two later I found a better spot and managed to get about an hour of sleep. I woke up refreshed, recharged, and optimistic.

Since my rest stop was only about 90 minutes instead of the planned 3 hours, I had suddenly made up 90 minutes, and in my exhausted mind I was nearly back on track. I convinced myself that I felt pretty good in spite of the minimal sleep. My brain was back on my side, which was a nice change.  This raised my spirits and I started to believe I might still have a shot at the FKT.

The schedule I was trying to keep up with was for a total time of 80.5 hours. So even though I was a bit behind, I was more or less on track for an 82-83 hour finish if I could keep it together – and I was still hoping to make up some time on the long downhill sections near the end.

I pushed hard up to Selden Pass (mile 123), and topped out at 49:43 elapsed time. The early morning light on Marie Lake was beautiful. I passed by the Lake Italy Junction and made my way my way up Bear Ridge, somehow back to about 90 minutes behind schedule.

I still had Silver Pass to get over – at 10,740′ this is one of the lower passes on the JMT, but it is a long, tough climb. My hamstrings were acting up again, but I managed to not lose any more time and reached Silver Pass (mile 142.7) at 56:23, still about 90 minutes behind.

Lake Virginia, Purple Lake, and Duck Pass Junction passed by rather slowly as the afternoon turned to evening and I fantasized about running down into Reds Meadow in the daylight. At Deer Creek I briefly stopped to reorganize my food and chatted with a woman that was camping there after being out for about 3 weeks. I coasted down into Red’s Meadow (mile 165) just after dark, at about 63 hours.

Coming down into Red’s, I was suddenly and irrationally concerned about caffeine toxicity and what it might do to me if I had too much. I was also starting to worry that I would need to take a nap but would not being able to sleep if I had any more caffeine. So I stopped eating the caffeinated shot blocks and had a power bar instead. Somewhere on the way down to Red’s I ran out of water, and then stopped eating, as all of my remaining shot blocks had caffeine, and I couldn’t eat the bars or perpetuum without water.

I was pretty destroyed at this point, my balance was a bit off, and my thoughts were gradually becoming less coherent but I was still mostly functional. I had had a weird taste/smell in my mouth for most of the last 2 days, which I thought was either caffeine or tartar buildup on my teeth from eating countless clif shots all day. Either way it was pretty disgusting, and I was really wishing I’d brought a toothbrush.

I reached the bridge over the San Joaquin (mile 166.2) at about 63:30, and stopped for 15 or 20 minutes to drink up, fill up, and take in some calories. I had a couple servings of Recoverite, which was also disgusting, and ate my last power bar while I considered my options and my physical and mental state. I decided to press on into the night, reasoning that I should continue as long as I was physically able, and take a short nap if and when it became absolutely necessary. So resolved, I pushed on up the hill from Red’s Meadow towards Johnston Lake.

I still felt reasonably strong, although when I stopped it took a few seconds to get going again and my balance was getting worse. My feet and knees were pretty sore, I had been managing the hamstring cramping and various other aches and pains for days now, but hydration, electrolytes, ibuprofen and some occasional stretching seemed to keep things working well enough. I was determined to finish and the physical stuff never got so bad that it would have stopped me. I remember thinking that as long as I could stay awake I could keep going fast enough, and I had only a few smaller climbs to go.

Given all this, I thought I had a good shot to beat Andrew’s time of 83 hours, if I could stay awake or maybe get an hour of sleep somewhere along the way. I actually ran down quite a bit of the trail from Deer Creek to Red’s, excited to get there in about 63 hours and feeling pretty good, considering. I had done Red’s to HI in about 18 hours at night recently, so I was thinking if I could hold it together for 18-19 more hours I would finish in 81-82 hours for the FKT.

Then the wheels started to come off.

Stopping the caffeine before Reds was probably a mistake. Not bringing a Map or Phone/GPS was definitely a mistake. The effects of lack of sleep hit pretty hard and pretty suddenly as I pushed up from Reds towards Gladys Lake. My balance was getting so I had to keep moving and be careful not to fall off the trail when it was steep. Time slowed down, every 50 feet of elevation gain seemed to take forever, even though I felt like I was still pushing fast up the hills.

I forgot to fill up with water at Trinity lake outlet crossing and then ran out; the next water source never appeared. I had no idea where my next water would be; I could not remember anything except that Shadow lake should be coming up at some point, and Garnet after that. I just needed to get to Garnet and the trail would come back into focus. But Shadow lake refused to appear and without Shadow there could be no Garnet. I kept turning on the battery-sucking high beam on my headlamp looking for a lake or stream to fill up my bottles. There was no water,  only trees, hills, meadows, and darkness.

I tried to eat a hammer bar and nearly choked, with no water to wash it down. I finally found a lake and went off the trail 40 feet or so to the shore to fill up. When I got there I decided the water quality was suspect and didn’t take any water.  I had not worried about, filtered, or treated water once on the whole trip, and I was quite thirsty, so in hindsight this makes no sense. I kept going, occasionally coughing up bits of the hammer bar.

The next time I found water, it seemed like 30 minutes to an hour later and when I got there I was horrified to realize it was the SAME LAKE, and I was convinced I was seeing MY OWN FOOTPRINTS in the mud by the shore. I had somehow just made a complete circle around the lake and was back where I started. At least at the time I was completely convinced that is what happened – in hindsight I think it was the same lake, only a few minutes later, and I had just reached another part of the shore which looked the same in the dark.

I was distraught, horrified, I could feel the FKT slipping through my fingers. This time I filled up both bottles, went back to the trail, and could not remember which way I had come from. Not that it mattered much since I thought I was going in circles anyway. I picked a direction and walked faster. I kept coming to sections of trail that looked eerily familiar, like I had just been there a few minutes ago, I couldn’t figure out if it all just looked the same or if I was going the wrong way. I still don’t really know which lake it was but it was likely either Gladys or Rosalie.

I think in my confusion I may have turned around once or twice, but I’m not really sure – it’s kind of all a blur. I kept hoping to get to Shadow Lake or some landmark that would let me know I was on the right track, but it never happened. I couldn’t remember any other lakes besides Garnet and Thousand Island, or really anything about the trail before Garnet. It was all just a big blank in my head even though I’d done it twice in the last month, and once in the dark, and probably 5 or 6 times all together.

I couldn’t get my bearings and had no idea which direction I was heading or if I was even on the right trail anymore. I was lost and losing time fast. I went back and forth a few times and couldn’t decide which way was forward. This was around midnight; I was so lost and disoriented that I finally decided I needed to stop and wait till dawn to get my bearings, which would clearly mean no FKT. This was disappointing to say the least, after coming so far and being so close to the end, but I felt it would be foolish to continue in the state I was in, and get even more lost. In hindsight I probably should have kept going – it appears I was actually on the trail between Gladys and Rosalie lakes (Mile 172 or so). But at the time I really had no idea where I was, and was not thinking clearly at all.

It had been cloudy all evening, and as soon as I stopped to rest it started sprinkling.  I put on my rain shell, and got in my mylar bivy; it was warm enough that I didn’t even pull out my sleeping bag at first. I spent a few hours there on the ridge, eventually getting into my sleeping bag, not sleeping much but dozing off for a bit here and there. It rained lightly off and on all night, sprinkles mostly. My head was under a big fallen tree trunk, and my body/sleeping bag were in the bivy so I stayed pretty warm and dry.

Occasionally the coyotes would go NUTS – I guess when the full moon came out of the clouds and it stopped raining for a bit they thought that was pretty cool. The whole night was pretty surreal. I remember waking up a few times and wondering why my knees were on fire and wishing someone would put them out. At some point it hit me that I had covered 175 miles in 3 days, and the Ibuprofen had worn off. I took some more and the raging fire receded to a dull smolder. Rain pattered softly on the mylar, the coyotes howled and laughed like hyenas, and I drifted in and out of consciousness, waiting for the dawn.

In the morning I guessed which way was back towards Reds, and walked down the trail a bit. I soon found a guy with a map who had been camped there all night. I never saw his tent in the dark although I must have walked right by it at least once. It appeared that I had been on the trail all along and my mind had been playing tricks on me. Re-oriented, it took me about 2 hours to walk out past Shadow Lake to Agnew Meadows, during which it sprinkled off and on. The temps were cool, perfect weather for running, but I could barely maintain a 3mph walk downhill, and all I could think about was a shower, clean clothes, and a nice soft bed.

At Agnew Meadows there were hordes of fit and energetic high school girls milling around in tight shorts and matching yellow cross country shirts, getting ready to go run some trails. They seemed pretty excited about it, so I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was a bad idea and would inevitably lead to all sorts of pain and suffering. As I walked up the road towards the bus stop, I noticed that their shirts all said the same thing on the back:

“ALWAYS PUSH HARDER”

Postscript

I caught the bus from Agnew to Mammoth Mountain, the driver was kind enough not to charge me after he heard what I had just put myself through. I then got another bus into town and headed for the Best Western. I had gotten to know the manager a bit over the last couple of months – his name is Brent Cooley, he is a climber, ultra-runner and a great guy – his wife Emily and their dog Wilson are also super cool.

I figured I’d get a room for the night and then take the bus down 395 to get my car in the morning. I must have looked pretty wrecked when I walked into the lobby around 9am, and as it turned out they were booked solid. Fortunately Brent was at the front desk and he let me use the phone to call Amy (as my phone was still in my car). Amy told me that Ralph had spent the night in the hut at Muir Pass and was headed out via Bishop Pass (Ralph had started his second FKT attempt the day after I started mine).

Brent then mentioned that he had to go to Lone Pine to pick up his JMT permit that afternoon and offered to give me a ride to Whitney Portal to get my car. He was getting ready to start a 5 day JMT trip – Sweet! We had breakfast and and coffee on the house, and he even let me take a shower – I’m sure for his own benefit as well as mine. We left around 11, stopping for lunch at the Alabama Cafe, they dropped me at my car and I wished Brent luck on his hike.

I then went looking for Ralph, thinking he would likely need a ride from the South Lake trailhead. As it turned out, he was able to get a ride into Bishop, and I caught up with him at the Looney Bean – which seemed fitting. We chatted about our trips for a few minutes, and we both solemnly swore that we would NEVER EVER EVER  DO THIS AGAIN, EVER.

His ride was waiting to take him to the Portal to get his car,  so we kept it brief. I got a large coffee and headed back home to the bay, arriving home at 1:30 am after a 7-8 hour drive with a few stops for coffee, food, and a short nap or two.  Driving home that day was probably not the best decision, but I made it home safe and sound.

I got sick a few days after getting home. It was some sort of intestinal illness, presumably a virus as it resolved in a few days without antibiotics or other treatment aside from rest. It was apparently not Giardia, although I was initially concerned about that given that I did not treat the water.

My legs were not exceptionally sore, although my feet were quite sore and swollen and my knees were sore for a few days. I did have some numbness in the forefoot and toes on both feet, but this is mostly gone now. I tried to do some light squats and an easy trail run about a week after getting home, but my hamstrings got really sore and inflamed. I’ve been resting and icing them a few times a day for the last few days and that seems to be helping. It has now been 2 weeks since I got back and I feel pretty good overall.

It was pretty warm for the first 2 days, and I may not have been taking in enough water and/or electrolytes for the conditions, or I may have just been pushing my legs to their limit – or both. The 3rd day was cooler and I was able to run a bit more down into Reds Meadow, but the hamstring tightness never really went away. I’m hoping that the combination of training adaptation from this attempt and a longer rest/recovery period prior to my next attempt will allow me to run more without cramping – assuming I am able to make one more attempt. Right now the Rough Fire is causing smoky conditions on the JMT, so we will have to see…