Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Where's Waldo 100K

Sometime shortly after running my first 100 miler back in 2008, it occurred to me that 100K might just be the perfect distance. For me, it’s somewhere shortly after the 60 mile mark that running 100 miles becomes ridiculously hard; everything seems pretty awesome right up until then. So I’ve had my eye out for an opportunity to test this theory ever since, and last weekend I finally got my chance at the Where’s Waldo 100K.

A girl’s road trip up to the Oregon Cascades seemed like the perfect way to finish off the summer, and Jenny, Jamie and I had been planning this one for several months. The drive up went quickly, as we shared stories from our big summer races, and news about who was racing where in the upcoming week. Comparing notes on what we knew of the Waldo course (It was a new race for all of us), we all felt it would be hard, but not that hard. (Turns out, actually, it really was that hard. I guess all the rumors were true.)

Road trip! Jamie, me, and Jenny at Burney Falls on the drive up.

The weather was perfect when we arrived at the Willamette Pass ski area for Friday’s race briefing and check-in. We all gave a big thumbs up to the race shirts, then listened with anticipation as Craig and Curt gave us info for the day and explained how the course would be marked. The pre-race instructions we’d been mailed contained a course description and map with explicit instructions to carry it with us. The fact that the course markings at this race had been sabotaged in the past was apparent in these instructions, but in the end I actually appreciated this, in spite of the mild paranoia it induced. Their expectations that each runner be responsible for knowing where she was at all times forced me to do my homework by studying the map and elevation profile carefully. That knowledge definitely helped my race strategy, and as it turned out, the course was well and clearly marked.

Jamie, Jenny and I were all taking the regular start at 5:00 A.M., and we lined up in the dark with a hundred or so other runners. (There were 123 in the race, but I don’t know how many took the 3:00 A.M. start.) We took off and immediately started climbing up the ski hill. I’m perfectly happy to start a long race with a climb, and in this case, it was a good way to stay warm. It was chilly out!

At the starting line with Jamie and Jenny

When we eventually turned to run downhill single-track and it was still dark out, I had a bit of trouble. Usually the only time I’m running in the dark is when I’m really tired, so I’m moving pretty slowly. Now I was discovering the challenges of moving fast in the dark. It was a forced speed-check, and thus a good way to keep from running too fast early in the race, but I was still glad when the sun came up.

After the first aid station we began the second of the five major climbs, this one to the summit of Fuji Mountain. Jamie found me at the aid station, and we headed up the hill together. Since we spend so much time training together, it wasn’t surprising that Jamie and I found ourselves racing at about the same pace.

Rumor has it that this guy has no association with the race whatsoever, so I was surprised to see him hanging out on the trail up Fuji Mountain. I was told later that he is just a big fan and supporter of the race.

Chasing Jamie up Fuji Mtn.

The climb up Fuji encompasses a few miles of out-and-back, so we had the fun of getting to see the leaders heading back down. Eventual winner Tim Olson was already out front, and in the women’s race Megan Arbogast came by first, with Amy Sprotson hot on her heels. Those two were in close competition all day, with Megan pulling ahead in the final miles for the win.

Jenny shows us her Waldo on the way down from the summit of Fuji.

The trail up Fuji

I took a few pictures and asked the race official who was checking us off for the names of some of the surrounding peaks. Things looked a bit smoky out there, but I couldn’t see any actual fires, so I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t have a big impact on the day.

Found Waldo! Waldo lake from the summit of Fuji Mountain.

Jamie makes it to the top.

Heading down Fuji and then up a section of the PCT, I did my best to stay in contact with Jamie. I knew she would be the perfect person to pace off of, if only I could keep her in sight without killing myself. My general race strategy was to run conservatively until about mile 40. If I still felt good at that point, I would give myself permission to pick it up and run hard. My training since TRT had been lackluster, to say the least, and that scared me into sticking with this fairly conservative plan. Thus it was that I found myself arriving at A4 expecting to see Jamie, and she was nowhere in sight. Clearly she was feeling good, and I mentally wished her well and stuck to my plan.

Coming into the Charlton Lake aid station at mile 32, I already felt like I was working pretty hard to maintain my pace. I’d been running for six and a half hours, so I knew I would need to run the next 30 miles in an equal time if I wanted to finish in 13 hours. Knowing that the hardest climb comes in the last 10 miles and that I was already feeling the accrued miles, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to happen. I decided maybe sub-14 was still a good goal.

Artwork on the way in to Charlton Lake

One sign advertised "Nude Beach Ahead." But wait! This is a family-friendly race.

All rumors of a nude beach turned out to be false, but it was still a great aid station.

Charlton Lake

The section from Charlton Lake (A5) to Rd. 4290 (A6) is pretty flat and extremely runnable. It was a bit frustrating then, to feel like I wasn’t making very good time here. This area was sort of a mental low, and after hearing from a number of other runners, that seemed to be a common theme. It was just kind of the doldrums. It seems counter-intuitive, but I always have a hard time staying focused on the flats even though I should be using the terrain to my advantage.

At A6 Sarah was there cheering me, and that was a nice boost. I also saw Claire Abrams and Scott Laberge coming into the aid station just as I was leaving, and that provided another kind of boost. I had better get moving if I didn’t want them to catch me!

Drop-bag time at A6. (Photo courtesy of Sarah.)

Even though it was a few miles earlier than my game plan called for, I let myself push the effort a bit in order to try to fend off Claire. I knew no matter when I did it, I wouldn’t really be picking up the pace anyway. It was simply about maintaining at this point. In spite of all the gaps in my training though, I was here to race, and I figured I may as well give it my best shot.

Many of the trees were covered in this moss. Think it rains much here? It lent a beautiful, very "magical forest" quality to the place.
The trail to the Twins

Coming into the Twins aid station for the second time, I got my camera out preparing to take a picture. On my first visit to this station, they had a “Pearly Gates” theme and I appreciated the enthusiasm that led most volunteers to don white gowns, wings and halos. I’d been too lazy to take a picture at the time, knowing I’d be back here and could do it then. To my surprise though, the theme had changed. Now everyone was wearing devil horns and black cloaks. Clearly it was late in the race and things were getting ugly! I also noticed that, despite my efforts, Claire and Scott were still right behind me. Time to go!

Claire and Scott re-fuel with the devils a the Twins aid station.

Yes, I totally spanked this monkey. When it was the "Pearly Gates" theme at the aid station, I'm pretty sure this sign said something more like "Hi-five the monkey for good luck."

I started the final climb, up Maiden Peak, with Claire. Due to my excessive study of the map and elevation profile, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect out of this climb. Long story short: It was going to be a bitch.

Although neither of us had the energy for any real conversation, it was nice to have Claire right behind me. There’s something about sharing a completely demoralizing climb with someone that helps it to taste slightly less bitter. After the race, Claire, Jamie and I compared notes on how similar this climb was to the climb out of Diamond Peak on the TRT course. Consensus was that they were pretty similar, but Maiden Peak was worse. It’s a bit longer, and it’s also not as straight-forward. There are tricky little spots where the climb teases you by flattening out just a bit before it sucker punches you with another steep, loose scramble. I find those changes in pitch to be a huge mental challenge. So, lesson learned: I guess I won’t complain about Diamond Peak anymore. (Actually, I probably will, but I’ll just end all my complaints with, “Well, at least it’s not Maiden Peak!”)

I knew that the climb got steeper as you got closer to the top, so when things got completely desperate I figured we were getting close. I was surprised and happy to see Jamie heading back down just as Claire and I turned up the last stretch to the summit. I’d figured she was much farther ahead. Reaching the top, I was all smiles. I was completely spent, but the worst climb was done and I knew the last ten miles to the finish were mostly downhill.

Claire and I smile on the summit.

I let Claire lead the downhill since my legs were completely rubbery from the climb, and she was soon far out of my sight. This trail was labeled “Leap of Faith” on the map, and I’ll tell you what - that was the perfect name! Steep, loose and technical, it took more than a little confidence to negotiate. I worried less about moving fast than I did about staying upright.

By the time I reached the final aid station at Maiden Lake, Scott had caught up with me as well, and we enjoyed the amazing star-treatment here. This race gives a number of fun awards, including one to the runner with the most enthusiasm/appreciation (the “Show us Your Waldo” award). Well, if I were giving out awards, I would definitely give one to the ladies at Maiden Lake for the best aid station. Can we call this the “Maiden Lake Spa”? While I happily sipped a chilled frappachino, a volunteer came over with a wet napkin and wiped all the salt and grime off my face. Then she followed it up with a shoulder massage. Could it get any better?

I began narrating my experience aloud: “Well, I DNF’d at Waldo because I just couldn’t leave the last aid station.”

The ladies laughed, but then one continued the story for me, “And then they made me hike out with a pack on.” (All the supplies have to be hiked in to this remote aid station.)

I hastily added, “So, I changed my mind and decided to run in the last 7 miles!”

Thanks for all the love, ladies! At a race with some pretty awesome aid stations, you’re proof that it doesn’t take fancy themes or cute costumes to be the best.

Maiden Lake. Look closely and you'll see the mermaids!

The last 7.5 miles to the finish is fairly moderate downhill, and I felt like I was keeping a good pace on it. I wasn’t too discouraged about getting passed by Scott and Claire, since no one else had passed me in the last 40 miles. I was, however, picturing a large number of women somewhere shortly behind me, and I didn’t want to get passed again. That was my motivation. When I look at my last split though compared to those of the runners near me, I can see that I still have a lot of work to do on my downhill technique. Even runners who finished behind me had a much faster split from the last aid station to the finish. I hate being faced with that kind of knowledge, but sometimes it’s good to have a forced reality check: My downhill pace wasn’t as solid as it had felt.

Waldo also marked the second race for me this year that took place on part of the PCT. As with Leona Divide, I spent some time during the day thinking back to what it had been like to backpack through these parts. Passing the Rosary Lakes, I remembered that I’d camped there with a friend I'd met on trail. In 2,600 miles of hiking, this was the only place where I had taken a layover day on trail (as opposed to in town). I’d spent a rare thru-hiker's day relaxing, swimming and writing in my journal. As the sun sank lower in the sky and I ran along the edge of the Rosary Lakes, I smiled to myself at the memory. This was truly a special place.

Middle Rosary Lake - August, 2010

Swiss Miss and Farmboy, Middle Rosary Lake - August, 1996

I crossed the finish line gratefully, to the cheers of Jamie, Jenny and a handful of enthusiastic spectators and runners. In many ways, the 100K distance was more or less what I had expected: a little harder than a 50-miler, but not nearly as hard as a 100-miler. The Waldo course is no joke, but it’s hard in a really good way. I was fairly happy with my finishing time of 13:30, and my place of 8th woman/39th overall.
(Complete Results)

One of the things I really appreciated about this race is how it does such a great job of combining both the serious and fun aspects of ultrarunning. For a small race (123 starters), it attracts some excellent talent. This is perhaps due to its inclusion in the Montrail Ultra Cup series, as well as good sponsorship which offers cash and prizes to the first five finishers in each gender as well as masters. But along with all this serious racing, there are some fun and goofy prizes, (not to mention some fun and goofy race officials and volunteers). For instance, the runner who swims in the most lakes wins the Wet Waldo award, and the first runner to make it to the top of Fuji Mtn. (and still finish the race) gets the Found Waldo award. Fun, yes, and the prizes are pretty darn good, too: a backpack and a Patagonia down sweater. The Show us Your Waldo award was the best because it’s totally subjective (voted on by each aid station) and can be interpreted in whatever way you’d like. If you’re going for that award, I suggest bringing your A-game. (This is what it took to win this year.)

And ever since Sean came down with a car full of Oregon speedsters to kick our butts at Silver State, I have to give out my own Fastest Carpool award. This one’s a little tough since it’s hard to know exactly who drove together, but this time I think Jenny, Jamie and I just may have taken it with our 3rd, 7th and 8th place finishes. (As usual, I am the weak link in my carpool. I need to find slower friends. Or maybe start running faster.) Other close contenders were Amy Sprotson’s car, and Erik and Mark with their 4th and 5th place men’s finishes. (They had to be officially disqualified because they only had two people in their car. Maybe next year they can offer Victor a ride.)

The three of us stood around the finish line socializing, and eating the amazing food (who made those cookies?) washed down with the best Mirror Pond Pale Ale ever. We cheered on finishers until 9:30, when we were too cold to talk anymore.

It was a fun experience to go to a race on new trails, where I didn’t know many people, and feel welcomed with open arms. The people at this race were great, and the atmosphere was super positive. It’s funny how these things can be just as important as beautiful trails and great aid stations, and Waldo is blessed with all of the above. During the weekend conversations, there was much talk of trying races like Leadville and Trans Rockies next year, but we all agreed that it will be a tough call if it means leaving this one off the schedule. Thanks so much to Craig, Curt and everyone involved in this race. It was an excellent first experience with the 100K distance and Oregon racing!

Three happy runners show off their finisher's hats.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nature's Peace in Yosemite National Park

"Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

-John Muir

After running a hundred miles, there is sometimes a short period of time where the runner experiences a sense of peaceful satisfaction. Months of hard work towards a singular goal have been realized. You can feel good about your accomplishment.

I was lucky enough to get one of those brief windows of bliss following my run at TRT this year. It's a blessing when I can simply sit around enjoying the pleasures of the mountain life, and I'm not filled with this sense of urgency, this feeling that there is something I'm supposed to be doing.

This only lasts for a week, at best, so when my friend Pam suggested a women's backpacking trip in Yosemite for the weekend following TRT, I was completely onboard. What better way to celebrate running 100 miles than by heading off into the wilderness with a handful of free-spirited women?

I met up with my adventuring partners early on Saturday morning during the weekend following the race. We geared-up and headed off on the PCT along the Tuolumne River towards our destination: Glen Aulin.

Pam and Kara get ready for the hike.

Early on the trail, we made a quick stop at Soda Springs to taste the bubbly water. We decided that next time we would bring gin and limes and fill our bottles with nature's bounty from the spring. But considering that it was only 10 A.M and we'd only hiked a half mile, it was probably a good thing we didn't have the ingredients for gin and tonics. It could have made for a long 6 miles to Glen Aulin!

Checking out Soda Springs

When I first heard our chosen destination was Glen Aulin, I was a bit disappointed because I knew it was a popular hike in the park. I wasn't keen on the potential for crowds. But as we made our way along the Tuolumne River, I recalled why it was such a popular trail: The scenery is unbelievable. I know this can be said of so many places in Yosemite, but honestly, this river has a special beauty all its own. And as often happens to me in this park, I was so enraptured by my setting that the crowds simply melted away. I had eyes only for the flow of water across smooth granite, the reach of the trees, and the shape of the clouds against the brilliant sky. I could have been the only one present. Who knows.

It's amazing how a river can take so many different forms - have so many different personalities. It roared with its swiftness and power, and then it meandered so quietly that its stillness reflected the surrounding granite domes. Fierce, then tame - lion to kitten and back again.

After following the river steadily downstream for 6 miles or so, we arrived at Glen Aulin and found the perfect campsite. Secluded from the other campers, we could have been the only ones in a vast wilderness. It was perfect!

We set up camp just in time to be safely sheltered during an impressive thunderstorm. We huddled in the Himalayan Hotel while thunder crackled overhead and the skies pelted us with pouring rain and hail. There's something incredibly comforting about being safe in a tent while a storm rages on outside. We giggled, told stories and sipped wine until the storm moved on, just in time for us to escape the tent and make dinner.

Camp chairs, bear canisters and chardonnay: essential elements to a good backpacking trip.

Sunset view from our campsite.

The next day we slept late, then headed out for a day-hike down to Waterwheel Falls. Rain threatened on and off all day, but we only got hit with an occasional passing shower.

Rain showers will not dampen the spirits of this intrepid group!

Tired, 100-mile toes are well-protected in Injinjis.

We continued to follow the river as it made its way toward the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

We paused mid-day for lunch, swimming and sunbathing. The sun was so warm and soothing during this respite from the showers. It was one of those lunch spots that you just don't want to leave.

Sunbathing on a rock in the middle of the Tuolumne. Could I possibly be any more relaxed? (Um ... No.)

The river drew us on, down its sweet, winding path. The only woman on the trip that I knew going into it was Pam, and I found myself enjoying the chance to get to know other women with lives so different from my own. It seems to me that time on trail is often the best setting in which to connect with others.

Water was everywhere: flowing in rivers and creeks, trickling down granite walls and even occasionally falling from the sky. So it wasn't surprising that the wildflowers were putting on an impressive display.

Hiking through fields of lupine.

Mariposa Lilies.

Tiger Lilies.

After our visit to Waterwheel Falls, we returned to spend another jubilant night at Glen Aulin.

The following day, we returned to the trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows. It had been a short trip, but for me it was the perfect way to stretch out my legs in a beautiful setting with some new friends.

It may seem odd to vacation in a part of the same mountain range in which I live, but I can't help it; I love it here. Perhaps it's because these mountains do have so many good tidings to offer, and because for a few blessed moments, my cares do drop off like Autumn leaves.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Running the Twin Cities

After two and a half days in the car, I awoke yesterday to my first morning in years in the city of Minneapolis. I lived in Minnesota at various points in time from 1996 through 2000, and my life in St. Paul and Minneapolis marks my only time as a city-dweller. Although I've come to fully embrace my mountain girl-ness, I still adore the urban trails of the Twin Cities.

I rolled out of the sofa bed of my friends' South Minneapolis home, leaving my husband in a peaceful slumber at 5 AM Pacific Time, and laced up my road shoes for the first time in months. I slipped out the door with one water bottle and two double-caffeinated GU's, and skipped down two blocks to hop on the Minnehaha Parkway.

I don't know if most cities are this way, but the Twin Cities have such an amazing network of bike paths, you could literally run multiple marathons and not cross the same path twice. It almost seems pointless to own a car when you could run or ride a bike, on a designated path, to seemingly infinite city destinations. (Pointless, that is, until you recall the -20 temps common in January in these parts.)

Nonetheless, another bonus I recall of these trails is that they actually plow them in the winter. I think this is to keep everyone from getting cabin fever and going crazy. Even this SoCal girl learned how to haul ass on a frozen trail at sub-zero temps with her eyelashes frozen shut in order to maintain some sense of sanity. Midwesterners are hardy folk, so it should be no surprise why they breed some tough ultrarunners out here.

And in case I forgot why it's not actually that difficult for runners to motivate in winter time, this balmy August morning was a clear reminder: Summers aren't always that pleasant either. At seven AM the mercury neared 80 degrees already, and the air was so thick it clung to my skin like a wet towel. Humidity makes me wilt like old lettuce, (not to mention what it does to my hair!)

Still, after so many hours cramped in the Subaru, my legs were desperate to unfurl themselves and do what they love. I knew my value as a traveling companion would increase tenfold once I got some pent-up miles out.

I headed down the bike path that follows Minnehaha Creek, past Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha Falls, until I hit West River Parkway along the Mississippi River. This was all familiar stomping grounds for me, but it had been more than a decade since my last romp here. I reveled in my own sense of power because I knew exactly how to navigate this place on foot, and I flew along the river as I watched the U of M crew team practice below.

Reaching the Lake Street bridge after 90 minutes of running, I knew I should turn around. I just couldn't resist the temptation to cross the river into St. Paul, past my old duplex and my old life as a 23-year-old. Old workouts, old jobs, old boyfriends. I smiled through the memories as I headed back on East River Parkway, this time ignoring an urge to run up Summit Avenue all the way to downtown. Andrew would wake up soon, ready for our day to begin, and I felt the call to return to the other side of town.

Back in 1995, before I was actually a resident of these parts, I chose the Twin Cities Marathon for my first attempt at the distance. With no clue what we were doing, my friend Charlie and I crossed the line in St. Paul in 3:33. Much of the route I was running this morning is also part of the marathon course. With several dozen marathons and ultras under my belt now, I can appreciate that this is not only one of the fastest, but also one of the most scenic urban marathons around. It was an excellent place to debut the distance.

I couldn't recall the last time I'd spent so many miles on pavement. Back at Helen Klein, perhaps? I took the opportunity to pick up the pace and made the return trip 20 minutes faster for a 2:40 run. I don't know how far it was, but I do know that I cured myself of every one of those miles that I sat cramped in the car across Nebraska. Thank you, Minnesota, for the trip down memory lane and the head-clearing miles for this vacation.

Back in South Minneapolis, Andrew was just waking up. "Good morning," I smiled contentedly, as I put the coffee pot on to brew. My mid was already spinning with exactly which trails I could run this week before we head up north.