Current Training Status: not blogging... running.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Running of the Goats

Tomorrow, at the Ascutney Mountain Run, I will finish my second Mountain Series. What a grueling season it has been. By choice, I've made it tougher and hopefully will see some benefits in two weeks at the Escarpment Trail Run, in the upper Catskills of NY. Granted, a year later I've trained like crazy for these races and only seen a couple minutes come off a couple races. Training like crazy of course is not accurate, choosing a couple clear strategies I methodically stuck to a plan. Looking back just before getting my second 'Mountain Goat' jersey tomorrow, I see that I'm a much different runner. 
Loon Mountain, last week, was a very successful day. After 3 hours in my car, the Whites were rising into the crisp morning air. Finding a rest stop called, 'Beaver Creek', I had a good stretch and shortly thereafter rolled into Lincoln. Passing Loon, I continued on to scout out the Trailhead where the Pemi-Challenge 50k had begun awhile before. The Lincoln Woods trailhead had a parking lot with facilities and a fee, as well as a visitors center. The Mountains were gorgeous, towering spines and ridges. Returning back to Loon, I passed a couple familiar faces. Looking like total tourists, Dave Dunham and Tim VanOrden were taking wide shots of the Loon Mountain signage. They parked right next to me, incredibly talented masters runners with wide smiles and tons of energy. The weather looked great, if a potential scorcher, and I had plenty of shady trail mileage down the road to look forward to later on. 
It was a scorcher indeed. We were all exposed to it while powerhiking the relentless slope of Upper Walking Boss. Turning around for a couple backward steps now and then, I got an eye-full of the Pemi-Loop course. If you'd have told me that I was heading up there next, I'd have to catch my breath so I could laugh in your face. Within the hour though, that is exactly where I was headed. After taking in the views at the top of Loon, more eye candy on a solitary gondola ride down, after grabbing a few bagels I found no reason to linger and was soon settling in at Lincoln Woods. There weren't any obvious runner vehicles, no 26.2 stickers or gear logos. The RD's car was noticeable though, a vanity plate that had to belong to Sherpa John LaCroix. With the heat and the Finger Lakes Ultra races the same day, I wondered if he was the only one running this.
As planned, my entire water-carrying capacity was soon on my person and I swaggered into the Visitor Center. The lady at the desk was very polite and showed me their detailed map, with each leg of the trails measured. Knowing now which way to go (or so I thought), I struck out across the Pemigewasset and toward Osseo Trail. Online forum chatter suggested an easy run here would be 10-13 hours. The race started at 6:30, so I figured I might see someone if I ran about 2 hours in. At that point, if they were in dire need of water or a gel, I'd oblige and follow them back. 
The Osseo trail proved to be very runnable. The sense of remote wilderness was only interrupted by a series of boulder-staircase switch-backs, the gradual incline kept me moving quickly for about 45 minutes. Then began the most grueling ascent of the day. It was hot, and steep. Still sort of in race-mode, I was powerhiking steadily. At about an hour and a half I drank my newest concoction, a rich mix of perpetuem and half a raspberry gel. Very tasty, but I made a total mess. The 'Osseo Ladders' I'd read about were soon passing underfoot, very odd planting my foot on the euclidian shapes of telephone poles atop each staircase 'ladder'. Ascending that, and joining the ridgeline trail, the next climb soon began up a pile of roots and boulders, Loon was nothing compared to this! 
The clock was ticking toward my Mt. Washington Road Race time, as I passed a family on their hike. The young girl actually said, 'That man is carrying a ton of water!', and dad replies, 'Oh, he'll need it alright!' This as I bounded on past up the near vertical slope, sure of a summit ahead. Popping up top between a couple boulders, there were about 20 hikers, backpacks and the whole nine yards greeting me with bemused looks. Having put on my shirt due to the breeze, I was still comparatively naked carrying only water and assorted calories. Looking past the hikers, my jaw hung and eyes gaped in awe at the endless procesion of crests and valleys surrounding me. If there wasn't company I'd probably have cried. 
I was on top of the world. This was my second summit of the whites, but stripped of all the civilized trappings at Mt. Washington this experience was utterly humbling and awesome. Doing some math I now figured these trails were way too technical and the weather too severe for an unsupported run under 12 or 13 hours at the outside. My math may have been way off, but I was correct in assuming I would definitely be running alone. I hung around quite a bit taking in the vista before gazing across the impossible distance to the next peak. People had been discussing the peaks surrounding them, but I couldn't follow being completely ignorant of their names. The thrill of it all had me completely re-juevenated and giddily barreling down the Mountain toward the next summit.
The ridge wasn't too far down and the climb not so bad to the next peak. There I found fewer hikers, but an interesting crowd. There was one dude by himself with his laptop. I watched pick it up and point it toward the surrounding peaks, so I assume he was taking pictures. It was like some weird cafe atop both of these 4000'ers. I sat down, had my second batch of perpetuem and took stock of the situation. Judging by the shape of the ridgeline, Lincoln was 2 summits away. I was halfway through my water supply and couldn't go any further. Lincoln seemed way beyond the reach of my supplies, but not my legs. I couldn't imagine carrying enough water, but it was easy to imagine a case of summit fever taking me there. I sat and pondered, thoroughly stretched out and began to head back.
Where my energy was coming from, I don't know. Obviously this new perpetuem recipe was keeping me moving. I ran where possible, most of the way between summits. Already there was a smaller crowd at what I'd learn was Flume. Everyone was in groups, it seemed awkward to be alone, then really strange to be socially concerned on a wilderness mountain top. Taking in my last views of the day from above 4000', I set off down the boulders at a run. Now, this was over 12 miles into my day and I was still strong enough to discover new technique on the uber-technical descent.
I ran down stuff that was mind bogglingly difficult and then decided to enforce a break back on the Osseo ladders. It is still up in the air to me whether the break was necessary or premature, as my mental focus after relaxing down the stairs was shot. Past the ladders I couldn't run 5 minutes without catching a root. Crashing into a tree, I decided to walk the rest of the technical sections. Calories may have helped, but my water was running low and a gel meant drinking more. I downed a couple endurolytes and high-salt joint supplements, rationing my water the rest of the way.
Once the trail flattened out I ran the rest carefully, breaking for the boulder switchbacks. There was no energy left to acknowledge any of the many groups of people I passed on the old rail trail back to the bridge. It was still quality running, focussed on an efficient stride. Back at my car I was definitely dehydrated. After guzzling some Smart Water and mixing a recovery drink, I went back down to the cool waters of the Pemi and soaked for about ten minutes.
The car with HIKE4KS on the plate was undisturbed, so I knew Sherpa at least was still out there. At the Visitor Center, I was too fried to read the map. With some help I determined I made it as far as Liberty. The mythic significance of this achievement on 4th of July weekend overwhelmed my depleted/elated brain. I decided to chill out for at least an hour before driving home. This would give me a chance to come back down to earth and possibly cross paths with Sherpa and/or others I'd only known on internet forums. I got myself changed, packed up and ready to go, then headed to town for some beer. I brought a 24 oz. handheld of Long Trail and a couple PB+J's to the bridge over the Pemi where I expected any finishers to cross and filled my belly. 
Soon enough, about 5:30 to be exact, three loping runners with camelbacks came along, crossed the bridge and immediately submerged themselvs in the Pemi's current. They admitted to having finished the 50k, and I was stunned. I was even more surprised to learn that they started at about 7:30 am, and had run the loop in less than 11 hours despite heat and humidity. One face I recognized, Bob Mathes and I crossed paths at Wapack 50 (where I ran a paltry 21 miles).
Finishing my PB+J, I started a conversation with another runner wearing a Loon T-Shirt. This was Bob Sharkey, who said he was edged out of his age division by Paul Bazanchuk (though he had a good 8 minutes on me). He seemed to know all these guys, so I was able to get the names straight. It was Bob Mathes, Tim Roy who did the 42 at Wapack, and Joe Holland. Very humbling company.  Also gathered from their chit-chat was the fact that I had run the beginning of the course, so there never was any hope of being any help to anyone but myself. We soon went our separate ways, and I was getting ready to climb in my car when a kid in a red hat began making his way across the parking lot. This was Sherpa John, RD for the event, trailing by about 20 minutes across those soaring peaks and grueling climbs.
Once again, like at Wapack, I knew the terrain these guys had run to some extent, first-hand. Once again I was struck dumb in the face of what they'd accomplished in their day. The more I consider that, the more I feel the need to get out there and find out what is possible. All the while I listened to their account of the day, hikers with big sleeping rolls were heading out onto the trails. To enjoy the landscape these guys had just traversed involves a span of days, for most people. Sherpa John had a whole batch of pictures posted that same night, taken during the run and testifying to just how enjoyable those peaks are, even at their pace. Later in the week, I'd peek into the running log of Bret Sarnquist, who I saw win the Wapack 50. He had stopped by the next day to run the course, unsupported and presumably alone, in a blistering 8:14.
My brief experience of the Pemi-Loop, though it took me 4 hours, didn't seem long enough, these Whites are like Disneyland. Loon was great and I'll be very proud of my accomplishment tomorrow as a 'Mountain Goat', but I can see the training I did to get here carrying me further to new goals. I can imagine, foolishly, running 50 miles. A 50k is definitely in the plans though, and more training runs to explore the demands of 5-10 hours at a steady clip.  This is simply where my interest lies (as I write this, I'm following the Hardrock 100 where Kyle Skaggs leads the field by hours toward a ridiculous CR - by 2 1/2 hours actually, in 23:23:30, check these photos out). The Loon Mountain Race led to an 18 mile day, where Loon Mtn. was hardly the major climb, so my training has carried me a long way along the road to an ultra. This past week, I'm reaching record mileage running only every other day. I've commuted to 2 5k races, running there and back getting a balanced day of long runs and speedwork. Obviously I'll need to take this interest seriously and train in a more structured fashion to avoid injury, and plant both feet firmly on the road to an ultra (hopefully on a trail). 

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