Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fat Dog 120: Lightning-Rain-Fog and a Course Record

**Please note Jade’s Crew report will be italics throughout this race report**
Months before
In November 2014, I dropped out of World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM). On the fringes of adrenal failure from Tor des Geants, my weakened body couldn’t handle the demands of another 24-hour event that season. My weakened ego received no respite though as I returned to HURT 100 in January 2015. Full of my own high expectations, I sabotaged my own race by making a poor nutritional mistake 60 miles into the race. Between the Adrenal Fatigue, the nutritional self-sabotage and the lack of solid employment, I was heading towards a rabbit hole of depression and considered shelving ultra-running all together. 
Oh the 35-foot cliff jump...how I miss it so...

In the midst of all of this though, there was David. The coach I hired in the center of all self-loathing and misdirection. At our first meeting I went to tell David why I wanted to hire him,
“I want” I said opening my mouth as my mind drifted to Ryan Atkins at WTM, Rob Krar at Western States, Iker Karerra at Tor des Geants and the whole wide spectrum of endurance athletes who I unfairly compared myself against, “to be faster, to be more in control…And to be in the sport for a long time.”
With no races on the horizon and no set training period, I was grateful for David’s patience with me. He must have known I was in the upswing of an adrenal fatigue phase. His approach was “control” over speed and he emphasized “working-in” as much as I “worked-out”. Increasing time spent meditating, practicing yoga and tai-chi patterns, I slowly developed a heightened awareness of my muscles and breathing in these relatively stationary practices.
It was in the translation of this awareness to trail running though where I was most surprised by David’s approach. It was working. Month after month, my mileage hovered around 75 to 80 miles per week at most with only two days a week spent developing speed. But the day I ran a 4:57 mile around the track for the first time since High School, I knew I was going to bring something special to the Fat Dog 120.
“Nick! Why didn't you read the race guide BEFORE we drove out here?” I was exasperated at Nick’s ability to plan his race strategy to a T, but fail to read anything other than what time to be at the race start on Friday.
West Coast Trail Hiking ain't easy hiking, HURT 100 much?

I can’t entirely blame him; after a week of hiking the West Coast Trail, playing tourist in Vancouver and visiting family, I felt incredibly present. So present, in fact, that I had trusted Nick to have some semblance of an idea of where I would need to be during the race. Instead, here we were sitting at the “Wrong Turn Tavern” in Keremeos, British Columbia, stealing Wi-fi and hurriedly writing down the rough directions of where I would need to be during the race and, more importantly, how to get there.

The race
Temperatures, as Jade and I huddled around the start line were much cooler than I anticipated. “Yay less stomach issues!” I said excitedly to Jade as I gave her one last kiss and gathered behind the front pack of runners.
Last minute preparation before the race.
We were off! And quicker than I could comprehend was some twenty-five people or so back from the front runners stuck in cattle line heading up single track. I glanced around and to my ego’s delight, I couldn’t recognize a single person. My lack of pre-race research had paid off, I was calm and these people? They were all potential friends on the same journey, not competitors to crush! At least, not yet.
Around 100 feet or so ahead of me I picked out one runner. Jade was eyeing him at the starting corral and mentioned he looked like a good runner. Backwards white hat, strong build, clear glasses and curly hair. Something of a mix between Scott Jurek and Jesse Haynes, alternating between a fast walk and a light run, you could tell he knew what he was doing.
“Are you Nickademus?” I heard a runner behind me say. I glanced over my poles and pack and figured the Tor des Geants logo on the poles must have given me away, damn! The gig was up!
“Yup” I replied, the guy’s name was John, he’d placed third at the Tahoe 200 last year and was planning to run pretty hard at this event as well. We talked a little bit about the race and the current climb before he continued on past me and disappeared around a corner. Although through the conversation he’d now towed me up to the heels of the runner in white hat, Nathaniel, as I shortly learned his name.
Good runners are easy to spot. Their breath, their pace, their ability to hold a conversation with you on climb without gasping for air. Nathaniel was one of these and that struck fear into my heart for later in the race. Without saying a thing, I followed silently behind him. Carefully analyzing his uphill form, his stride on flat terrain and his movement on downhill grades. I wanted to know what I was up against.

In a controlled voice, he turned around to me
“Would you like to pass?” he asked. 
“No, I’m cool here thank you!” I said back to him in my best diction possible.
The two of us got to chatting and joking about the race “not beginning until mile 90” but the subtle investigations into one another’s strengths and weaknesses had already begun.
He asked me about my time goals in the race.
“I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes” I said averting the question.
From the moment I stepped onto the course, I was going for the record. Not a single other person was to know though.
At the summit of the first climb, I took off from Nathaniel and started to open up my stride on the long downhill. I wasn’t surprised to catch four, then five runners who’d huffed and puffed past me on the uphill climb. I knew from years of racing that energy was much better spent the flats and downhills than it was on the ups.
Feeling strong at mile 18
The first aid station, at mile 18 for Nick, was only a half hour drive away. Granted, it was on a dirt road but there was and the opportunity to see big horn sheep and a variety of birds. While I waited for Nick I thought, “So I’ll have this camera for when he comes over the bridge, this one for when he comes through the station and then this one as he’s leaving?” As I waited, I debated on how to best take photos while also ensuring that his pack was full. I pulled out a book I’d wanted to read but quickly put it away in frustration. This was a game of anxiety, not relaxation.

Smiling and running through a light mist I ran over a bridge into the mile 18 aid station where Jade greeted me with fresh salty dill pickles and a strong kiss before heading onto the fire road.
I was only a few feet ahead of another runner who whizzed by as we turned off the road up a steep grade. I dug my hiking poles in deep into the sandy soil and slowed my pace down as I watched the guy ahead of me bolt into the woods. Minutes later, I caught up to him. He was seated on a rock breathing heavily, “phew high heart rate man!” he muttered over to me, as I nodded and wished him a good race.
After a decent climb, I arrived at the next aid station. I’d been crushing salt pills under my tongue and sucking on pickles to prevent early race cramping and it was working like a charm. I chugged down some of my Carbo Pro at the aid station as three other runners came in seconds behind me. They startled me, but this wasn’t the place to start vying for position. Not yet.
The course continued on a low uphill grade as it emerged from the forest into a bald high alpine meadow. In the far distance, I could see two other runners just ducking out of my sight. Then suddenly, BOOOMMMM!!! Massive soul-shaking thunder erupted from the clouds above me. The last thing anyone running through a tree-less meadow wants to hear. CRAAKKKK I watched as lightning struck the ground maybe a hundred meters or so from where I was running. I broke down my poles immediately and quickly threw on my rain jacket as dark clouds blew in and raisin sized pellets of hail pelted me from the side.
After leaving the last aid station, I had noticed that the air felt stagnant, the electricity vibrating. “This lightning is terrifying!” I thought as I drove the winding route between Princeton and the east gate of Manning Park. My mind wandered to where Nick was now, likely soaked to the bone and dodging lightning.
I waited until the thunder sounded to move again and sprinted to the closest tree, forgetting my boy scout lessons and the fact that you aren’t supposed to run to the tree’s, but I wanted to avoid being the tallest thing in the meadow. And with the metal hiking poles, I was fearful I’d be even more of an attraction.
I ran to the rhythm of the thunder. As I sprinted from tree to tree. I was no longer running the race to compete, but to survive this lightning storm. It was a welcome change in mindset.
I ran lightning strikes right up until I was on the heels of the next runner, “Nick!” “Nick!” We exclaimed. It was Nick Pedatella, I’d raced with him at Jemez Mountain 50 and Tor des Geants and knew him fairly well. Talk about surviving the lightning storm and a similar storm at Hardrock 2014 that he’d encountered occupied our minds as we ran into the next aid where we both welcomed large warm muffin squares of Canadian fry bread. As we continued through the now pouring rain, it felt almost like cheating to be eating such a delicious bread in such atrocious conditions.
By the river crossing I’d pulled a bit ahead of Nick and another runner. I’d just finished glissading down a muddy wall that was once the trail prior and despite the cold rain I was overheating from the intense downhill running. A volunteer crew watched in shock as I paused in the middle of the river and splashed the cool water on my face, neck and thighs “got to cool off!” I yelled over with a smile.
I grabbed a slice of watermelon and a bite of a warm cheese quesadilla was off. It would be only another two miles or so before meeting Jade at the mile 41 aid station.
As I waited at the aid station, I thought about Nick and hoped that he was taking his time in the conditions; everything would be far more slippery and much more dangerous, especially with the lightning.

I turned from fire road onto the highway, one of two sections of the race where I’d need my safety vest. I was mildly terrified as I watched a massive semi-truck round a tight corner in the pouring rain, splashing up a huge puddle of water towards me. I could only imagine having survived the lightning, a semi-truck now hydro-planning, flipping and squishing me into oblivion.
“Love!” I ran into Jade’s arms giving her a tight hug.  
Not long after Nick came in, smiling. “Love!” He exclaimed, and I gave me a hug before sitting down to scarf down the grilled cheese a volunteer had prepared.
“Your only about ten minutes back from the lead guys” It was great news, but at this point in the race, I wanted to be nothing more than a distant lurker.
I quickly got down to the dirty task of swapping out his shoes and socks before sending him back out into the rain. I didn’t want him to get too cold during the night portion of the race, so both the aid station captain and myself urged him to changed his shirt and throw on his rain jacket. He looked strong and, strangely, almost happy to be out in this weather.

After a quick mandatory gear check, I was startled again, as five runners poured into the aid station, only minutes behind me. I wasn’t racing yet, but after I grabbed another bite of a grilled cheese sandwich, I didn’t need to be there any longer either. A good kiss to Jade and I was out of there.
The downpour intensified as I quickened my step turning back onto a downhill single track from the fire road. It was nice to have dry shoes for ten minutes, I thought to myself as I brushed against the low lying skunk weed which emptied its water soaked leaves all over my lower body.
Towards the upper half of the third climb, the rain dissipated and a thick blinding fog moved in its place. The terrain continued at a moderate grade over easy terrain, but I recalled looking at the course profile and knew that flat “runnable” terrain was around mile 78-99, so despite the fact that I could run, I chose to walk and save myself.
It was nearly pitch-black by the time I arrived at the small tarp held up by a few sticks and hiking poles that constituted the aid station. I felt awful for the poor volunteers huddled closely together over a jet-boiler in the corner of the tarp amidst the rain and fog.
“Hey guys” I said smiling, “watcha got cooking?” I was eyeing a fresh quesadilla a man had just placed on a small pan above the jet-boiler. I wasn’t sure if it was for him or another volunteer, but I guiltily accepted the delicious calories when they glumly offered it to me. Quesadilla in hand, I turned on my light and returned to the darkness from whence I’d came.
It was a long night, I pulled up to Cascade at only 8:30pm and I likely wouldn’t see Nick until 11 p.m. I pulled out the sleeping bag, ate some bananas with almond butter and set my alarm for 10:30 p.m. to get some sleep.
In the midst of digesting the delicious quesadilla, I’d lose the trail every hundred feet or so from the thickness of the fog. I lost maybe seconds at most wandering back and forth scanning the ground for footprints or tree’s for trail markers.
I jumped when all of a sudden a runner flew by me, his bib read R-120. “Good he was part of the relay team” I reassured myself as I listened to a bear bell jingle and jangle on the back of his pack. Wondering deeper into the fog I thought, “should I have one of those?” and then I took a glance at my surroundings- the night, the pissing rain, the thick fog-“nah we humans are the only species dumb enough to be out in weather like this, I’m safe.”
With the pressure of potentially missing Nick, I had a hard time catching z’s. Instead, I closed my eyes and tried to relax my body. Something was better than nothing.
Ensuring that I walked every moderate uphill, I’d finally made it to the long downhill section of Heather Trail where all of a sudden below me, I saw lights!
Excitedly, I upped my pace and hurried down the mountain. I caught up too quickly for it to be the leader of the race though. They were aid station volunteers, loaded down with heavy backpacking gear, my mind raced back to the West Coast Trail Jade and I completed the previous week. I felt bad for them and hoped they didn’t have long to go.
“It’s so dark here,” I said. “Do you know where the aid station is?” I asked the woman as she replied that she didn’t. I continued to stumble around the dark parking lot. A man directed me to a spot about fifteen feet away, completely bare. Amy (another runner’s wife) and I, looked at each other and then continued to wait.
Lucky for the both of us, glow sticks dangled from the tree’s on the switchbacks below me, the aid station was near.

As I ran in, a man in a blue coat turned around, 
“Nick! Damn your moving well!” said John, before darting off from the aid station. John was leading the race and didn’t sound so excited to see me. I scarfed down some chips and stared down blankly at some old bacon covered in solidified grease,
“Ya, it’s a bit old” the volunteer said, “but it’s still good” I grabbed two pieces and started back towards the trail.
I thought about Nick, still trudging on through the pitch-black forest. After the lean-tos had been set up, Amy and I helped the volunteers organize the drop bags and start preparing hot chocolate and bacon for the runners. Bacon had been a very constant theme throughout the race.
“Matt!” It was Matt Cecill, the current course record holder “pleasure to meet you!” I said with bacon bits flying out of my mouth, “we’re going for your record” I said smiling motioning ahead to the trail where John disappeared minutes ago.
“Go get it man! Good luck!” he said as I choked down the last piece of cold bacon.
It wasn’t long before John and I were running along the same switchback. The way I saw it, I had three options: 1) blow past him and take first place now, 2) stay annoyingly right behind him until he snaps at me and breaks down, then take first or 3) Don’t be a dick, make a new friend and run with him working against the night together. I went with the third option.
We soon found ourselves miles down the trail, happily chatting everything from work to training to proper form, in no time it seemed the two of us were now only a few kilometers from the 72 mile aid station. It was only in the last kilometer that I noticed John had a little less “pep” than me.
“John, you’ve got five minutes here!” I said, staring him in the eyes as he quickly sank into a deadly comfortable chair alongside an even deadlier heat lamp, two comforts that you’ve got to avoid in a race like this! “John five minutes!” I muttered ask I stuffed a few cookies into my mouth and took one for the go. I left and with it taken first place, five miles prior than I wanted it.
“#100 is on his way!” Announced Linda, one of the volunteers I had met. “That’s Nick!” I exclaimed “We were just radioed in that he wants bacon and eggs?” Their statement was more of a question but I went along with it. “Okay,” I said. “Is it all right if I cook it?”

“Yippee! I get to see Jade in five miles!” I exclaimed out loud to the forest. I tore through the five miles of undulating hills and it seemed almost instantaneous that I was on the gravel road headed towards the dim sodium lights of the Cascade Aid Station at mile 78.
“Nick! I made you bacon and eggs!” Jade was the best. She was the reason this was going so well. I gave her a tight hug and momentarily sank into a death trap of chair, scarfing down the hot meal while Jade changed my shoes and slipped on a fresh pair of Injinji Trail Socks. 
“I feel great!” I said jolting up from the chair and going right into a few of my favorite yoga poses. A good kiss from Jade and I was off down the road!
“Wait Nick, poles?” She asked.
“Nah, I don’t need no poles, I’m a Nick-a-fly!” I said cockily flying around the corner.
Driving to the next aid station, the only information I had was that it was roughly 2 hours away and that I would need to get off at exit 168. To stay awake for this portion of the drive, I turned on Doctor’s Radio, which I found through the Sirius channels. A doctor was explaining how to remove hemorrhoids via an elastic band method. I was grossed out by the conversation, but it passed the time.

This was the promise land, miles 78-99, flat undulating terrain where I could finally make some time on Cecill’s record. I turned my GPS for the first time and ran an 8:30min/mile then a 8:32. I‘d be back to Jade at mile 90 in no time! I ran right through the Sumallo Grove aid station eyeing a tasty looking chicken avocado quesadilla, I reached out to grab it but then recoiled my hand in the last second, at the pace I was going it would be only an hour or so before I was back with Jade. The rest of the section went like this:
3rd mile: 9:07, okay there was a small hill, I’d recover the slow mile.
4th mile: 10:05, okay not cool. What the hell are all these fallen logs all over the place? Is that the…trail…
5th mile: 15:05 Gah! Where are my poles!?! And what happened to my promise land? Where did these climbs come from!?!
6th mile: 15:01 Okay turning this stupid GPS off.
On and on the road went, and the talk shows continued to disintegrate into extremely scientific and medically intense issues of vaginal dryness, hemorrhoid surgeries and Epidermolytic ichthyosis, among others. Finally, I read the sign for the campground. I had made it!
Two hours and some minutes later, I arrived at the aid station, nearly an hour and a half slower than the sub-24hr pace I had anticipated staying on track with.
Right on time, Nick came into the aid station. He looked tired, and angry, and voiced his opinions strongly. “That sucked,” he said, then sat in a chair, switching between hot soup, Coke and the Interphase Shake–a bad combo, to say the least.
“That was horrible! I’ve been lied to!” I dramatized to Jade as she loaded my pack with food for the next segment, “I’m never leaving my poles again!” I proclaimed grabbing them from Jade and turning back towards the trail.
Minutes down the trail, a relay runner caught up to me.
“Want to run together?” he asked.
“Sure” I muttered and started galumphing behind him, I held onto him for nearly an eighth of a mile before his fresh legs carried him off into the distance beyond me. I broke down into a fast walk.
I finally had the opportunity to sleep. I set my alarm for 5:45 and dozed for half an hour before groggily preparing Nick’s final crew necessities.
Glancing down at my watch it was 5:00am and I was somewhere near mile 93, I only had 5hrs to travel 27 miles if I was going to go under 24hrs and only 6hrs and 45min’s if I was going to break Cecill’s record. As my headlamp illuminated seemingly infinite stretches of trail covered in fallen logs and tree roots, I started to think that perhaps even the latter would be a struggle. I needed to make it through mile 99, the last aid station, before 6:30am if I wanted a decent shot at the record.
I ran hard into the aid station and decisively avoided looking at my watch as Jade loaded me up with Ginger chews, espresso beans and gummy candies, premium fuel for the last 21 miles of the race. After giving her a good hug and an energizing kiss I was off towards the climb. Nervously, I pulled back the sleeve of my rain jacket, 6:15am. I could do this.
He was on pace for the course record and I knew he could grab it if his spirits stayed high and he kept consistent with this pace. One last kiss and he was off. He was going to do it!
I remembered people muttering about this climb at the pre-race meeting “steepest thing of my life!” “False summits everywhere!” “Impossible!” My memories recollection of what was apparently ahead of me, wasn’t a good one.
The trail was climbing at a decent grade, although what felt like hours into the climb, I’d yet to do a single switchback. I felt like I was just looping around the massive climb. Looking up only brought up more despair than hope. Trees seemed to extend forever into the hillside with no visible light in sight to indicate that I was anywhere near the summit.
Finally a summit! The sign read “lightning lake” and pointed to my left. The fog seemed to be penetrating into my mind as well now, I couldn’t recall if there was one or two aid stations left in the race and the distance of either seemed to just confuse me more.
At lightning lake, the weather unlike last week’s gorgeous skies and hot temperatures, the morning was cold and windy. I stood huddled up in all of the clothing I had, in the car, including Nick’s sweats and Gut Check hoodie.
Shortly, Camp Mowich was in sight.
One guy and one girl clapped loudly for me and cheered me over to their tarp. A small array of Gu’s laid out for us runners and I saw the guy kicking back eating a bag of lay’s Salt n’ Vinegar chips…I eyed them a bit more.
“You want some?” He said in a muffled voice.
I nodded silently, reached into the bag took a handful and took off back into the ever persistent rain and fog.
The girl at the aid station said something about five more false summits and eight kilometers to the next aid station. But I’d heard at mile 99 a man say something about three false summits. As I glanced at my watch as I grew heavy with anxiety, was it three or five? And could I make it in time?
The volunteers at the finish weren’t certain that Nick, or anyone, would be breaking the course record in these conditions but I knew he could do it. The only question would be by how much.

The first climb literally took my breath away. The steepness of the ascent just didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the race. These beasts belonged more in something like Andorra’s Ronda del Cims or Tor des Geants, not here.
The second climb was ever more crippling. I refused to look at my watch and uttered under my breath, “it’s all over, good shot Nick, nice try!” But suddenly, I turned the corner and there it was! The final aid station! I shot a look down at my watch 9:45am, nearly 45 minutes faster than I’d expected to be there. I was going to make it.
The hellish climbs persisted and my hopes rise and fell with each new ascent and descent. After passing the third false summit and seeing trail markers on a fourth summit in the distance, my heart sank. The girl was right.
Elated, I reached the top of the true summit and anticipated a smooth buttery descent like the race had given me for the other 110 miles. To my demise the RD’s had somehow transported the jagged rocky terrain of the Italian Alps to Canada’s otherwise smooth Cascades. I was irate and frustrated, to be this close to the record yet foiled again by this slow moving technical terrain!
The next time I looked up from the ground, I could see Lightning Lake some hundreds of feet below me through the trees. The finish line. I was getting close.
The trail flattened out as I crossed the bridge at the southern edge of the lake. Volunteers walking the course clapped as I passed by, 
“Relay runner?” they questioned.
“Nope, solo” I said with a beaming smile, eyeing the finish line in the nearby distance.
I tried uttering a loud “hey” from across the lake to alert Jade but my voice cracked, I opted for a guturral “wraghhhh!” instead which seemed to travel as I heard the small group of volunteers and Jade cheer from across the way.  
After two hours of waiting and standing and doing jumping-jacks to stay warm, I heard a bellow from the opposite side of the lake. There’s only one person who screams like a mad man when they’ve had a successful race and are nearing the finish–and that’s my boyfriend.
As I rounded towards the final stretch, I thought about how I’d sabotaged HURT 100, dropped out of WTM, the months of training under David, the working in and the tai chi, it all paid off. Finally this time, I’d let myself win.

Running into the finish line

Top 3 men, Nathan (man w/ white hat) Left, Myself and Gabe (right).
Cold, rainy finish
Final Time: 25 hours and 7 minutes.
Final Distance: 120 Miles
Average Pace: 12:33min/miles
Elevation Gain: 28,454 feet
Crew: Just one devoted, loving Jade. 

Post-race we fed Chikadee's at Rifle Bird Sanctuary

"Chick-a-deeeee" I'm like Spider-Man! But I fling birds instead.

Friday, June 26, 2015

An authentic update on my book

Title in the works still, tentatively: Ultra-Souls
Climbing mountains and managing the 100 in 100 project, one of the many things I do on the weekend, besides avoid writing my book.

The last few weeks have been a real turn around point for me working on my book. For the last several months I've been caught up in temporal transitions. Jumping from point to point in my book and not following an emotional arc like most good novels do. This led to too many tangents and a general feeling of apathy and loathing when it came to the process of writing my book...

I am trying to write this blog on what I've learned about writing the past week but I keep getting distracted. Instead of ignoring these facts, I am going to list them: 
  • Jade's Kombucha that she just finished
  • The hum of the laundry in the background inconsistently swish-swashing my dirty clothes back and forth
  • Enrique Iglesias playing on the TV screen in the next room over
  • Cashew whining like a whistle.
  • The impending doom and the fact that very soon I'll owe Bundy a beer if I don't get this published before 5:00pm
  • The fact that Jade will read this shake her head and say something like "what are you writing?" 
  • Your vs. you're and the hopeless fact that I am may never get it right. 
  • The fact that I would be a terrible monk, if they ever let me in which I don't think they ever would. 
  • The fact that Western States 100, Ronda del Cims, Mont Blanc 80km and the legalization of Gay Marriage all likely trump my interest and my audiences interest in reading this update.
  • Who will read this? Who will read this if I actually wrote this blog? 
The past two weeks have been an absolute turnaround for my novel though. This past week, especially.

Saturday Night I attended a poetry reading with Jade at Balboa Park I was captured and moved by the way one of the poets Maria Mazziotti Gillan managed to capture her life so vividly and authentically down into small one to two page poems. 

Sunday I attended a three hour writing class with Jade on "Outlining your Novel" and for the first time ever, I was able to write down a successful and well synthesized tag line that I liked.

Finally, Monday Andrew and I attended a lecture by Dr. Donna Eckstein on How to Tell Your Story The event was hosted by the San Diego Writer's and Editor's Guild, Andrew and myself were the youngest in the room by what I estimated to be about ~40 years or so. And so I felt a bit foolish standing up in front of the crowd of WWII veterans and aging baby boomers saying "I am writing a memoir..." heads turned and analyzed my young age as I finished my sentence, "On how I got in to running 100 mile foot races" I'd forgotten how many heads our sport turns in a room full of reasonable people.

I am currently in the second edit of my memoir. I have too many words, too many pages written down. I'm no longer stuck in the mire of useless temporal transitions but I am having some difficulty  in applying what I've learned from these three experiences. I am constantly facing distractions and flailing terribly with my time management skills and the appropriate times to write this book. I could use more organizational skills and better self-discipline when it comes to getting page by page done. I am nearly constantly intmidated by notions of "where to start" when staring down at a 300+ page paper. But...

These are all demons to be fought. The book is still coming. 

For a far more well composed blog on Monday's meeting please visit: http://survivingthecure.blogspot.com/

Boo-yah! Published before 5:00pm PST, I don't owe you a beer now :) :) :) 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Santa Rosa Ridge Traverse: More cactus than you can swing a bush at!

Santa Rosa Traverse: 41.8 miles
Number of Peaks: 5
Elevation Gain: 14,755ft
Lowest/Highest point: Sea Level (Salton Sea)/ 8,717ft (Toro Peak)
Previous FKT: 1.5 days (Toro Peak to Highway S-22)
Our FKT: 19hrs and 59min’s (Highway S-22 to Highway 74)

Santa Rosa Mountains and previous attempts: 

The Santa Rosa Mountains are a remote and rugged desert mountain range located roughly two hours northeast of San Diego, CA. The range crawls up from the northwestern shores of the Salton Sea and spans out 42 miles northwest before tapering off at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs. 

The small desert community of Borrego Springs offers a swooping panorama of the ungainly ridgeline. Going from east to west the range extends from sea level to high points at Villager Peak (5,755ft), Rabbit Peak (6,666ft), Dawn’s/ Lorenzens Peak (6,582ft), Toro Peak (8,717ft) and finally Santa Rosa Peak (8,073ft) before ending at 4,000ft at Highway 74.  

Toro Peak’s western side has been graded and radio towers now claim the ranges highest point. It’s a popular area for weekend warriors and family camping but step just a few miles east on the ridge and it’s nearly uncharted territory, where quite possibly the last person to pass through the jagged angular rocks may have been Cahuilla Indians some hundreds of years ago.

Various online sources and a small log book I found atop Dawn’s peak reported scattered attempts of one a half day to three day west-east traverse of the Santa Rosas. But to my knowledge no one had ever completed the range from east to west in one single day push. 41.8 miles? It had to be possible.

Months before: 
Two months before the attempt I was sitting alongside my friend Robert and Greg at a brewery sipping down a beer. The three of us poured over Greg’s computer analyzing his 3-day trip on the ridge, Greg was the only other person we knew who’d made it the journey from east to west.
Robert and Greg were mumbling about the reality of running it under 24 hours, I leaned in to view the screen closer, 40’ish miles? 

“So we could totally do this in like 12 hours? Ya?” I said naively staring at the total mileage. The both of them laughed and shook their heads. What was up there that would be so difficult? I’d made it up Rabbit Peak in 2 hours and 40 minutes a month ago during a race. And according to Google Earth, Rabbit looked like it equated for at least 1/3rd off the entire range. 12 hours seemed like a conservative goal. 

The night before:

The two of us were blessed with a strange and out of season cold front blew into San Diego late May 2015 and opened up what we thought was a closed window to give an attempt at the epic Santa Rosa Traverse. 

“Hey Robert, just getting out of a play here downtown, I’ll head over shortly…shoot didn’t realize it was 9:30pm already, I’ll be 15 minutes late!” I said quickly while hopping into my Jeep and speeding towards North County.  My good friend Robert was waiting at the usual Starbucks parking lot by my house. 

Although our journeys often began at mundane suburban coffee shops our destinations couldn’t be further apart. Dark caverns with underground rappels, historic trestle bridges and countless remote peaks were just a few of the place I could recall traveling with Robert. The reason for meeting up with him this Friday night, would be no different. 

My Jeep puttered in next to his old Subaru Outback.  

“Nick, good to see ya..You ready to go?” He said. 

I’d spent half of my day in a haze staring at piles of hiking and running equipment I’d gathered in my garage, “which was the right pack?” “How much water did we say?” “12 bars, 14 bars? 4 or 6 sandwiches?”….

“ya I’m ready” I said back to him smiling. 

The logistics of making a shuttle work for this traverse were immense. Separately, we drove two hours north to the intersection of Highway 74 and the access road leading to Toro Peak, the official and geological end of the Santa Rosa’s where we dropped off Robert’s car. 

Saturday 12:30pm:
The Jeep...I still can't recall the last time I washed it...

“Man it’s going to be a long 12-hrs before we see that thing again!” I muttered to Robert and he grabbed his things and climbed into my jeep. He laughed. 

My eyes drifted open and shut as we spent a paycheck or two driving the Jeep two hours around the entire mountain range to the eastern terminus, ten or so miles northeast of Borrego Springs.
Driving onto the dirt pull-off I stopped the vehicle yawned and rubbed my eyes
“Dude, I’m a need some kind of sleep before we rage into this thing” I said.  

Within seconds both of us passed out and jumped awake when some twenty minutes later when a strong gust of wind blew open my driver side door.

“Jesus….These are going to be some rough ass conditions” I said while Robert fiddled with his pack making last minute adjustments. 

I threw on my Inov-8 Race Pro 10 pack, it was my first time trying out the sideways bladder but was happy with how well it sat snug against my body. I was even more excited to try out the new TerraClaw 250’s, what better way to gear test than traverse 40+miles in them?
The new Inov-8 Terra-Claw test run!

S-22 (Sea Level) to Villager (5,755ft) Total Miles: 7 Time: 2:49:00

We started at 3:00am and heavy winds blew us along towards the base of the ridge.
Evil, evil Mojave Yucca looms over our heads in the dark night.
 Despite only getting thirty minutes of sleep the two of us were spot on navigation to the top of Villager Peak. 

Sun peaking out at the top of Villager Peak
We summited in 2hrs and 49min’s an entire hour and ten minutes slower than when I’d raced it a few months back. But this wasn’t the headphone jamming, waist pack wearing trip I’d done in February. This was a full on traverse. As an orange haze cast over the sky, I looked west and could barely make out the shape of a mountain in the far distance…Toro. 

Villager! One down!

Villager Peak (5,755ft) to Rabbit Peak (6,666ft) Miles: 11 Time: 4:22:30

Moving west from Villager we descended and covered peaklet after peaklet. These small climbs and descents always seemed to multiply in my mind before the true and final steep ascent to Rabbit Peak. 
Heading towards Rabbit
As we reached the last climb, we entered into the scattered Juniper Tree forest with intermixed Manzanita and what we called “Toe-Kicker” cactus, our nickname for the perfectly poised cacti ready to stab you in the foot. Robert and I learned that lesson one too many times. 

"Little bunny foo foo went hoppin through the cactus..."

In the last few hundred feet we broke into the thicker Juniper-Scrub Oak forest. Thickening on the Northern slope, we aimed left averting the sharp branches (for now) and reaching the summit in 4hrs and 22 min’s.
Slackers, taking a break on Rabbit

Rabbit Peak (6,666ft) to Dawn’s Peak (6,582ft) Miles: 17.4 Time: 8:52:37

Both Robert and I knew that once we took our first few steps beyond Rabbit Peak, the two of us, with our minimal food and water supply were committing. There would be no turning back, there would be no quitting. Forward would be the only option.

After a short break on Rabbit we were instantly thrust into a mess of rigid scrub oak, scraggly juniper and unyielding manzanita. We struggled immensely to find small interstitial spaces to crawl in between the evil (and probably endangered) shrubs. The slices in my legs, the cuts on my arms, the stabs of Yucca to the thigh, this was the wicked and rapid initiation into the terrain that defined the rest of our trip. 

"Left at that bush...then duck under...hmm..nope"
Ridge after ridge, our progress often slowed to a crawl as we stood at high points staring at the next hill top and then glaring at the valley between. We tried to piece together the small patches of bush free clearings in one horribly painful puzzle after another. Microscopic decisions to go left or right around a single bush often ended in macroscopic mistakes where we’d ascend the wrong ridge.
As we drew nearer to Dawn’s Peak, minutes of mistakes had evolved into an hour or so of wasted time and we both had the scrapes to prove it. I could see the cairn atop Dawn’s Peak, but between us and the top was the thickest, healthiest Manzanita chaparral forest I’d seen in my life.  
"What am I doing with my life!?!"

"Don't go up these rocks...They don't go anywhere"
Time was ticking whether it was the 12-hour time goal or our inherent short supplies, decisions were hasty, too hasty. I followed Robert as he dove back first into a thick scrub oak connecting two small clearings. I winced as I passed through the center of the tree and a branch caught my thigh, expanding on an already existing cut. Shorts were a bad choice. 

It took minutes to gain feet. The two of us jumped from rock to rock and crawled from clearing to clearing. I watched as my GPS ticked over the eight hour barrier and as I crawled hands and knees under a large Juniper, untangling my pack from a persistent branch, I finally understood why the two of them had laughed at me and my 12-hour time goal back in the bar months ago. 

I looked up and could make out the cairn some hundred feet above me. Anxiously, I blazed a path straight towards it, braving several more long scrapes on my shins and arms. I was sure that this would be the worst of it, that we were nearly finished, that surely we’d covered at least 25 or more miles now and that Toro would be one or two ridges over. Robert reached the top minutes after me,  
“Half-way!” Robert exclaimed with his hands up in the air smiling. 
Grawwhh!! The top!

Jerry Schad! Author of Afoot and Afield in San Diego


Dawn’s Peak (6,582ft) to Toro Peak (8,717ft) Miles: 30.0 Time: 16:41:40

Extending my arm to touch the foreign stacked pyramid of boulders, I breathed heavily and plopped my weary legs down on the ground. 

“Halfway?” I exasperated to Robert. There was no quitting though. There was no way out I assured myself as I stared thousands of below at Clark Dry Lake.

I scarfed down two small sandwiches and looked again at my watch and then at my food supply. Slowly, I chewed the second sandwich, realizing rationing might soon become a reality.
After a long break, the two of us hobbled back to our feet and began moving towards Toro. We were instantaneously thrust back into sea of thick chaparral mazes. 

Hours quickly rolled by and I’d made the mistake once of turning around to see how far we’d made it since Dawn’s, only to see the cairn in the very near distance and Toro still infinitely far away. Robert and I mutually decided that it was in our best interest to just look at the shrubs.

Following a chain of clearings I’d spotted from a high point we veered to the far right of the ridge trying to avoid summiting an unnecessary peak. Disaster ensued as the clearings really weren’t clearings and we were quickly forced into unyielding walls of scrub oak. We traversed further and further right holding onto the small hope the next ridge might yield a clear shot at getting to the Alta Seca bench (the next prominent point before Toro). We cascaded through loose gravel and small boulders, crawling on our stomachs under trees and down into a deep gully. Sadly, I looked back at the small high point I’d tried so desperately tried to avoid and saw that the entire ridge after that point was entirely clear compared to the hell we were in the middle of. 

“Robert…I’m sorry man…I must be…I must be getting tired” It was my poor judgement that had led us far right and lost us so many minutes and so much mental energy.

Robert just laughed “Well we came here to climb right?” he said staring upwards from the gully, “so let’s just keep climbing!” He was so positive it pissed me off. 

"Well we'll just keep climbing!"

Lured by the sirens of instant gratification, the two of us know suffered the consequences as we dragged our heels through thicker and thicker brush. We slowly trended left at about a half a mile per hour, our morale diminishing with every new microscopic decision. 

We were now deep overhead climbing at a 60% grade through the most thriving chaparral environment I’d ever seen. It would be beautiful, I’m sure, if I wasn’t trying to pass through the middle of it. 

We fought tooth and nail to reach a massive rock outcropping. The two of us weary and scratched to hell, scrambled up and over the huge boulders when a strong gust of wind hit me the face, the top!
A small cairn and old wooden post marked that some other unfortunate souls had made the same journey.

“I know this place” Robert exclaimed and continued on to recount all the previous trips he’d made to this area, the Alta Seca bench. 
"...At least I think I know this place..."

“Rock cairns!” Robert shouted over excitedly. 

“Those poor, poor people” I said out loud to Robert as the two of us started following the poorly marked semblance of a trail.

Rock cairn or strange natural coincidence?

Following the cairns down into a pine tree meadow I underestimated a drop, slipped and collapsed onto my side making a small “umph” against the soft pine needles. Too tired, too weak and too unmotivated I just laid on the ground.  

“Nick you alright?” he said with concern. 

“..Meh…” I mumbled and slowly stood up. Sun would be setting soon, we needed to get to Toro.  
At the upper half of the Alta Seca bench we wove through gorgeous and pristine Pine Tree meadows and aside from the occasional toe kicker cactus, I was eternally thankful that we’d finally risen above the thick chaparral forests. 
Pine trees! Finally Pine trees!!!
Robert entertained me with stories of how he’d ran through these meadows in a full jumpsuit and goggles and scared the life out of a young family hiking. 

Not soon enough, we were finally digging our poles into the final ascent of Toro Peak. 

"The road!"
“The road!” I cried out to Robert. The true end was near. It was an ironic and strange peak to ascend, the ease of the graded fire road and massive radio towers stood in thick contrast to the hellish 16 plus hours we’d just spent in some of the most remote terrain in all of Southern California.  

I stood at the top utterly exhausted and watched the sunset as thousands of feet below a massive cloud layer rolled east over the mountains vanishing into the air as it reached out towards the desert.

Toro shadowing over a distant Dawn's, Rabbit and Villager

“All downhill from here ya?” I said smiling over at Robert

“…well…we still have Santa Rosa” He said. 
"Done!" ...wait what?"

Toro Peak (8,717ft to Santa Rosa Mountain (8,073ft) Miles: 34.17 Time: 17:57:16

“Gah what the hell really?” I exclaimed. He was right, in my angst to be done with the traverse I’d completely forgotten about the last little bump on our way down to highway 74. Santa Rosa the thorn in my back, the rock in my shoe, the nagging pain, the last thing between us and the end.

We toggled between short bursts of running and a crippled speed walk. The graded road was nice, but seemingly endless. At its low-grade my patience was wearing thin as we reached the turn off towards Santa Rosa and that last damned 500 feet of ascent. 

Cutting the roads we went off trail to the top and horrified a family huddled around their campfire roasting marshmallows. The two of us haggard, torn up, lumbering men emerged from the total darkness,
“Any idea how far down to the 74?” Robert said spryly to the man. 

“Bout’ ten miles or so” the man beckoned. 

Heads down we stumbled forward up the last few feet to the burned down cabin that marked the final summit.
Santa Rosa Mountain and the burnt down cabin

Santa Rosa Mountain (8,073ft) to Highway 74 (4,600ft) Miles: 41.8 Time: 19:59: 16

We reviewed what little rations we had left. 

“I got a Gu and uhhh” I reached my hand into my pack “and uh half this lara bar…” I mumbled picking off the rocks and lint that had gathered on it. I wondered for a brief second how long it had been sitting unwrapped in my pocket, but the thought quickly faded as I took a bite “well make that a quarter of a bar now”. 

We passed back by the marshmallow family and disappeared back into the obscure darkness from where we’d emerged.

Ten long ass flat-low grade miles extended into infinity. The same thick cloud layer we’d seen from above was now blinding our headlamps. I reached out my arm and watched as the fog swallowed it whole.

“We’ll we just gotta go down…” I exclaimed to Robert. Hours passed. And there was no conversation. There was no hope. Just fog. And the hollowness of the long descent that ate away at what little morale we had left. 

Finally we caught site of Robert’s Car. Morale skyrocketed and our pace turned into a quickened run.
“This is it! This is the last switchback!” Robert exclaimed, as he flew past his car headed down the mountain. I thought he was an idiot at first for passing by his car, until I realized it didn’t count until we touched Highway 74…still a half mile beyond where we’d parked yesterday. 

Our toes crept onto the black asphalt of highway 74 at approximately 10:58pm. 19hrs and 59min’s after we’d begun what I thought was going to be an “easy” 12 hour run journey. I was completely and utterly humbled by the difficulty of this short mountain range and complained endlessly to Robert as we made the final, final ascent back to his damned car.

The finish line sign!

Done finally done! Damned 1/2 mile back to Robert's car...