01 December 2013

Trail Running in the Grand Canyon

Like many trail runners, running across the Grand Canyon is one of the bucket list biggies. Since last year, I had been hatching a plan to do a double crossing (40+ miles) sometime this fall. My buddy, Buzz, was all-in too. We set our sights on Thanksgiving week and made travel arrangements. Last month Buzz was still dealing with some lingering legs issues from the Moscow Mountain Madness 50k in Sept that kept him from getting in a solid long run training. So a couple weeks ago he made the smart decision to back out of the double crossing, but still planned to make the trip and do some shorter runs. I contemplated doing a solo attempt, but in the end decided to back out of that attempt too. The new plan was that Buzz and I would run a couple shorter runs together, then I'd tackle a bigger run on my own. We focused on the trails with easy access from the South Rim.

Map of the trails we ran on this trip. 

Day 1 - South Kaibab to Bright Angel (~16.5 miles)

These are the most-used trails. We ran down South Kaibab, but after a mile or so we pretty much had the trail to ourselves all the way down to the river. A 5,000' descent in about seven miles is enough to get your legs warmed up. The canyon had some rain (and snow) a few days before we got there, so the trails were in great shape. No dust, and only a few muddy spots.

We hit the river and headed west along the River Trail to hook up with the big ascent up Bright Angel. The 5,000' climb back up to the rim is relentless; by the end we weren't doing much running at all. Bright Angel was pretty crowded the final three miles or so. 

I could attempt to use words to explain the beauty and immensity of the Grand Canyon, but it would be fruitless. I could try to take pretty pictures too, but it wouldn't approach the reality.

"The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail." - John Wesley Powell

Up high on South Kaibab

Buzz descending South Kaibab

Buzz on South Kaibab switchbacks

Buzz descending South Kaibab

Bright Angel ascent

Bright Angel Ascent

Bright Angel snaking up the Grand Canyon walls

Day 2 - Rim Trail (~11 miles)

The Rim Trail is the easy, much-paved trail that runs along the South Rim near the Grand Canyon village and all the lodges. We weren't originally planning to run this trail. "It's too paved and touristy," we thought. But since my long run was planned for Day 3, we thought it might be a good idea to give my legs a little bit of a break from the big climbing.The full trail is probably 12 or 13 miles long, but we started just shy of the most eastern point. The couple miles around the village are crowded, but after that the trail was surprisingly quiet. This might have been the longest 11-mile run of my life; every view around every new corner brought us to a jaw-dropping stop.

View from the Rim Trail

Along the Rim Trail

Day 3 - Hermit to Tonto to Bright Angel (~25 miles)

Buzz dropped me off at the bus stop before the sun came up. It was about a 35-minute shuttle from the village to Hermit's Rest where I'd plunge down into the canyon on the less-used Hermit Trail. That morning, fog filled the Grand Canyon. The sunrise will be one of those memories etched into my mind forever. It was just me and two others on the shuttle, so the driver was gracious enough to stop several times for us when there was an open vista toward the east.

I dropped down Hermit Trail into the thick fog. There wasn't much running on the beginning of the descent. The trail is rocky and technical, and there are several rock slides that need to be scrambled around. After a long descent, I hooked up with Tonto Trail to begin making my way back east toward Bright Angel. The Tonto section is some of my favorite trail I've ever been on. I saw only a couple hikers during the first 20 miles before I met up with Bright Angel for the ascent out of the canyon.

Getting out of the canyon is no joke. I was feeling very strong up until less than a mile to go when I had an epic bonk. I shuffled my way up to the rim and to the beer waiting for me in the lodge.

This route is a strong contender to break my top-10 runs of all-time list.

Sunrise over a fog-filled canyon

Into the fog on Hermit Trail

Hermit Trail 

Hermit trail

Happy to be alive on Tonto Trail

Tonto Trail along a cliff

Tonto Trail above the Colorado River

Tonto Trail 

Keep running!


13 September 2013

Moscow Mountain Madness 50k - race report

The Moscow Mountain Madness is the oldest annual trail race on the Palouse. It's looked different throughout the years, but traditionally it's been something in the 10-13 mile range. This year a 50k was added to the schedule, so I've been pretty stoked about this one all summer. The only worry was whether my Achilles would be ready to handle the pounding or not. After a couple pain/injury free 20+ mile outings in the Wallowas over the past few weeks, I decided the MMM 50k was a go.

Doug, the RD, asked me to help design the 50k course earlier this summer. I've run these Moscow Mountain trails many times over and have always had an idea of where a good 50k course would be if we ever decided to put one on. It's a little long (32.5 miles), but that extra little bit is worth it. 

My plan was to treat this race more like a fast training run than a race. I still had some reservations about the Achilles. Will it hold up? Am I pushing it too much too soon? And so on. I've been racing shorter distance in the last couple months, so I knew it could handle hard running, I just didn't know whether it could handle 32.5 miles of hard running -- and I knew I've lost my racing long distance legs, so I figured even if my Achilles could handle racing, the rest of me simply isn't in race shape for a long run.  I thought a 5.5 to 6-hr finish sounded safe.

I ran with my buddy, Buzz, for the first half of the race. We both had 5.5 to 6 hours as a goal. A group of six or seven of us pushed the first climb at an easy pace. By mile six everyone had spread out a little, and Buzz and I were running together in fifth and sixth place. We wouldn't see anyone else the rest of the day.

At the highpoint of the course around mile 15.5, Buzz and I were still together and we were just about right on our pacing plan for a 5.5 hour finish. Buzz's downhill legs weren't feeling as good as he hoped they would, and he fell behind by a minute or so through mile 18. From there on I was on my own until the finish line.

I crashed once, but there wasn't much blood. I felt 'easy' on the downhills all day, and I banked a few minutes on the big descent at mile 20 knowing that a big climb was coming up afterward (why did I put that climb on the course!). The climb at mile 23 reminded me how much endurance/stamina I'd lost since March. I hiked more than usual, but my overall pace was still in the 5:30-5:45 finish range. So I was happy with how things were going. 

On the straightaways and downhills after mile 25, I fought the urge to really push it. And I'm glad I didn't push it, because as it was my right hamstring started cramping up like crazy during the last two miles. And it was a game of Red Light/Green Light during the last mile when a cramp would grind me to a halt so I could stretch it out.

I crossed the finish line fighting cramps, but right on my goal with a time of 5:29. (official results

I think everyone was happy with the 50k, and this went smoothly for the most part. Now's time to start thinking year number two. 

course profile

I'm tagging along in the rear
as we approach the first aid station

Peg-leg McMurtrey crossing the finish line.

Next up is a little rest to make sure everything is feeling like it should. I'm going to be overly cautious while I attempt to get my fitness levels back that I had last year and this year going into Rocky Raccoon. I'm going to be conservative this month with my mileage. I have the Wild Moose Chase 25k on Sept 29th, and the Mt. Spokane 50k on Oct 5. 

Right now everything is feeling good, and each day I'm more and more confident with my Achilles. But I'm still not ready to kick my training into high gear. I think I'm going to play it relatively conservatively the rest of this year, and then make sure that I'm rested and healthy so I can give it a proper go at this race in April.

Keep running!


19 August 2013

The Wallowa Mountains

I love these mountains.

My buddy, Buzz, and I went this past weekend for a big run. We ran up to Ice Lake and then grunted/climbed from there up to Matterhorn, the second highest peak in the Wallowas.

At 21.5 miles and over 6,000' of elevation gain, it was easily my longest outing since March. This is very good news. My recovery has been slow and gradual, but so far it seems that the patience is paying off. The Achilles finally feels strong enough to handle some longer stuff like this. I don't feel like I'm out of the woods yet, but it's getting close.

Here are some of the scenes from our run. Not a bad place, huh?

07 August 2013

Chewelah Peak Trail Run

Sunday was the 10-mile Chewelah Peak Trail Run, race #2 of the inaugural Inland Northwest Mountain Trail Running Series.

Race #1 was a little light on the 'mountain' part of a mountain run, but race #2 promised to give the go-up legs a burn and the go-down legs a quad thrashing. The course was a simple 'go up to the top of the peak and then come back down' loop.

What this course lacked in single-track (there was none) it made up with incredible views (there were a lot).  There were a couple mile of smooth dirt road at the beginning, then most of the course was rocky double-track that climbed to Chewelah Peak, and then the last three miles consisted of a couple bombs straight down ski runs that had only hints of road or trail under the loose, ankle-turning rock.

We were climbing from the start at a comfortable pace. I was expecting to see a few guys shoot up ahead on the runnable climb, but no one really did. I met Chris, a well-known Spokane runner/coach, in the beginning minutes before he took off and separated himself from the group little by little. After about a half mile I was running with a guy named Royce as Chris stayed just ahead of us.

About two miles in, Royce and I see Chris stop suddenly on the road a little ways ahead of us. He has to pee? Rolled an ankle? As we get closer he turns back to us with a smile, "Big black bear just walked across the road. Just waiting on you guys -- safety in numbers." I pulled my camera out just in case I could catch a glimpse, but it was gone and I wasn't going up in the trees to look for it.

The three of us ran together for a bit before Chris started pulling away again (he's a road runner with quite a resume and I had no intentions of trying to keep up with him on the 'speed' sections). About four miles in the grade started to increase a little. Royce and I were still running together. We'd hit a bunch of switchbacks and Chris was long gone. I assumed we wouldn't see him again.

After some huffing and puffing and hiking, we finally reached the summit 6.5 miles in.  The race starts and finishes at 3,900' and the peak is just under 5,700'. So all the elevation we just gained in 6.5 miles we had to lose in only 3.5 miles. I knew coming in that the race finished with big downhills, so I was hoping I had my downhill legs that I'd been missing the last month.

Straight off the peak I pulled away from Royce. It was straight down a long, rocky ski run with not much to call a path. Near the bottom of this first run I crested a section and - to my surprise - I saw Chris straight below me maybe a quarter-mile ahead. At that point I had a pretty good idea that I did have my downhill legs today, and for the first time I realized that I may have had the advantage on the gnarly descents and that I might be able to catch him.

Before I knew it, I was about one hundred yards behind him just as we hit a short section on a double-track that turned back up the hill. I figured I had the downhill legs to pass him once we hit the next descent, so I just stayed back to save my legs as much as I could. Once the double-track started descending again around mile 8.5, I caught up with Chris and then eased by after chatting for a bit.

After a short, steep climb at mile 9 reduced me to a hike I must have been only a few meters ahead of Chris. But then the course turned off the road for a steep, rocky, mile-long descent down another ski run to the finish line. I figured as long as I didn't crash I was in good shape. I took off and glanced back about a half-mile later to make sure he wasn't on my tail. It was a nice little quad-ripping descent. I had put some space on him, and I came through the finish line in first place. That's only happened a few times, and it's still a pretty cool feeling to be the first one to cross the finish line. (official results)

Elevation profile comparison of the series races.

View from the start/finish area of
the hills we had to run up and down.

Gathering at the start.

High on the mountain.

Running up the hill with Royce.
Views on the way back down.

Approaching the (steep) final descent.

The final race of the series is the Wild Moose Chase Trail Run, a 25k on Mt. Spokane at the end of September. As long as I don't have any Achilles setbacks, I should be there. So far, the recovery has been going well. This week I'm upping my long run to 14 or 15 miles -- fingers crossed. I'm dying to get some big miles in again.

Keep running!


31 July 2013

Schweitzer Mountain Trail Run

My Achilles is feeling stronger and stronger with each run. I'm slowly extending my long runs (14 this week) and weekly mileage (last week was my first week over 40 since March) and I'm getting more quality time on the trails.

Since I can't go long yet, I've been keeping my eyes open for shorter distance trail races in the area. The McCall Trail Running Classic 10-miler a couple weeks ago was a great first race back. And then I stumbled upon the inaugural Inland Northwest Mountain Running Series. It's a three race series on three different mountains with races of 10 miles, 10 miles, and then 25k. Perfect!

Race #1 was the 10-mile Schweitzer Mountain Trail Run last weekend in beautiful Sandpoint, ID. Race #2 is the 10-mile Chewelah Peak Trail Run this weekend in Chewelah, WA. Race #3 is the 25k Wild Moose Chase Trail Run on Mt. Spokane at the end of September.

I had a pretty good day at Schweitzer. It was a very hot day (in the 80's) and a very fast course for a mountain run. The race started with a short, very fast downhill on a service road and I did my best to keep my speed under control. I stayed with lead group of about twelve guys for that half-mile descent. When we shifted gears for the long, gradual, four-mile climb I stayed back and let the fast road guys take off. I settled back into probably eighth or ninth place.

The entire course was an even mix of single-track and service road. We'd get a mile of trail here, then a mile of road there. I knew the climbs weren't real big and that this course would favor the guys with more natural leg speed. I just focused on keeping to my usual mountain-running game plan of taking it easy on the climbs to save energy to really push the descents.

My up legs were feeling much better than they were at McCall the week before, and I was able to slow-by a couple guys before we hit the highpoint of the course. I was in seventh place when we hit the five-mile mark and started looping back toward the finish line.

I felt like the long, gradual descent in the second half of the race was good for me. It required/let me to push my pace more than I have since I've been back on the trail the last month. My leg turnover isn't nearly where it was pre-injury, but I'm happy with where I am right now at this stage in my recovery.

I didn't see anyone for a couple miles between miles five and seven, then between miles seven and 9 I passed three guys to jump up to fourth place. The last mile was a brutal climb back up to the finish line. On the map it doesn't look bad at all, but in a race this short and the paces being pushed as hard as they were it felt like it was straight up the side of a mountain. With about a half-mile left the third place guy came into view, but I had nothing left in my tank for anything that resembled a push. I was looking over my shoulder just to make sure that I wasn't going to be passed. I crossed the finish line in fourth place. (Official results.)

Overall it was a good event. Of course I'd love to see more trail and less road on a trail run. There was a neat little music fest afterward that Annie and I hung out at with some friends for awhile. Then Annie went and broke her ankle walking down some made-for-skiers-and-snow metal stairs. Major, major bummer.

Elevation profile comparison for the series races.
Heading with Sadie to check-in.
Race start. 
View from the starting line.
Coming to the finish chute.
Age group award. Pint glass and
huckleberries (melted from the heat).

Race #2 is this weekend. It should be an interesting one. Hopefully I'll have my down legs to take advantage of the gnarly descents at the end of the race.

Keep running!

15 July 2013

McCall Trailrunning Classic 10-mile Race

I'm still not able to put in big weekly miles or long Saturday runs, but I am very happy that I can run at all.  I've slowly built up from 25 miles a week to 35 miles a week with no Achilles pain.  This past week was my first week that I've been allowed a run as long as 10 miles...so of course I found a 10-mile trail race.

The McCall Trailrunning Classic is in its second year.  There are 40, 20, and 10-mile options on the beautiful mountain trails above McCall, ID.  I've been getting up on Moscow Mt more regularly the last couple weeks, so I've been getting my hills legs back slowly but surely.  It was nice to get out on the McCall trails and push my legs a little bit more.

We started off on some sweet single-track and I found myself in 8th or 9th place after about half a mile. I moved up a few more spots about a mile in when there was a chance to pass.  On paper the climbs didn't look too ferocious, but I found myself huffing for air and hiking more than usual even though I was employing my usual 'go slow on the climbs!' strategy to conserve energy. It's gonna take a few more months to get my hill lungs back I guess.  

I passed a couple more before hitting the aid station/highpoint of the course at mile 6. That section is a short out-n-back section, so I could see that I was the fourth person to the top and about four minutes behind the two leaders (one guy and one gal who must have been within 30 or so seconds of each other).  #3 arrived at the aid station just before I did and I passed her there.  

So I left the turnaround in third place and feeling like I could make up some good ground because there was a lot of downhill left, and I felt fresh for some fast downhill (which I think is my strength on the trails).  But when the downhill came my legs weren't there. I could tell I hadn't run this far or this hard since March (it's been that long?!?).  

I didn't have much in the tank with a couple miles to go and I found myself peeking back to see if someone was coming up on me.  But I was alone and holding on to third place. With about half a mile to go I came up on the guy who was leading at the turnaround. He looked like he was struggling a lot and I slowed to ask him if he needed water or anything. He said he was fine, but that he had missed a turn about a mile before and ran the wrong way for a bit before he recognized he wasn't on the course. He looked like his racing was over and that he was just cruising in to the finish line. I ran ahead and with a pleasantly surprising second place overall finish (first place male). The female (who was the wife of the guy who I had just passed) finished a couple minutes before me.  My final time was 1:35:57. (full results)

McCall Trailrunning Classic '10-mile' Course

Happy to be running again.
Mostly happy to have a pair of plaid shorts.

Early part of the course that I walked
with Annie and Sadie the day before the race.

After-race refreshments at McCall Brewery.

It certainly feels good to be running on the trails again.  I know my ultra-level fitness will be slow to come back to me since I'm so limited right now on my weekly mileage, but I can tell even after four weeks of running low mileage that I'm definitely getting my running legs back.

My 'fingers crossed' goal is to extend my long runs enough over the next couple months to be ready for a fall 50k.  The Moscow Mt. Madness 50k in September would be awesome, but that might be too soon.

In the meantime -- keep running!