Jan 1, 2019

The Road Back to Western States 100 - Part 1

        I stared out of the backseat window of Kelley's car as perfectly spaced rows of citrus trees whizzed by in California’s central valley.  High stratus clouds and an obscured low angle sun indicated it was late autumn, putting a cool and dampening feeling in the air.  We were headed to Sacramento for the California International Marathon (CIM); my second time there.  Breaking my gaze I quickly glanced at my phone and noticed it was lighting up with multiple incoming text messages.  It was lottery day and that could only have meant one thing: I got into either Western States or Hardrock 100. 

“You lucky bastard.”
“Just remember who was with you at AC!”
“STATES!! Congrats buddy.”

        And there it was.  Western States 100.  To be frank, I sincerely hoped for Hardrock and after seven years, it’s still not meant to be.  With that said, I was in one of the two and that’s saying something these days.  As more people apply each year the chances of getting into either race dwindle.  I was one of the 282 lucky runners that had their names pulled.  Out of 5862.
        My brief disappointment turned into thoughts of redemption.  See, I’ve run Western States one other time.  It was this same day five years ago I learned I got into this iconic race for the first time.  Coincidentally, I also happened to be on my way up to run my first CIM as well. 
        I was in a good training rhythm early that year in 2014.  I had come back from a five week trip to Patagonia in late January and having done little running there I was itching to start training.  Six weeks later I ran the Los Angeles Marathon using it to propel me to Leona Divide 50 in late April.  Running one of my better 50 milers there, the post-race high I was on quickly turned to dread.  Stepping out of the car after the drive back home I suddenly had a shooting pain in my right groin/adductor area with weight bearing.  Never feeling it during or even immediately after the race, it would end up stopping me in my tracks for the next 6 weeks.  Prior to the injury, I had signed up for Western States Training Camp and I was still undecided the week of.  I still had some pain and running 70 miles in 3 days was dumb.  Though some would say so was running 100 miles.  So I tried dry-needling the day before I drove up, bought the cushiest Hoka’s I could find, slapped some K-tape on and crossed my fingers.  Somehow, someway, I ran those three days feeling subsequently better each day.  I was finally over my injury.  However, with less than a month left until the race I knew in the back of mind that I would be lucky to even get through it.  My delusional ego though had other ideas (somewhere along the lines of, “We’re going to crush it!”).
        Unsurprisingly, Western States crushed me.  Letting distrust get the better of me I changed my running gait during the the beginning of the race thinking I could avoid the possibility of re-injury.  Predictably, I started developing another injury: a progressively worsening upper calf strain around mile 38.  I sought help at Michigan Bluff from PTs, managed my way to Foresthill, down Cal Street, and by the time I crossed American River I was wrecked.  Being preoccupied with my leg, I didn’t take care of myself for those previous 25 miles and I was in a bad place.  Putting my pacer, Marshall, through some trying times we limped our way to Hwy 49 where I proceeded to lie on a cot and shut my eyes. The only thing on my mind was the question of whether to continue.  I could hear the murmurs of my crew and pacer discussing the issue.  The back of my knee was severely swollen and knowing I had a backpacking trip across Iceland the following week I debated whether it was worth continuing the six miles and potentially making my injury much worse and ruining the trip.  I was looking for an out.  I wanted someone to tell me I shouldn’t keep going.  That it wasn’t worth it.  But the only person that could of made that decision was me.  
        Just under 90 minutes later, the wonderful aid station volunteers wrapped my knee and I began the six mile limp to Placer High School.  2 hours and 40 minutes later I took the anticlimactic hobble around the track.  I couldn’t even muster a shuffle.  26:41.

        That was not how I envisioned my first Western States run.  I was terribly disappointed and embarrassed.  I didn’t want or deserve one single clap.  I’ve run faster and slower at other races but poor results don’t bother me as much as poor experiences.  I had complete and utter disdain for this one.   
        That’s how I felt back then.  Five years later, I still feel the same way.  The buckle is buried someplace in a box.  I purposely don’t wear the shirt.  If someone asks if I ran it I reluctantly mumble a drawn out “yeahhh” hoping they don’t ask me any questions about it.  Normally I wouldn’t care but the simple truth is that this race matters more than most.  Even if I were to only run it once more I need it to be the great experience I've dreamed about since my introduction to Western States in the 2001 PBS documentary “A Race for the Soul.”  I used to question why something like this would even matter in the grand scheme of things.  Why put in the work, the hours, the dedication?  I don’t ask those questions anymore though because I’ve realized it’s an immeasurable gift to simply have the chance to try.  Not many people do.  And there’s simply no time to waste.
        Perhaps I could never have truly understood or appreciated the meaning of it without being fully exposed to its interconnected opposite.  The journey for this one day in June starts at the turn of the new year and it's as exciting as it is an unknown.  I take to heart that nothing is a given and that the ability to adapt is as important as the preparation itself. This is an opportunity to make amends.  The next six months are to Western States.

Dec 8, 2018

"Dream Run" (California International Marathon 2018)

I decide to go for it. Can I maintain a 6:29 per mile pace and run under 2:50 (1980-1986 Boston Marathon Qualifying Time for Men 30-39)?  That would be a PR of over eight minutes and though it doesn't sound like much 18 seconds per mile faster over 26.2 is no easy feat.  If my breathing is labored or the turnover not coming easily I will abandon the goal.  It is after all, a dream goal, one you hope for but don’t expect.

As the opening miles go by things feel as they should be in the early throes of the marathon; easy and comfortable.  And with that the dangerous thought that the dream goal may be a possibility. It’s an easy trap to fall into early in the race and I do my best to suppress it, but it’s like stopping a faucet leak with your hand.

More miles click by: 6...7...8.  My pace is a little faster than I like so I partly open my palms and mutter the word “patience.”  There’s still a long way to go and I’m trying to stay balanced on the tight rope that is the dream goal and not fall into the abyss of failure.  I don't look down.

The halfway sign of 13.1 miles marks the end of the hills, or at least that’s what I remember from five years ago.  “It’s like a downhill San Vicente!” I told others. Crossing the half in 1:24:36, my ability to bury those optimistic thoughts weakens.  The proverbial small faucet leak is now anything but. I can’t let myself get ahead, however. The disappointment would be overwhelming.

Maybe my head needs to be examined.  The San V grade I remembered doesn’t seem to exist.  The hills keep rolling and I’m waiting for the long gradual downhill to the finish (I’m still waiting, by the way). No matter, I need to hold myself together until at least mile 20.  What were once miles on cruise control become more labored. The legs start to feel achy.  I have to engage my mind.  “Keep your form. Keep your pace.”  Mile 20 can’t get here soon enough. 
Much to my chagrin, what was once a race of patience turns into a need to increase effort to maintain pace.  The miles of near 6:30 somehow continue, but time seems to have slowed. The miles no longer fly by.  I spy the mile 20 banner in the distance. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves. The real running is about to begin.  Every mile is going to be a battle. Every second counts. I question if I can hold on the last 10km.

My breaths increase in frequency.  One mile now feels like three and my arms start to become more engaged, imploring myself forward.  Last gel down. 

What I thought was pain was nothing compared to what 22 to the end saved for me.  Doing everything I could to maintain turnover, I start audibly grunting. I need an outlet from the inescapable pain because I know I have to go through it.  There is no other option.  As perverse as it sounds, it’s a gift to be able to. We so rarely do except in these moments.

My mile times start to drift upwards by several seconds above pace but I have no energy to worry.  I’m giving everything I have. Seconds slowly tick by. Another 6:33. My grunts now come with every exhale.  I want this bad and I don’t know if I’ll have an opportunity like this again. I can’t give in.

The crowds and cheers on the course start to increase and I try to run the tangents the best I can.  I don’t want to run one more step than I have to.  A 6:45 mile. “Come on!” I scream at my legs. But there is a reprieve.  It’s mile 26. I summon those last reserves for the final 320 meters. I have tunnel vision and all I can see is the finish line timing mat up ahead.  Both feet cross the finish line and the incredible relief of not having to run one more step washes over me.

2:49:33.  At the moment it’s just a number.  What is most satisfying is making it through the fire that is uncertainty and doubt.  Within seconds, lightheadedness and pain demand my attention. I can barely stagger over to receive my medal. “Are you okay?” a concerned volunteer asks as they keep me upright.  I lean into their body, eyes glazed over and whisper the only thought I can muster: “I had a dream run.”

Jun 11, 2018

Denali Expedition Recap

Summit Ridge
I won’t be writing about the day to day as that was succinctly put in the twelve “Denali Transmit” posts which you can peruse at your convenience.  What I am going to write about is the special place the Alaskan Range was for me.  Last night I finished a well put-together and riveting book called “To the Top of Denali” by Bill Sherwonit and he goes over the history of climbing Denali until present day.  One thing I took away from it and that reaffirmed my original assessment is just how damn lucky we got with the weather.  I don’t mean simply while on the mountain, but the fact we got to fly into Kahiltna International Airport a day early, and fly out within two hours of returning to Base Camp to Talkeetna, the launching point of most, if not all, Denali excursions.  Sure it snowed on the expedition, even when we were within 1000 ft (300m) of the summit, but we didn’t have to contend with major spring storms and high winds when it mattered most.  The climbers who gave it a go in late April, early-mid May were hammered and by the time we arrived at the Talkeetna Ranger Station for the mandatory 1hr plus orientation, the statistics board showed only two people had summit Denali. 

The year to year seasons on Denali vary in terms of summit percentage but the average is around 52%, with one half of climbers guided and the other independent.  This year there are 1150 registered climbers, with 381 completed climbs and 179 summits. That’s a 47% success rate (as of 6/8/18). [UPDATE: As of July 12, 2018, there were 1114 completed climbs and 496 summits for a 45% success rate.  The climbing season is over and there is no one active on the mountain.]

Ever since early March, when I started planning this expedition, I took the trip seriously, more so than usual.  Although I had been higher in altitude previously, the environment, skills required, and self-sufficiency needed would demand more of me than any other trip.  This is a place where death and injuries including frostbite are not uncommon.  After my climbing partner on this trip, Avedis Kalpaklian, signed on, I focused the next two months on reviewing and going over roped travel, crevasse rescue, creating a detailed gear list, putting together our intended itineraries (standard and aggressive), schlepping 45-55 pound loads up and down 10,066 ft Mount Baldy (in addition to my usual trail running), arranging logistics, learning about the West Buttress route, and dialing in every other small detail that a trip like this can only demand. 

That coupled with the fortunate weather made for a successful trip.  We summit the 20310 ft (6190m) mountain in twelve days and the entire expedition lasted fourteen days, about seven less than what we had planned for.  This doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging or difficult, or that I didn’t have a low point or two, but two weeks total with all limbs and appendages intact with a summit to boot, is fortunate.  These are humbling mountains and they have my utmost respect.

With that said, there were some things I hadn’t done before.  For example, rigging and pulling a heavy sled in addition to a heavy pack to accommodate 127 pounds, consistently digging 5-6 foot caches, ascending and descending fixed lines on up to 50-60 degree snow and ice slope, and leading steep snow slopes with snow pickets as running belays.  On top of that, we were constantly assessing the weather and determining whether and when we should move.  Besides the direct sun occasionally warming up the closed tent, the living temperatures were usually between -25F and +10-20F (depending on altitude and not including wind chill).  We stayed four nights at 14200ft  and two nights at 17200ft on the way up and one night at each on the way down.  There were two nights for me that were downright miserable, with sleep and warmth hard to come by.

Now to the Alaskan Range.  Well, what can I say that the photos you’ll be seeing can’t convey any better?  Just the flights to and from the glacier are spectacular in their own rights.  The range is a desolate mystical place and I felt like a speck among giants.  It’s a place that makes you feel vulnerable starting with the hidden crevasses under your feet to the random serac falls and avalanches that come booming off mountain slopes.  It’s an environment that’s constantly in flux with the heavy, unrelenting hand of pressure and time shaping it.  From the first to the last day I had to stop several times to simply stare and wonder.  It’s an experience that gave my life enough of a nudge to point me in a slightly different direction than the course I was on.  Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but those are the types of experiences I cherish most.  I’ll end with an excerpt from my journal on our final day:

“It was quiet and I felt like I was the only one on the mountain with the dawn light.  Although the packs were absolutely crushing, the morning views of the Kahiltna and surrounding peaks were why I come to the mountains.  The silence sang so loudly I had to stop several times and gaze in wonder.  The descent to Camp II was a killer and with every step came a grunt.  After digging out our cache that included sleds we made our way down to Kahiltna Pass with occasional sled mishaps.  After turning south towards “Ski Hill” I was richly rewarded with stunning vistas.  With the crisp cool air and gradual descent, it was about as perfect and satisfying a time as I can have.  A smile with elation naturally came upon my face.  The unspoilt snow glistened with the shower of morning light, the snow underfoot was the perfect firmness, and the body and mind were completely relaxed as I walked through this glaciated Eden.  These mountains were showing off, though I know in the back of [my] mind they can be equally as treacherous.  However, for the moment it was bliss.  This will not be my last time in the Alaskan Range.”

You can click here for select photos and videos or the link under "Travel Photos."   

Jun 5, 2018

Denali Transmit #12 (Final)

June 5, 2018

I've been back in Talkeetna now for a couple of days after having finished the trek out on Sunday, June 3. We've been very fortunate with the weather and that allowed us to fly in and out without a hitch while some wait up to a week for a weather window. The descent back to Base Camp was at times splendid and other times absolutely trying. The weight of the gear, food, and excrement alone was at times torturous on the steep downhills before we got the sleds back, but the early morning views and the quiet stillness of the surrounding range was something I'll cherish. Now is a time of reflection for me. I plan on gathering notes, photos, and some video from the expedition and turn it into something, perhaps. If you enjoyed this and would like more, please don't hesitate to subscribe.

Jun 2, 2018

Denali Transmit #11

June 1, 2018

We knocked off the bastard, to paraphrase the late Sir Edmund Hillary.  The summit of North America was ours at 6:40 pm, Alaskan Standard Time (if that exists).  Just got back in the tent and can't move.  A very challenging and sensational day.  I am so ecstatic but I literally just want to crawl in my sleeping bag.  We're starting our descent tomorrow.  Shouldn't take more than a couple days to get back to Base Camp.

May 31, 2018

Denali Transmit #10

Back in Camp IV about 45 min ago after picking up our cache at 16,200'.  Today went a lot better on the ridge and my god the views were spectuacular and the ridge was so fun.  Sometimes on a knife edge, sometimes 3rd class scrambling on granite in crampons.  Anyway, we are eating and drinking so we can be prepared for a summit attempt tomorrow morning around 10 am.  It's too cold to start any earlier with temps being in the minus twenties.  We're excited and are focused on tomorrow.  We have our fingers crossed for the weather.  

May 30, 2018

Denali Transmit #9

Absolutely brutal but spectacular day.  We are in Camp IV after a 8 hr 15 min day.  I don't even know where to begin, but going up the headwall with a full pack, leading the technical sections on the West Buttress, and winding away on its ridge while snowing some and sunny some.  Barely ate anything all day but we are thrilled to be in our tent resting.  Did I mention we are fried?  Anyway, tomorrow we go back on ridge to pick up our cache, but it'll be a much shorter day. And then Friday, we may have a go at the summit.