Tuesday, October 8, 2013

C&O Trail to GAP Trail Bike Ride


Overview
We’re really blessed here in Western PA to have a lot of outdoor assets right in our backyard. The county parks system, the Laurel Highlands and numerous state parks are right out our backdoor. Pittsburgh also hosts the western terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) which extends to Cumberland where it meets the C&O Canal Tow Path.  This past summer the final segment of the trail was completed making it possible to ride or hike from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC on a dedicated biking/hiking trail. Seemed like a great time to take advantage of some great fall weather and see the trail.

Getting There
Of course, in a point to point ride one of the big challenges is getting to the remote start or back from the remote finish. This is where mass transit comes in. Conveniently Amtrak runs passenger service from Chicago to Washington with stops along the way, including Pittsburgh. For $59 for a coach seat and a $10 charge to check the bike, it’s a very cost effective option. Packing the bike is easy. The bike boxes provided by Amtrak are huge. I only had to remove my pedals and turn my handlebar to fit in the box. (Note: New bike boxes are $15 unless you are ok with a used box which they will give you for free.)

Wrinkles
The trip was set weeks in advance and tickets purchased. No adventure is complete without some wrinkles and a few days before the trip the first adjustment in my plans came into view. The federal government shut-down meant that officially the C&O Trail was closed. However, my understanding was they could not stop people from entering the trail. With tickets purchased and time set aside, I decided to take a chance and go.


Just Left Union Station


Day 1
I arrived at train station at 4:30am and after boxing the bike I was told the train was running about an hour late. Nearly two hours later we were on the train and heading south. This was my first passenger train ride and it was very pleasant; much more pleasant than a trip by plane, however much slower also. By the time I got started in DC it was 4:30pm and about 4 hours later than I had expected . But I was well rested and ready to put in some miles before bedtime.

Getting on the C&O Near Georgetown


Great Falls Area North of Georgetown
 
After getting a few miles from Georgetown the crowds of walkers and bikers dissipated and the hot day cooled to a pleasant evening. I stopped to refill my bottles and noted that there were no handles on the water pumps at the C&O camping areas, a result of the government shutdown. Also steel straps were installed around the porta-pottie doors to prohibit their use. Given the number of Johns and pumps, I figure the FS personnel put in a couple of hard workdays shuttering the trail.

No NPS Means No Water and No Porta-Potties.
This sign and steel strapping were attached to each latrine.

I rode on into the night stopping at Whites  Ferry for water and dinner and eventually set up camp at Killiansbug Cave camping area with about 80 miles on the odometer. I was treated to a serenade by a couple of owls nearby hooting back and forth to one another.

Day 2
A bright clear morning dawned and fueled by Sheetz’s finest vittles I pedaled north. I was truly surprised by the geology of the area and the dramatic cliffs that flank the northern side of the Potomac. I was also awed by the effort of man to tame the river to make it navigable by canal boat. Huge reservoirs and lock systems were continuously in view and the Paw Paw tunnel was fantastic if not eerie. I hit the 176 mile marker at the 24hour point of the trip, which was my longest effort to on a bike to date.
Concrete Boardwalk North of Williamsport
Lots of Dams and Spillways Along the Potomac


I had first dinner in Cumberland and started the long climb to the Eastern Continental Divide as dusk fell. This section of trail requires a 20 mile uphill effort and crosses the Maryland/Pennsylvania state line in route to the divide. Following the summit a long cruise to Meyersdale lead to second dinner and more night riding and finally camp in Ohiopyle State Park.

Elevation Profile at the Eastern Continental Divide Crossing

Day 3
Again pleasant temperatures, albeit foggy and damp, greeted the morning’s effort and after a nice 25 mile morning warm-up, breakfast was ready at the Connellsville Sheetz. The morning dampness burned off in the late morning sun and a good headwind started up for the 60 mile run into Pittsburgh. I made it to Point State Park around 3:30 for a 47 hour total time to complete the point to point course.
Ohiopyle Station

View from Bridge North of Ohiopyle
 
Approaching the City
 
Requisite Bike Lift at Journeys End

Requisite Picture with The Duck
Summary
DAY 1 DISTANCE: 80MI (4:30pm start)
DAY 2 DSTANCE: 175MI
DAY 3 DISTANCE: 80MI (3:30pm finish)
TOTAL TIME: 47 hours
 

Post-Mortem (What I’d do differently)
There isn’t much I’d do differently. Overall my gear choices were solid and appropriate for the conditions. There were two items I’ll add to my gear list the next time I go: a bell and a map case. It’s really hard to say “On your left” over and over in pleasant tone. I tried many variations to make it sing-songy and upbeat but in the end I think a loud ding-a-ding of a bell would be far superior. You don’t need a map to navigate the trail, but some side trails to towns are not well marked or marked at all. So having the reference up all the time would have been helpful. I did miss one crucial water stop and had to go 30 miles with no water. Luckily my blunder happened in the cool of the day so I just got a little depleted.

Full set of pictures from the ride can be seen here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/74146447@N05/sets/72157636213785816/

Gear List





Sunday, May 5, 2013

Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail Double Crossing - May 2013


Laurel Out and Back Report – May

Trail Overview

The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) located in southwestern Pennsylvania is a 70-mile, point-to-point foot path that connects Ohiopyle at the south terminus to Seward (near Johnstown) at the northern terminus. It is a 100% single-track trail except for a short section of less than a mile that follows a gravel gas line access road.

The trail is a local backpacking favorite with three-sided shelters sites spread out at day-hike distances along the trail and reliable water sources along at known locations. The trail is also the backdrop to the Laurel Highlands Ultra, an annual point-to-point foot-race held each June.

The Challenge

Lacking a race or event on my calendar, I started looking for something to train for this past winter. I’ve found myself gravitating away from “races” recently and toward less formal fun-runs and challenges. After lots of brain storming, I finally settled on an unsupported long-distance foot-travel journey. Several venues were considered, but the eventual best contestant became the LHHT. Several different formats and dates were also tossed around in my mind and for various reasons dismissed until only one option was left standing: a self-sufficient double traverse of the LHHT.

History

I wasn’t the first person to take on this challenge. The original double direction LHHT traverse was completed by Art Moore on Memorial Day weekend in 1986. Art started and finished in Ohiopyle and his family provided aid at the road crossings and paced him through the night sections to a smoking fast 35:58:30 finish. Art’s monumental accomplishment was chronicled in an article in the September edition of Ultrarunning Magazine that year. I surmise that a thru-hiker or two have done a double traverse in a traditional backpacking format, but I have not found any documented accounts other than Art’s. (If anyone is aware of other successful attempts, please contact me or add a comment to this blog so I can get in touch. I’d like to include other pertinent historic information on this page.)

Philosophy

My approach to the challenge would be quite a bit different than that of Art’s in 1986. My attempt would be an unsupported effort whereas Arts’ was fully-supported effort. These terms have specific meaning in the long-distance foot travel community. (source: http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=readfirst&action=display&thread=19)

Gear

An unsupported effort (sometimes called “alpine style”) calls for carrying all supplies on your person from the start of the event, except for water which may be obtained from native sources along the route. Self-sufficiency requires that the selected gear be adequate for the expected conditions (plus a safety factor). Here’s what I took:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Always Worn
 
Carried
 
Consumables
 
 
 
 
 
Sleeveless tech shirt
 
Home
 
4 Packs of Ramen noodles
Running shorts
 
MYOG 2.5Apex quilt
 
6 Packs of Oatmeal
Windshirt
 
Sleeping pad
 
4 cups of instant potatoes
Socks
 
Space blanket drop cloth
 
12 Cliff/Mojo bars
Shoes w/ gaiters
 
Wool socks (sleeping)
 
0.5lb Polish beef sticks
Visor
 
Flash 20 Basic Rucksack
 
2 Large Bagels
Rx glasses
 
Waterproof Pack Liner
 
20 Oreos/Sugar Wafers
Bandana
 
 
 
15 Reece cups/York PPs
Camera
 
Kitchen and Bath
 
2 Sleeves of Poptarts
Small  Bubble Compass
 
3 Waterbottles: 2L Capacity
 
2x 1oz Jiff "Nutella" clone
 
 
Cooking kit (including stove)
 
12oz Crushed Frittos
Sometimes Worn
 
Hygeine kit
 
4 Coffee "tea-bags"
 
 
 
 
Water Treatment Tablets
Clothing
 
Furnishings
 
Stove fuel for hot meals
Rain Jacket
 
Flashlight w/ spare battery
 
 
Med Weight LS Tech Shirt
 
Backup flashlight
 
Weight Totals
Balaclava and Watch Cap
 
Maps w/ notes
 
Worn: 4 lbs
1 pair Spare Socks
 
Vitriox knife
 
Carried: 5 lbs ("Base weight")
Light tech pants
 
First aid kit/Repair kit
 
Consumables: 5.5 lbs
 
 
Cell phone
 
Water (full capacity): 4.5 lbs
 
 

 
My gear kit was much more substantial for this effort than I would carry for a traditional ultra-event. The philosophy in an ultra-event is to carry just what is required to cover the distance between the aid stations and nothing more. I often describe the feeling of getting to aid at an ultra as “coasting in on fumes.” But this effort would be different. Instead of just getting by I wanted to take on this challenge with a self-sufficient style. In short, I wanted to thrive not just survive. Hence my gear looks like a “10-Essentials” type list and the items were specifically and deliberately selected to meet all the requirements of a long distance hike.
While this kit would adequate for an overnight trip or hike of up to a week long (with proper adjustments in the consumable category) in the warmer months and milder portions of the shoulder seasons, I wouldn’t consider this a true 3-season list. Notably missing from the list is a true shelter. For my double, I would use shelters located along the trail in the event of severe inclement weather. Otherwise, my sleeping system is designed for dry-weather, rough-camping on the forest duff under the stars.

The Effort

My hike started in Ohiopyle. After a hamburger at the Falls City Pub, I shoved off at 5:40p.m. hoping to get to mile 8 by sun down. On the climb out of OP I noted the flowering trees were in full bloom, but the leaves on the hardwood trees had not yet opened and the looked like little green tubes just poking out of their buds. The first evening’s effort went by very uneventfully. Water is easily located in the southern half of the trail. I carried 2L of water capacity, but due to the relative abundance in the southern section I was able to match the amount I had to carry in my pack to the distance to the next known source. In my research for this trip I located this list from a fall 2012 thru hike on Dane’s place (http://www.shol.com/featheredprop/)
 

 

At the "Brown Gate" the first time


After the sun when down a crystal clear and cloudless sky coupled with the still leafless trees made for a great star show as I hiked through the night. At about 4:30 a.m. I passed the 35 mile, mid-point and found a good place to bed down for the night just north of the trail mid-point. I found a nice rock to lay beside and spread out my bed roll and put on some warm clothes and sacked out. I woke at 6:00 a.m. as the sun poked up from the horizon still warm in my quilt, but knowing I needed to get moving. A breakfast of hot coffee and cold instant mashed potatoes jump started my engine. I also had a serving of Jiff Silk peanut butter and chocolate spread, which is my new favorite trail food, to eat with a bagel.


 

Stealth Campsite on the First Night
 
I made good time through the morning and focused on keeping my head up to see as much as I could. The LHHT has enough rocks and roots that at a jogging pace you have to keep your eyes on the trail, but moving at a steady hiking pace is much easier to keep your eyes on the scenery and the lack of leaves meant that the trail was less of a “green tunnel” than usual. As the day wore on the temps went up and I entered the driest part of the trail. North of route 30 there are no streams that cross the trail and the only water is from hand pumps located at the route 30 shelter area and route 211 parking area. Here I filled up on as much water as I could carry.

I made it to the northern terminus just before 6 p.m. A husband and wife were just packing up to hike out to the Decker Road shelter to spend the night. We chatted for a few minutes and I gave them info on the water situation on the trail. Their packs looked much heavier than mine and I was very happy that I did not have to climb to the ridge with that much gear. Just before sunset I stopped and topped off on calories for the night. Hot ramen noodles, instant spuds and Fritos made up my smorgasbord.

The second night was much harder than the first as I had a major fight with the sleep monster. It started with a groggy head started at about 10:30 p.m. and got progressively worse as the night rolled on. My pace slowed to a glacial trudge by 2 a.m., but I was determined not to stop till 4 a.m. I’d much rather hike in the cool of the night than the heat of the next day. Time seemed to slow down I as walked on through the dark and I deeply wished I had packed a 5-Hour Energy in my food bag. I did get to see two porcupines overnight which cool. I had heard that they are not frightful animals and this turns out to be true. The first one was ambling through some fern shoots. I shined my light on him he looked at me with a “I’m not afraid of you” over his shoulder and then turned and slowly walked off into the night. At 4 a.m. I found a nice place to nap near the Route 30 crossing and woke at 7 a.m feeling much better.

The hike from Route 30 south the next morning went well. With the cobwebs of sleep lifted, I resumed my power hiking pace making it to the well in Seven Springs by about 12:30 p.m. Just a marathon separated me from Ohiopyle and this section is the one I’ve spent the most time on over the years. I know this section of the trail well and it’s one of my favorites with lots of picturesque stream crossings and interesting rock formations that the trail snakes through.

 
By late afternoon I had only the 8-mile stretch just north of Ohiopyle (I call them the “Gate 2-8”) to go but they are the toughest 8 miles of trail in Western PA. The section features three really tough climbs the toughest of which is about 1,200 ft. My ears usually will pop when I go up or down it. As I was making the first decent I noticed something. The trees looked different than they had two days ago. The leaves that were tightly curled green nubs two days ago had partially unfurled and a tiny leaf was taking shape. The same overlook view that had looked barren two nights ago looked green and lush. It was a drastic change I had not expected. I watched my third sunset from the rock outcropping between mile marker 3 and 2. I checked my watch and noted that with a little hustle I’d make it in under 51 hours.

I strolled past the brown gate at the end of Garrett Street in the waning dusk and down to the Falls City Pub where I stopped. A guy sitting at a table with a beverage told me I looked lost. I told him I was looking for someone to take my picture and he offered to help. It was the perfect end to a great hike. It was not an epic an adventure. It was not dramatic but it was full of drama; a subtle drama that you can only perceive while moving down a trail in the spring at a walking pace.
Back at the Falls City Pub

I’ve posted all the pictures I took from the hike here and with some narrative and captions as appropriate. Enjoy:
I tried to keep this report short and sweet. If I missed a aspect of the trip you're interested in post a comment below or shoot me a message.


EDIT May 7, 2013: I'm adding the table with the numbers from the outing:


 

 

 

 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hardrock Acclimatization Day 8


Hardrock Acclimatization Day 8, 2012

Tomorrow is the big day. The race will start at 6:00AM sharp and we’ll all be on our way heading clockwise around the course. We had a voluntary course description last night where race management went over the points on the course that give runners trouble every year. I spent the morning today finalizing my drop bag contents and labeling the bags which we turned in before our noon meeting. The meeting at noon was the mandatory pre-run briefing.

Tomorrow you’ll be able to follow the race progress on the HardrockLive site. Race management will update the site during the run and you’ll be able to track the progress of the run while its happening. They will also have two finish line cameras which will post the action at the rock live. When the site goes live, a link will be posted on the Hardrock web site at http://hardrock100.com/

I’ve posted a couple of more videos to Youtube. You can see them at my Youtube channel:  http://www.youtube.com/user/trailturkey?feature=mhee

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Acclimatization Day 6


On our run back from Handies to Grouse Gulch, Jim and I came across  a piece of steel junk in the valley above the trail head. Being a large piece of iron 50 feet below us, it obviously became the object of target practice for rock throwing. After amusing ourselves for few minutes we continue down trail closer to the wreck and discover what it actually is. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwzlG1tSX4Q&feature=plcp

Hardrock Acclimatization: Day 6, July 10, 2012

Summary: AM: Manual labor volunteering with HR HQ setup, PM: 1st ever (and probably only) HR100 Prologue Time Trial.
Distance Covered: 2 miles
Vertical Gain: 0 ft

Notes about the day: After breakfast we decided to walk the last miles of the course and eventually started a walk up to Christ of the Mines Shrine on the north side of Silverton. On the way we met up Louise Mackenzie who said we looked like volunteers. A few minutes we were loading soda into the back of her truck and riding through downtown Silverton on the back of tail gate.
1 mile time trial: Somewhere along the line we got the dumb idea to do a time trial on the track (I think it came from Eric and I noticing the track across town when were up at the Shrine). So at 4:30 we all met at the Silverton track for a 1 mile time trial. The object was a handicapped start with each runner departing with a stagger based on their predication. The object was for everyone to finish at the same time. Mike Dobies and his nephew, Bill Losey, Jim and Eric Harris, Bob Combs and myself all participated. Eric finished with a 5:05, I had a 5:34 and Jim ran 6:17. Running a hard mile at 9500 feet was much more taxing than I had expected.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Hardrock Acclimatization Period: Day 1 to 5


We’ve been in Colorado but off the grid for a few days. We’ve been camping at trail heads and hiking trails since we’ve gotten here. I’ve uploaded photos and videos to a flicker site:


Here’s a summary of what we’ve been up to since we got here:

Hardrock Acclimatization: Day 1, Thursday, July 5, 2012
Summary: Summit Mt Elbert – Highest peak in Colorado
Distance covered: 9 miles (out and back)
Vertical Gain/Loss: 4,326 feet +/-
Started from Elbert Creek TH (10,107’), Turned at Mt Elbert Summit (14,433’)

Notes: We got on the ground in Denver and were picked up by Kim and Eric and drove straight Leadville, hitting Walmart on the way for supplies. It was raining when we arrived in Leadville so we decided to forgo camping and spent the night at Leadville Hostel. We got up early and were at the Mt Elbert trail head by 7:30am. We summited Elbert, the highest point in Colorado, under blue skies.

Hardrock Acclimatization: Day 2, Friday, July 6, 2012
Summary: Summit Mt Massive – Second highest peak in Colorado
Distance covered: 13.5miles  (out and back)
Vertical Gain/Loss: 4,314 feet +/-
Started from Mt Massive TH (10,107’), Turned at Mt Massive Summit (14,421’)

Notes: After sleeping at Elbert Creek campground, we hiked to the summit of Mt Massive. The weather was great early but got sketchy late in the hike. After waiting for some questionable clouds to pass, Eric and I snatched a summit in great weather before heading for the tree line. After our hike we headed south and ended up in Ouray where a local directed us to camp at Jackass Flats (we believe they used this flat area above the town of Ouray). This was the most gorgeous place I’ve ever camped.

Hardrock Acclimatization: Day 3, Saturday, July 7, 2012
Summary: Reviewed Hardrock Course: Ouray to Engineer Pass
Distance covered:  miles (out and back)
Vertical Gain/Loss:  4,430 feet +/-
Started at Bear Creek TH on route 550 near Ouray (8,480’), Turned Engineer Pass (12,910’)


Notes: The day dawned with rain but that didn’t deter us from exploring the section of the HR course from the trail head at RT550 up to Engineers Pass. This was by far the most epic trail I’ve ever been on. The trail is a chiseled shelf cleft into a sheer cliff face.



Hardrock Acclimatization: Day 4, July 8, 2012
Summary: Reviewed Hardrock Course: Governor Basin to Kroger Canteen
Distance covered: 12 miles (out and back, counting a wrong turn up Imogene Basin)
Vertical Gain/Loss: 3,338 feet +/-
Started from Governor Basin AS (12,160), Turned at Kroger Canteen Summit (13,100)

Notes: After a very we evening and a dinner spent huddled around the stoves under a tarp, the morning dawned bright and clear and we drove the van up the epic Camp Bird Road from our campsite area in Thisledown Campground. After a miss fire where we hiked up the wrong trail for an hour, we finally found the correct trail head and climbed up to Governor Basin and the Virginius Mine area. After playing around on the mine remnants for a bit, we climbed to Kroger Canteen in Virginius Pass. Undoubtedly the most epic aid station location of any ultra I’ve ever seen.

Hardrock Acclimatization: Day 5, July 9, 2012 Summary: Reviewed Hardrock Course: Grouse Gulch AS to Handies Summit
Distance covered: 9 miles (out and back)
Vertical Gain/Loss: 3,338 feet +/-
Started from Grouse Gulch TH (10,710), Turned at Handies Mt Summit (14,048’)

Notes: Beautiful day on the course. Ran from the AS at Grouse Gulch to the summit of Handies Mountain and back. After the run, we ate at High-Noon-Hamburgers in Silverton.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Double Dose of Ring

The Double Direction – Double Ring  February 25, 2012
It’s hard to find a starting point to tell the story of this adventure. This was a big one for me. I’m quite sure it’s the first time I’ve ever toed the line and honestly was not sure I could complete the objective. Sure, failure is always possible at extremely long distances, but in previous events I knew I had the goods to get the job done if the catastrophic didn’t happen. But 142.2 miles on the hardest trail I’ve ever run is not an idea that inspires confidence. I really was unsure this was doable.
Maybe the genesis of this this run was at the 2009 Ring. Jim and I were on the west ridge near Woodstock Gap in the middle of the night. During all of our chatting, Jim said, “Do you know this guy Ryan Henry did a Double Ring?!” We both agreed the idea was absurd, but from that instant I think I knew that this was a task I would eventually put my mind (and body) to.
It was earlier this year when I looked at my goals for the coming spring I had determined that I needed to do a really long event. In preparing for my attempt at Hardrock this summer I need to do something long enough that sleep deprivation became a real issue. It needed to be in the 36+ hour range so that I could really see how I respond to a lack of rest. After scouring the calendar I finally settled down on the idea of actually going for the Double Ring. I dusted off my plan and went to work defining it better.
The Plan:
The entire 71.2 mile Massanutten Trail circuit is run two times each year in an organized event: The Ring and The Reverse Ring in September and February, respectively. My general plan was to incorporate my double attempt with the official event. This would allow me to take advantage of the people and resources on the course in my attempt. The plan was to begin the circuit in the clockwise direction (The Ring direction) on Friday morning finishing the loop early on Saturday morning. Upon finishing, I would turn around and head in the counter clockwise direction. I would take advantage of the event aid stations on Saturday get to run with lots of runners as they overtook me on the course. After noodling the timing with Mike Dobies via email, I had a final set of projected splits that worked.
A couple of weeks before the day of the event I floated my plan past Jim and Kim, who were also doing the Reverse Ring, to see if they thought it made any sense and see if they were game to help me out on Friday. Of course, my friends were always up for an adventure or a challenge; they were on board in a serous way. Kim and Jim had some suggestions and adjustments to the strategy.
The final approach went like this: Jim would pace me for the first loop while Kimba crewed us and set out aid caches at Edinburg and Woodstock Gap for the overnight portion of the run. Her duties fulfilled, she would leave the van at the start/finish area, retire to Portabello for the evening and start the Reverse Ring with the pack the next day at 6AM. Jim and I would finish the first loop using the cached aid. Upon finishing the loop, I would re-group (sleep if needed) and depart in the counterclockwise direction on my own. Jim would clean up, rest and eventually get back to the course to serve as crew for me on my second loop. Lots of emails, to-pack lists and to-do lists later Jim, Kim and I were on our way south on Thursday night.
Loop 1: The Ring
After a pretty good night’s sleep at Portobello, the three of us pile in the van and drive to Signal Knob parking area. Jim and I head down the trail at 5:15AM and Kim drives off to drop our aid cache and then on to our first checkpoint at Camp Roosevelt, mile 25. On the east ridge we bump into a thru hiker who introduces himself by his trail name Marty McFly. He is hiking the MT in 5 days going to counter clockwise direction. We tell him what we’re up to and he seems genuinely interested. He remarks that he has flexibility in his plan and he may adjust so he can see us down the trail.
We arrive at Camp Roosevelt where Kim laid out a great spread and we feasted well. At this point the weather is perfect: sunny and in the 60s. We did get drenched in a quick downpour, but it was still warm and not long after the front blew out and it got breezy. Kim met us again at Moreland for more hot fare. We got our gear for the 30 mile overnight push to my halfway point and Jim’s finish line.
It was now early evening and I remarked over our little dinner party that at this point, I only had 100 miles to go. We all got a good laugh. It sounded so preposterous that’s all we could do. Jim and I packed our gear and headed out. We got most the way over Short Mountain before the sun went down and we had a nice rhythm going as we buzzed along the trail. We were very conservative with pace and keep in a power walk mode, finishing the first loop in 21 hours 10 minutes.
 
Jim and me at the trail head at Moreland. 40ish down, 100ish to go...[Photo from Kimba]
Loop 2: The Reverse Ring
Now back at the parking lot where Kim had left the van, Jim whipped up some hot food and I did a wardrobe change.  I downed chow and got ready to roll. Jim said he’d see me in a few hours and I started retracing our steps back up Signal Knob at about 3:18AM on Saturday morning.
On the way up I did something I’ve never done before: I pulled out my Ipod for help setup a rhythm as I power hiked up the slope. People would probably laugh at my playlist. It’s mostly top-40, auto-tuned pop music. Let them laugh. The beat to Party Rockers is just about right for a fast powerful hiking pace and that’s what I needed.  About halfway up it started to snow but I was not concerned. I had a full belly and loose stride.
The sun slowly illuminated the landscape as I came into the Powels Fort area. I noted to myself that the Reverse Ring runners were just starting their trek up to Signal Knob 8 miles behind me. With any luck they’d be catching me in a few hours.
For the next few sections really nothing very noteworthy happened except that as I came into Woodstock I had my first-ever exercise-induced hallucination. I knew I was close to the aid station and I saw the cars in a parking lot and I let out a cheer. But as I got closer, I realized there weren’t any cars at all and no parking lot, just trees and stumps and rocks. “Wow, that’s weird” I thought.
As the day wore on the wind had really picked up and the temperatures dropped. At Edinburg gap I had the exceptional Pesta corn chowder and got to chat with other runners as they passed me on their way up the mountain. It was a really shot to my morale as Keith K., Rande B., and Joe C. gave me a pat on the back and an “atta-boy” as they passed.
After the Edinburg AS, came the big 8mi push up and over Short mountain, one of the really tough sections of this course. I definitely came to low ebb on this section. At this point I’m about 32hrs into my adventure; well longer than I’d ever gone before. My perception of time really started to fall apart at this point. I would think to myself that an hour must have gone by, but when I looked at my watch it was only a few minutes. It took forever (in my mind) but I finally made it to Moreland where Tom S. had perogies and hot soup. Hot food really lifts your spirits in an ultra and this really did the job.
Me feasting on Pesta Cowder at Edinburg. [Photo from Burs Tweet]
The west ridge of the Ring features a nice 1-2 punch of Short and Kerns Mountain back to back. Both are tough but in different ways. Short is a pile of huge boulders you have to scramble over so it trashes your quads. Kerns is a covered in small pointy coble size rocks so it trashes your feet. By this point my feet are numb so I’m moving pretty well. A few minutes after the climb up to Jawbone Gap, Jeff B. caught up to me. I had been in kind of a funk for a few miles and was in need of human company. Jeff was moving really well. I had to really push myself to keep up with him. He was actually running the uphills! We tried to talk but the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t hear much of what he said. Our conversation consisted mostly of him saying something and me shouting back, “WHAT WAS THAT?” Jeff dragged me over Kerns, through the Cristman Hollow aid station (which is a mile off the road and not accessible by crew) and down Waterfall mountain to the base of the climb up Dry Gap. Keeping up with Jeff had really depleted me. I started to fall off the pace and as I lost sight of Jeff, I dropped into a pretty healthy bonk.
I found a big rock and sat down and started feeling a little sorry for myself. It wasn’t an all out pity party, but I was definitely a bit cranky. I opened my pack and ate every calorie I could find in my pack. I also chugged a Starbucks espresso shot. This got me going again and I resolved to cover as much ground as possible before sun set. On the last part of the section, the long descent down Duncan Hollow, I started hallucinating a lot. They weren’t the extreme hallucinations some people have had: I didn’t see any bleeding trees nor was I looking for Mike Dobies house; but in the distance I would see very out of place things and as I approached they’d dematerialize into just another rock or stump. Some were very strange. I saw a guy in a white t-shirt on his knees laying floor tile. My grandfather had a keesh-hound and I swear I saw her standing in the woods with her big curly-q tail. I was lucid, but my mind was struggling.
I made it to the last check point at Camp Roosevelt, the 116 mile mark, just after sundown at 6:55PM. At this point, I had been awake for almost 39 hours. It was only a matter of time before I had to rest and I determined that it would not be safe for me to continue on alone. So when I got to the AS, I put on warm clothes and started eating. I would wait for another runner to come in and continue the course with them. Kerry Owens came in next and I was all ready to get myself together to head out with her and Doug. Then someone said Kerry didn’t want to relive her 2006 Reverse Ring where she suffered on the east ridge in high winds and she was dropping.

Me warming by the fire at Camp Roo. [Photo from Bob Fabia]
Next came in Gary K., Gary X., and Jeff G. The two Gary’s had already determined they were dropping, but Jeff was going on. Great, I thought, I’ll have a few more minutes while Jeff gets ready and then we can go. Wrong. Jeff was ready in about 45seconds and I was scrambling to get myself out and up the trail to catch him. This was probably my only real “mistake” of the day. I did not really assess my caloric needs very well.
As Jeff and I soldered up Kennedy Mountain we had lots to discuss as we’d never run together. This was good as it helped the miles pass. A few miles into the section though, my lack of sleep really started to hit me. I found myself nodding off, kind of sleep walking. I stopped Jeff and told him I could not continue with him: I was afraid I would stumble and bust the teeth out of my head. I felt really bad leaving him because that would mean he would spend the rest of the night alone on the ridge. I had done the same last year (by design) and it is a long lonely stretch of trail. We wished each other well and I found a nice rock with a leeward over-hang. I took off my pack and put it in the middle of the trail where the next person could not miss it. Jim had instructed everyone on the course to rouse any sleeping Cam-Baker they encountered on the trail. I put on every piece of clothing I was carrying and pulled out an enormous trash bag. I crawled inside, checked my watch and then rolled under the rock overhang out of the wind. I was out cold instantly.
I awoke shivering uncontrollably and looked at my watch: I had been asleep for 30 minutes. Shivering is the body’s way of trying to generate heat. When people become hypothermic, it’s a result of not reacting to this shivering mechanism. The correct response is to immediately elevate your core temperature. For me, that means getting up and hiking. For a few minutes it’s very hard to get moving because I’m stiff. But my mind has reset and the fog my head has lifted. A few miles later I’m feeling okay and making good time. Near the Milford Gap trail intersection I see a fire ring and I’m thinking about pulling out my lighter and starting a fire when I hear something moving on the trail behind me. I see a light and I call out. IT’S KIMBA! She is the last runner of the day and is ready to pace me to the finish line. I fall in behind her. I let her spot trail while I just hike along and hang on for dear life. At Milford Gap we have 13 miles to go: just a half marathon and we can rest.
The last tough climb of the course occurs at Veech Gap. Before starting the assent, I soak my aching feet in the creek which feels really great. The Veech Gap motel is closed this year (some years the VHTRC hikes in and erects a tent at this location but not this year) but the pool is open and my feet are in heaven. On the climb Kimba donates some calories as I try to keep my energy up. I’m still moving forward but it’s really beginning to be unpleasant. I consciously determine not to be negative or whiny.
Jim, Marty and me at the finish area. [Photo from Jim]
The decent to Elizabeth furnace is a long steady downhill. As we come into the camp area I think I see a hiker ahead. Kim confirms I’m not hallucinating. As we approach we hidey-ho and low and behold: ITS MARTY MCFLY! He’s adjusted his schedule and camped overnight at Elizabeth furnace to see the finishers. He was just packing up as we came down the trail. We exchange high fives and we head for the finish line and Marty says he’ll see us there. When we get to the river, Jim and Q are waiting. They try to offer us a ride to the finish but with on ¾ of a mile to go we blow right past. There’s one last insulting little climb to get to the parking area but it’s over soon and we stumbling to the lot. Q and Jim are there. We snap pictures and I collapse in chair. Marty arrives not long after and we all sit around for minute and bask in the afterglow of hard epic adventure. 51:25:30 is the official time. It’s a new “fastest known time” for a double Ring. Ryan Henry had the record at 52hrs but he’s the only other person to have finished the deed.

The VHTRC Northern Territory Contingent at the finish area. [Photo from Q]
Not long after we are at Portabello cleaning up. My scent is not fit for human company, but after a shower we’re eating breakfast and lounging before our car ride home. There’s high spirits and hi-fives and lots of thank you’s. The overall finish rate of the Reverse Ring is just about right for this event: 7 of 18 starters made the finish line. Yours truly started with a  3 hour head start on the field and finished dead last in the official Reverse Ring standings with personal worst-ever performance on the course of 29:22. A good time was definitely had by all.
Postscript
I’m so appreciative of Q and Bur who organize this madness and to the many volunteers from VHTRC who work the aid stations and host us. The only thing crazier than running in cold, windy conditions is standing around in those conditions at an aid station and then waiting on the runners hand and foot. I am profoundly blessed to be associated with this group.
As I struggle with these last few sentences, I realize there is no way I can express my gratitude to Jim and Kim. Without Jim and Kim, none of this could have happened. My eyes are not dry as I type these words. Only people who have shared an experience like this together can understand their bond. I have a twinge of guilt for what it took to get this done.  This all brings to mind something my father once said to me: “no one in this life accomplishes anything, except that he stands on the shoulders of others to do so.” I don’t know if he authored it or borrowed it, but it is profound and appropriate: there is self-sufficiency in neither ultras nor life. If I we accomplish something, we do it with help of others. What we did last weekend is neither “great” nor “noteworthy.” It’s meager and small and really quite unimportant in the greater scheme of life. But to me, it was the attempt and eventual attainment of a goal whose completion was not guaranteed. If “success is about over reaching our abilities and living to tell about it,” then it was a success. Nothing more and nothing less.

Me at Portabello after a shower. [Photo from Burs Tweet]


Monday, February 20, 2012

The Note on My Wall

I’m not a frequent blogger and have refrained from further cluttering the already densely filled airwaves with yet another opinion and perspective. However, my friend Kimba has inspired me with her most recent post to put up my own (hopefully) inspirational note. Below is an excerpt from an email sent onto the ultra-list a few years ago now.  This is an edited version of the original post which I have prominently positioned in my work cube and on a wall at home. I try to at least look at it daily. Hope you find something worth remembering in the words:

you all know about the comfort zone.
that's where most ultras take place.
running ultras is all about staying in the comfort zone.
all our strategies revolve around staying in the comfort zone.
all our advice is about staying in the comfort zone;

"start slow"
"walk every uphill"
"dont take any chances"

for all the talk about exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, ultrarunners tend to play it safe.
they line up "challenges" they know they can finish.
and run them carefully well within their "limits".
we believe that success is never failing.

…success is about over-reaching our abilities, and living to tell about it.
sometimes success is getting your ass out alive.

true success is not the absence of failure,
it is the refusal to surrender.

you have to go too fast (you might blow up)
you have to get too little rest (you may break down)
and you have to start laps you might not finish (with or without making mistakes).

lots of people got it. those people started loops they couldnt finish.
they ran out of time. they got lost.
they tried to do something beyond their abilities and they did not succeed.

but they were not defeated. just knocked down.
(maybe fed a dose of humility)
they explored the twighlight zone and came back winners.
they got their ass in and then got it back out alive.

some people didnt "get it". they ran carefully within their abilities.
and never opened their map with doubt in their mind (and fear in their hearts).
they stopped in camp never starting that loop that could end up in hell.
or turned back before entering that section they might not complete.

they were not exactly defeated.
they just gave up.
surrounded by the opportunity to stretch & grow
to explore the "out there" they were afraid (in the end) to venture out of the comfort zone
and into the twighlight zone.
i was never a particularly talented ultrarunner.
i was not fast. i was not tough.
still i am proud of having achieved sub-24
at ultra-running's bellweather 100 mile distance.

i am prouder to have tried for sub-20...and fallen short.
running 80 miles at sub-20 pace and then blowing up
felt a lot more honorable than running carefully and breaking 24.
i learned more about myself. and grew more as an athlete and a person.

you dont have to go to [ultra-marathons] to "get it".
"it" is nothing more than putting something on the line
taking a chance and trying to do something you do not know for certain you can do.

there is no success if failure is not in the mix.

-Excerpted from a note posted on the ultra-list by Lazarus Lake