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Monday, October 20, 2014

John Muir Trail 2014 - Perspective

I have nearly forgotten; forgotten the pain, the utter fatigue. I have nearly forgotten how intensely I wanted to quit hiking, set down my backpack, be done with the adventure.

And could not.  I couldn't quit hiking any more than the salmon can look at the thundering rapids and turn back to the sea, or the deer disregard his flight from a hungry pack of wolves.  The salmon must go on; the deer, surely must go on.  I also had to go on, committed to a course in which the impossibility of abandon was suffocating.  Possibly it was only the tissue thin air we gasped and sucked that gave the sense of suffocation, or the confinement of another night inside a sleeping bag that made the vastness of the Sierra Nevada mountains seem confining.  More likely it was the fact that we were in nearly every sense - trapped.  We walked about inside one of the most spectacular confinements in the continental United States.  Eleven, twelve, and thirteen thousand foot walls surrounded us.  More than that, I had committed to a course, the abandonment of which would be infamous and humiliating. The irony was ever-present - we had gone there to "get away."

We were on day 4 of a rather optimistic trek along the northern two thirds of the acclaimed John Muir Trail (JMT).  Chris and I had left behind our 3 companions, Matt, Grayson and Jake, only hours before and were already reconsidering the wisdom of our plan - to reduce an 11 day journey (optimistic in itself by many standards) by 3 days and hike from Toulomne Meadows in Yosemite to Bishop, over Bishop pass, in 8 days.  We  had heard of people fast packing the entire trail in under a week, and even running it in a handful of days - so why couldn't Chris and I hike a mere 127 miles of it in 8 days?

The journey had officially started on Monday morning, July 7, 2014.  Sunday had been a whirlwind logistical adventure that began with packing in the hushed blackness of San Francisco's East Bay. We had caravaned over Sonora pass to deposit 2 vehicles near Bishop at the far side of Bishop Pass, then shuttled our 5 man party in a third vehicle to Toulomne Meadows where we set up tents, ate at the fabulous Toulomne Meadows Restaurant (where we chatted with 3 crunchy though charming ladies - long time veterans of the Yosemite High Sierra Camp circuit), and finally crawled into sleeping bags for the first of many long quiet nights under the stars.

Monday dawned brilliant and humid, then stayed humid and clouded over for the 15 mile climb along lazily meandering Lyell Creek, through Lyell Canyon, and over snow-specked Donohue Pass.   The Lyell Glacier leered from around a monolith to the southwest as we summited the boulder strewn pass.  Curtains of rain drifted slowly and fell softly across our path as we descended the far side. We set up camp under re-emerging filtered rays of a golden sun backing into the west, and rose happily with it again on Tuesday morning.

Tuesday, we experienced Thousand Island Lake.  You do not merely see this lake - you experience it.  Imposing Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter presiding over the panorama are jaw dropping as reflected in the island studded cobalt mirror.  Descending toward it from Thousand Island pass, the lake slowly emerges from the valley, and refuses any other focal point to the powerless observer.  We added a dip in its 50 degree glacial fed waters to the experience.

 Trickling into camp like the drought parched streams we crossed, our wearied company stopped for the night at Rosalie Lake, where we enjoyed our first camp fire and feasted on Mountain House meals augmented by the remaining stock of cheeses and fresh bread that Chris had been mysteriously and generously metering out for the last 3 days.  It was almost miraculous to see gourmet cheeses and loaves materialize alongside freeze dried rations, but alas, his immense pack and generosity would cost him more than he had anticipated.

With clean clothes and good rest we donned packs Wednesday morning.  This would prove to be the first in a series of trying days.  Chris's troubles began in earnest this day.  Before lunch, he and I side-tracked to the top of Devils' Postpile, where his pace had noticeably slowed, before regrouping at Red's Meadow. To this remote spur on the edge of western civilization, we had each mailed ourselves a re-supply of food.  We re-packed alongside shabby, ragged, Mexico-to-Canada Pacific Crest Trail hikers bearing trail names such as Prometheus, Giggles, and other alarmingly appropriate monikers, scavenging the castoff supplies and rations of we who had overestimated.  We willingly donated a fair amount of food to the tribe, having literally weighed the benefits of extra food against the burden of added pounds.

The trail from Red's Meadow followed what must have at one time been a shady, gradual climb in the company of sweetly aromatic Jefferson pines and shimmering aspens.  But the 5 of us soldiered up a dusty parched trail with only the periodic shade of blackened trunks, and the buzz of bees busy among the wildflowers - remnants of a recent devastating fire which had altered the one-time forest into a paradoxical meadow of brilliant flowers and mangled charred stumps.  Matt had been sick at Red's Meadow adding anxiety to fatigue, and we all regretted the increased weight of restocked packs and 3 straight days of hard hiking. We had no campfire where we collapsed along Deer Creek.  Our feet grew numb soaking in the water, where I saw Chris's dilemma for the first time.  His feet had taken a beating.

Uncomplaining, Chris had hiked for these 3 days in a practically new pair of untried trail shoes.  It was a mistake that he readily conceded and the gravity of which was only beginning to manifest.

Thursday, Day 4, we all agreed that Chris and I, who were both expected back in civilization by Monday, must accelerate away from the group today.  Multiple recalculations had demonstrated that leaving any later in the week would make for some prohibitively difficult and long hikes in order for Chris and I to emerge on time.  Outside of man hugs and hand shakes, no one showed emotion as we separated, but all felt the loss.  

Twenty-four miles Chris and I hiked that day, up and over Silver pass ending in Quail Meadow.  It rained on and off all day, and the clouds growled with thunder as we skirted the Hans Brinker-like fantastical Silver Lake.  At the top of the pass Chris half jested of bailing out early, and on the descent, suffering from his feet, he grew morose.  This was a new side of Chris.  I had never seen my friend demoralized.  It was curiously infectious.  My journal that night records "I certainly hope we can continue," but admits later, "I am really missing my family."  I was not altogether opposed to finding an early exit.  Leaving  behind my wife, 2 daughters, and 2 month old son was proving more lonely than I had imagined.

Yet my truest emotion was frustration verging on anger.  I had relied on Chris's bravado and charisma on many adventures to pull me through the tougher sections.  His drive and stamina are legendary.  I had been struggling all day with my own willingness to press on - as if we really had any choice - resisting twinges of melancholy, depending on his positive energy to buoy my spirits. I have often relied on his encouragement and now felt he had failed me.  When I needed a boost - in the middle of an epic adventure - he was flagging.  I knew it was my turn to carry the torch, and through valiant effort maintained a feeble flame. But still I was angry - he had a reason to quit - and I had none.  Quitting was an option now arguing for a hearing, and I chastised myself, ashamed of having given it legitimacy.

There are a handful of difficult exits along the trail.  All of them might include long hikes to out-of-the-way places, climbing mountain passes, ferrying lakes, hitchhiking, or all of the above.  All of them include fewer miles of walking.  All of them included failing our objective.  When Chris began to question the moral significance of quitting - I knew he was in trouble.  My only hope was that quitting was likely to be nearly as difficult in every way as pressing on - yet with one exception - there would likely be less walking.  It was misery just watching him walk.  We pitched tents and turned in undecided.

We woke on Friday to clearing skies and the sound of cascading water.  Climbing out of a tent in the middle of the wilderness is like being born with the capacity to appreciate.  Everything is new.  New sky.  New birds singing.  New smell of damp soil.  New hopes.  We reopened his map and made comparisons to my elevation profile.  We recalculated again.  And then recalculated another time.  It appeared possible to make it to our waiting car in 2 more days of hard hiking, rather than 4.  Our hopes climbed with the sun and we set off rejuvenated toward Selden Pass and an amazing Saturday night exit.  Only one more night in a sleeping bag - was our mistaken hope.  The gloss of a new day and thin air had somehow skewed our calculations and logic.  But once the decision was made, although we had miscalculated and wouldn't realize our mistake till late in the day, the decision to press on had set precedent.  I felt we would prevail.

I was now the one metering out rations.  Chris's bread and cheese were long gone - replaced by 2 ibuprofen every 4 hours.  Chris's feet had become pitiable.  The assortment of blisters were manageable, he claimed, but the arch was badly wrong.  I had accidentally dumped a copious pile of generic ibuprofen into a Ziploc bag back at home nearly a week earlier.  Rather than digging them out, I zipped the bag and tossed it into my backpack.  The accident had turned me into a pharmacy.  Every 4 hours I was passing out the drug to my friend.  The medication, he claimed, made the hiking tolerable.  I dared not count the pills - we just pressed on.

We re-opened the maps at the top of Selden Pass.  Mountain passes are great for reflection and congratulation, for high spirits and bravado, for relief from mosquitoes and fighting off hungry marmots.  We recalculated our progress once again and the bravado instantly deflated.  We re-recalculated.  Impossible.  We had to finish the second half of this 28 mile day, and then still had 36 miles and 2 mountain passes to go.  Re-calculate.  64 miles and 3 passes in 2 days - on severely inflamed feet. Impossible.

The blow to our morale was palatable.  We hiked in silence.  Chris started using my trekking poles to take weight off his feet.  It helped.  We grasped at hope again and began imagining scenarios that would still get us out the next day.  Hike into the night?  Get up early and hike - sleep in the afternoon - then hike all night Saturday?  36 miles.  We were hiking downhill at the time and the trail was easy - bravado roared back.  Then so did the pain.  Not just for Chris, but for me too.  I was weary and started dipping into the Ziploc bag.  Misery not only loves company, it silently corrupts it.  This was our second day of what was rapidly becoming a forced march - 50 miles in those 2 days.  Our optimism rose and fell in inverse to the grade.

Impending darkness made selecting a campsite an urgent undertaking.  The last climb was a breathtakingly beautiful ascent up Evolution Creek.  As at other times, the beauty briefly overwhelmed any pain or fatigue.  The golden rays of a sleepy sun seemed to curve up the canyon selecting this tree, and that rock to paint in late afternoon brilliance.  A western peak then extinguished the orb, and all hung misty in anticipation of darkness.  We had to stop.  My journal records it best.

"26 [miles] today was hard, 36 seems impossible. We rolled into camp at the entrance to Evolution Valley around 8:30pm. I got clean in the river before dark, but that was all."  Here, fatigue claimed another victim.  As we retired the following night, Saturday, I recalled, "I fell asleep writing last night.  That was a very discouraging and hard day."

Saturday held the long anticipated Muir Pass.  We rose slowly and hiked even more so.  We lingered along the beguiling river taking pictures, hopping around on rocks, and looking over waterfalls.  Time refused to wait.  Our only river fording was on this ascent, and we again spent generously from our limited supply of time wading in the cool water.  Because time refused to wait, we pressed on.

Hours of slow climbing passed. Running out of oxygen and water, I called for a rest alongside an unnamed lake below Muir Pass.  The emerald velvet tundra grass was seductive.  It was a deception.  Stubble and spines pierced my thin shirt as I reclined in uncomfortable indecision.  Lay at rest, or sit on a rock?  I found a rock big enough to lie down on in fitful compromise.  The pass was still 700 feet above us and the sun was already in retreat.  Weakened by fatigue, I soon rose to collect water: dubious of the need to filter crystal clear ice water; seduced by it's evident purity.  I recalled the velvet deception and kept filtering.

The descent from Muir Pass was intoxicating.  Lack of oxygen and the ease of descending were liquor to our state of mind.  I said something profound (I don't recall now what it was) and Chris made me repeat it for the video camera.  I had run the final half mile and 400' of elevation to the top of the pass, tapping an unrealized reservoir.  I hooted and howled as I ran around the Muir Hut, shouts echoing from the adjacent peaks.  The high followed us down the trail and with it the tantalizing possibility of hiking through the night.  Bishop Pass, our 12 mile exit, still loomed ahead, but we were manic charismatics staggering down the twisting trail, the arduous ascent of a 12,000 foot mountain pass rapidly shrinking into the queue of repressed memories, corralled till weakness, self preservation, pain, or fear would summon them out of the darkness.

The pain of descending for 4 hours summoned those memories.   The pounding descent had stifled our capricious early enthusiasm.  We crossed a wood bridge and stared through the gloom up the final trail.  If we committed, the first possibility of a camp site was near the summit, 6 miles of difficult dark climbing away.  Chris declared it impossible considering the condition of his feet.  I was in no mood to argue.  We camped Saturday night at the base of Bishop pass.

The following day we rose early, only to find that we were in the company of many hikers attempting to beat the sun over the pass, each climbing at his own lonely pace.  I was exhausted and irritable at the pass.  Chris, in spite of the pain, had passed me near the summit, but was slow on the descent.  I could think of nothing but finding a phone to call my wife, "Baby, we're on our way home."  Then, just as strange as Gouda cheese showing up in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, we emerged from the rocks and trees, started a gasoline engine and headed for home.

How is it that 3 months later, the emotions I recalled and recorded in my journal no longer have any effect on me?  How can I look fondly back and longingly forward to backpacking the John Muir Trail?  What I record above is as accurate an account of my emotions as possible.  It is idiomatic when we say that no woman would choose to have another child if she really remembered the pain of childbirth. Similarly, I have forgotten the labor of literal marathon days, freeze dried meals prepared in the dark, and a blister on my heel the size of a quarter.  All I now remember is what I can see in the guileless pictures we took along the way, and the blurred highlights of what we managed to accomplish in only 7 days.

 This is not a travelogue or tale of undaunted courage.  This is a true account of our audacity and disposition during a long week of hiking the John Muir Trail.  Honest accounts of difficult journeys are hard to find, so I chose to provide one here.  This was our experience - no point in regret and no need for mendacity.  Our adventure was not heroic, nor unique; rather, a bit manic depressive as I think back on it.  But just possibly it is a small analogy for life.  I have forgotten the pain.  I hope Chris has too, because I will return, and wouldn't go back without him.

Psalm 139
Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
When I awake, I am still with You.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Means to an End

As I was riding my bike the other day, it occurred to me that there are many good reasons for one to be a cyclist, but if cycling is among them, then that one should quit.  Save the money and road rash, and just quit now.  You should not be riding your bike or running because you have convinced yourself and the world that you are a cyclist or a runner.  This probably holds true for most pastimes, but I can certainly speak firsthand about those two.

Hobbies, sports, projects: They often get started as a means to an end.  I'm bored.  I'm overweight.  I'm interested. I'm lonely.  And then you're not bored, overweight, or interested, or lonely anymore.  Except now you own all of that gear, have friends in the sport, and have added another layer to your conscience.

I find myself in that position periodically, and realize it's time to give the sport or pastime a break.  And that's what I did with cycling after I crashed twice in 48 hours.  Ok, so the crashes might have had something to do with it too.

So 6 months later, my first ride back on the road bike was going well.  I rolled through the accident scene without event - the scene of my first of the two.  I'll admit, I breathed a little easier when I passed that intersection at the bottom of Shell Avenue and made the left onto Alhambra without any new road rash.

The importance of this ride weighed heavy on me.  I'd still been running and mountain biking, but getting back on the road bike was, in a psychological sense, monumental.

But my psychological malfunctions are not the point of this article.  Let's ride a little further up the road.

I was climbing away from Highway 4 on Cummings Skyway with the wind in my face and the long familiar burn creeping into my quads.  As on the last long burn climb, I was debating whether this was a training ride or an, "I'm just out for a ride," ride.

The weather literally could not have been more pleasant.  The breeze out of the southwest was mild as was the air temperature, around 75 degrees.  The sun shone unabated from a cloudless sky.  I would say that the birds where chirping happily and the tall grass waved as if a golden tide was coming in - but I can't, because I don't really recall any birds and I didn't notice what the grass on the surrounding hills was doing.  But those things were not unlikely.

What I do recall was the guilty feeling that arose from the mediocre effort I was putting into my ride.  I was reasoning that since I had been off the bike for so long, it only made sense to ride hard and make up for lost time.  But on the other hand, since I had been off the bike for so long, it only made sense to take it easy for a few rides.  This was, alas, typical of the ridiculous debates that we, who spend a little too much time alone with the wind in our faces, tend to have with ourselves.  It probably tends toward insanity, but I tell myself that it's a healthy sort of insanity.

Unable to arrive at a decision between low gear or high, I continued up the Skyway at a moderate pace - possibly listening to the birds and smelling the sweet licorice scent of the wind as it caressed the hillsides.  Then I almost ran over a monster dragonfly, upside down on the shoulder of the road.  The debate raged into the fore again: To ride back and check out the large green bug, or soldier on.

The previous afternoon I had passed the baby's room en route to the laundry room and had stopped for a moment to listen in on a science lesson being taught by my 11-year-old daughter.  In attendance were the neighbor's little girl, and our 4-year-old daughter.  My audit of the course made a total of 3 plus the teacher.  The subject that day was bugs, and the textbook was the large bug book my daughter had picked up and devoured some years ago.  Dragonflies had been chosen, and I recall listening with interest as the structure of eyes, wings, and legs was discussed in remarkable detail.  I recalled this as I pushed on up the hill.

Back there on the asphalt lay a sublime specimen, and I was worried that my VO2 max might get annoyed, or that my lactate threshold might do whatever lactate thresholds do when you're not paying attention to them. I made a decision, looked for traffic, and made the U turn taking 2 lanes and the better part of a shoulder to do it.

A few cars whizzed by as I stood pondering my Insecta, Odonata, Anisoptera.  It still lay at my feet, because it wasn't yet deceased, and I was at an impasse again.  Finish him off?  Pick him up still flapping and wriggling?

Now that I had done the damage to my VO2 max and altered my lactate threshold I was, in a way, committed to follow through, but hesitated to just scoop him up.  Did that book say anything about stingers in that long pointy rear end?  And there he lay, upside down, beating his wings and trying to fly.

I felt it my duty to first attempt a rescue, so gently and carefully, I toed him and flipped him in an attempt to set him at liberty.  He flopped onto his feet and I watched as he continued to beat the pavement and make no progress - other than to catapult himself upside down again several feet down the road.  It became clear that since he could not be saved, my purpose to deliver him up to the pursuit of scientific knowledge was just.  But how?

I thought about him beating around in my back jersey pockets for the next hour and cringed.  My small saddle bag was already packed with a tire, tube, and a handful of tools.  I looked around and again considered letting him stay right there.  I spied my water bottle, and there it was - the solution.  I swallowed the last half of the water in the bottle and then shook out as much residue as I could manage.

The critter's wing span was greater than the opening of my bottle, so it took a bit of work to nudge him into the damp cavern.  I used the bottle lid to push while scooping with the bottle - avoiding if possible breaking any legs or wings.  After several failed attempts, unaided by a stiffening breeze, he finally skittered down to bottom of the bottle.  Safe.  And the dragonfly would be safe in there too.

I rode away very pleased with my decision, and resolved to remember to not drink from that water bottle.  The dragonfly's reception into the halls of learning was appropriate for an insect of such majestic quality.  The bug book re-emerged and the previous day's lesson began again - this time with a half-dead visual aid.
(The bug was full dead within a few hours - in spite of the best medical treatment our ad hoc medical facility had to offer.)

A few weeks later a large yellow and black butterfly found a spot in my hydration pack, and was similarly embraced at the completion of my run.  The windshield that had intersected with this insect's flight path had been more efficient, and had left this specimen in a sufficient state of demise to permit my handling of him with my fingers.

So has my purpose for running and cycling transitioned from my fitness and health to entomology?  No, not exactly.    But I have realized that I only enjoy these activities as they serve me in the capacity of a means to an end.  As I climbed that hill and chided myself for not riding faster, I realized the foolishness of it.  I was pushing myself, to ride better, so that I could ride more, and perpetuate the cycle.  To what end?  Cycling to be a better cyclist - was that it?  Hardly justifiable.  But, in turning around and lifting a prize dragonfly from the shoulder, I snatched purpose from an otherwise meaningless ride.

There are many great reasons to be a runner or a cyclist - but if running and cycling are the reason - then I should quit.  That day's ride was a short one, but it was long enough for me to begin applying this concept to other aspects of my life.  What other burn-out might I be risking by treating as an end in themselves, things that should actually be the means to a greater end?  It didn't take me long to think of a few.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Live from Arizona

Bec, Dawsen, and I are pretty much stuck here in Arizona until the adoption paperwork is approved by the State of California.

So in the meantime I've been exploring the local urban desert.  The trails are quite well used, since this section of desert is easily accessible to a little over 3 million people.  I haven't seen quite that many folks out on the trails, but you certainly aren't likely to die and get picked to nothing by buzzards before someone finds you.

The trails are rocky and loose, unlike the hard packed earth trails that cross the Bay Area hills.  Some of the way, the trails are several inches deep with large, jagged, flat stones - the size of a shoe and smaller - which crunch and shift as you plow through them.  Other areas are stepped with jagged rocks that make me wince at just the thought of taking a tumble.  The herds of cows that thrashed the soft Bay Area trails in the winter rains, adequately prepared my ankles and coordination for this little adventure.

I'm forced to stop and look around periodically to fully appreciate the grand beauty of the place, since so much time is spent looking intently at the trail, the overhanging spiny branches, and specifically the next place to put my foot down, and the next, and repeat.

Every bush has thorns, or in some instances - is simply one thorn arrayed with other smaller thorns.  With so many opportunities to completely thrash the skin off your shins and elbows, it's amazing I have successfully finished 5 hours of running over 3 routes with no more than a few scratches on my shoulders.

The distances are deceiving.  The mountains can look so close at times, and at other times, impossibly far away.  The first day, I decided to run to the top of the nearest peak and then head home, since it was soon to be dark.  I was at the top, down the other side and back to the condo far sooner than I had hoped - an hour run was cut short to 40 minutes for lack of adequate optimism. So the next run included that peak, and then the next one across the valley - a brilliant morning run that landed me back at the condo in perfect timing.

For my third foray into this urban desert I headed east, rather than west toward the now familiar mountains.  My goal was the mountain the locals refer to as "Squaw."  Here my optimism took full control.  I had made it just over half way to the base of the mountain, and due to my lack of familiarity with and lack of a portable map of the area, I had headed toward the wrong summit.  I chanced on a lady hiking who turned my attention from the nearby hill to the towering peak across the next valley.
     "That's what you're looking for," she said.  And then added, "Don't get lost - lots of people do," as I reversed my course to pick up the main trail again.

I crossed the valley, jogged through a tunnel under the highway, and soon arrived at a visitor center and a spiderweb of trails which circled, climbed, and in no apparent logical way crossed and re-crossed the mountain.  I was running out of time, as I could only be out for just over 2 hours, so I got directions to the top from several different hikers, each a variation on the same theme - It's still a long way away.

Looking east toward "Squaw"
Looking west from the foothills of "Squaw"
Both pictures were taken within 20 minutes of each other, with a stop for water and directions in between.  It's amazing how much ground you can cover in just a few minutes of running.

Having now approached the foothills of the mountain, I could no longer see the summit beyond the nearby peaks - bad for morale - and the impossibility of my objective was settling in, so I headed up to cross the first ridge and call it a turn around point.  I made it back to the condo in the allotted 2 hours, but I fell 3 miles and about 1000 vertical feet short of my objective.

If they don't hurry up and get us out of here and headed home, I'll be forced to go attempt Squaw one more time - this time with 3 hours free.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Morning Run

Annotated Photos of a Sunday Morning Run

Very gray morning.  Started dark and got light - like most mornings.  

Look close at the middle of the picture and see the next hill.  It looks like a wall beyond the end of the near trail.  It is a wall.  The section of trail in the foreground is already climbing steeply, but the wall must be well over 20%.  Good for the lungs and quads.  My legs were toast after the Mt. Diablo 50k last weekend and sick for 2 days last week.  Made me work for the hills.

This is a sample of the trails.  The cows obliterate the trails when it's wet, and leave no flat surface larger than the palm of your hand.  This makes running interesting.  I forgot to take a picture of one of the bad sections, so took a picture of this area instead.  No twisted ankles - yet.  If you want to strengthen your ankles - this is where to run.

Cute calf.  I actually thought it was a dog at first.

So many wildflowers right now.  Poppies are past the prime, but these yellow flowers are everywhere.  I just missed the picture of a Redwinged Blackbird on a stalk.  You'll have to imagine.

Perspective.  I ran 15 miles, so I covered a lot of ground.  I was on the far side of the distant hills when I took the top picture.  I'm on my way back down into the intervening valley and back up - after shooting this one.  That is sunlight slanting onto those hills - my only look at the sun for that run.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

2014 Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge - 50K

     I stopped posting to this blog over a month ago.  Nothing new in that - logging off for a month at a time has been part of my style in the last few years.  I've had to face the fact that my day only has 24 hours, and a small fraction of those must be spent sleeping.  The other 18 or so must be split between a list of elective and non-elective events, similar no doubt to the list that you have compiled, prioritized (or triaged - you know those days), and failed to execute as often as I.

     But, that is not why I stopped posting to this blog.  I stopped posting to this blog, because I was tired of the regular updates about my foot and the recovery process.  I was up one week, and then down the next 2.
     At the end of February, I was settling into my training for the Mt. Diablo 50k, after sitting out the entire fall and most of the winter with my torn (my diagnosis) Plantar Fascia.  In spite of the pain, the training clock was running.

     I don't even recall what the day was, but I was hoping for a 24 - 26 mile training run.  After 15 miles and a clenched fist full of tough climbs and excruciating descents I altered my plan in duress, navigating down trails that would cut the route and head me toward home.  My foot was screaming, both knees were aching from landing wrong on my hobbling stride; I was crippling myself in real-time.

     I called Bec to complain, but she was away from the phone and didn't pick up.  When she called back I was hurting, angry, disappointed, despondent, and the list goes on.  I asked her to come pick me up.  Never had I made this request before, it was lame, I was done.  Done with training for this blasted race; done with running through pain; done with exposing myself in the stupid blog.  She found me a half mile from home - and I took the humiliating ride because it hurt that bad.

     I sat out for 2 weeks.  I was so angry after that run, that I didn't ice, didn't elevate, didn't compress, didn't do anything that would help me heal from a rather brutal beating.  I paid for it over the next few days, and then pulled myself together to start treating the injuries properly.  The rest and treatment paid off.

     A longing to run began to return.  I'm a runner.  I can't not run.  Just over 1 month ago, after sitting out for those 2 weeks, I headed out for what would be a pivotal run.  I ran a familiar route from the house, over the Shell Avenue hill, and up a staggeringly steep fire road behind Alhambra High School.  I was winded at the top. Two weeks had sucked a little life out of my cardio. I paused and looked around to take in the ever-changing beauty of the spring hillsides, then stopped the music and pulled out the earphones as a realization overshadowed me like one of those huge puffy clouds passing in front of a mid-day sun - my foot wasn't hurting.  No pain, at all.

     I twisted my foot about and stomped it a couple times, then started talking to God.  See, He and I chat a lot on these runs.  This was going to be a quick, one-sided chat, but a very poignant one for me.

     "God," I began.

     I knew I had his attention, but I feel it's always good to start off a conversation with unseen beings by addressing them by name.  It helps bystanders.

     "God, thank you, so much, for the opportunity to run.  And, more than that, thank you that I'm up here right now - and my foot doesn't hurt."

     Understand that I have many conversations with God, and I don't like to be presumptuous as we chat.  I'm just little old me, and He's, well, God.  Keeps a person humble if they think on it very long.

     "I don't know what to say, other than thank you.  But, I have a bit of a dilemma here.  I have given up training for the 50k because of my foot.  I'm 4 weeks out from the race, and I'm not sure if I have enough time to get fit for a run that long - no less a race.  But here's what I propose.  If you keep me pain free (or pretty close) for the next 4 weeks, I will train hard to get as close to being prepared as I can.  If you bring back the pain, then I will back off and take it as your plan for me to sit this one out.  And - it's all good.  Whatever happens, it's good.  Your will - Your way"

     I had been vacillating for months between the facets of this decision.  When not in excruciating pain, I could imagine running the necessary distances to get back in shape.  I had been limping just to walk for the previous 5 months.  Actual training for this race was a shot in the dark at best, and only made possible by an overactive ambition.  I had paid for the insurance on my race registration when in a moment of immense optimism I had signed up for the race; I could get the $100 back if I needed to.  I ran in pain for many weeks before the fateful training run that I never finished.  Every run, and probably 7 times a week I asked myself or my wife if I was crazy to be training for this race.  Each time the answer was the same - probably.

     I paused to wait for a reply, yet the stillness was not split by a peal of thunder, nor the hillsides shaken by His voice.  I started the music.  I resumed running, and waited for the answer to play out.

     I upheld my end of the bargain.  I picked up my training as if I had never quit, as if I had been training for months, and the race was only 4 weeks away.  In competitive running and training lingo, this would be referred to as - Stupid.  My next 3 runs were flush with hills, and each over 20 miles.  I took one week to taper and my long run was 12 miles - a week before the race.  My foot was not hurting me on my runs; after the run and at other times, yes, I was doing a lot of treatment with anti-inflammatories and ice to manage the pain, but I could run over 25 miles without so much as a limp.

     Race day, Saturday 4/19/2014, I toed the line with 157 other runners, shivering in the cool dawn, crowding into patches of sunlight to stay warm.  A driving beat set to Braveheart style bagpipe music, pumped from the loudspeakers after the 10 second countdown.  A herd of half dressed humanity was unleashed on the Diablo foothills.

     My personal goal, 11 months ago, was to finish the 2014 50k in the top 10.  I have finished 15th and 19th in the past.  This morning I had modified that goal to simply - finish.

     My friend, Matt Fowler, had crushed me with kindness by offering, not only to drive me to the start so that Bec and the girls could sleep in, but also to meet me at mile 24 and pace me to the finish.  Having never run with a pacer, I was not prepared for the psychological boost it would provide.  Just having a friend to chat with, and someone to share my discomforts was liberating.  My last 7 miles had always been the worst.  Today they were my best.   I managed to move up several positions as I passed one racer after another - suffering just a little more than I was.

     Cramps were an issue at the half-way point and near the end, but nothing like in years past.  I consumed enough calories throughout the run to sustain the typical  human for several days and enough electrolytes to make the Dead Sea jealous, and drank several liters of colored liquid labeled innocuously as, "energy drink," though I suspect you could run your car on the stuff.

     The first year I ran this race my time was 6 hours: 29 minutes in the blazing heat; and 5 hours: 50 minutes last year.  Today - 6 hours: 6 minutes.  To say I'm pleased would be understatement.  With a minimum of training hours, I managed to run 31.1 miles in spectacular time.

    My place?  Well, not so spectacular.  The field was extremely competitive, and fulfilling my objective of finishing in the top 10 would have been - amazing.  As we were running up the first few hills, it became obvious that I was not ready to run with the big dogs, and a serenity settled over me as I reminded myself to "run my own race."  I was happy, but I was not amazing.  I finished in 34th place.

     In the time that I had finished 19th last year - 25 racers had already finished today.  10th place today came across the line in 5 hours and 13 minutes.

     I sit and smile to myself.  Could I have pulled 5:13 out of my running hat if I had trained all year as I had planned to?

     I sit and continue to smile.  The answer to that question is the answer to the "What if?" that has plagued the unfortunate for ages.  And yet I don't feel unfortunate.  I am blessed.  My God answered my prayer 4 weeks ago with His version of, "Sure, why not."

     Thanks.  I really enjoyed running today.  I sincerely appreciate it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Saturday I almost beat the sun to Briones peak.  I left the Mt. Wanda staging area on my bike in the dark, though a glow in the eastern sky indicated that the race was on.  I could leave in the middle of the night and sit atop the summit to gloat over my rival as it peeks over the horizon.  But that isn't sport - so I offer my competitor a minor handicap.   I sleep in a little.  
About 10 minutes from the summit - I'm not going to
make it in time...
But once I'm out of bed, the odds begin swinging rapidly in the sun's favor.  An extra minute spent looking for arm-warmers or low tire pressure can give the orb a distinct advantage.  Galileo may rest in peace, I understand that my solar rival is actually doing nothing at all, merely pouring energy into the ether as our planet rotates my little town and Briones Regional Park in its general direction.  I on the other hand, dogged by the passive inevitability of an inanimate rival, must  haul myself and a bike 1500' up and along rutted trails.  I sweat, while it simply shines.  The sky grows brighter the higher I climb, and on a good morning, the clouds ignite overhead with the radiant heat of the sun flaring across the local atmosphere.  If I time it just right, I reach the peak a few minutes before the sun does. Saturday I slept in about 5 minutes too long.

I don't relish riding the trails in complete darkness, even with my lights.  Let's just say that the rustling along the trail is easier to ignore when there's a little daylight.  The time between the sky's first glow giving at least a silhouette to the trees and the time of a visible sunrise varies across the seasons, but is generally enough time to get from the park entrance to the highest points in the park - If I hurry. 

This accomplishment is made simpler in the winter, since from the perspective of Briones Peak, the elevation of the eastern horizon is greater toward the south.  In the summer, the sun rises, albeit much earlier in the morning, to the north of Mt. Diablo where the horizon is lower and less obscured.  Toward the end of Autumn the sun is rising nearly right between the 2 peaks, and finally as winter sends the rising sun furthest to the south, the sun actually rises just south of the mountain after climbing the Diablo foothills.

But only from this vantage point...  Everything I've just described is only true as viewed from one place on earth - the summits of Briones Regional Park.

The following pictures were taken on Sunday morning on my 12 mile run through the Carquinez Strait Headlands.  You can see - though obscured by clouds along the horizon - that the sun is rising to the left or north of the mountain, while above in the pictures from Saturday, the sun rises to the right or south.
Looking East

Looking North-East 30 minutes later
This picture actually looks a little bit like winter.  By the end of my run on Sunday, the marine layer had moved in to completely obscure the sky, and the temperature actually seemed to drop as the morning dawned.  But no rain.  The drought continues.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Welcome Back

The sun was up before I reached Briones Peak - I felt somewhat disappointed.  The last quarter mile of trail up and over the top leads south-east so instead of seeing Mt. Diablo back-lit by the glowing embers of a new day, I was dazzled, stumbling blindly across the ridge.  Saturday dawned a warm morning for January, so by the time the sun was up, I was already sweating and feeling over-dressed.  It was 37 degrees when I drove away from the house, but after sweating up hills for an hour I found I had overdressed.  The tights were too much after a 5 mile run with 1000' of elevation gain, and I found shorts to be quite comfortable as I transitioned to the mountain bike.  I didn't regret the change.  Run, Bike, Sweat, Burn.  No rain in months and, alas, none in the forcast, so the trails are quite nice.  It got up to 70 degrees.

I think I can announce that I am officially running again.  So far so good anyway.  I've been experimenting with some short slow runs, and have been hesitant to make any bold statements.

With a hand-full of 5 mile runs and solid 9.5 mile run over the last couple weeks, I feel I may be back in the sport.  All the research I've perused regarding "coming back" from an injury reflects a cautious, slow, measured approach - in direct opposition to my inclination.  I'm all eagerness to be back running and the odds of me over-doing it are great.  My cardio is already there and my legs are catching up fast since I've been peddling away the miles during my recovery, and though my Plantar Fasciitis is still in slow retreat, the running doesn't seem to be affecting it one way or the other; all of which means that I'm likely to start running faster and further than I should - before I should.

With a little patience, in a few weeks all of the residual pain from the plantar fascia should be completely replaced with the standard assortment of hard earned sore muscles.

I can't remember where I said it - and it may have been here in this blog, I haven't gone back to check - but it came out so naturally that it surprised even me.  I was chatting with someone about my recovery and all the running I had missed, and frankly feeling a little morose.  My comment was, "I've missed a lot of sunrises."  And it has occurred to me that part of running, for me, is experiencing the raw natural world.  The sunrise is mine when I'm running.  The wildflowers are mine.  The startled deer and coyote are mine.  The scent of a sea breeze still hanging in the air on a foggy morning is mine.  I share them with God alone.  I've missed those times of running through His garden with Him.  Sometimes we chat, but most times we just run along together enjoying each other's company.  I think Saturday morning in that dazzling burst he said, "Welcome back."

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Movie

I haven't made a movie in a long time. All of the good movie makers cost money, and the ones that come free with windows are frustrating at best.  But, I've put together a very simple one of today's ride.

My in-laws gave me a small video recorder for Christmas and today it got its first bike ride.  I will make a handful of adjustments in the future, but here's a sample of the first attempt.

You will be watching my descent from Table Top, just east of Briones Peak, heading north down Spengler trail.  I would have inserted some sort of cartoonish whapping noise when the branch hits me in the head, but alas, I only get one audio track at a time... See paragraph 1 above.