Friday, May 29, 2015

The Original Tough Mudder...Superior Spring Races

"If  you want to have the time of your life....change how you use the time in your life." Tim Fargo

Running and racing on the Superior Hiking Trail is something that is very special to me.  For every summer of my life, except one, I have ridden or driven along highway 61 North to our cabin.  Highway 61 follows the curve of Lake Superior to Grand Marais and beyond.  But it's that stretch from Duluth to Grand Marais that is so special.
In those car rides I would stare out the window, either into the woods or at the lake, music pumping through my headphones imagining running, jumping over the rocks up and down the hills.  Sometimes running, sometimes riding a horse (always wanted to be a cowboy) and imagining what I would find in the woods.
As I've gotten older I have had the chance to explore those trails via running and hiking and they have lived up to and exceeded my childhood imagination.
Running the Superior 100 last fall was amazing, to be able to experience that with my family and friends was really special, but this would be different.  This time instead of trying to survive I wanted to helped that it was a much shorter race and I felt in pretty good shape in the week leading up to it.
Ali and I were fresh off 7 days in Zion spent hiking up and down the Canyon plus I had an early season 50K under my belt on a much easier and less technical course where I cracked the 5 hour mark.
But a few days out from Superior I felt a twinge in my hamstring and wasn't sure how it would hold up, add to that 4 days of pouring rain had turned the course into a mud pit and I was worried how my hamstring would respond.
 I treated it as best I could and on that Friday we headed North & wished for the best.
This race would be different from others in that Ali was going to run the 25K, her longest race to date.  Last fall she ran the Surly Trail Half-Marathon and like me, fell in love with trail running, and after hiking the SHT and pacing me last fall she wanted to take on this challenge. 

We made it to the Cliff Dweller around 11pm Friday, set our alarms for 5am and crashed to the sound of Lake Superior blasting the shore below our window.
I woke up juiced the next morning, sun was shining and while it was a chilly 40 degrees and there was fog over the lake it was shaping up to be a good one.
My race started at 7am so Ali dropped me off then went back to pack up her stuff & get ready for the 9am 25K start.
I took off feeling good, it was chilly, and I decided to bring just a handheld bottle despite aid stations being as far apart as 7.5 miles.  John Storkamp, the race director, told us that when we encountered mud to plow right through the middle, don't try to widen the path.  Well shortly after leaving the pavement we hit mud, and jumped right in.  
The start was slow, a long train of people making their way up hill through the mud.  I got a little frustrated, wanting to push it but kept telling myself to be patient.  I fell into a group of people and we started chatting about different races we'd run, running documentaries we'd seen and books we'd read.  It made the miles fly by and suddenly we were at the first aid station.  I turned to a woman in the group and said 'Where was that massive hill I remember from the 100?' she said I think you just went down it...seemed so much bigger going the other way (and it was as I'd find out later)
In the 25K this is the aid station where you turn around and head back so I was thinking about everything Ali would have to deal with in her race and hoping she would find people to run with to make it fly by like I did.
I left the aid station with Nicole, we carried on chatting for a while before I decided I felt pretty good and my hammy was holding up.  I pushed on ahead and with the sun now warm on my back wondered if I could get after it the rest of the way.
I was 10 miles in when I pushed ahead, slopped through the mud pushing all the time leading into the next aid station.  I grabbed a few fig newtons, filled my bottle and took off up Carlton peak.  
During the 100, we came down Carlton this way right after my blisters blew.  I don't remember much of it as I was in a ton of pain.  I had flashbacks at the aid station of taking off my shoes and the medical woman recoiling at the sight of them covered in blood, and saying 'Nothing we can do for them...'
This time around I was pushing up the hill, and I wanted to redefine my idea of what was runnable and what wasn't.  
If I could see the top of the hill it was runnable, if it wasn't switchbacks, it was runnable.  This stretch was a long, gradual uphill so I kept pushing finally scrambling to the top where a guy dressed like Daniel Boone was standing.  He was the turnaround point for the 50K.
As I made my way up to the top he said 'John I just opened this for you' (my name was on my race bib) it was ice cold New Castle beer.  I took a swing, ran around him and looked at my watch 308...
On our way up North we stopped and had dinner with my buddy Mitch who ran the 50K a few years back & was doing the 25K this year.  He ran the 50K in 630 while battling a knee issue.  He said I could probably get it done in 6 hours.  So with 308 out I wondered...could I get back in 6 hours?
I pounded down Carlton peak, leaping over rocks, sliding through the mud in my mind saying 'let your body flow over the trail' I hit the wooden bridges slowing down so as not to slip on their wet surfaces, looking to make up as much time on this downhill as I could. 

Hitting the aid station I realized I was out of Nunn and would be drinking just water the rest of the way.  It was warm now so I took a salt tab too and put down a few more fig newtons and took off.
The thing that frustrated me so much during this stretch of the 100 was how runnable it was but at the time my feet were ground beef and I just couldn't run it, not even really a shuffle.
This time around though I could run and pushed myself through.  I literally threw myself at the huge swathes of mud skating to the other side, sometimes stepping down in spots where the mud came up to my knees.
I knew there was one solid uphill in this stretch that I would need to walk so I vowed to run until I got to it, passing a number of people along the way.  Finally I came to it and used it as recovery before pushing once again when I reached the top.
During this stretch my mind was blank just repeating my flow over the trails phrase, my eyes so dialed in on the trail a few steps ahead to keep myself upright.
I hit the last aid station and looked at my watch, there might be a chance I could catch Ali who started 2 hours behind me.  We originally pegged her finishing around 4 hours so I grabbed a sandwich and headed out. 
As I walked towards the trail letting my food digest an aid worker said 'You can make up a lot of time over the first few miles' so I took off wanting to catch Ali and maybe finish together.
During the 100 this stretch was with Paul and Alex, and it was hard...really hard.  This time though I ran up the gradual climb again redefining what was runnable, pushing to make up that time until I hit the mountain... 

The giant hill I didn't notice on the way out was there on the way back...I pushed my knees down with my hands, huffed and puffed power hiking to the top (Great quote from the 100 on this hill.  Alex said 'You're almost there' to which I replied 'Except that I'm NOT!')
I knew at the top there would be some flat ridge running before dropping down and going back up a long set of switchbacks. 
I pushed on the top until I felt a cramp coming on.  Being out of Nunn and low on water I went to grab a salt pill when I suddenly found myself on the ground.  Took my eyes off the trail for one second and BAM down I went.  I was fine, a little sore, but mostly bummed that I had lost all but two of my remaining salt pills.  I got up, brushed off, took one and took off.
In the distance I kept seeing women in shirts similar to the color that Ali was wearing so I'd take off, pushing to try and catch her only to find out it wasn't her.
If she was going to finish in the 4 hour range I was close.  So I kept pushing, floating down hills, feet skipping just over the rocks and roots, mind blank with my goal of catching Ali.
More mud, sloppy after 50K and 25K runners had gone through it.  I laughed watching people trying to go around and sneak past while I just jumped right in and plowed through getting mud on my face and all over my clothes.
I put my head down to power hike the switchbacks where during the 100 I had seen bags of flour littering the trail as my mind began to desert me.  I huffed and puffed and started wondering if I was part canine cooling myself through panting.
Hitting the top I could hear the finish line but knew there was a long way to go.  Again I pushed, passing more people, totally surrendering to the trail and letting it carry me down.
Finally I could hear the rushing of the river and knew I was getting close.  I hadn't caught Ali, I hoped she had a great day, and in the back of my mind feared something happened & she had to pull out. 

Over the bridge and back on pavement, during the 100 Paul, Alex & I strolled thinking we were pretty much done but it's still a ways away.
Cramps started to hit me, I slowed a bit, they left I pushed again, had a shot to get under 6 hours.  Saw the final stretch, pushed down the hill, tight turn around the pool and right through the finish line, hearing them mispronounce my name above the din.

There was Ali, she'd had a good day & just like at the 100 we shared another finish line kiss here.  The smile on her face lit up the whole place.  She was so excited, I felt bad I hadn't been there at the finish but was so glad she had as much fun as I did. 

Ali had a great day finishing in 3:30 while I was able to crack 6 a few seconds finishing in 5:59, and if we get some lottery luck we'll be back next year.

*Many photos courtesy of Mike Wheeler & Rock Steady Running*

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started & know the place for the first time." TS Elliot

After missing the airport shuttle, dealing with a surly cab driver, fighting the rental car company (and ending up in a 'Mid-Size Nissan Versa' with no power windows or locks) driving hours through the rain, and a soggy sleep at the bottom of Zion Canyon we loaded our packs for a night in the backcountry as the gray clouds gave way to the blue skies of Southern Utah. 

Last year Ali & had spent about 36 hours in Zion Canyon and were hooked.  Driving through the mile long tunnel from the East end into the canyon on Mt Carmel Highway, hiking to the top of Angels Landing, sleeping under the eyes of the Watchman we knew we'd be back there was so much left to explore.
This year we had plans to spend 3 days in the Canyon.  One night in the backcountry of Potato Hollow, and a long day hike on the East Rim.  Those were the plans, but as this trip unfolded we realized that plans were meant to change.
Our packs were heavy as we parked the Versa at the visitor's center & hopped on the shuttle to the Grotto.  We had to carry water not only for that day's 9 mile hike to the camp, but also for dinner, coffee and breakfast & the hike back the following day.  There were two springs located along the route but only one had water in it according to the Ranger so we didn't want to take any chances.
We shouldered our loads, leaned into our trekking poles and began the two and a half mile climb up Angels Landing to Scouts Lookout, the first section of our journey. 

Angels Landing is a very popular day hike, last year we took the trail up, through the 20+ switchbacks of the aptly named 'Walters Wiggles' and followed the chains all the way out to the top.  This time we would head back out of the canyon once we finished the Wiggles.
There were a ton of people on the trail as we expected, many commenting on our huge packs (Ali's was nearly as big as she was) and wondering where we were headed.
We got to the top, drank in the view, shed a layer as the sun and packs had heated us up.  We kept climbing, this time back and away from Angels Landing following cairns over the white rock which marked the path.  

We topped out and began to head down the back side into an area that made us feel as though we were on the moon.  Nothing but white rock rising to the blue sky, we were down in a little rock valley, steep walls rose on three sides and big buttes dominated the fourth.  We followed the trail through the valley back into what felt like a slot canyon, not sure where it would take us.  Then the trail turned and we leaned into a set of long, steep switchbacks.
I had noticed on the map we would climb about 1,000 feet in this section but I didn't expect it to come like this.  On the side of the canyon wall these switchbacks seemed to never end.  They would go on for so long you thought you were nearing the top only to turn and do it all over again before we finally topped out on the West Rim. 

At the top we could see far to the north where there were huge red rock walls covered in snow.  Apparently the rain we dealt with in the canyon the day/night before was snow up on the rim around 7,000 feet.  We followed the Telephone Canyon Trail as it was a shorter route to our campsite and with a big bank of rain clouds behind us time was of the essence.
The Telephone Canyon trail was rolling hills, slightly muddy and not very scenic.  The sun was warm but this high up the wind whipped and chilled us as we put that original layer back on.  Finally after what felt (and turned out to be) much longer than the 1.8 miles we reached the Potato Hollow trail.
This dropped down along a ridge with a huge canyon to the left, buttes and plateau's that looked like they could be greens on a crazy golf course.  We were wowed by the sights but with the clouds nipping at our heels getting antsy about finding our camp.  

We finally got on top of the next mesa, ran into some guys who said we weren't far from camp, and after a long downhill ended up in this big meadow and found our campsite.
The wind was insane, never gave us a break and made setting up our tent a challenge.  Not only was it a fierce wind but it was cold too.  We pulled on hoodies, got our camp set up and went to explore the area.
Ali found a path that ended away from our campsite heading north through some small bushes, we followed it and all of the sudden it gave way to a huge canyon dropping some 2,000 feet and nothing but canyons and mountains literally as far as the eye could see. 

We drank in the view for a while before the rumbling of our stomachs forced us back to camp & dinner.  We ate sitting on downed logs, drowning our freeze dried food in Tapatio hot sauce and around 7pm with the wind too fierce and cold to play cards outside retreated to the tent and the warmth of our sleeping bags.
Darkness fell and we drifted off to sleep waking from time to time as the wind roared out the canyon, attacking our tent in bursts and vanishing.  At one point before drifting off we heard a noise outside the tent, our packs were out there and our food, Ali popped up 'Did you hear that?' Yup I did...'Are you concerned?' she asked earnestly.  Hmmm I thought, whatever is out there I hope it stays and I don't want to deal with it...she unzipped the tent flap and just a few feet from us were a pair of mule deer sniffing around not concerned with us at all.
The next morning dawned to sunny skies and temps much warmer than the day before, so warm in fact we went with shorts for the hike back.  Coffee by our canyon and a quick breakfast then we re-shouldered our loads and began the trek back to Zion.
On the way back we took the West Rim trail, adding miles but making up for it with incredible views of the back side of Zion and rewarded ourselves with a dip in the cool waters of the Virgin River when we finally made it all the way back to the Grotto at the foot of Angels Landing. 

Weeping Rock/Hidden Canyon/Observation Point
After a great meal at the Whiptail Grill in Springdale (a must stop) we crashed at our new campsite and made plans for the following day.  We originally had planned to hike Cable Mountain but that was a 16 mile round trip day and we weren't sure we wanted to commit our final day to just one hike.  Instead the following morning we loaded day packs with water & lunch and took the shuttle to Weeping Rock.
Weeping Rock is a short, steep hike to a small cave-like area where the water is forced out of the rocks and drips down the canyon walls like a shower and results in cool hanging plants in this little cave.  We then headed up the East Rim trail and branched off to Hidden Canyon. 

The trail wraps around the face of the canyon as you hold on to chains bolted into the wall, and back into a sandy slot canyon.  We had to scramble our way over bounders and downed trees, finding a small, free standing arch and some really cool formations in the sandstone walls.
Eventually the canyon was too clogged with boulders and downed trees to continue on so we turned back and reaching the main wall again decided to head up towards Observation Point on these switchbacks Ali had noticed the day before when were back at Scouts Lookout.  This trail was steep, and started out with a series of switchbacks before following slot canyons back towards the East Rim, then wrapping around the canyon walls and going up and up and up. 

Never before have I been so grateful for my trekking poles.  Originally I was down on them, thought they were a waste of money but after my trip to the Grand Canyon last fall on a primitive trail on the east end I knew I was wrong and on this trip they were invaluable.  Both Ali & I had them and they made a huge difference in getting us up and down the canyons.
As the path wrapped back around to the front of the canyon it was like the world opened up and all of Zion Canyon was right there in front of us.  

It's a view that takes your breath away, we were looking down on Angels Landing, and it looked tiny from where we were.  You could see the Virgin River winding to the west, all the familiar landmarks that make up the canyon but they were all so small from up here.  It was amazing; the sky was a bright desert blue, we had red rock at our feet and walls of red, black, and white rock forming a corridor in front of us, the blue of the river, the green of the plants that grow alongside it.  So many colors, all so vibrant and beautiful from our vantage point, it felt like we couldn't take enough pictures even though we knew none would do this justice.
If this was going to be our final day in Zion we did it right I thought while at Observation Point, we were set to leave for Bryce the following morning even though we didn't have any concrete plans there yet.
Winding back down the trail we took the shuttle halfway back to our campsite, getting off to cool down in the river and follow that trail back to the Watchman.  Both of us talking about how much we loved this place & didn't want to leave...

The Narrows
 Wednesday was moving day, we packed up with a plan to drive to Bryce but we had the feeling we were leaving trails un-hiked.  One of those being The Narrows, a trail that Ali had been really excited about since our first trip to Zion.
The Narrows trail was basically just walking up the Virgin River through the narrowest part of the canyon.  The year before we didn't know much about it and early in the season it's often closed as the river is too high and fast from the winter run off.
This trip though we'd seen a number of people dressed in waders with wading staffs who were hiking back there. 
We loaded the car and decided to make a quick stop for some memorabilia at the Visitor's Center on our way out.  As we walked back to the car there was an older woman decked out in Narrows gear in the parking lot.  I stopped her, asked where she rented the outfit, and then we decided we were going to do it provided we could find a campsite for the night.
We turned into the South Campground, a first come first serve site and within our first loop found an open site and put up our tent to stake our claim.  We then headed to Springdale to rent our gear and take on the Narrows. 

Renting the gear was quick and soon we were in our rubber waders and water proof shoes on the shuttle all the way to the Temple of Sinawava where we began to follow the river back into the canyon.
The water was chilly, yet to be warmed by the sun that hadn't gotten over the rim of the canyon.  We walked through water up to our shins for a while, skirting the shore when we could then plow through it with the aid of our staffs when there was no room on shore.
The water got deeper at different spots as the river carved out the bottom to get around big boulders, and through little water falls.
Every where we looked we said "Oh my gosh, look at that!" "Look up! WOW!" The walls rose steeply on each side and the light playing on them changed their colors and you could see the wear that the years of the river wearing down the walls took.  Sometimes there were big caves carved from the sides, other times the walls were strong and straight like the side of a skyscraper.
We made it through the Wall Street area where the walls get so narrow the sky looks like a small strip far above your head.
We followed a side canyon for a while before it got too deep and forced us back and eventually that happened in the main canyon too.  The water began to rise, getting up around my chest and Ali at 5-1 would have flooded her waders so we made the decision that was as far as we could go.
In all we waded up the river for over 3 hours and it was exhausting.  We turned and headed back down, reaching the shuttle around 5pm climbed on for the 40 minute drive back and Ali promptly fell asleep.
Too lazy to cook dinner we stopped by the Whiptail again after returning our gear and crashed under the nearly full moon in the tent.

The East Rim
Rather than try to blast to Bryce Canyon for a day, and on our way back have to battle the traffic created in St. George from their Iron Man event that weekend & risk being late returning our rental car we just upped for another night at our site and headed out to explore the East Rim.
We climbed out of Weeping Rock again, making it two miles up the wall before branching back into that familiar white rock we ran into on our trip to the backcountry.
There was no real path so we followed the cairns over the ups and downs of this crazy rock, desert section of the park.  

Salamanders skirted our trekking poles, and a snake hopped out of the way at one point, as we made our way back towards the east rim.
We knew we were going to have to climb again but we didn't anticipate how steep the climb was going to be.
It started off switchbacks then it seemed to just turn and go straight up the side of the canyon wall.  We leaned into our poles, both cursing the map that only showed a few little squiggles not this monstrosity of a climb.  

We finally wound our way around the wall and ended up looking towards Observation Point, Angels landing and the rest of the Canyon, we were about even height-wise with Observation Point but really far back looking out towards it all.  We stopped up there for lunch and carried on until we reached the prairie of the East Rim, tagged a sign and turned around to head back.  It was officially our final day in Zion...
As was custom by this point we took the shuttle to the lodge, grabbed a snack & relaxed on the outdoor patio looking up at the walls of the Canyon, then went down another two stops before getting out cooling off in the river and following it back to our campground.  

A full moon was coming, we'd miss it by a day, but a nearly full moon was always off to our left chilling over the walls in the bright blue sky waiting for evening to really show off.
That night after dinner we headed up the Watchman trail, a short hike across the river to catch the sunset.  Clouds obscured it in the distance but it was clear above us and the moon lit up the Watchman like a spotlight. 
We sat in silence, watching as stars began to pop up as twilight descended upon the area.  The silence was total, but not smothering, it was a comfortable silence.  You got that feeling that you were right where you needed to be.  Our bodies were tired from the effort of the week hiking, but our minds were fresh and relaxed.  

Finally we strolled hand in hand back to our campsite at one point turning our headlamps off and realizing we could do the hike by the light of the moon (we didn't but we could have) and along the way had to stop while three mule deer climbed up onto the trail after getting a drink from the river.
Finally the day had come; we had to leave our canyon paradise.  A leisurely breakfast at Wildcat Willy's and then we were off, winding our way back to Las Vegas where we would fly out the following morning.  
Along the way we stopped at Hoover Dam, what a contrast that was.  We went from one of the more amazing feats of Mother Nature to one totally man-made.  We left the Dam with an unsettled feeling.  Are dams good or bad, after watching the documentary Damnation, they make a great case for getting rid of deadbeat dams.  But what about something like Hoover Dam?  Was it helping the environment, or was it just fueling the decadence of Vegas?  What about the canyon behind it that is now underwater, could it have been as beautiful as Zion?  We didn't have any answers to those questions and were glad to get on the road and put that wall of concrete in our rearview mirror.

There is nothing quite like re-acclimating to society, and no faster way to jump back into the waters than in the excess of Las Vegas.  We enjoyed our first shower in a week, washing away the layers of red dirt and sand, had a great meal and crashed on a huge, soft bed full of pillows, a nice treat after 7 days sleeping on the canyon floor in our tent....