Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Backpacking Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon

Buckskin Gulch, photo by Christopher Brothers

Photo by Christopher Brothers
While attending Northern Arizona University in the 1990's, my friends and I explored the surrounding wilderness almost every weekend. Backpacking the Mogollon Rim, Sycamore Canyon and the Grand Canyon provided an escape from the collegiate workload and nurtured my love of the outdoors. When I was asked to spearhead a research project in a tributary of the Colorado River just East of the Grand Canyon National Park, I jumped at the opportunity.

The Paria River had been classified as "impaired" due to high beryllium concentrations. I was to hike the canyon and collect water and sediment samples ten times over the course of two years. A rag-tag group of students would accompany me on three day blitzes of the 40 mile long stretch of remote canyon. Paria quickly became a special place for me; my own place of worship. Towering canyon walls, hanging gardens, narrow slots and hundreds of river crossings made for a surreal experience.
Stranded owl hunkers near pool, photo by Christopher Brothers

Given our short time-tables for each trip, I was never able to explore some of the more interesting side canyons of the Paria. Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in North America, would beckon as we collected samples from its confluence with the Paria. We would explore the lower mile or so before hurrying down the Paria. Years later, in 2006, I was able to hike the gulch with Twirly. We spent two days in Buckskin before hiking out to White House.

Last year, my father told me Buckskin and Paria were on his bucket list. I rounded up the boys for a five day trip from Buckskin Gulch to the end of the Paria at Lee's Ferry. I had not realized how long it had been since I saw the length of the Paria. I won't let it be that long again!

The confluence of Buckskin and Paria

We camped at the Wire Pass Trail Head on Monday night after dropping cars at Lee's Ferry and White House. Two of our five would be replicating the trip Twirly and I did in 2006, exiting via White House on the third day. My friend Jason, my father and I would head down Paria Canyon for the last three days, covering 44 miles.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Miwok 100k


The Miwok 100k, held every May in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, is one of those legendary races that gets into your blood. I was fortunate to be selected in the 2015 lottery, marking the 20th anniversary of the race and the debut of a new course (the reverse of the 2014 course). With eight weeks between Miwok and Western States, it was a great opportunity to practice race day tactics and see how my training was playing out.

The race starts and finishes in the hamlet of Stinson Beach, utilizing the Community Center as headquarters. The first 50k loop through the Muir Woods National Monument and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The last 50k take the runners north from Muir Beach up the Coastal Trail, traversing the West slope of Mount Tamalpais State Park to a turn around at Randall Trail head, then returning to Stinson Beach via the Coastal Trail and Matt Davis Trail.

Miwok 100k course
2015 course profile, elevation gain 10,558 feet

I felt ready but anxious race week. I had successfully completed a tough training block in the three weeks since American River 50 Mile. I negotiated hill repeats, tempo runs, long runs and track workouts while staying healthy. Niggles were immediately dealt with via massage or A.R.T. sessions. Comparing ultrasignup results from 2014, it was obvious that sub-24 hour runners at Western States were finishing Miwok in around 12 hours, about 11:30 minutes per mile. My average pace for trail racing in the Marin Headlands is about 12:30 pace. I had my work cut out for me. My "A" goal would be sub-12, "B" goal sub-13, and "C" goal would be simply to finish and establish a qualifier for the 2016 WS100 lottery.

Rather than focusing on pace, I decided to keep my effort between zone 2 and zone 3 for the duration of the race. This meant I would be running more of the climbs, as my heart rate tends to recover quickly when I hike. Fueled by one bottle of Tailwind (200 calories), one packet of the sweet Clif Organic Energy Food (affectionately referred to as 'baby food') and 5 grams of Master Amino Pattern every hour, I was prepared to give it my best shot.

32ten screening room
I picked up my bib at San Francisco Running Company on Wednesday afternoon and did a final shakeout jog through Tennessee Valley. Thursday night Twirly and I joined others at the San Rafael showing of the Trails in Motion Film Festival. The films were awesome, but the venue cooler still. It was held at 32ten Studios, the original Industrial Light and Magic special effects studio and screening room. We were told the courtyard where we milled about drinking beer and eating was where Star Destroyers were blown up!

One of many set stills lining the halls of 32ten Studios

Race morning dawned balmy, and it was a quick trip across the bridge and over the hill to Stinson Beach. Twirly dropped me off at the community center before heading straight to Tennessee Valley to catch some shut eye until I drew near. After three years of crewing ultras, she realizes that the start is one place she doesn't need to be.

Race Director Tia Bodington gave the pre-race instructions without amplification, so I doubt anyone more than ten feet back heard a word she said. At 5:00 am, she counted us down and we all ran the pavement leading to the Dipsea trail and the single track climb to Cardiac. Some funny guy behind me yelled "ON YOUR LEFT!!!" as we all slowed to file onto the single track trail. It was cool and humid. Fog blew through the Dipsea Moors illuminated by 300 headlamps. I chose to use my handheld flashlight, as my hands were free. I used the Mountain Hardware pack I got at States in 2014. It holds two bottles on the shoulder straps.

Steep Ravine was socked in. My Julbo Venturi's fogged up! I kept a steady effort on the climb, setting the first of many Strava segment PRs for the day. As I made the turn from the Dipsea Trail to the Deer Park Fire Road, I was startled by a bagpipe player starting up his swooning tune.

The conga line spread out on the descent of Deer Park fire road. The sky began to lighten, birds began to sing, turkeys gobbled in the woods. I shadowed a small group along the runnable Redwood Creek Trail, leaving enough space between me and the three runners to avoid being on the bouncy footbridges at the same time. Overcast skies kept the temperatures cool, and everyone I crossed on the out and back to the Muir Beach Aid Station looked to be in good spirits. I exchanged high fives with Leigh-Ann on my way out to the Middle Green Gulch climb.

Middle Green Gulch, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt
Inspired by Bob Shebest, my Garmin showed only my heart rate, the time of day, and lap distance. I hit the lap reset every time I left an aid station, comparing the time to the split sheets taped to my bottles. The lack of mile splits was refreshing, and the distance between aid stations turned out to be the most useful information my watch has ever provided during a race, besides heart rate. I felt good climbing Middle Green Gulch, running much of it as if I were on a training run. My fueling plan was on track, I had no niggles or discomfort, and I was successfully navigating the mental side of 62 miles. Namely, I was running aid station to aid station. I set another Strava PR for the climb.

I rolled into Tennessee Valley fifteen minutes ahead of 12 hour pace. Twirly had gotten a spot near the aid station, and we executed an efficient bottle swap and thank-you-kiss. The grind up Marincello felt never-ending. I continued my run/walk strategy dictated by my heart rate, leap frogging with a few runners.  The leaders came back at me after I gained the ridge line Bobcat Trail. Ben Stern led, followed by Galen Burrell and Chris Wehan. Gary Gellin was just two minutes back, in fourth. I gave him encouraging words, but I could tell he wasn't in a good place. He had led the first 20 miles, and ending up dropping around mile 35. Lake Sonoma had taken some of his mojo. The skies remained overcast, and the breeze along the ridge lines kept me cool. I found my stride along the SCA trail and even managed to hold off a few runners that had caught up to me, putting a gap on them in the technical sections.

At Bridge View Aid Station I mixed a fresh bottle of Tailwind and was back on the trail efficiently. On the descent to Rodeo Valley I realized I had to pee. I let the only runner near me pass, and successfully relieved myself without stopping. Usually that ends up being a mess, but I gauged the wind correctly this time, and didn't lose any ground. I passed a few more as we hit Bunker Road and the short detour along the pavement before climbing Rodeo Trail back up to the ridge. A group of three younger guys were running faster than me, but I continually caught up to them as they hiked the climbs. They blistered the downhill return to Tennessee Valley, and I told them that if they could run the final miles of Matt Davis Trail that way I would be impressed. They stopped at Tennessee Valley while I ran through. I wouldn't see them again for a while.

I ran along the floor of Tennessee Valley, feeling good, but shuffling a bit. I hear a runner coming up behind me fast, and hear a "good job" come as he passed me in a blur. Alex Varner, Lake Sonoma winner and 2:28 Boston finisher, made me feel stationary as he comfortably sprinted down the road on a training run. His heels never touched the ground! By the time the Coastal Trail climb came into view about a mile later, he and his partner were almost done with the hill! We may run the same courses, but the elites are playing a different game altogether.

Pirates Cove, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

I got back to Muir Beach and the 50k mark just under 6 hours into the race. I was still about 15 minutes ahead of 12 hour pace and had no issues. Twirly replaced my Tailwind bottles, baby food and MAP supplies. I got a little testy with her when I realized she was adding mix to the Tailwind I had left in the bottles I had given her at TV instead of mixing a fresh batch. It has taken me a while to figure out exactly how strong I can handle the Tailwind mixture, and she had deviated from my plan. "I'd rather you dump out the old stuff and mix it right", I said. I admit, I was grumpy. I had to empty rocks out of my shoes too, making the aid station the least efficient of the race thus far.

Deer Park Fire Road, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt
Leaving Muir Beach the second time I felt the first signs of flagging energy. I let a runner or two pass on the Redwood Creek return, and slogged my way back up Deer Park Fire Road. I tried to conserve energy and momentum, but by the time I reached Cardiac Aid Station I was almost ten minutes off 12 hour pace.

Enter the apathy.

Jessi Goldstein and Brett Rivers got me squared away with another mix of Tailwind for the seven mile stretch to the next aid station, and I headed towards Pantoll not caring about my finishing time. I had held my desired pace for over 30 miles, but it didn't feel sustainable anymore. At the ranger station, I stopped to use the bathroom, which had a line. By the time I got back on the trail I was 15 minutes off pace, and decided to just cruise comfortably for a while.

Once again, I found a group to shadow from about 200 yards back, and paced myself well for the long traverse to Bolinas Ridge. The leaders came back at me again along this stretch. I recalled how crowded this section was during the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile. Today it was blissfully sparse of runners. As Ben came by at 6:00/mile pace with his pacer looking like they were out for a xc workout, I easily made room for them. Galen and Chris were still in pursuit, albeit a bit further behind.

Coastal Trail above Stinson Beach, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Coastal Trail is skinny; at times, grossly off-camber. About a mile and a half before the Bolinas Ridge Aid Station it became so sloped it was difficult to carry any speed due to the lack of footing. I came around a corner with too much speed and the trail disappeared from beneath my feet, sending me sliding down the hill. I arose gingerly and tried to regain my pace. A few moments later a loose rock got caught up in my feet and I ended up kicking it like a soccer ball with the top of my left foot, which hurt like hell. The wheels were coming off!

Coastal Trail, photo by @Ultratrailmatt

I managed to regain my composure and catch the group I had been following as we climbed into Bolinas Ridge Aid Station, and I chatted with Chipp from New York about the day so far. The sun had come out and the temps were climbing. I used my collapsible cup to guzzle ice water (about 16 ounces), mixed another bottle of Tailwind and had some pieces of melon. Nate Dunn gave me some encouragement as I left the station. I spied pizza in his hand and asked him to save me a slice for the return trip.

Put the ice water down, Ken. Photo by Nate Dunn

100 yards out from the aid station my stomach revolted. Too much ice water had me bloated and wanting to puke. I slowed my pace and stopped drinking Tailwind for a spell, which helped. The Bolinas Ridge section of trail was relentlessly rolling. It reminded me of the Lake Sonoma course, except for the enormous Redwood groves. I swear I saw a stump that was 30 feet across. Ironically, as soon as my stomach settled, my right knee ignited with searing pain, reducing my gait to limp. I had dealt with some IT-Band Syndrome/runner's knee in January and February, but it had not been an issue since. I was confused, and worried. For the first time I found myself seriously considering dropping from a race. A stream of runners passed me as we approached the downhill into Randall Aid Station. My pity party was in full effect.

I had three options: If I was in fact injured, dropping might save my knee for States in June. If my knee would hold up, I could take it easy and finish under the cut-offs, giving me a guaranteed qualifier for 2016 WS100, or I could take some Ibuprofen and still put in a solid effort and post a time indicative of my fitness. As I hiked down the road to the aid station, I didn't know which way I would go. All I was sure of, is that I HATE having to walk downhill!

Icing at Randall, Photo by Twirly
Immediately upon entering the aid station I asked Twirly to get ice. I knew that regardless of how it played out, I needed to ice the knee. I gave the volunteers a hug for giving me special treatment (they filled a gallon zip lock for me) and stood icing while Twirly got my resupplies squared away. The second big SNAFU materialized as Twirly told me she left the bag with my Ibuprofen in the car, which was parked far away. Jesse Jay saved my day with some of his own Ibuprofen, and the wheels, though wobbly, stayed on my train. I spent 5 minutes icing before gathering myself together and setting out for the climb back to the ridge.

Having fun again, photo by Nate Dunn
Going uphill was easier on the knee, and I had enough energy to run when the trail allowed for it. The 13 miles from Bolinas Ridge down to Randall and back was a parade of runners encouraging each other, and the energy was contagious. I saw many familiar faces along the way, and by the time I got back to Bolinas Ridge Aid Station, my knee felt better. I negotiated a slice of pizza, and filled my cup with Coke. It was great. I told Nate I had no qualms about my finishing time. I screwed around in the aid station for about five minutes, enjoying the novelty of pizza and Coke.

I set out for the final 10k with my pizza and coke, talking with a runner who also happened to be signed up for States this year. As we chatted, he realized I was running faster than he wanted and bid me a good race. I realized I felt spectacular. I looked at the time: 17:15. I had 45 minutes left to break 13 hours. I only had about 4 miles left, so I ran.

Cruising Coastal Trail, photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Coastal Trail, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Coastal Trail, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

Coastal Trail, photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt
Each time I saw a runner up ahead, I reeled them in. I slowed down for the tricky parts, taking care not to trip again. By the time I got back to Matt Davis Trail I had 25 minutes to descend the last two miles of technical, root-strewn switchbacks. I ran hard; so hard, hikers verbally recognized my pace.

Photo courtesy of @Ultratrailmatt

I kept glancing at the time whenever the trail would allow me to look away. The minutes ticked down as I watched for the landmarks of the descent. The tricky left turn, The low hanging branch, the big rock signifying the final switchback, the bridge across the creek. And then the final stretch through the woods and into town. I felt like I was flying.

Not knowing what the race clock said, I sprinted into town, eliciting looks of concern on Tia's face as I ran into the chute at 5:15 pace (according to the deets). The clock said 12:58. I had done it. A large group of friends were amassed at the finish line, and I felt a huge wave of relief as Tia handed me my official Miwok 100k key chain. Twirly had all my post race gear ready: coconut water, beer, dry clothes, etc. I grabbed my swag bag, a plate of food, and changed clothes. It took a while to relax.

Sprinting it in, photo by Jessi Goldstein

I executed well. Despite not meeting my "A" goal, I gained confidence in my potential to improve my performances in the future. I finished so strongly that I surprised myself. Never before have I gone so low and bounced back so starkly. I set personal records on 27 Strava segments over the course!

The event was extremely well organized, and had that low-key hometown feel that has become so sought after in today's ultra scene. The volunteers were all knowledgeable and supportive. The crowd of finishers staying at the finish line to cheer in their fellow runners was impressive. We stuck around until the cut-off, cheering in Leigh-Ann with 45 seconds to spare!

Leigh-Ann gets her DFL, photo by Chris Jones

And, they gave everyone an IPA from Lagunitas. *pro-tip: use the Coca-Cola ice baths to chill your swag beer*

Decompressing the day, photo by Chris Jones
Miwok is a race I will do again, for sure; despite my abhorrence for out and back single track. It encompasses some of my favorite trails in the Headlands. I was unsure of how to approach the 100k distance, but now I realize it is like a mini-100 miler. There is enough time for things to go awry, but you're not out there overnight. I think it may be my favorite distance so far. I managed to maintain my average race pace of 12:30 for a Headlands race. Not the improvement I was looking for, but at least it indicates my stamina has returned. My slowest mile of the race was when I was in Randall Aid Station icing my knee. If I can pull off a similar time to Foresthill in June, I may have a shot at silver.

Here are the deets: