Welcome! The intent of Anecdotes from the Trail is to share my experiences while trail running or racing (occasionally on the road too.) And to feature other trail runners and their accomplishments. You may see the occasional gear review or even contest. Please visit from time to time. Happy trails!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Two 14'er Weekend in Colorado

First I need to clarify, I am not an experienced climber and I am certainly no mountaineer. My friend Mike is preparing to climb Mt. Ranier in July and he was setting up a few "training" climbs. I knew that I wanted to try my hand at one. So, I threw out the idea of joining him and he agreed. Originally, I was going to join him and others on a climb of Mt. Cloudpeak in Wyoming. However, Mike suggested tackling a couple of 14'ers (peaks of 14,000+ feet) in Colorado, Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, instead. We could do them in one weekend due to their proximity. I took him up on the idea, a date was selected and it was set.

Mt. Elbert stands at 14,433 ft and is the second highest peak in the lower 48 states after Mt. Whitney in California. It is considered a Class 1 hike, meaning it is relatively easy by mountain climbing standards. Mt. Massive stands at 14,421 ft and is considered a Class 2 climb, making it slightly more difficult than Mt. Elbert. Both peaks are the two highest peaks in Colorado and are part of the Sawatch Mountain Range. Leadville, CO is only a few miles away from both peaks.

I flew in to Denver the night before, where I met up with Mike, whose flight arrived just 30 minutes after mine. A co-worker of Mike's, Gavin, had also flown in for the weekend's adventure and since he arrived before either of us, he rented an H3 and picked us both up. Once in the car, it was Leadville-bound. We stopped for pizza just outside of Denver and then made it to Leadville late in the evening. After picking up a few food supplies, we unceremoniously hit the sack. Wake up call was at 5:00am.

Day One: Mt. Elbert, June 20, 2009

Gavin had already climbed Mt. Elbert on another occasion, so his plan was to drop us off at the trailhead and go tackle Mt. Huron, another 14’er some 20 miles away. He was to come back and get us after his climb; a part of the plan that should have been thought out a bit more, but more on that later. Mike and I were at the trailhead of Mt. Elbert’s North Trail and ready to start right at 6:00am.

The North Trail starts at 10,040 feet, almost twice as high as the high point back home in Georgia, Brasstown Bald. Altitude was already giving us a bit of a headache and it was yet to be seen how it was going to affect us on the climb. For now, we felt pretty good and excited to get going. The trail is about 4.5 miles to the summit with a total elevation gain of 4,700 feet. It starts rather gradual for a mile or so to a trail junction with the Colorado Trail (Leadville 100 runners in August will go down this section of the Colorado Trail) and then begins to climb as it nears the tree line. The weather was cooperating with partly cloudy skies but we were concerned that it may turn for the worse. We reached the tree line at 11,900 feet keeping a good pace.

After a quick snack break, we hit the trail again out in the open and headed up the slope towards the mountain’s northeast ridge on a series of switchbacks. The terrain was grassy and mossy and we ran into a bit of mountain wildlife, some birds and a couple of marmots. Around this time, a couple of trail runners came up the trail with a Dingo dog. They passed us like nothing. I was jealous. I would love to hit these beautiful trails with my running shoes and my dog, Lilly, but first I would have to spend a few days acclimatizing for sure. Anyway, we would see these guys again on their way back down.

When we reached the ridge, we were around 12,500 feet. I was feeling OK and keeping pace, although it was obvious that I wasn’t moving as quickly as I normally would. I’ll blame the altitude. Mike thought we were making good time and we steadily kept forward momentum. Even though we hit the trail early, we did pass several folks on our way up. It appears that due to the relatively “easy” climb, many locals routinely go up this mountain. After a while on the ridge, the trail ascends steeply by some rock formations and to the right of the ridge. We soon saw the trail runners making their way back down. The one in the lead did stop for a second to chat and we learned that he was from Boulder. Very cool. Continuing upwards, I was breathing heavy and I could feel my heart beating in my chest. Still, we maintained and soon came to an opening were we would get our first glimpse of the snow capped mountain range on the opposite side of Elbert. The view was amazing!

The rest of the climb was covered in snow. No trail to follow except for the tracks left behind by other hikers. The snow felt crunchy and footing wasn’t much of an issue. With about 500 feet left to go, we came to a flat area where you can see the summit ridge off to the left. I was excited to see the summit and anxiously began crossing the ridge towards it. Once there, there was another hiker taking some mandatory photos. I offered to take one of him while Mike looked around and took some of his own. The hiker then reciprocated and took a couple pics of us. I was blown away by the view. Luckily, the weather was cooperating and we could clearly see the rest of the mountain range around us. Just stunning!

At the summit, there is a thick wooden stick that has been shoved into the ground claiming the summit. On it, one can read names and dates of others who came before us. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pen to add our own names. Other hikers started arriving while Mike and I finished up a couple of sandwiches we had brought. It was time to make our way down. In the distance, we could see some heavier clouds moving in, so we knew we needed to get moving. It took us four hours to reach the summit, it was soon evident that it would take a lot less to get down.

It didn’t take long to get back past the snow. We noticed that traffic going up was thickening. We were glad that we had begun our hike so early. About a third of the way down, we were hiking in fog. We could see the trail but nothing of the valley east of us. Our toes and quads were feeling the descent. We passed a couple of guys that we saw earlier on our way up; they were still climbing but looked a bit dehydrated. We chatted with them to check on them, but they seemed to feel like finishing. So we continued our way down.

Soon the tree line was back in view and we were below the clouds. It started sprinkling as we took a moment to grab a bite to eat and put on our rain jackets while chatting with a woman who was waiting for her husband to come back down the mountain.

Feeling good about our accomplishment, we still had a couple of miles to go to finish the job. We were looking forward to meeting back up with Gavin and thought of him in his own 14’er adventure. As we made our way through the trees and back to the trailhead, the rain intensified. Surprisingly, there were still people making their way up. We reached the trailhead and the parking lot and no sign of Gavin. Cell coverage was very limited and we couldn’t reach him by phone. We did the only thing we could think of, and that was to continue hiking along the forest road. This part was quickly going to become the least fun of the day. Trudging down the forest road getting soaked, we started sticking our thumbs out to passing SUV’s in hopes of a ride. After a couple of miles, someone finally did stop. A man and his son picked us up and they were heading back to Leadville themselves. Once within cell phone range, we called Gavin and learned that he had just finished his own hike. He was to meet us back in Leadville.

Gavin had left us that morning and drove to Mt. Huron. His hike was to be a couple of miles shorter than ours and his target summit was at 14,003 ft. Because of his later start, the rain that hit us on our way down from our summit, hit him on his way up. He made the decision to cut his climb short due to the worsening weather.

Mike and I were exhausted but excited. 14, 433 feet! No matter the difficulty or ease of the trail, getting up to that height on foot, especially when I live at around 950 feet, was no small feat. I was already looking forward to day number two and our second 14’er attempt of the weekend.

Day Two: Mt. Massive, June 21, 2009

It rained all night and it was still sprinkling in the morning. The alarm clock went off at 4:00am. We were hoping to be on the trail by 5:00am. As we met up in the parking lot, we learned that Gavin was not feeling well and that he wasn’t going to join us. Even feeling crappy, he was a trooper and gave us a ride to the trailhead.

The way to the Halfmoon Mt Massive trailhead (10,400 ft.) is reached by much the same route as the Mt. Elbert North Trailhead except you add on another 2.5 miles of some of the ruttiest forest road in Colorado. I am not normally a Hummer advocate, but it would prove to be a very useful vehicle to get through this road. Finally at the trailhead, we said our goodbyes to Gavin, gathered our things and began our hike in the sprinkling rain.

The trail was wet and in spots a bit muddy. There was a creek to our left that was roaring from all of the rainwater and melting mountain snow. About a half an hour into our hike, it finally stopped sprinkling. The morning was chilly but once the rain was gone, we could tell that it was going to improve considerably. As we made our way along the creek, we noticed the mountains around us were covered in fresh snow. Soon we came out into a meadow and the view was awe inspiring. We were surrounded by mountains and incredible scenery. The trail at this point was considerably easy which allowed us to really take it all in, but that was soon to change.

We came upon a sign where the trail split and we took the trail to the right, where from this point on, it would begin to climb considerably. We passed a section of rugged rocks where it was obvious a crew of volunteers in the past must have worked their asses off laying down rocks as steps. Once pass this first rocky section, we continued up the trail along mossy and grassy terrain. We hit a few switchbacks and slowly came closer and closer to the first patches of snow. Below us, we could see a couple of hikers steadily gaining on us. Looking up, we couldn’t see the summit, but we could see that there was plenty of snow and a long way yet to go.

At some point, we lost the trail. Most likely it wound under some snow patch and we just couldn’t follow it. Plus there were no tracks to follow from hikers ahead of us. We decided to go up a slope that seemed as the most obvious route to where we needed to be. This is when the hikers behind us caught up with us. They were a couple of guys from Ft. Collins that were making a second attempt at summiting Mt. Massive. After chatting with them for a bit, they took the lead and quickly widen a gap.

As we made our way upwards, we came to another rocky section. Remember, we lost the trail, so we were simply going by feel and from where we thought we needed to go. Plus the Ft. Collins guys were "blazing" a route that we began to follow. The rocky section became steeper and we literally began to climb using all fours. Mike was getting ahead of me, as it seemed that the altitude was definitely affecting me more than it was him. I was also being a lot more cautious getting over this rocky, steep section than he was. Soon, the difficulty of this section became worse due to snow and ice. I was becoming concerned that we wouldn't make it past this.

We continued to steadily climb. Our route had brought us up the south west face of the mountain. Soon, we were able to look down the east face, as other hikers were making their way up a different route. Once past the rocks, the wind picked up considerably and we had to get passed a patch of ice where I didn't feel completely comfortable of the footing. I was very careful as Mike looked on ahead of me. From here, we could see the first of three fake summits and the saddle that led to the true summit. Every step was laborious for me and I had to take big, bottom-of-the-diaphragm breaths to feel right. We made it past the rocks and now it was simply crossing the saddle at around 14,300 feet. The wind was screaming! The view to the north and west was incredible with nothing but snow-capped mountains for as far as the eye could see. Incredible!

I was worn out, but I knew we were almost there. We hiked the ridge past the false summits and finally made it to the true one. I had to take a moment to catch my breath and just look around. Mike was there and so were the two Ft. Collins guys. We congratulated each other, took pictures and took it all in. You could see the mountains to the north and west. You could also see Mt. Elbert which we had climbed before. To the east was the valley and you could see Leadville in the distance. 14,421 feet, baby! Awesome!

But as always, summiting is only half the job. We had to get down. Mike and I knew we didn't want to go back the way we came for those last 1,500 feet. So, we made an effort to stay on the trail on the way back and see if we could figure out an easier way down than the route we took to the top. We came across another hiker that informed us that we needed to follow the ridge a bit longer to stay on the Halfmoon Mt Massive trail. And he was right, except once again we came up on snow that covered the trail with no obvious route to follow down. However, Mike decided that it was time for a little glissading, a technique where you slide down snow on your ass while keeping your legs straight out in front of you and ideally using a climbing axe to self-arrest, if needed, but we used our hiking poles. Turned out to be alot of fun and after three separate sets, we knocked off about 1,000-1,500 feet in a matter of minutes.

Next thing we knew, we were back on the original trail among the mossy slope of the mountain. It was in the bag and the hardest part was over. We soon reached the meadow we were in ealrier. Mike and I both looked up at the mountain in respect, thinking how surreal our experience had been at the top. We reached the tree line again and it wasn't long before we were back at the trailhead. Gavin was there, all smiles, and welcoming us back. We were glad to see him and wished he had felt good enough to join us that morning. Still, the experience was amazing. Two 14'ers in two days! It took us almost five hours to summit but only two nad a half to get down. Go figure.
That's the story of my Colorado weekend. An experience that I will never forget. I hope one day to go back and either climb some other 14'ers or tackle some of those beautiful trails with my trail running shoes. Who knows, maybe even trying the Leadville 100 some day.

Monday, June 1, 2009

SweetH20 50K

The SweetH20 50K is only three years old, but for one reason or another, this was the first time I had an opportunity to do it. And I jumped on it! I’ve run at Sweetwater Creek Park several times. I’ve run along the very technical sections. I’ve climbed the hills. I’ve covered the rollercoaster ride of the power line sections. And I’ve been to the “Top of the World” before. But this would be the first time to do all those things, and then some, in a race with about 200 fellow trail runners. Sweet, indeed!

After the Country Music Marathon last month, I was very happy to get off the asphalt and back on the trails. My running in May was a matter of recovering from the road race and gladly getting the feel of the trail under my feet again. My friends, Woody and Roxanne, and I came out to Sweetwater Creek Park a couple of weekends before the 50K to get 18 miles or so in and get a preview of the course. The weekend before the 50K, Woody and I went up to Amicalola Falls and ran the AT approach trail to Springer Mountain, ran a little extra credit on the Benton McKaye trail and covered about 20 miles. I felt pretty ready for the 50K and I knew I would enjoy it much more than the road marathon.

Race day morning would start with my alarm clock going off at 5:00 am. I got dressed, grabbed a quick breakfast and my things and headed out the door. While I was on my way to the race, I thought of a friend, Tony, who was supposed to have started running from his house at 2 am to the start for a 28 or so mile warm up. Turns out, he made it and not only that, he managed to complete the 50K in a little over 8 hours (he da man!) Anyways, I arrived at the park and picked up my bib number. The fun thing about a local race is all the friendly and familiar faces. I ran into fellow blogger, David Ray, which if you haven’t checked his blog out, go to http://seedadrunrundadrun.blogspot.com/. There was some excitement about ultra-legend, Dave Horton, participating in the race. I missed his talk the night before at the pasta dinner, but I did get to say “Hello” to him as everyone began to line up for the start.

After a few last minute announcements by Johnny, the race director, we were off! Thankfully, most of the first couple miles were on the road, this helped thin the crowd out a bit before we entered the first trail. Not long after being on the trail, we hit the first obstacle of the race, a concrete lake drain that was pretty slippery and more than one almost ended up on their butt. This was also the first time of many that our shoes would be soaked. Then came a significantly rocky section where everyone first slowed to a walk. It was going to be a long day.

We ended up back on pavement for a short while as we somehow ran back by the start of the race. After about 30-40 minutes of racing we would get back on the trails for good. Sweetwater Creek Park has sections of trail that are significantly technical. We came up the “blue” trail, down a set of wooden steps and past some waterfalls to run along the park’s “white trail”. The roots and rocks in this section make it for cautious progress, but I was feeling pretty good. I knew that one of the tougher sections of the course was coming up, the dreaded “Top of the World”.

Just beyond the boundary of the park exist trails that are on private property and that connect with a section of power lines that test a runner’s mettle every time. We hit these trails by following and crossing a small creek and going up the first of several serious climbs on the course, straight up to a ridge, over rocks and a fallen tree. Once on the ridge, you go back down and then back up several more climbs. The last climb in this series rewards the runners with an aid station, but not without passing a spray painted message on the climb that read, “Think what the 2nd time will be like.” Premonition words. Another climb from here and you come into an opening that provides you with a view that goes around for miles. We were on “Top of the World”. There someone has somehow placed a little swinging double chair to enjoy the view.

Then you hit the power line hills. Ugh! Out in the open, the beautiful sunny and blue skies were not pleasant. And the up and down of the power line hills shred the quads and do a number on the toes. But with a grin and a little determination, you get through it.

Soon, we were back inside the park trails and headed up the ‘white” trail towards the “yellow” trail loop. As you arrive, an aid station awaits to top off on fluids and get a PB&J and some Coke. Gotta love trail race aid stations! Across a metal bridge, the “yellow” trail loop has a doozy of a climb. As we came back down towards the metal bridge, we would run left and away from it on a forest service road that would take us to another smaller power line section, again outside the park. Once over this, we would hit a steep downhill that was on barely traveled trails. In fact, the closer we got to the bottom, the less of a trail that you could see. It might be why as I type this, I have poison ivy spots all over my shins. Once at the bottom, we arrived at the river crossing.

The river was up dramatically due to all the recent rain, and the current was moving too. The crossing is rope assisted, but for safety, race organizers asked all runners to cross the river one at a time. So we all got bottle necked here. Luckily, every one had a sense of humor about it and patiently waited their turn. After about ten minutes, it was mine. I grabbed the rope with both hands and made my way across. Halfway across, it wasn’t too bad. It was the second half that would prove a bit tricky as the water got deeper and the current a bit stronger. Once out of the water, the difficulty was the steep climb back up to the trail.

Once on the trail, my friend Kelli was there to cheer some friends and she got a few pics of me coming up the trail. It was good to see her and get some encouraging words as I went by.

It wasn’t long before we were running down the “blue” trail again and came out into an area where some of the runner’s cars were parked including mine. I unloaded my running pack and hydration bladder at my car and got back on the trail with just my water bottle. At this point, there was only 10 miles or so left. Next up, round two of the power line hills.

We came down a long descent to arrive at an aid station. The guys at this aid station get major kudos because they had everything: sports drink, water, plenty of food and ice. The only way to get all the stuff there was down about a half mile length of trail and up/down 200 ft. or so elevation. All of the materials had to be carried on foot. And they did it all with a smile. I made sure I thanked these guys for their efforts.

From here, you cross a short wooden bridge and then down the same trail as before to the power line sections. We hit much of the same hills as in the earlier portion of the race. Except this time, the heat had turned it up a notch and the sun beat down on you hard. Needless to say, the climbs were that much more difficult this time. Remember the spray painted words earlier? They were still there. Funny guy, whoever left that message.

Another friend of mine, Kelly, was running her first 50K. I would see her at points along this section as she wasn’t too far behind me. She later explained to me that there was a point where she thought she was a bit lost since she didn’t have anyone in front of her as a reference and she was shouting for some help. I had heard the shouts, but couldn’t make them out and didn’t know their intention. Luckily, she found her way.

So after some grueling climbing and descending, we were finally on the home stretch. I refueled at the aid station at mile 27; I figured I was home free from any more climbs. I was soon to learn how wrong I was. Cruising along the creek trail and heading back towards the waterfalls we saw earlier in the race, I saw that the race markers seem to go sharply to the left. This was to be the big surprise of the race and the cruelest climb of them all. There was no trail, but the markers clearly went sharply up and up the hill. Remember, there’s 28 miles already on the legs. The only way up was by walking and grabbing onto small trees along the way. Once at the top, the course went right and flattened out. It took a moment to get the heart rate back down and catch my breath. My legs felt like jelly.

After a bit more bush-whacking, somehow you got dumped back out on the “blue” trail. It was a matter of placing one foot in front of the other for the last few miles. I passed the final aid station, calmly ate another PB&J and had some fluids. Just another mile and a half to go. I heard what I thought were fire crackers and I figured they were being fired by the race organizers as the runners arrived at the finish. I later learned that it was actually a local sheriff firing range. I’m glad I ran with a bright orange shirt on.

Finally, I could hear the murmur of the crowd hanging out at the finish, even though I couldn’t see it. The last couple hundred yards or so of the race follows a road and then you take some wooden steps off to the left and up a short hill climb. There’s the finish. Wow, another 50K in the bag. I did it in 6:13 and change. Not a bad day’s work, considering all the challenges. I was surprised by my wife, Stacy, who had decided to come out to the park and see me finish. It was a very appreciated surprise. I got a kiss from my wife, a finisher’s hat from the race and then a plate of BBQ pulled pork with some sides. Nice.

You gotta love trail races because everyone hangs out after they finish and cheer on remaining finishers. I love the camaraderie! I was there to greet Kelly as she finished. She had dealt with some cramps on the mean climb at mile 28 and she was happy to finish. I was proud of her and all of my friends that finished that day.

The first few months of 2009 has simply been one race or run adventure after another. The SweetH20 50K is my third 50K of the year. Funny enough and looking ahead, it may be my last one for a little while, as Stacy and I are expecting parents and it is yet to be seen how that will affect my race schedule. I have another adventure in June, traveling to Colorado to hike two 14’ers with another friend, Mike. I can’t wait. Until then, I’m going to run some trails this summer and try to get back on my bike too.

After two 50K's, a couple of ultra runs on the AT and tons of daily trail miles, it's time to retire my Cascadia 3's. Already have a new pair of Cascadia 4's to break in. Sweet!