Sunday, August 9, 2015

Skyline 50k 2015 Race Report

The Skyline 50k is one of my favorite races.  It's got about everything that I want: Mix of running surfaces, moderate elevation gain/loss, almost guaranteed relatively cool weather, Pacific Association series points, big club participation, and great finish line BBQ.  I had so much fun this year and this is how it went:

After the guy said go we were off on the rolling bike path that contours the west side of Lake Chabot.  I was running with a group of speedsters before we started thinning out, jockeying for position.  I ran with Jean for a little while, recognized Devon Yanko who I figured would be contending for the woman's win, and chatted with Jason Reed.  On one of the first decent downhills Jason let me go and I found myself cruising alone all the way up to Redwood park.  I bombed the downhill down to Redwood road, got filled up at the aid station and then hit one of my favorite sections of trail, the golden spike trail - which is a nice winding single track through a rainforest like setting with plenty of rocks to hop on.  At the bottom of the trail I caught up with a train of runners that included Devon and a couple of guys.  I tagged along just behind them for the entire climb up to skyline.  On the steep stuff it seemed we all were hiking and they wouldn't put any ground on me, but they would always create a gap on the moderate ups, and I might make up a little bit of ground on any small downhills through this stretch.

The train of runners did end up getting out of my sight just before we hit the big aid station at skyline, so I was again cruising by myself enjoying the wonderful marine layer and beautiful views.  I had kind of expected that they would move faster on the climbs, but had anticipated running the downhill on the French trail pretty hard to try and catch up with them.  The skyline station is at about 14 miles, or almost halfway through the race.  It is always a little bit of a psychological boost for me to know that the race is mostly downhill from there.  Plus, the French trail is another one of those gems of a trail through some deep coastal redwoods and some fun, sometimes technical type running.  To my surprise I didn't catch anyone through this section.  I moved pretty well and enjoyed myself, but those other runners were moving just as well.

After I bombed the downhill back to the Redwood road aid station I was surprised to see Stanley Peng hanging out.  He ran hard from the start, going for a PR and was now paying the price for a tough early effort.  I quickly grabbed some water and gu and moved on.  I stayed steady on the hike back up on the Macdonald trail, getting back up to the ridge in no time.  Again I was just cruising by myself, trying to stay motivated to move efficiently while starting to get tired.  This is about at mile 20.  I ran the downhill assertively till I hit the valley floor.  This is usually the low point of the race for me because between mile 22 and 25 there is some pretty lonely flat running with few views.  Then you hit what I term the "insult hill" of skyline 50k - one more 300 ft climb that sort of hits you right when you don't need it.  Then one last downhill before you have to run 3 flat miles around the east side of Lake Chabot to finish.  Basically mile 22 to the finish is a "gut it out" kind of thing.  But this is also when the most interesting racing comes in.

In the flat section, maybe mile 24 to 25 I got to see my first action.  Some Excelsior guy (guy on rival running team) caught up to me and passed hard.  I didn't have the legs to do much about it and kind of figured it wasn't going to matter much because of the climb coming up that I was sure was going to kick my butt anyways.  I hiked as fast as I could up the insult hill, and then a couple of more guys were starting to catch up to me.  Finally, before the top of the climb, a tough looking Japanese dude slowly trotted by, taking advantage of another of my weak hiking breaks.  I knew this was going to be a battle.  This guy had definitely saved some legs for the end of this race and I didn't know if I could match him.  I followed him down the hill into the final aid station.  He blew right through it.  I kind of saw that coming: of course the this guy was going to skip the aid to put the nail in my coffin.  I cruised in with my empty water bottle and empty stomach and glanced fleetingly at the wonderful buffet table before me.  The aid station volunteer, understanding my conundrum, offered to be super quick.  But I declined and chased after my target.  As I attempted to close the gap on the downhill, something that would have happened rather quickly in any other situation, the legs started folding on me.  Every time I tried to extend my stride they would just sort of buckle and I had to just sort of hobble down the trail.  The cramping in my calves was destroying my downhilling ability.  Nonetheless, I was still able to pull even with him at the bottom of the hill.  I turned to him and exclaimed: "Time to bring the pain, right?"  I don't know how he took it, but I was trying to communicate that being neck and neck with 3 flat miles to go at the end of a 31 mile race, it was going to be a painful fight.  He sort of waived me by, expecting to chase me for a while and I imagine break my will and finish me at the end.  I moved as fast as my legs would allow me to with the cramping I was dealing with - working through my head if I could even keep this up or whether the cramping would just get worse, or I might even bonk and be toast.  He stayed right on my tail.  We hit the bouncy wooden bridge over the marsh with one mile to go.  I never looked back - I didn't want to give him the satisfaction that I was worried about him.  But I wanted to back off and jog it in so bad!  Halfway across the bridge I heard and felt his stride on the bridge and thought to myself: this is going to suck.  I just kept hammering, seemingly finding some extra muscle fibers that I didn't know I had and was so grateful to see the finish line!  I crossed in 4 hours 30 minutes in 13th place.  Japanese guy showed up about half a minute later and we shook hands.  I then proceeded over to a bench in the shade and buried my head between my knees for half an hour while dealing with the nasty after-affects of the hard effort at the end of the race.

After coming to my senses, I started taking in some calories and feeling better.  I congratulated Jean on another amazing sub 4 hour performance, hung out with Bjorn who was the third scorer from our Quicksilver team, coming in a few minutes after me.  He is going to be running the Ultra-tour-du-mont-blanc in France in three weeks - and that is such an epic undertaking, it was fun to hear him share about his prep.  As the other quicksilver runners and running buddies rolled in, we shared an awesome BBQ and war stories in the sunshine of a beautiful afternoon by the lake.  The memories of the grueling effort of the race already subsiding into that strange gap in an ultrarunners brain where all the pain seems to be forgotten.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Backpacking the Rae Lakes Loop (with some bonus destinations)

Okay, so maybe there are bears in the Sierra after all.  I think Sachin saw like nine bears on this trip.  I have to say that King's Canyon National Park was as wild and beautiful as I had even dared to imagine.  The place is immense.  And what I mean by immense is that everything was on such a scale that I had never experienced before!  Everything was just so big.

When I climbed Mount Whitney a couple of years ago and then hiked north along the John Muir Trail (JMT) and left through Onion Valley, I had gotten a glimpse of what was to be seen in these mountains.  I vowed to return and do some more exploring.  I read about the Rae Lakes loop - a popular 43 mile aesthetic trail loop that features the heart of this wilderness starting and ending at Roads End which is a mere 4.5 hour drive from where I live.  The trick was to obtain a wilderness permit for the hike.  I'm not going to go into the details of how to get one of these permits, because that could be a whole other blogpost - but let's just say that we were very fortunate to end up getting day-of permits when we arrived at Roads End Permit station at 10:30 a.m. on a beautiful summer Friday morning.  The plan was to complete the loop counter-clockwise with some bonus out and back trips to some interesting destinations.  First we wanted to explore East Lake and Lake Reflection which was another ten miles.  Then we wanted to see the Sixty Lakes Basin which would add another six miles.  And finally I wanted to hike another big pass and thought that Baxter Pass at 12500 ft would be a good challenge - but we decided to bail on that last one - I will explain later.  The picture below summarizes our trip of almost 60 miles in 2.5 days:

This was our "Rae Lakes Loop".  Orange was day 1, blue and purple day 2, and green day 3.  We did bonus out-n-back trips to East Lake/Lake Reflection and Sixty Lakes Basin.  Thanks to Sachin for capturing all this great GPS data!
Another pic of where we went - thanks Sachin!

I think what was key in our luck of getting the wilderness permit was that it was Sachin's thirtieth birthday!  When I sent out an email to my buddies to see who would want to go on this trip with me, of course Sachin says: Yes!  He always says yes.  And off we went...

The obligatory start photo.  Notice the canyon walls in the background.  We are at around 5500 ft.  The walls are topping at 9000.

To the adventure we go!

Following Bubbs Creek up the canyon.

Really funky rock formations.
Bubbs Creek Videos:

Looking down at where we started.

Looks like a big chunk of this mountain just fell off and left a perfect shelf.

Big rocks.

I love seeing the water pour down solid rock.

As we took the trail after the junction towards East Lake we stumbled upon a brown bear and a couple of her cubs.  They were pretty much blocking our way so we just waited for them.  All the while Sachin and I are attempting to get some good footage.  I don't have any here, but later in this post there are a couple of good videos of other bears.  The highlight of the trip for Sachin was definitely the bears!

Crossing Bubbs and heading towards East Lake.
Credit: Sachin
The setting as we make our way up to East Lake.
Going up towards East Lake was a blast.  This was definitely the trail less traveled.  I think the popular loops and trails can get crowded - for good reason - if someone gets out to the mountains only so often and wants to check off the bucket list, then they will hit up the popular stuff.  The thing is there is plenty of awesomeness with less crowding if you are willing to explore.

East Lake.
credit: Sachin

Now moving on towards Lake Reflection.
Trail getting fun.  Credit: Sachin

The trail towards Lake Reflection was not nearly as well maintained.  There was some scree and talus sections and a little bit of bush whacking.  At least navigation wasn't really an issue.  I mean, you just follow the water!

credit: Sachin

Lake Reflection.
credit: Sachin
Lake reflection might have been my favorite part of the trip.  Something about hidden gems makes it that much more special.

Backpacking meals are really convenient, but they take forever at altitude!  We had to double the cook time at 10000 ft, which meant that we were holding bags of cooking food for 20 to 25 minutes and then eating.  We just decided to walk with it.  Credit: Sachin

After we descended back to Bubbs Creek the sun was starting to set and casting some brilliant evening light against the rocks.  We climbed up the valley keeping an eye open for a nice camp spot.

Making our way up Bubbs Creek again.

Not a bad spot for the night, right?
The camping spot that we picked was spectacular.  The views were out of this world and there weren't many mosquitos.  And it is so nice to fall asleep to the sound of a waterfall!  It was a bit chilly up here, I bet it got down to the high 30s, but I slept pretty good.  I had another one of those vivid dreams that I actually remembered:

I dreamt that Sachin and I were bivied up but we were in a field in a different place with a road down the hill from us and some houses on the other side of the road.  I was laying on my back looking at the sky and saw some michelin men floating down to us.  They weren't really michelin men, they were just like michelin men, no bumps, just white blown up limbs.  As they got closer they eyes light up red.  Then they fell on us and started to suffocate us.

Glad it was a dream.
The sounds of the waterfall were coming from right next to us.

Next morning as we make our way up the JMT towards Glenn Pass.

Wide open high alpine landscape.

Views of the Charlotte Creek drainage.  This creek would eventually merge into Bubbs where we were the day before.  Notice the cool rock scoop formation!

Apparently a member of the rabbit family.

Making our way up to Glenn Pass
The climb up to Glenn Pass was a blast.  I mean it was a blast for me.  I love working my up a big climb, sucking down air that isn't delivering nearly enough oxygen to my muscles.  It is such a worthy challenge!  And the views just get better and better the higher up you go.  I may not be moving very fast, but it is a slow methodical one foot in front of the other, and eventually you are rewarded with the top.  Sachin was hurting pretty bad.  The altitude was doing a number on him and I felt bad about that.  Nothing is fun when your head is aching so much that you can't think about anything else.  I have to say though: he toughed it out and got it done!

Views from the pass.

See the zizags?  We went up those to get to the pass.
Early in the climb I had heard voices from what I believed to just be a big land slide flowing down from the pass.  As I got closer I realized that the trail actually switchbacked straight up that landslide!  You may not be able to tell from the picture above, but that is an incredibly steep hill going straight down to the lake.
Looking all the way down to Rae Lakes from the Pass

Rae Lakes

Starting to leave Rae Lakes to go explore Sixty Lakes Basin.

Some of the "Sixty Lakes"
The Sixty Lakes Basin was a little bit of a let-down.   Everyone that we had encountered so far had been building it up as this wondrous place.  I thought it was average with above average amount of mosquitoes - blech!

Working on his tan...

This is what bears do for fun...
It is telling that half of the pictures that Sachin took of me I am stuffing my face with food. credit: Sachin

Back on the JMT at Rae Lakes

Finn Dome.

Dollar Lake.
At Dollar lake we had a decision to make:  Was Sachin up for the Baxter Pass out and back?  He convinced me that he wanted nothing to do with that climb and I totally got it.  We discussed options that included allowing me to go tag the pass and then meeting up - but then he had the idea that we could head back to Roads End early and then go see the Giant Sequoia.  I really didn't like the idea of splitting up and I enjoy being a team with Sachin, so we went with his plan.  I had an incredibly fulfilling trip up to this point anyways.  I had seen so much and was so happy with the way things had gone, there was no let-down here.

Looking down the valley - that is where we are headed.

Bear Video #1:

Really cool bridge.  Only one person at a time...

Filtering water from Woods Creek.  credit: Sachin

Camping out above Woods creek.  I tried out tying off the bug-net of my bivy to create an enclosed space and keep the mosquitos at bay... it worked really well.

Sachin had the unfortunate luck to get a puncture in his mattress.  His was not a restful nights sleep...

Credit: Sachin

Woods Creek Videos:

Yeah, this is real.

Mist Falls.
Bear Video #2:

What a great trip!