Monday, March 31, 2014

4 MPH Challenge Race Report 2014

The 4 MPH Challenge is a race that is a little different.  It takes place on a six mile trail loop near Whiskeytown Lake in Northern California.  Every 1.5 hours the race starts over again.  If you make it back to the start line within 1.5 hours you have the privilege of choosing to go back out again for another six mile loop.  Every loop you switch directions.  This means you have to average at least 4 mph to stay in the race.  The winner is the last person to complete a loop at faster than 4 mph.  I would divide the course into two halves.  On one half it is a pretty flat well groomed trail.  The other half is hilly, no big hills, but plenty of short, steep stuff- maybe 700 ft of climbing cumulative.  The hilly part has some rocky and rooty footing that us spoiled here in the bay area with our manicured trail systems would consider "technical".  This is not a race of the legs, but a race for the head.  I doubt that young speedsters would gain any advantage at this race, instead, it is the tough veterans that seem to come out on top.

When I showed up to work today (Monday after the race), I was approached by a coworker who inquired about my weekend adventure, spotting the tell tale signs of swollen feet in sandals and old man walking gate.  I contemplated his curiosity for a while, trying to figure out what details this man might find interesting.  I could just tell him that I ran an ultramarathon on some trails in NorCal.  But that doesn't really paint a worthy picture for his imagination.  So I thought I might try and relate my experience in terms that he was familiar with.  Knowing that this person had been on a couple of four mile hikes at Rancho, he no doubt was familiar with the concept of a trail, but again, that just wouldn't do it right.  So I thought of this story:

Imagine you just bought a bunch of groceries and loaded up your car and then got ready to drive home but then discovered you left your keys at home.  You then decide to walk six miles back to home to get your keys. You step out of your car and immediately submerge your foot in a shin high puddle that extends 50 ft to the curb.  Well, the feet are already wet, so you just hoof it over to the curb.  You then continue to walk along the sidewalks with your squishy shoes and cold feet and periodically encounter another impassible puddle with varying depths of ankle to shin high cold, dirty water and you grudgingly trudge through.  At some point you realize you are being followed.  You look back and see a man with a black cloak and a scythe.  You try and see his face but there is only darkness under the hood.  This alarms you and you decide to pick up your pace to put some distance between you and the scary man.  Strangely this man is moving at exactly 4 mph.  So you decide you have to run.  Now you reach some hills.  You know, the sort of hills you see in San Francisco with the steps built into the sidewalks.  Oh well, move fast!  Uh oh, looks like someone was doing some construction up ahead and took a jack-hammer to the sidewalk.  You stumble up and down the hills with the constant thought that the THING is after you.  You are happy that there aren't as many giant puddles to wade through though and your feet and shoes are actually feeling a little normal again, but then you reach another strange obstacle.  A fire hydrant has been barreled over and there is a stream of water to wade through.  Insane.  But then you encounter more of these, they seem almost constant.  You crest the last hill and then instead of seeing your house, you see the grocery store with your car sitting in the middle of the puddle.  Oh well, you are getting hungry so you might as well go sit down for a while and eat some of those groceries, and you know that you've put a good ten minutes on the DARKNESS, so you sit in the car and collect yourself.  But then before you know it you spot the DANGER in the distance and jump out of the car, straight back into the puddle to try and reach your house and get away from the THING.  You repeat this process for twelve hours, over and over gain, running from the SCARY man, trudging through the puddles, stumbling on the hills, receiving respite at the car.  But then the sun is going down.  So you reach into the glove compartment in your vehicle to retrieve the flashlight and continue on into the night.  This is a even more frightening prospect, being chased through the darkness with the SCYTHE guy after you.  You reach the car 19.5 hours and 78 miles into this shaking experience and discover your keys in the ignition.  You thank god and then drive home.

I could have told my coworker this story.  But instead I just said that I ran an ultra-marathon.  It was fun.  Probably the right call.

Anyways, here is how it went down:

I got off of work early on friday and drove north.  I knew there was going to be some rain, but I didn't really see much on the way.  When I got there I picked an idilic spot for my abode and was all setup in no time.  Then I pulled up a chair to Matt's firepit (pic below) and hung with the guys until we all hit the sack for an early bedtime.  It was raining a little off and on before I hit the sack.

One of the first to set up their tent, pretty sweet spot, huh?  I finally got to test whether this super light could do the job.  Five inches of rain that night in a torrential NorCal downpour, totally dry, yeah baby!

Matt, race director Mark, and Cody.  Matt showed me how to roll.  He had a sweet full suspension mountain bike that he strapped to the top of his wrangler while pulling a trailer that contained his extensive camping equipment!
A few times during the night I awoke to some pretty fierce-some pounding on my little tent.  It was loud, but rhythmic, so I was able to go back to sleep, but in the back of my mind I was wondering what Saturday was going to turn out like.  Turns out the area got about five inches of rain that night.  Pretty insane.  That morning there was water everywhere (except for in my tent-yay).  I figured it was going to be a sloppy day, but didn't really know what was coming.

Race morning, getting ready to go.
I pinned on my number and Mark Swanson, the race director, already said go!  I was running a little behind but was not hurried at all.  There was no reason, just four miles per hour, how hard can that be? So I started in last place and just kind of hung with the group.  The footing was surprisingly stable.  The mud was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.  Maybe that was because of the clayish soil, but this had a downside as well.  The soil doesn't drain.  The water just sat on top.  The trail that was nicknamed "the canal" was a V-shaped flat trail that could be mistaken for a stream at times, small ponds at other locations, or a nice well groomed foot-path.  The giant puddles were anywhere from ankle deep to mid shin.  It was tough to run through, and at some point, most runners just slogged through the puddles resigned to not burn any extra energy fighting the inertia of the water.  You would emerge on the other side of one of these puddles and squish, squish, squish the water out of your shoes, feet and lower limbs getting pretty cold at times.  There was a lot of speculation about what all of the water logged running would do to us long term, but at the time it didn't seem to bad, just really annoying.
The vegetation looks a lot different here.  It is pretty.
 I really like the scenery from these trails.  I thought it was an aesthetic, well picked loop for this race that had a little bit of everything.  It had some flats you could cruise, some rocky, rooty, steep stuff to keep things interesting, views, it was just a really nice loop.  There were no big climbs, but a lot of ups and downs in the hilly section.  I would estimate maybe 700 ft of climbing cumulative per loop.  The first laps of the race are really chill because everyone is just cruising, talking, taking in the experience.  It is more like a club fun run than a race.  But the fact is, the early stages are one of the important parts of this race.  You have to be careful to keep a steady pace, don't let your heart rate spike for some ambitious, ambiguous inter race goal.  Keep your eyes on the prize... long term baby!  The things you do when you come in from your loop are critically important as well.  You have to take care of yourself, get some calories in, get the stress off of your legs, make sure your feet are ok, etc.  I wasn't sure about the whole sitting during a race thing because I thought you would just get tight and that would spell more trouble than it was worth.  Instead what I found was that taking the stress off of the legs for 10 minutes worked wonders.  Yes, you will be tight for a while when you get back up.  It hurts when you get back up.  But take your time and slowly get those legs moving again, don't rush anything, and you will warm back into it.  How can I tell that it actually helped?  The first half of whatever lap we were on was always considerably easier than the second half.  I attribute this to the sitting time.

Some of the trails and some of the views.
A little vid to try and capture the vib:

4 mph means you can enjoy this stuff a little more, instead of push, push, push.

Example of a stream, I mean trail, I mean stream, whatever.  We ran through the middle of it.  This was only an ankle deep affair.  I don't even have pictures of the deep ones.

Guy Herr, representin the club!  It was cool to have another Quicksilver runner there and was the first time I meant Guy.  He was putting in some good laps too, I believe he was rollin with the front-runners most of the day...Pretty sweet setup at his truck.

Some weather rollin in, not too bad...
 One of my favorite aspects of this race was the time between loops.  It is just a great feeling to come rolling down that last hill into camp, knowing that you are going to sit down, grab some grub, and chill.  It was also a blast yucking it up with the other runners.  Battle stories abound.  Various falls, look at blood coming from here, what about those puddles?  The trash talking is rampant.  How are you feeling?  I'm feeling great!  Look, my feet don't even have blisters!  It's all good banter when you can kick the legs up for just a little bit and chow down on some yummy stuff.

There was a downside to the downtime for me.  I was eating way too much for what my body could actually process and it resulted in some pretty uncomfortable GI distress for several laps in the middle of the day.  I was dealing with diarrhea at the end of every lap and figured out what I was doing wrong.  I cut back on the food intake, kept emptying the system, and then just tried to even things out.  Eventually the pain subsided, and a pretty constant thirst came on even though it was cool and overcast.  I suppose that was my bodies way of saying it was dehydrated from all of the loose stools, so I just sipped water through the next laps and was finally feeling really good just as dinner was being served.  As you get closer to sundown, Mark starts taking orders from the runner for what kind of warm thing they want cooked for when they roll in next lap: soup, grilled cheese, quesadilla, etc.  It was great, and basically for the rest of the race I would eat whatever I ordered, drink some coconut water, and be good to go, that was the only calories I was getting in at that point.

This is Tina Ure. She stands out in my mind because she took a header straight into one of the deep puddles, I can't believe she didn't drown!

My chair has the yellow jacket on it.  That is Chuck and Steve in the corner.
The race strategies seemed to be all over the place.  There were people putting in some fast laps in the 65 to 70 minute range and getting long breaks. I was averaging about 75 minutes a lap all day, loving my 15 minute break.  And there were some coming in around 80 minutes, like last year's winner Aaron who racked up 90 miles for the W.  It was hard to tell who was doing it right.  But I think it is telling that the final four did not put in too many fast miles at the beginning.  Actually I'm not sure what Andy was doing, but he was moving pretty good all day up until it seemed that fatigue got him after 60.  It was fun to meet and run with Chuck.  We were set up next to each other in the recovery tent, purely on circumstance, and we were running pretty consistent laps together too.  Not together all of the time, we had different paces at different places on the loop, but it always seemed that we would converge on the finish line.  He kept telling: One more lap!

As the race went on, the numbers started to dwindle.  The 18 milers were done a long time ago, the 36 milers (affectionately known as the "day campers") are finishing up.  Some of the runners in the unlimited division are talking about how they need to save themselves for this or that race, how this is just a training run, how their feet hurt, etc.  And you start to get a glimpse of really who is going for top dog.  A lot of runners made it to the 12 hour mark, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. but then people had to get out their flashlights, and it seemed like a lot of people didn't really look forward to the thought of continuing into the night.

Getting ready for another lap!
 Then after lap 9 there were only four of us willing to continue on.  Andy, Chuck, Aaron and I went out for lap 10.  I was consistently pumping out 75s and by this time was finishing my laps clearly in front of the other guys.  It seemed that maybe they were slowing down a bit, or maybe conserving energy for the long haul, I couldn't tell.  I was flying high though.  I was having a blast running by myself through the night on the trails and feeling good!  I rolled in after mile 66 and got my coat and sat by the fire with some chicken soup.  Andy rolled in next and promptly excused himself from any further torture.  Chuck and Aaron rolled in with maybe 4-5 minutes to spare and this was where Aaron called it a day as well.  Chuck said:  One more lap!  So it was.  I thought he was done though, but he got on a new pair of shoes and was like a new man.  So we went out again.  I got back in 75 and he got back with about 5 minutes to spare again.  This time he had some gear issues and really didn't have time to take care of himself, but he said:  One more lap!  Seriously?  He got down in a sprinters stance, Mark said go, and he sprinted off of the line, for three steps and then we walked together.  I slowed a little on this lap and finished in 78, but I fully expected that Chuck might make it as well, so I got all of my stuff ready for the next lap.  I also knew there was a good chance that was it.  Chuck ended up timing out on the lap, so I officially won the 4 mph challenge.  I was sitting by the fire with my coat and quesadilla and was starting to go hypothermic and decided I better get in the sleeping bag as soon as possible (I've been there, done that after various ultra experiences).  I meant up with Chuck the next morning and found out that as soon as he knew he was going to time out he decided to walk it in.  So he came in about 50 minutes past time.  Thing was that he wasn't moving fast enough to keep his core temp up, so he was going hypothermic out there, but he somehow kept it together and made it back on his own power and then warmed up in his vehicle.  I was impressed how he didn't just stop after mile 72 when maybe in his heart of hearts he didn't think he was going to make it in time, he was going to give it his best shot no matter the consequence.  It took some real guts.

I had an enjoyable experience and want to give kudos to Mark Swanson and the volunteers for putting on a really unique and fun experience for ultra-runners.

People around the campfire when I rolled in from lap whatever.  Now this is torture... when you know you could stop and join by the campfire, but noooo, you have to keep going out for another lap through the cold puddles!

My trophy collection...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Henry Coe Fastpacking: Not Dead Yet!

"I only wish you might have beheld the scene. Five large oaks, their branches festooned with lichens, are our canopy. The bright fire lights up their trunks and foliage and the group around. The moonlight lies soft on the plain and lights up the black mass of the peak, Ojo de Agua de la Coche, that rises back of the camp, its black outlines sharp against the blue sky."

-Henry Brewer

Back to Henry Coe State Park!  Yes!  This time I brought my own personal photographer.  All pictures were taken by Toshi Hosaka, thanks to his marginally operating camera, which was 100% more effective than my minimally operating camera...

There was finally some rain here in California a couple of weeks ago, so it seemed like if there was a time to hit up Henry Coe it would be in this window.  This park is notorious for scarcity of water, and it is prudent to cover ground when you know you can get to it.  I had a difficult trip here last year by myself, but this year Toshi was excited to join me and it was a pleasure to show him some of this rugged wilderness.

We started from the headquarters and headed down to China Hole with plans of doing a counter-clockwise navigation of the park, hitting up several peaks and waterfalls along the way.

On the way down to China Hole.
Joanne likes this pic.
China Hole.

Can you spot the trail?
My favorite pic.
This is classic Coe.
Dinner time.
Time to bag our last peak for the day.
A goal for me for day one was to try and find a waterfall down in grizzly gulch.  We made our way down to the south end of the park and found an intersection with the gulch.  We then followed the stream up, hopping rocks, wading, skirting along on the hillsides until we found our first waterfall.  Then Toshi suggested we could climb the waterfall and keep going, but on further inspection we decided to climb around the side of the waterfall and we kept following the stream.  It was an pretty, secluded place.  We kept finding small falls, and then found another big one.  Once again we resolved to try to climb around it, but this time the crumbly rocks jostled our confidence a little and we decided to bail and bushwhack up the hill to try to connect with the trail.  On the way up to the trail we came across an old shack/ranch house/whatever, but it was in the middle of the woods and it was old.  We checked it out.  Plenty of old artifacts and an eerie, lonely feeling.  It is fun to find random stuff like that.

We made it back up to the trail and made our way towards the ultimate destination for the day: Wilson Peak.  The sun was just going down and we decided to sit down and have dinner and then do a night hike up the peak and camp at the top.  I warned Toshi about the exposed ridges at night, how the wind can be pretty miserable, but I had a tent to test out and Toshi was really set on the idea, so Wilson Peak it was.

It was a full moon, so we didn't even need our headlamps.  A peaceful, beautiful night.  We located the peak and set up camp only to spot a line of lights smoothly cruising some trails in the distance.  They kept getting closer and eventually made it up to our peak and then kept going.  Just some mountain bikers out for a night ride.  People know how to have fun!  It turns out there was some pretty good wind during the middle of the night, but Toshi said it actually worked pretty good to keep condensation down in the bivy setup.

I think Toshi likes this place.

Random rock.
The next morning we made our way over to Kelly Peak, where Toshi actually found a summit register, which he was totally stoked about.  I was out of water by this point so we took it easy going towards Pacheco Falls, our next destination.  We passed "Live Oak Spring" along the way, but it just turned out to be a trough filled with water and green stuff... no flow.  So we just decided to make it down to the falls and get our water there.  Pacheco Falls was another beautiful waterfall.  We filled up there, had some breakfast, Toshi got his coffee, and then we had an argument about whether we should take the steep road back to the trail to put us on track for Mustang Peak, or try a shortcut and climb the ridge.  I saw way too much poison oak and bailed, turns out it probably would not have mattered anyway as I ended up with PO all over after this trip!

The hike to Mustang Peak was a long, exposed fireroad.  The views were quite spectacular, but the sun was making us pay.  The Peak is worth it though.  It isn't nearly the tallest point in the park, but the view-shed is terrific.
Strange creatures lurking.
After Mustang Peak, we followed some more exposed fireroad down to Orestimba creek with our next destination being Rooster Comb.  The Rooster Comb is a really neat rock formation.  Toshi and I climbed to the top, took in some awesome views of the valley and had some fun scrambling along the ridge.  Toshi tried to find the most vertical section of rock to test out his climbing skills.  I spotted him from the bottom and it was pretty cool to watch him scale those rocks!

Playing on the Rooster Comb!
Can you spot the Toshi?
Can you see him now?
From top of Rooster.
More from Rooster.
Another interesting rock formation near the comb.

There are plenty of these at Coe!

Getting ready to climb Stakes!
After rooster we kept heading north along the creek expecting to fill up on water at the confluence of Robison Creek and Orestimba just as the sun was going down.  There we had our dinner and prepared for another night hike.  This time we were going to be climbing from one of the low points in the park at 950 ft to the highest point at Mount Stakes at about 3800 ft.  It was another incredibly bright moon lighting the way for us, and this trail picked up elevation FAST.  It was definitely one of the longest, steepest, most sustained climbs that I have ever done.  And I was glad that we did it with the sun gone.  This is another hike that is exposed and the sun will get you fast, especially considering there really is no water around once you leave the creek.  Last year I tried to take something called the Pinto Creek trail to get up there.  But that was a mistake.  I ended up bushwhacking to the top and taking up most of my day doing it, all the while getting pretty dehydrated.  The trail we took this year was 100x better.  We got to the top of the ridge (not quite the summit yet) by about 9:30 I think and set up camp.  I was having some terrible issues with my nose bleeding on the way up and would end up making a mess of things that night, but it got better the next morning.  That night was a peaceful night with hardly any wind.

Next morning on the ridge.

The next morning we followed the dirt road on top of the ridge to Mt. Stakes.  We then had a debate about how to get down the mountain, eventually deciding on following a dirt road that we could see plainly following the ridge down towards the red creek valley,  It was the road that matched up pretty good with a map that Toshi had (we were no longer in Henry Coe, so that map wasn't really that useful).  We followed it down, but then reached a four way intersection.  Toshi decided we should go straight, but then after following it down for half a mile it pretty much fizzled out into the manzanita brush.  We decided that it was too much work to go back to the intersection where the next pick might just dead end us as well, so we bushwhacked from this point.  This was really unpleasant for me in my shorts, but I did it before and knew it would heal up just fine.  The legs did look pretty gnarly afterwards though, and I did step on something sharp that went all the way through my shoe and punctured my foot.  Oh well.  

We knew we were technically not in the park anymore and roaming around on someone's property, but there was not sign of humans anywhere.  It is pretty desolate out there!  We made our way down to red creek road and then followed that back into the park and all the way to the chaparral trail.  Last year I had asked the rangers whether I could go through this little section of the map that said it was private property (completely enclosed by the park), because that was what I deemed necessary to get to the Orestimba Wilderness in the most efficient manner.  They shut me down of course, but this time as we headed up the chaparral trail I knew we were going to be intersecting with this "private property" to try and make it back to the car by nightfall.  We got to the top of the ridge and there was county line road.  No indications that it was private anything, just looked like another trail.  In fact, there was nothing up there, except a dirt road that led to bear mountain (which is in the park).  It was baffling my how anyone would this land would be useful for any private concerns.  Well, now I know, don't worry about that stretch, it's all good.  We bagged bear mountain and then made our way down to the east fork of the coyote river.  I was pretty hot at this point and delighted in a five minute soak in the stream.

Red Creek road, way above red creek.

Best lizard ever.

There's Red Creek.

Toshi and I followed the "Narrows" back to China Hole and made our way back up to the car right as the sun was going down.  Perfect timing.  

Post trip it turns out the Poison Oak, that I probably got on the first day scrambling around the waterfalls and such was really bad.  As in it is probably the worst I have ever had it.  But I am surviving.  Going to Henry Coe does not assure you poison oak reaction, I was just stupid.  You can avoid those off trail sections, or you could wear more cloths and be really careful with the cloths once you take them off.  I have not yet learned.  I am not totally sure why I come back to this park.  It has to be the combination of it's sheer size and ruggedness, along with it's proximity to where I live.  There really is a lot to explore and it is not easy hiking.  Your skills definitely get tested.  It is also amazing to me how few people actually get back into the park.  Toshi and I saw no one on Sunday until we were within 5 miles of headquarters.  The park just seems very underutilized.  But that makes it like a cool secret and secluded getaway.

The waterfall pics:

Camping Setup:


This was my first fastpacking trip trying out a tent.  This is the mountain hardware supermega ultra light 2, which is a mouthful, but basically means it is a really light, and really expensive two person tent.  I got a good deal on it thanks to Judy Hosaka (who had access to a factory outlet).  It is pretty much what I would consider a standard for this class- aluminum poles, double wall, about 2.5 pounds.

This is called a vestibule.  Keeps my stuff dry.
Taj Mahal.
On the ridge at 3600 ft.
There are some plusses and minuses to the tent:

  1. Clear boundary between your realm and natures realm.  This is really nice.  The different rustling sounds you hear, the bugs buzzing, etc.  Doesn't matter as much when you know there is a barrier.
  2. Don't worry about bugs.
  3. Shields from wind and rain.
  4. Nice enclosed, clean space to put your stuff.  I could lay out my stuff sacks, map, etc, and just fall asleep and not worry about putting it all away somewhere.
  5. Good ventilation keeps stuff dry.  Less need for a "dry out" break during a sunny day.
  1. Clear boundary between your realm and natures realm.  I really enjoy being out in the open.  I really enjoy falling asleep under the stars.  Being a little exposed is kinda nice sometimes.  It is just a different experience with a tent.
  2. One to two pounds heavier base weight.
  3. Takes up a ton of volume in your pack.  I barely fit everything in.  There is no way I could fit it in with a bear canister, which would be tough for the Sierra.
  4. A little more setup and tear down time.
  5. Wind causes a lot of noise.
Overall, I think it has a place in my fastpacking gear lineup.  It just depends on what conditions I think I might face and what kind of experience I am looking for.  And it will be great if I get to take the wife or a kid out on an adventure...

Other Gear Notes:

  • The pack sustained some more damage on this trip.  The bushwhacking really takes it's toll on the mesh pocket, but a little sowing job ought to fix it.  The Gossamer Gear Gorilla is still kicking!
  • I had to buy new black diamond ultra distance z-poles.  They were fantastic of course, I just hope they last longer this time...
  • Everything I usually bring worked like clockwork.  The jetboil is about as efficient as they come.  I was hoping to finish off the remnants of the last two canisters of fuel that I had, and cooking for Toshi and me, we only finished off one of them.
  • Food:  A couple of backpacking indian dinners, Jerky, some vacuum packed salmon, assorted dried fruits, "Joanne Bars", chocolate.  That was about it.  I think I have my backpacking food dialed in now.
  • Bandana for neck.  Worked great.  My neck suffered after last years trip, but it was fine this time, and if you wet it down whenever you get the chance, it really does help keep you cool.
  • Toshi borrowed Marc's SPOT for this trip.  It was a handy thing to have around, just in case of emergency, but the best part about it was when we got back and could see our tracks through the park.  Definitely a cool gizmo.