Friday, October 17, 2014

Euchre Bar Massacre

Not many people know ultra-marathons exist.  Even among actual ultra-runners I think you would be hard-pressed to come across someone that would know about "races" like the Euchre Bar Massacre.  Sure, much of the ultra community knows about something called Barkley Marathons, but this kind of competition is definitely a subset of a subset.  The Massacre is a race over mountainous trails, or not trails.  There was a 25 mile and 50 mile option.  It is self-navigated, meaning participants are given a notional map and have to complete the course without the aid of trail markers.  There is very little aid and long stretches where you might be very far away from any help.  You are required to carry sufficient safety gear and food and be able to get water on your own.  The trails (or not trails) might be fairly difficult to traverse.  There was plenty of times where I was on all fours trying to climb up a hill.  Sometimes that wasn't enough - you had to get your hands on rocks or trees or something at least semi-solid to pull yourself up the hill.  Going down that same hill was a whole other skill that I had never acquired before.  In short, there were plenty of skills that were required in addition to ultra-endurance.

I have given a little thought as to why more of these events do not exist.  It is a natural extension of the trail-ulra-runner: someone who thrives on moving efficiently through wild terrain for long stretches.  It seems logical that such a person would want to have the skills to do this regardless of maintained trails, being able to overcome almost any obstacle thrown in their way, and doing it self-sufficiently.  Ultra-runners are famous for being able to deal with discomfort, but I think a lot of us draw the line somewhere.  The fact of the matter is that as soon as you throw scrambling, blackberry bushes or poison oak, or a high probability of getting lost into the equation, there is a level of risk that many of us would rather avoid.  Maybe that is why we stick to the trails and to the safety.  But, there are definitely some rogue individuals who have indeed decided to take that next step, and I have to admit, this was a really fun day.  It probably helped that I did this with a couple of buddies at my side, which definitely helps with the risk part of the equation.  Not to mention it is always more fun to have an adventure with friends.  Sachin and James were the partners in crime for me in tackling the 25 mile version of this race.  This was while watching in awe as the fourth member of our cohort - Toshi - tackled the 50 miler.  The estimated finishing times for the races were in the 10-14 hour range for the 25 miler and 24 to whatever hour range for the 50 miler.  To put that into perspective: a traditionally hilly ultra-marathon of 50 mile distance should be completed in 7-11 hours.  This was a beast.

To prove that we had ran the course as prescribed, the race director, Sean, placed books at various landmarks where we would have to tear out a page and carry it to the finish line.  We were mingling around the picnic area when Sean said go and we all (all 17 of us) headed out into the forest in the early morning dark.  I got a first taste of what awaited us when within 200 ft of the start we were bush-whacking.  We finally made it up to an open dirt road and found a nice trail that we ran down to the north fork of the american river.  This stretch was rather eventless, just sorta in cruise-wakup mode.  We crossed the river and immediately headed up some rocks on the other side to find a trail that skirted the hill.  Only we went on the wrong trail.  There was a small group of us that figured out we were going the wrong way and then decided to bushwhack ourselves over to the trail we were supposed to be on.  The issue was that our sideways progress just sent us right back down a cliff to the river where we basically started over again.  We knew we were nearing in on our first landmark: some dudes grave out in the middle of nowhere.  We got within 100 ft of the grave when we decided we were going the wrong way, turned around, headed back to the river, then headed upstream before we figured out that we had to go back, and then sort of fumbled through bushes before one of us finally found the thing.  It was at this point that any competitive aspirations I might have had vanished rather quickly.  I knew that my only advantage over the others was my fitness and ability to cover large swaths of ground quickly.  But spending half an hour looking for a book made me realize how futile the exercise of "racing" was for me in this event.  Course knowledge would be the only thing that could really let you harness all of your physical prowess towards winning.  This would very much turn into a team challenge where we try to leverage all of our combined experience to at least have a shot at finishing the course.

James, Sachin, and I at the "sign"

Early morning at the river.

And the fun begins...

Kinda pretty here.

Sachin, crossing the footbridge.
I was pretty much in a full sprint all day.  I don't know how anyone was keeping up with me.

At the stream before the carnage began up Ebenezer's Highway. 

Filling up.
The real challenge began with the climb up Ebenezer's Highway.  Basically a stretch of off-trail scrambling up a steep hill to where our third book was located.  I have climbed this kind of a hill before, where basically you have to use the trees to pull yourself up and scramble on all fours.  But never for 2000+ ft.  It was tough!  


Neat little climb.

Yay, we are like a third of the way there...

Sachin, enjoying the views.
Running the chicane through the various hunters and other suspect individuals we finally made it to our only aid station on the course.  It was pretty nice to sit and hang out and drink some soda and eat some fig newtons...
The best aid station ever.

That's the guy!  The inspiration behind this fun stuff.  His name is Sean.  And then there is some guy on his smart phone, lol, I swear, I was just checking the map.
Sachin decided to call it a day at the aid station because of a lingering ankle issue that had been slowing him down all day, so James and I continued on to tackle the downhill.  I was really curious about how it was going to go to get down that monster.  In actuality it was really fun.  Basically a big slide.  You just sat down and rode the loose leaves all the way to the bottom.  You had to build in a few stops where you smashed into some trees to slow yourself down, but it was a blast.

We filled up our water at the stream again and continued on to smash some blackberry bushes.  We started to crash through them, but we came to a point where it was so thick, and the forward progress was so slow, that we concluded that there was no way to continue up this trail and still make the 4 p.m. cutoff at the top of the hill.  So we turned around and went back to the dirt road and decided to hike that up to the top of the road where we could then continue on "drop road" back to the campsite and call it a day.

On the way up the road we ran into Joel who was returning down from the top of the climb and was on his way to finishing the 25 mile course.  We chatted a little bit about his ability to endure the blackberries (he said they weren't bad, but by the look of the bloody scratches up and down his arms, James and I came to a different conclusion).  Joel was the only person who was able to finish the beast, which is pretty cool because his brother won it last year.

The winner of the 25 mile event, Joel.  Actually he was the only finisher of the 25 mile event.

Breakfast Sunday.  Toshi looks like he is high, because, well, he hadn't slept in over 28 hours.

You know it was a good day when you look like this.

James and I jogged it back to camp where sachin met us later when Sean dropped by.  Even with our drop we managed to cover about 30 miles with 9000 ft of climbing.  James drove back to town that night and Sachin and I hung out around the non-campfire with some other hearty souls until we decided to his the sack and wait for Toshi's arrival the next morning.  It was an intense thought to know that Toshi was going to be doing all of that stuff through the night.

Sure enough, next morning I am just awaking in my tent to hear some footsteps and some hollers.  Toshi finished in 25 hours and some minutes.  He was the only finisher of the 50 mile course.  Serious cred.  We piled into the car and then crushed a serious Man breakfast in Auburn before returning to the bay area.  What a great adventure with the guys...

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Backpacking with the Bro in Big Sur

I was racking my brain to figure out what kind of a backpacking trip would be best to share with my brother Josh.  He never went backpacking before.  He never climbed a mountain before.  He was more interested in short, intense, workouts that looked impressive to ladies.  Originally I considered taking him to the Sierra.  This is where I felt the most impressive backpacking was to be done which showcases landscapes that would be totally alien to someone who spent their whole life growing up on the plains in Kansas.  Unfortunately, the day before the planned trip, he came down with a massive ear ache featuring fluid buildup and lots of pressure.  We decided that going up to elevation might not be such a good idea, so my fallback plan was to take him on a challenging mountain hike from sea level.  Big Sur features plenty of such terrain and I decided to take my brother up from Limkiln State Beach to Cone Peak at 5200 ft.  I remembered this hike offering plenty of different types of challenges and terrain and plenty of really steep stuff.

I had rationalized to myself that Josh could squat 500 lbs and box jump practically his own hight, so surely climbing a steep gradient with a 20 lb pack would be a piece of cake...  Apparently the two different types of exercises are really very different.  He was used to doing something extremely difficult for repetitions for about 20 seconds, I was asking him to repeat a relatively low intensity movement for three hours.  It didn't register to me at the time that taking a guy from the flats of Kansas and introducing him immediately to some of the most rugged mountain terrain I could think of for his first backpacking trip might have been a bad idea.

Oh well, if nothing else, it was at least going to be adventure one way or the other.  So here we are all smiles at the beginning of our hike:

Nice and clean.

Showing off the "underwater" abilities of my camera to the bro.

Start at the ocean of course.
We climbed up from Highway 1 and Josh seemed to be in high spirits, feeling pretty confident about reaching the Peak which we could see from the beach:  "Look, it just right there, should be easy...".  Every once in a while we would reach a short steep section and he would say how he was glad that was over.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that once we got to the ridge it was going to be like that the whole way, I kind of wanted it to be a surprise...

We reached a nice gentle downhill into a valley with a stream running through it.  We just crested the hill where on the ocean side it was dry and dead with manzanita and other prickly shrubberies, and on the other side was the cool, moist valley with giant coastal redwoods and ferns everywhere.  The noise from highway 1 shrunk away and was replaced with the gentle gurgling sounds of the stream, and the quiet breeze rustling through the top of the trees.  This is a beautiful place.  And it was where I knew would be one of our last opportunities to fill up on water before our big hike.  With the bountiful water available I thought it prudent to cook some lunch and collect our energy for the climb.  Josh was introduced to his first dehydrated backpacking meal, some mexican backpackers pantry selection, and he actually liked it!

We filled up all of our water receptacles and began the climb.
Lunch at the first stream crossing in the redwoods.
It was a pretty warm day and once we reached the exposed ridge, the combination of the steep climbing and the heat was really taking it's toll.  Understandably Josh was guzzling the water.  I was trying to keep a consistent rhythm up the hill, just nice and easy, trying to listen to Josh's breathing to figure out whether I might be pushing him to hard, but he took a slightly different approach to the climb.  He realized that he could sustain shorts bursts of intensity and then take little breaks to catch his breath, and he liked that a lot better than the constant pace that I was doing, so every time I would look back, he would be waaay back, or at the next moment he would have caught up to me.  We were gaining about 1000 ft per mile, and after a couple of miles of this his quads started to bother him.  I was concerned given that we weren't even half way up the mountain, so we would look for any shade oak along the way to take breathers at.  Unfortunately, the flies were really bad this day.  Maybe they are always like that in the summer.  When I did this hike in November with Toshi, there were no bugs at all, just a great hike.  But the little flies would be crawling all over our sweaty skin, getting in our face, and generally driving us nuts.  We were praying for a nice ocean breeze to help us out, but I only remember one rest stop where we actually got a decent breeze that cooled us off and kept the flies at bay, and we stayed there a long time!
My brother beginning to curse my name.  But I was enjoying the views!

Almost there.
There were a couple of times where Josh's leg cramps got bad enough that I was reassessing whether it was prudent to keep going, and I knew Josh was in the same boat.  I had explained that once we got to the top, there was a nice gentle trail to take back down, and I know this was playing into his calculations, because when he looked down that mountain, he realized that it was going to be kinda scary to try and descend that thing the way we went up, so pretty much I had put him into the uncomfortable situation where there was basically no turning back.  He had to suck it up and make a push for the summit.  It was somewhere along the final stretch where we realized that the water was disappearing way too fast.  He had drank almost all of his water, and I was sharing water from my camelbak.  It dawned on me that we might have to start rationing because there was no water between now and the top of twin peaks (where we were planning to camp for the night), and no water for the summit push the next morning, and no water for a good stretch of the descent.  I had made the unfortunate mistake of underestimating our water needs, and things were about to go from uncomfortable, to really uncomfortable.

We finally made it to the top of twin peaks (5000 ft in five miles), and promptly looked for a shady spot to chill out before starting to set up camp for the night.  And then the flies really settled in.  Josh had the "all-purpose" towel that was used for about any gross thing you could think of.  It sorta reminded me about my boys and their "blankies", but in a disgusting, demented grown man sorta version.  This towel was then used to drape around his head to keep the flies out of this face.  I had a similar setup with my combo of cap and bandana.  We were thirsty, and we had water, and we didn't drink.  I have to give my brother props for that.  He definitely sucked it up when he realized that we needed to have that water for the next day.  I think survival instincts have a way to push us to levels endurance that we never thought we were capable of, and I have a feeling some of this was kicking in for Josh.  We started telling each other hilarious stories of our "young man" stupid days (I was remembering the past, he was telling me about last week) to take our minds off of our predicament.  It worked rather well actually.  As the sun started to set, the evening got cool and the bugs went away.  All of the sudden it was wonderful at the top of Twin Peaks.  There was a lot of laughter and the mood got less dire.  We were treated to an incredible sunset and awesome colors.  We set up our camp and settled in for the night.
He cheered up after it cooled off and the flies left us.
As we packed up the next morning a new kind of pestilence hit us: Mosquitos!  At least they got us to hurry up a little bit so we could get moving and avoid them.  The next mile and a half section required us to traverse a sharp ridge with some fun scrambling thrown in.  Once me made across this we hit real trail that curled up around the cone to the summit.  There was probably still another 300 to 400 ft of climbing to get there, but Josh and I were so thirsty at this point that we decided to call it good and head down the other way on the trail to hopefully get to water as quick as possible.  I was trying to remember what kind of stream we might see on the way down, but I knew it would be different than November.  In November there was snow at the top of the ridge and peak and probably a little melt off and such.  California is in the middle of a pretty harsh drought and I was afraid that many of the streams would be dried up at this point, I was just really hoping that this one waterfall I remembered on the way down was still flowing.  As we descended we drank our last sips of water.
The next morning, looking over at Cone from Twin Peaks.

Our campsite.

Another ridge as we stated our descent.

Josh and his "sticks"
Fortunately the water was still flowing, and we gorged ourselves and finally got some descent trail food in our bellies.  You really don't feel like eating when you are thirsty, so we were probably pretty low on energy before we hit this fall as well.
This water saved our lives.  Or at least it quenched our thirst...

Yeah, all we have to do is go down there.
We followed the nice trail back to the steep ridge that we had climbed.  I explained to Josh that we needed to go down this part to get back to the truck, so we actually did have to go down some steep stuff after all.  There were a couple of things about this descent that made it sketchy.  First, it was steep loose dirt that was just hard to get good footing on.  Next were the yucca plants.  They seemed to be strategically situated along the trail to cause the most damage to clumsy hikers.  The plants don't look too threatening, but they have barbs in the tips that embed themselves into your skin.  I have heard of surgery required.  This sort of freaked Josh out.  So we were taking it easy down the ridge.  I would get impatient every once in a while and sort of skip down the trail because it was easier than taking steps.  Josh tried to replicate but then explained that it was not such a good technique for someone as top heavy as he.  After one steep section that I jogged down, I stopped and looked back up the ridge to wait for Josh.  I saw him start to do a little jog down the trail, but then he started to slip, so he ran faster.  All of the sudden he was out of control, bounding down the trail.  There was a switchback with rocks at the turn, and there was no way Josh was going to slow down to make the curve.  Instead he hurdles the rocks in a giant leap, lands on his feet at full speed on the open hillside and continues to sprint full speed down the hill.  He reminded me of that movie Thor, where the dude is parallel to the hill sprinting at full speed.  I was staring in disbelief as he busts straight through a bush with things flying out of this backpack until he finally realizes that he has to hit the deck to slow himself down.  He tries to put himself into a baseball slide, but then his pack catches the hillside and he flips over and starts to tumble down the mountain.  After a few tumbles he slides to a stop.  He slowly gets up and looks up at me.  I was like: "Dude, that was intense!  Are you okey?"  He says he thinks so, and I got collect his stuff and meet him at the bottom where we have to sit for a while so he can collect himself and his legs aren't too shaky to keep going.  He said he had never been more scared.  I thought it was incredible he was able to use that athleticism to keep himself in one piece.  I was pretty sure it was just instinct that allowed him to come out of that with nothing but a few scratches.  Needless to say, we took it even more slowly down the hill until we reached the trail to the redwood valley again.  At this point he realized we were pretty much home free and I think he was lightening up a bit.  But once we hit the stream and I made the suggestion that we could soak our feet and chill out for a while, he said we should just get this thing done and get out of here.  I could take a clue.  We made it back to the truck and I could see he was rather relieved to be done.  We stopped by one of the the beach front cafes and got ourselves a burgers that totally hit the spot.  He told me that was the hardest thing he had ever done.  I kinda liked the sound of that.  But then he explained that he would never do anything like it again.  Whoops.  It wasn't all bad though, he did offer that we might try something a little easier next time, so I knew that I hadn't totally ruined him and maybe he did take some feeling of accomplishment and adventure out of the trip!

Please, let it be over!

I think he is happy to be done.