Thursday, May 28, 2015

Great Smokey Mountains National Park Trip 2011

T Wilkin, Myself, D Vasic in Berea
After the three of us had failed to qualify to the National meet in the 2011 cross country season, Tom Wilkin, Dusan Vasic and I decided to take a trip down to Great Smokey Mountains National Park as a method of consolation. So on Friday November 18th after class, we piled into Dusan’s car with minimal gear and intention of doing some extensive hiking while sleeping at cheap motels. We crossed the Ohio boarder as the sun was dropping below the horizon and we stopped in Berea, Kentucky. Departing from our residence in Berea, Ohio, we would have missed out on a striking coincidence if we did not try to spent the night in a town sharing the same name in a different state. Because Berea was a college town in Kentucky as well, our plan was to crash a party and attempt to fall asleep on a random couch in order to avoid paying for a hotel. Unfortunately, our plan never got off the ground and after exploring the campus, we headed back down the highway and eventually booked a night at the Scottish Inn in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Tom & Dusan Scanning the Mountains
We awoke quite early and hit the road back toward our planned destination. Upon entering the park, we obtained a map and began plotting out the days journey. Our first target was Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain in GSMNP and TN as well as the 3rd highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. In fact on a clear day, one can see 100 miles and seven different states; however, due to the thick fog that engulfed the air we were lucky to see seven feet in front of us. 

Dusan in the Tree
At any rate it is always enjoyable to be at a highpoint of a region. The only issue with Clingmans Dome is the fact that you can drive your way to the top and there is a large manmade concrete viewing platform at the summit. Any time the adventure and effort of getting to the top is removed then the appeal of the summit is far diminished in my mind. Additionally, anytime humans try to make improvements to nature, it always ends up cluttering an otherwise pristine vista. Case and point is the circus that Yosemite Valley has turned into; perhaps the Hetch Hetchy faired better. At any rate we quickly fled from the platform to find a forested trail and we started heading northeast on the Appalachian Trail. Due to time constraints and several other things on our list we only were able to enjoy about 1.5 miles before hitting the road to our next spot.

AP Trail near Clingmans Dome
Despite the extensive trail network of GSMNP, we decided to do some bushwhacking up a steep mountain side in the Sugarland Range. It was quite a toil, dragging ourselves up the steep grade. After about an hour of ascending we randomly decided to head back and find our next adventure. It was at that point that we decided to do a run up to Ramsey Cascades, the tallest waterfall in the park. We ran the majority of the 4 mile trail which picked up 2000 feet in elevation and arrived at the stunning water feature around the same time that the sun was sinking below the trees. We took a few pictures and showed no particular urgency to get back to our car, despite the fact that we did not have headlamps or flashlights. 

Dusan with an Icicle
At this point we all had very minimal experience with any form of backcountry hiking and lacked even the most rudimentary common sense in terms of safety and respect for potentially dangerous situations. However, we were about to be taught an important lesson in the form of a very uncomfortable night in the Smokey Mountains.
We started back down toward the car and were able to visualize the outline of the trail in the dwindling light. 

Looking into a valley
Soon however, the light was consumed by the thick canopy and an impenetrable darkness took its place. In other words we were screwed. We had made it about a kilometer in the light and began stumbling our way over the trail to cover the remaining 5.5 kilometers blindly. We traveled in a single file line bravely led by our Serbian guide Dusan. We tripped, twisted ankles, and banged shins on rocks for about an hour before we realized that we had lost the trail. My minimal common sense was telling me that we should stay put and avoid getting anymore lost, spend the night and find the trail in the morning. However, Dusan and Tom were confident that we could find the trail again, so I was overruled. Fortunately they were right we found ourselves back on the correct path, but I once again suggested that we simply stay put to avoid getting lost once again. With a little debating we decided to make camp in a slight ravine with a fallen tree for a wind break and a bed of leaves for comfort. 

AP Trail near Clingmans Dome
Sleeping in the near freezing temperatures in the hauntingly isolated forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains was one of the most miserable nights of my life. Armed with only shorts and a sweatshirt to provide warmth we were forced to rely on each others body heat to prevent potential hypothermia. Without elaborating anymore on our survival techniques, our method still made for a sleepless, shivering, restless night. 

Ramsey Cascades
In addition to our fears of hypothermia, the trail was also known for its extensive bear activity which did not ease our nervousness. After watching the moon change positions throughout the night, we finally started to see some hints of light and as soon as we could make out shapes we got to our feet and began the short hike back to our car. I was incredibly dizzy when I stood up, which could be due to the constant shaking throughout the night or the low blood sugar or the dehydration, at any rate it made it difficult to keep my balance. After the dizziness finally resolved we started down the path and found that a large boulder in the middle of the trail had thrown us off in the dark and caused us to make a wrong turn and ultimately leading to us spending a late autumn night in the wilderness. We estimated that we were only about 2.3 miles from the car.

Tom & Myself at Cove Lake State Park
After finding our way back to the vehicle, the next step was Dennis’s all you can eat pancakes. After fueling up on some delicious nutritionally barren fried flour with fake maple syrup, we began the unfortunate trek back to Baldwin-Wallace College for class on Monday. On the way we stopped in to Cove Lake State Park in Tennessee, and enjoyed some final views of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the south before we were banished to the unrelentingly flat landscape and eternally gray skies of northeast Ohio. Overall our short-lived adventure to Great Smokey Mountains National Park was a success. It took our minds off of missing the National Cross Country meet, it allowed us to soak in some of the best wilderness the eastern United States has to offer and taught us some valuable lessons. I carried those lessons for at least another couple of months before hitting the trails in Leadville and continuing to poor decisions regarding backcountry hiking/running.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Horseshoe Trail Run 50K

Finishing; Photo Credit: Robert Goyen
The Horseshoe Trail Run 50K was an appealing race to me because it was a drastically different ecosystem and temperature than any race I had done yet this year. Additionally, I thought that the shorter distance would be ideal given the fact that I was only three weeks out from my last 50 mile race. My training was not exactly where I like it to be prior to a race due to tendonitis that I developed in my extensor digitorum tendon after my last race. This forced me to take nearly a week and a half almost completely off from running. My intention was to run a very quick 50K, last September I ran around 3:52 and spent the latter portions of the race walk/jogging due to poor in-race nutrition. I assumed that if I stayed on top things, eating and drinking the necessary amounts, there would be no reason I could not hold at least 7:15 pace. However after about 15 minutes of being out on course I realized that this was not at all a possibility.  However, I never anticipated the true misery I was in for as the day progressed. It became less a race and more a test of mental resolve.

Lap 1; Photo Credit: TROT
The day started with several small misfortunes and they all culminated into a making for a challenging, mentally draining and fatiguing day. My morning started around 1:00am when my alarm went off and I made some scrambled eggs, grabbed my handheld water bottle and a change of clothes and was off for Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock, TX. It was about a two hour and forty-five minute drive from my rental house in Giddings, TX and I arrived one hour before check-in. I pulled into a parking lot in what I thought to be the race entrance and waited there until some opened the gate for the entrance. However, after following the car in front of me to a dead end, we realized that we picked the wrong entrance, so I pulled up the pre race instructions and we hustled to the correct entrance. I got checked in and quickly filled up my water bottle, unfortunately I did not bring nearly enough water for the ride down and started the race a little dehydrated – mistake number 2 for the day. Additionally, I did not bring a headlamp because when I had raced in Olympia, WA a few weeks earlier it was bright at 6am, and I assumed that the Houston area was far enough east in the central time zone that it would be light by the time I toed the line – mistake number 3 for the day. I had a difficult time picking my way around the tight turns, protruding tree roots, slick muddy sections and shin deep water filled trail in the dark.

Mud Post Race
Finally after about 25-30 minutes of running the sun peaked out and light was filtered through the thick canopy. I came through the first lap with Jeff Ball and Gabe Leatherwood in around about 57 minutes, and we hit the trail again. During the second lap it was pretty much down to Jeff and I and we crossed the start/finish together in about 2:03, meaning that the second lap was about 6 minutes slower than the first. During the third lap I lost Jeff after I had a difficult time climbing some of the slippery hills. As the course became more difficult to maintain footing, and more energy was expending trying to stay up right as opposed to propelling forward, I knew that my goal would become finishing not racing. I believe I came through around 3:18, meaning that lap three was completed in about an hour and fifteen minutes. Before starting out on the fourth lap I stopped for a time and just stretched out a bit and collected myself. I was no longer concerned about trying to catch Jeff or hold my place, just survive the race and not see a DNF by my name.

My Water Bottle Post Race
My nutrition was decent during this race, but I would not say that it was my smartest outing in terms of food, electrolytes or water. I had debated bringing my hydration vest, but because the race was a 50K I thought the longest I could possibly be on course was 4 hours, therefore it did not seem necessary – fatal mistake number 4. Because I was out on course for about the same amount of time it takes to cover 50 miles, and the temperatures sored into the mid 80s with stiflingly humid air, I quickly became depleted of water and electrolytes. Hind sight is indeed 20/20, and after reflecting on the day, the hydration pack could have made for a much more comfortable run.

The fourth lap was atrocious, I think I came through in about 4:50, meaning that that particular loop took me about an hour thirty-two minutes. I could barely stay on my feet during the fourth lap, I cannot remember how many times I slipped and fall on my face in the murky water on the trail. My water bottle was caked with mud and every time I drank I was sure that I was ingesting copious amounts of giardia and other protozoa. It would take me several attempts to crawl my way up the slick hillsides and as a former restoration team worker for the National Park Service it killed me to see the mangled trees and mutilated trail. However, it was necessary to make it through the course and with the amounts of rain that central and southeast Texas received this year, I’m sure the vegetation will have no difficulties recovering.

Post Race; Photo Credit: Jeff Ball
The fifth lap consisted of about 30% running and 70% walking, even on the flat sections I could not keep my footing in the mud which made running a futile practice. The last lap seemed to drag out forever and I have never been more ecstatic to see a finish line. I came through holding onto second place in a time of 6:32:27; which means my last lap was a whopping one hour and forty-two minutes. I have never been closer to dropping an ultra race in my life, and that includes passing out at the Fish Hatchery in Leadville for an hour back in 2012. I feel that this event was extremely important to me, first and foremost, it knocked my confidence back tremendously and really made me rethink my perceived mental toughness. It provided a very different form of training that factored in balance and ability to propel on a compliant surface and it t made me realize that the hydration vest is essential in the Texas heat no matter what the distance.

Trail lies within those trees
I believe that Robert Goyen has discovered a whole new genre of trail running with this event, which I would describe as swamp ultras. Despite its difficulty and misery that it caused me while I was out there, I look back on this event as one to remember. I think anyone that spent even a few hours out there on course could share some great stories, laughs, and memories. Thanks again to Apryle and my parents for their continued support of my unique hobby of ultrarunning and of course I have to express my gratitude to Robert Goyen and the entire Trail Racing Over Texas crew and volunteers for putting on such a memorable event!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Capitol Peak 50 Miler & Seattle Trip Report

Walking around Bainbridge Island
After the Nueces 50 miler I took my time building my mileage back up and focused the majority of my time and energy on finishing up my fifth and most challenging semester of physical therapy school. I spent three weeks after the race doing some hikes and trail runs with Apryle in both the Olympic Peninsula of Washington and the rocky terrain of central Texas. By week four, I began to up my mileage into the low 70s and added a long run and mile repeats. Once again, my training goals are continuing to shift toward lower weekly mileage, higher intensity and longer long runs. This is due in large part to the time commitment required by school and the improvements I have seen as a result of my altered training habits.

I was unsure of whether or not to sign up for the Capitol Peak 50 miler and finally decided to register during my layover flight at the San Francisco airport. I had booked tickets to fly into Seattle to visit Apryle during my break between the fifth and sixth semester. I thought that even if I did not do the race it would not hurt to do some speed work and long runs so I trained as if I had already registered and tapered the week before the race.

When I arrived in Seattle, Apryle gave me a tour around Ballard and the University of Washington campus. Then two days before the race we went for a run to the locks and then around Discovery Park. The day before the race we perused Pikes Market and took the ferry to Bainbridge Island and spent the day walking around enjoying the weather. After getting home late we awoke early in order to make it to the Capitol Peak Forest for the start of the race.

The course
It was a cloudy but pleasant morning and an ideal temperature for a 50 mile race. I started out the race in second place, I tried to stay within a few strides of the leader but eventually I could not keep pace and lost sight of him on the winding trails. Fortunately it did not appear that anyone was on my heels either though so I settled into a good rhythm. I used a walk/jog routine up the mountain side to conserve energy and it worked quite well. I reached the top of the mountain after about 8 miles and was told that I was 2 minutes off the lead. After a slow trudge up, I was able to let loose down the mountainside and greatly improved my pace.

Running around mile 35
The course was quite aesthetic, on the ascent it offered picturesque views of the various inlets to the north, Mount Rainer to the northeast and the surrounding fir and spruce blanketed mountainsides. Much of the course was on single track or dirt road and was densely covered with vegetation, making it one of my favorite races in terms of ecosystem thus far. The downhill section was short lived and gave way to an undulating maze of single track. Although I enjoyed the race and terrain, I was overwhelmed by the monotony that always catches up with me during a long race. No matter how spectacular it is, at some point even the most beautiful landscapes become dull and repetitive. Ultimately I felt a since of guilt and regret for running a race instead of going for a hike with Apryle in the short time we had together.

Apryle & I at Bainbridge Island
Around mile 16 I was passed up by a man named Oliver from British Columbia, I tried to hold on and pace with him but I fell off after about a mile or two of trying. Between miles 16 to 29 I was feeling extremely down and defeated, I could not find a rhythm and when we ran the out and back portion I saw several people who looked quite energetic that I assumed would pass me up within the next few miles. To add insult to injury, I did not see Apryle at the aid station around mile 27 like I thought I would which was a major hit to my psyche. However, after finishing up another steady 3 or 4 mile incline, I began to get my legs back under me and I was feeling quite fit again. Around mile 35 I caught a glimpse of Oliver running toward me and in another minute I saw Apryle at the aid station. This meant that I was within two minutes of second place and to make matters even better I my morale boosted even further seeing Apryle.

Apryle & I on the Docks
Around mile 37 I began another climb up the mountainside, the last challenge of the race. As I wound up a set of switchbacks I passed Oliver and he appeared to be in bad shape as he waved me on. I saw a sign that said 2.1 miles to the summit and I was elated, it looked much further than that. I was able to walk/jog all the way to the top despite the steep grade. Somehow my flatland running in Texas was sufficient enough to catapult me to the top of the mountain in decent time. When I arrived at the top with about 9 miles to go Apryle was waiting for me. I was pleasantly surprised to see her and was also grateful to hear that it was all down hill from that point! I refueled the tanks and started barreling down the hillside.

Post Race
I suppose my pace was fairly pedestrian given my proximity to the finish, because I assumed I had a lock on second and no chance of catching first. However, I was wrong with about four kilometers to go, Oliver caught me. I looked over my shoulder and thought that I was pretty much cooked, he was moving very efficiently and I was sure I had just relinquished second place once again. However, I was able to keep up with him and we clipped off a pretty fast 2.5 miler. The whole time I was debating when to start my kick, however, Oliver turned to me and asked if I wanted to bring it in together and make a lean at the finish to give a good show to which I responded sure. The results might show me in second and Oliver in third but it was definitely a tie; I suppose my track background and leaning capabilities gave me the edge (Coach Behm always said lean for the line… never thought it would apply in 50 mile race).

Walking to the Arboretum
I was happy with the race and my time of 7:23:46, especially given the 7200 feet of elevation gain throughout the morning. It ended up being my second, second place and the second race this season that included a sprint finish! I consider this race to be one of my best overall performances given the difficulty of the course and my lack of mental preparation. My nutrition was pretty simple, I had a about seven or eight gel packs, some electrolyte/sugar water that the awesome volunteers topped off at each aid station, a banana, a couple handfuls of candy and a few sips of various sodas throughout the race.

Month         Days      Miles     Time          Pace     Longest Run
22 to 28
1 to 7
8 to 14
15 to 21
22 to 28
29 to 4
5 to 11
12 to 18
19 to 25
26 to 2

The week following the race was quite busy for Apryle and she had several exams, so it allowed me some time to recover. Fortunately I was able to sit in on a couple of classes and learn some ecology material as opposed to the constant barrage of orthopedic and neurological disorders, which was refreshing. 

Apryle repelling
Apryle and I also made a couple of trips to the arboretum via the Marsh Island trail. It was definitely a week of botany which included several lectures on plant families, learning to properly splice graft an apple tree, touring the greenhouse exhibits and creating our own terrarium. We capped off my trip to the great northwest with a climbing excursion at Mount Erie. I was extremely rusty, but Apryle still climbed well and we had a relaxing afternoon with beautiful views of the sound and Lake Erie; which is not quite the same as the lake I had pictured in my mind… I will always have northwest Ohio in my heart.

Lake Erie & Puget Sound from Mount Erie
As always after a race I must dedicate the final paragraph to expressing my gratitude. I would like to think my uniform sponsors: Mary & Walt Szablewski and Jeff and Cindy Craig; really love those green shorts and gray long sleeve shirt that I wear in pretty much every race and on every hike. I would like to think my fiancé Apryle for being in the bleachers wearing my jersey. I would like to thank Carlos Montoya for taking me to the airport and Nancy Green for picking me up from the airport and for their support and friendship. I must express my thanks to Tom & Clarice Hall for their hospitality and for making me feel at home in Seattle. I would be remised to not thank all of the wonderful volunteers at the race and Rainshadow Running for putting on an awesome event!

Sun setting over the San Juans