Pacing the Wasatch 100 – Part 1

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It’s a beautiful September afternoon and we’re somewhere on the top of the world.

“Did you see the horned toads up here on your training run?”

“No,” my brother answers.

“They’re all over here. I hope you didn’t step on any.”

He starts to scan the trail as he runs, and after a minute he stops suddenly and steps off the trail, reaching down to scoop something off the ground.

He turns to show me, a tiny horned toad no bigger than a nickel. It’s exactly the same color as the dust of the hilltop.

“How did you do that?” I ask him, “If I tried to bend down right now I’d probably stay down, and I’m only a few miles in.”

He’s about forty miles in. He shrugs, puts the little lizard back on the ground and starts running.

 

After decades of ridiculous (in my opinion) athletic accomplishments, my brother JC has decided to turn his attention to trail running. His background in running, cycling and triathlon is strong enough that he starts big. The Wasatch Front 100, to be precise. He completes Moab’s Red Hot 55k in February and the Buffalo Run 50 mile on Antelope Island in March. Then he focuses on the Wasatch course, running each segment at least once as part of his training.

He asks my husband and I to each pace a segment with him.

I’m excited about doing this, but very worried. I am The Trail Snail. I’m not fast. I don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize a successful race.

After forcing JC to promise, over and over, that he will leave me on the trail if I’m holding him up, I begin my own training.

My training consists of my usual training, plus completing the leg that I will pace so that I know just what to expect. If there is an easy segment of the Wasatch 100, I got it. Maybe there are more beautiful sections, but I don’t see how.

My husband drops me off at the top of Big Mountain and heads to work. It’s early morning, and I’m in completely unknown territory, armed with maps and a cell phone in case the maps fail me. If the cell phone fails me… well, I just won’t think about that.

I start out in thick old forest. The sun is up, but the sunlight can’t quite make it to the forest floor. It’s a little misty and eerie. Quiet.

“The forest is quiet,” she whispers, “too quiet.”

Oh. Sorry.

Within minutes I come face to face with a beautiful buck. I’m not sure who is more startled, but he vanishes before I can even think to take a picture.

Over the next couple of miles, the forest opens up. Tall old pines give way to meadows and quaking aspen. At one point, a tree has fallen across the trail at just about eye level. JC is much taller than me, so I make a mental note to be sure he doesn’t run into it. I duck under it, but not quite far enough, and I take an ear-ringing blow to the top of my head. I sit down for a minute and wonder if anyone in the world but me could have managed that.

The trail traverses a little below a ridgetop for a while, crossing it now and then, and then climbs to the top of Bald Mountain. Bald Mountain is pretty bald, as the name suggests. There are no trees, just scrubby grass and sage. This is where I start to see horned toads. This is also where the sky starts to darken. Just a little. Not too bad.

Now the trail is like a roller coaster. Climb a hill, drop down. Climb a hill, drop down, all following a ridgeline.

One range over, the clouds have become serious. It’s what I call a Jacob’s Ladder storm. If you’ve heard the song of that name by Rush, you will know exactly what I mean.

At first I try to ignore the flashes of lightning and the booming thunder. It’s still far away. I’ll be off this ridge long before it makes it clear over here.

Actually, it doesn’t take long. At all. I see lightning… one-one hundred, two-one hundred, three-one hundred… I make it to twelve before the thunder comes. Good. No problem.

I run as fast as I can over the next hilltop and head downhill. Lightning… one-one hundred, two… HOLY S*%T!

I drop to my toes, wrap my arms around my knees and huddle as low as I can, careful not to let anything but my shoes touch the ground. I don’t know if that really works, but I am alive, so… maybe? The storm hits me seconds later and pummels me for a few minutes. The thunder surrounds me, becomes part of me, vibrates through my bones and chatters my teeth.

Then it begins to move away. The rain continues, but when you’re already soaked, it really makes no difference. I drop from the ridgetop onto an area covered in long yellow grass. I find a rough sign on the ground that makes me think this is the future aid station. At this point I get kind of lost and take what appears to be a really overgrown dirt road. There is a spring at the bottom of the valley ahead, so I just run until I find that and get my bearings from that point. The rain has completely stopped and mist rises from the valley floor as the August sun resumes its dominance.

I follow a pole line, as instructed on my maps, until I reach a turnoff. I gather, from the instructions my brother printed from the race’s website, that this turnoff is easy to miss in the delirium of the race. Runners that have already been training have been kind enough to thoroughly mark the turn.

The turnoff leads into a tangled forest. The Wasatch 100 runners work on all the trails before the race, but I think they haven’t reached this area yet. Vegetation crosses the trail for the first mile. I can’t see the trail. I can’t even see my feet, so I look far ahead, following what appears to be the trail. It is a strange sensation.

I don’t fall. I’m quite proud of this.

I climb one last ridge and I can hear the freeway below me. Hmmm… I don’t like that. The trail drops down some switchbacks to a ravine that runs parallel to, but lower than, the freeway, so I can’t hear it anymore. You would never know it was right there. I lose the trail, pull out my instructions and try taking an uphill trail that puts me onto a frontage road. Nope, this isn’t right. I bushwhack back down, lose my sunglasses to a grabby tree, and leap over a little stream. As I land, I see deep, giant moose tracks.

Great.

Don’t get me wrong. I love all wildlife, but I prefer moose at a safe distance.

I find the trail and continue running. The trail is narrow and winding and I expect to see a moose at every turn.

I make it through without a moose encounter, manage to not take the wrong turn into a golf course, and climb out of the ravine to the freeway exit where we had dropped off my car that morning.

On race day, this will be a bright, bustling aid station. This will be the spot where I hand my brother over to my husband.

Unless he has to leave me on the trail.

Timp Trail Marathon 2016 – Redemption

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2016-05-21 13.50.59We’ve been wet for hours. Hours. It takes a while to get really cold, but eventually we do. My hands no longer work the zippers on my pack. My thighs feel strangely numb. Not just the skin, but the muscles. Now and then I just stop, my muscles quivering in a strange way, my legs deciding that we are now done. I encourage them, without much enthusiasm, and we get going again. Why didn’t I wear tights? Why?!?

The view is opening up ahead, steep peaks covered with snow. I can see a meadow, with little tents and smoke. What a cold place to camp! Then I realize… this is the Indian Springs aid station! These hard-core volunteers packed up here last night. Just to give me a peanut butter sandwich.

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2015

We stand next to the dying fire for a few minutes. It snowed very recently and the trailside grass is covered with wet slush. It’s not easy to leave the fire, but we do, climbing again to a high meadow. And high winds. And the assumption that we will never be warm again.

The Timp Trail Marathon is run on an incredibly beautiful course. The first half brings deep green meadows and panoramic views of Utah Valley. At the Gun Range (first) aid station, we get coke and cowbell. Yes, cowbell! Thank you charming couple! Then the rain starts, so light it doesn’t even count. The temperature is perfect.

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2015

Because of my last attempt at this marathon Timp Trail Marathon Race Report: Comedy or Tragedy?, my husband B has joined me. He promises me that I will take the correct turn at the Dry Canyon parking lot. He promises a finish line. I also noticed him packing some first aid equipment the night before. I almost feel obligated to take a nice fall so he can use it.

So we take the correct turn at the Dry Canyon parking lot. When we reach the Grove Creek (second) aid station, we get more cowbell! But the rain has picked up. We stand under a canopy and put on our jackets and gloves. I put a Buff around my neck and a warm headband across my ears. I wish for a rain jacket, but the one I have is mainly for wind. We step out from under the canopy and are drenched in minutes.

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2015

Heading away from the valley, the course climbs until we reach a deep canyon. Steep, rocky cliffs rise above us, the peaks disappearing into cloud. We continue along the steep side of the canyon on a sometimes precarious trail. A stream rushes through the bottom of the canyon, swollen with spring runoff and steady rain. The trail crosses rockslides and rock shelves. As a runner with a falling habit, I use a lot of caution in some spots. Eventually, the stream becomes louder, much louder. We turn a corner and find that we are looking down on a waterfall. At this point we just stop and enjoy the view. And at this point in my story, I must apologize. No pictures. It’s raining too hard for my camera to come out. I’m sorry.

Next year I promise multitudes of pictures.

We cross above the top of the waterfall and climb through forests to the Indian Springs (third) aid station. Then a little more climbing, across the high meadow… and then down! Fortunately the first few sections of downhill aren’t too technical, since my muscles are still frozen. The rain stops. After a long stretch of downhill, we start to climb again. The trail has degenerated to stretches of slimy, sticky mud. Somehow I stay upright, slipping backwards as I climb upwards. The mud lasts almost to the Dry Canyon (fourth and final) aid station. On the last downhill to the aid station, I finally hit the ground. It had to happen.

2016-05-21 13.51.04I get another peanut butter sandwich. I’ve been thinking about another peanut butter sandwich ever since the last aid station. Then we begin the last climb. As we reach the top, Utah Valley once again opens up below us. The sun comes out at last. I take off my gloves, buff and headband. I’m warm. I can’t believe I’m warm. I could lose a layer, but I don’t bother. It’s so nice to be warm.

The course finishes with fast downhills, on singletrack crossing through scrub oak and green meadows. The high desert is in its brief spring glory, the hills covered in green. I call it the Irish phase. In another month, these hills will be yellow and crisp.

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2015

Finish line! A man points out a picnic area where we can get some chili. He obviously has a good idea of the course conditions, because he says, “after this, you know you can do anything.”

It’s true. We do feel that way. We just ran 26 miles, with 5,292 feet of climb, through mud and winds and rain, flirting with hypothermia and potentially deadly dropoffs. B did it with a nasty head cold that becomes bronchitis within days. I did it (as usual) with my weak legs and lungs. We did it. WE DID IT!

I have a runner specific, recurring nightmare where I don’t make a start line. I struggle to find my shoes, my running clothes, my watch, all fighting through that unique dream fog that you know will NEVER allow you to make the start line! Over the past year, this nightmare took a twist. I make the start line all right, but then I realize I’m off course, I took a wrong turn somewhere, I don’t know where I am, I can’t find any flagging, I will NEVER find the finish line! Everyone who knows me knows the source of this nightmare.

2016-05-21 13.45.55For a year, the Timp Trail Marathon has haunted me like the white whale in Moby Dick. As badly as I wanted the finish a year ago, this finish means so much more after last year’s failure. The taste of redemption is sweeter than honey. My finisher’s medal is worth more to me than gold.

Yep, a cliche-packed paragraph that is nevertheless SO TRUE!

B informed me at the finish line that he was taking full credit for my finish. My legs and feet gave some argument, but I can’t deny that I finished, unlike the minor disaster of the previous year.

So I’ll give him some credit, but I’m not about to give him my incredibly valuable medal. 2016-05-26 11.54.53

Snow Running, or… How to Make a Dog Smile

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2016-01-31 13.39.45I set out with high expectations. The day is glorious. Truly. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the dogs are happy. It’s a routine run, on a route I take quite a lot. I run for a while, following an unusually narrow path, until I take a misstep… and sink to my thigh. I say some words that are best said in the woods alone, and pull my leg out.

The world transformed last night, and the footing that I have come to rely on as a human being has failed me. This trail has many faces: choking dust, mud that will pull you to the center of the earth, cracked, uneven clay from the days following said mud, and, rarely, a perfectly runnable surface. Today it wears a coat of heavy snow.

2015-12-16 12.30.44If you live among snow, you understand that it also has many faces. There is a powdery snow that has made the local ski resorts famous, but sometimes the snow has a heavy, wet feel. It’s a snow that is shockingly hard to shovel from the driveway. How could something that looks so soft and fluffy be so heavy? That’s the kind I’m running in today.

I get going again. I’m running in snowshoe tracks from before this most recent storm. As long as I stay in the tracks, I’m good. If I step to the side… see above.

The dogs are bounding through the snow with no effort. The Ivy Dog fox hops, then dives face first after a real or imaginary animal scent. Clayton the Malador burrows face first into the snow, then rolls to be sure he’s thoroughly coated. They bound and fall and smile. They smile a lot.

2015-12-17 00.05.01I huff along, make little progress, and walk more than I run. I’m a little annoyed by the whole situation.

Then I stop. I take a drink and just stand for a moment. I’m suddenly struck by the beauty of the woods in their blanket of fresh snow, the deep blue of the pines, boughs bent low under the weight, the stands of paper white quakies, snow clinging to a few straggly leaves, a raven circling overhead, scolding the dogs, or me. A tiny cottontail moves on top of the snow, so light it doesn’t sink.

2015-12-17 00.03.31I start running again, my attitude all adjusted now, and accept that this is going to be slower and shorter than planned. The snowshoe tracks end. The going gets tougher. I readjust my plan. I’ll run to a particular meadow, no matter how deep the snow gets, and turn around. It’s not what I planned, but as a workout, it’s much better than running on a dry trail.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about running in the snow:

  • Wear waterproof shoes. I have Salomon Speedcross 3 in the ClimaShield version and they keep my feet dry, especially with neoprene gaiters. If you don’t have waterproof shoes, which I didn’t for many years, put bags inside your shoes, over your socks. Those bags you buy ice in work really well, but be sure to empty them first. Or just use grocery bags. Wrap them around your ankle with duct tape. No, I’m not kidding.
  • Double up on your pants. Your tights are going to get wet, so an extra layer is nice.
  • Plan to go slow. It doesn’t matter if you plan this, because you’ll go slow no matter what you plan, but this will help you accept the pace and not get all annoyed.

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    Creepiest snowman ever

  • Pick a trail that gets some use. Running on a packed surface of snow is fantastic. Another trail I like has a lot of fat boy bike traffic. The tires on these bikes are so wide that they pack the snow down nicely. The same can be said for areas with a lot of snowshoeing traffic. Horse traffic isn’t so great. Horses leave deep holes that create an uneven and possibly injury-producing surface. But they have beautiful eyes.
  • Take extra fuel. Between the snow struggle and the cold, you’re burning calories like a pizza oven. I hate being hungry, especially when I know I’m miles from food.
  • Buy some running snowshoes. Running snowshoes are short and narrow compared to a regular snowshoe, allowing you to run with an almost normal gait. I have the Redfeather Vapor (which I’ll review in a future blog) and they are light and very easy to use. They don’t take the place of a regular snowshoe, they will sink pretty substantially in deep, powdery snow, but there are times they can make the difference between a trail and a treadmill.2016-01-31 13.08.47
  • Savor the experience. The snow makes the world look enchanted. The lighting is different, sounds and smells are enhanced. Some of my favorite runs have been during snowstorms, with giant flakes falling through silent skies.
  • Appreciate how lucky you are to be where you are, instead of inside a building somewhere not even aware of this magical world.
  • Take pictures so you can remember this when you are in a building somewhere.2016-01-31 12.57.28

As a trailrunner, you’re probably already resilient and able to adjust to a crazy variety of conditions. Snow running adds some new dimensions to runs, but the experience is worth the effort. Plus, if you run all winter, even if the runs aren’t as long and fast as you’d like, you’ll go into spring with a solid training base.

And don’t forget to take the dogs. The dog smiles make the struggle worthwhile. 2015-12-17 00.02.22