I drank the Kool-Aid

“What do you call a professional runner whose girlfriend breaks up with him? Homeless.”

20664440_1281586661967124_1741474504257663492_n

Photo by Howie Stern

It was 3p on Thursday and Candice was breaking the tension in the room with jokes. Everyone giggled, but the air was thick with anticipation. It took half a day to travel from Seattle to Randle, Wa., to the finish line of the Bigfoot 200. Meepmeep, a Hawaiian friend of ours, had picked us up at the bus stop halfway.

“Like a tick,” the seasoned 200-mile vet described how swollen our packs would get with gear. “A tick, just swelling up and expanding, more and more.” Later in the race this visual would come to me, a tick, jumping from dog butt to dog butt, getting our fill.

20770527_10214653535638108_8005391473131842978_n

Photo by Scott Rokis

A two and a half hour bus ride later, we were at the starting line. “EVERYBODY FINISHES!” Jerry shouted, and just like that we were off. Whether we were running for three days or four, we all had the same goal. Everybody finishes.

Out the gate, people were going nuts!  That, or I was severely under-prepared for this undertaking. I kept my breathing under control, let my muscles warm up without alighting them on fire, and then looked behind me. No one was behind me at all! I power-hiked the first ten (all uphill) miles to our aid station with Vivian, feeling comforted by her calm disposition despite our last-place standing. Eventually, I would pass 40 or so people. Unfortunately most of them would end up dropping from the race.

SR_SRP_9125

Photo by Scott Rokis

 

In 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States, killing fifty-seven people, destroying 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway. The mountain’s summit was reduced from 9,677 ft to 8,363 ft. We picked our way over the lunar-like blast-zone. Nothing grew out here anymore, and wouldn’t for a long time, in this mountaintop desert.

SR_8M2A9053

Photo by Scott Rokis

The first 70 or so miles felt good. Too good. This scared me. “Fear is good, means you’re doing it right,” Craig Longobardi nodded gravely to me.

The rest of the race can be described as one hallucination after another. First was a hunter, cranking a Tommy gun like an old film projector, ducked behind a hunters-orange metal blind. He just stared at me, I was clearly not welcome. I moved on. What started out as a horse turned into an ostrich, depending on which animal I fancied to see. People were everywhere, and then they weren’t. Aid stations came miles before they were actually there. A giant, 50-cent piece sized bumble bee visited me frequently, circling me relentlessly during various times over the last 130 miles. I had gotten exactly zero hours of sleep 36 hours into the race.20840695_10155653487841103_4864322131892563149_n

At one point I decided to nap on the side of the trail. There were massive (and real) bear footprints scattered all over in the dirt. Good a place as any, I thought. I laid down, propped my feet up on my pack, and tried to sleep. Suddenly something had jumped next to my left shoulder, shaking the ground. I tore my Buff from my eyes and looked around. Nothing was there. I threw in the towel and got up to sleep-walk my way to the aid station, where at mile 91 I finally was able to drift in and out of a fit-full, one-hour nap. I woke up at midnight to cool, gentle rain, and pressed on. 20841752_10155653487801103_8880656032817100369_n

I picked up Bobby at mile 112, after a solid hour-long nap. We hiked through dense old-growth forest. “Check out that bus,” I pointed up to the left. A vintage, white school bus with a blue stripe down the side was leaning against trees. “There’s no bus.” “You’re messing with me.” “No, I’m not.” I blinked hard, but the bus never went away, until I got right up on it. Bobby was right, it was just a downed tree. Onward.

20882141_10155656334381103_7498430862384663073_n

A few hours up the trail, we passed Heather, who was sitting down on the side of the trail, looking a little defeated. “I just hallucinated a bus” she told us. Wide-eyed and grinning I asked her what color. “White.” “With a blue stripe?” “Yes!” She went on to say the woman she was with at the time had seen the same thing. Later on, at the next aid station another man would also tell a tale of a vintage white school bus. “I was just wondering how it got down there,” he mused as we warmed ourselves by a roaring fire.

 

DCIM188GOPRO

Photo by Bobby Walpole

The rest of the race was a series of hallucinations. Floating hats, men in camouflage, cats, skeletons of babies laying face down in the dirt. By the last day, my mantra became, “Nothing I see is real. Nothing.”

 

20841775_10155653487846103_3241542139676802342_n

Photo by Bobby Walpole

 

 

 

I drifted in and out of feeling strong and running with power, to suddenly sleep-walking without warning. However, at no point did I not know exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was running in a race, following markers, and seeing things. Simple as that.

DCIM188GOPRO

Photo by Bobby Walpole

When I reached the last aid station, I celebrated as though I had finished. I still had 14 miles until I circled that high school track, with people cheering and cameras clicking like machine-guns, but this last aid station was my personal finish line. I ate the hugest veggie burger, drank Mountain Dew, and took an eternity just hanging out and talking to other runners and volunteers.

 

DCIM188GOPRO

Photo by Bobby Walpole

 

 

I was in no hurry whatsoever to get this over with. In fact, while I was exhausted and ready to sleep for a week, I felt like as soon as I crossed that finish line, I would miss the forest terribly.

Reluctantly, I took a deep breath, stood shakily from my chair, bade the volunteers farewell, and took off to hallucinate for the final 14 miles with a smile on my face.

20840946_10212419089250978_8308418887886066470_n

Photo by Howie Stern

20883043_10155650623051103_4910371811174874332_n

Photo by Howie Stern

20914345_10212419088690964_3369478772104235632_n

Photo by Howie Stern

 

Final thoughts:

  • THANK YOU, LUNA Sandals for taking care of me and my feet!
  • 30+ hours on a train the day following a 200-mile race is brutal. Don’t subject yourself to it.
  • Sleep more than I did, if you can. But that’s just it, if you can. I tried earlier than mile 91, to no avail. Sometimes you’ve just gotta move until you drop.
  • Nutella crepes, omg.
  • I had forgotten my iPod at home. I’m currently listening to my Bigfoot playlist as I write this.
  • When you’re on the trails, a stick is a snake. When it’s raining, and you’re in triple-digit mileage, a stick is specifically a python, even when bent completely and directly over it, staring.
  • Three days later, I can finally see all of my metatarsals.
  • I CAN DRINK BEER AGAIN!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Quote

Bobby: How much water are you bringing?

Gregorio: Let’s see…I’ve got a uh….liter and a half.

Bobby: Yeah, you’re going to need about…ummm…double that amount.

Gregorio: Nah, I’ll be fine. Come on guys, I’ve gone on a long run before.

 

…And with that, our ragtag assembly of all-level runners set off to run the 37.3-mile long Joshua Tree Traverse.

First, and most likely to attain the sought-after Fastest Known Time (FKT) was Ian. He claimed only be there to do a “fun run” but we all knew better.

10689991_10152645709857886_303562049297486912_n

Ian

 

 

Then was Niki, the one I would have bet money on to break the women’s record. She came with Alex the German, seemingly fueled only by ketchup & schnitzel.

14915356_10104306553883385_4451832960482679084_n

Niki & the German – photo by Leigh Scarber

 

 

Gregorio & Odyssey were the young, stupidly fast wild cards of the group. Neither one of them had ever ran that far.

13221626_10153468047387854_8982863669663251744_n

The Wild Cards – photo by Molly Nugent

 

And then there was myself & Bobby. We’d fall somewhere in the middle like usual, keeping tabs on any stragglers and making sure most, if not all, of us came out alive.

There is no water along the way, so everything you need you must either carry or cache. There is zero shade, aside from what you can squeeze in under the spiny Joshua Trees or the occasional boulder. There is 3,200 feet of elevation gain, and 4,300 feet of loss. On paper, it’s simple: long, but not too long, a net downhill, and mild temps for our December run. We were warned, though, of the first 5-7 miles of uphill soft-sand. I’m not sure if those who ran before us fell asleep for the last 30ish miles, didn’t pay attention, or are just plain masochistic, but that “5-7 miles” of soft sand turned out to be essentially the entire course. I was totally okay with it, though, because I had on my Luna Sandals!

We got a late start and enjoyed the sunrise from our campground at Jumbo Rocks before shuttling two cars to the finish line. Then everyone piled into my car (first time using the rear-facing seats!) and set off to the start.15419522_10154829342696103_1341262964873073539_o

At 7:31am we were all on-trail with the goal of finishing the Joshua Tree Traverse. by 7:35am we were all scattered along the trail, apparently every (wo)man for themselves. Ian leading, Gregorio, then  Niki & The German. Bobby, Odyssey, and myself mostly stayed together, or at least within sight of each other. Until we didn’t.15540649_10154829482291103_2643243412319407086_o

After about two hours of running completely by myself, and constantly looking behind & ahead me hoping to spot others, I decided to stop at the top of a very tall hill and wait. After 20-30 minutes Bobby came jogging up the hill, but alone. Dang. He said he had had a visual of Odyssey behind him the entire time, up until recently. We decided to press on another few miles to Ryan Campground, in the off-chance others were there either taking a break or wanting to regroup as well.

When we approached the main highway just a few hundred meters from Ryan Campground, we spotted a familiar skinny kid sitting on the trail, waiting for his girlfriend. We decided to wait with him. After a little over an hour, a figure popped up in the distance. Wait, make that three figures? Along with Odyssey was a very short Asian & a very tall German. Apparently they had gotten lost and wound up behind us somehow. Niki was in pretty bad shape, with an injured knee, and they were all three in need of water. Greg was also out. Alex & Niki went to the parking area in search of water, and the Wild Cards were debating on whether or not they should continue, 19 miles remaining. Odyssey was a hard no, and Greg was trying to convince her otherwise. Bobby stepped in and was the fatherly voice of reason. Well, if your father resembled Jimmy Buffet in any way. They would hitch-hike back to either their car (the start) or our campground at Jumbo Rocks, which was just five miles down the road. During all of this, I began to itch with eagerness to get going. Now that I knew Niki wasn’t going to be going for the FKT, there was a small, insane idea brewing in my head that I had a shot at it. I would just have to run the last 19 sandy miles in under 4 hours and I could scrape by under the standing record pace. Bobby, Niki, Alex, & I left the kids to continue on. I hammered a Starbucks Double Shot and could feel the life coming back to my legs. It was almost as if someone had pushed the reset button and I was fresh again. 15540695_10154829342751103_9206745299983161369_o

I pulled ahead and each mile felt better than the previous. The sights virtually remained the same. Sand. Rocks. Joshua trees. Cholla.  Repeat. At one point, I figured out why they call them “Jumping Cholla” when I attempted to avoid the softest of the sand on the trail by running along the edge. Feeling good and pumping hard, I suddenly was grabbed by my entire right leg, pulled back, and my vision flashed white. I looked down and saw that the cactus had gotten ahold of me Velcro-style and didn’t want to let go. I was lucky I was wearing tights, otherwise I would’ve been a bloody mess. I picked out the larger of the needles and pressed on. I would deal with the rest later.

15442254_10154809104826103_4104990185679458623_nThe sun began to set on me at about mile 36. It was one of those unbelievable skies that turn otherworldly shades of red. I decided that this sunset was a gift for us runners, for completing such an amazing, personal journey.  I wanted to keep looking over my shoulder at it, but also didn’t want a repeat of my cholla incident.

At mile 37 I could hear the road.

At mile 38 I thought it was a cruel joke that I wasn’t done.

Finally, I reached the trailhead sign. I didn’t have a watch to hit stop, but I did take a screen shot of my phone just in case it counted for something. 8 hours, 26 minutes. Then, I got lost and had to use the map for the first time, trying to figure my way to the parking lot.

Then I saw Greg’s van. Then I saw Greg, and Ian. They had beer. I was done.

Ian was on pace to break the men’s FKT, but went off course for two miles nullifying his attempt.

 

Bobby finished about 45 minutes after me, chipper and talkative about that amazing sunset.
Niki & Alex finished a couple of hours later, looking better than when we left them at the halfway point.

Oh, it turns out you need some kind of GPS device and a shout-out on the Proboard for an FKT to count. I had kind of figured as much, so it didn’t bother me that my time wouldn’t be on the books. I’m sure a more serious runner will do it much faster soon.

15540665_10154829342501103_3337415470346405436_o

Until next time…happy trails!

 

 

 

 

 

Joshua Tree Traverse…an accidental [& unofficial] FKT.

Image

Born to Run…in circles.

Original Photo by Tyler Tomasello

The Born to Run Ultramarathon is a weekend that I hold dear to my heart. Without hesitation, I would easily call it my favorite weekend of the year. A breathtakingly beautiful ranch, filled with the best friends I’ve ever had the good fortune to have, and all the beer you could ever imagine consuming…what could be better? Throw in some bola racing, archery, live music, beer mile, shotguns, piñatas, scavenger hunts, hula-hooping, dancing, no-talent shows, tattoos (yes, real ones), the BEST burritos ever, and so, so much more…and you have a small, dim idea of what really happens at the Born to Run Ultramarathon.

Junior Varsity beer mile & Neil with the shotgun

There are several distance options should you choose to actually run at some point during the weekend, ranging from 0.0 all the way to the 4-Day event. Most people are smart. Most people realize that there’s a party going down, and choose the shorter 10- or 30-mile options. I was not one of those people. This having been my 4th year at BTR, I decided to switch things up a bit and run the 4-Day, because, well, why not? instantly, you might think I was crazy, or some intensely talented athlete. I am neither. I just figured out a way to get to the ranch as early as I could,  run as much as I want, while simultaneously being present for all the shenanigans (well, most).

shenanigans

My plan was to knock out as many miles as I could on Wednesday & Thursday, run Friday morning, be back in time for my friends showing up on the ranch and (most importantly) the beer mile, and then… well, it gets fuzzy after that.

Bobby and I arrived Wednesday morning. While packing proved stressful (4 days of running, costumes for beer mile-ing, prom attire, plus every first-aid type of thing I could imagine I might need), I was very much at ease listening to the pre-race instructions given by both Sheriff Luis Escobar and 4-Day/200-mile RD Manley “Babyface” Klassen. We lined up, gave the all-too-familiar oath, and before we knew it we were off and running…/walking. A lot. There was a lot of walking. Did I mentioned we walked?

the front, middle, and back of the pack

Wednesday

Loop #1 – Pink

The first loop would prove to be my fastest loop, and undoubtedly the loop with the most company. We started out on Wednesday at noon, in more or less of a pack. We smelled good, we looked good, and we felt good. All would surely be good. Chris Clemens & Tyler Tomasello had spent the better half of the morning whacking the course, but the nettle was still brutally harsh on our legs. It would be like this for the next two days until the vegetation was trampled flat, allowing us to run over the fruits of our labor. Those racing the shorter distances the following Saturday morning would have no idea of the sting of the trailblaze. At one point, Sweeney mentioned how long the pink loop felt, never having ran it so slow (meanwhile, Scott and I were way ahead of our planned schedule). Welcome to our world, amigo.

Photo by Larry Gassan

“Well isn’t this fucking cute!”-Larry Gassan


Loop #2 – Yellow

Oy vey. The ups are a lot upper than I remembered from previous years…but the downs are the real killer…well, one down in particular. Couldn’t wait to repeat it multiple times. I had purchased & brought trekking poles specifically for this one, near-vertical descent. Still running with the same small group of crazies.

Loop #3 – Pink

After a long lunch break, after the heat let up, I set out with Bobby for a nice sunset 11-mile jaunt. A large herd of bulls, especially a very angry one smack dab on the dirt farm road we were running on, caused us to do a little off-roading through the foxtail and rattlesnake territory. No need to confront a bull, at least this early into the “race.”



Loop #4 – Yellow

Night loop. Set out around 11p, returned around 2am. There were twenty pound frogs everywhere. Also, cow pies look surprisingly similar to curled up rattlesnakes. I found out later that this was a common idea amongst my running colleagues. Apparently at the campfire, Sweeney found out I had pulled ahead of him in mileage, and began chase, despite his drunken state. He finished 30 minutes before me, wearing a heavy winter poncho, pajama pants and flip-flops (as opposed to his normal Luna Sandals). That dude is an animal.

Thursday

Loop #5 – Pink

Knocked it out really quickly midday, spent the entire loop completely alone so I did something I’ve never done before: ran with music on dirt. Mostly the Doors – American Prayer. It was pleasant. Jim Morrison has a remarkable ability casting a trance upon his listeners with his poetic spoken word. However, I’ll stick to the sounds of nature while on single-track. Came back to camp to find many of my friends had shown up while I was out running, so I decided to take another long break. A bola race with the Tarahumara ensued. It looked next to impossible for everyone who joined in on the races to keep up with the sandal-clad Raramuri, but all had a great time, albeit a little winded.

On my way back out, Greg stopped me. What was I doing?! It was nearly ish, which meant one thing: Greg’s Groms Happy Hour! I have never had a such a delicious, deceiving margarita. Afterwards I set out again, in a very good mood.

Greg’s Groms happy hour. Photo by Tyler Tomasello


Loop #6 – Yellow

I left at 5:30p, and about a mile in I realized I had forgotten to bring my headlamp (dammit Greg!). This revelation, along with the sun, told me I had about 2.5 hours of light, and I was on the longer, vastly more difficult loop which I averaged 3 hours to finish. I had many opportunities where the course looped back towards the campground, and I could have easily made a mile detour to grab a light. Instead, I used my fear of possibly needing to utilize my very poor night vision as motivation to run my fastest yellow loop, completing it just as the sun set. I was planning on picking up Bobby to pace me for another night loop. When I sped into camp, I surprised him by being an hour early…an hour that he had planned to spend eating the massive burrito and finishing a freshly-opened beer. He inhaled the burrito, washed it down with a long swigof beer, grabbed his headlamp (smart guy!) and took off with me after a quick warm-up by the fire & wardrobe change.

Loop #7 – Pink

Another night loop – more frogs.

Friday

Loop #8 – Yellow

Friday morning. I decided to get a quick loop in before the festivities really began. My goal for the day was to not miss the beer mile. I had spent quite a few hours being on the ranch completely alone. It was peaceful, beautiful, and all around pleasant. I decided to listen to an audiobook, and completed a loop with Roland Deschain of Gilead, and was transported to a world not of my own. After a couple of hours, I switched back over to music. I began my final climbs back into camp when Jay-Z’s Dirt Off Your Shoulder played. I didn’t feel like a pimp, but it did put some swagger back into my step as the temps rose along with the course profile, and the shade remained nonexistent.

the fool on the hill

Almost serendipitously, on the very last climb, the Beatles’ Fool on the Hill filled my earbuds and I laughed out loud to myself as Paul reminded me that

“…the fool on the hill sees the sun going down and the eyes in his head see the world spinning around.”

I jogged back into camp, grabbed four beers, and lined up for the beer mile.

Photo by Joe Ramirez

I only ran 10 (+1) miles that day, but I was able to enjoy Greg’s Happy Hour, a slower-than average beer mile (I think I placed 6th female? Who cares, my only goal was to beat the Sheriff), danced with friends, and then passed out early enough to get a full-night’s rest in before the shotgun went off.

Saturday

Loop #9 – Pink

Shotgun rounds. Then, mariachi music. I don’t speak fluent Spanish, but I know what a borracho is, and every song Race Director Luis played that morning referenced one.

“RD”

For the full duration of my entire first loop on Saturday morning “BARRACHO” flashed in my head like a neon sign, reminding me why Born to Run is actually a much more difficult race than it lets off to be. I let out a few burps, guzzled my water, and attempted to shake off the foggy daze.  Up until that point, I had spent a large majority of the weekend alone on the two-loop course. Now, hundreds of people ran with me, laughing, talking, shouting out mileages…If I’m going to be completely honest, I felt a little overwhelmed, almost like I was surrounded by tourists visiting my country. I caught up to a 200-miler who had started on Thursday morning, and we both agreed that the vibe was now just a little…different. Not in a bad way, but it did shake things up a bit. The energy of the hoards of fresh legs perked my pace up, but I kind of missed my lonely climbs with my lonely oak trees, watched only by the lonely bulls. Soon enough, though, most of the Saturday runners left me far behind and I was once again alone with my thoughts.
Loop #10 – Yellow

I cruised back into camp, found Bobby, and asked if he would like to finally see a loop during daylight hours. He grabbed his handhelds and took off with me for my century loop. I didn’t realize it when I picked him up, but it ended up working our perfectly that he was with me when I finished 100 miles.

belching along . Photo by Crista Scott

We had a goal of being back at camp by noon, when the highly competitive 0.0 race began. Or didn’t begin. I’m not really sure. We made it just in time to line up, grab our Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Luis counted us down from five….and then we did…nothing. Everyone won. Or lost. Again, I don’t really know.

Photo by Pat Sweeney



Loop #11 – Pink

After DNF’ing the 0.0, Mara Klassen cooled me off with some ice and agreed that I could fit in another loop before the inaugural Dirtbag Prom (it’s exactly what it sounds like). I slinked off, hoping Sweeney wouldn’t notice me going out for another loop. Drats, he spotted me just as I was heading out. Lucky for me, he’s much more of a sucker when it comes to games and festivities. All of our friends were there, with beer, and I was the idiot who decided to go back out on the course all alone. Just me, and Roland of Gilead. I struggled with this loop. I spent the majority of it walking, feeling somewhat sorry for myself for this self-inflicted misery. So, instead of wallowing in my lonesomeness I decided to make the best of it and listen to my book. I did that during the time I wasn’t walking with Steve Harvey, listening to his tales of yesteryear as he completed his 9th loop. At Beverly’s aid station, I was reenergized by a delicious coconut smoothie and took off ahead of the Old Goat, wanting to be alone again. I had grown accustomed to it, and figured I might as well pay tribute to my solo adventure by ending it the way I had ran the majority of it.  I decided to take in as much as I could, paying attention to the small details I had breezed by so many times. A massive sunflower stretched up towards the sky, it too without a companion. I smiled and nodded at it, then pushed forward. I grazed my fingers along the tall grass that lined the dirt farm road. I closed my eyes and inhaled the scent of the soapy sage. These were aspects of the race that I hadn’t ignored on previous loops, but had simply not appreciated with the intensity I did during this last loop. I knew it would be a another year before I would be out here again. I would miss it painfully.

Loop #12 – The After Party

While not technically a loop, I think I may have expended most of my energy after my “race” ended. When I took my last steps on the course, running into the compound for the final time, I had arrived just as the No-Talent Show was ending.

No Talent Show. Photo by Crista Scott

Luckily, the last two acts were the best ones (the Arizona crew really goes all out), and I was there for the final judging, which happened to be my favorite part of the entire weekend. Arnulfo Quimare, the King of the Copper Canyon, the Champion of champions, one of the most respected athletes in ultrarunning….who also speaks not a lick of English, played the part of the most influential judge. Arnulfo is famous for being unapologetically shy, modest, and incredibly quiet. Well, friends, Arnulfo got hammered and turned into a regular Dick Van Dyke. On two separate occasions (that I was present for at least) he motioned to the person with the mic to hand it over. Once in his possession, Arnulfo spewed out a repeated & rehearsed paragraph in Spanish to a cheering crowd, speaking so quickly one would be tempted to think he announced soccer games on Telemundo as a side gig to his running career.

“estoymuyfelizparaestaraqui” Photo by Tyler Tomasello

Soon after, it was time to get ready for the Dirtbag Prom. I slipped on my wildly sequined Tina Turner dress, spread some anti-chafing lube all over my inner arms (why stop now?), and tied on my Luna Sandals before hitting the dance floor with Bobby. We danced the night away under the stars with our friends and cups of wine, with blow-up dolls flying over our heads like beach balls. It was a beautiful thing.

Photo by Molly Nugent. no relation.

Sunday

After a great morning of sleeping in, I checked whether or not Sweeney had snuck out for another lap. He had not. I was finally safe, having secured the lead with that last, seemingly endless pink loop. Several of us grabbed a cooler, hopped in the bed of Luis’ pickup, and swept the course, which was an adventure all on its own.

BTR course sweeping crew. Photo by Molly Nugent

“Life is good, and getting better.”

-Akabill


www.allwedoisrun.com

The “What About Rocks?” And other FAQs about Running in LUNA Sandals

You may not realize this, but people think running in sandals is pretty strange. Often people approach me before races or group runs to inquire about my gladiator-style footwear of choice, usually with amused looks of doubt. “There’s no way she can run fast in those,” their facial expressions tell me. Well, for the most part they’re correct but that has nothing to do with what’s on my feet. I’m generally not a very fast runner, but sometimes I can surprise myself. And everyone else for that manner.  

But what is obvious when I run is how smooth my form is, and more obvious, how much fun I am having, whether it’s during a 5k or an ultramarathon.

With that I give you…

FAQ about what it’s like running in LUNA Sandals!

1. “How do you run in those? 

I have really no in-depth answer, other than, “very carefully.” My stride quickens to a dance, my eyes scan constantly, and I am forced to be incredibly mindful when I run. Because of this, it is easy to go in a type of “trance-like” state where the surface, the rhythm of my footfall, and my breath are what I focus on. In some regards it is akin to running with the mind of meditation.


2. “What about the rocks?”

This is probably the most common question I get. Rocks come and go. Pebbles find their way in, and without much of a fight, they roll right on out. For the more stubborn ones a quick flick of the sole will send them flying. The rocks underfoot are a different story, but likewise a nonissue when you’ve learned to adapt. In order to run pain-free in minimalist style footwear (or barefoot for that matter) it is important to learn how to relax. Try this: take your index finger and point it. Now, keeping it rigid, tap it perpendicularly onto a surface. Notice how the sensation on your fingertip is strong? Now take that same finger, relax it, and tap it again. Acknowledge the comfort level, impact, and sensation. That’s the same thing that happens when you run. The stiffer, less relaxed you are, the more impact we feel on our joints, muscles, etc. We are designed to use our own bodies to cushion impact, and the more relaxed we are, the more efficient our natural shock absorbers work.


3. “I would stub/break my toe. How do you not?”

Again, it’s all about mindfulness. When your toes are exposed, you care that much more about where you put your foot. Instead of just bombing down a hill without a care in the world, you’re now bombing down that hill while constantly altering your line. To me, this only adds to the enjoyment. It’s a mental game now, and increases my ability to be present in the moment.


4. “Don’t your feet get cold?”

Socks, amigos. Socks.

 

5. “Does the thing between your toes bother you? Do they give you blisters?”

The short answer- no, and rarely.
Let me explain. The strap between your toes simply disappears from your forethought after you get used to it. Remember when you were a kid and you tried flip-flops for the first time? I do. I hated it. That is, until I got used to it. Now sandals are all I wear and I couldn’t imagine not having them in my life! When you buy a new style of shoe you’ve never worn before, and it has a seam in a new spot, you expect it to give you blisters. It’s just a part of the process of “breaking them in,” right? Well the same thing goes for sandals, except there is a lot less shoe to threaten a blister. You’ve essentially got a naked foot. This also means there’s a lot less sweating going on, so heat blisters are unlikely to occur. But, at the end of the day, it’s still something on top of your foot, just like anything you’ve got on during a run, and the occasional blister may very well happen. And if they do, you pop the sucker and move on with your day.

 


6. “Wouldn’t running in shoes be easier?”

Yes and no. Of course it would be “easier” to relax my brain, and let loose without being mindful of what I’m stepping on. But with that, I find, I don’t pay attention to my form and that’s when the injuries creep up. Of course no shoe prevents injuries from occurring, that’s not my claim. What I have found, however, is that I have very little room for error in my form when I run in minimalist footwear. I can’t just slam my feet down, and any misalignment is magnified to the point of instant correction. Again, though, this is just what I find works for me.


7. “How secure are they”

As secure as you tie them. That’s the beauty of LUNA Sandals. They are pretty much just a sole and a securing mechanism, so they can be altered and customized to fit your unique foot. Tech-straps aid in this, which they sell on their website, or you can go traditional Tarahumara-style (my preference), and trust me, there’s no slipping around in those suckers. Your ankles and feet feel like their being hugged by their best friend. Yes, they’re that good. The traction varies depending on the model. You can go for full Spider-Man traction with the Leadville models, or if you’re just hitting the pavement, their Mono or Venado models more than suffice.

 


8. “Why LUNA Sandals in particular?”

This is my favorite question. I like to answer with, “well, you get what you pay for.” I’ve tried other brands and while they have good intentions, the quality just isn’t there. LUNA Sandals’ soles are made by Vibram, so what you’re basically getting is a racing flat with no upper. Cool! Also, they’re made in Seattle, Washington so you’re not endorsing underpaid sweat-shops operating in another country. You get real customer service, and can talk directly to the exact people making your sandal. They do custom orders, and care passionately about the work that they do. And here’s the real selling point: my LUNA Venados (their thinnest model) carry me well over 1,200 miles per pair before retirement. How many standard running shoes can you say have done that for you? If you take mileage and quality into account, it’s puts the price into perspective. These are more than just a pair of flip-flops, these are adventure sandals.

9. “Have you read Born to Run?”

Yes.
10. “Where can I buy a pair?”

A few ways. You can click the banner on this blog. Or you could simply go to the LUNA Sandals site.  They have a nifty sandal-picker that helps you find your perfect match depending on what you want to use them for. Or, even better you can follow Patrick Sweeney around and buy a pair off of him. He’ll probably talk you into a beer and a round of whatever new game her just came up with.  

No better way to start off a new relationship with your new gear addiction if you ask me.

Have another question? Comment below :]

Happy trails!

  

Hideaway Hundred Race Report…or really, Our Weekend in the Mountains (because it was so much more than just a race).

Where do I begin with this report. I sit here, not drawing blanks, but struggling to describe this event in a matter in which it does justice. I guess I’ll start at the beginning.

The Hideaway Hundred is put on by my friend Tyler Tomasello who is one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people you could ever have the privilege of knowing. He decided to put on a race in Winter Park, Colorado to help support local SAR, bring commerce into the community which slows down to a near-halt in the summertime (very few people flock to a ski town in the summer, besides mountain bikers), and perhaps most importantly, to show his friends the trails he is so inspired by. Bobby and I arrived a few days early and farted around town with our buddy Pat. We hit up a few disc golf courses, made up a slew of games involving throwing rocks into, onto, or at things, listened to some awesome FM stations, and drank more than a few good beers. Tyler had just come back from UTMB and was jetlagged. Along with other runners who trickled in over the long weekend, we helped set up the staging area. Since the course was only in Tyler’s head, we weren’t able to help much with the course-marking but did what we could and wished him luck on the rest of it. The rain came and went, sometimes it was windy, other times the sun came out and it was hot. All within a five-minute span. You know, mountain weather.


Thursday morning…I don’t really remember much of what happened Thursday morning. We probably threw rocks at things. Thursday afternoon, however, was the beer mile (of which Tyler was in no way associated with).

” I will not puke!” Photo by Scott Smuin

Women’s beer mile champion! (…yours truly :] ) Photo by Kelly Maggie Akyuz

Tyler gathered us all on Friday night and debriefed us on what to expect. The weather could get ugly. Or not. Be nice to the volunteers. The distances are approximate (what, they don’t forge trails in perfect denominations?). Tyler then explained what a peculiar little charm was, which had been attached to the back of each bib at packet pick-up. A little silver leg dangled from a string and I was curious to find out what the meaning behind it was. A “milagro,” Spanish for “miracle,” Tyler explained. We were encouraged to keep it with us on our journey into the wilderness. The body part it represented was thought to protect its fleshy equivalent. Cool.

Saturday morning. Our alarm went off at 4:30am to the tune of the Door’s Peace Frog. As much as I love that song, it’s starting to annoy me by busting in on my peaceful slumber. Bobby and I got dressed, pulled ourselves out of our warm cocoons and crawled to the start line to watch Tyler send off the 100- and 50-milers. Wooo…. Okay, back to bed.

And off they go, to run 100 or 50 miles…or some other mysterious distance…

A few hours later we woke up, grabbed a cup of coffee and a pastry at a local café, and played some silly games Pat made up (per usual). Bobby and I then decided to go for a run and check out the course, going in the opposite direction to try to snap a shot of the leaders. After a short section of paved bike lane through a park, we hit single-track and began switch-backing up the mountain. The trails rolled gently upwards, and were made of soft earth. Sweet! We couldn’t wait to get out there the next day for our 50k.

We spent the rest of the day volunteering at the Winter Park aid station, where we cheered the 50-mile finishers and the 100-mile runners who were halfway done. There was some confusion as to which way the runners were supposed to go through the park & finishing chute, which made it fun because people were coming from all directions. We laughed about it and reveled in the fact that it didn’t really matter too much as long as you were having a good time.

Peace Frog. It was 3:30am. We made coffee, still sitting in our warm sleeping bags, with the tent vestibule open. We ate our avocados, got dressed,strapped on our  Luna Sandals and pinned our bibs on. Bobby and I parted to use the restroom, and I finished up first and checked in at the start just in time for Tyler to announce that we would be starting in 45 seconds. I lined up and tried to decipher between the headlamps which light was Bobby. None of them. Yikes!

Off we went, a long snake of lights casting bobbing shadows on the ground at our feet. I wondered where Bobby was, but I knew better. He was still in the restroom! I figured he’d catch up sooner or later. We started the ascent as one large group but slowly the herd thinned until I found myself alone. The mountains are a peaceful place (when the weather is nice), especially when it’s lit by a blanket of stars. Except there were no stars to be seen, of course, because the forest was too dense. I focused on spotting the flags instead of the shine of the eyes I could see in my peripheral. I began a short climb, alone, and gradually the darkness began to lift. I looked down at the switchbacks I had just covered and noticed Bobby’s familiar blue flannel. Awesome! I slowed down to let him catch me, and together we ran into Twisted Ankle aid station.

We were greeted by friends who assisted us with topping off our water, grabbed a few snacks, and off we went, this time with James Moore tagging along for the ride. The section between Twisted Ankle aid station & Broken Thumb is a long, rolling, slightly uphill gentle trail. It is lined with pines and lush grasses. The scent was incredible.

Photo by Kelly Maggie Akyuz

We ended up losing James, his pace slightly faster. After a beautiful river crossing, where the bridge was still covered in frost, went up a few more switchbacks and before we knew it we were already at Broken Thumb. I munched on a piece of pb & j and looked to the right and saw it. The most glorious, tempting thing I could see on an early, cold Winter Park morning. A heated tent! I looked down at my fingers, blue, ridged  and barely functional. Gloves weren’t something I considered bringing for a September race and I deeply regretted this oversight. I weighed the pros and cons and opted to pass on the warmth, fearing I would call it a day right then and there out of sheer ecstasy. We headed out.

Next were three gentle miles of fire road, with the most amazing views of the small city below and the expansive mountain range that dwarfed it. The road was soft and smooth from frequent use by hunters. We hopped a really neat fence built with giant logs and made our way to the next aid station, Trestle. Bobby dumped his pack, and I shed multiple layers. The wind had picked up but the sun was shining. Plus, we’d be back shortly even if the weather turned sour. It was a quick out and back up to Rogers Pass. This would prove to be my favorite part of the race.

21265417490_2f8cfc3217_o

High above Winter Park Photo by Scott Smuin

We began the climb, which was immediately nearly vertical. We ermerged from the treeline and out onto the side of the cliffedge. It. Was. Spectacular. There are few words that accurately describe what being above 10,000 feet looks like. Desolate. Rocky. Inspiring. “The Moon” is a popular one Bobby and I use.  You could see a hundred miles in every direction.


The air was crisp and the sun thawed my frozen digits. Even though the trail relentlessly moved upwards, I felt my spirit ignite and was able to run this difficult section with ease. The view may have helped a little.


Along the way we ran into our friend Jim. He was running the 100-mile race and was pretty zombie-like, albeit in great spirits (per usual).  He told us that he had a little stomach trouble through the night, with some hallucinations sprinkled in. A 50k runner was sticking with him, selflessly deciding to oversee his safety instead of race. You can run a 50k any day, she said. I love this sport. We soon parted ways, Jim continuing his descent towards Trestle.

After 30+ hours, Jim was still smiling…or maybe he just thought I was a giant hamburger.

The turnaround point at Rogers Pass

We made it to the turnaround point and basked in the glory that is Rogers Pass. Just magical.

After a long rest at the top of the pass, we turned around and made our way back. We looked forward to the long, but gently rolling downhill. The soft ground and tree-lined trails were so beautiful and they would surly be a blast to run down as hard as we could.


We blew through Trestle with their complimentary aid station volunteers (“Looking reeeaaal smooth!”), made our way down, down, down, to Broken Thumb with their fun aid station volunteers, passed on Fireball, (thanks anyway guys!), leaped-frogged two women countless times all the way to Twisted Ankle where we were greeted with maracas and loud cheering. The volunteers remarked on how happy we looked. This always amuses me because 1) we get this a lot in races, and 2) why wouldn’t we be happy?! We were just given the good fortune to go climb one of the most beautiful mountain passes I’d ever laid eyes on. I’m still smiling thinking about it!

The volunteers were great! Photo by Chris French

We made our way further down the mountain and after what seemed like a very, very long time we finally gave it one last hard push into the finish line where friends greeted us with open beers.

Many thanks to Tyler Tomasello, Toni Reese, all of the volunteers, the girl who made sure Jim made it safely, Tecate Cervezas for supplying the ultimate beer mile beverage, the Sun for cooking Pat’s beets, the people who’s photos I stole (but credited!), and all of our friends who make these events so incredibly special.

Mt. Disappointment 50k Race Report

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….

I really hoped I could. That was my thought after reading the previous Mt. Disappointment 50k race reports from years past. Each author painted the picture of horror, victims of extreme heat and exposure, and complete exhaustion after succumbing to The Big Climb. Salt sticks. Cramps. Empty water bottles. Heat stroke. Air lifts. A 3,000 foot climb at the finish. My eyes darted from one ominous report to another, my stomach preforming somersaults.

What the hell did I just sign up for.

0

Ultrasignup.com is a dangerous platform for those with idle hands. On one particularly slow evening I decided to take a gander at what was coming up. Mt. Disappointment 50k, July 11th. I wasn’t doing anything that weekend, so I decided (rather hastily) to sign up. In less than 2 minutes I went from logging into my computer to running a 50k just three weeks away. Feeling satisfied and pumped, I punched “Mt. Disappointment 50k race report” into my search bar. Click. Okay so that was an exceptionally hot year. Okay, that guy just doesn’t like hills, maybe he’s from the Midwest…. Okay… So that year was…even hotter? And the next was record-breaking…. That poor woman…. How many ounces did he drink? Wow that’s a lot. It can’t be that bad. Wow that’s bad.

Time to start heat-training.

The following two weeks I made every effort to increase my time running during the hottest moments of the day. I had great intentions of running in 90-100 degree weather. I was thrilled that this also meant one thing: sleeping in. The alarm would go off around 8am. I would take my time sipping coffee and reading by the window, and wait for the morning fog to break. I would wait. Wait some more…. And continue to wait. The mist wouldn’t budge. Oh yeah, I remembered. It was June. If you’re not from California, you may be so inclined to believe the movies. School’s out and vacation is here. Summers at the beach. Poolside. Sweat dripping off tanned bodies, laying out on the sand. If, however, you happen to actually live on the beach in SoCal you know better than this. With June brings gloom. The heat virtually disappears and the chilly winds pick up, blasting low-hanging clouds into your face as you shiver in your down puffy, shorts, & sandals. Just perfect.

Fast-forward one more week. I toe the line, along with what looked like about 150 or so other runners. We all looked like we had the same stylist. Light-colored, loose-fitting tech shirt. Large hydration packs capable of holding a back-breakingly large amount of water. Bandanas tied around our necks. Hats. Most were also wearing gaiters to keep the sand out of their shoes. I, on the other hand, omitted the need, opting for my Luna Sandals instead. Despite what most people might think, the sandals are fantastic in scree, as the rocks fall out with ease and a quick flick of the sole will launch any stragglers (potentially a direct hit to other runners, which could work for you, Mario Cart-style ;] ).

Gary Hilliard, the energetic comedian of a race director, gave us the pre-race instructions. Drink a full water bottle at each station. Check in and out with the volunteers. Don’t die on the last massive climb at the end. Okay maybe that last one was in my head. He began naming off the veterans racing and had them all line up in the front, which was a nice touch. And then, before we knew it, we were off in 3, 2, 1.

1

The start of the race is downhill, on a paved mountain road. Everyone seemed to enjoy this very much. I’m not much of a talker in races, I prefer to be in my own head, but occasionally I do enjoy ease-dropping. I listened to a group of older men, (“experienced” is the term I like to use) talk about the Western States lottery system, racing Boston (while simultaneously poking fun of weekend runners at other, far less competitive marathons…baby-joggers, hydration belts, etc.) and their knee replacements. I smiled to myself and pulled ahead. Enough of that, I thought. I soon found myself in my element with a group of silent runners, most alone or with only one other partner. I could now focus on my breath & footfalls, practicing what I’ve learned through rhythmic, meditative running. The cold air stung my lungs and my gaze drifted to the mountains in the distance. Mist hung low, covering much of the treeline. I was grateful for the cool weather, as I knew this wouldn’t last long. Temperatures were not predicted to be record-breaking, but it was still going to be a hot one. We soon veered left off of the road, through a tunnel, and began a steep ascent. This is where you start to leap-frog like mad & start to figure out your place in the race. This is always easier said than done on single-track. After much huffing & puffing, grunting, “excuse me’s” and “Thank you’s” we all settled in. I led the group I was with, despite my attempts at convincing my followers to go ahead. Leading can be maddening, as you feel pressured to go faster than you really want to. I kept feeling that, and speeding up. I gave in to this for a moment before the light bulb came on. Slow down. Run your own race, I reminded myself. If they want to ride my heels they can, and if they get frustrated, they’ll pass.  I slowed my pace slightly and ran in a more controlled manner. “What distance are you guys running today?” I called back to them. “25k” they each replied. I didn’t know whether to be proud of my efforts as a 50k runner moving at a 25k pace or worried that I was setting myself up for a blow-out. I decided to not think too much about it. We crested the peak and then immediately began a sharp plummet towards Red Box. We zig-zagged down almost uncontrollably. The descent was so drastically steep that many people slowed to a walk and thus ensued the traffic jams. Runners graciously let my group pass, and we went on our way at a dangerous speed. One slip on shale or root could send you plummeting down the cliff side. Actually this could describe most of the course. We emerged back at the highway, and at the first aid station. I checked in quickly, and immediately checked out. I still had a near-full bladder, and had only eaten one gel, so I didn’t need anything. I anticipated reaching the next aid station in under two hours, and I was used to being self-sufficient as an avid backpacker. For a while I was running alone. This is always a great experience, as I love solitude in the wilderness, but it comes with apprehension and doubt. Luckily the course was impeccably marked.

2

I caught up to a guy wearing a Leona Divide tank top. He offered to let me pass, but I insisted that his pace was perfect. His name was Frank, and had an interesting accent. He was from Europe, but I can no longer remember what country. We ran this shaded, rolling section until the Clear Creek aid station.

Alex heading into Clear Creek aid station

Alex heading into Clear Creek aid station

At Clear Creek Bobby, Crista, and Elva cheered as I entered. It’s always so motivating having friends to support you. The temps were starting to rise, and the need to hydrate became crucial. Bobby helped rearrange my food in my pack, and a volunteer filled up my bladder. Bobby then shot up the trail, to get a few photos. I then began the huge ascent via Josephine Fire Road up to Colby Canyon trail. These are very long, exposed switchbacks. I could feel lines of sweat snaking down my forehead. My eyes stung with salt. I wiped my face with my bandana and powered along, admiring the wildflowers and thinking to myself that this was one of the most beautiful fire roads I had ever been on.

3

A man wearing a previous year’s Mt. Disappointment race shirt passed me. I decided I would try to stick with this guy, he knew what he was doing. I followed him up to the “water-only” aid station at the top. I snacked on watermelon, a quarter of a pb& j, Pringles, and grabbed a few extra salt tablets for the road, just in case.

8

We wound up Colby Canyon Trail, with its sharp edges, rocky walls, and expansive views. The trail rolled, eventually providing a fun descent. My dude whom I was sticking to like glue suddenly stopped and grabbed his calf. I asked if he was okay and he nodded, and motioned for me to go on ahead. Maybe he was just tired of me following him.

4

Next up were the super fun & exposed switchbacks up to Strawberry Peak. This trail was full of mountain bikers who did not seem pleased that they were lucky enough to get to spectate such an awesome part of a 50k race. Ah, L.A. One by one, I passed runners who were starting to lose steam. A man ahead of me would run in short bursts, and then grimace in pain. As I approached, I said hello and asked how he was feeling. Not well, he responded. His legs were cramping up. I asked if he had tried taking in any salt. He told me that another runner had given him some a few miles back, and they helped for a while but he was in pain again. I reached into my pack and pulled out the extra tabs I had grabbed from the aid station and held them out to him. He thanked me profusely and asked for my name, and told me his was Ban. I wished Ban luck, and hoped he felt better as I made the 700ft+ climb up Strawberry Peak.

5

I reached the top and looked around. Suddenly the Who’s “I Can See for Miles” began to play in my head and I began to laugh. This was one of the most ridiculously beautiful courses I’d ever ran. With a stupid grin on my face, I began to charge down the mountainside headed back to Red Box when I heard him. I turned around and there he was. Frank began to close in on me. I raced down faster and faster. I was no longer concerned with blowing my quads out, since we were nearing mile 20 already, and it was mostly uphill after Red Box so this was my last chance at banking some fast mileage on some seriously fun single-track. I widened the gap between us, and reached Red Box where Bobby, Crista, & Elva were waiting.

Frankie E. looking strong

Frankie E. looking strong

I was well ahead of cutoff, and had passed quite a few other runners, so I had decided to rest for a couple of minutes. I chatted with my friends about how amazing the course was, and that they all needed to run it the following year. Used the restroom (Hello, Ms. Black Widow), before grabbing a handful of Pringles to go. Frank had arrived during all of this, and I set out with him, deciding to throw in the towel and just hang with him for the duration, or until one of us decided to part ways. The next section was made up of torn up road, mostly dirt. At that moment I was very grateful to have company because this is the type of terrain I struggle with. I prefer single-track or road. I really have a hard time with fire roads. It’s mostly psychological….

Frank and I discussed the finer things in life during our run. Mostly future races, past races, and shoes. The time went by quickly and before I knew it we had descended over 400 feet into the canyon and ended up at West Fork aid station. This was my favorite aid station of the day. The guys running it were cracking jokes, and made up really great lies about how great we were looking. They had tapped a nearby spring and ran a hose down to cool runners off. They drenched my hat and filled up my bandana with ice cubes and sent us on our way.

And now, The Big Climb. I had made up my mind to hike the rest of the course. The mercury rose steadily and I suddenly began to feel like I worked at a pizza factory. The ice melted almost immediately, dripping steadily on my feet. Every now and then the trail would dip down and I could run. These parts were glorious and I began to question my initial plans of taking it easy on the way to the finish. I picked up the pace and dropped my racing partner. I wouldn’t see him again until I already had a beer in my hand.

One by one I started reeling in runners. As a backpacker, hills are something I can wrap my head around with a great attitude. It’s simple, you just keep moving forward at a steady pace and don’t allow negative thoughts to drag you down. I would spot a runner wobbling from side to side, stopping quite frequently to rest along the side of the trail. I pushed hard and greeted each one with enthusiasm. I asked how each one was, and bade them farewell. My smile grew as the air began to thin and more light shone through the trees. I approached a couple who I could overhear having a rough time. The woman appeared to be a very talented runner who was having an awful race. The man was attempting to encourage her, sticking by her side. He noticed me first, and moved over for me. I was now in between them and could hear her grumbling. I always have a hard time being vocal, asking to pass, so I remained silent. He called out to her, alerting her of someone behind her. She moved over and I smiled at her. I said thank you, and that we were almost done, and to keep up the great work. I took off with gusto, to make up for the time I spent being trapped in between the two. I guess this was a mistake, as she immediately burst into tears seeing this. The man reassured her and they kept moving. I felt terrible for her, but we were less than a mile to the finish and she had company so I shook it off.

In the near-distance I could hear cheering. Yes! I emerged from the forest and onto a paved road. Just a few hundred feet left! I saw the café in the distance, where finishers, families, and friends were looking down shouting to each runner as they came up, one by one. The finish was all uphill, which is a really mean thing to do, especially with such a large crowd having such a great view. I attempted an odd version of a sprint, and crossed the line.

10

The second I stopped my lungs felt tight and I was having a hard time catching my breath. I’m guessing that this is what asthmatics feel like when they’re having an attack. Ah, altitude. Crista shoved a Stone IPA in my hand, and Bobby took pictures. After a few minutes my panting began to slow and I could enjoy my beer. I thanked the race director, the volunteers, and enjoyed some food while cheering on the rest of the finishers.

11

Time of 7:35:08

8th woman.

See you there in 2016.

.

Grand Canyon Double Crossing

 

South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon AZ

It started with unfinished business. Last year, a small group of us went to go for a run in the Grand Canyon. A few were running the double crossing (also known as rim to rim to rim) which is anywhere from 43-50 miles depending on how you do it. The rest of us came up with (really good) excuses to only go part of the distance. Bobby and I were in that second group, turning back at Ribbon Falls with our tails between our legs. Sure, we had ran 30 miles in the Canyon. Sure, it was the most beautiful waterfall we had ever laid eyes on. But we didn’t end our day with a sense of nobility, or with an aurora of “what the hell did we just do?” like our friends had. When they emerged from the Canyon, shaking, pale, and completely silent, I yearned to go through what they just had experienced. One guy, legs locking up and cramping, had to be lifted into the awaiting truck that would take them back to our campsite. I wanted to be that guy.

 

Previous year’s group of awesome -photo credit Tyler Clemens

It’s mid-April and almost a year has passed since that last trip to the Canyon. We decided that this was our year. We were going to complete the Double Crossing. I invited a couple of people…who invited a couple of people…and soon enough there was a group of roughly thirty runners, ready to take on some serious mileage and elevation gain. Most were running 30 miles, on Saturday. A few completed the whole shebang. Bobby and I were the only ones doing the double crossing on Sunday. This was probably for the better, to ensure that we went our planned pace. We had planned on a steady, slow pace and very long breaks to fully ensure a good time and, more importantly, a safe exit due to this being our longest run to date. We couldn’t afford getting caught up with the footfall of others, we would likely blowout. You don’t want to blowout in the Grand Canyon.

 

Part of Saturday’s crew-photo stolen from Tim Hackett

We woke up at 3am. We had made some coffee the night before and it was still piping hot as I sipped from the thermos. After a breakfast of flatbread & avocado, we hit the road, Crista driving us to the South Kaibab trailhead. On the drive, we got lost once. Twice. Almost three times, so our original start time of 3:30am ended up being pushed to 4:50am. We didn’t mind though, as long as we made it out before the mule train. With our headlamps & jackets on, we walked about half a mile to the trailhead to begin our journey to the North Rim and back. We knew what the distance was. We knew what the elevation profile was. What we didn’t know is that we would not be returning to the South Rim for another 22 hours.


As the sun rose (a little too quickly into our run) we stopped several times to peer over the side and snap a few photos. We chatted along the way with a botanist, and an elderly gentleman who was pretty freaking stoked on our plan. Switchback after switchback. And then some more switchbacks. The sky morphed from black to a dim, dark blue, and then vibrant shades of gold. The sun shot rays of warmth onto the canyon walls. The day was here and we were only about six miles in. Not to worry. A late start only meant one thing, to us: a late finish. We reveled in the view, and then took off deeper and deeper into the canyon.  I was having some stomach issues and pondering how much better I might be feeling had I not participated in the previous day’s beer mile. Lesson learned (author’s note: that lesson will never actually be learned).  I tried to take in calories, but my Clif bars simply mocked me as I grimaced at the sight of them. I wasn’t ready to eat, the sour taste of acid reflux filling my mouth. I was still digesting beer and avocado, a worthy mix on any other such occasion. Our packs must have weighed eight pounds a piece. We had about 7-10,000 calories (I accidently cleared my calculator after reaching 6,000 and was too lazy to start over) and two liters of water. I kept thinking to myself The more I eat, the less this stupid thing will weigh. Even the thought of a lighter load didn’t help me take in any calories.

 

Bobby on South Kaibab

 We reached the Colorado River and high-fived each other. Success! One major landmark down, only about a billion more to go. The current was weaker than years past, a sign of the persistent drought in the Southwest, but impressive nonetheless. We jogged into the famed Phantom Ranch. It was about 6:15am. We threw off our packs and sat on top of a picnic bench in the shade.  Folks who were camped out at the bottom of the Canyon were buzzing around, circulating outside the Phantom Ranch canteen, waiting for it to be open for business. Campers began to approach us and ask us about the rest of our group, due to our matching Dirtbag Runners hats. One man informed us that someone from our Saturday double-crossing group wasn’t feeling so great and ended up spending the night on the Canyon floor. We wondered aloud who that might’ve been, thinking back to those we did, and didn’t see the previous night before we went to bed. We didn’t let this shake us, although maybe it should have, being the least experienced runners of those doing the full distance.


With our water topped off (three liters this time) we prepared for our longest section without a water stop. Best case scenario, we only had about 8 or so miles until the next water refill. At worst, we had 32 miles, with the exception of treating river water if needed. We learned from the experience our friends had last year. After skipping Cottonwood (that 8 mile water stop I was referring to as Best Case Scenario) and topping their water bottles off at Pump-house (just a few miles past Cottonwood) they went on their merry way to the North Rim. Just minutes after they passed, unbeknownst to our friends there was a break in the pipeline. This resulted in the water being shut off for the rest of the route, until their return to Phantom Ranch, already 40 miles into their day.

We shot out of Phantom Ranch and headed to Ribbon Falls, a worthwhile side-trip that will take anyone’s breath away. Trust me, it’s worth the detour and minimal added mileage. We followed small trails that led any-which-way, sort of like a choose-your-own-destiny book. My guess is that due to it being off of the main trail, people have a tendency to get a little lost and create a new pathway to the falls, giving a very spider-web appearance to the whole trail system. This also will aid in racking up bonus miles as you never go the right way the first time, or the same way twice. The vegetation thickened and there air became humid. After a couple of small stream crossings we emerged from the bamboo at the foot of the largest moss and calcium deposit buildup I’ve ever seen, with crystal clear water pouring down in veils onto it. Imagine an infinite current of diamonds crashing onto the world’s largest topiary a hundred feet above, with the Grand Canyon painting the backdrop and you’ll somewhat get the picture. We climbed up the sidetrail nearby, which has an alcove where you can sit behind the falling water, with the most incredible view of mesas and canyon walls behind it. We sat for about an hour and munched on half a pb&j before retracing our steps to return to the main trail and get back to business.

 

Ribbon Falls

Ribbon Falls

Looking up at Ribbon Falls

Running through Box Canyon is a challenge in itself. There is a gradual uphill grade that feels fine, but the time it takes to reach the start of the big North Rim climb is deceiving. We kept pointing at “rims” making wild accusations (“That’s gotta be it up there!”) only to find ourselves seriously wrong every time. And then it happened. The grade steepened and the air began to chill. We were climbing! We were so stoked on the beginning of the endless switchbacks that would lead us to the North Rim.

 

Climbing North Kaibab

We were warned that the climb to the top of the North Rim would feel like an eternity. The thing is, Bobby and I are avid backpackers so the timeframe of a 6,000 foot climb is something we are very familiar with. To be honest, we were surprised at how pleasant we felt, what with running vests in place of our typical 20-30 pound backpacks.  It also helped that a cool storm rolled in, lightning flashing, causing thunder to crack and roll through the canyon. You could actually follow the sound from one end all the way along the canyon floor. After getting a little wet and feeling quite great, we reached the top and were amused by the dusting of snow on the grass. The desert is a peculiar place.

 

halfway done!

We hung out at the North rim for about an hour, chatting with a backpacker who had just arrived that morning after hiking in the Canyon. We ate the other half of our pb&j’s, sucked down a liter of water with an electrolyte supplement (Nuun) and stared off into the distance towards our finish line. We were (almost) halfway there. The return trip entailed going up Bright Angel, a slightly longer trail than South Kaibab, but much less steep. It is also important to note that Bright Angel has water stops, whereas South Kaibab does not. This is important information for when you’re climbing at a slow pace after already running for 40 miles. We finished up, wiped the jelly off our faces and started our journey back to the South Rim.

 

Headed down North Kaibab

We ran down at a lively pace, feeling re-energized like barn-sour horses, headed back to their oat bags.  Jamming down, I got distracted (how could I not?) by the magnificent view and looked up for a little too long as I ran. My right foot landed on a soft-ball sized rock and I began to roll. Desiring to not fall over the edge to my doom, I leaned to my right toward the canyon wall and turned my ankle inwards. I was able to keep myself from falling down completely but the damage was done. My ankle began to swell immediately. We still had more than a marathon’s distance to go.

When I was 9 years old I joined our school’s basketball team. I really enjoyed the sport and continued playing through high school. The first time I sprained my ankle, my coach gave me the classic sage advice, “Walk it off!” Every coach I ever played for had that exact remedy for a hurt ankle, so as I hobbled down, switchback after switchback, I could hear their voices in unison, “Walk it off!” Well, I didn’t have all day…or rather I did, but I wasn’t keen on walking down such a ridiculously fun single-track, so I did what any nutty trail-runner would feel compelled to do. I continued to run.

We arrived back to Phantom Ranch in the dark. As we slowed down to a walk we could hear echoes of laughter, silverware scraping plates, and a generally good time being had. The canteen was open to the public! We peeled off our packs and entered the restaurant. There was a man strumming a Radiohead song on a guitar. Another man was flirting with a girl behind the counter. Everyone was jovial and boisterous, ecstatic to be able to share this moment on the floor of one of the great Wonders of the World. Even the guy who had a moth caught inside of his ear, (“Is there a doctor in the house?”) he was happy. Happier still was the man (“I’m a doctor!”) with the tweezers, who was already two beers in, a sloppy, silly grin plastered on his face. Bobby bought a beer and sipped it slowly. There was no need for me to drink, I was still feeling it from the night before. I purchased an Arnold Palmer.

We left Phantom Ranch under moonlight, our headlamps almost unnecessary in the blue glow. We began our final climb, out of the canyon, and back to the South Rim where our sleeping bags awaited. It was almost 10pm. Switchback after switchback. Bats swooped down in front of our lights, casting shadows and creating a soft, fluttering breeze that kissed our faces. Frogs played chicken under our feet. Or I guess Frogger. I heard a soft bleating in the darkness. Suddenly it was coming from every direction. “Do you hear goats?” I asked Bobby. He hadn’t. Great. I know it’s not likely to hallucinate after only 40-some miles, but maybe after 18 hours of running your senses might start playing tricks on you. I, however, was certain I had heard correctly. We stopped. Nothing. I sighed and we continued to push on until, “There! Hear that?” “Goats!” Bobby exclaimed. We followed the sound with our beams of light. There were eyes glowing on the other side of the canyon wall. We were satisfied and continued our mission to the top.

One great thing about hiking up Bright Angel in the dark is there are no false summits. You don’t eye “the top” only to be dead wrong. You can’t see anything but the trail directly under your feet. So you just march and march and march. We hiked past Indian Gardens campground and giggled at the loud snores blaring from the tents. Because this was our new distance personal record, a few joints and muscles began to protest. My ankle whined and wouldn’t let me bare weight on it evenly. Bobby’s hip began to tighten and refused to allow him his full range of motion. This worked against him greatly, due to the large steps that make up the trail. He began to compromise by stepping perilously close to the edge of the trail, where the steps were not as high. This wouldn’t have been such an issue except for one thing: he was sleep-walking.

I kept a close eye on him and tried to keep him awake by asking questions and making musings about the bats and insects I spotted along the trail. We reached Three-Mile rest house and sat down. Bobby immediately fell into a deep sleep. “Bobby.”

He jerked his head up and looked at me.

“Are you okay?” I asked him. He nodded. I asked if he was going to be able to make it. He nodded again. We sucked down some gels and filled up on water. Reluctantly we left the comfort of the rest area and continued on. 1.5-Mile rest house. Almost there. My watch began to beep. The previous morning’s alarm was still set. It was now 3am and we had been in the Canyon for 22 hours. We had been up for 24. And we still had some mileage to go. We trudged through landmarks of stone archways and we knew we were almost done. The air chilled to 36 teeth-chattering degrees. And then we saw it. The finish line. We stopped just steps before the trailhead. I held back tears of joy. We laughed and hugged and kissed. We were done.

The entire trip I had been purposefully blocking out an important detail. When we reached the South Rim we would have no car waiting for us. We had no idea how long we would take and were not interested in keeping anybody waiting so we never arranged for a pickup. The day before, an extra two miles from the Bright Angel trailhead to our campsite at Mather Pass didn’t seem like such a long distance. What’s another two after 47? scratch that, make it 47.5 with Ribbon Falls. Wait no, 48 because we had to walk part of the distance to the South Kaibab trailhead before we started our run. So wait, after all was said and done, we ran 50 miles?

Chya!

Rancho San Juan Trail Run, or, Weekend of Four Beer Miles

“Rancho San Juan Trail Run and Camp is 100% on, regardless of weather. Please remember that this is a rain or shine event. Plan accordingly. BRING FIREWOOD.”

Those last words from race director Luis Escobar echoed as we packed up the car and headed north to Los Alamos in Central California for the Rancho San Juan Trail Run & Camp.

The forecast called for three days of downpour. Rain in California is always bittersweet. With it comes new plant-life, swollen streams, and bursting springs. Also, mud. Lots and lots of mud. With lots of mud comes mudslides.  This poses a real danger for homes, trails, and roads. For a runner, it’s just another hurdle to overcome. We arrived at the ranch early on Friday morning. Bobby and I were there to help mark the course with Luis, but he was still out and about with the famed Tarahumara runner from Mexico, Arnulfo Quimare. They were on the hunt for leather straps and tires. I’ll get to that later.  So, we did what anyone would do. We cracked open some breakfast beers and hung out with Luis’ parents until they got to the ranch. We noticed a green piñata near their RV and decided to take a closer look. There was a face printed on computer paper attached to it. That face looked familiar. But it couldn’t be. There was no way. Well, scratch that. This was an All We Do Is Run event, so anything and everything goes. Bobby said to Luis’ mom, “I like the piñata.”

“Oh yes, that’s some running joke with Luis and his friends. I printed it out last night. He’s some actor. Jeremy something?”

Mine and Bobby’s jaws dropped in delight and disbelief. Yup, that’s who we thought it was. Porn star, Ron Jeremy.

“That must have been an interesting Google Image search,” I remarked, tears in my eyes.

“Oh yes… When I saw the photos I realized I had seen him before. Well, no, I hadn’t SEEN him before…” She blushed and then the subject was changed.

After about an hour of drinking multiple Tecates and listening to Luis’ father, Joe, tell us tales of mountain lions, dust began to swirl and a familiar truck came rolling in. Out jumped Luis, followed by two others. One man was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He was Mario Munoz from Urique, Mexico. The other, a brightly colored billowing green top, a white breechcloth, and some very recognizable footwear, simple sandals with leather lacing wrapped multiple times around his ankles. It was him. The Michael Jordan of ultra-running. Arnulfo Quimare of the Copper Canyons. Having read Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born to Run three times I felt like I knew him already. With a gentle, light sweeping of the hands, we greeted each other. Beers were offered but declined. For now, at least. After quickly unloading Luis’ trailer we set off to mark the course at last.

With Luis’ old neighbor, Joe Blanco, in tow we began marking the first loop of the course. This proved to be easier said than done. We were using Luis’ 2-wheel drive truck to navigate the course, so needless to say the previous night’s rain wasn’t going to do us any favors. The four of us chatted away about random things and completely missed a right turn and found ourselves nose-down into a ditch. Slowly, Bobby, Blanco, and I peeled out of the car.

“Is the back tire on the ground?” Luis asked me.

“Nope,” I replied.

“Nope it is on the ground or nope it isn’t?”

“It’s not on ground, dude.”

And thus, Bobby and I ran the two miles back to camp to get Blanco’s 4-wheel drive truck that we probably should’ve taken to begin with. After pulling Luis’ truck out of the ditch via a sketchy 20 year old tow-rope we continued on our way, only slipping and sliding a few more times. We finished up, covered in chalk, mud, and something that looked like mud but had a suspiciously cow-dung-like scent to it. When we arrived back to camp many of our friends had shown up and were setting up their tents, storm-clouds threatening us in the distance.

16396520029_9d7a0a592b_k

A fire was lit and we gathered around. Mario informed us that Arnulfo would like to dance for us. The living legend took out two long strands of what appeared to be shells. They were the cocoons of the monarch butterfly, he explained, that he himself had gathered along the cliffsides of the Copper Canyons. He wrapped the strands around his ankles. Inside were palm seeds that rattled inside with each step. He was going to do a rain dance. Great. With Mario strumming the guitar and whistling, Mario danced lightly and with grace around the fire. As luck would have it (and the aforementioned predicted forecast) it rained. Everyone had an early wakeup call so after a few more drinks and a few more laughs we all went our separate ways to bed.

16582169365_557049e14d_k

Gregorio Ponce dominating the 10k

16395059228_60f28d3ee0_k

The next morning we crawled out of our tents to a misty, grey sky. The 5k & 10k races were to be held and more people had arrived. Bobby and I filled our thermos with coffee, grabbed a couple of beers, and took off to act as a turn marshal on the course. As runners came flying down the muddy ranch road, I took photos and tried to stay dry.

I thought I had an umbrella in my trunk. I did not. Turns out that a five-year long drought makes Californians pretty ill-prepared for rain. And then the sky unleashed on us. I was drenched. Then the worst thing that I could think of happened. My Canon Rebel turned off. It was far too wet. I quickly took the battery out, sprinted back to camp, jumped into my car and tried to dry it off as best as I could. That was the end of the road, this weekend, for my beloved DSLR. At least I still had the GoPro. (Sidenote: three weeks later and it’s still sitting in rice…I’m too afraid to take it out and turn it on!)

As runners finished up and we cheered on, we started to get a little thirsty. It was a beautiful, rainy morning, and we were on a ranch. Luis came up to our group and asked if we were ready for a morning beer mile.

It’s 10am, Luis. So we’re going do a beer mile now…and then another one in the afternoon?” our buddy Chris Clemens, asked. 

 “Are you a man, or are you a mouse?” Luis grinned.

16397540999_44240e3a8f_k

Beer Mile #1

So, with that we all lined up for a breakfast beer mile. Literally, as I hadn’t had anything to eat yet. I wondered if this would work for, or against me. Four beers, and four fuzzy laps later I finished the beer mile and successfully did not puke. I dominated the women’s division (never mind that I was the only woman…it still counts, right?), and true to his reputation, defending champion Jadd Martinez remains undefeated in the beer mile. Newcomer Frankie Escobar (no relation to the man responsible for all of this) was right on his tail, followed by Bobby. Everyone finished, only a few fell, and I didn’t see any spewage. Bobby passed out the finisher’s metals which were plastic shovels found on the beach by the infamous, hairy-chested, avocado-eating, Stone IPA-drinking, Luna Sandal-wearing Patrick Sweeney. Luis adorned Jadd with a luchador mask (I was already wearing mine during the race) and we took our victory lap.

10920941_1025097094172025_2708682983559711736_n

Photo by Frankie Escobar

As more people arrived and even more beer was drunk, the rain finally lightened up and eventually halted altogether. Arnulfo and Mario began pulling out tires and leather straps that they had found the previous morning at a horse tack store. The Tarahumara are known for not only their superhuman-like running abilities, but also for what they wear on their feet during those insanely long runs. One by one Arnulfo began cutting custom sole sheets out of the tires and stringing them up with leather laces. It’s a rare opportunity to see a legend of Mexico create the footwear he runs in. It’s even rarer to be able to take a pair home.

15963457043_b2cd6c53cc_k

Arnulfo Quimare creating custom sandals

After the last sandal was created, Arnulfo decided to grace us with another dance. Yup, 15963432453_ed43b44149_kANOTHER rain dance. Real funny. So again, we gathered around the fire. Mario strummed and whistled, Arnulfo danced, looking very amused. And then, like an 80’s heavy metal ballad, the rain came softly, sweetly at first, before hitting us fast and hard.

15961008394_5c175fc632_kThe kids (yes, this was dubbed a “family-friendly” event somehow) were getting a little restless. Piñata time! If you haven’t seen small children swing a bat at a miniature Ron Jeremy, you haven’t truly lived.

With Ron Jeremy’s head cut off, and kids loaded up on sugar, everyone noticed that their mouths were getting a little dry. It was that time again. Beer Mile Part 2. 16395789828_c7feb81607_h

I decided that one beer mile a day is enough for me, and sat this one out. This one was a little more eventful. Of course, Jadd finished strong in first place. The race for second was where the action was.16395923940_afba769a83_k

Frankie had been chugging and running swiftly, with Bobby right behind. Frankie was quick. But then it happened. He began to burp. Sweat a little more. Lean over. We watched in anticipation. Alas, there was no puking and no penalty lap was necessary. 16581669391_ed1070216c_k

While Frankie was still attempting to compose himself, Bobby slammed down his last Tecate and overtook second place. More shovels were awarded, and everyone felt pretty pleased with themselves. I’m not sure what was better, the reserved Arnulfo Quimare laughing from the sidelines, or the beer miler’s children screaming cheers for their inebriated parents. Chug, Daddy, chug!

As sun set and the stars came out, we were entertained by a local mariachi band and we danced the night away.

 At this point it might be obvious that a Luis Escobar event is not exactly about the run. It is, however, the excuse we come up with to gather together on various ranch properties. With that said, I suppose I should finally write about the race itself.

We woke up to familiar voices. More friends of ours had driven in while we were sleeping, after running a different race in Southern California. They wouldn’t be racing today, unless you count the 7am, pre-race beer mile. Third one of the weekend. We opted out of this one because, well, we’re not that dumb. Bobby and I were both signed up for the 50k. Luis announced that because conditions on the proposed second loop were far too dangerous for even Blanco’s 4-wheel drive truck (there had been a very close call that would have made for a tragic weekend), we would now be running the one loop, three times. Our 50k had turned into something much longer, with an unknown distance. We were excited for the distance PR, and had no plans of going quickly anyway. That dream ended with one word: Tecate.

16556839586_d40158fea2_kPeaceful Arnulfo fired the shotgun and off we went. The roads can only be described as sticky mud. The kind that adds 10 pounds to your shoes and makes sucking noises as you do your best to slog through it without accidentally performing the splits. We ran through wildflowers sprouting up under moss-covered oak trees. Puffy clouds hovered behind rolling hills, but luckily for us it never rained during the race. Cows gazed at us with weary suspicion. I had never seen California this green before.

15960589124_801ceeb255_k 16395744720_8af6d7dbc6_k

Bobby and I had started the race separately, planning to run our own races but I ended up catching him along a ridgeline. We decided that since we were moving so slowly (collateral damage for being such awesome beer milers) and the distance was now a mystery, we would run the miles together.

15960553504_0b6f375efa_kThis ended up being the best decision for us. Only 18 runners ended up finishing the 50k, so it would have been a very lonely, albeit beautiful, run. I spent most of the run muttering, “wowzers” every ten steps before snapping a photo. After everything was said and done, I ended up taking over two-thousand (three zeros, folks) photos during the race. Clearly time was not on our minds. We ended up finishing with a time of 7:16, which isn’t a terrible time for us considering the mud, hangover, and the fact that one woman’s GPS watch read 35 miles.

We finished with smiles on our faces, and immediately reached for cold beers. Hair of the dog, as they say. Once everyone was finished, there was only one thing left to day. We picked up four beers each and waved goodbye to Arnulfo and Mario as they drove off, headed south. I imagine that was a great, lasting image for the duo as we lined up behind their truck’s dust for the fourth (yup) beer mile.

With Jadd having left the ranch, there was an open spot for a new podium finisher. No one was surprised when Tyler Tomasello lead the way. Cat Bradley was quick with the beer-pounding but was fresh off of her second place finish for the Sean O’Brien 50 mile race the previous day. Full of heart and willpower, she limped along with a bum knee and was quite the inspiration to future beer-milers around the globe. I finished first place woman once again. Crista Scott, Gregorio Ponce, and many others had excellent performances. Except for the Clemens brothers. They were terrible, as always.

Shovels were once again awarded, burritos were eaten, and everyone warmed themselves by the fire once more. At some point I fell asleep next to the fire, and had happy dreams of wildflowers, aid station food, and cows.

Until next time,

corre libre.

Running in the Shadows of Giants: a Woodside 50k race report.

We awoke with a start to three synchronized alarms sounding off harmoniously. After a night of touring around San Francisco, sampling beer and Chinese food, we needed to make sure that our 6am wakeup call became a reality. We needed all the help we could get. It was still dark out, when Peter said the most magical thing anyone could say pre-sunrise: “Do you guys want me to run out to grab coffee?” Yes. By the gallon, preferably.

Slowly we began to warm up our bones, slithering along the walls of the hotel room in a slightly hung-over daze. We dressed quickly, in clothing that was far too cold for the time being, to go run around the mountains of Redwood City, California for the Woodside 50k. The coffee came, and we sipped ourselves back to life over avocados, peanut butter, and flatbread as we attempted to convince Crista to run with us, despite her having had a race two days before (the more the merrier, right?). The best we could get was a solid, “maybe….”

We piled into our car and reveled in the morning glow as we drove the 9 miles to Huddart Park, where Bobby, Peter, and I would run 50 kilometers though towering Redwoods, by Jurassic-looking ferns, and next to bubbling creek beds. Hailing from rocky, dry (but gorgeous) Southern California, we were giddy with anticipation to run in such a beautiful, lush green area. We arrived at the park and collected ourselves at the sign-in booths, and yes! It happened! Crista got in line for race-day registration. She received a bib and I called over to her, asking what distance she signed up for. “35k!” she exclaimed, with a huge grin on her face. Excellent.

1

We gathered to listen to the race director give last-minute directions and discovered that a large majority of people were first-time trail runners. Little did they know their worlds were about to be rocked to the point of no return. With little flair (this wasn’t a Color Run, afterall), the RD shouted a simple, “Ready, set go!” and we took off on our respective distances.  Some were running 10k, just barely grazing the surface of the beauty of the park. Others were running 17k, a fun, fast course. Most were running the 35 & 50k course, and these were the runners who were truly in for a treat. Deep into the park the Redwoods stood taller, the air became still, and running in peaceful solitude became possible.

3Bobby and I had agreed to stay together for the first half of the race, at a relaxed pace and enjoyed the scenery. We were graced with views few others on Earth have seen. We chatted with other runners when we happened to have some energy to surge by, finding ourselves in good company with many people from our area.  They too were stunned by the expansive forest. As we meandered deeper into the woods we began to climb. After a series of switchbacks I realized Bobby wasn’t with me anymore. I waited and asked how he was feeling. Not too great, it seemed. His hip flexors would not relax and running uphill caused sharp pain. He attempted to hike the uphills but was still having difficulties. There was an aid station at the 35k turnaround where runners were given the option to downgrade distances. Bobby opted to turn around at the point, but not before hanging out at the aid station for about fifteen minutes. He cracked jokes with the volunteers and ate an unheard of amount of potato chips before heading back to run the final miles, a long rolling downhill back to the finish area.

2

While Bobby was stuffing his face, in great spirits about his decision, I began my journey onto the eight mile long orange loop, now completely alone. I ran for what felt like forever without seeing anybody. Then, to my surprise, I started seeing runners headed towards me. Was I going the wrong way on the loop? How could I have missed the turn? The course was impeccably marked, and you’d have to be a triathlete to miss it. You’d also have to go to a Born to Run Ultramarathon to get that joke. As I ran down the loop, I spotted Peter sprinting up towards me. We high-fived and he went on his way. I kicked myself for not asking him, but he was practically flying up the hill in a top ten position and I didn’t want to slow him down. People continued to run toward me, all smiling, each one saying something along the lines of, “good job” or “nice work” so I figured since trail runners are such decent human beings at least one of them would have told me if I were off course. Eventually I caught up to two women, running in the same direction as me. I told them how happy I was to see them, and they assured me I was right on track. Turns out I hadn’t missed the turn, and after the race Peter and I both shared the same experience of feeling lost on the orange loop.

The trail snaked further into the emerald canopy of trees, switching back over a stream several times. We went down, down, down. Running down is fun and all but in the back of your head you know this only means one thing: a big up. Suddenly the trail spat us out into a golden meadow, with expansive views of the rolling hills beyond the park. Several runners stopped to take a walk break during this section, using the change in scenery as a great excuse to slow down and enjoy the moment.

And then it happened. The Big Climb. It was time to pay the piper. I began to slowly ascend back up the orange loop, leapfrogging with other runners. I passed a woman about my age and decided I wanted to keep her behind me.  I pushed hard on the smallest flats I could find, and alternated running with power-hiking on the uphills, being mindful to keep my heart rate under control. I could hear her breathing hard and I knew I could break her at this pace. I continued like this for the duration of the orange loop, and then the trail finally dipped a little and I used this opportunity to fly back down to the

35k aid station, where Bobby and I had parted so long ago. I reached the station, turned around and watched my predator quickly descend. We high-fived and thanked each other for the encouragement. She said she was thankful for the motivation. I told her I was thankful for the fear. She grabbed a few items from the aid station and then took off. Nature called, for me, so I decided to let her go and wished her well before finding some bushes.

The next section was my favorite. I retraced my original steps, back on the green loop once again. The forest was so green that it almost glowed, the redwoods once again towered, and everything became quiet. At this point the runners were spaced out, and there was no one ahead of me or behind me as far as I could see. I started jamming down, enjoying myself on the long, rolling descent. With every dip I felt my legs become energized. I began to zone out, completely at peace in the deep, quickly darkening forest, and began to look up and all around me. This was a mistake. In coastal Southern California we don’t have roots. We don’t have trees, so what good would a root do? If you step on a rock, the rock will either roll or sink deeper into the earth. Roots stay planted into the Earth. They’re stubborn. I soon learned this as I found myself flying in midair, face first into the ground. I tucked my arm in and broke my fall by rolling onto my left shoulder. I jumped up quickly and looked around. Still no one. I laughed out loud, stoked on surviving, no, completely owning my first real fall of my running career. Nothing hurt, I just had a little mud on my leg and shoulder. One would think this would’ve shaken me up but on the contrary, it pumped me up. I began running hard, this time with my mind completely on the task at hand. Occasionally, as I ran that last 11 miles back to the finish I would let out a chuckle to myself as I replayed my fall in my head.

The final miles back to the park were full of ups and downs. The sun was beginning to struggle to shine through the trees, and the air became chilly. I became increasingly aware of my desire for real food and a cold beer. This idea became my motivator. I started surging and passing people one by one, stating that there were cold ones in the cooler waiting for me and I didn’t want to be late. I think this helped to remind others of their plans with their cold ones, as they also picked up the pace behind me. As the miles ticked by I began to hear cheering. Yes! The beer was near. The trees opened up and the grassy park lawn was in sight. I sprinted as fast as my short, little legs could take me through the finish and then bee-lined it straight to the restroom. I had drunk a lot of water during the race in preparation of the post-race festivities. I then made my way over to get my awesome tech t-shirt, coaster, and medal, but more importantly, my beer.

Bobby’s race ended great. His hips didn’t bother him, as the rest of his race was downhill. Crista had a great race and finished in a great time. Peter ended up finishing 9th overall. We were all dirty, smelly, and walked funny. But most importantly we were all happy. Cheers.

Canyon de Chelly: a Spanish borrowing of the Navajo word Tséyiʼ: “inside the rock.”

Canyon de Chelly: a Spanish borrowing of the Navajo word Tséyiʼ: “inside the rock.”
Canyon01-300x225
     We awoke frigid and sore from shivering all night.The full moon shone brightly, flooding the campsite in a pool of light and we couldn’t be more thankful. We needed it to pack up our camping gear at the quiet hour of 4:30am and didn’t want to leave anything behind. With the car loaded and our thermos full of coffee, Bobby and I piled in and began the six-hour drive from Bryce Canyon, Utah to Chinle, Arizona. Along the journey the sun began to hint at rising for what seemed like an eternity. The sky was lit with a deep emerald hue that provided a stunning backdrop for mesas and hoodoos in the arid desert. I have always preferred sunrises to sunsets, especially in the Southwest.
     We entered Navajo country and were stunned with the vistas, but even more-so the people. Every encounter we had with the locals was filled with genuine warmth and welcoming smiles. We pulled up to the visitor’s center for Canyon de Chelly, where our race would be held, and marveled at the photography exhibit before heading to the campground for check-in and race briefing.
     We arrived to the campground and scoped out a spot in the very back, next to a large field with a hillside view and, most importantly, two trees perfectly spaced for setting up our hammock. After setting up our makeshift home, we walked over to the amphitheater to check in and spotted familiar faces wearing familiar adventure-sandals (www.lunasandals.com) and were greeted with mile-wide grins from race director Shaun Martin and his wife Melissa. We marveled at the handmade finishers awards that included handmade turquoise necklaces that would adorn each finisher. These were painstakingly crafted by Shaun’s grandmother, with help from his own young children. For the speedy, overall awards included beautiful traditional Navajo necklaces, Pendleton blankets, custom tapestries, moccasins, and a handmade ceramic cooking pot. Incredibly detailed bracelets created by Shaun himself awaited the age-group winners. While we gazed amongst the awards, tourists continued to stop by and ask for the prices. You couldn’t purchase these, we explained, you could only win them through grit and hard work, by running 34 miles in beauty.
     As the sun set a fire was lit and the runners gathered to take part in the briefing. Shaun told us of the good that this race does, expanding far beyond our own expectations, to the local community. It was the Chinle youth that benefitted most (besides the deep spiritual experience that the Canyon provides to the runners), with the money raised going towards cross-country events, clothing, shoes, and more importantly the lasting impact of the energy that trail runners give off. We were there not only to run a race and raise funds, but to set an example of how running can positively change lives. Shaun’s father-in-law, William Yazzie, explained to us how encouraging the youth to run can help to steer them away from the everyday pressures of negative influences that may otherwise be imposed upon them. Running makes us strong. Running helps to give us purpose. Running saves lives. He then graced us with song and a Navajo prayer. We parted ways, heading to our individual camps full of inspiration.
     Our alarm went off at 5:30am. From outside our tent we could hear the rustle of life from our neighbors. In the next site over, Jim had gotten a small campfire going. This created shadows that played along the trees as runners prepared for their journeys into the Canyon. The temperature was perfect, which meant that there was a strong potential for the day to warm early. We brewed coffee, ate an avocado, and reveled in the peace of the morning air. With 20 minutes until the sunrise, I laced up my sandals and we took off for the starting line.
     The start of a race is historically chaotic, full of frantically anxious racers, drop-bag worries, and long porta-potty lines. Not at the Canyon de Chelly Ultramarathon. Only whispers could be heard, as we stood in silence waiting for the sun to rise, signaling a new day. A fire was lit, and would burn until the last runner crossed the finish line some twelve hours later. Shaun’s father blessed us using the smoke from cedar placed in the fire, lifted up by white eagle feathers that had been passed down to him from his father, and his father before him. As the sun hit the canyon wall we let out a call, announcing our presence to the Canyon as well as our good intent to enter.
     The website describes the first 2.5 miles as being soft sand. I would like to wager that the first five miles (and therefore last five miles as well, being an out-and-back) is in fact soft sand, but I suppose it’s better to not know what lies ahead of you sometimes. As we ran the Canyon was blanketed in deep reds and purples as sunlight painted the steep walls. We were encouraged to let out a yell when we felt that special something that the Canyon stirs deep within us. For the entirety of the race, calls of runners and locals currently residing in the Canyon, as well as those watching down on us from the rim above, bounced along the walls to our delight.
     Bobby and I felt strong as we ran the 17 miles to the turnaround point at the end of the Canyon. We ran past the thousand-year old ruins of the 80-room White House, petroglyphs, and caves. We laid our eyes upon humbling Spider Rock, two free-standing pinnacles that tower 800 feet over your head. After about fifteen miles or so we turned out of the wash that cuts through the Canyon and up a steep single-track trail that climbed to the rim. Using our hands, we scrambled along the boulders to a breathtaking view of the Canyon that we just ran through. It was such a rewarding vista that we took our time at the aid station. We chatted with our fellow runners and the volunteers while we ate melons that had been grown locally and harvested just for this event. We bid our farewells and picked our way back down the rocks.
     Up to this point we had agreed to run together down into the canyon and, depending on how we were feeling, run at our own pace on the way back. I was feeling a little stronger than Bobby, so I picked up the pace and we began our separate journeys, alone but together on the Canyon floor. I let out a yell and began reeling runners in one at a time. With each step I could feel the energy in my legs ignite. I heard a hawk call nearby and I imagined I could fly. Before the start of the race Shaun encouraged us to listen to the sounds of the Canyon and let them inspire you. As I pretended to fly, I heard the wind whistle through the cracks and crevices. In the distance I spotted a familiar head of long black hair. It was Maria! With my sights fixed on her strands playing in the wind, I quickened my steps to catch up. We chatted briefly about the beauty that is Canyon de Chelly and what a truly amazing experience we were having. Maria was moving at a quick pace and feeling great.
     At mile 28 we reached the last aid station. I ate more melon and refilled my pack with water, ready for the last five, sandy, sun-exposed miles. I had been particularly looking forward to this moment from the start of the race. I quickly untied my sandals and strapped them to my pack. I felt the cool, gentle Earth under my feet and every part of my body that had been tiring suddenly felt rejuvenated, as if I hadn’t already ran more than a marathon. I took off swiftly, alone again. I found a good rhythm as I made my way through the soft, deep sand. At home in California I run in the sand multiple days out of the week, so I was feeling comfortable with the terrain. At a lively pace, I began passing more and more of my fellow runners as they trudged along, having difficulties lifting their feet fast enough not to sink. The Canyon walls began to widen and the sky opened up. At one point I stopped seeing the flags that guided us along the course. A playful Native family on horseback called to me and told me I was going the hard way, that the path with the flags was just up to the right. I thanked them profusely and found my way back to the course. For the next three miles they rode alongside me, racing their young son along the river bottom, but thoughtfully only getting up to a trot so as to not stir up dust. The young boy would occasionally let out a call out of pure excitement from the ride as they spoke both in Navajo and English to each other. I listened to them joke with each other and laugh, they were clearly having a great time. I smiled, using their positive energy to help me on my way.
     Canyon5-225x300The finish line was just ahead and I could hear the excitement of runners who had just experienced something really special echo down into the Canyon. I finished the 34-mile race unaware of how long it took me (I rarely wear a watch) and to be honest, I didn’t really care to know. I was ecstatic. I had run in beauty, and, like the hawk, had felt my spirit soar through each mile.
Canyon6-225x300
     Bobby finished not too long after me, and you could see in his eyes that he had had a similar experience. Salt caked his forehead and there was fire in his eyes. We sat in the sand, eating stew and frybread, and watched our friends finish.
     Canyon7-225x300After the awards were handed out, we gathered around the fire just as the sun was beginning to set. We thanked the Canyon, and Shaun’s father cooled down the last runner to cross the finish line with water, to represent healing for every runner. The fire was then put to rest in the Earth, but bled to the Sky, creating the most remarkably vibrant sunset I have yet to lay eyes upon. It could not have been a better ending to such a powerfully meaningful day. A sincere thank you to Shaun and his family, and to the Canyon.
Canyon8-300x225
Ahe’hee’!