Saturday, July 26, 2014

48

By the time you read this, I will have begun the biggest athletic adventure of my life. This post will self-publish at 5:00 AM on Saturday, July 26, about the same time that I'll be heading up the Signal Ridge Trail on Mount Carrigain. It's my declared intention to visit all 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in my home state as swiftly as possible. A team of family and friends will be monitoring my progress as well as providing food, road transportation, and moral support over the next three days. My plan is to stop the clock at the Mount Kinsman Trailhead sometime on Tuesday the 30th after covering nearly 200 miles, and 68,000 feet of elevation gain if everything goes according to plan. (Ha!)



I’m not the first person to pursue the Fastest Known Time (FKT) of the Four Thousand Footers. Others have blazed this trail before; the Fitch brothers, Ted "Cave Dog" Keizer, Tim Seaver, Sue "Stinkyfeet" Johnston, Cath Goodwin, my friend Ryan Welts, and Andrew "Traildog" Thompson. I've drawn years of inspiration from these people and now it's my turn to try and stand on their shoulders. I've researched and planned and trained enough that I'd like to think I'm going into this with open eyes despite the fact that it's far beyond anything else I've done. It's going to hurt and my resolve will be tested in ways I can’t yet appreciate. The lows will be low and the highs will be high. Failure is deliberately a possibility. 




So why do it? For one, I get to spend four days trying to break new ground in the mountains I love. The deeper answers are hard to articulate, but I will say this: I've collected an unusual set of skills and capabilities over the years as a hiker, climber, and runner. These mountains in particular have been burned into brain over the last twelve years and I strongly feel that I'm as qualified to do this as anyone has ever been. Simply put, I’m doing this because I want to and because I can.

Tim Seaver tells me that when he broke the record in 2003, he was sure it would be lowered again in short order, but attempts on his time have been few over the last decade. Just this summer, Andrew Thompson managed to trim 51 minutes off Tim's time, lowering the record to three days, fourteen hours, fifty-none minutes. Coincidentally, I feel like I’ve been on a collision course with the Four Thousand Footers record since 2003, I just didn’t know it for most of those years. Since the day I discovered a list of the Four-Thousand Footers in the back of an old copy of the AMC White Mountain Guide, I've been unable to sit still. The mountains got me off my sedentary ass and fundamentally changed me. They put me in control of my own life, and blessed me with new experiences I never would have imagined. This adventure will be another one of those experiences, succeed or fail, in a relationship with the Whites that will continue long after this is over.


The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. - Albert Camus

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grafton Notch Loop

I will never get to experience all the running routes that interest me, even within New England. Sometimes this keeps me up at night but the bright side is that I will never run out of places to explore. The Grafton Notch Loop is one of those routes that's been on my radar for quite some time but never seemed to slot well into my schedule. At 39 miles, the route is a long day for anyone and involves at least six hours driving for me. When one day things did happen to work out, I did my best to make the commute interesting.


Joining me was my good friend Ryan. When planning our day, for some reason I got it stuck in my head that there was only 9,000 feet of climbing and so I figured an 8 hour time at a training-pace was reasonable. As it turned out, the vertical gain was closer to 12,000 feet and we took a bit longer than that.


After caching some water at the Old Speck Trailhead we got started from the southern road crossing on Maine route 26, opting to do the longer eastern half of the loop first. The idea here was to only refill our water supplies once at the north end by saving the shorter western half for the hot part of the day while also saving the most runnable terrain for the end.

Our first peak was Puzzle Mountain and it provided a pretty quick appetizer view for what was in store later on.




Most of the trail was fairly new and, though a bit wet and muddy, not nearly so rocky and eroded as many more popular areas. I was surprised at how much actual running we were able to get in, though there were quite a few small climbs that began to quickly add up.


Most of the route was pretty meandering and it took a while before we got to the real meat of the climb going up to the Baldpates where we'd join Appalachian Trail for a while.










We reached the Old Speck Parking lot in five hours, six minutes and took a short break to tank up on water and a splash of fuel. At this point the barometer on my watch was reading 7,200 feet of elevation gain and I began to get the sense that we were in for a longer day that we'd originally planned.


With stomachs sloshing full of chugged water it took us an hour and fifteen minutes to summit Old Speck, about fifteen minutes longer than it took me at the start of my Mahoosuc Traverse last summer.


Ryan takes a moment to care for his feet.


The trail down the south side of Old Speck has a remarkably different character than the heavily used north side. As soon as you exit the summit clearing the trail goes from the typical rocky, eroded mess to narrow singletrack on a soft dirt bed (with switchbacks even!) There were some token rooty and rocky sections to keep things interesting but were were able to get into a solid rhythm and cover substantial ground.

Ryan and I were both feeling the heat as we climbed up the open ledges on Sunday River White Cap, which had even better views than the Baldpates. It was becoming clear that the two liters of water we each had wasn't going to get us back to the car and we were happy to have brought a filter so we could fill up at the Sargent Brook Campsite without worry about getting sick from the abundant moose poop on the ground.



A lot of the stone and boardwalk work in the alpine zone reminded us of Goose Eye Peak on the nearby Mahoosuc Range.


The remaining miles seemed much longer that what the trails signs indicated but after endless descending and meandering on old logging roads we finally crossed the snowmobile suspension bridge over the Bear River in the bottom of the valley and made short work of the last half mile of road running to get back to the car in 9:29:30.


It was a longer day than we anticipated but Ryan summed it up in a text to me the next morning:

"I'm still smiling from that run."

You said it, man.

And lastly, a word on time. As near as I can tell, Ryan and I set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the route. A little Googling beforehand showed that Scott and Deb Livingston with Matt Schomburg ran the whole route in 13:26 in 2008, shortly after the loop was completed. The next year, Steve and Deb Pero et al also did the whole thing roughly 14-15 hours. I had heard a rumor of a possible 10:30 time but no one I've talked to can remember where they heard that, who did it, or when it might have happened. In any case, we left plenty of slack in our day and if this worthy route sees more attention I wouldn't be surprised to see some one better our time by ninety minutes.

GPS track: http://www.strava.com/activities/162689737/overview

Friday, July 4, 2014

Presidential Traverse 6/29/2014

A casual Presidential Traverse with a friend - in pictures.

Ascending Howker Ridge, the most aesthetic start to the Traverse in my opinion.

Mount Jefferson

Shoulder of Mount Clay

The Great Gulf - my favorite view in the Whites.

The Climb to the Clouds auto race was going on.

I imagine we were some of the few who'd appreciate all of the things in this picture.

Mount Washington summit

Mount Monroe

Looking back to Washington

Last view of the day - another favorite.
Data: http://www.strava.com/activities/159742242

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Manitou's Revenge - 6/21/14

"THIS IS NOT LIKE ANY OTHER ULTRA YOU’VE RUN BEFORE!"

So proclaims the Manitou's Revenge web page. They put it in capital letters so's you won't miss it, even if you're only semi-literate like I am. Hyperbole is a bit of a cliche in ultrarunning but, that being said, I'm going to put my next statement in it's own paragraph just so you don't miss it:

This race delivers.

I'm a believer in frame of reference. I once caught some flack for calling a Massachusetts 50k "flat and fast" and I suppose if your only experience was on roads then you might have felt sandbagged too. My benchmark has always been the White Mountains and few courses I've run have been able to match them for technical trail running and long steep climbs. I'll admit the possibility of some personal bias there, but I've always wanted to have a competitive race in my own personal brier-patch. Alas, the Man puts up red tape and we can't have such nice things... until Manitou's Revenge came along.


The Manitou's Revenge course is remarkably similar to the Hut Traverse in the Whites. It's a little over 50 miles long, has a solid 14000' feet of climbing, and features gnarly, rocky terrain over the Escarpment Trail and the Devil's Path in the Catskills of New York. Because it's on state, rather than federal land, the race director and his crew were able to work out a deal where the race would be permitted to take place. I think this makes a good example of what such an event can be. We as runners got to participate in a unique and challenging event with minimal impact on the natural resources and other users of the area.


To top things off, not only was the course what I've been looking for, but so was the competition. Denis Mikhaylov was returning after his win last year. Brian Ruseiki, one of the best ultrarunners in the northeast, would be starting as well. Additionally, the last four FKT holders for the Pemi Loop would be there; Ben Nephew, Jan Wellford, Ryan Welts, and myself. Credentials go deeper than that all around, but I'd like to think that any one of us six could have taken the win. Personally, I felt rather outgunned but held out hope that the difficult course would play to my strengths and my hundred miler experience would let me be a contender in the later sections of the race.


We started at a reasonable pace and it didn't take long for a lead pack of about eight guys to form, most of whom I expected with a couple unfamiliar faces. No sign of Denis, though. I was excited to finally check out the Escarpment Trail and it didn't disappoint. The running was technical and stimulating but nothing too crazy and we were periodically rewarded with views of the Hudson River Valley from clifftop overlooks. Denis had made it to the start late and must have been pushing pretty hard to catch us. He came barreling through kamikaze-style like he was running a 5k, made a few sketchy passes off-trail in the bushes, and was soon out of sight. Ben and Brian made a move to pick up the pace and I and a few others took the chance to follow.

 2014 Manitou's Revenge, leaders on the Escarpment Trail, mile 17 from MountainPeakFitness.com on Vimeo.

I lost contact with the lead group shortly after we passed through North Lake Campground at mile 17 and was surprised to pass an ailing Denis so soon on the long descent into Palenville where I joined up with Jan Wellford. It was nice to spend a few minutes with him in person after a couple years of sporadic email contact, though the conversation ended when Jan pulled away from me on the climb up Kaaterskill High Peak like I was standing still. At that point, around halfway through the race, I figured the finishing order was all but settled, with Brian and Ben being long gone. Picking my way along the muddy and rooty trail I was happy to have Ryan catch me and we ran together into Platte's Clove at 31.5 miles.


Up next was the infamous Devils Path. There were root ladders and numerous thirty foot ledges to scramble up and down, along with boulder fields to hop across. The rocks here are different than the Whites; much flatter with a smooth texture and they all move and shift underfoot. Ryan and I started catching glimpses of someone running up ahead of us through the trees and I thought it must be Jan. Imagine my surprise to discover a seventy year old man from New Jersey absolutely hauling ass down some difficult technical sections. Ryan and I professed our admiration for his strength and skill when we finally did feel ready to pass. I want to be like him when I grow up.

By the time we'd reached Mink Hollow at 38.5 Ryan had pulled away from me and I came into the aid station less than thirty minutes behind the leaders. This was something of a low spot as I was struggling with my usual mid-day bonk and my ankle that's been problematic this year was acting up. It wasn't painful but after eight hours of uneven footing the joint stiffened up and I had a limited range of motion. Strange how my ankle could be perfectly fine over seven hours on the Pemi-Loop but after hour eight it becomes a problem. I'll admit to feeling a little discouraged but it turns out I was not nearly so far behind as I thought at the time.


Despite slowing down, I was hoping to maintain my position in fifth but was caught by by Carlo from Italy just after Silver Hollow (mile 44). We were finally off the Devil's Path but my condition seemed to keep me at the same slow pace. Carlo tried to get me to stay with him, and I did for a while, but when we hit the Warner Creek crossing I stopped to cool off a little and he kept going. After that it was a long lonely walk up the final climb to the fire tower on Mount Tremper. Just before the top I heard some commotion off to the side in the woods and caught a glimpse a of a black bear crashing through the brush. I haven't seen a bear in the woods in a long time.

The last major aid station made a good excuse to sit down and indulge in a couple handfuls of Skittles, something I don't normally eat. Chatting with the volunteers, I was surprised to learn that Jan had come through in first place with over a fifteen minute lead. It sounds like he ran a smart race all day, hanging back early on and making his move in the later stages to earn the win in 10:50:34. I jogged slowly down the final descent into Phoenicia on an old jeep road to cross the finish in 12:28:15 for sixth place.


Manitou's Revenge as an event turned out to be everything I'd hoped it would be. It's the exact kind of course I've been wanting for a long time and I think it has a bright future. Superlatives are overused in ultrarunning, but I'm going to go ahead and call this the hardest race course of it's length that I'm familiar with.  It easily outdoes the Pittsfield Peaks 50 in Vermont, which has similar elevation gain but easier footing. Wapack 50 in New Hampshire would be next in line but it doesn't have the same kind of gain and the difficulty is not nearly as sustained. As for comparing Manitou's to the Hut Traverse, I think the Hut Traverse has the edge with its greater gain, bigger climbs, and footing that cuts you even fewer breaks. And then there's the elephant in the room, the race I've been invited several times to compare Manitou's to; Hardrock. All things considered, I'm going to call it about even with what a Hardrock 50 would be like. Sure, it's a crude comparison as the character of the landscape is totally different but based on finishing times I'm going to say they're in the same ballpark.


As for my own performance, I'm left a little disappointed. There wasn't much I could have done about the ankle issue, but fueling and pacing remains a persistent problem for me. I've been taking in 200-plus calories per hour in gel and I still run out of gas in most races. My muscles seem to be up to the challenge, I had no soreness in the following days, but I just couldn't seem to get them the energy they need. This weakness is probably the greatest barrier to improving my performance and I'll likely be looking into improving my fat metabolism rather than relying so much on carbohydrates, to gain an edge.

I want to express my huge thanks to my wife and daughter who crewed me, the race volunteers, and especially to Charlie Gadol who saw this race through. Charlie, if you ever do go through with that 100 mile version you mentioned, I'll be the first in line to sign up.

GPS track on Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/157753279

All photos courtesy of Joe Azze at Mountain Peak Fitness.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Summer's Eve on Mount Moosilauke

I finally got around to playing with the GoPro I picked up a few months ago. I'm pretty pleased with how this came out for my first try. I spent less than ninety minutes running and gathering footage, and about five hours editing and compiling it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

So Close I Can Smell It: Pemi Loop FKT Attempt - 6/8/14

For me, running the Pemi Loop is an exercise in excessive optimism. I suppose it needs to be. I'm much stronger than last year, surely I can shave off twenty minutes. This thought, a good trail condition report, an excellent weather forecast, and the realization that I hadn't made a visit to the Pemi Loop in over two years led me to make my return. For perhaps the thirteenth time I ran the 50k-ish, 9000 foot course on June 8th with the aim of going as fast as possible and maybe regaining the FKT.

On my last attempt in 2012 I had the benefit of frenzied mountain training for Hardrock, but only managed to shave a token two minutes off my 2011 time. This go 'round, I reasoned I had the benefit of my marathon training for greater leg speed. Plus, I would go lighter than ever before. I'd wear 8-ounce New Balance trail shoes with sticky-rubber outsoles, rather than 12-ounce Brooks Cascadia cinder blocks - feared for their poor grip on wet rock. I finally found a pair of running shorts with good pockets so I could cram in 10 ounces of gel, a small headlamp, and an ultralight windshirt rather than actually carrying a pack. This would force me to use hand bottles for water, with a reduced overall capacity, but would make it easy to refill out of wild water sources on the move. After some research, I've become more comfortable with selectively employing this practice (lots of good information here at Far North Endurance). I'll also say that I wouldn't take such a minimalist approach on a day with any credible threat of poor weather but I then wouldn't be attempting an FKT on those days anyway.

The shoe, Minimus Zero V2

On Pemi-day conditions didn't turn out to be ideal, much more humid and warm than I would have liked, and I struggled more than usual in the final miles. Right now, over a week later, I can recall the damp composting smell of late spring on the Garfield Ridge Trail. It's a little strange to me, but during a hard effort like this I'm left with short, vivid snapshots in my memory from a few particular places and they're not always visual. This one is kind of a distinct Pemi-Loop smell; rotting leaves and moss mixed with B.O. and a whiff of ammonia. Maybe the sound of trickling water and my own labored breathing on the background. That's what I have associated with the the route.

To make a long report short, I cut almost five minutes off my personal best time but came up eleven minutes short of the FKT in 6:38:21. What's spooky to me is how utterly consistent my split times have been, something that can bee seen with a little bit of analysis.


I was nearly dead-nuts on my last two attempts until Galehead Hut, where I pulled ahead of my old times a little. Some time was lost dilly-dallying on Franconia Ridge but I gained it back on the descent of the Osseo Trail from Flume (remember that leg speed thing?). If this were a three-way race I'd have been almost always within sight of my 2011 and 2012 selves for much of the route. This despite several factors in my favor (lighter wight, greater experience) and several factors against me (heat, the generally deteriorating condition of the Bondcliff Trail). Another notable point is that my time to the the junction between the Garfield Ridge and Franconia Brook Trails is a very good indicator of final finishing time, halfway by the clock and accurate to within a five minute margin.




As for the whole water capacity thing, I could have comfortably made it to Garfield Spring with only a single hand bottle. I filled up once on the way up the Bondcliff Trail, then again at the spring where I chugged a bottle and was able to ration my 40 ounce capacity for the rest of the day. I did finally run dry on Mount Flume but at that point I was only 45 minutes from the parking lot and could tolerate a little bit of cotton mouth.

And now I'm left searching for those remaining 11 minutes. This is the best kind of challenge, difficult but feasible. I feel more or less tapped out as far as flat ground and descending speeds go, so I'll need to get stronger on the climbs and improve my stamina. This will mean lots of easy base-building aerobic activity as well as a focus on hill repeats and the like. That combined with a cool, dry day (perhaps this September) and maybe I can get back in the record books, however fleetingly.

What is somewhat gratifying to me is the realization of just how much I've improved since my first Pemi Loop in 2005. If I were to race my 2005 self, I'd be rolling out of my own bed right around the time my slower self left the Lincoln Woods parking lot in the dark. I'd have enough time to make coffee and eat breakfast at home, make the ninety minute drive up North, then pass my old self somewhere on the Twinway. From there, I'd steadily pull away and be home with enough daylight to drink a beer and mow the dandelions on my horribly neglected lawn, all well before dusk, while 2005-Adam would stagger the final few miles down the Wilderness Trail to the car and probably stop at McDonald's on the way home in pathetic desperation. Progress is beautiful thing, regardless of how it relates to the cutting edge of your sport.

GPS Track: http://www.strava.com/activities/151147360

Monday, June 16, 2014

Spring Training Part 2: Refocus

My ankle healed fast and I went from hobbling to some careful trail running within a week. Despite the initial swelling and bruising, I seem to have gotten off easy without substantially tearing anything. Being back on my feet helped my mental state immensely and I just kind of let go of the feelings I had for Massanutten; instead refocusing on the upcoming Manitou's Revenge in the Catskills and running in the mountains for it's own sake.

The mountains have held onto their snow cover longer than in recent years, so I stayed local for a while. I'm fortunate to have Bear Brook State Park in my backyard:

Boardwalk
Hedgehog Ledge Trail
Feedin' time

Southern White Mountain ranges tend to melt out earlier, so I paid a visit to the Squam Range:

North to Waterville Valley
Mount Morgan
South to the Lakes Region
 A favorite mountain running route of mine is the Mount Osceola from Waterville Valley, by way of Mount Tecumseh. It's a good twenty mile out & back trip with 8,000 feet of gain that's not too far of a drive. http://www.strava.com/activities/143238547

Old Man Winter Lingers...
Neat view into the heart of the Pemi from Osceola
Tripyramids from Osceola
Mighty Mount Tecumseh's Summit
 Then, feeling rather adventurous, I devised a 40+ mile, 17000' gain route to enchain most of the peaks in the Pemi. Things didn't go as planned and I ended up cutting the route short to about 31 miles with only 12000' gain. http://www.strava.com/activities/148399406

Fog and rain on Franconia Ridge
Descending Lincoln Slide
The sun finally comes out on South Twin
North Twin
Zealand
Birch glades on the abandoned Hale Fire Warden's Trail

My family was out of of town, so I decided to make a full weekend of it. Sunday brought a fun run on Mount Washington, with a side trip to Mount Isolation.  http://www.strava.com/activities/148399403

Lakes of the Clouds
Atop Mt. Monroe
Pepperoni on Mount Isolation
A brave bird
The Davis Path
Tuckerman Ravine
Mt. Washington
The new diesel Cog. This one doesn't set the grass on fire.
The Great Gulf
Whether this will influence my performance at Manitou's, I don't know. I've certainly enjoyed myself enough that I'm tempted to just not bother with formal races sometimes. From what I understand, Manitou's will be the first true mountain 50 miler in the East. It's what a race on the Hut Traverse would be like if we could have such nice things. Normally you'd have to go to Pyrenees of the Alps for something like that because so much of the best American terrain is off limits. On top of that, it appears that the field is quite stacked this year; Mikhaylov, Nephew, Welts, Wellford, Ruseiki, all names with strong results and FKTs associated with them. Even in a race that suits my strengths I'm going to have an uphill battle competitively.