Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Long Trail 2, Alicia 0

I had been eagerly awaiting a return to the Long Trail all year for another unsupported attempt (i.e. carrying all my own gear and food from the start, with no resupplies or accepting food from others).  My plan was the same as last year--stay on the same schedule used by Travis Wildeboer, the unsupported record holder, until the last day or two and then try to finish a bit faster.

Day 1:  Canadian border to Spruce Ledge Camp, mile 31.3

This year I had my mom with me for the trip to Vermont.  She dropped me off at the start of the approach trail at 5am Saturday.  It took a little over half an hour to get to the start of the Long Trail itself, and I spent a few minutes admiring the view into Canada before setting off on my run at 5:42 a.m.

It only took a few miles before I noticed that something was very different this year compared to last year:  I was in much better shape!  The first 120 miles of the Long Trail are extremely technical even by UK standards, but doing the Bob Graham just two weeks previously had left me significantly fitter for all the hills, and my first day on the Long Trail this year was a completely different experience because of it.  Last year I remember feeling like I might not even make it to the end of day 1, let alone the end of the run; this year I wasn't even particularly tired by the end of day 1.

I also went much faster this year!  In fact, I arrived at the stopping point two and a half hours early and had to decide whether or not to press on to the next shelter.  In the end I decided it made more sense to stay and relax at the shelter I had planned to stop at (which was the shelter where the unsupported record holder had also stayed), since it was unlikely that I would be able to go any further than planned on day 2.  Although I was somewhat stressed about wasting a few hours of daylight, it was fun to sit at the shelter and talk to the other hikers, who were all northbound thruhikers and so were nearly finished with their hikes.

Day 2:  Spruce Ledge Camp to Smuggler's Notch picnic area, mile 64.2

I completely failed to fall asleep during the first night, which was a seriously disappointing setback since I spent nearly seven (!) hours at the shelter.  Around 2am I eventually admitted defeat and set off on day 2's miles.  Everything again went smoothly despite the lack of sleep, although I did waste 45 minutes getting lost just before the start of the climb up Whiteface (there is a brief section on a gravel road and unfortunately a logging company had just been through and chopped down a tree which had had white blazes on it marking the turn onto the trail--fortunately I had been here before and realized after a while that I had been on the road far too long).  Whiteface and then Madonna Peak were every bit as hard and unpleasant as I had remembered them, but this year I had saved up a special treat for myself for after the Whiteface summit--a McDonald's burger!  I felt horribly guilty eating it in front of the other hiker who was at the Whiteface shelter, but I had been eagerly awaiting it for several hours and couldn't hold back any longer.

I again arrived at the end of the day earlier than planned, but I did notice that one of my feet was pretty bloody from some sores that I had gotten the day before, from all the mud and grit that had been constantly getting in my shoes.  I washed my feet off in the stream at the Smuggler's Notch picnic area, spent some time taping over the bleeding parts of each foot, and then settled in for a repeat of my luxury accommodation in the composting toilet block.  It felt like absolute bliss and I slept soundly for 7 hours.

Day 3:  Smuggler's Notch picnic area to Montclair Glen shelter, mile 96.8

Putting my shoes on in the morning was a painful task.  With the humidity being nearly 100% virtually the entire time I was on the trail, my foot wounds weren't healing at all, and neither tape nor bandages would stay in place over them, which meant my socks were constantly sticking to the sores and then tearing them open even more as I moved my foot.  However, the first main event on day 3 is the climb up Mt. Mansfield, which is still my favorite part of the entire trail, and that did cheer me up.  I stopped more often than I probably should have for photos...

After Mansfield there is a long runnable section and then several big uphills, which did start to feel like hard work given the high heat and humidity.  I stopped for a snack break at the Puffer shelter and turned on my phone to see if I had any reception.  I did have a little and was startled to receive a text letting me know that my friend Nicole had died unexpectedly. It was a lot to take in at that moment; at least I knew that she would have enjoyed the view from Puffer:

After another long runnable section, it was time for a crucial part of the run:  I needed to get up and over the Camel's Hump (large rocky peak) before the end of the day in order to stay on pace for the record, and the weather was looking threatening.  I climbed up as fast as I could, getting more and more worried as dark clouds moved in.  But I got lucky, and the bad weather stayed to each side of the hump rather than on it.  The summit itself actually had gorgeous sunshine, quite the change from the dark and mist I got last time I was on it!

Getting over the hump and down to the Montclair Glen shelter before dark was a big turning point in how I saw my chances of success on the run.  This day had been the hardest day of the week in terms of both ascent and terrain, and it required the most luck with weather.  From here on, in theory, I had a much better chance of achieving the record...

Day 4:  Montclair Glen shelter to Emily Proctor shelter, mile 129.2

It was another almost sleepless night; I got just a couple of hours before the roasting temperatures and noise level in the shelter drove me out onto the trail.  I will admit that I absolutely hated the first five miles of trail on day 4.  It was nearly constantly technical, and not in a nice way--lots of squeezing between/under/over large boulders and trying to follow a very faint trail as it wound in between the trees.  I was also exhausted from the lack of sleep and the hard day yesterday.  When I finally finished the bad five miles, I decided to stop for a quick nap; it was too cold to sleep much but I did feel a little better when I set off again.  Not much later I made it to an important milestone:  Appalachian Gap, the place where I had had to bail following a hailstorm last year.  I tried to quickly power through the big hills on the south side of the gap (they are *quite* big, it turns out!) and by early afternoon I was at Mt. Abraham, the last of the rocky summits.

When you cross the road on the other side of Mt. Abraham, the trail abruptly changes, so much so that it's like a completely different trail.  I imagine the trail builders thinking something along the lines of "Ha, that northern bit of trail was a good joke, right?  We can't believe you went along with it for 118 miles!  Here's some normal trail now."  It was now very similar to the Superior Hiking Trail, with more hills.  If I'd been feeling stronger, I could have made much better time here, but I was seriously dragging and had to keep having breaks for foot care adjustments.  I did manage to arrive at the Emily Proctor shelter before dark, though, and spent a very nice evening talking with a southbound thruhiker who was staying there.

Day 5:  Emily Proctor shelter to campsite, 165.2

This was one of the easier days in terms of terrain and ascent but not in terms of pain levels; my feet were getting pretty raw and the constant pain was wearing on my mental state.  In comparison to all the sections of trail I'd done so far, this entire day was filled with easy trail, so it was just a question of forcing myself to keep moving quickly and to still do some running.  Towards the end of the day I did have some improvement, and the last 10 miles went fairly well.  I arrived at my campsite just before dark and enjoyed the luxury of a bath in a stream AND a change of clothes--I felt reborn!  There was nobody else at the site so it was quiet and peaceful, and I slept well on a comfortable pine needle bed under my bivy bag.

Day 6:  Campsite to mile 201

Day 5 was the first time I had ended the day behind Travis; he had done a further 7 miles that day to get to the shelter at the top of Killington Peak.  I was (a) too tired for that and (b) not convinced I'd be able to get any sleep in the colder air at the top of the peak, so I had decided to stop early.  But I knew I needed to have a great day on day 6 to make up for it.  I set the alarm for 2:15 a.m. and was out on the trail at 2:45.  The night section was slow since I'd been having trouble with my headtorch (can that design trend where you have to tap the side of the lights to increase or decrease the output PLEASE stop soon...) and I couldn't see where I was going very well.  But by the time I was descending Killington, things were going much better.  I was pleased to discover that my legs were able to run just fine, and I had had some more ibuprofen* so my feet were coping relatively well.

Tired but happy legs

I was pleased with my pace throughout the 20 miles south of Killington; at the top of Killington, I was four hours behind Travis, while 20 miles later I was only between half an hour to an hour behind him.  By the time I got to mile 185 or so, I was starting to believe for the first time that I was going to at least finish, regardless of whether that was ahead of or behind the record.

But...I was running out of ibuprofen.  I had one left, and it would be at least 24 hours before I could expect to finish.  As I approached 8 hours from my last dose, the pain spiked.  It was a swift downfall from here.  There was no medical reason I couldn't have kept going to the finish; there was only a little bit of green in the pus that was oozing out of my feet, so I wasn't worried about a major infection setting in, and I certainly wasn't doing any longterm damage.  I simply couldn't handle another 24 to 30 hours of that level of pain, especially after the previous four days of pain.  I left the trail at mile 201.  To the nice girl with the Senegal FC shirt who stopped to ask if I was okay, thanks for your help in finding my way off the trail.

The primary culprit in the foot pain stakes

It's a harsh outcome for something that was actually largely a success--the training, food, and gear all worked perfectly.  But even if I personally know that I achieved more last week than I did in, say, completing the Bob Graham, that doesn't show up in the final result of the run.  I'm not sure I'll go back; it'll be a tough choice between wanting to polish off unfinished business versus wanting to do an event that I might enjoy a little more (carrying around a heavy pack and camping at night is not really my thing).  If I do go back, however, I will definitely bring more ibuprofen!

*In general, it's true that taking ibuprofen during long runs can be dangerous.  But I've got enough experience from running ultras that I know when it's okay to take some ibuprofen and when it's not.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

Bob Graham Round: Success!

After a failed attempt in 2014 due largely to weather but also to a bad stomach, I went back for a second go at the Bob Graham Round in the UK.  The BGR is not a race but a challenge; the goal is to complete a 66-mile circuit of 42 peaks in less than 24 hours.  There are five legs to it, in the sense that you cross four roads where you can be met with more supplies.  For an "official" completion, you need someone to witness you on the top of each peak, which means having support runners with you the entire way.  The difficulty of the BGR lies in the navigation (summits in the Lake District are often in the clouds with little to no visibility, and even if you can see, the navigation isn't obvious), the ascent/descent (roughly 27,000 feet of elevation gain plus the same amount of descent), and the terrain.  Very little of it is on what American runners would think of as a trail; the vast majority is grass, bogs, rock, scree, or a combination of the above.

I was more than a little stressed in the weeks leading up to my attempt this year.  While I'm generally fairly relaxed about whether the outcome of a run is getting to the finish or not, preferring to focus on whether or not I've done my best to get ready for it, a BGR attempt is no easy thing to organize, considering the number of support runners and road crew involved.  When you've finally managed to get all that into place, you definitely want to take advantage of the lucky opportunity to get it done.

I was also concerned about my fitness.  In early June I was a support runner on Christine Holmes's successful round, and seeing how amazingly strong she was both impressed and worried me.  I certainly never went up hills like she did when 8 hours into an event!  I wasn't sure how I was going to get to that level in time.  Fortunately, although the fitness improvements seemed impossibly slow at first, they came quicker and quicker later on, and with 10 days to go I had a confidence-boosting final long run on legs 3 and 4.  I also had the benefit of some nice days out climbing, which made the run-up to the event far more fun.

If there wasn't enough stress in the few weeks before my start date, I got plenty more when the weather forecasts started coming out.  It was pretty clear that a nasty front was moving in and that at some point in the day on my planned date there would be some serious wind (40 to 50mph on the summits was predicted) and rain.  The day before, however, was looking pretty reasonable, with just a few hours of windy and rainy conditions in the morning and then an improving forecast throughout the day.  I had a good strategy talk with my friend Dave, who was visiting to do some climbing, and we went through the various options.  With two days to go, I made the call to move the start up by 24 hours.  After help from several friends and about 6 hours on the internet and the phone, I managed to round up enough supporters to go on the earlier day.  Several of them were friends who were already planning to support on the planned date and/or who took time off of work or rearranged their schedules to make it, which I can't thank them enough for.  Others were people I had never even met before who were kind enough to help out--fantastic.

I didn't get much sleep the night before the run, not so much because I was too excited or nervous to sleep but because I simply couldn't finish all my packing and preparation in time to get to bed!  The alarm clock at 1:45 a.m. came all too early.  I ate breakfast and drove off towards the start, stopping at the place where I would cross a road 13 miles into the run, at the end of leg 1, to hide a box of food, water, and spare warm clothes in the woods.  With such a minimal support crew, I didn't want to make anyone get up at the crack of dawn to come to that road crossing, so a hidden box seemed like the better option.  I sent a text to my leg 2 supporters telling them where to find the box, and if all went well (which it did) they could just have everything ready by the time I got there.

Rob Allen had kindly agreed to start off with me.  He wasn't sure how far he would go and whether he might in fact just do the whole round, so we each carried our own stuff for leg 1.

We got a nice surprise when we met at the Moot Hall at 3:20 a.m.--Paul Wilson, who I had briefly met during my 2014 attempt, came out to see us off.  At 3:30, we departed for the big adventure.  Leg 1 passed in a mostly pleasant blur.  We had an enjoyable climb up the first peak, which is a long ascent but not very steep.  And although we got caught in some serious wind and rain at the top, we came out of the cloud on the descent and had fairly decent conditions the rest of the leg.  Well, decent weather conditions that is--the less said about the wet and boggy ground conditions the better!  On the descent from Blencathra (leg 1's last peak) we were met by Paul, who took a really nice little video:

At the road crossing Kim, Rich, and Cat (who had rearranged their schedules and childcare to come out on the Friday instead of the Saturday!) were waiting to run leg 2 with me.  I think I stopped for about 30 seconds to empty a few things out of my pack but we essentially took off straight away.  The weather took a turn for the worse as we headed up the steep climb on Clough Head, but the wind and rain were just about bearable with heavy-duty waterproofs.  Despite the persistently bad conditions and the ultra boggy ground, we made good time on this leg and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.  I hadn't seen Kim for at least a year so it was also good just to catch up!  I lost some time to clothes changes which were necessitated by the weather, but we still arrived at the end of leg 2 ahead of schedule and I was feeling great with plenty left in the tank, so all was well.

The Dunmail road crossing was manned by Dave, and although I was really happy to see him, I knew I had to fight the urge to stop and talk and instead had a quick change out of my waterproofs and pressed on up the steep Steel Fell.  My support for leg 3 was Caroline and Giles, who I knew from a combination of the West Highland Way race and the Bandera 100k.  They had saved me during my last-minute hunt for support crew when I couldn't find anyone for leg 3.  I couldn't have been any luckier--I knew they were both super strong runners, plus Giles had been on leg 3 before so could help me with the navigation if needed.

I had been afraid of leg 3 as it's the hardest leg and also right in the middle of the round, but somehow it nearly all went well.  My legs felt strong, my stomach was doing okay, and I was surprisingly hungry.  True to Caroline's prediction, I was far more interested in the food they brought than in my own food, and I easily overcame my guilt at stealing their amazing falafel/feta/lettuce wraps.  We made reasonably quick work of the lower level peaks and then it was time for the big rocky climb up Bowfell, which I had struggled on last time but which was actually fun this time (the way I had decided to go involves scrambling up a gully, which feels more like playtime than hard work).  I did get us briefly lost in the mist coming off the summmit of Great End, but we got back on course with only maybe 10 minutes lost, and the rest of the leg, with some of the harder summits of the round, passed by without any issues.  The scree descent to Wasdale was just as fun as I remembered it, and after we managed to cross the somewhat alarmingly high river, Caroline took off ahead to let the road crew know we were on our way.

The Wasdale road crossing was basically the same as the Dunmail one; I stopped to use the toilets but otherwise forced myself to run straight through with only a quick hug to Julie instead of stopping to chat like I wanted to.  For leg 4, I knew I had Janson as an expert support runner (has he supported the most BGs of anyone out there...?) but my happy surprise at Wasdale was that Andy was also coming with.  Andy was my secret weapon in 2014 with his fantastic support on leg 3, but this year he had a knee injury and didn't think he'd be able to run.  He had also only arrived back in the UK from Japan at 9pm the night before!!

Janson set us a steady pace up Yewbarrow, one of the hardest climbs on the route, and we were at the top of it 45 minutes later.  From there we made steady progress for about two more summits in good conditions.

Then the wheels started to come off.  I had probably become a bit lax about my eating in the past few hours, and the lack of food combined with the hard effort for all those hours began to wear on me.  I started feeling dizzy, which I've never had in an ultra before, and I had to work hard to stay upright.  Andy and Janson were great and did everything they could, but things deteriorated steadily and by Kirk Fell, about two-thirds of the way through the leg, I was fully into death march mode.  Janson demanded the running pack I was wearing, which I had been reluctant to give up because it had the GPS tracker in it, but he was right that I did feel a bit better without the pack on.  I spent a fair bit of time whimpering at Andy, who was perfect with his steady support.  We have resolved that at some point we're going to manage to go on a run together that doesn't involve brutal levels of pain and suffering...

Most of the rest of leg 4 was a bit of a blur, but I was at least able to enjoy the views we were getting as the sky cleared and it got to be dusk.  Janson gave me a good pep talk about how I could still get a solid finishing time and how all was not lost, and we made reasonably good time between Great Gable and Honister, the last road crossing.  It was starting to seem likely that I was going to make it to the finish.

I saw my excellent crew again at Honister, who had also been enjoying the beautiful evening...

Julie and Jen.  I love this picture.

...and again with only a short stop, we set off on the fifth and final leg.  For this leg I had Jen, a friend who had also supported me in 2014, plus in yet another great surprise, Andy said he would carry on with me on this leg.  I also had two people I'd never met, Dougal and Les, generously come out to support the leg, so all in all I was feeling extremely pampered.  I was in terrible shape though, throwing up and largely unable to eat or drink.  I certainly wasn't the best company at this point, mumbling occasionally or grunting my assent when told to run an easy section.  I knew I was lucky though; I was in great hands and we had a perfect night for a run.  Dougal and Les seemed like lovely people and I'd love to meet them again sometime when I'm in a slightly better state!

I did wish I could enjoy the last few summits a bit more, but at least they passed by quickly.  Soon enough we were on top of the last one, Robinson, stopping to savor the moment for a few seconds and then heading off for the brutal descent.  Fortunately I had the benefit of Jen's navigation and we got to use her amazing descent route, which was far, far better than the regular method.  I was being seriously slow and still throwing up, but at least I knew we were rapidly nearing the road.  When we finally reached the road, I knew it was around 5 miles (exact distance was subject to debate with Les!) of relatively flat running back to Keswick.  I summoned up the last of my energy and managed to start doing more running and less walking.  Soon we were actually running much more than I had expected to, and with a couple of miles to go, I finally started to enjoy myself.  I know there was a good conversation about scones, with some highly useful tips on quality scone locations, but I can't remember any of what was said so someone will have to remind me!  (Though I'm not sure anywhere in the Lakes could beat the Threlkeld village hall cafe's fresh scones...)

With a mile to go I picked up the pace a bit and we did a proper run in to the finish, arriving for a time of 22 hours and 45 minutes.

What a fantastic day; for the most part, it just could not have gone any better or been any more fun.  As an added bonus, my time beat Scott Jurek's 23:44, and since Scott is the only other American to have completed the BGR, I get the "fastest American" title for now.  Since we have no comparable terrain in the US to train on, I am pretty happy about that!

Ultrarunning doesn't generally come with tangible rewards.  This run was an exception.  As an early birthday present, my friend Nick made me the most beautiful trophy I've ever seen.  He made it all himself, doing the carving with a laser and using the local slate (which he knows I love) as a base.

Actually that wasn't my only tangible reward.  I was touched to receive a card and bottle of champagne from Richard and Jo, the owners of the holiday cottage I was staying in.  And I had promised myself two presents if I finished the BG--I bought both of them the day afterwards:

Sunday, May 1, 2016


SCAR is the name for the "Smokies Challenge Adventure Run," a runners' challenge that involves running the entire 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that go across the Smoky Mountains, all in under 24 hours.  I had been itching to try this for several months and finally, this weekend, it was time to give it a go.

The route certainly lived up to expectations.  I started at Davenport Gap, the northern border of the Smokies, at 3:48 a.m.  I had decided to go southbound for two reasons--one, it would give me a more gradual descent off the mountain ridge at the end of the run, and two, it would get me past the Charlie's Bunion area before the tourist crowds became too intense.

I set off to warm, muggy weather and a peaceful, still forest lit up by a pretty sliver of moon.  After 8 or 9 miles I popped out on a nice section of ridgeline just in time for the sunrise.  From here until mile 31 would be one of my favorite runs ever.  There was the perfect morning light on the ridge (my photos do not do it justice), the views off both sides, the many sections of perfect trail for runing...  My legs were still feeling heavy and sluggish from Lake Sonoma, but it didn't really matter as I knew I didn't need to run quickly for this day; I just needed to keep moving steadily.

From my short runs in the Smokies, I mostly remembered the rockier sections of trail, but actually a lot of it is smooth, perfect singletrack.

Around mile 29 I got an exciting surprise:  my friend Julien!  I knew he was going to be at Newfound Gap to pace me, but I wasn't sure where on the trail I'd find him.  I got into Newfound Gap, which is mile 31.5, in 7:55, which was also a surprise as it was 35 minutes ahead of schedule.  I was especially pleased as I had taken most of those miles conservatively, pacing myself as if I were doing a 100 miler rather than a 72 miler.  After a slightly longer-than-ideal stop at Newfound Gap, Julien and I set off for Clingman's Dome, about 8 miles away.

Heat is my kryptonite, and it struck with a vengeance at mile 32.  After Newfound Gap you drop off the other side of the ridge and run along the hillside below the ridge.  This meant I lost my cool breeze and gained direct sunlight.  And the hills on this section are surprisingly difficult, even though they're not the biggest on the route--Julien aptly named them the little steep monsters.  Ouch!  Julien did an impressive job keeping me moving at a good pace after I started to slow.  We met Divesh just south of Clingman's Dome and did a quick swap of my food and gear for the final 32.5-mile stretch.

My original goal for SCAR was to run it in less than 22 hours.  But when I left Clingman's Dome with 10:15 elapsed, I realized that if I had a great second half of my run, I could possibly run under 20 hours or even under the women's course record of 18:50.  On one hand, I had some significant nausea already starting, and I knew I was behind in my water intake.  On the other hand, my legs were still feeling strong, and I actually managed to get ahead of  what I needed to run for an 18:50 between miles 40 and 50.

Looking back north towards Clingman's Dome

My stomach didn't do well during those miles, though.  I barely drank and I don't think I ate anything until I was able to barter with a hiker for his Snickers bar at mile 50 (I gave him a bag of peanut butter pretzel bites).  Then the weather turned.  The occasional showers turned into a steady downpour that would last the remaining 22 miles.  When you haven't been eating or drinking, you're stopping often to throw up, and it's raining heavily and windy, it's almost impossible to stay warm, even with good rain gear and warm tights on.  I shivered my way along, feeling cold and miserable.  The trail was flooded and after it got dark it was almost impossible to see, since my headlamp wasn't quite cutting through the dense rain and fog.  From miles 55 to 59 I slowly lost my cushion on an 18:50 finish, and at mile 59 the large hill up to the Mollie's Ridge shelter took away any remaining chance I had at the record.

The one thing I had to look forward to in the final miles was that Divesh was planning to run in 5 miles from the finish and meet me.  He actually made it 6 miles in, and I was thrilled to see him and have some company in the cold.  Those last 6 miles took so long that I was convinced I must be nearing the 24-hour mark (I hadn't looked at my watch in several hours since it was under several layers of rain jacket and gloves) but I had to laugh when we emerged from the trail for the last mile on the road and I discovered that the clock was at 19:41.  I had planned a sprint finish down the last mile, but an attempt at sprinting quickly led to an especially painful bout of throwing up stomach acid, so I decided that a fast walk/shuffle would have to do, and I finished in 19:54.

Other than the bad weather, my SCAR was basically a summary of everything I love about running:  great trails and views, a classic point-to-point route, pushing myself to a time that I wouldn't have thought was possible, and even getting to see friends and family in the process.  And, with about 18,000 feet of ascent over 72 miles, it was a great stepping stone between Lake Sonoma and my summer Bob Graham Round plans...