Monday, October 15, 2007

Wet trails at Firetrails 50

This past Saturday, I ran my last race before the tapering down, the Dick Collins' Firetrails 50miler. Coming on the back of three successive weekends of 45miles of pacing in RDL, 47 miles at the Grand Canyon and some 18 odd miles on a hot day in Chicago, I was sure this would be slow, it would be hard (7800 ft. gain and drop in a series of hills on an out-and-back course), and I would definitely hurt. The course elevation map tells a good story of its own --

All that prompted me to take the 6AM early start as opposed to the regular 6:30AM start. There were two cutoffs, 6hr:15min to the turnaround in Berkeley's Tilden Park at Mile26, and the finish at 13hrs. The early start gave me a 30min buffer to push the Mile26 cutoff until 6:45.

The course is easily the most beautiful one I've run in California. It starts from Lake Chabot park, goes through some gorgeous single trails, running into a rather large grove of Redwood trees. From there onto a ridge which offered splendid views of the mouth of the San Francisco bay -- the city and its bridges; and then roll into Berkeley's Tilden Park. Couple of days of heavy rain had removed all the dry dust and rendered the course soft, leaving only a handful few patches of slushy bog.

I ran the first stretch with Marianne chatting about this and that, and she told me what it feels to run 100s and about her experiences with WS100 this year. Still concerned about the cutoffs, at the sight of the first bit of serious downhill I took off and pushed the pace. Its been a long time since I've pushed the pace on trails; throw in the hills, and the fatigue from the the past three weeks, and my legs were in completely new territory and promptly made noise. On the climb into the Mile15 aid-station I realised that I needed to take more salt than usual, and also eat more. Stopped for a goodish bit there and feasted on the watermelons while chatting with Carol (who was among the vols manning the aid-station). Carol saw my red Asha shirt and promptly said 'Hey you are Rajeev's friend' (Rajeev, Anil and self had met her during the night at RDL) . Then she said 'Tell Rajeev I'm missing him. The course is awfully quiet today'.

Much refreshed after the break there, pushed onward towards the cut-off and made it in 6hrs. Additional 15minutes buffer added to the 30 from the early start, I thought, deserved a good break. Promptly took a long break at the Mile26 aid-station. More watermelons, more chattering with the vols, the picnic lasted a good 10minutes. The return was a good deal easier. Found a second wind at the Mile30 aid-station and ran the next 14miles barring the hills. Met Eldrith with 5miles to go, and ran with her for a while and managed to run into the finish in 12hr:26min (11:56 on the clock).

Saw a lot of familiar faces on this run. Met Chihping twice, once when he overtook me and once again when I was a little distance away from the turnaround. Somewhere around mile 11 or so, someone came up from behind me on a single-track and I was letting him go ahead, the runner turned around and said you are keeping a very good pace and I looked up and saw that was Chihping. The man is indefatigable! The other high point was meeting Helen Klein. Helen had come down to run this race, and was also taking the early 6AM start.

In all, it was an awesome day. A most beautiful course, extraordinary set of volunteers, and super organization from Ann Trason, this race is easily the best I've seen since moving here to California. If I'm not running this next year, I'm most certainly volunteering here. The rewards were pretty good too. A rather nice 25th anniversary jacket, an inscribed wine glass, plus a running shirt, to round off one long day of fun and joy.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Double-crossing the Big Hole -- Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim

The day we tried to double-cross the Grand Canyon. We discovered you can cross it twice, but you cannot double-cross The Canyon. It provides you of its largesse -- in beauty and splendor, in heat and winds, in majesty and intricacy, in hills and valleys, in deceptive turns and grand spectacles. It demands its toll in blood and salt, in water and energy, in flesh and sinew. You have to pay and weaken yourself to conquer it. In the bargain, you have to feel a mortal, a survivor, not a conqueror. It was a humbling experience. It was a Grand experience. The day we tried to double-cross the Grand Canyon.

We were six, the usual four - Ganesh, Gaurav, Santhosh, and self, Padma - from California, and Arun - from Austin. The long journey began with goodies from Ashwini bakery as we drove up from Phoenix airport to our hotel in Williams. Santhosh was already in Williams. We stopped briefly at Flagstaff and bought essential supplies like grapes, avocados, Ensure, and Boost. In our original plan, we were to get to Williams, sleep a bit, and start the drive to Grand Canyon around 2-ish so that we could start our run around 3:30am. We figured that would enable us to return around 10pm.

Somewhere in between Flagstaff and Williams, I gently suggested that we get dinner and drive immediately over to the canyon and start our race at 1am. This was to help us in two ways -- one, we would be running without having slept at all, plus running in the night, so a good training for what might come in Cactus Rose; and two, we could come back sooner than the expected 10pm return. The crazy folks that are part of this group, all immediately jumped at the suggestion and soon it was decided that, that is what we would do.

And so we started at 1:30am. The plan was simple. We run down the Bright Angel trail since we can park at the trailhead. We cross the river, and break at Phantom Ranch. Then up the North Kaibab trail to the North rim. Then the return journey on the exact same route to return to our car. This would cover about 47miles in distance and over 10000 ft in elevation gain. After some initial hiccups, we stuck to this plan and went down Bright Angel. It was a glorious night, the moon was shining so bright, that we practically did not need our lamps. As we danced down by the light of the moon, across the Silver bridge on the Colorado, and waltzed into Phantom Ranch it was nearing 5am.

We had a long break at Phantom Ranch. Padma could hardly keep stuff in her stomach at this stage. We created a drop-bag and stashed all our warm clothes and extra food for the return journey, keeping with us what we thought would be sufficient to go the 28miles up the North rim and back.

The next phase was from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood campground. The day was beginning to break as we left Phantom Ranch. Slowly, as the sun rose, the canyon walls turned golden starting from the top, even as the moon continued to shine relentlessly (see above).
The moon was shining on the canyon,
Shining with all her might:
She did her very best to make
The ridges smooth and straight--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of a morning bright.

The sun was shining sulkily,
Because he thought the moon
Had got no business to be there
After the night was done--
"It's very rude of her," he said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"
[Adapted that one from Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter. ]

We covered the 7 miles and reached Cottonwood around 7:45am and were promptly subject to an interrogation by the park ranger there. Turned out he was something of a runner in the past, and had a lot of knowledge (not sure about the experience) about running clothes, shoes, camelbaks, gels etc. We regrouped at Cottonwood and left for the North rim at 8:15am. This stretch was relentless uphill and quite technical in large parts. There were a couple of water spots at Roaring Springs and Supai Tunnel. The last two miles were particularly grueling as we made our way to the top by 11:10am.

The North rim was very chilly and we were also over shooting our estimated time. So we figured we need to get more calories, and we hitched a ride to the restaurant. Got some hot pizza slices, a few sandwiches for later, and some hot chocolate over there, an hitched another ride back to the trailhead. Padma and Ganesh had made it to the top by the time we got there. Arun had (prudently) decided to turn around 2 miles after Cottonwood. Gave them pizza and we immediately started heading down.

The return to Cottonwood was steep downhill and we were mostly conserving our quads and not hammering down. In between, Santhosh gave in to temptation and took off, while Gaurav and myself stuck to what we were doing -- except for the last 2 miles, which we decided to run hard. and got to Cottonwood in 2 hours after leaving the North rim. We met Arun at Cottonwood who had spent many hours there socializing with all who were passing through the campground.

Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch was a nice runnable stretch. We left Cottonwood at 3:45pm and covered the 7miles to Phantom Ranch in a little under an hour and a half, just under 13 minute miles. At Phantom Ranch we met this girl who wanted company to hike back to Cottonwood. Having delicately refused ('no luck for her' as she chose to put it), we had our sandwiches, called spouses and parents to inform the delayed return, and started our journey back.

The last stretch lasted for ever. I was sweeping and coming behind the last runner, although I am now not sure why. At that point of time, it seemed like an important thing to do. Strange how the mind works when you havent slept and are tired. Slowly we marched up the South rim and time seemed to have come to a standstill. With about a mile to go, I decided to power it up and drive the car over to the trailhead from the parking lot (it was a little away). That was a good decision since it woke me up and got me warm and going.

Then came the hardest part of the entire journey. The hour and half long drive back to Williams with 5 folks sleeping in the car. Many times I thought I will have to pull out and sleep a bit on the side of the road. Then found some Boost and that woke me up enough to feel confident about driving back safely. I thought of it then and I agree even now, I would easily trade those 1.5 hours of driving to having to climb North rim for 3+ hours even at that stage.

Here endeth the double-crossing. It had taken nearly a full day (23 hours, 23 minutes). It was the longest any of us had gone (except Padma). What with the breaks in between and such, there are no sore muscles. Only recovery needed was from the lack of sleep. Crossing the canyon is quite an adventure, and crossing it twice is a fantastic experience.