Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mt. Sterling Revisited

A cool breeze carries the collective and distinctive odors of the Appalachian ferns, rhododendrons, mosses, evergreens, and last season's rotting foliage on this crisp first day of spring.  I run almost one mile along the narrow, gently sloping gravel road that leads up to the Big Creek Campground and Picnic Area.  This road serves as a great warm-up for a run up Mt. Sterling via the 6.2-mile Baxter Creek Trail, which is regarded as one of the most difficult climbs in the Smokies.

When I cross Big Creek on one of the finest trail bridges in all of the GSMNP I hit the lap button on the Garmin.  While I have no intentions of pushing the pace on this climb, I do intend to run every step.  I want to know my current level of climbing fitness.  Both of the 50's I've entered this summer involve significant climbing - at altitude.  At 5820 ft, Mt. Sterling will not prepare me for the CO altitude, but the 4200 feet of vertical gain in 6.2 miles will serve as excellent testing/conditioning for my climbing legs.

I've been to the summit of Mt. Sterling more than a dozen times dating back to 1990 when I first explored the east end of the park by "speed hiking" 131 miles in four days with a 25-lb pack on.  I've slept on the summit seven times, with six of those nights coming in the month of December.  My love and obsession with reaching mountain summits is, in some part, due to the challenges I've faced when climbing this peak with a backpack in the snow.  If you have read my blog post titled "Winter Solace" you know that last December I finally realized a longtime goal of running to the summit with significant snow on the ground.

It is said that climbing such a mountain in the southern Appalachians will allow the climber to see changes in flora that are equivalent to traveling one thousand miles north.  So, I am moving southwest while experiencing a northern journey.  I tell myself to relax as I begin the run between a Catawba rhododendron-covered cliff on the left and Big Creek on the right.  While the mountain scenery changes every time I visit, there are numerous landmarks, like this cliff, that serve as progress markers.  I know that not far from the end of the cliff this trail will bend left and enter a steep watershed where the real climbing begins.

Though I try to keep my eyes on the trail to navigate through the countless roots and rocks, I cannot help peeking up to identify the trees close to the trail.  Their bark allows me to recognize birch, hemlock, tulip, maple, and oak trees.  The forest floor, which was completely white in December, is now turning several shades of green as the lichens, mostly clubmoss, and ferns are quite prevalent.  I am surprised at how quickly I arrive at the first crossing of the trail namesake, Baxter Creek.  This is the area where I saw the large bear tracks in December.

I check the Garmin from time to time in order to monitor my heart rate.  Though I have several "gadgets," I am really only addicted to the comparison of my heart rate to my pace as a measure of efficiency.  Improving running performance is really that simple.  I intend to run every step of this climb, but I expect the pace to vary significantly with the changes in slope and the challenge of the obstacles along the trail as I try to maintain a comfortable heart rate.

As the miles pass by I drink from the tube of the Nathan 1.5-L pack I am testing.  This should be plenty of water on this day in which I will experience moderate temperatures ranging from the mid-40's to the upper-60's.  I drank a 16-oz bottle of water and some orange juice before I started.  I also have a gel and some Gu Chomps to add to the organic blueberries and banana I ate when I woke up.

On several occasions I pass backpackers who are on their way down the mountain after sleeping on the summit. It must have been a busy night up there! I also pass two young men who are on their up to the summit.  Each group of climbers I encounter reacts similarly.  Heads swing around.  Eyebrows raise slightly.  We make eye contact.  It is difficult to gauge their responses, but it seems that more of them are amused than impressed.  Am I just another half-crazed runner who is trying to be bear bait?  I greet each group with a hearty "good morning" as we squeeze by each other on the narrow trail.

When I first glimpse the summit knob I have to look up several times to convince myself that it is actually the summit.  A couple of peeks at my watch convince me that I have not, indeed could not, be approaching the actual summit.  I am not tired.  I am as agile as normal - not much there, but I still possess what I came in with.  My legs are still quite springy.  And I have only been climbing a little more than an hour.  Furthermore, I have not tripped or stubbed my toe one time, so I am not bleeding.  I focus once again on the forest.  Most of the trees I see are evergreens, namely spruce and hemlock.

Within a short distance of what I believe to be a false summit spotting, I grasp a limb of an evergreen as I pass it.  I grip it loosely and let it slide through my fingers.  It is quite soft.  A fir.  I smell my hand.  Definitely a fir.  I repeat that sequence of events a couple more times.  All firs.  Wow!  I am high enough to be approaching the summit.  Then I see a rock overhang that I recognize.  I always thought this would be a great place to wait out a storm.  Then I passed this place in that December blizzard and found that it is a great collection point for blowing snow.

Knowing this overhang is near the summit, I get an adrenaline rush and pick up the pace - significantly.  Then I pass the signpost for the spring that I have often used to refill my water bottles.  A half-mile to go.  I cannot believe how fresh I feel.  I accelerate and find another gear and soon pass through a small patch of evergreens that I know are a gateway to the summit.

Then I see the iron legs of the old fire tower right in front of me.  I stop the watch as I pass the stone bearing the summit marker in the sunlit patch of grass next to the fire tower.  Several young men who are leaving to refill water bottles ask me if I ran all the way up the mountain.  I say yes.  One of them asks how long it took me and I look at the watch.  I have run up Baxter Creek Trail, the trail I refer to as the toughest 10K I've ever encountered, in just under 1:19.

I climb the steep tower stairs while discussing the ongoing NCAA basketball tournament with these Ohio State students.  Once inside the tower cabin I eat a package of Gu Chomps and drink water before taking several pictures.  I also call my friend, Jeremy who is visiting Chicago with his father and a friend. The tower is about ten feet taller than most of the surrounding trees, so the 360-degree view on this sunny day is breathtaking.  Yes!  This is my reward.

My descent from the tower after only about five minutes is encouraged by the goosebumps created by the stiff winds whipping through the broken cabin windows.  I yell "Take care, Buckeyes" to the young men hidden among the evergreens and smile after a "Boiler Up!" comes back to me.  Then I hit the watch and begin the descent.

Once again, I remind myself to move slowly - and carefully.  Running down steep root- and rock-strewn trails like Baxter Creek can cause bodily injury.  Trust me.  I know this well.  I remind myself that I tend to bleed on descents and I tell myself to maintain a pace that will allow me to minimize the damage.  Yes, minimize.  I hold no false beliefs.  I know my limits.  I am aware of my uncanny ability to find ways to create leaks in my epidermal layer.  I will bleed, but I will do my best to minimize the bloodshed.

Descending the Colorado 14ers is almost always much faster than ascending.  That is partially due to the altitude, but it is also due to the fact that, other than being relatively steep, many of those trails do not have many obstacles to impede motion.  Appalachian trails, to the contrary, are rarely smooth.  There are roots and embedded rocks all along the way.  And these toe grabbers are usually partially or completely hidden under fallen leaves.  The southern Appalachians do not have tree lines, so the smooth sailing alpine descents found on many 14ers simply do not exist in the Smokies.  As a result, the differences in my ascent and descent times are usually minimal, so I expect to make it back to the Big Creek Picnic Area in about 70 minutes.

After descending more than halfway down the trail I encounter two young men I had passed on the way up.  One of them asks how far I had made it up the mountain.  "To the top of the fire tower."  They look at me in disbelief.  I stop and we talk for several minutes.  I learn that they are students at Taylor University in Indiana.  One is from Fort Wayne, IN and the other is from Grand Rapids, MI.  Like the Buckeyes on the summit, these two backpackers are polite and respectful.  Talking to these two young men is one of the highlights of my day.  I love meeting people who share my love for the mountains.

It is not long after parting ways with the Taylor students that I find myself flying along on the less steep slope of the lower portion of the Baxter Creek Trail.  I catch my right toe (almost always my right toe!) on a root and stumble forward for several strides before regaining control.  That was close!!  Focus and slow down.  The greatest reward you can earn today is the satisfaction of not falling down.

Both of my hands fire into the air a la Rocky Balboa as I cross the bridge at the trail head.  I am completely intoxicated by the experience.  My legs feel fine.  I have descended in 56 minutes.  I HAVE NOT FALLEN DOWN!

Only briefly do I entertain the idea of turning around and going back up.  The mere thought of the upcoming monster round trip run from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit of Mt. Mitchell erases any ambition to test my limits on this first run.  I run back down the gravel road at six minute pace in a state of euphoria.

A post-run meal consisting of organic cereals, fruits, and two protein/veggie smoothies is followed by a quick change into cycling clothes.  I find it impossible to suppress the excitement as I drove back to I-40.  The windows are down, the sunroof is open and I am singing along with the Avett Brothers.

After leaving the interstate I drive through a dilapidated and somewhat depressing Maggie Valley.  The recession seems to have had a huge impact on the economy of the area.  Within minutes, I cross under the Blue Ridge Parkway and take the ramp up to it.  There is no plan here.  I am simply looking for a place to ride Faith, my beloved old Kestrel.

I park at the Wooly Back overlook (elev. 5425 ft) and remove Faith from her bindings in the back of the RAV.  Having been here before, I am aware of the fact that I am near Waterrock Knob (elev. 6295 ft).  I take a couple of pictures before mounting Faith.  We have traveled many miles together on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  With her heavy but very aerodynamic 650 HED3 wheelset, she makes climbing difficult, but she descends those mountain roads with breathtaking ease.

I grind Faith's 21/54 gear (hey, I've never owned anything smaller!) for a little over a mile up to Waterrock Knob.  Then the fun begins!  I go into wind tunnel mode as I adjust my position to reach maximum speed - 40, 43, 46, 49, 51, 52 mph.  What an adrenaline rush!  The rapid 6-mile descent into Balsam Gap allows me to click three successive miles in 1:19, 1:21, and 1:16.  Then I come to my senses.  I've got to ride back up this mountain!

I turn the bike around and begin the six mile grind back up to Waterrock Knob.  The grade varies from 7-11% on this climb.  I can only smile as I mash the pedals, propelling the bike upwards and into the wind.  While I may have descended slowly enough on Mt. Sterling to save my quads, I am finding that they are quite fatigued.  As I climb I notice something I had not noticed on the way down.  There are dozens of varying sized boulders lying on the edge of the road at several places where the road path had been blasted from the side of the mountain ridge.  And now I look up constantly as I believe that I am moving so slowly that I am an easy target.

On the way to Asheville for a well-earned meal I reflect back on a day that has gone much better than I had expected.  I ran well - faster than I ever have on that "strenuous" trail.  My hands, knees, and face never kissed the trail - a FIRST!  And my tired quads and glutes managed to keep pushing those pedals at the same rpm for miles up the BRP.  I have climbed more than 4200 feet on foot and 3900 feet on the bike.  Amazingly, I am not very tired.  And what a difference this feeling is than the one I felt after my last run, two days earlier, which was one of the worst running experiences of my life.

The pizza and beer in Asheville are going to taste SWEET! ST

Friday, March 25, 2011

Appalachian Recharge

Spring break for a teacher can lead to many opportunities.  Spring cleaning - check.  Property work - check.  A chance to recharge the mind and spirit to a level required to sustain us in our multifaceted, high-energy, and life-consuming jobs - check.  Well, the property work and cleaning have been started, but neither is complete.  My position is that those tasks can never really be complete, so I tend to them on a regular basis as a matter of maintaining an equilibrium whose balance favors "looks good" and "not dilapidated."

The recharging is another matter, completely.  I sleep when I can and rest as life permits.  A day filled with movement can be as relaxing and energizing as any nap while also being more fulfilling than a day engaged in sedentary activities such as watching TV or tapping a keyboard.  (Hey . . . wait a minute . . .)  A person simply has to know which activities will bring them a peace of mind.

If you are reading this blog you already know that it was created because I want to share with others how I find that inner peace through traveling, running, cycling, and hiking.  You also know that I find happiness in hills, especially hills big enough to be called mountains.  I love everything about the mountains; the smells, the wildlife, the streams, the challenges, and the people I meet.  I was fortunate enough to be able to spend several days "relaxing" in the mountains of North Carolina this week.

The moment I arrived in Appalachia, as usual, I rolled down the windows and slowly breathed in the distinctively aromatic air.  Not long after that I parked next to the Pigeon River so that I could stretch out my legs while I walked along the bank and thought of what the next few days had in store for me.  The trip was not a long one, so I attempted to pack a lot of experiences into every day.  I am writing a series of posts that look into the different aspects of the trip.  I will be posting them as time permits over the next few days.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Ultra Runner Within Me

My involvement in ultra events during the last few years has introduced me to a unique breed of athlete.  Typical ultra marathon fields,  much like the bulk of the participants in local 5K, are not wiry and intense and seemingly malnourished.  The typical ultra marathoner who might finish mid-pack in a 5K, however, is much more likely to beat the thoroughbreds in the long run.  Reminiscent of the tortoise and the hare, the often thicker and older ultra runner is often more willing to simply plod along early and remain steady and obstinate in the face of the late-race suffering to hold on for a fine and respectable finish.  Meanwhile, the speedster has a much greater likelihood of dropping out after their bold and risky early pace causes a dramatic crash or a race-ending injury.

Ken Chlubber of the Leadville Trail races first told me this in July of 2007.  I had stopped by the LT shop when I was in town for the LT100 Training Camp.  Ken's insight into the psyche of ultra runners allowed him to size me up within minutes.  He asked about my endurance background and my ultra experience.  Then he warned me that I fell dead center in the group of runners most likely to DNF the LT100.  He told me to focus on hiking up and down the nearby mountains during my preparation.  I told him that I had decided to enter the race after easily climbing both Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert in one morning by climbing fast and running down. I also related how I planned to climb several of the 14ers, but he seemed concerned that those climbs would not be enough.  He also warned me that it would be difficult to return from Indiana and be successful at the extreme altitudes presented by the LT100, especially if I went out too fast and put my body in a hole in the first few hours.

Over the next two days I ran with the lead pack of runners during the training camp.  These were experienced, successful. and tough runners.  And I hung right in there with them as we ran most of the LT100 course, including a double crossing of the 12,600-ft Hope Pass.  And so I gained a lot of (false) confidence.   Ken knew a lot about ultra runners, but he did not know me!

When I flew in for the mid-August race I bore even more confidence.  I had just finished ten weeks of running an average of 80 miles per week while running only 3-4 days each week.  I had logged more miles during those 10 weeks than I had during the entirety any of the previous 20 years.  I was fit and strong and ready to finish my first 100 mile event. I ran comfortably along during the first 38 miles, constantly picking up places.

Unfortunately, while my leg was locked out, my right heel crashed hard on a stone while descending the steep and rocky road leading into the Twin Lakes Aid Station at 39.5 miles. It hurt a lot at the time, but I had forgotten about it by the time I left Twin Lakes.  The climb from 9200 ft to 12,600 ft Hope Pass went as planned.  It hurt!  I power hiked more than half of it with a HR of about 145, which is the HR I have while running 6:40 pace on the roads.

I remembered the jammed knee as soon as I began descending the back side of Hope Pass.  This winding and extremely steep trail drops about 3000 feet in three miles.  It is brutal.  I had descended it twice in training in 24 and 25 minutes while flying on the edge of control and using my hands on trees to  keep me on the trail.  During the race I could not run down Hope at all due to a sharp pain in my right knee.  Once on the 3-mile gravel road that gently climbed to the turn around, I was able to go back to running.  I passed many of the runners who had passed me while I walked down (ironically) the back side of Hope.

The knee continued to get worse, with the swelling becoming apparent as I was forced to walk back down that shallow road.  Walking where I was supposed to be running caused a lot of frustration.  Back at Twin Lakes (61.5 miles) I ate well, drank well,  gathered my night gear for the coming darkness, and took two ibuprofen.  Stopping had not entered my mind.

In the darkness that came as I was approaching Half Moon Rd. I regained the ability to run up and down.  The ibuprofen was working.  Then, near the tree line, with about a marathon to go, I was forced to walk again.  I struggled to keep up with a group of runners by alternating shuffling and walking with a very stiff right leg.  I hobbled into the pole barn-turned-aid station a little more than 19 hours after I started the LT100 with intentions of still breaking 25 hours.

When I reached the Fish Hatchery, I went through the normal motions.  I ate hot soup and drank fluid.  I was tired and sore, but I was nowhere near finished.  Or so I thought.  "That knee does not look good," said a paramedic.  Looking at it for the first time in hours, I didn't recognize it as my own.  My normally knobby knee was hidden within what the doctor guessed was 250-300 cc (mL) of fluid.  It was as large as my quad.

"You want me to wrap it for you to push that fluid out and give it some room to move?"
"Yeah, sure."
After the wrapping I stood up and lost my breath.
"You sure you want to try to climb Sugarloaf on that?"
I walked to the edge of the pole barn before remembering my second shirt.  As I turned to get it I felt a pop in the knee and a sharp pain shot through my body.

When I woke up and my mind cleared a bit there were several people standing around me.  My wristband was gone.  I had been "cut" out of the race.  Damn.

That was a defining moment in my life.  I doubt that I would have entered another ultra in my life.  If I had finished the LT100 that year I would have stuck with running road miles and hiking on trails.  If I had finished the LT100 that year I would not have reached the point where I absolutely have to run on trails.  I would not have gained the tranquility of early morning trail runs in snow, sweltering heat, blustery winds, and lots of mud.

I would not know of the many deer, foxes, turtles, and wild turkeys that move gingerly through the nearby forest at dawn.  I would not have found the Canal Loop in Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky.  I would not have been able to travel nearly as many miles in the mountains of Colorado, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  And I certainly would not have realized the synergism of combining my loves of running and nature.

Lastly, without that painful LT100 failure, I would not have found the ultra runner within me.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Train Wreck!

It has certainly been a tough month for me!  I have written about the virus I caught that kept me in bed with a high (103+) fever for most of a week.  And I also told of the hilly half I put myself through immediately after I lost the fever.  I was fine for a few days.  Then I enjoyed a great run that included a lot of pace work on Tuesday March 1, which I followed immediately with a 13.1-mile (30 min) ride that stunned me after missing six months of cycling due to nerve damage in my right shoulder.  All seemed good.  Everything looked rosy for some fine spring training.

Within hours of the ride, however, I became feverish again.  By the next morning it was back over 103.  I ended up going to the doctor on Thursday and I was declared virus free.  A bacterial infection was getting the better of me this time, so I received a z-pack antibiotic.  The fever broke in the early morning hours of Friday March 4, so I went back to school (scene of crimes where germs run amok!).

By Friday night the fever was returning and it was accompanied by some awful intestinal sidekicks.  On Saturday morning the glands in my neck were the size of large marbles, my tongue was swollen, and the fever was nearly back to 103.  So I called the doctor and he switched me to another antibiotic.  That was the first time in my life that I had a bad reaction to a drug.  Unfortunately, it was a slow release antibiotic, so I had to deal with all of those side effects until Wednesday.  By that time I was dealing with a cough that threatened to split my chest and abdomen.

Needless to say, I have not done a lot of training in the last three weeks.  Sixteen miles in 19 days.  So, when I saw that the weather was going to be so nice on Saturday, I decided to take in Nashville by following through on my entry into the Tom King Half Marathon.  Honestly, I was curious how far my body had fallen during my time of infirmary.  I promised myself that I would go out easy and back down if I felt unduly fatigued.  I was going to enjoy a course, a race, and a brewery (Big River) that I have grown fond of.

I ran the first five miles in 30:02 and felt fine - as I had hoped, since this was 15 seconds per mile slower than I had originally intended to average under race conditions.  I then ran a couple of 6:15s into the wind to pass through 7 miles in 42:30 (6:04 average).  It was then that I started to fatigue.  So I shut it down to my normal 6:4x training pace and finished up in about 1:23:30. Interestingly enough, no one passed me and those in front of me barely pulled away after I decided to slow down.  I guess the headwind was having an effect.

In retrospect, the Tom King turned out to be very similar to the hilly 13.1 I ran a few weeks ago in training (1:24).  Some people will criticize me for running after the illness.  That is their prerogative.  The doctor told me that I could start running 24 hours after the fever disappeared.  It had been gone since Sunday.  My only reservation to running on Saturday was the diarrhea that plagued me all week as the z-pack's damage continued to ravage my intestines.  Five urgent trips to the john before the race and another near mile 10 kept me busy and probably resulted in some of that fatigue, but I am glad I made the trip.  It was nice to run in the sunshine at 62 degrees and the pizza and beer were welcome stomach inhabitants after a week avoiding food. (I did consume a lot of yogurt and probiotic capsules!)

In closing I will write that I have read my stat report and see that this blog is getting 2-3 dozen hits every day.  That is great!  I also noticed that the traffic picked up after I started posting my training.  I'm not sure why that is, because other than a few friends who text or call me about the posts, I've gotten little interaction from readers.  Shy readers?  Lurkers?  I don't know and I don't really care.  This blog is meant to entertain and inspire readers while allowing me to practice writing.  I will continue to write about my traveling (mountains next week!!) and racing, but I plan to change the way I write about my training.

Take care and may you stay healthier and faster than me! ST