Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ultra Pedestrian Wilderness Challenge 2013: Devil's Dome Loop

I signed up to participate in the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge 2013: Devil’s Dome Loop. That is what brings me here on a Sunday evening–driving upriver in deep dusk, thinking existential thoughts. Moments from the PCT are replaying themselves on my mind’s movie screen. The radio proclaims, “Nothing scares me anymore” and I sing along–a phrase I can wholeheartedly agree with amidst a sea of vapid lyrics. I drive onward winding up into the mountains, arms straight, elbows locked out. I am on a mission, not just to run a course, but to run away from the life I have come home too. The mountains, my dearest friends welcome me with knowing, grizzled faces. They’ve seen the likes of me one too many times.
I fill my water bottles in the dark. The darkness calms me. The mountain night fills my lungs, soaks into my skin, permeates my psyche. I feel the stress of everything outside this place and moment falling away. I find an amazingly comfortable camp spot beneath ancient cedar trees just a stone’s throw from my car, but the roar of the creek is so loud I cannot sleep, even with earplugs in. Oddly, I miss the pure exhaustion of the speed record that allowed me to sleep anywhere the moment I was horizontal…

5:30 comes and I find myself eating an almond butter sandwich in the pre-dawn light. I don’t bother to unzip my sleeping bag or turn on my headlamp. I realize it is the most natural thing in the world to me. As will packing up and moving forward when I’d rather be sleeping.  At the trailhead I throw my tent and sleeping bag into my trunk. A man walks over and asks if I am doing the UPWC as well. I say yes and he holds out his hand, “Arya.”

I take it and stumble over my own name. “An…Heather.” He walks away. I push the button on my Garmin and begin my day in the gray light. Anish…I almost introduced myself as Anish. Shaking my head I wonder semi-seriously not only if I am experiencing a mild form of PTSD, but if I am at risk for split personality disorder. The cobweb of nightmares in my brain dissipate in the sweat and blood pumping power of the switchbacks up…and up…and up. I forget the faux pas with my name. Who cares anyway? Anish is Heather. Heather is Anish. I am home. Home. Home. Home….it pounds through my veins and I smile as I bound through the huckleberry laden parklands. The sweet odor of fermenting berries drifts around me like the mist. I relish the fact that I am free of my backpack and only carry a couple of handhelds and some snacks.

The climb up to McMillan Park breezes by. Over and over I am amazed at how effortless it feels to run through the mountains on narrow trails. My body must be recovered from the PCT for it to handle the 41 miles today as though it was nothing. I don’t push. I simply revel in the beauty of the wild and my body moving through it, just as I did for 2 months prior. Vaguely I am aware that I am reaching landmarks in what feels like a short amount of time, but it doesn’t really matter.

Onward I fly, uphill, downhill, over the rocks and through the brush. I bomb down from the ridge to the cusp of Ross Lake. I am sad to enter the forest and leave the sunny high country behind.


Yet when I cross the bridge and consult my watch I see that my easy run has been less than 11 hours long (10:46…plus 3 minutes or so of fumbling with the Garmin to make it stop recording). I whoop and stride back into the sun drenched parking lot. I guzzle water as though I will never drink enough again. I rip my shoes and socks off and throw my pack into the car.

Then, I go lie in the glacial creek and absorb its power. Rejuvenated, I leave home and return to the building in which I live.

Bonus! I am pleased to discover that this fell out of my pack and was awaiting my return to my car:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gear Reviews from the 2013 PCT FKT: Part 2

A thru-hike always puts gear and clothing to the ultimate test. Daily use for months on end is more than most items are manufactured for. During my speed hike I added the quantity of hours per day used to that equation. Since I never took a day off and seldom stopped for breaks most of my gear was under constant bombardment except the 5 hours a night I was sleeping. Therefore the pieces of gear that stood out as all stars I can highly recommend. Other pieces I wasn't as happy with. However, keep in mind that these reviews are only about how these things worked for me. Every person is different, has different needs, a different hiking style, and may have different results. Analyze my kudos and complaints in light of how they would apply to your hike/hiking style. This is not an exhaustive list of my gear, just the items I feel deserve a review and/or people frequently ask about.

Grade: A

I have used this brand pad on all 4 of my thru-hikes and everything in between. It works as the frame for my rucksack pack and does a good job of insulating me.
Pros:  Does what it says
           Virtually indestructible
Cons:  There are lighter options

Golite 20 Degree Down Sleeping Bag
Grade: A
Website: http://www.golite.com/Womens-Adventure-20-Three-Season-Regular-P46980.aspx
I have the older version of this bag. In fact, this was its 3rd thru-hike (plus all the other miles I’ve put on it!). I’ve had it for 8 years. It’s not as warm as it once was, but it’s still a great summer bag. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement in and of itself, I don’t know what is. I just bought the newer version and anticipate at least another decade of use.
Pros:  Lightweight
           True to warmth rating
           Short sizing as well as long and regular
Cons:  New bag doesn’t have the foot vent the old one does
            Zipper catches a LOT on the baffle. This might be user error though…

Gossamer Gear Polycro Groundcloth (Medium 2 pack)
Gossamer Gear Titanium Stakes
Grade: A

I have had mixed results with the groundsheet. I started the CDT with it in 2006 and it shredded before I got out of Glacier National Park. I was hesitant to try it again until this hike and I was incredibly pleased to find that one groundsheet lasted the entire trail (although it did tear in half in Northern Oregon, the sheet was still large enough to cover the ground under my body).
Pros: Ultra light
          Stakes are practically indestructible
Cons: Groundsheet may tear if not handled carefully.

IcebreakerBase Layers
Grade: A+

I have used these base layers and a pair of Smartwool socks as my sleep/emergency dry clothes on three thru hikes (2 PCT and 1 CDT) as well as everything else I’ve done since I bought them in 2005. The shirt and socks are the originals and I replaced the tights for this hike. Love them and can’t imagine using anything else. Ever.
Pros: Warm, even when wet
          Less prone to stink than synthetics
          Great feel against the skin
Cons: They will eventually unravel/get holes since they are a natural fiber. I never recommend Smartwool gloves for this reason. I have never gotten a full through hike out of a pair.
           Heavier than synthetics

PlatypusHoser Hydration Bladder: B+  

Hard Plastic Bite Valve Cover: F   http://www.cascadedesigns.com/platypus/platy-accessories/bite-valve-cover/product

SteripenTraveler Mini: C  

MSR Aquatabs: A  

Aqua Mira: B    http://www.aquamira.com/

I’ll just review my hydration and water treatment all at once. I have used the Platypus Hoser since my first thru-hike in 2003 (Appalachian Trail). I have always loved its ease of use and capacity for little volume. However, the one and only time I have ever gotten sick in the backcountry was when red algae (from snow) started growing in the hose unbeknownst to me. HORRIBLE things ensued for a week. Therefore, I am leery of putting snowmelt into it. I am also not a fan of the tinted blue hose they use now. The bite valve cover kept making the bite valve fall off. This was kind of a big deal in the desert since water would gush out of the hose until I could get it kinked and the valve back on. It also trapped all kinds of nasty around the bite valve and required regular cleaning. I used the Steripen through the desert, but I dropped it once and it broke in the Sierra. I used a combination of Aquatabs and Aqua Mira the rest of the way. I usually don’t treat my backcountry water and aside from the aforementioned red algae incident, I have never gotten sick. Therefore, my assessment of whether certain water treatments work or not may be skewed since I may be one of the lucky folks who is immune to Giardia.
Pros: Platy is light and low volume
          Steripen is easy to use/reliable/nearly instant
          Aquatabs are easy to use and ultra light
         Aqua Mira is easy to use
Cons: Platys can leak, tinted hose makes seeing mold/algae difficult/bite valve gets dirt and crud in it
           Steripen in heavier than other options/fragile/requires special batteries which are hard to find and illegal to mail USPS
           Aquatabs treat 2 liters and are difficult to break. I rarely needed 2 liters at a time so ended up carrying extra water weight. 30 minute wait time for treatment.
           Aqua Mira: I call it my water treatment placebo. It is not FDA approved to kill anything in your water that could make you sick. I used it when I had to drink water I didn’t want to so that I felt like I was doing something. Heavier than Aquatabs.

Grade: A

I started out in an older model lightweight sock. These did not hold up. I switched to their Performance 2.0 Original weight mini crew and was delighted. Adequate ankle coverage is essential. The original weight is durable enough for day after day of use.
Pros: Durable
          No toe blisters
          Excellent wicking
Cons: The Light Weight version will not stand up to thru-hiking.

Petzl Tikka
Grade: B

My headlamp was great for in camp, but it really wasn’t bright enough for night hiking. I need to explore lighter, brighter options if I were to ever do something like this again, especially on a trail that requires more navigation. The route finding ascending Muir Pass was very difficult with this headlamp.

The Zebra Print Dress :)
Grade: A
Website: N/A  Scour the thrift shops near you!
Fashion, Function, Fun.
Pros: You can pee standing up, ladies
          Cool when hot, warm when cold
           Lighter than shirt/short combos
           Cheap. I paid $1 for this one

Cons: They wear through after about 1,000 miles

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Gear Reviews from the 2013 PCT FKT: Part 1

A thru-hike always puts gear and clothing to the ultimate test. Daily use for months on end is more than most items are manufactured for. During my speed hike I added the quantity of hours per day used to that equation. Since I never took a day off and seldom stopped for breaks most of my gear was under constant bombardment except the 5 hours a night I was sleeping. Therefore the pieces of gear that stood out as all stars I can highly recommend. Other pieces I wasn't as happy with. However, keep in mind that these reviews are only about how these things worked for me. Every person is different, has different needs, a different hiking style, and may have different results. Analyze my kudos and complaints in light of how they would apply to your hike/hiking style. This is not an exhaustive list of my gear, just the items I feel deserve a review and/or people frequently ask about.

ZPacks Hexamid Solo+Vestibule
Grade: A+
What can I say? I LOVE MY TENT! I slept in it every night except one. I am not a cowboy camper. I don’t like bugs and spiders and ants. Blech. I was always envious of people with uber light tarps until I found this: A fully enclosed, single person tent that doesn’t feel like a coffin and weighs only 1 pound! (inclusive of stakes, guylines, and the manufacturer pole–I don’t use trekking poles). Having a home that is a constant on a long journey like this was very comforting to me. Crawling into my tent every night gave me a sense of calm and happiness.
Pros:   Lightweight
            Fully enclosed
            Easy set up
            Roomy…I have even squeezed another person in there on a different trip
            Well ventilated/minimal condensation issues
Cons:   I wouldn’t want to use this without the vestibule. My experience has been that in heavy rain
there is some splash/drip that comes in around the edges. The vestibule eliminates that issue on
one side so you can snuggle up to that edge if it’s really coming down.
            I haven’t had this out in pouring rain yet. Therefore I can’t say what it would be like in those
conditions. However, if you have in mind a hike like the PCT where foul weather is rare then I
highly recommend it.

Glacier Peak Wilderness

PatagoniaHoudini Jacket
Grade: A+

This jacket was the workhorse of my layering system. I wore it probably 50+ days out of the 60 I was on the trail. It offered excellent protection from everything: sun, cold, wind, bugs, etc. It weighs less than 2oz and packs to the size of a Clif Bar!! Despite constant use it shows no real signs of wear except some discoloration where it was under the pack straps.
Pros:    Extremely light
             Cute color (yes, this matters!)
             Dries in an instant
             Stash pocket
Cons:    None

Northern Terminus

Altra LonePeak (Note: I used the Original, but subsequent models are equally good.)
Grade: A-

I have been running ultras in these shoes for about a year. I love the roomy toe box and the neutral “Zero Drop” sole. These are a more minimal shoe however, and I noticed that on this hike my feet took a serious beating. A shoe with more cushion would have made them much happier, especially in the first 1,000 miles.

Pros:     Roomy allowing plenty of space for swollen feet to expand
              Neutral sole allowing a more natural, nimble foot movement
Cons:    Not much cushioning
Old and New

Grade: C
Website: http://www.ula-equipment.com/product_p/cdt.htm
Let me say the grade for this pack is based on some serious issues *I* had with it. Hundreds of PCT hikers use ULA packs every year and love them. I’m not sure if the problems I had were due to the pack construction, the nature of my hike, or my own biomechanics. ULA is a great company and makes great products and I wholeheartedly recommend them. I think I might have bought the wrong size of pack and that it contributed to some of my problems.

Pros:   Hipbelt pockets–This was a major selling point for me. It gave me an accessible place for my
phone/camera, chapstick, sunscreen, snacks, etc.
Accessible slash pockets on the sides–Again, indispensable for me. This is where I put my food
for the day since I ate while I walked.
Bombproof construction–I’m not nice to my pack…and it has held up beautifully. The main mesh
pocket is shredded from brush and wear, but otherwise the pack is in great condition.

Cons:  Painful shoulder. Despite a balance and light packweight my right shoulder strap dug in and
chafed me something terrible. I have scars, not to mention the days of pain. I don’t know
whether the strap was not properly padded or whether it had to do with my biomechanics, but it was miserable.

Back sores/chafing. I had incredibly painful chafing and sores on my back nearly the entire hike. I believe part of this was due to my back never getting to air out or a recovery day to heal. I think the pack size was too large for me and therefore hung down too low as well.
Southern Terminus

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

HURT 2013

I had such a great time pacing and crewing at HURT 100 this year!

First of all, it is a super well run event. The volunteers are great. The aid stations are great. The course is...uh,  great the first 2 times through...

I also got to crew and pace two fantastic runners, which always makes the job easier.

Helping James crew Candice was an adventure (as things with her always are!). She rolled her ankle very early in the race and was frequently running out of water between aid stations. I could see the mental fatigue when she came in after nearly 40 miles of running with a compromised ankle. After several of us convinced her to get it taped she headed out. We saw her 7 miles later and the transformation was incredible. She went on to run a stellar last half. I greatly enjoyed running through the dark hours with her from mile 60-80. Near the top we ran through bamboo forest which clattered noisily at every breath of wind. Later we probably embarrassed other runners as we loudly "girl talked" our way through the miles. At the Nature Center I handed her safely off to James for her last lap and headed for Paradise to pace Kevin.

I was very excited to crew Kevin throughout the day and watch as he improved on his previous time at the event, despite going in (in his words) "really under-trained." He let me dye his hair and beard with Kool Aid the night before and put his hair up in pig tails. Many people remembered him as the "beads in your beard" guy from the year before. I imagine next year everyone will call him "pig tail man." I personally think the pig tails provided lift and helped him float over all those roots ;)

It was also a great joy to hop in with him at Paradise at 5:45 in the morning and pace his last 13 miles. I like to think I pulled him up some of those hills...although he was in such great shape I'm sure he didn't really need my help. Seeing the course in the daylight was beautiful. We even stopped on a ridge at the top of 5 Minute Hill and watched the sunrise over it. Coming into the finish line with him as he completed his second top 10 finish at this incredibly challenging event was a great moment for me.

Candice came in not long after, finishing in the top 15 OA and placing 3rd among women.

I love the HURT experience I had and I am going to put in for it again for next year. Hopefully this time I will get in!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Yankee Springs

Last weekend I had the immense pleasure of volunteering at the Yankee Springs Winter Races near Hastings , MI. An acquaintance mentioned the race to me a month or so ago and I emailed the co-RD and asked if I could sweep the course. He responded affirmatively and soon I found myself signed up for 2 whole days of volunteering fun!
I arrived early on a cold, windy January Friday and bundled up for a course marking expedition with Phil. He pulled a sled of supplies while I trotted along placing orange and blue pin flags merrily in the snow. There was a 10k course as well at a 25k. The 50k course was 2 loops of the 25k. All in all we probably ran about 18 miles marking the two. As we jogged along the packed snow trails in the sunny, but cold afternoon I couldn't help but giggle–this was definitely not getting me ready to pace at HURT!

We wrapped up the marking and immediately went into set up mode, unloading the uhaul and organizing registration. I helped Phil, Kim and other set up the finish line tent and then made a mad dash for the indoors. My Reynaud's was acting up and I knew that many more minutes in the bitter cold and I'd be useless anyway. I took up residence beside the fireplace in the lodge and checked in runners who were camping in the rustic cabins that night. It was an odd feeling to be looking at a registration table and not know any of the names!

Sleep was short that night, but warm and comfy in the cabins. I pulled on about 8 layers of clothes in the morning and helped with set up, check in, finish line timing, awards, etc. I chatted with the Montrail rep and am excited to give a few of their new, lower drop models a whirl. It was exciting watching people come rolling into the finish line! Finally, around 1pm with the last 50k runner about 40 minutes ahead of me I stripped down to my running clothes and headed out.

The trails were sparkling and silent as I ran through the dormant hardwoods. My knee/leg was hurting, but I did my best to block that out of my mind and dwell instead on how much fun it was to run the rolling terrain. I came into the first aid station and chatted a bit before cruising onward. I discovered a junction whose signs had been removed, but luckily, since I'd marked the course, I knew which way to go! Another mile or so and I reached the second AS. There I re-met the RD of the 12 hour race I'd done the previous year. Somehow a half an hour elapsed while I chatted with him and several volunteers. Reminded of the cold my numbing hands I headed out once more. The sun was sinking as I ran through The Pines. I stared upward along the straight lines of trunk, through green boughs, into blue, sun gilded sky. Deep inhalation....sigh of bliss. It reminded me of sleeping under the stars and the Jeff pines all through northern Cali. I felt a stirring in my soul–eagerness to sleep once more in that realm of quiet, peace, and perfect pine soft bedding.

At the final AS one of Phil's sons made me a grilled PBJ, by request, since I had told them that's what, as a vegan, I ask for in a hundred when offered a grilled cheese. About a mile from the finish I caught up to the final runner and his pacer. The pace had hiked the AT and he and runner both had been to the Javelina course as well as several other places I had also run. They were delightful to chat with and soon we were rolling into the deserted finish.

I relinquished the pin flags, ate some warm food and headed home. It was so great to spend a weekend with runners! I was really missing all my friends and the community! I also highly recommend Yankee Springs if you are looking for a winter race (although they have a summer option as well). It is incredibly well organized  The course is a gorgeous, runnable, rolling romp through snowy forest. The prizes are delightful (snowglobes!) and there is plenty of swag too!

Once again, my Altra's took the terrain in stride. I've now run rooty, sloppy PNW trail; flat, loose, sandy desert; and now hard packed snowy trail. I have yet to be disappointed in them!