Tuesday, September 23, 2008

34 miles in 24 hours

Start: Minnesota Highway 1
Finish: Caribou Wayside, via Spur Trail.
Approximate time and mileage: 32.9 miles in 23:10
(including sleeping). (Plus 0.7 miles on spur trail.)

I got home from my run on a nice ride on the Greenway where I was able to draft some. I took a quick shower and began packing my bag. With temperatures forecast to be in the mid 30s, I decided to go with my two-pound, 0˚-rated sleeping bag (versus my one pound, 40˚ bag). There was one problem — I couldn't find its stuff sack.

I tried several; none worked. Finally, on the second attempt to get it in to my thermarest sack, I saw something inside the sleeping bag. What was it? A stuff sack. Designed for just that sleeping bag. And after twenty minutes of cursing, it — lo and behold — fit perfectly. Now, it also happened to mostly fill my wee backpack, so I wouldn't have room for things like, say, a stove or a pad or pretty much everything. Which is good, because I didn't plan to bring them. It was to be my best attempt at ultralight packing.

I made a sandwich for the car and, with a dozen or so Clif Bars, set off. With the shenanigans with the sleeping bag, I didn't get started until almost 2:00. The drive up was very uneventful, and by 5:20 I had pulled in to the parking lot at Highway 1, with 8.2 miles to go to a campsite and nary two and a half hours until dark.

The trail begins through an area with once type of tree all of a young age (all aspens, and all maybe 25 feet high). With this uniformity, Tom Wessels teaches us that that there must have been some event that cleared the land, such as a clear cut or a fire. A clear cut, however, would probably have left stumps to sprout multiple trunks, which we don't see. So this was likely a fire. And a friendly sign tells us that yes, indeed, there was a fire there in 1990. In 18 years the landscape has definitely begun to regenerate. It's all aspens, too, a tree which colonises open area but doesn't grow well in the shade. At many other points on the trail, we see areas where, long before, such trees had taken over, only to be replaced by shade-tolerant evergreens. At this rate, this section will be spruce and fir in a century or so.

For most of the next eight miles, the SHT is rather nondescript. This is not to say it isn't nice — it is quite pleasant, especially with the trees turning red. The lake makes a couple appearances, and with the sky clear and blue it was a good hike. I was a bit sore and tired from the morning, but made an effort to run a few bits in order to try to make camp by dark. As advertised, there were some sections which followed the contour, and others which were a bit more climby.

The sun had just about gone down over a red valley when I crossed the next road and met a group of rock climbers stumbling out of the trail, who assured me that the next campsite was not far. I took water at a stream and started up a bit of a hill in the dark, my headlamp leading the way. Since I had found a lot of campsites in the dark on the Appalachian Trail I had little trouble recognising the trail junction, and found another tent and dying embers of a fire. After a bit of conversation whilst I hung bear ropes (It's easy with maples, although the other guy there had poorly hung his against a tree above his tent.) I bedded down in my sleeping bag in my bivy sack with my head on my backpack. I didn't have much else.

Sleeping without a pad is not something I'd do more than one night at a time. I need to get a slightly larger bag so I can carry a pad and still go very light. I was tired enough from (including warm ups) 24 miles on my feet and 24 miles on a bike so I slept straight through from about 9:00 to 3:30. After that, the moon was too bright for me to sleep well and the ground too bumpy. I slept in fits, heard a few red-eyes fly over, and finally got up around 6:45. I grabbed my wee food bag (also the bivy bag), packed up, had some water and food, and hit the trail by 7:00. The other guy was fast asleep.

The day had dawned cloudy and cool, but it had definitely not dipped in to the 30s the night before. I was probably carrying an extra pound of weight, and it was also a pain to keep my pack from being overfull. The SHT Guide called this section "impressive" as far as terrain goes, but that didn't mean that it was all that hard. The cliffs above the trail were somewhat impressive, however, and I could see that they might be fun for rock climbing. The trail levels out and passes through more very red maples, and soon crosses a long bog bridge over a beaver dam. For some reason, the SHT calls bog bridges "boardwalks" although I'd disagree with the terminology. Bog bridges (or puncheon, although this too may be a misnomer) are the appropriate term, in my opinion, for planks laid parallel to the trail balanced on short supports, whilst boardwalks are planks of wood placed perpendicular to the trail. In any case, the walk along the pond was nice.

After crossing a branch of the Baptism River (where I stretched on the bridge, my legs still quite tight) the trail had a 0.2 mile roadwalk on one of the best dirt roads I'd ever seen. Then it was back in to the woods, where I took some time to take a look at my left foot, which had a bit of pain. The arch was a bit swollen, and whilst it eliminated much running, I was able to walk without any major issues. The next section of trail was a dozen miles long and described as being pretty easy. It was. Had I been in better shape foot-wise I would have run more, but instead I made about 3 mph.

As I passed a campsite at Egge Lake I took a break to grab a bite to eat and was met by the first SHT thru-hiker I've met. (The guy at the campsite last night was only doing about three quarters of the trail.) We chatted for a while and, as an aspiring AT thru-hiker, was interested in stories. So I told some. What amazed me was how slowly this guy and others make to hike the trail. He was averaging seven or eight miles a day. On the AT, I never did back-to-back sub-10 mile days on full-hiking days (i.e. days not going in to town or something). In other words, I never went camp out-hike less then 10 miles-camp out-hike less than 10 miles-camp out. Not once. Most of the SHT thru hikers seemed to be hiking six or eight miles per day. I'm all about hike your own hike, but I could never do it. It means you wake up at 9, hit the trail by 11, and hike 1.5 miles per hour until 5 with an hour break for lunch. It's not hard hiking, there are no long climbs, and I'd just get bored on a trail that's about as exciting as the AT (with, perhaps, a bit more opportunity to swim, although not in late September).

But this fellow was a nice guy, and managed to keep up with me for 3.5 miles (in a bit more than an hour). He said he liked the pace and was going to try to keep it up. At one point I was talking about my pack and asking about his (he had an AT thru-hiker help him pare it down and frankly it didn't look too big). He asked what it weighed and I guessed about ten pounds (2 for the sleeping bag, 2 for the pack, 1 for the bivy, 3 for food and water, 2 for extraneous). He was astonished. Without breaking stride, I took it off and tossed it to him; he caught it easily. I do quite like hiking thirty-some miles and not feeling it in my shoulders, hips or back at all. I stopped at Sonju Lake and took lake water which tasted like lake water, even with Aquamira. He took a break and I sauntered off.

There was a bit more easy walking as I passed through more maples (where the glacial drift was thick) and boreal forest (where the soil over the laurentian shield was thin). At one point I passed a group doing trail maintenance. As I passed each member of the group, each holding a pair of clippers (no pick-maddocks, though), I thanked them. When I thanked the guy at the front of the group, he turned and said to me, very matter-of-factly, "we're doing trail work." Yup, I got it, that's what all the clippies are for.

The trail dumps out on the access road to Crosby Manitou State Park. There was good water at one point, so I dumped the lake stuff and pumped it up. Sweet elixir. I walked the rest of the road (about half a mile) and found my way on to the park's trails. About a quarter of a mile in I saw a couple other hikers, one of whom looked very familiar. We stopped and looked at each other and I said "what are you doing here?" It was a Macalester senior who had been on a hike with me in the Boundary Waters in 2005. He was up for a weekend of camping and hiking, headed back to the car. My feet were pretty well beat and I thought about asking for a ride out from there, but that would necessitate starting the next leg inland from Highway 61, making hitching almost impossible. We talked for a while, and then I hiked on.

The SHT Guide calls this section of trail more rugged than most of the rest, and I'd agree. The Manitou River cuts a deep gorge and the trail drops 300 feet in to it, and then climbs 500 feet out. I crossed the river on a pretty sturdy bridge, and then huffed and puffed up the hill. After nearly thirty miles I was not in shape to run, and I stopped at the top for a bite to eat and a sip of drink. After a day, I was getting tired of Clif Bars. Next time I'll at least supplement it with some cheese. I stumbled along, slowly ticking down the miles to the end of this trip. The trail goes around Horseshoe Ridge through maples, then easily descends towards the Caribou River.

I found the river and crossed it on a bridge high over a gorge. Halfway down the spur trail to the road, tired, I was faced with the option of hiking down a set of stairs to what I surmised was a waterfall. I decided to do so and was not disappointed. It was not as high or strong as High Falls on the Baptism at the end of the last trip, but it was splendid. Even with the sun out, it was too cool for a swim, and having not run, I had only made about three miles per hour, so it was getting late. I then had to hike up the stairs (154 of them — I counted) and then down to the road, with some recent mass wasting, probably from this spring quite evident.

The Caribou Wayside is on a bit of a reverse curve which was not a great place for a hitch. Still, it took only about ten minutes before I got a ride down Highway 61 right to the car. Going north, it had taken about 24 hours on a trail which zigged and zagged. Straight along the coast, we made it in about that many minutes.

I'll be back, but not too soon. This weekend I am off to Dallas and Austin, and the next weekend have friends in town. It's not worth it to drive 200+ miles for a day hike as I get further up the trail, so I need about three weekends to hike the rest. As long as the weather cooperates on weekends (not too much rain, no snow) I should be fine. If not, I'll be happy, too. Especially if I decide to do something stupid, like run a marathon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A half marathon (not on the SHT) as a precursor

I had the best laid plans. I followed them to a T. Everything worked out, almost better than could have been expected. And holy cow do my legs hurt.

After my encouraging run last weekend, I decided to run a half marathon (and follow it up with some hiking). My choices were on the Birkie Trail and the City of Lakes Trail Loppet. I'd classify both as "known unknowns". That is to say, I knew both of them, but I didn't know exactly what to expect. I did know, however, that the City of Lakes race was a 45 minute bike ride, and the Birkie Trail was a three hour drive. That made my decision.

I was up a bit before 7:00, having carbo-loaded the night before I had a half a clif bar and set off for Minneapolis. It was already pretty warm, and I don't race well in warm weather. When I did my time trial a week earlier it was 53 and drizzle, perfect running weather (although maybe a tad on the hot side). It was already 60 with the sun coming up. The Greenway was eerily quiet; definitely no one to draft. I got through Uptown and headed north to Wirth Park. I registered and set about warming up.

Every time I had run this week, I'd had cramps in my upper right chest from about the 1/2 mile marker to the 1 1/2 mile mark. Today would be no exception. Thus, I made sure that I warmed up at least two miles so that it would not occur during the race. I ran in to the woods and found some of the course and was surprised that it quickly went down to a singletrack trail with some sections of tricky footing. This was probably to my advantage (lots of hiking has helped me how to best land on trails) but I figured that most of the trail would be on the wider, more gradual ski trails. Even though Wirth has some nasty hills, none are too long or steep. I warmed up for about 20 minutes, and then went back to the start to sip down some more gatorade and wait for the start.

Now, I had no idea what to expect in this race. This was mainly because I had, to that point, never run a running race. Of any kind, shape or form. Both my parents stopped running by the time I was about five years old, and neither they nor friends in high school convinced me to run cross country. I started running only as ski training, and I hated it. I really despised it. It was something to do to get to skiing, but it had little value on its own. So I begrudgingly ran. And as I did so, over the years, I began to like it a little more. By college, I would have some training runs where it felt good. Especially on trails — a 20k pole hike on the Birkie trail ended with me sprinting to the end (to my credit, there was a van full of food). I didn't run much on the AT, owing to a heavy pack and, at times, bad ankles, but it learned me to appreciate monotony.

In the past year, however, I have really begun to like running more. I can think of several times I've gone on "great runs," which I never thought I'd have. One was an ad hoc run on a cool evening to the tops of West Newton Hill, the hill near Newton Corner and the top of Heartbreak Hill (at night). Another was a run on a frosty morning right before I moved out to Minnesota. Another was a twelve miler over the Ford Bridge and Franklin Bridges. And a trail run from Zealand Hut to Shoal and Ethan Ponds. And the aforementioned 9.4 miles at 6:50s last weekend. So I was up for a race.

I had no specific goal, other than to finish and not make too much of a fool of myself. I looked around at the starters and started about five rows back, just in front of the "there's no way in hell that guy's running faster than me" group. The gun went off, and I quickly realised that I was with some slow people. So I ran on the outside (is there running race etiquitte?) to get to about fifteen or twenty guys from the lead. The pace wasn't too fast so I went with the flow. At first, I did well on the steeper sections, both up and down. I know how to ascend, and would get on my toes and dig in to the hill, and on descents, would let gravity gather in to the next uphill — I passed a few folks during both these exercises. The trail wound about around Eloise Butler and then passed a feed where the 5k went back to the start. Supposedly your first race should be a 5k. Or something.

I took the feed but I was feeling pretty beat. Probably something about never having run a race before. I could have gone out slow, but this year I am trying to be stronger at the start. I know my endurance is "there", I've been feeling great at the ends of marathon hikes, but my strength and speed at the starts is not (note to self: more strength and speed work). So after three miles, I slowed down a bit as the trail wound in to the Quaking Bog, home to big hills. And it did not take the ski trail. There were lots of singletrack sections, with logs to jump over, branches to duck under and trees to squeeze through. I felt pretty dead at the top of the big hill there but pushed on through some minor cramps. At one point two runners in front of me took a left instead of a right and I had to yell at them to go the right way — they would have run to Uptown.

The trail flattened and went back through Wirth Beach near where it started. As we ran the sun-beaten pavement one other participant commented "this is brutal." I sort of agreed — although I had nothing to compare it to. The course wound around, up to the Olsen Highway and then made a couple of U-turns to duck under 55 before a flat, open section. Then it was along some mountain bike trails (again, nothing flat, wide and long enough for any sort of rhythm), ski trails and then in to a section of single track at the base of an esker by Twin Lake. It was heartening to see, where the trail doubled back on itself, a lot of people, many of whom looked to be in good shape, a mile behind me. I was running with a couple guys where the course was marked straight up a hill. We took a couple switchbacks and it seemed to climb a steep, scramble of a hill, where hands were required. This was running? We made it to the top, wondering if we were on the right trail, when we finally saw another marker.

Supposedly the course would be flatter, but the organisers managed to find every bit of topography they could that wasn't on the golf course. We ran around the chalet at Wirth, then on some barely-used slabbed trails so narrow I was grabbing trees to keep my balance. Finally we hit the flats along Bassett Creek and under 55 again, where I had a cup of water for the last mile. I thought it would be an easy time back to the finish. Wrong. We followed the creek, then climbed a up a steep hill, went back down and hit the streets of Bryn Mawr. I as running with a woman and we were commenting on how this was a brutal last mile. We headed back in to the trails I knew would lead to the finish — volunteers told us it was a tenth of a mile. It was more like a third. On that downhill, feeling a wee bit of energy, I let loose and put some time on her, and then mustered whatever kick I could in to the finish. I wound up in the chute and drank about six cups of liquid, dazed but pretty excited about having finished my first half marathon.

I cooled down, picked up my bike, and glanced at results. It turns out a bunch of runners had followed one misguided soul off the course like lemmings. They had all run a fourteen or fifteen mile race. So with them out of the picture, I came 18th (out of 233, 15th out of 128ish men). I was fourth in my age class. Top three get prizes. Gack — I didn't really expect to win anything. I got on my bike and rode home.

Now, why did I write all this? This is an SHT blog, right? Well, because a normal person would run a trail half marathon and call it a weekend. (And not an easy half, either. A friends mom who ran it, and is going to Kona for the Ironman in a few weeks, and is sponsored and such said it was a very hard course, and I'd concur. It was definitely a trail run. The Birkie Trail, all on a ski trail with grass and dirt tread and, from OO to Fish Hatchery, few major hills, would have been far easier. The winner of this race ran it in 1:30, 6:52 miles, or three seconds slower pace than my training run a few weeks back. To top it off, it was 70, sunny, with 60 degree dewpoints.) For me the weekend was just starting — I planned 34 miles on the Superior Trail, and all that separated me was a bike ride home (nice and easy), some packing, and a drive.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

No, I didn't hike this past weekend, either

I have my reasons. The first is rain. It rained most of the weekend. James was going to come up and we were going to hike Sunday and Monday but his car broke so he was marooned down south. And I didn't want to hike 34 miles in the rain on my own.

Why 34 miles? Well, the trail meanders away from Highway 61 for 34 miles. If I wanted to get back, I'd have to spot a bike or try my luck hitching on very small roads to 61. But I have a plan for this weekend.

On Sunday, when it was 53 and drizzly here, I decided to go for a run. I thought of it as a baseline run and a fast run, from my house to the river, up to the Lake Street Bridge, down to the Ford Bridge, then back home. I was shooting for running 7:30 miles, but wanted to see how fast I could do it.

I had an ulterior motive, too. There are two trail runs this weekend, both of which traverse lovely ski trails I'll be hitting up this winter. Both are half marathons. I know I can run a half marathon (I ran 17+ miles the weekend before this past one) and I know I can run pretty fast, but I wanted to see how fast, and how good I'd feel, and whether I should try one of these half marathons (Birkie Trail and City of Lakes Trail). The answer was...yes.

I had a few minor cramps which worked out by the river. I really turned it up once I'd crossed the Lake Street Bridge in howling winds, and started south along the river. This was one of the runs I've had in the last couple years where I was happy (this never happened before — I used to despise running). As I climbed to the Ford Bridge, mist keeping me cool and happy (53 and drizzle is perfect running weather) I passed a couple decent-looking runners and left them in my dust. I was moving. I hit the Saint Clair Hills and then sprinted from Fairview. I ran in to the house, checked the time (1:04) and after a few minutes cooling down (mostly on a hammock) outside I looked up the distance. 9.4 miles. I'd run 6:49 miles for 15 km. Extrapolate that over a half marathon (I know, hills and trails and distance will slow me down — although given my endurance distance is probably not the biggest issue) and I'd have fun.

So the plan for this weekend:

Saturday: bike to the Trail Loppet in Minneapolis (I decided not to leave at 5:00 to run on Birkie Trail), run the race, eat a free brat for not driving there, and bike home. Throw my pack together and drive north. Hike 9 miles in to a campsite. Sunday: Hike the rest of the way to Highway 61, hitch down, drive home.

If it works out, it will be very fun. And I will be very sore.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sadly, no SHT this weekend

After I got off the trail last weekend, it got hotter. Sunday and Monday were mid-summer. And then by Tuesday: instant fall. So today is cloudless down here (but cloudy up north) and cool — maybe topping out above 60. Good hiking weather. Alas, I have to be up tomorrow at a very ungodly hour (especially for a Sunday) for the Bike Classic, so driving and hiking and waking up at 4:15 doesn't sound like too much fun.

But, since I will work a 12-hour Sunday tomorrow, I might well take off next Friday and get a three day weekend on trail next weekend. So it goes.