Tag Archives: trail running

The Magic of Estes Park

One hundred yards into the run, and I was already fatigued.

It wasn’t a huge climb, and I was walking it. I was fully warmed up. And yet I felt like I’d already run 20 miles. When we got to the top of the rise and began running down into the canyon, I caught my breath and fell into a groove. Until we began climbing again.

Are we done yet?

I knew what was wrong, of course. And despite the struggle, I was having the time of my life.

I just returned from five awesome days in Estes Park, Colorado attending the U.S. Trail Running Conference, an event I’d looked forward to since February.  I attended presentations and panel discussions, networked with race directors, and tried out some pretty cool products, all of which I’ll talk about in upcoming posts.

And, of course, got in some running. I went up and down (and up) the gorgeous Black Canyon Trail, climbed 1,500 feet over two miles to Gem Lake, and ran loops around Lake Estes. All of this in sunny, cool weather which calls to trail runners like chocolate calls to – well, everyone.

I came back convinced that every trail runner or hiker should travel at least once to Estes Park. Here’s why.

Mountains.

For some of you, such as my daughter living in Denver, ‘nuff said. (“Mountains” is her TL;DR why she moved there from Michigan.) I don’t share her deep and permanent love for them, but I was continually struck by them during my visit. They’re a continuous reminder of just how small and insignificant we are.

The trails included some incredible overlooks at the larger, snow-capped mountains farther away, and valleys and plains below. During group runs, many of us stopped at them just to take in the scene for a few minutes. (That’s my excuse, anyway.)

Gaining a new appreciation for breathing.

I’m not out of breath. I’m just taking in the scenery. Yeah.

After several years of training and racing, it usually takes a pretty good effort to get me breathing hard. Not so above 7,500 feet. Experiences vary: one runner described it as, “trying to breathe through a straw.” I had no trouble breathing fully, but fatigue hit me on any climb whatever, even at the start of a run. My first day 5-mile run felt more like 10, and even walking uphill was a slog.

I gradually acclimated, and running got easier. At Lake Estes on my final day there, I felt nearly normal and was able to enjoy an eight mile run on a mostly flat path. Not ready for those 14ers yet, though.

Getting away from everything.

One of the overlooks on the Gem Lake trail.

What they saw.

Estes Park makes you want to throw away the cell phone and submerge yourself in nature. Although I spent most of each day at the conference, I made sure to get outside. Each morning there was a fun run on the trails, and the sessions started late enough to not feel rushed. A long walk during the day was also a must, either after lunch, after the final session of the day, or whenever the hell I felt like it.

Or how about a nice climb?

I spent the morning of my departure packing up, staring out at another beautiful day. I just couldn’t leave without one last run. So after checkout I headed down to Lake Estes and ran the paved path around the lake. I had just enough time to sneak in two loops, about eight miles, before driving to Denver for the flight home.

Just enjoying running.

Training is part of my weekly routine, and there’s a temptation to just push through it as necessary preparation for my upcoming race or races. But racing isn’t why I run. I started running longer and harder because I wanted to. Because I came to enjoy it.

And while I try to appreciate each run while it’s happening, it’s much easier to do so away from the routines of home. Last week I could just go out and run for the sake of it, and enjoy the company of those who share the passion for the trails. No one cared how slow or fast you were, how far you went, how hard you worked. We were running trails, and that was all that mattered.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, outdoor, nature and water

The payoff: reaching Gem Lake (elevation 9,000 ft.)

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(BTW, next year’s conference is in San Luis Obispo, CA, home of the Race SLO series. Just in case you’re interested.)

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Dirty German 50: Ve Vill Run in Ze Rain, Und You Vill Like It

Last Sunday dawned bright and beautiful in Philadelphia. I went out for breakfast on a sunny, cool morning perfect for the trail race I’d come here for, the Dirty German 50-miler in nearby Pennypack Park.

Too bad the race had been the day before.

Steady rain had been forecast for all day Saturday, and for once Nature let the weathermen be right. While they were pounding Bloody Marys in celebration, several hundred trail runners were lining up for what promised to be a long, chilly, muddy slogfest.

It surpassed all expectations.

I’d been drawn to the Dirty German from previous year photos showing happy runners in lederhosen on a bright sunny day, being served by handsome St. Pauli Girls. After a wet, muddy Glacier Ridge 50 the year before, I was ready for something a bit flatter under more pleasant conditions. It was indeed flatter, but pleasant? Not so much.

But I’d paid the money and showed up, and the race was on. And right on time at 7:30 a.m., off we went. Our shoes soaked through in the first big puddle, so that was out of the way and we ran through them with abandon. Not that there was any choice; the course was already flooding and it got steadily worse throughout the day.

See the water gushing in from the river on the left! Thanks Kevin Minteer for this photo.

My main concern wasn’t a winning time, but just staying in the race. That meant keeping warm, primarily. My triathlon shorts were perfect, shedding water rather than soaking it up. Over a singlet and long-sleeved shirt I wore a plastic rain wrap, which retained sweat but kept the wind and rain off. My hands did get cold and numb, leaving me unable to retie a shoelace that had come loose. An aid station volunteer cheerfully helped me with that.

I also made to sure to keep well fueled. The aid stations had standard PB&J, potatoes, fruit, and candy, but the hot grilled cheese sandwiches really made my day! Adequate hydration wasn’t an issue, of course. Salt tablets every two hours kept my electrolytes in balance.

The wonderful folks at the aid stations made things as cheery as possible. But even they had to deal with conditions. The first one was at an underpass. On the second loop, the underpass had flooded, and they had to move uphill. On the third loop, we were diverted around the underpass and had to slide down a muddy slope to reach the station, then climb back up to get on the course again.

Flooded underpass at miles 4 & 12 of the loop. (Thanks to April Arnold for this photo.)

Unsurprisingly, many 50-milers called it a day before finishing; I saw a few hanging out at aid stations, waiting for a ride back to the start. The 50K (two loops) and the 25K (one loop) suffered less, but still had their share of drops. But I was feeling okay; there was no physical reason for me to quit. I just had to remain mentally focused and deal patiently with increasingly flooded paths and sticky, slippery trail.

Halfway through loop 2. Only 25 miles to go!

Knowing the course would get less runnable, I ran the first loop in 2:50, faster than plan, and started the third at the 6:05 mark, close to my original goal of a nine-hour finish. But it was not to be; the singletrack was like chocolate pudding (albeit much less tasty), and combined with normal race fatigue I had a 3:45 final loop and a finish time of 9:50, good for 17th out of 76 starters.

Turns out my age group (50-59) was the toughest out there, with 6 out of 7 finishing the race. I was third in my group and won this cool German weather house as a prize. It’s even made in Germany!

If the woman is out, it’s dry. Since it’s inside, looks accurate to me!

Only one small beef. The finish area was very light on food choices. Sausage and sauerkraut just didn’t appeal to me after ten hours of running. And there was only water to drink. No beer at a German-themed event? Seriously? So it wasn’t long before I hobbled out of there to a hot shower and dry clothes. Rather anticlimactic, but it just wasn’t the day for an extended post-race party.

What really encourages me about this race was that  I never felt the urge to quit, and stayed patient and on a mental even keel throughout. In that regard it was an excellent checkout run for the Lighthouse 100 next month. Hoping for better weather at that one, though!

Winter Warriors: Yankee Springs Winter Challenge Recap

4:45 a.m. on a January Saturday is when sensible people are nestled snug in warm beds. I was outside in single-degree temps, trudging through 100 yards of snow toward frigid vault toilets.

It was my own fault. I’d signed up for the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50K, and the Long Lake Outdoor Center has no indoor plumbing. Or bed linens. Or running water. “I wonder why I’m doing this,” I said to the lady at the Outdoor Center when I called for information.

“You are a winter warrior,” she replied firmly.

Geared up and ready to hit the snowy trail!

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters)!

What a great answer! But why did I sign up for a winter ultramarathon? Well, I’ve run many ultras (this was #15 for me), and plenty of times in the snow, but never the two together. So why not try it? Plus it seemed like a fitting way to kick off 2017, my self-defined year for doing oddball athletic stuff.

I spent Friday night in a 20-bunk cabin instead of a hotel. The advantages were an easy walk to the start, a warm place to keep extra clothes, and the camaraderie of fellow runners, some of whom brought water and were happy to share. (Have I mentioned before how awesome trail runners are?)

Carbo-loading at Walldorff Provisions in Hastings Friday night.

Carbo-loading at Walldorff Provisions in Hastings Friday night.

For having to get up before 5 a.m., I was surprisingly awake and energized for the 8:00 a.m. 50K start. I would run two 25K loops, so there was a chance to make adjustments at the halfway point, which was really helpful on a day like this.

For those of you interested in such things, in the next few paragraphs I will share my gear selections and race strategy for this event. If you’re not, but would like to know how it turned out, you can, “skip a bit, Brother.”

Gear Selection

Shoes were my Pearl Izumi EM N2 Trail. The course was wide singletrack, packed snow with just a little fresh powder. I had great traction throughout. I brought my old Hokas as backups or to deal with deep powder, but I wore the Izumis the entire way.

Socks were my Xmas present Darn Tough Endurance. They got a bit wet but not enough to need to change them, and they did a good job keeping my feet from sliding around, which can lead to blisters. Feet were never cold, either.

For the body I wore a Merino wool base layer with my Heater Hog over that [*] and a light wind jacket on top. Standard winter tights for the legs. Core was always warm, although arms were a bit too sweaty and got cold toward the end of the first loop, so I changed to fresh shirts for the second.

Head: a balaclava with a knit cap over it. This combo kept the wind out of my ears and the cold off my face. Some people wore buffs but they got moist from breath and then froze. The balaclava retained less moisture and dried out quickly so I could pull it back over my mouth when needed.

Hands: I wore my warmest gloves, but my hands always somehow get both cold and sweaty, so I changed to a fresh pair after the first loop. I brought hand warmers just in case but didn’t resort to them. Just clenched my fists inside the gloves.

Food and Hydration

I ate my usual breakfast of a banana and Clif bar an hour before the start. At the aid stations I ate mostly trail mix and bananas. My usual favorites of orange sections and PB&J froze early on, but I got down a few. I brought Gu but never used it.

I drank less than usual. The water in my bottles got so cold I didn’t drink more than a little at a time. At the aid stations where they had soup or warmer water I drank more. But my “fluids check” that occurred every 90 minutes or so was clear, so I was adequately hydrated.

Let's see...do I want frozen bananas, frozen potato chips, frozen olives - or just a Coke slushie?

Let’s see…do I want frozen bananas, frozen potato chips, frozen olives – or just a Coke slushie?

For electrolytes, I took two S-Cap salt tablets every 90 minutes. Usually I take them every hour, but figured I was sweating less. I supplemented with Gatorade and salty soup. I had no digestive problems or nausea, so it seems to have worked fine.

Race Strategy

I elected to run my standard 50K pace – faster than conversation pace but not hard breathing. I was able to run the entire way, with just a few power hikes on the steeper climbs. Toward the end of the second loop I pushed my pace to ensure a sub-6 hour finish. It was uncomfortable but not painful. My lungs seemed to handle the low temps just fine.

As I finished my first loop I noticed my cold arms and a hot spot in my left foot. In addition, my gloves had frozen. So I sacrificed about 15 minutes to change clothes and tape toes. On a warmer day I might have let these go, but Saturday was no time to fool around. The temps never got above 15 degrees, and the wind chill was most likely below zero. Safety had to come first.

===  End nerdy runner stuff  ===

So how did I do?

If I'm dumb enough to be here at the starting line, I suppose I'll have to run it!

If I’m dumb enough to be here at the starting line, I suppose I’ll have to run it!

I finished the first 25K in just under 2:40. Due to the aforementioned issues, I began my second loop around the 2:53 mark. I still hoped to finish around 5:30, but it was not to be. As many runners confirmed, the second loop seemed much harder than the first, perhaps because it got colder instead of warmer. Running in the snow also takes more effort than on dirt, so the extra fatigue added up.

The last few miles seemed to stretch on and on, with more hills than I remembered from my first loop. When it began to feel like a Twilight Zone episode, I lost it a little mentally, and the woods heard a few colorful phrases. But finally the road to the finish line appeared, and all was good again.

I ran the second loop in 2:57. finishing just under 5:51. This was good for second in my age group and #11 overall. Not too bad for my first winter ultra! And I remembered to have fun out there. Being “in the moment” even once or twice, and grateful to be healthy and fit, really puts minor discomforts into perspective.

Swag: Finisher's snow globe and age group gloves + gift certificate.

Swag: Finisher’s snow globe and age group gloves + gift certificate. Worth six hours of running on brutally cold trails? You bet!

Lessons learned for next time:

  • Maybe wear a sleeveless wind vest rather than a full jacket.
  • See if I can find a way to keep my water bottles warmer.
  • Bring water for brushing teeth and stuff the night before.

Overall grades:

  • Race organization: A. First-class job all around, from registration to the great fire at the start/finish to the aid stations to the post-race chili.
  • Course: A. Starkly beautiful. Mostly wide singletrack with a minimum of roots and rocks to worry about. Total elevation gain was about 3,000 feet, mainly from rolling hills. Only a couple of steeper climbs, and no issues with traction.
  • Lodging: B. Cabins were comfortable enough but the trek to the outdoor toilets sucked.

Bottom line: If you’re interested in trying out a winter race, Yankee Springs is an excellent choice. I might even go back next year!

P.S. In addition to the 50K, there are 10K and 25K options if you’re not up for an ultra. There’s also a 50-miler, but since you start at 6:00 a.m. and likely finish in the dark too, you’ve got to be really nuts. (I’m not saying anything those folks don’t already know.)

[*] – Unfortunately, the Heater Hog is no longer available, but you can likely find something similar out there.

Hydration Salvation

I had no idea getting water into my body was so complicated.

Yesterday morning I was on the Pinckney area trails with other runners training for the Run Woodstock ultramarathons in two weeks. While I will be volunteering this year and not running an ultra, I’ll accept any excuse for a run with fellow trail enthusiasts.

The morning was warm and humid, and as is standard with trail runners, we carried water bottles. When we felt like we needed a drink, we took one. And when our bottles got low, we refilled them from gallon jugs that the wonderful RF Events staff put out for us at various points along the trail. After finishing, I wrung out my shirt and went for coffee.

Regular bottles filled with regular water? Oh, the tragedy of ignorance!

Regular bottles filled with regular water? Oh the humanity!

Little did I know how behind the times we were. We’re highly trained athletes and depend on keeping our bodies in peak condition. Can you believe I ran for three hours and AT NO TIME did I know if I was optimally hydrated, or what exactly was in those gallon jugs. Ignorance is bliss!

So imagine my shock when I came across this latest entry in the Stuff I Didn’t Know I Needed department.

Pryme Vessyl hydration tracker

More than just a water bottle, the Pryme Vessyl Hydration Tracker hooks up with your Fitbit or other fitness tracker to monitor your hydration level. The idea is that you can be optimally hydrated throughout the day, as least as long as you’re carrying the bottle around. Here’s what the Product Description on Amazon says:

Pryme is your personal hydration metric. It takes into account your height, weight, age, and biological sex, as well as ever-changing factors such as your activity level and hours of sleep. Whether you bike, lift weights, or simply walk to work each day, Pryme Vessyl also connects with Fitbit, Jawbone Up, and Apple Health to let you know how close you are to your Pryme.

The blue light means you’re Prymed for your moments of greatness. Optimal hydration can lead to mental balance, physical endurance, more energy, healthier skin and much more. In concert with the app, Pryme provides real-time personalized insights and notifications to help you get to and stay at your best.

Just think of what I’ve been missing. When I’m out on the trail, I could get a to-the-second alert on when to take a drink, and not rely on such a crude indicator as thirst. And if I’m at Body Specs heaving and groaning my way through a tough set? BEEP BEEP! “Sorry, Skip, need a moment! I’m losing my optimal hydration!”

Drink of water here, boss?

Drink of water here, boss?

Now such hydration perfection doesn’t come cheap. The Pryme Vessyl is $120.00 on Amazon. I suppose it’s not really that much compared to an investment in a fitness tracker and smartphone. But since I don’t have those either, I’ll have to rely on other people to tell me if the PV is worth it. (Your comments are welcome.)

So that’s all well and good, but even with perfect timing, your personal hydration is only as good as the water you’re drinking. And thanks to modern technology, you don’t need to settle for ordinary tap water or regular old bottled water. No sir, why bother with that when you can have – wait for it – Zero Water!

Zero Water pitcher

Tested and certified by the Water Quality Association and NSF International for removal of several minerals, ZeroWater is the only filtration system that fits the FDA definition of purified bottled water. The ZeroWater pitcher not only improves the taste of your tap water, it also helps to improve the environment. When you use the ZeroWater Pitcher, you’ll reduce your use of plastic water bottles that clog up landfills and harm ecosystems. You’ll also contribute to water conservation, because unlike reverse-osmosis systems, ZeroWater is gravity operated and doesn’t waste electricity or water.

Now I’m big on improving the environment. After all, I’m heading up the RF Events Zero Waste team this year. So Zero Water sounds like a perfect fit for my lifestyle, doesn’t it?

Well, Bohemian that I am, I wouldn’t have bothered with this innovation either. Fortunately (?), my wife found out about this and made the investment for me. So we have a large Zero Water filter pitcher sitting in our refrigerator.

And how is the water? Actually, it’s pretty good, compared to our home’s tap water and especially the tap water at work, where I admit to running it through a Brita before making coffee. As for why the Zero Water tastes good, perhaps it’s the magic filter, or perhaps just because it’s pre-chilled. I guess I don’t really care. She’s happy with it and is drinking more water, so life is good.

Come to think of it, she also has a Fitbit and a smartphone, which means she could also use the Pryme Vessyl hydration tracker. I hope she’s not reading this post.