Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Ultra Race Of Champions, Kilian Jornet's Performance, and Rob Krar's Rising Star

The Ultra Race Of Champions, Kilian Jornet's Performance, and Rob Krar's Rising Star

#2 in the Second Amendment Soliloquy Series
(wherein I shoot my mouth off)

photo by Takao Suzukiby Ras

     The Ultra Race Of Champions, by its very name, purports to crown ultrarunning royalty. Race Directors J. Russell Gill III & Francesca Conte envision UROC as "the annual world championship" of the sport. But exactly what sport? In issue #411 of Running Times Magazine Gill is quoted as saying, "...Ultradistance running has finally matured to a point where it needed its annual Super Bowl." This is where Mr. Gill and I take diverging paths, and a good percentage of his is paved. 

     I've never thought of my sport as "ultradistance running". I think of it as "ultrarunning" or "trail running" or "endurance running". And even if the term doesn't contain the word "trail" it should be assumed to be parenthetically inserted, ie "ultra(trail)running" or "endurance (trail) running". It may seem that I'm merely parsing syntax, but since we are advanced hominids using complex language, it's reasonable to assume the word choice is meant to convey a specific meaning. 

     I think Gill's use of "ultradistance running" convey's the amalgam of road and trail running that the UROC organizers feel sums up the sport, as has consistently been reflected in the UROC courses. They see the blend of road and trail as leveling the playing field for runners who come from either discipline. I see it as a bastardization of both. In my mind, the only reason to run on pavement is to connect sections of trail or dirt road that lack an intersection. When asked about the UROC course in the lead up to this year's race, Anton Krupicka said, "If the course isn't fair - sufficiently hilly and technical enough to appreciably differentiate it from a road race - it is going to alienate the highest-level mountain athletes." One could handily make the case that this is exactly what's happening.

     In the end what it comes down to is different ways to play the game. But it's exactly those differences that interpret the sport being played. I'm a martial artist and both a participant in and fan of combat sports, and can see this point well illustrated in the fighting arts. In boxing, only striking with the closed fist is allowed. Clinches are immediately broken up by the referee, and tripping is a foul. Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) allows strikes with the fists, elbows, knees, and feet (or shins), clinching is a key component, and tripping or throwing your opponent to the mat wins points. Submission Grappling is completely based on clinching, tripping, throwing, choking and joints locks. No striking is allowed. Mixed Martial Arts allows and awards points for all of the techniques listed above. 

     My point being that the rules (including venue: ring, cage, trail, road) don't describe the sport, they define it. In that sense the Ultra Race Of Champions may accomplish exactly what it sets out to: crowning the King and Queen of mixed road and trail ultradistance running. To my mind that is a small fringe segment, and as a participant, that is not the sort of play that interests me. As a spectator, though, I was very excited about the elite field that the 2013 UROC had drawn. 

     Kilian Jornet. Rob Krar. Dakota Jones. Sage Canaday. Are you kidding me? I would tune in to watch that field on Hollywood Squares, let alone squaring off in a 100k race. Going into it I knew that the amount of asphalt would be a bane to Jornet and a boon to Jones and Canaday. I didn't know how it would play out for Rob Krar, but at mile 40 Dakota, who was trailing Krar by 4 minutes, said, "Rob Krar is really fast on the roads!" So that question has apparently been put to rest.

     Rob Krar registered on my radar at about the same time I registered on his, seeing as we set our Fastest Known Times in the Grand Canyon mere days apart. When I messaged him my congratulations on his blazing fast Rim to Rim to Rim time that took down Dakota Jones' long-standing record, in addition to already holding the FKT for a single crossing, which he had set the previous year, he responded with a Friend request and the message, "Thanks Ras, equally impressive feat yourself! Love your determination to remain self supported during your effort. Stunning what your body and mind are capable of." Very cool. Very real. This wasn't just some nipple-band-aided rhinestone cowboy. Little did I know he was about to steal the Western States 100 away from an incredibly competitive elite field in his 100 mile debut.

     Even though Krar came in second at Western States, he essentially stole the race from winner Timothy Olsen. When the dust had settled, Olsen received his due for his title defense at Western, but the buzz was all about Rob Krar. And rightly so. Krar didn't get caught up in the excitement and burn himself out trying to run down the elites at the start. Like an old hand at 100 miles, he settled into his pace and ran his own race, even stepping off the trail early on to let faster runners by, runners such as Ian Sharman, whom he would pass again later in the race. As the miles wore on, Krar gradually accelerated. He was extending his lead over Mike Morton and gaining ground on Tim Olsen when the finish line cut short his hunt. But one could make a convincing argument that had it been a 105 mile race, Krar would have topped the podium. It was an utterly awe-inspiring 100 mile debut. And it sparked the sort of excitement that reminded me of Anton Krupicka's appearance on the national radar.

     At UROC Rob went out fast and never slowed. He led the race for roughly 50 miles. Jones then pulled into the lead for a few miles only to have Krar snatch it back and run away for the win with a three minute margin. In a turn of phrase I wish I could claim as my own, Bryon Powell referred to it as "Krarnage". Post UROC, Krar once again demonstrated both his humility, and penchant for making use of social media, tweeting to Dakota Jones, "@thatdakotajones Thanks for the most challenging and exciting race of my life. You are a BEAST.  Hope our paths cross again soon!" 

     At mile 40 of UROC Kilian Jornet said to Bryon Powell, "That's the most I've ever run on pavement. So boring." And in some ways it seems that Jornet is not just bored with pavement, but bored with racing. I can't help but wonder if his lackluster and non-podium performance was a silent protest of sorts against the 'safety' of organized, supported races. Jornet's recent book, "Run Or Die," part autobiography and part race/FKT memoir, is rife with disillusionment with organized racing. And although Kilian asserts in his book, "...I think I run simply because I like doing it; I enjoy it every minute and don't wonder why," his performance at UROC did not reflect that. 

     In light of his recent speed mountaineering ascents, it seems Kilian is seeking out those moments when one takes one's life in one's hands, when a perfect performance is all that separates life and death. It calls to mind the early days of rock climbing, before bolted routes, hex nuts, and spring loaded cams, when "leader mustn't fall" expressed both the risk and the purity of the sport. And Kilian doesn't seem to be able to find that on the pavement. But his 4th place finish was more than enough to earn him the Ultra Skyrunning title for 2013. After the race Jornet tweeted, "Muy contento del titulo Ultra skyrunning y la 4a posiciĆ³n en la uroc, mi primera carrera de 100km trail-asfalto ;)" roughly, "Very content with the Ultra Skyrunning title and 4th place at UROC, my first 100k trail-road run." And of course, semi-colon close-parenthesis, in any language, is a winking smiley face. Yes indeed, Dr. Cooper, I believe that is sarcasm. Maybe not so silent a protest after all.

     I would have liked to see Kilian give it his all.  And I would LOVE to see him face off against Rob Krar on a technical mountain course, especially since Krar seems to have the chops for it. Perhaps next season we'll see Rob Krar make his presence felt on the European circuit and face off once again with the likes of Jones and Jornet on a more technical course. Transvulcania would be the perfect venue for a showdown between those three. UTMB also comes to mind. Or maybe an FKT-off in the Grand Canyon. With this trio, the venue needn't be limited to an organized, supported race.

     Please understand that I mean no disrespect to or criticism of any of the race directors or runners I mentioned. I have the utmost respect for everyone involved in the Ultra Race Of Champions, both organizers and competitors. I am not saying that anyone is "doing it wrong". I support and am in favor of all forms of running, except maybe joggling. I'm not a big fan of themes or gimmicks or costumes, but I'm 100% in favor of covering miles by foot. So if someone wants to do it on asphalt, or on a rubberized track, or with an inflatable duck around their waist, far be it from me to judge. But don't expect me to play if I don't like the sport defined by the rules.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What The Grand S1@m Means To Ultrarunning

What The Grand S1@m Means To The Sport Of Ultrarunning:
My Ever-So-Unsolicited Opinion

#1 in the Second Amendment Soliloquy Series
(wherein I shoot my mouth off)

photo by Takao Suzukiby Ras

     Spellings in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent from legal action by the entities whose spellings have been changed. If you are unfamiliar with the drama involving said entities, here's a good introduction by Eric Schranz and here's an ultrarunning lawyer's take on the matter. I don't encourage you to invest much life energy on the issue, other than to enjoy the brief titillation of a minor scandal.

     Controversies aside, this year I had a special interest in following the Grand S1@m of Ultrarunning. Yes, I was interested in seeing how the duel between Ian Sharman, running officially, and Nick Clark, running stealth, would play out. And yes, I knew a few of the runners attempting it. But chief, to my mind, among these potential badasses, and the focus of my attention, was my friend Jonathan Shark. 

     I followed Jon's progress as he strove toward (and achieved) this monumental goal, and I found that the Grand S1@m (henceforth GSU) format changed the way that not only the runners, but the spectators, conceived of and approached the events involved. To a great degree it fixes some of the things I consider broke in the ultrarunning scene. In truth, any race series accomplishes the same thing, but the GSU does it on a, ahem, grand scale.

     A race series creates a time frame that stretches beyond a single race, thus creating a "season" of sorts, as found in other sports. And this very much affects how one plays the game.

     Coming from a backpacking background and trail culture, rather than a marathon or track and field background, I find the strategic DNF highly unpalatable. In my values set, finishing the course is the goal first and foremost. I understand that an elite runner has a lot to gain by dropping from a race in which they are not performing well in order to save the wear and tear on their bodies. This leaves them fresher, more rested, and less injured for their next big race, thus gaining them an advantage. But this is an advantage only because there is no system in place to penalize a DNF. Most 'Did Not Finish'es do not even show up in the race results. And they have absolutely no effect on a runner's standing.

     That is, unless said runner is attempting to complete a series. Suddenly a DNF has consequences, as it rightly should. If you consider dropping during the first race in a goal series, you invalidate all the other races in that series for yourself. If you are tempted to DNF during the final race, you throw away all the effort invested in completing the preceding races. Each of the middle races is an absolutely necessary component of the series as well. You don't get to pick and choose. You have to finish every race. That better fits my running paradigm. If not for medical reasons, a DNF should be one of the hardest decisions of your life.

     Sustainability becomes a key factor. Rather than focusing on training, peaking, and tapering for a single race, GSU runners must train for a series of four 100 mile races, each three(ish) weeks apart. A goal of this sort belies the foibles of the "win this one at all costs" mentality. One doesn't have to win a single battle in order to emerge victorious in the war. Waging a successful campaign takes a back seat to successfully waging a campaign.

     One of the things that makes watching football or baseball interesting is ... um, well, okay, there ISN'T anything that makes baseball interesting to watch. But what makes seasonal team sports interesting is the season-long strategy: which players will take the field against which teams. Who will be sacrificed to early season injuries and who will be held in healthy reserve for games against key opponents. It's not just a matter of fielding a championship team, it's a matter of getting TO the championships and still being able to field a championship team.   

     The GSU, and other race series, are a glimpse into one of the possible futures of ultrarunning. Seasonal standings, variable points awarded based on the difficulty of the route and stiffness of competition, penalties for DNFs and DNSs, and bonuses for every finish, amongst numerous other potential innovations, could drastically change the game. And the shift in paradigm could substantially alter who and what we consider to be an "elite" ultrarunner. 

     Here's a link to All 22 Finishers Of The 2013 GSU.

photo by Sean Scace
Jonathan Shark finishing the Western States 100

photo by Linh Shark
Jonathan Shark finishing the Vermont 100

photo by Linh Shark
Jonathan Shark finishing the Leadville Trail 100
photo by Linh Shark
Jonathan Shark finishing the Wasatch Front 100

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

UltraHiking the Devil's Dome Loop

UltraHiking the Devil's Dome Loop:
Kathy Vaughan & Lisa Eversgerd

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

photo by Kathy Vaughan
By Kathy Vaughan

     The Devil's Dome Loop in the Pasayten Wilderness  is a rugged 45 mile loop with 12,000 feet of elevation gain. It travels through the high country along Jackita Ridge with views of Jack Mountain and its massive glaciers in sight the whole way. Then the trail drops down to Ross Lake on steep terrain, grown over with brush  and with hidden rocks and holes underfoot. It is a beautiful route. My trekking partner on this adventure is a long time forest service trail crew supervisor, who claims it is probably the most scenic trail she has traveled in the Pasyten.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     Lisa Eversgerd and I became fast friends last winter after we went on two different ladies ski trips together into the Rendezvous Huts outside of Mazama, Washington. We skied into a cabin with a group of other ladies, and Lisa and I hit it off immediately. To use her words "we are like two peas in a pod". Both vegan, outdoorsy adventurers, we are at ease with each other whether chatting away or moving for miles at a time in silence. We would ski with the other ladies in the morning and then continue on our own journey for hours and miles beyond what the others were interested in. We would get back to the cabin at dark, warm up, eat and pull out our crafting projects. Lisa makes amazing pine needle baskets that she creates with her strong, yet agile fingers stitching and forming the shape so effortlessly. I enjoy making little dolls out of recycled wool and other natural scrap fabrics. This is a perfect way to relax and recover after long endurance efforts.

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

     I first backpacked around this loop with Ras about 15 years ago. It was our first trip of this sort together. We had rented everything we needed for this excursion, except for the hiking shoes Ras was wearing, which he referred to as his "trail posers." We were newbies in every sense of the word. We bathed with soap in the beautiful mountain stream, carried 1 gallon plastic water bottles strapped to the outside of our packs for our water supply, and naively pitched a tent on the side of a steep switchback trail, our first night out. We hadn't left the trail head until 6:00 that evening. Needless to say, I have learned a lot since those days.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     Lisa drove her little truck with a canopy on the back into the North Cascades, a 4 hour drive from our nearby homes in the Okanogan Highlands. We made stops along the way so she could check on her pine needle baskets that she sells at the Main Street Market in Omak and the Mazama Store. She also makes wonderful herbal soaps and she needed to restock the supply at the Main Street Market. When we got to the Colonial Creek Campground in the early evening, it was pouring rain. We set up a little dry spot in the back of her truck, and made our final pack preparations for the next day's adventure. I had made a delicious tempeh scramble dish, which I reheated at the campground and we shared a nice meal together while keeping dry. After the rain let up, we found a dry spot under some huge cedar trees where we could pitch our tents. We crawled inside and slept well under rainfall until the early morning. The rain let up for us as we made coffee and got dressed. We had about a 15 minute drive to the trailhead at the East Bank of Ross Lake. Here we parked, let out excited cries of "Let's Do This" and were on our way.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     We first took a few switchbacks down to the bridge that crossed the aqua marine colored  confluence of Panther & Ruby Creeks. After making a few minor adjustments we began our rolling 3.3 mile hike of the Ruby Creek Trail. Our feet got immediately wet from the rains the night before soaking the brush that was growing over the trail. They would stay wet for the rest of this 45 miler. We had light packs with everything we would need loaded into them and we would do this hike in one push, thinking it might take us around 20 hours.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     After this section of trail, the climb began for real. It would continue to climb for the next 20 miles. Rain came in little sprinkles here and there, so we kept our packs covered to keep our warm night layers dry. At the last minute, I had grabbed a little 99 cent yellow rain poncho to bring with me, because of rain in the forecast. I had a more substantial rain shell, but I thought this might come in handy as well. This is what I wrapped around my pack to keep it dry and it became one of my most useful pieces of gear. It just goes to show that the cost of an item does not indicate its true value on the trail. I didn't mind being wet from the rain as I was staying more than warm enough from the climbing. 

     The sun came out occasionally and blue sky would open up. We could still see the incredible views of the distant peaks, despite the rain clouds that came and went. When we finally got up into the high country after a few hours of climbing, we entered a wild blueberry patch that was filled with berries. I fell behind Lisa as I kept grabbing berries as fast as I could, popping the little delicious bites into my mouth, realizing that I could never buy something so special as this at our local markets. The berries were plump and juicy and had a slight apple flavor mixed in with the blueberry. Nature's candy!

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     Lisa and I enjoyed taking breaks as we hiked, sitting and replenishing ourselves in scenic spots when we would find the perfect rock or log. I felt awesome, eating a lot as I went to keep my energy level up. I knew we had many miles to travel and the right nutrient and hydration balance would be the key to staying positive and strong. I am very happy with how this aspect of our trip went. I ate tempeh I had cooked ahead of time; nuts and nut butter pouches; Gu Chomps; figs that Lisa shared; dark chocolate with espresso (especially at night); pumpkin seeds with roasted garlic salt; soy jerkeys and Cliff Bars. I never got too hungry.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     I had brought my Sawyer Squeeze water filter and it was easy to find sources all along the trail. I enjoy stopping alongside a creek to filter water, being grateful for the cold, natural source and being able to take care of other needs while stopped. Lisa is so used to being on the trail and working with a crew, that I always feel like we are a real team. She helped with the water filtering each time and insisted on carrying the filter after our first stop. She was always tuned into what I was doing or needing; she had my back and I had hers. There is no other way to be when you travel deep into the wilderness with someone. I felt comfortable with her, at ease, and like I could always just be myself. I get a little giddy on the trail after many hours. I could embarrass myself with this behavior, but with Lisa she just laughed.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     After topping out at 7,000 feet on Jackita Ridge, the trail travels down a steep shale slope. I had done this trail twice before and both times this slope had lingering snow. Not this time. We cruised down the shale with no issues as we dropped deep into the valley of the North Fork of Devil's Creek. It felt good to be going down hill. I was holding up well with my consistent eating and drinking. The downhill trek was technical, steep and slippery. Soon we could see Devil's Dome ahead, our next climb to gain a 7,000 foot summit. This climb was relentless, but when we reached the top, 24 miles into our hike, it was time to have a rest and put on our warm night layers. I took off my wet short sleeve short and put on a cozy, dry Smartwool  sweater. I also put on a warm wool blend hat with a Smartwool neck gaitor over the top for extra warmth in the night. Dusk would fall on us as we descended. Our 12.5 mile trek along Ross Lake would be in the dark. The tread would be more mellow at that point and headlamps would give us the light we needed to make our way back to Lisa's truck at the trailhead.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     As we followed the trail downhill, we pushed our way through wet brush once again. It became increasingly hard to see the trail at our feet with the coming darkness and the brush obscuring obstacles, but before we knew it, we were down to the lakeshore. After 4 miles, we came to the Devil's Creek suspension bridge and took advantage of the flat surface to take another break. We had a magical stop here, with the creek far below us, emptying into Ross Lake. It was quiet and still and we were alone in the woods. The only critters we saw were huge toads and a backpacker, sound asleep, who had set up his sleeping bag in the middle of the trail.
photo by Kathy Vaughan

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     It was perfect and I was overwhelmed by the understanding now of why ultrarunners run 100 milers again and again. After my first 100 miler, Pigtails Challenge in May, my first question to Van Phan, an ultramarathoner, local legend and the race director of Pigtails, "Why do you 100 milers go out and do this again?" Now I know. During Pigtails, my night miles were often under street lights, or other runners were coming towards me with their headlamps, or I could hear cars going by. I had special and wonderful moments on that journey as well, but traveling through the night on trail in the middle of nowhere is a different experience all together.

     Because of this quietness, the sleepiness hit Lisa and I on this final stretch down Ross Lake. We first tried to play games like Ras and I would play with our daughter Angela when we took her backpacking as a little girl. I suggested we play the ABC game (I had also tried this during Pigtails, but my brain would not work efficiently enough). We went through the alphabet, taking turns saying boy's names. Then we came up with girl's names all the way through the alphabet. Then last names, until we got tired of this and were too tired to keep going. 

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     Lisa did it first. We had stopped and sat on the trail to snack and make some adjustments. We both changed into nice dry socks. She laid down and turned off her headlamp. She was still and quiet. I was still rummaging through my pack with my headlamp on. When I finished, I decided she looked very comfortable and I would lay down too. Soon, we were asleep. This began our power nap pattern. We would walk for as long as we could, and then simply lay down on the trail and sleep for 10 minutes or so. We would be hiking along and suddenly my breathing would become shallow, like I was laying in bed and falling asleep. And then I would begin to have little dreams and stumble around on the trail. I had heard of this. I had heard of ultrarunners sleeping on the trail, especially Ras. Now I got it. I not only got it, I enjoyed it and looked forward to each nap I would get to take as we traveled along.

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     We were making progress though and we had passed the last major camp along Ross Lake, Roland Creek Camp. I knew this camp and its creek crossing well. I had camped here a couple of times in the past and I was very familiar with this section of trail. The final 7 miles. Woo Hoo!! We got some water from the creek, napped and then crossed. We were on the final stretch. We had one little climb left and then a 2 mile section along Hidden Hand Pass. We meandered along this pass, until struck with the drowsies once again. We laid down for what we thought might be our final power nap. 

     When we awoke and began moving again, I began to feel disoriented. Dawn was approaching now. Instinctually, I felt like we were somehow moving in the wrong direction. We should have been done with the pass and now moving down hill again to the final stretch along the lake; a 3 mile long old road bed where we would make excellent time. It would be light out. We were almost done.  We would nestle in the back of Lisa's truck. We would have a cup of coffee and some hot soup. All at the same time, a loud relentless downpour started, pounding against the salal and Oregon Grape; a wide creek that needed fording came into view; and ahead was a wooden sign post.  I knew what I was looking for but what I saw were the words "Roland Creek Camp". Lisa recognized the creek too. It was now light out and very wet. We were 7 miles back up the trail. What wrong turn did we take? What loop is this that brought us back here? What the heck did we do? Oh no, where is my toilet paper-right now, really?

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     "Patience is a virtue, a wait won't hurt you and in the long run, it will serve you." At this point, that's all we could do; be patient, with ourselves, with each other, with the trail and our journey. We just started moving to keep warm in the cold morning rain storm. We were quiet for about 15 minutes as we started back along that stretch of trail for the 3rd time, now much more awake. Soon we started laughing and joking about it and before we knew it, we were back at the bridge, and up the few switchbacks to the truck. Now the rain stopped and we could make that coffee we so wanted. I spread my cheezy yellow rain pouch on the ground.

     I stripped off my sopping wet layers and wrapped them up in the "Yellow Wonder" as it had been named. There is nothing so heavenly as putting on fresh, dry clothing after a long day on the trail.  I looked down at my watch. We had just completed the Devil's Dome Loop in a straight through hike in 26:24, including all of our breaks, power naps and water filtering time.  Lisa had never hiked over 22 miles in one shot. She doubled her distance PR (personal record) and had her first experience of going all night. She kept her spirits up the whole time and took great care of herself. With our additional mileage, we figure we hiked about 50 miles. I can't wait to see what is in store for us in our next adventure together.

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

Gear List:

Peter Bakwin Ultimate Directions Vest
Zensah Calf Sleeves (Bright Pink and fresh out of the package)--These kept my lower legs warm through all of the wet brush and also helped keep my calves from tightening up with all of the climbing.
Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z Poles--I love these poles and highly recommend them for use on steep terrain.
Altra Lone Peaks 1.5 Running Shoes--My feet held up well and they provided good traction on the technical terrain.
Salomon Running Skort--The lightweight fabric was perfect in the rain and wet brush. It did not become heavy and dried quickly as soon as the sun hit it or the run stopped.
Black Diamond Headlamp
GoMotion Sternum Light--I have mixed feelings about this light. I like the extra light it provides, but the light itself will not stay fixed in one place. I had to fiddle with it a lot.
Injinji Toe Socks--Merino Wool are my favorite
Innov8 Gaitors
Western Mountaineering Down Puffy Suit--Very warm and great for power napping before the rain started in the early morning, as its not waterproof.
North Face Rainshell--warm and waterproof


NEXT UP: A review of my favorite piece of gear on this trip, my new Peter Bakwin Ultimate Directions ultrarunning vest.