Thursday, January 26, 2012

Starting the Year off Either Incredibly Right or Terribly Wrong

Special thanks go out to MLK for having a dream and giving me
a Monday off work to pursue mine.
I sit here writing as I impose a day fully off from running.  My poor knee has been swollen for days.  This morning was supposed to be my final PT session, yet now I have additional appointments scheduled for ultrasounding, deep tissue digging and other such torturous activities.* And I did it all to myself.
*NOTE:  I started this blog last Wednesday; after one day off, I'm back to pounding it.

I started the year with an expressly stated goal of working my way up to handling 60 miles per week with 10,000 feet of climbing (and 10k down) in January.  I thought it would be great to be able to run a full 20 miles by the end of the month.  Only then, I ran 26 on the 2nd and have been averaging 75 miles and 17,000 feet for the first two weeks.  I'm pretty sure that's awesome, but I'm also pretty sure that's why my knee is swelling again.  Grrrrr.

You may say, "Well Katie, that is downright silly," and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you.  But what I will offer is that I simply couldn't help it.  My body feels best when I'm running lots of miles and my world seems altogether right.  Plus I have major FOMO.  So when friends ask me to run the last 26 of the AC course, I say absolutely.  When I realize it may be my last chance to frolick in the San Gorgonio Wilderness before winter sets in, I convince Unicorn to drive to San Bernadino with me, citing that it will be excellent Hardrock training.  And by golly, when I see a 3 day weekend with non-existent snow levels in Tahoe, I get my ass on the States course to train.  That would be the real point of this post, so let's move on to that, shall we?

Last Friday, Dom and I headed up to Auburn after work to enjoy it the way Mr. King Jr. would have liked.  Chasing a dream.  Only chasing said dream first involved a 7 hour drive in a loud, bumpy Jeep getting us to the inn at roughly 3:30 in the morning.  Hey folks, running 100 miles ain't exactly glamorous - and neither is the lifestyle.  It's all part of the training. :)  After sleeping for maybe 2 hours, maybe, we got back in the panda-mobile and headed into Foresthill to meet our guru for the day, the lovely Mrs. Suzanna Bon.  The plan was to run all day, heading backwards on the course as far as we felt like and then turn around - keeping an easy pace and focusing on purely enjoying the beautiful day.  We'd be rocking the canyons section of the course, which is largely considered the hardest part, and doing it twice.  That seemed like a perfect introduction to me.

Michigan Bluff in January - La Niña = La Awésome. 
Next thing I knew, we were at Michigan Bluff and I realized it was going to be one of those days where the miles just melt away and you become thoroughly convinced that yours is truly the best life ever.  This must be what heroin is like.  At any rate, we ran into some friends before heading down to El Dorado Creek and as I've grown accustomed to, I received many a congrats for getting into THE race.  I'm now up to at least three times as many "likes" for getting into a lottery than finishing any race in my life.  Apparently, Western States is a big deal.  

Having Suzanna along was awesome, not just because she is an altogether super person - but also because she had great stories and knowledge of the course.  Along the way, she pointed out the legendary Ann Trason's house, the Deadwood Cemetery (where I paid my respects, less have bad juju on race day), old Gold mining equipment and all sorts of other cool shit.  Accordingly, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time on Google since I've been back, as I love to know the history of the places I'm running.  Then every race is like time traveling, which of course, is awesome.

Our journey took us all the way back to Last Chance, and as such, we realized we needed to get a move on to get back to Foresthill before dark.  All the way, I was marveling at the fact I was running in the Tahoe National Forest in January in a t-shirt.  The day was seriously magical. And I was excited to go back through these dreaded canyons and see what was truly up.  
Chasing Suzanna down the canyons is the
opposite of easy.
Well, what was up was that it was seriously not that bad.  I know... I know.... race day in 100+ degree weather is an entirely different story, but my point is that I expected these things to be way steeper and longer, given the tales of WSER lore I have been told.  Plus, my reference point for "godforsaken canyon" is of the Cooper variety on the AC course - which is truly a nightmare every time I visit.  Long, hot, windy, super steep in places and a total mindfuck.  So naturally, I expected three Coopers when I heard about "the canyons." 

Down to Swinging Bridge we went, and there before me was the grandaddy of them all:  Devil's Thumb.  Based on what I've heard, here's what I expected from this section:

After a blistering, quad-busting decent, I'd stare down the steepest, most awful climb imaginable.  It would be something like climbing the Luna Trail*, but for like 5 miles at least.  It would start at least at 7,000 feet and climb to over 10 - but it would feel like climbing 11 to 14, because fuck, this is Western States.  It would be exceptionally rocky and overgrown, not to mention completely exposed for the duration of the climb.  I would have to use my hands at points.  I would have to hike every step.  I would have to physically stop and catch my breath at points.  There would probably even be bear traps to avoid and eagles would swoop down and try to peck out my eyes.  If I even made it to the top, it would be a goddamn miracle.
Saying hi to the Thumb for Kev, after successfully
locating 3 shades of his face he left there last year.
*A local trail/drainage ditch that takes you straight out of a canyon at basically 1 million ft/mile. Also rocky, crumbly, overgrown and there is suggested use of a placed rope at one point.

Needless to say, the Devil's Thumb I had imagined was not quite the Devil's Thumb of reality. (Although I do realize that during the race I may become quite convinced that my first perception was actually spot on.)  The reality was that Devil's Thumb starts at around 2,700 and climbs about 1,350 in like 2 miles.  I did it in about 45 minutes, hiking most, running a little and stopping twice to take pictures and once to pee.  It was steep and it will be a bitch with 45 miles on my legs and the sun blazing down on me, but it is possible.  Furthermore, if I continue with my training on the AC course with the likes of Upper Winter Creek, Baden Powell and Acorn and power slogs up the steep slopes of Mt. Baldy - I should be pretty much good to go on the canyons.  Thank you Angeles National Forest.

What the day made me realize, however, is that much of the terrain on the States course is very runnable and the climbs aren't long.  Accordingly, I really need to work on sustained running more than hiking and some major turnover.  Perhaps I will no longer look at the whimpy Santa Monicas outside of my window as a sorry excuse for weekday training when I can't get over to the big girl mountains in Pasadena and beyond.  The runnable, 30-45 min climbs are perfect to work on efficiently switching from up to down mode and this will be an integral part of my training.

The other thing it made me realize is that my knee has seriously got to get its act together if I want to run this thing well. It's absolutely imperative to run the downhills in control, but strong - and right now I'm kind of doing this crumbly, timid dance thing that isn't working for anybody.  Halfway down the El Dorado decent, my knee totally and royally crapped out on me and every step, fast or slow, became wildly painful.  It just ain't up to speed yet, and while that is ok for January, I'm really going to have some work to do on improving my downhill ability once the weaksauce joint is able to handle it.  

All in all though, I got over 35 miles and somewhere between 10 and 11,000 feet on the day - so I was pretty happy with the effort.  I haven't ran that far since AC last July and it felt good. Really good. All day adventures are my lifeblood and I've been downright cantankerous without them.  My fear, however, was that I had possibly ruined the rest of the weekend by pushing the distance on the first day.  Luckily, a big ass sammich from Worton's, some Udo's Oil, Ice and sleep cured my ailments and I woke up on Sunday hungry for more of the course.

Accordingly, we hopped in the Jeep and set out for Robinson Flat to see what we could see. The local yokels at Worton's, as well as everyone else on FB who was apparently "in the know," told us there would be no snow at all until Red Star.  Sounds bueno.  Imagine our surprise when 3 miles from the campground we encountered such nasty ice on the road, that even my Jeep in 4WD seemed like a bad idea.  Not to be rerouted, we simply parked and ran up the road to Robinson where we found a land of ice and snow and circled around a few times, consulted a compass and finally found our trail.  Setting off for Duncan Canyon, I was definitely tired, but totally ready for whatever the day held.  I knew it would likely be another 5-6 hour day and that seemed pretty great to me.  The decent into the canyon was absolutely gorgeous; the trail enveloped in huge, dense green forest that swallowed me whole.  And at the first point we popped out of the trees, my breath was completely taken away by the sweeping expanse of pristine wilderness. No photo could ever do justice to the beauty of the Tahoe National Forest.  And parking off the road at an aid station ain't gonna do it either.  You've got to be in it.  You've got to feel it.

Star Fire remnants in Duncan Canyon
Then, just as soon as I lost myself in the lush forest, I was suddenly enclosed in complete destruction.  Charred, broken trees stood in stark contrast to the dense greenery of the surrounding hillsides as I wound down to the creek.  I've since read that the Star Fire of 2001 had completely destroyed 16,171 acres of the TNF causing a reroute of the Duncan Canyon section of the course for the next 5 years.  Though clearly damaged, much greenery and new, small trees sprouted up along the trail.  It was hauntingly beautiful and clearly told the story of the natural cycle of things - something we must all accept.  It also gave me great hope for our own Angeles Forest, where the Station Fire of 2009 turned the majority of the middle 30 miles of the AC100 course into a creepy, barren land of the lost.  It's cool to think that in 5-10 years, I could feasibly see some green (and hopefully less purple) heading from Chilao to Shortcut.

Like Rockefeller Center, y'all.
Eventually, I got down to the bottom of Duncan Canyon, where to my surprise, I found an ice skating rink.  Well… maybe.  I saw where the ice had broken to a rushing force below and admittedly, stood there for a few moments wondering what to do.  It was way colder than the previous day and the thought of crashing through and spending the rest of the run soaked was not something I wanted to deal with.  Nevertheless, I couldn't help but wander out onto the frozen section and pull some Oksana Baiuls before using my better judgement and scampering over to some rocks for safer crossing.  Once on the other side, I enjoyed the rest of my run up to Duncan, but was greatly slowed by all of the downed trees and layers of debris covering the trail.  Western States is known for its well manicured trails (just ask Hal Winton), but I wondered if they usually have time to make it out to these higher sections of the course.  Cleared, this section would be super fast as the climb really isn't all that significant (though it's listed as the other major "canyon.") In present state, it would definitely slow me down unless I quickly developed some serious log leaping, stick cracking and rock hopping skills.  But hell, a few storms between now and then could change the course anyway - so we'll see what fate brings us.*
*Which I'm not so secretly hoping is the original course + river crossing at mile 80 sans boats.

Standing at the future home of the Duncan Canyon aid station, I again marveled at how my perceptions have changed with my perspectives over the years.  In 2009, I had stood in this very place waiting for my friend Jimmy to come in.  I'd just entered into the world of ultrarunning and the thought of actually running 100 miles myself still seemed superhuman and something I likely would be unable to tackle for a few years, at least.  Maybe someday far, far in the future, I'd run Western States too - but I couldn't fathom it.  As I watched the runners leave the aid station, I marveled at how they navigated the steep rocky decent and wondered how in the hell they could do that all the way down into the canyon.  This course seemed ridiculous and the toughest thing I could ever imagine.

Taking a break with the dude @ DC
Of course, on present day in 2012, I realized that the insanely steep downward pitch only lasted about 100 feet and then dumped you out onto a gradual, winding path.  I guess that just goes to show you that once you take the time to truly understand a thing, immersing yourself in it totally, you'll realize that the intimidation was just born of fear of the unknown.  When you get friendly with a challenge, shit seems a great deal more reasonable.  This 100 yard section out of the Duncan Aid Station was a metaphor for what my life with regards to mountain running has become.  I've trained on the steepest, gnarliest stuff I can find.  I've run as high as I can get.  I've layered miles upon miles every weekend.  And I've run through a great deal of pain on multiple occasions.  It's all possible.  And now it's all relative.  Western States isn't going to be a race of survival for me.

It was getting late as I headed back on the course to Robinson, and the cold of winter was finally setting in.  It had to be at least 30-40 degrees colder than the previous day, but my wardrobe hadn't gotten the memo.  Accordingly, I pushed as hard as I could with my swollen knee and admittedly wrecked legs from the day before - finally hitting the campground as the sun was beginning to set.  Again, I wandered around trying to find how to get out and where the course went next - but to this day, I have no idea.  I guess I'll find out either in May or on race day - whatever Mother Nature decides. Running the last three miles on the road was as cold as I've been in a long time, but it was physically impossible to be miserable with the golden light reflecting off the road and the pink and purple mountains going to rest.  It filled me with faith and excitement for what was to come in my training leading up to June 23rd.  It wasn't going to be easy, but at the end of the day, running into the sunset on a wholly and completely spent body is what I enjoy most.  Onward.

Another amazing day now in the books, Dom and I headed back down to Auburn for some hot showers and delicious food.  I was immediately glad we had not decided to camp, as the thought of spending the rest of the evening trapped in a sleeping bag for warmth seemed awful.  I needed to stretch, ice and somehow pull one more day of hard training out of my tired body before heading home.  Also, I needed a freaking beer.  

The scene at Dusty Corners, circa 2k9
Fortunately, I got all of the above and rose Monday morning with the plan of driving to either Dusty Corners or Last Chance to at least connect that section and likely explore backwards towards Miller's Defeat.  That was a longer drive than I remembered, made even longer by ice on the road, but we eventually made it to Dusty - which was a great deal less like its moniker than when visited in June.  Also, there were no cows - which was disappointing.  

Tracking our 110 prints from 2 days prior.
That snow wasn't there back then.
Now, on this section from Dusty to LC, I would like to note that my trail instincts were spot on with where to turn onto the singletrack - despite the old WS Trail markers remaining on the road and me never reading anything about a singletrack.  It was like the race was already in my blood or something.  Unfortunately, we did not take that turn and ran all the way back to Last Chance only to discover we'd only run about 4 miles rather than 5 and we clearly must have done something wrong.  The good news was that we got some really nice, quicker running in - which felt good compared to the technical dance we'd done the day before.  Also, we'd definitely have time to head back toward's Miller's Defeat since these first 8 miles had gone by so quickly.  Getting back to the Aid Station site, we ran across some older gentlemen out doing trail work already and seemingly having a grand old time in the forest.  They confirmed that they'd actually just cleared the singletrack that we were supposed to have run on - which sure enough, was the turn I'd originally sensed.  Oh well, something new and fun for me to experience in May.  After parting ways, we headed up the steep grade pouring into DC for a little over a mile, just to check it out and see how long and hard that decent would be coming in.  We laughed and posed for a few photos depicting the great "Where's Jimmy?" debacle of 2009, where we were quite certain that every single runner coming down to the aid station was the aforementioned man.  It actually got quite ridiculous.  At one point, Dom was waiting outside of the porta-potty for Jimmy to come out and talking to him.  Only it wasn't Jimmy.  Also, we royally fucked up there because we didn't bring him cold Coke and they only had Pepsi.  Ahhhh…. memories….

"Hey!  Is that Jimmy?"
Back to the present - my stomach suddenly decided to wreck itself and it became apparent that we'd soon need to call it a day.  This also reminded me of the Jimmy days, as I had no idea how he was stomaching double strength Perpetuum milkshakes in the 110+ degree heat.  To this day, it is one of the only things in the world that truly baffles Dom.  I learned at AC that I cannot handle any solids whatsoever in the heat, and as such I've wondered myself if I should begin experimenting with something such as CarboPro to supplement the gels.  57 GUs were fun and all, but I'm thinking I need another solution for getting more calories in, lest it go south on me.  Right now, I've got kind of a one track, fool-proof plan; but this is ultrarunning for chrissakes.  At some point - likely the worst possible time ever - my unbreakable plan will break.  It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when.

At any rate, we finished up the run and headed back into town to refuel and try to fix my stomach with salad.  That kind of worked, but then I bombed it again with Monster, Candy and an Americano in my attempts to stay awake at the wheel on the way back to LA.  That night, I lie in bed with twitchy, overworked legs and a brain buzzing with caffeine; but let me tell you what, I was satisfied.  The Western States trail is some seriously beautiful shit, and I am so pumped to take on Gordy's dream in 2012.

AFTERWORD:  I feel like I have to start including these, since it takes me a freaking week and a half to write a post.
I'm happy to say that I took a little step back in the week after the WS weekend and only ran around 60 miles with 15k of vert, which seemed to do me good.  This week, I'm back at it climbing 2-3k per day and will hit 80-90 miles.  Also, I was released from PT on Wednesday, which is awesome because that is one more morning hour I can spend training.  Therapist chick said the muscle around my left knee is finally back to the size of the right before it wussed out from surgery and atrophied, so that is bueno.  And most importantly, I'm finally starting to feel strong and powerful again.  Getting back in shape is hard, but it's working...

Finally, I'm going to attempt to post a January re-cap blog here of totals and exciting news, but don't hold your breath.


  1. Lots of bueno stuff there, Katie! Really nicely done! Although I used to be an 'ignorance is bliss' hundred mile runner, I learned from the canyons and the Devils Thumb climb, in particular, how very helpful and anxiety-reducing course knowledge can be. So glad that you guys hooked up with Suzanna - she's so fab, isn't she?!

    REALLY looking forward to following your adventures this year, my friend!


  2. Awesome post Katie. Never let it be said that you don't do your homework girl.

  3. That was a fantastic read. Thanks for posting this Katie. I think I need to train with you and Dom more often. You're just getting more and more ridiculous with your strength, even when you had a more bummed knee (because it's less bummed now). You inspire me in many ways with your passion and the dedication that follows along. Time for me to pick up my vertical gains like y'all in case I get to run some ultras this year.

  4. Good stuff, love the WS pictures, totally reminds me of home up in Quincy.

    FOMO, never heard of that acronym, but I definitely have it!

    I know that you're gonna rock WS like no other, can't wait for that dream to unfold!!!!!!!

    See you on the dirt homeslice =)

  5. Thanks so much, friends! If you couldn't tell - I'm so happy to be back to my regularly programmed adventuring. Come join us anytime!