Sunday 30 September 2012

Hunting the Greater-Spotted, Hyper Maravilla in Deepest Virginia

The Maravilla mating dance. Photo courtesy

The dawn light makes eerie shadows from overhanging trees. The dawn chorus of random insects and birds tries to disorient my senses, but intense focus on my task makes me block out those distractions.

Early on the Japanese Samurai, Shinji Nakadai, is my hunting partner, but after we catch the rare Brazilian jaguar (Iazaldir Feitoza) I set off in pursuit of more elusive game. Occasionally I hear howling or screaming in the distance, possibly some kind of mating call. It's difficult to judge the distance but I have no trouble following the beast's trail. Sometimes I catch a brief glimpse in the distance of white spandex or is it my mind playing tricks?

I soon realize that on my UROC hunting trip, the over-energized Jorge Maravilla is my primary target. Other thin and determined-looking specimens occasionally attract my attention, but the sport is with the Maravilla. The whoops in the distance taunt me but never get closer - does he know I'm chasing?

This persists for hours as I gradually wear myself down and can't believe the Maravilla is always "3 minutes" ahead according to wild-eyed natives. Surely the rocky terrain will slow him? No. Maybe the endless tarmac will wear him down? Never! I start to think he can't be caught, that he's just toying with me. I should have set a trap on the way out to ensnare my nemesis when he returned.

Then finally it looks like the last climb of the day will be my opportunity to take down the amiable, Cheshire-grinned cat. The road winds upwards for an eternity and at each turn I see my prey. Occasionally his glance backwards tells me the Maravilla is running scared. After over eight hours of stalking, it looks like I may succeed. Yet the gap isn't closing. It's like a race through treacle, painfully slow yet at maximum effort.

As I see the end of the hunt, signified by a large inflated hoop and a clock, I also spot a blur of Ecuadorian-Californian magic go into the safety of the locals' arms. It's been a duel - one I'll never forget. But a mere minute denies me my coveted prize.

8h25m of effort ends with sightings of two Western cheetahs sitting and drinking (Max King and Sage Canaday), both limping from the day's efforts. These animals are natural sprinters but stepped up to the endurance challenge in impressive form. Yet I suspect this is just the second of many hunts with the Maravilla (the first was through the High Sierra with the roles reversed at Western States where I fended off the challenge from the world's happiest feline).

It's memories like these that I know will stay with me forever, ingrained into my mind by the searing heat of a day-long battle. Hundreds of stories come out of every similar event with duels and partnerships that last minutes or hours. More can be found (as well as results) at irunfar and the race website.

Photo courtesy Bad To The Bone.

L-R: Me, David Riddle, Jorge, Nick Clark, Dave Mackey and Scott McCoubrey. Photo courtesy Bad To The Bone.

Monday 24 September 2012

UROC 2012 Pre-Race

The summer's over now and there's a bit more time to get into the mountains before the snow makes that more difficult, but that means that the Autumn road races are here in force with many of the big road marathons kicking off. However, UROC 100k makes for a fun transition by mixing in road and trail in equal measures as well as some decent climbing. In fact, the UROC website says only a bit over 7,000ft of ascent, but it's a very similar course to last year which was almost double that, so I'm not expecting anyone to run road-equivalent 100k times.

irunfar has written up a detailed preview of the deep men's field, but there's a danger that there'll be less female finishers in the elite field than there are prize money positions - 6 starters for 5 positions. I thought the fast female ultrarunners in the US were equally happy on roads and trails (look at how many fast trail women have represented their country at the road's a lot). So come on ladies - give Ellie Greenwood some competition.

Anyone care to guess the men's podium in order? It's almost pot luck to get them all right.

Great work by Gill and Francesca to grow the event from last year and I still get that nervous excitement from lining up against a top quality bunch of guys to see how it plays out. I hope that never disappears, even when I get old and become a wheezy old man trying to get my 50th Comrades finish.

And for ultra/mountain/trail geeks (this definitely includes me), there are two other huge races going on over in Europe this weekend too - the Skyrunning race at Cavalls Del Vent in Spain and the classic Greek Spartathlon which is arguably based on the start of ultrarunning, 2,500 years ago. I'll be writing up a preview and description of the latter race for irunfar this week and it's on my extra long to-do list (currently penciled in for 2014).

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Grand Slamming 2013

Keith Knipling's GPS profiles from 2006

Since before my friend Paul Terranova got into Western States via the 2012 lottery and decided that meant he should do the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States 100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100 all in one summer), I'd considered it. Given he'd never run a 100-miler before and he added on the Kona Ironman to his summer, it was an impressive target to aim for. And even more so given he then won the Slam this year with a combined time of 80h53m, only about six hours off Neal Gorman's 2010 record.

2012 was my third consecutive Western States so I told myself that if I felt like I could recover from it well and be ok to run a 100 miler on the day of Vermont 100 then I'd go for it in 2013. The main difficulty in going for the GS is that Western States is very difficult to get into given a very oversubscribed lottery or a few places available for automatic qualifiers. One of the ways to guarantee an entry is to be top 10 in the previous year's race so I luckily had that hurdle out the way and no practical impediments to giving it a go (it also helps I don't have kids and a work a flexible enough schedule).

In the last week several top runners have shown an interest in going for the GS - Karl Meltzer, Nick Clark, record holder Neal Gorman, Nick Pedatella and Jay Aldous. Even if just a couple of them do, it'll make for a competitive year and make it much more interesting as that record gets seriously challenged. Plus Neal is quicker than he was in the year he got the GS record.

Some numbers:

Race                Neal's GS record   Clarky's best times    Potential record

Western States        18:14                          15:44                          15:45-16:30

Vermont                  16:33                                                             15:00-16:00

Leadville                  18:47                           17:11                         17:30-18:30

Wasatch                  21:19                          20:21                          20:00-21:00

Overall                   74:54                                                            68:15-72:00

This is a best case scenario and even if someone's on these fast splits, it doesn't count unless the last race goes well too. And Wasatch is a beast so a bad day could add on a lot of extra time on tired legs.

Note that Neal ran 16:18 at the 2012 Western States, and he's almost certainly faster than in 2010, but the conditions play a large part in these races so tough weather at more than one of them would probably mean no chance of a record. But whether it's record-breaking or not, I'm very excited to go up against a fast group of great runners and try out three new classic races.

But who wants to bet that Nick Clark can get 3rd in all four of the races?

Tuesday 18 September 2012

TNF Endurance Challenge Madison, WI

Morning mist. All photos are courtesy TNFEC.

I've never been to the Midwest before, having mainly stuck to the coasts. So when The North Face offered me a chance to run in the third of six Endurance Challenges across the US at Madison, WI, I couldn't turn it down. Over the weekend of September 15-16, the event includes races from a kids' 1-miler to the flagship trail 50-miler which was the one for me, all hosted by Dean Karnazes.

Having seen the Championship event in San Francisco, I knew to expect a well-organized and fun race, albeit without the extremely deep field of that final event. So when the pre-dawn start forced the runners to leave the outdoor heaters and jog out in a stream of head-lamps, it's impossible not to get a thrill from the prospect of a day on new trails.

The early miles went by quickly running and chatting with local Eric Senseman at the front seeing the whole field on the out-and-backs. As we hit sections of the Ice Age Trail in the dawn light there were fields of mist covering the prairies. The sandy and green scenery reminded me of running where I grew up in Northamptonshire in the UK, except with more defined trails. But the small hills hit us like waves, never big but fairly steep and definitely relentless.

Just after dawn with Eric Senseman

Running the first half with Eric Senseman (watch out for him too)

The priaries

At half way the race began and the hills gave me a lead before first-time 50-miler, Mike Bialick, caught me and pushed the pace closer to 6 min/miles on the flats. I didn't want to speed up as we weren't even at 30 miles yet but I decided to hang with his pace so he couldn't gap me. I also thought that he might be going out too hard for his first foray into this distance, so forcing him to keep up his effort levels looked like a smart move.

Hanging on to Mike Bialick just after the marathon distance

That paid off and several miles of tree-covered and wide trails later I re-took the lead into the 35-mile aid station, building up a three-minute margin by 40 miles. Until this point I hadn't considered the course record of 5:59 but with the forced pace and the threat of Mike behind I didn't want to sit back and relax.

Those final miles included some soft sandy sections that couldn't be avoided, even along the side of the trail and on tired legs sand is not what you want to face. What you also don't want to see is Mike charging along 30 seconds behind you when he seemed to have been out of it. So with just two miles left I kicked it up a notch, hoping that if I could keep him far enough behind then I wouldn't be forced to sprint finish the final 0.8 miles on the road.

To my relief it paid off and I held on for 5:57:39 with Mike barely a minute back - an incredibly impressive debut for him at 50 miles and he's bound to have some great ultra results ahead of him. Full results from the 50-miler are here.

This is a fast trail course with 6,282ft of ascent but no big climbs. The closest race I can compare it to is American River 50 in California, except AR50 is faster due to half of it being on flat bike paths. It's well worth a trip, especially to see that ethereal early mist.

Also, this was the longest outing for my light TNF Hyper Track Guide shoes (available 2013), which are the best trail shoes I've ever used. A huge improvement in racing shoes by TNF and suitable for virtually any terrain.

Monday 10 September 2012

Mt Si Hiking

Mt Rainier from Mt Si

Last week I was in Seattle for my sister-in-law's wedding and managed to fit in some hiking and scrambling with family up Mt Si in North Bend, 30 mins east of the city. It was only a couple of days after the Sunriver Marathon and Half so two of us had tired legs from those races (my brother-in-law, JT, ran his first half there and had a great run in 1:40). But the 3,400+ft climb to the summit was well worth it.

And Snoqualmie Falls were an added bonus after the wedding, although the trail was closed due to maintenance so it was just a viewpoint.

A well-earned beer at the end.

Mt Si in the background.

Snoqualmie Falls.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Ice and Fire - Pole Creek Fire

Middle Sister Summit

This morning I got up early to run with fellow Bend-ite (Bender?), Rod Bien in the Cascade Mts. We drove out to Pole Creek trailhead, ran a beautiful route to the steep climb up to Middle Sister (10,047ft), which was a scree-slope of clambering. But the views were incredible. We even spotted a small fire starting miles away and I commented that we had a great viewpoint for the Forest Service to spot fires.

The downhill was some of the best running/sliding I've ever done with a glacier and jumps by crevasses. All the time with stunning views and the fire we spotted looked like the eruption of a volcano over North Sister. We ran back, gradually speeding up as we saw the parking lot looked very close to the fire. Then within the last 100m we saw smoke everywhere and fire on our right. The rough road back out was completely filled with smoke but we decided to see if it was passable (not a smart idea). After a few feet we saw a car on fire, quickly reversed and went up a dirt track that our map showed was a dead end.

Our best bet looked to be to park the car as far from the fire as possible then hike out or get rescued (we called the emergency services, of course), hoping the car wouldn't be burnt to a crisp. There were maybe 20 other cars in that parking lot and I'm sure they're all burnt-out husks now. 15 mins later and ours would have been as well.

Then we saw a sketchy dirt road going parallel to the fire  and decided to see if that would get us out as our road was definitely a dead end. Two hours later and after numerous calls to the emergency services, we got around the fire even though our map didn't show the roads we drove, despite it showing all the forest fire roads...

Rod's car was a little worse for wear but we were glad to be safe and out of there. It was never really dangerous once we got out the parking lot, but we had no idea whether we'd need to leave the car and hike out due to inaccessible roads or dead ends.

That fire (the Pole Creek Fire) is huge and the closest to Bend and Sisters this year. Plenty of others are stuck out there camping or hiking and their cars are lost, so I hope they all make it out safely and don't try to get back to their cars. The forest around there will be scarred for years so the photos below are the last ones for a long time of the greenery in that area.

But it was the most beautiful and fun run I've ever been on, topped off with more drama than necessary. Think I'll have a beer now. We were lucky but also made sure people knew where we were going and how long we should take. We also had more food and drink than was needed for the run and extra clothing. The mountains and forests certainly deserve respect and fires are not to be taken lightly (trust me, we didn't).

I won't label the mountains in the photos as it'd take too long, but these shots include Bachelor, Broken Top, South/Middle/North Sister, Jefferson and Hood, spanning maybe 100 miles of the Cascades.

10 days after the fire started, it reached over 24,000 acres and here's some video from local firefighters and helicopters.

Driving away from the fire on back-roads.