42 Miles: That Day I Ran Across The Grand Canyon, Twice, On Purpose

The first time I ran across the Grand Canyon and back, it put me in its mouth like a fresh piece of bubblegum, swallowed me whole, let me bathe in digestive acids, regurgitated me back up its canal, chewed me a little more, blew a bubble, popped the bubble, then spit me out on the dusty dark trail.

I am chewing gum, wadded up, with teeth marks.

– from my 2014 R2R2R aftermath notes

The Big Ditch, as it is known, is the Grand Canyon. At 21 miles for the shortest trail traverse, I’d call that a pretty big ditch, indeed. By late 2014 I had been wanting to do the famous Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (also known as R2R2R, also known as R3) for a few years. Fortuitously, I was going to visit the Phoenix area for some Javelina Jundred pacing duties, and I had plenty of extra time to leave a few days early and get the Canyon adventure DONE.

Lovely profile created by Chris Dailey

Late October in the Grand Canyon makes for decent weather (meaning pretty warm yet not stupid hot) but limited daylight. On the day I ran there was a scant 10 hours and 45 minutes between sunrise and sunset, guaranteeing I’d be spending at least part of my traverse(s) in the dark. I’m no Emily Loman nor Krissy Moehl nor Devon Crosby-Helms nor Darcy Piceu nor Bethany Lewis nor Cat Bradley. (All of these women have held the fastest known time on the R2R2R at one point.) No, my talents are—let’s say—broader, and therefore not quite as deep in any one specialty. So I’d be starting in the dark, and finishing in the dark. It’s like an ultra! Except without the tables full of food! And the people cheering you on! And the handy drop bags waiting for you with extra gear! And the buffet at the end! And the MEDAL!

Who is going to be there to give me a gosh-durned medal, I ask you?!

No one. And that’s the point. Doing a double Grand Canyon crossing is one of those “because it’s there” kind of endeavors. It’s the reason I still plan to do the same across Zion National Park. It’s the reason I got very interested in joining a trip to backcountry Alaska, even though I’m no packrafter (yet). It’s the reason I am drawn to travel across the country with just me myself and I, either in a car, or in a micro-RV, or on a bike, as many have done before me.

The 6 A.M. Shuttle That Seems To Never Come

I parked the car over at Bright Angel. It seems odd now that I drove about 1.5 miles from the Mather campground just to park the car, but I guess that’s what I did. Honestly it’s hard to remember at this point, but in any case I had to wait for the shuttle from the Visitor Center over to the South Kaibab trailhead for what seemed to be a distressingly long time before it finally came.

And then sometime around 6:30 A.M., still dark, I stared down at my feet and decided to get this party started.

Rapa Nui shoes ready to get a thrashing. Look closely to see goosebumps on my thighs.

South Kaibab trail starts down through rocks and dust that are nearly white, but then a few miles in it abruptly shifts to a deep red so quickly that I thought my headlamp was malfunctioning. I spun around, shining the light, trying to see the “real” color, and realized it was actually just the ground. Headlamp A-OK. Onward. Downward.

Civil twilight came up within an hour, and with it a mellowing of the temperature. I clicked off the switchbacks one after another after another. I could see another light down below me, and wondered if I could catch them. Must be another weirdo like me.

Two-ish hours in and I reached the tunnel before the bridge. Six+ miles done, a whole lot more to go. Over and across the river, mules waited in their staging area, not delaying my passage. Lucky break. Phantom Ranch for the first time, a little water top-up, and I headed up into the narrows of the North Kaibab trail. This section would be “easy” to run as the incline is mellow and the surface mostly rock-free, so I run a little. I’m cognizant of not wanting to go balls out on this, my first R2R2R, trying to err on the side of “get it done” rather than “run it fast”.

North Kaibab: Dehydration, Melancholy, and For-Ev-Ah

I won’t lie: this trail is really long and at times seems like it will go for-ev-ah. There’s gentle inclines, gentle descents, steeper switchbacks, and even a smidge of snow as one gets higher up. It’s a LOT higher up on this side: the north rim is 8241 feet, compared to 7260 feet at South Kaibab. After a bit of a slog, and a quick water refill at a Ranger Station (still open until end of October, wheee!), I was trying to make progress.

But then it was getting hotter. I started drinking more. Historically I don’t drink much, so this was a little worrisome given I didn’t fill up all the way at the last water spigot. I was starting to wonder if I was going to make it to the top with the water I had. I started rationing: never the best strategy but it seems like the right idea at the time.

There is THEORETICALLY water at the North Rim. Right at the trailhead. I have heard back and forth reports about whether or not it will be running. If I’m truly hurting, there’s another half mile extension to get to a year-round water supply at another ranger station. So I am hot, and getting a little dehydrated, but I keep on. And then I get to the top. See the sign. Look for the water spigot. And . . . WATER!!!! Ridiculously cold water, too. Awesome.

They call this The Box. Huh huh huh huh.

NOW things are going to start looking up, even as I look down. Relief, even though I’m not even halfway done (when you count slowdown and whatnot). It’s early afternoon and not really super cool, temperature wise. And it will just get warmer as I go back to Phantom Ranch. The miles don’t fly by, but they pass just the same. The light is getting nicer, bouncing off the walls of the box in a decidedly photogenic way.

Winding through the campgrounds I pass by a ranger talk about hiking and not going out for more than a few hours because PEOPLE DIE and et cetera. I just run right by, the big “no-no” example to cap off their talk. You’re welcome, campers!

The late afternoon light reminds me to get a hustle on to make Phantom Ranch Cafe as soon as possible. This is the witching hour for the tiny snack shop as they close up for the afternoon right at 4pm, and I’m gonna be close. Still, I make it, with time to spare, and promptly load up on something cold to drink. They even have stuff like GU and sporty things. And snacks. Snack food FTW.

Somewhere along the way I pass by a green piece of gum on the ground that I saw this morning the first time around. And for the second time I do not pick it up. Bad me. It wasn’t even chewed so I could have had FREE GUM. Passing up free calories is not even as weird as the trio of guys I encountered walking past me, headed back to their campsite. We’re the only ones around, so we all nod and smile as we cross paths. All in their 30s-ish. All pretty normal looking, neither schlubby nor handsome. But after they pass, one of them thinks he’s out of earshot of me and I hear the words, “I’d hit that.” I almost bust out laughing, flabbergasted. That’s pretty hilarious. I’m sure I was looking a bit scruffy myself by that point, 35 miles in.

ONWARD! Back along the river over to the South Kaibab bridge. “Just” 7 miles to go.


Ah HA, South Kaibab bridge, we meet again!




Up through the tunnel and now it’s getting real. Up and up and up, all over again. More switchbacks. More dropoffs. Still a bit of heat. And soon it’s getting real dark. I’m going slow. Even slower than I hoped or planned or feared. I’m bonking. Then I’m eating. Then I’m doing OK. And so the cycle repeats. My feet are feeling like they are sandpapered with dust. Which, basically, they are.

Even the rock walls seem to want to give me a warm hug, radiating heat after the sun goes down. They’ve been storing it all day and now the heat unleashes to warm up the desert animals that can’t warm themselves and come out to get a little boost. Hiya, tarantula! Howdy, lizard!

And then, rather suddenly, I can sense the top. Am I close? I can even hear people. Where is that coming from? Whatever. Sometime around 14 hours after I began, I trudged up to the South Rim again. A little warm. A little chilled. And ridiculously tired.

But I wasn’t done yet. Remember that pre-dawn shuttle? That’s a one-way ticket up a private road and the shuttle’s hours are over. Now, I need to walk back to the car over at the Visitors’ Center. Granted, it’s “only” about 2 miles, but I’m beat and I can’t see much and it’s cold and WHO ARE THOSE PEOPLE talking!? Walking along the rim trail I keep hearing voices. Socializing kinds of voices. Finally I realize that this is employee housing and they are chilling outside their cabins. Drinking, eating, completely oblivious to me or anyone else who might be walking along the rim trail at a dumb hour.

I reach the car, flick on the ignition, power up the phone, and see where on earth I can eat at this hour. Everything in the park is pretty closed. So…… McDonald’s it is, then. I’ve got an hour and it’s 20 minutes away. One McFlurry and one large fry later . . . I’m a happy carb bomb. Even if it costs $8.

The most delicious carb-bomb at the most expensive McDonald’s. Check their Yelp. This was $8.

Sleep, and Seven Minutes in Heaven

Back in my tent, my filthy body can’t help it: I just conk out, sleeping spastically for the next 8 hours. I will have to wait until morning for actually washing myself. But when I do . . . it’s time for the best thing 8 quarters can buy within a hundred miles: 8 minutes of freaking HOT water. Yum.

8 minute shower at Grand Canyon

More than 7 minutes in heaven, all for the low low price of 8 quarters.

The Dust. The Dust. The Dust.

Next time I run R2R2R, the Dirty Girl gaiters are coming along. Going into the crossing in 2014, I knew it would be dry, sure. But I didn’t realize the extent that the silty dust that would permeate everything. It makes sense; we’re not so far away from Southwestern Utah where the red silt gets into your very soul (or at least into the crevasses of your tent and underpants for weeks). After I peeled off my nasty and dust-abraded socks, they were left to “air out” on the floor of my car. Realizing the futility of this, they soon went into the trash.

I’m sorry, ma’am, but your socks are unlikely to pull through after such a catastrophe.

To Be Continued on March 31, 2018 . . .

Griffith Park: My Backyard Trail

“Ugh. Griffith? I am so over Griffith.”

So sayeth hundreds of trail runners, all over Los Angeles.

And I get it, to a point. The horse trails dotted with grassy chunks of poo and, on drier days, the dusty aroma of said chunks. The throngs of families out for strolls up and down the roads leading to the Hollywood sign. The groups of hikers walking four abreast on a fire road. Walkers bearing external speakers to broadcast their choice of audible distraction to the world. The dry dust. The post-storm sogginess. The flatness. The hilliness. The hotness. And so, to many metro area runners, running on the trails in Griffith Park is judged as The. Worst.

Except that it’s not, not if you don’t let it.

christmas tree in Griffith Park

In a city that never gets snow, the holidays never end.

1896: Griffith Park is Born

“I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered.” – Griffith J. Griffith, 1896

Griffith Park started out as a bequeathed expanse of 3015 acres—nearly 5 square miles—and currently stands at a whopping 4035 acres for all of the metropolitan area to enjoy and sometimes literally get lost. Sometimes compared to Central Park in Manhattan, Griffith serves a similar function for the city but boasts far more in the way of wilderness-like experiences and rugged areas. Many acres were scorched by a fire in 2007 but is rebounding in fits and starts and with the help of several local park charities, thankfully.

For a Burbankian like myself, the closest ingress point to Griffith Park is about 4 miles from home in a little gravel parking lot south of the Travel Town train attractions. Four miles might sound like a bit much just to go for a run, but it’s doable by bike or car. Other trails I can and do run sometimes (and all still “nearby”, relatively speaking) are 10, 12, and 17 miles away, respectively.

Trail Running Travel Town 101

For all the commonly-heard complaints about crowds and horse poo, Griffith has a treasure trove of trails just waiting to be strung together, looped, discovered, out-and-backed, lollipopped, and flat out enjoyed. My get ‘er done run is a loop starts from that Travel Town parking lot with a lung busting climb, then some lovely rollers, then a screamer downhill, and then a nice stretch to get some speed and put down a fast mile and a half. Total distance? 3.8 miles. I can pop over to the park and get that bad boy done in not much more time than it takes the sun to set and full darkness to set in.

You can lead a horse to water…. (up on the Travel Town loop)

Bonus: add 300 feet of climbing (complete with another steep up and stretch-out down) with one extra spur tacked on in the middle to land at 6-ish miles. Another good “go to” run. And from there we get to some extra deviations. Different looping middle sections to tack on even more miles. There’s a lot of satisfying daily routines to be built and enjoyed here.

Tour of Golf Course and Beacon Hill

On the other side of the park are my other “marble in the groove” runs, often done in the opposite style by starting out with a flat segment before transitioning into solid up and down with some fantastic downtown scenery to boot. Best done near sunset to capture those western beams hitting the skyscrapers and the lights coming on over the expansive urban buildup to the south.

DTLA sunset from Mineral Wells trails, Griffith Park

Runners can get their jollies by looking down over the 5 around dusk to see taillights starting to stack up; here you are up on a freakin’ trail in a near-wilderness inside the largest sprawling metropolitan area in the entire country. Make 2 hours out of that run with some really steep uphill on the Hogback and wind up with closer to a lovely 10 miles, also fantastic just before (or even into the) dark. Tacos at Guisado’s afterwards is a bonus.

Of course you can go a lot farther with these linkups, too. String together those two routine runs with some connector trail/roads for 15 miles. Get ambitious and throw in some a bit of sightseeing (either of the Hollywood sign, or of the people hiking to the Hollywood sign with terribly inappropriate footwear) and you can wind up with twenty miles, no problem.

Travel Town’s immediate trails are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Griffith, but it is my Backyard Trail: it’s going to be a part of my training for a very long time. Happily so. Horse poo or no.

clouds over glendale

Lovely clouds make even Glendale look kinda nice.

[this post inspired by Brendan’s homage over at Semi-Rad.com more than a year ago. Fruition!]

The Little “D”: Depression After An Ultramarathon

Two days after my most recent ultramarathon and I was walking down the street wondering whether or not I care if people can tell I’m on the brink of crying. Always the worrier, I think about the outside world’s perceptions rather than how I’m actually feeling. Should I stuff it in? Should I just let it come and forget what people think after all?

Depression after something big in a person’s life is oh-so-common (searches for postpartum depression on Google have been depressingly stable for 14 years), and the post-event kind even has a name: Post Project Depression. Mental health professionals, from what I’ve seen, tend to call it the “blues” rather than use the formal D word, likely to help destigmatize the condition but also perhaps because they’d rather not say anyone is an actual Depressive unless they are diagnosed by—you guessed it—a mental health professional.

Post-project depression is seen sometimes as “subclinical” in nature. It’s something that gets noticed by those suffering but you still don’t check all the psychological boxes needed for a formal diagnosis.

Super weird cover of book on melancholy from the 1500s, from Wikimedia Commons

Post-Ultra Depression and Clinical Depression: Related?

True to my nerd roots, I have wondered if this post-event “blues” has some connection to a propensity for what I’ll call capital-R Real depression, also known as Major Depressive Disorder. Meaning, clinically diagnosed and fitting all the patterns of the American Psychiatric Association’s list of qualities. Those that have clinical depression are often helped, sometimes immensely, by regular exercise like running. (I imagine that has a lot to do with body motion and hormones but also being out in the daylight.) However, what about those that might have mild undiagnosed depression—or no depression at all—and find the post-ultra blues slightly contradictory to getting out and doing yet more exercise?

As is true with many things in the body, the mechanisms are complicated and intertwined. After a long bout with huge spikes in excitable hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine as you might experience in the 10, 12, 18, 30 hours of an ultra, there has got to be some physiological payback. It’s like taking your favorite t-shirt that you wear gently every day, and sending it through an industrial car wash over and over again. That t-shirt is going to display some obvious signs of wear and stress and fatigue, both visibly in color as well as below the surface in the strength of the fibers and the resilience of the cloth. Your body, after an ultra, has a massive spike in all kinds of “bad” things like cortisol, cytokines, other stress hormones. Those, coupled with a change in training load (like maybe down to zero for many days in a row), are going to have an effect on your general state of wellbeing.

I’m curious about this potential overlap between the symptoms of the “blues” vs. clinical depression in different kinds of people. Little by little, endurance athletes—ultrarunners, too—have come out publicly with their personal major depression stories and how it has affected or been influenced by their athletic careers. But having clinical depression of the Rob Krar or Nikki Kimball variety could be utterly separate, or somewhat related to, the post-event blues that many of us feel. Personally, I’ve felt all my life that I tend towards the melancholy but have not been diagnosed by a psychiatrist. On the other hand, I’ve always been an athlete. Might the lifelong endurance activities be keeping my theoretical clinical depression at bay? Or am I just utterly normal: feeling emotionally destroyed after long races (albeit at a higher intensity that I see in friends) but then eventually getting some mojo back and signing up for the next thing on the calendar?

Melencolia illustration by Durero, from Wikimedia Commons

Clearly I think about this, time and time again. After all, I wrote about this almost exactly three years ago, after the exact same race: https://andreaworks.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/post-ultramarathon-funk-and-how-it-sucks-balls/ And it does not really go away; if anything, this experience seems to become stronger and more obvious after each long event. I take that as a sign that I can learn more and manage it in the future, or at the very least be prepared to go lightly on myself during those days.

What Post-Ultra Depression Actually Feels Like

The best description as I’ve experienced it is that of Mild Despair and Melancholy. The thoughts during those hours and days lean towards the pessimistic, like “what was it that I just did? why, exactly, did I do that? I spent *how* much money on that? does anyone care? do I care?”. Things don’t progress to the point where I can’t get out of bed in the morning (though noon-hour pajamas are not uncommon). And they don’t progress to the point that I cancel upcoming plans or quit running altogether for days or weeks. Even I know that that will make me feel even worse. Not to mention completely mess up my “digestion” (having a post-coffee morning poo is about the best thing ever).

In reality, those sidewalk episodes like mentioned earlier last minutes to hours, and that’s manageable. But they do still come during ebbs and dips in mood that are almost like clockwork in the days and weeks after hard endurance efforts. I felt this way during and after the Colorado Trail, an “event” 26 days long and therefore having plenty of time for ups and downs. I feel this way, sometimes, during training. And I expect that the little black puppy will start stepping on my toes just a few short days after any ultra race, or after any hormonal swing. It’s only natural, after all.

Someone shared with me a video that gets to the heart of the fabled ‘black dog’ of major/clinical depression. It’s a great overview for those who don’t suffer, told from the perspective of someone who is not only affected by depression but they are ashamed of it and fearful of being found out.

With all of the newish and thoughtful writing being done on depression and mental health in general, I think we as a culture are progressing. Even network TV shows are taking on lead characters with psychiatric disorders and treating them like genuine and interesting humans rather than quirky sidekicks just there for a joke. Bravo, Maria Bamford!

I hope that with my post, with earlier writings, and with the help of open and wonderful folks like Rob Krar and Nikki Kimball, I hope the shame aspect is going to fade. These days it seems like the idea of going to a therapist is totally normal, where just a decade or two ago it was an eyebrow-raiser. Same thing with tattoos: used to be “acceptable but a little out-there”, now are completely normal and sometimes in your face. Let’s make depression and mood issues of all kinds be IN. YOUR. FACE. There’s no shame in feeling sad, or feeling nothing, and not knowing why or how to change it. Change toward getting better almost always has to start with open acceptance.

But What Should I Do After My Event?

Other than the usual advice to rest, sleep well, and take a lot of walks, there’s more you can do for your brain. A mental re-framing of the whole situation is valuable here: those “bad” stress hormones that pile up after an event? It’s probably better to think of them as recovery hormones. They are what your body is doing to repair what you just endured. Don’t hate the cast on your broken arm for its weight and inconvenience: treat it gently and respect it for what it is doing for your bone.

Photo By Cameron Parkins, via Wikimedia Commons

[P.S. This post was at least somewhat bolstered by reading Brad Feld’s take on his only ultramarathon and the emotional fallout afterwards. Feld writes often about depression and, in addition to being a good writer with interesting things to say about technology, he is an open advocate for more discourse and less shame about mental illness, particularly depression. Thank you, Brad.]

Los Angeles vs. Introverts: The Winner Will Surprise You

The second time I passed the parked car on my daily run, I mustered up the courage to look inside. I wondered if I would see cold white skin and sunken cheeks and eyes that no longer saw. Instead, what I saw was a middle-aged man, reading a book. “Well, that’s interesting”, I thought. Then I started paying attention more often to these parked cars. The details varied, but the underlying behavior was the same: individual people getting some “me time” in the City of Angels.

A City of Cars

My apartment for the previous 3 years is smack dab in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood in one of the most stereotypically in-love-with-cars cities on the planet: Los Angeles. This city is a stupendous mish-mash of roadways, from Euro-narrow two-lanes that are functionally one-lanes because everyone parks on both sides, to 33% grade nail-biters (Los Angeles has 4 of the top 10 steepest streets in the country, beating out San Francisco’s TWO!), to avenues in old residential areas wide enough for four lanes. We residents of Los Angeles get to experience everything, along with traffic and parking issues aplenty.

Yes, this is a two-lane street. Theoretically. Make sure your backing up skillz are solid.

Finally, I started noticing people in their cars. Not stuck in traffic. Not cruising along in the HOV lane. But alone, parked. First, I just figured it was slightly sketchy. Maybe it’s someone passed out? Or . . . DEAD?! But then I really started LOOKING. Impolitely, perhaps, but looking nonetheless. Like I described above, the situations I saw were NOT the “skeevy looking person passed out in car” or worse. I saw all kinds of people, all ages, all kinds of cars. On any kind of street. In parks. On busy streets. On quiet streets. Before school. In the middle of the afternoon. At dusk. A young professional woman. A man in a sport coat. An older lady listening to the radio. An adult with a book. Another adult with a book. So many books. What is going on?

Consider The Introvert

First, consider the introvert. One-quarter to a third of humans are predominantly introverted, according to the few sites I could find with some semblance of an estimate. This means a few things, personality-wise. For example, introverts feel less energetic after interacting with others, and feel replenished after some alone or non-social time. It also tends to mean that reflection on internal subjects (analysis, philosophy, writing) is more interesting to an introvert. For comparison, engaging with the outside world (conversations, team sports, parties) is natural to the extrovert and it energizes them.

For reasons above, living alone is preferable to many introverts, but this can come at a price to one’s social life and personal growth. But it can also come at a literal price: in Los Angeles, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment recently crossed $2000. That’s more than 90% of the take home pay for the median per-capita income of $30K per year (which is 25K after taxes).

Compare Los Angeles to another “large-ish” city nearby: Las Vegas. This desert metropolis has a population of 600,000 people. There you’ll find warm weather, ample entertainment, and 1046 currently available 1-bedroom apartments under $1250. Of those, 608 are $1000 or less per month.

Back to Los Angeles, with a city population of 3.8 million people (6x that of Las Vegas). Within those city boundaries, you’ll find warm weather, ample entertainment, and a grand total of 33 one-bedroom apartments available for $1250 or less. Of those, how many are under $1000? Technically, two: rooms in boarding houses of about 120 sq ft. So, that means ZERO.

How do people manage to live here, at all? The answer is simple: roommates. Sometimes, lots of roommates. Heck, the apartment listings here might seem not so bad when looking for that rare $1000-$1200 find, until you realize that every single ad you open up is actually a room in someone’s house or apartment. There are many scams out there, as well. Most apartment seekers just ignore anything that seems like a deal because it’s likely to be misleading or flat out not legit.

Me Time in Your Own Private Heaven: Your Car

Remember all those people? Just chilling out in their cars for no apparently urgent reason? The more I thought about it and the things they were doing—napping, eating, reading, smoking, listening to music—it dawned on me. They are INTROVERTING.

When an introvert works with people and lives with people and is surrounded by people people people, what can you do in a few extra minutes of time each day to keep your sanity? There’s no time to be going up into the mountains or checking into a hotel, or taking WAAAAY too long in the private bathroom at work? You get your solo time in your car. It’s safe, it’s yours, and you can take it anywhere. In New York, car and parking costs might be just too much for this to be an option, but in Los Angeles I believe that solo car occupancy is one way that inward-oriented folks are filling a psychological need. They’re keeping themselves sane, and, in a way, performing a necessary public good.

It’s an inefficient solution, to be sure, with traffic and smog and all of that. But it’s a solution to ponder. I do.

When You Get to Barstow, Keep Driving (Calico 50K)

rocks near Calico Ghost Town

Near to, but not, the Calico 50K course

Outside of Barstow, California, up the literal hill to the north of town, is a ghost town named Calico. To get there, drive east from Los Angeles. Pass Barstow and keep going on the 15 in a Vegas-ish direction (rather than in an Albuquerque direction on the 40) for another 15 minutes until you reach the Calico Ghost Town exit at Yermo. This is where I was headed, to meander in the hills with 99 other runners on a moderately warm day in early 2015.

Every January (barring flash floods), a collection of able adults line up to run through those hills, over sand and desert scrub, paying for the privilege to pin a number to their shorts and get a little too sunburned for a late winter day. The regular visitors (read: tourists) to Calico pay them minimal mind, barely stepping out of the way as the runners finish their half day out sometime between late morning and mid-afternoon, so intent are those visitors on seeing a staged gunfight or spending far too much money on sweet shop fudge that likely came off a Sysco truck.

But for those runners, this is a relatively crucial day in the year, the day when the post-holiday indulgences are bartered against training miles over the last several months. Those runners might have plans for goal races later in the year, say, a hundred-miler far from home, a new adventure race, a destination 100K. Calico can be the first validation—or harbinger—of what’s to come in the spring.

Here’s why. For an ultrarunner (or any year-round competitive athlete, for that matter), what happens early in the calendar year doesn’t hide in the training log. It sticks with a person moreso than any event in December. In December you can write it off as “oh that was during the holidays”, or “oh that was last year!”. In January, though, it’s on the record.

And that’s why the first big test of the year needs to at least not go horrifically wrong. Anything less than a neutral result can be hard to shake (though there are some good ways to cope and move on, if you find yourself in that position), but good or positive or great results can bolster future training through the summer.

It was mile 6 of Calico 50K and I was struggling to get away from the morning’s OYP (Overly Yappy Person). Now, let’s be clear – I did begin some of the conversation by asking this guy questions about his ultra history. But he continued to talk for many minutes after my responses turned to grunts and finally pure silence. I can chalk it up to cluelessness but I still needed to escape. Ah ha! An aid station was approaching and this would be my chance. But the food table starting calling to me and I grabbed a few jelly beans, chewing while my bottle was getting refilled. Abruptly I changed my mind and jelly bean cud went into the aid station trash can. Problem solved!

(Poor aid station trash can, the brunt of all the fickleness of ultra runners or their moments of extreme despair.)

I picked up a few boiled potato chunks, dredged them in salt, and moseyed on. In that moseying my OYP had leapfrogged me and was several minutes up the trail, a fact I wouldn’t realize until much later. But at least I had some silence for a bit.

After the first bout with gentle downhill miles, we racers were ready to trudge uphill. A seemingly gentle grade of about 3 percent, relentless for the next 7 miles, meant that the truly slow were having a hard time already. I was keeping a steady clip of about 11 minutes per mile, which meant it felt neither too easy nor too hard. Good. This grade, from my course knowledge, was supposed to continue and get gradually steeper until the 17 mile mark. I supposed that when it got too steep to run I’d figure out an alternate plan for moving forward.

Around the 17 mile mark. Photo by Geoff Cordner.

I hadn’t done a 50K in well over a year and had no idea what was in my legs. My last 50K had been a mountainous romp more than 15 months prior, in western New Mexico full of fall colors and frigid temperatures. It was preparation for a 100 miler near the Grand Canyon (the Stagecoach 100) later that same year – more apt than I had even anticipated when Stagecoach’s overnight chill got down into the teens, turning cola into slush and catching aid stations and runners alike perilously off-guard. That New Mexican 50K was relatively slow but faster than one in Flagstaff a month prior where I was truly still recovering after a summer hundred-miler.

What does all of this mean? Every ultra is different, but it does mean I’d not run anything resembling a respectable pace—in any event—in a heck of a long time. My fastest 50K, a pretty decent 5:22, was already 10 years behind me. I had no expectation to get near that time for Calico, given the climbs on the course. But I had a difference race that might have tipped me off to some latent potential, and that race is Pikes Peak Marathon. I ran that bugger in 2009 in 6:02, a fact for which I am still proud. With 8000’ of climb, it is a beast of a course.

Now, how does that mean anything for Calico, many years later? Parallels. Training is all about patterns and periodization. In 2009, my weekly mileage was growing well above previous levels of “the 30s” and “the 40s”, averaging 50 miles or so. Despite the fact that that base was created to support road racing performances, it was having a spillover effect in my trail speed. Pikes Peak was a hard race but it was doable by my training level. Speed is speed and lactate threshold is lactate threshold, apparently.

Prior to Calico I had finally gotten back up to some really strong big mileage weeks, and without injury. From marathon training I know that race success for almost any distance is primarily three things: base mileage, specific speed training, and not getting over-trained. Just before Calico I had logged a good number of 50-60 mile weeks with tons of climbing. Much of that was due to my move to Los Angeles and my newfound trail running partner, Geoff. We ran and ran and ran and enjoyed the company through December and January. Barring acute injury, I was strong and potentially a wee bit fast.

Elevating the ankle post-race

Acute injury, you say? Yep! After weeks of high mileage and lots of climbing, I followed that with some accidental low-mileage weeks with a stomach flu and some travel-related sleep deprivation and holiday disrupted training time. Just one week before Calico I put together a devastating combination: I ran a flat 8 miles on worn-out shoes, AND changed the seat position in my car to make my clutch leg extend in a new way. Sounds minor, but no. BOOM. Anterior Tibialis Tendonitis. I’ve had this injury before and it’s not fun. Since then I have increased my recovery knowledge in a big way, so immediately I went with icing and anti-inflammatories. I did not cancel the race, trusting the recovery.

I went into Calico with a lot to lose but much to gain.

I slowly chugged up the slope to the half-way mark around mile 16 in three hours flat. Not bad. Jogging all the way up a hill was not my idea of fun, but I got it done and now it was time for some moderately flat stuff and then a whole lot of rolling downhill. I saw my boyfriend Geoff somewhere around here, leaving the aid station as I arrived. Or the other way around.

As I meandered down the next section I remember someone saying there is a scrambling chute kind of thing and OH YES there it is! It’s actually a bit of a rock slide and I waste a little bit of time picking gingerly down it, babying my foot and my sense of balance. When finally at the bottom I take off again, now in mile 20+ feeling a bit of a surge. There’s a long and gentle downhill that I feel like a luge sled, gently swooping through curves and trying to pick off runners. I get a few, and make my way to the scariest part of the course (to me): the jeep trails.

Jeep trails scary? Yeah, just wait until you see these things. Up and down and up and down at crazy angles with ball bearing pebbles on hard dirt. It’s a recipe for slips and butt slides, but somehow I keep it under control and my ass intact.

Woot! Here’s the final aid station with less than 4 miles to go; they are amazed that I am jabbering and in good spirits. My mood in ultras is often the opposite of everyone around me: slow and morose in the beginning, neutral and apprehensive in the middle, and giddy and “get ‘er done” at the end. It confounds aid stations but makes the end of races a huge morale booster for me when I pass people who have run out of mojo.

The last few miles drag on, and on, despite what I just said. At one point you get within a few hundred yards of the ghost town and the finish, only to loop around again through a distant parking lot and up a steep hill to gain the finish chute (thankfully downhill). I’m happy even if my leg is complaining, and cross the line in 5:44 with a slight negative split and a 1st place master’s female. Sweet.

Finisher’s awards are gorgeous: hand-painted rocks!

What happened with the tendonitis? Proper anti-inflammatories kept it tamped down, but I did have to gimp around a little in the next month and yes, it did play a dampening role on my Black Canyon 100K in mid February. But all in good training, good learning, and a good January out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere east of Barstow, that strangely large little roadside town.

It seems unlikely that folks truly intend to stop in Barstow, whether for a night or for a lifetime. I could be wrong about that. Perhaps Barstow has a bit of hidden charm. Or perhaps it is just not all that much different, for better or for worse, than any other place. When I stop in Barstow, it is for one of two reasons: a pit stop for gas and/or coffee and/or sugar, or staying at a hotel for the Calico 50K.

See you there: January 21, 2018!

3 Things No One Warns You About Post Thru-Hike

Near the end of a thru-hike you’re going to feel this crazy stew of emotions from being on top of the world—a la Jack on the railing in Titanic—to bottoming out as you see the last few stretches of trail before you, panicked about regular life and wanting the miles to just stretch on and on without end.

All of that is normal, and fodder for more posts. But today it’s that aftermath we’re delving into. What happens a day after. A few days. A week, and more. Transitioning back to some kind of a civilized life is fraught with complications from paying rent again to the luxury of using more than 3 squares of TP at a time.

Lots of these things are written about. But no one warned me about a few of them, so I am warning you now. Take heed and you might not get bitten as I did.

If the shoe fits.... otherwise, I guess I'll just shove them in anyway.

1. Normal shoes won’t fit.

Anyone who wears “dressy” shoes (this means women but a lot of men, too!), take note. If you sized your hiking boots or shoes correctly, your feet will have gradually loosed up and your bones spread out as the muscles got stronger and you accumulated miles and miles under weight. I am not exactly the kind of person who has a closet full of high heels or perfectly fitting dress shoes. But even I had some issues with running shoes. Running shoes! My “just barely enough room” pair are now definitely a no-go. My “nice and tight” pair, same thing. I could theoretically wear them with bare feet for walks or easy runs, but socks? Forget it. Plan to need to buy at least a pair or two for your hobbit-sized footies, at least for now.

in-n-out double double

Gluten? Why not?

2. Re-feed bloat is real.

It is pretty well known that after the trail, a hiker cannot just keep pounding down the Probars and the pots full of refried beans with Fritos (still the best trail food ever, IMO). Your metabolism is gonna crash and crash hard in the days and weeks after you finish. Sure, go ahead and have some celebratory meals but pay attention to hunger. If your body responds fairly well, your true hunger should go down to match your activity level. What I didn’t expect is that after becoming a digesting machine on the trail with barely one meal leaving my gut before I felt weak with hunger again, afterwards everything would slow to a crawl. My celebratory meals left me bloated and my *ahem* digestion was suddenly erratic.

Pile of gear to be sorted.

3. Slipping back into the stresses and hubbub of normal life like nothing ever happened.

I’d read a lot about a harsh landing back into normal life. Being overwhelmed by stimuli, stressed out by not having money, unable to handle humans that didn’t smell like BO and eat entire plates of nachos in one go. But no one really mentioned the possibility that one could be back at everything—the stress, the deadlines, the social media—with almost no effort at all. Life went on while you were gone, and now that you’re back everyone else will barely have noticed that you did this epic thing. Don’t let that let you think your trail was insignificant. Don’t gloat about it, but certainly remember what you did and how awesome it was. Write stuff down NOW, especially if you did not keep a trail journal. If you did journal while out there, re-transcribe it so set it more deeply in your memory. “Oh YEAH! The chipmunk that stole my steripen cap!” Remember what you did. It was difficult and amazing and scary and fun. And YOU did it. Even if you go right back into a job or family responsibilities or both, keep little reminders of how strong you can be in your life. Photos, little things you picked up on trail, messages from your buddies still out there. YOU DID THIS THING.

Remember your journey. Keep on with your life, even with your huge hobbit feet, and think about what you’d like to do next hiking season. It will come soon enough, and you’ll be better prepared next time.

How To Turn Your Next Hobby Into A Life-Sucking Obsession [A Guide]

Also known as: “how to dive down rabbit holes like a boss!” I have a ton of experience in this rabbit-holing thing. I’ve gone off the deep end with interests as diverse as:

  • nutrition (and calorie restriction for longevity (hoo boy))
  • electric cars
  • hiking gear (back in 1998, hello Ray Jardine!)
  • wild edible plants
  • exercise physiology
  • straw bale houses, and even . . .
  • cryogenics

And in early 2017, it bit me again. This time it took the form of thru-hiking. I went from average ultramarathon trail runner to full-blown backpack-wearing spreadsheet-logging gear nerd in a matter of about a month. Don’t worry, there will be details. But first, a 7 Step program to deep-dive into your very own rabbit hole, from the early days of curiosity to full blow-off-your-friends obsession.

Step 1: Rabbit hole? What rabbit hole? One day, you suddenly become interested in something new. Perhaps it is something brand spanking new to you, out of your normal repertoire of interests, that you stumbled upon from a shared link or a book or a conversation. For example, you could be a laid-back introverted yoga instructor and suddenly you are fascinated by the idea of 3D printing your own shoes. It doesn’t have to be a physical activity or sport. You could get waaaaay into learning about gut bacteria. Or the history of masonry construction. Many times, it can be something tangential to another interest, an overlapping Venn circle of skills and participants. Let’s take an example that hits close to home for me this year: two decades of trail and ultra running rekindles an old spark of interest in thru-hiking. You (I) have free time and resources to bite this hobby off. It’s time!

Rabbit Hole by Jin Zan

Step 2: Oh hey, there’s a little dark tunnel over here! Wonder where that goes? Take a few steps, just for now, toward this new interest. Read up on gear, techniques, training. Read books and how-tos by those who have experience in all of those things. Follow about 100 new Instagram accounts. Do some legwork. Read a whole boatload of blogs. Watch some YouTubes. Join some groups. Buy some stuff. Research and research some more.

Step 3: Peer down the rabbit hole with curiosity. Kick some dirt down. It is now time to DO this new thing, in a not-so-small and not-so-timid chunk. All I needed was to just get a few more camping pieces to add to the gear, buy some food, and then go on a one month backpacking trip, solo.

Step 4: One foot in, both feet in: Down the hole you go. Connect deeply with the activity, body and spirit. Engage with the people out in the field. Learn about more resources WHILE you are out there actually doing this. Find out from other hikers about even more blogs and podcasts you’d not heard about before! Take mental (or physical) notes for research upon return.

Step 5: Where’s the daylight? Hello? Actually purchase Kindle books about hiking on your hike whenever you get a blip of 4G data. Order more gear from your phone from your tent. Get so excited and uncontainable you offer unsolicited advice to others out there, when you can tell that if they did X just a little differently they might enjoy Y more.

I took a LOT of notes about the Colorado Trail.

Step 6: The rabbit hole has consumed you. Your friends wonder where you went and who this obsessive person is that took your place. Already, begin thinking about improvements for the NEXT time around even before the first trip ends. Decide to get a better backpack. Ponder new trekking poles. Decide to sell some of your lightly-used but now-rejected current gear.

Stop. Right. There.

Anyone who now knows you can see this obsession from a country mile away. But if things are going to work out well for you (and your friendships), there does need to be another step or two before too long. You must move on to Step 7 if you hope to avoid your hobby becoming a life-choking dark hole of inescapable gravity.

Step 7: Climb towards the daylight again. Pause. Breathe. Stop and listen to those friends that see you becoming obnoxiously focused on one thing only. Slow the F down, already. There you go. Stop planning the next trip, the next gear upgrade, the next nutrition hack.

Write about what you’ve already done, whether or not it ever gets shared. Process. Go on walks. If you must, clean and sort and organize what items related to your obsession you already possess. Keep talking to all of those new friends you’ve met through your rabbit hole and wish them well on their current trips. Wish them well with sincerity, and without trying to hop on another project yourself right this freaking second. Go support them on their journey and write about that. Help the larger cause by making donations or volunteering your time.

Chips and Coke for a Southbound PCT hiker

Finally, once things have mellowed down, once the journals have been transcribed and the gear put away and the physical recovery finished, then you can begin again. Look at your new hobby/obsession with fresh eyes and a new eagerness. NOW, you can express your joy and experiences with the world. Push out those blog posts (right here, yo!). Send some lovely trip photo greeting cards to your family. Now, you can even think of ways you could make your experience more permanent and helpful, like a guidebook or a resource to make better gear or guide newbies on their way . . .

Because eventually, the next step will come, as well: your planning for next year’s monster adventure.

Tiny Rant: Who Are “Girls Who Hike”?

“What are you GIRLS doin’ out here on this traaaaaaiiiiil?” – Princess of Darkness, quoting a group of dudes she and another female hiker encountered on their thru hike. Yeah, it’s true that being a woman on a thru-hike seems odd to some humans (male or female). I’ve even experienced this on regular trail runs: this idea I’d be out there by myself for much of a full day is hard to comprehend.

Still, I’d like to be able to pull up the hashtag “girlswhohike” on Instagram and find stuff that is inspiring females hiking.

Not this: https://www.instagram.com/p/BZmz6D2lC4q/?tagged=girlswhohike

Perhaps this is more of a rant about hashtag hijacking, but it does bum me out to see BUMS attached to this hiker girl tagging. Granted, a lot of the photos are legit hiking shots, but a fair percentage of them are a bit on the sexy or marketing side of things. I’d like all the females out there who are interested in hiking to see powerful and awesome images rather than photos that emphasize how much hiking will tone your booty or make you a good girlfriend for some outdoorsy guy.

Maybe I chose the wrong tag. Perhaps the tag I should be watching is something a bit more . . . mature, like “womenwhohike” or “womanhiker” or “womenhikers”.

Ok, yeah, that’s more like it.

#womenwhohike: https://www.instagram.com/p/BaxW110D8dd/?tagged=womenwhohike

#womanhiker: https://www.instagram.com/p/BZTdJWClv_z/?tagged=womanhiker

#womenhikers: https://www.instagram.com/p/BaXchY3DItK/?tagged=womenhikers

I feel better now. Thanks for the quick vent opportunity, and let’s all go back to geeking out about gear, especially women’s gear. Because this lady below in the photo looks like she needs a new backpack and maybe a puffy. 🙂

Enjoyment Of The Trail Doesn’t Mean Going “Slow”

Pika, on Mt. Whitney Trail, solitary and free

Pika, on Mt. Whitney Trail, hiking its own hike, so to speak.

I heard a few times on the trail the idea that the slower one goes, the more enjoyment you can obtain from a hike. This is a dichotomy that is silly, like comparing the fun-level of an ultramarathon vs a 400 meter sprint. Both can be enjoyable, and both can be frustrating and awful.

With so much history as an endurance athlete, I find pleasure in gratuitous but slow expenditure of physical energy. A 25 mile hiking day leaves me happier in an existential sense than hiking 10 does. I feel the satisfaction in my sore feet, my sagging shoulders, the crick in my neck. This kind of daily depletion suits my physiology and temperament. It might not be the cup of tea for most folks, and that’s absolutely fine. One of the tenets of long distance backpacking is “hike your own hike”. It’s a tenet that is almost religion, but at its base is absolutely true. If 8 mile days with a late start and a nap and taking photos and chatting with other hikers is your happy place, that’s how it should be and that’s how you should hike. If your thing is 20 mile days (or 25 or 30 or even more), same thing. The grind of moving shortly after dawn, without assistance from alarm clocks, and going until you’ve only got 30 minutes of light remaining to throw up the tent and get some water boiling is simply what appeals to me.

I am not a fast-packer, one who rises before light and hiking until full dark or beyond to get miles miles miles in. Somewhere in the middle is where I lie, and what works. So far.