Sunday, August 26, 2007

Heat Trumps Hills: the A-10 Report

Course map of the Annapolis 10-mile race, which treats runners to a stroll through downtown Annapolis, the Naval Academy, and the Old Severn River Bridge. From the Annapolis Striders website.

A couple things occurred to me today, while running the 32nd annual Annapolis 10-Mile Run:

1. Heat trumps hills
2. I don't like racing very much, at least not during the race.

The day started meeting Stephen Bardsley and his son Joshua at the Stevensville Park & Ride, and cruising to Annapolis to pick up another runner, John from Gaithersburg, and go pick-up packets at the Naval Academy's Marine Corps Stadium.

A year or two ago, Runner's World voted the A-10 one of the top ten 10-mile races in the United States. This is not without reason. Running through Annapolis and the Naval Academy is a great perk. The old Severn River Bridge is a rite of passage. And the folks who live across the bridge, as if to apologize for their hilly-arse neighborhood, are out in force with extra water stops, orange slices, and encouragement. That's the upside. The downside to popularity is that over 5,000 runners sign up to enjoy Maryland's capital city.

After a successful, pain-free packet pick-up, I snagged a pack of Clif Shot-blocks from a store set-up, talked shop and expectations with Stephen and John, and then each of us made our way through the starting gauntlet to find our place in the packing order. I wouldn't see Stephen again until mile 7 or so, coming back toward me on a turnaround, and would catch John after the race.

The silver lining to today's heat: we didn't run yesterday in the 90-degree-plus sweat box. The downside: Annapolis at the end of August is hot. Period. And heat sits like a howler monkey on my shoulders during races--it weighs my shoulders down, smacks the back of my skull, and laughs while I suffer.

Ten miles is not that far a distance for me to run, even these days, at the front-end of marathon prep. But it sprawled longer than advertised today. I hit the first few mile marks in the 8 minutes and 20 seconds range, which was where I wanted to be. I opted to carry an Amphipod waist bottle pack, since I needed the extra fluids in Chestertown this past May.

Funny, small-world running story: from about miles 2 to 6, I was running just behind and around an uber-tan lady dressed in black with an Amphipod waistband, black visor, etc. Through talking to folks around her, it became apparent that she was a triathlete. When I heard her talk, I recognized her voice, did the math, and picked her out as the same lady with whom I ran about 10 miles of the Holiday Lake 50K in February--Melissa Simmens from Columbia. I was pretty sure, but opted not to pipe up, since I figured I'd drop the pace before long. Checking race times, confirmed it was her. People look different when they aren't running outside in 12 degree weather!

Anyway, I stopped at aid stations, used some of my own Gatorade, ran in a trance through most of the middle of the race, then at about mile 7.5, had to duck into the woods as nature called and let me know I would enjoy the rest of the race more with an empty bladder. Consequently, I may be one of the few A-10 runners to get wicked leg scratches from thorns during the race.

The extra pit stop was a good call--the Severn River Bridge was not a problem, and I passed a fair amount of folks in the last mile of the race, with a will that felt bent out of shape by the heat, but thankfully legs that decided to run on their own. I crossed the finish line in 1 hour, 25 minutes, and 23 seconds, corrected time, for a per mile race pace of 8:32. Official standings make that 1093 out of 4376 finishers. The good news here is that my hungover 6-year-old time was 1:26:59, so I accomplished my goal. The mixed news is that this means I won't be training for future A-10s by partying the day before the race.

Catching up with Stephen, he finished the race in 1:17:31, corrected time, for a pace of 7:45 (446 out of 4376 finishers). He was pleased with his race, and slugged down all the water he carried on a Nathan belt, as well as grabbing water at aid stations. I don't know John's last name to look him up. For full results, visit the Annapolis Striders website and click on "2007 results" under the race name.

The real race day highlight came as Stephen and his wife Lauren hosted a post A-10 cookout/pool party, complete with a moon-bounce for the kids. A great mix of kids, runners, teachers, and more than enough food, Corona and Miller Lite to put back on what we sweat out. Many thanks and mad props to the Bardsley family--the next post race, or for no reason at all, get-together will have to be in Talbot County!

A painful, hilly 10-mile race leaves me in an interesting spot for the next couple months of running. I have to take the mileage of my long runs and stretch it like salt-water taffy to get ready for the Baltimore Marathon and the JFK 50 miler. I really don't know what the hell I was thinking signing up for a 50-mile race!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Upward Mobility

I ran the Annapolis 10-miler hungover. It was my first race longer than 10K. Six years ago, motivated by friends who thought a bunch of us should give it a go. I trained well, knew what I wanted to do, then a friend had a big party the day before the race.

Those that know the A-1o course will tell you: it's hilly and hot (the race always takes place the last weekend in August). My training was all Talbot County roads, and no hills. And I didn't drink water or Gatorade when running; I knew nothing about hydration during a race. I suffered supremely the second time over the old Severn River bridge.

I still managed to finish in about 1 hour, 26 minutes. Miles 9 and 10 were brutal, but I never stopped to walk. It wasn't until marathon training that I found the advantage to a run-walk combo, particularly while drinking or eating.

So I guess my goal going into Sunday's A-1o--my first one since--is to hopefully better my old, beer-sweating, quad-burning time. We have certainly logged some hills en route to Annapolis this year--Holiday Lake, Cherry Pit, Tuckahoe, and the Whites.

Two years ago, I was training for my first marathon. I had hoped to include Annapolis as a training race (like this year), but forgot to sign up before it filled. While the race was going on, I was knocking out an 18-mile run on St. Michaels Road--the farthest I had run at the time. It was a good run. But come Baltimore, I wasn't ready for the hills and suffered through the second half of the race.

So here's to upward mobility. To running hills. To having the legs and the lungs to take on the Severn River bridge, downtown Baltimore, and the hilly AT section of the JFK. And to flat recovery runs in between!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tucks and Frog, Part III: Return to Pinkham

A view of Madison Springs Hut on the way up Mt. Madison. A group of nurses who treated Wood Frog's head-butting scar were on their way up Mt. Adams, next door.

The only thing harder on your feet than climbing mountains is descending mountains. Particularly when the descent is largely hopping from rock to rock. To avoid the day-long journey to the land below treeline, the first thing we did was summit Mt. Madison via the Osgood Trail, which is also the way of the Appalachian Trail.

I've read Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods, and there are stretches of the Gulfside and Osgood Trails that left me scratching my head as to how the self-described hapless Bryson traversed the rock fields. You do indeed pass people of all shapes and sizes in the Whites.

The Wood Frog prefers to do his hopping above treeline. Since our trip, he has been back to the Whites and stayed in Lakes of the Clouds hut with his daughter Olivia. You simply can't bring him down to sea level at times (seen at left on the summit of Mt. Madison), which makes for a great hiking attitude.

The last day's descent was the foot killer for me, despite lacing the Hardrocks tight and sporting two pairs of socks. Osgood shoots over to the Madison Gulf Trail, which put us onto delicious wooded single-track with falls and stream crossings, and I bolted down the trail, in part to redeem myself for being slower on the rocky downhill early.

The stream crossings were highlighted by an awesome swinging bridge, followed by more twists and turns through the woods. We hit the Old Jackson Road (the self-same road we did our trail run after arriving at Pinkham) after 4 hours on the trail.

We both remembered the speed of the pack-less run, and somewhat remembered the trail.

"Think we can do it in under half-an-hour?" posed the Wood Frog.

"I don't know, man, we've got packs on this go-round." Note to self: if you lean downhill with a pack on your back, it is akin to a rolling boulder picking up steam. We trucked down Jackson, arriving at Pinkham Notch 25 minutes later, with nary a drop of water left between us. Total time on trail for the day was 4 hours, 25 minutes, total distance covered was 7.8 miles. Pack weigh in showed a net loss of 7-ish pounds (water and food), giving the Frog a 23-ish pound load, and Tucks 16-ish.

The three-day fastpacking odometer reads 32 miles (plus 4 trail running), a couple summits; food consumed in Lakes, Mizpah, and Madison Huts; and one of the greatest pay-by-the-minute showers known to hikers at the Pinkham Visitor Center.

That's the short version chronology of the White Mountain adventures of Tuckerman and Wood Frog, now complete online. There has been much introspection since, and several threads followed, but those will make for another tale.

After taking about a week off of running, due to some Achilles tendon pain from the hills and rocks, I resumed running with a 13-mile slow run up St. Michaels Road this past Sunday. Though therapeutic to legs unaccustomed to altitude and mountains, Route 33 needs the assistance of an i-pod to jazz it up. The soundtrack of the Whites is not something that you can download from i-tunes.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tucks and the Frog, Part II: The Longest Day

Tucks (better known as Valliant) on his way up the Dry River Trail, during the zombie day--a 13.7 mile day, which included waterfall swimming, orienteering, climbing above treeline, and brutal ridge-walking for speed against the dinner bell. Photo by Wood Frog.

On a day in the mountains, if you find yourself descending a good bit, chances are it means there is a bigger climb waiting for you. Wood Frog and I left Mizpah Hut at 9:00 a.m.--much later than advised for the day we had planned--and started our descent into the green goodness of the Dry River Wilderness Area. From the DR Cutoff, the trail is fast, and fun to run, even carrying a pack. I learned during White Week that I am not the fastest cat on the trail when "trail" means traversing rocks and steep climbs, but turn me loose on wooded single-track and it's game-on.

We flew through the woods, mindful of moose, crossed a few streams and rivers, until we could hear the Dry River Falls just off the trail. We followed a lightly blazed trail to the falls and a crystal clear (and c-c-cold!) pool at the base of the show. Swimming holes are not made any nicer, nor much colder to a couple tidal boneheads from the Bay.

A swimming hole with a view. Dry River Falls. Photo by Wood Frog.

One thing we learned about wilderness areas: wilderness declarations trump trail maintenance. Coming across a girl and her husky on my way back to the trail from the falls, she gave fair warning that the DR Trail became tough to find and follow after a major river crossing. She, dog, and boyfriend had camped nearby (no dogs allowed in huts), and had done their share of stumbling.

Even forewarned, we managed to lose the trail. A few false starts, adept map reading (NEVER hike the Whites without the White Mountain Guide book), and some sleuth work, landed us back on the trail and beginning our ascent back toward Lakes of the Clouds Hut. One more detour from forward progress came when Wood Frog lost a head-butting match, and consequently his glasses, with a head-level branch from a fallen tree. Glasses were recovered intact, and the Frog picked up the trip-winning "tough guy" mountain scar down his forehead.

It's one thing not to do much in the way of trail clearing. It is quite another for nocturnal trail elves to fell trees at exactly waist height--where you can neither go easily under or over them--across the trail every hundred yards. Despite, or because of, its untamed difficulty, the Dry River Trail is among the most rewarding to hike. Other than the dog couple, we passed no one as we pushed above tree line. The ascent was like a shedding of earthy trappings headed up into rock-ville. We arrived at Lakes 4 hours and 52 minutes after departing Mizpah, covering 6.9 miles, and spending easily more than an hour between swimming, looking for glasses, and looking for the trail. We sat down to soup and brownies at a little after 2:00 p.m, and were out the door and headed up Crawford Path toward Madison Springs Hut towards 3:00 p.m.

Wood Frog explains to White Mountain hikers how Baltimore Orioles fans like to embellish a certain line of the Star Spangled Banner. Towards the top of Dry River Trail.

One thing to note about the huts: they serve dinner at 6:00 p.m. That time is not arbitrary or negotiable. It is 6.8 miles from the Lakes hut to Madison. Damnit, man, we're going to miss dinner!

On our way up Crawford, we pass a speed-hiking mother and daughter, with whom we'd had dinner and breakfast at Pinkham Notch. We re-greeted each other and told them what we'd been doing, where we were headed, and noted that we were concerned about making it to dinner on time. Speed mom (who had come from Madison to Lakes) thought it over and decided, "No, you guys should be able to make it, no problem."

We hooked into the Westside Trail from Crawford, and the long and ROCKY Gulfside Trail from there. Despite the urgency for our dinner date, my legs are slowing down. At the same time, the Wood Frog is hopping. We are encountering any number of hikers, as Gulfside is again part of the Appalachian Trail, with many summits and springs, as well as the Mt. Washington Cog Railroad dissecting the trail. We both come to the same unspoken realization, that the Frog's legs are our dinner reservation. He hops down the trail ahead of me, stopping at the top of a ridge to check-in with a thumbs-up. I am grateful that he is in high-gear.

Wandering into the desert or the mountains, figuratively and/or literally can expand the soul. I have had these desert experiences (also known to some as "Come to Jesus" moments) in long races, where suffering and perseverance do this self-defining jitterbug of a dance. The outcomes of those dances are inked directly into the story of your being. The Gulfside Trail to Madison has its place in my story. I had tired legs; I had wet socks; I am marginally afraid of heights; and mountain miles seem to measure on a scale which renders road running times completely meaningless.

"Cairns" are piles of rocks stacked along trails in the Whites to tell you where the hell you are supposed to be going. There is something primitive and spiritual about wandering after rockpiles through the mountains, particularly when you are stumble-drunk trying to aim yourself from one to the next. The cairn builders are not nice people. Probably they were beaten up by hikers on their grade school playgrounds, and cruelly strewing cairns over mountains is their chance at revenge. If I find one of them, I'm leaving with lunch money.

Just because you stack piles of rocks in a line, doesn't make it an actual trail. If you get lost in the White Mountains, you don't have a cairn in the world. Sorry, had to say it.

As a follower of cairns, you come to realize that when you look up at the next mountain, you can always find a cairn up near the top, then trace them right back down to you. This went on for many mountains, until I looked at my watch and realized that I hadn't eaten anything since the Lakes hut, 2 hours and 45 minutes ago. I found a rock (tough to do), sat down, housed down some gorp, then got cranking again. Gorp is good.

I finally spotted Madison Hut, tucked behind a mountain, and made my way down a winding section of trail to arrive, having covered the 6.8 miles in 3 hours and 42 minutes (still well short of the recommended hiking time). As I arrived, Wood Frog hopped out to greet me and direct me to our table. He had made it in just over 3 hours, checked in, and put my name in the pot for dinner. God Bless Wood Frog and the croo at Madison. I sat down to soup, salad, chicken casserole, peas, and a kick-arse dessert of some sort. Total mileage for the day was 13.7 miles. Mountain miles, that is!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tucks and the Frog, Part IA: Interlude (before the long haul)

Mornings at Mizpah begin with song, grub, then a weather report to get you on yer way. The dude with the raisins in his hand looks hungry. Photo by Wood Frog.

Water, food, shelter/rest, and weather. Those factors dictate the rhythm of life above and below treeline in the Whites, on the AT, or any sustained outdoor adventure. Trekking through the White Mountains, hikers are lucky to have a series of full-service huts, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). You can refuel and stockpile knowledge on each of said factors, which is what the plan was as we popped out of the woods to Mizpah Springs Hut.

The cats that man the huts are truly remarkable folks--a gauge against which I will probably measure customer service for the rest of my life. The huts are a study in conservation, self-reliance, and community. Toilets are composting, energy/refrigeration are fueled by propane tanks, supplies are hiked in and trash hiked out by the "croo." There are no napkins--that would mean more trash. Lights are out at 9:30 p.m., and you will be waking up to songs at 6:30 a.m.

We had the great fortune of having an "all-alum" croo, return to their posts from the mid-1990s, from their new roles as teachers, parents, etc. They were riotously funny, helpful, accommodating beyond belief. As we were getting ready for dinner, they announced we had an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker with us, who was working in exchange for food and bed, and who would talk about his south-bound journey after grub.

Turns out that "Woody," was the happy hiker who cruised by us on Crawford. Talking to him, he had a wonderful simplicity to his approach. He had a modest budget he was sticking to; he gave himself six months to get from Maine to Georgia, and he carried nothing he didn't absolutely need with him, including opting for no tent. He mentioned he was from Texas and that he started in Maine with a friend, who was now a day or two behind him.

W: "I'm thinking of stopping for a week or so around Washington, D.C., to visit with my grandparents, who live in Maryland."

MV: "Sounds like a sweet plan. Where do they live in Maryland?"

W (looking doubtful): "It's just a small town on the Eastern Shore, I doubt you would know it."

MV: "Try me, you might be surprised."

W: "St. Michaels."

MV: "No sh#$!"

Turns out Woody (above, real name James Woodring. You can follow his AT adventures in his online trail journals by clicking on his name) knows and digs the Maritime Museum, and is actually more than casually interested in the boatbuilding apprentice program at CBMM. Remind me to expense the trip to the Museum--apprentice recruiting.

Dinner featured the best split-pea and ham soup known to humans; bunk arrangements featured the most musi-comical snoorer (a woman) ever heard; and breakfast was carb-a-licious, followed by a weather report, and the veteran croo pulling off a skit complete with the rare Chinese blanket folder.

It's not the Village People, it's da Croo! I am almost afraid to comment farther. Photo by Wood Frog.

So that's interlude one, and puts the number of story installments at about four now. The morning of August 1 called for great weather, and we lined up our longest day of the trip. We asked around, but didn't get the full scoop on the Dry River Trail, cutting through the Dry River Wilderness, care of the Dry River Falls, which sounded worth the roundabout route. We had no idea what we were getting into, how long a day it was going to be, or the different terrain we would encounter, and certainly not the soon-to-be compulsion to crank out fast miles for food. All that and more, in the next chapter of the Adventures of Tuckerman and Wood Frog... TO BE CONTINUED

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Adventures of Tuckerman and Wood Frog - Part I

(L-R) Mikes Valliant (Tuckerman) and Keene (Wood Frog) in search of lunch on Crawford Path after summiting Mt. Washington of the first full day of their adventure.

I take it back. I have never run hills. At least not until this past week's trip to the White Mountains. When moving forward requires your hands to be pulling you upward, along with your legs, then you are running up a hill. That's a lesson I learned. Several times.

Sunday night/Monday morning, Mike Keene and I loaded clothes, gear, water, and gorp into Keene's Expedition and drove 12 hours to Pinkham Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We arrived sleep-deprived and slap-happy, checked in to the "Wood Frog" room of Pinkham's "Joe Dodge Lodge" and did what sleep-slap combo takers do: went for a 4-mile trail run.

Mike K., a Whites veteran, suggested Old Jackson Road for our run--a 2-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail, that holds mostly runnable. If you are an idiot, that is, a moniker for which I am qualified. On the way up, the trail rose quickly, and consequently fell just as quickly on the return. It was a glorious run--difficult, scenic, and freeing, especially given that we ran it carrying only a single hand-held water bottle a piece. The White Mountain Guide recommends hikers give themselves two hours to walk the trail, one way. We managed the 4-mile, round-trip in 58:07. A sublime prelude to the next three days, we then dined, family style, at Pinkham for dinner and breakfast the next morning, before leaving clock and cell-phone based comforts and reality behind and below.

To fully appreciate the beauty and simplicity of trail running, I recommend throwing a 20-pound backpack onto your shoulders. We did the math and packed what clothing, gear, food, and water were deemed necessary for the next three days and two nights, knowing we would be having meals and be able to refill water at the Appalachian Mountain Club's huts. On the way up Tuckerman Ravine, pack weigh-in put Keene's at 29-ish pounds, and mine at 23-ish.

Never underestimate having a hiking partner who knows the lay of the land. After a clear sunrise, and a good weather report, Mike recommended we re-route the day to head straight up Tuckerman (known as "Tucks" to the short-of-breath) to summit Mt. Washington. Tucks was my holy-crap, world-bending, reality check-in to the mountains. We climbed past waterfalls, over bridges, up rocks, and we climbed past hikers, shelters, and a ranger station. Then the real climbing began. Bodies of weary, but stoked hikers adorned various break-worthy stretches of Tucks' higher parts. We summited into the parking lot (aka buzzkill) at the top of Mt. Washington in 3:08:55. Other hikers we met and chatted with along the way were impressed with our speed-themed summit time. Emerging from their cars, photo-op tourists looked askew at the lot of us, asking, "did you really just hike up here?"

Wood Frog working his way up the higher stretch of Tuckerman Ravine. Fielding a question from a group of hikers a couple hundred yards below, the Frog replied, "It gets much worse."

After a quick fill of the hustle atop Washington, we descended down Crawford Path to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, in search (hope) of soup. We walked and talked for a time with Katherine (whom we met on the way up), an ER nurse and mother of 20s and teen-aged kids, recently returned from hiking in Switzerland, and was backpacking the Whites solo. The off-handed consensus of the Mikes is that she may well be one of the coolest moms on the planet, and certainly an inspiration to (us and) her children.

The Lakes Hut, and the masterful Minestrone therein did not disappoint. Note for dinner parties: combine voraciously hungry dinner guests, with a panoramic view of the mountains from your dinner table, with hearty bread and vegetable-based soup, and you will have the happiest guests possible, and lifetime fans.

With sodium and carb tanks topped off, we continued down Crawford Path, ridge-walking along the tops of mountains, stopping for the occasional jopped draw (sic) from the view and photo-op of the same. En route, we were passed by a jolly, bearded, walking stick-wielding hiker, who spoke enthusiastically, and whom we would later meet at our common destination: Mizpah Springs Hut. Crawford Path is also part of the AT, and the young gent turned out to be a thru-hiker, but more on "Wandering Woody" in the next entry.

Crawford Path is a blast--runnable in stretches, scenic, and after its ridge-walking reputation, not afraid to plunge head-on into the woods to take its travelers to the AMC Hut known as Mizpah Spring. The end of the first full day of our adventure (total miles, 10.5) and the scene for the beginning of the next act...(To be continued)