As I sit writing this I’m shivering like a frightened Chihuahua hugging fresh coffee with my left foot ankle-deep in an ice bucket. It’s the day after our final long training run for our Grand Canyon ultramarathon. Over the weekend of April 22nd the coaching staff for the Team in Training San Francisco Peninsula running team will be taking on the extreme challenge of running from the South rim to the bottom, then up to the top of the North rim and back again – all in the same day. For me this is the Down in my Down, Up and Around 2011 running season and I’m beginning to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
Twice during the past month we have embarked on a simulation of this run that pales in comparison to the actual event – seriously, you try to come up with a desert, rocky canyon run in the Bay Area in early spring. It did provide the down, up, down up elevation change the canyon will have but not the temperature, altitude or full-sun exposure extremes that await us.
Our diorama started at the Skyline Road entrance to Wunderlich Park in San Mateo County, went top to bottom through this park, then through Woodside to Huddart Park, bottom to top (to Skyline Road again) and back. Mileage was a little hard to judge as most of this run was under a canopy of trees blocking GPS signals (and so we decided not to bring them). In Wunderlich, we went down Alambique Trail and back up Bear Gulch Trail for a round trip of about 10 miles. Through Huddart we went up Crystal Springs Trail and back Dean Trail for a round trip of around 12 miles. Google Maps says the trek between the two parks is 4.3 miles for a round trip of 8.6. So our training run was roughly 30 miles. That’s still between 12 and 18 miles short of our actual event.
However, I did learn a few things from this self-made mini Canyon run. First, when you start a race by going downhill, it is deceptively easy to start out too fast. Second, the first ascent feels easier than you may have feared. Third, the final ascent doesn’t.
Coach Cam and myself took on this run first, and sadly picked one of the rainiest days this spring. It poured nearly the entire day. We started out our run trying to avoid streams rushing along where trail should be but after the first couple splashdowns we stopped caring about trying to keep our feet wet. On the way down Alambique a downed tree blocked our way in the second mile. We did our best limbo and pushed on. We hopped a few logs, forded some newly-formed streams and swerved through Woodside to avoid rain gutters that seemed to be doubling for fire hoses as they blasted out more water than they were designed to accommodate.
As we entered Huddart Park we saw signs and course markings from Pacific Coast Trail Runs. It seems an official trail marathon was on our course. We entered the park around 9am but only saw a couple runners blast past us. We found the rest of them on the way back down from Skyline. First came the distance runners who we would see once again at the top of Wunderlich. They were doing a 50K that included a short cut trail between the two parks along the Skyline Ridge. Not us. We went back down to Woodside for that. As we made one turn along Crystal Springs Trail we came into frame of a race photographer who thought about taking a picture of us, until he realized we were running the wrong way. Cam confirmed to him that we were not lost but with no one behind us, we certainly felt like we were leading.
Back down to Woodside and over to Wunderlich for the final climb was a slog. More constant rain, more gushing downspouts and a bit more traffic this time. We took advantage of every trail we could to get off Woodside Road. Sadly one of the trails we chose had mud deep enough that it almost took our shoes. That would happen again on our final trek up to Skyline. Had the mud succeeded I’m sure I would have let it have them.
We entered Wunderlich and started to climb but about half-way up fighting the elements was taking its toll. I had made a nutrition error. I brought my usual marathon nutrition – a PowerBar to start, Power Bar Endurance drink in the Nathan backpack and PowerBar Gels for fast fueling while running. However, ultras tend to require solid food and my body was craving some this run. I started to get a little light headed which isn’t good when you need fast, nimble feet. Thankfully I had packed an extra PowerBar for the finish and it did the trick. When we would attempt this same run the second time, I came with multiple PowerBar Protein Bars so this wouldn’t happen again.
Climbing through Wunderlich after 24-plus miles of mud, cold and elevation took its toll on us. We had to walk several times but finished the run in around six hours.
On the second attempt the weather was completely different, as was the companionship. Cam was replaced by coaches Terry and Kim. Terry is our ultramarathon man with multiple 50, 75 and 100 milers under his belt. Neither Kim, nor I had gone further than 50K before. Terry shared some of his sage advice along the run such as how to go out (slower than you think), how to fuel (solid foods if you can tolerate them) and what to pack (as lightly as possible).
Repeating this run was good and bad for me. The good part was finishing stronger than the first time, knowing my gear and nutrition plan worked (at least the second time) and getting yet another long run under my belt prior to the Canyon. The bad was knowing that, even though it was a sunny and warmer day, it still wasn’t even close to the extremes we will face later this month. Still, I know I will be attempting this with seasoned runners and we have vowed to leave no one behind. If any of us has a bad day, we all do. And we also know we aren’t doing this for time but for the experience, camaraderie and beauty of it.
As much as I am nervous, I am equally excited for this run. While I have been to the Grand Canyon before, I haven’t made it down to the Colorado River before and never seen the North rim. I can’t think of a better group of people to be doing this with. Wish us luck and good weather.
Oh yeah, and the following weekend is The Relay. That should be a nice recovery run.