Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Wildcat doesn't go "meow"

After the previous weekend's Quicksilver 25K, Mrs Notthat ended up having to sit out the Brazen Wildcat race, where even the 5K includes serious climbing. That left it up to me to run the Half Marathon. I was feeling pretty good and was confident that I was going to beat last year's Wildcat Half time.

I told them I prefer non-posed pictures. Sheesh.
It was clear and sunny at the start. It wasn't warm yet, but it promised to get warm soon.

The race starts with some rolling hills but very soon hits a serious climb.

From a cumulative elevation standpoint, Wildcat is the second easiest of the Brazen Half Marathons that are part of their Ultra Half Series (only the races at Lake Chabot - New Years and Bad Bass - have less elevation). So it always amazes me how slow I go during and how tired I am after Wildcat. There are three big climbs, but they are not huge. The last climb is late in the race, and the downhill after it has some very steep bits that I generally end up gently walking down rather than running.

But still, it shouldn't be that hard.

The first aid station is early - at mile 1.5 since it is the 5K turnaround (and is at the base of that first hill).

After that aid station there is a stretch with rolling hills. And a Brazen Rabbit out marking the trail. It seems sometime yesterday some morons took down a bunch of the course ribbons, so she had to go out and remark that stretch of trail. (The morons were not very athletic, thankfully, and stuck to vandalizing the relatively flat bit of the course.)

The second aid station is at about mile 3.3. It is where the 10K runners take a left and start their way back to the finish (up that last hill on the above chart). The Half runners keep heading out, knowing that they will be back much later to take their turn up that last hill.

The Half runners have a short out-and-back they have to complete before they head up that second hill. I like how you can see the runners out on the out-and-back in this picture - WAY ahead of me.

The Bermuda Triangle of this course. The out-and back is on the right, the second hill is through that gate being guarded by the brave volunteer, and the bottom of that second hill comes in on the left where you head back to that second aid station and the last hill. (The purple is courtesy of the sun glaring on my lens. Or maybe it had something to do with today's Ultima flavor.)

Lots of volunteer paparazzi out on the course!
I like this out-and-back because you get a chance to see a lot of the runners both ahead of and behind you. As usual, there were a LOT of them ahead of me and only a few behind me.

At the end of the out-and-back you start up that second hill, which is particularly mean since it frequently looks like you can see the top, only to get there and find that it's not nearly the top. It's also mostly exposed up this climb, and by now it's getting a bit warm.

The third aid station, where I was soundly taunted by my arch-nemisis - Yram (not her real name).
Eventually you make it to the top and get to head back down, with about a mile or so on pavement.

Even the cows, of which there were many along the course, looked at me with taunting expressions.

These two guys were from Guadalajara, and were a lot of fun along the course. This creek crossing is more challenging than it looks. Mrs Notthat can tell you all about it from last year.
After going along the pavement for a bit, we turn off onto the best part of the whole course - a stretch of downhill single-track that spends a lot of time in shady trees.

All good things come to an end though, and we finally make it back to the second aid station where we have to now make a right and go up that last hill.

Heavy sigh.

By now it is pretty warm (but not really hot, and there is a nice breeze, but still, the sun is relentless) and the rest of the course is almost all exposed. But we are at about mile 10 here - less than a 5K left.

But it's a doozy.

"Hey Nerak (not your real name) - how high is this hill?"

There were many amazing views along the course. I paused often to take pictures of them, especially while climbing that last hill.

The Brazen Rabbit making sure no one missed this turn. I wanted to test her, but I REALLY did not want to miss this turn.
If you stick with it though, you eventually make it back to the top of that first hill, where you make a right and head down to the finish line.

I paused at that point and looked back nostalgically towards the hill I had just come down. I made a rude gesture then turned and headed to the finish.

An amazing sight. A WAY less than amazing finish time.

Photo by Not a Canadian. I seem to be listing a bit.

I finished, and I wasn't dead last. (But I was pretty close.) I did not beat last year's time, but I wasn't that far from it either. I like this course and am determined to one day not let it beat me down. It was sad seeing Mrs Notthat sitting on the side while letting her legs heal (she has since done a couple of test runs and it appears she is nearly recovered from the Grand Canyon thing).

It was great getting this race done (number three for me in the Brazen Ultra Half Series) and I'm looking forward to the much easier Brazen Nitro Half next.

Guaranteed wildcat-free!

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Just because "Quick" is in the name doesn't mean you have to be fast (thankfully)

Last year I ran the Quicksilver 25K and struggled a bit at the end. My finish time was abysmal, and this year I knew it would be easy to beat that time. Plus Mrs Notthat ended up sick and missed last year's race and was tired of me going on about how well done it was - this year she would get to find out for herself.

But the weekend before this year's 25K, Mrs Notthat and I decided to do the Rim to River to Rim Grand Canyon thing. Which left us both more than a bit tired after all that downhill followed by all that uphill.

Nothing like getting checked in by an amazing ultra-runner who is also ultra-adorable!
We arrived in plenty of time for checking in. It was already very sunny which meant it would soon heat up. (It ended up getting quite hot very shortly.)

Volunteer: "No downhill for you! Keep going up!"
The course starts with a few rolling hills just to lull you in, and then smacks you with a serious uphill stretch.

Weird Haired Mom signed up for the 50K version of this race, and the long distance runners (there was a 50M version too) started two hours before us. Since her squeeze Needs Cool Name is reasonably bright and didn't sign up for the 50K (or anything else that ended in a "K" or "M"), he had some time to kill while waiting for her to make it to various points on the course. So he spent a lot of time loudly cheering on the other runners - he ended up a celebrity of sorts since he was out there the whole day and was really hard to miss. It really perked me up seeing him here.

But not quite enough. The way the course is laid out, after that first hill you end up back pretty close to the start area. I knew this and had promised myself that if I wasn't feeling it (and I wasn't), I would just head on to the start area and call it a day while waiting for Mrs Notthat to finish. (I hadn't seen Mrs Notthat since the first 100 yards of the race. I figured that she was halfway to being done by now.)

But when I got to the point where I had to make the call - keep going or pack it in - there were all these people standing there cheering. I was pretty sure that all of them could easily tackle me if I tried to skip the turn, and I knew that the best part of the course was to the left. So I really had little choice and made the left turn onto some of the best single-track around.

And figured I'd just have to get through the next 13 miles as best I could.

One thing was sure; Mrs Notthat was going to be waiting a LONG time for me to finish.

I really like this bit of trail. A lot.

At mile 6.4, I arrived at the first aid station. I was thrilled to see these guys, mostly because it meant I had less than ten miles left. The single-track had helped me feel like I had a reasonable chance of finishing, although if I had been presented with an easy way to drop it would have been really tempting. But it looked like these guys had hiked in here, so catching a ride back was not going to happen. And I was felling good enough to make it to the next aid station in any case.

And then the strangest thing happened about a half mile from there.

There was Mrs Notthat. While I was having my own personal minor struggles, it turned out that she was having actual meaningful struggles with her knees. The first hill had went well for her, but halfway down that single-track her knees rebelled and forced her to start walking.

Suddenly my issues were trivial and I decided to hang with her. (I also figured she would start to feel better soon and leave me in the dust, so I would enjoy this time together.)

At mile 9.7 we made it to the Dam aid station, run by the Steven's Creek Striders. Their aid stations are legendary, and this one was no different - there was an amazing amount of food, hydration options, and volunteers. Which was a good thing since some runners would hit this aid station three times.

What a great looking picnic table!
As we went along together, I began to realize Mrs Notthat was really hurting and wasn't going to suddenly get better, and also that there was no way she would drop. Even worse, it was going downhill that caused her the most pain. This was sad for two reasons: 1) She LOVES running downhill and 2) There was a LOT of serious downhill ahead of us.

"If you can get it started, I can drive it" she said. Sadly, I have no hot wiring skills.
Yes, there were many stunning views.

One of the greatest sounds was hearing NCN cheering for runners somewhere up ahead, which meant the last aid station, mile 14.5, couldn't be too far away. And it wasn't.

These volunteers were amazing. Mrs Notthat sat down and they brought her bags of ice to put on her knees. After a nice long rest, we decided we had to get going - there was only 1.5 miles left. The scary thing was that most of that 1.5 miles was downhill. Some of it obnoxiously so.

Mrs Notthat worked out that not bending her knees made her look like a dork. But it also made it possible to keep going.

Eira (not her real name) suggested a piggyback ride. Photo by NCN.
For the really steep bits though, I pretended to be a mobile hand rail. Yes, we looked dorky and about as far away from being trail runners as you possibly could, but the important thing was that WE WERE GOING TO FINISH! PROBABLY!

And before we knew it (HA! It was well after we knew it), we arrived at the finish line!

Photo-finish (by NCN)! Who do you think won?
We were determined to cross the finish line at the same time, causing total chaos for the Quicksilver timing people. My secret plan had been to hesitate a tiny bit and let Mrs cross first, but this picture shows that I failed at that. But somehow the timing people read my mind and Mrs Notthat officially beat me by a second.

And then we rested and ate and drank and ate some more. This Quicksilver race (which always sells out) is known for its great trails and organization, but it is REALLY famous for its post-race BBQ - yes, there were hot dogs and burgers and chicken, but also ribs and (sit down for this) lobster. And snow cones. And coolers filled with an amazing assortment of fine beers, sodas and juices. This group knows how to throw a party!

Weird Haired Mom being paced to her 50K finish by the grandkids. Photo by NCN.
WHM had many struggles of her own in dealing with her 50K, most involving GI issues. (The heat was nobody's friend either.) But she stuck with it (having a 50M race going on at the same time means there are no real cutoffs for the shorter distances) and managed a much more energetic finish than we had.

The shirt the 25K runners received and the mug all finishers got.
50K and 50M runners didn't get a shirt. They got this AWESOME race bag instead. (Decorations optional.)

In the end, I set a new, even more abysmal finish time PW (personal worst) for this race. But the really cool thing is that we both finished a race that pushed us to our limits for the second weekend in a row. And even better, we both can't wait for next year when we can run this race properly.


That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Grand Canyon Rim to River to Rim - no DNFs allowed

Well, technically you can DNF, but it's not easy and it will be expensive.

Mrs Notthat and I headed to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to meet up with a group of Rock Stars that planned to do the Rim to Rim to Rim in one day thing. (Spoiler alert: They succeeded gloriously!). Mrs Notthat and I, joined by the mother of one of the Rock Stars (Hi Eyaf! Not your real name!) were much wiser and went from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch and back up to the South Rim.

I don't think I ended up looking this bad (having frogs on your hat can cover a lot of issues), but I sure felt that bad.
There were a lot of signs that told you not to do the Rim to River to Rim in one day. (Weirdly, I saw no signs that said not to do the Rim to Rim to Rim in one day.)

We saw this sign the next day. Other than me not being that fit, sunburned, or having that much hair, that's a dead ringer for me.
We caught the 4:30 AM shuttle bus at the Visitor Center to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Our group had seven people in it, but there were over twenty on the bus, and more already at the trailhead when we got there. And all of us were looking to do things that were highly frowned on.

This is from my GPS watch (I got it started a bit late and it petered out just before I made it to the top). We were doing the classic route by heading out on the shorter but steeper trail to the bottom (South Kaibab has no water available along it) and returning on the longer but less steep Bright Angel trail, which has multiple water stops.

It's about 7.5 miles down and about 9.5 back up.

This elevation profile exaggerates the difference in steepness between the two trails since it is based on time. But it shows how quickly we got to the bottom (and we were taking it pretty easy - real runners got there very quickly).

This one is based on miles, and gives you a better idea of the difference in steepness. (You can ignore the random spikes since they didn't really happen. Probably.)

At 4:42 AM we were headed down the South Kaibab trail. It was pretty cool out (in the 40s) and still very dark. We all had headlamps, but the trail is a bit treacherous since it is maintained with mules in mind with lots of erosion-control logs (also known as "trip factories") placed across it.

Mrs Notthat and I chose to walk during this stretch, which would also give Mama Rock Star a chance to catch up to us (she made a last minute toilet stop and started a bit after us).

It was really cool looking down and seeing the headlamps along the trail.

It's not really as light as this picture makes it look like, but it is finally getting lighter. And the canyon is really showing off its stuff.

This is at the Cedar Ridge bathrooms, about 1.5 miles from the start. There is no water along this trail, but there are a couple of bathrooms. And it's light enough now that we no longer need headlamps.

A bit further down the trail and you can see that the sun is starting to light up the higher walls.

We had been going for a bit over an hour and finally got our first glimpse of the Colorado River. Things looked deceptively close as you went along - we were still a LONG ways away from the bottom.

 LOTS of switchbacks as we headed down (and you can see the logs I was talking about).

Generally, due to the lack of water, few hike up this trail to the rim. These two guys (and a few other people we met later) were doing exactly that though. In their case, they had camped at the bottom and had started out early so they would make this climb while it was still cool and wouldn't need as much water.

The stunning views were relentless.

As were the switchbacks.

Eventually you make it to this tunnel…

… with this on the other side. This is called Black Bridge. I hate walking on suspension bridges, but this one (and the next one you will see) were very stable, probably to keep the mules happy.

Just before we got to the bridge, we had the option of bypassing the river crossings (and Phantom Ranch) and taking a shortcut to the Bright Angel Trail. We were curious about Phantom Ranch though, so we chose to add the bonus distance (probably a mile and a half) and go see the joint.

One reason for heading out early was to avoid the mules that start down shortly after 5 AM. This group passed us as we were heading to the ranch.

Phantom Ranch has cabins and a campground, but they are all pretty much booked up months in advance. The chances of you getting to this point and deciding to stay the night on the spot are not good. (They also serve meals, but you have to book those well in advance too.)

We got to the ranch at about 7:43. We had not seen Mama Rock Star yet, but had talked to others that had passed her and said she was doing fine, loudly singing Italian Rock Star songs as she came down the trail.

She showed up at about the time the store opened.

The store is small. The lemonade is famous (but likely just because you worked so hard to get it) as are the post cards you send from here that are stamped with "Delivered by Mule." There are only two ways to get to Phantom Ranch - you either hike down or show up in a raft coming down the river. So there are very minimal comforts here (and no trash cans - you must carry your trash out with you).

We ended up spending about an hour at the ranch, but eventually we had to head out. We took the Silver Bridge back across the river. The trail doesn't immediately start the long climb back up to the rim; instead you go about a mile or so along the river.

There was a bit of confusion - we thought Mama Rock Star had headed out a bit before us, but it turned out she was actually in the toilets and was behind us (she's on that bridge down there - really).

There are actually several creek crossings you have to navigate. I used these to wet my hat. It had been surprisingly cool at Phantom Ranch, but once we started back up the trail it warmed up quickly.

You would climb and climb and climb and the top never looked any closer. If you turned around though, you could see that you were making great progress.

The first place for water, and the halfway point (mileage-wise), was Indian Gardens. This is considered to be the very farthest it is safe to go if you are coming down the Bright Angel trail, and there were a lot of people here that had done just that. It was a bit before noon at this point and the temperature in the sun was almost 100. (In the shade it was a bit over 80.) At this point we were all feeling pretty good, but I was starting to drag a bit. We've got about 4.6 miles to go, but about 2/3 of the climbing ahead of us.

I did OK for about a mile and then started falling apart miserably. We took frequent rest breaks wherever we could find shade (most shady spots had lots of people already there, so this was harder than it sounded).

It took 70 minutes to go about a mile and a half to the Three Mile Resthouse (and its water). Note that as a cruel prank, these resthouses always had a set of stairs to climb to get up to them.

I tried to talk Mrs Notthat and Mama Rock Star into going on ahead while I took a nice long rest, but they were stubborn. And it's not like the views were awful. It was a bit before the Mile and a Half Resthouse that I first started to have serious nausea issues and began to look like that sunburned guy.

We finally made it to the Mile and a Half Resthouse nearly two and a half hours later. Two and a half hours to go one and a half miles. And there is still one and a half miles to go. And as with the previous miles, it's all uphill and mostly all in the sun.

It was at this point I found a nice shady spot to lie in and Mrs and Mama finally agreed to go on without me. I really wanted a nice long rest. After about 20 minutes, I ended up reprising my role in that above picture, and as I was gathering myself this guy went by. This is the equivalent of an ambulance. My first thought was that Mrs Notthat had sent him after me, but it turned out he was destined for someone in worse shape.

Shortly after him came a ranger that Mrs had talked to, and we talked for a bit. I convinced her I was fine, and weirdly, I really was - the rest had done wonders. I managed to cover the next mile or so with no stopping.

That included going through this first arch.

Once I did pause, the ambulance came back by. I feel a bit bad, but look at that guy - WAY fitter looking and younger than me. I was going to get out of this on my own power, and seeing him made me feel a lot better about the day. (Sorry for that, anonymous guy who, for all I know, had a broken leg or something else seriously wrong.)

I had one more episode of adding to the color of the trail, then made it to the second arch.

There was still about a quarter mile to go, but I was close now.

And eventually I made it. That last mile and a half took me about another two and a half hours. So from Indian Garden to the top (4.6 miles) took me a bit over six hours. YIKES! (On their own, Mrs Nothat and Mama Rock Star would have made it much faster, likely under four hours.)

This was amazingly hard. I think there were three main issues I faced: a lack of training (although I had just done a trail Half Marathon with about half as much climbing two weeks before), a lack of eating proper foods (I had a peanut butter sandwich at the ranch, but should have had another at Indian Garden), and the elevation. We are from the coast, and while the elevation at the rim is not extreme (around 7000 feet), it is much higher than I am acclimated to. I didn't really have any pain (a minor blister on my foot was about it) - I just felt thoroughly exhausted for that last three miles. And the stomach issues REALLY didn't help.

I really don't do well in heat. (Fun fact; another group of people we knew camped out near the ranch and did this hike the next day. It was thirty degrees cooler and cloudy. We had nicer views but they had a WAY nicer hike.)

The next day I felt amazingly recovered with only a little soreness.

Oh, and about the Rock Stars; after a shower and a slice of pizza I headed back to the trailhead to greet them. Last year they had done this same trail (it's about 50 miles to go from Rim to Rim to Rim) and finished after 11 PM. This year they were done by a bit after 9 PM. And still managing to smile.

That's just not right.

This is an amazing hike. You can do it but be sure to get some training in and it wouldn't hurt to spend a couple of days getting acclimated to the elevation. Take WAY more water than you think you will need (you won't need much getting down to the river and can fill up at the ranch). I filled my bladder at the ranch and at Indian Garden. I also had a bonus bottle that I carried to dump water on my head to keep cool. That turned out to be a lifesaver since I was convinced that my bladder was about half full at the last place for water (Mile and a Half Resthouse) and didn't bother to top it off. A bit later and it was dry (the bottle was nearly full though, so water was not an issue).

Eat lots of real food even though you won't feel like it. (This is easy to say and very hard to do.)

Take your time. It's not a race and the views are spectacular. If you need to sit for thirty minutes, do it.

But mostly, be aware that there is no shortcut or way to raise your hand and say uncle and get picked up. I know of one person that had to be helicoptered out, and of course there was Fit Guy on the mule. At 9 PM you could still see a lot of headlamps down below. When one of the Rock Stars came out, there were two guys behind him that had headed down on a lark and had not bothered to take more than a small water bottle - they had no idea they would be finishing in the dark, and I'm sure they were far from alone in thinking that.

It really is dangerous if you are not prepared, but thinking ahead a bit makes this very doable. And it can be fun too - absurdly challenging fun, but still fun.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see a LOT of my pictures of the hike down here, the hike up here, and the drive home here.

PPS: A HUGE thanks to Rock Stars Eyaf and Kcirtap (not their real names) for inviting us along on this adventure! You guys are amazing!