Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Whistler Backpacker - Part 1

I have hiked trails. I have run trails. I have camped in tents. But I have never gone on a multi-day adventure hiking trails with a 20-30 pound pack on me.

This was the single most thing I dreaded in signing up for my first backpacking trip. My experience in ultra running, and experience hiking and running trails gave me the confidence in conquering trails with several thousand feet of climbing in a day. Adding 20-30 pounds on me though gives a different challenge to the whole aspect of hiking. I might have the legs of an ultra runner, but I felt like I have the upper body of a couch potato and professional beer drinker. 

Nevertheless, in my quest to check off backpacking as a bucket list item in life, I signed up to do a 3 day backpacking adventure with REI in Whistler. Whistler is in British Columbia, Canada, just 1-2 hours north of Vancouver. Summer was already winding down, so unfortunately the choices of places to go to for backpacking were getting slim to none. Still, I thought Whistler was a great choice, given I haven't been to Canada for a long time (I went once, but on a very short day trip from Seattle, Washington). 

Having never backpacked though, I had to purchase quite a few items from REI (kiddingly referred to as Really Expensive Items, I think). REI was my first choice, partly due to the Reese Witherspoon movie called "Wild" (book by Cheryl Strayed). I liked the fact that their return policy is very generous, but I had no plans to take advantage of it and return muddied hiking boots or used sleeping bags. I just wanted the expertise in choosing sturdy hiking boots (for ankle support, since I'll be using poles and carrying a pack, versus trail running shoes which might not be as sturdy for ankle support), and also choosing the right backpack (it turns out your body frame, height and even weight, matters in choosing the right backpack so you carry it with your hips rather than your shoulders). 

For the trip, I had to purchase the following:
* Hiking boots
* Compressible sleeping bag (15 degree rated)
* Sleeping pad (bought the non-inflatable one, but it's bulky in hindsight, and I should have bought the compressed one)
* Backpack (with rain cover and day pack, which I didn't know was in there, but really came in handy during the trip)
* Steel cup, bowl and mug (I could have both a compressible one, but I wanted a sturdy one that was also easy to wash)
* Hiking poles (turns out REI had some to lend during the trip, but I wasn't sure and figured I'll use it in future hikes)
* Tissue paper (for obvious reasons, I thought we needed a shovel for off trail duties, but thankfully none of us needed to do this)
* Toiletries (toothbrush, floss, toothpaste)
* Garbage bag
* Base layer (top and bottom, was listed as recommended, but I glad I bought for the cold weather)
* Rain jacket and pants 
* Down jacket (compressible)

REI Adventures provided the food for the whole trip. They gave us a bunch of bars to choose from since some in our group had peanut allergies (usually they buy a bunch of trail mix and have us scoop and put it in ziplock bags). They also had real food for our breakfast, lunch and dinner which was a welcome surprise because I was expecting the type of food that is just heated up that tasted like those microwave meals you see in grocery stores.

Day 0: Dinner at Pizzeria Antico

Our group met for the very first time at a nice pizza place in Whistler Village. We met our two guides, Hal and Christine, for the first time. Our group of adventures included Bob and Sean (father and son), Tanner and Peter (husband and wife), Ed, Cathy, Carmel, Guen and me (solo adventurers). We got to know each other over a hearty meal of pizzas, pastas, and appetizers. We also got to know what's ahead of us and collected group gear to add to our backpacks (I got the pots/pans and tissue paper, score!). We had a good mix of those who have done backpacking before (Bob, Sean, Peter, Cathy and Carmel) and those who have not done it at all (Ed, Guen, Tanner and me). 

Guen felt intimidated by the experience of the group. I reassured her after dinner that she was going to be fine and we're all new backpackers regardless of our experience hiking in the trails.

Day 1: Hike to Russett Lake

We met around 8:30 AM in the morning at Gone Village Eatery. I already had eaten a hot breakfast sandwich and drank my daily dose of coffee in the morning prior to "take care of business". REI took care of our breakfast that morning and also asked us to take a sandwich with us for lunch (also part of the trip cost). I took both my breakfast and lunch sandwich to go.

The start of the hike was actually preceded with the "Peak 2 Peak" Gondola ride, which took us to the top of Whistler Peak. It felt like cheating to take a gondola ride to the top of a mountain to me, but realizing there's no other trail to get to the top, according to our guides, I was more than content to take in the views with Peter, Tanner and Sean who were with me on that gondola (picture of me and Tanner below).


Once we got to the top, we got a chance to hit the last "real" restrooms before we took a ski lift to another peak before we started our hike in earnest. Our group took advantage of the restroom breaks to use them as well as to take the necessary individual and group photos (our first of many group photos below).


We started the hike after we got to the top of the ski lift (technically after another porta potty, which was the last porta potty between using the trails and getting to the "outhouse" at Russett Lake, which is at the end of our first day hike). When we started hiking, we started taking in all the views immediately. As I was when I was driving to Whistler, my mind just kept getting blown away with the breathtaking views!



Hiking with a heavy backpack on us didn't seem to be that heavy at all, given how we were all taken by our surroundings. Our guides were good to enforce a guideline where I noticed they had us stopping every 2 miles or so, with our pace being a leisurely 30 minutes per mile (not bad considering the starting altitude of 6000+ feet, and several hundred feet of climbing ahead of us). Below is a picture of us taking those said breaks and Christine helping some trail runners coming down from a hill we were going to climb up to. She gave them some advice for some scenic routes. It was nice to see some fellow trail runners in Whistler!


We were lucky so far in our first day of hiking. No rain forecasted for that day had hit yet. We reached Oboe Summit and took our lunch break while having good conversation and jaw dropping views.



After a nice lunch break, we went on our merry way down and then back up, before we hit our "basecamp" for our adventure, which was at Russett Lake. We reached it in time though, as the rain began to pour at that time. We still had to assemble our tents though and provide the group gear we carried to our guides.

I had a massive brain freeze at that point. I kept on playing around with the poles that my tent came with (REI provided our tents and I got an individual tent to set up). It didn't help that the wind kept on howling and trying to blow all my tent gear all over the place. Thankfully Christine helped me to assemble my tent! Otherwise, I would probably just be sleeping outside with my sleeping bag, or at the "Hut" accompanied by field mice (which happened at Day 2!).


The "Hut" is a welcome installation at camp. Otherwise, we would all be individually (or in twos, for the couple and father/son) in our tents, and have nowhere to socialize, huddle and chow down our nicely cooked meals from our REI guides. Some of us also thought about sleeping in the "Hut" because it seemed warmer, but our guides warned us about mice most probably crawling up our faces while we slept if we did choose to sleep in the "Hut". The possibility of the crawling critters discouraged anyone from sleeping in the "Hut" for our first night (the second night was a totally different question, based on the weather).


The "outhouse" pictured above was a welcome presence also in camp. Otherwise, we would all be doing our business all over the trails, which doesn't seem to friendly considering the "leave no trace" rules in Whistler. Our guide suggested that some could leave the door open due to the potential smell, but also due to the great views you could have while being in the loo! (see below).


After dinner, we all still stayed in the hut to have some more conversation and stories. We ended up awake until about 9 PM or so, which was a good time to hit our "bed" before we had our next full day of hiking ahead of us.

That concludes Day 1 of 3 for the backpacking report. More stories to come for Day 2 and Day 3 later on! 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

2017 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run - Race Report



I wasn't exactly supposed to run this race. I've been guilty as a perennial under trained runner since last year. It also doesn't help that the most I have run before starting was a 30K, although a tough and muddy one at that, around Lake Chabot. However, I have already failed to cross the start line at two other races I have signed up for earlier this year: Jed Smith 50K and Way Too Cool 50K. Part of me wanted to play it safe and just drop down to the "American River 25", which I have the utmost confidence of finishing. But another part of me wanted to go for it, and risk a "Do Not Finish", but notch another 50 mile accomplishment, having not done at all the previous year, but having done three 50 milers to date (American River 50, Dick Collins Firetrails 50, and Headlands 50).

American River (AR) 50 was the first 50 mile ultra marathon I have completed, back in 2014. I had the benefit of experience going in to this race. I knew the course to an extent. I have also technically done the course "twice" (or even "thrice" if you count training runs), as I have attempted the Rio Del Lago 100 back in 2015, which uses the AR50 course (or most parts of it). However, my experience on the course came into question as we immediately dove tailed into a trail after just a quarter to half a mile from the start line. AR50 was all road for the first 25 miles when I ran it back in 2014. I began to doubt how much of the course we're about to run is still part of the course I ran several years ago.

AR50 is a good first 50 mile ultra marathon for those attempting it. The first half is mostly road but it makes up for that fact by having half the elevation of other 50 milers in the Bay Area, such as Dick Collins, The North Face Endurance Challenge and Headlands 50. It also is a well supported race, given that it is run by Norcal Ultras. It also doesn't hurt that you get a nice Patagonia jacket (wind breaker back in 2014, fleece sweater in 2017 and other previous years).

Like most ultras, I started at the back of the starting line. I think this is more poignant the longer the ultra you choose, especially when you do an ultra of the 50 mile variety or more. It's easy to get caught up in the euphoria of a race start line and run fast the first few miles and the first half of the race, only to fade away and only walk most of the second half, or worse, not be able to complete the race due to an injury.

I did run with the intention of doing a one minute run and one minute walk. But I quickly adjusted it to a four minute run and a one minute walk interval, as it looked silly to start walking so early in the race (but I do know that I shouldn't care whether something looks silly or not). And so, I maintained the 4/1 ratio for the first aid station or so. I also took the strategy of going from aid station to aid station, and not worrying about the daunting fact that I am attempting to cover 50 miles, roughly the equivalent of doing two marathons, in one day.

A lot of the runners I had brief chats with at the start were first timers. They were in awe that I had done the race before. I told them that they chose a good first 50 mile ultra marathon to attempt. Unfortunately, I think a lot of them didn't make it to the finish line. I saw one of them take their bib off at Beal's Point, at the half way point (25 miles in). I saw another take a seat at about mile 28, so close to making the cutoff for mile 30. I saw another runner at mile 38 who looked strong but didn't seem to make the third cutoff at Rattlesnake Bar (which I barely made as well). According to ultrasignup.com, there were 411 finishers and 123 "did not finish (DNF)". Assuming those 123 crossed the start line, that would be a whopping 23% DNF rate (I have a feeling it's less than that, and that at the moment, it included those who did not start the race as well).

I made the first half of the race near the ball park estimate of when I wanted to arrive at Beal's Point, at 6 hours in to the race. When I arrived, I quickly asked for ice and water for two of my water bottles. The first of which was actually filled by no other than Ann Trason herself! I wasn't sure whether it was her when I saw her and asked her for ice on my second bottle, but confirmed my suspicion only a day after when I saw pictures from other friends saying they saw her at Beal's Point as well. I think it's awesome that someone like her would volunteer at these races! I wish I could have taken a selfie with her at hindsight, but I'm not sure if she's the type that likes the spotlight.

It got warm quickly from Beal's Point onwards. So I stuck to my plan on having ice on my cap, ice on two of my water bottles, ice on a bandana from my drop bag. I also wore arm coolers (like arm warmers, but you can douse them with cold water and even put some ice in). I forgot to douse my arm coolers at Beal's Point but did so when I reached Granite Bay.

The run from Beal's Point to Granite Bay seemed way longer to me than in the previous time I ran it. The course seemed to stay exactly the same, but I guess having no pacer made the miles seemed longer. I chose to have no pacer or crew for the entirety of the race. I did ask a friend to potentially pace me a few days prior, but since he was already scheduled for something else, I decided to fall back into having no crew or no pacer.

The rails started to fall off when I made the same mistake I have done in Granite Bay when I did Rio del Lago. I was in a hurry to get in and out of the aid station. I had my two bottles with ice and water, downed two cokes, but that was all I did. I didn't take any additional fuel with me for the next 9 miles to Horseshoe Bar. I didn't get my spare water bottle at Beal's Point. I just prayed silently as I went those nine miles that my two bottles would last me the whole time, but just like last time I used it all up with about 2-3 miles left to go. At the very least, I had one tailwind packet with me to give me some extra calories. But even that I failed to remember, as I failed to reload my tailwind packets at Beal's Point. In hindsight, I should have just carried the entirety of my tailwind packets with me the whole way. It might have weighed more, but at least there was no chance of me forgetting them. At least that strategy helped for my headlamp, which I didn't have to remember picking up in Rattlesnake, as I just had it with me the whole time.

The infamous "meat grinder", miles 30-41 of the course, is called such because of the relentless ups and downs throughout. It makes momentum for running harder, especially if you've only done a 50K leading up to this race. Surprisingly, I found I can still "run" parts of this, compared to when I ran it with a pacer. But the "run" I did seemed more like a shuffle as my pace would only show 15 minute miles or slower when I complete the miles and see my pace on my garmin watch.

I almost got lost early on at the meat grinder as I ran surprisingly strong. Only to hear someone shout "red shirt, you're going the wrong way!". I looked back, double back, and did indeed miss a crucial right turn, which would have added several miles into my race if I didn't hear those runners. After that, my confidence got shaken as I would always doubt whether I was going the right way several times, only to breathe a sigh of relief when I do see the orange ribbon, a "confidence ribbon" to indicate that I was going the right way. But then I got my confidence shaken again at several times of the course when I saw another runner and her pacer going towards me, only to hear them say they're back tracking because they got lost (but still made me think whether I was lost as well).

At around mile 35-36, a safety sweep caught up with us, which also didn't really make my day. It was odd enough that I saw the safety sweep several times at the first half (which was very odd, as the safety sweeps were ahead of several of us runners, and they were running back and forth, probably bored of how slow we were going about, haha). I did ask the sweep whether we were truly the last runners and he asked if I saw the two other women sweeps for this part of the course. I said I didn't and reiterated that I'm pretty sure there were a lot more runners behind me. He stayed behind and I thankfully didn't see any sweeps again at that point.

Another setback I had at one point was having two horse riders behind me for several miles. They didn't seem to be in a hurry or want to overtake me until I slowed way down. But then I overtook them again when they stopped and chatted with another runner, who seemed to be delirious with the heat (but she moved fast again shortly after). I was getting a little dizzy and nauseous myself. It could have been heat exhaustion for all I know, but I kept on moving forward. I was also slightly low of fuel and I felt my body sorely lacking the calories (and getting hangry, in effect).

Horseshoe bar, mile 38, didn't come soon enough. When I got there, I quickly asked for my two bottles to be filled with ice and coke (yes, coke). I needed the calories and the sugar boost at that point. I took a quick pee and then started running again, holding two peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters with me. My watch had died at that point but I was told I had 3 miles to cover 45 minutes. It doesn't seem like a lot, but if you're at 38 miles, that seems like a daunting task and it did to me.

It was at this point of the race whether I doubted that I could finish it. I made the first two cutoffs (1:00 at Beal's Point, I arrived around 12:05-12:10, and 2:00 at Granite Bay, I arrived around 1:30), but I really wasn't sure if my run/walk pace was enough to get to Rattlesnake Bar in time. It also didn't help that it felt like the longest three miles of my life! I ran when I can, but the aid station seemed so far away. I started slowing down, even as I came nearer. My watch had died shortly before Horseshoe Bar, so I had no idea of the time and pace. I could have checked my phone but I didn't want to see how near (or far behind) I was. I wanted the mystery to somehow push me further.

Just when I thought that was the end of the line for me, I heard someone shout "5:06". I wasn't sure of the context of it, but am thankful for hearing that as it probably saved my race. I knew I had 9 minutes to go and having run these trails I knew that was doable. I ran/walk as fast as I could given the state of my body and legs. I made it with 2 minutes to spare! The aid station volunteers asked me for what I wanted but all I wanted was to cross the timing mat and get out of there. I still had my one and a half bottle of coke, so I think I was good until the next aid station.

At that point of the race, I felt as if I had completed it. I knew, at least based on previous years, that the finish line wasn't a hard cutoff. Even if I finished past 14:00, which I did by 13 minutes, it was still an official finish for the race. They only have hard cutoffs for the first 3 cutoffs so that aid stations can wind down properly and for safety reasons as it gets dark and there is a mountain lion sign around the mile 45 point (although I have yet to hear anyone personally see a mountain lion, but I have seen a rattlesnake for sure!).

It was a slugfest to get to the finish line. I surprisingly was able to run on the flats and downhills but somehow I still felt super slow doing it. The last 3 miles seemed longer than when I first ran the race, and when I paced a friend for her last 9 miles of AR50. It also got dark with about a mile to go, and another runner, who forgot her headlamp, asked me to stay with her. I asked her if she could at least match my pace, which she thankfully did. I didn't want to leave her, but I also didn't want to hike up too slow that they could have taken down the timing mat (or decided to not consider us official finishers).

The last hike up was changed from when I ran it. Originally, there was one more big hill and you run the side of the road. They changed it where we went right instead. I wondered then if we were close, or if we had to do a roundabout turn just to add more miles to make it a 50 miler. Thankfully, the turn turned into one last hike up, which we took slowly as we were sharing my headlamp.

I finished and saw a friend at the finish, Beth Horn, whom I am eternally grateful for. Her friendly smile was a beacon in the desert. She walked with me to get my drop bags, get my food, and even drive me back to my hotel when I told her I was planning to get an uber. In hindsight, I should have booked the shuttle with AR50 which allows me to have my car near the finish. Now whether I could have driven myself safely back to the hotel, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll at least have a crew, if not pacers, next time.

It would be a good practice if I ever do AR50 again. Or maybe even Rio del Lago...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Where To Train For Hills in San Francisco

"Hills are speedwork in disguise." - Frank Shorter

So you've signed up for the 40th Anniversary of The San Francisco Marathon (TSFM). Congratulations! But then, you say "Now, what?". You wonder what types of running you should be doing, how often to run every week, how many miles, and which hills are the best to train for the race. While those are all great questions and definitely things to consider for the race, this humble blog post of mine aims to help you answer where to train for the hills in San Francisco.

If you ask anyone living in the city, the answer would be "Everywhere!". Hills adorn the 7x7 square miles of this beloved city. But for those who haven't run any of the hills here in San Francisco, I list the top 5 hills that you can use for doing hill repeats, hill runs, and even hill hikes (yes, it's actually perfectly acceptable to hike up a hill or two, especially during race day, to save your legs for later on the race).

From the 5th best to the top hill to train in San Francisco (at least in my own mind), here are the five best hills to train for in San Francisco!

5. Fort Mason

Fort Mason Hill
Photo Credit: www.running4thereason.com

Fort Mason is the first hill you will tackle in The San Francisco Marathon, if you're running either the full distance or the first half marathon (the second half marathon starts at Golden Gate Park, so it doesn't go through Fort Mason). This is a good hill for hill repeats as the length of the hill is short compared to most other hills in San Francisco. There are also no cars to contend with, but you do have to make sure you're looking up (or down) the road to make sure you're not on a collision course with any cyclists.

To train on this hill, I recommend a 10 minute warmup on flat ground, from the base of this hill towards the Aquatic Center or Embarcadero and back. From there on, you can do as many hill repeats that you can for about 10-15 minutes. You can focus on one direction if you wish to on certain days by either (1) running uphill, then walking downhill, (2) walking uphill, then running downhill. A 10 minute cool down run afterwards, plus some stretching afterwards is highly recommended.

4. Hayes Hill

Painted Ladies

While not part of the course for TSFM, this hill is a featured part of another iconic and local race called Bay To Breakers. Hayes Hill is an especially nice hill to climb because you are rewarded with spectacular views of the "Painted Ladies", a row of Victorian houses at 710-720 Steiner Street, as well as the Transamerica Pyramid building in the background.

If you're visiting the city from other parts of the Bay Area, you can simply take BART over to Civic Center and start running a mile and end up at the top of Hayes Hill. From there, I recommend that you keep running towards the end of Hayes Street where it dead ends and hits Stanyan Street. Turn around, take another helping of Hayes Hill up and down towards Civic Center. Congratulations, you've done a 4 mile run with a decent amount of hell! Er, I meant hill!

3. Lyon Street Steps

Lyon Street Steps

Technically, this isn't a hill, but I think you'll agree with the exception. Stairs are actually a great workout that mimic the toughness of a hill workout. In some ways, it can even be harder since you're forced to take more steps whether going or up or down. You can technically skip a step or two going up or down stairs, but I do not recommend it for these sets of stairs. In fact, I tend to keep an arm out for the hand rail when I go down these steps just in case I do a misstep or two along the way.

There are 332 steps to go down and up. You can start at the top, at the intersection of Broadway Street and Lyon Street. Or you can start at the bottom, near the intersection of Lyon Street and Green Street. Whatever you choose, be sure to take in the view and take in a snapshot or two. You're rewarded with views of the bay and the Palace of Fine Arts and the Marina.

2. Lincoln Blvd

Top of Lincoln Blvd

Lincoln Boulevard is a great road to practice hills since it's part of the course for the full marathon and the first half marathon. From the vista point of the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco side, you can park nearby (parking can get full on nice days, but there should be spots if you start early enough).

Lincoln Boulevard starts with an uphill climb once you finish crossing back and forth the bridge on race day. There was one year that I ran the whole hill, but if you haven't been running hills, do remember that is totally okay to hike or walk up them, as you still have lots of miles to still go through, especially if you're doing the full marathon distance.

Be careful of cars along this road, as the road is only closed during race day. There is a trail behind the rails where you can run through, but it is a dirt path and there could be a smattering of rocks here and there, so just be careful of where you step when you do run it.

If you have the time, I recommend running this part of the course at least once so you're prepared for it on race day. I do highly recommend running with a group once you get to the longer distances for a full marathon (10+ miles) or half marathon (6+ miles). Run 365 (www.irun365.org) is the official training group for TSFM, and that group is responsible for getting me to cross the finish line for the full marathon distance for 5 years now and counting!

1. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks Summit
While not "the" highest point of San Francisco (Mount Davidson actually claims this title), running to the top of Twin Peaks rewards you with stunning views of the city at the top, with a 360 degree view. Make sure to pack a lightweight wind jacket at the top so you can stay for more than just a few seconds (and a selfie).

Running from Civic Center BART to the top of Twin Peaks and back is about an 8+ mile run, so this is a good hill to practice a long run with a hill involved. Just remember to conserve your strength and run slowly, but with purpose. You can also experiment with run/walk-ing up the hill. Try walking up a minute, running a minute, and alternate this method. It's a method I have used in some trail runs involving steeper hills, and you'd be surprised with how much faster you end up going. You'll also end up overtaking most hill hikers and even some hill runners who go out too fast to start.

***

So there you go, those are the Top 5 hills of San Francisco, if you want to train for hills. There are a ton more hills to train for, and I could have easily made this a Top 10 (or Top 20) list. Just remember to enjoy the view every now and then. Just don't take a selfie or snapshot and run away. Stop your watch. Take a minute (or two, or even three!).

Enjoy the views and enjoy the hills of San Francisco!