Monthly Archives: May 2013

36 Days to WSER: Double Triple Canyons

I met Tamyka Bell, a fellow Australian trail ultra-runner at the Bogong2Hotham back in 2010. We were both staying in the same hotel, and ended up chatting during the celebration dinner after the race. I had just recorded my first DNF at my first attempt at an ultramarathon, so I was feeling a bit down.

Tamyka (whose blog can be viewed here) had finished a number of ultramarathons including twice completing Western States. That night she made a prediction that within 12 months of completing my first ultramarathon I would attempt my first 100-mile race. The thought of completing a 100-mile race didn’t even interest me at that time.
Tamyka failed in her prediction although she only missed it by five months. Last year I completed the Leadville Trail 100 seventeen months after my first successful ultramarathon, a 50 km road race around the Hartebeespoort Dam north of Johannesburg.

As soon as I was accepted into Western States I started contacting people to get as much advice as I could about the race and the course. I sent Tamyka a message and she responded with some great suggestions, and also put me in touch with the Stevens Creek Striders. They are a running club based in Silicon Valley and have run the Last Chance aid station at Western states for more than 25 years. Tamyka had been paced by Dennis, one of the club’s members, during Western States. Dennis suggested a fellow runner at the club, Mike as a suitable pacer based on my target time, and invited me to join the club for a run the day before the Western States training runs.

That is how I found myself parked at Foresthill (mile 62 at Western States) on Friday 24th May about to embark on a route called the Double Triple Canyons. It involved running the Western States course in a backwards direction through the famed three canyons of Western States (hence Triple Canyons), climbing up to Last Chance and then turning around to complete the canyons once again in race direction (hence Doube). The total distance for the route was 60 km, but there would be some club members driving through to Michigan Bluff in order to shorten the course by 20 km and some would turn back early.

We set off along Foresthill Road, turned down Bath Road (home to the aid station prior to Foresthill) and then made our way onto single track. The track was marked and it was my first time setting foot on the “Western States Trail”. We descended for a few kilometres, crossed a creek and then commenced the climb to Michigan Bluff. We met up with the additional people joining at that point, and then continued on for our descent into the canyons.

The canyons at Western States are well-known for their extreme heat, with temperatures often reaching into the high 30’s on race day. The temperatures would be unseasonably cool all the way through the weekend so I would not be experiencing the canyons at their worst. But what surprised me was the tree canopy and shade that we descended through. I had expected that the canyons were a barren wasteland, devoid of trees, with the sun beaming directly down on unfortunate Western States
runners. But instead I was greeted by a beautifully forested run, in this case aided by moderate temperatures and a lovely cool breeze.

We reached the lowest point of our route and then commenced the ascent to Devil’s Thumb. The Devil’s Thumb climb is possibly the most difficult in the race, although in reverse direction it is actually longer although less steep. We had a mixed group of people and were walking all of the ascents so we gradually made our way up the long ascent. We stopped at a water pump just before the top to fill up with water and have a bite to eat. Then we continued to the peak where we glimpsed the rock formation that gave the peak its name.

Devil's Thumb on the Western States Trail
Devil’s Thumb on the Western States Trail

Continue reading 36 Days to WSER: Double Triple Canyons


37 Days to WSER: Best Ever Roadside Run

On May 23rd I travelled from the Bay Area out to Auburn for the Memorial Day weekend training runs. I would be running the final 70 miles of the Western States course over the three-day weekend but the tale of those runs will come later.

My quads were feeling sore after charging the previous day’s downhills faster than planned. After checking in at my accommodation in Auburn I travelled through to the headquarters of the Tahoe National Forest in Nevada City, which is in Nevada County, although both the city and county are in the state of California (but that is enough geography for now). The National Forest covers the Western States trail as well as plenty of other trail and wilderness areas in the vicinity.

After speaking to the helpful staff and collecting some maps and trail guides for the area I asked whether there were any convenient 8-10 mile trails that I could run nearby. The Pioneer Trail is a 25-mile one-way trail that was only six miles away, and as an out-and-back route could be run as any distance. I checked out how to get there and made my way down the highway to a large car park that was empty save for me.

I realised that I had forgotten my Suunto Ambit GPS watch at my hotel so I needed to decide whether to go watchless or take the stainless steel Omega De ville that was on my wrist. I wanted to determine my turnaround point based on time so the Omega was to be used as a sports watch for what I believe is the second time in its 12-year lifespan. I opted to take my Salomon Sense Hydro S-LAB Handheld Hydration Set (now that could make a good tongue twister) with me for the run, carrying a 240-ml soft flask in each hand.

The trail ran parallel to the road so I exited the car park and made my way onto the trail. It was a perfectly maintained single track, although it never moved further than 30 metres or so from the highway. Luckily there were few cars so you could generally forget that the road was even there. After some properties and side roads in the first couple of kilometres there became nothing but forest visible on my left, and a stand of trees on my right although it was possible to glimpse tar on the other side of those trees.

The trail was relatively flat with some rolling hills although it featured more uphill on the way out. After just over 35 minutes the trail crossed over to the other side of the road so I decided that I would instead use that point as my turnaround. I reversed my course and headed back to the car. My legs felt better and better as the run continued, and by the time I returned to the car I would have been happy to continue on. It couldn’t be called wilderness but it was a glorious run of 12 km or so. I had plenty of running to come so I hopped in the car and called it a day.

38 Days to WSER: Marin Headlands and Tamalpais State Park

I had planned to run the Marin Headlands and Tamalpais State Park over two days, and had mapped out roughly 26 km runs for each area. Then my Marin Headlands plans didn’t turn out as anticipated (and as blogged here). Therefore I came up with a new plan. I would rise early, complete my Marin Headlands loop, head to Sausalito for some brunch, and then make my way to Tamalpais for a shorter 11 km loop.

After struggling to follow my planned route along the Coastal Trail the previous evening I had no problems following it just one morning later. As it turns out there is a trail closer to the coast than the Coastal Trail and it was simply a matter of actually following the signs along the well-marked trail. While not the actual reason (I actually felt untroubled from my long flight across the Pacific Ocean), I will put the previous evening’s mis-direction down to jet lag.

After some running along tar at the beginning of the trail it soon turned into enjoyable single track with plenty of ascent and descent from cliff to cliff, and amazing views. I soon found myself descending into Muir Beach, a trail-head with a number of trail options that would allow me to head inland for my return journey. I had taken my new Ultimate Direction pack with me, but had brought along two 240 ml Salomon soft flasks rather than the larger, included hard plastic bottles. I was expecting to refill water along the route, and as I reached the Muir Beach car-park I saw a large wooden toilet block. Following the signs around the side of the wooden facade I was surprised to find that it was simply a barricade behind which there was only some portable toilets. With no running water in sight, I set off from the car-park thinking that I would need to ration my remaining water.

Marin Headlands Coastal Trail
The Coastal Trail in the Marin Headlands

Continue reading 38 Days to WSER: Marin Headlands and Tamalpais State Park

39 Days to WSER: Arrival, Disappearing Trails and Gale-Forced Winds

Just after noon on May 21st my plane touched down at San Francisco International Airport. After a long wait at immigration, and then an almost-as-long wait to collect my rental, I was in the USA ready to start my new life as a professional runner.

My first point of call was the ZombieRunner store in Palo Alto, which was the only place I could find with stock of the new Ultimate Direction packs made in conjunction with Anton Krupicka and Scott Jurek. I was interested in checking out the ultra-light pack bearing Anton’s name as a potential hydration option for Western States. I went in, picked it up, was immediately sold on it, and the pack was then sold to me. I will possibly write a review of the pack once I catch up with my supposedly daily posts.

I then headed north towards my accommodation on the Marin Headlands, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, and supposedly one of the best trail running locations in the entire country. My plan was to run the Marin Headlands in the afternoon and then to head out to the nearby Tamalpais State Park the following morning. But I had clearly been optimistic with my planning, and by the time I checked in to my accommodation it was after 7PM and I had just over an hour of daylight remaining.

I wanted to run the Coastal Trail in the headlands, and had even mapped out a great 26 km loop but I was a couple of hours short of being able to fit that in. I needed to get in some practice at running in the dark for Western States, so I came up with a new plan. I would run out along the Coastal Trail, and might even be able to cover the most popular stretch through to Muir Beach before darkness fell. Then I would retrace my path in the dark with my headlight. I changed into running gear, packed my brand new Ultimate Direction pack with warm clothing and my headlight and set out.

My GPS watch took a few minutes to locate me, obviously confused with being used on three different continents within the period of a single week. Once it was going I set out directly from my accommodation and descended to the coast for the start of the trail. The trail started with a climb up to a cliff overlooking the beach and as I climbed I noticed a sea breeze that I had previously been sheltered from. Early on I was welcomed by a deer, and as I continued running along the cliffs and there was some great views as the sun descended.

The path continued to get less and less defined, and eventually I had to admit that I was clearly not on a path anymore. There was no question of getting lost since I was simply following the coastline, but the coastal scrub was too thick to run through if a path had not already been formed. I headed to a high point and could see a paved route in the ravine below me. I tried following a trail heading in that direction but it disappeared and I was forced to turn around. I tried to reverse my original route but obviously took a different trail and once again it disappeared. After my third or fourth attempt, and with a bit of work bashing my way through scrub I finally made it onto the paved route, and attempted to return to my run. I turned onto another hiking path and I climbed up to a former military emplacement, but the trail was disappearing yet again, and I had to admit that the “sea breeze” could now better be described as a gale-forced wind. I had run into a 46 km/h headwind at the PE City Marathon last December, but this wind felt clearly stronger than that.

It was time to reach the conclusion that the run was not going to turn out as planned so I decided to bail. I had covered less than 6 km and still had time before dark. I put on an extra layer to stay warm despite the wind, descended back to the paved route and managed to easily make my way back to the start of the trail. I headed back towards my accommodation, but a couple of hundred metres before reaching it I noticed a trail heading up a hill beside it. I still had some time before dark, I was now sheltered from the worst of the wind, and my legs had warmed into the run. I climbed up the hill and over the other side before reaching one of the roads through the headlands, and then retraced my steps. I returned to my accommodation just a few minutes before the darkness set in enough to require a headlight. I had managed a slightly disappointing 12.5 km.

The Life of a Professional Runner

It has been quite a while since my last post but all of that is about to change. Well, at least for the next few weeks. Well, as long as I don’t get distracted, lazy or bored.

On June 29th I will start my major race for the year, my second 100-mile race at the Western States Endurance Run. The race is the oldest 100-mile trail race and has a fantastic history and prestige, but I will allow you to check out Google if you want further details on that.

Earlier this year I was offered a redundancy from work and a cunning plan started to form and foment. On May 15th I landed in Australia, relocating back from South Africa, and headed into the office for my final day at Ericsson after more than 12 years.

On May 21st my plane touched down at San Francisco International Airport. I will remain in the South-West of the USA until early August, and until my departure I will live the life of a professional runner. I will visit the areas national parks and see them in the best way possible: running. I will run and I will rest. All that is missing from my professional career is an income.

During my time in the USA leading up to the race I plan to blog about my training, as a countdown to race day. I hope to write a post for each day, although they will possibly be posted in fits and starts based on the time I spend to capture my posts, as well as the availability of Internet access.

I am already five days in so I had better get started.