Vetter Mountain

[Featured image: A carpet of clouds near Red Box in the Angeles National Forest.]

I did not set out on Sunday to add a new chapter to the San Gabriel Trails Project. I set out to break free from my running malaise, brought on by flat and often repetitive routes that I had been running while training for the Javelina Jundred. With two weeks until race day, and having trouble finding the mental fortitude to get myself out the door, I decided now was the time to just go back to exploring the mountains, which was my primary reason for taking up trail running to begin with. The plan was to park at Chilao, go five miles out in one direction and then back, then five miles out the other direction and back. I managed to pick up new trail segments for the project on either end of the run.

The morning started cool. It was in the low 50s for much of the drive, a trek made beautiful by a carpet of clouds in the canyons and valleys below. I arrived at Chilao at about 9:15, quickly packed my running pack, and headed north along the Angeles Crest 100 course. This middle section of the San Gabriels is one of my favorite areas, at least in those sections that weren’t burned by 2009’s Station Fire.

Mt. Hillyer, and its surrounding area, is marked by an open pine and oak woodland set amongst giant granite boulders, with a mixed understory of native grasslands, various types of chaparral, and big sagebrush scrub. As I climbed Hillyer the wind increased and I had to use my Buff to cover my ears. I passed a group of climbers working on some larger boulders. They were some of the few people I saw out here today that weren’t hunting.

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View to the south from Mt. Hillyer.

Upon reaching Rosanita Saddle (the location of the Hillyer Aid Station during the Angeles Crest 100), I turned right and followed Santa Clara Divide Road to Bandido Group Camp. This run was the first time I’d ever seen anyone using the camp, with a scene that looked like something out of Burning Man with a lot of tie dye, music, and hula hoops. I rejoined Silver Moccasin Trail and took it as far as the ridgeline near Angeles Crest Christian Camp, then followed a dirt road along the ridgeline for about a mile until it ended. This road was new to me and a new stretch of “trail” for the San Gabriel Trails Project. A single female Mule Deer checked me out warily, perhaps aware that it was deer season.

The return was mostly uneventful. Back on Santa Clara Divide Road, I was surprised to run into a group of three Clark’s Nutcrackers, a species normally found at higher elevations. I am unclear if their presence here is normal seasonal movement or the result of a cone crop failure at higher elevations that has apparently caused abnormal movements of other high mountain species.

I returned to my Jeep at Chilao with just under 12 miles on my Garmin. I felt tired. It wasn’t a tiredness like you feel from overexertion, but more a feeling of just having no energy. I sat in the back of my Jeep and ate a Lara Bar and drank 20 oz of water, trying to shake the urge to get into the driver’s seat and head home. I reasoned to myself like all runners do late in an ultra, telling myself I only need to go four miles. Four miles isn’t that far, right? We will ignore the fact that I have to go another four miles to return to my Jeep.

I headed south along the Silver Moccasin Trail from Chilao. Much of the first part of this is flattish or downhill, but feeling how I felt, I alternated running and walking throughout. The mental trick in getting yourself to run when you don’t feel like it is to tell yourself that you will be done much faster. It does work. Most of the time. I just needed to get myself to mile 16 on my Garmin and I could head back.

With about 1.8 miles until I hit 16, I hit a trail junction with a sign noting that Vetter Mountain Lookout was 1.7 miles away. I had tried Vetter Mountain a couple years earlier as part of the San Gabriel Trails Project, but the Vetter Mountain Trail had not been maintained since the Station Fire and was overgrown. After about a quarter mile of bushwhacking, I gave up. This time, the trail was open and in excellent condition, with new signs and benches throughout its length. The trail climbs gradually for about 1.25 miles. The last half mile to the summit is a steep approach. This felt rough to me on this day, but I pressed on until I reached the summit. There were four people at the top on fire watch. I could see why Vetter Mountain is used as a fire lookout, as the peak has spectacular views of a huge portion of the San Gabriel Mountains in all directions. Baden-Powell was covered with snow.

I rested at the top for awhile, enjoying the views, some calories, and some water. The weather was spectacular. Eventually, it was time to come back down and I made my way at a fairly slow pace back down the mountain. In the last two miles or so, much of which was uphill, I got motivated to push a bit harder to keep my average pace below 17 minutes per mile.

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View from the top of Vetter Mountain.

Route Summary

  • Distance: 20.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,812 feet
  • Time: 5:38:44

Wildlife

I had 25 species of birds on the day. Nothing was new to the project. Reptiles were very active in the warmer parts of the day, with a lot of Tiger Whiptails and Western Fence Lizards. A Southern Alligator Lizard near the top of Vetter Mountain was a new species for the project.

Birds observed were as follows:

  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – Accipiter striatus
  • Acorn Woodpecker – Melanerpes formicivorus
  • Nuttall’s Woodpecker – Dryobates nuttallii
  • Hairy Woodpecker – Dryobates villosus
  • White-headed Woodpecker – Dryobates albolarvatus
  • Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus
  • Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri
  • California Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma californica
  • Clark’s Nutcracker – Nucifraga columbiana
  • Common Raven – Corvus corax
  • Mountain Chickadee – Poecile gambeli
  • Oak Titmouse – Baeolophus inornatus
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta carolinensis
  • Pygmy Nuthatch – Sitta pygmaea
  • Bewick’s Wren – Thryomanes bewickii
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula
  • Wrentit – Chamaea fasciata
  • Western Bluebird – Sialia mexicana
  • Mountain Bluebird – Sialia currucoides
  • Hermit Thrush – Catharus guttatus
  • California Thrasher – Toxostoma redivivum
  • Phainopepla – Phainopepla nitens
  • Dark-eyed Junco – Junco hyemalis
  • White-crowned Sparrow – Zonotrichia leucophrys
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – Setophaga coronata

The Fine Art of Voluntary Adversity

[Featured image: The runner I am pacing finds a second wind at mile 92 of the Kodiak 100.]

Every one of us that toes the line at an ultramarathon gets asked at some point why we do what we do. We all have our own reasons, but there is a seemingly common thread: this sport, more than most, makes us feel alive. We feel alive in the triumphs and tragedies that are a requisite part of covering what seems like inconceivable distances on foot. While the adversity we face is voluntary, indeed manufactured in a sense, it is adversity nonetheless as we set out with a drive to complete what may seem to be an impossible physical test.

I had the honor recently of being a pacer for two friends at two different 100 mile races that were two weeks apart. As is tradition for these things, I will leave the specific stories of how their individual races unfolded to tell on their own. I was reminded once again, however, that no runner is guaranteed a good day; an experienced and properly trained runner can still be defeated by the course on any given day, no matter how strong the drive is to succeed; and a runner can also spend most of a race just shuffling along slowly, seemingly physically beaten with only the drive to finish allowing him or her to keep going, then suddenly and miraculously spring to life and run as if the race just started at mile 92. There are deep, deep emotions; Tears of pain, tears of suffering, and tears of joy. The physical and emotional responses are similar, I think, to what many go through when experiencing real-life adversity with potential real-life tragic consequences. Since real-life tragedy is not a likely outcome, there is a beauty in it. It is one of the myriad things that keeps us coming back.

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A race ends prematurely, in the dead of night, at Red Box Aid Station during the Angeles Crest 100.

The Joys and Sorrows of Working Away From Home

[Featured image: Camp at Harris Beach State Park, Oregon in May 2018. This was one of several basecamps during my recent work on a wildlife assessment for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.]

I have always had an affinity for travel and exploration of the outdoors. It began when I was young with family camping trips and a fascination with the photos from my mom’s childhood camping trips across the West. I branched out more when I got to college, initially taking spring break and summer camping and birding trips in places like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Great Smokey Mountains, and southern Florida. I spent two summers studying at Estación Biologica La Suerte in Costa Rica. I spent two years, after college, running the Landbird Monitoring Programme at Lamanai, Belize. It was here that I met H. Lee Jones, a Ph.D. biologist who was well-known as an established biological consultant in California while living significant portions of the year in Belize working on the Birds of Belize guide that would be published by UT Press in 2003.

I left Belize in 2000, subsequently returning to lead birding tours and take my own trips over the following years. In 2003, Dr. Jones suggested I come to California to work as a consultant for the summer prior to a planned graduate program. I rose through the ranks of the consulting firm quickly, met the woman who would become my wife quickly, and I never left. Over the years, my most rewarding, exciting, and memorable consulting projects were those outside of the typical “bubble” that consultants usually work in within a certain distance of their home base, such as large projects in New Mexico and southern Nevada.

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Studying a tropical avian ecology text next to my bunk at Estación Biologica La Suerte in Limón, Costa Rica, July 1996.

It was with that in mind that I had a discussion with my wife in November 2016 about the goals of the newest chapter of my life working as an independent consultant. As someone who is married, with a nice home next to open space in the hills of Los Angeles, as well as beloved pets, I am sometimes torn between my love for travel and exploration and not wanting to be away from home for too long. In order to keep my work continually interesting, we agreed that I would pursue a handful of out-of-state contracts each year, preferably being away from home no more than two weeks (or maybe three) at a time. This is, indeed, what I have done since; with the freedom that I have as an independent to work long hours, my willingness to camp remotely, and my extensive background working on complex projects in a wide array of environments allowing me to selectively and competitively bid on work where most of my competition are companies that have a decided cost disadvantage. I can work long hours without concern for overtime rules. I can put in long field hours because of my training as an endurance athlete. I can hire subcontractors who agree to do the same. I can design and implement the field study, handle my own geospatial data and mapping, and write my own reports. I only pursue those projects that interest me; the ones that might seem as much fun as work.

Oregon

It was in spring of 2017 that I won my first out of state contract. The work was with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) to produce a wildlife assessment for Smith Rock State Park. The final report, which was 104 pages and included many maps of resource data, prompted the OPRD representative to write that the report “exceeded our expectations and will integrate seamlessly into the park master plan”. I was awarded a new and much larger project in 2018 to produce a much larger assessment for the Harris Beach Management Unit, a suite of parks and waysides along the southern Oregon Coast. The fieldwork was completed in May 2018, with the report due later this year or early next year, depending on some dependent data layers from OPRD.

I honestly hope to retain this work with OPRD for many years into the future. I have no doubt of my ability to produce work products they will be happy with, but as with any government agency, the existence of the work at all depends on agency priorities and funding. Having traveled now in quite a few areas of Oregon, both for work and for recreation, it is one of my favorite states to explore and I could easily see myself living there.

Nevada

In Summer of 2017, I won a contract with the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct transect surveys for Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) on 2,068 acres in Humboldt County, Nevada. The work was completed in October 2017. The project area was exceedingly remote, and we would go days without seeing another person. Weather conditions ranged from hot to cold with sporadic thunderstorms and snow squalls. I hired two subcontractors for the work, with the team camping for several nights at a time before returning to Winnemucca to resupply.

The BLM’s project manager was happy with the result, noting that report “looks fantastic!” Implementing such a large and remote field project as an independent was probably one of the greatest challenges I’ve had in my career, but the completion of it was one of the most rewarding.

I tangentially wrote about this survey in two separate blog posts here and here.

Northern California

In June 2018, as an on-call senior biologist for Northgate Environmental Management in San Francisco, I completed fieldwork and writing for a biological assessment for a Section 7 consultation under the Federal Endangered Species Act for a water infrastructure project in Trinity County. In order to work within the available budget, I camped on US Forest Service lands near the project area.


I will not extensively summarize my work from 2018 until the end of the year. You can view the summary of my 2017 projects, including those noted above, here. It is difficult to say what opportunities will arise for me in the future (there is a fairly expansive west-wide RFP coming out soon that I am keeping an eye on), but I look forward to going after the right ones when they appear.

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Me drinking morning coffee and contemplating something before breaking camp during implementation of the Pygmy Rabbit survey in remote northern Nevada, September 2017.

Three Points to Pacifico Mountain Via the Pacific Crest Trail

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve added a new chapter to the San Gabriel Trails Project. You can ask me why that is, but I would not have an answer for you. There are many miles of high country trails that I have not yet covered, and I haven’t spent much time in the high country this year because it was not a good way to prepare for the Angeles National Forest Trail Race. I decided yesterday was a good time to scratch that itch and visit a new place. That new place was Pacifico Mountain.

Pacifico Mountain is a 7,124-foot peak in the northern portion of the San Gabriel Mountains. It is the western-most of the 7,000-foot peaks in the range. While there are several routes to choose from, I chose to take the Pacific Crest Trail from Three Points as I was looking for a 20 mile or so day. The peak is somewhat infamous in the local trail running community for its 2016 appearance in the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run (AC100): as part of a last-minute course reroute when the Angeles National Forest decided it would not allow the race into designated wilderness areas within the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, the course was routed up Pacifico via a fire road to the top, with an equally long run back down. It was hot and exposed and there was a lot of carnage. That segment was removed the next year. The opening 3.5 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail out of Three Points were part of the original AC100 course and where I met my demise in two of the three years that I’ve run it. Good times.

I started at around 8:00am. It was surprisingly warm for that early. The first 3.5 miles or so that were part of the original AC100 course brought flashbacks to my own destruction here during that race, leaving scars that are nearly as evident as those left on the landscape here by the 2009 Station Fire. Once I passed Sulphur Springs Road I was in new territory. The trail climbs gradually at first, hitting a series of low hills and ridgelines that are mostly burned, with pockets of still-standing pine and oak forest that withstood the fire.

While I saw plenty of fresh footprints on the trail, I didn’t see a single person until mile 6. I passed a lone hiker and confirmed that the summit of Pacifico was also his goal. He looked familiar, and I think I’ve seen him hiking before. As it was getting hot, I checked to make sure he didn’t need anything and told him I’d see him at the top.

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Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness sign approximately one half mile from the trailhead. The 2009 Station Fire is still evident. This area has not recovered nearly as well as the coastal side of the San Gabriels.

At around mile 7 was a nice patch of tall pine forest with burnt underbrush. The trail was getting steeper now and I could see the summit. It appeared to be so close, and I thought I was going to hit the summit at a far earlier mileage than I expected. The trail was a bit overgrown here. I was startled by a large flock of Mountain Quail that flushed upon my approach.

Mile 8 brought a long stretch that was completely decimated by the fire. Most of the vegetation was only a couple feet high. This area had a very healthy population of poodle-dog bush, a species that most users of the San Gabriel Mountains became familiar with after the Station Fire when it formed extensive thickets. In most places, this plant has (fortunately) mostly died out. Not here. I was careful to try to avoid it, a task made difficult because it often seems to reach out into the trail for you.

Heading into mile 9, the trail starts a gradual descent toward the Pacific Mountain Summit Road. To be honest, I found the view of the descent ahead of me a little disheartening, as it meant that I had to climb back up again toward the summit. A left turn on the road where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects began the steep climb. The road winds around the top part of the mountain and eventually meets the broad summit at the Mount Pacifico Campground. While I had only consumed about 40oz of my 110oz of water, I was hoping that I would find an unlikely water source here as I really wanted to just chug a bottle. Unfortunately, there was none. There was cell reception, so I called my wife and posted a picture of myself in a jumble of rocks at the summit noting that I had reached my goal and that everything was OK.

The lower elevations on the return were preposterously hot and I struggled a lot in the last few miles. I do not recommend doing this trip alone during the late summer.

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View of the front range of the San Gabriels from Pacific Summit Road, showing Mt. Wilson, San Gabriel Peak, and Mt. Disappointment. The sky is hazy with smoke from numerous wildfires in the region.

A Night at West Fork

The degree to which I am enamored with the freedom of backpacking is not reflected by the frequency with which I go. For awhile now, I’ve taken an interest in expanding my knowledge-base of the fauna of the San Gabriel Mountains by backpacking into remote campgrounds, preferably on a weekday when no or few people are likely to be present. Last night, I finally did the first of these forays.

West Fork Trail Camp is named for the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, which passes through the campground as a rocky and cold seasonal stream. The campground is located at the southern end of Shortcut Canyon at the confluence of Rincon – Red Box Road (a gated dirt forest road) and the Gabrielino and Silver Moccasin National Recreation Trails.

While I am certainly familiar with West Fork via my frequent trail runs in the area (such as last weekend’s race documented here), I’ve never camped in the San Gabriel Mountains away from the high country. In my work as a biologist, it is my opinion that the best way to become familiar with the fauna of a place is to spend the night camping there. As I’ve spent a lot of time and effort to document what I see in the San Gabriels, it seemed a natural extension to expand on that by doing short overnight trips to any of the numerous hike-in campgrounds scattered around the forest. It certainly doesn’t hurt that hiking with the weight of a pack on my back can serve as pretty good (cross?) training for my trail running habit.

The choice of West Fork for the first of these forays was not entirely haphazard: it was on my mind because of the presence of the aid station there during Saturday’s race, and I knew there would be water available via a pipe that has a constant flow from a spring. The seasonal presence or absence of water is likely to be the primary deciding factor on choosing locations as I go forward.


The Hike In

I elected to begin my trip at Red Box, a location at the junction of the Angeles Crest Highway and Mt. Wilson – Red Box Road. This made for a nice hike of about 5.5 miles via the Gabrielino Trail. I arrived at around 4:30pm with dark storm clouds looming in the distance. While it is really difficult to predict with certainty where the weather will hit when uplift from the mountains combined with moisture causes these storms, most of this weather phenomenon usually stays over the higher peaks to the northeast and the desert. In this case, the overcast conditions made for a much more pleasant trip than sunny skies would have allowed.

I really enjoyed the slower pace of hiking here for once. While it was my intent on this trip to thoroughly document the avifauna, I didn’t bother with keeping a bird list on the hike in as I wasn’t sure how fast my pace would be, and I wanted plenty of time to set up camp before it got dark. My only stops were to take a few photographs with my phone, including documenting all the locations that some moron spray-painted graffiti on trees and rocks. My trek was made easier by the comprehensive trailwork led by Gary Hilliard and a suite a volunteers, with Gary’s signature “G” emblazoned with a chainsaw into the base of wood chunks he cut from trees that had fallen across the trail.

I arrived around 7pm and promptly set up camp, established two game cameras at strategic locations on the stream, started my field notes, and began fixing dinner.

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There were storms to the east and north when I set out from Red Box. I did not want to get rained on, but I didn’t think the mountain uplift-caused weather would make it to the area I was covering. Fortunately, I was correct.
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One of the ways to fill me with rage: graffiti along the trail.
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Home for the night.

Overnight

None of the diurnal bird species were unexpected. It was pretty quiet in the evening, with the exception of the constant calling of a couple of Black Phoebes that I figured had nested in the housing for the pit toilet. Indeed, there was a Black Phoebe nest placed under the eve. It was after the sun set that things started to get interesting. Bats were everywhere. A pair of Western Screech-Owls began calling from some place nearby. Eventually, a Great Horned Owl called from the same direction and the screech-owls got quiet. As it got darker, a chorus of Common Poorwills began from somewhere up Rincon – Red Box Road. Shortly before I retired to the tent at 9pm, the screech-owls moved to the canopy over my campsite and started calling emphatically. They ended up doing this off-and-on all night, waking me up at times. At around 2:30am, I was awakened by the sound of a bear crashing around somewhere – I wasn’t sure if it was near or far. As I listened intently to try to figure that out, the screech-owls threw a party overhead. They were joined by a couple of hoots from a Spotted Owl (unfortunately, it never did the full call) which prompted them to be quiet. The bear crashed around again and made some strange noises, and I eventually managed to fall back to sleep.

I enjoyed the serenity of a hike and camp without a person around. Lest it be thought it was all great, there was the annoyance of a large number of insects, including pervasive swarms of mosquitoes, various other biting flies, and yellowjackets. The yellowjackets were particularly enamored with my food when it was available. For the most part, my food remained locked away in a bear canister tucked at the base of an oak tree.

A surprise was how warm it was overnight. I slept without the rainfly on my tent (I usually need it for warmth), and spent most of the night outside of my sleeping bag.

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Darkness nears at camp.
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Clean and cold water flows from a nearby pipe. This was needed for cooking and coffee.
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A woodrat crossed a log over the West Fork of the San Gabriel River as I slept.

The Return Hike

I departed camp at about 7am. While it wasn’t my original plan, I decided to take the Rincon – Red Box Road back because it was overcast and the forested Gabrielino Trail was fairly dark. This was important because part of my plan was to take photographs, and it is difficult to do so when there is no light. I also began an eBird list on my phone, with the tracking mode on, which meant the hike was essentially a count transect. I hiked with my Nikon around my neck this time, so I could shoot whatever I thought was worth shooting. I ended up documenting 41 bird species on the return trip, as well as a surprising number of bear tracks and a number of Mule Deer. The only reptiles observed were Western Whiptail and Western Fence Lizard. I returned to my Jeep at around 9:30am, and saw the first people I had seen since I departed the previous afternoon.

The list of wildlife species detected is included after the photographs below.

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Rear print of an American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), one of many that I found all along Rincon-Red Box Road. Contrast was increased so the print would be more visible.
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Looking toward Red Box. Red Box is the notch in the distance.

Habitats

West Fork is located at an elevation of approximately 3,060 feet (930 meters) above mean sea level, in a canyon that houses the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. The “river” itself is vegetated by White Alder (Alnus rhombifolia)-dominated riparian woodland, with varying types of understory vegetation depending on the width of the drainage and the openness of the canopy. Common bird species in this habitat include Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus), and Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). North-facing canyon slopes are mostly forested with a canopy dominated by Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) and Bigcone Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa). Common species include Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata), Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), and Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Southern slopes are various types of chaparral depending on sun exposure, elevation, and soil conditions. Common species here include California Quail (Callipepla californica), California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica), and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea).

Birds Detected

Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii

Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis

Band-tailed Pigeon – Patagioenas fasciata

Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura

Western Screech-Owl – Megascops kennicottii

Great Horned Owl – Bubo virginianus

Spotted Owl – Strix occidentalis

Common Poorwill – Phalaenoptilus nuttallii

Black-chinned Hummingbird – Archilochus alexandri

Anna’s Hummingbird – Calypte anna

Allen’s Hummingbird – Selasphorus sasin

Acorn Woodpecker – Melanerpes formicivorus

Nuttall’s Woodpecker – Picoides nuttallii

Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens

White-headed Woodpecker – Picoides albolarvatus

Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus

Olive-sided Flycatcher – Contopus cooperi

Western Wood-Pewee – Contopus sordidulus

Pacific-slope Flycatcher – Empidonax difficilis

Black Phoebe – Sayornis nigricans

Ash-throated Flycatcher – Myiarchus cinerascens

Hutton’s Vireo – Vireo huttoni

Warbling Vireo – Vireo gilvus

Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri

California Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma californica

Common Raven – Corvus corax

Mountain Chickadee – Poecile gambeli

Oak Titmouse – Baeolophus inornatus

Bushtit – Psaltriparus minimus

White-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta carolinensis

Canyon Wren – Catherpes mexicanus

House Wren – Troglodytes aedon

Bewick’s Wren – Thryomanes bewickii

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Polioptila caerulea

Wrentit – Chamaea fasciata

Western Bluebird – Sialia mexicana

American Robin – Turdus migratorius

Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia

Black-throated Gray Warbler – Setophaga nigrescens

Dark-eyed Junco – Junco hyemalis

Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia

California Towhee – Melozone crissalis

Spotted Towhee – Pipilo maculatus

Western Tanager – Piranga ludoviciana

Black-headed Grosbeak – Pheucticus melanocephalus

Purple Finch – Haemorhous purpureus

Lesser Goldfinch – Spinus psaltria

Lawrence’s Goldfinch – Spinus lawrencei

Mammals Detected

Bat species (Order Chiroptera)

Western Gray Squirrel – Sciurus griseus

California Ground Squirrel – Spermophilus beecheyi

Merriam’s Chipmunk – Tamias merriami

Woodrat species – Neotoma sp.

American Black Bear – Ursus americanus

Mule Deer – Odocoileus hemionus

Reptiles Detected

Western Fence Lizard – Sceloporus occidentalis

Tiger (or Western) Whiptail – Aspidoscelis tigris

Faces of Death – The Angeles National Forest Trail Race

Sometimes you have great races. Sometimes you have bad races. Often, they are somewhere in between. This is the tale of one that was incredibly challenging because of what Mother Nature decided to throw at us. Commemorating the event is why I decided to reawaken my blog after a period of silence.

I am not sure why I had never run the Mt. Disappointment 50K. This year, looking for something to keep me motivated to run more regularly than I had been at the time, I decided to finally enter it as races of that distance are a little easier for me to train for during my busy season as a biological consultant, and I absolutely love race directors Gary and Pam Hilliard. Mt. Disappointment (which is the name of one of the peaks on the course, and an awesome name for a race) was rebranded for 2018 as the Angeles National Forest Trail Race (ANFTR), with distances of 25k, 50k, and 60k. Being a 100-mile runner, I decided to step up to the biggest challenge available. I had an outside goal of implementing an ambitious training plan and perhaps getting one of my better race times here (I am not fast at all, but have had some decent outcomes in 50k races when I train enough), but I figured I would at least run more regularly in the process of training and be able to get to the finish line if work, life, etc. got in the way of my reaching my training goals.

Anyone who knows me or my wife Emily at some level knows that we are both ultrarunners. She took up running after hanging around at the finish line for my first 50-mile race. She hasn’t decided to make the leap past the 50k distance (yet), but has completed 50 miles at a 12 hour loop race. We train together often. We will often run the same races, sometimes running them together the whole way, sometimes separately with our own race goals. She decided to enter the ANFTR 60k as well, as a stepping stone to 50 mile trail races. We agreed, at the time, to run our own separate races.

The Training

I approached my training in a pretty similar fashion to my successful preparation for the Chimera 100 last fall. I mapped out a fairly intensive training schedule, one that was perhaps suitable for a difficult 50-mile race. I also went back to getting regular massage therapy treatments from Tricia Strawn at Vision for Enrichment, whose magic touch kept the injury bug away during my last training cycle.

Work, however, is always a factor. I am well aware that there are plenty of ultrarunners with busy work and family schedules who get things done. Everyone is different, though. People have different jobs, different schedules, and different priorities. When I am doing intensive remote fieldwork as I did for two weeks in Oregon this spring (during the training cycle for this race), or trips like a few weeks ago for a project in Trinity County, training is simply not an option as I am in the field or, sometimes, driving all day. When I am doing single-day field stints from home, which often involve a lot of driving back-and-forth, I usually have documents to write when I get home, various home responsibilities to take care of, etc. I have difficulty, in many cases, finding the energy or making the time to get a run in. I try. Often, if I do get out, the mileage falls short of what I planned to do.

In training for ANFTR, I fell way short of what I planned to do. I made adjustments during the process to make sure I’d avoid injury, but didn’t manage to get my weekend long runs to greater than 20 miles until I decided to force things two weeks before the race in a do-or-die effort, when I ran 25 miles on Saturday and 10 on Sunday. I knew my ultimate goal of striving for a competitive race was out of reach, but I still planned on starting the race conservatively and seeing where the day would take me, perhaps to a respectable time.

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Emily and I during happier (race) times, at the Big Sandy river crossing in the Sierra National Forest on our anniversary during the Shadow of the Giants 50K. Photo credit: Unknown.

The Weather

I don’t do well running in the heat. I am certainly like any other human being and can become more heat-acclimated, especially with specific training for it, but my heat tolerance has never recovered fully from a fairly serious heat-related incident on a training run a few years ago, the scope of which would go too far beyond this story. I did make every effort to prepare for the usual level of hot weather that is expected at ANFTR, making a point of running (as my schedule allowed) in the heat of the day. I got plenty of training runs in during typical hot weather for this time of year. I also, obviously, had plenty of fieldwork days in the blazing sun.

None of that, however, could prepare you for the weather event that managed to coincide with the race this year. In what some agencies referred to as a “heat storm”, we had the hottest day in southern California history the day before the race. Actual temps, of course, varied from location to location. At my home, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mt. Washington, we measured a temperature of 117 degrees Fahrenheit. It was over 120 in many foothill and valley areas. The next day – race day – was expected to be cooler, but only in relative terms: temperatures were still expected to be in the hundreds over most of southern California. In the mountains, temperatures would vary considerably with aspect and elevation.

The Race

We left our house for Skyline Park on Mt. Wilson at 5am. It felt ridiculously warm walking to the car. The drive up the Angeles Crest Highway was a bit intimidating as my Jeep’s thermometer regularly showed outdoor temperatures of greater than 90 degrees; atrocious when the sun isn’t even out. We arrived at about 6, checked in, spent some time socializing with friends, and started the race promptly at 7. I kissed my wife and wished her luck before running.

The first 2.5 miles of the race are downhill on the paved Mt. Wilson – Red Box Road. You expect it to be easy. It didn’t feel that way for some reason. My legs felt as if I had just completed a long run the day before. I felt sluggish. Tired. My legs had zero “pop”. It stayed that way until we got off pavement at Eaton Saddle. My legs felt better as we began to climb the singletrack up San Gabriel Peak. The shaded side of the mountain had some cooler breezes as we ascended, which felt really good after being charbroiled in our home the previous day. There was lot of fun chatter on the way up, as there often is early in race when everyone still has energy, excitement about the event, and the pack is still fairly clustered together.

This portion of the race tops out at a saddle between San Gabriel Peak and Mt. Disappointment, then follows a paved service road for a short distance before hitting a very steep and rugged descent on the Bill Reilly Trail. The upper portions of the trail make me a bit squeamish in a few spots, as the trail is fairly narrow and sloped toward the downhill with a steep rock chute. Another runner fell in front of me and went over the edge. I grabbed her arm and pulled her up. We continued on. Near mile 5, we reach the parking lot along Mt. Wilson – Red Box Road and run the short distance on pavement to Red Box Aid Station.

The Red Box Station is a large one, and was staffed mostly by people who I count as friends, some of them close ones. It was nice to chat for a second, get a water spray-down, and ingest some early calories. It was too early to hang out at an aid station, though, and we’d be through there again at around mile 21. I headed down the Gabrielino Trail toward Switzers.

I’ve always enjoyed this Gabrielino Trail segment, except for the noise from the Angeles Crest Highway on the opposite side of the canyon. There is some beautiful scenery here, and the trail’s gradient is such that it is runnable whether going uphill or downhill. I managed to get into the middle of a classic early-race “conga line”, which is something I often get annoyed by, but I just stayed with it since it was a comfortable pace and I didn’t want to push too hard early. Usually, there is a lot of chatting when these lines form. Sometimes friends are made. This line was very quiet, which had me puzzled the whole time I was in it. I tried to start a conversation, but it didn’t go anywhere. While the trail was not sun-exposed, it felt remarkably warm (maybe even hot) in places and very humid, and I wondered if the somewhat oppressive feeling that early was weighing on everyone’s minds.

We suddenly had space at Switzer’s, as we left the singletrack for a bit and climbed the entrance road toward Nature’s Canteen Trail which would take us to Clear Creek Junction. I ended up doing that climb mostly alone, except for passing another runner as we approached Clear Creek, and ultimately running into another friend (and many-time finisher of the race) at the parking lot. The Clear Creek Aid Station was set up here to prepare you for the climb up to Josephine Saddle. I used this opportunity to get some more calories into me and get cooled off with ice in my water and ice water on my head.

I dropped to a snail’s pace, feeling like a zombie, and knowing I needed to do something to dissipate my body heat, but nothing was going to happen on that slope as there was no breeze, no shade, and no respite from the glare of the sun.

Those of us who climbed Josephine in this span of time were fortunate as there were some clouds hanging around and they did a decent job of blocking the full sun. The sun would come out in full force at times and it felt excruciatingly hot, but then it would hide again and become more manageable. I passed a number of folks on this section as I felt good and climbing is one of my few strong points. There was another aid station on the top, and a friend that was volunteering took great care of me, putting ice in my electrolyte bottle, in my water bladder, and in my hat. She gave me some words of encouragement and I headed across Josephine Saddle.

The section of the course from Josephine Saddle to Strawberry Meadow is one of my favorite trail sections in the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains. It is mostly very runnable terrain with outstanding views and some nice open forest dominated by live oak and Douglas-fir. A lot of this is what I call “roller coaster-y”: undulating up and down in a way that’s a lot of fun on fresh legs. The heat was starting to wear a bit, however, as the sun gained more prominence and miles accumulated on my legs. I was teetering just outside of hitting a low point, and dropped my pace a bit. By the time I descended to Strawberry Meadow with a view of the spectacular granitic north face of Strawberry Peak, I was feeling pretty good again and happy to have avoided a meltdown.

Past Strawberry Meadow is the long and, at least initially, very steep ascent for several miles to Lawlor Saddle. Most of this is sun-exposed (south-facing) and is where I expected I’d be most likely to run into my first significant problems. Indeed, it was time to take in some calories at the start of the ascent and I was having trouble chewing on solid food while power-hiking a steep climb. I felt fine at that point, but my mouth was a bit dry and the food just wasn’t going down easy. I stopped in the shade to get my energy bar down, then continued on.

The first half of the climb went well, though the ratcheting up of the heat was noticeable. It wasn’t helped by the open and light-colored decomposed granite surface that reflects the sunlight back at you from below. Eventually, the heat started to get to me. I stopped for a second in a ravine area where there were some trees and took my hat off to let some body heat out. It was a short stop, and I then continued. I was then in a long stretch with no shade at all. The heat felt hotter. I eventually started feeling dizzy. I was losing control. I dropped to a snail’s pace, feeling like a zombie, and knowing I needed to do something to dissipate my body heat, but nothing was going to happen on that slope as there was no breeze, no shade, and no respite from the glare of the sun.

to see my wife again and finish this beast together were my new goals

I finally made it to Lawlor Saddle, and knew there would be a shade patch ahead at some point as the trail hit a western slope. I bypassed a couple small patches because there wouldn’t be room for others to pass, and finally found a wide rock outcrop with room to sit down. This spot even had a cool breeze. I took off my hat and just let my core cool, reassuring other runners as they passed (and they all checked on me, with no exceptions, as that is how the trail community is) that I was fine and just needed a break. One runner even tried to grab my hands and told me to come along with her. I appreciated the offer, but wasn’t quite ready to go. We are now friends on Facebook.

I wasn’t timing it, but I sat there for a good 15 or 20 minutes. I decided then and there that I was not doing the out-and-back portion of the course between Shortcut Saddle and West Fork that made the difference between 50k and 60k. That would be the hottest part of the course, and I simply could not handle that kind of heat exposure on that day. I was also not the only runner that was having problems with the heat at that point, and my concern for my wife somewhere behind me became overwhelming. I made up my mind to wait for her at Red Box Aid Station, no matter how short or long the wait, and work with her on finishing together if, and only if, a finish was what she wanted as I also did not care to potentially get a race finish if she did not. So, in short, to see my wife again and finish this beast together were my new goals.

I continued on toward Red Box. The last couple of miles were mostly downhill and mostly blazing hot. I also, mostly, walked as I was sapped and really unsteady on my feet. I passed another runner who was keeled over and asked him if he was OK. He said he was, and I believed him, so I went on. A Sierra Madre Search and Rescue person passed going the other way and checked on me. I was thankful to get to Red Box (mile 21) where friends were waiting.

At Red Box, I sat in the shade (where it was still stupidly hot) and let people take care of me. Dennis, his wife Sarah, Diana, Jose, and a couple other folks helped to cool me down, get some cold fluids into me, and get my mind working again. Our friend Summer was there for support. Though she had fallen and busted her knee earlier in the day, she hobbled around getting me whatever I needed. I announced my plans to wait for Emily, and just hung out even after I felt better. They tried to kick me out, saying they’d tell her I’m fine and they’d take care of her, too, but I refused. I simply was not leaving that aid station without my wife. The time ticked away. They announced 10 minutes until cut-off, and we were getting concerned that she hadn’t shown up yet. Finally, with 6 minutes remaining, she appeared looking every bit as bad as I am sure I did. She collapsed in a chair and asked for ice. She asked me what I was doing there. I told her I decided that in these conditions I wanted us to get through the race together, assuming she wanted to continue. She said she wanted to but she absolutely needed to sit. With one minute left, they said if we wanted to continue we’d need to leave the aid station and rest on the trail. With that, we started the long walk down Rincon – Red Box Road. She didn’t stop. At least, initially.

It had been relayed to us at Red Box Aid Station that the race directors decided to remove the separate 50k time limit (two hours shorter) due to the weather conditions; as long as we finished within 12.5 hours, we’d have a finish. While we wanted a finish, or else we wouldn’t have continued, heat management was the primary concern so we managed the rest of the day accordingly. We mostly walked the five mile open and exposed fire road descent to West Fork. As the elevation got lower, it got hotter. Emily struggled here more than I did, and frequently needed to stop in patches of oak tree shade and just sit in the road.  The course sweeper eventually caught up to us, told us we had plenty of time and were fine, and stayed with us as we went down the road for quite awhile, adding some nice conversation to a difficult trek. We eventually caught up with another runner who was barely moving, and he stayed behind with him as his job was to stay with the last person and make sure everyone is accounted for.

Ever since my meltdown near Lawlor Saddle, I had fantasized about jumping in a swimming hole near West Fork that had deep water just a few weeks prior. When we reached our first crossing of the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, there was plenty of water flowing so I was excited by the prospect of water in the swimming hole. Finally, we got to the hole and it was dry. Completely dry. I was crushed. Fortunately, the West Fork Aid Station was nearby. They had a shower system set up with cold water from a nearby spring and it was refreshing. We hung out at shady West Fork for quite awhile, preparing ourselves for the climb up Kenyon Devore back to the top of Mt. Wilson; the biggest climb of the entire race.

I thought I felt pretty good, all things considered, at the time we left West Fork. My stomach had been feeling a bit queasy so I had been using liquid calories only for awhile, but I hadn’t thrown up. This changed as we started the climb out of West Fork. Waves of nausea poured over me. I kept stopping and dry heaving. We deviated off-course a bit at the Kenyon Devore – Gabrielino trail junction to hit a stream for cold water. Past that, the climb got steep. Much of the climb went like this:

  • Power hike .25 miles or so
  • Stop to take a break
  • Drink a bit
  • Retch

There were some variations where I retched while hiking.

A little ways up the trail we saw a downed runner being tended to by a friend and training companion (McKinley, who is a fast guy, a trained EMT, and was running the 60k) and a Search and Rescue person. We were going to rest close by, but McKinley recommended we continue on since a helicopter was on the way. Both, of course, checked if we were OK. We stopped a few hundred feet up the trail, and another runner joined us there on the rock pile. Further up the trail, the helicopter had finally arrived and we had gained enough altitude that we were above it. It was impressive to see that pilot maneuver into the narrow and steep-walled canyon.

Just then, my guts spewed forth like a florescent yellow waterfall. It was loud. It was disgusting. It was impressive. I’m certain everyone within five miles would have heard the retching sounds if the helicopter was not there. It went on for awhile, and I’m probably not the only runner who examined what was there to figure out what calories my body kept and what it lost. My wife just asked that I throw some dirt on it. Regardless, I felt better. For a little while, anyway.

We continued on in the same fashion for what seemed like the longest five miles on earth; an eternity, not helped by the continuing waves of nausea and the swarms of insects flying into our mouths, nose, and eyes. We spooked a male Mule Deer with a nicely-developing rack of antlers. He only went ten feet away and just stared at us, seemingly unafraid. Perhaps we looked like ghosts, and no longer the humans he normally feared.

Our arrival in the Mt. Wilson parking lot didn’t feel real. We were both completely and utterly exhausted. You usually take pride in running strong to the finish, but there would be none of that today. We walked to the finish, mustering up a smile for the friends taking pics, happy as hell to be done after 12 hours. I collapsed onto a rock wall as friends brought me stuff to drink. I needed to be prepared to bring it back up. And my body tried. I deeply appreciate everyone that was there, at least trying to help me at the finish (especially Mark, who spent a lot of time with me), but I was pretty delirious and felt absolutely horrible. I eventually got down a tiny bit of rice and small pieces of chicken, along with some Sprite, and managed to get the strength to go back to the Jeep and change clothes.

After sitting for awhile, I told Emily I felt strong and clear-headed enough to start driving back. Waves of nausea hit me as I drove and I kept stopping at pull-offs to throw up. The first 6 or 7 times I stopped, either nothing happened or I dry-heaved. Finally, about half way down the Angeles Crest Highway, pulling off was an emergency. I jumped out and gave much-needed nutrients in copious quantities to the roadside vegetation. With that out of the way, we continued home.

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Emily and I crossing the finish of the Angeles National Forest Trail Race. Photo by Jack Cheng.

My thanks to Pamela and Gary Hilliard for an excellent event and for being all-around great people and ambassadors of the sport. I also want to thank all of the volunteers, not just the specific ones whose names I know and were sometimes mentioned here. This includes the folks from Sierra Madre Search and Rescue. I am glad we didn’t need their services, of course, but it was nice knowing they were there. Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank my wife Emily for being my partner in this sometimes ridiculous but always rewarding stuff.

Rejoining the Club

Featured image: Hugging my wife at the finish of the 2017 Chimera 100. Photo by Howie Stern.

PRELUDE

After I completed the Zion 100 mile trail race in April 2013, amongst the many Facebook congratulations was the oft-cited refrain “welcome to the 100 mile club!” Since that time, I had repeatedly failed to renew my membership. In review:

  • 2013 Angeles Crest 100 – DNF (or Did Not Finish, mile 50 or so due to endless puking of everything including water)
  • 2014 Angeles Crest 100 – DNF (mile 75 due to ITB injury)
  • 2015 Mohican 100 – DNF (mile 55, after running all day in a biblical rainstorm, I just didn’t have the urge to spend all night slipping and sliding on degraded muddy trails)
  • 2015 Angeles Crest 100 – DNF (mile 50 or so, for the same reason as 2013)
  • 2017 HURT 100 – DNF (mile 40 – the second of five loops was too slow to possibly finish)

At some point, I either needed to renew my membership to the 100 mile club, or just simply stop trying and stick to shorter races. After reviewing my race history and pondering the reasons for my many failures with friends, we decided to focus on racing in cooler weather where most of the training would occur during a slower season for my work as a biological consultant. It was also intended that I do an “easier” course, but “easy” courses don’t interest me at all, so I signed up for the renowned-as-difficult Chimera 100 and didn’t tell anyone about it until after I registered, as it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.

RACE START TO CANDY STORE AID STATION (0-35.8 MILES)

The race started promptly at 6am. My plan was to start slow and remain slow all the way to the end. Everything felt great from the start and well into the race, with a lot of “pop” in my legs and no aches or pains anywhere. It seemed I had gotten my training (and my taper into the race) right. I enjoyed multi-mile stretches here-and-there chatting with old friends and making new ones.

I was pretty enamored with how good I felt when I entered Chiquito Falls Aid Station (mile 31.3). The aid station was a remote one where supplies were hiked in featuring water, candy, and some avocado “quesadillas”.  The quesadillas sounded good, so I grabbed a few and started the steep and sun-exposed climb out of the station. That’s when things very-suddenly changed.

Though it wasn’t that hot on race day, I felt like I was being basted in an oven. My calves started hurting equally in both legs. I started feeling nauseous. I tossed my last quesadilla into the bushes for some lucky raccoon. I slowed my pace even further, knowing that I would – eventually – get through this rough patch and that it was only temporary. I eventually struggled my way into Candy Store Aid Station (mile 35.8) feigning positivity.

My friend, crew support for the day, and pacer for the night in Howie Stern met me as I entered the parking lot. I reported my various problems and he found me a chair. Along with aid station volunteers, he helped me get some calories in, refill my running pack, and massage the knots out of my calf muscles. I got out of there as fast as I could, with Howie urging me to stay conservative so that I’d be in good shape for him to start pacing me at Blue Jay.

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My first date with the chair was at Candy Store aid station (mile 35.8). Photo by Howie Stern.

TO LOWER BLUE JAY (MILE 46.8)

I felt OK for a little while after leaving Candy Store, at least until I had to eat again. Again, I felt like puking. I spent some time walking on the flattish stuff in the canyon. It was getting dark. I put on my headlamp. A Great Horned Owl called nearby. Yes, I called back. As it got dark enough to need a light I felt like I was coming back to life. I climbed well on the steep climb to Chiquito Falls (mile 40.1), and was surprised to spook a rattlesnake. I grabbed a few avocado pieces at the Chiquito Falls aid station, and had an uneventful – if slow – trek to Blue Jay where I was excited about getting a pacer for the night.

I arrived at Blue Jay at 6:42 pm, and was surprised to see my wife and Summer Wesson there; I wasn’t expecting to see them until Corona the next morning. After a momentary excited greeting, we got to work: I reported on my problems to address (which included pain and swelling behind my right knee), put on a dry long sleeve shirt and jacket, and picked up some spare batteries. I had been on a mostly liquid diet for awhile because of stomach issues and still didn’t really feel strong. Howie suggested I have a beer. I ended up having a couple cups of Samuel Adams Boston Lager along with some chicken broth. That combination brought me back to life, and Howie and I headed out to do the much harder second half of the course.

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Heading out to Main Divide with Howie Stern from Lower Blue Jay (mile 46.8). Photo by Summer Wesson.

ON THROUGH THE NIGHT TO BEAR SPRINGS NUMBER 2 (MILE 76.4)

Much of what went on that night is a blur at this point, as it often is for most 100 mile runners. I remember the following:

  • Never feeling super sleepy all night.
  • Moving at a pretty good pace all night and feeling mostly strong.
  • Despite the above, I was yakking on almost every climb, especially heading up Holy Jim where I puked repeatedly. I think I did well to keep moving quickly after doing so, later even puking while I was power hiking with no stopping at all. No need to waste time…
  • Probably being annoying to aid station personnel as I often responded to their questions of “what can I help you with” with “you can push me off the cliff and end my misery”. I was joking, of course, as making light of the ridiculousness of it all helps me deal with being in the pain cave.

We didn’t stay too long at most aid stations, just long enough to deal with what needed to be dealt with while we were there. I tried to make sure Howie didn’t think I was trying to camp out by asserting early and often that “I’d like to get out of here quickly, as soon as I do…” whatever it was I needed to do.

For his part, Howie was best at helping me run more often than I likely otherwise would have. On technical stuff, he showed me something he called “hobby jogging” (if this is a common term, I never heard of it), where we moved with short and fast steps, with our hiking poles always at the side to keep us from stumbling, which happened to me quite often. A lot of the night parts of the course weren’t overly exciting, and it seemed like a lot of lather, rinse, repeat. At some point, I saw Howie up ahead of me stumbling around. He confessed later that he was falling asleep on his feet.

I managed to get through the last part of the darkness without feeling my usual tiredness. The sun rose as we neared the top of our second trip up Santiago Peak. It was getting light when we returned for our second time to Bear Springs (mile 76.4).

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Working my way up Main Divide at around mile 50. Photo by Howie Stern.

ONWARD TO CORONA (MILE 85.4)

We were in and out of Bear Springs very quickly. After Bear Springs was a lot of downhill. We ran a lot into the Indian Truck Trail Aid Station about two miles down the road. I was in and out quickly from there as well as I was feeling really good at that point. I ran a lot from there, until a couple miles from Corona when the pain behind my leg took a drastic turn for the worse. Howie tried to press for me to run initially, but I could power hike well (which hurt drastically less), running was excruciating, and power hiking was easily fast enough to finish the race. We arrived at Corona (mile 85.4) at 8:45am.  I was feeling pretty well physically, especially considering I had gone 85 miles, but I was getting concerned about the leg and that was my priority at the aid station.

When we arrived at Corona, the trio of my wife, Summer Wesson, and Naomi Ruiz (who was crewing another runner still out on the course) went to work. They secured an entire can of Guiness. They secured a nice slab of pumpkin pie. They helped me get my cold-weather night clothes off. They also dealt with my leg. I downed several Advil, had my sore and swollen area behind my knee slathered in some weird green gel from Mexico, and tied my wife’s arm sleeve around the sore spot to apply some pressure. With that, Emily and I started the seven mile climb back up Indian Truck Trail and my leg felt amazingly better.

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Being tended to by my wife and Naomi Ruiz at Corona Aid Station, mile 85.4 (Photo by Summer Wesson).
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Pacing all night is hard. Howie gets a well-earned nap right after I leave Corona. Photo by Summer Wesson.

CHARGING TO THE FINISH

I had looked forward to my wife pacing me to a race finish for so long, and so many times it was foiled.

“Well, here we finally are”, I said.

I was surprised about how strong I felt on that arduous climb. I dug myself deep into the cave, yelling, screaming, cursing, digging deep with everything I had inside of me to keep moving at the fastest pace I possibly could. I bypassed the Indian Truck Trail Aid Station (mile 92.4) and continued to push hard on the climb past there. We passed quite a few other runners in the last 15 miles. Nevertheless, I resisted calls by my wife to run on the short downhills and flats. I didn’t want to torpedo a good thing, and running downhill was what bothered my leg.

“Save the running for the end”, I told her. “We are moving plenty fast enough and gaining time.”

I was happy to see friends at Horsethief (mile 95.5), but again wanted to pass through. I said a few social words and grabbed some food to go.

At Trabuco (mile 97.9), I didn’t even visit the aid station. “116 in and out!” I said as I went past. I could smell the finish line, and I wanted to get there as soon as I possibly could.

Shortly past Trabuco were some more moderate-grade downhills where I told my wife I wanted to run. We ran a lot, and kept running consistently in the last couple miles of pavement leading to the finish. Emily told me she was having trouble keeping up with me. I guess it was the adrenaline, as most of my leg pains went away and my stride felt fluid.

That lasted until about a half mile from the finish. It was a sudden and very sharp stabbing pain behind my knee. I tried striding in different ways, but it didn’t matter: my leg suddenly wasn’t even capable of moving in a manner that allowed running. I was a little depressed at the prospect of walking it in, but that was over-ridden by the ecstasy of finishing. I told my wife “thank you, for being there for training, for being here now, for being there always”. With that, we reached the final turn to the finish and she backed off as I crossed the finish to be embraced by Howie. I hugged Summer. I then hugged my wife and the pent up emotions of so many failed attempts leaked out despite my attempts to hold them back. The photo of that moment, which leads this post, is something I will cherish until I die.

I, again, can’t thank my wife enough for allowing me to spend the time involved to partake in this admittedly ridiculous sport and for always being there to help during races. Thanks to Howie for helping me plan and implement this thing, and running his own hard ultra in pacing me all night for 40 miles. Thanks to Summer for the many training miles this year, friendship, and help crewing. Thanks to Naomi for helping out and being a cheerleader. Thanks to Dave Tan for being a trail buddy during the race for so many miles (and I am so, so glad you got your finish!) Last of all, thanks to Chimera Race Director Steve Harvey and all of the volunteers for putting on a great race. This is something I won’t soon forget.

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Just a few dozen feet from the finish line. Photo by Howie Stern.

The Under-Appreciated Black-tailed Jackrabbit

[Featured image: A Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) attempts to hide on a cold day during the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in northern Nevada, October 2017.]

We are walking our fifteenth mile of the day. The accumulated sun and wind exposure while walking around sagebrush and over unstable volcanic rock has taken its toll. Attentiveness is flagging. I am starting to get tunnel vision as my blood sugar declines and I try to focus on the ground looking for animal burrows and scat. A sudden explosion next to my feet snaps me out of it.

“Jackrabbit!”

Everyone turns to see it lope with the speed and grace of a gazelle across the hillside and out of site.

While our primary concern during the surveys we performed for the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in northern Nevada was a search for the sensitive Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) and its sign, Black-tailed Jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) undoubtedly stole the show. They were – by far – the most abundant mammal of any decent size in the survey area (Least Chipmunks [Tamias minimus] were common flashes

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Range of the Black-tailed Jackrabbit.

as well, but are miniscule in comparison). Our daily counts for this species peaked at 21. Their propensity for hiding in scrapes at the base of large bushes and staying there until you are about to step on them was great for raising your heart rate.

Our experience during this survey caused me to think a little more deeply about this species, one which few give much consideration to unless its through the legends of ones with antlers. A western species, the Black-tailed Jackrabbit is found throughout much of the United States west of the Mississippi River and south into central Mexico. It is most common in arid environments, especially the Great Basin Desert. As we found during our surveys, much of the desert floor is covered with jackrabbit scat which can persist for long periods (with a study finding a mean defecation rate in the wild of 1792 pellets per hectare per day). This made surveys like ours, where we were searching for smaller Pygmy Rabbit scat, much more difficult.

Jackrabbits, despite having the word “rabbit” in their name, are not actually rabbits; they are hares. Hares, unlike rabbits, have young above ground (without the protection afforded by a burrow), with eyes that are fully open and skin that is fully furred.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the jackrabbit is its large ears, which serve to radiate heat from the body. It is for that reason, as shown in the featured image on this page, that jackrabbits keep their ears down during cold weather.

The Wikipedia page for Black-tailed Jackrabbit provides an excellent and detailed account of the natural history of this species.

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An alert Black-tailed Jackrabbit during surveys conducted as part of the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in Humboldt County, Nevada, September 2017.

On the Potential Interface of Ultrarunning and Pygmy Rabbits

[Featured image: looking toward Lake Elsinore from within the Cleveland National Forest, Riverside County, California during the 2017 Twin Peaks 50k]

This Autumn is, for me, an interesting confluence of long-distance trail running and biological consulting. On November 18, 2017, I will toe the starting line of the Chimera 100, a 100 mile trail race in the Santa Ana Mountains on the border of Riverside and Orange counties in southern California. I also won a contract from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct a survey on 2,048 acres of northern Nevada for Pygmy Rabbits, a species listed as sensitive by the BLM, as part of the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project. It was unclear to me how the implementation of that survey would affect my training for the race. A 50 kilometer (more or less) race that I ran this past weekend answered a few of my questions.

The Training Plan

Let’s be frank: I’ve had nothing but failure at the 100 mile distance since I completed my first at the Zion 100 in 2013. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time agonizing over the reasons why, and between my own thoughts and discussions with experienced friends in the running community came to the following conclusions:

  • I’ve spent way too much time and energy since 2013 focusing on the Angeles Crest 100
  • All of my 100 mile race attempts have been during hot weather and I don’t handle hot weather well
  • The peak training periods for the races I’ve chosen since Zion have always overlapped with the busiest and most hectic time of year (spring and early summer) in biological consulting

We determined that the best way to try to get my running back on track was to enter a race during the winter (or close to it) when heat is less likely to be an issue and work is a bit less of a distraction from training. I was also, theoretically, supposed to enter a race that was considered to be on the low end of the difficulty scale; Chimera doesn’t fit that description, but I really only get excited by races in difficult terrain.

After officially entering Chimera some time in the early summer, I managed to win the Pygmy Rabbit survey contract from the BLM. I mapped out a training plan (something I also haven’t done since the Zion 100) that was “blind” to the survey being conducted, hoping that all of the walking during the survey would allow me to pick up training in progress when I returned. I also decided to enter the Twin Peaks 50k as a training run, as it uses portions of the Chimera 100 course. I stayed devoted to my training, and hit all of my training goals until I left for Nevada on September 23.

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Approaching snow squalls during the last day of the Pygmy Rabbit survey on October 8.

The Survey

I will write in more detail about the implementation of this project after I submit the final report to the BLM. Pertinent to my discussion here, however, is the following:

  • I led a team that included two other surveyors.
  • We surveyed 114 miles of transects per person over hilly to sometimes mountainous terrain at an elevation of 5,500 to 7,000 feet above mean sea level.
  • Walking transects were off-trail, generally ran from sunrise to sunset (setting up camp where we finished each day), and were in often windy conditions ranging from below freezing with near white-out snow squalls to temperatures in the 80s, sometimes within 24 hours.
  • Actual walking distance (which was greater considering walking around vegetation and terrain obstacles) was approximately 200 miles per person.
  • The survey took place over two weeks, so we walked approximately 100 miles per person per week.

I really feel what we did there, considering the enormous challenges we faced, was an amazing accomplishment. Despite being a trained distance runner, implementing this project often felt like an extreme mental and physical test: it is not easy to get up every day in the cold wind to take down camp right after sunrise and immediately start walking for hours on end, while keeping your focus on Pygmy Rabbit sign within 25 feet of either side of you. While I thought my planned survey schedule was aggressive and I wasn’t sure we’d meet it, we finished the survey only one day later than I originally planned.

We took three rest days during the survey. I could have run some during those rest days, but I did not. I needed the rest as much as my team did. There was one rest day that I worked out in the hotel gym with free weights.

I knew that all of that “time on feet” was good for training, but given the lack of high-intensity workouts during that period I was not sure what kind of shape I’d be in for running when I returned. I also lost seven pounds during the survey.

The Race

The Twin Peaks 50K was on Saturday, October 14. We returned to Los Angeles on the afternoon of Monday, October 9. While I had 10 miles on the training schedule for Tuesday, I felt I really needed the day to finish unpacking from the trip and assimilate back in to my life. On Wednesday, I decided to try to do the scheduled 15 miles. That run opened up feeling fantastic, but quickly deteriorated when my legs felt strained. I ended up doing 5.5. I ran about the same distance with a friend on Thursday night and felt a lot of pain in my knees and my Achilles tendons. I was more than a little worried that the race on Saturday would be a giant suffer-fest, especially with a forecast in the 90s after I spent so long in cold weather.

Saturday morning finally came. The race started at 7am. The aches and pains were gone. I kissed my wife (who was also running it) and said goodbye as I went my pace. Instead of running super-conservatively, I decided to run the way I had trained on my long runs which was to use a 20/20, 20/10, 20/5 walk step/run step strategy on climbs, with the amount of running determined by a combination of how vertical the climb was and the surface I was running on. I wasn’t sure I could maintain that for the whole race, but I figured I’d try, and the step counting kept me mentally occupied during the race.

As the miles ticked by, I was continually amazed that my legs constantly felt fresh and my heart rate stayed low, no matter what the terrain was like. Past the mid-point of the race was the significant combination of the climb up Holy Jim Trail and Main Divide Road to the summit of Santiago Peak. I maintained my run/walk strategy where the surface allowed (which was much of it) and passed a bunch of runners I had not seen since the start. I reached the aid station at the summit of Santiago Peak (about mile 22) honestly feeling like I had not run even a mile. Much of the remainder of the race was downhill from there.

The last aid station was approximately 6.5 miles from the finish. I knew I was fairly close to the front of the pack, but wasn’t sure how close. As I had been all race, I was in and out of the aid station very quickly, leaving before the runner that I thought was in third. He left shortly behind me. I maintained my distance for a while, but as the elevation got lower and the route became more sun-exposed, I really started feeling the heat. We hit a short climb and I couldn’t run it. He could. He passed me. We got lower, we hit more constant sun, and I faded badly. Eventually, in the last two miles, I couldn’t even continually run downhill and had to take walking breaks. I could see the runner who passed me below and he was walking some, too, but he was a long way ahead of me at this point.

I finally crossed the finish line at 7:39. That’s more than two hours slower than my best 50K time, but a time I understood to be pretty good for this race. I also found out I wasn’t chasing third… it was fourth. I finished in fifth. I was super happy with the result and how my body performed for most of the race. Depleted, I sat at the finish line to hydrate, eat, and chat with the other runners as I waited for my wife and her friend to finish three hours later.

There is a lot that can and will happen between now and the start of Chimera, but I feel like the Pygmy Rabbit survey was an overall benefit to my race training. I have two more high mileage training weeks remaining, before I taper my mileage into the race. Wish me luck.

Twin Peaks 50K Summary

Distance: 32.4 miles
Time: 7:39:37
Moving Time: 7:28:05 (11 minutes at aid stations… not bad)
Elevation Gain: 7,487 feet
Average Pace: 14:09/mile

Islip Ridge, Little Jimmy, and Windy Gap

I decided yesterday was a good day to traverse some trails I hadn’t done before, so I grabbed my Angeles High Country map and drove up Highway 39. I sought out a trail the map labeled as the “Islip-Wiwona Trail”. There were no signs where the trailhead should be. The area was overgrown with a lot of downed trees. I had a lot of false starts and almost gave up.

I eventually found it (though it took about a mile to be certain I wasn’t on an animal trail). The lower sections in a recent burn area were overgrown and made me nervous about rattlesnakes. I ran a short runnable section and stepped within striking distance of one hiding in a log that rattled its pleasure about the situation. I ventured on. Once I reached a flat about 1.5 miles in I left the burn area and it took on the character of the San Gabriel high country, including a herd of about 20 Bighorn Sheep. I really wished I had my good camera.

The trail was in good condition over-all and didn’t have any remotely “sketchy” spots. The high point, figuratively, was Islip Ridge (which may be the actual name of the trail according to signs at later trail junctions) with its views. The high point, literally, was the summit of Mt. Islip which my altimeter said was about 8,500 feet, but maps say is 8,250. Whatever. I was up there. It was awesome.

I descended to Little Jimmy Spring for the best water on the planet, then took the Windy Gap trail, also awesome, back down. It was a fantastic day.

The route totaled 11.93 miles with 3,725 feet of elevation gain. The Garmin Connect page for it is here: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1873675424

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Bighorn Sheep on Islip Ridge.