Saturday, November 26, 2011

"The Devil's Treadmill"

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go out and run the Wilson Creek Trails with a few people on the Boise Trail Runners Facebook group. Emily Berriochoa organized the event, and the loop chosen was the first 20.5 mile loop of the 50K I'm taking on in January. Anytime there is an opportunity to run with a group I like to join in, but I was a little apprehensive about taking on this loop this early into my training for the 50k. I realized that if I went I wouldn't be able to push too hard and I might be pretty flat coming off that effort for the week to come. Regardless, I decided to head out and see how the day went. Walking was something I knew I may have to do, and as I found out, there's nothing wrong with that when your training for a very difficult ultra.
Emily set the run to start at 7 am and with the early start and the usual November weather here in Idaho, the temps were cold but bearable. Standing around at the beginning while runners do what they normally do before a big run was a bit chilly, and as a result I probably wore a bit too many layers for the run. No matter; carrying more weight than I will in the race will prepare me to run faster when the time come.

As we got started, it wasn't long until Tony Salazar and I were off on our own and working our way up the first hill. Up ahead we saw another runner (Dallas) who waited for us and the three of us ran together for another mile until the first "real" hill of the loop. The trail goes through a small little canyon at the beginning. The scenery right through here was amazing, but it was still just a little too dark to get a clear picture. As the three of us power hiked the first climb we were joined by Ryan Lund who hustled to catch us so he knew where to go. This addition gave us a group of four which we held together until the end of the day. The picture below is the view shortly after topping out the first climb and moving up and across the plateau.

The route goes gradually up to around mile 4 where we got a short break on a descent and then goes up again on a 4wd road to a faint trail that drops down to the main Wilson Creek Road. This was a fun little descent and I'm looking forward to running this specific section again in the future. Meanwhile, the temperatures were playing tricks on us. Coming up the 4wd road we faced a stiff headwind bringing cold air down from up high, but when out of the wind on the sunnier side of the terrain we were overheating. Nevertheless, the temperatures were still brisk enough to freeze the bite valve on my Nathan HPL 020 hydration pack and give Dallas some interesting hat ornaments.Rejoining the main road, our pace turned very casual as we worked our way gradually up to the 4wd trail that takes you up to the saddle between Wilson Peak and Soldiers Cap. The road was nice and frozen so the footing was great and we had an opportunity to down some calories and get some much needed dihydrogen monoxide down (sorry, I'm a science teacher and had to throw that in there...). Tony Salazar informed us that Pop-Tarts were his food of choice during long runs and I must admit that they sounded pretty darn good at the time. I sucked down some nearly frozen Hammer Gel, took a couple Endurolytes, and ate my first of 3 Nature Valley dark chocolate granola squares. The only thing I may add to my race day nutrition would be some Perpetuem early on and some Heed later on in the run. Hammer stuff works very well for me, I tend to not use enough of it in most cases though.

When we finally turned towards Wilson Peak on the 4wd trail that goes up to the saddle, we chatted and tried to get to know each other a bit better. Dallas told us how he trains and if my wife thought I was a serious runner, she should listen to his 2-week training cycle, wow! He has also done about 10 ultras if my memory serves me correctly, in between being a science teacher as well and living in Germany for 10 years. Ryan was no slouch either, having a resume filled with marathons and the occaissional Ironman triathlon. This 20 mile run was part of his "taking it easy" this fall. And of course there is Fast Tony who has an extensive ultra background which includes running the Sawtooth Relay (same race I did with 6 people) by HIMSELF! I quickly found out I was in some very good company and I resolved to absorb as much knowledge I could from these much more experience runners.
(Heading up towards the saddle near Wilson Peak, the round dome in the center.)

The final push towards the saddle gets a bit steep, and with some snow covering the trail we took another walk. I have a few pictures of the group walking, but only a couple of us running that are blurry. We were just moving along too fast for me to get many great running shots, so when we hiked up the hills I made sure to get a few more shots.
Dallas and I were chatting away as we moved on from the saddle to the spur trail that takes you from the 4wd trail to the Wilson Peak summit which is about 13 miles into the 20 mile loop. Looking back down after we reached the top gave a great view of the wintery scene behind. The beauty of the following picture hides the fact that there was a stiff wind up on top. However, the view was well worth it...
(Previous shots are all from the summit at Wilson Peak.)

Freezing in the cold wind, we decided to book it down and start the grueling descent off the back side of the mountain. Arriving back at the saddle we met up with another Tony, Tony Huff. This Tony was making good time and was actually the guy Ryan rode over here with from Boise, however, it was a little too cold for us to wait for him to go top out Wilson and join us so we proceeded with the descent. If you're reading this to get an idea what the route is like for this loop, know that you must save some legs for the downhill. It is one of the steepest trails you will run, and it is relentless. The elevation gained in the first 13 miles is lost in less than 5 and the quads will be crying uncle if you overdo it in the ascent.

Coming down the mountain is always a good feeling but it seriously challenges your strength and mental fortitude. Looking backwards towards Wilson Peak two miles into the descent you realize how steep it really is. Below you can see Wilson on the left side of the shot. It was hard to believe that 2 or 3 miles ago we were standing on top.
Another tricky thing about this loop is that the downhill is peppered with super steep "ups" that break your downhill rhythm and force you back into power hiking mode. It just never gets easy on the way down. A times you can barely lower yourself down the slope in control. The quads and hip flexors were really feeling the burn by the time we got down. My La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0's were beautiful for this downhill, however. Not a single slip, period. They also did very well on the snowy uphills on the way up to Wilson Peak. Below is a shot of the typical terrain and one of the little bumps that we experienced on the way "down" the mountain.
Just when your quads are screaming the most, the trail turns from mostly packed sand to loose "baby head" rocks and gravel. This unwelcome addition to the difficulty level is offset by the amazing view looking down into Reynold's Creek and the fact that we were almost down the mountain and onto the final push across the rolling terrain for the last 2.5 miles.

Once down the mountain we trotted back on the trail towards the parking lot. I really was feeling the bonk by this time. Something about running 1+ hrs longer than I ever have with 4900' of vertical in temperatures hovering in the upper 20's can apparently wear a person down. I was very glad to make it back to the parking lot were the four of us took a group shot for the sake of the great day we just had. Of course, you can see Wilson Peak directly behind us.
Post run I downed a special chocolate milk mix and granola. Trying to change out of my sweaty trail running gear was probably the hardest part of the whole day. I sat in the car and began to try and pull of the tights and the cramps started. First in the quads, then my groin muscles, and finally my calves. OUCH! Fortunately, the milk and food kicked in fast and I experienced the cramping for a few minutes and then it was over. Scenes from Dean Karnazes' first 50 mile experience documented in his book, Ultramarathon Man, kept coming to my mind as I sat in the car. Thankfully, no projectile vomit came out. The stomach was never an issue at all today, something I'd attribute to the Hammer products and consistent effort level that we put out for the 4 hour run.

My final time for the loop was within my secret goal of under 4 hours; 3:57:31. Hopefully I can knock another 30 minutes or so off by January 21st. We'll see, but I know that I will definitely be taking on this loop again as soon as possible. It is a must run in the valley for any trail runner. Someone of Facebook said the loop should be renamed "The Devil's Treadmill" which may not be too far of a stretch. However, I would place this loop as a far cry from hell and more like a glimpse into the beauty of God's creation best felt rather than seen. There is no doubt that if you do this loop you will be "feeling" that beauty for a few days every time you have to walk down a set of stairs.

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