Monday, September 2, 2013

Birthday Challenge: Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass Trail Run

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been doing some preparation this summer for my planned birthday challenge of running/shuffling from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT in a day. This clocks in at 74 miles (118km) in distance with 19,800 feet of ascending and 20,800 feet of descending (Snoqualmie is 1000 feet lower in elevation than Stevens).

My preparation has consisted of trying to run regularly (usually 5-10 miles and 2-3 times per week), doing a flat 20 mile run in Mazma, doing a 45 mile out and back run on the PCT to test the waters, and then doing my first marathon a week ago. I have been feeling an urgency to give this a shot since the weather has taken a turn for the worse lately and the days are getting shorter. I was too sore all last week from the marathon to get out on any runs, but by Friday my legs were feeling better again and since I had ordered some lightweight trekking poles on Monday and had them arrive earlier than expected on Thursday, I took that as a sign that I should give it a shot on Saturday (Aug. 31).

Friday evening I spent an hour pulling together everything that I would need, before setting out for Stevens Pass just after 8:30pm. The plan was for me to leave a car at the Stevens Pass trailhead to be picked up on a subsequent day, and on Saturday morning Roanne would drop off a car at the Snoqualmie Pass trailhead while going for a hike with a friend so that it would be there for me when I (hopefully) arrived Saturday night.

I pulled into the Stevens Pass PCT parking lot just after 10:15pm, and promptly deployed my sleeping bag in the back of the truck and went to sleep. I used to have trouble falling asleep before big events, but since having Etta I am in a state of perpetual sleep deficit so I never have problems with that anymore.

My alarm went off at 1:45am (I think 3 hours of sleep is a reasonable minimum to strive for) and after an Illy coffee, an orange juice, a banana, and 2 sticky cinnamon buns (one too many based on how I felt when I got going) I suited up, donned my headlamp, and headed up the trail. Here I am trying to wake myself just before getting going:

I had adjusted my approach based on my 45 mile trail run so that I wasn't running any of the uphills, just the flats and downhills. I was also using the new poles that I had just acquired (Black Diamond Ultra Distance, they are awesome) which I was really happy with and proved to be a godsend in the latter stages of the run.

I set off down the trail at 2:12am and the miles ticked by quickly in the dark, as I had a lot of energy and was excited to be finally trying my much-anticipated challenge. I was really happy that I had done the trial run on the first part of the trail that I was doing in the dark, since I was able to recognize landmarks and not have any doubts that I was going the right way. The only fly in the ointment which I hadn't considered was that in the pre-dawn hours all of the trailside foliage was completely soaked with dew, and as this section of the PCT is not as well traveled as other parts the foliage hangs over into the trail and as I made my way through the water on the plans was transferred to my legs, and then ran down my legs and onto my socks and shoes so that a few miles in my feet were completely soaked (to the point where you can feel water sloshing around in the shoes, as if I had just stepped in a lake). This wasn't the end of the world for the time being (though it did make my shoes a fair bit heavier), but I was concerned about the blister ramifications later in the run.

By around 5:00am the sky started brightening with the rising sun, and by 6:00am as I was on my way up to Piper Pass (about 14 miles in) it was bright enough that I no longer needed my headlamp. Here I am on my way up to Piper Pass with the morning sun just about to start hitting Glacier Peak (the large mountain on the horizon):

I contined on to Deception Pass (22 miles, the turnaround for my previous run) which I reached at the 5.5hr mark, not too much slower than the 5hrs it had taken me the previous time when I was running many more of the uphills. I was feeling good still (aside from my wet feet), with my approach of not running any uphills working out well. Soon after Deception Pass I came upon some trees that had been downed in the storms we had the previous week, it would have been dramatic to have been out in the mountains while that was happening!

And here I am after rounding a corner and getting hit by sunshine for the first time, that felt good!

Soon after that I came upon a deer who didn't seem to want to move off the trail, so I paused for a bit to watch him. Having had a recent experience running through farmers fields in the UK and getting chased by a bunch of cows I am now more cautious around large mammals, but eventually he moved along and I continued on my way.

As I made my way up toward Cathedral Pass, while running a short flat section I felt a twinge in my right hamstring followed by a shooting pain on a few of my next strides. Yikes! The pain came during the landing part of my stride when my leg was fully extended, so I tried to run a bit gingerly and it seemed to be okay so I soldiered on. By this point I was about 26 miles in, so I was pretty committed.
I reached Cathedral Pass just before 9:00 am (about 28 miles in), and it was fun to see the spot where Roanne and I had camped a year ago with our young cub (sleeping in a tent at 5500 feet with a 2-month-old is not recommended). I took my first sit-down break here, eating a sandwich and swapping out my soaked socks for a new pair (which prompty got wet as soon as I put them in my wet shoes, but not as wet as the first pair). Here is the view from my rest spot across to Cathedral Peak:

I don't know who mows the lawn up here, but they sure do a great job as the meadow looked very well kept. It was nice to sit in the sunshine, but after 10 minutes it was time to get going so I headed on down toward Deep Lake. The downhills through this section were really runnable; while I find the gentle grade of PCT switchbacks frustrating on the way up I certainly appreciate them on the way down (maybe they could rework the PCT to be a 1-way trail with steep uphills and gentle downhills?).

I reached Deep Lake and continued on a long fairly flat section that ran beside Spinola Creek to Waptus Lake. I was starting to feel my hamstring a bit more, but at this point I was still relatively pain free and it wasn't impacting my stride too much aside from slight shortening of my left leg's motion. The trail beside Waptus Lake went quickly, and I reached the Waptus River (38 miles in) just after 11:30am, having been on the go for around 9.5 hours. Not bad, over halfway and I was well on pace for my aim of completing the run in under 20 hours.

From the Waptus River bridge I started another long ascent. The PCT follows a pattern of ascending to cross 5000 foot+ passes and then dropping down to lakes in the 3000 foot range so there are a number of 2000 foot+ ascents. I knew I was starting to get low on water (I had started with 3 liters), but I didn't want to head back the river to fill up and was thinking there would likely be streams running across the trail on the ascent. Unfortunately by about half way up the climb all of the springs had been dry and I was starting to get a little worried. Here I am still feeling good but getting a little thirsty:

Luckily at mile 45 (just after seeing a black bear!) I happened upon a small trickle coming out of the rock. By this point I was completely out of water, and although I had intended to use purification tables  for trailside water sources, they need 30 minutes to act and since I was really thirsty I decided to take a gamble and rely on my iron constitution. The other consideration is that when I was purchasing the water purification tablets it was a little scary reading all of the warnings on the back about how toxic they are if not used properly. Something like that can't be good for you, so at some point you are weighing the merits of ingesting some live bacteria or ingesting some dead bacteria along with the poisin that did them in.

Continuing on through the flat-ish section after the climb I tried to resume running, but by this point my left hamstring was getting pretty painful and it took a fair bit of gritting my teeth to get going. My blisters were also starting to act up at this point, so it was fortunate that the scenery was so spectacular as this distracted me from the fact that I still had almost 30 miles to cover. I able to get into a good rhythm on the section down to Lemah Meadow, I started by counting steps between switchbacks to distract myself and eventually I became a bit conditioned to the pain and didn't even need to count anymore.

I reach the former site of a bridge across the Lemah River (mile 53) at 4:00pm, just under 14 hours in. I had now dropped slightly below the 4 miles/hour average pace that I had been targeting, mostly due to the hamstring issues I was having. I say "former site of a bridge" since the bridge had been washed out:

I was actually happy about this since I had been thinking that dipping my blistered feet into a cold mountain stream would be good treatment (and it was, it felt awesome). Taking a dip in a cold alpine lake or stream on a hot day in the middle of a long trail run has to be on a my top ten list of the best things in life. After drying off and putting my shoes back on I felt considerably less awesome, but was still able to muster something that was closer to a run than a walk as I approached the long climb up to Spectacle Lake.

Once on the climb I settled into my standard power walking (actually, by this point most of the power had gone by the wayside and it was just walking) for the long ascent up to and above the lake. By this time even walking was getting a bit painful when I would try to get a strong push off from my left leg. Here I am paused at a nice waterfall around mile 55:

I reached the top of the ascent at mile 58 just before 6:00pm (having been on the go for 16 hours). I stopped here for another sock swap (I had been operating in a pattern of sock-swapping, always having one pair of socks on the outside of my pack drying that was ready to be swapped out for the still wet-ish pair that I was wearing), and sat down for one last break in the sun. Here is the nice meadow at my rest stop:

 As I set off down the descent I made an effort to do something that approximated running, but it was so painful that I gave up after a few hundred meters and slowly came to accept that I would be walking the last 16 miles since running was no longer possible with my hamstring being the way that it was (the rest of me felt surprisingly decent, my quads were really tired but still functional).

Stinker! Luckily I soon after rounded the corner on a ridge top and was presented with a view of Mount Thompson, at least I was getting back into familiar territory (I had climbed it last year with the approach being on the PCT). This was good timing, as the sun was dropping in the sky and it was nice that the final part that I would be covering in the dark was familiar to be. On the unfortunate side, the trail now consisted of long sections of scree and talus which would have been tough to run in any state, and in my current state were a lot harder to walk (especially in flimsy running shoes).

I soldiered on, with the sun setting just as I approach Huckleberry Mountain at mile 62. Here are the sun's final rays catching some nice flowering heather:

And here is the view down the trail just after the sun set with Mount Rainier visible on the horizon:

I managed another mile or two in the dusk before it was too dark to see, so I stopped and put on my long sleeve shirt (it was getting cooler with the sun down) and donned my headlamp for round 2 of hiking in the dark. I wasn't moving that fast but I was moving, and before too long I reached Ridge Lake which I had hiked to a few times, so it was nice to be on familiar ground. I continued on to the Kendall Catwalk which was exciting to cross in the dark (a narrow walkway with the sides plunging off steeply into a dark abyss, yikes!).

By this point my stomach had started going a bit wonky (possibly due to the warm cheese sandwiches that I had been eating, possibly due to bacteria from untreated water, or possibly due to having been on the go for over 20 hours) and my morale was starting to sag so it was really nice to round the corner on Kendall Peak and have vehicle lights on I-5 come into view. Civilization! It looked like I was going to make it after all. I still had just under 6 miles to go, but with the end in sight it became much easier (though I did spend a lot of time cursing the PCT for the long switchbacks) and at 12:36am I emerged into the parking lot at the PCT trail head. Great success! It had been 22 hours and 24 minutes on the go, I had accumulated over 33,000 fuel points on my Nike Fuel Band (a new PB), and I was happy to be done. Here I am in the parking lot, happy to be done:

Here is a shot of my Fuel Band about to explode from having accumulated so much fuel in one day:

And here is one of the blisters that I saw when I took my shoes off. You know your blisters are getting serious when they're filled with blood instead of clear fluid:

I was pretty tired, but luckily I had stocked the car that Roanne dropped off for me with cans of Illy coffee, so I passed the time on the drive back to Seattle by sipping coffee and didn't fall asleep until I fell into my bed.

In case anyone wants tips and tricks for repeating this endeavor, here is the list of everything that I brought:

  • Running shoes (Nike Pegasus)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • Running shorts
  • Short sleeve synthetic shirt
  • Long sleeve synthetic shirt
  • Hat
  • Head band
Food (all consumed except where noted)
  • 3 liters of water (and filled up more along the way)
  • Electrolyte tablets (to make the water taste more interesting)
  • 4 Probars (I had 3 of these left over at the end)
  • 6 Odwalla bars (I had 4 of these left over at the end)
  • 2 buns with peanut butter and honey
  • 2 buns with peanut butter and nutella
  • 6 avocado/hummus/cheese sandwiches
  • Camelbak (18L carrying capacity, 3L water capacity)
  • Ibuprofen (boy was I happy to have this!)
  • Water purification tablets (didn't use any of these)
  • Toilet paper
  • Duct tape (didn't use this for anything)
  • Cell phone (only for taking pictures since there was no cell reception)
  • Map
  • Lighter (my nod to survival gear in the event that I had to spend the night out)
  • Headlamp
  • Trekking poles
And finally, here is the list of things that I would do differently if I were to do it again:
  1. Don't bring so many of the same sandwiches, I was really happy with the avocado/hummus/cheese sandwich when I tasted the first one but by the 6th one I was pretty sick of them.
  2. Don't bring any energy bars, they are disgusting. As my friend Bing would say, only bring human food.
  3. Don't get wet feet at the start of the run. I'm not quite sure what I would have done differently to avoid this, but if anyone has ideas I would love to hear them.
  4. Stretch at the start of the run, in the hopes of avoiding the issues that I experienced with my hamstring. Come to think of it, maybe another idea would be not doing my first marathon the week before. Oops.
  5. Don't eat so many cinnamon buns for breakfast before starting out. My standard breakfast fare for endurance events lately has been a giant serving of baked goods, but I think I am going to switch to something healthier so that I don't feel sick for the first hour.
  6. Bring a pin or something to pop blisters. I had matching blisters on the outsides of my heels, and the one that popped itself partway through was in way better shape at the end then the one that stayed intact.
  7. Put some anti-friction rub on the back of my underarms. My shirt tends to chafe here and I always forget to do something about it before the run.