Monday, September 29, 2014

Rainbow Trail FKT report

Guest post by Cory Linfield

I know this FKT report is long overdue - so here it is:

The idea of running the entire Rainbow Trail is something I have been playing with for a few years. I met my wife, Allisa, working at Horn Creek camp south of Westcliffe, CO during the summer of 2009 when we were both in college. Horn Creek camp has a trailhead right beside it with about half a mile to get to the trail. I ran quite a few times that summer, exploring north and south on the trail as far as I could go between camp duties, being fairly limited by lack of hydration and nutrition at that point. Since Allisa and I've moved to CO and I've researched the extent of the Rainbow Trail, the thought of going back and running the whole thing has never been too far from my mind.

This year I decided to go for it - after a bit of research it seemed to me that no one had ever traversed the entire length of the trail by foot, or had no record on the internet of having done so. Given the increased popularity of FKT's, especially in CO, and the fact this is a nice, contiguous, almost entirely singletrack with only a spattering of 4WD road intersections, and a single paved road to cross, I figured I should hop on it to be the first. My wife was incredibly supportive, excited about the adventure and the chance to run parts of it with me (I am a fan of pacers - I think its fantastic being able to share these kind of adventures with friends). Also my father and mother-in-law, Barth and Jodi Zurbuchen, were able to coordinate a vacation with their camper and high-clearance truck to coincide with my attempt in July, which helped with logistics. My sister, Kristen, came to help and I was hoping my coach, Altra athlete, Josh Arthur, was going to meet up with me and maybe run some of the trail with me.

On Saturday, we drove out to Salida with the car filled with gear, dropped some things off at the camper and headed down to the southern end of the trail, across the mountains from Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was raining as we drove up to the trailhead, which was pretty nerve wracking, and it continued while we set up our tent and arranged things for the next morning. I woke up at about 1 am to silence, which meant the rain had finally stopped. It had been raining 12 straight hours since the previous day.

I wanted to get a real early start to run some of the trail in the dark, so at 2 am the alarms went off and I made some coffee and choked down pop-tarts shivering, while Allisa and Kristen broke down our camp. At 3:10 am, Allisa and I stood for a picture at the southern terminus of the trail, took pictures of my watch, and headed up the trail. Very quickly I started to heat up and I took off several layers, thinking that I had too much in my pack, something I thought several times throughout the day. We hopped around puddles for the first bit, almost the only evidence I would see of rain during my trek. We stopped at a pit toilet at the Grape Creek Trailhead at about 4:45, and while I was waiting for Allisa, a man wandered up to me, smoking a cigarette and complaining about our early start and headlamps. I shook off the strange encounter and continuing on, we started to see the first signs of the morning, very red with too many clouds for comfort over the valley. Running around the bottom of Humboldt Peak, I began to see the first familiar sections of trail from when I had explored several summers ago at camp. I pumped some water with Sawyer's fantastic Squeeze Water Filter in North Colony Creek and Allisa reminded me to keep the pace in this very early section very relaxed - something I had trouble forcing myself to do. 

At 7:50 am and 18.4 miles in, we met Kristen on the trail above Horn Creek with water and nutrition. I dropped Allisa off there and continued down the trail, the next section I felt the best that I felt all day, clipping off miles pretty easily. The trail was familiar and relatively easy with flat and gently rolling sections. The day began to heat up and although it was shaded, I was stopping at every creek to pour water on my legs, arms, and head. After about 5 miles, I had gone farther than I ever had exploring from camp and the rest of the day would be new exploration - which is my favorite aspect of long endeavors. 

I came very quickly into Gibson Creek mile 29.8 at 10:25 am, running a short section down to the trailhead to meet my wife, sister, mother-in-law, and dog, very happy to see familiar faces. They asked me if I had seen Barth on his mountain bike, as he had left just a few minutes ago to meet me. I hadn't, so they yelled his name, and Kristen raced off to find him before he got too lost. I sat down and contemplated the wide range of food options - a very good problem to have. The whole day would be marked by getting pretty comfortable at aid stops because I wanted to spend time with the people who were putting so much effort into supporting me during my adventure. 

Note from Allisa: My dad and mom had gone to most of the access points the night before while we were getting set up at the southern terminus. Even though Cory had called the Forest Service and done some research on the various access points along the trail, many of the roads were a lot gnarlier than expected. This meant that only my dad had the skills to navigate his truck along the 4WD roads. My dad had stayed up until well after midnight trying to decide whether or not to drive out to the southern terminus to tell us (we didn't have cell reception). Finally he decided to just let Cory start as planned and to see what the day brought. Cory would be able to at least get the first 50k done before having to be bothered with a change of plans.

Barth was located and Allisa discussed the change of plans, the Big Cottonwood Trailhead was very difficult to drive up and they might not be able to get there. The aid station that we were calling Bear Creek was also difficult to access and if it was dark and raining they might not be able to make it. Barth was going to pace me through a few sections, but would need to drive the truck up there instead. He was hoping to drive to the aid stations and then bike back on the trail to find me. The change of plans made me a little nervous, but I trusted that Allisa and Barth were much better judges of realistic logistics than I was at that time, so I agreed and headed up the trail.

The next section to Ducket Creek, 14.1 miles, felt enormous. The day was really heating up and I stopped twice to fill water bottles with filtered water from creeks while sitting in the shade. I slowed down on the uphills and my calorie intake suffered as well. At several meadows, the views of the valley below cheered me up. I got my feet wet at a large stream where there was evidence of a bridge being constructed. Up to this point there were quite a few very solid bridges which would support an ATV - the Rainbow Trail is open to ATVs south of Oak Creek and to Dirt Bikes for the entire length of the trail. I entered an area that had been burned out only a few summers before and the trail here was very washed out, the only section of the trail which wasn't in excellent condition. Barth had biked back to meet me about 2 miles from Ducket Creek, which meant he got to experience the very worst section of the trail for mountain biking. We even had to jump over a 5 foot deep, 4 foot wide crevasse where water had tore a huge slice in a stream bed. I was welcomed by my dog at Ducket Creek, mile 43.9 at 2:20 pm.

During the next section, clouds came over the Sangres which looked like they would be dumping rain, but it continued to be a dry, warm day. North of Oak Creek, about 3 miles from Ducket Creek, the trail is taken over by the Salida Ranger district and almost immediately the trail seems to change from a flat or rolling doubletrack intersected with numerous streams surrounded by pines and aspens to a much hillier, narrower singletrack with fewer streams in a high alpine desert. The trail markings were a bit sparser as well and there were a few places where I had to guess which was the main trail and which were auxiliary mountain bike trails. These kind of decisions, easy to make during a long run, seem much harder this far into such a long effort and I desperately did not want to go even a few miles off course. I came down a very long and overgrown descent into Big Cottonwood at 5:10 meeting Allisa hiking up the trail. 

Note from Allisa: I almost lost my head looking for Cory in this section. The narrow 4WD road up to Big Cottonwood was slow going. Then when we got there, there were none of the familiar Rainbow Trail markings. The trail looked a lot different than it had in the other sections, a lot narrower and rooty, less maintained and harder to follow so I thought that we weren't at the right trail, there had to be some intersection farther up. We hiked 2 miles up the trail looking for the Rainbow Trail to intersect the trail we were on, only to realize that we were on the Rainbow Trail. I frantically ran back to the car and started running in the trail the other direction, growing more worried because Cory's pace was slowing down. Why hadn't he arrived? When I finally found him, he was in low spirits with only a little bit of nasty brown water in his bottles. He was so desperate for company I was worried he wasn't going to make it to the next aid station alone. Would Josh make it to the right place in time to pace Cory? I was certain that Cory wouldn't continue if Josh wasn't there. Communication was pretty hard since the cell service was patchy. All Josh had were some coordinates and a time frame.

Leaving Big Cottonwood, I had the largest climb of the trail, up a creek and then switchbacks up a good sized hill. Usually I look forward to the climbs as I can hike them at a good clip, but halfway up I began to feel very nauseous and light headed. I sat down for a few minutes and worked on a Honey Stinger waffle and some water. Climbing up to the top of the hill was one of the more scenic areas of the trail, but I was not in an appreciative mood. Coming over the top, I was moving very slowly, thinking about dropping out of the FKT attempt, a thought that did not sit well with me. I met Barth on the descent down to Hayden Creek, happy to find me as I was moving much slower than planned. Picking up on his enjoyment on being out on a beautiful trail in the mountains, I started moving down the trail, feeling better with his company. As we got down to the creek and crossed a bridge, I met Allisa who excitedly told me she had just seen a bear a few seconds ago. A few feet further and I came across Josh, who had brought his friend Jessica and Jack the dog to meet up with my crew to support me after spending the last few days watching Hardrock. I got into Hayden at 7:45, and complained to Allisa about how rough the last section had been, which already felt silly being surrounded by so many happy and supportive friends and family. Josh was getting ready to pace me through the next section and optimistically brushed all my whining aside, saying he had seen people in far worse shape than me finishing Hardrock, and that I was just displaying symptoms of bonking, which makes sense at mile 59.8 of a run. Its hard to argue with that. So after changing some clothes and drinking some chicken noodle soup, we headed up the trail as it started to get dark.

After feeling rejuvenated with a clothing change, some chicken noodle soup, and encouragement from everyone, Josh and I headed up the trail next to the creek. I got a second wind here, I think my low mood was mostly from dehydration and lack of calories. Josh enacted a strict V Fuel gel regimen every 20 minutes, immediately restarting his timer when it went off and handing me a gel with the top already torn off. It was really good talking with Josh. We discussed Tiny Homes, gear for racing and alpine exploring, and peak-bagging. I was hiking really strong on the uphills and running decently on everything else. About halfway up the hill, we switched on our headlamps. I was unfamiliar with this section and running it in the dark makes it seem so disorienting. There were several trail intersections with signs knocked over that would have been perfectly clear which was the secondary trail during the day, but in the dark I was very glad to have a second opinion on the correct direction. On top of the ridges, we saw lightning on mountains several miles away and eventually the moon rose in a clear sky – the weather directly above me remained nearly perfect. About 8 miles through this section, I started to slow, again feeling nauseous. I would stop when taking a gel and my overall pace was not as peppy. There were several tricky stream crossings, difficult because of the dark and my less responsive legs – Josh skipped across each of them very easily. For the last several miles I was watching my GPS far too often, counting down the miles to the next crew spot. We climbed up on a final ridge that opened up to a meadow and a clear view of the moon, and found that there must have been hail or sleet not too long before, the plants were covered with ice and there were puddles of hail, which looked very enchanting in the headlights.

Note from Allisa: After the boys left Hayden Creek, we took off in search of dinner and Jessica grabbed grilled cheese ingredients, swearing that it would turn Cory's run around. Since the road to the Bear Creek TH was questionable and it was very dark, we all piled in my dad's truck - 5 people and two dogs. This road was GNARLY and hard to navigate in the dark. Lots of intersections that would normally be obvious in the daytime. After getting the the TH Jess and I hopped out of the car and Jack saw something in the woods that made him upset. He would not stop barking into the dark. Totally spooked, Jess and I piled back into the stinky truck and we all tried to snooze. Midnight came and went and finally around 1 am I thought I saw a light coming down the trail. It was just the moon. We decided to get the party going. Music and lights would hopefully scare the bears way.

Coming up to the Bear Creek TH we saw a few lights, which I assumed were down in the valley, but were actually Allisa and company’s headlights watching for us. Josh hollered and we heard very happy exclamations that we were finally coming down the trail. I collapsed into a chair, and fueled up on more soup. This aid station was one of my favorite parts of the traverse, Barth and Jodi had lights, chairs, and music set up around their truck and it was incredible for me to have 6 people and 2 dogs here in the middle of the mountains, only up this late to support and equip me for this long trek alongside the mountains. Josh and Jess started making grilled cheese sandwiches, seasoned perfectly for someone who had been running for hours - very salty. After another pep talk from Allisa and encouragement from Josh, Kristen and I headed out, a little stiff from sitting in the cold night air.

Note from Allisa: Things were a lot more serious here than Cory makes it seem. Cory needed to be 100% sure that he could make it the next 15 miles through the night with his sister to guide him. Kristen had grown increasingly nervous about pacing and wasn't sure if she could do it. Cory also doesn't take tough love from his sister very well, so I knew that if they ran into trouble Kristen would rely on Cory instead of Cory being able to trust her to make the decisions. A lot could have gone wrong here. If it had rained, they weren't moving fast enough to keep their body temperatures up and there was no way to get a hold of us for help, nor would we be able to access them. If Cory wasn't sure about his abilities I wanted him to quit, I was worried. Fortunately Josh had other opinions: he told Cory he had absolutely no excuses to quit. This vote of confidence is what Cory really needed.

This second to last section, from Bear Creek to the intersection with 285, was a struggle. I was still pretty smooth on the downhills and flats, but was really using the poles up the hills and transitioning back to a run was work. Kristen and I made relatively good time – 12 minute miles – for the first several miles. About 7 miles in we came up to a jeep road and for the first time on the trail there was no arrow showing which direction to take to continue on the Rainbow Trail. Kristen very graciously did some scouting first up the trail, then down the trail several hundred feet, without an obvious route. The map I had seemed to show the trail continued straight across the road, so we hiked about a half mile up the road, running into private property signs. I was pretty tired and frustrated at that point, and decided to try going down and if we didn’t find the trail to just hike out. Fortunately about ¾ of a mile from the jeep road intersection, the Rainbow Trail continued. As the sun was coming up, we started the last major climb of the RT, about 2000 ft up a steep trail that ran along the ridge before dropping down to 285. This was another gorgeous section of trail that rolled through an Aspen forest with great views of the surrounding mountains, probably one of the best sections of the trail, but I was not very appreciative. We met Josh about half a mile up the trail and jogged down with him to Barth and Allisa waiting by the truck.

Note from Allisa: Around 5am I got a text from Kristen saying they were 3 miles from the intersection with 285. We had all been napping in the camper and I suddenly jumped up saying, "Everyone wake up! We need to get to the trail NOW!" When we got there, we expected to see them within 15 minutes tops. The anxiety and exhaustion finally got the best of me and I started throwing up. I was supposed to run the last 10 with Cory so this was no time to feel sick. Come the end of the world, I was going to run these last 10 with him. Turns out some misleading signage made them gauge their distance to the intersection wrong and so the 3 miles text from Kristen was a false alarm.

Allisa wisely pushed me as soon as I had filled up on water to cross the road and up the hill (c'mon we weren't going to give him a breakfast buffet 10 miles from the end). I gave up my Black Diamond Z-poles as there was not a great deal of climbing left – this was a mistake because by this point, 28 hours into my adventure, I did not have very much power in my legs and could have used the extra push forward of poles even on the flat sections. Allisa was fantastic, putting up with my whining (and swearing) about wanting to be finished, as we ran through dips into a creek bed and climbs over the next spur. I was expecting to drop down to the stream I could see below, but all of a sudden we made a turn on the trail and there was the signpost for the other terminus of the Rainbow Trail. Barth, Jodi, Josh, Jess, Kristen, and the two dogs were right there, having driven up less than 5 minutes before. Unlike most ends to these sorts of things, the finish was not hugely climactic. As I went about sitting down and drinking as much cold liquid as I could, everyone else started setting up a surprise celebratory picnic. I got into a hammock and was treated to Josh making pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon. I was very content, so much that I slipped into unconsciousness a couple of times.

Thanks to everyone who made this possible. Final time: 30:58:38.

Strava links:

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Breck Crest Half Marathon

The racing itch came back after a two month absence and I had been looking for Sunday races that I could jump into without having to ask off of work at the bank. As you may have noticed I've been taking a lot of time off work...

Signing up for Breck Crest had been in the back of my mind and I knew what the first half of the course was like from a recon mission last summer. This race is one of my favorites because it has the perfect blend of epic scenery and good competition with speedy locals coming out to play, while still maintaining that down-to-earth, no frills feeling that a lot of races start to lose over time. Plus it's pretty nice that they give a decent chunk of money out to the podium finishers for the half and the full.

Running the Wheeler Trail summer 2013

So I talked Cory into heading up to Breck after work on Saturday to camp and maybe hop in the race. I hadn't decided which distance to do so I figured I would see how I felt the morning of the race. I ended up feeling pretty crappy that morning with a headache and the beginnings of altitude sickness so we stopped at the grocery store and got me some "Altitude Adjustment Pills" which I'm pretty sure are just a placebo that gives you an attitude adjustment. Cory decided to hop in the half as well.

At the race start, we didn't really have time for race jitters to set in and I realized too late that I had forgotten my watch. Just before they released us into the mountains, it started to rain. It was that kind of nasty drizzle where you don't know whether to put a shell on or to just tough it out. I firgured the rain wouldn't last long.

Cory on the Burro Trail
Photo by Vertical Runner

Off we went on a 7 mile climb up to Peak 9. A good number of women took off at a pace I knew I could not sustain and my stomach was immediately sloshy. I decided it wasn't worth it to push the pace and have another race like the Leadville Marathon so I took it steady and talked with a girl named Laura from Aspen. I was able to run almost the whole way until the Wheeler Trail where I switched into hike mode. I really need to improve my hiking because I always get passed on the steep stuff. As we ascended above tree line, some blowing snow hit us and since most of us were already soaked from the rain, it was a dangerous situation.

Near the top of the Wheeler Trail
Photo by ClimbBetty

Normally, I don't approve of people switching distances midway through a race, but people were just unprepared for the conditions and a lot of runners switched from the full to the half partway through. This made the competition for the half a little more stiff. I knew I had my work cut out for me on the downhill if I wanted to get within the top ten. A lot of people stopped at the mile 7 aid station, but I plowed through it which put me ahead of about 3 women who had passed me on the last climb.

As I turned down the rocky 4 wheel drive road, there was no one in sight. I could see many switch backs below me but no one on them, so I figured there was no way to make up enough ground to pass anyone. I was so cold that I couldn't feel my hands and all I could think about was getting down! About 3 miles from the end I caught my first glimpse of someone and as soon as we switched from dirt road to more technical stuff, I passed 3 more women. One stayed pretty close to me and when I missed a sharp turn on some single-track she saw me swearing and heading back to the course and got ahead of me.

I realized my mistake pretty quick so it didn't take more than a few seconds to backtrack, but it just made me lose my momentum. After that I was stuck in maintenance mode, trying to keep others from passing me back. My legs felt like jello and I was running as fast as I could without puking. Its funny to think that a few years ago a half marathon felt like a long way to me, but now it's like a prolonged sprint.

I crossed the finish line and was happy to see 2:22 on the clock. Since I didn't have a watch I incorrectly assumed this was my time. Apparently the clock was set for the 10k runners that started 15 minutes after us, so my finishing time was 2:37, good for 10th place. Cory got his first first place finish ever at a trail race and kicked the crap out of the competition with a time of 1:57. He got $250 which covered our race entries for the weekend. Pretty proud of that guy.

I won my age group

Cory won the whole thing