John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Silence & Mountains - The Yosemite Snake Pit 100 - Part II

I just got back from Yosemite and running 105-ish miles through the backcountry.  It was wild and and intense experience, but also quite rewarding when all was said and done.  I had a shot at running a similar course in May with my buddy Andy.  Long story short, back in May it snowed before we ran, we spent a long miserable 6-hours from 11pm to 5am postholing and route-finding through the snow-covered, ice-water soaked John Muir Trail, and we ended up bailing out due to time constraints and wrecked bodies after only 72 miles (26 hours of running).  I meant for the route to be the same this time but after the first go around it was clear that the planned run would have been over 110 miles long! So I modified it and cross-referenced with Tom Harrison Maps to validate a couple changes to the route that would end closer to 100 miles.

Since this run was/is my brain child, I wanted to go back and get it done.  I picked a weekend after my summer 100-mile goal race (Wasatch Front) that would leave me enough time to recover and be ready for an adventure. As it approached, however, it became clear that Andy was hurt and not recovering quickly enough to join on the run.  I asked him if he wanted me to wait, but he said that I should have a go at the run by myself.  So I rolled solo.

Now that I'm done, I have some thoughts about the whole thing:

Running in the Mountains

The view from North Pines Campground, Site 520
Fuck man.  I should have eaten more.  I should have run faster.  I should have hiked less and run more.  Ugh.  The thoughts that run through my mind after a big run always focus on the negative.  What should I have done differently? How could I have executed better?  I started out without a time goal and didn't run to push the pace...I'm running a self-supported 100 miler by myself on a lot of trail that I've never why am I disappointed that it took me so long?  I guess I feel like I can do better, but when I think about going back for another go, I'm immediately visted by all the memories of blown quads, drowsy eyes, cold and silent darkness and endless switchbacks.  I don't want to go back, yet (Yet? always that caveat, eh?), so I guess I'll need to be satisfied with what I've got: a hard fought finish of my original goal of 'running' the Yosemite Snake Pit 100: a somewhat ridiculously-named 105 mile trek through Yosemite National Park.  I covered the distance is 35 hours and 29 minutes.

8500 Calories of Clif Bar Products.  Thanks guys!
I actually only planned enough food for 30 hours of running at my ideal-ish consumption rate, but when my stomach started hating me only 30 miles in, trying to take down the amount of calories that I intended became quite difficult.  Good thing for body fat reserves!  In 35 and a half hours, I consumed 5500 calories.  Based on Garmin's FirstBeat algorithm, which is apparently within about 10% of true caloric burn, I burned over 12000 calories, so I guess it makes sense that I lost 2 lb. in 35 hours.  I don't know if it takes into account BMR, or just the exercise-induced caloric burn, but either way I was at a pretty big deficit.  The silver lining here is that my hydration was great for about 95% of the time.  Only 1 hiccup where I ran out of water between Eagle Peak and Yosemite Village in the early miles of the race affected my hydration, but within a few hours I had recovered and maintained my hydrated status for the remainder of the run.  So nutrition was a minor disaster, but could have been worse.  I'm stoked to have been able to switch it up between Clif Shots and Clif Mojo bars to help my stomach not hate me, but maybe next time I'll bring some Bloks too.  Probably easier not to gag on tasty gummy bloks when trying to force food down in the middle of the night.  Sometimes squeezing a bolus of gel into the mouth (have a field day with that, Mr. Trail Safety) isn't the most pleasant experience when combined with pre-existing nausea.

Ready to go.
Running while nauseous sucks.  It also sucks to run on blown legs.  I don't know what my deal was...maybe it was the altitude, or maybe I ran too hard during the preceeding week and weekend, but either way, I ended up run/hiking a lot to keep my heart rate down and feeling absolutely gassed on the climbs.  I didn't think that I'd lost that much fitness since Wasatch, so the cause of the legs feeling a bit wonky had to be something else.

Rockslide Trail
2 miles up Rockslide trail and my legs felt OK, but I couldn't get my heart rate down.  Another 2 miles up and I had my poles out, slow stepping the climb to keep my heart rate down.  My legs were OK, but something was off.  Easily optimistic at the beginning of a big run, I actually really enjoyed the section from Rockslides over El Cap and Eagle Peak, back over to Yosemite Falls.  The easy grade of the previously-asphalt Rockslide trail traverses up the valley side and deposits the runner at the picturesque Oak Flat Trail.  This trail reverses direction, like one big switchback, and winds up the shoulder of the valley and onto the summit of El Capitan, where it continues to meander through loamy dirt and white granite to tag Eagle Peak before heading off down towards Yosemite Falls.  This sub-20 mile first loop provides climb, descent, views and forests.  Highly recommended.  The end of the loop descends down the rocky and technical Yosemite Falls trail to the valley.  I attempted to run/hike this to try and save my legs, but at the bottom I did not feel too happy.
The always-spectacular view from Eagle Peak
I bought a Coke at the Yosemite Village Market and sat out front on a bench, drinking and stretching.  I texted with my friends coordinate a meetup in the wee hours of the morning where they would ostensibly cross paths with me to verify that I had not yet died of exposure.  "I'm feeling a little wrecked, and not super happy. See you guys in 10-12 hours."  I was pretty down.  I had spent the first 20 miles thinking about my life and some issues that I was going through, and despite the moments of awe that Yosemite vistas inspire, a negative mental state lingered.  However, I came to Yosemite to run, and so I did.

Half Dome from Tenaya Canyon
About 6 hours in, including stoppage and everything else, I took off for Tenaya Canyon.  Not bad for 20 miles in I thought.  I passed the dry Mirror Lake underneath Half Dome, enjoyed some horse-poop-laden trail, and made it to the Snow Creek Climb.  The tall pines shaded golden yellow leafy trees that showed off their fall colors.  The vibrant and beautiful trees contrasted with the remainder of the normally green and white Yosemite flora and almost distracted me from the upcoming climb.  The Snow Creek Climb sucks.  I pulled my hiking poles off my pack and started the steep, exposed climb.  So slow.  So very slow.  My heart rate was itching to rise and I continually reigned my speed in to attempted to remain at a sustainable effort level.  Snow creek contains little shade after the initial switchbacks and it was warm and uncomfortable in the late afternoon sun.  I thought I had prepared for this heat but I was wrong.  I suffered a bit on this climb and worried that I was in for a rough day.

Running solo, unsupported, in the backcountry comes with a handful of fun and unique idiosyncracies that aren't quite like running a 100-mile race on one end of the spectrum or ultralight and fast backpacking on the other.  For example, ultralight backpackers carry a sleep system of some sort...usually a sleeping bag, maybe a pad and some other items that are weather dependent.  Hike for hours, sleep for a few, repeat.  A 100-mile racer carries no sleep system and sleeps in an aid station if at all.  I carried an emergency mylar bivy sack, some lint, matches and lighter as my backup plan if shit went bad, and didn't plan to sleep a wink.  This put me in the shitty middle ground of having no sleep system for sleeping outdoors, and no aid station to sleep in with just my running gear.

Moonrise over Clouds Rest
Luckily, even though I felt like shit climbing up from the valley, the top of the climb gives way to rolling/climbing/descending single track of loamy dirt and pine needles with plenty of available water to be found at stream and river crossings.  Last time I was up there, there was no snow, and we climbed on into the twilight and eventually darkness.  We got lost around Olmstead Point.  We navigated ice-water swamp marshes and ended up bailing onto the road when the Tenaya Lake outflow consisted of an impassable 40 feet wide and 2 feet deep channel of snow melt runoff.  I figured that it couldn't get worse than that.  The trail obliged to agree!  Not only was there no snow at the climb out of Snow Creek, but there was an amazingly gorgeous orange, red and purple sunset, I did stay on-trail at Olmstead Point, the park had placed a bridge over the much-subdued Tenaya Lake outflow, and the ice-swamp-trail-death-hate-my-life section was actually smooth, runnable, rolling singletrack!  I stretched my legs and ran as much as I could, enjoying the darkness and lack of trench foot.

Poles out.  Hiking hard.
Somewhere in the midst of this section, however, I realized that I was not on track to meet my friends as planned.  I needed to text them before they lost service, but I didn't have service.  I'm in the mountains, in a canyon, approaching another valley.  If I didn't warn them, they would run in from mile 90 in the middle of the night and try to sleep and freeze to death (or so I thought)! I was anxious about it, though I knew that they are all capable backcountry travelers.  They could handle themselves.  Still, I worried.  I continued to push on up the trail, but my tired legs and anxious mind started to wear on me.  Frustration set in.  How long until the JMT turnoff?  Is it at mile 41 or 44?  Why do all of the Yosemite mileage signs seem to have different mileages on them??  Impatient, I climbed on, hearing, and sometimes seeing cars on highway 120 on my left, hoping that this meant that I was close to the turnoff.  The trail rolled and dipped and curled, tricking me into thinking the junction would arrive soon.  It did not arrive soon, but finally, it did arrive.

It was 10:30pm or so, and I was about 30 minutes ahead of my status at this point with Andy in May, but the JMT was not covered in snow this time.  I started to hike.  My legs were immediately gassed.  8500 ft. up, I guess I was struggling with the altitude.  Gel sat poorly.  Trail mix bars sat poorly.  Sleepiness crept in.  I wasn't even half way yet!! I knew that I had to wake up.  No sleeping on the trail!  I cracked out the first of my packet of caffeine tablets.  200mg down the hatch and I continued on.  An hour later I felt OK, and 1.5 hours later I felt pretty solid.

Up towards Cathedral Pass, I filled water and started to figure out pretty quickly that I had about a 10 minute window of no movement before I would start to get really cold.  So I would bundle all the way up, filter water, and then run on to warm up.  This was a disconcerting reminder that my layering system, and survival, relied on my own constant motion towards the finish.  Once I would get warm after moving again, I would de-bundle and run on.  I continued to worry about my friends in the dark and cold.  The moon hung in the sky, almost full, and caused me to see apparitions in my peripheral vision.  Was that a light? Nope, rock and moonlight.  Was that a light again!?? Nope, rock and moonlight, again.  You win this round, moon.  I checked my phone on the way down from Cathedral Pass: 1 bar!! I quickly tried to text, but the bar disappeared. Damn.  Probably too late anyway.  It's after midnight.  I moved silently through Long Meadow towards Sunrise High Sierra Camp where I would turn off and climb towards Clouds Rest.  Again, blown legs on the climb and I was in unfamiliar territory to boot.  I tried to wait 4 hours before popping another caffeine tablet, but my consciousness faded faster than expected so at 2:15am, 3 hours and 45 minutes after the first tablet, I took another.  Hope it works!

At this point, the trail seemed to have 1 modus opperandum: descend before every climb.  Going to climb Cloud's Rest?  Great! You're at 9200 ft, so you've only got 750 feet to go!  NOT! We're going to descend 600 ft. first so you can fully appreciate a 1000+ ft. climb to get up to the peak! Yeah!  This is not how my quads wanted things to be progressing.  I checked my Garmin: 50 miles, 16,000+ ft. of total ascent.  Oof.

USGS Marker on Clouds Rest
Whatever.  I made it to the top of Clouds Rest, where I did have service, and texted my buddies.  They wouldn't get it, because it was 3:30am.  They were just waking up on the side of Glacier Point Road @ the McGurk Meadows Trailhead and getting ready to run out into Yosemite's southern end to meet me.  Clouds Rest is badass.  It's this ridge of rock slabs that crest at almost 10000 ft. elevation.  In the now-orange moonset, I saw the entire high country to the east, and could see all the way to Fresno in the west! I took this in while I sat down on a rock slab and tried not to wake up the dude who was cowboy camping up against another rock slab, a mere 20 feet from the USGS marker that denotes the peak of the feature.  The steep descent beat down my legs and at times I would run and then just walk because my quads were aching.  The food situation wasn't going so well, and even though 2 hours had passed since the last caffeine tablet, I again began to fade.  This time, however, armed with the knowledge that I could rest for ~10 minutes without major health consequences (see: freezing to death), and confident that it was also warmer now that I had descended 2000 ft., I opted to take a nap in the dirt.  I set my alarm for 5 minutes and immediately passed out.  Waking to some light music in the silent back country and opening my eyes to an immense starscape-through-trees was surreal.  The one thought in my mind said, "Shit.  You're still in this." I clicked snooze for 5 minutes and was back out.  When I woke again, I hopped up, felt less groggy and continued on.

I'm not even 60 miles in.  Shit. It would take me 20 fucking hours to 'run' 100k.  What a disaster.

Over the course of this last 10 or so miles was the only time that I considered dropping out at Nevada Falls.  I actually felt OK, other than my slow speed, but I was ready to be done running.  Maybe I should just hike out to the valley.  No one would blame you for dropping.  It's been a hard day.  Do you really want to go for another 40 miles after Nevada Falls?  Your friends didn't find you and left.  They think you bailed.  Just call it.


Right before I started, I put a pic on Facebook that I took in the valley.  My friend Marshall commented on it, simply saying, "really cool thing you're doing!" Yeah.  Yeah! Yeah it is, Marshall! And not completing it is NOT COOL.  My buddy Jimmy Dean said to me before my first 100 miler, "At some point out there, you're going to want to be done running.  That's when you decide what type of 100-miler you'll be."  Fuck yeah.  I don't drop because it's uncomfortable!  That's not who I am and not how I roll!  I drop if I'm going to fucking die.  I knew my friends would say, "It's cool man, you can go back and get it.  It wasn't your day." Fuck that too.  It may not be my day to run sub 30, but I'll be damned if I'm coming back because I dropped because I was a little tired.  And even though all these thoughts sound couragous and glorious and shit, I still wanted to drop.  So when I hit Nevada Falls, I didn't even slow down.  I ran straight through and started the climb into the vast southern end of the park and the last 40 miles.  Fuck dropping, even if I have to death march to the finish.

Speaking of death marching...I looked at my watch and was averaging something like 18:30 miles, including stoppage/water fills/etc.  Some quick math (yeah, I could still do math...good sign!) told me that I had 10-14 hours to go at my pace, depending on how fast I could continue and if my condition deteriorated further. "Fuuuuuuuck," is literally what went through my head.  It was gonna be a long day.

Legs blown on the switchbacks up from Nevada Falls, again.  Still dark, but the sky is finally lightening!  Awesome,  with sunrise comes new life, and I needed it.  The exhaustion wore on me.

First look into the southern portion of the park.
The first couple miles after the turnoff of the Panorama Trail were just like other Yosemite miles: loamy winding single track.  Granite.  Trees. Shrubs.  But a couple miles in, the trees disappeared and gave way to an expansive, rolling golden grass hills framed by a giant granite ridge in the background.  The trail snaked down through the valley to a creek and climbed the other side to disappear over the crest of a glowing hill.  I had never seen this Yosemite before, it was cool.

The sun arrives!
I crossed a beautiful river and hit a sign indicating that I had 9 miles to go until Buena Vista Lake (and in my case, Buena Vista Pass).  This is the last high point, so all I had to do was climb the 2900 ft. from where I was to the pass in 9 miles.  Rad.  Well, 9 miles on toasted legs on trail that is, at times, just a bit too steep for the aforementioned blown legs to run on, takes some time.  I started charging my watch again, and when I stopped charging it, FUCK, I had only gone like 4 miles.  Ahhhh this is taking forever.

Old man in a golf hat?
Fucked up dog face?
I kept hearing people's voices, only to realize that no one was there.  I kept seeing things like cars and tents and gates, but they would be trees and rocks and shrubs.  Later I would play the game "What's the object?" that consisted of me trying to figure out what my mildly-hallucinated objects actually would be when I got closer.  I see a kitten! It's black with a white spot.  So what is it actually? Hmmm...thinking that it's probably a log with some bark and maybe a piece of white granite.  Yep! That it is! Have a pat on the back, self, you're really enjoying toying with yourself.  At mile 73, I hadn't figured out the game yet, however, so I just saw shit and then thought, 'Damn.  That was totally not what it looked like.'

Beautiful meadow on the way to Buena Vista Pass.
I heard some voices again, and then again.  These had to be real!  Maybe.  Definitely.  I thought it sounded like my friend Katie, and I looked ahead to where the voices were coming from.  I saw 3 runners and knew immediately that it was my buddies Andy, Dom and Katie.  I let out a huge 'KOOKOOIEEEEEEEEE!!!' and heard them call back.  I was very thankful to see my friends.

The gang's all here! Photo: Dominic Grossman
I sat on a log and we talked about their night and my night and how they did indeed think that I had dropped from the run.  I felt refreshed.  They made plans to see me again at McGurk Meadow after they finished a 35 miler themselves and after about 30 min of hanging out and talking, I left to try to seal the deal on the remaining 4 miles to Buena Vista Pass and then the next 13 miles to McGurk Meadow and 12 miles to the Valley floor.

Looking out into the south country nearing Buena Vista Pass.
Again, when I was within 400 feet of the ridgeline, the trail dropped into a valley to make me earn my way up to Buena Vista Pass.  My legs were again, super blown, and I hobbled up the climb.  It was here that I started to feel some pain in my quad.  IN my quad.  I think it was some nerve pain from wrecked hips and muscles pulling my IT band and back and anything else into awkward positions that pressure the nerves.  I continued on, adjusting my gait to relieve that pain and be able to run as much as possible, but it was tough.  My slow speed and inability to consistently run frustrated me.

Toast.  Mile 83-ish.
13 painful miles later I arrived at Bridalveil Creek Campground, closed for the winter.  Out of water, I twisted the tap only to find that it had been turned off when the campground closed.  Damn.  No water.  I also realized that my sunglasses had fallen off the top of my head.  Double damn.  I liked those Oakleys.

A mile later I hit Glacier Point Road at McGurk Meadows Trailhead.  My PMR breatheren had just pulled up in the car and we chatted and walked down to the field.  Sweet, 12 miles to go!  They gave me some intel on water sourcing on the trail and then sent me off.  I ran for about 100 yards before my leg hurt enough that I reduced my pace to a hike.  I cracked out my hiking poles and prepared to fast-hike it in as best as I could.

Caffeine Tablet. Water. Gel.  My eyes looked dead and vacant, and my vision twisted patterns on tree trunks into moving mosaics of color.  OOOooooOOOO. Weird.  I had never been at this point of exhaustion before.

I had music in now, actually since Buena Vista Pass, and the world took a surreal turn in the twilight.  Music, patterns, footsteps...the whole section blurred into one collage of images in my memory.  Snippets of scenes that I hiked through, deposited into a hazy scrapbook in my mind.  The earphones drowned out the sounds of nature and all that remained was my thoughts and the tunes.
Fitting that I started on the west side of El Cap as the sun was rising over the valley.  Finishing on the east side of El Cap as the sun sets, 1.5 days later.
When I hit Glacier Point, I thought that maybe I had enough time to make it down and finish in under 35 hours.  Another meaningless time goal.  I started cranking up my downhill hiking pace, but it was no use.  I was too far gone and my first mile split down the trail showed it.  I dialed back my pace and trudged down the endless asphalt switchbacks of the 4-mile trail.  That trail sucks.  Every time that I though I was close to the end, my watch would remind me that multiple miles extended between my position and the finish line.  As in all ultramarathons, however, the miles did tick away and I rounded the final corner into the flatish runout from the trail to the road.  I wooped into the night and heard my friends wooping back which gave me the energy to push through the leg pain and jog the last 200 yards into the finish where they had deemed that touching the 4-mile trail sign would signify a finish.  Done.
Finally get to sit down!! Finish line. Photo: Dominic Grossman


What a fucking experience.  I've never tripped out and seen moving patterns in trees and rocks, nor had such strong runner's delirium.   During the 1st run out there, I was really only tired close to 5am and then everything was good, so when I got tired at 10:30pm, I was pretty caught off guard.  I don't know if it was a nutrition or hydration issue or what.  Maybe it was that I was running solo at the time and needed some conversation, or maybe I hadn't slept enough that week, or ran too hard early on...I don't know.

The solitude of running alone in the wilderness contributed in a huge way to the experience.  The need to be self-reliant and keep the wheels on drove a lot of my actions throughout the run.  A tired body can't just rest in the aid station with warm food and fresh minds to push new life back into it.  I had to pull myself out of every low spot, monitor nutrition and hydration, maintain temperature and keep my body moving.  Otherwise it was bivy out in the cold and suffer the drop later, which is not ideal.

Being out there for so long was rough.  It reminds me of when I first started ultramarathon and ran rim to rim to rim solo as my first ultra.  The sheer scale of the mileage was daunting to a new ultramarathoner (I'm 30 miles in and I still have 20 to go???).  This time, I was used to the mileage, but the time on feet was brutal!  It took everything I had to keep myself motivated and moving, clicking off steps and trying, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, to find the beauty in the situation, to help me accept why I was out there and make the best of it instead of dwelling on the aches and pains and impending hours left to go.

So yeah, like I said when I started, I wish I had gone faster.  It would have meant that I handled everything just a bit better, but that's how the cookie crumbles.  It was a really tough run, and I think I handled the difficulties of blown legs, nausea, and fatigue as well as I could have at the time.  I've become pretty good at accepting my performances, even though I would have liked to done better. I learned a ton and had a heck of a journey.  I'll come at runs like this with a few new tricks in my book next time and hopefully come out a little less worse for the wear.

Strava Data


Tom Harrison Map

Technical Shit

Meadow approaching El Capitan.
I learned a lot on the first go at running through the night in Yosemite and I've listed a few tidbits below:

1. Don't go when 20 inches of snow has just been deposited on the ground.
2. Handwarmers are clutch for keeping fingers warm through the night.
3. Bring spare socks if it's gonna be wet.  Trench-foot is a thing.
4. Homemade rice cakes are too damn heavy.
5. Even when it's cold, I'm too hot.
6. Tailwind is not good for self-supported runs in the cold because my calories are then tied to my hydration, which should not be the case in widely varying temperatures that can approach 30 deg. F.

I put all this info into my gear choices and came up with what I hoped would be a lighter loadout.

Fall Color in Tenaya Canyon.
Layering System:
Lowers: Saucony Running Tights/Patagonia Houdini Wind Pants
Uppers: New Balance Running Shirt/Arc'teryx Nuklei Hooded Jacket/North Face Verto Hooded Wind Shell
Extras: Outdoor Research Hot Pursuit Gloves/PCT Buff/PMR Trucker Hat

The layering system enabled me to run through the day at elevation in tights and a running shirt, keeping me cool and moving well.  At night, I could layer up and the tights with the wind pants combo would be lighter/lower volume than shorts/thermal tights/pants or tights/thermal tights/pants combo and be almost as warm.  Similarly, I switched out a fleece (what I used in May) for the Nuklei Jacket.  Far warmer, lighter, and has an insulated hood.  Pair this with the wind shell and I was hoping to be OK at 10000 ft. in the middle of the night.  The synthetic insulation made sure that even if I sweat out the jacket that I wouldn't freeze to death.  I ended up having a lot of too hot/too cold moments where I'd be switching the hood and pulling up/down sleeves a lot.  Worth it for the weight/volume savings, but that's about it.

Working Towards El Cap.
45 Clif Shots (15/15/15 Vanilla/Strawberry/Mocha)
10 Clif Mojo Bars (Mountain Mix)
10 Clif Trail Mix Bars (Chocolate Almond Sea Salt)
Salt Stick Tablets
Caffeine Pills

The nutrition was meant to enable me to eat gel and supplement with bars, hopefully providing enough variety to deal with a sour stomach if it occurred.  Last time I carred 3000 cal of Tailwind, 3000 cal of gel and 3000 cal of rice bars (home cooked).  The rice bars were good but fucking heavy, the tailwind required water, which isn't plentiful on a backcountry adventure, and required tying my nutrition to my hydration, which is a bad move in the backcountry as well.  So this time, I simplified.  I think a sweet spot would have been some real food mixed in with the Clif Product.  The thought is that for a minimal weight/volume penalty, it would have helped to settle my stomach and keep me feeling good for the whole run.  Next time.

Other Gear:
Pack: CamelBak Ultra 10
Bottles: 2x CamelBak Podium 24oz.
Poles: Black Diamond Z-Pole Cork
Shoes: New Balance 1210 Leadville
Socks: Injinji Crew 2.0
Filter: Sawyer Mini
Headlamp: Petzl Nao 2 w/ Extra Battery

Finish Line.  Photo: Dominic Grossman