Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Holiday Mash-Up

Snowshoe running, cookie baking, 2010 race thoughts and a few discounts. It's time for a smattering of winter-time ramblings!

But before all that, I want to remind you about the Garmin giveaway from Wilderness Running Company. If you subscribe to their blog, they’ll put your name into a drawing for a Garmin 405. I’m here to tell you that I have been checking their blog, and I only see a few of your names in the comments. Why haven’t you signed up yet?? Get on it, people! Also, they’re still offering 20% off all Nathan products, and will do so until at least a week after they restock on Intensities. Just use the coupon code nathan20 if you’re shopping. (Don't worry, I'll let you know when this sale is over.)

Now, on to the mash-up!

Lake Tahoe Marathon and other 2010 races

In case it escaped your notice, 2010 is right around the corner. Chatter in the blogosphere shows most of you happily putting together your upcoming race schedules, or grumpily complaining about getting shut out of your preferred race lotteries. (Okay, you’ve actually been pretty good-natured about it, but whatever.)

Anyhow, in order to assist your race budget for the upcoming year, the Lake Tahoe Marathon is offering an exclusive discount to Daily Adventures readers. Just enter BrugmanBlog in the promo box during sign-up, and you’ll get a 10% discount on your entry fee. This discount is good all the way up until Sept 22, so I’ll certainly be reminding you again, come spring and summer racing seasons. (But for now, you may want to drop a hint to your significant other that an LTM entry would be a great holiday present.)

The Tahoe Marathon RD also hosts a marathon in Maui on January 24th, called the Maui Oceanfront Marathon. After reading Scott’s report of the XTerra Worlds on Oahu, I’m pretty sure a race in the islands should be on everyone’s list at some point.

As for me, I too, am trying to put together a race schedule for next year. I’d like to make another foray into the world of the 100-miler, but choosing the right one is proving to be a challenge. The 100-miler is, of course, the central sphere around which the rest of my races will spin, so it’s the only real question on my mind at the moment.

One of the reasons I chose not to enter the lottery for Western States this year, is that I don’t think I’ll be ready for a hundred miles that early in the season. I’m looking for an affordable race on challenging, beautiful, mountain trails, not terribly far away, that falls in late July or August.

I've narrowed it down to Wasatch, Cascade Crest or Tahoe Rim Trail. Unfortunately, I’ve pretty much ruled out Wasatch, since, falling in the first week of September, it’s too much in conflict with the beginning of the school year. Maybe a few years down the road, when I have more senior status at my school, it will be okay to take off for 3 days during the first week of school, but probably not right now. Maybe that’s a good thing, since I could probably use more experience before tackling this race. But I’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories, and this race is definitely in my future!

CCC seems to fall at the perfect time of year (the end of August), and for that reason, it has risen to the top of the list. I can’t really come up with a good reason not to do this race. It looks awesome. The only problem is that they are going the way of the lottery this year, so entry isn’t guaranteed.

And then of course, there’s my old friend, TRT. I’ll certainly be returning to the 100-miler on this course eventually, probably more than once. Whether that will happen this year remains to be seen. If I run CCC, then I’ll run the 50M at TRT. If I don't get into CCC, the I'll probably do the 100 at TRT. Decisions, decisions!

Snowshoe Running

Last weekend, Jamie invited me to take part in the Northstar Snowshoe race series. Despite living in the snowy Sierra, I have never been a snowshoe runner. A new adventure? Count me in!

Left to right: Tina, Jamie, me and Jennifer. Ready for snowshoe running!

I arrived at Northstar's mid-mountain in plenty of time to hang out with Jamie, Jennifer and a number of other runners. I was glad Jamie only wanted to do the 5K, even though there was a 10K option. I may not have experience at this snowshoeing thing, but I knew that tromping through the snow would be exhausting. I do find it amusing that a couple of ultra-runners found 10K to be too intimidating of a distance to tackle, but hey, it’s the off-season!

I got my rental snowshoes strapped on and ran around for a little course preview. Apparently it was not all on groomed trail like I’d imagined. Uh oh.

The race proved to be exhausting and totally awesome. We all took off from the start with snow flying everywhere, and after about 10 seconds I was breathing heavily. I figured I was going about 15-minute pace, so I was pleasantly surprised with my finish time of 38 minutes. I was also surprised to find out that I had won. Um, excuse me? Yes, all those fast, studly women ahead of me were running the 10K. Suckers!

Afterwards, we all stood around collecting a bounty of prizes. Jamie and I both won snowshoes for taking first and second in the 5K, plus we all collected a few raffle prizes from an impressive pile of booty. I love small races with big prizes! Mostly, though, I loved hanging out with the girls, laughing in the sunshine on a warm, Tahoe day. I love runners.

I’ve also used my new snowshoes 3 out of the last 4 days since winning them. Twice I just went hiking, but today I ran 3 miles. Wow. It is a killer workout. My favorite thing I discovered on today’s run though, is that when the snowpack is firm like it is right now, you can run anywhere. I mean, you don’t need a trail. You can just take off through the woods, because all the hazards are covered by a thick blanket of snow. Today I ran with my dog through an endless expanse of white, sparkling in the brilliant sunshine, blissfully generating my own heat through the 20-degree air, lungs heaving, legs burning, and blue sky as far as we could see. Freedom to go anywhere. Ahh.


Of course we’ve saved the most important item for last: food. For any gift, I’m a big fan of things that don’t take up space. As far as I can tell, the last thing most of us need is more stuff. And, if your house is anything like mine, cookies don’t take up space for long! Thus, cookies=great gift.

Another gift I like is also of the homemade-and-doesn’t-hang-around-too-long variety. Homemade granola! So here are a few thoughts, photos and recipes from this year’s holiday baking escapades.

Strawberry-Banana Granola with fresh blueberries.

The granola recipe stems originally from this recipe from my “High Trail Cookery” cookbook full of backpacker-friendly foods. [Items in brackets are my own additions.]

1. Preheat oven to 300F. Brown in a cast-iron Dutch oven, stirring frequently, until golden:
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup soy flour
½ cup sesame seeds
½ cup wheat germ
½ cup oat or wheat bran
[¼ cup ground flax seed meal]
[¼ cup buckwheat flour]

2. Heat gently in small saucepan:
½ cup honey
½ cup corn or soy oil

3. Add honey mixture to flour mixture, along with:
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup [or more] chopped nuts of your choice
¾ cup shredded coconut
6 cups rolled oats
[¼ cup chia seeds]

4. Mix granola thoroughly and spread in 9x13 glass pan. Pour evenly over the top ½ to 1 cup cranberry (or other flavor) juice.

5. Bake at 300, for 30-35 minutes, stirring a few times during baking. [I cook mine for 60 minutes because I like a crunchier texture. Also, about halfw
ay through baking, stir in 1 cup dried fruit, such as strawberries, bananas, cherries, cranberries, raisins, etc.]

For gift-making purposes, I usually double the recipe, and make several different flavors by choosing different nuts, fruits and juice for the varieties. This year, flavors were “strawberry-banana with pecans” and “cherry with almonds and macadamia nuts.”

Dehydrating strawberries and bananas for the granola

Cookie-baking was an adventure, as I went with all new recipes this year. I was inspired. But, alas, I forgot to make modifications for high-altitude on the first batch, so I was also a little frustrated. Don’t ask me how I forget these things, since I never bake anywhere but at high-altitude. Anyway, subsequent batches were much prettier, even if they all tasted yummy.

I had apricot-pecan crumb bars, strawberry window shortbreads, peanut butter chocolate cookies, and chocolate peppermint patty cookies. Yum!

And with that, I'll wish you all a happy holiday season and blessings in the new year!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nathan Vest Battle of the Sexes: Intensity vs. HPL

Hey there, Gear Girl here. Today’s topic is the Nathan Intensity Race Vest.

More and more these days, manufacturers of outdoor gear are tailoring products to the specific needs of women. I love this! Gone are the days when I must wear men’s mountaineering boots or a climbing harness built for someone with big thighs but no hips. However, at 5’10” and a race weight of 135, I don’t always fit into gear designed for the average woman. I sometimes find myself wondering if “women’s” is just a translation for “smaller.” (And when that turns out to be the case, I frequently end up wearing ill-fitting men’s gear.)

It was with this thought in mind that I set out to test Nathan’s race vest designed specifically for women. The manufacturer describes the Intensity has having “women’s specific shoulder straps and torso length.” It also claims to “fit a woman’s body in all the right places.” Well, that sounds great to me! It also sounds rather vague.

In order to test out the features of the vest, and to see if there really were any important differences from the men’s version, the HPL, I tested both packs. I felt it was important to get the feedback of some women more on the petite side of the scale than myself, so I also enlisted the help of some friends to do some comparison testing. I made the assumption that one of the intentions of the “women’s specific fit” was to keep the pack straps out of the way of the runner’s boobs. (Makes sense, right?) But since, frankly, mine don’t get in the way of much, I also enlisted the assistance of friends who were more…qualified to test this aspect of fit.

If you’re looking for a detailed review of the HPL, you can read an excellent one here by Donald. I’ll focus primarily on the Intensity, and the differences that my testers and I discovered between the two vests.

To begin, here are the basic features of the Intensity:
  • 2-liter hydration bladder with Slideseal closure and bite valve. The bladder was easy to fill and clean, and the valve was totally functional without any leakage issues.
  • 3-way propulsion harness. This carried the weight very comfortably, and encompassed two straps on each side attached to the shoulder straps. This allowed for a lot of adjustment of the overall fit of the vest, and specific placement of shoulder straps.
  • 2 front pockets on the straps. One was a mesh pocket with drawstring, the other a zippered pocket. One of my favorite features of the Nathan vests was the front pockets, allowing for easy access to camera, gels and other necessities.
  • One main rear compartment holding the bladder, and an additional small compartment for food, maps, etc.
  • Sternum strap that slid easily up or down the shoulder straps for comfortable placement under the boobs.
  • Lightweight breathable mesh on shoulder straps and on the side of the pack that rests against your back. I tested this one out thoroughly on both the Intensity and HPL with a few long runs in sports-bra-only mode. Plenty of fabric-on-skin contact, and zero chaffing. Very impressive.
  • Lightweight, at 5.5 oz.
  • Shock cord for strapping extra clothing to the outside of the pack. This was a key feature, as there is little room inside the pack for extra storage.

The actual size of the packs is the same, which I like. I want to carry 2 liters of water, and I want to carry just as much stuff as the guy running next to me. The main difference is in the size and shape of the vest straps.

The front straps of the Intensity are narrower. This makes sense to me, since women in general are narrower. I also noticed, upon donning the HPL for the first time, the distinct sensation of being groped. Very strange, but once I adjusted the straps the sensation abated somewhat. I also found that I just got used to it. Truth be told, I had the same feeling about the Intensity until I adjusted the straps. Still, I think the narrower straps help avoid the boob gropage, and that can only be considered a good thing while running!

The straps on the HPL are positioned for a longer torso. This also makes sense to me, since men tend to carry more of their height in their torso, while women have longer legs. (In other words, even a taller woman such as myself may not need the added torso length that a man might.) On me, the HPL rode lower on my back, but both vests were equally comfortable in this sense.

I know it's impossible to tell from these pictures, but the Intensity (above, in blue) really does ride a bit higher on my back than the HPL (below, in gray). If you enlarge the photos, you can also see the difference in how the straps adjust on the side. (But you have to promise not to look at my butt!)

Another difference between the two packs was the ability to adjust the straps. There were two side pulls on each strap, running to the harness, allowing the runner to adjust the tightness and ride of the vest. In my opinion, the Intensity was the clear winner here. With a simple tug on each side pull, the pack was easily tightened or loosened while in use. The HPL had an additional plastic piece on each strap to keep it from dangling, but made it essentially impossible to adjust while wearing. I had to take the pack off and re-adjust, try it on again, and make sure it was even on both sides, re-adjust again, etc. I’m not sure why there was this difference between the vests, but my suspicion is that the Intensity is simply a newer design.

The front pockets were also different. The Intensity had one less pocket, and both were smaller due to the narrower aspect of the front straps. I felt the zippered pocket was not the best shape, and would be better off sitting flatter against the chest. (When it was stuffed full, it had occasion to get in the way of my arm swing.)

The other big difference was, of course, the name. HPL stands for “Human Propulsion Laboratories,” and I totally get that marketing campaign: Nathan tests their products on real people in real conditions. Very cool. But seriously, who wants a pack called the HPL? Intensity is way cooler. Hands down.

My experience with both of these vests was excellent. I loved the comfortable, adjustable fit, with no waist belt. I was impressed with the total absence of chaffing, even against bare skin. The vests are light, to be sure, but I was able to fit into either one everything I needed for a long day in the backcountry: 2 liters of water, sandwich, 2 bars, 3 GU’s, map, water purifier, long sleeved shirt, jacket, e-caps, and camera. They were a vast improvement over the previous two packs I've owned, and I’ll definitely be getting much more mileage out of them.

I think the difference in fit between the HPL and the Intensity is subtle, but important to many runners. I felt very comfortable in both vests, but all of my testers preferred the Intensity. (The smaller women had the straps on the HPL cinched down as tight as they would go.) Everyone said the Intensity had a better overall fit, and the straps seemed to ride more comfortably on the shoulders. I can’t imagine anyone not loving either of these vests, but for a medium to small woman, or a slightly bustier woman, I think the Intensity is the way to go.

And in case you weren’t already sold, Wilderness Running Company is offering you a special sale on Nathan products now through the end of this month. Just use the code nathan20 at checkout, and you’ll get 20% off all Nathan products. Yippee!

And while you’re over at WRC, make sure you go here and subscribe to their new blog. Remember that sexy little Garmin 405 that I reviewed? Well, they’ll be giving one of those away on January 15 to one lucky blog subscriber. Please go sign up, then leave a comment on their blog letting them know that you did. (Then facebook it, tweet it, etc., Pass on the love.) I would be stoked if one of my runner friends walked away with this little toy! (Plus, the WRC blog is pretty darn cool.)

Well, that’s it for now. But believe it or not, Gear Girl has more holiday gift ideas in store for later in the week, so stay tuned.

With strapped-on essentials, in Zion NP

Just so you know: Nathan vests provided by WRC

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Garmin 405 Review

Does anyone recall me saying that I was going to write some gear reviews on this site? Oh yeah...

If you're a nerd like me, perhaps you've happened across the Grammar Girl podcasts at some point. (No? You mean none of you are total nerds?? Dammit, Jim!) She starts out each podcast with some cool, snappy music, and an intro line that goes, "Hi! Grammar Girl here. Today's topic is...(insert awesome topic like 'lie vs. lay' or 'starting a sentence with

When you hear that familiar music and voice announce the topic, it's kind of like when Ron Howard says, "Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything..." You know, you sit back and smile, and you know you're in for something good.

And that's kind of what I think Gear Girl needs to get her reviews going...some cool snappy music! (I've got plenty of awesome topics.) But since this is a blog, not a podcast or TV show, you'll have to invent your own theme song here. I'm thinking a hip, acoustic, Jack Johnson-type intro, but you use whatever works for you.

So without further ado: (Cue cool music.) "Hey, Gear Girl here. Today's topic is the Garmin 405."

Whether you’re a veteran user in the world of the GPS, or, like me, a novice who has been merely drooling over the Garmin line for the past several years, you’ll find the Garmin Forerunner 405 has plenty to offer.

There are many reasons for owning a GPS designed specifically for running. My main interest was to map out the trails I run—see where they go, and just how far they really are. It can also be a great training tool for runners trying to keep a certain pace, or even just learn what a certain pace feels like. When Wilderness Running sent me the Garmin 405 to review, I learned just how much a good GPS can really do.

You might say that I have fairly high expectations for technology. I’d argue that they’re reasonable, though. I just want things to work. I want my gadgets to do everything, and do them instantly. I want them to be so user-friendly that I could lose the manual and still be able to figure out everything. I want them to be attractive and comfortable and I want the batteries to last forever. And did I mention my preferred price tag? Cheap, of course.

So, let’s see how the 405 measured up.

I’ll tackle the biggest question first:

Does it do everything?

This, I would say, is where the 405 shines. You can do so many things with this watch, I started sleeping in later while it brewed the coffee and fed the dog. Let’s talk about some of the data available first.

Users can set up the screen on the 405 to personalized choices. You can view up to three pieces of data at once, and you can scroll between multiple data screens. What you see, and where, is completely up to you. Some options include stopwatch time, current pace, average pace, lap time, lap pace, elevation, grade, calories burned, distance, lap distance, time of day and a dozen or so more. If you have your 405 paired with the heart rate strap, you can of course view all kinds of data about your heart rate. I found that the things I wanted to see the most were stopwatch time, distance, and average pace. I typically had this on my first screen, then on my secondary screen I had current pace, time of day and elevation.

The training options were so numerous that it was somewhat dizzying. Using your Garmin, you can set up workouts based on time, distance, calories or heart rate. You can also set up interval workouts which time your rest and tell you when to start the next interval. Advanced users can set up more complex workouts through the online community, Garmin Connect. Other training options include use of a virtual partner, and creating a specific course on which you can compare your times across workouts. These tools would all be great for someone without a local coach or frequent training partners, but who is looking to follow a specific training plan. They would also be helpful for anyone who likes to see the detailed data from workouts and plan their training accordingly.

The GPS uses satellites to not only track your speed, distance and elevation, but can also be used for navigation. You can set points, and then use the GPS to navigate back to those points. This could be quite useful if you are travelling cross country or navigating by map.

Believe it or not, that is just a quick overview of the data. Another related question is, how easy is it to find and use this data?

The touch bezel is the main feature used to navigate through this little computer. It’s somewhat similar to the click wheel on an ipod, so it feels fairly instinctive to use. It allows the runner to navigate through a ton of data without including a ton of buttons on the watch itself. In fact, aside from the touch bezel, the 405 only has two buttons—your standard start/stop and lap/reset. The bezel is pretty sensitive, which has its pluses and minuses. I found that I could still use it while wearing thin running gloves, which is nice in cold weather. Unfortunately I also found that jacket sleeves, backpack straps, or the occasional errant pigtail that accidentally brushed against the bezel registered as a click. The solution to this problem is to keep it in “lock” mode most of the time. This works well, but it does require an extra step when navigating through the data (in order to "unlock" it). Once I got used to using the bezel, I thought it was a pretty slick feature.

Another important use of the data on the 405 involves the Garmin Connect online community. After logging a run on your watch, you connect wirelessly to your computer and upload your information from that run to Garmin Connect. Here you can see a map of your route, elevation profile, and your speed at any point on the run. You can see an example from my run at this year's HK 50M here. This was one of my favorite features of the 405. After all, the best part about having all that information is the ability to analyze it, manipulate it and share it. From Garmin Connect, you can share with other users, or upload your data to your own website or blog. Pretty slick!

Among the many other features, one thing I personally liked was the auto pause option. With the auto pause on, the timer will stop whenever you do. I am notorious for stopping my watch to run into the bushes and pee, and then forgetting to push “start” again. The auto pause saved me from my own timing woes! (Just remember to turn this feature off on race day.)

That certainly doesn’t cover everything this watch does, but that’s probably already more than you have time to read about.

Does it do everything instantly?

Most things on this watch are pretty instantaneous. The wireless uploading was easy. The only time I became wary of how long things took was when first going into training mode from power save mode. The watch needs to locate the satellites, and depending on your location, this could be instantaneous or, or it could take up to a minute or two. That can be rather embarrassing when you’re about to start an interval workout on trail with a group and you have to make everyone wait until your fancy watch locates satellites. I mean, not that I would know. Imagine how inconvenient that could be when you’re on the starting line and the gun goes off. Just plan in advance.

Is it user-friendly?

In a word: yes. I did need the manual to get started, but I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a read-the-manual type girl. I prefer to just start pushing buttons and figure things out. If you can’t do it that way, then I’d say it was designed poorly. I had more than one day where I arrived at the trailhead and wanted to change a setting or something that I didn’t really know how to do. I could always figure it out eventually just by clicking around through the various screens. I’d give this one a big thumbs-up on user-friendly.

Is it attractive and comfortable?

I guess this one is largely a matter of personal opinion. I will say that it’s far less weird-looking than previous editions of the Forerunner. It can actually pass for a watch, albeit a rather large one if you’re a woman with a small wrist, like me. I can’t say that it ever felt like it fit well, and it quickly created a sore spot against my wrist bone which I couldn’t figure out how to avoid. If I wanted to wear it running 5 days a week, it could potentially be a real annoyance. Since I’m more of an occasional GPS-wearer, I can’t say it was a big issue.

Do the batteries last forever?

The word on this one: no. Obviously I don’t really expect them to last forever. However, the maximum eight-hour battery life in training mode was clearly not designed with the ultrarunner in mind. It’s not that I go for a lot of runs longer than eight hours (although there are a few in a season), but you could translate “maximum” here to “best case scenario.” For some reason, I had a number of days where the battery only lasted 5-6 hours even though I started with it fully charged. On these particular runs, I encountered some areas of weak satellite reception, and wonder if perhaps it uses up more battery power when searching for satellites. I don’t know. But I do know that it is annoying to have your battery die on you in the middle of a long run through the wilderness because then you don’t even have anything to tell you the time of day. And let’s face it, 8 hours isn’t enough to get you through most 50 milers, or even halfway through a hundred. Personally, I’d like about twice as much battery life. On a more realistic front, however, ultrarunners certainly comprise a small portion of the running population, and 8 hours is probably more than enough for most runners.

Is it cheap?

Well, this is another one that is simply a matter of opinion.The $300 price tag may not seem cheap, however, if you want an awesome and reliable GPS, I’d say it’s pretty darn reasonable.

And finally, back to my initial request of all gadgets:

Does it work?

Yup. I rarely lost satellite reception, and I’d say the measurements of pace and distance were quite accurate. I encountered a problem during one of my uploads to Garmin Connect and lost a lot of data, but unfortunately I have only my crappy computer to blame for that one. Most of the time, the process of data transfer was quite smooth. I suggest not setting up your 405 to delete the data from the watch as it’s downloaded. That way, you have a back-up in case there is a problem during the transfer. You can delete the data from your GPS manually once it is safely at Garmin Connect.

The final word.

Overall, I really appreciated the information from the 405, and the ease of use. Being keenly aware of my pace during a recent road marathon definitely helped me stay on track. It’s probably not the ideal watch for those who frequently do training runs longer than 6 hours, but otherwise, it’s an excellent training tool for beginning and advanced runners alike.

*Just so you know: Garmin product supplied by WRC.*

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

On Birthdays and Snowdays

The Palisade Burrow, Monday morning

I'll admit it it upfront: I'm a birthday grinch. I'm certain it's a manifestation of my age, but I'd just as soon have the day pass completely unnoticed. Birthday? What birthday? I'm so not getting older. I still need to run 3:40 to qualify for Boston...I swear. (And I did so 4 times this year, so there, BAA!) Self-pity is terribly unattractive, so I'll not expound on my feelings about aging. Let's just say that I think birthday's are for kids.

It's with this attitude that I have allowed the last several birthdays slip by largely unnoticed by anyone but my family (who are welcome to acknowledge it with singing, cake, and large gifts, of course). At my new school, no such luxury was allowed. Elementary schools are all about birthdays. I had to report my birthday to at least a dozen people in the first week of classes. Why do they care? The kid's birthdays I can understand, but mine? I just don't get it.

Then, the week before the big, dreaded event, my students started talking about it.

"Ms. Brugman, your birthday's next week!" came the squeals.

How do they know this?

"I have it written in my homework planner, see?" (Homework planner is offered up for inspection.)

Oh God.

My husband also spent the day before pestering me, because he thinks it's terribly funny that I hate my birthday. (That's what I get for marrying a younger man, I guess.) He even set the alarm for midnight in a secret plot to wake me up and wish me happy birthday during the first minute of the day. Fortunately I noticed it after he fell asleep and foiled his devilish scheme.

Anyway, the day turned out to be pretty darn good, and I have, in large part, my students to thank. Did I mention that birthday's are for kids? Maybe that's because they know how to bring the proper enthusiasm to the task. Or maybe it's just because they're so genuinely excited about birthdays that it's hard to get mad at them for it. They planned, and executed, a surprise party for me of amazing proportions. Frankly, I was blown away. They decorated the multi-purpose room, set it up with pizzza and cupcakes, plates, balloons, presents, juice boxes -- everything a good birthday needs. They led me in there blind-folded and full of giggles (them and me) and instead of feeling slightly irritated like a good grinch should, I cried.

I am truly grateful for all of the people who love me in this world, and I know there are many of them. I got some incredibly thoughtful gifts and wishes. But there is something pretty special about being loved by kids. (Like when my nephews, ages 3 and 5, sing "Happy Birthday" into the answering cute!) The fact that a group of 10 and 11-year-olds pulled off such a feat of organization with no adult leadership whatsoever is a sure sign of love in my book.

For the weekend, I had planned my own birthday present of sorts to myself. This involved driving down to Sacramento Friday night to see my favorite band with good friends, driving home Saturday to see the same band again in Tahoe with more good friends, then leaving at 4:30 am Sunday morning (after about 3 hours of sleep) to return to Sacramento and run CIM. Crazy? Not so much. It was an amazing weekend with epic music, booty-shakin' dancing, falling in love with a new artist (Kate Gaffney rocks!) a stolen car, not a single glance at the WS lottery results, a freezing cold (and fairly slow) run through Sac, 3 amazing cups of hot chocolate, Christmas shopping, donating 13 inches of red hair to locks of love, and a 4-and-a-half hour drive up I-80 through a frigid storm.

I didn't arrive home until 6:00 Sunday night, and after all that, I blew off my school work in favor of a glass of wine and an early bed time. I was blessed Monday morning with the best gift yet - a snow day. (Dear God, I am so sorry I ever doubted your existence. I take it all back. Thank you!)

Digging out a pair of Subaru's is always better with hot coffee in hand!

And snow days are one of the special beauties of life in the mountains. It's like a bonus vacation day. Sure, you spend half the day doing snow removal, but I just consider it cross-training. I also caught up on my grading, sat around drinking coffee with my sweetie, and took the dogs cross country skiing through the snowy streets of Truckee.

I love living up here. I love the snow, and all the craziness that comes with it. And you know, I guess birthdays aren't so bad either.

Fresh tracks in the Sugar Bowl backcountry, 12-7-09. (Unfortunately, this is not me!)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pure Bliss in Zion National Park

There are rare occasions in life where the right people come together in the right place for an adventure that turns out to be more than just the sum of its parts. When the parts themselves are amazing—consider the stunning Zion National Park, a small group of talented and intrepid ultra-runners, and an unmatchable host—you’re destined for the kind of magic that makes for a truly unforgettable weekend.

When the Wilderness Running Company announced its intention to host “Pure Zion”—a weekend of trail running in Zion National Park—there were a million reasons why it made no sense for me to go: I was just starting a new job and couldn’t imagine requesting time off; With my husband in school and the two of us surviving on just my salary, I certainly couldn’t justify the expense; It fell just a week after a hard 50 mile road race, and my legs surely would not be ready for another weekend of 40+ miles; And, as it turns out, Zion is a somewhat tricky place to get to, making a weekend visit feel rather impractical. Nevertheless, I blew off all the voices of reason in my head, and went with the little devil on my shoulder that told me to go for it. Turns out, that devil must have been an angel.

I first began working with the Wilderness Running Company last spring, writing a few gear reviews and a trail report for them. I’ve already explained how it was clear to me just from their website that I was very much in line with the mindset and philosophy of these folks. So, needless to say, I was pretty excited to finally meet Stacy and Lisa Young, the dauntless husband and wife duo behind WRC, in person.

I invited all the cool runner chicks I could think of that lived nearby, and luckily two of them enthusiastically jumped on-board with the plan. I only knew both Jamie and Jenny from having run several of the same races in the past several years. They are both talented runners, and as it turns out, fun and easy-going women, making them the perfect adventuring partners for the weekend. All of the airport and car-rental headaches were eased as we spent time swapping stories and getting to know each other, while Jenny initiated the ongoing joke of the weekend by teasing Jamie about passing her with three miles to go at Western States this year. We hadn’t even left Reno yet when I already found myself reveling in the pleasures of just being around other ultra-runners.

Bryon and Meghan made the trek out from Yosemite to round out what felt like the perfect running group for the weekend. I first encountered Meghan when reading her race report from Marathon de Sables last spring. If you want a little insight into her utter coolness, check out this post (among others) on her blog. I met and spent a little time hanging with both Meghan and Bryon at Michigan Bluff during Western States this year, and was stoked that they were with us for the Zion experience.

Jamie and Jenny and I arrived in Springdale Friday afternoon after the flight from Reno to Las Vegas, followed by a three-hour drive. Springdale is situated on the Virgin River, right at the mouth of Zion Canyon. It’s a somewhat eclectic collection of tourist shops, art galleries, and quaint, older houses where fence-posts of gnarled cottonwood branches brace lengths of wire, enclosing a handful of cows or horses in each miniature pasture. Mature trees, alive with the colors of autumn, shade the sidewalks, while hand-painted signs advertise local wares like cactus jelly and bumbleberry jam. After checking into our hotel, we browsed the stunning photos at several of the local galleries, getting excited for the adventure ahead. We joined Stacy, Lisa, Bryon and Meghan for dinner that night.

All weekend we were treated like rock stars, and it began at dinner on Friday with sweet gear packages from the WRC warehouse. After meeting Stacy and Lisa in person, I was not at all surprised to discover that they were kind, fun and easy people to be with. Stacy laid us out on our route options for the following day’s run, which included potential distances from 7 to 30+ miles. In the end, we all decided to run the same rim-to-rim route of about 26 miles.

The following morning, with Stacy piloting the 15-passenger van, we fueled-up on caffeine at the local coffee house, picked up two local runners, Bob and Mary Jo, and headed to the West Rim trailhead. There was a slight chill in the early-morning air, but it looked to be a perfect day weather-wise, and we set off in shorts and t-shirts, hydration packs full to the hilt, for what would be 15 miles of mostly easy downhill to the canyon floor.

The trail starts out up near the west rim with several miles of fairly flat running, and a few views into the nearby canyons. We kept a pretty mellow pace and spent plenty of time stopping for pictures. This was all perfect in my mind, since my legs were still in complaint-mode after the previous weekend’s effort at Helen Klien.

I really wanted a tour-guide to point out the names of the surrounding peaks, cliffs, mesas and canyons, so I was disappointed, although not surprised, to learn that Stacy wouldn’t be running with us on this day. As it turned out, Bob and Mary Jo filled in nicely in this regard. Although I’m not sure they were initially planning on staying with our group through the run (I think they got the idea that we were fast or something. Ha!), we all ended up touring along together. We didn’t see another soul on this trail all morning. We looked out upon the vast landscape and felt that it was ours alone.

We ran, surrounded with views like this...

...through beautiful landscapes like this...

finding plenty of time for photos and goofing around...

Jamie, Bryon, Mary Jo and Bob enjoy beautiful and easy terrain.

Bryon and the ladies. From L to R: Me, Jamie, Bryon, Meghan, Jenny

Much of the trail was cut directly into the cliff face...

Eventually we came to the turn-off for Angel’s Landing, a half-mile journey that entails scrambling along a steep ridge-line trail, with abrupt drop-offs and unbelievable views. We’d been debating the pluses and minuses of making this short side-trip all morning, and in the end, a few waited at the trail junction, while the rest of us headed off toward the cliff. There were definitely some people on the trail now, but since this wasn’t exactly a runnable section anyway, the added traffic didn’t matter so much.

Meghan negotiates the trail to Angel's Landing

The view from the cliff edge was more than worth the journey, and we even witnessed a California Condor circling just below us.

After we rejoined the rest of the group, we headed down the section of trail known as Walter's Wiggles...

...21 short, but immensely fun switchbacks.

By this time, we had nearly completed the 15 miles to the canyon floor, where Stacy and Lisa awaited us with an incredible spread of picnic goodies. Craving anything in particular? They likely had it!

The dynamic duo behind WRC: Lisa and Stacy Young

We left the safety of fresh sandwiches and popsicles, along with Lisa, Stacy, Bob and Mary Jo, to reverse what we had just done by climbing up the opposite side of the canyon on the East Rim Trail.

Even on the short road section, running through the canyon was pure joy. The cottonwoods shaded us with gold, and steep orange walls parted, allowing us in to secret cracks in their expanse. We climbed upward, knowing we were fighting daylight, but still somehow supremely confident in the perfection of the day. We wouldn’t get caught out in the dark, not with the magic that was clearly present here.

Bryon's view for the day. (This, and all remaining photos courtesy of the awesome Bryon Powell.)

We continued climbing through narrow canyons...

still finding time for goofing and pictures...

and finally found our way to the east rim, and back into the junipers and pines...

By the last few miles we had spread out a bit, and I found myself bringing up the rear of our little group. We’d seen no one else for the last 5 or 6 miles, and it was surprisingly peaceful to find myself alone, on a sandy trail, somewhere in Utah. The sun sank low, casting long shadows and bathing the landscape in a burnished gold. My ears were alive with silence, and the soft shush-shush of my feet hitting the sand. My legs had been slowly tightening as I ran up the East Rim trail, and now they were crying out in protest, finally feeling every one of the post-race miles. But it didn’t matter; it just didn’t. I ran along, smiling stupidly to myself at the sheer beauty of being here and being alive.

I arrived at the trailhead to find Stacy waiting for us (with treats, of course). How could I possibly explain to him what an amazing day this had been? In the zeal of post-run ecstasy, we stuffed our faces and tried to tell each other about our favorite part of the day, and there were just too many. There was no favorite part for me because it seemed that each new section of trail brought something newly spectacular, yet uniquely different, than the previous. It was such a fantastic blur of awesome that my brain couldn’t sort through it. I was giddy. Totally giddy.

That night, Meghan, Bryon, Jamie, Jenny and I hit up a restaurant in Springdale for some fish tacos and a few pints of Polygamy Porter. I realized once again, how rarely in my life I spend time hanging out with other ultra-runners. It is such a wonderful thing, a soul-affirming thing, if that makes any sense. When you are with people in whom you see a bit of yourself reflected, you start to feel like you, yourself, might actually make some sense. Like maybe you’re not crazy, and maybe it’s everyone else. Like you kind of fit in.

Sunday morning we got a slightly earlier start so Jamie and Jenny and I would have time to shower after the run before checking out of our hotel. I walked stiffly out to the sidewalk to meet Stacy, with my legs in that post-ultra-race-tightness state. I knew they would hurt on the day’s 15-mile run, but I also knew it didn’t matter. They were strong enough to get me through the day, and the day was destined for more trail running greatness. I was all smiles as I climbed into the van and took what had become my standard shotgun seat next to Stacy.

After picking up Bryon and Meghan (and of course, coffee) we headed off to Kolob Canyon for an out and back down into the canyon and along La Verkin Creek. Even during the drive to the trailhead we kept letting out audible gasps, oohs and aahs at the scenery. It was such the pleasure of the entire weekend that we could declare beauty at every turn.

Stacy joined us for the day’s route, which began by heading down into the canyon for several miles along the spine of a small ridge. The surrounding walls of color provided constant distraction, but the precipitous drop-off on both sides of the trail meant I also had to keep an eye on my feet.

Soon we were at the bottom of the canyon, and picking our way alongside the river. The trail was as red as the canyon walls, and buttery leaves rained down gently from above, adding to the warm fall palette. Conversation seemed lighter than the previous day. I know I, for one, was simply trying to soak up every moment of my weekend, knowing that it was to be over soon. I kept craning my neck up at the scenery, and finally realized I needed to take off my visor because it was impeding my view.

We paused for a brief photo-op at our turn-around point, Kolob Arch, before heading back up the trail.

With Stacy, at Kolob Arch

Jamie, Jenny and I parted ways with the rest of the group back at our hotel. As we all exchanged hugs, I was less sad than I would have expected. I still felt imbued with appreciation for every minute of the weekend, and I was pretty confident that there would be future adventures with all of these friends.

I have to confess that this year, more than ever, I have learned the simple joys of being out for long days on trails with friends. While we were standing at the base of Kolob Arch, still chattering away about all things running, Meghan asked me what I think it was that made for such a successful season for me. How was I able to run so many races, so many personal bests, and continue racing for such a long season without burning out? At the time, I didn’t really have an answer. True, I trained harder that in previous ultra-running years, but it’s not that I didn’t already know how to do that. I just lacked the motivation for it. Now, I think I have the answer to Meghan’s question. As much as I love racing, and training hard, I think it was the adventures shared with other runners that sustained my enthusiasm throughout the season. And Zion turned out to be the absolute pinnacle in the range of this summer’s incredible runs.

I can't express enough gratitude to the Wilderness Running Company for dreaming up, and presenting, this event. What an opportunity! You can rest assured, when they disclose whatever their next adventure is, I'll be there.