Wednesday, February 3, 2016

San Miguel De Allende, Mexico

This town must have the highest per capita number of broken ankles in the world. I've run rough trails that are more even than the streets around town, and I've found more pleasure hitting off-road trails when I have been able - though some of Those have proven challenging with stray dogs and the occasional donkey aggressive (more about that below).
View of San Miguel de Allende at sunrise

The compensation comes in the form of a five star luxury hotel where I can enjoy the pleasures of infinity edge swimming pools and beautiful manicured grounds, spectacular food and accommodation, all within spitting distance of abject poverty. The economic dissonance is sometimes jaw-dropping, perhaps bettered only in the United States where this outcome seems the intentional result of social and economic policies que accelerate the earnings of the rich while disenfranchising the poor and politically illiterate.
Rosewood Hotel

But I have to run, and each morning at dawn I push myself to find interesting terrain. At 6,000 'altitude there is certainly a price to pay for high exertion, but this is similar to what I encounter week in, week out, back in Colorado. Having left 18 inches of snow and sub-zero temperatures, the cool 50 degree mornings feel warm and sultry.
Those cobbled streets

It amazes me how this place suffers from so much traffic. It is a beautiful town with cobbled streets and a lot of economic activity - Of which tourism is probably the biggest - but even at 6am the inbound traffic is endless, and not particularly sensitive to runners on the road side or at intersections. Staying at a hotel in the middle of town leaves me no alternative but to navigate the maze of twisting streets before I can access in off-road running.

This morning I started an hour later in October than yesterday and this meant that I got the warmth of the sun a little sooner. I headed directly south towards El Camino road and headed west until it turned into a dirt track. The sun was blinding as I encountered the first (of what would be many) wandering dogs. Some just barked, some barely registered my presence, but some Were much too interested and barked and ran towards me. But I am used to dogs and thankfully none of them nipped me.
Hotel again

Eventually I hit a rising, contouring trail que bet north around Tres Cruces mountain. I ran the final section of this yesterday, but this was a much better approach on rocky singletrack runnable. It skipped around in sections and there were several places where I passed some local rough sleeping in the undergrowth - a little disconcerting, but I felt capable of running them in October if it came to the chase.

Then the donkey. I really like donkeys and find them visually humorous. It's hard not to look at one and thank evolution for its sense of humor. But this donkey had an attitude, and it took a dislike to me disturbing its early morning rest. As I Approached It Began kicking and braying. It made in the most dreadful din. Thankfully it did not break its tether rope and I was able to get by without a hoof in my nether regions. I ran faster after that and put some distance between it and me.
Donkey Kong looking for fun

The problem with running in this area is the traffic and that cobbled streets await your return. It can not be avoided. I am pretty good at descending, but cam perilously close to some nasty twists and falls on a few occasions. Still, the splendor of this luxurious hotel beckoned.
Love the pool

Monday, June 22, 2015

Kinder Scout from Hayfield

It's been a long time since I did any fell running in the UK and a quick business trip allowed for a very early morning trot up Kinder Scout. When packing my gear back in the 90 degree heat of Boulder I remembered to include my waterproof jacket...and I ended up needing it.
Climbing up to the reservoir

I left Hayfield around 5.45am and jogged in the cool rain along Kinder Road. I crossed the bridge beneath the reservoir and ran along a dank, wet trail before switching back over a footbridge and ascending steeply to where a view of the reservoir - and my route - was possible. The cloud hung low over the hillside and that meant one thing - heavy rain. I was warming up though and there was going to be no turning back.
My route took me left (out of sight) and along the cloud covered hillside

Skipping along the muddy, puddled trail by the reservoir quickly led to the bottom of William Clough and the start of the steeper climbing. There were a few Herdwick sheep for company and after slipping and sliding around on the muddy sections, I was thankful for some rock and grass as I climbed higher. Two thirds of the way up I disappeared into cloud cover and that's when the really heavy rain started.
Bottom of William Clough

Just when I needed encouragement two sheep came into view
After running in Colorado I found the ascent of Kinder to be relatively short and I quickly arrived at the junction with the Pennine Way. I turned right and was faced with one stiff little climb to the very summit of the Kinder ridge. The wind was howling and the rain drenching. At least my jacket kept some of the wind at bay.
View back down William Clough to the reservoir

Final ascent in the cloud to the top of the Kinder ridge
I have run along the Kinder skyline a number of times over the years, so knew what to expect - a lot of rock hopping and puddle jumping. It was hard going, but a lot of fun. Threads of cloud and rain streamed across the ridge in front of me and very occasionally the cloud opened for a brief view of the valley - not long enough to take a picture but long enough to confirm I was in the right place. I had uploaded an image of the Ordinance Survey map before I began and used this at path junctions. There was little around by way of markers and the cloud concealed everything. I had to rely on general distance and headings and dead reckoning navigation to keep to the right path.
Kinder Downfall in beautiful weather

I have never visited Kinder Downfall in good weather and I wasn't going to break that streak today. The updraft of wind hurled water directly over me and I took my morning shower a little earlier than expected. The wind was ferocious and I quickly picked my way across the stream and then scampered along to trail towards the descent.
Wonderful paved section before the final, steep desent

I arrived at the departure point for the Pennine Way and climbed down the steep staircase towards lower ground. I felt like I needed to lose altitude as I had been in the wind and rain for about 45 minutes. But I couldn't shake off the cloud and this made navigating very difficult. I felt I knew where I was but wasn't 100% sure. I needed some visual reference point for confirmation. I wasn't going to get it!!
Relief at finding the Broad Clough sign - 100% accurate navigation in foul weather

I arrived at a trail intersection and faced a choice. I looked at the map and then stared into the cloud. On distance alone I figured that I must be close to Broad Clough, and that is exactly where I wanted to be. My compass suggested a Northwesterly direction, so that seemed right. I strode off confidently and ran for 3/4 mile before a final descent took me out of the clouds. 100yds ahead there was a National Trust sign - "Broad Clough" - how wonderful am I?
Final descent to the reservoir

The final section back to the foot of the reservoir was gently descending grass track and I ran as quickly as I could. I really miss these long grassy descents when in the Rockies and enjoyed every minute. The jog back along Kinder Road was only interrupted by one car - the only person I had seen all morning. I was dripping wet.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mixing it up

After so much long distance running I was wiped out last year, physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a new challenge, something that would still get me physically exerted and high in the mountains. I bought a mountain bike. I then bought a second mountain bike, and I haven't looked back.

The bike I bought was far too good for someone with my modest abilities - a Specialized Epic World Cup carbon bike. So light I could pick it up with one finger. But when the snow came early last Fall I splashed out on the top end Specialized Fatboy Pro, an absolute beast of a bike and so much fun I rode it a lot over winter even on dry trails. The new exercise pattern is much more to my liking - when I travel for work during the week I go running, and at weekends I go out on my bike.

I quite like grinding it out on long, steady ascents - not the vicious little stingers that have you scrabbling your back wheel for traction, but the longer, lung-busting type that go on for ever. I recall the trip up to Georgia Pass from Kenosha Pass last November - 12 miles of solid, uphill on a steady gradient. This was perfect for me. I also recall riding Lair o' the Bear across to Mount Falcon - another solid 8 miles of continuous ascent. Fabulous.

Downhill is not so much fun for me. I am generally too scared of wrapping myself around a tree trunk or flying over the handlebars at speed. Unfortunately, I seem to be pretty good at doing both of these things with alarming frequency. I've suffered a few bruised ribs, but so far nothing serious.

It's been a great weekend on the bike. Yesterday I scaled Bergen Peak above Evergreen, CO. It was a cold start but the steady climbing warmed me up. It was a beautiful ride with great views from the summit. I thought the early start meant that I would have the trail to myself, but I caught 4 riders close to the summit and burned past them on the final steep, loose pull. I passed them still ascending while I was zooming down the singletrack.
View of the Falls

This morning I rode the big loop at Staunton State Park. Annoyingly I arrived at 6.30am to find the park gates locked. I had to wait 30 minutes until the park opened. The trails here are great. Apart from about 2 miles uphill on doubletrack the surface is spectacularly smooth and undulating. The climbing is steady up to the Staunton Falls overlook and, other than a few mud patches, the trail surface was pretty dry. I passed a single hiker in the first half mile and then saw no one except Elk and a herd of giraffe (I lied about the giraffe).
Profile of Lion Rock

The most exceptional part of this trail loop is the long ascent to the rock overlook followed by 5 miles of very fast, twisty singletrack descent. At one point I touched 35 miles an hour, which felt way too fast for me and my abilities. At one point I was going so fast I missed seeing a stream crossing and blasted through it before I realized. I got soaked, but stayed upright and then air dried in the wind as I sped back to the trailhead.
My Specialized Epic World Cup bike - love it!!!

Physically I feel a lot better for mixing up my exercise. The price I am paying is running speed and distance - I can't seem to be able to run as far and I am definitely slower. But I feel in better overall shape, so this is something I am having to live with. With the snow melting in the big mountains and the high level trails opening up, I might revert to some more high level weekend running, but for now, I am really enjoying the bike.
Staunton State Park trip

Friday, May 29, 2015

Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, at least not in the conventional sense. The pleasure of hard-nosed science smacks me with something called “reality”. But this doesn’t dull my sense of awe and wonder at natural beauty such as Smith Rock.  I felt as though drawn to this wonderful place…an unexpressed destiny…somehow maintaining its pristine appearance through the millennia. My newfound friends – the reason for my visit – exhorted me to “Go to Smith Rock”, and I did, and they were right. Truly spectacular.
Southern point of Picnic Lunch Wall
A local runner was gearing up when I arrived. We discussed route options and I picked his brain. I wanted a decent amount of mileage, a lot of climbing and a full tour of the park – the route was obvious. He was heading the same initial direction but to a different location. It was warm and due to become very warm
Passing impressive pinnacles on the Wolf Tree trail
I passed the local runner shortly after the initial descent alongside the Crooked River. I wasn’t going particularly fast and he was about 20 years younger. That competitive spirit never dulls.

After 1.25 miles the serious climbing started – a consistently steep trail for 1.5 miles with no shade in full sun. It was brutal but I pressed on. The single ascending switchback enabled me to gain height quickly and as I turned to complete the last section to the crest of the trail I could see the local runner a long way below. At the top of the crest I had taken almost 12 minutes out of him in a single mile.
Was it really that steep to the summit?
The choice at the top seemed obvious – the main trail I would eventually take along the valley rim was ahead, but an outrageously steep, loose trail took on the mountain summit to my right. It had to be done. It was lung-busting and insecure. Each step had tentative traction and often I would stride up and find myself back in my starting position – so much loose rock it was like climbing on marbles.

It was thankfully short, but the effort was excessive and I was blowing hard as the angle eased. I was able to jog and then run as the final summit block approached. The view was incredible – 1500’ of vertical ascent in 1.5 miles. It’s been a long winter and I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for a long time. I just can’t wait for the high altitude mountains to thaw out!!

The descent was a wicked combination of foot sliding and braking in an attempt to not completely lose control, but it was a short affair and soon I was pounding along to valley rim trail skirting beautiful magma pinnacles and rock faces. I stopped many times for photographs and although this slowed me up a lot, I could not resist.
View from the summit
Outside of Colorado, and my home trip around the Wasdale peaks in Cumbria, UK, this is, without doubt, my favorite running place. It also edges out the ascent of Table Mountain from Hellenbosch near Cape Town, South Africa, which has long held a special place in my memory. It’s that good.
Beautiful descent below the Monkey Face pinnacle

The final section of the descent to the base of Monkey Face is beautiful – verdant green pastures, crystal blue river, and golden magma towers. It is captivating and makes the running exhilarating. The volcanic push that formed this environment  10’s of millions of years ago achieved the appearance of design – indeed, there are nutcases out there who believe the whole deal was the result of a global flood 6000 years ago, but they are the ones watching the Flintstones thinking it is a documentary. No time for such nonsense today. I took the harder detour to the true base of the Monkey Face and chatted briefly with some climbers who were launching up the popular 5.8 route. I wish I could have joined them!!

They were the first people I had met all day, but I soon started picking up hikers as I rounded the final turn next to the river and headed north back towards the start. I could hear the echoing voices of climbers at different places but couldn’t pick them out through the glare of the sun. Arriving back at the bridge I had the final ascent back to the car and this involved picking my way through bunches of hikers descending to the valley.
Not quite a spring chicken, but feeling great towards the end of a wonderful run
I felt tired yet fulfilled. I pondered the many different running options in this magnificent park and vowed to return for more…particularly for the climbing. I didn’t waste my time and had checked out every rock face approach and descent as I ran and I had a mental image to return to for future visits.

Arriving back at the car with the temperature hitting 80 degrees, a hiker wearing a full pack, heavy twill trousers and a waterproof jacket asked me what conditions were like at the bottom of the valley. I briefly considered whether he was serious before quickly realizing that he was. I imperiously glanced in the direction of the valley from which I came, shirtless and sweating and, with due sincerity, said “Button up, it’s wild and windy down there.” There’s one born every minute – Forrest Gump minus the intellect.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Powerline Trail, Kauai, HI

Halfway into this trail I really didn't know what to make of it. It had been recommended to me by a local runner who said it was a wonderful trail crossing some of the most beautiful parts of Kauai. To be fair to him I did run the whole of the outward leg in the dark. So the jury was out on just how beautiful the whole area was. But what was clear to me was that the trail was heavily overgrown and my legs got mutilated.

It was not a huge surprise to find no one at the trailhead when I arrived at 5.30am. I could sense the overgrown nature of the surroundings even though I couldn't see anything to verify this. I geared up, switched on my GPS and took off into the dark.

The first section is a nose to the hillside climb, but it doesn't last very long and I was quickly skipping along navigating through tall grasses and around large trees. I like running in the dark, but this was more challenging because of the overgrown nature of the trail. My legs were getting whipped by stiff branches and sharp leaves and they were covered in blood after the first mile or so. The other problem was in the form of spider webs. Again, I would catch these in my hair and across my face and I was forever trying to wipe them away and discard them from my body.
This is what running through dense undergrowth in the dark by torchlight looks like.

There were a few sections where I had to crawl through a small canopy in the undergrowth, or twist my way through complex and interwoven fallen branches. These obstacles all served to interrupt my running and slow me down. Because it was like this most of the time I didn't particularly enjoy the running...and that was the whole point!!

But I did enjoy the sense of complete isolation. This trail is in a very remote area and I felt this isolation very strongly. Its a feeling I like. Then I got a bit of a shock that made me question whether i really was alone out there. I was running along a straight and level section of trail when my torch beam picked up a white object coming towards me. Before I had time to stop I was face to face with a small, white, pit bull terrier. It's eyes flashed "fear" and I felt sorry for this small dog. It was probably more startled than I was. I couldn't see anyone in the vicinity and it gave all appearance of being a stray. I dimmed my torch then, in a flash, it barked loudly and ran passed me along the route I had come. I didn't see it again.
First sign of dawn

I was a little more aware of my surroundings after that dog encounter but spent the entire run not meeting anyone.

One of the frustrations of this trail is that the dense undergrowth would occasionally give way to stretches of decent running, but this wouldn't last long. It would be helpful to bring along a machete or bushwhacker, but this is definitely an "unmaintained" trail. Then, at 3 miles, things got a little better. The trail turns into a wide mud "road" the loosest sense of the term...and this meant that I could at least do some running. But it is a steep and difficult section because the surface is so heavily rutted. Eventually this section emerges on the summit ridge and although it was still dark, I could pick out the outline of surrounding mountains in the first light of dawn.
Did I really run through this in the dark?

I plodded on for another mile or so to get a view of the north shore of the island and by the time I decided to turn back the dark had relented and I was able to run without torchlight. I don't know why this should have changed anything, but the run back to the trailhead was really enjoyable. What I hadn't realized until much later is that the final section of the ascent had been particularly overgrown and my legs were in quite a bit of pain from the scratching and scraping along this section. By contrast, the initial section of trail seemed relatively benign and I strode out more purposefully.
Sunrise over Keaka'a bay

I could also see my surroundings and this distracted me from the lashing I was getting. It truly was a beautiful area. There's nothing in the name "Powerline" that inspires the mind, but name aside, this crosses some tremendous countryside and I ended up feeling very glad that I had come. I wouldn't recommend the full trip to the north shore however until someone comes along with a weedwhacker and machete!!!

The trail really does go through here!!!

Kuku'i Trail, Waimea, Kauai, HI

This was my back-up plan. My first choice run was closed - Nu'alolo/Awa-'awapuhi grand loop - due to some trail detrioration on the clifftop section, and as I would be running that section by torchlight I decided to go elsewhere. If I needed a further excuse to go for the back-up, it was also lashing horizontal rain at 4,500' and I would be soaked (and cold) immediately.
First light of dawn as I met the river at the bottom of the descent
The Kuku'i trail is a very steep descent. 2.6 miles and about 2,200' of altitude loss. Starting very close to milemarker 9 on the canyon road it starts fairly gently. It was still dark as I began the descent and there was no rain or appreciable cloud cover at this altitude. It was an eerie descent in so many ways. First, I knew there were some significant drop-offs when the trail traversed steep slopes, but I couldn't see them in the dark. Occasionally I would squirt my torch beam into nothingness and briefly pondered how steep the void really was (I would find out on the ascent!!!). Also, there was the constant screeching of ferrel chickens and much rustling in the adjacent undergrowth. I had read about wild boars and aggressive pigs and didn't fancy meeting one in the dark on a perilous perch. I needn't have worried.

After a half mile the trail began a series of steep, sweeping switchbacks and I could feel the quick loss of altitude. This section is through a wooded hillside and it took a lot of concentration to avoid the rooted surface. I didn't fancy twisting an ankle - or worse - on such a poorly frequented trail, so I was a little tentative where I would normally have been gung-ho. It felt like a slow descent.

At around 1.2 miles the switchbacks relent and after a contour across a steep slope on a very narrow section of trail it headed down in a straight line following a steep hard mud hillside. Had it been raining this would have been treacherous, but in the dry I found I could make reasonable pace and my torch was able to pick the most obviously trodden line. This direct descent continued for about .75 miles and by the time I re-entered the woods at the bottom of the slope my quads were burning.
Just need to get round that hillside to see the huge waterfall

I am a decent navigator and it made sense to me to push this descent of the mud slope right to the very bottom, but I could also see trails cutting off to the right (facing out) and could imagine a few folk getting enticed by an illusory "easier path". My advice would be to ignore those more promising routes and keep to the tough, direct line.

Things took a different course when I re-entered the woods. With another mile and about 800' of descending ahead, the overgrown trail became damp - indeed very wet - in places. Throughout this whole final section I was slipping and sliding all over the darn place, keeping my balance when I really didn't deserve to. The rocks were lichenous and the trail surface pure mud. It was disgusting. And then just when I wished it would end there was a quarter mile section through head-high grass - grass that was dripping with morning dew. I got absolutely soaked as I ran through it. It was a shower I didn't need and although the air temperature down in the depths of the gorge was warmer, my wet shorts and teeshirt felt really cold. I squelched along the final descent to the river as quickly as I could and reached a primitive picnic area at the bottom. That teeshirt just had to come off!!!
What? No bridge?

I wasn't really sure where to go from here. One option was to head down the gorge and then try to pick up a lower trail that would take me up the far side. Instead I headed up river with the aim of reaching the huge waterfall towards the top of the valley. I made the wrong choice.

Sunrise touching the valley rim
There are two places I have been on earth where an encounter with a live dinosaur wouldn't have been a huge stretch of the imagination. One is the Gorge du Verdon near Castellane in southern France. The other is here. (There is a 3rd - a Republican convention, but here you have to realize that these are pretend dinosaurs...they aren't really real!!!). The floor of the gorge feels otherwordly. This surprised me because the evidence of human impact was all around...after all, I was running on a trail...and I could also see evidence of logging. But the dark, dripping foliage and undergrowth, so obviously lush and untouched, could have harbored almost anything. It was only slightly disappointing that the only wildlife I encountered were wild chickens and frogs...really big frogs...the kind of frogs that wouldn't get off the trail when you encountered them...really intimidating frogs with an attitude!!! Bastards. They were everywhere.

As I tracked northwest by the river I crossed a few streams and after about a mile met an impossible obstacle. It had just turned daylight and as I rounded a corner I was met with a full flowing river about 150' across. And it was fast flowing. I also estimated it to be about chest deep in the shallowest section. I pretended to consider the decision to cross very truth I knew the second I saw it that I wasn't going to cross. It would have been even more foolhardy than is usual for me to attempt a crossing. I pretended to feel disappointed and back tracked to the picnic area.

I had wasted too much time on this fruitless excursion so decided to ascend back up the trail and hopefully get into some sunshine. I determined right at the bottom that I would run the whole way up, no matter what. I do stupid things like this - set myself impossible tasks just to beat myself up when I fail to achieve them!!! But this was one I accomplished. Despite the horrible trail conditions in the lower third, and the excessively steep middle section up the hardened mud slope, and the steep switchbacks and steep traverses towards the top, I kept running the whole way.
Did I really skip across this slope in the dark on the way down?

There was but one problem - a large frog encounter. As I re-entered the dense woods towards the top of the ascent there was a very large frog on the trail. As I approached it did not move. I went to the right - it jumped to the right. I went to the left - it jumped to the left. This was a mean, no nonsense frog. I eventually found myself in a straddle position with the frog between my legs when it leaped ahead again. Slightly off balance I spun around on one leg, lost sight of the darn thing, and then put my right leg out to stop myself falling down the hillside. My footing felt soft - way too soft. I looked down at a squashed frog. It's innards oozed across the trail and a sticky and extremely smelly goo stuck to the sole of my shoes. This was one dead frog. Although I felt bad about ending its life, I rationalized that it was a "him or me" situation. After all, it could have killed me!!! "Frog kills runner" would have been all over the news. Imagine the humiliation.

I topped out in 47 minutes - the second fastest recorded ascent. Again, not too shabby for a frog affected ascent.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Nounou Mountain, Kauai, HI

Moon over early dawn Nounou Mountain
So, why am I writing about a 3.5 miles, 1,000' ascent run that under normal circumstances wouldn't be worth tying my shoelaces for? Because it's a real gem.
Sunrise over Kapa'a taken from summit

It's the kind of trail when I think it is better to ascend in the dark by torch, as I did this morning. This way the unfolding scenery is hidden from view until higher elevation is reached. This trail is all the better for concealing its charm until the end.
Spectacular summit dawn panorama at end of knife-edge ridge - a bit windy up there!!!

You might think that such a short trail would be a pushover, but this isn't. Ascending steep ground in the dark with so many rocky outcrops and tree roots is challenging enough. There are a couple of class 3 moves on rock steps to encounter, but nothing difficult, and other than this it is running the whole way. And it is pretty tiring. At an average altitude gain of 700' per mile, this isn't an easy run. But it is so much fun.

Early in the run the switchbacks enable rapid elevation gain and this is followed by some sweeping traverses where speed can be picked up. The dense undergrowth meant my torch needed to be illuminated longer than I expected, but this added to the atmosphere of the climb. Just after a mile and 800' of climbing there is a picnic area preceded by a lookout point across the bay to the east. A little further and a view of the summit is offered, in my case illuminated by moonlight. It really is a wonderful little climb.

Looking east through the summit cave
After the picnic area there is a short climb then the trail descends along a shoulder to the final summit ascent. There is a sign at this point saying "Trail closed", but being the law abiding citizen I am I breezed past this pretending that English was my second language and thinking "closed" really meant "close". The final climb is abrupt, steep and rocky and topped out at one end of a narrow rocky arete. With the real summit still a few hundred feet higher I jogged up through the emerging dawn in the teeth of a fierce gale and was met by a rock summit stone, but with limited views because of the surrounding vegetation. Clearly the rocky arete was the place to go so I descended quickly and galloped along the ridge. It was an exposed and precipitous place with sheer cliffs on 3 sides. At the end was a small rock platform and it was an airy place to stand in the wind as a sliver of rising sun split the clouds on the horizon to the east. It was a spectacular sight.

Looking southwest through the summit cave
As I turned to descend I spotted a trail traversing to the north across a steep cliffside. It seemed unusually well-trodden, so I had to take a look. What a good job I did. At the end of the short spur was a through-cave. The whole promontory above was suspended above this cleft - for how much longer? I crawled through the gap to see the last of the sunrise. No need for my torch for the descent as the light arrived so quickly. I retraced my steps and felt the 3.5 mile trip was good value. I'll take on a more significant challenge tomorrow!!