Sunday, September 30, 2012

First mountain snow and thoughts on golf

It has been three weeks since my last mountain run. A combination of travel and visitors has curtailed my high level trips and I am also now constrained to two hours on the hills due to my wife travelling to Europe and three dogs at home to look after. A very early start and a nearby trailhead - Brainard Lake - were in order. I wore leggings, hat and gloves for the first time since March and at 26 degrees, minus 6, I was pleased at getting this decision right.

I could detect a lightening sky as Livvy and I set off from the trailhead. The peaks had fresh snow and there was ice and frost on the trail. We made reasonable progress along the north shore of Long Lake. We were the only ones on the trail and the isolation was a pleasure after such an intense month of travel. It felt great to be above 10,000 feet again and headed for the high country. My aim was to run for 75 minutes and then return straight back to the car. The dogs at home would be hungry.

At the Jean Lunning trail split the first sign of sun was striking the mountain tops and as we emerged from the dense woodland the mountains were illuminated in an orange glow. We quickly turned right where the Isabelle Lake trail kept straight and gained altitude just as the sun warmed my back. It was still below zero and a stiff katabatic wind blasted us in the face. I first encountered these strong winds when climbing in the French Alps 35 years ago. As the morning sun warms the air at lower elevations it rises quickly and draws air from higher levels causing a downdraft from mountain to valley. These winds can reach hurricane force...not what we experienced this morning, but very cold. My sac thermometer showed 24 degrees and it felt accurate.

The rising trail crosses streams at a number of points and the log bridges were heavily iced. Even studded trail shoes were hopeless and Livvy and I had a few anxious moments as we skated across. Falling in the water would have been disastrous and would have forced an immediate retreat.

The Ryder Cup is golf's greatest event. Yes, I know the Rest of the World feels left out and America's dismal recent run against Europe has meant they enjoy the President's Cup a little more these days, but the event is still a great one. And it seems, before the final day, that the US team will make amends for a string of defeats and turn the tables. I'm not sure I like the extreme patriotism and partiality with mega-rich golf stars winding up the crowds with their fist-pumps and shrieking and commentary from our US networks being so biased and Tiger-centric.

I really like golf. It's a game that has held a lifetime interest since our father took my brother and I to the local moorland golf course as toddlers and we swung our sawn-down clubs in an attempt to get the ball in the air. It was clear from those very early days that the difference between my brother and I was that he could hit the ball and I couldn''s a minor thing called "talent"...but the thing about golf is that a "handicap" system at least attempts to create some kind of parity. And when I say it was a "golf course", I don't mean in the beautiful green manicured sense of the term, I mean in the northern English, 3 feet high fairway grass with sheep droppings all over the greens (which may or may not have been mowed for 3 weeks) variety. It was only 9 holes but it was brutal and hilly and not necessarily the best preparation for a quick 18 hole round at Medinah.

I've never been able to separate my colorful memory of golf from the thought of sheep. In fact, as a child and teenager I though all golf courses had sheep to keep the "fairway" grass down below knee height. It was only when I started to pay more attention to photos of proper golf courses that I realized the absence of a flock or two on the fairways, there was no fencing around the greens and no clumps of sheep dung surrounding the fact, I could't see a broom next to each green for exactly this purpose. Maybe sheep and golf weren't synonymous.

About 15 years ago I even joined a local club. It was another 9 hole hilly course and although it was absent sheep on the fairways, these excessively dumb creatures were populating the adjacent fields. So I guess I felt at home. I recall my very first round vividly. I joined a group of three at the clubhouse who were willing to let me play with them. None seemed to possess what I would call a "golf physique" in the Tiger Woods sense of the term, indeed one of the players had trouble touching his hands around his considerable girth, but he looked immensely strong and when he did pick up a club it seemed to scream in pain in his grip. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at things), he wasn't able to transmit this obvious strength and power to hitting the golf ball - well, not in a way that was consistent with the general aim of the game, which is to get around the course in as few a number of shots as possible. From the first tee it became evident that this player was recycling a news reel - one of constant frustration, anger and bewilderment at each and every shot he took, followed by some rather colorful language emphatically stated as a threat. Had he been a 4th century Jesuit he would have self-flagellated around the entire course...and he would have deserved it. It wasn't that he couldn't hit the ball, it's just that he couldn't hit it in the general direction of the green...the green we were driving towards, that is.

He certainly connected well with the ball on the first tee box. It was a perfectly timed shot and the ball went a merry mile. I think I lost sight of it after it rebounded off a car windscreen in the club parking lot about 300 yards away, and I couldn't decide whether it went into the woods or a large field. I had him down for a score of 15 on the first hole as he marked his card angrily with an eight. However, it was what happened on the sixth tee that completely destroyed my round, and it happened without me playing a single shot. The previous hole he had awarded himself 4 shots on a par 3, despite me counting two balls that he hit out of bounds. His mathematically challenged stroke of the pen elevated him before me as we each took our drives on the sixth hole. He was third to drive. His cumulative score after 5 holes was 58 and even he recognized that this wasn't one of his better rounds. He removed his driver from his bag - a club, I should point out, that wasn't exactly his strong suit on the evidence so far - and started some very fast, almost violent practice swings, one of which removed an 18 inch long divot from the tee box without him even noticing. He took a stance that seemed to imply he was aiming for the right fairway and shook the stiffness out of his considerable belly and gripped the club. Sweat was dripping from his chin down his disheveled golf shirt. He was a picture, be in no doubt. I think the golfing term "grip it and rip it" was written for exactly this moment. The ball was going to get spanked and we all knew it.

I'm not sure the best slow motion camera in the world could slow down his swing for proper analysis, but as he wound back his arms the club seemed to scream in pain at the thought of the torque to come. There was so much pent up aggression in his downswing that his left foot slid backwards and he was already anticipating a fairway landing 400 yards away when the toe of his driver clipped the ball and it rocketed like a bullet 3 feet above the ground out of bounds to the right towards a group of grazing sheep. Had I not been standing behind him I would have missed the spectacle. The ball smacked one of them on the forehead square between the eyes. The sheep crumpled and it collapsed in a heap. It looked stone dead to me. I am convinced that at the moment of impact its eyes crossed ever so slightly before it blanked out. Meanwhile, and I don't recall how I was able to keep track of this, the ball, with a metallic ring still sounding in the air, ricocheted in a large, slow arc and landed in the middle of the fairway about 200 yards away. It was his best tee shot of the day. It is the only time in my entire life when I almost lost control of my bladder. The three of us, mimicking the sheep, collapsed for an entirely different reason and it took me a good 5 minutes before I could even grip my club. I was still laughing as I took my swing and sent my ball all of 20 yards. I never recovered.

In all the years of watching the Ryder Cup I've never seen anything quite as funny as that 6th tee experience. For all the talent of these overpaid pro's, I would bet money on none of them being able to repeat that shot.

I thought about these things as I completed the ascent of Pawnee Pass. It was enjoyable feeling the crunch of hard packed snow under my running shoes. I had selected my Walsh PB Trainers with a heavily studded sole for precisely this reason and although they have zero waterproofing, I wasn't expecting a lot of melting snow in the cold morning temperatures.

The views across Shoshoni Peak to Navajo were stunning in the early morning sunlight. It is still my ambition to take a trip up Navajo in the next few weeks, but the snow covering might turn this into a winter mountaineering trip rather than a trail run. We shall see...I expect we'll have some warming days during October and this might create a window where an attempt is worthwhile.

There's something about Livvy's enthusiasm that makes running these trails so much fun. It's as though she understands the rules. She knows that these runs aren't about darting from side to side pursuing interesting scents - which is what we do when walking - and she isn't remotely interested in dog treats. She just puts her nose infront and trots along. She gets tired like I do, but she seems just as excited to be out in the wilds. Running without a dog just isn't as much fun.

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