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Month: December 2014

South Mountain Western Ridges Marathon+. 29 miles of happiness and horror.

South Mountain Western Ridges Marathon+. 29 miles of happiness and horror.

I probably should have drawn an easier route for my first attempt at a marathon distance run – but it is just too easy (and fun) to draw lines on maps, tracing trails and ridge-lines, etc… In any case, I drew it, so I ran it: The South Mountain Western Ridges Marathon+. In all, it ended up tracking to 29 miles – almost a 50k. Phoenix’s South Mountain Preserve is located on the southern edge of town – a series of parallel ridges and valleys, lots of exposed rock, lost of Saguaro, cholla, barrel, yucca, and other cactus varieties, brutally hot in the summer, but quite pleasant in the winter. The temperature topped out at around 70 degrees. That feels quite a bit warmer than it sounds though, when you’re out baking in it.


For the attempt, I wore my Altra Lone Peak 2.0s, new Altra trail gaiters, Injinji smartwool toe socks, a trusty red bandanna around my forehead, a new Nathan VaporWrap pack with its 2 liter bladder full, 2 Ultimate Direction 20 oz. bottles in the front two chest strap pockets – one with water, the other with 2 single serving packets of Hammer Perpetuem mixed with water, some Cliff Shotblocks, a CliffBar, a small first-aid kit and sunscreen, an extra pair of Injinji socks, Salt Stick tablets to balance my electrolytes, my iPhone and a little charger to recharge it mid-run, and a pair of Black Diamond FL Z Poles strapped on the back. Now that I list it all out – that seems like a LOT of stuff. The pack did seem a bit heavy, but this was all self-supported with no aid stations, so I wanted to be prepared. Wait, I lied. The night before I dropped off 2 liters of water in the desert (by bike) around the mid-way point of the route.

I started at about 7:15 AM when the sun was up and it was light enough to see. I could have started earlier, but then would have had to pack a headlamp around the whole time.

Morning Sun.


I started at the trail-head at the western terminus of Chandler boulevard, and headed NE towards my first ridge climb – up the Pyramid Trail.

Climb # 1. Pyramid Trail.


This is one section I had done before, and I took an easy pace. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t doing this for speed – at all – I was doing it to finish. Slow and easy. At the top I strapped the trekking poles on the pack and followed the ridge line trail to the intersection with the National Trail at Telegraph Pass.


With 4 miles behind me, I descended the switchbacks to the paved road, and entered unfamiliar territory – the eastern stretch of the National Trail out to the Buena Vista trail-head and back. There were some great stretches of trail, but quite a bit of ups-and-downs, sometimes difficult to get into a good rhythm. At the turnaround, I applied some sunscreen. This is the desert, after all. Along the way I passed a number of fellow-hikers, all of whom gave me a queer look, likely wondering why I was so geared up. When I got back to Telegraph Pass and was passing a group of college students hiking back up to the Pyramid/National trail interesection, one of the girls asked – “Do you have enough stuff?!” “I’m on mile 10 of 30,” I said. What followed was a lot of “whoa’s” and “F#$# yeahs” from the group. Offering a few fist pumps in the air, I continued upward.

With the out-and-back finished, I turned NW on the National Trail to follow it along what would be the longest of the ridge traverses. This stretch of trail is gorgeous – both in scenery and trail conditions. I was feeling good, and about to settle into a nice pace when my right IT band started flaring and then my left calf muscle started cramping. NO! At only 11 miles, I was not pleased. I stopped to stretch the IT band, popped an extra Salt Stick tab and soldiered on. I was a bit bummed that the knee pain was slowing me down on what would otherwise have been the best part of the day. Great trail over 4+ miles of gradual descent. It could have been epic. Oh well.

At the water drop. Car to the left, 10 mile loop on the Bajada and Alta Trails to the right. I went right.


I arrived at the water drop, mile 15, with a decision to make. My planned route no took me on a 10 mile loop with 1,200 ft. elevation climbing up the San Juan Rd. valley on the Bajada Trail, up the SE flank of a large ridge and back the full length of the ridge on the Alta Trail. Conversely, I could cut that loop off, turn left and do the final ~5 miles of the planned route and call it a day with 20 miles. Maybe I should have.


I chose the originally-planned, longer route. Right as I hit the Bajada Trail I came across a park ranger – also trail-running – and chatted for a few minutes. Very friendly and glad to see people out using the trail system. Assured that the Alta Trail was in great condition, I moved on excited. Soon, however…actually, almost immediatley, spirits dropped. The Bajada Trail was a constant up and down in and out of washes – impossible to get into a good groove. Plus, I was hot. As the trail name implies, I was feeling “low.” Very low. Knowing that I was moving further away from my car and towards a huge ridge-line to climb, the thought of turning back was tempting. I found some shade a couple miles up the valley, switched out my socks for a fresh pair and continued on, across the San Juan Rd, and started up the Alta Trail climb. I hoped that the new trail would make my spirits “high”er (get it?) and for a moment I felt reenergized. Towards the top of the climb, however, I saw another piece of temping shade and took a the opportunity to sit. With my back against a cool slab of stone, I closed my eyes and dozed for about 5 minutes.

About to accidentally doze off for a 5 minute nap near the top of the Alta Trail climb. In the distance is the ridge to the south with the National Trail on the top that I had just run east-to-west.


Wow. That felt great. I jumped, bounded up the trail for about 10 seconds, but the energy didn’t last. Nonetheless, I think the nap helped. I soon crested the major portion of the climb and was thrilled to see the trail now start to head SW – down the ridge-line and back to my water-drop. 20 miles done, 10-ish to go.

Looking West down the Alta Trail, before it starts the rough descent down the back NW side.


Unfortunately, this stretch of trail was in very bad condition. Lots of exposed rock (instead of nice dirt) and continually covered with scree, loose rocks, etc… Much of it was unrunnable. A lot of it was even difficult to hike. It was very slow. And, with the descent, the IT band pain flared big time. It was a long, maddening few miles.

Somewhere on the Alta Trail ridge, panorama looking east and south. National Trail ridge-line in full view.


I reached the bottom and was at about 23 miles. From here, each step brought me closer to the end. Hooray! My energy level was low, but the flatter (and nice soft dirt trail) back to my water drop at mile 25 was heavenly. Spirits were lifting. The end was coming close. From the water drop I turned south and headed for the Gila and Bursera Trails. The Gila ran along a valley back to my car, but I – of course – had planned to run the Bursera up one final ridge. It was all trail I had done previously, and I seemed to remember that it was in good condition. The descent in particular – which is a VERY heavily used portion of trail – I knew to be in good condition. It wouldn’t be like the NW strech of the Alta Trail.

Looking east, up the Gila Trail valley with the Bursera Trail ridge-line to the right.


I pushed on, fight off some more leg cramps and screaming right IT band on the descent, and made it back to my car.

Partway up the Bursera Trail climb, I thought, “I wonder if I’ve hit 26.3 yet. I turned on my phone and just in time – I caught my strava read-out at exactly the marathon distance. First time ever.


Total distance – exactly 29 miles. I could have run down the trail and back to add another ~2 miles to make it a full 50k, but I was late and my family was expecting me home soon. So off I went.

On the road I stopped by a McDonalds drivethrough and ate the 2 most delicious McDs cheeseburgers I have ever had. A protein shake, bananas, chips, 1/2 a pizza, and yogurt later…was still hungry when I went to bed. The next morning, I was famished, at cereal, drank soda, got a huge hot dog at Coscto at 10:00, etc… Still hungry. By the next evening, my appetite subsided.

The damage? Sore and stiff muscles. ZERO blisters, ZERO stomach problems. The gear all worked so well. The Altra Trail Gaiters SAVED ME! With so much rock and sand and gravel and debris on the trail, I would have been shaking my shoes out non-stop if not for them. Absolute lifesaver. The Hammer Perpetuem seemed to work well, the Nathan VaporWrap was very comfy. The ultimate direction bottles were great. I’m sold on those.

High fives all around.

It was, hands down, the hardest physical feat I have ever accomplished. I don’t know how you 100-miler ultra-marathoners do it. But, I am glad to have done a marathon…and a bit extra. I won’t call it an “ultra” until I do it as a real race. I’m signed up for the Bryce 50k in June, and might do the Buffalo 50k this Spring. We’ll see how the recovery goes…




Tomorrow’s Mountain Marathon Attempt

Tomorrow’s Mountain Marathon Attempt

Tomorrow morning I will attempt my first marathon-distance run. I have chosen the western ridges of the South Mountain Park/Preserve located on the southern edge of Phoenix, AZ.  The longest I have run before was about 20 miles. So, this will be a jump in distance for me. I know that the strava tool I used to draw the route over estimated the elevation gain (it is more in the 6,000 than 8,700 ft, range). Conversely, I suspect that the the imprecision of the strava tool might have underestimated the distance. So – I might be attempting a 50k. We’ll see. The stress fractures in my ankles acted up the last couple weeks so I cut all training and haven’t run in about 14 days – trying to rest them. While good for my ankles, I bet that won’t be good for my conditioning. Boo. Maybe the 2,000 ft. elevation drop from home will help out.

In any case, tomorrow AM – send some positive vibes to Phoenix. I’ll need them!!!

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The Ridges. Each one will be about a 1,000+ ft. climb to get on top of. In total there will be 3 major climbs.

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My Favorite Albums of 2014 (Including some good running ones)

My Favorite Albums of 2014 (Including some good running ones)

In one of my many other lives, I run a music blog, Desert Island Mixtapes (also on facebook).

I just posted my Best Albums of 2014 list.

Some good running tunes on there.

This year, I ran a LOT to the new Spoon album, Braid album, and S. Carey album. The S. Carey album in particular got heavy rotation when up in the high mountains.


Morning Trails with Jed

Morning Trails with Jed

I recently discovered that a fellow Western historian here in SLC trail runs and immediately set to planning a time to hit the dirt together. On a couple Tuesday mornings recently we have met at 6:00 AM and put in a few miles, talking about trails, races, and history. The company has been great and he hasn’t even seemed too perturbed by how slow I have taken some of the climbs. Seriously – I just can’t seem to muster much energy that early in the AM.

A couple weeks ago we started at City Creek, ran the BST west and north, then looped up to the 3 towers, down the backside to City Creek and back to the car.  7.7 miles @ 13:31 min/mile. Slow, but nice.

Super grainy picture, early morning light on SLC. Swapped to b/w since the color looked bad in any case.

This week we started at Dry Canyon, followed it up to the very aptly named “Uncle F***er” trail climb to the ridge that leads up east to Black Mountain. We, however, turned west and followed it down, hitting the avenue Twin Peaks, then following the ridge to the BST. From there, Jed continued west to run back to his house. I turned east and followed the zig-zaggy BST back down to my car. I almost ran over a deer at one point (came around a blind corner and sent it and 2 others bounding up a hill). I have decided that I really like those stretches of the BST.  8.4 miles @ 13:32 min/mile. Slow, but nice. I also tried out a new higher capacity race vest that I plan to use for long self-supported runs. Nathan VaporWrap. So far, so good.

Here’s a little better light. Good morning SLC!