Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stuart Peak Ultra Marathon: Trip Report and Reflection

Noah, Steph, Linds and I on the trail of Stuart Peak. It was
wonderful to have these three lovely people on the trail
throughout the day!
Route: Rattlesnake Main Trailhead to Stuart Peak summit to Main Trailhead to Stuart Peak summit to Main Trailhead (via trail 517)
Elevation exchange: ~16,800 feet (8,400 ascent, 8,400 descent)
Total Distance: ~38 miles
Total Elapsed time: 8 hours 48 minutes (includes 9-minute footwear change between laps)          
Mode of travel: power hiking (no running)

I don’t think it is an accident that we, as humans, have come to celebrate the days of our births. It hasn’t always been this way, but I suspect that, henceforth, it will remain this way.

Birthdays serve as milestones: opportunities to stop, breath and celebrate.

Tomorrow I turn 29. Last year, at this time, tomorrow was 28. And next year? Well, next year tomorrow I will turn 30 and finally have the opportunity to celebrate my ‘golden’ birthday, a milestone unto itself.

Since my 21st birthday, I have pitted my mind and body against endurance challenges in an effort to stretch my sense of what is possible. It began as annual distance runs at the distance of my new age. Rheumatoid arthritis and knee problems in my mid-twenties forced a shift from running to alternate endurance feats i.e. mountain ascents, hiking, mountaineering, long-distance stationary biking.

For last year’s birthday challenge, I hiked/climbed Stuart Peak and a neighboring peak in winter conditions, beginning at my house in central Missoula. The outing was ~31 miles and full of joy!

This year, looking to up the ante, I set my sights on a Stuart Peak double round-trip. Rather than a single out-and-back or a loop, I wanted to pit my mind against the concept of doubling up on a long trail. Stuart Peak provides an 18-19 mile round-trip experience on a relatively flat trail (~4,200 vertical gain). The mountain is often done in two days or a single long day. My goal was to do it twice in less than 10 hours (although doing it at all would be an accomplishment in my books!).

Here we go.

Illuminated by headlamp, I hit the trail at 6:20AM. I would remain under the guidance of the light for the next hour and a half.

The trail went off wonderfully. I had done ~27 miles on this trail a couple of weeks ago and over the years have come to know its every twist, turn, steeps and flats. On several occasions I caught the ‘deer in the headlamp’ looks of, well, deer. Companions!

About 6 miles up the trail I doffed my headlamp, allowing the predawn light to illuminate the way. The cloud ceiling oscillated between 8,000-9,000 feet (the summit of Stuart and most of the surrounding mountains is ~8,000 feet). This made for a lovely dawn as the broken clouds made allowance for the rising sun, permitting its rays to strike the upper reaches of the Rattlesnake Mountains.

I hit the wilderness boundary in good spirits. How could I not! It was such a freaking beautiful morning. When I arrived at the Stuart Peak saddle and the base of the summit ridge a distinct ray of sun broke through and lit up the lakes below the peak while leaving the rest of the land in shadow. So beautiful was the sight, I was compelled to cuss: “holy s**t! This is so beautiful. Ahhhhhh!!!!” I howled and sang out the praises of the morning. This is the privilege of hiking alone.

Moments later I was on the summit. I had prepped my camera before the summit ridge to ensure that it was locked and loaded for the perfunctory summit self-portrait. I snapped the shot and promptly headed down.

First summit of the day! 
I had opted to begin the day in my winter boots as I was unsure of what season it was on the upper mountain. As it turns out, it is still fall: very little snow. “Rather be caught with them than without them” was my mantra – thanks be to my brother Jason for that one – as I considered footwear the evening before. Well, I didn’t need them. I began feeling a hot spot forming on my left foot on the descent and made the decision to do a quick footwear – socks and shoes – change back at the trailhead.

The descent passed with a lot of singing aloud and math calculations. I was working out my pace, elevation exchange, distance to the rest of the hiking party, etc. I suspected that I would pass Linds, Steph and Noah, who had begun at 8:30AM on their Stuart Peak hike, between miles 3 and 4 at the bottom of the mountain.

At about 3 miles from the trailhead I heard voices. Hurray! It was the crew. They cheered and I cheered and we exchanged ‘high fives’ as we passed on the trail.

What a buoy to the spirit!

I picked up the pace. I purposefully did not check my split to the top of Stuart on the first round trip because I was certain it wasn’t great. I was eager to find out how long the first round-trip had taken.

I hit the parking lot and checked the time... 10:36AM! The first round-trip had taken only 4 hours and 16 minutes! I quickly changed my footwear, restocked on liquids and was off at 10:45AM for the second lap. 

My legs felt as strong as ever on the second outing. I received many strange looks from folks who had seen me lower on the trail moments ago headed in the other direction. So it goes…

The second round-trip did not prove as challenge as I had anticipated. Not to say that it was easy, but I was expecting some sort of mental or physical breakdown and instead smiled a lot as I appreciated the fact that this was the last trip of the day.

I dreaded the steepest section of the trail between mile 3 and 4 on the lower part of the mountain. I opted to sink my teeth into it and just do it, like Nike. I did it and then, again, appreciated, the fact that I ‘just did it.’

I was eager to get to mile 5+ where the trail becomes relatively flat and provides an easy cruise (4-5 mph). And an easy cruise it was. What a relief it was to get to that section of the trail! It was at that point that I knew that I was doing it: that I was going to complete the challenge and in good form.

I ran into a man with two horses at the wilderness boundary and smiled. I continued on, with the summit now in sight. I expected to run into Linds and company somewhere between the wilderness boundary and the summit. To my pleasant surprise they came into view at the Stuart saddle at the base of the summit ridge. I stopped to say hello for a quick second and then finished the job!

I have to admit that the final push up the summit ridge was less than speedy. I treated myself to a ~2 mph finish. I nearly cried upon reaching the summit for the second time. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work – training and RA healing. But more than the challenge itself, it was the release of a helluva lot of joy. Life is so good! I have an amazing wife, wonderful family, incredible job, great health, lovely friends, kick-butt dog and so much more. I sang out praises to god, God and gods. Everyone was thanked. As it turns out, that’s what this was all about: a celebration of life through movement.

For the second time of the day, I snapped a summit self-portrait and headed down.

Second summit of the day!
I ran into the crew moments later on their way down. I stopped and thanked them for coming out and supporting the effort. We took some pictures together and I took off.

Linds and I (with Stuart Peak background left) on the trail
at our final crossing of the day.
The final hike out was relatively uneventful. I chowed down on gummy bears, a Clif Bar and an oats-and-honey bar. Mmm mmm. At no other time do I allow myself the indulgence of gummy bears. Good stuff.
Hiking away from the crew after our final passing of the day.
In no time I crossed out of the wilderness, below the 3-mile marker and to the 1.3-mile marker. Upon hitting the main trail (1/2 mile from the trailhead), I kicked up the pace into the 5.5-6mph range.

I hit the trailhead and checked the time: 3:08PM. Holy cow! Only 4 hours and 25 minutes on the second round-trip. What a pleasant surprise. I was hoping for a 9-10 hour finish and came in at 8 hours and 48 minutes.

It was a pleasant surprise, but moments ago, on the summit for the second time, I resolved to dismiss all association with a ‘good time’ or a ‘bad time’ and determined that the measure of success was that I, in fact, had had a good time. And a good time I had had. Success. The icing on the proverbial cake (birthday, in this case), was that I had also come in with a good time.

And so another milestone comes and goes. Without question I am better for these annual challenges. This year’s birthday challenge marks the furthest I have moved in one go as a part of a birthday challenge: a milestone within a milestone.

Pitting mind and body versus the world is a daily battle. It is in choosing to contrive situations wherein we are tested to the extreme that we learn just what we are capable of. Applied to our daily lives, it can be considered training. Unapplied, it is simply a self-serving exercise in futility.  

This year, I feel stronger and more capable than ever. I am grateful to Linds, my family, friends and The Great One for the wisdom and fortitude to persist.

With love and gratitude,


Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Triple Crown of Missoula

A couple of years ago for my birthday I set out to do what I dubbed 'the triple crown of Missoula': Mount Sentinel, University Mountain and Mount Jumbo in one fell swoop. It was fun, moderately challenging and above all, local.

Yesterday, eager to establish a new PR, I had another go at it. Feeling in the best shape of my hiking life, it wasn't out of the realm of possibilities!

The Triple Crown of Missoula

The Triple Crown of Missoula. Mount Sentinel's north summit is visible with
the south summit just out of frame on the right. Mount Jumbo's summit
lies just out of frame on the left. 

Start: Van Buren Pedestrian Bridge to the M Trailhead
Next: 'NW Ridge Trail' up Mount Sentinel to north summit, then over to south summit
And then: down to Sentinel/University saddle, then up west ridge of University Mountain to summit
Next: Reverse route back to Sentinel/University saddle, then back up to Sentinel's north summit and down the 'NW Ridge Trail'
Then: back to Van Buren Street, under the interstate up to the Cherry Street Trailhead of Mount Jumbo
And next: up Mount Jumbo's standard 'L Trail' to summit and reverse route back to trailhead
Finally: Cherry Street to Van Buren Street to Van Buren Street Pedestrian Bridge

Summits: Mount Sentinel (north and south summits), University Mountain, Mount Sentinel (north summit) and Mount Jumbo
Vertical ascent: ~5,000 vertical feet
Distance: Unknown
Total elapsed time (car-to-car): 3 hours 13 minutes

Mount Sentinel and University Mountain (1 hour 54 minutes)

I was pleasantly surprised with my performance on every part of the route yesterday, but it was on Mount Sentinel and University Mountain that I was stunned. I felt like a million bucks! My only regret was not taking splits for the ascent portions of the route. I was overly concerned with my overall pace while at the same time not wanting to become a slave to time, so I opted to check splits only at the completion of each stage of the outing.

I hit the M in the 8-minute range and the north summit of Mount Sentinel at around 25 minutes. I enjoyed the cruise - with an ear-to-ear grin - up and over to the south summit before dropping down to the Sentinel/University saddle and up University Mountain. I dropped my pack on the false summit and accelerated up to the true summit of ol' University before reversing the route.

I cruised back up to the north summit of Sentinel and headed back down the ridge trail.

The power-walk over to Mount Jumbo was a treat and a nice break from the steepish downhill of Mount Sentinel's ridge trails.

Mount Jumbo (56 minutes)

As I approached the base of Jumbo, a light rain began to fall. Mixed with an increasing wind, the combination pushed the edge of comfortability in my light long-sleeve top. I felt very strong all the way up.

I hit the L in the 8-10 minute range and proceeded to fly up the switchbacks on the west face. How great it is to be alive!

I finished it off with a strong stride up the relative flats of the rolling summit area. What had been a pleasant steady drizzle turned to something more substantial. After tagging the summit, I donned my rain coat. The skies opened up! It was glorious.

I continued the wet walk down the hill and pulled out my phone at the trailhead to check the time. The screen flashed then went black. Uh oh. As it turns out, excessive water is not good for non-waterproofed electronics. So it goes.

Eager to get dry and warm, I hurried my way back down Cherry Street to Van Buren and back to my car at the foot of the Van Buren Street pedestrian bridge.

In Closing

Success! I checked the time back at my car and was shocked to see that the total elapsed time from car-to-car was 3 hours and 13 minutes. Easily my new PR for the trifecta (although the route choice yesterday was notably shorter, it was still worth celebrating tagging all the summits in a smaller window of time).

I went out yesterday with joy and intentional. The joy came from the celebration of all that is good in life - an amazing wife, awesome new dog-child, a great job, fine health. The intentionality stemmed from the purpose of training: to push myself while preparing for a bigger challenge.

Two weeks from today I will be heading up the Rattlesnake Valley for the Stuart Peak Ultra-Marathon. Yesterday was a great confidence boost to my overall physical and mental fitness for this challenge. Although very different from the relatively steep route of the 'Triple Crown', the idea of heading up and up and up is there and will be a significant part of the challenge. I am ready!

Onward and upward!