Saturday, March 26, 2016

Monument Valley 50m – a glorious slog through “the most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth” (John Ford)

One of several views from the rim of Mitchell Mesa

Giant rock mesas illuminated by the setting sun cast dramatic shadows across the vast valley as I stood in wonder at the rim of Mitchell Mesa, one of the tallest and most prominent rock formations that towered above the desert floor.

View from Mitchell Mesa to the North.  Merrick Butte and the two Mittens are in the foreground. Stagecoach is on the far left.  The Dark Canyon Plateau is in the far distance on the left. Black Mountain, CO is in the distance on the right.

I noticed a chill in the air as I tried to retrace my tracks on the crimson canvas below.  There were the two Mittens, Sentinel Mesa, Stagecoach, Saddleback, Brigham’s Tomb, Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Spearhead Mesa, the Totem Pole, Rain God Mesa, the Three Sisters.  For the last 12 hours it seemed I had moved around every rock and turned into every corner of the desolate landscape more than one thousand feet below.

Runners looking out to the horizon before the start of the race, 30 minutes before sunrise.

My legs had their way of making me understand that I was 42 miles into the race.  And although I could see the finish line less than half a mile below as a crow would fly, I knew that without a parachute the only way to get there involved another 8+ miles of scrambling, sand-slogging, and shuffling across the desert. Night would fall soon and several of these miles would necessitate navigation in total darkness by the narrow beam of my headlight.

The two Mittens and Merrick Butte from the start line before sunrise.

My run had started almost twelve hours earlier, at the break of dawn.  Those were twelve very special hours.  Only few people had ever been to all the places my fellow runners and I were able to see, and even fewer had been able to see them in a single day.

One minute before the start of the race.

Thanks to race director Matt Gunn and his wonderful team from Ultra Adventures, much of the course was on sacred Navajo land, off-limits to normal tourists who visit the valley on the single dirt road that winds through parts of it.  More than once had I followed course markings past a “no trespassing” sign deep into private Navajo territory.

Conga line up the first hill after the start.

The Navajo call the area Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, the Valley of the Rocks or the Sands that Light Up the Valley. For them it is a sacred place, a heaven on earth with the power to clean the ones within. 

The first rays of the sun shine onto Eagle Mesa. Brigham's Tomb is on the right.

Spiritual qualities aside, running, walking, and slogging through heaps of sand all day had made it abundantly clear to me that life in the valley must be exceptionally challenging.  Less than five inches of annual rainfall means that vegetation is very sparse.  There is no electricity or running water.  And yet, about 100 people live in small houses and traditional Hogans among the rocks, spread out across the valley floor below me.

An unnamed mesa is illuminated by the rising sun.

Thinking about such living conditions was humbling and made me reflect on the meaning of endurance running.  Sustaining 12, 14, or 16 hours of running – even in the harshest of conditions – must surely pale in comparison to enduring life in the desert.

The sun rises behind the Big Indian. Stagecoach Rock is to the left.

In a strange way these thoughts provided a powerful motivation to keep going when the sand in my shoes piled up, when the wind was in my face, and when my legs pleaded me to stop.  If people could sustain life in the desert, how could I not sustain a day-long run through this hostile yet magnificent place?

The rock on the left is just south of the Stagecoach formation.  The two Mittens and Merrick Butte are to the right.  Mitchell Mesa is in the background on the right.

And magnificent it truly was.  Novelist Willa Cather described it in her 1927 work titled Death Comes for the Archbishop, “From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals.  They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between.  This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left.”

Runners heading towards Stagecoach Rock.  Sentinel Mesa is in the background.

Perhaps the first people to recognize the iconic potential of this unique landscape were sheep trader Harry Goulding and his wife Leone who operated a Trading Post in the valley in the 1920s.

Stagecoach Rock

During the Great Depression, the Gouldings took their last dollars and some photographs to travel to Hollywood where they persevered in meeting and convincing director John Ford to shoot his next Western in Monument Valley.

Heading into the vast expanse of the central valley.

The film, Stagecoach, became a major success and made actor John Wayne a star. Many more Westerns and other film productions followed and the rock formations of Monument Valley became a widely recognized symbol of the American West.

Harsh conditions in the valley

As I continued to move across Mitchell Mesa I was reminded of the ancient geology of this place.  The top of these giant rock formations is formed by highly-erosion resistant De Chelly caprock dating back to the Late Triassic period (~225m years ago), a time during which many of the first dinosaurs evolved.

Navajo on horseback guarding the race course.  Stagecoach rock is in the background.

As I began the steep descent from the mesa I moved even further back in time through other geological eras starting with the horizontally layered rocks from the Moenkopi Formation (~240m years ago), followed by vertical cliffs formed by De Chelly Sandstone in the Middle Permian Permian (~260m years ago), and through the more gradually descending rubble at the bottom, which is part of the Organ Rock Shale (~270m years ago), before reaching the bottom of the valley that is made up of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, the remains of coastal sand dunes deposited during the early Permian period (~280m years ago).

Lonesome tree near Sandy Springs in the desert.

It was funny to think of the sand in my shoes as ancient sand, dating back to a time when the entire landmass on Earth was still concentrated on one single supercontinent (Pangea).

Much of the course required slogging through deep sand.  It was like running on a sandy beach.

Animals who lived at that time were just about to experience the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history that killed more than 90% of all marine species and 70% of all land species.

Condensation trail of an airplane devides the Sun's Eye.  There were several rock holes along the Arches Loop.

Night fell soon after I reached the valley floor.  I stopped to put on my headlight, emptied my shoes for the umpteenth time, and readied myself for the final miles to the finish line, which I reached, happy, but exhausted, 14 hours and 6 minutes after I had started my glorious slog through one of the most remarkable sceneries that Earth has to offer.

Ascent and descent through various geological ages on the single track to and from Mitchell Mesa.

The moon had risen and as I glanced around me I could make out the silhouettes of Mitchell Mesa, of the two Mittens, and of all the other rock formations that stood there quietly above the valley as they had and surely would for another hundred million years.

At the finish line.

Special thanks to:

The Navajo Nation who graciously hosted this event
Matt Gunn and his team from Ultra Adventures

Sources (in no particular order):

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rough Trail 50k - rough means tough

Red River Gorge, Appalachia, Kentucky

Were it not for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, yesterday’s inaugural Rough Trail Ultramarathon in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge would not have been possible.  In the mid 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers had started construction of a flood control dam that would have transformed the gorge into a lake.  After Douglas, an outspoken environmentalist, joined the Sierra Club’s opposition to the dam, the project was put on hold and eventually the Red River was declared a National Wild and Scenic River protected by federal law. Today, the Red River Gorge is also designated a National Geological Area and a National Archaeological District.  With approx.150 natural stone arches it ranks second only to Utah’s Arches National Park.  The many rock shelters provided protection for the first people who lived in these woods 13,000 years ago.

Start line of the Rough Trail 50k Ultra Marathon, Nov 14 2015

The outstanding scenery makes the Red River Gorge a great location for a long trail race.  I have this theory that the more scenic a course is, the higher the finisher rate for any given distance: it would be a shame not to see and experience the race in its entirety.  This also explains in part why courses comprised of several shorter loops tend to have a much higher drop out rate: you have already seen everything there is to see, and all that’s left to keep you going is the race itself.
Ridge line running in the morning sun

Of course weather can be a factor too.  Yesterday, the conditions were absolutely perfect.  Cool but not cold, brilliant sunshine, and no wind.  Very little rain in the past two weeks meant that the numerous water crossings were easily passable – always something to keep in mind in a long event since wet feet are prone to blister.  And the location in Appalachia was just far south enough that the trees on the warmer and sunny hilltops were still aglow in fall colors.
One of many ladders to help descend into and climb out of the gorge

If all of this makes this ultra sound like a walk in the park that is one big deception.  Although, most definitely there was a lot of walking involved.  The gorge is about 600 foot deep and the trail dropped down to the bottom not fewer than nine times during the race, which meant it also climbed nine times back to the top of the rim. 
Runners ahead on the ridge

In total this meant more than 6,000 foot of climbing.  About half of it was run on the aptly named Rough Trail, a narrow and technical single track that was just about as gnarly as can be.  Its more prominent features included narrow rock ledges, steep and unforgiving wood ladders, creek crossings, dense vegetation, and a root ladder descent over sandstone slick rock.
Emerging from a rock tunnel

At the end we were also rewarded with some bonus distance: the total length of the course was almost 54km, about 7 percent extra fun.  It did mess a bit with my head as I increased my pace towards the finish and found it quite difficult to maintain once I was past the 50km mark.
Excellent trail markings made it easy to find the way

Thanks to race director Mike Whisman and all the volunteers for setting up a terrific new course in one of the most scenic areas east of the Mississippi.   Oh, and also to the late William O. Douglas.  He would have been pleased to see us run in the very wilderness he helped save.

Some bonus pictures below:

Courthouse Rock

There's a reason it's called the "Rough Trail"

The trail didn't always look like one but the marking leaves no doubt

Yes, this is still the right way

More steps and ladders

The gorge was worth saving

Friday, September 11, 2015

Volcanic 50 – Circumnavigation of a Topless Lady

“First I must tell you that I count it no small wonder to be alive.”  Thus began the captivating account in National Geographic Magazine of what happened to this mountain the morning of May 18, 1980.  I was 13 years old, spellbound by Rowe Findley’s narrative of the largest volcanic eruption in the history of the United States, in which Mount Saint Helens lost her top, and 57 people lost their lives.  So spellbound in fact, that despite my limited command of English, I worked myself through the entire report more than once.  It was likely the first full-length English-language article in a major magazine I ever read.

Mount Saint Helens, the "Lady of Fire", was 5,500 miles away from my hometown in Austria and yet I knew right then that someday I would travel all the way to Washington State and the Cascade Mountains to bear witness to the magnificent forces nature had set free.

That day finally came last week, when, 35 years, three months, and 19 days after that fateful morning in 1980, I found myself at the starting line of the Volcanic 50, an ultra-marathon around the very mountain that was now missing its top.

The atmosphere at the race start brimmed with anticipation as runners imagined the challenging day ahead.  There was a palpable tension tinged with excitement – almost as if the mountain were about to stir once again.  But before I knew it, the race was underway.  “This is it”, I thought, remembering that those were the last words of geologist David Johnston, radioed to the US Geological Survey on May 18 at 8:32am, announcing the start of the cataclysmic event.

The tension dissipated quickly as soon as everyone was on the trail. A long conga line formed heading into the clouds.

After a gradual incline along a spur trail the course joined the Loowit trail, a rocky and rugged single-track that circumnavigated the entire mountain.

The climbing began in earnest.  I could briefly see a flank of the mountain in a window between the clouds but soon the gap closed and the trail was once again cloaked in mist.

Thick fog clang to the rocks as I reached the first boulder field.  It was a surreal sight. Massive rocks were piled on top of each other. A few forlorn tree-skeletons miraculously remained standing amidst all the destruction as a group of ghostly “runners” gingerly picked paths across this desolate wilderness.

After a while the fog lifted but the difficult footing continued.  Rays of sunlight streamed through the clouds, opening views across the slope.  Fitting the scene, the tree-skeletons were gone and replaced by young fir trees wondrously growing right out of the rocks.

Eventually, rocks gave way to sand and softly padded wooden soil – a trail runner’s delight!  However, the forested sections harbored an unexpected hazard of a different kind: aggressive ground wasps.  I was usually alerted to their proximity by shrieks of runners getting stung on the trail ahead of me.  Some runners were hit hard with one of them getting stung as many as 17 times.  I don’t know if the wasps didn’t like me or if I just got lucky, but if it had not been for the shrieks, I would not even have noticed them.

The next obstacle was the crossing of the Toutle River just after the second aid station.

My hiking poles aided me in some minor rock-hopping acrobatics to get across the river without soaking my shoes.  I was thankful because my feet are prone to blister when wet.

The climb out of the riverbed was steep, sandy, and slippery but a rope – which we were warned not to rely upon – assisted the scramble.

Colorful views of the Toutle River Valley opened up just before the trail climbed once again into the clouds.

Traversing a steep and barren pumice field, I felt wholly immersed in the desolate wilderness as I headed deeper into the blast zone.

The blast zone is an area north of the volcano that was completely flattened within seconds after the volcano’s eruption.  The blast’s velocity reached speeds of up to 670 miles per hour, just shy of the speed of sound.  Rock, ash, and hot gases racing away from the mountain devastated an area of about 230 square miles. The blast was widely heard hundreds of miles away in the Pacific Northwest, including parts of British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, and northern California.

35 years after the explosion life has returned to the blast zone.  I found the area dotted with grasses, shrubs, and several species of wild flowers.

The trail’s name, Loowit, was also the native Indian’s name of the volcano itself.  Loowit is short for Loowitlatkla, literally meaning “Lady of Fire” in the language of the local Puyallup Indians.  Legend has it that Loowit had been a wrinkled old woman, who tended a fire burning at the center of a natural stone arch spanning across the raging Columbia River.  The arch was named Tamanawas Bridge, “Bridge of the Gods.”

One day, the great chief Tyee Sahale wanted to reward Loowit for her faithful service by bestowing upon her eternal life.  Loowit was devastated that she would have to live forever as an old hag and so the chief granted her wish to be young and beautiful. This made her the subject of great attention.  Unfortunately, the chief’s own sons, Wyeast and Klickitat, both fell in love with her.  Unable to choose between them, the sons had a tremendous fight over her, burning down forests and villages.

The colossal destruction made the great chief so angry that he destroyed the bridge and smote the three lovers.  Where each lover fell, he raised up a mighty mountain. Because Loowit was beautiful her mountain (St. Helens) was a symmetrical cone, dazzling white. Wyeast's mountain (Mount Hood) still lifts his head in pride. Klickitat, despite his rough ways, had a tender heart.  As Mount Adams, he bends his head in sorrow, weeping to see the beautiful maiden Loowit wrapped in snow.

An area called “the Breach” offered the most spectacular reminders of the power that was unleashed by the explosion and subsequent landslide, the largest debris-avalanche recorded in historic times.  The avalanche moved downslope at speeds of 110 to 155 miles per hour.  Part of it surged into and across Spirit Lake eventually raising the lake’s bottom by 300 feet and the water surface by 200 feet.  4 miles north of the summit, the front of the avalanche still had sufficient momentum to flow over a ridge more than 1,150 feet high.  The elevation of the mountain's summit was reduced from 9,677 feet (2,950 m) to 8,363 feet (2,549 m), replacing it with a 1-mile wide horseshoe-shaped crater.

As I passed through the blast zone I continued to glance to my right, towards the top of the mountain. It had remained stubbornly hidden among the clouds, when, suddenly, if only for 10-15 seconds, the clouds lifted enough for the summit to come into view. High on the slope I even spotted a herd of mountain goats.

The trail continued to ascend and views of Spirit Lake opened up to my left.  I could see tens of thousands of trees that were felled 35 years ago still floating on the surface in the lake’s distant northeastern corner.

Amidst all the sightseeing and picture taking I almost forgot that I was actually in a race.  As I left aid station three and climbed over Windy Ridge I remembered the 9-hour cutoff at aid station four.

Some quick math revealed that I was in no danger of missing the cutoff and so I decided to continue at my leisurely pace without regards for my standing in the race.

The next part of the trail led me down into the Plains of Abraham, a flat expanse of barren, ash-strewn meadows that is only just beginning to recover from the devastation wrought by the eruption.

On the south side the plains gave way to a sharp drop into a steep canyon, while the trail skirted along the rim before gradually dropping to the last aid station.

Each of the four aid stations was extremely well stocked and organized despite the fact that none was accessible by motorized vehicle.  The amazing volunteers had carried all the food and drinks for more than 200 runners over steep and technical terrain for several miles up the slopes of the mountain.  They were the true athletes of this race and their positive attitude was both infectious and astounding.

The clouds dropped lower and light rain began to fall as I continued along the steep eastern slope of the volcano.

Streams had dug deep gullies into the loose, colorful, and mineral-laden soil.

Shortly before the trail dropped back down into the woods, the sun broke through and a rainbow stretched across the valley.

Close to the end of the loop on the south side the trail crossed another boulder field before finally reaching the soft forest track of the spur trail towards the finish.  I had another 2 ½ miles to go but running on the graded downhill path was sublime. With the mountain views behind me, I clocked my fastest pace of the entire race, passing several other runners on the way.

All in all I spent 10 hours and 44 minutes out on the 54km course, much longer than on any of my other 50ks.  I enjoyed every minute, grateful that I was able to see and experience the mountain myself and marvel at the magnificent forces that nature had unleashed.