So I’ve kind of hit my groove again on the running front. I’ve run 6 days a week for the past couple of weeks and cobbled together a couple of 80 plus mile weeks. I basically went from an 18 mile week to 81 to 88.
But, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
For instance, a typical training log spans the 7 days Monday through Sunday making a single week. Sometimes however, we run more within a 7 day stretch which distorts our weekly total. I recently did this and was at risk of putting in a hard 17 mile day in order to hit my arbitrary goal of 100 miles last week instead of an easy hour which I should have done after an all day running adventure binge I partook in Saturday.
Instead, I looked at my “rolling 7 day average” for a more accurate picture of what the hell has been going on with my training and why I was waking up almost every day sore and hobbling to the bathroom.
So I really ramped up my training the Sunday before Western States Camp. I finally had that “f*#& it” moment when I just said I’m going to freaking run and I don’t care about the consequences to the rest of my life.
Well, it’s in actuality never that dire of a decision, but quite liberating to just drop everything for some hard ass runs.
So as I do, I ramped up “hella quick” with a 13 mile day that Sunday followed by 12 that Monday which was enough to put my body into the hurt zone. Easy runs mid week and a day off followed by 76 monster miles during the Western States Camp where I just worked to survive each day.
Our minds are a funny thing.
Once you’ve done something you forget the preparation required and pain along the way. I’ve been running ultra distance for over 12 years now and completed close to 80 official ultra marathons plus countless training runs at the distance. Oh ya I’ve done it before, I can do it again.
(Well, spoiler it hurts a lot more if you aren’t trained.)
So by week 2 of my ramp up although my week prior said 81 miles, I was already at a rolling average of 91 by Monday, then 96.5 by Tuesday and 97 by Wednesday.
I decided I wanted another big weekend run and decided to double dip on a solid training run and getting some work done on a potential future race course in the Tucson area. The big mountains down there are mostly wilderness zones without the option for a permitted trail race, but I scoped out a route that stayed out of those areas and looked epic.
My buddy Jess and I dropped a car at the “finish” at American Flag Ranch Trailhead along the Arizona Trail and then proceeded to drive in our second vehicle to the start of our point to point adventure near the Charleau Gap Trailhead.
We set out with a combined 7 liters of water just past 8 am on a day that would reach close to 108 degrees in Phoenix that afternoon. The first few miles were warm but not unbearable as we cruised (mostly hiked) some jeep trail that included a steady amount of climb and some gnarly granite obstacles which some eager rock crawling vehicles were tackling.
It wasn’t long before I had drained my first water bottle and we were already to the gap. 6 miles down, 1000 feet of elevation gain and the Samaniego Ridge Trail above us leading to the heavens of Mount Lemmon high above. I’d never been on the trail and had NEVER heard of a runner going up it.
We sound found out why.
The steep trail took us up, feeling like we were literally climbing closer to the sun. All of a sudden the breeze died and it felt like an inferno had engulfed us. The cats claw choked out the trail and we were now literally forcing ourselves along through the trail.
Up we went in search of views, wind, springs, and ultimately survival. There came a point when bailing would have been deadly. To head back down into the inferno below would have yielded hours of bushwhacking only to end up in triple digit temperatures along a lonely jeep track leading six desolate miles back to the car.
I was cruising along ahead of Jess when I shrieked.
So loudly, I scared myself backwards along the ridge trail that was winding its way up the granite spine of rock we’d been following. Right in the middle of the trail was a snake elongated with its mouth and slithering tongue facing directly at me. My defense mechanism worked and I pulled back in time, somehow shifting that forward momentum in a fraction of a second to propel me backwards.
Once past the guy we soon came to a headwall. The route we had showed a switchback to the right and then left around the impassable obstacle. We found some climbing bolts drilled in to the cliff face with some thick padded rope and figured this must be it. That trail shortly deteriorated and we were left with heaving ourselves through dense overgrowth. At one point I was just pushing my way through a thicket covered in shiny green leaves. It could have been poison ivy for all I knew, but I didn’t care. I just wanted through and to be back on what semblance of a trail we had been following.
We finally made it above the cliff and reacquainted ourselves with the “trail”.
We got off once more pretty bad in the next section and at one point I was just jumping into large swaths of cats claw really with no other option than to grin and bear it. A great metaphor for life itself at times. I made it through and it really wasn’t that bad.
It was at this point that either my mind was going or I heard voices.
Two mountain bikers were shockingly making their way towards us down the ridge trail, essentially dragging their bikes behind them with a bewildered look on their faces.
They were semi-lost and confused, but had the ultimate goal of reaching the gap road some three thousand feet and a world of hurt below. They urged us to turn around saying the trail ahead was extremely rough.
If they only knew…
We ensured them we were committed to reaching the top and if we turned now it would mean certain death for us as we’d already consumed 6 of the 7 liters we’d started with.
We parted ways shortly thereafter and we still wonder if they made it ok….
As we rose up the desert shrubs finally subsided into more consistent stands of pine trees and eventually green blanketed forest floors of ferns. I imagined streams flowing freely, feeding these vibrant lush patches of green, but they had long dried up. It won’t be long before the ferns yellow and brown in the summer heat wave.
Even approaching 8,000 feet the heat was suffocating. We marched on, reserving our last half liter of water between the two of us to small sips every trail junction.
Mount Lemmon is directly North of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountain range and rises to over 9,150 feet high. The mountain was named after Sarah Lemmon who is reportedly the first woman to conquer the peak. It took her and her husband a couple of attempts to get up it due to the cliff faces, desert vegetation and difficulty of the area. I now know at least a bit of how they felt….
We soldiered on, eventually topping out near the observatory at the summit, having exhausted our water a mile prior. We figured there HAD to be water at the top, but no sign of any despite dozens of communications towers, abandoned buildings, trailheads and a ski lift. After resorting to some funky tasting water we scored from three 1 gallon Arizona Iced Tea jugs that had been likely soaking in the sun for months, we headed down the Aspen Meadows trail towards the town of Summerhaven 2.5 miles and 1000 feet below us to the East.
We found a spring a mile down the trail and gulped up the sweet waters. No wonder they build the town on this side of the mountain! Spring water!
We limped into Summerhaven 8 hours and 20.5 miles after we began and hunched down at the local bar and grill. I ordered a large coke, wrap and fries. Jess the same.
It was now already 4:30pm, sunset was coming in just 3 hours and we were still 14.3 miles and over five thousand feet above our stashed vehicle.
We scarfed our food and somewhat returned to life, setting off just before 5:00 pm, now along the official Arizona Trail.
This is when things got weird and awesome. Something that is difficult to explain to people who are not ultra runners took a hold me. We jogged along the Catalina paved highway the quarter mile towards the trailhead for the Oracle Ridge Trail / Arizona Trail which would take us down off the mountain range and I looked West. I could see the expansive Samaniego Ridge we had climbed that morning. I knew I had done it, but it seems so far away and impossible that it seems like we are now on a new adventure, a new day.
I’m tired, sore and hurting but also rejuvenated by the calories, water and caffeine coursing through my body. It’s a feeling of euphoria. Of accomplishment, but also of survival. I’m an animal and I’ve gotta make it off this damn mountain to live.
I’m running for my life. I’m purely in the moment and focused on the task at hand.
Nothing else really matters in this moment other than putting one foot in front of the other, drinking water to keep my systems in check and being sure to keep pace so we get out before dark.
Down and down we go…..
No picture or video or words can describe the sunset we saw, the miles we shared or blah blah blah.
If you want to know what I’m talking about, get the eff out there and just do it already.
We made the final right turn off the ridge trail and had exactly a five kilometer downhill jog to the car, but the sun had already set. The surreal pinks, oranges and reds lit up my mind like fireworks. A finale I’ve never witnessed before.
We pressed on. No lights between us, with every step we fought the impending darkness.
A funny thing happens when you are forced into a situation you don’t intend. You adapt.
Darkness envelopes the landscape.
The little bit of moonlight casts a shadow. We are literally chasing our shadows to the car and I’m singing. I feel so alive in this moment. Euphoria.
I can’t see my feet or the trail, but I can feel it. I can sense it. My body is acting with a sixth maybe seventh sense now.
And we reach the trailhead. The car is there.
We made it.
I jump for joy and explode in an incomprehensible mad chatter. I’ve either lost my mind or found it. And it doesn’t matter. We’ve done something that you just can’t experience in normal day to day life. We’ve suffered. We’ve conquered. We’ve persevered. We’ve done something worthy.
I used to do things like this a lot. It’s how I found myself. Who I really am inside. Moments like these really make you appreciate seemingly insignificant things like a fucking drink of water.
I feel I reconnected with my roots on this epic. Not my running roots. Not my outdoor roots. My human roots.