John Muir Trail FKT (3d7h36m)

Running the John Muir Trail was an incredible experience.  My personal account of the FKT effort is posted at iRunFar.com. A special thanks goes to my amazing support crew who really can’t be thanked enough. An excerpt is below, but be sure to read the full report here

With my extensive travels in the Sierra, the John Muir Trail has always been on my list of things to try but for various reasons I was unable to put together an attempt until now. Initial aspirations for the JMT in 2013 were derailed by an Achilles injury, but recovery in the late season enabled me to do some fun adventures in the Sierra that rekindled the inspiration to make an attempt in 2014. However, the distance and ruggedness always seemed intimidating to me, and the potential aftermath of a broken-down body seemed downright terrifying. Despite having second thoughts, I was lucky enough that preparation entailed doing what I love to do anyways, which is exploring rugged and wild mountainous areas, both on-trail and off-trail. In fact, the process of preparing for the JMT was just as enjoyable as doing the JMT itself. There was no regimented training plan, instead just a lot of adventures exploring tremendously beautiful places in the Sierra, the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur and the Lost Coast of Northern California. These adventures came naturally and despite acknowledging that they would cumulatively help a possible JMT attempt, I had no specific training for the JMT. In fact, many of these adventures were groundbreaking accomplishments in themselves, including the La Ventana Loop and ‘The Drain’ route in the Ventana Wilderness, an FKT up Cone Peak on the Big Sur coast, the King Range 50 at the Lost Coast, and the Complete Lost Coast with Rickey Gates. I spent many weekends in the Sierra scrambling up peaks and designing aesthetic off-trail routes, enjoying the wonders of the Sierra off the beaten path. At the end of the day, despite all of the adventures, I still wasn’t sure if I was adequately prepared for the big task of 223 miles along the JMT. After all, I had no prior multi-day experience or even 100-mile experience under my belt. On the other hand, I rationalized that the time on my feet pursuing these arduous adventures gave me a decent shot and I knew the High Sierra very well. 

Read the full report at iRunFar.com

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Finished! At the Happy Isles Bridge

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At Red’s Meadow

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At Muir Pass

JMT route

Read more about my JMT FKT at iRunFar.com.  I hope to be back to my regularly scheduled programming of Sierra adventures soon :)  

Skyline 50k

Last Sunday I had a great experience running the Skyline 50k in the East Bay hills. This race is a classic Bay Area event with 32 years of history. While the course has 4,750 ft of cumulative elevation gain, the route includes 17 miles of fire road and 3 miles of paved road allowing for a relatively fast pace. The remaining 11 miles of the course are on single track including the legendary French Trail in Redwood Regional Park traversing a thickly forested hillside with stately redwoods. The days leading up to the event were very hot in the bay area hills so I was not expecting cooperative weather. However, Sunday morning dawned foggy at Lake Chabot as a little extra push of marine air served to keep temperatures in check throughout the morning. In addition, the early start of the race at 7 am helps to mitigate heat issues.Photo by Adam RayI moved along nicely through the early stages of the race finding a rhythm on the fire roads reaching Big Bear Aid Station in about 58 minutes and Skyline Gate in 1:35. The French Trail was inspirational as usual, despite the inevitable fall-off in pace due to its twisty and technical nature. I was able to move at a consistent pace up the MacDonald climb, a short but steep climb that is never easy but I knew it was the last major climb of the course.  I got into a nice rhythm heading down to Bort Meadows that continued along the Brandon Trail and Cascade Trail. The final stretch of single track around the north side of Chabot on the Columbine Trail included some small hills that slowed the pace down and I was happy to finally reach the Honker Bay aid station. I passed through that aid station in 3:12 and I knew it was going to be close for breaking the legendary Tom Johnson’s course record from 1997, which I recalled was somewhere in the 3:32s. With 20 minutes to run the last 3 miles, I moved at a decent clip through the bridge crossing at the far end of the lake. The pavement for the last 1.5 miles is deceivingly difficult on tired legs with its rolling hills, but with about a quarter mile to go I realized that if I picked up the pace I would have a good chance of breaking the course record. After a hard charge, I arrived at the finish in 3:32:05, lowering the previous course record (3:32:37) by 32 seconds.The organization for this event was phenomenal and a big thanks goes to race director Adam Ray and all the volunteers for making this a great day on the trails for all the participants. The course was well-marked, aid stations were superb, and the post-race bbq was delightful. It was great to mingle with runners as they came in and spend the afternoon picnicking at Lake Chabot. Thanks to all involved with this awesome event!

Inside Trail Marin Ultra Challenge 50 Mile

Photo by the Endurables

Photo by the Endurables; Sunbeams through the fog on Willow Camp Trail

Last Saturday I participated in the inaugural Inside Trail Marin Ultra Challenge, which features 50k and 50 mile distances. It took me literally half of 2012 to do my first race (due to injury), but this was a great one to chose for my first outing. Both courses, designed by Jim Vernon of the Endurables, are arguably the most aesthetic, scenic and challenging ever created in the Headlands and Mount Tamalpais region. There were only a few miles of repetition on the entire course and virtually all the my favorite trails were included. The 50 mile course also featured an ascent of the challenging Willow Camp Trail which gains nearly 2,000 ft in 2 miles from Stinson Beach topping out on lovely Bolinas Ridge. Total elevation gain for the 50 mile event was nearly 11,000 ft with no shortage of hills throughout. Inside Trail did a marvelous job organizing the event with excellent course marking and plentiful aid stations.  A huge thanks goes to the volunteers for cheerfully staffing four aid stations and keeping them well-stocked. Despite the difficult course, all the runners seemed to be enjoying the day and finished in high spirits. Congrats to all the participants for tackling these challenging courses. If you haven’t tried Inside Trail yet, I highly recommend it!

The day dawned foggy and cool, but nice for running. It was great to catch up with Brett in the early miles as we traversed foggy hillsides. Heading over the Tennessee Valley and up the Miwok Trail the sun peaked through the marine layer providing a spotlight affect on the hills. The long gradual climb up to Cardiac went well and then swiftly down to Stinson Beach on the famed Dipsea Trail. Willow Camp was an arduous climb with some steep hiking sections, but the views at the top of more than compensated. Sunbeams shined through the foggy oak forest creating a surreal moment and then once above the marine layer, the fog could be seen streaming up the golden hillside from below. The single track to Pantoll and then down to Muir Woods was delightful. A little bit more hiking on the stairs of the Lost Trail was followed by a stroll by the Tourist Club (it wasn’t opened yet so no beer stop) continuing to the Sun Trail and then back down to Muir Woods. The Redwood Creek Trail was inundated in high grass and brush making it slower than expected.


Back at Muir Beach, the cumulative climbing was taking its toll and I knew the last few steep climbs were going to be arduous. While I’ve been doing some adventure runs recently in the 8-13 hour duration (see prior and future posts blog posts), I have not done long training runs with consistent running yet after my three month layoff from running due to injury (a pinched back nerve sustained after a freak accident hitting a tree on my head pre-dawn). I felt this lack of fitness as I transitioned to hiking the last climbs. Coming out of Pirates Cove I was surprised to see Gary Gellin coming in the opposite direction to run with me for the last few miles. It was great to catch up and hear about his big plans for the summer (Tahoe Rim Trail FKT attempt in mid-August) and distract me from my tired legs on the climbs. Closing in on foggy Rodeo Beach we ran down the last few flights of stairs and into the finish area for a time of 7:26. Brett Rivers finished second in a strong 8:05 and Ron Gutierrez was third in 8:38. My primary race goal today was to stay on top of hydration and nutrition for a 50 miler and I think I accomplished that with no cramping. The primary goal, however, was to enjoy the beautiful trails and gorgeous scenery of this trail running playground. Not surprisingly, this was also a success, with many thanks owed to Inside Trail, the volunteers, and Jim Vernon’s sweet course design!   

Saratoga Fatass 50k

Every year shortly after New Year’s (this year January 7th) there is a great low-key run along a fantastic 29-mile loop in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains known as the Saratoga Fatass. There is no official start time although most start between 7:30 and 8 am. There are no course markings and only one aid station along China Grade at the top of the Butano Ridge cross-over into Big Basin Park. I have run this loop several times before but never on the date of the fatass so it was great to see other runners along the route (usually I see nobody) and chat after the run. I’m a big fan of names that accurately describe things so I like to call this the “Pescadero Watershed 50k” or “Upper Pescadero 50k” since this route completes a giant and aesthetic 29+ mile single circumnavigation loop around the upper part of the magnificent Pescadero Creek Watershed.

With  idyllic weather conditions, I got into a nice solid rhythm and let my feeling dictate the pace. The unusually dry early winter also resulted in great trail conditions which helped as well, although there was a large area of blowdown (giant old growth redwoods over the trail and lots of messy debris) heading down the Slate Creek Trail and a few down trees on other parts of the loop. I made sure to leave enough in the tank for the 6+ miles of climbing at the finish (toughest part of the course at the end!) but it is never an easy stretch. Overall, conditions were fantastic and it was great to complete one of my favorite loops in 3:50:45. The remainder of this post is a written description of the loop that might be of interest:The loop around the Pescadero watershed is quintessential Santa Cruz Mountains, with all the things you expect to see in these mountains wrapped up into one pleasant loop, including spectacular vistas from grassy ridgelines, ancient douglas firs, chaparral with stately knobcone pines, and lush redwood forest. The route passes through a collection of parks and preserves, including Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve, Long Ridge Open Space Preserve, Portola Redwoods State Park, Pescadero County Park, Big Basin State Park, and Castle Rock State Park. 99% of the loop is on trails, almost all of which are delicious single track.

The route starts at Saratoga Gap and follows the Saratoga Gap trail for 2 miles before crossing Hwy 35 and entering Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. The next section along the Hickory Oaks Trail includes open viewpoints that provide a great overview of the Upper Pescadero Creek Watershed and you can essentially see the entire route. After a sharp descent along Ward Road (becoming single track), a right turn is taken on the Slate Creek Trail. After more descending you cross Slate Creek and are treated to a fantastic rolling section among mature redwoods with a lush carpet of redwood sorrel and the cascading Slate Creek nearby. A slight rise brings you to a trail camp and the intersection for the Peters Creek Grove Trail – continue on the Slate Creek Trail. After a pleasant traverse near the ridge crest, you leave the Slate Creek Trail and make another steep descent on the Summit Trail. At the bottom of the Summit Trail, run along the park maintenance road (the only real pavement on the entire route) for about a quarter mile, crossing Pescadero Creek and (if needed) refilling water at the maintenance building.

A short steep climb above Pescadero Creek puts you at Old Haul Road. Cross Old Haul Road and take the Portola Trail, which makes a gradual ascent up toward the Butano Ridge Trail, including a nice section next to Iverson Creek. The climb continues along the  Butano Ridge trail, at first gradual, but then steepening in an area known as “40 corners” due to the plethora of tight switchbacks. From Pescadero Creek to the top of the climb up Butano Ridge is around 1,600 ft of net vertical gain. At the top of the climb there is a junction – the Butano Ridge Loop continues to the right and the Basin Trail starts to the left. Go left and traverse below the crest of Butano Ridge, passing by a viewpoint that is becoming obscured by trees (you can still see Pescadero and Skyline Ridge). Eventually you enter an easement section of property owned by Redtree logging company. This area can be a little confusing with old logging roads crisscrossing the forest so look out for the small signs directing the path of the easement. A short steep climb leads to the top of China Grade and Lane Camp in Big Basin State Park (2,280 ft). You might feel like you have come a long way from Saratoga Gap, but this only about the halfway point of the loop.

Route map by Jean Pommier

Elevation Profile by Jean Pommier

From Lane Camp/China Grade, continue on the Basin Trail, which has sharp contrasts from redwood forest to chaparral. The trail also passes through a nice knobcone pine forest with a technical section along sandstone. This trail is becoming overgrown in places as the chaparral is starting to encroach. The technical nature of the Basin Trail along with the brush make it a relatively slow three miles to the junction with the Skyline to the Sea Trail and China Grade crossing. From this point you remain on the Skyline to the Sea Trail all the way up to Saratoga Gap – 11.2 miles. The first portion to Waterman Gap is generally rolling in a nice redwood forest and goes by relatively fast. The final 6.5 miles is a real slog with 1,700+ ft of total climbing (~1,350 of net gain) with Hwy 9 always nearby.

Overall, this is one of the finest loops in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the entire Bay Area. While not quite 50k (about 47k or 29 miles), you will feel like you ran 50k or more by the time you make it back to Saratoga Gap. While the ~4,500-5,000 feet of total elevation gain does not seem so daunting, a good chunk of the gain comes in the final stages of the loop and sections like the Basin Trail are tiring despite not having much elevation gain. The route is largely under forest canopy which makes it a good choice during the summer months and the trails generally drain well making it a good wet season choice as well.

Brazen Racing Summit Rock Half

The Brazen Racing Summit Rock run was another great Brazen event at Sanborn County park in the hills above Saratoga. I ran at this gorgeous venue in June at the Trail Quake event and couldn’t resist running these lushly forested trails one more time this year. The course is different than the Trail Quake event as it is a pure out-and-back with a couple extra climbs thrown in along the Summit Rock Loop. It was a solid effort for me and I felt good throughout finishing in 1:31:47.

It was another beautiful December day with crisp conditions pre-race but very comfortable once the run got going with warm sunshine piercing the redwood forest. The San Andreas trail switchbacking up to Skyline is lovely mix of redwoods, douglas fir and madrone. There was a thick coat of needles and leaves on the trail providing an ultra cushioned surface and a very autumn feel which is not always manifested in coastal California. Once atop Skyline Ridge, there was copious branch debris on the trail from recent winds and a few trees down, but thankfully not too much of an encumbrance. The turnaround was on the single track just past the dirt parking lot for the Summit Rock Loop. Once I crested the hill out of the Summit Rock Loop I knew it was largely downhill and I got into a great rhythm on the Skyline Trail. The descent through Sanborn Park back to the finish area was interesting with tight switchbacks and runners from the shorter events to pass but it seemed like everybody was enjoying the morning on the beautiful trails. Congrats to all the participants!

As usual, Brazen Racing did a fantastic job organizing the event, including superb course marking, awesome volunteers, great photography of all the participants, a tasty spread at the finish area, and a super cool shirt design with an eagle on the front and back. Thanks to the organizers and volunteers for a super fun morning at Sanborn Park!

Brazen Rocky Ridge Championships Report

Last weekend I ran the Brazen Racing Summit Rock Half Marathon at Sanborn County Park outside of Saratoga, but before I get to that report, here is a report from another Brazen event I did a couple months agao, the Brazen Racing Rocky Ridge Half Marathon Championships at beautiful Las Trampas Regional Wilderness outside of San Ramon. The Rocky Ridge course is known as the most difficult of the Brazen series. The half marathon course was actually about 13.75 miles long and featured nearly 4,000 of elevation gain. Some of the ascents along the way are some of the steepest inclines I have ever run and one half mile climb in particular about half way through is affectionately known as “The Wall”! All the climbing and terrain made this a true mountain course and it would be idyllic for a mountain running championship venue.

Due to a prize purse being offered, I suspected some fast runners would show up, and indeed, one of the fastest road runners in the nation, Sergio Reyes toed the starting line. At the start I settled in near the front and tried to be as comfortable as possible entering the first major hill. At the first ultra steep ascent Sergio asserted himself and took the lead charging up the steep in good form with me in pursuit. It seemed as if he might run away with it from the start, but I caught up at the high point near Las Trampas Peak. On the downhill portion, Ivan Medina blew past both of us and continued to push an incredibly fast pace with Sergio in tow that I could not sustain. I would not see either of them until near the end of the large loop about three quarters of the way through, but I maintained a good pace and ran the entire way up the Wall. As I started the descent back to the parking area I could see Sergio far ahead and Ivan a minute or so back from Sergio.

Immediately upon beginning the last major climb of the course I began catching up to Ivan and eventually overtook him about half way up the climb. I was closing in on Sergio and by the time we reached the top of the hill I was only about 20 seconds back. However, from this point onward, the course was mainly downhill and I was unable to close the gap between us completely. Sergio finished in 1:37:55, 12 seconds ahead of my 1:38:07. I was proud of my performance and the strong finish!

Brazen Racing did a phenomenal job from aid stations to course markings to post-race food; it was an awesome event! A big thanks to the Brazen race directors, staff, and volunteers for making this such a great morning and congratulations to all the participants for tackling those daunting hills in the Las Trampas Wilderness!

Quad Dipsea 2011

The Quad Dipsea is held annually the Saturday after Thanksgiving and completes the legendary Dipsea Trail four times. The Quad entails over 9,276 ft of ascending including literally thousands of steps as the runners traverse the slopes of Mount Tamalpais from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach and back. While the trail is arduous, breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco, and Stinson Beach inspire and delight. The trail also features enchanting redwood groves, lush ravines, and the iconic staircases. This year was the 29th running of this classic event that has been directed by John Medinger since its inception. The event quickly grew and established a loyal following among new and veteran ultra runners and has sold out for 17 straight years. Last year there were no views as fog and rain hugged the mountainside and made the course increasingly slippery and muddy as the day progressed. This year, conditions were great with relatively dry trails, mostly sunny skies, and pleasant temperatures rising into the low 60s.

Second leg above the Steep Ravine climb; photo by Joel LanzFinal descent into Stinson Beach; photo by Leor Pantilat

In 2010, I pushed through challenging the conditions as hard as I could but came short of the course record by a little over two minutes. This year I hoped to maintain my form on the last leg and lower the course record.  The difference in weather and trail conditions surely helped my effort. My splits on the first half were similar to last year as I came into Mill Valley in around 1:48:30 for the double Dipsea. I knew I was in a position to go for the record if I could maintain a good pace. I felt pretty good ascending the staircases out of Mill Valley for the second time and running up dynamite hill back to Cardiac. One of my favorite sections of the course is the short stretch after Cardiac that travels through an open meadow area with gorgeous views in every direction. This section also happens to be the only flat section so it’s fun to open up the stride a bit. My split for the 3rd leg was 58 minutes and I began heading back up from Stinson Beach in around 2:46:40. It was mentally helpful to know that all I needed was a 65 for the fourth leg in order to lower the course record so I could focus on running steady, preventing cramping, and keeping up with hydration and nutrition. The climb out of Stinson Beach is never easy, especially after three Dipseas, but I made steady progress. It was a great feeling to crest Windy Gap knowing it was all down hill from that point. I headed down the final flights of stairs as fast as I could (with a few slips for good measure) and finished the last few meters strong to come in just under 3:49 for an official time of 3:48:58, a new Quad Dipsea course record by 3:18 (previous record was 3:52:16 by Erik Skaggs in 2008, who lowered Carl Andersen’s 3:52:29 from 1992). Gary Gellin came in second in 4:10:05 emerging on top of a close race with Alaskan Matias Saari who was third in 4:12:45. Cedar Bourgeois of Seward, Alaska was the women’s champion in 4:59:18.

Heading towards Cardiac on the 4th leg; photo by Joel Lanz

Focused; photos by Coastal Trail Runs

Big congratulations to all the participants and the 233 finishers (a record)!  It was great to see fellow participants three times throughout the course and it looked like everybody was thoroughly enjoying the picturesque views and pleasant late-fall weather. It was great to chat post-race and enjoy soup, hot dogs, snacks, and drinks under the cool redwoods of Old Mill Park. A huge thanks goes to the race organizers, including Director John Medinger and Assistant Directors Errol “Rocket” Jones and Lisa Henson, and all the other people who put in many hours behind the scenes to make this event a success every year. In addition, all the volunteers were absolutely fantastic – their spirited support and enthusiasm was invaluable.  Complete results are here or here.

Beginning the descent to Stinson Beach on the 3rd leg; photo by Joel LanzLeft: Finish kick (photo Lisa Henson, UltraRunning Magazine); Right: Heading up the Moors on the 4th leg

Footwear: La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0

Nutrition (~1,100 calories): 4 servings of First Endurance EFS Drink Fruit Punch; 2 packs of Clif Shot Bloks (tropical punch & margarita); 1 EFS liquid shot gel; 2 SaltStick caps (carried a few more just in case)

And we’re off! photo courtesy John MedingerThe start at Old Mill Park; photo by Keith Kirby