Monday, August 17, 2015

Ahhh, Autumn

For some people, the first sign of autumn is the tang of smoke in the air from the first fire in the woodburner of the year.

For others it is the sight of caribou antlers strapped to the top of trucks and SUVs making their way from the hunting fields to Anchorage.

For others it is the ever darker mornings.

For me it is quickly coming to be the first XC running meet of the season as my kids become more and more involved with the sport.

I've read a number of articles about XC and the fall traditions it invokes. And I'm starting to get that. The excitement of mass starts. The muffled pounding of a hundred pairs of feet on loamy soil. The damp air with just a bit of a chill to it. The effort that is apparent on the runners' faces.

I love it. And for us, XC season also announces berry season. See, a few years back, when two of my kids were in middle school, one of my kids was a bit too focused on the fact that there were linden berries along the course of an XC race rather than the race itself. As such, we ended up heading out to that venue after the fact to pick berries. Now we have the tradition of once XC season starts of heading out to pick berries. It is just the fall thing to do.

If I knew a bit more about identifying edible mushrooms, this would be the time of year to do that as well. All announced by the XC season.

And the XC season, in the past, has always made me want to pick up running again. I like the idea of running trail and most XC races up here have a community race following where anyone with a desire can run the course. I've started running recently, but haven't yet run a community race. I think I may next weekend when we are in Soldotna for the meet there. Why not, right? I'm fairly certain I wouldn't come in last. And to my mind, that's all that matters.

The more I run the more I think that I might just have to give some of the mountain races my son is doing a go next year. This means that I'll have to run through the winter to keep my fitness up and to continue building my cardio and climbing muscles. I'm half tempted to continue keeping the 'burban parked in the driveway through the winter and picking up a treadmill for the garage to make it easier to get runs in on those days when the dark and the cold make it discouraging to go outside for a run. I've also vaguely alluded to building plyo jump boxes for the kids to use in their training. So I suppose I could do that as well and just turn the garage into our own spartan gym.

I know my son has big plans and goals for XC, track, and mountain running and having a gym might help him on his way to achieving those. The girls...they have some goals as well, but aren't quite as self-motivated as the boy. He's a bit of a freak that way.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Saturday Satisfaction

My head's not working so well this morning. Neither are my legs. Yesterday was a big one. An awesome one. I've written before about how my son is getting into the mountain running thing. Many of these races have the finish line at the top of the mountain. Thus, if one wants to watch the finish, one must make it to the top before the racers.

Some races, though, are up and down, which presents a whole different set of logistical challenges. And some races are just purely nuts. Yesterday he participated in one of the purely nuts races - the Mat Peak Challenge. Depending on who you talk to, this race has between 9 and 10 thousand feet of elevation gain and loss over 14 miles of rugged mountain terrain. The runners summit two mountains, one of them twice, and connect these summits together with a big valley traverse. I've read a lot about the race from prior racers in an effort to get as much intel as I could for my son. And for myself, because I knew I'd be out on the race course somewhere to cheer him on and to make sure that he was doing okay.

Our original plan was to hike up to the base of the clime up Mat Peak so that we could check his status on the way up and again on the way back down, figuring that if needed, we could bale him out from there and the big climb and decent would be where he would bonk if he were going to.

My middle one and I, then, headed out from the Smith Road trailhead at 6:30-ish in order to get to our post on the mountain. We'd never hiked the trail before and wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time to traverse the four miles we were planning on going before the 9 AM race start time.

The first mile of the trail is on an ATV-type road and the whole time we figured we were on the wrong path, having seen a number of well defined side-trails, but no trail markers at all. However, we did see plenty of evidence of foot traffic, so we kept on. Eventually we came to the end of the road and where the trail starts properly - a nice single track lane through the trees and foliage. This trail is not like most Alaska mountain trails in that it does not go straight up. In fact, it seemed to be a bit too easy and too flat. Either the topography of this trail is an Alaska anomaly or I am just getting more fit.

By 7 we were above tree line and nearing the junction between the Mat Peak (Byers Peak) trail and the trail coming down the back side of Lazy. Heck, we hadn't even broken a sweat, but were soaked from the dew collected on the brush along the trail.

As we made our way to about 3000 feet of elevation we came across a small group of ladies camped along the trail - the check point crew for the summit. We chatted a few moments, revealed that my son was racing, got some intel about there being Reese PB cups at the top of the mountain for the racers, and then proceeded on. At about 4000 feet, there is a nice bench of land where I decided we could hunker down for the race. My daughter got herself set up with a book to read and I decided it was only 7:30 or so - I would continue towards the summit and would turn around when the first racers overtook me. 

The pitch to the summit is a bit of a challenge - a bit over 2000 feet of elevation gain in a mile and a half or so, with the final couple hundred being through a boulder field that requires some scrambling. As I made my way up, my daughter ensconced on her little bench below reading, I noticed that the summit check point crew were coming up fast behind me. I continued on, not worried about getting passed by the summit team, just wanting to make it to the top, wanting to see the view from up there.

While on the way up, it dawned on me that if I made the summit before 9:30 that I would be able to get back down to where my daughter was before the mid-pack racers made it that far, the pack where my son would be. It further dawned on me that if we, my daughter and I started back down towards the trail intersection as my son was climbing and descending, we might be able to make it back down the mountain and over to the Lazy Mountain trailhead before he would so that we could watch him finish the race. Brilliant.

I finished the boulder scramble and attained the summit by 9:30, ate a Snickers bar, drank some water, and gave the wife a call to let her know the change of plans and find out if my other daughter had checked in from her location on the top of Lazy. Then I started the scramble back down the mountain.

One of the things that I absolutely love about living in the Valley and having my kids involved in sports such as cross country skiing and running as well as, now, mountain racing, is the fact that it really feels like a community. I know that if I head up a trail work day for VMBaH or head out to watch a race or go for a bike ride I am going to run into someone I know, someone who has many of the same interests as me.

While heading down from the summit I ran into one of my daughters' skiing and running teammates. We chatted for a few moments about the race and how great the weather was for the spectators and he continued up to the summit. A bit further down the mountain I passed Holly Brooks making her way up. We chatted for a half a second - I congratulated her on her second place finish in the Crow Creek Crossing race the Saturday before. Then I ran into one of the coaches for the Colony XC Ski team, a gentleman who has been a great support and mentor for my daughters in their skiing endeavors thus far.

Even the people you don't know on the mountain become your friends for a brief moment. You smile, say hi, give some brief directions. It is a community of people who are all just a little bit crazy. It's a wonderful thing.

The front runners of the race were just starting the ascent as I reached the bottom of the summit pitch and toward the flat bench where my daughter waited. These men define fitness. Lean. Muscular. Barely breaking a sweat as they power up the mountain. A crazy glint in their eyes as their blood rushes through their veins, a pulse that spectators can almost see as they pass.

My son passed us about 15 back from the front runners. He was looking fresh. He was looking strong going into the climb. As he passed I let him know our plans to move down the mountain, then my daughter and I took off running down the mountain, against the flow of traffic.

I'm not sure why we decided to run at this point as we had plenty of time to make it to the junction. I think it was just for the pure joy of movement and sunshine and mountain air. At any rate, we ran. We made it to the junction well before any of the racers.

When the racers started coming through we counted order and noted faces trying to see who had moved up in the order and who had fallen back, trying to guess when my son would be coming through. We saw Lance Kopsack, one of the founders of the race and a legendary beast of the downhill sections of these races, come through with my son nowhere in sight. My son and Lance were neck in neck at the beginning of the climb, and my son had figured that he would pace off of Lance for the first part of the race, knowing that he is faster on the ups than Lance is. Honestly we didn't figure that my boy would be anywhere near Lance after the big descent. And we were right. Lance had made up a huge amount of time and left many competitors in the dust on the that big descent.

When my son came through he was still looking strong and fairly fresh, unlike some of the other runners who were showing the loopiness that comes with low blood sugar and high exertion. We found out he had fallen so far back in the line up - 23 or 24 - because he had a tumble down the peak's boulder field, scraping his arm up pretty good and making him a bit more cautious and slow than he had been when he started the decent.

We gave him the all clear to finish and as he made his way up the back side of Lazy, my daughter and I took off back down the other trail, running our own race to get down and over to the Lazy trailhead before my son could cross the line.

We made good time down the trail to the Morgan Horse trail, the 1.5 mile double track that connects the two trail heads. In the end we made it to the finish in time to watch many of the finishers come in, about twenty minutes before my son came in. And as he came in he was still going strong, pushing for a respectable finish time of 4 hours, eleven minutes, and a handful of seconds. He had made up a few places, passing a couple of strong competitors, coming in at 20th place overall and first for his age group of 14-17 even though he is only 13.

In the end all of us got a good work out - him running the longest and most challenging race of his life so far, my middle daughter and I climbing up the mountain and racing back down, and my oldest going up and back down Lazy. My wife worked out her stress muscles,  being a ball of nerves the entire time he was out on the course. The gluttony of take out pizza and beer for the adults and soda for the kids, though, has led to a bit of fuzziness in my head this morning. I know I could have slept for another three or four hours, but, alas, too much to do today. At some point I need to get a training ride in for the Hatcher Pass Epic next weekend. 90 miles on bike of climbing, gravel, dust, and a killer after-party. Yeah, sounds like fun.

There is certainly something to being out in the nature and being up on mountains. It clarifies everything and reminds me that the daily grind, the daily BS is just that. It is not important other than as a means to an end, a way to enable me to have the time to spend with my family outdoors, exploring the world, getting in touch with the physical aspects of life, experiencing the rejuvenating power of nature.