First Water Trailhead- The Beginning of the End
This wasn't ever going to be a race. This wasn't ever going to be a speed run. This was never even going to be a twelve hour run. But I don't think I ever really imagined it being as long, brutal, exhausting, unrelenting as it turned out to be.
At 5am the three of us set out from First Water Trailhead in the dark. Nobody else out there, quiet as possible, it was a new moon so there were a billion stars over our heads as we ran down a nice stretch of wide, packed, clean dirt doubletrack weaving our way through a forest of teddy bear Cholla. Our headlights bobbing up and down as we climbed over the rock faces and back onto the nice stretches of clean trail. It wasn't but two miles before our group leader Jeff Jones took a fall and cut his hand up. Nothing major but a sign of things to come and certainly not the last to draw blood. Then we were off to the Boulder Canyon trail. The word "Trail" may be a little exhaggerated so maybe something more like Boulder Canyon Cairn Search would be appropriate here. Crossing Boulder Canyon again and again, slow going through cat claw our pace dwindled quickly. From Boulder Trail we made our way to Calvary Trail which wound it's way through Marsh Valley, (picture below) a beautiful stretch of singletrack surrounding by high rock walls and giant cacti surrounding the winding trails.
Marsh Valley was a nice section of runnable trail that kept wandering its way through an assortment desert plant life and cacti. Being March the desert is just now starting to come alive with faint patches of grass growing and the beginning stages of a bloom on some of the ocotillo and palo verde. In a couple weeks this area is going to be National Geographic pretty. Seriously. The desert in bloom is as beautiful a sight as any autumn in Vermont or summer in Colorado.
Marsh Valley hooked up with LaBarge Canyon on the Dutchman Trail. This stretch I had previously been on a couple times and is really pretty as it winds its way down the canyon surrounded on both sides by massive red rock walls. As the trail converges with the elevation of the river the area is overgrown with Cottonwood trees and leaves scatter the ground. Which of course is always a welcome sight to the desert runner who only gets the thorns, cacti, cholla and snakes at your feet. Rarely leaves. +5 points. Add in it's a very runnable stretch and we were running and having fun as we neared the intersection with Peter's Trail...
Up to this point the run is beautiful but nothing difficult or unusual. Of course there's a reason I just wrote that. Enter Peter's Trail...
I don't know you, but I don't like you Peter- Miles 8-16
Whoever Peter was that this trail was named after...well...he needs to talk to someone about his trail. It sucks. BIG TIME. Right off the bat you climb this nice ridgeline that again really wasn't even a "trail." The trail consisted of the area you pushed the holly and catclaw away from you as their accomplice's at your ankles dig their claws into your flesh. Over and over and over again. The "trail" wound it's way to the top of the plateau where for the first time I could see into the Wilderness Area to the East. All of this was untouched to me and all new so I was excited to see what the central corridor had in store for us. Apparently it was more catclaw and holly...in reality though this is what makes running trails so much fun. When I see a mountain range I don't think "oh, another mountain range," but instead, "What's on the OTHER SIDE of that mountain range" or what's inside that range, I wonder what water is out there, wonder what trees are growing there. Driving around Phoenix you can always see Superstition Mountain, the western most edge of the Superstition Wilderness and I've always from Day 1 living here wanted to see what lied inside that area. Today was my chance.
We ran along the top of the ridge through some very sparse vegation minus a few agave and low lying cacti. Crusing along we hit the edge of the cliff that stood a good five-eight hundred feet above a river. Under normal circumstances this cliff would have led me to search around for the way down but Jeff found what looked to be the way down and of course it was straight down the rock face. We soon got the good news though, the overgrown cat claw was sufficient in keeping our speed down. At the bottom of the canyon we regrouped and took off again for what was arguably the worst stretch of the entire 51 miles. The next 3 miles was at a miserably slow pace picking our way through a severely overgrown trail. Every step was a scratch, cut, pull, tear or some kind of curse waiting to happen. Clearly everyone else felt the same way as nobody was talking. Finally after not being able to walk any of that entire valley we make a good sized climb out of the canyon to a nice vista overlooking yet again another valley. Powering down through the prickley pear and then right back up the other side I started to feel good just being able to run again. We bounced up and down through one small valley after another until we reached a large downhill overlooking what would be the Mile 17 Trailhead. Disaster overted. Peter's Trail, the worst is past us....
Search & Rescue Teams...That's a Good Sign...
Coming down Peter's Trail was a lot of fun. Jeff and I came down the big hill on some seriously loose rock with sharp corners and unforgiving corners until halfway down we came up on a search party with the Superstition Search & Rescue Service out gridding out locations for a missing Utah man from late 2009. They naturally were interested in the three people running down the steep, rocky mountain face out in the middle of nowhere.
"Where are you coming from?"
"First Water Trailhead" Jeff said casually...
Eyes got wide quick as they all realized how rough the 15 miles were just coming from First Water over the stretch we just covered..."How far are you going today?" they asked.
"Back to First Water Trailhead. After we take the loop around. Should be about 50 miles and be back around dark."
After more discussion on how they found the three missing Utah miners last fall (one of them less than 3 miles from First Water Trailhead...) and that we were welcome to help ourselves to the water at their vehicles at the bottom of the mountain we pushed on and said goodbye. Down the mountain and across the river a few more times we met with their vehicle team, had a good fresh bottle of water and moved on to the JF Trail.
11:30am and only 17 miles deep...
Where the F*** is Paul??!!- Miles 17-25
Taking off from the end of Peter's Trail onto the nice dirt road was a godsend and while it only lasted for a quarter mile it was great to be able to cruise along without anything slapping at your legs and arms. The JF trail is long and travels North to South generally through the central part of the Wilderness. It starts out with us on a single track on a high plateau with great views of Four Peaks back view, rugged range of mountains and canyons to every direction. The trail itself was incredibly rock (see picture below if you don't believe me...) and was a non stop climb for what seemed like hours and hours. Less than 20 miles in and I started to have doubt creep in already that I was not ready for this level of running. This was kicking my butt. We were already over 6 hours on our feet and less than 20 miles in?? Bad sign. Yet there wasn't an area we could have gone faster, the terrain was just brutal and was really beating us up. Add in the rising temperature and it was getting very, very challenging. Head down, time to step it up. Just keep climbing.
One climb after another we made it up to the top, great view, then down a short steep decline that wasn't runable for more than 25 feet before a block in the trail forced you to a crawl. Then hiking until it opened up which lasted for only 20 feet before again...crawling around a bush or cactus or massive rock. Some parts of the trail would just straight up disappear and leave us searching around for another cairn before resuming our breakneck 3.0 mph pace. Plugging away though we kept climbing, kept finding the trail and kept moving until we finally made it to Tortilla Pass, the start of a long 3+ mile downhill. Under normal circumstances this would be an opportunity to pick up time and race down to the valley below, strech the legs a little and make up some time. Not here. 3+ miles of downhill on the JF trail means risking your life or limb or both if you chose to open it up on the trail through so many thick bushes and cacti. After the worst of it I trailed behind Jeff as he pushed the pace headed down the mountain. All of use are out of water and in great need of a refill. The last five plus miles have been in the upper elevations and without any springs and we needed access to something soon. So our motivation became reaching the next water sooner rather than later. I pushed the bushes as best I could and kept up behind Jeff as he did a great job keeping us moving. Paul was somewhere behind us as he usually is and would surely be there soon after us. Jeff & I bounded down the switchbacks that overlooked vertical drops into areas no helicopter would ever discover until a few miles later we reached a small river with a few pockets of remaining water. None was particularily inviting but with a few minutes my UV filter fixed up the water as best it could and I refilled my bladder and started chomping on a PB & Honey sandwich as Jeff filled up on water. A few minutes later Paul had still not arrived. I kept eating and drinking. A few more and Paul had not arrived...then a few more...
...Then a few more...
...until it had been 30 minutes...
...then 45 minutes...
Jeff started back up the trail an started yelling for Paul. No response. He goes up farther and starts yelling again. No response. Something must have happened.
I get my gear back together, packed and on my shoulders and start back up the trail to help find Paul. Right now we are 6-7 miles from where we left the Search & Rescue team. But that is easily a couple hours away and they were leaving at 3pm and it was already after 1pm. The road to Woodbury cabin is a couple miles away to the South and that's not easy ground either. Not to mention the road itself is never used and it would be a miracle to come across a vehicle to help. Even worse I left my SPOT GPS messenger at home. Stupid. Dumb. Moronic. One button on that thing and we'd have a helicopter rescue. They'd know exactly where we were and we could sit tight until they came to help if Paul broke something or worse. Now we are going to have to build a splint out of an agave trunk, I only have 3 feet of rope in my pack, I guess I could cut my shoelaces...at least I brought a first aid kit..
Headed back up the mountain with Jeff we were quiet. Both certainly thinking the worse because at this point nearly an hour after we both had reached the bottom there was no reason Paul would not have come down the mountain. The route was skinny, very, very rocky and each corner overlooked a steep precipice. He easily could have rolled an ankle and slipped down the ridge, hit a rock and broken a leg or worse. As Jeff and I clamber up the ridge exhausted we quietly peer over the edge looking for any sign of Paul's colored shirt or pack, hoping to God we don't see anything. Climbing further and further we make it about halfway up the mountain and suddenly Jeff yells out, "There's Paul!!" Sure enough...there he is running down the trail.
He did fall. Fell and got up and somehow thought he had passed us so when he went down the hill and didn't see us he turned around thinking maybe he went too far and possibly missed a turn. So he started climbing back UP the mountain while Jeff and I were sitting down at the river bottom waiting for him. It wasn't until he was part way up the first set of steep switchbacks that he realized he was wrong and turned back around and went back DOWN the mountain where he soon ran into the two of use headed up to find his body. Relieved that he was alive but seriously upset that we had just spent the last 30+ minutes thinking we were going to find Paul's body in a ravine we made our way back down the mountain. Live and Learn. At least he was ok.
Are we done yet? Miles 25-33
After that episode I was really no longer interested in running. My body felt like I had finished 50 miles already. My stomach was revolting in the heat and from being dehydrated during the JF trail section with no water. Emotionally I was still realing a little from the thought of Paul falling off a cliff. Although honestly not so much about Paul but far more selfishly that if Paul got hurt or worse...I knew I would never be able to go on these kinds of runs again. Everyone that cares about me would all but ban me from anything outside of a track. They already think it's "dangerous" to do trail races so this would only support their stereotype. Aside from my typical mid race downer I was happy to get to the second half, past the worst sections of the trail and into some runnable and more familiar sections. Unfortunately that wouldn't come for some time...
Woodbury Trail to Coffee Flats was a lot of wash running. In and out of river beds finding the trail, losing the trail, running/walking down deep, sandy river beds until climbing back out to a narrow trail that led us to Coffee Flats. Coffee Flats was half terrible/half best running ever. First half sucked and was a major low point for me. We were making such a slow pace, less than 3 mph that all I could do was punch the numbers in my head and predict the finish time which was hours past the time I told my fiance I would be home. Knowing this I knew she would only start to worry after I was an hour or two late and that quickly started to dominate my mind more than anything my legs or stomach were telling me. Obviously this was something that Jeff had been thinking as well and he responsibly asked our opinion on cutting pieces of our route short to get to Peralta sooner and use a hikers phone in the parking lot to call his wife so everyone would know we were behind schedule but ok. We decided to cut out the Red Tanks Trail>Whiskey Springs>Dutchman Trail and instead stay on the Coffee Flats>Dutchman>Peralta which was more of a straight shot and allowed for more running miles and hopefully a faster time. I'd wanted to see the Red Tanks Trail but had no issues with the change if it meant that people would worry less.
Once we started to get 5-7 miles away from Peralta you could tell as more and more hikers were making their way up the river to campgrounds. The trail cleared out for the first time in over 15 miles and we were able to run through some beautiful stretches of grass covered desert with nice tree cover. The sun was starting to come down as we came upon a water tank for cattle. The guys filled up as I ate some trail mix, passing on water as i had a 100oz bladder i filled up only 5 miles ago. We headed off running and collectively feeling better as the trail continued to be open, winding and absolutely beautiful in this massive open valley of giant Saguaro cactus and towering cliffs. I felt great through this entire stretch. Even my right knee which I tweaked on a rock a few miles back and was seriously bothering me all along started to loosen up and was less of a concern. At one point I was seriously considering dropping at Peralta because of my knee but by the time we reached the pass leading into Miner's Needle and when Peralta was nearly in sight I was feeling great and we were all off and running.
I always find it interesting in ultra running how short term my memory really is. Just a few hours ago we were hiking through some ridiculous terrain that mountain goats probably bitch about when they go over to see their inlaws for dinner at night. Broken, twisted, tearing, disappearing, menacing trails. Yet, here I was just a few hours later, a few handfuls of trail mix, some cold water, a washed face, setting sun over some incredible Saguaro, rock faces and generally perfect and every way mountains I couldn't help but think..."Totally worth it." Right there, right then. Already forgot and the entire Peter's Trail, JF trail and Woodbury trail were forgotten by this perfect trail winding it's way up and down and around these massive Saguaros. Everybody I know runs for a reason. This is mine.
Peralta Trailhead- I Love You- Mile 40-13 Hours deep...
Coming into Peralta felt like dropping down the ravines in Zane Grey at their aid stations. Coming down the ridge you can see cars in a parking lot, as you get closer you start to see people moving around and hear their voices. Except you get there and there is no water. There is no food. There is no cheering. There are no chairs to sit in as someone fills your bladder. It's amazing the effect aid stations do have on you. That moral support, that genuine care and encouragement that the volunteers put into you at those little in between marks at a race. Invaluable. I love that about the Zane Grey race. Awesome volunteers but also that you can see them for some of their aid stations as you come down off the mountain. It's like taking 5 gels at once and always bumps me up a dozen notches. I could have used it at Peralta. And some water as I'd been out of water for the last five miles and we ran nearly all of it. Thirsty wasn't even the start of it.
Jeff asked a reluctant hiker to use his cell phone to call his wife to let her know we had ten miles left and would be later than expected. For some reason the hiker didn't seem to want to let us make this one phone call that cost him no money. At least he helped us but really didn't understand the reluctance. As we started up the Peralta trail, a nice 2-3 mile climb with over 2,000 feet in climbing to the Freemont Saddle, Jeff thought ot ask a woman who just finished if she would spare a bottle of her water for me. She graciously (see..she gets it!) offered me a full 16oz bottle (REI shopper...+5 Kharma points) and we thanked her several times and started up the last major climb of the day. It was already getting dark around 6:30pm and we still had 10 tough miles to go. The motivating part of it all was we had all three done this strech before and could do it in the dark. Only ten left. Time to knock it out.
Underestimated this climb...BIG TIME...
I couldn't believe how long this climb was. I had it in my head it was like hiking Camelback Mountain and we'd be up it in an hour. Yeah...not even close. It just keeps going and going and going. I stubbornly just kept going up as it got darker and darker. I was determined to keep my headlamp tucked away inside my bag until I made it to the Saddle. Had we not talked about mountain lions for the last 14 hours of the hike I might have made it but I was freaking myself out as I climbed up the rocks that I was going to get jumped from above by a giant mountain lion that was out to eat my heart. I hiked past a giant rock overhang, talked myself into thinking it was a den full of mountian lions, scrambled ahead a few feet where there was a pool of water and got my headlamp out immediately. A minute later the guys caught up and said, "Good, you found some water. Let's take a break and fill up." "Yeah...umm...that's what I was doing...good plan." I said.
So we filled up for what would be our second to last time on the edge of this cliff with a trickle of water coming out of the rock. The UV filter works amazing at night as you can easily see it working (we hoped) in the dark and we knocked out a few bottles for everyone so we didn't have to wait unti the iodine drops Jeff had been using worked. I dug out my long sleeve shirt that I almost didn't even bring and threw on my gloves, downed another PB& Honey sandwich, a gel, and we were ready to push through the last 8+ miles. It was dark now and the mileage wasn't coming quick. We got up slowly and stiffly and made our way back up the ridge. At the Saddle we stopped for just a second and started down the long, steep switchbacks of the Peralta Trail towards familiar territory in the Dutchman Trail. This section is one of the most beautiful in the area I think so it's a shame we got to it so late and in the dark. Most of the trail is along the ridgeline on bedrock where you have incredible views all around on every side and one step either way and you're going for a long ride down the cliff. In the dark though, it's just a trail with a big white circle. To be fair, I'm not sure how much I really would have cared at that point anyway.
Down Peralta we made it FINALLY to the intersection with Dutchman Trail. We filled up one last time in a pool of water and started off running down to meet up with the First Water Trailhead. I led the group and darted down the path now only 5.2 miles from our vehicles. My mind takes over my body at this point when I know the finish is only a matter of minutes away. In a race I simply imagine the cheers as they see you approach and I get excited with the sheer thought. I can conjure up that image at any time now and save it for these moments when I'm really tired, really beat, and caffine is just not working, music is not doing it and I'm just tired of being on my feet. The image of the finish line works every time and it worked this day. I ran like I just started out. The temperature dropped drastically as it does in the desert and suddenly we were seeing our breath, my nose was dripping and my ears were cold. I slowed up for the guys to catch up a couple times again not wanting to get attacked by a cougar because I seperated myself too much from the group (this is called self induced paranoia...). I really did feel so much better and caught myself several times running long sustained rocky hills as we climbed up Parker Pass. It was really encouraging to feel that strong at that point but didn't want to put too much distance between the group. Moutain lion attacks aside we were running as a group, ran as a group and should finish in the same couple minutes. Mile after mile we jogged, ran walked sections seemingly always right around the corner from the trailhead but never really quite there. One ridge after another until finally, FINALLY we hit the intersection with Second Water Trailhead. .3 miles from First Water Trailhead. I ran that final uphill without reprieve until I reached the trailhead. Non stop, uphill, full speed with the cheers of volunteers ringing in my head with every step.
Most Challenging Run Ever
Despite how hard I felt I ran the last third of a mile up the hill I was happily surprised to turn around 30 seconds later to see Jeff and Paul flying up the hill right behind me closing out an incredible run strong. Immediately my first thought was to let my fiance know we were ok as we had just finished 51 miles in 17 hours and 35 minutes. We were expected to be back about 2-3 hours ago. She was worried but happy to hear from me and after an hour drive home I'd be in my living room. Exhausted. Destroyed physically. Changed.
There are a few times in everyone's life when something happens to you that leads you years later in life to look back and say, "I can't believe i did that. I can't." A couple days later after this run and that's all that goes through my mind thinking about this run.
People have run 50 miles before. That's not new. People have run 100 miles, 200 miles, people have run across deserts, countries, you name it. To me though this run was more than just a 50 mile race, run or hike. This was something else. The solitude, ruggedness, route finding, climbing, the sheer number of rocks on the trails and cactus covering trails makes every footstep harder than anything I would have expected. Incredible doesn't even start to begin to describe this day. To be able to share it with such great runners as Jeff Jones and Paul Rondeau makes it even better. Fun guys, great sense of humor and always entertaining and supportive. As it always seems to be the case, it's the people you run with that makes the day, not the trails, scenery or running itself. That certainly was the case with this adventure.