big country.

I’ve been working a lot of overtime lately, and after a certain point I decided that enough was enough and I was taking a vacation. So after two long field days last week I took off for southeastern Oregon to meet up with my buddy Andrew, companion of many hiking trips including this one and this one. We had both been busy and didn’t have a concrete plan, but we knew we were going up on Steens Mountain. So he drove from Salt Lake City, where he is grad school, and I drove from Eugene, and we met up in the tiny town of Frenchglen (population estimates run from a dozen to a couple hundred) on Thursday night. Due to the town’s size, it wasn’t hard to find each other.

It was 4 p.m. when we started driving up the long gravel road into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The road ran twenty or so miles to the top of Steens – a 9700 foot peak – and we planned to park near the top, hike a mile or so, and find an easy camping place for the first night since it gets dark early these days. We rattled along the road until…. whoops. It was gated and locked. Even though we had checked to see if the road was open, it wasn’t. Luckily there was a BLM campground near the gate so we sacked up and paid to pitch our tents and park our cars. In a way, we were relieved that we’d be able to postpone our final packing until the next morning. We ate some pasta for dinner and went to bed.

The next morning, we woke to find frost on our cars. Brrr! After a quick breakfast we shouldered our packs and began hiking up the road. It was a little discouraging to walk on the road, so as soon as we thought we could see one of the mountain’s signature canyons, we cut across the gently sloping plain to peer over the edge.

Even this first canyon took our breath away and we thought, now this is what we came for. Up until our first look over the edge, the trip had been off to an inauspicious start. As you can see in the picture, the desert just gradually climbs up to the top of the mountain over miles and miles, so as we drove up and later walked up the road, the terrain seemed pretty unimpressive. We began to wonder why we had each driven so far. Also, the road had been closed. And also, I hadn’t anticipated snow on the ground so was wearing trail running shoes, which quickly became cold and wet after traversing the periodic snowfields we encountered. Just a few hours into the hike, I was already looking forward to dry wool socks and a warm sleeping bag, and hadn’t even seen any great views.

But when we saw the first canyon, we realized that this mountain might be pretty awe-inspiring after all.

One interesting thing about the trip was that I had been pretty much unable to find a map of the area. As far as I could tell, nowhere in Oregon sold paper copies of the USGS quad; I could download it online, but didn’t have a way to print it at any useful scale. So we relied on a few computer printouts and generally didn’t really know where we were going. Our goal for day one was to make it to Wildhorse Lake, which lay at one end of the north-south ridge, and our strategy was to more or less wander along canyon rims wherever we wanted to.

It was a nice strategy.

While the slope was incredibly gradual from the west side, the east side of the mountain dropped off thousands of feet down to the desert below, and the rim was stunning.

Eventually we made it to the trailhead for Wildhorse Lake (incidentally, the only real trail I saw the whole time), and dropped our packs while we climbed to the mountain’s actual summit. It was covered in radio towers, unfortunately, but I managed to get some pictures from an angle that hides them. It was a beautiful day to be on top of one of Oregon’s tallest peaks.

From the summit we scrambled out the rocky ridge to another prominence which I think might be called Steenshead, but given the lack of maps, I’m not actually sure. In any case, it allowed us to feel even more like we were perched above the desert below. In some ways, it was nicer than the actual summit.

From Steenshead (I’m just going to keep calling it that) we also had a nice view of Wildhorse Lake, where we would be camping that night.

So we headed back across the summit to our packs and started down the trail. For a bit, it crossed the grass, but then dropped over the edge into a huge bowl. There was a problem: where the trail dropped down, there was a huge snowfield. I guess I don’t mean huge, but I mean big enough, steep enough, and cornice-y enough that we didn’t want to cross it. So we skirted the top edge of the bowl and ended up scrambling down a scree field to rejoin the trail far below as it switched back and forth across the steep slope. Even there, almost every other corner was under snow, so we found ourselves frequently hopping off of it and making our own routes. Bad etiquette on fragile alpine trails, I know, but it was necessary.

We found ourselves descending farther and farther – the lake had looked far below us, but for some reason we hadn’t realized exactly how much elevation we were going to lose in search of the perfect camping spot. Luckily, when we arrived at the lake, it was everything we could have hoped for: gorgeous in the late afternoon sun, which was just beginning to fall behind the ridgeline.

It was too early to consider dinner and bedtime, so we took a little walk across the basin to another, smaller lake – really a pond – perched even more precariously against the mountainside. The colors of everything honestly took my breath away, and I hoped that my camera would be able to capture their beauty.

Thanks Andrew for taking my picture.

The afternoon faded but we lingered at the tiny lake. It was too perfect.

We wandered over to the cliff overlooking a meandering stream far below, and Andrew trundled a couple of rocks to see how far they’d fall and how big they’d crash. There was an amazing pyramid-shaped rock formation across the valley. We oohed and ahed and then headed back to the big lake, which was looking more and more spectacular all the time.

We set up our tent on the edge of the lake – or tried to. The ground was hard and ledgey and we could barely pound the tent stakes into the ground. We ended up tying the rain fly to a couple of bushes and hoped that with us inside, it wouldn’t budge. After a quick dinner – nothing spectacular – we crawled into our sleeping bags. It was already dark and cold at 7:30 p.m., and while we weren’t ready for sleep, we were ready for warmth! We stayed up talking for a few hours and then tried to shut our eyes.

I wasn’t entirely successful, in no small part because our camping spot, perched in the basin as it was, turned out to be incredibly windy. I worried all night that the fly would blow off the tent because we simply hadn’t been able to stake it down. At a few points, the wind was blowing so hard that the side of the tent was literally blowing into me – I felt like I was the only thing stopping it from rolling into the lake. In the early morning, though, the wind quieted down and I finally fell asleep. I woke up at 8:30 the next morning to find Andrew staring at me… whoops, I never sleep that late!

We had our work cut out for us that morning. We had to get out of the basin and the only way to go was up – the canyon wound down down down, but not in any direction that would lead us back to our cars. We decided not to take the trail we had come in on; it was snowy and kind of useless, and if we were going to spend time off-trail, we thought that we might as well actually choose a new route. After discussing a few options we set off up the steep walls of the basin following a natural ramp through the cliffs. We climbed up boulderfields and with every step got a better view of the lakes below us.

We had assumed that this steep, off-trail ascent would take us a long time and a lot of sweat, and were surprised when only an hour or so later we were walking along the top of the basin again, looking down towards the lake on one side and off into another canyon on the other. We didn’t have much of a plan for this day, other than to make it over to the Kiger Gorge on the north end of the ridge to camp. So we once again wandered across the snowfields and along canyon rims, meandering our way northward. We stopped for a very cold lunch and took a nap in the sun. Honestly, we had lost a lot of our motivation. When we finally reached Kiger Gorge, we were a little overwhelmed. It was BIG.

Not only was it big, but the head of the canyon was impossible to descend. I had initially had the idea of camping down in the gorge itself, but we knew we wanted to be back at the cars by mid-morning and climbing out of the gorge the next morning and then hiking the few miles back to the gate seemed like too much work for our lazy selves. We took a long time trying to decide what to do and eventually just put off the decision. We dropped our packs and scrambled down some ledges to begin walking along the canyon’s east rim.

It was beautiful, but neither of us were very motivated for an out-and-back hike along the ridge. We ended up sitting on some rocks complaining about how far away the next high point appeared. But it was only 2:30…. what were we going to do?

Although we had initially ruled out the possibility of going down into the gorge with our packs, from our current spot the descent didn’t look so bad. And the ascent on the other side looked doable too. So…. impulsively, without any water or food, we decided to cross the canyon and come out on the other side. How long could it possibly take?

The descent, which hadn’t looked so bad, was actually quite long and very steep. Luckily I earned my stripes as a hiker in Colorado, so I was used to sliding down piles of scree. There were a few close calls and more than one moment where I stopped to survey the next section of the hill and wondered whether I was going to make it on my feet or not, but after a half hour or so and some burning quads, we made it to the more gently sloping canyon floor. We were surrounded by sagebrush and boulders; it smelled divine. We strolled along game paths through the shrubs straight across the canyon, through the willows and aspens surrounding the steam at its bottom, and began up the other side.

Just like earlier that morning, I felt like a wuss. A party-pooper. A lame-o. Eugene sits at 426 feet above sea level; Salt Lake City is ten times as high. Andrew was much better equipped to handle the elevation here and as I tried to climb up hill I huffed and puffed. I was short of breath, I was struggling to keep my balance and my composure. But somehow, the walls of the canyon weren’t as high as they seemed. Soon we were halfway to the top. Then we were closer. Near the rim of the gorge, we encountered some cliff bands. We weren’t sure if they would “go”, but it seemed like a better shot than climbing up the nearby snowfield, so we picked our way through the rocks, Andrew ahead and me lagging behind.

Finally, he stood above me and looked off into the distance.

“There’s another cliff,” he shouted down. “It’s really steep. I think we’re stuck.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” I shouted up. When I made it to where he was standing, sure enough we were back on the rim, surrounded by tall grasses and far-reaching views. No more cliffs. We sat down on a rock, exhausted. I wanted water and Andrew wanted dinner.

The walk back to our packs was easy – just padding through the high desert, up gradual hills and skirting the rim’s contours – but it was also much longer than we expected. By the time we got to our packs it was definitely an hour you could call dinner. We strapped our bags on and carefully downclimbed towards the ridge we had started off on a few hours earlier. After a few minutes we reached a flat area perched between a cliff and a more gentle, although still-imposing, dropoff and set up camp.

It was once again tough to pound in our tent stakes, but we used rocks to weigh things down and tied the fly to boulders. Then we cooked up what we had christened “pesto tuna surprise”, a dinner of angel hair pasta, dried pesto powder, and tuna. After a few days of hiking, it was actually amazing, even though pesto powder is pretty gross compared to real pesto. I think PTS is going to be a new sensation in the backpacking world.

Then it was off to our sleeping bags, a few swigs of whiskey from Andrew’s flask, and another night of worrying that the strong winds might blow us away – this time not into a lake but over a cliff. I also thought I heard it raining and began worrying about climbing up the ledges back to the canyon rim the next morning. What can I say, I’m a worrier. I finally got to sleep but it wasn’t particularly restful.

The next morning was even colder and windier, so we skipped breakfast and climbed back up to the plateau. To get back to our cars, we had to rejoin the road and follow it for a few miles. We made a few guesses about where it would bend and luckily turned out to be right. Cutting across the high desert was much nicer than following the gravel, and we had our last wonderful views of the canyons.

And, about a mile from the cars, we finally saw some of the wildlife we’d been hoping for – a herd of antelope!

I wish I had a bigger zoom lens, but c’est la vie. I swear there are antelope in that picture.

After finally eating breakfast, putting on dry clothes, and saying some sad goodbyes – it’s always great to rediscover a good friend and always difficult to when you part ways again – we rattled off back down the gravel road, and then in Frenchglen turned our separate ways and headed back to our homes. As I drove towards Burns, the nearest city, it began raining angrily. I was glad we were off the mountain, and wondered why the weather had to punish me even more; I was already feeling that post-trip deflation that comes when something wonderful is receding in your rearview mirror.

It was a great four days and I made it back to Eugene refreshed mentally, if perhaps not physically. Work seemed new again and not so monotonous; I was reinvigorated rather than dreading my job.

Despite a lack of maps, Steens is an amazing place to check out. It’s not on anyone’s way to anywhere, but it’s worth the detour if you ever find yourself within a few hundred miles. Discovering remote, undiscovered places is an incredible joy and I think it was good for my soul. What a relief.

Thielsen rocks.

It took me quite a while to dig out after last weekend, as you can tell by the fact that I didn’t write about Hood to Coast for days after the race. With all the running and so little sleep, I needed that time to recover. Plus, I was gone for two and a half days and missed my weekend around the house; I was running behind on all sorts of chores, e-mails, etc. On Thursday, I finally managed to clean out my room and wash all the laundry from the weekend. Yeah, that’s kind of gross.

I knew I had a three day weekend coming up and that I should do something awesome with it, but I just wasn’t in any sort of shape to make plans. As the weekend drew closer and closer I figured that I would improvise and figure something out.

Luckily, my housemate Laura came to my rescue! She and her friends wanted to go climb Mount Thielsen, down in the southern part of the state, and asked me to come along. Hooray!

We left town around 6 on Friday and drove down to the Umpqua Hot Springs, which were some of the best I’ve ever visited. By the time we got to the parking lot it was dark and we were starving, so we sat on the bumpers of our cars and ate leftovers and drank beer. Two of our friends had brought their dogs along, who were happy to finally be out of the cars. It didn’t last long though; we put the dogs back in the cars and hiked the steep quarter-mile up to the hot springs.

When we got there, the main pool, which has a roof over it, was full, and there were a few people in one of the side pools as well. But with quite a few pools to choose from, there was plenty of space for us. We immediately jumped into the hottest one, which was quite a shock, and lay back gazing at the stars. We eventually had to move down the hill to a cooler pool because we were cooking ourselves. The whole spot was lovely – and I can only imagine how pretty it would have been in the daytime!

After we finished soaking, we hopped back in the car and drove a few miles until we found a nice camping spot under some big trees. I slept like a log – still exhausted, a week later, from Hood to Coast!

The next morning we got up early and headed south towards Mount Thielsen. We only got one glance at the mountain on the drive, but it looked just as it had been advertised: really, really pointy. But after that one quick view it disappeared into the trees and we didn’t see it again until we had hiked a few miles.

From four miles out, it looked incredibly steep and also very far away. By the time we reached the intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail, the mountain looked closer and also not quite as steep. We paused for a snack – the apple tree in my front yard has been producing the most amazing sweet, crisp, white apples – and other hikers admired the dogs as they went by.

When we started climbing again, we realized that even though it hadn’t looked quite as steep as before, it was actually even steeper. We had all known this in the back of our minds, but things got serious pretty fast after that initial four-mile hike in. For a while, we were still in the trees, which was nice: it was shady and the trail was solid.

Then we were above treeline and heading ever-upward through loose dirt, scree, and boulders. Cyrus eventually had to stop with his dog, Zula, because the eight-year-old lab was having trouble scrambling up the loose slope. Cyrus eventually rejoined us after tying Zula to a tree, but she didn’t like the whole situation and even after we reached the top of the mountain we could hear her barking occasionally.

Autumn, unlike Cyrus, decided to take her dog Marley all the way to the top. Marley is a young Australian shepherd, and had no trouble finding his footing; he had more energy than the four people and Zula combined! Unfortunately, though, he didn’t have our understanding of hiking safety, and a few times set relatively big rocks rolling down the screefield towards us. While it was great to have him along, it probably wasn’t the best place to bring a dog.

As the climbing got more and more difficult – I am ashamed to say that I started to feel the altitude, too, and to get a little shaky – I sometimes tried climbing up the actual bedrock outcroppings, since they were more solid than the scree. In some places, the trail was great; in others, it was barely a trail (or maybe we had lost it!). But eventually we got close enough that we could see people sitting up on a ledge eating lunch.

We had known that the last 100 feet or so of Mount Thielsen is especially tricky; it calls for actual rock climbing. We had heard conflicting reports about whether it was simply class four hiking/climbing/scrambling, or something you actually needed ropes for. I guess it’s all a matter of perception. When we reached the “chicken ledge” below that last pitch, we saw a large group of people setting up ropes on the rock. It looked totally climbable without ropes, but they had taken over and were throwing ropes back and forth, sometimes knocking off rocks in the process, so we didn’t want to try to climb up in their midst. It was a little disappointing, but not too much, because even from the ledge below the view was spectacular!

In one direction, we saw Diamond Lake and Mount Bailey, which despite having almost the opposite shape as Thielsen is actually roughly the same height. To the south, we could see Crater Lake, somewhere I haven’t been yet but is definitely on my list. There were wildfires burning in several places so the sky was a bit hazy; the pictures don’t do justice to the amazing views.

We spent a long time sitting on the ledge enjoying our lunch at 9,182 feet. Occasionally we would see another hiker coming up and get a sense of what we had just accomplished. Looking down and watching their slow progress really brought it home exactly how steep the climb had been.

And if you looked off the other side, you would see why the group was using ropes: even though the rock was craggy and there were plenty of handholds and places to stick your feet, the consequences of any errors would have been pretty horrendous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t just steep from the top of the last pitch to its bottom (left). There was also a thousand-foot sheer drop-off  below (right). Would I still have climbed it? Yes, absolutely. But as it was, we ate our lunches and chatted with the other hikers who were stymied by the group with the ropes. Meanwhile, I thought about how nice it would be to have a mountain dog, even if he did kick rocks down on my sometimes.

Finally, it was time to leave, and to go rescue the increasingly distraught Zula. Another hiker suggested that instead of taking the trail down, we hike down a steep ridge until we got to a screefield made up of small pieces of pumice. While it wouldn’t be solid, the pieces of rock were so small and light that you could run or “ski” down them, sliding along with them, and it was much easier and faster than tediously stepping down the rock piles on the trail. We took her up on her suggestion and headed off.

I didn’t think it was so bad, but I have a bit of experience both in scree and glissading on snow. Autumn did not enjoy our route. Luckily, we all ended up back with Zula without any accidents, so it all turned out fine in the end! I got to check out some more cool geology along the way – look at these awesome striations in the rock.

When we finally made it back to the parking lot, sore in a million different places, the temperature had soared to the high 80s. We took a five minute drive to the picnic area on Diamond Lake and jumped in! It was really shallow for a very long way, so it was a little anti-climactic to have to wade and wade and wade until the water was finally waist-deep, but it was really nice to cool off and the dogs loved it. On the way home, we stopped at the Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, where I got a pint of Black Wooly Jumper straight from the cask and some fish and chips – well, fish and sweet potato fries, even better!

So: it was Saturday night, and I had already packed more into the weekend than I possibly could have hoped. What a great Labor Day!

The most grueling all-night party.

This past weekend I had the chance to do something totally amazing: the Hood to Coast relay. I literally cannot believe, still, that after only two months in Oregon I managed to get on a team – there is a lottery system for teams to get entered, and it’s a huge deal. I didn’t know everyone on my team, far from it, but a few of my good friends were there, and I drove up to Portland with one of them to meet up with our van. Neither of us had ever done a big relay before, and we didn’t know what to expect. The trunk of Heather’s car was stuffed with sleeping bags and pads and more food than we could possibly consume (so we thought).

Hood to Coast is a 200-mile race, where teams of twelve people run three legs each. The event starts at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. As we drove up the road we were quiet with anticipation, and occasionally gasped as the mountains revealed themselves. We weren’t in 24-hour race mode yet, and we hadn’t opened up; it was still hitting us that we would be spending more than a day in this very van, pretty much nonstop except for running.

The scenery was beautiful but on the other side of the road, we could see runners already streaming down the road. With 1200 teams participating, waves of runners start their downward journey in waves throughout the day on Friday. And most of them didn’t look comfortable. Leg one descends two thousand feet in five miles.

Up on the mountain, we scurried around grabbing Clif bars from the promo tent and lacing up our running shoes as confused (and stoned) snowboarders wandered through the parking lot. We decorated our van with paint, put our costumes on, and snapped a team picture:

So I guess I should tell you a little bit about our team. We were the Red Dress Express Too, the rejects from an older team which has been doing Hood to Coast since about 2001. It’s made up of people from Eugene, and everyone wears red dresses and accessories, even the guys. This year, Red Dress Express was trying for a top-six finish in the sub-masters category, which would guarantee them an entry into next year’s race, bypassing the lottery. I’m a newcomer and well below the sub-masters age limit, so I was stuck on the second team… which turned out to be the best thing anyway. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Because, can I say that we had a good time? We had a good time, a better time than any other team, I’m sure of that. Each of us was only serious when we were actually running, which meant that the other five members of our van were goofing off the whole time. We had a photo contest with the other Red Dress vans which ensured a lot of shenanigans. For instance, we had an actual horn which one of my teammates occasionally blew through, and with which we repeatedly chased some members of the Run Oregon team:

This was the fourth runner we terrorized, and she was psyched. She had watched us take pictures of our other team members running after her other team members, and as soon as she saw me in my red dress on the side of the road she started smiling. She really hammed it up for the camera.

Anyway, back to the running. Once we got down off the mountain, it got hot. Our second leg runner finished as a shell of his former self. Even though he had two water bottles during his race, he was speaking unintelligibly and had trouble walking in a straight line. We ran ahead to get him more water and gave him an ice pack to hunker down with in a van. I began to get a little bit nervous for my own leg.

I had told the team organizer that I would take any leg, no matter how hard, as long as it wasn’t that first steeply downhill one. I’m good at running up hills, I said. I do it a lot. And so they stuck me with leg 5, the hardest in the entire race. It’s a third of a mile shorter than leg 9, which my friend Mike was running, but there’s much more terrain. That’s why I was nervous. I had basically acted very cocky, and if I didn’t deliver on my bragging, I was going to be ashamed. More than that, I was afraid that if I went too hard in my first leg, the rest of the race would be really, really unpleasant.

So off I went on leg 5, four miles along the highway in the sun and then a turn into the shade and up a big hill. Almost as soon as I started, my competitive juices got flowing and I took off. At first, I felt great. Then, I felt hot. Next, I felt a little shaky. I had stopped sweating and was almost cold. I knew I was in trouble as I ran along the highway in the full sun, but I also knew that sometime, I’d be turning into the shade. I didn’t know when that sometime would arrive, and wavered back and forth about whether I should slow down, or just try to get to the shade as quickly as possible. Luckily, I had my drinkbelt with some gatorade, and tried to take in as many electrolytes as possible without making myself sick in a different way.

When I finally made it to the turn it was a huge relief. Almost immediately, I felt better. My teammates had stopped the van to cheer for me, and as I went by they dumped water over my head. Whew! I began passing people again instead of lagging. A volunteer promised me that there was a sprinkler coming up, but it turned out that she was kind of lying. I commiserated with another runner as we ran up the hill – which wasn’t that big, just 400 feet or so, but after a long hot run on the highway, it seemed to go on forever. At one point I knew I had only a mile to go, and I started looking for the finish line around every corner.

I also started looking at my watch. I had submitted 45 minutes for my 10k time, and a teammate had estimated how long it would take everyone to run their legs. I was nervous about this. I haven’t done any workouts, really, since March: just perhaps three sets of intervals and one 5k race. I haven’t even been running that much. I didn’t think that I’d have any speed left, just slow-twitch fitness. So I glanced at my watch, subtracting the time from 45 minutes to see how long I thought I had to keep running. Which was discouraging.

But when I finally saw the finish, it was not discouraging. I was ahead of my seed time, and more importantly, I was done running. For now. I snapped our bracelet onto my teammate Brian’s wrist and sat down on the pavement. My teammates ran up to me and gave me hugs. Then we piled into the van and drove toward the middle of Brian’s leg so we could cheer him on and give him water.

Because this is the thing about Hood to Coast: there’s no warming up. There’s no cooling down. Maybe if you’re serious and you manage everything perfectly, you might be able to do it on some of the legs. But there’s bigger issues. You have to get to the next exchange, and there’s six of you to keep track of. After two years of micromanaged warmup routines and making sure I ate exactly the right thing at the right time, the concept of just jumping in a race cold terrified me.

After Brian finished, we handed our clipboard off to the other van of six runners and headed into Portland, where we crashed at my teammate Nice’s house. We changed into new, dry red dresses and walked to a nearby (excellent) Mexican restaurant, where we got a LOT of strange looks as we ate our tacos. Heather and I split a margarita. It was delicious. We tried to nap on Nice’s floors and sofas, but it was only 7 p.m., and we couldn’t sleep; soon enough it was time to head to the next exchange to switch off with the other van.

By the time we got there – a big concrete road exchange under a bridge in Portland – it was dark, and everyone was wearing headlamps, reflective vests, and blinking red lights. There were runners everywhere and we had to push our way through the crowd to the actual exchange zone. It was great to be reunited with the other van, and we had a good time hanging out. I felt lucky not to have been stuck with the first leg – not only would I have had to run down Mount Hood, but I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the van exchanges as much.

Leg two for our van turned out to be one of the more grim sections of the race. Heather got to run through downtown, along the river, but after that it was out through the industrial edges of the city. Especially in the dark, it wasn’t fun. Just gray, lonely, and a little bit dirty. We would still stop along the side of the road to cheer for each other, but it became impossible to tell which blinking red light was our actual runner. Many of the legs were on the long side, too, so it felt like the night was going on forever.

It was finally my turn to run, and I embarked on a seven-mile journey along pancake-flat Highway 30. I have never run in the middle of the night before, really; it was disorienting. Even with my headlamp to guide me, I only roughly knew where the edge of the road was. I followed the river of blinking lights in front of me, but unlike on my first leg, there weren’t many people to pass; everyone was my speed or faster. But I could see them, so I was tempted into running harder and harder to try to catch up.

“I feel like I’m being chased by an army of fireflies,” one runner said as four of us ran past in a pack.

When my teammates greeted me at the halfway point with a waterbottle holding a mix of coca cola and coffee, I said to myself, shit. I glanced at my watch and knew that I had been running much too fast. I shouldn’t have covered three and a half miles so quickly, especially in the (non)-shape that I was.

How long could three more miles be? I told myself that everything would be fine, that the caffeine would do its job and wake me up, that I should just keep going. But after another mile, I began to drag. I’d pick a runner and match their pace, and then I’d slow down, unable to keep at it. I actually caught a guy in an orange shirt who I had also passed on my first leg, but after running with him for about 30 seconds, he pulled away and over the last mile but 20 or so seconds on me.

By the time I was turning onto the road towards the high school for our exchange, I was suffering bigtime. Not only had I started out too fast, but I was wearing racing flats, a questionable move after 13 miles. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but my calves were seizing up in a serious way. As soon as I handed off to Brian, I lay down and didn’t get up for a few minutes.

But soon, I was standing up and joking with the orange shirt guy’s team. They were from Seattle and in one of the masters’ divisions. Honestly, I was a little pissed that orange shirt guy had run away from me; he was just a guy, how was he so fast? But they were great and we had seen them so many times at the exchanges already that we fell into a long conversation.

Heather broke some bad news to me. “Everyone else is kind of falling apart,” she said.

What? Falling apart more than me? With my cement-like calves, I hobbled back to the van and surveyed the damage. Nice was passed out across the driver and passenger seats, face down. Leah and Kathryn were semi-comatose in the back. Uh oh. Brian’s leg was only five miles, and we had wasted time talking to the other team; we needed to get to the next exchange.

Then Heather confessed that she had a terrible sense of direction.

“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.

“No, no, I feel terrible doing that,” she replied. “You just finished racing. I’m sure I can find my way.”

But I thought about it and decided that me driving would be better. We moved Nice into the back and took over the front. After taking a long time to figure out how to move the seat forward, we were off. Heather fed me Clif ShotBloks one at a time as I drove.

And…… we immediately missed our first turn. The sign for the road was after the actual intersection, and it was dark, and there were runners on the road! What do you expect? So we had to keep driving and circle back. We eventually made it to the van exchange at a county fairgrounds. It was a designated sleeping area, so between the rows of vans there were runners sacked out in sleeping bags and tents. I gave Heather the clipboard to take to the exchange and tried to do a really easy run around the grounds to loosen up my calves, which were cramping worse than ever.

Two things happened on my little jaunt through the parking lot. First of all, I heard some team refer to us as transvestites (don’t buy a Balance Bar; they also opened the door of their van and shouted “fa**ot” at Brian as he raced along). Secondly, I just happened to come across our other van as they packed up from their brief night’s sleep.

“Mike!” I said.

“What are you doing?” He asked.

“I need a hug,” I said, and stopped running.

“Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”

Oops, yeah, that’s right. My red dress had gotten very hot and sweaty on my run – which had turned out to be a personal best for 10k, the first few miles at sub-seven minute pace making up for the later ones at over-eight – and I had wanted it off. Luckily I had managed to put shorts on, but I was jogging around in the night cold in my sports bra and heart rate monitor (coincidentally, the first time I’d worn it since leaving Craftsbury in March).

Ever the gentleman, Mike walked me back to my van where I found some more clothes, and then we went over to watch the exchange. After saying goodbye to our groggy other van, I got back in the driver’s seat and headed towards the next van exchange, where we would sleep until it was our turn to run.

Things went well for a while. I had a sip of coffee and Heather chatted away to keep me awake. It was only supposed to be an hour or so drive. But as we got close to the exchange, traffic got really bad, and we were at a standstill. I can do this, I thought to myself, inching along at a snail’s pace. Then an hour and a half had passed. I was tired. I was sleepy. Was I going to make it?

I finally decided that it was Brian’s van, and so he should drive, because if any of us fell asleep at the wheel, at least he’d be wrecking his own car. Luckily he was pretty awake. As soon as I switched places with him I fell asleep, and woke up an hour later in a very uncomfortable position. It was a good call to give up driving. I was not fit to drive, not even close.

We parked and unfurled our sleeping pads and bags. It was about four thirty in the morning, and I didn’t even have the energy to take my contacts out. If you looked at us, curled up on a tarp, you would have thought we were having some sort of snuggle-fest, but I don’t think a single person moved an inch or even rolled over between the time we fell asleep and when our alarm woke us up the next morning. We were too exhausted.

Van number two found us again, and it was off to the races. By this time, racing didn’t seem so intimidating. I didn’t even worry about how I couldn’t warm up. It seemed like it would never be my turn to run. Nothing seemed important except enjoying the morning sunshine.

But when Kathryn started running, I knew I had less than an hour before I was faced with my hardest task yet: leg 29. It was six miles, just like my first leg, but gained and then lost 600 feet of elevation. Thinking about the numbers, that didn’t seem like so much, but then again, I was pretty tired and my calves were still wrecked. So I tried to stop thinking about it entirely.

When the handoff came, Kathryn slapped my butt and sent me off. The beginning was actually quite flat and in the shade, and after a quite painful first two minutes, I started feeling good. I fell in with a guy from Portland and we ran together, striding easily along a creek. We’d trade off leading and were even chatting away. That’s how easy it was. I felt like everything was going to be fine, just fine.

That’s me, with Portland dude:

Then I got to the hill.

It was not fine.

“Go on,” I told the Portland guy. “I can’t keep up with you.”

“No, I need to slow down too,” he said. “We’ll help each other out.”

That lasted about 20 seconds.

“No, really,” I insisted. “You should just go.”

In the first leg, I had run up the hill like it ain’t no thang. I’m not actually sure I was going much slower than I had been on the flat. But this time around, my calved complained loudly and I was just plain tired. My form disintegrated and I felt like I was shuffling. People kept cheering for me, but I am pretty sure it was just because I was a girl and usually teams don’t have women run leg 5 because it’s so hard. I got a few cheers for my red dress, too, which kept me going, and the Nike France team cheered for me in French as they drove by because I had told them to “Allez, allez!”

On top of it all, we had run out of the shade and into the sun, and it was getting hot again. The hill became a real slog.

I couldn’t have been happier when I reached the top of the “pass”. My teammates were there and held up a roll of toilet paper for me to run through like a finish banner.

In my mind, I was thinking, woohoo, I’m done! But I still had a long way to go… what I thought was two miles of downhill was really two and a half, and after taking off and working it for the first mile I began to question how long I could keep it up. My calves hurt! I was tired! This was stupid! There was nobody around me for the first time in the entire race, so I didn’t even have a chase to keep me motivated. Still, I pushed on to where I knew Brian was waiting for me.

And there he was. I was done! I was free! It was a strange feeling, after 19 miles of running, not to have to run any farther. I climbed into the van and we encountered more terrible traffic. With two and half miles to go before the exchange, we were at a dead stop. Heather and Leah got out of the van and began running down the road; even walking, they could have gotten there faster than we did. In the end, we arrived just about the time that Brian finished. So we handed off the clipboard to the second van and headed for Seaside and finish line.

We met up with the original Red Dress team, who had finished eighth, just missing a guaranteed entry for next year, which was pretty disappointing for them. Their time was fast enough to make the cut most years, but this year was a fast year, and also Coco had left his shoes in Eugene and racked up some huge blisters running in a teammate’s sneakers. Not to blame it all on Coco or anything. Brian, Leah and I ran into the ocean, cooled our legs very briefly, and then got out of there because it was cold. There was beer, and the beach, and much rejoicing as we waited for van number two to make it to the finish.

Unfortunately the second van encountered more terrible traffic coming into Seaside, so their runner actually beat them there. We hung out with her and drank more beer as we waited quite a bit longer for the last of our teammates to arrive. Then, finally, it was back to the finish for our official team picture. I got to hold our race number!

Later that night, we had a bonfire on the beach, and then passed out four or five to a hotel room. It was lovely. Amazing. So much fun. Sunday morning, we got breakfast at a diner. Biscuits and gravy and eggs and bacon hoo yeah. For once I didn’t feel guilty eating a ridiculous amount of calories. I had earned them, bigtime.

Hood to Coast was even more fun than I thought it could be. Part of it was rediscovering a way to race that didn’t stress me out, and realizing that it could be fun. And perhaps it’s better to be fun than to be serious: both my second and third legs were faster than any 10k I had ever run before, something which still puzzles me. Does that mean that I just wasted the last two years of my life? What the hell? But that doesn’t matter now, it’s water under the bridge. What matters is that I had a great time and look at how cool my friends are. I have the best friends. The best teammates. These are good people and we are going to have more fun together. If I don’t get back on this team next year, I’m going to be devastated.

Thanks to Brian and Christina for the photos.

Over and out.


Coast + rainforest run.

One of the coolest things about living where I live is that you’re just an hour or two away from some pretty big, majestic mountains, and you’re only a bit over an hour away from the ocean. How many other places in the country have that going for them?

After heading out on some hiking trips for the last few weekends, I realized that I was missing out on the other side of the state. I love the ocean; why hadn’t I been there yet? I was pretty busy all week so I didn’t have much time to plan, but I woke up early and drove over to Cape Perpetua Scenic Area.

Almost as soon as I hit the coast, I was smack-dab in the middle of what I had hoped for. It was foggy and moody, with steep bluffs and rocky crags overlooking the Pacific. The road wound up and down the hills, which were covered in the tall Douglas fir trees. The roads were lined with stone walls and there was even a lighthouse. I had made it to the Acadia of the west.

After stopping at a picnic area to stretch my legs and breathe in some ocean air, I made my way to the Cummins Creek trailhead, hopped out, and started running. There was only one other car (another 4Runner) in the parking lot so I knew I’d have the trails to myself.

As a kid, I remember thinking people were crazy when they said there was rainforest right here in the United States. No way, thought my little New England self! But as I padded along the soft path and gradually climbed up through the moss-covered firs, I knew that there was rainforest. It was all around me. I never saw Cummins Creek, which was in deep valley below me, but from time to time I could hear it, and I crossed several small streams which emptied into the larger one.

After three or so miles of gentle uphill, I reached an overlook. It was too foggy to see the ocean, but I could gaze out over the ridges and deep valleys of firs. In a few places the trees thinned out to meadows, which were covered in wildflowers. I still hadn’t seen a single other person.

In all, I ran through the Cape Perpetua trail system for about two hours, never pushing myself, but just enjoying the scenery and the birdsong and the solitude. It was cool this early in the morning, and that was the point. I had a great run.

And then – back to the coast, where I went to a different picnic area, ate my lunch, wrote some letters (yes, some people still hand-write letters), and walked on the beach. A little boy was playing with a big, swooping kite, and I spent a silly amount of time trying to capture a good shot of it as it danced above the waves. I didn’t, really.

I wanted to soak up all of the salty air and the cold wind that I possibly could before I went back to Eugene, so I loitered on the beach for a while more, taking more and more pictures and finally just sitting looking at the water.

Then it was off to a coffeeshop to do some work. It’s funny, because I don’t like coffee that much, but I’m finding that I’m becoming a coffeeshop person anyway – it can be a much nicer place to work than my own house, where I am always distracted by things that I’d much rather be doing. After all, there’s bread that needs to get made, berries that need to get picked, and my room has been looking like a bomb went off in it recently.

It was great to finally see the coast and I am sure that I will be back again soon!

Solo in the Siskiyous.

Today was my first solo work trip. It was fun in a lot of ways, lonely in a few ways, and mainly a milestone: my bosses now trust me enough to send me off with a field vehicle and a list of stiff to do, and they think I can actually do it without supervision! Are they making a mistake? I don’t think so, but you never find out until later…

At 6:45 I hopped in the Prius and started the trek down to Selma, Oregon, where we have a site at the Siskiyou Field Institute. It’s about three hours from Eugene, and the first two were very gloomy. I began to regret not bringing warm clothes until, as usual, I reached the town of Sunny Valley, where it never fails to all of a sudden be sunny. It’s kind of creepy, really. You’d think the spot where the weather would changes would switch at least a little bit from day to day… maybe the happy citizens of Sunny Valley have made a deal with the weatherman up in the sky. Having such a perfect name must make for good tourism.

By the time I was halfway done with my fieldwork, the temperature had climbed to 91 degrees. There’s no shade in the sites, and half of the plots are heated by 3 degrees Celsius, so they were closer to 96 or 97 degrees. Thank goodness it’s not humid, but basically, I was dying. I was working slower and slower, getting dizzy when I stood up from looking at plants, sweating profusely, the whole deal. I chugged water but when you’re out in the blazing sun in 90+ degree weather, you can only be more comfortable or less comfortable – there’s no just plain comfortable.

The heat was taking a toll on our plants, too. I was looking for two annual species in each of the plots: Navarettia pubescens and Clarkia purpurea. The last time I was down here, they were hard to find. This time around, I found many we had missed – the other plants were dying back, making anything still remotely green stick out like a sore thumb.

The pink flowers of the Clarkia were definitely not the norm: look at all the dead thatch around this plant!

The Navarretia didn’t stick out quite as much, but luckily their really unusual shape makes a good search image. There isn’t much else you will get confused with this plant.

I eventually finished work (well, kind of – the heat was out in one of the plots and I couldn’t figure out why, so there was nothing I could do to fix it, which felt very unsatisfying) and climbed back into the car with the air conditioning on. The site is about 15 miles down the road from the Illinois River Trail, a 27-mile backcountry trail which supposedly is incredibly beautiful. I had been planning on doing a long run, maybe 15 miles total, out and back from the trailhead after work since I didn’t have any coworkers who wanted to go home, but after a day in the heat, I just couldn’t do it. It would have been a bad idea. (and driving, of course, wasn’t….)

So I guess I’ll save the trail for later. It was a little disappointing, but I had a nice quiet day of work, and 11.5 hours which means I don’t have to work a full day tomorrow! Weekend here I come.

A breath of fresh air.

This weekend I finally went on a hike with some views. Views! That’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Figuring out where to hike around here has been confusing. There’s places in town, like Spencer’s Butte or Mount Pisgah, which are definitely much higher than town itself and have nice views, but aren’t very rugged. They are crowded and I can run all the way up them in, well, not very long. It doesn’t feel rewarding to get to the top.

And while there are plenty of trails out in the National Forest, most of them only begin once you’ve navigated a maze of access roads, which can be intimidating. Or it can just seem like too much hassle to drive out there on my own and figure out where the heck I’m going.

So this weekend I went hiking with a friend. He picked the route because it was supposed to have nice wildflowers, and we both like our botany. He hadn’t been there before either, although he was familiar with the area around Oakridge, the trail hub outside of Eugene. We found ourselves driving up and up, more than 6 miles on narrow gravel access roads, wondering whether there was going to be any mountain left for us to hike by the time we got to the parking lot.

And was there? Kind of. We had a nice leisurely trip which took a couple of hours, but only gained a couple hundred feet. We mostly skirted hills, which offered amazing views of the bigger mountains in the distance.

We finally got to the top of Tire Mountain, and there wasn’t a view. But that was okay because we had nice views along the way. We sat in the shade – a nice bonus since it was really hot out – and ate our lunch and looked up the flowers we had seen. Am I a huge nerd? Yes. Was this way less intense than almost all of the hiking I usually do? Yes. Am I okay with that? Absolutely!

I’m afraid that I’m going to have to try harder if I want to do any really serious hiking, and maybe drive further, too. But this a step in the right direction and a very happy way to spend my Sunday. I’m lucky to have made friends who like to do things outside.

After a stiflingly hot drive back to town, we ate some homemade ice cream and recovered. Well done.