Ultrarunner fighting Atrial Fibrilation (AF)

This blog has pretty much always been about running ultras, mostly Hardrock. It still is but now it is also about running after AFib. I was forced to miss Hardrock in 2011 due to the onset of AF but my long term goal was to get back to running milers. And hopefully help any other runners with AF who stumble upon this site. I never made it into Hardrock in 2012, or 2013, or 2014. I didn't have a qualifier for 2015. I ran Fatdog in Canada instead. That was tough. I finished my 4th Hardrock in 2016 and now I'm back to try for the magical number 5.

If you want the history of my AF the heart problems all started back on May 25 2011: http://howmanysleeps.blogspot.com/2011/05/out-of-hardrock.html

Monday, July 13, 2009


Wow, that was unbelievably tough. I will write a race report once I can get my head around it. Much harder in that direction. Much harder than I expected. Much, much harder. Andy Jones-Wilkins (who finished 5th, just 2 weeks after Western States!) described the Hardrock course as a series of ramps and walls. In the clockwise direction we climb up the walls and run down the ramps. In the counter clockwise direction, like this year, we walk up the ramps and run down the walls. Which I thought would suit me since I can run OK on steep downs. It just didn't work in theory, the long, long climbs killed me. I was lucky to have the help of Beth who was crewing/pacing Larry for a few checkpoints and Jim Sweat did a great job helping out everyone while waiting for his runner. But even with this help and well stocked aid stations I couldn't get enough food in and suffered badly because of that. But I hung on and finished in 40:50:28. They say you're not a real Hardrocker until you've gone both ways (which means you have to come back John!) so I told Dale Garland, race director, at the finish: that's it I'm done. While I've already worked out ways to save a ton of time if I ever came back, right now that's the last thing on my mind!

A truly amazing race. A truly humbling experience. One very proud finisher.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Only 3 more sleeps

Tuesday 7th July.

Only 3 more sleeps. Went out for a very easy 5 miles to the river crossing today. Still need to make a final call on which shoes to start in but will be sending a back-up pair to Ouray just in case. Registration is tomorrow. The 'Hardrock' has been moved to the start-finish line outside the gym.

I feel good. A little nervous. I have had a very solid build-up, putting together my most consistent training mileage ever. I have been out on the course and put in many hours and miles on the actual trail. I am not thinking too much about a time goal. My primary objective is just to finish. And I would like to get to Grouse before it gets dark. If I do that I should be in good shape for the night. Then the race really begins in earnest when the sun comes up on the second day.

My mantra has been to respect the course, respect the distance and respect the altitude. If I do that I feel I stand a good chance of completing the counter clockwise course and being a true Hardrocker!

Rest day

Day 16, Monday 6th July.
I drove over to Durango, about an hour across 2 mountain passes to do some shopping for any last minute race supplies I might need.

I worked on my drop bags. Six drop bags which could be up to 6-8 hours apart and spread across two night sections. It makes for very taxing planning to ensure I have most contingencies and paces covered.

There is much talk of the wait list: who is in and who isn't. And pacers, who has one (or three) and who doesn't. I don't plan to but I will keep an open mind on that one.

Last day of trailmarking

Day 15, Sunday 5th July
Governor's Basin to Virginius Pass (aka Kroger's Canteen)
This is traditionally the last main day of trailmarking. There is time to finish any unmarked sections and do the in-and-out of town parts during the week.

Several 4WDs trucked us all up to Governor's Basin, up the long, long road section out of Ouray. I am dreading that part. At least it will be at night and there won't be any traffic. Those quad bikes really kick up the dust. From the Governor's Aid station the road deteriorates and there are little washouts and some residual snow banks higher up. Far less snow than last year and traversing on the soft snow was easy. It could get tricky at night when everything freezes up, though.

We all spread out, talking race strategies or just catching up. From the mine site the course turns to trail. Well, we use that term loosely round these parts. Straight up the first of three main pitches to the pass. All snow, heavy going as you stomped your foot into the print made by the person in front of you and concentrated on not slipping back onto all those behind you. Reaching the top of the first pitch we could now see the spectacular Virginius Pass. It is little more than a break in a fortress-like saw-tooth ridge. Across the snowbanks of the basin and up the next steep pitch. Not as long as the first but the elevation was starting to take it's toll. All around massive cliffs with scree slopes or snowfields, framed our world. Such spectacular geological formations.

Finally we were at the base of the final climb. It is steep so we angled across from the side in a neat traverse. Each person digging a deeper footprint to make it easier for the next. Much of this snow could be melted by race day and then it becomes a two-steps-forward-one step-back approach in the slippery footing. If not it could also be treacherously icy.

The pass needs to be seen to believed. Even photos don't do it justice, although they give you some idea of the tiny space wedged between two very steep drop-offs. To think a crew packs in a tarp and food for us is unbelievable. We all took photos and had something to eat before launching, literally, off the edge and sliding or 'glissading' on our bums, back down the snow chute. Points were awarded for style, speed and control. And there was a wide variety of all three, (with not much of the latter) making for some great entertainment.

This was repeated down the last (first) pitch where there was some tricky manoeuvring required around some rocks. The blue skies had clouded over and out of nowhere it started hailing so we took off down the road. I backed off, sparing my quads this close to the race. Before reaching the cars the sun was out again, testimony to the variability of the alpine weather we faced.

In true Hardrock tradition most of went into Ouray to soak in the hot springs before all meeting for a Mexican feast.

Governor's Basin to Kroger's Kitchen and return, 5.8 miles in 2:45 (2:01 up and 44mins down)

I have now done 10 of the 13 passes/peaks we cross and seen a fair part of the course. Time to taper.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

4th July mania

Day 14 Saturday 4th July.
Independence day is always a rest day from marking. There is a 10km fun run in the morning if you are so inclined. After coughing up half a lung for 2 days after last years 10km I abstained this year and went along to watch instead. It was won this year by Nick Coury who finished 5th at Hardrock last year and will pace his brother Jamil this year after missing out in the lottery.

July 4th has to be seen to be believed in Silverton. The regular population of around 500 swells to over 25,000! Being one not totally enamoured with crowds it does get a bit overwhelming. Part of Hardrock tradition includes being part of the parade. This involves 'marching' behind the Hardrock finishers banner, waving Hardrock flags and throwing 'candy' to the millions of kids that line the streets. I use the term 'marching' loosely. In fact we 'run' short intervals, including simulated switchbacks in and out of the other floats, as we make total idiots of ourselves. If people didn't think we were crazy for running Hardrock before the parade, they had no doubt after it.

That evening many runners gathered outside Charlie's house to watch the fireworks. Now I'm not a big fan of fireworks but the 1/2 hour display was pretty impressive, being widely renowned and the main draw card for the huge crowd. The natural amphitheatre created by the surrounding mountains amplifies and echoes the effects. The explosions were so loud my ears hurt and car alarms were going off with the reverberations.

And if that show didn't entertain you, the view from my motel balcony afterwards showed most of the 25,000 trying to leave town by the one and only exit road. Headlights were nearly motionless all the way up the nearby mountain pass for hours.

Much needed rest day, despite all the fuss.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Bear Creek trail nirvana on the edge!

Day 13, Friday 3rd July.
Hwy 550 to Engineers Pass and return.
is a feature all on its own. The road hugs the mountain side as it climbs over Red Mountain pass then winds through the steep glacial valley down to picturesque Today's course marking worked in reverse to the race direction. The 45 min drive over to OurayOuray. Imagine Great Ocean Road windy. Then picture sheer drop-offs on one side and crumbling rock walls on the other side. And just to add to the anxiety, there are NO guard rails and often NO shoulders on the side. Cars crawl along with nervous flatland tourist drivers gripping the wheel. I drove this road during winter back in 1989 before Hardrock was even born. The road was covered in snow but passable. Approaching the tunnel where we would start today's marking there was a motor-home parked right in the middle of the road with his hazard lights flashing. The driver was paralyzed by fear and couldn't proceed. Such is the nature of this road, one wrong turn is certainly fatal. On the trail, one wrong step could also be fatal.

The Bear Creek trail down from Engineer Basin is spectacular but treacherous. Literally carved out of the cliff walls, the trail was blasted through the canyon in the 1890s to gain access to gold and silver deposits in previously inaccessible places. Starting at Hwy 550 where it passes through a short tunnel a couple of miles out of Ouray, we climbed up the path over the tunnel and began the steep series of long switch-backs into the Bear Creek canyon. Here the trail is raked out of piles of slate winding between the fir trees. The loose chunks of slate litter the trail and literally 'tinkle' as you pass over them. The footing can be a tad tricky.

I was at the back of the pack with James and Jennifer. The others soon disappeared up ahead. Jennifer and her husband write guide books on Colorado's mountains so was a font of knowledge. I knew James might have a problem with acrophobia so hung with him. Despite climbing constantly we were still low, Ouray being the lowest point on the course at 7,680ft.

The switchbacking slate-trail emerged into the canyon, high above the raging Bear Creek. The trail narrowed and clung to the face of the cliff, tracing the contours perfectly. We were now on the infamous section of the Hardrock course that brings a chill to the uninitiated. We continued at our slow but steady pace, Jennifer occasionally kicking a loose rock or pinecone off the edge. My eyes would be drawn irresistibly to follow the course of the falling object hundreds of feet below. It was quite unnerving.

We stopped periodically for photos and James was always conscious of not stopping too long. We caught up to and passed a couple of groups doing trail maintenance, a means of gaining extra tickets in next years lottery. I managed to coax James out onto an open cut-away for a classic pic. The footing was generally good with only a few wash-aways and a couple of chutes we had to climb across.

Leaving the steep-sided cliff trail, we entered pine forest again, still climbing, and still within the canyon walls. We came upon the remnants of Grizzly Bear Mine. How they managed to get such massive, heavy equipment up here defies comprehension. We left Jennifer with Sue who had caught up while we snacked, and I decided to pour on the pace to catch the main group. We power-hiked up the trail, through spruce trees and lush grass with the occasional clearing. We caught up just as they reached the Yellowjacket mine site. Derelict buildings and massive rusting machinery marked the site of this old mine.

After a couple of stream crossings we broke the tree-line. This is where the 'packed in' Engineers aid station will be. This was the start of my low patch during last years race when I couldn't find suitable food. This year I will be much better prepared and self sufficient. The canyon was now a wide open basin, lined with alpine grasses and a veritable kaleidoscope of colourful wildflowers. The trail was indistinct but you could now see the saddle just to the left of Oh Point! where we would hit the road across Engineer Pass. We worked our way up the left flank before traversing and crossing a stream and climbing straight up. It was a steep tussocky slope that had me sucking air as I worked my poles on the poor footing. Oh Point-Engineer Mountain Pass 12,910ft, pass number 8 on the course.

Sandwiches and muesli bars came out before we started the long descent, straight back down in the direction we will travel during the race. I tightened my pack straps and launched into free-fall down the basin. The course markers whizzed by as I angled back towards the tree-line. Picking up the trail through trees was easy but I will be here at night so made mental notes of the landmarks as I went. I waited for James a couple of times before picking up the pace again. Just before reaching the cliff-trail I kicked a rock and flew out-of-control into the long grass beside the trail before recovering my footing. A sobering reminder to back-off when the trail reached the steep walled canyon.

It is hard to hold back when you have a steady down-hill grade but I did back off a little once I hit the narrow path. But I had to run it. It screamed at me to run it. Banking around the corners, easing down the straight-aways. This is what I came here for: to run trails. I passed the trail workers and looking back had lost all sight of James. The creek raged below and my senses were on high alert, every foot placement critical. I pressed on, finally peeling away from the canyon and onto the slate floored switch-backs. I opened up again and fairly tinkled my way down, down, down, back and forth, loosing hundreds of feet, my ears popping as I could hear the highway approaching. I lost count of the switchbacks at 13 before I was crossing the tunnel again and dropping down to the roadside. Wow, what a hoot.

This is clearly not a sport for the faint hearted. Sometimes we tread a fine line between enjoying the adrenaline rush of pushing our limits and taking unnecessary risks. Running down Bear Creek trail blurs those lines but if we worry about all the risks in life then we wouldn't leave the security of our lounge room. This is what I love doing: running trail, and there are few more exciting trails to run than this one.

Hwy 550 to Engineers Pass and return, 13.4 miles in 5:35, 4:25 up and 1:10 down. max elevation 12,910ft.

Time for a rest

Day 12 Thursday 2nd July.
With a long drive over to Telluride necessary to get to todays course marking I decided to take a rest day. Late afternoon a massive storm came down the valley, reminding me of the potential for bad weather during the race. I started sorting my drop bags and mixed some home-brew gu.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

3 passes and hold your nerve at the top

Day 11 Wednesday 1st. Arrastra Gulch to Maggies Gulch.
I rejoined the trailmarking team today. Wow, what a big day. We were dropped at the mouth of the Arrastra Gulch which winds up to the first climb of the race. We hiked up the jeep road to where the Hardrock course crosses the fast flowing Arrastra Creek. Below this, the course is on the western (opposite) slope which I had followed the first few days on my own.

Now on the course proper, we continued to follow the road, climbing rapidly switchbacking amongst the trees. The conversation dwindled as the air thinned. This will be the first section of the race. The sun will still be below the surrounding mountains and runners will be trying to find their pace and reign in the excitement and adrenaline of finally racing. I plan to hang well back.

Passing the abandoned mines we left the road and picked our way up the vague goat track. Sometimes the path was clear. Sometimes undetectable. Always rough. Regardless, looking up you could see where we were headed. The low point between high peaks and ridges at the head of the valley. Way, way up there. The faint trail could be seen traversing across the steep grassy slope, punctuated by a couple of snow banks.

It hard to believe they used to haul mining equipment up over this narrow pass behind mules. They also winched a bulldozer up the other side of the mountain in pieces then dragged it through the mountain via a mine shaft to service this side. Hardrrock is all about honouring the efforts of the miners in building the trails and roads that we use in the race.

On the final pitch Jim Ballard was doing trail maintenance on the loose scree slope and got the many hands to help roll some huge rocks to form a huge cairn marking the new trail switchback. I christened it Ballard's Bollard but he wasn't too impressed.

We scrambled up the final loose scree section before reaching the open pass. We all gravitated to the far cliff to view the next valley. Wow, massive, sheer, craggy cliffs plunging hundreds of metres. Way down below we could see the road where Cunningham Gulch aid station would be. Working our way across the ridge it narrowed severely before angling across to a steep snowbank that hung over a sheer cliff. This is the snowbank that stopped me back on day 4. It had melted out significantly but it was still poor icy footing. This is Dives-Little Giant pass number one, 13,000ft.

Larry planted himself halfway across the ledge and dug out the ice/snow to reveal some of the covered path. One by one we edged our way across. I hung back, knowing there were a couple of people a bit twitchy about crossing. We put a confident lead person in front and I followed them as Larry directed them across. All good. Lots of adrenaline. One year, going in the other direction, a runner had refused to cross this ledge at mile 95 and went back down to DNF. It is really that exposed. Hardrock forces you to face your fears. You must respect the environment through which we pass and grow stronger for the lessons it teaches us. This is no place for arrogance. Humility is a safer option.

We picked up the vague trail winding down the steep upper reaches of Dives Basin. This led to a series of steep switchbacks clinging to the sheer slope. Across the creek at the bottom and we were at the site of Cunningham aid station. We all lay about in the baking sun while we waited for Charlie and the rest of the crew to catch up.

The climb out of the valley is on one of the sheerest cliff faces for the entire course. Last year I had come down here in fading light, ignoring the dangers in a bid to get down in daylight. Now it was pure sweat and grind. The course description states: 'For the next half mile the trail climbs between two bands of cliffs on a narrow shelf. Exposure, acrophobia. At one point on this shelf you have a nearly straight down view into the Cunningham Aid Station (about 600 vertical feet)'. Heart in your throat stuff.

Thunder clapped and a few spots of rain had us reaching for our jackets. By the time we reached the first pitch the weather had already passed over us. Just a warning of what could come. The trail leveled out following a creek up the drainage. We crossed and climbed again. Ever up. The race director likes to tell us at the briefing: 'if you see a mountain you go up it, if you see a river you cross it'. The race creators had a sadistic streak. As awesome as this country is, they designed a course to be unrelentingly punishing. We continued climbing up the open alpine meadow over rough tussocks of dirt and grass, punctuated by wildflowers. The footing was terrible.

Green Mountain-Stony Pass ridge at last. 12,989 ft, pass number 2. We could see all the way across to the next climb. We dropped into a wide basin, crossed a jeep road and surprise, surprise, we were climbing again. Buffalo Boy ridge, 13,214ft, climb 3. Magnificent views all around, including down to Maggie Gulch. We wound our way down through rocky outcrops and slippery snowbanks, then traversed cross country before dropping to the road where the aid station will be.

Long, slow, demanding day but priceless trail miles.

Arrastra to Maggies 13.25 miles in 9:31hrs, max elevation 12,980 and 13,214ft.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sublime trail running

Day 10 Tuesday 30th South Mineral Creek campground to Putnam-Lime Creek Pass.
I asked the team back home what run I should do today: go with the trailmarking crew involving a 2 hour really rough 4WD ride back from Sherman after marking from Maggie's Gulch or do my own thing. Tim said do the team thing but clearly he had never gone across Cinnamon Pass in the back of Charlie's ute with your face squished up against the back window. Turns out they didn't get back to town until 8pm at night after a 7am start. So I definitely made the right choice by opting out.

Instead I chose to sleep in but was woken at 6:30 by Larry who had arrived in town late last night and was planning on hiking over Handies with a friend. Did I want to come? Ah, no. Not two days in a row. Soon after his wife Beth also arrived to say hello. She had run Western States on the weekend and her toes were a mess of dried bloody pulp. It will be tough for her to recover in time to pace Larry through the nights at Hardrock.

I drove out to South Mineral Creek campground where we had ended our run a few days before. The monster 'RVs' or motorhomes were filling the place up in anticipation of the July 4 long weekend and celebrations this weekend. The plan was to hike up the trail from Kamm Traverse aid station to where I had turned around on top of Putnam-Lime Creek saddle the other day and then run back. Only 4 miles there on paper but I didn't allow for the hike up to the trail-head from the campground, over 2 miles.

I wandered round the campground trying to find the road up the valley. I'm not sure why they call it camping: these Winnebagos are bigger than a regular bus. Some of them tow a full sized 4wd behind them. Their floorspace would rival many apartments and I'm sure the fittings definitely would. Finally I found the road, back where I had started! Oh dear, says a lot for my navigational skills. The road climbed solidly up to the site of KT aid station. This jeep road was ablaze with bright yellow butterflies, flitting about. The many wildflowers were making the most of the clear blue sky and warm morning sun.

I found the trail marked with the characteristic Hardrock flag. I was surprised how far it was up the road and down to the creek crossing. Coming the other way during the race last year I would have sworn the aid station was right there. Through the icy knee deep water. The rocks were slippery but the water was crystal clear. Through the boggy drainage feeding into the creek and I picked up the trail where it disappeared into the pine trees. I felt slow and sluggish. Not helped by the steep grade. Up, up, up. Constant switchbacks. I dug my poles in to haul myself up. A few trees were down across the track and at one point I got off track, despite the markers. I want to be through here in daylight. 90 miles and two days are going to make this climb incredibly tough.

Eventually I broke clear of the dense forest and was confronted by a wall of rocks. An active rock glacier. The huge tongue of rocks extended down from high above. The course skirted the edge of the rocks before diving back into forest. More swampy trail that resembled a stream more than a track. I was climbing again. I did not remember this stretch being so long. Or this steep.

Finally the trail dropped to cross Porcupine Creek and I was in alpine meadow with a view of the climb up ahead. Traversing the steep hill I switched back and forth on rough goat track following the markers until I was scrambling hand over fist up a rocky outcrop. Above was Porcupine-Cataract Saddle wide open at 12,230ft and pass number 12 on the course.

From here I could see all the way across Cataract Basin. The patches of snow were sparse and the melt made the trail boggy. I followed the markers with little semblance of any real trail. Approaching the next climb up to the ridge I could see a runner moving at speed up high. As I started the last climb he descended glissading skillfully down a snowbank. It was Bruce from Canada who ran a great Hardrock last year. After catching up he peeled off through a narrow chute down the steep cliff towards Little Molas Lake where he was camped.

I struggled up to the ridge. I pictured doing this during the race. This is really going to hurt. The air was thin and the footing was poor. I stopped to suck in more air. The race directions mention acrophobia risk here but I was too busy concentrating on getting to the top to care. When I reached the ridge I angled across until I had a clear view of Putnam Basin on the other side. I sat in the warm high altitude sun and had some food. Putnam-Lime Creek saddle, 12,600ft, pass number 13 and the last on the course.

Then the fun part: the long descent. Back across Cataract Basin and I started to find some running legs. Climbing back up to Porcupine-Cataract Saddle I slowed but once over I wound up the pace. Dropping back through the rocky outcrops I was unfettered in the alpine meadow and strode out along the narrow singletrack. Hitting the bog before the creek I sunk ankle deep in mud and nearly left my shoe behind. Through the creek and I was back in the forest running on the most magical singletrack, winding through the fir trees, pine-needle soft footing, switchbacks, rocks to dodge, logs to hurdle, streams to splash through. I was immersed in the trail and nothing else existed. Sometimes you just need to get out alone on the trail to be at one with nature. I can't think of a more perfect trail anywhere. Trailrunner's nirvana.

The jog back down to the car made it 12.5 miles in 6:37, 4:27 up and 2:10 down. Max elevation 12,600ft plus 12,230ft pass. So much for my 'easy' day!