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 with AF. I was forced to miss Hardrock in 2011 due to my AF but my long term goal was to get back to a level where I could enter the lottery for 2012. 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 qual for 2015. I ran Fatdog in Canada instead. That was tough. Now back to Hardrock.

The heart problems all started back on May 25: http://howmanysleeps.blogspot.com/2011/05/out-of-hardrock.html

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

14,000ft but who's counting

Day9 Monday 29th. I headed back out for the trailmarking today. A bit ginger after my 'altitude migraine' of a couple of nights ago. The plan was to leave a few cars (4WDs) at Grouse Gulch and drive the long rough mountain track to Burrow Park near the Sherman aid station. After experiencing the Cinnamon Pass road in the back of Charlie's truck last year (picture 6 or 7 adults in the back of a ute with a fiberglass canopy on the roughest, steepest mountain road you have ever seen!) I swore never again. So I stopped at Grouse with Marcia and John who planned to go up over Handies Peak in the opposite direction, then come back. This saved another hour and a half of shuttling as well.

We (well John and Marcia) carried a heap of marking flags up to American-Grouse Saddle for the others to use on their way across, but we didn't do any actual marking. I was pleased to get away from Grouse Gulch, site of my near DNF last year. Starting at 10,800ft we climbed up a narrow, but open valley under clear blue skies. There were lots of marmots out, standing their ground territorially. They are cute furry little critters, not unlike a cross between a ferret and a cat. Lots of chipmunks scurried across our path as well. Much cuter than those cartoon versions.

High up the valley the trail hit a few snowbanks before we topped out on a broad grassy saddle with the imposing Handies Peak bearing down on us across the American Basin. We stopped here on Grouse-American saddle to have something to eat. 13,020ft and what will be 'summit' number 7 during the race. In typical sadistic Hardrock fashion we then descended into American Basin at 12,400ft before the real ascent of the highpoint of the course: Handies Peak, summit number 6. We had to pick our way through boggy creek drainages, rocky outcrops and big snowbanks before the climbing got serious. You could feel the air getting thinner as you sucked in the big ones. Several long switchbacks later and we were on the steep lead up to the summit. I was using my poles to help pull me up. The conversation faded as we got higher and the grade got steeper. Then without warning the world opened before us and we were on the summit. Wow, what a breathtaking view. Literally. We dropped our packs and had a snack and tried to spot the trailmarking team coming up the other side.

They had split into two groups: markers with Charlie and those who wanted to go on ahead. We decided to drop down to meet the others coming up fromGrizzly Gulch while we could still only just make out the following group far below in the valley. We crossed paths on the steep, slippery, shaley slope below the false summit. John and Marcia went on (they are not racing this year but organising Putnam Aid Station so had no concern about how far they went) but I decided to turn around at the first big, steep snowbank. As it was I had dropped a few hundred feet and had to really work hard to get back to the summit.

I stopped on top to chat in the now warm sunshine to Roland and Jim, who had followed us up from Grouse, before setting off to catch the lead group. There were families hiking and picnicking along the trail, having come up the short route from the Handies carpark. I caught the others at the bottom of the basin. We picked our way across and up onto American-Grouse Saddle (again for me) where we stopped for another snack. Then the fun part: the long, long descent down narrow singletrack to Grouse. I stopped only to retie my shoes and take some pictures. Otherwise making good use of gravity and toughening up the quads a bit more. I experienced a bit of altitude headache again at the start of the descent but by the bottom felt fine.

After waiting for the rest of the advance party to arrive we piled into the back of one of the trucks for a dusty, bouncy ride back into town.

Grouse Gulch over American-Grouse Saddle 13,020ft, across American Basin, up Handies Peak 14,048ft down the other side then back again 10.5miles in 7 hours.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Trailmarking Begins

Day 7 Saturday 27th, Chapman-Kamm Traverse.
Well that was the plan, anyhow. After a long car shuttle to leave some cars near the end-point at South Mineral Creek campground, we had a long walk down the rough jeep road from Ophir Pass to where the Chapman aid station will be. At least the slow shuttle allowed me to spend an hour sitting at 11,800ft while waiting!

From Chapman's we crossed the creek then began the long slow climb up through the dense pine forest. It was slow going with a group of 13 of varying fitness and acclimation. Plus Charlie gives an entertaining and educational narrative along the way. In fact one of his sobering monologues had many of the newbies questioning their motives with stories of how people met their demise out here (none during the actual race). And just to add to the credibility of these stories, after crossing the Grant-Swamp Pass at 12,900ft, Fred decided to take a tumble on a steep snow bank. He pulled up once he hit gravel but missed a nasty rock by only inches. The only casualty besides his ego was a few nasty grazes. Very lucky, very sobering.

The climb to the pass was really tough. It was soft snow and hands and knees type scrambling. My fingers were burning with cold through my wet gloves. Last year we had skated down here on loose scree in the other direction. There is a good chance this snow will all be gone and we will be crawling up the loose scree. This after 85 miles! The view at the top was ever spectacular with Island Lake being partially frozen creating a mosaic of turquoise and icy-blue patches. We could see for miles in all directions with snow capped peaks extending to the horizon.

Dropping down into the South Mineral Creek valley we followed a faint trail, winding between rocky outcrops and snowbanks before hitting the well formed Ice Lake Trail. This we only followed for a short distance before a vague trail led off to the right. We all looked in disbelief. Coming fast down that well worn trail you were almost guaranteed to miss this turn. In fact a couple of guys who had gone ahead did just that. In traditional Charlie style he put one flag at the corner and moved on. We looked at each other and asked if we could put a few more out. By the time we finished you would have to be blind to miss it with flags and tape strung all over the trees.

Feeling satisfied we continued down to the creek crossing. With all the rain the waterfall was roaring. The tangled web of logs looked intimidating but definitely doable. Thunder roared overhead as large drops of rain started falling. Charlie made the call and decided we would go back up to the main trail and down to the cars, missing the Kamm Traverse.

Back on open trail a few of us decided to run to the finish. Like school kids it became a bit of a race down the narrow switchbacks, jumping logs, streams, rocks and roots. By the time we reached the campground I was breathless.

After another long wait we drove back to Silverton. Today had been scheduled with the crossing of Mineral Creek where I had had fun a couple of days ago but the river had risen dangerously high so the swap was made.

Ophir Pass-South Mineral campground 10miles in 6:14, max elev 12,920ft

Postscript: developed a blinding headache soon after getting home. Possibly due to altitude, dehydration and a bit of sunstroke (discovered my neck was sunburnt despite a bandana) but was totally disabling. So Sunday, Day 8 became an enforced rest day.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rain, rain and more rain.

Day 6, Friday June 26, Kendall Mtn. After raining all night it was still drizzling this morning. With trail marking starting tomorrow I opted to just head up Kendall Mountain to get some quality altitude. The road starts climbing as soon as it leaves town. I layered up for the cold and wet. After only a couple of kms I had to stop and put my light jacket on. Zipped up tight I was already soaked through. I was wishing I had bought my heavy jacket with me. Looking back across Silverton low misty cloud wrapped around the nearby slopes. Mineral Creek ran red with dirt runoff. The tourist train blew its whistle feebly under the blanket of steady rain. Not many tourists today.

This was nuts. I was getting colder. As I rounded the mountain the wind hit me and it was an easy decision to turn around and go home. I ran hard but still didn't warm up. Not until I hit the shower.

Silverton-Kendall Mtn part way. 6miles in 1:28, max elev 10,100ft.

Bear Creek

Thursday Day 5: There are 3 Bear Creeks that are crossed or followed on the Hardrock course. Today I chose to follow what we call 'Silverton Bear Creek'. The trail across from Kamm Traverse checkpoint forms the last leg of the counter clockwise course. I trapsed up the hill out of town past the Miner's Shrine and out along Nutes Shute that parallels Hwy 550. I crossed the highway and slid down the embankment to Mineral Creek where a rope is stretched across the river for race day. Only the rope hadn't been strung out yet. And the creek looked rather fast and furious. Oh, come on, I thought. It's not as bad as last year when I crossed it one afternoon chest deep clutching the rope for dear life. But then I remembered how some guy last year tried to cross without the rope and got washed a mile down stream. Crap. If I don't cross then I have to go back over the same ground as yesterday and I'll spend the whole day feeling woosy. If I do go and make it I'll spend the whole day worrying that the afternoon snow melt will swell it even higher and I'll be trapped. Double crap. I knew I had to do it.

In I went. Instantaneously the current pulled at my legs. The waves swashed high up my thighs. I inched sideways slowly, trying to find footing on the slippery rocks and maintain balance. Deeper and further out towards the middle. Then it got too much. It was getting deeper and I couldn't hold onto my poles. My feet kept slipping. The current was pushing at me. I backed up and dragged myself back up the bank.

Crap. I sat on the side of the highway and watched the water for a while, defeated. A bus zoomed by on the wrong side of the road. Oh no, I was on the wrong side. Bloody left-hand drives. I realised I was in more danger sitting and watching than doing. Fear is a funny thing. You don't like to admit that it gets to you but it does. That is what I love about Hardrock: it constantly challenges you. You often need to look deep and question yourself. And that is what I did. I had to cross that creek.

Back across the swampy bank and into the icy torrent. I braced against the waves and shuffled my feet firmly through the rocks. The turbulence rocked me but I just dug in and pushed on. Deeper and stronger until there was no turning back. And then I was clinging to the other side and climbing the steep bank. I looked back, adrenaline pumping, and wondered what all the fuss was about.

The trail disappeared into a thick pine forest. I took a couple of wrong turns, following well beaten horse tracks. There was a trail riding place downstream. Finally I was climbing. Even still the trail was cut up by horse hooves. As I rounded a bend a horse jolted sideways in fright. The lady explained he thought I was a bear. Not quite but nice reminder. I let them pass.

Spruce trees opened into a grassy clearing with lots of knocked down old trees tangled on both sides of the trail. Strangely they were tilted uphill, unlike typical avalanche debris that gets pushed down hill. I looked across the valley and there carved deep into the side of the brooding basaltic monolith that is Sultan Mtn, was a huge avalanche shute. These dead trees around me were 'blowbacks' from the impact of avalanches across the other side of the valley. I could not fathom the scale of nature out here. This place is at once intimidating and inspiring.

The trail continued climbing up the valley interspersed with more clearings from past avalanches and rock falls. The horse hoof holes stopped once the trail hit a big rock slide. I was out in the open now with spectacular views up and down the valley. Above the treeline snow banks appeared and it was getting cold as the clouds closed in. I stopped to put my jacket on as the rain came down. I could see the saddle marking the highpoint of the trail. I was getting edgy as thunder could be heard in the distance. I crested the ridge: false summit, I wasn't there yet. More thunder. More rain. More climbing. Then the earth opened before me. 12,450 ft, Putnam-Lime Creek pass. I turned and ran hard over the alpine grass, sliding down the snowbanks, across the boggy patches and back down into the valley. I hoped to have half this speed on race day.

And then the creek. All way down I was thinking how the rain would be feeding the creek. I got to the bank and burst out laughing: the rope had been strung.

Silverton-Putnam-Lime Creek Pass and return 15.07miles in 6:02, 4:03 up and 1:58 down, max elevation 12,450ft

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thunder downunder

Wednesday day 4: Jetlag is killing me. The altitude seems fine but the timezone is wrecking me. So it was a late start today, getting out after 9am. I knew this was folly as the afternoons have been characterised by summer storms and yesterdays deluge was rather impressive. I decided to follow the first sector of the race, Silverton-Cunningham Gulch, despite having already done parts of it and knowing it well. In fact knowing it well makes it more attractive until the rest of the course is marked.

I switched to my old Camelbak to compare with the Salomon I have been using. It was weighed down with 3.5 litres of water but it moulded into my back with a comforting familiarity. I was tired so walked lots on the way out to Arrastra Creek. The heavy rain had swollen the river and there was no chance of crossing the logs without getting wet. I thought of Brett and his garbage bag routine and chuckled as I plunged into the icy water. This is Hardrock, get used to wet feet.

The jeep road up the valley climbed incessantly, winding through the thick fur trees. By the time I broke treeline the clouds had rolled in. The Big Giant mine site looked ominous under the grey sky. Nature was doing its best to reclaim the land and the scattered structures were little more than splintered wood strewn about the site. The upper lake was an inviting opaque turquoise but not frozen over like it had been last year.

Leaving the road onto the goat track I noticed hoof prints in the mud patches. Mountain goat? Whatever it was, it followed the same vague path all the way to the pass, as the fresh imprints led the way. Vague indeed. There were a few small rock cairns but the path was patchy. High above I could see the more defined line cutting across the steep mountain face. This was where I was heading and the hollow between the peaks marked the true pass. The trail grew steep and I struck my first snowbank. Nothing too serious. Last year there had been massive snowbanks here. Looking up the rockslides cut vertical shutes into the cliff face, looking like pinstripes on a dark suit. Not much grew up here, just low grass clinging precariously to patches of moist dirt. Eventually I had to scale one of the gravel shutes, steep and slippery. I looked down and gained an appreciation for the danger of this trail. This is where I had slid on my hands and heels coming down last year in the wee hours of the morning after 95miles. Good thing it had been so dark. My heart was pounding under the effort. I could hear it going a hundred miles an hour in my ears.

Across the last narrow pitch and I was on the pass, 12,900ft. Thunder clapped and reverberated around the cliff walls. Crap. I remembered the words of the weatherman on TV last night saying lightning is one of the biggest killers in Colorado. I scuttled across the open pass, sheer vertical drops on both sides. No sign of the mountain goat. He wasn't that silly. On the Dives exit side of the pass a huge snowbank protruded across the path. Bugger. No way was I tackling that. More thunder. Crap. My meagre Yaktrax (strap-on shoe fittings for traction on ice) were no match for this baby. I spent a few minutes digging into the snow with my poles to help the melting process. I partially slipped and looked back at the void behind me. I realised this was not such a good idea. Another clap of thunder and I was convinced. I was out of there. Back across the pass. Scoot down the first pitch, controlled slide over the talus patch and full tilt down the goat track. The heavens opened and it started pouring. Thunder peeled off and I braced against the reverberations. The shelter of the treeline became my focus. I had planned to descend easily to spare my quads but all that went out the window.

Down, down I went, huge drops of rain pelting me, the wind now icy on my wet torso. The rocky path rising up to meet me. Until finally the trees closed in all around me and I settled into a steady pace over the rock strewn road.

The creek crossing was a blessing as the icy water cooled my aching shins and knees. I paused to let the water work its healing effect on my battered legs. Then the easy dirt singletrack all the way back into town. I crossed the bridge on the edge of town and there was no way I was stopping to soak my legs again. Cold rain was running down my back and the tourists already looked at me strangely, out running in the pouring rain, without also standing in the middle of the icy river.

I should sleep well tonight.

Day 4 15miles Silverton to Dives-Little Giant Pass and return in 5:25. Max elevation 12,980ft 3:45 up and 1:39 down

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hardrock countdown

Downtown Silverton is starting to buzz as runners begin to arrive in preparation for Hardrock100 2009. I arrived on Sunday afternoon after overnighting in nearby Durango. The 30 hours of planes, trains and automobiles left me jetlagged and frayed. I succumbed to a massive headache the first night and was uncertain if it was jetlag or altitude induced. Probably a combination of both. I suffered the same fate last year and likewise massive fluids and more sleep cured it. I spent the morning shopping for supplies in Durango. I must have been an amusing sight wandering around the supermarket in a fog trying to convert weights, prices and labels into an aussie equivalent. I struggle in a foreign supermarket at home but put me in a different continent and time zone and it is not pretty. Amazingly I ran into a guy from the outdoor store (where I had bought some new montrails earlier) and he recognised me and wanted to know my name so they could track me on race day. The pressure builds!

Driving through the mountains, dropping from the 10,000ft pass, my first view of Silverton caused a flutter in my chest. I tried to hoot but my altitude fried vocal chords only managed a feebled squeak. I was back.

After an emotional reunion with my motel owner and unpacking I went for my first easy run to loosen the legs. I headed out along the first few miles of the counter clockwise course over my favourite local trail towards Arrastra Gulch. I was impressed with my new Montrail Wildwoods that gripped like nothing else. Past the beaver dams and through the spruce lined trail it felt good to be back. I could feel the thinness of the air but I took it easy and finished with a comfortable 5miles without much elevation gain.

Day 1 5.5 miles in 1:27. Silverton-near Arrastra Creek (white cabin) and return. Max elevation 9,400ft.

Monday dawned clear with a thick frost. There is a minor heatwave sweeping the country and Western States this weekend looks like being hot. This heat is melting the snow on the Hardrock course but there are reports of some thick snow/ice banks still up high. I headed out in early morning sunshine and there was even a warm southerly breeze. Aiming to stay low again, I went past the start line at the school gym and up past the miner's shrine and along Nute's Shute to the river crossing at Hwy 550. I contemplated crossing and following the trail up Bear Creek but decided I needed another day at 9,000ft so back through town and out towards Arrastra Gulch proper this time. I missed the unmarked trail where it picks up the water pipes and ended up bushwacking a fair bit before backtracking and finding the right path. All the way up to the creek crossing I was sucking in the big ones as I fought for oxygen. But it felt good to be working at last. Back down the hill I let loose and really tested the new shoes, leaping logs and rock hopping and really soaking up the pure trail singletrack. I remembered coming through here last year late on the second night of the race. Teresa and I were just plodding along on trail I was now flying over. This year I would run this fresh at the race start.

Day 2 Monday 12.9 miles in 3:43 Silverton-Hwy550-Silverton-Arrastra Gulch and return. max elevation 9,600ft.

Tuesday started clear again but by mid afternoon the monsoonal rain came down with lightning and thunder. I got out early to beat the weather. I decided to head up Mt Kendal for some climbing. After an hour or so of steady climbing I had my garmin still on metric and when I flicked to imperial I was surprised to see I was already above 12,000ft. Wow, cool. The jeep road wound around the mountain and snow capped craggy peaks appeared around each bend. Little furry critters scampered off the road as I approached. Some looked like a cross between a cat and a fox. Others could have been cheeky guinea pigs. So cute. And plenty of ground chipmunks, chirping at me. Above the tree line snow patches appeared and the wind became chill. I thought of turning back but the peak beckoned so I kept climbing. Crossing a couple of snowbanks and scrambling the final gravel pitch, I topped out at 13,000ft. The view was worth the effort. Wow!

After a quad busting descent I stopped at the river to soak my legs. I don't care how good an ice bath is for recovery, I couldn't stand the pain!

Day 3 13.9 miles in 4:42 (3:04 up & 1:17 down, change=soaking and talking) Mt Kendal summit and return. Max elevation 13,000ft

Monday, June 08, 2009

The North Face 100, 2009

Halfway up Nellies Glenn and a jet roared unseen across the sky high above me. Steps and more steps, ever upwards. Then another jet? No, that was the wind roaring through the trees on the ridges high above the valley. The hot sweat dripping off my nose will soon chill me once I am exposed back up on the ridge to Katoomba. What a day of contrasts. That is the North Face 100 trail race. Highs and lows. Climbing and descending. Running fast and walking slow. Smooth, wide-open fire trail and narrow, gnarly singletrack. Soft, leaf-lined soil paths and brutally hard steel steps. Warm sun and bitter cold wind. This race has it all.

The early morning start saw the 300 plus runners stream out of the Fairmont Resort in Leura and wind our way around iconic Blue Mountain landmarks like the Three Sisters, Leura Falls and under the Scenic Skyway on smooth rolling trail. A conga line of runners kept the pace in check but allowed glances across the valley at the early morning light dancing over the escarpment. I was frustrated by the slow pace on the very runnable trail but sat back and enjoyed the view. After a steep climb up the Golden Stairs, I was at Checkpoint 1. I waited for Tim to come in. He was still getting over a bad cold and in hindsight probably shouldn't have been there. He could see I was biting at the bit, and he was clearly in for a bad day. He sent me on my way, alone.

I knew the Tarros Ladder was in the next sector so I ran hard hoping to beat the queue. Mile after mile of firetrail rolled out as I climbed the Narrow Neck. Around every bend more runners to chase. Spectacular views unfolded on both sides as the world fell away to the forested valleys far below. The wind whipped across us as misty rain sprung from the low set cloud. After leaving the road, a short rock scramble led to the top of the infamous Tarros Ladder. Oh crap, around 20 runners were huddled in the biting wind, each waiting their turn to climb down the jury-rigged aluminium ladders, encased in a cobweb like rope net. 20 minutes seemed like an eternity but my turn eventually came. Down one step at a time, slow going. Releasing the bottom rung I cut loose and ran hard to warm up again, greeted by tight singletrack and steep, slippery gravel where I slid out of control and bounced off the trees like a pinball. After breaking from the trees more firetrail led down to the welcoming CP 2.

Shortly after leaving the comfort of the aid station the course climbed the Ironpot Ridge. Hand over hand scrambling. You could hear the deep breaths of runners gasping for air. At the top we were directed along the ridge on a technical out-and-back section. Runners kept coming towards me, punctuating the rocky landscape. The exposed outcrop marking the turnaround provided great views. Back down weaving through the trees and oncoming runners. Then a steep drop off the ridge, free falling through the forest. My feet clawed at the ground but slid forward inside my shoes, the soles burning as I slipped and slid down to the creek. Then the track wound through farmland before emerging into the upper reaches of the Megalong Valley road. Horse country. My nostrils filled with the strong aroma of horses and horse manure, a total contrast to the crisp forest air just minutes before. I was feeling strong so ran the road hard to CP3.

Mandatory gear check was the first priority. Done. Refill and refuel. Done. And on my way onto the Six Foot Track headed towards Katoomba. A couple of kms down the track I realised I hadn’t refilled both my bottles and suddenly felt very thirsty. I slowed to conserve what water I was carrying. Runners were few and far between. I passed a few. A few passed me. The climb up Nellies Glenn bunched us all up in a kind of communal effort. As we broached the top of the stairs we moved into yet another weather zone and suddenly the warm afternoon sun was but a distant memory as the icy wind tore at any exposed flesh. Sensing the next aid station and more fluids I ran hard through the fringes of Katoomba to the oval and CP4. I collapsed on the damp grass and guzzled the softdrink my crew provided. Elixir of life. I donned my light jacket and headlamp in preparation for the approaching night and headed off.

Echo Point was buzzing with tourists and they looked on with perplexed amusement. I passed a little posse of runners before realising one of them was Dean Karnaze, the man himself. Cool. How many sports do you get to compete against international sporting celebrities? A guy dressed in civies and carrying a huge camera was running along ahead of Karno snapping pics. Then came the quad-busting Giant Staircase. Down, down, down. I thought it would never end. Relief came on the mossy forest trail at the bottom as the fading light struggled to reach the valley floor. I ran hard to use the last light before reaching the open firetrail that descended further down Sublime Point Ridge. It was dark now as I wound down, down until my quads thought they would explode on the hard packed road. The reflective ribbons marked the course, reassuringly. I splashed through the shallow Jamison Creek before starting the long climb to Kedumba Pass and then the old Queen Vic hospital site. Head down and grind it out.

CP5 was a welcome site in the now cold, lonely night. Crew huddled around a blazing fire, the warmth beckoning me. Tim Cochrane offered me some pizza and he didn’t have to ask twice. I knew he had finished second to Mark Lee, and here he was back out helping other runners. Great effort on both counts. I had been resisting trying to chase the 14 hour silver buckle cut-off but weakened now. I wondered how much time I needed. I asked him what would be a slow split for the last sector. He said he couldn’t remember his time. I said a slow split! Never mind, I would just go as hard as I could.

Out on the road a young runner caught up and passed me. He asked how far we had to go and if he could make 14 hours. I said no-way but he took off anyhow. I passed him about 3km later dragging his feet. A valiant but futile attempt. The trail dropped back into the valley and I thought it would never end. Then the new Lillian’s Bridge and I started climbing for the last time. The trail popped out onto mowed grass and I knew I was close. Glow sticks marked the way. I could see banners flapping in the wind. Across the lawns of the resort the finish chute was in sight. I dug deep. People were clapping. It was cold, dark and late but the support warmed my heart as the emotions of a day of honest toil washed over me. I ran hard to the line to stop the clock at 14:30. Tired but happy. A very solid hit-out before Hardrock and a faster time than last year without any taper.