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ultra running

The Risks We Take

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The Risks We Take

“I’m not going to go.”  My stomach flip flopped as Paul finished his sentence.  “The last couple days helped me decide. I’m going to stay here.” Paul had just gotten down from multiple days and nights on El Capitan, and he was telling me that he had decided to nuke his plans to go on a climbing expedition in Pakistan in the summer.  It was a gorgeous May morning in Yosemite.  Our friend Jess Roskelley had died in an avalanche on Howse Peak less than a month ago.  

Paul and I in El Cap meadow after a (for Paul) sleep deprived night on the Captain.

Us not climbing, or running, but blissful.

Fast-forward to July 11.  Paul and I both have tears in our eyes as we embrace tightly at the airport in Denver.  The luggage cart next to us is overloaded with two oversized duffel bags and smaller carry-on. “This is going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Paul. He isn’t talking about the climbing he’ll be doing in Pakistan, but about leaving me for seven week. I pull him closer. 

Life is a risk.  You never end up regretting the things you do but the things you don’t do. Decisions should be based on love not on fear.  So many platitudes to go around.  

The real question is: how do you decide between pursuing a potentially risky trip to a place you’ve wanted to see for decades - the type of trip that is woven into the very fabric of your identity - on one hand and on the other hand having found bliss in low-commitment adventures and daily life with the partner you love? It’s a question that Paul and I debated a lot: each of us individually, consulting friends and in conversations with one another. 

We found an answer: Paul is on his way to basecamp in Pakistan as I am writing this.  To have an incredible alpine climbing adventure, I hope; even though deep down I know that a big part of his decision to go was so he could give me space to pursue my own big mountain running projects. The decision to go was anything but clear cut.  

Long runs = big time.

Doing hard things is character building.  Suffering is privilege.  Time apart makes time together that much more valuable. More platitudes. 

We’re independent.  We both charge hard, and we’ve spent longer chunks of time than this apart.  Hell, I left Paul ten days after we got married to walk across the Colorado Plateau for a month all by myself. And yet… this feels different.  

Maybe it’s because this time I’m the one who is staying ‘at home’ (though not really - I’m going to run the Ultra Gobi in China while Paul is in Pakistan… but I’m not leaving for a few more weeks). Or maybe it’s because Paul was on the fence on whether he really wanted to go or not, and the risks involved in remote alpine climbing are all too real.

Me on the Hayduke shortly after Paul and I got married

Paul on recent day of carefree alpine cragging in Chamonix

I do know one thing: as excited as I am for Paul to finally get to climb in the Karakoram, and for me to run far in amazing places… I am even more excited at the thought of Paul’s return to Colorado in late August. Happiness is only real when shared!

If you want to see where Paul is and/or exchange (free) messages with him via his Garmin GPS, you can use this link: https://www.clmbrlifr.com/gps.

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

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Ouray 100: A Race For The Ages

“I’m signed up to run the Ouray 100 in July. Why don’t you join me?  It’d be great training for Nolan’s 14, and allow us to log some proper mileage together.”

My friend Mercedes is sitting across a small wobbly table from me at Boulder’s Red Rock Coffeehouse. She is looking for a partner to attempt Nolan’s 14, the famed Sawatch peak bagger’s ultra linkup, which only three women have completed since the challenge was conceived by Jim Nolan and Fred Vance in the 1990s.  I know that Nolan’s is an extremely ambitious goal, and I am hesitant to commit - but I am also intrigued. 

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Why do Hard Things? (And: how to train for a 100-mile run...)

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Why do Hard Things? (And: how to train for a 100-mile run...)

It's an honest question: Why do hard things? 

I may not be the most natural person to pose this question, given that I seem to have somewhat of an unnatural propensity towards suffering or what we like to call Type II fun: "fun in retrospect". And yet, I wonder: Why? 

In a way, I believe that choosing to do hard things is a privilege: having the freedom and the drive to go out and actively pursue difficult challenges tends to be an indicator of a life that doesn't include a great deal of day-to-day hardship.  At least that's the conclusion that Brad Stuhlberg arrived at in his 2017 piece for Outside Magazine Why do Rich People Love Endurance Sports, and I have to admit that the logic (and research) resonates.  

On a very personal level, though, I have a completely different answer to the question of 'Why do hard things': for me, taking on challenges is all about accessing the full range of human experience.  It's not that I want to suffer - but I want to take on projects that require me to give my all, to be fully present, to creatively solve problems, to strategize, to improvise, to persevere and to live and work through the joyous high of successful progress as well as the lows of unexpected roadblocks or the threat of defeat.  I want to feel the full amplitude of human potential; my weapon of choice is mental and physical challenge rather than mind-altering chemicals. 

Pretty sure my mind was bent at this point, 78 miles into the fables Western States Endurance Run: the infamous 'Rucky Chucky' river crossing. 

On Running 100 Miles... 

So in case you were wondering what on earth made me sign up for an ultra hard mountain 100 miler - did I mention that the Ouray 100 has 83,000ft of elevation change?? - at the end of July... this is your answer.  More pragmatically though, and in response to several inquiries, let's talk about how to get ready for a race like this.

I have completed three 100 milers in the past, and attempted another two which I ultimately DNF'd (Did Not Finish). The successful finishes in 2012, 2013 and 2014 were in three races of wildly different character but they all had one thing in common: I did not train very much for them.  Let me quantify that. Lean Horse, my first Hundred, was the one I took most seriously; I was happy to be able to carve out 35 flat, sea-level miles per week (mpw) for the four months leading up to the race. In 2013 I completed Western States - averaging less than 18 mpw in the six months before the race, even though that time period included several ultra races.  In 2014 I finished the very rugged and tough Ghosts of Yellowstone... and I have no idea what my average weekly mileage was,  but I am willing to bet that it was closer to 18 than 35 mpw as I was working on a difficult project and towards a major promotion at work that summer.

With my pacer and friend Mark Swanson on the final yards of Western States 2013 after running  100.2 miles.  Can you tell I was hurting? Running a 100 miler on <18 miles per week of training volume... possible but not recommended. 

Why am I sharing my old 100-Miler history? For two reasons: one, to let you know that it is possible to be an ultra runner and complete long-distance races without committing to a training regimen that feels like a part-time job (I even managed to pull off a sub-24hr finish on the 35mpw training schedule). Two, because I want to put into context how major a stepup my training for the upcoming Ouray 100 is. Now let's talk tactics. 

Sunny's Ouray 100 Training Plan

I am notoriously terrible at following training plans - life always ends up getting in the way, doesn't it?! The way I use this plan is mostly to have a concrete goal for my overall mileage each week, and an idea of the number of long runs that I'll need to make time for in order to hit the goal.  I rarely execute the plan precisely as it's written, but tend to shuffle things around as my life schedule evolves.  

Here is my conceptual training plan, and what my actual training log looks like. 

My actual training plan for the 2018 Ouray 100.  Note: you need a healthy base to up mileage as quickly as this plan proposes, or you'll risk injury. 

Actual training log, totally old-fashioned scribbles. 
Note that all I'm really focused on is my weekly mileage goal, and what days I know that I'll be able to put in a big effort potentially coupled with an overnight at altitude (the big boxes). 

A few other things that I place great value on - beyond having an actual training plan but approaching it with a notion of flexibility - are sleep, food, and altitude. Sleep and nutrition should be no brainers (the body needs more and better quality of both when undergoing this type of effort).  Altitude is a specific twist to the Ouray 100, the race I am training for: with a course that tops out at 13,300ft and never dips below 7,600ft... acclimatization is key. You can bet that I will spend as much time as I can training and sleeping above 10,000ft. 

And with that... time to go for a run.  Happy training! 

When this is your playground, training is happiness.

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Running Annapurna: Record Spontaneity

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Running Annapurna: Record Spontaneity

Do you know that feeling of having a really wild and somewhat crazy dumb idea… and then going through with it?  That seems to be how I run my life - literally.  It’s how I came up with the idea of going for a speed record on Aconcagua last year (coincidentally also an idea that I hatched while adventuring in Nepal).  And it is how I came up with the idea of running the Annapurna Circuit - a ~220 kilometer high-altitude trek that’s commonly done in seventeen to twenty-five days.  I had the Annapurna Circuit idea one random November weekend in lakeside Pokhara, mostly because I was starting to go stir crazy and knew I was looking at another two weeks of free time before leaving Nepal. Sure, I could have gone paragliding or rafting or signed up for a yoga retreat or any number of things… but trail running is what I do, and I’d never yet been to the Annapurna region, and I felt like I should be training for other high altitude projects anyway - so my natural thought process was: what’s the longest, toughest, baddest journey run that I can come up with without having to do much scouting or complicated logistics planning?  Ah, yes, the Annapurna Circuit.  

One of the many spectacular views on the Annapurna Circuit... but not Annapurna!  This is Dhaulagiri, one of the three 8000 meter peaks that the circuit passes by. 

There.  Crazy, dumb idea.  Let’s go run the Annapurna Circuit - after two and a half months of not running at all because of a sprained ankle, and right on the heels of a nasty infected blister on my left big toe that had me pathetically limping in flip flops for almost a full week (thank you, Mera Peak expedition, for that particular souvenir).  But hey: running the circuit is going to be fun, right?? And what’s the women’s fastest known time on it anyway?  Ah, 4 days and 14 hours.  Mmmmh. For how many miles again?   

The circuit in all its g(l)ory: ~220 kilometers and more than 10,000 meters of ascent. 

Next step: a WhatsApp message to my boyfriend Paul at home in Colorado. “Hey love, I’m thinking I might try to run this big trail around Annapurna and see if I can’t set a new speed record on it. Talk me out of it…?” - Paul’s response: “Cool. That’ll be great training for your upcoming Argentina trip.  Have fun, and CRUSH IT!!” Well, okay then.  I guess I’m going for it now.  

This was Monday mid-morning.  The very next evening I am agonizing over whether or not to pack my big Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero jacket for the route’s high point Thorong La - a pass which rises to almost 18,000ft in height and is going to be COLD.  Wanting to minimize volume and weight I decide against the jacket. The sleeping bag stays behind, too. 

Before I have a chance to reconsider it’s 5:30am on Wednesday morning; just a little over 48hrs since the Annapurna Circuit run idea first crossed my mind. I am on my way to the bus station in Pokhara where I can catch an early-morning ride to Besisahar, the official starting point for the full Annapurna Circuit. At this point I am still telling myself I might use the next several days simply to scout the trails in a fastpack mission, to then decide if I want to return and give the women’s FKT a proper go the following week.  

But of course that’s not how it plays out. I arrive in Besisahar shortly before noon; the gateway town looks about as uninspiring and dirty as I was expecting, and I just want to get moving - so that’s what I do.  I start running at noon in the heat of day.  The jeep track is hot and dusty; I find myself dodging speedy motorcycles and sputtering local buses.  

Lowland scenery on day 1

Darkness catches me five hours later. I am now twenty-five kilometers into the ~220 kilometer circuit. Running through the night is one of my least favorite things: not only is it cold and lonely and much harder route-finding than during the day, but the mental energy it takes me to keep pushing when I know that I have hours and hours of darkness ahead is monumental; the nights here are long.  I also know that I need to manage my reserves: I am looking at three to five days of big mileage in a row, and I have no experience with multi-day efforts of this caliber. I don’t want to flame out going too hard, too fast.  

I arrive in Jagat as it is getting too dark to see without a headlamp; a tea house owner beckons me, wanting to sell me a room, and I gladly take him up on his proposal. 100 Rupees (the equivalent of $1) for a bed to catch a few hours of sleep seems like just the thing right now - and since I am not carrying food I have to stop for dinner anyway.  Five minutes later my already-tired feet are happily propped up on a chair; I am warming my hands on a cup of strong black tea.  

Sleep strategy is one of the biggest levers I have for going after the speed record: Patricia Franco, who set the original women’s record of 4 days 14 hours and 45 minutes, rested and slept for a full twelve hours each of the first three nights on course. I am considering a half-night approach; hitting the trail in the middle of the night will not be fun, but it should allow me to bank miles and time towards the record.  

My strategy scribbles on the (in places highly inaccurate) elevation profile that the Annapurna Conservation Area Projects issues to trekkers; this is how I was initially planning to "scout" the trail before deciding that I really didn't have it in me to run around Annapurna twice in two weeks!

My alarm rings at 11:10pm. I rub my contact-crusted eyes and grudgingly sit up in bed.  Twenty minutes later I am ready to get back on the trail.  Shoes laced, headlamp clicked on, fence hopped - it is customary in Nepal to lock the gates at night - and a few short steps take me to a world where I am utterly alone and surrounded by darkness. Over the constant roar of the nearby river I can hear dogs barking in the distance.  The night is pitch black, yet I can sense the presence of enormous mountain ridges towering above me.  The snowy summit of Annapurna is still some 30-odd miles away but as I’m traversing the cold, deep cut canyons of its surrounding valleys the massif looms large in my imagination. I try to focus my thoughts in the narrow beam of my headlamp, and remind myself of the secret to long distance endeavors: it’s all just about putting one foot in front of the other.  Relentless forward motion.  

My toe before the Annapurna Circuit (L: 3 days prior - R: the morning off the run)

And that’s exactly what the next seventy plus hours come down to: relentless forward motion.  I run, I power hike, I bonk, I crawl until I can run again.  I am diligent about picking up snacks along the way, making quick pit stops in many villages along the way.  I maximize daylight to avoid the psychological toll of moving through the dark all by myself. Every few hours I take off my shoes and take care of my toe, which is still raw from that nasty blister infection which had just barely begun to heal when I set off on the circuit.  

Forty long hours after starting the trail I have made it to eleven thousand feet and the start of the long, hard climb up Thorong La Pass.  Thorong La tops out at 17,700ft; it is the very same pass where 43 people died in a snowstorm in 2014.  To give myself the best chances of a successful crossing I stopped in Manang last night, to wait out the night and fuel up with a proper dinner and a few hours of sleep in the last big village below the pass. But now it is 5am and go time. I lace up my shoes, shoulder my Mountain Hardwear running pack, and open the door into the dark pre-dawn morning to find an unwelcome surprise: it is snowing.

Snow. This is not good. I am wearing running shoes rather than mountain boots. Thin liner gloves with big holes at the tips of several fingers.  And I only brought the lightest one of the three puffy jackets that I typically layer atop one another once I get above 16,000ft.  I need good weather to safely cross this pass. 

My feelings about Thorong La. 

I tentatively step into the night. There is half an inch of fresh accumulation on the ground and the snow is continuing to come down. I know that Thorong La’s highpoint is more than ten miles out from where I am, and there are a few more teahouse settlements along the way.  I am worried about the conditions but I know what I have to do: put one foot in front of the other, stay alert, wait for daylight to arrive, and not make excuses for myself to give up before I have even tried. I have no desire to climb Thorong La in the snow but that is a decision to be made once I reach the last cluster of teahouses right below the pass, sometime later this morning. Onwards and upwards. 

As so often, dawn saves the day.  At daybreak the snow is starting to let up; I can see in the distance that the clouds are clearing on Thorong La pass.  A deep-seated feeling of relief powers me up the next steep section, and then some.  At this point I am quite confident that I can break the record, as long as my body just doesn’t break from the unaccustomed stress of a multi-day ultra push.  

2,000ft below Thorong La Pass and glorious weather

And so I push on.  Relentless forward motion, one foot in front of the other.  Thorong La comes and goes. I bomb down the backside of the pass, losing almost nine thousand feet of elevation in just a couple of hours.  Muktinath appears in front of me. I stop to register my trekking permit at the official checkpoint. The officer asks where I am coming from; when I say that I started my day in Manang he nods and says “Ah, yes, helicopter.” Too tired and indifferent to explain, I push on.  I’ve been on trail for 53 hours.  

Because sometimes trail running actually means ladder scrambling. 

Night catches up to me once more. I welcome the darkness as an excuse to stop in Kagbeni for a warm meal and a bed.  From here, my map is telling me, it’s another 80 kilometers and all downhill. 

Miraculously my body seems to be getting stronger through this ordeal, not weaker as I had feared.  The ankle I sprained three months ago is stable and strong. My badly blistered and infected big toe, which had almost sent me running to the emergency room in Pokhara a few days ago, seems to be healing more and more with every mile I put on it.  My lungs, which are known to occasionally succumb to intense-exercise-induced asthma, are humoring me through dust and cold air and altitude. My blood oxygen clocks in at 99% after crossing Thorong La Pass, even though it’s been almost ten days since I was last up high. 

At this point my internal dialogue changes.  It’s no longer about breaking the existing women’s record: I am starting to believe that I can do that.  But can I get to the finish line in Nayapul before noon on Sunday, to complete the whole circuit in less than four days? If I’m just willing to endure another midnight start on my last day I might just be able to pull it off.  The only thing that is fueling me now is my own ambition and curiosity to see what I can do.  

Into the dark once more

Another midnight start.  Another big day.  Another big climb of more than 6,000ft to get across Poon Hill, Nepal’s most loved-to-death introductory trek. And then the equally steep and long descent on the other side which finally gets my body to start complaining: my right shin seems to want to explode.  At least I should only have some fifteen kilometers of downhill left to the finish line! Only of course the map is grossly inaccurate for this section. What shows as a two kilometer stretch between villages turns out to be ten, and what should have been a casual stroll towards Nayapul turns into a chase for my self-imposed Sunday noon deadline. Once I am down the steepest sections of the trail I pick up the pace and force my exhausted feet to start running again - because what’s that old ultra running saying?  Pain is temporary, glory is forever.  

And just like that, a mix of stubbornness and relentless forward motion and inspiration from the runners who came before me carries me to Nayapul, across the bridge that marks the official finish line, at 11:39am on Sunday morning.  After 219 kilometers and more than thirty-three thousand feet of climbing, just twenty-one minutes shy of four full days on the trails that circumnavigate Annapurna, I don’t care anymore that I am confusing a few random bystanders with my level of elation and the size of the grin on my face. Because the only thing that I care about right then and there is this: I finally get to stop moving. 

After 3 days, 23 hours and 39 minutes... elation. 


Note: when I decided to run the Annapurna Circuit I had just spent weeks leading a team to the summit of 21,247ft Mera Peak which provided the necessary acclimatization for me to attempt this on a whim.  Do not try to tackle a high altitude run without allowing time for acclimatization first.  

You can find GPS tracks and a few video snippets using the links below. 

Suunto move
Suunto Ambit animated track
Video journal from the top of Thorong La Pass
DeLorme GPS track (if the page doesn't load auto-centered on the Circuit...
zoom out and manually navigate over to Nepal)

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