Friday, June 27, 2014

Guest post: The Accidental Hiker

My father, besides being a biology professor, excellent skier and runner (sometimes he's even faster than me!), is a master storyteller. Growing up, all of our longer outdoor excursions were driven by the promise for more stories. "Tell me about Nepal again! Tell the story about the keas in New Zealand!"

I thought it was about time to share some of the magic with you. So without further ado, I present Dad's story of the first time he hiked the John Muir Trail - and his expectations for this time around.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

The Accidental Hiker

I just did it. I had no plan, little prior knowledge of the route, no food drops, minimal equipment, and very little money. On June 9, 1981, I shouldered my dilapidated pack and headed out from the Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley, intending only to see how far I could go, one day at time. Fifteen days later, after more than 220 miles (350 km) and 85,000 vertical feet (26,000 m) of ups and downs, I landed at Whitney Portal, at the other end John Muir Trail.
 
I had just turned 27, and had been back in the United States less than six months after my Big Adventure, more than two years working, traveling, and hiking in New Zealand, Australia, and Nepal. I guess I was still a little restless. And lonely, too. On the far side of the globe I had spent some time with a self-entitled “rangerette” who had grown up in Yosemite National Park and worked as backcountry ranger there. Possibly the girl of my dreams. So after odd jobbing on the east coast just long enough to save up some travel funds, I flew out to San Francisco and made my way to Yosemite. I was welcomed and had a lovely few days touring around the Valley with my friend, but also learned the lesson that you can never just pick up where you left off. So maybe I had the walkin’ blues.
 
That first night I slept out in the open on top of Half Dome. You could do that in those days, and it was a good way to stay out of trouble with the bears – on my previous visit in 1973 I had all my food taken by the legendary bears of Little Yosemite Valley, who had only gotten more devious in the intervening years. There were maybe 40 other people up there that night, including a group of graduating high school seniors from Berkeley that had hauled up two good-sized telescopes.
Various groups have built nests, each in their own style – some like to pile rocks, and there’s even a few tarp-tents. Like a nesting colony of seabirds…though there is a certain camaraderie here.” (Journal entry, June 9)
 
The view from the top of half dome. Image taken from panoramio for illustration
I set off from Yosemite with only a local map and no real plan. When I blew through Tuolumne Meadows a few days later I picked up a JMT guidebook along with several days more food, allowing as to how I might possibly want to do the through hike, but because I had no food drops I knew I would have to take it one stage at a time.
 
 
It was as minimal as I have ever traveled. I had a 10x12 foot tarp rather than a tent, but slept in the open on all but one night, in a worn-out synthetic fill sleeping bag on a thin, blue, closed-cell foam pad. I had no stove, a single, heavily fire-blacked pot for cooking and an empty bean can for a teapot, and I cooked over small thumbwood fires, either in established fire rings or drowned and buried in the sandy soil and dusted over with pine needles when I left each site.  That was quite deliberate; I had been experimenting with stoveless travel back east, and left my old liquid fuel stove in Yosemite to save weight and continue the experiment. I wore gym shorts and a t-shirt during the days, and woolen knickers, a heavy wool sweater, a wool hat, and sometimes an anorak to keep warm at night. Luxury items included my camera, binoculars, bird guide, and something to read.
 
Along with food, all of this somehow fit in or on my beloved little North Face Wrapac, with just 2500 cubic inches (40 liters) of interior space. I strapped the big sleeping bag on the top and the blue pad on the side. Midway through the trip the cotton canvas back panel of the pack ripped so I hand-sewed in a new panel made out of one of my old nylon gaiters. I didn’t need them anyway – it was a low snow year and I quickly learned to camp high so I could hit the remaining snow on the north sides of the passes while it was still firm. I would often cook my evening meal down in the trees and then hike on until sunset and sometimes on into twilight and moonlight to bivy above the mosquitoes and bears. Looking back I can see I might have gotten into serious trouble if the weather soured, but it never rained or snowed, and the one night I slept under the tarp was to try to conserve heat at a high bivy. So I got away with it.
 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t stick to the JMT the whole way. I detoured over Cloud’s Rest and out to Red’s Meadow and Mono Hot Springs, adding extra mileage and elevation. My last resupply was at the latter on June 16th, and that somehow held me for the last eight days. I didn’t have any sunscreen for the first week or so, and burned my nose and lips so badly that I took to using spit to glue bits of toilet paper to them to give them a chance to heal. Most of my pictures from the trip are scenics, and there aren’t too many of those because I couldn’t afford more film, but I have a selfie that I took using my camera’s timer one evening by a campfire, looking lean and dirty in my wool sweater and hat, with a ridiculous white patch on my nose (all my photos are slides and I have no good way to scan them now, so here’s a digital photo of the slide).
 
Big Red in full dirtbag mode.
 
My journal is terse, the whole journey recorded in just 28 scrawled pages in a small spiral-bound notebook. The last four days are recorded in a single, long entry, written from memory while nursing a big can of Foster’s lager in Lone Pine, because I had somehow lost my only pen on the way to Muir Pass. There are few attempts to describe the scenery, and after more than 30 years of mostly being stored away my slides no longer evoke much in the way of specific memories. But I remember: Cold- blue alpine lakes, sparkling in endless sunshine, ringed by clean granite peaks and surrounded by scattered pines growing in cracks and pockets of sandy soil. Emerald meadows, rich and moist against the sere backdrop of baked and crushed granite and tortured trees, just coming into bloom with bright pink shooting-star flowers, Indian paintbrush, columbine, and lupines. A long-burning sunset watched wearily from outside the stone beehive-hut on Muir Pass. The faint, haunting, pineapple-vanilla smell of Jeffrey pines, dry-roasted out of them by the long hot days. Miles of dusty trail, dirty summer snow, and fractured rock high up in the alpine basins, approaching the southern passes. The Doppler drone of a hummingbird, darting past me to feed on penstemon and other flowers growing in a trailside hanging garden fed by seeping groundwater. Glimpses of the Sierra, compressed by the years into a jumpy film reel of memory, waiting to be rediscovered.
 
Alpine lakes on the JMT. Image borrowed from this blog for illustration
Though I traveled solo during the day and usually camped alone, my journal has some notes about people I met along the way. Mark, a neophyte I met at Red’s Meadow and hiked with for a day, showing him the ropes. Pete, who I met partway through a 20 mile day up Evolution Valley ending with some serious postholing in thigh deep wet snow to make Muir Pass by sunset. Both of those guys shared some food with me, and I remember meeting a northbound couple that gave me some spaghetti, sauce mix, and a bit of dried ground beef. These gifts allowed me to stretch my meager supply further -- “Mount Whitney is starting to look like a definite maybe.” (morning of June 19, at Muir Pass).
 
Almost every day I took a dive into a river or one of the alpine lakes, no matter how cold the water was, and rinsed out socks and underwear to keep the grunge under control. It was probably the cleanest long distance hike that I have ever done. With all the good weather I recall the Sierra as almost relentlessly friendly, but my journal makes clear that I had to contend with mosquitoes in the meadows during the days and evenings when I camped lower down.
 
My binoculars were an old pair World War II vintage porro prisms, given to me by my stepfather. I sometimes slowed down enough to watch birds and wildlife. I noted hermit thrushes, Townshend’s solitaires, blue grouse, common nighthawks, and an eared grebe in an alpine lake below Muir Pass. There were coyote, marmots, deer, and of course bears. On my second night out, at Sunrise Camp, a bear came by and sniffed around quite close to me while I cowered in my bag. My food was safely hung from a tall pole put up for the purpose, but the sound of breaking branches later that same night announced a successful raid on some food bags hung from a tree. I had learned to do a counterbalance hang and that got me safely through the trip.
 
The JMT wasn’t quite enough. When I got down to Lone Pine, I slept out in the desert, resupplied, washed some clothes at a Laundromat, and hitchhiked up to the east end of the High Sierra Trail for a six day crossing from the dry east wall of the Sierra to the giant sequoia groves on the west slope in Sequoia National Park. All the tourists and traffic around the big trees scared me back into the woods for one more night – on my way in I had noticed a fire-hollowed sequoia with a big opening in the side and a luxurious bed of dry needles, and backtracked to hole up there for one more night, steeling myself for the return to civilization.
 
Mom and Dad prep for this year's JMT hike
 
Thirty-three years later, I am in the last stages of planning and packing for our two-family, 24-day hike of the JMT. The rules have tightened, and the numbers of people vying for permits have increased exponentially – the first step of trying to secure a permit for our big group was a bit of a cliffhanger for us. I have spreadsheeted our meals, adding up calories and grams, trying to make sure we have enough but not too much. We have bought new backpacks and mattresses, a lightweight tent, and bear canisters, every item weighed and reconsidered, trying to keep the weight down but maintain some measure of comfort. Our companion family in Vermont has put together and sent out resupply buckets and packages, with almost 100 pounds of food going to Muir Trail Ranch for the seven day stretch to Kearsarge Pass. This will be in many ways the antithesis of my spontaneous solo trip in 1981. But I am looking forward more than ever to hiking the trail with my family and friends, with good food and time enough to slow down, smell the flowers, and take the occasional side trip to a peak or hot springs. Despite all the planning, it will still be an adventure.
 
Boxes of resupply boxes packed for the JMT. Photo: Penny Rand
- Big Red

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Swissman from the sidelines

I can't say I entirely understand triathlon. I like finding my groove and going for it, and it seems rather anticlimactic to all of a sudden have to change sports, fiddle around with new equipment and start all over again. Plus, I've never enjoyed swimming laps.

I do understand the appeal of Swissman. Because Swissman is a (dare I say) epic triathlon. And I am a proponent of doing difficult, beautiful things, just to see if you can.

What follows is the story of Swissman. For once, I was not racing, but crewing an ironman with no aid stations other than those provided by the crew is almost as deep an involvement as actually racing.

Looking down on Gletsch from Furka pass, on the drive through of the bike course.

At 3 am on Saturday morning, Vibeke's alarm went off. I woke with a start, even though I didn't have to get up until 5:30 am. It was Swissman day. This was it.

"I figured out what I'll do!" Vibeke exclaimed manically as she pulled on her warm ups. "If I can just keep my knee in check up San Gottardo pass, I'll walk up Furka! I can do this!"

At this point a little backstory is required. Vibeke was have difficulties with her iliotibial band - common know as 'runner's knee' - which presented whenever she biked for many hours at a time. The Swissman bike course is 180 km long, with lots of hard climbs, and we were all anticipating knee troubles. The runner's knee seemed to be the bottleneck in completing the race. Vibeke had planned to get off the bike and stretch every so often to keep it in check, but we had no idea if this would help.

After she and David (her boyfriend and my co-supporter) left to go to the start of the swim course, I slept fitfully for another few hours. By 6 am, I was watching the end of the 4 km swim.

 

A double line of supporters showed the way from the edge of the water to the transition area. Swimmers emerged glistening from the water, and they seemed almost superhuman to me, like the seals-turned-women selkies of Irish myths. They gasped for air, struggled to find stable footing and charged towards the transition zone as they ripped off their swimming caps and goggles.


Vibeke appeared from the water around 6:20 am, and I ran with her up the now-dwindling aisle of people. I felt genuinely excited. In some ways, it seems like the swim in a triathlon is something that you just need to get over with. The real competition starts on the bike.

Vibeke in T1

 Vibeke left on her bike, and it all felt rather anticlimactic. David, Vibeke's boyfriend and my co-supporter, and I had over an hour before we were suppose to meet her in the first checkpoint in Bodio. We went back to the hotel and had a feverish breakfast, refreshing the tracking page every couple of minutes. She was cooking along, and by the time we zoom down the highway we were starting to fear that we might miss the first rendezvous.

Forty hectic minutes later, we arrived in Bodio less than 2 minutes before Vibeke. She tossed a bottle and we gave her a new one.

We headed up the road, passing again Vibeke quickly. All was rolling smoothly, and I felt immensely well-prepared. Our final chaotic pack-and-prep session the day before had resulted in a carefully packed car prepared to service our athlete's every needs. We had spreadsheets. We had thousands of calories of food. We were ready, to use the immortal words of Dickens, for anything from a baby to a rhinoceros.

The day-before-race-chaos. Note the waffle iron in the lower right.

Feeling so ready, and Vibeke not needing much help, left me feeling rather deflated. Luckily, we quickly spotted a target for our helpfulness. Another female racer, 'Kirsty' according to her bib, was standing by the road, talking on her cellphone.

We pulled over. "Everything allright?" David asked.

"Well, my supporter is lost," said Kirsty. Rather matter-of-factly, I might add, for something still in the first 100 km of an 180 km bike ride, currently with no support. We offered her water and some snacks, and resolved to help her until her supporter came.

The course began to snake upward. We were still in the foothills, but now truly headed for the high passes of the Alpes. Other supporters lounged at every stopping point, and we chatted with them. There was the South Africans, who seem to have brought there entire family to support one athlete. There was a Norwegian man who was supporting his twin brother, Roar. Roar wasn't far behind Vibeke but seemed to be struggling more on the initial climbs.

 
Vibeke below Ambri

I consulted my spreadsheet. Vibeke was making good time, and was almost precisely hitting her expected splits. Hopefully this would last.

 
A little further down the road we once again met Kirsty, who had found her supporter. Her supporter was apologising profusely.
 
"I'm sorry, I can even find my way around back at home!" she exclaimed as she plied Kirsty with food and drink.
 
The sun was high in the sky when we reached Ambri, and the base of the first big climb of the day: San Gottardo pass. The top of this pass marks the language divide between German and Italian Switzerland. We sent Vibeke, off with snacks and fresh water, and drove off to meet Vibeke at Tremola, which is halfway up San Gottardo.
 
The Swissman course goes up the old road up San Gottardo, a large portion of which is cobblestone, and hence great fun on a road bike. Here's a picture of Vibeke on the cobblestones a few days before the race:
 
Is this your idea of fun?
We waited for a while at Tremola, wondering how Vibeke was doing. Would her runner's knee kick in? Was she walking? As we weren't allowed to drive the old road, we couldn't know.
 
David, who is Swedish, in his Sweden shirt with a Norwegian flag, waiting near Tremola.
Vibeke was still looking strong at Tremola, and seemed to be enjoying the beautiful day and scenery. At least I hope she was, because that's totally what I would be doing.
 
Vibeke near Tremola
We zoomed off and arrived on top of San Gottardo with nearly 30 minutes to spare. I lounged in the sun, watching motor tourists. It seems trendy in Switzerland to get a fancy car, like a Lamborghini or a Porche and drive it as fast as you can over all of the high mountain passes. I would rather be on a bicycle.
 
Vibeke arrives on top of San Gottardo
On top of San Gottardo, David received the duty that I know every boyfriend (including my own, of course) enjoys most: massaging stiff muscles. Vibeke was in good spirits, but seemed really focused on the task at hand. There was still a lot of climbing left to give her knee troubles.
 
I chatted with Kirsty, whose supporter had missed her again in Tremola. She was calmly eating lasagna. I can't image how stressful it would be to miss my supporter - my meal ticket - all the time.  She seemed to be taking it really well.
 
Only at Swissman. David massages Vibeke in the middle of the road on top of San Gottardo pass.
Now fed, watered, and massaged, Vibeke layered up for the descent down to Hospental, where the next big climb of the day, Furka pass, was waiting.
 
We, of course, were at the bottom, ready to take her jacket, and feed and water more. 
 
The support team is ready...
...and the happy athlete arrives.
Furka pass is unique in that there is only one road up, and that it is very narrow and twisty. I drove down this road on the Thursday before the race, and I would different rank this number one in 'Terrifying Drives of My Life'.  Instead of a proper guard rail, there were basically just little cement mounds along the road. In some places there was clearly space for a car to skid between the mounds.
 
Luckily I was the designated navigator rather than driver on this stretch of the trip.
 
Vibeke on the way up Furka pass
We waited for nearly half an hour at the base of Furka so that we could pass Vibeke part way up the climb, in case her knee started to hurt. As we drove up, we were amazed at all the riders who we thought were right behind Vibeke. They weren't. Vibeke was climbing strong.
 
We passed her stretching in a pullout, but the knee, miraculously, was still OK. So we gunned it to the top. It was then I realized I was starting to get sleepy. It was mid afternoon, and I had been up since dawn. I lay down in the grass on Furka and tried to close my eyes in the sun.
 
It was no good. I was too jacked up about Vibeke arriving, and there were too many people to talk to. The South Africans were at the top with us.
 
The top of Furka is a little less touristy than San Gottardo
Vibeke arrived at the top to receive yet another massage. 
 
Vibeke gets massaged on Furka
Vibeke seemed truly tired now. "That last section was hard!" she exclaimed, "I was on my lowest gear, grinding away. Then the road got sort of flat and I was like, good, this will be easy, but it got all steep again."
 
David made the mistake of saying: "I think Grimsel is steeper."
 
The look on Vibeke's face was not one of joy. On the bright side, we were 119 km into the bike. The final big climb, Grimsel pass, was much small that the previous two. We were going to see this through.
 
While waiting on top of Grimsel, we were lucky enough to have time for a coffee. This coffee may have saved my day. 
 
Grimsel pass
The descent from Furka and the switchbacks up to Grimsel were layed out below us like toy train tracks.
 
The descent from Furka and the climb up Grimsel.
When Vibeke arrived, David was practically jumping with joy. "You did!" he exclaimed, "It's all cruising from here, your definitely going to do this!"
 
Vibeke was less sure, but increased her chance of success in Swissman from 50% to 80%. "This climb was much easier than I thought," she remarked. I was glad to hear that, as I had been scared that the fatigue I saw on Furka was really setting in.
 
The last 40 km of the bike were mostly downhill, and passed quickly. I prepared for T2 in the sweltering heat in Brienz, and David and I discussed the plan for the rest of the race.
 
I had some foot pain after Ultrabirken, so although I was originally supposed to run some with Vibeke it was decided that David would. He decided to start with her, which I thought was a bold move, but also really cute.
 
Vibeke in T2

David packed some snacks and a water bottle in his cycling jersey, and they were off. With, alas, no cell phone between the pair of them. I'm going to foreshadow a little here: no cell phone = big mistake.

Out of T2
I repacked the car, sweat dripping down my face in the heat as I stuffed Vibeke's bicycle in the back, and attempted to sort of the items of clothing and food that had been thrown around. It took me two wrong turns to get on the highway to the first checkpoint, but I was still there well before them. I took the time to fill some extra bottles. It was hot, and I figured Vibeke would want to get wet.
 
But she came into the checkpoint, and all she wanted was to change her shirt. And gels, not solid food. Unfortunately, we were low on gel. Again, bad move.
 
Vibeke taking a break at km 8.5 on the run
Vibeke asked me how fast she had to run to the checkpoint at 22 km to have time to run the rest of the race. I consulted by spreadsheet. "Eight kilometers an hour," I said. Another mistake - it wasn't good give her license to push to hard in the heat and fatigue of the day.
 
David and Vibeke came running into the checkpoint at 14 km, still looking pretty strong. Only I still didn't have gel among the wide variety of snacks I was carting around.
 
 
"Coke! Didn't we have coke?" Vibeke moaned.
 
"We're out," I said glumly.
 
"OK, Molly, could you just find us some Coke for the next checkpoint?" David asked.
 
I was a woman on a mission. I charged out of the checkpoint, and asked the nearest volunteer where I could find could at 7 pm on a Saturday. "You could try the restaurant," she said.
 
I don't know if Swiss restaurants usually sell big bottles of Coke. But I emerged, triumphant, with 3 liters of Coke. There would be Coke until the end of the race, if it was the last thing I did.
 
Almost at 22 km
When she arrived at 22 km, by now well behind the schedule we had set, Vibeke sat down and looked dead tired. We bartered some gels from another Norwegian racer, Stian. His heart's desire was Coke. Luckily, we were in surplus in this particular vehicle of calorie conveyance.
 
 
Vibeke left the aid station quickly. "I'll just start walking," she said. She looked determined, but I was starting to wonder if she would make the final cutoff in Grindelwald before the terminal climb up Kleine Scheidegg. I didn't, however, voice my doubts. The last things she needing was doubt.
 
A few kilometers later, the proverbial shit hit the fan, although I didn't know it at the time. The version of events I have heard is that Vibeke stopped to take a break, but then all of a sudden got very cold, like hypothermic. They started walking again, but we hadn't thought to send a backpack with David and there weren't any extra clothes to be had.
 
In the end, it got so bad Vibeke didn't feel like she could walk anymore. According to her, "I could barely open my eyes. I was never going to pass the medical check in Grindelwald." Whether it was the heat or insufficient calories is hard to know. Her race was over. 
 
Unfortunately, they were in between checkpoints with no cell phone. They stopped at a small house and were allowed to borrow a cell phone and a blanket. They tired to contact me, but I was driving and fixing things in Grindelwald, and didn't hear David's cell phone ring in the car. I had my own on me, which they of course didn't know the number to.
 
To make a long story short, a number of other racers reported to medical that Vibeke had 'collapsed'. Medical got a hold of me, and I freaked, and then David found me at the 28 km checkpoint. He had run up, and we drove down to the house were Vibeke was. We wanted to take her up to Grindelwald, but medical insisted on bringing an ambulance.
 
 
David and I may have been a little slap happy and overtired. We may have found the whole situation slightly funny by the time the ambulance arrived. Not that we would laugh in the face of such a serious situation. 
 
So that's how Vibeke started Swissman thinking that she would drop because of knee trouble on the bike, and ended up in a hospital in Interlaken after 25 km of the run. She was released around midnight. All of her blood work came back OK, but as the doctor told us, "what you were trying to do is not physiological." So true.
 
At least she had a good nap in the hospital! That's more than we can say
We dragged our tired selves up early the next day to make it to the awards ceremony on Kleine Scheidegg. The view from Kleine Scheidegg was incredible - not down to the valley so much, but up to the Eiger and high, rocky mountains and glaciers that surround it.
 
Vibeke was peppy, whereas David and I were completely wrecked. I want an IV drip next time I compete, too!

 

Kleine Scheidegg and its dramatic surroundings
Although it felt a bit odd to be at a finishers ceremony when we hadn't finished, it was fun to chat with all the other people we had met during the day. Kirsty had made it, and look fresh.
 
Vibeke, Kirsty, me and David at Kleine Scheidegg
 
We found the Norwegian twins too, although they were both sitting on the ground looking pretty tired. 
 
 
 

Even the Vegan Runners finished! But they have Vegan Powers (reference: Scott Pilgrim vs World. Great movie.)

 
All said and done, it was an epic journey, even though we technically didn't make. I feel like it's taking more time to recover from Swissman than Ultrabirken. Still, I'm up for another go! Supporting is kind of fun. Or made I have to become a triathlete - time to reconsider my swimming career.
 
- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, June 16, 2014

Race report: Ultrabirken

It's 7:30 am and the Ultrabirken 2014 is delayed because of port-a-potties that never came. There is only one toilet for over 200 runners, and the race direction has decided to let everyone standing in line have their turn before we start.

I imagine a truck filled with port-a-potties arriving a couple hours later. "Who ordered all of these toilets?" the truck driver will yell into the sunshine. To no one.

The loudspeakers provide running commentary of the toilet situation as I nervously jog in place. I am, as they say, chafing at the bit. I am raring to go. I am ready.

Pre-race selfie at Sjusjøen

The competition around me looks serious. Everyone is sinew and muscle, lycra and hydration systems. There are mostly men. I wonder how many of the women I can beat.

 
Finally, at 7:45 am, the final racer leaves the bathroom, and the loudspeaker counts down. "3-2-1-GO!" And we are off. I am standing towards the back of the field - I hate being forced to go too fast at the start of a race. The pack of racers slowly shuffles to a jogging start, trotting out of the cross-country arena and along a gravel road. Our steps crackle loudly in the otherwise quiet morning.
 
Back of the pack at the start of the race
We hit the first slight incline, and most of the people directly in front of us start walking. I skirt by them and keep jogging. Maybe I should be walking, too? I thought. But it seemed silly, so early in the race. The gravel road turn onto a narrow, rocky trail, and the incline increased. I began power hiking, which on that kind of terrain is basically as fast as running but conserves energy by avoiding bouncing.
 
I'm so excited, too excited maybe, and I glance behind me to look for Dad. He's coming, dodging people and trotting up the trail. We skim the top of the hill, chatting, and I am glad that I'm not going at this alone.
 
Top of the first hill
The trail heads downhill and I feel like an excited puppy. I leave Dad behind as I bounce down. At the bottom of the hill there is a lot of mud. I slide in it and fall down on my knee. Not hard, but hard enough to give me a warning. Don't start falling all over the place this early in the race, Molly. You have a long way to go. I slow to a more conservative jog and let Dad catch up with me. We have an agreement to stay together for the first 30 km. Then the real downhill starts, and I have the advantage.

Lovely day for it
At the first aid station, we stop to take off the long sleeved shirts we started with under out t-shirts. The day is warm already. The weather forecast lied and told us that the morning would be cold.

I have written some times on my arm:


My arm tells me what time we have to be at different aid stations to finish in 7 hours, and to finish in 8 hours. The times are now wrong, because we started 15 minutes late. This is ok though, because it gives me something to focus on while I run. Math is a good distraction. At the km 7 aid station, we are nearly 10 minutes ahead of 7 hour pace.

I'm not sure if we have started too fast, because I feel good. We agree to keep going at the same intensity.


As we head up the dirt road from the first aid station, Dad starts chatting with a fellow racer. He is from Belgium, but lives in Trondheim. They talk about how hard it is to be tall. They talk about how hard it is to be old. They say things like 'if I were still 23' while they glance at me knowingly. I think they are being silly, because of course they are running with a 23 year old.

The trail we turn onto is brushy. I wonder why no one has cut down some of the prickly bushes that grab at us as we run by. Still, it is a beautiful day, and we are making good time.


We pass through the 17 km aid station, and I eat a banana. I watch my watch, and follow my rule of eating sometime every hour. When I ran my first marathon in 2010, I bonked hard, and I have resolved to never do that again.

The rolling terrains gives away into a longer climb. We are headed up Hitfjellet. I slow to a power walk and try to eat a brownie. It feels awful in my mouth, like cement. I hope that I have a enough gels. They feel like glue in my mouth, but glue is easier to swallow than cement.

Racers headed up Hitfjellet. Dad is on the left in the dark blue shirt and red shoes.
At the top of the climb, the landscape is expansive and we can see snowy mountains in the distance. The air smells like heather and sun-warmed rocks. It is getting hotter, and I wished I had worn shorts.

The view from Hitfjell. 
I am faster than dad on the downhill from Hitfjellet. I slow down as the trail flattens out and heads slightly uphill to towards the aid station at 25 km, and let Dad catch me again. We see a dead lemming in the trail. We joke that that is what we will call the rock band we will start. Dead Lemming in the Trail.



At the km 25 aid station, there are racers sitting on the ground, eating. They are handing out sandwiches. I don't want a sandwich. Sand wich. It sounds hard to chew. Dad has a sandwich with cheese, but I tell him that we have to keep walking while he eats it. I don't want to get stuck in an aid station. I eat a banana, and hope that I am eating enough.

The trail starts to climb again, towards the highest point of the day, Nevefjell. This time I have no qualms about walking. If I remember the profile correctly, after the top of this hill the rest of the course is almost all downhill. There is still a pack of racers around us. I wonder how many are ahead of us and how many are behind. I think the race is pretty spread out by now.

Dad on the trail up Nevefjell
At the top of the hill, I glance back at Dad, who is 10 meters behind me. It serves as a sort of diffuse farewell. The downhill is rock-strewn and technical, and I know he won't keep up with me. Now I am alone. All of the racers I say going up the hill have spread out.

 I arrive at the km 32 aid station. There is a man waving his bare foot around in the air; he appears to have ripped most of the skin off of his big toe. I shudder, grab another banana and trot off.

I start running with a Dutch man who owns a cabin by Sjusjøen. He is a cyclist, but decided to race Ultrabirken on a dare from a runner friend. I tell him I bike a lot too, but that I have been running a lot since the beginning of March. "But we're doing alright, right?" I say.

"Yes, well, we won't have the fastest times. I guess somewhere around 7:30," he says. I think this sounds about right. The numbers on my arm told me that I was on 7:30 pace when I passed through the km 32 aid station.

Then all of a sudden, I have left the Dutch man behind. I realise that I am really, truly tired. My legs have started to ache. I think this is about the point an ultra becomes an ultra. When you are dead tired, but you are only halfway. My legs feel like they are starting to detach from my body, like they are floating.

A girl in black lycra trots by me on a short uphill. I catch her on the subsequent downhill. When she catches me on the next uphill, I decided to give her a run for her money. She'll have to work to keep my back. I shake her off. I start to regret this - I am completely alone. Maybe it would have been nice to have the company.

I'm starting to get bored, and force myself to focus on the words of songs stuck in my head. I sing my favorite running song, "Go the distance" from the Disney movie Hercules.

I will find my way,
I can go the distance,
I'll be there someday,
If I can be strong.


The next aid station is supposed to be at 39 km, but it never comes. Then I pass a sign that says that I am at 40 km. The aid station appears quickly after that. I drink water and sports drink. The water in my water bladder is running low, and I don't want to stop and fill it.

I see my Belgian friend, stopped in the aid station and filling his water bladder. I shout a quick hello, and charge off down the trail, thinking that would be the last I would see of him. But he catches me quickly as we run along a dirt road that descends slightly and we start chatting. We are going fast, too fast. I decide to let him go. There are still nearly 20 km to go.

The dirt road turns into an open bog through the trees. It is like trying to run on piles and piles of sponges. I highly disapprove.

I-hate-this-bog selfie.
I catch the Belgian walking through the bog. I think he might be smart to walk, so I walk with him too. Then we finally come out onto a dirt road. We are now on the regular Birken 20 km  race route. There are lots of people without backpacks. Some of them are going very slowly, so slowly that even I can pass them on my tired legs. The Belgian trots out ahead of me. I think I have lost him now.

There are signs every kilometer now. There are 13 kilometers left, and I have been running for 5 hours and 45 minutes. I start daydreaming about finishing in less than 7 hours.

I realize how fast I have to run to finish in less that 7 hours. But it's all downhill, I think, you can run fast down hills. As I pass the 10 kilometer left to the finish sign, I remember the promise I had made to myself to run as fast as I could for the last 10 kilometers. I stop to pee, to get ready for running as fast as I can. I squat in the trees, out of sight of the trail. I think that I could just stay there, it is so comfortable to be still, to not be moving forward. No one would notice.

Snap out of it, I think, get moving.

My legs ache badly, but they don't hurt more if I ran faster. In fact, they hurt most if I walked. I reason that the faster I run, the faster I will get this over with. I have been running for 6 hours and 2 minutes, and had 10 kilometers to go.

I feel like I am flying, I run so fast. There are plenty of people to pass, and this is good motivation. Some people pass me, but I remind myself that they have only run 10 kilometers (in the regular Birken race) rather than 50 km like me.

My thoughts start swimming and detach from the surrounding. I focus on adding 6 minutes to the time on my watch every time I passed a kilometer sign, and check if I am at the next sign within 6 minutes. Sometimes I add wrong. Most of the time I can't even remember what kilometer sign will come next. I just know there can't be many kilometers left. I blow past my Belgian friend. He is jogging some and walking some.

At the last aid station, with 6 kilometers left to the finish, a friendly volunteer sees the stripes on my race number. "Oh, you're running the Ultrabirken?!" she exclaims.

My race kit, and the striped number that allowed spectators to see that I was running the Ultra rather than the 20 km race.
I nod. I remember that nodding means yes. I don't remember the word for yes.

"Is this your first time?!" Nod.

"How are you doing?" she enthuses. I dump water on my head and nod again. I don't know what nodding yes to 'how are you doing' means. But I also don't know if there are words for how I am doing. It's not how I am doing, it is simply that I am doing.

I am go.

I go.

I run.

The last three kilometers are punctuated by a few steep uphills in the middle of the rolling downhill. Somehow, I haven't used up my uphill muscles, and I can sprint up them. This is fun.

There are spectators watching the race now. "Go Ultra!" they yell, recognising the stripes on my start number.

My watch says I have be running for 7 hours as I round the bend into the home stretch into the stadium. There are people, so many people. The announcers says my time is 7 hours and 38 seconds. I was so close to breaking 7 hours.

I want to sit down. I want to cry. I have a headache. Someone ushers me away from the finish line. It's over.

Finish line selfie.
I walk through a tent where they hand out food. I take lots of water and a hot dog. I take one bite of the hot dog and throw it out. I want to drink water, so much water. The Belgian comes in 10 minutes after me and we sit in the shade. Dad comes in 40 minutes after me.

Team Strazilchek after the race
We are Team Strazilchek, and we did it.

According to my GPS: 60.4 km, 1203 vertical meters, moving time 6 h 48 min, average heart rate 167 bpm.

Calories burned: 4474. So what do I eat now?

- The Wild Bazilchuk