Confessions of a backslidden trail runner

A scene from the last time I did a trail race. It’s been awhile. (Clint Green photo)

It’s no secret that I like to hit the trails whenever I can. Hiking has been a passion of mine for a while now, and when I moved to Tulsa I found an urban trail area that is built for not just hiking, but trail running.

It didn’t take long for me to dive deep into that. I’d been running some by that point, but trail running was a whole other animal, something that I took to within weeks. I bought trail shoes, joined a trail running group and spent whatever free time I had learning the park’s trail system. Hell, I ran a 25K trail race before I completed by first half marathon. I quickly – and proudly – identified as a trail runner.

Fast forward to the present day. Between those early days of excitement, when getting my dirt on was fresh and new, to now, I’ve put on some miles. Raced a bunch of races. Tripped over who knows how many rocks, roots and stumps while winding my way through the woods. Even repped a manufacturer of trail running shoes for a couple of years.

This brings up the need to confess something. I haven’t been in a trail race in nearly two years.

For that matter, I haven’t run on trails since last summer.

Scandalous, right?

It’s not like I haven’t been running. And it’s not like I haven’t been on the trails. I just haven’t run on the trails. It made me feel like a phony for a while, but then I got busy with other things and didn’t think about it much.

But this weekend, I’m breaking this unfortunate streak. I entered a 10K trail race close to home. I’ve run it before – the 10K and the 25K – and both races kicked my ass. And I’m sure it will again.

I also believe the trail running gods are seeing this as bit of revenge toward me for my lack of fealty. I’m not in great shape, and the weather forecast looks absolutely terrible: low 30s to start, with rain all morning. This, on a course known to hold a lot of water when it rains even the slightest. I predict a lot of slipping, shivering, falling and humiliation on my part. The trail gods’ judgment will be severe for this backslidden acolyte.

So be it. I’ve missed the trail running race scene. Road runners are great, as are their races. But the flavor of a trail race gathering is its own thing – admirable, fun, weird and always a party, even under the most miserable circumstances.

My goals are simple. First, finish the damn thing. And second, try not to finish last. So wish me luck. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced in the dirt. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how.

Bob Doucette

Advertisements

Four things I learned outside of my comfort zone

I consider myself a lucky man. Over the years, I’ve been to some amazing places and experienced indelible moments, small points of light in a life that is otherwise routine. There’s nothing wrong with routine; you have to live your life and do what’s necessary to pay your bills, take care of folks and live. But the sweet spots leave impressions.

I’ve got a strain of wanderlust in my blood. A healthy fear of being too ill or weak to get out anymore. I crave my time outdoors, hitting the road and collecting new stories. I love a physical challenge.

All of this has taught me plenty. Much of it has been through trial and error while the best of it has been dutifully learned through patient instruction by people who know better than me.

Through all of this, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

It’s important to go to new places. It doesn’t matter of it’s a new park, a different part of town, a state you’ve never visited, or a country on the other side of the world. Broader perspectives are gained when you leave the comfortable environs of home. You learn you can be home anywhere, and you might make good friends you otherwise would never have met.

There is no disadvantage to being strong. Making yourself physically stronger will only add years to your life and will make you a more capable person. The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill, be it from illness, accidents or from others who would do you harm. Strength is useful. Build it.

Find a difficult challenge and commit to it. I’m not talking about discovering the secret to world peace or curing cancer, although those are great (if you can do it, please do!). Consider this more of a personal thing. When my oldest brother talked about climbing mountains, I wondered if I could do that. And then I did. It was hard, but worth it. Same deal with running a marathon. It was a huge commitment well out of my comfort zone, but I have no regrets. In both cases, I felt I grew from the experience. What’s your challenge? Find one that sounds awesome but spooks you a little. And then try. You might end up changed for the better.

There is great value in spending time outside. Yes, there is fun to be had at the pub, at the movies, binging Netflix or playing video games. But all of those things – and the growing amount of time we spend hunched over smartphones, laptops and tablets – cannot do for us what an hour or so outside can. We need time outside to unplug from all this tech, to listen to the stirrings of the woods and the wind whipping in the lonely places, if only to remind us that there is a world outside of our big wooden, steel and glass boxes lining endless networks of asphalt. A night in the wild, rising with the sun and moving to the rhythms of nature, is a great balm for all that social media angst we always bitch about but willingly indulge. Make a habit of hiking a trail. It’s medicinal.

I hope to learn more in the years to come, during those times when I leave the house, my hometown, my state, and even my country. I can count the number of runs I’ve regretted on one hand and still have digits left over. I want to eat strange and exotic foods in a nation I’ve never visited, and hopefully enjoy some conversation with the people who made it. I look forward to the challenge of that next big mountain.

Here’s to the next journey outside my comfort zone, and the things learned therein.

Bob Doucette

Public lands can’t afford another shutdown

Rocky Mountain National Park.

During the partial federal government shutdown and in its wake, we were witness to several stories of damage done to public lands facilities, and to the lands themselves.

Overflowing toilets. Truckloads of trash scattered in campgrounds and on trails. Acts of vandalism. And perhaps most troubling, the cutting down of ancient Joshua trees in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Some of these actions may take decades or even longer to mend.

There were other losses, too. Deferred maintenance got kicked down the road even further. Scientific studies carried out by federally employed researchers were delayed, and in many cases, possibly hopelessly compromised.

And all of this on top of the fact that thousands of employees went more than a month between paychecks, creating that much more strain on the caretakers of the lands that we treasure. While government employees will get back pay, thousands of private sector contractors are getting stiffed.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It was a relief to see the shutdown end. It’s been said, numerous times, that forcing government shutdowns is a losing political tactic, as the one who makes that move invariably gets blamed.

That said, another deadline is looming in about a week. There’s no telling where this winds up – a deal on border security, another shutdown, or a raising of the white flag by whoever. But the threat of another stoppage still exists, and if that happens, we all end up being losers.

Now might be a good time to make a few phone calls, send a few emails and write some letters to your congressional representatives and to the White House. Enough of this foolishness. There are far too many lives affected by a shutdown, and far too much potential harm to the places we value so highly in this country.

It’s been said that the national park system is America’s greatest idea, and I’d extend that to the rest of our public lands. It’s about time those who govern us acted like they believe it.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Bob Doucette

Another look at training, performance and being ready to climb mountains

The high country can be fun if you’re physically ready for it.

I’m in a group on Facebook that deals with strength and fitness, and the administrator of that group asked me to post something there about what I do for conditioning in terms of being in what I call “mountain shape.”

This is an evolving thing for me, but over the years I’ve found some things that have worked well, and others not as much. Anyway, I figured I’d share that here, just in case some of you were looking at ideas for getting ready for hikes and climbs in the mountains, particularly when the altitude is high. Keep in mind, this is a post for a group that is focused on people focused on strength training, so it’s going to have a bias toward that and away from endurance athletics. That said, I think these ideas are fairly universal for people wanting to perform better at altitude. Have a read, and feel free to chime in with a few of your own ideas.

***

I’m a big fan of Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. He’s a beast on the hill. His primary ways of getting in shape: He runs 8 miles a pop, and he guides on Mount Rainier. That’s what got me into running.

BUT… as we all know, a lot of steady-state cardio can have negatives. Especially if you’re trying to build muscle. Steady state has its place. Lifting coach Tony Gentilcore wrote an entire post about its benefits in developing capillary density, aerobic capacity, etc. (he’s a legit lifter, too; can pull 600+ on the deadlift). But the body adapts to endless steady state cardio over time, and its benefits diminish. Meanwhile, lots of weekly mileage running can start to eat away muscle and sap strength. Metabolic changes can also occur, making it harder to maintain leanness over time. So what’s the middle ground? Some ideas:

You can get your run on without having to run tons of miles. Intervals, negative splits and sprints will get you in shape.

Intervals: You can do this in a number of ways. I like doing 8 repetitions of 400-meter runs. I push these hard, take a 90-second break, then do the next one a little faster. You can vary distances, too. 200-meter intervals at faster speeds can get a lot of work done. If you’re a real sadist, 800-meter intervals. If you can get to the point where you’re doing 8×800 or 10×800, you’re gonna be one tough mutha when it comes to stamina.

Sprints: 40- to 50-meter sprints are awesome. A hard sprint workout will not only get that conditioning benefit, but it will also enhance overall power and athleticism. That said, if you’re not used to doing sprints, ease into these at first. Someone who isn’t used to doing sprints, then shows up at the track and goes all out is asking for an injury. Do your homework, start conservatively, then work up to it. Sprinting is a skill. Check out this link for more.

Negative splits: A “split” is a term used to describe the time you run a specific length of a run. So on a 3-mile run, you could have three “splits” of a mile apiece. A negative split describes when a runner runs each split faster than the one before. This is a TOUGH workout. How I do it: I jog the first mile, easy pace. Second mile, I run at a goal “race pace.” Conversation at this pace would be difficult, as in short, infrequent sentences. On the last mile, I speed up again at a “suicide” pace. It’s not a sprint, but it’s fast enough that finishing that last mile at that speed is not guaranteed. You might want to ralph when it’s over. Great builder of VO max/mental toughness.

Take your fitness outside the gym to get in mountain shape. Go hike. Go climb. (Brady Lee photo)

As for conditioning specific to the mountains, I’d suggest three things. First, you gotta hike. Hike hills. Carry a loaded pack. Spend a few hours out there. Second, you gotta climb. If you’re going to tackle a mountain that’s not a walk-up, you need to put your body through the movements you’ll use on the peak. Find a local crag, go to a climbing gym, etc. It’s practice. Lastly, become friends with the stairmaster. Yeah, it’s an inside-the-gym machine, but it works all the muscles used in going uphill. Try increasing your speed as you go to mimic the increased aerobic demand of elevation gain.

Don’t forget to lift!

And as always, keep lifting. Your lifts should be based on the four basic movements: Squat, hip-hinge, press and pull. All of these are useful on the peaks, in building strength, and in everyday life.

How it looks for me: I lift Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. For conditioning, I do the stairmaster on Monday; short tempo run (steady state, race pace) Tuesday; longer run OR hill run OR negative split run on Wednesdays (this will be a high-demand conditioning day); stairmaster or HIIT on Thursday; medium-length tempo run Fridays. Saturday is an outdoors day. So I’ll go hike, climb, or do a long bike ride. I keep Saturdays open and fun, but fun with a purpose. Sundays I chill.

So there you have it. Again, if you’ve got your own ideas, let’s hear about it in the comments. And for more on this topic, check out this post.

Bob Doucette

Life outside: My favorite photos from 2018

I know most people do posts like this before the year ends, but hey, I was busy. So it’s mid-January and now I’m finally getting to it.

Getting outside allows you to see some incredible sights. So what you have here is a collection of cool scenes that stuck with me. Let’s get to it.

CAMPSITE SUNRISE

A lakeside sunrise in the Wichita Mountains.

I took this shortly after crawling out of my tent on a cool January morning in the Wichita Mountains. Our campsite was right next to this lake. There’s nothing quite like the sun setting the sky on fire the first thing in the morning.

THOSE CLOUDS

Sunset Peak, Wichita Mountains.

The cloud cover made the light a little flat, but the clouds themselves fanning out over the south summit of Sunset Peak in the Wichita Mountains caught my eye. The scenery is never boring here.

LATE SUN, THICK GREENERY

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

I made a point last year to hike more, even if just locally. As the sun gets close to setting, you hit this magic hour when it pierces the woods and lights up the forest with a warmer glow than what you usually see when the sun is high and blasting you with Southern Plains heat.

THE CRESTONES

Crestone Needle (left) and Crestone Peak, as seen from the upper slopes of Humboldt Peak, Colo.

I had a hard time picking just one photo from last summer’s trip to South Colony Lakes. This one sums up the rugged beauty of the Crestones, two of the giants of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I hope to go back soon.

AGAIN WITH THE MAGIC HOUR

Hiking the Mountain Trail, Robbers Cave State Park, Okla.

Oklahoma is a Southern Plains state, and most people see it as an expanse of prairie. That’s true in a lot of the state, but in southeastern Oklahoma are the Ouachita Mountains, an ancient swath of high, rolling hills covered in broadleaf and pine forests that stretch deep into western Arkansas. Coming back down the Mountain Trail at Robbers Cave State Park, the lowering sun cast light and long shadows through the pines. The Ouachitas were showing off.

ONE WORD: RUGGED

Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area, Wichita Mountains, as seen from Mount Mitchell.

We’re ending it here where we started: Deep inside the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma. We’d climbed to the top of Mount Mitchell and sought an easier route down. While scrambling down the mountain’s east ridge, I stopped to take in this view. The image encapsulates what may be the most rugged terrain in the state.

So there ya have it. What’s in store for 2019? We’ll see. Hopefully it’s at least as good as this.

Bob Doucette

So you want to climb all the Colorado 14ers? Here are some thoughts and advice from three people who have done it

If you’ve gotten started on the Colorado 14ers, you’re going to notice a significant difference between the walk-up peaks and the more technical climbs. Pictured here is Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus.

One night last summer, I was at a pub with friends when I got into a conversation about mountains. The fella I was talking to and his wife had recently hiked to the top of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks known as the 14ers.

As the conversation continued, he told me what he hoped to do. He planned to climb them all.

In another case, I watched with amazement as another friend went on a 14er rampage over the summer while also getting ready to run the Leadville 100. He amassed a couple dozen 14ers during that time, and like guy I mentioned earlier, he expressed interest in tagging all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

This is a big goal, but a doable one. I don’t say that as someone who has done it. I haven’t. But I know several people who have. Thousands of people have completed the list, and the number grows every year. But it’s not a small accomplishment, and there is a dividing line the confronts anyone trying to do it.

Thirty-nine of the 14ers are what we call “walk-ups.” That means they are ascended via hiking. No matter the mountain, even the walk-ups will be hard work, and some are harder than others. But generally speaking, the walk-ups are nontechnical and don’t have the big drop-offs and fall hazards that you see on steeper peaks. It’s mostly a test of endurance, mentality and keeping an eye on the weather.

But to finish the 14ers, you have to climb the rest of the list, which includes 19 mountains that aren’t walk-ups. Harder routes, the demands of climbing and higher risks of things like rockfall, loose rock and exposure to drop-offs. Some aren’t too bad. Others are objectively dangerous.

So if you’re one of those folks who has a few walk-ups under your belt and think you’d like to polish off the entire 58, what do you need to know?

Like I said, I’m not a finisher. My own list is mostly the walk-ups, sprinkled with a few of the harder mountains and routes. But I know a bunch of the finishers, and figured I’d ask them and pass along their answers to you.

First up is Bill Wood. Bill is a 14er finisher who is working on his second lap. He’s also climbed Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba. His thoughts?

“Give it time – don’t try for quick success because while many people have done it quickly, it’s not as fun a trip along the way. Stay relatively healthy and in shape; read the dotcom (14ers.com) for advice as needed, trip reports as needed and find a couple of mentors who have been there and done that and willing to do it again.”

Solid stuff. I’ve done a few peaks with Bill, and I’d trust him on all of those.

Next up is Annalise Grueter, another finisher, ultramarathoner and overall mountain athlete. She’s had her fair share of alpine successes in Colorado, Latin America and Europe, the type of experience that provides good perspective.

“So, it takes a stubborn person. Whether you spend decades or years working on a goal, it’s something that you’re fixated upon completing eventually.

“Flexibility can be crucial. Having plan Bs and Cs for the class 3 and 4 peaks is super helpful and makes it easier to adjust on short notice when weather is being weird.

(Class 3 and 4 routes are those where you transition from hiking to climbing. Class 1 and 2 routes are hiking. Class 5 is roped, near-vertical to vertical technical climbing.)

“It takes some degree of stupidity, aka reasonably high risk tolerance. You need to be aware of when you’re in a dangerous spot, but also able to mute that part of your brain and proceed calmly and logically (using fear productively as opposed to panicking).

“As others have mentioned, I don’t think physical fitness plays into it quite as much. Yes, you definitely want to be sure you’re somewhat acclimated, but folks of all shapes and sizes and different types of fitness have finished the 14ers. If it’s something you value, endurance training certainly helps, and being at low elevation, intervals can help you as well, but those pieces aren’t mandatory per se.”

Lastly is Michael Weddell. He’s a finisher who is known by his friends as the expert on the Elk Range, home to the hardest and most dangerous 14ers in Colorado. Between that and all the other big mountains he has on his resume, he’s legit.

“When you are planning peaks throughout the middle section of the list (he’s speaking of the mountains where hiking gives way to climbing), be flexible. For example, if you are going for Mount Lindsey, and the forecast is bad, maybe the San Juans are the way to go. Increase your chances for success.”

(In this case, Mount Lindsey is a peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; the San Juans are southwest of that mountain, making a potential alternative destination if weather in the Sangres is looking bad.)

“For myself personally, I have a small window of time for upper class 3s and 4s. I only plan on them from about the third or fourth week in July until the first dusting of snow in September. I don’t like complicating a climb with snow. I’ll leave that for someone above my skill level!”

(He’s being modest here, but the point is worth repeating: give yourself the best opportunity to succeed by picking the right seasons.)

To sum up their advice: Don’t rush it. Be stubborn, but don’t be in a hurry. Be in shape, but don’t think you need Olympic-level fitness to do the job. Test your risk tolerance, and allow it to grow by moving, step by step, from easier peaks to harder ones. Identify and plan for the best times of year to climb so you can increase your chances of success. And always have a Plan B. Or even a Plan C.

Other pieces of advice I’ve heard include taking up rock climbing, and practice those skills in places that can simulate the tougher routes you’re hoping to try.

So there you have it. I’m not one to give out advice on something where I don’t have authority. But listen to these three. They’ve been there and done that. If you’re still game – whether you’re a mountain state resident or a flatlander like me –  then give it a shot. The 14ers await.

Some helpful links:

Fourteener fitness

Fourteener gear

Picking your first Fourteener

Ascending your first Fourteener

If your want to read more about Annalise’s adventures in the mountains and in running, check out her blog here.

Bob Doucette

Let’s talk about cairns and rock stacking

Some cairns and rock stacks are helpful. Some are not. And it’s becoming a growing problem in backcountry environments. Pictured here is a helpful cairn leading to a route up Broken Hand Pass in Colorado, with Crestone Needle seen in the background..

I’m a little late to the party on the subject of rock stacking, but I figured it was worth weighing in on now. So let me start with a story.

About a year ago, I was hiking with a friend in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. I was showing him some of my favorite places, but also acknowledged that I hadn’t been to these spots in about eight years. Our goal that day was to go up to the south summit of Sunset Peak, traverse to the north summit, then hike down and check out one more place before packing it in and hitting the road for home.

Sunset Peak’s south summit it this weird combination of hiking, scrambling and bushwhacking that’s hard to describe. There’s no defined route to the top. You just pick your way through scrub brush, boulders and rock slabs until you make one final push to the top. We were about three-quarters of the way there, and I started looking around for the best way to go up when I spotted a cairn.

Most of you already know what a cairn is. If you don’t, it’s a stack of rocks built to be noticed. Some build them as route-finding aides or important markers. Others of late have built them for aesthetic value, stacking stones in pretty places and taking photographs. There are Instagram pages dedicated to rock stacking.

Anyway, I’m thinking that this particular cairn was supposed to be a route-finding aide. So I climbed up to it, took a look around, and found nowhere to go. I backtracked, bushwhacked and found another way up. This was an annoyance, for sure, but no real harm was done.

But the ambiguity of why people build these things can lead to bigger problems. Go on 14ers.com and you’ll read stories about complicated and difficult routes littered with useless or deceiving rock stacks. People following them sometimes run the risk of getting lost or, possibly in danger.

As far as the cairns built for art’s sake, there are other issues. Some have decried excessive rock stacking as a form of littering otherwise picturesque natural scenes. In some places, rock stacking might lead to a degree of environmental damage. Rock-stacking enthusiasts dismiss this, saying they are doing no harm that anyone can measure, at least in their eyes, and they are enjoying the outdoors in their own way.

I’m a live-and-let-live guy. But there are aspects of this debate worth addressing.

First, let’s talk about building cairns for route-finding. Generally, this is a positive. Anything we can do to unobtrusively keep people from getting lost is a good thing. On Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, a huge cairn was built on its north ridge to keep people from descending the wrong way into the wilderness area that surrounds the mountain. People have gotten lost there, never to be seen again, or found dead months later. The cairn keeps people on track as they descend the mountain.

But if you’re going to build one, make sure it actually helps. Be certain there aren’t already cairns built for this purpose, as yours might just confuse people. And best yet, it’s not a bad idea to leave cairn and blaze marking to the people whose job it is to maintain the lands where you hike and climb. I think the person who built the cairn on Sunset Peak was trying to be helpful, but it ended up being a hindrance. Someone following it might have been convinced that climbing a nearby airy and exposed rock rib was the easiest way up, but in truth was the riskiest.

Now what about the rock stacking for the sake of photos? This comes down to a question of values. If you value altering a landscape to suit your photographic goals, rock stacking is a temptation. If you do it, I’d ask that you limit it to a single cairn, take your pic and then dismantle the stack, putting the stones back where you found them. I can’t think of any justification for patches of beaches, river banks or cliffsides where dozens of these things are built and left standing. When others behind you are looking for beautiful settings to see and photograph, a chessboard of rock stacks kills the vibe.

Am I making too much of this? Maybe. But know that the National Park Service is discouraging this. And don’t be the guy/gal who builds an unhelpful cairn that gets people off route, and possibly at risk.

Bob Doucette