Zen On Dirt


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A Trans Catalinas Running Adventure

I’ve always had a fascination with skylines. When I was into backcountry skiing while living in Boulder, I was working on a project of skiing the peaks of the Continental Divide skyline above town. In Boulder, the classic skyline run (which I still haven’t done) is the Sanitas/Flagstaff/Green/Bear/South Boulder Peak traverse. There was the Tucson Mountain Traverse I did last year. Let’s not even get me thinking or talking about the Nolan’s 14 skyline traverse here.

And then there were the Catalinas that tower over Tucson. Ever since I started running, I wanted to do a traverse of the “front range” of the massive mound of mountains starting at Pima Canyon on the west, hitting up Mt Kimball, Ventana Peak, cruising over the top of Sabino Canyon, dropping into Molino Basin, and ending with a descent down Milligrosa on the east. It would be about 35 miles of not fast moving terrain and a good bit of vert.

Not really into death marches these days, I shortened the route to end in Molino Basin, which was a convenient pickup spot on the Mt Lemmon Highway, with a bailout drop down Esperero Canyon in Sabino.

And then I invited a bunch of my running girlfriends to join me in the adventure. And this could be considered pretty out of character for a version of me that existed in the past. I’m fully aware that my best chances of success on something like this involves going solo, the whole minimize the variables you can’t control thing. I’m not the type of person who needs external motivation to do something or finish something, I used to love solo adventures (and I still do, just not as many of them).

But when I looked at the Catalinas Traverse and the adventure that would be involved, I wanted to do it with others. Something about life and beauty being best when shared. And I needed Scott to run the shuttle for me.

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In the end, I had two takers. Holly, who I’d met in Sedona last fall and gone on a run with after she and Josh camped next to us and then run into again at the Oracle 50k this winter, and Danielle, who was an old friend from Boulder and had recently moved to PHX.

Both were down for an adventure and didn’t ask for many details about the route. I made some mentions about sections of trail that no one ever spoke positively of and bushwacking. There would most likely be bushwacking. And that I hadn’t seen the majority of the route, so there would be some element of the blind leading the blind.

Adventure!

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We cruised happily up Pima Canyon in the morning shadows, thankful that the sun was still well hidden behind the towering walls. We were exceptionally thankful of this once we got to Pima Spring and found it mostly dry. As a water source that I was relying on to top of water stores for the next many miles, this was greatly disappointing. It was flowing the whole way down the canyon a month ago!

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We soldiered on with a slightly more conscious effort to not guzzle water. I knew we’d be able to find some water in Esperero Canyon if needed, but that would commit us to the shorter version of the route. Maybe we’d find some high on the ridge? (I know, good joke, right?)

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Trail navigation went surprisingly smoothly considering the un-use of the trail and soon we intersected the main trail that heads up to Mt Kimball. Never pass up beautiful summit perch for lunch is my general philosophy, so we headed over to enjoy the big views of the Mt Lemmon summit, the Oracle Valley, Antelope Peak in the distance, and all the mountains to the north that I really don’t have a sense of.

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Onwards. Once off the main trail that comes up Finger Rock canyon, we were back to overgrown, rocky, Catalina goodness. I worried that if this trail was in such sub-par shape, what would the trail past Ventana Peak, the trail that everyone speaks of with such dislike, be like?

We passed the time chit-chatting about anything and everything. Fun times back in Boulder. The PHX running community. Arizona living in general. Eating-weirdness among women endurance athletes. Relationships that end without being a failure. Girl stuff, really. The hours passed quickly until Lunch #2 at Ventana. The giant arch overlooking Tucson is pretty neat, and we could see the transition in the part of Tucson we were looking at. We were headed west, making good time, and having a ball.

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The trail did get rough after Ventana, but no worse that it had been on the traverse over from Mt Kimball. We found a small water seep that would have filled our water stores if we were willing to dig out a little hole and wait for 24 hours, or more. Seeps can be frustrating. There’s water! And moss! But not enough to make a difference.

And water was getting low.

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We entertained the idea of trying to complete the entire route, gambling on the idea that Sabino Creek would be flowing 3 miles up the trail, but I couldn’t guarantee it, and if we’d gambled and lost, all three of us would have been in a world of hurt. We even made it a quarter mile up Cathedral Rocks trail before we came to our senses and halted the potential death march in its tracks.

There’s bottomless horchata just six miles down the trail. Plus water at some point in Esperero Canyon. We were all still having fun at the time, but we could all see that another 10 miles could definitely turn a fun day into the mountains in to a slog back to the car.

We did a quick about-face and headed down. There was no debate to be had.

Bridal Veil falls was flowing nicely, cold and fresh. Water in the desert is absolutely fascinating and beautiful to me. Especially when it’s in the form of a waterfall that you can stand under. When you’ve been rationing water for the past 5 hours, it’s even better.

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True to Catalina form, the trail down was rough, rocky, and rugged. And slow. I texted Scott that we were three miles out so that he’d know where and when to come get us. It took us well over an hour to get down, picking our way through endless rocks that pummeled our (my?) already sore feet.

I was pretty happy to see the pavement and to be re-immersed in the pavement walking crowd that is found on Sabino Canyon road on a sunny Sunday afternoon. After having seen two people near the top of Mt Kimball and four people on top of Ventana, we hadn’t seen a single sign of another human until the final descent down.

For a route that involved massive views of Tucson for most of it, it felt (and was!) amazingly remote and untraveled.

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I wasn’t even slightly concerned that we’d finished at Sabino instead of Molino Basin. I don’t think Holly or Danielle were either. I guess in the end, it must have never been about completing a route or reaching a goal for me, and what a change that is from what used to be my goal-oriented personality.

Five years ago, I would have gone out and done the thing on my own.

I daresay, sharing the route and the time with friends led to a far more fulfilling experience.

And that’s pretty cool.


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Run to the hills!

A few Saturdays ago, I literally (semi-literally?) lost my cool with Tucson.

It had been a few hot days that we’d spent outside riding during our impromptu Camp Alexis. We’d had the Scamp parked in town, which is amazingly convenient, but loud, for almost a week and were at our wits end after several sub-optimal nights of sleep. And I was melting. For someone who used to love the heat, I was suffering at mid 80s. And the weather forecast for the next week and a half was in the mid 90s for Tucson. Definitely unseasonably warm.

‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ I cried. ‘I’ll turn in my Desert Rats membership card. I can’t do this heat anymore.’ I may have been a little melodramatic about the whole thing, but I didn’t move into a 60 square food Scamp in order to roast in the heat (or to freeze in the cold, for that matter).

What were we doing trying to stay out of the sun when it was too hot to do anything fun anyhow (even if you got up early! which is pretty much goes against all of my morals) when we had the freedom to pick up and leave? People weren’t going to come visit us in Tucson to play. It was too stinking hot.

‘Prescott, we’ve got to go to Prescott!’ I declared. Even Sedona was looking too hot for comfortable #Scamplife. So at 4pm on Saturday afternoon, we loaded up the Scamp and pointed north to the little semi-mountain town of Prescott, fully expecting the campgrounds on the east end of town to be open.

They weren’t. It was still almost winter there. There was snow in the hills!

We ended up in Kurt and Kaitlyn’s driveway after a 9:57 text, ‘Could we stay the night in your driveway?’

The one night ended up being four.

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Days were filled with riding bikes. Nights were filled with good food, friends, and laughter.

Eventually, attempting to not outstay our welcome, we towed the Scamp down to White Spar Campground. Many sites were available. None of the spigots for water were turned on. Thus, camping was only $10 a night. Score! $10 for a picnic table, bathroom, trails 20 feet from the campsite, and easy access to town is totes worth it in my book.

Apparently it was worth it in Scott’s book too because we ended up staying seven nights.

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Go ride. Stop at knee-deep swimming hole. Them’s the rules.

Three of those days we went riding with Craig Stappler and two nights he even camped with us. Craig raced the Tour Divide in 2012 with me. Of course, I never saw him because he and Ollie Whalley took off down the road faster than I could ever dream of pedaling. Craig ended up second after an ill-timed pedal breakdown in Grants, just a day’s pedal from the Mexican border and the end.

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All that to say  that he’s a real fast bike rider. And one of the best bike handlers I’ve gotten to watch pedal a bike.

On one ride, we paired his motivation to never stop during a ride with John Schilling, who had a day pass to escape the PHX heat and pedal. Anyone who’d ridden with John knows that picnic breaks are an essential part of any ride with him. Eventually, after a bit of teasing, we even got Craig to sit down to eat during the mid-ride picnic.

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Standard Schilling ride. Kaitlyn recommended the trail to us, so we can’t actually blame him.

We stocked up on post-ride food at the Safeway on the way back. Craig decided to stock his cooler with ice at the same time and carried a 10lb block back to camp, along with several days worth of food. The speed wobbles were terrifying to watch, and he still dropped me on the hill on the way back.

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Post beers and eating, Schilling headed back to PHX. Craig took off the following morning. We called up Caroline, ‘Want to go for another run?’

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Caroline was also in the 2012 Divide, racing on Babe the Blue Tandem. It sounded miserable. Whenever I need to counter a Scott Bad Idea with an even worse idea, I mention racing Tour Divide on a tandem together. She’s also won the race riding a single-person bike. She’s a bad-ass. And she’s a runner. And she lives in Prescott.

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All good things. Plus she seems to maintain a similar life philosophy as us: Go running, go eating.

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On our first run, we got some delicious Thai food afterwards. On this one, we went Bill’s Grill afterwards, which has good beer on Happy Hour all day on Mondays. How have I not known about this place!?

We got in one more ride near Granite Mountain the next day before it was time to bid our little end-of-the-cul-de-sac campsite goodbye. Temperatures were dropping in Prescott. There were rumors of snow in the forecast. Tucson started to seem a lot more welcoming.

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Scott forgot his camera and carried mine for much of the ride. Thus, I got some pictures of myself. 

Sometimes, when we hang out in Tucson too long, I get a little down on the Scamp. The whole, ‘We could rent a place here for <$400 a month, have unlimited internet, not have to worry about power, and be able to take showers whenever we wanted, and not be so vulnerable to the weather’ concept.

But then we turn on the Motivators and get out of town for a bit, and I remember why we do this. Because when we get out there and go to the places we love, we inevitably end up spending time with amazing human beings who make life interesting and awesome. Let us never give up this pursuit of friendship and adventure.

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And when it gets cold everywhere else, that’s when I fall back in love with Tucson.


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Screw Serious

I had a bit of an epiphany last night. That may not be the right word, a realization. One of those things that you know all along, at least on some level, but it takes actually saying it out loud, or at least in complete sentences in my head.

I need to stop taking this little space on the Internet so seriously. Sort of in the same way that sometimes I start to take my life too seriously, and then I have to laugh, because we are just farts in geologic time and the petty shit that we deal with on a day-to-day basis matters exactly zero.

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Billion year old rock in Aravaipa Canyon

Here’s the thing. After the writing binge called Let’s Spend Nine Amazing Weeks in New Zealand where I wrote nearly every day, I came back and make the proclamation of: I’m going to write something worth reading!

And thus, I wrote a couple of blog posts that I felt pretty good about. Post-trip depression is near and dear to my heart. We’d pulled off a year of living in a Scamp, that was rad. And again, the tried and true, I’m thinking about racing again discussion.

Last night I opened up the computer to see that I had three different starts to blog posts going, all of which made it about 300 words before I said, Meh. Not worthwhile.

I apparently was vewwy vewwy serious about trying to produce something…ummm…deep? The whole, I’m going to do something meaningful with my life! I’m going to change the world.

Instead of just writing for fun. Instead of just living and enjoying this vacation on earth that we get to take as humans.

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Horsecamp Canyon in Aravaipa. The ranger thought we were crazy for going in for a 24-hour overnighter after getting permits two days before. Most people plan better than we do.

And I thought of all the things in my life that I just did for fun, instead of because I was seeking deep fulfillment, enlightenment, and growth, like: (Insert list of every cool thing I’ve ever done.

I didn’t race Tour Divide because I wanted to inspire people, I did it because I wanted to see the country and ride my bike a long ways.

I didn’t slog out my first Colorado Trail Race over the course of six days of rain because I wanted to know my inner self better, I just didn’t want to go back to work.

I didn’t move into the Scamp because I wanted to preach about simple living or because I wanted to be part of #vanlife but couldn’t actually afford a van, I did it because I can’t seem to make up my mind of where I want to live.

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Nothing worthwhile that I’ve ever done has been approached with an excessive level of seriousness. (Back when I was trying to be a “serious” athlete, I asked Lynda, coach extraordinaire, how I could go fast at 24-Hour World Championships. “Decide you’re going to do it a week out and just show up” was her answer. There was a large amount of truth to that observation) In fact, the things that I’m most proud of were approached with zero illusion of being anything worthwhile in the traditional sense of the word, I just wanted to do something that I thought was interesting.

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Life should be filled with bikes, friends, and puppies.

So with regards to writing here: Screw serious, life-changing, and deep. Or at least screw worrying about it. Because in the end, if I write nothing, then I’m definitely never going to write anything worthwhile. And if I reach my death bed and can’t say that I’ve written much worth reading, at least I’ll have had a good time writing it.

And the same goes for living.


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Fits of Athletic Motivation

After running the Oracle 50k about a month ago and finishing in what I considered a fairly respectable time, I had a fit of what can only be described as Athletic Motivation. I was going to be a ultra runner! I’d learn how to actually descend efficiently and quickly, I’d run hills, I’d figure out how to run a mile faster than eight minutes. I started researching races in the area.

Let’s be a racer again!

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Picking our way down Picketpost Mountain. My yearly scramble to see how my membership to Team Vertigo is going.

I have these fits of Motivation occasionally. I find myself wondering if it’s worth focusing on one thing and trying to do it really well and sacrificing in other areas of my life. Or if I’m better off bumbling along as I am now, taking up opportunities as they arise and being fairly to semi-competent at a bunch of things.

At least twice a year, I tell Scott, ‘I’m thinking about doing Tour Divide again,’ and he responds, ‘You just go ahead and keep thinking about it’ knowing full-on well that given 20 minutes, I’ll talk myself out of it.

I’m still in love with the romantic idea of Tour Divide. Less so with the actual nuts and bolts of making a fast ride across the country happen. I think of the prep time that goes into it. I think of the 2-3 weeks out on the route. I think of the recovery afterwards. Plus, those cold mornings. I hate cold mornings. I just hate cold, now that I think of it.

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Desert rats in the Superstitions

But back to running…

I found a whole bunch of events that looked fun to do, mostly in the Phoenix area, which is fairly accessible for us. I wrote them down in my Google Calendar, checked registration pages to see how many spots were still available, pondered elevation profiles.

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Off the beaten path in the Superstitions. Our “run” was maybe 13% running , 20% scrambling, 15% photos, and the rest hiking. 

And then I turned around to talk to Scott.

‘Hey, when are we going to go down to Patagonia to look at birds?’

‘Can we go to the Chiracahaus to go see those really cool rock formations?’

‘I’d really like to get up to Sedona soon to ride some red rocks and see friends.’

‘Alexis is coming to town in two weeks, we need to be in Tucson then.’

‘I need to set a date to do my Trans-Catalina Running Traverse.’

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Route finding on slickrock, high in the Superstitions

And then I turned back around to look at my Google calendar. As of this writing, we have five or so more weeks left in Southern Arizona. I looked at the list of races I had written down, factored in the several days of rest needed before them and the several days of recovery needed after them, and then I look back at my bucket list of adventures I wanted to have with friends and realized that for all practical purposes, there was no having my cake and eating it too.

In the same way that I look at Tour Divide and instead of seeing an opportunity to race my bike down the spine of the continent, I see a summer of missed adventure opportunities, I looked at my calendar of running races in Arizona and saw only missed chances to do fun things with friends during the best months of the year in Tucson.

My Athletic Motivation balloon immediately deflated. I closed the windows with the race registrations.

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The Flatiron overlooking Lost Dutchman State Park. Setting up a car shuttle for Scott leads to running from some neat trailheads

And I felt a little bad. Maybe I lack the commitment to focus on anything worthwhile anymore, you know, the whole, ‘If it’s easy, it’s not worth doing’ thing.

But I don’t think so. The whole ‘Be the best you can be’ approach to life just doesn’t work for me any more. I’ll take the ‘be 75% of the best you can be and keep the fun meter pegged at high.’

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And if signing up for a race factors into the plan at some point in time, that could be fun too. And I’ll probably finish the race and say, ‘Now if I trained, I could get faster from here.’

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I hadn’t seen Danielle since living in Boulder. Such fun to get to reunite in the Arizona desert.

And 20 minutes later, I’ll lose motivation and call a friend up to go adventure running with me.