Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prepare To Die! Pacific NW(ish) meet-up

Photo: Mike, Janson, Jen, Chris, Katherine, John (me)

Perhaps it’s the name of the run that keeps the numbers down: “Prepare To Die!” sounds, well, intimidating. As is the description: twenty miles total. Ten miles up to the top of Larch Mountain, and then back down, on apparently very rocky trails, the kind that would be intimidating to regular shod runners, only we’re a bunch of crazy barefoot runners. Not only that, but this isn’t even a ‘real’ paid-for event. We’re all volunteers. Madness. Only weirdoes from Oregon would do something like this!

As a newly arrive transplant from Michigan, I am gradually becoming a weirdo. I ran with some of the people on this run last week, for a much shorter jaunt: Jen, Mike, and Chris, all of whom have driven a ways—an hour past the other side of Oregon to be here. The new faces are Katherine, who is not even a Barefoot Running Society member, yet, but who somehow came across the FaceBook announcement. She’s from Gresham/Portland, and has had the shortest drive.

Also joining us is Janson, from Washington, who drove like three hours to be here. After coming down for a few meet-ups in the Portland area, he and Jen came up with the idea of doing a meet-up run somewhere between the Oregon and Washington folks, so as to make this an actual Pacific Northwest-ish meet-up. Alas, all the other possible Washington folks have bailed. Bawk bawk!

We are in ‘The Gorge’, along the Columbia River, east of Portland about a half hour, meeting at Horsetail Falls, one of many falls along the southern ‘cliffs’, including the more well-known Multnomah Falls down the road. There’s a small parking lot, with the falls right here, pouring off a cliff right next to the road. My fear/prediction for this run is that it will actually end up a hike, since from the maps Jansen printed up, it looks like we’re just going uphill the whole way.

And I’m definitely going minimalist for this one. A quick scout trip up our trail shows that it’s very rocky. Perhaps doable barefoot, but at a slow slow pace, and I want to be able to hang with people. Plus, twenty miles of that would be brutal. Well, shoes are a tool, right? I think I need a tool for this one. The others opt for minimalist as well. Katherine and I both have VFFs, the rest have various forms of huaraches. Only Mike is going to try barefoot, though he’s packing both a pair of huaraches and his Merrills Trail Gloves in his backpack. We’ll see how far he gets!

After a quick review of the route, we’re off. The trail does go uphill immediately, but after a hundred feet or so levels off, and parallels the road, side hill, though still with plenty of up and down. Jansen, Katherine and I seem to be the ones willing to go a little quicker, with Chris and Mike sometimes catching up to us. Jen steadily brings up the rear, making sure there are no stragglers!

We run over to Multnomah Falls and turn left, uphill. I’ve actually been here before, on a family trip, and there are plenty of families and people in general along this part of the (paved) trail, which takes us up to the very top of the falls. Basically we’ll follow this trail all the way to Larch Mountain. As we leave the river behind, less and less people are on the trail, though notably we’re already seeing other (shod) runners coming downhill.

Mike quickly changes into huaraches, and while not as weird as all of us being barefoot, all of us being minimalist is still cool. People notice, some even ask polite questions. This is the value of these meet-ups: being with other like-minded folks, and also having ‘normal’ people see us in action, so they can see minimalist running isn’t just for lone nut-jobs. In fact, nut-jobs run in packs.

We have definitely formed into two packs: the fast folks and the slowpokes, though us fast folks take occasional breaks so as to allow the others to catch up. And yes, now we’re doing more hiking/walking than running. Which is still ok, but at one point, an hour and a half in, we figure out that we’re only like three miles in. Yikes. This is going to be a long day.

Fortunately the area is gorgeous. Besides the falls and running water, I still can’t get used to the HUGE trees here. Perhaps not super tall necessarily, but thick. They have girth. The whole place is lush, and this is in the dry part of the summer. In the winter this must be like a rainforest.

And yeah, this trail is rocky, in many senses of the word. Both with gravelly grit, and rough rocky bumps. At this point, we all seem to be ok with that, if the going is a little slow, but if all twenty miles are like this, my feets will be a little sore. This is where I might bust out my Merrills, or my soon to arrive Luna Leadvilles. I wonder out loud if Barefoot KenBob would really run over this stuff? Apparently trying to make ourselves feel better, we begin to disparage all the California barefooters, claiming they just run on the beach all the time.

After hiking for so long, going back into run mode is both mentally and physically hard, but with two miles to go to the top, we get into thicker pines, and the trail turns to dirt and needles. Excellent! At this point, Jansen has dropped behind and Chris has come up with Katherine and I, and we soon arrive at first a picnic grounds in the trees, then a parking lot. Yes, kind of takes away from the feeling of glory, coming all this way on foot, and then being in a parking lot with a bunch of people who just drove. Or maybe not. Maybe feeds my ego and helps me feel superior.

After a short wait, the rest of the pack arrives, and we take a small quarter-mile detour to go out to the vista point at the very top of the mountain, which is totally worth it: We can see for miles, including up to Mount Ranier in Washington, but with Mt. Hood huge to the east. And down into the Gorge, which seems to have its own weather going on, filled with clouds. And way to the south east is a large wildfire plume. Ah...I used to go to those things. No more. But what a wonderful view, and a wonderful way to see Oregon, for someone newly arrived like me.

And now the easy part, we hope. Down. We’re doing a loop, taking a different trail on our return, which we catch a little ways down the paved road. And yes! It too is dirt and pine needles. I think all of us are so relieved to have good running terrain that we just take off, barreling down. We quickly cover two or three miles this way, before the trail started to get more rocks, and be a little bit overgrown. Hm, way less used. As point man, I’m getting all kinds of spider webs in my face. Fortunately I mostly spot the really big spiders, the kind that look like they could catch birds. Or, as Newt says in the movie Aliens, ‘Mostly:’ After going face first through one, I feel something skittering across my neck, and a little prick. Argh! Scheisse! Of all the places to be bit by a large poisonous spider! The poison with go right to my brain! But then nothing seems to happen, I don’t black out or anything.

I’m now in the fast pack with Jansen and Katherine, and the trail is just getting more and more overgrown. I’d almost say we weren’t even on an official trail except that we come upon a Forest Service log bridge over a big river. We check our maps and guestimate where we are. We should be on one main trail for the majority of the way down, and we haven’t seen any turn-offs, no other trails, so we think we know where we’re going, but man, the trail just gets thick, with eroded out holes, barely visible through the underbrush. We are walking slowly. Yeah, this is going to be a long day.

Finally we reach a Forest Service sign at an intersection, with an arrow pointing us to Multnomah Falls. After consulting our maps once again, we proceed on. The trail clears, but it’s back to rockiness, and our legs and feet are just so hammered that running on anything but the most minimal rocks is just painful. So, we’re still walking a lot.

And walking.

And walking.

We’re definitely in a ravine, that definitely leads out to the Gorge, and we think we’re almost out, when we get to another intersection, which says Multnomah Falls is still three miles away. Wtf?! We check our maps again, and Jansen finally figures out that we actually took a wrong turn way way back at the top of the mountain, and have in fact taken a different trail, which, though it got us to where we want to be, added three miles. Doh. Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t catch it, me the former wildland firefighter, and backpacking enthusiast, but, I think we were all too happy to be running at the top to really stop and check and see if we needed to be taking any turns. Nor did any of us ever see any intersection or turn offs, but I know with how fast I was going, and how in the zone I was, that I could have easily passed something. Luckily we didn’t end up half way to Albuquerque or something. I only hope the slow pack didn’t do what we did. If they didn’t, they may even finish before us. If they did, I’m a little worried they’ll eve make it out by dark. Gulp.

And still, we’re walking. My legs are hammered, especially the tops of my calves. Shin splints? Not sure. Just really sore. And yeah, the bottoms of my feets are a little sick of getting poked and prodded. Katherine is the same way, though Jansen has on Mike’s Merrills, so may be in a little better shape. Still, the three of us are all marathoners, so I know we can make it. I’m still just a little worried about the other pack, since twenty miles is the longest some (or all) of them have ever done. I feel mother hen-ish, but what if someone falls and gets injured? Argh. Well, this was called ‘Prepare To Die!’.

Even when we’re almost to the bottom, and turn right to go the last mile and a half side-hill, even then we can’t run. I know we ran through on our way up, but the rocks are now just too much, too painful. We’re walking, picking our way through the worst of them. I can’t even appreciate the waterfalls. I just want to be done!

And then, finally, we are done. There is the parking lot. Yes! But uh oh, Mike’s car is still there. I fear they may have taken our scenic route as well. Seven o’clock. Man. Nine hours. Long day. And Jansen still has to drive three hours home. We decide to leave a note (as well as Mike’s shoes) on his car, telling them to call or text me that they’re still alive, and we figure also that Jen will post on FaceBook. Originally, before, when we all thought this run wouldn’t kick our collective asses, we’d discussed meeting at a brewery down the road, but the three of us decide to just get going. We’re like hours past when we thought we’d finish.

So, with an exchange of contact info, and a hope that we will all run together again, we bid adieu. And man, the drive back to Portland is even more spectacular, with the sun setting on the Gorge, and all the ospreys hanging out in their big nests on the water. I look up at those cliffs and think, I hiked up way past those things today! Overall, even with the added miles and hours, a wonderful day, most especially because of being with like-minded minimalist weirdoes.

PS-Mike texts me later so say they made it out! And yep, they took the wrong turn too.