Saturday, November 7, 2020

A Long Overdue New Portal to Adventure

Let's go back to the Summer of 2008....

I had just completed my first year of graduate school at Penn State, and was about to take part in my first stint of actual lab work at the National Ice Core Lab (NICL) outside of Denver. While I was prepping for this field work, it occurred to me that I could potentially stay a bit longer than planned in Colorado after my work was completed, and go after a thru-hike of the ~485-mile Colorado Trail. I had wanted to get a taste of true alpine hiking ever since finishing my AT hike the previous summer, and figured this would be a chance to make it a reality. I calculated that if I hiked at a similar pace to my AT hike, I could finish the entire trail in about 3 weeks.

...And so the planning began. I bought the requisite maps, went through scores of online thru-hiking journal entries, and picked up the necessary cold-weather/alpine hiking gear. I was genuinely excited for a true alpine adventure. What I wasn't expecting though was the ridiculous amounts of snow I'd encounter in late-June in Colorado that year.

Pulling out an ice core at NICL

After my 3 weeks of preparing ice-core samples at NICL, I gathered my things together, stored my non-hiking supplies at a friends house, and got a ride to the Waterton Canyon (Northern) CT terminus.

All of my new CT gear laid out and ready for a hike

Day 1 of the CT in 2008

The hike was absolutely incredible. I experienced true snow field traverses, crazy afternoon thunderstorms, insane amounts of elevation gain, and of course, alpine vistas that brought me to tears. To this day, hiking the CT back in 2008 is still one of the most profound and poignant experiences of my life.

Along the Continental Divide just outside of Silverton CO.

CT Thru-Hike Slideshow Video

As I was making my way through the rugged terrain of Colorado, something interesting happened just a few days from the end of my journey. Something that has stuck with me for over 12 years now.

About 3 days and 75 miles from the end of my hike, I came to the last trail-town of Silverton. As usual, once in town, I made my way to a local motel, took a long shower, washed my stinky hiking clothes, and eventually made my way to a local restaurant to fill up on as large a meal as possible. By that point, my hiker appetite was ravenous.

I eventually found my way to the restaurant in the Grand Imperial Hotel, where I enjoyed the entire dining area to myself (it was early on a Sunday night). I spent about a half-hour rummaging through my trail guides and maps to see what sort of terrain and trail conditions I might expect during my last three days, when I noticed a very large group of individuals coming in. I had no idea what their group was, but at first glance they all appeared to be a part of some kind of "off-roading" group. Silverton is a known hub for groups looking to explore the famous "Alpine Loop" by ATV or 4x4 Jeeps. These guys were all decked out in padded gear and some had helmets, so I just assumed they came off the loop for some dinner. they sat down and started talking, I couldn't help but listen in to their conversations. I started hearing really interesting comments like,
  • "Remember that time we broke down going across Kazakhstan?" 

  • "I can still recall getting mugged while making my way through Colombia."

  • "How about that flat tire you got while moving across the North Slope of Alaska!"
I was sitting there thinking to myself, whatever these guys are doing, or whatever group this sounds pretty awesome. Here I was thinking that I was rather "adventurous" for having just hiked over 400 miles along a rugged mountain trail in Colorado....but after hearing some of these guys' stories, I couldn't help but be a bit envious. 

Eventually I scooted my chair over and asked one of the group, "So what's your story? What group are you with?"

He went on to tell me that he was part of a worldwide adventure motorcycle touring group called "Horizons Unlimited" and they basically deck out their Adventure motorcycles with full gear (including camping gear, spare parts and equipment, and repair tools), and spend months out of the year traveling. It sounded amazing and I was baffled that I didn't even know that was really a thing.

Sure, I had heard of people taking long trips or touring on motorcycles across the country...heck one of my favorite books in High Schools was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"....but I guess I just didn't realize there was a sub-group (and sub-culture) of "Adventure Motorcycling".  I had heard the term "dual-sport motorcycle" before, but not really "adventure motorcycle".

After eating, I went outside to look at some of their setups...and was astounded at some of the bikes and gear they had mounted to them. It was truly a combination of ridiculous and captivating. I reflected on this experience for a moment thinking about how I was there, carrying my entire life on my back, and traveling by foot. And here were these guys, basically following a similar path, but through the use of a very-capable two-wheeled machine, and covering a lot more ground.

I spent the last three days of my thru-hike between Silverton and the Southern Terminus in Durango thinking about these guys and the adventures that they've been on. I imagined the  things that they must have seen, and experiences they must have had along the way. I told myself at the end of my hike that one day....I wanted to experience a similar kind of adventuring.

Typical "Adventure Motorcycle" Setup

But life went back to graduate school, and the thoughts of adventure motorcycling were shoved back into the deep recesses of my mind...being replaced by thoughts of ice-core climate modeling and glaciology. Days became weeks...weeks became years.

Every once in a while I'd see a really nice adventure bike parked somewhere and I smile to myself remembering my Silverton encounter. Occasionally, I'd even spend a few minutes surfing the web for different makes/models of bikes to see what was out there, and the respective price ranges. But nothing ever came of it.


Let me rewind once again, but this time even further back to 1993. It was the Spring of my Junior year of high school and my dad agreed to let me learn how to ride a motorcycle (after an unhealthy amount of pestering). He himself rode a 1992 Kawasaki Vulcan 750...and was admittedly excited at the prospect teaching me how to ride as well. I remembered taking many trips down to the lake or the ice cream shop in the summers as a kid with my dad...on the back of his motorcycle. So naturally, as a now-spry 16-year old about to start my senior year, I of course was excited about the thought of learning how to ride and get my motorcycle endorsement myself. 

My dad was very clear however. He told me he would only allow me to learn to ride a motorcycle if:
  1. I bought the bike myself,
  2. It was under 250cc in size. 
So I spent the next few months busting my ass bagging groceries and picking up extra hours at the local supermarket in order to save the several hundred dollars I would need to buy my first beater bike. Once I had a decent amount saved up, we started looking around the classifieds (remember when that was a thing?) to find the perfect "starter bike". My dad warned was not going to be pretty. Functional? Yes. Sexy...hell no.

After a few weeks of searching, we finally stumbled across the absolute gem that was a 185cc, 1978 Honda Twinstar. Let me be clear, this motorcycle was an absolute dinosaur and clunker, and had zero charm or appeal....but I was at peace with that. My dad and I drove out to the next county over and he 'test rode' the bike. I still recall my 6'2" father putting around on what was basically a glorified moped. It was as ridiculous as you could imagine. I ended up buying it and I think my dad rode it home while I drove the car home (I had my drivers license for a few months by then). The very next day started the lessons in the local elementary school parking lot. I distinctly remember the first few lessons....where he didn't even allow me to turn on the motorcycle:

Lesson 1....ATGATT (All The Gear, All The Time). We spent over an hour talking about how no matter how far you are going, or the conditions you are in, ALWAYS wear All the protective gear, All the time. Is it 98 degrees out? Want to wear shorts and a t-shirt? Too bad, wear all the gear.

Lesson 2....Assume all other vehicles can't or don't see you. I specifically remember him saying "I know they taught you defensive driving in Drivers Ed. Well on a motorcycle, you can be the most defensive driver in the world, and about the best that will do is make for a nice epitaph on your gravestone. You have to be more vigilant than you can imagine...ALWAYS scanning, all the time, and assuming all other vehicles are going to cut you off or pull out in front of you".  I remember him asking me after this lesson, " you still want to learn to ride?"

Lessons 3-10 included things like how the transmission works (where each gear is and how to get to neutral), how to properly balance the bike while stopped (what feet to put down etc), how to brake properly, how to pick up a tipped over bike properly (without straining your back), how to switch to the reserve gas tank, how to troubleshoot common problems, how to change the spark plug and perform basic maintenance and oil changes, how to practice good habits like turning the engine kill switch to "off" every time you get off the bike, always turning off turn signals after completing turns, performing proper visual scans, etc.  It was all a LOT to keep in mind. I recall thinking as a 16-year old, that this is supposed to be "fun" and "cool".... and it's actually a lot of work, and would require an enormous amount of responsibility. The most I ever got to do those first few lessons was sit on the motorcycle while it was turned off. I remember my dad quizzing me and throwing scenarios at me while I sat there to see how I'd respond. At the time, it was frustrating as I just wanted to ride.....but looking back now, I realize now how valuable this type of training and education all was. 

I think it wasn't until day 3 or 4 that I actually turned the bike on. Even then, I didn't get to ride it. I simply practiced shifting, stalling, engaging the clutch, etc. Thankfully, I had just learned to also ride a manual transmission car, so at least understood how a manual transmission and clutch worked. I just had to transfer the mechanics of my left foot,  to my left hand; and my right hand, to my left foot...

My glorious first ride: 1978 Honda Twinstar 185cc

Eventually, I progressed on to actually doing circles around the parking lot, doing figure-8's, taking small trips around the neighborhood, and eventually taking a few longer trips alongside my dad. After a few months of practice, I took my road test and passed thanks to his good training. That winter, I learned how to properly store a bike, and the following Spring and Summer, I got to ride my motorcycle around town and to work every day...enjoying that freedom and enjoyment before going off to college. I sold the old beast before leaving town and never really looked back.

Fast forward to 1998-99. I had just finished college and moved into my first house in Cleveland. I started reminiscing about my old motorcycle and found myself surfing the internet (with my dial-up connection) for any local used bikes. I stumbled across a used 1993 Kawaski Vulcan 750 and was immediately excited at the prospect of riding the same bike that my dad had a few years prior. So in a wild fit of impulsiveness, I went down to the shop that day and bought it. Little did I know that it was WAY too big of a bike for my 5'9", 155lb frame. I rode it around town for a couple of summers, but never really got too excited about it. It was too big, had some electrical issues, and I just wasn't getting out on it enough. Ultimately, I sold it after two years and sort of gave up on motorcycles. 

It was almost 10 years later that I would have my experience in Silverton meeting the Adventure motorcycling group from Horizons Unlimited.

My 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan

After almost 8 full years in graduate school pursuing both a Masters and PhD, I had finally graduated and landed a new job at the Cold Regions Research Lab up on the border of NH and VT. In the Spring of 2016, I was driving around rural Vermont, when I came across a guy selling a 125cc scooter at the end of his driveway for 500 bucks. I thought...what the hell. Sure it may be dorky, but it will give me a way to get around town easy, get to work in the Summers, and simply see if I even still enjoy getting around on 2 wheels. Deep in my mind I still found myself thinking about those adventure motorcycles, but honestly wasn't even sure I would still like riding on 2 wheels (especially after my uninspiring time on the Kawasaki Vulcan).

So...for the next 4 years, I found myself touring around the winding backroads of Vermont on my 125cc scooter (affectionately named Scootie McScootface). What I learned from this experience was that I did still absolutely love the freedom of two wheels, and the experience of riding. I didn't care how dorky I looked, I absolutely loved scooting around. 

Scootie McScootface....replete with milk crate

Touring around some Vermont back roads.

Last summer (2019), when C and I moved out here to Flagstaff, I strapped Scootie into our moving truck and brought it all the way across the country where I've taken it out on more than 1000 more miles of trips around town. It is a surprisingly effective and efficient way to travel around Flagstaff (especially considering how many sunny days we get).

Something else that I came to appreciate about my time with Scootie, was that it allowed me the opportunity to really "tinker" on motorcycle that wasn't incredibly valuable. In the four years that I have owned Scootie I've learned to clean a carburetor, adjust valves, replace brake pads, change odometer cables, swap out electronics, change fuel filters, replace resistors on dash instruments, replace gear oil, and a whole mess of other maintenance. I think this sort of practice is necessary and invaluable if one ever expects to take long-distance trips by motorcycle. As weird as it sounds too, I also simply found a lot of peaceful enjoyment out of simply working on the bike. I suppose there is a "Zen" to motorcycle maintenance.

BUT THEN IT HAPPENED.... that we're essentially caught up, I can tell you what transpired starting around February of this year. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to reach its first peak, and the realization that we'd be quarantined at home for potentially long periods of time, I found myself finally looking up what types of "Adventure Bikes" were out there. I spent about a solid month really researching what I was hoping would be that Golden Unicorn perfect adventure bike for me. What I learned with the Vulcan, was that it was simply too big and not my style. So I started putting together my "Wish List" that included, preferably:

  • 300-500 cc (although I'd maybe consider a little bigger if the bike is not too heavy)
  • < 400 lbs
  • Under $6000-$7000 if possible
  • Dual-sport or adventure capable
  • Meant for on- AND off-road (and can handle single track and even some technical terrain)
  • Decent clearance
  • Can carry a lot and/or has panniers
  • More of a classic look (no crazy pointy fairings or futuristic plastic bits)
  • Nice suspension
  • Not too tall (I have a 31-32" inseam and wanted to be able to flat-foot while stopped)
  • Probably single cylinder
  • Simple machine that I can maintain and service myself (not crazy complicated)
  • Nice protection parts and guards
  • Good parts availability and aftermarket parts
  • Reliable with good reviews
  • Switchable ABS
  • Has a center stand
  • Nice console, dials and readouts (not all - crazy digital)
So the search was on....

I found many bikes that fit many of these conditions....and many that even got somewhat excited about. 

Let's see. Probably the bike that found its way to the top of my list throughout my searching was the BMW G310-GS, although to be fair, I didn't love it. It was a bit more complicated than I wanted, and definitely more of a sport bike styling. Still, the reviews were excellent, and it was the size and fit I was looking for. I especially liked BMW's bigger bikes like the 800GS, but something that size was just too big, and way too expensive for me.



I also really liked the Suzuki DRZ400, but it was a bit too much dirt-bike for me, and really tall. It got great reviews, and performs amazingly, but it still wasn't really getting me as excited as I wanted.

Suzuki DRZ 400

I went on to research the Kawasaki Versys 300, the Honda CRF250L and Honda CB500X, all great machines, but again, not quite what I was looking for.

Kawaski Versys 300

Honda CB500X

Honda CRF250L Rally

KTM motorcycles are very popular here in I researched the KTM 390 Adventure, and it was definitely a top contender (very powerful), but it was quite expensive, and I really disliked the look. Heck from the front, it looks like a friggin' insect.

KTM 390 Adventure

Looks like an insect...

Lastly, I researched the newly released Yamaha Tenere 700...which was getting incredible reviews, but it was creeping up to the 700 range that I already knew was quite big for me (plus it was pricy at $10k)

Yamaha Tenere 700

After about a month of trying to convince myself that one of these motorcycles was going to be my dream adventure bike, I essentially gave up after not ever truly feeling inspired by any of them. There were also all so modern in design, with too many plastic fairings, and too sporty of a look.  So...that was it I thought.

But then something else happened. As I was reading a few last reviews online, I stumbled across a comparison between the G310GS and a bike I'd never heard of before: a Royal Enfield Himalayan. The reviewer actually argued that despite the Himalayan having less power, and being rather "utilitarian" in styling, he much preferred it.

2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan - Such a beautiful and classic design!

...And that's when the obsession began.

I spent the subsequent month researching nothing but the Himalayan, and every time I saw it, every article I read about it, it became painfully clear. I was finally, and truly, excited about an adventure motorcycle. I had found my golden unicorn.

On September 1st, Royal Enfield launched their a pre-order for the new 2021 model which would now include switchable ABS and better brakes (a complaint about previous models). I eagerly put down a deposit, and took a trip down to a local shop to test ride a 2020 model. I instantly knew it was a done deal. For the next month, I patiently waited for my preorder to come in. Two weeks ago I finally got the call that it was in, and I asked C to drop me off at the dealership about 60 miles away in Cottonwood. 

As soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to be the start of many amazing adventures.

2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan sitting at the dealership...waiting for me

After finalizing paperwork, I strapped on some new riding gear that I had just picked up, and rode over 100 miles of backroads back home. It was an absolute blast and I was practically giggling every second of the way. I stopped many times to let the bike cool off (as it was in the break-in period), and simply enjoyed the scenery. I also got so many questions/comments about it....i.e. make/model, styling, look, etc.

By the time I got home, I couldn't wait to ride it again. The very next weekend I drove it all the way back to the Phoenix area to get the first major service (300 mile) and have gone out several times since. 

Along the backroads of AZ

As the weather begins to turn here in AZ, I will sadly have to put the new machine up for winter storage, but I'm happy to have had a nice little taste of adventure on it. I will be spending my winter dreaming of the adventures to come next Summer in the San Juans of Colorado! 

Apparently it is also customary to name your Adventure Motorcycle. I thought about some of my past adventures and kept coming back to to my time in Iceland, and to Icelandic names. So everyone....I'm very happy to introduce you all to Freyja. May we have many amazing, and safe, all-terrain adventures together in the coming years!

Meet Freyja

Ready to explore!

But's time to winterize...but we'll be back!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Across the Ditch and Back (R2R2R)

View from the South Rim

This past weekend, while I was flipping through my weather app, I noticed that Monday was forecast to be an unseasonably cool day for June in Arizona. Here in Flagstaff, there was actually a frost warning for the morning. The high in town was only going to be around 60. 

An idea popped into my head....

'I wonder how how hot it'll be in the Canyon....'

Back in November, C and I took our first trip up to the Grand Canyon. It happened to be on a day where everything was covered in 6+ inches of snow. As we walked up to the Mather vista point, we both were utterly speechless. As magnificent as I imagined the Grand Canyon would be, let's just say that apparently my imagination had horrendously underperformed. We spent the next day snow-shoeing around the South Rim and taking in the sights. Upon leaving, I told myself that I definitely would be back to do a Rim to Rim to Rim hike or run at some point soon. 

Some pics from our November trip are in my Year-end post here:

November trip to the Canyon

The problem with going for a R2R2R attempt, is that unless you go in late Fall or Early Spring, you are likely to have a really miserable/hot time down at the bottom (or a really cold and icy time during winter at the top). Typically, Phantom Ranch (down at the river) has daily highs over 100 degrees in Late Spring and Summer. Spring and Fall are tough for me with the semester being in session though. So when I looked up what the projected Monday high temperature for Phantom Ranch was, and that it was only going to get up to 80 degrees, I immediately made plans for an attempt. This epiphany was made even more exciting by the fact that I had just learned that the not only was Hardrock 100 canceled for the year, but that my entry was not going to be rolled over. I was in need of a wee little adventure.

So...I did what any ultrarunner/adventurer would do. I re-activated my Inreach, bought some supplies, dug out my National Parks yearly pass, and made plans to drive up to the South Rim at 3 am on Monday Morning. 

Most R2R2R runners utilizes the South and North Kaibab Trails as they present the shortest total route. I debated whether or not to start at the Bright Angel trailhead as there is parking right at the start, but ultimately decided to stick to Kaibab. The downside was that I did have to hike 2 miles from my parked car, just to get to the trailhead, so it effectively wasn't any shorter overall.

After poring over the maps and info online, I learned that a full Rim to Rim to Rim, would entail 42 miles, with about 11,000 feet of gain (~46 miles if you include the walks to/from the trailhead). This was honestly not as bad as I thought. I began doing math in my head on what time I needed to start by to avoid hiking in the dark.  

My goals were simple: I wanted to enjoy the day, and take in the sights as much as possible. I wanted to marvel at the different geologic formations, and not feel rushed. With that said, I still wanted to move with purpose, and try to average at least 3 mph. I really didn't want to 'run', and instead wanted to rely mostly on my fast hiking skills. My back-of-the-envelope calculations had me doing the full out and back in about 14 hours (15 if you include the ~4 miles to/from the trailhead). I figured if I started by 4:30 am, I could be back to the car by dark (or at the very least back to the trailhead), as long as I didn't run into any issues.

I spent Sunday night packing and prepping, and decided to go with my larger hiking pack (as opposed to a running-style vest). Again, my plan was to mostly hike, so I wasn't too worried about awkward running with a bigger pack on. With that said however, the pack I went with was my old FastPack 20, which I can run fairly proficiently in.

At 3:00 am on Monday morning, my alarm chirped and I was out of my bed in an instant. It was going to be a good day. I churned out some quick coffee, taped my feet, gathered my pre-packed gear, and was out the door by 3:20.

The drive to the South Rim went smoothly. It was the first time in a very long time that I had made a longer drive by myself in the car. It was somehow soothing listening to my music and drinking my coffee on a solo drive. It's weird to think that just a year ago, I was driving over 300 solo miles a week just going back and forth from Vermont to Boston...and now I barely drive at all. In the entire year we've lived in Flagstaff, we've only put a few thousand miles on the car. 

I hit the main parking area at the South Rim about 4:35 am and then took about 10 minutes prepping my sunblock and gear before starting my hike over to the trailhead 2.25 miles away. I briskly walked along the paved rim trail and got some beautiful pre-dawn views. The sun was not up yet, but it was light enough out that I would not need a headlamp. At around 5:15 I hit the South Kaibab Trailhead. I took some pictures, activated my InReach, sent a 'At Trailhead' message to C, and officially started my Garmin watch. The R2R2R had begun at 5:18 am.

At the South Kaibab Trailhead (5:18 am)
(Note: AZ doesn't do Daylight Savings, so we get very early sunrises)

Obligatory start selfie

Within minutes I was already at the first vista point, the appropriately named, 'Ooh Aah Point'. It was right about then that the sun finally made an appearance. It made me feel slightly 'behind schedule' despite it still being before 6 am, so I did actually do a little jogging on the descent. I recall the first few miles going by extremely quickly. In what seemed like minutes, I had already dropped over 2000 feet in elevation.

1 mile down the trail at Ooh Aah Point

About 2.5 miles down trail

About 4 miles down, hiking through the 'Supergroup'
(These precambrian sedimentary rocks are only exposed in a few areas)

I passed a couple of people on the descent, including one park ranger who brushed me up on my Grand Canyon stratigraphy. About an hour in, I was already getting views of the river. The descent had not been nearly as steep as I was expecting, and there were a lot of forgiving switchbacks. I was constantly switching between hiking, and light jogging. Once I saw the foot bridge over the river, I knew I was getting close. I had remembered from the map that it was about 6 miles to to the crossing, and I had already gone past five miles in just a little over an hour. I was making great time.

View of the river from about half-way down.

First view of the bridge about 1200 feet down.

I made it to the river after just 90 minutes from leaving the trailhead. I was greeted by a rock tunnel just before the footbridge crossing. I hadn't realized just how high up and scary the bridge crossing would be. Needless to say, I stared at my feet to prevent getting vertigo. It was a little unsettling.

Last switchback before the tunnel and bridge

Tunnel just before river crossing

Tunnel Video

Suspension foot bridge....VERY high above the river.

I took a short break on the other side, and then slowly began the long slog up the North Kaibab Trail. I hit 7 total miles and Phantom Ranch right at 7:00 am and it was still quite cool there. I knew on the way back many hours later it was likely to be much much warmer.

For the next 9 miles the trail wound its way around canyon walls without gaining much elevation. This section definitely dragged on a bit, but was at least gentle enough that I could still get in some intermittent jogging.

After about 3 hours, I finally made it to the Manzanita camp and the turn up the Roaring Springs canyon. This is when the trail finally starts to climb steeply up to the North Rim. I took a 10 minute break at a picnic table and refilled my water bottles (the taps were turned on thankfully). As I left to start the more difficult stretch of the North Kaibab trail, I also noticed it was beginning to get a bit warmer. The trail not only began to get steeper, but also a lot more precipitous. There were sections that were reminiscent of the Hardrock course where the trail was maybe 2 feet wide along a steep canyon wall, with at least a thousand foot drop just a step to the right. I found myself really 'hugging' the walls on those stretches.

Over the next five miles the trail wound steeply up the Roaring Springs Canyon, and over many switchbacks. I also noticed I was finally out of the basement rocks, and back in the sedimentary geology going through various recognizable formations.  I crossed a foot bridge about 2 miles from the top that I had recognized from a video clip online, and so knew I was getting closer.

Starting up Roaring Springs Canyon towards the North Rim
The white limestone formation at the very top is where I was headed

View from the N. Kaibab Trail

More views from the climb

The last 2 miles were the toughest of the North Kaibab section. The trail got noticeably steeper, but thankfully it was also cooler due to the elevation. The North Rim trailhead is actually over 8200 feet elevation (1000 feet higher than the South Rim). I did some rough math and realized I might actually make the trailhead in under 6 hours if I pushed it a bit. It was an arbitrary number, but it still gave me a little extra motivation to get there without dawdling too much.  I kept checking my altimeter and my mileage and it felt like it was taking forever to get to the top. Even though I knew it was 21 miles, somehow I felt like I'd get there sooner.  My watch read 5:58 total time, so I figured I wasn't going to hit 6 hours. 

But then I turned a slight corner and saw the steps leading up to the recognizable trailhead sign. I looked I sprinted and made it to the top just before my watch flipped to 6:00 flat (or clock time 11:18 am). YES! I treated myself with a 15+ minute lunch break. I destroyed my PB&J sandwich, and downed a full liter of water. It felt nice to take a well-earned break. I think I put down a full packet of sugar gummies as well. Eventually I topped off all of my waters, and slowly packed up for my return. 

North Rim Trailhead - halfway done

Definitely a bit spent, but happy the long climb is over.

I started back down the trail at trip time of 6:15 (or about 11:33 am). It was nice to know that I was already heading back for a 16+ mile downhill stretch, and it was still before noon. I felt pretty confident I'd be able to get back to the South Rim by dark (but definitely still had my headlamp packed should the need arise).

Along the descent with some clouds overhead

I made pretty quick work of the upper descent through the Roaring Springs Canyon. I was entirely hiking, but it was my goofy trademark trekking pole scampering that I do that averages over 3 mph. At one point on the descent, a mid-afternoon monsoon cloud formed over head and the temperature noticeably plummeted. I felt almost cold...but I wasn't complaining. For about 2 minutes I noticed very small specks floating through the air and thought, 'That's a strange type of pollen..."

Turns out it was actually small snow flakes. was snowing in the Grand Canyon, in June. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it and plodded on. When I made it back to the Manzanita camp about 25 total miles in, I took another short break. I was starting to get a bit tired. I hydrated fully, and topped off my bottles again before continuing on. The next ~9 miles I knew would be long, hot, and mentally slow. I put my head down, and did my best to power hike as fast as I could. I still didn't feel like running.

Is that snow??!!

For the next several hours, the trail wound its way around one canyon wall after another. It seemed like no matter how many turns I made, I just wasn't getting any closer to Phantom Ranch. The sun was also sapping my energy quite notably. I was hot, tired, and a bit cranky to be honest. This section of the route just isn't as appealing geologically either.  Still, I thought of how lucky I was to be there, and any negative thoughts quickly eroded away (pardon the geology pun).

View from the winding lower canyon in the hot sun

When I did finally hit Phantom Ranch, I decided to push through to to the water pump 1 mile further down the trail right at the River junction. I had tested it in the morning and it was working. Well, When I made it there almost 20 minutes later, I learned that the pump had been shut off. So I had a decision to make.

I had 1 full liter of water in my pack and 6 miles (and 5000 feet) of gain ahead of me....during a hot part of the day. I wasn't a fan of treating Colorado River water, so made the rather stupid decision to just do the last 6 miles with my 1 liter. I figured I'd be fine...temps were ok, and there was bound to be potable water at one of the camps on the ascent.

I took a break at the bridge, ate the last of my food, swigged some water, and prepped for the 5000 foot climb. It was about 3:30 PM at this point. The first 2 miles of the ascent went quickly. The switchbacks were forgiving, and I was making great time. I only swigged a few gulps of water, and the trail was mostly shaded. I figured I'd have no trouble.

Turns out that I was a bit wrong. The last 3 miles of the climb are really tough, very exposed, and take a really long time. the 40 miles of the day had caught up to me and over the last two miles I struggled immensely. I found myself stopping several times to rest and actually had to ration my water. When I finally did hit Ooh Aah Point, I knew I had less than a mile and less than 800 feet of climb to go. Not long after I finished the last gulp of water, and I realized that I didn't remember a water tap at the South Rim trailhead. This would mean I'd have to not only finish out the last 1/2 mile of climb without water, but also hike the 2.25 miles back to the car dry as well. Yep...I should have refilled at Phantom Ranch. Lesson Learned: never pass by a water tap without topping off!

I hit the last set of switchbacks just 100 feet below the trailhead and slowed to a crawl pace. When I finally did top out, I lumbered down the short paved section back to the official trailhead sign a few meters away. I was utterly relieved to find a working water tap. I noted the time: 6:29 PM. It had taken me just under 7 hours on the return leg and 13hrs 10mins total time from trailhead to trailhead, including breaks. My average pace over the entire endeavor was about 3.2 mph, so I was quite thrilled. 

I was not, however, looking forward to the 2+ mile slog back to the car. Thankfully it was all flat and with nice views out over the canyon. I noticed a very large smoke plume coming from the direction of the North Rim and wondered if was from near the trailhead. Apparently there was a wildfire burning in that area.

Along the walk back to the car with a smoke-filled sky in the distance

Forty short minutes later, at exactly 7:10 PM (about 14 hours and 20 minutes total time from car to car), I was back at my car, finally ready to head home. I had done it. With a proper smile on my face, I made the 90 minute drive back home, and pulled in right at 9:00 pm. In all of my many adventures and ultra endeavors, I can say without hesitation, that doing the R2R2R was definitely right up there as one of the most visually breathtaking. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to now live so close to such a ridiculous place. I will gladly do this adventure again with any of my friends that want to come let me know if you're headed out this way ;-)

Some Stats:

In total, I covered 46.5 miles, including the walks to/from the trailhead.

Strava Track R2R2R: Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim
Strava Track To Trailhead: To Trailhead
Strava Track From Trailhead: From Trailhead

InReach Track: InReach Shared Map

Strava Track

InReach Track

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Reality of a New Normal

Crossing the line at the Elephant Mountain 50k

It was just a few months ago now that I was making somewhat regular weekend trips down to the greater Phoenix area (or as the locals like to call it..."The Valley"). I was taking full advantage of nearly weekly races put on by Aravaipa. I figured these were a good way to build myself up for my two peak races of the Spring: Black Canyon 100k, and the Boston Marathon (all with the Hardrock 100 on the longer July horizon)

After having successfully completed yet another run-every-day "Streak January", I was really honing my fitness and dialing in my running focus. For the past few years I have used my outings at the November MMTR to essentially mark the end of my running year, and then take most of December to rest and recover. When Jan 1 rolls around though, I commit to running every day, and to getting my self back into peak shape. Somehow, I even managed to do this last year while aboard a Research Vessel bobbing around the South Pacific near Antarctica. 

My 2020 Streak January peppered with bi-weekly races

Rewind for a minute....

The very first weekend in January, I began my year, and my streak with my traditional 3-hr virtual CJ's Resolution race. Back in 2014 I ran this event in-person in PA, but for the most part have participated virtually ever since. This includes the year I ran over 18 miles outside at South Pole. Over the years I've covered miles for this 3-hour event on loops outside of Boston, or loops in Lakewood Colorado....or in the case of this year, 2-mile loops in Buffalo Park in Flagstaff. Despite being a bit out of shape for this event, I always manage to surprise myself each year with around 22 miles. Without wanting to break tradition, I again aimed for 22 this year. Of course, I would also be running my loops on a snow-covered course, with over 100-ft of elevation gain per loop, and at 7200' altitude.

2014 CJ's Resolution race

Well, somehow this year, despite all of these components working to make the run harder for me, I still managed to eek out 22 miles. The only rule of the run, is whatever loop you're doing, you have to start that loop before the 3-hr mark. Well my last 2-mile loop was started at 2hrs and 59 minutes! As you can see by my track, I began hurting a bit the last 4-5 miles.

As the weeks progressed in January, so did my streaking, and my long runs. The very next weekend, I opted to escape the cold/snow, and head down to Sedona. It was the first time in weeks I was able to run in shorts. Of course my run did involve fording a VERY cold Oak Creek...twice, but I was so happy to be on dirt trails, I didn't care. I took my time and had a nice day of 14 trail miles. I even stopped for some photos.

Fun 14 in Sedona

View from the Top in Sedona (There was still a little snow there)

About this time, I was also frantically starting to get ready for the Spring semester to start up. I would be leading another graduate class, but this time related to Energy and Energy Policy. As I began pulling together various resources for the course, it was also about this time that I remember first reading about some new type of pneumonia that was being seen in significant numbers in parts of China. Interesting I thought. I remember thinking back to a movie I watched on a plane back in 2011 that involved some new virus spreading in Asia because a bat dropped its food into a pig enclosure, thereby somehow initiating a viral "spillover" event (turns out that film was 'Contagion').

The next weekend I headed down to Phoenix for my first of many jaunts down there in late winter. I had signed up to run a 20-mile trail course called the "Coldwater Rumble".  I don't know what it was about this course, but I had a near-pefect day on the trails. Despite going out somewhat fast, I ran well for all 20 miles. I even cranked out 7:30 mile at mile 11, and finished in under 3 hours (something I was convinced I wouldn't do). My exact quote on my logged run for that day was, "I can't remember the lasts time I felt this friggin' good!"

Finishing the Coldwater 20 miler in 2:58.

In between these long runs and races, I was maintaining my streak almost entirely on the treadmill at my apartment complex. There is almost never anyone in the shared fitness room, so I generally had the treadmill to myself most nights. It was a nice way to dial in my tempo runs and pacing as well.

The very next weekend, I decided to go out for a long run on some roads in town. The snow was sufficiently melted that I figured I could run the Lake Mary Rd. shoulder out to the lake and back. This would give me a solid 16 miles to test my pacing. I was aiming for about 8:40 overall pace and ended the run averaging 8:39.

Lake Mary Rd. Run

The following week, my class was finally in full swing and the pressure of the semester was starting to build. My focus was back again on my students and on prospective new students. I recall it was also this week that we heard in Arizona about a student at ASU who had come back from China, and had tested positive for the new virus that had been identified as the cause of the strange new pneumonia. The virus, a new strain of Coronavirus, officially dubbed "SARS-CORONAVIRUS-2 (SARS-COV-2), was responsible for the acute respiratory syndrome that was leading to the sickness and pneumonia being seen mostly in China (now being dubbed "COVID-19"). Apparently though, it had started to spread outside of China, as it was being learned that it had an incredibly long (and often asymptomatic) incubation period (up to 15 days). I remember thinking...."This could get interesting if it keeps spreading like that 'Pandemic' game or that 'Contagion' movie". I remember playing out a scenario in my head of what would happen if it spread through the US. Would the whole country go on some kind of lock down? I remember joking sarcastically with a colleague that we should buy face masks "before they sell out!"

The next weekend I found myself down in "The Valley" once more to toe the line at another Aravaipa race: The Elephant Mountain Race. I was slowly stepping up my events, so this time was running the 50k. Again, I had a really good day, and only started feeling a bit tanked in the last 5 miles. All day I remember thinking that I might be in the top 5 overall based on an early course out-n-back, but also kind of just assumed I miscounted. Turns out I didn't. I crossed the finish line in 4th place overall and headed home feeling pretty good about myself. Later that week I got an email from the race director and they informed me that the 3rd place runner had actually skipped a section of the course and was therefore assigned a time penalty. This put me in 3rd overall. They sent me my 3rd place prize in the mail the next week.

Elephant Mtn. 50k

3rd Place Finish (sort-of) for the 50k!

3rd Place Award

The very next week I was at it again. It was my last weekend before I would be heading down to run my first peak race, the Black Canyon 100k. I wanted to get in one last fun effort, so began looking for anything short and local. I came across a run up along the Little Colorado River about an hour north of Flagstaff, so immediately signed up.  The course featured some beautiful running right along the rim edge. I had another great outing and averaged sub-8-minute miles over the ~14 mile course. It was a great way to end my training and taper for a week before Black Canyon

Little Colorado Half Marathon

And then I waited. I had one full week to relax, do some very easy/short taper runs, and focus on work. It was now mid-February, and the new Coronavirus had made a big splash in the US. The Stock Market was finally beginning to react to the gravity of what might be coming, and we were starting to see our first fatalities from the COVID-19 disease in Washington. People were starting to get worried. There were rumblings that some organizations, businesses, and even universities were considering shutting down temporarily as well.

When the weekend approached, I booked hotel room down near Black Canyon City and headed down for the night to prepare for the morning start the next day. All went smoothly on the hour-long drive down and I was all sorted and settled by 10 pm.  I set my alarm early, and headed to the bus pick up spot for the race (which is a point-to-point event). We were all shuttled to the start and as usual, I mostly napped on the bus ride.

It was a busy scramble at the race start with hundreds of people mulling about in close quarters. It's funny how I think of that scene in my head now...and how absolutely antithetical it is to any sort of 'social distancing' mindset we find ourselves in today in April. At any rate, there was a bunch of amped runners, all digging their hands into community food bins, and sharing coffee cups...etc. Typical of a race start.

After a very long wait in the porta-potty line, we finally wandered out to the start track and just a few short minutes later, the race had begun. We all did one loop around the track and abruptly turned to head south along the Black Canyon Trail. I remember it being incredibly cold that morning and I had forgotten my gloves. Little did I realize I would be begging for those cold temps just 6 hours later.

I don't have any pictures from the race, but I do recall some specific memories and thoughts. For the first 15 miles or so, I felt like I was floating. I was running probably a bit too fast, but I remember it almost all trended downhill, so I was very comfortable. I was genuinely smiling and content along the course. As aid stations went by one, I kept thinking how surprising it was to already be so far into the run. I remember thinking around mile 20 that I was "already a third of the way to the finish!".  But, like happens often, things began to slow down. As I made my way through the half-way point, things began to get a lot hotter, and significantly slower. I was being very careful about nutrition and hydration, but still felt myself running out of gas too early. 

As the day progressed into mid-afternoon, the heat became quite a struggle and I shifted into survival ultra-shuffle mode. The only really sustained climbs of the course all come after mile 40 as well, so the 'worst' of the course, would come when I was least able to handle it. Still..I managed to mostly run though. As I crept up towards mile 50, I still felt like I was mostly in control and content with my overall performance. I passed mile 50, it soon became apparent that my pacing for the day, was indeed for a 50-miler...and NOT for a 100k.  The last 10 miles were incredibly rough and I sincerely struggled. I found myself walking quite a bit. What once started out as a legitimate goal of going sub 11-hr (or even 10:30), soon became a sub-12. By the time I had reached the last aid station around mile 58/59, I knew that even a sub-12 was unlikely. I was just hoping to finish before having to use my headlamp...but even that wasn't meant to be as I switched on my light just after passing mile 60. When I finally did round the corner of the last mile and see the finish off in the distance, it was a welcome sight. I mustered up a decent jog and crossed the line in 12hrs 14mins. I was a little disappointed, but also content that I still finished in a decent time, and had now checked off a Western States Qualifier early.

The drive home was long, but it gave me some time to reflect on the course. I came to realize that I needed a little break from desert running. I decided I would spend my time running up in Flagstaff for a while before heading back down to "The Valley" again.

Finishing the Black Canyon 100k

BC 100k course

Over the remainder of February I eased back and took things much easier. I had a couple of slower-paced trail outings with a fellow colleague: One in Sedona, and one near Walnut Canyon. On the first Saturday of March, I had what would now be my last official 'race' of the year. I took the short drive up to SP Crater (look up what the SP stands for ;-), for a half-marathon with some work friends. It was a really nice course and featured a beefy climb up onto the shoulder of the crater right at the half-way point. I managed to finish in really good time and had a great day overall. Little did I know that everything was about to change.

SP Crater Half Marathon

SP Crater with its distinct lava flow

By the next weekend everything was changing. I still managed to get out with one co-worker for a longer run in Buffalo Park (the same park I ran my CJ Resolution Loops in January), but it was the first time where we were conscious about maintaining some distance between us while we ran. On that Friday, the last day of classes before Spring Break for the University, we collectively found out that the entire campus would be going to an on-line format immediately after break. This would mean all faculty had to re-develop their material to be delivered exclusively online. This could mean pre-recorded lectures, but often meant using Zoom for classroom calls. Whatever the solution though, it meant a lot of hours re-working material and what was supposed to be a nice/relaxing Spring Break, would now be somewhat stress-filled. 

C and I had made plans to rent a small teardrop camper over break and spend some time camping down in the White Mountains of AZ. We planned to stop in Pine, AZ to visit with Barkley Frozen Ed as well. I even installed a ball hitch on the Subaru, and the wiring harness myself. I was quite proud of my effort.  But...all of this was canceled as we realized that it was not a good time to be traveling. It was on that Friday before break, when all of this went down, when the gravity of what was happening was finally settling in. Here in Flagstaff, we had gone quite a while without any active COVID cases. In some ways, it just felt so far away. But by that weekend, we had our first few cases and even our first death. Combined with the University going on-line, and the City declaring a stay-at-home order, it had immediately become so very real.

The camper we booked (and canceled) for Spring Break.

So rather than relax, camp, and otherwise unwind....we found ourselves stuck at home, preparing new course material. I began following coronavirus stats using a COVID-19 Data Portal and watched as state and national levels began climbing at exponential levels. We were beginning to surpass other large nations that were initially considered the hardest hit. It was hard not to get a bit despondent about it all. We tried to stay positive while stuck at home by planting an indoor garden, growing some of our own bean/seed sprouts, and baking bread. A couple of times, I even pulled out my old guitar and strummed a few songs. In some ways, it was a bit exciting to be on a kind of 'lockdown', but that novelty wore off quickly, and the realization that this would be more like a very long remote field deployment...began to weigh on us. Thankfully, despite a city-wide shutdown of all non-essential services, we were still allowed to go out and recreate. So, I could still go running or biking. I also managed to get Scootie McScootface out of storage too, and was able to take some fun spins around town as well. Thank goodness. 

But...we were also learning quickly that grocery stores were becoming barren wastelands. Thankfully we had stocked up early enough that we weren't hit by the scarcity of paper and cleaning products. 

Bean Sprouts!

Mmmmm homemade bread!


Yeah...pretty damn dorky....but hey ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Over the first week back after break, we all struggled to get our classes fired up properly on-line, and things were a bit bumpy all around. Eventually we got there, but it was also becoming clear just how many people were losing their jobs (including many of my students), how rents wouldn't be paid, and how the economy in general was going to get hit really, really hard. Unemployment was being projected to top 15%, or even 20%....and all the while we simply weren't getting any clear direction or leadership from our federal government. Somehow the answer was simply to drop national interest rates to 0%, and throw an insane amount of money at various bailout programs. I wrote a post in an online forum when all this happening about how maybe this would actually start the push for a much needed universal healthcare in the US. One can hope no? Here's what I wrote...

"Here's what gets me. For all the talk of how the US can't afford universal healthcare, with the stroke of a pen, we just wrote a check  ($2 trillion) that might have covered over 2/3 the annual cost of all healthcare in the US on average for an entire year...and that's with doing nothing else regarding tax reform etc.

According to the CDC, during 2015, health expenditures per-person were nearly $10,000 on average, with total expenditures of $3.2 trillion.

If we also implement even just a little minor regulation/oversight, as well as some reform to hospital charging/costs models, and a roll back of the last big round of tax cuts, I don't see why we can't absolutely afford a premium universal health care system in the US."

In public forums, medical and science experts were trying to speak up, but were being drowned out by false statistics, unproven/dangerous medical treatment recommendations, or narcissistic non sequiturs about high TV ratings. US deaths from the new COVID-19 disease were now getting into the thousands, and no one at a national level of authority was making an effort to comfort people, or tell us some simple truths like, "things will be very difficult, but we'll all be here for each other in these times, and we'll make sure our medical staff and facilities are properly taken care of".  Nope...nothing like that. There were no unity moments like this. Even local governments were speaking up more about such matters.

On the running side of the things for me....I was now reduced to what I called "sanity runs". Basically, all social distancing and stay-at-home orders had forced me to stay indoors most of my days. This means my short solo runs would be the only thing keeping my sane.  I recall one run where I ran to what was literally the end of an unfinished road. It simply stopped at the woods abruptly. I remember thinking in the vain of Shel Silverstein..."So THIS is where the sidewalk ends...". I saw some Elk roaming around on this run and thought how simple life must be for them right now. Made me a bit envious in some sense.

Where the sidewalk ended...

Some Elk roaming about...

The past couple of weeks things have really brought about some significant changes in all aspects of life. First, all races/runs have been canceled through at least June (including Western States)....along with essentially every other formal gathering or event of any kind. My Boston Marathon date will have to wait, as well as many other plans I had made. As of writing this tonight, the Hardrock 100 is still scheduled for July, but I'm not necessarily optimistic that it will still happen. As my friend Travis pointed out, after having not been in the starting field for Hardrock for 8 years, I may now find myself in the starting field 4 years in a row (because of last year's snow cancelation, and this year's COVID-19 pandemic). I suppose it's still possible by July we'll be able to have a running event like Hardrock, but honestly....there are so many more important things to think about right now that it just seems somewhat insignificant. C and I are just trying to take it one day at a time, and do what we can to stay sane. We have a bedroom blocked off as an "office"/"classroom" now for our scheduled classes....which basically alternate. When we still could, we made a few trips to the humane society and seriously considered adopting a dog.

I still get out for runs when I can. I recently discovered Woody Mountain in town and have been making frequent trips up to the fire tower. I also made one full run up Mt. Elden in town (which was a bit snowy over the 2000 feet of total climb up to 9200'). But otherwise our routine is almost entirely at home. We make our necessary trips out to get groceries...wearing our face masks of course. Sometimes I'll take Scootie out for an afternoon ride....but mostly we're just thankful that we both still have jobs. So many of our students don't. In addition, many small businesses in town are really in trouble. I can't imagine what it's like in larger cities like NY. 

I watch the statistics pages like a hawk as I have family in both NY and Florida. I have new habits of checking in with them daily (mostly). In many ways, and quite ironically, this has brought us all a bit closer together.

Long run up to Woody Mt. Summit.

Mt. Elden up-n-down

View of Flagstaff from atop Mt. Elden

View of San Francisco Peaks from near Woody Mtn.

Fire road up to Woody Mtn summit

Summit fire tower on Woody Mtn.

So here we are. All caught up to today. The US now has the most diagnosed cases and deaths from COVID-19 in the world. Now, like many of you I imagine, C and I are mostly just waiting...and trying to get through the last few weeks of the semester. I have been having long daydreams about thru-hiking, or spending a week camping and hiking 14ers in Colorado. I think about how isolated we've inaccessible everything else now is, and it makes me think back to my silly trek to the North American Pole of Inaccessibility. Mentally, I'm treating things like a long field deployment to Antarctica. I've been through isolation like this many many times before and have a lot of experience on how to successfully forge through.  

But....That still doesn't make it any easier.

So. Please stay safe and healthy everyone....and PLEASE keep practicing social distancing. It really does save lives. Listen to, and trust the experts and do what needs to be done even if it stinks right now.

Don't worry about your 401ks...worry about all the local businesses and people that are struggling now. Order take-out a few nights a week if you can to support them. Leave them a big tip.

If you don't need your $1200 stimulus check, consider donating to a food bank, or other charity in your town or state that really needs support.

And lastly, please think of, and thank, all of the medical personnel that are risking their own lives every day to help fight this pandemic. It's easy to forget that they all have families at home too...many of whom they can't even see due to quarantine measures.

We will come out the other side of this....likely quite different, but I also believe stronger and hopefully more compassionate.


North American Pole of Inaccessiblity
(really inaccessible now)

The most remote place I've ever been. Just 4 people in tents in Antarctica.
Over 50 miles away from the larger camp of ~40 people (WAIS Divide).
Over a 700 miles from McMurdo Station.
Several thousand miles from the nearest real town.

If I can overcome that isolation, I can overcome this isolation.