Some Urban Exploration...
2023 has been one of those years that seems to have whizzed by at such a breakneck speed, that not only were sound barriers likely broken, but it is genuinely hard to keep things straight in my head. Maybe this is simply due to my aging mind, or maybe we all collectively experienced some sort-of Thanos "blip". Regardless of circumstances surrounding the apparent supersonic passing of this past year, one thing is clear: I somehow still managed to find time to fit in some truly spectacular and memorable adventures. Any year that I can comfortably sit at my laptop around the winter holidays, in good health, and reflect back on a collection of fantastic experiences....is a damn good one. As I've grown older, I've learned to appreciate my adventures more, as well as the memories that I come from them. I know there will come a time, when I can no longer take on many of the treks I do today, but until such time, I will suck that proverbial marrow out of whatever I can. As I note in my new written collection, Treks to Nowhere, "I want my resume of visited places to be full of superlatives, curiosities, and idiosyncrasies when I finally move on from this world."
And so here we are, just a few days left on the 2023 calendar, and there is again much to look back on with fondness, and a smile. Once again, I will try to keep this post relatively chronological, stepping through the year, as it were. I do think it's worth mentioning a few of "big ticket" adventures right up front here, however. These specific adventures (or their preparation) were the ones that perhaps spanned many months or set the tone or a greater theme for the year.
Among these "big ticket" adventures, I would include my tackling of the infamous "Ultramarathon Western States / Hardrock Double," as well as my 1000-mile Arizona Grand Ride. 2023 was once again a year defined in large part by running. I knocked out several ultramarathons, and even completed my 100th ultra race. I hiked several peaks, went on countless motorcycle adventures, watched another eclipse, vacationed in Colorado, finally kayaked in Flagstaff, co-authored a handful of scientific papers, graduated my first masters student, and published my first full book (inspired by my writing on this very site)! So many great things to look back on....so let's jump in, starting in January...
January was all about getting back into shape. In December of last year I learned that I was selected in both the Western States 100 and Hardrock 100 lotteries. This rare occurrence is known in the ultrarunning world as "The Double," and it presents a notoriously difficult challenge. I've run both of these events before, but not during the same Summer. What makes this challenge just so tough, is that these two events are both on independently difficult courses....and are only three weeks apart. It's impossible to truly recover from a 100-mile run in under three weeks, so I knew this would be an adventure that would be hard fought, and really test my limits (especially considering my age - I'm just not as young as I used to be). So, as I noted, January was all about trying to slowly ramp back up my training. I typically take off running in December and let myself rest up for several weeks. But given this "Double" development, I needed to commit to several months of consistent and focused training. The way I decided to do this was to sign up for several shorter races in January and February as a way to keep myself on track. Of course what made this particularly difficult was that for almost four straight months (Jan - Apr), Flagstaff experienced record snowfall....making outside running not only impractical, but sometimes impossible. Given this, it also meant that I had to sign up for my campus gym, and run hundred of miles on a treadmill. This is definitely not preferred, but at least I was able to get in my miles.
From Jan through the first of May, I ran seven competitive races (several of ultra length). This included The Coldwater 20 Miler, Elephant Mountain 50K, Black Canyon 100K, Mesquite Canyon 30K, Dam Good Run 40K, Zion 50K, and Cocodona 38 Miler. It was a a slow and arduous road back to peak fitness, but one I'm glad I was able to tackle. It felt good to finally be back in proper peak shape. I remember running the Cocodona 38 on May 1st, feeling as good as I have in years. I missed that feeling.
In mid-march, I was also asked by my friend John Kelly if I would be willing to crew for him at the infamous Barkley Marathons. I crewed for him back in 2019, but he ended up quitting after his 2nd loop. This time though, I could sense the fire in him and agreed to do it without hesitation--I had a strong sense that he was going to do very well. Having finished all 5 loops back in 2012 myself, I always wanted to be a crew chief for another runner that also finishes all 5 loops. I saw this as a way of closing the loop, and paying back my debt to the Barkley Gods. I wanted to have on my running resume that not only did I finish Barkley, but that "My Runner" finished Barkley.
I won't delve too much into the details of my experience. John K. has a wonderful race report listed on his own page, and it's his story to tell. My role really only amounted to a few frantic minutes between his loops, punctuated by many hours of waiting around camp between loops. Still, I loved the experience and seeing John finish...knowing that I helped play a tiny part in his success and was able to repay my Barkley debt. It was an incredible year to be at the event. There were again three finishers (similar to 2012--the year I finished). In addition, the 3rd place finisher, Karel Sabbe, came in with about 7 minutes to spare before the cutoff. This meant he managed to unseat me as the "Slowest Barkley Finisher." It was truly an adventure like no other.
Laz getting things started...
John leaving on loop 3
Loop 3 leaders at the tower
John filling up at the tower on loop 5
A Grand Ride
In April, as the semester was coming to a close, I took my graduate students on a fun field trip up to Northern Arizona and the Navajo Nation to see a large solar farm. My running continued to ramp up, and the snow finally began to melt. When the weather finally got warm enough, and the roads fully clear of snow and ice, I also finally realized a dream I've had since late 2020 when I first bought my Royal Enfield Himalayan motorcycle. That dream, was to plan, and successfully carry out what is known as an Iron Butt Saddlesore Ride. This ride is a type of challenge in the motorcycling community that tests a rider by having them ride over 1000 continuous miles in under 24 total hours. This is a surprisingly difficult challenge, and one that takes a lot of persistence, patience, and frankly, stubbornness. Riding for 1000 miles is really hard, and doing it continuously, while also staying safe, is a true challenge.
Over the winter months, I carefully plotted out a route that I would follow for my ride, I ensured there were adequate fuel stops along the way, and that I would indeed hit 1000 total miles. I also ensured that I could start and stop at my house and ride a loop route. I decided to brand my ride a "Grand Ride," as I thought it made for a more fun take on the challenge. On Friday, April 14th, I took off of work, fired up my bike at 3:00 am, and left my house (in sub-freezing temperatures). Throughout the day, I worked my way around my planned route, making steady and consistent progress. By the time sunset came over 16 hours later, I was over 800 miles into my ride and turning for the final stretch back home. Ultimately I made it back safely without any issues. I managed to ride through just about every landscape and ecosystem that Arizona has to offer. It was an absolutely epic ride, and one that I will never forget. And despite the obvious backside discomfort, I'm already planning the longer Iron Butt Bun Burner 1500-mile challenge for 2024. I published an entire post about this ride as well as a video compilation and podcast episode featuring the highlights.
Full Video Compilation
As Spring finally brought some warmer temperatures, I finally found myself enjoying the outdoors much more. I was running regularly again outside, and even kayaking on occasion on the now full Lower Lake Mary (from all of the recent snow melt).
Grad student field trip
As summer started to approach, my focus shifted entirely to that of my final "Double" preparation. This included a few final training races as well as another "up and down" at the Grand Canyon. Somewhere in there I also squeezed in trips out to Seattle for a fantastic science meeting, as well as the ice core laboratory for some sampling. I also flew out to California with my good friend from the East Coast, in order to take part in the Western States Training Camp. This camp would give us the chance to see 70 miles of the actual Western States course before race day, and asses the snow situation. California received record snow fall and we were both worried about conditions for the race in June. Camp went well for the first two days, but on the third day, I took a horrible spill, and fell really hard on my right knee (and my hands). I was really worried that I may have done some serious damage that might have put my running of the "double" in jeopardy. After all of my focused training, my races were in serious doubt. I spent the next two weeks nursing my sore knee and doing everything I could to allow it to heal and recover quickly. Thankfully, it healed enough to not cause any serious trouble for either summer race. I was incredibly lucky.
Just before Western States (The first of the "double" races), I ran one final 50k training race and my knee did ok. This was all I needed to assuage any doubts I was having about my knee.
Race weekend came, and it all went off quite well. I had a good run, and my plan to not push too hard went exactly as I had hoped. The snow in the first 15-20 miles was pretty rough, and slowed me down considerably, but I was able to recover enough that I still finished right at 27 hours. I wrote an entire race report following the event here:
Training Camp Pic #1
Training Camp Pic #2
Training Camp Pic #3
Along the course
Along the course
Along the course
At the finish!
My 2nd Western States Buckle
Not long after Western States (And with only a couple of weeks to recover), I was in Colorado prepping for my second run, the Hardrock 100. As a way to get in some final training, I headed up to the Maroon Bells Wilderness for some fantastic camping and climbing. I was able to bag my 54th 14er peak (out of 58) and enjoy some wilderness time with C and the dog. We also camped for several days down near the Wilson 14er group in the Lizard Head Wilderness area. Things were looking pretty good leading up to the race, but then on race day, we were presented with ridiculously dry conditions. Over the course of the race, I developed major breathing issues due to the dry air and suffered from acute exercise-induced asthma. It didn't really cause me issues until around mile 75, but he final 25 miles of the race were an absolute struggle and I was nearly pulled by medical staff.
One of the things that also made Hardrock so special was that it marked my 100th official ultramarathon race. I wrote an entire report detailing my entire experience at Hardrock and my quest for 100 ultramarathons here:
Camping in the San Juans
At the Maroon Bells
On the summit of Maroon Peak
The Tunnel at mile 60
Climbing Virginius Pass (Mile 70)
A Hard-fought finish
Relaying my story to Hardrock and Barkley Legend: Blake Wood
A New Motorcycle!
Once back from Colorado another big development occurred. I decided to sell my small and very capable trail bike (my Honda CT 125), and replace it with a more traditional dual-sport bike. I went with a Honda CRF300L....but I specifically went with the "S" model as it offers riders a slightly lower seat height. My problem with dual sport bikes has always been their tall seat heights (I'm only 5'9" with a 32" inseam). The 300LS is low enough that I am able to flat-foot comfortably, and therefore control the bike with much more ease. This meant I now had a true trail-capable bike, that I was not nervous to ride, that I could fully control. Not long after I was headed off on countless trail adventures. I will link to a few videos below of some of those adventures.
End of Summer and the High Flagstaff Peaks
As the summer came to a close, and I began preparing for the start of the Fall semester, I snuck in a quick trip back to the East Coast to visit some family. I also got in a another Ultra at the Stagecoach 55k run just up the road from my house in Flagstaff.
Another larger-scope project that I focused on in the Fall was my quest to tag the "significant high peaks" of the Flagstaff Area. I keep a list of 27 peaks in the area that I've been slowly pecking away at but focused on more earnestly during the Fall. I managed to get out to Merriam Crater, Red Mountain, the White Horse Hills, and the Hochdoerffer Hills. I captured video footage from all of the these adventures which are linked below.
White Horse Hills
Treks to Nowhere
One of my biggest adventures of 2023, was my journey to publish my first full book, Treks to Nowhere. I've been compiling posts on this website since 2006 and have been telling myself for years that I would eventually put a more formal collection together. In October of last year, after some consistent encouragement from friends, I finally made a commitment to get it done. Part of the way I kept myself motivated was to publish regular audio narratives from the collection in the form of a podcast series. This got me excited about each upcoming chapter. Despite this heightened motivation, it was still an arduous and tedious process. I went through months and months of endless editing and proofreading. I never thought I'd spend so much time re-learning rules of semi-colons and em-dashes. In late October, I finally finished the collection and had a proof sent to me through Amazon Direct Publishing. The first time I held that book in my hands, it was a surreal feeling. I've written my share of scientific papers that have been published in journals, but writing a book just feels different--over twenty years of planning and a lifetime of adventures, all combined into a single volume in my own hands. Simply indescribable.
I put out a quick video detailing the final days leading up to the publishing below.
Some Final Adventures
In the final few months of the year, I had a smattering of final smaller adventures. These included a day-trip up to Navajo Nation to view a annular solar eclipse. While not as profound as a total eclipse, it was still incredible to witness (and only a 2 hour drive from home).
In October I went down to the Phoenix area to pace my good friend at the Javalina Hundred ultramarathon (as a way to pay her back for pacing me at Western States). We had a grand time running through the desert together.
In early November, I made my annual pilgrimage to Virginia to run the Mountain Masochist 50-miler with my Barkley Friends. This marked my 7th running of the event, and just like in 2022, I just barely squeaked out a sub-12 hour finish (11:55). It was really wonderful to again run 50 miles with my good friend Travis (who had also paced for me a few months prior at the Hardrock 100).
In November I also tried my best to reach the Geographic Center of Arizona...twice (falling short both times). Turns out, it is a really tricky spot to reach and will require some more intense preparation and planning.
Over Thanksgiving, C and I took a short trip out to Wrightwood, California to visit with family again. I always love going to this town as it was one of my favorite trail towns while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2010. We had a wonderful holiday break, and I had enough time to squeeze in another summit of Mount. Baden-Powell.
In December, I ran one last ultramarathon, the Fat Ox 6-hour event. I ran this last year, and it was during the many loops on that course that I learned of my selection in both the Western States and Hardrock Lotteries. This year, I did not get selected for either lottery...which I was honestly relieved to learn. I think I just need a year off from both events.
The Fall semester came to a close, and I watched several of my Climate Science students walk at graduation and celebrate the completion of their MS program. I also graduated my first full research geology MS student. This was definitely a significant milestone for me as it was the first time that I had advised a student one-on-one, through an entire research program, on an NSF grant that was funded from a proposal that I wrote. It was also the first time I served as a chair at a defense. It was weird being on the other side of a defense, and it brought back some interesting memories from my own graduate school experience.
Speaking of research, I also made my annual pilgrimage to San Francisco for the large American Geophysical Union conference. I met up with several collaborators and hatched some interesting plans for some upcoming projects, that should include Antarctic field work!
And so we've made it up to this week. The holidays are here, and I'm in Florida meeting with family. I always end my long winter running break with a Christmas morning loop run around my small neighborhood that my mom lives in. This makes for a nice mental kick in the pants that I need to get back into shape.
And that's it. I'm grateful to have my family and my health...and to be able to continue exploring however I can. I have several plans in the works for next year as well that I hope to tackle, but nothing set in stone just yet. Some ideas I'm tossing around though include finally tackling a 200+ trail ultramarathon, knocking out at least one more 14er, riding the entirety of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery route, and perhaps even tackling a 1500-mile Saddlesore ride. I'm also planning a trip to Texas for the total solar eclipse, as well as a trip overseas to Spain and Morocco. As always, there's a chance I may be heading further south to the icy Antarctic, but nothing is official as of yet.
Thank you everyone for following along on my silly adventures. If I've learned anything over the past few decades of adventuring, it's to simply get out and explore...even if it's just in your own neighborhood. Don't let the days slip by. As cliché as it sounds, get out and see the world. Discover goofy places, and marvel at the many wonders that exist.
I look forward to another year full of silly and memorable adventures....
Watching the eclipse with my doggo
My friend crushing her first trail 100-miler
One of my (failed) attempts to the geographic center of AZ
The gang at the Mountain Masochist start line