Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Toughest 50 Mile: Zane Grey vs. Wapack and Back

Most ultrarunners haven't even heard of this race.  However, this still doesn't make it an easy event to get into.  You have to be waiting by the computer when registration opens and hope you're one of the first 30 to hit the proper key strokes.  The planets aligned this year and I was able to both register in time and make the trip east for the 10th running of the Wapack and Back 50 Mile.  This is an event that I've wanted to do for some time due to its acclaimed difficulty (more on that later), trail history and location.

The setting for the Zane Grey 50 Mile - The Mogollon Rim.

The setting for the Wapack and Back 50 Mile - The Wapack Range

The race course travels the length of the Wapack Trail (21.4 miles from north-central Massachusetts to southern New Hampshire) one of the oldest interstate hiking trails in the US.  The race does an out-and-back on the trail, then heads out for another "short" 7-mile out-and-back to collect the total mileage.  There's an accompanying one-way (21.4 miles) event held as well that has double the participant numbers.

I was really interested in how this race would stack up against another difficult 50 mile event that I enjoy participating in: the Zane Grey 50 Mile.  Zane follows the entire length of the Highline Trail #31, a National Recreation Trail, and a portion of the Arizona Trail.  The point-to-point race contours below a 200-mile long "cliff" called the Mogollon Rim in east-central Arizona from Pine to near Christopher Creek.  Two weeks before Wapack, I finished my 13th Zane, a race that's been held for 27 years.

I know of only two other runners (new update: three) who have completed both events.  Bret Sarnquist, who now hails from Silver City, New Mexico, ran and won Wapack (his first 50-mile race in 2008) in 9:57, still one of the 10 fastest times on the course.  He's run Zane five times. Deb Livingston, the race director of the Soapstone Mountain Trail Races, has run Wapack three times (including two victories and the second fastest time on the course) and has finished Zane once. You'll hear their voices occasionally in this piece.  In 2007 New Mexico's Sean Cunniff finished Zane and Wapack in back-to-back fashion and then went on to complete San Juan Solstice 50 Mile almost a month later.

Bret Sarnquist at the 2016 Zane Grey.

Debbie Livingston at Wapack (with family and the author).  Photos by her husband Scott Livingston.

So, for those of you who are interested, let's break down two of the most difficult 50 mile races in the US.

1) Environment:  These races happen on two different sides of the country.  Wapack in the northeast, Zane in the southwest.  Wapack runs through forests of yellow birch, eastern hemlock, american beech, white pine, sugar maple and red oak.  Schist and granite make up the steadfast rocks found on  the course. Zane passes though ponderosa pine, pinyon and juniper forest.  The rocks underfoot consist of loose and eroding limestone and sandstone. Wapack is mostly tree covered but occasionally passes over barren rock-covered 2000'+ summits.  The Zane course runs between 5000' and 6500' and though some of the course has canopy, wildfires like the Dude Fire have left many miles of the course treeless.  Weather can be a wild card.  Zane is most likely to have warmer temps -- 70's with sunny clear skies.  However, how can we forget the snow storm of 2014 that cut the race short?  Wapack typically experiences wet, cloudy conditions, which make the rock slabs underfoot (which make up most of the course) very slippery.  However, according to Trail Animals Running Club race director Jesse Veinette, 2015 saw temps in the mid-80's.

Typical scenery in the middle of the Zane course - The remains of the Dude Fire.

Common Wapack footing.

2) Rocks:  Both of these races score high with a sh@t ton of rocks.  If you're looking for a smooth, flowing trail course you will not find it at either Zane or Wapack.  There is little rhythm running to be had in either at these races. Wapack rocks are large, in-place slabs set at precarious angles.  You'll need your hands!  Add moisture to the moss and lichens that cover these boulders and they become "slicker than snot on a door knob."  Pad your tail bone for this race.

Wet rocks and roots on the Wapack Trail.

Imagine someone dumping a truck full of babyhead-sized rocks in your front yard and then running up and down that pile for 9+ hours.  You now have a visual of the footing for most of the Zane course.  Ankle twisters and knee benders.

The words erosion and Zane are synonymous.

3) Terrain:  Wapack weighs in with roughly 11,500' of gain.  Zane pounds you with about 9,700' of vert.  Wapack's climbs are steep and relentless.  Some are so rocky (see boulder field), that even on fresh legs you must hike and climb.  Zane's ascents are much longer and drawn out.  Runnable on fresh/strong legs, but breathtaking due to the high altitude and exposure to the dehydrating sun.

Wapack's elevation profile.

Zane's elevation profile.

"What makes Wapack harder is the relentless elevation change combined with the technicality of the trails," says Sarnquist. "Zane has plenty of climbing, but Wapack is constant up and down - there's no break from the short climbs and descents and those tend to be steep, meaning walking both up and down. The technicality of the trails at Wapack limits your top speed. The trails at Wapack are more technical overall with some steeper grades, worse footing and some scrambling." 

"Zane Grey was challenging for me in 2012 due to the altitude and the heat," says Livingston. "The many rocky sections can be a pain but I don't think they slow you down as much as the boulders in Wapack and Back."

3)  Course Marking/Navigation:  Both courses meander ruthlessly with sharp twists and turns.  Lush vegetation along the routes can, at times, obscure proper footing and the trail itself.  Both events will leave vegetative cuts and scrapes on your legs and arms.  Because they are both historic trails they are marked with permanent markers: Zane with metal silver diamonds and Wapack with painted yellow triangles.  However, if you look down too long you'll quickly find yourself off course on either course.  Zane's race management flags the course.  At Wapack, they do not.

Wapack's yellow blaze.

Some of the tough trails to follow at Zane.

"I find the out-and-back format of Wapack to be mentally challenging, since you have to do everything again," laments Sarnquist.  "Every steep climb, mud pit, and overgrown section is something you'll have to deal with again."  

4) Distance:  Garmins aren't always accurate.  However, Wapack has always been the same course.  The trail hasn't changed significantly, except for a detour around the Windblown Ski Area, for 10 years.  On the other hand, Zane's course, even though the start and finish line haven't changed, (with the exception of one "reverse" year) is in a state of constant upheaval.  Erosion, vegetation growth and downed trees have added mileage to the course through the years.  Today, funding has been allocated to repair the Highline Trail.  Work parties with heavy equipment are making headway in realigning/rerouting the trail.  Great news, but this has added significant mileage to the course.  The Zane course now spans an additional 2-3 miles.  Expect this to grow in the next two years as trail repairs are completed.

Views from a bald Wapack summit.

Trails like this are quickly being replaced with new improved tread on the Zane course.

5) Aid:  Both courses rock in the support category.  Teams of dedicated volunteers at Wapack and Zane work tirelessly to keep all runners happy and moving forward.  However, Zane sports only five well-stocked aid stations (not including start and finish).  Wapack is able to provide welcomed assistance at nine locations.

Aid at mile 24 at Zane Grey.

A look at the tents that protect the aid stations at Wapack.

6)  Participation/Competition:  Zane has been around much longer than Wapack, and it was, at one time, part of the old Montrail Cup Series. This designation brought some of the most competitive ultrarunners to the venue for several years.  Runners like Dave Mackey (current course record holder at 7:51), Nikki Kimball (current record holder at 9:14), Geoff Roes (Western States 100 Mile winner), Darcy Piceu (Hardrock 100 mile winner), Kyle Skaggs (Hardrock 100 mile winner), Petra Pirc (Tahoe Rim Trail 50 Mile and San Juan Solstice 50 Mile winner), Karl Meltzer (Hardrock 100 mile winner), Kerrie Bruxvoort (Quad Rock 50 Mile and San Juan Solstice 50 Mile winner), Hal Koerner (Western States 100 Mile winner), Diana Finkel (Hardrock 100 Mile winner), Anton Krupicka (Leadville Trail 100 Mile winner) and Scott Creel (Tamalpa Headlands 50K winner) among others.  Now-a-days, Zane has nearly 150 starters.

Wapack, a younger race, a much less publicized event and local favorite, has a very small starting field due to the constraints of the Wapack Trail.  Josh Katzman (a top 20 finisher at Western States and PR of 15:35 for the 100-mile distance) holds the men's course record at 8:51 and Kristina Folcik (winner of Traprock 50K and 3rd at Leona Divide 50 Mile) holds the women's record at 10:53.  Other notable finishers include both Debbie Livingston and Bret Sarnquist.  Wapack has less than 30 starters each year.

7)  Entering: Entry to Zane is via a lottery that opens on October 1, 2016.  Wapack will, most likely, be on a first-come first-serve basis that might be opening on February 1st, 2017.  Better mark your calendars.

A lucky 13th finish at Zane.

My 1st Wapack finish and what I look like after two gnarly 50 mile finishes in 13 days.

In the end Sarnquist picks Wapack over Zane in terms of difficulty.  "People tend to underestimate the difficulty of races back east," he explains.  "Expectation is everything, as they say, and if you expect it to be not so bad some of those eastern ultras will be a real surprise."  But let's be honest, if we search hard enough we'll always find something bigger and harder. "Word on the street, or trail, is that the Tushars 93k is one of the hardest races around," points out Sarnquist. "Also up there, by reputation, are the San Juan Solstice 50 and anything in the Marin Headlands." 

Livingston also picked Wapack over Zane.   "In some respects Wapack and Back is a more challenging race due to the large rocks on many steep climbs along with lots of exposed roots," explains Livingston. "Add rain into the mix and that compounds that toughness. The other aspect that makes it hard to even complete is arriving at the finish with 7 miles to go. That makes the race mentally challenging and keeps many people from continuing on."

Cunniff, however, went with Zane as the tougher. "It was Zane for me, mostly because of the heat and exposure," he says. "But that nasty out-and-back at the end of Wapack definitely tested my mental toughness."

So, which race do I think is more difficult?  I'm not sure. As I recover from these two beastly courses I'm still trying to make up my mind.  What do you think?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Five Questions with Desma Degraw - Interviews from the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays

Desma Degraw putting in the miles at the Stagecoach 100 Mile.

Sometimes you meet a person that makes finishing a 100-mile foot race look easy.  Not because they finish the race in course record time or win the event outright, but because of the journey they endured to get to the starting line.  Flagstaff resident Desma Degraw is one of these individuals.  Desma finished the 2015 Stagecoach, her first 100 mile, in 27:42:18.  I saw, firsthand, how determined she was to make her way to the finish.  However, her battle with cancer is the more inspiring story.  She shares:

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 when I was 29 years old. I underwent neoadjuvant chemo, a double mastectomy with reconstruction and seven weeks of radiation. I had been a runner before my diagnosis (5K-1/2 marathon distance) but during my treatment I started marathon training. With Art's (her husband) help, running allowed me to take back my life and regain control. Even though, in the beginning, all I could do was jog/walk between light poles, every run I went on was a step toward health, a way of giving cancer the finger and kicking it out of my life. Besides, being bald meant I was more aerodynamic.

I'm now the front office manager for Arizona Oncology here in Flagstaff. It's a career that enables me to help others and pass along the kindness that I have experienced."

You can read, in detail, about Desma's Stagecoach adventures on her blog, here. She's also registered for the 2016 Stagecoach event.  We look forward to seeing her out there again as, perhaps, our first two-time finisher! We asked Desma to answer our five questions and this is what she said.

Art helps Desma get organized at Kelly Tank aid station.

1. Why did you choose Stagecoach?
"A few years ago, the Grand Canyon was the first stop on a trip to the West that my husband and I took to celebrate the culmination of my cancer treatments. Being able to run from our new home in Flagstaff to the Canyon was a way for me to reaffirm my continued good health and the commitment I've made to my running life as a way to show those who are currently facing cancer that things can be so much better when treatment is done. And, on a lighter note, it's so close to home that I didn't have to get up early." 

Sunset on Babbitt Ranch.

2. What was your favorite part of the course?
"My favorite part of the course was the wide open area between Tub Ranch (mile 38) and Oil Line (mile 45). I hit it just about sunset. Looking to the East, I could see the Peaks. Looking to the West, the world seemed to stretch away into the sunset. I was alone in that beautiful expanse. It was incredible." 

Typical Kaibab National Forest double track.

3. What was the biggest challenge Stagecoach presented?
"The biggest challenge was the race itself. It was my first 100 miler, and I was more than a little nervous in general. The part that gave me the hardest time was the stretch between Watson Tank (mile 88) and Reed Tank (mile 98). Fatigue and crankiness had set in along with some stomach issues. My sister sang to me and demonstrated her dance moves; both were very helpful. Then the kind young man at Reed gave us M&Ms which made everything better!"

Desma and Dara (Desma's sister and pacer) sharing quality trail time between dances.

4. What was your favorite aid station?
"My favorite aid station was Russell Tank (mile 68). There was some awesome thumping music and strobes lights guiding me in through the dark cold of the night. It was fantastic! And it helped that I got to pick up my pacer there, too!"

100 feet to go!

5. Three tips you can offer a Stagecoach first timer.
"Three tips I can offer are simple. Do your night runs. It became a little disconcerting in the wee hours of the morning. Put in the miles ahead of time. I was not as well-prepared as I though I was. Lastly, go into it planning to have fun! It is an incredible course, with phenomenal volunteers, cheerful fellow runners and a race director like no other." 

Savoring a job well done!

Bonus Question: Mt Humphreys or the Grand Canyon and why?
"I would have to choose the Grand Canyon. There is such a variety of trails. I love that I can run to the river, downhill, uphill and across the plateau. And I can get ice cream at the top!"

From here to there, as Desma's story shows us, "It's much more than just one foot in front of the other."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Five Questions with Michelle Hawk - Interviews from the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays

As mentioned in our last interview with Mark Hammond, the 2015 women's Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile winner not only set a course record but she also placed second overall.  Michelle Hawk, from Tucson, Arizona, finished in a time of 19:08:39.  This is the fourth fastest time on the Stagecoach course and it also was the 26th fastest 100-mile time by a woman in North America in 2015. With successes in the 50K (wins at Elephant Mountain and the Hypnosis, Vertigo and Sinister Night Runs) and 50 mile (3rd at Old Pueblo) distances, Michelle picked Stagecoach as her 100-mile debut.  In preparation, she held her own Stagecoach training camp by covering the first and final 20 miles of the course in one weekend and attended the Flagstaff-based McMillan Running Trail/Ultra Training Camp. Like Mark and Suzanna Bon, Michelle was happy to share her race day experiences with us.

Michelle Hawk, #16, listens to last minute race day instructions.

Question #1: Why did I choose Stagecoach?

"I decided to run Stagecoach primarily because it was an easy travel distance from Tucson and I might be able to convince some friends to come up to crew and pace me."  

Michelle heading into Hart Prairie Preserve.

Question #2: What was your favorite part of the course?

"I actually have to pick two sections of the course as my favorite.  The section from Hart Prairie to Kelly Tank that took you through meadows and aspen groves were awesome.  That was some sweet single track.  Moqui Stage Station to Russell Tank provided me with an experience I will not soon forget.  The sun was setting and darkness came quickly.  Out of this darkness came the sounds of bugling elk.

Michelle minutes outside of Cedar Ranch Aid Station.

Question #3: What was the biggest challenge Stagecoach presented?

"Having never run 100 miles before (58 being my longest day ever), the biggest challenge for me was mental, believing that I could run 100 miles.  The early miles seemed so easy and I kept worrying that the wheels were going to come off somewhere along the way."  

Michelle, post-race, with race director Ian Torrence (left) and race volunteers Scott Bajer and Ludo Pierson.

Question #4: What was your favorite aid station?

"Wow!  Favorite aid station?  Do I have to pick one?  Russell Tank, where disco lights, blaring music and pacers awaited.  Watson Tank, where I found the race director ladling out chicken noodle soup in the middle of the night.   Oil Line, cold grapes in middle of nowhere, boy did they hit the spot.  Awesome aid stations throughout the race!"

Michelle shows off her "Champion" belt buckle.

Question #5: Three tips you can offer a Stagecoach first timer.

"1.  Take it easy on all those easy downhill miles early in the race.  
 2.  Look around and revel in the awesome beauty all around you.  It changes again and again throughout the day.  
 3.  Chicken noodle soup is the 'BOMB' late in the race."  

Michelle, after her winning performance, at the finish line in Tusayan, AZ, with her crew and pacers.

Bonus Question: Mt. Humphrey's or Grand Canyon?

"Mt. Humphrey's only because I have never tackled it before."  

Bonus Question x 2: Would I pick Stagecoach again?

"FOR SURE!  Beautiful scenery!  Well marked course!  Awesome aid stations!  A FIRST CLASS event all the way around!

Thank you for sharing your story and photos with us Michelle!  Be sure to join us on September 24, 2016 at 8:00AM for the fourth annual Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Five Questions with Mark Hammond - Interviews from the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays

Mark Hammond, Stagecoach's 2015 men's winner and course record holder, cross-training like the champ he is.

In 2015, the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile saw course records in both the women's and men's race.  Mark Hammond, from Salt Lake City, Utah, became the fastest person to traverse the 100 mile point-to-point course in 17:37:25 (We'll meet the women's record setter in the next episode).  Incidentally, Mark's performance was also the 99th fastest 100 mile time in North America in 2015.  Mark came to Stagecoach just two weeks after his awesome third place 21:25:07 Wasatch Front 100 Mile finish.  Before that, Mark was fresh off wins at Squaw Peak 50 Mile, Skyline Mountain 50 Mile and the Tushar 93K Trail Run.  We caught up with Mark last week and he indulged us with his answers to five quick questions.

Enjoying the fruits of his labor.

Question #1: Why did you choose Stagecoach?

"I chose to run Stagecoach 100 just two weeks after running Wasatch 100 because I wanted to see how my body and mind would respond to another big effort with so little recovery time. I also wanted to explore the terrain around the San Francisco Peaks."

Mark, shirtless, at the start of last year's Stagecoach.

Question #2: What was your favorite part of the course?

"My favorite part of the couse was around mile 70 where I heard elk bugling all around me in the forest."

Mark nears the Hart Prarie aid station.

Question #3: What was the biggest challenge Stagecoach presented?

"The biggest challenge of Stagecoach was how flat the course is. I mostly race in steep terrain so my legs could have been better prepared for so much flat terrain."

Mark making strides on race day.

Question #4: What was your favorite aid station?

"My favorite aid station was the last one (Reed Tank) because I could see McDonalds from there."

Mark, post-race, talking with race director Ian Torrence.

Question #5: Three tips you can offer a Stagecoach first timer.

"My tips for a Stagecoach newbie are to do do lots of training on flat terrain, be ready for heat and bring an elk bugling tube to see if you can call an elk to you while running."

No need for a hotel room or tent.  A bag was all Mark needed after he crossed the finish line.

Bonus Question: Mt Humphreys or the Grand Canyon and why?

"Grand Canyon trumps Humphreys any day.  Because I can buy lemonade at the bottom of the Grand Canyon but not at the top of Humphreys."

Thank you Mark for taking the time to chat with us about your Stagecoach experience. If you haven't read our last interview with 2013 winner Suzanna Bon you can do that here. Be sure to join us on September 24th, 2016 at 8:00AM for the fourth annual Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Five Questions with Suzanna Bon - Interviews from the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays

The inaugural Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line race took place on October 19th, 2013.  We started the race at 2:00PM to take advantage of the full moon over the open lands of the Babbitt Ranches (miles 30 to 55).  Our first year had a small but stellar field, including one of the toughest ultrarunners from northern California, Suzanna Bon.  Suzanna came to Arizona sporting wins at the San Diego, Cascade Crest, HURT, Angeles Crest and Chimera 100 mile races, a top-10 finish at Western States, as victor of both the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile and Quad Dipsea and a 5th place at the 2012 World 24-Hour World Championships.  It wasn't surprising that she won the women's race and placed 4th overall in 21:01 at Stagecoach.  We recently reconnected with Suzanna and reminisced about her experience in northern Arizona.

Suzanna Bon (in yellow shirt, sunglasses and headband) listens to last minute pre-race instructions.

Question #1: Why did you choose Stagecoach?

"First, the timing worked well for me and my family. I was drawn to the historical nature of the course, I like a trail with a story. And last but not least - FLAGSTAFF!"
Suzanna with friend Tamara Buckley-Johnson minutes before the start.

Question #2: What was your favorite part of the course?

"I can’t choose just one section - I particularly enjoyed the sections from Kelly Tank all the way to Oil Line. The sun was setting, the colors and views were glorious with a full moon rising…a trail runner's delight. I also loved the forest section from Russell Tank to Hull Cabin - the dead of night, under the trees and a hanging full moon, running alone watching out for the Blair Witch!"

Suzanna approaching the first aid station at Hart Prarie.

Question #3: What was the biggest challenge Stagecoach presented?

"The cold night time temps - I was freezing and it was tough to leave the aid stations with their roaring fires. It was the first race I have ever run bundled in down, beanie, gloves, leggings etc- clearly, I simply wasn’t running fast enough."

Moqui Stage Station in day light hours.

Question #4: What was your favorite aid station?

"Moqui Stage Station, a very cool historical setting- I felt like a time traveller. This aid station had ambience! With the twinkling lights, hot food, roaring fire and supportive volunteers Moqui was a stand out."

 Suzanna collects her winnings: A congratulatory handshake from race director Ian Torrence, the Stagecoach "Champion" buckle and a Babbitt Ranches Pendleton blanket.

Question #5: Three tips you can offer a Stagecoach first timer.

"Warm clothes in drop bags. Bandana or buff to cover mouth/nose for dust protection. Don’t linger too long by the fire!"

Bonus Question: Mt. Humphreys or the Grand Canyon and why?

"Mt Humpherys. I know and love the canyon so would choose Humphreys for a new and unknown adventure."

Thank you, Suzanna, for coming to our little race and taking the time to answer our questions.  Join us this year on September 24th, 2016 at 8:00AM for the fourth annual Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K and Relays.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Grand Canyon National Park's Backcountry Management Plan

The Grand Canyon by Hannibal Bauliah taken from Arizona Highways

“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”

Almost 50 years after Ed Abbey published Desert Solitaire we're finally taking his advice to heart.  Popularity has finally reached the Grand Canyon National Park's front and back doors.  People are visiting the Canyon now more than any other time in history.  However, the newest visitor isn't the kind of which Abbey speaks...the new visitor has no problem leaving the car as they are in search of an adventure of epic proportion.  The Grand Canyon National Park acknowledges this and has taken the first step in protecting and preserving both the visitor's use and experience and the non-human resources that lay within the park's boundaries.

In November 2015, in response to the overwhelming increase in use in the Canyon's backcountry areas, including the popular corridor trails (Bright Angel and the South and North Kaibab), park management released a Backcountry Management Plan Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  It's been desperately needed as the old Backcountry Management Plan (which the park currently operates under) dates back to 1988.  The ultimate purpose of the new plan is to "...evaluate the impacts of a range of alternatives for managing backcountry use in Grand Canyon National Park in a manner that protects and preserves natural and cultural resources and natural processes and provides a variety of visitor experiences while minimizing conflicts among various users."

The draft plan discusses four alternatives for managing climbing, canyoneering, extended day hiking and running, Tuweep (a location on the north rim on the western edge of the park) day use, human waste management, commercial overnight backpacking, river-assisted backcountry use and wilderness use.  In short, the plan covers anything that happens in the backcountry of the park.  Basically, those places that aren't developed and/or paved.  Topics like the Arizona Trail, bicycling, river-assisted backcountry trips, overnight backpacking, backcountry vehicle tours, climbing, canyoneering and extended day hiking and running are deliberated.  Components like permits, reservation systems, group sizes, use limits, designations, equipment, education, safety and monitoring are covered in varying degrees across the four management alternatives. 

Please see all of the draft's details here for yourself on the park's website.  There is an 32 page Executive Summary so you don't have to wade through the full 600+ page document.  However, you have until March 4th, 2016 to make your comments.  A huge component of the EIS process is public comment.  Everyone, yes even you, has an opinion and a voice and this impacts greatly what comes out in the final management plan.  It's like casting your vote, but it's better because you get to express why you like one detail and not another.  You can view my submitted "comment" at the bottom of this piece.

Since most of the readers of this blog fall into the "extended day user hiker and/or runner" category, here is a glimpse at how the park might wish to handle Extended Day Use Hikers and Runners:

Here is the area where these management actions would take effect (see below).  This would affect any rim to river and rim to rim daily outings.

Other proposed management actions discuss a flexible backcountry permitting process for Arizona Trail through-hikers, building additional camp sites for through hikers and allowing biking on the Arizona Trail on the North Rim (see below).  

Other management actions focus on Human Waste Management (see below):

It's your turn to comment.  Do it here before March 4th, 2016 and let your opinion count.  Remember to qualify yourself (why does this matter to you), be constructive (give examples), rational (understand that other humans are reading this) and detailed (the more specific the better) in your response.

Here's an example and what I submitted to the Grand Canyon National Park in regards to their Backcountry Management Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement.


January 19, 2016

To whom it may concern,

My name is Ian Torrence.  I’m an ultramarathon runner and live in Flagstaff, AZ.  I’ve finished more than 195 ultras, finished the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim ten times and have run/hiked down to the Colorado River and back countless times.  I am the race director of the fourth annual Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile, 55K & Relays ( held in September in the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. The race finishes in Tusayan and is a fundraiser for the Arizona Trail Association.
I’ve worked for the National Park Service for ten years. One of my positions was with the Lake Mead Exotic Plant Management Team where I worked on Himalayan blackberry (Indian Gardens) and tamarisk control (Phantom Ranch) in the Grand Canyon.  I was a supervisor for the American Conservation Experience (ACE) and spent several tours working along side NPS trail crews performing maintenance/repairs on the Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab Trails.  I’ve fought wildfire in the park as part of a NPS crew (sourced from Grand Teton NP) and assisted with one medical evacuation on the Bright Angel as part of that crew.  I’ve volunteered with the park’s Vegetation Crew to map tamarisk in the Slate Creek drainage.  I’m also a volunteer Arizona Trail Association Trail Steward (Section 35b & 36a).
I’d like to weigh in on the Grand Canyon National Park’s Backcountry Management Plan Draft EIS.  First off, I applaud the efforts and agree that it’s time to revisit and revise the 1988 plan.  Here are my specific comments, concerns and suggestions:

Arizona Trail –

Through hiker itineraries are next to impossible to nail down.  The Action Alternatives in the Draft EIS will relieve through hiker stress level, enhance their trek experience and make cross-canyon travel safer. The preferred alternatives promote the use of the AZT as it’s intended.  Through hiker numbers, currently, are very small and dispersed.  Their impact would be minimal.  Anecdotal data suggests that about 75 people per year are thru-hikers: 45 are northbound in the spring and 30 are southbound in the autumn. In addition to that, there are around 25 thru-riders on mountain bikes each year.
I agree with:

1)  NEPA-approved walk-in camping sites near the South Kaibab Trailhead for AZT through hikers.
2) Both private and commercial bike use on the AZT’s North Rim segment (between the N. Kaibab TH and the park boundary).

However, I ask that the flexible backcountry permit system for AZT through hikers fall under an Adaptive Management classification. AZT through hiker numbers has risen exponentially in the past few years. If the trend continues this could increase competition for backcountry permits and it may negatively affect permit availability and backcountry experience of the non-through hiker.  The management plan should decide what is an acceptable number of permits that can be issued to AZT through hikers at any one time.  I also suggest that through-bikers (who hike their bikes on their backs across the canyon) also be considered in the flexible AZT backcountry permit system.

Extended Day Hiking and Running Management –

Many agencies have instituted successful extended day use permit systems to protect both the user and resources.  The NPS and US Forest Service’s Mt. Whitney Zone and the Bureau of Land Management’s Coyote Buttes Permit Area (Vermillion Cliffs NM) are two examples that have effectively minimized overuse.  Instituting a similar system for the Grand Canyon’s lower Corridor Trails is reasonable.

1) Extended Day Use Permits:  The Canyon is a dangerous place and a place that has rules that should be followed. An educational component is critical to imparting Leave No Trace ethics as well as park rules, regulations and safety information to the user.  I agree that extended day use permits are needed, as they are an excellent way to do this.  I also agree on the current area to which extended day use is falls (below Manzanita Resthouse on the North Kaibab Trail, below Tip-Off on the S. Kaibab Trail and below the East Tonto Trail junction on the Bright Angle Trail). However, I ask for these considerations:
a.     Make extended day-use permits required year-round.  This will ensure the park educates extended day-users, allows the park to track use on the lower Corridor Trails, improves trail rapport between users and promotes the importance of safety awareness.
b.     Make day use permits available two years in advance online and/or at local kiosks located outside the park (for example: Flagstaff, Williams, Tusayan, Kanab, Jacob Lake). This is fair and convenient to both out-of-state/country users and local trail users.  This also allows the park to prepare, in advance (for example: increase enforcement and/or volunteer staffing), for large trail use days. 
c.     Local trail users come to the Canyon frequently throughout the year.  Allow for the ability to apply for (and thus plan for) multiple extended day use dates at a time.  This is convenient.  However, limit day-use permits to six user-days per person at any one time.  Once a day-use permit expires or is canceled the user can then reapply.
d.     Again, local trail users return to the trails below the Tonto Rim multiple times a year.  Allow the educational component of the permit to be valid for a calendar year so the literature doesn’t need to be re-read each time a user wants to go for a hike or run.  Prepare the online portal so that user information (ID and password) is stored, can be recalled and tracked.  This will help with safety and tracking use (see “b” above).
e.     Day use permit fees should be nonrefundable, but may be cancelled (thus opening the space for another user). Ensure that the permit is only valid for the individual who applied for it, no transfers.  This will eliminate permit scalping.
f.      Ensure the $5 day use permit fee returns to Corridor Trail maintenance, enforcement, education and improvements.
g.     Be prepared for an increase in use of the South Kaibab Trail – Tonto Trail – Bright Angel Trail Loop. Improve signage and mileage/time indications for this loop on informational/safety brochures, signs and displays.

2    2) Group Size: With the advent of social media (like “Facebook Canyon Crossing Parties”) it’s more imperative now more than ever that group size limits be set for trips below the Tonto Rim on Corridor Trails.  I ask that extended day use non-commercial running or hiking parties are limited to a maximum of 20 individuals year round.  This will ensure water sources and rest room facilities will be accessible within a reasonable amount of time to other users who show up simultaneously with the larger groups.  Limiting numbers to 20/group will help mitigate trail congestion (for example: excessively long “conga” lines).

       3) Daily Use Limits:  Most of the extended day-use hiking and running occurs within certain timeframes.  In the Draft EIS the word “seasonal” is used often.  I ask that you specifically define “seasonal.”  Anecdotally, April/May and September/October are the busiest times for extended day-use hikes and runs. During these peak seasons I ask for these considerations:

a.     Limit the amount of extended day-users per day to a reasonable number (for example: 250 users/day) during these peak four months.
b.     The Tahoe Rim Trail regulates mountain bike use ( by alternating the days bikes can use the trail.  Do the same with large group sizes on the Corridor Trails.  Groups larger than six may use the trail on even numbered days during these four months.  Individuals (or groups of 6 or less) can use the trail at any time during these four peak months.  This will encourage smaller group sizes.

Human Waste Management –

The Manzanita Rest House was a logical addition to the park’s rest room inventory.  However, I suggest that more Corridor Trail restrooms will negatively affect the view shed and user experience. I ask that, not only should River Corridor and commercially guided backpacking trips be required to carryout human waste (as proposed in the Draft EIS), but that users of the lower Corridor Trails should also do the same.  This kind of management isn’t unprecedented. Mt. Whitney and Mt. Rainier are two working examples where the user must carry out their own waste.  Extended day use runners and hikers should carry their waste to either the North or South Rim if they need to “go” between facilities. 

Timing of Effective Management –

No matter what management alternatives are decided upon, I ask that all new requirements/practices be advertised aggressively and meticulously through the park’s website and brochures and in the public media for at least a full year before they become effective. The local communities depend on tourism dollars and we want to avoid visitors canceling trips due to misunderstanding and inconvenience.

Ian Torrence
Flagstaff, AZ 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Flagstaff's Strava Itch

"The 'note' takes mere milliseconds to arrive, but the sting lasts for days." - recently dethroned Strava CR (course record) holder

It has now become abundantly clear that Strava has passed from fad to tradition in our budding mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona.  What once was a customary climb to a peak or ridge now attracts a growing history of published footprints and battles fought against ethereal ghosts.  From national champions to world champions, from trail 100-mile victors to Olympians, from seekers to destroyers, the Flagstaff Strava overall segment leaderboards are a veritable who's who of the talented and accomplished.

Strava segments are user-created and user-edited.  Segments are designated portion(s) of a route where Strava users can compete against themselves (past efforts) or other users for time.  Segments can be listed publicly or privately depending on the creator's preferences.  Strava is a tool that isn't for everyone, however, it can certainly come in handy if you're looking for incentive to push harder on the trails and roads or looking to connect with other runners.  Public segments can be explored thus sparking inspiration to seek out new trail adventures.  The drive to be atop the leaderboard also breeds lively, local rivalries.

Flagstaff and its surrounding mountains are covered with Strava segments.  Here are my top ten (and a few added bonuses) based on nothing more than my own opinion. 

1) Buffalo Park Loop (counter clock-wise)
Buffalo Park

And we'd be remiss if we didn't include Buffalo Park finish strong, the final climb on this Buffalo Park 2-mile loop.  It's been the undoing of high school, collegiate and professional runners from all over the world.  Both records are owned by NAU alum David McNeill.  He sports a 13:25 5K PR and seems to always perform better at altitude.  Good luck taking either of these segments down.  UPDATE as of press time:  Scotland's Andrew Lemoncello (see Poo Pond Climb below) just took down McNeill's segment time as of 6/9/2015.

2) Poo Pond Climb
 Sewage treatment ponds in Flagstaff's Rio de Flag.  The setting for this segment.

This segment is short but deadly.  It's often included in the infamous Bagel Run and is part of the 800-mile long Mexico to Utah Arizona Trail.  I had the pleasure of witnessing this record being set from far behind during a recent Bagel Run.  Andrew Lemoncello, current CR holder and 2008 Olympian, was heard two miles later gasping, "I'm still trying to catch my breath."

3) Woody Mountain Road Climb
Woody Mountain Road

This ever-popular forest road meanders south from Flagstaff up and over the shoulder of Woody Mountain and then on to Rogers Lake.  The climb is a mile, but at 7000' it always leaves you breathless.  CR holder and 2:11 marathoner Nick Arciniaga said this about his recent best effort, "It was a week out from the Boston Marathon and I was in full on taper mode.  I was feeling good and Woody Mountain became Heart Break Hill for the day."

4) Heart Trail
Heart Trail

What goes up must come down, so I've also included the Descent of Heart Trail.  If you're ever thinking of running Zane Grey 50 Mile local ultrarunners will direct you to this trail.  If you enjoy Heart then you might enjoy Zane.  Have a miserable time and they'd advise you against heading down to the Mogollon Rim on race day.  In Flagstaff there's no better way to introduce yourself to crappy footing (roots, rocks and ruts), steep terrain and exposure to the high altitude sun.  Well-known locally, but not yet nationally, trail running stud Art Degraw cleans up on Heart.

5) Schultz Creek Trail Ascent ("Y" to Lincoln Logs)
Schultz Creek Trail

Again, the downhill is just as fun! Schultz Creek Trail Descent (Lincoln Logs to "Y")
Invented to encourage time trialing, these ONB (out and back) smooth single-track segments were split in two to provide rest for those wishing to run each 4-mile segment in "full beast mode."  adiUltra athlete Brian Tinder holds the CRs in both directions. "I live two miles from the Schultz Creek/Schultz Pass 'Y,'" says Tinder.  "I can bop up here on a whim and lay down tracks. Most runners must drive to the start, I get a good warm-up before diving in."

6)  Sunset Climb
Views from the top of Sunset Trail

Classic Flagstaff single-track!  This ascent is the deadliest climb on the Soulstice Trail Run course.  Women's CR holder, JFK 50 Mile winner and 2:32 marathoner Emily Harrison comments on this segment, "I'm from northern Virgina. We have tough climbs there, but nothing as smooth as the Sunset Trail.  I love running uphill at top end.  I set this record during the Soulstice race and made up for a lot of lost time on the lead guys."

7) Kendrick Peak climb trail #22
Kendrick in winter

The 4.5-mile climb is single-track, but has excellent footing.  Running downhill is just as important to master.  The Kendrick Peak Descent offers an excellent opportunity to test those quads.  Though Kendrick is hard to miss on the northern Arizona skyline and has been standing here for eons it has now just become the newest heartthrob in the "elite" Flagstaff running community.  Art Degraw, once again, has laid his claim on this mountain.

8)  Snowbowl Base to Mt. Humphrey's
Arizona's high point
We'd definitely be remiss if we didn't mention our mind-blowing backdrop and Arizona's highest mountain.  Have you run the HURT 100 Mile or Squamish 50 Mile?  Add in the lung-popping altitude and you have the roots and slipperiness of these two events on both the ascent and descent (Escape from Humphrey's Peak) of Mt Humphreys.

9)  Brookbank Mile Climb
Signage on Brookbank

Chris Vargo said this of his CR run, "Colt and I had a disagreement that morning.  He just doesn't listen to anything I say.  I needed to go out and release my frustrations. Brookbank filled the bill.  Needless to say, Colt and I made up. I can't stay mad at him for long."
Brookbank Baby Bobbleheads is the aptly-named descent of the climb. If you like dancing on rolling rocks then this segment is for you.  Side note:  Rumor has it that this trail may soon become extinct.  The US Forest Service may soon realign the trail to eliminate erosion problems and the formation of said baby heads.  Better get on it quick as this CR may stand forever once the trail is decommissioned.

10) Mt Elden LO Rd Climb (Gate to East Towers)
The start of the uphill segment.
 "I've stared at these gates many times.  Now a little throw up gathers in my gullet when I see 'em." - Jacob Puzey

 The awesome sweeping views from the top of Mt. Elden.  The segment ends at the towers seen here.

The reverse direction is just as challenging if running fast - Mt Elden LO Rd Descent (East Towers to Gate).  There are two summits to Elden:  Dubbed East Towers and West Towers.  Not all quality efforts show up on the East Tower segment because some runners go west. However, Lookout Suckkahs (a smaller segment glimpse of the ascent) let's you decide who the fastest is on the uphill forest road. 

Bonus #1a & 1b - The "trail-less" segments:  Bootleg trails are a part of any mountain town.  Some are accepted, others are not.  Flagstaff is in the process of reviewing bootleg trails that should become incorporated into the official trail system.  Here are two segments that won't show up on any official map, but may on a Strava segment search.

a) Private Reserve
 Yes, you'll run up that cliff.

He takes his running seriously and if there were ever a segment that he'd claim as his own, it'd be this one.  "The key is knowing the segment intimately," say Rob Krar.  "Once I hit the meadow on top, I open up my stride and collect the CR there. This is my favorite climb in Flagstaff and is part of one of my favorite running routes."

b) Slay the Ginger -  This segment is part of the growing-in-popularity loop named Afternoon Delight.  After today's ascent, CR holder Chris Vargo was heard muttering, "This climb gets worse each time I do it."

Bonus #2 - The Oldham Steps 

 An aspen growing along the volcanic boulders that cast their shadows on the Oldham Steps route.

This is my personal favorite.  I start from home and after a few miles on the Flagstaff Urban Trail (FUTS) and a pass through Buffalo Park, I tackle this short and sweet 6-mile loop.  It's also part of the Flagstaff Monday Night Hill Runs.  Now that it's no longer a secret, I expect to see some new CRs on this loop segment.  By simply eying some of the other smaller segments on this loop, like Arizona Trail Climb, I can tell things will get real soon.

Bonus #3 - The under-appreciated and unknown.  If there were ever a climb that was overlooked, it's O'Leary:  O'Leary all the way
 The start and end of the O'Leary segments.

 After roughly a half-mile you can see where you must go.

The O'Leary Free Fall is the ascent in reverse.  With nothing but soft cinders under your feet, you can really open up on this descent.  Road and trail runners alike can enjoy this non-technical, but steep climb to gorgeous views of the San Francisco Peaks.

So there you have it.  Do you have a favorite segment?  Share it in the comments section below.