Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mt. Fuji Running

Mt Fuji-san

Sengen Shrine - Beginning of Yoshida Trail
For some time I have been intrigued with Mount Fuji given it’s historical, cultural and religious significance with the Japanese. I’ve wanted to run the traditional pilgrimage route from the Fujiyoshida’s Sengen Shinto shrine at the very base of Mount Fuji to the 12,388 foot summit. This has proved difficult given my past travels to Japan have not coincided with the short climbing season (July – mid September). However, this past week the stars finally aligned and I was able to run Mt. Fuji on the last day of the official climbing season.

Red Pine Forest on the Lower Slopes of Mt. Fuji
While tens of thousands of Japanese make the trek to the top every year, the logistics of getting on a plane in Italy and going straight to the mountain proved to be rather complex. My original detailed plan of trains, buses, taxis and finally running to the trailhead was thrown into flux when my flight into Narita was delayed by several hours. This resulted in getting on unplanned trains and buses with somewhat unknown destinations. In the end, I reached the town of Kawaguchiko at the base of the mountain. The earned reward for 30+ hours of sitting in a variety of seats not engineered for human comfort or health was a late evening Japanese bath overlooking Lake Kawaguchi.

The Trail Starts to Climb
I arose early the next morning knowing I needed to be on the trail starting at first light in order to be able to summit and get to Tokyo for a late afternoon meeting. My plan was to catch a taxi at 4:00 am from the hotel to the train station (where I would put my bag in a locker) and then have the taxi driver take me to the Shizuoka Sengen Jinja (Sengen Shrine) where the original trail begins. A great plan until I learned in the wee hours of the morning that taxis don't operate early on Sunday mornings. My run to the top of Mount Fuji began with a walk to the train station dragging my roller bag and then running to the outskirts of town in search of the Sengen Shrine.

3rd Station Ruins
2nd Station Ruins

Once the shrine was found I went in search of the trailhead. After several attempts of making a walking motion with my fingers and saying Fuji-san to a number of sleepy eyed monks, I was directed to the trailhead. I was excited about the first part of the run given that few people now climb the mountain from the bottom. More than ninety-nine percent of Japanese climbers start at the fifth-station, mid way up the mountain (there are ten stations from the base to the top of the mountain). In particular, I was looking forward to seeing the abandoned stations where in the past travelers drank tea and rested.   

My expectations were met. A trail to myself and interesting ruins to explore. The run from Sengen Shrine to the Kawaguchiko Fifth Station was exceptional.

As I reached the Fifth Station I moved into the clouds and into the billows of people descending from the summit. Most Japanese climb the mountain at night (resting/sleeping in the upper stations) with the goal to summit in time to watch the sunrise.

The Roped Trail
Those of us who run trails have different perceptions of what is difficult, challenging and possible. Yet, we often assume everyone else is like us.  As I power-hiked up the trail I was reminded we are different – the reminder being the faces and bodies of those coming down. The expressions of anguish. The jolting limps. The sighs, ughs and grunts as grim faced trekkers placed one foot in front of the other. And then there were those whose faces I did not see because they were walking down backwards due to quads that had failed them. It felt like the morning of the walking dead. I was also saddened in that the basic fitness of the general population is so poor – the distance from the 5th Station to the summit only being 7km!

The Last Kilometer to the Top
I continued to climb passing stations 6 - 10, most of which were closing for the season, with station staff busy bolting boards across the windows and doors. I finally broke through the clouds and was able to see my destination above me reached by a well established trail marked with ropes that switchbacked up the open and barren volcanic slope. 

On the Summit

I had originally planned to run around the rim of the crater before descending. However, the wind was screaming on top filling my eyes with volcanic dust making it hard and painful to see. Plus, I was cutting it close on time and felt anxious about catching my bus to Tokyo. I descended.

A few hundred feet below the summit the clouds rolled back making it hard to see and leaving me wet and a bit cold from all the moisture. I amused myself of as I modified the words to Twas a Night Before Christmas -  “visions of Japanese baths danced through his head.”  The thought of a long soak and getting the grit out of my eyes made the run down to the Fifth Station go fast.

Looking Down from the Summit

A Good Day at UTMB 2 Weeks Earlier
At the Fifth Station I decided to call it a day and take a bus down to the base. My descending legs were still a bit creaky from UTMB two weeks earlier and I was stressed about missing my bus.  It was a good call in that I had time for a nice curry lunch with a glass of sake in Kawaguchiko before jumping on a bus for Tokyo. All-in-all, an exceptionally good day!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

UTMB Preparation

Flying in Cham

I've heard the statement many times, "there is nothing like UTMB." Until this week I just discounted that as more of the incessant rhetorical hype that causes people to avoid runners like me at parties and social events. But my experience in Chamonix the last 5 days is starting to validate this statement for me. The town is simply abuzz with running - runners themselves, families and friends, volunteers, sponsors and exhibitors, and even commerce has caught the fever with restaurants offering carbohydrate dense "UTMB specials" and every store having a "UTMB sale." In fact, too much running-themed everything with hoards of people in compression clothing, Buffs, and running packs has been a bit much for my liking. In an effort to avoid the UTMB chaos consuming Chamonix, I decided to enjoy the week with two activities where the look doesn't matter and I don't feel competitive - flying and drinking French wine (undertaken as separate and distinct activities).

Salomon Gear not Required for this Activity
The Good Life
Once a storm system passed on Sunday, the weather has been stellar for paragliding. Cool nights followed by warm cloudless days has created good thermal action resulting in four days of exceptional flying weather. The perfect flying weather has been tough on the TDS and OCC runners with daytime highs in the mid 80's resulting in many wilted runners and considerable carnage. The hot weather will play a big factor in the UTMB with a high probability that many of us will be destroyed not only by the vertical - but by the heat!

Pack that Kite and Do it Again!
While I arrived in Chamonix with confidence that I would have a good race given that I have been able to train in the mountains most weekends for the past three months, have twice covered the entire UTMB track, and have been consistently averaging ~100 miles per week. However, I think the big miles and vert (at least for me) combined with old age (read slower recovery) have me overtrained and potentially starting the race tired and not at my best. I remain hopeful that the cause of this feeling is a sense of inferiority resulting from not owning any compression gear, my plan to run without sticks (which oddly people seem to correlate with low intelligence), and not having any Salomon running wear. I am thinking of buying a Buff in an effort to try and understand if my insecurities are truly justified or simply gear-related.

Getting Psyched Out Waiting in Line with all the 'Good' Runners
For those interested in following the race you can track runners at and/or follow the race at My bib is #158. Good luck to the other 2299 runners!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Three is the Magic Number

Good things come in three.  And this could not have been more evident than over the past few weekends.  I'll show you what I mean with a few words, and plenty of pictures.

Week 1: Spent the week with the family in Maine, with daily hikes and visits to the beach in Acadia National Park

Hiking The Precipice Trail
Acadia National Park

More Precipice Trail

Holding back the tide at Seal Harbor
Acadia National Park

Week 2: Traveled to Star Valley, WY for El Vaquero Loco 50 K trail race, a must do race for anyone serious about running in spectacular, high mountain locations. Ty Draney puts on one of the best, low key, high fun, family friendly events around.
Brian Rawlings heading into the beauty of the Salt River Range

Corral Creek Lake
Found a few of these beauties while icing my legs post-race.

Week 3: With the family still out of town, I spent a couple days exploring the Uintas.  Some was old territory, much was new, and it was all loads of fun.

I started the trip a little late, around 11:00 am, with plans of summiting 5 of Utah's 13000 ft peaks.  Due to the late start, running out of water, and not liking the idea of traversing/descending Lovenia and East Lovenia in the dark, I decided that topping out on Tokewanna, Wasatch and Wapiti(Wasatch Benchmark) would make for a good day.
The view of Wapiti, Lovenia and East Lovenia (R-L)
from Tokewanna.

Topping out on Wasatch Peak.
East Lovenia and Lovenia frame Wapiti in the middle.

At Red Knob Pass, I could see the turquoise blue of Crater Lake a few miles in the distance and after discussing it's fishing possibilities with a local sheepherder, decided I'd head over there to spend the night.  The fishing was indeed awesome as I couldn't keep the Brook trout off my wooly bugger, and Crater Lake proved to be a twin of Corral Creek Lake, from the Vaquero 50k the weekend before.


Crater Lake

Brook Trout were in abundance in Crater Lake

The next morning I headed back over Red Knob Pass and made my way to Dead Horse Lake.  While running the Highline trail a few years ago, we traversed Dead Horse Lake in the early dawn and I remember thinking to myself that the fishing had to be lights out in a lake as beautiful as this.  Indeed, the fishing for Tiger trout was nonstop both with wooly buggers sub-surface, and on top with stimulator patterns.

Tiger Trout
Dead Horse Lake

The Mountain Bouquets were in abundance at 11000 ft.

I finally pulled myself away for the 10 mile hike down canyon back to my truck.  I stopped to fish West Fork Blacks Fork a number of times, and the fishing was non-stop for cutthroat in the upper reaches, and brook trout lower down.

Cutthroat were small, but plentiful.
West Fork Blacks Fork

Buck Pasture
Looking upstream on West Fork Blacks Fork.
All in all, a fabulous few weeks.  

3- Mind clearing weekends
3-13000 foot peaks
3-species of fish in 3 separate bodies of water. 

Indeed, Three is the Magic Number.
(you can listen here if you'd like)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

UTMB Course Preview

With UTMB just a little over a month away, I made the trek to Chamonix for a long weekend preview of the 105 mile, 32,000 foot +/- course. I'm glad I did as many of my notions of the course were 'off' including the amount of climbing and descending, the course not being as technical as anticipated, and grossly under assuming how stunningly beautiful the course is. My pictures hardly do justice to the majestic beauty of the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB).

Col du Bonhomme

Ville des Glaciers

Lac Combal

Refuge Bonatti

Grand Col Ferret

Some Wildlife

Col des Calcaires

Friday, July 1, 2016

Millwood is ON!

Asking myself "Why?", at the top of Mineral Fork, 2012

Since I didn't have enough fun back in 2012 ( ), I'm going to tackle Millwood again starting this evening around 5:00 pm.

The big difference this year is that there will be 4 of us going for it.  Pete Stoughton, Ryan Tockstein and I will start around 5:30, and Jennilyn Eaton started around 10:00 am this morning.

Jared Campbell , the Millwood brainchild, helped facilitate having the event tracked by TrackLeaders. They have a great program that interfaces with SPOT to show where all 4 of us are in real time.  Here's the link:

We are all really looking forward to spending some good times in the Wasatch over the next couple of days.  Come join the fun if you're looking for an excuse to get out this weekend!!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Running Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro
For some time I’ve been intrigued with the idea of running Mount Kilimanjaro. When a work trip last week had me in Nairobi, I knew it was my chance to jump across the border to Tanzania for a high altitude adventure.

I had no idea how complicated the idea would be to execute until I started looking into logistics. The first challenge was to get a permit for what is considered an unusual and exceptional request – running from the bottom to the top and back down in one day. Park rules clearly stipulate what routes can be used, process for acclimation, the number of guides and porters required, and that most importantly, individuals like me are not allowed to be on the mountain alone without a guide.

Ema of Origin Trails
Initially I reached out to several guiding services and the park asking if I could run to the top and was told, “that is not allowed.” I shared that I was aware that other people in the past including Kilian Jornet had been granted permission. I could get no explanation as to how that was done. I then reached out to my work colleague who is the WFP Country Director for Tanzania and he offered to approach the Minister of Tourism who oversees the Parks on my behalf. The guidance from the Minister was that I would need to work with a registered guide and the Park Warden of the Kilinajaro National Park who had the delegated authority to grant me permission. My work colleague was able through his network to connect me with Emmanuel (Ema) Motta of Origin Trails who agreed to seek a permit on my behalf. After several weeks of back and forth with the Park, me writing letters and providing bona fides that I had the experience to safely climb the mountain in a day, a permit was granted.

In consultations with Ema we decided that I would ascend on the Rongi Route and descend via the Mweka Route. While the Park Service had originally stipulated that I would need to have guides with me the entire way, Ema was able to agree to having porters at key camps who could assist if needed and a guide at the top with oxygen. I would also be required to check-in with the ranger at each of the camps I would pass. Otherwise, I would be on my own!

Justin Salakana - "Founder" of the Rongi Route
The afternoon before the start we drove to the Rongi Gate, stopping along the way to pick-up my permit (which required several hours of 11th hour negotiations between Ema and the Park warden) and some food for breakfast (including wonderful bananas and avocados bought along the side of the road). We spent the evening at the Snow Cap Lodge, some simple cabins built by the pioneer of the Rongi Route, Justin Salakana, who shared stories of how he created the route and finally had it approved by the Tanzanian authorities.

At 6:00 the next morning I signed-out with the Ranger at Rongi Gate, who was not happy about getting up at 6:00 am, and I was off at 6:15 in the first light. The Rongi route starts at 6,398 feet and slowly climbs through a pine plantation. While the first miles were gradual, I was moving slowly given the kit required to be self supported and prepared for inclement weather on top, and night out if something went wrong. My pack weighed in slightly north of 13 pounds – much of that being the 3.2 liters of water I was carrying.

Beginning of the Trail Through a Pine Plantation

Through the Moorlands

First Site of the Destination
Moonscape of the Alpine Desert
Looking East to Mt. Mawenzi

As one climbs on the Rongi Route, one moves into the moorlands. Then without realizing it, all vegetation was gone and I was running through an alpine desert that resembled a moonscape. I was able to run most of the way up to Kibu Hut, with the exception of intermittent pitches where running took too much energy. I reached Kibu Hut (15,430 feet) at about 10:00 where I was required to have my blood oxygen checked. I came it at 79%, well above the minimum of 70% required to proceed to the top. From Kibu Hut to Gilman’s Ridge it was a trudge. While I could feel the altitude, the real challenge was the steepness of the trail. Even at a lower elevation the grade and scree would have been a calf-burning chug.

Moses Up Ahead on the Way to the Summit

At 18,652 feet I hit Gillman’s Ridge and was able to run the flat sections along the rim of the crater as I worked my way up to Uruhu Peak (19,341). While the altitude made even a slight grade very hard to run, I was surprised that running the flat sections was not particularly difficult. I felt lucky that I had no nausea, headache, or mental slowness. As I looked down on the clouds thousands of feet below and the wall of the Decken Glacier and Southern Ice field beside me, I felt alive and lucky to be having this experience.

As I approached the peak, I met Moses who was waiting in the lee of a large rock below the summit to make sure I was safe and provide any assistance if needed. We snapped a few quick pictures. It was too cold on top without a jacket to linger so I said to Moses, “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.” Moses jogged with me along the crater rim and for a few hundred meters after I dropped down the Mweke Route.

Looking Down at the Southern Ice Field and the Clouds Below

As I started to descend I suddenly realized getting down would be harder than getting up. I was running sloppy (maybe I was in denial about the effects of the altitude) on the descent and had a hard time keeping my feet under me in the loose rock and scree. I took several “safe into home” slides when my feet went out from under me. Then after a face plant where I was saved by my gloves and front pack from serious lacerations, I knew I had to get it together. I decided to stop and sit on a rock to clean out my shoes, have a gel, and compose myself. I started repeating, “pole, pole” (slow, slow in Swahili) to myself as I picked my way down the steep descent to Barafo Camp.
Self-Supported FKT (the actual time was 9:19)

In my mind I thought I would be able to reach the Maweka Gate in less than two and half hours from the top. It took me three hours. I had grossly under anticipated what 14K feet of non-stop technical descent would do to me. It tore the bottoms off my Hokas, it left my quads shaking, and I was a site for concern as blood from both my scrapped knees and thighs had me looking like I had been in a traffic accident (though – one could say I was a train wreck). When I reached the rain forest for the final 6 miles, as named, it was raining and both the rock and hardpack were super slick. When I should have been running and daydreaming, I was having to concentrate on keeping one foot after the other underneath me. I fell repeatedly.

Ema Greeting me at Mweka Gate

I reached the Mweka Gate where Ema was waiting for me. Elapsed Time 9:21. Two minutes longer than the self-supported FKT held by Tanzanian mountain guide Simon Mtuy. Could I have gone faster? A few seconds less at the top, a shorter break to compose myself, more abandon on the descent, pushing harder on the ascent to Gilman’s Ridge where every step was effort - would have done it. Yet, I had the experience of a lifetime being on the mountain alone (and on the peak alone) and 
Checking the Stats
answering the question could I run at 19,000+ feet (YES), and being able to say I ran up Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the experience, not the time that mattered.

A big thanks to Ema for making this all happen and not believing I was a nut job when I first contacted him saying I wanted to run up Kilimanjaro self-supported in less than 12 hours. Without him, this adventure would have never happened. Thank you Ema.