The Arizona Trail: 210 – 300 Miles

AZNST_logoDay 13 – The alarm went off at 05:30 and reality quickly set in at Chalet Village. My comfortable life was about to end once again as I quickly packed everything into my rucksack, scoffed the rest of my cookie-dough ice cream for breakfast and headed outside to get a lift back to the trailhead.

Marney dropped Turtle back where he’d come off – 7 miles behind Larry, Marcella and myself. As we hiked the 1.5 mile road towards the start of the desert section we started talking. The conversation soon turned to politics and Donald Trump – a focal point in the USA at the moment, unsure of my friends political views I recalled a bit of wisdom that said something like, “never discuss politics or religion around the dinner table” so tried to change the topic.

“What do your parents do?”, Marcella asked

Gosh-darn it… “My father is a preacher” I had to reply, I could have lied and made-up something but Larry and Marcella deserved the truth. There followed a bit of an awkward conversation where they explained that they loved Jesus and wondered why I didn’t. I think they knew I wan’t going to be converted that day and we parted amicably at the start of the 90-mile desert crossing.

This 90-mile section had being playing on my mind, up until now natural water was available – it might have been nasty, ridden with cow dung, algae and snakes – but it was water! Here, we’d have NO natural water for 15+ miles in the desert. As a runner, 15 miles sounds like 3-4 hours maximum – hiking with a full pack and carrying 7-8 litres of water plus food for 4-5 days made that distance a 10-12 hour hike.

Aaaargh!

Aaaargh!

But the scenery, oh wow! Immediately I knew this was why I came to Arizona… The desert opened-up to big skies, the cacti species kept me amused especially the “teddybear cholla” variety which seemed to have the ability to leap from the trail and attach itself to you. At one point I got to a gate, looked at my leg and found a huge chunk of cactus attached to my shin. The fish-hook barbs made extracting it a painful experience – thankfully there was no-one within 50 miles to hear me scream.

The first water was at 19-miles at a place called “Beehive Wells” and consisted of a dirty metal tank with a dead bird floating in it. It also had thousands of bees swarming around the water. My new water filtration system got a good test but – honestly, under normal circumstances you wouldn’t go within 100-feet of these water sources!

Water Cache

Water Cache

I arrived at the overnight water cache – a metal box filled with gallon water bottles supplied by Trail Angels and fellow through-hikers early in the evening, set up camp and fell asleep quickly.

Day 14 started as usual at about 05:00 with a brilliant red sunrise. It was going to be another 25-ish mile jaunt through the blazing-hot Arizona desert in the “Tortilla Mountains”, somehow I guessed that the word “Mountain” was probably more relevant here than “Tortilla” – I didn’t expect to see a few Mexican restaurants along the way, Doritos were off the menu.

I’d heard that at my planned camping spot there was a pizza company who would deliver to the trailhead! They’d also bring cold beverages to you… This was my goal for the day, it was going to be a long hike – but the potential of pizza and beer at the end drove me forwards.

It got very warm towards noon as I found the only water supply on this section and guess what – it was an even nastier source, a little bathtub, caked in green algae and swarming with bees again! Honestly – where do these bees come from in the middle of the Arizona desert? But it was appreciated and I filled-up with another 4-5 litres.

Looking forward to beer and pizza, my last task of the day was to summit something called “Big Hill” on the map. Now – one thing I’ve learnt is that the Yanks name stuff like-it-is and yes, this was a BIG HIL. Coming off the hill my phone picked-up coverage and I licked my lips dialing the number stored.

Beeep, Beeep, Beeep – wrong number! I tried again with the same result. I had internet access and looked-up the number, it was correct. It seems like my backup mobile doesn’t work on the USA networks! D’Oh – I was crushed – beer and pizza was off the menu tonight.

Eventually I found the next water cache and carried on for a mile-or-so before setting-up camp underneath some Saguaro cacti and an amazing clear, star-filled sky. Instant noodles and water might not have been as good as pizza and beer, but I’d ticked-off another one of my bucket-list items.

Railroad Breakfast

Railroad Breakfast

Day 15 started very early, about 04:00 as I knew this section was going to be long, dry and hot. Headlight-on I started and stopped for breakfast and coffee next to some railroad tracks at about 06:00 to watch the sunrise.

The trail headed alongside the Gila, (“Heela”) river, rising up-and-down in the canyons as the day got hotter and hotter. At around midday my thermometer was registering about 110F and I was having to stop every 10-15 minutes to find shade and rest. I’d taken 2 gallons of water into this section and was becoming paranoid about the lack of water. I knew there was water somewhere around 16-miles into this section, but in the heat things could get desperate very quickly. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen anyone for over 2 days and I was very much on my own, miles from anyone in the wilderness, a long way from home…. gulp…

Photo0155Eventually I found the water, the Gila River! Oh boy, it was a sandy oasis with the river running past. I stripped off, totally naked and jumped into the river, then rinsed all my smelly clothes and dried-off in the sun. At this point you have to remember I hadn’t seen anything remotely human for nearly 3 days and was very, very dirty and smelly.

After composing myself I filtered another 2 gallons of water and at about 15:00 set-off on what looked like an epic 6,000′ climb up yet another mountain. On the way up I encountered my first human contact in 3 days, 2 mountain bikers screaming down singletrack that would make any runner think twice. Hardcore… “Be Safe” they shouted back to me, “You too” I screamed back – nutters…

The climb went on, and on… I watched the sunset near the top, sitting on a rock and toasting the Arizona desert with a handful of trail mix and a some water. The scenery was epic, but after 15 hours of hiking I’ll admit I was ready for a rest. At around 8pm I arrived at my planned destination, quickly set up camp and passed out under the stars.

Day 16 – only 11 miles to the Picketpost trailhead and then 6 miles for resupply into a little town called Superior. I was nearly out of food and looking forward to getting to town – hot showers, cold beers and real food weren’t far away. I hadn’t booked into the only motel in town – I was hoping they’d have vacancies, after all – how many people could want to stay there?

The hike to the trailhead was pretty boring and I got there around 11am, desperate to get to town I decided to go against all my British principles and try to hitch on US60…  I stuck-out my thumb and started walking towards town. After about 20 minutes a beat-up Subaru pulled-in just ahead of me, who was this crazy person? Were they a serial killer, to be honest I didn’t care! As I approached the car, I could see the driver throwing stuff into the back off the passenger seat – looking into the rear I saw a copy of “The Arizona Trail”guide book!

Chris, (feminine) was en-route from Phoenix to pick-up her daughter who was hiking the AZT and suffering an injury. I couldn’t believe my luck, we chatted about the trail on the short drive, she dropped me off at the motel and gave me her cell number. Another bucket-list item done – hitchhiking!

However, the motel was full… Dejected I went to a nearby restaurant and had a consolation burger. It was 160 miles to the next resupply point so I went and bought A LOT of food, (8-9 days worth) and a 8-pack of beer and headed back down the highway to the trail. I couldn’t stop in town – so there was only one place for me and that was back on the AZT.

I didn’t get a lift so walked the 6 miles back to the trail, carrying all that extra water, food and beer,  (probably 10-11kg) and set up camp just out of earshot of the highway. It turned out to be my favorite campsite of the entire trip – warm, clear skies with a campfire and a couple of beers. Little did I know what tomorrow would bring…

TBC

 

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The Arizona Trail: 120-210 Miles

AZNST_logoDay 7, (Sunday 27th March) was to be a rest and resupply day at the Colossal Cave campsite. Even so, when camping you tend to rise and fall along with the sun – I was up at around 06:30 for coffee and breakfast with Sean.

It was Easter Sunday and Sean was getting picked up by his cousin sometime in the morning, my plan was to scrounge a lift into the little town of Vail 5 miles away with him. However, as the morning wore-on his cousin still had not arrived. We’d been chatting to two ladies who were hiking sections of the AZT earlier – they had a car and I noticed them packing up so, putting on my most pathetic Englishman look, I approached them and managed to persuade them to give me a lift into Vail.

Vail, AZ – population 920, (today 921) has a Walgreens and a gas station which are open on Easter Sunday, by AZT standards – this is pretty good and beats snake-infested water holes and cow dung. I need food and supplies to last me 5-6 days, and I’m also out of stove fuel. The Walgreens has no fuel, and neither does the gas station. As I’m wandering Walgreens, Wildflower & Yogabird arrive, (having been picked up by Sean and his cousin) also looking for stove fuel and supplies. We decide that there’s no hope of finding stove fuel so it’s going to be cold food until we get to Oracle at 200 miles. I stock-up with what seems like a lot of cookies, tortillas, peanut butter, trail mix etc. Outside I leave the girls and start walking the 5 miles back to camp – they opt to hitch and tell me they’ll pick me up if they get a ride.

5 Days-worth of food

5 Days-worth of food

About 800 yards from my campsite a pickup slows down beside me with the girls in and a lady giving them a ride, typical…! They’re not staying at the campsite but carrying-on for a while as it’s still early so I bid them farewell, retire back to the campsite and start sorting out my food and gear for the next section.

Day 8 and I’m back on trail at 07:00 which begins with a 9-mile hike to the start of the Saguaro National Park – named after the classic Saguaro cactus which is protected, only exists in certain areas and had started to appear on the trail. This was one of the reasons I’d decided to hike the AZT so I was looking forward to it. The one little issue was that the National Park is about a 17-mile through-hike, and you’re not allowed to camp in it without a permit – which I hadn’t applied for, if found without one the park rangers would, as one Sean told me – “fine the hell out of you”. It also starts with a 6,000′ climb straight up the Rincon mountain range to nearly 9,000′ elevation!

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Saguaro National Forest

I got to the National Park boundary at about 10:30 and started the climb, the scenery was awesome. Walking alongside the Saguaro cacti was as good as I imagined. At around 15:00 I made it to the first water stop at a place called “Grass Shack Camp” where who should I meet but Wildflower, Yogabird and a new hiker buddy called Scott, aka Turtle. Aware that I still had a long way to go, I quickly refilled with water and pressed-on up the mountain. By the time I reached Manning Camp at 8,000′ it was nearly freezing and getting dark, I finally made it out of the National Park at around 21:00, found a place to camp on a rocky ridge and had a disturbed night as the wind picked up and buffeted my tent!

Day 9 was very, very windy and pretty uninspiring until the end of the day when the wind dropped, the clouds cleared just as I discovered a brilliant camping spot next to a creek. Ready made with a fire pit and log to sit on.

Gila Monster Standoff

Gila Monster Standoff

I also saw my first rattlesnake on Day 9 on the trail, it surprised me slithering slowly and majestically across the trail just in front of me. Surprisingly, the sound they make is more of a buzz then a rattle. I also encountered a Gila Monster, (pronounced “Heela”) which stood in the middle of the trail refusing to budge – I gave it the benefit of the doubt and skirted around this weird, hard-as-nails, purple lizard!

Day 10 started with another massive climb up to Mt. Lemon. Early-on I met another AZT hiker who was still asleep but who I’d meet again later, (Hotrod). Shortly after I dropped my smartphone and smashed the screen, I had a backup “old-school” phone which did basic stuff or so I thought… It took photos OK, but when I inserted my SIM card I couldn’t get it to connect to the USA networks. Now I was on my own!

After the big climb to high elevation the trail entered an amazing place called “The Wilderness of Rock” which was filled with huge boulders precariously perched on top of each other. It looked like it wasn’t possible that these formations were natural! The trail also became very hard to follow in places and my GPS track was all over the place, after several wrong turns I decided to follow the little cairns made by hikers which worked out well.

Summerhaven

Leaving Summerhaven

Cold, tired and hungry I arrived at the little town of Summerhaven which had the first shop for 3 days, I was going to be stopping at a town called Oracle the next day so just bought some essentials, (cheese and beer) and started out of town looking to drop a few thousand feet as the temperature was already below freezing at 17:00

As I was leaving town a young lad, (Max) ran up to me asking if I was hiking the AZT, I assured him I was but needed to get to lower elevation to camp. I’d be seeing him again later in my adventures too!

I made it about 3 miles to a place called Dan’s Saddle before setting-up camp, eating my cheese, drinking the beer and wrapping-up for a cold night.

Day 11 started at 03:00 when I couldn’t sleep because it was so cold, my thermometer was at around 20F, I decided I needed to pack-up, wrap-up and get hiking to keep warm. My tent was frozen solid with condensation as I packed it up… Once I got moving things were OK though and I stopped on the ridge at around 05:30 for coffee and breakfast while watching the sunrise over the mountains.

Today was all about getting to Oracle for resupply, on the descent off the mountain I stumbled across another two AZT hikers, Larry and Marcella who gave me the details for a motel called “Chalet Village” where they were staying for a couple of days. I didn’t know where I was going to stay, but apparently the owner, (Marney) was very hiker-friendly, there were restaurants, laundry  facilities and showers. I didn’t need telling twice.

Oracle was a 5-mile road-walk from the trailhead, I stopped-off at the public library to check the internet before going to Chalet Village which was deserted when I got there but after a few minutes a pickup arrived and a friendly-looking lady jumped out.

“You must be Marney?” I said, adding “I’m Guy – Larry told me about this place, I need a room for a couple of days”

Photo0101

Chalet Village – hiker heaven

Chalet Village was amazing, unique, cosy little A-Frame units. There were laundry facilities and hiker boxes where you could leave unwanted gear and maybe find something useful that someone else didn’t need. I ditched a load of gear, did all my laundry, headed down to the Dollar store to resupply and buy beer for the night. Marney gave me a lift to the Post Office where I picked up a package from REI with new shoes, a sleeping-bag liner and a better water filtration system, on the way back we picked up  Larry and Marcella and I chatted to them for a while before retiring with a 6-pack of beer and quart of cookie-dough ice cream.

Day 12 and I was up again at 06:30 even though it was a rest day! There was a Mexican restaurant down the road so I went there for breakfast. It was AMAZING and I was obviously “not from around here” among the tanned, gun-toting, cowboys who were obviously locals. They were friendly enough though.

Hotrod!

Hotrod in my donated ULTRArace shirt

Marney offered to shuttle me to the start/finish of the next section which was a 7-mile stretch, but a bit of a pain and it also meant I could run that section without a pack. On the way there we picked up Turtle from the trailhead and then, on the way back who did she have in the pickup but Hotrod! I spent the afternoon repacking all my gear and then had a few beers with the lads.

Oracle, and Chalet Village had been a brilliant oasis but it was back on trail tomorrow to start a notorious 100-mile section through the desert to a place called Superior. My alarm was set for sunrise at 05:30 the following morning, Marney was giving myself, Larry, Marcella and Turtle a lift back to where we came off the AZT.

TBC…

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The Arizona Trail: 0-120 Miles

AZNST_logoAt 12:30pm on Monday 21st March I take a deep breath at the monument just beyond the barbed-wire separating the USA from Mexico, struggle to put on my backpack which weighs around 25kg and head uphill towards Utah which is over 800 miles away. It sounded like a good idea many, many months ago…

The Arizona Trail, (AZT) is a hiking/biking/horse trail traversing the state of Arizona. Somehow I’d stumbled across this while looking into the thru-hike scene, I’ve been to the South West USA several times in recent years and love the Wild West culture, I admit I had some ambitions/bucket list stuff to resolve on this trip including:

  • Sleep under the stars next to a cowboy, (Sagauro) cactus
  • As above, with a camp fire
  • See a rattlesnake on the trail
  • Meet a real-life cowboy
  • Cook on a camp fire
  • Swim naked in a creek

I’d already done the Monument Valley 50 which sorted out a lot of the Wild West / cowboy ambitions, but now it was time to really get into the wilderness and find out just what sort of a man I was. I’l admit that I was pretty scared on that first day, I was heading into bandit territory on the Mexico border, tales of immigration, kidnapping, drug trafficking, murder and corruption were ringing in my ears as I started.

My first bit of “trail magic” was provided by Hertz who gave me a ride to the AZT where I was to begin my hike, this was a 20-mile trip up a dirt road to 6,000′ in the mountains. I then had to hike 2-miles to the Mexico border to start… Which is about where we came in.

img_1277The AZT throws you in at the deep-end it’s a 3,000′ climb to 9,000′ over 6 miles at the start. I’m puffing-and-panting all the way to the top and meet a couple of chaps at the top who are just hiking a few days on the AZT. On the descent there’s still snow on the trail and tricky traverses on snow-covered trails aren’t easy. I hit the first water point at 8 miles “bathtub springs” at around 15:00 and meet Serena and some other thru-hikers resting.

Water is the biggest challenge on the AZT, it’s Arizona and the desert! Temperatures of 100F+ with no natural water for 30-40 miles and this is my first encounter of water availability, it’s one of the better sources! I filter 2 liters with my Sawyer Mini system and head out to get a few more miles in before sunset.

Everything is a first at the moment, the first water, first night, first camp, first fire etc… I find an amazing campsite for the first day and setup my new tent from REI. It’s a triumphant first day, only 14 miles but I’m here, out in the wilderness, under the stars with a camp fire… A couple of ticks on that bucket list sorted.

Day 2 dawns, and I pack-up and head out again… I don’t recall anything special happening today, it’s mainly about getting used to being on the trail and hiking all day, I set up camp at around 17:30 on a hillside.

Day 3 includes the first resupply point in a little town called Patagonia. I get into town at about 13:30 and head to the General Store to buy food. The owner and a local cowboy advise me to head to the “Wagon Wheel” saloon for food which is just down the road. So I head down there and order the biggest burger they have, a couple of girls eating in the bar say hello on the way out. After finishing-off my burger I head out of Patagonia and make it 4-5 miles before setting up the tent again.

12924572_1703130489970171_6257416510057690_nNow, you’d think the desert was hot? Well – it is, but at night it’s cold – very cold. My sleeping bag was rated at about 42F and temperatures were well under freezing, (32F) I was suffering every night in the cold and wearing everything I carried – gloves, arm warmers, thermals, beanie etc! Heat I can deal with, but the cold really saps my strength….

Day 4 started with a big climb and I passed the girls I saw at the saloon in Patagonia early in the morning and said hello. I was heading for a place called “Kentucky Camp” about 25 miles away, towards the end of the day my nose started bleeding and then when I got to the camp site I found I’d lost my North Face puffa jacket. It was so cold that this was an essential item. I was so depressed and miserable that if I could have come home I would have. But – I was hours from civilization, so left a note in the trail register asking if the people behind me had found my puffa and went to bed.

The next morning I headed back to the trail register and met the caretaker at the site who told me two girls had my jacket! It was only 06:30 so he made me coffee in his mobile home and we chatted for a while about the AZT and stuff… Then I went and met Nicole and Jessica, (Wildflower & Yogabird) who gave me back my jacket. It was a defining point for me – everything completely changed – the kindness and generosity of these people lifted my spirits and I was back at 100%

12512749_1700500770233143_2715242881581037638_nThe rest of the day was a fairly easy hike to an amazing campsite by some water which I really enjoyed. There was a group of hikers just ahead of me but I left them alone and camped by myself. The only really memorable moment was when I was filtering some water from a nasty source and a snake popped out to say hello – let’s just say there might have been some swearing!

The next morning, (Day 6) I met Sean – a solo hiker who was just packing-up as I passed him. Today the goal was to get to “Colossal Cave” the first resupply point and we had a quick chat about strategies to get there. Sean was going to go via the highway but I thought I’d take the slightly longer AZT trail there so bid him farewell.

This was the first time I’d had mobile, (cell) reception for 5 days so placed an order with REI for new shoes, sleeping-bag liner and a water filter to be delivered to me in Oracle – 100 miles North. As I was making the call, the group of hikers I’d seen at the previous night’s campsite passed me. It turns out they are ultra-runners and we have some nutual friends!

I got to Colossal Cave,  (120 Miles) in the afternoon to see Sean, sitting with an 18-pack of beer… He invited me to join him – which I did after a brief walk to get some food at the visitor center. After coming back he very generously shared a few beers with me and we drank and talked until it went dark.

I won’t tell Sean’s story – that’s personal to him, but he was the first person I’d really talked to on the trail. It was great to open-up about all the stuff I’d seen and experienced and I’m sure we both appreciated the evening.

Next-up: Mountains and the temperature

 

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Monument Valley 50

MonumentValley-logobannerBack in 2013 I had my first taste of the South Western USA, Utah and Zion left deep impressions on me. I loved the deserts and Wild West culture which looked exactly like the TV shows I grew up with as a kid, sometime in 2015 I decided I was going to quit my job and discover myself in the USA. I’d read about this relatively new race, unique in the fact it traverses Navajo parks unavailable to most runners and traversing absolutely iconic landscapes.

There’s much more to come later on the Arizona Trail, for now my plan was to run the 50-mile race and then head south to the Mexico border to start the 800-mile Arizona Trail, (AZT) back to Utah. I flew to Los Angeles, picked up a SUV and headed East via Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon to Monument Valley just north of the Arizona/Utah border.

Having previously done the Zion 100 with the same race organisation I knew it was going to be slick, I had an awesome camping spot with views of the most iconic sandstone monuments in history for sunset. A Navajo native led us through a sunset ceremony, explaining how they pray and give thanks for each sunset and sunrise… I’m not a spiritual man, but there really is something about this place that connects you with nature!

It was an early night and cold, my tent really wasn’t up to the job but I managed a few hours sleep and got up at about 05:00, went back to my SUV and cooked-up breakfast before heading to the start to watch the sunrise with another Navajo ceremony just before the start at 07:00

DSC_0031My plan was to plod around in about 12-hours, I was starting an 800-mile hike in 48 hours so no point in trashing myself! So I set off slow… A few minutes in my nose started bleeding – probably due to the dry air but I managed to stop it quickly. The 50 milers did 26-mile loop heading out to the iconic monuments… As the sun came up the desert came alive, this was NOT a personal best race! Everyone was stopping to take pictures and enjoy being out in this special place. I got to the first aid station, stripped-off my colder clothes, splashed on the sunscreen and headed out again.

The course turned quite sandy, annoying sand about 2-3″deep which was just enough to make it hard work. Running was easier than walking, but with 50 miles to go in desert heat you really don’t want to be running all the time! Eventually the 3-Sisters Aid Station came along, we’d visit this location another 3 times after completing 3 loops around different courses.

Loop 1: 5-6 miles around some the canyons was pretty cool, cliffs and big-sky views of the sandstone monuments

Loop 2: Arches – this was my favorite bit of the course, it was like being on Mars or at least another planet. Totally alien terrain and completely alone.

Loop 3: An out & back up a 1,500′ sandstone mesa – crazy, tough climb but it took you up high above all the sandstone monuments and revealed all the ground we’d covered during the day.

It was then a 5km back to the finish for pizza just before sunset. I finished in around 11h30m which was my goal. It really was a magical day, something that most people will never experience.

I slept in the SUV and packed-up early, heading for the Mexico border and the start of the Arizona trail. More on that very, very soon.

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Skydive Ultra

“What are we doing today?” – Mikey, my instructor shouts over the noise from the little plane about ready to take off, I guess it’s a reasonable question under the circumstances. There’s probably only a handful of people in history who have ever been brave/stupid enough to be able to shout back:

“YEAH BABY! I’m gonna strap myself to a complete stranger, jump out of a perfectly good plane at 14,000 feet, drop like a stone for two miles, float to the ground and then run 100 miles”

I must admit as a typical middle-aged, middle-class, fairly reserved Englishman, this alpha-male, type-A behaviour is not like me, but once again I’m in the USA – this time for the Skydive Ultra and the energy of my hosts from across the pond is infectious.

I’d first heard of the Skydive Ultra a couple of years ago, somebody, somewhere posted a link to it and I still remember seeing it and my first impression being  “WOW, how cool is that? One day I’m going to go and do that race” The concept is pretty simple – you register, get into a plane, skydive, land and then run! There’s several distances from 10k to 150 miles with staggered start times, the course is a 7.25 mile loop around the airfield and surrounding farmland in Clewiston – a little town in mid Florida, USA.

OK – so it’s an awesome concept isn’t it? A bit more digging uncovered that the skydive doesn’t actually constitute part of the race, your race time doesn’t start until AFTER you land and cross the start line. And the 7.25 mile loops are flat which isn’t really my thing – I’m a mountain runner, but something just got under my skin – it’s such a unique, niche event and it looked like a lot of fun. If I remember correctly, I entered just after the 86-mile Ridgeway Challenge back in August the previous year and yes, alcohol may have been involved.

Getting to the USA was an endurance event in itself, I was going to fly to New York a week before the event, see the Big Apple and go jogging around Central Park before catching the Amtrak train down to Miami. However a massive snowstorm across the Eastern USA put paid to that and I spent a few days re-arranging flights and hotels to eventually get me to Miami late on the Tuesday before the race. I found Miami to be just another generic big city, I was impressed by the number of people out jogging though and managed a couple of short runs near my hotel in the mornings.

On Friday I headed back to Miami International Airport to pick up a rental car and then detoured to a Miami running shop to grab some essential supplies. It was then an easy couple of hours drive up to Clewiston for the race. I drove to the skydive centre to check it out before heading back to the hotel via Walmart for some last minute essentials and then to Wendy’s for a “Baconator” meal which was introduced to me by Texas John after The Bear 100 in 2013, it’s become a tradition for me now when out in the USA as sadly, we have no Wendy’s in the UK.

Registration and check-in was about a mile from the hotel at a “tiki bar” which is an open-air thatched shack-style building. Clewiston was buzzing with a strange mix of skydivers, ultra runners and fishermen in town for a bass fishing competition that weekend. The skydive ultra had already combined two of those sports – I wonder if there’s a way to combine skydive ultra running with bass fishing? Maybe jump into the lake, grab a fish and start running, or do a lap and then you have to catch a fish before starting the next lap?

So I checked-in, grabbed my swag bag and bib which was pretty cool. My race number not only had my name and distance on, but was also printed on the type of cloth you use for cleaning glasses, not that I wear glasses but I’ve just used it to clean my iPad screen after getting nasty, greasy finger marks on it.

I’m not a fast runner, my 100-mile PB is 21:43 set back in 2012 during a 24-hour event on a 5-mile looped course. I definitely didn’t believe I was in that condition coming into the Skydive Ultra – but there is a special buckle/award for going sub-24 hours for 100 miles so that was my goal. The course is a bit long, (I finally made it 102.9 miles) so it means an average pace of just under 14 minutes/ mile. Whenever I’ve gone for a sub-24 100, my goal is to get to halfway/50 miles in around 10 hours- so that was the game plan.

I slept pretty well and got up at 05:00, put the TV on and got ready while being amused by the hysteria around the USA presidential race starring Donald Trump. Normally I’d eat 400-500 calories worth before a race but decided to stick with coffee today, at least until after the skydive. It was still dark as I checked-out of the hotel for the short drive to the race start, getting there I saw 3 flags flying at half mast – one of which was the Union Jack, not a good omen – what did they know that I didn’t? Later-on I heard that there had been a helicopter tragedy where 14 US marines had been killed and it was also the anniversary of the Challenger disaster but no-one was 100% sure.

The race HQ started livening-up, the 150-mile race had started at 17:00 the previous day so there was a bit of activity as the occasional runner came through. A medical team were doing an experiment where they wanted to perform an electrocardiogram test (EKG) before and after the event to see what effect running 100 miles had on the heart. I had a bit of time to kill so went and signed-up. They took my pulse then stuck loads of electrical contacts all over my torso and wired me up to a computer, I’m not particularly hairy in the chest department but had to be shaved to ensure the contacts were good so am now sporting some random, square bald patches on my chest! I was all good fun though and the medical team were great to talk to, I asked them not to tell me if anything was wrong or abnormal as it wouldn’t make any difference – they seemed to understand that philosophy.

At 07:30 the 100-milers headed to the hanger to register for the skydive – I thought I’d done all the paperwork the day before at registration and told the admin staff that it was all sorted. I was booked on load 2 at about 08:15 with Mikey, my instructor who came and found me and sorted me out with a jump suit. Then I got called back to the admin office… It turned out I HADN’T done all the paperwork at registration and needed to sign yet more disclaimers and also provide ID which was going to take at least 20 minutes. I sighed, told the admin staff to give my place on load 2 to someone else while I ran to the car to get my ID and that, as Arnold would say “I’ll be back”

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Not my normal look for a 100-miler, jumpsuit and parachute harness

I ran to my car in my jumpsuit, past bemused runners and spectators to grab my ID and then back to the HQ, did all the paperwork and was re-booked onto load 4 at about 09:15 – again with Mikey who was now already on his first jump of the day. The event was chip timed so it didn’t matter when I actually started – I was pretty relaxed about the whole situation to be honest, it didn’t really matter if I was delayed, I was still going to get to jump and then run.

So – I think this is where we came in at the start. Mikey came back from his first jump and found me again, we went through the plane exit procedure, chute release, he did a video interview and then the little plane came around and it was time to load-up and then put-up or shut-up.

I’ve done a skydive before, about 15 years ago in Australia and I remember every second of it, the fear and especially the sensation immediately after jumping. This time was different, I’ll still remember every moment but it was a much calmer, relaxed experience. I’ve thought a lot about it since and I think that I have a very different perspective on life these days. Tandem skydiving is a lot like a roller-coaster – you have no control and are on a ride, it’s not like being up on Crib Goch in Snowdonia, alone in the woods in Transylvania or deep in alligator territory in the middle of the night, (which is where I’d be later) – now, that’s scary! My philosophy is that if you can’t affect the situation there’s no point getting stressed about it, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride”

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My Garmin log for elevation vs Heart Rate on the skydive, (57-145 bpm)

The skydive was a lot of fun, I’m  not sure what else I can say about it really? We were very lucky with the weather it was a clear, sunny day with amazing views to the coast.  It was nearly 10:00 after landing and sorting out all the admin and other stuff so I decided to start at 10:00 with the 50k runners, all of the other 100-mile runners were out on the course – some had started at 07:00 as they weren’t skydiving. I liked this option as it meant that I wan’t chasing anyone as relative positions were irrelevant – there was no way of knowing who was in the lead.

Bang-on 10:00 we were off with Eric, the race director telling me off on the megaphone for wearing my customary all-black kit, saying it would be hot and to put on a white t-shirt. Little did he know I had slathered myself in P20, the best sunscreen ever – this stuff is amazing, even in 100+ degrees it’s kept me protected all day.

The course is a flat, squarish loop of about 7.25 miles around farmland, fields of sugar cane, US Highway 27 and the airfield with an aid station after about 3.5 miles. The first half is very runnable on open dirt tracks then a long section parallel to the road (HWY 27) before heading into the sugar cane and around the airfield back to the start. Nothing spectacular, but at least it kept twisting and turning to break up the monotony. There was a tiny muddy section – literally around 2-3 metres but apart from that it was dry, a bit uneven in places but very runnable compared to the swampy, boggy, mountainous stuff I’m used to.

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The 7.25 mile course – from 14,000 feet

For 100 miles, I had 14 laps to do and I really wanted to finish under 24 hours. A long time ago I was told that to go sub-24 you should aim to get to halfway in around 10 hours to allow for slowdown in the second half which is generally also at night, this has always worked for me so that was the plan.

I started at a comfortable pace, around 9-10 minutes/mile – it always takes me a few laps to settle into these things and this was faster than I was planning to run for the first half. When I got the Aid Station at 3.5 miles I noticed that there were a load of plastic cups on the table, people had written their name on them so they could re-use them throughout the race – a great idea. I grabbed a cup, filled it with Coke, drank it then wrote “UK GUY” on the cup before placing it back on the table much to the amusement of the volunteers. Maybe it was that, or the Union Jack buff sewn onto my pack and/or the Union Jack buff dangling from my backpack that gave me away but, from then on – I was known as “UK Guy” by the staff at Aid Station 1 and various other people who had seen that cup.

Finally, it was time to start getting down to business… After all the jokes, banter and jumping out of planes at 14,000′ there was 100 miles to run – and that takes some commitment and focus. I’m not going to lie, it was tough and I had moments of doubt. However, halfway came in 9:52 and then I knew it was in the bag. By now it was dark and most of the other distances had finished, it was getting lonely out on the course with probably only 15-20 people running through the night. Most were running in little groups of 2-3, but I like to run alone on these long events so had a quick chat with people as we passed but mainly it was just me.

The Florida swamps are a pretty creepy place to be in the daylight, however when it gets dark things get really weird. There’s rustling in the sugar cane, chirping crickets and croaking toads all around, the mist comes down blanketing everything in a strange low level fog – it really is like being in a horror movie. I wasn’t thinking about any of that until I caught up with a runner navigating using their iPhone as a torch.

“Hey there” I said, “Do you want to loan my torch?” I offered as I was using a little hand torch but also had my headlamp just in case.

“Yes please” she said, “I’m scared of the snakes”

So I gave her my torch, she promised to leave it at the start/finish area as I switched on my headlamp and ran off ahead.

A few minutes later as I caught up to another runner and my mind wandered back to that conversation… did she just say SNAKES? as I caught up to the runner I asked:

‘Hey – are there snakes around here?”

“Oh yeah – real poisonous ones, and Burmese Pythons…” (*)

“What about alligators?”

“Hell yeah, the volunteers at Aid Station 1 saw them earlier, that’s probably the rustling in the sugar cane”

But it was going to take a determined alligator to stop me from getting that sub-24 buckle, I made a silent pledge with the ‘gators that I wouldn’t turn them into a belt for my new buckle if they didn’t try to eat me. Snakes – I’ve had dealings with them before in the USA and I was pretty sure I could handle a little snake or two.

(*) Writing this blog, back home in the safety of Cardiff, Wales I decided to Google “Florida Snakes”. Apparently Burmese Pythons are becoming a bit of a problem in Florida – here’s a picture of one! If I’d have known about this at the time then I think I might have been a little bit more terrified.

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A Burmese Python caught in the Florida Everglades

The night wore on, as did the laps. At around 04:00 the skies cleared and a low level mist blanketed the course, the stars were amazing and even the frogs shut up – or maybe this was the time the Burmese Pythons got up for breakfast? Sunrise came in various shades of orange and red as I was on my final lap which was pretty special.

The race ended-up going almost exactly to plan and I crossed the finish line in 3rd place with a time of 21:55, Eric handed me my big sub-24 100-mile finishers buckle. I wandered back to the car wondering what to do with myself for the next few hours before I could check-in to the hotel. I headed off to the medical tent and got my post-race EKG stuff done, had a shower and chatted to a few people about races, snakes, alligators and stuff like that. The adrenaline started to wear off and the post-100 pain and stiffness started setting-in, I folded down the back seats in my rental car and lay down for a while trying to get comfortable.

Eventually, even lying down was too uncomfortable so I had to get up and walk back to the finish area, I chatted to a few more people, had a bit of food and a beer while waiting for the final 150-mile finishers to come in – there were 3 friends running the 150 and after the last one finished, Eric the RD announced “Who’s up for a 150 finisher Beer Mile?”

So these 3 chaps did a beer mile, the rules of which are – you “chug” a beer, run 1/4 mile then “chug” another beer – repeat 3 times! It was amazing – one of the guys went off at 5km pace – and he’d just finished 150 miles.

I made plans to have dinner later on with Arvel from Hawaii who I’d met at the finish, limped back to the car and headed to the hotel via the liquor store for something to temporarily numb the pain. 36 hours later I was back in the UK having had 3 or 4 hours sleep in 72 hours, everything finally caught up with me and I passed out for a straight 15-hours.

Looking back it seems impossible that all that actually happened, but I’m pretty sure it did – at least I can see the buckle sat next to the ones from my other 100’s. I also feel like I ran 100 miles last weekend – stiff, sore and still slightly jetlagged. I wrote most of this blog on the plane home from the USA on Monday night while the memories were still fresh in my head, one of the reasons I write these blogs and race reports is to preserve that experience and I do come back and read and re-read them from time to time.

The Skydive Ultra is a very niche event and compared to other, more conventional ultras there’s virtually no race reports, blogs or articles out there. For that reason I’m going to add an extra few paragraphs below which might be useful for anyone else considering entering in future years.

Yes, it’s an expensive event – especially if you’re coming from Europe. I think I spent around £1,200 in total which included the race entry, skydive, flights, car hire, hotels, transfers and spending money in the USA. But if you were going to do a UK 14,000′ skydive it would cost around £300 – start adding in the travel/hotel etc… and I bet there’d be little change from £500. Add-in a 100 mile race and you’d be up to £700 – I spent years doing stuff on the cheap and I ALWAYS regret not doing it properly, if you’re going to do something epic – it’s worth the extra expense to do it properly.

The race course itself is nothing special, but lapped courses rarely are and I’ve done a few of them in the UK. Personally, I’d have liked a few undulations/hills to break up the relentless flat but you can’t have everything and there just aren’t any hills in the area so it would be impossible to get them into this course.

I’d absolutely recommend the race, if you can afford it you won’t regret it. It’s Florida in January, warm and sunny – take the kids, go and see Disneyworld, the Kennedy Space Centre, Universal Studios. Book that holiday of a lifetime and forget to mention to everyone that you’ve accidentally booked a race at the weekend until you get there.

Here’s a few more photos, all photos taken during the skydive are courtesy of Eric Friedman, taken from the event Facebook page.

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Pinhoti 100

imageAfter 3 hours of running through the Talladega National Forest, Alabama I come across a pimp and giant banana standing at the side of the trail. The pimp looks at me and says with a deep southern drawl “Boy, with a smile like that – you could make Daddy some money”. I high-five the giant banana and run off deeper into the woods. Somewhere in the distance, I’m sure I can hear the unmistakable opening notes from “Duelling Banjos”. It could only happen at the Pinhoti 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Several months ago I was looking for a USA race to do in the Autumn and came across Pinhoti 100 which I’d never heard of and knew nothing about. I had a quick look at the website, elevation profile and logistics of getting to the race from the UK. I’d never been to Alabama or the Deep South USA so decided that I could incorporate it into a road trip so I was in, paid my entry fee, booked flights, hotels and car hire and promptly forgot all about it.

Finally November rolled around and I flew into Orlando doing my final bit of research on the plane – watching Deliverance! OK, so it’s supposed to be set in Georgia but for me, it’s in the woods, in the Deep South and that’s close enough. Burt Reynolds had a bow and arrow, my best defence was a little pair of nail scissors – I resolved to practice my pig squealing on the drive up to Alabama!

The drive up from Orlando was a pretty uneventful 500 miles mainly on boring interstate highways to Sylacauga, Alabama. I was booked into the official race hotel about 3 miles from the race HQ and it was obvious that the ultra runners were taking over the place. The car park started to fill with cars and trucks with custom licence plates from across the USA, several were also plastered with ultra-running stickers and badges from previous races and affiliated trail running clubs etc…

Pre-race carb loading

Pre-race carb loading

Race registration, bib and packet, (goodie bag) pickup was on Friday afternoon and located at the race HQ, this was also where we’d be picked up to be taken to the start on Saturday and across the road from the finish line at Sylacauga High School. After picking up my bib I popped into a promising looking local bar for a huge burger, fries and beer before heading back to the hotel for an early night.

The weather was hot and humid but the forecast had been predicting a massive change on Saturday – race day. It was supposed to rain all day, with thunderstorms and get colder, a lot colder. Due to this the course had been amended slightly and some Aid Stations had been made water only due to the difficulty of getting volunteers and food to those locations. But hey, I’m from Wales – we invented wet, cold and muddy weather.

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Where Ravens Dare

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Awesome LDWA Logo

Another LDWA event and a route that I’ve run solo in the past. It’s a pretty awesome trek through the Welsh valleys with 5 big climbs of circa 1,000′ each – and then lots of runnable descents. Along with the Rhondda Rollercoaster route this one is an absolute classic and one I couldn’t pass by – especially as it’s cheap as chips and fully supported by the LDWA with more food and enthusiasm than is legal.

I’d pondered about starting a few times – the weather was good and an alternative 35-mile recce of the start of Offas Dyke was a viable alternative but eventually the lure of the LDWA support got to me. I’d decided to use public transport to get to the start again so was up at 05:30 and shambled via train and bus to Machen. While sorting out my pack an old mate Russell sat next to me and asked if I’d done it before, he hadn’t recognised me so I set him right and we had a bit of a catchup.

We set off at 09:00 and the racing snakes including Mark Palmer, Katie Beecher and Dominic Pascoe zoomed off into the distance! I had no plans other than to have a nice, easy run so settled into that pace. Soon enough I found myself in a trio with Russ and Anthony from Bridgend – it was cloudy/foggy so we stuck together and passed fairly easily through the first couple of checkpoints while shooting the breeze.

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Don’t lose it – looking at you Callissa!

We were running well, and into CP3 at 17 miles in under 4 hours where I left Russ and Anthony and headed off on my own. I knew the next hill was a killer and wanted to get it done… I’d had a “beetroot and cream cheese” sandwich at the CP which was a gamble but it seemed to get me up that hill. I’d found a lost “tally” card just after CP3 for a “Callissa Cafull” so now my mission was to re-unite that tally with the runner. I headed off up the nightmare hill and started passing people asking if they were the mystery runner. Somehow I felt “Callissa” was a female name – so the first few groups of men were suitable amused when I asked “are you Callissa?”

Time and miles ticked by until eventually I got to the shooting range where, quite unnervingly we had to pass right behind the target area. I caught-up to a couple of walkers and asked if there was a “Callissa” and guess what – there was! She was so grateful that I’d found the tally card – it really was a nice moment.

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Raven sculpture at the top of the “nightmare climb” – Copyright John Pennifold Source

A bit more focus got me to the final CP and then there’s just one big hill to climb to the finish. Last time I did this route I’d missed a turn on the final climb and messed up big-time so was really concentrating on getting the right line through the forestry section and nailed the line I’d missed previously. By this point I was running pretty low on energy and looking forward to finishing. The final few miles are a bit of a grind which start on a rocky undulating track, then the final descent starts which is grassy at first and then moves onto the road for a leg-busting final descent into Machen. It should be runnable at 5-6 min/mile pace, but after nearly 6,000′ of ascent and 27-28 miles, it hurts!

So, I finished in 6:20 and in 10th place out of around 100 starters, I’m not going to complain about that all things considered. It’s an absolutely awesome route, a pity it was cloudy early on so the views were obscured. The South Wales LDWA group really do have some classic routes – very highly recommended to anyone who loves hills, trails and of course – cream cheese and beetroot sandwiches!

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