Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Californian Running Experiment

Standing on the steps of San Francisco City Hall jet-lagged after 3 hours sleep and fuelled by coffee was not the start situation I had expected for the Transcontinental Challenge but the weeks, days and hours leading up were so eventful that a decent nights sleep had become a luxury.

I was joining my Glasgow friend Don Lennox as he embarked upon a run across the United States from San Francisco to New York, a distance of 3,063 miles. He is the first Scottish man to attempt this, and hoped to exceed the current world record of 46 days. I'd helped Don plan and gain sponsorship for the run during the last three months and the idea to try and keep up with him for five days happened naturally.

Events leading up to day one on Saturday 3rd September were rather hectic. In typical bus-like fashion sponsorship was seemingly impossible to secure right up until the last two weeks, when we succeeded in gaining several sponsors. On arrival into San Francisco there was immediately an intense time pressure to finalise a list of complex things, from route-planning to sourcing appropriate communications, smart phone, GPS etc. Worryingly the much-needed solar charging panels for the communications had not been ordered correctly and so were not to arrive prior to running. We also met with the US sponsor and the film crew/support team he was awarding to the project, who were keen to film Don in his kilt in a variety of hotspots around the city.

Don is a natural behind the camera whereas I just learnt a lot: I don't like talking to a camera and not being able to look at the person behind it. I'm not much better at looking at someone talking into the camera and keeping a straight face. Filming requires much hanging around. San Francisco is cold!

So we packed the necessary into the support vehicle, and made it to City Hall. One of our film crew John was on his bike in order to lead us out of the city - a route we had been warned as tough to navigate.
It was almost anti-climatic after the months of planning and thinking about the first few days of this run. Conditions were decent for running although not so much for visibility crossing the iconic Golden Gate bridge - foggy and chilly. Having crossed the bridge at around 7 miles we stopped briefly for a water re-fill and when I came back from the fountain Don had managed to meet a man who was cycling across all 50 states during 2011. We ran alongside his bike for a bit and learned California was his second-last state before heading to Hawaii (see his vid below).

We ran for 30 miles on 101 to reach San Rafael then Novato, stopping en route at a taqueria before continuing for another 22. It would have been much easier for us to cross east out of the city over the Bay bridge rather than the Golden Gate but pedestrians are not permitted to use this bridge. Instead we had to take a detour up around San Pablo bay and towards Vallejo.

The pressure in these first days to run 68 miles was intense. Partly due to the plans Don had emphasised about the world record, and partly now because we had a sponsor on board who was intent on this being achieved. We might have stood a good chance of making this mileage but route preparation left something to be desired, and our directions led us to some strange turns that first day. These included a left which should have been a right and a dead end down a housing estate (luckily on this occasion we met a dog-walker who threw on his running shoes to run us a few miles across some fields to the correct highway. Where did the road go?!). Looking back I'm convinced we ran far more than the 52 clocked miles on day one, considering we were on our feet from 9am until past midnight with only several stops.

Lasting memories from the day which I am letting overide the starting stresses: the stunning Sausalito with its artsy bayfront villas, in which I am assured space and property are at one of the highest premiums in California. Testament again to my expensive taste. The fact that sunsets viewed even from the Highway are spectacular in California. The discovery of fig rolls as running fuel. That even after a handful of confusing directions and several dead ends courtesy of Google walking routes we still managed to laugh hysterically whilst running down the hard shoulder of the highway at midnight. Admittedly it was a fine line with delerium. Just a short while after Don and I reckoned on how likely it was that we would get stopped by a patrol car at some point during the run, what should pull up but a police car. Stopping ahead of us to shine lights in our faces and check us out, the policeman listened to what we were doing as if it were the most normal of things, thankfully assuring us that we were legal, though running down the same highway or interstate back south was not. We continued for an hour or two more before stopping for the night, chalking the road so we'd know where to pick up the next day. Being a few miles off target and the campsite we'd planned to get to for the night, plus the fact it was Labor Day weekend, accommodation options were limited. However having met back with film guys John and Rob, John demonstrated his master charm at convincing an unsuspecting man leaving a wedding dance on the streets of Sonoma to let us stay on his guest house floor for the night. Ten minutes later and we were there, sleeping bags on the floor and alarms set for dawn.

A day of highs, lows, snakes and stripy sunburn, which looking back seemed like 3 days rolled into one. Testament to how much can be squeezed into 24 hours if necessary...

John drove us back to the chalk-line on the Napa highway, instructing us to stay on the same highway for 30 miles and head straight over to Vallejo instead of going through Napa (what the original directions instructed us to do). A couple of hours in and several dead snakes later I instead caught sight of a rather alive snake, by which time I was almost treading on it (I may have made a bit of noise according to Don). Luckily I'd hopped over the top of it, though to me it looked harmless. We investigated and photographed, reckoning it couldn't be a rattlesnake without a rattle. Later John and Rob had a look at the photos, exclaiming that it was very definitely a rattler baby. Although they don't have rattles at that age they are dangerous from birth and frequently defensive (apparently coiling as per photo), biting often when disturbed. They can inject 2.5 x the venom of an adult as can't yet control it. Certainly a beautiful little specimen though.

The rest of the morning went well but around the 25 mile point and a confusing junction that old navigational sinking feeling struck us that we were in fact running through wine country. John told us the highway we thought we'd kept on had in fact merged into 121 and we'd missed the signs to stay on 37 to Vallejo miles and miles ago. I'm sure Californian signs are only visible to Americans! Add to that a searing midday heat and the fact the GPS kept sucking the life out of the smartphone battery, and the tensions of the day were rising.

To take our minds off the frustration we began an ongoing tally of the gruesomely diverse array of road kill we'd seen in just two days - Don's grim version of the generation game. This included countless racoons, a skunk, grass snakes, many deer, various birds, a puppy.

It was a baking dry heat leaving Napa and worryingly towards the late afternoon Don was feeling the effects of what we thought was the beginnings of deydration. The gradual but relentless incline leaving wine country didn't help. We made it to the (correct!) junction outside of Napa to get onto highway 12. A couple of miles down and Don wasn't faring well at all so we met the support guys and rested on the banks of the highway for a while. Here we were blessed with yet another spectacular Californian sunset - the most beautiful light I've seen in a long time. What better backdrop for Don to be sick and for me to mourn the loss of yet more toenails, all filmed by our boys.

Don called it a day (night) at this point as carrying on in that state would have been most probably counter productive for the next few days. We headed in the car back into Napa town to try find a motel, after many attempts at negotiating free rooms we settled for a discounted rate and pizza in bed.

I can only have had another 4 hours sleep before we were up early to drive back to where we'd stopped the night before, but our grand plans were hampered by Don having realised smartphone was missing. With it safely found, we got underway onto highway 12 east which led to Rio Vista, our planned destination of the previous day 40 odd miles away. A mere 2 or 3 hours down the road and my feet were absolute agony, I could feel the taping was doing more harm than good. I tried to grin and bear it but pretty soon I didn't want to talk to anyone and was close to tears so decided to let Don continue on his own for a few hours and I'd keep John company. Rob meanwhile put in an impressive effort and ran for the whole morning with Don.

These two guys are amazing. Young talented film makers living in San Francisco - but John from Colorado and Rob from New York - they entertained us constantly with stories of their lives; documentaries they are making, circus skills they can teach and how they'd both been through pretty horrific accidents recently (Rob having fallen out a second storey window and broken his back). Their immediate warmth, positivity and charm to us and everyone we met made up ten-fold for their interesting car-packing skill:

With the happenings of the last few days the record was looking increasingly unlikely but Don made around 40 miles that day, making it to Rio Vista. Much of this was down long, flat highways with absolutely no protection from the elements - save another break to shelter and rest under some ancient farm machinery on the side of the highway, prompting another police stop. Then much later that evening there came twists and turns which made for sad times for all of us, with John and Rob having to leave the project after three days of filming, signalling the end of a sponsorship which we realised had never been a good fit for Don or the run. Every one of us was entered into an unexpected situation and I chose at that point to head back to San Francisco. Having originally planned to undertake the whole expedition completely unsupported, Don continued with his backback, after spending the night in Rio Vista.

After time in San Francisco - a relaxing mini-break for my feet - I retuned several days later, courtesy of my most lovely friend Lisa from Sacramento.

Well technically no longer day four, but Don's day seven. Transported by Lisa to the bustling metropolis of Jackson, just 70 odd miles from the Nevada border, I re-joined Don for a few days. My feet were so thankful of the break I'd given them and were magically healed enough to run on. However Don's feet were now in a mess, a side effect of running with the 60lb backpack for the first time since John and Rob had left. The weight had meant terrible impact on his feet with an impressive selection of blisters to rival my own. We didn't run that day and treated them as best we could to give them a decent chance of being ok to tape up to run tomorrow.

Don had also had some fantastic support since the town of Lodi several days before from a friend of a friend Richard, who had magically produced a jogging stroller for Don to push his backback in, and avoid more damage. An interesting sight but surprisingly efficient!

With the new addition to the team of Dan from Reno and his Lexus, we didn't need to test the stroller just yet. We taped feet and set off for Pine Grove 10 miles away, another tiny town further up Highway 88. A wholly different experience from the suburbs of San Francisco, we were edging into remoter territory, with obscure town names to match - Pioneer, Ham Station and Tragedy Springs. A good preparation for Don for Nevada, which has a tiny population by US standards and plenty of lonely desert highway.

Dan was a perfect support, driving ahead 5 or so miles, running back to meet us for a few miles, picking up the car and continuing, always making sure we were on the right path. We ran 30 miles, taking in a couple of thousand feet of ascent. To the Nevada border over the next 48 hours there would be over 7,000 ft of ascent, of which we did not know how sudden the climbs would be, or the likelihood of altitude affecting us.

I can honestly say the surroundings up there more than compensate for any element of physical challenge, and I would have run for 12 hours a day through it. The smell of pine up there is almost overpowering and the landscape spectacular - canyons, mountains, forests, birds of prey, marmots, threatening storm clouds.

After a decent sleep in a Pioneer motel we were to hit the real ascent today deep into the Sierra Nevada's. After what seemed like just an hour running we passed the 6,000ft signage, and then not long after the 7,000 ft one. I'm not sure I felt real effects of the altitude and they say only 20% of people feel effects at 8,000ft, but it was hard to tell with the climbs being tough anyway. They were actually quite gradual but just never ended, and we had to take many walking breaks. We were nearly at the planned 20 miles stop when Don began to suffer quite suddenly with leg pain which he realised was a tendonitis injury. We tried brisk walking but the hills were too much for that type of strain so we gave it a rest and he decided to stay off the running for the afternoon. I knew I'd have to stop running tonight and head back to Lisa's anyway, otherwise we'd get too far away for me to actually get back to her place in Sacramento. Having checked out everything from the almost non-existent public transport to complex car hire we had concluded that the only option in remote Sierra Nevada country was for Lisa to pick me up. I decided to end my part in the run with a solitary run back down - so asked Don and Dan to come pick me up later, turned around and headed off 10 miles back down the mountains.

Thanks so much to you Lisa for giving up many hours and driving into the mountains two nights running straight from a hard day in the office. Only to meet us in some small town diner for a few hours and drive home again.

My thanks also go unreservedly to marketing pro Lindsay Branscombe from CT who provided and is still providing massive support for Don in the US, helping him get the kit and support people he needs.

So reluctantly we left Don and Dan, with Lisa's gifts of clean washing and bear spray in hand, not far from the Nevada border. Dan was due to stay supporting Don for another few days before heading back to Reno, and has now been back out again to help on his journey into the truly remote Nevada desert. Superstar!

Don, keep running....Nevada can't go on for that much longer. Soon you'll be into the beautiful Utah and Colorado.

What I've found most inspiring about this trip is that the things I thought I would find hardest (physically) were not the things that proved most challenging, such as simply running for 40 or 50 miles every day or running in midday sun. I loved the novelty of running in the heat, and breaking the day up into 3 or 4 sections of mileage seemed almost natural. Its amazing how achievable running another 10 or 15 miles becomes when you've had even just a short break and decent nutrition, and know your kit well. The most difficult things were the complex social and logistical decisions we had to make which weren't black or white but shades of grey: the sponsorship issues, the constant planning ahead. Oh and I guess the navigation..

I spent a luxurious couple of days in Sacramento but missed the mountains and struggled to come back down to earth after running, though Lisa and I did come back down 8,000 ft in a night. Another few nights in San Francisco and it was time to wake up and get on a flight home...on which the drama continued when the cabin crew announced half an hour in that the right side of the aircraft was experiencing technical problems. To which the man beside me began laughing hysterically that this wasn't going to turn out well. Luckily it did.

Back home I'm completely relaxed. If its impossible to ensure a major expedition such as TransCon goes entirely and perfectly to plan then there is little value in stressing about the minor things. All you can ever do is put your best work into something, and if it doesn't go to plan keep your patience and rational thinking intact to deal with the cards that are shown to you. I reckon there's good sense in welcoming such unique situations as we had in California, it was a thousand opportunities rolled into a very short time. Its serendipitous effect is allowing me to take pleasure in the uncomplicated back here in Scotland. Which ironically is one of the reasons I love running in the first place - for its no-frills simplicity.

I'll leave you with a few small clips of footage from Day One:

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