In Defense of a Friend: Response to “Climber Fined For Obstructing Rescue” by Rock & Ice

This is a straight re-post of a piece my buddy Wes wrote in response to the one sided article Rock & Ice wrote about the climbing accident Wes assisted in.  Here is a link to R&I’s article: “Accident Report: Climber Fined for Obstructing Rescue


I am writing this after reading about myself in Rock and Ice magazine this week. I had chosen to remain anonymous because this story was not about me. It was about the successful rescue, regardless of who should have gotten “credit” for the success. However, when this article was published with so many missing facts, I felt it was now time for me to come forward. I must tell my story in three parts.

Part I. I helped save my friend.

As with any emergency, when adrenaline, stress, and physical exertion are irrepressible, ten people can experience the same event and perceive it completely differently. I say this, because I know that my perspective is simply one of many. But, it seems to me, I don’t think anyone can accurately tell this story without hearing from me. An attempt to tell this story without my perspective is shortsighted at best, defensive and insidious at its worst. Here is how I remember it:

The day was going pretty well when Dylan Johnston and I received a call from our friends Jackson and Zach. Zach described how Jackson had fallen and was unable to self-rescue. Dylan and I rushed to their aid.

Because I am intimately acquainted with Shortoff Mountain, because I have climbed, guided, and scouted the Maginot Line (Grade III, 5.7) at least 15 times, because I am an AMGA Certified Rock Instructor, Single Pitch Instructor and full time climbing guide, because I know how to read a map, consult a climbing guidebook, and recognize my position at any time in mountainous technical terrain, I knew exactly where my friends were. Without a need for pause, deliberation, or consult I went straight to the top of their climb.

When I arrived at the top of Maginot Line, there were 3 Burke County Search and Rescue personnel on scene. My first interaction with these gentlemen that day, unfortunately, conformed to every other interaction I have ever had with them. You see, this day was not the first time I have interacted with Burke County Search and Rescue. At their best, they are honorable, well-intentioned volunteers who do not spend much time in 5th class rock terrain. At their worst, they are prideful, out-of-shape, and a danger to themselves and others. They are a bit of everything: some good, some bad, some bored, some effective, none of them have ever navigated this terrain before. For Jackson’s sake, I was hoping for the best in each of them.

I immediately inquired as to who was in charge. Their response was incoherent. They did not know who was in charge, they did not have a plan, and they did not offer me any plan or directive. Fearing for my friend and unsure what these three gentlemen could possibly do for him, I proceeded to set up a rappel to go down to Jackson. At no time did they direct me to not descend to the victim.

I attached my climbing rope to a tree with a bowline and rappelled on a single line with a grigri down about 100 feet. At this point I built a midpoint anchor for the rappel line and continued another 60 feet to Jackson. Dylan also descended down the line and positioned himself about 20 feet above Jackson.

Jackson was a mess He was on a ledge 200 off the ground laying on his side in a somewhat fetal position. I could immediately tell that he was in a lot of pain. Thanks to my training in technical rescue and wilderness first aid, I did not need a whole lot of time to decide what to do. I began to work. First, I made Jackson safe from falling any further. I took some trad gear from his harness; I made an anchor about 20 feet above him in a crack system (the closest available anchor). I secured Jackson to the anchor with his climbing rope. I began assessing and monitoring his condition. I knew that I would not be able to extricate Jackson from the cliff on my own, I knew from his condition that time was a factor and we needed to get him to advanced medical care as quickly as possible. And I knew that the terrain above would not allow for an efficient raising system. I know all of this in seconds, because that is what I have trained for years, and hours, and miles of terrain to know. I don’t need a committee to know this. I need help; Jackson needs help.

I made cell phone contact with people on top of the cliff as well as incident command for the rescue. I gave patient assessments. I guided the rescuers about where to place their ropes to reach the victim (my rope was a good landmark). I tried to be as precise and as helpful as possible, because I knew that Jackson’s life depended upon their assistance.

Inside my heart, my head, and my anxiety however, I know who is up there. I know that these well-intentioned volunteers would have difficulties pulling this off. They may allow us to sit here all night like they have on other interventions. Jackson may die here on this ledge right in front me. I begin to get scared, as I calm Jackson; his groans are only muted by spells of unconsciousness.

To keep busy, I shout instructions up to Dylan. Poor Zach has been down there belaying for hours. I then direct Dylan to bring Zach up on the original climbing rope and get him off the cliff. Seemed to me, it would be good to get Dylan and Zach off the cliff now. Zach must be exhausted and there is nothing else for Dylan to do. Plus, I knew that I needed to get off this cliff eventually, so I also told Dylan to be ready to belay me up once the rescuers had taken over. That was our plan, and Dylan and Zach got to work on that. I busied myself with Jackson, knowing that I had a belay out of here no matter what the rescuers upstairs did or did not do.

I made several phone calls upstairs to communicate Jackson’s progress, so it is difficult to remember when I was first instructed to leave the scene by incident command. It doesn’t really matter to me because no one seemed to have a problem with my response. I responded by saying that I would leave the ledge as soon as someone from the rescue squad arrived on the side of the cliff to care for Jackson. It never occurred to me that they actually wanted me to abandon Jackson without handing him off to a rescuer. I deduced that the incident commander was not on scene, because I could not fathom a directive that instructed me to leave an injured person to die by themselves. I don’t think I would have obeyed such a directive even if they had been more emphatic. But, no one was emphatic. No one seemed to have a problem with my plan, and the communication never seemed remarkable to me until later.

When the first rescuer finally arrived, the rope that they were rappelling on was too short to reach the victim, I saw two strands of rope ascending from his harness and deduced that he on some sort of belayed rappel rig, rappelling on one single strand backed up by another rope. This would have been great, but our would-be rescuers had not made the rappel line long enough. It dangled 20 feet above out heads.

Now, I know the caliber of the rescuers upstairs, so I can forgive those folks for this slight miscalculation. But Jackson is dying at my feet, so what we do now is important. Time is a factor. The rescuer doesn’t know how to communicate his predicament to the people upstairs. He doesn’t know how to say: “the rap line is too short, just lower me the last 20 feet.” Or: “tie off the belay, extend the rap line 20 feet, and allow me to continue rappelling once you’re done.” Or: “hey, I’m going to transfer my rappel to the rope the victim and the first responder are using. He seems to have a good rope and a good anchor here.”

I am sympathetic to his ignorance. He is doing the best he can, and I see that. So, I carefully directed him on how to use my climbing rope to rappel the remaining at a distance to reach Jackson. Once I had him there on the ledge, once he whipped out that massive first aid kit, once I saw him reach down, and touch Jackson, I didn’t feel anything but gratitude, and admiration, and relief. Thank God, I thought.

From this point forward, I remember communicating with the rescuer right beside me, primarily. The first thing he told me, as he was beginning care was that incident command wanted me to leave the scene. Jackson moaned some feeble protests, but I responded by saying that definitive care had arrived and that I needed to leave to let the rescuers take over.

But, the rescuer had transferred on to my climbing rope in his descent, and Jackson was still tied to it as well, and both of them were anchored to the crack system that was 20ft above their heads, and I honestly didn’t think the rescuer understood any of this very well. With the rescuer occupying my preferred ascent method, I wasn’t sure how or when he expected me to vacate the premises. It sounded like more of them were on the way, and a helicopter too. It never occurred to me to prussik up the line, and the imperative need for my immediate and hasty departure was never relayed to me. So, I told him that I was planning to climb out as soon as they could free up my climbing rope. But they never did.

Now, I know a million and one ways under the sun to get up a cliff. I could rope solo, I could climb dual prussiks, I could use my plaquette, I could cut the rope above the anchor and tie in there. Heck, if it was a really big deal, I could just free solo, but no suggestions, instructions, or specific imperatives were ever relayed to me. So I simply attached myself to the anchor that was 20 feet away. At the time, I felt like this was that safest thing for me to do. I felt safer attaching myself to the anchor I put in the wall and waiting it out, so that’s what I did.

The helicopter came to the cliff to assess the situation. then ascended above the cliff and lowered a rescuer with basket to the ledge where the victim was. I saw no delay in this action but then again I don’t have a trained eye for what delays in helicopters look like. The 2 rescuers then began packing the victim for extraction. After this occurred another paramedic was lowered out of the helicopter and attached the hook to the basket and lifted Jackson away to even more definitive care. Then, the helicopter lifted away the other 2 rescuers and I was all alone. Jackson was safe, at last.

I pulled up the now empty rope end, unceremoniously tied in, called up to confirm my belay from Dylan, cleaned all the gear, and climbed with Jackson’s rack, my rack. After all that, and carrying all that gear, the climbing was exhausting.

When I arrived at the top, I was not greeted by rescue personnel, I was not thanked, I was not cared for or supported. Instead, I was arrested by a forest ranger named Jason Crisp. He was visibly upset with me and my partner over the situation. I didn’t really understand what had happened. The right thing had happened. The victim was safe and alive. I had played a critical role in the success of the rescue. I had given continuous reports on the victim’s condition. I had guided and assisted the descent to Jackson.

I was angry, emotional, and more than slightly irritated. The ranger instructed me to begin hiking down with him, that I was being detained. I began a second rescue operation at this point. At this point, for reasons I could not fathom, I now had to rescue myself from going to prison.

In that effort, I was also successful. In the two mile hike down from Shortoff, I managed to explain the entire afternoon to Ranger Crisp, and I won his immediate sympathies. He agreed that something did not sound right, that he had been called on scene to detain a belligerent civilian who was interfering in a professional rescue. I felt betrayed, disgusted, and alone.

The silent indifferent eyes of all the rescuers in the cul de sac helped me understand what had happened. Ranger Crisp understood it too when he saw their skulking faces. My actions, my critical thinking, my decisiveness, had humiliated the Burke County Search and Rescue members. I had inadvertently robbed them of their glory, and they fully hoped to have me spend the night in jail in order to abjure their injured pride and coveted heroism.

I was despondent, heartbroken, and incredulous. I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Ranger Crisp pulled me aside, and he said, “Look, I admire what you did up there, but I have to do something here, because they are expecting me to arrest you. I’m going to write you a citation for disorderly conduct, and you shouldn’t worry about it. It’s not a criminal citation, it’s just a fine. If you pay it, it virtually disappears.”

Believe it or not, I was grateful to the Ranger. If he had just believed everything the rescuers said, I would have been in jail. As it was, I was free to get in my car and leave, a gesture for which I am immensely grateful. I believe Ranger Crisp probably understood Burke County Search and Rescue just as well as I do, because he was under no obligation to take my word for it.

In an odd twist of the story, Ranger Crisp was murdered 2 days later apprehending a real fugitive in the national forest. I felt an immediate loss and sadness, not only for senseless loss of a good public servant, but for losing the only witness to the operation that seemed to defend me. I was sad for a dozen reasons in the 48 hours after the rescue, but that part was just incomprehensible. The world felt really small, and sad, and senseless.

Part II. Aftermath.

I didn’t start to get really angry until later. The evening after the rescue, on the news, there was a dramatic account of a heroic intervention on Shortoff Mountain by the Burke County Search and Rescue Team. There was helicopter footage, interviews with the very rescuers I had assisted, and an explanation that the rescuers had done their duty despite the “interference” and “delays” cause by a civilian bystander. I thought about the faces in the parking lot at the base of Shortoff, I thought about my reputation as a community member and a guide, I thought about how unfair and unjust my treatment had been.

It’s hard to describe, but each ounce of despair and betrayal that I had felt the night before was replaced by anger. I called the television station and explained that their assertion of my “interference” was just bad reporting. But, I was having to piece together the other half of the story from what Ranger Crisp had told me the day before, what I had seen on the news, and what Dylan and Zach had overheard while they were on top of the cliff. So, it was hard to know what to do, or say, or how to do it or say it. So I just went to my family’s house for TLC.

Once I got home, the more I learned about Burke County’s version of the story, the angrier I got. I might have really raged on the internet and news and public forums, but a few things helped me get it together. First, I visited Jackson in the hospital and returned all of his gear. Seeing his smiling face, all his bandages and stitches, meeting his Dad, feeling the firm grip of his handshake and embrace, despite his injuries, I put the whole thing in perspective. Despite what Burke County had done to me, my friends life and health and happiness sat before me, on the mend. I knew, despite all the slander and obfuscation, how and why that happened. He would not have survived without Burke County calling the helicopter, and their EMTs, and their infrastructure. But all those systems and tools and personnel would not have done them a bit of good if I had not been there. I knew it as soon I looked at Jackson; he knew it; his dad knew it too. That was redemptive.

Second, I tuned in to Facebook and watched as the climbing community sprang to my defense. Many of my defenders did not even know that the responder mentioned in the news stories was me. They defended me on principle. Climbers in Linville Gorge have seen the Burke County Search and Rescue Team in action. They have also seen me in action, a fixture of the crag, a helping hand, a cheerful compatriot. I think most of them just called the whole thing like they saw it: “Thank God, Wes was there!”

Lastly, I went home to Washington. My girlfriend, my family, an enterprising and bustling city, it helped the whole fiasco seem far away and trivial and worthy of being forgotten. And that is what I did. It was easy to forget, because no one from the Forest Service, the Rescue Team, or the press ever contacted me again. I knew that people back in NC were still talking about, but I was happy to let it go. In fact, I was anxious to let it go.

Part III. What now?

The only reason I am telling my side now is because an incomprehensible version of this story recently appeared in Rock and Ice. I’m not sure who concocted that narrative but sounds a lot like the script I heard on the news that evening after the rescue. It doesn’t sound like the day I remember at all.

The thing about a news cycle or a rash of Facebook posts is that they will be forgotten relatively quickly. But, I think I’m calm enough and comfortable enough to set the record straight. I don’t want to be remembered that way. In my defense, I have a community and a surviving friend who knows who all the key players were that day. I had an experience that will resonate with every climber that has ever interacted with the Burke County Search and Rescue Team. Volunteer rescuers in Western North Carolina have a track record of mishap and blunder that is almost always averted by someone like me.

Lastly, the evidence against me is entirely manufactured. If there are recordings out there that document my “disorderly conduct”, they have never been produced for my hearing, for anyone I know, or any law enforcement authority that I am aware of. Video and photo evidence of the rescue however, clearly demonstrate the use my rope and anchor to assist in the rescue, my position on the cliff when I was asked to vacate the ledge, and the mishandled technical systems that the rescuers were attempting to use to access the cliff.

If there is a silver lining to this whole story, it is simply to have the climbing community understand the following:

Professional Rescuers, Professional Climbers, and recreational climbers have vastly different skill sets, procedures, cultural norms, and communication styles. In some parts of the country (like Burke Co), these groups have not yet learned to talk to each other, to be a resource to each other, or to support each other. I am glad the CCC and the guiding community are working hard to open up channels of communication so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
Narrative has a powerful effect on the climbing community. In local news, that narrative will be sensational and sexy, even if entirely inaccurate. Every climber involved in a rescue should consider not only the efficacy of their action, but how they will perceived and portrayed in news media. For me, I’d help no matter what they say. I’d do the same thing again if I had the chance. But, if you can’t take that kind of heat and vilification, stick to the sidelines.
Become proficient in improvised rescue techniques. I would not have been effective or efficient, and I might actually have been danger to Jackson, myself, and others, if I had not known exactly what I was doing out there.

Crossfit Open 2014: Stats, Ranks, and Data-Nerding

The CrossFit community is a welcoming community, but it is a welcoming community built upon the competitive nature of a very particular type of person. With every WOD there is competition with yourself (i.e. setting new a PR), competition with the other athletes in your gym (I’m looking at you Lance), and once a year there is a competition among all CrossFit’ers in the form of the CrossFit Games.

I am a member of CrossFit 206 in Seattle. The coaches at 206 have built an environment that is inclusive; 206 caters to both the most intense of athletes (cough, cough Evan) and to those that are just going to have a good time. It is a great blend of people and I am thoroughly grateful. With the start of the Games though I have begun to wonder where in the spectrum of gyms 206 falls. With the wealth of data made available through the Games website it is just too tempting for me not to nerd out and answer that seemingly simple question.1

I am going to preface everything to come with (1) I am not actually learning about the gym per se, but rather about the team the gym puts forth. It is not a minor distinction so I want to make it explicit. (2) For tractability reasons I have only included CrossFit’ers in the USA.

I think the natural starting place is to look at the number of reps that athletes were able to complete in a rather brutal 10 minutes. reps_wod1

The histogram of the performances of athletes is rather striking. The pink-ish bars are the number of women that did a certain number of reps, and the green-ish bars are the equivalent for men. Those distinct peaks in the histogram correspond to the power snatches portion of the workout.

The histogram of all athlete’s performance doesn’t do justice to the distinctness of those peaks. If I zoom in on just the central three peaks I get this: reps_wod1_zoom_not_marked

The leading edge of the peak corresponds to the transition between double-unders and power snatches. It makes sense that with a few seconds left an athlete wouldn’t have time to get set for a snatch and just give up after the double-unders. What strikes me is the dramatic drop off of athletes that finished with 13 or 14 snatches relative to those who finished with between 5 and 12. I’ve marked those drop offs with arrows on this plot. reps_wod1_zoom

The dramatic drop off could be attributed to a couple of things. The first explanation is that athletes who would naturally finish at 13 or 14 kicked in the “after-burners” in order to complete the snatches; I find this credible, though I know at 9:55 in the workout I had absolutely nothing left. What doesn’t jibe with this explanation is why those in reps 5 through 12 didn’t also kick in the after-burners, which would fill in the gap and leave a smoother transition. The second explanation is a little more nefarious in that the judges were a little generous with the clock when the athletes needed to get just that one more rep. Unfortunately I find this explanation both credible and quite likely. Whatever the reason for these striking patterns in these data I find it neat, and I mean what is a second or two among friends? Honestly for 99 percent of people we’re just doing this to have fun, so who cares about a little fudging.

But back to the main question, how does 206 stack up to other gyms? Since the Open is by definition open to athletes of all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders it doesn’t really make sense to compare a gym of mostly 20-something college kids to a gym of equally capable but older athletes. The Open addresses this by creating “Masters” categories and breaking out rankings by gender. I want to take that same idea and go just a bit further. For all the data nerd-ing to follow I am going to normalize2 an athlete’s performance against that of their peers, with a peer defined as an athlete of the same age and gender.

For benchmarking a gym I think the most obvious measure is the average performance of their athletes once age and gender has been accounted for. So what is the average performance of 206’s athletes relative to the average performance of all other gyms? CrossFit 206 is 2,536 out of 3,648 gyms3 competing in the Open; conditional on the inclusive environment 206 has developed I think that is pretty darn good. In case you’re curious where your gym falls in the spectrum the full list can be found here. (link)

Despite CrossFit’s “hardcore” reputation, performance isn’t everything. To me a good mix of people is just as, if not more important than how we stack up in a once a year competition. I like the term “inclusive” but you can use just about any word you want to describe the intangible feel of a gym. Almost by definition the intangible feel of a gym is difficult to quantify but I am going to measure it as (1) the mix of men and women and (2) the dispersion in age of athletes. Once again I feel compelled to caveat these two measures with the fact that an athlete must choose to compete in the Open (i.e. it is not random) and I have a strong suspicion that the choice to compete is related to the age and the expected performance of an athlete.

Despite this limitation I think I find some neat results. The average gym has 32 athletes competing and of those 41 percent of those are women. There is a wide range in the gender mix but very few teams are dominated by either men or women. female_fraction

Taking this one step further, when the women at a gym perform better are the men likely to perform better also? The answer is yes, there is a positive relationship between how the women do in a gym and how the men do. female_male_performance

This is reassuring. My take is that good coaching techniques lead to better outcomes for both men and women. Isn’t this the point of CrossFit? To master fundamental, all purpose exercises that are sport and gender independent?

Now that I’m thinking about performance, I wonder if gender mix affects a gym’s performance? The simple answer is there seems to be a positive relationship between the fraction of women at the gym and the gym’s overall performance, but only to a certain extent. To answer I had to turn to a regression5 based approach. Here is a picture of the gym’s expected performance as a function of the fraction of women in the gym. female_fraction_expected_peformance

I caution against drawing too strong of conclusions, or any conclusions for that matter, from this simple plot. It seems though that gyms that are dominated by either gender do worse than those who have a good mix. I am open to speculation about this from the CrossFit community.

Age dispersion is another dimension of inclusive-ness in my book. I have had my ass handed to me by AARP members as well as kids too young to have a drivers license. CrossFit is an equal opportunity ego-shatterer. A far as gyms go the average age is 32 avg_age_hist

but what I find more amazing is the dispersion in age of the gyms. The average gym has 31 years between its oldest competing athlete and its youngest competing athlete. age_spread_hist

Does this age dispersion have an effect on performance? Do the old-timers impart wisdom on the young bucks? age_spread_expected_performance

Unfortunately the answer is probably not. There doesn’t seem to be a strong relationship between the age dispersion and performance.

So far I have been looking at average gym performance, but as I mentioned earlier we also compete as individuals. I am not going to highlight my spectacularly mediocre performance in 14.1, but I have put together a list of personal rankings. By normalizing by age and gender I think a fair comparison can be made between a high school young’n, a kick-ass mother of two, and a cubicle bound older gent. Here is the full list, but as a heads up, it is a large file. (link) Under this ranking system Pam Kusar (age 53) of CrossFit Akron is number 1 when she completed 352 reps. That is stellar!

This little data-nerding exercise was fun. It satisfied my curiosity. I am not going to read too much into my performance or my gym’s performance on one workout in the Open. To me CrossFit is about having a good time and that’s all I care about.

1 Dear CrossFit Games website, this is the day and age of open data and mashups. Making it easier to collect and build on the wealth of data provided by the games is mutually beneficial.

2 Normalize means I take an athlete’s performance minus the average peer athlete’s performance divided by the standard deviation of their peer group. I require a gym to have at least ten athletes in the Open in order to get into my analysis. I remove athletes who signed up but did not compete in 14.1. Additionally I require ten people to be in a peer age group in order for the athlete to be in the sample.

3 For this analysis a gym must have ten members that competed in the first round of the Open.

4 I measure dispersion as the difference in age between the youngest and oldest member of the gym.

5 I first run a regression of the gym’s performance on female fraction, female fraction squared, average age, average age squared, age spread, and age spread squared. The squared terms are included because I am worried about non-linearities. I then plotted the expected gym performance on the y-axis and female fraction on the x-axis. I then fit a loess regression to show a trend.

Leadville Trail Marathon: 2013

Leadville Trail Marathon

The Leadville Trail Marathon was quite possibly the greatest physical challenge that I have had the pleasure to endure. The course itself was great, and all things considered the race shouldn’t have been that difficult, but it seemed the universe conspired against me and everything that could go wonky did go wonky.

I got to Leadville, or more specifically the neighboring town of Frisco, two days before the race in a desperate attempt to acclimate. In Seattle, where I trained for the race, my GPS sometimes read below sea-level so almost needless to say the altitude bug bit me hard. Simply walking up the five flights of stairs to my hotel room required concerted effort; this did not bode well for the race.

The night before the race I wanted to get some carbs in me, and what is better than Italian food for carbo-loading? My family and I went to Tuscato Ristorante Italiano on main street in Frisco. I mention this restaurant by name, and very explicitly, because not only was their food awful but immediately after dinner every single person in my family had serious digestive issues. While I doubt it was food poisoning in the strictest sense, they must of used something vile in their sauce because I was physically in pain.

I hoped my digestive issues would pass by 4:00 AM when I woke to get ready for the race, but alas they did not. I didn’t want to eat or drink anything because something gnarly was happening inside me. I knew I needed to eat but my body just said NO! with emphasis on the exclamation point. My buddy Zach drove me and my brother-in-law Grant to Leadville from Frisco, and all I could think about was my gut. I started pounding Pepto because the thought of running while feeling like this scared me.

The race started with 100s of people milling around the starting line. In good form the race was started with the blast of a shotgun. Very quickly I got left behind by Zach and Grant. Not only are they in better shape than me but also they live in Denver which gives them a 6,000 foot acclimation advantage. About a mile in to the course the half-marathoners broke away from the marathoners as we transitioned from dirt roads to trail. At this point I had been so consumed by my digestive issues that I didn’t notice my asthma acting up. I had been fighting a cold for two weeks and when I have a cold my asthma can be problematic. I thought I had kicked the cold but apparently not.

At this point I think you can imagine why the Leadville Trail Marathon was the greatest physical challenge I have had the pleasure to endure. Luckily despite my body revolting I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Running through the forest was ho-hum, but once we got above tree-line the mountain views were simply amazing.

Leadville Trail Marathon Profile

The crux of the run was supposed to be the 2,000 foot climb to the high point of the race at over 13,000 feet. I say supposed to be the crux because I fell into a steady hiking pace and marched my way up. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t agony inducing.

All things considered I was feeling pretty good when I got to the top of Mosquito Pass. Before the race I had been worried about calf cramps so I bought some Zensah sleeves. Maybe they worked or maybe it was a placebo effect but my calves felt strong even with all the climbing. After a brief pause at the top of Mosquito Pass I started the long run down, and like a fool I ran down the mountain. I made the same mistake of running too fast down a long hill at the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K. I felt great all the way down, and I was passing people left and right. I had hauled my 200 pounds of body weight up that mountain, and by golly I was going let gravity do its thing all the way down. This bit of gravity assisted fun took its toll. Once the course flattened out the lactic acid caught up and in the words of George Oscar Bluth, Jr (G.O.B.) I realized “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

With the supposed crux of the race behind me I thought the last 9 miles would be easy. A few rolling hills, a jog around a mountain, and then a 3 mile downhill to the finish line. I thought wrong. The last 9 miles was my personal crux. I only have myself to blame because I had hardly ate or drank anything since the start. Yes, I had been sipping some Roctane and slurping some GUs but because of my digestive issues, the altitude, and my asthmatic breathing I could not force enough nutrition down my gullet. The wheels fell off the wagon and I sunk into a death march of epic proportions.

I’ll spare you the details of the last 9 miles except to say that there was a lot of walking and cursing the mountain gods for making these “hills” so long.

The last leg of the race follows a long stretch of road through town. Despite being able to see the finish line, hear the music pumping, and practically taste the beer, I could not will myself to pick up the pace and finish strong. My overall performance was sad. I finished in a little over 7 hours, but damnit I did finish. Despite my objective failure at running a good race the announcer made me feel like I truly accomplished something; that simply surviving was an achievement.

I am sitting here writing this trip report after drinking some coffee from my finisher’s mug. I have noticed that I reach for that mug a lot. I don’t particularly like the shape of the mug, or the feel of the handle, but I still reach for it because damn I am proud of it. While the Leadville Trail Marathon was the most physically challenging event I have undertaken I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Leadville Trail Marathon

CrossFit as Ultramarathon Training

Yakima Skyline Rim 50K Ultramarathon

The Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is a trail ultramarathon in the high desert of Washington that traverses 31 miles and has ~9,500 feet of elevation gain. It was both my first ultramarathon and my first organized race of any distance. To be upfront about it, my complete lack of experience makes me wholly unqualified to offer advice on training, never mind training for an ultramarathon. That said running the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K was a transformative experience and I am going to share my atypical training experience none-the-less.

About six months ago I decided to train for the Leadville trail marathon. I started running consistently and built up enough endurance so that my long runs were in the high teens. Like so many novice runners I did too much, too soon and the end result was an inflamed posterior tibial tendon. Besides adding milage that my body wasn’t ready for I also purchased a pair of Merrell Road Gloves for my short runs. I really like the Merrell Road Gloves now that I have sufficient arch strength but at the time I had no business running in a minimalist type shoe for any distance.

My training ground to a halt because of my inflamed tendon. After a month of complete rest I started going on one and two mile runs. I slowly rehab’d my foot and about two months ago I was finally back to where I could run six miles pain free. At this point I wasn’t in good shape but I wasn’t in horrible shape either.

I started doing CrossFit because I was concerned that my foot wasn’t strong enough to handle the mileage of a traditional training program. The CrossFit gym I go to is CrossFit 206 in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle. If you are looking to try CrossFit I would highly recommend CrossFit 206. Their workouts are fairly standard in that there is 15 minutes of mobility training, 30 minutes of strength training (deadlifts, squats, cleans, etc), and then the workout of the day (WOD). The WOD is an intense 5 – 15 minute workout that is nonstop and usually done as fast as possible.

The WODs leave you exhausted but it is only 15-ish minutes of exercise. Can that really be enough of a workout to adequately train for an ultramarathon? My full training program for the 50K was CrossFit three to four times a week and then going on one longish run, 6-10 miles, and a couple of short runs, 2-3 miles, after CrossFit sessions. Well, after only two months of going to CrossFit 206 I finished the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K with a semi-respectable time of 8:09. Surprisingly my body felt good and I was not zonked when I crossed the finish line. I’ll admit I was a little sore all over and my calves were acutely sore for the two days post-race but I have been more sore after some of the WODs. On a side note: the CEP compression socks I wore really helped control cramps and spasms in my calves as I climbed seemingly endless hills. Just look at the profile of the race and tell me that doesn’t look like a calf punishing day of fun.

Yakima Skyline Rim 50k Race Profile

I think the 15 minute CrossFit workouts were able to prepare me for an 8 hour run because for those 15 minutes the focus is solely on developing fundamental strength. By fundamental strength I mean strength developed by full-body exercises that engage all the primary muscles as well as the stabilizers that are so often neglected. The fundamental strength helped in a number of ways. While running on loose rock I noticed that I was more surefooted because of the stronger stabilizer muscles in my legs. While trudging up thousands of vertical feet of trail I was acutely aware of how much stronger my legs felt. Despite weightlifting being the antithesis of distance running, the squats, deadlifts, and cleans really paid off. While running down thousands of vertical feet of trail I noticed how much stronger my core was and how I could engage my core to control my descent and relieve my quads.

So is CrossFit good ultramarathon training? I’d say that it worked for me but I caveat that with the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is “only” 31 miles. Would CrossFit be enough for a 50 or 100 miler? I think it would be if your longish run was scaled appropriately. Now that I have the ultra-bug I am toying with the idea of a 50 miler and I am pretty sure I am going to continue the CrossFit + one long run training plan.

Smith Rock: 2013

Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock is a pretty amazing place.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Sure I had seen pictures and heard about the hard sport climbing but that didn’t quite prepare me for my first outing.

2013-03-20 09.44.03My buddy Clark and I had a couple of free days and decided to head to Smith Rock because the forecast said it would be sunny and warm.  The weatherman lied to say the least.  The first day we got rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and had to brace ourselves during the gusts as we crossed Asterisk Pass.  Not quite sunny and warm but even with the crummy weather we had a blast.

We first hopped on Cinnamon Slab (5.6) to get a feel for the rock.  I am very glad we did because climbing tuff was unlike anything I had ever climbed on.  It took a bit of time but my “vision” for the best hands and feet eventually came around and it was a very enjoyable climb.

We wanted to hit the classic moderates during our brief two day trip.  First on our tick list was Spiderman (5.7 – 2 pitches) so we scrambled through Astrick Pass and over to Spiderman.  It was slightly drizzling and neither one of us was super-thrilled to lead but Clark sacked up and lead both pitches of Spiderman with numb fingers on damp rock.  Even in those manky conditions it was easy to tell that this was a classic climb.  The route eats up gear and moving around the daunting roof is airy but super secure if you have the right size hands to jam.

Spiderman - Smith RockAt the base of Spiderman someone had written in chalk that their rope had got stuck.  We had heard that this was not uncommon so we opted to scramble down.  With the gusty winds it took us a bit to find the right trail down but even with dealing with the wind the scramble was faster and more secure than rapping the route.  Plus on the scramble there was a knotted rope to lower yourself into a mini-cave: how cool is that.

The sun came out as we were scrambling down and it was a much need blast of warmth to rejuvenate our spirits.  With the sun shining we moved over to Out of Harms Way (5.8), which is a half-trad half-sport route.  I lead this and had a surprisingly difficult time jamming up the flake.  It looked like it would be a couple of jams and I would be up but I managed to make it super awkward.  Once I got to the top of the flake I was in for a treat.  I had never pinched dime sized crystals to make upward progress but that was what was called for.  There were bolts every five feet so even with nubbins for hands and feet I felt good.

We basically called it a day after that and went to Bend, OR to get beers and burgers at Deschutes Brewery.  There is nothing quite like a cold beer after a good day of climbing.

Five Gallon Buckets - Smith RockOur main objective on the second day was to climb Wherever I May Roam (5.9 – 5 pitches) which is on the backside of the mountain.  Since it was a balmy 33 degrees we decided to wait ’til the afternoon with the hope of climbing in the sun.

We started the day with Five Gallon Buckets (5.8).  Climbing the huecos was pretty amazing.  It was a first for me and I enjoyed it so much I climbed it twice.

With the sun shining we moved to the backside and started Wherever I May Roam (5.9).  The cool thing about the route is that it is five pitches of sport climbing.  I typically think of sport climbs as one-pitchers but I guess not.  I took the first pitch (5.8) to get on top of the pillar.  The only thing special about the first pitch was how sharp the rock was on my freezing hands.  We had totally blown the timing and the sun hadn’t even touched this side of the rock yet.

2013-03-21 13.16.09Clark took the second pitch (5.9) which starts with a big step over an airy gap as you move from the pillar to the main face.  At this point the wind was blowing something fierce and my puffy jacket did little to keep me warm.

I took the third pitch (5.9) and in many ways this was the crux pitch.  If you have read anything about Wherever I May Roam you’ve probably read how people get “lost” on the face by following the wrong bolts.  I had read that also and I thought there was no way I was going to get lost.  Yup, I was wrong and got totally lost on the face.  Even looking back I can’t figure out exactly where I went wrong.  The problem is there are bolts every-which-way and there is not a clear path of least resistance.  Plus you can’t see the anchors until you are basically on top of them.  The best advice I can give for this pitch is to remember that the anchors are all the way around in the dihedral and to keep moving up and over.

Clark took the fourth pitch (5.9) and while I was belaying him snow was blowing up on me as I hung in my shaded belay.  I haven’t shivered that hard in ages and let me say that it was not even type II fun.  When I joined Clark at the fourth belay I was in full body convulsions mode and was not in the most pleasant mood, but in an effort to just keep moving I lead the mostly unimpressive fifth pitch (5.8).

Getting down was straight forward.  We rapped off the backside into a sandy gully.  The second rap was from a set of chains on the west side of the gully which drops you at the anchors for the third/fourth belay.  I can imagine the tiny belay ledge gets pretty crowded on a nice day.  After that there were two more rappels from obvious anchors.  Normally something goes wonky while I am rapping but this one went surprisingly smooth.

Once we were down, and out of the wind, it really hit me how great the route was.  If the whether had been nicer I think that this route would be in my top five favorite routes.  I would highly recommend it… on a nice sunny day.

All in all Smith Rock deserves its reputation as a world class climbing destination.  I can’t wait to get back there.

The top of Wherever I May Roam

The top of Wherever I May Roam