Wednesday, October 2, 2019

My Headwaters 50K Race Report With A Family Vacation Wrapped Around It

September 26th - October 1st 2019

Reunion With Nathan

I'll apologize ahead of time for the length of this post, but this was a trip of a life time and I was excited to try to capture a lot of it in a story. If you're a runner and want to just read the race report, scroll down, otherwise relax and enjoy our journey. I'll do my best to not make this a modern day web version of making you sit in my living room and watch my family vacation home movies.

We hadn't seen my son Nathan since I put him on a plane in Newark almost 4 years ago. Phone calls, text messages and social media might be nice, but you need to get your arms around the ones you love and the broader the gap in time between those hugs; the more urgent they become. This trip was planned for last year, but Mom's health took a turn for the worse and I couldn't rationalize being 2,000+ miles away even if she had been released from the hospital. With Mom doing ok at age 95 now in 2019, our trip to magical Mt. Shasta was a "go".

Five years ago, Nathan said to hell with college, packed a backpack and headed west. Beautiful Mt. Shasta in northern California was in his sights and the rest is history. He's currently living and working mostly in Southern Oregon just North of Mt. Shasta so we targeted Ashland Oregon (Medford Airport) for our coming and going. We made almost no plans for this trip, we were to visit Nathan and I was entered to run the Headwaters 50K in the hills outside Mt. Shasta; otherwise we were winging it.

Mt. Shasta From The Plane

Our journey west was awful, flight delays and missed connections made for a long day of travel and meeting up with Nathan just didn't happen. The flight to Medford, was probably the highlight of the day, as we flew right past Mt. Shasta, Black Butte and recognized the unique aerial shape of Lake Siskiyou remembered from maps. We did have a good meal in Ashland at The Standing Stone Brewing Company, tasty brews and they source much of their menu from their own farm - in Ashland? - go eat (and drink) there.

Me and the tall kid.

The next morning in Ashland was like magic, Nathan found us at our hotel, the previous day's travel frustrations were gone and the three of us started our fun together. Ashland is a beautiful town, home to Southern Oregon University, and numerous elite ultra runners have called it home as well; most notably Hal Koerner who's Rogue Valley Runners store is right on Main Street.

Lithia Park

Janice and I followed Nathan's lead as we took a stroll around Lithia Park, the largest in Ashland as it stretches from the downtown up to the headwaters of the Ashland Creek near Mount Ashland. The walk felt great after being stuck in cramped planes the day prior. The park gets its name from Lithium Oxide which is found in the creek water. After a tasty lunch at The Co-op and a quick shopping trip to Shop  N Kart, we were on our way south to the sacred lands of Mt. Shasta.

While Ashland reminded us of a western mountainous version of State College Pennsylvania, Mt. Shasta (incorporated in 1905) is tiny and seemed barely evolved from its roots. Many buildings are turn of the (last) century western US architecture and the shop we visited for my race registration was no different. At the last minute I changed our lodging from a Best Western near the interstate to the Mt. Shasta Resort which was much closer to the race start. Not knowing the place, it was a roll of the dice and we were pleasantly surprised at how nice it was. We were in a one room chalet in the forest, high on a hill above Lake Siskiyou with just an 8 minute drive to the start line. It was 83 when we landed in Medford and in one day it changed from summer to late fall with chilly temperatures in Mt. Shasta.

Headwaters 50K

Janice caught rainbows before the start.
I took it as a good sign.

When Nathan first came to Mt. Shasta, of course I checked out the local trail running community. It's a vibrant one, fed by runners from Southern Oregon and Northern California and host to numerous trail and ultra events throughout the year.  The Headwaters Trail Runs is my kind of race, a small grassroots event. There's a 30K and a 10K offered as well and the 50K which had a small field of just 35 runners. We started at the same time as the 30K which just about doubled the pack. After two years of looking forward to this race, I had trouble believing I was actually standing at the start line. It started raining lightly at sun up and as go-time drew closer, the passing showers became more frequent and some were steady. The rain coupled with the cool 39° temperature, made for an almost winter feel at the boat launch.

Ditching my Suunto wind jacket.

Garad, the race director, thanked all the volunteers, sponsors, supporters and said "GO!". I tossed my jacket to Janice and off we went. This may have been a small grass roots field, but I quickly realized it was a fast field as I looked at my watch at about a half mile to see it just ticking to 4 minutes. I learned  a long time ago that if you chase someone else's pace you may not finish your race. This was much faster than I wanted to sustain so I consciously slowed down. In no time I was the tail on the whip and running last or close to it as the entire pack disappeared quickly around the ensuing turns and hill tops. It didn't bother me a bit, it was just sorta' startling as I'm not used to being the only slow old guy.

Thanks to Cobi Krumholz for this photo.
(Love the rain drops captured by the shutter speed.)

The race started at the Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort boat launch area and we immediately found ourselves running on nice wide trails covered in Pine needles as we wound our way down to the lake. At the lake the trail took us through a very rocky area strewn with large "river rocks" and in a couple of places we crossed metal temporary bridges. This entire path looked as though it was the actual lake bed and probably submerged at other times of the year. On the other side of the lake the first climbing began, starting off gently on wide forestry/fire roads and those gentle climbs became more roller coaster-like as we got further into the forest.

Somewhere around 9 or 10 miles, reaching the top of a climb, the trees opened up and I was quickly reminded that I was running maybe the most beautiful 50K on the planet. The view of Mt. Shasta and Black Butte was over powering, it seemed that I could reach out and touch them (or they could touch me). It was also rather windy at that spot, ensuring my rain and sweat soaked clothing was quite cold by now.
Simple Elevation Profile
Go Up To Go Down

Speaking of over powering, coming to this event, in the back of my mind I did hold a small concern about the elevation and the possibility of altitude sickness. My home in Harrisburg, PA is at about 500' above sea level, the highest elevation my watch had ever recorded while running was just over 3100'. The Headwaters 50K starts at 3200' and reaches almost 6100'. Early on, I recognized that I could hear my breathing more than normal. Looking later at my watch stats, throughout the run, my average heart rate was about 10 bpm higher than usual. With that said though, my breathing never felt labored or I was never in any kind of respiratory distress and never felt like I was in trouble with a crazy spiking heart rate.


[Roads not recommended for a Chrysler Pacifica. Janice was definitely missing our Jeep Wrangler while making her way to and from the aid station perched high on that mountain.]

I was wearing the Ultimate Direction Race Vest, minimal, but enough storage that I could carry Huma Gels, Pickle Juice and 2 600ml bottles of Tailwind. The course essentially had 3 aid stations, 2 of which you visit twice; so really 5 spots to refuel. It was a brisk day so I was sure to thank all the volunteers hanging out at these remote spots, just so slow old men like me can enjoy a run through the woods. After reaching the second aid station around 13 miles, we were treated with an immense downhill, where part way down, the 30K runners made a left turn and bid us farewell. For the 50K we continued to drop till we hit water, the Headwaters of The Sacramento River and that's where the day's real climb began. I somehow missed the mention that we'd be crossing water, man ii was icy cold. I ran left past a sign that said "Right Turn", thankfully I was not alone here and another runner yelled to me and got me back on course. (Yes, of course it was a big yellow sign with ribbons showing where to go; some times you're just in the zone and running with your head down. I'm just thankful another runner was there to snap me out of my trail trance.)

Going up while the headwaters flow down.

We were now at what seemed like rock bottom and so began the day's real climb. On the charts it looked to be just about 6 miles and 3000' of elevation gain. I knew I just needed to manage it and not attempt anything stupid. After all, this climb had clogged my dreams since the finish of my last race, I in no way wanted my race to end here. While much of the running to this point had been on wide fire roads, this climb was rocky single track. In a couple of spots, the grade kicked up and it got steep, but for the most part it wasn't; it was just long. As we ascended away from the headwaters the drop off to our right down the gorge became deeper and deeper. The monotony of the climb was broken more than a few times by adrenaline-junky mountain bikers descending this perilous path. Bailing off the narrow trail down to the rushing water below would've hurt or maybe even could've killed. I leapfrogged with the fellow who corrected my wrong turn for a while and very near the aid station I caught another runner who was not enjoying the climb at all and his struggling in front of me slowed my pace temporarily until I found a wide spot to pass him. Near the top of the ascent was the next aid station and that was where Janice was allowed to be to assist/refuel me. (what the rental company doesn't know won't hurt 'em - don't for a minute underestimate a 2019 Chrysler Pacifica's rough road capabilities)

My first visit to the aid station, 
happy as hell to see Janice.

Janice resupplied me at the aid station, as both of my bottles were empty and I was out of Huma Gels and Pickle Juice. There was watermelon at this stop, which is my all time favorite aid station fruit. I swapped out my wet Suunto Trail Hat and kept moving. From here, the climb continues to its summit and after a five mile loop you come back to this same aid station for a repeat visit. As the climb disappeared back into the forest, significant snow was visible on either side of the trail on the trees and just about anything else that was in the shade. Very near the top, I saw a lizard lounging in the sunshine beating on the trail which was bordered by snow, an odd contrast. Soon I was back around to see Janice the second time. This aid station was manned by Ski Patrol folks and I mentioned the snow up above and one of the volunteers said it was dumping so hard earlier in the morning that running the race was in question.

After a 5 mile loop on top of this beautiful mountain, 
I'm back for my second visit...both bottles empty.

I no sooner left that aid station (with about 7 miles to go) and that stuff called Graupel began to fall. (looks like Dippin' Dots - mix between sleet & snow)  As I reached the short climb to the next aid station, first I saw a basketball size rock roll off the hill side. Rock slide signs were common along the highway, but actually seeing one was kinda' cool. Then I saw an extremely dark black cloud over the rise. As I reached the top and saw the aid station, I  realized it was a huge black cloud. High winds picked up and what was wimpy Graupel was now a legit snowfall. I asked which way to go and one of the aid station volunteers said, "that way, unless you want to get a ride back with me". I wasn't interested in his offer of a ride, I hadn't come here for a DNF. I was sure to thank them all and went the direction he pointed.

Snow Up High

This long descent was the hill that had lead to the headwaters. The first time down it, a volunteer had told me the second time down I'd be turning left where the 30K runners were turning. At the top of the hill where the snow was blowing was at just about 4900' and as I dropped about 1500 feet or so, that blowing snow turned into cold rain. Now I was on the hunt for that left turn and I was paranoid that I had missed it. I even stopped a couple of times, because I just didn't remember this downhill being quite this long. At one point I decided that even if I was off course/lost I'd keep descending because that was definitely the way off the mountain and out of the forest. I'd probably never be seen again, but at least I wouldn't be climbing this huge hill again. Eventually I was rewarded with the left turn, marked very well with ribbons and a sign. My heart rate went back to normal, I could stop my hesitant running and enjoy the rest of the downhill.

Out of the forest and heading for the finish line.
Thanks to Cobi Krumholz for this photo.

Soon I was retracing the opening steps of the race and returning back around the end of the lake to the finish at the boat launch in the rain.  Unfortunately the post race party was pretty well quashed by the difficult weather and considering I was the next to last finisher, hardly anyone was around. Janice was there though and there were a few crazies in cars cheering like nut jobs as I came into view. I had an awesome plate of Lasagna and a couple of tasty beers, thanked the race director and we were off to get me out of my soaking wet clothing.

If you're from Southern Oregon, Northern California or simply find yourself near Mt. Shasta at the end of September, run this race. I'm afraid that all races I'll run after this will be a complete snore. These forests and mountains are gorgeous and you never know where Mt. Shasta will peak out above the rest of the scenery as that mystical mountain is always right over your shoulder. Loved every minute of it.

Mt. Shasta
Haven't run many ultras that made it to the downtown bulletin board.
(outside Berryvale Grocery

The day after the race, the weather was calling the shots as far as what we could do and when we'd want to do it outside. Rain was to return around lunch time and it was still a bit chilly. Nathan wanted to show us Castle Lake, he told us a funny story about the day he decided to swim across it and thought he'd die if it weren't for a submerged tree he used to rest before finishing the swim.

The day started out sunny.

We followed Nathan out of town and soon found the road that climbed to Castle Lake a mountain lake at about 5400' above sea level. With all the cars at the parking area, it was obvious this was a popular hike. Janice was snapping photos and one of us asked "so where's Heart Lake?" and Nathan pointed straight up and smiled.

Castle Lake at lake level.

We hit the trail toward the Mt. Bradley Lookout that climbed gently away from Castle Lake. The easy walking path soon changed to rocky technical steep hiking and each time we thought we knew which rock was our destination, Nathan would point out one that was even higher.

Castle Lake down below.

Eventually we reached a point where we actually knew which boulder he was pointing at, the wind was picking up and the dark clouds we were racing were now quite close. Janice said she didn't need to go the last stretch to our pinnacle and decided to wait just slightly below. I didn't want her to do that, but she convinced me to continue on with Nathan. That didn't minimize my concern for her in the deteriorating conditions, especially the cold wind.

Black Butte in the distance.
The ever present Mt. Shasta in the clouds.

Nathan in his favorite spot. 
Janice and I needed no explanation.

We reached the high point Nathan loves to visit and we had a beautiful view of Heart Lake, Mt. Shasta, Black Butte and over the adjacent ridge to the neighboring mountain range. The wind was whipping at this point and my 50K-yesterday legs were completely fried and I noticed a very easy/walk-able trail we could use to descend. We agreed to use it however we'd need to go back the hard way so we could collect Janice and just then she appeared on the peak with us. It was snowing lightly and when Janice saw the easy trail, she joked that Nathan had taken us up the hard way on purpose as pay back for all those hikes we drug him on when he was little. She quickly named this hike Nathan's Revenge. 😁

Heart Lake

The descent back to the parking was full of fun chatter about mushrooms and all the amazing flora and fauna living on this mountain. The red woody Manzanita looked as though it had been painted red in the light of the dull cloudy sky. Nathan remembered to point that the tree submerged in Castle Lake that may have saved him from drowning.

We had decided that because the weather was taking a foul turn that we'd spend the afternoon driving and visit the Redwoods near the coast the next day. After a quick trip to downtown Mt Shasta to get souvenirs and a stop in Weed for Weed souvenirs we were on our way to Ashland again.

Crescent City & The Giant Redwoods

The Redwood forest we wanted to visit is the northern most in California and right next to the Pacific Ocean near Crescent City, CA. To get there from Mt. Shasta meant driving north back into Oregon to head west across Oregon and around the mountains just to re-enter California and end up at the coast. As we got closer to Crescent City the winding road in the dark and fog/drizzle was unnerving. Towards the end of the drive, the road was cutting right through the Redwood Forest and the massive trees were looming in the darkness as our headlights hit them. Their size was just astounding and somewhat spooky in the dark illuminated by our lights.

Eventually our 2+ hour drive was done and we found ourselves at the Oceanfront Lodge, another roll of the dice hotel reservation that didn't turn out half bad. The sound of a coastal warning horn and the smell of the sea made it obvious even in the darkness that we had made it to the coast.
With Tsunamis as recent as 1964 & 2011, 
this sign in the hotel was a bit foreboding.

The Oceanfront Lodge perched right above the rocky breakers seemed like a structure that has existed on this spot for quite a long time and remodeled as time went by. I asked, but English was a challenge for the staff I found and they didn't seem to understand what I was asking. A woman told me it had been a Hampton Inn, but I meant more like what was it in 1905?

The foggy morning brought amazing views of the sea and of course I had to go down on the beach. The quaint old lighthouse is a sightseeing focal point of the town and we were within an easy walk of it.  I thought that I was seeing clouds lifting as the sun became higher in the sky, but later while walking with Janice it was evident that what I thought were clouds was actually the outline of the nearby mountains through the fog. The mountains and the sea in one view isn't something I'm used to seeing. We had left the enchanted Mt. Shasta to visit yet another enchanted land, tribal home of the Tolowa and Yurok, and another tiny town brimming with history and endless natural beauty. Janice and I were able to walk over to the lighthouse, but when Nathan finally got out of bed the tide had closed off the walkway and it wouldn't be accessible until the next low tide.

My cell phone video hardly does it justice.

Nathan pointed out a skate park very close by and asked if we minded if he skated for a while. We left him at the skate park while we took a short drive up the coast to Point St. George. The waves there weren't the ankle breakers we see back east, they were legit; just what you'd expect on the California coast. At least one surfer was out cutting up the soup.

Zoomed in, in hopes that you can make out the shapes of the Sea Lions.

On the drive back to get Nathan we stopped at another point and we could clearly hear the barking of Sea Lions on an island too far to see without binoculars or long lens. Janice got some shots and when you blow them up, sure enough the island was teaming with Sea Lions enjoying the sunny day free from humans on their little island paradise. Eventually we made our way back to the skate park to the sound of Nathan's JBL boombox pumping Psy Trance for everyone to enjoy, watched him finish his session and soon we were all on our way to the Redwoods.

As we strolled the trails among the Redwoods, we kept saying, "that's the biggest one we've seen so far". And that went on the entire time to the point that we were laughing at ourselves. No photo or word can truly describe their immensity. 

The Redwoods stretch to the south down the California coast and we were about as far north as you can get in the state. Not even 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the big trees we got to experience were in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park which is also part of and managed together with the National Park. 

Dwarfed by a mammoth dead fall.

We started at the Visitor Center to get some guidance from a Ranger and then we visited the Simpson-Reed/Peterson Grove trail and the Stout Grove Trail. The Ranger referred to the Simpson-Reed/Peterson Grove as Jurassic Park, it hadn't seen a fire or flood in 150 years so the forest bed was soft with layers and layers of forest debris. Thick beds of needles and decayed vegetation; it just looked ancient and footsteps were silent. Alternatively, the Stout Grove Trail winds through a grove of Redwoods positioned next to The Smith River, exposing it to flooding that cleans the forest floor making for a more pristine environment. Coastal Redwoods are not only the biggest of the giants, but Redwoods live typically 500-700 years, while some of the trees in these two groves were said to be in excess of 2,000 years old.

The famous Stout Redwood Tree.
Height 325' Width 16.7' Volume 12.966 ft3

The Ranger told us to explore the trees and to let out our inner-child. Nathan and Janice got inside of roots and hollow trees and I climbed onto and walked across a dead fall. We were surrounded by neat things. Stuff like the Rainbow Tree that got bent over the trail and rooted again on the opposite side and now has another tree growing out of it, nurse trees which are dead falls that now provide a whole new environment from their decay, trees hollowed by lightning and further decay; big enough for us to walk into, etc. It was funny to see enormous ferns and clover that seemed huge in an attempt to compete with their giant neighbor Redwoods. We were certainly like children walking through this cathedral of a forest with our mouths gaping in awe of these natural wonders.

Rainbow Tree

Climbing on a dead fall.
A Nurse Tree - the dead supporting new life.

Fresh Powder After The Race Day Snow
(Mt. Shasta from the plane on our way home)

Leaving all this magical natural beauty behind was tough, but nowhere near as tough as saying goodbye to Nathan. Leaving him to live through yet another tough Northwest Winter had us fighting back tears as we said goodbye in Ashland. This was a trip that has left such an impression on Janice and I, the experience with nature was unmatched, but even more unmeasurable was our experience with Nathan in this distant mystical place he calls home. The three of us had genuine fun together, we laughed so much. The fact that much of what we did and saw really wasn't planned seemed to make our experiences even better. Hopefully the time till our next reunion is not nearly as long. Thanks for reading this far, I hope you enjoyed our trip.  :-)

💚 See you soon Nathan! 💚