Monday, 21 March 2016

Hitting the Trails Again :-)

March marked the beginning of my return to trail running and for the past couple of weeks, I've been building up for my next target race - the Crown King Scramble 50km - by getting out on the trails again and building some strength for the hills that I will encounter on the course. 

Having been in Phoenix for over 6 months, I'm now far more familiar with the nearby trails and with Andy working and me not having access to a car, I find that I'm reconnecting with my trail legs at Apache Wash and the Phoenix Sonoran Desert Preserve, as well as Deem Hills. Some of these trails are pretty tough with extremely steep climbs, and whilst they may not last for much more than half a mile or so, they are very rocky which makes them far more technical and much more difficult to run up and down compared to many of the trails I've ran in the past.

Deem Hills
The other problem of course here in Phoenix is that these trails are desert trails - not that running in the desert is a bad thing, but there are risks associated with the environment that I have now become far more accustomed to. We have very extreme heat here and there is absolutely no shade from the blazing sun. Some of the trails are pretty remote and have no access to water, and of course with the heat comes the risk of heat stroke and dehydration, whilst the hot temperatures brings out the critters making wildlife encounters a possibility, particularly the snakes and most notably the venomous rattlesnake.

For the past month or so, Phoenix has encountered record high temperatures and we've already had several days where the day time high has exceeded 90 degrees - some 15 or 20 degrees above the norm for this time of year. It's brought the snakes out earlier than usual, and a couple of weeks ago I encountered my first rattlesnake out on the local trails. That particular day I actually saw 2 snakes, the first of which I barely noticed as it lay there sunning itself on the trail. The first wasn't a big snake and I don't think it was even venomous, but after I had spotted it, it did make me think how easy it would be to come upon a rattlesnake and face a potentially dangerous situation if I didn't notice it in time.

20 minutes or so later on that same run, I spotted another snake slithering across the trail about 10 feet ahead of me. There was something about this one that made me stop in my tracks - maybe the colour, maybe the size, but whatever it was, I somehow knew that this time I needed to be cautious. Sure enough, as the snake made its way across the path, I noticed the rattle on its tail and as it made its way under a cactus bush on the edge of the trail, it coiled up and started to make the rattling sound.

Rattlesnakes are apparently defensive animals and rarely attack unless they feel threatened. The rattle is to ward you off, and they will only strike if they need to. The striking distance is thought to be around two thirds the length of its body, and at around 3 or 4 feet, this particular snake could quite easily make contact across the width of the trail. I knew to give it some distance but I wasn't sure whether I should just turn around and go back the way I'd come, or to skirt past the snake somehow without disturbing it. Thankfully another lady arrived shortly afterwards and seemed to be very experienced in dealing with them, and following her advice, once the snake had stopped rattling and realised we posed no threat, we managed to skip around it.

Thankfully I haven't seen any more snakes since although I'm still very cautious about where I put my feet, and how close to the edge of the trail I get!

If that wasn't enough, I was also in the unfortunate position on a recent trail run to run out of water - a somewhat risky situation to be in due to the heat and exposure to the sun. When I first arrived here, I couldn't even manage a 10k run without drinking at least a litre of water, but in recent months, I have got more used to the dry heat and tend to take a hand held on shorter runs, or my camelback on runs exceeding 10km, which holds up to 2 litres.

I had a 40km run scheduled in this particular day, so the plan was to run 20km before heading home to refill my water and then head back out for the remaining 20km of the run. I'd set off quite early in the day to avoid the extreme heat, but even by 9am, I was dripping with sweat and drinking quite a lot of fluid, so much so that by the time I got to around 16km, I had emptied my 2 litre water bladder. There was still another 6km to get home, there was no water at the trail head, and things weren't getting much cooler as the day progressed. At the time, I was on the Phoenix Sonoran Desert Preserve and had found a new network of trails to explore, and whilst I did wonder whether I could risk continuing on the loop I had just started, without knowing how far it was, I decided it would be completely irresponsible of me to take that risk just in case I did run in to trouble. I headed back the way I had come, and thankfully coped ok until I was able to refill back home, but it highlighted the need to take precautions and ensure you take enough water whilst out running or even hiking in the desert.

Phoenix Sonoran Desert Preserve
Of course, there are some pretty amazing things about running on the trails. The sun IS always shining and the blue skies are simply beautiful. You never get bored of seeing the different varieties of cacti and now that the spring flowers are coming in to bloom, the colours are simply gorgeous. There are so many varieties of birds that you hear singing as you run along, and seeing birds of prey circling overhead is a magnificent sight.I've heard and seen coyotes as I've ran along, we've seen the wild burrows, we've seen rabbits and ground squirrels, and we know that there are bobcats deer, and javelina that also inhabit the low desert areas in and around Phoenix, whilst lizards are in abundance and I can't wait for the day when I finally get to see a desert tortoise.

Having fun on the trails and loving every step :-)
As if I wasn't having enough fun on the local trails near to home, last Friday I was introduced to Mount Ord which lies in the Tonto National Forest about an hour or so drive outside of Phoenix. This area is so green with pine forests lining the hillsides, and with Mt Ord standing at over 7000 ft, the views from the summit were outstanding!

It was thanks to a fellow team mate and friend from the Aravaipa Running Racing Team that I had the opportunity of getting out of the city for a few hours, and with the run up Mt Ord being very similar to what I'll likely encounter at Crown King in a couple of weeks, it was a perfect training run to get me mentally prepared for the climbs that we'll encounter.

The route follows a fire road from base to summit for 11km or so, and with gradients of between 8 and 11%, it's certainly a tough climb. I'd made the decision not to walk at all on the climb up, and I was so pleased when I reached the summit with legs like jelly, knowing that I had done it without stopping or walking.

Views from the track to Mt Ord
It was a fabulous run despite the jelly legs, and I loved it! 22km with over 2,500 ft of climbing - just what I needed. With another long run at teh weekend, and even more climbing - this time over 3,3000 ft over 40km - I feel that my body is at last getting used to pushing on the steeper hills and hopefully, it will serve me well at Crown King in a couple of weeks.

Whilst I have no doubt that I will thoroughly enjoy the race, I know that I will find it tough with all the climbs. It may not be my best race of the year, but I have every intention of working hard and giving it my all and hopefully getting a good result. Unlike the marathon a few weeks ago, I'm actually excited about running the 50k on April 2nd - it's going to hurt, but I know I'm going to absolutely love it in a strange and weird kind of way. I'm enjoying my training for this race far more than I did for the marathon, I've been incorporating lots of hill running where I can, and I am finding that I am alot more focused and far more motivated than i was back in February. 

I've frequently found that running with other people also helps to keep me motivated, and whilst I haven't yet built up a huge network of running friends here, I do try to get out to group meet ups when and if I can.

A couple of weeks ago, I became aware of a planned meet up at Deem Hills that was organised by Tortoise and Hare Running Store. It was a free event, and there would be vendors on hand to try out a whole range of trail running shoes. I've mentioned before about me being a creature of habit when it comes to running shoes, but when I found out that both Altra and Hoka would be represented, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to spend some time on the trails and to actually try before I buy for once.

There was a really good turnout for the event with well over 50 people turning up but I still managed to get a good 10k in whilst "test running" a pair of Altras followed by Hokas (Hoka were my favourite just in case you were wondering). No matter how many times I run at Deem Hills, I still love the trails around there and that day was no exception. What was different this time was that I was sharing it with so many other people, and that's where the fun started.  It really was only meant to be a fun event, but as we started the first climb, I found it quite amusing when some of the runners suddenly went into race mode. The men were particularly amusing and when they heard me approaching behind them, they'd take a quick glance to see it was a lady, only to pick up the pace as their breathing intensified and they started to struggle. Every time I attempted to pass them, they'd subtly move to block my way but eventually I made my way past and they'd attempt to stay with me as I moved ahead of them. Thankfully there were no hard feelings when we got back and a fair few high fives were handed out, and it was great to have a chat with folks and find out a little more about them.

Back side of Deem Hills
Of course, whilst I love trail running, I do still head out on the roads sometimes, and when I have speed sessions, I tend to use the treadmill so that I don't need to carry a backpack when trying to run at 6 minute mile in crazy hot temperatures! I also still try to run with Wilson and Brandy when I can, and a week or so ago, I managed to do a little 6km with them on the roads. Running the trails here really isn't suitable for them as they are far too rocky for dogs' paws - even gravel paths cause Wilson to stop in his tracks and raise his sore paws so I can give them a bit of a rub before we carry on. The problem with road running is that the pavements can get very hot, so I really do have to run very early morning with the dogs to make sure things are still relatively cool. Because we can't run as much as we used to do, many of you will know that  we signed Wilson up for agility classes and that he graduated from teh beginners class a couple of weeks ago. We have now signed him up for intermediate classes whilst Brandy will be attending the beginners class, both starting this Wednesday evening. In addition to this, we also head over to Lake Pleasant whenever we can so that the dogs can swim in the lake and cool off. We usually combine the visit with a short hike and a swim, and having recently bought a dingy, no doubt we'll be doing a bit of boating very soon too.

Enjoying the views and a swim at Lake Pleasant with the pups
So with the arrival of spring and the ever increasing temperatures, we are trying to make the most of things before the really intense heat of the summer arrives. I suspect that we will be spending alot of our weekends in the north of Arizona over the next few months as we head to the mountains and avoid the heat of Phoenix. There will undoubtedly be lots of trail runs up north with the pups as it'll be much cooler, and we'll be spending lots of time camping and enjoying the great outdoors. 

I do of course also have some races to train for, and with Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon being at altitude, they're going to provide perfect training for my major races later this year. Like I said earlier, I'm feeling excited and far more motivated for these races and can't wait to test myself and see how I get on :)

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