The more I reflect on our epic 17-hour journey through High Sierra passes and meadows, the more appropriate the name of this area: the Evolution Group. The mountains that served as the backdrop for our adventure are named after famous evolutionary scientists, but for me, this was about more than just Darwin.
I am still a very new ultrarunner-wannabe. I have many things to learn and fortunately/unfortunately, I always learn more from an epic experience than from a perfectly executed run. This particular run was a perfect representation of my evolution as a mountain runner, where my acquired skills were key, but I still struggled with issues I haven’t worked out yet. Moving forward, the theme remains the same – I hit a new wall during this run and I will need to adapt to move past it. But enough with vague generalizations. If you came looking for photos and nitty gritty details, here they are:
Distance – 36.2 miles
Elapsed time – 17:03:01
Moving time – 13:20:54
Elevation gain – 9209 ft
Sunrise – check.
Sunset – check.
Distance traveled while above 10,000ft: ~30 miles.
On Saturday afternoon we (Julie, Brittany, and I) went up the Lamarck Lakes trail to locate where the use trail started. We found it easily and turned around a little after 3 miles up, making for a fairly relaxing acclimatization hike/run and giving us some familiarity with terrain we’d be covering in the dark on Sunday morning. Back at camp, we got our running stuff together, ate pasta, and got a relatively early bedtime, alarms set for 4am.
The moon was still nearly full, so it was pretty bright out at 4am while we forced down some oatmeal and put on sunscreen. Matt was kind enough to drop us off at the trailhead in the North Lake campground (this saves you half a mile, plus you don’t have to go back up the North Lake road to retrieve the car at the end of the day), so before we knew it we were shivering in the dark, getting blinded by the camera flash, only about 15 minutes after our goal start time of 5am.
The climb to Lamarck Lakes went by quickly by headlamp and we were soon on the use trail to Lamarck Col, which is such a good trail it kind of seems a travesty to call it just a “use trail”. Sunrise was beautiful, temps were perfect, and our mood was excellent. On the final scramble up to the Col, we ended up taking a direct line scrambling through the talus. Having just climbed North Peak the weekend before, the talus scrambling was pretty fun for me – I even got to crawl through a little tunnel. Apparently Julie got a bit off-route and ended up doing some sketchy 5th class moves, prompting our first motto of the day: “If it’s 5th class, you’re going the wrong way.” Lamarck Col, at almost 13,000ft, was the highest I’d ever been, but I felt great. We paused to take a couple photos and headed down into Darwin Canyon.
The trails on the other side of Lamarck Col were the total opposite of the trail coming up from the east. There are about a zillion discontinuous social trails heading down the steep hillside to the lakes and we could never run more than a couple strides without slowing down to scramble over some boulders. Once we got to the lakes, the going didn’t get much easier – there is a continuous trail along the north edge of the lakes, but it still involved more rock hopping and scrambling than running. The terrain got easier once we got out onto Darwin Bench, but we lost the trail. A lot. This prompted the next two mottos: “Is it still trail running if you’re not on a trail?” and “Is that a cairn?”.
Needless to say, I was pretty psyched to finally reach the JMT. It’s pretty darn easy to follow the JMT. The trail slowly climbs about 1000ft up to Muir Pass over about 7 miles, going past really beautiful alpine lakes and with the Evolution peaks to your left. I had definitely started to feel the elevation, but still felt fine, if out of breath, until the last climb to Muir Pass. By the time we were sitting in the Muir Hut, my stomach was starting to voice dissatisfaction and I was feeling totally out of energy. I tried to take in as much food as I could before we set off on the next 8.5 mile segment down to the low point of the day at the junction with the Bishop Pass trail.
Normally I can relax on mellow, semi-technical downhill, but the Lamarck Col route and the elevation were taking a toll on my body. Julie and Brittany were incredibly patient, though, repeatedly telling me they didn’t mind my seemingly excruciatingly slow pace. At some point I couldn’t really run the downhill anymore, even though my legs felt fine. I just had no energy and the massive final climb up to Bishop Pass (~3000ft of elevation gain) was weighing heavily on my mind.
I still was not feeling much better when we started climbing to Bishop Pass. We stopped a couple times to refill water and try to consume more food. At some point Brittany just started telling me to eat something every 15 minutes, which did seem to help a little, even though I was only really eating one shot blok each time. The sun set on the final climb to Bishop Pass, which was beautiful but demoralizing. We paused on the pass to send the boys one last inReach message and consume more food, before starting the final 6 mile march down to the South Lake trailhead.
My legs still didn’t feel that bad, but darkness, stomach, and lack of energy were still preventing running. We were speed-hiking ~20 minute miles, which seemed to take longer the closer we got to the end. I almost couldn’t believe I was really seeing the silvery glow of South Lake off to our left, but I knew that it had to be. We stumbled out into the parking lot, where the boys were waiting with warm cars and a giant pot of macaroni and cheese.
So it’s obvious that nutrition/stomach management and altitude are two major factors that I’m still trying to figure out. But on the upside, my feet, which got destroyed by blisters on the High Sierra Camp loop, were perfect with some pre-taping advice from Fixing Your Feet and my knee, which had a pretty bad case of patellar tendinitis after HSC, felt great after 3 weeks of resting and rehab. But if I want to keep doing runs like this, these are important lessons to learn. The body is a complicated system and it’s hard to manage everything at the same time. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. For now, I’m taking a break from super ridiculous mountain runs to focus more on getting back to climbing and training for TNF EC 50k, which will probably take me less than half the time to go only a few miles less far. But I have survived and learned – my body and mind are smarter and stronger. I will adapt.