Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Finish the 8k Challenge on the First Try!

timing schedule for runners and first-time participants
This post aims to help the first-time participants to better prepare for the Jansport 8000 Meter Challenge and to provide a guide for the course timeline. Attempting and completing this unique meet initially in '07, by no means I claim expertise on the subject and would never pretend to advise anyone on how to run the entire course (a feat, several participants do); I only want to share my experience, so with proper training and planning, others will have an enjoyable and successful experience at the Challenge.

Training for the Challenge
Initially quite a few of my teammates started hiking and running regularly at six-thousand-feet-elevation and above before the race, sometimes around mid-summer. It seemed intuitive to train at higher altitudes, considering that all three target peaks are above 10 thousand feet. Driving to a suitable trailhead several times a week, however, did not appear to be a practical solution. I trained, instead, at a local trail (Mt. Wilson Trail) that starts at 700 ft. and ends at 5600 ft. in a course of about seven miles. In retrospect, hiking a relatively steep terrain and the length close to half the distance of the event was quite sufficient. Also, sleeping at the starting point of the Challenge (elev. 6106 ft.) the night before, gave me plenty of time to acclimate for the altitude.

I started regular, timed hikes six weeks before the meet. By the last two weeks I ran much of the trail every other day. I also hiked twice in a hundred plus degree heat to check my endurance, considering that the event is held in September in Southern California's own Inland Empire inferno. I essentially wore the same gear during the training that I used at the Challenge too. Hiking with the same poles, breaking-in the shoes, and running with the pack that I later wore, gave me ample time to get rubbed, rashed, blistered and ultimately callused on the specific spots where the same gear would have given me plenty of misery during the 8K. Once I even ran my training route shirtless with my pack on, which left my back and shoulders pretty raw, however once healed, I never had further complaints again!

The event was held midweek in '07 and I imagine that being a standard practice, it will be the same every year. If one manages to arrive to the starting point the night before to get enough sleep, it is probably not necessary to get the day off from work. It is definitely worth getting there the night before and taking off rested as opposed to rushing up for the 5 a.m. start. Getting some time off the day after the event, on the other, hand is highly advisable mainly to recover from the inevitable weight and fluid loss.

Also, getting a friend to drive will make the hour-plus commute from trailhead-to-trailhead an extremely valuable time for rest, rehydration and recuperation. Just to calculate how much water and food to bring along, I had a two-liter hydration pack and a Cliff bar for San Antonio and drank a liter electrolyte replacement along with a light snack on the drive to Vivian Creek. On Gorgonio trail I carried a three-liter bladder, an extra liter-bottle of water and one liter of electrolyte replacement along with three Cliff bars and three packs of energy gel packs. This may seem like an overkill, but I saw several people turning back on this trail because of lack of water or severe leg cramps.

This second leg of the Challenge is also probably the most testing, and not only because of the distance (nine miles each way), but due the elevation difference from trailhead-to-summit, which offers some serious temperature swings. It is strongly recommended by the organizers to carry extra clothing and headlight. Also, due to the time constraints to catch the last tram going up from Palm Springs in order to complete the final leg of the event on San Jacinto, the participants are forced to push along as fast as possible, especially on the way down on this particular course.

Going up to San Jacinto requires a whole new set of gear mainly because of the overnight stay. I had a fully packed backpack with all the essentials to spend the night at Round Valley. I also switched into a heavier pair of boots because of the extra weight. Even though the distance from the top of the Tram to the camp is only about three miles or so, with the heavy pack it feels much longer. On the plus side, there is water at the camp, so no need to carry any liquid. Also, once reaching the camp and after ditching the big pack, reaching San Jacinto summit feels like a short but delirious otherworldly stroll in the night.

The Event
The Challenge starts at 5 a.m. Most everyone starts running up the fire road and some incredibly fit individuals pretty much stay with that initial speed throughout the event. The rest forms a big stampeding bunch, kicking up a whole lot a dust. Staying behind for about five minutes still allows plenty of opportunity to pass people while going up single-file on the Ski Hut trail. Once on the top, there is a little wait to register for the first peak completed. Use this time to grab a quick snack!

After getting back in the car and dumping some cold water on the feet, it is off to Vivian Creek. The best way going back to the freeway is through Mountain – hwy 210 –hwy 215 – hwy 10 or Mountain – Euclid – hwy 10. To reach Vivian Creek, exit at Live Oak Canyon Rd, go North on Oak Glen Rd., North on Bryant St., East on Mill Creek Rd., and continue to Valley of the Falls Dr. At the Forest Falls parking lot there are restrooms.

The Gorgonio trail starts up quite steep on the other side of a wide sandy creek bed. As mentioned earlier, this trail is where it is absolutely crucial to push on hard, all the way up! It certainly ought not take more than 4.5 hours to get up and 3.5 to get down. If one leaves the Forest Falls parking lot later than 6 p.m., there is really no practical chance to catch the last Tram going up to San Jacinto.

Once on the tram though, stressing about time becomes rather irrelevant. It is replaced by a simple sooner-to-finish-sooner-to-go-to-bed philosophy. Also, building a tent at Round Valley before going up to San Jacinto summit offers a hassle-free way to promptly pass out once back at the camp.

The posted spreadsheet of the time/distance breakdown of the Challenge used two timing; one for those long-legged, superhuman maniacs who will run the entire course (you will see them throughout the day); and one for the rest of us, mere mortals.

Good Luck!