Sunday, June 1, 2014

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100

The 2014 version of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 (MMT) was on May 17 and 18 this year. Two years ago I attempted this race and failed miserably at mile 42-ish. I screwed up my hydration/nutrition from breakfast that morning and I went out pretty hard to see what I could do. It just didn't work out so well. This year my brother Jim convinced me to do the race (I have semi-retired from running 100s) but I went into it with a different plan. I was going to run it with my brother and just try to survive it this time. I've learned some things about hydration/nutrition in the last two years so I felt like I was better prepared for the demands of the day. My training this spring has also been excellent, including a 104 mile week with lots of vertical two weeks before the race so I felt like my legs were also ready. My mind and my stomach were still the wild cards, but they always will be.

Another friend from Lancaster, Jake Beiler, also got into the race as the last one off the waiting list and he was bringing four other friends as crew and pacers for the three of us. We decided that we would all start together and see how the day went. This was Jake's first 100, Jim's second, and my fifth attempt (four complete). We stayed at Jim's house in Harrisonburg, about 50 minutes from the start.

On Saturday morning we left Harrisonburg at 2:30am and got to the start by 3:30am. The only problem was that they had gotten a bunch of rain a few days before and had to move the start due to water issues. We had to go about a mile to get to the new starting location (we thought there would be shuttles but we had to walk) and by the time we got there we had about 5 minutes before the start at 4am. I wanted one last bathroom break but it wasn't to be. The clock hit 4:00 and we were off into the cold (about 40 degrees) morning. There were numerous places that the water was rushing across the road in the first four miles (the first four miles are on dirt road) so our feet were cold and wet from the beginning. We knew it was going to be a wet and muddy day.

Jim, me and Jake (front to back)

The trail leaves the road at about 4 miles and climbs up onto the ridge and then follows the rocky ridge for many miles. The sun came up while we were in this section and it is kind of a nice part of the trail, although very rocky. The first full aid station comes up after a descent into Edinburg Gap at around 12 miles. The three of us felt good and weren't pushing it at this point.

After leaving the aid station, there is a big climb followed by 20 miles of pretty pleasant single-track. The trail follows a ridge for awhile, with a few climbs and descents thrown in here and there, before rolling into Elizabeth Furnace at mile 32.6. We tracked back and forth with a number of other runners in this stretch and were able to keep a pretty good pace going. We ran with a guy we affectionately called "mud-boy" for awhile. This is a guy that kept falling into the mud and was mostly brown. He had Hokas on and was blaming the thick soles for causing problems. I was definitely feeling much better already than I had two years ago so I was hopeful for the day. My stomach was good and I felt like I was eating and drinking the correct amount. 

The next section was where I started my descent into misery two years ago, so I was apprehensive. I made it okay to the next aid station, but we tracked through some extremely muddy parts on the way. I grabbed some quick food and walked out of Shawl Gap while Jim and Jake were still refueling. I wanted to keep moving while I felt good and push right through the next aid station. After I saw them in the distance behind me I started running and figured that I'd beat them to Veach Gap and then I would have a couple extra minutes to rest before they caught up. Veach Gap is where I dropped out two years ago.

We didn't hang out long at Veach Gap. Jake left a minute or so before Jim and I and we all began the monster climb that began the nine mile journey to the next aid station at Indian Grave at mile 49.7. I felt okay, although a little scared about the nine miles. Unfortunately, good feelings aside, this section crushed Jim and me. The climb was tough, but didn't make me feel bad right away. After the climb, however, I just gradually started feeling worse and worse. I started to get a little light-headed but wasn't really anxious to eat. Every time I coughed I felt I like I might just throw up. I wasn't really nauseous but just felt bad all over.

Jim and Jake.
We stumbled into Indian Grave and Jim and I both sat down and drank a cup of Coke. We told Jake to go on without us because we wouldn't be moving any time soon and he looked really good still. Jim said, "After we get out of here, I'm walking to the next aid station and then quitting." I felt exactly the same way. We sat for awhile and the aid station captain kept telling us to get up and move out but we weren't listening. I just closed my eyes and put my head back. I couldn't believe I had been so stupid to run another 100-miler after successfully completing my last one. Now my last taste (I had already stated on the last section that I was retiring from 100s) would be failure. Why did I want to put myself through feeling so bad? What the heck was I doing out here? Short races are so much more fun. This is just ridiculous.

We knew we eventually had to move on as this was a no-crew aid station and we weren't supposed to drop here. It was only four miles of road to Habron Gap, where the crew would be. I asked for one more cup of Mountain Dew and slowly nursed it. Jim was ready to go but I asked him to wait while I finished the cup. Then we got up and slowly started walking out of the aid station. Two of the aid station people came up to us to wish us well and one of them said to me, "You look so much better than when you came in here." I replied, "You're lying, I do not." But she reiterated her statement and said that I had looked really white when I came in but that I had my color back now. I thought, "You know, I do feel better now." 

Whether it was her suggestion or that cup of Mountain Dew (probably some of both) my attitude immediately turned around. Jim still looked bad, though. I knew I would have some hard convincing to do to keep him going. I decided that we would just start walking and I would gradually introduce the idea of continuing after Habron Gap. I mentioned that I was feeling better and was thinking about continuing, but he was not having any part of that. I just let it rest and we continued to walk. Secretly I was plotting to use the "little brother" card. I was going to say after awhile that I really wanted to continue but didn't really feel safe being by myself in my current state and was hoping he could continue with me just to Camp Roosevelt, where we had pacers waiting. Then he could drop.

Well, I waited and I never had to play my card. Before I got to do it, he eventually said he was feeling a little better and that maybe he would be able to keep going. After awhile we even started running again. Eventually we ran into Habron Gap and grabbed some food and sat down to eat it. Jake was still there and still looking good so he took off while we were eating. I saw mud-boy there, getting into his drop bag for a clean shirt. I said "Hey, mud-boy." He didn't look up at first so I repeated it till he looked at me. I said, "How does it feel to get a clean shirt on?" He was pretty happy about it. Jim and I didn't stay too long and got moving back onto the single-track. Camp Roosevelt (CR) was a long 9.5 miles away and there was a significant climb to start but we were committed to getting there.

We were hoping to get to CR before dark but it wasn't going to be. We pulled out our headlamps a mile or so before we arrived. This was another really muddy section and I was looking forward to changing shoes and socks for the first time and just being dry, even though I knew it would be short-lived. After we arrived, pretty tired at this point, I went for one of the few bathrooms on the entire course. It was, unfortunately, a quarter mile away, but my daughter Marcy walked with me and we eventually found it. I took care of business, got back to the aid station, and changed everything. Jim was ready before I was so he took off down the trail with his pacer. Finally I finished fueling a few minutes later and left with John Lapp, my pacer who would accompany me most of the rest of the way.

The night gave me energy. It always does. I was happy to be leaving last and on the chase to catch my brother. I was running quickly and loving it. It didn't take too long to catch up and then we hit one of the wettest, muddiest sections of the course. So much for dry feet. Five miles later we rolled into Gap Creek (for the first time) and didn't spend much time there before we began the climb up Jawbone. On the way up, I was talking to John and all of a sudden this runner comes up behind us and says "Wie bissht du?” (probably not spelled correctly as my limited PA Dutch knowledge is only spoken). Here it was Jason Lantz, winner at MMT two years ago, and native of Lancaster County. He recognized John’s Dutchy accent and must be able to speak a little Pennsylvania Dutch himself. Jason, was doing the climb of Jawbone for his second time (the last leg of MMT) and continued on past us. He finished tied for fifth this year.

The night wore on and the aid stations continued to roll past. I felt good for the most part, although fatigue did gradually settle in. It also got kind of cold and I put on all of the layers that I had. For the most part I was dressed okay for it, although it seemed that every time we got near an aid station it got cold. There were definitely pockets of cold air around and it felt good to get near the fires that most aid stations had going. John stayed on as my pacer and Jim eventually picked up Amos as his pacer after his first pacer was done. Jake continued to run well ahead of us and was staying 30-60 minutes ahead of us.

We were looking forward to seeing our second daybreak. Just before we ran into Picnic Area at mile 86.9 we were able to turn off the headlamps. At Picnic Area there was a guy sitting by the fire who I think was sleeping but basically looked dead (death-warmed-over-guy). He was that white/gray color of death but the people there assured us he was alive and just resting. I wasn’t necessarily convinced but we refueled and headed back on the trail. I could feel the end approaching but we still had 17 miles and four hours of running. 

The day did bring renewed energy, although the next section was a bugger. It featured a good climb, a descent and then another good climb basically just up a stream bed. Our feet were always wet anyway so it just didn’t matter much anymore. I was starting to feel a little light-headed, which I didn’t like, and I started to think about just hammering the final miles. I started hoping that they had pancakes at the last aid station. When we reached the top and came out into an open meadow, I started singing the “Sound of Music” theme (“The hills are alive…”) and skipped and twirled through the meadow. Runners’ high was now settling in. I told Jim and John that I was feeling a little lightheaded and felt I needed to just go hard and finish the thing. Jim was tired but looked fairly good and he had John with him so I wasn’t worried about him being able to finish. I knew it was all downhill to the aid station so I just took off. The trail broke onto fire road and I hammered the downhill. I just wanted to run fast for awhile.

I ran into the last aid station (2nd time at Gap Creek), thought I smelled pancakes, and sure enough they had them. I couldn't have been much happier at that point. I downed two pancakes with a little syrup, drained a Mt. Dew and took off. I was running uphill now. I felt good and strong. When I hit the switchbacks, I started power-hiking and was surprised when I reached the top so quickly. It had taken much longer the first time. I scrambled down the rocky single-track, eventually hit the dirt road again, and had four miles to go. I opened it up and started tracking down other runners. At the first bridge crossing where water was still running over the top I just splashed through while others were picking their way across. At the second bridge crossing I tried to do the same thing and I was about to step on the bridge I noticed there was a big gap that had washed out. I was able to make the leap onto the bridge and when I got to the other side I thought I could do the same thing. The only problem was the gap was wider and I tried to step on a rock and missed and went in hard to my neck. I was fairly fortunate to not have broken my leg or otherwise injured myself. I had some scrapes but laughed and pulled myself out and cranked it up again. 

With a little over a mile to go I met my daughter, Marcy, who was walking up the road to run in with me. She joined me and we cranked out the last mile. I shouted "redemption draweth nigh" and we finally rounded the last corner where I ran across the field and over the line with a fist pump and a high five to RD Kevin Sayers. I was pumped for finally putting this race to bed. Fifty miles earlier I had thought my day was done early again in failure and now this. It is a great feeling. Jake had finished earlier in 29:11 and my final time was 29:57. Jim came through in 30:34.

What a race. A philosophy that Jim repeated throughout the day is "whatever you are feeling now, the opposite is coming." It is so true in an ultra. The body has an amazing ability to recover, but you have to give it time. Don't quit at your worst moment. At least try to get to one more aid station and then see how you feel. It may be that it doesn't get better soon enough and you drop anyway (happened to me the last time), but at least give it a chance. The guy that we thought was dead at the second-to-last aid station, he got up and passed Jim in the last few miles and finished the race. I couldn't believe it.

Our crew and pacers were fantastic. They kept us moving and provided companionship on the trails. The volunteers at most of the aid stations were also fantastic. The guys from Lancaster and I are hoping to volunteer together at one of the aid stations for the inaugural Eastern States 100 later this summer and pass on the favor to other runners.

I officially retired from hundred milers this time. Jim is already talking about the next one. I could probably be convinced to un-retire if a niece or nephew or son or daughter were going to do one. Maybe I would just be crew, however. A 100 is a tough thing and it is hard on the body. It is now two weeks after the race and I have shin splints and haven't been able to run much. I don't like feeling so bad during a race. I don't like feeling like I might vomit or pass out (or actually doing those things, for that matter). The race distances between 10 and 20 miles are so much fun. But the runners' high I have gotten at every 100 at about 90 miles in is a pretty great feeling and crossing that finish line is like no other feeling I have experienced. It is a journey and a test of body, mind and soul. I guess I am still open to possibilities that might arise.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Running Around Las Vegas

View of Red Rock Canyon area from atop Turtlehead Peak, with Las Vegas in the background.

May, 2014 - I recently had the opportunity to hang out in Las Vegas for a week and thought I should be able to find some great running opportunities in the area. I really didn't realize what was available within relatively close distance until I started looking. I knew Death Valley and the Grand Canyon were not too far away, but I had already run in both of those locations and I was hoping to keep it a little closer. I had four days to run and I finally decided on going to Red Rock Canyon, Zion National Park, Mount Charleston, and Bootleg Canyon.

Day 1
Turtlehead Peak in the background.
My motel was just off the Strip and Red Rock Canyon was only half an hour west of the city. Red Rock is federal desert land and has a 13 mile paved one-way road that runs through it but I was more interested in the trails that ran through the area. I was hoping to put together a 30 mile or so loop through the area. I got out to the visitor center about 8am on Monday morning, with enough water and food to hopefully last me until 5pm.

I started out on the Calico Hills trails and picked up the Calico Tanks spur out and back. The land is desert, with a lot of desert scrub bushes and cacti. This stretch includes trails up against the red rocks that give the canyon its name. After getting back from the Calico Tanks spur, I started up the assault on Turtlehead Peak, which I believe tops out at about 6000 feet (my Garmin malfunctioned so I'm not sure what the elevations were). The trails became very sketchy on the ascent and I got off-trail. I was basically climbing up a wash, using my hands to help me get up. I soon realized that getting down was going to be a problem because the "trail" was just scree. It is always easier climbing that kind of stuff than descending. I could see myself sliding for hundreds of feet with no way to stop.

I decided to head over to where the trail might be and eventually I was able to kind of pick it up. I saw some other hikers and that helped. Eventually I got up to the peak and it was a magnificent view of the valley and Las Vegas in the distance. It was worth the climb. Coming down was a lot easier, although the trail here is more of a suggestion than anything that is actually defined or marked (this was typical for the Red Rock Canyon trails).

After returning to the grand loop trail, I soon came to the White Rock - La Madre Spring loop. This was my favorite trail of the day. It started as a typical desert trail but then gradually the flora changed and the trees got a little bigger and actually produced some shade. There was clearly the presence of more water in this area. Eventually I got to the La Madre Spring and filtered some more water into my hydration pack. I finished off this loop and headed to Ice Box Canyon, which I planned to be my last spur of the day before heading back to the visitor center.

Ice Box Canyon is a narrow canyon that supposedly doesn't get a lot of sunlight. I found a buddy early on here and we hiked back together. There wasn't much running here as it was mostly scrambling over boulders on an unmarked "trail." We got to more or less the end of the canyon and headed back to the trailhead/parking lot. He offered me a ride. I was going to run the 4 miles back to the visitor's center but then I looked for the connector trail and realized I would have to run back up the road for awhile to get the trail back. I already had 24 miles in for the day and was tired of running through washes so I took advantage of his offer. He took me back to my car and I drove back to the hotel.

Day 2
Wildcat Canyon Trail.
View from Wildcat Canyon Trail.
This is the day I had really been looking forward to. I was headed to Zion Canyon for the day. I had arranged with a local outfitter, Zion Adventures, to shuttle me to the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead. Originally, I had hoped to run the whole Zion Traverse, which is 48 miles from one end of the park to the other, but I had trouble working out the logistics and I wasn't sure I wanted to attempt this alone, anyway. I had to be at the outfitters in Springdale, the closest town to Zion Canyon, by 7am to catch the shuttle. It is a healthy 2.5 hours from Vegas so I was planning on leaving my hotel at 4am. But then when I was talking to the shuttle people, they mentioned that they were on Mountain Time and Vegas was on Pacific Time so I was actually going to have to leave at 3am. I was very happy to hear that.

I got up early, left by 3am, stopped at McDonalds for some pancakes, scarfed them down and hit the road. I got to Springdale by 6:45am MDT, got my stuff together and got in the van for the trip to the trailhead. My plan was to run the 20 or so miles from the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, descend the west rim into the main Zion Canyon, run up the other side of the canyon and do an out-and-back on the east rim. I was hoping to get in at least 30 miles.

West Rim Trail.
We reached the trailhead before 8am, I got out of the van and hit the trail. I had some peanut butter, jelly and waffle sandwiches, some dried mango, peanut butter M&Ms, turkey jerkey, pringles and about 100 ounces of water. I had a map that listed the springs along the trail so I was confident I could fill up with water if necessary but just in case I had enough to last me into the main canyon, where there was definitely water. It was about 30 degrees when I started, at about 6200 feet of elevation.

The Wildcat Canyon Trail is a 5 mile or so stretch of trail that runs mostly through Pine forest until it connects with the West Rim Trail. Along the way there are nice views of some of the side canyons in the park. There were still some patches of snow from a snowstorm earlier in the week but the trail was mostly dry. This was an enjoyable stretch of single-track with a gradual climb to it.
Best pit stop view I ever had.

After I hit the West Rim Trail, the forest opened up a bit and I was mostly running over an open plateau with smatterings of trees around but expansive views of the surrounding mountains and canyons. The trail was muddy in spots from the recently melted snow. I was running on rolling terrain up above 7000 feet here so the ascents taxed my lowlander lungs. Along the way I did have to take a little pit stop as my supper from the previous night (a hamburger in one of the hotel's restaurants) was not a great decision. I spied a tree off the trail on top of a knob that looked like it had a great view and headed for it. It was indeed a fantastic location for a pit stop tree, offering a fantastic view of one of the canyons. Some appropriately named Toilet Paper Plants were nearby (they didn't look poisonous and they were a better option than the cacti) so all was good. I think it was about 20 miles until the descent started in earnest into the Zion Canyon. I hadn't seen many people (a few hikers and a few other runners) up until this point but now there were more people out on the trails.
Toilet Paper Plant
 (may not be the actual name)

It was about a 5 mile descent into the Grotto. Along the way there is a side trail to Angel's Landing (a lookout over the canyon) and I thought I might take this in but when I saw the trail there was a large line of slow moving people so I decided to skip it. After I arrived at the Grotto, I ate another sandwich, refilled my water bottles, and headed up the road for a mile until I reached Weeping Rock and the start of the East Rim Trail. I felt pretty good so I started an out-and-back, or perhaps I should say up-and-back. Many switchbacks later I reached a fork in the trail. Right would take me eventually to the East Rim Trailhead and left would take me to Observation Point. I went left and continued the relentless switchbacking until I was ready to stop. I never did reach Observation Point but I was at the same elevation as I could see it across the way. My gas tank was a little low so I decided to turn around and head back.

Zion Canyon.
After the 2000 foot descent back down the canyon wall and the mile down the road to the Grotto, there was less than a mile left on a trail to the Zion Lodge. I ordered a large soda at the Lodge, sat and drank it and then caught the bus back out of the canyon to the Visitor Center. From the Visitor Center, I caught a bus back to Springdale and the outfitters where my car was parked. I took the long drive back to Las Vegas and got back at about 6pm.

Zion Canyon from near Observation Point.
My total mileage for the day for just under 33 miles. This was a great run and the highlight of my week. The views are fantastic. I would love to come back to this one some day and do the whole traverse.

Day 3
For the third day of running, I set my sights on Mount Charleston. There is a 10 mile trail to the summit, the North Loop Trail, that starts at about 8400 feet and finishes at 11,880 feet. I thought this might be reasonable to do an out-and-back on. Mount Charleston is less than an hour from Las Vegas so it was an easy drive. As I approached and got sight of the summit I knew I probably wasn't going to make it all the way up that day. There was quite a bit of snow still on the peak, it was extremely windy this day, and I didn't have any Yaktrax or other spikes with me.

Mount Charleston in center in background.
I reached the trailhead, started out and quickly ran into patches of snow in the shade. The trail wound up through a pine forest and for most of the time I could not see the summit. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of it far away and I started to lower my goal for the day as the going at this attitude was slow. I climbed to about 10,000 feet and crossed paths with a few other hikers. They were taking an intersecting trail and were not heading towards the summit. I only met four people all day.
Typical scree trail.

Turnaround point.
The trail actually went down now for a little, which I really didn't want because it just meant more climbing, and was on the side of the mountains that were largely clear of snow. The trees were also more sparse so I was exposed to the sun and the wind. The trail at this point was narrow and was basically just a "suggestion" across scree slopes. I started to realize that if I fell or a mountain lion ate me there would be no one around to hear my screams or render assistance. I always struggle a little in these situations because I am a bit of a safety nerd and my safety sense was telling me to call it a day and turn around. I wasn't ready to do that, however, so I pushed on.

I finally decided to turn around after 6.5 miles as I was getting tired from the relentless switchbacks, the attitude was getting to me, and I knew I would have a significant trek back. I was also getting to the point where I was halfway through my water (I had brought 40 ounces which I realized later was not enough for a trip all the way to the summit) and there were no springs around to fill up at. I made it to 6.5 miles (10,600 feet), sat down on the rocks, "enjoyed" another peanut butter, jelly and waffle sandwich and Pringles, and then headed back towards the car.

Of course it took much less time to get back to the car as it was mostly downhill. I drove around a little more in the mountains and headed back to Vegas.

Red Mountain and Black Mountain.
Day 4
This was going to just be a half day so I want to stay close to Vegas. I found a bird preserve online in Henderson and I wanted to do some birding first so I left at daybreak and drove to Henderson (20 minutes) and spent an hour there. Then I drove to Boulder City (another 20 minutes) as my objective this day was to run in Bootleg Canyon, just outside of Boulder City. There are twin peaks there, Red Mountain and Black Mountain, and there are many trails in the area that go around and up the mountains. Bootleg Canyon is a very popular mountain bike destination so many of the trails were multi-use but there are a few that are for foot traffic only.

View of Lake Mead from Black Mountain.
I parked in a trailhead lot and started the climb. I wanted to try to run all the way up to the top of Red Mountain as it seemed that this would be doable. The last few days I had done a lot of walking on the ascents and I wanted a change. It was about a 1200 foot ascent over three miles so it wasn't too bad. After I reached the peak of Red, I went partway back down and across the saddle to the peak of Black Mountain. As I stood up there and took pictures, a hummingbird flew over about a foot from me (I had a bright orange shirt on) and just hovered there and looked at me to figure out where to get the nectar from. I was a little concerned as the little buggers have sharp beaks but it couldn't figure it out so it flew away. It did come back numerous times until I went on the move again.

Hummingbird hovering over Boulder City.
The mountains provided nice views of Lake Mead and the desert and other mountains in the area. I ran back-and-forth a couple times to get some extra mileage and hill training in and then ran back down the mountain. When I got back to the parking lot I wanted to get in a little more mileage so I did a few miles out-and-back on the River Mountains Loop trail, which is a nice paved 30 mile or so loop trail through the area.

This was a great running week for me. Days of 24, 33, 13 and 12 miles (plus a 5 mile loop near the Vegas strip on Friday morning) when added to the Hyner Challenge from the previous Saturday gave me a 104 mile week. I felt pretty good through it all and got in a ton of ascent. It was great to be on new trails and in unfamiliar terrain. The weather was good, even a little cold, and I believe this is probably a great time to run in this area, before it gets too hot. I was by myself nearly the entire time, which was fine, although with some company I would have felt more confident tackling a little more than I did. My gear worked great and I felt as ready as I could be to tackle the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 two weeks later.
Black Mountain (left), Red Mountain (right) and Boulder City in the middle, taken from the saddle.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Waitukubuli National Trail

March, 2014 - My brother Jim first became aware of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT) last year from some fellow runners. It sounded like a worthy adventure to him so he enlisted Marvin Hall and I to join him on the trek across the island of Dominica. The trail starts at the southern tip of the island at Scott’s Head and traverses the island a couple times, spending time inland in the rain forest and also along the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts, before ending at the bay of Portsmouth on the western coast. The web site for the trail lists it at 115 miles, but when you add up the mileages for each segment (there are 14 segments), it comes to 91 miles. This discrepancy would become an issue for us, but more on that later.

Our plan was to run the entire trail in 4 days, with mileages ranging from 15 to 27 miles per day (3 or 4 segments each day). We had lodging in guest houses lined up along the trail so when we finished our last segment each day we would be close to our lodging for the night. We would fly down to the island on Saturday, spend Sunday through Wednesday running, enjoy the beach Wednesday evening, and then fly back on Thursday. Jim had connected with a local taxi operator, Kurell Vidal, and she helped us make the necessary arrangements for lodging and food and would taxi us back and forth to the airport.

"Suitcase" for 6 days (along with the clothes on my back).
We planned to pack everything we would need in our hydration packs. Basically this included, a change of running clothes (shorts, shirt, socks), Body Glide, some first aid stuff, a lightweight shell top and bottom, water filter (to purify water from the island streams for drinking), a camera (and charger), cell phone (and charger), binoculars (just me), flashlight, toothbrush, passport, credit cards and money. My pack was completely full. We were going to pack one bag with a change of clothes and shoes for the trip home. We also had sunscreen and some other stuff in that bag. We packed so if the bag didn’t make it we would still be okay (one of our smarter moves).

Our flight plan took us from Philadelphia Airport to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on USAir, and then directly from there to Dominica on Iliat Airlines. Dominica does not have an international airport so only a prop plane will get you to the island. Sounds simple, right?

Then it all went to heck. The week before we were to fly out, I received an email that our flights had changed and we would now be connecting from San Juan to Antigua and then to Dominica. I thought, “no big deal.” We would still be on Dominica by 6pm on Saturday. We got to Philadelphia Airport on Saturday morning and there was the largest line to check-in I had ever seen (I had tried to check in the night before but USAir didn’t let me do it). We finally got through that and then had a huge line for security. As soon as I got my shoes back on, I ran to our gate, as it was just a few minutes before flight time. The USAir person was in the process of closing the ramp door. I got there first and tried to stall until Jim and Marvin could catch up. JIm came half a minute later but no Marvin. Finally, the lady told us we either needed to go down the ramp or miss the flight. Jim and I walked down the ramp, figuring that Marvin was going to miss it. As we were waiting, to actually step on the plane, Marvin finally comes up behind us. He had, of course, stopped to go to the bathroom. Needless to say he received an appropriate thrashing from us.
Marvin waiting in Antigua airport.

Then the airplane sat on the tarmac for 2 hours as the pilot was “waiting for paperwork.” We finally left, got in to San Juan, and once again had to run through the airport, hunting for the well-hidden terminal “A”. We finally found out and everyone else had already boarded, but the lady radioed out and then walked us to the plane so we just made it. We knew our bag had no chance of making the flight.

We got to Antigua and the long wait began. Our flight kept being delayed. It was supposed to leave at 5pm but finally at about 8:30pm we got word that they were bringing in another plane and it would be able to get us to Dominica by closing time, 10pm. As we lined up to board the plane at 9pm, they stopped the line two people in front of us and said there is no more room. Nice. They ended up putting us up in a motel on the island and said they would have us to Dominica by 8:30am the next morning. That is when Marvin suggested that Liat stands for “Left in Antigua Terminal.” When we got back to the airport at 4:30am the next morning all of their computers were down. They were handwriting board passes and had to rely on handwritten notes to know what to do with us. To make a long story somewhat shorter, the flight we were supposed to take was full (probably because of hand-writing boarding passes) so we got bumped again and had to fly to St. Lucia, then to Barbados, and finally back to Dominica. We did get into the Dominica Airport around noon. We put in a request to send our missing bag to our taxi driver and she loaded us up and drove us down towards Scott’s Head.
Start of the trail at Scotts Head (southern point).

We knew we wouldn’t get started running until about 2pm. Marvin decided to have her drop him off at our place of lodging for the night, and then he would run back on the trail and hope to meet up with us. Jim and I went on to Scott’s Head, and with about 4 hours of daylight left, were going to attempt to run 27 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing. I knew we would be finishing in the darkness and I was the only one who had brought a flashlight, so we borrowed one from our taxi driver. I was not ready to give up on the idea of running the whole trail, despite Liat Airlines conspiring against us.

Well, we started Segment 1 and soon saw signs that Segment 1 was closed due to a landslide. Our taxi driver was already gone and we figured we could find a way around it. We soon came to the landslide and did have to do a little scrambling but were able to continue on the trail. Then near the top of that first climb, we had to cross the landslide again, and there was no hope of doing so. We just started climbing straight up the mountain and hoped we could cross at the top and pick up the trail again. It was some tricky climbing and at one point I kicked up a football-sized rock down at my brother. It missed him but then I heard it crashing down the mountain and getting louder and louder as it picked up more rocks. I was glad there was no one else beneath us. I was a little more careful until we finally crested the top. We were able to pick up the trail again and kept going.
Bridge on Segment 1 (landslide under bridge).

This first day we discovered that the trail was largely unrunnable, and I’m one who believes that about anything is runnable. I would say that more than 50% of the WNT is not runnable safely. This first day, near the Caribbean Ocean, it was because it was too steep up or down. As we moved inland into the rainforest, it was because it was too wet with moss-covered rocks and roots and was just too dangerous to do anything but hike for fear of slipping and cracking one’s head open. There are some sections, however, where you can open it up and there are a fair amount of road sections, although often very steep as well, where you can run.

Jim and I got to the end of Section 2 that first day and darkness was falling. We had about 14 miles in and knew we weren’t halfway yet, so we were seriously doubting the accuracy of the segment distances. We were looking at getting into our lodging very late, probably at least 11pm. The trail is decently marked from South to North (the other way is another story), but there are many places, especially in small towns, where it is tough to follow and the turns aren’t marked very well in many cases. The dream of doing the whole thing died hard with me so we set out down Segment 3. We turned on our flashlights and tried to find the markings. I thought that the night running would be good training for the Massanutten 100, which we are both signed up for, but I soon began to be worried that the trail would be harder to stay on than I hoped. Jim was trying to convince me of that fact, and soon I had to agree. We turned around and ran back to the little town at the start of the segment. We convinced two guys to taxi us to our lodging for the night (a 45 minute ride, as no car ride is short on this island). Marvin was not back yet (this was 7:30pm) so I decided to run down Segment 4 and see if I could find him. I said I would be back in 30 minutes and I didn’t run into him so I had to turn around. Our host wanted to call the Park Rangers to go find him but I figured he would probably find a way back so we waited. Soon he did pull in. He had waited for us for awhile, and then finally found someone to taxi him back.

Myself, Marvin, Jim, Carla Armour and
assistant at the Harmony Villa.
Our first night was spent at the Harmony Villa with our generous host Carla Armour. It is a nice place in the woods with a large porch that is perfect for hanging out on and where we ate our meals. It is about a half a mile from the end of Segment 4. We got up in the morning, ate a big delicious breakfast, Carla packed us some cheese sandwiches, and we were on our way by 8:30am.

Typical single-track. The maintainers of the WNT have a
constant battle against the encroaching jungle.
Segment 5 runs through the middle of the island in the rain forest and the footing is perilous. Wet rocks and roots with moss on them were the norm for most of this leg. There were some beautiful sections but very little of it was runnable because of it being so slippery. If it hadn’t been wet, we could have made pretty good time. Towards the end of this section, as we approached the Atlantic side of the island, it was much drier, but the heat started to come through. I was showing a temperature in the lower 90s on my watch and it certainly felt like it.

Marvin was struggling a little with the temperature and kept telling Jim and I to go on as he didn’t think he was going to be able to keep up a decent pace. We were reluctant to do so, but stubborn bugger that he is (you know it is true, Marvin), he finally sat down until we would continue without him. We moved on and figured he would probably eventually catch a ride to our next guest house.

We stopped at a little “restaurant/bar” (we saw many of these along the way and they were basically 15’x15’ simple buildings with some drinks and a few snacks) at the start of Segment 6 and split a soda that really hit the spot. One of the locals there tried to convince us to buy him a soda also but we had limited cash and resisted his badgering. Segment 6 had much more pavement in it as it mixed in trail sections with roads through little seaside villages. We lost the trail a couple times as the markings through the paved sections are a little sketchy.

For some reason, we encountered a lot of bulls
tethered to the trail. It was a little unsettling. I always talked
to them to placate them and then carefully walked by them
while Jim bushwhacked a new trail out of their reach.
As we kept going and the miles piled up, we realized these two segments were going to be much longer than advertised. It was supposed to be 16.5 miles but I ended up with about 23 miles for the two segments. The fortunate thing was that we were supposed to run 3 sections today but Jim had made a mistake when he arranged the lodging and we were actually staying at the end of the second segment. This was good because we were hot and tired when we got to the Hibiscus Valley Lodge. Marvin was already there as he had dehydrated and eventually paid a local to take him to the lodge.

The Hibiscus Valley Lodge is a nice facility with numerous small duplex cabins. The three of us split a room with two beds. There is a nice covered balcony/bar where we relaxed and I pounded Coca-Colas with ice. There is little finer after a hot run. I also got some great pictures of a mama hummingbird feeding her baby about six feet away from the railing. It was amazing.

Marvin taking a break at Emerald Falls on day 2.
We decided to change our plans further to cut the next two days short, with our new-found knowledge of the lengths and toughness of the segments. After looking at the map, we canceled our reservations for the third night, which were in the middle of the island, and instead switched them to the Portsmouth Beach Hotel, where we were just supposed to spend the fourth night.

The jungle taking back the trail.
This is actually the "trail." It wasn't this way
too often, fortunately.
After breakfast the next morning, our host at Hibiscus Valley drove us to Portsmouth, a port city on the Caribbean side of the island, where we were able to check in for the next two nights. The plan was to run an out-and-back on segments 11 and 10 (reverse order). I wanted to get in at least 10 miles but I wasn’t sure what we would encounter. We knew there would be a good climb as the trail went up one of the highest peaks on the island. We got ready to run and then stopped at a local restaurant and had some pizza before we got going.

We started out from Portsmouth and had to cut through the woods a half mile or so on the edge of town to pick up the trail. After studying a map, I had convinced Marvin and Jim that this would be possible and they skeptically agreed with my plan. I was right, however, and soon we were beginning a punishing ascent of segment 11. The climb included a number of places where we had to use our hands to get up and it was clear that it was going to be slow going. Marvin again convinced us to go on ahead, so we did, and we eventually got to a more gradual uphill that we could run. This part was very wet and muddy jeep trail but we could make pretty good time. It was somewhat monotonous, however, with little change in scenery for awhile.

We finally got to the start of segment 11, and there was a pavilion there and parking area with some other people milling around. I didn’t have my 5 miles in yet (I needed another half mile) but Jim was content to wait for me there so I went running up the end of segment 10 through some kind of fruit orchard. When I came back through, he was talking with some people and it turns out that it was a group from Chicago and they had seen the Chicago Marathon shirt he was wearing so they had struck up a conversation. We hung out for a few minutes and chatted and then headed back to the beach. When we got back to Portsmouth we were so hungry and thirsty that we stopped at a grocery store before we were back and bought cold sodas and food to eat then as well as stuff for breakfast in the morning. We walked back to the motel eating and drinking our loot.

A Mardi Gras parade in one of the small towns. This week
was probably not the best time to be in Dominica
because much of the island was in Roseau for the party.
When we got back Marvin was already sitting on the beach drinking something under a beach umbrella. It was late afternoon. We showered and joined him and then ate supper at the restaurant/bar along the beach. The Portsmouth Beach Hotel sits beside Ross University, a medical school that attracts many from the United States and other western countries. Some of the university students have rooms at the hotel so there was always a group of them by the restaurant/bar on the beach. It was a great place to hang out and watch the sunset the next two evenings.

On Wednesday morning, we ate breakfast at the restaurant on the beach and then took a taxi to Cabrits National Park (about 3 miles away) and the Waitukubuli Trail’s northern terminus at Fort Shirley. The plan was to do most of segment 14 out-and-back and get in about 15 miles. We hiked around Fort Shirley a little and then decided to start down the trail. I wanted to run up one of the Cabrits, which wasn’t part of the WNT, just because I feel the need to run to the top of things, and I convinced Jim to go along, but not Marvin. Marvin started down the WNT. Jim and I ran up the single-track to the top of the western Cabrits, saw the cannon there, and then ran back down and started down the WNT.

Marvin studying the maps (a common sight) at
Hibiscus Valley.
This section was dry and started out flat (and hot). We made some good time at first but then we got into some steep road sections that slowed us down. The trail markings are really sketchy on this segment (in general, running segments in reverse order is not well-marked but even when we turned around this section wasn’t well-marked). We made some wrong turns, did some back-tracking, and consulted with the locals on a number of occasions. There was a nice section that went right out on the beach, but this was not runnable because the beach here consisted entirely of baseball-sized rocks.

Purple-throated Carib mama hummingbird feeding its baby.
At one point when we got back on the road, we passed one of the small bars and asked them if they had cold Coke. They said yes so we told them we would be back. We kept running and eventually couldn’t find trail markings again. We knew we were near the beginning of the segment and we already had in almost 9 miles so we decided to turn around. We got back to the bar and asked for two Cokes and the lady had put them in the freezer anticipating our return! How nice! They were good and cold.

Portsmouth Beach Hotel.
We finally made it back to Fort Shirley and then ran the three miles back to the Portsmouth Beach Hotel. We were really hungry so we stopped at a little strip of restaurants that catered to the med students and had some pizza and a really cold milkshake/smoothy concoction. We walked back to the Hotel and found a recently-returned Marvin relaxing in his room. We decided we must have passed him when we were on the beach because he had not seen the markings and stayed on the road. We were probably close to connecting but had just missed each other. Jim and I ended up putting in over 18 miles in hot weather so it felt like a good day. We ate supper on the beach again and watched the sun set, hoping we would be able to actually get back home the next day. The good news of the day had been that Marvin’s luggage had actually arrived and Kurell had brought it to our Hotel so we actually had clean stuff to change into for the trip home on Thursday.

Thursday morning Kurell picked us up early and drove us to the airport at Melville Hall. Our flight left relatively on time, although there was some confusion and nervous moments in the small terminal as they were loading two flights at the same time and somehow we got in the back of the line again. We had no problems on the way back and eventually got into Philadelphia and drove home.

Filtering water out of a stream.
Portsmouth Bay with the Cabrits in the back left.
I ended up getting in about 70 miles with 12,936 feet of ascent over the 4 days. Our average pace was slow, in the 15-16 minute/mile range, but that included all breaks as I don't stop my watch until I am finished for the day.

So what did we learn? The WNT is a nice trail that will show you many of the great features of the island of Dominica. I enjoyed the journey. There are, however, issues with the marketing of this trail. The distances and elevation change listed for each segment are just wrong. They just need to get someone out on it with a good GPS and do it right. We also found two different printed maps that show wildly different routes for the trail. The online one seems to at least have the general location correct, to the best of our knowledge. Also, they have descriptions of each segment online and some of them say “easy, family hike.” There is no segment that is an easy, family hike. There are some small parts of segments that would qualify but you really can’t trust the descriptions.

Trail markings are another problem. If you are traveling from South to North, the way that the segments are numbered from 1 to 14, the markings on the single-track parts of the trail are often okay. When you get to wider sections of trail, small towns and roads, however, it is very easy to lose the trail. Markings are sporadic or non-existent and turns are poorly marked. We relied on locals many times to help us, and sometimes they were wrong. If you want to travel from North to South, just count on getting lost a lot. The markings are generally on the south side of trees. I don’t think they planned on anyone hiking from North to South. Also, it would be very difficult to not get lost if you tried to hike any of it at night. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you had 3 or 4 people with good headlamps that were keeping vigilant. Even then it is probably a bad idea.

View of sunset from restaurant at Portsmouth Beach Hotel.
The trail is largely a hiking trail. While there are many runnable parts, it is slow going compared to most trails that I have ever been on. We should have planned for more days to cover it. It could be done in four days but you would have to use all available daylight and keep pushing to get it done. The lack of accurate distances make it tough to decide how to break up the segments for a multi-day trek. I would probably count on just adding 25% more to the segment distances, as listed on the web site, and also increase the elevation gain while you are at it.

Very blue water and blue sky. This was a nice break
from the Pennsylvania winter.
There are a lot of freshwater streams on the island (365 they say). I carried a water filter in my pack and we used it many times. This is definitely a necessity as the availability of water from taps is limited on sections of the trail and it would be difficult to carry enough on your back.

Dominica is difficult to get to. There isn’t an international airport so you will need a connection on a small plane from somewhere. Liat Airlines, the largest Caribbean airline, is unreliable so don’t plan on getting there when you are supposed to get there. Island time is a little more relaxed to begin with. Our North American obsession with punctuality needed to be stretched a little.

Definitely a non-runnable section of the trail.
All in all, this was a great adventure and the airline problems, trail issues and everything else that we encountered just added to the experience. My two main regrets are not getting to do all of the trail and not seeing a boa constrictor on the trail. I really did want to see a boa, although not up really close. The people on the island were friendly and helpful. One of the best parts of these trips is the opportunity to get out and experience a different culture and the people there. The island itself is beautiful (certainly the jewel of all the islands we were on), and we had great weather and even more importantly, no insect issues (I believe this is a good time of the year to make the trek). This is definitely worth doing if you enjoy hiking/running in new places and I'm glad we were able to experience it.