Thursday, May 24, 2012

The everlasting itch: exploration runs (Acapulco, Mexico).

 "I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote"

            --from Moby Dick

 On most days, we all run the familiar paths. On the trail, on the road: we know the turns, we anticipate the key landmarks. We are aware of past splits; we know if we started too hot or too slow. On some trails we know every root and rock.  When we do run a new route, it's usually a path that a friend has shown us. We add new paths slowly, running and learning them, incorporating them into the fold of the familiar. 
  In life it tends to be the same. We are creatures of habit and comfort. I imagine this is a survival trait. If we expended all of our energy always finding new trails to run, or endlessly seeking new experiences to live, we would wander endlessly.  
 And yet despite our penchant for the known, there is paradoxically within runners (and non-runners) the craving for the new, the unknown. The new trail to the peak. A new race. The new experience, the new job, the new town.
 Like most runners I enjoy running known trails because it's a way to experience the outdoors and it's also an effective way to train. In contrast, running a new trail --especially when running alone-- takes extra energy away from the run. It's also impractical to always be running a new route.
 However, the runs that are most memorable are these rarer runs into the unknown. I had this experience a week ago when I finally went to Desierto de Los Leones to run. I arrived at Desierto with some directions about where to start. After finding the Cruz Blanca entrance, I was on my own to find a way up the mountain. I followed a few simple rules: keep running up, keep running in more or less the same direction, and try to stay off the main paths in the search for the most remote and/or the most technical trails. From a training point of view, this was not the most productive run. There was a lot of backtracking, sightseeing and cautious foot placement that was involved.
 I finally found my way to a path that clearly went up to the peak, or seemed to. But on that day the mountain was covered in clouds blocking any views. When I reached the base of what I thought was the peak, I got off the trail and followed a line of rock formations that sliced their way to the top. At this point I was climbing, not running, but I didn't care. The excitement of finding this new terrain was more important than pace or tempo.
  I missed the actual summit that day, the peak I climbed is a bit lower than the actual summit, El Cerro de San Miguel. I didn't realize it until I returned to Desierto on a sunny day a few days later and made the same climb.
 Another exploration run took place a month ago while I was in Pie De La Cuesta, a small beach town about 20 minutes up the coast from Acapulco.  The town was familiar to me. It is the first place I ever visited in Mexico back in 1998, a trip that led to my life in Mexico today. As beach towns go in Mexico, it leaves something to be desired, but it's the closest beach that is not Acapulco to Mexico City. I had brought my running stuff, but I despise running on the beach and the long, straight, flat run to the end of the lagoon wasn't appealing either. In my handful of trips to Pie De La Cuesta over the years, I've always been compelled by the mountains that seem to rise out of the ocean, and yet I never considered going up there as they are residential, not tourist areas, and also perhaps because I know that in Mexico the highest houses on the hills house the most impoverished Mexicans, and I had a sense that this was not my place to visit. However, my curiosity overwhelmed my caution and I could see a ridge line that I was sure would take me up through the residential area to the peak above. I had no idea if there were trails up there, but there was one way to find out. I thought it would also be interesting to run from sea level and see how high the mountains climbed.
  Because of the humidity and the heat, I left early from the hotel on the beach. I ran up the road out of Pie De La Cuesta. I tried to keep the peak up on my left, and when I found a road that looked like it would take me to the top, I started climbing. It was steep and I ran slowly. I made a few false turns and I avoided one climb that would have taken me to a row of houses --shacks, really-- that lined the top of a narrow ridge that showed signs of severe erosion. I finally arrived at a dirt road that seemed to separate the houses from the forest of the mountain. There were no structures above the road, only trees and rocks. There was a sign placed by the government warning people not to construct their homes above this point. The illustration on the sign was of a house sliding down the hill onto another house.
 I followed the dirt road and kept looking for trails. Sure enough, after about 600 meters, there was a narrow, but well-trodden path to the left. Why not? This trail took me winding through the forest, and then it became a wider path that had been clear-cut and led straight up. I kept climbing. The peak was in sight and I followed the trail to its end, but I still needed to make the final ascent. I back-tracked to eyeball the peak again and then began bushwhacking up. It was like a briar patch, with vines and trees literally tying me up, holding me back, thorns sending me back to find another route. My Garmin read no pace, meaning I was somewhere north of 40 minutes a kilometer, but I kept pushing up, my curiosity overwhelming my desire to keep my heart rate up and get a decent workout completed. I finally arrived to a small plateau, but there were trees all around me and I couldn't tell if I made the peak or not. My Garmin map suggest I didn't. There was a small path continuing on, but the sun was coming up and I had taken over an hour to go 5k, much of which was just struggling to go a few hundred meters. I descended, and along the way was treated to some incredible views of Pie De La Cuesta, which is just a small strip of land stretched out between the ocean and a lagoon.  Despite the 40 minute bushwhack, and my doubt about whether I'd actually reached the peak I saw down on the beach (El Jardin, one of the workers at the hotel informed me), it was a satisfying run, as exploration runs always are. 
 Here are the few photos I took with my phone:
Part of the trail up El Jardin.

Pie De La Cuesta: view from El Jardin

Where the trail ends... and begins.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Race with Friends: ASF 5k/10k Race for Education

Tania, Melissa and Kate before the pain

  This past Sunday was the ASF Race (5k and 10k) for education.  I had a number of runners from the ASF running club participating, Tania would be running, as well as many friends and colleagues. Usually when I show up at a race I am alone, so it was good to run with some friends.  I hadn't been focusing on 10K's, and I didn't taper for this race, but took it as a tempo run.  I only started including speed in my workout a couple weeks ago, as I am following an adapted version of the Hanson marathon training method for the two marathons I have on the calendar: the mountain/trail marathon (Maraton Rover) on August 12, and then the traditional Mexico City Marathon on September 2. 
  As road 10k's go, this one is tough, as the big climbs are at kilometer 7/8 and the final kilometer back up to school.  My goal was to keep it at 5 minutes per K for under 50, but I hit 5:30 on both the hill sections.  I had some time in the bank from the early kilometers, but not enough, and I finished at 51:13.  However, that was enough for a PR (previous: 51:40), and I felt pretty good about the race.
  More importantly, a fun time was had by all.  Later that afternoon I went up to Desierto with Dean for a hike to the top. Great way to finish the day!


Tania's pre-race assessment

Leo and Dean: straight outta' retirement.  That's Dean's race form tucked into his shorts in lieu of the race packet he was supposed to pick up the day before.  
ASF RUNNERS getting ready to rumble...

More ASF RUNNERS at the start!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Desierto De Los Leones: The best place to run in Mexico City

Trail gets rocky as it approaches the top

Looking down from the top

  If you are looking for natural beauty, the best place to train for mountain running, or both, Desierto De Los Leones is the best place to run in Mexico City.  I've made two runs and one hike out there in the past week in search of the best trails to run to the top.  What follows is hardly a full description of all the trails, but I'll share what I've learned in these past three runs which is more than enough to get you started (and to the top of Cerro San Miguel) if you haven't been out there yet.

  When running in Desierto, it's easy to forget you are in Mexico City. The air is clean, the views are spectacular...and the climbing is relentless.   In fact, I don't think there is a mountain race in the world that a committed runner couldn't prepare for here. The premier Mexican ultramarathon runner, Luis Guerrero Marron, trains here, and he has multiple Leadville 100 finishes (along with a zillion other long distance races), placing as high as second.  So if you live in Mexico City and want to run in the mountains, this is the place.
   The climb begins at 9,800 feet and then goes up to 12,328 feet (measured by my Garmin, anyway) in 5 miles to the Cerro de San Miguel.  Alternatively, you can stretch the climb out to nearly 7 miles and run up (or down) the road.  I explain these two routes below.
  The place to start is from the Cruz Blanca trail.  You will see the sign on your right a few minutes after passing through the "town."  Follow the road up.  Along the way there are sections of trail off the dirt road.  Trails aren't marked here (are any trails in Mexico marked?  I haven't seen any), but the trail heads are marked and the trails are easy to follow.  I just kept going up, followed the trails that looked the most interesting and I found my way to the summit despite being totally fogged in on my first ascent. It wasn't until my second ascent that I saw the spectacular views of the city far below.  On my third trip I found a way to make the entire run almost entirely on trails, using the dirt road sparingly (less than 300 meters total) to link up with other trails.

Turn up the dirt road to your right. Also, look closely and you will see that no one is taking the "no animals" rule very seriously

  Depending on what kind of training you are looking for, there are two primary routes to the top:
the technical route and the "rocky road" route.  The technical route is my favorite, but it has a couple drawbacks.  One, most runners won't be able to run everything.  It is very steep in parts and involves some boulder hopping and some fallen trees to work around.  Also, one of the main climbs is a favorite downhill area for mountain bikers.  However, there is plenty of room to avoid the bikers coming downhill. However, if you are looking for technical downhill or uphill practice, this is your route.  The road route is not a smooth dirt path, it is a bit rocky, but it's completely runnable, and it's also a bit longer mileage-wise than the technical ascent.  If you are looking for a longer run and want to run the whole time, this route would be the better choice.
On my second run I went up from the Cruz Blanca sign, taking paths in the woods when I could. The photos below will give you a preview of the varied terrain and rugged beauty of Desierto De Los Leones. 

25 million people down there, but only one up here

 At the very top of the climb there is a cement structure that houses an altar where I took the above pictures.  There is also an observation tower that is fenced off, but it doesn't look like it would take too much effort to hop the fence.  Here is my Garmin information which follows the trails up and the road down.  Hiking to the top will take around 2:15.  It took me 1:42 with a mix of running and hiking and stopping to take pictures. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

En Las Huellas de Quetzalcoatl: 14K race in Tepoztlan

Tepoztlan, Morelos


  If your idea of a great race is sure footing, super swag bags and well stocked aid stations, skip this one.  However, if you love lots rocky climbing and descents, winding, incredibly narrow singletrack and panoramic views of Tepoztlan and the surrounding cliffs, this is your race.  It's 2,800 feet of climbing in 14k. 

The race started with a climb up here

   Tepoztlan, about an hour or so from Mexico City, is a popular tourist town that fills up every weekend.  Famous for the "Tepozteco," the ruins on top of one of the cliffs, Tepoztlan is popular with both well-to do weekenders and new age types who speak of the "energy" of Tepoz.  If by "energy" they mean the incredible natural beauty of the place, then they are right on. 

Rocky climbs like this were par for the course

   The race was supported by solo para salvajes, but was independently organized.  It was a simple race, but all the essentials were done well: the course was well marked, the race started on time...and did I mention the single track up on the ridge?
  The race started out at the small zocalo in the centro of Tepoztlan.  We ran straight to the entrance to the Tepozteco where later in the day throngs of tourists would be hiking up to the top.  We quickly veered off this trail, and basically went rock hopping for a long climb until we emerged on top of the cliff.  Note for next year: fly like the wind during that first kilometer before the climb begins.  Once we hit the rocks it was basically a conga line to the top and very few opportunities for passing.
  We then began the first of the single track sections.  This was a relief after the long climb, some of which required the use of four limbs.  There is a lot of scrambling in this race.  You will climb on all fours, climb over fallen trees, traverse ditches, go under other trees, and often be one misstep from a scary slide down the hill off the trail.   Also, because of the steepness of the climbs and the boulder hopping, there is quite a bit of fast hiking as well.  I estimate that I hiked about 30% of the course.
  The first section of single track led gently down and finally, sadly to a fire road.  The aid station consisted of a few guys handing out plastic baggies filled with water.  I had my hydration pack so I used these on my head.  The race starts at 9:30, so it gets hot.  I saw lots of people carrying nothing, which I think is a huge mistake.  At a minimum, carry a bottle.  I recall three aid stations, although there may have been a fourth.

A small stretch of some of the more runnable trail

  After running some roads for a time, we cut over the main trail leading up and hit more single track, but this time with significant climbing up to the top of another cliff.  This section was not quite as runnable as the first section of single track section as there are lots of boulders and sudden steep inclines to deal with.  Finally, we came out on the roads that would lead us back into town.  The ambulance guys were here and one of them commented: "almost there, the worst part is over." Actually, he couldn't have been more wrong.  We only had 3.5 kilometers to go, but for me this was the worst part: wide open running on the road in the sun.  And then to make it worse I made the classic mistake of following the people in front of me and not the trail.  At some point I knew we were wrong as the runner ahead of me kept asking directions and I hadn't seen a trail marker.  Running out on the main hot road into town was miserable: no shade.  We finally met back up with the trail --after running through some sort of procession-- and ran the last kilometer in.  In theory, I didn't officially finish the race as I should have backtracked to the point we went off the trail.  However, that seemed beside the point: I had an incredible experience running up in the cliffs of Tepoztlan, and I really didn't care if my finish ends up being unofficial.  
  I felt strong this race, despite the typical drag at the end when I really needed to pick up the running.  I climbed well, passed (when it was possible) lots of folks on the single track and felt strong throughout the race.  I need to hit the track once a week and focus on speed. 2:28.  I thought this would be a faster course, but it turned out to be much tougher than the 16k I ran back in March in Real De Catorce.  This is not a fast course.  If you love to run but hate to power hike, look elsewhere!
Tepoztlan from high up on the trail

   Next Race: School 10 K (ASF run for education) on May 20 and then the Picacho 21K, a half marathon that goes up one side of the hill and down the other, on June 24. 
  Goal Races: 58th Rover Marathon, August 12.  This is a trail marathon that starts in the south of Mexico City, climbs 33k to Tres Marias, and then heads down into Cuernavaca for the last 9k or so.
    Mexico City Marathon, September 2.  This is a classic city marathon, which means it will be flat (ish) and fast.  I need to start working on speed or it's going to be a long, painful slog.