A Romp in the Shawangunks

Is it just me, or is it getting more difficult waking up this time of year, now that it’s staying dark so much later? 

The other day I dragged myself out of bed for my morning run.  It was the normal time, but pitch black outside, and I felt low in energy.  Unwilling to face cold pavement or the steep climb up the hill behind us, I decided to drive over to the nearby Shawangunk Grasslands… 

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A Romp in the Shawangunks

Barefoot on the John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail is a famous 210-mile hiking route that traverses California’s Sierra Mountains, which Muir referred to as “the range of light.”  I visited the Sierras in 2018 and was impressed by the spectacular landscape.  After some consideration, thru-hiking the JMT became a goal for 2020.

Just getting ready for the JMT was a big operation, as the trip entailed competitive and thus hard-to-get permits, extensive route-planning, careful selection of gear and provisions, and travel logistics that were complicated by the COVID pandemic.  Additionally I decided to take on the JMT in an unconventional format by hiking as much as possible barefoot.  Why barefoot?  For the extra challenge, the special feeling of lightfootedness that comes from moving naturally, and the distinction of doing something important a little bit differently.

The 23-day journey turned out to be an incredible experience; indeed, it contained enough impressions to fill a book.  In the interest of brevity, however, this blog post will consist of a short synopsis of each day on the trail and a photograph or two.

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Barefoot on the John Muir Trail

Super Pemi Loop

Some highlights from a 37-mile circuit over the holiday weekend along the so-called “Super Pemi Loop” in New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness.  The purpose of this trip was i) to make progress on the peak-bagging list for New Hampshire’s 48 mountains over 4,000 feet and ii) to test gear and train for my upcoming trip to the John Muir Trail in California’s High Sierra.

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Super Pemi Loop

The Diogenes Challenge

The Nine is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a daunting 20-mile route which summits nine of the Catskill High Peaks — and it’s longer if you get lost, for what’s especially challenging is that five of the peaks have no trails, which means it’s necessary to “bushwhack” or move through the forest using map, compass, and GPS.  Even with this gear, navigation is no simple task, for the terrain is steep and rocky, and the forests thick and tangled, which renders “the eye of little service,” as Catskills author John Burroughs wryly noted.

I had completed the Nine, or parts thereof, on several occasions:  once trying to run it for speed, once at night, once in the winter.  In April 2016, as a novice barefoot hiker, I tried to complete the Nine without shoes, but after six of the peaks I’d had enough.  A year later I tried again and this time gave up after a single peak, defeated by the rocky trails.

Over time, my practice of running and hiking continued to evolve in a minimalist direction.  I developed an interest in “natural navigation” (moving through the forest without technology — meaning no map, no compass, no GPS).  I began to incorporate intermittent fasting into my dietary and training plans.  And I became somewhat more experienced at going barefoot.  One day these themes coalesced in my mind, and I came up with a grand plan:  to complete the Nine not only barefoot, but navigating naturally, and without carrying food or water.  I would call this the Diogenes Challenge, after the ancient Greek philosopher who advocated for simplicity and self-discipline.

Upon reflection, however, the Diogenes Challenge seemed like a little too much, even for an arch-minimalist like me.  I quietly let it slide and focused on other things.

Until one day my friend Kal Ghosh asked, when were we going to do it?

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The Diogenes Challenge

A Virtual Marathon

With the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the country, it was no surprise that the races I’d signed up for were all canceled.  However, one of the organizers offered up a “virtual” option, allowing you to run the distance you’d signed up for, in whatever location you happened to be, within a few weeks of the event date.  At first I dismissed this as a pointless exercise.  But after a week of sheltering at home, I was eager to get outside and cover some miles.  So I picked Saturday morning to execute the virtual option, deciding to run my marathon at a local university track.

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A Virtual Marathon

Texas Clouds

As a teenager I studied the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  Now, decades later, here I was on an airplane flight from New York to Texas, rereading Beyond Good and Evil, when I came across one of his most widely-quoted aphorisms:  “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

I paused to ponder what Nietzsche might have meant.  Was this a comment on the risk of excessive introspection?  (He’d prefaced the statement by cautioning that people who fight monsters may themselves become monsters.)  Or was he expressing a concern about the spirit of nihilism, for elsewhere he wrote that the self contains an “abysmal sickness, weariness, discouragement” – symptoms of the impoverishment of life that results when the “will to power” turns against itself.

The dictionary defines abyss as “a deep or seemingly bottomless chasm.”  I imagined a tunnel deep within myself, reaching back into my distant memories, or perhaps even farther back into a realm of ancestral knowledge.  Maybe this tunnel would lead all the way back to the beginnings of life, maybe it would contain clues to the primordial forces that animate living beings.

Looking up from the book for a moment, I glanced out the airplane window and found that staring straight at me was — a cloud.

This was a year or two ago.  Since then this strange idea has stuck with me, namely, that deep within the abyss you might find a cloud….

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Texas Clouds

5,000 Miles Barefoot

Last May I reported on reaching the 4,000th mile of barefoot hiking and running since starting the practice almost five years ago.  Last week, the finish line of the Knob Hills Trail Race marked mile 5,000.

When I started, barefoot was primarily an experiment, to see if the practice would improve my form and reduce the risk of injury.  However, there was also in the back of my mind the idea that for an aging athlete it might not be a bad idea to embrace shorter distances and a slower pace, as would necessarily be the case without shoes.

The surprise was how much fun it’s been to run and hike without shoes.  I found that the barefoot practice taught me better agility and balance and a lighter step and turned every hike or run into an adventure.  Because barefoot’s more fun, I no longer train in shoes unless there’s snow or ice or too much gravel for me to handle, although I still wear shoes at work and other places where they’re expected….

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5,000 Miles Barefoot

Knob Hills Trail Race

By way of background, I’d registered for this race a year ago, curious about the trail, only to find out a few weeks later that it was canceled.  Evidently the Knob Hills Trail is maintained by mountain-bikers, and when conditions turn muddy, they close the trails to prevent erosion.  The race was rescheduled to January 18, 2020, and my prior registration rolled over automatically.

For barefoot runners, the nature of the trail matters for the obvious reason that smooth dirt or sharp-edged rocks have different implications for speed and thus goals and  strategy.  Since this race would take place on the northwestern shore of Grapevine Lake, I imagined a mix of sand and dirt with some crumbled limestone strata, which is what I’d experienced on the lake’s southeastern shore, where I’d participated in the Rockledge Rumble…. Continue reading “Knob Hills Trail Race”

Knob Hills Trail Race

Managing Chaos at the Rockledge Rumble 50k

In the last few weeks a little bit of chaos has been spreading through my life, or so it seems (maybe it was always there).  I attribute the chaos to excessive business travel, but some amount of disorder is inescapable, whether in daily life or in ultramarathons for that matter.  Here’s my account of the Rockledge Rumble 50k ultramarathon, a recent race along the Northshore Trail in Grapevine, Texas, together with the travel, logistics, planning and other headaches that led up to and spilled into race day, and how I tried to manage them….

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Managing Chaos at the Rockledge Rumble 50k