Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Unforeseen Adventure

Last weekend was sunny and warm. Perfect for two days of medium-long running on trails. Little did I know what I was getting myself into on Saturday when I asked Sean where he would like to run. Sean's achilles has been feeling quite a bit better and so he was itching to get out onto the trails. We chose a route that would take us from downtown Mill Valley to Alpine Lake and loop back. In hindsight, our original chose route was quite long and we would have never been able to run it in under 2 hours.

We climbed up Railroad Grade and headed over towards Marin Municipal Watershed area on a series of fire roads. A few stretches are quite steep but the surface is usually good and there's little chance of brushing up against poison oak. The views were amazing on this perfectly clear day. Despite Sean's many months of not running, he can still kick my ass up a steep hill. I suppose those extra pounds of muscle always come in handy.

This is one of my favorite long run routes because we get all the climbing over with in the first 2 miles. After a series of steep climbs, it's a long smooth gradual downhill to the MMWD reservoirs and I love doing a 20 miler this way. The first 10 miles heading out are on fire roads and then we drop down to Ross and take the roads and bike path home for a flat finish where we can work on hitting good paces. Having two different halves with varying scenery makes the 20 miles fly by!

On this day however Sean wanted to explore a trail we had never taken before. The Kent trail winds alongside the banks of Alpine Lake before turning south and heading uphill towards Potrero Meadows. I knew these trails would have difficult footing and be very slow but it was such a gorgeous day I didn't mind the thought of having to hike some portions. I also made sure we brought plenty of Gu so we wouldn't get stuck without any calories. This turned out to be a lifesaver. 

Once we got to the watershed and close to the "Lakes" I decided on a spur of the moment side trip to the top of Pilot's Knob. This little hill has my favorite view of Mt. Tam and is a fun little climb that also passes by what was once the largest Madrone on the mountain. Sadly the Madrone fell over last year but it is still amazing to see the colossal trunk and branches, now worn smooth by climbers. Little did I know that we would get another special surprise on this trail. 
Heading up Pilot's Knob trail
I was running in front of Sean on the single track trail when suddenly I saw a couple next to the base of a large tree just off the side of the trail. I was moving at a pretty good clip (and perhaps stealthily) so the poor woman was trying desperately to pull her underwear back on! We had run into an amorous couple trying to make the most of a seemingly deserted trail on a beautiful spring morning. Little did they know silent speeding runners were on the loose! It was the funniest thing I've seen on the trails. When Sean and I got to the top we cracked up laughing. My only fear is that since I did not get a good look at their faces, it may have been people we know! 
At the top of Pilot's Knob, sans amorous couple

We descended from Pilot's Knob and took one of my favorite trails, Shadyside to get around Bon Tempe Lake. Halfway around the lake, what I can only describe as an androgynous looking white Kenyan blows by us in the opposite direction. He was all legs and compression socks, pure effortless form and both Sean and I were in awe. I racked my brain trying to think of who this elite runner could possibly be... he looked so young but so pro at the same time. I finally thought of Eric Olson, Novato High standout and now a freshman at Stanford who had a stellar cross country season. Since I had never seen or met Eric I made a note to look him up on Google once we got him. After that humbling encounter with a true running phenom, we arrived at Alpine Lake and headed down Kent trail. 

It started innocently enough, a smooth wide gently downhill fire road for about a half mile which shrank to a single track through pine forest. This soon became a ROCKY single track through pine forest and then a WASHED OUT single track through pine forest. We followed the detour signs and took a left on a little tiny deer trail. Since it seemed about time to turn left and head back up the mountain, we assumed we should just follow this little trail uphill and climb up to Potrero Meadows. The trail peetered out in several spots but we always seemed to "find" it again. 
I'm not sure if there is actually a trail here
Sean was doing the trial blazing at this point and he led us farther and farther up the mountain until we came to a large swampy lake. And then... there was no more trail! 
Do you see a trail? I'm still looking.
We were now under the redwoods and everything under a redwood forest looks like a trail. There were lots of possibilities but none that seemed to lead anywhere. We wanted to continue uphill and get over the top of the ridge and we knew we were close but without a compass it is very difficult to know exactly which direction you're going. After exhausting the possibilities and considering some serious bushwhacking, we made the call to backtrack down the hill and hook up with Kent trail again. I am not comfortable being "lost" in the wild and I would rather trace our steps to get back to a known location and a legitimate trail. Luckily we were able to retrace our route and eventually did get back to Kent trail. It was then that we saw the correct detour around the washed out portion. We realized that it was still too early to make the turn uphill and we had just followed some deer trail up the mountain for over a mile. 

Once we found the correct turn, it had already been about two hours since we left downtown Mill Valley and this was getting to be a much longer run than I had anticipated. Thankfully we had been going slow and taking our time over the terrain so our mileage was not that high yet. At this point I thought about our way back and realized if we were to run all the way back to downtown Mill Valley it would be an incredibly long run. The climb up to Potrero Meadows was 2.5 miles and quite a leg burner. Once we got to the Meadows we started seeing a lot of other hikers so my fears of being lost forever on the north side of Mt. Tam were put to rest. However, we were still unfamiliar with the trails here and didn't know the fastest shortest way back to Mill Valley. 

We took a route we knew which got us to Laurel Dell but looking at the map later, it turned out heading to Laurel Dell added another loop when we should have gone the opposite direction to go straight to Rock Springs. We finally ended up taking Cataract trail to Rock Springs and found a ton of cars in the parking lot. Sean's achilles had started hurting and it was getting on 3.5 hours since we left. Our Gu was long gone and we had only had water once during the whole run. Sean started looking for likely candidates who would take two thirsty hitch hikers down the mountain. Luckily an Envirosports trail race had just taken place and there were tons of runners and families finishing up and heading down the mountain. A very nice runner from Reno and his parents drove us back to downtown Mill Valley and we were very thankful. 

After drinking a lot of water and inhaling lunch from Punjabi burrito, we decided that was one of the more fun and interesting runs we've done. However we were very lucky and it could have turned out much worse. Things I learned from Saturday's adventure:

1. If you're going on unknown trails, always bring a little map. Just because you grew up in the area or run a lot on the trails doesn't mean you can find your way home. 

2. Always bring some Gu or water if heading out on a new trail. 

3. Don't be afraid to hitch hike. Someone nice will help you out and it's way better than suffering another hour home. 

4. Never run on Kent Trail. 

5. A little adventure is nice now and then. But I'll be running on known routes for the next couple of months. Or at least running with someone who knows the trail.