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  • Sarah

Closing Out 2020: Training, a Global Pandemic, Failure and a bit of Try Hard

“I think really good things are going to happen in 2020…” Me, optimistically speaking, as I usually do every year during the later half of December, this time in 2019. 2019, personally speaking, was kind of a dumpster fire year for us. Nate and I were newly married and dealing with a lot of life changes and big emotions. In January, 2019 I remember crying in frustration as I met with a HR representative who was trying to add me to a new payroll system at the University of Utah to teach a course, my final course (one that I had been teaching for years). I had forgotten to bring a piece of critical paperwork, and we were trying to troubleshoot. I apologized, stammering that everything was so crazy and I’m sorry, we’re about to move across the country and I don’t know where anything is. He lightly said, “No worries, I heard once that the most stressful life circumstances someone can experience are moving, marriage or divorce, career change, or death/terminal diagnosis of a loved one.” I thought to myself, “Cool...I’ve ticked off one in each category over the past 6 months.”

We got married in October, 2018. It was magical. We celebrated under the stars in the foothills of the Uintas. My mom has lived with metastatic breast cancer since 2017, and was able to feel well enough to help more than she should have (everyone helped more than they should have). We ate, drank, and danced the night away with 80 of our closest friends and family members. A couple months later, Nate accepted a position that couldn’t be turned down in Central PA. We had been grinding away trying to manage a business together in Salt Lake City, and were beyond burnt out and ready to move on. When the opportunity came to work for someone else for a while, we saw it as a beacon to ease some of the non-stop stresses that come with trying to run a business AND make ends meet.

Photos: Eastbound on I-80 / First night in our rental home / Getting more settled

Fast forward-- we live in PA and both ended up working for the same university. About 6 months after moving (and dealing with a lot of intense and unexpected emotions about leaving our home in the west), we decided to take a different perspective on how we approach pursuing our goals as climbers and athletes. Prior to this move, we were more “opportunistic” with how we’d seek out objectives. With the Wasatch as our home mountains, and so many world-class climbing and trail running destinations within a day’s drive, we could be a little last-minute with our planning. This worked with our former work schedules too, since it wasn’t uncommon to get booked for a last-minute gig in another country. The idea of looking at dates 6 months in advance and committing to a training plan between now and then was absolute nonsense. Now that we had predictable jobs and were living in an area without access to our favorite types of terrain, we realized we needed to actually pick objectives in advance and train hard to complete them. For us, picking a big objective gave us something on the calendar to look forward to. The training gave us a concrete reason to explore an area we were less familiar with, and honestly less enthusiastic about.

We set our sights on returning to Rainier National Park in late June, 2020 to repeat the Infinity Loop as a mixed gender team. The Infinity Loop consists of a climb up and over Mt. Rainier Via the two most standard trade routes (the Disappointment Cleaver or DC, and the Emmons Glacier), run on the first 30+ mile portion of the Wonderland Trail, climb up and over Mt. Rainier again, and run on the final 60+ mile portion of the Wonderland Trail, creating a route with approximately 40,000ft+ elevation gain and 130+ miles. Our full write up on our 2017 attempt can be found here. We had originally completed this route in our “fly by the seat of our pants” style in 2017 with the goal of just finishing in a single effort. This time we wanted to see what would be possible if we dedicated 6 months of training to this goal.

Photos: 2017 Mt. Rainier Infinity Loop

Last time we went to Rainier, neither of us considered ourselves runners, which in retrospect is funny when you consider how well the route lends itself to ultrarunning. We contribute our prior success in completing this route to our ability to 1) climb Rainier without worrying about the technical competencies required, 2) deal with logistics, and 3) suffer well. We didn’t have much experience with designing or following through on an extended training plan, especially not for running. Our background as athletes has been primarily as climbers in the rock, ice, and mountain/alpine categories, and we each maintain a relatively high level of fitness through engaging in those activities regularly. We enjoy hiking and running, but usually only as a way to get to a climb or condition for climbing. So for round two on this project, we set out with the primary goal of becoming much stronger, more capable runners, knowing that this was our biggest weakness the first time around. We read books like Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop and Training for the Uphill Athlete by Scott Johnston, Steve House and Kilian Jornet, and got to work. We designed a 6 month evidence based training plan split into 3 phases that were wholly focused on running (mostly based on principles associated with Jason Koop’s book), and incorporated a bit of regular strength training to help with injury prevention and make up for some of the unique requirements of this route. We also continued to rock and ice climb as much as our schedules allowed throughout the process. Around November, 2019, we entered into a 6 day a week routine of training.

This resulted in adjusting to 4:30am wake ups, driving to a nearby trailhead, service road or bike path, running through the wet/icy/snowy/windy Northeast winter, eating a lot, going to work, returning home, eating more, playing with our dog, evening workout, eating more, and bed by 9:00pm each night. We kept this routine up November-March and grew to become quite accustomed to it. It was nice to have the structure of a training plan, and forego the usual excuses that come with going outside when it’s dark or sleeting sideways. The training didn’t just make us physically stronger, it made us mentally stronger and happier as well. It also helped us grow our familiarity and appreciation for our new home terrain. We learned that as far as trail running goes, PA has no shortage of desolate, technical, hilly trails to train and play on.

When news of COVID-19 hit back in March, we weren't really sure of how it would affect us. Nate and I were each scheduled to lead different outdoor spring break trips for our university; I would be taking a group of students to Southern UT, and Nate would be taking a group to Iceland. Less than a week before the start of those trips, all international trips (including Iceland) were cancelled, but domestic trips were still approved. Nate ended up joining my students and me in UT. It was an amazing trip and reminded us of why we do what we do professionally. During that trip is when the eventual realities of the newly classified pandemic really started to sink in. We got the notice halfway through that our university would be going remote and that all of us would be off campus within a week. We didn't have the luxury of really processing this for ourselves. Instead, we needed to work together to provide support to our students and keep the morale high on the remainder of the trip. There were a lot of tears and fear.

Once we got back to campus, everything happened pretty quickly. Daily changes. Lots of discussion around what would happen to our students and the faculty/staff. For a while, we feared that our jobs were in jeopardy. We decided to hold onto the one consistent thing in our life which we could control...our training. We had been so focused for 4+ months and honestly, it helped us get through all of the uncertainty. The one thing we didn't know was whether or not we'd be able to go for our A goal - a faster repeat of the Rainier Infinity Loop. Regardless, we stayed focused and continued with our training.

In June, Nate and I decided to drive west for a little over a month to visit my family, work remotely, and see what we might be able to pull off given our training effort. A lot of consideration and anxiety went into our decision to travel, and we ultimately chose to drive as a way to minimize our exposure to other people before coming into contact with my family. Shortly after arriving at my parents’ home in Northern California, we realized that the possibility of going back to Rainier this summer wasn’t really an option. High snow levels, combined with the delayed start to the regular guiding season meant that both the mountain and Wonderland Trail would involve conditions that would likely inhibit efficient travel. We had already completed the Infinity Loop. It didn’t make sense to us to try it again with lots of snow on the Wonderland and no trail established on the DC and Emmons. So, we decided to do a bit of FKT (Fastest Known Time) work in the Trinity Alps while we pondered our options. We focused on contributing to the FKT community with meaningful routes which we thought would generate excitement for repeats. We provided detailed write ups and accompanied them with photos. In 12 days we established 6 new FKT routes that totaled 87.02 miles and 20,752ft of vertical gain. Below is the list with page links:

Four Lakes Loop, Trinity Alps Wilderness, CA

Towards the later half of our trip, we ended up going to Mt. Hood to attempt an Infinity Loop that has been established on this mountain (see route details HERE). We attempted it, and ultimately stopped halfway through because of route conditions and our tolerance of the risk at the time. A day later, we went back up and I was able to establish a women’s unsupported FKT of 4hr 6m 54s on the south side regular route. We’ll write more on this attempt, and our second attempt (later in the summer) in a future post!

Exiting high on the Cooper Spur route, Mt Hood, OR

So, 6+ months of training, a lot of obsessing over a route, and at this point it was time to turn around and head back east. It was a harsh lesson that you can prepare as much as you want, but at the end of the day we really aren’t the ones in control. Both of us felt a bit frantic during our time in CA, feeling like we were somehow wasting our fitness while simultaneously feeling guilty for focusing on personal pursuits while there was (and continues to be) so much hurt in the world. We leaned on each other as we drove back to PA for what was looking like an impossible fall semester in higher education. When we came home, things were hard. Work remained stressful with so many unknowns. Our goal setting was lacking. Motivation started to dwindle. Medical complications started up and continued for both of our families.

I’m not sure that if we had succeeded in our A Goal, we would have really been met with some miraculous breakthrough. My experience in the past tells me that whether you succeed or fail, there’s value to be found either way. After a fall season of taking a step back from running, and focusing on other activities and aspects of our lives, we’ve had time to reflect on what the year has meant for us. What we learned was that the event (in this case the Rainier Infinity Loop) was actually not the point. We gained so much value from the experience of dedicating so much time and care into the process of training for a big goal. It also proved to become one of the most healing aspects of our lives together over the past couple of years. After a fall season of only running when we feel like running, and instead focusing on other passions, including climbing and mountain biking, as well as really prioritizing each of our mental health, we’re starting to look towards the possibilities of what 2021 will bring. Whatever those may be, we feel resilient and ready to meet those opportunities and challenges.

I want to acknowledge the difficulties that many have and are continuing to face throughout this year. As we all probably know, a new year won’t magically bring about new beginnings, but I hope those of you reading this can take time to acknowledge how resilient and powerful you’ve been to make it to where you are today. Keep charging forward, and we can’t wait to see what you bring to 2021.

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