Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Night at the Windmills

I was standing at the trailhead, with about thirty minutes of light remaining.

          You know there's no way we'll reach that campsite before nightfall, right?
          Yea, yea, let's just start hiking and see what happens.
         So... we're going to hike in that direction... then it'll get dark... and cold... and then... "we'll see what happens"?
          Yea, something like that.

And thus it began.  
*   *   *

The mountain was quiet... the kind of quiet that's only possible when it's completely covered in snow.  But as I neared the ridge I could already hear the night winds stirring, its icy whispers filtering through the forest.  These words of warning fell on deaf ears, however, and I continued hiking with a half full moon illuminating the way.

It was dark, it was windy, and it was cold.  And I no longer wanted be outside in such elements, so I resolved to set up camp on the first even surface to present itself to me, and when such surface finally did present itself, I dedicated no iota of time to the consideration of its adequacy as a location at which to spend the night.  The backpack came off, the tent went up, and into the sleeping bag I went.

*   *   *

          Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

It was around midnight and I was holed up inside my sleeping bag with the hood cinched up real tight to leave only the smallest opening so that I could breathe.

          Hey, you realize this is a three-season tent, right?  As in, not made for winter.
          Yea, but I figured with the minus-ten degree sleeping bag we'd be alright...
          Well does this seem 'alright' to you?

Not exactly.  This was colder than I was prepared for.  Going outside to take a piss was out of the question, so I had decided not to drink anything 'til morning.  I was dehydrated and thirsty, and since I knew that eating would only make me thirstier, I barely had dinner and was thus hungry as well.  My stomach growled and squirmed, but eventually it twisted itself into a tight, dry knot, and cooperated in this way for the rest of the night.

The winds howled, its chilly fists incessantly beating at my tent.   And the tent's fly, caught in this violence, flapped and rippled with a deafening intensity that made sleep all but impossible. Stronger gusts of wind rushed in under the fly, and the mesh construction of the tent's body offered no barrier to their uninvited entry.  Yes, this was indeed not a tent made for winter. 

Eventually the interspersed bouts of shivering must have drained me of all energy, and I was finally able to drift to sleep.

*   *   *

          That must be Zac.  Thank god.

It was already light out and I had been waiting to hear that voice since waking up an hour or two earlier.  Zac, who had dropped me off at the trailhead the previous evening, returned that morning to meet me for a run.  

          "Just give me a minute and I'll be right out!"

Emerging from the tent, I was finally able to appreciate the root of my nocturnal misery. I was camped on a bare piece of high ground, completely exposed to the frontal onslaught of the winds. It was painfully clear that this was the worst place to set up a tent on the entire ridge.

          Good job, Javier.
          Don't mention it.

But the winds had yet to abate, and the cold had yet to loosen its icy grip on the morning, so we wasted no time and started running to warm up.  Onwards and upwards, further along the ridge. 

*   *   *
Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, 
"Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."
"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza. 
"Those you see over there," replied his master, "with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length. 
"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone." 
"Obviously," replied Don Quijote, "you don't know much about adventures.”

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Iceman Cometh, at DMZ Trail Run

Holy frozen popsicles! The DMZ trail run was not what I expected it to be.  Covered with ice and snow from start to finish, I lost my snow running virginity before I even had time to light the candles and put on Purple Rain.  But hey, that's the way it goes with those things, right?

So the race's actual name was 제1회고대산-보개산-금학산 전국 산악마라톤대회, but for convenience' sake, and given its location way north of Seoul and almost right up against North Korea, I started calling it the DMZ trail run.  Getting there took almost three hours, and on the train ride up I was surprised to see snow on the ground.  It had snowed in Seoul the previous Wednesday, but just a few flurries and definitely not enough to have staying power.  I was excited at the idea of running through patches of snow; however, I'd soon learn that a little of it down below means a lot of it up in the mountains.

The race kicked off at 10:00 AM, and I quickly positioned myself at the front of the pack with six other men.  With the first kilometer being on road, it wasn't too difficult to keep up, and we ran together as a group.  But this didn't last for long.  The last hundred meters of the road were a steep incline up to the trailhead, and this short bit sorted the seven of us into the positions we'd stay in for most of the race.  At the front were four 'super ajushis' powering up the hill without slowing down, so I already knew I wouldn't see them again until the end.  And in the back was the fifth ajushi, a young guy, and me.  "These are the two guys you're gonna race against," I told myself.  At last week's Happy Trail Run I had placed 7th, and this week, I wanted to place at least 6th.  That meant having to pass one of the two.  

Well we got to the trailhead and the winter onslaught of snow began.  It was everywhere.  Maybe one to two inches on the trail, three to four on the sides.  And courtesy of the sunny days and subzero nights, lots of it had melted and refrozen and turned the already unforgiving climb up to the first peak into a sort of luge track where you'd lose your footing every other step.  Power hiking these steep climbs is already my weakness, but this was madness.  I naturally slowed down and soon the fifth ajushi and the young guy were out of sight.  Oh well.  

I ran most of the race alone, thinking that the guys in front of me were far ahead, and everyone else far behind.  And without other runners around, it was hard to mentally stay in 'race mode', especially while distracted with the winter wonderland that surrounded me.  It was beautiful. Growing up in a country without the four seasons, I'm a sucker for these kind of landscapes. There was one particularly scenic bit on a ridge, maybe just two or three feet wide and with sharp drops on either side, that had amazing views of the snow-covered mountains surrounding us, monochromatic and high-contrast with the intense white of the reflective snow and the dark black of the naked trees.  Ansel Adams type shit. 

Anyway, back to the race.  The climbs were punishing, the descents were precarious, and the flats were... there were no flats.  I think I totaled twenty minutes (out of over two hours) in which my sequence of body movements could potentially be called "running".  Everything else was seemingly endless power hiking going up and "controlled falling" going down.  There were slips, there were falls, and there were a couple jumps into deep powder - just for fun - even if it meant a sock stuffed with snow around the ankle.  I briefly lost my way twice, but thankfully got back on track within a minute or two.

On the final climb another runner materialized out of thin air behind me, and with little left in the race, I pushed the throttle to make sure that he wouldn't pass me.  I was in still in 7th place, and I sure as hell didn't want to take 8th.  This last climb proved to be the steepest: 420m gain over 1.2k, average grade 36.8%.  But I was more than warmed up by then and had kind of gotten the hang of being on ice and snow, so I huffed and grunted all the way up the climb without letting it break my back, and after a while the other runner vanished back into the forest.

The descent down to the finish line was the best: steep but not too technical, and with way more snow but less ice than the other side.  The deep powder made me feel like I could go faster without fear of wiping out, and on the sections that had ropes, I'd grab on, flip around, and sort of rappel down.  And then, when I least would have expected it - the young guy!  He didn't look too convinced with this terrain and was going down quite carefully, so I hopped up on one side of the trail and passed him while yelling the obligatory words of encouragement - "fighting!"  Boom!  6th place!  This advance in position, coupled with the secret weapon mix I always save for the very end of races (I had plugged into my iPod at the start of the descent), really got the adrenaline flowing and I pushed on harder, thinking that maybe the fifth ajushi would be just around the next bend.  But alas, the finish line soon came into view and gathered there were the five super ajushi mountain runners (which, by the way, I'm pretty sure were the same top five finishers at last week's Happy Trail Race).  Still, it was a good last effort and I was more than delighted with my 6th place finish.

Pictures were taken, certificates were awarded, lunch was eaten, and then I began the long train and subway ride home.

Super ajushis in 1st and 2nd
The young guy in 7th
Race director was nice and let me hold a trophy for the photo
Next time!