My official 2016 racing season wrapped up in September this year and after a month of time away from running I have been building my base back up. With about 8 weeks of training under my belt I felt like my fitness was back and with a family holiday in Joshua Tree on the calendar I started to scope out the area for races, trails and routes that were nearby. Not a lot of racing happens this time of year, but there were a couple of Fastest Known Times (FKTs) posted in the area that looked interesting. There was an out-and-back on the Boyscout Trail (about 16 miles) and the Joshua Tree Traverse (about 37 miles). The scope of the Joshua Tree Traverse appealed to me and I started doing my research. An accurate history of the route and previous FKTs is located on Peter Bakwin’s FKT Proboards page over here:
The previous FKT stood at 6:41 and I set an initial goal of running the traverse in 5:40 planning to run the route in a solo and unsupported effort since that seems to be the standard for this route and is easier logistically. I dialed in my splits based on hauling a heavy pack up the steepest climb at the beginning and banked on making up the most time on the downhills near the end of the route. Reminding myself to go easy at the beginning was a clutch process goal and made for a successful day. I stuck within about 5 minutes of my splits until the top of the third climb and shaved off more and more time on the descents as the run went on.
There are some unreliable water caches that some locals put out for hikers since there is no natural water on the route, but after managing water shortages on the Idaho Centennial Trail I knew I should bring an ample supply and not rely on the caches, plus going unsupported is just sexier. After reading previous reports, and taking into account the forecast (40s-50s with heavy fog and a chance of rain) I decided to take about 90 oz of water and 6 baggies of Honey Stinger Chews (enough to last me 6 hours) with a couple of gels just in case.
In the two days leading up to my attempt Joshua Tree National Park received 25% of its annual precipitation, but the trail is primarily in wide washes and on quick draining granite (really a monzogranite for the rock nerds). I was worried about staying warm and on route, but the forecast called for fog primarily on the day of the run and I would be carrying my phone with a GPX route loaded to help with navigation.
The day arrived and Jess generously schlepped me across the valley to the Black Rock Canyon TH to start things off. It was breezy, chilly and socked in with fog and after making sure the SPOT device and my watch were ready I set off around 8:15am. The first 6 miles consist of a gradual ascent mostly in a wash with numerous side trails. Things were well marked along the entire route, but it was very reassuring to have a GPX route to follow at each junction (Trail Run Project app for the win!). On the first descent I looked down and surprised myself with how quickly I was moving despite the pack weight, clicking off seven minute miles. I reminded myself that the goal was to save it for the final descent so I backed off a bit. The descent leading to the third climb was really fun technical running and the fog was really heavy making for an intense sensation of isolation and solitude. I turned on some music to put the mountain lion fears on the back burner and alternated between power hiking and shuffling up the steep third climb. Near the top I saw a coyote disappear into the mist beside the trail.
The miles leading to Keys View Road were fast and pretty flat with some wash crossing but mostly great single track. I saw one backpacker headed towards Black Rock Canyon and by the time I reached Keys View Road the clouds were starting to lift and the enormity of the Park was becoming evident. I focused on each mini-goal of reaching the road crossings on my split sheet and at each one I found that I was gaining more and more time on my 5:40 goal. By the time I reached Geology Tour Road in 3 hours and 47 minutes I knew I could probably come close to running a 5 hour time (requiring me to run the last 11 miles around 6:30 pace). The final miles were such great running with beautiful rock formations, rabbits and hares scampering off as I passed and a steady 2-3% downhill grade on mostly firm packed gravel. I pushed the pace and let my heart rate rise 3-4 beats per minute higher than I had been holding it at all day to try and go under 5 hours. As the miles clicked by the downhill grade felt like it was getting more and more level as my legs fatigued, but I managed to keep my pace right around 7 minutes/mile and my water ran out with about 1/4 of a mile to go. The final tiny uphill was hilariously demoralizing as I slowed to a crawl, but I reached the North Entrance TH in 5 hours and 8 minutes. I wandered around pontificating to my phone for a couple minutes, turned off the SPOT device and did a little video of me running in to grab some screen shots. I didn’t see Jess at the trailhead and knew she might still be out hiking for a while, but she saw that I was done on the SPOT device and texted me. After some confusion about where I was (there are trailheads on both sides of the road at the North Entrance TH), I waddled out to the road and she picked me up. We drove back to Joshua Tree and chowed down at the Natural Sisters Cafe on cashew smoothies, quinoa burgers and other plant-based hippy-dippy fare.
Some photos and a vomit-inducing video:
Need a gimbal…working on it. Until then, here is some video I shot while running and breathing heavily on the trail.
GPX file link: Joshua Tree Traverse GPX file on Google Drive
Spot Device Data: SPOT Tracker Link
A bit of kit: Swiftwick team shirt, Swiftwick Maxus One Socks (so cushy!), BOCO/nuun Run Endurance Hat, Altra Superior 2.0 shoes (with the rockplates), Ultimate Direction AK 2.0 Vest and Mono Belt, iPod shuffle and Yurbuds, Smith Pivlock Arena Max sunglasses (not really necessary…), a steady diet of Honey Stinger Chews, Honey Stinger Gels and Nuun. SPOT tracker, Garmin Fenix 3, iPhone 6s for evidence gathering.