The Golden Age of Mineral Collecting: Today is better than ever!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

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Mineral Collecting has evolved tremendously in the last 65 years. Many collectors bemoan the passing of the “golden age” when spectacular mineral specimens were available for purchase.  However, in terms of “classics”today is the true golden age (all thumbnail figures can be clicked for full-sized images).

In 1798 Thomas Malthus published his An Essay on the Principle of Population and postulated that catastrophe for mankind was inevitable because population growth is exponential and life essential resources (such as food and water) tended to only grow arithmetically. This simple essay gave rise to a school of gloom and doom, Malthusianism, that has been applied to everything from oil production to luxury items; basically, in a world of fast growing population the demand for commodities will eventually outstrip the supply, and the scarcity of the resources will lead to conflict and ultimately a decimation of demand. However, in the two centuries since Malthus first pinned his thoughts on the clash between supply and demand, the concept of “catastrophe” has been mostly avoided because the same demand that made resources scarce spurred unimaginable creativity and innovation. Between 1800 and the start of the new millennium the world’s population increased 6 fold, yet agriculture increased 10 fold! Many more people, and even more food – and the supply vs demand dynamic was tipped on it’s head.

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Malthusianism — population and demand grows exponentially, while supply of resources increases arithmetically. When demand exceeds supply new dynamics happen – perhaps disaster, or perhaps innovation.

It seems a bizarre reach, and perhaps even a non-sequitur, to reference Malthusian theory in a discussion of the “golden age” of mineral collecting. However, the parallels with “peak oil” predictions and the demise of the modern mineral production of truly fine specimens are surprising. Since 1980 the number of significant mineral specimens discoveries is extraordinary; Bunker Hill pyromorphite, Sweet Home rhodochrosite, Red Cloud wulfenite, Milpillas azurite (and other secondary copper minerals), Fresnillo stephanite, Merelan tanzanite and the incredible gemstone minerals from Pakistan along with the  flood of minerals from China.  Never before has the quantity of high quality minerals been remotely like it is today.

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Aquamarine from Pakistan recovered in the last 10 years – the quality is unrivaled in history.

There are many reasons why Malthusian thinking has failed in predicting the dynamics of the mineral collecting hobby, but mostly it is a change in what economists call the demand relationship.  Although there has always been a supply-demand relationship in mineral collecting, the foundations for that relationship changed as high-end mineral specimens became “works of art”. University of Chicago economist David Galenson likes to use the career arc of impressionist Paul Cézanne as an exemplar for the art market.  In 1895 Cézanne had his first one-man show in Paris, and sold a single painting for 400 francs.  A painting that did not sell in this show was later bought in 1899 for 4,400 francs – a tenfold increase in 4 years! In 1913 a Cézanne work sold for 25,000 francs, and in 1925 a painting was sold in auction for 528,000 francs.  What changed in those 30 years?  Certainly not Cézanne — he died in 1906. Some might argue that Cézanne’s work was simply unappreciated when first viewed, but a more nuanced analysis suggests that a very small number of art collectors were influenced by an even smaller number of art dealers to view the painter’s work as an absolute essential “to have”.  Passion – probably influenced by dealer manipulation – drove fierce competition.

The mineral collecting hobby now has the same drivers as fine art. There are many rumors of individual mineral specimens that sell for several million dollars; “I could have bought that azurite for 100 dollars 10 years ago”  it has become an old saw for long-time collectors.  There is a community longing for years past when a collector of modest means could build a fabulous ensemble of minerals.  There is a malaise that a “golden age” has passed, and mineral collecting is in a death spiral. However, the very fact that there is a “minerals are art” market is probably why there are more how quality specimens than ever for sale.  This truly is the golden age of mineral collecting.

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The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show began in 1955, and help span a “golden age” of mineral collecting that orbited around mineral clubs and annual shows. The TGMS show was in the quonset hut pictured above between 1955-1971. Humble beginning for a show that now has special exhibits and displays that are valued at 100 million dollars or more.

The First Golden Age: The Rock Hounding 50s and 60s

Mineral collecting – as a hobby, profession, scientific endeavor – has been around for at least 500 years.  Wendell Wilson wrote a fabulous tome on the origins of collecting, The History of Mineral Collecting, 1530-1799 in 1994.  “Collecting” coincided with the rise of science applied to mining, and Georgics Agricola’s De Natura Fossilium published in 1546 is considered the first modern textbook of mineralogy.  Although there are some exceptions, the first 350 years of mineral collecting was dominated by the gentleman naturalist, and specimen quality was not as important as documenting topographic mineralogy. By the end of the 19th century there were scores of serious mineral collectors in the US (and even more in Europe) – mostly rich business men — and minerals dealers became a real profession.  However, in the US the most important event in the later half of the 19th century that changed mineral collecting was the rise of high education. Hundreds of universities and colleges sprung up across the nation, and geology was taught in nearly all; remarkably, all these new colleges sought to acquire geology collections, including minerals.  In response to demand, companies like Ward’s (Ward’s Natural Science was founded in 1862 by Henry A. Ward) mass marketed minerals, and the “common man” could own specimens from around the world.  This spawned mineral clubs – The New York  Mineralogical Club was founded in 1886, the Philadelphia Mineralogical Society in 1892, and by 1900 there were at least 2 dozen amateur groups promoting mineralogy. These societies had a tremendous impact on a generation of scientists; one of my favorite stories is the connection between Linus Pauling and J. Robert Oppenheimer (all stories come back to Los Alamos…..) – they were both mineral collectors! In fact, Oppenheimer gave a several hundred specimens to Pauling when he was at Caltech, and in turn, Pauling gave many of these to his son-in-law, Barclay Kamb, who later became the head of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department  at Caltech (he was the department head when  I was a student there in the 1970s).

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Quartz crystals originally in the Oppenheimer Collection that were given to Luis Pauling. Photograph by Anna Wilsey.

By the late 1930s there were at least 120 clubs in the US, and “rock hounding” was a popular past time. However, it was with the end of World War II that saw an explosion in rock hounding; the hobby literally swept across the country, and by 1947 there were at least a thousand clubs. The American Federation of Mineralogical Societies (AMFS) was founded in 1947, and club gem and mineral shows became common place.  One of the most influential of these clubs was the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society (TGMS) which was founded in 1946. Tucson was an international center for mineral exploration, and the University of Arizona had strong academic programs in economic geology and mining engineering.  There were more than a 1000 mines – active or abandon – within 100 miles of Tucson, and this was a collectors paradise (anecdotally, when I graduated from Caltech I chose to take a position at the University of Arizona based on this “center of the mineral universe” – it certainly was not the center of theoretical and computational geophysics).  In 1955 TGMS launched its annual show (nine dealers, but more than 1500 attendees!).  Soon the TGMS show aggressively moved to the national stage – and attracted exhibits from museums like the Smithsonian Institution – and by the mid-1960s was attracting an international cliental. The 1970 were halcyon days for mineral collecting – thousands of colorful minerals were pouring out of Mexico, and the TGMS show was a perfect market place.  This is what most collectors think of as the “golden age”.  One of the factors that contributes to the nostalgia was the modest prices charged for minerals – it was a mom and pop enterprise catering to a broad spectrum of collectors.

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The TGMS show changed the mineral collecting hobby – it became big business. Satellite shows proliferated, including the hotel room collection of dealers that set up at the Desert Inn. This was the front end to the transformation of mineral collecting as a populist hobby to high art.

The dramatic growth the mineral collecting enterprise naturally became stratified.  The “best” minerals, especially those that were colorful, became much more expensive.  In addition, the concept of a market for minerals that paralleled the market for art pushed this segregation even further.  By the late 1970s there were mineral dealers in the TGMS show that only “dealt” with high end material; these dealers would sell individual specimens for more money that most of the mom and pop dealers would make during the entire TGMS show. It was the Malthusian end – demand crushed the supply side of the equation.  Further, it seemed advances in mechanized mining, solution extraction, and exploration of low grade ores meant that the flow of collectable minerals was slowing to a trickle.

Much grumbling was heard in the late 1970s that the mineral collecting hobby was “over”.  Purchasing high quality specimens was becoming out of reach for many collectors, and large number of the collecting localities in the US were being reclaimed or closed to the causal rock hound.  However, the very driver that caused this grumbling – money – was allowing collecting to be done on a commercial scale.  Collecting contracts were profitable in some large active mines, and the potential to realize profits began to entice wealthy collectors to invest in specialty mining: the Sweet Home Mine rhodochrosite and Red Cloud wulfenite mining endeavors would not have happened without a market for million dollar rocks.  In the mid-1990s dealers began to market on the internet – it was an innovative way to reach remote customers, but it also had the remarkable effect of democratizing the pricing of minerals.  Miners in Bolivia could actually see how much a dealer in the US was asking for the vivianite specimen the miner had sold to the dealer a month ago. A new supply-demand relationship in mineral collecting was born.

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Silver in friable quartz, Andaychagua Mine, Peru (photograph by Jeff Scovil). The specimen is 5.2 cm tall, and shows a plate of spinel twins; mined in May, 2015.

Today’s Golden Age – At Least for Silver Minerals

There is no question that the mineral collecting hobby in 2016 is very different than it was in the 1970s.  However, the quality of minerals being bought and sold today is higher than ever.  The market model is excluding young collectors, and restricting collectors of modest means (I often hear about “bargains” to be found for the modest collector – however, when every display at a mineral show is filled with specimens that costs thousands of dollars, the collector of modest means is psychologically disposed to simply walk away). But, for collectors that can afford to invest, the minerals that are available today are exceptional.  This is especially true for colorful or gem minerals – but is also true for the “ugly” dark minerals, like silver minerals!
An exemplar for this new golden age are a few personal additions to my collection in the last 24 months – all specimens that were mined or recovered during in past few years.  I am a collector of modest means, but I have also been collecting minerals for nearly 55 years.  That long tenure means that I have many more avenues to acquiring minerals that beginners, or even most collectors, have at their disposal.  These examples are not “trophies”, but are still among the best known for the species.
During the summer of 2015 a few dozen acanthite specimens with specular luster were recovered along the Veta Madre of Guanajuato.  The Guanajuato mines are arguably the most famous silver locality in the world, and certainly the source of the  “best” classic acanthites — strings of stacked pseudo cubes.  This recent find is different, but still spectacular, from the classics.
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Complex cluster of acanthite crystals, 3.2 cm high from the Mina La Cata, Guanajuato, GTO, Mexico (Jeff Scovil, photograph).

Guanajuato is located 475 km northwest of Mexico City, along the “silver channel” a string of incredible silver districts running along the spine of Mexico. In 1548, a group of ore haulers was returning to the recently discovered silver camp of Zacatecas after delivering their load to Mexico City. The haulers decided to camp beneath a rock outcrop that resembled a frog – the name Guanajuato is said to be a Spanish pronunciation of the Tarascan Indian word for hill of frogs (Martin, 1906).  A little prospecting uncovered a vein of silver, and a claim was staked on one of the world’s greatest mining camps. Over then next 475 years Guanajuato would go through periods of boom and bust; the booms were extraordinary! In the 18th century Guanajuato accounted for two thirds of the world’s total silver production. In 1906, Englishman Percy Martin wrote a promotional book call Mexico’s Treasure House (Guanajuato), in which he extolled the virtues of the silver district: “The silver mines of Guanajuato differ from most other mines in the world inasmuch as there is nothing conjectural nor problematic about them”. Hardly true, but there is nothing conjectural about the fact that for 450 years the district has supplied unsurpassed mineral specimens.

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Basic geologic map of Guanajuato from Wendke, 1965. The Mina La Cata is located between the Valencia and Mellado.

During the summer of 2014, and again in the spring of 2015, very fine spinel twinned silvers were found at the Andaychagua Mine, in the San Cristobal District of Peru.  The San Cristobal District has long been known for silver minerals, but the new find are the best herring bone silvers to be mined since the Batopilas, Mexico silvers recovered in the 1980s.

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Multiple plates of spinel twinned silver from the Andaychagua Mine Peru. The specimen is nine cm tall. Jeff Scovil photograph.

The San Cristobal District is located in the Cordillera Occidental about 120 km east of Peru and the first mines in this region were recorded in the 16th century.  The region has a rich history of producing silver-bearing mineral specimens and some fine spinel twins of native silver (from the San Cristobal Mine) in a crumbly siderite matrix were on the market in the mid-1980s.  The Andaychagua mine is one of four (the other three being the San Cristobal, Ticlio and Carahuacra) in the district that are active, and is presently owned by Volcan Compañía Minera S.A. (acquired in 1997). The annual silver production from the district is about 250,000 kg – however, specimens for collectors have been rare for the last 20 years.

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Location of the major mining districts in Peru. San Cristobal is a mountainous district with an average elevation of approximately 14,500′ (map from Bartlet, 1984).

The Machacamarca District, also known as the Colavi District, is located in the Bolivian tin belt, a chain of related mineral deposits that extends nearly 1000 km north-to-south along the eastern Cordillera of Bolivia.  The northern part of the belt is marked by Suko, and the southern end is Pirquitas in Argentina. The world’s most famous silver deposit – Cerro Rico in Potosi – sits in the middle of the tin belt. Colavi is only a few 10s km north of Cerro Rico – but those few km are across the most rugged  mountainous terrain in the world.

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The mine of the Bolivian Tin Belt. In the center is Potosi, home of Cerro Rico. Machacamarca, Colavi is located due north of Potosi.

In April of 2015 a significant find of freibergite crystals were recovered from an obscure mine identified as the Melgarejo Mine. Numerous geologists that work in the area scoff at the locality – they don’t doubt Colavi, but have never heard of nor seen the Melgarejo Mine.  Mariano Melgarejo is a Bolivian  historical figure of some considerable ill repute – he give a significant portion of eastern Bolivia to Brazil in the Treaty of Ayacucho in exchange for a magnificent white horse, and in 1870 ordered his troops to march to Paris to protect France from an invading Germany.  Nevertheless, the freibergite crystals are certainly the largest ever found.  It is difficult to tell the difference between friebergite and tetrahedrite (that carries some amount of silver), and many specimens labeled freibergite turn out to be the much more common tetrahedrite.  The specimen shown below is the one of the very best found, and I personally checked the structure to confirm its identification.  Considering that freibergite has been identified from hundreds of localities since the late 18th century, the fact that “world’s best” now appear is remarkable.

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Freibergite crystals, 7.2 cm across (Jeff Scovil photograph). The reputed locality is the Melgarejo Mine, Machacamarca, Colvai, Bolivia. “Reputed” because some have questioned whether the actual locality was obscured to preserve a source.

The Imiter deposit is located in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Morocco, northern Africa, and it is one of the largest silver deposits in the world.  Imiter has been producing wonderful collectable specimens for several decades; these include octahedral acanthites, dyscrasites, various silver-mercury amalgams, some of the world’s best xanthoconite, and is the type locality for imiterite. Proustite is well known from the mine, but most of the crystals have been small.  The specimen below is a large cauliflower like clump of crystals (the specimen weighs just under 3 pounds!) with individual crystals that are up to a cm across and several cm tall. It is impossible to know for sure when this specimen was recovered – it is clear that it was smuggled out of the mine, and passed through local merchants before coming to the US in late 2014.

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13 cm cluster of proustite crystals from Imiter, Morocco (Jeff Scovil photograph). This small cabinet sized specimen is solid proustite, and contains individual crystals to 1.8 cm on a side. The luster, and deep vermillion color, and overall size make this a modern “classic”.

Although this is hardly a “classic” proustite as compared to a sharp dog’s tooth from Charnarcillo or individual cherry red crystal from Schneeberg, it is an amazing specimen.    The Imiter Mine had a capacity of 300,000 metric tons per year (t/yr) of ore and surely will continue to produce interesting specimens.

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Metal mines of the Anti Atlas mountains in Morocco. Imiter is one of the largest silver mines in the world, and is a large open pit.

When will the Golden Age Wane?

Malthusian theory would predict that demand will outstrip supply in the future – maybe the near future. But mineral collecting is not dead, and in fact there is as much evidence based on the last 30 years that there will even more high quality specimens exchanging hands for decades to come.  Why is Malthusian theory is wrong?  Because demand for minerals – both as a commodity and as a collectable – is higher than it has ever been, and the world is responding. More mines, more mining, and more money in minerals.

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Global silver production – looks just like the global growth in population! Each and every mine has the potential for specimens and even though historic localities are exhausted, new horizons are bright.

It is certain that the market of “art” will be what mineral collectors will have to deal with in the next quarter century.  If history of the art markets are predictors for minerals, there will be periods of malaise; but even during these periods the assessed worth of classics had an average annual escalation of several percent.  This leads to another question – where the heck do all these wealthy people come from?  Again, there are detailed studies of the art market, and one of the alarming (alarming if you are a collector, perhaps enticing if you are a dealer) lessons learned is that globalization will dramatically increase competition at the highest end.  However will mineral collecting evolve with a very stratified market?  That experiment is being played out in real time, and I hope for “niche markets” to develop – but that has not happened yet.  Hold on to your wallets, the golden age squeezes…….

 

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The difference between Metric and USCU: Crashing and burning the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50 miler

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep, Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923).

Star Tracks above the JMTR course. This wonderful photograph by Jim Stein (a magnificent Los Alamos photographer) shows the night sky above the track of the JMTR 50 miler and 50 km course between the Ski Hill and Pipeline Aid Stations. Click on thumbnail photos to get larger images.

On December 11, 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter from Cape Canaveral. The orbiter was approximately a 2 meter cube that contained several instruments designed to map the details of the Martian atmosphere, and cost approximately 330 million dollars. Nine months after launch the satellite began maneuvers to assume an orbit around the red planet – but almost immediately NASA realized something had gone wrong. The orbiter was much closer to the surface of Mars than planned, and it ultimately disintegrated in the weak Martian atmosphere.  An ensuing investigation found that there was a software incompatibility in the orbiter – NASA had assumed metric units in its calculations, and controlling software supplied by Lockheed Martin used USCU (United States Customary Units). Miles vs Kilometers. Marvelous engineering, but the orbiter was lost because a kilometer is much, much different than a mile!

My home town trail ultra run, the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs (JMTR), has gained considerable fame as a challenging set of races – 50 miles, 50 km, and 15 miles (use to be a half marathon, but 13.1 miles is really just a warm up run, so it had to be stretched to 15 miles). I have run the 50 km race several times, and this year took the plunge and switched over to the 50 mile course (which is actually 52.7 miles long – ultra races have a strong culture of not wanting to “cheat” the runners and so usually run long).  It is obvious to even the most causal observer, 50 miles will be a more difficult run than 50 km.  But, it is not just miles (the JMTR 50 km race is 32.8 miles instead of the expected 31 miles – again, “more miles for the dollar”) that make the difference in a 50 km and 50 mile race – it is also time on one’s feet.  For slower runners, like myself, the body goes through stages of trauma when you run for 13 or 14 hours (or even 8 to 10 hours for a 50 km race); these include how your body processes fuel, the cumulative impact of 10s of thousands of joint jarring strikes on the ground as you run along the trail, and blood chemistry changes as muscle tissue breaks down.  A 50 miler becomes a set of different races within the overall run.  Elite runners can complete the JMTR in a little over 8 hours; very talented runners can run the course in 10 to 11 hours. Plodders like myself are several hours after that, and the extra time on the trail has significant consequences that are not intuitive (i.e., just being in the sun for an extra three hours has a tremendous impact on runners).

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Top of Pajarito Mountain, the high point of the JMTR course at 10,440 feet (photo taken the day before the race when I was practicing the descent to the Ski Hill Aid station). The climb to the top is relentless and long – and for 50 milers the climb is done twice. View to the west across the Valle Grande.

I have run about 20 trail ultras of 50 or 55 km length.  Each of these races are unique – terrain, elevation, sand (which is the single worst running surface), weather – so it is difficult to characterize what a “typical” trail race is like.  However, there are some generalities that can be made.  I have run all these races in times between 6hrs and 50 minutes and 8hrs and 55 minutes (so, on average, it takes me about 8 hours to run a trail 50 km ultra). Experience has taught me when to hike and not run, how to fuel during the race, how often I need to drink, and perhaps most importantly, how to mentally deal with being on the trail for 8+ hours. It is fair to say that 50/55 km trail runs no longer intimidate me, nor do I expect to require more than a week or two to recover from a race. But all is not necessarily well: in the last 18 months I have had a noted decline in my expected performance in 50 km races.  I have been slowing, and begun to cramp more often, and walked long sections of the course.  The leap from metric to USCU is huge – those extra 18-20 miles, at the end of a 50 mile race, are much harder than the first 50 km.  The JMTR is very known territory to me, and there is no part of the course that I have not run dozens of times. But putting those segmented runs into one long journey is a true test. 52.7 miles with 11,300 feet elevation gain (and then descent!) is a wild ride.  I will turn 60 years old in a few weeks after the 2016 JMTR – and I figured “what a way to celebrate!).  Unfortunately, NASA Mars missions and my ultra running have some things in common…….

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Running an ultra is unlike any other athletic endeavor – there are parts physical, mental, and luck. Understanding which of these categories is making you miserable is essential. Plus, being a scientist, athletic misery allows infinite analysis!

Running Long: What Happens to the Body

There is a large body of scientific work on optimizing performance in marathons.  For example this paper is a classic: Noakes, T.D., K.H. Myburgh, J. Du Plessis, L. Lang, M. Lambert, C. Van Der Riet, and R. Schall. 1991. Metabolic rate, not percent dehydration, predicts rectal temperature in marathon runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 23(4):443-449 (yes, the investigators convinced some runners to put a thermometer up their rectum….). One is tempted to use this catalogue of studies to understand what is happening to your body during an ultra marathon in the mountains.  However, except for elite runners – the best of the best – the marathon analysis are almost irrelevant.

Metabolic-Efficency-Crossover

Running a marathon, even in a modest 4 hour time (and I say modest 4 hour with respect because it is really very difficult to run a 4 hour marathon!), is an intense athletic endeavor.  Heart rates are typically at 80 percent max or higher, the body is relying on fast twitch muscles, and those muscles are fueled by glycogen which is stored in the muscles and liver.  Typically, marathon runners store enough glycogen to run about 18 miles (and then hit the dreaded “wall” and bonk when unprepared).  Ultra runners of the run-of-the-mill variety typically run at heart rates of 60 or even 50% max.  My maximum heart rate is calculated to be about 165; when I run a competitive 10 km race on the road my heart rate is about 150.  When I run an ultra my heart rate is usually in the 120s.  This means that my body is using more slow twitch muscles, and I am burning less glycogen per mile and more fat.  The figure above is a notational comparison of fuels the body utilizes as a function of intensity of exercise.

Fueling is actually one of the lesser issues for the average ultra runner.  Consuming “real” food every 5 or 10 miles is much different that trying to get sugars into your system like a marathoner does.  The larger issues are hydration, the general breakdown of muscle tissue and the pounding joints take with 10 hours on the trail.  The impact of the muscle tissue breakdown is two fold – the muscle stop performing at their peak, and the byproducts of breakdown enter the blood stream and cause the certain internal organs to work much harder than would be expected for other forms of exercise.

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Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone – it is often called the “stress hormone – and is responsible for the stress response within the body.

There are many different things that happen with muscle breakdown – and joint pounding – but one of the most important responses in the body is the production of cortisol. Cortisol is a powerful regulator of immune response; it is a hormone controlled by the adrenal cortex.  Cortisol is absolutely necessary for normal metabolic functionality.  However, under stress — like hours into an ultra – cortisol becomes elevated. Elevated cortisol levels resulting from physical stress triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. This can be good –  however, over time the high levels of cortisol leads to a state of constant muscle breakdown and suppressed immune function, and a decay of things like “running efficiency”.  One of the biggest differences between marathon runners and average ultra runners is the time the body is exposed to elevated levels of cortisol.  Although every person responds uniquely, all humans degrade in performance over time when exposed to stress.  This is not something that easily translates from one ultra runner to another.

Hydration is an essential element of metabolism.  In general, ultra runners think of hydration as a response to sweating, but in fact, it is mostly a response to heavy breathing, especially in very dry climates. A small number of studies have been performed on ultra runners and they show that on average male runners will loose about 4.4 pounds during a 50 mile run lasting 12-15 hours.  That weight loss is largely water.  Runners probably sweat away about 8 pounds over the same run, but are able to replace about 4 of those pounds by drinking (that equates to 1/2 of a gallon of water).  The rest of the loss effects other facets of the metabolism including the ability to process food and most importantly, cool the brain.  Long runs always generate what is called “central fatigue” which is a gradual decline in the nervous system’s ability to contract muscles.  In other words, your legs stop listening to the signals your brain sends them.  “Run Forrest Run” is a pipe dream at the end of a run not only because your muscles have broken down, but also because your brain is too tired to force the issue.  If your brain gets “hot” due to lack of cooling, the fatigue is greatly accelerated.

Given all these nasty things that happen during an ultra, why run?  Good question, but not one that is easily answered.  For me, more importantly, is “how do I understand WHY I am running the way I am” given the complexity of the human system.  Running an ultra is not a controlled experiment.  Every human is different – but thoughtful analysis can help understand “what happened”.

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Dave Zerkle and I at 4:30 in the morning waiting for the 50 miler to start.

The 2016 JMTR 50 miler

Training for the JMTR 50 was an interesting endeavor this year.  Everyone in Los Alamos waited for a mega snow season promised by a massive El Nino year.  Indeed the El Nino as measured by sea surface temperatures along the equator in the Pacific was the largest in recorded history.

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Sea Surface temperature anomaly for the 1997 and 2015 El Nino cycles. 1997 was a devastating global event, and brought a tripling of normal moisture to the US southwest.

The climate system is quite complex so it is very difficult to “model” and predict the effects of a developing El Nino.  Thus, most climate scientists and certainly most amateur weather forecasters, assume that past systems will do a pretty good job of predicting consequences for the developing system.  Below are the sea surface temperature observations for 1997 and 2015 – and, indeed, they look remarkably similar.  How different could the weather be in winter/spring 1998 and 2016?

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Comparisons of the sea surface temperature anomalies for December 1997 and 2015. The dark brown colors along the equator outline the “warm water pool” that drives the weather conditions that including much more precipitation in the southwest, and generally cooler temperatures.

Well, the answer is “pretty damn different”.  Northern New Mexico got a significant increase in moisture, but it was incredibly uneven in its distribution.  Los Alamos did not get any early snow fall; in fact it only had two large events.  These storms were large enough to produce an adequate ski season, but not like that seen in 1998. The spring was colder than usual, and many small storms dumping a few inches of snow all the way up to the week of the JMTR.  The net effect was that despite the modest snowfall, many of the high country trails in the Jemez were unavailable for running until late April.  This meant training was done closer to town and at elevations that rarely exceeded 8000 feet elevation.  Many miles were run, but the climbs were less excruciating, the air was thick (instead of what we suck down at 10,000′).  When I towed the line for the 2016 50 miler I was uncertain of my fitness – the training was just different.

The JMTR starts at 5:00 am at the Posse Shack (some people get offended at the “Shack” label and prefer “Lodge”, but I grew up here in Los Alamos and we have called it the shack since the 1950s).  I am always impressed at the enthusiasm of the runners before a long day ahead.  However, I had some dread – it was 49 degrees at 5 am, which meant a warm day ahead.  I am not a warm weather runner by any stretch of imagination.  The start of the race is a dance of bouncing light beams from headlamps under a full moon sky.  The first couple of miles are along a rutted single track, and nice easy running.  My only thought was “not too fast, not too fast – it is a very long day”.  By mile three my headlamp is in my hand, but I note that the headband is soaked with sweat.  When we pull into Aid Station 1 we are 5 miles into the course — I can’t help but start the calculator in my brain and think I only have 90% to go!

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GPS track of my JMTR run. The blue line looks so trivial on a oblique view of a topographic map. However, the distance covered is 32.8 miles with 6,917 feet elevation gain.

In all honesty I knew something was not right by the time I left AS 1 – I was only 3 minutes slower than the plan, but I felt like I was wearing concrete galoshes.  My muscles did not hurt, but I was sweating way more than usual, and my face no doubt had the patina of lethargy. The real race starts at about mile 8.25 when the trail descends in Los Alamos Canyon and bottoms out at an elevation of 7,200 feet.  Over the next 8.5 miles the trail points upward to the top of Pajarito Mountain, and an elevation of 10,440 feet.  I pull out my trekking poles in Los Alamos Canyon and along steep segments I switch from a jog to a walk with an occasional power hike.

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Before the long climb up UPCT. Jim Stein photograph.

Aid Station 2 is at an elevation of 8,000 feet and at the 10 mile mark.  I am pretty tired here, but friends volunteer at this station, and that buoys the spirit (plus, thinking that 20 percent of the race is done!).  This is a fueling stop for me, and I grab 4 peanut and jelly squares and begin a walk up the trail.  I always make the same mistake: I grab PandB because it tastes good, but it sticks to the roof of my mouth, and makes it so I can’t breath.  After all these years you would think I would learn, but alas, this year is no different than all the previous races.  At this point my running partner surged on ahead to assure that he could make all the cut off times along the 50 mile course.

At mile 12.4 the climb up Upper Pajarito Canyon Trail (UPCT) starts.  Only 4.5 miles to the top, but the climb is 2100 feet.  The grade is relentless – runnable, but barely – and there are no sections of the trail built for resting.  Unfortunately for me on this day, nothing is runnable.  I am into power hiking at best, and it takes 1 1/2 hours to reach the summit.  I feel okay, but seem to be trapped in a gravitational well – everything is heavy and time is not particularly linear. I pause at the summit, and get out my iPhone to take a picture.  However, my hands are so swollen that my finger print will not activate the phone. I fold up my trekking poles and begin what should be a quick – at least 12 or 13 minutes/mile – run down to the Ski Hill Aid Station.

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Coming into AS 3, at Pajarito Ski Hill. I am right at the time I predicted for “TROUBLE”, about 45 minutes behind schedule.

The aid station is at mile 18.1.  By my schedule I should have arrived at 9:30, and I had noted that if I arrive at 10:15 am then I am in trouble.  I arrive at 10:17 – I am pretty despondent. I have run this segment of trail (or some approximation of it) at least 20 times in the last 3 years.  Only twice before have I been slower.  My wife is at the aid station, and this always lifts my spirits.  I down a tall glass of coca cola, feast on watermelon, eat a handful of potato chips for salt (plus I love potato chips…), and ponder the rest of the run.  My joints – in particular the one knee that has not replaced – ache, and my feet hurt.  I decide to walk and trot to the next aid station and make the decision on whether to switch to the 50 km race or continue along the 50 mile route.  There is a cutoff time of 12:30 pm at AS 4 for 50 milers; any runners arriving after this time MUST change to the 50 km course.  I arrive at the AS in plenty of time – about 11:10 am.  But this is much later than I imagined I would be here.  The die is cast, and I decide I will only run the 50 km course.  Better to finish a race than be stranded at a distant aid station.  I call this the point of shame, or more categorically, the metric/english units point of debacle.  50 km is no 50 miles.  Crash and burn in the Martian atmosphere.

There is a brief bright spot at the Pipeline Aid Station. They have ice!  It seems so hot now (the weather station back at the ski hill registered a temperature of 71 degrees), and the ice is a god send.  I fill my water bottle with ice (and in my mind I apologize to all the runners that will come after me because I am hogging this crystalline commodity!), and make the turn realizing I only have 12 miles to go.  12 miles is nothing – literally, a training run of 12 miles is what I do on a short day.  However, I am incredibly slow – mostly walking for a couple of miles until I reach an important junction on the course between pipeline road and Guaje Ridge trail (which is almost exactly 10 miles to the finish).  Just a week earlier I had been marking this section of the course with flagging, and thinking that I was going to romp down this trail at breakneck speed.  Nope.  The sun was blazing, and there were strong gust of wind that were so dry I was worried about becoming a mummified seismologist.

I ran the wonderful section of single track at about 15 minutes/mile.  Occasionally walking for motivation, but most running.  Only an ultra runner would understand the difficulty with running at this point in a race.  Standing or walking there is NO pain; however, try to run, and the body just does not respond.  It is curious, but it is a response to the trauma that the joints have experienced earlier in the day. After a slow 2 miles I pull into the Mitchell Trail Aid Station, and know I am only 8.1 miles from the end!  2 weekends ago I had run this last section in 1 hr and 36 minutes.  Well, that past run really meant nothing.  The lower Guaje Ridge trail is beautiful as far as single track is concerned – but is sort of sucks as far as being a scenic racetrack.

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The 2000 Cerro Grande fire completely denuded Guaje Ridge. No trees were left alive, and most were burned to the ground. The lower Guaje Ridge is beginning to recover, but barely. It is a barren landscape.

The sun is blazing, and I am drinking quite a bit of water as I head out on the home stretch.  As often is the case in my ultras, I drink what I think is a lot of water to accommodate my ridiculous sweating.  However, I almost never have to urinate during the 8-10 hour run.  I have water sloshing in the belly, but it never makes it to the badder.  Today is no exception.  A crude calculation indicates I have consumed about 1.6 gallons of fluid up to this point, which must have come out my pores (one of the joys of being a scientist on an ultra is that you can use that long, lonely time on the trail to calculate things – lots of things.  This run I calculated the amount of fluid I consumed, the effects of Martian gravity on energy use during a run, the total amount of water I must have breathed in given a humidity of 10 percent, and of course, how I was going to survive the next four years no matter who was elected president).  Although I am running okay I am mostly irritated that this section of the course is no fun.  Mile after mile it is just exercise.  3 miles from the end I here a call of my name – it is my wife! She climbed up to the Mitchell Trail Aid Station, arrived 20 minutes behind me, and ran me down so she could pace me to the finish.  How amazing!  The last 3 miles are brutal, but as enjoyable as any I have run in the JMTR.  When we pull into the last Aid Station at 30.6 miles I see so many friends volunteering.  I feel like Norm walking into the bar on Cheers – everyone knows my name and are so kind and helpful. What a wonderful near-end to the race.

I still have 2 miles to the race end, and I decide just to walk.  It is way slower than I have ever done, but I climb up through the deep ruts carved in the Bandolier Tuff, and stumble back into the Posse Shack.  Slowest 50 km ever, but done nevertheless.

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My fourth JMTR 50 km run was by far my hardest. But, the finisher pottery — front and center — was just as sweet as all the rest.

Mind over Matter (or Madder)

The JMTR has left me with worry and concern.  I have seen a significant decline in my long distance running in the last 18 months.  I have actually improved my short distance (10 km) speed, but anything over 3 hours seems to trigger a reaction in my body and performance wanes.  I remain a determined climber, but slopes that I use to bound up I now hike up.  In a few weeks I will turn 60 so there is a tendency to attribute this decline to growing older.  However, it is much more precipitous than any maturity curve would suggest.  I have struggled with no longer having a functioning thyroid, but again, this decline seems to outsize even that.  Overtraining, under training, joint pain, workplace stress – all things that could effect my athletic performance (I barely can type athletic performance in any sentence I write about myself).  I need to refocus, and consider all the possible factors, and enter the next phase of wandering in the wilderness.

Running an Ultra at Moab; Slickrock, Arches and Salt Tectonics

This is the most beautiful place on earth…Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary…For myself, I’ll take Moab, Utah…The slick-rock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads. Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (1968).

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View across Arches National Park towards the La Sal Mountains taken the day before the Behind the Rocks Ultra. The La Sals are a Laramie laccolithic range, and sit on top of the Jurassic sandstones that have been carved into spires and arches in the Park. Click on many thumbnail photo to get a full sized view.

My first visit to Moab, Utah was in the late 1960s when I accompanied my father on a mineral collecting adventure in search of exotic uranium and vanadium minerals.  Moab was perhaps the most famous modern mining boomtown in the world in the mid-1950s, but had already begun its decline by the late 1960s.   I don’t recall much about the mineral collecting part of the journey, but etched in my mind was the magical vista of carved rocks only a few miles north of Moab — Arches National Monument (today it is Arches National Park).  Arches was pretty much the end of the world in the late 1960s, and when we pulled in to a campsite late in the evening I don’t recall seeing another sole until we left the monument late the next evening. In the morning, as the sun rose I recall seeing a bizarre landscape of red-brown spires and towers.  We hiked out a trail and saw a dozen delicate arches – improbable spans of carved rock – that defied gravity.  Today I don’t recall what trail we hiked, or which arches we visited, but it was a seminal experience on my journey to becoming a naturalist.

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Double Arch, in Arches National Park. This is a “pothole arch” that was formed by water erosion from above – not the standard way arches are constructed.

A few years after that visit to Moab I was enrolled in a contemporary literature class in High School, and I was assigned to read a modern novel;  I picked Edward Abbey’s Desert SolitaireA Season in the Wilderness. It is a non-fiction book that really is a series of essays by Abbey about his experiences as a ranger on the Colorado Plateau.  Chapter one is about Abbey’s time as a park ranger in Arches National Monument in the summer of 1956 (the year I was born).  I can honestly say that Desert Solitaire, and especially chapter one, was the first book I ever read that gripped me with emotion.  Abbey’s descriptions of Arches, and of the conflict and symbiosis between man and nature (with no answers by the way!) was pure passion.

I read an advertisement for an ultra run in a wilderness study area area just south of Moab, and decided it was something I had to do.  I imagined running on the slick rock – the recreational name of the hard sandstones of the Colorado Plateau – and pausing to take photographs of the arches and spires would be an ultimate ultra.  The race was relatively early in the year, and the miles would serve as training for the tough 50 milers to come. But the real adventure was returning to Arches.

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Google Earth image of the area around Moab, Utah. The town of Moab sits in a northwest-southeast trending valley that was created by the collapse of a salt diapir. The landscape is dominated by the reddish colored Jurassic sandstones and the tall La Sal Mountains.

Carving Sandstone

The delicate arches and spires of Moab are the result of millions of years of geologic processes — there are far more rock arches (thousands!) in the area than anywhere in the world — and the story as to “why” is quite complex. The Colorado Plateau is a unique and amazing place; and every “geology” story about the Plateau has to start with the remarkable layered cake stack of sedimentary rocks that accounts for nearly 1/9 of the entire history of the Earth.  As I have written before, these sandstones, limestones, shales and coal beds of the Plateau were  deposited along the margin of the proto-North American continent.  That ancient continent drifted from equator to equator over a period of 500 million years, but the margin of the continent was remarkably stable.  Today the Plateau covers some 150,000 square miles, and has been lifted gently up to an average elevation of about 5,200′ (the mile-high table!). Wandering through the rocks today tells the long story of the continental margin;  sometimes it was below sea level, sometimes it was a continental swap like the bayou of Louisiana, and sometimes is was a dry desert covered with sand dunes.

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Regional tectonics of southeastern Utah (from Nuncio and Condon, 1996). The Paradox Basin is an oblong, northwest trending feature that developed some 300 million years ago. The Paradox Basin was on the margin of the Uncompahgre Uplift to the northeast, and was marine basin that occasionally was uplifted and eventually filled with a thick sequence of evaporates including salt.

The present day geology of the area around Moab began to take shape about 320 million years ago.  Northeast of Moab was a large continental highlands knowns as the Uncompahgre uplift or plateau.  The formation history of this highlands was complex (and still much debated), but it clearly was associated with the creation of the super continent Pangea.  The highlands stretched for many hundreds of miles along the edge of the continent, and sediment was eroded from the mountains and hills and transported to the southwest and deposited in marine trough that today we call the Paradox Basin.  The regional geologic map above depicts the basin as an oval – about 190km in length on a northwest-southeast axis, and 95 km across at its widest point. The filling of the Paradox basin with debris occurred during what is known as the Carboniferous Period (so named because huge deposits of coal were deposited across northern Europe, Asia, and midwestern and eastern North America).  The Paradox basin had limited circulation from the ancient ocean, and would occasionally (over a period of millions of years) evaporite, and deposit salt (halite) and gypsum.  This salt would later pay an extraordinary role in shaping the topography and delicate rock architecture of Moab that we see today.

Mississippian

Notional geological cross section through the Paradox Basin about 310 million years before the present (from Baars and Stevenson, 1981). The “salt” contains both halite and gypsum.

The maximum salt thickness was on the order of a kilometer, although thinner on the southwestern margin of the basin.  Eventually the Uncompahgre uplift met its demise, and was mostly eroded away; the Paradox Basin was subsequently covered by the great sand dunes of the Jurassic and Triassic periods (250-150 million years ago), and then the shallow marine mudstones and shales of the Cretaceous (150-70 mybp).

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A cross section through Spanish Valley from southwest to northeast.  Arches National Park is the surface on the right hand side of the figure (from Mueller, 2013).  During the Laramide the geologic column was squeezed from left-to-right in the figure, and the layered cake geology was bent upward in an anticline.  Eventually fractures in the hard rocks at the top of the anticline allowed water to circulate into the deep salt deposits which dissolved and moved away causing the anticline to collapse.

The large stack of sediments that covered the salt and sediments in the Paradox Basin were relatively undisturbed for several hundred million years.  However, about 70 million years ago the entire west coast of the continental mass that would become North America began to be compressed and shortened. This tectonic episode was known as the Laramide Orogeny, and much of what is the western US today was faulted and thrusted into a series of basins and high mountains — imagine an accordion being squeezed.  The Colorado Plateau rocks as a whole resisted the faulting, and really acted as a nearly rigid block.  However, over the 30 million years of the Laramide, the Plateau began to deform and reactivating ancient deeply buried structures.  In the Paradox Basin this deformation was expressed as a series of folds – synclines and anticlines.  The Spanish Valley, which can be seen in the Google Earth figure above, was one of these anticlines (usually called the Moab Anticline)  The anticline had a strike of northwest-southeast, and Moab is located at the northwestern end.  Anticline-Syncline folding is known the world over, but there was a special ingredient in the Paradox Basin – salt!  When squeezed salt does not act like a brittle rock; it flows like tar.  The folding caused the salt to flow into dome-like diapirs, which further bowed up the sedimentary rocks that lay above the salt.  This enhanced doming eventually fractured the overlying sedimentary rocks, which, in turn allowed surface waters to descend and interact with the salt.  The salt slowly dissolved, and the resulting brine exited to the surface.  This eventually called the doming sedimentary rocks to collapse.  Spanish Valley is a long, collapsed anticline (the figure above shows a notional cross section near Moab).  The collapse occurred along steep faults, leaving cliffs on either side of the valley.  The cliffs to the southwest, which is called the Moab Rim, are much steeper and higher than those to the northeast.

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Ariel view of joints in the Entrada Sandstone along the flank on the Salt Valley anticline.  These joints serve as the seeds for erosion and the development of rock “fins” that eventually can form arches. From Mueller, 2013

The doming of the Jurassic sandstones above the salt beds of the Paradox Basin is a key ingredient in the creation of the rock arches that dot the Moab area.  Unlike salt, sandstone is quite brittle, and responds to the doming by developing cracks, or joints.  In turn, these joints allow water to penetrate into the formation, and through a process of freeze-thaw in the winter the sandstone is broken into a series of “fins” or thin slices of rock.

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A view to the northwest from Windows Arches towards a whole series of sandstone fins – future arches!

These thin sheets can then be further eroded along the steep faces exposed.  A complex interaction between water dissolving some of the sandstone through erosion and “stress hardening” on the remaining rock, holes are carved.

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North Windows Arch. The arch was carved in a fin of Entrada Sandstone (which was formed some 160-180 million years ago from beach dunes). Below the Entrada is the Navajo sandstone.

Eventually the erosion will win, and the supporting struts of the arch will no longer be strong enough to support the span heavy rock.  There are about 2000 mapped arches in Arches National Park, and about 45 have collapsed since Edward Abbey was a park ranger.  No where else on Earth  is there a concentration of natural stone arches that comes close to matching the Park.  But the landscape is ephemeral – the great arches today will be gone in a thousand years, and replaced by new carvings.  In addition to the arches there are large numbers of impressive spires and towers – all stages of the battle against erosion.

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The Organ – an impressive tower of Entrada Sandstone.

Running the Behind the Rocks 50km Ultra

Behind the Rocks is a region south of Moab on the upturned limb of the Moab Anticline.  Much of the area of the ultra race skirts the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Area – and underfoot is almost exclusively the Jurassic age Navajo Sandstone.  The vistas are fins and arches of Entrada Sandstone, but the Navajo controls the footing. After my disastrous experience of blisters from running in exactly the same sand at the Antelope Canyon Ultra, I was fully fortified with extra socks, bandaids, mole skin, and a magic talisman. Traveling to the starting line from Moab means a very early morning drive, and the starting line is a cold 31 degrees.

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A crescent moon over the Behind Rocks Ultra starting line. First trail ultra I have been in where you are issued a chip for timing – really! For me an sand hour glass would do.

The cold temperature temperature means lots of hopping around trying to stay warm, but I know that cold is much better for me.  The 50 km course mainly follows jeep trails, old and new.  The newer ones are covered with fine sand, but the older ones are mostly like single track trails.  The course is dominantly downhill for the first half of the race – which, unfortunately, means that it is all uphill for the miles 16-32.25!

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GPS track for my version of the Behind the Rocks ultra – I say my version, because I was not always sure I was on the prescribed course – especially in the second half when I only briefly saw runners pass me with the standard “looking good buddy”. Lying is a skill ultra runners perfect.

I planned for the run out to the turn around point to take 3 hrs and 10 minutes (the turn around point is at just a hair under 16 miles).  In fact, it took me 3 hrs and 18 minutes, which is probably the first time one of my ultra running plans came together (I would have actually been right on schedule if the final drop down Hunters Canyon was not apparently a bouldering course).  The first 3 miles of the race are the usual madness with 150 runners sorting themselves out.  I averaged 11 min/mile (I had to hold back because I knew it was a long day).  The first landmark is Prostitute Butte – I have no idea as to the origin of the name, and no one I talked to had a plausible explanation.

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The sun was just raising above the La Sal mountains when we arrived at Prostitute Butte a large Entrada Sandstone rock – isolated from any surrounding fins or ridges.

Running is easy in over the first 10 miles, although I am mostly passed by better runners, and only occasionally pass a newbe that went out too fast.  The north side of Prostitute Butte has a nice arch named Picture Frame.

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Picture Frame Arch from the ultra course. Early morning shadows subdue the contrast, but is a pretty square arch!

After mile 6.5 the course mostly follows Hunters Canyon. It is scenic and pretty easy running although there are patches that require technical acumen.  There are a couple of stream crossings – mostly because it rained and snowed this week.  The stream water served to cool my feet; as the sun rose it seemed that temperature jumped up to the 60s.  I doubt it was that warm in the morning, but I was dripping sweat from my hat.

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Descending down Hunters Canyon. There are runners ahead of me in the lower right of the photograph. I caught this group climbing out of the  aid station at the turn around…perhaps a first for me.

I kept a close eye on my pace, and was very pleased that I was right on schedule….then mile 15 came, and the trail dropped down Hunters Canyon to the turn around aid station.  The trail suddenly had narrow ledges, big drops where you hopped from boulder to boulder, and lots of scrambling that required both hands.  Unfortunately, I still have a brace on my right hand due to a fractured thumb.  It took a full twenty minutes to get to the aid station!

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Elevation profile for the Behind the Rocks ultra. The final descent into the turn around point is as vertical as it appears in this profile. The long climb up from miles 17-24 required me to listen to my nanopod and hope that Celtic Punk would spur me on. However, the first song that came up was AC/DC and Highway to Hell….coincidence or Karma?

My total time for the ultra by my garmin watch was 7hrs 42 minutes. But, to be honest, I turned off my watch at the Hunters Canyon aid station while I changed shoes and socks, and redid the mole skin on my feet.  First time in a race that I completely changed out my foot gear – it felt great, although it is debatable whether it had any effect on my performance.  After the change, I switched back on the watch, and now I had to scramble up the same boulder field.  Strangely, it was easier going up, and I passed at least two dozen people. But after mile 17 the course is just a grind – a constant climb. Not too steep, but relentless.  I was much slower than I planned on from mile 17-24 (at least 3 minutes/mile).  Runners began to pass me, but NOT runners from the 50 km race, but runners from the 50 mile race.  The 50 milers started 1 hour before us, and now were passing me after having run an additional 18 miles. Wow – but I was pretty sure they did not know as much seismology as I do.

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The view at mile 22 – in the background are the La Sal mountains, white capped with this weeks snow. I was hoping for some of that snow to cool me off.

The final 8 miles of the course is steep downhill, and 2 mile climb, and then what should be a nice sprint to the finish line.  I was slow – finishing about 40 minutes slower than I had planned.  However, It was just great to finish in under 8 hours. I drank an estimated 1.5 gallons of liquid during the race (and 4 cups of coffee before the start!), but I did not urinate during the race, or for 3 hours afterwards. Man I sweat a lot!

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The swag for completing the race is a black cow bell. I assume to cheer other racers on, but it could be to wear to ward off bears.

Perfectly Fragile

I was excited to return to Moab – the geology is fabulous.  However, it was not the experience I longed for.  It was the last weekend for spring break for most families, and Moab was crowded with adventure seekers.  Unfortunately, the adventure most of the people seek is loud and dusty.  During the last few miles of the ultra race I was constantly passed by speeding dirt bikes and modified four wheel drive vehicles with grotesquely oversized tires.  The isolated high altitude desert that Abbey wrote about is largely gone.  It is hypocritical to wish that others did not intrude on my sense of place – today the United States has 324 million; in 1956 (the year Abbey was a park ranger here) it was 180 million.  The land belongs to all the people,  and I can’t claim some sense of primacy.

What I see in Moab is a collision with the delicate and fragile sense of nature in the here and now. The arches are temporary, and are something that will only be present for a million years.  Eventually all the Entrada Sandstone will be gone.  The fact that it is spectacularly beautiful today is a happy accident – or perhaps a challenge to humanity.  I watched as families marveled at the arches; but others wanted to climb them, scuff the rock, and treat them as personal garbage.  I mostly leave Moab sad.

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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Picture is taken early the morning after the race and before the crowds arrive. What I see in the picture is a sandy beach 170 million years ago that was eventually covered and compressed to a hard sandstone. 60 million years ago it was uplifted by a salt diapir, and eventually carved into the arch people photograph daily. It will be gone within a hundred years.

What exactly does “unhealthy air” mean? Running in Beijing

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure, Mark Twain, American philosopher.

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Beijing skyline, Thursday morning, St. Patrick’s Day, 2016. This picture was taken on the second ring of the Chinese Capital on the way to a meeting about 8:30 in the morning. The AQI (air quality index) is about 400, and the visibility is a few hundred yards at best….photo taken a few hours after a run in this air. Click on any figure to get a large image.

One of the joys in my life is to “experience” the places I visit with a run — usually hoping to sample the geology, although I am delighted to be able to sample the human culture with my slow sorties of 5 to 6 miles an hour. I don’t run much on city streets, but when I visit a new place I always plan a run to one of the iconic features of the city.  I visited Beijing for work in March, and despite admonishments about running in the Chinese capital, I planned for a 5+ mile run to and around Tiananmen Square.

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Mark Zuckerberg running in Tiananmen Square hours after me – if only I had known, I could have run with Facebook (banned in China, btw). Note the air quality. Also, note Zuckerberg’s feet – something is odd about how he floats across the paving stone.

Tiananmen Square is one of the largest city plazas in the world; the square covers more than 100 acres, and is surrounded by, or encloses, some of the most famous fixtures of Beijing. The square is framed by the Tiananmen Gate (roughly translates to “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”) in the north, The Great Hall of the People on the West, the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall on the south (inside this museum is the embalmed body of Mao resting in a clear coffin), and the National Museum of China on the east.  There is so much history within the Square especially with respect to the founding of the People’s Republic of China:  Mao gave a speech from Tiananmen Gate proclaiming the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (and, of course, the PRC  quashed uprising democratic uprising in the Square 50 years later), and in the center of the Square is Monument to the People’s Heroes, a tall tower honoring those that gave their lives to found the Republic.

Given my limited time for anything other than work on my trip to China, it was obvious that my run had to be to Tiananmen Square.  However, I also knew that I would have to run early in the morning – before the sun would rise – and thus, had to plan my trip with more care than usual.  I checked the US Embassy website that broadcasts information about air quality, and although the prediction for the day I could run was “not great”, it seemed that short trot would be tolerable…..

GeogMap

Topographic geography of China. Beijing is located in near the northern apex of the North China Basin. The Beijing metro area has seen explosive growth, far outstripping its infrastructure; in 1990 there were 10.8 million people, 13.6 million in 2000 and today there are 21.5 million people

Beijing, the Megacity of the First Quarter of the 21st Century

Beijing is a true megacity – it has a population about 21.5 million people and a huge transient workforce that might push the total populous to greater than 25 million on a given day.  Beijing does not have the largest population of a metro area in China; both Chongqing and Shanghai have larger metro-populations.  However, Beijing is the center of power in China, and it’s gravitational pull is great. In 1990 Beijing had less than 11 million people, and in the ensuing 25 years this population doubled.  I visited Beijing in 1990 as a member of a USGS delegation celebrating Sino-American cooperation in seismology.  At the time I was struck by the size of city, but also by the less-than first world nature of the infrastructure.  There were high rises, but Soviet style squat grey concrete architecture ruled the viewscape. Roads were choked bicycles – all riding in a style that seemed chaotic, but somehow worked.  Today there are brilliant high rise buildings with wonderful and unique architecture, and bikes are much rarer.  The streets – and there are many, many more multilane hiways – are filled with cars (Audi, BMW, Lexus, are common), all looking pretty new (I guess considering that the population is “new” to Beijing, the cars should be new also).  However, the new buildings and infrastructure of Beijing did not replace the old Beijing, it just built around it.  This is particularly true of the hutong, the traditional alley like streets that run every direction only a few yards from the multi-lane hiways.  To me, it is this contrast of dynastic China and superpower China that best captures Beijing.

hackers!

The electrical grid in a hutong near the JW Marriott Central Beijing. This single photograph explains the infrastructure of Beijing. Masses of wires, random coils, and even some dangling, unattached cable.

Beijing sits at the northern apex of a large triangular-shaped geomorphic feature called the Northern China Plain (NCP).  The NCP is really a large alluvial fan that was deposited as the Huang He River (sometimes called the “Yellow river”) meandered through history. The resulting plain is indeed “plain” – it is flat, all the geology is covered!  The soil is fertile, which means that agriculture was important, especially before the rise of the supercity.  When Mao established Beijing as the capital of the PRC, it had a population of about 2 million. It began to grow rapidly after that time, but projects to build infrastructure kept some sense of pace.  However, after 1990 and the growth rates of doubling in less that 25 years, the human push far outstripped the ability to accommodate a leisurely infrastructure construction rate.  Further, the dramatic growth in the Chinese GDP over the same time meant money – for cars.  Cars, plus the demand for energy, lead to one of most rapid increase in carbon based fuel use in a geographic area ever observed. Today, Beijing is a bustling center – and home to some of the worst air quality anywhere in the world.

Air Pollution – No really, I mean AIR POLLUTION

The most common way to measure air quality is with a composite index called the “Air Quality Index” or AQI.  There are slight variations from country to country, but the heart of all AQI measurements are the quantitative assessment of 5 or 6 pollutants averaged over a specific period of time (usually a day).  In China the AQI is based on SO2, NO2, CO2, O3, and suspended, or aerodynamic, particles of two sizes (diameters smaller than 10 microns, and smaller than 2.5 microns).  The AQI score is based on a formula that converts these pollutants to a number between 0 and 500 (the original intent was that the top of the scale could not be reached).  It is a very non-linear scale; air that has an AQI of 100 is not twice as bad as air with an AQI of 50.  In Beijing nearly the only pollutant that is important is the smallest scale suspended particles, known as PM2.5.  These are tiny particles are particularly harmful to humans because we have no filtration system to stop them from entering the deepest part of the lungs and there these particles can be absorbed into the blood stream.

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AQI, or Air Quality Index, and the international standards for quality of air.

Excellent quality air has AQI scores of 0-50, and must have a suspended load of PM2.5 that is less than 12 micrograms per cubic meter (12 micrograms per 1000 liters of air).  This is pretty typical of the air in Los Alamos, my home.  There are many days with the measured average of PM2.5 is less an 3 micrograms per cubic meter. Unhealthy air registers an AQI of 151-200, which means that the PM2.5 load is less than 150 micrograms per cubic meter. The scale originally envisioned that an AQI of 500 was unattainable because it was so polluted — this would correspond to a PM2.5 of 500 micrograms/m**3.  However, in the last 2 years there have been observations in Beijing where in excess of 800 micrograms/m**3 were measured!

compositionofPM2.5

The composition of PM 2.5 in Beijing. The annual average “load” for the air in Beijing is about 120 micrograms of very fine material (PM 2.5, or suspended particles with diameters less that 2.5 micrometers). Then majority of the material is carbon and chemical byproducts of burning coal and gasoline.

The PM2.5 particles are very tiny — about 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.  They are quite dangerous because humans evolved without a defense mechanism – ancient man was mostly worried about dust, with is a much larger particle.  The PM 2.5 are inhaled deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the deepest recesses of the lungs. These particles  cause short-term health effects due to destruction of lung tissue, and can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. There are many studies on how PM 2.5 decreases lung function, but few studies on the effects from short time exposure.  The dominate source of PM 2.5 particles is from automobile exhaust and other operations that involve the burning of fuels – in particular coal. In Beijing, automobiles plus coal power plants account for 75% of the PM2.5 particles.

When I was in Beijing in March (2016) there was a period where the AQI reached 460 – unbelievably bad air. The visibility was hundreds of feet, and eyes water freely — for everyone.

A Brief Run to Tiananmen Square

I planned to run to Tiananmen Square early in the morning on St. Patrick’s day.  The air was predicted to be bad, but I figured (see the Mark Twain quote at the top of this article) the run would be short.  If I had actually done the calculation on ingested PM 2.5 I would never have run – but ignorance is bless (and ill).

PM2.5

The AQI for a measuring station near Tiananmen Square. My run began on Thursday at about 5 am – which can be seen to have an AQI of  about 282. BAD air.

I had planned out a route to travel through the hutong to Tiananmen that would be about 2 miles.  I awake at 4 am (14 hours difference in time between Los Alamos and Beijing – jet lag is inappropriate to describe the effects of this time shift!).  I checked the temperature outside, and it was cool – seemed like great running weather.  I exited the hotel and immediately noticed that the air looked foggy, but it was dry as a bone.  I ran a slow place and took it the sites (although it was dark! no street lights).  In hindsight the route was not that well thought out – it was not like I could actually read the few street signs that were present.  It took me 2.4 miles before I even spied Tiananmen.

Struggle

Worker’s Statue, Tiananmen Square – in the early morning light and smog

When I arrived at the square I was coughing a bit, but I interpreted this as lingering colds from travel. The air was eery – a obscured skyline, and the feeling that it was closing in on me like a Stephen King novel.  I only took one picture (the image above), and that was of the Worker’s Statue.  The low level light and smog was certainly not ideal for iPhone pictures; I was also a bit nervous about being a “suspicious character”.

I took a more direct route back to the hotel.  I was struck by the wide hiways that had zero traffic on them at 5:30 in the morning knowing that in only 2 hours the traffic would be bumper to bumper.  I seems a staggered work day could solve at least some of the infrastructure issues. As I approached the hotel I was coughing frequently, and now it dawned on me that this really was a smog issue.  I checked the AQI for the area around Tiananmen Square, and found that the reading were now above 300 – which translates into a PM 2.5 load of about 250 micrograms/m**3.

runningair

The amount of air breathed per time for running: for then average 150 pound man, 60 liters are circulated in the lungs when running 5 miles/hr.

I pondered what the impact of breathing in these micro particles would really be – was it temporary, or more correctly, how temporary?  Deep in the lungs — in the alveoli, where the lungs perform the gas-exchange function — there are two distinct types of cells.  These cells are fragile, but also regenerate on a regular basis because of the fragility. Much work has been done on the rates of regeneration, mostly because of research on health benefits of cessation of smoking.  The rate of regeneration is on the order of weeks for localized areas, and the entire lung will be regenerated within the time frame of a year or two.  That was somewhat comforting, but I wanted to know exactly what damage I may have done with the run so I reasoned that it was based on the total PM 2.5 load I inhaled.  For an average male running 5 miles/hr about 60 liters of air is consumed per minute; my run as on the order of an hour, thus approximately 4000 liters of air was consumed.  I took the PM 2.5 load to be 250 micrograms per 1000 liters, and arrived at a total ingestion of 1000 micrograms of carbon crap.  Not pretty, but really quite modest in the scheme of things (if it was lead I would have been quite worried!) – I was confident that I would recover in hours, or days at worse.

dilbert

Dilbert cartoon — humm, this appeared in the Dilbert Calendar for this year on March 17th! Same day as I ran….coincidence?

My confidence was shaken a few hours later when I had a sever coughing fit and small amounts of blood were in my phlegm.  Realistically, small amounts of bloody phlegm is a benign sign of bronchitis, and testament to extreme irritation. However, I was both surprised and a bit shaken by the sight of blood! But it passed within a few hours, although the coughing fits persisted for several days.

I would not repeat this experiment of running in smog! But, as time has passed, it is just another interesting running experience – not unlike falling down a mountain during a trail run, or make poor decision to plow through black thorn on an overgrown trail.

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Granitic Gneiss in front of the new National Nuclear Security Center.

Not Much Geology

The lack of geology around Beijing is definitely a bummer — no rocks to tell the story of why Beijing is there, or what the area must have looked like in the distant past.  However, I was very pleasantly surprised to find some spectacular rocks on display at the State Nuclear Security Technical Center.  Feng shui is an important philosophical value of harmonizing man with the surrounding environment.  At the dedication of the new state center for nuclear security the Chinese had brought in several large rocks to achieve Feng shui; these rocks were trucked in from the most sacred mountain in all China.  Called the  Eastern Mountain, or Mt. Tai, which is located  about 150 km south of Beijing in Shandong province. Mt Tai is associated with the rising sun and thus, birth and renewal.  In the picture above I am standing in front of one of these rocks – to me it is a great example of granitic gneiss with bright streaks of biotite.  However, since the rock is also about renewal, I celebrate the recovery of my lungs!

 

The Serenity of Big Volcanoes: Recovery Running around Kilauea

The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it – imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire! Mark Twain, on his visit to Kilauea in June, 1866.

Halemaumau

Halemaumau – a crater within a crater. Halemaumau is a crater within the large summit crater of Kilauea, and has been active with lava lakes rising and falling in the last 2 years. This photo is from about a mile away and 1,500 feet above Halemaumau. The smoke is one of the main reasons the crater trail is closed. Click on any photo for full sized view.

Few things are more inspiring to a geoscientist, and disappointing to the average visitor, than the volcanoes of the Big Island of Hawaii.  In the last three quarters of a million years volcanic activity has built one of the largest mountains on Earth; in geologic terms this is almost a quantum time unit! Hawaii has 5 volcanic centers (and a sixth is waiting to emerge above sea level southeast of the island) which built a land mass with a surface area of over 4000 sq miles above sea level and has two summits topping 13,600 feet (Mauna Loa at 13,680′ and Mauna Kea at 13,800′ above sea level).  However, the average person that visits the Big Island is disappointed because these giants don’t have the crags and steep elevation gradients of stratvolcanoes like Mt. Rainier or Mt. St. Helens. True to their name, Hawaiian shield volcanoes the are shaped like the overturned shallow bowl shields of ancient Roman warriors.

firstsight

First glimpse of Hawaii on a flight from the mainland. On the left is the summit of Mauna Kea, and in the distance is Mauna Loa. The distance between the coastline in the picture and the summit of Mauna Kea is only 20 miles – making for spectacular prominence! But, alas, for most this view does not captivate.

These gentle giants are formed by thousands of eruptions that pour out basaltic lava that has the viscosity of hot syrup – and when it cools it leaves a simple layered stack of black rock.  Rarely are Hawaiian eruptions violent – no towering clouds of hot ash reaching 50,000′ above the surface of the Earth, or decapitating the tops of mountains like the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  We like our geology violent…hence, the oft repeated comments at Volcanoes National Park, “is this all there is?  where is the lava?” When Mark Twain visited kilauea in 1866 he professed to being very disappointed.  He eventually warmed to the volcano, but was surprised at its “bland character”.

However, to the geoscientist, the enormity of Hawaii is spellbinding.  So much melted rock gives witness to the dynamics of a young and hot planet.  This is one of the wonders of the world that is so much bigger than mankind.  I have to frequently travel to Oahu for business, and I was able to stitch together a brief vacation on the Big Island which is coincident with the recovery period after running the Antelope Canyon Ultra.  There is no better way to experience geology than to run along the rocks;  recovery means sore legs (and in my case very tender feet), so the runs have to be short and slow (even slower than usual).  I planned a couple of short runs around Kilauea and long naps next to the wonderful beaches of the Kona Coast.  Running rejuvenated my body, but Kilauea soothed my soul.

Geologic map of the State of Hawai'i [Plate 8: Geologic map of the island of Hawai'i [scale 1:250,000]]

Geologic Map of the Big Island (scale 1:250,000).  The colors are largely related to age since all the rocks are pretty damn similar – basalt.  From the north (top of the map) the volcanoes are Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea (all the red colored units).

Kilauea – Erupting since 1983!

The geology map of Hawaii resembles the tee-shirts seen at a Grateful Dead concert.  Colorful and vaguely psychedelic, the map is mostly stripes delineating lava flows.  The figure above shows the slow and steady march of the volcanoes to the south and east.  Kohala is now extinct, and Mauna Kea’s last eruption was more than 4500 years ago.  This volcanic trend, extending to all the Hawaiian Islands and the Emperor Seamount Chain located to the northwest, was one of the most mysterious geologic observations, and awaited the paradigm of plate tectonics for an explanation.  In 1963 J. Tuzo Wilson proposed that a “hot spot” caused all these volcanic islands – this hot spot was an upwelling of very hot mantle material  that melted through the cold oceanic plate (the Pacific Plate) as it moved to the northwest.  Imagine a blow torch beneath a piece of slowing moving tar paper.  The torch will melt the tar and leave a linear scar depicting the direction of motion of the tar paper.  Although Wilson’s hot spot model was a huge intellectual leap forward during the formative days of plate tectonics, it is now considered to be a gross simplification of a very complex process.  No matter, the theory does capture the fact that huge amounts of molten rock have reached the surface and built the Hawaiian Islands – and provides insight that Hawaii will continue to grow for millions of years into the future, with land masses emerging to the southeast of today’s Big Island (a far more benign process than what the Chinese are doing in the Spratly Islands….).

thelongclimb

The summit of Mauna Loa from the crater of Kilauea. The passing of the guard – Kilauea is now the most active volcano in the world, and sits some 9000 feet between the summit of Mauna Loa.

Kilauea is now the center of volcanic activity on Hawaii.  Eruptions might still occur on Mauna Loa (likely), Hualalai (plausible) and Mauna Kea (probably not), but Kilauea is spewing out basalt at prodigious rate, and in a few hundred thousand years will have a summit about 13,000 feet.  I first visited Kilauea in 1984 as a relatively new faculty member on a boondoggle (field trips are one of the main reasons scientists choose “geology” as a profession).  My visit corresponded with the one year anniversary of the an eruption on Kilauea – an eruption that has continued to today!

halemaumaufromdistance

Peering into Kilauea Crater from smoking cliffs. The view is disconcerting – below the grassy lip of the crater there is a 1500′ drop and then a nearly flat parking lot like layer of basalt. In the distance is a second crater, Halemaumau, which presently has a lave lake 300’below its crater lip.

On that first visit I got to hike through the Kilauea Crater, and right up to Halemuamau.  The 1983 eruption was producing lava several miles to the southeast of the crater, and there was little activity to indicate molten rock was ascending from some 60 km beneath the surface and collecting in shallower magma chambers.  Once the lava erupted it flows down the slopes of Kilauea into the sea. The focus of volcanic activity then was along what is called the southeastern rift zone; there were occasional fountains of lava out of a crater called Pu`u `Ō`ō, but it was not visible from the Kilauea Crater.

kilaueacaldera_geo

Eruptions near Kilauea crater. Although only a few of the eruptions of Kilauea surface in the crater, there are numerous flows that constantly remake the landscape. Recovery Trail Runs were in Kilauea Iki, a path along Chain of Craters Road, and Keanakakoi Crater.

I have visited Kilauea many times since 1984, mostly because my wife had a post doctoral stint (1992-1994) with the USGS and worked on the geodetics of Kilauea.  Although it is common to think of Kilauea as a shield volcano, therefore, like its older brothers Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, it is in fact very different at this stage of its development.  The magma being erupted from Kilauea most closely resembles the magma erupted from Mauna Kea.  So despite appearances – and being located high on the flank of Mauna Loa – Kilauea is the southwestern extension of Mauna Kea.

riftzone.better

A tectonic map of Kilauea. There are three important features: the summit crater, the southwest rift and the east rift zone. As Kilauea builds on the slope of Mauna Loa the weight of eruptive lava flows “pull away” from the summit and slide towards the sea opening up the rift zones.

Every time Kilauea erupts and lava pours out, it travels down hill towards the Pacific ocean.  As the lava cools it places a load on the Mauna Loa slope; this load eventually is too much for the slope to support and a wedge is “torn” away.  This wedge is defined by the summit crater, southwest rift zone, and east rift zone.  This “tearing” is really the odd shaped pie piece sliding downhill.  The tearing opens up creates other pathways for the magma stored beneath Kilauea to erupt on to the surface.  Until Kilauea grows tall enough to minimize the elevation head of Mauna Loa the rift zones will continue to have eruptions.

lavaflowsinarow

Picture a lava flows exposed on the Chain of Craters Road. This is actually a tilted stack of basalt sheets. I took this picture on the Chain of Craters run.

This means that the volcano is not growing in a simple way – it builds, slips, and starts a new cycle of building that could be anywhere along the rift zones or the summit.  What is remarkable about the present eruption is that every part of the volcano has been active at one time or another; it started in east rift zone 10 miles from the summit and over a five year period 1 cubic mile of lava poured out.  In the 1990s the Pu`u `Ō`ō crater collapsed and numerous other new, smaller craters located northwest of Pu`u `Ō`ō opened up. Eventually, the volcanic center returned to Pu`u `Ō`ō, and by 2005 another couple of cubic miles of lava had flowed forth. In 2011 the volcanic activity shifted to the Kilauea Crater and southwestern rift zone, and on April 24, 2015, lava overflowed  Halema’uma’u crater within Kilauea.  It was this event that ultimately led to the closing of the trails and hiking near Kilauea.

volume

Volume of lava erupted from Kilauea in the last 200 years. The strong uptick in volcano growth on the right hand side of the chart is due to the present ongoing eruption.

It is difficult to fathom the rapid nature of the changes on Kilauea.  For a geoscientist it is like watching a movie at 100 times normal viewing speed.  The rocks may all look the same – black basalt – but face of the volcano is changing a rate that is similar to the changes in my own face (sags here and there, some age spots, and teeth falling out).  Running on rocks younger than me – way younger in some cases – is a unique experience!

runningonKilaueasIki

Running on the floor of Kilauea Iki. The basalt beneath my feet is from the 1959 eruption. Ever so slowly, trees are trying to reclaim the landscape.

Running on Rock Younger than Me

When I first envisioned this mini-vacation on the Big Island I thought I would try the ultimate volcano trail run — up to the summit of Mauna Loa from a trail head located near Kilauea.  The run starts at 6,000′ and over 19 miles climbs 7,500′ with traverses of rough lava flows interspersed with clumps of forest.  However, a 38 mile round trip — unsupported — was a total pipe dream.  Especially after running a 55 km ultra only days before arriving in Hawaii.  My next plan was to run through Kilauea Crater and recreate the hikes I experienced on my first visit. However, the plan was foiled when I found that the crater was off limits since the Halemaumau lava lake rose, and there was a significant increase in SO2 emissions (a very toxic gas!).  This meant that I was on to plan C, the best idea anyway.  I spent 2 days on 3 runs of modest distance (4-8 miles), and just enjoyed the rocks.

kileauaIka2

The trail across Kilauea Iki. The view is approximately 1 mile to the southern rim.  A pathway can be made out streaking across the center of the frame.

The first run was down and across a crater located just southeast of Kilauea Crater, Kilauea Iki (see the map above – it is the green colored crater).  The trail is well maintained but rocky and challenging for a run.  Over a mile the path way drops 600 feet from the trail head to the Iki floor.  The Iki floor is a smooth surface, occasionally interrupted by fissures and blowouts. The age of the floor is easy to calculate – it is the 1959 eruption!  The rock is 3 years younger than me.  The race across the crater floor is easy and relatively fast (although fast is a relative term). The run from south to north in the crater took about 14 minutes – but then there is a long climb back up towards the rim.  The climb up is through thick vegetation – Iki is located right between the wet and dry side of Hawaii, and mists are a constant running companion.  The total trip is 4.5 miles; but the rain and mist meant that we had the crater nearly to our selves!

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One of the many bizarre basalt structures in the 1974 flow. The hole in the lower left of the figure is where the lava surrounded a tree – it eventually burned the tree away leaving a tunnel behind, and a lava clump to mark the former timber stand.

The next day I completed two other runs along the east rift zone (or more accurately, along the Chain of Craters Road).  The trails here wander from small crater to small crater.  Any crater older than about 30 years is being reclaimed by the vegetation.  The landscape is eery and strange.  Long sheets of basalt, but occasionally these sheets are covered with mounds – it sort of looks like volcanic acne.  These mounds are monuments to former stands of tall trees.  As the lava flowed downhill the trees impeded the progress, some lava chilled and became solid around the burning tree trucks.  These chilled regions built up mounds – and today the mounds have perfect holes throughout where tree trucks where eventually burned away.  The figure above is one of these basalt pimples, and you can see the round “tube” of a former trunk in the lower left of the photo.  The most impressive flow on the run was from an eruption in 1974 (the same year I graduated from high school).  The lava is remarkable smooth, and easy running.  However, once you step off the flow it is extremely difficult running.  The total distance covered was just under 8 miles.  The run ends near a truly spectacular view of the ocean across a series of high cliffs, known as Pali.

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Looking down towards the sea – 4 miles away, and a 2000′ drop. There are a series of steep cliffs, known as the Pali, that mark the breaking and sliding away of the stack of lava flows.

The Pali are fault scraps cutting across the lava flows – these scarps are the weak zones that fail once the load of basalt becomes too large.

faults

Fault map of the southeastern side of Hawaii. The faults represent breakaway regions sliding the load created by the basalt towards the deep ocean. Each of the faults has a significant scar – a large cliff known as “pali” in Hawaiian.

Running down the scarps is easy work except the views are run-stopping.  This trail run is all on the dry side of Hawaii, so no pesky trees to obscure the view.  I was a graduate student at Caltech when seismologist began to model the seismograms from exotic sources, and the 1975 Hawaii earthquake, with an epicenter within the Pali, proved to have a source mechanism that it is consistent with a large landslide.  The 1975 event is the largest Hawaiian earthquake (or, more precisely, landslide induced earthquake), and had a magnitude of 7.2 and caused a 12 m high local tsunami.

intoseaII

The edge of Hawaii – although the flows and pali continue far out to sea.  The total elevation of Mauna Loa, as measured from the sea floor, is about 56,000 ft.  Nearly twice the height of Everest, but no high camp or oxygen is required to summit.

At the ocean my runs end – sort of trivial in terms of distance, but perfect therapy for recovery from an ultra run.  Actually, the real recovery was to my soul.  Immersed in the geologic equivalent to a black hole, all the trials and tribulations of the last 2 months seem like back ground noise.  Relaxed.

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Sunset on the Kona Coast. Waves framing a sun disappearing behind Maui off in the distance.

 

Paradise Lost: Running on the edge of Lake Powell

Light. Space. Light and space without time, I think, for this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history. In the doctrine of the geologists with their scheme of ages, eons and epochs all is flux, as Heraclitus taught, but from the mortally human point of view the landscape of the Colorado is like a section of eternity—timeless, Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire (1968).

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Horse Shoe Bend, on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. It is this narrow canyon that provided the geologic framework for a dam built in the early 1960s that flooded hundreds of canyons upstream. Click on any photo to get fill sized views.

On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and 9 other men pushed four boats into the Green River and began one of the most challenging and legendary geologic adventures in history. Over the course of a little more than 3 months, Powell explored one of the last great unknowns – the course of the Colorado River and depths of the Grand Canyon.  The journey is mostly known for its harrowing traverse of the Grand Canyon, but along the way Powell’s expedition also found many amazing geologic features of the Colorado Plateau.  On August 3, 1869 Powell entered a series of meandering canyons in carved sandstone.  From his journal: “On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features — carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Cañon. “

powell3

J.W. Powell’ carved his name Navajo Sandstone at Music Temple in Glen Canyon on the second expedition. Music Temple was (it is underwater now!) a large amphitheater or grotto in a side canyon that was said to echo musical notes with great fidelity.

Powell’s adventure captivated the nation, but from a scientific standpoint it was beset with difficulties – lost data, lost instruments, and deserting crew.  This motivated Powell to retrace the journey again in 1871, this time funded by a congressional appropriation, and he included a photographer. The photographs offer a glimpse into a magical landscape – one that man has dramatically altered, first with the Glen Canyon Dam, and now with a large power plant that dominates the skyline.

marblecanyon

Entering Marble Canyon (about 5 miles south of Glen Canyon), Powell expedition 1871. John K. Hillers photograph.

John Wesley Powell is a true hero to me.  I greatly admire the naturalists and geoscientists of the 19th century that traveled to the far corners of the world and invented a new science – geology.  Along the way these intellectual giants invented deep time, theories of the formation of the Earth and solar system, and applied mathematics, physics and chemistry to all the processes in nature; they brought rationale and order to what had previously been a mystical world. But J.W. Powell was far more than a wandering scientist – he was a leader among men, and overcame tremendous physical challenges to conquer extraordinary adventures. Powell was only 5′ 6″ tall, but projected authority and leadership.  He was born in 1834, and was exploring the Mississippi river valley by the age of 18. In 1861 he joined the Union forces and quickly became a captain; in the battle of Shiloh he was wounded in the right arm, and had to have it amputated below the elbow. However, even one armed, he continued to serve the Union. After the war he lectured on geology and mineralogy, and became the secretary of the Illinois Natural History Society. Shortly after that, the short, one-armed, middle aged man began to explore the American West.

John_Wesley_Powell_with_Native_American_at_Grand_Canyon_Arizona

John Wesley Powell on the shore of the Colorado River north of Glen Canyon in 1871. With Powell is Tau-Gu, a Paiute guide.

The Ultra Adventures team first introduced an “Antelope Canyon” race in 2014 on the shores of Lake Powell.  The UA team envisioned a race that captured the unique setting on the Glen Canyon – sweeping desert vistas, slick rock running along the edge of Glen Canyon below the dam (with 800 feet shear drops!), and running in slot canyons (twisting, narrow slices in the Navajo Sandstone created by flash floods). The first two years of the race the number of runners was quite modest – less than 120 in 2015.  I wanted to run the race as soon as I heard about it – and saw the jaw dropping photographs of the course.  The extra attraction was to be able to run where Powell had explored nearly 150 years ago.  Although I have extensively explored the Colorado Plateau, I had only spent fleeting moments around Lake Powell (the giant reservoir behind Glen Canyon dam…it is unlikely that Powell would have approved of the name).  I convinced a couple of others from my home town to join me for an early season ultra, and prepared to run along a intellectual precipice; the cliff between paradise and encroachment of man.

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Lake Powell is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the world, and is capable of storing nearly 25 million acre feet of water. The “lake” is a long and twisting body that is the flooding of canyons that had been cut through the sediments of the Colorado Plateau by the Colorado and San Juan Rivers. GoogleEarth image viewing from the southeast (the town of Page, and site of the Antelope Ultras is on the far left hand side of the image).

Carving a Canyon

The Colorado River Basin stretches from the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming to the Gulf of California, draining nearly a quarter of million square miles.  Snow that falls on the southern half of the Wind Rivers or the western part of Rocky Mountain National Park eventually collects into streams, and then rivers, ultimately merging into the mighty Colorado River. End-to-end, some water travels 1,400 miles only to be emptied into the sea some 75 miles south of Yuma, Arizona.

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The Colorado River Basin covers an area larger than France. It includes most of Arizona and Utah, and large sections of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. The Colorado River Basin became part of the US after the war with Mexico in 1846, but remained “unexplored” until J.W. Powell floated from the Green River to the western end of the Grand Canyon in 1869. Although the Grand Canyon is rightfully the jewel of the Powell expedition, they also discovered and mapped many other spectacular canyons, including Glen Canyon.

The Colorado Basin is a geologic marvel.  Over millions of years rain and snow have fallen on the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains; this moisture from the atmosphere collects and is pulled by gravity down hill – from the high peaks at 14,000 feet elevation towards sea.  Along the way the water picks up particles and alters the minerals in the rocks that it passes by, slowly eroding that rock.  Ultimately that erosion carves canyons of extraordinary architecture. The time scales are geologic, and difficult for humans to fathom; however, gravity and water always win, and wear away the most resistant rock.

The story of how each of the canyons formed along the course of the Colorado River is complex – and in fact, each “canyon” is unique.  Glen Canyon is mostly carved in a red to white sandstone that is know as the Navajo Sandstone. The Navajo Sandstone is a remarkable geologic deposit – it is present over nearly 220,000 km2 of the Colorado Plateau today (a larger area than numerous Eastern US states!), and is the petrified remains of a vast ocean sand that once was on the edge of a super continent, Pangea, during the Jurassic Age. 190 million years ago this ocean of sand probably covered an area three times as large as the present day deposits; larger than even today’s Rub’ al Khali, the Arabian Peninsula’s vast Empty Quarter.

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An outcrop of the Navajo Sandstone near Horse Shoe Bend. The unique layering structure – like a stack of cards that have different angles – is fossilized crossbedding from Jurassic aged sand dunes.

The vast sand dunes moved by blowing sand from one side of the dune to the other – always with the prevailing direction of the wind. This results in a tilted layer cake structure within the dune.

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A graphic depicting the formation of cross bedding – where the “fluid flow” is wind carrying or pushing sand grains. Figure from Wikipedia.

The Jurassic aged dunes became “fossils” for a couple of reasons: first, the great sand ocean was within a basin which slowly subsided.  The sand blew in, and was slowly buried.  Secondly, the buried dunes were exposed to ground water that interacted with the sand grains – in the case of the Navajo dunes these grains were pure quartz – and started slowly chemically altering the grains into a hard, concrete like material.  Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, these frozen dunes were left undeformed for tens of millions of years, providing the vast expanse that we see today for the Navajo Sandstone.

The slow erosion of the Navajo into the present geography of Glen Canyon took at least 20 million years.  Along the way, other events occurred – like flash floods.  These flash floods pick up the quartz sand that had already been eroded and swept those hard quartz grains across the soft rock surface scouring out impossibly narrow slot canyons.

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The narrows of Lower Antelope Canyon – a slot canyon formed by flash floods. Picture taken the day before the race.

The fate of Glen Canyon was sealed in a deal struck only 25 miles from my Los Alamos, New Mexico home.  In 1922 representatives from the western states that bordered the Colorado Drainage Basin met and divided up the water flowing down the Colorado River at Bishop’s Lodge located near Santa Fe.  The states were thirsty  for water to spur development and the northern states (Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, along with some interest from New Mexico) wanted their “rights” in law before Californians drank up all the flow downstream.  The Colorado River Compact was signed, and the Basin was divided into two sections – a northern and a southern.  The dividing line was Lee’s Ferry, at the very end of Glen Canyon.  The die was cast – the northern states would argue for a dam near or in Glen Canyon to hold “their water”.

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Lee’s Ferry, located at the terminus of Glen Canyon (photo taken the day before the race). This is the dividing line between the upper and lower Colorado River Basin.

The story of how the dam was built is worthy of volumes – and certainly beyond anything I would write for a trail running blog.  Despite a heated debate, congress appropriated money for the Dam in 1956, and the lake began to fill in 1963.  What was delicately carved canyons became the playground of boaters, and the water was used to spur population expansion in Arizona.  It is likely that the dam will eventually go away – maybe in a millennium or two, but short in geologic time – but for now, the canyons are a place of human engineering.

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The start and finish of the Antelope Canyon ultra, separated by 9 hours. I ran much of the course with Dave Zerkle and Dave Dogruel. Carolyn Zerkle photo.

The Antelope Canyon Ultra

The 2016 version of the Antelope Canyon Ultra was actually 3 races; a 50 miler, a 55 km, and a half marathon.  Despite the name, only the 50 miler traverses Antelope Canyon, which is the most famous of the Colorado Plateau slot canyons.  Every year thousands of tourists visit Antelope Canyon and take stunning photographs of shafts of light dancing on carved red sandstone. However, despite the mis-epithet, the 55 km was every bit as spectacular as the 50 miler, and the run included a much less well known, but equally stunning slot canyon, called Waterholes Canyon.  So, really, when we lined up to run the ultra we were running the “Waterholes Canyon Ultra”! The biggest surprise to me when I arrived in Page, Arizona the day before the start was that the race had grown in size exponentially.  Between the three distances, there were more than 700 runners! Page is a small town, and February is not boating season, but it was still amazing how runners were apparent everywhere – from Subway to Safeway, people wearing Garmin watches was the norm.

The start of the race was somewhat surreal – out in the desert there were two huge and dusty “parking lots” filled with runner’s automobiles. The starting area was congested with colorful technical running clothes, more than a few plaid shirts and lots of trucker hats.  However, once the start occurred — with a casual countdown from 4 somewhere around 7 am — the carnival atmosphere subsided. The first two miles were a harbinger to come; the course was along a trail that was sand, and not sand like on a beach, but red, microscopic grained quartz sand.  Within the first two miles we were able to maintain a nice pace, but it was obvious muscles were being used to propel us that were seldom used in trail running in Los Alamos.  There was no real way to find hard packed regions, both because so many runners were ahead of us, but because the nature of the sand. Plodding forward was the mantra of the day.  We made good time to “Horse Shoe Bend Aid Station” (should have been named Band-Aid Station) about 5 miles from the start.  We arrived in 55 minutes, and in the back of my mind I was thinking “My training paid off! I must of gotten in shape!”.  Alas, when we arrived at this same aid station 12.5 miles later (at mile 17.5, or a little over the halfway point), I was thinking “I probably should improve my swimming”.

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About mile 5.5 we arrive at Glen Canyon and shear cliffs above the clear-green Colorado River below. The sun is up, but not high enough to capture the magnificence of Horse Shoe Bend. This is why trail running is so fun – great views, and you just stop and take pictures.

From the aid station to the overlook of the Colorado River is only a half of a mile.  It was spectacular to be running on the edge of the canyon, and I thought about what J.W. Powell must have imagined as he rowed on the river and looked up at the cliffs where we were now running. After leaving Horse Shoe bend the course is out of the cursed sand, and on slick rock – bare Navajo Sandstone – for about 5 miles.  The running is technical, and there are many hops and climbs up carved rock ravines.  The slick rock was most welcomed after the sand, although it can not be considered “a fast track” – at least for us.  The views down the canyon are marvelous, and at about mile 10.5 we come to the overview of the inflow from Waterholes Canyon – simply stunning.

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Dave Zerkle and Dave Doggrel running on the slick rock near the edge of Glen Canyon. Every step is different than the last.

The course follows the Waterholes canyon drainage to about mile 12.7 where there is a well stocked aid station.  This marks the beginning of the absolute best part of the course – a running experience that can best be described as ecstasy.  After fueling, runners carefully descend about 150 feet down into the bottom of Waterholes.

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Waterholes Canyon – near the Aid Station at mile 13. The canyon is alternatively narrow (so narrow that you have to turn sideways occasionally) to somewhat broader.

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The light dances off the carved faces of Waterholes – it is a sublime experience to run in nature’s artwork.

The run through Waterholes is about 1.6 miles – it is not fast, but it is beautiful.  Along the way there are steep passages that require ladders.  These ladder climbs cause bottlenecks, and it is actually more difficult to climb the metal rungs than I thought it would be. Just before I exited the canyon I was passed by the first 50 miler – he had an hour head start on us (the 50 milers started at 6 am) but he had run 16 miles further than I had. Humbling!

The climb out of the canyon is up a steep sandy hill, which marks the worst part of the course! From here there is 8 miles of running on sand.  Sometimes 3 inches deep, sometimes only an inch, but sand nevertheless.  The sand slows you down, and even more insidious, it fills your shoes.  The first 3 miles of the great sand slog is along a dirt road that was built to service the great power lines coming out of Glen Canyon Dam.  The road is straight, but the sand is soft. Upon arrival at the Horse Shoe Aid station for the second time, we have reached the half way point of the journey.  I have to sit down and pour sand out of my shoes – and even before I can put my shoes back on the fabric of my Hokas sheds more sand into the shoe.  It takes three dumps after shaking before I put the shoes back on – but the real impact of the sand is the rub it has induced on my toes and heels.

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Zerkle and I coming into the aid station at the halfway point. The sand at our feet is everywhere – and the sun is bright, and no shade of any kind will come our way for the next 17 miles.

After the aid station I have to stop twice more and empty my shoes; I put band-Aids on the blisters that are forming, and tape on my toes.  However, by mile 20 it is clear that my feet are going to be torn up by race’s end.  We are much slower in our pace now, and dealing with the sand becomes a ritual. Finally, at mile 21.5 we climb up a steep trail to the butte that is home to Page, Arizona.  At mile 22 we reach an aid station and empty the sand one last time, and prepare to run the last section of the course, which is a sweet single track trail that is called “Page Rim Trail”.  It is absolutely perfect for speedy running!

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View from the Page Rim trail at mile 27. The water is a branch of Lake Powell, and to the right of the water is Antelope Island, created by the flooding of Glen Canyon. The vistas are sweeping – but also apparent from the picture is that there is no relief from a bright sun!

I run the first mile of the Rim trail pretty fast, but my feet are killing me.  I start to try and adjust my stride to take pressure off where I think my toes are blistering.  This really slows me down, and ultimately led to the onset of cramping in my legs.  At about mile 27.5 I begin to cramp in both legs, and then, suddenly my right leg twists up in the mother of all cramps and I fall down!  I am a bit concerned that I will be paralyzed with pretzel leg, but eventually get the leg to upwind.  I decide to walk for a while….and in fact every time I start to run, I start to cramp.  Disaster – I end up walking the last 5 miles of the ultra.

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Finish line – about 8:55 for the entire run. Given the long walk at the end, I am happy to have survived. Dave Dogruel photograph.

It is disappointing to be so slow, but the course is simply stunning.I expected the Antelope Canyon Ultra to be both interesting and challenging…it was both.  I was unprepared for the sand, and I was amazed at those runners that seemed to think the sand was fairly pedestrian.  My friends and I thought otherwise.  But, despite the sand, probably the biggest challenge was staying hydrated.  By my estimation I drank nearly 2 gallons of fluid from just before the race start to the end; yet I never eliminated any of that fluid during the run.  I sweated – well, I suppose that is an understatement.  All that water went somewhere.  I wonder if Powell sweated to exhaustion during his expeditions?  It is not in his journals, but he was a polite and reserved man.

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My salty hat after I arrived home – there were some free standing salt crystals, which in retrospect, is kind of cool. The finishers award is also shown.

Paradise Lost

The vast region of bluffs and canyons around Page is beautiful today – but it looks nothing like it did when Powell first floated by in 1869.  The building of Glen Canyon Dam – which was authorized by congress only a few weeks before I was born in 1956 – changed both the landscape, but also the national psyche about conservation.  Edward Abby wrote about the enormity of Glen Canyon and how it appeared that no human had even touched the great work of art geology had wrought.  By 1963 that had changed – the lake began to fill, erasing the canyons, and bringing tourism, boaters and power plants to the barren red rocks.  It erupted a sense within the country that perhaps manifest destiny, as defined by huge engineering projects, was not the only or best use of our land.  It is too late to debate the past – it is done.  Boaters are happy (Lake Powell boasts the largest house boat in North America….can that be bad?), but I personally mourn the loss of something monumental.

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Navajo Generating Station, just east of the Antelope Canyon Ultra course. This is a 2250 megawatt coal-fired power plant and the third largest source of CO2 emissions in the US.

I fully realize that nature will win in the end – no dam will survive geology epochs, the coal will run out, and plants will be shut down and removed – but even the most isolated vista now feels polluted with humanity (including me).  It is a paradise lost – but it is also a huge classroom about the Anthropocene, the age of Man.  Running in the slot canyons reminds me of the enormity of geology, but the aluminum ladders that I climb over the steep sections reminds me we always tame nature.

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Entering Waterholes Canyon – this is a mystical land. Photo by Dave Dogruel, and to me, this is what trail running is all about.

Sacred Land: A Run Through Canyon De Chelly

Be still and the earth will speak to you – Navajo Proverb

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Spider (home of Spider Grandmother) Rock, Canyon De Chelly, Arizona. Spider Rock rises some 750 feet above the Valley floor, and is the sacred home of one of the most important deities in the Navajo culture, Tse-che-nako. The image is looking east, and shows the separation of Canyon De Chelly and Monument Canyon. The canyons drain the highlands of the Chuska Mountains on the distant horizon. Click on any figure/photograph to get a large version.

Landscapes can be spiritual.  The soaring expanse of a mountain peak can inspire; the ever shifting sands of a field of dunes makes human time seen inconsequential.  Then there are some landscapes that are interwoven with humanity. Canyon De Chelly is just such a place.  A narrow, twisting, dendritic chasm carved in the red sandstones of Permian Age located in the center of the Navajo Nation, Canyon De Chelly has been the home to humans for at least 2500 years.  A fortuitous accident of a quarter of billion years of geology, the narrow and steep canyons provide shelter and act as a cistern for precious rain and snow that falls on distant mountains.  It is impossible to peer into Canyon De Chelly and not feel the 400 generations of souls that have lived here – there are ruins and evidence of occupation in every nook and cranny; yet, the evidence of humanity blends with the landscape in a most harmonious way. It is impossible to separate rock and man; the landscape is alive.

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Landsat 7 false-color image of Canyon De Chelly (acquired in on September 12, 2000). There are two main branches in the canyon complex draining the highlands of the Defiance Uplift. The northern branch is Canyon del Muerto, and the southern drainage is Canyon de Chelly (which further branches to the south in Monument Canyon). The image color scheme is tuned to highlight vegetation – the bright green in the valley floors reflects the healthy vegetation from the perennial streams. These canyons are an oasis in a harsh environment, and have been the home of humans for nearly 2500 years.

I last visited Canyon De Chelly about 20 years ago when I led a field trip of about 40 underclassmen from the University of Arizona to the northern part of the state.  The students were enrolled in a class called “Geologic Disasters and Society”, and we visited faults, volcanoes, meteorite impacts, and sites of possible environmental collapse.  Canyon De Chelly was the focus of the last of these “disasters”.  The Canyon had a thriving – and populous – culture between 900 AD and the 13th century, and then there appeared to be a massive migration away from the Canyon, and other population centers like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon to places like southern Arizona.  Twenty years ago the popular archeologic theory was that a prolonged drought stressed the urban-like centers, forcing the population to seek more productive lands.  Indeed, tree ring and pollen studies indicate that the 13th century was a time of drought – however, today most archeologists think that drought was no worse than several decades in the 10th century, and by 1350 the drought was replaced by a wet period, but the population did not return.  The abandonment of these population centers was probably far more complex than a simple drought – and most likely had to do with social unrest and changing religions values. The Canyon later became one of the centers of the Navajo people, and they have now have lived there for hundreds of years.

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A view down Canyon De Chelly looking towards the west. The Canyon floor is verdant with cottonwoods and peach trees.

Navajo runner Shaun Martin conceived of ultra run in the spiritual lands of Canyon De Chelly in 2012.  It is a place that is sacred, and the idea of a “race” is a poor fit.  However, Martin preaches “This race is about running in the Navajo tradition, running as a prayer.”  The inaugural ultra took place in 2013, and in 2014 I learned of the run and was extremely excited about the chance to participate.  Alas, a pressing work assignment kept me from joining the 150 runners that got to view the towering cliffs and braided stream of the Canyon the way Navajos runners have done for hundreds of years.  I was determined to make the run in 2015, and when fall came I was happy to travel back to the heart of the Colorado Plateau!

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White House Pueblo, photo by Ansel Adams, 1942. The National Park Service commissioned Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior Building in DC in 1941, and he visited Canyon De Chelly twice to take pictures. The White House is named for the white streaks on the cliffs above the structure, and is one of the most iconic Anasazi ruins in the west.

Canyon De Chelly – A Slice Through the Permian

The Colorado Plateau is remarkable place; there are thousands of feet of sedimentary rock that record nearly 500 million years of the Earth’s history stacked up like a layered cake. This layered cake was deposited along the margin of the proto-North American continent and today covers about 150,000 square miles; sometimes the area of the Plateau was below sea level, sometimes it was a continental swap like the bayou of Louisiana, and sometimes is was a dry desert covered with sand dunes.  Over this incredibly long time the North American continental mass suffered plate collisions, massive volcanic eruptions and huge episodes of crustal stretching and extension.  Yet, the layered cake of the Plateau escaped the massive disruption that one sees in the Basin and Range of Nevada and western Arizona, or the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico.  Large scale geology maps — like those that cover the entire USA — tend to indicate that the Plateau is extremely simple.  But one must look for more subtle features to realize that the Plateau has plenty of geologic character.

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A structural map of the Colorado Plateau. Although the layered cake dominates the description of the geology, there are a series of basins and uplifts that reflect gentle folds and bends of the rocks due to episodes continental scale compressions and expansions.

There is a gentle warp that trends along a line from Black Mesa in Arizona to the San Juan Basin in New Mexico. You can imagine this “warp” as the response of firm cake that is squeezed on its sides; to accommodate the squeeze, the layered cake folds up.  Ridges rise – known as anticlines – and basins fall – known as synclines.  The cross-section (large very large vertical exaggeration) below shows an slice through Canyon De Chelly.  To the east of the town of Chinle is a broad uplift known as the Defiance Uplift; the Chuska Mountains sits atop of an anticline.

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Simplified cross section through Black Mesa, Chinle, the Chuska Mountains, and ending near Durango, Colorado. The vertical scale is very exaggerated compared to the horizontal scale.

The Defiance Uplift is the most signifiant factor in the creation of Canyon De Chelly. The highlands were slowly eroded; rain and snow that fell on the Chuska Mountains flowed in streams and rivers eroding the sediments and carving washes and canyons.

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Google Earth image centered on Canyon De Chelly and Canyon Del Muerto draining the highlands of the Chuska Mountains along the right hand side of the figure. On the left hand side is Black Mesa. The canyons are cut into the De Chelly sandstone that dips to the west and descends beneath Black Mesa.

The topography of the canyons — narrow, steep walled chasms — is controlled by the nature of the sedimentary rock that has been eroded.  Canyon De Chelly and Canyon Del Muerto are carved in the DeChelly sandstone, a nearly pure quartz grained rock, that is tough and strong, and can maintain vertical cliff faces hundreds of feet high.  The DeChelly was formed from wind blown sand dunes.  The modern day analogy for these type of sand dunes is the Namib Desert along the southwestern coast of Africa.  The desert that made the DeChelly sandstone occupied a coastal plain some 250 million years ago and was long lived — probably 25 million years of blowing dunes. Finally, that desert yielded to a more hospitable environment and rivers returned depositing sandstones and shales on top of the dunes, which we call the Moenkopi formation.  About 230 million years ago the last of the rocks from this period of time were deposited on top of the Moenkopi, the hard cobbles and boulders of the Shinarump conglomerate. The Shinarump is the “cap stone” above the DeChelly sandstone, and protected it from the forces of erosion for 150 million years.

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Unconformity between the DeChelly sandstone (pink rocks) and the hard cap of the Shinarump conglomerate (light colored rock).  Photograph taken on the north rim of Canyon Del Muerto.

The Defiance uplift bent the DeChelly sandstone and the Shinarump into a broad arch.  Eventually a weakness in the Shinarump allowed the forces of erosion to attack the sandstone, and began carving the canyons.  The canyons are odd – they have no real walls at the western terminus (at Chinle) or the eastern headwaters in the Chuska.  The height of the walls reaches 1500 feet – at the mid-point of the headwaters and terminus.

These deeply incised canyons provided a perfect refuge for humans – the steep walls are a formidable natural defense, and the drainage captures all the waters that fall on the Chuska as snow and rain, providing a perfect – if bizarre – agriculture environment.

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Mummy House, built 1000 years ago in a convex depression above the floor of Canyon Del Muerto. Photograph taken the day after the Canyon De Chelly ultra.

There is archeological evidence that humans first visited, and occasionally lived in Canyon De Chelly (and Canyon Del Muerto) a few millennia BC.  However, the first year-round inhabitants began to build pit houses along the valley floors about 300 BC.  The so called Basketmakers flourished for nearly a thousand years, but gradually disappeared and were replaced by the Pueblo culture, which constructed the large stone structures in the walls – they also built Chaco Canyon  and Mesa Verde. Most of the Pueblo culture building took place between 1000 and 1280 AD.  White House, Mummy Cave, Antelope House, and dozens of other communities supported a population of more than a thousand.

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Pueblo culture ruins occupy scores of sites – from a few scattered towers, like in this photograph from Canyon De Chelly, to larger villages like White House.

The Pueblo culture abruptly abandoned Canyon De Chelly at the end of the 13th century.  The exodus was swift and complete – and there is no consensus explanation for sudden migration.  The Hopi, and later the Navajo, began to use the Canyon, and by 1700 AD it was at the center of the Navajo culture.

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Spider  Rock, Canyon De Chelly. This stereo pair was taken by T.H. O’Sullivan during the Wheeler expedition on 1873. The photo calls the sandstone tower “Explorer’s Column”, but it has long been considered the home of Spider Woman (Na’ashjéii Asdzáá) benefactor of humans.

The first European-American visit to the Canyon De Chelly region occurred during a punitive Spanish expedition in 1805. Lt. Antonio Narbona, the future governor of Mexico’s northern outpost — New Mexico — entered the canyon looking to confront what he characterized as Navajo aggression.  Over a two day period Narbona’s troops slaughtered more than hundred Navajo women and children.  The main battles occurred in the area of Massacre Cave in Canyon Del Muerto (Canyon of the Dead).  Unfortunately, the unique character of the canyons that had protected the inhabitants for 2000 years served to trap the women and children.  The first detailed description of the Canyon preserved in modern literature came in 1849, when Colonel John M. Washington’s explored the first few miles of the Canyon – following the route of the ultra run!  In 1873 one of the great geologic surveys – the Wheeler Expedition – visited Canyon De Chelly. This expedition had one of the earliest, and foremost, photographers, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who took some amazing photographs (the Spider Rock stereo pair shown above) that introduced the spectacular character – both geology and human – to the broader American community.

The canyon has been visited by thousands of luminaries since O’Sullivan took his photos, and the universal emotion is that this place is sacred land.  The geology has made life possible here – but the inhabitants lived in the geology not simply exploiting it.  It is difficult to capture in a few words that spirit of the Canyon.  It has to be experienced.

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A group of Los Alamos runners a few minutes before the start of the Canyon De Chelly ultra.

The Run

Most of the ultra races I enter are mountain runs with lots of climbing (which is usually done with power walking, or, not-so-power walking).  The Canyon De Chelly ultra is different – it is lots of running with a single very steep hill.  I was marginally prepared in terms of training; I like to climb hills so I tend to make that my training instead of long miles at pace.  On the other hand, this run is well know for its miles through soft sand on the valley floor, which is not exactly “running at pace” either.  No matter, early on the morning of Oct 10 I gathered with about 160 other adventures to see Canyon De Chelly the way it was meant to be seen – not from the rim peering down hundreds, or even thousands, of feet at a distance valley floor.

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Blessing of the rising sun. Facing east, the dawn to celebrated, and the runners go forth to experience the Earth.

At 6 am the runners assemble at the western end of Canyon De Chelly.  Actually, the end of the Canyon is a more appropriate moniker.  The steep walls of the De Chelly sandstone have plunged beneath the erosional cover of Chinle Wash, so the assembly area is a broad and sandy plain.  The sky is magical – there is a crescent moon, and four planets make a solar arc across the dark sky.  Mercury is just below the moon, and higher in the sky are the bright lights of Jupiter, Mars and Venus.  When the glow of the impending sunrise begins, the runners gather for a morning prayer around a camp fire.  With an opening in the circle of runners to the east, the Navajo prayer and blessing reminds all that running here is special — it is a privilege.

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Running in the sand at the start of the race (and at the end!). The sand is soft, and even after a couple of miles the runner’s calves feel the effort.

Sometime after 7 the run starts in the cool glow of the rising sun.  The course follows Canyon De Chelly wash, which is a river of soft sand.  Most of the first 2.5 to 3  miles are about finding a pathway that is at least a little packed so that each stride is not an energy sucking sink into several inches of sand.  My pace is about 11:30 minutes per mile, and I know it is a long day.  Runners are soon spread out and form a long line of colorful shirts and running packs. The walls of the canyon slowly rise above the wash, and after a couple of miles there are shear cliffs a couple of hundred feet high framing the valley.  I struggle to find a good running line, and inside my head I hear my wife telling me “run the tangent”, meaning find the shortest distance for the twisting course.  Unfortunately, the tangent has nothing to do with the pathway of most packed sand!

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First Ruin, about 3.5 miles into the run. Bright run highlights why the Anasazi built on the northside of the canyon — the early morning sun warmed their homes even as the most of the Canyon remained in darkness.

After a couple of miles there are some tracks along the edge of the canyon that are not sand, but hard packed clay and the running becomes easier.  The first significant pueblo ruin appears about 3.5 miles into the run;  appropriately named “First Ruin”, the sun shining brightly on stone houses built 1000 years ago in a crease in the De Chelly sandstone.  It is pretty easy to keep a pace of 10:20-10:40 per mile from First Ruin to the first aid station at White House Ruin.

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White House Ruin. Photograph taken the day before the race from the overlook on the south rim. The Ruin has both a series building in the cave and a pueblo below. The first aid station, 6 miles into the race is just to the right of this photograph.

The temperature at the start of the run was in the mid-40s.  That is perfect for running an ultra!  However, it is clear by 9 am that the day will bring much warmer temperatures.  The course winds back and forth across the valley which expands and contracts to distances of a few hundred yards wide to more than a quarter of a mile.  There are grooves of cottonwood and fruit trees that provide shade, as well as the towering walls of the south rim of the canyon. I maintain a good pace  to aid station 2, located about 11 miles into the run.  One of the joys to running this type of race is that the ebb and flow of pace brings you into and out of contact with other runners and you get to meet people from all over the country.  I spend a couple miles chatting with the only female sergeant in Alaskan law enforcement; another mile or two with a fellow from Salt Lake City that is running his first ultra in memory of his recently departed father.

coursemap

My GPS track for the run. The course starts and ends in the west — the left hand side of the map. The narrow canyons play havoc with the gps sync of my watch, and although the time of the run is accurate, I note that occasionally my watch thinks I am running at 8:30 or 16:30 per mile, when in fact I am just about 11 minutes per mile out to sharp bend to the south on the right hand side of the map. This where Bat Canyon begins.

I had a plan for the run – I always have a plan, but rarely execute it.  However, today, I am almost exactly on task, and at 3 hours I have run 15.9 miles.  The very first runners to pass me going back towards the start/finish are a pair of Navajo young men striding like they are floating.  They pass after I have only run 14.5 miles, but given the length of the course they are beyond 20 miles!  The course for the first 15 miles has been almost flat – an artifact of canyon floor.  The walls of the canyon now are over a thousand feet above me, and when I arrive at Spider Rock I know that I have to climb that 1000 feet.

elevationprofile2

Elevation profile of the Canyon De Chelly ultra. The section from 16.25 to 17.4 is a very steep scramble up Bat Canyon. The top of Bat Canyon is the turn-around point, and tired legs need to “scramble” down before making the way back to the finish.

From Spider Rock the course turns south and heads up Bat Canyon.  The first mile or so is a modest ascent, but mentally the pressure builds as I peer up the canyon and can see the rim far above me. Soon the trail becomes a very narrow single track with large boulders of red sandstone.  I suppose athletes could run up this, but I am reduced to walking and using my hands to scramble. In some ways it is a relief not to be running – different muscles are used for scrambling! It is a hard ascent, but I arrive at the turn around at about 3hr 40 minutes (only a little slower than I thought I would).  A good part about the scramble is that I get to look at the rocks up close, and I find large blocks of Shinarump Conglomerate, the capping rock that long protected the De Chelly sandstone from erosion.

conglomerateboulder

The Shinarump Conglomerate – ancient stream channels that brought cobbles of granite and quartz pebbles from a highlands located somewhere to the northwest. The conglomerate cemented to a very hard layer of rock that resisted erosion.

Although I have stuck to my running plan I know that the second half of the race is really what all ultras are about – tired legs, all the sins of improper hydration and fueling surface, and the mental fatigue of running for 7 or 8 hours.  I drink an ice cold coke at the Bat Canyon aid station, and begin the descent.  It is far worse that the ascent!  It is impossible to get any rhythm and the narrow track means that passing by all the runners still climbing up is like driving in stop and go traffic.

topofbatcanyon

A view back down Bat Canyon towards Canyon De Chelly. The run down this steep trail is far harder for me than the scramble up.

After losing about 250 feet of elevation as I run back down Bat Canyon, I try to hop out of the narrow single track to let a faster group of runners pass by.  Unfortunately, I stumble backwards and bend my bad (well, my knee that has all its original parts) knee backwards.  It hurts, but seems like I can “tough it out”, and hopefully it will feel well with a mile or two.  However, the knee swells, and it is quite stiff.  I decide to walk for a while, and enjoy the company of a Los Alamos colleague for 2 miles.

spiderrockbat

The “back side” of Spider Rock as viewed from the end of Bat Canyon. It is only 14.5 miles back to the finish from here – but the sky is blue, and the temperature is pushing 80 degrees.

Even with the slow pace – about 17 minutes a mile – almost no runners catch us or pass.  The slow pace allows time to enjoy the unique scenery, but I realize that I should do something to control the swelling.  I pull out my ibuprofen, take a couple, and within minutes the swelling seems better, and even more importantly, I feel like I can run at a modest pace.  I am quite relieved that I know I will make to the finish line even if my time is slower than I like.  In fact, I begin to catch a few other runners, and actually feel pretty good when I arrive at the last aid station.  The table is stacked with slices of locally grown melons – they taste of the nectar of the gods!

After the final aid station there is only 6 miles to run, but much of that is through the dreaded soft sand.  Further, the sun is overhead, and the temperature is in the 80s.  I pass about half a dozen runners, and they look totally spent.  Not much I can do for them except offer encouragement – and tell them the distance remaining based on my GPS app.  The last 3 miles three strangers come together – myself, a young and recent mother from Salt Lake City, and a grandmother (only a few years younger than I) from North Carolina.  Good conversation and mutual support makes the 40 minutes or so of sand file by, and I finally cross the finish line in about 8 hrs 15 minutes.  Tired, but elated.

award

The unique reward for completing the Canyon De Chelly ultra is a hand made turquoise necklace.

The finish line area is filled with runners celebrating a spiritual journey through a special land.  Traditional Navajo foods and more smiles than I can imagine.  I am sore and tired, and stiffen up within a hour of completing the run. But after a night of fitful sleep — trying not to let my legs cramp or my knee to swell — I arise at 5 am and head out to the north rim of the Canyon and watch the sun rise over the Defiance Plateau.  The view is wonderful, and one that I have shared with so many that passed before me in this beautiful place.

DSC00641

Sunrise over the Defiance Plateau, the day after the race.