An official marathon

I’ve completed my first official marathon, one not measured by miles delineated on a trail app. This was an actual race, a Boston-qualifier, even – but I didn’t attempt to qualify. I walked the entire distance.

I registered for the race months ago, intending to run. Then, an ankle injury kept me from running during the nine weeks leading up to the race. When race day came, I opted to walk rather than risk further injury.

Walking backpack-free for 26+ miles on a mostly-flat course would be a novel experience. I didn’t know how fast I could walk, or how long I could maintain my fastest pace. I’d never walked 26 miles without at least a few sit-down stops along the way. I hoped to complete the marathon in 7 hours.

I took the early start option, lining up at the starting line at 5:30am. It was light enough to see without assistance from my headlamp, but only just. I wore my hiking clothes, hiking shoes, and hydration vest. My race number was pinned to the front of my shirt.

I left the starting line with a pace hovering around 14:30/mile, quick but comfortable, a notch below my top speed. I didn’t want to push too hard too fast and flame out in the final miles. The distance wouldn’t be a challenge, but maintaining top speed over such a distance might be.

Aid stations appeared like trail magic. At the first station, I ducked into an outhouse, then resupplied with a cup of electrolytes and a sleeve of energy gels. The volunteers seemed surprised that I intended to walk the entire marathon. They enthusiastically cheered me on.

Near mile 8, my husband joined me on his bicycle. In the bike’s panniers, he carried four liters of water, two bags of potato chips, four energy bars, a change of socks, my sunglasses, and my silver sun umbrella.

I munched potato chips while I walked. At mile 14.5, I sat to change into dry socks. My average pace tumbled as a result of this break, so for the next mile I pushed myself hard to make up time. My husband refilled my water bottles, then left me to walk alone for the next five or so miles.

In mile 18, I spent a few minutes in another outhouse. Again my pace dropped, and again I pushed myself to make up lost time.

Until now, I’d maintained an average pace of approximately 14:30/mile, including the sock change and outhouse breaks. I’d had to work for this pace, but I wasn’t in danger of wearing myself out. Now I allowed myself to walk as fast as I could. As the miles ticked by, my pace hovered below 13:30/mile.

By now the sun was high, the temperature climbing. The last five miles of the course wound through long shade-less stretches. I retrieved my silver umbrella from the bicycle panniers and cruised down the road beneath it.

One after another, I overtook runners who’d slowed to walk, or walk-jog. They looked uncomfortable, or worse. I felt guilty for breezing by, feeling fantastic. And I was thrilled to feel so fantastic. I was at my limit – I couldn’t walk any faster – but mile after mile I maintained this speed, and doing so wasn’t difficult. Should I have let loose earlier? At mile 15, maybe? At mile 10?

I crossed the finish line in 6 hours 21 minutes – obliterating my previous speed record for that distance – and earned my first marathon finisher’s medal.

Thank you to the organizers of Running with the Bears for a fantastic event, and thank you to my husband Greg for serving as my support crew during this endeavor.


The 40th month

The first two weekends in April arrive with winter storm warnings, so we wait for a storm-free weekend to complete our 40th consecutive month of backpacking. When Earth Day weekend promises sunny weather, we make plans to snow camp along the Tahoe Rim Trail. Then, we both catch a cold.

For me, the symptoms are minor. After fighting off the worst flu of my life in January 2013, I rarely get sick; when I do, I develop mild, fleeting versions of the usual symptoms associated with colds and flus. This might sound like a blessing, but I’d much rather have the full effect: fever, congestion, and cough would be welcome signs that I’m not having a Lyme relapse. I’d rather spend a week knocked out by a cold than spend months cycling through Lyme disease.

Because the symptoms I experience when I’m fighting a cold mimic the symptoms I had during Lyme flares, I’m never certain if I’m actually sick, or if I need to drag myself back to my doctor for an evaluation and, possibly, more antibiotics. This time, however, one of my co-workers comes down with symptoms identical to mine – right down to having to run for the toilet. Hurray! I must be sick!

The day after I start feeling sick, Greg starts feeling horrible, so we revise our April backpacking plans. Instead of a long day of snow-shoeing the Rim Trail, we’ll take the PCT north from Highway 49.

Early on Saturday afternoon we begin hiking. The climb is continuous but well-graded. After the first two miles, we find snow across the trail. The snow patches grow and deepen as we climb. We pass a few day hikers coming down.

After 3.5 miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain, the trail reaches a saddle under the Sierra Buttes with spectacular views into the North Yuba River Canyon. We’ve reached our destination.

On this trip, we each have our own tent. One reason: I don’t want to share a tent with someone who will be coughing and blowing his nose all night. Another reason: Greg wants to test drive the tent he’s making, a roomy one-person cuben-fiber shelter still under construction but nearing completion. Nostalgia hits when I pitch my little Copper Spur tent for the first time since finishing my thru-hike in October.

We eat dinner. Greg goes to bed early. I stay up to watch the sun set. The Sierra Buttes cast a dramatic shadow on the opposite wall of the canyon. The shadow creeps upward as the sun sinks.

In the morning, Fox Sparrows are up and singing before I emerge from my tent. Greg and I have breakfast, then pack up and begin the descent. It’s a quick, easy hike down to the trailhead. Soon, we’ve completed our 40th month.

(In January 2015, Greg and I began backpacking at least once per month, year-round. April 2018 is our 40th consecutive month with at least one backpacking trip.)

Gear review: Suntactics solar panels

I loved: Charging on the go, no relying on outlets in town!

Dislikes: Not practical in prolonged cloudy or excessively smokey conditions.

On the PCT 2017, I carried two versions of Suntactics solar panels: the sCharger-5 and the sCharger-14.

I started my hike in southern California with the sCharger-5 and a small battery pack. Together, this system weighed about 9 ounces. What did I use it for? Primarily keeping my iPhone powered. I also charged my headlamp’s battery and the battery for the personal locator beacon/GPS unit I carried. I used my phone for pictures (lots of pictures!), apps like Guthooks and Halfmile, communication with family and friends, and writing and posting my daily blog entires. All of this resulted in heavy battery usage.

To keep everything powered, I strapped the solar panel to the top of my backpack and charged the battery pack while I hiked. iPhones are difficult to charge while hiking. If the incoming power drops below a certain threshold, the phone stops charging. When it begins recharging, it emits a “bong” sound and the screen comes on. If this happens repeatedly, the phone loses more battery power than it gains. To avoid this frustration, I used the solar panel to charge a small battery pack rather than charge the phone directly.

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Charging on the go with the sCharger-5.

In southern California, the sCharger-5 easily kept up with my demands and powered my dad’s phone, too. In northern California, with near constant tree cover, the little panel struggled. If I took a lunch break and set the panel in full sun, it did ok, but I couldn’t always find ideal conditions.

What to do? I could purchase a larger battery pack, or upgrade to a more powerful (and heavier) solar panel. The problem with carrying a large battery pack was that I’d be forced to spend hours tied to an outlet in order to recharge the thing. I preferred to spend as little time in town as possible, so I wasn’t crazy about this option. I had a positive experience with my Suntactics panel in the desert, where I heard hikers complain about panels from other brands, so I decided to try the largest panel Suntactics makes: the sCharger-14.

Left: sCharger-5. Right: the much larger sCharger-14.

This beast isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t exactly fit on top of a backpack. It weighs 21 ounces! Nevertheless, I carried this panel into Oregon. There, it faced unexpected challenges: a full week of thunderstorms and wildfire smoke as thick as clouds. Despite this, the panel kept my batteries going. I was impressed; a smaller panel could never have managed this.

However, I knew that Washington was likely to be even cloudier than Oregon, so I reluctantly swapped out the solar panel for an extra large battery pack. The battery pack was a good choice for Washington because the smoke was so relentless, and because I took a few well-spaced zeroes with family during which I was able to recharge the battery.

When I went back into the Sierra in late September, I took the humongous sCharger-14. I knew my photo-taking, and thus my battery usage, would be excessive. It was, and the solar panel excelled despite the sun’s low angle in the autumn sky. In the Sierra, the sCharger-14 reliably charged my phone at the rate of 1% per minute. Plugging in my phone on lunch breaks was adequate to keep everything running. Often I was able to charge my pesky iPhone while I hiked – a huge plus. The sCharger-14 has two inputs, so I could charge my phone and my GPS at the same time. The panel worked so well in the Sierra that I never needed the backup battery I carried.

I loved the freedom that came with carrying solar panels. I wasn’t dependent on town stops to recharge my things, and (except for long strings of cloudy days) I never worried about running out of power. On a long hike, I would definitely carry a solar panel again.

Gear review: ZPacks 10-degree sleeping bag

I love: Very warm for low weight, customizable options (width, length, fill weight).

Dislikes: None.

I carried a ZPacks 10-degree sleeping bag for all but a few weeks of my 2017 PCT hike. I opted for a sleeping bag rather than a quilt because I wanted the ability to zip up the bag. I chose this bag because the fill weight equaled 70% of the bag’s total weight, the highest percentage of all the bags I considered, hypothetically making it the warmest bag for the weight – and because I’d read so many positive reviews from other hikers.

Before my hike, I read many PCT blogs, and I read over and over again that the desert was the coldest part of the trail. I paid attention when women said they wished they’d carried warmer sleeping bags. Many had carried 20-degree bags and wished they’d had 10s. Some carried 10s and were still cold. I opted for the ZPacks 10-degree bag believing that it’s better to be too hot than too cold.

I loved the sleeping bag. I bought it in blue, in the standard girth (61″) and extra long length (for people 6’5″ tall) because I wanted to be able to pull my head inside on really cold nights. For me, the extra length was absolutely the right decision. The width was perfect. The shell material feels so delicate that I feared the bag would be in shreds by the end of my hike, but after six months of daily use the bag still looks new, though slightly less fluffy. I’m beyond impressed. This is a warm, high quality sleeping bag for very little weight.

And about the warmth…I overheated almost every single night. I slept on a Therm-a-Rest ZLite Sol sleeping pad – far from the warmest pad available – yet this setup managed to keep me very warm even at 32 degrees in northern Washington. Above 40 degrees, I couldn’t even zip up the bag without overheating. (Take into consideration that I slept in a tent every night.) In northern California, I swapped out the ZPacks bag for my Western Mountaineering 32-degree Summerlite; I switched back to the ZPacks bag for Oregon and Washington.

Once, after two wet days and nights in Washington, the bag got wet enough that I feared it wouldn’t keep me warm. To my surprise, it did, even when damp, and it dried quickly the next day when the sun finally came out.

When I went through the Sierra in late fall, I added a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm pad to my arsenal. This is one of the warmest pads available. With that pad and my ZPacks bag, I was comfortable down to 20 degrees. On the coldest nights, I supplemented my regular sleeping outfit of light base layers with my down parka draped over me (inside the bag) for added insulation. I suspect I would not have been warm enough at the bag’s rating of 10-degrees F, but at 20 degrees I was fine. At 30 degrees with this setup, I was too warm.

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The only picture I took of my sleeping bag: bundled up in the High Sierra on my XTherm mattress.

I love my ZPacks 10-degree bag. It kept me warm without taking up much room in my pack or contributing much weight. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it again, though I would probably reserve the 10-degree version for Washington and the Sierra.

Note: ZPacks no longer offers a 10-degree bag. While I was on the trail, they changed their offerings to 35, 20, and 5 degrees F.

I stumbled through my first writers conference

I’m writing a novel. I’m not yet writing at the level to which I aspire, but I want to give this story every chance to succeed. That’s why I’ll be attending writers conferences this year, and hopefully for many years to come. Writers conferences offer education on a variety of subjects, plus opportunities to network with other writers. Over the weekend I attend my first: the Sierra Writers Conference.

The morning of the event, I was excited, but not especially nervous. After all, I’ve attended wildlife conferences. I’ve spoken at wildlife conferences. How much different can a writing conference be? It turns out the conference itself wasn’t much different – but I was. I was not myself.

“Have you been published?” asked a fellow writer as we waited for the morning’s first session to begin.

“Not yet,” I said. I was thinking of my fiction, the reason I chose to attend this conference. I didn’t realize my error until hours later.

YES. I’ve been published: I’m the lead author of a paper in a well-known ornithological journal, published as an outcome of my thesis research. I’ve worked with editors, been through the peer-review process, and successfully revised my manuscript for publication. I’m proud of that, and I’m embarrassed to have forgotten.

However. Forgetting that I am a published author was not the most horrifying part of the day. That distinction goes to the moment when a woman asked, “What’s your novel about?”

Ok. I’d expected this question. It was probably the question that I was most prepared to answer. This story first came to me as a one-sentence plot summary, and it’s not a bad sentence. Recently, I put together a more detailed two-sentence version. But when asked…I couldn’t deliver either of them. What’s my story about? I don’t know!

With a bright red face – but without confidence, pride, or enthusiasm – I managed to give a brief summary.

Nervous? Maybe. Probably. Yes. I’m nervous. I’m not used to identifying myself as a writer, though I’m trying to become more comfortable claiming that identity in public. Anxiety like this doesn’t strike when I blog about my PCT hike or my illness. Writing about my writing freaks me out. If my husband walks by while I’m working on my novel, I turn off the computer screen. That’s how uncomfortable I am with sharing anything related to my fiction.

At the Sierra Writers Conference, I told fellow attendees about my nerves. I disclosed that I want to become more comfortable sharing my work. Everyone was kind and supportive. I learned from the workshops I attended. I took notes. I went home and made progress with my story.

I stumbled through my first writers conference, and now I know what I’m up against. Myself.

Gear review: Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack

I love: All those pockets! Great size, fairly low weight.

Dislikes: Relatively flimsy mesh pocket, buckles tend to break, boring gray color.

I started using the Mariposa 60 liter backpack on monthly backpacking trips a little over a year before embarking on my PCT hike. I immediately liked the size and relatively low weight of this pack. It was comfortable even carrying a bear canister and awkward, heavy loads (like snow shoes strapped to the outside). Most of all, I loved the external pockets. By the time I started hiking north from the Mexican border, I was confident in my choice of pack.

This backpack has one large mesh pocket on the front (or back, depending on your perspective), two small pockets on one side, and one tall pocket on the other side. The tall side pocket was my absolute favorite feature. Here’s why: I drink out of a water bladder, and I treat my water using an in-line filter. I carry the water bladder in the large side pocket. When I need water, I simply pull out the bladder, fill it, then tuck it away. The water is filtered while I drink. This made for quick, easy water refills.

Mariposa backpack with Platypus water bladder in the large side pocket. (I safety-pinned the sunflaps on my hat together in lieu of using sunblock.)

I’m a fan of large pockets on hipbelts. I was able to cram a lot of stuff into these hipbelt pockets, including snacks, chapstick, handkerchief, a small tripod, a headlamp, a pen for signing trail registers, etc. (all at the same time). Also, the hipbelt was comfortable. No complaints there.

I like the removable foam backpad in this pack. Over time, it molded to the shape of my back, which I really liked. By the end of my hike the cushioning was completely gone, but it was still really comfortable. After my hike I only swapped out the pad for a new one because it reeked of hiker sweat. I like that the pad is replaceable, and that it is easily removed to use as a seat cushion.

As expected, pack comfort was compromised when weighed down with a fully-loaded bear canister. When stuffed with a fully-loaded Bearikade Expedition, the largest bear can around, oh boy. I was uncomfortable for a few days until the food weight went down. Prior to re-entering the Sierra with heavier clothing and extra gear, I tried on other packs that would distribute all of the weight better. But I ended up sticking with the Mariposa – mostly because I couldn’t give up that large side pocket! – and it was fine.

I carried my sleeping pad, the accordion-style ZLite Sol, strapped to the outside of the pack in front of the mesh pocket (as seen in the above picture). For the most part, this kept the mesh from ripping. However, I still ended up with a few holes, and I consider this mesh to be a weak point in an otherwise wonderful backpack.

The backpack’s second weak point is buckles. I had two buckles break during my hike: the hipbelt, and one of the buckles that secures the “lid.” In each case I was able to keep using the broken buckles, but I worried about how long I would be able to do so. When contacted about the broken buckles, Gossamer Gear readily sent replacements, which I greatly appreciated.

Broken hipbelt buckle…still functional.

All in all, I loved this backpack. After six months of hard daily use (plus more than a year of use before that), the pack is still fully functional. I anticipate being able to carry this backpack for another year or more. When it finally wears out, I will buy another one.

What’s next?

Transitioning out of a thru-hike is a long process. It’s not easy, physically or emotionally, to stop hiking all day, every day. There’s physical pain in the transition, mostly in my feet, which after two months has finally (mostly) subsided – foot pain primarily occurs when I’m not walking. There’s the appetite rollercoaster as my body settles into a less active pattern. There’s sadness in losing a beloved lifestyle. And there’s a strange void that appears after achieving a major life goal. For years, almost every action I took revolved around hiking the PCT. Afterward, I expected to feel disoriented, and I have. This isn’t an easy process. As far as this blog, what can you expect as I transition away from my hike?

PCT gear reviews

When I was preparing for my hike, I found gear reviews by thru-hikers to be a valuable resource. I’ll be posting reviews of my own with the hope that my experiences will help others make informed gear choices.

Backpacking in every month of the year

In 2015, my husband and I committed to backpacking in every month of the year. We enjoyed the experience so much that when 2016 rolled around, we decided to commit to another 12 months. These trips, taken in winter, spring, summer, and fall, were excellent preparation for the PCT. December 2017 marked our 36th consecutive month of backpacking, and I don’t anticipate quitting any time soon. From time to time, I’ll share our experiences on California’s backcountry trails.

Backpacking the PCT in Bucks Lake Wilderness, December 2017, for our 36th consecutive month of backpacking.
Backpacking the PCT in Bucks Lake Wilderness, December 2017, for our 36th consecutive month of backpacking.

Continuing to write

All my life, I’ve written stories. In elementary school, I wrote a series of short stories about a unicorn family. I wrote my first novel in the fifth grade, a 100+ page adventure about a race horse. I wrote a second novel in high school, and a third while working toward my bachelor’s degree. Before I started this blog, however, I never shared my writing with anyone outside of my immediate family. Posting publicly about my thoughts and feelings has not been easy, but it’s made me more comfortable with sharing my work. I’m currently working on another novel – this time, one that may be worth sharing. Stay tuned for more.