Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Joshua Tree Traverse - 3/15/2017

I'm starting this post the morning after completing the Joshua Tree Traverse, a 38 mile (not 37 as I had previously written), trail run through the Mojave Desert portion of the national park's western region. For me, the run was spectacular. It was the pinnacle of everything I have ever wanted to do in terms of trail running. While Chris Ford, Jack Tyson, and I had been using the Traverse as our final major shake-out run prior to attempting a Rim to Rim to Rim run at the Grand Canyon next month, for me, the Joshua Tree run was the course I wanted to complete more than any other.

Over the past several years, Joshua Tree has become one of my two favorite national parks (the other being Canyonlands). I have been to Joshua Tree many times, including once a month for the past three months. I have run, hiked, and driven through large portions of the park. And until yesterday, I really thought I knew almost all of the park's features and secrets. The Traverse disabused me of that premise.

My two running buddies and I set off from Black Rock Campground at 6:32 AM, just as light was breaking. It was cold, but we eschewed clothing heavier than t-shirts and running shorts. We knew the park would quickly warm. We had read that the initial 5 miles of the course were sandy and uphill. A guy who used to own the FKT for the route had said to take your time and to not expend a lot of energy on that portion. We took that to heart and spent the first 5.5 miles jogging and walking with purpose up the sandy slope.

When we reached the top, we encountered a portion of the park none of us had ever seen. It was miles of beautiful desert. It looked like a massive version of a well-landscaped southwestern US front lawn. We were a bit jubilant to have reached this new desert-scape. Our next couple of trail miles were at a 9 minute pace (a bit faster than we wanted to average for the run).

After a few miles in the desert garden, we had a mountain pass to confront. We alternately ran and hiked quickly through a series of little climbs and drops amongst a series of switchbacks. When we reached the top, we could see that we were going to descend into another valley, the likes of which we also had never seen in the park. The new valley again looked like a well kept desert lawn. This one was blanketed with green grass and millions (or billions) of tiny purple flowers. The valley also went on for miles. We spent the better part of the next hour making our way through the purple paradise. Jack made the comment a couple of times that he never would have recognized the places through which we had journeyed as being part of Joshua Tree. They were completely different than anything we had experienced in other parts of the park.

When we left the flowered valley, we found ourselves at the top of a pass where the trail dropped steeply along a ridge line for a couple of miles. We pounded down into yet another new ecosystem. This part of the trail had more of an Arizona desert feel. It also had the steepest and second longest climb on the run. We again walked with purpose up the side of the mountain. And at the top, we encountered a more familiar landscape and finally started to feel as if we were in the Joshua Tree that most people know.

Jack had been having hamstring and knee issues for the past couple of months. And at about 15 miles into the run, he announced that he would drop at the extraction point near Ryan Campground five miles ahead. We stopped to reapply sunscreen, eat a protein bar or two, dump sand from our shoes, and to make sure Jack would be able to make the final miles to Ryan if Chris and I took off. Jack, who knows the park better than Chris or I, insisted that we go. He would get to Ryan and hitchhike back to the car and pick us up at the conclusion of the course.

We were all disappointed with the turn of events. It is not easy to see someone who has trained for an adventure be forced to abandon it. But no run is worth sustaining an injury that could take a long time to heal. Jack made the right decision - one I would have made - and would live to run another day.

Chris and I ran mainly downhill over alternately extremely rocky and then smooth trails for the next 5 miles. The rocks in this section were iron-rich and orange in color. The alternating packed sand smooth sections were much lighter in color. And that contrast, which would occur suddenly, is something that we encountered throughout the run. In several instances, the ground color would shift as abruptly as if crossing a line in the sand.

We arrived at the road crossing near Ryan Campground and replenished our water bottles and reservoirs under the shade of a large Joshua Tree. We had stashed three gallons of water there the previous evening knowing we'd need it. It was a bit strange to be near a road after a morning spent almost completely in wilderness. We left two empty gallon jugs and the third full one for Jack, and then started the second half of the journey.

The path took us by the outskirts of Ryan Campground and then up a pass on the back side of the mountain - a side that most tourists don't use. Coming up the pass, we encountered our first people in twenty miles, a couple of women backpacking. We said hello as we passed, and then continued farther into the desert.   At this point, we found ourselves on a gentle upslope that went on for miles. We were surrounded by Joshua Trees, rocks, and sand for as far as we could see. The sun poked out from what had been a mercifully cloudy sky, and we began to feel its full effects as the Mojave passed beneath us with each footfall.  We both tucked bandanas under our hats to hang over our necks to keep from getting too burned. This section between Ryan and the Geology Tour dirt road was psychically difficult. Because of the immensity of our surroundings, it felt as if we were making no progress.

When we finally arrived at Geology Tour, we paused to again apply sunblock and to take in some calories. The short stop, for me, marked the final jumping off point for the rest of the run. Chris and I took off with much-improved outlooks. A few miles later as we ran for a bit on a downhill section in the direction of the Colorado Desert, I began to have pretty bad pains in my quads. Each foot strike hurt. It slowed us down a bit as I requested that we stop for a brief period in order to stretch. I also determined that the pain was simply a good amount of lactic acid build-up and that I could run through it with little fear of sustaining any real injury. We ran toward our final road crossing near Belle Campground and then turned west following the trail in the direction of the park's North entrance.

The last several miles hurt. I was able to push the lactic acid build-up just far enough down that we would walk about a quarter mile and then run three quarters. We knew we would finish. But even so, I was being pretty careful to not finish the last drops of my water in case we might need it for some reason over the last couple of miles. Then, as we had once before, we encountered trail angel water. There were four jugs of water that had all been consumed to some degree sitting by a fence. Figuring that the water was safe (not something I'd always recommend), we both filled up and drank up. That little boost toward the end of the run really lightened my spirit which had begun to sink a bit as I concentrated on my legs.

We finished the run with a final stop to look at a beautiful horned toad about 100 yards from the finish. Jack (a true trooper and trail angel in his own right), greeted us with beer, Harmless Harvest Coconut Water, and cans of LaCroix. We spent some minutes letting it all sink in as we sat and drank on boulders next to his Subaru. Then we drove into town to grab some food for supper, but not before heading back into the park to pick up the empties from our water stash. Leave no trace.

Equipment -

Each of us had a hydration vest with a 2 liter bladder and 2 12-16 oz bottles. We refilled these at the halfway point. 2 of us used UD Scott Jurek Vests and one used a Nathan vest. All worked perfectly.

We wore - Hats (coincidentally, all by Patagonia), sunglasses, bandanas, tech Ts, running shorts, Feetures and Injinji socks, and 2 of us wore Nike Kiger 3s and one wore Altra Lone Peak shoes.

Misc products also used - Skratch Labs Hydration mix, Garden of Life Raw Meal, Trace Minerals Endure, Chia seed and raw lemons.

GPS - Garmin Forerunner 210 and Phoenix

Food each of us carried -
4-5 protein or nutrition bars, dehydrated fruit and nut mix, 3-4 gel packs (only 1 was used by each of us). Salt capsules - consumed 5 during the run.

Also carried - medical tape, 2 small bandages, BodyGlide.


  1. Thanks for the excellent writeup Al! Sounds like a perfect day for a perfect/well executed run. Hope everyone heals up for the R2R2R.

  2. Hi Rube;-),
    All going well I've put in some miles this week. Due to Jack's injury, we will be doing r2r2r in early October. I've already signed up for an ultra in April and plan to look at 1-2 more before the canyon.

  3. Hey Allen, Sweet write up. What did you do to prepare for this one? I have it on my radar, but only want to do it if I am properly fit. Any advice? Half marathon trail runs and less are what I run and train for currently, so is it just mileage, or would there be more than just that? Thanks, JK

    1. Hi John,

      Glad you liked the post. If you are doing half marathon trail runs you probably won't have to up your mileage too much. I would suggest getting comfortable with 45 - 50 trail mile weeks for at least a few weeks in advance of it - with a couple of long trail runs of 20 - 25 miles thrown in. Add some hills as well. Starting about 5 weeks out I did 4 or 5 long runs (with one set of 2 in a three day period about three weeks before the traverse - which, for me, made me feel I was ready).

      I had a forced taper the week before the run due to a trade show I had to attend. I'm not a huge believer in tapering. If I'm not racing, I like to keep my weekly mileage fairly consistent. But a few days off in advance did seem to help, and by the time we started I was ready to run.

      Three things I think are important to success (other than training): 1) hydration - make sure you carry plenty of water and/or sport drinks. And fill up before you get to the park - there is no water to be found in JT. We had 1 gallon per person stowed at our water drop point at the halfway mark. 2) weather - make sure you run it at the right time of year. We lucked out a bit because we had one of the few days where it was cloudy for the majority of the day. When the sun emerged, even though it wasn't particularly hot, we felt every bit of it. 3) maps - buy a really good map of the park. You may notice from reading different blogs on the topic that almost everyone takes at least a minor detour at some point. We were no exception. And, at least our detour only added a mile or so and was took us through a gorgeous little canyon. We stopped at Nomad Ventures the day before the run (it's a climbing store where Jack gets some of his gear). We got a better map and spoke with the very knowledgeable staff about the trail we'd be using.

      I don't know if you are going for an FKT or not, but our goal was to run the distance as comfortably as possible and take a little time every now and then to stop and enjoy the views. Almost no one uses parts of this trail, and the vistas that you will have to yourself are really spectacular in some instances.

      If you do it, please let me know how it went. I think you'll find it a great way to spend the better part of a day.

      Finally, Chris may put up a video of the traverse on Vimeo at some point. We had a little bit of a GoPro issue, so he hasn't edited it yet. I'll post a link to it here when he does.

      I hope these suggestions/comments help.