Skyrunning is a relatively new sport that is characterized by extreme mountain running events that take place above 6,600 feet of elevation and involve unusually steep climbing and descending. Basically, racing on as steep terrain as possible without having to actually rock climb. In its fourth year, the Broken Arrow Skyrace is held at Squaw Valley and is California's official Skyrunning event. This event showcases stunning views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra, along with the sport's requisite steep terrain with massive amounts of vertical gain and loss at altitude. After hearing about this race at the beginning of the year from a friend, some of the Earth Runners crew and I thought the 26k (16 mile) distance sounded like a fun event to throw on the calendar. Roughly 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss sounded like an epic day, and oh man were we right!
"California is drought-free for the first time in seven years after a winter of heavy rain and snow!"
The stoke was high as we toured the Village at Squaw the day before.
Little did we know that the course would be nearly half covered in snow with temperatures in the high 70s! Most of us had little-to-no experience running in snow, but we were certainly up for the adventure. The course has a progressive elevation gain that peaks at mile 9 (8,871ft) with snow covering a good portion of the course above 7,000 ft.
I had very little expectations going into the race. I had two main goals: to put some of our prototype adventure sandals through their paces, and to go at a comfortable enough pace to allow for documenting and soaking up the experience. Everyone on the Earth Runners crew had extremely variable training regimens leading up to the race, so each person’s gear and anticipated pace for the race was quite different. Having logged more training miles than both the other crew members combined over the 3 months leading up to the race I was the only one who opted to race in sandals. I was feeling fit and pumped!
At the start I positioned myself in the middle of the pack, so the first 3-4 miles allowed for a slow and thorough warm-up as we filed through the forested single track of mud and snow runoff. This was fine as I am a proponent of a deep and intentional warm-up where I systematically scan my body and level of mobility to ensure everything is firing well before I throttle up the pace. It wasn't until I fully submerged my feet into cold creek runoff that I felt like my body was fully online. At this point, I started to look for wider sections of the trail where I could gently begin advancing past other runners as I radiated the primal runner vibes.
At mile 4.5 we encountered snow combined with the first of many straight-up-the-mountain ascents. Having never experienced running in sandals on snow, I was admittedly a bit nervous and didn't know what to expect. However, fairly quickly I gained confidence and was ecstatic with how well the prototype sandals handled the steep and slippery terrain! Given my inclination for elevation gain, I quickly became impatient with the single file hike up the snow-covered mountain sides and found this was a great opportunity to pass and chat with some new running comrades. Mile 6 brought us to the Easy Street Aid Station and I was very impressed by the love, attention, and goodies available. All day, across the course, the volunteers were awesome! Feeling good, I didn't linger and after grabbing a handful of granola, a slice of orange, a banana and a water refill I headed out to tackle the next monster "hill."
Up next was a 2,200ft climb over 3.2 miles. After the refuel, I was feeling ready to really throttle up and see how hard I could push. I passed a number of people on the climb but couldn't sustain the passing pace for long. I would simply hang in the pack until I regained my equilibrium then get back on the press. It was nearly impossible to talk at this stage in the race but everyone around me seemed to be in the same state of mountain-flow-elevation-bliss. This section of the course was characterized by increasingly incredible 360 degree views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding sierras as we scrambled over the narrow ridge line up to Squaw Peak.
After taking in the view traversing Squaw Peak, we headed down through the first truly technical downhill section to what appeared to be a random mountain top party but turned out to be the Siberia Aid Station. I highly recommend the iced tea flavored electrolyte mix! I imagine that most people would feel relieved at this point with mostly downhill remaining, but this is where I had the most uncertainty: How do I run downhill in snow?
- Should I change out my wet socks?
- Would my sandals offer enough security in the already unstable and unpredictable snow?
- Should I run in the packed (slightly icy) trail or fresh off-trail unpacked snow?
- How fast should I run being a moderate speed downhill runner (on dirt and rock)?
I opted to change my socks and started a full-plow descent through the snow. Within 30 seconds I had newly saturated wet socks, but didn't regret the sock change. The new socks were clean of dirt and grime which can act as a lubricant between the foot-and-sandal foot-bed, resulting in a reduction in traction. I quickly learned that an aggressive running form worked down hill as long as I stayed loose with zero expectations of traction. I surrendered to gravity and coursed down the mountain with minimal resistance. One technique I used, which I learned slack-lining, is to keep my arms above my shoulders to allow for maximum leverage in countering my weight in order to maintain my balance on the unpredictable running surface. This proved invaluable to prevent falling and slipping going down the steep snow grades. I also partook of my fair share of wipe outs and glissading on my increasingly frosty backside. This resulted in the unique sensation of my entire body being hot and sweaty contrasted by my numb behind. My technique for icy uphill sections included inserting my feet into the snow with my arms at the ready to go onto all fours and bear crawl if my foot holds happened to fail. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the sorest parts on my body from the race was my hands and forearms from all the glissading and snowy bear crawls.
Just over 12 miles in, I made it to the final aid station feeling comfortable and was pleasantly surprised to realize I had less than 4 miles left, all of it downhill! Having taken less pictures than I wanted thus far, I made sure to capture the remainder of the course and its electric beauty as we worked our way down the mountain into the lush Squaw Valley. This section was characterized by expansive green valley views and aromatic alpine forest.
I made it to the finish line and slapped the finish line bell feeling complete satisfaction with the day. I was greeted by some friends who participated in the 52k (32 mile) race the day before and while we waited for the other guys to finish we shared blissful recollections of what to me, resembled a dreamlike experience amidst the EPIC beauty of this course. Every member of the Earth Runners team who raced had a vastly different experience but we all agreed it was a thoroughly enjoyable epic experience and we can't wait for next year!
So Are Earth Runners Adventure Sandals Skyrace Approved?
Per usual, people were a bit dumbfounded when encountering a sandaled runner on the steeps of the Sierras. If people inquired about the sandals I told them "It’s all I run in (aside from during the coldest months in the Winter) so I'm used to it," and that I am more motivated than the average sandal runner. They didn't really understand exactly what I meant by this but what I was saying is that I am product testing the latest sandal developments for the company I own, which is a direct reflection of who I am and my deepest passions. I love creative project development and primal adventure. I can't imagine anything I'd rather be doing than designing adventure sandals that I then get to test in the High Sierra!
The challenge of comfortably traversing the rugged snow covered landscape of this course in Earth Runners was a fun and hugely beneficial accelerant for both Earth Runners product development and for me personally (EarthRunner1987). As a result, the most recent prototypes have been getting thicker to offer more epic adventure protection and combined with the world leader in traction, all-terrain Vibram outsole Megagrip, I think we have created a sandal that can handle just about anything the back-country can throw at you. Changes to the sandal design (all the way up until the week before the race!) offered complete performance satisfaction on this course and still had more to give. It wasn't until I crossed the finish line with a somewhat competitive time that I realized the new Cadence Earth Runners adventure sandals has been born!
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