Saturday, May 18, 2013

KimYuJeong to Soyang Dam

It is 4AM, you find yourself standing on the corner of a city street with a guy in spandex, a visor with a protrusion of blond fro exploding from it, and a headlamp. What the heck is going on? you ask yourself. Did I just come from a rave? Did I just break out of a mental hospital and this is my cohort? And then a sip of coffee brings you back: Oh, yeah, I'm going trail running with Robb!
Robb, looking ... tight!
Today, the plan was to do a 33km mountain run from Kim Yujeong Station just outside of Chuncheon and traverse the mountains and the main ridge on the Chuncheon circuit trail over to the bottom area of Soyang Dam. To date, I am pretty sure that this is the furthest we have been on any one section of this trail, and today was gonna be epic!
The reason for the early start was two fold: first, we would finish before noon and have the rest of the day for family and "major errands"; or, in my case, a long nap, and scarfing a plate of nachos while parading around in my apartment in compression gear (the stuff works!). The second reason was to beat the heat, and thus, require less hydration. These spring days are starting to warm up considerably and the signature mugginess of the Korean summer is starting to emerge. There is, as far as we know, no water or springs on this track without a significant detour and backtrack, so we both set off with the two liters in our Nathan packs and a handheld water bottle. This proved sufficient-- I finished my water right in the middle of the last climb, and nothing was left but a fast descent to the joys of the 편의점 (convenience store). Conserving water can be a bit tricky, especially when hydration is absolutely crucial to get tired legs up and down climbs safely, but the more time I spend out there the better I become at knowing what I can get by on.
We started slowly up the first section of the day, a climb up GeumByeong-san. To get there, we had to weave through winding farm roads, our headlamps bouncing reflections off the submerged rice paddies and the glowing eyes of growling 진돗개 (Korean breed of hunting dog and protectorate of farms). Robb had to deuce, so I continued up through this enchanted grove of trees alone, turned off the headlamp, and felt the forest come alive with birds and little critters stirring up the dawn. It's reassuring knowing that you get to trade a few hours of sleep for this! The trail, in typical Korean fashion, started to shoot straight up the mountain, and we were digging in and climbing. We reached a ridge soon enough, and started running the rollers, still climbing towards the top. The azaleas were everywhere, and Robb noted the strong smell of honey in the forest. We passed by a tent, nestled in a sweet little spot of the trail, and then a small tent village near the peak (금병산 630m). These folks had the right idea. The could sleep and enjoy the honey-smelling forest simultaneously. We snapped some quick photos and began our descent, and it wasn't even 6 o'clock!

Our next section takes us over our familiar 수리봉 (Soori Peak) and 대령산 (Daeryeong-san), and we climb up through the forest, rolling over lesser peaks that offer picturesque views of Chuncheon in the morning. We reach Daeryeong-san, and it is only 8 o'clock. It is one of the more popular peaks in Chuncheon, and there was no one there. We became very self-congratulatory at how bad ass we think we are, but moments later as we began our descent we passed an elderly couple, smiling as they climb a steeper section of the trail towards the peak. Yep. Gotta love Korea. We make our way down, get to Myeong-bong and hang a right to go to Neuratchae, where we hit some great rolling but runnable sections of trail. At about 23km in, I start to feel the telltale signs of a bonk coming on- dizziness, wobbly legs, a strong desire to stare at the moving patterns on the ground; so as soon as we hit the connecting fire road at the top of 느랏재 (Neuratchae), we scarfed down our peanut butter sandwiches and I threw down a Gu for good measure.
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Spring has come to the mountains!

Robb speeding along the quick single-track.

We get to our last section of trail, an 8.3 km section that should easily follow a ridge down to Soyang Dam, and we think we can make pretty good time if we can get some good running in. But about 2km into this, we get lost (you can see a long line jutting out on the Strava track), and of course the section where we get lost takes us down, and down, until we realize we have to turn around and climb back up to find the track again. Pretty demoralizing and energy-sapping. But it gave birth to a great maxim from Robb: "If the trail looks shite, it ain't right!" We got back on the trail and made our way through some beautiful, lush green sections of forest, much of it runnable but sprinkled with some leg-murdering steep climbs, quite a few which stopped me in my tracks, and with hands on my knees I again and again took to my intricate study of the forest floor. A study in dirt, if you will. Soon, again, we are heading down, down, and the trail starts to take on a more "shitely" veneer. I bring this to Robb's attention, and again we backtrack, up, of course, and find the trail, a little more deflated. Then we descend some really steep stuff through a particularly lush section with lots of ferns popping up out of black soil. That levels off, and then we see another peak in the distance, and as Robb told me we have to climb it, my heart started to sink. I have an pervasive tendency to go negative in the face of adversity, and the trail is a place where I can see this firsthand and actively work through it. I reminded myself of the absolute blessing that God gives of nature and health, and the gift that we have to play and enjoy it. And, to boot, I still had power in my legs, something I forget when I go into complaining mode. Robb always provides a positive model, as well, because the more suffering there is, the more he relishes it. So, I ate my final Clif Bar, sucked down my water, and actually started to move up the mountain, Robb being an uncatchable rabbit (jackrabbit) to chase, and before you know it, we are at the top peering down on the reservoir of Soyang Dam.

Soyang Dam, here we come!

This song came to mind and we started belting out the few lyrics we both knew.  We make the final descent, hit the pavement where we try and stretch out our legs with a pretty good pace, and find ourselves in "civilization". I joke to Robb about what the Saturday, Soyang Dam crowd must think of the likes of us. Having no idea what we had just been through, I'm sure we looked like we hadn't made very good life decisions, like we don't have it together very well, and we freaking stink! And perhaps they are right on all counts, but none of that matters as we clink our cans of Pilsner Urquells and grins spread wide across greasy, salty, sweat stained faces. Great run, dude!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Chuncheon Dam to Samak-san: The Dragon's Back

Robb cresting one of the many knolls in the fog.

A good view of what's to come.

In 2011, Robb and I set off to backpack the Chuncheon circuit trail, about an 85km trot that covers every single mountain of note in the Chuncheon area. But a rough day two sent us home licking our wounds. The problem being that on this particular section of the Samak to Chuncheon Dam route, we had to traverse about 8km of a completely exposed spine. There is a section cut out about 20m across (you can see in the photos), and the brush and thorny bushes, heavily aided by the monsoons of mid-summer, had grown ferociously tall, razor sharp, and so thick that you could not see your feet, but knew they were there because they were attached to the ankles and calves that were getting cut to shreds by sharp thorns. We navigated about 5km of this, up and down, up and down, until the string of profanities that flew out of my mouth was longer than the trail itself. We ended up coming off the mountain, cried in our beers, Robb lost a cell phone, and the trip ended. We ended up completing the rest of the sections as day hikes.
Robb looking strong on the dragon's back.
This un-slain dragon of a of trail has haunted me ever since, but for whatever reason, I was never able to get back out there and finish it until yesterday. Looking at the numbers, the dragon doesn't look so formidable: 22km according to my conservative Garmin numbers, or 26 on Robb's friendly android GPS, and 1500 meters of vertical gain. But memories of suffering can project their own shadows, and in this case those shadows hold a bit of truth.
The day began with a beautiful early morning jog along a creek, through green ferns and oak trees with a smattering of waning cherry blossoms. One kilometer in, we veer away from the creek and start the climb, a straight shot up 500 meters, and we dug into a hiking pace. As we summited, we were totally hemmed in by fog, so no stellar views, but it lent a kind of cool, eerie tenor to the trail. Perhaps just as well, too; a clear view would reveal two giant twin peaks about 180 meters higher than where we stood that we needed to traverse. A short reprieve ensued before climbing the first of these twins, and as we summited I felt jubilant, still unaware that we would descend 180 meters only to climb it right back up again. In the first 7.5km, we'd already done half of our elevation gain for the day.
Just beginning the descent after 11 kilometers. 
At this point, I felt pretty good, having done a good portion of the day's work early on (ha! foolish optimism). We hit the open spine that previously had brought so much misery, and thankfully, this early in the season, there are no biting thorn bushes waiting to cut us up. So we started the up and down, up and down that gives this section the appearance of a dragon's back as all one can see in the distance are these green undulations. This section makes for some fantastic running, and the views all around are pretty epic, except we were mostly still in the fog. But on legs that had just climbed over 800 meters, these undulating mounds started to take their toll. By the time we reached the big descent at about 11km, my legs were feeling pretty trashed. But the sun began to burn away the fogs and clouds, and we could see the expanse of the valley and the rise of Samak-san in the distance-- truly stunning. After we dropped another 300 meters, we veered back into the forest, and started another fantastic running section of trail winding and rolling through a thick forest of birch trees and oaks. I was feeling pretty dreamy as an evil stump materialized out of the leaves and reached up to trip me, sending me in a horizontal catapult over the forest floor. Look ma, I'm flying! I got up after a couple of stunned moments, walked off a slightly tweaked ankle, and right as I got to running again I found myself at the bottom of another 100 meter climb. Perfect.
At about 18km in, we crossed a fire road, and then began the last climbs of the day, a total of 200 meters, no easy task after three and a half hours and 1300 meters of vertical gain. At the foot of the final climb, I sat down and vacantly chewed down the remainder of a Clif bar, trying to summon the will to make the final ascent. Tagging far behind Robb at this point, I finally made it to the top, absolutely gutted. Looking at the clock, though, we decided to try and clear 4:30 for the day, and so Robb set off at a fast downhill pace, nimbly dancing off a rocks and roots and quickly cutting his way down the tiny switchback descents through the observing eyes of the birch trees. We passed a mountain temple, a sure sign that we were close, and hit the rocky, fast-dropping canyon path that became more and more cluttered with hikers. Navigating the rocks, roots, and hikers became quite a chore at high speeds, and my vision started to take on a sort of psychedelic glare, so I slowed down, deciding to forego a broken ankle for the day. Robb burled on, flying down the path that wound through the rocks, over bridges and waterfalls, and dropping 200 meters in the final half kilometer.
I finished at 4:37, Robb some minutes before, and our total moving time of the day was 4:07. At the end of the day, as I sat and stretched out my tender hip flexors and sore quads, we decided that we hadn't quite slain the dragon, but rather placated her just enough to gain permission to scale her heights and cross her long, rippling back. Rather than the dejection with which she sent us packing two summers previous, she had rewarded our fortitude and sent us away with a profound respect. Definitely the hardest 22km run I've ever done!