Sunday, December 9, 2007

Saratoga Gap to Horseshoe Lake

I woke up this morning knowing that I would have a full day ahead of me. The day would start out with a long hike through Saratoga Gap in the Santa Cruz Mountains and then, after that, take part in a virtual race called 8 on the 8th. Not a lot of activities, but a lot of physical activity.

I arrived at the intersection of highways 35 and 9 where I parked on the southeast corner. It was freezing out with the fog still filtering through the trees and it was in the low forties. My friend I was hiking with was running late so away I went to run a mile, heading towards Castle Rock. Immediately I realized two things: my hands were frozen and the trails were absolutely beautiful.

A few minutes into my warm up mile I was hearing the pitter patter of water so I stopped to listen. It turned out the fog was so thick that it was dripping off the trees. A great feeling as I ran up the hills. By the time I had finished the mile I had climbed almost 300 feet, so it was a decent climb. By the time I got back to the parking lot my friend had just gotten there.

As soon as we started I began recognizing certain landmarks. I knew that the Stevens Creek 50k I had ran in September ran through Saratoga Gap at some point, but having never been there I had no clue where that was. It turned out that where I started this hike was the 10.9 mile aid station, but I didn't know this until the end of the hike.

As we were going through the lush forest I was continually amazed at how beautiful everything was. Deep green moss was on every tree with huge towering giants that left you protected from the sun (if it had come out at least). Eventually we got to an intersection and I just had to stop. I'd been there before and yet I didn't recognize the 2+ miles I had just walked at all! I can't believe how different everything looked from summer to winter.

Soon enough the trail led us up to the ridge and opened into a valley with fog billowing around and swirling with the wind. Very Tolkienesque and I expected Tree Ents at every corner. Here was yet another amazing change in landscape as we moved from the cover of the forest to a ridge line open to the sun and full of grass. My hands were completely numb at this point and there wasn't anything I could do to warm them up. That's what I get for leaving the gloves in my room, right? Won't make that mistake again.

We eventually moved past a private pond , down a fire road to a Christmas Tree farm where there were a ton of people having picnics, playing and cutting trees down. The smell was amazing. Eventually we made it into Horseshoe Lake, which I most certainly recognized from the Stevens Creek 50k because this was where the 19.3 mile aid station and where the finish was. And it really looks like a horseshoe!

So here was where things kind of went wrong. We had hiked 9 miles so far and since I had inadvertently traversed the same route that I had ran the 50k and I thought, lets return back to Saratoga Gap via the route I had ran from the start of the race. I mean, I hadn't recognized anything to that point and had still managed to take the same route from mile 10.9 to 19.3, so the same would happen, right?

Wrong, and we were lost within a mile, walking trails I absolutely didn't recognize. Eventually we were on Grizzly Flat trail and had our first creek crossing. But the peaceful atmosphere turned sour when Grizzly Flat turned out to be the trail from hell: straight up for almost 2 miles and it seemed never ending.

After 18.3 miles we eventually made it back to Saratoga Gap and it took all day to do, what with the stopping, resting and admiring our surroundings. We had to cross a creek, avoid the slow meandering and clumsy salamanders on the trail, hear deer jumping along the side of the mountain, huge and alien looking mushrooms. It was absolutely amazing, with the exception of the extremely numb hands.

And I couldn't believe that unbeknownst to me in the beginning I had ran Saratoga Gap, which was about 10 miles of the Stevens Creek 50k. Perhaps it was the dry and brown conditions compared to the lush and green conditions; perhaps it was the fact that the last time I ran through there I was tired and focused on one foot in front of the other. Who knows, but if you ever get a chance you should definitely walk the trails before or after a race and truly experience the trails. Or, better yet, take time to smell the flowers when you run trails. I know I was absolutely floored and amazed at what I had experienced when I took my time.

Of course, since this took all day, I had to move the 8 on the 8th virtual race to another day.

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