Pemberton Loop: Long and Hot

Last weekend was the hottest on record in Arizona. Friday hit 117º, breaking the previous record for the day (8/14) by four degrees. Saturday hit 115º, breaking the previous record by three degrees. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights all recorded 93º as the low temperature, breaking the previous records of warmest low for all three nights.

So it would make sense that this was the weekend I took on the longest trail run I’ve ever tackled, right? 

Hello, old friend.

I talked about my once upon a time mountain biking days in my post about running Pass Mountain Trail, so I’m not going to rehash it here (the part about biking is pretty short and near the top if you want to hop over to the Pass Mountain post to read it). Back when I was riding, Pemberton was my favorite place to go. I couldn’t guess how many times I rode it. It’s a long trail that consists basically of a gradual climb, some swoopy stuff, and then a gradual downhill. Total distance is a little north of 15 miles.

Okay, but why? WHY?!?

I’m running a race out there! The Javelina Jangover is the sixth race of Aravaipa Running’s Insomniac series of summertime night trail runs and is the third (and probably last) of the series that I’ve done or will be doing this year. The Jangover runs Pemberton Loop. The race itself isn’t for another couple of weeks, August 29th, but following some discussion after the Pass Mountain group run last week, a couple of us decided that we wanted to go pre-run the course in advance of the race to have a feel for what to expect from the course. I’d been on it a lot, but a long time ago and never on foot, and some of the others hadn’t been on it at all.

And that was how I found myself at the Pemberton Loop trailhead at 5:30 Saturday morning.

Opinions on the trail vary. Some don’t care for it because it’s very wide-open. There are few hills, little cover from trees or brush, and elevation changes are largely gradual and slight. The total difference from the trail’s lowest point to its highest is about 400 feet.

Me, I love it. I know that nostalgia plays a big factor in that, but even knowing that, I can’t shake off how much going out there feels like coming home. The whole park feels that way to me, really, after bike rides, Ragnar last year, and the Adrenaline race I did there in May. Even the Mountain to Fountain road race I did in 2014 began at the parking lot for the Pemberton trailhead.

Besides all that, Pemberton is a trail that is in pretty good shape. You get a lot of trails around the valley here that are rocky, really rough and technical. Pemberton has some rocky stretches, but for the most part it’s smoother, easier running.

Pretty Warm

As for the run itself, well, it was hot.

We had posted about this pre-run on the Aravaipa Running Facebook Page, and as a result ended up with a small group that showed up to run the course with us. We made sure everyone had lots of water and a good plan for staying hydrated, because even though Pemberton isn’t a real difficult trail, it’s a 15-mile loop, and it takes you pretty far away from any kind of aid options. We wanted to make sure we weren’t to have any mishaps out there.

Everyone looked good, so we ran.

In less than a mile, we ran into a rattlesnake making its way across the trail. This may have been my favorite part of the run. It wasn’t just because I think pretty much all desert wildlife (including—or maybe especially—snakes) is cool, and seeing critters is one of my favorite things about trail running. It was also because there was a distinct lack of panic or freakout in the encounter. I know a lot of people who dislike snakes intensely, so I never know how others are going to react when they bump into one.

I was relieved when everyone stayed calm and let those with more experience explain that all we needed to do was let it move off the trail on its own (it was going as we spoke), and then we could go by safely. And so we did. It was a great way to start the run and a good introduction to the people I was going to go run with.

Also fun was that I was running with a lot of new people I was just meeting for the first time. We all took turns pairing up and getting to know each other a little bit.

And then as the run went on, it got a little less fun as it got hotter. It was over 90º when we started, and it only went up from there. We ran, we sweated, we took breaks to regroup and check on each other, and we kept going. We repeated this a few times until we got to the Granite Mine rest area, and I guess by that point we’d all decided everyone could handle themselves. We didn’t regroup again until the end of the trail.

It was a cloudless morning, and the sun was merciless. I brought up the rear (as I usually do) and had a buddy with me who was tapering for a marathon and wanted to take it easy before her race. That suited me, because I was feeling lousy from the heat and wasn’t much good for running anyway. We walked a lot.

After about three and a half hours, our hot journey came to an end. The faster runners of the group beat us in by… a long time. Something like 40 minutes. By the time we arrived, they were about ready to go, so they all piled back into the single car they’d arrived in and left.

Me, I sat there in the shade for a while more, drinking my ice water and thinking about the run. I listened to the birds chasing each other around in the trees and shade on the ground. I greeted a mountain biker who rode in, and then I just about fell over in shock when he refilled his water bottles and went back out to ride some more. Crazy.

Yeah, he’s the crazy one.

An Amazing Machine

Doing this really made me appreciate the wonder of the human body in a way I don’t think I had before. When you think of your body, you probably don’t think to yourself about what an efficient cooling machine it is, because when it’s hot out, you still feel hot. But what’s it’s doing for you in that heat really is amazing.

As we walked through those last several miles, the sun was in front of us, shooting heat rays at our faces. There was no shade anywhere, and we were hot. Strangely, though, I wasn’t as hot as what I was wearing. The water bottles I had in my front pack pockets, the gels in other front pockets, even things I was wearing—they were all hot to the touch (and mouth), which of course meant they were hotter than I was.

I’ve noticed this before, lots of times, when I’ll be outside in the heat and touch things I’m wearing and notice that they’re much hotter than I am. What never clicked in my head before this run/hike was that it’s because my body is cooling itself, and it doesn’t do that to things I’m wearing or carrying. My consumables were just sitting there absorbing all that heat with no way to let it off, while my body kept pumping blood and sweating to keep my own temperature down. And it just kept on doing that through several hours of walking and running with temperatures in excess of 100º and radiant heat pounding down on me.

We are seriously amazing machines.

Here are some bonus pictures of all the salt that caked up on my gear from where I was sweating it out. Gross? Kinda. I think it’s cool anyway.