Footnotes 3/6-3/12/2014

» Posted by on Mar 12, 2014 in Blog | 9 comments



I woke up with itchy legs and arms from poison oak that I brushed up against (plowed through) a of couple weeks ago in California. I read online that it can take 5 hours to 15 days for a rash to appear, so 14 days after my Big Sur shenanigans, I thought I was in the clear. Pretty much all the other runners on the inov-8 retreat, bushwhackers or not, seemed to have gotten some grief from the plant. Even Bryon Powell, who was only in Big Sur for 24 hours, managed to get some on his face. I thought I’d been spared or was somehow immune, but it seems like I jinxed it and am now suffering from the full blown effects of the poisonous oil. I have red blotches all over my legs and forearms. Most areas also have inflamed yellow, puffy sacks that look like blisters. The rash is a bit like a mix of eczema and stinging nettles, inducing permanent itching and discomfort.
I decide to go for a run, hoping that the cool air on my legs might sooth the intensity of the itch. I get about a mile from my home, but the blood pumping through my legs and sweat have only exacerbated the issue further. I stop and lay in a snowbank on the side of the road, rubbing ice onto my legs. The stinging and itching has now become intolerable, so I sprint home and jump into a hot bath. It’s amazing how much relief comes from soaking in hot water, even though it’s just temporary. We’ve had quite a bit of moisture recently, so our ground water well is reasonably full, making me feel slightly less guilty about running through gallons of fresh water just to sooth my discomfort. It’s surprising how selfish we can become when suffering.
In the bath, I watch a 30 minute feature documentary on the Tor des Geants that Nick Pedatella sent me. Even though it’s in Italian, the picturesque scenery and footage of Iker Karrera running hard and fast provides for some welcome escape.


I was woken at 3am, itching to death. I tried to breath, not scratch, in hopes that the feeling would subside. But, after 10 or 15 minutes of trying to ignore the issue, I can’t take it anymore. I’m back in the bathtub, this time soaking in an oatmeal mix that Deanne brought back from the store. About 30 minutes later, I’m feeling good again. I can’t get back to sleep though, so I spend the next hour trying to renew my automatic online payment for my health care premium in case I need to go to the hospital in the morning. The rash is bad and my treatments only buy me a couple of hours of relief. Catherine, a friend of mine from Utah who grew up in California, recommended that I get some Tecnu Extreme scrub. Some reviews online suggest it’s only 5% better than regular soap, but 5% better than 100% terrible is still better, so I’ll take it. I find the medicated soap at REI, then stop by Pharmaca, where I get some homeopathic medicine. Despite being a firm believer in herbal medicine, the 5 pinhead sized sugar balls I’m supposed to take every 4 hours don’t inspire much confidence for rapid healing. I also get some calamine lotion to dry my skin and reduce the need to itch.
I’m not sure if it’s the homeopathy, but I feel somewhat better for a couple of hours, even managing to squeeze in a climb with Tony at the gym. Returning home, I get carried away and attempt a run, that results in much of the same disappointment as yesterday.
I spend most of the rest of day bathing and lying still on my back trying not to go into crack addict itching frenzies. The combination of the hot water, scrub and calamine are working in providing temporary calm to my skin. Not being able to run and the general discomfort makes me irritable though. It’s hard for Deanne to be around me when I’m like this and while I try to temper myself, I have difficulty controlling my angst.



This poison oak has been horrendous and quite destabilising. I’ve only taken a few days off of real running, but it’s making me anxious and unable to settle for a bit of rest. I find it important to value time off, even when it’s forced by unforeseen circumstances. Injuries are hard enough to deal with, so it’s really not worth adding to the problem by having a negative attitude. It’s taken me a few days to reach this perspective and extract myself from a self-loathing hole. I find it interesting that as soon as I feel a little bit better, I have a hard time comprehending what all my fuss was about only moments earlier. Physical pain often only exists in the moment and it’s near impossible to recreate such a feeling afterwards to analyze it in a better mindset. Regardless, I’ve managed to relax more today and accept that I’m just going to have to wait this one out.
I watched The Summit on netflix a documentary about the tragic death of 11 climbers on K2 in 2008. The film does a decent job at recreating the events and telling the story from a couple of different angles. What strikes me though is how crucial speed can be with regards to one’s success in the mountains. By success, I don’t necessarily mean reaching the summit, but rather being able to return to safety quickly, diminishing exposure in inherently risky terrain. Speed is often seen as a competitive element to climbing, with those trying to go fast missing out on the beauty of their surroundings in favor of record setting. Clean, fast tactics require more mastery, more strength, more endurance, as well as more focus. Speed then becomes less about record setting and more about survival. Those prepared to go fast (and I don’t mean rush) are minimizing exposure while maximizing self-reliance. Speed is relative at 8000 meters, but the film reveals just how critical it can be with regards to living or dying. Of course, some dangers such as ice fall, which ultimately precipitates the catastrophe, are out of the climbers’ control, but it’s hard not to think how events could have been different had the teams employed clean, faster tactics for their summit bids.



In Dave Johnston’s interview on irunfar, he’s very honest about confronting his fears while out alone on the trail. Relating to that idea, I like this quote by Reinhold Messner,“The big problem with being solo is that you cannot divide fear. Doing a difficult ascent is a lot about your own fear, and if you are together with another person, or with two people, you can divide that fear, share it. But when you are alone, the fear is all on you, and it’s very difficult to learn to cope with it, to stay day by day, night by night, in that vast space where you should not be, running into bad weather, avalanches, storms.You have to learn to cope, you have to learn it slowly, and in small steps. If you allow it to happen slowly, you will have the time to take the many, many steps you need to get where you want. But if you don’t have the time, either you will disappear somewhere in the mountains in your young years, or you would give up climbing altogether.”
It sums up nicely the feeling I got when sharing the ITI trail with John Logar last year. We got to divide up our fears and that made things much easier. At the same time though, there’s a unique focus one can only achieve when being alone. Once fears are overcome alone, there’s a different sense of control, of mastery over one’s journey. I value both the individual experience and the shared.


On a similar note to yesterday’s thoughts on the division of fear, I was thinking today how I will readily trade a lesser or different type of pain for one that is consuming me in the moment. For instance, plowing through the snow today, which was crusty and sharp, I couldn’t help but savor the sting and light tearing of my skin against the ice. I dread this feeling in the spring when postholing in shorts through the trees, but it somehow felt better than the crippling itch of the poison oak rash. In the same vain, I’ll scald my skin with hot bath water, preferring that pain over the itch. In some ways, I’m providing a diversion for my mind, in dividing the experience of pain in two. It’s an odd concept, but one that has helped me cope over the past few days.
The general discomfort is also becoming more manageable. With a couple of days of rest, I had lots of energy on the run, putting in a playful, dynamic hour and half on the trail. Riding that positive feeling, I got a couple of good hours of climbing in the gym after the run with Tony. We’re dabbling in the 5.11s now. Our climbing remains exceedingly mediocre, but it’s nice to see some progress from the past couple of months.


I woke up feeling great today despite my sleep still being pretty fragmented. We got a couple of inches of snow during the night and it continued to come down all day. I ran 25 miles to Brainard Lake and back. After all this rest, the running felt amazing and so easy. The layer of fresh powder cushioned and quietened my foot steps. I was in a kind of euphoric bliss the whole outing. When running really clicks, there’s just nothing quite like it.


I went for a three hour snowshoe up Niwot Ridge on this bluebird morning with not a lick of wind on the ridge, a rare occurrence. The snow was really sticky and churned up by the snowmachine cut track. I kept having to tap my snowshoes together as the crampons were balling up. It made for slow progress and worked my calves more than I would have liked. I ran/hiked to the D1 research cabin, the last one on the ridge before it turns into a more jagged and technical spine. A couple of scientists were out on their snowmachines and kindly stopped as I passed by, greeting me warmly.  We briefly commented on the fantastic weather and I thanked them for packing down a good trail. Although, I ran back down to my truck pretty hard, the whole outing felt very refreshing and invigorating. I think I’m finally turning the corner with the poison oak and while the past 3 weeks have been pretty up and down, I’m getting into decent shape for my upcoming races. I’m not sure I’ll have much to give at the Salida Marathon this Saturday, but it will be a good speed workout with friends. I’m also fine tuning my setup for White Mountains 100 at the end of the month, that I plan on running pretty easy (as easy as you can run a hundred in Alaska in winter) with my full focus being directed to UltraTrail Mt. Fuji about 6 weeks away.



  1. Hey Joe,

    Hopefully you are over the Poison Oak, but for future reference if you heat water as hot as you can stand (almost scalding) it and run that over the affected area it will use up the histamines in the skin and the area wont itch for the next 12 hours or so. As a California native I am constantly dealing with PO, and this is what I find works best.


    • Hey man – yeah that’s worked well for me too although it wouldn’t buy me 12hrs, more like 2…your water must be really, really hot!

    • Interesting treatment… I live in Southern California and have had PO a bunch of times… hate it of course… I was under the thoughts that ANY exposure to hot water just help spread the oils and make the rash last even longer because the hot water always opens up the skin pores so the oil spreads and stays in the pores, so I try to avoid hot water altogether, and also keep cold showers to a minimum… but I’ve not got any scientific data on this! I also cover PO rash with Gold bond sometimes–that helps a bit as well…(and is fairly cheap in comparison to other things). Joe, I enjoy your blog and hope you are over the poison oak by now…

  2. Joe,

    Would you mind posting the link to the Karrera video?


    • Just checked the link Nick sent me and it says the video has been removed by user…bummer. It was pretty good.

      • Thanks for checking. I found some other videos of TDG that were pretty cool. Looks like an amazing race.

        Love what you did with your homepage – the rotating pic’s are awesome.

        Thanks for the work you put into your blog!

  3. Joe,
    I unfortunately get poison ivy a few times a year, and I’ve found that Zanfel works by far better than anything else, including Tecnu. It’s expensive, but worth it. It stops the itching and takes the oils away at the same time.

  4. Seeing this post jogged the memory of last night’s dream. I was running a race around a small featureless loop that could only exist in the subconscious. At the end I ran up and tapped you on the shoulder to exclaim that you are my favorite writer. Your reaction was a mix of genuine kindness and apparent discomfort from being startled by such an overly enthusiastic stranger, hah. I decided to take a moment to thank you in real life for your inspiring words, pictures, and mountainous pursuits. Thanks Joe!

  5. Joe once on a cross country bike trip me and my partner got Poison Ivy BAD. Mine was all over my feet. We got a room at a cheap motel, filled up a couple of 20oz. soda bottles with gas at a local station, returned to the motel and went to work. In the shower I scratched the infected areas until they were raw and then poured the gasoline over them. Done. No more itching. Harsh measures I know but we had to keep moving…

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