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"McDowell Mountain Regional Park offers some 51 miles of hiking, mountain biking,
and horseback riding trails. Park trails range in length from 0.5 mile (round-trip)
to 15.4 miles and range in difficulty from easy to strenuous . . . Those looking for a good
workout for themselves or their horses should try the 15.4-mile Pemberton Trail."
~ from the back of the Maricopa County Parks & Recreation Dept. trail map for the park
I have sung the praises of the great trails at McDowell Mountain Park in several previous entries in our 2008 and 2009 journals (all are in January of those years). I've shown trail maps, described about ten of the trails we've run, hiked, and/or cycled, and talked about the flora and fauna seen along the way.

Since you can easily find links to that information in the 2008 and 2009 topics pages, I won't repeat it here. Instead, I'll show some new photos I've taken from the park trails on our training runs the past two weeks (this entry) and describe new trails we've explored (next entry).

View east from the Bluff Trail

To our delight, the county has been busy building some new trails since we were here eleven months ago. Maybe that's one of the reasons park fees increased and I should quit complaining!

Here's a small version of the updated trail map. Click on that link if you want to see it more clearly in .pdf format in color and with topo lines.  

Three of the new trails are in the eastern part of the park: the hike-bike Verde Trail at the top right of the map that connects to the town of Rio Verde, the nearby Scout Trail loop in the Youth Group camping area, and the Shallmo Wash shared-use trail near the Trailhead Staging Area (site of the start/finish for the Pemberton Trail 50K and Javelina Jundred ultra races).

One end of the new Shallmo Wash Trail

There's a short new spur trail off the northern section of the Pemberton Trail to 150th Street, a shared-use trail to Rock Knob (shown below) off the Pemberton Trail on the western side of the park between the Tonto and Bluff trail intersections, and an extension of the Coachwhip Trail in the southwestern corner of the park.

Rock Knob

The new section of Coachwhip Trail conveniently extends the mileage you can do both inside and outside park boundaries. Look at this close-up of the southwest corner of the park and the McDowell Mountains:

The heavy lines are the park boundaries in that corner. The park is to the right, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve to the left, and Fountain Hills city property at the bottom.

See the loop marked CO and DX in the center of the map? Now it's easy to do a five-mile loop off the Pemberton Trail and/or add in more mileage by including the southern part of the Dixie Mine Trail, which leads down into the city of Fountain Hills. You can get even more miles by using the Coachwhip (CO) or Dixie Mine (DX) trails to access the Prospector, Windmill, Thompson Peak, Bell Pass, East End, and Tom's Thumb trails in the McDowell Range. Mileages aren't marked on the trails outside park boundaries but it appears you can do a a fair amount of distance up there. 

View toward McDowell Mountain

I'll describe and show photos of the Coachwhip and Dixie Mine trails in the next entry. This is the first time I've been on those. We even saw a new trail called "Sonoran" that branches off from the Dixie Mine Trail; it isn't included in the new maps yet.

McDowell Mountain Park has a wide variety of trails, from short to long, smooth to rocky. Because the park slopes several hundred feet from east to west, there aren't very many flat spots. The terrain is characterized by ridges and washes that have eroded through time by desert storms and spring run-off. That means some of the trails undulate quite a bit. There aren't many steep slopes unless you get into the McDowell Mountain Range, though.

All the trails I've seen here are run-able (or cycle-able) if you're coordinated. Everything is walk-able even for a klutz like me with bad knees. All intersections are well-marked; some include mileages. You can pick up paper trail maps at several trailheads and in the visitor's center.

Runners and hikers can use every trail, including those in the competitive track area. Cyclists can use all of the trails except two short ones on steeper ridges (Lousley Hill and Hilltop). There are a few trails like Wagner that are supposed to be for hiking and biking only, but it's obvious that equestrians ignore the signs:

That's not javelina poop in the middle of Wagner Trail!

I don't mind seeing equestrians on these trails; they are always very courteous, unlike some of the kamikazi cyclists that don't yield to pedestrians like they're supposed to. We've seen many more cyclists on the trails this month than we ever did in the last two Januarys when we were here, probably because more folks are on vacation during the holidays.


Jim has been gradually increasing his running and walking distance since we left Virginia about four weeks ago. He's had symptoms of plantar faciitis since July and has been treating the problem aggressively since diagnosing it correctly in September. I detailed his struggle with this chronic condition in a previous journal entry.

The pain has not increased as he's begun running further -- nor has it diminished. He's decided to just live with it unless it gets worse.

Three photos:  Jim runs along Bluff Trail toward the Pemberton Trail; Cody patiently waits for me.


Jim continues to stretch his foot well before getting out of bed and for several minutes at a time during the day. He ices it to reduce inflammation, does self-massage, uses our ridged wooden foot roller and portable ultrasound machine, and runs/walks with the orthotics our chiropractor gave him. He also got two new pairs of running shoes recently; we were lucky to find his favorite Asics road and trail shoes for half price at REI.

He has worked up to 40+ miles a week, with his longest runs about 15 miles on the Pemberton Trail here at McDowell Mountain Park. Recently he ran one of those loops at a comfortable pace, then ran 11 miles the next day on a hillier, rockier section of trail in the park (point to point from Fountain Hills on the Dixie Mine, Coachwhip, Pemberton, and Bluff trails to the campground).

Jim and Cody walk along the Wagner Trail on an easy day; the Four Peaks are in the distance.

Four Peaks from the North Trail -- these are the mountains depicted on Arizona license tags.

Since his foot didn't feel any worse today, Jim decided to send in his application for the Run to the Future 24-Hour Race in nearby Phoenix. The Arizona Road Racers running club is sponsoring this race to fill part of the void left by the popular Across the Years (ATY) 72-, 48-, and 24-Hour Run, which is on hiatus this year. Run to the Future will begin at 9AM on December 31 and end at 9AM on New Year's Day.

One day Jim did loops around the campground to simulate the
paved and gravel loop at Run to the Future. Our camper was his "aid station."

The race has no entry limit or deadline so Jim waited to enter until he was sure his foot didn't get any worse as he upped his miles. Because his training has been limited the last three months, he has no idea how many miles he can run and walk during the race without further injury. It's a low-key race; he doesn't feel pressure to accumulate a lot of miles. He can go whatever pace he wants, for as long as he wants.

About two-thirds of the 15+ mile Pemberton Trail is smooth and runnable like this. The rest is more rocky.

Although I'm concerned that Jim might further aggravate his PF (or something else that's not trained right now to go 40 or 50 miles), I understand his reasons for entering the race. He hasn't been in a race since Hinson Lake three months ago. He needs races to motivate himself to train. It's hard for him to just go out and do long runs by himself. Even if he runs and walks only 20 or 30 miles at the race next week, I think it will be good psychologically for him. He's been very discouraged this fall about his inability to run as much as he wants. He has the sense to stop before he gets injured.

Cody surveys the terrain from the southern side of the Pemberton loop.

For cross-training, Jim has been using weight machines at YMCAs we visit twice a week. He has not been in a whirlpool since we left Virginia. The two Ys we've used in the Phoenix area do not have whirlpools. He has ridden his mountain bike only a few miles so far; something is wrong with the gears and he hasn't fixed them yet.


I've been through quite the running metamorphosis since getting my knee injections in the fall. I'll talk more about the psychological adjustment to ending my 30-year running career in another entry at the end of this journal or the beginning of the 2010 journal. For now, let's just say the adjustment has been faster and easier than I expected!

The other piece of good news is that the Orthovisc injections help my knees. I can tell a difference, and it's more than just the fact that I have been running less. I wasn't able to run much before the injections.

Yuccas in winter mode

The desert sun is warm, even in late December; I carry as much water for Cody as for myself.

Very old Saguaro cactus (L) and younger Palo Verde tree (R) on the North Trail.
The plant life is very lush in this area of the park, which was untouched by a large fire.

I'm also comfortable using a much lower dose of OTC pain relievers now for my arthritis. I wrote earlier about trying to get off the high amount of ibuprofen I'd been taking for many years. My primary care doctor and orthopedist recommended Tylenol for Arthritis. I took two 650-mg timed release pills 3X day as directed for a couple of months but it wasn't nearly as effective at reducing the pain in my hands and hips as ibuprofen.

On the advice of another doctor I saw in November, I tried one 650 mg acetaminophen and one 200 mg ibuprofen 3X day, a combination I've never used, and it works great! I was trying to avoid ibuprofen altogether, but this is such a low dose compared to what I used to take that I'm not worried about it affecting my kidneys or GI tract.

Equestrians are permitted on many of the trails.

Stoneman Wash has historical significance; its soft sand is better
for riding horses than running, hiking, or riding bikes.

My mileage isn't anything to write home about, an average of 24 miles a week of walking (with a few miles of running thrown in) the past four weeks. This week will be my highest mileage since the middle of September, about 36 miles. It's more important now that I protect my knees than run or walk mega miles, and I've reached the point where I'm OK with that. The longer I can postpone knee replacements, the better!

I've worked up to several two- to three-hour run/walks in the past month. It's a little frustrating to see how few miles I cover when I just walk, but I'm very happy to still be able to enjoy being out on trails. After about an hour the endorphins kick in and it's almost as good as when I was able to run.

My longest hike so far at McDowell Mountain Park is eleven miles. Run/hikes are shorter. My pace is very slow because of all the stops I make to give Cody water, take photos, etc. Pace simply doesn't matter to me any more. Being outside, moving around, is what matters now.

Teddy Bear Chollas glow in the low winter sunlight.

Close-up of a Teddy Bear Cholla that is forming early blooms.

I'm still doing a little bit of running because 1) I love to run (!) and 2) I don't want to lose all of my aerobic fitness.

The only running I do now is uphill (easier on knees with little to no cartilage) on fairly smooth trail for one to three minutes at a time. It reminds me of the hill repeats I used to do. I gain strength running uphill and my heart rate gets higher faster. I remember my old running coach telling me how beneficial it was to rock my heart rate back and forth between running and walking during speed repeats years ago. Although I'm not working on speed, hill repeats do the same thing for my circulatory and respiratory systems. When I do any running during a workout, I like to do about a quarter of the total distance this way.

Smooth, gradual trails like Bluff are perfect for my uphill repeats. Buckhorn Cactus in foreground.

I've always used a hard-easy approach to my running. I'm doing the same thing now: after a hard workout one day, I do an easier workout or cross train the next day (or two) -- or completely rest. A hard workout right now is a brisk two- or three-hour walk, up to an hour walk with uphill running repeats in the middle, or a hilly bike ride of an hour or more. On easy days I walk or ride a flatter course for a shorter distance and time, and do no running.

A red-trailed hawk swoops low over the Scenic Trail.

I came real close to entering the Run to the Future 24-Hour Race, thinking it would be cool to run/walk 30 miles next week to celebrate my 30th anniversary of running (I began running January 1, 1980). I finally decided that wouldn't be the smartest thing for me to do because I'm not trained to run or walk 30 miles right now without getting injured. If it was a race I could get excited about (like ATY), I'd probably do it anyway. I just can't get excited about Run to the Future so I'm going to crew and volunteer there.

Now I'm thinking that if I do "just one more" ultra, I'll train to walk 31 miles at the Delano 12-Hour Run in Alabama in March to celebrate my 31st year of running. Jim and I were the first runners to enter that race when it opened last fall -- before Dr. Johnson gave me the bad news that my knees are shot. If I change my mind I can withdraw before the end of January and get a refund. It may well be that Hinson Lake back in September was my last ultra ever.

Fountain Hill's fountain is visible from much of McDowell Park
when it it turned on at the top of each hour for 15-20 minutes.

For cross-training I've ridden my road bike several times a week since we've been at McDowell Park. The longest I've gone is 15 miles so far; I'm gradually increasing my mileage so I don't hurt my knees. Although I don't feel any pain in them after my walks and run/walks, I do sometimes feel them after what for me is a long ride.

I'd like to get out on some of the trails here with Jim's bike but it's not shifting properly and I'm not going to tempt fate after that wreck in August. For now, I'm sticking to paved roads with my skinny-tire Terry bike.

Two cyclists on the Granite Trail; the park is full of mountain bikers on weekends.

I've also been doing weight work on the machines at the YMCAs we've visited a couple times a week in Austin, Mesa, and Scottsdale. The two Ys in the Phoenix metro area are ones we've used on previous visits. We're happy they have mostly the same LifeFitness machines we have in Roanoke. I also do some maintenance strength work in the camper for my shoulders; I had rotator cuff problems last spring. So far I haven't done any pool running but I brought along my flotation vest in case I need it.

Next entry: exploring new trails at McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil