A Road Runner’s Trail Tales: Chapter 2
You must learn to walk before you run
Walking during a run? That’s absurd.
Walking during a RACE? LUDICROUS. That shouldn’t ever be a sentence.
Prior to my first trail race, this was my school of thought. No hill was too steep to run you just had to slow down and adjust your pace to get up it. Walking up a hill during a run was something reserved for beginners or Nordic skiers, not me *scoffs*. I could run up hills, I was good at it, and I wasn’t overly concerned about my heart rate spiking or the strength in my legs. Hills were no big deal. Never before had I met a hill that I could not conquer but never before had I tried to run straight up a mountain…
In the car ride to my very first trail race this June (Cirque Series- Brighton), I turned to my friend that I was carpooling with (a great mountain runner herself and a veteran to trail racing) and asked her-
“What’s the strategy for the race? Do you push the hills? Do you push the downhill? Where should I try to make a move?”
She looked a little bewildered at the question (looking back at it now I can’t say that I blame her) and answered that you can’t really run up the hills, much less push up them, it would be more of a hike/walk ascent and the descent is where people tend to really rock the boat. This was a TON of information to be receiving and processing with just over an hour to go until race time. You can’t run up the hills?? Surely she must be joking… right…? There couldn’t be any walking or hiking in this race, then that wouldn’t be a running race at all…. right?
My naive road/track running based self had so many questions and the very concept of what I considered to be a “running” race was being challenged. Hiking and walking in races, I had thought, was reserved for ultra-running if it had to be done at all. This was a 6.8 mile race with about 3500′ of vert and while that sounded steep to me it didn’t sound long enough or steep enough to expect any walking or hiking but I could not have been more wrong.
We arrived at the Brighton Ski resort and looking up at the race course on the ski slopes from the start line below I thought wow, those hills are STEEP. Suddenly the idea that some people might have to hike up the ascent wasn’t so absurd and that was great for them, but not me. No, I stubbornly clung onto the idea that I was immune to hiking up the ascent and would try my best to run the whole thing. I signed up for a running race and bygolly I was going to run the damn thing. Now, this may sound like the beginning of a disaster spearheaded by my excessive hubris but on the start line I became more akin to a deer in the headlights and suddenly decided a more conservative approach might better suit the situation. Minutes before the race start, I ran up to the other professional women runners on the start line and proclaimed my newbie status to trail running. Since I had absolutely no idea what I was doing I decided to follow the people that probably did know what they were doing.
The race went off and we started up the gradual climb of the first main ascent. The first half mile stretch or so, was on a very runnable service road up the slope, and while it was pretty steep I thought that if the whole race was like this then I could totally run the ascent. It wouldn’t be easy but I could do it. All of this naivety was as good as squashed when we got to the main part of the ascent up to the first peak. The slopes were covered in snow that was mid-calf to knee-deep on me at times. Without snowshoes or a levitation super power, this stretch of the race would most definitely NOT be runnable and that was something I had to come to terms with quick. But that wasn’t even the most un-runnable part… Next we reached a huge boulder field that was closer to rock climbing than running. My legs AND arms were burning, my heart rate felt about maxed, and **ding** my watch beeped to let me know that we had traversed barely 2 miles and it had taken almost 40 minutes. So much about this picture was wrong to my road running based psyche. Mid-boulder field climb I found myself being excessively grateful for having a background in rock climbing and weight lifting because without it I would without a doubt be tripping, tumbling, and falling off the steep slope and rocks all the way down the mountain. We finally reached the summit and I was exhilarated to still be with the lead group of women but also completely exhausted. I had never been so full-body tired during a race. My legs, arms, lungs, and calves were already shot and we were barely 1/3 of the way through the competition.
It is often hard to pinpoint certain moments in life that have great meaning i.e. the moment you fell in love, the moment you realize what you want in life, the moment you find what makes you happy. The moment that I swallowed my entire ego like a giant horse pill was the complete opposite. It took 2 miles and one summit into my first trail race to crush into total oblivion any sort of ignorance that I had had about not walking during a race. In this moment, at the top of Mt. Millicent I was suddenly okay with walking and hiking during races. In fact I also became okay with the idea of hiking during my easy runs too.
In my trail races since, I have employed hiking and walking and wasn’t afraid to do it even when others were not. What I realized was that hiking when the ascent was steep was not a sign of weakness or lack of strength as I had previously thought. It was a sign of me being smart, efficient, and respecting the mountain and my own physical capacities; respecting my own circumstances.
This lesson found in racing has an everyday and philosophical life application as well. When a run up the ascent might work for some a hike might be more efficient for others. We don’t know what that person is going through, what part of the mountain they are on, or how far they have already climbed so it’s not up to us to judge. There is no right way to ascend.
We all have our own ways of climbing mountains and we have to respect each other for that. Its that you get to the top of the mountain that matters, not how you have to do it.
Now I regularly hike on steep ascents during my normal runs and I have even begun to run my easy runs easier as my pride and ego has been humbled. If you feel like you are in need of a good slice of humble pie, I recommend you run up a mountain ESPECIALLY if you are a road runner. The mountains will challenge your ideas of what a running race is and force you to swallow your pride.
Mountain slopes are no match for human legs or hubris and will command your respect.
See you next week for more trail tales and life lessons straight out of the mountains!