When I was a junior at the Front Range School for Boys, I tried out the 3000m steeplechase. I ran the 300m hurdles in high school, so my form was decent, and I figured with my endurance as a collegiate miler, I’d probably be decent.
I was not.
My first steeple, I laughed after the first lap. I think we clocked around 74s for 400m. As a miler, I was used to going out no slower than 64s, and hanging on for dear life from there. This was going to be a piece of cake. But right around lap eight or so, the horrible realization dawned on me that unlike hurdles, steeple barriers can’t be knocked over. They felt so…permanent. 3000m of this became Sisyphean, and I slipped into a gloom. I contemplated simply running headlong into a barrier and knocking myself out cold. Each barrier grew harder and harder until the gun lap, during which I felt like flopping myself over the barriers. The pain was unlike the mile, or even that blessed two lap acid bath, the 800m. This was borderline madness. I finished in a mediocre time, gave the race maybe one more shot, then decided the mile was a better fit.
Fast forward 16 years, and on Thursday, I entered my first mountain run trail race. Kal’s Knoya Ridge. I had a glimmer of what to expect, based on my experience with the Bonny Sosa trail series. But let’s be clear: this is my first week of running since getting off Denali last Sunday. I am out of (running) shape, and putting in the mileage this week has not been painless. I ran doubles Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, on the track Tuesday with Peak Performers…you get the idea.
Here’s what I knew: 1) The course would climb 2900′ of trail over 3-4 miles, giving it an average grade of around 20% (11ish degrees). 2) “Trail” can be a very subjective word up here in Alaska. Sometimes, it’s a legitimate trail, down which you might pleasantly occupy yourself. Other times, it’s simply an open expanse of bog, through which you are free to choose your own awful adventure. 3) I was not in any kind shape to truly race this thing. I approached it as a nice, long, hard, uphill workout. It would hurt, but not too badly, I thought.
Once again, I was wrong.
It was basically like running the steeple for around an hour straight, instead of 10:00. In case you’re wondering, that’s painful. It was a day for firsts, to be sure. My first full week of training; my first mountain run; first time I’ve split 10:00 at 1M and been red-lined; and the first time I’ve walked in a race. The course was muddy as hell, 45 degrees steep in places, and included some snow at the finish.
I ended up finishing 19th. I was probably 9th or 10th at 2M, but got destroyed in the last mile. I can’t tell you how surreal it was to be totally tapped out, walking up a steep portion and watching somebody walk faster past me, completely incapable of producing any response beyond a gasped, “goodjob.”
After I finished and ensured my heart wasn’t going to explode, I stood up, turned around, and ran back down the course (the only other option was to walk and I was way too hungry to wait that long). It was a solid day, a great workout, and a totally humbling experience. As one of my bro’s says, I’m not a mountain runner (yet). But I’ll also say that with some fitness and some race experience, I could probably be pretty decent.