I’d just got through running a mile warm-up on a pleasant little trail, stretched, then took a look at the work before me. Earlier that morning, I’d dreamed up a workout that was designed to help me overcome what has become somewhat of a weakness.
Given any run I’ve been on, hills have been kicking my butt. I didn’t think much of it until a race a ran a couple of months ago showed just how lacking I was on hills. The race finished with a long, gradual climb that lasted for about a mile and ate my lunch. I’d been exposed.
So that’s what this particular workout was designed to remedy. I walked up to the trail and looked up. About a quarter mile away and about 100 feet up was the first of four hills before me, and then I’d have to run back and do them all over again.
A lot of people run to race, run for fun, or run to meditate. All of those are perfectly great reasons to lace ‘em up and go, and to a certain degree I’m motivated by the same desires. But first and foremost is another goal: to perform stronger at higher elevations.
I like mountains. Big ones. I like to hike them, ski them and climb them. I’m new to these high country endeavors, but I’m rather addicted to them. Planning routes, picking lines, hiking trails and clinging to rock all give me a measure of satisfaction and enjoyment that few other pursuits can.
But I have to admit that my performance at altitude has been lacking. My last mountain hike (just a hike, mind you) was arduous and much harder than it needed to be. I tagged a summit and got down just fine, but this should have been more fun than it was. My struggles going up meant a weary plod down.
I want to avoid that, and that means I have to get stronger when it comes to motoring uphill.
Hence my search for inclined paths to beat my stubborn body into submission.
The route I’m on is called the Powerline Trail, and for obvious reasons. Tall steel towers carry electrical lines from a power plant to the north to Tulsa’s southern suburbs and beyond, splitting through thick woods and rugged stretches. A trail for runners, hikers and bikers follows that line, but does it in purist form. There are no switchbacks, no trails hewn into the side of the hill to avoid sharp rises and drops. The Powerline Trail is actually a short side route that joins up with Turkey Mountain’s more extensive trail system that goes on for miles. But what Powerline lacks in length it makes up for in elevation gain and loss. Do the whole thing down and back and you’ll gain 500 feet in about 3 miles.
It’s more than 90 degrees outside, and I’m feeling every yard that I go forward and up. That first hill is the highest and steepest. When I get to the top, I’m gassed. What lies before me is a mellower but technical drop. And then it’s up again.
I think a lot about racing. Not really to compete, just to participate. I know I’m not going to be beating anyone. I’m pretty slow, relatively new to endurance athletics and trying like heck to get my body reconditioned to maintaining a high level of activity for long stretches of time. It’s a process, and a tough one for me.
My past training has a lot to do with it. It would help if I was about 10 pounds lighter, and I’m working on that. But my exercise habits date back to high school, consisting of workouts that are heavy on weights and cardio routines that focus on high intensity for short bursts of time, then rest, then repeat. I’ve played a lot of basketball, did seven years of jujitsu and lifted a lot of iron.
What this all looks like: Bursts of power to lift heavy weights in sets lasting about 20 seconds. Quick cuts, sprints and jumps up and down the court with frequent stops and starts. Grappling and kickboxing for 3 to 5 minutes at a time, with 1-minute rests between rounds.
What all this creates: A body designed to jump, sprint, lift and otherwise burn lots of energy in short bursts, followed by rest. Think high intensity interval cardio (I also do a lot of that) but much more varied, and you get the idea.
It got me healthy. Helped me keep the pounds off. Kept me in shape.
But it did very little to help me during those 10- to-12-hour days on the mountain, very little to help me in that race and very little overall to go up.
The middle of the Powerline is at the bottom of the route. Behind me are two hills – well, one is really a “sub-hill” of the first. Ahead of me are two more inclines that are part of one really long uphill stretch. In front of me is a situational creek (water flows when it’s been raining, but dries up later) and the wreckage of some non-descript truck that used to be painted all white. It’s a twisted mess, and I have no idea how it got down here. The nearest road is a half mile away, so the only thing I can think of is some fool either drove it off-road and crashed (likely rolling many, many times) or it was stolen, then ditched here. I don’t know how long it’s been there, but it’s pretty likely that truck isn’t doing anywhere anytime soon.
Trail running here is complicated. Much of Oklahoma is pretty flat and grassy, but this particular part of the state includes wooded hills and ridges that are an extension of the Ozarks further east. That makes the trails rocky, rooty, sandy and muddy. And anything but flat.
Downhill running presents its own challenges. Great care has to be taken with each footfall. You can’t just barrel straight down. It’s more of a matter of picking a line, avoiding slick spots and controlling speed with quick, short steps. It’s pretty easy to bite it here. Speed, tripping hazards, loose soil and rocks – if you’re not careful, you just might end up like that crumpled pickup.
Of course, the uphill sections have their own way of cutting you down to size and wrecking you.
Crash and burn, baby.
I’ll admit it. I didn’t run the whole Powerline. I made a point to run every uphill section. That’s why I’m here. But I also “powerwalked” some level spots or even just stopped for a blow. I admire ultra trail runners. They amaze me, mostly because I know they’d cut through this trail like it was nothing. Astounding.
I’ve seen others out here, but most folks are avoiding the Powerline, taking the gentler nearby trails instead. One woman I passed was a hiker, taking a seat after being thrashed by that first hill. I saw another person – a biker – walking his rig up that same hill, then saddling up once that nuisance was past.
I don’t blame them at all. It’s getting hotter. The wind is blowing 20-25 mph out of the south, which means it’s in my face on my return trip. By now, I’m looking pretty feeble.
But in the back of my mind is a number. To be more precise, 14,000 feet. How fast can I get there? Or more to the point, how strong will I be when I get there?
Then there are future endeavors. How about that 15K coming up? Or maybe a half marathon a couple of months later? Or the ultimate goal: an ultra at altitude?
Is it acceptable to run half of those races, but end up walking the remainder? Or pulling a DNF simply because I wasn’t strong enough?
How will I get past all that unless I run this last, long, steep hill?
Up I go. Slowly. Heart pounding. Legs burning. Lungs seemingly – perpetually – unable to suck in enough oxygen to get this thing done.
I hit the top of the hill. Stop. Hands on knees, stooped over, panting like a dog. Soaked with sweat. I need a couple of minutes before I take off for that last quarter mile, all downhill, all steep. I gather myself, then begin picking my way down the route, finally hitting the flat straightaway leading to the trailhead parking lot.
I spend the rest of the day tired. Sleepy. Hungry. And not impressed with my performance.
Those hills are my weakness, but they’re the gateway to bigger – and hopefully transformative – things.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088