Twice a year, I board a plane for Salt Lake City to attend the Outdoor Retailer trade show. If you like backpacking, mountain biking, climbing, trail running, paddling, camping or just about any other activity in the great outdoors, each January and August, the Salt Palace serves up a head-spinning carnival of "what you'll have to have six months from now."
OR (pronounced oh-are), as it's known affectionately, also happens to be a great place to make and/or reconnect with like minded friends who've found ways to forge out a similar work/play hybrid career. Each time I go, I've got more faces to look forward to seeing and more difficulty freeing up the time I'd like to catch up with everyone.
As a key component of a retail operation that works hard, hard, hard to continue carving out a place in the outdoor industry, I am often overwhelmed by how much actual work we cram into just a couple of days and I should be thrilled that we find anytime at all to socialize. And we do.
For the past three or four years, while at OR I've run the Wasatch Wobble, a 5K put on by Montrail/Mountain Hardwear up in Red Butte Gardens above the city. The event is a non-timed focused-on-fun event but at 5,000+ feet of elevation it's always been a good test for me too. This year, though, I'd learned about the Jupiter Peak Steeplechase that takes place in Park City each August. Beginning at 7,000 feet, stretching for 16 +/- miles and having a gain of over 3,000 feet, this race promised to be a big step up from the Wobble.
On the first day in town, I got up early to sneak in a run and breath the fresh air before sucking in the artificial air at the Salt Palace all day long. I was also looking forward to seeing how my legs and lungs felt a few thousand feet higher than back home.
We were staying south of the city just a short drive to the foot of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Unfamiliar with the area and starting before sun-up, I opted for a paved pedestrian trail until it conked out and left me climbing alongside the road toward the top of the canyon. Not being on single track didn't dampen my spirits, as there were no cars on the road and the soft grit that ran parallel to the road felt great underfoot. As the sun rose, I plodded steadily uphill as the sun began to peak over the Wasatch Mountains.
Not even the birds were stirring and the only sound was the creek crash, crash, crashing its way down the canyon. My camera complained about the lack of light and an inept operator who couldn't find a mechanical compensation. All the same, it did its best and captured a few memories.
I was on the verge of daydreaming my way up into the mountains and away for the day when I came to and realized I needed to get back to the car. I tucked the camera into my waistband and quickened my pace. I'd managed the climb nicely and was able to really push on the descent. This made me hopeful for the race on Saturday morning even though I knew I'd be at twice the elevation. I'd hiked above 10,000 feet but never run up that high. It was safe to expect that I wouldn't manage the sub 7:30 miles I'd just logged, but, I was still encouraged by my effort that morning.
The next two days were a blur of backpacks, socks, tents, sleeping bags, trekking poles, waterproof/breathable jackets, headlamps, doodads, whizzywhats and shaboozles. Business was talked, talked, talked, talked, talked. Thankfully, there were also a healthy number of warm handshakes, hugs and laughter wedged in between all that talking.
The hours and days flew by and it was Saturday morning. True to its calling, the alarm alarmed me that it was 5:45. A little over an hour later, after dropping my boss off in downtown Salt Lake for a pre-business business-breakfast (talk, talk, talk, talk, talk), I coasted into the lower parking lot of the Park City Mountain Resort and stared past the windshield at the fittest bunch of pre-racers I can remember seeing. A little gasping-for-air voice told me I was in my over my head, but my eyes followed the chairlifts upward and I wondered where out there was the top of Jupiter Peak.
I had to go see.
There was one last moment of trepidation when I realized that Lindsay's phone number was printed right on my bib. So some kind passerby could give my wife a courtesy call upon stumbling on my corpse? Yikes.
Clearly I was over thinking things and just needed to get my feet underneath me. I wedged in with some 300 other runners as someone muttered inaudible instructions through a megaphone. A signal of some sort, again unheard by me, sent the pack slowly shuffling up a steeply sloped service road before funneling us onto the start of endless (and glorious) single track that would wind its way all the way to the top of the mountain.
I'd decided on a modest goal of 4 miles an hour on the ascent, expecting that the severity of the grade and the altitude were likely to make my usual pace impossible to achieve. If I could top out in 2 hours and have legs left beneath me, I hoped to let gravity whisk me the full 8 miles down to the bottom at a much faster pace.
I fell in stride with a number of runners who seemed to be of equal ability and condition
Somewhere soon after mile 5 the grade steepened and I could sense unfamiliar physiological demands. I was struggling to pull enough oxygen out of the air and my legs reported corresponding heaviness. Feeling a little lightheaded, I decided it was time to peek at the GPS and learned that we'd now climbed over 9,000 feet. There were less than 3 miles left to the top but another 1200+ feet of elevation to be gained. Needless to say, I was no longer running 12 minute miles when I looked up to see the ridge just below Jupiter.
To give some scale to the photo, note the "runner" at the very lower right and keep in mind that the tufts at the top of the ridge are full grown trees. I couldn't help but notice that not a single person ahead of me was actually running. In fact, some of them were on all fours or at least appeared to be. Loose rock added to the challenge and I was relieved to find that the stubborn grass growing on the ridge held my weight as I clutched at it.
Topping out, I glanced at my Garmin and was surprised to see that I'd only covered 7 miles. I vaguely remembered hearing that there was more work to be done after Jupiter's Peak and after a quick two hundred yards of downhill, the track led upward again to the top of Tri-County Peak. At last the climbing was done and the smooth winding downhill single track led off into the distance.
It was right around mile 10, probably while my mind wandered off into another patch of aspens, that I fell and fell hard. I took the brunt of the fall on my right knee which was now bleeding but also banged my right side just above the hip and dragged my right forearm and elbow. A couple of runners hopped over me, offered words of genuine encouragement and then disappeared down the trail. It took me a moment or two to get back on my feet and I was, admittedly, shook up. I traversed the next few miles very tentatively and did anything but barrel down the mountain.
Eventually I shook off the fall and got back to running but I never work up to the pace I'd hoped for on the return to 7000 feet. My head, however, did begin to clear with the downward progression and I reached the bottom feeling good. Good and tired.
I can't speak for any of the preceding 18 years, but my GPS confirmed that this year's course was a full mile short of 16. My exhausted lungs and legs didn't seem the least bit disappointed. Those 15 miles had taken me just over 3 hours (more than an hour behind the winners), but, coming from a home elevation of 400 feet, I'm holding my head up high...and looking forward to next year.