Last year, I celebrated my birthday by running my age.
At the time, 37 miles marked the farthest I'd gone at one time and I'd considered making the effort an annual event, thinking maybe I could keep adding a mile each year for another few years at least.
Another trip around the calendar later, I was going to be hard pressed to find the time to squeeze in a run of that length in the middle of a work week, especially while trying to get my handle on the boatload of work that needs done ahead of next week's Summer Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City and TransRockies, gulp, just two weeks after that.
So, I needed a different kind of status check and it made sense that it should be something that doubled as training for the 120 miles that await in Colorado next month. While I don't have access to any altitude here in Pennsylvania, there are climbs to be had everywhere even if it demands that you go up, down and back up again.
Over and over and over.
I gave Jefferson a ring early in the week to let him know what I was planning and to see if he wanted in. The idea was to match the elevation gain of the longest stage at TransRockies, 4900 feet, but to condense that climb into a shorter distance. Basically, I was thinking that I'd try to make up for not being able to train in altitude by upping the severity of the climbing. Flawed logic, I know, but at least it would be hard work.
I met Jefferson right around 5:00 AM and we hiked in the half mile on the Horseshoe Trail to the top of Molehill. In my pack, I was hucking a mini aid station consisting of Gatorade, peanut butter, Gu, Honey Stinger waffles, granola bars, Swedish Fish and dog knows what else. Either as a birthday offering, a reminder for me to keep an eye on my nutrition or as a goal to work towards, Jefferson had also brought a bottle of Mountain Lightning, the mystical knock-off of a certain caffeine-heavy, day-glo-colored carbonated beverage that came to my rescue when all hell had broken loose in my bowels at Laurel Highlands.
I appreciated the gesture but decided not to carry it to the trailhead.
During a couple of hill sessions the week prior, my Suunto had clocked the ascent at Molehill at around 430+ feet in a little over 4 tenths of a mile, so I was looking at something like 12 reps to make it to 4900 feet of climb. The most laps I'd managed to crank out without switching from running to walking was 4, so I knew that I'd be doing some power hiking before the morning was over. I'd brought along my Black Diamond Z-Poles, thinking it would be a good chance to see if I could finally get the hang of using poles while moving swiftly...or trying to. To start, though, I'd see how far I could go on the run.
It was still too dark to manage without a light, so the initial hike and the first couple of trips up and down the hill were headlamp lit. As much as I wanted to barrel the downhills, I knew I'd need my quads to participate throughout the effort and, instead, I concentrated on clean footfalls on the descents. A storm that had passed through the previous day had littered the trail with debris and Jefferson and I spent some time clearing out downed limbs on our initial trip down to the bottom.
We chatted the entire way down and most of the way up, as we cranked through the first lap. I headed right back down, knowing that, whatever the reason, my second rep has always proven to be my most sluggish. This day was no different and I toiled on my second ascent and thought I might end up hiking sooner than I'd anticipated. I paused at the top to get a quick drink and use the Sharpie I'd brought along to make note of which lap I was on...I'd failed to take that step on past repeat sessions, lost track of the number and ended up doing extra laps to make sure that I covered the ground I'd planned on in the first place. I had too far to go this morning and too little time before work to afford to lose the count. Realizing I didn't have any paper with me, I marked two notches on my arm, replaced the cap and jumped back on the course.
The third time up the hill went far better and I was psyched to see Jefferson plugging away too. He's conquered Molehill several times by now, but hadn't gutted out two on-the-run reps on any prior visits. Here he was topping out for the third time and he'd get one more before having to part ways to get back home to start his day.
Soon after Jefferson left, I ran up the hill a fifth time and felt like I could manage one more before likely having to resort to hiking. I snuck a quick peek at my watch, did some quick math (not my strong suit) and suddenly understood that, short of being late for work, I was going to be hard-pressed to log 12 laps in the allotted time. Had I bothered to do that simple math the day before, I might have started earlier, but it was a little late for that now.
Down and up, down and up, down and up I went. I wasn't flying by any means (a nearly 21% grade'll have that effect), but damned if I wasn't still running. Or at least going faster than hiking. I wouldn't have even thought about continuing to run if this had been an actual race, but this was something different altogether so I just kept at it.
I continued hitting the Gatorade and thieving food from my aid station. And I was shocked to still be feeling good. My feet were getting a bit sloppy on the downs but my legs kept chugging on the ups and my heart and lungs managed to keep up too. I added notches though I was sweating away the earliest of those notches almost as quickly as I was acquiring new ones.
I kept repeating my "make it to the top of the hill on the other side of this hill" mantra, despite the fact that this day was all about just this one brutal hill.
Regardless, the mantra was working.
Eight, nine, ten times I summited Molehill before having to accept the fact that the clock had caught up with me and I was going to have to get off the trail, into the car and off to work. But not before a quick archival photo of me on my favorite downed log/resting post.
I was thirty-eight, alright.
Maybe halfway home (or further) if you prefer to look at things that way. I don't, for the record, but regardless of how little or much I've got left, I'm pretty pleased with still feeling frisky and still well in possession of grit teeth and stubborn will. Guess I could have slept in for my birthday, but not getting up and moving is a gift I'd just as soon not receive.
I hadn't planned appropriately to accomplish exactly what I'd set out to do, but I'd buried my former idea of what I was capable of on that beloved/dogforsaken hill, running every damn step. And 4495 feet of climb in 8.78 miles is no joke for boy or man (girl or woman).
No joke at all.
If anything, it was worth a raised glass. A celebratory drink.
And I had just the thing.