Mt. Ashland Hillclimb: Let's Take a Walk

My sister is really good at this running thing. She loves it to the point that she sort of forgets that she's way better at it than average people who spend most of their day feeling bad for blowing off the gym again.

People like me.

It's hard not to get sucked into her enthusiasm for running though. Carolyn was in NY so I drove  down to Ashland to see everyone since Maddie was back from school with her boyfriend Zack. I brought my bike, my running shoes, pretty much all the toys because you just don't know with my family. When Mallory said I should do the Mt. Ashland Hill Climb with her and her friend Amy, who just had hip replacement surgery and was getting back into running, I thought: "well that sounds nice. It's shady, Mallory's not running at race speed so she can pace her friend Amy who just had hip replacement surgery. It should be a pleasant hike!"

God I'm stupid.
Ignorance is Bliss

The Mt. Ashland Hill Climb is a 13.3 mile long running race from Lithia Park to the radar dome (aka the Big Round Thing or "BRT") at the top of Mt. Ashland. It's a vertical mile of climbing. The race is one big hill. If you were going to pick a first half marathon, this would probably be a bad choice. It would probably be a worse choice if your training for the race consisted of a couple of 5k's where you got beat by 8 year old girls.

But bad choices are how I like to roll and the great thing about this kind of race is it's OK to walk. Even the best racers probably walk a bit.  I took great solace in that as I actually ran the first mile or two until it turned on to the Loop Road and changed to dirt and went steep. I mostly fast-walked the rest of the race. When it leveled for a bit I could run in short bursts.

Surprisingly, I was passing people. Not lots of them but a few. It's been quite a while since I passed anybody in a race. It's a nice feeling. I was also surprised that I wasn't alone on the course. I usually occupy the space between the sick, the broken down, and the course sweepers. But here I was with racers ahead of me and behind me close enough to talk to. Mallory and Amy were long gone, of course. This is my sister's turf so I expected her to drop me but Amy apparently had her hip replaced with a small diesel engine. They ended up finishing together about 20 minutes ahead of me.

Mallory and Amy near the finish. I'm back in the trees below.*
With everyone I knew out of sight up the trail, I had quite a bit of time to think as I strode purposely up the mountain. It occurred to me that one of the great things about running is it has a longer tail than bike racing. It welcomes a larger field of people who are substantially slower than the elite.  That's probably why running is so popular. That and you can pretty much kit yourself out for a few hundred dollars, as opposed to bike racing where someone will sell you a $14,000 bicycle with a straight face.

As the miles ticked by I was surprised how good I felt. I was grinding uphill about as fast as I could. I was holding cramps at bay and doing a good job keeping myself fueled and hydrated. I reached the ski lodge parking lot at about 3:35 with only a half mile to go and felt pretty good about coming in under 4 hours. I left the last aid station with the BRT in sight and joked "How hard can it be?" to one of the volunteers as I started up the last climb.

As it turned out, the answer to my question was "Really, stupidly, hard."

It's hard to put into words. The whole climb was awful but the last couple hundred yards were a whole new level of suck. I never felt this kind of pain before. It felt like my ankles had been beaten with a metal pipe. When you have to use your hands to move yourself forward in a running race, you are in a world of hurt. It was the kind of steep where, if you fell backwards, you would just keep falling until you vanished in the scenery. The finish was so close above me I could throw a rock at it if I had any strength left. Fortunately for the timing station, I didn't.

There's someone actually on their hands and knees behind me.*
I understand really fast racers ran up this, but back in the tail of the field, everyone and everything was suffering. One of the racers close to me had an iPhone with Runkeeper on it. That's an app for tracking your run. It calls out - in a somewhat snotty female voice - your time and distance at assigned thresholds. It also announces when you've paused or resumed your run. We were going slow enough that the app thought we had stopped and kept barking "ACTIVITY PAUSED" and "ACTIVITY RESUMED" every 10 seconds. For all you pros who finished hours earlier, this is what happens at the back of a race. We've suffered twice as long as you and we're continually humiliated by our technology while we're suffering.  The only thing that kept me going was the thought of getting my hands on that phone and having a go at adjusting the app settings. It would have been more horrible than the climb except that it was undeniably hilarious. I couldn't make this stuff up. I think he eventually shut the phone off or maybe threw it down the mountain.

The finish was both amazing and anticlimactic. You pretty much climb up a pile of rocks and walk 5 feet through the timing station. Quite a few people had to be steered through it as they veered for the food table just to the right of it.

Amy and Linda, another friend of Mallory's hugged me at the finish. Mallory was convinced I was lying dead on the side of the trail so she took off and ran several miles down the backside of the mountain back to the parking lot to find me because she's insane and she loves me. Also, there was beer there.

The fatigue wore off surprisingly quickly. The view was stunning and nothing feels quite like standing on top of a mountain you just ran up, or walked up in a big hurry. You know what I mean. Everyone at the top was happy and a little buzzed from the thinner air and the satisfaction of standing someplace where there was no more "up" to be had.

The BRT with the finish just to the left and happy racers galore!*

I got a ride off the summit back to the parking lot where I found my sister and the rest of the family punishing the beer tent. I decided beer tastes just as good after a running race, as it does after a bike race.

In the end, 4:09 may not be a great time for a half marathon but it's not bad for a first try on one that climbs a mile on dirt roads and trails. As we bounced down the road off the summit in the bed of the pickup, I was already planning to come back to break four hours.
Amy, my crazy sister and me.
I'm looking forward to actually running a half marathon in the next year. In the meantime, this will remain one of the most enjoyable really fast walks I've ever had.

*Amazing photos taken by Terry Croft


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