Friday, August 28, 2009

The Hill

Last month for the third straight year I ran in the DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay on a team that Bex put together. She throws her home at the lake open to the team each year and we spend the second Saturday in June crawling around the 72-mile lake in a support vehicle while one teammate is out on the front lines. We always finish about eleven and a half hours after we start.

I have previously written about this year's run as a team effort. I wanted to write about my leg this year, because it was the toughest run I ever did.

I did Leg One the first year, but that turned out to be the next-to-easiest leg and everyone got mad at me because I was one of the veteran, experienced runners on the team. So last year I did what I thought was the hardest leg, the sixth leg (of seven) because it finishes up on a monster hill the last mile and a half that rises 525 feet. It was tough alright.

Leg Six is 10.5 miles. Leg Two, the other very tough leg, is "only" 8.2 miles. But the last four miles rise 700 feet on a steady uphill slog up a mountain pass. I can now tell you from exhausting research that Leg Two is the toughest leg.

Besides the final hill, another problem with Leg Two, which I hadn't considered beforehand, is that the "flat" portion of Leg Two is really two hills which rise 200 feet each with a corresponding decline. These "rolling hills" deliver you to the bottom of the ultimate hill climb. (Right: Leg Two. That's a hill.)

When I took the baton, the first mile immediately rose the aforementioned 200 feet. I arrived at the top of that minor protuberance huffing and puffing in the rarefied air of 6350 feet. Eighteen hours earlier I'd been living happily at sea level.

The second "protuberance" wasn't any better. But the scenery was beautiful, even breathtaking. (Left: The scenery off to my left was awesome. The view off to my right wasn't bad either.)

Then I powered down the last decline and hit the final long uphill. Only four miles to go.

There was no seeing the "top." Always above me, on the far hillside, was a series of ever higher roadways with cars traveling on them.

My teammates were very supportive, driving on ahead and then stopping to offer me water as I toiled ever upwards. My pace of course slowed considerably, especially after about two miles of climbing, and the doubt started creeping into my mind. My goal was to complete this leg without walking. There wasn't much passing going, everyone was in their own private sphere on the hill.

I tried to reason with myself not to break into a walk, even for a moment. My legs were getting extremely leaden and there were still about two miles to go, all uphill.

I had nothing to bargain with my mind with, really. I finally settled upon the phrase, For the rest of your life. For the rest of my life, I would never be six miles into a very challenging climb with a mere two miles to go to salvation. What I did in the next twenty minutes, I would carry with me as long as I live. If I could endure twenty minutes of pain, I would get release. If not, if I walked even a tiny bit, in twenty-one minutes I would find release at the finish line as well, but for the rest of my life I would have a mental shrug of feigned indifference whenever I thought of the hill and how impossibly tough it was. This is what I was thinking about.

A snippet of a song by Mick Jagger, Sympathy for the Devil, made its way into my head and swirled around and around. It wouldn't go away. His moment of doubt and pain. I looked up at the far hillside, at the tiny cars up there crawling along way above my head, knowing that there lay my path, too. His moment of doubt and pain. Twenty minutes, now eighteen. His moment of doubt and pain. Now fourteen, now twelve.

In a fog of fatigue, I finally felt the roadway level out at the top of the climb. In the last 200 meters before the exchange point, several younger runners sprinted past me but I didn't care. I hadn't given in. I had run the whole way. I handed off the baton after seventy-eight minutes and one second of extremely difficult running, a 9:31 m/m pace.

I stood around in distress while my teammates crowded around congratulating me. Suddenly I kneeled and wretched loudly, two long dry heaves. That was a first for me. My teammates looked away politely, laughing quietly. I loved them all at that moment. For the rest of my life. (Right: Where was the Porcelain God when I needed it?)


Just_because_today said...

that is an incredible pace for a climb like that. The Catskill Mountain 100K relay I did 3 weeks ago has a leg (#4)like that. I will NEVER do leg 4. Congratulations on not walking. Your post reminded me of one of my favorite songs "The Climb"
Ain't about how fast I get there, ain't about what's waiting on the other's the climb".
Loved this post and your mantra while running the climb.

ShirleyPerly said...

I remember feeling woozy running a 10 min pace at 6000+ feet and that was going downhill. I can't imagine running 9:30 pace uphill at that altitude. Congrats on making it to the top!!

Sunshine said...

Interesting to read your Lake Tahoe report again this year. Not totally fun for you, though.

Petraruns said...

My god! What a run! On what terrain! Total respect! As someone who was VANQUISHED - totally - by hills recently I am completely full of respect for you. Totally. Wow.

Danielle in Iowa said...

Mountains and altitude! They're killers! This is why I always assign myself easy legs at the Wild West Relay :-) Nice job though!