Cover photo: Bryan Ting
Going into race weekend, I had this illusion the Vk would be my “easy” day. I thought I could simply hike it as a warm-up for the coming days without expending too much effort. Man, was I wrong.
Or at least, uncharacteristically naive. I should know myself better than that, and I should expect more from a Vk, even if it was my first. Honestly though, the first mile was about what I expected and was used to: runnable uphill grades mixed with hike-able steeps, on a bit of fire trail and a bit of off trail terrain. There was some mud and light rain, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Then I saw this:
I looked up, took a picture to remember my shock, breathed deep, and switched gears to climbing mode. Up we went. Up through mud, dirt, brambles, and the debris of pine trees, bushes, and whatever else was hastily chainsawed to make a direct path to the top of the mountain. The only indication this was a trail was the dirt kick steps made by the conga line ahead. Thank goodness for poles and King MTs.
Before this, I’m not sure if I had ever “run” or “hiked” something so consistently steep for so long. Certainly not without stopping. It made the snowy climbs of Broken Arrow seem like a party. Over and over I thought, “This is BONKERS,” “I wouldn’t even hike this,” and “Why do people do this???” I believed I wouldn’t do another Vk, but was grateful I at least didn’t have to descend it.
Whether it was the race mentality I couldn’t escape, or the pressure of people directly in front of and behind me, I kept pushing. I had to keep moving. Every movement hurt and seemed to take more and more willpower. Each step was a win and progress towards the next. In my mind, there was no option to pull over, breathe, or stop. I hadn’t gone into this summer mountain season with that mentality, and I wasn’t going to finish that way.
The surprising and supportive cheers of my friends as they rode the gondola above me echoed their disbelief and relief to not be in my position. It was uplifting, and at the same time a cruel reminder that I chose to do this. I chose to take a straight line from a ski resort to the top of the mountain. I chose this experience and the two days that would follow. So, I could and I would do it.
The sweet relief when that section ended is something I think runners only experience in MUT running. You’ve just done something that seemed insurmountable, and the relief is immediate and joyous. It’s a distant memory and you are on to the next section feeling refreshed. For me, the pain quickly drained out of my calves and low back as I took a few glorious steps at a slow jog across a fire road.
This was the transition to the next section: stone steps. It was the most beautiful and probably my favorite part of the course. Rocky uphill terrain felt more like nature’s stair climbing. Maybe I could get a Class 2 or Class 3 scramble. I loved the change in terrain. Rocks and boulders seem more predictable, like one step to the next can only be so steep. They remind me of climbing around as a kid, and all my summer training on Tahoe granite this year. The change in scenery and views didn’t hurt either.
As I continued ascending, I vaguely remembered the pre-race announcement. Supposedly, after the stone steps there would only be a 400m run to the finish. This bit of information motivated me, as did the fact that I was getting closer to the advertised 4.5k race distance or the 2.87 mile GPX file distance, whichever it would be. (Spoiler alert, it was closer to 5k at 3.05 miles.) Of course, the stone steps wandered up like a stairway to mountain heaven, with no end in sight. The course would flatten to a trail for a few strides, make a sharp switchback, and turn up more rocks.
I watched as I started to see where the gondola was heading to the top of the mountain. I thought there was no way we were going all the way up there, that the race must end before it. Fortunately, rumors of a rainbow behind us distracted me, as did the epic views. I also knew that soon enough I would reach my friends and the end of the course.
I realized at this point in the race, my “A” goal of 1:30 hours, and conservative goal of under 2 hours, were both very beatable. Until then I had barely looked at my watch, or really done anything besides take one step in front of the other and breathe occasionally. A new goal would bring renewed motivation.
So, as before, I kept pushing. I noted a half mile from the end, then a quarter mile or so. If I were doing what resembled running, this might be more helpful. Mentally it was, even when this racing style meant time on my feet was still a big unknown. Moving how I could, when I could was key. I ran any trail sections between the steps, so that soon I could run to the finish.
Thankfully, I began seeing friends cheering and taking photos on course. Where in some races runners might finally smile and relax, I told them how crazy this was and pushed harder. No time for slacking. Their presence meant the finish was close and I wanted to get the thing done.
When I finally hit the last smooth trail to the finish, I ran. Just like how the race began, I tripped on one of my poles, from exhaustion and a lack of control. (Oh, did I not tell you how at the beginning of the race I tripped on my pole, propelling face first into a woman’s cushy buttocks, because I didn’t want to stick my poles out like all the ones which were nearly impaling me?)
I gasped and laughed on the inside. I gave no sh**s because I made it and nothing was stopping me. I ran until I hit the finish. Then I let out the first breaths of unencumbered relief. Exclamations, smiles, and sweat were thrown around with friends and I felt fresh again, ready for Day 2.
Stats for those who care:
- 3.05mi, 3,415 ft gain, 1:18:11 Gun time
- 69/139 OA, 23/71 F, 5/10 AG for the Vk race
- 20th F, 4th AG to start the Full Pint