Vertical kilometers & The Power Of Power Hiking
Do you ever wake up and realize one of your weaknesses is becoming a strength? Or at least, that you’re seeing a lot more improvement the more you work on it? That’s how I feel about the vertical kilometer and the races at Broken Arrow Skyrace generally.
a brief personal history with vks
The first time I “ran” a vertical kilometer race, back at The Golden Ultra in 2019, it was also part of three days of racing. Theirs is aptly named ‘The Full Pint,’ and boy do you fill your cup with views, vert, & racing – or as they call it, Blood, Sweat, & Tears. After that first Vk, I swore off Vks. Truly. It was probably they hardest thing I had done at that time, and I had never really run directly up a ski slope through brambles like that before. I really thought I was one and done with the Vk, and I was totally okay with that.
But, as with most things in ultrarunning, the amnesia of a few days, months, or in this case, years, can easily change your mind and your curiosity can suck you right back in to whatever you’ve sworn off. In this case, I love the Broken Arrow so much it felt like the right place for me to try another Vk. So after a few Covid race delays, I did so at last fall’s edition of the race. And I LOVED it.
From that second attempt there was no question I’d do it again. It’s funny how a different race, years more of experience, known or home trails, and an incredible community can reframe how you experience something. When I signed up for the 2022 race, I knew I had to do both the Vk and the 26k. I quickly decided to add the 11k in between and make it a full race weekend. But that didn’t deter me from being most excited and determined to put my best into the Vk on day 1.
The race itself
There was this kind of comedy of errors or unexpected things on the day, but I showed up to a free-for-all race start 4 minutes before the gun went off. I was still saying my hellos and starting my watch as we started up the hill. Lately, I’ve kind of liked showing up to race starts last minute because it gives me even less (zero?) time to get nervous or think about the race ahead. I feel a bit discombobulated, and probably look it, but it serves as a good distraction.
The race start was different this year, and instead of spending extra distance starting up switchbacks on an already too-long course, we went straight up the ski hill. It felt more true to a Vk, though I definitely wasn’t expecting this. It took a lot of concentration to step over rocks, through bushes and mule’s ears, while simultaneously bumping around between people. It’s a fairly steep and aerobically shocking start.
After getting thrown into the start, the course hits a fire road and that helps everyone start to get their pace and rhythm a bit better. I made good progress through the crowd the more steep sections we hiked up the road. I think somewhere in here is also when my first shoelace came untied. I was wearing the old Altra King Mtn 1.5, which have a velcro strap across the top, so I wasn’t too worried about my shoes coming loose. I decided the laces are short enough to not step on – I’d just chance it. I also realized quickly during this section that the sample, pre-production version of the shorts I was wearing were not quite the same as the production version I also have, and thus got very unexpectedly weighed down by my phone & half-sized soft flask. So at the same time I was watching my shoelace was flying around, I was also trying to tighten and keep my shorts from falling down.
As we started along the Red Dog Ridge section next, I found that either I didn’t place myself right amongst the crowd or more likely, my strengths are just very different. I think this is where the course separates those who started too hard and couldn’t recover, or who simply aren’t used to this type of terrain. I kept wanting to run the runnable sections faster and move more aggressively up the technical sections, but was back to back in a conga line of people on singletrack trail. A few times I made the choice to pass around folks through bushes or rocks, partly out of sheer frustration that I was being prevented from running my own race and partly as practice for the aggression I’ll need racing in Europe in August.
At some point before we got to the saddle between KT-22 and Squaw Peak, a nice runnable section if you haven’t built up too much lactate, my second shoelace came undone as well. Yet I still refused to stop, losing too much time to being stuck behind people as it was. I decided to roll the dice and split my concentration between the terrain and trying to keep my shorts & shoes on. It was at least an unusual way of keeping myself distracted from the pain at hand. And I got a lot of “your shoelaces are untied” conversations and probably funny looks.
On the final, big climb up to Headwall & beyond, hiking really came into play again. The ability to power up with the strategic use of poles had me passing people who weren’t using poles. I think not only did I move better, but I felt stronger. For a while I was able to pass people easily again, since we were on something akin to a rocky fire road with plenty of space to pass if you took your own line.
Of course, when we got to the last section of scrambling, passing became near impossible and I was yet again stuck behind a line of someones. I watched the soles of their shoes seek footing on the rocks as I tried to slide my hands in their place as fast as they moved to the next step. I found myself embroiled in frustration again, having to be on the stairway to heaven with three other people at the same time instead of climbing the ladder at my own speed. We got off the rocks finally and hit the snow at the top of the course. I tried to run the stairs they’d cut out, but after 100 or so people they’d each become slippery little downhill ramps. I heard a friend cheering to my right and continued to go for it despite the footing, pushing through the trod out snow that everyone else was slowly navigating, ankles be damned. In the last seconds of the race, I fought to mentally regain the steps I had lost to congestion all race. If only for myself, I fought for a photo finish with the next guy in front of me, which it turns out was a friend 🙊 .
When you put aside my frustrations all race of feeling held back when I didn’t want to be, or the fact that my shoelaces were flapping about and my shorts on the verge of leaving something else flapping in the wind, I was happily surprised to still be over 5 minutes faster on the course than last time in October. Knowing that I maybe could’ve gone a couple minutes faster at the same effort if there weren’t an additional 200 finishers this year was icing on the cake. And the recurring feeling of knowing that wasn’t even my strongest possible, that I could push harder if I wasn’t worried about additional racing days, or would be faster later this season or with more specified training, keeps me wanting more. Yes, MORE VKS PLEASE.
The room for potential I still feel doesn’t discount, though, my increasing confidence in my hiking ability, something that used to be my greatest weakness in trail running. Before Broken Arrow, I started adding steep hiking as a focus in the buildup towards OCC. I’ve always wanted to add hiking into my training, but generally find it more boring than running so didn’t. Now that it’s steep hiking, for a dream race, I’ve reframed my perspective to make sure to include it in my training. Whether it’s in the middle of a run, or its own dedicated session, I approach it as spending focused time on getting more efficient at terrain and grades too steep for me to run anyways. It also helps to watch friends training for UTMB working on their hiking strategies too, knowing if they’re finding time for it I should too.
So yes, I’m including power hiking as part of my running training, and it’s working. It’s helping me become more efficient, and faster as a result. Because as we know, there’s more to running than just running.