I procrastinated and procrastinated, but knew I had to do it. The fact that the race filled me with dread was the main reason. Author Tim Ferris notes that the things you fear and dread the most are usually the things you most need to do.
I’m a sucker for a flat road or a downhill race, but straight uphill? Not really my thing. I’m not one of those punisher types who embraces a super-tough, masochistic course. I like to post a good time and I loathe drowning in anaerobic misery.
But, after filming two years of promos for the race, I felt rather inauthentic. “You can do it!” “Running uphill is a good challenge.” “Get out and do some hills to become stronger.” I barked into the camera. Really? Then why did I tell myself I couldn’t do it?
The Run to the Shrine 5K and 10K sponsored by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs runs straight up the side of a mountain to Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. The course for the 10K is steep – the first 4.2 miles gain more than 2,000 feet in elevation. The last 2 miles is downhill – but steep and on asphalt. The last .2 miles wind through the animals of Asia, sharp turn you through the wallabies, and end you somewhere near Tahoma the Moose.
It was that first 4.2 miles I was concerned about. The average grade is something like 8 percent, with much of it much steeper to balance out the relatively innocuous first mile. So, before I drove to the race and parked my car, I made a bargain with myself. I would manage my energy on this run and give myself permission to walk whenever I needed to. Usually I don’t do well with these kind of bargains with myself. But this time…
I felt liberated.
Of course, I didn’t make this decision without some research. Renowned runner and coach Jeff Galloway preaches a technique that involves spacing targeted walk breaks into half marathons and marathons to help you succeed. He says that incorporating walk breaks can improve your time significantly. I’ve run into people – solid middle to upper middle of the packers nonetheless – who confirm his truth. He says the walk breaks help keep your legs feeling bouncy by reducing the repetitive motion of running. You alternate the way your muscles work so no one group fatigues or breaks down entirely. Walking breaks also facilitate faster recovery because you have pounded less on your legs. He suggests taking walk breaks before you hit the point of complete fatigue – so I took him up on it, with excellent results.
The first mile was pretty easy, and I ran it at an easy pace to conserve energy. Mile one: 9:23 mph. On mile two, things got steep – quickly. I had no music so I could hear the labored breathing of the runners around me. When I became one of them, I allowed myself to walk. I didn’t HAVE to walk – I CHOSE to walk. I’d look ahead, find a marker and decide when I reached it – I’d start running again until I felt that tell-tale labored breath. This system worked pretty much through mile 3. I didn’t invent it – classic, old-fashioned fartleks…that’s all. Mile two time: 11:28; Mile three time: 12:04. My walks were not slow and leisurely, mind you. My Garmin registered 4.3 to 5.4 mph on the walking portions of my run. I actually hiked past some people doing a hopeful running motion. One woman jogged next to me for about a tenth of a mile. “Wow, you walk fast!” To which I replied, “And it takes less energy than a slow jog.” I punctuated it with a sprint to my next tree. When I hit Mile 3, I decided the run/walk combo was over. This was the steepest part of the course and I figured it would cost me at most 1 or 2 minutes going up. I could walk vigorously the remaining mile and then use my energy to blast it downhill. Mile 4: 14:23. Walking to the top made it seem very far away. I’m guessing running it probably made it feel even farther.
When I reached that apex, I knew it was all downhill – literally. I took off with plenty of energy. Mile 5: 8:30, but that’s because during the first two-tenths I was still hiking at a fast walk. Mile 6: 7:04. Mind you, I’ve never run a 7-minute mile straight. Mile .2 at a 7.7 mph pace…the switchbacks slowed me down. For those two miles, I flew passed people on the downhill who had been shuffling past me up hill. I heard people cry “my knees hurt;” they were sweating; I saw people put on the brakes. Not me.
I felt like I was flying and nothing hurt. When I passed the finish line – I could have kept going (downhill of course). I couldn’t help but think…if I had burned it out on the uphill, I wouldn’t have gotten the high on the downhill. Nor would I have pulled out a near 7-minute mile.
Today, nothing hurts. No post-race soreness, no quad or hamstring pain. I posted a decent time for the race: 1:05 and change. Good enough for 30th among women and 4th in my age group (ok, there were only 13 total in my age group, but as a friend pointed out – only the crazy hard-core runners come out for a race like that. I’m not so sure, but I’ll take it.) Any old 10K and I’d be very unhappy with that showing – for one mostly uphill that I dreaded – I’m thrilled. Plus, the post-race swag was pretty good – free Vega, free Garbanzos and no line at the massage booth! I’d do this race again, and I don’t think I’d say that if I’d tried to run the whole thing.