This article recounts my experience running my first mountain race, a 30-k trail run in the Pikes Peak Ultra Series.
The first question I was asked when I said I was training for a mountain trail run was not why – most know I come from a family of running junkies – but how. In truth, my goal of running a race in which 3,500 feet of elevation are gained within nine miles of the 7,000-foot starting line may have seemed ambitious given the fact that my training ground was the flat paved paths in and around Boston. Although I was terrified of getting lost, being eaten by bears, and breaking my ankles during the race, the altitude itself didn’t thwart me from signing up. Why? Because I suffered exhaustion from the altitude so terribly as a child that as an adult, I almost feel immune.
My family started taking me to the Rocky Mountains for week-long vacations when I was two years old, and we continued the tradition until I moved away for college. This tradition began during my grandfather’s childhood when he visited Colorado for the first time with family. During this trip, he signed a “chippy promise” with his brothers by carving the face of a chipmunk into a smooth, palm-sized rock acquired from the trails – a gesture that denoted his dedication to return. A generation later, my mother sketched the same shape into a rock when her father brought her to visit one summer, and she took her commitment quite seriously, renewing a resolution each year to sing atop the rolling hills that ascend the mountains. I’m told that I also took the oath as a girl, and while I’m certain that I didn’t know the significance of doodling a smiling chipmunk on my jagged rock, I do know that the mountains have been permanently etched into my heart.
Making my “chippy promise” is not a memory that stands out from my childhood, but the extreme fatigue from our annual week of hiking certainly is. Imagine, my scrawny eight-year-old limbs brusquely transitioning from my sedentary sea-level schoolgirl days to the active life of a mountain hiker. I would pant ferociously to keep up with my mother’s runner’s stride, while my father caught fish at the base of the mountain. “Are we there yet?” was a question that took hours to answer in the affirmative, meanwhile my feet were blistering beyond the point of recognition in my rubber galoshes.
The mountains were where I learned the basics of survival: always carry a whistle, water, a granola bar, and a walkie talkie (yes, we had the old school handheld devices); watch out for loose pebbles and rocks under your feet or when using your hands to climb; flying down hills is okay, but when in doubt, walk (or slide down on your seat); never set your valuables next to a running stream; hold your hat with a death grip when you reach the peak of a mountain; and always run for your life to make it back down the mountain when you hear the rumble of afternoon thunder in the distance.
The mountains were my favorite playground and ultimate teacher. No wonder returning feels so natural as an adult. What else could possibly parallel the achievement of summiting a mountain on my own plebeian feet – to see the painted peaks and valleys that stretch for miles beyond the limits of my imagination; to breathe in the crisp, cool air tinted with sagebrush and snowy clouds; to feel the nearby sun kiss each inch of exposed skin; to hear the pattering of my feet on pebbles and the cool gush of streams amidst the uninterrupted silence that plays like a symphony in my periphery; to feel freedom – true freedom – blissfully isolated yet harmoniously interwoven into my environment.
Arriving back from the mountains after my first trail race was almost anticlimactic. Half a cliff bar still held in my hands, my bones intact, my hat still tethered to my pony tail, my legs heavy but with enough energy on reserve for a sprint finish – this was nothing like the feeling of being soaked in rain, chased by lightning, muddied up to my waist, stomping out the remnants of cow pies, and breathless to the point of collapse that I felt as a child. Like a kid being unstrapped from my first roller coaster ride, I ran to hug my mom after crossing the finish line, and screamed, “Can I do it again?” Undoubtedly, I’ll keep my chippy promise for years to come.