Sunday, March 23, 2014

Scrambled Legs

I thought I had this climbing thing sorted. 10,000m of climbing a month for a year, always catching other runners in races on climbs, and flying up to Pittock or Council Crest almost daily. But I got complacent. I didn't have Table Mountain to really give my quads a bashing. I've been running and racing in the low country, literally.

That changed last weekend when I tacked onto a group of 'proper' trail runners and headed into the Columbia Gorge, an hour drive from Downtown Portland,  for some 'vert' on the wonderfully named Rock of Ages trail.  It winds up from the Falls, joins Nesmith trail, tops out at 1180m (3872ft) and descends to John B Yeon Park and the Columbia River. This was no fancy pants, equipment laden group of trailees, this was hardcore and included a Western States podium finisher and multiple trail race winners. However, I had been running well and sort of holding my own in this sort of company. It was also a training run, where there is some etiquette attached to these runs; Wait for the slowest runner. It's only a training run. There's no hurry, etc, etc

Horse Tail Falls
We started at sea level from Horse Tail Falls (aptly named) and went up and up and up, to above Maclears Beacon level in about 6km. The first 2km was at best scrambling, at worst vertigo inducing ridge line running. At least for this klutz. Much of the time on our hands and knees, bundi bashing on a barely used 'path'.  Then at last we could run, through beautiful woods, hardly used trails and melting winter snow. The problem was my legs hadn't climbed this much in one go since a Larch Mountain run/hike last year, and as we topped out at almost 1200m and descended to the turnaround point at sea level below, I was toast. Running downhill, over rocky trails, with shot legs isn't anymore fun than running uphill with shot legs. In my case worse, as my innate clumsiness is amplified and picking my feet up, as my mother used to berate me for not doing, becomes less of an instinct and more of a chore.

I'm not in this pic, I was taking the low road! Photo: Brian Donnelly
Last year I DNF'ed (did not finish) two races, both at altitude, which was my excuse anyway. DNFing a training run became a great idea as I eventually hit the road after tripping, kicking and cussing my way down the technical trail, after 1278m up and 1278m down in 14km and almost 3 hours. The others were heading back up the mountain to run it in reverse as I covered the last few hundred metres back down. We exchanged semi embarrassing chatter, and they offered words of encouragement, concern and surprise that I'd been reduced to bailing halfway through a relatively short run. I hit the road with immense gratitude and jogged the 5km or so back to the car we'd left at Horse Tail Falls along the road, sure that I wouldn't have made it back over the mountain without being completely broken, and waited for their return. It was cold, so I jogged up and down the trail, huddling in a sunspot, and eventually they came whooping and hollering down the trail, with those unbridled expressions of joy of doing something simple you love, running.

A reality check
It felt like DNFing a race. That sense of quitting whilst everyone else around you has achieved their goals. Skulking around waiting for others to finish, with no happy story to share, and the lack of questions about your run.

It was also a sobering experience from a training and fitness perspective. To come up so short, so quickly has led me to the realisation that despite the 10,000 metres of vertical a month I'm now at best a flattish 50k racer. I've lost the endurance base, or maybe the mental desire to grind it out for longer than 4-5 hours at a time. That doesn't concern me normally, but in this company it felt inadequate. I could try and point to a more rounded life that doesn't revolve around the next run, but I'd be kidding myself, because as Masters Champion Noel Ernstzen would say 'We love this shit'. So it's into April with a new goal of at least one 1000m+ one day a week and more time in the Gorge. Not such a hardship I guess.


  1. Don't worry, my legs also didn't want to work on Friday as I climbed to Macears to get my 1000m climb in for the week...

    1. Good job! I'm worknig on a mini 3 peaks route here, which will only give about 1200m but still...