I was fully awake and ready to go. So that’s not an excuse.
I am pretty fit and have been running trails with a lot of vert this summer. So it’s not that either.
And I know the trail like the back of my hand. So I can’t claim ignorance of the route.
So the only thing I am left with is that I flat-out got my ass handed to me by a running partner on a pre-dawn jaunt up one of my favorite and most frequently run local trails. Sure, she’s a more talented and more dynamically fit runner than I am, but I still didn’t expect to get sent to the hurt locker like I did.
The trail is only about 1.3 miles to the top, but there are 1,300 feet of vertical gain so it’s always a short, sharp shock. But today it felt like I was running an all-out mile on the track. (And at times I wished that was the case!)
How bad was it? Let’s just say I got crushed. Halfway up, I was already gassed, red-lining on the runnable terrain and hands-pushing-knees survival mode on the steep power-hiking sections. Meanwhile, she seemed to be effortlessly bounding along, scampering from rock to rock like the many cute but skittish mountain rodents we often see out on the trails. It was like chasing a floating butterfly, even though it repeatedly stung like a bee. (I swear she was humming a Broadway show tune, too, but that might have my imagination slipping into an oxygen-debt hallucination.)
Perhaps I was expecting a more casual run to start the work week — because who runs that hard before the sun comes up on a Monday morning? — but my friend had something else in mind and never let up once she started pushing the pace 5 minutes into the run. And so I got lit up and was gagging on fumes all the way to the top.
And you know what? It was the best thing that could have happened to me.
As much as we all like to be diligent about our training, sometimes we get complacent. Yes, running trails can be inherently challenging no matter how fast we run. Or how fast we intend to run. But it can be easy to get lulled into complacency, even if not by design, because we’re so immersed in the scenery, the sunrise, the soul-soothing vibe of the trails. And let’s face it, sometimes that’s just what we need. Those slow to moderate development runs build physical and aerobic strength and they’re good for the gray matter in our noggins.
Those slow to moderate development runs build physical and aerobic strength and they’re good for the gray matter in our noggins.
But there’s also a time and a place to run hard, either by way of a prescribed workout (like hill repeats) or by challenging yourself on the ever-changing features of the natural terrain — steeps, rocks, mud, gravel, off-camber terrain. Or, in this case by a trail running partner relentlessly kicking your ass all before your morning caffeine has a chance to really kick in.
The thing about this morning’s run is that I didn’t really see it coming and, perhaps, fortunately, I didn’t have time to react. I thought I was leading us off at an appropriately industrious pace behind the beam of my bright headlamp on what would have been a moderate to hard run at any pace. But she definitely had more jump than I did because she zipped by me, and as soon as she did, I knew my only option was to hang on and grind or be left in her dust and struggle alone.
I know she wasn’t sandbagging me from the start and didn’t intend to all-out hammer me, and that’s the beauty of it. She was just running free, unbridled and challenging herself and, by default, challenging me if I wanted to accept it.
I accepted as best I could but to say it was a sufferfest the rest of the way was an understatement. I sucked air, tripped, stumbled and was incoherent in my own thoughts.
Just. Keep. Grinding.
The unexpected blitzkrieg pace took me out of my own head, forced me to ignore my lingering weekend fatigue and it didn’t allow me to dwell on the stress of the coming work week. It also demanded that I live in the moment and literally take it one step at a time. Plus, it reminded me that trail running should take me out of my comfort zone every few days, not only for my fitness but to remember there are no easy days in the mountains.
Trail running should take me out of my comfort zone every few days, not only for my fitness but to remember there are no easy days in the mountains.
Although I didn’t quite realize it amid the throes of leg-burning, heart-thumping-like-it-would-burst anguish, it was a hugely inspiring run. Not to mention the fastest I’d run on that trail in more than two years.
When I got to the top of the trail several strides behind her, I was thankful that it would be all flowy downhill running from there (and hopefully a bit more mellow), but I was also stoked to have gotten pushed, or in this case, pulled, so hard. As we watched the sun rise a day ahead of the autumnal equinox, I relished in the most exhilarating and purposeful run of the summer. Thanks for kicking my ass and sending the season out in style.
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and now serves as contributing editor.