Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Taking the High Road

I don't like running uphill. Also, I'm not very good at it. "Well, Barry" the sensible and reasoned response might be, "perhaps you should avoid running up hills". However, I am neither a sensible nor reasonable person, and after seeing this video:

I found myself signed up to race The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50-miler. Now the above video doesn't necessarily give a good indication of the hilliness of the course, but this elevation profile

does. Don't panic, the Americans haven't embraced the metric system yet, so mercifully, the y-axis is in feet. What I'm eventually going to get round to saying here is that I needed to get good at running hills. Or, more realistically, at least used to the idea of spending lots of time trudging up them.

Canadians don't have very good imaginations when it comes to naming their roads. So it'll come as no surprise to learn that "Mountain Highway" is exactly that: a long, winding road that takes you from suburban North Vancouver to the top of Grouse Mountain. It's pretty unrelenting and probably the least interesting place to run on the whole of the North Shore. But training-wise, it's unfortunately hard to beat in terms of getting experience of long, constant, just-about-runnable uphill.

Knowing this, myself and Alex had resolved to run up and down Mountain Highway on Sunday. Twice. It's just over 12 km from top to bottom, so you're looking at roughly 50 km of hilly goodness. Neither of us were particularly enthralled by the prospect of this training run. This only increased for me on Sunday morning when I noticed that the ankle stiffness I'd started to experience on my run the previous day was still lingering. "I dunno", my internal monologue muttered, "perhaps  you shouldn't go out and run for five hours today". But then the competitive jerk side of my brain chipped in with a brusque "Shut up body, you'll do what I tell you". So that's how we found ourselves at 8 o'clock on a chilly Sunday morning at the base of Mountain Highway, desperately trying to distract ourselves from what lay ahead.

Fortunately, the grade of this road is just about shallow enough to sustain an actual running pace, so we began with a gentle jog that was still fast enough that the first few kilometres clicked by fairly quickly. I'd like to think that the wilderness inspired us to ponder some of life's greater philosophical questions, but really we spent most of the ascent gossiping about mutual friends and making supportive noises about each other's questionable life decisions. Still, in no time we were getting high up the mountain. At this point, despite the fact that the weather had been unseasonably dry for the past few days, a number of icy patches appeared on the road. It was while gingerly trying to step over one of these that I slipped and fell flat on my back, thus maintaining my impeccable record of wiping out on all the least technical surfaces in the Lower Mainland (the wide, flat trails of the Pacific Spirit Park around UBC are my chief bĂȘte noire).

Still, we made it to the top without too much trouble and turned around to eagerly embrace the descent. This was altogether more fun and at 10:31, only a minute later than my predicted ETA, we were back at the bottom. In the previous few days, Alex had been rightfully worried about me being her only source of entertainment for a five-hour training run and had been desperately trying to recruit suckers friends to join us. Sadly, inexplicably, nearly everyone seemed to have something better to do. Apart from Ben. Ben cheerfully informed us that he hadn't done a long run for a while and had never run on the North Shore. I quietly marvelled at the language Alex must have used to convince him to join us, but as we turned round to head back up the mountain, now we were three.

Yeah, you're smiling now...
Of course, the two-and-a-half hours that Alex and I already had under our belts meant that we were well warmed-up, whereas Ben was not long out of bed, and possibly slightly hungover. Which is to say, that while me and Alex chatted jovially as we trotted up the mountain, Ben quickly became a picture of grim, heavy-breathing, determination. After about another half an hour we were almost starting to feel guilty about dragging him out of his lovely warm home for this ridiculous stunt, but then he seemed to perk up, picked up the pace and struck out ahead. Now he was pulling us along, which we were grateful for as the weather had taken on an altogether more wintry feel with snow coming down with increased persistence.

The last few kilometres to the top seemed to drag on a lot more this time; yes, we were starting to get a bit tired. And cold. And hungry. But eventually the Grouse Mountain chalet loomed out of the clouds. There was a temptation to go inside to warm up briefly, but I was worried about the danger of being seduced by the warmth, coffee and smell of baked goods. So after a brieft photo op

we turned back around again for our final leg. Ben had clearly been fantasising about the downhill stretch for some time and quickly settled into a rapid pace. Alex and I, however, were definitely feeling it a lot more in our thrashed quads. While I'd only managed an easy trot around the seawall the previous day, Alex gradually revealed that she'd been on an epic 3-hour mountain run on the Sunshine Coast, and I think it was finally starting to catch up. Still, by this point, the novelty of being constantly blizzarded in the face was starting to wear thin so we pushed on, and soon enough, were back at the car. We felt pretty pleased with ourselves. We'd got through a run that was tough both mentally and physically, and Ben hadn't pushed us off the side of the mountain in anger. Nearly 50 km of running including 1,500 m of elevation gain in just over five hours. A solid morning's work.

Nutritional Information
  • Pre-run: juice, oatmeal with banana and honey, cup of coffee
  • While running: water (about half a litre?)
  • Post-run: chocolate milk, a kamut bar (I've no idea what kamut is, but it was delicious, so thanks to Alex's friend Lucy for that), more coffee
  • Brunch at the Tomahawk BBQ: two cups of coffee and the "Yukon Breakfast" which consisted of two eggs, two slices of toast, hash browns and most of a small pig, thinly sliced and fried.

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