Humans are good at lying to ourselves. We can easily trick our own minds into not seeing things the way they really are.
I’d convinced myself that I was in decent shape. That I was healthy and ready to tackle just about any physical challenge that came my way.
Then, on the 7th of June, I met Government Peak. This mountain in the Mat-Su Valley is the site of one of six mountain running races that make up the Alaska Mountain Runner’s Grand Prix (GPRA) — a difficult series of races that is the result of a small, but energetic scene of crazy people who run up mountains to see who can do it fastest.
The Government Peak race serves as a fund raising event for the Colony High XC ski team and was an opportunity for me to volunteer to help this great organization. The race itself is just a touch over three miles long. Though in that three miles there is 3,500 feet of elevation gain.
Clearly not an easy climb. I, being the genius that I am, thinking I was fit, volunteered to work the top of the mountain as a finish line timer. I figured this would be a good way to force myself to make the hike to the top, as I’m not generally a hiker. I like the views from the tops of mountains, I just don’t like the getting there or back down.
The day couldn’t have been better for a race. A warm, sunny day. But not too warm. Breezy once above tree line, but not windy. The kind of day just made for hanging out on the top of a mountain.
The group of us who were to be stationed at the top started from the parking lot of GPRA at a little after 8 in the morning. There were 11 of us starting out. We ranged along the trail, each falling into our own pace and enjoying the amazing work that the Strabel clan have done in conjunction with the borough to make GPRA such a wonderful and inviting recreation location in the valley. Heck, as we were making our way to the location of the first aid station, a mile from the start chute, the 70+ year old Ed Strabel was out there with an overstuffed backpack, post hole digger, and his elfin smile encouraging us on. I’d venture he’d been out there for hours by the time we ran into him. The man is a spitfire of energy.
I smiled and thought that when I’m his age if I have half his spunk I’ll be happy.
For the first mile I was feeling great, thinking that this hike wouldn’t be too bad. This might be part of the challenge of the race — the first mile seems like a cake walk. Listening to former runners talk, I came to find out that first timers who are stronger runners than climbers often make the same mistake I made and push way out front for the first mile, thinking the rest of the race will be similar. Then you get to the aid station and, as they say in the popular lingo, “shit gets real.”
You’re lulled into thinking that the trail is more of the same by the slight dip it takes into a copse of alderPhoto from chugach mtn boy, Creative Commons Licensing.
that obscures the fact that, as soon as you get through these insidious trees with the gnarled roots just waiting to take out an unsuspecting runner’s ankle, you’ll be forced into climbing mode and the climb won’t stop until you get to the top.
And this isn’t a friendly trail with switch backs and gentle slopes. This is a trail that makes the most direct line to the top of the mountain possible. It is nothing but climbing. Difficult climbing. The trail is loose dirt, loose rock, and rooty. It is nothing more than a glorified game trail.
The first of our group to make it to the top made it in just a touch over two hours and fifteen minutes. It took me two hours, twenty five minutes. Two members of our group never made the summit. When I made it, I felt good. Tired, yes, but good. Fit.
I had no idea how much things would change.
The race was what most races are. The small group of elites blast in to the finish chute and proceed to their post-race routines. Then the middle of the packers come in, generally acting as if they are the elites though most of them have no hope in hell of ever being more than a middle of the packer. Finally we have the back of the packers — those who used to be competitive and those who have never been competitive. Those who are out there for fun or for the tee-shirt. The final finisher made her run in two hours and some change.
The mountain top had mostly cleared of people and it was time to load up our finish line and head back down. I slapped on my backpack and took off with the first wave of folks heading down. A small group of teens. I was feeling good so I took the first quarter mile at a run, keeping pace with the youngsters.
That was my first mistake.
By the time we’d gotten to the first rocky outcrop I could feel my quads burning. I’m a cyclist. This is the only exercise I get, really. There is no movement in cycling that prepares your legs for the type of repetitive action that hiking down a mountain requires. It is like continually one-legged squatting your own weight over and over and over and over ad infinitum. By the time I hit the second outcrop, the one that requires a bit of scrambling to get down, I was spent. My legs had turned to wood. The only feeling pain. By this time another part of our group had passed me and that left only the trail sweep and an octogenarian race finisher, the red lantern finisher, behind. I sucked it up and started making my way down trail again.
By the time I got to the start of the tree line, my legs had mostly stopped working and I was reduced to glissading through the loose dirt on the steepest sections in order to get down. I tried walking down one steep section and had my leg absolutely collapse when I tried to put weight on it, causing me to fall off the trail and into a copse of alders that saved me from a multi-hundred foot slide down into a creek valley where I would probably still be right now.
So I sucked up my pride and slid on my butt and crab walked down the trail. My goal was to make the picnic table and then rest for as long as it would take to get some feeling and strength back in my legs.
Instead, I made another couple hundred feet before I simply could not move my legs anymore. I stepped off the trail, dug in my pack for some food and drank a good amount of Gatorade. I’d wanted to make it down before the sweep and the red lantern finisher found me. I didn’t want anyone to see that I’d made my way down the mountain mostly on my backside.
That didn’t happen. The red lantern finisher came upon me, smiled and made some comment about my apple, and kept walking. The trail sweep waited for me. After assessing my condition as he slowly walked behind me for twenty feet until my legs buckled again he offered me his trekking poles, knowing that my legs couldn’t support me on the remaining downhill.
We eventually made the picnic table and I rested, ate, drank, and tried to steel myself for the final push.
Just a mile. A few short, steep downhills, but nothing compared to what I’d just come down. The sweep did his best to engage me in conversation to help take my mind off of the pain I was feeling as I walked like a scarecrow down the mountain.
We got to the creek and a short section of uphill, something I was actually looking forward to, a bit of uphill to use some different muscles. Half way through this brief climb my legs simply stopped working and I went down to my knees. One minute I was climbing, walking, hiking, and the next I couldn’t even feel my legs and there I was on my knees in the middle of the trail. I tried to will my legs to work, tried to force them to lift me up. I was able to get up, though it was through the use of my arms on the trekking poles and not the use of my legs.
Then the trail got easy. A walk in the park, really. We made it to the bridge just before the stadium, Sarah’s bridge or Stacey’s bridge, something like that. And there were my kids waiting for us, wondering what had taken so long.
We made the rest of the walk back to the parking lot without instance. It had taken about two hours to make the climb down from the summit. And most of the way down I could only think to myself that, no matter what, I was not going end up as a news story about the volunteer who had to be rescued from the mountain where nearly two hundred runners had just run up and then, I’m sure most of them, ran back down again. I was not going to be the guy who uses a cell phone instead of common sense and determination to get out of a tight spot.
Had the trail sweep, Mark Steggar, not been there to offer up his poles and his encouragement, I don’t doubt that I would have taken many more hours to get down. I would have gotten myself down, but it would have been on hands and knees.
Today I sit, having decided to work from home, because when I woke at 4 A.M. I could barely walk the ten feet from the bed to the bathroom. A bike ride wouldn’t be fun at all — though now I wonder if I would’ve been better off going for a ride to get everything loosened up again.
It’s quite funny, really. I thought that I was fit, that the climb to the top wouldn’t be an issue. That’s why I volunteered in the first place.
Now I know.
While my fitness is getting better, I can’t simply ride my bike and call it good. I guess I need to become a bit more of what they call well-rounded. Once I can walk again I suppose I’d better start on a program of something to get myself into actual shape.
I’ll tell you something, though. The views from the top were most definitely worth it.
Read more from Phil B. on his blog, Multimodal Alaska Adventures.