Training in Portland this winter has me feeling a bit like a caged lion. With Forest Park practically in my backyard, I’ve gotten to know its trails like the palm of my hand. Each day sort of melts into another, most runs feel more or less the same, and any sort of forward motion or progress is nearly imperceptible from day to day. My small gains in strength and athleticism over time remind me a bit of how my cats Bo and Juno looked exactly the same every day as kittens, until I start comparing photos from week to week and realized how quickly they’d grown.
Seven weeks ago I was lamenting about my constantly creaky hips and aching feet, no doubt aftermath from the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t until my coach pointed out that it’s been over a month since I’d noted any nagging random fatigue that I took stock of just how good I’ve been feeling. Just about every entry in my training log lately has read, “good run” or “very good run” or “felt good”. I’ve been bouncing back quickly from workouts and runs, and overall I just feel ready for something. Hence feeling like I’m pacing around in a cage just waiting to be let out!
Without any races on the horizon until the Promise Land 50K on April 24th, I was eager to challenge myself in some kind of meaningful, measurable way. I had done that to an extent on the track, but considering all of my goals this year involve distances of 31 miles or longer going up and down a bunch of mountains, I wanted to test myself in a particular skill I’ve been working hard this year to get better at: running uphill.
While I was off on the Appalachian Trail this past summer, Rider Track Club hosted the Forest Park Challenge, in which participants ran up the 2.6 mile unpaved Saltzman Road as fast as they could on their own time. It sounded fun, competitive, and with its 780 feet of climbing, sounded like a total grind from start to finish. I knew it would be firsthand from the weekly hill intervals I did there this winter. Since I missed out on the challenge last summer, my coach worked a time trial up Saltzman Road into my schedule for this past Tuesday.
When looking at the women’s results ranging from around 18 minutes to 25 minutes, I decided to frame the effort in my mind as a really hard 5K. Recognizing the names of most of the women on the list, I told my coach that just to break top ten would be a huge challenge. I decided that would be my goal.
When I set out for the run this past Tuesday, all the same familiar race day nerves came flooding back to me. It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually raced since last March- it was a 10K on the track the week before Portland went into pandemic lockdown. While I didn’t have anyone out there to physically race up Saltzman, I still felt some pressure knowing that I’d be sharing my run on Strava once it was over.
After warming up with a slow jog up a mile and back down, I touched the lower Saltzman gate and took off with a light and energetic bound up the hill. Within a minute or so, my breathing became more labored, the light feeling began to fade, and the hard work began. With such a short distance to the top, I knew if it any point I felt comfortable that probably meant I wasn’t running as fast as I could have.
There is really nothing more humbling than trying to run hard uphill. As I continued to press the pace, I started to feel as though I were running through molasses in slow motion. The trail offered a brief respite at about half a mile where it flattened out slightly. My natural instinct would have been to let up and cruise a bit through that section, but knowing every second counted, I attempted to stride out and gain a bit of ground.
The next mile and a quarter was just plain hard. I didn’t totally trust my GPS watch to be accurate, and I really had no idea what my pace was or whether I was on track to go under 21:30, which was what I’d need to meet my goal. Self-doubt started to rear its ugly head, and I started to wonder why I was out there, what the point was, and who I even thought I was to be trying. It’s kind of wild thinking back on all of the negative thoughts that were swirling around in my head. No doubt it was my sub-conscious or some kind of survival mechanism trying to give me any kind of reason to put an end to the discomfort.
Around 1.8 miles, the trail flattened out again, and I had to will myself to quicken my steps and put some of my track speed to use. Of course, speed is a totally relative term considering my legs felt like dead logs. As I powered up the remaining half mile or so uphill, my out-of-control breathing turned to audible gasping, my heart was pounding near its max, and even my head started throbbing. Going up that hill felt like an unrelenting, losing battle. All I could think was, “Oh well, at least I tried.”
Once the gate came into view, I glanced down at my watch and was surprised to see the seconds counting upward from 20:45. I actually still had a chance of going under 21:30. I kicked it in with whatever I had and thanked my lucky stars that there were no other hikers or runners utilizing the tiny opening by the gate to exit or enter the trail. Like with any finish line scenario, I kept accelerating until I was past the gate. My finish time read 21:16. Good enough for 9th place on the leaderboard!
On the one hand it felt a little silly taking this one run so seriously, especially knowing the Forest Park Challenge was a whim or last minute thing for many of the ladies that ran it this past summer. On the other hand, considering the year we’ve had, if you can find something that excites you and gives you purpose, meaning, or a break from the mundane everyday stuff, by all means, go do it!
As it is with pretty much anything I challenge myself to, my motivation is to get the best out of myself. It felt helpful to have some kind of barometer going into the run knowing what other women had run in the past. In the end it was really satisfying to achieve what I felt was a challenging but attainable goal.
I think this mindset will be helpful going into the Promise Land 50K. The list of entrants is filled with many talented women. My dream goal would be to land on the podium, but I also want to set some realistic and healthy expectations going into this very competitive race. With two months–two months!–to go until race day, I will try to contain myself until then.
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