I’ve spent a lot of time running uphill in my life. I mean, A LOT of time. Now I hike uphill with weight on my back a little more than I run, but it is essentially the same task. Running or hiking uphill is propelling yourself afoot against amplified gravity, and it turns out that is hard. I’ve always had a particular aptitude for running uphill, certainly more so than running downhill or on flat ground. I was a ‘climber’ in my competitive running days.
I wish I had sought out more climbing races before my best athletic years were behind me. I did capitalize on a few opportunities. I won three Race to Robie Creek titles out of four attempts, solely by pushing about 5 miles of the climb harder than anyone else wanted to our could. I hated the downhill part of that course. I realized after year one my best strategy was just to get a huge lead at the summit so I could take it easy coming down. People in the Boise running community (Robie Creek has a huge and somewhat bizarre following there) would always ask me why I never tried to run a really fast time, never tried to go for the course record. Truth is I didn’t care about any of that. I was in it for the climb. The downhill was just something I had to do to get to the finish. I would always tell people if that race were just a climb to the summit, I’d have run it for the rest of my life. Then I found another little Idaho opportunity that was just a climb to the summit, leg six of the Sawtooth Relay. This leg runs up Galena Summit on highway 75 from the Stanley side. It climbs 1,331 feet in 5.3 miles, taking you from an elevation 7,370 to 8,691. Just over five miles of lung searing grind, I was in love. I ran this leg a number of times, once as part of the team that still holds the overall course record.
Though competitive uphill events were few in my athletic career, training uphill events were a constant. This was for a few reasons. First, I have always lived near mountains with trails and dirt roads on them, so access was never a problem. Second, I loved the solitude of being out on the trails….and all the trails went up at some point. Third, I realized early in my running / coaching life the incredible training value in running uphill. Running uphill fast for short periods repeatedly, and also running uphill steadily for sustained periods. Twenty years into my coaching career, I still firmly believe there is no higher yield stress you can apply to a running athlete. So I ran uphill a lot, and I make my athletes run up hill a lot. A few of them have enjoyed climbing from the start, most start with a strong disdain and then come around to a luke-warm relationship with it, but all of them have reaped the benefits of the work regardless of their opinion thereof.
One athlete that stands out in my memory because of her relationship with uphill running is Hillary Holt. Hillary was a US Championship finalist at 1500m and holds a PB in that event of 4.11. Hill, as I called her, and yes there is irony here, HATED running uphill when I first started coaching her. Actually, I would say she hated running uphill for most of the years I worked with her. That luke-warm part of the relationship definitely came on late. I recall a handful of volume amplified exchanges between Hill and I on those training days. Hill’s senior year in college I started using the phrase ‘go up’ with the athletes. This started one long run day out on the trails when I was describing the route I wanted them to take. Of course I was seeking a sustained climbing effort in this run so I literally said when you get to this certain trail junction, just ‘go up.’ It quickly became on often referenced metaphor. When you come to certain junctions in life choose to go up. I meant choose to do hard things. Choose to do the things that don’t come easy to you, that you might not like, but that hold value. So many people get to a point in life where they just stop choosing to do hard things, they stop choosing to go up. Pretty damn hard to grow in any avenue of life if you are always choosing the easier route.
In my final year working with Hill, I noticed she had a new tattoo on her arm one day. It was just a little arrow on her forearm. I asked her about it. She told me it was her reminder to always go up. That is what coaching is about, taking something from all this stuff we do to perform better athletically and translating it to help us perform better in the rest of life. Choose to do hard things, choose challenge, choose to go up, and hence choose growth.