Inclines were like stop signs.
When I first moved to the heights of the Mile-High City (Denver, Colorado) from my home’s sea level altitude, I was running in the city. After stopping every block for stoplights and doing endless laps around parks, I knew I either had to start trail running or allow myself to slip into insanity.
I chose the former, and headed to Denver’s foothills. The runs were fine until the trails steepened, then I would walk because I assumed I couldn’t propel myself up the incline with any kind of speed. After all, wasn’t running up mountains for people like Dean Karnazes and Rory Bosio? It certainly wasn’t for a normal runner like me.
|The flatlands were fine, but there were peaks calling. Could my two feet take me up there with any kind of speed?|
Without meaning to, we can become our own obstacles. We throw limits on ourselves when none are needed, and reach all sorts of wild conclusions based on subjective statements that have nothing to do with our true abilities.
We assume we can’t and so we don’t.
Running uphill is hard — no question about it. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It simply means we should move forward a few more paces and see how it feels.
Reaching this understanding first required curiosity to get the best of me. After so many runs where I halted my own pace at the foot of a hill, the began questions arising: What if I could run up this? What if this isn’t a barrier after all, but a challenge?
I felt my perspective shifting. Running uphill was hard, but “hard” doesn’t equate into “impossible.” Shortening and slowing my pace — but not stopping — I moved upward. It didn’t feel great. I wasn’t setting any land-speed records. But I was moving, little by little, up the mountain.
Gaining the summit is immensely difficult, both physically and mentally. When you’re starting out, you have no proof that you can carry out the plan. Your brain is apt to weaken with the void of unknowing. But as you continue working through your running days and adding steps to your miles, it gets incrementally easier.
In the moment of reaching my first summit without slackening my pace, I was burning with the lack of oxygen — but also with the joy of achievement. The foothills looked grander, the light more golden. I could now stand at the top, looking down at all the feet between me and the base, and know that I had gotten myself all the way up there with my own two legs — running.
After that, there were no excuses. The accountability of having already accomplished something difficult weighed on my mind, pressing me whenever I told myself I could go no further. My achievement wouldn’t allow me to believe my self-imposed limitations any longer.
For a while, the motivation was in knowing the feeling of strength and satisfaction that awaited if I could gain the few hundred feet of elevation. But after a few weeks of running the hills, I started to look forward to them.
Hills were kind of fun, actually, in this kind of crazy, masochistic way. Burning muscles and shortened breaths forced me to dial into something more elemental, to dig deeper than just my physical abilities. It was like tapping into some sort of building rhythm; as I climbed higher, I forced myself to pick up my legs faster.
The six-month anniversary of my living in Colorado was celebrated with a trail run up Lookout Mountain, which consisted of a loop trail with a distance of 7.8 miles and roughly 2,000 consecutive feet of elevation gain.
I was apprehensive during the approach. Could I run uphill that far, and for that long, without stopping?
A few tricks were learned during my hill running journey to this point, and I employed them for this run. For one, I didn’t set my sights on the summit. Instead, I focused on the section of the trail just before me which broke down the trail into manageable pieces. Mentally, I prodded myself using quickly attained goals: “Just get to the end of the switchback,” I’d tell myself or, “Just get up to that rock.”
I discovered that if you think of all 2,000 feet of gain at once, the run will feel insurmountable. For example, you might not be able to run 2,000 feet steadily uphill. But you can get to the next switchback. You can make it to that road crossing.
And before you know it, the entire mountain is climbed.
But then you you become someone different. Your breathing figures itself out and your muscles relax from their cold stiffness. Suddenly running uphill feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Back on my ascent of Lookout Mountain, I employed these tactics and they took me to the summit. The feeling once there was was nothing short of magic. The mountains seemed to beat in my chest, the sky looked like it was in high-definition, and my muscles grinned so hard they were sore. This feeling only comes after an investment: when slogged after, when chased up as far into the heavens as you can get on foot.
We are capable of so much more than we think. We can run up mountains and wade across rivers and trek through forests. We can hit what we think is our absolute limit and then push a little harder.
Remember, something being hard and something being attainable are not mutually exclusive truths. It all starts, continues, and ends with a step: one at a time, one after the other, all the way through.
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About the author:
Carolyn Highland says: “I have a tattoo on my left instep of the word ‘Atrévete,’ which means ‘dare yourself’ in Spanish. It’s about living boldly and creating the life you want for yourself. After graduating college with a degree in creative non-fiction writing, I spent time on New Zealand’s South Island, Chile’s Atacama Desert, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the coast of Maine, finally landing in Colorado to get up close and personal with the Rockies.
In any given weather I can be found trail running, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, nordic, backcountry, or downhill skiing, or just staring up at the mountains with my jaw dropped and my heart full. I believe that the best way to protect our planet is to inspire the next generation of little outdoor women to love the wild and fight to keep it beautiful, and as a result am pursuing a career as an outdoor writer and an outdoor educator. Pass the stoke!”
Carolyn Highland can be reached online at the following places: