Call it strange. Tragic. Morose. But more than 200 bodies lie on top of Mt. Everest, perpetually at rest, entombed in an infinite frozen state. All in pursuit of “summiting” the highest mountain on earth.
The mountains draw. They are, as Thomas Wolfe once wrote “the cup of reality.” But why is this so? Why are so many of us drawn to them?
Of course there are endless words that describe their tidings, their extremes, their danger and beauty. From Muir to Mallory to Sir Edmond Hillary, all one has to do is open a book, or click a link, and the most eloquent, descriptive verse or prose will beckon you to higher altitudes.
After several weeks of running near the ocean, I felt the need to go high, closer to the clouds, into the metaphorical container of, as Wolfe put it, reality.
Not to take anything away from Wolfe, but there is a lesson I’ve learned, and too often forget, when I run in the mountains. It’s one of those things that often slaps me into submission, lest I forget while rollicking around the flatlands. This isn’t anything profound or spiritual.
It is that the mountains extract more from me. More of everything. I was reminded of this yesterday when embarking on a long run, again when I was a mere 6 miles in, and again when reached my turn around point after 3 hours of running. I would ultimately finish, depleted, in over six hours.
When crunching the numbers it starts to make sense. Between 7,000 and 8,000 feet, the space I ran between, there is 23% - 26% less effective oxygen than at sea level where I live. Unfortunately I’m not sure what was crunched more, my toes or my ego. This morning I woke with a pulsating blister under my toenail. Pain extraction - above average.
It was a new route for me. I found what looked to be a secret single-track trail that meandered strait up the mountain and into the trees, in the direction I wanted to go. Once on it, it became apparent that this was a very well used trail with some really steep sections, and amazing views of Sugarloaf Mountain and Mt. San Gorgonio. I climbed, and climbed some more, around 1,000 feet in the first two miles.
At the start, I promised myself I would eat after 90 minutes of running, and then every hour after that. By the time 90 minutes rolled around, I had been doing some calculations in my head about how much distance I had already covered. Big mistake. I intentionally avoided looking at my GPS constantly. When I realized I was several miles short of my “calculations,” all I could do was shout an expletive not needed here. I always spend more time running in the mountains, because I run slower. Time extraction – growing.
The next milestone was my turnaround point. It was only after I started this run when I began the debate in my head about exactly what I was going to do. It started with 20+ miles, then moved to 24, then 26 miles. All this seemed reasonable, so why not go for 30 miles? So I settled on 28, which meant a turnaround at 14. The turn around was a success, and then it dawned on me I wasn’t going to make it back to my car until close to 6 pm. With the temperature and my energy plummeting, I just tried to keep moving forward.
Surprisingly my legs didn't falter, even after a deceivingly punishing technical trail with some major rock fields to cross along the way. After a couple stops to drink in the views, snap a few picks, I found myself descending the secret trail I had ascended several hours earlier. There were moments - particularly on the banked turns - where I was starting to feel lighter on my feet than my age would have me believe. Life extraction - achieved.