Learning to Climb

This year, I’ve set some non-running goals for myself. It’s a good thing too. Because of some silly over-training on my part, I’ve come down with posterior tibial tendonitis (PTT). PTT is much less frequently experienced by runners than the dreaded plantar fasciitis, which I’ve also had, but PTT has proven to be just as pesky to get rid of. After 6 weeks of physical therapy, I’m still unable to run any distance pain free. I have learned over the years that in order to maintain my mental stability in a demanding workplace, I need to move. I’ve also learned that I do better when I’m moving outside. Last year in the summer, my cousin, her husband and I hiked to the top of Mount Chocorua and it helped to fuel a whole new fire in my belly.

I have some lofty climbing goals for the year. My cousin’s husband invited me to join his three-person group to summit Mont Blanc later in the year. At 4,810 m (15,781 ft), this isn’t exactly a walk in the park. While my fitness should not (at least before my self-inflicted injury) be an issue, it would be good to get more experienced on trails and in wintery conditions since the top of Mont Blanc is glacial ice year round. So, we have planned a couple of tune-up climbs. This coming weekend, we will – weather permitting – climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. While the altitude is not stunning at 1,916 m (6,288 ft), the climb is fairly technical and the weather can get downright treacherous. Some 150 people have died on Mt. Washington since record keeping began in the mid-1800s. As such, I’ve been taking a multi-faceted approach to training.

Getting Vertical

That’s me up in the purple zone. And yes, for you experts, it is an easy course.

Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachians, I’m no stranger to hills. I’ve even done a bit of ill-advised, inexperienced bouldering (rope-free rock climbing) in my youth. But on the whole I have very little experience going vertical. So, I’ve recently been going rock wall climbing at a local gym in town. We are very lucky to live in a metropolitan area with these kinds of options, since the tallest natural peak around me can be measured in the tens of feet. I’m finding that I love climbing. Much like running, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. While I’ll do it when I have to, I sincerely detest machine or free weight training for the sake of weight training. It just does not leave me feeling accomplished. Climbing on the other hand has everything I’m looking for: problem-solving, a great muscle work out, and some elements of cardiovascular exercise as well. I’m sure a seasoned climber would tell you that my technique is terrible, but still, I’m pretty reliably going upward and building in confidence. Even better, my wife agreed to join me on my last trip and it appears that this might be something we can do together. While I don’t intend to do any actual vertical climbing on Mt. Washington or Mont Blanc, getting experience well help me remain confident and sure-footed as we take to steep ascents on higher terrain.

Equipment Test

I learned this year that Mountaineering is chocked full of equipment. Extra stiff mountaineering boots, crampons, trekking poles, lightweight layered clothing, eye protection, and on and on. The acquisition of this long list of surprisingly expensive equipment has turned me into bit of a bargain shopper, as I’ve learned the ins and outs of various websites and specialty stores. Now with a tub full of equipment, I figured it was important to get out and try out some of the gear, as the first time I wear this stuff should not be on the mountain. So, I recently packed up and headed out on my local running trail for a 10k hike while completely over-equipped. I’m sure I was a real sight as I strode around a trail essentially designed for running while dutifully using my trekking poles and carrying a pack replete with ice axe. At least it was a little snowy that day so I didn’t completely look like I was off my meds. Here’s what I learned:

  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are great for keeping your Posterior Tibial Tendon relaxed. These things are not too dissimilar to a medical immobility boot
  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are, on the other hand, not great for my outer most toes during long-range hikes on mostly flat ground. Mine were both quite red and quite angry at the end.
  • Trekking poles are surprisingly helpful, especially when precariously balancing on rocks while crossing a stream in sub-freezing temps
  • There are many sharp points on an ice axe that, if not carefully positioned on your backpack, will in fact poke you repeatedly
  • Super-stiff mountaineering boots are also not excellent on ice in spite of what appears to be quite aggressive treads on bottom

Strength Training

I know what I said earlier about strength training, but I’m actually happy to weight train if there is a purpose. As I watched YouTube videos about climbing Mount Washington in the winter, I came realize that I’m in for quite a workout. And since I’m not able to run any sort of distance at the moment, I knew I would need to hit the weights. So, three to four days a week I’ve been working the major muscle groups. Squats, deadlifts, bench press, dips and pull ups have become my friends again along with a bunch of core exercises. For years now, I’ve been running at least an hour a day roughly 6 days a week. It hasn’t left a lot of time for weight training. As one might imagine, I have lost a fair amount of strength and muscle mass. But here’s the other thing I forgot. Weight training makes me ravenous. So now I’m gobbling vast quantities of food that I haven’t needed or wanted and my… ahem… waistline is suffering a bit. I’m resisting pulling the fat pants out of the closet, but I know from experience that I’m getting dangerously close to opening an embarrassing stitch line with one ill-timed stoop to pick something up off the ground. Let’s just hope I can keep my pants in one continuous piece until I can get back to running.

Sense of Purpose… and Impending Death

On the whole, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the shift in focus from running as I learn new mountaineering skills. It has given me a sense of purpose in my free time since I’m unable to log the running miles that I’ve grown accustomed to. I still have so much to learn, from knot-tying to belaying, to not having an ice axe come loose and stab me in the face. Yes, that last little number was a tidbit I picked up from reviewing the manual for my recently acquired ice axe harness. Apparently, mountaineering is a bit of a medieval sport.

This is absolutely part of the instructions that came with my recently acquired ice axe leash

Running My First 50k

I started this blog post the morning before attempting my first 50k run. The title of this post very well could have read, “My first ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF) Race.” As I stated in an earlier post, Taking a Zero Day, I had some setbacks in my training routine running up to the race. Those setbacks lingered. And then lingered some more. My foot never really healed all the way. The most I had run at one time for the 3 weeks prior to the race was 4 miles, and my foot hurt every time. So to think I could make it 31 miles was pretty silly. But, somehow it worked.

Before the race, I took a mental assessment over breakfast of my physical and mental states. Here is what I wrote down:

  • Body feels good, well-rested and ready to work
  • Ankle pain 3 out of 10, worst when I flex the outer part of my foot upwards
  • Thinking about which wheel will fall off first: most likely my ankle, maybe my legs from a lack of running, least likely my cardiovascular system
  • Considering disappointment of being listed on the race results as DNF
  • Thinking about letting down Matt – my friend and running partner – whom I roped into this crazy idea
  • Given that it is a trail race, I cannot walk the required pace to make the cutoff time
  • Realistic probability of finish: 30%
  • Trying to quash the negativity, I am starting affirmations and visualizing a pleasant run in the woods

Then it was time to go. So I stopped thinking and put myself on auto-pilot. I loaded up my truck with my pre-packed supplies from the night before, and drove to the race start in the dark. When I say I stopped thinking, I put all my meditation practice into effect. I stopped assessing and ruminating. I stopped thinking about disappointments and pain. I used the skills I have learned in meditation to go through the motions and accept whatever came. Once at the race start, I continued to go through the motions. I met up with my friend, we made the decision to run light and rely upon the aid stations for food and drinks. Soon it was time to start.

The Rocks and Roots Trail Series at Alum Creek State Park in Lewis Center, Ohio, is one of the best organized I’ve ever experienced. It is a very small race, capped at 400 runners, and it is organized by runners for runners. I highly recommend it if you can get a spot. The leading picture for this post is one of the many stunning views you’ll experience throughout the two 10k loops of this fun and challenging course. So with some quick, no-nonsense announcements and an old-fashioned, “Ready, Set, Go!”, we were off at 8 AM.

I started off limping and then eased into a slow, methodical stride. A funny thing happened. My foot pain spiked early and then within 10 minutes subsided back to a 2 or 3 out of 10. I thought, “I can live with this.” So I just kept going. That’s how it went. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I just kept going. One foot in front of the other. 4 hours into the race, we had completed our first 30k (18.6 miles). If you’re doing the math, these are not fast miles, but that’s OK. We decided that this was a “just finish” race because it was our first attempt at this distance and, given that it was a trail race where we go up and down ravines and hop over downed trees, this was never going to be flat out. At 30k, the course was getting really boggy. There were significant portions of the course where the term “running” simply did not apply. Think, “ankle-deep pancake batter” and you get the picture. For these portions, we slowed to a walk and then picked back up on drier parts of the trail.

Somewhere around mile 29, I caught a root with my bad foot and it sent pains spiking through my leg. So I walked for a bit. My running partner and long-time friend – ever patient – walked along just in front of me, willing me forward. There was no stopping now. I had to cover the two miles back to the finish line anyway. So I walked on and used deep, focused breathing to let go of the pain. Soon I was back to trotting on drier spots and slogging through the mud.

And then it was over. We popped up out of the woods and came down the final stretch to the finish, where 20 or so people were cheering us on. Just over 7 hours of constant movement, and we had done it! Our first 50k. Matt and I crossed the finish line together, just as we had started. I want to be clear here that he could have gone ahead and beat my time by a good 30 minutes. But that isn’t who he is. After getting our medals and picking up our bags, we cheered the next 5 runners down the path. As the post-run chill sank in, we decided to call it a day and head back to our families, exuberant at our accomplishment.

As I put the finishing touches on this post, I feel great. My foot is a little swollen and tender, but I’m able to walk and be productive the day after a 50k (31 mile) race. I accomplished a major 2019 goal on day 6 of the year in the face of adversity. Perhaps I spend too much time on Zen Buddhism in my blog, but I will tell you dear reader that without my experience in sitting meditation, there is just about zero chance I would have attempted this race, let alone finished it. With that said, I also want to recognize the power of the team. Because without my friend Matt running along with me, I would have limped slowly across the finish line wondering what more I had left in the tank. Here’s to friends and zen!

Cheers!