25 May 2009

Vertical and Mental Cross Training

I’m in Belleville, Ontario, as planned, and this morning’s run lived up to Belleville’s reputation, though there is hope on the horizon. I’ll get to that in the next posting. First up is yesterday’s adventure, a quasi-marathon of vertical cross training and mental re-training in the Adirondacks.

This is my version of making lemonade out of lemons. If I must go to Belleville, I might as well make the best of it. Halfway there lies the mighty Adirondacks of New York. My neighbors happen to have a place there, they happened to be there for the weekend, and their teenage son happens to like to hike. A plan was easily born; they offered me a bed, I offered their son an adventure.

Let’s put this adventure in perspective. I’ve been hiking up mountains for 27 years, since the legendary day in 1982 when my college friends invited me to Vermont for a hike, and I, the naïve youngster, thought that meant a pleasant walk across a meadow. After half an hour of nothing but up, I finally caught on that we were ascending the highest mountain in Vermont. How could one miss something so obvious? Oblivion knows no bounds. But a life-long passion was born.

Over two hundred summits later I can call myself an experienced mountain hiker. My 48th and final New Hampshire 4000-footer fell in ’95, and my ramblings have ranged from east to west to a few international peaks. I’m used to the insanity of steep trails, especially eastern trails where horses don’t roam, switchbacks generally don’t exist, and the philosophy is simple: you’re here, the mountain top is there, take the shortest path, you ninny. But the Adirondacks are, to me at least, a breed rougher. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t spent as much time there, or perhaps it’s true.

Apprehension of the unknown magnifies itself. Confronting that unknown solo or with other adults is adventure enough. Confronting that unknown with your kids multiplies anxiety. Confronting that unknown with someone else’s kid – in your responsibility – blows the needle off the chart. In that mindset I set off with said teenage son into the trails of the ‘dacks.

I know from running that a long endeavor is highly mental, but that didn’t stop our dismay when the day wasn’t beautiful as planned. I’ve hiked in plenty of rain, but somehow Sunday’s rain was dampening to the spirit as we made our first summit, Sawteeth, in the drizzle. I know from years of hiking that trails that appear tough, even those described as “very steep” in the always-understated guide, are soon enough tackled. But that didn’t stop our apprehension – no, perhaps it was even dread – when staring from our second summit of the day, Pyramid Peak, at the trail leading up Gothics, our prime objective. From our perspective it looked darn near vertical, running a knife-edged ridge between two excessively steep landslide-scoured faces. A wicked wind, while kindly blowing out the rain, only added to our concern. Having ascended a particularly smooth and steep open face to get to our present spot made retreat an unattractive option as well. I’m dragging someone else’s kid though this? What was I thinking?

But we stand on the starting line of races all the time not knowing what lies ahead. A marathon starts with the first stride. And in a marathon, we help each other out.

We teamed up with another hiker and dropped quickly off that summit, through the col, and up the knife ridge, which was steep, but not that steep. And didn’t feel like a knife ridge at all. Just like pre-race jitters, the fear of the unknown is usually overblown and necessarily overcome if we’re to get where we want to go in life. Minutes later, we were on top, soaking up the views and the camaraderie of fellow hikers – not unlike post-race runner camaraderie. Just like that, our day changed from dismay and anxiety to joy and exhilaration in minutes.

Following that summit, we ran the ridge over Armstrong Mountain and Upper Wolf Jaw on a trail that lived up to my image of Adirondack trails: rough and steep. We cut our potential six-summit day down to five only because we’d promised to return in time for my companion’s trip home, and of course I still had a 5-hour ride to Canada. Still, we were out for eight solid hours of intense effort, our longest break a mere twenty-five minutes for lunch. My companion held up a strong pace to the finish. We may not have covered the distance of a marathon, but my legs and feet felt a lot better at the finish of Boston than they did on Sunday. Plus, this was a vertical marathon, a tremendous upper body effort, heaving ourselves up and down the nearly continuous ludicrously steep bits. Yes, I know I should cross-train. I don’t. I’m feeling the effects today, and loving it.

My thirteen-year-old companion really got it when looking back on how our mental state changed throughout the day. You can’t let a little dismay get your down, and while you must of course be responsible and cautious, if you don’t confront your anxieties, you don’t attain your goals. I knew that, but I needed to get it again, too. We ran a mental marathon. We got our medals.

Finally, a random last note: When you’re out and about, wear those race shirts! There’s no easier way to introduce yourself and bring the world a little closer together. Coming down off Armstrong, along comes a hiker wearing a Reach the Beach (New Hampshire) relay shirt. We were hundreds of miles from home, but it was instant identification. Turns out he lives not too far from me, and we may have a new companion for club events. And as I departed the trailhead area, I offered a lift to a tired looking couple and their son, as the parking area is quite a ways from the trailhead. As he got out of the car I noticed the unofficial (and therefore not obvious) Boston Marathon shirt. Another runner connection, heck, maybe even a blog reader! It was my pleasure to meet you, and even more to lend a hand. Happy trails to you.

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