I wasn’t going to run this race. I ran it the last two years, so I felt nothing new to gain. The ride there is long, and it eats up most of the day. I wasn’t feeling well. Most of all, it’s a hard race.
But then, the fact that it’s hard should not be a reason to skip the race. If anything, it should be a primary reason to run the event. Attempting and accomplishing hard things is part of improving, both mentally and physically.
At least, that’s what I told myself Saturday morning when I headed down to Swain Ski Resort to run up and down the mountain again and again and again and again…
This race is a mere eight miles (there is a four-mile option that is one loop, but most people do the two loops). However, my GPS indicated that I had close to 2,600 feet elevation gain in those eight miles. It’s not just hilly; it’s a ski resort. The hills are actually mountains. It’s a stupid thing to do, and this was my third year doing it.
Two years ago, two friends and I drove to Swain and ran this race in a torrential downpour. We were soaked to the bone, and the trails were muddy, sloppy messes that made traction all but impossible. Some hills required scrambling up on your hands and knees. You would plant your foot on the downhill and slide halfway down. Most of us fell at least once. It was a ridiculous and fun adventure much more so than an actual race. But this is not a race report from two years ago.
Last year was beautiful weather, sunny and warm. I started out fast and felt good. But in the last uphill, with less than two miles to go, I was spent. Physically exhausted and mentally crushed by the endless hill, I had to stop multiple times, and many slower runners passed me. It was frustrating and disillusioning. But this is not a race report from last year.
This Saturday morning dawned chilly, with temperatures close to 50 degrees. Only about 30 people were signed up for the eight miles, with another 10 or so doing the four miles. Three of the 30 people doing eight dropped to four or did not show up at all. It’s a shame so few people run this race every year, but I’m sure the race director expects it. It’s a long drive to the middle of nowhere. And, again, it’s a hard race.
With a low-key “runners go!” we were off, hitting the hill in barely a tenth of a mile. The first up and down sections go through the woods on mountain biking trails, and they’re the best part of the loop. I was stuck behind some younger runners, so I didn’t get out as fast as last year, but I trudged up the hilly sections and ran other pieces until arriving at the top of the mountain. This is the best part, darting through trails along bike jumps and obstacles, leaping roots and rocks, and hitting the rocky downhill fast. I love this part of the race, and it’s nearly worth it for this stretch alone.
But then you come out and run along a short road for a few minutes before turning left and heading straight up the ski hill. It looks more imposing than it is, because you turn into the woods fairly quickly. But the uphill does not end for a mile at least. It’s steep and long, and this is the worst part of the trail for sure. A few stretches near the top of the mountain are fairly runnable inclines, at least during the first loop while there’s feeling in your legs, and then you hit the downhill stretch, which is only runnable in parts. Loose rocks and water runoff ditches make it sketchy, and there are some areas where I go down sideways for fear of falling to my death. You have to leap off a drop-off before wrapping back to the start/finish line and heading out for the second loop.
At this point, I was running with Michael, who had gotten out to a fast start. I always seem to find him, at least during the last several races, and we chatted for a while as we hit the uphill through the biking trails again. Another fast runner, Jamie, was just behind us. I pulled ahead a bit on the uphill, and Michael passed me on the down, and we were clustered together as we came out and headed up the ski hill.
At this point, I was adamant I was not going to crash like last year. I knew I was tired and sore, and my breathing was coming hard. My allergies were bothering me too, which made it harder to breathe. The hill goes on forever, so my goal was to just look down and keep plugging away.
Hands on knees, I bent over and trudged up the hill. I didn’t look back to see how close Michael and Jamie were until I was nearly to the top. When I realized that I couldn’t see them behind me, I got a surge of strength and even found the ability to run some of the inclines at the mountain’s peak.
Mountain running is a weird thing. Even the incredibly fast people who run this and other similar races don’t run up these hills (although they do run parts that my rapid breath only allowed me to walk). You just power hike up the worst of the inclines and then run where you can. I saw a few of them descending the sketchy, steep downhills, and it amazed me to see the lack of concern. Sometimes, they just leaped big stretches without a care. It’s amazing no one ends up hurt.
This race taught me the past two years that going up steep, long hills is hard, but you have to keep going. If you stop, you gain nothing but a bit more air. The hill doesn’t get shorter. Better to press on and get to the top, because all hills end eventually. And then you can catch your breath as you run again. It’s counter-intuitive to think that starting to run the runnable sections allows you to recover from the uphills, but it’s true, and that’s a valuable lesson.
As I hit the downhill, I imagined that every bouncing rock or trail sound was Jamie and Michael hot on my heels. I went as fast as my legs permitted, and I was down and through the finish. Jamie finished barely 30 seconds behind, and Michael was a couple of minutes. For all the distance I gained on them powering up the hill, both nearly caught me on the downhill, and I thought I was running it quickly!
In the end, I finished 18 out of 27 people, nearly 10 minutes faster than last year. It wasn’t a great increase in time despite last year’s difficulty, but I suffered much less and felt more positive about the experience. And that was the real accomplishment! This is a hard race for only eight miles, but I’m glad I did it again, even if my thighs and quads hurt from the endless uphill plodding.
Even if I didn’t learn something new this year, I felt better about myself for getting the previous year’s difficulties behind me and proving that I’m strong. That’s what mattered this year. The weather ended up beautiful, the views from the top were amazing, and the sense of accomplishment was significant. And as likely as I am to say that I won’t run it again, I’ll probably be back to run Ossian again next year.