Mountain Running: The Peak Justifies The Means

The alarm clock jangles my eyes open, but the room is as black as though they’re still closed. I leap from my bed, throw on my robe, and brew strong coffee. It is 5 a.m.

There is no reason to start this early to run up a mountain, but there is something about sunrise from the summit that I find irresistible.

I am superwoman, right? Rising at dawn to conquer towering peaks.

Wrong.

I am a 40-year-old English teacher who, until four years ago, didn’t exercise at all.

I started jogging because of vanity. I’d spent my 36th summer hoping that the baggy Bermudas would hide my once-taut thighs, and men’s T-shirts would conceal my ever-expanding midriff. By September, I was thoroughly disgusted with my oversized wardrobe and, huffing and puffing, I chugged once around the block. I lost 20 pounds in January and was trotting all over the neighborhood. I didn’t really like running, mind you, but the rewards were worth it.

It wasn’t until July of last year, when I met my new friend Terry at the gym, that I learned how running could become a passion. She invited me to run up a mountain with her. I thoughts she was crazy. I hated walking up slight inclines; why would I ever want to run up steep slopes?

I’m not sure why I agreed to go, but the next Saturday found me jogging through the desert alongside Terry. The closer we got mountain the more intimidating it became. by the time we reached the base I was exhausted. Running was out of the question. Terry vanished in the distance as I forced myself to ascend, with many pauses, at a pace that was more a stagger than a walk. It seemed like hours before I rounded the final curve and lifted my eyes from the dusty trail. The city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, lay below me to the west, a string of multicolored lights twinkling in the lavender dawn. To the east, the silver run rose over miles of undulating mountains. I sank, in a panting heap, onto a rock.

Going downhill is the good part.

I flew down that mountain with the ever-higher sun warming my back and the wind streaming my hair out behind me. My whole body was buoyant and my legs felt amazing long and strong. the gentle fragrance of wildflowers and clean earth flowed through me with each easy breath. Terry and I soared across the desert, bounded over the dirt parking lot, and leapt into our cars. “Meet you here next week,” I called as she drove off toward the waking city. Then I thought, what have I done?

Each Saturday I set a new goal. I would make it to the cattle guard. Then to the white outcropping of rock. Then the drainage pipe. I anticipated being able to run all the way to the top by Thanksgiving. It was in September when I was running about halfway up, that I found my rhythm.

Just to where the gravel ends before the steep part, I told myself encouragingly. Suddenly, I was passed the gravel and flowing up the steep part. I kept running with an ease and grace that made it seem simplicity itself. I rounded that final curve and the city, once again, was spread below me. I’d learned my most valuable lesson. It’s actually easier to run up a mountain than to walk up. It takes about half a mile to achieve the measured smoothness, but then you can devour any kind of grade. Every mountain runner I’ve talked to agrees.

You should start mountain running with a friend, if possible. You can encourage each other and set your goals together. Even if you have to walk most of the way at the beginning, go to the top. That’s where the reward is. Gazing out over your world under a misty double-rainbow, a perfect blue sky, or a neon sunset is an incomparable thrill. It will be a while before you can run all the way, but don’t push yourself–it will come sooner than you expect. The first time you actually make it you will have earned a power over your own life that, each subsequent time you run up “your” mountain, you will renew.

Now Terry and I run our mountain every Saturday at 6 a.m. in starlight, rain, fog, and snow. There’s something about the promise of the sunrise over the city that gets me up on the coldest, darkest mornings and starts me running. I always get that wonderful sensation of accomplishment and renewal when I reach the summit, no matter how difficult the ascent was.

Besides, If I didn’t run up the damned mountain, I’d never have the fun of running down.

Alison Tinsley teaches at New Mexico State University.

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