What Goes Up

Dispatches from 9 days of climbing hilly things.

I still have no idea what the heck I am going to run in 2021. And I’ve been feeling a little aimless in my athletic endeavors.

So when I heard that our local avalanche center was hosting a multi-day virtual VertFest, in which participants were challenged to climb as many feet as possible over the span of 9 days, I was all in. It was something to do! For fun! And suffering! For fun suffering! A thing on the calendar! An event to participate in!

SIGN ME UP, I cried, while pulling out my ski boots and super-sized bag of skittles.

So for nine days, I climbed up a lot of things, on both foot and skis. I did my first day of climbing 10k’ of laps on skis. And then I did another 10k day later that week. I lapped the same dumb hill so many times I lost count during one long run. And on the last day of climbing, my quads were rattling with fatigue during every trip down the mountain and I couldn’t wait to do nothing but snuggle Dilly in a pile of blankets the next day.

The final day of this vert-a-palooza was Sunday – and when all was said and run and skied, I climbed 45,036’ over the course of the 9 days.

While I was having a very horizontal day on Monday, and lapping my way through a bag of donuts, I did some reflecting on the experience and thought I’d share some VertFest takeaways in this week’s Trail Mix. All things that I believe can be applied to any variety of recreational suffering (and often life, too).

If something excites and energizes you during the doldrums of pandemic life, get after it

In some ways, I felt silly getting so excited about a virtual challenge. I used a sacred vacation day to spend many hours climbing up a ski hill. I planned every single outing around how much vert I could log – which meant doing things like lapping the same mundane hill too many times to count. I drove 2.5 hours (each way!) to get to a ski mountain for the last day of vert-ing. All for a virtual thing that means nothing, really.

But, it was something to care about for nine days. It was something to get excited about. To occupy my mind and my body and my time. It was something to share with other people in a safe way. And in a year where we’ve been deprived of most opportunities for that kind of thing, it felt so glorious. So I say: if there is something that lights even a little flicker inside of you right now, throw some logs on that thing and let the fire roar. Whether that’s a virtual race or a strava segment or a tournament of books, go chase it and enjoy the hell out of it while you’re doing it.

Someone else’s big is always going to out-big your big, but your big is still big

From the very first day of VertFest, there were numbers on the leaderboard that seemed absolutely bonkers to me. And they stayed bonkers all week long. Some people skied more vertical feet on the first day than I’ve skied in a day, ever in my life. And then they did it again. Every. Single. Day. For nine straight days. The top skiers ended the week with triple my total. They did more in nine days than I’ve been aiming to do over the course of my entire ski season.

Does that mean that what I did wasn’t big? I don’t think so.

I hear a lot of people frame their running accomplishments with a “just” or an “only,” based on how they’re comparing themselves to what others are doing.

“I just did a 5k.”

“It was only 20 miles, not an ultra like you do.”

But no matter how big I’ve gone in running or other endurance endeavors, I have learned that there is always someone who is out-bigging me. There are runners doing 200-mile races. There are athletes going for FKTs that are thousands of miles long. There are people skiing 20k’ while I do half that volume.

If we use others as a barometer for how we define big and exciting, we will keep depriving ourselves of the chance to celebrate our own very real accomplishments. Let’s not do that!

I skied and climbed a lot last week! I did some big things and I’m going to let myself celebrate those things without dismissing my achievements based on the numbers other skiers hit. I encourage you to do the same, for whatever feels big and exciting for you.

Our expectations can be a superpower – or an anvil

On our first day of VertFest, we started skiing with no real plan and I struggled from the very first climb. I knew we wanted to ski somewhere in the vicinity of a “chunk o’ laps” to a “buttload of laps” and that mystery number haunted me every step. I had to begrudgingly keep telling myself to “just do one more lap,” and that continued to feel like a lot a lot a lot. Day one quickly turned into a trudgefest.

But on the day we were aiming to climb 10k’ feet on skis, I had that number in my head going into the day and each lap didn’t seem that big. Every trip back up the hill just felt like progress toward the goal I was set on. It was doable. And despite the fact that it was a much bigger day than the first one, it didn’t feel that way to my brain.

I feel this with long runs all of the time. If I tell myself, I am going to run 36 miles, I am mentally prepared to do that and I can run 36 miles. But if I’ve told myself I am going to run 16 miles, and then someone informs me I actually need to do 36, that new distance would seem as daunting as scaling Everest without oxygen. But the only difference between those two long run days is what my brain is expecting to do.

As we hit the year mark of being stuck in this covid hellscape, I think we’re all feeling how changing expectations can be hard to navigate. When this thing started, I thought we’d be here for weeks. When it’s continued to stretch on and on and on and on and on, it’s been hard to mentally adjust to how much longer we’ve had to endure it than we might have initially expected.

In these endurance efforts, how we think about the goal ahead shapes a lot of our experience while we’re out there. And what we can physically do one day, doesn’t define what we can do on another. We often just need to recalibrate our minds and our expectations.

Motivation is contagious (the good kind of contagious)

Going into the week, I set a loose goal of doing 25k or 30k feet of climbing. That seemed significantly larger than a typical week for me, but also not totally outrageous or dangerous for my physical wellbeing. (Another goal for VertFest was to push myself without burying myself in injury.)

But, I ended the week with 45k feet of climbing which was not unrelated to getting inspired by other vert’ers and letting their excitement and motivation fuel my own.

When we see what our friends and fellow athletes can do, we help each other realize what’s possible and we fuel one another’s stoke to do more. When my mom ran her first marathon, she got me excited about the idea of trying one for myself. When I saw Danielle Snyder become the first woman to run across Oregon on the PCT, I started to believe I might be able to do it, too. When I watched so many skiers and runners climbing unbelievable amounts of vertical ground or pushing themselves harder than they had before or doing their first big ski tour ever, I questioned whether I could be a bit more ambitious myself.

While it’s important to not get defeated by comparing ourselves to others, we can draw inspiration from seeing how others are pushing themselves and applying that to our own goals - even if said goals are very different.

It was fun chatting with other people on the last day of VertFest and hearing so many people say that they ended up doing a bigger day or a bigger week than they’d planned because they got inspired by seeing others push themselves. We hold so much power to lift each other up and to motivate one another in these pursuits. If you need a little boost of inspiration, there’s a lot of it out there.

Sharing is fun

On the last weekend of VertFest, I spent one day running hills in Eugene by myself. And the next, up at Mount Bachelor with my friend Alli and a crew of her friends. Along with about 30 other skiers who were all out on the mountain doing the same silly thing.

The days were night and day. Black and white. Dirt and snow.

I had infinitely more fun trudging uphill all day while surrounded by other people than I did while I was by climbing solo.  And the vertical feet flew by at lightning speed compared to the tedious snail’s pace of the day before.

The camaraderie was the greatest performance enhancer. The endless conversation with the skiers around me, the cheers from other uphill travelers, and even some enthusiastic cowbelling from an awesome splitboarder. There was so much energy and excitement in the shared experience.

So much of what we do is technically a solo endeavor, but there are ways to share these things and to find community and support within our individual pursuits. And doing that is a very good idea that can make these outings a heck of a lot more fun, way more meaningful, and a lot easier to do.   

Snacks are everything

Way back when I was toiling over whether to sign up for an ironman, my friend convinced me to do it with one simple sentence:

“It’s just a long day of sports with snacks.”

That idea sold me on 140.6 miles of swim/bike/running. And has continued to be a defining feature of why I love these silly endurance events. The sports are fun. The effort is conversational. And the snacks are plentiful. It’s like a traveling picnic with outdoor gear. VertFest was another long day(s) of sports with snacks, and I loved that part of it.

Some of the snacks that got me through last week’s vertical picnic:

Pizza (dominos, extra cheese), an apple fritter (that weighed approximately 2.5 pounds), sour gummy worms and skittles, dill pickle chips (the snack my puppy is named after), UCAN (shoutout to this month’s awesome Trail Mix sponsor, who’s giving you 20 percent off right now! I used UCAN for the early hours of my bigger ski days to set myself up with good energy for the day), chocolate peanut butter brownies (extra gooey), and one post-ski stop at a roadside DQ, which featured french fries and ice cream.

We do this stuff to explore one of the most exciting questions out there

During the many hours I was powering my body uphill, I thought about why the heck I was out there. Why I chose to spend nine days climbing uphill for a fairly silly thing.

And so much of it boils down to the same reason we do so much of this stuff: because we want to explore what we can do. And we want to find ways to redefine that again and again.

On the first day I was aiming to hit 10k' on skis, I found myself asking: "how much longer could I keep going?" My heart did a few cartwheels at that thought of it. "Could I do 15k? 20k? Ski for 24 straight hours?" I got a boost of energy as I grew more and more excited about the idea of pushing myself a little harder to see what else I can do on a pair of skis.

On the other side of VertFest, I am still asking myself those questions. And I’m getting all fired up about the ideas I’m tossing around in my head – and with friends.

And I do believe that's one of the biggest reasons we want to do these silly things - like spend 9 days climbing uphill. Because they let us explore the question of what we are capable of doing. And when we see that we are strong enough to do that thing. We usually find ourselves asking: "what else can I do?" And I haven't met many questions that are more fun and exciting than that.

I’m so excited that this week’s Trail Mix is presented by UCAN. I’ve loved UCAN since a friend introduced me to it after I had major fueling issues during my first 100 miler (among plenty of other runs and races). He suggested I give UCAN a try because it’s formulated to give athletes sustained energy – like a slow-drip of fuel instead of crash-and-burn calories. So, I did just that and with the help of a lot of UCAN and about two pounds of bacon, I had the best fueling experience of any run to date during my next 100 miler. I was running up hills during the back half of the race and when I got to the breakfast burrito station at Mile 87 of Cascade Crest, I actually enjoyed that mountaintop burrito because my stomach was so solid. Now liquid fuel is a core part of my strategy for any big run or race so fueling (and running! and skiing!) remains sustainable for the whole dang thing.

And, YOU can get UCAN for 20 percent off thanks to the friends of Trail Mix over there. (I recommend all of the fruity UCAN Energy mixes! Use the code TRAILMIX for the hookup.)

Check out UCAN

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Trail Mix is a weekly newsletter full of stories about running and life, dispatches from the wilderness, and essays about how it all collides. I so appreciate when you share Trail Mix with a friend or the internet, send me a note about Trail Mix-y things through email, comments, instagram or twitter, or subscribe for more Trail Mix. I am grateful for any and all of your Trail Mix-ing.

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