Photograph by David Clifford
It’s 6:59 a.m. in Aspen, Colorado. Elevation: 7,945 feet. I’m on a tongue of groomed powder at the base of a ski spot that overlooks downtown. A pack of about 200 Lycra-clad racers fidgets behind a blue line spray-painted in the snow. The horn will blow any second.
I glance down and around. I’ve never seen such an array of footwear at a starting line. To my right, a scatter of ski bindings, from Nordic to randonée. To my left, a woman fusses with snowshoes. Ahead: a burly guy in jerry-rigged Nike trainers.
But then again, I’ve never run a race quite like America’s Uphill. It’s 2.7 miles of brutal snow-covered slopes beginning at the bottom of the Aspen Mountain Gondola and ending at its 11,212-foot summit. The race offers a 3,267-foot climb—more vertical than the world’s tallest building.
Racers can use whatever gear they want, and some come better prepared than others. Just days off a jet from Washington, D.C., I’m one of the others. My wife is concerned that I will keel over midrace with mountain sickness. I kiss her forehead saying, “I’ve done marathons before. How hard can a few miles be?”
I’ve long believed that less is more when it comes to footwear. My shoes: Puma racing flats enveloped by a tangle of rubber and metal. Yesterday, I’d shelled out $60 for attachable crampons. The web of 3/8-inch steel spikes slips under the wafer-thin soles like a net. I’m in the “Open” division, a catch-all category that includes shoe stabilizers, Yaktrax, and the like. The other three categories are track skis, telemark skis, and alpine touring (which includes alpine and randonee bindings).
The horn blares. The pack begins to ooze across the starting line. Only a handful of us are running. Most are engaged in more of a waddle. I’m taken aback. I thought this was a race, not a charity stroll. I vow to maintain at least a shuffle.
But quickly the reality of the mountain—and the thinness of the air—hits me. Hard. The race has barely begun, but I can hardly breathe. I feel like I’m drowning. Ten-thousand feet up, high enough that each lungful contains only three- quarters of the oxygen I would get in D.C.
As I head higher, I play mind games to keep moving. I shut my eyes, count steps, tell myself there’s a serial killer chasing me. I imagine I’m wearing rubber boots and slogging through puddles of paint inside one of my wife’s paintings. It helps.
So does turning and looking back. Just after the halfway mark, the view, which had been blocked by a row of trees before, spreads out around me like a tapestry of green and white. Whole ridges of mountains in the distance, imposing from the ground, look like anthills from up here.
I draw strength from the view, and soon I’ve made my way up through a narrow notch in the path that opens up to an area where the morning light, a huge pool of gold, sparkles across the top of the mountain. I start to feel euphoric. For maybe 10 minutes. My heart, meanwhile, is thud- ding three times faster than it should. Each breath is sandpaper on my windpipe.
Toward the end of the race, my spikes feel like they’re chiseling nails through the soles of my feet. Finally, I see the Sundeck Restaurant perched at the sum- mit. I rush toward it. In the last stretch, which flattens out a bit, I accelerate to a shuffle. When I cross the finish, the clock reads 1 hour 17 minutes—right in the middle of the pack. Normally, I’m in the top 15 percent.
My wife hugs me. Sheepishly, I admit: “Those were the toughest 2.7 miles of my life.”
Runner’s World, March 2012