No, no, not that kind of “high” – I’m not talking about running while under the influence of illegal substances! Nor am I talking about “runner’s high”, that naturally-occurring euphoric state brought about by swapping the daily grind for cardiovascular serenity.
I’m using the word “high” literally here, as in running way up HIGH, at an altitude higher than sea level. Which is exactly what I did last week.
The end of the school year and beginning of summer brought with it, for Leo and me, a trip to the North Carolina mountains. We rented a house for a week and had lots of time to take in the scenery through drives down the Blue Ridge Parkway and hikes to nearby waterfalls. I also needed to keep up my training, so I planned to throw a run or two in there.
Now, I’m a sea level gal, living happily about 20’ above (40’ if you consider that I live on the second floor), and regularly running between 5’ below and 40’ above. I was born and raised in a relatively flat, low city and have only spent time at higher altitudes when traveling and on our several trips to the NC mountains. My favorite place on Earth is the Low Country of South Carolina. What I’m saying is that my body is not accustomed to the extra effort required by thinner air, let alone moving itself up and down mountainsides.
Mind you, our rental house sits around 3300’, so not all that high when compared to places like Denver. But it’s 3300’ higher than I’m used to, and two days into our stay, I was feeling it: I developed a nagging headache, couldn’t seem to draw a deep breath, and was feeling all sorts of lethargic. But I was also desperate for a good run after too many hours spent in a car. So I set out in a refreshing, 72-degree rain shower for a turn around the loop road on which we were situated. I was going without my trusty Runkeeper app, given that I had no cell service up there, so the loop seemed like a safe plan; I couldn’t get lost, at least.
What I didn’t know was that the aptly-named Big Ridge Rd. climbed, starting at our house, about 300’ in less than half a mile. No turns, either – the road appeared to go straight up to the heavens from my vantage point. I’m no quitter, so I took a deep breath, ending with a strong “KILL that damn hill, V!” and took off, determined to run most, if not all, of the climb. Heels up and calves clenched, I dug my toes hard onto the asphalt, pushing upward with each step, as my breath quickly became labored and wheezy, despite the extra precautionary puff from my inhaler 15 minutes earlier. About ¾ of the way up, a pick-up truck heading down passed me and the driver threw me a wave and a thumbs-up, which gave me just enough encouragement to haul myself the rest of the way up to where the road flattened out at a horseshoe turn.
I did it! I ran the entirety of that evil hill, climbed 300’ in half a mile and walked the sharp turn to begin what I assumed would be my descent. Wrong. On the other end of the horseshoe, Big Ridge Rd. continued its climb into, literally, the clouds.
“Oh, HELL no!!!” I thought. My quads were quivering, my glutes screamed for mercy, and my overtaxed lungs, I swear, were whimpering at the prospect of another climb. So I turned around and went back down, running the whole way, and finished my planned 35 minutes on the slightly less dramatic hills of a connecting road below the house. In the end, I managed 2.78 miles in 35 minutes, for an average pace of 12:35/mile. In the rain. At altitude. On the biggest hills I’ve ever seen.
THAT is one for the books.
P.S. A week later, my muscles were sufficiently recovered for a 3-mile run back home, in Florida. It was hot, muggy and miserable, but man-oh-man, I’ve never felt stronger! My lungs had no problem maintaining 2:00/1:00 run/walk intervals and my legs attacked the small inclines along the path like they were nothing. I am now a firm believer in the power of A. pushing yourself once in a while, and B. hill training. Better believe I’ll be doing some serious tall-bridge running in my future.