A friend of mine asked me the other day why I still trained a whole bunch. One of the many reasons I gave her was that I still really enjoyed racing and pushing hard. I have always enjoyed pushing hard in a race or in a training session. A couple of seasons ago, when I was a little bit overtired and doing too much intensity, I sometimes did not feel like pushing hard, but I could always look back on it and find some element of enjoyment.
Until, that is, this weekend. I raced a mountain running race this weekend. It took place at Whistler- and it took advantage of Whistler's greatest tourist attraction, a big honkin' mountain. The race started at the base of the downhill runs and climbed 3800 vertical feet to the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain. Sounds cool, huh? It wasn't. It was just a huge festival of suffering with very few redeeming features about it. Sure, it was fun to be at Whistler, hanging out with a couple of friends and seeing some people I hadn't seen in a while, but the actual run itself was pain purified, mitigated by very few spots of running enjoyment.
To begin with, it was pretty hot. Not the humid, suffocating hot of the Ottawa summers I grew up with, but a dryer heat. There were no clouds. This would have been fine, but the majority of the race took place on service roads or open ski runs.
Then there was the course profile. It started out on bike trails that switchbacked across part of the mountain. This wasn't a bad part of the race- there were still a lot of people together. However, the pace was pretty quick, and there was very little rest. It was continuous gradual uphill, and the switchbacks really only prolonged the length of the suffering. After the trails, we moved onto the service roads, which, although somewhat rolling, were mostly very uphill. After the service roads, we tackled a steep section of a downhill run, which nobody, not even the race winner, could run. The race finished on more steep service roads.
The profile was mostly painful because of the lack of recovery. In cross-country skiing, although you might max yourself for periods of 5 minutes or more, there is usually a downhill portion following that when your legs can clear lactic acid and you can recover to some degree. In a purely uphill race, there is no recovery. Once your legs fill up and start to burn, they just stay that way. This quickly reduces the speed to some kind of slow-motion jog, like a dream where you're running away from something scary, but everything happens in slow-motion.
I've done pure uphill races before, most notably a race at Mt. Tremblant. That race was fun because a) I was leading for a significant portion of it, and b) it was all on a running/hiking trail through the woods. I was definitely not leading the Whistler race - it was a qualifier for World Mountain Running Championships, and I didn't qualify- and this was a non-technical service road/downhill ski run that only amplified the burning in the legs.
Maybe I'm getting old, or maybe I'm getting out of shape, or maybe I haven't trained specifically enough for running straight uphill. Whatever the reason, no matter how hard I struggle, I find it impossible to look back on that race and think "Oh, boy, that was fun, I can't wait till I do that again next year. In fact, maybe I'll pre-run the course next year." Definitely not thinking that. But I AM waiting, with anticipation, to the next race in this mountain run series- it's at Cypress Mountain, and we actually get to run downhill as well as uphill.