Of Mountains and Treadmills

Smelling sage and rolling gravel roads

Smelling sage and rolling gravel roads

The last two weeks have been my final major preparation for Loon Mtn and the US Mountain Running Championships, a chance to shock the system a few more times before letting everything rest and flying east. It is hard to believe that after eying this event for the last six months it is now less than one week away. At this point the hay is in the proverbial barn, and while there have been some tough miles, overall the preparation has been a ton of fun. In the last 11 week buildup I’ve run up, around, and down all sorts of central oregon buttes and peaks, trails, roads, tracks, and snowfields. Here are a few of my more recent efforts.

I had been scheming to run Pine Mountain since February, but this desert peak just seemed to slip through the weekend plans with so many other locations to test. Maybe a weekend wasn’t necessary, so with work looming at noon, I got up early and drove east to Millican, a ghost town gas station and rv park where the junipers thin and the sage thickens. Pine Mtn is the hulk to the south of Hwy 20 where the University of Oregon maintains an observatory outside the glow of Bend and above the ohv trails of China hat.

I parked a mile off the highway next to a cattle guard with a tattered windsock. The arrow straight gravel road, open skies, and smell of sagebrush spelled Montana and the Headwaters Relay. My plan was simple: run the main road 7 miles and 2000 ft up to the observatory, then retrace my steps. If I was feeling good, pick it up and let fly. I was hoping this workout would be a bit of a turn around for me, as the last two evening group workouts were lackluster track affairs that left me questioning my fitness. Maybe what I needed was a good old fashioned solo gravel run up a mountain. No one to see me suffering or crushing except myself.

The climb up the main road is not very steep, but it keeps going with hardly any true flat and relatively chunky gravel. Settling into a reasonable pace, I left the sage fields, entered a juniper forest, then found the ponderosa. I wasn’t feeling spry, but maybe I could reach the top in less than an hour. The road passed dozens of burn marks and even more piles waiting their turn, the Forest Service’s effort to clear the floor in hopes of saving the forest. Enticing little dirt two tracks sprouted off the main road, but my schedule required their bypass. With my watch hovering just over an hour finally I saw the bald summit and trotted past the observatory domes, not a soul around. The top was windswept and chilly, the main cascades peering intermittently out of the clouds. A rainstorm was rolling across the desert and it looked like my descent was headed straight for it.

My legs started waking up in the cool air and with gravel underfoot I felt the roll. Raindrops began falling, triggering the vibrant smell from an ocean of sage. I passed the 5mi road mark in less than 28 minutes and felt my mojo creep back. Exiting the draw, the road spilled out to the wide open, a big swirling sky overhead. Of all songs, Call Me Maybe jumped into my head from Headwaters and suddenly a race was on with no one but myself. The final mile was not marked but no matter. I was crushing it. Whether in SW Montana, the bluffs of Decorah, or the Oregon desert, I knew and loved this feeling, the invincibility and sheer giddiness racing through every muscle. I tossed my water bottle and camera aside and flat out sprinted the final two hundred meters. That’s how you get ready.

A few other highlights:

  • Returning to Pine with Claire for star gazing and a longer tour of the mountain complete with cow dodging, cross country power hiking, sock-wrecking cheat grass, non-existent roads, frustration cursing, and sweet long run ending limeade.
  • Climbing South Sister in a cloud with Claire, Fox and Rocklocks,  hiking/skiing/bootpacking 4900 feet up and down.
  • A seven mile dirt canal road tempo followed by fast and flat 2k repeats.
  • Setting a new Pilot Butte pr by 18 seconds on the final rep.
  • Another Bachelor tour, bringing my average to one ski/week for the last seven weeks.

Finally, a special kind of training was in order before Loon. All great ideas are built in a garage right? Enter the pain cave, aka Ryan Bak’s treadmill, capable of an ostentatious (and Loon mimicking) 40 percent grade. I eschewed the fancy automatic settings and went manual to semi-simulate the Loon course. The fun began with a couple minutes flat at 11mph, ramping to 10% grade for 5:00, back to 11mph flat for 3:00, and so forth: 12%, fast, 15%, fast, then 18% and soaring. By one hour I had surpassed 30% and slowed to roughly 4 mph, hurting badly. Between 30 and 40 percent is an awkward grade where hiking seems too slow but running sends you careening over red line. My hands kept darting to the hand rails for support and it was agony to resist. At max grade I was sweating buckets and counting every passing second. For reference, the grade on Pilot Butte in Bend and Fern Lake in Colorado is only around 12%; this was redefining steep! Entirely voluntary, right? Yeah….

Hopefully I’ve done my homework, but by the looks of the Loon course I’m going to be in for a doozy. Thanks to everyone for all the support, I can’t wait to see New England and push the outside of the envelope.

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One thought on “Of Mountains and Treadmills

  1. I’ll be keeping an eye on the race from up here in the Ak, if I am not out in the mountains with out cell coverage of course!

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