New to the sport of running I never considered participating in a race. The idea of struggling and suffering around others never really appealed to me. Running long distances of single track trails in the mountains is what really pulled me into the sport. However, I kept meeting other runners who wholeheartedly loved racing and told me I had to try at least one. So, when I heard about the 8th Annual Kahtoola Agassiz Uphill (KAU) it seemed like the perfect introductory race for me – fun, yet slightly competitive.
Two aspects of the KAU struck me as unique. First, the course goes up and down runs on a ski mountain, so you know it’s gonna be steep, both up and down. Second, competitors can use their choice of equipment during the race. This creates some friendly competition between the runners, who have an advantage on the uphill, and the skiers, who have an advantage on the downhill. Over the last 18 months I had trained on many steep mountain trails and had used the MICROspikes on a number of snow covered trails. The more I thought about the race the more prepared I felt, and hopeful that I’d place relatively well.
It was Saturday, February 7th. Race day. I felt energetic and ready to run. For breakfast I filled up on buttery pancakes at the iconic Flagstaff Diner. I helped out with registration during the day, then made my way up to Arizona Snowbowl. Driving up to the parking lot I encountered a steady flow of skiers and snowboarders finishing up their day. By 4:30pm most had vacated the mountain. By 4:45pm most of the racers were at the starting line busily stretching leg muscles and shaking out any last minute jitters. All of a sudden it was about to start.
The announcer began the countdown, “Ten, nine, eight.” Behind us, a line of drummers pounded their instruments in unison. I looked to the man next to me and said, “Let’s do this!” Then we fist bumped each other, Obama style. The announcer finished the countdown, “three, two, one, go!” A burst of cheers arose.
The race had started, but being in the middle of the pack, I had to wait a few moments for the crowd to dissipate. The first hill came quick. Everyone’s pace slowed down. I tried to keep a slow running pace, but quickly backed off to a brisk hiking pace. My heart started beating rapidly. I looked around and others were quietly dealing with their own suffering. Some put their hands on their thighs for support. Others put their hands above their head to open up their lungs for more air intake.
As we got closer to the top many competitors start zigzagging up the mountain, creating their own switchbacks. The skiers on the other hand made a straight line up the mountain. It was like this all the way to the top. By the time I reached the top I was exhausted. In a mile and a half I had climbed 2,300ft. The air was thin up there at 11,500ft. But I knew the hardest part was over and I could enjoy myself on the downhill. That I did!
The sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, painting the sky with shades of orange, red, and yellow. I let gravity and momentum pull me down the mountain, merely swinging my feet along the ground to avoid any tumbles. The deeper snow along the sides of the run provided a soft cushion for my feet and knees. It felt totally enjoyable and effortless. I was having a ball.
Before I knew it I heard drums and the crowd of spectators. The finish line was only a few hundred yards away. I told myself to finish strong and increased my pace. When I crossed the finish line I felt a deep sense of achievement and relief. The fading sunset cast a brilliant orange glow on the smiling faces around me and I knew at that moment I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to do it again.