Just as the clouds parted and the arrowhead of Rendezvous Peak came into view this past Saturday, I knew I’d had it. I wasn’t going all out, and I wasn’t giving it all I had. I couldn’t. My legs were toast. My hip flexors were long since gone, I had a persistent pain in my left calf, and I was pretty sure my neck would even be sore from the Camelbak I’d already hauled up nearly 4,000 feet in the previous 80 minutes. Thing is, I’d crawled up that trail feeling smashed before. I always feel smashed on that trail.
What in the heck was I doing up there, on foot, with no bicycle between my legs? Let me explain:
I started this year out with the intention of rebuilding my road bike attack strength. I knew how to get it, but I also knew that if I overdid it, I’d completely lose any desire to ride a bicycle.
Well, the season started out according to plan. I was climbing well in April and May, and I was psyched to get started at the Snowbird Hillclimb in August. I got on the podium at the Spring Sprint, and then, figuring I’d have a little running fitness left over, I decided to check another race off my wishlist: the Targhee Hill Climb … a mountain running race.
This year, two-thirds of the race would be brand-spanking new—a course unlike the one used in previous years. I figured it’d be a fun opportunity to try out something different.
How do you dress for a running race in 90-degree heat that goes up the side of a ski hill? I didn’t know, so I gambled and tried to do Targhee in my triathlon duds—spandex, that is. I felt ridiculous.
How do you pace yourself in a running race in 90-degree heat that goes up the side of a ski hill when you’ve hardly done any running? I didn’t know the answer to that one either, so I leapt off the line like it was a 5k … which it was … with 1,840 feet of uphill mixed in.
I blew myself up in the first mile, just as the trail narrowed to singletrack. The course necessitated hiking anyway: It took us up the spine of the mountain—this narrow ridge within full view of Grand Teton and Table Mountain littered with loose, jagged rocks and weaving in and out of the neighboring trees. I knew I was having an off day, so I picked a random racer to pace myself off of, a lady named Dawn. I figured if I could just stick with Dawn, I’d be okay, so when she pulled over and told me to pass at one point, I responded, “No, you’re doing great,” and pushed her back onto the trail.
Eventually, the trail reached a steep chin-scraper section and Dawn made a slight wrong turn. I pointed the trail out to her, and she got back after it, but the damage was done, and I hiked away. I jogged up the last little bit of the trail and crossed the finish line after less than 45 minutes. I met a few really nice people, took a terrifying ride down on the ski lift, drove home and … resumed training as a bike racer.
Well, in case you don’t know, my first road bike hill climb of the year got delayed by six weeks and moved to mid-September. So I had to do some reorganizing. I’d just move my focus, I thought, to the next road bike race on the schedule—the Powder Mountain Hill Climb on August 24th.
If you’ve been reading here long, you know how I felt about Powder Mountain: I loved racing there each time I went. So it should’ve been a no-brainer. But, for some ethereal reason, I felt conflicted about it this time. I couldn’t bring myself to make the drive down there. I just couldn’t do it. I looked at the race calendar and I picked another race that was on my wishlist—the Rendezvous Mountain Hillclimb … the running version.
So, this past Saturday, instead of driving to Utah, I took a little trip to Jackson Hole Resort. When I drove over the top of Teton Pass, the valley was completely obscured by cloud. And as I got closer, the fog only got thicker. On Moose-Wilson road, I couldn’t see the 4,000-foot mountains to my left, even though they were less than a mile away.
I got to the ski hill and signed up for the race, worrying that I’d, again, chosen the wrong outfit for the occasion—this time not bringing enough clothing. I still couldn’t see the mountain, and the tram was even delayed because of “inclement weather.” I asked the race director what the temperature at the summit was, guessing it was around 35, and she responded, “No, it’s sunny up there. It’s actually [pulls out smartphone to check the temps] … 35.”
Walking around the resort before the start, I bumped into a couple of guys who were going to start a hike on the Teton Crest Trail that day. We chatted about the hike for a bit, and I told them I was jealous. Then, they asked me what I thought was a funny question: “So what did you do to train for this race?”
“That’s the thing,” I said, “I didn’t really train for it.”
I then explained that I wasn’t sure I could run 7.4 miles of flat road, to say nothing of 7.4 miles mingled with 4,139 feet of uphill. But I’d ridden a mountain bike up the road, I don’t know, four times. So I knew the route. And to be honest, it was a little comforting that I couldn’t even see the mountain from where I was.
When the race started, I deliberately held back. I tried to keep my pace as modest as possible, but I soon found myself at the head of a group of about five or six runners—at least three of whom were women. (“I’ve never been chased by so many girls!” joked a guy named Keith behind me.) We’d already been gapped by the lead group, but I was enjoying the singletrack trail so much that I just kept going, leading most of the way to the junction with the service road.
When we spilled out onto the road, the runners who’d gotten ahead of me slowed a bit, and I managed to work my way into no-man’s land (aka the place I ALWAYS find myself in hill climbs). But no matter how far ahead of the racers behind me I got, two of the younger girls from our group just seemed to get farther ahead.
Finally, with about two miles left to go, an older racer caught up to me. We chatted as we reached the second water station and then the trail steepened again. And I dropped him. Yes, he caught me again later, but I realized that the steeper the trail, the better I seemed to do.
A few minutes later, two other racers, including Keith, caught up to me. “Hi guys,” I said before explaining that I hadn’t done much running and had already spent everything. “I’ve already gotten what I wanted out of this race,” I told them—and it was true.
“Did you do the Targhee Hillclimb?” the woman asked.
“Yeah—are you Dawn?” I replied.
It was Dawn, and once again, I found myself running with her. She, Keith and I jogged our way to the summit, chatting most of the way, and I put in a last-minute trot to finish just a second behind them.
I’d never felt welcome among the Jackson Hole cyclists. They always seemed to have an air of superiority—”You’re not a European,” they seemed to say down their noses. But the Jackson Hole running crowd was nothing like that. The older fellas were all very friendly, the young recent-college-grads made for great conversation, and Dawn and Keith and I seemed to have become instant buddies. The women’s winner (who was one of the girls I’d paced through the opening singletrack) even asked me about my daughters and my family as we talked at length.
After hanging out with the running crowd (the awards didn’t start until more than an hour after we got down off the mountain), I snapped one last photo and left for home. I hadn’t placed in my age group—not even close—but I’d enjoyed doing something new and different. And I told Dawn that next year, I’d actually train and try to pace her to a sub-40 at Targhee.
Driving up the 2,286-foot Teton Pass, though, I passed a cyclist making his way up the long, steep section that makes that climb so brutal. I rolled my window down and yelled out to him to get up out of his saddle. And as I watched out of my rearview mirror and he rose over his handlebars, I couldn’t help but think about all the bicycling fitness I’d built up, and what I might do with it.