Aiming Upward, Climbing Higher


(Featured in Nov 27 2014 Mammoth Times)

Friday morning. 8:05 a.m. Mid-July. My sports watch stares back at me with its familiar gray face.

I can feel the pulse of town beginning to pick up with each passing minute, my heart rate following.  The underlying tempo imitates the energy and radiance of the emerging sun, revealing itself from behind the shadowy curtains of the mountaintops—like an awakening camper slowly unzipping himself from the confines of his tent after a solid night’s slumber, shaking off the starry night for a luminous day of newfound activity and adventure in the Eastern Sierra.

In company with my trusty watch and the sun I worship, I am delighted to be greeted by the other familiar faces I have grown accustomed to seeing on a normal Mammoth morning, all gathering sporadically, but mostly timely, in the parking lot of Mammoth Creek Park.  I scan the peripherals of my yet waking blurred vision to register the forms of my fellow ASICS Mammoth Track Club teammates stretching and moving in a rainbow of brightly colored running shoes and apparel, along with my coach, Andrew Kastor, standing tall, already fully caffeinated, clipboard in hand. Of course, there is Bessie too—our faithful team van—large, pale white, sporting the team logo proudly tattooed on her side, and grimacing in character through the gleam of her grill, ready as always to haul the miles and the baggage each of us carries.

As Mammoth Creek Park begins to fill with more vibrant silhouettes (the happy-faced canines towing their tired and panting owners by leash; screaming toddlers housed in tent-like contraptions, hauled by their determined bicyclist parents; free-roaming children hopping around the natural rocks and plastic playground jungle gym, it is a cue that we will be on our way to start the day. Playtime is still miles away and the weekend playground of Mammoth Lakes remains yet a mystery for us running folk.

We leave the early weekenders behind to begin a three-mile warm-up run, weaving up Old Mammoth Road, and then in and out of the town’s neighborhoods, pointing out our favorite mountain dream homes as we pass by, unquestionably waking up the previously undisturbed inhabitants inside.  The sound of shoes en masse against pavement, intermingled with our awakening conversations, bounces off the collection of brick, mortar, and stone buildings in a roaring echo.  We are breaking barriers together as teammates (and maybe some neighborhood noise violations), and the rest of the warm-up seems to rush on by. The still silence of a mountain morning, the stiff initial hesitation of motionless muscles turning to motion, even Bessie parked and obstructing the panoramic prospect of a nearing weekend in the park; these moments are all miles away now, as we speed onward in growing momentum.

Moments click by faster than the seconds on my watch.

Stop light. Pause. Red turns to green. Go light. Go.

Beer garden. Mammoth Brewing! Thirsty? Later. Keep going.

Bacon. I smell breakfast. An array. Toomey’s. Old New York Deli & Bagel Company. The Village. People. A bustling village of people.

We hardly feel the village of discerning eyes gaping over their cups of coffee at the spectacle and parade we provide our human relatives. We stride up Minaret Road, together and colorfully, sunlight dancing on the effervescent rainbow we provide. Some sort of freak show; we are—but it’s the only thing we know.  Are we shielded by the belief of safety in numbers? Is it pack mentality? Or just mentality?

My watch beeps.

I look down to see numerous digits displayed in runner’s code, a signal I can decipher and affirm: it is the end to our pack’s three-mile warm-up.

Seriously, it is business time. No time to get mental, pondering mentality.

Peeking upwards from the face of my watch, old Bessie appears, parked at the intersection of Forest Trail and Minaret, prompt and patient as ever. Coach Kastor waits loyally beside her, clipboard in hand, ready to deliver the next instructions to each member of the pack.

Both Coach and Bessie smile, but I spy slight evil residing behind the gleam of his and her grill, a domineering assertion of the ensuing work they are about to dole out as we follow along with almost cult-like agreement.

Our work to start the weekend, as prescribed to us all, is an “Uphill Tempo.”  Basically, we are directed to run a distance of either 4 or 5.4 miles, as fast as we can and as steady as we can.  This is an effort in itself.  To make the task at hand (or foot) even more difficult, and to satiate our “runner mentality,” the route twists along a constant uphill, straight up Highway 203.  The end is marked by either the towering Woolly Mammoth statue at Main Lodge (4 miles), or at the actual end of the road—Minaret Summit, elevation 9,265 feet (5.4 miles).

Meanwhile and the whole while, the “Uphill Tempo” experience is enhanced with a step-by-step loss of oxygen, and a step-by-step gain of humility and desperation.

The pack breaks up from here into smaller groups, some left standing alone to grit out the mountain climb with only the bare essentials they own, mind and body.

There is no more strength in numbers. Sometimes the race isn’t against anybody but you.

“Everything is a test,” echoes Coach in my head, a mantra he reverberates often. We will have to search for something deep within ourselves as we split into staggered start groups, based on differing goal paces and distances.  The only condolences we can offer each other at this point is that we will see each other along the route, and that we are all headed in the same direction … up.

My teammates begin to take off in waves with the familiar clicks of watches.

It is my turn.

Stepping up to the line, I shake off doubts even now, a whole year of training in Mammoth already behind me, that in reality, I am lined up and bumping elbows with Deena Kastor, Olympian and bronze medalist in the marathon, a “leader” of my respective sport. To share the same workout with her, even a few seconds with her, is something many runners I know dream about. I am living a damn dream.  Damnit. I remind myself this as I revert back to the reality of the work at hand—a nightmare of 5.4 uphill miles.

Ready and go!

The workout begins. Coach Kastor sets his watch. In unison we do the same.  With a quick melody of beeps sounding from our wrists, our feet clamor into motion.  We are off… and up.

Deena takes off with springs on her feet.  I try my very best to hang on to her momentum as I follow from behind as best I can.  Like a somewhat hungover Lake Crowley wake boarder, I feel as though I am being pulled behind on a shoddy tow rope I braided myself, and it is slowly losing elasticity, my knees buckling every now and then from the waves of growing distance. I am trying my damnedest not to lose force or speed, but Deena is shrinking in size as she speeds away.  Just hang on!

At each passing mile, my watch relays a beep, and Bessie and Coach Kastor are waiting, with an offering of my water bottle and words of encouragement. I take both graciously, while also feel the pressing of my teammates that started behind, slowly gaining on me.

In the brief moments of passing, there is a mutual understanding between one another—this is not an episode of conquest or defeat. We know we are here, strategically placed to keep each other pushing forward and up, to help each other dominate our own respective test, to help each teammate finish with a feeling of success.  A good workout by all equals a happy coach.  A happy coach surely has genuine wishes for the team to enjoy a happy weekend, once all is said and run.

Outside of myself, outside of my teammates, outside of the Mammoth Track Club Van, Bessie, and Coach Kastor, I notice the steady stream of cars passing by.  From within their shells, I see faces pressed against windows, faces distorted in confusion, awe, disbelief, disgust, and dissection.  The expressions are reminiscent of the village people left seemingly so far behind and below. Some faces are faintly familiar, the motor of their vehicles powering them painlessly up the steep hill, their seconds relative to my minutes in time, my hard work and effort merely a wonder, a question to them in the form of a simple “Why?”

To the left of me, and in the shadows of the pines, mountain bikers, cloaked in full protective garb blaze by in an opposite downward direction. I am envious of their speed and grace. If only I could somehow rewind, reverse, and transfer that same rushing force to my meandering upward climb.

I begin to feel dizzy at the thought of wheels spinning backwards in time, I think, and hope the feeling isn’t from lack of oxygen, or an indication my body is red-lining to exhaustion.

Once again, I am greeted by the familiar crew of van and coach at Mile 4, this time joined by some happy and accomplished teammates who cheer me on in sweaty glory.

The energy here is huge and pressing.  Along with the acknowledgement that I too am almost finished (only 1.4 miles to go), the activity in and around Main Lodge imitates nothing close to the thought of a sleeping giant, or a resting mountain.  The visitors to Mammoth Mountain dance around in summer activity. Cars swerve in and out of the parking lots; people wander around on legs, in strollers, on bikes, and even dangle from above as they ride the chairlift and gondola.

For some reason, I envision the people suspended above in their gondolas, pointing at the runners below, some snapping quick pictures, others oohing and ahhing.

We, the runners, are just another form of wild species spotted on the course of their mountain safari, acting out our normal behavior in our natural habitat.  Carry on now. And I do.

I follow the continuing route up the highway, and within one winding corner, the energy at Main Lodge quickly dissipates. The road is suddenly more narrow and steep, and the pines mask any sight or sound of the Mammoth Mountain weekend energy behind.  So abruptly,

I feel the pain of being alone and the ensuing challenge of the 1.4 miles ahead of me.  My legs start to feel as if they are taking on the consistency of the concrete beneath them.

A green sign to the left, camouflaged indicates I have reached 9,000 feet.  My breathing is either getting louder, or maybe I am just noticing it more as I leave traffic and human company behind.  This portion of the road is definitely less travelled.  But I’ve got a mile to go… and now a quarter of a mile… just a little bit more to overcome the steep!

I spy Bessie. Beautiful Bessie.  Then Coach.  And Deena. And the rest of my teammates who made the final ascent to Minaret Vista.  They pull me towards them with sounds of encouragement as I crest the final push.

My legs reach the finish, and I reach towards my wrist, finally relinquishing my watch with the push of a button.  5.4 miles.  A whole minute and a half faster than last time, Coach Kastor confirms, writing the result on his clipboard of data.

I smile, cocking my head back in relief, upwards and towards the sun, thankful for another successful day at work.

Already, my teammates are ready to begin our three-mile, cool-down jog—a return back to town, a return back to air, a return to the weekend in Mammoth we left behind for a brief while.

Even so, I can’t leave Minaret Vista without allowing myself to take in the panoramic view I just spent all morning running to, even for just a brief moment of recognition.

The Eastern Sierra engulfs me from every angle, a 360-degree embrace of challenge and opportunity, a reminder of the larger world out there, and the many peaks left to climb.  I can name and identify some of the forms, familiar either from experience or from previous curiosity. Others loom in the distance with mystery.

Can I see my future out there in the hazy distance, under another day of sun? I wonder.  But why am I already looking for another hill to climb?  Up. I always want to be moving up. Wasn’t the 5.4 miles of uphill tempo hell enough to satiate my mentality?

I transfer back to the present day’s work at hand and join my teammates as we make the descent back into town. With another click of my watch, my body moves to the customary beat of running motion.  The prospect of an energetic town and a weekend to enjoy are getting closer with each step.

The dream-like view atop Minaret Summit is left behind, but the uphill progress we all made today settles somewhere deep within our beings … an essential tool to bury in our mind and body, something we can dig out in the future, as we all continue to search for our own road, up.

Always up.