Monday, May 31, 2010

Phoenix Running

Sitting in the back seat of the cab, I peered out the window to my left. Rising over Phoenix was a series of peaks. Not high enough to intimidate -- only enough to intrigue.

I'd been reading "Born to Run," which includes tales of ultra-running through trails, deserts and mountains. This was no Everest I was looking at out my window, but it was certainly a challenge. One I wanted to take on.

After settling into my hotel, I grabbed an area map and plotted my next run. South of the city's downtown was a green shaded section labeled "South Mountain Park." That was what I had spotted and was now officially my target. I had never really run trails, or on any kind of steep grade, but that was going to change in a hurry.

I hopped online and found a map of the park's trails, picking out one called the "National trail" for my run the next day. I wanted to run at least 10 miles and that route seemed to be a good place to accomplish that goal. I discussed things over with the concierge, phoned up a rental car agency, purchased some water and gatorade and was set.

At 9 a.m. the next morning, I pulled into a small parking lot at the edge of a dirt trail. Peering down the path, I saw it disappear into the foothills of a much larger hill, covered in large boulders, plenty of cacti and I could only assume a large assortment of snakes, scorpions and mountain lions.

I'm from the city, how would I know?

With my water bottle full, my shoes laced tight and my sunglasses on, I set off into the unknown. For the past two years, I had been running on paved paths and roads, lined with roller-bladers, bikers and runners. Finding my way down dirt trails, over boulder-covered hills, and up and down steep switchbacks was completely foreign.

Man, I had a blast.

Two miles in, I had ascended high enough to have a gorgeous view of downtown Phoenix in the valley below, and I still had higher to go. When the path was flat, I ran. When it went downhill, I ran. That was the pact I made with myself. Only when the path was overrun with rocks and required the use of my hands for climbing did I walk.

Midway through the 10-mile adventure, I felt like I was on another planet. There was not another soul in sight. Just me, shirt off and tucked in my shorts, water bottle running dry, sun beating down with no cloud cover, making my way along the rocky terrain. Suddenly, I didn't care about splits or pace. I never once turned on my iPod.

In fact, I lost it somewhere on the mountain, and did not realize it until later that day.

The second half proved to be mostly a descent, and I took advantage. I flew down the hills and switchbacks and top speed, concentrating on making careful landings as I blew down the mountain. My ankles buckled but held strong. My arms pumped but did not fatigue. I bounced off boulders and zig-zagged on the steepest sections, keeping a steady pace to the end.

Before I knew it, I was on a dirt trail, running toward the small parking lot. It was over. I had completed the 10-mile journey and still wanted more. If I did not have work in a couple hours, I might have been tempted to refill my water, turn around and go again. It was easy to see why trail running is so addicting for some.

It also proved to be a great workout leading up to a race on my calendar next month. On June 13, I'll be running in the Garden of the Gods 10-miler. It is a hilly course held in the thin air of Colorado and will present another challenge. If running through South Mountain Park was any indication, I will probably have a blast.