The 4th annual North Face Vertical Challenge Climbathon

At 8 am at the bottom of the tram the air is crisp and cool. I can just about see my breath and I’m chilled wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt. I don’t mind the cold because I know I will be over-heating in a short while as I’m charging up the North Face hiking trail. Looking around, some participants seem very serious as if to psych themselves up to be in top performance mode and do battle with the mountain, while others laugh and joke as they get ready for a casual day of hiking with friends, family and of course their dog.

As the final few people complete registration forms bananas are scarfed down, red bull is chugged (which may hinder more than help) and quads and calf muscles are stretched out. Race coordinator Brian “Burntski” Burnett stands out of the crowd and bellows, “Goooooooood morning mountain runners!” as an excited cheer comes out of the crowd as to signal that the intensity level has just gone up a few notches. Burntski expresses his happiness and jokingly clams how disappointed he is that everyone he invited actually showed up because now he is under staffed. There are a lot of new faces and participants this year making the 4th year the busiest of the event. Burntski prepares the crowd of 106 for the start of the event; this number of participants really impresses and pleases the race coordinator.

The rules of Climbathon are simple, climb until you can climb no more, or until 7:20 pm. That and don’t you dare cut the switch-backs. I line up in the front row of contestants with the game plan of keeping a steady pace, when Burntski blows the whistle to start the event I find myself jogging with the herd of 106 people. I only jog because I’m freezing at this point and I want to heat up my core temperature and get my legs loose. By the first real incline the large group is almost split between walkers and joggers, I keep jogging to make my goal of a sub 40 minute first lap.

I’ve been hiking the trail all summer and have yet to break the 40 minutes ascending threshold. My average time has been about 44 minutes but that was a more leisurely pace with constant movement and no breaks. My first lap of the Climbathon ( jogging the entire way) was 38 minutes. I was very happy with that time but knew there was no way I could keep that kind of speed up all day. My strategy was fairly simple, climb at a fast, steady pace, eat a banana or cliff bar at the top and chug a Gatorade on the way down. This plan worked out well for me as I managed to stay hydrated and relatively full throughout the entire event. I was slightly worried about bonking half way through the race, which is when your body is completely lacking energy; all you want to do is just sit, eat and feel normal again. I have bonked on a backcountry ski tour before and it is not a fun feeling, knowing you have to keep going when your body says “no way pal.”

By noon I had 4 laps in the books and was starting to feel fatigued. I could only jog smaller, flatter sections of the trail at this point and had a slower pace on the steep uphill section nicknamed the “Burntski Quad Burner” by some of the local participants. I don’t feel too bad however, as I look around I see many other climbers in the same boat who started out with grand aspirations of jogging all day only to realize the harsh reality of fatigue a few hours later, needless to say the leg movement of many people decreased, mine included.

From laps one to four I had a few hiking partners but by lap five we were all moving at different paces so I found myself alone with nothing but my iPod to keep me company. The crowd was very spread out and there were entire sections where I didn’t see any other runners, which was nice as it’s easier to take in the surrounding beauty while solo.

As the day goes on and laps get recorded more and more people find themselves content with the number of laps they have put up. I have completed seven and have developed quite the throbbing pain in my knee, not wanting to risk an injury this close to ski season I call my day six and a half hours in. The winners of the day go on to complete twelve laps in ten hours. Twelve laps, dang, that’s equivalent to 24,000 vertical feet of elevation gain over the course of ten hours. 24,000 feet is taller than all mountains outside of the Himalaya’s, a lot of respect goes out to those two crazy guys.

A fun, side challenge of the day is the “Denali in a day” which challenges a few brave climbers to complete ten laps, and then go a little extra with a push up the Mighty Mite trail on their final lap. Mighty Mite adds an additional 320 vertical feet to the day making climbers total vertical 20,320 feet, or, the summit elevation of Denali.

Looking back on Saturday and my first real endurance event I feel confident in my abilities to complete in something this physically difficult, satisfied that I completed seven laps but most of all I feel a tightness in my calf muscles that will surely last a few more days.

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