Adventures: > Hill Climbs - the Joy of the Ascent


by Peter Holleran


    "Mountain pilgrimages on sacred peaks is the best of practices." (8th century Buddhist text).


    Whoever takes pleasure in the exclusive uphill run will appreciate a diversity of opportunities available throughout the United States and the world. Hill climbs appeal to the runner at home in the clouds and whose soul delights in wide open spaces.

    The Bay Area's classic Mt. Tam Hill Climb is one such gem. At 2491 vertical feet and 2.8 miles in length the pain it engenders is gracefully short, but not soon forgotten. An informal prize of $500 is offered by host Roger Gordon for a new course record. The existing mark - a phenomenal act of levitation - is 30:32 set by Tom Borschel in 1987, with a second best time of 31:37 also by Borschel in 1988. Third best is 33:09 by Kalid Andalah in 2003. The best woman's time is 37:55 by Beth Vitalis in 1997). 56 year-old Jerry Edelbrock ran a great 36:49 in 2003. While this September event is unique in that its pitch, overall one of the steepest of the hill climbs, gets progressively steeper the higher you go, until it appears nearly VERTICAL, and one faces the possibility in its upper stages of a minor landslide set loose by runners above him, there are many higher and longer summit assaults available for ones running pleasure.

    Steeper and even shorter than Mt. Tam, and a cultic obsession among some runners, including local Tamalpans Bernie and Edda, is the annual Mt. Marathon race in Seward, Alaska, which rises 3000 feet in under two miles, followed by a hair-raising freefall to the bottom over near-vertical scree. Because of its location the cost per mile for this 3 1/2 mile race, except for locals, is probably among the highest in the world.

    Across San Francisco Bay from Mt. Tamalpais is the sometimes held Mt. Diablo Challenge (usually in October), 10.8 miles on pavement with a 3400 foot rise for bikers, but only 5.5 miles over steeper terrain for runners. The runners usually win. A challenging 7-mile route up Mt. Diablo to do on your own anytime follows Mitchell Canyon Fireroad, Juniper and Summit Trails. On a clear winter day Mt. Diablo boasts a 400-mile north to south view, allegedly the farthest in the world.

    Many ski areas now host annual hill climbs, among them Squaw Valley (CA), Aspen (CO), Vail (CO), Jackson Hole (WY), Mt. Ascutney (VT), and Whiteface Mountain (NY). Southern California hosts the grueling Mt. Baldy Run to the Top, in the Angeles National Forest, an 8 mile run with 4000 feet of elevation gain to the 10000’ summit of Mt. Baldy. Baldy is considered one of a triad of high peaks including San Gorgonio and San Jacinto.

    One of the most prestigious uphill challenges is the Mount Washington Road Race, in Pinkham Notch, N.H. (held in the middle of June), featuring 7.65 miles and 4650' vertical rise over a steep paved 11.5% grade (20 % for the final quarter-mile). For those familiar with San Francisco Bay Area trails, that's twice as steep as Old Railroad Grade on Mt. Tamalpais, and somewhat like running up the paved Coastal Road from Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands past the battery to the top of Wolf Ridge four or five times in a row at race pace! Or try running the Mt. Tam course as far as HooKoo, then Railroad Grade, to Fern Creek, to the East Peak parking lot (about 4 miles and 2300 feet). Then, do it AGAIN! Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand recently smashed the current course record in 2004 with a 56:41, an amazing 7:37 mile pace. Second best times are Daniel Ihara of Kenya, and third, Matt Carpenter, Pike's Peak Ascent and Marathon record holder, also under an hour. Former men's open and current age 35-39 record-holder (1:00:37) is Dave Dunham, whom flew in the night before the 1993 Dipsea and, in his first of three consecutive fast-time wins, edged out Mike McMannis in a neck and neck battle for best time award. Barry Spitz wrote that the two reached the top of the stairs in 5:34, but that Dunham said "I would have preferred to go even faster." Seems like someone owes Dave a trip to meet him on his home turf. The women's course record is 1:10:09, with the masters record set in 1997 by none other than Olympian Joan Benoit Samuelson (1:16:03). In 2001 she ran 1:16:47. The men's masters record (1:04:29) was set in 2001 by Craig Fram.
    Mount Washington is spectacular. When planning a vacation bring your skis because on a good year you can still ski the historic Tuckerman's Ravine Headwall in June (if you are willing to carry your gear three miles up to the snowfield). Logistics at Mt. Washington are more complicated than Mt. Tam. Weather differentials from base to summit are often extreme, and it is no easy jog back down after the race. In 2002 runners were turned back at 3000 feet due to a snow storm. Without traffic control the road is risky, and all other routes down are much more difficult and some quite treacherous. People have perished at all times of the year hiking on Mt. Washington. Better arrange return transportation ahead of time. A cycling race is held a week after the running race, with a course record of 49:24 (men) and 58:14 (women). The annual auto race takes 6-7 minutes! By the way, the last few hundred yards are up a punishingly steep 18-20 % grade.

    The longest of the hill climbs might be the Run to the Sun up Haleakala in Maui. Held in September, this goes for 36 miles up an awesome 10,023 vertical feet on what is claimed to be "the steepest paved road on earth for the distance traveled". This calculates out to five back to back hauls up the entire 7 mile Old Railroad Grade on Mt. Tam to the East Peak parking area. Relay teams are permitted. First held in 1977, the race has a men's course record of 4:45:31 with 5:39:08 for women (only three women have ever broken 6 hours). Former Dipsea champion Florianne Harp won in 1992. A time of 4:45 equals running up Old Railroad Grade five times in about 57 minutes each, for a 7:55 mile pace. (contact: Valley Isle Road Runners, P.O. Box 945, Kihei, HI 96753, or call (808) 871 6441; must be 18 years old and able to meet the 10 hour time limit).

    And of course, there is Pike's Peak. The ascent (half-marathon) is equivalent to about two Mt. Washington's, but a tad less steep - 13.22 miles with 7815' of relentless vertical rise (except for a few brief downhill patches in the middle of the course). The elevation, of course, is the killer. One's finishing time will bear a direct relation to the number of days of acclimation he can "afford". Those eager for some downhill running have the option of the complete marathon held on the next day. The course records for both races are held by Matt Carpenter (an amazing 2:01:06/3:16:39), set during the same race. These days he opines, "it amazes me that I ever ran so fast." Entry fills early, and there are mandatory cut-off times enforced at various mileposts on the course. Tom Borschel has often finished in the top ten on the Ascent. In 2003 at age 45 he finished 9th in 2:37:48, beating fellow Dipsea great Mike McManus (age 37), 10th in 2:42:11. Former Dipsea champion Gail Scott holds the women's 40-44 marathon record (4:25:13), and ultra-running legend Ruth Anderson is record holder in the 60-64 age group.

    While not a race, the Mt. Whitney Trail offers an attractive uphill run, with over 6000’ of climb in 11 miles. Starting even lower, at the bottom of the Whitney Portal Trail, will stretch that to over 9000’ . There was a race here once, but it ended when a runner in full stride supposedly pitched off one of the upper switchbacks and died. The trail is fine, not to worry, just use a little common sense.

    Lesser known but spectacular is the “Cactus to Clouds” trail on Mt. San Jacinto in Palm Springs. Several small downhills en route make this 22-mile run (16 miles up, 6 miles down) total nearly 11000 feet, snow free, except for occasional patches near the top. This is probably the most convenient big "hill" climb in the world, and a tram ride down eliminates 8000 feet of the descent.

    A notch steeper than Pikes Peak is the Mt. Fuji Ascent, a half-marathon race with 9000 feet of vertical, the last mile a mad scramble over volcanic rock. Climbing Mt. Fuji is a summertime pilgrimage for many, and roads and food stations exist up to the 8000 foot level, shortening the climb, although hikers and runners alike must walk down.

    Drop-dead gorgeous is the only way to describe the views from the Jungfrau Marathon in Wengen, Switzerland. Billed as "the most beautiful marathon in the world", 50% pavement, 50% fire road and trail, it rises nearly 6000 feet, with most of it in the second half. Jonathan Wyatt, record holder at Mt. Washington, smoked this course in 2003 in 2:49.

    The most recent entry into extreme running adventures is a mind-boggling 21-mile uphill on Mt. Kilimanjaro with 13000 feet of ascent! Due to the shrinkage of the glacier it really is a run for most of the way. The challenge is breathing at 19340 feet. For this the expedition allows a week acclimating up to 15000 feet, after which the hikers continue climbing while the runners retreat to base at 6000 feet for the night. The run itself is then done in one day (It is actually a 42 mile ultramarathon, up AND down). This will cost you a few bucks. The race fee is $1600, with $700 for the optional post-race safari. After adding airfare, local transportation, and incidentals, I figure five grand. But what an experience. A one-way ascent covering 34 km and 15000' was made by Sean Burch in 2005 in a phenomenal 5 hours, 28 minutes, and 48 seconds!

    "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms, their energy. Your cares and tensions will drop away like the leaves of autumn."     (John Muir)