Running up, over and through the cogs

Closer to the Sky: A Flatlander’s First Take with Mountain Running

My recent Malibu getaway was not planned as a running specific trip, but, well, I’m me.  So running was all I could think about.  And boy did I do some runnin’!

The area around Malibu is home to some beautiful peaks.  And though none of them would be considered overly “mountainous” to someone calling himself a mountain runner, the bottom of a 2,000 foot climb looks pretty damn mountainous to this flatlander.  Hell, we Chicagoans run parking garage platforms and bridge spans to get in our hill work.  Swallow Cliffs, part of the Palos Hills trail system outside the city, features the gnarliest hill we have around these parts: Big Bertha.  And even with her, you gotta run up and down, up and down, over and over again to simulate even the slightest mountain route.  And it still doesn’t simulate.  Not well anyway.  Honestly, there’s really no good way for flatlanders to practice running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain other than just running/power hiking/slogging up a mountain.

Thanks goodness for vacation!

While a great deal of my time was spent exploring Malibu Creek State Park, my first encounter with running closer to the sky actually came on the trails of the Zuma/Trancas Canyon.  In order to maximize my time (remember, this was not a running trip, allegedly), I got up before dawn and started the four mile trek along the Pacific Coast Highway to reach the trail head.  The weather called for sunny, clear skies and a high of 70 degrees.  Holy hell I would be running in heaven and I didn’t even know it yet!

By the time I reached the trail head, the sun had risen, and I was totally aware of just how beautiful everything was around me.  Before I started my climb up the Zuma Ridge Trail, I took in a deep breath, surveyed my surroundings and admired the silence.  Believe me, no matter how many times I use the word “beautiful” to describe this adventure, it will never be accurate enough to relate what I saw.

Up, up, up!

After a quarter mile on the trail, ahead of me I saw the one (and only) person I would see out that day — an elderly lady, grandma-fit and truckin’ along — whom I apparently scared when I approached.  Turns out power hiking up a hill makes for less foot noise.  That and the fact that she was rockin’ an iPod are probably why she didn’t hear me coming until I was right next to her.

AH!  she screamed.  You scared me!


It’s okay.  Just not used to seeing people out here this early.  (Swigs her water bottle)  You trying to scare away the mountain lions with that shirt?

I was wearing my SCREAMING fluorescent green St. Louis Marathon tech tee from 2011, mostly so I could be clearly seen by motorists while I ran along the PCH, but I didn’t feel like having a long conversation, so I smiled and just kept going past her.  Before I got too far along, I couldn’t help but ask: Are there really mountain lions out here?

You bet!  They’re all over the place! But don’t worry. They won’t like that shirt. Too bright!

She laughed.  At my shirt?  At the prospect of me getting eaten by a mountain lion?  Too much coffee?  Her shirt was white.  Didn’t she want to scare the mountain lions?  Where was her SCREAMING fluorescent green shirt?

I laughed back.  Have a nice day! I told her as I dug deeper into the power hike.

I guess part of me knew beforehand that mountain running would require quite a bit of power hiking, but an hour of it?  Two hours of it?  I thought, gee, this isn’t really what I think of when I think of “running”.  I wanna move!  I tried running up the incline, even though I knew it was counterproductive.  After 15 seconds I realized as much.  But that didn’t stop me from trying it again.  And again.  And again.

I’m a stubborn dude sometimes.

Still, stubbornness is no match for nature.  And every time I tried to do the impossible I was humbled back to the slow, slow, slow power hike.

It didn’t matter.  The scenery… OH THE SCENERY!  How can I even possibly describe it?  First of all, it’s Malibu so, HELLO BEAUTY.  Luscious, rolling green mountains with the ocean and the beach up against their side and multimillion dollar homes tucked neatly into pockets of pristine vegetation.  The sea breezed air was refreshingly clean.  The sky as blue as I’d ever seen.

I stopped.  Often.  Just to take it all in.

I’ve been sucker punched by beauty during long runs before, but never anything like this.  I was so overwhelmed with love for nature and all that surrounded me that I broke down.  I didn’t now what else to do or how to handle it.  I was totally unprepared for such sensory overload, but I am so glad I got it anyway.  A couple minutes of crying like a baby was all I needed to get my power hiking legs back on to go further up, up, up…

And then BOOM!  A flat!  And a downhill!  Both of them brief, but utterly invigorating before… more power hiking.  Up, up, up…


BEEP BEEP BEEP.  My watch.  Dammit.  I knew what that meant.  Time to turn around.  I was, after all, in Malibu with other people and we had other things planned for the day.  So after two hours of climbing, I knew it was time to turn it around, which meant….


With one of nature’s greatest gifts guiding me down the mountain, I thought here’s my chance to clock some 5:30 miles without feelin’ it.  And I would be a total liar if I did not admit to screaming WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! all most of the way down.

It’s really difficult for me to think of something more fun than running downhill.  It’s not even running really.  It’s play.  It’s fun!!!  For a little while anyway.  After 30 minutes of non-ntop flying on the decline, I realized it wasn’t always fun and my quads were not happy, nor would they be if I didn’t slow up and take it easy some.

The quads don’t know what to do going downhill.  They’re doing the opposite of what they’re made to do (lift/extend the knee) and so they revolt by HURTING LIKE A BITCH.  Like all the other pains, it’s just another truth about running — something that must be battled, defeated, pushed through.

Eventually it would go away.

I was celebrating that fact, and then before I knew it I was at the bottom of the canyon.  Very, very sad.

Luckily for me, I had a nice (and flat!) four mile cool down jog along the beach and, literally, an ocean of cold water to soak my battered posts in.  When I got back to the house, my friends were waiting for me.  Smiles, all of ’em.

How was it? they asked.

I tried to speak but as soon as I opened my mouth I realized there was nothing I could say that would do the experience justice.  As I struggled to give an answer, a great, big boyish grin consumed my face.  I shook my head and quickly brushed away the trickle forming in the corner of my left eye.

They knew.  They all smiled and they all knew.

5 responses

  1. mike lung

    I felt the moment with you through this post. Only thing better would have been sharing it together in real face time

    March 16, 2012 at 15:48

  2. Dan

    Trail and mountain running has yet to reach me. The biggest reason for it is lack of exposure. Like you, I live in Chicago. Not sure where exactly you call home, but I’m in the city proper, so Lincoln Park is the closest I have to any sort of trail run.

    Secondly, I’ve only done two trail races. The first of which was an XTERRA half marathon in July in South Carolina. I was too busy trying to stay alive to take in the serenity of the woods as it rose from the serpentine path. The second of which was the Cross Country Challenge in Gilberts, which is more of an obstacle course than a trail run.

    i have yet to go out into a trail for running’s sake alone. Both times it’s been part of an event, with bibs, other people and a Garmin. So I guess I have yet to really reach that transcendental part where you just “become” a trail runner. One day, perhaps. But for now, I haven’t burnt out and am perfectly happy with road races.

    Great post.

    March 16, 2012 at 16:26

  3. Cara

    I love how even when you are writing about running…….

    You get humour….

    This is why we are related.

    Anyways, this post makes me want to go run in the mountains even if I do live in the middle of Illinois. Very inspiring.


    March 16, 2012 at 16:50

  4. Baba & Cara, thanks! Maybe some day we WILL share that run! And Dan, yes, thank you as well. I was like you before… mostly roads. Believe me, I still like the road experience, but trails are a whole new, BEAUTIFUL ballgame. I live in the city proper too, southside (Bridgeport). I drive out to the Palos trails, the Deer Grove trails and some others scattered around the area. Palos is only 20 minutes from my house off I-55 so that’s my favorite. Once you get bitten by single track you might just be a trail runner forever. I’m training for a 50 miler now so heading out there most weekends. If you ever want an intro to what’s waiting out there, just let me know. I always welcome the company.

    March 16, 2012 at 16:58

  5. Cheryl

    I love this and you!

    March 16, 2012 at 19:50

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