Uphill Climbing: The Four Paces


What a lot of arresting things come in fours. The seasons, the directions on a map, Aristotle’s cardinal virtues, Rumsfeld’s epistemic categories, the brothers Karamazov, and, of course, the Christian Gospels.

And like the Gospels, one of the four usually keeps its secrets, discloses itself only to the sly, the industrious or the fanatical. Only John, the single gnostic Gospel that made the canon, dares so many metaphysical claims, so much poetry; the synoptic Gospels stick prosaically to the Nazerene’s life, death and sayings.

The brothers Karamazov? There seem to be only three, until we learn that Smerdyakov–Young Stinker–the family servant, was sired by Father Karamazov with the deranged, unbathed gypsy woman who occasionally came around the back alley. Smerdyakov tells the story’s secrets.

Rumsfeld clearly mapped out only three of his categories–known knowns, then unknowns both known and unknown–but he passed over the fourth category in silence. He never mentioned the existence of unknown knowns, the very foundation of our Mesopatamian disaster. There were facts looming right in front of us which we declined to “know.” (I stole this category from Slavoj Zizek.)

But before I work myself into a froth, my subject today is running, uphill running to be precise. Well into my preseason training now, I’ve discovered I have four paces for uphill climbing. (The phrase is from a great 1970s poet of schlock-pop. Do you have it?) And one of them has a secret.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to name my strides if running didn’t require a certain amount of journal keeping. Just about anyone who takes the sport seriously must at least jot down the basics of each training session. Like so much else these days, running is data-driven, even if the data happen to be handwritten notes in an appointment book.

I can keep a quick but easy pace on a 3 percent uphill grade for an hour and a half now. I call it gliding. It clocks in at about 8:00 minutes per mile. I doubt my 50-year old body looks like it is gliding, but that’s what it feels like, so I’m keeping the term.

Next up comes cruising. I dial the pace back to about 9:15 and take the elevation up to six percent. You can probably tell I do a lot of this kind of thing on the treadmill, but it just so happens that my favorite longish training run out in the real world features a 6 percent hill of about 2 miles right at the halfway point. It’s beautiful.

Grinding away, somewhere above Heidelberg

Trail runners do a certain amount of power walking. It comes with the territory. I was doing a mountain run a few years ago, cruising along (yes, cruising), when a switchback put me smack at the bottom of some kind of maintence road for ski cats. It must have had a grade of at least 18 percent: it felt like you would tip over backward had you tried it in a car. Even on my freshest legs I could not have jogged more than 100m up the thing. Anyway, this kind of territory is where even the proudest dial down the speed to a walk of four mph or so and just chug. At first I called this pace pumping, for the piston-like arm movements, but pop culture has given this term certain connotations that might inspire whoops or chuckles. I’m open to suggestions.

But my gnostic Gospel, my secret pace, is the one that fits right between cruising and pumping. Fearlessly courting even more double entendres, I call it grinding. It happens on a 10 to eleven percent grade, and it’s the steepest hill on which I can keep up a respectable running motion, of about 11 minutes per mile, for longer than 30 minutes. It is where I strike gold. I enjoy it immensely, and I have no idea why.

At the bottom of the running experience, runners rarely know why. Practice does not deliver the insight. A good friend of mine, who is slyer, more industrious and more fanatical than I am, just finished his first 100-mile ultra, and won his age group. As he records in his thoughts on the race, at the ragged edges of running, where it becomes hard enough to inspire anyone to ask why, existential disorientation reigns. In a line I’d like to steal, he says he doesn’t know if he is running away from something or toward it. I don’t know either, but as long as I’m going up, I don’t give a damn.



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