Know your place

When it comes to athletic performance, I am a firm believer in knowing one’s place. The most obvious way to do this is racing, a head-to-head comparison on the same course in the same conditions. The main reason I rarely race ultras is that I find running 50 kilometers, 50 miles, or more on a trail to be simultaneously painful, physically damaging, and deadly dull. But another reason I don’t race is that I know I can’t win in today’s professionalized trail-running field. Though I try to ignore time and pace on most of my mountain excursions, I do sometimes go out with speed in mind. I have done so more this year than before, putting up a few “fastest known times” (FKTs) on more or less obscure peaks, an activity similar to racing.

While this can give me a pleasant feeling of being “king of the hill,” sometimes it is healthy to remind myself of my place. With this in mind, I headed down to Mount Whitney for a legitimate test. Until recently, the Whitney record was held by Grand Teton and Longs Peak record-holder Andy Anderson. In addition to having a “real job” as the Longs Peak climbing ranger, Anderson is one of the world’s best uphill runners, having beaten the famous and richly-sponsored Kilian Jornet on the Grand. Therefore the current Whitney ascent record of 1:47:20, while only 3500 ft/hr, represents what the best runners can do, and running Whitney would be good for my humility.

Having scouted the course a week before, acclimated on a backpack, and taken a couple days’ rest, I came prepared to make something like my best effort. Based on some ascents earlier this summer, I knew I had been performing 10-20% slower than top athletes. I hoped that between the altitude, a bit of scrambling, and my acclimation, I might manage a performance at the low end of this range. But, to paraphrase Victor Chernomyrdin, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out the way it always does.”

Starting out, I felt neither unusually sluggish nor fast. By the time I finished the old Whitney trail and zig-zagged into the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, I saw that my pace was about 3300 ft/hr, and knew that I would be well off the record. Despite taking full advantage of my knowledge of the route, I continued to lose ground, and my pace deteriorated considerably above 13,000 feet. I might have gone under 2 hours on a good day, but would never come close to the record; I tagged the top in 2:02:55, almost exactly 15% off. That’s my place; that’s what I have to work with.

After that healthy reminder, I headed on up to Taboose Pass to pick some low-hanging fruit. The course record of 2h23 on Strava was clearly soft, and I had one more SPS peak to do via the hateful approach, Cardinal. I waited until a bit after the smoky sunrise, then took off up the sandy lower trail with a water bottle, a few energy bars, and a windbreaker. I was feeling the previous day’s Whitney climb a bit, but such short efforts don’t destroy my performance the way longer outings do, so I was not performing too much below my potential. In any case, I had enough speed to reach the pass in 2:03:30.

After resting at the pass, I refilled my bottle at a tarn, then took a leisurely stroll up Cardinal, a 2000-foot choss-pile to the north. The climb wasn’t great, but the view of Split to the north was impressive, and the morning’s smoke from the Cedar Fire to the south seemed to be clearing out. I lounged around the summit for awhile, then took the scree-chute back to just below the pass. I took my time going down the trail, as trying to go fast down Taboose leads only to frustration and stubbed toes. I returned to the trailhead in time for a late lunch, happy that I have no reason to ever return to Taboose Pass, and pleased with myself for being “king” of another meaningless hill.

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