July 8, 2010

My Next Life

(Dall sheep dot mountain ridge - Brooks Range, 2009)

In the 3rd grade my favorite animal was the dog - specifically the Chow Chow. I would check out books from the library and flip through the pictures pretending to have a dog of my own. I still love dogs. By the 5th grade I had fallen in love with the elephant - to this day I don't know why. As I moved into junior high my interest turned passionately towards the oceans and I was all about whales, until of course I discovered the manatee.

If you had asked me what animal I wanted to be in my next life, I would have said a whale - for they swam the oceans and many varieties cover incredible distances in any given year. They are adventurous, social and huge, yet graceful creatures. This all changed when I moved to Alaska where I was introduced to the mountains. I had never seen such wonderful landscapes before, nor dall sheep. On a hike through the Brooks Range my first summer here I was asked what animal I would be reincarnated as, and I knew my ocean days had washed ashore, for I wanted to come back as a dall sheep. They spend their days wandering some of the most remote and incredible ridges, they frolic in gorgeous mountain valleys snacking on avens and sipping the freshest water around. They even winter in the mountains. I don't know how they do it, but they subsist on the high slopes year-round. Incredible, agile, hardy, wonderful creatures they are.

This summer, my first summer south of the Arctic Circle in 5 years has opened my eyes to a new way to enjoy the mountains I so dearly love - mountain running. Apparently people like to run up mountains and through mountains for fun - fantastic! Why didn't I know about this sooner? The idea was first presented to me in Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It's a great book and all about people that run in the mountains (ok, it is about so much more, but you'll have to read it to fully appreciate it). From the book I learned people have been running through the backcountry, up and over mountains for...well forever. For some reason I never thought about this before, and as with many things, I'm behind the times. To make matters even better, Alaskans like to do this too.

There is a group called the Alaska Mountain Runners and a running series in the Chugach mountain range, near Anchorage, with races specifically geared at running up and sometimes running back down mountains. I couldn't let something this wonderful go untried, so I competed in my first mountain running event in early June. It was an all uphill battle of some 3,500 ft of elevation in something like 4 miles. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved every single grueling minute of it. I haven't breathed so hard since being at altitude on Denali (nor have I moved so slow!). I was on all fours scrambling through steepest terrain and by the time I had climbed high enough to be above treeline I sneaked views as I attempted to "powerhike" like the others to the top. I am sure my powerhiking looked more like slow motion walking, to the extent that the very humble and encouraging winner of that race, Matias, gave me some coaching on his way down. My response was to scowl at him, like the"know-it-all" gal that I can sometimes be. When the winner of the race offers some helpful pointers, one should never scoff, but rather gratefully smile and immediately put into motion whatever was suggested. I digress...the race sealed the deal. I love mountain running. Since then I have spent every possible moment putting the words of wisdom the winner gave me that day into practice. I powerhike up everything in sight and more importantly I am learning how to run downhill. As long as I get to the top, the real key is to get back down, efficiently and fast, which requires a lot of practice, and some incredible leg muscles. I've decided to compete in a race on a more grandiose scale at the end of month and I am training like crazy to figure it all out. I certainly have found my latest passion and obsession.

While on a training run on Mt. Healy, a small peak 2 hrs south of Fairbanks, aka: Flatbanks, I had an epiphany. With a liter of water on my back and sneakers on my feet, I set off in the rain, feeling light and free. It took me under 3 hrs to get back to my car - pretty speedy for this elephant/whale/manatee wanna-be. While I frolicked and absorbed not only the rain, but the intermittent view of the valleys below, it struck me that mountain running just might be my opportunity to experience a little of my next life - now. If I work hard enough, I just might get to be the dall sheep that I've been dreaming to be.

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