Jerome, AZ sits snug on the Cleopatra Hillside about 60 miles to the southwest of Flagstaff. This historic “Wild West” silver and copper mining town dates back to 1883, and now a quaint downtown and artistic community remains amidst its ghost stories and folklore. Surely, Jerome’s panoramic view at 5000 feet and past reputation as “The Wickedest Town in the West” were enough reason for Ali and I to make the drive down early Sunday morning of the Labor Day weekend, but it was a particular event that peaked our (or rather my) interest: the Jerome Hill Climb.
My history in hill climbing– or more formally the sport of mountain running– is short and had humble beginnings. In June, my naiveté carried me half-way up the relentless 12% slopes of the Mt. Washington Auto Road before I experienced the most real form of mechanical failure. The renowned and quotable British commentator of the Tour de France, Phil Ligget, could not have described it better: “his effort is reduced to mere survival!” Having my unfavorable introduction to this new form of running masochism, I was left humbled but extremely motivated on that day. And I knew there was absolutely no way that I would abandon mountain running until I was at the top!
Looking over the course profile for my next marathon, Twin Cities, I recognized that I would need to become a stronger hill runner to be successful at this US Championship. So I worked in a few challenging, low-key hill climb races into my Summer training to improve my climbing ability. The first essay came in July at the inaugural RunFlagstaff Snow Bowl Road Hill Climb. After a practice run the week before (with Ali on bike), I soloed up the 7 miles of switchbacks and climbed over 2000 feet. I ran patiently and it was a much more controlled and sustained effort than my death throes up Mt. Washington. I felt good reaching the Agassiz Lodge Parking Lot, 2 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher and 1:30 faster than my practice run. I was excited with the improvement.
Now a month away from Twin Cities, and with my training volume at its apex, I signed up for one final ascent race. In its 40th running, the Jerome Hill Climb has evolved into a 4.4 mile race that gains 1100 feet in elevation. Starting at the Historical Park, the race course gently ascends into the downtown district and then heads up the severe mountain grades past the Ghost Town before continuing out on the winding dirt road to Perkinsville.
Even at a race distance of 4.4 miles, I stayed composed early on. I followed my breathing and worked with a steady, metronome-like cadence up the first mile. During the flat section I still maintained the same breathing pattern but allowed my legs to turnover quicker, while recovering and anticipating the hors catagorie slopes that became visible around the road’s bend. I had established a significant lead over the other runners and was still feeling comfortable. I waved when running by Ali, but seeing the upward road ahead had an unnerving effect. Luckily, my Smith Optics Pivlock V90 Sunglasses hid my solemn gaze.
After a dozen strides up, I had re-established a rhythmic connection between my breathing and my legs. Climbing requires more concentration and mindfulness (in contrast to the “autopilot mode” I might experience in a longer and flatter road race). There is constant feedback between the body and the mind. I’ve learned it’s not effective for the mind to override sensory feedback, but to manage it: to maintain an effort at my body’s limit without red-lining. As I have learned the hard way, the combination of ascending too ambitiously while racing at altitude is fatal; there is no point to recover and survival becomes the best possible result.
I followed the dirt road around the hillside, pressing but also enjoying the clear morning view. I could see the green patches of the Verde Valley, the Red Rocks in Sedona and Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks all the way up the Mogollon Rim in the distant horizon. It became clear to me why the Arizona Road Runners worked so diligently to continue hosting this race; it really showcases the State’s beauty. My focus abruptly shifted, however, as I was startled to discover the finish line chute around the following corner. I crossed the line in 26:45, and my Garmin 305 GPS Watch indicated I had run 6:05/mi pace for the 4.4mi climb.
A long run ensued after the race. I ran back down into town, changed out of my dusty Brooks T6 Racers and headed back up Perkinsville Road for about 13 miles. Marathon training isn’t over yet!
Then Ali and I went on our own “Tour of Arizona” after the race, heading to downtown Prescott for Sunday afternoon. We checked out the shops, craft fair and saloons on Whiskey Row (oh yeah and she also let me stop at the Public Library!). We rode back into the sunset that night, up the I-17, tired from our Wild West exploits. On Labor Day, I did an early morning workout in Camp Verde and then our adventure continued with a picturesque drive down to Fossil Creek. Here are a few photos from our relaxing Labor Day travels:
I hope everyone had a safe and relaxing holiday weekend! –JDE