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Running | Limitless Vertical Challenge

Finger Lakes Trail panoramic

The Challenge

In the past I have never been a big fan of virtual races. I don’t think I had ever done one before this year. However, with the unusual circumstances we all find ourselves in it is a good time to embrace something new. As everyone is away most events are cancelled and this has included races for runners. I haven’t run a regular race this year and all the ones that I had signed up for or planed to sign up for have been cancelled up until now.

I don’t typically run a lot of races. But it is always nice to have a race that you are looking forward to somewhere on the calendar. This helps provide a little added incentive to get out for runs. I’ve gone through periods this year where I haven’t really felt much like running for various reasons. Maybe it is because of lack of races or the ambiguousness we all find our lives in.

So for the first time I signed up for a virtual race and ran the Aravaipa Strong and I ran it as a 50K across the Finger Lakes Trail on my own. I enjoyed the challenge that provided for me. I have been a fan of Aravaipa Running from afar through Jamil Coury and his YouTube Channels like Mountain Outpost. I was interested to see they were going to offer more virtual races.

The next virtual race offering would be a joint venture form two of their brands Aravaipa Running and Run Steep Get High. This virtual race was different than most virtual races or other running events. The event was called the Limitless Vertical Challenge and the goal of the race would be to climb as many feet of elevation as you possibly can. The race would run for a week and you could use all week to accumulate as many feet of elevation gain as possible.

While I am a huge fan of Run Steep and Aravaipa I was not sure this challenge was for me. As a trail runner I mostly suffer through the hills and complain about them more than anyone else. I love to run downhills most. One of my best friends and frequent running partner on the other hand rather likes climbing. Her biggest complaint about a race that we ran together was that it was too flat.

Limitless was on her radar too. I told her to let me know if she decided to do it. If she was in for the challenge I would probably do it too. She registered for the event and then I eventually did too.

My plan was to try to run every day, exclusively on hills. I wanted to run twice a day on week days and then bookend it with big days at the beginning and end of the challenge. The limitless challenge had 6 levels participants could try to reach. I really wanted to reach level four and climb over 14,505 feet for the week. I needed to climb 2,000 ft a day. The plan was to try and get 1,000 feet in the morning and 1,000 feet at night on days I ran twice. And make up for any shortfalls with big days at the beginning and the end of the week long challenge.

Day 1: The Mt. Tom Experience

At Mt. Tom you start at the Pine Creek Trail and then ascend a trail not too unlike this one.

We decided the best plan was to try and go big on the first day of the challenge and get as many feet of vert we could on day one. We planned to go down to one of the steepest climbs we could find in our area. We planned to go down to the Pine Creek Rail Trail near Wellsboro, PA and climb the trail up to Mt. Tom. We left early Sunday morning to start this adventure. Only one problem. The race didn’t actually start until Monday. Luckily we realized this before we had done the hard work. We decided to stop and go for a short run at one of our local trails at Erwin Wildlife Management Area. So, we got an extra day of running in before the hard part even started.

Now, Monday we really did go to run Mt. Tom. I was pretty sure that the climb up Mt. Tom would give us around 1,000 feet of elevation gain per climb. I really wanted to get at least 3,000 ft of gain.

Mt. Tom is pretty steep. When most people run it they go up the steepest section. Then it levels off and loops around and a more gradual grade for the descent before meeting back up with the main trail. We decided we wanted to maximize the amount of climbing we would get per mile we ran. So instead of looping around we went straight down the steep climb we had just gone up. That was an interesting experience.

We ran from the road to the top of Mt. Tom twice. We noticed that the lower part of the trail was not as steep as the upper part of the trail. We decided to focus on the upper part of the trail to maximize the amount of climbing per mile. We ran two more repeats of climbing the steep section of the trail.

This might have been one of the hardest days of work I have ever put in. My legs have never felt so shot from running. Especially considering I ran a little over 6 miles. It wasn’t a particularly long run. All the climbing and descending took its toll though.

I really thought we would have 4,000 feet of gain after all that hard work. Turns out I was wrong. I ended up with 3,560 ft of elevation gain. If there is one feature on a watch I would pay to have now it would be to track my elevation in real time. I never cared much before this challenge. If we had known how close were were to 4,000 ft I think we would have went up for one more climb.

You can check out my run here on Strava: Limitless Vertical Challenge: Mt Tom Repeats.

Starting 2 A Days

I’ve never really planned to run multiple times in a day before but here goes nothing.

The plan was to start off the day running on a small hill near my house in the morning. It would not be as easy as I had hoped. My legs were quite sore from the previous days work. Luckily I live on a hill with lots of hilly roads to run. I walked out my door and ran up the small hill near our house. I did two full repeats of that hill and added a little extra up the steepest section in the beginning for good measure. That was all I could muster. I added 2.58 miles and 563 feet of Elevation gain.

A little vert for breakfast

Tuesdays we usually run the same trail every week with a small group at Steege Hill Nature Preserve . The trail starts with a steep climb. We mixed things up a little bit and instead of running our whole loop we ran repeats up and down the steep section that starts off the trails.

So happy to have been joined by some friends for this part of the challenge especially. My legs were sore and cranky during this run. The climbing wasn’t too bad but the descents was frying my legs. I have never complained so much about running downhill. That is usually the part I enjoyed most of trail running. This day I would have begged for it to stop. Could someone just carry me to the bottom so I could climb back up again.

I would rather climb than descend. What was happening to me. Climbing the hill at Steege. I added another 4.49 miles and 1,538 of gain. That was perfect because it balanced out my morning run so I stayed on pace for 2,000 ft a day on days I did not go for one big long run.

Pond at Steege Hill in New York
Run all the way up the climb and keep going and you eventually arrive at this beautiful pond.

Survived My First 2 A Day

After surviving my first day of two runs a day I felt better than expected. I took on the next challenge of this project. I ran the steepest hill near my house in the morning. There is a steep hill that climbs essentially from the river valley up the hill right to my door. I decided to bite off the steepest section of that climb and run two repeats of the steepest part. That was pretty challenging. The Limitless Vertical Challenge was living up to its name for me.

Once again I did not have the ammount of elevation I had hoped for. I really thought I would have at least 1,000 feet. I eneded up with 2.78 miles and 829 feet of gain. Vert for breakfast.

For my evening run I met up with my friend who was doing the Limitless Challenge as well and we set our sights on even more climbing of the same steep hill I had climbed that morning. This time our spouses joined us for the “fun”.

This climb has to be one of the steepest road climbs in our area. If it is not I do not want to ever run up the one that is steeper. I previously set up a Strava segment to measure it and it is a .65 mile section of road that climbs 413 feet at a 12% grade.

It was interesting how by the third day the legs had started to loosen up a little bit. Legs were still tired and sore especially descending but they were not quite as bad as before. I surrendered to Combs Hill after three repeasts. My partner in crime went on for a fourth.

I added another 4.36 miles and 1,236 feet of gain during this run: #limitlesschallenge repeats at Combs Hill

3rd Consecutive 2 A Day

On my third day of two runs a day I did not return to Combs Hill. I think that would have been too hard. I Ran the hill by my house again. I was able to add on some extra compared to my first attempt here. My legs were starting to recover form the Mt. Tom experience so instead of running just a little more than two repeats I was able to run three full repeats of the hill.

This hill is much more runable both on the way up and the way down. It was a good way to mix things up with the more steep climbs on other workouts. I added another 3.29 miles and 701 feet of gain to my totals. #LimitlessChallenge Vert for Breakfast.

As evening approached my friend contacted me and said she was running at Tanglewood Nature Center if I wanted to join in the fun. I love Tanglewood for running and just simply enjoying nature. It also features on of the best sports for getting a lot of climbing work. There is a climb of 482 ft over .68 of a mile and a 13% grade. We even decided to add a little extra to the top and bottom of the climb.

The climb is a good challenge. The descent however can be even more difficult. The trail is rocky and muddy. I managed to nearly wipe out twice in the same spot on two consecutive descents on the trail. On the final one I had to grab a tree as I slid by in the mud trying to avoid some large rocks I didn’t want to trip over.

I added another 5.82 miles and 1,841 feet of gain to my totals. #LimitlessChallenge Tanglewood Edition. Again I misjudged how much elevation gain I would have. I thought for sure I would have covered 2,000 feet of climbing. The effort sure felt like I did.

Tanglewood Fields and Trees
Tanglewood Starting Line

Long day at Crystal Hills

The plan had been to put in two runs a day each weekday after the first big day. That way I could break up the mileage and rest more and balance out my climbing. Having it spread out over more time seemed like a wise idea.

I Decided instead of doing a two a day I could just go out and do one long effort at one of our nearby trails. One of my goals during this challenge was to run at several different trail locations over the course of the week. For this run I went to run on part of the Crystal Hills Branch of the Finger Lakes Trail.

Time Lapse footage of my first descent back to my car.

The part of the trail I wanted to run has a good climb but it is not overly steep. I could climb up one side of the hill. Then I would run back the other side of the hill where a stream cuts a gorge into the hillside. I would run back and forth up and over that hill. The goal was to do that at least three times.

Short clip of me crossing the field at the top of the hill. Great views from here.

The first repeat went pretty well. I felt good. My legs were not too tired. I even ran down the hill to where I started at a good pace that was actually a PR for me on that Strava segment. The second repeat got a bit tougher. I felt good going over the front side of the hill which is more gradual and has switch backs. But after descending the back of the hill and climbing up that side which is a steeper climb I was getting tired.

Time lapse footage of me climbing the steep backside of the hill.

After arriving back at my car I was pretty tired. I grabbed some cold water from the car and an apple to eat. It already had been a long day. This was taking longer than I had expected and I was putting more miles on my legs than I had expected.

Time Lapse footage of the woods you run through to get back to where I started.

I almost stopped at 2 repeats. But my goal was to do it three times. I wanted to stick to that no matter how long it was going to take. So I slowly climbed back up the hill for a third time. This repeat really felt like it took a long time and it probably did. Luckily I had decided to take my GoPro camera with me so I could shoot some time lapse video while I was out. That helped me think about something other than the relentless climbing. It didn’tr hlep that I had gotten up late and started a lot later than I wanted. That caused it to be hotter than I would have liked.

I finished with 12.63 miles and 3,012 feet of gain added to my totals but it took me 3 hours and 27 minutes to do it. #LimitlessChallenge Crystal Hills Edition.

Finger Lakes Trail panoramic
The climb up through the woods reveals this gorgeous scene

Limitless at Worlds End

This weekend was supposed to be a big race weekend for my group of friends. Worlds End Ultra was originally scheduled for this day. My friend was still going to go and camp with her family and she invited me down to do some running.

My friend is running the Worlds End 100K at its rescheduled date and I will be there to crew for her later this year. We ran some new trails for both of us at Worlds End State Park. The plan was to run from what would be the Dry Run Aid Station to the Brunnerdale Aid Station during the race.

Along our run we planned to meet up with her family along the way at Angel Falls and then all leave together.

The trails quickly turned to streams. There was water often coming towards you down the trail. So much for dry feet. When there wasn’t running water on the trails it was thick mud or standing water. There were also some serious stream crossings. It had rained the night before so the streams were pretty high. The water was rushing fast enough and with enough current that it considered a little consideration when choosing a rout to cross by. The streams were easily up to mid calf at times.

Time lapse footage from the run through the water at Worlds End State Park

This area is so beautiful. It was great to run there and just energized me for the rest of my day. We stopped to take photos along the way and soak in the nature around us. The wet and extra muddy trails for most of the first four miles really slowed us down.

We eventually arrived at the car. This meant we had done something wrong. WE never met up with the rest of her family. WE missed the turn to get to Angle Falls. We consulted the map at the trail head. We needed to go back 1.5 miles to get to the falls. Up a trail that we had just descended and that the map referred to as difficult. It was not lying. The trail is difficult. Even more so when you’ve already been running for a long time and you made a mistake that is now cause you to have to backtrack.

Eventually we reached Angel Falls and met up with everyone. The falls are quite beautiful. I am not sure I was in a mindset to fully appreciate them after all the work it took tot get to them. I will have to return when I am a little fresher.

I ended up adding 11.31 miles and 2,347 feet of vertical gain to my totals on this adventure. Bonus Miles at Worlds End: #Limitless.

This was supposed to be a great race weekend but we still had a great time running the Limitless Challenge here.

Worlds End Waterfall
We began our days adventure right near this waterfall at Worlds End State Park.

Limitless Finale

I was pretty sure I already had enough elevation to reach my goal but my plan was to run every day of the challenge so I still wanted to still do that.

I planned to run one lap of the red trail at Tanglewood Nature Center. It is one of my favorite routes to run and I return to it regularly.

One of my friends contacted me the night before and I told her what my plan was and she agreed to join me for my run. We immediately had to deviate from the plan because when you are running things rarely actually go as planned. So we added some bonus miles before even starting on the red trail.

We ran the red trail and it was nice to be out on my familiar trails just running a regular route for me. The climb at the end was still hard but not as bad as doing repeats on this or any other climb. I was nice to be feeling like I was coming the the conclusion of this adventure. Then as we were nearing the end my friend said I think I would like to run a little more and asked if I wanted to go farther. I asked how far asked how far she had in mind and she replied saying, “I don’t know 6 or maybe 10 miles”. I said “I can tell you one thing I am not going ten miles”.

My friend ran with me and convinced me to run even more miles than I had planned. I am a pretty easy sell on any running adventure though especially on trails. We wound our way through some more of the trails at Tanglewood. We mostly avoided any additional climbing. We reached 6 miles and I called it and took us back to the cars.

I added another 6.48 Miles and 1,107 feet of vertical gain for the day to my overall totals. #LimitlessChallenge Finale.

The forests at Tanglewood Nature Center
Trails through the woods at Tanglewood.

In retrospect I almost can’t believe I actually did this. It is in so many ways not something I would do. The whole event was based around climbing and I do not like to climb. To get to the goal I set for myself I would have to run every day of the week and I very rarely do any type of run streaks. The most I run is five days a week when I am in peak training for an ultra marathon. The only times I think I have run multiple times in a day has been when doing some type of relay event. And during those events you generally run your event and you’re done. For this I had to run two times a day plus all the other running I needed to do during the week. In addition we started a day early so I would be running at least eight days in a row not just seven.

I finished off the Limitless Vertical Challenge having run 60 miles for the week. I ran for more than 17 combined hours. My goal for the elevation gain I wanted to achieve was 14,505 and I finished with 16,716. These numbers are hard for me to recon with. I have probably never run more than 50 miles in a week let alone 60. I average over 47 miles a week in my peak training month in 2018 and That is the most miles I have run in a month.

In my highest volume running year of 2018 where I was healthy and trained for two ultra marathons I climbed a combined 121,211 feet on the year. So that averages out to around 10,000 feet of vertical gain per month. I just ran that in one week. Like how is it possible that I just did this. Not only did I do this, but after a year of battling injuries I actually feel better than I have in along time. Two days after the challenge finished I still haven’t taken a rest day because I feel that good.

I am always in awe of the things that my body is able to do when I test it. It is truly something to just sit back and reflect on. Determination. Perseverance. Grind. Push. Endure. You can do things you never imagined.

I don’t know if I could have done this and stuck it out all the way through without all the people who shared some miles with me during this adventure. Thanks for being there.

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