The moment I signed up for this race, it went straight to my head. And not in a good way.
The Bald Peak Half worked out well for a family trip in the area—and oh, when did I turn into the guy who says, “Dear friend, I’ll be in your locality. Perchance I’ll run a 13.1-mile race!”?—and I have to admit, I didn’t look much at the course or other details before I sent in my money.
In my defense, unlike the bigger distance races I’ve run, for this modest little event there wasn’t much detail to be found. With fewer than 300 total finishers in the previous two runnings, the data were sparse. I searched online for anyone who tracked the course, and found at least one. (Thanks, krushgrapz.) It was then my jaw hit my keyboard.
I obsessed over this “hilly half” for the next three months.
The prospect of 1,800 feet of elevation gain (not a typo)—800 in the first 2 miles and 300 in the last half-mile (also not typos)—had me looking around my flat Phoenix-area surroundings and wondering how I would ever get ready for the hills of Hillsboro.
Using MapMyRun’s Climb Ratings, I was able to look for local runs of 3-ish miles with crazy elevation gains. A trend emerged: summit hikes. Gulp. It took me weeks to work up the nerve to get out there. My trail of choice was the Quartz Ridge Trail, not too far from Piestewa Peak. I could hit it on my way to work in the morning and clean up at the office. I did it three times (4, 6 and 3 miles) in the three weeks leading up to my Oregon trip.
I got into town a few days before the race. I even sneaked in a quick, hilly 2-miler—but really, aren’t they all hilly?—to complete my 10 weeks of training.
On the big day, at oh dark hundred, I stumbled into the car along with my mother-in-law and 3-year-old son and began our 90-minute commute. I think we overestimated the time it would take to get there, and also how crowded it would be. We were among the first to arrive. Plenty of time to pick up my bib and swag bag and do my warmup thing.
What struck me was the scale of this event. With just 200-some runners in the field, it was one of the more intimate races I’ve ever done. Smaller than most of my 5Ks, even.
Close to go time, everybody just kind of made their way to the start line, and then there was a countdown and everybody just kind of started. Compared with some of the mega-races I’ve run with tens of thousands of other people, this was surreal.
We took like three strides out of the start gate to get off the property at Hagg’s Tree Farm, and then it was a hard right onto McCormick Hill Road. I remember averaging around a 9:30 pace and thinking, hey, this isn’t so bad.
Weather for this summer lovin’ was similar to the winter races I’m used to in Arizona. With low temps in the 50s and 60s, I wore my standard shorts and tech T-shirt but had an ever so fashionable plastic bag on hand in case I needed to wear it to keep warm beforehand. I didn’t need the bag. It was really quite comfortable.
I don’t like wearing commemorative race shirts for races. Instead, I have a few plain, brightly colored tech T’s for the occasion. But because I was coming from out of state—it turns out I’m the only person from Arizona ever to run the Bald Peak Half—I wanted to represent! I decided on my shirt from the 2014 Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona half.
Less than a mile into the race, less than halfway up the grueling incline start, less than one-thirteenth of the way to the finish line, it became painfully clear that I was in trouble. I had to walk. Frequently. I was certain that everyone who passed me saw my Arizona shirt and thought, bwahaha, that poor desert rube can’t handle the hills!
When I got to the top of the first big one—just 2 miles in, remember—I wondered how I would ever be able to continue. One foot in front of the other works well.
It turns out, I could handle the hills. I walked maybe more than I wanted, but I came to terms with that quickly. I used the breaks to collect my breath and my thoughts and gather the fortitude for the next stretch.
I researched the course beforehand, and I’m glad I did. I knew about the 2-mile opener and the half-mile finisher—and I also knew about a predominantly downhill stretch from miles 7 to 12. I have to say, that extended downhill was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in running shoes. I kept my knees and my hips strong, let my long stride kick in and just enjoyed the ride.
(First, a quick story: As we’re driving up to the start area, almost there, low gears grinding mightily up this insane hill, it hits me: You’ve got to be kidding me this is the last half-mile of the course.)
Usually when I’m 12.5 miles into a half-marathon, my brain starts to visualize the finish line and my body starts to take stock of what’s left in the tank to get me there. This time at 12.5 miles, we turned a corner, back onto McCormick Hill Road, and there it was: THE HILL. Some 800 meters and 300 feet of elevation standing between me and the end.
I walked right away on THE HILL, and I wasn’t alone. In fact, it was hard to even walk sometimes, but I would not let myself stop. Still, I felt as though I needed to run at least part of this thing—you know, to have a good story to tell. I ran/jogged 10 yards, maybe 20. Whew. Back to walking again. Once more a couple minutes later, to have an even better story to tell.
Finally, finally! the road started to bend and level out. I found my footing and picked up my pace. My mother-in-law was waiting at that curve with my son-in-a-stroller. I waved some delirious wave, which looked something like this:
A nice little burst around the front of the tree farm and into the promised land, in 2:02:52. I surprised myself by how well I did. It wasn’t even my slowest half-marathon! I placed 60th overall out of 214. Top 30 percent. Not bad for the desert rube.
That day, and pretty much every day after, I thought fondly of that quaint little race in the hills of Hillsboro. Bald Peak Half, you were one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.
And one of the most enjoyable.