The Anatomy of the Uphill Run

Agony Hill…Harper’s Time Trial…Mt. Mansfield…Fonna Up…That one run in Truckee that Caitlin Gregg always trounces…

Everyone, every club, team and region, has their version of the uphill run (except you guys in the Midwest, it’s unclear to me what you do). If there’s a mountain with a trail or road to the top, you can bet the local nordic contingent has found a way to formalize it into a time trial, lest no laymen be confused to whom the mountain belongs. That said, the uphill run is not a distinctly Nordie phenomenon (otherwise it would totally be the second addition to the #Nordielist). Track and cross country runners, mountain racers and US Marines all find themselves acquainted with an uphill run or two during their careers.

The Hoff, hoffing. (USSA photo)
The Hoff, hoffing. (USSA photo)

Nonetheless, running uphill remains a fundamental part of the nordie experience. Uphill running is more than just a test of fitness. Rather, uphill running often best tests an individual’s pure threshold of pain. When you run up a mountain, there is neither physical nor mental rest but instead a continuous flow of energy upward (read: energy to keep from going backward). The only thing that plateaus is your heart rate, at about 95% of your max.

Because it’s actually quite hard to max out on a long uphill run (Liz Stephen not included). Sure, you can totally toast yourself by going too hard and flooding, entering an inverse pain cave where ascent resembles a fall rather than a climb. But, unlike most ski races, you don’t have chance to go hard and recover. Instead, you have to find the line at the very end of discomfort and ride it, never cross it, until the end.

Liz and my now-coach but then-athlete Patrick O’Brien racing to the top of VT

Toeing that line, at the intersection of control and pain, doesn’t feel very good. It’s hard enough to hurt, but restrained enough to elicit impatience. It’s a total mental blackhole. Also a huge part of our sport. And, turns out, we’re pretty good at it.

Which is impressive, because we actually don’t practice much uphill running. I spent the spring running with a group of cross country types where the goal was always to get as much vertical as possible. On these runs, usually long ones most skiers would term OD (over distance, overdose, obvious death, what have you), my runner friends would run up entire steep sections, the same kinds of sections I had been taught in my training to always ski walk (the glorified term for ‘hiking’).

Because, to them, if you weren’t running, you weren’t exercising. Such a mindset doesn’t please nordies. Weary of going too hard, our distance training always has a cap on it, which might explain why we’re able to hold it together until the last quarter of a long uphill effort. Or, conversely, why we so freely send it when that cap is removed.

The Stratton uphill test (
The Stratton uphill test (

Either way, no one can argue against the masochism of our sport mirrored in the uphill run. Going uphill for as long as we do, as hard as we do, as often as we do, is certifiably insane. It doesn’t matter your size or practice, it never feels good.

Or does it?

As my coach described before our most recent uphill run, going as hard as you can up a mountain is strangely satisfying. Maybe it’s the thin air, or the hypoxic effect of sustaining that 95% heart rate. But maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s the fact that we just did something many people simply can’t. The reminder that we’re lucky to have bodies that can take us places, and minds that search for those opportunities.


Maybe being on top of the mountain helps us recognize the novelty of our community: a rag-tag group of outdoor enthusiasts pushing each other to the literal top. Fearing neither incline nor pain, but seeking both, this group is the kind with which you want to identify. The kind that motivates you to keep going, up and up.

It’s not the worst mindset in the world, especially from my viewpoint, where months still separate me from snow. To keep pushing, keep climbing, with the right conservation-to-pain ratio and a fair amount of enjoyment in between, that’s what gets you to the top. Eventually.

Because it’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock and roll.


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