The Hills Can Kill: A Tale of Two Trail Races

trail runningPhoto Credit: lululemon athletica

I ran two races in the last three weeks. The first was the Mercury Mine 12k race in San Jose (when everyone else in the Bay Area was at Bay to Breakers) and then last Sunday I ran the Lake Chabot Half Marathon in San Jose. Both were super hilly trail runs (hence the photo – I don’t have any good shots of the courses) and made for some interesting experiences.

Mercury Mines 12k – May 20

I was originally slatted to run this race (official race site) in April but strong rain showers moved the date to May 20th (sort of an early birthday present to myself). I ran the race with a friend, Jared Tame, who got into running about six months ago and runs a startup called Bloch, which teaches people how to program. The race started out easy going but about a mile in, there was just an absolutely massive hill. You can see it in the elevation profile: We started running it but about 30 seconds in realized that everyone in the pack was walking. A middle-aged woman walked past us and was like “Yeah, just walk it. That’s the smart thing to do, even pros walk big hills on trail races. Save your energy for the downhill.” After walking for what seemed like forever, we finally clear the peak.

We were not even two miles in.

Despite this morale setback, the rest of the race was much more enjoyable though. There was some incredible views of the the forested area and even a bit of the South Bay at the 4.5 mile aid station. Jared hadn’t been training much up to the race so we walked all the hills and took things a little slower (for me) which just made the run that much more enjoyable. It reminded me of all the awesome reasons why I run.

At the last mile. I took off just to push myself a bit and had fun picking my way through the trail, trying to stay upright while running downhill on a trail. A few photos:

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Runkeeper data:

The biggest drawback from that race was that I got a nasty case of poison oak. I should have realized when they gave us free bottles of poison oak wash that this was a serious risk but it seemed more like a cute corporate-sponsored gesture. How wrong I was. A few days later my shins started itching a bit. It got worse over the next week and a half to the point where it was oozing, swelling and totally gross. Pic here (you were warned!)

I also tweaked my bad knee that same week on, not running, not heavy lifting, but a freaking air squat that went too low. So earlier this week, I was not sitting too pretty.

Then my friend Ryan Hupfer asked if I was up for a half marathon

Lake Chabot Trail Challenge Half Marathon – June 2

I was not really in the mood for a half marathon.

My knee had been bothering me just walking around or standing for long periods. But I also recently got a PR race plan from Jason Fitzgerald of Strength Running (my hands down favorite running blog) and it had me doing a 12 miler this weekend. If Hup hadn’t put me up to this half marathon, I don’t know if I would have gotten it done.

Anyway, I ran 2 miles easy in the middle of the week and my knee was starting to feel better so I went ahead and registered for the Lake Chabot Trail Challenge Half Marathon in Castro Valley.

hup and jason half marathon

Hup and I ran separately because he’s a much stronger runner, but we had fun at the start:

That might have been the smiliest we were during the whole race because about a mile and a half in, I found out this race has over 50% more climb than the Mercury Mines 12k.

Massive, massive hills. We ultimately climbed over 2700 ft according to Runkeeper, which is equivalent to climbing 245 stories (more than both World Trade center towers combined)

No pictures, but you’ll just have to believe me, it was tough. The hill wasn’t quite as steep so there were people running it, but I walked pretty much all of them, saving my energy to speed downhill.

It turned into a little game – I’d get passed by these slow and steady runners climbing up the hill, and eventually I’d fly past them on the downhill.

It turned out to be a lot of fun and I didn’t die, but it was definitely a workout. I ended with a really strong kick and passed a number of folks near the finish line. I’ll always remember the one girl that I’d be chasing for miles who looked behind her, saw me coming and tried to speed up, but it was too late.


Runkeeper data:

lake chabot half marathon runkeeper


Lake chabot half marathon elevation map

Lessons Learned

Walk Hills – this might be just for me, but walking hills is sooo much easier than running them and I end up catching people on the downhill anyway. Just remember to relax, take short steps and lean back a little to not crash

Poison Oak Sucks – DO NOT TOUCH PLANTS when you are out on the trail. Zanfel is great for washing off urushoil, the plant’s oil, from your skin, which IS contagious. Ivarest is good for soothing the itch once you break out. The oozing from the sores is normal and NOT contagious.

Check Elevation Maps – make sure you get some info on how much the climb is before you do the race, or be prepared to get devastated. Pro-tip – 550ft hill in one mile is a pretty damn steep climb.

Birthday winner

Congrats to Gil Hilbrand! His randomly chosen comment on my birthday giveaway has won him an awesome Impossible T from Impossible HQ. Thanks to everyone who wrote in – there were some amazing words of wisdom there. Here’s Gil’s advice again:

I was forced to learn this before 26, but it’s the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned about life so I’ll share it here anyway.

Stuff doesn’t make us happy. Experiences do.

Given $5k and a choice between a new computer/motorcycle/furniture, or a trip to a distant corner of the world/trip to visit family and friends, I will always now pick the latter.

You might argue that the stuff would last a lot longer than a set of experiences, and physically it is true. But the happiness you get from stuff fades fast, and then you just take it for granted. The happiness you get from experience never fades.


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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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