The Practical Side of Running Downhill

The Practical Side of Running Downhill

My plane had touched down at SLC Intl. at 11:08 a.m., seven minutes early on a hour connector from Phoenix. Everything was smooth at the Avis counter even though the agent shared a little too much about his last assignment—San Diego—as he examined my California license. “I like it here pretty OK,” he said. “But San Diego. Oh man. Have you been there?” I got an upgrade in exchange for a little banter on the City in Motion and before you could say Ford Escape, I was about to merge with the 80 East for a climb of almost 3,000 feet in fifteen miles—the steepest stretch of interstate in North America.

Halfway to Park City as I sped past Parley’s Canyon recalling what used to be—not so many years ago—my daily commute, my jaw started to move from habit in hopes my ears would pop before the summit. As the rental dropped into first and the RPMs temporarily spiked to red, I passed a truck billowing exhaust in protest; from the look on the driver’s face, he wasn’t sure either whether he or his ride had enough in reserve to conquer the grade’s final three miles.

I rolled in a rush through the Jeremy Ranch exit as if I was late to let the dog out like I had been so many times. Without as much as a slow-down to wave, I drove past my old home and up the wide streets of the Pinebrook development, still a good 10 miles from the tourist- and celeb-themed action of Main Street Park City USA. I steered my ride though a neighborhood of serpentine streets and unmarked trailheads, and found myself—not a half hour removed from my seat in coach—at the foot of my favorite trail in the world: Lower Meeks. It was a homecoming both anticipated and a little lonesome.

The trails in Pinebrook are a series of switchbacks usually garnished, as this mid-November day would have it, with a sugary five inches of snow on the ground and the bare branches of aspens, some still clinging on to the last yellow and brown leaves like miniature heroes dangling from a cliff in a movie.

The cold hit me as soon as I opened the car door. In anticipation, I had layered up top but wore only my regular running shorts from coastal California beneath the equator. I figured “real” winter hadn’t come to Utah yet but the sub-20-degree sunny day stabbed into my thighs like an ice pick. No better way to warm up than to take the early goings fast, so off I went. A couple miles straight up and I made my way to a fork which marked the second trail: Upper Meeks. Here’s where the climb grew steeper but the vistas more rewarding. There in the foreground, the Utah Olympic Park. Behind that, the summits of Canyons, Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley ski areas. I was running in the only spot in America which features the view of a working bobsled run, ski jump and about 30,000 of the world’s most skiable acres just beyond my shoe tops.

Though my core had warmed, my lungs felt like they were collapsing. Seven thousand feet was about six thousand nine hundred and ninety higher than I was used to running and I was breathing the thin air through a very cold straw. My summit goal was a simple one. There was a memorial bench near one of the top that was fashioned from of an old chair lift. A plaque on it bears a name and a quote from a woman who’d passed. Though I’m not sure who she was, I am sure she was a runner and a good one at that.

About two thousand feet below waited a storage facility where some of my stuff had been collecting dust for the past five years since I’d moved. Though some items were worthy keepsakes: my grandfather’s book of quotes, a Nirvana concert tee from 1992 and the shirt my buddy who perished on 9/11 left at my house two weeks before he died, they were also the things I thought I’d moved on from. But the storage unit, as all storage units eventually must be, needed cleaning out. And so, while I wanted to take in the glory of this, my favorite trail in the world, there was a task at hand.

So I stopped at the bench and sat, only for a moment, and grew cold. I tried to take in the view, to create a mental snapshot—but my thoughts grew distant. I wondered why I ever left, and then about nine reasons, seven of them pretty good, flipped through my head like a shuffled deck. I got up, brushed off and shoved off for the long, winding descent.

It had been awhile since I’d taken on such a downhill. Snowy and icy single-track. My trusty trail shoes about three months past having any noticeable tread left. Tractionless shoes can work on the tacky trails of San Luis Obispo, but on this day, these trail runners could have just as easily been waxed for a more assured glide. My first hundred meters resembled that scene in Bambi when he steps on the ice. After the second fall on my frozen kester, I stood up, adjusted my cap and shook off the romance, misery and memory of what I was doing there—and focused wholly for the first time that day on my run.

I dug in and tried to recall these three immutable truths of running downhill:

  1. Look ahead: Maybe the best metaphor for my run that day is to pull your head up and aim forward, to the future—or in this case about 15 yards in front of me. The best downhill runners always have their chin up “like at a job interview” one coach used to tell me. Even on trail where the ground can be rocky, slippery, uneven, narrow and rooty, a gaze into the not-too-far-off distance will imprint the obstacles and your brain will take a quick snapshot to avoid them. It takes a little getting used to, but it really is something to know your feet are skipping over small features without you having to constantly look down. The magic of what we’re capable of when we place a little trust in ourselves can be astounding.
  2. Tighten up that torso: Downhill is the time for your tummy to shine. You want your stomach tight and your upper body to be leaning forward a little bit putting your top half slightly forward over your ankles. The natural tendency downhill is to lean back and just let the descent carry you down, noodling your arms at your side and throwing your feet out—which is why so many running downhill resemble wearers of clown shoes. Square your shoulders, narrow your gaze and point it—you will actually speed up quite a bit and be more in control.
  3. Shorten that stride: Quick, energetic steps always win on the descent. Because your pace is heightened and you’re leaning over, light feet will also mitigate the risk of injury (turning an ankle or knee are common negative byproducts on the down slope) and give you the agility to keep pace with your upper body which may already be back down at the car warming up.

I finished my run with the fastest splits I’d recorded in months, then had an even faster storage locker clean-out and was back on the road in the late afternoon. A 12-hour drive awaited me; from high mountain air to sunny coastline in a day. Fortunately, I’d just been reminded of a key lesson on my run: It’s all downhill from here can, in fact, be a good thing.

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