That One Hill

AJWs TaproomOver the past several years, trail runners around the world have been inspired and awed by the mountain running exploits of Anton Krupicka, Anna Frost, Kilian Jornet, Krissy Moehl and many others. Many of these exploits have been documented in photos, videos, and words and have motivated thousands of new trail runners to take up the sport. Indeed, the visual world of the mountain trail runner is stunning.

That said, the vast majority of us do not live in close proximity to stunning mountain vistas and empty trailheads. Rather, most of us toil quietly in or near cities and find our mountain bliss wherever it is most convenient. While we find profound inspiration in these mountain gods and goddesses, we take our daily dose of running reality in much more mundane circumstances.

It was this realization that brought me back to a conversation I had almost 10 years ago. I was on a bus in the pre-dawn hours on my way to the starting line of the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run. I found myself sitting next to Jim Huffman, a Utah runner who, at the time, was doing quite well on the ultra circuit. We made small talk about running and racing and the topic turned to winter training. Particularly, how to maintain mountain fitness in the winter when many local trails were impassable due to snow. Jim said something that sticks with me to this day, “You know, AJW, what I try to do, wherever I am, is find That One Hill. Then, I learn to love that hill, climbing it and descending it over and over and over again.”

In my wanderings through this life, I have found That One Hill in each place I have lived. In Phoenix, Arizona it was Palo Cristi Road, a steep, semi-paved road that led from the front driveway of my school to the entrance of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. In the San Francisco Bay Area of California, it was Mount Diablo in the East Bay. This massif that rises above the towns of Walnut Creek and Lafayette has long been a regular test piece for East Bay runners. While in Ketchum, Idaho, the locals descended on Carbonate Mountain outside of Hailey for early-season, lung-searing repeats. And, in my current home here in Central Virginia, That One Hill is Jarmans Gap Road outside Crozet. A 1,500-foot, dirt-road climb in 2.7 miles.

What these hills have in common, aside from 1,500 to 2,000 feet of vertical elevation spread over three to four miles, is their sheer ordinariness. These hills are, simply put, just hills. However, inspired by Jim Huffman’s words all those years ago, I have made a habit, wherever I am, of seeking out That One Hill. For these hills are the places that make us fit, keep us honest, and give us just that little glimpse, in the midst of our very regular lives, of all that is extraordinary about running in the mountains. While the gods and goddesses of trail running will continue to inspire me, no video or photo essay will ever replace the feeling I get when I find the extraordinary in the ordinary of That One Hill.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Boneyard Hop Venom IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from a Taproom favorite, Boneyard Beer in Bend, Oregon. Touted as the Northwest’s Pliny, Boneyard’s Hop Venom DIPA takes the classic West Coast style and throws it at the wall. The result is true hop magic!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Where is That One Hill for you? And, why has it become your go-to proving grounds?
  • Who in the trail and ultrarunning communities do you look to for inspiration when you are out on That One Hill?

There are 27 comments

  1. diegomessi

    I can relate to this big time. Death Trail in Mckay Hollow, here in Alabama, holds a very special place in my heart.

  2. solveforxy

    Mt Wire here in Salt Lake City is "that one hill" that keeps things interesting in the winter months (and even spring, and summer, and fall).

  3. sharmanian

    Be kind to Diablo. It's not the Himalayas but it's very pretty. A million times better than when I lived in London with a 100ft hill being the biggest option!

    1. Grufito

      I have to agree with sharmanian,

      If you take the fire roads to the top, you get what you took, steep fire roads (dusty in the summer, muddy in the winter)
      There are some great trails there such as Mt. Olympia Trail –> North Peak. Eagle Peak to Bald Ridge that are simply stunning.
      And technical running through Rock City is priceless… :)

          1. _Tosk

            You don't have a time machine? I will sell you mine cheap, but it only works twice a year and for a very short periods.

    2. AtomLawrence

      +1 to that! And as Grufito says, there are lots of different summit options that can take you over some truly steep and gnarly terrain. There're trails on that mountain that I can't run fast down to save my life. Also, while it's summit may be shy of 4,000 ft, it absolutely towers over the rest of the Bay Area's topography. It ain't no hill!

    3. MikeTebbutt

      I grew up in Danville with Diablo staring me down every time I stepped out onto our front porch. Awesome "hill", especially when it snows!

  4. coldairlowersHR

    Thanks for the motivation as winter persists here in Central VA! Mine, too, is JGR. Especially the top two thirds can simulate race elevation profiles. Its proximity to further inclines on the Appalachian Trail offers additional training flexibility. Since reading “Eat and Run,” I sometimes while climbing JGR think of Scott Jurek, what was it, something like 6000 ft climbing he did something like EVERY DAY to prepare for his WS100 initiation? At the end, I’ll think, “Should I turn around and go again?! Jurek would!” Now, if I could only keep those pitbulls from rushing out at me near the bottom . . . Lego Drive to Summit Ridge Trail is a good all-pavement alternative that’s become as much a “go-to” as JGR, depending on the conditions.

  5. Grufito

    For me, residing in Oakland provides access to plenty of options for daily runs at 5. I think i can easily claim the Sausal Creek as my hill. A little slice of urban decay melding into canyon forest, singletrack and staircases. Any other Oaklanders around?

    1. AtomLawrence

      Grew up in the East Bay suburbs, I've spent lots of time running Diablo and the Berkeley/Oakland Hills, and before that hiking them when I was a kid. One of the best places for running I can imagine, it would take a lifetime or two to exhaust those trail systems. And there might not be any obvious summits outside Diablo, but the constantly rolling nature of the topography makes it possible to clock pretty insane vertical over relatively short distances. I had a 20 miler with 4,788, and a 13 miler with 3,200 last time I was there.

  6. LGarten

    I agree. Even 300 ft climbs are good for training. You just have to do them with more intervals to get up to 2000 ft. :)

  7. nuremi824

    Oaklander here (or close enough). My hill is Rose Peak in Ohlone Regional Wilderness. Just as high as Mt. Diablo, but the park is much more remote (although I will say that the Diablo summit has some steeper sections). The only person you're likely to see running out there is Catra Corbett.

      1. nuremi824

        Totally agree. I was saying that I thought Ohlone was a bit more remote and peaceful than Mt. Diablo :) I used to live near Livermore but am now closer to Oakland. I'll be out there for the Ohlone 50k…Cheers!

  8. @wMichaelOwen

    I've been adhering to The One Hill training method for a while now – in Ohio, we have steep hills that are shorter in distance, so in order to get a lot of vert. many ups and downs are needs. When I was in undergrad in Portsmouth Ohio, it was Fire Tower Hill, gaining 325 feet in .6 miles. In Athens Ohio, it is Radar Hill, gaining 273 feet in .5 miles. When I was living in Lynchburg, it was Powerline Hill right out from campus climbing 500 feet in .5 miles. After many ups and downs I know these hills like the back of my hand, every rock, root, dip, and turn. Gives me a greater appreciation for that land as well as making me a lot more fit and ready for uphill racing.

    Good post – I can definitely relate to it and is something I stress to people who seek advice about training for ultras or trail races. Find a hill – get to know it. Run it a lot!

  9. mtnrunner2

    I'm very thankful to have 1,200 feet of vert from my front door up a grassy hill, even if it is on the edge of Denver suburbia. I don't take it for granted for a moment, and it's the source of considerable bliss.

  10. wncrunner

    Bolens Creek Trail to the Black Mountain Crest Trail (home of Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Rockies). I'm lucky to live five minutes from the trailhead of this little monster that rises 3000 feet in just under 4 miles. It's basically one giant hill.

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