Take On The Unrelenting Ascent At Kitt Peak

Telescopes atop Kitt Peak near Tucson, Arizona.

“Just get used to the idea that there’s no downhill, and it only gets steeper.”

If you travel to Tucson, Ariz., you can’t miss Mount Lemmon, a popular cycling destination. But grab a cup of coffee at the local grind, and you’ll hear the locals talking about their latest ascent—surprisingly, it isn’t Lemmon.

Nestled in the shadows of Mount Lemmon is Kitt Peak, one of Arizona’s best-kept training secrets. This spring, runners, cyclists and triathletes will descend upon the Tohono O’odham Reservation, slightly southwest of Tucson, to tackle the challenge of the Kitt Peak Ascent on two wheels or two feet.

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After the inaugural Mount Lemmon Marathon in 2011, race director Laszlo Otvos couldn’t silence the demand for more ascent races in Arizona. “It was well received and people wanted more uphill. Kitt Peak was an obvious choice,” said Otvos. “I think people are always looking for a crazy challenge. They want to push themselves.”

The first of two challenges in the Kitt Peak Ascent takes place on March 18, with a 10-mile bike ride to the summit. The route relentlessly ascends 3,250 feet on smooth pavement. Using a gun-time instead of a time-trial approach, the mass start is self-seeded, adding a mental challenge to the physical demands of the ascent.

Though the finish line is at the summit of the race, many riders choose to ride back to the base instead of taking race-provided transportation.

“Going up is hard,” said Jason Eley, an age-group triathlete from Phoenix. “But the descent is worth every lactic acid-inducing watt you have to generate.”

If the ride doesn’t punish your legs enough, return to Kitt Peak on April 22 to challenge yourself in the run, which covers the same 10-mile course as the bike. With grades gradually increasing from one percent to eight percent, runners will find the course progressively harder until the finish line at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Shuttle buses are made available for finishers who do not want to walk back to the base.

When asked for training tips, Otvos is happy to provide sage advice. “Don’t skip your long runs. You’ll spend more time on your feet than a normal 10-miler but as long as you’re prepared mentally, your body will be able to handle the race,” he said.

With a tongue-in-cheek smile, Otvos added, “Just get used to the idea that there’s no downhill, and it only gets steeper.”

Proceeds from the race are donated to the Child Welfare Division of the Tohono O’odham Nation Tribe, who uses the money to combat childhood obesity and diabetes. Members of the Tohono O’odham Nation are given free entry.

Tips For Ascent (Uphill) Training

Start short: Don’t immediately hit the mountain when you begin training. Instead, find a course with rolling hills, then progressively climb bigger ascents as you get closer to race day.

Speed Work: The anaerobic effects of a good speed workout on flat land mimic the anaerobic effects while running at a normal pace uphill.

Swing your arms: Don’t make your legs do all the work. Short swings of your arms will help to propel you forward up the hill. Stand up: Make sure to keep your pelvis over your knees, and your shoulders over your pelvis. Resist the urge to lean forward too much, as it will place more stress on your body than is needed.

This piece first appeared in the January 2012 issue of Competitor magazine. 

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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