My Year Of Living Vertically

In the pursuit of any goal, we all face a moment of questioning ourselves, sometimes out loud.

hand-drawn thought bubbles with questions we ask ourselves while pursuing goals

The first week of this December, I had that moment, a question as I power-hiked up an icy trail, listening to my own labored breath:

hand-drawn thought bubble reading "Is this really necessary?"

The answer, of course, was: No, it was not necessary. I had a cold, or enough remnants of a cold that I should have been at home resting instead of semi-vigorously exercising outside.

But I had a goal. Or, rather, I had committed to a goal, with a deadline: 300,000 feet of uphill human-powered movement, in the year 2023. Before I started hiking uphill that day, I had logged 289,476 feet of climbing via running, hiking, ski touring, and cycling. I had 10,524 feet left to climb, and 24 more days to do it. And I wanted to get done early so I could stop worrying about it. So I kept tromping uphill. Even though I’d have a hard time convincing anyone it was “necessary,” in the sense of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

drawing of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs with "my contrived fitness goal" at the top

Every year, human beings such as myself and yourself take part in an ancient ritual going back at least dozens of years: We decide how we are going to become a different person than we were the year before.

Sometimes we become completely different people, finally going to therapy, or deleting all of our social media accounts, or deciding to adopt the extensive and possibly unsustainable morning routine of a person who is an influencer on LinkedIn. Sometimes we just become a slightly different person, by committing to being on time, drinking more water, or meditating for one minute every day.

hand drawn New Year, New You chart

This probably sounds familiar. You may know it as a “new year’s resolution,” which is a common manifestation of this sort of idea, and also helpful in selling gym memberships. New year’s resolutions work for some people, but I have never had much success with them. Usually I think more along the lines of “what can I do that would make this year interesting/different from previous years?” Which I think is a good place to start, as opposed to “What’s wrong with me that I can attempt to fix or improve this year?” (If you’re asking yourself that same question, let me just say that you’re probably doing great, and at least a few people probably love you just the way you are. But yeah, we could all drink more water and eat more vegetables.)

A few years back, a friend of mine mentioned he was going to try to log half a million vertical feet biking and hiking, and I don’t remember if he ended up getting it done, but I think he was probably inspired by a guy named Greg Hill who climbed and skied two million vertical feet in a year in 2010, and Greg Hill was probably inspired by himself, Greg Hill, skiing one million vertical feet in a year in 2005. I’m no Greg Hill. But what about 200,000 feet of ascent in a year? Certainly more doable by a middle-aged dad with a day job? That’s a little under 4,000 feet per week.

So I decided on that. I did a few backcountry ski laps at our local hill, just under 2,000 feet per lap, and hiked/ran up steep trails a couple times a week, trying to log a few hundred feet here or there. If Jay was awake and we had time between naps, I’d put him in the baby carrier backpack and chug up a trail for a few minutes or an hour, the dad version of a weighted training vest. I signed up for a steep 50K trail race, the Tiger Claw, which would get me almost 9,000 feet of climbing in one day, a big chunk.

Then in mid-May, my young friend Torrey, who has not been to my house recently to see my daily life trying to be a present and helpful dad, husband, self-employed artist/writer, said, “200,000 feet? I think you could do 300,000 easy.”

I thanked him for the encouragement by replying, “Fuck you,” and then we argued for a few minutes about who would buy dinner.

And then of course I started doing the math, which really amounted to a big question, How do I want to live my life this year, which is really a series of smaller questions:

hand-written list of questions

We’re lucky, as human beings, to have the time and resources to come up with ideas we refer to as “dreams,” and then spend time and resources pursuing those. Some people put a lot of time and resources into one dream, like thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, or climbing a big mountain halfway across the world, or completing an Ironman triathlon.

Since I am a coward, I often tend to shy away from big goals with a high chance of failure, and instead choose to pursue goals with longer timelines, in order to have some flexibility. A bad week of weather can derail a big mountain summit attempt, and an injury can derail a plan to qualify for the Boston Marathon (I guess so could gastrointestinal distress on race day), but an annual goal of a bunch of vertical feet can withstand some bad weather or minor injuries during the year. Or, in my case, catching every communicable disease Jay brought home from daycare in his first six months of attendance, which included something like six colds, and norovirus or something similarly explosive and miserable .

Even with a week off here and there, I kept chugging along. I started a Strava club called 100 Grand, because I thought other people might think it was fun to try to log 100,000 feet of climbing, or 200,000 feet, or 500,000 feet, or whatever, depending on where they lived and how much time they had to devote to it. I know not everyone lives in a mountainous area, or even a hilly place, but I also knew about this group of people in Iowa and Illinois who race to see who can log 25,000 feet of vert the fastest (and in the smallest amount of horizontal distance) every December. I mean, look at this GLORIOUS spreadsheet:

2023 Turdsmas Spreadsheet

Almost 2,000 people signed up for the 100 Grand Strava club, despite it launching in the middle of the year, and I’m not sure how much it motivated people, but I’m going to do it again in 2024. As soon as I finish mailing out stickers to everyone who clocked 100K or more in 2023.

As I rolled over 200,000 feet in September, and then 250,000 feet (in early October), I started to reflect on how the 300,000-foot number had changed my year of running. I have never been one to pay attention to my per-mile pace, but it went completely out the window this year, since a typical run for me looked like this:

Strava profile of 7-mile run

Or this:

strava profile of 10-mile run

Mt. Sentinel is essentially a straight line two miles from my house and roughly 2000 vertical feet higher than my front door*, so I defaulted to it often this year. I stood on the summit 47 times, often enough that it started to feel quite ridiculous, but also a sort of home. Which is probably how my dad feels about certain holes on his home golf course, or how my brother feels about his favorite fishing spots.

Every time I got home from a run, I’d check my yearly total on Strava as it ticked upward—except on the rare days I did a flat run, when I was short on time or had to run Jay to or from day care in the jogging stroller.

Eventually, I had a little less than 2,000 feet to go. Unless something crazy happened, I’d just need to get to the summit of Mt. Sentinel one more time and I could stop obsessing about it. My friend Forest had offered to go with me, but also said he understood if I wanted to go up alone. I decided to keep this one to myself, microspikes on my shoes for the icy sections, trekking poles as insurance to keep myself upright.

The last climb up the steep trail on the south ridge seemed like it was taking forever, and I watched several paragliders take off from near the top, a surprise sunny December day. I jogged through the snowy forest between the south and north summits, and then started the steep hike up the final 100 feet to the top. A figure in an orange jacket was starting down from the summit, headed my way.

The person stopped on the trail when they saw me, and without being able to see quite that far, I knew it was Forest. He started clapping, and then went back to the summit with me. He asked if I wanted to have the top to myself, to process it a little bit, and I said Nah, it’s just the last few feet of my dumb goal for the year. Which was true.

The closer I got to finishing, the more ridiculous it felt, and as much as I’d like to have had some epiphany about life, I know sometimes you just need a new motivation to get out the door and experience something, even if you end up on the same mountaintop *checks notes* 47 times. But as ridiculous as it was, I still followed through with it.

You don’t need to go far these days to find inspirational quotes about pursuing your goals, and I think everyone is looking for something different. The older I get, the more I think about a line from the late, great, philosopher and restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, in the 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies:

handwritten Kenny Shopsin quote

More stuff like this in my book, Have Fun Out There or Not: The Semi-Rad Running Essays.