You can race for time, but over the course of a day, our writer learns that’s not the point.
4: 45 a.m. People mill around the sandy parking lot in the dark. Some of them are wearing superhero capes. Not me. I have on a singlet and racing flats.
Before I signed up for the Phoenix Summit Challenge, it was described to me as a “hiking competition,” which seemed like an oxymoron. I love hiking, don’t get me wrong, but as far as I knew, the Venn diagram of trail races and nature walks had no crossover. So that November day, I set out to win.
The course itself was 25 miles long over seven peaks, five of which are unconnected. Driving between trailheads was to be part of the day’s trials.
4:50 a.m. Entrants chat and rearrange their tutus. I shoulder past them, wondering if I’ve eaten the right combination of carbs and proteins.
5 a.m. The gun goes off as the Phoenix heat begins to seep into a squid-ink sky. I charge up 2,608-foot Piestewa Peak, passing costumed hikers by headlamp, leaving their giggling behind. When the red sun peers above the horizon, I’m already on the way down.
8 a.m. I cross the long-legged cactus shadows thrown across the singletrack, while ducking around other competitors. The Phoenix Summit Challenge allows for different itineraries, so while I tackle the longest route on the docket, other people take on shorter spin-offs. They start at different times and on different peaks, and I’ll spend most of the morning picking them off. Here, I whiz past a trio that strolls along, pointing at the hot air balloons. Three peaks down. Four to go.
9 a.m. At the aid station, people fist-bump and pour water on their necks. I down two energy bars and jump into my getaway vehicle, passing them all. Don’t they know this is a race?
10 a.m. I peek out across the Phoenix skyline while descending 2,054-foot Lookout Mountain. Red ridges melt into the heat waves and swimming pools glint like diamonds—I trip. Some happy people with happy dogs ask if I’m OK. Fine, I tell them. I limp onward as fast as I can, cursing myself for taking my eyes off my feet. I assure myself it won’t happen again: I’m here to win. One more peak.
12 p.m. I nod to the officials at the Holbert trailhead. The next time I see them, after a 5-mile loop to 2,330-foot Dobbins Lookout on South Mountain, I’ll be finished.
“You’re cruising!” one of them tells me. Oh, I know, I think to myself and almost say aloud. “I think you’re in first place for women right now,” he says. But instead of feeling smug, I’m just surprised. With the various start times and car shuttling, it had been impossible to know who was in what place. Something like loneliness envelops me. I shake it off and start running.
12:15 p.m. I take off up the final peak, but the fire is gone. What’s a competition if there’s no one left to pass? Halfway up, I slow to a walk. I look for the petroglyphs the race officials had promised and peer under bushes for desert tortoises. I stop to take a photo. But there is no one there to share the thrill of victory. I begin to wonder if maybe the cape-wearers know something I do not.
12:45 p.m. At the top, volunteers cheer and hand out cold drinks to me and a couple of hikers, who initiate a round of highfives. I sheepishly sneak one in.
1 p.m. I jog down the mountain by myself, realizing it’s not the “thrill of victory” I want to share.
1:30 p.m. On the other side of the finish line, the dry wind blows across empty chairs and picnic tables. I sit down and wait for the other competitors to trickle in. I start talking to a spectator who’s pulling daycare duty so his wife can do the hike. She’s been plagued by an injury, he tells me, but when she crosses the finish line some time later, she’s smiling ear to ear.
3:30 p.m. Only now do most of the competitors begin to join me at the Holbert trailhead. They jog, walk, and occasionally skip across the finish line with capes flapping in the wind. They whoop and holler across the stripe in the dirt as though it’s an Olympic ribbon.
5:30 p.m. The sun is sinking, finally sucking the heat out of the sky, and I can think clearly for the first time all day. You can’t measure happiness in blue ribbons—and “hiking competition” isn’t an oxymoron. People are always trying to beat something—the chaos of work, family life, health issues, stress. And sometimes, the best way to win is to just let go.