Com­pe­ti­tion Hikes

You can race for time, but over the course of a day, our writer learns that’s not the point.

Backpacker - - PLAY LIST - BY COREY BUHAY Have tutu, will hike? Learn about the Phoenix Sum­mit Chal­lenge (Nov. 18 this year) at­mit. Or find an event near you at backpacker .com/com­pe­ti­tion-hikes.

­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.

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