Hell-Raising Arizona

In my last article, I promised running tales from Jamaica and Portugal.

Well, the Portugal trip is booked (look for that in the Fit Columbus winter issue), and I did travel to Jamaica for a few days, primed to write one of the greatest Bob Marley-inspired jogging recaps ever, graced with the perfect title of “No Woman, No Tri,” but I hit unforeseen obstacles on the west end of Negril. Whether it was the machete-wielding locals, the weed dealers every 10 feet, the angry goats. Or the blind hairpin turns on the ankle-sabotaging, potholed main road, I made the logical decision not to run the streets of Jamaica. 

So we move from the Caribbean to the hellish Arizonan desert, where I faced something much scarier than anything in Jamaica. You see, I was born with an irrational glitch called acrophobia, or fear of heights. Any elevation higher than the top of say, a stepladder, and my brain fires off the lie-down-in-the-fetal-position signal. Just living in this six-foot, two-inch carcass is a constant mental plight; most of the time, you’ll find me sitting. 

Heights were the last thing on my mind when a few coworkers suggested we do an early morning “jog/hike” up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. I readily agreed to join, not thinking about the “mountain” portion of the pitch, hoping to get in a decent run before sitting in meetings all day.

When we arrived at the Echo Canyon trailhead, I took a quick peek at the topographical map of our route and noticed the finishing point was only 1.33 miles away. Maybe I can do it two or three times, I remember thinking, full of naïve vigor, confident from my last nature-shrouded mountain hike in Japan.

What I failed to notice on the aforementioned map was the warning signs for the treacherousness of the hike — a double black diamond of danger — and the 1,200-foot ascension. We started a light jog that immediately became a power walk due to rapid increase in elevation. By the first saddle, my heart was a’pounding, made worse by the nightmare in front of us: a steeply graded section of rock with a metal hand-railing on a chain-link fence, keeping falling boulders from plummeting off the cliff. 

I facetiously asked our Arizona-native coworker if there were any other surprises in our trek, and he said, “Maybe rattlesnakes, some scorpions … and lots of bees.” Throw in some spiders and the fear of dying alone, and we would have the full gamut!

Not one to back down from a challenge, especially when surrounded by competitive coworkers intent on NOT using the handrail, I slowly started up the wall. Halfway up the steepest tier, I lost my footing for a second and made the mistake of looking down and back, my vision sliding into the telescopic rack focus of a Hitchcock film. All I could think about was the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Luke hangs precariously to an antenna jutting from Cloud City. 

Dramatic? Yes. Really, all I had to do was grab the handrail to the left or, worst-case scenario, stay the current course, lose my grip and some skin, slip backward and come to a halt atop of a coworker, but in the moment my brain wasn’t thinking logically.

Instead, sweating profusely, I clung for dear life to the slick, well-traveled rock as a little boy passed by on the right. He giggled about how much fun he was having, mocking me. It could have been the competitiveness that resides at a deeper, more primal level overcoming the acrophobia in my brain, but it’s one thing to show weakness in front of coworkers; it’s another thing getting smoked up a mountain by a six-year-old.

I got angry and started moving, making it past the wall of death and nonchalantly checking my shorts for soilage. After a mile of false summits, a brutal vertical boulder-field and skinny, barrier-less paths with knee-buckling drops, I was spent. A 10-mile run in Columbus—no problem, but a mile-and-a-half, 1,200-foot ascent at altitude in scorching desert heat made me look and feel about as confident and strong as a newborn fawn. 

An hour later – soaked, humbled – the group finally stood victorious at the summit, rewarded with a clear, 360-degree view of surrounding red buttes and valleys of city sprawl stretching for miles. I took a moment to breath it in (literally catch my breath), then headed back down the path toward the awaiting workday, making a mental note to find a hypnotherapist to zap my acrophobia, and a city-sized blast furnace to train for next time.

Camelback, aka Nature’s Jungle Gym, had officially kicked my ass, mentally and physically. Even though it wasn’t a pretty feat, redemption came later that afternoon when a colleague asked what I did for breakfast:

“I climbed a mountain.”