On a cool, fall Saturday morning, 50 people shuffled toward the entrance booth at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, looked up the steep, winding road and decided yep, let’s run up this.
Like a never-ending StairMaster contest, some ran while others walked or shuffled up the road during the inaugural Race to the Bridge 5K, a Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce fundraiser.
With some 700-plus feet of elevation change, it was a test of willpower rather than a race.
Besides, no one kept time and Chamber Director Maia Crespin joked that maybe they can afford a starting pistol for next year.
Still, the race had one thing going for it: The challenge.
With a whoop, Crespin started the race and a few dozen runners sprinted off, only to slow to a jog almost immediately as they hit the bottom of the hill. Walkers, meanwhile, marched up the hill, fanning out along the road.
Warning signs at the top put the grade at 14 to 18 percent.
In the Tour de France, riders race much longer climbs, but the grades are rarely this high. They rank such arduous climbs “Hors Categorie,” when the average grades are above 8 to 10 percent.
Never one to pass up a pointless challenge, I dragged myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to take part in the Race to the Bridge. While some people commented on the small turnout, I was grateful more people wouldn’t watch me lumber up the hill and possibly tumble back down.
I can remember the first year of the Mogollon Monster Mud Run in 2013, one of just 270 runners that first year. Today, the mud run attracts roughly 1,000 competitors.
And at least with this race, I wouldn’t get my picture taken coated in mud.
No, I would keep my dignity intact this time, I thought.
Asked by coworkers if I had trained, I laughed. I walk the dog in the park most afternoons. If that counts for anything, then yes, I trained.
If you want to get a good feel for this race, simply go to the gym, jump on the elliptical and set it to the highest incline. Then double that in your mind and walk for the next 30 minutes.
Strangely, I wasn’t doing too badly as I rounded the first corner. Out in front, my fiance was actually jogging up the hill.
I just power walked — and soon found myself in the gap between runners and walkers, with no witnesses to my laborious breathing. The rising sun lit up the canyon walls. Soon the entire valley would spring to life, with a steady line of visitor’s vehicles heading for one of the most popular destinations in Rim Country.
The bridge risked closure years ago during the recession, but volunteer efforts helped re-open it and it has stayed open ever since.
After rounding the final corner and making it to the top, I turned and jogged down, letting gravity do all the work.
At the bottom, Duane Ridl had cooked up scrambled eggs, sausage patties and potatoes while Common Grounds offered coffee and hot chocolate to runners in the park’s central lawn near the visitor center.
Kristin Paul enjoyed the breakfast and talked to other runners about why she had come out Oct. 12 for the race.
She said she had been running half marathons, but constantly had pain in her right side. She found out she had kidney stones last year and underwent three surgeries.
After her last surgery, she completed a 10K.
She started running at 26 and has been trucking along for 20 years. Mostly, she loves challenging herself.
Another runner, Lana Ridl, 60, completed a marathon in just under seven hours, the maximum time allotted by race organizers. She kept to a quick walking pace, challenging herself rather than competing with others.
She has completed the Susan G. Komen 3-day 60-mile walk and the Pine Trail Run.
The sense of accomplishment repays the pain. “My feet felt three-feet off the ground,” she said after completing her first marathon.
She almost gave up halfway through, but a text from a friend helped her finish. She might not prove the fastest, but mostly people never even try.
“It is about achieving, not about winning.”
Sitting among runners/walkers Saturday, I felt absurdly happy. Maybe it was just the effect of sitting down. But I think it came from earning my place amidst people like Kristin and Lana.
And didn’t fall down once.