South Mountain hill climb, Phoenix, AZ. 1,300 ft elevation gain.
Being the hill-climbing fanatic that I am, I’ve climbed all of the mountains and hills in the Phoenix area. I’ve come to understand that each climb has its own rhythm, its own lines of energy, just like the various poses of yoga. In fact, I now think of the act of hill climbing as being in “mountain pose.”
One such mountain pose is the climb up South Mountain, the premiere mountain of the Phoenix valley:
I arrive at the ranger station, in the heart of South Mountain Park, south of downtown Phoenix at the end of Central Ave. Off to my left loom the towers of South Mountain. Up. Way up. The heights look daunting, but I know that most climbs aren’t nearly as hard as they look. It’s an interesting perceptual illusion, aided in no small part by the magic of switchbacks.
I click into the pedals, and roll slowly away from the ranger station, easing into the climb, matching my effort to the grade — both which pick up, pedal stroke by pedal stroke. After a mile or so, I come to “San Juan junction,” where I can choose to go west, down to San Juan Point, or choose to turn southeast up the climb to the “towers” of South Mountain. I choose the latter.
But it’s not like the towers — the top, are any sort of destination. Rather, climbing their direction is an intent. I’m not “riding to the top.” I’m ”going hill climbing.” One of these is a goal, the other, a state of being. It’s a subtle, but important distinction. The intent of hill climbing is the mental state I’m striving for.
I round the corner past San Juan junction. The grade settles into a steady 5%. I relax into the grade, spinning in low gear, matching the rhythm of the mountain. I keep my back flat, pelvis tilted slightly forward. I relax my shoulders. My shoulders are relaxed. I relax my jaw. My jaw is relaxed. I relax my arms. My arms are relaxed. I try to keep all parts of my body relaxed, except for those which are needed to support my intent, this “climbing South Mountain” intent. My legs are engaged, my stabilizing core muscles too. I try to pedal in “circles” rather than in “squares,” which in bike speak means applying effort to the pedals all the way around, rather than just pumping up and down with the quads.
Once these technical details are attended to, I relax into the climb. I relax into infinity.
I follow the lines of energy as the road rounds a few curves, the grade momentarily kicking up at the corners. I match these lines of energy by climbing out of the saddle, my bike swaying underneath me in a smooth, steady rhythm – ”dancing on the pedals” as one famous cycling announcer likes to describe it.
The grade backs off, giving relief. I round the corner near Telegraph Pass, beginning a short descent. I lower into the drops and shift to a higher gear, picking up speed, trying to carry that momentum around the next corner, where the grade picks up again, this time into 7% territory. I settle back into a lower gear, matching the form of this climb, matching its lines of energy. The effort gets more intense as the grade picks up into 10% territory, around another corner. Then, relief once again. A nice downhill, longer than before. I match the rhythm of the mountain, lowering into the drops to minimize the wind, picking up speed to 30 mph, and once again, I try to carry that momentum up around another corner.
From here, the climb transitions from long, steady grades, into a series of rollers, each roller getting more intense. The mind games begin – swirling chitta vrittis: Last time I climbed this mountain I was much faster. Why do I feel like such a slug today? Why is that other rider zooming by me? Isn’t he heavier than me? He sure looks a lot older. Hasn’t all the training I’ve done had any effect? Where are the results?
Legs tiring, I feel like giving up. Why not just turn around now?
I could, but that isn’t my intent.
I come to another junction, turning southwesterly, following the directions of a sign that says, “To the towers.” Another half mile to go. I tackle a 12% grade, my legs feeling that reality. I follow the rhythm of the mountain through another series of small rollers. Climbing, coasting, climbing.
The towers loom on my right. I can see the top on my left. I can also see steepness. Soon, I’m feeling it, as the grade kicks up to 14%. My quads voice their objection. My breath becomes labored. I try to follow yoga’s tenants: to breathe deeply and completely. I’m only partially successful.
The chitta vrittis swirl. I try to ignore them, try to let them float by like clouds in the sky. The top may be only a short distance away, but it feels like forever. Again, I’m guided by the tenants of yoga: Don’t worry about where you are going. Be where you are. Relax into the effort. Relax into infinity.
I round the last corner. The road dips down for a few yards, and then a short climb brings me to a cul-de-sac — the top. I roll to a stop, taking in sweeping views — staggering views of the southeast valleys of Chandler, Ahwatukee, and the Gila Indian Reservation. The lonely heights of the Sierra Estrella’s beckon to the west; the towers of South Mountain buzz to the north.
Straddling my bike, feet on the ground, I straighten my back, lift my heart, and close my eyes to the view, taking on the form of the other mountain pose, the yoga pose, tadasana. Standing still, standing tall. Just like a mountain.
Eyes closed, I feel the after-effects of seven miles of climbing. I feel my breath slowing, observe my heart slowing. Feeling, observing.
After a few moments of this, I tend to my body, taking on water, and taking on fuel in the form of an energy bar.
Then, I click back into the pedals, and begin my descent. I complete the last half of the pose — this mountain pose.