Back to Fitness: Lessons from Jarmans

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Just one of the switchbacks up Jarmans Gap Road. Photo: John Andersen.

If you’ve read this column enough, you know that I like to share stories as a way of inspiring people to take on their fitness. There’s always relevance in stories, even if someone does something you may never want to do. Speaking of that…

Last month, I hit a milestone in my mountain running training—my 300th ascent up Jarmans Gap Road. “Jarmans” is a gravel mountain road here in Crozet off of the paved portion of Jarmans Gap Road by Chiles Peach Orchard. Climbing more than 1,700 feet in elevation over 3 miles on washed-out gravel, Jarmans is always a physical and mental challenge to run or hike up.  

I’m not exactly sure why I’m drawn to that mountain road so much, but somehow I’ve averaged about one climb a week for the past six years. Over these 300 ascents (and sometimes just as hard, the descents!), I have learned many lessons.

Your body is highly adaptable.  When I first tried to head up Jarmans in 2004 on my bike, I had to get off and walk many times. I didn’t return until 2013. My first year of “running Jarmans” (which still almost always involves a LOT of “power hiking”) was a struggle, both going up (this is taking FOREVER!) and going down (this CAN’T be good for my knees!). For some reason, mostly stupid friends, I kept coming back, and now after several years it has become a weekly ritual. My mind and body have both adapted to the hill in ways that I never would have imagined 15 years ago.  Whatever it is you’re trying to do, if you can be patient and persevere, your body can adapt.

There is always someone faster.  There is a running app/website that I love called Strava (introduced to me by the Gazette’s own Allie Pesch). It’s essentially part GPS training log, and part social media where you can share your activities with your friends. When I first started running up and down Jarmans, there weren’t many other people doing it, and I thought I was hot stuff sitting pretty at the top of the “leaderboard” that tracks times for the Jarmans ascent. But sure enough, as more people started running it and recording their data on Strava, I saw my name steadily drop down the list, toppled by times that I can only describe as “unattainable.”  While some may look at this as a devil of social media, it’s actually quite freeing to me. There are always going to be people faster and better than you in just about any activity. Instead of letting it get you down, just appreciate where you are and try to improve upon your best. This really makes the focus of exercise more pure—it’s you vs you! And, it allows me to genuinely admire and appreciate the talent of those that are way better than me.  

It’s okay to walk. Jarmans is never easy. From a runner’s perspective, if you want to run every step, it’s pretty much going to be a 30- to 45-minute workout where you are giving it all you’ve got.  Although it’s a great challenge from time to time, it’s simply not a sustainable way to get yourself up that mountain and very quickly you will find its much better to walk (aka “power hike”) the steeper sections to allow your heart rate to come down a bit. Out of my 300 Jarmans, I estimate that I’ve power-hiked significant portions in about 250 cases. Keeping your effort and heart rate in check as a runner is important; you can’t go all-out all the time. All of this walking has really translated into my overall running and fitness approach. It’s okay to walk! In fact, you should walk a lot. You should take it easy, enjoy the views, talk with your friends, and remember the goal is not necessarily how fast you do it. The goal is getting up that hill. So, if you see me walking up Old Trail Drive, I’m not injured or bonking, I’m just relaxing and taking it all in.  

I’m not so much afraid of failure, but afraid of quitting.  Maybe once a year I will have the guts to try to set a new PR for my Jarmans ascent time. It is so difficult and painful, that I can only bear to try it once a year at most and I get nervous just thinking about it. What I have learned, though, is that what scares me the most is not the anticipation of the suffering, but rather the very real possibility that I will quit. I fear I will be halfway up the hill, grinding away and I will come up with some excuse to stop. I can accept failing if I have given it my all, but it’s really hard to accept quitting because “it was hard”—I have done this! But realizing this has given me some insight as I get older and one day will have to deal with the fact that I might, maybe, possibly, start getting slower.  

We live in an amazing place. Interestingly, this 3-mile stretch of gravel road is where I’ve had more wildlife sightings than anywhere else in Crozet or Shenandoah. Loads of black bears – several times moms with three cubs. A bobcat crossing in broad daylight. Copperheads and rattlesnakes.  Owls sitting on tree branches staring me down and once an owl swooping up a rabbit from the road right in front of me. Once I was running a few Jarmans on a moonlit night (don’t ask) and there were literally thousands of salamanders on the road for the entire way. And the types of salamanders kept changing the higher up I went. Although one could travel up Jarmans and be relatively unimpressed by its lack of scenic views and its washboard gravel, I see it as a place to experience all of the amazing nature and geography we are blessed with here in Crozet. 

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