Trying to survive The Incline

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- I'm scrambling up a long, very steep old cable car path that leads virtually straight up a Colorado mountainside, and I would be feeling pretty good about my progress if it wasn't for one thing: I'm getting my butt kicked by a teenage girl, a teenage boy with asthma and a guy with a bad back.

In my defense, the three are exceptional athletes. Agnes Zawadzki, 17, recently took the bronze medal at the U.S. figure skating championships. Josh Farris, 17, won a silver medal at the world junior figure skating championships. Brian Hansen, 21, won silver in speedskating at the 2010 Olympics. Even so, it doesn't make me feel any better when I finally catch up to the three and Farris tells me he is taking it easy because he left his inhaler at home, Hansen is taking it easy because he might need surgery for a bulging disk and Zawadzki, well, she is so relaxed and refreshed she is sitting on a rock texting a friend.

Will meet u when this old sportswriter finally finishes. Could be a while. He is like sooooo old, he probably still uses cell phones to call people.

You might wonder why I was on this steep course near the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. In fact, it's a question I asked myself once or twice on this expedition. The answer: I'm trying to experience what is almost a rite of passage for athletes at the training center.

I'm doing The Incline.

"If you're an athlete that does any kind of endurance sport, you do The Incline," Hansen said. "It's one of the first workouts that comes to mind when you come out here just because it's so different and interesting."

The Incline begins at about 6,500 feet in elevation and climbs to around 8,500 feet in less than a mile. Two thousand feet in one mile! That's an average grade of around 40 percent with stretches that hit more than 60 percent. With hundreds of unevenly spaced railroad ties, it's nothing less than a staircase up a mountain. It would be like climbing to the top row of Comiskey Park -- if Comiskey had a 5,000 level and another thousand rows of seats.

It's more like racing up the stairs of the Empire State Building. Twice.

"It's pretty defeating," Hansen said. "You think you have certain abilities, that you can run fast and jump. But when you do a staircase like that, there's nothing like it."

The unofficial record for The Incline is held by triathlete Mark Fretta. He did it in 16 minutes, 42 seconds ... while wearing a sling due to a broken collar bone.

"I was hustling up that thing," Fretta said. "I told people my time and they go, 'Are you kidding me? In a sling?' But when you do The Incline, you don't sprint. The only hindrance the sling caused was if I fell forward. It didn't negatively affect me. Though it got a little sweaty.

"I've gotten more attention for my time up The Incline than anything else I've done. I once got a phone call from a guy doing a story for a magazine in India. ... It's my little home away from home. The Incline has become a part of me. At some point someone will break that record, but it's nice to have it for now."

I would not come anywhere close to Fretta's record. I was just looking to finish in less than an hour. And not have to be air-lifted to a hospital.

'Not something you can prepare for'

Before her first Incline experience, Olympic wrestler Elena Pirozhkova recalled seeing only a long, straight, steep and very intimidating scar cutting directly up the side of the mountain. "I thought we would be climbing up this dirt hill and, like, digging our fingernails into the dirt, and slipping and sliding. I was imagining this really horrible thing. But when I did it, it wasn't so bad. ... It gets a little steep in sections and some people on the team with a fear of heights struggle a bit, but overall I enjoyed it. I can't say that for most of my teammates."

Pirozhkova, I must point out, is absolutely insane. Like Fretta, she loves The Incline and climbs it often, not only for training but for recreation! Her enthusiasm for The Incline explains a lot about how she became an Olympian.

How could anyone enjoy racing up a 40 percent-or-so incline, especially if you're a U.S. wrestler? The Olympic wrestling coaches love torturing their athletes from time to time by ordering them up The Incline, sometimes at dawn or earlier. In fact, the coaches decided after a while that The Incline wasn't daunting enough on its own, so they made the wrestlers run to The Incline.

"They prepared us for it, but it's something you can't prepare for -- to run a mile up a mountain at a 45-degree angle at 6 a.m.," Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs said of his first Incline. "It's something you just have to go into. You can't run it. You've just got to get a steady pace going and just keep treading along at a steady pace."

Well, I received differing advice on this. Burroughs and Pirozhkova said the key is to keep a steady pace, to keep going, to never stop because you won't want to start again. Hansen, however, advised me to stop for frequent rest breaks.

I don't know how to best approach the beast. But at least the weather is excellent -- sunny, mid-70s and no humidity. It is much better than hot and steamy; although hot and steamy still would be preferable to cold and rainy. I can't imagine a more miserable -- and dangerous -- workout than doing The Incline when rain is beating down on you and turning the steep course into a slick, treacherous mud slide with the occasional rusty spike and sharp rock sticking out. Rain would be the worst, no question about it.

"They had us do it when it was snowing," Olympic wrestler Clarissa Chun said. "Everyone was like, 'Uhhhhh.' No one was like, 'Yeahhh!' It was like, 'This is scary. We might slip, we might fall off the mountain. Are you sure this is a good idea, Coach?'"

Hmm. You might be right about that. Better carry this 80-pound backpack with tent, sleeping bag, food and cooking utensils in case you need to bivouac for a couple days at the top.

At least I have the weather in my favor. Plus, I have the benefit of my three outstanding running partners -- Hansen, Zawadzki and Farris -- who I'm counting on to set a reasonable pace and carry my body off the mountain in case of emergency. They soon are leaving me in their dust, but Fretta later assures me the two figure skaters have a key advantage.

"The smaller they are, the better," Fretta said. "When I did the record, I was probably 145 pounds. That really helps. The heavier you are and the bigger you are, the more you have to carry up there."

The key to The Incline -- as with so much in life -- is your pace. The railroad ties are unevenly spaced so you must constantly change strides. The wood is old, and there are dangerous spikes and plenty of rocks, so you have to be careful. But if you keep to a reasonable pace with the occasional rest break, The Incline can be a taxing but doable hike. Push yourself, though, even just a little bit, and The Incline becomes a grueling monster.

I try to run at the start, but within half a dozen step, my lungs feel like I just drank a kerosene and mercury smoothie.

Fretta says the first time he attempted The Incline was with fellow triathletes. Their coach had a Porsche she was selling and she told the athletes that anyone who could run all the way to the top could have the car free. No one did.

"We learned very quickly it is impossible to run up it," Fretta said. "At the bottom, it's relatively flat. Once it kicks up, then it's about lactic-acid tolerance. At some point, you have to slow it to a fast walk. That middle section at its steepest is impossible to run."

Fretta, however, can run much, much, much farther up The Incline than me. Which, admittedly, is a pretty low standard.

'A free-for-all for all ages'

Olympians are just a minority of the people who do The Incline. Although The Incline is officially illegal to hike because there are stretches across private property, hundreds of everyday folks ignore the "No Trespassing" sign at the base to climb it every weekend. Thousands upon thousands climb it every year.

"I've seen 150 people there at one time," Fretta said. "I was there once on a Friday night, I want to say about 8 o'clock, and there were people there. That either speaks poorly for their social lives or speaks well for their health. It's become such a popular place for people to go for their workouts, I feel like the number of people using The Incline has increased exponentially in the last couple years."

"The first time I did it, 80-year-old men were passing me. Eighty-year-old women were passing me. I was kind of ashamed," Pirozhkova said. "There were kids passing me. You see a wide variety of people out there. ... It's a free-for-all for all ages."

I don't know what's more daunting, getting beat by a 17-year-old or hearing a man in his 60s scaled The Incline four times the previous Saturday. Or perhaps the most intimidating thing is seeing people walking their dogs up it as though they were just out for an afternoon stroll.

Forcing a dog up The Incline might seem worthy of a call to the ASPCA, but dogs do enjoy two advantages over humans. They're lighter, for one, and climbing The Incline on all fours is easier than two legs. I know, because halfway up, I'm forced onto my hands and knees. I am forced into this groveling position because the steepness of The Incline worsens as I near the infamous false summit, about two-thirds up. The stretch is so steep, you can't see the Incline continuing beyond it. You think the false summit is the actual summit, that you've survived, and this inspires you to make one last, exhausting push to the top ... and then you find out you still have about a quarter-mile to go.

"It's like a slap in the face," Hansen said.

Olympians who have done The Incline love to play a joke on first-timers by telling them the false summit is the end of the climb. (Ha! Such comedians!) Fortunately, my Olympians warned me; but it still feels like a slap in the face, because when I do reach the false summit with my legs and lungs burning, I find Zawadzki, Farris and Hansen waiting for me, with Josh calmly staring at the hand he scratched on a railroad stake and wondering whether he needs a tetanus shot.

I advise Farris to get the shot as we chat during a short break and then push onward to the top. The three athletes again race ahead while I steadily force my way up. I bike a lot up Seattle's steep hills, so I'm in decent shape, but my heart is still pounding as if U2's Larry Mullen is drumming inside my chest.

And then, suddenly, I'm at the top.

I thrust my arms in the air and do a little "Rocky" dance, accepting congratulations from Zawadzki, Farris and Hansen. I turn around and see the world spread out below me. It's a tremendous feeling, both of accomplishment and mean satisfaction -- accomplishment because I've completed such a grueling climb, and mean satisfaction because below me there is a long and ever-growing string of people still suffering up The Incline.

I'm taking in the view, calculating my time -- somewhere between 35 and 40 minutes -- and listening to my fellow Incliners' compliments. "I think you did very well for your first time," Zawadzki told me.

I am 50 years old and I just accomplished a truly Olympian quest and feeling pretty good about my performance when it hits me ...

... I still have to go back down.