Mack Robertson and Scott “Caveman” Martin are two Portland area trail runners who achieved over one million feet of climbing in 2020. Both runners competed and placed in the Spring Energy Vert is Real 24-hour Challenge, 12-hour Challenge, and ALL OUT Challenge contests. We wanted to know what makes a trail runner want to average almost 20,000 vertical feet per week. So we asked a series of questions to find out how Mack and Scott were able to achieve such an incredible feat, their favorite trails, when to use poles, and what it takes to add more climbing to their runs.
Why did you set a goal of 1 million feet of ascent for 2020?
MR: I didn’t actually set a goal of a million feet until the last few months of 2020. I started crunching the numbers sometime in September and realized I was on pace to hit a million. I figured I might as well go for it because who knows if it’ll ever be within reach again.
SM: In 2017, I saw people posting their yearly stats and noticed some serious ultra runners had done over 400,000′. I knew I did more than them but not how much more because I didn’t have a GPS watch or Strava to track it. I wondered how much I had done and guessed 750,000′. I immediately thought that was a good chunk of a million and decided it would be interesting to try for that. I got a million that year, mostly with hill repeats on only a few hills I knew the stats on. I would plan out my week, do repeats and use a calculator, and keep track on a calendar. I got the million done and did a 5-mile trail race less than a week later. I raced it hard and hurt my knee. This time I wanted to do a million while training properly (with a variety of terrain including some flatter, faster running so I could do a short race and not get hurt). I did a similar race soon after finishing this time and didn’t get hurt. A huge reason I do so much exercise is that I have an auto-immune disease called ankylosing spondylitis. There’s no known cause and no cure. I treat the disease myself, only with diet and exercise, using no medication and no pain killers. It’s inflammatory arthritis, which means it’s worse with rest. Yes, you read that correctly. With AS, the less you move, the worse it is. AS causes my spine to pump out inflammation all day, every day, and that causes tightness and pain. The pain can be severe as I experienced a lot in the past before I knew what was going on. Other common symptoms are fatigue and brain fog. Avoiding all those things is a big motivator for me and having huge goals to get me out the door really helps me stay consistent. Extreme diet, extreme exercise, extreme results!
What were the ups and downs of the year in making this happen?
MR: I really enjoyed doing the long efforts of hill repeats during Spring Energy’s climbing challenges. There is something meditative to me about the dull repetition of it, and I don’t know that in any other year, I would have done hill repeats for 24 hours straight. The biggest low this year for me, and I’m sure a lot of people was during the wildfires in September. Things were already feeling really heavy before that week, but that was by far my lowest stretch of time in 2020. Not only was it impossible to run, but the thick fog of smoke blanketing the city was a constant reminder of the devastation.
SM: Ups and downs-nice pun! Hitting 500,000′ at the halfway point and being ahead of schedule at 900,000′ were pretty exciting! I think the most challenging thing about doing a million in a year is averaging 19,200′ every week for the whole year. Even recovery weeks after a race was planned out so I wouldn’t fall too far behind. A 10,000′ week means a lot to make up the next week on top of the 19,200′. With a full-time job and a family, it’s all about efficiency (and lots of laundry). Sometimes, it’s tough to get out of bed and out the door or out of the car at the trailhead, but even if it’s slow, I always feel better with some movement.
How did having just a few races affect your goal?
MR: Spring Energy put on some climbing challenges beginning in March that Scott and I both participated in. If it weren’t for these, I don’t know that I would have been anywhere near my year-end climbing number. If races had been happening, I would have been dedicating my attention to training for those. Not having any races on the calendar allowed me to be less structured in my running and attempt stupid things that I’d normally consider to be too much of an injury risk. It also meant that I didn’t have to taper for races, so I could keep my volume up week after week.
SM: Only two of my races were canceled, so that didn’t change things too much. Most of the races I do are loosely organized or FKT style.
What was your favorite climbing trail, and why? What was the hardest trail, and why?
MR: I’m probably a little unique in that a lot of my climbing actually came from roads. I live at the base of the West Hills and almost always start my runs from home and run to Forest Park, which takes me up through some of the steepest streets in Portland. Brynwood Lane is one that I’ve spent many hours doing hill repeats and using it as a connector up to Forest Park. I like to mix up routes a lot, so I don’t have one favorite climbing trail. In the park, just about any of the fire lanes will do. In Portland, we don’t have any really long climbs since our highest point is only about 1200 feet, so it’s nice to get out to the Columbia River Gorge or Mt. Hood and run trails with more sustained climbing. I find fire lane 2 to consistently be a nightmare just because of how slippery it gets when the wet season hits. It’s hard to stay upright whether you’re ascending or descending that trail.
SM: I have to pick one?! My favorite weekday hill in town is on the south side of Mt Tabor. It’s called Stairway to Heaven. My favorite weekend hill is Dog Mountain. My favorite really steep hill is in the Mitchell Point area and is 41% grade. See if you can find it! I think the hill near Mitchell Point is the hardest since it’s so steep, and no one is ever on it (except my buddy Derek Wright).
What would you recommend for someone who wanted to do more climbing?
MR: If you’re in Portland, the Forest Park Nasty Routes are a great place to start. In general, it’s helpful to remember that it’s okay to start with hiking the uphills. I found a lot of joy this year in trying to create my own routes that maximize climbing. Using an app like Gaia GPS or CalTopo is a great way to get a sense of how steep the different trails are and to map out your own routes. If you’re looking to maximize climbing or you don’t live in an area with big epic climbs, I’ve been blown away by the efficiency of hill repeats. Find your nearest hill, choose the steepest section, and knock out some repeats. This is also a really useful method for getting better at running the uphills as you can choose the length of the climb and recover on the downhill.
SM: I’d recommend learning to love hill repeats-they can be fun, and you rack up the vert a lot faster! Your car is at the bottom with all the supplies you need so you can travel light; you’ll see more people (and the same people over and over again) getting fun comments like, “You’re going up again?!”, “You’re inspiring me!” and “How many times are you doing this?”. Smaller hills beat you up less but are more challenging mentally. You can also carry no food and water if the hill is small enough. With hill repeats, you can invite your friends. Even if they think you’re crazy and only join you for part of your workout, you might see them for a bit. Another thing to think about is travel time. If you drive an hour to a hill, spend some time out there because that 2-hour round-trip could’ve been more vert on a closer hill. Have fun! That first year doing a million was mostly alone on only a few hills partly because I didn’t have a way to track the elevation gain. Look for new hills, plan new routes, or do your favorite hilly loop multiple times.
When do you use poles on your runs?
MR: I’ve experimented with poles a bit this year and have found I don’t really love using them. I would probably use them if I were doing a super technical run with lots of climbing and descending, especially if I know the trail is going to be overgrown, as I like to use them to beat back brush on the trail in spring and summer. I used them when I did hill repeats on Elk Mountain, and I think they were helpful for that because of the steep descent and loose footing. I also used them on the Wy’Cool 50k route up on Hunchback Mountain, and they were great for avoiding devil’s club and clearing moisture off of vegetation encroaching on the trail. In general, I prefer to keep my hands free and use the hands-on-knees method when needed.
SM: I use poles when I’m going long and steep and also for big loops with a good amount of vert when I have some weight on my back. I only use poles sometimes on the weekend-long run like 4 Dog Mountains or more, 10 BPAs or more, 2 Mt Defiances or more, and also for things like an unsupported 100k or longer in the mountains. The rest of the time, hands-on-knees work well. It also depends on what I’m training for. If I use poles at the next race, I’ll use poles on long runs leading up to it for practice. If you wanna go fast, put the poles away on the downhills!
What is the most climbing you have done before in a year, and what do you plan on doing in 2021?
MR: In 2019, I logged 750,000 feet of climbing. I don’t have an elevation goal for 2021… yet. As happy as I was to hit a million, I felt a little too bound to it at the end of the year.
SM: I did just a bit more elevation gain in 2020 than in 2018. In 2021, I think I’ll do a million again since I can’t think of a good reason not to. In 2020 I also did 4000 miles on foot, and I’d like to do that again too. I’ll also go for 1000 hours of exercise since I was over 900 this year. Finally, I will try to have 365 days of exercise for 2021.