In Stride

Running up a Mountain Makes It Feel Smaller

During my time in South Carolina, Paris Mountain loomed large—until I finally ran up it

Running up a Mountain Makes It Feel Smaller

The mountain seemed complicit in a wide conspiracy to stop my ascent, as if the land itself felt unfavorably about my summit attempt. Illustration: Molly Mendoza

You really haven’t lived until you’ve picked vomit out of your own shoes. I learned this nearly a decade ago when I was training for my first marathon on the slopes of Paris Mountain in South Carolina. I had too much gin the night before, and the Carolina summer demanded penance, which I managed to deposit into my shoes. It didn’t help that I had decided to run up the longest and steepest hill in the area. The mountain was kicking my ass.

It was a very warm morning. When coupled with a steep uphill, Carolina humidity has an almost violent presence. Even the blueness of the sky hides from the heat behind a gray veil. The humidity sank upon the mountain’s slope and lent a pervasive heaviness to the air. It pulled down at me, the superheated moisture compounding gravity’s drag against my body. The mountain seemed complicit in a wide conspiracy to stop my ascent, as if the land itself felt unfavorably about my summit attempt.

Such hyperbole is appropriate. When I ran cross-country and track at Furman University, Paris Mountain enjoyed godlike status. The mountain sits at the edge of campus, just north of Greenville. Resting squat and low above the school, Paris looks like an old earthen castle looming over the countryside.

The mountain was the backdrop to my running experience for four years. It sat in full view of our track, and in the wheezing rest during interval sessions, my eyes would roll upward toward it. On Sunday long runs, Paris Mountain was a point of orientation—the landmark that indicated how far we had left go. When I studied in the evening after workouts, I could see its crest from the university library. The green trees around the summit would fade into oranges and browns as the sun set behind the library’s east-facing windows.

The mountain passively watched us in both work and play. Furman’s Baptist heritage meant the college campus was dry, but my teammates and I brazenly drank cheap beer on our apartment porches. We’d sit and drink, whining about sex, life, and workouts. The mountain was omnipresent—its slope a wall of trees before us.

While Paris loomed large over Furman, to call the rise of land to the east of the school a mountain is a generous description. Paris Mountain is really just a big hill, a peripheral outlier of the Appalachians. It’s a patch of firmer sediment that resisted erosion, now sculpted into a spine of land reclining southward toward downtown Greenville. It’s not particularly scenic. An unsightly gash of stone disrupts the growth of trees on the prominent western slope. Human construction has further scarred the mountainside. McMansion housing tracts have slashed through the woods. Radio and television towers rise in alien angles from the summit.

Nevertheless, a mythic aura surrounded Paris Mountain, one that was compounded by the rumor-mill exaggerations of a collegiate running team. “You gotta be careful running up Paris,” an upperclassman runner cautioned me during my first month at Furman. “It will tear up your calves on the climbs, and then ruin your quads on the descent.” Chastened, I avoided the mountain. On easy days, we’d jog past the aptly named Altamont Road, which led up to the summit. “We gonna race up Altamont today?” someone would always joke as we passed by. But we never did, and its mystique grew. We told stories about recent graduates of the team who were now training for marathons and were rumored to run up and down the mountain on a weekly basis. At the time, I thought such outlandishness was only hearsay. To run up that hill seemed the feat of giants.

But in reality, Paris is decidedly not an impossible run. Indeed, a half marathon races up and over it every year. And compared with the extreme climbing that defines trail and ultra races nowadays, running up Paris Mountain is almost a cakewalk. At Furman, we weren’t anywhere near the fastest collegiate team in the South, but my team was certainly fit enough to have run to the summit with relative ease. We could have incorporated the mountain into a training runs at least a few times a semester, but in my four years as a runner at Furman, I think I ran up to the summit only once or twice.

Why?

By all objective standards, Paris Mountain is still a stout climb. It’s a grind to the top, an ascent of nearly 800 vertical feet over two miles. The last 250 meters flicks up to a 12 percent grade—one final gut-shot if you’re already at your limit. When they held the national cycling championships in Greenville, race organizers incorporated the mountain’s punchy climb to ensure the peloton would break up before the finish. It’s a significant test of physical abilities. So my team collectively reasoned that running up it on a regular basis would disrupt our training and risk injury.

But honestly, we were mostly just scared.

Ultimately, it took a marathon, a challenge of greater mythic stature, to displace Paris Mountain’s fear-inducing psychology. In training for my first marathon after college, I decided to tame the summit. I rented a cheap apartment near the base of the mountain. I started running up and over Paris on a weekly basis—which is how I found myself that one day, halfway up the climb, fishing puke out of my shoes.

Most of my runs up the summit were less memorable. To reach the summit, one follows Altamont Road, which weaves its way up the side of the hill. The trees hang close along the shoulder, making the curves along the ascent confusingly similar: “Was that the last bend before the next steep pitch? Or is there one more?” The narrow road is gray and worn, the tarmac cracked, and the lines of paint faded. Outcroppings of reddish, oxidized stone lean into the roadside.

As I ran up the mountain regularly, the climb assumed a ritualistic normalcy: “This is the turn with the decaying opossum carcass. Here’s the bit with the rampant kudzu. Watch out for the barking dogs that always run down this driveway.” And in this way, the mountain became less big. Such are the tradeoffs we make to improve: the mountains become flatter, the audacious becomes mundane.

The mountain didn’t become physically easier to run up—it resolutely continued to dominate the landscape—but its legend was eroding. One time, when I reached the summit, I looked down the slope, wondering if I could find my apartment. When I spotted the building, it seemed absurdly nearby. “I ran up all this way—and it’s just right there?” I eventually started doing runs with multiple ascents, and the mountain’s iconic status shattered. It remained an obstacle, but one that was mostly just part of the landscape, almost like furniture.

I don’t even remember the last time I ran up Paris Mountain before I moved away from South Carolina. But my running logs indicate that climbing Paris had become unremarkable. On May 11, 2008, I noted without fanfare that I had run a double ascent: up one side of the mountain and down the other, before turning back to climb back over it. “A little leg-weary at the end,” I wrote, “but felt pretty well overall.”

The mountain was runnable. The mountain was easy. The mountain, after all, was just a hill.

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