Running through Patapsco Valley State Park, notorious for its hills, I saw firsthand proof of "sky runner" Beth Darnall's talent. Unlike ordinary runners, Darnall barely breathed when we ascended any and all hills. While I dreaded the climbs, Darnall loved them; it was as if she went into another gear, running up mountains as if they were molehills.
"In 1996, my former coach, Bobby McGee [now the coach of Colleen DeReuck, who qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the women's marathon] helped me understand that, while I am mediocre on flat areas, my talent comes out on hills. I got my butt kicked on flats."
The hills are where Darnall picks off other runners and goes into another gear.
Darnall is, in her words, "very self-driven." At the moment, the Catonsville resident, 33, has her sights set on conquering the Pikes Peak Sky Running Marathon in Colorado on Aug. 22.
Pikes Peak, at 14,115 feet, stands 8,000 feet above the town of Manitou Springs, the greatest elevation gain of any mountain in the lower 48 states.
"For me, the higher the better," says Darnall. "It's amazing how crisp and pure the air is up at 12,000 feet. The world is stunningly beautiful at high altitude."
And Darnall is stunningly good at running at those altitudes. While striding along the trails in Patapsco Valley State Park, Darnall explained how she got into her unusual pursuit.
"Trail running has gained a following in recent years, but sky running is more obscure because geography limits its popularity. In a way, that's great. Its nice to have a niche sport because then everybody isn't on the same trail."
In 1999, while working on her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Darnall saw an ad for a race called the Mount Evans Ascent. It was the next day.
"I figured it sounded like fun and it was on a mountain I'd never been to, so I rolled out of bed the next morning and ran," she says. She finished third among the women, ahead of some from around the world who had been training for months.
"Mount Evans showed me this was something I had talent for and had a blast doing," she says.
Others noticed her talent, too, including Brian Metzler, who put Darnall on the cover of his 2003 book, titled Running Colorado's Front Range.
It's an area of the country that's helped her prepare for next month's race. "The biggest challenge for Beth's training for Pikes Peak is where she lives. It is naturally hard to find terrain that is conducive for training on the East Coast," says Darnall's coach, Jonathan Cavner.
Darnall moved to Catonsville from Arizona two years ago for a fellowship in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins. "I never thought I'd live in the East," she says. "It's a shock. But I'm here now and enjoying the trails in Baltimore."
This past February, she got the opportunity to go back to Colorado after receiving a $5,500 grant from Balance Bar.
"I was shocked to receive the grant in a pool of 2,000 applicants," she says. "It was an amazing thing to receive money to do what I want to do." She was awarded the grant on the strength of a 1 1/2 -page essay.
The grant allowed her to obtain the one thing she needed most: an experienced coach. "Jonathan [Cavner] is a sky-running stud who is an incredible asset to my training." she says.
In 2002, Cavner finished the Pikes Peak run in 4:16, good enough for third place.
"Beth had always trained hard, but she trained hard all the time," says Cavner. "In order to significantly increase performance we implemented a program that would allow her to have hard days and easy days. Our bodies gain fitness not by exercising, but rather from recovering from the exercise."
On Saturdays, Darnall goes hard-core, doing four-hour runs in the mountains of Virginia with 5,500 feet of elevation gain. Tuesdays, she hits the track at Gilman School.
"You can significantly increase performance in mountain races by running both hills and flats at the same effort instead of the same speed," says Cavner.
"The interval track workouts really helped Beth to become a faster runner on the flats, which will greatly improve her time in mountain races.
"In a typical year, Beth would be trained well enough for second place with a chance at the overall title. This year, it is all up in the air and really depends on who shows up."
Win or lose, Darnall says "running is part of the fabric of my being. As a choice, I would never give up running. It's a part of who I am."