Mount Washington Training Run
Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire
Wednesday June 9, 2010
Mount Washington Auto Road
Total Ascent: ~6288 feet
WU ~1 Mile – 8:49
1 – 8:24
2 – (12:08)
3 – (12:08)
4 – 12:52
5 – (13:19)
6 – (13:19)
7 – 13:03
7.6 – 7:39
Finish: ~ 1:30:00
With a week and a half until the Mount Washington Road Race, I decided to take a vacation day to see what the “big mountain” was all about. I had heard various tales of what the massive climb on the auto road is like, but one thing I’ve learned in endurance sports is that everybody, with different strengths and weaknesses, will have a different story. So it was time to stop guessing, to go find out for myself, what I was in for.
My goal was to get a sampling of the auto road. I wanted to see first hand how steep the pitch is, if there are any sections to recover on, how I could utilize my abilities and training around my weaknesses and to my strengths to be successful, and how relentless the road really is. I figured I would take it in stride once I started up the road. Maybe I would run up to Mile Post 3. Or maybe I would go as far as 4 if I felt good. We would see.
After a warm-up jog of close to 10 minutes and a last potty stop at the ranger station at the base of the mountain, I started up the auto road. The road tilts up immediately. Even before I could run far enough to get my breathing labored, one thought rattled around in my skull: Holy shit! The road was steep. It did not let up. Not even for a second.
So focused I was in keeping my stride short and legs turning with breathing on edge but still under control that Mile 1, despite the difficulty of the incline, came shockingly fast. It was getting hard, but I was purposely chugging along at a comfortable work-rate. Note that “comfortable” is relative. This was hard stuff. Even the first mile. Even when fresh. It was hard. Comfortable means varying effort so that you can move as fast as possible while still being able to breathe.
Maybe, I started wondering, I would go to Mile 2 and turn around. I had seen enough of the incline and what the road would be like. Maybe Mile 2. Chugging on and on, up and up, it was getting even more difficult, but I was still able to keep my legs light enough and directly under me. My form was good even though my stride was shortening. I was sweating even though it was getting noticeably cooler. I was so in the moment, so focused on feeling the mountain out, that when I saw up ahead the next Mile Post, I assumed it was 2. But when I finally got to it, it was 3! I had missed 2.
Now at Mile 3 and feeling like I could go at least another mile, I figured I’d go to 4. By then I started worrying about going too far up the road because, well, I had to get myself down. I had no problem running/walking down the mountain 3 miles, but 4 or more and we’re talking about serious pounding and perhaps a long recovery period. On I chugged almost ignoring those previous thoughts.
About every mile or so I had a special diversion of seeing workers on the roads. They would stop what they were doing to acknowledge my efforts. I told one that I would see him again in about 30 minutes. “Oh,” he said, “you’re not going to the summit?” Nah, I replied, probably just to the next mile post. On I chugged.
The more difficult it got, the more but the scenery before me sparkled like a painting. It was at times almost surreal looking down thousands of feet into forest far below. I was now up above an entire ski center, staring down a mountain away, as green paths cut through forest. I stole long glances whenever I could.
Another cool thing was the car and shuttle busses going up the road. Some would wave or smile encouragement, while others just looked on with an expression that asked, “Are you nuts?” Maybe, I would joke to myself in reply. But I had no extra energy to respond back with. I was at a point where even to drink water from my hydration belt would cause me to gasp for air, my breathing elevating out of control, for a full minute. This was hard work. This was very hard work. But remarkably my legs were still moving. I varied stride so that it was always at a higher cadence. The key, on top of that, was taking what the mountain gave me. This meant not speeding up when the incline tipped down from 15% to 10% or 12% to 9% but rather using that section as a period to recover, even if for just a few strides, and keep breathing under control even though it was labored.
By the time I hit Mile Post 4 I was so in a zone that I forgot to even consider going back down. This was also when I noticed a slight head ache coming on. It took me a while long to realize that the thin air of being above 4000 feet, which I knew because of the Elevation Posts in feet beside the road for each thousand, was the reason. But still, chugging on and up, there was a draw as evident as the steepness of the grade that I didn’t see. The summit was pulling me up. I had made it to 4. There was no way I was not going all the way. Only I hadn’t known it just yet.
By what I estimated to be about 4.5 miles, I started wondering about how I could get a ride back down the mountain if, say, I ran all the way up. When I finally decided that this was a question I would answer once I got to the top, that’s when I knew I was going all the way. Worst comes to worst, I told myself, I would try to get a shuttle back down. Or I would walk. Whatever. It wasn’t like it was life or death. I would get down. That I knew.
Still chugging on, seeing more construction workers as friendly as could be, it got very difficult. But I was still committed and extremely focused. I was so in the moment that when saw the next Mile Post I nearly fell over. My breathing got out of control from the excitement. In the thin air it took me a while to realize that what I was so floored over was that the Mile Post had a “6” on it. I had missed Mile Post 5. “Oh my god, I’m going to run every step of the way.” This is wild.
Up and up, I kept wondering when it would ease up. I had been told by a few that the last two miles were possibly the easiest. I kept waiting for an easier mile. Christ, even an easier section. It never came. But something far better did eventually come: The summit. And oh my, the summit, there it was, up only a short ways. I am doing it. I’m about to do it. Holy crap.
Rounding the final bend and ascending the last hump to the summit, I could see cars and shuttle busses and people walking about. I continued up, with my legs finally feeling as if having lead weights attached and a stride as short as can be while still making forward progress. At the top, where the road finally leveled for the first time in 7.6 miles, I was greeted by a collection of people who had passed by me, them in the car, me running, some times before back down the auto road. I was highly recognizable due to my lime green Trakkers jersey. I used this gathering as my own little finish line. I did it. I ran up the auto road to Mt. Washington.
The effort was easier than I had expected, but I was far slower than I imagined. When I say “effort was easier,” this is not at all to say that it was easy. It was not. It was very, very difficult. I can’t even relate it to anything like I’ve done before. It is not like a marathon. Nor is it like an Ironman. It is different. It is very different. But it was easier than I expected. Unfortunately I was also slower than I had hoped for – that is, assuming I was able to run the entire way, which I did. I figured I was good for maybe 1:20. I did it in 1:30. You might say it was only 10 minutes and in non-race conditions. But honestly, there really isn’t a race pace in climbing such a brutal incline over that kind of distance. There is one pace. It is survival pace. And that was my survival pace. And on race day it will very, very likely be not all that much different. You survive the mountain. But time aside, there is absolutely no disappointment here. This was a complete blast of a challenge and one I am proud to have done. I might even call this epic a few years from now. When I hit the summit, a noticeable but calming feeling came over me, the goal already completed. What I realized is that I wanted to run up Mt. Washington. I wanted to beat the mountain. I didn’t need an official race to do it. I just wanted to do it. A part of me wishes that I knew I would be permitted to run the auto road, because honestly, had I known that, I would not have signed up for the race. I would have done it exactly the way I just did. But I will be there for a second go.
After milling about, I headed into shelter for a bite to eat and to refill my water bottles. I didn’t get far without people asking “Did you really run the entire way?” “How long did it take you?” Not long after, with the wind finally starting to bite into me, instead of trying to illegally hitch a ride, I figured I’d try an honest hand first in getting a hiker shuttle bus. Luckily, one was waiting and ready to head down in 5 minutes. The shuttle bus spot I got was on one of the tour shuttles. A ranger talked about the history of the mountain as he addressed 6 people plus myself. He mentioned the road race and had me talk to the others about the course. It was fun. 30 minutes later I was back at my car.
An epic day.