Mount Washington Road Race (MWRR)
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Saturday June 19, 2010
Finish: 1:28:56 (11:43 pace)
1st Half: 41:38
2nd Half: 47:15
149th Place Overall of 1000
126th Place Males
18th Place M40-44
Total Ascent: ~4500 feet (summit 6,288 feet)
“The mountain strips you raw, completely naked of emotion, even motivation, and then stares deep into your soul, with you being totally exposed, and asks, ‘What have you got?’” –Thor Kirleis, Mount Washington Auto Road, Mile Post 1
If you look deep within and cannot come up with an answer when faced with that revealing question, the old man in the mountain will defeat you. You will be forced to a walk. It will be involuntary; it will not be a conscious decision. You will have been defeated. Wake up and you will find yourself walking, your spirit sapped of strength and resolve.
But the strong will want it so badly that they will do what it takes to push back. “I want this,” you must say. “I am strong. I can and I will do this. That is why I am here.” You must believe… in yourself… and in your ability to withstand. “Leave me alone, old man!” Say it loud. But to yourself. “I have work to do.”
Once you understand that you cannot defeat the mountain, that the peak named Washington is revered for the reason it is, that you must work with what the old man gives rather than stealing a feather from its cap and cowardly running away, that there is no running away, that there is only a matching of pain and resolve and might and patience. Then and only then can you survive. And that’s just it. Mount Washington Road Race can only be survived. It cannot be conquered. It cannot be beat. It can only be survived.
King of the Mountain, behold. Mountain is King. King is Mountain.
And what makes the challenge so unique, staffed with a level of difficulty unlike anything you have ever done before, is that these thoughts avalanche upon your little climbing parade before you even get to Mile Post 1 (8:38).
By then you are already reduced to micro steps, stuck in a world of hurt, wondering if it really is this difficult. How can it be, you ask yourself? You are not even a mile into the 7.6 mile race and you are already fearful that the next step is your last.
“What have you got,” the old man asks? “Prove your resolved. Prove your strength. Show me what you got.” Too tired you are already so early in the race that you do not hear the sinister laugh of the big mountain. All you hear is deep, heavy breathes, some labored and out of control and others barely hanging on from those around you. Or maybe it is you. The mountain seems to breathe.
The thoughts stop there because you know (you just know!) that the next thoughts are about dropping out at the first aid station. It is a race unlike any. The level of difficulty is tops. You knew it was coming. But did you not believe it?
And then now to Mile Post 2 (10:41), you are still moving, and you realize that although you did know it was coming, and although you did believe – or maybe you did not, you aren’t quite sure now – survival is found not in answering that question but rather staying focused, keeping your breathing as in control as you can handle, and your body strong and your legs firmly but yet loosely beneath you. The cord is taut. The key is to keep applying pressure but to never let it snap.
The race has barely started and you have already learned that survival is about not looking up ahead where the road may go, for to do that is to waste valuable energy needed to keep moving, but rather staying focused on your breathing, energy output, and keeping your stride short while your legs turning over. You are in the moment. Fully and completely. There is no other way. Otherwise the cord will snap. Or it will slacken. Either spells doom.
By Mile Post 3 (11:29), you learn that the only way to achieve your goal of running every step of the 6,288 feet to the summit of the biggest mountain in the northeast, on a road averaging a sturdy 12% grade with some sections as steep at 25%, is to work with the mountain and “use,” but not “take,” what it gives you. When the incline tips from 15 down to 12%, something that at that point that seems manageable, you “use” that opportunity not to gain time, not to pass the guy who, doing a run, walk, run, walk, you want to get away from, but rather you use it to recover. To “take” it, as in to speed up, would be to end your race, forced into the shame of a walk. You must use what the mountain gives. Survival depends on it.
Having done the exact course a week and a half before in a training run to see what the mountain was all about turned out to be a curse. Or maybe it was good. Either way, it weighed heavy.
They say the second time you jump from an airplane is by far the hardest. Your first is filled with nerves and excitement of the experience ahead. But after you know what it is all about, your second go at a jump is when nerves strong-arm the excitement, for now you know what to expect, which allows a level of awareness of the dangers ahead. And for this reason, mentally, the second jump is the hardest.
Running up the auto road for the second time in less than two weeks was my second jump from an airplane. Only this was so difficult, my goal on the edge of falling hard, that I had to stop thinking about what was to come and instead get back to focus, back in my head of the task at hand, working the mountain, keep effort steady, getting breathing back under control. As the air thinned and the temperature seemingly climbed, this turned from difficult to a level so hard that survival instincts would kick in when focus was lost.
Through half (41:38) I was surprised to see such a fast time, but with the air getting tighter by the minute and with level of difficulty ratcheting up, I had no time for math on expected finish time. All I knew was that I had at least 45 minutes left. Nobody negative splits Mount Washington. Nobody. It is physically impossible. But those thoughts weren’t permitted on this mountain. It was too hard, the pain too high.
Mile Post 4 (11:59) came. I did not notice. Surviving was hard work.
Being in survival mode, and running survival pace, time neither stands still nor accelerates. Time just is. It marches according to the tested rituals of the earth around the sun, the moon around the earth, coming around neither faster than before nor slower than remembered. Focus required to keep running, to not walk, is so intense that time just is. You do not notice. Seconds tick to minutes. You do not notice. Minutes move toward ten’s of minutes. You, focused more than ever, do not notice.
Mile Post 5 (12:53) finally came. By now you notice not that either. But somehow, perhaps instinctively, you still hit the split button on your watch. People are dropping in rapid numbers. There are sections so steep that you are the only one running. You pass them by. A minute later they come running by you. You pass again. And again, a time later, there they go. You no longer notice. Because you are so focused. Maybe you are looking at the ground. Maybe you are seeing the ski slopes far below on a distant mountain. You are not sure. Maybe you aren’t seeing. This is survival. You have conscious space only for surviving. And you are still surviving, the goal still intact. To this point you have run every step of the way. You no longer notice. You are surviving.
Mile Post 6 (12:39) was in there somewhere. Again, you must’ve seen it at some point. You do notice many others walking as you go by. All you see are their feet. They are dropping, falling behind. The sounds of heavy breathing dominates the mountain. There is finally a breeze, but you don’t hear it, you only feel it. But the deep breathing, that you hear. Maybe it’s your breathing. You have to focus so that you keep breathing to the beat of your own heart rather than that of someone else. Tiredness makes it hard. Survival demands it. So you get back to yourself, working and working.
You think not about the finish, for there is still too much work to be done. Survival and the level of difficulty are immense. Maybe you’re in a zone. Maybe you’re used to it. No matter. It’s a question for another time. Because the lapse in focus now has you breathing out of control, a step away from walking. You do your best to slow things down; you fight to keep your feet moving. Are your feet moving?
By now the level of difficulty unlike anything before. In hindsight it reminds me of my last two Ironman experiences and the level of difficulty of holding onto the run. To walk is easy. But that isn’t the goal. The goal is to run. Every step of the way. Deep in your core, you want to survive. You want to run every step of the marathon after swimming a long way and riding much more. To walk is easy. A coward’s feast is a grant a single walking step, to let up for a second. You fight to continue running. And you fight. And you fight. And the fight drags on, requiring more patience than you have energy for, and it drags on. And before you realize you are fighting for life, a survival pitted in the glory of pulling out the marathon run. For hours and hours this continues, requiring intense focus; you have to be one with your body, driving it like an engine, taking care of its needs to keep it going, until you are fighting for so long that it turns into survival. One slip and the dream is lost.
Mile Post 7 (12:33) comes with the dream still alive. To that point I had run every step of the way, but now, with more left, there was no time to reflect. It was still focus. Intense focus. The body, my engine. I had powered it this far and must keep going. There are no thoughts of the finish. To wonder about the .6 miles remaining is to turn your back on the goal. Because to obsess about the finish and being done, even for a few seconds, would result in a lack of focus and the instinct of the body, no longer wanting to survive, to subconsciously stop, all systems shut down, reduced to a walk. Legs moving, keep them moving, shorten stride, no ego, don’t pass, stay within, stride can’t be too short, just keep moving. Ease back on effort, breathing better, slowly increase cadence …gradually …gradually.
With my eyes trained firmly on the pavement before me, focus as pointed as ever, and my legs still moving, I saw deep into my soul, hearing the question come again, the mountain asking, “What have you got?”
This time there was an answer. Or maybe it was that I let the answer be seen.
Above me was the summit. Cheers could be heard but not yet seen.
The answer within me contained no words. Could I let it out? Did I even have control?
Cheers grew louder, with people now crowding the road on either side, now cars, the finish not far, the pain soon to ease, the goal accomplished.
The answer unfurled as if an anthem for life.
Survival is a choice. It is not easy. But it is a choice. You choose to survive. You choose to want more from yourself. With belief in self, choosing to survive in the face of intense adversity, the door is opened for achieving personal greatness. You choose to be great according to the scriptures of your goals, beliefs and values. There is no asking, “Can I do this?” or “Can I do that?” You must believe you can, and then you do it. You make it happen. But you must be ready, and you must want it, for survival is hard. But in order to reap the reward of such personal satisfaction, survival and the physical and mental toll it requires are the price you pay.
I survived Mount Washington because I demanded it of myself. And what I learned is that when I was stripped naked to raw, there deep in my soul was a strength found during only a test of survival where instinct takes over. I paid the price – this hurt something fierce – but the reward for having survived was something I will never, ever forget.
Mount Washington, I thank you for the challenge, you old stubborn man.
Splits (verses training run pace)
1 – 8:38 (*9:02)
2 – 10:41 (~12:08)
3 – 11:29 (~12:08)
Half – 41:38
4 – 11:59 (12:52)
5 – 12:53 (~13:19)
6 – 12:39 (~13:19)
7 – 12:33 (13:03)
7.6 – 7:58 (*8:20)
2nd Half – 47:15
Finish – 1:28:56
~Average pace over two mile window
*Adjusted pace (added a few seconds) for actual course (training run was short).