Cranmore Hill Climb
USATF-NE Mountain Goat Race Series #4 of 6
Cranmore Mountain, North Conway, New Hampshire
Saturday June 27, 2010
11.6K (2 loops for ~7.25 miles)
29th Overall of 200
7th Place M40-49
Total Ascent: ~2400 feet (1200 feet per lap)
Course Map: http://www.whitemountainmilers.com/cranmore/2009map.html
Race Website: http://whitemountainmilers.com/cranmore/
Scott Mason Photography (race photos): http://www.scottmasonphoto.com/USATF-NE-Mountain-Series-2010/Cranmore-Hill-Climb-2010/
*Photos by runner, photographer, and home brewer extraordinaire Scott Mason.
Cranmore Mountain in North Conway, New Hampshire was site of the fourth race of six in the USATF-New England Mountain Goat Series. Ensuring a deep field only a week after Mount Washington (the road race) was the race’s designation as the USATF-NE Mountain Championship.
As I arrived at this popular ski resort and was navigating the long driveway to the parking lot, I was struck by the massive mountain before me. So large it loomed that, as cars rolled along, mine nearly bumped into the car in front because I couldn’t take my eyes from the steep pitch of wide grass swaths cut into the mountain as they gave way to rock and harsher terrain higher up. The sight was so awesome that I also hadn’t noticed the gondola cables disappearing into the sky.
Having already completed three races in the series, I have come to know many faces in the crowd, and they all had warned me of the level of difficulty of the Cranmore Hill Climb before me. “Sick,” “crazy,” “hard,” and “dangerous,” were honest assessments. “It’s the toughest race you will ever do,” another warned. “Don’t get injured.” “Be careful.”
This would be difficult, to be sure, but terrain wasn’t the only thing making this tough. The night before, my lovely wife had the brilliant idea of crashing a neighbor’s party that, after jamming to a live band and enjoying an open bar, didn’t put me back home until 1 or 2 a.m., your choice… Wake up time was 4:45 a.m.!
After picking up my race packet at the lodge, I went for a short warm up jog on trails at the base of the mountain, and then got into line for the start with 200 other hard core mountain runners.
By the time the race started, I was feeling neither good nor bad. But I wasn’t worried because, as mountain races go, there is no luxury in wondering how you are feeling once the gun fires because, just like with this race but very much unlike a traditional road race, the climbing starts immediately. Cranmore was no different.
After a short jog on a level grass field, the course made a right to being climbing on the first of many black diamond ski trails. Long grass and uneven ground made the going tough. Up and up the side of the trail, with rocks embedded in the dirt and grass and leaves covering hidden roots and more rocks, the course went. Already breathing hard, I began to sweat.
To the top of this section, the course made a right turn into a wooded trail that cut across the mountain. By the time I popped out the other side for yet another climb up the black diamond trail, all the alcohol from the night before was dripping from me in the form of sweat. There was no time to wonder how you felt. This was hard work, the climb too steep.
The rest of the way up to the summit this continued: Up a black diamond ski trail, right into a trail back into woods across the mountain, over to another ski trail for yet another for another massive climb, each section getting more and more difficult. The course grew so steep by the half way point to the summit that most people were walking. Not long after, everyone was walking. It was too steep. Only when the mountain would give a percentage incline back, such as to dip from 30% grade to 20, were you able to get back to a jog. On a stupid difficult terrain, I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard someone below me utter: “It even hurts to walk.” He was right. The trail was so steep, with such uneven footing, that after a while the pain associated with power hiking farther and farther up was the same as with running; the only difference was that nobody could run, not a single step. This was stupid hard. Even a power hike was reduced to a trace walk. You had to push your knees with your hands to push yourself up. It was that bad.
Finally to the top the course went, by the summit house where there was a water stop, and back down. The down was treacherously fun. They got faster and faster to the point where they became slow because, so steep and aggressive they were, you had no choice but to slow yourself to a near crawl, going down now sideways. I leveled my body with my arms extended to the sides. That still didn’t prevent me from nearly wiping out every few minutes.
To the bottom of the mountain the course went. I stayed to my plan of opening it up on the more sane sections but staying cautious on the crazy dangerous ones to get a feel for them so that on the second lap I could be more assertive. And that’s what I did.
Completing the first loop, I came through the start/finish area, where there was another water stop. I used so much muscle getting through the first loop that, for since I can remember, I felt hungry during a race, as if I might bonk on the up part of the second loop. I grabbed sport drink and headed back up the mountain for some more pain.
Up and over the same course, the difficultly was immense. With legs fatigued, growing extremely weak, from so much intense climbing, legs having to muscle the body up as if taking three or four step of a staircase at once, that whenever the path would level, it would take 50 yards or more to get back even a trace of lift back in the legs. But each time, before it would come back, the path would turn straight up yet again, black diamonds be damned.
Where I thought the second loop would drag me to the ground, with my race ended and me defeated, I was actually enjoying the trip. My energy was zapped as I was all out, but somehow the intense focus required of keeping moving, even when walking the stupid steep parts, made it go fast. Before long I was back atop the mountain and heading down. Bombs away I went.
By this point I was already lapping some of the back of the packers, which made the descent even more dangerous. There were sections that were so steep that you can’t just bomb down in a straight line. Instead you sway from side to side in much the same way you would snake the road on bike when riding up a very steep hill; only this was going down, and I was running. And when a slower runner was in the way, one either being lapped or bonking, the uncertainty of which way they would move next nearly sent me into a face plant. I did my best to go around while also keeping moving as fast as I could.
And by this point most of us were running by ourselves. I would see someone way down the path and set chase. Some I would catch. Others I would draw in only to watch them pull back level when the course got too technical for my safety.
Towards the middle of the down hill, with the course darting across slopes and then bombing down again and again, all the way to the bottom, the footing got rough where even though it was fast you still cannot open it up. It was here when I noticed a familiar face a hundred yards up the path. This was the same guy who is in my age group and who I sit ahead of by one in the USATF-NE Mountain Series standings. And so my goal was to catch and pass him by the finish. And that’s what I did.
Finish came quickly in 1:07:57, good for 29th place overall and 7th in age group 40-49.
Outside of Mount Washington and each of my Ironman’s, the Cranmore Hill Climb was the hardest race I have ever done. Words cannot describe how technically impossible this course is. The challenge is steep. Hung over or not. It is fun.