Loon Mountain Race
USATF-NE Mountain Goat Race Series #5 of 6
Loon Mountain, Lincoln, New Hampshire
Sunday July 4, 2010
5.7 miles to summit
Total Ascent: ~2200 feet
32nd Overall of 210
5th Place M40-49
Course Map: here
Race Website: here
Scott Mason Photography: race photos
*Photos by runner, photographer, and home brewer extraordinaire Scott Mason and the very talented Kristin as lifted from Jim Johnson’s blog.
Race number five in the USATF-New England Mountain Goat Race Series of six was at Loon Mountain. The race starts at the base of the mountain and finishes at the summit, climbing over 2200 feet for an average incline of 10% with many sections far greater and one closer to 40% or more that runs for over a half mile. Borne from the difficulty of the course comes the saying, “There is no safeword at Loon.”
Having not done the race before, I studied words others had said about the course to prepare myself mentally for the challenge ahead. I came to the conclusion that the slogan, “There is no safeword at Loon,” implied that the level of difficulty of the course would be so high that there would be a time during the race, specifically while ascending “Upper Walking Boss,” a black diamond ski trail, when desperation would be all-consuming and threaten to drag resolve back down the mountain; only those who could withstand deep despair would be successful.
I was prepared for the worst. And that is exactly what I got – the worst. But thankfully I was ready.
With two beeps of a car horn by race director Paul Kirsch of White Mountain Milers fame, the race was started. The course, starting at the base of the mountain, meandered through the parking lot before cutting between two ski houses and heading up the mountain on a dirt path. Footing was uneasy due to loose rocks but was otherwise fast. I could tell by the slower start, with the leaders only a few paces up, that we were in for a tough run. I was in 30th place but never considering moving up. I had to take care of myself before I could worry about others.
The course cut across the mountain before turning right straight up another dirt trail. This was the beginning of the real work. As much as I tried to settle into hill climbing mode, much like I did at Mount Washington, the soft dirt and loose rocks kept derailing those plans. At times I could find a line going up, usually on the far edge of the dirt path by grass, where footing was hard packed, but the line would end a few paces later.
My Saucony Triumph 7’s, a pair of sturdy road shoes with good traction, stability and cushion, proved yet again to be an excellent choice on this varied terrain.
Through the first water stop at 1.7 miles, I felt neither good nor bad. I was in a zone, climbing as fast as my breathing would allow, locked and focused going neither fast nor slow. I passed one or two while one or two passed me. Steep inclines common in mountain running have a way of quickly stringing out the pack according to ability. With massive climbing already done to this point, this was no different. There wasn’t much passing. Climbing was too difficult, ability already selected.
Not knowing the course or having studied the map before the race, I wasn’t sure what to look for to signal the most difficult part of the course, that being the ascent up the black diamond ski trail, “Upper Walking Boss.” But I remembered what the race director said before the race. “This is a tough race,” he said, or something to the effect. “Know that when you get to the gondola station, the hardest part of the race is still to come.” Everybody laughed, but I, the good student, paid attention.
I wasn’t yet at the gondola station atop Loon Peak, the first of two peaks the race would cover, but to this point the trail was very tough. I even had to walk once or twice, and one of those times for quite a while. The incline up the mountain was steep. Dirt trails gave way to tall grass. The wild flowers were a photographer’s dream. The view back down the mountain to the valley was surreal. On one glance I even got dizzy for the sheer height I had already climbed.
Finally to the top of that first peak and the eventual finish line, the course bombs down a trail across the mountain and then hairpins straight up for the ascent up Upper Walking Boss. On that cut across the mountain before “the Boss,” I closed the gap on three others, including the 3rd place female. The down was fast but uneasy – so much so that the woman tripped on a water bar and tumbled a good 20 feet. We all stopped to help, but before we could ask if she was okay, she was back on her feet and at pace. Flexing my road running muscles, I passed all three on the descent.
As soon as I turned onto Upper Walking Boss, the trail for which “There is no safeword” was founded and by far the toughest part of the mountain, the female in 3rd, ever light on her feet, passed me back. This was a good thing. On the toughest part of the course I had a rabbit to set pace.
Upper Walking Boss is a 1K (.5 to .6 miles) climb at a grade unlike any other. Sections are 40 to 50%. All but one or two in the entire race of some very talented mountain runners will walk the entire span. Me, I ran… Two steps. And maybe a third and fourth near the top. That’s it.
With a rabbit setting pace, I kept eyes on her blue shoes and willed myself to keep my feet moving along with hers. Up we went. Occasionally she’d pull three or four paces ahead, only to see me close the gap with a short-stepped hybrid power hike. I would apologize to her after the race that I couldn’t do any of the work for us, for I was all out just keeping with her.
Halfway up “the Boss,” with me still trailing the rabbit, my legs reached a new level of burn. Here I was, my heart thumping so hard I could feel it in my temple, sweat dripping from me as if a faucet opened to full, and I was doing my best to walk – I wasn’t even running – up a goddamn mountain. My legs, they were barely moving. Growing even heavier, my legs, my body, my mind, I did all I could to keep moving, keep pace with my rabbit. Desperation took over. Holy crap. When will it end? I wondered as despair crowded my view. One foot, then another. Foot again, then the other. Step, step. Up and up I went, with the deep yellows and oranges and purples of wild flowers and grass beneath me. I nearly tumbled into the mountain when I stubbed my toe on a rock. So in awe of the terrain I was that I put my hand out to see if I could touch the mountain. I got grass. This was hard. This sucked. Traces of desperation were back. “There is no safeword at Loon.”
As difficult as that section was, and even as slow as I was going up it, I was prepared for it, because when darkness encroached on my soul, I was able to stay focused, be positive, and do what I could to keep moving as fast as I could rather than worrying about when it would end or giving in to the option of letting those feet in front of me go or, worse, letting my own go. Had I not been mentally prepared, I know that section would have ratcheted up the level of desperation that Mount Washington had. I was prepared for the worst. And when I got the worst, I knew what to do. But Christ was that hard.
Finally to the top of Upper Walking Boss, the course bombed back down the other side of North Peak, descending toward Loon Peak far below for the finish. This section contained the most treacherous down hill I have ever run – worse than even Cranmore. I was on the brakes the entire way, and I was still out of control, ready to take a tumble at any moment, even at every moment. My rabbit had already gotten 10 or more seconds up; nobody was behind me. I almost lost it again on soft dirt, another time on a rock that rolled underneath my foot, and again on a water bar. Once I even had to come to a near complete stop. My goal went from trying to catch the rabbit and one guy in the distance to not falling, not getting injured.
The finish came in 1:03:46, good for 32nd place overall and 5th place M40-49, and an amazing challenge I will never, ever forget. Loon was simply a blast!
Loon is why I enjoy the challenge of mountain running. The “no safeword” slogan, although catchy and even reflective of the difficulty of the course, is in a strange way what makes the challenge fun. Running up mountains, Loon and Cranmore in particular, requires such intense focus just to keep moving forward while trying to maintain position that there comes a time when desperation takes over for the utter exhaustion exhibited. It is so taxing that survival instincts kick in. There is no energy to wonder when the finish line will come or when the current section will crest. Surviving requires intense focus that is more present than road running. You are alive in the here and now. Later, even a moment, doesn’t matter. The thrill of victory comes later, when the mountain is scaled and the finish line crossed. And in your mind you remember those wild strawberries, not the pain to keep going, on the way up the mountain.