Ascutney Mountain Challenge
USATF-NE Mountain Goat Race Series #6 of 6
Ascutney Mountain, Windsor, Vermont
Sunday July 11, 2010
3.7 miles to summit
Total Ascent: 2300 feet
Finish: 38:38 (10:27 pace)
26th Overall of 200
8th Place M40-49
Race Website: here
USATF-NE Mountain Goat Race Series: here
USATF-NE Mountain Final Rankings: here
*Photos by Scott Mason (infamous photographer, runner, home brewer and friend), Dave Dunham (the legendary), Ken Skier (of “Run with Ken” fame), et al.
Ascutney Mountain in Windsor, Vermont was site of the sixth and final race in the USATF-New England Mountain Goat Race Series. Titled the Ascutney Mountain Challenge, the race started at the base of the mountain and went 3.7 miles up the auto road, gaining over 2300 feet, with a finish at the summit. It was all that stood between 100+ runners, myself included, from achieving prestigious status of Mountain Goat, something earned by completing all six races in the series.
Coming into this race, I was sitting in 10th place overall in the series standings and 3rd place in age group M40-49. Closer inspection revealed that with this race I could not move up, for those above me were too far ahead, but I could move down – knocked from my perch in the Top-10.
With Ascutney like a mini-Mount Washington featuring ascent-only (there is no down; the race is all up), something that exposes one of my weaknesses, I knew I couldn’t afford to let up, not even a step, in order to maintain positioning.
Turning this into a fun competition was the fact that the guy behind me was good friend Paul Kirsch, an extremely strong up hill runner. Where my game is on trails that are level or down, Paul’s is when the path tilts up. The question was not whether he would beat me to the top of the mountain but rather by how much – or, for me, how little.
After comparing splits for last month’s Mount Washington Road Race, Paul and I realized that in order for him to catch me in the overall standings, he needed a great day on the mountain, and he needed for me to have a mediocre to bad one.
My goal was simple: keep Paul in sight. If I could do that I would hold onto a Top-10 finish and 3rd place age group.
Paul would go on to have a good day, but would I be able to keep him close enough in view?
After a good luck handshake at the starting line, Paul and I settled into the start area along with 200 others, half of whom were about to earn Mountain Goat status. The festive hoots and hollers from the crowd almost shielded the morning sun from growing too warm.
I had had a good warm up before the race, logging two flat miles with a few strides plus a quarter mile climb on the beginning of the course, so when the gun finally sounded to start the race, I was already in my climbing rhythm and working the mountain. This was important because the ascent started right away – and would continue for 3.7 miles until the finish line at the summit.
As with all mountain races, the instant climbing has a way of stringing out the race very quickly according to ability. This was no different. By a tenth of a mile in, there was very little passing. Paul was a few strides up on me and gaining one every now and then. Although he was slowly pulling away, he was still close within sight. All things were in order. I was so far holding my own.
Just before Mile Post 1 (9:41), another common theme of mountain races was met. Just then, as if on cue, a runner ahead of me started walking, then another, and before long one, two, and three came back to me, never to be seen again. I always wonder if those guys are new to running mountains.
At this point shaded pavement became scarce. The sun was rising, and as the elevation increased, with trees getting smaller, there was no place to hide from the growing heat. It reminded me of the weather at Mount Washington, which by the start was already into the 80’s and climbing faster than the elevation could knock it down.
Through the water stop at half way and on to Mile Post 2 (11:01), Paul was still in sight. This was where I first started getting worried. I was breathing very hard to maintain contact, and although I was still in touch, with Paul now incrementally gaining on me, he looked very strong. It was then when I noticed that while I was cutting tangents in the road as it wound its way up the mountain, which is a sign that things are growing tough, Paul was sticking to the middle of the road. You might wonder why he would do that considering the path to the top would be longer, but by staying in the middle, you can avoid the steeper grades at the pinch point on the inside of the road as it bends, thus it is easier on the legs and takes less a toll. But when tired, you have a tendency of cutting the tangents.
Realizing this was a bit of an eye opener for me. It was then when I realized that I wasn’t taking care of myself; I was focused more on keeping my buddy in sight rather then making sure to put myself in position to have the best race I could – because in reality it didn’t matter that I was chasing someone by minimizing the time they would gain on me; what mattered was that I got myself up the mountain.
That’s when I stopped looking for Paul and turned inward in attempts to run my own race. And from there on, through Mile Post 3 (10:51) and on to the end, I worked the mountain with my best effort. I kept my stride short, my legs moving fast, and my breathing on edge of control. Every once in a while when the road would tilt from 10% grade to 15%, I would push up and over and then recover back again so not to be too slow.
Every now and then I would steal a glance up the road to make sure I could still see my buddy, who was now even farther up on me but still in sight, but I made sure to not let his pulling away impact how I raced, for this mountain was far too steep, where to walk even once might mean losing a minute here and there, and that was something I could not afford to lose, so I had to focus on myself and myself only.
With the sun now beating down with even more force, my body was so coated in sweat that with each swing of the arm to every step I took, water would fling from the tips of my fingers. It was hot. I wiped my brow and kept the work rate as high as breathing would allow.
But it wasn’t enough. I lost sight of Paul. A few seconds earlier I could still see him when the road maintained a straight edge and lose him when it bent, but now the straights weren’t long enough. He was gone, out of sight.
Lucky for me the finish was right around the next bend.
I crossed the finish line amid cheers from many of my new mountain friends – the fast ones – in 38:38 (average pace 10:27).
Paul came over right away. “54 seconds,” he said. “Congratulations, you did it.”
He was right. I held on to my Top-10 series placement with 10th place overall and 3rd place age group.
It was a good day all around for both of us. Although Paul did not move ahead of me in age group, his solid effort on the mountain enabled him to leapfrog a few others for an 11th place overall finish. Congratulations on a great race, Paul. The “showdown” at Ascutney was fun. Thanks for making it that way. And thanks for all the advice in the races prior. The mountain series was among the most fun, yet also most challenging, endurance activity I have done since my days of doing Ironman. I will be back next year.
To cap a fun day at Ascutney and the closing of the Mountain Series, I joined a third of the recently crowned Mountain Goats at a nearby river for a memorable after party celebration. While dipping in the cool waters of the river and sipping beers, a common theme emerged: this was by far the most fun, most challenging, and most awesome race series any of us have ever done. We will miss the races even if they were stupid hard. We will miss the weekly challenges. We will miss the friendships and seeing the same faces. And we will even miss the long drives to faraway places. Although our bodies need a break, if there was another series race this weekend, all 100 of us would show up, regardless of where, how far a drive, or how tough the course would be. Kinship is what I call it.
Fellow Mountain Goats, thank you for a wild ride.
See you next year!
1 – 9:41
2 – 11:01
3 – 10:51
3.7 – 7:01