Mount Washington Training Run
Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Mount Washington Auto Road
Total Ascent: ~6288 feet
*Time includes several minute stop to talk to friends and photos at each mile post.
Splits (last year race, training run)
1 – 12:32 (8:38, 9:02) – Talked for several minutes to friends.
2 – 11:29 (10:41, ~12:08)
3 – 12:22 (11:29, ~12:08)
4 – 12:11 (11:59, 12:52)
5 – 14:07 (12:53, ~13:19)
6 – 13:55 (12:39, ~13:19) *Wind 35 mph steady.
7 – 14:56 (12:33, 13:03) *Wind 45 mph steady, gusts to 65 mph.
7.6 – 8:13 (7:58, 8:20) *Wind.
Finish – 1:39:00 (1:28:56, 1:30:00)
It started as an idea several weeks earlier. It was something I did the previous year in my training for the Mount Washington Road Race. I figured it would be good for me again this year. Plus I was interested to see how I would fair compared to last year. Maybe I would learn that I am faster this year.
Like all great ideas that formulate in my mind, it grew to the point that the decision to do it was taken away from me. It went from a thought that slid dormant to something that exploded into happening; there was no choice. It was a matter of when.
The decision of when was made for me, too. The Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend was open, free of plans, ready for the three hour drive up into the Whites of New Hampshire, precisely to the base of Mount Washington. It didn’t matter that the day before I participated in the Wachusett Mountain Trail Race, the second race in the USATF-New England Mountain Series. The lure of the mountain — and of a great challenge — rendered tiredness mute.
Without more forethought, I found myself at the base of Mount Washington getting ready to do a solo training run 7.6 miles with a 12% average grade up the auto road. Destination was the summit 6,188 feet up in the clouds.
That’s when it hit me, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. Intimidation ruled supreme. It was impossible to ignore the self doubt. Here before me was a beast of a mountain, and I was about to attempt to run up it. Solo. By myself. With nobody else. What if I couldn’t make it? What if the grade proved too steep? What if I ran out of water? What if the wind kicked up? Or it was too cold?
Where seconds before I had been curious on how I would fair going up the mountain and how that would compare to last year, I was now facing something far more sinister. I was intimidated. The old man looming high before me was controling my thoughts. This was, I started thinking, a silly idea to come up here to sample the mountain again. I hadn’t felt this type of intimidation in a long, long time. Last year was a fluke. I wasn’t expecting to run the whole way; but I did, by accident. This time, with a goal to run the entire road, I had now come face to face with self doubt, fear.
Standing beside my car, now dressed to run, I watched a long line of dark clouds drifting in front of the peak of the mountain. The old man was up there somewhere. Break it up, I coached myself; take it a Mile Post at a time. Maybe only go up to 3. I don’t need to do the whole mountain. I’ve done it before.
And that was just it: I have done this before. Twice. The first time was by accident. The second time was the 2010 race. Both were brutally hard, so hard that I acutely remember the pain required to run every step of the way. During the race, I had reached a level of desperation unlike anything I’ve done before. It was almost what it was like holding onto the run in each of my Ironman events. It hurt that badly. The problem now was that I knew what to expect. Was I ready?
Intimidation rising steeper than ever, I knew I had to face the fear and dare it to blink. So with that I set out to run.
Temperature at the bottom was 72F with high humidity in the 90’s. I started sweating right away. I wasn’t too worried about the sweltering conditions because I knew that it would eventually get cold. That is, until I got a quarter of a mile up the winding road. That’s when I saw two guys coming down the mountain road toward me.
One of the guys motioned toward me. “Are you Thor?” he asked.
I couldn’t believe it: Who the heck would know me out here on the auto road?
They answered my question before I could ask: “Paul Kirsch said to look for you; he said you’d be running up between 7 and 9 (AM).”
The three of us gathered on the side of the road, sweat dripping from all of us in the humid air. “Paul and I are good buddy’s,” I said joining the conversation, “we do the mountain races together.”
We talked a few minutes about the races before I finally asked, “Did you guys go to the top — what weather should I expect?”
Hot and humid. Just like here. But not too windy.
I would learn later that none of those conditions would greet me at the top.
I would also learn later, at the top of the mountain, that these weren’t the only people who would know me.
I was in for big surprises — one good, one not so good.
Four minutes later I was back running. And sweating. Profusively. A stready stream of water dripping to the ground. It was hot, humid, and the wind, however present it was at the base of the mountain, was nowhere to be found.
Mile Post 1 (12:32) seemed to take a long while to come. My head wasn’t yet in the game. So I got to focus, got to doing what I know to do, got breathing on the easy edge of control. Short strides, light on feet, work it.
Still hot and still sweating like crazy and drinking more than I would have liked from my water bottles, Mile Post 2 (11:29), 3 (12:22), and 4 (12:11) came. I couldn’t help but note that I felt less like death at this point than I had the first two times up. This was a good sign. I was actually enjoying myself, stopping to take pictures at each Mile Post and other times when I saw good pictures, and although it was hard, there was something more manageable than it was the first two times.
Just before Mile Post 5 (14:07), before the winding road turns to gravel, everything changed.
Now above tree line, the wind was picking up considerably. It was still humid, but it was now getting chilly. I was no longer a puddle of sweat but rather clamy and getting cold.
I stayed within myself, kept breathing on edge of control, and welcomed each Mile Post as a time to snap another photo. Although this was hard, it was manageable. I knew how to work the mountain, and I wasn’t giving anything more than training-run effort. But I was slow. This bothered me but, at the same time, it was overshadowed with the sheer epic flair of this steep solo challenge.
It was then that, step upon step, I approached and went into the clouds. There was a point where if I took one step up, I would be above the clouds, engulfed by complete whiteness without a view below; one step back and I’d be just below with clear views to the valley and mountains below. I called this my “cloud ceiling”. Although I wanted to get a picture of this trippy experience, just below the cloud ceiling, I was too tired. I needed to stay focused and work the mountain. This was hard work.
By Mile Post 6 (13:55), the wind was stiff and steady at 35 mph. When it was directly to the head, I felt like I was running in place, going nowhere. Adding to the effect was that visibility was all of 10 feet. Great patience was required.
To Mile Post 7 (12:33) I went. The wind was now at 45 mph steady with gusts to 65 mph, as it would remain the remainder of the way. Running in place, or so it seemed, moving an inch at a time, visibility was reduced even more. The loud rush of wind engulfed by whiteness clouded view. Where I thought I would struggle, not being able to see, it was actually easier to get into focus on the task at hand — working the mountain — for the exact fact that I couldn’t see!
By this point I could only make out 5 to 10 feet in front of me. It wasn’t an issue with cars coming down the mountain because they were moving so slowly due to the dangerous conditions. The wind was so strong that when the road was clear I tried to run more toward the middle of the road so that a gust wouldn’t blow me off the edge of the mountain. All I could see was a white line disappearing into whiteness only feet away. That white line was the edge of the auto road.
Finish came (7.6 miles, 8:13) in a total running time of 1:39:00 (including time for stops to talk to friends and take pictures at each Mile Post). I was slow. Maybe not that slow considering the wind and race the day before, but those are just excuses.
I had come to Mount Washington to hopefully learn that I was faster this year over last without even trying; secretely I hoped that my steady-state pace would be faster than my race pace last year. I didn’t get any of that.
Though I did learn something. It would take me until the drive home to learn just what that was. What I learned wasn’t that I was faster, nor that I am stronger; rather I learned something far more profound.
I learned that Mount Washington is doable. By me. I can do this. And I can do it my way. I am no longer intimidated by the mountain. I ran up the rockpile in complete control, unlike previous times. I did not hit that grave level of desperation reached in last year’s race. Once I got my head in the game by Mile Post 1, I instead got to focus on working the mountain and never let up, nor wavered in my abilities.
Mount Washington is no longer this crazy big mountain that only a few can conquer. If you break it up as I have, and if you stay focused on what you have to do to be successful, and if you want it bad, you too will do it. It’s not that bad. Hard, yes. Brutal, of course. But doable. Mount Washington is doable. There, I said it.
Upon finishing I found my way through the clouds to the true summit. Although I fell a few times in the gusty winds, I managed to snap a few pictures, but I had to hold onto the summit sign so that I wouldn’t get swept off the mountain. I wasn’t alone. There was tourist carnage sprawled all over the rocky path to the true summit. After that I promptly refilled water bottles in the cafeteria, bought something to eat, and headed over the store to see about a shuttle ride back down the mountain.
Inside the store I made quick friends. The workers staffing the store — a man and a woman, both in their 50’s — hooked me up with a ride back down. While waiting for the shuttle to arrive, we got to talking about all sorts of things. I had mentioned that I did this very thing last year, and the good people here hooked me up with a ride back down on one of the tourist shuttles. That’s when the guy took a step back from the conversation. “By the way,” he started asking, “what’s your name?”
“Thor,” I said. “Maybe Patty knows me from last year.” Patty was the girl who helped me get a shuttle last year. She wasn’t working today.
“Thor,” the man repeated as he stood to his feet, “you’re a legend around here…”
A legend? I rambled something about the recent movie that just came out about the infamous Thunder God, “Thor.”
“No,” the guy said as he started pointing at the far wall.
I wasn’t following. Maybe I was just tired.
My new friend walked to the wall while still pointing at it. That’s when I realized that he was pointing at a photograph. He looked more closely at the photo and then at me, as if comparing the two. “Yup,” he finally said, “that’s you.”
I moved to the wall to get a closer look at the picture. It was me. I was surrounded by my two friends from last year. Patty had made me promise that I would stop in to say hello three weeks later during the race. I did. They took a photo. That was the picture.
Who knew I’d have friends on top of the world?
It put smile on my face. And it still does. The nicest people in the world are located at the highest point in the northeast.
Thank you, friends. You made my day.