Mount Washington Road Race
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Results (vs. last year)
Finish: 1:28:33 (1:28:56)
1st Half: (41:38)
2nd Half: (47:15)
122nd Place Overall of 1000 (149)
103rd Place Males (126)
19th Place M40-49 (18)
Total Ascent: 4727 feet (summit: 6288 feet)
Avg. Grade: 12%, extended 18%, final 100 yards 22%
Splits (vs. last year)
1 – x:xx (8:38)
2 – 19:19 (10:41, 1+2=19:19)
3 – 11:25 (11:29)
1st Half – 41:44 (41:38)
4 – 11:54 (11:59)
5 – 12:47 (12:53)
6 – 12:53 (12:39)
7 – 12:30 (12:33)
7.6 – 7:44 (7:58)
2nd Half – 46:49 (47:15)
Finish: 1:28:33 (1:28:56)
There are very few races that bend your mental capacity to a point of such great desperation that the only way to succeed is to steer conjured survival instincts with a might of will, a higher personal calling for the end goal.
Holding on to the marathon run in each of my Ironman events took me to that level of desperation. Saying it was hard doesn’t do the level of difficulty service. It was hard, stupid hard. I held on only because I wanted the goal more than anything else. I was willing to stare darkness in the eye and chance fate through grave discomfort. Allowing myself to walk would have been easy; to run every step, the ultimate goal, was not.
Mount Washington Road Race, a 7.6 mile ascent at 12% average grade with sustained sections at 18% and the final 100 yards equaling 22%, was another of those events.
With goals of running every step of the way and bettering my time of the previous year, I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew the mountain would take me to a dark place if I really wanted to run every step. I knew despair would accompany me if I were to equal or better my time from last year. Was I ready? It was something I wondered myself.
I would soon learn that I almost wasn’t.
With rain falling from the sky on race morning, I arrived at the base of Mount Washington before settling into my pre-race routine. Apparent right away was the nerves hovering low to the ground, just like the clouds, some dark. Many among the thousand participants took race wear off only to put it back on, as if second guessing themselves. Not me. I had no nerves. I knew what I was in for. All of this made lines for the Portopotties short.
After paying homage to the plastic stink chamber, I slipped into race gear and proceeded to warm up over the opening quarter mile of the course. Up and down and up and down I ran, and I was ready, my climbing legs firing steadily with strength. With such steep climbing ahead, there was no need to rev the cylinders as I would a 5K road race. Climbing is different. Climbing is one gear. One pace. All slow.
Now ready, I got into the starting gate with a thousand other runners, wished friends good luck, and awaited the start.
Bang! The race – and the climb – was off.
The climbing started immediately.
With the rain tapering to drizzle and then nothing, I got to work with a steady work-rate, natural cadence, and short strides, all while varying effort to the point where my breathing was on the edge of control. The nice thing about an all-uphill course is that position in race is settled quickly; steepness discriminates by ability. There was very little passing. We were all locked in. I would be with many of these people for the next hour or more, none of us able to say as much as a word to the other.
To Mile Post 1 and on to 2 (total time 19:19 – missed split at 1) something was off. I was not feeling smooth… or fast… or strong. My breathing was labored one moment, easy the next, and broken and erratic the next. The old man looming down was making this difficult. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this.
Negative thoughts avalanched on my climbing parade. I wondered if I really wanted this – the goal of running every step, beating my time of last year. This was hard. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t need it.
Before I got buried in these ill thoughts, I caught myself. I knew the pattern. And I knew how to crack it. I did want this, I told myself. Focus. Focus on light steps, short stride, higher cadence… Focus on breathing and keeping it under control. Focus on being in the moment. Ignore pain. Ignore the old man in the mountain. Ignore I did.
Until Mile Post 3 (11:25), when it returned. I didn’t really want this. Maybe, I thought, I should just bail and run back down the mountain. I reasoned that I already ran the mountain in a training run earlier in the year. I was good. Right?
I caught myself again. Back to focus it was.
I don’t know what it is about Mount Washington, why it conjures such rabid thoughts. I know it is hard. I know what’s required to run every step. But somehow, when you’re in it, the emotions fall hard on your climbing party. Reason doesn’t always win out. And this is precisely why you have to want the goal badly enough.
Apparently I wanted it. Bad. Because by the halfway point (41:44), I was finally locked into zone; there was nothing that was going to stop me from climbing the mountain in the way I wanted – by running every step.
By the time Mile Post 4 (11:54) came into view, there were no more negative thoughts, no more self-doubt and second guessing, and no more thinking about dropping out. I was on a mission. I knew how to work the mountain, to use what it gives me, and to be successful. And that’s what I did.
But damn, those first three miles tested my resolve. They were not fun. Not at all.
Oddly, this is also when the level of difficulty ratcheted up four more notches.
To the dirt path around 4.25 miles, I was in a zone. I was moving slowly but moving as fast as I could so that I could still keep breathing under control. It was here when there started to appear more walkers than runners. Folks were into their run-walk-run routine. I stayed steady, passed when they walked, and got passed when they ran. Most eventually fell off.
Mile Post 5 (12:53) to 6 (12:53) were the toughest of the day, as they always are, with the grade reaching 18%, air noticeably thin, and far above tree line. These are the miles that bend your mental resolve to the point of breaking. How strong are you? How badly do you want this? You spend no time answering these questions but instead focus on surviving, because above 5000 feet elevation, with the goal of running every step, you are doing just that – surviving. It is the only way to motor on. You are one with pain. You have accepted it. And you are working through it. The mountain gives you nothing; it is relentless. The grade remains steep. You do not see the span of the valley below. Nor do you see distant mountain peaks. There are ski trails far below on a nearby range. You do not see that either. You are surviving, battling within to keep on.
Not far from Mile Post 6, I notice my friend Paul Kirsch far up the road. This came at a great point because by then most of the hard work was behind me. Although I was ready for this to be done, and although my legs were very heavy, I was happy that I was still motoring along under my own power. Where the first three miles of the race I struggled to get into that zone, I was now locked in, homing on keeping my body going. It was still stupid difficult, but I was in control of my mental game, which kept the body going.
Now that I had something concrete to focus on, Mile Post 7 (12:30) came quickly. This is also when the course, finally, gives something back with perhaps the easiest stretch of the race. The grade tipping back down to a more manageable 8 to 10%, I was pleased that my legs could indeed turn over more quickly. I pushed as hard as I could with breathing on and sometimes over the edge of control. I knew that the end was near, that I would not blow up. Over this stretch I made up a lot of ground on Paul. He was now within 15 seconds.
My goal, once I locked in on Paul, was to reel him in well enough before “the wall”, the race’s final 100 yards to the summit and the finish line, with a grade of 22%. If I could do that, I thought, we would push on in together.
Motoring as fast as I could but being limited by the thin air – I could move my legs faster but would run out of breath, which would slow me down – I ran out of room. I could not catch Paul before “the wall.”
Having run the entire mountain according to my ability rather than looking at the watch, I had no idea what the clock would read as I made my way up the final 100 yards. I could hear shouts from friends calling my name. I knew that I ran a decent race, though I hoped that I didn’t give up too much time in the first three miles of the race before I locked in. I had no idea what the time on the clock would read. I had hoped to better my time from last year, which was a 1:28:56, but I also had expectations in check, because I knew that I was not, in general, faster than last year; in fact, several metrics show that I am slower this year. So I was hoping that I could at least get under 1:30 and maybe, just maybe, prove that I am stronger – just not faster – by equaling or better my time.
As I rounded the bend in the 22% graded wall, I finally saw the clock. I couldn’t believe it. The clock, ticking from 1:28:25 to :26, was south of last year’s time. I would do it. I would better my time.
Finish came in 1:28:33, a measly 23 seconds faster than last year. First half was 41:44; second half was 46:49. A 5 minute positive split on this mountain is pretty good.
For the second year in a row, I achieved my most desired goal: I ran every step of the mountain.