Cranmore Hill Climb
US Mountain Championship
USATF New England Mountain Series Race #4 of 6
North Conway, New Hampshire
Sunday, June 26, 2011
~12K (Three 3.87km laps up and down Cranmore Mountain)
Ascent: 206 meters for each lap
51st place overall of ~200
36th place overall of ~130 USATF
9th place AG M40-49
Lap 1 – 20:20
Lap 2 – 19:45
Lap 3 – 20:27
Cranmore Hill Climb in North Conway, New Hampshire is all about comfort zone.
The climbing is steep and long, and the downhill is fast and treacherous with uneasy footing. If you are a strong climber and have a large comfort zone, you will do well; if you are missing one of those, especially the comfort zone for bombing downhill at rapid speeds, you will give back time rapidly.
All of this was fitting for a race that this year was host of the 2011 USA Mountain Running Championships. It was fitting because the course, set up by friend and race director Paul Kirsch, mimicked the World Championships in Tirana, Albania.
Making this more fun was that Jay, my TransRockies Run teammate, was joining me for the race. We met in a parking lot at 5:45 AM for the drive up to North Conway and arrived exactly one hour before race start. After picking up our bib numbers, we met up with Hank, a fellow Goon, for a warm up over the first half mile of the course. I charged a few of the hills, hopped over a deep mud channel cut in the trails by water runoff, and got the legs turning over fast on a short single track trail. It was a little bit of everything, enough to tell me that my hammy would not be an issue today.
Before long we were settled into the starting gate along with 200 other guys (women had a separate start). Due to the race’s designation as the USA Mountain Championship, a race that qualifies mountain runners for the World Championships later in the year, the front end of the pack was stacked with mountain goats from Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona, not to mention the usual suspects from New Hampshire and Maine and Vermont. Mountain Royalty was here.
Being nowhere near Mountain Royalty, I tucked myself three rows back from start.
With such grueling terrain ahead, the start was muted, with guys going out on the safe side rather than being shot out of a canon. A jog across the long grassy field of the base of the ski area, the course next turned right, straight up the side of a ski trail. With the mountain looming large in front of me, I got to work climbing and looking for a good line on the rock-filled muddy trail. With a pair of Inov-8 Talon 212’s on my feet, I didn’t need to look for anything special. These shoes were gripping everything. They were the perfect choice for the course.
Due to the profile of the race, it was more crowded in the early going than usual. I did some jockeying for position but knew otherwise that placement in the race would be settled in a matter of seconds. And it was. I didn’t want to spend much energy jostling with others due to what lay ahead. A slow start, I knew, would be good.
The course, design by Paul Kirsch to mirror that of the World Championships in Albania, consisted of three identical laps, each 3.87 km rising 206 meters. It tested a runner’s ability on long and steep climbs as well as bombing down equally long and steep descents. To do well you had to be a strong climber and have a large comfort zone for the fast downs. Minus one of those and you struggle. In other words, you had to be a complete runner, not one-dimensional.
With a full year of running trails and scaling mountains under my belt, I am less one-dimensional this year. And so I got into a good climbing rhythm and kept it as steady as possible. I would not lose all that much on the up, and I knew that I wouldn’t lose a second – and I’d even gain hordes of them, even in the minutes range – on the downs. But first I need to get through the up.
Through 1K and on to 2 on the ascent, I knew the top would come soon. It wasn’t until the latter half of the climb when I had my first walking step. At that point I was no faster running, it was that steep, so walking was a good choice to help rest the legs for more climbing. It was nice to see familiar looking terrain and paths, as many of the same trails were used in last year’s race.
Nearly to the top, there was very little passing, ability already selected by the mountain. I was gradually making my way by a runner here and another there, but it was all slowly. Sweat was pouring off me in a steady stream to the grassy slope below. It was humid. This was hard.
At the top was a water station. I grabbed a cup of water and spit most of it out. My heart was thumping far too hard to get much down.
Speaking of down, it was my time to shine. The course was now turning back down the mountain for the completion of lap 1. Bombs away I went. The down was technical in spots and steep and technical in
others. With my arms flailing to the side, I held my own as I flew down the mountain.
Halfway through the descent I could help but smile. I love this shit, I said to myself over and over. Wee… bombs away I went falling down the mountain doing 2 minute miles. This was fun.
Just then I thought about my comfort zone. Although I was on the very edge of it, much like my breathing being on edge of control, with my heart hammering away, I knew that my comfort zone for bombing down treacherous terrain was well within the confines of this course. This was dangerous, but it was fun!
Passing other runners was difficult, as the speeds with which you are moving are so fast that one wrong twist or turn of arm or foot by you or the one being passed can send you spiraling out of control. I tried to make noise so that I could be heard before I stormed past. Only once did a runner ahead of me move the wrong way (“your other left, dude.”) causing me into a fall. Because the next two steps were so far below, I was able to right the ship back to steady, with me still hammering down
Lap 1 (20:20) came quickly. As I was coming through the start/finish area, I started thinking about having to do that uphill two more times. Just as I started to obsess over it, I heard my name being cheered by friends. Thankfully that got me back to focus for the next climb, the start of Lap 2, which came right away.
Over the course of the first two laps, I was going back and forth with Jeff Gould. Jeff is a very strong hill runner while I am mediocre on the climbing but rock solid fast on the downs. On the first half of each lap, Jeff would come by me at some point and gradually pull ahead until the top. Once on the way back down, it was only a matter of time before I’d come flying by him. I had caught up to Jeff on the down part of the first lap.
Now on the second lap, I was pleased that I was with Jeff at the top, which meant that I gained ground on him over the lap. Not much. And in fact I don’t think I gained much, rather it was more me keeping up with him on the up that helped me get him so quickly on the down.
Lap 2 (19:45) was also when I decided to ease back on the up. I didn’t want to burn myself out on the second lap. We still had a full lap to go. It was better, so I reasoned, to dip into the well a little deeper on that last lap.
And that’s what I did. In hindsight, it is interesting to see that lap 2 was my fastest, because not only did I hold back a touch on the up part, but it also felt the worst. On the other hand, I know better why it hurt the most, and it’s because although I *thought* I was easing off the throttle, I wasn’t. This is a very common thing that happens. Think of your own races. There are times when the shit is hitting the fan. You feel like you’re crawling far slower than you had been. But in reality your pace isn’t all that far off what it was. It just feels that way. Lactic acid build up is like that. And by this point my legs were heavy. They had me wondering how I’d fare on the last Lap.
I had nothing to worry about. Although the last lap was just as difficult, I was still within myself. I climbed more on that third lap, saving nothing for the end. I didn’t need it. Because I knew the race remaining was 2K up. If I could get through that then the rest comes for free. Bombing downhill costs very little. It is easy compared with going up. Move your legs as fast as you can while keeping them under you. That’s the ticket. That’s the game.
Nearing the top on the last Lap, I was expecting Jeff to come by me. I had stolen a glimpse back earlier on the climb. He was back maybe 15 seconds. A look under my armpit near the top revealed that he was still 15 seconds in deficit. This was good news for me.
At this time I also noticed Paul Bazanchuk and Jeff Dengate pretty far up the trail. This was another mild victory because it was the first time all race that I was seeing them. This meant that I was catching up. The final descent of this last lap was my last hope. Having rabbits ahead also helped me forget about Jeff Gould behind me.
Bombing down the mountain, I made up ground on both Paul and Jeff. I pulled to within 10 seconds but ran out of room. Finish came in 60:32, which was good for 51st place overall and 8th place in my age group.
Cranmore has to be my all-time favorite race. It is challenging with steep, long climbs and amazingly fast and dangerous downs. It leaves you beat up and sore, worse than racing a marathon, but damn it is fun. I smiled, mostly inside to myself, the whole way down the mountain on each of the three laps.
It was also good to be able to finish such a brutal race so well and feeling still in control. That is testament to my fitness and strength, because each of my laps had a split time very near the other. Lap 2 was my fastest, while Lap 1 & 3 were nearly identical.