Mount Washington Road Race
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Results (vs. 2011, 2010)
Finish: 1:26:02 (1:28:33, 1:28:56)
1st Half: (41:44, 41:38)
2nd Half: (46:49, 47:15)
109th Overall of 1000 (122, 149)
99th Males (103, 126)
10th Age Group M40-44 (19, 18)
Total Ascent: 4727 feet (summit: 6288 feet)
Avg. Grade: 12%, extended 18%, final 100 yards 22%
Splits (vs. 2011, 2010)
1 – 8:46 (x:xx, 8:38)
2 – 10:36 (19:19, 10:41 : 1+2=19:19)
3 – 11:16 (11:25, 11:29)
1st Half – 41:05 (41:44, 41:38)
4 – 11:32 (11:54, 11:59)
5 – 12:36 (12:47, 12:53)
6 – 12:05 (12:53, 12:39)
7 – 11:46 (12:30, 12:33)
7.6 – 7:20 (7:44, 7:58)
2nd Half – 44:57 (46:49, 47:15)
Finish: 1:26:02 (1:28:33, 1:28:56)
If you had told me before the race that I would smash a Personal Record (PR) for the course, I would have believed you just as much as I would have if you told me that I’d run sluggish, even slow.
Coming into the 52nd running of the Mount Washington Road Race, I knew I was fit and I knew I was strong. It would be my third go in as many years up the rockpile. But with a lack of the hill-specific training that I had in previous years, I wasn’t expecting much.
Due to the grueling nature of the 12% steady grade of the auto road, with sustained sections at 18% and a final stretch at 22%, I always envisioned the way to perform your best was through specificality in training. Sense to me for a speedy run was you had to train on similar terrain. Because I hadn’t done as much course-specific training as I had in previous years, I didn’t think this year would be my one to breakout. Victory would have been to run the same time as I had last year (1:28:33), or anywhere within the 1:28 range, PR or not. This didn’t mean I would try any less; it just meant I was realistic, if a bit naïve.
Being as fit as ever entering the race gave me confidence I would at least run to my potential with my current set of tools. More confidence came after a conversation with Dave Dunham, Mr. Mount Washington himself, who said very directly that heavy base miles typically translates into fast times on the mountain. Dave suggested that it wasn’t so much about training on sustained grades but rather putting in lots of miles.
Lots of miles I had. Ensuring this was a target summer race of the Canadian Death Race, a 125K (78 miles) ultra-marathon covering 17,000 feet of total ascent over three major mountains. I was so focused on – and, really, nervous of – the Death Race that instead of training exclusively for Mount Washington, I was logging trail runs in the mountains north of three hours and one as long as 5, not to mention a 50 mile ultra (Pineland Farms) that took me 8 hours. Mount Washington, the road race, was rendered a stepping stone to a higher plateau. Sure, I was feeling strong and fit, but I was eying the Death Race, not the old man named Washington. And I trained for the Death Race, not the old man.
It was only the day before the race when I started questioning my motive, wondering if I had overlooked this race too much. Mount Washington is tough. It is grueling. And it can be ugly. In my two previous times running it (2010 and 2011), I hit a level of desperation during the race that I had only ever hit during the marathon portion of each of my Ironman competitions. Running up Mount Washington forces you to stare deep within your soul to see if you really want it. If you want it, you will survive. If there are questions, even a one, you will suffer. With something this brutal, can you really run the rockpile successfully while treating it as a run-of-the-mill 5K?
The answer, I found out, was yes, but you have to be fit, and you have to know what you’re in for. Thankfully, I was fit, and having run the road five times prior (two races, three training runs), I knew exactly what I was in for and exactly how to do it.
Race morning dawned clear and a touch crisp. Temperatures were in the low 50’s heading toward the 70’s by race time. I thought about putting a sweatshirt on for the drive to the base of the mountain but decided that staying cool would have benefits, because I knew the sun would make low 70’s feel closer to 85F.
Upon arrival at race site, I parked in the grassy field beside a white circus tent. I hopped out of the car and peered into the sky toward the mountain named Washington. For the first time in a few years, you could see clear to the top, where several antennae’s marked the summit, also known today as the finish line. Rumor had it the wind up top was light, 15 to 20 mph, and temperatures would be in the low 50’s by the time we got there. It was a perfect day for racing.
Mountain Washington Road Race has morphed into a family reunion of mountain runners from all over the New England region. Having been in the community for a few years, I know most of these people plus now even know some from around the country. Being that this year’s race was designated the USATF National Mountain Running Championship and for men the selection race for qualifying for the US National Team competing in Italy later this year, I had even more hugs, high-fives, and fist-bumps to get through before I could get ready.
An hour later, I slipped on my singlet and pulled tight the laces on my shoes. This year I decided to run in a pair of Mizuno Precision 13’s. These, with great thanks to a thoughtful friend who hooked me up with them, are my new go-to pair of shoes for all tempo runs. I simply love their soft, light-weight cushion ride. The shoes are so comfortable that I forget they are on my feet. Even though I had only logged a handful of tempo road runs, none with any elevation to speak of, I knew these would help me rock the course in comfort and with performance.
With my Precision 13’s on and ready to roll, I warmed up on the opening quarter mile of the auto road. As soon as I got my sweat on, I turned back down and rambled around on the trails at the base of the mountain. Stride here, stride there, two miles later, my legs were pumping, ready for Old Man Washington. I found my good buddy Jeff, and into the starting gate we slipped.
Each year I laugh because as I stand at the foot of the auto road along with 1000 other runners, I can’t help but note that the mood is in steep contrast to that of a marathon. Here, with such a grueling challenge ahead, where most will suffer more pain than they have ever before, people are light and friendly. In most marathons, angst mists the air like a heavy fog; nervous energy has runners either bouncing on their toes or tight-lipped singularly focused on the road ahead; idle chatter is an unwelcome guest. But here at the base of the auto road, everyone is chill, chatting idly, happy to be living life a little fuller. 7.6 vertical miles? Bring it. I love that.
BOOM! A canon exploded the race to a start.
Off the starting line I went, side by side with Jeff. We jostled for position among those around us. The start at this race is always tight, as the road narrows quickly to the length (barely) of two cars side by side. A few hundred yards later, now into the meat of the climb, we were finally beyond slower runners who, in their minds, thought they were faster. A steady 12% grade will quickly sort the field by ability. This day was no different.
By Mile Post 1 (8:46), I was dug into the climb at a steady rhythm, constantly varying effort at a micro level so that my breathing was always on edge of control. Jeff, stronger than I at climbing and, really, in races of all distances, gradually pulled away from me.
By Mile Post 2 (10:36), I lost my rabbit; Jeff was too far up. I still saw him, but he gapped me too much to help. That’s when I hooked up with fellow Turtle (Tuesday Night Turtles, my new running club), Chris Jasparro. Both of us breathing deeply, we grunted and connected with a few finger waves. It was code to mean that we’d run together as long as possible. By this point the morning was growing quite warm. Still chugging along at a steady clip, I watched beads of sweat, one at the time, fall to the tilted pavement beneath my feet. I knew better than to pray for a wind. At this mountain, you can never trust the wind. It can turn on you quickly as the trees shrink in size.
Chris and I exchanged leads several times and at other times ran side by side through Mile Post 3 (11:16). Jeff, my rabbit of the first two miles, was now out of sight.
When the Half came, I noticed right away that it felt as if it came far more quickly than in previous years. Where usually I have several dark moments within Mile 2 and 3, this year I was mentally plugged in, and I was feeling strong. Although I didn’t feel as if I was moving fast – hindsight backs that feeling with early splits compared to previous years being only 39 seconds faster – when I saw the time on the clock (41:05 at Half, 3.6 miles), I knew I was at least set up to match or beat my previous best as long as I didn’t crumble to a walk.
Through an aid station just after half, I gapped Chris a bit, but by the time we hit Mile Post 4 (11:32), he had gapped me and more.
Even before Mile Post 5 (12:36), where the road tilts to 18% for a mile-long stretch, Chris was now pulling away to the point where I was no longer looking for him. I could still see him, but looking up that far was too much strain on the neck. I let him go. Chris would eventually power on for a great race.
For the first time since the canon fired at the start of the race, I was running without a rabbit to chase. Still on the section where the road is dirt, I spied a view off my right side to Wildcat Mountain ski slopes in the distance. This is among my favorite views, and although this is the part of the course that will make or break you – it is arguably the toughest – it is my favorite part of the course, too. In racing a marathon, I always look forward to mile 18 to 20, because you never know how you are going to feel; even a perfectly executed race plan can fail, where you find yourself in dire shape at that point. Or you are strong and still on pace for a rocking fast run. This stretch, the dirt road at Mount Washington, is that for me. If you come out of that stretch still intact, still running strong, and still mentally plugged in, you will likely finish well as long as you constrain your energy output through Mile Post 6, much like you would finish strong in a marathon.
Although I felt slow on this section, I got through it and was now back on the pavement around mile 5.5 heading toward the next aid station. My breathing was on the tippy edge of control. I was working as hard as I could. The only assistance I got was from a gentle breeze that cooled ever so slightly.
Since the beginning of the dirt road to here, a stretch of nearly two miles, I was now passing many runners. A few jockeyed by me only to stop and walk. As long as I kept running, I knew, I would go by all of them. What I’ve learned is that those run-walking eventually fall off, most of them right away. Passing runners buoyed me. When the road would tip down to 11% from, say, 13%, my legs, although deeply fatigued, turned over quickly. I knew I could have a good finish, although I thought I was roughly at the same pace as last year. I never know because, truth be known, I don’t study splits or compare numbers; instead, I run to my ability every time out and let the chips (and time on the clock) fall where they may. What can a clock do more than running to my ability can? In my mind, nothing. This also sets me up for one of the most natural surprises. But that surprise wouldn’t come for another 2 miles.
Just then I started thinking about the finish and what my time might be. Before I could guess that I would finish near or perhaps slightly faster than last year, maybe with a 1:28-even finish time (last year was 1:28:33), I realized that my mind was drifting. I had to wrestle it back to focus on the race. “Dude,” I thought to myself, “stay plugged in. You’re not even at 6 (Mile Post) yet. You know there is still tough running through 7. Stay focused.”
STAY FOCUSED! Back to focus I went.
Mile Post 6 (12:05) came quickly and with it a shot of adrenaline. Mile 6 was site of the Heartbreak Hill Strider supported aid station, where I had several friends handing out water. Although I was too tapped out to jump for a high-five, I made eye contact and did a finger wave first to Chris Dunn of acidotic Racing, and second to my buddy Tom.
Swigging a cup of water, I listened to Chris and Tom yell encouragement. Chris took it up a notch. “Go Thor!” he screamed. “Jeff just went by. Go catch him!”
Jeff? Just went by?
I had a new/old rabbit to chase. A long glance up the winding auto road yielded… nothing. Another glance… nothing. I didn’t see Jeff. But I did see Chris, another of my old rabbits, and he was, wait, there’s Jeff!
With Jeff now in sight, perhaps 3 minutes up, I thought there would be no way I could catch him. That is, I thought that way until I saw him power walk when the road tipped up. That gave me hope that I could at least close the gap. Just when I worried that I would run out of room to chase him down, I stopped the thought as silly. Instead, I focused on a rabbit to pull me the rest of the way.
Mile 6 to 7 is usually when I go through another dark period. Somehow I get out of my head and let myself believe that I’m almost there. Although you are almost there, you still have a lot of tough running left. That’s the part that gets me every year. But not this year!
By the time the road lightened up, Jeff was now directly in my sights with only one other runner between us. I couldn’t help but notice that Jeff was now powering along with strength. Where before he was power-walking the steepest parts of the road, he was now running up. Damn. He would later tell me that around that point he took a look back to see where I was, and when he saw me he knew he had to get on the horse and stay there.
Stay there he did. Jeff hit the final section, a 22% stretch known as “The Wall”, 30 seconds up on me. That is exactly where he would finish. In all, over the last mile, we both motored by 5 or 6 others, first him, then me.
Next it was my turn to battle The Wall. As I started up, I heard my name being called. I wagged a few fingers to show acknowledgement as I continued to pump my arms. I had no extra energy to break rhythm.
Up the Wall I went, I powered around and around the bend, until finally the finish line, and the clock, came into sight. Because I hadn’t looked at my watch, even when I hit the splits, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I gave the mountain my all. My belief is and always has been that if I run every step of the way, not pausing to walk a one, I will have a good race, or at least I will race to my ability with the tools that I have. Seeing the clock for the first time, just like I do in marathons, is among the most natural, awesome surprises in my life. I want it to read one thing, but I have only an idea based on how I felt, and today, now at the top of the mountain, really on top of the world, having achieved my goal of running every single step for the third year in a row, and knowing that I felt great, I could only imagine what the clock would read. No need to guess, as I am who I am and it is what it will be. And so when I saw the clock, half expecting it to read 1:28:xx, specifically because that’s what I had guessed back at Mile Post 5, I found a stray bit of energy to make a fist and pump it has hard as I could.
The clock read 1:25:52, :53, :54…
I couldn’t believe it.
I ran as hard as I could, trying to lift my legs, get them turning over more and more quickly as the path to the finish lets up from 22% to flat. I thought only one thing: Holy shit!
Holy shit, I just rocked this beast.
Try as I did, I couldn’t get the time to stay in the 1:25’s.
Finish came in 1:26:02. With an average pace of 11:19, this was good for 109th place Overall, 99th place Male and 10th age group M40-44.
The final .6 miles (7:20) was the strongest I had ever felt on that section. If there ever was a way to put an exclamation point on a run up the rockpile, that was it.