The drive from Bristol, NH (Newfound Lake to be exact) allowed ample time to wake up before the 9am race start, but it also facilitated enough time to stress about my first attempt at a mountain race. It also allowed for a weather preview, which was less than ideal with varying degrees of rain and temperatures in the upper fifties. A rainy run up a 6200 foot mountain was not my ideal arrangement.
The Mt Washington auto road is a 1.5 lane road that leads to the summit (6,288 ft) where there is a restaurant, hotel, observatory, and more importantly… the finish line.
All runners have to secure a ride down the mountain for after the run which, for safety reasons, requires all cars drive up the mountain no later 8:30am. For a car to drive up, it must have at least two runners’ bib tags since there is limited parking. This forces racers to be self-sufficient and stash gloves, jackets (and, in my case, a shirt) in the bushes pre-race.
Some of my local running buddies from Birmingham did the race; this group included Jerry McGwin, Brett Noerager, and Paul Herron. We got our race packets and huddled under the very large white tent where I got tattooed with “Rock/Creek Race Team” by Brett before we finally braved the rainy conditions to get a 1.5 mile warm-up in. The month leading up to the race consisted of intense, twice-weekly hill interval sessions for me, with one being long hill intervals (1 mile or longer up) and a shorter intervals (quarter mile up). I also did a few treadmill training runs at 11% grade which simulated the race course. In the end, I am not sure how much good all of this stuff did.
I foolishly took my starting spot at the very front of the pack of approximately 900 runners. The first 300 yards of the race are flat before the fun starts. I pushed hard and hit the hill in fourth place; then, the onslaught of passing began, first in packs and then individual runners.
I was winded early as we ascended to mile one, which to my surprise was already at 2000 feet. I had heard that the first 5k was the worst part of the race. My goal was to run the race between 9 and 10 minutes per mile for the entire race. My first mile was too fast at 6:57.
It was still hard to believe that there was no relief to this hill, which has always been the case in every other race I have run. Due to fatigue, I settled into a more reasonable pace and ran the second mile in slightly over nine minutes still trying to get into a rhythm. I was just taking it a mile at a time and secretly hoping that it would be slightly runnable after mile four where the road switches to packed dirt.
I hit mile three, still getting passed, and working to deal with the lower calf pain that comes with running up an 11% grade. Some time before mile 3, Camille Herron from team Inov8 passed me, and I kept her in sight as a pacer (she finished as the fifth place female). Due to the extreme nature of the climb, no one talked as they passed or were running. By this point in the race someone said I was around 51st overall, which was not very motivating to hear.
Before we hit the dirt, right after mile four, I passed the halfway point. I was at 37:27, which would equate to a 1:15 total time. At this point I knew my stretch goal of going under 70 minutes was out, and my moderate goal of going 75 minutes was looking out of reach as well. My realistic goal of breaking 80 minutes was still in play, and this became the measure of a successful race.
The dirt did not offer much hill relief, except for a few very short sections which were more like a 3%-5% grade and almost felt flat. The clouds were opening up and the sun was coming out, which allowed me to see the runners several hundred feet above me and confirmed the climbing was still not over and more pain was to come.
I settled into a mid to upper ten minute per mile pace for miles 4 and 5. I hit mile 5 in exactly 50 minutes. Getting to mile 6 seemed to drag, but I finally hit it at mile 6 at slightly over one hour. I knew those last 1.6 miles were the test to get to my goal of sub 80. I had reeled Camille in by mile 7, and was at 1:12 with 0.6 miles remaining. I knew that I had to run under 8 minutes to achieve my time goal.
This was not comforting since the last quarter mile of the race is the toughest part with a grade of 22%. So I passed a few people before I started the final push up the crowd-lined streets to the finish (very similar to the Tour de France I would assume). I gave it all I had and gritted my teeth and pushed for the finish. I caught one guy very close to the end. I ended up 52nd overall in a time of 1:18:58.
I experienced a peaceful feeling on the summit, with the sweet relief of being done with a big task. The conditions at the summit were less than ideal, with strong winds and temps somewhere below 40 degrees. After hot coffee in the observatory, some stretching, and reliving the race with my Birmingham comrades, they opened the auto road for cars to drive down at noon. It took 35 minutes to drive down the mountain to the post-race party in the field. The food was excellent, Harts Turkey dinner with all the sides, and an ample supply of sunshine with temps close to 80 deg. Overall, this was a great experience; it’s fun to do historic races outside your comfort zone!