Summit blankets were actually needed this year!
The following week I did the run leg of a half iron triathlon relay with my coworkers - this meant running a half marathon, which I was horrifically undertrained for given that I have not done a single double digit run since Boston. But no matter! Since it wasn't an open race no one was really going to be judging me, and one of the nice things about maintaining some reasonable level of fitness even in the off season is that I knew I could complete 13 miles without issue. The course was 3 loops of probably the most evil run course I've ever done, which included a variety of short but VERY steep hills, very steep downhills, and a steady uphill slog on a dirt road to finish the loop. As expected, I didn't fare super well on the third lap but it was all just for fun and I managed a 1:38ish, which I was completely fine with on the day. We also were the only women's relay team, so won that by proxy, but also beat the majority of the men's and co-ed teams!
I also had like 4 hours to wait around before the run so I hiked up to the top of this bluff to watch the swim in the lake behind me. As you do.
Now we'll get to what this post is really about, which is the Loon Mountain Race. As I mentioned earlier, I've not been overly motivated by running and training this summer. I've been consistently running about 30-35 miles a week, maybe throwing in a workout if I'm feeling good, but really no specific plan, and that's put me in a position where I am definitely not motivated to race. I don't really enjoy racing in the summer anyway (hot weather = death), and that feeling compounds when I'm out of shape. However, something about this whole mountain running thing has really gotten under my skin, and after Mount Washington I'd expressed some interest in running another mountain race, this one on trails, at Loon Mountain in July. I hemmed and hawed about whether to sign up for WEEKS but finally bit the bullet and did it, since deep down I wanted to see what it was all about. Andrew and I were going to be up in the Whites that weekend anyway to meet with our venue, so why not throw a mountain race in there as well?
The week leading up to the race, I won't lie, I was terrified. Loon's claim to fame is "Upper Walking Boss", a black diamond ski slope that covers about 1000 meters at grades of 40% or more. What? Yes. Because of the insanity of the race Andrew and I also made a somewhat spur of the moment decision to hike a 4000 footer on Saturday (my 19th!), my assumption being that the race would be so ridiculous that who cared if I was going into it a little tired? I stand by that decision completely, because it was a stunning morning for a hike and we had the summit of Cannon all to ourselves. We then proceeded to spend the day sitting out in the sun, mini golfing, and having some beers, in between picking up my bib. Loon was also hosting the US Mountain Running Championships, so bib pickup was full of fast, hardcore looking people. I was wearing my Mount Washington hat so...that totally counts for something, right?
Raceday dawned and we headed off to the mountain. Because of the championships the men and women had a second start, so my race wouldn't go off until 9:15. It was a beautiful morning, though definitely with the threat of some heat, and I tried my best to stay hydrated and calm. I saw Andrew off up the gondola and did a warmup behind some Canadian women before heading down to the dirt parking lot that served as the starting area. One thing that was pretty cool about this race this year was that they had a promotion through the Trail Sisters organization to offer 50% off the race fee to first time female racers - an effort to get more women involved in mountain running, since apparently the last time Loon hosted the championships it was 70% women and 30% men. Well, it definitely worked, because not only did the overall field double from the previous year, but it was 50% women, with over 300 of them (myself included) apparently first timers. How cool is that? It's not often that I find myself at a women's only start, so there was a great energy in the air as the whistle blew. Someone remarked as we went off "we all smell so nice...like sunscreen and bug spray...and no smelly boys!"
The course began with maybe a half mile of fairly gradual incline (I killed my watch hiking the day before, so I also ran this race watchless...haven't done that in YEARS) and then pretty quickly moved into a steep climb. The footing at the beginning was fairly rough gravel/dirt road and once it got steep it was evident pretty quickly that running was burning more energy than walking with a much higher cost. I wasn't the only one to think so - probably 75% of the field surrounding me started walking on this section, leading one girl next to me to comment "God, it feels so weird to be walking this early in a race!" I was a little concerned at this point because this already felt pretty damn challenging, and we weren't even a mile into the race. But hey, who cares? This is all just for fun.
After a mile or so we headed into what turned out to be my favorite section of the course, a ~2 mile stretch run on single track and cross country ski trails. It was beautiful, it was muddy AF, it was rolling ups and downs, it was rocky, it was FANTASTIC. We must have gained some elevation throughout this stretch but I was just having too much fun to notice - in fact, I remember thinking to myself "this is the most fun I've had running in AGES!" It was just wonderful. I had a great pack of women to work with, another perk of the women's only start, and since the combination of single track and the knowledge of what awaited later in the race was keeping the actual pace not too bad (not that I know what it was lol) it almost felt like we weren't racing, just enjoying a wonderful romp in the woods together. However, in the back of my mind I knew that this was a mountain race after all and at some point, we were going to start climbing in earnest.
Pretty much as soon as we left the XC trails was when things started to get real. I knew from looking at the course map that the two really bad inclines were at around mile 4.5 and obviously the final stretch to the finish, but I feel like I wasn't aware of the steepness level of some of the sections between miles 2.5 and 4.5. In the beginning when the grades were something resembling normal, I reverted back to my Mount Washington strategy of 50 steps running, 50 steps walking. But I would say the major difference between Loon and Mount Washington is this: on Mount Washington, any given section would theoretically be runnable if you only had to handle that section for say, a quarter mile. On Loon, there are some sections that to my mind just were not even runnable. Those sections became more and more of a thing as time went on. On the first of 3 big inclines, it was comical - I looked around, and every single person as far as the eye could see was walking. Because what else could you do? Legs already fried from 4 miles of trail running, and here's a ski slope staring you in the face - you try to run, and your legs just tell you to eff off. I think I said something to the effect of "well, at least we're all in this together!"
Top of the first big incline...laughing because this shit is bananas, trying to run for the sake of the photo. I love the second picture where I am clearly just laughing like "what in the hell is even going on right now"
After the first big ski slope, you got a bit of a reprieve cutting across the mountain, so there was some degree of downhill which I tried to take advantage of as much as possible. Some of the descents were steep and super rocky, and it was almost as challenging trying to stay on my feet down them as it would have been to run up them - in fact, at one point I almost followed someone off course because we were so focused on the terrain that we didn't even see a flag pointing to a right hand turn. Thank goodness for fellow competitors getting us back on track! One of the cuts across the ski slope was also really difficult, as it was such a steep camber that I felt like I was going to tip sideways down the mountain. It was, in a word, ridiculous.
Soon enough we hit the 4.5 mile ski slope ("only" a blue square ski slope) which I knew was coming, and immediately myself and most everyone around me was taken back down to a walk. I continued to try to run a few steps here and there up the incline, but my legs were really starting to shut down - the phrase that came to mind was "my legs are gassed". The race also helpfully put up a sign at the bottom of this incline that says "this is only a 20% grade!" - a nod to the fact that you get to run up double that shortly. Yuuuuuup. I took a Gu somewhere around here as the sun was blazing and I could tell I was probably low on electrolytes, and that did seem to help to some degree. But unlike any normal race, here we were completely at the mercy of the mountain.
Ahahaha I'm smiling because I'm laughing because this is insannnnne
One more fairly steep section and we were headed up to the gondola aid station, the final sight of humanity before the finish. I was desperately in need of some water and was so grateful to get some fluids and also dump them on my head. As I was running through they were announcing names, and I heard my name...followed IMMEDIATELY by a girl who I loosely know who runs for another New England club. Someone who, for whatever idiotic reason, I had decided I NEEDED to beat at this race.
Well. Up until this point there hadn't been much a competitive drive going on in this race, but let me tell you when I heard this name come up behind me something inside me went crazy. Right out of the aid station there's an impossibly steep downhill that I had to exert every ounce of eccentric control in my legs to handle, but then there's one more cut across the slopes before you get to Upper Walking Boss, which is a more gradual downhill. All I could think was that if I could make up enough time on the downhill, we would both hit the wall at the black diamond and the chances of having a 20 second gap closed there were not that good. So I went SCREAMING down this decline like a bat out of hell, literally sprinting, some masters woman gave me a side eye like "what the hell is this crazy person doing, does she not know that we're going to run up a 40% grade in like 2 minutes". Looking back on it it's just comical, but the fact of the matter is I do believe I made it to the bottom of Upper Walking Boss with more cushion than I could have. It also was pretty much the only thing that kept me moving forward up the final slope. I could try to explain Upper Walking Boss, but words just don't do it justice. At one point I literally blurted out "this is impossible", and then took a girl next to me's advice to try bear crawling. People were side stepping, going backwards, bear crawling, hands on knees...I will tell you one thing that doesn't happen on UWB and that's running. My heart felt like it was going to pop out of my chest and my legs were absolutely screaming in a way I've never felt in anything - not a marathon, not an all out mile, not an all out sprint, I had never felt anything like this, where the act of continuing forward motion seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. But the thought of this girl behind me, and of this pain almost being finished, kept me moving as fast as my legs would take me up the mountain.
"What is even happening right now"
Near the top of the boss, I finally saw Andrew, who had been anxiously awaiting my arrival. He was basically laughing at how absurd the course was - and to think he ALMOST signed up for this race! There was one last steep push and then some "flatter" rocks that I somehow willed my legs to jog over in order to at least run in to the finish line. And just like that, 1:32:xx, I was finished!
Here is the problem with mountain racing: 7 seconds after you do literally the hardest thing you've ever done, you look around and you're surrounded by beauty and you realize what you've just done and you realize you want to do it again and again and again. That's exactly how I felt the instant I finished Loon. Caked in sweat and dirt, thirsty, legs like noodles, exhausted, but so in love with everything I had just done. Word on the street is that's how a mountain running addict is born...
These feelings are also evidenced in my Upper Walking Boss sign photo shoot
Double finger point, rapidly becoming my signature move
Very unclear how I was able to get airborne at this moment in my life
Andrew and I took the gondola down, I got my results (91st out of over 400 women, I'll take that!) got some Mexican food in Lincoln, and then spent the afternoon at our favorite winery in Derry, where I just literally wore my singlet because I am gross and also lazy.
Apollo Vineyards, we love you
All in all, it was an absolutely epic day, and definitely gave me the itch to continue to try more races in the mountain/ultra/trail realm. I definitely am someone who gets antsy easily - just look at my college track career, when I changed distances every year because I felt like I'd plateaued or was just bored. It's kind of miraculous that I've stuck with the marathon as long as I have because of that piece of my nature. And yes, I definitely still want to run a sub 3:10 marathon. Yes, I still want to improve my PR in the half. But there's something about the insanity about being out on the trails and mountains that is just so fun and exciting and alive, and that's a feeling I think I could use more of in my running. I definitely think I'll be back at Loon next year, and may see if I can hunt down a couple of other mountain and trail races to add to my summer race schedule next year - it's the perfect time to try something new in the "off season"!
Oh yeah, there's also the fact that my coworkers and I may have entered into some kind of pact to do a half Iron next year followed by an Ironman in 2020...or the fact that I'm doing my first relay race (Reach the Beach!) in September...or the fact that I'm doing a sprint triathlon at the end of August...or that minor fact that I'm getting MARRIED a week from today!
But don't worry. I'm sure one of these days I'll be posting another road running PR on this blog. The journey there is part of the fun, am I right?