Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Mount Washington Road Race 2017 Race Report

Life has been nuts lately and I've been a super slacker on blogging - I never wrote race reports for either the Narrow River 10K (basically ran the same exact race as 2015, except about 20 seconds faster, so a PR, whee! And once again got second woman overall and did NOT win a bird photo.) and the 5K I did on my birthday (20:21, my shoe came untied at mile 2, and I overall ran quite a bit faster than I expected to on a random Thursday). But I had to make some time for the most ridiculous and awesome thing I've ever done, the Mount Washington Road Race.

Mount Washington is probably one of the more absurd things you can do as a runner in New England. It is a race up the tallest mountain in New Hampshire, gaining over 4000 ft of elevation over 7.6 miles. The cutesy tagline for the race is "only one hill", because that's technically true, hah. It's a race where the women's winner typically runs over 10 minute mile pace. It is so far outside the realm of my usual running comfort zone that it almost qualifies as an entirely different activity, which I think is part of the allure.


I actually entered the lottery for this race a few years ago, but didn't get in and at the time was kind of glad for that fact. So this year when two of my teammates asked if I wanted to go into the lottery with them, I basically thought eh, why not? We also entered the lottery for the NYC Marathon, and while only one of us was selected for that race (not me), the Mt. Washington lottery is a team affair and when we discovered that we were in the race, our reactions ranged from shock to laughter to "what the hell did we do to ourselves"? This was all the way back in March, so mid marathon training, and June seemed so far away. Even after Boston, 2 months to train for this race seemed like a luxurious amount of time. I really and truly had come up with a plan to do some more focused training towards this race, but it never quite materialized. I did a couple of short treadmill runs at 12% incline, hiked quite a bit, and last weekend did a double summit run of Mount Wachusett, a much smaller mountain in MA to get a sense of what running up a road forever might feel like. But I was definitely concerned going into the weekend about not only my specific mountain running fitness, but my fitness in general - I haven't exactly been cranking out the miles lately. It's not like you can REALLY prepare well for a race like this living in the city, but I was worried that what preparation I had done was going to be far from adequate.

Joy, Andrew and I headed up to New Hampshire on Friday evening and got settled into our hotel - we had originally booked an Air BnB in Lincoln, but after realizing that we weren't going to be able to get there before the doors locked at 9, ended up switching to a hotel in Gorham - conveniently only about 15 minutes to the start. My mood at this point can only be described as absolute nervous giddiness. I still couldn't quite process that this was a thing I was actually doing. We watched the race video from last year, attempted to come up with inspirational mantras, and almost died of laughter when the loudest train EVER came by at 11 pm sounding like it was literally going to blast through our hotel room. It took me ages to fall asleep due to nerves but once I finally managed to, I slept well - at least until 5:20, when I was wide awake 40 minutes before my alarm.

In the morning we got ready fairly quickly, drank some crappy hotel room coffee, and headed off to the start. The logistics of this race are intense and I think I was so preoccupied with making sure that everything was in order that I wasn't worrying about the race just yet. There's pretty much no cell service outside of towns in NH, so luckily we were able to find Taylor and her boyfriend, who would be driving up the mountain, waiting for us to finish, and then driving us back down, without any drama. Getting my bib number for this race felt similar to getting a bib number for a marathon; when you're all of a sudden holding proof in your hands that you actually are about to do this thing. It felt surreal. I'm going to run up that giant mountain over there? Really? Is this real life?

One of the key unknowns going into the day had been the weather, and it was still unclear what things were going to be like as we milled around the starting area. It was fairly foggy when we arrived at the start but much warmer than I expected, and the clouds seemed to start burning off a bit around 8 am.I was mainly just hoping that the clouds would continue to disperse, as I was going to be highly disappointed if I didn't get to take in any views during this race. We went off to do a warmup on some dirt bike trails and finally got a glimpse of the summit that we were running to. It looked very, very, very far away.

Ummmm what are we actually doing right now

Time seemed to pass quickly, and before I knew it it was 8:45 and time to get lined up for the start. The atmosphere at the start line was similar to the mood I'd been in all day - mostly giddy, excited, nervous energy. There were a few people who looked utterly terrified, but for the most part it was all laughter and smiles and nervous jokes. The national anthem was sung (really REALLY well by an 8th grader), we all got to yell "ONLY ONE HILL!" in unison, and then there was a very startling cannon blast (yes, this race starts with a CANNON!) and this thing was happening!

The race starts in a very twisted fashion: you actually run DOWNHILL for about 300 meters before you begin the climb. Obviously you're not going to sprint out at typical race pace so we just kind of jogged along anticipating what was to come. And then it began.

Here we gooooo!

Splits: 12:13, 13:32, 14:41, 14:35, 14:54, 14:56, 14:27, 12:56 pace for the last 0.6

Just like Boston, with this race they say that it's important not to go out too hard. I say hard instead of fast because speed and pace just become entirely irrelevant in a race like this. I actually think that was part of what I really enjoyed about it - my performance was entirely removed from the numbers and wholly based on effort. But that being said, I did run the first mile kind of fast. My A goal for the race was a 1:45, or 14 minute mile pace, so 12 minutes is coming out a little hot. But I think it was fine that that happened, because I felt like the first mile was just all about figuring out what this was going to feel like, and all about my body getting over the initial WTF IS GOING ON THIS IS NOT OK feeling and settling into something resembling a rhythm. Unfortunately, my grand plan for my teammates and I to stick together fell apart almost immediately. I lost Joy off the back and Taylor off the front, and I fairly quickly found myself unable to find either of them. There was nothing to be done for it at the moment, so I focused on trying to find a rhythm and find a way to run that wasn't going to completely destroy my legs. Within the first half mile my calves, particularly my left one which has always been kind of a mess, felt awful. I think I have pretty strong calf muscles in general but the grade we were running on was putting some forces through them that I don't think they've ever felt before. But it was possible. It was hard as hell, but it was possible. People all over the place were already walking, and while I knew there was plenty of walking in my future down the road (or up the road, as it was) my first objective was to try to maintain running as long as I could.

Taylor had read something before the race that said that mile 2 might be the hardest mile of the race, so I was prepared for a little extra suckage. Oh did not disappoint. Obviously, we were continuing to climb, but what make this part worse was the fact that there were some sections where the grade really got steeper that were incredibly difficult to recover from. More and more people were walking these sections and eventually, near the end of the mile, I joined that crowd. I wasn't walking long, but my calves would get to a point where they just felt like they were exploding and I would back off and walk for a bit to try to pull things back together, then keep running. At some point during this mile a woman who sounded Italian maybe noticed my shirt and said something to the effect of "oh, this is MUCH harder than Boston!" You're telling me, lady! One of the cool things about this race though is that it draws people from everywhere - nationally and internationally. The women's and men's winners were both from Colorado this year, which I suppose makes a lot of sense, but back in the non-elite world there were also people from various states and countries, not just New England (though I do think the field was primarily New Englanders). But back to mile 2. It was a rough time. I think this was really the only point in the race where I started to have some serious questions about my ability to finish in a reasonable time - I mean, we weren't even close to half way and I was feeling like a disaster! A quick look around told me that everyone was in the same boat, and I tried to tamp down the negativity. Near the end of mile 2, I also caught back up to Taylor, which was great. We both commented that we felt like maybe we'd gone out a bit fast and decided that we were OK with doing a bit more walking to keep the effort level consisted as time went by.  So we'd mostly run, but then once in awhile one of us would call a walk break and we'd walk for a bit, picking a landmark to start running again at.

At the mile 2.25 water stop I walked through to grab 2 cups of water (not a ton of water available on course + a day that was proving to be shockingly Boston-esque = drink as much as you can, when you can). Speaking of Boston, as I was coming up to the stop I heard, "hey, Dave!" It was Dave McGillvray, Boston marathon race director! I couldn't be too mad about being passed by him in a race, hah (and as it would turn out, I apparently made the pass back later on!). Prior to this mile we had pretty much been in the forest, but now there would occasionally be breaks through the trees where you could see the whole, stunning, sweeping wilderness of the Presidentials spread out in front of you. It was absolutely stunning. I couldn't believe how hard I was working for being 2.25 miles into a race, but despite that I felt a well of pure joy rising up through me as I looked out at the mountains. I was here, in my favorite place in the world, DOING one of my favorite things in the world - what could be more wonderful than that? I feel like the pain was dulled immensely by how awestruck I was to actually be doing this thing I was doing.  Taylor and I continued to hold a fairly consistent pace, taking fairly brief walking breaks and jogging in between. I wouldn't say I was feeling outstanding, but I was feeling better than I had felt during mile 2 - the combination of slightly less horrible grades, views, running with Taylor, and taking some walk breaks all were feeling like good things at this point in time. We hit the halfway point around 52 minutes and that was definitely a morale boost - we were well under 2 hour pace, feeling reasonably good, and making our way up through the pack. Things were going well. Taylor broke out a Gu and offered some to me - I had stupidly left my Gu in my bag which had already been transported to the summit. But that's what friends are for! We also high fived some random hikers which I absolutely loved. I actually think I might have smiled more in this race than in any other I've run just because of small moments like that.

During mile 4 we broke out above treeline, which was both a blessing due to being treated to the most stunning views I've ever seen, and a curse because the sun was absolutely relentless. Again, though, I was distracted from feeling hot and dehydrated by the awe inspiring views. I couldn't stop looking around and just grinning in disbelief at what was happening. Even as my body continued asking me what in the actual hell I was doing, my mind was telling me how lucky I was on repeat. Around this time Taylor and I picked up another girl around our age who ran for Cambridge Running Club, and we did a little recruiting right there on the mountain! She was asking if we had any mid-distance runners (or any non marathoners), which we do - apparently a couple of her teammates are not marathoners and are looking for more people to train with. See, Tom, we're ALWAYS recruiting! Hah. At some point in this section, if I remember right, we made a left turn onto the dirt part of the road. This is a stretch from mile 4-5 that I had read was rough, because you're just running on this long, straight incline on the shoulder of the mountain and all you can see when you look ahead is MORE uphill - it can be mentally taxing. But I was for some reason feeling really good at this point, a feeling which was compounded when I saw a guy with a camera standing in front of me. I turned on the gas and probably expended way too much energy trying  to run up to this photographer, but whatever - I think in a race like this, you've gotta embrace the good times when they come and go after it during them. A few minutes later I turned around and realized I'd completely lost Taylor. I was a little bit sad but knew she could fend for herself. I also found a very strange competitive feeling welling up inside of me - it's odd to start feeling competitive when you're walk/shuffling 14 minute miles up a 12-16% incline and you've been doing so for over an hour, but there it was. I'm not sure if it was the fact that literally EVERYONE around me was walking or the fact that finding myself ahead of my teammate wasn't something I could have possibly foreseen happening, but I was struck with an urge to figure out how to get through the rest of this race doing my absolute best.

Now at this stage in the game, after climbing like 3000 ft, walking was clearly an essential component of this plan. So I somewhat randomly decided on a system (I actually think I had read it in a race report that I read as I attempted to prepare for this race) that I would stick with for the most part for the remainder of the race: 100 steps walking (counting to 50 on the R), 100 steps running (counting to 50 on the R). Rinse, repeat. Count to 50, count to 50 again. Then do it again. Then do it again. The counting gave my brain something to focus on besides WHY ARE WE STILL GOING UPHILL and the timing was perfect - by the end of the running piece, I would just be starting to lose control of my breathing; by the end of the walking piece I would just about feel like I had things back under control. Using this system, I also found myself passing a TON of people - because everyone was walking, every time I started to run I would open up a gap on a few more people. It was cool, and passing people only stoked the competitive fire further. I almost had to laugh to myself - here I am, someone who literally hates running hills, running up a damn mountain and calling upon myself to pass people. Who would have thought!

Quite possibly one of my favorite photos of myself I have ever seen. It's pretty much dumb luck that it turned out this way (or lets be honest, I probably saw the photographer and decided to extend my running time), but looking at myself running strong in the front of 4 men who are walking kind of makes me smile.

At some point, there was a stretch of about 100 meters that ALMOST looked like it was flat, and I found myself actually being able to stride out a little bit...and it felt SUPER awkward! I felt like a baby deer who doesn't know what to do with its legs as 9 minute pace suddenly felt like a massive burst of speed. In looking at my Strava data I find that this brief stretch was actually about 6-7% incline...I think the fact that running up a 7% incline feels flat in a race of this nature tells you a lot about its ridiculous. There was also a lone guy cheering and waving a cowbell up there, and when you're basically in the wilderness every spectator counts! I actually broke my own rules and did a longer run segment here because the "flat" felt so good, however, I found myself paying for it shortly thereafter when the relentless 12+% incline returned and I had a really tough time getting my heart rate/breathing back in hand, so had to walk for longer than I planned to afterward. But there's something about being in a race where literally every single person as far as your eye can see is walking that makes you feel a little less bad about walking...let it also be known that when I was walking it was not a leisurely was 100% power hike, baby. I began to become familiar with some people, specifically women, around me. All of them seemed to be using slightly different strategies - there was a CMS woman in knee socks who was actually RUNNING the majority of the time, a girl in a bun who seemed to be on a similar walk strategy as I was, and a girl with a neon green sports bra who I kept leapfrogging with. In general, I was continuing to pass people, and while things were definitely HARD, and I was getting hot, I wasn't in total death march mode just yet.

I was greeted by a miraculous sight around the 6 mile marker of a glorious water stop! I had somehow been under the impression that there were no water stops after halfway, when in fact there is one, just one, and it is amazing. Someone had music playing that had do do with climbing or getting high or something, and the volunteers who were from Heartbreak Hill Running Club in Boston went absolutely NUTS when they saw my GBTC jersey. All of the zen moments throughout this race were really something special, but it's nice to have some other humans cheering you on a little bit too. 2 cups of water later, with some thrown on my face, I felt rejuvenated! Not necessarily rejuvenated enough to run more than I was already, but enough to know with 100% certainty that I was finishing this race and I was doing it in decent time. We had now come around another switchback and gained views on the other side of the mountain, and again: absolutely stunning. It's impossible for me to describe the Whites to someone who's never been there - pictures don't even really do it justice. I know people say the same thing about any mountain range, but there's something about these mountains - small in the grand scheme of peaks, and almost seeming like they don't quite belong in the New England landscape - that just takes my breath away every time. And thousands of feet up, literally above the clouds, I felt like I was conquering them. I feel like as I'm writing this I'm really focusing on the mental piece of the race as opposed to the physical, and don't get me wrong: the physical part was one of the most insanely difficult things I've ever done. But mentally I was so engaged and present that I couldn't help but feeling anything but positive about the moment I was in. I felt completely alive.

At around the 10K point came what I think was the hardest moment of the race for me: we went left around a switchback and immediately the grade practically doubled. What almost made it worse was that you could see it coming - if you looked to the left as you ran up to it, you could see people's feet at this insane grade just above you. For me, the choice was fairly obvious: this was not a runnable segment. And I had to laugh when I found myself power walking up the incline with a guy in his 40s or 50s running next to me....and I was actually passing him! More proof of the utter ridiculousness of this race. I told myself that it couldn't stay this steep, not forever, and focused on trying to find my "friends" from the last couple of miles. I had either passed girl with the bun or she had passed me, but I was still going back and forth with neon bra and had closed the gap on tall socks. I looked at my watch and I realized: one more mile. Just one! One more mile and you've run up Mount Washington! I think that was the moment when some small voice in the back of my brain said "aw, I don't want this to be over...I'm having so much fun!" Yup.

The last mile was a crazy blur of trying to run as fast as possible when I was running, attempting to keep my breathing under control, seeing how many people I could pass, feeling like my legs were turning into jello, and continuing to marvel at the glorious beauty around me. At some point I came up on the tall sock CMS woman and we sort of did the leapfrog thing for awhile. My brain felt like it had melted; I couldn't comprehend much besides continuing to put one foot in front of the other. At some point I had hit a 50 step walk break, and so I began to walk. Tall socks ran up beside me and said something to the effect of "uh uh, I've seen you running strong and have been pacing off you this whole time, you got this!" So I ran for a little bit, but again found myself lacking any sort of strength. But then I looked at my Garmin, and the mileage said 7.4, and I suddenly realized, holy shit, this is it, this is the end, you're going to do it. At that moment I decided I was running it in, and so I took off running again. Tall socks gave me another word of encouragement as I passed her, something to the effect of "you got this". There were crowds, the first real crowds I'd seen all day. I heard cowbells and cheers and saw hikers paused with their hiking poles, taking in the spectacle. Up and around the corner; I could see where people were going and I knew I was almost to The Wall. I had promised myself before the race that if nothing else I was going to TRY to run up the 22-24% grade section at the end of this race...and did I ever try...butttt after about 3 steps my legs took a hard pass on that option and so it was hands on knees hiking to the top of the slope. I actually giggled as I went up - and I thought I was going to run up this? LOLOLOLOL. But finally at the top of the Wall things evened out slightly, and there in front of me was the finish! I was so muddled at this point that I found myself behind a woman and a guy, and the only thought I could think of was, "huh, maybe I should pass them so I can get a good finish line photo". I mean, WHAT?! Like, you know self, not so you can BEAT them or so you can finish faster, but for the photo? Just goes to show that my brain wasn't in a super functional place at that point. But kick it in I did, and pass them I did, and just like that I was over the line in 1:46:45, extremely close to my (completely arbitrary) A goal of 1:45 and smashing my B goal of 2 hours. I was ecstatic! I really thought I'd cry when I crossed the line but I didn't - I was just thrilled to be done and thrilled to have done it.

I collected my fleece blanket, which was highly unnecessary today - it was in the 70s, sunny, and completely calm at the summit which is actually REALLY bizarre weather for the summit of Mount Washington in June! I made my way back over some rocks just in time to cheer for Taylor as she came through the finish, and we didn't have longer to wait after that before Joy came through. We were all thrilled and set about basking in the glow of our accomplishment on the summit - all 3 of us agreed that we had really loved the experience and would 100% do it again...a much different attitude than we'd had that morning! I got ridiculously sunburnt, did not put on any of my cold weather gear, and absolutely loved my life.

After an hour or so the call went out that it was time to start heading down the mountain, and it was pretty incredible to experience the road that we had just run up on the way down. We couldn't stop turning to each other and just saying "I can't believe we just did that. Can you believe we just did that?" We also got to see 97 year old George Etzweiler, who is pretty much a living legend, making his way up towards the finish line. 97 YEARS OLD and the man is doing mountain races. I think he is probably the coolest person I've ever gotten to personally witness doing something, and I can only aspire to live my life that way - do what you love or what challenges you, for absolutely as long as you can.

We got back to the bottom and enjoyed perhaps one of the coolest post race spreads I've ever had - a full turkey dinner with stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, the works. It never would have occurred to me that this would be something I'd want after a race but it tasted AMAZING. In the future, however, I'd be more likely to BYOB, like many of the clubs were doing - we apparently missed that memo, but we'll chalk it up to a first timer's mistake. (Yes, if you haven't gotten the gist by now...I can't wait to do this again). We regaled Andrew with tales from the mountain and again just soaked in that wonderful feeling that is doing something hard, maybe a little crazy, and wonderful.

Also thankful for this man of the mountains who hung out at the bottom AND THEN RAN HIS FIRST EVER 5 MILE RACE THE NEXT DAY! 

There's a feeling I get when I've done something that feels really special to me. I got it the first time I ran a half marathon, the first time I ran a marathon. I didn't get it the first time I ran Boston (because I was being a dumb baby about running a bad time) or even the second (because it was an inferno) but I think I finally got it about Boston on the third go round. And I got that feeling about Mount Washington. When people asked me how the race went, the first thing out of my mouth is "I LOVED IT!" And I can't wait to do it, and maybe other races like it, again. Because it was about being mentally and physically strong, tough, and committed, but also about soaking in the view, high fiving hikers, and knowing when you reached the top that you were somewhere that most people don't get to on their own two legs in any capacity, let alone via running. It was the type of day I want to live every day, and I just can't wait to do it again.

Mount Washington Road Race
282/1049 OA, 61/379 W, 16/50 F30-34 (results based on gun time; I was ~45 seconds back at the start and my chip time is ~3 places forward in the OA and women's categories, 1 place forward in AG. Not too shabby for not being a mountain runner!)