Sunday, July 11, 2021

Mount Washington Road Race Race Report 2021

Going out of order with the race reports here - I started this one right after the race, but then the week got away from me, then the triathlon happened, and that race report took ages to write. But anyway, here's my race report for Mount Washington, which happened on June 19. Oh man, I just love Mount Washington. It's been 3 years since I last raced up the rockpile (didn't get in the lottery in 2019 and then COVID in 2020) and what a joyous experience it was to be back out there, fighting the incline and the weather (more on that later) and the magic of the mountain. I was also pretty damn pleased that after 3 years away and no formal preparation for this race specifically, I came away with a 4 minute PR and placed in the top 30 women overall! I hate to admit it but I'm starting to think I might not suck at this mountain running thing, annnnd I might have a goal of cracking the top 25 the next time I head up the mountain - and also, I think all this Ironman training might be doing something after all.

Anyway, on to the race report! We had a great squad of GBTC ladies racing this weekend, and since this was really the first team event/girls weekend since COVID began there was an extra layer of excitement to the situation. We all made our way up to Bartlett on Friday night and got settled in our fantastic AirBnB which just happened to have an outstanding view of Mount Washington itself...this may or may not have been the deciding factor in me booking this specific lodging, hah. We all contributed to make a great pasta dinner and enjoyed a couple of beers and caught up - several of my teammates I literally hadn't seen since last March and others I've seen minimally, so it was fantastic just shooting the breeze. All the while, the mountain watched over us, waiting and beckoning.

We went to bed pretty early, but I slept terribly - took me ages to fall asleep, woke up several times during the night, and then woke up at 4:40 am (alarm was set for 5:45) and after about 20 minutes of tossing and turning decided to just get the eff up and enjoy a leisurely morning. I still don't think I had really processed in any sense what I was doing today and while there was some hint of pre race nerves in play it was more of a giddiness to be here with my friends and just doing SOMETHING after the past year. I ate a banana, drank some coffee out on the porch, and braided my hair - my braid turned out well which is always good vibes for the race - and we slowly but surely got our stuff together until it was time to leave for the start.

Because of COVID, the men and women ran on separate days this year, which I actually thought was pretty awesome. The women got to run first on Saturday (clutch, as that obviously means more time for enjoying life post race), but the smaller field meant less lines and fewer logistical problems the morning of the race. It also created a pretty cool vibe as the entire area was full of badass women ready to conquer the mountain. When we arrived at the bottom of the auto road it was RAINING, and we immediately all started laughing about how no one had actually prepared for rain. Luckily for the fact that we still had 90 minutes to kill before the start, the rain let up and was replaced by pretty humid, but cool air. We sent our driver good vibes as she headed up the mountain, took care of the typical morning rituals of porta potty lines, and then headed off on a warmup. 

Also yes I made everyone warm up for this race, you're welcome guys from your team mom :D

So we did a couple mile warmup, it was humid, and my legs were really not feeling the situation. My left calf was already sore, not a great sign, and running up the hills was not feeling fantastic. But hey! It's Mount Washington, and your ability to run 8 minute pace doesn't actually mean jack squat when you start running 7.6 miles up a mountain, so I decided not to even worry about it. Again, I really don't think I had fully accepted what we were doing just yet. 

We got back to the starting area and hit up the porta potties once again, where a very lovely man (men could run in the women's race if they wanted, but weren't eligible for prizes, etc) commented on how hardcore we looked because we were warming We hung out in the field and I was just totally caught up in the beauty of the the rain cleared off the clouds over this pond right next to the starting line were just spectacular, and I really just took a few moments to drink it all in.
Do you ever just feel like you're right where you're meant to be?

Around 8:15 they started lining everyone up, and I became completely overtaken by nervous energy. Sometimes I wonder what my friends think of me when they have to be around me before a race, because I just become this wild, loud ball of glee and nerves. The guy making announcements was also talking a lot, and finally they got around to announcing all of the elite women (15 or 16 of them) who would be starting all together, with the rest of us going out 2 at a time in a time trial start. And then it was time for the national anthem.

I've talked about how I love the national anthem before races before, and it's interesting because I definitely thought that I'd get more emotional than I did when I heard it for the first time in so long at the half. I didn't really then, I think because I was too nervous and focused on my actual race performance to really feel anything else. At the 10 mile I'm actually not even sure they played the anthem, or if they did I was probably too busy holding my stupid singlet over my mouth to pay attention. But anyway, when the singer began to sing, the sound echoing off the mountains, the sound of the breeze gently rustling the leaves in the background, and I was standing there with my teammates and we were about to do this ridiculous thing? I just about lost it! I was caught off guard by this swell of emotion, and I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised. My love for these mountains, for this opportunity to do something that's so much beyond just "running fast", and being at this race with a true sense of normalcy - no masks, no weirdness, - made it really special.

The elite women went off, and as I watched them begin to climb the snaking road up the mountain, ALL OF A SUDDEN my brain processed that yes, what we are doing is running up a mountain today, and I just about wanted to vomit. And that's really the thing about Mount Washington - you can prepare for it, you can have done it in the past, you can absolutely know what it's all about, but you can't TRULY know until you're into it how ridiculous it truly is. Looking at the road, I wondered if I was going to be up to the task today.

Up she goes...

I ended up on the line with Elise and as we stepped up to the line, I again just felt this giddy surge of "WTF am I doing" as the clock counted down, and then with a beep, we were off! One of the silliest things about this race is that for about 200 meters, you run a flat to DOWNHILL section before you start to climb - it's almost cruel. Elise and I bopped along and I think I said something like "I can't believe we're doing this!" There was a small group of spectators with cowbells at the end of the flat dirt path, and then there was nothing ahead but up.

As we hit the initial climb I felt the usual sense of my body just balking at the situation, but remembered from the past that after awhile I'd settle in and adjust to the task. Elise looked incredibly strong and I had the feeling I wouldn't be able to stay with her for long, but I tried not to worry about that and to just relax into the hill. I was quickly proven correct as she began to pull away within the first 5 minutes of the climb, but I aimed to keep her in my sights. There had been no seeding of the time trial start, so aside from Elise running off into the distance like a mountain gazelle, I was bolstered by the fact that I was otherwise pretty consistently passing people who had started before me. I felt relatively strong and in control, and I passed the 1 mile mark in around a 10:30 split which is definitely the fastest I've ever started this race!

There's a spot right after the 1 mile mark where the road just gets nasty steep (as compared with just normal steep, lol). I remember my first year racing I tried to slog up it at a run, and then the second time I purposely chose to walk it. I chose the latter again this year - my heart rate was under control, but I could feel my calves working overtime and I knew I'd successfully pulled off the walk/run strategy and wound up with a faster time in the past. It was just a short power hike to get above the steepest part, and once the ground "leveled" out (level being like 8% grade or something), I got back to a run. That's basically how the first few miles of the race went by. Mostly run, and then either if the grade got so steep that running seemed less productive than walking or for whatever reason my body just screamed walk, I'd do 50 steps walking and then resume the run. The counting strategy is something I read in someone's race report before the first year I raced, and it's served me so well over the years. Having a limit to your power hike break really keeps you on track and mentally in it, and later on knowing that you ONLY have to run 50 or 100 steps and then you can walk makes it seem doable. 

My legs were feeling pretty solid, but it was VERY muggy in the trees which we all know is not my jam. I had a bottle of Skratch with me as the race had gone cupless this year, but even drinking wasn't helping the haze of moisture surrounding me. I couldn't wait to break treeline, where I knew at the very least it would be cooler and probably with a breeze. Every time I do this race, somewhere around mile 3 I'm convinced that I'm running terribly and I hate this race, and this year was no exception. I was totally certain that I was walking way more than I had in the past, that the humidity was doing me in, that all of my friends were soon going to come blowing past me, etc. In reality, I hadn't been passed by a single person who started behind me yet, and my splits were comparable if not better than years past - but you try telling me that as I'm grumpily power hiking up a 10% incline.

Somewhere around mile 3 there were two women spectating in the most amazing fashion - seriously, these were women after my own heart, screaming and yelling and telling everyone how AWESOME they looked, how STRONG! I couldn't help but smile then, and remember how utterly ridiculous this thing I was doing was. Somewhere in this area I also randomly decided to look back to see if I could spot any of my teammates, and sure enough I saw a familiar orange tank top - it was Erin, who had actually forgotten her team singlet and so was wearing a random orange tank top. We actually laughed because in 2018, Elise didn't have a GBTC singlet yet and so wore an orange tank may or may not now be tradition that one of the Mount Washington newbies has to race in a random orange singlet hahaha. I should mention that it was EXTREMELY quiet at this moment, with no wind, no spectators, nothing, so when I looked back and decided to scream "E-RINNNN!" everyone heard me lol. I was convinced that she would catch me at any second, and while that honestly would have been lovely, I definitely think my competitive spirit stirred a little bit inside and decided that I did not actually want ANYONE to catch me at all! I started making an effort to run a little harder on my run segments, and keeping my walk segments short and sweet. If the road leveled out in any sense (aka it was like 5% grade instead of 9%), I'd start running again. My 3 mile split was still in the 13s and I knew my pace from the past was 14 minutes plus, so I felt like things were actually going better than I realized!

The halfway point felt like it came up surprisingly quickly. The first half of this race I think is way harder than the second, partially because the grades are steep but also you're just in the forest, it's muggy, and there doesn't seem to be any payoff for what you're doing. But around halfway you start getting peeks of the views and you really get the sense that you're getting higher. When I had passed the 3000 ft post, I thought to myself "woo, 3000 ft!" and then tried to forget about the fact that this mountain is over 6000 ft As I passed the halfway marker I shouted to no one "half way, hell yeah!" Looking at my watched, I was surprised to see that I was well ahead of pace from the previous year - in hindsight this kind of makes sense since my first mile this year was very quick (chasing Elise haha). I also ended up actually stopping at the water station to fill up my bottle as it was still pretty hot/muggy and I was going through my Skratch faster than I wanted to and didn't want to run out with almost an hour of running still to go.

All that was about to change, however, because at some point we made a turn on the road and were abruptly hit with a BLAST of chilly wind. It actually felt incredible and cooling, but I had to laugh. It was just a very sudden change of climate! Any thoughts of seeing views that I had imagined were fading away into the rapidly developing mist, but since this was my 3rd time at this rodeo I was less invested in the views than in the past. 

The 4 mile mark is where I always think the race really turns into "the mountain" because somewhere in that area you clear tree line and are really completely exposed to the elements. With the wind this year, things definitely started to kick up a notch. Visibility seemed to be dropping by the second as the wind whipped the fog around, which made me feel like I was in another world. By this point the field had sort of settled itself and I had found a "pack" of a few women who I could keep in view and do some leapfrogging with depending on our individual run/walk patterns. There was one woman in particular with a Somerville Road Runners jersey and some kind of bobbling headband who I went back and forth with all throughout the second half, and funny enough looking at the results I think it's someone I used to follow on Daily Mile waaaay back in the day. But anyway, while we were all relatively isolated everyone kept offering each other encouragement in the even that we did find ourselves next to someone - after the race, our group all agreed that having the women only run was actually really cool, and added even more of a sense of camaraderie to the day. 

There is a section around mile 4.5-5.5 that is this straight shot up a dirt road that I definitely find to be one of the toughest parts of the race. In a year with clear weather, there's a dropoff on the left with stunning views, but today there was nothing to be seen but fog. In fact, it was becoming harder and harder to even see the couple of women in front of me! My legs were tired and the grade gets even steeper for awhile, and I felt like I was stumbling through the mist up the dirt and gravel. I think this was the segment when my ratio of run-walk was the lowest - I was only managing 50 or sometimes 60 steps running before I'd walk for 50. But I kept forging ahead, just continuing to move forward always being the name of the game. At the top of the slope the grade eased a bit, and I found myself able to run a longer bout to the top of the dirt road before the course turns and starts doing switchbacks towards the summit.

By this point, the weather was truly becoming ridiculous. I was still intermittently leapfrogging with 1 or 2 women but as soon as we'd separate by 20 ft you could hardly even tell they were there any more. People hiking or spectating would be totally startling, because you'd hear some vague cowbell or yelling over the roar of the wind and then all of a sudden a human would be in front of you cheering! I found the whole thing kind of thrilling, because it felt like some kind of epic scene from a movie - just you and the mountain, a battle of wills, fighting the elements alone. I couldn't really recognize any of the familiar landmarks from years past since you couldn't really see anything, so had no idea when we'd be coming up on a mile marker or another elevation post, and I thought about how glad I was that at least we were on a road and if all else failed I could still follow the center line and not just run right off the mountain.  But all in all, the time seemed to be passing pretty quickly, and I was still happily moving along at a 70-100 steps running/50 steps walking clip. It's interesting because I think everyone has a different strategy for this race and I know some people view it as a badge of honor to run the whole thing...but I have to say, I passed at least 3 women who were running only using my run walk strategy, and I'm convinced it's the way that I can get up the mountain the fastest.

        Smiling in the fog

It's really impossible to describe the intensity of the wind and the lack of visibility for the last couple of miles of the race. I had slowly reeled in and passed one woman, and then similarly had been passed by another woman in a 603 jersey who I tried to keep in my sights, such as they were. At times the wind would actually be a full tailwind - let me tell you, a 60 mph tailwind is pretty damn fun, even when you're running up a 10% grade - but most of the time it was more of a cross wind which felt like it was threatening to blow you right off the mountain. It was also getting cold, and wet because of the fog, and somewhere around mile 6 I decided I actually needed to put the arm warmers I'd been carrying on, because I was not in the mood to get hypothermia so close to the finish line. I'm sure that would have been comedic if anyone could have seen it: my wet, cold hands fumbling around and trying to claw the damp armwarmers on while carrying my water bottle and keeping my walk break to a minimum. I eventually got them at least onto my forearms and figured that would have to be good enough for now. 

I could still intermittently see my 603 friend ahead and had come up on and passed another woman after the arm warmer debacle. I knew we were closing in on the last mile. Thinking back on this stretch of the race, it wasn't necessarily that I felt tired as that my legs were just sick of fighting the grade. That muscular fatigue kept me coming back to those short walk breaks, especially when I'd run into sections of more like 12-15% grade. I mean, at that point, you might as well be walking and saving some energy, you know? 

I wasn't sure what the exact distance of the race would be this year with the new course, but once I hit the mile 7 mark I knew we were close. The grade of the hill "levels" out a bit as you get close to the summit, and so I tried to basically run that entire stretch. I remember this from years past, that going from 10-15% grade to "only" like 6-7%, you suddenly feel like a baby deer with no idea how to use your legs. But I was still moving forward and feeling pretty strong and capable. Usually you can see and hear the finish line from quite a distance away, but the fog was so thick I had absolutely no idea how close I was. All of a sudden out of nowhere, I could hear the finish line announcer's voice cutting through the roar of the wind, and the turn up the Wall was upon me.

The Wall is a section of 22% grade that ends the race, and every year I say I'm going to try to run it, and then I take about 10 steps and realize that's a fool's errand, and this year was no different. However, according to Strava it's the fastest I've ever "run" (climbed? power hiked?) that section, so I'll take it! I glanced at my watch and realized I was going to break 1:40, something I had absolutely NEVER thought that I would do this year, and that thought got me running again as soon as the grade eased slightly, through the fog, and across the finish line!

"The Wall"

I had to buy this finish line photo because it truly captures the insanity of the weather 

One of the best parts about finishing this race is you're immediately wrapped not in a space blanket, but a legit FLEECE blanket, which as you can imagine was much needed this year. I was elated with my race, but now came the monumental task of trying to find my friends. I knew Elise would have finished before me, and sure enough, out of the mist I saw a familiar high bun, and I was able to get her attention and reunite. We were both shouting over the wind about how insane the race had been, and since I figured we had a bit of time before our next friend would finish we decided we should go and take a picture at the summit sign, since for ONCE there was no line of tourists/hikers waiting there (gee I wonder why?)

Thank you to Mae, the 603 girl I was running behind, for this amazing photo...don't worry we were almost being blown over by the wind in this moment

We were pretty shortly able to locate Erin and Deepti, and began the process of attempting to find our car. This was definitely a low point for all, as we were all rapidly becoming VERY cold, the visibility still sucked, and we had no cell service to try to find our driver. We eventually located the car, but it was locked - again now we had the problem of not being able to call Shannon! But, we were able to reunite with her as well as Taylor, and finally got into the car to change into warm and dry clothes. A sweatshirt has never felt so MAGICAL.

We also had some celebratory Treehouse beers and just relived the race and it's glory. Our two newbies both loved their experience and were totally up for returning, and so our GBTC Mountain Goat crew continues to grow every year! 

View of the last stretch of the race - this was maybe 30 minutes after I finished, it's crazy how quickly the weather changes up there!

Happy squad of mountain goats


The clouds literally disappeared and I spent like 20 minutes just roaming around taking pictures because the landscape up there is just spectacular

Overall, I'm SUPER happy with my performance at this race. I wound up 28th overall, which I am extremely proud of, particularly when I look at the women around me many of whom essentially only DO mountain running. I think that the bike and overall fitness from tri training definitely carried over to this race (as I mentioned Elise also crushed it), and I think the more times I run it the better sense I have of what strategy works for me and how to manage my effort and fatigue levels. Our team also was 4th overall, which is just awesome! Again, a bunch of Boston flatlanders showing up and doing so well at a mountain race feels damn good and says a lot about all of us as a team. And as a final note, I somehow managed to sign up for this race under my maiden name, which cracks me up, but it's nice that Audrey Zaferos gets another solid race performance under her belt lol. I love this race, and these mountains so much, and this was just another perfect day spent there. 

Mount Washington Road Race 2021
1:38:43 - 7.6 miles, 13:00 pace, 4700 ft of elevation, only one hill
28/442 (women's only race), 3/47 F30-34