Saturday, July 9, 2016

Loon Mountain Race!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Wow!  What an adventure!  Matthew signed the two of us up for this race about a month ago, and I really didn't know what I was getting myself in for, as I have never run a mountain race before.  What I was doing in the race named "Most Competitive Hillclimb" by Runners World?  We went up the day before, giving us time to unwind, check in early to pick up bibs, get dinner, catch up with race veteran Steve Brightman, and relax in the hotel and pool before bed.

After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and accoutrements, we were off for the short drive to Loon.  Got there about an hour early for the men's start at 8am (women's at 9), but the looong line for the head took up most of that hour.  Sunny skies and 57 degrees!  After a very short warm-up before the start, we were nearly ready to go.  These were some fit looking runners!  After all, this was the USATF Mountain Running National Championships (the top 6 will move on to World Championships in Bulgaria).  Reminded myself to observe my only goal:  keep it fun, no expectations on time.  Didn't know where to line up; we ended up about 8 rows back in a field of about 400.
Pre-race jitters and last minute strategy discussions.
(Pic by Jana)

Mile 1 - The Scramble:  At the start of the race, there was a short run across a grass field before starting the ascent up a gravel road.  Almost immediately, there was a guy bent over tying his shoes and as I didn't see him until the last moment in a crowded field, I saw no choice but put a hand on this back to avoid crashing into him and in the process pushed him forward.  Oops.  In the first half-mile we go up 200' before it levels off.  This already feels hard, and just in case I forgot how much is left ahead, there is a sign "6 miles to go!".  No idea how to pace here, but I think I should save something.

Start of the Men's Race
Mile 2:  Single-track!  Just past the mile mark, the course makes a 90-degree hard left and turns off the main gravel road onto single-track or the closest thing to single-track we will see all day:  almost double-track width, but in the woods with a single lane of worn trail.  This will go on for almost 2 miles, and will end up being my favorite terrain all day.   I am passing more runners here than are passing me.

Mile 3:  Mud!  At first I pussy-footed around the first few mud puddles, but why? When the course turned from flat to uphill, the muddy sections became larger and took up more of the trail.  Saw runners going around the edges and even some starting to hike, but just went through the middle of the mud, stepping on an occasional rock or log to get better footing.  Yes, sometimes that meant sinking the shoe into mud, but got into a good rhythm and passed a few runners.  The single-track took another another 90-degree turn and that ended most of the mud.  We had a long downhill on single-track and I was in my element gazelling past several runners here.  This mile was actually net downhill by one foot!

Mile 4:  Crossing Ski Slopes.  I loved the shade from the canopy of trees over the last almost two miles, but the rest of the run now would be open and exposed to the sun.  This mile was still very runnable, as the ascent grade was easy and even rolling as we were basically traversing across ski slopes (as opposed to going up them) during this mile.  I could sense myself tiring though no matter the terrain underneath, as when on loose gravel, I was starting to slip a little more, and on grass the uneven and banked surface cutting across ski slopes was giving me a minor challenge to my balance.

Mile 5:  Power Hike.  Just before the end of the 4th mile, we were deposited onto the base of a steep looking ski slope.  Looking up, I saw only one out of about 20 runners actually running, so I deferred to the judgment of others, and started a power hike.  This was the only time during the race that I conversed with other competitors.  One guy I just passed running uphill complimented me on my hill running (really?) and it turned out he was also from RI (Woonsocket) and another guy was from Portsmouth, NH and we talked about the Smuttynose Marathon.  At the top of this slope, there was a professional looking photographer yelling "This is a NO WALKING ZONE!".  I complied, but oh so hard to get the tired legs running:
Top of a ski slope 5 miles in:
tough to get the legs to turnover
(Photo courtesy of Andrew Drummond)

Mile 6 and Finish:  Survival:  First section of this mile was about a 400' ascent to the top of the gondola.  Was proud that I ran this almost entirely.  When I slipped on loose gravel going around a corner, I walked just a few feet and then resumed running.  You go through a fairly large crowd of spectators here, as they took the gondola up and hung out at this peak.  Looked around for Jana, but didn't see her.

Second section:  Insanely steep 1/2 mile downhill dropping 400'.  Even for the gazelle, this one was tough.  I would be moving along at a good clip and then every so often would come across this slight uphill berm crossing the ski slope (for erosion control?) where I had to be really careful not to trip and fall.
Start of the downhill insanity.  No, the trail doesn't level off here; where you
see the spectators congregated near bottom center of picture, the course
turns sharp left (right from this vantage point) and continues a steep
(Pic by Jana)

Final section:  Description from race website:  "The reputation as one of the region’s toughest races is due in large part to the kilometer ascent of North Peak via the black diamond trail known as Upper Walking Boss. 'The Boss', as it’s affectionately known, is roughly a kilometer of grassy slope with angles that exceed a dizzying 40% grade!"

At last, here we were at the base of the The Boss.  Looked up the steep uphill and of all the racers I could see ahead (50 or so?), I could spot only one running, and he was getting passed by people hiking, so what's the point?  Kept running the short distance to the timing mats at base of hill, and then settled into a hike.  Make no mistake about it, there was no power hike here, just a survival hike.  No energy to talk to anyone, just focusing on keeping the legs turning over to get up the mountain.  At 40% incline, it was tough to hike straight up.  Looked for other's footsteps to follow in to get a better footing.  Wanted to just stop so badly as my legs were tired and back starting to hurt from the odd angle, but instead looked at other runners turned hikers to try some of their techniques.  Pressing my hand on my thigh to help push each stroke forward seemed to help for a while.  Finally the sign "500 meters to go" came into view, and after passing that, "250 meters to go", but the hike continued.  Just before the sign "100 meters to go" I heard someone call out my name and tell me to resume running.  It was Scott Mason lying on the slope snapping pics.  I complied, but it wasn't easy.  Now the North Peak was in sight, and I saw Jana near the finish, as she had hiked up from the gondola on the lower peak to get here.  What a great supporter!

Running the last 100 meters. Final uphill grass ascent against a background
of drop-dead gorgeous scenery.
(Photo purchased from Scott Mason)
Yeah, it's ugly here.  I'm really missing running long
straight away roads at this point.
(Pic by Jana)

Trying to keep the old and tired legs moving.  Summit is in sight now!
(Pic by Jana)

Final results:  Crossed the line 1:11:12, good for 147th out of 547.  Matthew had crossed 8+ minutes earlier in 67th place.
FINISHED!  I did it!
(Pic by Jana)

Starting to thinking about how I could have run faster in the first few miles, but then abandoned those thoughts as I reminded myself my only goal was to have fun.  Did I meet my goal?  Definitely!
I don't look very steady on my feet immediately post-race!
(Pic by Jana)

This elevation snapshot from Strava puts
it in perspective!
WTAC representatives checking out where they just ascended from, and the
USA National Championship validation.  What an absolutely awesome experience!!


  1. Wow! Cool race, cool write up. You guys did quite well and had "fun." It would be cool to do an event like this someday. Great job.

  2. Awesome! This looks/sounds incredible.

  3. That looks like an awesome race, and you guys did great up there! Way to go!