Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Am I A Mountain Runner Now?" - Mount Washington Race Report

In CrossFit, there's a term they have for a weakness (or, as I like to put it, an 'area for improvement'), which is a 'goat'.  Some of my most dreaded CrossFit workouts were the 'love your goat' days, because it would force me to work on my weakest disciplines.  In every aspect of my life, I have strengths and weaknesses - but I do enjoy challenging my weaknesses, hoping to turn them into strengths (it's why I took up rock climbing, even though I have a severe fear of heights).  When it comes to running, I have felt that uphill running was one of my goats.  (My stomach/nutritional issues in long races is another goat, for another day.)  Signing up for the Mount Washington Road Race was a 'love your goat' day for me - it would test my weakness and hopefully help me overcome it.

Now, I should probably preface this by noting that I do happen to train with some of the best mountain runners in the country, so my standard is pretty high.  In 2013, the ladies of the Western Mass Distance Project had two ladies in the top 10 female at Mt. Washington which helped them finish 2nd open team, and they also won the National Mountain Running team title at the US Championships.  They are amazing - consistently running under 1:30 up Mt. Washington!  I run hill repeats with them, and am constantly humbled as they float up the climbs while I shuffle up the hill feeling ever foot of elevation gain.
(WMDP photo with the mountain in the background)
At the 2013 Mt. Washington race, I made a host of rookie mistakes.  The initial part of the climb felt so good that I was running with or ahead of our top ladies (who would finish 5th, 8th, and 11th).  It was basically the equivalent of the folks who sprint out ahead of the elites in a road marathon.  By mile 3, I was walking sections and folks streamed past me.  It was a long and humbling climb from there to the top, as my walking stretches got longer and the running stretches got shorter.  I had naively thought I could finish between 1:30 and 1:32 (just behind the 'true mountain runners'), and was embarrassed to finish just under 1:38.  At the finish, my suspicions were confirmed - I am not a mountain runner, and I was kidding myself to think I could ever be strong at uphill running.
So, flash forward to 2014 - and I was determined to learn from last year's mistakes.  I was going to start out easy, being sure to stay behind the WMDP mountain runners.  I would try to make it as long as possible before I had to walk.  I would try to improve upon my time, and try to not compare myself with those mountain goats I train with.  I even had a friend, Eric, who is an experienced mountain runner that had volunteered to pace me up the mountain - he was going for a 1:30 finish also, and had written out our splits to achieve that.  I planned to hold on to his pace for as long as I could, hoping that if I could stick with him long enough, I could likely break 1:32.
(WMDP team photo, these ladies constantly inspire me)
The race went off fast, as always, and I scrambled to keep up with Eric.  The first mile felt as hard as last year, but I was at least sticking to my plan - I was a stride behind Eric and behind (but within sight) of the top WMDP girls.  By mile 2, the WMDP mountain goats were mostly out of sight, and I had pulled up next to Eric as we matched his predicted mile 2 split.  Just past mile 2, Eric told me 'I don't have it today', and encouraged me to go ahead.
I kept my head down, determined to run until the mile 3 marker - which would be farther than I ran last year.  I started to catch up to Dawn, one of my teammates who consistently runs around 1:27 or 1:28.  I told her that I was nervous to be running next to her - she reassured me that I was strong and could do well here.  As I pulled slightly ahead, I regretted it...I figured I'd see her again, and soon.
Sure enough another half mile up the mountain, and Dawn was by my side.  I started to worry - was this where my wheels would fall off, only a mile past where things fell apart last year?  I wondered if I could try to hang on to Dawn and match her stride, but that seemed impossible. 
(Focusing as I climbed - photo by Acidotic Racing)
But, just as the negative thoughts started creeping in, I looked up and saw my mom standing on the side of the road, proudly wearing her 'Respect the Process' shirt.  I surged ahead to give her a high five, and in the process, got ahead of Dawn.  As I looked up, I saw that three of my teammates were coming back to me, and I worked to slowly reel them in - using them to motivate me to keep running. 
First, I passed my teammate Apryl, who was running her first ever mountain race, and while she was still doing incredibly well, I feared she made some of those rookie mistakes I had made the previous year.  Next, just past mile 4, as the winds started to hit us, I passed my teammate Kelsey.  She was running strong, as she always does, and we shared encouragement.  I think she was just suffering from the cold winds a bit.  Before mile 5, I passed my teammate Carolyn who was having a rough day but still had a smile on her face and cheered me on as I went by.  I remember glancing at my watch at the 5 Mile marker and it read 55 minutes, and I thought 'wow, if I can run 2.6 miles in 35 minutes, I can break 1:30'. 

(Grinding up a steep pitch - photo by Leo Kenney)
The dirt road section past mile 5 was the most intimidating segment of the race, and as I looked up it I wondered when I would be forced to walk.  But, with a few women to reel in, I focused on continuing to run and putting this tough section behind me.  Slowly, I was working my way up the women's field - even as my fatigue grew with each step, my confidence and enthusiasm was stronger with each step.  I saw one of my training buddies, Aaron, just ahead as he cheered on the race, and gave him a high five, feeling like I gained strength from his encouragement.  I had a bounce in my stride, and determination in my eyes. 
I passed the mile 6 marker at about 1:08, and started to believe that I could break 1:30 - I had 22 minutes to run 1.6 miles!  I got so much energy from that thought, that I willed myself to be strong.  I could look ahead, and see several ladies so I focused on passing them one at a time.  My mind started to play tricks on me - the road seemed to almost flatten out and get easier at times, but I embraced the thought.

(The Wall, I am the runner in teal towards the top)
Just past mile 6, one of my teammates Ruthie (who was injured, therefore not racing) was along the course and she started screaming her head off at me.  I harnessed her energy and put it towards my run - I would focus on running this next section strong for her, because she couldn't be out here running. 
In this section, I could look ahead and just barely pick out the jersey of my teammate, Ashley, running several minutes ahead of me.  I tricked my mind to believe that I was catching her, as I continued to push up the hill.  I was motivated knowing that I was running 2nd for my team, which meant my time would be scored - I needed to fight for every second and every position for my team.  I started to catch a woman who was doing a walk/run and worked over the next mile to pass her, first I beside her when she started to run again; next time I passed her while she was walking but she passed me while she was running; third time I got ahead of her early on her walk and she pulled aside me at the end of her run; on the fourth time that she walked, I didn't see her again.  She was great motivation to keep the pressure on.  I was so focused that I hardly noticed the clouds blowing in and obscuring our view - I was just staring at the runners ahead!

(Climbing the Wall)
At the mile 7 marker, my time was 1:20, and I knew I was breaking 1:30.  I was so excited that I found another gear in my tired legs, and surged across the pasture (a flat-ish section).  I tried to focus on reeling in one more female.  With about 1/4 mile to go, I felt like I was sprinting, as I finally clawed my way up one more spot.  It was a flatter grade, and with the smell of the Cog Railway in my lungs, I hammered as best I could to pass a women I that had been in my sights for miles. 
(Determination, focus, pain - photo by Joe Viger)
One last turn, and I was at the Wall, the last 22% grade kicker that the race throws at you.  It was so steep.  I wanted to walk.  I had run the entire course so far, so I didn't give in as I pumped my arms.  I also didn't want to get passed back after I had worked so hard for that last spot.  As I hit the flat section, with the finish line in sight, it read '1:27:xx' and the seconds were ticking off.  I pushed with all my heart, still not believing that I was exceeding my expectations.  Crossing the line, 1:27:52, I was ecstatic. 
(Photographer Joe Viger captured my elation at the finish!)
My teammate Ashley was immediately there to give me a hug and congratulate me.  In disbelieve, I exclaimed 'I just broke 1:28!', and then I asked her 'Am I allowed to call myself a mountain runner now?'. 
(Crossing the finish, with the clock at 1:27:50 - photo by Leo Kenney)
In the few minutes it took me to get through the finish line, my teammates Dawn and Kelsey had finished.  But, I made my way to the finishing stretch and screamed my head off for the rest of my WMDP teammates.  I was so excited for my race and put all my energy into encouraging them up the Wall.  In the end, our open team finished 2nd place, and our masters team won!  I was amazed by my time, as well as finishing as the 13th place female and helping my team get 2nd!
(2nd Place Women's Team)
I ran down, sharing the early miles with my teammates Kelsey and Apryl, and sharing the lower miles with fellow Inov8 athlete Jim Johnson.  The run down allowed me to see the views that I had blocked out or missed on the way up.  As I descended and thought about my race - I realized that I had taken a perceived weakness and overcome it - I had triumphed over my goat.  I had become a mountain runner, and I loved it!
(Running with the Cog Railway - photo by Joe Viger)


  1. A nicely-written report! I enjoyed the photos interspersed throughout, and you really did seem like you gave it your all on the course.

  2. Both inspiring and a great reality check as I head into my first go at this!