My Loon Mountain Race
The folks running the Loon Mountain Race got the national anthems out of the way nice and early – playing the ditties from numerous countries both north and south of the USA. That's how deep the field was this year, as the Loon race was a USATF Mountain Racing Championship. The top four members of the USATF got to compete in Andorra at the world champs. It was some sort of regional Pan-American championship, too. I got on the starting line with over 400 badass racing dudes. I had no idea what to expect – my little 5ks and trail races where I'm lucky to beat out the best soccer moms only prepared me so far for the 3000 feet of climbing over 6.6 miles that Loon Mountain had to offer. But I run a lot, I hike a lot, I have a solid aerobic system and I know how to tough it out. I was prepared to finish as strongly as possible.
The race left no part of Loon's vast landscape untouched. We lined up at the base, right along the Swift river. Folks stood up on the bridge above us and cheered as we took off through the parking lots. A few people shot for the front, to get out of the crowd early. I played it safe, though I was itching to break out of the group, too. I've had bad luck running too fast too early, though, so I sucked it up and kept pace with the slightly faster folks in the group, just trying not to get run over. My goal for the race was to beat 80 minutes, which could be achieved by keeping myself at 12-minute miles. I knew I'd run faster a few and slower a few, so I just rolled with it.
I forced myself to sidestep a few fellows as we climbed our first light hill, u-turning and criss-crossing the lower slopes of Loon. A few times I even said, “Excuse me.” Our first real climb came real quick and people were walking already! I did not stop running, though it was no hill sprint. The guys who walked the hills seemed to make up for it whenever the course flattened out again, and I never managed to lose any of them. Must have been a strategy I'm not aware of. But the hills I ran never seemed to bother me. I stayed consistent the entire time.
The first hill was slow climbing, a cloud of stinky and sweaty dudes on a July morning. It reeked, all eye-level butts and legs in shorty running shorts. We turned and ran across a slope, then onto the access road and up again. I put my head down and climbed, the steepness was getting to me just a bit. I let the sounds of a rushing brook distract me. I almost didn't notice everyone turning back into the woods just before it got real steep. From there, for the next few miles, we were able to break apart a bit and stretch out like deer dancing through dark, cool XC trails.
My first mile clicked in at 8:18 and I realized I bought four minutes up top. When mile 2 came in at 10:08, I added the two extra minutes in my head. I knew it got real steep in the final mile – the Upper Walking Boss was a kilometer long and reached the steep grade of over 40%.
Around mile 3, we popped back out of the woods and onto the access road again, climbing real steep after a water stop, which I made a point to enjoy. An older lady was hiking the mountain and cheering us all on. Most of the walkers continued their routine of slowing down for the climb, and I finally put a few of them behind me. But a few passed me right again – one big tall dude looked miserable, even had his shirt pulled up and his hands on his hips during the climbs, and I never could get past him. It made me miserable. Next year, man. I'm passin' you.
It was around mile 4 when I finally started walking the hills with everyone else. Well, in mountain racing, it's called “power hiking.” I still managed a 9:30. More time for slogging. I passed more guys, but we played tag all the way up. I pushed on my knees and climbed, I took deep breaths through the nose when possible, I felt the tall grass brush against my legs and the rising sun draw perspiration through my shirt. I wore my Mt. Agamenticus 5k shirt, which has become my good-luck shirt lately.
We turned a corner – guess what, more up – and there was a photographer sitting in the grass as merry as can be. Snap, snap, he went. Someone who must have known him yelled, “You suuuuuuck!” Then the photographer took a pic of him and laughed.
Climb climb climb run a bit then climb. The mileage signs didn't tell us how many miles we had run, they told us how many we had left. Ugh. One sign sneeringly informed us that the grade was “only 20%.” My heart rate was over 180 and I had vague chills running through my shirt. The belly area was dark with sweat. But I felt decent. Some light cramps on my right side from my pre-race water and half-a-Larabar. My legs felt amazing for most of the race. All those hills in Rochester and Sandwich as I trained for days like today.
Miles 5 and 6 both took over thirteen minutes each. They were mostly spent power hiking, head down and heart pounding. Someone yelled from behind me to keep my head up, it was blocking my wind pipe. I croaked “Got it!” and lifted my head. A few seconds later, I flashed him an A-OK and shouted “Thanks!” I struggled to break the habit for the rest of the race, but am grateful for the tip. My neck's been sore on runs lately, but my breathing's been better.
Not long after that, I saw a guy walking on the side of the trail, slow and dazed. His eyes were glazed a bit. Everyone passed him quietly. He was bonking hard. We weren't far from water, cheering, cowbells, and the announcer, perched under the gondolas. After another short walk and some tasty water, I dove down the hill and ignored that cramp as my guts bounced all over the place. F*ck it, I said, and lit up. I'll remember that tip for next year – light up when necessary. The walks will be slow no matter what. You can only run fast a few times in this race.
We ran down for a half-mile or so. Dreading every step, knowing what was ahead of me. It was super fun, though, to bound down the ski trail through the brambles and grass.
The Upper Walking Boss had its own sponsor (Delta Dental, a mainstay at New Hampshire races) and its own timing, starting at one set of flags and ending at the top of the brutal climb. It was like climbing the Tripyramid slide, it was like clinging to the Titanic. I dared not look behind me, lest I turn to salt. Ok, I did peek once. A long line of dudes dying, though when one had his photo taken, he managed to jump in the air and flex his muscles. My steps were getting sloppy, a few times I veered left off the beaten path. I kept focusing on my breathing and chasing the guy with his hands on his hips, who had dropped his shirt off at the gondola water stop and still managed to be ahead of me.
I was feeling discouraged. The end of the Upper Walking Boss was not in sight (it just ended up there, somewhere). I just....climbed. My Garmin told me I was approaching an hour and eighteen minutes and I began accepting defeat. This last mile took me 16 minutes. My butt was sore – and my calves were starting to feel dried out. If the cramps came, I'd be done.
And before I knew it, the hill ended with a bumpy crest and there were people cheering and the time clock was in sight. It read 1:21:50-something. Yow! I picked up my pace and ran it in as fast as I could with a devilish smirk on my face, ignoring all the self-imposed crap I just put up with back there on the stairway to the summit. I heard a woman cheer for me – for me! – as she spied me gunning it to beat 82 minutes and I thought I had it. My official time was 1:22:01.
I was two minutes shy of my goal (and one second!) but you know what? I'm pretty happy with that. I had no idea what I was getting into. My preliminary goal was to break 90 minutes, but I knew I needed something to push for. Give me another year on these Sandwich hills and we'll see what I come up with next time.
I grabbed a cup of water and headed for a rock to sit on. I held back from throwing up twice within the first minute of finishing, sat down, sipped my water, recollected myself, watched dozens of guys finish right behind me. I didn't linger on the summit, as the gondolas were the only way down and I didn't want to wait too long. I met a cool guy from Montreal and we watched some of the racers from the gondola as we rode above them.
Down at the base, I saw the winner of the race, Joe Gray, wandering around. He's from Colorado and has won the Mount Washington Auto Road race numerous times. He finished in 50 minutes. The top New Hampshire runner, Tristan Williams, came in 16th place with 57 minutes. Allie McLaughlin from Tennessee would win the women's race an hour later with a 57-minute finish. Christin Doneski took the top spot from New Hampshire, with an hour and seven minutes, for 14th place.
I came in 184th place out of over 400 men. I'll take it.
I jogged around the parking lot a bit, to cool off. My legs were pretty sore after sitting in the gondola for ten minutes. Sore shins, ankles, calves, butt. The backs of my calves felt crispy, the making of a sunburn. It was real quiet at the base, as the women's race was still going on and most people were either still up top or still racing. I bought a coffee from Wayfarer Coffee Shop's booth and ate a chocolate date ball. I really wanted a huge bottle of water, but I could only find bagels. I probably didn't look hard enough, so I just left and endured the leg cramps on the ride home 'til I could stop and buy enough water to fill a kiddie pool. I popped a few nuun tablets in there and sped down the highway – I still had a whole day ahead of me! Time to go mow the lawn.