Monday, March 15, 2010

Battered and Bruised, but not Broken

--> Or, How I came to be a Mountain Goat

Late in 2005, after another unsuccessful attempt to crack the 3-hour barrier, I decided to take a break from marathoning. The 3 month build-up, 1 month taper and 1 month recovery cycle had begun to feel like an awful lot of time to invest in just one 3 hour race. So, early in 2006, I decided to do something different. I thought that I might benefit from a new challenge in my running. I had read about the USATF Mountain Series and figured that it just might be the thing to break me out of my rut. Of course, what I didn’t figure on was that it just might be the thing to break me, period. This race series is not for the feint of heart. One of my favorite Mountain Series stories is about Tesfaye Bekele a sub 2:15 marathoner who showed up gunning for the Wachusett course record. He had said something like "I read that the record was 24:35 for 4.3 miles and figured I could run a lot faster than that". Veteran mountain runner Eric Morse ran with him for the first mile then showed him his back. Eric missed the record by four seconds, but beat Bekele by thirty. Just another example of a road runner who got a taste of mountain running and found it not to his liking! These races are typically low-key events, run by hard-core runners, over some extremely demanding terrain. And, in this the 11th season of the series, there were six tough races to be run. They included: Wachusett, Pack Monadnock, Northfield, Loon, Cranmore and Ascutney. With the addition of the king of all mountain races “Mount Washington” I embarked upon my self-made, seven race, test of will.

is a race which is paved from start to finish. The first mile is the toughest as it climbs 377' for an average grade of 7%. The course then flattens out for a bit and even drops as you start the second mile. Mile two has 246' of climb and the average grade is 4%. The third mile has a big drop in the middle and descends almost as much as it climbs. The final 1.3 is a long up-hill grind. The final climb in the parking lot adds insult to injury with a gut busting 200m stretch. This is a tough mountain race as it is something of a "sprint". It has been said that times are generally equal to a 5-mile flat race but this would turn out to be the slowest 5 miler I had ever run. On race day the temperatures were in the low 80’s with high humidity. Despite the weather, I had hoped to stay with Rich Stockdale and run with him as far as possible. Rich and I had some closely contested road races recently and I thought we were pretty evenly matched. However, once the gun went off so did Rich and, like Morse, he showed me his back the whole way. The first mile twisted and turned but never flattened as Rich slowly crept out of sight. During mile 2 we passed a large patch of snow too stubborn to melt in the heat as I wilted on the hill. The descent that I had so looked forward to brought nothing but rubber legs and back-peddling. And, while I never “walked” during the entire 4.3 mile ordeal, I’m not sure any reasonable observer would call what I did “running”. On a clear day you can see Boston to the South and the Wapack range to the North, but once I got to the summit all I wanted to do was lie down. Only the savagely unsympathetic black flies could rouse me from my rest and I was left with a sullen walk of shame back down to the ski area. My time was 34:29 which was good for 55th place and 72.84 points. All in all, a very forgettable start to my ambitious endeavor.

Pack Monadnock
was the next race in the series and also the longest. This course climbs 2,000 feet in 10 miles. It is mostly paved with a couple of brief stretches of dirt. Like Wachusett the first mile is a long, tough climb. The next seven miles are rolling hills featuring some very scenic back country roads. The eight to the nine mile mark represents the first major test, a long climb on route 101, then a brief respite before turning into Miller State Park. The last mile in the park has climbs steeper than Mount Washington. And, while Pack may mean "little", there is nothing little about the final climb. The last 200m has a grade of 30%! Race day featured rain, drizzle, 55 degree temperatures and sore legs as I had run hard in the Jackson 10k just the day before. I went out fast from the start and ran pretty well until the rolling miles and the previous day’s race began to catch up with me. During the first 7 miles I averaged 7:00/mile. During the last 3, including some walking on the steeper sections of Pack, I averaged 10:15/mile! My time was 1:19:52 and I finished in 36th place with 80.02 points. The high point of the day was jogging back down to the parking area and sharing a soggy hot dog with my fiancĂ©e Johanne. Then we drove home together tired from a long, tough weekend of racing.

represented two firsts in this years series. It was the first mountain race of the year to be run entirely on trails and also featured the first loop course instead of the usual point to point. So, once we climbed the mountain, we would get to sprint back down to the finish. After suffering through 10 miles of climbing at Pack the week earlier, 3 miles up and 3 miles down sounded pretty good to me! This event also has served as the La Sportiva - USATF Trail Running 2006 10k Championship. So, there was more than the usual number of “crazies” at the slopes on race day. The weather was excellent with temps in the 60's and moderate humidity when we toed the line. The first mile was relatively flat compared to the previous two races and I went out hard. The trail was wide and grassy and I felt like I was running cross country again. My split at the one mile mark was 6:40 and before I could say “too fast” the trail turned and went straight up-hill. Ooops! Apparently trail races can be even steeper than mountain races and my pace ground to a slow, but deliberate walk. The next two miles were a combination of walking & running as I tried to stay out of Rich Stockdale’s reach. I had hoped that if I could just get to the top before him, I would be able to use my size to my advantage on the way back down. The blur of Rich passing me on the first steep descent quickly put that idea out of my mind. And, as I tried to keep from causing an avalanche of dirt and rocks with every awkward step, I saw him disappear down the trail. As it turns out, downhill running is no walk in the park and I stumbled home in 27th place, with a time of 47:06. I scored 75.44 more points and my barking quads couldn’t have been less impressed.

The Mount Washington auto road is 7.6 miles in length, has an average grade of 11.5% with extended sections of 18%, and the last 50 yards is a 22% "wall" to the finish. The course rises 4650 vertical feet from start to finish and represents the one true test for all aspiring mountain runners. This event draws runners from all over the globe and more than a few strange looks and comments from non-runners who simply don’t know why anyone would even consider doing something so stupid. In my only previous attempt at Washington, four years earlier, the weather proved to be too much to overcome and the organizers were forced to shorten the race. This year I wouldn’t be so fortunate as the weather was ideal, at least for spectators, with temperatures in the 80’s at the start and in the low-50’s at the summit, with almost no wind. This time I started out more conservatively and I let a large group of the almost 900 runners get by me on the first mile. I had purchased a heart rate monitor earlier in the year and used it to keep me from “red-lining” as I made my way up the road which wound around to the summit of this overgrown pile of rocks. A competent psychologist would have had a field day at this race since there we more than a few runners with “split-personalities” out on the course. Sprinting madly at one moment then walking slowly the next. Meanwhile, I tried to keep my effort at a consistent level throughout leaving many of the “yo-yo’ers” behind. I did, however, succumb to a bit of walking myself during the 6th & 7th mile when it became apparent that, despite my highest hopes, the road didn’t get any flatter. The finish couldn’t come fast enough and with the grueling hand-over-hand crawl up the “wall” I gratefully celebrated the end of my Washington experience. My finishing time was 1:32:42, good for 154th place and a mere half-hour behind the winner Eric Blake. However, the real winner that day was Brian Coates. The only person I knew who ran the whole 7.6 mile race without walking!

The Loon Mountain course starts at a dirt parking area along the Pemigewasset River, at the lowest possible point on the property, and winds its way through the lower parking area to the service roads heading up the mountain. It follows a combination of dirt paths and ski trails up to the summit lodge at the top of the gondola. Then it works its way up and over North Peak before returning back to the summit. The race averages a 10% grade with some serious sections of over 20%! This race also served as the USATF Mountain Running Championships and was a qualifier for the US Team that will compete for the World Mountain Running Trophy in Bursa, Turkey later in the year. A light rain fell in the early morning before the race leading to fog descending on the mountain. So, we had the unique opportunity to run through the clouds twice, as two layers of fog blanketed the two peaks of Loon Ski area. And, with the steep inclines, we had more than enough time to contemplate the various weather patterns of the White Mountains. The section of the course leading up to North Peak featured a long stretch of 30% grade along a black diamond ski trail. From the bottom I could see the race leaders weaving their way back and forth over the switch-backs a half mile ahead with the painful knowledge that I wouldn’t be where they were for another 10 minutes! My time was 1:10:17 and I finished in 35th place with 67.06 points. Not bad for the toughest 10k I ever hoped to run and the free gondola ride back to the bottom, along with the ice water soak in the “Pemi”, made the finish seem even sweeter.

had terrain very similar to that of Loon with the added benefit of getting to do it twice! The double-loop course started at the Base Lodge on a dirt trail and after a few hundred yards made an immediate right turn up the ski trails. The grade on much of the ascent was approximately 16%. The course was 10k long with 2400 vertical feet of elevation gain/ descent and was designed to mirror the 2005 World Mountain Running Trophy Race course in New Zealand. Or course, I affectionately dubbed each of the up and down 5k loops as “20 min. of suffering followed immediately by 10 min. of terror”! The weather on race day was on the hot side so I took it out easy and started walking almost immediately. “These mountain races were starting to turn into speed-hiking exhibitions” I thought, as I tried to keep myself moving ahead. Once I reached the summit (the first time) I breathed a sigh of relief and headed on down the other side. To my surprise I was starting to pass people fairly easily on the downhill. But, just before I could pat myself on the back for a job well done I was overcome with a nifty case of nausea. Apparently the constant jostling from the descent was upsetting my breakfast and causing my body to yell a very loud and emphatic “whoa-up”! So, as I dry-heaved by the start/finish line the people that I passed (and then some) quickly made their way by me and back up the hill. To add injury to insult, I realized I had developed a blister the size of Rhode Island on my right heel. And, now all I had to do was run the course all over again but, this time on my toes! My finishing time of 1:02:01 was better than I would have imagined. And, as I limped home, my 24th place finish and 77.80 points left me with the distinct impression that I was staring to get the hang of this mountain running thing!

marked the final race in the 2006 Mountain Series. This race was first held in the early 70's as a tune-up for Vermont XC skiers and has always been popular with roller-skiers. The average grade is 12% and the many twists in the road are reminiscent of the Mount Washington road race. The course climbs 2300 feet in 3.8 miles. This is a very tough race, but thankfully not a long one! The weather at the start was typical for New England in July. As the 55 runners, from five states, gathered for the 3.8 mile grind the temperatures were in the low 80's and the humidity was just over 90%. Like Washington I tried to maintain the same effort throughout and just keep moving forward. But, unlike Washington, I was actually able to make it the whole way to the top without walking. I finished with my highest placing of the year and ended up passing some of the runners who had beaten me so easily earlier in the series. My time of 42:46 was good enough for 18th place and 69.33 points. Giving me 449.42 points for the year and 2nd place in my age group for all of the 6 races. More importantly, along with 18 other men and women, I earned the coveted “Mountain Goat” status (& T-shirt) for having completed all 6 races in the series! The ensuing awards ceremony and T-Shirt presentation capped what turned out to be a very memorable and rewarding first time Mountain Series experience. And, I would recommend it to anyone looking to take a break from their typical running routine.

After returning home from Vermont, still basking in the glory of my newfound “Goatness”, I did a little research and came across some amazing Mountain Series statistics. As it turns out, GCS’s very own Rich MacDonald is 4th in the Mountain Series with 35 total finishes. With 16 in a row at one point! And, Mr. President himself, Skip Cleaver is close on his heels with 31 finishes. As for my series “nemesis” Rich Stockdale, he’s 3rd overall in total points with a whopping 2486. So, I guess that just means I have only 2,037 points to go!