Friday, July 11, 2014

Race Report: USA Mountain Running Championships

Another July, another trip to the Loon Mountain Race in the Whites, a stop on the USATF-New England mountain running tour...only this time it was the USATF national championship race for mountain running.  I've had this race in mind all year, starting specific (read: miserable) workouts in January.  I blogged about last year's race, which was really my first mountain race (depending on your inclusion criteria), and I raved at how awesome the challenge was. (The new, longer course did not disappoint.  More on that later.) I'm not gonna lie-- looking at past results, and gauging from the training I've been doing (and a few race results), I thought top-10 was feasible, and I even thought there was a 10% chance I'd make top 6 and qualify for Worlds.  Some registration stalking indicated that, just as I've read in some interviews leading up to the race, a heady field was to turn up.  Mountain running is now attracting professional runners and studs from more traditional running disciplines. Clearly, the information I'd mined from previous championship races was out-of-date; every year is getting deeper as mountain running grows.  Entrants this year included all of the mountain running names I know, and some heavy-hitting road runners (Ryan Bak, 13:xx guy, etc.).  A bunch of dudes flew out from Colorado, and fast guys from farther down the East coast were on tap as well.

The top half of the race course visible from our room.  Upper Walking Boss (and the finish line) is on the far left.
At the gun the depth was evident. I started fast but controlled and found myself in perhaps 30th place after a half mile. (Edit--video surveillance confirms 37th place at 1/2 mile in.)  I noted to Jim Johnson that lots of these guys were "out of their minds" running this hard.  Did they know what was in store?  This was like the start of a college cross country race--stupid fast, emphasis on the stupid.  Perhaps even indicative of a lack of respect for the mountain. The new course enabled this kind of tactic, as the first mile consists of short, hard climbs and descents, followed by a ~2 mile section of rolling nordic trails in the woods.  I worked the climbs of the first mile hard, kept steady but conservative on the downhills (most of which had sketchy/loose footing), and entered the nordic trails barely in the first 25% of the pack.  Here I realized my mistake:  I have trained exclusively for hard climbing.  I can run rolling trails fast, but I didn't trust these gears (or my footwork) as I haven't been using them this year. So I emerged from the nordic section (around mile 3?) feeling fresh, but with lots of work to do, as a whole lot of guys had run quite hard from the gun and I really hadn't.  But I was in one piece, ankles and quads intact, with no oxygen debt.

race map, courtesy acidotic RACING
into the meat of the climbing (courtesy snap acidotic)
While I was worried about having saved too much, those concerns were mostly out the window once the serious climbing began. Almost immediately after exiting the nordic trails you hit a wall of grass, probably 20-30% grade.  I swapped places here a few times with another runner, but once up it, I don't think I lost any places.  I went to work doing the only thing I'd really trained for, which is climb, hard.  In the ~3 miles of steady climbing that followed, I gained a bunch of spots (how many is quite hazy), hitting the south summit in 19th place.  Hard but conservative down the ~1/2 mile descent..looking backwards, watching guys get closer (as they do on downhills), wondering if I could hold them off up the final climb to the finish.

crazy downhill, not my forte. Photo--Krissy K.

 Taking a hard right after the fast descent is, of course, the beginning of Upper Walking Boss, a 40%-grade ski slope, with the race finish now located at the top, 1 kilometer away.  Which makes for ~7-10 minutes of excruciatingly slow power-hiking-slash-"running" and an anticlimactic, lactate-swollen push for the finish against an epic backdrop that you can appreciate once you've finished and turned around to look.  I did manage to hold my position (8:48 for the kilo climb) and finished in 19th, 57:23, encouragingly close to some excellent mountain runners (Newbould, Ferenc) and also happily ahead of others.  After some hysterical panting on the ground I wondered if I'd run the bottom half of the race hard enough, a thought I'd continue to roll around in my head.  But who knows-- maybe I'd have blown up and I'd be writing about a DNF or 50th-place finish.  I executed the plan and I'm happy with it.  aR placed 3rd for the team competition, which is pretty rad, and I took home $400 for being the 4th overall "collegian" in the newly-formed Collegiate Running Association division.  A pretty cool idea this CRA is. This prize money certainly helped bring alot of dudes up to Loon and added to the depth of the race.
Upper Walking Boss (photo: Scott Mason Photography)
So what of the new course? While this is technically an "up" race--with 3200' of climbing and a mountaintop finish-- the 1000' of combined descent and the fast/technical/rolling nordic trails make this a true all-around mountain race.  Running it well requires a varied toolkit, not just climbing prowess.  But the show that the top 2 guys put on also shows that it's a runnable course.  These guys crushed it close to 6:30 per mile (with 3200' climbing!), taking it hard from the gun and running the fast stuff flat-out.  Even the other top studs-- Eric Blake, etc-- held back on the first half of the course, saving themselves for the biggest climbs.  The 2 breakaway guys showed that the downhills are enough to allow some recovery and to permit those with a huge, huge engine and herculean fitness to run all of this course hard, without fear.  Not to take away from their performance, of course...Joe Gray put almost 7 minutes on 3rd place.  But this kind of dominance is not possible in road racing, XC, etc, or even at a straight-uphill-paved race like Mt. Washington, where he beat Eric Blake by only a minute over a similar distance.  The way runners chose to approach this course and its various sections had huge consequences. This course amplifies disparities between runners and exposes weaknesses.  I hope Chris Dunn keeps this arrangement.  I know I'd like to try it again, knowing what I suspect I know, taking more chances early on.

Full results:

Wifey and I took advantage of the Northerly location and launched into a week of vacation.  Highlights below.
Old Orchard Beach, ME
Juvenile bear in our campsite, hung out for about an hour before we decided it needed to leave. We eventually scared it off by raising our arms and yelling ("I'm bigger than you!") and banging pots/pans.  Unimpressed neighbors became suddenly interested when they saw what the commotion was about.
Camping in Rumney, NH.  L to R:  "Grizz", me, Wifey's friend Foust.  These guys were finishing a week of climbing and surreptitiously overlapped with us, providing a very nice post-race Sunday: with river tubing, beers, and this sparkler.

Cabin camping in Acadia National Park, ME.

Wifey discussing her beer choice in Portland, ME.

1,000 miles and only one trip to a gas station! 

Cadillac Mtn, Acadia Nat'l Park, ME (should have found time to run up it).

Post-race in Rumney, NH.


  1. Good job man. It looks like (from what I read in race reports) that for mountain racing the key is to learn to run fast where you can run fast. Uphill you need to keep position, and steal territory everywhere else.

  2. Thanks A. You may well have a point there....

  3. Great race and report, top 20 in the nation is legit. Walking boss sounds epic. You must have had to dig very deep into your suitcase of courage.

    1. sir Nick, you would do very well in these races! I think you have way more than my duffel bag of courage...

      nice run at nipmuck south. glad to see you havent forgotten how to run east coast trails.