Monday, June 22, 2015

Second Degree Fun at the Mt. Washington Road Race

My buddy's fun rating system:
1st Degree Fun: fun while you're doing it. Actually enjoyable.
2nd Degree Fun: fun when you think about it afterwards. You're glad you did it.
3rd Degree Fun: not fun at any point. Deep regret.

This race would be 2nd degree fun (though mile 5 was pushing the 3rd degree).

Friday night I met up with my old man and we ventured north for the Mt. Washington Road Race. After dinner at a great bar (sorry, "gastropub") in St. Albans VT we met up with Stoneman at a hotel near the mountain in Jackson, NH.  Stoneman was limber from earlier in the day post-hike libations and his pop culture lessons on "dad body" and "man buns" helped dull my nerves. At dawn and after a crappy night's sleep, my dad left to hike the mountain, while Stoney and I breakfasted across from the race start. The view was intimidating.

For scale: note that you can't see the summit buildings.

It's by far the biggest mountain in New England and the biggest East of the Rockies. I haven't seen it since I was a kid and the damn thing was imposing. It's big enough that the second half of the race is above tree line and feels more Coloradan than Appalachian. Race stats: This auto road climb totals 4,688' (to 6,288') with an average grade of 12%. I've trained for this, mostly, but I knew it was going to put a big hurt on me. Some quick math based on my race the past weekend at Mt. Ascutney indicated that 1:06-1:08 was a reasonable goal, which would put me top 10 most years. The starting line was loaded per usual with many of the country's best mountain runners (sans the injured Blake) and even a fast Italian or two. Some miles are steeper than others but only by 1-2% so you can expect relatively even splits, until fatigue and altitude slow the 2nd half. With all of this in mind the plan was to average 8:40's for the first half and then hang on with whatever I had left, hopefully finishing among the big boys.

The plan worked through 4 miles. Splits: 7:20 (the first 200M are flat); 8:32; 8:51; 8:58 (halfway in 32:26).  The idea is to run most of this race at lactate threshold right from the start, hopefully only going miserably anaerobic near the finish. (You'd better experience this repeatedly in training. Otherwise your primitive animal brain - the self-preserving fear center - will put the brakes on hard).  I was sitting in 10th place at mile 4 and the guys I'd hoped to run with were ahead of me. I felt ok but I knew I wouldn't be chasing them...just hanging on.

At mile 4 this race becomes a horror show.

Let's be real for a moment.  The second half of the Mount Washington Road Race is at altitude. I'm not sure why more people don't talk about this.  If you flew in from Colorado you can expect to run 30+ seconds per mile faster over these last 3.7 miles than a comparably fit flat lander.  This I hadn't trained for and short of an altitude tent I'm not sure any of us East-coasters can.   As if to throw salt in the wound, the road straightens out at this point and hits a mile of dirt, with a headwind.  I did my best to crawl into my suffer cave, the place where pain is acceptable, expected, tolerable. I ignored the views as there would be plenty of time to enjoy them up top.  I clawed through mile 5 with a 9:41 split. Deep in the suffer cave. Dan Princic had caught me along the way and he pulled me through my most painful and crushing stretch of racing in recent memory.  Together we ran another 9:41 through the 6 mile mark. I knew from my workouts that I could regain some composure after starting to blow up (a new and recent development) and I was happy to attain this psychic space with about a mile to go (mile 6.7). Mile 7 split -- 9:27.  Dan pulled away a bit and Kris Freeman was closing on me despite my rally.  6:09 for the last 7/10th's of a mile over a flatter stretch with a wall (22%) right at the finish.  I came through in 11th place, 1:08:41, a bit off my goal but happy enough.  Time like this spent at the edge of your limits is about as real as any experience gets, and direct confrontation with those limits is the only way to get better at expanding them.  But I'm loath to go all the way there too often.

In the last stretch. Photo by Stoneman.
Sufferfest. Photo by Snap Acidotic.

The auto road is closed for several hours so I sat around at the top with Dad and Stoneman.  News was coming in that Joe Gray had beaten the American record.  I caught up with other results and noted who had beaten me -- fodder and motivation for next year's training.  Finally at the bottom again, I dug in and waited out the awards...apologies to my crew who had to hang around.  The weekend wouldn't have been enjoyable, even possible, without them.  Next up--a long weekend/vacation with Wifey at the Loon Mountain Race, after which I'll get a break from racing.

Thanks also to the aR camp for their support, the race directors for pulling off a race on such a grand stage, and all the excellent folks who continue to make this scene the most excellent in all of running.  What a race -- even if it should be run straight up the trails!


Father's Day weekend with my pops.

w/ Stoneman
The view. Courtesy Snap Acidotic.

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