The best part about mountain running is not knowing.
You don’t know who will show up the day of the race.
You don’t know what to expect from the course, even if you study the elevation chart and course map and preview it the day before.
You don’t know exactly how you’ll feel on the climb or how you’ll manage the downhill.
It’s that element of surprise that I love about mountain running. Heck, it’s what I love about running: you show up on race day and even though you’ve done everything you can to prepare, you really don’t know what will happen until you get out there and start the journey.
It’s all about taking that first step and then your path unfolds before you.
Saturday’s Cranmore Mountain Race was exactly the kind of race I’m starting to love. Lots of up, hard up, 40% grade up. Lots of down. Heart pumping, body flying a little out of control down. And twisty single track through the woods, with logs to leap over and rocks to run around.
When I lined up on Saturday, I really had no idea where I’d fall in the mix. There are women I’ve been racing against locally, but since it was the USATF Mountain Running Championships there was a whole group of women who had flown in for the race. Some of them I recognized, like last year’s champion Addie Bracy and Julia Webb (who I’d met briefly while running Hood to Coast way back in 2013). And beside them there were a slew of girls who “looked fast.” But the thing about mountain running is that it is a crazy beast and being a fast road runner doesn’t necessarily translate to success on the mountain.
Success in mountain running is a combination of good cardiovascular fitness, but also having powerful legs that can climb and a little bit of fearlessness and quick foot work to push the downhill. And grit. You’ve got to have a good measure of grit.
My goals going into the race were to:
Focus on the effort of each step.
Run my race.
And in the back of my mind I wanted to improve my place from last year and was hoping I could crack the top 20 finishers.
My coach, Chris Dunn and I discussed my race plan going in to the two loop course. I really wanted to have a stronger second lap, but knew that would be a challenge. I considered how I handled the two-loop Dirty Girl trail race where I didn’t hold back at all and wondered if I’d be able to run a faster and stronger second lap.
Going into the race my plan was to:
Hold back on the first climb and stay conservative. Let some of my familiar competitors go ahead and push the pace, but stay within myself.
Take the first downhill at a comfortable pace.
Push hard on the second loop.
We lined up at the base of Cranmore Mountain and received our instructions from the race director (who also happens to be my coach Chris Dunn of Acidotic Racing). He gave us the run down of the course and was sure to point out the “covfefe” near the start line that we must avoid tripping over. (I really wish I’d gotten a picture of that covfefe!)
A few moments later we were off through the start/finish area and climbing. The incline started out pretty gentle as we made our way across to the main ski run and started our first ascent. The UP portion of the course was a really a series of ascents, each in increasing steepness and difficulty. I kept my breathing as comfortable as possible, which meant power hiking some of the steeper sections. I felt completely relaxed and relied on info from a friend who had run the men’s race earlier in the morning that there were several “false tops,” places where you’d think you were done climbing but you actually went down a little before ascending again.
I stayed focused on my plan, relaxed and trusted that some of the women who were pushing up the mountain ahead of me would come back to me on the second ascent.
At it’s steepest the mountain was 40% grade and I simply focused on a good rhythm power hiking and pushing off my thighs with my hands. The footing was loose gravel at that point and there were spots where it was so steep it was hard to find a good spot to step.
As we approached the summit the course plateaued and went downhill slightly before climbing again to the lodge at the top. At this point I’d gained a few spots and was feeling good. The course went down the backside of the mountain for a quick, steep downhill then looped back up towards the summit before starting the descent.
All the time I had been climbing I was trying to think of places I could push on the second lap. A slight plateau there, a brief downhill here, a less-steep section there. I looked for “easier” parts of the course where I thought I could give it just a little more on the second lap.
The descent was a series of switchbacks through the ski runs and woods. We zig-zagged across both going in and out of single track and mowed ski trail, keeping things interesting. I took the downhill relatively easy, not completely braking, but not going all out—I was saving that for the second loop.
In the final stretch of the downhill section was a muddy pit. The course, drenched with all the rain we’ve gotten recently, had been chewed up by the two-loop men’s course earlier in the morning and had turned into a nature-made mud obstacle.
By the time I reached that section I could hear other women behind me, who had run the downhill faster than I had catching up. As we approached the mud section many of us tried to pick the line that seemed less likely to take us down. I tried to swing wide through the grass simply to keep my footing and faired pretty well keeping my momentum through the section, until the last little bit where I went down. Thankfully I slid a little on my side and then popped back up quickly.
I was now in a pack of women coming into the finish area getting ready to start the second loop. I passed by my coach who yelled encouragement and could hear my family cheering and friends as well.
At that point I knew I was ready to go. I wanted to make the second lap MY lap and really give it everything I had. I quickened my pace and started the second ascent feeling strong and quickly left behind the group I’d run into the finish with. I kept my rhythm through the ascents on the second lap, but when I got to the places where I planned on pushing I just didn’t feel like I had much in me to pick up the pace. My glutes were burning from the effort and when the course did plateau, they felt empty of all the energy I was hoping would be there.
I knew I was running slower than I had on the first lap and was discouraged that I wasn’t executing the plan. Then I shifted my focus to my effort: “Just focus on each step. Put your thoughts, your energy, your effort into the next step.” The final climb challenged every ounce of energy my legs and lungs had in them as I tackled that 40% grade again. I thought if I could keep a good rhythm and not pause at all I’d keep anyone from catching up to me. But I wasn’t quite catching the girls ahead of me who I thought I’d be gaining on in the second loop.
When I reached another spot where I’d planned on pushing, I told myself “Just 10% more.” Even though I felt like I couldn’t push the pace to the level I wanted I thought if I could just give 10% more than the person behind me I be doing OK.
As I reached the summit my legs took while to transition to the downhill. It was as if the muscles had to be woken up and reminded that they had to work the other way too. As my breathing recovered and I collected my legs under me, I felt ready to push the downhill as best I could. At that point I was running near one other woman and we traded spots back and forth as we we went through the woods and the ski trails: I pushed the pace through the woods and she would gain on me on the ski trails.
As we approached the Mud Pit for the second time we came up on a group of women who were finishing their first lap, picking a line through the mud was more of a challenge and I went down twice. Each time it was like I was sliding into second base and was able to pop back up quickly and keep running.
With less than a half a mile left in the race I opened up my stride as much as I could and let momentum take me. At one point I was going what felt like way too fast, out of control and on the verge of falling. My whole body was jostled by the impact of each step. It was a “holy shit,” kind of moment where you know that you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to and if you tripped you’d be totally screwed.
As I rounded the corner down the final ski trail, I could hear the cowbells and cheering and did my best to push harder. I wanted to give my all into the finish.
When I crossed the line and bent over to catch my breath I knew I’d given my best effort, my legs were shaking and I felt completely spent.
I ended up finishing in 23rd place, not quite the top 20 I was hoping I could pull off, but I’m really proud of my effort and the place is an improvement from last years 40th spot (although last year’s field was bigger). In the moments after the race I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t feel stronger in the second lap and wasn’t able to pass more people in the second lap. But after looking through race photos I realized that I came into the second lap with a big group, that I left behind and while I didn’t gain on anyone ahead of me I did run a stronger second lap than those who had been in the same spot as I at the halfway point. And I’m not sure I could have run the first lap anymore conservatively.
When it comes to effort, I know I gave it my all and that’s where I want my focus to be.
After I’d cleaned up with baby wipes we headed off to the awards and afterparty at Tuckerman Brewery. The kids had a blast running around, sometimes I think they have more fun at my races than I do.
As I watched the awards I felt inspired to work harder and get better at this crazy, fun sport. I know I’ll keep coming to the mountains for more unknowns.
Do you like races that are a surprise or predictable races?
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Email: RunFarGirl [at] gmail [dot] com