“This is harder than the 50 miler I just ran,” came the comment from my friend Saeger around mile three of the Mount Washington Road Race on Saturday.
I felt justified. Saeger is a sub 3-hour marathoner and she just placed third at the Pineland Farms 50 miler. She’s an amazing runner and someone I’m always chasing at local races. This race is effing hard. It doesn’t matter how fast you are on the roads. The Mount Washington Road Race is a beast of its own: 7.6 miles, an average of 12% grade, 4,650 feet in elevation gain, but only one hill.
Last year this race chewed me up, spit me out and showed me who’s boss: The Mountain. I went in with an aggressive goal and high expectations. I was in great shape and was PR-ing workouts on the track.
But I learned that day that track and road speed have little to do with your ability to climb and if anything are actually the opposite qualities you want.
This year, I’ve been working with coach Chris Dunn (whose speciality is mountain and trail running) specifically for the purpose of becoming a better mountain runner. Even though Mt. Washington wasn’t my “A” race for this year, I knew my preparation would be solid.
I had three goals going into the race:
A “safe” goal of simply beating my time from last year (1:49).
My “target” goal 1:35 what he and I believed I was capable of running.
And a “reach” goal of 1:30, the “if-all-the-stars-align-and-the-gods-are-with-me” goal.
I felt relaxed going into the race: no ridiculous expectations, just happy to have the opportunity to run a race that’s hard to get into (they use a lottery to select runners).
My focus for the race was to be tenacious, grateful and to have fun, and in the later miles of the race these words became my mantra.
The forecast going into the race was for cloudy skies, potential rain and wind gusts up to 40 mph. Under overcast skies I made my way to the start of the race with other Six03 Endurance teammates early on Saturday morning. The air felt muggy, but cool and it seemed like the day would pan out exactly as predicted.
Because of the logistics of the race you have to arrive almost three hours before the start. It’s a lot of time to kill, but the field at the base of the mountain fills up quickly and it’s a great chance to catch up with friends you only see at races and make new ones.
I had the chance to talk final strategy and advice with my coach, Chris and speak with last year’s second place female runner, Kim Nadeau. She’s an amazing athlete and I have a huge amount of respect for how hard she works.
As the morning progressed the clouds began to lift and you could see the summit drifting in and out of view. Just before the start the sun came out and the base was in complete sun. It looked as if we weren’t going to get those overcast skies or drizzle that was forecasted.
After lots of waiting, dynamic stretching and a quick warm up I made my way to the start. As I stood in there the air felt warm and humid and realized that the first few miles before getting above tree line were going to be hot.
The Race: Start to Half-Way
With the blast of the cannon we were off. My focus was on my splits through the halfway point. I wanted to hit those splits and in the second half simply focus on keeping my paces faster than a 14:00 minute mile.
I hit the first mile split ahead of schedule. I felt comfortable, but drenched in sweat. When I came up on the water stop at the 1.5 mark I guzzled two cups and dumped one overhead. I maintained a steady pace through the next two miles, clicking off faster splits than was written on my hand. Everything felt good, except for the fact that my face was so hot.
There were times when I shifted from a run to a power hike and counted my steps to stay focused. One, two, three…nine, ten. Now run. Through these miles I swapped places with Six03 Endurance teammates and having them around made it feel a little easier.
Just before mile three I took off my singlet. My face and head felt so hot. I was drenched in sweat. I hit the three mile marker just ahead of my target pace and kept moving forward.
The Race: Half Way to Finish
I told myself I needed to walk the water stop at the halfway mark and I did, taking two cups at the beginning to dump over my head, two to drink in the middle of the stop and grabbed one more cup at the end to dump on my head. I held on to one cup and sipped on it while I took my GU just after the 4 mile mark.
I reached the half way mark behind pace, but only because I’d walked the water stop. I knew I needed water and giving up that time time to get it was important.
After the halfway point I slowed, my running pace went from 12’s to 14 and 15 min/mi. The course gets steeper at this point and there’s a section of dirt road that is especially challenging. At this point we were above tree line and there was no breeze, no cooler air, no respite from the sun. It felt hotter than below tree lie and the relief I was expecting never came.
I struggled physically at this point, but felt like my mental focus was strong. Last year when I struggled and fell off my target pace I got incredibly discouraged and a negative internal voice brought me down and caused me to slow even more. But this year I kept my internal voice positive, I focused on counting my steps: 30 steps walking, 50 running.
When I felt discouraged I repeated to myself “be tenacious,” “be grateful.” And I truly felt those things. I felt so lucky to be at the race, to be healthy enough to run and to be one of the few who get to race up that road and take in the stunning mountain views. Two weeks ago I took 5 days off from running after I felt an odd and familiar tightness in my plantar fascia. I felt so grateful that that little niggle hadn’t turned into a full blown injury, if it had I never would have made it to the race.
Just after mile five I physically felt my worst. I was lightheaded, so thirsty and so hot. But at the 5.5 mile mark, like a godsend were two Six 03 Teammates who had hiked up the mountain with giant bottles of Gatorade. They held out two cups for me and I guzzled both, threw them on the ground and yelled, “You guys are a godsend!”
A half mile later was the next water stop and I dumped more water overhead, drank two big cups and kept running. Not long after that stop I felt my body turning around. I felt strong. Running felt like less of a struggle and I picked up the pace. I ran more and walked less and passing people was gave me confidence. That physical turnaround might not have been possible had I lost the mental focus. If I had let myself get discouraged I may never have had it in my to push in that final mile, which ended up being 2 min faster per mile than the two previous miles.
With less than a half mile to go I started to pick up the pace a bit more, the buildings and towers on the top of the mountain coming into view. Just before “The Wall” (the famous last few yards of the race that are 22% grade) was my coach, ringing the biggest cowbell you’ve ever seen and telling me give it all I had. With a surge of adrenaline I tackled the last bit of the race.
I powered up The Wall as best I could pushing off my knees and trying to stay as upright as possible. I gave every last ounce of effort I had and crossed the line in 1:45:27, four minutes faster than last year.
After crossing the line I hunched over a barrier to catch my breath and someone helped me to the water table. I stood by the water table pouring cup after cup over my head to try and cool myself down. I must have drank 5 or 6 cups of water standing there and then hydrated more after the race.
Embrace the Hill
This race is ridiculously hard, but I love it and I love that mountain-not just because of the race, it has a special place in my heart because it is tied to our family. There’s no doubt in my mind that I want to do whatever I can to get good at this race. Even though I didn’t hit my target time goal, I’m more pleased with my mental approach to the race and the fact that despite struggling physically, I was able to stay focused mentally.
The whole day was fun. I really couldn’t wipe the smile off my face…well, maybe during the race there wasn’t much of a smile, but inside I was smiling!
I can’t wait to be back next year. Since I’m running the NE Mountain Series, I’ll bypass the lottery and get entrance into the race.
Rock Pile, I’m coming for you!
Want to see more pictures from the race? Check out Joe Viger’s amazing photos HERE.
Have you ever struggled physically in a race, but felt like you won mentally?
Want to check out my training and daily musings? Follow me on Instagram.
Or connect with me here, I love getting emails from readers!
Email: RunFarGirl [at] gmail [dot] com