The mountain always looks so big and impossible standing in the field at the base. The crisp morning sky was cloudless, offering perfect views of all 6288ft of Mt. Washington. Runners bustled around the start area: setting up tents, retrieving bib numbers, lacing-up shoes, a hum of excitement and anticipation.
“You’ve been here before, with big dreams and you weren’t able to do it then, what makes you think today will be different?”
The thought came and went in the blink of an eye as I surveyed the morning’s scene.
No. Today I’m going to be my biggest cheerleader and negative thoughts aren’t welcome. “Not today,” I told that self-destructive thought.
Being My Biggest Cheerleader
Prior to the Mt. Washington Auto Road race I’d done some serious mental work to get over negative thoughts and doubt that had been plaguing me for a while. I’d made the decision in the days leading up to the race that on Saturday, no matter what happened I was going to cheer and encourage myself.
In reading Deena Kastor’s book “Let Your Mind Run, I latched on to her description of her confidence soaring as her coach would call out her mile splits and a word of encouragement in her workout. It reminded me of my own experience on the track while running a 5K time trial. My coach would call out the lap split: on the laps after he said, “Perfect” or “Good job, Sarah” my split was right on pace. In the laps where he simply called out the time I slowed by a second the next lap. I know first hand that constant positive affirmations and encouragement work.
On race day, I decided that at each mile marker, since I couldn’t see my splits on a watch I would tell myself I was “crushing it,” that I was “on pace” or that I “looked super strong.” My plan was to have the voice of an encouraging coach in my mind the whole race.
Along with that strategy I had a host of positive mantras I planned to tap into, but on race day I ended up only latching on to several phrases that simply came to me in the moment.
A Good Omen
Is that Dave?
That has to be Dave.
I was jogging back from my warm up and a quick visit to the woods (who has time for porto potty lines?!). When I spotted who I thought looked like Dave McGillvray, director of the Boston Marathon. His race directing company puts on the race, so he is often in attendance.
I came up behind him and turned. Yup, totally him.
“Hi Dave!” I called out. The tone of my voice surprised me: I spoke as if I knew him and he knew me and we were best buds.
“Hi,” came his reply. The look on his face gave away the fact that he was wracking his brain to see if he should maybe know who I am. “Good luck with everything!” he said as I jogged on past.
“Thank you!” I called and kept running.
“Well,” I thought. “If Dave McGillvray wishes you good luck then you’re going to have good day”
I took it as a good omen and continued with the rest of my warm up.
At the start I felt remarkably calm, there were no nerves just a calm knowing that I was ready to give the race everything I had. I didn’t feel confident in the outcome, but I felt confident that every step I took, every moment of the race I’d be fully engaged and give it my all.
I had no watch, so when the cannon went off I just ran across the start.
My goal was to keep the first 1.5 miles comfortable, I didn’t want to get caught up in trying to keep up with the front runners that early on-if I was going to finish in the top 20 it wasn’t going to be from being in the top 20 at the start. I settled into a comfortable pace and felt at ease with the incline. My breathing and heart rate were calm and steady.
Only One Hill
I passed the Mile 1 marker and gave myself a little encouragement: “Crushing it!” The road was still crowded with runners. “This will thin out,” I told myself. “Lots of race left to go.”
I felt “on top” of my effort and in control of each step. I knew that nine weeks of incline workouts had fully prepared me to run goal race-pace at 12%, what I didn’t know is how I would handle the wind: they talked about 40 mph gusts at the summit or how I would feel on the 15% sections. Would I be able to maintain goal pace? Would I fall behind and walk, like I had previous years?
The questions were replaced with, “Excellence in Every Step” a mantra I had adopted the day prior to the race when another excerpt from Deena Kastor’s book jumped out at me:
“Success [is] ‘having’: money, awards, status. Excellence [is] “being”: living your values, having them guide your daily life. Pursue excellence, Coach would say, and success will follow.”
When I found myself getting beyond the present moment, I’d draw my attention back by repeating “Excellence in Every Step.”
As I approached the Mile 2 marker the feeling of strength stayed with me, I was on top of the pace and at ease on the incline. I noticed that the pack was thinning out, I was catching and steadily passing runners. “I am a FORCE,” I told myself. I was working hard, it wasn’t easy, but I could tell that my training had prepared me to do exactly what I wanted to do.
The Mile 3 marker ticked by and I grabbed water from the water station, knowing that the halfway point and a clock were just ahead. I knew I’d get the halfway split and even though I chose not to wear a watch, I knew that my half way split had to be around 42:00 to account for the slowdown in the second half. I came through at 43:17. And this is where I should not be allowed to do math while running. I think because I was focused on having to hit the half way in 42:00 I thought that was “on pace” for 12:00 mim/mi, I completely neglected the fact that exactly on pace would be 45:00. So when I saw 43:17 I thought I was running OVER 12 min pace. For whatever reason while I was running I kept thinking the halfway distance was 3.5 not 3.8. In actuality I was averaging 11:23 min/mi well UNDER race pace.
I kept attempting to make sense of the math for the next 1/4 mile after I saw the clock and then gave up and decided to simply focus on the moment: “Excellence in every step.”
As I passed the Mile 4 mile marker the wind started to pick up. At times it was a crosswind and at times head on, we were still below treeline so much of the full force of the wind was tempered by the trees. We’d been warned of the 40 mph gusts at the summit and whatever this was it seemed just as strong. I ducked in behind a few guys, trying to take advantage of their wind-blocking power. I stayed ducked behind them for as long as possible, but then their pace would slow and I wanted to stay steady so I’d find myself running into the wind again.
I tried to think of a way to put a positive spin on the wind: “This is preparing you for next year when it will be even windier,” I thought. Then sillier thoughts popped into my head, “The wind is just delivering oxygen more efficiently. It’s just blowing right over the trees and blowing the oxygen they are releasing right into your mouth. It’s actually helping you.” The thought was ridiculous, but it was positive and kept me going.
Once I realized the direction from which the wind was blowing, I realized that there would be a bit of a tailwind on the Dirt Section. The dirt section is a notoriously difficult part, it’s the section that brings you above treeline at 15%. The past two years I’ve walked that entire section, struggling to keep pace on the increased incline. When I turned onto the dirt section I kept pace, strong and steady up. I’d taken my GU over the course of Mile 4 and had a little pep in my step with the wind at my back. As the dirt section flattened a bit I felt my feet turning over, faster and faster with the wind at my back I felt like I was running close to 10 min/mi.
I was feeling good, I hadn’t yet gone to that “dig deep place” yet I felt strong and steady, thoughts of being “off pace” had fallen away. If I was off pace as I had thought previously there was nothing I could do about it, except keep running in the moment and trying to make every step excellent. So my focus stayed on each step.
I passed the Mile 5 marker and a group of my Six03 Endurance teammates who had hiked up to cheer and then turned the corner: straight into the wind.
It stopped my in my tracks it was like hitting a wall, I went from running strong to power hiking, trying to make myself as small as possible so there was less surface area for the wind to catch. I knew I needed to find someone to get behind, but I’d run most to the dirt section alone and I didn’t want to surge to try to get behind someone.
I swapped running for power hiking on and off and was able to fall behind a few guys here and there. I could see two women about a min ahead and was trading spots on and off with Amy Rusiecki (race director for the Vermont 100 and badass ultra runner). Whenever we traded spots we had an encouraging exchange, she told me I looked strong and I’d echo her sentiments-I never saw her walk. Otherwise, the only other runners around were men.
As we approached the Mile 6 marker and the water stop, I wondered what spot I might be in. No other woman had passed me yet, other than swapping on and off with Amy. It was clear that everyone was struggling in the wind. I found encouragement in the thought, that it was hard for everyone and then brought my attention back to every step. We turned out of the wind, but back up a steep section again. The increase in incline seemed a welcome relief to running into the wind and for a few brief gusts it seemed like I picked up the pace.
I still thought I’d fallen quite a bit off that 12:00 min/mi mark, maybe I’d be lucky to get in under 1:35. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was going by so much more quickly than last year. I was coming up on the 7 mile marker, which mean there was just over a half mile to go and it didnt’ feel like it had taken me that long to get there. I believed I could still run hard in the last section, we had one more turn that would hopefully put the wind at our backs. At that point the summit buildings would be in our sites and the incline would drop down a bit and I knew my foot turnover could increase and I could pick up some time.
The turn came at the Mile 7 marker, but the wind wasn’t really a tailwind, it was just off my shoulder blowing diagonally: not really a crosswind and not really a tailwind. But at least it wasn’t a headwind. I picked up the pace. I knew Cowbell Corner was coming and I’d see familiar faces.
As I came up on the final turn before The Wall, I saw my coach. I heard her cheer and I pushed a little harder. Up The Wall I started to power hike, that 22% hits you hard. “Finish strong,” I told myself.
And then with just 100 yards to go I made the final turn and in that turn finally saw the finish clock and my jaw dropped: 1:31:3x. Holy sh*t! I’m on pace! I’m doing it. I broke into a run and charged up the final 100 yards wanting so badly to get in under 1:32.
I saw the clock ticking up as I ran further up the 22%: 1:31:46…1:31:50. My arms churned, I strove for the finish. And then I crossed the line. I didn’t win, but I threw my fist up because for me that run was a total win. I shaved 14 minutes off my time from last year and finished 22nd. I didn’t quite make my goal of running sub 1:30 or cracking the top 20, but I came damn close.
One of the biggest takeaways from the day was the fact that successful days don’t have to be happy accidents. When I ran the National Snowshoe Championships, finishing third felt like a happy accident: I didn’t train specifically for that race nor did I go in with any expectations. After a series of races where I was invested in the outcome (because of the point scoring of the USATF Mountain Series) and came up short, it seemed as if to do well in a race I had to not be intentional about the outcome.
Which I proved was wrong. You can intentionally train for a specific outcome, you can set big goals that are time and place related and chase after them. All during training my focus was on that 1:30 time and getting in in the top 20 women. I visualized it. I could see myself crossing the finish line in that time, satisfied and successful. The truth is that your focus CAN be on your goal and the outcome, with one caveat: on race day your focus needs to be in the moment AND you have to be committed to a positive mindset, no matter how silly or cliche it may be.
I dealt with all the doubts and negative thoughts prior to race day, so that when they showed up I could say, “Yah, you’re not welcome today. You already had your time and we’re done.” It made room for only the positive, encouraging thoughts.
I did wonder after the race if wearing a watch and seeing each mile split, or at least the overall time at mile seven would have impacted my finish time. It might have, had I been on pace maybe my perception of effort would have dropped and I would have been willing to suffer that much more. But I think the positive benefits of not wearing the watch: staying completely in the moment without distraction far outweighed the potential few seconds I might have picked up. I needed a race where I proved to myself that I could nail race pace without a watch. It’s a testament to the training and to the fact that if we have done the work and trust our bodies, we have everything we need to succeed.
I can’t wait for next year.
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