Two weekends ago, I ran “The Beast of the East,” otherwise known as the Kismet Cliff Run. Hyped as “One of New England’s toughest and most beautiful trail runs,” the Beast is a half marathon with two mountains in it. Well, technically a mountain and two cliffs, but it felt like two mountains! It was a very rocky and treacherous 13+ miles with 4500+ ft of elevation gain. Over 2300ft of that elevation change was in only ONE of the climbs! (There were four). That climb had an average grade of about 20%, with many sections over 40%.
I knew all this, of course. I’d looked up all the stats. I’d heard from folks who’d run it in previous years. I even searched Strava for a runners file from a previous year, and compared it to things I’ve run: the Presi Traverse, the Pemi Loop, running up Katahdin… I did all that, but NOTHING prepared me for this.
Photo courtesy Ashley Lader
The Pemi loop is no longer the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That was 10 hours at a leisurely effort that I would call hundred-mile effort if my legs were trained for that distance. My legs felt fatigued at the end, and I wanted to take a nap, but I never had a moment where I thought I would have to quit. The Beast of the East was 3 hours at an effort a bit harder than marathon effort, straight up a CLIFF. I had many moments when I contemplated just hiking back down.
Before the race.
The race start was a forgiving 10am, and I left my house at a somewhat-normal 6 AM. Usually for races or runs in the White Mountains I am out the door well before 5, so this felt pretty great!
It was a foggy drive, and I wondered whether the fog would burn off by the race or not. I knew the middle 5 miles especially were exposed rock slabs, so I hoped that we’d get some good views!
I arrived and was prepared to volunteer, but Gabe had everything under control. So I took my time changing and warming up, and made my way over to the start line. The obvious candidates for the win, course record holder Tristan Williams and soon-to-be-crowned VT 50 Mile champion Kevin Tilton, lined up at the front and I lined up beside them. (First mistake.)
Gabe (RD) gave some last minute instructions, (don’t go out too fast on the flat stuff, and sent us off to our doom. I promptly went out too fast on the flat stuff.
Running near/behind Kevin Tilton and Tristan Williams was a mistake. I am a fairly efficient runner, so running at a fairly fast pace doesn’t really affect my legs. At first. After a few miles, of course, all bets are off. But for the first flat 1.5 miles, I could hold a 6:30-7:00 pace with ease. I figured it would give me a little boost without really tiring me out too much, since I’d be hiking a lot of the steeper stuff anyway.
I was wrong. Now it didn’t absolutely blow me up… I could have kept up the higher effort level… but being unsure of the course ahead, I wasn’t confident enough running for an undetermined length of time with only a handheld and 150 calories. So I slowed down. Jesse Veinotte (5th overall) and Leslie Beckwith (new women’s record holder, 4th overall) probably thought I’d stopped completely as they passed, but I WAS moving, just compensating for the too-fast start.
For the next few miles I alternated running and hiking up the steep, but rather forgiving climbs up Cathedral and Whitehorse Ledges. The rocks were a bit slippery, but the traction was still pretty good as there was some tree cover for most of it.
After cresting Whitehorse Ledge, we dropped down the back side and began ascending North Moat Mountain.
This. Was. Nonsense. Had it been dry, I might have enjoyed myself, but this day it was foggy, rainy, hailed a bit, and the rocks were the most slippery I’ve ever experienced. The climb up North Moat was over 2.8 miles, 1.9 miles of which the incline NEVER let up. It was absolutely brutal. Sections were steeper than 45%. There were many spots where you had to climb hand-over-hand, and scramble. For me, if my brain can figure out how much further I have to go until I’m done or the terrain changes, I can do pretty well with painful challenges like this. Because I had no idea what was coming, it was made all the more difficult.
Mentally, I broke. I went from thinking I wanted to catch up to Leslie to thinking about how NOT to let the girl two places back catch me. Two runners caught me on this climb, and we all caught another guy and passed him. I lowered my effort level significantly, mentally having checked out of competing in this race, and focused just on finishing in the most enjoyable fashion I could manage. Having been on exposed rock faces for over a mile, I was also focusing carefully on not slipping to my death.*
*Only a slight exaggeration.
After finishing the climb up North Moat (though I never was REALLY sure it was over), the course started back down. Ah, yes. The part I was dreading. See, I am fairly comfortable with my climbing. I’m nowhere near the strongest, but on technical sections, I can keep up pretty well. On technical downhills… I slow WAY down. I just don’t have the confidence of years of experience in that department. So I crept, slipped, scooted and glissaded (butt-slid) down the soaked rock slabs of North Moat. This part never seemed to end. My effort level had fallen dramatically, since it really only took mental concentration to make it down, so I was frustrated that the wet rocks were slowing me down so much. On a dry day, I would have been gleefully running most of this without a care in the world. On this day, I was carefully considering every foot placement, taking large detours to stay on lichens and grass, and swearing up a storm, I’m sorry to admit.
On occasions, I could hear the runner in front of me, and I was focused on trying to catch him as soon as I could run again. He was in green, and had passed me at the same time I was passing someone, right near the summit of North Moat. Next thing I know, I started to hear the runner behind me! It was the 2nd place woman, and she was having a bit better time with the rock slab descent than I was. I picked up my pace a little bit, exceeding my comfort level with the terrain, but I only slipped a few… dozen… times.
After 4-5 minutes of conversation with her behind me, she asked how far ahead the guy with the green shirt was. I told her 3-5 minutes and she got way too excited about the prospects of catching him, and asked to pass me. She passed, but didn’t pick up the pace at all, so I stayed with her. A minute or two later, we suddenly hit the most gently sloping, tree-covered, DIRT trail with roots, and I said, GET OUT DA WAY. I mean I didn’t actually say that… I said something like: “okay my turn; can I pass?” I took off at a solid sub-7:00 pace and dropped her pretty quickly.
The guy in green came into view a few minutes later, and he was clearly hurting. I stayed behind him for a quarter mile or so until the trail got smooth enough and I BLEW past him with everything I had. I was really cooking at an effort level I’d never do in a marathon. I didn’t want to leave him thinking catching me was an option. A few minutes later we hit a nice river crossing, which I promptly splash across, and build that lead a little further.
After a bit of climbing and some more descending, I finally hit the last climb of the course, back up Whitehorse Ledge (you have GOT to be kidding me.) I resorted to hiking for a fair amount of this climb, but knowing that the race was almost over, I kept my effort level a little higher than earlier in the race. I looked back several times and saw the guy in green and the #2 woman behind me, but they were far enough back I wasn’t worried.
Finally, I started the last descent, and tried to keep the pace up as much as possible. I could tell I was starting to bonk, running probably 2+ hours of a 3-hour race at or above marathon pace with only 150 calories. Oh well, too late now! I kept the pace as quick as I could pick up my feet, though it certainly didn’t feel very fast!
I crossed the line in 8th place with a time of 2:58:53. For a race like this, in this weather, I just was happy to finish without a broken leg.
The guy in green did end up being caught by the 2nd place Female, who ran a strong late half of the race.
My goal for the half marathon next week is to cut this time in half. (Note: I did, running 1:23:57). My goal for next year will be run a road marathon in under 2:58:53.