Two weeks ago, I ran the Loon Mountain Race, which served as the USA Mountain Championships. This race is known as one of the most challenging events in the northeast.
“Widely considered the New England Trail Running series’ most difficult event, the Loon Mountain Race in Lincoln, New Hampshire, packs a whopping 2,200-vertical gain in just 5.5 miles. Racers literally run up a mountain—the average grade is 10 percent, with some sections as steep as 40 percent. The trail winds up the ski resort’s runs, including the black-diamond pitch Upper Walking Boss, before finishing at the top gondola station on Loon peak.” – Outside Magazine
This year, as the race was serving as the USA Championship, they needed to make the course more similar to the World Championship course. So they tacked another 2.1 miles and another 1000 feet of gain. All told, 6.6 miles and 3200 feet of elevation gain, with the 1km Upper Walking Boss at a grade of 40%.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never run on a grade of 40%. I had no idea what to expect. I’ve done the entire Mountain Circuit so far this year, but I know, though challenging, none of them were quite like this. Every year, lots of runners say “This will be the year I run all of Upper Walking Boss.” And then next year… the same thing.
I also knew there were liable to be 100+ REALLY strong runners there, including many elite athletes, 4 Olympians, 16 former members of the US Mountain Running Team, numerous college All Americans on the track and XC, many 2:20 marathoners including a large handful of 2:14 marathoners, 1:02 half marathoners, sub-14 5k’ers, top international runners and multi-time winners of large mountain, ultra and trail races, among others. For more details on who was there, as well as an AWESOME perspective from the front of the pack, see new USA Mountain Team member and awesome dude David Roche’s blog post about the race, here.
Before the race:
I left my house at 5:30 the morning of the race. On the drive over, I noticed that the elevation on my watch was reading 16 feet when it should have been reading over 1000. So, stupidly, I found the “turn off” function, deep in a service menu, figuring that would reset the altimeter. Little did I know, the watch cannot be turned on again without plugging it into the USB cord with power. (The watch has no need to be powered off ordinarily. I’ve had it for six months and never needed to). So, some moments of panic, as I tried to think who might have the same watch (Suunto Ambit2, popular amongst trail, mountain and ultra runners, luckily) and who might have brought the cord with them. A brief note: I am not lost without my watch, but it is a big help to a beginning runner who doesn’t know how to pace themselves by feel. I am starting to wean myself off of it for terrain that I know, but I prefer to have it for races that I’m unsure of (most of them.)
Luckily, upon pulling into the parking lot and heading to registration, I saw a Suunto tent. They sponsor my team, acidotic RACING, as well as many of our races. Since this is a headline event, being a USA Championship, they had a tent and were displaying and demoing some of their wares. I borrowed a cord, plugged it in for a second until it reset, and headed back inside to registration.
I picked up my bib for the race, and hung around for a few minutes talking to teammates, then went for a warmup. Having been around the “scene” only a few months, there are only a handful of athletes I can put names with faces, but those that I was able to made me feel even more nervous. Shannon Payne, Joe Gray, Morgan Arritola, Kasie Enman, Eric Blake… oh boy here we go. I did a very short warmup, as I was still a little sore from a Presidential Traverse the week before.
After about a mile, including some strides and dynamic warmups, I headed back inside to pin my bib to my singlet, change my shoes, and do other pre-race duties.
Throughout the morning, my stomach had not been feeling well at all. It was bubbling and just feeling… congested would be a good word. I worried for a moment that I had been exposed to gluten, but I knew that I hadn’t had any opportunities for that in several days, and if so it would likely be worse. Still, the feeling made me uneasy, as I knew how difficult this race was liable to be.
I went down to the start location to watch the women start. It was incredible to see so many talented and fast women runners. I would say 30-40 of these women could beat me any day, any race, hands down. Pretty cool! They started fast, and I got it on video at the bottom of the page.
I headed back up the lodge to finish getting ready. A few minutes later, someone I didn’t recognize, but would introduce himself later as David Roche, came running up asking me if there was going to be any announcing of the women’s results at the base of the mountain. See, the men’s and women’s races are run separately, and on slightly different courses, again to mimic the design and terrain of the World Championships. The women had the privilege of running early, and this guy’s fiancée was running with high hopes of making Team USA. He said he was far more nervous for her than for himself. I tried to track down Chris Dunn, but when I found him, we found out there wasn’t much in the way of announcements planned. This was understandable due to the impending men’s race, ongoing registration, and poor cell service on the North Peak. David and I chatted for a few minutes, then parted ways. He’s an incredible runner and person, and you should follow his blog at the link above. Note: David and great ultra-runner Zach Miller ended up getting the results from twitter, after a few nail-biting minutes when they knew the race had already finished. David’s fiancée, Megan, made Team USA, and even made it down the mountain in time to wish him luck for his race! David also made Team USA, with both of them taking the last Mountain Team slot. They’re planning a Honeymoon in Italy, so that’s a pretty cool story! See his blog post for a better telling of it.
Heading back inside, I finished preparations for my race, and headed out to the start. It was a pretty breathtaking spectacle to jog up to these countless elite and talented runners doing strides as video cameras and photographers looked on. I went and found a spot near the edge, where I could dictate my own pace and easily either pass or get passed. Chris Dunn said a few words, The Star Spangled Banner played, the siren sounded and we were off!
The race started with the lead pack heading out along the flat dirt parking lot at around a 4:15 pace. I, of course, lagged behind, averaging around a 7 minute pace. With tired legs from that 7-hour run, I knew I didn’t want to burn myself out on the flat sections. Very quickly, we made a left turn up a hill and headed almost back the way we came. The course zig-zagged like this for half a mile or so, and then we crossed the mountain on rolling terrain, before heading gently up then flying into the new Nordic section, added specifically for the National Championship. This was a a 1.75 mile section of rolling terrain that would have been much faster were there less mud. Regardless, it was the most fun section of the race, and was where I started passing people. Every few steps your foot would get sucked in, and in fact, one runner lost his shoe and finished without it!
After the Nordic section, we immediately started climbing, and wouldn’t stop until the top of the gondola, 2.3 miles later. This section averaged maybe a 30% grade, with some nice sections that were runnable more easily. I settled into a power hike, interspersed with sections of hard-effort running. My quads were hurting more than my lungs, and I mentally had a moment of regret about doing the Presidential Traverse so close to Loon. No matter, Darrin Rees, my closest competitor in the USATF-NE Mountain Series, had moved ahead of me, and I needed to stay with him! Darrin is an awesome runner and has finished just ahead of me at all but one of the series races so far. I wanted to get ahead of him at least once. Friendly competition! I surged ahead a little, and picked off a few other runners. At this point there was a pack of us, fairly strung out, that kept picking off runners that went out too fast.
Upon reaching the top of the Gondola aid station, I grabbed a cup of water and tried to chug it. Though I’d been running with my handheld bottle, my lips were slightly sticky from the Tailwind, and I needed something clear.
The next section was the second-most-brutal for me. It was a steep descent for about .6 miles, and my stomach was having none of it. It had been rough on the downhillsI’d keep trying to accelerate, but my stomach would get worse. A 5:30 pace was about all it could handle without giving up on me completely. I knew it was almost over, and my stomach didn’t hurt at all on the uphills.
I rounded a corner, and there it was. Upper. Walking. Boss. UWB. Hated nearly universally by runners, and one of several reasons Paul Kirsch gets sworn at every year. A train of runners in a rainbow of colors were stretched out over the .6 miles of steep climbing, their hands on their knees, some grasping the dirt and grass in a futile attempt to get an extra percent out of their legs.
I took a deep breath and started upwards. I ran. Three steps. Then I settled into a power hike, punctuated by brief 10-20 foot sprints. I ran past the cameras, then power hiked some more. There were moments on Upper Walking Boss where I wasn’t sure I would finish. I’ve never had a DNF. Even in marathons, I always knew I could finish. Maybe I wouldn’t hit my time goal, but I knew I could walk it in. I wasn’t so sure here, walking was that difficult. Blessedly, it switchbacked twice, and I was able to run a bit more. Near the top, the steepest section, I actually walked backwards for a bit. I told the runners below me I just wanted to enjoy the view, but it actually took some stress off my quads.
Every few hundred meters, they had a sign saying how many meters left.
100m. I’ve never been so thankful to see a sign in my life. This was about the point where I started thinking I might actually finish. I’m pretty sure I ran up the last steep part of the hill as it crested to the final few yards of flat running, but I can’t remember for sure. I sprinted for the finish, trying to maintain good form. I was lightheaded, my legs were wobbly, and I needed water urgently, but I had finished. I had no idea of my finish place, but noted I finished just under 1:12. I got some water, talked with Ethan Nedeau, Eric Narcisi and Alex Hall, who’d finished well before me, and congratulated Darrin Rees, Peter Keeney and Michael Narcisi, who finished just after me. After drinking another few cups of water and refilling my handheld, I congratulated Joe Gray on his win, and gingerly picked my way down the steep descent back to the gondola station.
After chatting for awhile with some good friends, I rode the gondola back down for the awards ceremony.
I came in 83rd overall, in a stacked field, in 1:11:17, which I am very happy with. I probably could have raced smarter, and certainly have been fresher, but I would not have missed the experience!
I did not find this out until getting home, but it turns out I scored for acidotic RACING’s Men’s Open team, and we won the Bronze team medal at the USA Mountain Championship. Pretty cool!