On I went, out of the wood, passing the man leading without knowing I was going to do so. Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, curnchslap-crunchslap, across the middle of a broad field again, rhythmically running in my greyhound effortless fashion, knowing I had won the race though it wasn't half over, won it if I wanted it, could go on for ten or fifteen or twenty miles if I had to and drop dead at the finish of it, which would be the same, in the end, as living an honest life like the governor wanted me to. -Alan Sillitoe, "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mount Washington Road Race 2010: a sloooow race report

This race...  I don't know where to begin.  It was both the hardest thing I've ever done in my life and also something I'm desperate to do again.

I apologize if this goes on too long, but nothing I could write would do this race justice.  It really and truly is a race that you have to experience yourself.  So, I'm going to try to keep this short and illustrated.  I only wish I'd taken more pictures, and with a real camera (rather than my phone).

The Night Before

Going through the swag...
-a nice, wicking tee
-a copy of "New England Runner"
-a hat and long-sleeved shirt (these I paid extra for - I think the hat was $5 and the ls shirt maybe $15)
-and, miraculous wonder of wonders, a toothbrush.  The sponsor was Delta Dental.  Moments after saying, "A toothbrush! How weird!", I discovered that I hadn't packed mine.

Ritual laying out of the gear...
You don't realize how much stuff is involved in running a race until you see it all laid out.  Quickly: shoes, socks, arm warmers, LS shirt, number, compression socks, water bottle, Garmen, spibelt, sportsbeans, nuun, hat... I think that's all.

I never did wear the spibelt, and it ended up being too hot at the start for any of the layering clothes.  They had warned us, again and again, about the erratic nature of the weather and the need to bundle up as we go up the mountain.  That doesn't hold when it's in the upper 70s at the start.

Another note about gear: I wore the compression socks not because I'm of the caliber athlete that would experience a performance boost, but because I have concerns about my circulation (stupid blood clots).  I have no idea if this was valid or not.  I only saw a handful of people wearing them (they're becoming more commonplace in NYC).  Hard to say if they helped or not, but I did get a few compliments.

The Day Of

A mantra...

My friend Sarah reminded me here and on facebook to remember: relentless forward motion.  So I wrote it on my hand.  Never mind that I had sweated it off by mile 1, I still remembered.  And this was a crucial mantra, given how tempting it was to either stop or - worse! - move backwards.  Very tempting.

At the start...
Doesn't that mountain look far, far away?  Yes. It does.

The race starts at 10am.  The road closes at 9:30am, and they advise that drivers get up the mountain as early as feasible.  This meant that I was dropped off at the starting tent around 8:00am - with two long hours to wait.  And to be intimidated. And to use the porta potty, and to use it again.

I kept hearing certain maxims: it's not about hill work, it's about your overall cardio fitness level.  Or, use your half marathon time as a predictor.  The former I say is total malarkey.  And the latter may have been true on a day that wasn't scorchingly hot.  But we'll get there...

I asked a volunteer where the start was, and he pointed it out to me.  It was quite a ways back off the road.  "They want you to be able to see the mountain, I guess," he said. "But the race starts on a downhill!"  I then asked him for some advice, and he said, "Don't be afraid if you have to walk a little to get your heart rate back down.  I had to walk twice last year, but just for a few seconds."  I stammered something about walking a lot more, and he quickly added, "But I'm a 2:40 marathoner! I don't usually walk during races!"

My plan was simple: run for a bit, run slowly for a bit, then walk for a bit.  I had no idea what to expect or how hard it would be.  

I have to say, the people there were all super, super fit looking.  They were also all incredibly nice.  Almost everyone I talked to had done it before, typically multiple times.  This was also the most organized race I've ever done.  I know there were only 1,000 runners, but given the logistical difficulties inherent in this race, I was quite impressed.  There will be a new race director next year, and he has large shoes to fill as far as I'm concerned.

The course
Now, the good stuff.

Have you ever encountered one of those giant-seeming hills during a race, and just thought to yourself, "Man, I when will this damn thing end?"  Well.  Take that hill, make it steeper, and know that it will not end for another 7.5 miles.

Seriously.  The hill just doesn't end.  It's like a nightmare... and I would know, since I was having them nearly nightly the week before the race.

I really, really wish I had taken more pictures of the course.  Bear with me for some narration.

They fired a cannon at start, made us all repeat the race motto ("there's only one hill!") and we were off.  I hung back, knowing I'd be at the tail end.  I was nervous - terrified, in fact, and seeing the hill as we approached wasn't helping.  We started up, and by about 2/3rd of a mile I was walking.  I wouldn't run again.  I was not alone.  There was a woman running near me for about two miles - yes, running!  She did pull ahead eventually, but I kept up until I couldn't.

I had been warned that mile 1 was the easiest (it was), mile 2 was the hardest (maybe?), and mile 4 was the toughest psychologically (it was).  Miles 1-3 are meandering, slowly moving through densely wooded mountain.  It's amazing how much variability in grade there can be - and how much you'll notice it - in a road that just goes straight up.

There are flat parts, but they never last more than a few yards.  At points, the hill would appear to crest - but it never did.  If there was any downhill, I never felt it.

Miles 0-2: honestly, I did not believe I was going to make it.  I kept reminding myself that it always takes me a while to "click in" to a race groove, to get into that rhythm.  That never happened, not at all during the whole race.  Worse, my heart rate wouldn't go down, even when I stopped for water or a break.  Although I can see now from my Garmin results that it was actually where it should have been for most of the race, it felt brutal.

I crossed the halfway point at 1:24, well behind what I wanted (about 1:05-1:10) and dangerously close to the cut-off halfway mark (1:31).  A woman I had been walking near said that she had done the race five times, always under 2:30, but was done in by the heat this time through and just hoping to finish.  I clung to her for another mile until she lost me.

Mile 4 opened up.  Not quite above the tree line yet, but no cover anymore.  Suddenly, you could see.  How much further you had to go, how steep the hill was, how far away the summit was.  And it just seemed... unbearable.  Impossible.  Awful.

There were a lot of swear words running through my head at this point.

That damn* hill.  (*Damn was not the word I was using.)  You could see people ahead of you, but they were always above you, literally.  And you couldn't catch up.  And the hill would never end.

Mile 5-6 I don't really remember.  There was some amazing scenery, and there was me, plodding.  Around mile 6 I picked up this amazingly chipper, wonderful British-New Hampshirer named Brian.  He had a Camelbak and an amazing attitude and he got me through the rest of the race.  He had trained on a treadmill, emulating the entire thing even down to the splits (calculated to accommodate the differences in difficulty of each mile).

It was when I began walking with Brian that - for the first time in the race - I actually felt like I could and would finish.

It was hot at the start, and it only got hotter.  There was some shade for the first few miles, but not forever.  It got cooler as we went up, but not enough.  The summit was a balmy 62.5 degrees - and the record for the highest temperature ever recorded on the summit is 74, to give you some idea of how this ranks.  In some ways it was ideal, but mostly it was hot.  And sunny.  I got pretty burned.  (You didn't see sunblock laid out the night before, did you?  Because I am STUPID and didn't bring any.)

The finish is a 22% "wall".  Honestly, it wasn't as bad as I feared.  In any race, by the time I can see the finish line the race is done, and this was no exception.  When I got to the top of the wall, the announcer read my name and said, "And now she's going to run to the finish!"  I ignored him.  He repeated it.  So I ran.  I crossed the line, and I wanted to die.  But I didn't die; instead, I took my medal, sat down for a few minutes, and then climbed a few more feet to the true summit for the inevitable photo finish (see yesterday's post).  And then we drove down.  It should have been a harrowing drive, but after running up that bitch?  Yeah, whatever.

The volunteers in this race were particularly commendable.  The race has a policy of cleaning up after itself, which is especially tricky with the water stations.  The volunteers hustled up and down the mountain, picking up cups.  I saw one shimmy down some rocks into a stream to retrieve a cup that had fallen over the edge.  It was impressive.

I'll be thinking about this race for a while, I suspect.  I'm not in that bad of shape physically from it - some soreness in my hamstrings, but overall I was slow enough that I'm not too beat up.  Dairy Queen afterwards helped.  But I need to figure out what went wrong psychologically, since that hurt my race.

I knew of one vaguely comparable race in New York, two weeks ago, that I was told was good preparation for Mount Washington.  Honestly, I'm glad I didn't do that one, as I may have chickened out.  At only 8%, it would be significantly easier.  I'll try that race next year.  I'm still registered for the Pike's Peak Ascent, although I'm thinking it will be just too, too much for me this year.  And there's always the Mt. Lemmon Marathon in the back of my head... although I think I can't justify the travel.  Besides, I should put my training toward the Sears Willis Tower climb in November.  Yep, I'm registered for that already.

And I'll be back in the Mount Washington lottery again for next year.  And again.


  1. Wow. HUGE judos to you, m'dear! My stomach had butterflies even reading what the anticipation must have been like prior to the race. But geez - 22%? uphill the WHOLE way? It sounds like hell. But you conquered it! You are an animal!

  2. Oh, no, it was only (ha ha ha) an average of 11.6%. The 22% was only for the last 400 feet!

  3. Damn, this sounds brutal, but great job! Where is the picture of the medal?

  4. WOW, that's quite some elevation change! Congrats on conquering the mountain. Nice swag too :-)

  5. Wow - nice job! Sounds so tough but you did it! What a great feeling.

  6. Way to rise up, Tracy :) Mother nature didn't do you any favors, either.

  7. Thanks, everyone!
    I'm wearing the shirt now.
    And I'll post a photo of the medal tomorrow. It was worth it.

  8. Congratulations! I like your mantra : Relentless Forward Motion. This could be useful in, I believe, every single aspect of one's life.

    Seriously, I'm thinking of making a poster or other work of art incorporating it.

    I'm a friend of Brian's, and I'm glad he helped to inspire you! He's definitely an inspiration to all of us who count ourselves as his friends.

  9. Oh, my gosh! Please tell Brian I said hello and most of all, THANK YOU!!! Seriously, he completely saved my race. I'm so glad I met up with him!

    I have to say, since Sarah mentioned that mantra to me I've kept it in mind and it *definitely* helps. I'd love to see your poster/art when you've finished!

  10. Hi Tracy;

    I was doing a Google search, to find out the number of starters in the Mt. Washington Road Race, when I stumbled on a participant's race report. I'm interested in how other people experienced the race, so I started reading. Imagine my surprise when I got to a part about a person named Brian, wearing a Camelbak. "Why," I exclaimed, "that's me!"

    In your essay, you say that I was chipper. Here's the reason:

    My sole goal in entering the race was to get an official time. At around the six mile mark I had a twinge in my right calf. A little later, I felt spacey for a second. I looked at the side of the road. There was a steep drop off. It wouldn't be good to faint.

    So I was concerned that something might happen and I would be unable to finish. But I had plenty of time. I decided to slow down a little. I was still working hard, of course, but I felt good, maybe even chipper.

    You were ahead of me, but I guess you were slowing down too. That's when I caught up with you, and we went most of the rest of the way together.

    Did you know that there is a picture of the two of us? If you go to www.mountwashingtonroadrace.com and click on "Full Searchable Results", then scroll down to near the bottom, and double click your name, you will see several pictures of you. The one at the extreme right has most of me in it.

    Before the race I was telling people that this was a one time thing. The training had been onerous, but there were some things I was going to miss.

    One was the fact that I was in phenomenal shape. I didn't want to lose that. The other was the result of my blood test ...

    I've always had pretty good HDL cholesterol. (That's the healthy one, in case you don't know.) It's usually in the 50 to 52 range. During my training I had a blood test and my cholesterol was a phenomenal 60. There's no way I'm going to drop dead from a heart attack in the near future. Or, if I do, I'm entitled to be indignant about it.

    However, I am going to enter the lottery next year. What motivated this decision was that the race was such a great experience.

    This year my friend, Bob, was with me. Since then, Bob and I have talked so enthusiastically about the race that other friends are thinking of entering. Best of all, my wife, Mary Ann, is going to do some exploratory treadmill training to see if her knees can tolerate the walk.

    So, I'll see you at 10 am, June 18, 2011. I'll be the one standing at the very back.

    Cheers, Brian

  11. Brian, I am SO glad to hear from you. Seriously, I can't tell you thank you enough! I truly don't know if I would have finished the race if I hadn't met up with you. I had absolutely no idea that you had struggled at all during the race - you were nothing but pleasant and upbeat when I met up with you!

    Congratulations on the excellent cholesterol news! I can't wait for next year's race. I've almost talked my boyfriend into doing it, too. He wants to, but I'm not being quite as encouraging as I could be since I liked having him as a driver this year.

    Sadly the link for full results isn't working for me right now, but I'm going to keep trying it.

    I cannot wait for next June!! Fingers crossed for the lottery for both of us. Keep in touch about your race plans for next year - my email is tmusacchio -at- gmail.com

  12. Great post!!! the article is a very good report for fun run!!! love it!!! keep it up!!!