Monday, June 23, 2014

Mount Washington.

The fatigue settled in that night like the belly of a whale, as if some cavernous, disorienting venue among me was set to drop below the ocean's depth. The demand to stop, to rest, encapsulated my final musings over the day's journey:  In the wee hours I'd moved laterally, to New Hampshire. Then I ran skyward, into the clouds all morning. I hiked steadily downward in the afternoon. And now, after dusk on the longest day of the year, I seemed to be blissfully sinking even further down below some dark, imaginary sea-level.

The longest day of the year is still twenty-four hours in length, start to finish, much like all the other days. It's not the length, of course, but the light that toys with our perception. A signature trick. But it gets our attention every time.

The Mount Washington race is no extraordinary length either, but running up the 7.6 mile auto road isn't like any other 7.6 mile run. It most certainly will get your attention, and keep it, and hold it hostage until you hurl your corpse across the finish line. It is perhaps the longest day of road races.

There are two types of people who attend this event: Those who have done the race a certain specified number of times already, and those who don't fully understand what they are getting into. Or, the smug and the fearful. Kind of sounds like a really bad teenage Jesus-band's first album. 

I managed to assemble an elite, 5-star, world-class crew to help me in my pursuit of $80 worth of false glory. How peculiar that the fat wench would be competing in the overstuffed Cadillac of a footrace, and the Serious runners would be tasked with muling her gear up a rockpile. However, it's best not to worry about any such labels. 

Rockpile really is disrespectful though.  There is so much more to it than that. 

Because this isn't a place where reasonable things can be counted upon to occur, one has the option to unschool one's self in lieu of normal training. At least, that was what I kept telling myself. But my disappointment at not being able to train in the way I'd imagined was overshadowed by gratitude that I could run at all. I wrested my meager mileage base back from the jaws of injury, dusted it off, and narrowly outran a cute yet married guy at the Pineland 25k. That felt like my first real step back into runnability. Not that I got a good look at his face but we really needed a little character development to spice up the plot at this point.  

Anyway, our hapless protagonist had done a few intentional hills and a sort of accidental speed workout. Hardly enough to mention. This was in addition to a flurry of over- and then and under-training, the result of my carpe-ing all the diems when my body allowed, and fretting repulsively when it didn't. Such is the nature of nature. Three long, full-day hikes and many shorter ones peppered the (7 weeks of post-injury, starting-from-almost-scratch) running schedule. These were quintessential.

I wasn't necessarily thrilled with the way it all panned out, but the good thing was that I was tuned in to where my body was at, and I was pretty confident about what to expect. 

I am still figuring out how to rock the Tailwind, so after I launched my laden elite wonder-crew up the mountain, I fiddled about with scooping and tasting and diluting. I had grabbed a gel too, reasoning that this was the just kind of event in which your legs could quit. I ended up trying a few mouthfuls of it around mile 5 but it was a thick, sticky mess that glued itself to my gullet and resisted attempts to wash it away. Fuck that shit. Tailwind is all that is required.

Running among a lot of walkers, as I often do, can sometimes result in a build-up of ambient excessive verbiage. Here at Mount Washington, however, conversations are mercifully short. There's a lot of gasping, groaning, and hacking that makes up for it. It's actually less distracting than the aforementioned alternative. I tried to imagine, when people spontaneously went quiet, what all of our heartbeats would sound like if piled up somehow into one giant, whooshing, throbbing chorus. A thundering arrhythmic circus. 

I did a bit of people-and gait-watching and a lot of view-peering as soon as the trees diminished. Coming out up above tree line is my favorite part of this race, just as it is my favorite part of life. Aid stations come and go, the hill just comes and comes some more. The one major shift you get to look forward to, and to put behind you, is at the upper margin of the forest. The surrounding peaks, the Wildcats and Presidentials, are astounding. I pointed at a little patch of snow in one of the ravines and some Bostoners* stopped to take selfies in front of it.  

*No clue where they were from. Probably Alaska. 

I managed to remember to look up my time last year; it was 2:24. This was an 18:58 pace, which seemed hysterically funny for some reason. How on Earth could that pace be a running pace in a 7.6 mile race?! But it was, and I decided that the only thing to do was to beat it, heart rate and legs permitting. The former would be allowed to dictate. Just like they do in the movies, I would follow my heart, whatever the cost.

Colin and Rosalea appeared somewhere around mile 6 and scampered about with cameras. I was focused on the road ahead and feeling well, but by this point I was struggling to keep below my Important Target Goal pace! The earlier miles, though supposedly a bit steeper, were much faster. I chuckled as I announced this to Rosalea. She probably sleeps faster than a 18:58 pace but she is the kindest and most humble creature. It meant such a great deal to me that they agreed to come along. 

I was up at "the wall" in no time. I believe I ran it last year, but was less prepared to perform such antics this year. The legs just couldn't. It's such a short bit -- running it only matters if you want to look like a back-of-the-pack-badass (is that a thing?) in front of the onslaught of spectators. Someone cheered and called my name, but who?  It's printed on my number, pinned to my leg, so maybe they just read it as I passed.  Then someone else called my nickname, which is not printed. Who are these people? Unknown. A crowd in a cloud, it was. Onward to the last tiny bit of flat ere the wire. 

Somehow I was running again for those final steps. After two hours and twenty minutes of ascending, there was suddenly a blanket rippling in the wind ahead of me. Like the bull greets the matador, I headed into it. I tried to dodge getting medaled -- I hate medals -- but the guy was determined. I was captured. 

It's an overstated, crazy finish with a huge clock and too many people for a mountaintop. It's a hoot. And it goes along with the other aspects of the spectacle of this unique event. Somehow I ran a little faster this year than last. 

It was probably 40 degrees and windy (of course). Within a couple minutes my crew and I had reunited and we were headed down Nelson Crag Trail, passing a line of rather windblown runners that snaked its way to the summit sign. We stopped at the first relatively sheltered spot lower down to put on more clothes. I was glad I'd followed Rosalea's lead and brought my puffy and favorite wool hat.

Colin placed 4th in a 70.5mile race just one week ago, and he patiently obliged my insisting to hear all about it on the hike down. I'd warned him that I had a lot of questions...!

Walking down what I just ran up...
We made the slowest progress on the always wonderful, always impossible granite shards that are so characteristic of the Northern Presis. Several of us were concerned about knee preservation and wondered if there was any chance that the road would be better. Well, the trail is insanely steep and ranges from treacherous to pain-in-the-ass. The road is relentless and longer, but not as overtly dangerous with possibly tired legs. We ended up hopping onto the road after a couple miles of trail. No one was upset when said descent ended. It's as beautiful going down as going up, but at least as brutal.

Brutal? A lot of people use the word on it. It feels inaccurate when I write it. I think we must somehow bring that to it. A mountain doesn't seek us out and hope to harm us. Maybe we are the brutal ones? Maybe it's simply the wrong word. I dare not fish for the correct one. If you've spent time in the Presidentials, you already know that words can hardy convey a fragment of their exorbitant and wild beauty. 

....and a tranquil run on Sunday in glorious the Camden Hills of Maine.


  1. You beat last year's time?! Woohoo!!! See what's good about your posts is everything. I love the places you go, the mode of going, and the writing always makes me smile, laugh, crinkle my face, nod my head (in one or the other directions), and always enjoy.

  2. Great post, Xar. Glad you rocked the rockpile, no disrespect intended :-)

    Nice job hiking down too. That's one heck of a day!

  3. I'm fairly sure "$80 worth of false glory" and "overstuffed Cadillac of a footrace" should be on the race promotional material and website under a "testimonial" section. Too much goodness chocked into one great race report. Hell yeah for beating last year's time!


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