The acute effort has certainly faded, but bottom line, the US Championships at Loon Mountain was one tough race. I had trained and mentally prepared for several months yet the course and competition opened my eyes. For the first time in my dozen years of running logs I had charted my daily and weekly vertical gain, as what is recorded gets targeted. But all those Pilot Butte repeats, long mountain runs, and even treadmill sessions didn’t seem enough halfway into this race.
My first day of East coast running was flat. After flying into Boston I ran around Cambridge, along the Charles, and into Beacon Hill with Andrew Wagner, followed by a rainy mosey through Harvard. You could just feel the intellectualism soaking in, or maybe it was the downpour from Hurricane Arthur. I met up with my parents and spent the night at my aunt’s place in Holden, and the next day under sunny skies we drove north into a new state: New Hampshire.
What struck me most about the countryside in the Granite state was exactly the lack of “countryside.” I had pictured little New England farms and bucolic paddocks interspersed with mini malls, but we were hemmed in by a green tunnel of endless forest. After a lifetime in the open Midwest and wide open West, it was almost claustrophobic. Where were the views, the expanses, the vistas?! Enter the White Mountains.
They begin unassuming enough, but by the time you approach Lincoln and stare through Franconia Notch, you know the Whites aren’t something New Englanders just made up to act rugged. They may not have the elevation or endless alpine of the Rockies or Rainier, but for running straight up, well they looked more than challenging.
The Loon Mountain ski resort sits just outside the tourist hamlet of Lincoln, the Pemigewasset River rushing past strewn with boulders that seem more fitting at the toe of a remote glacier. I hiked and jogged sections of the course with my dad to scope out the features, and it was more rugged than expected, the rains of Arthur having slightly eroded the resort’s service roads and muddied the Nordic trails. Higher on the mountain wild strawberries were plentiful underfoot, and I stopped to enjoy what I could not the next day. We caught the very last gondola ride down the mountain, sparing the legs from an even longer prerace outing.
The night before the race I bunked with several other runners in the Penguin ski lodge, originally the old high school turned eclectic ski club in downtown Lincoln. Several dozen pairs of elite lungs and legs tried to rest up amid snores from the competition and sagging wire mattresses.
When the gun sounded at the base of the ski hill, the field got out fast. Too fast I assumed. Here we were taking off at what felt like 5:00 pace with 3000 vertical feet ahead. I spotted Eric Blake just ahead and assured myself of my position; if a great climber like Eric was waiting, surely I could too.
The field started stringing out immediately up the first short climb and sharp descent. I focused on staying upright and keeping an eye on the leaders, who were already pulling away under the ferocious pace of Pat Smyth, one of my bunkmates the night before. After a relatively gentle service road climb, we took a sharp left onto the Nordic trails, a section without much climbing but rife with mud and technical footing.
I moved up a few places and settled in behind a small group as we hurdled mud pits and dodged granite landmines. This didn’t feel like a mountain race so much as extreme cross country, Living History Farms in Iowa with errant rocks instead of cornstalk stubble. The leaders were now lost ahead in the dense woods, so I tried to stay efficient with hopes pinned to the upper slopes. It was in this state that I took an ill timed step, awkwardly pushing off a hidden rock with my right foot. Instant shot of pain in my arch—f*&#!!! I momentarily forgot the race and slowed to test my foot, which hurt but still seemed operable.
Wincing and worrying my way through the rest of the woods, we reemerged to the ski slopes and the real climbing. Up a gravel service road, sideways across high grass, straight up a super steep grass slope, then back down a chunky service road. So the course went, each vista across the valley becoming more and more panoramic. My foot was tender, but adrenaline and the toll on everything else masked the discomfort. More disconcerting than my foot was the fact I wasn’t gaining on anyone. I seemed stuck in position, lacking rhythm. I hiked a section I should have run and got passed. Where was that spring in the legs I was counting on, that effortless uphill engine? I wasn’t bonking or imploding, but dreams of making the team or top ten were slipping away.
The last part of the course is undoubtedly the hardest. Dubbed the “Upper Walking Boss,” this ski slope pitches over 40% for a half mile (compared to the course average of 10%) and brings nearly every runner to a crawl. It certainly did to me. Plummeting down the last descent before the Boss I nearly caught the next runner, but as soon as I hit the grass wall it was power hiking at best. I’m not really sure what that means other than breathing heavily while hiking. Above me all but the top two places were visible, agonizingly close and impossibly far away. There was a spot on the U.S. team right there!.. if only I had wings.
I pressed forward as best I could, neither gaining nor losing position. Spectators on the upper mountain shouted and rang bells, watching a slow serpentine of runners and the valley falling away. 500 meters to go: try to jog a few steps, walk. 250 meters: jog again, walk. Hear my parents and Claire’s sister and think how bad I must look right now: jog, walk. My last shuffle got me across the finish line at the top of the ski lift. I had made it to the top of Loon Mtn and finished the U.S. Championships in 14th place.
As I milled about with the other runners and fans in a minor daze, I tried to take in the view and ignore my foot for the moment. The White Mountains shone in the late morning and the dwarf pines validated every uphill step. My parents and Brett congratulated me, and I can’t thank them, my aunt Barbara, or everyone else enough for the support. Loon wasn’t the performance I was hoping for, but it was an eye opening climb and something to build on. I didn’t make the team, but the trip was a success.
Weeks later my foot is feeling better and I know I want another chance. I’ll get it this weekend at the Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado.