I've been racing up Mt Washington since 2000. A few years ago, I decided it was silly to keep chasing new personal bests as I get older. I've always believed the process of staying fit was more important than achieving results at events. Stress is greatly diminished, and you never set yourself up for disappointment that way. The vast majority of my riding is for fun. The number of hours I've spent on a mountain bike this season is a case in point. Half my hours were off-road and not training-centric. Riding for fun is good for the soul.
I've been running a couple years now, and I quickly realized a cycling motor carries over quite nicely to running. I placed well at the CIGNA 5k race last year (my time would have won the 50+ age group out of hundreds, just days before my 50th birthday). I thought it would be cool to go for the win this year when I was actually 50. Not only that, I wanted to run a sub-17:30 5k this year. I ran only about 1-1.5hrs per week last year. That left considerable room for improvement. I'd have to run a bit more for loftier goals, and more intensely. I thought these goals, winning CIGNA with sub-17:30 time would be easily achievable.
I figured while I was honing my aerobic engine for shorter efforts, maybe I should also go for a new PR on Mt Washington. I got greedy. The events are just over a week apart. I'd either thrive or self-destruct.
I quickly learned I couldn't simultaneously train in both disciplines to be a high-end performer in each. I suffered recurring knee overuse pain and my bike workouts began to suffer. I ran with too much intensity on my rest days off the bike. Bike miles became junk miles and run miles kept me tired. I had to chose. My first passion is riding. If I had to cut something, it wasn't going to be cycling. I jettisoned the idea of running a fast CIGNA 5k and nearly abandoned running for the summer. I would go for a solitary high-risk goal of posting my fastest finish on Mt Washington yet.
There are so many things wrong this. It creates weight management stress, being fussier about training, added stress in relationships, and the huge risk of what if the race is cancelled like in 2007 or there are 60 mph winds up top? I was setting myself up for potential major disappointment.
After disappointing results on Okemo, Ascutney and Equinox, I felt a PR on Washington was completely out of reach. The Ascutney result was especially disappointing, because I actually rested for that event and had one of my slowest finishes ever there. My predicted Washington time based on Ascutney was more than six minutes off my PR. You don't make up 10% power deficiency in a few weeks. An elite triathlete friend said I needed rest. I could rest my way to a PR. Huh? His advice has been spot on before, and sometimes it takes an outside observer to objectively point out what's going on. I did not ignore this advice.
Training specifically for Mt Washington nearly killed me a week before the race. Doing repeats on Mt Kearsarge, I crashed spectacularly on my last descent. This resulted in a wrist fracture, but fortunately nothing else. At first I thought Washington was out. But no, I modified my bike for a more comfortable wrist position and told myself I'll deal with the consequences afterwards. A glimmer of hope came out of this workout though. I posted some of my best 20 minute power numbers in a long time. My third and slowest time up, I averaged 316W for 22 minutes. I figured this was a power I could come pretty close to averaging on Mt Washington. And if I did that and the weather was good, I had a reasonable chance at a PR.
The last two weeks in preparation were stressful. Many Mt Washington fans understand this. It is the high point of the season for most competitors on the Rock Pile. I was the most careful I had ever been with my diet. I didn't diet per se, but I cut out most of the dark chocolate I ate daily and other junky calorie boosters. My colleagues didn't help any, recognizing I was stressing over dietary decisions. They'd go out of their way to bring me donuts, brownies, pizza, you name it, anything left over from meetings and such. Pure torment. They wanted to bring Fat Doug back. An evil bunch! My willpower failed several times.
Their attempts proved futile. Midday, the day before the race, I weighed in at my lowest weight ever for Mt Washington, but by only a little bit. In case you're afraid to ask, it was 156.4 lbs (70.9kg). That gave me a bit of a mental boost.
The night before the race, Brett Rutledge, my wife and I went out for pasta. It was quite salty and the portions were large. Great. Another test. Normally, I wouldn't hesitate one millisecond in devouring the whole plate. I'm proud to say I ate only a little over half. I was worried about how much sodium I consumed though. A spike in sodium intake will spike water retention with spike weight. That weight will not increase my power output, so my W/kg would go down. Before retiring for the night, I hydrated on a bottle of Biotta beet root juice. I still have no hard personal evidence that I derive any performance benefit from it, but it can't hurt, and it certainly is a healthy way to hydrate. If nothing else, it may have a placebo effect benefit.
Ok, finally getting to the race. Warming up Saturday morning, my legs didn't feel lively at all, despite one of the most restful weeks I've taken in years. In fact, my legs felt better the day before when I did a couple brief efforts. I had trouble keeping power under 300W on Friday, but had trouble pushing 300W on Saturday. That really sucked. I did a pretty mellow warmup, about 20-25 minutes total, with only two 300W efforts for about 90sec each. Mt Washington is a threshold level effort, and you do not want to go too hard at the start, so an hour-plus rider doesn't need to do deep anaerobic openers right before the race.
We had a huge elite Top Notch field. Over a hundred I think. Star-studded too, with guys like Cameron Cogburn and Jeremiah Bishop present. I don't have a light enough power meter set-up to race with, so my plan was to pace off Erik Vandendries, who I know to be an exceptionally good pacer. He is slightly faster than me, so I know if I start out faster than him, I'm starting out way too fast.
The cannon goes off and we're off. There's about 10 seconds of shifting up through gears before you even more rapidly shift all the way back down as you head into the 12+ percent grade. I stuck to plan and never passed Erik. The pace felt quite manageable for a while. Many, many riders bolted on ahead. I've learned to block that out, knowing that I'll see many of them 10 minutes later after they blow up.
It didn't take long until things thinned way out. We had ourselves a nice little four-some, John Bayley, Erik Vandendries and James Hayes. I know these rider's abilities well. James and I sprinted for the first-mile $500 prime at Equinox two weeks earlier. The thing was, I thought I didn't belong with these guys on Mt Washington. John usually finishes much ahead of me, being a recent one-hour finisher on Mt Washington. I surely was going out too hard, but I kept thinking it was sustainable for quite a while. So I went with it.
When we got to about the four mile marker/4000ft elevation, our little group was still intact but starting to fracture. John put in some surges on the steeper bits that gapped the rest of us. James rolled Erik and I off too. I knew the wind had picked up at the summit just before the race started, so I desperately wanted to pilfer off somebody's effort when we rounded the turn to head straight into the wind. But no, Erik rolled me off his wheel on "5 mile grade," the long gravel section. At least we had tail wind there. I would be on my own for the rest of the climb.
The wind proved to be far more formidable than we were led to believe. It wasn't the 60mph stuff we deal with sometimes, but it surely was more than some of the forecasts saying 5mph or 11mph. Turns out it was steady 30mph gusting above 40. I had a PR pace going at the four mile marker, but now all bets were off. Erik didn't seemed to be fazed by the wind and started putting time on me. I could still see John and James most of the time. I've never stayed this close to John this far into a climb before. Either he was having a bad day or I was doing really well.
The hard left turn to get out of the headwind couldn't come soon enough. Seemed like I spent half the race going into the wind. I had a flat bar on my bike, so I couldn't really get aero. My wrist wouldn't allow it anyway. At least the pain was manageable. Or maybe I just became numb to the pain. Extreme focus has a way of doing that.
After some flatter terrain with tail wind that lasted all of five heartbeats, there was more headwind coming into mile marker 7. I felt a PR slipping away. But Hill Junkie fan Stephanie Schoff Jacques was there with a cowbell and "Hill Junkie" chalked on the road. Looking at my Strava data, my estimated power output went up 30% after that for a while. That was the boost I was looking for. I was right on the hairy edge of pulling off a PR, I couldn't throw in the towel with less than 1km to go!
Photo and artwork by Stephanie Schoff Jacques
I dug exceptionally deep. The problem was, I had that nasty 22% wall to go after already burying myself for several minutes just before it. I thought I was going to have to dismount and run up. It was the most ugly ascent of the pitch ever for me. It was the ruckus of the crowd up top that propped me up for those last hundred meters. I made it without falling over. I crossed the timing mats in 1:05:12. That was 21 seconds faster than 2008. I did it!
Coming over finish line. Photo by Heather Dunkerley.
It was a good day to be alive on the Rock Pile. It was windy. It was cold. The summit was in and out of the clouds. There was a lot of energy in the crowd up top. A surreal experience. I always feel most alive when I'm outside pushing my physical limits up a mountain. This year's climb was my toughest, not necessarily physically, but mentally. On the cusp of bettering my fastest for much of the climb, extraordinary focus was needed to not let it slip away.
It is interesting to compare the times of Gerry Clapper, James, Erik and myself between Equinox and Washington. We finished in exactly the same order, very close to each other. The biggest difference is James and I finished closer to Gerry and Erik on Mt Washington. I suspect this is because we didn't go for any crazy $500 sprints early in Washington.
I got a chance to sit and talk with Jeremiah Bishop. An icon of the mountain biking world, he his very approachable and open. He's mentoring Cameron Cogburn, who handily won the day's race with a time of 50:48. Jeremiah doesn't mince words when discussing the issue of PEDs in our sport. Cameron gave up professional cycling to pursue an advanced degree at MIT, is riding clean, and came wicked close to beating a confessed doper's record on Mt Washington. Hopefully Cameron can claim the title, or even better, beat it outright riding clean. I believe he would have done that Saturday had he not raced the grueling Leadville 100 MTB race the weekend before.
Getting warm with Brett Rutledge, HJ, Tom Barton and Jeremiah Bishop (left to right)
In the 14 years I've been racing the Rock Pile, there have never been as many sub-hour finishers as this year - nine riders! Conditions were good, but there have been years with no wind and many fewer sub-hour finishers. The average is 5, some years see only 2 or 3. It's the depth of talent that has grown. I was the top finisher from New Hampshire.
My wrist was in a major funk after the race. I had to cut off the tape job right away, as there was swelling and my fingers were going numb. Eight days later, I'm not even close to pouring milk with my left hand. I have to let my wrist heal now, as I head out west in less than four weeks where I plan to do some off-road riding. Going to be harder to hold back than when I broke my leg. I had no choice in that case.
Swelling is down, but this still don't look right. The tendons are extremely sore.
Thanks for the encouragement many of you sent my way and thanks for reading. I'll leave you with a few more pictures from Saturday.
Brief clear instant looking up at finish
Looking north/north-easterly from observation deck
Summit conditions during race
The "Rock Pile"
Heading up the 22% grade trying to not fall over
Mile 7 with a thumbs up. Photo by Stephanie Schoff Jacques
The 50+ podium, with David O'keeffe, Gerry Clapper and myself. Photo courtesy of Mt Washington