Sunday, August 17, 2014

15 Years on the Rock Pile

When I first climbed Mt Washington back in 2000, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had already been bitten by the climbing bug, and my passion for this esoteric activity was growing. I had no goal or expectation, other than make it to the top. I finished in 1:14, which blew me away and qualified me for the Top Notch field the following year. That drew me in hook, line and sinker.

I haven't raced every one of those 15 years. In 2003, I got terribly sick and could not start the race. In 2007, the races were cancelled due to weather. Then in 2010, I took a two-year hiatus from the mountain. In those 15 years, I raced up the mountain 12 times, plus a number of practice climbs.

I've seen all types weather on the Rock Pile - near record heat (the worst), hail and lightning, 50+ mph wind, temps near freezing and windchills even colder. This past Saturday's race was easily the coldest I've experienced.

I put no investment into this year's hillclimb. In fact, I've missed Whiteface, Okemo, Ascutney and Equinox. I've never missed all of those in a single year since 2000. Just too much going on right now for me to put in the requisite training. Doing hill repeats or even regular VOmax work on my lunch breaks requires mental energy, energy that I must more importantly spend in other ways right now. Much of my riding has taken on more of a recreational character this summer. I've been doing a large volume of mountain biking. It seems to clear the mind better and uses less mental energy than road cycling. It is too easy to become enraged on the road at motorists that deliberately endanger you. Off road, considerable focus is required for task at hand, pulling your mind away from the pressing issues of the day. A long off-road ride satiates the body and resets the mind.

Thus I had no goals or expectations for Mt Washington this year, unlike last year when I attempted and achieved a personal best. Some may ask, why even bother then? I loves me a good climb, and Mt Washington is the mother of all climbs in this part of the country. You get to meet a lot of good peeps at the race too. I did kind of have a goal though. Tinker Juarez was registered and he is in my age group. How cool I thought, would it be to be on the podium with Tinker. This was remote though, as Tinker would win, Gerry Clapper would take second, then there would be any number of us battling for that third podium step.

Conditions were quite pleasant at the base warming up for the race. Some arm and knee warmers where helpful, but I think the temp was nearing 60F. The summit was socked in with heavy clouds. At race start, the summit temperature was 38F, winds near 40mph, giving a 26F windchill. So how do you dress for that?? A chronic over-heater, I chanced it. I went just in shorts and short sleeves. Many others did too.

The canon goes off. There's a hundred meters of flat, then 12% grade. Gerry Clapper and Erik Vandendries immediately started to pull away from me, and at no small differential. I knew better in my sub-par fitness state to try to stay with them, but dang, they were GONE. I hung with these fast dudes almost half way up last year.

A few riders came by in the first mile, which is never a good sign. Usually the front of this race is like the expanding universe. The space between all the riders just keeps getting bigger as the race progresses. But I passed a bunch that clearly went out way too hard too. After the first couple miles, I pretty much was by myself for the rest of the climb.

When I reached the 4000ft sign, it confirmed I was well off my normal pace. The wind started getting pretty nasty too, even before reaching the tree line. Great. The "5 mile grade" section went by fairly quickly. There was huge tail wind here. That meant only one thing though. As soon as the road switched back to the northwest, there would be massive head wind. Sure enough, the mile 6 section was just brutal. At one point, I slowed to 4mph and there was nothing I could do about it. I was totally over-geared for these conditions.

The temp was becoming downright scary and my arms, hands and feet were going numb. There were occasional burst of mist or drizzle to ensure maximal heat loss. A group of four was never more than 15-30 seconds behind me. The pressure was always on. I couldn't let them catch me, as there could easily be another 50-54 age group rider in there and that would diminish my chances for a podium shot even further. The headwind on the mile 6 section seemed to hurt those four more than me, though. Then we were in the clouds. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now I was in my own little world of gray. Occasionally, there'd be a spectator ringing a cowbell. That was nice actually, because I could count the seconds until the bell rang again to determine how far back the next guy behind me was.

With about half a mile to go, a body suddenly appeared out of the abyss in front of me. I was gaining on him quickly. I surmised this guy must have cracked spectacularly with so little to go. It was Jimmy Hayes, the kid I challenged to the $500 first mile prime at Equinox last year and he took it by a second or two. He also took me by seconds on Mt Washington last year.  Now this old guy was going to return the favor in the final kick to the summit on the Rock Pile. Good times.

The crowd is always such a motivator as you reach the 22% switchbacks to the finish line. The visibility was poor, the road wet. I stood to mash out those last meters. My rear tire slipped badly. My bike nearly stopped and I thought for an instant I was going to crash. I got my weight back over the rear wheel and just barely saved it. I crossed the line in 1:08:48, about 3.5 minutes slower than last year. That was in the range I expected, so I was not disappointed. Times on average were slower due to the wind.

Approaching finish. Photo by Cathy Jansen

Almost to timing mat and gassed. Photo by Heather Dunkerley.

It took a few minutes to find my wife. When I final got inside the summit building and changed into dry clothes, it took another 30 minutes to stop shivering. I was glad to catch some breaks in the clouds as riders continued to cross the line. The view is grand.

Sun starting to burn through. Dressed for winter.

Fleeting instant where the horizon completely opened up.

My time was good for 2nd/107 in the age group. Gerry won it. Tinker was at the race but did not race, not feeling well and resting for the bigger NH100 race the next day. Bummer. Still though, podium spots are hard to come by at this event, as it draws high caliber athletes from varied backgrounds, including several former national caliber runners. The last two years there have been a record number of sub-hour finishers, nine both years.

50-55 podium, the largest age group. Myself, Gerry Clapper and Lawrence Beck.

I think it was LeMond that said it doesn't get easier, you just go faster [as you become more fit]. The converse is also true. If you become less fit, you don't suffer more, you just go slower. But I did notice that I had more residual pain long after the race this year. Maybe I'm just getting old.

I thought for my fifteenth year on the mountain, I'd plot all my finishing times and then trend them. The plot is interesting. The older I get, the faster I get. Wouldn't it be nice if this went on indefinitely...

This just goes to show if you commit to staying in shape, the normal aging degradations just don't apply. Look at Tinker or Ned Overend, for example. Those guys are still almost as fast as they were 25 years ago. Data like this motivates me to never give up. There is something to be said for that mystical "masters base" that younger riders sometimes bemoan.

I have a couple more endurance events planned for this season, the Vermont 50 MTB race and the Ironcross CX race in Pennsylvania. Hopefully the kind of riding I've been doing will serve me well at these fine races.


gewilli said...

there's hope? (for us old guys not as old as you)

also, congrats on the podium, that's pretty f'n cool!

aspenmike said...

Awesome Doug, Inspiring indeed. Looks like Eric (uni) was slower than my 05' time. 05' had some challenging weather also. Doing Pikes Peak Hillclimb this weekend, will be thinking of you.

Christopher Titus said...

Nice job Doug! I remember you flying by me on my first practice run at a clip I could never match, back in 08 I believe. I was blown away by your speed. Nice race report btw. Take care.

Eiric said...

A podium in New England racing at any event is huge CONGRATS

Anonymous said...

First time doing this climb and was not disappointed, such an amazing experience overall. BTW that is me in the red jersey in the red jersey and black shorts coming up to the finish line in the 3rd picture.

jason_ssc1 said...

Great write-up and congrats on your second place finish. I'm 42 and it's very inspirational to read of your success and improvement with age combined with proper training.

Wojciech said...

"...if you commit to staying in shape, the normal aging degradations just don't apply."

Exactly :) It was good chatting with your before & after the race.

Mr. Quindazzi said...

Wow, great time anyway you figure it, but especially so given the lack of specific training.

I, like many, find your blog and accomplishments inspiring. I did White Mountains East the day after the race for the second year in a row- fabulous ride. Thanks for posting about it so others can enjoy it.