Saturday, June 18, 2016

Wash-F'ing-ton Foot Race

I've lost track of how many times I've raced a bicycle up Mt Washington. At least 10, I'd say. Then add the offered practice climbs, I've probably ridden a bike race-pace up the Rock Pile over 15 times. I know all the undulations and surface textures well.

There's also a long-running foot race up the Rock Pile. I've always had a sadistic curiosity of how running and riding compare. I did an analysis some time ago that showed runners reach parity with cyclists on paved surface around 17% grade. At 17% and steeper, the mechanical advantage of a bicycles does not exceed the additional energy needed to take a bicycle up against gravity. So on Mt Washington, which is mostly paved at 12%, riders still have the upper hand. Which hurts more on Washington, cycling or running?

When I learned I gained entry to the race through the lottery system back in March, I figured I had lots of time to train. I ran minimally, maybe 30 minutes a week at easy pace. This was purely for bone health reasons. I did, however, hike a lot. At least I would have some conditioning in my calves. I got into the Mt Washington foot race back in 2012 also, when I was running more regularly. But a week before the race, one of my calves blew up. Didn't need to have that happen again. I figured I could get through my April cycling trip, then start to add some specific training for Washington.

Training consisted of replacing my 30 minute once a week casual pace lunch run with a once a week hill repeats session. Some of this work was 4-6x3min VOmax intervals, some a little longer 2-3x13min efforts on Mt Pack Monadnock. I had intentions of heading over to Mt Ascutney for 30+ minute efforts, much more representative of what Mt Washington would throw at me, but never made it there.

I had an arbitrary goal to break 80 minutes running up the Rock Pile. This is the qualifying threshold for starting with the elite wave in the bicycle race. Could I "qualify" for this Top Notch category by running up? Back of envelope number crunching showed it was feasible with a little focused training. The training never reached the level needed to make this a probable achievable goal. Instead, it was going to be a "stretch" goal.

Race day arrives. I tapered like I would for an A-race bicycle event. Forecast was for hot weather, which seems to be a bigger weakness for me than most others. Much better than a weekend earlier, however, where the race would surely have been canceled with 100mph wind, 0F windchills, and snow and ice building up on summit. Yeah, that can be Mt Washington any time of year.

Line up for the 9am start, I thought wow, this is a lot bigger than the bike race, with upwards of twice as many competitors, over 1000. I lined up about 5 or 6 rows back, pretty close to the front, which would be at least 60 runners back. No matter how many times I heard that dinky little cannon go off, it scares the shit out of me every time.

We're off, and it wasn't the CF I feared it could be. Nobody went ballistic. Handfuls of runners passed me in the first quarter mile and I passed equal numbers. I probably seeded myself about right.

With no long hillclimb runs in training, I struggled mightily on how to pace. On the bike, I had it mastered. This was a different beast. First mile went by pretty quickly, but then again you have a slight down to flat before climbing begins.

In mile two, I already started passing people doing the run-walk-run-walk thing. WTF. Not an optimal pacing strategy. Little bit irritating too, like when you are on the highway with cruise control on and the same car keeps passing you, gets in your lane, and then slows down.

Mile 2.5. Wifey took this one of me already in full suffer mode.

Mile three my Suunto told me my paces was slowing. But the grade is more persistently steeper too, and I was beginning to overheat. I took water at every water station, all of 1-2 ounces I could get down the gullet each time.

Finally at mile four approaching tree line, a little breeze appeared and the temp started to drop. Before the race, I saw the temp profile on the mountain, and it was actually warmer at 3000ft than at the base.

Then we get to the infamous "5 mile grade." This is gravel, and you see about a mile up the road. It is persistently steep too, I think around 15% grade. At first I though, why is everybody stopped way up the road? They weren't. They were going so slow and the human figures were mere dots against the enormity of the mountain. Ugh. My pace now dropped to slower than 11min/mi. Not looking good for that sub-1:20 finish now, but I wasn't giving up on it.

After making the big right-hand hook after 5 mile grade, the steepness doesn't relent. Gravel gives way to pavement, and again you can see to infinity up the road with seemingly motionless figures on the horizon. I had climbed an hour and now wondered if the suffering was ever going to end. We were pretty spread out at this point, but there was always someone not very far away.

Tim Lucia snapped this photo from Mt Madison around 10am while we were slogging up 5 mile grade shown here on flanks of Mt Washington.

That steep switchback somewhere between mile 6 & 7, yeah, I walked that. Just couldn't turn the legs over in a true run. Just like running out of gear on a bicycle. Where was my granny gear!? Finally around 6000ft, there are some brief respites in the gradient. Just as on the bike, I do not take the bate and "soft pedal" to recover. You made it that far holding a steady pace. Just because the gradient slacks off doesn't mean it is easier. It just means you have to go faster. You do get a respite though because different muscles come into play.

Approaching the last 300ft of vertical, I got passed by about 5 guys that just came out of nowhere. Where they just lollygagging along back there? One was from my age group too, and I tried to hold him off to the line, but he decisively dispatched me. I crossed the mat at 1:22:57, missing my stretch goal by almost 3 minutes. I knew with that time, it was highly unlikely to be contending a podium spot. 9th/100+ in age group, 70th/1100+ overall.

So that fell pretty much in line where I thought I would be given how much training I put into this endeavor. Can't say I was ecstatic with my result, but I certainly wasn't disappointed. Now I knew what it was like to race on foot up 4700 feet of monotonic vertical. It was decidedly more punishing than riding.

Most runners take auto transportation back down. In the bike race, you are not allowed to ride your bike down the autoroad. So you have to take a car down, or at least a driver has to take your bike down. On such a beautiful day, I was not going to get robbed out of a descent from the summit of Mt Washington, even if my legs were already FUBAR. It was only 3.9 miles down Lion's Head to Pinkham Notch, where my wife would meet me and drive 2.5 miles back down Rt 16 to have lunch at awards.

Leaving the summit on Tuckerman Ravine Trail. No winter jackets today!

It was so mild at 6000ft that even in a soaked tank top, I did not get cold. I explained that today was an exceptional day to the nice folks that took my pack to the summit. A week earlier, nobody would have been up there.

I had hiked up Tuckerman Ravine trail once, more than 15 years ago. I hadn't hiked any of the trails on this side of the Presidentials since. Decided to take Tuckerman to Lion Head to Tuckerman down.  What a brute. Pretty much 100% rock hopping for 4000ft of descent. What the climb didn't finish off in my legs, the descent surely did. So many people out on this fine day. Most of the people were at upper elevations, either still climbing or just beginning their descent. Didn't take long to get through most of the traffic and have at least a little solitude lower down on Tuckerman.

I have a bicycle hillcimb up Okemo in Vermont planned next, and maybe, just maybe, a couple more trail run hillclimbs on Loon and Whiteface. We'll see. Running is fickle. I hate how easily you can be blindsided by injuries. That just doesn't happen on the bike.

Tuckerman Ravine rim on left with just touch of snow left

The southern Presidentials and Lakes hut just visible

Heading down Lion Head Trail looking into Tuckerman Ravine headwall

Lion Head

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