It's only recently that I've begun to realize I'm not, in fact, a good hill runner.
In my all-too-distant past as a high school, collegiate, and post-collegiate runner, I always considered the hills to be my greatest strength. I was most comfortable on the hilliest cross-country tracks in high school and college, and my limited road-racing success was usually forged via a decisive surge on whatever incline the course would offer. I've never been much of a downhill runner, but I felt like I could climb with almost anybody--short and steep, long and punishing, whatever the race called for.
As I've become more immersed in the trail and ultra scene, however, I've learned that I am an unremarkable hill runner at best. My results on hilly courses are no better or worse than whatever my fitness level on that day would lead me to expect. In fact, hillier courses have become a bit of a bugaboo for me, as my complete lack of downhill prowess is exacerbated on the trails and usually negates whatever small gains I might be able to claw back going uphill. I've come to find that the best courses for me are runnable ones, where I can bring my long (if mostly unremarkable) prior experience to bear in terms of running moderately fast for moderately long stretches of time. In short, hills just aren't what they used to be...
But my rational brain is no match for my forebrain, and deep down in my reptilian core I reflexively still think I'm a hill runner. Which explains why I registered for the inaugural Whiteface Skyrunning weekend as soon as it opened last year, and then spent most of the past several months regretting it.
As regular readers of this blog know by now (my apologies to all of you), Ian Golden's Red Newt Racing venture (aside from being one of my fantastic sponsors) consistently puts on top-level races, with world-class fields, over what is generally both breathtaking and breathtakingly difficult terrain. As part of the first-year US Skyrunning series, the Whiteface races promised nothing less. Ian's co-director, Jan Wellford, also directs the notoriously difficult Great Adirondack Trail Run, has the course record at the insane Mantiou's Revenge, as well as the FKT for the epic Great Range Traverse. The signs were all there--this was going to be one beast of a race.
Skyrunning--a trail running discipline involving steep ascents and descents, over technical terrain, often at altitude--has gained popularity in recent years, particularly in Europe, with the high-profile exploits of Killian Jornet. Ian and Jan created an amazing facsimile of a European Skyrunning event, not least in choosing the venue: Whiteface Mountain, home of the alpine events at the 1980 Winter Olympics and featuring the largest elevation change of any ski resort in the eastern US. Nearby Lake Placid, which has hosted two Olympic Games (including the famed Miracle on Ice) is the closest you'll get to a European mountain resort town this side of Aspen.
In true Skyrunning fashion, the weekend hosted two events: Saturday's Vertical Kilometer (VK), a 4K uphill-only race with 3300' of gain (you read that right, that's an average gradient of 25%); and Sunday's main event, the Skymarathon, nearly 20 miles with just under 10,000' of climbing--and equal descent. With cash and Skyrunning Series points on the line, an expected world-class field descended on the mountain.
My expectations going in were extremely low. I was still recovering, both physically and emotionally, from what I considered to be a disappointing performance at the Cayuga Trails 50 four weeks earlier. It had taken nearly two weeks for my body to feel right, and I was still dealing with some lingering soreness from our car accident the week before CT50. Combine that with steep, technical trails, and I didn't give myself much of a chance to do anything of note. I figured Saturday would be the best chance I had to accomplish anything. Several of the top runners, including my MPF RNR teammates Silas and Cole, were skipping the VK to focus on the Skymarathon; plus, I wouldn't have to deal with the insane descents that I was sure to struggle with on Sunday.
We gathered for the 10am start on Saturday under crystal-clear skies. I lined up a few rows back, with Scotie and Ryan, but I immediately made my way near the front after the gun, running just behind Ben, in the back half of the top ten. I was being a bit over-exuberant, but much of the first mile was runnable, and I split the mile mark in 14:00 flat, I think right around tenth place, behind a gaggle of top mountain runners (including women's leader Stevie Kramer) but holding what I thought was a pretty good position.
The trail got steeper and steeper, and became less and less of a trail. Past the mile mark I was reduced to hiking like everybody else. I'm not much of a power hiker, though--I just don't have a lot of practice at it--and I started slipping back in the field. My lack of trekking poles--again, not something I ever use or am comfortable with--proved costly. Try as I might, I couldn't get my breathing down to a manageable rate, or keep my heart rate anywhere south of 180 or so. Past the two-mile mark, as I gasped for air, struggling to hang on to Ryan's back, I seriously considered just stopping and sitting down to the side of the trail (which was barely more than a rough-hewn rocky path up the ski slope). I even had a little fantasy about what would happen. I'd sit there on the side of the trail as everyone went by. Then after the race people would realize that I hadn't made it up to the top, so they'd come find me. I'd be sitting there, hours later, just trying to catch my breath. And Ian would come tell me that I had to walk up to the finish, or back down to the start. And I would very calmly tell him no, I was just going to sit there, and he was going to have to figure out a way to get me back down the mountain. This all played out in my head as I tried not to die.
Eventually, much hiking later, I reached the top, just a few seconds behind Ryan (one of the great technical trail/mountain runners in the Northeast, ask anyone other than himself, because he won't admit it) in 18th place. My calves were knots, but my quads were fine, and after cheering in the rest of my teammates, I trekked down to the summit of Little Whiteface, where I shared a gondola ride back to the base with Pearl Izumi runner Michael King, who had edged me out near the summit. I wasn't relishing the thought of doing that same climb twice the next day, and headed back to Lake Placid to lick my wounds, seriously considering taking a Sunday DNS and just burying myself in a tankard of UBU.
I'm not sure what got me out of bed at 4:30 am for the Sunday start. It certainly wasn't the weather. Forty-five degrees, with a steady downpour forecast to last all morning, and rumors of wind gusts over 40 mph on the summit. The conditions made for some pretty tricky decisions regarding gear as we gathered in the base lodge that morning. With the course promising to be a mudfest, I opted to leave my trusty Salming T1s behind in favor of the more aggressive traction of the inov-8 X-Talon 212s. I donned a pair of knee high 2XU compression socks, more for warmth than for any performance benefits, and selected full-length arm warmers below my short sleeve racing top. I topped everything with an ultra-lightweight Salming Pro360 jacket and my trusty Orange Mud trucker cap. With no expectations, I loaded my shorts pockets with GU and got ready for the start.
Before the weekend started, I estimated the course might take me around five hours to complete; after Saturday's slog, I revised that to six hours. On this course, in these conditions, and against this field, I had no illusions of being anywhere in the top ten or twenty. Instead, I was focused on simply having a good, smart, solid training stimulus. Most crucially, I was determined not to continue my recent worrying trend of starting races too quickly. I resolved to run the first Alpine loop with as little effort as possible. If I could get through that first 10K feeling strong--no small feat, considering it would include about 8000' of elevation change--I knew that the next seven miles, on the Flume loop at the base of Whiteface Mountain, would afford the opportunity to open up on some runnable singletrack. Sure, I still had to get through another Alpine loop after that, but I figured everyone would be pretty cooked by that point.
Determined to start slowly, I lined up at the very back of the field and was thrilled to find my good friend Glen Redpath right next to me. Glen is a top-notch ultrarunner from NYC with three top-10 Western States finishes among his myriad accomplishments, but he's just now rounding back into shape following Achilles surgery last year, and he had just driven to Whiteface after running the Ragnar Trail relay in Massachusetts the day before. So we were more than happy to head off at the back of the field, running at a slow, conversational pace as we headed up the lower slopes of the mountain in the driving rain.
After a few minutes I left Glen behind and moved up to the middle of the field, spending some time hiking and chatting with Natalie Thompson, Jay Lemos, and Mike King (I tried, unsuccessfully, to buy his trekking poles off him). Right around the mile mark, I caught up with Ryan, who had stopped to take care of an issue with his shoe, and we fell in together, power hiking uphill at a steady, sustainable rate. Unlike the previous day, when I had been redlining pretty much from the start, I kept my heart rate and breathing well under control, and we climbed at a much more relaxed pace between short bursts of conversation. About halfway up, the course split, with ambiguous markings and no course officials; we followed a long line of runners ahead of us up the right-hand pathway. After a few minutes, it became obvious that we were following the VK course uphill, which wasn't quite right; we were supposed to take a slightly different route up, and descend via the VK route. As soon as we realized this, though, the leaders came barreling back down, and we figured out from a few shouted words back and forth that they had taken the same route. So we trudged on.
Despite the wind, rain, and footing, the slight lessening of the effort and Ryan's companionship was making this ascent much more tolerable than that of the previous day, and I was almost disappointed when we reached the final pitches of the climb toward the top, amid a driving rain. We reached the top right around 55 minutes, just four or five minutes slower than the previous day, and I guessed there were about thirty or forty runners ahead of us struggling their way down as we made a quick check-in at the summit aid station, and, without stopping, turned back downhill. In seconds, Ryan was gone, putting his fell running experience from his time in England to good use as he loped downhill, picking up five places in seconds. I focused on getting downhill with a mixture of caution and aggression. For the past few weeks, I'd been working on running downhills, especially technical ones, more aggressively, and it seemed to be working; I was heaving down 40% downhills with ankle-deep mud, terrified, but actually holding my own as compared to most of the runners around me, and as we reached a short level section about halfway down the mountain I had actually picked off a couple of guys myself.
I reached the point where the trail had split, now manned by volunteers, who directed me back uphill for the second ascent of the loop, to the top of Little Whiteface at the terminus of the gondola. This climb started off on a graded gravel access road, quite steep but amenable to a little running, and with a mixture of running and power hiking I reeled in a group of runners as we turned onto a steep pitch of ski trail for the last half-mile push to the top. We hiked together, passing Ian, who confirmed that we had indeed, along with the rest of the front third of the field, taken the unintended way up to the summit. He informed us that as a compromise, our times for the first loop wouldn't count--everyone had to finish the loop, he said, but our splits would be taken at the base lodge, and only everyone's time for the Flume loop and the second Alpine loop would count for the official results. We took a minute or two to digest this, and then I relaxed my pace; no sense in wasting energy now. As we neared the summit, a couple of my nearest competitors broke into a jog; I held back, turned to the runner next to me, and asked, "What are we missing?"
We both shrugged and continued on together, taking it easy on the downhill and chatting. I learned that his name was Brian Finch, from Killington, VT. Remarkably, he had lived for ten years in New Paltz before moving to Killington, so we had plenty to talk about. He is a professional downhill ski racer, and even at our relaxed pace, it showed; he was incredibly comfortable and confident over the rocky, uneven terrain. Our former companions had disappeared up ahead, but that was fine; all we had to do was conserve energy to the bottom, when the now-abbreviated "real race" would start. The third or fourth-place female caught us near the bottom, and on the lower slopes I eased up even a little more, running through a quick mental checklist, making sure I was ready to start racing at the base. I decided to keep my gear the same; the weather hadn't abated, and I was feeling, for the most part, pretty dry and comfortable. I reached the base station right around 1:48, grabbed some hot broth from teammate Amy Hanlon, and headed out on the Flume loop, the clock now running.
After a short uphill, the course ran comfortably downhill for a half mile before flattening out for a stretch along the river, and I felt fantastic, dipping down near 6:30 pace as I caught back up with, then blew past, Brian. About a mile into the loop, I crossed paths with the lead pack of three, about four miles ahead of me, looking haggard but absolutely hammering each other. I pressed on as we wound uphill into a twisting singletrack section.
The rest of the Flume loop passed uneventfully. I pressed the pace at every opportunity, knowing that I had a two-hour hike coming at the end and wanting to make up as much ground as possible while I could could put my running background to good use. After passing Brian, I saw no other runners for the remainder of the seven miles, until about half a mile before the end of the loop, when a string of three or four runners suddenly appeared ahead of me. Buoyed by the knowledge that I was gaining on people, I charged into the aid station in the group, having completed the seven-plus miles in just under 63 minutes, still in the driving rain.
The rain had given some signs of abating slightly over the last ten minutes or so, and I made the decision to shed my Salming shell for the final Alpine loop (It performed brilliantly; for an incredibly thin, light piece, it did a remarkable job against the rain and the wind, though it is not completely waterproof). I changed into a dry race shirt, my trusty Yard Owl jersey, but left my arm sleeves on; the summit was bound to be cold, and I didn't need a bout with hypothermia. I grabbed a few quick handfuls of food, took a deep breath to steel myself, and headed back out into the rain for the final loop.
Through the rain, a few runners were still gamely battling downhill, finishing their first loop. I turned the corner to head up the lower slopes, and there it was--a line of at least eight runners, laid out in front of me, over the next half mile. Slowly, I set about the task of picking them off, and slowly, it happened. Within the first mile, five of them or so; we grunted acknowledgement at each other and offered brief words of encouragement. About a mile up, I caught up with the familiar form of Mike King and his hiking poles; he fell in with me and we climbed together for awhile, but I was pressing the pace and solitary hikers kept appearing in the mist in front of me. I kept my head down and pushed on. My mantra became, "Purposeful movement”. After Saturday's brutal slog, I knew that not all hiking was equal; I had spent much of the previous morning moving listlessly uphill. Now, I focused on making each step strong and purposeful, in contrast to some of the flagging runners I saw ahead of me. Slowly, slowly, I drew them in. As we neared the summit, the conditions worsened. Fog had settled in over the mountaintop, limiting visibility to about a hundred feet. Gusting wind blew the rain sideways. But we were almost there. Just before the summit aid station, I made my tenth catch of the climb: my teammate Cole. He was clearly having a tough time in the conditions, but just the fact that I was anywhere near a runner of his caliber confirmed that I was going pretty well. I stopped inside the aid station for two cups of hot broth and a chance to tighten my shoelaces for the upcoming descent, and then I was back out in it, the fog and the wind and the rain, barreling down the rocky, muddy slope.
It was a terrifying descent. The wind gusts felt like they would blow me off the side of the mountain; I had to carry my hat to prevent it from blowing off my head. My hands were starting to go numb. The mud was mid-calf in spots, pockmarked with large rocks and tree stumps. Somehow I re-caught Cole and one of the other runners who had beaten me out of the aid station, re-passed them, and pulled away. The trail flattened out briefly and suddenly I was heading back up the access road toward Little Whiteface, the final climb of the day. I fell back into my rhythm, repeating in my head, purposeful movement, purposeful movement. I could hear the click click of Mike and his trekking poles behind me, but otherwise we seemed to be alone as we ascended to the top.
I left the final aid station about twenty seconds ahead of Mike and started attacking the final two-mile downhill stretch. The mud was insanely slippery, causing me to slide several feet with each stride. Twice I fell flat on my back but fortunately popped right back up, miraculously avoiding any of the rocks that would have caused me serious injury. I lost complete control of my balance down one stretch and careered out of control over a short rock escarpment, somehow finding footing on the other side and continuing downhill. I knew Mike would catch me--he had proved earlier to be a much smoother descender, and his poles lent him a decided advantage in stability--but I knew he had started the Flume loop several minutes ahead of me. If I could keep it close, I should have enough time in hand to preserve my placing.
He did catch me, about halfway down the hill, and we ran together for awhile. I locked onto his pace at best as I could, trying to walk the fine line between safety and aggression, until finally the base station came into view, and I relaxed, letting Mike open up a small gap. I cruised across the line in a cumulative time of 4:44:19, relieved to be finished and pretty pleased with how the day had turned out.
Ultimately Jan and Ian decided to use the cumulative time as the official results, since using the 2-loop splits hadn't altered the scoring places at all for the top seven or eight runners. My 2-loop performance was actually fairly solid, leaving me less than 15 seconds behind women's leaders Kasie Enman and Stevie Kramer, and barely a minute behind Ryan, in tenth place. For a course that far outside of my comfort zone, against mountain runners of their caliber, I thought it was a very good result.
Much kudos to Jan and Ian for putting on such an amazing event. On that course, in those conditions, I would've expected a miserable experience. The fact that I actually enjoyed it is a testament to their skill as race directors.
The race left my legs absolutely brutalized. I've taken most of the last two weeks off to recover from that weekend and from the cumulative effects of a mostly successful first six months of 2015. I'm ready to get back to training and building up for some fall races (I won't race again until probably September), but unfortunately I messed up my back something major a couple of days ago and am just now able to get around after two days in bed. So...stay tuned.