I went into the Whiteface Sky Running weekend with pretty mixed emotions. Having recently relocated from a life in the central Cascade Mountains in Washington State, I was beyond excited to have found a race that runs you straight up a mountainside, and, well, a second one that runs you straight up a mountainside, then around some of New York’s finest single-track, then back up that mountainside.
My emotions were “mixed” because I also knew that in the months leading up to this race my best attempt at “hill training” was running up my current neighborhood hill, which rises almost 100’ in a half mile. I also knew that I spent two weeks “tapering” leading into race weekend because…I’m not sure why I did that.
And then there was the weather. Something about central Washington’s endless sun and dry climate must have turned me into a fare-weather runner! This was not exactly the weekend for fare weather. Depending on the source, the forecast for the weekend was rain, 40 degrees, and windy, with wind gusts up to 60 mph, to say nothing of the weather at the top of the mountain.
The morning of the Vertical K (which did not start until 10am) I was torn between running the race and heading out into the Adirondack woods from some good ol’ rock climbing. Around 8:30am I decided that what I really wanted was to run the race. Well, that lack of preparation left me little time for breakfast. I think I ate a banana with some almond butter. But let me clarify: to this body that is but a small snack. I was famished. I exaggerate, but I was very hungry and decidedly didn’t do much about it. Regardless, it was a beautiful sunny day and I knew we weren’t getting two of those in one weekend. So with the help of dear teammate Scotie Jacobs, I made it to the start line and immediately was reminded of that gloriously disgusting feeling of running straight up hill.
And somehow I managed to make it to the top, despite the hunger. I don’t exactly remember much about those 2.5 miles, except that they were excruciating and all I could think about were the days when I used to gain 3,000’ in 3 miles literally from my front door. Oh, mountain living! Well, the top was a sight. The views were phenomenal and my teammates are better than ever. After the race and while still on the mountain, we convinced ourselves that we could not descend before climbing the final 500’ to the true summit. More spectacular 360-degree views. From there we had a friendly partial descent to the gondola and gladly accepted the escort back to the base.
The rest of Saturday was spent lazing around the lodge and helping co-race director Ian Golden relocate the start/finish area for Sunday’s race. Needless to say, not enough food was consumed on Saturday afternoon.
Let’s jump to Sunday. We wake up around 5 am. It’s pouring. Scotie leaves our motel room to go help get the aid stations set up and I am left in a reception-less motel room keeping faith that my pal Dominic will remember to come pick me up and bring me to the race. Of course he remembers. Dominic and I arrive at the lodge; the rain seems to only get more furious. At least it doesn’t feel windy yet. Naturally, my unpreparedness leaves me scampering around the lodge frantically asking friends and strangers alike for extra clothing – tights, a long-sleeve base layer, gloves??! Please!? I’m not sure my favorite purple ensemble of race shorts and Patagonia Houdini are going to suffice for this race’s weather forecast. At least this morning I ate a proper breakfast, though I still feel hungry from unsubstantial caloric intake on Saturday.
I was very fortunate to find one long-sleeved base layer and an extra rain layer. I stowed these away in my drop bag for safe keeping should I need them after the first climb and descent. And just in the nick of time, because now co-race director Jan Wellford is counting down the final minute to race start. And we’re off.
We start up basically the same route from yesterday. I know I should take it easy and save some gusto for the second climb; in my mind I keep replaying my friend’s advice to keep my heart rate low on that first climb. I can’t. All I can do is plow up that mountainside as fast my little legs can take me. I can’t think about the second climb right now; I can’t imagine saving anything for that second climb. I just go.
It’s pouring harder than ever. And now, less than half-way up the mountain, the field of runners splits. I see most of the field heading up and to the right; one girl heads up left and calls to another behind her that the course is “this way!” I agree. Helping Ian out the day before I’d been informed that Sunday’s race would take us up a slightly longer, slightly less-steep route than Saturday’s race. Most of the field is trudging straight up the mountain, as we had the day before. I go left, and very few people follow.
As I climb, the air gets colder and the rain feels harder. Eventually my fingers go numb and I find a very comforting mantra: I tell myself over and over and over “I am warm and my fingers are warm. I am warm and my fingers are warm.” I think it worked. But my mind is also spinning: what of the race?! How on earth are Ian and Jan going to manage this race when half the field runs one course and half the field runs the other? Those thoughts occupy my mind all the way to the top where we hit the first aid station. I get in the hut, give my bib number and ask for soup because I can’t feel my fingers. The soup hasn’t been warmed yet. Okay, how about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? (Ever the hungry runner...) Those haven’t arrived yet. Okay, I split.
I start barreling down the mountain as fast as I can. I need to get warm! Yeah, cool your jets, save something for the second descent. I can’t. I don’t know how. Downhill is my ecstasy. I must have picked off twenty runners coming down that first hill, a few of them women. I’m elated. Now, about halfway down, I remember that the grade lessens ahead and I’m ready to pick up speed into that base lodge aid station where we started.
“Right! Go Right! Go Right!!”
What?! If I go right I go back up!
“Go Right! The course goes right. Gondola aid station at the top of this climb!” scream the course marshals.
I rarely do, but I had actually looked at this course map before the race. As the lingo goes in the climbing world, I like to “flash” my races – run the course having never seen it done before and knowing nothing about the route. Well, this race I wasn’t “flashing”, but I sure as heck erased this mid-mountain second ascent from my memory!
Holy smokes. Back uphill. Well, at least by the time I got to the gondola aid station the soup was hot. And I needed it.
Okay, down, finally down to that base lodge. I couldn’t have been more fortunate to find Scotie there, arms and ears ready to replenish my race vest and fuel my spirits for the next leg. And thank goodness, because I still had fully functionless fingers. Scotie did it all – refilled my bottles, fed me, even took the shirt off my back and dressed me in that dry long sleeve! Oh and did that dry shirt feel wonderful. (Though, in hindsight, I should have just worn that long sleeve for the whole race. I must have spent a good 10 minutes of the race changing wardrobe! Lesson learned….I hope!).
Back out, this time to the single-track mountain bike loop. I have a nasty pebble in my shoe. Again good fortune befalls me. Ithaca friends happen to appear at the next aid station (which oddly enough can’t be even one full mile from the lodge aid station). As my fingers are only just beginning to feel the pulse of blood, I hastily pull over and ask my friend to untie my shoe and knock out that pebble. And he does. What relief!
I make it out to the mountain bike trails, but with all this time spent lolly-gagging at the aid stations, I’ve now been passed by at least a few of those gals I’d passed on the downhill. And relatively flat, rolling hills are not my forte. I never see a few of those women again all day! Dang! Worse yet, I get passed by another lady just as we’re coming out of the single-track and heading back to the lodge aid station. Well, I intend to get her on our upcoming big ascent. Oh, and let me say, that flume loop – as it was called in the race – now holds the high honor of being my favorite single-track trail in New York State. That was phenomenal running.
Back into the lodge aid station we go. And what do I find but smiley-faced Jay Lemos. Let’s recall that Jay just ran an incredibly tough race only seven days prior: Manitou’s Revenge. This 54-miler runs from Windham, NY to Phoenicia, NY following some of the gnarliest trail in the Catskill Mountains. And here he is, more than halfway through this Sky Marathon, looking like a million bucks. We head out together for that second climb up Whiteface Mountain.
I take the lead and Jay comments on what a good pace I’m keeping – by good he means slow: “If I were out here by myself I’d probably be going a lot faster, but I’d be toast by the time I got to the top!” I can’t respond because I’m moving as fast as my body can feasibly take me. I’m not thinking about pace; I’m thinking about forward movement. I’m not thinking about how I’ll feel at the top; I’m trying my hardest to take one more step. Jay must be thinking about the top. My present lack of conversational capabilities and my “good” pace…Jay takes off. He charges up that mountain like he’d never run before and just realized how great it feels! He is gone!
So, after a momentary companionship, I find myself making the final climb entirely by myself. And the weather is quite possibly the worst it’s been all day. At the bottom of the mountain it was arguably warm, and the rain had lightened. Here, halfway up the mountain, the rain starts in again and the gusty winds that had been forecasted finally show their faces. At one point the wind gusts up from behind me so strongly that I hardly have to exert effort to move upward. At another point the wind comes at me sideways and I can barely move forward. And yeah, I’m cold, again. At least today I’m well-fed, and I’ve just consumed an entire peanut-butter and jelly sandwich (yes, four of those little squares).
Let’s get past the misery. The summit aid station. Thank goodness! And yes, this time the soup is hot. Oh yeah, and I did pass that girl I intended to pass. She’s somewhere behind me now and I should maybe be concerned that she’ll catch me again, but all I can do is find respite in this warm little summit shack with hot soup and (we’ll call it fresh) water. I hunker down for a few minutes, eat a few bowls of soup. Okay, I’d better get going or I’ll never leave. And good timing. Of course that girl’s just reaching the summit as I start my final descent. Well, at least we’re descending. I worry little about anyone catching me on the downhill.
I catch Jay at the start of that brutal final uphill to the gondola aid station. I let him know he’s fast, and he lets me know he’s been “taking it easy” on the downhill. Not a bad idea considering he just descended several thousand of the toughest miles New York State has to offer a mere seven days ago. He gets ahead of me again on this climb. When I make it to the aid station I check in and then get right to the downhill. I can’t wait to be done!
I catch Jay again on the downhill. He lets me know it’s really hard for him to take it easy on the downhills when he sees me descending. And so he stops “taking it easy”. We descend a couple hundred feet together. This must actually be the hardest part of the course. The second descent down absolutely trashed rocky, grassy, waist-deep mud. Jay and I can hardly stay upright. Every single step we both slip and slide and fall. Finally he zooms past me shouting, “new method: mud skiing!” And he does. I watch as Jay, for the third time, peels away from me, literally jumping and “skiing” down this mudslide. I try to do the same but I can barely manage the ski. This dude is seriously impressive.
The last bit of descent I try my hardest to catch Jay one last time. But I can’t, that man is flying. It takes nearly all of my mental faculty to keep my footing in those final hundred feet of descent, to not fall over due to entirely fatigued quad muscles. And finally that base lodge comes back into sight. What sweet glory. I keep ripping as fast as my dead legs will carry me, still hoping I have any chance of crossing that finish line with Jay. He gets in a few seconds ahead of me. I come across that finish line with what I think is the biggest smile I’ve ever had on my face when crossing a finish line. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to finish a race, so happy for the wild adventure that just concluded. I’ve just been reminded of that sweet, sweet elation that is mountain running.
Thank you Ian and thank you Jan! What a great race!