2015 Whiteface Sky Running Weekend in the ADK by Ben Nephew!
When Ian Golden announced that he and Jan Wellford were organizing a Sky Marathon & Vertical K at Whiteface, I was thrilled. While some think I am a Massachusetts native due to the interwebs, I spent my first 19 years in Plattsburgh, NY, just north of Wilmington (despite the fact that the North Pole is in Wilmington). I spent much of my summers hiking in the Adirondacks, and winters included plenty of ski trips to Whiteface. While I was originally going to only run the marathon on Sunday, everyone seemed to be doing both races, and it would be odd being the only one fresh. For years I ran the Mount Washington Road and then ran a trail half marathon up Mount Greylock, the highest peak in MA, and I always did well at Greylock. I also wanted to support my MPF RNR team as much as possible and help make this new event a success. A week before the race, I discovered that several of the best Skyrunners, Tom Owens and Tofol Castanyer, were signed up for both races. They were joining their Salomon teammates Stevie Kremer and Kasie Enman. To be brief, Tom and Tofol are highly decorated mountain runners with Tom just earning 4th place at the IAU Trail World Championships, Tofol was 2nd at UTMB last year, Stevie is a two-time Skyrunning World Champion, and Kasie is a former World Mountain Running champion.
Vertical Kilometer (Saturday)
My hill workouts and climbing during my ultras have been going well over the past few months, so I was excited to see how I would do in my first vertical K. At the very least, I would be able to gauge my fitness against Joe Gray, who just set the American record at the Mount Washington Road race. The Whiteface VK course does not mess around, 3300’ of climb in only 2.5 miles, with several sections over 40% grade. The start was somewhat aggressive, and I gradually backed off the top 5 guys, hoping to have a strong last mile, the steepest section of the course. As I began to notice how warm it was getting in the sun on the open ski slopes, Stevie Kremer and David Hunt passed on my left. I latched onto David, but Stevie was gone. I managed to pass David, but then could not maintain any momentum and he passed me back. In addition to the brute physiological challenge of the incline, the footing was rough and you had to think about every foot placement in some sections. This is not the easiest thing to do when your heart rate is in the stratosphere and you are breathing through your ears.
The final half mile required some use of your hands and the traverse of a field of knurled shrubs. I just about fell over. Joe Gray had an impressive run for the win, and it was great to see Tristan Williams from NH run well for 3rd. Stevie was only 4 minutes behind Joe in 6th, and I finished in 8th in 44 minutes. I would have liked to be closer to Joe, but as soon as I checked out the view from the top of the course, I wasn’t all that concerned. As you can see from the photos (105+), it was a perfect day up there and the views of the Adirondacks, Lake Champlain, and the Green Mountains of VT were truly impressive. Whiteface is so far removed from the rest of the Adirondack high peaks that it seems much higher than it is. It felt as if we were at 6-7k feet rather than 4400’.
After catching my breath from the effort and scenery, I started back down the course to cheer on Steph and my nephew, Christopher, who was running his first trail race at 13 years old! It didn’t take long before Steph crested the headwall and was making her way towards the finish in 1:02 and 11th place in the women’s race. She looked really strong, and probably had a better split for the last 200 meters than I did! I then headed down the course a few hundred feet to cheer on the other competitors and wait for Christopher. I could not imagine doing the VK at 13, and we were so impressed when he agreed to race without hesitation. I did get nervous waiting for him, though, as I realized that he only races 3k in modified XC and this was 4k straight up. Before long, he came powering around the corner, maintaining a steady pace on the steepest part of the course. Before the race, I guessed that Christopher would finish in 1:30, and that was exactly his time. They didn’t have age groups for the race, but he was the third under 18 runner to finish. A 3300’ climb in 90 minutes at 13 years, that is seriously impressive!
After the race we hung out for a while and then headed back to my parent’s house in Plattsburgh for dinner. Amy Hanlon, her daughter Abby, and Joe Azze joined us for my Mom’s Michigan's, which I think were key to my race on Sunday. While my legs didn’t feel all that tired from the VK, I passed out on the couch after dinner before I knew what happened, and somehow woke up at 3:45 without an alarm to get ready for the Sky marathon.
Sky Marathon (Sunday)
After some toast and plenty of coffee, I jumped in the car to drive through the rain back to Whiteface. It wasn’t until halfway into the drive that I realized that the race could be shortened or cancelled altogether considering the weather. It was absolutely pouring, and thunderstorms would surely cancel the event given the exposure on the ski trails. In the end, we were lucky the race went ahead as planned, and it was good call by Ian, Jan, and the folks at Whiteface.
This was a strange race for me, as I have never had to wear a jacket, and I’ve also never resorted to the Inov-8 Mudclaw sole for traction. Even at the IAU race in Connemara Ireland, which was incredibly wet and steep, I only needed Roclites, and former UTMB winners complained about the difficulty of the terrain on that course. I debated wearing a jacket, but knowing it was in the 40’s with 30-40mph winds up top, I did not hesitate very long. Although a was bit risky, I went with a pair of Arctic Talons, a new orienteering shoe with Mudclaw lugs and 14 tungsten carbide spikes for the race. I had put a few miles on them, but no real long runs.
We started right on time, and I instantly felt the VK in my legs on the first steep climb. They did not feel dead, but they certainly did not have that tapered spring as I watched Silas and Cole run away, and my calves were a bit sore from the ridiculous grade on Saturday. I must have been somewhere around 10th place for much of the climb. The plan was to conserve as much effort as possible during the first alpine loop of 6 miles and 4300’ of climb to have enough for the second round of that massive loop. Just ponder that for a moment, 6 miles and 4300’ of climb and descent.
While I wanted to be conservative, I was also in denial about my weak climbing from the VK, and I knew I was in better shape than that. I wasn’t stupid enough to try and get up with Joe, Tom, and Tofol, but I did try to stay in contact. We ended up climbing the VK due to the fact the course workers could not get to an intersection in time (they probably stopped running the gondola due to the wind), so I can compare my climbing on Saturday with Sunday. From my Strava track, I was about a minute from the top when Joe and Tofol came bounding down, with Tofol yelling that there was no one at the top. Well, it is raining buckets, 45 degrees, 40-50mph winds; they probably just didn’t want to come out of the hut.
I ran into Tom Owens, who had taken a bit of wrong turn right near the top of the VK course, and we battled the wind up to the top of the VK course. I reached the top in 45:34, only 90 seconds slower than my VK performance. I was not looking at my watch at all at the time; you could not take your eyes off the ground. I followed Tom until we hit the oncoming runners, and he took off. I lost him in the mist and just tried to focus on not destroying my quads for the rest of the race while making my way through all the climbers. Thanks to the folks who stepped aside or offered their backs for support, or at least seemed to do that. Jumping over runners during a race, that might have been a first. I passed a few runners on that initial downhill, and started the second climb up to Little Whiteface in 7th place.
The second climb started with a moderate grade on rough gravel that progressively steepened until a turn onto a steep grassy ski slope. I slowly reeled in another couple of runners during this climb and pulled away on the steep slopes towards the top. I did not stop at the hut, but just went straight to the descent. This downhill started with a very tricky hole that you had to jump in to reach the ski slope below. It then became more runnable, with a flatter section that had become a full-blown river with the incessant rain. I was trying to balance aggressive downhill running with not getting injured, which is hard to do when you are in the early stages of a race and can’t see anyone in front or behind you. My conservatively fast approach resulted in a steady descent with one fall that was on a section so steep that I just bounced off my water bottle in my waist pack right back onto my feet. The sky started to clear towards the bottom, and I spotted Tristan up ahead in 4th place.
I reached the base lodge shortly after Tristan, finishing the first Alpine loop in 1:25. This seemed a little quick, but there was nothing to be done about it at that point. I asked Tristan if he was done with his warm up loop, and we headed out on the Flume loop together. He then pulled away and I let him go and settled into my own pace. The second Alpine loop was surely going to take a massive effort. While the Flume loop was certainly easier running, it was harder than I expected. There were a few smooth sections of trail, but most of it was rocks and high roots on trails that constantly undulated on a winding route through the trees. There was not much relaxing going on, especially since I was convinced that everyone ahead and behind me had greater leg speed and was hammering this section. In addition to the technical footing, several sections were underwater. The last climb on this loop, while only 550’, took considerable effort after all the faster running. Of course, it was followed by a steep descent with grades up to 40% to complete the tenderizing of the quads for the final Alpine tour. My time for the 6.5 mile Flume loop was 56 minutes.
I grabbed my last bottle of Coke with fresh lime (I’m organic) and thought about stripping down to just shorts for the final 6 miles. I imagined the summit, and kept my shirt and jacket on. I was able to spot Tristan in the early stages of the climb, but he had a solid lead on me and was moving well. On this last loop, we would take a less direct route to the summit up Excelsior, a winding intermediate trail that leads to Paron’s Run, another intermediate trail that follows a ridge to the summit of the ski area. The more gradual grades were encouraging; I was almost deluded into thinking I was moving quickly. By now, the trail was a river that got colder with increasing elevation. My feet were freezing and my hands were not much better. I began to wonder if it was snowing up top. The mile leading to the top featured increasing winds which were sucking the heat out of me. It must have been gusting 60mph as I ran doubled over towards the hut. Someone opened the door like a scene out of the Perfect Storm and asked if I needed something. I just said I really needed to get down. It was the type of weather you can’t really afford to hang around in very long without becoming one with the mountain.
At this point, there was no holding back on the descent which was now even slicker from all the runners. I had to focus on every single foot placement, and a good percentage of those were accompanied by a prayer that there was something somewhat solid under the water, grass, moss, and/or mud. In general, my prayers to the Lord of Iceface were answered, and when they were not, the Arctic Talons saved me from massive destruction. It was so wet and steep that I was kicking water and mud 6 feet in front of me and then running down through it. By the time I reached the turn for the last climb up to Little Whiteface I was thankful for the mental break from descending. I ran as much of that climb as possible and could barely lift my feet to run around the hut at the top. I was bouncing the needle off the red line the entire climb. The last 1.8 miles of this roller coaster started with a 1400’ drop in the first mile, and another 1000’ in the last 0.8 mile. I ran 8:26 for the first mile, and 6:03 pace down the final 0.8. I had one 20’ slide on my feet, but other than that did not fall during the descent.
I finished in 3:51:19 for fifth place behind Tom, Tofol, Tristan, and Joe. My family barely got to the base lodge in time, as I had guessed it would take me 4-5 hours. My final Alpine loop was 1:30, which compares well with my first loop of 1:25 considering it was about 0.5 miles longer. I was 6 minutes slower on the first climb, and about 30 seconds slower on the climb to Little Whiteface. Tom’s winning time of 3:31 is quite impressive for a 19 mile race with 10k of climb, on those trails, in a monsoon. It was a great opportunity to be able to run against Tom, Tofol, and Joe, although I do wish we all would have either raced or not raced the VK.
I want to thank Ian Golden and Jan Wellford for making this Whiteface Skyrunning weekend happen, it was an incredible success and I hope it continues to grow next year. I was thrilled to be able to share the race with both Steph and Christopher, and maybe Gavin will do the VK next year. The volunteers deserve badges of courage for working on Sunday; that was above and beyond the call of duty! Thanks to the Whiteface Ski Area and ORDA for allowing us access to a mountain that has few peers. It was awesome having all our MPF RNR teammates at the races to suffer together and/or cheer us on, and Joe Azze once again provided us with outstanding pics and video to trigger PTSD symptoms!