"The Alpine Stress Test” The 2017 Whiteface Sky Run by Ben Nephew
There is nothing quite like the Whiteface Sky Racing weekend. Not only does it have the only vertical K in the Northeast on Saturday, the Sky Race on Sunday has another two VK’s! My goal for this year’s Sky Race was to run faster, mostly through stronger climbing and a more consistent Flume loop between the two VK’s. For once, we were going to get some decent weather, although the storms the past two years sure made for some fun!
The race started off with Alex Ricard and Matt Lipsey going to the front and setting an aggressive pace. This was expected, and I settled into 3rd, hoping to maintain a reasonable gap to the top. I was about 30 seconds faster than last year, which was good, but I was hoping for another 30-60 seconds. Matt must have made it up in about 39 minutes, which is ridiculous, as Joe Gray won the VK in 38:15 two years ago.
I seemed to be by myself on the descent, and tried to find the correct balance of aggression, safety, and smart pacing on the brutally steep trail. Whenever the route seems to back off on the insanely steep scale, you see flags for a left turn that ensures you keep going straight down the mountain and bypass anything that remotely resembles a switchback. I thought I had tightened my shoes enough, but you can never tighten your shoes enough at Whiteface, and my toes were starting to connect with the front of my shoes. I was wearing Oroc 280’s instead of Arctic Talon 275’s, and the Orocs had a bit less protection on the loose rocks, which was unfortunate.
I made it to the base in 1:02, similar to last year, grabbed my bottle, and headed out on the Flume loop. This five mile section is mostly unrelenting small hills which make it challenging to maintain a fast pace after 2-3 miles. I worked on maintaining my momentum, while also saving some for the second VK loop. I ended up starting the second VK at 1:52, about a minute behind my split from last year. It had felt faster…
The last VK loop is always a torture fest, but this year it was paired with a racing nightmare. I had had not seen anyone for over an hour, and as I looked back down the first part of the climb, I saw not one, not two, but 4 guys hammering up the slope, not more than 1-2 minutes behind. That extra minute on the Flume loop would have been nice. I now had to hope my brain had been sandbagging my legs on the Flume, and that I could run away from all 4 chasers. I was sure Jason Bryant was one of them, and I was also sure he was running an intelligently pace raced. I just wanted to suffer by myself, and maybe get the gift of an implosion from Matt or Alex.
I didn’t want to panic, crank up the pace, and then die, but I also did not want to open the door and encourage my chasers by allowing them to gain ground. I spent as much time at redline as I dared, running inclines I hoped they would hike. After about halfway up, I saw that two of the racers had dropped back, but there were still two guys uncomfortably close, including Jason. In addition to being a smart racer, Jason is extremely fast on the downhill. Racing down from the summit is one of the more painful experiences in racing, like doing a maximum weight squat during a 10.0 earthquake.
My respiration rate was in the asthma attack range as I pushed the last few tenths to the summit, where you can see me asking how early I can turn to descend in the race photo. I did not want to have to take a single unnecessary uphill step. My legs were unstable as I started down, and I almost took a major spill on a rock slab 100 meters from the top. I spotted Jason on his way up, and I seemed to have a large enough lead to maintain 3rd unless he jumped on a full suspension mountain bike.
When I realized that Matt and Alex were gone, and that Jason was unlikely to catch me, I backed off the pace. I rarely do this, along with not doing training races. I think there is a risk of getting into bad racing habits, and at the very least it makes it hard to accurately assess a race performance. However, I saw no point in hammering my quads into pulled pork for a minute or two. Been there, done that at Manitou’s (Ben’s 2017 Manitou’s Revenge Race Report) where it was absolutely necessary after over 10 hours of racing, and it was possible that effort had a subconscious effect at Whiteface. I finished in 3:07:20, about 85 seconds slower than last year. I could have run a couple minutes faster down, but it would not have changed my placing. The legs hurt enough with the 22 minute drop of 3400’.
Matt won in 2:51, almost breaking the CR without anyone to push him for most of the race unlike the battle between Michael Barlow and Ryan Atkins resulting in the CR last year. Alex ran a strong 3:01 for second, and Jason was at 3:10 for 4th. Let me just state that Matt’s 2:51 is world class. The splits you need to put together for that turn my stomach. I will point out that at the 2015 Whiteface Sky Race, I beat Matt by 33 minutes. I mention this because it makes me feel better, and maybe because it shows an impressive level of improvement by young Matt. We talked about seeing each other at Escarpment in three weeks, and I mentioned I probably would not see him. He asked why I wasn’t running, and I informed him that I was running, but a Whiteface type performance would result in him running by himself for the entire race.
After I finished, I took the boys up the hill to cheer for Steph, who was also running due to the rare instance of having someone to babysit during a race. Although saying the downhill was not her cup o’ tea would be putting it mildly, she climbed strongly and made it down both times with two intact ankles. Now, the hills at the SOS triathlon won’t seem all that big!
Congratulations to all the finishers, now be nice to your legs the rest of the year. Thanks to Jan Wellford, Ian Golden, all the volunteers, and Whiteface for putting on the most vertically intensive race around, where no one can hide from their own aerobic fitness level or tolerance for gravity induced abuse. Whiteface: the alpine stress test.