Last Saturday, I ran up Mt. Washington (getting an entry is a feat unto itself, then you have to run 7.6 miles uphill with a 4696′ vertical gain (assume your half marathon time and maybe a touch more). At the start, I heard people sharing their strategy: run the first three miles, then walk/run. Walk/run the whole way. Power-walk it.
My ultrarunning crowd says to walk the hills; you’re going the same speed as anyone running it, but conserving energy. I tried this and passed a lot of people (I walked, they ran).
Due to injury, I’d been unable to train. I don’t mean training on hills. I mean running at all. Two miles into any run, my tendonitis kicked in. I gave up months ago and knew this race — this getting to the finish line — would be a crapshoot.
Anyway, it’s up up up, no break, no flats, just up. At least it was shady for the first three or so miles (fact: I’ve done a lot of hiking in the Whites but have only been up Mt. Washington once, on foot, in winter, never by the auto road).
Occasionally, after mile five, I gave my calf injury a break and walked backwards a lot (hey, guy who said the relief was “all in my head,” nope. It was real. It gave my calf a rest and used my quads for a change and then maybe I passed you, but even if I didn’t, well, walking up backwards gave my injury some rest, so…).
Around mile 5, soon after that section of dirt road started (slightly steeper), I stuffed in one earbud and turned on my iPod shuffle to “Defying Gravity.” I tried to sing along but had little lungs left at that point. A guy in a Reykjavik Marathon t-shirt said, “Good for you!” as I tried to choke out the words. But what I thought about was me, defying gravity, taking a leap after way too long to save myself.
I looked over the edge of that mountain road, suffering and wishing for it to stop, and I recognized how much strength I have summoned over the past year and how much I’ve had to turn away from and hold my head high, and how much I’ve given up and just how much I have gained.
I thought about how calm and happy I am now, and how hard I have fought for that.
I ran as hard as I could, give the circumstances — OK, I walked. And yes, I got badly sunburned in the process. It’s a metaphor. I can survive this burn. I can survive this endless hill that is a metaphor for everything right now. I am strong enough.
At some point, slightly dizzy and hoping for a break (I don’t do well with sun and heat), I sat down on a rock and put my head down between my legs. A person in our group (with whom I’d started, he having done the race several times and planning to take it slow, me having no idea what to expect from myself and intending to go it alone), came by and said “hi.” I felt obliged to get up and walk/run with him for a while, but his race strategy wasn’t mine, and I let him go on ahead.
Turns out before he’d come upon me on my rock, he’d come upon another person in our group, also untrained and sitting on a rock. And he got him back up running, too.
I was going to get up again, anyway. I always do. I knew there’s no exit on the Mt. Washington Road Race. I wasn’t about to hang out in the blaring sun on the side of the road waiting for the road to re-open so I could hitch a ride. I knew I’d get up there to the top.
Eventually, near the very very end, the road leveled out for about two-tenths of a mile, and it was glorious, and I saw some of our group.
Then I looked up. It was only about four minutes of hell in front of me, but it was some seriously steep road (steep) that I had to get up before I could cross the finish line.
Did I dive deep and run up that hill and switchback to get there?
Hell no. I was sunburned and hot and had a terrible dehydration headache, despite drinking at every single water stop, and I decided that since I wouldn’t make the sub-two-hour mark, forget it. I’d get there when I got there.
Then for the last 30 feet or so (I could be wrong about that distance) it was somewhat level and I managed to run to get myself across the beautiful finish line.
And that, dear people, is what it is like to run up the Mt. Washington Auto Road in blazing sun on a warm day when you are injured and haven’t been able to train and are going through a lot, life-wise.
The only other time I’ve summited Mt. Washington was in the middle of winter, and we came up Lion Head trail with snowshoes and crampons, and it was cold and snowy and beautiful, and we were careful to keep an eye on each other for signs of hypothermia — a very different scenario.
Do I want to do it again? Yes.
(With more sun protection next time…)