For reasons I can’t articulate well, I signed up for the Loon Mountain Race weekend before last (July 3). It’s a NE Mountain Running Championship race. Or the championship. To pick people for the U.S. Mountain Running Team.
I had no fantasies of even meeting people on the team, let alone running anywhere near them, but it can be fun to race
near far behind the elites.
I hadn’t been running much, and I hadn’t been running any hills, and while I’ve done several trail races, I had never done a mountain race. It’s a whole different thing.
It was spectacular. The race had a really good feel to it, in terms of overall vibe — laid-back but mostly well-coordinated. The route was great. The trails were gorgeous. There was some not-quite-single-track through the woods (the nordic ski trails), with plenty of mud. There was up. There was down. There were cross-mountain views that made me want to throw out my arms and sing “The Hills Are Alive.” There was steep up on loose fill. Not gravel, not dirt, but what can only be described as “loose fill.” Have you ever tried to run up steep loose fill that’s slipping away under your feet?
Then there was a long steep uphill. The woman next to me, a three-time Loon racer, warned me there’d be a big downhill before Upper Walking Boss, the last big uphill (at a 40% grade). She was really nice. And then we crested our hill and she was gone. I don’t know how anyone runs downhill that fast without just falling and rolling, but she flew. I struggled along behind and then started up the Boss.
I knew to use my core and stay upright and push my hips toward the hill, but I’d been doing that for more than an hour and my core was TIRED. Imaging holding plank pose for a week or something. Yeah. Looking up, it was clear there was no human way to climb that grassy wall that looked about five miles high. And I couldn’t physically walk right up it.
I turned sideways. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. Backwards. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. Sideways the other way. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. Forwards. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight.
I kept on like this until I finally looked down and realized I’d somehow gotten halfway up! So what if I looked like an insane spinning person. I was getting up that mountain as fast as I could. Which was, to be honest, no faster than the people just walking up it. It’s possible some of them passed me when I stopped to rest.
Kept counting. Changed count to six. Changed count to four. A sign indicated 100m to go. It looked like a few miles, honestly.
Got to a cheering crowd at a crest. [Links will take you to Scott Mason’s official race photos.]
“Where’s the finish? Over this crest?”
“One more crest! You’ve got it!”
Random guy to plodding me: “Pump your arms like you’re running!”
Right. I couldn’t possibly run but there was no reason to trudge like I was headed to hell. I pumped my arms. It helped a ton.
Second crest. Cheering crowds. Was this the finish? Cowbells.
Timing clock was up above some scree. Up there. No one’s up there. Not even a “Finish” sign. I kept going. Timing clock. Dying. Moon landscape. I crossed two timing mats and the clock.
“I’m DONE! I’M DONE I’M DONE I DON’T HAVE TO GO UPHILL ANYMORE I CAN STOP I’M DONE!”
That was me. Some guy was pouring cups of water. I stood by him and drank and drank and cheered that I was done.
I went back down to the upper crowd to cheer in friends and strangers. A woman came hobbling up the hill, limping badly, lurching side to side. I threw down my water and went to her side to run her in. “Hey, you’re almost there. The worst is over. The finish is just up there. You’re gonna be OK. Let’s just get up this part. We’re almost there. See the clock? Come on. You’re doing great. Keep it going. Come on.” She crossed the finish line; I ducked out just before the timing mats and got her some water.
And that was that. My friend Dana had very kindly gotten up early to drive me from our campsite to the race and bought a gondola ticket to be near the top to cheer me and take pics (but somehow we never saw each other, whatever). I got conflicting info on where she was and ended up walking almost halfway down Upper Walking Boss before realizing I’d be insane to go further down, because I’d only have to go up again.
I found her at the gondola. We rode to the bottom and she gave me a beer (I know! What a friend!!). I got her a bagel with peanut butter. Her tired dog slept. I sat through the awards ceremony (a 12-year-old girl finished 6th in women). Then our campsite pals met us and we all spent the afternoon hanging out by the river.
Now I want to do more mountain races….and some hill training, too.