Love is the Mt. Washington Road Race

This is a flipping hard race!

See a neato slideshow here.

Click on the image to see a neato slideshow.

Not even a half mile in people were vocalizing their regret, both in the flowery local vernacular, as well as through extremely labored breath and heart-felt grunts. That said, it wasn’t nearly has hard as I’d imagined it would be, and it was multiple times more enjoyable. I was literally jumping for joy when I crossed the finish and saw my friend Shannon waiting there (you can ask him to verify that, I’m sure it was annoying).

I took pathetically few photos...I love my friends and should document their every move...

I took pathetically few photos…I love my friends and should document their every move…

Basically, what I’m saying is that I had a break-through run. I’ve been seriously contemplating not running anymore lately, and now I’m back to head-over-heels infatuation, even though I went into this out of shape and exhausted. Anyway, all this plus how awesome this race is means this post might reach what some call a “great american novel” length. So if you just want the stats hereyago:


The hardest part was actually when trying to put on a long-sleeved short amidst 55mph winds while still making forward progress and without sending myself back down the mountain, ass-over-teakettle. (I’m guessing here, I think the forecast was for 30-45mph, but it felt stronger, and Chicagoans have experience with wind). The windchill was probably around 34 degree’s (again, guessing, but I’m usually pretty good at this game) and if I’d known how close I was to the finish I wouldn’t have bothered with the shirt.

That sentiment right there was a large part of what made this event so excellent for me, even though I’ve climbed Mt. Washington 6 or 7 times (I’ve been trying, and have failed, to figure out the exact number), I’d never been up the auto-road before, so I didn’t really know how far along I was once we were above the treeline…and I either missed the mile 7 marker, or it had been blown over/away. (I went down the auto-road once, but it was too foggy to see anything.) Since I didn’t know what to expect mile by mile and I didn’t wear my Garmin and didn’t have a strategy other than to run by feel, and enjoy it all, I was forced to make performance decision by the step, and it was totally awesome.

Which brings me to my next point, in all those hikes when I was still living in New Hampshire, not once was I up there on such a clear day. Usually my view at the top was something like this:

This is a grey box. It represents fog. Which represents a not very great view from the top of a mountain.

This is a grey box. It represents fog. Which represents a not very great view from the top of a mountain.

But on Saturday the view was like this:

Actually, technically this isn't a view from the summit, but rather about 2 mi back down the auto road...forgive me.

Actually, technically this isn’t a view from the summit, but rather about 2 mi back down the auto road…forgive me.

This is just a few feet blow the official summit (we were getting into the car to descend) Meredith was a little cold. That's Wildcat Mountain in the backgroud. When you ski Wildcat you can see Tuckerman's Ravine, and when you ski Tuckerman's you can see Wildcat...kinda cool, I guess.

This is just a few feet below the official summit (we were getting into the car to descend) Meredith was a little cold. That’s Wildcat Mountain in the background. When you ski Wildcat you can see Tuckerman’s Ravine, and when you ski Tuckerman’s you can see Wildcat…kinda cool, I guess.

Alright, I’ve gotten carried away already, let me back way up here.

My family is from Maine, but my brother and I were raised, for the most part, in New Hampshire, I also went to college there. Here’s a house I lived in during the college years, because I know you want to know everything that is even remotely related to Saturday’s race:

Good old Plymouth State University

Good old Plymouth State University

And, without diving into too much self-disclosure and boring young adult woe-is-me-syndrome stories, My high school and college years weren’t my most well-adjusted, and when my folks moved down south in 2006, I wasn’t exactly heart-broken that I wouldn’t now have an obligation to visit New England, I was relieved, actually. But then last summer I went to Maine to visit family, and was totally blown away by how exactly opposite it was from my memory. You might remember this gem:


On our meandering path back to my friend’s house post race on Saturday, we stopped several times to give Meredith a nickel tour of the revenue generating part of our state (parks, trees, ski resorts, leaves that will later be differently colored, mountains, a face-less Old Man Of The Mountain). And I was reminded of how I spent probably 1/3 of most of my time from age 8 to age 24.

...and here you'll see to your left, the mountain where, a age 15, I broke my arm trying to force myself to get better a skiing moguls. Clearly, I still sucked at it.

…and here you’ll see to your left, the mountain where, at age 15, I broke my arm trying to force myself to get better at skiing moguls. Clearly, I still sucked at it.

My friends that grew up in Chicago often say “What did you DO in New Hampshire, weren’t you bored?”

Nope. It’s actually a little terrifying now to think about how much freedom I had as a kid. Here’s an example of how I spent most days after school, weekends, and summer vacations:


So, how did this race happen, for me, specifically? I remember when I first found out this event existed, it was 1998 and I ran my first 10k with a hiking buddy (I was 17), and afterwards, as we shared a pitcher of beer at the post-race party (relax, it’s NH, remember?) he told me about the Mt. Washington Road Race. I’d never heard of it before, and wanted to do it immediately. Apparently, “immediately” in this case meant 15 years later.

Auto Road Sign

This year my friend/run buddy Meredith set her primary running goal as basically getting her racing mojo back by doing novelty and bucket-list races, so I suggested we both enter the lottery for Mt. Washington. We both were selected (I suppose you’ve figured that out at this point), and it turned out to be perfect because my own running mojo as been at an all time low since April 15th.

Yes, this is a lottery race. Reportedly over 2,000 people enter the lottery every year, but only 1,300 are accepted, actually that’s a new field size, prior to 2013 the field was limited to 1,000. There is a way around the lottery. If you win, you get a free entry. I am going to resist the temptation to spew a lot of race history at you (you’re welcome), but here are some links if you’re interested:

Basic Race History from the MWRR site
MWRR records (including streakers who’ve run this race every year for over 30 years!)
Wikipedia (for some quickie stats)
An article full of trivia about the auto road

Ok, just give me your attention for one piece of trivia for the running geeks reading: did you know that BOTH John (J) Kelley and Jackie Gareau won BOTH the Boston Marathon AND the Mt. Washington Road Race? Well, now you do.

A line of cars descending the very large and meandering switchbacks down to the post-race lunch (droool).

A line of cars descending the very large and meandering switchbacks down to the post-race lunch (droool).

Exactly one month after Boston, we (Meredith and I) found out we were both in for the race which would be run exactly two month after Boston. And so we found ourselves, at noon last Friday, drinking whiskey doubles in the Cleveland airport (I’ll let you fill in the details here. Yes, I still live in Chicago).

Hi there.

Hi there.

I’ve been a bit overwhelmed for the last few months so planning this trip wasn’t something that got much attention. Fortunately, I have a couple of amazing friends from college who offered to basically take care of everything for us, which included: a place to stay, transport to and from the airport, a ride to the race, a ride back down from the summit, gluten-free dining options researched, tour guided scenery (yah, I’m losing my vocabulary), and a killer-amazing toddler to play with:

We have similar tastes in literature.

We have similar tastes in literature.

We landed at dinner time, and were up early Saturday morning to head to the mountain, which is well over an hour from where we were staying. We made a few quick stops, and cut it way too close to the start of the race. The race began at 9am and I think we got to the base of the mountain just shy of 8:30, which meant in order for Shannon to get up the auto-road ahead of us (so he could watch the finish and drive us back down) he needed to basically turn back time.

auto road warning

We knew that our bibs, once we collected them, would have auto road passes attached to them, but we also didn’t have time for Shannon to make the cut off for access to the road, and an email had been sent that had a document attached indicating it should be printed and displayed in cars going to the summit (it literally said “to the summit” on it). So we figured it was an exercise in redundancy and parted ways.

Turns out we were wrong, and in a series of brave and power-struggle laden acts, we managed to get our two bib-auto-road-passes to Shannon and he was the very last car to head up the road to the summit. That is, after he argued with race personnel who said that to transport TWO runners down the auto road post-race he would need THREE passes…which if correct I really don’t understand, are we runners meant to arm-wrestle other runners and the winner gets the losers auto-road pass?

And, what was the print-out for if not to serve as the drivers pass. (typically to use the auto road you pay $20 per person in the vehicle or something like that)

So the car thing was really stressful, is what I’m trying to say. But we made it to the start on time. Dave McGillivray, who is the race director for The Boston Marathon as well as the MWRR, gave a tear-jerking short speech and led a moment of silence to mark the 2 months passed since the bombing at Boston, and to remember that we’re all family, as runners, and we’re free to run, well, free.

Let's go! Have I forgotten to mention that the air smelled so good I could taste it?

Let’s go! Have I forgotten to mention that the air smelled so good I could taste it?

In a very clever move, the start is actually downhill. Hilarious.

Running an unconventional race like this is a lot like being diagnosed with a gastrointestinal disease (or two, as is my lucky case), everyone wants to give you unsolicited advice on how you should manage it. But as one runner put it: “There may only be one hill, but…there will be 1,300 paths taken to get there.”

As I mentioned above, I had no strategy for actually trying to get from start to finish a lot of people had run/walk ratio’s planned, where you run for a set number of steps of duration of time and then walk that same interval, and repeat. I totally see the logic to this strategy, and Meredith adopted a 20/20 (seconds) method and it worked out great for her!

Meredith, AB (me), and Erica warming up at the top! Click on this image to read Erica's awesome race recap!

Chicago Ladies! Meredith, AB (me), and Erica warming up at the top! Click on this image to read Erica’s awesome race recap!

This strategy would have been a poor fit for me, I really wanted to soak up my surroundings, both the mountain itself and my fellow racers. Also, 1) a method like that could become really aversive (read: annoying) after 30 minutes or so because 2) switching gears when running on flat roads is hard enough (don’t forget, I was running UP A DANG MOUNTAIN) and seems to use a lot more energy than plugging away at a steady pace. Also, 3) I had NO IDEA how this run was going to pan out, both in terms of the course and also how my body would react, and 4) slow and steady wins the race! Duh!

Yes, I really thought about all of these things in the 5 minutes before the official start of the race.

Within a few hundred yards after hitting the incline (the first mile seemed to be one of the steepest sections of the course), I thought how very similar to a stepmill it seemed. So I thought back to a few years ago, when I spent many hours every week on a stepmill at the gym where I was working while going to school for my masters degree. So I settled into a pace that felt like what I would do if I was going to spend an hour studying on a stepmill (I got really good at reading and using flashcards without falling off the ‘mill…with a few mishaps along the way).

This is a Stepmill. FYI.

Super scientific, I know. Yes, I will totally coach you for money.

Then, as the miles wore on, and the mountain didn’t relent, I just slowed down, or shortened my steps anytime my heart-rate or breathing moved to an uncomfortable intensity. In fact, I’m pretty sure my heart-rate and breathing stayed right around where they would for a run-of-the-mill long run.

I’m a behavior analyst, I make data-based decisions as a general rule, and observing your own physiology whilst attempting to run upwards nearly 5,000 feet across 7.6 miles, is data.

It worked for me, To prove it, I finally have race photos wherein I don’t look like I’m miserable! I was smiling! (trust me, that is a smile)

This is what it looks like when AB gets her running mojo back.

This is what it looks like when AB gets her running mojo back.

There was a clock at the halfway point, which for some reason I wasn’t expecting. Shoot, I was impressed (and grateful) there were mile markers even! It read something like 47 minutes when I got to it, which was exciting, as I’d assumed I would be closer to an hour at that point. I walked for the first time shortly after that, less out of fatigue and more out of curiosity. I knew that the terrain was more variable in terms of the grade of the road once we got above the tree-line, so walking at some point was inevitable and I wanted to be prepared for how difficult the run to walk to run transitions would be.

I walked about 10 times for, I think, no more than 15 – 30 seconds each time in the second half of the race. One of the fun parts of the race was actually that you’re constantly leap-frogging with other runners. Before I started taking walk breaks it took 3 – 5 walk/run cycles (the other runner) for me to pass a runner officially, so you sort of got to know people.

Finishing 221 out of 1086 runners, was a WAY better ranking than I expected. My quasi-arbitrary goal now is to break the top 100.

Finishing 221 out of 1086 runners, was a WAY better ranking than I expected. My quasi-arbitrary goal now is to break the top 100.

So I had a blast, and I consider this experience to be a sweeping romantic gesture from running to me (yes, I’m a narcissist), and it totally worked. I went from contemplating bailing on my summer and fall races to beginning to train for them on Monday.

But no….this post still isn’t over.

Since it would be fairly unsafe to send a  long stream of cars down the auto road while runners are still going up it, we spent a good hour or two at the summit. I ate some Chili that I am 75% sure had gluten in it. Shannon and Meredith are 100% sure it did, because they nearly died of asphyxiation in the car. Sorry guys.

It had to happen. I panic when I'm hungry. Next time I'll send snacks to the top.

It had to happen. I panic when I’m hungry. Next time I’ll send snacks to the top.

The ride back down the mountain just further confirmed how freaking cool this event is.

descend 2

And then!

There was a post-race feast!



You may not know this about me, but the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is my favorite meal. And look what happened!

carving the turkey

In case I’m not being clear here. The post-race lunch was a full, made from scratch, Thanksgiving dinner! (from Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant) Runners can buy extra meal tickets for friends and family, since I (as you may have picked up on) didn’t read much about this race before diving in, I didn’t realize the food would be so awesome and therefore didn’t buy an extra ticket. People seemed to be taking heaping portions, so I did too, and grabbed the gluten-y stuff to share with our “race-crew”. Next time I will definitely buy the extra meal ticket(s).


As I already mentioned we took our time getting home. We had an awesome dinner (mmmm Haddock) and a wine tragedy occurred.

comman man wine

If you’ve read this whole post, and you haven’t ever run a marathon, or run up a mountain, you may as well, because you clearly have the endurance.

This race was a huge insight into how I should probably train for the culmination of my fall marathon season (I’m running 3 in 3 months): The Catalina Eco Marathon in November. I’ll read a bunch of books while using a stepmill. Because the course looks like this:

Catalina elevation

One more thing, it was motorcycle weekend in NH, which made being there even better. They were everywhere, and I love them. Just like I love running. And running up mountains, apparently.

watch out for motorcycles


11 responses to “Love is the Mt. Washington Road Race

  1. Awesome. Now I want to run this race even more.

    • I obviously recommend you run it! Believe it or not I could have blathered on for another 3,000 words about my 7.6 mile run/nature love-fest.

  2. Wow and I thought my recap was long 😉 You rock. Glad this made you smile and love running again! I have endurance. Now I keep thinking how I can do better. Oy. Clearly, I am insane. The good insane, right??

    • Yes, the awesome and great and powerful insane!!! I am 100% sure to enter the lottery again next year, I hope you do too!

  3. simply wow! I would have a hard time not stopping to just hang out on the mountain! I would have to geek out a bit and pretend I’m in lord of the rings and think I’m running the Misty Mountains!
    Amazing experience! And the gluten comment was a sneaky insert! haha

  4. Glad you got your running Mojo back!

  5. COngratulations! And the views are amazing! 🙂

  6. Pingback: 2013 Training and Racing Plan | Fluency's Folly

  7. Pingback: The Sagal Strategy (among other things) | Fluency's Folly

  8. Pingback: Catalina Eco Marathon Re-cap | Fluency's Folly


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s