Whiteface Peak under sullen skies.
I wake up at 3am, and it is raining very hard. I already slept 6 hours, so I’m not really tired, and I just lie there for a bit thinking more sleep would be OK, but it isn’t required. So at 3:45, I get up.
I decide I’m going to do a warmup run right now instead of waiting until I go to the race, and I head out into the wet darkness. First mile slow and rough. But my stride gets smoother, and after 2 miles, I feel like I want to go further. I am instead sensible, and stop.
I meet another runner, Tom, from New Jersey, at the motel. He looks more nervous than I am, and gabbles about the right shoe choice. At that moment, I am suddenly sure I should wear the grippiest shoes I brought, the Salomon Ultra SGs, and I tell him so. If there were the right day for these, I think it would be today. Tom is going to wear low hiking boots. I can’t say whether this good or bad, so I just smile.
I simply have no idea what this race will be like. I am excited mostly – just excited. I have wanted to run a real “sky race” for a while now.
In the tunnel at the start, which protects us from the rain, I see the Salomon runners, Kasie Enman, Stevie Kremer, Tofol Castanyer and Tom Owens. Elite athletes. Smiling, but focussed. Tom from New Jersey is there, and we chat again.
At the start, we jog out along a grass bank and then make a sharp turn to the right. And then it is straight up the first pitch of steep, steep hill. Tom shoots off at speed, and is soon well ahead of me.
I tuck in behind a couple of people who are going at a pace that seems compatible with mine… for now, and we head up. And I am crouching low and using my arms to push my legs.
I notice the leaves of various wild berries among the grass as we go up. Leaves, but no berries yet. I’m glad I have my mind on something other than the big climb. No need to look up, as the rain and mist obscure everything both above and below me.
There are a few crossings of the “service roads”, but mostly the climb just goes straight up what is probably a ski slope.
Until it gets steeper yet, and I actual crawl a bit since my arms are already so low to the ground, and the ground beneath the moss is rocky now.
The wind is colder up here as we climb through the moss-rock field – cold like winter, just a week on from the summer solstice. I’m wet from the rain, but thanks to the wool shirt, nice and warm.
And then, amazingly, we see the elite runners already coming down from the top, at speed. Graceful, quick and tiny they are. I know that I can probably never get down this slope like that.
I congratulate each of them as they go past. Only Stevie Kremer acknowledges my greeting, and I can see that they are concentrating hard.
At this point I am climbing faster than the man and woman I had been with, and I march on into the mist, until, there is a hut, and perhaps I have reached the summit. Only, who can tell, what with the mist swirling around and no sight above or below?
Oh, and then I have to take off my glasses as they are too rain-spattered for me to be able to see even as well as I can without them.
I check in at the hut, and ask for the broth I can smell.
“It’s not warm yet,” she says.
“Well, it’s maybe a little warm.”
I ask for it again, and say I’ll even drink it cold. But it is not actually cold. Perfect temperature actually, for me to drink it quickly but still feel some warmth too.
There is a big step out of the hut onto a large rock. The rock is slippery and I wonder whether that is actually ice.
Down the rocky slope, and I’m deliberately taking it easy. I know that even though the slope is quite gentle here that if I let it go too much, I may not be able to stop when it drops off into the mud and rocks.
And then I’m in it. Where the elite runners looked so graceful, but I am clumsy and scared. Without my glasses on, I can’t judge distance. So I concentrate and take things steady mostly.
Then I am sliding. On my back. Headfirst down the mountain. I control myself and manage to turn around. I realize that actually my “butt-slide” is an effective way to get down. Faster than I could run this. So I slide some more on the greasy mud and grass.
And suddenly the volunteer is shouting at us to go right, and we turn into another steep ascent. Although this goes on up for at least another fifteen minutes, it feels very short compared to the first 2000ft straight up to the summit. And then I come out at another hut, check in again and eat some peanut M&Ms and more soup.
More sliding, and then I am finally out on some more runnable downhill, so I start to trot down – still slower than I might go someplace I knew already, but fast enough to pass a few people now. And then I’m back in the start tunnel, which we pass through before doing a loop of less-steep trail through the woods on the lower slopes.
The race director is screaming at me.
“Woo-hoo – nice butt sliding!”
And I realize I am covered — I mean COVERED — in mud. All down my back, including my head. He means it too. He doesn’t know that my “skill” at sliding was a pure accident, followed by me learning quickly that this is an effective way down a steep slope.
At this point, I am really really enjoying the chance to properly run though, and I feel like I am flying. The opportunity to open up my hips and stretch the whole leg out is wonderful, after the cramped short steps up and down super-steep slopes.
At the entrance to the trail loop, I see the elite group again, and I am surprised that I am not so far behind as I’d have expected. I actually don’t really have any idea how long I’ve been out there, as I cannot read my watch without my glasses on.
In the woods, the trail is like my home trails. Welcoming, and rolling hills. Only 1500 feet of climbing in this section, and although my quads and gluten are feeling the up and down, I am able to really push it here, while still feeling like this is a steady pace. I remind myself that this is not a race for me – steady pace is what I want. Just staying in control of the pace so I never explode.
I pass a couple more people, and then I meet Tom again. We run a little together, and then he tells me that his quads are shot and he can’t run the uphills and wants to save himself for the second go at the summit. I still feel just fine at this easy trail pace and keep on. I am really enjoying this trail which winds and winds around the lower slopes of Whiteface – it is the part of the race that I actually enjoy the most, and I feel like I can keep running at this pace, through these woods, forever.
But then after another steep grassy bank, I am back in the tunnel, before heading out up the summit climb once again.
We seem to be on a slightly different way up than before. Rockier. But maybe I just forgot what the route was like on the first loop?
I spend most of the summit climb with Eric, also from New Jersey. We have a pretty enjoyable talk and then he says that he is fine if I want to climb faster, and I get ahead of him by maybe a 100 meters and although I am keeping a very steady and sustainable pace, I am actually catching people now. I pass two or three others.
I have been telling myself that I don’t care how long the rest of the race is, or how long the climb is. I am simply climbing. I consider that I will climb until it is not needed any more. Whenever that is. I am reminded more of the days when I hiked the Pennine Way (three weeks of hiking through peat moss bogs, and heavy rain) as a teenager. I realize that I don’t care about the steepness and the rain or cold. My toes are actually cold at this point, but I know that my body heat is kept up by the movement, and I feel like I can really just do this all day, despite my aching quads.
So I am shocked by the appearance of the summit hut!
The rock at the entrance really feels slippery now, and I treat it as if it is icy.
I drink more soup, and now the hut is steaming warm inside. I don’t stay long though, and head down.
Oh, and now they take us through the mossy rock section. And it’s worse this time because we runners have turned it into a steep mud pit.
I don’t care though – I just slide down it on my butt, or I boot-ski it, digging one heel in while I use the other foot to slide through the mud.
The mist clears.
And suddenly I can see to the bottom. The road. And the river. Wow. Beautiful. But I am terrified all of a sudden. If I fall here, I’m going down a long way. I tell myself that the only objective is to get down. Safely. I’m not here to race.
Eric comes tearing past me, having caught up on the downhill. He is fearless in this patch of muck. Maybe he hasn’t seen the view I got?
I realize at that point that I will likely never again be good at this kind of technical descent. It is too much.
Too much for my crappy vision and my middle-aged fear of death, my lack of skills and my high center of gravity.
I remind myself I’m just going down steadily and I will keep it up.
One more person that I passed on the uphill comes past me, and I laugh at myself. I know already that it is more efficient on the downhill. And usually I am. But today I am clumsy and slow. He has poles, and he makes nice s-turns through the mud pit, leaning on the poles to keep his balance, kind of like a skier.
The view now is really lovely, but I only glance down the hill, as I am concentrating.
I turn right and go up the last steep climb. Although I had lost sight of Eric, now I see him again, and I start to catch him on the uphill again. I go past the chap with the poles.
Check in at the hut, and head over the edge of another steep pitch down the mountain. Again the lovely view to the bottom. I slide on my butt for most this section, and find a shorter tangent down through the brush for other parts. I am slower than I’d like, but keep heading down. I do not stop. Short steps. S-turns. Knees high, when I’m not on my back.
I can see that I am not going to catch the pole dude, but suddenly I see Eric ahead, and he is walking backwards down the slope. I ask him if he’s OK, and he tells me he just has nothing left in his legs. I offer him some food, but he declines, and says he just needs to walk.
I, though, am still able to trot down, and now we’re on the steep but runnable sections, I can go quite fast. Again, it feels so good to stretch out my hips completely. I am going quite fast when I pass through the finish line and they take my number. I stop my watch. 5 hours and 33 minutes. I am satisfied. I bend over and put my hands on my quads. It feels good to eat and drink.