As the Mt. Washington race looms ominously on the horizon only two weeks away, I’ve been a bit nervous about my readiness for the event. Although I have been training more these last few months than at any time during this journey, my legs just haven’t felt fresh and fast in quite some time. Both the Wachusett Mtn. and Whiteface Mtn. races left me feeling less than prepared as my legs gave out in both races long before my lungs did. Perhaps it’s a factor of my heavy training load combined with the lack of tapering in my training leading up to these races. Whatever the case, I was excited to test my mettle against New England’s best at Northfield Mountain. Dave Dunham invited me down the day before the race to help him mark the course. I saw it as an opportunity to familiarize myself with the terrain and get a little home field advantage.
On a short warmup with Dave, he pointed out all the hotshot runners that were in attendance. There was Mark Miller who has run a 14:00 5k earlier this year, Ryan Carrara who won the Wachusett Mtn. Race two weeks prior and was second at the New Bedford Half Marathon in a time of 1:08:07. Josh Ferenc, a 30:00 10k runner and 3rd place finisher at last year’s US Mtn. Running Championships. Erik Nedeau a sub 4 minute miler… yeah, you heard right. Justin Fyffe 2nd place at the Pack Monadnock 10 miler. Ben Nephew, one of the top trail and mountain runners in New England for the past 10 years. Greg Hammett, a former college standout who is still laying down some very fast times. Jim Pawlicki, 2nd place at the XTERRA Merrimack River Trail Race. Todd Callaghan, one of New England’s best and most consistent trail runners. Jason Bryant from the mountains of North Carolina, who is one of the top mountain runners in the country and a member of the La Sportiva team. Then of course there is Dave himself, who is now one of the nation’s top masters racers.
For those of you that follow my blogs and videos regularly, you might have noticed that I have a tendency to go out too hard in most races and then pay the price later on. This is not a habit that I want to continue, so when the gun sounded I let the lead pack take off. I have been logging heart rate data for all my races over the past two years and have noticed a trend: If I get my heart rate into the 170’s in the first half mile I will have poor results, but if I can keep my heart rate in the mid to high 160’s I will avoid bonking later in the race. So when Dave Dunham pulled up next to me in the first quarter mile (Dave is my barometer for proper race pacing), I looked at my watch and saw that I was in the low 160’s. This was a perfect start for me and I even had some room to speed up if I wanted to… and I did.
At the half mile point I made a move on Ben Nephew and Jim Pawlicki (both great mountain runners, whom I’ve never beaten), and quickly gapped them. When I hit the one mile mark, my watch read 5:25, which is fast for the first mile of a 10.3k mountain race, but my heart rate was only at 168. I was feeling good. The course began to climb more substantially in the second mile, but I kept a swift pace and passed two more runners. Although the leaders, Mark Miller and Ryan Carrara were moving farther ahead with every step, I was gaining ground on the other racers in front of me.
My watch read 6:14 at the 2 mile mark. A moment later, my heart rate read 176 as I pulled up alongside Josh Ferenc. I was surprised that he had fallen away from the leaders, and even more surprised that I was now running at his side and about to pass him. We hit a very steep climb at around 2.5 miles and Josh had had enough of my brazenness and picked up the pace. I didn’t want to risk redlining, so I let him go. Greg Hammett was not far ahead and I set my sights on catching up to him on the climb.
The 3rd mile was the hardest, with several hundred of feet of climbing coming in waves of steep ascents. Even though my heart rate was a perfect 176 and my breathing was quite relaxed, my legs were beginning to tire. I clocked 7:34 for the 3rd mile and was 10 seconds behind Greg and now 20 behind Josh. The final .7 miles of climbing were more than I could comfortably handle. My legs were now complaining loudly and my pace was slowing. Greg and Josh were moving farther ahead and I could hear Jim Pawlicki and Todd Callaghan moving up on me.
My goal for this race was to make it to the top of the mountain in a good position (which I had done), and then take advantage of my crazy downhill running skills for the remainder of the race to make up ground on a few of the runners in front of me. As I headed towards the 4 mile mark I was moving quickly, but on wobbly legs and Jim and Todd were rapidly closing in on me. Even though we had reached the top of the mountain, there were a few more ups to accompany the downs in the final 2.7 miles.
My legs were feeling better as began the 5th mile. Greg Hammett was now far enough ahead that I could no longer see him, and Todd was right on my heels, with Jim not far behind. I let loose on the downhill, and invited gravity to take my body down the mountain at a reckless speed. The trail was smooth dirt so I wasn’t worried about tripping on rocks or roots. Todd was matching my stride, so I leaned forward and amped it up another notch. I could feel the toll that the quad shredding downhill pace was having on my legs, I hoped I would have enough for the last few uphills before the finish. I clocked 4:45 for mile 5.
With 3/4 of a mile to go we came out of the woods and began to run down the power lines. In the distance I could now see Ryan Cararra and Mark Miller fighting it out for the lead, Erik Nedeau solidly in 3rd place, Justin Fyffe in 4th, Josh Ferenc in 5th, and surprisingly Greg Hammett a lot closer to me than I thought in 6th. We had made up a lot of ground on him on the steep downhills. The power lines featured lots of rolling ups and downs where one could accelerate, which is what I did. I wanted to catch Greg, and I was going to lay it all on the line to do so. Todd had his sights set on me and shot past me on one of the short ups. I then passed him on the next down. This cat and mouse game went on for half a mile as we switched positions and pushed each other along.
When we hit 6 miles we were at the bottom of a steep hill that rose some 30+ feet. From my memory of the course the day before, this was the final uphill before the gradual downhill to the finish. I was determined to catch Greg, so I rocketed up the hill leaving Todd quickly behind. I moved within 10 yards of Greg as I summited the hill, but I was not greeted with a friendly view from the top. One hundred meters away lie the last hill of the race, and it was longer and steeper than the hill I had just spent my last drops of glycogen on. I was broken. My pace slowed, my stomach turned, and my legs wobbled. Todd quickly caught me and moved by. Greg was moving farther ahead now as well, and my chances of reeling him in were gone. I crested the hill and did my best to keep a strong pace to the line. Somehow I managed to stay within 3 seconds of Todd at the finish. I crossed in 8th place in a time of 38:25. More importantly, I had won the title of New England Trail Running Champion in the Master’s division and as Dave Dumham informed me a bit later, I had broken the master’s course record by an amazing 57 seconds. I can’t wait to see what I can do on fresh legs at the National Championships on Mt. Washington.
Here is a video of the race: