Cranmore Hill Climb

“Everyone should have people that inspire them. For some people it’s world leaders, for others it’s baseball, basketball or football players. For me, it’s elite mountain runners.”
– Paul Kirsch (Race Director)

Last week’s race at Mt. Washington left me reeling in more ways than one. Not only did it turn the tables on my pre-race eating strategy, but it shattered my confidence as a mountain runner – AND it was filmed on national television. The stress of everything coming to a head at once was more than I could handle. The Food Network show, the constant growth of Running Raw, the training, and the twice weekly races had taken their toll on me. Tuesday was hot, humid, rainy and gloomy. It was not a day for new beginnings, it was a day that left me with some very troubling questions – Should I quit? Should I terminate the Running Raw Project? Should I stop running? Should I run and hide? It’s hard to have a healthy perspective when you feel like your world has been turned upside down. It was impossible for me to see that I had just finished shooting a prime-time (8pm Saturday night) national television show on a network that saw raw food as a four letter word and wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. It was impossible for me to see that I was still ranked as the number 1 master’s mountain runner in the New England Mountain Running Series, and it was impossible to see that most people that follow this project don’t care if I win, they are just amazed that I’m doing it at all. Two days before the Cranmore race my friends and family finally convinced me to give it one more try, to make some adjustments, to continue the experiment.

Pre-race nerves have always been a problem for me, and they begin the day before the race. It is very rare that I get a good night’s sleep the night before an event. Knowing this, I have purposefully eaten a light meal early in the evening on race night. The following morning I would continue with light fare (fruit) and hope that I could avoid nausea in the race. My fueling strategy was based not on my knowledge of diet and performance, but on fear and nerves. This has been working great in my tower races and in 5k races where the events don’t last long enough for one to run out of fuel, but for longer races and especially for mountain races where the physical stress endured per minute is far greater than running on flat ground, my fueling strategy was a recipe for disaster.

Saturday night I ate as much as I could till 10pm – fruit and sprouted whole grains. I awoke 6am Sunday morning and continued with fruit and sprouted whole grains – MUCH more than I have ever eaten before a race – perhaps 4 times as much. An hour before the event started, I still felt full, but this was all part of the experiment.

In 2007, mountain running legend Dave Dunham stated that the Cranmore Hill Climb was the toughest race he’s ever done. That’s no small statement considering that Dave has done nearly 100 mountain races around the world and been on the US Mtn. Running Team 7 times. The name of this race is somewhat of a misnomer, as it’s hardly a “hill” climb. Running up 1,100 vertical feet in 1 3/4 miles on dirt access roads and black diamond ski slopes, then running at break-neck speed down the other side AND then repeating the course one more time on wobbly legs just doesn’t invoke the image of a “hill” in my mind. A hill is something that you drive over on the way to Grandma’s house. This is by all definitions, a mountain, and the only thing that was consistently climbing throughout the race was my heart rate. It climbed to new heights as I struggled to keep the pace up the 30% incline of the black diamond ski slope that loomed like an impenetrable wall for the last 1/4 mile of the ascent. It climbed still higher as I began the tortoruous descent on exhausted wet noodle legs. The fear of being completely out of control and moving at speeds in excess of 20 miles an hour through rocks, roots, wet grass and mud is intense. You are nothing more than a puppet to gravity’s will. There is no choice but to surrender your body to the momentum of the mountain and hope that you don’t fall.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s film “Unbreakable“, a diabolical character by the name of Mr. Glass engineers disasters on planes, trains and buildings, hoping that some one special person will rise unharmed from the ashes. A hero, or better yet, a super hero. After competing twice now at the Cranmore Hill Climb, I have to wonder if race director Paul Kirsch has a similar (but less evil) intent – to create “killer” courses, and to make legends of those that conquer them with ease…. to push people beyond their limits in hope that a hero will rise.

When the race was over, that hero would be Justin Fyffe from Dummerston, VT, who dismissed the beast 1:41 faster than runner up and hometown favorite Kevin Tilton, of North Conway, NH. Jim Johnson turned in another heroic performance, finishing in 3rd place only 4 seconds behind Kevin and after badly spraining his ankle at the top the of the last descent. After the race he offered this – “I ran in some pain, but I just had to suck it up”. I too have come to admire and greatly respect elite mountain runners. They are a different breed. They don’t shy away from an extreme challenge or from hardship, they run headfirst straight into it, fight their best fight and come out smiling on the other end. What would the world be like if everyone took this approach?

For me it was also a day to shine. My new fueling experiment had worked and I had plenty of gas in my tank to duke it out with top master’s runner Dave Dunham to the finish. We drove each other hard on the monster climbs, with Dave leaving me beaten and drooling a few meters behind him on the second ascent. But I put it all on the table for the final descent and beat him to the finish line. Oddly enough it was a combination of the most pain and the most fun I’ve had in a race. As the New England Mountain Running Series comes down to it’s final 2 races, Dave and I are neck and neck for the top master’s spot, with me edging him by just a point and a half. In the overall series I’ve managed to move into the number 3 spot, with Dave again just a point and a half back in 4th. The last two races are going to be really exciting.

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