When my friend Dave Dunham first described the Stark Mountain Hill Climb race to me earlier this summer, I knew that it was a “must do” event. This race is unique in New England mountain racing in that each athlete gets to choose their route to the top of the mountain. The notoriously steep terrain of Mad River Glen Ski area on Stark Mountain in Fayston, VT served as the playing field for this event. There were numerous routes to the top. The access road was the longest and most gradual, the lift line was the shortest and steepest. In between these two extremes were several intermediate and black diamond ski trails to choose from.
The vertical climb from the Base Lodge to the Summit House was 2,000 feet. The ridiculously steep and often VERTICAL lift line trail ascended this elevation in one mile, making the grade a mind blowing 38%. Curious to see how my legs would fare on a climb twice as high as the US Bank Tower race in L.A., I chose the most direct route to the top.
My return to Vermont after eight days in Los Angeles affected me more than I anticipated. California still holds a lot of magic for me. It’s an extraordinary place populated by extraordinary people. Although the drive north on Vermont’s Route 100 offered up a spectacular display of fall foliage in peak brilliance, I was sad to be back in the land of impending winter. Being a raw vegan and a dedicated athlete does not mean that I eat the perfect foods at the perfect times in the perfect amounts. Yes, I often eat emotionally. A giant, super delicious salad with all the fixin’s at 11PM the night before a big race was probably not the best choice… It was definitely NOT the best choice.
I stood on the starting line bouncing about and looking straight up the mountain at the summit looming high in the distance. My intestines were voicing their disapproval of my dietary choices of the night prior. I felt bloated and sluggish and had a good mind to knock some sense into myself on this vertical test. Well, had I had some “sense” to begin with, I probably would have noticed the light snow on top of the mountain and dressed accordingly. The winds were fierce. Temperatures at the base of the mountain were in the 40’s. At the summit, they could easily have been in the 20’s with the wind chill.
In a flash we were off in a stampede of lycra, wool hats and fleece… one brave soul ran shirtless. I headed left towards the lift line, everyone else headed straight, up another trail. Before the race I had talked to many of the locals about the best route up. They all offered their advice, none of which was to take the lift line. As I noticed the mass of bodies moving off to my right I began to question my decision. That’s when I noticed the twenty foot cliff near the bottom of the lift line trail. A quick adjustment had me veering right and chasing the pack up the other trail. Within a few hundred meters I had made up the ground and overtaken the lead runner. I scrambled up the steepest trail at each intersection I came to but realized that I could no longer see the lift line. A quick look back revealed that no one was following me. Was I moving across the mountain and not directly up its slope? Was I headed to the other peak of the mountain? After scaling some small cliffs and soggy moss covered waterfalls I started cutting through the woods to where I thought the lift line might be. It was rough going. The ground was slippery and muddy and extremely steep. My run had turned into an off balance jungle jaunt. Having the camera in one hand only made matters worse. Every time I slipped or fell, I would roll to avoid hitting the camera on the ground or in the mud.
When I finally emerged onto the lift line I could see the midway lift station not far ahead. I charged on. The lift line was even steeper than the trails and woods I had been traversing. I climbed, slipped, grabbed at brush and small trees, fell, scaled ledges and worked my quads to the point of near extinction. When my legs could take no more, I would press my hands down on my knees and power hike. Every now and then I would start back into a run until my legs would fail again. I did my best to not look up at how far I had to go and how slowly I was moving from lift tower to lift tower. Voices of people in the chairs above me calmed me in the midst of my struggle. Their experience of ascending this mountain was very different from my own, and it was nice to adopt their jovial energy as they casually chatted and remarked at the intensity of the fall colors. I was so immersed in their conversation that I didn’t realize until I was nearly at the top that I was almost keeping up with the lift and could therefore tune in to their chatter for what must have been 10 minutes of the climb.
A smattering of snow speckled the ground like a patchwork quilt. The winds were intensifying the higher I got. I could hear more voices ahead and finally looked up. A hundred meters away was the Summit House. With all the energy I could muster I let out one final charge to the finish. On legs of molten lead I crossed the finish line in first place. It will be a race I will never forget.
Standing on the summit of Stark Mountain and taking in the sea of orange and red mountains that stretched out for a hundred miles, I was a happy man. Not only was I in one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it was the third straight victory for the Running Raw Project. I cheered on the other racers as they appeared from several different trails and converged on the finish line, and then I quickly jumped on the lift for a twenty-two minute ride to the bottom of the mountain and a mild case of hypothermia. Nothing that a bowl of hot soup can’t take care of… wait a minute… damn raw food diet!!!!
Just kidding… I wouldn’t trade it for the world.