Loon Mtn. Race

Two years ago, I had my first taste of New England mountain running at the Loon Mtn. race. I had been running for only 6 months at that point, and had somehow managed to move into the front pack of California’s mountain running scene. So naturally I thought I’d take a shot at making the US Mountain Running Team. I selected the Loon Mtn. Race because it was a qualifier for the US Team and I wouldn’t have to contend with the altitude of the Colorado qualifiers. It was also not far from my family’s home in Vermont. At first glance of the topo map, Loon appeared to be a rather small mountain compared to what I was used to running up in CA, so I thought I had this one in the bag. Well, the only bag that I had anything in was a barf bag. Loon crushed me with the weight of it’s infamously steep, never-ending climbs, as did the field of elite New England mountain runners. That’s when I realized two things – I was not nearly as fast as I had thought, AND New England has the toughest mountain runners in the United States. Two years after that brutal introduction, I was back to face the monster once again.

In the two years since, my running has improved by leaps and bounds. Going into this race, I was ranked 3rd overall in the USATF New England Mtn. Running Series, and ranked 1st in the Master’s division. The legendary Dave Dunham was coming hard on my heels only a point and a half behind. I would need to be within 30 seconds of Dave at the finish in order to hold on to my lead. There was only one problem – Dave’s specialty is LONG, GRUELING climbs that never seem to end.

I drove over to Lincoln, NH a day early to help the Race Director Paul Kirsch mark the course along with Dave D. The three of us had done an 8 mile run a few hours earlier and now had the task of hiking the 5.5 mile uphill course carrying flags. I was a little worried that I might be expending too much energy the day before the race, but Dave was the man to beat, and he was there with me step for step.

The course reminds me of the ‘bait and switch’ tactics of a sleazy electronics salesmen. It starts out with half a mile of relatively flat access road, which lures the faster and less experienced runners out to a fast start. The wiser competitors realize that the race is won on the last hill and not in the 1st half mile, so they ease into the pace. It’s not long before you are ascending a 20% slope (most roads over mountain passes are usually between 7% to 9% slope). The second tease arrives in the form of a 200m downhill around mile 2. Once again, the less experienced racers see this as an opportunity to speed up and make some ground on the runners ahead of them… the wise old runners see this as an opportunity to catch their breath, because they know what comes after this short respite – a mile and a half of constant uphill at 17 to 25% grades. This is where the men are separated from the boys.

At long last you can hear the cheers of the crowd as you crest the hill and burst out on top of the mountain… but wait, you have to climb TWO mountains in this race!! Unlike Mt. Washington, there is more than one hill. After you splash yourself with water and run by the eventual finish line you plummet quite severely down a 30% grade, dropping 100 feet in a matter of seconds. The downhill then becomes a more gradual 10% and continues for nearly half a mile. Again, the new runners will try to make ground here, thinking the bulk of the race is over. The course makes a very sharp right hand turn, the downhill abruptly ends and you are faced with the one of the most frightening sights you will ever see – A black diamond ski trail called “Upper Walking Boss”. This trail rises up like an impenetrable wall for half a mile in front of you. The average grade is 30%, but it reaches an impossibly steep slope of 45% in several sections. This is the point were all the hotshots in the beginning of the race end up as roadkill on the side of the trail (if that didn’t already happen on the first mountain ascent). While I was walking up this section of the trail as we marked the course I said to Paul and Dave, “I don’t think I can go up this hill any faster than I am right now”. They laughed, but they knew I wasn’t far from the truth.

When you do finally crest the top of the second peak on legs so wobbly that they can barely support your weight, you are greeted with half a mile of blisteringly steep downhill over grass, dirt, rocks, stream washes, and my favorite – water bars. Water bars help to divert rain water as it flows down the trail so as to prevent erosion. But when they are meeting your feet at 25 miles an hour they act like little bmx bike jumps, sending you flying into the air out of control hoping that you can land on your feet and avoid injury. That last downhill tears your quads to pieces, smashes your toes into the front of your shoes, blackens any remaining good toenails, and blisters the bottoms of your feet. But you are still not done. Remember that abrupt 100 foot drop after you crested the first peak? Well, it now stands between you and the finish line. Time to suck it up, pray that you can keep your breakfast down, and dig deep, deeper than you thought you could ever dig… the fans lining the course yell, “you’re almost there!!!”, and you wonder if the destination they are referring to is Hell. A few seconds later, you are done, literally done. But it won’t be long before you are looking out over the spectacular view with friends and fellow comrades sharing war stories of the toughest race you’ve ever done.

The men’s field looked like a who’s who of New England mountain running legends. There was Eric Blake, two time National mountain running champion (’06, ’08), and two time winner of the Mount Washington Road Race (’06, ’08) – Eric Morse, who holds mountain running course records all over the US, and who has been in the top 5 on Mt. Washington 10 times – Craig Fram, who has won Mt. Washington and been in the top 3 another 4 times – Kevin Tilton a two time member of the US Mtn. running team – Justin Fyffe who won the Cranmore Hill Climb a week earlier and who leads the New England Mtn. Running Series – Todd Callaghan who’s ranked 2nd in the N.E. Mtn. Series – Jim Johnson who finished a very close 3rd at Cranmore and who cranked a 1:10 in his first Mt. Washington appearance – David Herr, who finished 10th in the ’07 US Mtn. Championships, and clinched the top Master’s spot – and let’s not forget 4 time Mt. Washington winner and 7 time US Mtn. Running Team member, Dave Dunham.

The torrential downpour at Cranmore the week before would have been a welcome addition at the start of the race, but instead we faced the blazing sun and 80 degree temps. A few of the wiser runners soaked themselves in the ice cold mountain waters of the Pemigewasset River before the start.

When the gun went off, so did the lead pack, and I wasn’t in it. I knew the level of competition that was in the race and I was well aware that I was outclassed by many in attendance. My plan was to run my own race and start out conservatively… and I stuck to it. The first few miles were uneventful. I was feeling strong and in great position. Ahead in the distance I could see Eric Blake, Craig Fram, Eric Morse, and Justin Fyffe battling for the top spot. I was glad I was not in that fight. At mile 3 I began to tire on the first of the monster climbs, so I backed off the pace a bit. This gave Dave Dunham the opportunity he needed to reel me in… and that he did. He went by me quickly, putting as much time as he could on me and hoping to discourage an attempt to stay with him. It worked. My heart rate was high, and I knew that this climb went on for another mile without a break, so I kept my current pace and watched Dave slowly pull away. I reached the summit of South Loon Mtn. feeling strong and confident. Paul Kirsch informed me that Dave was only 30 seconds ahead of me, but with the worst climbing yet to come, there was little chance that I would catch him. This was Dave’s kind of race. As we marked the course the day before, Dave had told me that he was going to run the last hill in it’s entirety. I didn’t think that was possible, but he informed me that he had done just that the year prior. The screaming 1/2 mile downhill from the top of South Loon to the base of “Upper Walking Boss” allowed me to make up some ground on Dave. As I turned the corner to face the beast, I could see the all the runners in front of me. With the exception of Eric Blake who put the hammer down and ran away from the field, everyone looked rather close. That’s the trick of this last hill. Someone can be 100 feet in front of you, but that translates to 40 seconds of climbing time. A runner 100 meters in front of you is nearly two minutes ahead. I looked up to see Dave running well and making ground on much better runners (well, better on every course but this one). Most of the other racers were power walking, so I took this opportunity to make up some ground by running as much as I could. I made it a third of the way up the hill before my legs begged me to stop and start my hunched over wobbly legged version of a power walk. That was enough running for me to gain significant ground on a few of the runners in front of me. I got even lower and extended the length of each stride on my power walk. Half way up the hill I could see that Dave was no longer running, but he was moving steadily ahead of me. I shifted my focus to David Herr and Jim Johnson in front of me. In all of our meetings I have never beaten either of them, and I was very surprised when I passed both of them two-thirds of the way up. They had gone out too hard and were paying the price. Next in my line of sight was Kevin Tilton and Craig Fram. Again, both runners have easily defeated me in every race up until this point, but I was determined to tackle this hill as best I could and leave nothing left when it was done. Holding down the vomit in my throat as I crested the summit, I quickened the pace. Craig was only a few feet in front of me, and Kevin was no more than 20 meters. The brutally steep downhill that followed would be quite dangerous at full speed on exhausted legs, but I knew that’s where I could make my move. So I did. I flew by Craig in mid air as I pressed off a water bar in the trail. In the next death defying 700 meters I would put a minute and 30 seconds on him. Kevin Tilton took the same reckless approach that I did and held me off to the finish. I had run one hell of a race. Finishing 7th, in a field of superstars was beyond my expectations. I knew that I had slipped from my top spot in the Master’s division and moved into 4th overall behind Dave Dunham, but I didn’t care. Dave had a phenomenal race, and totally outperformed me. He is truly a king of the mountains.

When it was all said and done, several of the toughest men ever to run up a mountain were laid to waste. Spirits and bodies were broken… and best efforts were just not good enough. A mountain like that changes you forever… it takes a part of you… it steals your courage and hides it somewhere on “upper walking boss” in a patch of wild strawberries and indian paint brushes… taunting you and waiting for you to come back and try to reclaim it next year.

But there are also those indomitable New England spirits that thrive on such an extreme challenge and only dig deeper when the mountain throws it’s very best at them. They are heroes in my book. The same type of damn yankees that didn’t back down from a fight when this country was born 232 years ago, even when the odds were stacked against them.

To see a Video of the race:

To see a Video of the Course:

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