Written by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is 75 years young and an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian. Photo above by Ron Heerkens Jr // Goat Factory Entertainment.
What I learned from the USATF Mountain Running Championships hosted by the Whiteface Mountain Race was that the mountain doesn’t really care about our personal agendas. It is simply there, existing, willing to accept us on its own terms, oblivious to our individual hopes and dreams. Exposed and alone, we are invited to accept the challenge with no guarantee of the hoped-for outcome. This fact became abundantly clear to Matt Miczek and myself the day before as we drove up the Olympic flag-lined entryway towards the registration area. Gazing upwards at the narrow vertical path we would climb the next day, we both realized we were in over our heads, about to attack 3700 feet of elevation gain and loss on the greatest vertical ski drop east of the Rockies. Added to that was the haunted feel of the place. While there were plenty of race banners, Whiteface is first and foremost a ski resort now taking a summer vacation, with empty way-stations, silent gondolas and an eerie, hushed atmosphere.
Many coaches recommend incorporating a “stretch” race into your yearly schedule—something that is marginally beyond your comfort zone, challenging enough to be worrisome but not beyond the realm of possibility. Whiteface would be my summer opportunity to choose growth over familiar ease. Little did I know that it would be, for me, a beyond category climb.
I had been enviously looking at videos of this event for several years, but as a Sky Race, the roughly sixteen miles crossed the line from stretch to beyond the pale of possibility. But with this year’s championship agenda, the format compressed into 6.4 miles. I smiled; the Mountain laughed at my naivety. Later, I spoke with several photographers and inquired as to why the photos and videos seemed deceptively easier than real life. I learned that it was not a truth in advertising ploy but simply due to the nature of the media. A race photographer is interested in taking clearly identifiable shots of runners powering upwards. To do this they must position themselves above the action and looking downwards, a process which distorts the severity of the slope. At least it wasn’t me being overly optimistic in the face of cold hard facts.
But I wasn’t the only one. If you watch the Trails Collective lengthy live broadcast (embedded above) and ATRA’s race recap you can see that many of the top competitors commented that with the steepness and gnarly climbs, this was the most difficult race they had recently encountered. Added to that was the full sun exposure on the ski trails plus the high humidity, which caused some difficulty for those accustomed to drier, Western weather. Most satisfying to me was the view of the top runners hiking hands on knees over the toughest mile – a 40% grade of boggy, newly brush cut black diamond ski trail. I had always assumed only the back-of-the packers resorted to such tactics, but Whiteface proved me wrong. And that despite the fact that many of the contenders for the USATF Mountain Running Team had arrived days earlier and had spent their time previewing the route. Us ordinary folks had the opportunity for a course preview the day before. Matt and I both passed, figuring once was enough. To add to the mix, it had poured the night before, resulting in some slippery footing. A prominent feature was the yellow tractor which for some reason had decided to plow through a level portion, and remained stuck in the ankle-deep mud, rather like a monument to civilization entombed by the power of the mountain.
I am used to our smallish, local Northeastern offerings and was completely blown away by the 300 entrants in the 6.4-mile Mountain Running Championship, Vertical K and kids’ and family mile events. For the championship, the gals started 30 minutes before the guys. I thought this odd as the fellows would then have to pass some of the ladies on narrow trails, but then again by that time, the elite women would be long gone and so have clear sailing. As for the rest of us, we were all hiking at that point and it didn’t much matter.
As for my race, it didn’t go as I had hoped, but I considered myself lucky to have made it to the start line, having had flu and bronchitis the week before. At that point, I was thrilled just to enjoy the experience. I did encounter some dizziness on the initial climb, and the guys passing me were most helpful, leading me to the shade and plying me with energy snacks. Clearly, I had underestimated my calorie needs for this non-standard 10K plus race. After some sugar, I felt better and proceeded at a slower snail’s pace. That steep 40% grade mile reduced me to a hand-over-hand approach and I quickly realized that a few days in a rock climbing gym would have proven helpful as well as the power hiking that the elites recommended. I had figured I would be running. Was I ever mistaken! On my rest breaks, I made sure to turn about-face to enjoy the amazing views as I figured that would not happen when descending such a steep grade. This is the only race where my arms got as much of a workout as my legs! Afterwards, I was also surprised by my sore neck, stiff from bending it nearly backward to glimpse the trail ahead.
At the top of Whiteface, we were met with a delightfully cool breeze, as refreshing as jumping into an Alpine lake. The initial descent was fairly steep, and on wide dusty lanes, so it should have been easy. However, the access road was overlain by loose medium-sized pebbles, conducive more to surfing than bounding. Unfairly, the downhill portion concealed two steep uphills and it was here that I met my fate. While there was no official cutoff, I got pulled anyway for being too slow. I was disappointed, as I felt I could have finished, but I also get it that the volunteers needed to wrap things up. On the plus side, I did score a scenic gondola ride back down, a new experience for me.
I am still kind of pretending that I finished, just because I put in so much effort and would have had I not been sick. Still, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. After all, there is nothing to be ashamed of in being beaten by such a formidable mountain and I am pleased that I chose the possibility of growth over the comfort of ease.
Whiteface race images by Michael Scott are on Google Photos.
Goat Factory Media / Ron Heerken’s photos are HERE.
Miles & Macros LLC photos are HERE [Facebook]
Watch a replay of LIVE race coverage by The Trails Collective on YouTube
Full race results are available on the Underdog Timing website.