What can I say? There IS only one hill, but the average incline is 12%, with the last 50 yards to the finish line at the summit a steep 22%. This mountain is hidden by clouds in this photo below, but you get the idea.
Last week I had the opportunity to run the Mt Washington Auto Road Race; a grueling 7.6 mile uphill climb to the summit of New Hampshire’s tallest peak. My training plan fell short when I ended up with IT band issues after the Portsmouth Half Marathon in April which prevented me from running anything more than 2-3 miles at a time. For the 8 weeks leading up to Mt. Washington, I wavered back and forth between strength training and running, with massage work and rest thrown in. It was not the training plan I needed to be able to conquer the Auto Road with a speedy hike. I adjusted my goal and decided to enjoy the hike, snap some photos, and concentrate on steady pacing and breathing.
I asked friends who had “run” it before for advice, and I am glad I did!
Since there is limited parking at the summit, the number of participants is limited and participants are selected by lottery. Once selected, a Facebook Group is set up so that runners can connect to carpool from the summit back down the mountain at the end of the race. It is a big deal. There is more time and energy spent on trying to get runners back down the hill than there is getting up the hill!! But, just so you know, running back down is always an option.
The official timing is also limited to 3 hrs and 5 min, and now I know why. The elite runners finish the race in half that time. The first and second place finishers- USATF Mountain Runner champions from Colorado, finished in just under an hour. Some early finishers actually passed me at the 6 mile mark as they headed back down the mountain after the race.
For folks considering this challenge here are some things to keep in mind:
Limited Cell Phone Service- In this day of connectivity, don’t forget you are in the mountains, service is sketchy at best, so have another plan to communicate with people.
Pace yourself-The race starts with a small downhill; that is the only downhill you will see for several hours. The first 2 miles are among the steepest, in the shade, so pace yourself!!
Spectators Allowed- Spectators are allowed to walk up the road as far as they want once all the drivers have gone to the top (around 8:00am). My daughter, who did not get into the race, decided to walk up about a mile and a half to watch the beginning of the race and she snapped some pics. She was shocked how steep the walk was! That made me feel a little better about my 15 min mile. By the way, she offered to take my vest, but I decided to keep it-that was a regret! I had a pocket for my phone, and iPod, but I never used my music. I should have worn my Camel Back.
The weather can be more challenging than the hill- Send a bag to the summit with your driver with extra clothes, food and hydration; there are no snacks at the top. Cars are not allowed back down the hill until after the 3 hrs and 5 min official timing has expired. You could be waiting around for 1-2 hrs.
Last week (2017) temps at the base at the start (9am)were in the high 50’s and the clouds were starting to burn off. Temps at the summit are typically cooler, and the weather predicted high 50’s at the summit with wind gusts. That was wrong. Temps increased throughout the climb, with little cloud cover along the road and no wind at all. With only 4 water stations (and 2.25 miles between the last two stations on the steepest part of the course) I did not bring enough water and I brought no electrolytes! There is only water along the course, so plan your fuel accordingly. Everyone underestimated how warm it would be and many people ended up sun burned as well.
Plan to Walk-When I got to the 1.5 mile marker my daughter said to me, “Mom, almost everybody is walking!” I had adjusted my goal and that was to finish in under 3 hrs. I was happy with my pacing, I wasn’t pushing it as hard as I might have, but because of my tendinitis and because of how warm it was I didn’t want to chance not finishing at all. Once I got the halfway mark and saw the time, I decided to stop and snap photos more often. I will not run this race again, I would rather hike the mountain through the woods. So, I stopped to take photos and kept on climbing.
Mile 6 and 7- Once we got to 4000 feet, around the 4.5 mile mark, things started to get hilly. It’s not called “Oh my god corner” for nothing! This is the switch back, which feels like the steepest part of the course, but it’s all pretty much the same. I had stopped drinking what little water I had left, my head was throbbing and I could not believe we still had 3 more miles to go.
The mile 6 water stop was like a mirage, I had given up on water and forgot there was one more after the halfway point. For a hot second I thought, maybe I will just sit here and wait for my ride back down. I have really never thought of myself as a quitter, but I definitely do not like to push my body. I convinced myself that was crazy talk, after 6 miles, surely I could make another 1.6 miles! As you approach Mile 7, the road is freshly paved, it’s not as steep, but it is a rock pile. The final .6 miles is twisted and turned so that you cannot see around each corner, and you feel like it is never going to end. The final 50 meters is actually 2 90 degree turns to the finish.
The Summit- The Finish Line was pretty anticlimactic, I looked up to see the clock showing 2:57 and I was happy I made it in under 3 hours. The race announcer was distracted so he never announced my name, and my abs were starting to cramp up pretty good. I crossed the line and some kid handed me a commemorative fleece blanket and a paper cup filled with water. My first thought was, “Are you kidding me?” It’s 70 degrees, I need water and my banana. And there at the top I realized I had no cell phone service, my ride was somewhere among the 1000 finishers, and I needed hydration badly. There is a beautiful museum at the summit, and all kinds of stuff to see, but it took me so long to reach the top all I could think of was getting back down! My ride appeared shortly (another miracle) and we had to hike back down a staircase to the parking lot so I could retrieve my bag. His wife had finished the race in 1:38-and that was with a quad cramping up! She thought it was one of the hardest races she had ever run. I am pretty sure she actually ran.
Here’s the dopey selfie I took to prove I finished; I was snapping the picture while walking down the staircase to the parking lot. I do wish I had taken 5 min to get someone to take a decent picture of me at the finish line.
Where to Stay- There are many places to stay, all within 15-20 min drive to the base; we stayed at Eagle Mountain House in Jackson and I totally recommend it. Many runners stay there, and apparently back in the day they used to be the race host. It’s a very old hotel, but the atmosphere is great.
Endnote- Allow plenty of time to get to the base on race day, (by 6:30am) since there is only one road in and hundreds of cars that need to be parked. I forgot my driver would be there early to get in line to get to the summit, so my daughter had to jump out of my car while in traffic and run my bag over to the tent. Everything is super organized, however, and the post race meal is the best I have ever had. Shout out to Hart’s Turkey Farm restaurant in Meredith for the fabulous turkey dinner!
Before the race with Wildcat Mountain in the background.