|The "down" side of mountain racing|
[Photo courtesy of Joe Viger]
North Conway, NH -- Sunday's Cranmore Hill Climb served as the 2011 US Mountain Running Championships and provided me yet another incredible opportunity to race against the best. But it wasn't the guys from CO, WA, & CA that I was at all interested in...it was the men whom I've done battle with on the snow, trails, and mountains of New England that I was most interested in testing my mettle. At 42 years of age I'm very fortunate to be in good enough health (and decent enough physical condition) to be able to compete. While not a "mountain goat" I am very comfortable racing up mountains and actually consider hill climbing a strength. So when it appeared as though the Cranmore Hill Climb would finally fit in my schedule I committed. Teammate Ken Young and I drove up to North Conway and met fellow teammates Dan Dion, Dan Hayden, Andrea McCusker, Ahna McCusker, and Judson Cake. The layout of the course was pretty straightforward, three 3.87 km laps up and down the mountain with 206 meters of gain on each lap. Not having scouted the course I decided to attempt to gain as much pre-race knowledge as I could and polled nearly everyone I knew including master's mountain running legend and fellow competitor Paul Bazanchuk. Paul and I have raced against each other on snow, trails, and mountains. I have a great deal of respect for him and his incredible fitness and tenacity. Although I frequently see him before a race I rarely see him during them. He's typically way out in front. When I saw him finishing a warm-up lap before the start I took the opportunity to ask him about the course. Gracious and forthcoming as always he offered up a little inside knowledge. And when I asked if all of the climbs were "runnable" he said that they definitely were. So, I quickly formulated a race plan no less than 10 minutes before the start. I'd go out conservatively on the first lap to see first hand how challenging the climbs were and then from there would attempt to run the whole damn thing picking off the guys who may have gone out a little too hard in the beginning. Tim VanOrden told me at Mt. Washington last year that it's always better to be passing people rather than getting passed at these mountain races. As the "Go" command was given by mountain running legend Dave Dunham I hung off the back half of the field as the top mountain runners in the US blasted off of the line and hurdled themselves at the mountain. After roughly 100 meters the course began to climb. Almost immediately I encountered slower traffic (some walking) and hugging the far right side of the access road made my way around 15-20 people. The course was a great mix of ski slopes, access roads, and singletrack with traverses and even a couple of brief descents in the 2+km climb to the high point. After having run the entire first climb I attempted to relax on the descent and hold whatever places I had gained. Still needing a great deal of work in that area I gave back a handful of places to runners who seemed to be flying 2 feet off of the ground as they glided downhill. Passing the START/FINISH I grabbed a splash of water and headed up for lap #2. I leap frogged 3-4 guys passing them on the ups (which I was still running and they walking) and then giving back the places on the descents (which they were running faster...still). I passed the START/FINISH again in approximately 40:00 having run two very consistent laps. Just past the 1km mark of the last climb I caught a glimpse in the distance of Paul Bazanchuk. Because I am very, very rarely within 5-10 minutes of him I was immediately buoyed seeing him within striking distance. Picking up the climbing pace (still running) I was able to close the gap and get to his shoulder. Without speaking he acknowledged my presence and I felt incredibly uplifted. As we both slogged through those final few climbs (running by the way) I briefly got in front and implored him to follow feeling that I owed him the favor of pulling him up the last pitch after he let me ride along for the last few hundred meters. Beginning the last downhill I knew that as good of a climber as I am...Paul is three times as good of a descender. And it wasn't longer before he blasted by me chasing down the 2-3 guys just ahead of us. Not really sure how to go any faster than I was going and stay on my feet I made my way back down to the bottom of the mountain and crossed the finish line in 1:00:40 and 52 place overall (19th master). As proud as I am of a Top 20 finish at a US Championship I much more proud of the fact that I ran the whole damn thing. I realize that there were scores of men who beat me and walked, but I was also in a private 1-on-1 battle with the mountain. And this time, I won.
Photo credit: Joe Viger Photography
NEXT UP: Bradbury Scuffle