Wednesday, July 24, 2013

USA Mountain Running Championship at Mt. Cranmore (part two: the race)

After waking up at 5:22 Sunday morning at the Days Inn in Campton, NH, my dad and I quickly packed our stuff into bags and got into the car for the hour and a half ride back to North Conway. I had a number to pick up, and plans to meet my CMS teammate Kevin Tilton for a pair of Inov-8 X-Talon’s to use for the race. My dad had decided he would run up on his own (not race) and find some good spots along the loop to yell encouragement.

We stopped in Lincoln at Dunkin’s for a quality pre-race breakfast: everything bagel with cream cheese, large French vanilla hot coffee with milk and one sugar. The morning was much cooler than the previous day (and week), with temps hovering around 60 on our way to the mountain. This was welcome and awesome, but I was still drinking plenty of water nonetheless. We enjoyed another beautiful ride along the Kancamagus Highway, noting the many trailheads and campgrounds, familiar and unfamiliar.

We arrived at the base of Mt. Cranmore a little before 7:30 am, after gassing up in North Conway. (My dad put about 450 miles on his car on Sat. and Sun. for a trip that is only about 120 miles each way. Oh well.) My dad spotted Kevin Tilton while I was in the bathroom in Zip’s Pub and Grill at the base, and I met up with him to grab shoes and then did a nice, easy warmup for about 15 minutes on the trails around the base of the mountain. When I told Kevin I’d try not to get his shoes too dirty during the race, he told me I could keep them if I liked them. Wow! Thanks, Kevin! I promised him a gift for the little Tilton he and his wife Jess are expecting later this year.

After the warmup, I said bye to my dad and hopped on the triple chair with some time to spare and enjoyed the quiet ride to the summit by myself. I was feeling pretty confident and optimistic about the uphills and the Inov-8 X-Talon 212’s felt great on the warmup, so I hoped I would be liberated to cut loose more on the downhills than I had the day before. At the top, I noted the recognizable US mountain running superstars and legends (Joe Gray, Max King, Tommy Manning, Dave Dunham, etc.) as well as several of the “new” guys (Brandon Birdsong, Zach Ornelas – go blue!, Andy Wacker) I ran around a bit more on the short down/up between the summit and the course and got ready to go. Because the women were still running, the men stayed off to the side of the Kandahar Trail until it was time to go. Even as we got lined up and awaited the command, we left a path open to our left for finishing women to run through.

At 9:15, RD Paul Kirsch said, “Go!” and we were off. I wanted to heed the advice of wiser mountain runners (Thanks, TiVO!) to take it easy on the first downhill and make up ground as I went. I also knew my downhill running has been limited, and I didn’t want to beat myself up too badly in the first few minutes. I felt mostly in control, although at times, I caught myself braking a little too much and I was behind more than 50 people early on in the first descent. As I got comfortable, I started working hard on the flatter sections of the downhill to get by people. I had some split times in the back of my mind, but the unique thing about this event (for me, at least) was that place was going to mean a lot more than time. I think I came through the first mile in 5:34 (I didn’t do a very good job getting splits, mostly because I was more concerned about chasing and catching the vast multitude of people ahead of me.)

I hit the water station at the bottom in about 8 minutes, and figured that was pretty good, since it had taken me ten on Saturday. I think I was around 45th-50th place at this point. Talking to JJ and Eric MacKnight on the cooldown, I think their first mile was around 4:55, so the leaders were probably already a minute or so ahead of me by then. I had passed a few people near the end of the first descent, and powered into the first uphill, determined to catch as many as I could. In hindsight, I probably worked a bit too hard at the beginning of the first climb, but I was feeling inspired at the time.

I caught Todd Callaghan about halfway up and grunted a barely audible greeting. I settled in behind Kevin Tilton and Jim Johnson in their fashionable Inov-8 uniforms (I want one!) and eventually drew near each of them and passed them both before the summit. The sections that had seemed steep but runnable on Saturday’s easy one-loop run-through were more challenging after a hard descent. Also, it was difficult to think about having to cover those same stretches a second and third time. So I didn’t think about it.

My dad cheered just below the glades on the first loop and I tossed him my Native sunglasses, which weren’t necessary, and were just providing an extra sweat point. Mostly I was just looking at the ground or the guy in front of me anyway. The top of the first steep section after we came out of the glade we made a left onto a runnable stretch before climbing a little more, but that section became harder to run each time, because my calves and thighs were so spent from ascending. The downhill before the last climb on Kandahar was welcome every time. The first time up Kandahar was hot, with the sun beating down on us. I was content to tuck in behind the runners in front of me and push by them as we neared the top and the end of the first loop. I think I was around 20:30 for the first 4k loop, and I had moved to around 25th-30th place. 

JJ came screaming by me on the second downhill, and I tried to hold the gap he put on me to help me pass some other people. By the time I caught up with him back in the glades on the second climb, I think I had moved into the top 20. He muttered something about not having the mileage, but I know what a ferocious racer and competitor he is, so I take anything he says during a race with a grain of salt. The second time up Kandahar was rough, but the sun was behind the clouds and I was thanking God for that.

The third descent was my fastest of the day. Whether that was because my legs were too tired to slow me down, or because I was learning how to run it a little better each time, I don’t know. I did feel more relaxed that third time.

The third climb was a real grind and I caught myself slipping into a walk on the two steep sections. Pumping the arms rather than resting the hands on the knees turns a power walk back into a run and as I crested Kandahar someone warned, “There’s two guys coming for you!” I kicked it into whatever gear I had left and closed on the finish line.

Crossing the finish line at Mt. Cranmore felt as good as almost any finish line I’ve ever crossed. My dad greeted me, and we walked (limped and huffed) over to the summit lodge and I dripped sweat profusely. He told me he thought I was 14th overall (turned out I was 15th) and that sounded just great. I also knew I had finished ahead of a number of guys I didn't expect to, like former US Team members, Matt Byrne, Tommy Manning (he fell) and Shiloh Mielke. A lot of experienced mountain runners didn't finish the race. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to race well on that day.


  1. Ornelas is on the mountain circuit these days? Huh, who knew

    Another crazy impressive run, you're gonna fast times coming up!

  2. I think this was his first foray; do you know about him?

    Thanks! Hopefully, I'm recovered for Carver (5M) Saturday, Newburyport (10M) Tuesday and Beverly (5k) Thursday!

  3. Busy week! Ornelas is the same year as me, I remember he was one of the top distance guys in the country when we were in high school

  4. He finished 2nd, right behind Joe Gray and ahead of Max King!