Mount Washington Race to the Clouds Lures International Stars for National Championship
Athletes from all over the USA and beyond will be aiming at the Mount Washington Auto Road and the 7.6 miles of tortuous climbing in the “Race to the Clouds” on June 19, 2004. The 44th running of the venerable uphill challenge will be the USATF National Mountain Running Championship. Mount Washington, of course, is a gem of mountain running and the Mamaw of Mountain Racing USA.
Posted Wednesday, 25 February, 2004
FOR THOSE SEEKING A CHALLENGE, THE MOUNT WASHINGTON ROAD RACE TAKES RUNNERS TO A HIGHER LEVEL
The Mount Washington Road Race is the steepest major road race in the USA. It is a specialty race, of course, unlike any other race, and, yes, there is “Only One Hill” in the entire course—the race is “the hill”, and “the hill” is the race. The Mount Washington Road Race is an historic, highly respected challenge because of its incomparable, unrelenting steepness, and the totally unpredictable weather conditions that literally change the race every year. This race is so popular, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the steepness and the weather, and because of its tremendously top-flight organization. And this year, for the first time, it will serve as the USATF National Mountain Running Championship.
There are no large contingents of charity runners for the big hill—only hard-core, dedicated runners looking for a challenge at a higher level, literally and figuratively. It is tough! It is unique! It is a special challenge for spirited, highly conditioned athletes looking to take their distance running to a vertical dimension—6,288 feet or 1,916.5 meters. It is one of the most popular such races in the country, and again this year will be a selection race for the National Mountain Racing Team, as well as a part of the national Sky Running Series. Other races have peaked and waned in popularity, but the Mount Washington Road Race has continued to grow in size and reputation around the world. This event is unmatched in quality—presentation and administration. In spite of the challenging course and conditions, the demand for entries is expected to be the highest in the long history of the challenging event, perhaps triple the available 1,100 slots available.
This will be one very exciting year for the Mount Washington Road Race. Combine 44 years of history and tradition, one of the most unusual racing venues anywhere, incredible natural beauty, the whims of Mother Nature, and a USA National Championship, and you have the recipe for an enormously memorable event. There have been great races and incredible performances on the big hill through the years, and there is more at stake this year than ever before. The MWRR will qualify five national team members for a trip to the 20th Annual World Mountain Trophy Races at Sauze d’Oulx in the Italian Alps, September 4-5. The national championships will add an additional purse of $5,000 in addition to the possible $20,700 in cash awards and bonuses ($4,850 guaranteed) offered by the Mount Washington Road Race and Primary sponsor Northeast Delta Dental, along with New England Runner magazine.
The first two US women and first three men will win automatic berths to the USA National Mountain Running Teams. Three others, one woman and two men, will be selected at the NACAC Mountain Running Championships in Vail, Colorado on July 4th in association with the Vail Hill Climb, the site of the first-ever USA National Mountain Running Championships at last year’s 25th annual. Vail is a 7.5-mile challenge finishing at 10,000 feet; it is about the same length as Mount Washington, although it climbs 2,150 feet vertically as compared with Mount Washington’s 4,723, albeit at a higher altitude.
Two Colorado runners won the inaugural National Championships last year. Anita Ortiz of Eagle won the women’s climb in 1:01:19, and Peter De La Cerda of Alamosa zipped to the men’s championship in 47:42. Simon Gutierrez was runner-up; clocking 48:47 at Vail three weeks after his second consecutive win on Mount Washington in 1:02:54. His pace was nearly two minutes per mile slower on Mount Washington because of unrelenting steepness and wind. The USATF Mountain, Ultra, and Trail Running Sports Council will select the remaining members of the national team—three men and two women. The men’s team will have 7 members, the junior men (under 20) four; the women’s senior team will have 5 members and juniors three.
The USATF New England Mountain Running Circuit, established in 1996, is the only one of its kind in the nation and was spawned as a series of warm-ups or training runs for Mount Washington. At present there are five races in the Circuit. The New England Championship race has also been unique to the region, and the interest and success it has generated helped spur the National USATF to organize a national championship.
WMRA World Championships in Italy in September are closed and will be invitation only for national teams from around the world. Last year the World Mountain Running Trophy was contested at Mount Alyeska, Girdwood, Alaska. It has only been run outside Europe three times in its 19-year history—Reunion Island (off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean) and Malaysia in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Alaska was the first in the Western Hemisphere. Mountain running is extremely popular in many other countries, especially Europe. Popularity is growing rapidly in the US, especially in New England and Colorado, and the national championships at Mount Washington and the emphasis on the world championships will certainly help.
The Mount Washington course compares favorably with the standards set for the World Mountain Trophy, 12K in length (7.45 miles) and 1,200 meters of elevation gain (3,937 feet). Rules call for this year’s world championships to be all uphill, and in alternate years it is up and down over 12 kilometers, with about 750 meters of climb. Women’s and juniors’ races follow the same pattern, but have shorter courses and less elevation.
ONE HILL, BIG CHALLENGE
What is steep? Some say that Mount Washington is a “small” mountain compared to the big Rockies, for example. But there are few roads anywhere that have a more constant and steep grade for 7.6 miles. And there are few where the total elevation change is so great--almost a mile straight up. Actually, it is 4,723 feet of elevation change. The tallest skyscrapers are tiny compared to this mountain, and few people can imagine how steep 11% to 30% grade can be. It is 11.5% on average, with steeper portions. Only the first 2/10ths are flat. The remaining 7.4 miles are anything but—quad burning, mind-boggling steepness. The leg muscles will get hotter going up than a mini van’s brakes coming down.
Unlike most other foot races, the Mountain itself has been an integral part of the tremendously rich tradition. The Mount Washington Observatory has recorded snow every month of the year. They also recorded the highest wind speed on earth, 231 mph, and the lowest wind chill. The average temperature matches the arctic, with an all time record high of 72. Snow is usually visible in mid June during the race. And, on average, 63 days of every 100 clouds and fog envelope the summit.
There are often-dramatic changes from base to summit in terms of weather—perhaps 60 degrees, and from clear to dense clouds. This mountain and this race have created their own legends. Weather conditions are part of the mix in any race. On the mountain, the grade and the weather are primary and integral players in the race and offer a unique challenge.
In 2001 the weather was extremely hot and humid—about 83 degrees at the base with 90% humidity. It rose to an unusual 64 degrees on the summit. In 2002, however, the race was shortened to the half way mark—the only time in 43 runs that this has happened—because of ice, wind, and freezing rain on the peak making conditions dangerous. During four of the last six races, the wind on the summit has exceeded 50 mph. Mount Washington can claim the “world’s worst weather”. Three converging wind patterns make it an arctic island. This encourages, rather than discourages runners.
The start is adjacent to US Route 16 in the Mount Washington Valley. When the cannon booms, the field will scoot through the tollgate and make the first of 99 turns and begin the climb on the tree-lined road. There will be no more flat land, and no downhill. The “Carriage Road” has mile markers, and elevation markers. Runners will climb 638.2 feet per mile. It will seem like more.
The Boreal Forest of Red Spruce and Balsam Fir between 2,500 and 3,500 will offer shade and roadside markers of progress--targets to strive for as leg muscles argue with the will.
The field will thin out just like the surrounding forest during the first half, with a wide margin from first to last at the clock marking halfway. The second half is above tree line and the switchbacks hidden in the forested lower portion will become more visible and seemingly more pronounced. Balsam Fir and Black Spruce will mix with occasional Mountain Ash in a low, stunted, twisted mass called the Krummholz forest. Trees perhaps hundreds of years old cling to the ground for protection from the wind and ice. The bush-like old growth will become thinner, and fewer and by 4,500 feet there will be only rocks, mosses, and grasses.
Just above the clock the road will make a sharp left at the Horn; the elevation will be just under 4,000. The Great Gulf will be a breathtaking vista to the right, while the long incline of Chandler Ridge will appear left. A seemingly endless string of runners will be visible on this long, straight incline. Wildcat Ski Area will be visible left as you make your way up “Five Mile Incline. The 20-foot poles were barely visible just weeks before, marking the road under massive snowdrifts. The Carriage Road is only open for about 21 weeks per year—Mid May to mid-October.
After climbing through the notch of the Cragway and along steep ridges, the road will emerge on a seemingly flat field (a normal hill) about one mile from the finish line. Winds are sometimes strong from there to the summit, and visibility can change rapidly. The smoke and the whistles from the Cog Railway mark the summit goal. The final push past the parking areas offers a nose-scraping grade of 30%, with a right, then left turn to the finish line at the old stage office.
Awards are plentiful. The Foster Cup will be presented to the winners, named for the man who first raced the auto road in 1904. He later convinced a number of his friends to run the hill, and some of those friends were the founders of the original 1936 race. The Crossan Cup will be awarded to the first New Hampshire woman and man, named for four-time winner Gary Crossan (81, 82, 84, 86). The first 10 men and women will receive cups and medals, as will the first five open teams, and the top three masters teams, and the top senior team.
There are five-year age groups with 22 divisions; the top two in each receive medals. Additionally, the best three age-graded masters, the first two Clydesdales, and the first Filly receive medals. Cash prizes will be awarded to the top five women and men overall, the first, second and third age-graded masters, and the Crossan Cup winners.
TRADITIONS—SOME RACE HISTORY
This will be the 44th running of the Big Hill in 68 years, first established in 1936. It ran from 1936 to 1938, followed by hiatus during the war years. The race was revived in 1961 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Auto Road. Boston Marathon Champion John J. Kelly (the younger) was the winner and record holder as he attacked the hill that year. It was held again in 1962, and after a four-year break it began anew in 1966 and has been run continuously since.
The Mount Washington race has seen many Olympians and famous athletes participate, including Olympic and Boston Marathon Champion Joan Benoit Samuelson. She holds the master’s record on the big hill, was masters champ and second woman overall in both her runs. Her battle with another Olympic marathoner, Cathy O’Brien, was legendary, as O’Brien prevailed in howling winds. O’Brien became the most recent New Hampshire woman to win Mount Washington in 1997 to record the fourth fastest women’s time, 1:12:24. She and Craig Fram recorded the only wins for New Hampshire runners in the same year. Peg Donovan of Auburn, New Hampshire captured the title in 1987.
Another Boston Marathon winner and Canadian Olympian Jaqueline Gareau won the Mount Washington Road Race three times. She held the women’s open and women’s masters’ records for several years.
Magdelena Thorsell, wife of current men’s champion Gutierrez, set the current women’s record at 1:10:08 in a magnificent run to the clouds in 1998. J’ne Day-Lucore has the second best time, having set the record at 1:11:45 in 1992, the first of her three wins. Another former record holder, Chris Maisto, also won the women’s race three times.
Anna Pichrtova of the Czech Republic wowed organizers and participants, becoming the first woman to win three consecutive races from 2001 to 2003. She has vowed to return and take a crack at four straight and the record. She is a 31-year-old 2:33 marathoner, and will be tough to beat. If she wins this year she will become the only woman to win four. She loves this hill.
Simon Gutierrez of New Mexico will likely return and attempt to win three in a row and try for the $5,000 course record bonus. And New Hampshire’s favorite son Craig Fram, who set masters records in 2001 and 2003, will go after his record, and the $2,000 bonus.
New Zealand Olympian and two-time winner Derek Froude first broke the one-hour barrier, which at the time was faster than the bicycle record up the long steeps. The current men’s standard was set by Kenyan runner Daniel Kihara, who sped to the top of New England in 58:20.5 in ideal conditions in 1996. Kihara won three more times from 1999 through 2001, coming close to his own mark at 59:03 in 1999. And 1999 marked the first time two runners broke one hour in the same race. Three-time winner Matt Carpenter is the only man other than Kihara to go under an hour twice on this slope. Carpenter set a personal record of 59:16 in one of the closest races, the third fastest time ever after Kihara. Fifteen age group and team records were set in 1999.
The Mount Washington Road Race has created heroes in other years. Such remarkable standouts as seven-time winner (five consecutive) Bob Hodge of Clinton, Massachusetts have added to the lore of this challenge. Local legend Dave Dunham has won three times, and held the record broken by Froude; Dunham pushed to second place when Froude broke that one-hour barrier. The legendary Crossan took four titles, as did Mike Gallagher.
The Mount Washington “Race to the Clouds” up the historic, 143-year-old Auto Road has produced hundreds of publications, as has the fabled mountain itself. It is one of the USA’s most visited mountains, and the oldest race of its type in the country. The 6,288-foot summit is more accessible than other White Mountain peaks because of the famous auto road, a marvel of engineering in 1861 during the early stages of the Civil War.
Mount Washington and the Presidential Range lie within the 800,000-acre White Mountain national Forest, established in 1911. It includes the only Alpine zone in the eastern US, and many rare and endangered plants found nowhere else. The Alpine zone is a remnant of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, preserved because of the unusually cold conditions. The growing season rarely exceeds 70 days. New Hampshire boasts 48 peaks that rise above 4,000 feet; seven exceed 5,000.
Getting there is a part of the fun, with scenic vistas from every direction. The region is easily accessed from major airports in Manchester, NH and Portland, ME, both about one hour, 45 minutes from the Presidential Range. Interstate 93, US Routes 16, 2, and 302 make the region easily accessible.
There are five ways to get to top of this famous mountain: Hiking trails, the cog railway, flying, driving the auto road, or running. The auto road has created several unique contests in addition to the foot race. Bicyclists race it, as have skiers, sled dogs, autos, and alternative vehicles trying to buzz and chug their way to the top. Hikers, even those climbing to watch the race, should use caution and come prepared. There have been over 120 lives lost on this mountain, most due to exposure in suddenly horrendous weather.
HISTORY OF THE HILL AND THE ROAD
The Native Americans lived in the Mount Washington Valley for 8,000 to 10,000 years before Giovani de Verrazano and Samuel de Champlain saw the great white peaks from their ships off the Maine coast. Many of the place-names in the region are derived form the Abenaki tribes, including Penacook, Pequawket, Pemigewasset, Kancamagus, Passaconaway, and Chocorua. Mount Washington itself went by two names, Agiocochook (or Agiochook), and Waumbeket Methna. It was 500 million years in the making, and the present shape was established when the mile-thick glaciers retreated around 10,000 BCE.
The first reference to the mountains as the White Mountains or White Hills come from John Josselyn’s 1672 narrative and John Foster’s 1677 map. They were also called the Crystall (or Cristall) Hills. It was widely believed in the early days that there were jewels to be had for the picking on the summit. This belief prompted Darby Field of Durham or Exeter to climb the mountain in 1642 along with two native guides. He found “terrible freesing weather”, but no gems. Most natives were not inclined to climb, considering the mountain the sacred home of the spirits.
Able Crawford and his son Ethan Allan Crawford cut the first path to the top in 1819 and 1820; approaching form the south on what is now Crawford trail. This is considered to be the oldest continuously used footpath in the USA. The first path on the east side where the road is now was cut as a bridle path for the Glen House Hotel in 1852.
Mount Washington was named after the great American hero George, but well before he became president. The office did not exist in 1784 when it was named. Mr. Washington became president five years later in 1789. Most of the other Presidential Mountains were named in 1820.
The Mount Washington Carriage Road was begun in 1854, and the lower half was finished by 1857. The Mount Washington Summit Road Company took over from the original builders in 1859, and it was finished two years later, August 8, 1861. It was considered a marvel of engineering. It was the world’s first mountain toll road, and immediately began to attract a variety of challengers for those wanting to race to the top, and back down. Although Foster organized a run, the first run up the toll road was by Phillips Exeter Principal Harlan Amen in 1875. Scientists, botanists, meteorologists, and military experimental personnel have used the road and a series of summit buildings.
ONE IN THREE WILL MAKE THE ROSTER
Climbing that road, the Mount Washington Road Race will be contested on Father’s Day Weekend in the Granite State— June 19th. The race will run to the summit of the highest peak in the northeast. Mount Washington is one of the oldest and best mountain races in the USA, a tradition. What will the 44th running bring to this remarkable history?
Only about one in every three applicants will win the lottery—the right to participate in this unique event. The application “window” is March 1st to March 15th, no exceptions. Application must be done online; see the Web Site for instructions. Enjoy the experience, and take the challenge. This race is a truly different running experience, one to be remembered and cherished.