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by Don Allison
You just knew it was coming. With nearly 1,000 eager runners lined up at the base of the Mt. Washington Saturday, race director Bob Teschek wished everyone good luck, reminding us "there is only one hill."
Of course that hill is more than 7.6 miles long with nearly 5,000 feet of climb, a sadistic test of running ability. It's really no mystery why there are so many runners willing to put themselves through this anaerobic hell, and why hundreds of disappointed more wish they could, but were not "lucky" enough to get picked in the lottery. It's the challenge, of course. The fact that it is so difficult is precisely the reason so many are so driven to try a race that leaves even the most accomplished runners gasping for breath. As one famous writer once said, " I don't enjoy writing at all, but I do enjoy having written." That pretty much sums up running up Mt. Washington
To me, a bigger mystery is what kind of runner does well at Mt. Washington. It seems some runners have knack for relentless climbing, able to finish well ahead of runners who would easily leave them behind on a flatter surface. What is it exactly that makes for a superior mountain runner?
Training helps of course, as does experience. Motivation to put oneself through continuous discomfort is a must. But what of those runners whose results seem transcend all of these factors?
I am not one of those runners. This was my second run up the mountain, my initial run coming in 1996. I was reluctant to try this race at first, as I have always been a poor uphill runner in traditional road races. One thing I learned in '96 is that after about 10 minutes on the mountain, most everyone is poor uphill runner, at least on this steep grade. After a mile or so, this race becomes less about being a good hill runner and more about simply processing oxygen and relentlessly moving forward.
Walking to the start with my teammate Rick Doubleday, I could not help but think that only having 120 pounds to carry to the top would really work in has favor. Most top distance runners are slight of frame, but in mounting running, it seems if lighter is good, painfully thin is even better. Perennially top finishers Daniel Kihara, Matt Carpenter, Dave Dunham, and Eric Morse all pretty much fit that description. By that criteria, Joe LeMay should have been in line for a top finish, with as much, if not more pronounced thinness than the aforementioned group, and even more leg speed. My Cool Running colleague Dave Camire dismissed LeMay's chances before the race however, simply saying: "too tall." Hmmm.
As expected, Kihara, Carpenter, Dunham, and Morse all ran superbly, finishing in that order. Any one of the top four performances would have been good enough to win in another year. LeMay finished sixth in 1:03, a solid debut. After the race he said "I knew after the first mile when I was in sixth place, that was where I was going to stay. I just could not go any faster." That sentiment was shared by hundreds of others who traversed the 7.6-mile route.
Women's winner Barbara Remmers disproved Dave's height theory. Barbara is tall and thin, but her secret was revealed after the race. Motivated to win after a third-place finish last year, Barbara got serious about training on a steep surface. With nothing resembling Mt. Washington in New York City, Barbara created her own. "I ran on a treadmill at a health club at an 11.5-percent grade," she offered after the race.
Based on his other running performances, I had Rick pegged for a top 30 finish, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes, tops. But as it happened, Rick cruised to the top in 1:09:00, good for 15th place in his first try at the mountain. When I asked him how he ran so well, Rick said " I just pushed it as hard as I could the whole way. I was running up on my toes, all-out." Rick offered up yet another theory for mountain running success. " I have been doing a lot of cross training, swimming and lifting. I had to use my arms a lot to help lift me up the mountain, and the cross training helped with that."
In the end, although running up a steep mountain at a fast pace is a unique talent, like in all races it is a combination of factors that go into a successful run. those who hope for success would do well to possess as many of those skills and traits as possible. Now, if they ever have a race down Mt. Washington......