Last year Steve Taylor, founder of the Collegiate Running Association and head coach of the Richmond Spiders track and cross-country team, invited me to race a 10k that his organization was helping to put on. Sounds simple enough, right? Six point two miles ain’t no thang.
Then he told me the important part: the 10k is a mountain 10k, which means you have to run that six point two miles straight up a mountain. I think I nodded and smiled politely but the dialogue in my head went something like:
HAHA, it’ll be a cold day in hell before these legs run up a mountain!!
Six months later and there I was with my goal to race 10k straight up a mountain … and I was excited about it! What convinced me was that the race was the USATF Mountain Running Championship, and the top four women in the race would make team USA and compete at the world mountain running championships in Bulgaria in September, 2016.
It sounded like a challenge I was up for, so I began doing some long runs on what I affectionately refer to as Gerard Mountain, a hill atop which my coach lives. Let me tell you, those long runs hurt. But in a strange way I really liked the pain in my legs and the burn in my lungs, and I became confident that I could do fairly well on race day.
Race weekend rolled around and I hopped on my 7:30 a.m. flight from DC to New Hampshire, which I soon realized was incredibly poor planning on my part, as I arrived in New Hampshire at 8:30 a.m. and couldn’t check into my hotel until 2:00 p.m. I promised myself that I would not, under any circumstance, go to the course and look at Loon Mountain because I didn’t think it would do me any good to see how tall it was and freak out. But seeing as I had about six hours to kill, curiosity got the better of me and I headed to Loon Mountain to do my pre-race run and drills.
It was indeed terrifyingly tall and intimidating and I definitely had my doubts about whether I could hack it with the seasoned mountain runners I would soon compete against. However, after a little pep-text from my coach I was able to put those thoughts out of my mind and enjoy the morning in beautiful New Hampshire.
I woke up on race morning after a solid nine hours of sleep and felt ready to get after it. My coach and parents had driven all the way from Virginia, which was amazing and a huge comfort for me, so I didn’t feel panicked or overly nervous as I warmed up. Then it was time to line up and as soon as the gun went off, I got to the front and tried to get as big a lead as possible before the real climbing began.
I figured that the mountain would hurt the same whether I went out hard or not and had nothing to lose by being aggressive from the start. The first three miles felt easy and the trail was windy, muddy, and really fun to navigate. I maintained my lead until about four miles in when the second place lady caught and passed me.
The climbs were getting progressively more difficult, so I decided the smartest thing would be for me to maintain my effort level and keep plugging along. The miles began to feel extremely long and they took forever! I put my hands on my knees and power-hiked up some of the really steep hills which seemed to make my legs burn the same as if I were running, but it allowed me to catch my breath and regroup until I could start running again.
At about a mile to go, there was an extremely steep downhill that was way harder to run than the uphills. My legs were jelly and I was so afraid of falling and ruining my race, but thankfully I was able to get down safely and turned the corner where there was a sign that said 1000 meters remained in the race. I started to celebrate and thought, that’s like, three-ish minutes! I’m almost done!
I was so wrong. That last kilometer, called “Upper Walking Boss,” was a 40% grade and took around nine minutes to climb. I scrambled up in a really weird bear crawl that seemed to be doing the job. I maintained the distance between the leader and me, and was nervously glancing over my shoulder to make sure third place stayed well behind me. The climb was brutal, but the whole time I was ecstatic because I could taste that trip to the world championships. My dad was at the top and celebrated with me when I crossed the finish line. It was an amazing moment that I’ll never forget. My coach made it to the top a few minutes later and it was awesome to see all of our hard work pay off!
I took it easy for a week following the race and did a lot of swimming and resting which was really nice! Now it is back to business as usual and the miles are beginning to pile on again. The world championship race is on September 11th, so I have a lot of work to do before then!
Have you ever competed in a mountain race?