Only One Hill

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Starting about three years ago the owner of my company began to notice that I was shedding weight pretty fast. I found during the first few months of my athletic renaissance that people were often reluctant to verbally acknowledge the 20-30 pounds I lost, mostly because they were afraid of me responding to the tune of “yeah, I’ve got cancer” or “it’s parasite city in here,” neither of which were obviously the case. But my boss is not the type of man to hold back on anything, and when we discovered a common love for running he told me about THE RACE. Unknown to me at the time, for the better part of the last century a race tagged as “Only One Hill” has been held every June during which participants run up the Mount Washington Auto Road. That’s 6,288 feet of elevation on a 7.6 mile road with an average grade of 12%.

Naturally my response was somewhere in the realm of “Pfft, that’s nothing for badasses like us, let’s do it!” but I was secretly hiding behind the the slim odds of even being selected to participate. You see, runners must enter a lottery and have their names picked from a pool of two to three thousand entrees in order to get in. Only 1,300 are picked. While I knew we wouldn’t chicken out should we find ourselves selected, a part of me really hoped that it didn’t come to that. It’s the tallest mountain in New England!

Well, the first year we weren’t selected, so life went on with the occasional talk of the 5Ks and such that we were running. Come December 2013 we were chatting it up at the company Christmas party and the idea to sign up for the race came up again. Given our poor luck the previous year, again I launched into my “let’s attack this mountain!” rhetoric, and again we tossed our names into the hat.

And this time we were picked.

My wife, Dina was in the lottery with us, and as soon as our eyes ran across the congratulatory emails from the Mount Washington Auto Road we dove head first into training. Four mile sessions turned to five, and five mile sessions turned to six. We alternated between road and treadmill training, with the latter coming in handy for running at a constant high grade. Things were looking great for the first month and a half until we bumped up our regiment to seven miles. That’s when we injured ourselves.

It was a case with which many runners are familiar: too much too soon. The upping of our mileage was not offset by a lowering of pace. Dina was hit with Runner’s Knee in both legs, while I suffered some strained ligaments in my right ankle. Given the buildup and how much time and energy we were putting into this race at that time (to put it in perspective, I went from 3000 words per day to maybe 500 with “The Estafru of Rollinsford” and ignored this blog altogether), we went into proper freak out mode.

Taking to the internet, we determined that we needed to start cross-training while we healed… and we needed to do it YESTERDAY. Biking was the most logical exercise given its use of complementary muscles and potential benefits to the rehabilitation of our injuries. So, on impulse we went out and dropped $2,500 on bikes and gear. Problem solved.

For the next month before the race we alternated between a slow buildup back to our former running standards and 20 mile cycling sessions. By the time the race came around we were still feeling some lingering traces of our injuries, but for the most part we were solid.

On to the race!

We left Eliot at 3PM on Friday, June 20th in order to beat the weekend traffic to the White Mountains and register early for the race. From there we would hit a local pasta joint and carbo-load until we were ready to explode. Given our luck leading up to the race, I’m surprised we actually thought it would go that smoothly. We hit traffic 30 minutes into the drive and ended up at a standstill for close to an hour. Apparently one of the worst collisions ever recorded on Route 16 had taken place some two miles away from us. After an hour of backtracking and navigating back roads rife with unsettled locals, we were back on 16 and heading north, only now we were too late to make early registration. So, we checked in to our hotel, ventured out for some spaghetti and meatballs, and retired early for the big race.

The next day we managed to hit another gridlocked segment of traffic while approaching the base of the mountain. Luckily we had my father and stepmother with us (our ride down from the top). They took our car and we got our warm up run as we dashed down the shoulder of the road toward the base camp. Dina managed to forget her driver’s license, the only requisite item for registration and bib pickup, but I was able to smooth talk them into checking her in. After that I picked up my race credentials and attempted to relax a bit before heading to the starting line.

Let me preface the next part of my story with this: we’ve never even driven up Mount Washington. So, we had no idea what was in store, and as soon as the cannon fired and we were jogging through wall-to-wall people, I got my very first sight of the upturn and grade I’d be battling for the next couple of hours. It was brutal, like looking up the harshest hill on my typical running route back home, only it stayed like this for 7.6 miles not 300 feet.

Relatively demoralized but still determined to own that mountain, I pushed forward and eventually hit the first mile marker. Then a second. By the third my legs were cursing me out in a language so colorful and foreign that I began to wonder if I’d be able to make it without stopping to walk for at least a portion. It was around this time I noticed that almost everyone around me was walking. Those who weren’t walking were running at such a sloth-like pace that the walkers were actually passing them. I willed myself along for another half mile before succumbing to a walk/run alternation.

By the time I hit the six mile mark my legs felt like thoroughly worn rubber and the temperature had dropped from 72 degrees at the base to somewhere in the ballpark of 35. I was walking more than running at this point, but still progressing more quickly than those around me. Well above treeline, I attempted through my pain to take in the gorgeous views around me, but my attention found itself always returning to the cold, weather-worn pavement beneath me. In previous races I’ve been able to pull out a little extra toward the end for a decent kick toward the finish line, but this was a different animal entirely.

As I reached the summit to the muted cheers of various onlookers perched on rocks and crouched at the edge of the auto road, I came to face the final 50 yard stretch of the race and its brutal 22% grade. My hands were pressed to my knees as I ascended. Other racers were down on all fours, crawling up. I can’t put into words just how devastating it was. Pulling out the remaining sliver of my reserve energy, I sped across the finish line as the clock ticked 1:46:09 and was immediately covered in a polar fleece blanket and adorned with my participant medal.

Tired as I was, I rushed back down to the base of that final portion to cheer Dina along when she came around twenty minutes later. Upon collecting her at the finish line we had once final race left in us: the race to my father’s car to warm up — it was 32 degrees at the summit!

The rest of the day was a blur of water, turkey, mashed potatoes, beer, vodka and the obligatory, endless celebration. Never before in our lives had we accomplished anything so grand. We’re looking to participate in coming marathons, and that doesn’t even seem like such a chore. Three weeks after the race, we’re still talking about it to no end, much to the annoyance of those around us, I’m sure.

I doubt we’ll ever stop reliving it.

Before I close this abnormally lengthy post out, I want to see if anyone noticed that I didn’t mention my boss anywhere after the initial lottery and training. Well, the poor fella ended up blowing out his arch a week before the race was to take place and wasn’t able to participate. There’s always next year, and given the fact that the odds of being selected are greatly increased if you sign up as a team (if one person is picked, everyone goes), it looks as though this won’t be our last time laboring up the Mount Washington Auto Road!

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