I find myself sitting once more in Sharon's kitchen this morning in her awesome little house hidden in the Intervale, NH woods.
Seriously. It's hidden. I get completely lost and turned around in literally one square mile trying to find the driveway every. Single. Year. All the neighbors know me now because of my annual pulling into their driveway with my brights on in the dead of night trying to determine if their's is the correct house. Miraculously, I haven't been shot at yet.
Anyway, Sharon is one of the White Mountain Milers who always generously opens her doors for runners to stay when they're coming from afar for the infamous Mt. Washington Road Race and I've stayed at her house every time I've been out here since 2014. Every time I come out here, I feel as though I've entered some sort of weird time warp, where there is absolutely no way 360-some-odd (in this this case, 390-some-odd) days have elapsed since my last visit. It always seems like yesterday. This time though, the light is a little more autumn-like, the weather just slightly cooler...
Because wait...it's August! That race is in June.
It's an important weekend back home: Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon Weekend. And on this particular day one year (how was that a whole year?!) ago was the Epic Pikes Peak Ascent Where The Sun Went Behind The Moon And We All Ran Kinda Slow. There was an eclipse that weekend, and we blamed the somewhat bewilderingly lackluster finishing times on that. I don't have an excuse that cool though. I just straight-up ran like a donkey, the impending eclipse was entirely irrelevant. A couple of weeks later I redeemed myself at Mt. Baldy in California. It was a great mountain season.
Then I got injured.
And I haven't run more than 5 miles in a single run for 10 months now.
Perhaps most shockingly, I'm starting to be okay with it. Finally. But I don't mean in the wave-the-white-flag-because-I'm-surrendering sort of way. And not because I've thrown in the towel...
This is Bowser. I believe I've introduced him before. He's my gravel bike, and we've had many adventures this summer, and he's kept my heart from feeling blasted to smithereens owing to this past year's worth of virtual runlessness and the subsequent inescapable identity crisis that has followed.
Anyway, I was a little let down a couple of months ago when, despite my best efforts and some darn impressively creative methods to train somewhat effectively on outrageously limited mileage, I knew my favorite race wouldn't be in the cards this year. Coming out to Mt. WA every year to race and, equally importantly, to see everyone whom I haven't seen since the preceding year, feels a lot like going "home" in a sense, and it just wasn't going to be a year without it.
On top of that, once upon a time I had told Paul Kirsch--one of the most top notch race directors and one of my favorite humans to boot--that one of my goals is to become a Mt. Washington "Streaker." No, that's not to imply that I ever intend to run the race naked, but that I want to be here every single year. But I've only run the race in 2014, 2016, and 2017. My streak already kinda sucks. And I was quite sad that it would now suck more.
So I decided to rectify that by entering the bike race in lieu of running it. I mean, it certainly wouldn't be the same, no, but it was something! That particular race, not to mention the trip out there combined with the logistics of getting a bike there as well, made for a pricey excursion. I was really, really grateful for a heavily discounted entry that found its way unexpectedly to my email about six weeks prior to the race. Courtesy of? I still don't know.
In any event, thanks to help of my bike homeboy Kyle at Raceco Tuning, Bikeflights, and Stan and Dan's Sports in Conway, Bowser and I found our way out there.
I'm still very much familiarizing myself with the cycling world, and by no means do I yet feel as though I remotely belong in it. Nonetheless, there were a few familiar New England faces under the familiar white tents at the mountain's base when I went to pick up my packet Friday afternoon preceding the race.
I was wandering around cluelessly amongst the registration tables, panicked with the realization that I had already forgotten my race number which, I had been surprised and unnerved to find out, was part of the elite wave. Thankfully, John, who writes the press releases and with whom I'd become acquainted with during my first trip out here in 2014, pulled me over to a far table.
"Shannon! I was just talking about you," he introduced me to the race announcer and now-retired elite cyclist, Marty, who became yet another person associated with this mountain and this race to with whom I took an instant liking to. First we clarified that I was in fact bib #47 as opposed to 47 years old as the start list said. Then we talked about her cycling background, how she'd formerly been a very good runner herself in her younger days before an ongoing knee injury forced her onto the bike (eh...sounds familiar), where she then had an illustrious career all the way into her late 40's. She had no idea the hope she was instilling in me.
"You're our dark horse for tomorrow," she said. Dear Lord, I hoped she was joking--winning the race on foot a couple of times doesn't necessarily translate to winning it on a bike--but I rolled with it. Apparently she wasn't joking.
"What's your bike and how's your gearing?" She asked.
Crap. I hate it when cyclists start talking bikes to me, I still have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about. Or what they're taking about.
"Well I have this awesome gravel bike..." I started, trailing off, suddenly sheepish.
Beat of silence.
If there is one thing I've learned it's that cyclists will judge you hard on your choice of bike. Also, something I've learned is that cycling is a sport of haves and have not's; you can train your brains out, and that will matter, but your bike and gear will also matter. Admittedly that's what grinds my gears (pun intended) about it: it lacks the purity and honesty of running in that while you cannot get around the need to invest time into training, you can, to an extent, always "buy" a slightly better performance with a lighter bike or different gearing or better components. I hate that aspect of it. But anyway.
"Oh!" She rallied and cheerfully pressed on. "Well that's okay, you'll still have a great first experience. You'll be on the podium."
After a few more minutes of chatting and introductions, I took my packet, stashed it in the car, went for a short run on the great trails that wind their way around the foot of the mountain for nostalgia's sake, then headed back to Intervale to stew in pre-race terror.
As unpleasant as those pre-race nerves have always been, they do carry with them a certain amount of reassurance because I've since learned that it means my head will be in it. I've struggled to get my head into a lot of cycling races in the same way that my head has always been in running races. It just doesn't feel the same. When my head's not in it, like at the Mt. Evans Hillclimb, I literally cannot make myself give so much as a single damn and that extra amount of "umph" remains inaccessible. So I was relieved, to an extent, that I was a jumble of nerves and stress, even though I'm pretty sure it was less from the race and more from not knowing what I was doing.
Race morning saw rain at the base of Mt. Washington and a questionable forecast. It was a warm rain though, and the summit was completely obscured in the clouds. After attaching the half dozen race numbers to my helmet, jersey and bike, I left to jog my warm up in the rain. I'm the only idiot who runs my warm ups, everyone else was on bike trainers under the tent.
Upon returning to the car to change shoes and maybe go for a really short ride, my nerves were at an all time high when the announcement came over the loud speakers that a two hour delay would commence, so poor was the visibility at the summit that race vehicles could not proceed.
So I sat in the car and listened to Taylor Swift sing about mean girls and bad boyfriends for another hour-plus while marinating in anxiety of the cold-sweat variety, before heading back out to repeat the exact same warm-up ritual.
Sure enough, two hours later the skies at the base had cleared somewhat, and the start waves were assembled. They called the "Top Notch" wave up by name and gave us all a brief intro, then the traditional cannon went off and with a loud clattering of a multitude of shoes clipping into pedals we were off and heading upwards.
I should note that given my lack of experience starting in masses, I hung off the back to avoid crashing anybody...or everybody.
Within 300 meters we were already climbing steeply, the first four or so miles are, in my opinion, the toughest. You sweat your way through the humid woods on a pretty consistently steep grade for that first half of the race. I found some guys to hang with, switched into the easiest gear, and started grinding.
One thing I'm still wrapping my head around is that I have yet to feel as though I am red-lining on a bike in terms of breathing like I would be while running. I feel like the legs are the limiting factor. It's as though there is this tremendous asymmetry between my heart and lungs, and my legs. But I suppose they'll catch up eventually.
We chugged along the familiar steep road for a few miles before entering the clouds and exiting the trees. The trees get shorter and more stunted the higher you climb, before ending all together. We were greeted by a misty drizzle above treeline--what I like to call Harry Potter Dementor Weather--and only the slightest breeze. I still felt great breathing, but I was amazed at the few guys who passed me and how easy of a time they seemed to have climbing on their bikes when I felt stuck at one speed. Generally I feel like climbing is a strength of mine, but I was definitely jealous of their feather-light bikes and more grade-appropriate gearing. But whatever, work with what you've got and don't let it get in your head.
Beginning about mile 4.5-5.5 you find yourself on the road's one dirt section, and it was here that I started having to switch around positions to somewhat divvy up the work on different leg muscles as I was starting to feel it in the quads and hip flexors. I don't like standing up out of the saddle because it feels so choppy and inefficient to me, but I found it necessary on some of the steeper pitches over the final couple of miles, otherwise it was tough to generate enough force to actually push the pedal down.
"The Wall" or what I like to call "The Go F**k Yourself" remained the final challenge of the day. It's roughly 80 meters worth of a 23% grade just before the finish line that is, for the record, much harder on a bike than it is to run. But I managed to climb it without incident, aside from being annihilated on the way up it by what appeared to be a 12 year old boy, to finish fourth in 1:12. My hope had been to beat my best running time of 1:10, but well, I got somewhat close I suppose.
After hanging around at the summit for a while, many-time Mt. WA runner Kevin Tilton and the two guys who I've dubbed "The BikeReg Bros." (they own bikereg.com) were kind enough to allow me to hitch a ride back down with them. Thanks dudes!
I've been asked, is it harder to run it or ride it? At this point I'd say running, hands-down. But perhaps that may change with learning better cycling skills, maybe right now I am only able to make it so difficult.
Side note: cheers to the unicyclist who finished in a bit over two hours. I'm still trying to understand the mechanics of that feat.
I wasn't quite sure what this race would bring, but I was quite pleased with the first go-around. And Bowser, with his supposed added weight and supposed less efficient gearing did me proud nonetheless. And I'll be back for a Round Two.
I definitely missed the reunion of friends that I always get to see running this race, and there was a certain emptiness without them. Maybe it won't always feel like that. It is, after all, the people that make every race what it is. But there is still hope to keep that promised Mt. Washington streak alive, even if it's not in the form I thought that it would be.