The Race to the Top of Vermont 2013
All runners have their strengths and weaknesses. Of the latter, I can list plenty; of the former, I know that I am a solid uphill runner. As such, I take a perverse thrill out of races that head in only one direction: upwards. We have a couple of them in the Catskills as part of the Onteora Runners Club Spring Series: the High Rock 2.3 mile Run to Indian Chair, which climbs 1300 ft in its last mile and a half of roots-and-rocks trails; and the Platte Clove Road 3 mile run, which likewise allows for a mile of flat running to get warmed up before a brutal climb up 1200ft of back-country road in only two miles.
The Race to the Top of Vermont, now in its sixth year, and which welcomes runners, mountain bikers and hikers alike, takes these distances and doubles them. Using the old Toll Road up Mount Mansfield alongside the ski slopes of Stowe Mountain Resort, it climbs a solid 2564 feet in 4.3 miles, an average 11% grade in cycling currency, or about 600ft per mile elevation gain in runners’ terminology. This is about as steep as you can pitch it without reducing me to a walk, and longer and more gain than anything I undertake on a regular basis. (The trail up my local Mount Tremper rises 1900 ft in under 3 miles, but there’s one four-minute section I always hike.) Naturally, then when I saw that the race was occurring the weekend we were taking our older son to college in Burlington, I persuaded the family to pitch camp in town for the weekend and signed myself up for it.
Never mind that this necessitated getting up with the birds before 6am, and quickly breaking down our secondary tent to set off on a 45-mile car journey (that part about “pitching camp” was not a metaphor), for if we didn’t have such occasional dates with destiny in our diary we’d never get to bed before 10pm on a Saturday night, would we? Fortunately, the early morning drive out from Burlington was almost worth it in its own right, as I traversed from a superbly sunny sky into twenty odd-miles of low-slung valley clouds before rising out of it to the 1500ft base line in what constituted my first journey through the beautiful ski towns of Stowe and Smuggler’s Notch.
This sixth edition of the Race boasted 100 more participants than the supposed 800 maximum. Approximately half were runners (the hikers line up behind the runners, and the bikers set off an hour later to avoid this being a collision course), and they included some serious talent. Among them: local star Kasie Enman, who frequently wins the Burlington/Run Vermont Marathon (she skipped to give birth, she told me as I ambitiously lined up alongside her; bear in mind that was only three months ago) and entered the race holding the female running course record for this race; two of the US Winter Olympics female Nordic Ski team; a couple more Olympians past or present whose names and activities I didn’t catch; and last year’s male winner and overall running record holder, Josh Ferenc. The Race to the Top of Vermont offer a small smattering of cash prizes, topping out with a $500 bonus for the male or female who sets a new course record – be it on bike or on foot. As we set off, that record belonged, by a minute or two, to the cyclists in both sexes (31:51 and 37:18 respectively); neither time was bettered this weekend.
Coming up with tactics for a race like this are inherently difficult, bordering on impossible. Mountain trails as we have in the Catskills – such as my local Mount Tremper – tend towards flat and even the occasional inverse slope as they wind their way up the side of a mountain. Longer trail races tend to be loops, out-and-backs, or, as in the case of the annual 30k Escarpment Run, point-to-points that essentially cancel out any elevation gain. On computer screen, this course looked like only steady uphill. Not the kind of course where you can push hard to a particular peak, knowing that your calves will catch a break on a downhill – because there is no downhill. Not the kind of course where you can hold back, trusting you’ll conserve energy for the second half, because the course requires constant, complete dedication of energy, simply to keep moving. All I could aim for was a tempo at which I knew that I was pushing myself hard, but not pushing so much that I was hurting…. And then stick with it.
The first stretch was the steepest, as Rod Stewart once nearly sang, and I didn’t mind watching a pack of about fifty break away ahead of me; I knew better than to blow it on such a brutal pitch. Nor did I mind when a young group wearing running vests marked Stowe came past me; if the local high school cross-country team couldn’t beat me up the mountain, something was very wrong (or perhaps very right!) with the world. And I certainly didn’t mind when I lost all sight of Kasie; this is a woman who runs marathons at a 6:14 pace.
And so, I held resolutely on to my tempo. Courtesy of a local running guru, Dick Vincent, I have learned to align my breathing with my cadence; four steps per single breath (in or out) indicates a running comfort zone; three breaths means I’m pushing it; two-and-half that I’m racing; and two steps per breath means I’m going flat out and won’t be able to keep at it much longer. As I heard people around me clearly struggle with their breathing, I locked into a comfortably hard ‘three count’ until the last mile, when attempts to find some sort of increased pace found me breathing faster … though not actually getting much quicker.
The course was almost entirely unrelenting; I recall a hundred-yard section that leveled out and gave my muscles some real relief, and perhaps another fifty-yard section that hinted at the same. I walked through the one water stop, and I power-hiked a particularly steep section on the fourth mile; I’ve seen people win mountain races by knowing when to run, and when to walk. But though I never felt like I could pick it up an extra notch, nor did I ever feel beaten. Slowly, surely, and steadily was the name of this particular game.
On the final mile, I locked onto a another middle-aged man who seemed to have extra energy in his legs, but he proved too strong for me – after which I paced with someone else who appeared to be much my age. On the last half-mile, we edged past each other a couple of times in slow motion, neither of us necessarily thinking that there was any competition between us – not until I pushed on the last corner, for my own sake more than anything else, and he promptly pushed back and overtook me. I managed to wheeze a congratulatory something like “it’s yours” – the first words I had energy and focus to utter on the whole race – and let him have it.
And then we were done. And I felt just fine. Much like my last race in Vermont – the marathon in Burlington at the end of May, where I came within 30 seconds of my PR – it seemed like I couldn’t have run any faster or any harder. And yet because I felt so good at the finish line, and because I didn’t hurt and hadn’t cramped or been in any doubt, I almost instantly found myself wondering if I had actually given it my all. No pain, no gain and all that. This thought process was further complicated by the fact that on this race, much as on that long Marathon, I hadn’t surged at the end as I tend to on a 5k, 10k or even a mountain race where I hold something back for the end. Upon further consideration, though I welcome discussion on the issue, I think that on both these Vermont races, I went all out throughout, and that I should just be pleased that I’ve gotten myself to a level of cardiovascular fitness that I can stay on pace, and pull off either a short or long run without any great discomfort.
Indeed, I was raring to keep going. I felt like I’d ascended a particularly grueling part of the Escarpment Run or Manitou’s Revenge and that I was due to be rewarded with some different terrain. And so, given that I had parked my car where I’d picked up my race packet at the Midway Lodge, mistakenly believing that the course came through it (though proper studying of the race info in advance would have confirmed that it did nothing of the sort), I asked an EMS guy for directions. He pointed me to the ridge up above us, from where I would find a trail that would lead to the gondola, and from there I could come down one of the ski slopes. It sounded so easy.
The ridge turned out to be an awkwardly arrayed series of rocks clearly marked by painted lines and rope on the ground –necessary to avoid a seriously precipitous drop either side. I wasn’t the only racer heading straight for it, and I have to say, it immediately appealed to my love of trail running, where every foot placement is different from the one preceding it, rather than the relentless grind of the race up the toll road. I reached the ‘cut’ down to the Gondola after about fifteen minutes, at which one of the many hikers out on the ridge pointed out that the true Top of Vermont lay a little ahead and above of us, and encouraged me to go all the way, assuring me I’d regret it otherwise. I did have a power recovery drink with me (Scott Jurek’s miracle anti-inflammatory smoothie, which I’d packed in along with my race shirt) and wasn’t worried about fueling. But I was concerned about timing and getting back to Burlington before the family was thrown off the camp site. I passed on the last short hike, and headed down the trail to the Gondola, only to discover that it was about as difficult a descent as most anything in the Catskills, and that here was I wearing racing flats and with a drink in one hand. Fortunately, from years of experience, my footing is good. I surprised a few hikers coming upwards, some of whom had equally little idea what they’d gotten themselves into, having come up to meet family members from the race, but I presume they made it up top in one piece.
Though I would have been quicker jogging back down the toll road, I’m glad I took the ridge. The views were exquisite, especially on a beautiful sunny morning such as this, offering panoramas north to Canada, back west across to the Adirondacks of New York, and east to Massachusetts and New Hampshire as well. That said, when I got to the gondola, I had no interest in running down a double black ski slope (I ran down a blue run on Hunter Mountain recently, and had sore quads for a week). I paid for the ride back downhill instead, in dollars. The festivities at the Midway Lodge looked like they were going to be fun, but I was straight in the car and back to the North Beach Campground. By 1pm I was rinsing off my sweat, finally, with a lengthy swim in Lake Champlain. A few hours after that, we were on the ferry back over to New York, with what looked very much like the Top of Vermont in the distance behind me.
On the journey home, I was able to study the instant results. I finished 50th amongst the males, 57th overall, coming it at 46:46, almost fourteen minutes behind the winner, who himself took a full minute off the male course running record. I had thought myself perhaps good for a ten-minute mile pace; in reality, I was closer to eleven, much the pace I’m reduced to on the two-mile incline up Platte Clove Road. Often, I measure my achievement by my age group, in which case, finishing sixth out of thirty-seven 40-49 year olds is not too bad. But of late, given my exact age, I’ve started measuring success by the number of older runners who finish ahead of me. Given how close I am to my half-century of years on earth, the only person I knew to be older than me to beat me was, in fact, the person who caught me at the very finish, and then by only a second; turned out he was the first amongst the 50-59 year age group. I would have felt gutted at letting him go if I’d known we had bragging rights to fight for. But as it is, I’m now looking forward to next year’s birthday and the chance that I might actually win a few age group awards on races such as these. There’s something to be said for getting older.
And so, if I’m not out at Burning Man next year, I’ll hopefully be taking Campbell up to college again, staying over for the weekend again, and Racing to the Top of Vermont again. And if not Vermont, there are other such challenges. Like the race up Whiteface Mountain in New York or the eight-mile run up Mount Washington in New Hampshire. After all, you know that saying: you can’t keep a good uphill runner down.