Kevin Tilton making his way to the top
“It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.” -AC/DC
That’s a cheesy song lyric to start a mountain race report with, but it’s so true. Today’s Loon Mountain Race was as tough as ever, but it was a good indicator of the progress I have made in my training in the last 6 weeks.
This winter and spring I suffered from ailments known as sloth and work overload which include side effects of weight gain and general lack of fitness. I was able to right the ship on Memorial Day weekend after I forced myself to race the Wachusett Mountain Race. A good butt kicking is usually a good motivator, and Wachusett turned out just that way.
I have managed to string together 6 weeks of solid training (five 70 mile weeks and one at 60) with races at Bretton Woods (DNF in the heat), a 34:04 10k at Market Square Day and a 14th place at the Mt. Washington Road Race. None of these results really inspired confidence, as all of my times were way slower than my bests, but I’m trying to focus on making incremental gains and being consistent every week.
The last 2 weekends have not included a race, so I was itching to run Loon, which is one of the coolest courses on the USATF New England Mountain Running Circuit. It’s about as hard as they come with long, super-steep ascents on black diamond ski trails, including the infamous Upper Walking Boss, which has a 30% sustained grade for a full kilometer.
My legs felt like complete junk Monday and Tuesday this week, but turned a corner Wednesday and finally felt decent the rest of the week, despite the heat and humidity. Yesterday’s run felt pretty good, so I was optimistic about today’s race. Sunday morning dawned at 5AM, despite setting my alarm for 6. My head was awake, but my legs weren’t. I figured a bowl of cereal and a good long warm-up would fix that.
My legs loosened up after 4 miles of flat running, but my calves still felt tight, which is not good if you’re planning on racing up ski slopes for 5+ miles. I decided to go with my trusty Inov-8 X-Talon 212’s knowing that there would be a lot of loose gravel on the course. I lined up on the front line after dipping my singlet in the cold Pemigewasset River. Race Director Chris Dunn of acidotic Racing gave the command and we were off like a herd of turtles. Well, at least I was. The lead pack of about 8-10 guys took off a lot faster than I wanted or was able to run. Having run this race 4 times previously I knew there would be plenty of time for racing.
The first climb switchbacks on a service road, drops a bit, then climbs up to the mile mark. I still wasn’t feeling super loose and the leaders, including Eric Blake, this year’s Mt. Washington winner, and Brandon Newbould, who I was 2 spots ahead of at Mt. Washington, were pulling away. I had passed a few guys on the initial climb, and a few more were starting to come back, so I just kept my head down and remembered to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s half the battle at Loon.
After traversing the mountain on some western technical, we took the hard left turn onto a long, grassy ski slope that is the first really tough climb on the course. I was able to reel in Tristan Williams on this section and even opened a bit of a gap. I still didn’t feel great, but who does running up a 20% grade!
The next big climb is more gravel access road on the way to the summit of the north peak, which is about 4 miles into the race. As soon as we turned onto this section I knew I might have pushed the last climb too hard. I still managed to catch Drew Best and Eric MacKnight, and opened a gap before we hit the summit.
From the summit to the start of Upper Walking Boss, it’s pretty fast downhill running. I knew I wanted to hold onto the lead I had on Eric, as he’s a really good descender, so I pushed the downhill for about half a mile before we turned onto The Boss.
There really is no way to describe Upper Walking Boss. You just have to try to run it yourself. Imagine the steepest hill you’ve ever run, then add 5-10% grade. And it’s in the middle of a race. And it’s a kilometer long. I pride myself on running every step of this climb every year, no matter how bad I feel. Unfortunately this year MacKnight decided he would run faster than me at the bottom! Eric opened a gap which I was able to keep close, and we even closed a gap on third place Newbould. I had hopes of catching both guys at the top, but as we crested the south summit (9:43 for The Boss, finishing at the chairlift) those guys took off. I did my best to chase them on the loose downhill, dodging water bars along the way. It took me 2:48 to get from the chairlift to the finish line (about 500m), which includes a quick 100 meter incline at the finish to add insult to injury. I crossed the line in 49:27 in 5th place, which is actually my second fastest time on the course. The heat held off and a nice cool breeze appeared every once in a while, so that helped.
I’m pretty happy with the progression I have made since Wachusett, but I’d be lying if I said I am happy with my overall results. I ran this race in 49:36 in 2006 when I finished 2nd in the US team qualifier and the course was 10k. I have a lot of work to do, but I think I’m on the right track.