The Mount Washington road race is arguably the most difficult road race in the world, mile for mile. The race may sound daunting enough that it is run from the base to the top of the incredible Mount Washington in New Hampshire. However, the race web site has a list of other facts that truly reveal the harsh spirit and over-all badassery of this race:
- Though the race is only 7.6 miles long, there is a timing cutoff: If you take more than 3 hours to complete the race, you will be cut off and not allowed to finish. For most official road races, there is no time cutoff for anything less than a marathon.
- The course gains 4,650 vertical feet over these 7.6 miles. Most road races have either no net elevation gain (start and finish at the same point) or a slight loss.
- This comes out to an average grade of 11.5%. If the grade on a highway breaks 5%, there are warning signs for tractor-trailers.
- The race is run in late June, but due to varying weather conditions near the top (temps from 20-50F, rain, sleet, or snow), the officials strongly recommend you have a change of warm, dry clothes waiting for you at the top. Mittens, hats, and winter jackets are all recommended. This is the place that L. L. Bean field-tests all their outerwear. A number of hikers and campers have DIED of exposure attempting to summit.
As if all these weren't scary enough, the winning time in 2003 was 1:02:54. That's more than 8:15/mile pace. Most large marathons (nearly 4 times as long) are won with a pace that is faster than 4:50/mile.
Also, a fun fact: the road that the race is run on is famous for having cars earn bumper stickers that read: "This car climbed Mount Washington!" Those are cars. The runners are people, on foot.
Possibly, the oddest thing of all is the popularity of this race: even though the race is in New Hampshire (not the most populous, or easy to reach state), and the course is among the most difficult anywhere, the limit of 900 runners must be harshly enforced, and a lottery system is used to select those roughly 33% of applicants that may run the race.
Friendly testimony: This winter, I was enjoying the local ski area, and while talking to a fellow patron, I found out that he had participated in the Mount Washington hill climb, a bicycle race up the same route. The story he told me was that at one point, after cresting a particularly nasty climb, he shifted into a heavier gear and started to relax. At this point, a fellow competitor pulled alongside him and said, "Excuse me, but do you realize you're recovering on an 10% grade?"
3/16/04 - Did not win the lottery. Maybe next year.
3/25/05 - Made it through the lottery. Here is my account:
Race day was chilly, rainy, and windy. Even at the bottom. I started off slow (it is a long, steep run) and didn't take a walk break until 2.5 miles. The hardest thing to deal with are the mental challenges. When you are running hills on a normal road, you reach the top usually within a few minutes, and you can coast down. I never really realized how much I took that for granted until this race. Every turn was like a slap in the face, because the hill just kept going.
As you climb up the mountain, the vegetation thins and eventually drops out altogether as you pass the tree line. This is depressing as hell. It is like running on the surface of the moon, if the moon were rainy, windy, and cold. This continues from 1/2 way to the peak.
Another factor that affected me more than I anticipated was the altitude. You get over a mile above sea level. I trained in Connecticut, about 600 feet above sea level. The effects were me feeling horribly out of breath, despite legs that still had some energy left. Walking was the only way to deal with it. And I walked a lot. A pace that started out as 10-minute miles slowed to 15's as the race went on. Over just 7 miles.
Of course, the final 200 meters are the worst part. The grade increases to 20%, but how many of us have even seen a 20% grade? Well, the closest I can approximate it is to a set of stairs without the convenient footholds. It feels like you are climbing up a wall. But then it's done.
Overall, the entire race is highly recommended, and the post-race food and refreshments are top-notch (free soup, salad, cookies, and sandwiches, $1 hamburgers, and free beer). Try it next year!