The morning of June 15, 2019 was a pleasant day around most of New England with mild temperatures and light winds. A crowd of more than 1,000 runners gathered at the Pinkham Notch base of the Mt. Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire. Among them were Nadir Cavagna, a member of the Italian team that won the silver medal in the World Mountain Championships in 2018. Three-time winners of the Mt. Washington race, Ernie Blake of West Hartford, Ct. and Simon Gutierrez of Alamosa, Colo. were also there. In the women’s field was Brandi Ehrolz, a two-time winner from McCall, Idaho and two Vermonters: Caitlin Patterson, the Olympic Nordic skier and UVM grad, and another Craftsbury-based skier and runner, Heidi Caldwell.
Since it was first launched in 1904, the Mt. Washington Road Race (now sponsored by Northeast Delta Dental) has attracted top runners from around the world. For those who are not elite runners, entries are by lottery and nearly always sell out.
For Caldwell, who finished second in 2018, it was a chance to come back and vie for the first place $1000 prize purse. The Running Director at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, she started out slowly, measuring her pace as she started her climb. Ahead, the 7.6 mile road would rises 4,650 feet with an average grade of 12 percent, getting even steeper toward the top. The race’s motto, “there is only one hill,” is an apt one. But it’s a big hill.
As Caldwell came above treeline she could see Brittni Hutton of Lubbock, Tx., ahead of her. Hutton had broken away at the start and now had a half-minute lead. “I would do 10 power-hiking strides up the steep switchbacks, which I think gave my muscles a break,” Caldwell said as she came to the winding part of the course. And as the 6,288 foot summit came into sight, Caldwell felt a second wind. “I saw I was gaining on Brittni and I just gave it my all,” Caldwell remembers. The final 50 yards have a 22 percent grade. “There is a reason they call it The Wall. It is literally like running up a wall,” Caldwell says. “You are power walking or hiking or whatever you can to get up it. It’s the epitome of Type 2 fun and maybe the only race I’ve done where I thought this is as hard as I can go,” she remembers.
By this time the temperatures had dropped to 37 degrees and the wind was howling at 50 mph. The two women crossed the finish line neck and neck, finishing at 1:16:17. It was the first tie the race had seen in 58 years.
With the 2020 race cancelled due to Covid, this year marks the 60th anniversary of one of America’s most legendary races, a race that has seen all sorts of firsts. This year will mark another: in an effort to keep the Coronavirus at bay, on the men will race on June 20th, and the day before, on June 19h, the women will start. Caldwell is planning to be there to defend her title with Hutton and a host of other top racers ready to take her on.
The Once and Future Race
Completed in 1861, the Mt. Washington Carriage Road was designed more for recreation than for transportation. Early on, it took visitors to the summit of Mt. Washington and was an attraction that helped fill rooms at the Halfway House and other area hotels. Frank Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer steam-powered motor vehicle, was the first to drive up the road in 1899.
In 1904, a medical student named George Foster wanted to prove he could run up the road faster than any of the newfangled automobiles. He proved his point, completing the climb in 1 hour 42 minutes. In 1936 some of Dr. Foster’s friends organized a Mt. Washington road race in his honor and 12 runners finished. The race was held again in 1937 and 1938, with larger fields each time.
In 1938, Paul Donato, a 21-year-old from Roxbury, Ma., finished first in 1:16:24. Dan Donato still has a photo of his grandfather crossing the finish line. “He was in the top five in the Boston Marathon and was quite a runner,” says Dan. “The first time I did the race I was in my 20s and I was thinking a lot about my granddad and how he must have felt and how he must have trained. His diet included steak and beer and he talked about his shoes a lot. It amazes me when I look at those old photos and see him running in leather shoes with heels and here I am in my Nike Vaporflys.”
Dan Donato is the third generation in his family to run the race. “My dad did it without really training but I’m shooting to break 1:30,” said the 41-year-old from Marblehead, who had run the race in 1:32. “The whole premise of running up this mountain is insane. People have asked me, ‘What’s harder, a marathon or Mt. Washington?’ I say, without a doubt, Mt. Washington.” This year Dan may also bring along the trophy his granddad won in 1938. “It’s about waist-high,” he says.
The Record Holders
Vermonters have long been top contenders in the race. In 2012 Keith Woodward, also a Craftsbury Outdoor Center employee, was inducted into the Mt. Washington Road Race Hall of fame for having raced up the Rockpile the greatest number of times (at the time, that was 36) – and he won the race in 1:06:38 in 1983. In 2011, Woodward also set his age group record (60-64) with a time of 1:21:19.
Fred Ross III of Vernon, Vt. eclipsed Woodward’s record and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019 after racing the event 42 times. In 2017 and 2018 he also won his age group, 70-74.
But perhaps the most famous contestant in the race has been George Etzweiler who started running at age 59. Etzweiler’s first time at the race was in 1989 at age 69 when he ran with his son Larry, 43. He has since completed it 13 times and holds the age group records for 85 to 89 (he ran a 2:33:20 in 2005), for 90 to 95 (2:48:25) and for 95-99 (3:28:41). Etzweiler was scheduled to race in 2019 when a stomach bug sidelined him. In March 2020, he turned 100 and was already training for the race when Covid cancelled it. This year, at age 101 he has promised to be at the race— but doesn’t plan to run.
The 2021 race may not draw some of the international stars of years past but the lineup is still strong. The overall record holder, New Zealander Jonathan Wyatt (the six-time World Mountain Running Champion) ran the race in 56:41 in 2004. Ethiopian Shewarge Amare recorded a time of 1:08:21 in 2010. Other perennial contenders include Joseph Gray of Colorado Springs who has won the race four times and is the top American and defending champion Eric Blake.
As the race began to attract more elite runners, it started a policy of banning anyone who had previously tested positive for drugs in any race. About 14 years ago, Ethiopian runner Alene Reta asked if he could compete. Reta had been suspended from racing in 2002 when he tested positive for nandrolene, the steroid baseball player Roger Clemens was caught using. He was denied entry.
In 2010, Reta’s sister Shewarge Alena Amare, then 21, asked to race. Shewarge had no history of performance-enhancing drugs and was accepted. She set the course record, which still stands, at 1:08:21. The only woman to come close to that is Colorado’s Kim Dobson who ran it in 1:09:25 in 2012 and is expected for 2021.
Kasie Enman of Huntington, Vt., has finished second at Mt. Washington twice. The former Women’s World Mountain Running champion (she also finished second in 2017) was happy to see the move toward testing,
“It’s important that we ensure a fair race for all the clean athletes in our sport. Thanks to Mount Washington Road Race for taking this important step,” she wrote at the time.
In June, Heidi Caldwell plans to return to the race. “I grew up in New Hampshire and I’ve summited all 48 of the 4,000 footers there, so it feels like home,” says Caldwell, the granddaughter of legendary Nordic ski racer and coach, John Caldwell. “Perhaps the best thing about the race is it really is just one hill and you don’t pound on your knees the way you do going downhill,” she says. “I hope I’m going to be able to do it for a long, long time.”