Posted May 1st, 2010
Even if you’re not a runner, chances are you’ve heard of the runner’s high, a state of euphoria that results from a release of endorphins after you’ve been cranking out mile after hard mile. There’s another kind of runner’s high, though; one that’s not about your state of consciousness, but rather about quite literally running high. I’m talking about running at altitude, or more accurately, running to altitude.
Across New England and the Northeast, there are myriad mountain running races that do just one thing: go uphill. It’s as simple as can be. Start at the base and finish at the summit. Some are independent, such as the Sugarloaf Uphill Climb. It takes place every October. Runners ascend 2,500 vertical feet in just 3 miles en route to Sugarloaf’s 4,237-foot summit. Other such races are part of a series. Most notably, there’s USA Track & Field New England’s Mountain Circuit, a six-race lineup that starts in May and ends in July. It includes the Pack Monadnock, a 10-miler that concludes with a climb up the switchbacking auto road on the race’s namesake mountain. It also includes the Ascutney Mountain Challenge, which ascends 2,300 vertical feet in 3.8 miles. (Are your legs already getting tired just thinking about these races?)
As the number of races has grown, so has their popularity. Just 10 years ago, the Sugarloaf race attracted only 40 or so runners. Last year, 156 competitors toed the starting line. Some races sell out almost as soon as registration opens, some have wait lists, and some have a lottery system to give everyone a fair shot at landing an entry. One thing is a constant, however: they’ll all put you to the test.
That includes what I think of as The Big Three. They’re races that ascend some of the highest mountains in the North Country, each by its mountain’s auto road to the top: Whiteface, Mount Mansfield, and Mount Washington. And if you want to see if you have what it takes to tackle the mileage and the elevation gain, here’s what you need to know.
Whiteface Mountain Uphill Foot Race
Date: Sunday, June 6, 8 a.m.
The Course: Now in its 33rd year, the race ascends the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway… 8 miles at an average 8-percent grade for more than 3,500 feet of vertical gain. The race begins at an elevation of 1,006 feet at the junction of Routes 86 and 431 in Wilmington. You’ll pass the gatehouse at mile 3, the Lake Placid Turn between miles 6 and 7, and the Wilmington Turn between miles 7 and 8. The finish line is at 4,602 feet, a scant 265 feet shy of the true summit of New York State’s fifth tallest mountain.
Time to Beat: Robert Douglas, from western New York, has won the race the last three years straight. With times of 1:03:08, 1:03:15 and 1:03:33, he’s been the picture of consistency, but his times are getting slower—if ever so slightly—so this could be the year for you to shine.
More Info: www.whitefacerace.com.
Race to the Top of Vermont
Date: Sunday, August 29, 10:10 a.m.
The Course: Now in its 3rd year, the race ascends the Mount Mansfield Toll Road in Stowe, gaining 2,550 vertical feet in 4.3 miles. There are (very) short flat or downhill grades at the half-mile and roughly two-mile marks. Otherwise, it’s a steady incline that reaches 10 degrees in places.
Time to Beat: Competition is fierce. Last year 600 racers (280 of them runners) came from 17 states and Canada, and from as far away as Hawaii, Oregon, and Texas, to test themselves against Vermont’s tallest peak. They also set a new course record—35:30—courtesy of Jim Johnson from Salem, NH. Eric Morse, from Berlin, VT, was less than a minute back, and so was local Nathan Ringquist, the top finisher in the mountain bike category.
More Info: www.catamounttrail.org.
Mount Washington Road Race
Date: Saturday, June 19, 10 a.m.
The Course: The MWRR turns the big 5-0 this year and also doubles as the 2010 U.S. National Mountain Championship. It dates to 1936, but didn’t become an annual tradition until 30 years later. The course ascends the Mount Washington Auto Road, beginning in Pinkham Notch on Route 16 between Jackson and Gorham. The race’s slogan is “Only One Hill. 6,288 Feet.” That’s small consolation. From the start, it’s 7.6 miles and a whopping 4,560 vertical feet to the summit-cum-finish line. En route, you’ll crest treeline, tackle Chandler Ridge, Nelson Crag, and Ball Crag, all before coming up against The Wall, the steepest section of the route, which cruelly comes at the very end.
Time to Beat: The race predictably attracts a healthy share of runners from New England and the Northeast, as well as an international field. In amongst the 900 or so finishers are some competitors with serious accomplishments under their belts. Two previous winners—John Kelley and Jacqueline Gareau—were also Boston Marathon champions. The current course record—an incredible 56:41—has stood since 2004. Last year’s top time, posted by Boulder, Colorado’s Rickey Gates, was more than 3 minutes slower, and the only time to break the one hour mark. Good luck!
More Info: www.mountwashingtonroadrace.com.
Note: Entry to the Mount Washington Road Race is limited. Those interested in participating must enter a lottery.
Peter Bronski (peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer and frequent contributor to Vermont Sports.