By Drew Best
I love mountains. They make me feel small. They conceal hidden pockets of forest, with nooks and crannies that surely nobody visits…a wonderful thought. They defy easy human development, save for ski slopes and auto roads*. The ones around here used to be much bigger, now ground into nubs by erosive forces so subtle that your skin barely registers them. Yes, mountains are great- and now (finally), I get to race up them. The Ascutney Mountain Run- 3.7 miles of auto road at 12% grade- is one I have been especially looking forward to.
*Despite recent attempts to become a more tolerant person, I still hold very strong views about the “improvement” of mountains and nature in general for human recreation. Ski slopes and paved mountain access roads strike me as horribly vulgar, a gross extension of our obsession with “progress”, where we now view nature as our living room. We worship at the altar of Sedentism. Someone whoâ€™d rather ride up a mountain on a chairlift or drive up in a car really has lost the meaning of the thing. Edward Abbey puts it very nicely here.
Upon arriving at the mountain I had time to chat with some Acidotic teammates, and finally got to meet the team director, Chris Dunn. His positive energy is doing great things for mountain and trail-based endurance sport. Feeling great, I got in 20 minutes of warmup, including some climbing up the first 1/4 mile to get the climbing gears engaged. At the starting line, almost every serious mountain runner from the Northeast was present, save for two (Josh Ferenc and Eric MacKnight). If I was becoming a legit mountain runner, Iâ€™d know it today; if I sucked, Iâ€™d have nowhere to hide. (Edit- I probably forgot some names here. Justin Freeman comes to mind.)
Eric Blake was off in a hurry and nobody followed. To even the best New England mountain runners, Eric is basically untouchable in an all-uphill race. Itâ€™s understood. Instead, the battle for second played out. I felt great, passing the first mile in 7:49, faster than Iâ€™ve been doing for 12% on a treadmill, but not worried. I was settled into 4th or 5th place and feeling good about that. When my steady effort pulled me past Jim Johnson and Kevin Tilton- two serious names in New England mountain running- I was a bit concerned. But my training has been very hard and very specific, and I was below my redline, so I trusted myself enough to go with it. When I passed Brandon Newbould around mile 2 (split- 8:37) I knew Iâ€™d either succeeded in becoming competent at running uphill, or I would end up collapsed on the side of the mountain, a heap of sweaty, pukey Went-Out-Too-Fast-Newbie. Very real and immediate suffering set in at this point. The sun beat down, and Brandon caught me by mile 3 (split-8:42), no doubt seeing my backwards glances. I know this is a sign of weakness, but I canâ€™t help but look back. Whoâ€™s there? How close? The grade undulated a bit, offering a chance to change gears, which is a helpful mental break.
As Eric Blake crushed his own course record ahead of us, Brandon and I battled up the final 7/10ths of a mile. Making such a hard move while enduring this much suffering takes real cajones, and Brandon certainly has â€™em, and heâ€™s been running great on this yearâ€™s circuit. In what must have looked like a slow motion death scene, we fought until the last few hundred meters, where I somehow managed to put a few strides on him to finish 2nd in 30:59. The energy we exchanged in those brutal moments was fantastic.
After crawling into the shade to writhe around on the ground for a few minutes, I enjoyed hanging out with these guys. This crew- the usual top-10 gang- is a nice bunch of guys and the scene feels better than road racing ever does. I think everyone here gets the pull of the mountains; this is a different scene, one where the thoroughbred road runnerâ€™s temperament doesnâ€™t quite fit. Which is nice. I caught a ride down with Eric Blake and his wife (who Iâ€™ve known since middle school, actually) and it was good to catch up with them. Eric has, after all, given me some great workouts, ones that I still canâ€™t complete. But maybe someday.
One month until the USA Mountain Running Championships at Loon, where the best Western US mountain guys will join the mix and push me back farther from the front. Most of the New England guys are running Mt. Washington in 2 weeks, and I know Iâ€™ll have to man up and add this to my calendar at some point if I want to consider myself a mountain runner, but for now Iâ€™m content to look ahead to Loon.
Any day on a mountain is a great day, and this was no exception.
As Drew mentioned, he finished second to Eric Blake with his 30:59 (full results here). Follow Drew on the regular by checking out his blog The Running Primate:Â Evolution and Endurance in Amherst, MA (where this piece originally was published).