I tend to fancy myself a bit of a hill runner, though recent evidence seems to indicate that I may overestimate my abilities going uphill. Maybe it's just that I'm so bad at going downhill that my climbing seems impressive by comparison. But I do enjoy hill racing and though I have yet to try one of the big championship races, I anticipate that sort of thing in my future. For now I've contented myself with whatever hill climbs I've been able to fit into my schedule. I was able to fit Whiteface in this year and couldn't pass up a chance to head up to Lake Placid, one of my favorite places on earth--even if it was for just 24 hours.
As I've mentioned before, the summer was kind of a wash training and racing-wise, but I did get a few decent weeks in during August, building up to about 80 mpw by the end of the month. I even got out onto the track for a "workout"--6 x 400 with my brother-in-law while we were on vacation in San Diego. Never thought a 74-second 400 could hurt that much! I haven't been running a ton in the way of long hill climbs, so I wasn't sure what kind of performance I could put in, but for once I was excited to be back on the starting line of what felt like a real race.
I first ran Whiteface in 2012, placing second to Duncan Douglas, a two-time US Olympian in biathlon (that's XC skiing and rifle shooting for all you tri-geeks out there). The course is a paved, 8-mile uphill climb that averages about an 8% grade, pretty steadily the entire way up. In 2012 my strategy was to stay as relaxed as possible through the first 6 miles and then try to make a move at the end. This didn't work one bit. I was about a minute behind Duncan throughout the race and when the time came to make my move, I couldn't get any closer, losing by just over two minutes. I knew this time keeping contact would be essential. Of course, I forgot that right away.
The weather at the start was perfect: mid-40s, overcast, no wind. I felt a bit sluggish when the gun went off, immediately moving into fourth place behind the lead pack of three, including Duncan and Jacob Malcolm, the 2013 winner. That was the first of several mistakes I would make on the day. The three leaders wound up not running too much faster than me over the next few miles, but I gave them a 20-30 second gap right away which would prove very difficult to close back down. I came through the mile mark right at 8:00, which was about 30 seconds slower than I remembered from 2012 and a little concerning, as the first mile is without question the easiest one on the course. I was caught just before the mile mark by another runner (Jay Niederbuhl) from behind, and we would wind up back and forth for the next couple of miles.
Shortly before the three-mile mark, Jay had moved out a few seconds on me, but I forced myself back down to 8:30 pace and caught up quickly--in fact, my momentum carried me right past him, so I pressed the pace a little bit into the 8:15-8:20 range to see what would happen. Sure enough, I opened up a little gap. Then I noticed something surprising--I was starting to gain ground on Duncan, in third. By this point, Jacob was long gone, on his was to an impressive 1:04 win, and the second-place runner was about 20-30 seconds ahead of Duncan, who--was it my imagination?--looked like he was laboring just a little bit. The pace was challenging but sustainable, so I pressed on to see if I really was closing. Within a few minutes I had him in my sights, and by four miles, I was only a couple seconds behind and closing fast.
Here's where I made my second mistake. After doing some pretty solid work to catch up, I really only had two choices: (1) tuck in just behind Duncan, latch on, try to feed off him for awhile; or (2) make a good, hard pass, try to get a little gap, and keep pressing the advantage, really trying to make him hurt. As I approached, I chose option (1), and prepared to tuck in and ease off the pace a little bit. But I closed the last few seconds of the gap much quicker than I expected and surprised myself by suddenly running right next to Duncan, who didn't have he same turnover he had displayed earlier. So I mentally tried to shift gears to option (2), except I wasn't ready, and would up somehow going with option (3), which was, pass him and immediately ease off, allowing him to latch on to me and follow me for the next mile. It's been nearly six months since my last race, and I just don't think the racing instincts were sharp enough. Race strategy is a skill, and just like any other skill, it needs to be practiced or it gets sloppy. Lack of practice really hurt me here.
Anyway, we climbed together for the next mile or so, me setting the pace, and somehow we closed down the 30 second gap to second. By the five-mile mark, we were within five seconds of second place--and yes, that's where I made another mistake. Instead of completing the catch, I hesitated when Duncan surged; he bridged he gap up to second, and I was left alone in fourth, five seconds behind. And now, as the grade kicked up to around 10% in the godforsaken sixth mile, I started to crack. The two of them pulled away quickly, and I really started to struggle. A headwind kicked up as we came into some exposed areas above the treeline. The only thing that kept me from walking was knowing that the hill wasn't getting any easier and that if I started walking now I might as well just walk the whole rest of the way. And then, right around the six-mile mark, Jay--who I thought I had left for dead--caught me, and did it right. He saw me struggling, put in a nice, solid pass and immediately had a gap of a few seconds.
I held it to about a 10-second gap through mile seven as I watched Duncan pull away in second place up ahead. Just past the seven-mile mark the road actually flattens out around a switchback for about 300 meters or so, and amazingly, my legs felt pretty refreshed by being able to climb at a 3% grade instead of 9-10% for a couple of minutes. I charged back up to Jay, closing to within two seconds before the grade kicked back up and I went back into my death march. We climbed the final half mile within a few seconds of each other. As we reached the last stretch I was trying to figure out how I was possibly going to find the strength to make some sort of final challenge when he suddenly stopped, bent over, and started vomiting. I felt a little bad taking advantage...but just a little.
My 1:10:25 was about 45 seconds slower than my run from 2012, which, given the summer I've had, wasn't too bad. I certainly felt as though I had competed well, especially the stretch from 3-5 miles where I was able to basically run down second and third. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make that stick, partly due to fitness and partly just to underdeveloped racing instincts, both of which should hopefully improve. All in all, a relatively solid performance; not an A+ effort by any means, but not a disaster either for a "first race back". With some more robust fitness I think something in the 1:06-1:07 range is possible for me (Duncan ran 1:07:14, almost exactly his winning time from 2012). The third-place finisher is a good, solid runner, but his PRs do not approach mine (from what I could find online); I'm not trying to be a jerk when I say that he's probably someone I should be beating, especially in a discipline (uphill road racing) that I would consider a "strength." If I'm going to try to be competitive next year in some higher-profile mountain races, I'm going to have to be significantly better than that.