The other day I was scanning through my husband’s Facebook feed (I refuse to get my own account but am not above using his to stalk people and communicate with friends) and I saw what would be the perfect gift to give myself once I complete the mountain goat series. It was a shirt that said, “World’s Okayest Runner.” Besides being completely hysterical, it is also totally accurate. I saw this shirt about two weeks before the Loon Mountain Race and wished I could wear it all the way up the mountain so it could speak for me as I made a slow and sloppy ascent. Lord knows I would not have the oxygen to explain for myself.
After the Ascutney Mountain Run, I was approaching Loon with some serious trepidation. Thankfully I have a wonderful coach and great running friends that helped me get into a better head space before the big day. Of primary concern was heat and hydration. My coach, Kristina Folcik-Welts, helped me to come up with a plan: carry plenty of water as well as some kind of electrolyte drink (in my case my homemade “elixir of life”), take a salt pill every 20 minutes, and pour water over my head at every aid station. To that plan I added: pray for rain.
The other thing on my mind was Upper Walking Boss, otherwise known as the stuff nightmares are made of. It is the last section of the race and includes sections that are at a 40 percent grade (translation: practically upside down). In this case, God bless my friend Mindy. She did not sugarcoat the pain that is UWB, because it is pain, but she did say very convincingly over and over again that the views are worth the pain, not to mention the “epic” picture they take of you when you are about halfway up (thank you Scott Mason for such a picture). So, since there was no way to avoid the inevitable pain, I would instead focus on the promise of glory and somehow sleep at night.
Race day came and I could not have asked for better weather. Thankfully God knows better than I do what I need and though it was sunny and warm there was a constant breeze that took the edge off of the hot sun. Having done the course I can now say that rain, though cooling, would have gotten real ugly real fast. The weather did wonders to calm my nerves, but what was also helpful was a refusal to think about anything other than the wonderful views and a fantastic photo opportunity. It was with these things in mind that I made my way to the start where I had the pleasure of seeing Kristina and being warned that there are usually bear sightings at this race. She will do anything to get me to run faster.
The beginning of the race was, surprisingly, not totally horrible. The climb was mostly gradual with some stepper sections. It was, however, on a gravel road that annoyingly had a lot of large, loose rocks that would roll around under your feet. However, I was able to run quite a bit of the first mile to the first aid station where I obediently dumped a cup of water over my head. Just a short quarter of a mile farther there was a second aid station, so despite not feeling the need, I did it again. To that point I ran when I could and when I could not I walked as fast as I could and tried to make conversation with the people around me.
The trouble with “up only” mountain races with no mile markers is that between the monotony and spending most of the time having no idea where you are on the course it is difficult to give a detailed report of the terrain and the experience. What I do know is that soon after the second aid station we entered what is in my mind the second section of the race and the point at which it became much steeper. It was at this point that most of the running stopped and my hands were almost permanently on my hips as I worked my way upwards. Being a Loon “rookie” I even wondered if this was part of the 40 percent grade. Hah, not a chance. What was worse was that it was within this section, less than halfway through the race, that a quarter-size blister started forming on the back of my left foot; one that was painful regardless but excruciating when climbing the steep stuff.
Since the race I have spoken to someone who has done the race more than once and he believes this section is actually the worst. Upper Walking Boss is terrible, but you expect it to be and you know that when it is over so is the race. This part is shockingly steep for very long stretches and it just seems to go on with no end in sight, but without any of the glory of UWB or the promise of a finish line. In fact, it was somewhere along this section, perhaps a quarter to a half mile before the third and final aid station that people were getting dehydrated and starting to drop like flies. Thankfully, my friend Kim and I had packs full of goodies to share. We were giving people drinks of water and elixir and shoving salt pills down their throats and at least everyone that we saw faltering made it to the next aid station in one piece. Every time we line up for a race with our packs full of water we feel like total nerds. Finally our nerdiness paid off. If only I had remembered Band-Aids. My heel was screaming.
Finally, by some miracle we hit the next aid station and what I remember as the third section of the race. This section was short, sweet, and totally unexpected. It was about a half mile of gloriously splendid downhill. The relief on my heel alone was enough to make me smile, not to mention the knowledge that all that was left was this and then finally UWB and the finish line. As we cruised down a steep hill I actually said to my friend Kim that this was not so bad after all. She, of course, assumed I was being sarcastic and told me to think positively to which I responded that I was actually serious. This should tell you something about my attitude when I race. Anyhow, the joy did not last. The downhill was over all too soon.
Suddenly, the fourth and final section was before me, the mythical giant: Upper Walking Boss. I have heard UWB described as hitting a wall and I suppose I would say that is true, though in reality I would say that it quite defies words. It is, in fact, the stuff that legends are made of. At this point I question if I am even remembering it accurately. Surely not, for when I hear descriptions or even look at photographs of it I find them to be perfectly inadequate.
When I saw it my breath was taken away and I was struck dumb. Before me was a beautiful wall of grass and wildflowers snaking straight up and into the horizon. It was awe-inspiring and terrifying. Somehow, despite feeling as though I could see miles ahead of me, the finish was only about a half mile away and yet completely out of sight. Ahead of me were little specks making their way up the grassy wall and though I wanted to turn and run away I joined the marching of the ants up the hill.
To say “march” is probably even an overstatement of my speed at that point. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that this section took me 30 minutes and probably half of it was hiked backwards as much to give my mind a break as my throbbing heel. Looking forward I seemed to be getting nowhere but looking back I was at least able to see how far I had come and take in the beautiful view. Mindy was right. It was positively majestic—towering purple mountains against a clear blue sky.
For the next half hour I eked my way upwards, alternating between walking forward looking for Indian Paintbrushes on either side of the trail and walking backwards with my eyes on the mountains. As my heel burned like it was on fire I seriously considered for the first time taking up barefoot running and would have done so but for the fact that the way was so steep I thought I might actually slide backwards without the traction of my shoes.
When I was about 100 meters from the finish, Mindy, who had already finished, came alongside me for a minute to encourage me and promise me that the end was really just around the corner. Somehow, miraculously, she was right. I “jogged” my way across the finish line in 1:49:25, more than 10 minutes under my do-or-die time and only a few minutes over my wishful thinking goal.
At the finish line I decided that I was glad that I had done it but I did not feel the need to do it again and did not understand those fools that do it every year. Strangely, it only took a few days for that to change. I am not making any promises, but already I am considering another go of it next year. Who knows why? Perhaps it is just to test my memory of Upper Walking Boss. It couldn’t actually be the way I remember it, could it? I suppose there is only one way to find out. Maybe some of you will see me there. I will be the one in the back wearing the shirt that says “World’s Okayest Runner.”