In May, you took down the 7 Sisters Trail Race. In July, you conquered the Escarpment Trail Run. And earlier this month, you chewed up and spit out the Wapack Trail Race. You are the Teflon runner. The trails of the Northeast are no match for you. You are invincible!
Not so fast. Before you can declare yourself victor, you face one more great challenge: the long course of the Kismet Cliff Run, or, as it’s better known to those who’ve battled it before, the Beast of the East.
Wondering why you should ask your already tired quads to power you through one more race? Here are five reasons you won’t want to miss the half-marathon (roughly) long course at the Kismet Cliff Run in North Conway, N.H., on September 22, 2013.
1. This is a rare chance to race in the White Mountain National Forest.
The Kismet Cliff Run originally started as a five-mile loop through Echo Lake State Park. Race director Gabe Flanders designed the course after traveling around the New England racing scene and realizing that none of the courses were as “burly or scenic” as his local training trails. Flanders describes the five-mile short course as a “technical rollercoaster in its own right, with steep climbs and descents and great ambiance as it travels over giant granite slabs and huge boulders.”
After a few successful runs of the short course, Flanders decided it was time to put into action an idea he’d been kicking around for a long time—adding a longer course through the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF). “A number of locals were disparaging about my chances,” he recalls. They told him, “‘They haven’t allowed a race since the 1970s’ or ‘The WMNF honchos don’t look too favorably on that.’” Flanders wasn’t discouraged. He’d been directing the race on the short course through the state park for a few years without problems, so he decided to apply for a permit and see whether the Forest Service would give the race a chance. “The Red Ridge and North Moat are just so stunning,” he says. “It was worth a try.”
Contrary to the rumors he’d heard, the Forest Service proved supportive, helping him through the permitting process and ultimately giving the long course the green light in 2012. While Flanders doubts that it would be possible to get permits in all areas of the WMNF (the Appalachian Trail and Presidentials, for example), he hopes that if runners “stay on the trail and behave themselves,” this race might be a chance to show the Forest Service that trail runners are capable of hosting events in the forest without compromising it.
2. It has some of the longest, toughest climbs you’ll find in any race in the region.
The course really is a beast. It has four separate big climbs and descents, with roughly 4,000 feet of elevation gain in all and a peak elevation of 3,196 feet on North Moat. With technical terrain that may require the use of hands at some points, it just might just be the toughest half marathon (or so) in New England.
Don’t believe us? Perhaps you’ll believe Kevin Tilton, two-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team and winner of last year’s Kismet Cliff Race. When asked to compare the race to other mid-length trail runs in New England, Tilton said, “7 Sisters is the most technical. Wapack is constantly going up or down. Kismet’s climbs are the longest and toughest, though. And the descent of North Moat is just insane. Racing Tristan Williams down the wet slabs and loose rock last year was memorable.”
For first-time racers on this course, Tilton offers the following tips: “Pace yourself. The climbs up Cathedral and Whitehorse are tough, but the long grind up Red Ridge and North Moat is unlike anything else you’ll see outside of the mountain circuit. Then you get to come down off of North Moat on wobbly legs. Also, you’ll be running slow enough, so take in the amazing views.”
3. It has a low-key, no-frills vibe to keep the focus on what’s important: running.
The short course is $25 and the long course is $35. While it’s not quite as cheap as the $15 Wapack Trail Race entry fee, it’s still one of the best deals around for a half marathon, and the race benefits the Kismet Rock Foundation, which offers rock climbing and mountaineering to children who could not otherwise afford such experiences. For all you procrastinators and fair-weather runners, there’s race day registration.
And for your money, you will be getting a true mountain running experience. There are two aid stations on the course (at the top of Cathedral and at the base of Red Ridge), but runners are expected to manage their fluids, fuel, clothing, and other essentials on their own for much of the race. Tilton remembers that water is scarce while climbing North Moat, so plan accordingly.
There is no hard cap yet on participation, but in applying for a permit, Flanders provided an upper estimate of 100 to 150 runners for the long course, which keeps the race relatively small (similar to the 18-mile Wapack Trail Race, which had 95 finishers this year, and noticeably smaller than 7 Sisters, which had 386 finishers this year). Given that the crowd is relatively small and the course is a loop, runners can look forward to some time alone in the woods and the chance to really enjoy the views without being crushed by a line of runners from behind.
But runners with less experience shouldn’t be intimidated by the rugged nature of the course, assuming they have trained properly, of course. There is a good course map online and runners nervous about getting lost can always go look at the course in advance. When studying the course map, Flanders offers this explanation of the direction of travel:
“The original [five-mile] course goes out around the south side of Echo Lake, takes a right turn, and heads to the north end of Cathedral. It then makes a hard left and climbs up and over Cathedral and onto Whitehorse. Just past the summit of Whitehorse, the long course departs for the Red Ridge and North Moat via the Red Ridge Link Trail. The five-mile course swings downhill and around the south end of Whitehorse Ledge, heads north to Echo Lake, and wraps around the north shore of the Lake to the finish. The long course covers that terrain as well, but only after climbing Red Ridge and North Moat, descending to Lucy Brook and climbing up the back side of Whitehorse.”
Tilton also assures us that the course is not hard to follow despite being rugged and remote. “There are a few trail junctions,” he recalls, “but they were well marked as long as you were paying attention.”
4. You get to race against some of the toughest competitors in the Northeast.
Wondering how you would stack up against some of the strongest runners in the Northeast? While this race maintains its small, local feel, it will give you the chance to answer that question and more. Last year’s long course participants included a who’s who of mountain and trail running in New England. Kevin Tilton took the title. He was followed by Tristan Williams, who this year consistently ranked near the top of the USTF-New England Mountain Running Series races and crushed the inaugural Hampshire 100. Third went to Keith Schmitt, a past winner of the Vermont 50k and the Stonecat marathon. Behind Schmitt came Ryan Welts, winner of this year’s Jay Peak 50k. Last year’s top women were Kelsey Allen (who has also won 7 Sisters and Wapack), Leslie O’Dell Beckwith (this year’s third-place finisher in the Mountain Running Series) and Sarah Schlack (this year’s fifth-place finisher in the Mountain Running Series).
Don’t be intimidated. This is still a local race that welcomes all. But one of the most fun things about this sport is that, even at a local run with race-day registration, you might get the chance to toe the starting line with runners who are competing on the national or even international level. It’s unlikely that next time you show up for a pick-up game of 5-on-5 at the court down the street Paul Pierce will be there to play. But if you show up on September 22 at the Kismet Cliff Run, you just might get the chance to battle one of the region’s or even nation’s best mountain runners.
5. This race is a chance to get involved in and support the Granite State Trail Series.
The brainchild of acidotic RACING owner Chris Dunn, the Granite State Trail Series is a young series created to promote trail racing in New Hampshire and at the same to support local charities. The series currently consists of three races: Exeter Trail Race (the long course), Kismet Cliff Run (the long course), and Vulcan’s Fury. Flanders, who helped Dunn run the series this year, explains that the idea was to find tough middle-distance races (over 10 miles and perhaps up to the marathon distance) with high technical difficulty. “No traipsing around on gravel paths,” he says.
While the series is still getting off the ground, Flanders is hoping to see more races added in the coming years and still looking for “a few good races” to add to the list. For runners who are seeking big challenges but don’t necessarily have the time, money, or inclination to jump into the ultrarunning scene, these tough, technical singletrack races offer an opportunity to take their racing to the next level. Exeter was run in June and Vulcan’s Fury is full, which means Kismet is your only chance to get a feel for the type of courses Dunn and Flanders have in mind for these races before you commit to the series for next year.
Flanders doesn’t think you’ll be disappointed. “Nothing compares to this course in terms of beauty and challenge,” he says.