By Doug Mayer
A few months ago, Randolph Mountain Club trail crew member Jordan Cargill ran a somewhat circuitous route from the Appalachia trailhead on Route 2 to the summit of Mount Adams. The trip took him 1:27:42, a fast time, for sure, but not especially dramatic, as trail running has become more common throughout the region. What was notable, however, was that Jordan was taking part in something new—the Mount Adams Challenge—a do-it-yourself activity.
The challenge is a partnership between the White Mountain Café and Bookstore and SAaLT Pub, both in Gorham, N.H. If a participant reaches the summit in 2:10 or less via the designated route, the cafe will offer a free latte, and SAaLT will offer a free beer. Local artist Kelli Shedd has designed a beautiful certificate for all participants. The 5.3-mile route ascends a total of about 4,500 feet, so it is definitely not easy to make it in under 2:10, but a combination of slow running and fast hiking can get you there in time. (Check the Mount Adams Challenge website for a full description of the route.)
The goal of the Mount Adams Challenge is simple: to encourage both residents and visitors to get out and enjoy the mountains, and to inspire fitness. The Challenge is for fun—it’s not a competition. Results are posted on the Mount Adams web site in chronological order, not by speed. Participants are responsible for their own safety. Photos and stories are shared on a Tumblr blog associated with the website.
The idea for the challenge started thousands of miles away, and several years earlier. It was the end of the season for me, after a great few months of trail running throughout the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps. I was exploring villages, huts, and a wide range of trail races, for what would later become a trail running company, Run the Alps. Lodged in my mind was a cryptic comment from elite U.S. trail runner Rickey Gates. A five-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team, and winner of the Mount Washington Road Race in 2009 and 2011, Rickey had spent a summer cycling around Switzerland and running races, two years prior. In the course of that summer, he had made some great discoveries. “Get to Leukerbad,” he said. “Ask them about the Gemmi Run. You won’t be disappointed.”
And so, on a day off near the end of my season, I found myself at the tourist office in a high mountain village, a twisty, steep, half-hour bus ride up from the Rhône valley that splits Switzerland’s mountains roughly into the Bernese Oberland and the Valais Alps. “Is this,” I tentatively asked the woman behind the counter, “where I do the Gemmi run?” She eyed me skeptically. “You must make the top in 70 minutes.” A few minutes later, I was in the village center, staring at a cliff that looked like it was right out of Game of Thrones. Craning my neck, I could just barely make out the tram station at the top. “I’m a dead man,” I thought to myself. “That’s flat out impossible.
Thankfully, I was wrong. After punching a time card at the village sports center, I was off, running full-speed through pastures, towards a cliff that seems impenetrable. Wrong again—the Swiss, after all, can find a way up anything. Switchback after switchback up a vertiginous trail brought me to the top of the pass, with plenty of time to spare. Sweaty and wild-eyed, I raced into the summit hotel. A waiter in the restaurant frantically pointed me to the lobby a few yards away. I raced over, and the receptionist punched my card. I was in under the 70-minute limit, and now Leukerbad had another surprise in store for me: I had just won a free ride down to on the tram, a complimentary 20-minute massage at a local hotel, and a pass to the town’s famous and rather pricey thermal baths.
At home the next year, I kept thinking of Leukerbad’s challenge. I love the quirky nature of it, and the fact that the time limit allowed plenty of trail runners to succeed. This was a race for the average runner, not just superfit elites. As a partner in the White Mountain Cafe in Gorham, I broached the idea of a local version of the Gemmi Run with my cafe co-owners, Matt and Jenna Bowman, and our friends at SAaLT Pub at Libby’s Bistro, Steve Jackson and Liz Micucci. Everyone seemed enthusiastic, and, this summer, the Mount Adams Challenge was born.
So far, about a dozen trail runners have participated. As for me, I decided to wait until I was back from a season leading trail running trips in the Alps. Late one afternoon last week, I downed a Gu, grabbed my lightest trail running vest, tossed in a few items, and headed to the start. My season of hard trail running had paid off: 1:45:57, very nearly the same time as several trail runners twenty years younger, whose speed and trail running finesse I admire. A few mental high-fives later, I was walking down Air Line, a broad smile on my face, taking in a classic White Mountain October afternoon—and knowing that a free cappuccino and beer were in my future, too.
Steve, Liz, Matt, Jenna and I all hope others will share in the fun. For more info on the Mount Adams Challenge, check out the website. It’s a great way to get out and experience a beautiful trail run in the northern Presidentials. And, with a little luck, you might be enjoying a treat at the cafe and pub, too!
Doug Mayer is the founder of the Alp trail running tour company Run the Alps and a Producer for the NPR show Car Talk. He lives in Randolph, N.H. Read more about the Gemmi Run on the Run the Alps blog.