Preparing for the Mount Washington Road Race

Kevin Tilton

Kevin Tilton running in the 2009 Mount Washington Road Race.
AP Photo/Gil Talbot

Every year in mid-June, hundreds of runners gather to run, walk, or stagger to the top of New England’s highest peak as participants in the Mount Washington Road Race. After a brief flat section at the start, the remainder of the course is one long, steady climb that altogether covers 7.6 miles and ascends about 4,700 feet. In addition to battling other runners, the distance, and the elevation, competitors also face sometimes difficult weather. Even in June, snow and ice are not uncommon on Mount Washington, and wind is almost guaranteed.

This year, 1,300 runners will take their place at the starting line. Racing uphill for 7.6 miles at an average grade of 12 percent is tough. But preparing for the race might be even tougher—both physically and mentally. With only eight weeks left before the big race, I asked three of the 1,300 runners what they’re doing to prepare to take part in this iconic race.

The veteran: Kevin Tilton

Kevin Tilton

Kevin Tilton after running up Mount Washington in February 2012.
Photo from NH Parks and Recreation

If you’ve run the Mount Washington Road Race in the past decade, then you’ve probably seen Kevin Tilton. Well, you’ve probably seen him for a second as he took off with the lead pack, leaving you huffing and puffing behind and wondering how he does it.

Kevin has run the race 12 times (2000, 2002-2012). He has a PR of 1:03:42, which earned him 5th place in 2005. He’s also won the Crossan Cup—the prize awarded to the top male and female runners living in New Hampshire—four times, most recently last year. Kevin earned a spot on the United States Mountain Team in 2005 and 2006 and traveled to Wellington, New Zealand, and Bursa, Turkey, to compete in the World Mountain Running Championships. This year Kevin will be returning to run Mt. Washington for the Central Mass Striders and Team Inov-8.

I asked Kevin how he’s preparing this year for Mount Washington and what tips he can offer other racers:

How many miles a week are you running? How many days do you run? What will be your peak weekly mileage before Mount Washington?

Somewhere between 70 and 80 miles a week. I may top out around 90 depending on how my build-up goes. I run every day, twice a day Monday through Friday.

What is your favorite hill workout?

One of my favorites is what I call the Black Cap Fartlek. It’s a three-mile fartlek with one-minute on, one-minute off segments. The whole workout is uphill, ascending Hurricane Mountain Road in North Conway, N.H., and the Black Cap hiking trail, gaining 1,700 feet during that time. If I can run close to Mount Washington race pace for the workout, I know I’m pretty fit.

Are you doing anything different this year than you’ve done in past years?

I’m trying to get in more road miles to just get some quicker turnover and log more miles to work on my overall fitness. I will still get on the trails some once the snow melts, but I’m doing most of my workouts on pavement or the track.

Who do you train with?

Jim Johnson is my main partner in crime. We run together at least four to five days a week. He keeps me moving on the road stuff and I drag him up some of the steeper trail climbs.

[If you aren’t familiar with Jim Johnson, he’s another New Hampshire runner to watch for this year at Mount Washington. He ran a PR 1:07:22 in 2011 and a 1:07:55 in 2012, and the workouts he’s posting on his blog show he’s training hard again this year.]

We’ll be looking for you as a possible Crossan Cup winner. Who else should we be looking for?

Jim Johnson will be right up there, along with Olympic cross country skiers Kris and Justin Freeman. Kevin Johnson of the Western Mass Distance Project (lives in West Lebanon, N.H.) will be a first-timer at Mount Washington, but he just ran a 1:06:04 half marathon in New Bedford, Mass.

[Kris Freeman won the Crossan Cup in 2010 and has a Mount Washington PR of 1:07:46 and Justin Freeman won the Crossan Cup in 2011 with a PR-performance of 1:06:28.]

Do you have any advice for other runners, especially first timers?

Just get in the best all-around shape you can. Don’t waste time on short hill repeats. They just make you practice a pace you won’t be able to run during the race. A one-hour treadmill run at 12% grade is way more valuable than the short repeats.

How are you planning to get down the mountain?

Riding down in a car. I run down the road way too much in training as it is!

What makes you most nervous about this particular race?

It’s one of the most competitive mountain races in the country and it’s in my backyard. This is the one race I train for and think about year round. I put a lot of pressure on myself to run well here as uphill running is my strength. I was not blessed with great road speed, but I can climb pretty well, so I like to do my best in races like this.

What makes you most excited about this particular race? In other words, why do you keep coming back?

To me, Mount Washington is my hometown race. It’s like the annual Turkey Trot or 4th of July race. It’s pretty cool to be able to compete against some of the best mountain runners in the world and sleep in my own bed the night before. I also love the challenge of starting at the bottom of a mountain and running to the top.

What would be your perfect Mount Washington race?

A win and a PR. Whether either of those will happen I am not sure, but I will train my hardest to be prepared to do my best on race day.

One under the belt: Nancy Dunbar

Nancy Dunbar

Nancy Dunbar during the 2012 Mount Washington Road Race

Last year was Nancy Dunbar’s first race up the Mount Washington auto road, and it’s hard to imagine a better first outing. She finished in 1:38:55, placing 41st among women and first among the Fillies.

Before moving to New England, Nancy developed her speed on the West Coast, earning a 5k PR of 19:09 in 2008 at the Footzone 5k in Redmond, Wash., and a 10k PR of 41:38 in 2009 Golden Gate 10k in San Francisco. Having run Mount Washington once, Nancy still doesn’t rank it as her hardest race. That honor goes to her first marathon in 2008. Remembering that marathon, she says, “Everyone should experience what it is really like to hit the wall in a marathon!” But Mount Washington is one of the races she is most proud of having completed.

This year, Nancy will be back to defend her fastest Filly title and she’ll be running for the Upper Valley Running Club (UVRC), which she and her husband, Geoff (another great runner), helped found when they relocated to the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of New Hampshire.

Nancy was kind enough to share her training plans and what she learned from running Mount Washington last year:

How many miles a week are you running? How many days do you run? What will be your peak weekly mileage before Mount Washington?

Right now I run about 20 to 30 miles a week. I’m from Arizona so I like to run when it is warm! My mileage usually drops a bit in the winter. I typically run four to five days per week but it varies depending on my work schedule. Once the ice/snow/mud resolves, I’ll commute home most days by running in Boston Lot in Lebanon, N.H. I’ll probably peak around 30 to 40 miles in preparation for Mount Washington?

What is your favorite hill workout?

When you live in New Hampshire, it is hard to find a training run without hills. I like to do hill repeats on Tuck Drive in Hanover, N.H. I also like to run out Reservoir Road in Hanover and come back into town via Etna Road. Sometimes when I get stuck at work on the weekends I do my hill workout on the treadmill.  Once the snow melts I’ll also do some training runs up Mount Ascutney, hopefully with my UVRC buddies.

Are you doing anything different this year than you did last year to get ready?

I think my goal this year is to learn how to run my goal pace and do it consistently from the start. The mistake I made last year was to go out too fast. You have to leave something in the tank for those last few miles.

Who do you train with?

I try to do my quality workouts with UVRC at Tuesday night track. I also try to make it to Saturday runs and push myself to run with people that make me work a little harder than I would on my own. My teammate Scott Stone is a particular favorite to run with on Saturdays because he likes hills and he runs them really fast.

Will you be running for a team this year?

This year I’ll be running for UVRC! We have a really big team this year and my coach will be running for the first time. I’m looking forward to hearing her curse like a sailor as we climb. So many team members got in this year. I think we have something like 17!

What do you know now that you wish you’d known last year before running Mount Washington?

I think the best part of being a returning runner is knowing exactly what to expect. There is a part of the course around mile five where you can see straight ahead for about a mile—that is the hardest part for me mentally. For some reason, even though I know that there really aren’t any flat parts, as long as I can’t see around the corner up ahead the optimist in me still expects that there might be a flat or downhill stretch. That keeps me going.

What makes you most nervous about this particular race?

Now that I’ve done it, I’m not really that nervous. This race is very different from most because it is not a test of your physical ability as much as it is a mental challenge. You just have to dig deep and will yourself to keep running, even when you can’t feel your feet anymore. I guess if there was one thing that is a stressor it would be the weather. You really have no control over it. Last year we were blessed with amazing conditions. I’d like to have a bit more challenging weather to overcome this year. It would make for a great story!

What makes you most excited about this particular race? In other words, why are you doing it again?

I’m doing it again because I’ve got a title to defend and I want to get automatic entry again for next year! I think that because it is hard to get into, you should take advantage of every opportunity you have to run it. I also think that this is a race that favors older runners. I hope to improve my time this year.

Do you have any advice for first timers?

I think the best advice I got from a UVRC teammate was that when you can walk faster than you can run then you should be walking. Another teammate taught me to pack well for the top and include a full change of clothes for any kind of weather and more food and beverage that you can imagine needing. It was really nice to see my bag waiting at the top! I had a four pack of Starbucks bottled lattes and a box of Fig Newtons that didn’t make it to the bottom.

The rookie: Greg Albert

Greg Albert

Greg Albert

This year will be Greg’s first race up the Mount Washington auto road, but not for lack of trying. He’s entered the lottery three times before, but never had his name drawn, until now.

After a difficult break-up in 2005, Greg says he looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw, so he started walking and eventually picked up his pace. By 2006, he was ready for his first 10-mile running race, the Broad Street Run in Philadelphia. When Greg relocated to New Hampshire for law school, he continued to add miles. He even created his own race—“48 Miles in 48 Hours”—that required him to run from Concord, N.H., to just across the Massachusetts border. He recruited friends to join him for parts of the course and also raised money for charity.

For his first-ever mountain race, Greg has chosen one of the most-storied, epic runs in the country. I asked Greg to share a few details of his past running adventures and his thoughts as he prepares to run up the biggest peak east of the Mississippi:

What is your favorite race you’ve ever run?

I’m not sure this counts as a race, but I have to mention it. I ran the distance from Philadelphia to Los Angeles (2,736 miles) during law school. I ran locally and then mapped my route across the country as if I was actually running on the highways. It was a fantastic motivator to keep me running at least 900 miles per year during law school.

How many marathons have you run?

I’ve run two marathons. The first was the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans in 2008. I had just come off of a shoulder injury and wanted something big to motivate me to hit the roads. Nice enough, that winter was the second worst in New Hampshire’s history, and I did all of my training outdoors in preparation for a February marathon.

My second marathon was the Lehigh Valley Marathon in Allentown, Penn. I spent the last seven years there before law school, so my entire family was able to join me to cheer me on. It was pretty darn close to my perfect race. There were lots of trails, but very well packed down and next to no roots. It was so easy on my body that I didn’t have anywhere near the harm to my body that I did during the previous marathon.

My first marathon was 4:57, and the second one was 3:56:25. Needless to say, my training was dramatically better for the second one.

Who else that you know will be running the Mount Washington race with you?

I’m seriously lucky to be training and running with a truly wonderful group people. My girlfriend is one of the people running with me, so we’ve been doing hill repeats. Nothing helps a relationships like just one more hill.

How many miles a week are you running? How many days do you run? What will be your peak weekly mileage before Mount Washington?

I run about four days a week, and will start to bike a day or two now that it’s getting nicer. My morning runs are only a couple of miles because I have to get them in before work. I tend to do a longer run on either Saturday or Sunday (right now, in the five to seven mile range). My peak weekly mileage? Well, that requires me to plan and I’m not much of a planner when it comes to training. I get bored very easily. Peak mileage? Let’s go with 20 miles or so, that sounds good.

Are you doing anything special to train for this race that you haven’t done to prepare for other races?

Yes, hill workouts. I don’t do them normally.

What is your favorite hill workout?

I’m not sure that I have a favorite hill workout. I just have my least hated hill workout.

I understand that you recently ran up the Mount Ascutney auto road to prepare for Mount Washington. How did it go? Did it change your perspective on preparing for the race or your mindset going into the last eight weeks of training?

It was good to have an idea of what a constant incline was, but the conditions were really snowy for a couple of miles, so I spent a ton of energy just trying to get my footing. I know those (hopefully) won’t be race conditions.

I wonder whether it would have been better to run Mount Washington blind instead of getting an idea of what’s involved. It almost would be less scary to do it that way. But, at the the end of the day, I have an idea of what half of the race will be, so I’m better off because of it.

What makes you most nervous about this particular race?

Well, just the one hill. It’s such a steady and serious uphill and there doesn’t seem to be any reprieve until we hit the top… oh, and then we freeze.

What makes you most excited about this particular race?

There’s going to be such an amazing feeling to finish it and say that I literally ran up a mountain. It’s ridiculous to do this kind of race, and I really just love that part of it, too.

There may be only one hill, but this year there will be 1,300 paths taken to get to the top.