Crazy-Style Racing, Part 3: Stratton Mountain’s North Face Run (They Lie!) To The Summit

One thing has become clear from our races this fall; promoters lie a lot.  Calling Stratton Mountain’s North Face Run To The Summit a “run” is like calling our Golden Retriever Barley a genius…it just isn’t a fact, or even close to it.

Nice looking mountain to ski down, but to run up? Crazy. (David Shedd photo)

What ARE facts are the following:  The “run” starts at the base lodge, is just over 2 miles long, ends at the summit, and climbs 1757 feet in that distance.  The route the race follows is an ATV road that heads up Gondola, turns right on Interstate, then continues on Work Road to the summit.  Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  Well…consider this.  The race up Wildcat Mountain in the Wildman Biathlon climbed 2,112 feet in 3 miles, or 704 feet of climb/mile.  Stratton’s run, on the other hand, climbs 878 feet/mile.   That’s a LOT steeper, trust me.  Plus, Wildcat has several areas where the grade drops significantly closer to flat, allowing you to use different muscles; more hamstring, less quadricep.  At Stratton, the climb is relentless; while some areas are steeper than others, there’s none that are anything but steep.  Yes, Wildcat comes after having run or biked for a lot of people…but Stratton is, in its own way, as hard or harder.

Susan flying toward the finish...but was she fast enough? (David Shedd photo)

So, taking a step back. For those who haven’t been following this saga, here’s the background.  My fiancee Susan and I decided, in our endorphin-enhanced newly-engaged state, to do some ridiculous races together.  We found 4 within range of us, and within the late summer/early fall timeframe; the Wildman Biathlon, Sunday River’s Tough Mountain Challenge, Stratton’s North Face Run To The Summit, and the Shawnee Challenge.  Racing seemed like a good idea, particularly since the first and last races we could be a team at, and, well…the other two, we could compete against each other, with me giving Susan a 5 minute handicap.  Wildman, all was good…sore and tired, but fun.  Sunday River, all was almost all good…sore and tired, had fun, but I lost the bet, which means I have to buy the wedding rings.  With Stratton looming, I needed to redeem myself, particularly since the bet was to be who would choose the wedding caterer; that means a LOT of money on the line!

Now, this would normally mean training, but life sometimes doesn’t cooperate.  In my case, this meant that I managed to get an injury to my right calf a couple of weeks before the race.  Wouldn’t you know it…it didn’t hurt on the level, but would ache and cramp when I ran uphill.  Fabulous…it’s not like I would need to be able to do that at Stratton!  Things were looking bad for the bet, but Susan had just started a new job, which cut into her training time; there might be hope for me.  I focused on stretching, walking, stretching again, short slow runs, stretching some more; it all seemed to be helping some.  Time would tell.  Either way, things didn’t bode well for a great finish for us…ah, excuses!  Facing reality, we KNEW we wouldn’t be contenders, so the more excuses we had, the better.

There’s a real question that comes up as to why we’d drive for hours across New Hampshire and Vermont to do a race that lasts for less than an hour, then turn around and drive back.  Good question, but there’s a couple of good answers.  One is that the trip is, in itself, a shared experience for us, with lots of talk about what we’re going to do; obsessive strategizing, butterflies, all of that.  In other words, fun…and good for our relationship.  And on the way back, we got to talk about what did happen, how it felt, how we might train next year, what excuses we had this year, etc.  More good relationship fun.  The other reason is that the race is on Columbus Day weekend, in early October; could there be a better time to drive through the countryside of NH and VT?

If we hadn't gotten going early for the race, we'd have missed sipping coffee beside this view (David Shedd photo)

And, with that in mind, we spent the night near Concord, NH, so as to have a reasonable drive in the morning (2 hours instead of 4).  Got up, had breakfast, in the car by 6, a little before the sun rose.  Coffee in thermal cups in the car…check.  Now, there’s about 5 different ways to get to Stratton from Concord; they all take about the same time, none of them go anywhere near straight.  Since it was a lovely morning, no snow or ice, we elected to take Route 123 across to Bellows Falls, then jump onto Route 103 toward Chester.  Both of these are beautiful, windy roads with some spectacular views (123 goes over Pitcher Mountain, where Tim and I broke up our Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway trip).  Driving west, the morning sun behind us, it was just gorgeous; shifting from night to dawn to sun appearing on the hills ahead.  The coffee cups empty, we stopped once to refill and stretch our legs so they wouldn’t be TOO stiff when we arrived (I, at least, was wearing my “PREcovery” Skins; I needed every advantage over Susan that I could get!).  Some minor angst was caused when we got caught in a detour, lost, and added about 20 minutes to the ride, but we’d left ourselves time and it just meant more driving over fun roads with beautiful views through Southern Vermont.

One area of concern appeared as we drove along…the temperature kept DROPPING.  We started seeing frost on cars, then grass, then everywhere.   Plus, as we got closer to the ski area, the wind got stronger and stronger.   And, we didn’t have gloves, hats, or anything else.  Note to anyone doing fall races; assume it’s going to be cold, and bring appropriate clothing!  Luckily, the sun was on the slope (mostly) by the time the race started, and a pair of socks can do double duty as mittens, so we were fine.

Loose rocks made running up the steep trail that much more difficult (David Shedd photo)

The race is a free-for-all start; get in line, get ready, go!  And, for the first 50 yards or so, it WAS a run; which for most of us immediately turned into a slow, grueling slog.  The trail itself started off relatively smooth and stable underfoot, but that changed quickly; when it’s that steep, rocks tend to dislodge easily, and since we weren’t the first people up, things just kept getting looser under our shoes.  We were both using shoes from the “test bin”; I was testing some Karhu Stable Fulcrum Rides, which make the claim that they tend to move you forward…yes, I’ll take any help I can get!  They’re not a real trail shoe (more accurately, they’re a lightweight road trainer), but they’re comfortable, VERY stable, and have a fairly agressive sole that gripped well until things got really loose.  Susan, on the other hand, had some GoLites MicroLites, which not only were VERY light, but also have “Soft Against The Ground,” which translates to a sole that conforms well to uneven surfaces.  From comparing notes later,  it was obvious that she slipped a lot less than I did; clearly, the GoLites were a better choice for that kind of off-road use.  Great…just what I needed, an equipment advantage for her!  Halfway up, however, we ran into something NO shoe can help with; a Stratton employee was beside the trail telling us that from there on up, if it looks like water, it’s ice.  Wonderful.  Well, as with anything, there’s two ways to look at it; one is that it’ll slow me down, the other is that it gives me another excuse for being slow.  In reality, conditions were fairly dry, so the ice wasn’t a major factor, but it certainly kept us from getting complacent!  And, it helped balance out the equipment inequality; I’ve got longer legs than Susan, so it was easier for me to jump over and around the ice patches.

Back in 1998, I did the bicycle race up Mt. Washington for the first time, and found that it was as much a mind game as it was a physical challenge.  It was so painful, so unrelenting, that the challenge was to ignore my body’s “stop this silliness and get off the bike!” signals, and just keep going.  Stratton’s race, unlike the others in this group, is very similar to that.  Once you start, there’s no relief until you stop.  No flat spots, no downhills, just a grind that asks you how much you’re willing to suffer.  I relied on my heartrate monitor; I set myself on the edge of the red zone, and just tried to keep it there.  It was difficult; it’s so easy to ease off just a little, then suddenly look down and find that you aren’t even close to what you’d planned.  I found that I needed to look at it every 15 seconds or so; that way, even if I started to slack off, it wouldn’t cost me much time.  And, as in the Wildman Biathlon, when I downloaded the information from it later, I found that my rate of ascent was virtually constant; if it got steeper, I slowed down, and if it flattened (slightly), I sped up…but still lifted my body the same number of feet every minute.  Note to self for training in the future:  Pay attention to rate of ascent on shorter slopes in training, and see how much I can boost it!

About 3/4 of the way up, we came out into a more open area, and an astounding thing happened; the wind came up, and was BEHIND us!  I’m not sure I’ve ever had that happen; it always seems to be in my face.  I’m not sure how much it actually helped, but it was a relief to not have to fight every element out there.  And, it heralded the beginning of the end; shortly after, the slope started to flatten, and I actually began to run again for the first time since the start!

Almost too soon, it was over; after the long slog, it seemed almost cruel to only get that short run in.  But, I’d finished, and in 35:16; that means I crawled up that mountain at slightly less than 3 miles an hour.  So much for “running”!  And, so much for warmth; suddenly, I was freezing.  Off to find my bag of clothes that the Stratton people had brought up, and some relief, and then to see where Susan was.  I hadn’t gone far when I saw her coming off the steep section and starting to run…and she was flying.  This wasn’t good…the timing was too tight.  Following her to the finish, I asked her time; 41:04, or slightly more than 5 minutes behind me.  Potluck wedding reception, here we come!

How strange to look down on Stratton Village without snow! (David Shedd photo)

Race over, it was time to take the gondola down…or walk.  Walk, definitely; it was a beautiful day, and more time to enjoy the views as we came off the peak.  Racers were still struggling up toward the finish, and we cheered them on; the camaraderie was the same here as in the other “crazy-style” races we’ve done.  With a 4 hour ride home, we had plenty of time to discuss the race, how it had felt, what we’ll do differently next year…oh, yes, if we can, we’ll be back!

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About David Shedd

David Shedd is a lifelong resident of New England, and has been skiing, kayaking, mountain biking, and trying anything that anyone throws at him for most of his life. A 2001 Maine Mountain Bike Association State Champion, his current goal is to learn to break fewer bones.