US Mountain Champs & Chilling With the Front of The Pack

Three weeks ago I ran in the USATF Club Track Champs steeplechase at UPenn. Despite coming down with a cold and running much slower than desired, it was a great experience running on that legendary track at Franklin Field. The day was filled with amazing performances by amateur runners competing purely for the love of their event and to see what they could achieve by giving it their all. But with the poor result I was able to achieve, I had a big hole left in my satisfaction and goals for this season and after some of the best training I’ve ever put in this past spring, too. Isn’t that just one of the best and worst things about running, though? You are rarely satisfied with the result of your efforts, but you almost always have a chance for personal redemption just around the corner (barring nasty, evil, mean-spirited injuries) Such was the case here, in the form of one of those metaphorical mountains to climb on the path to success. Only in this story, that mountain is no metaphor and that success has different definitions depending on where you are on that path…

Last weekend just so happened to be that instant chance at redemption for me in the form of the Loon Mountain Race also serving as the US Mountain Running Champs this year. My only goal was to make it hurt from gun to finish line and as I quickly learned, in mountain running, that’s a remarkably easy task! I might have finished way back in 46th place at the end of the 6.5 mile course up and around Loon Mountain, but I had smile across that finish line for sure. Before I go on yammering about my race though, let me take a minute to talk about how the weekend kicked off. Like most experiences in running, this one involves making some new friends and having a great time making memories, as my Gram would say.

What started with a quick message on Facebook offering a ride up from Boston area if needed, led to me spending the weekend with a crew in town from Colorado and Utah and all gunning for top spots in the race and births on the US Mountain Running Team headed to Bulgaria in September. I had seen that Addie Bracy, who trains with my coach Kara Lubieniecki under Brad Hudson’s tutelage out in Boulder, was coming in to try and was able to provide some small assistance in giving her a lift north. In turn she graciously offered me a place to crash at the condo they had rented. After the standard holiday weekend traffic on the road to NH we arrived in Lincoln,, NH and headed over to the Loon Mountain course to get in a nice course preview. Spirits were high despite our relative lack of experience in mountain races, all around. So high that Matt Daniels convinced his friend and fellow Adams State alum Naseem Haje to register for the race, after initially not even planning on running the course preview/shakeout run with us! After hitching a ride back down on the gondola we headed over to packet pickup and caught Alyson Felix crushing the 400 on the TV before leaving the brewery. With mountain and trail races, brew-pub packet pickups are apparently the norm; no one complains. The course preview had worked up a serious hunger so we quickly set upon a pre-race dinner with a visit to The Common Man. Back at the condo afterwards it was fun to hear discussions on race strategy and guesses and predictions on the top finishers and World Team spots. More than a few times did the discussion come back to wondering what that Upper Walking Boss section would feel like, too. Runners at every level are humble and genuine it seems, and my own race plan and personal bests were even asked about. And many thanks to Naseem, who was returning from injury, who determined that we might be seeing some of each other on the course. A humbling thought considering the divide between our best times in most distances… but such is the pride in distance runners, rarely seen until the race starts. I was happy to not be the only one in the condo who wasn’t gunning for a spot on a world team, though I’d hazard a guess that we all went to sleep dreaming about it, just the same.

On race day it was all business, but in a relaxed sort of way, it was trail race after all. A few warmup miles and dropping off of bags in the ski lodge and we were all lining up at the base of the big hill, well the guys anyway (separate men’s and women’s races, but over the same course) It took all of 200 meters for me to lose the leaders from view as the trail seemed much steeper than the day before and I was quickly experiencing a jolt to my confidence. After the first climb my heart settled down and I began to feel good, and honestly, I began to smile (between guffaws and pants of course) The mountain runners, the race and the mountains themselves simply exude joy and fun. It was the most painful race I’ve ever run, but when I crossed that finish line I felt all of the euphoria and joy and I had missed in my unsatisfactory track races this season. I managed fairly even splits when looking at Strava’s GAP time, too. And though I couldn’t relate in my race time, in this feeling of satisfaction upon charging up a mountain vs grinding out on the track and roads, I could indeed relate to that elite company I had adopted for the weekend. Matt Daniels and Hayden Hawke and Naseem are all recent converts to the trails and Addie Bracy was making her trail/mountain debut and all of them had reasons to seek the trails over the track or roads. At the top I was thrilled to discover that Matt had finished 3rd and Hayden 4th and Andy Wacker, whom I also had the fun of meeting and hanging out with, had grabbed the final team spot in 6th, despite suffering from some nasty sickness in the weeks leading up to the race. A short while later, I was even more excited to see Addie leading the women’s race by a healthy margin, one she would retain, to take her first national title! Addie’s performance was even more stunning, given she had almost left the sport a few weeks before the race, which you can read about here. Post race it was all smiles at the awards, with the New England crowd cheering for the west coast and mountain time runners taking most of the top honors. I elected to stick around another night in Lincoln before meeting up with family for the 4th of July and again had a blast with the now newly minted US team members. It seems in post race celebration, we also enjoy the same things, from the middle to the front of the pack. And what other sport can genuinely claim to be a single unified pack, from first place to last? Making new friends and celebrating with those who celebrate was just the welcome reprieve I didn’t know I needed. I can’t wait to have some additional direction in finding the best places to run when I visit Boulder later this year, as well as getting in some runs with Naseem, who lives in NH currently.

Thanks for reading!
~Dan

Photos of Loon Mountain Race from the incomparable Scott Mason, here.
Full results from the wonderful race hosts, Acidotic Racing can be found here.

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