That word kept popping into my head throughout the Loon Mountain Race.
For the whole 6.6 (or 6.8 according to my Garmin) miles of mud, water, gravel, rocks, and the never ending incline, I still was thinking – FUN.
Over the past year or so, I’ve felt a shift in my running preference. I’ve always loved the trails but as I found myself surrounded by more trail runners and actually running more trails, running on the road didn’t feel good. Physically and mentally.
Running on the trails makes me feel lighter, there’s less impact and I’m constantly using different muscles in different planes. In road running, it’s easy to just slog along in one forward motion. It’s too much of a repetitive motion.
As I found myself at the base of Loon Mountain, I had zero expectations. I was elated to be running but a little nervous. How could I not be? I had only started a run/walk return to running program 5 weeks prior to race day. My orthopedic gave me the OK to run the race but still cautioned that running uphill is not the best thing for a stress fracture recovery. Neither was running downhill. So it goes without saying that I had done ZERO hill work before the race.
Post race mud bath. And note the hills surrounding the parking lot.
Thankfully, I found a few friends from Six03 while waiting for the start of the race to chat about what we were getting into. Most had done the race before and offered tips. I saw my running buddy from the Fall/Winter, Lori, and she encouraged me to hang with her and a couple other girls. I didn’t think I’d have a chance of hanging on to their pace for all of the above reasons and because they are all seasoned distance/climbing pros.
The night before the race, the area had been hit with torrential rains. Our phones were going crazy with flash flood alerts and even a tornado warning for most of the night. By Sunday morning the rain had stopped but left behind washouts on the course and more mud and water than usual. Within the first mile of the race course, there was a huge washout that took out most of the service road.
The first mile or so climbs up the service road and then takes a sharp turn onto the cross country ski trails for a couple of miles of ups, flats and downs. I LOVED this part. It was a muddy, laughable mess. There were multiple times that you had no choice but to run straight through over the ankle mud/water and pray that you came out with both shoes. I felt no pain in my fibula and felt really comfortable with the little ups and downs.
Around mile 3, we popped out onto a mixture of gravel service roads and grassy (muddy) ski runs. This is the section where the grade went up to 20% in spots. I was following the other girls lead on when to hike and when to run. I was shocked at how good I felt during the hiking section. I was passing people with no problem. My legs felt strong. Of course, my heart rate was through the rough but it would recover nicely when I hiked.
Once we hiked up a long 20% grade, we made it to the top of the gondola where the finish line. But oh no, you are not done yet. You have to climb up and over it and then head down a steep hill (15% grade) before rounding the corner to the infamous Upper Walking Boss. I felt really good flying down the hill and was even able to pass some people. And then I saw UWB. With an average grade of 40% (with sections that are 48%), it is a straight climb for approximately 1km but seems more like 5 miles after running 5.5 miles to get to it.
I don’t know if it’s possible to actually run UWB. Maybe the winners do? This year, with the added mud, it made it extra challenge to find footing. There were sections that I would take a step and slide right back down. There were times that I bear crawled up because standing up made me feel like I was going to tumble down the mountain. It was a hands on knees slog to the top. I slowed a bit during UWB but Lori was still in my sights and I was still passing people. Maybe all that Stepmill climbing during my stress fracture recovery paid off?
The best part of the climb was the girl in front of me once we neared the photographers. She thought it would be a good idea to do a cart wheel on UWB. Needless to say it didn’t work out well but it sure had us all laughing hard!
Once I reached the top of UWB, it was time to run back down to the finish line via an 18% grade. My upper quads were on the verge of cramping as I started down. I opted for the grassy section rather than the rocky side. I slowed WAY down as I had flashbacks of DO NOT RUN DOWNHILL from my orthopedic. Coupled with the cramping, I was afraid I’d lose footing and fall in a hole and break my leg. It killed me to get passed by so many that I had passed on UWB and to lose sight of Lori but I reminded myself that I wasn’t racing.
Once at the bottom of the hill, there was a short flat section before an uphill finish to the gondola. All great races end in an uphill for that one final kick in the pants, right?
I finished this race so happy. I had so much fun throughout the whole entire race and I had zero pain. It was the perfect boost of confidence that the stress fracture is healed and I can continue to get back to where I was before – better and stronger.
It also solidified what I have been feeling for quite some time. I’d rather be running on dirt than on the road. My friends who run trails warned me that I’d be hooked once I got dirty. They were absolutely right.
I can’t wait to run Loon next year!
Side note: I so wish I had worn a GoPro so you can see how ridiculously muddy it was!
What’s the hilliest race you’ve ever run?
Trails or road – which do you prefer?