Summer VacationRoad tripping, a VW Microbus, a veteran Brit mountain runner and trail running and racing across the United States
Cox and Gates air cooling in the VW. Photo by Rickey Gates.
This article appeared in our November 2010 issue.
By the two-mile mark, Erik Blake and a guy I’ve never seen before have pulled far ahead of the pack. Joe Gray is still within reach and the sounds of breathing and feet are heavy behind me. So many. I refuse to look back this early in the race. It’s a sign of weakness. The air is heavy. My legs are heavy. What’s gone wrong?
My mind leaves Mount Washington. New Hampshire. America. Am I not stronger than last year? Is everybody faster? Are we all going to break an hour this year? It feels too slow. Max King pulls up beside me, takes the lead for a stint then pulls back. I thought he was going to be taller. Max King. Like six foot five. I recall pictures I’ve seen of him on his way to winning the Xterra World Championships. Maybe this is a different Max King. He begins creeping away again, before I reel my mind back in.
Forefoot. Forefoot. Forefoot. Heel. Heel. Heel. I’ve been practicing this, switching back and forth. Sometimes, to really mix it up, I throw in a couple mid-foot strikes. I’ve come to think of them as different gears that have a time and a place, a speed and a grade.
Why then, with all of these gears, are those guys still pulling away from me?
In 2009, while racing my third summer in Europe, I had convinced British mountain runner Martin Cox to come to the States for the 2010 summer. Martin and I were in Chamonix at a bar that served Guinness when I told him about my plan. We’d drive around in my orange, 1974 Volkswagen bus, named “Orange,” from race to race and trail to trail. I told him about its bamboo floors and Louis Vuitton fabric-covered walls. I told Martin—a great lover of music—about its sound system with 10-inch subwoofers. I suggested a road trip from the Rockies to the Grand Canyon, on to Death Valley and north through the Sierras, Yosemite, the Cascades and into Canada before dropping back down into Montana, the Tetons and Colorado. He finished his beer and tentatively agreed.
Today he is behind me, fighting his own battle up Mount Washington. Today, having turned 40 in December, Martin had entered the master’s division, and a month ago had arrived in Denver after a spring road-running season that included a 14:11 5K road race, a time that would have set a new American master’s record. He promptly won the master’s title at one of America’s largest road races: the Boulder Bolder 10K in Colorado. Then, we hopped a plane for Mount Washington, before embarking on our road trip.
For over 100 years, ascending the Mount Washington road has been one of the greatest tests for an automobile. In more recent years, it has become the greatest test for a mountain runner. Not because it is the biggest or the meanest—with its feet in the swamps and its head in the clouds, it is both big and mean—but rather because it is the most consistent. Unrelenting, everybody always says. Sine quies. And, in spite of the 12-percent grade, a mostly paved and non-technical surface makes it a level playing field for road runners and mountain runners to meet.
Moments before the black-powder canon sets the race in motion, race director Bob Teschek warns the field with a hint of New England facetiousness that it’s “only one hill.” In his 29 years as race director he has seen dozens of elite runners humbled by this hill, the Everest of the East. With the exception of the first quarter mile, there is never a flat bit. There are sections that settle down from a 12-percent grade to an eight-percent grade, but there is never a true reprieve. Consequently, Mount Washington is to the sport of mountain running what Bonneville is to drag racers. It is honest. It is where you go to face all competition, past, present and future.
And as for competition, both Teschek and the elite-athlete coordinator, John Stifler, are credited with assembling some of the world's best mountain and road runners. “I put lots of energy into getting the best runners to the race so we have a great event up front as well as in the trenches,” Teschek told me. For this reason, there hasn’t been a single American mountain race as deeply competitive as the Mount Washington Road Race in the past decade. In addition to lucrative incentives for finishing well ($2000 for the win) and breaking records ($5000 for the course record and $2000 for the master’s record), Teschek has involved the surrounding communities by offering home stays for elite runners.
A knee injury has kept one of America’s most prolific runners, Simon Gutierrez, from pursuing an 11th top-10 finish and a spot on what would have been his eighth U.S. Mountain Running Team at Mount Washington this year. It hasn’t, however, kept him off the course. He leans his clean-shaved and well-tanned head out the back of one of several press cars that leapfrog at the front of the rapidly advancing race and tells me my split. “20:43, Rickey.” He can see by looking at my eyes that I am not here. “Stay focused!”
Though Joe still appears close, Simon informs me that he is, in fact, 30 seconds ahead and I’m cruelly reminded that nothing is close at this grade. Blake and the guy-I’ve-never-seen are two minutes ahead. Simon must have seen the despair in my eyes because he’s now telling me the oldest white lie in the history of mankind. “Looking good, Rickey.” It was the lie that was told to Caesar on the cold, Senate floor. To Tom Simpson on the calescent, July flanks of Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour du France.
Max drops back another couple of feet at the halfway point. I check my watch. 29:34. What did I run last year? 29 something? 30? Why do I wear a watch if I can’t remember a split when it really counts? I look back to take inventory of the field and find a half dozen guys within reach and another half a dozen just behind them. But no Martin. He’s supposed to be up here with me, beating the master’s record … Simon’s master’s record. We need that $2000 for gas money.