Loon Mountain Vertical Kilometer

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.

Wow, two races in a row that have inspired Tim Tollefsen vernacular to run through my brain. We raced the Loon Mountain Vertical Kilometer (VK) this past weekend. A VK race is usually straight up a mountain with an elevation gain to about 3300 feet (hence the “vertical kilometer”). This 6-mile race had quite a bit of down to interrupt the uphill, but that made the ups feel all the more steep! A totally awesome course and experience overall. It was really exciting to be at a race with so many pro mountain runners (this was a Selection Race for the US Vertical Mountain Running Team)! And we happened to sit right next to the top 10 males during the awards ceremony, so we got to see legends like Joe Gray up close.

I was very nervous at the start of this race. Much, much more nervous than I think I have been for any race ever. My legs felt good, and I had recovered quite well from the 70.3 weekend before (somehow). (I decided to enter this on a whim with my boyfriend, an uphill beast, four days before the race.) I had been doing a bit of uphill treadmill in training… not a lot, but enough that up to 15% incline uphill felt comfortable for a shuffle-jog. As much as I love heading into the unknown, this was really unknown to me in two ways: 1. Sure, the average incline was 10%, but there were sustained (0.3+ mile) segments of 20-40%! I’d never done a race (or a training session) like this before; 2. The whole thing would be a max effort (I was ready to “redline” all of it, but it’s still a bit nerve-wracking to think too hard about it).

Warming up!
The creek at the bottom of the mountain was amazing.

The morning of the race, I checked the weather and it said upper 60s, low-mid 70s during race time. But when I went outside, it felt hot! It was super humid. I had planned on not bringing a bottle and using aid stations instead, but I decided in the end to bring a handheld, and it was a good choice. Plenty of people were wearing packs too. Unclear if people fueled as much as I did, but I stuffed four Gus in my shorts and sports bra, and I ended up taking three of them and felt energized all the way!

I had been thinking about racing in my road shoes because they have a slightly higher drop than my trail shoes, and with all the uphill the drop makes a difference on my shins, calves, and achilles. But in the end I went with my trail shoes as one of the locals recommended. I think it could’ve been doable but a little slick to do road shoes, especially the ones I have with no tread whatsoever. Either way, the warmup for this race twenty minutes before start time was critical. It gave my calves a chance to get the burn out (they always burn on the first uphill of a run) and the aerobic system to lock in.

The race started with small climbs in the open but soon our trail disappeared into the woods. The second and third miles were on a beautiful section of a mountain bike path through woods. Soft ground, rolling, shaded, it was so nice. I commented such to the women around me, and one of them who had done this race before warned me to save up for the rest of the race and enjoy this part while I could. I sort of disagreed, as I’d accepted the fate of physical pain and would enjoy (or at least “enjoy”) every part of the race. Also, I was not saving up for anything, except maybe banking time for later when I knew it’d be slow going. It’s interesting to think about the different race strategies in a race like this, where the beginning is flatter and less technical and it gets slower going no matter how fit you are as the race progresses. I’m still undecided as to whether I should have held back more at the beginning.

We emerged from the forest into an exposed area where there was the first aid station. From there, it was sun, rock, dirt, mud, grass, and steeps. Someone told me not to look up. I did look up. It was steep! But also cool to see where you are going, and maybe even sweeter when you get to the top of the climb. Another person told me to conserve energy… too late. I figured if I was fueling enough I’d be okay (and I was). I met another person who said she was a collegiate XC runner. She kept running back towards her friend, who was about my speed, which I’d imagine became a bit demoralizing unless they were really good friends!

There were a few downhills during this race, with a total descent of about 1000 feet. I love downhills, and this race just cemented that into my head. I was passing people on them, when I used to be the one passed, and, sure, most of them just passed me back on uphills, but there were still a number I could stay ahead of, and in the end, staying ahead on last uphill is what matters. The last hill in this race has a name, Upper Walking Boss.

Looking up to the finish line. This was the flattest part of Upper Walking Boss!
Looking down Upper Walking Boss. It’s a drop-off, but so worth the view!
We ran down the mountain after the race, which was the best part!!

A hill is a hill, until it’s Upper Walking Boss. This is a 0.37-mile section on grass that is straight up a black diamond ski slope, at an average of 37% grade. It was awesome! I totally fell into the depths of pain and carved out more of the cave. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Just like Courtney at the end of UTMB last year. Left foot. Right foot. Yes, you are doing it. Yes, you will make it. In retrospect, I had a lot of positive self-talk, but I forgot to think about a lot of things too that probably could have helped me do even better. Technically, I think I did this section pretty well. I didn’t have poles, so I used my shorts as leverage and hand rests, doing some odd wrapping thing and glad I didn’t accidentally pull my shorts down. I made sure to take smaller, faster steps. I also did some crawling, which was more effective than the hiking people were doing next to me, so… I also made sure to turn around and appreciate the amazing view, which also gave my calves a little rest.

Ultimately it felt like I was limited aerobically rather than muscularly. There is some social code during races that makes it hard to sit down and take a break, to crawl, to do these sorts of things that maybe give some illusion of “giving up”… I’m not sure. Or maybe that’s just in my head. Anyway, I was definitely working against this perceived construct. I must’ve sat down a total of 3 times. A good re-coup once, the second time someone knocked sense into me by saying I should keep moving. The third time people actually gave me a hand to help me up. I dunno, I wish they hadn’t. Nothing wrong with a little recoup? Sure, I could’ve paced better, maybe, but the hill was doing the work for me. I did want to sprint the end, and I did! #hillstrides It helped there was a fantastic finish line vibe!

Either way, I would love to do this VK again with some more hill-specific training and better running fitness! I also really see the importance of training the mental side of things and going “into the well” more often in training… or maybe just racing more often! Though I had positive “you can do it, you are doing it” self-talk, I forgot to think about a lot of things I’d planned to like being a vert machine, a “boss” (on Upper Walking BOSS), finding a flow, and others. I’m not sure if my goal next time would be to not stop though… likely just to beat my previous time. Because, again, I’m hung up on how stopping seems like the not-socially-acceptable thing to do.

My time was 1 hour 39 minutes. The winning female time was in the low 50s and winning male time upper 40s. People are so freaking fast! It was cool to be in such a competitive race! Way more competitive and way more accessible than any Ironman. I still prefer the ups and downs of ultras though 🙂

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