Running into the clouds

Melodie Sullivan, in the orange, fights her way to the top of Mt. Washington

There’s hill training, there’s suffering, there’s near-death experiences, and then there’s the Mount Washington Road Race. The latter is a thing onto itself. Just ask Montreal marathoner Melodie Sullivan.

Only accomplished marathoners like Melodie are invited to run one of the strangest road races in the world. It’s 7.6 miles straight up into the clouds, and the incline averages 12% Think running straight up one of the Mayan ruins. Only the weather isn’t as sweet as down on the Riviera.

The view as runners struggle to get up Mt. Washington

For the last 50 years, the weather has been unpredictable at the New Hampshire race. Hot sun at the bottom can be in sharp contrast to blizzard-like conditions above the tree line. The winners somehow manage to scamper to the peak in just over an hour. The rest of the pack stretches back over a couple of hours. On June 18, 2011  the weather was mild for competitors, but there were still lots of surprises for the Montreal lawyer and mother of three.

Here’s the Good4Sports Q+A with Sullivan.

The expression on her face says a lot about what it takes to get to the peak

G4S: What was the thought that crossed your mind as you crossed the finish line?

MS: I was thinking a few things all at once:

  • Yay, there’s my great kids and mom waiting for me at the finish!!!
  • Yay, I did it!
  • Thank God that’s over!
  • Why don’t I feel more tired?
  • Why wouldn’t my legs obey me and run (instead of walk) up that mountain?
  • Wow it’s cool to be up here in the clouds!
  • And last but not least: it’s so nice to get a warm fuzzy finisher’s blanket instead of the scratchy metal ones!

Melodie with her three children at the top of Mt. Washington

G4S: What do you know now that you wished you knew before the race started?

MS: I really wish I had known that almost NOBODY runs this race….I heard that the elites run and walk…but I never saw them!  I did “run” for the first ¾ mile, but after that I simply could not make my legs run any further. When I tried, they felt like they were burning, bursting, melting and cramping…all at once! At first I felt bad that I was so quickly reduced to a walk and then I realized that everybody around me was walking! My legs dictated the pace of the day. I walked as fast as I could but never felt even close to tapping into the cardio/endurance energy reserves that go into a marathon.

I wish I had known that shooting for my usual half-marathon time for this race (which is what all the web sites say you can hope to expect) would be pure fantasy for me! When I saw my half-marathon time come and go…the summit was nowhere in sight! I also wish I had really fully grasped what a 12% average incline would look and feel like. It was shocking. I realize now that in training I only rarely ran up such a slope and when I did, it was only for a few meters, not a kilometer, mile or 7.4 miles. After the race I told my running coach that I thought I needed much stronger legs to do better in that race. He said no, that it was my VO2Max and the oxygen return to my legs that were lacking and that bigger muscles wouldn’t help. He said that smaller runners do better in that type of race. But, I’m not too sure…I saw runners of all shapes and sizes pass me….and hey, I’m not that big! At this point, I’m not sure how I would train differently….but I do feel that I have some unfinished business with that race, so I’ll have to see.

G4S: In the days after the race, you mentioned there was none of the usual soreness you get after a marathon or an ultra. Why do you suppose that is?

MS: Running (or walking) up a steep grade like that means there is no pounding on the legs at all. Your foot never really has far to go before it meets the pavement….the ground is sloping up to meet it at each step! I think a lot of the soreness after a faster marathon is due to the pounding for over 3 hours. This race was shorter (12kms), slower and, given that I fast-walked at least 70% of it, my legs and body did not take nearly the kind of beating that they do in a marathon. Also, as I said above, I never felt I put all my cardio potential into the race, so there was none of that kind of exhaustion either.

G4S: What are some of the other particulars of running straight up into the clouds?

MS: Mt. Washington is famous for its bad weather, but not on this race day! We had a great day and as we rose into the clouds we were rewarded with sun, cool temps and beautiful views. Only the top of the mountain had some cloud cover.

G4S: How does a race like this compare to other distances you’ve raced in the last five years?

MS: It’s totally different from any race I’ve run before. I’ve done long trail races (including a 50-miler) that, in a way, were easier than this race. In most types of races you have some kind of variation in course, terrain, elevation or something! Those variations give you a break and allow you to recover and use other muscles. But in this race, nothing changes ….it’s just unrelenting super-steep pavement with no flats or reprieve at all! One great thing I have to say is that the views you have on the way up are just spectacular. Most of the race is above the tree line and the views you get of the White Mountains are a reward in themselves.

G4S: What’s the significance of choosing different types of races, and not just sticking with set distances, like the marathon?

MS:  I love all types of running challenges and I am always looking for something new to do. Above all, I want to protect and nurture my love of running. Mixing up the format and types of challenges keeps me motivated and prevents any boredom or burnout from setting in. Trail races, 10k’s, half marathons, ultras….these are just a few ways I try to keep it fresh. This fall I will be running the Montreal half marathon then a trail half marathon at Mt. Orford, then, I’ll try for a new marathon PR in New York in November.  One day, I would like to do a relay with my running buddies. Having all these different challenges to look forward to makes it fun and helps me avoid putting too much pressure on myself in any one particular area.

G4S: What tips do you have for anyone else considering this race, or something similar?

MS: Well, it’s easy these days to find “training tips or programs” for any kind of race online, in books or in magazines. So I will leave that type of advice to the pros. What I do think is that it’s important to keep an open mind about new challenges. My race was very particular and I trained for it as best I could (or so I thought) on the hills that we have in Montreal. After the training is done, you have to tell yourself: let it go, it’s going to be an amazing experience, no matter what the result! When you are trying something new, you have to be ready to accept any type of day, conditions or performance. You have to be ready to accept uncertainty and even “failure”! That just makes it more exciting! In reality, there is no way to actually “fail” these new feats. No matter the result, you meet great people, see amazing things and learn something new about yourself each time.

G4S: I noted that you shared your placement with your friends (12/24 in your category). In what way is tracking how you place in races important?

MS: I was actually 12th out of 43 (not 24) in my category….heh heh so yes, clearly it is important for me to know how I did, relative to other women about my age. I always like to know how I did and it was interesting to see that this time, I did not do as well as I have in recent races, relative to my group. Overall, it’s fun for me to see how far I’ve come in terms of my racing results and seeing that progress helps motivate me to keep running and keep improving. Judging my performance is inevitable for me but no “bad” performance has ever dampened my enjoyment for the sport or my enthusiasm for tackling new or greater challenges.

G4S: In earlier Good4sports posts, you’ve revealed how some race parallel the larger journey in your life. What does this one say about where you are at in your life?

MS: Hmmm…..well, I think this race says I’m always interested in new and interesting challenges and that I’m still up for biting off a little more than I can chew… in running and in life.


2 responses to “Running into the clouds

  1. it is really appreciative it is not a small work which you have don i think it so hard .. .. ..
    Vertical Jump Bible

  2. Great job Melodie, I think I get it now!
    Here’s to more races and those not so far off relays!

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