Whiteface Sky Race
A few days ago I ran the Whiteface Sky Race in Wilmington, NY, part of the USA Sky Runner Series. I signed up for it awhile back knowing that it was a really tough course and only a month after my first 50-miler, but I figured it would be a lot of hiking anyways. I focused all of my training on Cayuga Trails and hadn't even thought about Whiteface until after Cayuga was over. I had a couple weeks of hard training between the two races, but also spent a week or so recovering from Cayuga and then another week dealing with a twisted ankle and some forefoot issues, so I didn't really get much specific training in for this race. But again, it's just hiking right?
Whiteface Mountain stands at 4,865 feet in the Adirondacks of New York. The Whiteface ski resort is iconic as it's where past and current Olympic activity takes place. On Saturday, there's a Vertical K race, 2.3 miles straight up the ski slope, with over 3,000 feet of gain. The Sky race takes place on the same course as the Vertical K, except you make that same climb twice. The course takes a different route back down the mountain, but the descent is just as steep as the ascent. In between each 5ish mile round trip up and down Whiteface, there is what they call a 5 mile "roller recovery loop" or the "Flume Loop", rolling, windy technical single-track. Overall the course is 15.2 miles long with a total elevation gain of 8,000 feet, with most of that gain in those two 2.3 mile climbs (But again, it's just hiking right?).
Even with the little prep time, I was feeling pretty confident about this race. Cayuga went extremely well, I had a lot of hill training under my belt, and my legs were feeling good. I knew that there would be a lot of talented mountain runners there, but I was prepared to give it my all since it was my last race of the season. My husband was signed up for the race as well, and we drove up to our AirBnB in Lake Placid, New York Friday night. We had a full day of rest the day before the race, which is extremely rare as most of the races we run are on Saturday. It down-poured off and on the whole day Saturday, but we still made a trip out to Whiteface to get our bibs (which we didn't end up getting because of a time mix up). Reading the course description and watching videos of the race did NOT prepare me for what I saw. As soon as we stepped out of the car at the ski resort and I saw Whiteface Mountain, my stomach dropped, my heart sank, and I told Jeff "I think it's time to re-think goals". A pep talk with my coach later put me at ease and I was back to feeling confident, but also knew that this was unlike anything I had ever done before and that it was either going to go extremely well, or I was going to get my ass kicked by that mountain. Either way I was prepared to keep smiling.
The race started promptly at 8:00am. I started towards the front of the pack because if there was going to be a Congo line going up the mountain, I didn't want to be stuck behind it. The lead women took off like they were running a 5k, and it didn't take long before I was passed by a lot runners, but I just stuck to my easy "I'm climbing up a fucking mountain" pace. The first mile wasn't so bad. It was steep and slow, but there was a little bit of running here and there. Some mud and wet grass, but nothing too crazy. The weather was beautiful. Sunny with a cooling breeze. And then we hit the worst of it. 45-50% grade with some patches of slippery mud. It felt like at any moment I could knee myself in the face because of how steep it was. The chick in front of me was climbing while holding onto her phone, and almost fell backwards a couple times, which scared the hell out of me, so I politely asked to pass her. She was the only one I passed going up. The second mile seemed never ending. There was one really rocky section, and I actually loved that part, as that's what I think of when I think of mountain running, not this steep grass and dirt road shit. It was stunning at the top, but I immediately turned around and started running back down without taking in much of the view. I was ready to get running after so much hiking! As soon as I started running downhill, I noticed that the insole in my hardly worn Altra Kings was rolling under itself and making my foot slip around. I sat down, took off my shoe, ripped the insole out, shoved it in my pack, put my shoe back on, and just as someone asked me if I was ok, I jumped back up and took off. Within seconds I was passing runners who looked really strong climbing up and received some "thatta girls". I'm sure some of them were thinking that I was blowing up my quads on mile 3 but I know my body can handle a downhill beating. The downhill wasn't all fast. There was some really steep muddy sections with some toe grabbers that forced you to slow down. For most of it though, I just let my legs fly. It was so steep, that trying to slow down was harder than just going with it. When I got to the bottom of the mountain, my legs were jello when I tried to continue running on the flat dirt road. I hit the start/finish aid station before starting the flume loop, grab some water and took off. I had been mindful of how long I was running for, and eating properly, but I wasn't drinking a ton of fluids. It didn't feel that hot with the breeze on the mountain, but down below it felt warmer. The first couple miles of the loop I felt great. I knocked off a couple 8-9 min miles before reaching the Flume Loop aid station and was stoked to see a familiar face and fellow Strong Hearts Vegan Power teammate, Laura Kline. The Flume loop trails were my favorite kind of trails to run on. Covered in roots, twisty, some climbs here and there, I felt at home. I was trying to make up time before having to climb back up the mountain for the second time, and it was working, but then I started to feel really off. I looked at my heart rate and it was 198. I don't think my heart rate has ever been that high. I stopped to walk for a bit and realized that between the start/finish at the bottom of the mountain and a couple miles into the Flume Loop, I had drank almost all of my water and passed the Flume Loop aid station without grabbing more. Now I was beginning to panic. I don't know how to describe it, but I just felt off. My heart rate would go down a little and then once I'd start running, it'd shoot back up to 198, it actually reached 200 at one point. I thought maybe my watch was wrong, but at the same time, I didn't want to keep running hard if it was in fact that high. So for those 2-3 miles I was walking some, then running some. 14 minute miles when I should've been running a lot faster. The thought of dropping at the start/finish before climbing back up the mountain crossed my mind, and I've never actually thought about dropping during a race before. I did not want to chance having a medic come to get me on the side of a mountain! Once we got out of the woods, there was a steep downhill back to the start/finish (which the runners in front of me went the wrong way down but luckily I didn't follow them!). That little bit of downhill brought my heart rate down and then I was able to fill my water again. The volunteers, who were extremely nice and gave me a cup of water to drink while I was waiting for them to fill my bottles, snapped me out of my panic mode, and I quickly took off back up the mountain a second time. The first mile wasn't so bad. I still felt strong. Not too far up there was someone sitting who didn't look too great. I gave him my last Nuun tablet and some words of encouragement. I caught up with another runner and we talked for a little bit. He wasn't in great shape either and was asking around for salt, but we kept pushing forward. Once we started to reach the second half, and steepest part, my legs really started to feel it. I don't think I've ever hiked so slow. It was more like a crawling effort, and sometimes I was in fact crawling because with the mud and how steep it was, crawling was much easier. Take a few steps, stop, stand up tall, lean back over, take a few more steps, bear crawl. I was actually laughing out loud. How could hiking be this hard?! Two guys who ran together the whole race and we've sort of leaped frog a few times, hiked past me with trekking poles. I envied them. I was getting passed a lot now, and one female who had passed me on the last climb, passed me again. I kept my spirits up by continuing to laugh at my pathetic effort to get up this mountain, but also thinking about that 2.3 miles downhill to the finish line. Originally I thought the race would take me 3 hours 45 minutes, definitely under 4 hours, but that idea left awhile ago. Now I just wanted to finish and finish strong. Not even finish, but just get to the top of the mountain. I passed another runner sitting at one point and wanted so badly to join him, but I just kept going. And then someone passed me and asked if I was ok because apparently my bear crawling was a sign of someone in pain. Finally when I reached the top, I yelled out "holy fuck" then turned around and immediately started running back down. It wasn't long before I was passing all of the same runners who had just passed me. I didn't care as much about falling at this point and I actually purposely slid down on my butt for some of muddy sections because the mud was worse, and you only have so many opportunities to slid down a mountain on your butt! Everything hurt so much, except for my quads, thankfully, because I just wanted to run. I ran by the female who had passed me so I knew I was in either 5th or 6th place, which after what I had been through during this race, I was stoked to be running at all and didn't care much about where I'd place. Nothing was getting between me and that finish line now, and even though I still had a mile to go, I was dreaming how good that finish line beer was going to taste. About 1/2 a mile from the finish line, I wiped out, slammed my knee on the ground, sort of rolled, then stood up and kept going as if nothing had happened. Finally I made it down and crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 28 minutes. 6th female.
Whiteface Sky Race is by far the hardest race I've ever done. I've run some tough races but I usually know what I'm getting myself into and train specifically for that. Sunday I really was unprepared for how steep that course was and how hard that second climb would be. It actually took me 20 minutes longer the second ascent (both descents were almost exactly the same!). I'm thankful that I finished and that I got a chance to run this race, because it challenged me in a way that I've never been challenge before. Cayuga Trails showed me all my strengths as a runner and Whiteface handed me my weaknesses. A lot of the same faces at both races, and quite a few of them I was faster than at Cayuga, but they kicked my butt Sunday. I think I'll stick to longer distances for now, and if anything running Sunday made me that much more excited to run my second 50-miler at Mountain Masochist in November!