It seemed like a good idea at the time. What better way to create a memorial than to run up a mountain at 54 years old, the same age as my father was when he died. Besides that, it was the same month and on Father’s day weekend.
My father worked hard all his life in construction. Most families back then felt it was important to eat large calorie meals to fuel the body. This usually meant Red meat, potatoes and lots of fried foods. As a result, the men in my family supported fairly large bellies, we called them construction guts and my Grandmother seemed quite proud of the fact that she fed them well.
In later years, my father tried to control his weight issues but ended up with a consistent yo-yo pattern of losing and gaining weight. Due to his life style and diet, it seems he aged quickly as I remember him looking and acting old. To me he appeared feeble and weak the last few years of his life. Up until the end we never hugged and never said I love you. I am not sure why because we were a close family.
I was 35 when he died and by the time I was 40, I was working toward a decent construction gut of my own. I hated to admit it, but I was following his footsteps, though I claimed I never would. How is it we lose track of our promises and blindly slide to a place we swore we would never be?
In January 2001 on my 46th birthday, I stood in front of the mirror and saw my father’s image staring back at me. I was showing signs of the family trait …… round belly and bellowing love handles. A lone tear trickled down my cheek as a vision of my kids burying their dad at 54 years old, flashed into my mind. It brought to the surface, over ten years of unresolved pent up emotions. I’m not telling you I cried that day, but I’m also not telling you I didn’t.
That was the year I started running. Though it was not the only reason, my health was a factor in that decision. All my kids ran Track and Cross Country , so what better way to spend time with them and work on my health at the same time.
Eight years later and here I am planning on toeing the line to run 7.6 miles up a 6000foot mountain for no other reason than to create a memorial to my dad and prove to myself that I am willing to do what ever it takes to be around for my own kids.
My first stumbling block was not getting picked in the lottery for 2010. I spent all winter dreaming and planning for this event and it appeared that it wasn’t happening after all. It left a big hole of disappointment but I figured some things are just not meant to be.
I belong to a track club and a few weeks later they advertised their own lottery for ten available racing slots. I entered and became one of the lucky ones (or unlucky depending on how you look at it). I had a slot and the only requirement was to provide a volunteer for race day.
Ironically, my volunteer was my own son. In essence my son was allowing my Father’s son the opportunity to run Mt Washington as a memorial to his father. How cool is that?
I trained hard for the next couple of months and the time just dragged by. I told everyone that I was going to finish this race whether I run, walk or crawl to the finish. What I didn’t tell them is how confident I was.
I trained on the highest setting of my treadmill, I ran mile long hills, I did numerous quarter mile hill repeats, I was not only ready in my own mind but I was going to conquer this mountain with vengeance. I had never felt so ready for a race…….well until a week before, then I was a bit apprehensive and some glad I didn’t tell everyone I was going to kill this race. At this point I was admitting to myself that I might have to slow my pace a bit to accommodate the steady climb.
Finally race day appeared and I was standing near the rear of a large anxious group of runners waiting for that cannon to fire. I was surprisingly calm as visions of me leisurely running up the mountain flickered into my head. Even the 90 degree temp, the beating rays of sunshine and the beads of sweat already forming on my forehead, did not cause me to second think about my intended performance.
I didn’t really have much of a plan other than being realistic enough to understand I may have to slow to a walk for some of the steeper sections. I had hill trained at 10-13 minute mile pace and figured I would be a little bit slower here because of the length of the race. My goal was, 13:30 mile pace as an average which seemed easily obtainable to me.
As the group of runners finally started pushing forward from the starting line, I enjoyed the two hundred feet or so of downhill grade and smiled as I passed many runners. I felt good and it seemed I would surprise myself at the finish.
The first hint that this majestic mountain was in charge came after the easy 200 foot down hill start at only three quarters of a mile into the race. My heart rate was spiking and I was struggling to suck in enough oxygen at the pace I was running. I began to feel like I underestimated things a bit as myself and hundreds of other runners were forced to slow to a power walk instead of a run before the end of the very first mile.
As I shuffle ran the second mile my focus had quickly changed from the conqueror to more a survival mode. Instead of picking the steepest parts of the grade to walk, I was picking the points of lesser grade to run.
The intimidation of this relentless hill really hit home when I passed an elite runner at mile three and he was running back down the mountain. It is very rare to see an elite runner quit and though I felt bad for him, it still quieted a bit of the humbling feeling I was experiencing.
A runner friend of mine, who has experience on this mountain, recommended I converse with my dad when the going got tough and I needed help to continue. It is embarrassing to admit that in the first three miles, I had already begun asking dad for help at certain points and honestly it worked.
By mile four I gave up on trying to calculate my estimated finishing time. I was so discouraged by my apparent sub par performance. Every time I tried to step up the pace, my heart rate would climb and I would be reduced to gasping for oxygen like a fish removed from water. The mental aspect of the race was getting to me.
The crest of the hill I was chasing was like a carrot at the end of a stick connected to my body. The crest never arrives just a relentless hill looms on for ever. The only reprieve at this point was that no one was passing me.
Mile five brought a new problem to the surface. I was dumping water on my head at every stop, drinking as much as I could, taking salt tablets, yet I stopped sweating and my hands were shaking as I tried to fill my water bottle or get a salt tablet out of the case. There were also moments of slight dizziness. This could be signs of dehydration or overheating.
I started concentrating on talking to dad and enjoying the majestic views all around me. The vision of the mind does no justice to the beauty of the mountain and being there in person to experience the awesome sights. I even saw a plane that was flying below me in the valley.
Mile six was nonexistent as I think I skipped it mentally and my memory is just bits and pieces of leapfrogging other runners and enjoying the views. All I know, is I kept moving forward and suddenly was almost to mile seven when I saw a runner that had collapsed off to the side of the cliff with a medic trying to keep him from falling over the edge.
By this point I had seen many runners resting, giving up, vomiting on the side of the road, so this scene didn’t seem that unusual. I planned on helping when I reached him but by the time I got there, the guy was up on his feet and though staggering a bit, he was determined to continue and finish the race. The medic said no problem, I will walk with you. I hope he finished.
It was exciting to see the mile seven marker because it meant only six tenths of a mile to go. There were many times in my thoughts and dreams that I reached the mile seven marker and every time I visioned a huge increase in running speed climaxing to a grand sprint at the end.
Unfortunately this was not a dream and my energy level was on the red line below empty. Seven miles of unrelenting grade had taken its toll and there was no giddy-up in my step. I rationalized by thinking dad had no energy left either and I didn’t want to leave him behind.
As I worked my way up the last but also the steepest part of road, I could see the finish line and even though my brain was sprinting, my arms were pumping and my legs were trying to move fast, I actually was only power walking. That is when I realized people were yelling my name and encouraging me to fly to the finish. I crested the huge incline (the final crest!) dug down deep and found a sprint within me somewhere. I was moving pretty fast as I crossed that line and it felt so good to be able to open up the stride.
I stopped running and I could feel the tears start swelling up inside me. Finally my mind could let go of the quest to finish and my emotions peaked. I whispered “thank-you dad” then hobbled off to the side to hide my tears and convince my legs to start working again.
I felt so close to my father during this race, perhaps it was the de-hydration, the lack of oxygen or the mental fatigue but I am pretty sure he ran every step right beside me.
Running Mount Washington was the most physically and mentally draining experience I‘ve had. It was intimidating and totally humbling, but at the same time, it was one of the most rewarding, breathtaking, beautiful experience of my life………………….. Thanks Dad.