There’s a rock ‘n’ roll lyric for every occasion, and for the Whiteface Sky Race on 21 July, it was “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” I was definitely the bug.
Two years ago, I didn’t think my knees would tolerate anything like this, but a couple of successful trail half marathons emboldened me. I’ve hiked Whiteface and done the Climb to the Castle roller ski race multiple times. Why not give this a shot? In May, I registered for the Whiteface Sky Race.
According to Wikipedia, sky running started in Italy in the early 1990s and quickly gained popularity. Basically, it involves ascending and descending mountainsides inclines exceeding 30 percent, at 2000 meters altitude or higher. Whiteface Mountain is below 2000 meters altitude, but the inclines are steep. Sunday’s Sky race consisted of two ascents and descents of the mountain, with a five-mile recovery break on rolling trails in the woods at the mountain’s base, alongside the Ausable River. Slightly more than 15 miles in all, with 8000 feet of vertical gain.
The big day arrived, and with the heat and humidity, I was glad of an 8 AM start. Peru Nordic teammate Jan Wellford, a talented runner in his own right, gave us instructions and inspiration, and 118 of us were off. For perhaps 100 feet, we ran on a flat road before turning up the mountain. Within two minutes, I couldn’t see the race leaders.
Down low, the route primarily utilized ski trail segments. You’re not going to win the race in the first mile, and I certainly wasn’t contending for a podium spot. I focused on a steady pace, power hiking, as most of the people around me did. Early in the climb, my left Achilles tendon began bothering me, just enough to make me know it was there.
After the first feed, about a mile up the hill, the route changed from primarily ski trail to damn near vertical single track, blowing apart the group that I was in. We kept going up. In places, I French-stepped to use some different muscles and give my Achilles a break. At one point, I stopped to check the view: I could see Springfield Road and Jay Mountain five miles away, and the higher Adirondacks beyond.
Climbing further, we went into the clouds and a stiff breeze gave us relief from the heat. The second feed was next to the uppermost ski lift, at 2.5 miles, where we glommed down liquids and potato chips and gels before descending.
The first part of the descent was reasonable and included an awesome view of Lake Placid. We made a hard left turn, picking our way down a rocky slope. The trail junction was confusing: the flagging pointed uphill to the Little Whiteface lift, but a direction marker seemed to point downhill. I ran up to Little Whiteface. It was the right decision: a woman who left the mountaintop feed ahead of me chose to go downhill here, and had to re-trace her steps a mile back up to rejoin the course.
From here the descent turned gnarly and vertical. Technical downhills have never been my strong suit. I focused on finding good footholds, picking my way. I caught sight of a lodge and thought, almost there. Minutes later I realized I was looking at the mid-mountain lodge; I had a ways to go. At least all the downhill gave my Achilles a break.
Coming off the mountain, I stopped at the aid station by the start finish for potato chips, bananas, and sports drink. After filling my water bottle, I headed out the Flume trails. At this point, my body didn’t feel right. I wasn’t bonked, I hadn’t overworked my motor. Running on rolling trails, my Achilles resumed nagging me. But something was off. A mile into the Flume, I hit the next aid station. I drank 3 cups of water and refilled my bottle.
“Is there another aid station in the Flume?” I asked.
“No, you have to go back to the start-finish line,” replied a volunteer.
Never in a race have I asked where the next aid station is. I realized the weird feeling was incipient dehydration. Since I’d left the previous aid station, five minutes after drinking, I felt thirsty again. This wasn’t a good sign.
The remaining four miles of the Flume, I ran with a woman who’d caught up with me at the aid station. We chatted, and I calculated my odds of finishing the race. As we emerged onto the ski mountain from the woods, she pulled away from me. I dropped into the aid station, and told volunteers I was dropping out of the race.
I hated like hell to drop out, but it was the right thing to do. While I could manage the Achilles tendon, I didn’t think I could consume enough fluid to climb Whiteface safely. The mountain is pretty much exposed to the sun, and it was hot and humid. If you’re in difficulty and you take a wrong step, you might fall a long way.
Hindsight being 20 /20, I realized I hadn’t hydrated aggressively enough on my first loop up the mountain. During races, I’ve always resisted draining my water bottle between aid stations. In this race, it would have been the right thing to do the first time up and down the mountain. Another alternative would have been to use an ultra running hydration vest with a larger fluid capacity.
Another mistake was thinking of this as a 15-mile race with two hard ascents. It’s rather more extreme than that.
To prepare for this race, I lifted weights twice a week, and I did aerobic training four or five times per week. Each week, one or two of the aerobic sessions would be hard intervals. I was able to do some of those intervals at the long-dormant Snow Bowl, for stiff uphill ski-walking. The remaining cardio sessions were easy, between 60-70 percent of my maximum heart rate.
In all, 19 percent of the 118 starters didn’t the Whiteface Sky Race. For a race this extreme, it’s hard for a newbie to know what to expect. I was disappointed to drop, but I wasn’t crushed. Getting spanked by the mountain was a valuable learning experience for next year.