I've had my eye on this race up in North Conway, NH for a few years. What started as a cruel five mile race over Cathedral and White Horse Ledge eventually expanded and added a 13ish mile course that continued on over North Moat Mountain. A race that involves as much hiking as running, the longer course was dubbed the Beast of the East. After a few years of not jiving with my schedule, I was finally able to make it work for 2016.
I drove up the day before and did a bit of redlining on the Boulder Loop Trail off of the Kang. This three mile loop offered some nice ledge views and confirmed that the conditions were primo - the ground/rocks were very dry and my Speedcross seemed to grip well on them. I hoped I wasn't doing too much the day before the race but it was good to get out on some hilly trails for a (mostly) hike.
The day of the race was cool to start and it was surprisingly windy down by Echo Lake. Judging by the registration table this race brought in a small field but most of the runners looked very fit. After a few remarks from the course director we lined up and were off at 10 AM. I tried to keep the pace fairly easy and let a bunch of people go by. The trail around the lake has lots of roots to contend with so I focused on footwork. The trail began to climb easily and the runners ahead were beginning to pull away.
|Don't know if I'm ready but here we go|
|Beautiful spot to start a race, though chilly with the wind|
Photo by Mike Crutchley
Not for long though as at 1.5 miles there was a sharp turn and suddenly we were all hiking uphill. The climbing was very steep and we went up 500 feet over 1/2 mile. The going was tough and I fell in behind a couple other guys. My quads were burning already - that can't be good. A tall fellow named Lars came up behind and I let him by. He was a much faster climber. Finally the trail eased off and we spilled out onto the Cathedral Ledge autoroad for a few hundred feet of pavement. Then back into the woods as the trail led us over the rocky ledges and into the parking lot where the first aid station was set up.
I was third in a train of four guys as we hit the first significant downhill section. Technical stuff and the lead guy in grey took off and I tried to follow suit. I was faster downhill than the other two but grey guy was well ahead by the time the trail leveled off. Then another 500 feet of climbing began over 1/2 mile. Lars quickly caught up with me but was content to stay behind. A few sections offered a chance to get a run going and I was able to close the gap with grey shirt on these sections. I took the lead but right before we reached the White Horse summit I missed a sharp turn and led us down the wrong trail for about a minute. By the time I realized the error and we doubled back someone had gone by and now I was at the back of the train again. I felt bad about leading them on the detour.
At the top of White Horse was the 2nd (and final) add station. We were only about three miles in at this point. I was following behind Lars during this fun downhill section - the other two guys had disappeared up ahead. When we hit the Red Ridge Trail I got ahead of Lars as he almost went the wrong way (this intersection confused several people as there were flags in both directions as the course returns via the same trail. A couple people ended up taking a right and running the North Moat loop backwards). The next mile was moderate technical downhill which favored me. I was able to reel in grey shirt and as the moderate downhill turned to moderate uphill, I was able to catch the first guy in our train. At this point I was able to put distance on all of them. After a dry brook crossing it suddenly became a hike again and looking back I saw I was alone. For the moment.
Now it was just grueling climbs. There were a few short 10 second spurts where I could run but otherwise I was pulling myself over rocky outcroppings. As the trail began to turn to ledges, I could hear the other guys chatting behind me somewhere. Finally the trail spilled out onto the Red Ridge ledges which offered incredible views and false summit after false summit. I could see racers and hikers much higher up. Yellow blazes on the rocks and pink ribbons (thanks to Ryan Welts for marking the night before) showed the way. Maybe halfway up I glanced back and could see Lars and Grey Shirt perhaps a minute behind me. I passed some hikers who looked at me like I was crazy (probably true).
|An example of the incredible terrain/views of the Red Ridge Trail|
Photo by Mike Crutchley
Finally I reentered the woods and came upon the intersection with the Moat Mountain trail. I was nearly at the top and and hoping I could hit the summit in 1:40. As I turned to the Moat trail there was a blessed section of downhill following by an easy uphill I made sure to run. Then a couple tricky scrambles. After these scrambles I could still hear my pursuers in the woods. Suddenly I was at the top of North Moat, much sooner than expected at 1:37. I glanced around trying to savor the view but I had no desire to linger. Time to descend!
Race reports from previous years made me nervous about these rocky ledges but the conditions were bone dry and perfect. My Speedcross gripped great and I didn't slip once, though I was moving pretty fast. I passed a bunch of hikers heading up as I flew down - I may have looked like a madman. The trail reentered the woods and I tried to keep the effort up on these tricky steep downhills. I was enjoying this part - most of the miserable uphill was now over and I felt like I had a decent lead over the others. Once Moat Mountain Trail hit the intersection with Attitash trail the trail because a very moderate and smooth downhill. I was moving well now and able to get my pace into the low 7s for a few minutes.
A woman was at the Red Ridge intersection to direct us and there was a brook in the way. I didn't see any immediate crossings so I just splashed right through. Here the trail was uphill and rocky but I was still able to run it until I reached the intersection with the White Horse Ledge trail and then the last climb began. I had no gumption for this climb and I was pretty much toast but I didn't see anyone behind me so I kept pulling myself up.
After that shitty climb the rest of the race was fairly technical downhill. I passed a few hikers and my calves began to threaten to seize but they held it together. I was beat now but knowing I was almost down helped. As I approached Echo Lake I saw that I was at 2:36. I pushed it to try to break 2:40 but I came in about 15 seconds short. Damn that wrong turn! Still, I'm not going to complain about this one. 2:40 on this course is damn good. It is a grinder.
|Back at Echo Lake - Photo by William Ulvik|
|A few steps to go - Photo by William Ulvik|
|A very laid back event but a generous raffle offered sweet prizes|
Afterwards I hung out for a couple hours and chatted with the local mountain goats. I saw Crutchley finish with a couple people - a fine end for him after DNFing last year to help an injured runner. I also won a pair of Darn Tough socks in the raffle which was sweet. Overall this race was everything it purported to be. Climbing up North Moat (not to mention those goddamn ledges) is just as tough as you'd imagine it to be. The course was marked appropriately in my opinion but this is definitely a race of self-reliance. You should be prepared to know where you're going and have the proper hydration on your person. The hydration race vest I picked up this week worked great and I'm glad I had my hands free as there was a lot of scrambling. I chowed on S-tabs and three gels throughout the race and they did the trick.
If you're looking for a low-key, super tough mountain race - this is your event!