On Aug. 16, Jamie Loggins of Auburn joined more than 600 cyclists to race 7.6 miles to the summit of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. Cyclists climb an unrelenting vertical rise of 4,720 feet over an average 12 percent grade, which peaks at 22 percent as they approach the wind-swept summit. The climb is considered one of the toughest bicycle races in North America, in a place known for its fierce, erratic weather.
Man vs. Mountain
By defying physical and physics’ limits to reach Olympian heights, I think I made the mountain gods angry.

I am at the starting line of a race that has consumed my thoughts and efforts for quite some time.

One last mental check: helmet on and buckled; shoes strapped; water bottles full; hammer gel packets loaded up; gloves in my back pocket. Wait.

What? Why are my gloves in my pocket and not on my hands?

“BANG!”

The race starts. Oh well, no gloves for me.

People say the Mt. Washington race has no flat parts. That is not entirely true. There is a flat part. It is the first 50 yards from the starting line to the toll booth. That’s it.

And oh, the climb doesn’t start “gradually” either.

Less than a minute after the “flat part,” I was climbing a 15 percent grade. Other racers pass me, but I remember the advice from veteran riders: “Ride your own ride, don’t start too fast!”

The first four miles are hazy. I recall thinking “I need to take a drink, but I’ll do it once I get to the top of this next rise.” Only the top never comes. On this mountain, there is always a rise.

Also, it warmed as I climbed. Around two miles, the sun beat down and I was unhappy about wearing a vest. I was losing way too much fluid too early in the race.

A few riders passed, faster racers from heats that started after mine. I thought about sticking with them, but my heart rate monitor revealed I was pounding away at a brisk 166 beats-per-minute and I was in my easiest gear.

Riding my “own race” became less a decision and more a lack of options.

Heartbreak and breakfast

The hallucinations started at mile marker No. 4.

It was curious that at this fourth mile I was traveling four miles-per-hour and passed 4,000 feet of elevation. Miles four and five were surreal. All the trees disappeared. Also, the temperature took a noticeable (and refreshing) plunge.

I remember rounding a brutal climbing turn and could not believe my eyes: there was flat road ahead! Hallelujah. My heart rate was in the 170s and I needed a little recovery; this couldn’t have come at a better time. I thought I’d coast a little, but I nearly stopped instead. What the…?

I looked at my cycling computer and realized this “flat” road was actually an 11 percent incline.

It just seemed flat relative to everything else. So much for resting.

This part was difficult. My mind wandered to keep from thinking about the tortuous physiologic process occurring in my legs: I pondered pictures I’d seen , music I’d heard, movies I’d watched, etc.

Then the pavement went away.

I was riding a hard pack dirt/rock road. Drizzle started too, so the pseudo-dirt was also turning into pseudo-mud.

This dirt road lasted for what seemed like hours. There was a point, shortly after it started, where you could see this section of heartbreaking climb in its entirety, along with the endless convoy of riders on it.

It was steep, up to a 15-16 percent grade, and as I climbed riders left and right were spinning their back wheels as they stood for the climb. I remained in my saddle, struggling, but fearing this fate, so I concentrated on keeping those pistons moving, however slow.

Eventually, I found asphalt between miles five and six. In the back of my now-anoxic brain, a whisper reminded me the reason I was “riding my own race” in the beginning was to have a little something left for the end.

(Did I dare think I was toward the end?)

The asphalt led into a brutal switchback – this one an 18 percent incline. I stayed saddled and, coming around the corner, found myself staring at a quarter-mile stretch of road accompanied by an undeniably impressive climb.

There were probably 20 racers scattered on this stretch. At least half were walking.

I dug deep, knowing this section was going to suck, but as it turned out, I started passing riders with regularity. I also passed several spots where I had unwelcome visions of what other riders had eaten for breakfast.

Strange as it sounds, maybe there was a glimmer of hope!

Hail on the mountain

Between 6.5 and 7 miles I could see the top (as opposed to the false summits so far) for the first time. It was encouraging, so I started paying attention to my time.

I was well past 1.5 hours, but a crazy thought popped into my head: maybe I could finish this thing under 1 hour, 45 minutes. I decided to push it, knowing I still had a 22 percent incline lurking between me and the finish.

I passed mile seven and there was the observatory! I only had around a half-mile to go.

But it might have been the longest half-mile of my life.

This part of the course played mind games, because you pass a series of parking lots. You can only see one parking lot at a time, though, so if you’ve never been up Mt. Washington, you naturally think each one is the top.

So, at the first one, you think “My God, this is it!” and start to push, only to realize the end doesn’t come.

Then you pass another. This goes on a few more times. The mountain toys with you.

(And did I mention the drizzle had turned into actual hail by now? Awesome!)

The crowd, at this point, was thickening. I passed my wife Karen, who was my ride down. She was cheering and started running beside me, trying to motivate and encourage me.

She was running faster than I could ride. This was the motivation I guess I needed.

I had to finish strong and was running low on time to break 1 hour and 45 minutes. Karen said the big climb was just ahead. I shifted up and stood for what would be the rest of the race. I peaked a small rise and, lo and behold.

There was a 22 percent monster.

At the summit?

The serpentine “S” curve had a rise that was an abomination to gravity. It was unholy to climb on a bicycle.

People lined the roadsides, looking like they were standing on ladders. But no, it was simply the road.

Still standing, I tried shifting five gears lower than my lowest gear allowed. It didn’t work. My vision dimmed. I could hear an announcer ahead. The crowd roared like an airplane engine.

In my haze, I glimpsed what appeared to be a timing mat just ahead of me. It was the sweetest thing I could have seen, and I knew I was actually going to make it.

As I crossed the mat, my computer read 1:43. The next thing I remember is being some distance ahead, standing next to my bike, a blanket around me, a medal hanging from my neck and a bottle of water in my hand.

I pushed through the crowd to find space to recover, and before long Karen worked her way to the top. That was when I started to notice how cold this rain/hail slurry that had been pouring on me for 30 minutes really was, so we started to the car. By the time we got there, it was thundering and flashing lightning.

I took this to mean my assault on the laws of physics and gravity that had just occurred had angered the mountain gods, so I never did make it to the summit.

And that is my Mt. Washington story.

I guess I’ll have to do it again next year if I want to see the top.


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