kismet cliff run - full race report
Featuring over 4000 feet of climbing, including three straight miles of uphill along the Red Ridge and Moat Mountain Trails, and topping out at 3,196 feet at the summit of North Moat Mountain, the Kismet Cliff Run Long Course (13-14 miles) certainly deserves its self-designated “Beast of the East” moniker. Let me tell you, little running happens here. My race report follows. As always, I am too wordy and the report is too long. But alas, I want to remember every moment. I want to be able to read this in a year, before the next running of the race, and remember how much this race hurt.
Course map. [courtesy of Kismet Cliff Run website]
The setting for the start/finish, heck, the setting for the entire race, takes place on gorgeous terrain. Standing on the eastern shore of Echo Lake, with White Horse and Cathedral Ledges looming in the background, rays of sunshine breaking through the tall pines behind us, blue sky and fluffy clouds floating overhead, and the calm waters of the lake lapping at the sandy shore, we eagerly awaited the start, nervous laughter filling the air.
At around 10 am, we gathered for the pre-race talk, which consisted of a rehash of the course description. I had spent much of my free time during the week reading and re-reading the course description for the race. Nothing about it sounded easy; never having run or hiked these trails before, I had no idea what to expect. Except pain. And suffering.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated. This was going to be one big suffer-fest on unfamiliar trails, and hearing the race director describe his course made me realize that this guy would enjoy looking at the race photos, our tongues hanging out of our mouths and eyes rolled back in their sockets. Sadistic is too gentle a word when describing the glint in Gabe’s eyes and the snicker in his voice as he told us about the steep climbs, the wet rock, the exposure, the stream crossings… “No matter what happens out there, you’ll all PR today [because this is the first running of this race].” Translation: “You’re going to come in much later than you think you will, if you finish at all.”
"How long is this going to take us?" Michael asks me. "Between three and six hours?" I reply. Michael goes off to the front, whereas Ian and I settle into the middle of the pack and agree to start off at a moderate pace. As the course description states, "Careful not to take off too exuberantly, or there may be much suffering in store for you…"
Pre-race talk. [photo credit: Brian Post]
"Runners set. Go." And we’re off. For the first mile-and-a-half, Ian and I glide over the gentle trail through the pine-needled forest, picking our way around other runners as we establish a good rhythm. I’m breathing hard already but I attribute it off to the cool morning air. We emerge from the woods for a brief section on pavement before taking a sharp left turn and re-entering the forest.
And BOOM! The trail heads straight up! No one is running anymore, and as far as I can see ahead, a long line of people are picking their way uphill, grabbing onto rocks, roots, and tree trunks to help hoist themselves higher. I go into power-hike mode and start moving quickly, running anything remotely flat. I pass Ian, who had pulled a short way ahead of me, and hear him say, “There he goes!” I’m sure I’ll see him again; the guy is a monster on the downhill sections. Little do I know what the day has in store for him…
I crest Cathedral and miss a turn. I don’t go too far but I lose a bunch of places that I had gained on the way up. Psychologically, though, I am in a good place, as I know I can catch and pass them all on the next uphill section. We fly downhill and into the saddle between Cathedral and Whitehorse, and sure enough I regain my position on the climb. I settle into a good pace with three other guys and near the top of Whitehorse, a man tells us that we are four minutes behind the leaders. “The gap’s only going to grow!” I manage to yell out between gasps for air.
We lose one of our group cresting Whitehorse, and on the descent on the Red Ridge Link, my two companions leave me in the dust. These guys are FAST, but I’m sure I’ll catch them on the uphill — it’s the mantra I’ll use to reassure myself all day. I pass Michael on this section and continue downhill, occasionally catching glimpses through the trees of the blue and gray shirts of the two super-descenders ahead of me. And BOOM! I slam my right quad into a hidden log protruding from the trailside. It stops me dead in my tracks and I take a second to collect myself. I look around, one of those moments of self-consciousness: did anyone see me do that? No? Okay, whew! I shake it off and keep running. Eleven miles to go - I hope my quad survives the next uphill, which arrives all too soon.
I turn left onto the Red Ridge Trail and start the climb up to North Moat Mountain. Sure enough, I catch the two guys ahead of me and decide to stick with them for the time being. They keep a good pace and I don’t have to push myself too hard. Could I, or should I, be going faster? We pick our way over boulder fields and occasionally climb up and over huge walls. Once above treeline, I pause to look around. Far off in the distance, Echo Lake looks like a tiny puddle nestled into the landscape. Clear skies lend views to faraway lands, but time is of the essence and I continue on. The warm sun feels good, and from time to time, I look back behind us to see if anyone is catching up. For the time being, we’re still alone, but eventually I see miniature-sized runners emerging from the woods and joining us on the ridge. And then I make the mistake of thinking ahead to a climb that we’ll encounter toward the end of the race, and my body immediately shuts down, reminding me of the psychological aspect of long-distance running. It takes me a few minutes to coax my body out of energy-conversation mode and back into full-on race mode.
Just before topping out on North Moat, my GPS watch dies… Yep, I guess I forgot to charge it this week. Oops! I turn downward and see the wet slabs of granite that form the trail for the next few miles; the rain storm that passed through overnight has turned this section into a steep slip-and-slide. To say that I descend slowly is an understatement. My two super-descender companions quickly disappear and I let them go, this time unsure as to whether I’ll see them again. I just know that I’ll break several limbs if I try to follow them. I pick my way down, grabbing trees and branches left and right, forced to scoot on my butt in a few places. A young college kid catches me and I let him pass. We run together for a bit until I stop to retie my shoe and he disappears. Before long, I hear pounding footsteps behind me and another runner passes me. He pulls away, too, though at this point we re-enter the woods where the footing drastically improves and I stay close behind.
We hit the bottom and run alongside Lucy Brook. I find my stride, picking up speed and picking off runners as I go. I feel as if I’m floating over the trail; I easily dodge the rocks and roots that lie patiently on the ground, wanting to trip us up. I run straight through the mud and huge puddles of water and eventually make two stream crossings, both with ice cold water up to my thighs. Feels. So. Good. After the second crossing, I find myself running uphill in the middle of a small stream. If there was ever any doubt about how much rain came down last night… I eventually hit the bottom of the Red Ridge Link, and I fire up the engines. I take off running uphill and pick off a few more runners. Whereas they’re all walking and hating every minute of it, I keep running, twisting that psychological dagger in deep. I remember reading many years ago about the positive effects of smiling when cycling uphill, and so I smile, both because it lifts me up and because I’m having fun. I like running uphill!
I end up catching one of the duo of fast descenders and find out that he’s completely out of food and hurting badly. I lighten my load and hand him a pack of Clif Bloks before taking off again. Near the top, I catch the second of the duo. I make sure to sprint by him, hoping that it doesn’t come back to bite me during this last segment.
The final miles, chock full of fast, technical descending, are uneventful, save for a bee sting that comes minutes after I decide to take off my shirt. What timing! I learn that I’m in ninth place and I push on, determined to keep my place and perhaps catch the guy in front of me; I can just make out his white shirt in the distance. But as I close in on him, the trail opens up and levels out; he takes off and maintains his lead. I end up finishing in a time of 2 hours and 50 minutes. I’m completely psyched to have broken 3 hours! And later on in the afternoon, I learn that I’ve finished third in my age group. Sweet!
Michael comes in about 15 minutes after me, and as we munch away on our post-race burritos, we trade stories and Michael tells me about the way Ian came flying down the steep granite section off of North Moat. “So did you pass him after that?” I ask. “No.” And it slowly dawns on us that something is not quite right.
We wait a bit before loading up our packs with food, water, and warm clothing, and heading into the woods. We ask incoming runners whether or not they’ve seen him, and after endless negative responses during our 2 miles of hiking in, we decide to go back to the finish line to come up with a plan B. With a call to NH Search & Rescue imminent, Ian finally emerges from the woods with two other runners. In good spirits, they recount their mishap, which involved a missed turn on the course and consequently, a second ascent of North Moat. A lot of extra climbing, and a handful of extra miles. But they are safe and that is what matters.
We could not have asked for a more beautiful day, or for a more beautiful place to run. Thanks to Gabe and Heidi, co-race directors, and everyone else who made this event possible. I cannot wait to come back and run this again; in fact, the race organizers already have a date: September 22, 2013. Who’s in?
Eric Nguyen, SmartWool Athlete Ambassador
September 23, 2012