TWENTY FIVE YEARS ON MT. WASHINGTON

By Mark Greenleaf

“BERNIE!!!” I yelled, as I lounged in the back of the van. I had just finished the long walk back down to the parking lot from the finish line a short time prior, passing Dino on the way as he headed for the finish. Just in time, I should add, as the weather had turned on a dime. They refer to it as unpredictable, and they are right. It was clear and calm from start to finish for my 7.6 mile run of the 2008 Mt. Washington Hillclimb bicycle race. Things took a turn for the worse, though, just as I met our driver, Joe, at the finish line. The rear door of the van opened up for a great view of the racers as they headed for the finish. Soon the hail was so fierce, however, that I had to close the door and peer out through the fogged glass as I wiped it with a towel. My run was uneventful; the weather almost too good to play any factor. Bernie would have the bragging rights this year. Joe and he were soaked from the rain and were pelted by the hail. Adding insult to injury, lightning lit up the sky. As I sat there watching the remaining racers conquer the summit, I thought back to prior years. This was the twenty fifth consecutive year that I had entered this race. I am always quick to qualify that for three of those years the weather had resulted in cancellation; last year my car went up, but I didn’t. One other year, the race was shortened to half the usual length. That leaves twenty one years that I have completed the race; twenty one years of varying weather, training, sponsors, race companions, and stories. My only remaining pre-marriage tradition, I tell anyone who will listen. That got me thinking about the early years…

It was August, 1983, and I was twenty two years old and single. I shared a modest apartment with two friends in a working-class section of Providence, Rhode Island. Just home from work, Bernie was on his way out the door, and beckoned for me to follow. I grabbed the mail off the stoop and headed after him. Three of us were on our way to Millie’s Tap for dinner and a beer or two. It was a short walk down the block with Bernie, with whom I shared the apartment, and Ted, our friend and my future brother-in-law. Ted had come in to the city to visit. We perched ourselves on stools at Millie’s and order a beer and some food. The mail was light that day; just one item. It was my monthly Bicycling Magazine, and the cover story was intriguing: “Upward Bound  On Mt. Washington it’s hillclimb time again”. I started reading while the pool balls ricocheted in the background. John Howard, Dale Stetina, and Beth Heiden, were among those listed as trying the event. The statistics were impressive: twelve percent average grade, twenty two percent max, and scene of the world’s worst weather. So steep you could lift your front wheel off the ground just by standing. Then came the question that sealed our fate: “Want to try it? Contact the race organizer…” A few beers, a full stomach, and a dare later, and the three of us were convinced. We would sign up for September 1984. Spring came, and none of us wanted to be the one to back out. So we trained hard, and successfully contacted the race organizer as directed. About ten dollars apiece later, and we were in. The decision on what type of bike to ride was not an easy one. We finally settled on road bikes. Bernie would borrow my backup road bike, as he didn’t have one of his own. It was far too big for him, but would be good enough for one ride. We heeded the gearing advice of the magazine article, and modified our bikes accordingly.

We arrived for a 9:55 a.m. pre-race lineup on Sunday the 9 th of September, 1984 for the 12 th annual running of the race. The base weather was average for this time of year. Reports were that the temperature at the summit was a balmy forty degrees, with a slight wind-chill. Three hundred were entered, ranging from USCF to citizen riders. At the line, the starter walked through the crowd of racers, inspecting for properly dressed riders, and scolding those who appeared to be dressed too lightly. The gun sounded, and we were off. We had no idea of what to expect; it was our first time up the mountain under any means. I made the usual first-timer mistake and wore too much clothing. Soon, while still below tree-line, I was overheating from my effort. For the only time in twenty one finishes, I stopped to remove some layers. Re- mounting the bike on the steep course proved difficult, and I was forced to walk uphill until the road leveled off a bit. I waited for a gap in the racers, and headed laterally across the narrow road, frantically pressing my foot into the toe-clip and then turning uphill before reaching the shoulder. A few revolutions later I reached down to pull the strap taut. Climbing above tree-line, the wind chill took hold. Now I wished I had those layers back on, but I wasn’t about to stop again. I passed all the customary mile-markers, admiring the view while trying to trick myself into thinking I was somewhere else. I was beginning to figure out that this race is more psychological than physical. I heard the cheers and cow-bells at the finish above me, and then knew I could make it to the end. I had read about the last twenty two percent stretch, but couldn’t appreciate it until actually attempting to climb it. It was truly the cheers of the crowd that propelled me up that grade; cheers that I don’t hear at any other time of the year for any reason. Truly, this was reason enough to endure the prior ninety-odd minutes, and reason enough to return for another try. Finally the finish came, and the race observers yelled out the numbers as we crossed the line. I was held steady on my bike by a welcome volunteer, and covered with a one of the wool blankets on loan from the American Red Cross. Upon dismounting, I was escorted into the tiny adjacent Stage Office building, where I huddled near the woodstove to warm up. “Ten minutes per rider, guys, then we kick you out” shouted one of the officials. Sure enough, ten minutes later and I was out in the cold, the wool blanket commandeered to warm another rider. I put my sweatshirt back on and hurried to the summit building for some food and something hot to drink. There I waited for my other two comrades. Two hundred and forty three finished that day, including the three of us.

The race was over, but the ride only half way done; it was time to descend. There was no requirement for a ride- down vehicle at that time, so once the three of us were amply fed, we headed for our bikes. Bernie headed off ahead of us, undaunted by the steepness of the road. Soon we caught up to him, however, as the heat created by the brakes on his rims had blown one of his inner-tubes. Having no spares of his own, he promptly “borrowed” mine; we had one spare tube left for the three of us, in Ted’s saddle bag. Bernie headed off again, among jeers from speeding mountain bike riders: “Fat is where it’s at!” they yelled disparagingly at us. It seems their large rims succeeded in dispersing the heat, and they sped ahead of us. Around a few bends we found Bernie once again, and Ted surrendered the lone remaining spare tube. Bernie spent the remainder of the descent at a restrained speed. We stopped several times, our hands cramping from squeezing the brake levers for seven miles. I touched my rims after dismounting one of those times, and quickly pulled my fingers away from the heat. More then once, we dipped our wheels in the troughs of water meant for overheated car radiators. After some time, we reached the base, where the temperature had returned to a more respectable level. Being Sunday, and with work looming the next day, we headed for home, posing the inevitable question to each other: “Are you going to do it next year?” Had someone asked me at the finish line, my answer might have been different. But having had time to ponder the question, each of us responded with a resounding “yes”. It was the best, most miserable morning I had ever paid to endure.

It took about a week to receive the race results from the self-proclaimed “Gnomes”; the race organizers, Mike, Chip, and Dave from the Wolfsboro Sports Gnome. I still have a copy of the letter and the results listings. Memorable in the letter is this paragraph: “We have approximately 3 dozen large T-shirts with a slight discoloration in the tag area. If you can wear a large, and would like another shirt, they are available at $2.00 each + $1.00 each (shipping).” I should have bought the lot of them. I still have all but three of the shirts given to me for participation in the race. Each one comes with a memory attached; here are some of the more noteworthy ones:

1984 Field limit is 300, first come first serve via snail-mail. This is the last year that racers rode their bicycles back down the mountain,

1985 Near perfect weather for September, topping out in the 60’s. Officials announce they are closing the autoroad year-round to bicycles except for the Hillclimb, due to conflicts with automobiles,

1986 Weather forces abbreviated race at halfway point. Difficult conditions result in 40 racers not recorded. Wolfeboro Sports Gnome closes its doors.

1987 New sponsors are the American Cancer Society and A. T. Nault & Sons Bicycle Shop. Worst weather I can remember that a full race was held 30 degrees, 50mph gusts, and rain. With the wind blowing from right to left above the tree-line, my bare right leg was numb to the point where I was worried about whether to continue. I recall slapping my thigh to see if there was feeling, and sensing the numbness of my skin. I had never been in this situation before, and admit to mild panic. After making a sharp left turn, the wind shifted, and I recall my right leg warming, changing to a beet-red hue and regaining feeling. The wood stove felt particularly good that year.

1991 Hats off to Dave Goucher, race organizer since at least 1984, and perhaps before. This is the last year I received correspondence from him.

1992 Tin Mountain Conservation Center takes over as sponsor, and is to this day. They have refined this event to a science. It would not be the same without them. Sunny, clear, and 55 degrees at the summit resulted in my best time at 1:14:16. Sixteen years later, I have conceded to peaking at age 32!

1993 Summit temperature is 29 degrees, with gusts to 40mph. One of the coldest runs, but at least no precipitation! This proved to be the last time this race was run in September (read on…).

1994 The first cancellation in 22 years. The conditions were dismal at the summit: 33 degrees, freezing rain, sustained winds at 55mph, gusting to 70mph, and wind-chill below zero. I was disappointed, but relieved.

1995 Cancelled once again. The conditions were similar to 1994: 32 degrees, freezing rain, gusts to 60mph, and wind-chill at 7 below zero.

1996 Race is moved to August. An agonizing decision, as weather is part of the allure for this race. But no one wanted three consecutive cancellations! Kudos to Joseph Bucciaglia, who won on either side of the duel cancellations.

1997 Field increase to 400. The race goes “big-time”, with Scott Moninger, Michael Carter, Mike Engleman, and Tyler Hamilton. New course record. Now I can tell my grandchildren that I raced against Mike Engleman!

1998 Field increased to 500.

1999 Field increased to 650. New course record. Ten year old Peter Ostroski and 77 year old John Eusden show that age is no barrier. Genevieve Jeanson wins the women’s field.

2000 Field reduced to 600, where it remains today. Jeannie Longo joins Genevieve Jeanson. Longo sets new women’s record.

2002 Men’s and women’s records shattered by Tom Danielson and Genevieve Jeanson. Over 50 degrees at the summit. But the most inspirational event was Bill Hawkes’ record time of 2:19:45 at age 80 unbelievable; citizen racers rule!

2005 Tyler Hamilton and Ned Overend top the field. Overend finishes fourth at 50 years old.

2006 Even more impressive than the prior year, Overend finishes second in less than 55 minutes at age 51.

2007 “Horizontal sleet, rime ice, and gusts to 87mph” is how the cancelled event was reported in Velo News.

2008 I can’t say enough about 9 year old Jonah Thompson, and 70 year old Ken Cestone, whose record setting time was nearly two minutes ahead of mine. Jonah is quickly elevated to You Tube status, where he proves an inspiration to my son Alan, age 10. Alan has already been out hill-training. A quarter century has gone by, and I’m still making the trek up north. People ask me why, and I have my stock answers. First, what better motivation to train all summer? And, best of all, how many times during the year does anyone cheer and yell and scream at something I have accomplished? Answer: “Once”. See you next year.

 

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