A gentle wind blew from the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, over the mica schist and fossilized mud, down the banks into the spruce-fir wilderness, out to the base of the auto road and greeted runners as a seductive song, a quiet calling, an enticing invitation that was open to all, but only few could answer.
Some athletes arrived at the starting line early and waited. Others were still warming up mere moments before the race was scheduled to begin. A man's voice came over the sound system by the main tent, and encouraged runners to please get to their places.
The 52nd Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Auto Road Race was held on Saturday, June 16. The 7.6-mile course served as the USA Track & Field national mountain running championship, and for the men, it was also the selection race for the US national team competing in Italy in September for the world title. The top six men would qualify. (The women's team is selected on Loon Mountain in New Hampshire on July 8, taking the top four.) There was also $1,000 at stake today for the top male and female finishers.
Rickey Gates, 31, the defending champion and two-time winner at Mount Washington, toed the line at the front of the pack. His dark red hair was tucked into a red hat, with the brim backwards. A mustache streaked across his upper lip showcasing all the colors of New England in the fall. He was not wearing a watch as he never does, preferring instead to keep running instinctive and therefore more fun and enriching.
Gates is a running junkie from Woody Creek, Colorado, now living in San Francisco. When he was 23, he bought a 1979 Honda CX 500 motorcycle and rode to the southern tip of South America. Then, in the summers of 2008 and 2009, he went to Europe, riding his bicycle from village to village looking for mountain races to enter. In those days, when the race was over and he rode out of town, he would stop at a store, pick up a meal of pasta and beer, then find a field where he could eat and sleep in peace and do it all again tomorrow.
During the winter of 2009, he found a job as a dishwasher in Antarctica so he could train for the marathon there. He won.
"I haven't minded skipping a meal in my twenties in order to pursue a dream," he said.
He is a writer, photographer and reader. He recently put down Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian because it was disrupting his dreams. His favorite line in the Tao Te Ching is that there is a time for slow breathing and fast breathing, a time to be up and a time to be down. This, for him, is running.
But here he was now at Mount Washington. His red Salomon running shoes matched his hat. He was passion from top to bottom. The sun was high in the East, and Gates was getting into the mood, that meditative state where he repeats the word 'Go,' until the meaning is lost and it simply becomes the thing he is doing.
He is one of only five to reach the summit in less than one hour, and as Gates stood at the line, he knew, as other runners knew, today was going to be a brutal, unrelenting climb.
But Gates was not the only runner with a chance for glory.
There was Max King, 32, next to him. He is the 2011 winner of the world mountain running championships in Albania. He finished fifth here in 2010.
There was Simon Gutierrez, 46, the three-time Mount Washington champ, to the left of Gates. He is in the masters' division, but that does not change anything. He holds that record, too, set in 2008 at 1:01. Last year, he finished fifth.
The biggest target was six-time world champion Marco DeGasperi, standing directly behind Rickey Gates. The 35-year-old from Bormio, Italy, was running Mount Washington for the first time today. Many who follow the sport were expecting him to win.
Brandy Erholtz, 34, was also at the front of the pack. She has won Mount Washington twice and led for five miles last year before Kim Dobson, 28, overtook her for the win. Dobson was also back, thinking about a repeat.
Kasie Enman, 32, who won the 2011 world mountain running championship in Albania with King, stayed close to the lead group before the start. She finished third here last year.
All told, there were probably 10 to 15 men who had a legitimate chance for those six spots on the national team, and the women were looking to make a statement, too.
Conditions on the summit, at 6,288 feet, were unusually mild and stable. The temperature was 46 degrees with 10 to 15 mph winds. Visibility was approximately 70 miles. At the base of the auto road, at 1,561 feet, the temperature was 61 degrees.
As race officials and members of the press climbed into vans, one driver said, "It's been calm and clear for three days, which is a personal best for the mountain."
Something special was happening on Mount Washington, but the serenity was shattered at 9 a.m., when a cannon, shooting a blank shotgun shell, signaled the start. The race was on, and Glenn Randall, a 25-year-old who led the field for a few miles at the 2012 Boston Marathon, jumped out quickly and surged up the road alone.
Mount Washington is the tallest point in the northeastern United States, in the Presidential Range of the White Mountain National Forrest. The auto road to the summit was built on the eastern slope and opened in 1861, when it was a gravel carriage road. The first four miles follow the same route as the original bridle path, which was completed in 1851.
Mount Washington's auto road uphill grade averages 12 percent with zero relief. The toughest miles come early, when a sustained stretch averages 18 percent.
The first timed run to the summit of Mount Washington was in 1904, then again in 1936, '37 and '38. It was forgotten until 1961 and '62. But since 1966, the race has been held annually.
Despite the majestic towering peaks, the mountain is no cakewalk. Every year there are deaths and injuries where even the most fit and prepared are not exempt.
Just a few weeks ago, in freezing rain and 50 mph winds, 21 hikers had to be evacuated from the summit because they arrived unprepared and hypothermic. They were taken down the auto road and each charged the $25 entrance fee, a penalty for bad judgment.
There have been no deaths during the footrace. Most who start the race reach the summit, if not for guts than for no other way to get down. If someone wants to drop out, they would likely reach the summit by the time a car is able to pass.
"Everyone thinks the only reason to go to the top is the view, but within half an hour, you can be in the middle of Labrador [in the Arctic Circle], from an environmental standpoint," said Howie Wemyss, the general manager of the auto road and six-time finisher at the Mount Washington footrace.
Truth is, fog is reported at the summit more than 300 days a year, and clouds envelop the mountain more than 200 days. And on May 29, a thunderstorm brought summit winds from 30-40 mph up to 108 mph in a matter of minutes. But when visibility permits, there are those who claim to have seen the Atlantic Ocean.
Since Mount Washington is the highest mountain east of the Black Hills of South Dakota and north of North Carolina, there is no barrier to block the wind of three storm tracks for thousands of miles. The average wind speed is 35 mph. Gusts often reach higher than 75 mph, and in the winter months, gusts hit 100 or higher every four days. Year-round, the average temperature is 26.5 degrees.
On April 12, 1934, winds reached 231 mph at the summit, a world record that stood until 1996 when Tropical Cyclone Olivia hit Barrow Island off the coast of Australia, producing winds at 253 mph. Mount Washington lost some bragging rights, but those connected to the mountain hold onto their weather with pride.
It took a tropical storm to break the record. On the summit of Mount Washington, it was just the weather.
Glenn Randall had the lead after the first mile, crossing in just 6:10. But had he sustained that pace, he would have shattered the course record of 56:41, set in 2004 by six-time world champ Jonathan Wyatt, from New Zealand. When Wyatt passed that point in his record-breaking race, he was at a 7:28 pace.
Right behind Randall was Tommy Manning. Last year, Manning, 36, a high school algebra teacher and cross country coach in Colorado Springs, led the pack until the sixth mile, when Rickey Gates made his move and won the event.
In the summer of 1993, when Manning was 17 years old, he was riding his motorcycle home from track practice when a car pulled out in front of him. The accident was unavoidable. The helmet saved his life, but his right knee would require three surgeries in the next three years. Since his final surgery, he has had no issues with his knee. In 2006, Manning was caught in a rainstorm between Dallas and Tulsa and flipped his motorcycle, this time walking away from the accident. He still rides his Harley, but not as much.
Now Manning ran, and as the group chased Randall down, the leaders began to spread out, about six or seven runners approaching the second mile, still at record pace.
Joseph Gray, 28, was in front, and a new guy was on his tail. He was shirtless.
Race officials in the press van scrambled.
"Can we get an ID on number 34?" a voice said over the airwaves.
Sage Canaday was the shirtless runner, wearing bib number 34 on the right thigh of his shorts. The 26-year-old from Sheridan, Oregon reached three miles at 21:20, slower than the pace at mile one, but still a threat to the course record.
After four and a half miles, where the paved road turns into packed gravel, where the balsam fir grows between 6 and 8 feet tall instead of the normal 60 to 80 feet, Canaday looked over his shoulder.
But there was no one to see. Canaday had a 1:11 lead on Gray.
Canaday reached the seventh mile in 53:12, within striking distance of the record, if only his legs could respond. He climbed up to the windblown wasteland just under the summit. His body moved quickly and freely, but he made no sound. This was his soft parade.
The grade of the final 100 yards is a brutal 22 percent, but Canaday pushed. When he reached the tape, the clock read 58:27 -- the third fastest time ever at Mount Washington.
Reporters quickly learned that Canaday is marathon runner with little competitive mountain running experience. He ran two half marathons in two months leading up to this event. Two weeks ago he moved to Boulder. He is a lifelong vegetarian. This morning, he ate a Power Bar. Early in the race, he saw past champions holding back from the lead pack. At mile two, he bolted. At mile five, he got nauseous. He studied design and environmental analysis at Cornell. Last night, he drank a Guinness with King, who finished eighth overall.
On the women's side, Kim Dobson made her break at mile two and charged up the road for her second straight win at Mount Washington. The course record for women is 1:08:20, set in 2010 by Shewarge Amare, from Ethiopia. Dobson still broke 70 minutes, but finished just shy of the record at 1:09:25.
"Good job!" said Brandy Erholtz to Dobson at the summit. Erholtz finished second for the women in 1:12:27. "That's the second-fastest time on this course ever, Kim. That's awesome. I was just so hot, and you were so far ahead, so I just tried to focus on the guys ahead of me and stay positive."
A few minutes later, Dobson checked in with another friend and competitor.
"Rickey, how'd it go?"
"Not very good," replied Gates. There is a time to be up, and a time to be down, and the defending champ had a hard day, finishing 14th overall with a time of 1:04:33. "Really tired legs -- I haven't had that in a while, and it wouldn't turn on. That's okay. I'm not that bummed."
The other five men, along with Canaday, to make the national team competing for the world title in Italy were Joseph Gray, Eric Blake, Randall, Manning and Tim Chichester.
The Italian DeGasperi finished fifth overall. King finished 15 seconds away from the sixth qualifying spot. Simon Gutierrez was three seconds behind King. Kasie Enman finished in third place for the women.
Gates led a charge of other athletes who ran back down the mountain, past the scorched earth of personal records and dismal days. For now, their times did not matter. The competition was over, and they could be runners again. Soon, the summit was cleared of athletes and the cars taking them down. The finish line was dismantled. All that remained on the summit of Mount Washington was the wind, the song, the calling.