“The fact is, that to do anything in the world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as well as we can.” -Robert Cushing
Saturday, February 23, 2008
6pm Lincoln, NH – As I drove up I-93 I was treated to a spectacular sunset to the west. Darkening skies faded to purple, blues and oranges as the sun set behind the ridges beyond. I arrived in Lincoln and pulled into the White Mountain Visitor center right off the highway. The parking lot was bustling with snowmobilers coming off the trail and a few heading out for a night ride. It’s pretty chilly in Lincoln but it could be worse. I see Nate Sanel and Greg Stone getting ready to go next to The Shuttle Connection van, a shuttle service usually catering to hikers as a transport from trailhead to trailhead.
Flashback – Our original plan for this day, was a 40-mile run across the ice of Lake Winnipesauke. But after a series of sleet storms and a recent snowfall of 6+ inches following a few days of warm temps, we knew the ice wouldn’t be safe. On Wednesday Nate and I knew we needed a new plan. I came up with 3 or 4 other runs we could do at night and running the Kancamagus Highway was my last resort. After reading my e-mail over a gin and tonic, Nate signed up for my last resort as his first and only choice. My reply? “Ok dude, you asked for it!”
6:15pm Shuttle Van – The three of us piled into the shuttle and headed east joking and laughing away, psyching ourselves up for the unique journey run we were about to embark on. I couldn’t help but flash back to the two other times I’ve run this 35 Mile Road, both times during the daylight hours of Labor Day Weekend in 2005 and 2006. I’d completed the journey before and know what it entails; Nate and Greg really had no idea. On the other side of the pass, we asked the drive to stop at The Pine Bend Brook Hiker trailhead so we could stash some liquids in the woods. This is the perfect spot for a drop as on our way west, the climb really starts here. I stepped out of the van to stash the bottles and man… was it ever cold!
History: The Kancamagus Scenic Byway passes through the heart of the White Mountains while traversing the flank of Mt. Kancamagus, filled with scenic areas and overlooks. The road meanders through vast forests, old logging roads, and Indian hunting paths."The Kank," is a 34.5 mi (55 km) long two-lane road that runs, east and west overall, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire in New England. Part of New Hampshire Route 112, it is generally considered one of the most scenic drives in the region. It has been designated a National Scenic Byway by the United States Department of Transportation. The twisting, rural highway is occasionally closed for short times during winter due to snow. The highway, which opened in 1959 after two dead-end stretches of road were connected, runs from the Pemigewasset River in Lincoln, and along the Swift River from Kancamagus Pass (elevation 2,855 ft) to New Hampshire Route 16 in Albany
The highway is named after Kancamagus ("The Fearless One"), who ruled as the third and final Sagamon of the Panacook Confederacy (sometimes spelled Penacook) of Native American tribes in what is now southern New Hampshire. In 1691, due to fighting with English settlers, he made the decision to move north into upper New Hampshire and what is now Quebec, Canada.
7pm USFS Saco Ranger Station, Albany, NH – We piled out of the shuttle laughing at what the drive must think of us. We had to explain to him a few times that this was just a training run for us as we run 50 and 100 mile races. He’s used to getting hikers from a trailhead back to their car, not dropping folks off in Conway so they can run back to Lincoln. As he drives away we are now stranded. It’s a frigid 19 degrees in Conway, the snow banks are 7-8 feet in height and the snow behind the banks is just as high. We’re all ready talking about the chil in the air and we can’t help but be nervous. As we wait for Nate’s Garmin to hone in on a satellite signal, we do our last minute rituals and think about what it is we’re about to do. 35.5 Miles from this point to our end location in Lincoln. We’ll climb 2,372 feet of elevation from here to the top of Kancamagus Pass at mile 21. We have no car to aid us anywhere on the road. We have no escape plan. Our plan is to run to our cars 35 miles away and pray that if anything were to go wrong, god forbid, we could easily flag a passing car down. Nervous? Yes we are, but there’s no time for that in our game. Off we go…
The Run – The road leaves Conway/Albany pretty mellow. A light snow was falling from a light wind shaking the flakes from the boughs of tall fir trees. At this point in our run there are quite a few cars coming and going from each direction, skiers and hikers heading home from their days long adventures. Every so often we’d pass by a driveway with a cabin buried somewhere beneath all the snow. Sometimes there’d be alight on, and most times it would be some place closed until Spring. Though the road feels flat., I know better as we have all ready began our 1% incline towards the top of the pass. Its 22 miles away at this point, and the road is deceiving.
I’m not feeling much like a runner at this point. My legs are tired and its very hard for me to get into a groove. Its petty cold out. For clothing I’m wearing a techwhick long sleeve under top, a short sleeve techwhick shirt, a long sleeve techwhick shit from the Disney Marathon (mmm.. warm temps!), we’re all wearing our Stonecat 50 techwhick shirts as well. I have a pair of fleece arm warmers on under all of that and a pair of gloves. I’m wearing an ibex winter beenie and a neck warmer/buff. Down low I have fleece running tights on, followed by techwhick under bottoms and then a pair of fleece pants. 2 pairs of socks and my trail runners. In my pack is a down jaket, extra hat, gloves, neck warmer, balaclava, 32 oz of Gatorade, 8 oz of water, gels, cliff shots, cheese, trailmix, a knife, wallet, phone, keys and that’s about it. No wonder I feel bogged down.
We continue on our journey west. About 4 or 5 miles in a car comes up from behind us and the driver slows down and rolls down his window, “Now THAT is what I call dedication!” We eplain we’re running to Lincoln and he asked if we just wanted a ride. We decline and thank him for his kind offer before he drives off. As we take to the series of sharp turns in the road, the wind picks up and whips down along the frozen swift river. Its really cold out now with the wind yet we have no choice but to keep moving forward.
We use our headlamps early on to try and pick out black ice on the pavement below. We stopped many times to answer natures call and even take a few walking breaks. Finally at mile 7, tired of feeling sluggish, I stop and take a gel. It didn’t take long for it to kick in and I finally start to feel like a runner. We settle into a slow groove and push on. The cars are now passing less frequently. The night is very quiet, there is no longer any wind and yes.. it’s still pretty cold out. We run through various pockets of air, sometimes it felt warmer out, other times it was downright frigid. The liquids in our handheld bottles were turning to slush. Greg’s later froze nearly solid and Nate’s camelback tube froze to the point that he was not just carrying 2 liters of liquid and unable to drink it. Perspiration froze on our clothes, my hat was frosty white and Greg had an ice beard.
As we pass the Champney Bolles Parking lot, we smell the burning of a campfire. There are no longer and houses or cabins on he side of the road and Greg concludes that, “Some crazy guys are camping out here!” I laughed at his statement because there were also some crazy guys RUNNING out here. Never in my life did I ever think I’d be running this highway at night… especially in the winter! The further in we got the bigger our smiles got. It finally began to sink in how cool this journey was. To think, that to our knowledge, no one (or not many) had ever done what we were currently doing. Such a cool feeling as we knew this run was truly, Epic.
Every time a car was coming from ahead of us we could see headlights flash in the snow. As cars would come from behind we could hear the rushing sounds of the tires followed by light illuminating us from behind. I notice this illumination effect happening and as I looked back there was no car and no sound. Puzzled I deducted it could only be one thing. A little further up the road the light was truly bright now and I told the guys to look back and there it was. Rising from above the trees was a huge full moon. Our headlamps turned off as we no longer needed them. The light of the moon reflecting off of the snow all around was enough to light our way to our journey’s end. It was truly an amazing and breathtaking sight which caused us to stop and reflect at how lucky us 3 men really are.
At mile 16 we reach our drop spot. I climbed the snowbank with a little help and grab our bottles. We stopped to drink, eat gels and other foods. I changed my hat and neck warmer to a drier pair and we tried to get some liquid in our handhelds as opposed to our slush. The Gatorade in my pack is still relatively warm from when I filled it at home but my water was starting to freeze up. The temperature was easily around 6 degrees so standing here long was taking its toll on me. I started to shiver, my hands hurt from the cold so I began walking.
From here the real work begins. Nate asked, “Is this where the climb starts?” Technically it started when we started but a short ways up the hill, the pitch of the road gets steep and the work begins. Greg takes off ahead of us and Nate and I enjoy the views as we begin to walk the hill at mile 18. Its 4 miles to the top from here with 1,196 feet of elevation gain. The 1% grade we’d mostly followed for the last 18 miles is now at a crushing 8%. As we walked and walked and walked up the road, very few cars were passing now. A short ways up the road a car heading our way actually pulled over and stopped to ask us if we were ok and if we needed a ride. We thanked the driver for stopping and declined. Though we were NOT surprised that more car’s didn’t stop, we found it pretty interested that more people didn’t. Think about this, you’re driving down a mountain road at midnight. You’re about 13 +/- miles from the nearest town when you come across a couple of guys running. Wouldn’t YOU stop and check on them? Simply amazing at how many cars did not. In fact! Most of the snowmobilers who drove by, did so at an alarming speed, honking horns to startle us and one driver ever swerved in a way that his trailer actually swerved near us! Simply appalling! We even had a cop drive past us!
As Nate and I continue up the hill with our headlamps off, the views become more spectacular. The moon is completely illuminating the valley all around us. We can see all the way back towards where we started this journey. The mountains popped up from the land as black silhouettes, the snow on their sides glowing like the brushstroke of an immaculate painter. In fact, in all my years running and hiking in these hills, I know there is an immaculate painter, and I thank him for the beauty he bestowed upon us.
As we crest the pass and reach 2.800 feet, we all give a sigh of relief at the hill FINALLY being over. But as we run over the crest and start to run downhill, our legs begin to protest. After using our “up muscles” for the last 22 miles, we now have to pound our way down 13 miles of down hill losing 2,300’ of elevation back to our cars. Our feet hurt from the pavement and our knees began to click and act funny. Such is the life of an ultra runner.
The views of the western valley are far more dramatic and spectacular than our views to the east. The Osceola’s and Franconia’s stood out in the night sky. At first the Westerly wind blew in our face, not a friendly occurrence when the temp as dropped to –1 degree F. It was cold before, but now its REALLY cold. My cheeks hurt and my clothing was freezing to my body. The warmth of my car isn’t so far away anymore. However, as we stopped at the hairpin turn to get some fluids in us, it was evident that Nate’s frozen fluid situation was not good and we needed to find hi some water. We all shared what we had as we continued down hill.
At times as a small breeze brushed across our faces, we could smell a musty stench coming from the woods, evidence that a Moose was not far from our position. All along the way we’d been admiring the footprints of the various animals who make this land their home. At Mile 30 we reached Lincoln Woods parking lot, where there was a bathroom I knew would not only be open but is typically heated all night. Thankfully if was both on this night as we stepped inside. The cold was making our muscles tighten up, stiff and rebelling against us. The welcome warmth from the kerosene heater was a welcome pleasure at this point in our journey. As we used the heater to thaw out our liquids to a point where we could actually drink, it was also an opportunity to warm up our legs and get them loose again.
As we stepped out of the bathroom, the cold air shocked our bones as I shivered a bit on the restart. My feet are very sore but my legs feel fine. About a mile down the road, the tube Nate had thawed out and the other drinks we managed to deslush.. were all ready frozen again. Down in the valley the temp was 19 degrees with a windchill of 8. Much warmer than the –1 at the top of the pass and the biting wind that accompanied it. We ran past the Loon mountain ski area, marveling at the groomers working on the trails. We pass a sign that says, Welcome to Lincoln, resorts and time shares line the roads and soon we’re inside town running past the various shops. We made it! We did it! We ran 35.5 miles in bone chilling cold, no longer were we warm blooded mammals but cold-blooded warriors. We felt great. Nate ran the last 50 yards with his arms in the air. What an adventure as we finish just after 2AM. As cold as it was and how challenging this run was, it was well worth it. I thank god that we all made it to Lincoln safely and we had all came well prepared. I wish I were in some of the cars that passed us as drivers scratched their heads wondering if they were hallucinating.
A huge thanks to Greg and Nate for joining me on this amazing journey run. I feel well prepared for my upcoming snowshoe marathon and later the McNaughton 150 Miler in April. This journey through running has changed my life and invigorated my soul. I again challenge anyone who reads this to dip into their souls and reach for a new beginning. Dig down and reach for the impossible and make it possible. Your body is an amazing instrument, one that is not to be left unused. Use it and use it even if only for your own personal good. The soul building you’ll achieve is worth more than any over priced “thing” you could ever buy.
“Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” -Joshua J. Marine