Whiteface Mountain Uphill Footrace might correctly be called a "niche" race, but as a skier, hiker, 46er and runner, it falls exactly in the niche that appeals to me. At 4,867 feet, Whiteface is the fifth highest peak in New York, and it is the only High Peak accessible by automobile, via the 5-mile long Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway. Whiteface’s commanding position apart from the rest of the High Peaks, its ski area and Olympic heritage, its auto road, castle and summit observatory all contribute to a status that rivals Mount Marcy as the Adirondacks’ most significant peak. “This is a sacred place in the State of New York,” said North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi on Friday, during a meeting of state and local officials to discuss needed repairs to the highway. Thousands of bicyclists, runners and skiers (on snow and dry pavement) who have made human-powered ascents of Whiteface via the highway will no doubt agree with that assessment.
When I describe the footrace as a “niche” race, that’s a reflection of the relatively small number of participants. Roughly 100 runners toed the starting line in Wilmington on Saturday, 8 miles and 3,500 vertical feet below the finish line at the Castle. By contrast, more than 1,600 runners competed in June's Lake Placid Marathon and Half Marathon. But the Whiteface Uphill Footrace is just as well organized and supported, with aid stations at every mile, chip timing, and age group awards.
Saturday's race held extra significance for me as it represented a return to a race I had run many times previously (8?.. 10?), but not since 2003. Conditions for Saturday morning's 8am start were just about ideal: temperatures approaching 60 degrees, blue skies, no wind. But clouds moving rapidly past the summit hinted that things might be a little different higher up on the mountain.
Running up Whiteface is all about settling into a steady, sustainable pace. With a goal of sub-1:20 (to beat my time from 2003), I needed to average 10-minute miles. I banked a minute or two over the first four miles - including a blistering 8:30 first mile - but my pace slowed to 11+ in mile 5 when the mountain channelled 20mph wind straight down the auto road. Although the winds occassionally eased, the upper mountain was a much windier, colder place than the starting line. I began figuring that I'd be happy to finish in 1:25 - or just finish period - when a red fox ran accross the road less than 20 feet in front of me at the Lake Placid turn. A sign of good luck perhaps? The final mile was particularly windy and tough, but I crossed the finish line in 1:22:45, 20th place overall. A minute faster would have been nice, but it's a result that I'm more than happy with. Final results are here.
It's been said of the marathon that you have to wait long enough to forget the pain before you run another (Frank Shorter). Nine years was more than long enough. I'll be putting the Whiteface Uphill Footrace back on my running calendar.