After racing Loon twice, I felt that my mountain racing fitness had increased significantly, but I was still relatively new to the scene. Pioneer Ridge was a completely new experience. The amount of elevation gain concentrated into just a few miles made for some very steep grades the whole way. It was nothing like loon and probably best left for more experienced mountain runners. In fact, it was easy to overhear that many of the runners had just come off doing mount marathon the previous tuesday. For comparison, Loon climbed 3000ft over 6.6 miles (450ft/mile) with varying grades of steepness which included 3 downhills. Pioneer Ridge climbs 5300ft over 4.5 miles (1180ft/mile, more than double) without any significant breaks in the climbing or grade. If I was certain about one thing, it was that this race was going to hurt.
Pre-race was a bit different. Shuttle over to the trail-head and warm-ups was one short walk of the first quarter mile of the trail. It was steep immediately and there was hardly any room between the start and the trail, so I thought it would be important to get out hard. I was a little concerned about passing on the narrow trail as well. The race had a low-key adventurous vibe to it. Not a ton of organization, but enough food and information. It felt like everyone knew what they were getting into, no one or most were not your typical runner. Some even joked about silly road 5ks were. I was a bit nervous about how tough it might be, but figured I’d still do fine.
We finally took off and I went out pretty hard to get a good spot. I was maybe in 10th entering the trail and while the grade was steep, it felt pretty easy. So easy that I immediately wanted to pass. It only took a quarter mile or so for me to realize that I still had 5000ft of climbing to go so it was fine to hang right there. Still, I was getting really close up on the next guy who eventually pulled to the side and said “Don’t let me slow you down”. That was appreciated, but I was then stuck behind another guy. This guy did not move and I really wanted to get by without having to ask him to pull to the side. Finally the trail widened up and I managed to slip by and open up a small gap. One more guy caught up and passed me, but after that I entered no-man’s land. My legs were feeling totally dead and I couldn’t believe I was just a half mile in (I hit the first kilometer close to my 2-Mile PR). I trudged on through the mile, slowly dropping the pace, killing my legs and losing confidence. First mile was okay. I wasn’t unhappy with how it went, but more concerned that I still had the whole race ahead of me and I was completely feeling it.
Mile 2 was an absolute sufferfest. Not only did the trail remain very steep but it was suddenly super-muddy. I was slowing tremendously, and even walking was exhausting. The mud was just awful. On every uphill with mud I wanted to run but failed as I slipped and only went backwards. This began an extremely frustrating and brutally exhausting cycle of walking (more like crawling) these muddy uphills then resuming running. Others seemed to do much better with this and soon enough I was caught. I was probably passed by 2 before hitting the waterstop with another quickly gaining on me. There were also oddly placed logs across and for each I had to slow down to a crawl to manage my way over them. When people went to pass, I got out of the way and totally lost momentum but had a quick and much-needed break. We finally got above the treeline with unreal scenery, but the misery continued with mud everywhere. I was passed again and was just thinking it wasn’t my race.
Finally the course veered onto rockier terrain and while the climbs became so steep that it was pretty much a walk from then on, I was so happy to leave the mud behind. On a switchback I could see the next group coming for me and on the back was Dad. I thought for sure he would beat me and was mentally defeated about going out so fast and getting destroyed by everyone now. Getting onto the rockier stuff was more enjoyable but started a sequence of seeing what appeared to be a peak (which suggested either a break in climbing or the finish) but upon reaching that peak there was always another one waiting ahead. Scenery was unbelievable and now I could see everyone ahead but the pattern of thinking I was done but only having one more was getting exhausting and I just wanted the race to end. I was slowly caught by a couple guys but the gap remained between Dad and I. I tried to run the slight flats or small downs upon hitting what looked like a peak but the ascent started immediately after and I did not do so well.
At this point we were so high that fog was everywhere and you couldn’t see thirty meters ahead. It finally levelled off and we started going another direction. We were on a steep ledge next to snow but with enough downhill and less steep terrain I held my own. I hit 4.5 on my watch but the finish was not in sight. I was able to muster up some more strength and avoid being passed again. I actually managed to pass some guy but the climb was once again really steep and he passed me back soon after. On the bright side, suddenly the finish was right there.
1:29:44, 14th OA. Finishing and consuming snow-pumped water was so refreshing. Took a moment to enjoy the scenery before heading back down in a brutal “cool-down” that killed the legs. I was concerned about wiping out on the muddy sections and on one turn I slipped, going off the trail and into a nearby bush.
Very impressed with this race. Glad I did it and while I didn’t run too well I guess it was just good to finish. Easily the hardest race I’ve done and one of the most tiring but worth it for the experience. Officially adding mount marathon to the bucket list. Hopefully I have moved up another level as a mountain runner.