Words by Lisa Mazzola
The Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb (MWARBH) is an annual bicycle racing event held in New Hampshire. Considered by many as one of the toughest hill climbs in the world, the course is a 7.6-mile climb up to the top of Mount Washington. The highest peak in the northeast United States: it has an average grade of 12% with extended sections of 18% and the last 50 yards is 22% to the finish line. And if that is not enough, there is also a one-mile section of dirt toward the top of the mountain at a steady 16 % grade. The event registration has a heavy price tag, but part of the proceeds goes to the Tin Mountain Conservation Center, which promotes appreciation of the environment. The road is only open to cyclists two days a year: once for the sponsored practice ride, and then again on race day so this event is the only time it can be experienced on a bike.
“Just because I’m not a climber, doesn't mean I can't climb.”
I remember when I was a newbie cyclist and the concept that “not everyone is a climber” was first introduced. I don’t present as your typical “climber” body type, although over the years that has changed a little bit. I always loved climbing as hard as it was, so I adopted the mantra: “Just because I am not a climber, doesn't mean I can't climb”. Year after year I have sought opportunities to challenge myself on iconic climbs in France, Spain and the US. Given my love of this flavor of suffering, the MWARBH seemed like a good idea and a great goal to train for, and train I did.
Call on experts
Once I started doing research online and by talking to people who have taken part in this event, it was clear this is not something to approach lightly. I was lucky enough to have access to a local cycling chum, Hank, who had taken part in the cycling race 14 times and the running race 4 times. He turned out to be a great person to experience this event with as he was an invaluable resource. Although I had climbed some epic mountains in the Alps and the Pyrenees, Mt. Washington from a stats perspective was going to be my most challenging climb to date. It was going to come down to training and equipment, specifically gear selection.
In terms of a training program, I developed a plan that started with a base/power build protocol in June. As I got within 4-6 weeks of the event I started adding specificity by doing focused work on climbs that emulated aspects of the Mt. Washington profile. My plan was to use on-the-bike climbing and strength building with a personal trainer to help build my stamina and form for such a long and steep climb. I also added in time trial simulation efforts. My training and nutrition were consistent and periodized, so I went into race day feeling physically prepared.
“Gotta run what you brung”
As I said, equipment selection was critical. I trained on a local climb to help me assess what gears I would need. My Specialized Amira Expert came stock with a mid-compact crankset. I decided to stick with that but opted to swap out my regular rear derailleur for a long cage that could accommodate at max, a 32 tooth cog in the rear. I knew the gearing would be challenging, but I thought it would be passable. Many people opt to swap out their road gearing for a MTB set up, but for a variety of reasons, I did not want to do that. (When I road the Tour de Etape in the French Alps in 2015, I had a 32 tooth cassette. Although it was hard, I made it through an entire Queen stage of the tour on it.) At race check in the day before, I met recently retired pro Phil Gaimon, and saw his bike, which had been tricked out to help him break the record as part of his Worst Retirement Ever series, including removing his brakes and chopping his handlebar drops off. His gearing 32X34, GULP! This was the moment I invoked my Mt. Washington mantra: “Nothing external matters.” On race morning I was chatting with other racers in the staging area and I mentioned to a male racer from Massachusetts what my gearing selection was and he said, “you gotta run what you brung”. At that moment I realized I had to just let go and stay focused on my race plan.
The Canon Blows!
The weather had been touch and go leading up to the event, with a steady downpour the day before. The day before the event, we received an email that the race might get moved to Sunday or we might be riding in the rain. Either way “be prepared for anything.” I started to get concerned but did my best to put it out of my mind. From what I had heard, the weather can be so extreme that people have been blown off their bikes in some years. I woke up at 5 am on race day and it was pouring rain. I invoked my mantra and start preparing my gear. In order to take part in the event, a driver is needed to get racers from the top of the mountain to the bottom. Once the last car hits the road, the racers line up in age categories dispatched 5 minutes apart in waves. At the start of each wave a cannon (yes, an actual cannon) is shot, and off you go. When the cannon shot for my wave, I gave a quick acceleration to speed to the front of the group to clear as many riders as I could. I then settled in and prepared to execute my plan. I had my heart rate rule the effort, making sure not to redline. Given that the elevation kicked up immediately like a wall, it was critical to go easy and ramp up the pace incrementally. The plan worked perfectly for the first 3 miles. I had a target time in my head and I was gauging my effort accordingly. After all that worry, I was actually feeling pretty solid.
At mile 4, all of that changed. With no warning, all of the muscles of my lower back, quadriceps and hip flexors seized up. Every pedal stroke caused a sharp pain to shoot through my back and legs. Having had lower back surgery in 2006, my initial reaction was that I might have aggravated that area. However, stopping was not an option so I had to find a way to work through the pain and progress at the same time. We often hear about pro cyclist's ability to ride through pain and on this day, it was my turn. This was going to be my “mind over a whole lot of matter” moment. I was forced into a meditative state where all I could do was focus on the task at hand, stay upright, and get to the top. I definitely called upon my newly acquired mountain bike skills, taking turns doing a slow speed ratchet, temporarily pausing any pedaling for a second of relief. As someone who has never been a strong out-of-the-saddle climber, those efforts were surprisingly the only moments where the pain level would go from a 10+, down to a 6. The other skill that I called upon was my ability to read the road/terrain- literally finding the path of least resistance all the way to the top. There wasn’t a pedal stroke to waste. Doing the strength training with a personal trainer made all the difference. Without it, I don’t think I would have made it to the end without stopping. I am grateful that I had more overall absolute strength that I now know is key to cycling- and climbing, specifically.
As I got much closer to the top, there were spectators and event staff along the course cheering us on. I knew when we were approaching the summit because I could hear the air horns going off for riders that were approaching the finish line. Just before the big push to the uphill 22% finish, I was able to get some muscle relief on a brief flat section where I could spin out my legs. It was the most glorious feeling to have my muscles start to relax. As I rounded the second-to-last switch back into the finish, I could hear the crowds and see the pitch in the road. I greatly appreciated spectators yelling at me to make sure to hug the corner and take the path of least resistance. The cheering absolutely motivated me, and I was able to get out of the saddle to push hard to the line. As I crossed the line a volunteer threw a blanket around me and another volunteer put a medal around my neck and handed me something to drink. I was so happy to have made it to the top but as the discomfort dissipated, I started focusing on all the time I lost- finishing 15 minutes slower than I had hoped. I did not have a mantra for that moment.
I spent so much time thinking about how difficult MWARBH was going to be that I was not able to think about all of the other aspects of this event, like how beautiful the mountain and the view from the top of the “rock pile” would be. It was very well organized and all the volunteers, race organizers, and spectators were friendly and helpful. The event concludes with lunch and a podium ceremony under a big top tent. Racers all proudly walking around wearing their medals, stopping here and there to trade stories with other racers. From a training perspective, I made all the right choices and that was very satisfying. Unfortunately, I made the huge mistake with equipment which cost me my time goal, but I learned so much that day and feel like I have a whole new set of tools in my mental training toolbox. Managing to work beyond the physical limitation my body presented was a situation that I would not have been able to replicate outside of this extreme context. I will surely take what I have learned and apply it to next year.
“Nothing external matters.”