The Great Circle

Gabe Flanders making tracks off the summit off North Baldface, with Evan's Notch beyond. Running in the White Mountains isn't always this nice.

Once I was a runner. That was a long time ago, back in high school, when I joined the cross-country team after grade-school attempts at soccer and hockey failed miserably. Running was, by process of elimination, the only sport left that I was coordinated enough to compete in. Sure, it also promised to be painful, boring, and definitely it was not very cool. But soon I discovered that there’s a certain, hidden beauty to running, as there is with all endurance sports. It rewards hard work, persistence, and a willingness to suffer far more than it does natural talent or skill. By senior year I was captain of the team, and managed to put in a respectable season, even winning a few races along the way. Then I went to college and began spending as much time as I could in the mountains. Running quickly fell by the wayside.

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself spending more and more time running again. There are a couple of reasons for my return to the sport. I love the simple, physical pleasure of controlling my breath and pace, and feeling my body break into a good sweat. I also love the meditative aspect, how a good run can clear my head after a harried day and preserve a little time to think and reflect. And I love the close familiarity running brings me with my neighborhood and the wilderness around my home.  Running lets me observe simple things in my community, like getting to know every dog on my road or seeing how the neighbor’s latest home improvement project is progressing, as well as in nature, like how quickly the snow is melting in springtime or how fast the trees are leaving their leaves in the fall.

All of these quiet gifts running bestows have coalesced since my wife Janet and I built our cabin in Madison, NH, five years ago. We live on top of a hill, smack-dab in the middle of a trail runner’s paradise: there’s unlimited dirt roads and snowmobile trails stretching in every direction. The only downside is that no matter which way you choose to go, a six hundred vertical foot climb is waiting to get back home. Just a ten-minute drive away, the entire trail system of White Mountain National Forest waits for longer adventures.

The final reason for my return to running is that it’s a perfect compliment to climbing – particularly alpine climbing, my primary passion and focus as a professional athlete. Make no mistake about it, alpine climbing is an endurance sport, and to excel at it, you need to be serious about training specifically for it. (The sensible, of-repeated maxim that the best way to train for rock climbing is to go rock climbing most definitely does not apply to alpine climbing.) I was particularly influenced by this blog by Steve House, as well as getting to know Ueli Steck during a recent expedition to the Himalaya. These guys are probably the two greatest two alpinists in the game today, and they spend as much time running and doing other forms of “non-technical” endurance training as they do hanging out at the crag.

The circle.

In preparation for my summer expedition to the Indian Karakorum, I upped my normal running routine to around 50 miles a week in the months leading up to our departure. I also tried to log at least one serious trail run per week in the White Mountains that was in the 15 – 20 mile range. There is, of course, one down side to this kind of effort: it’s virtually impossible to improve both your endurance and power capacity simultaneously. You need to choose to focus on one or the other, or risk not improving in either. As it was, I still rock climbed three days a week, but I focused on mileage in the 5.11 – 5.12 range, rather then projecting 5.13s.

My final training mission was the Great Circle, a classic loop in the heart of the White Mountains that circumnavigates the headwaters of the Pemigewasset River. It clocks in at 33-odd miles (depending several on how many summits you hit that are on spur trails just off the main route), with over 8,000 feet of vertical gain and a dozen peaks over 4,000 feet. Over the years I’ve realized that expedition training goals are devilishly easy to let slip by uncompleted, as the pre-departure time crunch from work, packing, and spending time with friends and family all compete for attention.

Thankfully this spring I’ve found an awesome training partner in my buddy Mr. Gabe Flanders – Gabe’s an incredible hill runner, has a laidback attitude, and is always game for a little pain. We had hatched a plan to do the Great Circle together, and he wasn’t about to let me off the hook, just because I had some errands to do.  I made it home from a design meeting at Mountain Hardwear headquarters late Wednesday evening (equipped with a prototype of the most excellent Fluid 6 running pack), got five hours sleep, and met Gabe at 5.30 the next morning.Running in the White Mountains is not pretty. The trails are rocky with tons of roots, the weather’s often bad, there’s lots of slippery slabs and steep stair-master climbs that you need to power-hike… Eight miles into our run, we broke out of the trees and crested the first summit of the day, only to be greeted by 40 mile an hour winds and thick cloud. We were definitely not in Colorado. But there’s also something liberating about carrying on despite such bad conditions, the same intangible thing that’s drawn me back to running, as well as to alpine climbing and outdoor sports in general. There’s no one keeping score, and the experience is impossible to quantify. You’re completely free to try your best without distraction, and you can only laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Saturday I boarded my plane for Delhi, looking forward, for once, to a few days of airports and jeep travel to rest my legs.

4 Responses to “The Great Circle”

  1. Matt Hart says:

    ahh the pemi-loop. nice one freddie. get your buddy some mhw run gaiters so he doesn’t have to wear those awful dirty girl ones.

  2. Mad Dog says:

    Freddie! I always thought about putting the circle together. An upping of the ante of a Presidential traverse. Which I also never managed… Very cool. Now how to fit Owl’s Head into the circle?

  3. Hi there may I use some of the information found in this site if I reference you with a link back to your site?

  4. Of course Francene, that’s what the inter-web is all about. Happy trails….

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