Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mt. Sentinel Hill Climb, the last laugh of a season.

For the true Montana endurance racer, the season starts on the farm roads of the Speedwagon Classic in Polson, and concludes atop a snowy Mt. Sentinel in November. There’s really very little to prove (except on the ski hill) outside of these stops on the calendar. This race, although fairly short and not the most challenging for those in any sort of condition, is held in high regard by many of Montana’s elite. Perhaps because many of us have fond memories of being a broke collegiate athlete with not a care in the world other than going racing, and enjoy donating to the U of M Triathlon Team. Or more likely, the prospect of being king or queen of the most walked hill in Montana awakens assorted groggy athletes on an otherwise gray and uneventful November morning. Whatever the draw, the Mt. Sentinel Hill Climb is definitely a favorite on the calendar for many.

My crowd, the Mangy Crew, has been suffering their way (you can likely guess the reason for our suffering), up this mountain for years. At this point in the season, there seems to be a dwindling few that are taking any events very seriously. In fact, a missed call on my phone at around 1AM on the morning of the race from this year’s winner is a good indicator of most of our preparation. Regardless, to paraphrase the great cannibal, talent has very little to do with how much blood your heart can pump, but more important is one’s propensity to suffer. At the start line, there seemed to be very few who had intentions of giving a very fit Brendan Halpin any challenge to the top. Even the “Terminator” Adam Jensen, beaten down from a marathon the week prior, seemed to have little hope. Old Man Seeley is always up for a challenge, as well as a few other from the Missoula running community. On the ladies side, the race was up for grabs. UM Tri had sent one of their finest, Katherine Kettering. Local fitness guru Emily Kipp was looking mean, and new girl Jess Culver could have made the cover of the Lululemon catalogue with her hot outfit. Also of note on the ladies side, pro tour princess Sam Schultz didn’t want to hurt his feet or something, so he rode up the hill instead. I myself was desperately trying to reach homeostasis before the start, wandering around the parking lot like a buffoon, and had to reboot the system twice before the gun went off.

Although the hole shot was a terrible weakness of mine this cross season, I had a good one on Saturday. While most racers reluctantly accepted the fact they had to run up a mountain, I blasted the uphill line, shooting into the top ten as my head felt like it was about to explode. After about 50 meters however, an energetic Tri-Jalapeno was setting a caliente pace that no one wanted a taste of. Fast starters Doug Shryock and Owen Gue were noticeably absent from the Sherpa line up front. Seeing as how I lost to both of these cats and Rolling Thunder, I sent word to the engine room that my brain would feel no pain today other than my screaming headache. So from about 3 minutes into the race, I gave the all clear for "past full throttle" I worked my way through some folk who looked increasingly fit with the passing of each runner. Soon we passed the “M”, and with the end of the nasty switchbacks comes an even nastier steady two mile grunt to the summit. A little ways after passing UM Tri’s Johnny Montana, a brief lapse of skill caused a small crash on my part. I was back up and going before losing any spots. I’ve always thought of myself as very skilled at crashing, rarely injuring myself and usually plotting my restart before I’ve even hit the deck. Closer to the top, I was just out of closing distance to Beef Cake Jensen and another runner (later discovered was Caleb Ambrose just in front of me) who I didn’t know but who was also moving along at a good clip. It was tough to keep the legs churning through this no man’s land, behind the top 5 and seemingly well in front of everyone else. However I soon realized due to one loud footstep that a resurgent Owen Gue was closing fast. Owen had a great cross season, beating me easily on three occasions. I had pretty much had enough of his charismatic smile waiting for me at the finish line, so as we approached the bend to the final push, I was pouring coals on the fire like fossil fuels were going out of style. Photographic evidence at the top clearly indicates that I was much more invested in this effort than OG, but sometimes you just gotta blow out the pipes!

Stumbling back down the hill gave a great perspective on some great battles still unfolding. A few of these I’ll never forget:

-Peter Lambros throwing down a leg breaking attack on Dale “The Whale” Shryock, reminiscent of the debate scene in Old School where James Carville finally replies “I have no response”.

-Katherine Kettering hacking up a lung on her way to a surprising but well deserved women’s victory (schooling an off the wagon Ben Horan in the process).

-Pops Radley powering his way to the top, his enthusiasm about this race is probably responsible for 20% of the field showing up.

-Youngest Seeley, on the trail of tears cuz her older sister dropped her.

All in all, this was my favorite Mt. Sentinel Hill Climb in memory, a great bookend to the best season yet for many Monatana athletes. Thanks to UM Triathlon for putting this on and best of luck to you next season. Huge congrats to Brendan Halpin and Katherine Kettering on their convincing wins, and good luck to Brendan at Ironman Cozumel as he goes beyond the traditional end of the calendar.