The Sentinel Hill Climb - 2016

After the Bangtail Divide 38k I took nearly a month off racing to focus on my Montana Mountain Project. I still ran during the week, but spent a lot of time pouring over maps and having fun in the mountains, which, aside from being wonderfully enjoyable, served as excellent conditioning for the Sentinel Hill Climb.

In addition to the Double Dip, the Sentinel Hill Climb is another iconic Missoula race. Mount Sentinel abuts the University of Montana and the trail to the M has to be one of the most popular trail sections in the state (outside of national parks). The course begins at the M trail trailhead and ascends the steep switchbacks to the trail's namesake. From there runners follow the northwest ridge of Sentinel straight up to the summit. No switchbacks, no rest. To make things more interesting there is a $50 bonus for the first male and female to the M. So of course it goes out fast.

For 2016 the Sentinel Hill Climb was part of the Runner's Edge Trail Series, so to make scheduling work the race moved from October to July. Fortunately the heat would be a non-factor since the race is just over 1.5 miles, despite climbing 2,000'.

This was the first year I entered the race, largely because it was part of the Trail Series. The series was shaping up to be a head-to-head battle between me and Cory Soulliard. He had a great performance at 11 Miles to Paradise and put the pressure on me to place high at the Hill Climb. Recently I have been running uphill well enough to stay in striking distance on the descent, but not well enough to win an only uphill race. I knew if I wanted to do well in the series I had to make the Sentinel Hill Climb hurt, and get lucky.

With Jim Walmsley not able to return for a title defense, the race was wide open. Looking at the start line I figured my main competition would be Jason Delaney, Will Rial, and fellow Runner's Edge employee Aaron Newell. Cory had a raced a triathlon the day before and could throw this race out of series points so I figured he would take it easier.

Right from the start Jason and Will were out fast. Like really fast. My legs were pretty tired from over 9,000' of climbing the previous two days, but even on fresh legs I doubt I could have hung with them at the start. Within 30 seconds my legs and arms flooded with lactic acid. I had gained 20 of the 2,000 feet and was already tying up. Not a good start. Will and Jason were also steadily creating a bigger gap.

The last few painful steps of the Sentinel Hill Climb
As soon as I felt the severe burn, I throttled it back to simmer and attempted to regain composure. Aaron was right on my shoulder and a quick glance back told me that it was just the two of us, at least for now. I attempted to find the balance between staying relaxed and keeping my foot on the gas because it is, after all, only a 20 or so minute race.

After a switchback or two Aaron passed me and tried to close the gap on the two up front who were now half a switchback ahead. I tried to hang on to Aaron as best as could and just told myself "make it to the M, once it gets steeper it will get easier." Backwards logic I know, but the steeper grade above the M would turn the race into less of a running race, and more of a hiking race. Or so I hoped.

I hit the last switchback on Aaron's shoulder and passed him right at the base of the M. Jason had nabbed the $50 at the M and was pulling away at the beginning of the ridge. Will looked like he might be coming back a bit so I set my sights on him and figured I had a shot at second place.

Sure enough the steeper grade benefitted me. The multiple days I spent in the mountains had paid off and my muscles finally stopped screaming as loudly. I quickly gained on Will and tried to pass him with a burst of speed (which meant 5-10 steps at 10 minute pace, we'll call it 'relative speed' rather than actual speed) to quell any hope of hanging with me. That move stung a bit, but I succeeded in creating a gap and focused on pulling away for the next section.

After settling back into a climbing rhythm I reassessed my position. I figured I had second locked up as long as I could hold off Aaron, who had also passed Will and was moving pretty well, but I also noticed I had stopped losing ground on Jason and had perhaps gained a few seconds. Time gaps are hard to judge in hill climbs because everyone looks so close due to the relatively short distance. Whenever I looked back it felt like Aaron was breathing down my neck, but when I looked up Jason seemed so far away. In reality I was probably closer to Jason than Aaron at that point, but I needed more of a lead to feel comfortable with second. I also started thinking about the $100 prize for winning and how many mountains I could get to with that gas money.

I dug in again on the next steep pitch and tried to match cadence with Jason. I figured even with focusing on short, quick steps my stride was slightly longer so I should gain some ground. I soon found myself closing the gap and my confidence began to rise.

I caught up on the second to last little bench. Because I had put some ground on Aaron as well I was able to relax a bit and match Jason's speed. After a minute of reduced effort I was able to take the lead and again through in a surge. I timed it so I could push going up the next steep section, which I knew benefitted me more than Jason. A gap formed and then I just had to run scared for another two minutes to the top.

The last little push hurt, a lot. I've run up Sentinel numerous times, and it's never easy, but this took it to a whole new level. I stumbled across the finish with searing pain in my lungs, legs, and arms. I had hoped to run under 23 minutes and ended up running 22:04 on tired legs. Despite the pain, dizziness, and vomit feeling rising in my throat, I was satisfied with that day. I'm not positive I understand why people get so excited about that race, but deep down I know for sure I'll be on that start line again next year.