Chuck Cunningham smiles with the winner’s trophy after a stock car race in 1951. (CUNNINGHAM FAMILY PHOTO)
Mount Washington, which one can see on a clear day from high points in Harpswell, looms large in Clint Cunningham’s childhood memories.
His father, Charles “Chuck” Cunningham, owned the Bates and Cunningham Volvo dealership, now Goodwin’s Volvo, and pursued his passion for racing on tracks all over the East Coast. But the Climb to the Clouds, a car race up the Mount Washington Auto Road, was always Chuck’s favorite.
“It was just a part of our life growing up,” recalled Clint, known to his family and friends in Maine as “Buddy.” “It was special to have an auto racer in the family and we got to do all the other fun stuff in the area when we went with him to a race. It was a really positive part of my childhood.”
Now known as the Subaru Mount Washington Hillclimb, the Climb to the Clouds was first held in 1904. It ran sporadically until 1961, when Chuck won his class driving an Austin-Healey Sprite. He drove the race again in 1990, at the age of 63, beating his 1961 time by three minutes.
Chuck’s accomplishments prompted Clint to follow in his father’s tire tracks up the Northeast’s highest peak, but in his own way — on foot.
“If my father hadn’t been the person he was, I never would have considered doing it,” Clint, now 69, said during an interview at his family’s summer home on Bailey Island. “I remember sitting here with my father and some of his friends and one of his buddies observed that I’d never expressed interest in car racing. My father replied, ‘My son races with his feet.'”
The run up the Auto Road, officially known as the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race, is a unique event in running circles. There’s only one hill — 6,288 feet high with an average grade of 12% over 7.6 miles. The top of Mount Washington is home to some of the most extreme weather in the world. But more on that in a minute.
According to the event’s official history, “Credit for the first timed run up Mount Washington goes to George Foster, who performed the feat in 1904 when he was a medical student, to impress his friends. He completed the climb in 1:42 — faster than any automobile had ever made the trip. In 1936, some of Foster’s friends organized a Mount Washington road race in his honor. Twelve runners finished.”
The race was held sporadically until 1966 (Johnny Kelley, of Boston Marathon fame, was the winner in 1961) and has been held annually since then. This year’s event was run on June 18. After failing to win a randomly selected spot in the field of 1,300 runners for several years, Clint got lucky this year after making a donation to the race sponsor, Delta Dental.
Or so he thought.
Clint, who grew up in Topsham and graduated from Brunswick High School in 1971, was not born to run. He attended Wheaton College in Illinois until he enlisted in the Navy and served for six years. He lived in California for several years before moving to Michigan, where he completed his degree at the University of Michigan and then met his wife, Denise. They both worked in the hotel industry for many years before retiring and today live in Grand Blanc, Michigan, a suburb of Flint.
His parents bought the Bailey Island house in the 1990s, but Harpswell had been a part of Clint’s life long before then. His father’s boat, the Manderley, was moored in Mackerel Cove and the family enjoyed all the highlights of Harpswell summers in the 1950s and 1960s — the Bailey Island Tuna Tournament, dinners at Cook’s and days at the local beaches. “We loved every minute of it,” he said.
Running didn’t enter Clint’s life until he was well into his 50s. And he took it up only after experiencing a medical nightmare.
“In 2006, I was diagnosed with a malignant ocular melanoma,” he explained. “It was affecting my vision and my doctor said, ‘That eye has to come out.'” After the surgery, Clint said, he was feeling “bewildered and kind of down.” A couple of friends in Michigan said he needed something to help him snap out of it. “Why not try running?” was the suggestion.
It turned out to be a life-changer.
Clint had never really run before, but he joined a running group for beginners and adopted the interval running techniques popularized by Olympic runner Jeff Galloway. “I would run for two minutes and then walk for a minute and then run three and walk one. It made it seem easier,” he said. He entered the popular 10-mile Crim Race in Flint and was sobbing with joy and emotion when he finished it.
Now, running is a huge part of Clint’s life. He travels with friends to races across the country and has completed four marathons. His fastest time is 5 hours, 18 seconds. But the white-capped whale of the Mount Washington race was always out there — a unique challenge with close family ties.
Chuck Cunningham waits for the 1961 Climb to the Clouds to begin as his son Clint Cunningham looks on, third from the left behind the flag-bedecked rope. (CUNNINGHAM FAMILY PHOTO)
Clint trained with a lot of hill work in anticipation of the race on June 18. He carefully considered the layers of clothing he’d need to combat the varying conditions on the mountain. He arranged for John Ranger, a childhood friend, to drive to the summit with a change of clothes and to give him a ride back down.
But nothing could prepare him, or the rest of the runners, for what the mountain had in store.
On race day, the top of Mount Washington was experiencing 75- to 80-mph winds with blowing ice and snow. (That night, a hiker from Massachusetts was rescued on the other side of the mountain, about a mile from the summit, and later died of hypothermia.) The race organizers made the difficult decision to shorten the race to 4 miles for only the second time in the history of the event. After crossing the finish line, runners had to reverse course and run or walk the 4 miles back to the base of the mountain.
“They did the best they could,” said Clint. “They kept the safety of the runners at the forefront. For me, I wanted to race to the top, but I can tell you it was a really challenging 4 miles.”
The winds came in gusts, along with misty rain and heavy fog, so the scenic views were negligible. “I had four layers of clothing on and was still totally freezing my ass off,” Clint recalled. He finished the 4 miles in 1 hour, 9 minutes. Two weeks before, he had run a 4-mile race in 34 minutes.
Ultimately, out of the 983 runners who started, Clint finished 845th, with an age-graded ranking of 695th. (“That’s what I’m telling my friends,” he joked.) He raised $540 for indigent dental care and had an experience he’ll never forget.
“I’m glad I did it. It really was a challenge for me,” Clint said. “Would I do it again? You never say never and eventually I’ll forget how hard it was. If the weather was great, I’d do it again. As I know from those days racing with my dad, the summit is the most beautiful part.”
Doug Warren, of Orr’s Island, retired from a career as an editor at the Portland Press Herald, Miami Herald and Boston Globe. He serves as vice president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors.