Fourteen years ago, when he was 18, Conway's Kevin Tilton raced the 7.6 miles up the Mount Washington Auto Road for the first time.
"I'm still in high school at the time, and after running every step for three miles, I notice the course is still going up," he recalled this week. "By the time you reach the finish line, your heart is in your throat and your legs are burning. I swore after that first time, I would never run it again."
Tilton didn't keep his promise.
On Saturday at 9 a.m., he'll answer the starting cannon at the base of the Auto Road in Gorham for the 14th time, joining a field comprising both world-class competitors and recreational runners in the 53rd Mount Washington Road Race.
"I grew up in the area, and it's my hometown race," said Tilton, the top New Hampshire finisher in last year's race, with a time of 1 hour 5 minutes 54 seconds.
"Competing against the world's best (mountain) runners on a course which is relentless is challenging for me. It's grueling when you run it but rewarding when you finish it."
Sage Canaday of Boulder, Colo., returns as the defending champion. Last year, Canaday registered the third-fastest time in Mount Washington history, 58:27, in finishing ahead of Joseph Gray of Newcastle, Wash. (1:00:33), a former all-American steeplechaser and U.S. Mountain Running Team veteran, and two-time Mount Washington winner Eric Blake of New Britain, Conn. (1:00:54), who placed third in 1:00:54.
All three are returning to battle for this year's top spot at the highest summit in the Northeast.
In the women's field, Kim Dobson of Denver, who has won the last two races, will not return this season.
In the field this season is 35-year-old Brandy Erholtz of Evergreen, Colo., who won consecutive Mount Washington races in 2008-09, was runner-up in 2010 and 2012, and placed third in 2011.
Erholtz is four months pregnant, said race organizer John Stifler.
"Although she may be slightly slower this year than last, her strength and her intelligent training keep her on top of the list of contenders," Stifler said.
Even at the age of 54, Craig Fram of Plaistow continues to be one of New Hampshire's most successful runners.
He won the race in 1997, was runner-up in 1995, fourth in 1996 and third in 2001 and 2002. In 2001, at 42, Fram finished in 1:04:29, breaking a men's masters record that had stood since 1962. No one has won more prize money at Mount Washington than Fram.
"He's amazing," said Tilton. "The way he races and his ability to stay in it is impressive. Recently in this race he passed me at the 4-1/2-mile mark, and I just shook my head. He's not only relentless, but he's tenacious, which you have to be on this course. It's a grind because it never gives you a break."
Comparing a marathon to the Mount Washington road race, Tilton said, "they're both grueling. The marathon is a thinking man's race. In the Mount Washington race, you have to be physically and mentally fit to survive it."
New Hampshire will be represented well in this year's race.
Among the notable Granite Staters are New Hampton's Freeman brothers, Justin and Kris. Better known as nordic skiers — both are former national champions, and Kris is a three-time Olympian — the Freemans also are accomplished runners. Last year at Mount Washington, Justin Freeman finished 24th overall.
Denise Spenard, 46, of Manchester, who finished 39th overall in the women's field last season, will compete again Saturday.