Mount Mitchell (Elev. 6,684 ft) is the highest peak east of the Mississippi and lies close to the Great Smoky Mountains of which many of them are over 6000ft. Imagine the Blue Ridge Mountains on steroids (including many more peaks). This was the 15th time of the Challenge (40mi) and Black Mountain Marathon (26.2mi). Both events share the same course, the marathon turns around at the Blue Ridge Parkway. About 400 runners signed up for both races that started at the same time (7am) in Downtown Black Mountain. Following two race reports from Christian and Drew.
Drew and I were lucky and got picked in the lottery for the challenge. Cristina’s parents live close to Black Mountain, so we drove there together a day early to be well rested before the race. The spring-like weather in the area was quite nice and gave us a (false) notion that Mt Mitchell might be a pleasantly warm run. We found out however that a cold front was on it’s way. It sounded serious when the race director at packet pickup said that there might be a chance that both (marathon and challenge) could be cut short to a total of 17mi if the weather doesn’t cooperate and park rangers don’t feel it’s safe to approach the summit.
After following the weather reports the night before we were still unsure what we would get up for at 5 am. A Facebook update from the race director mentioned 9F and 70mph winds during the night at an aid station. I don’t think that I was ever outside at 70mph winds. What fun! The race seemed very low-key, when we approached the “starting line” that wasn’t one. We just grouped with the rest of the 400 runners at the base of Cherry St. The sparse race info we got before mentioned something about race briefing at 6.45am – however there was no “official” in sight until 6.58am. The race director gave a brief “Ok, let’s go!” (or something in that fashion) to start the race.
|Mount Mitchell Challenge Elevation Profile (from iRunfar.com)|
I didn’t know much about the course other than we run up a mountain and down a mountain. The first 3-4 mi we were on roads towards the trail head. Drew, Kevin Smith and I kept a quick pace on the road to avoid any bottleneck at the trailhead. My left shin started to hurt like I had a shin splint (I had this on an off a couple of days prior but only on pavement. I thought it’s my body telling me that pavement is not made to be run on and I should the heck get back on a trail). The pain eased off once we hit the trail behind Montreat College. The double track trail wasn’t congested at all and the climb was gradual but runnable. The more we ran up, the better you could see the sunrise behind the mountains. Very pretty! The temp was chilly but not too bad, no winds due to protection of the hollow we went up.
There were aid stations every 4-6mi so there was plenty of places the refuel – stocked with basics like M&Ms, chips, pretzels, bananas, oranges, Gatorade, water. I was hoping for some potatoes as they seem to sit well and fuel good during races, but no luck. I carried Perpetuum Solids, S-Caps! and a gel or two in my hydration pack (without bladder) [some reviews here] which along with bananas at almost every aid station consisted of my race nutrition. Like potatoes, bananas sit well too and provide a good fuel during a race. Probably my second choice. Every once in a while I ate some orange quarters to amp up my hydration.
|Cloud-filled hollows – photo by Steve Dixon for the Asheville Citizen-Times|
The Toll-road trail widened to an ATV-trail with plenty of rocks, more technical than I imagined but runnable most of the time. My Inov-8 295’s were just a little short of cushioning so that my feet started to hurt pretty quickly. Chatting with a few people along the trail, the sun being up now and gorgeous views over the mountain range provided good motivation. I sometimes think of long distance races like a journey where you meet all kinds of people and get to see beautiful sights. It makes the race less a race and more pure enjoyment.
I arrived at the half-way mark (turn-around for the marathoners) on the Blue Ridge Parkway that was closed due to winds and ice which was nice so I didn’t have to worry about traffic. So far the pace was good and I thought I didn’t walk too much. Now the real climbing was about to start. The first part was a little more flattish, the wind picked up and brought some mean chills. I later heard that the gusts were about 40mph. FUN! Then a steep 1000ft single track climb to the summit slowed me down quite a bit. Some parts were pretty technical and not runnable at all, and some parts had thick ice patches that I tried to circumvent. I followed a guy who did the challenge 3 times and the last year broke his shoulder on this very part of the race. I figured it might be safe to keep close as I was sure he had not forgotten the exact spot to best break your bones.
|Made it to the summit in 9F|
We made it, the summit! Breathtaking views! I took a minute to take it all in and looked forward to the downhill to come. It was pretty windy and cold up there, luckily the aid station was in a heated ranger station of sorts. This allowed to defrost my water bottle. I took about 3mins or so to re-fuel, hydrate and defrost. Figuring I could catch up quickly on the down hill. And I did. The immediate steep downhill was a fantastic. Soft pine forrest ground, switchbacks and technical for at least 2mi made it a blast. I just skidded once but could catch myself before falling. Immediately thereafter a mile or so climb up a gravel road. The last climb of the race…
|View from the summit of Mt Mitchell|
The next section was rather boring, about 4 or 5 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Ugh! pavement! I managed about 8-9min pace. My legs started to feel a little tired. The road section seemed forever but after I finally hit the aid station I knew that the rest should be a fun, gradual 12mi downhill. I think I have never before run for so long only downhill so I was unsure if my legs would keep it up. Turned out they did, just my feet felt beat up. I think I might have even bruised the side of my right foot. Pain is temporary I thought. During the last 12 mi I slowed down a little but kept a fairly steady pace. The ice patches on this stretch were mostly melted by now, so I didn’t have to pay attention too much.
At the second to last aid station I was unsure what I wanted and asked what these cups with foam on top have in them. They said Beer. BEER?. Yup, beer!. Sweet! I took a cup or two. What better hydration could you get nearly to the end of a race, I thought. Great!
Ok, 5mi to go – can’t be that a bad. By now my I could feel what 12mi downhill do to your legs. They hurt (despite beer). I slowed my pace on the final downhill yet again. Then we winded through neighborhoods on mostly pavement again, yuck! Finally arriving at a lake and the finish line. Yes! Finished in 6:24h. Not what I was hoping for (sub 6) but still content. Overall I had no or only little problems with stomach, nutrition or legs. Quite happy with the race.
Post-race food was great though. Beans, Hot Dogs, Chili, Slaw, Hot Tea, Water, Coke, Chips, M&Ms etc. It was a fun race and went without any major hitches. I felt the course markings could have been a little better (more streamers) and a short pre-race briefing would have been nice. Otherwise great race!
The Mt. Mitchell Challenge was full of uncertainties for me. I joked with Cristina prior to the race that I was breaking the golden race day rule by trying all kinds of new things on race day: I had bruised the balls of my feet when they went numb on a run over a month earlier, so I was wearing a new kind of shoe, which I had only logged a long run of 16 miles in, I was relying on a paper thin jacket I’d never worn to keep me warm in what promised to be cold conditions, and I was using a fueling strategy I’d used on a few training runs that lasted a couple hours, but nothing beyond that. Coupled with the new gear, I was worried about my feet since they were a bit bruised still, I’d had a lingering pain in my knee for the last week, my training had been a bit erratic leading up to the race, and my legs had felt trashed for the last week and a half. All that added up to not having a ton of confidence that things were going to go well on race day.
In addition to my own doubts about my physical well-being and new gear, I was completely blind on how the course ran, what the trails were like (where they technical or smooth?), and due to uncertain weather predictions, we were unsure until the race started whether we’d be running the full 40 miles or a weather shortened course only 17 miles long (part of me was hoping we’d be running the 17 mile option!). Standing at the starting line, I asked Kevin Smith what color the course markings were-he was in the same boat as me…we’d figure it out on the trail, right?
I guess feeling so ill-prepared and uncertain could have been really stressful and unnerving. For some reason, however, I found this approach really refreshing. I had no expectations for a finishing time, and I told myself that I was just going to go out and run each section as it came to me, not worrying about what was ahead at any point.
The weather at the start of the race was decent, around 28 and windy, but the air at the start line was filled with a palpable sense of trepidation as we wondered what the conditions would be like on the summit. We were told that the previous night the temperature atop Mt. Mitchell was 9 degrees with 50 mph winds!
The race started at the base of Cherry Street in downtown Black Mountain. I liked the low-key vibe of the start-no start line, banner or fanfare-just a bunch of spandex clad runners mulling about waiting for someone to yell ‘Go!’
With a quick briefing from Jay Curwen we learned we were running the full 40 miles, and we were off! The first few miles of the race were paved roads through the towns of Black Mountain and quaint campus of Montreat. Christian, Kevin Smith and I stuck together and we talked about our recent races and what we thought we could expect to find, weather wise, on the summit of Mt. Mitchell.
After 3 or 4 miles the pavement yielded to trail and we started to climb in earnest. The climbing tapered off a bit after a mile or so, and I alternated between running with a 9-time veteran of the Challenge, who filled me in a bit on the course, and a woman from California who wanted to come run the race so she could visit her sister, who lived in Asheville.
The beginning sections of trail were great! We ran under arches of Mountain Laurel, which sheltered us from the wind. The trails were non-technical double track, and I was able to avert my eyes from the trail to take in some views of the gorgeous morning unfolding in the mountains around us.
There was a fairly steady stream of runners stacked up on the trail as both the marathon and Challenge runners started at the same time. The front pack of Challenge and marathon runners had taken off early on the pavement, and I was happy to watch them go!
The weather conditions were great on this stretch, and I was able to unzip my light jacket and feel comfortable. As we progressed up the Toll Road (which is dirt trail) towards the Blue Ridge Parkway, runners started to spread out a bit. I had no idea who was running what race, what kind of place I was in, and was perfectly content to just keep running my race as I had planned to do. The conditions were still great and I was enjoying the stunning panoramas along this entire stretch as we climbed towards the Parkway.
As I neared the Blue Ridge Parkway (and marathon turnaround), the wind started howling down the trail. Strong gusts pummeled us as a harbinger of what we’d be encountering from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit.
I hit the Parkway in 1:58, and as the marathon runners turned around, things thinned out a bit. I saw I had closed the gap on the Challenge veteran I had run with earlier in the race a bit-he was about a minute ahead. A quick look back down the Parkway revealed the woman from California about a minute or so back. The race still seemed young, so I was happy to just keep running my race.
We were running into a headwind on the Parkway, which at times was very strong. The hood on my jacket whipped like a flag in the wind and I leaned forward hard and put my head down to keep moving. During one particularly strong gust, the wind suddenly changed direction and I almost fell on my face because I was leaning so far forward! A few miles of being beaten down by the wind on the Parkway, and the course peeled off the pavement to the Buncombe Horse Trail, which provided a bit of respite from the wind.
Up until this point my fueling had been going well. I had been taking a gel at least every 30 minutes, popping a new packet in my glove for at least 10 minutes before it was time to take it to let it heat up a bit. However, once we hit the Parkway, the temperature dropped precipitously. I started to hear ice in my water bottle clank around, and soon my bottle froze solid. I needed water to wash down the gels, so at this point, my fueling came to an unexpected halt.
Those who’ve followed my races know I’ve struggled to find a fueling strategy that works consistently for me, and with each race, I’m learning a bit more about how to keep my energy steady. Leading up to this race, I learned that when I lapse in fueling even a bit, my stomach shuts off. Learning this was a big leap for me! I knew going in to this race I had to eat early and often, as they say. However, as my bottle froze up on the way towards the summit, I realized I could be in for some trouble.
As I was starting to feel a bit low, energy wise, I heard footsteps crunching through the frozen mud/grass behind me. The woman from California had caught back up. Having someone else with me provided a needed boost (after a post-race introduction, I learned the woman I was running with was Rory Bosio). Rory and I chatted and ran the remainder of the Buncombe Horse trail, passing the veteran I’d been chasing all day as he filled his bottle from a stream. The section of trail was fairly flat, but had quite a bit of running water/ice/boggy mud to be carefully navigated. We eventually reach the summit trail, and Rory set the pace as we ran/talked/power hiked up the steep, technical and icy final mile to the summit, which we reached in 3:19. The summit was cold! I looked up the summit weather conditions after the race, which showed the conditions around the time we summited as 10 degrees air temp, -10 windchill, and 40 mph wind gusts!
|Reaching the summit (Picture by citizen-times)|
After summiting, we stopped off in the heated ranger/aid station. Rory was smart and asked the volunteers to help her out with all that she needed (her hands were so cold she couldn’t move them much). I was ready to get moving again, and stupidly didn’t think to take the time in the heat to take down a gel or two while I had access to water. I left the aid station and told Rory I’d see her in a few minutes, fully expecting her to catch up to me.
The mile and a half section off the summit was steep, very technical, and icy…which made for some fun ‘running.’ It probably would have been smart to slide off the big boulders on my butt during this section, but I ran and jumped off the boulders with some reckless abandon and had fun! By the time this section ended, I felt like I’d been worked over by a jackhammer, and I was happy when it ended. I knew that we had one long climb remaining at this point, which I dreaded. My hip flexors were really tight, and running the climbs was starting to get challenging. Knowing it was the last climb, I put my head down and ran up the mile long climb and smiled as I topped the hill and pulled into the aid station. I took a few swigs of coke, thanked the aid volunteers for braving the cold, and took off for 18 miles of downhill fun!
I maintained a decent pace down the Parkway. I thought it may take people a bit of time to get their downhill legs going after all the uphill, so I wanted to make sure I got moving on the downhills from the onset. I knew there were a few Challenge runners somewhere behind me, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t settle into cruise control on this section.
The return trip on the Toll Road got rough when I started bonking with about 12 miles to go. I managed to stomach half a gel here and there in the early miles on the way down, but I could tell my stomach was too far gone. Bonking is sadly all too familiar territory, so I didn’t feel too mentally anguished over this development (is it troublesome that I’m starting to feel confident with my ability to hang on and grind it out?). I settled into my standard routine of slamming coke in the aid station, holding on for dear life until the next aid station and repeating as necessary until finish.
As I closed in on the aid station around mile 30 or so, the volunteers complimented me on my nice beardcicles (I’m sure they were much more impressive at the summit!) and told me I was running in 4th place for the challenge. I had not had any idea of my position all day, so this was a welcome surprise. With this information, I had a bit more focus for the rest of the race, now determined not to get passed from behind for lack of effort on my part.
I was bonking really hard, but at this point it was all about getting to the finish! I pushed about as hard as I could and didn’t let up until I was half way around Lake Tomahawk and I could see both the finishing chute and that nobody was going to catch me from behind.
I crossed the line in 5:45 for 4th place. I felt a huge sense of satisfaction for having a good race when I was so uncertain about so much coming in to the event. The best part was that all the new stuff I was concerned about worked out great, save for the fueling issues.
Per usual, the CAT support leading up to the race was huge. Christian and Neal pulling me out on weekend mountain runs really helped me get in the early season training I needed to have a great race.
Mt Mitchell Challenge 2012 by Mohammed Idlibi
History along the Mt Mitchell Route