Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Sunday, February 24, 2019

2019 Mount Mitchell Challenge

Cold, windy, rainy, foggy, muddy, and a trail that was often more creek than footpath. Every Mount Mitchell Challenge offers some weather-related challenges, this year it gave us all of them. I had gone through somewhat similar conditions last week at the Pilot Mountain Marathon and, since I had good luck with my UltimateDirection waterproof jacket at that race, I elected to use it again today. Unlike at Pilot Mountain, though, I went with my Salomon XA Enduros. I like the Speedcross better for mud but their big lugs aren't happy on pavement and this year, we'd be running up Highway 128 to the summit rather than trail--though even the new "official" challenge course only has a little trail on the way to and from the summit.

Lee Starnes was kind enough to pick up my stuff on Friday so I was able to drive up on race day without the stress of going to packet pickup and--since I parked at the finish--figuring out where to store my shirt and the pint glass they gave us. I got an ideal parking spot at the finish, right where runners come in and turn onto the sandy path around Lake Tomahawk. Well, it wasn't perfect, when the day was over, I did have to solicit help in watching for runners while backed out. I certainly didn't want to be the cause of a DNF with 1/3 mile to go for someone.

Thankfully, the bathrooms at the finish were open first thing in the morning and there was no line. I took advantage, got my stuff together, and headed out to meet Lee at about 6:30. After getting my bib from Lee, we walked down Cherry Street to the start. It was a sea of humanity in various levels of gear yet we knew nobody. Other people we knew were present, we just couldn't find them. It didn't matter though, because by then we had only a few minutes before RD Jay Curwen was sending us up the mountain.

I'm still trying to run a little more conservative early on. This race is one that I've really overrun the first few miles and felt it when we were on the trail. Strava shows my first three mile splits in the low to mid-8 minute range. That's not bad. I was passing people, but that was mostly from starting farther back than I might should have. I had my jacket hood on and found it making a rippling fabric noise in rhythm with my stride. It was a bit like being in a small tent during a windy night. My goal was to stay as dry as I could and avoid any issues with getting a chill later on--specifically up on the mountain--so I'd leave the hood on and deal with the noise.

The last 1/10th of a mile of pavement is a pretty steep climb. There are some, even well behind the leaders, who elect to run this short section but after doing it my first few times at Mount Mitchell, I've since learned that it's pretty pointless and I just fast walked it. Once on the trail, it was a much smaller cluster of runneres around me than I am used to at this race. Basically, there were four of us and even that thinned out within a mile as we each maneuvered into the order we needed to be in.

This first stretch of trail was pretty muddy, but it seemed to go by pretty quickly. I only walked the "steps" sections--the short, steep banks where you walked up some roots and the man-made wooden steps that you descend. A couple guys came by very quickly, one an older guy and one with a European look about him. Oddly, after being ahead of me for maybe 1/2 mile, the older guy had stopped and was standing along the trail. He had a race bib on so I have no idea what had happened.

Considering that the trail had been somewhat sparsely populated around me, the first aid station (Sourwood Gap - about mile 6.5) was pretty busy. I didn't need anything so I just gave them my bib number and continued onward. Despite the rocky and muddy conditions, I was able to run pretty steadily. It was essentially a jog pace, but between the steady climb and the terrain, it was going pretty well. There were even fewer people around me at this point. I made a concerted effort to stay on top of my Tailwind and drink regularly. With the rain, I wasn't likely to feel very thirsty, so I kind of had to make myself drink. It wasn't just for hydration, though I had brought some bars, I hoped to run solely on the Tailwind. Well, that and the two Nutri-grain bars I had in the car on the way to the race. My second bottle had straight water, which I did drink from time to time.

The second aid station (Pot Cove - mile 10.5ish) came quickly as well and I took this as a good sign, hoping it meant the entire day would go by quickly. Like with the first aid station, I didn't need anything here, so I just gave them my number and continued onward.

I was very much by myself on this next section with no one visible ahead of me. I just zoned out and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the theme song from "Up!" out of my head. It's tempo did match my stride, pretty well, though. When I was within a mile of the third aid station, I began to see the lead marathoners heading back toward me from their turnaround. Despite feeling good, I briefly tossed around the idea of cutting it short and turning around with them. I just was not looking forward to the long climb of the pavement to the summit of Mount Mitchell. The trail of the old course was longer, had less traction, and had the same climb, but it just didn't fill me with dread like the all-road route.

Aid station 3 (Parkway Turnaround - mile 13ish) was the first time I reloaded my Tailwind bottle. This was the first year I've run this race with a GPS watch (or any watch for that matter) so I looked and I reached this point in about 2:17. According to the course map, it's about 5.5 miles from here to the summit. I headed out running while I could, knowing that there would be stretches ahead that I'd be walking. I was able to run pretty comfortably until we (I had caught up to another runner) reached the Buncombe Horse Trail and I used it as an off-the-road opportunity to make a quick pit stop. It was harder than I expected to start up running again after that brief stop. I walked a bit and tried to ease back into it. I passed a sign that said the summit was 3.9 miles ahead. Doing the math in my head, that meant at best 40 minutes in this increasing rain and wind. Possibly an hour if I had to walk a lot. I ran more than I expected I would--sometimes using the boost of a strong tailwind to motivate me up an incline I might have ordinarily walked. Strava shows that I was averaging about a 10 minute mile, though the last mile up was a bit slower due to a steeper grade and of course the walk to the summit up the fake-cobblestone path from the parking lot.

Strava says the summit is right at mile 19 and my watch showed I arrived at 3:14. I have always been curious about my splits and this was pretty helpful. Though it did make me start doing the mental math. I kind of wanted to break six hours, would there be time enough to do it? They didn't Sharpie our bibs at the top, but there was someone taking photos. We were given the choice of touching the sign or going up the tower. Given that there was no view and I didn't have my phone to take a picture with, I just touched the sign and headed back down.

I never move as quickly down the mountain as I feel like I should. On this day, that was compounded by the gusting winds that were often a headwind so strong that it negated any benefit of running downhill. I had tightend the draw-cord on my jacket's hood earlier but it had worked its way loose and I couldn't seem to get it retightened. That meant I was often holding my hood on my head with my hand. As slow as it felt like I was moving, Strava says my mile splits ranged from 7:21 to 8:15 over this 5.5 mile stretch between aid stations. I ran it all, until a short stretch of uphill back on the Parkway. I had expected to get passed, having seen how close people were behind me after I turned around, but never did. My watch now said 4:01 and I wondered if I could make the final twelve miles at a 10 minute/mile pace. Had it been just a downhill, I knew I could, but with the rocks and mud, I really wasn't sure. Oh, and I had begun to get chilled.

I couldn't tell if my shirt was wet from rain or sweat, but I had to keep moving to keep the chill from becoming something more serious. The trail down was in much worse condition than it had been on the way up and most of it was either extremely muddy or water was gushing down it like a good-sized creek. There was no ice, but some of the deeper puddles were difficult to gauge in terms of what was at the bottom, so I dodged them as much as possible. The ones I couldn't dodge would sometimes splash water all the way up to my pants--and sometimes onto adjacent marathoners who were also making their way back down the mountain. Aside from the cold, I actually felt pretty good and runnign was not a struggle. My only battle was against the cold that didn't want to abate no matter how hard I moved.

I had refilled the Tailwind at the last aid station so when the Pot Cove aid station came up again, I just kept going. I didn't want to stop for fear of cooling down and I was fine on fluids. I was so motivated to keep moving/keep warm, I even ran up my usual walk hills on the way down. The temperature did not seem to be rising with my descent, so all of my efforts were just to keep things level. Looking at Strava now tells me I was doing ten minute miles through here and I couldn't really have asked for much faster. I certainly didn't want to risk a fall. I knew Lee had turned around at the marathon point since I didn't see him when I came down from the summit, and I actually caught up with him as we both headed toward the Sourwood Gap aid station. I couldn't talk long though and explained that I was getting cold. He concurred.

One of the volunteers at the Sourwood Gap said something like "Food and drink over there or you can just get it done." I told him I'm just going to get it done. This next mile or so is a lot of steep downhill. Somewhere early on, I pulled something in my upper right leg that made it uncomfortable to land that foot. The steeper the downhill, the more it hurt. I was passed by a Challenge runner that I thought was already ahead of me. I guess he was at the Sourwood Gap aid station when I went straight through. Anyway, he had no such issues with the downhill and quickly pulled well ahead.

Once we were in the main part of Montreat and the road leveled out, my leg didn't bother me as much. I was able to maintain a pace in the 9 and 10 minute range but it felt much slower. The trail portions of this last three miles go quickly, mentally, but Flat Creek Road really seems to stretch out, despite being only about 3/4 mile long. I shuffled along, actually passing a Challenge runner on this road. I didn't care if he passed me back later, I just wanted to be done. I had begun feeling the beginnings of a bonk set in and my peripheral vision had a bit of a strobe effect to it. After getting through the short Flat Creek Greenway section, which seemed to have incurred some flood damage, I had expected to walk the short climbs up to Highway 9, and I did. Two volunteers were stopping traffic, which allowed me to get across the pretty-busy road without worrying or getting mowed down. I walked some of the Laurel Circle Drive hill, but then pushed myself into running the rest of the way.

The loop around Lake Tomahawk was in a fog, literally and figuratively, though my head was foggier than the atmosphere. I shuffled along hoping some Challenge runner wouldn't come blasting by me here at the end. When I crossed the wooden footbridge just before the finish, it was the first time I could see the clock. 5:59:30. I wasn't far from the finish, so I figured I could keep this pace and make it in under six hours. But, the clock seemed to be ticking much faster than my stride, so I pushed a little harder, intent on breaking six hours. As I crossed, it read 5:59:50. They asked me if I had gone to the summit. Thankfully, in my fog, I replied that I had and added that they weren't checking off bibs there. I guess they already knew that but they had also asked me the same question about the summit when I went through the Sourwood Gap aid station.

Still cold, I went straight inside and got my finisher's jacket--a graphite grey--and put it on over a dry shirt I had carried in my race pack. Josh Folan was there and I sat and talked with him as I ate a piece of cornbread, I'd grabbed upstairs. After about ten minutes, Lee came in with his wife, Phyllis, and we briefly compared notes. I left shortly after that, cranked the heat and heated seats in the Jeep up, dropped Josh at his car near the start, and then headed home, ready for a long, hot shower. My post-race celebration was not the usual Cookout milkshake, but rather a Special K strawberry protein shake and a big chunk of pound cake, topped off with a little salmon jerky.

This makes my ninth finish of the Challenge. My plan has been to stop with my tenth finish because it is difficult to get into the race and it is time to let others tackle the mountain. If I read correctly, this was the 22nd running of the Challenge, so my thinking is maybe to sit it out a couple years and try to make my tenth and "final" race be on the 25th anniversary. We'll see. It will be difficult not to click "Register" (enter lottery) next Fall when I get the e-mail about the 2020 Mount Mitchell Challenge... 

My Strava Report

Mount Mitchell Challenge Results

Sunday, February 17, 2019

2019 Pilot Mountain Marathon

From 2010-2015, there was a trail race called the Pilot Mountain Payback Marathon. I made the trip to Pinnacle, NC for the inaugural event because it had gotten pushed back from its original February date (when I had a conflict) to April. You can read about that adventure here, but when Jason and Alison Bryant brought back the marathon in 2018, now the Pilot Mountain Marathon, it came with a number of changes. It still has a half-marathon (20K specifically) but the marathon, among other changes, replaces the countless creek crossings of the old course with a double summiting of the knob.

The start/finish area is also different. I'm not very familiar with Pilot Mountain State Park, but I'm guessing that the old course started in the Yadkin River section and followed the corridor to the Mountain section while the new course started basically at the end of the corridor, which necessitated more miles in that area and thus the double summitting of the knob.

It was a rainy/misty morning with temps in the 40s. Not remembering what the trails were like--rocky or muddy--I decided to run with the Speedcross 4s. With their big chevron-shaped lugs, I love these shoes in the mud and soft ground, but they are not as good on smooth wet surfaces. More importantly, I brought my UltimateDirection rain jacket--the ultralight one that stuffs into its own pocket for storage. I'd used it at Mont Blanc and on a couple of local runs but this might be its toughest test. With my pack on my back, my biggest concern about the jacket was whether I'd be taking it off and on a lot as the weather and temperatures changed throughout the day. I had various granola bars in my side pouches and one soft water bottle with water and one with Tailwind.

As the 9:00 a.m. start approached, runners filed out of their warm cars to stand near the finish line tent, trying to avoid the rain, wind, or both. We assembled at the start and got a few course instructions from Alison and then some follow up directions from Jason, who'd be running in the 20K. Jason was giving some specifics about the turns which I could hear but didn't really understand, not being familiar with the various trails. Ultimately, it wouldn't matter as the course was very well marked and I was counting on whomever was ahead of me knowing the route.

As we took off, it was 1/10th mile at most before we hit the near-single track trails, I gathered that you wanted to be in your spot from the start. That wasn't totally the case. There was room for passing in spots early on. I only did it a couple times in the first few miles because I was in with people going a comfortable pace and I didn't know the course or how well I'd do racing a marathon distance, being accustomed to a more casual pace/effort level.

The trail in the first few miles was pretty smooth with not terribly many roots and rocks. As would other trails throughout the day, it reminded me a lot of the Lake James State Park trails or the Fonta Flora Trail. Below is the profile of the course that shows the two climbs up to the knob.

I ran on through the first aid station around mile 3.5 and started the big climb up to the knob. After a bit, the trail switches to stone steps that we mortals can't run. I followed a guy up them, making conversation to pass the time and climb. He didn't offer to let me through but I didn't care to go by. I wouldn't go any faster and I knew I'd be coming up this again later. After the top of the stairs, we'd descend and then do a loop around the knob and head to the parking lot at the summit, where the second (mile 7) aid station was. Both me and the guy ahead of me skipped this aid station. After enduring the tough climb, we were rewarded with a pretty fast downhill along a wide section of trail with some wide but irregularly spaced steps which made it hard to get into a rhythm. A mile or so into the descent, the trail divided and the marathoners made a hard left while the 20K went straight. The guy ahead of me, and one other person I could see in the distance continued straight, heading back to their 20K finish. I veered left and saw that we had caught up a little with someone in the marathon. There were a number of people wearing red jackets in the race and it made them easy to spot in the distance.

I caught up to a guy wearing green and orange and follwoed him for a bit before he pulled over to let me by and said that he was not in the race, just training for another upcoming event. We talked a little bit as we continued along this mostly downhill stretch, slowly catching up to another marathon runner. He was tall and lean and looked fast, making me wonder why I'd be passing him this early on. This downhill section did require a little more concentration as it was more heavily covered with tripping hazards.

It seemed to stretch on forever, possibly because I was mostly running alone without the distraction of conversation, but also because I was in a 6.5 mile stretch between aid stations. When I reached the mile 13.5 aid station (which was also the first aid station) I was directed back up the path we had followed earlier. It was time to begin the second climb up the knob. I felt pretty good. I wasn't running the steep climbs, but was able to push myself to run moderate uphills that I might have been walking had this been an ultra.

The second time on the stone steps didn't go as well as the first. 3-4 times I didn't pick up my feet high enough to clear the next step and fell forward. It wasn't a fall to the ground, just caught myself with my hands on the next step, but it was frustrating. I wasn't terribly tired, I was just not as focused on what I was doing this time around. Still, I made it back to the top safely and as I began my loop around the knob, I saw Rob Livengood coming down from it. Like with the previous trip to the summit, it was very windy up here and it made me glad I had not shed my jacket during the climb. There would be several times throughout the day where I'd be just about ready to remove the jacket and a few minutes later I was glad I did not. Ultimately, the jacket would stay on the entire time, keeping me dry yet not making me sweat terribly much. 

The final visit to the summit parking lot, this time at mile 17, was the first time I stopped at an aid station, this time to refill one bottle and add a new pouch of Tailwind. There was a female runner there explaining that she didn't know where she was and had gotten lost on the course. I don't know what race she was in or if it was her first visit to the top, but I didn't linger to find out. It was back down the Ledge Springs Trail, past the "danger" sign that warned that people had died on this trail. It had to have been someone running because I could see no danger to hikers short of badly tripping. There wasn't a dangerous ledge that I noticed.

In this second long section of downhill, I passed a couple people, feeling pretty good but ready to be done. I was a little mentally prepared for this to be a long section and was able to remember some of the minor landmarks along the way which helped give me a feeling of progress. I caught up to two guys who I'd seen ahead of me on the trail when I pulled into the final, mile 23.5, aid station. I went through the aid station, only getting water, quicker than them, but let them go by as I put my bottle in its vest pocket.

We were all in the home stretch. I didn't care so much about catching or passing them as using them to pull me through the final miles. I felt pretty good for this late in a tough marathon, but I was still aware that my energy was fading. After staying the same distance behind the guy ahead of me for a while, I suddenly caught up to him pretty quickly. As I passed, he sounded extremely gassed. This section of trail I had been on early in the race slowly became more familiar as we drew closer to the finish. The guy ahead of me was running pretty quickly but I noticed he began having more trouble once we got into some muddy sections. Then, I began catching up very quickly. My gamble on the Speedcross 4s had paid off big time. I had zero traction issues despite the slick conditions. After passing him, I was feeling a bit more lightheaded and felt somewhat confident that he'd catch me back as I bonked going up some hill. Even though I did have to take a few short walks on small hills, I was able to move quickly enough to keep ahead of him and eventually found myself exiting the woods and heading up the short, grassy hill to the finish.

Alison was handing out the hand-made pottery finisher medallions. My pending "bonk" seemed to set in after I stood there for a moment with my peripheral vision wavering noticably. I spoke briefly to Jason and Rob as I tried to recompose myself and watched other runners come in. To me, Jason is one of the "old guard" of the regional trail runners. Along with Mark Lundblad, Will Harlan, Anne Riddle Lundblad, and Annette Bednosky, they were the big names when I first started out and I hate not seeing them out there on the trails much anymore. For Jason, it's been ongoing back issues that have forced him to be more selective with his runs and turn his attention to race directing to keep in teh sport. That said, he still won the 20K by about nine minutes and set the course record. He's still very fast, even if not compared to his own past standard.

Despite the weather, this became one of my favorite trail marathons I have run. Had the weather been better, we'd have had some nice views and much of the trail was runnable. It doesn't have the huge finish area of say the Black Mountain Marathon, but for me it's more about the course and the people putting the race on than the swag or finish area. I hope to get back in future years.

The results made it up to Ultrasignup pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I did not take a camera so I have no pictures.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

2018 Mistletoe Half Marathon

It's been several years since I'd run a road half-marathon, but the timing was good for a trip to Winston-Salem to catch up with friends who live in the city and run the Mistletoe Half Marathon. I went in with few expectations. I used to manage to run in the high 1:20s to low 1:30s on pavement half marathons, but with so many ultras that get me used to a slower pace and walking hills, I really was not sure what to expect. I thought 1:35-1:40 was most likely if all was going ok.

It was a weird start for a race of around 1100 people. There were very few confident enough to get up front. The 1:30 pacer was only a few rows back from the start. I started maybe 20' behind him, closer to the 1:35 pacers and could see the 1:40s not far behind them. I knew enough about the course from talking with Dennis and looking at the profile to know that the first two miles were uphill and the last two were the same, but downhill. Not steep, but steady. I knew it rolled and I was looking forward to the part that went through the Wake Forest campus, where I'd spent two years in grad school back in the early 90s.

I am no longer a fast starter. We didn't warm up any before the start and once we were going, I just tried to keep a good but steady pace that I could hope to maintain. One thing I've learned over the years is that no matter where you start, there will be people around you that are going out too fast. I tried to keep that in mind as people went by me early on, but felt that I, myself, might have been going out too fast. You'll see below that my early pace was around 7s, up that long, gradual hill. I carried my water bottle filled with Tailwind and one Huma gel, just in case. The Tailwind worked, but my lid was slightly warped or something, so throughout the race, it would leaking every time I squeezed the bottle. Out of the twenty ounces of the bottle, I would say that six ounces easily were spilled along the course, maybe more. It was enough, however, to where I didn't stop at any aid stations. 

My halfway split was 45:29, so I figured if I could not slow too much, I'd be in the 1:35s. I was feeling ok, but not great. The out-and-back loops ensured that I'd see Paul and Rob a couple times as we ran and that I could see how close people were behind me. Around mile 8ish, after the Gralyn Estate and while I was on Wake's campus, I perked up somewhat and really began to feel better--like I was finally loosened up. I slowly started passing people who had been well ahead of me earlier. I really tried to nurse the Tailwind, fearing I'd run out before the race was over and have to stop/slow down at an aid station or two. Fortunately, it wasn't hot, so I was using it more for the electrolytes and carbs than the water. My last year at the Charity Chase Half-Marathon, I was able to run without stopping at any aid stations and wanted to do the same here, if I could.

Around mile 10, I passed the 1:30 pacer, running alone. I had no idea if he had fallen behind pace or if I had just caught up to that pace. I figured maybe everyone bailed on him so he just throttled back. My goal at this point was just to get to mile 11 with some gas in the tank and rely on the downhill to carry me the last two miles to the finish. I don't know if I felt any sense of "smelling the barn" at eleven, but I did try to maintain the same level of effort, hoping the downhill translated it into a faster pace. At mile 12, I was out of Tailwind so, fearing a soul-crushing bonk in the final mile, I sucked down as much of the Huma gel as I could.

I passed a few more people and then drew up beside a guy at about mile 12.5. We exchanged "good job" type comments but mine must have been more inspiring because he slowly pulled ahead of me. I really didn't care about him beating me, but used him to pull me along the final stretch of the race. I could hear the finish area over to my right, but just like at Salem Lake, we were looping around to get to it. When I could finally see the clock, I was a bit shocked and confused as it said "1:15:something." Then I got a tad closer and saw that it said "5K clock." The 5K started about 15 minutes after the half-marathon. I looked to the left and saw the half-marathon clock. It read 1:29:39. I can't say how far I was from the finish, but, I couldn't let it cross 1:30 without a fight. I pushed hard, unable to catch up to the guy I had run with, but still using him to pull me through. I crossed the line right at 1:29:50, later to realize that my chip time was actually a tad lower (and that by chip time, I had actually beaten the guy I was chasing...)

Two takeaways from this race. It was the first time I've felt better in the second half of a race than the first half.  And, I am pretty sure it was my first negative split.

If you look at my mile splits (assuming they are somewhat accurate,) it's funny to note that my last four miles each increased in pace. It didn't feel like they did, but again, that downhill saved me some energy.

I ended up being 3rd in my age group, but only because two people in my group were pulled up into the top three Masters. I didn't realize this while we were there and did not stay for awards.

Besides, there is no way that award could top my Day Bat Marathon award...