Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, February 25, 2008

2008 Mount Mitchell Challenge

I'm going to include both races in this report since the challenge course overlaps that of the marathon.
You begin at 7:00 a.m. in downtown Black Mountain, just in front of the caboose and train depot. The race starts on pavement and runs up Cherry Street, then winds around through town and up through the Montreat campus. You will see the word "up" a lot in this review... The climb isn't too bad until you begin to reach the backside of the Montreat campus. Some people walk the last paved hill(s.)
After what seems like a few miles, you hit trail and continue your ascent. It's a moderate incline for now, but a pretty good ways until you reach your first aid station at mile five in Sourwood Gap. Unless you are a camel, bring water--there are only five aid stations in the marathon and nine in the challenge. The trail is kind of narrow at this point, making passing a bit difficult, but what's your hurry? You do get some nice views of the valleys below as you make your climb.
Somewhere around aid station two, the trail has widened but become rockier. Footing is important, but the danger of a bad fall isn't as great as it will be on the way down. Just watch your step. In fact, watch a few steps ahead of you, and don't run too closely behind another runner who might block your view of a tripstone.
The race spills out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway (either closed for the season or very little traffic at this time) and continues maybe a half mile to a parking area/overlook. This is the marathon turnaround. Here, you will be visually examined by someone who seems very serious when he asks, "are you ok." In my two races, I haven't joked with him--he sounds like he might pull you if he even thinks you could die. They often ask you your name and number. I know they check the number off a sheet. The name, I think they ask to see if you are addled.
Marathoners, turn back here. Challengers, the 'fun' is just beginning.
Most of us in the BMRC can handle about any surface you find in Burke County. Sure, there are some steep slopes and cars might come a bit close to you, but what awaits runners beyond the marathon turnaround seems like something out of a bad dream. You know the dream, the one where you run as hard as you can and you move like you're made of lead?
I'm sure the views are stunning as you ascend Mount Mitchell, but it was very windy and overcast during my time on the mountain, so maybe someone else can speak to this. All I really remember there were periods of grassy areas that seemed almost like picnic spots, until I felt one of my feet going down 6-12" in a mud bog and making a "slurping" sound when I'd pull it out. I fortunately never lost a shoe, but each time my feet had dried, here came another mud pit. This continued on until aid station #4. By now, the temperature had dropped a bit and the wind picked up. The volunteers will cheerfully inform you that you are only about a mile and a half from the top. What they don't tell you is that it is a very steep, rock, rooty, icy, muddy, ego-busting climb to the top. I would venture to guess that I walked/climbed 90-95% of this 1.5 miles. You can kind of tell you are nearing the top when you don't see hill before you or beside you. You come out onto a gravel road, run around a corner and reach the turnaround. I believe this is the fire tower. I am honestly not sure because all I could focus on was the lady checking me off the list. After you turn around, it's a very short jog to the next aid station where they happened to have one of those orange, sled-like stretchers waiting for anyone needing serious attention. The wind was very strong here and the volunteers very were dedicated to put up with it for countless hours. At this point, you begin what you think will be a descent all the way back, but it's not.
I'm not sure how long this stretch lasts, but it seemed like maybe three miles you are descending a steep, narrow trail full of switchbacks, large rocks, and ice. Even the dry rocks seem slippery, here. When you make it out of the forest, a sharp right puts you on a gravel road for a climb back UP to the visitor's center parking area. This climb lasts about a mile and a half and the only positive think I can say is that for a brief period, there was a tail wind. There is an aid station at the parking area that, I believe, was mile twenty-five.
From the parking area you begin to run down the main road, back to the parkway/marathon turnaround. it seems strange to say, but this might have been the hardest part of the race. Coming down a moderately steep, paved hill, with sore feet and trail shoes that seem to have lost their cushioning, the three or four miles seemed to drag on forever.
Finally, you make it back to the marathon turnaround aid station. Here, the challengers rejoin the marathoners for the return trip to Black Mountain. There's actually a little bit of a climb on the parkway, back to the trail. And a little more climb once you get back onto the trail. After that, it is probably 95% downhill the rest of the way. Now, those rocks really become a concern if you have any leg fatigue. Picking your feet up is an absolute must and picking your line as you descend is critical. There is nothing special to say about this stretch except that the two aid stations seem very far apart. Shortly after the second aid station on this leg, you will hit a very steep section of trail that you were not on during the ascent. Hold on and watch your step and you'll come out on some steep pavement that will certainly make you aware of any blisters that might be developing.
If you can hold it together, and not fall on the pavement, you'll be detoured off the main road for a run through a creek-side nature trail on Montreat's campus. The last aid station is about halfway through this nature trail section. Finally, you return to the main road and run back into Black Mountain. There is only about a mile-and-a-half to go, but it's a long one. If traffic bothers you, you can shift over to the sidewalk. Make a right turn after about a mile, climb a short (really) hill, and after a brief stretch through a residential section, you come out at Lake Tomahawk. Those people shouting at you are telling you to go through the parking lot, and follow the trail around the lake. It's a big lake, made bigger by the fact that you are tired.
A few minutes later, you've looped the lake and the race director (I believe) announces your arrival over a megaphone. But you're oblivious to all this, all you see is the finish. A volunteer tears off your race bib tab, points you toward the food, and you're done.
Things to consider:
  • Take your own water. The aid stations are too far apart to rely soley on them.
  • Bring gels or some form of food to carry. The stations are stocked ok, but I had trouble eating trail mix cereal and crackers. The bananas and oranges work fine, though.
  • Trail shoes. I think they are wider on the bottom and more stable.
  • Layered clothing. The temperature can change rapidly and being able to remove/put on things to adjust is helpful.
  • Have fun. Remember, almost everyone is suffering just as much as you are.
  • Don't try to keep up with anyone named "Lundblad."

Mount Mitchell Challenge

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