Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, March 2, 2009

2009 Mount Mitchell Challenge

Well, I try to keep the race reports about the course and not myself, but I'll note that this year's event was a series of firsts for me: the first time I wore a jacket for the entire race and the first time I DNF'd. The two were related.

It was cool in Black Mountain on Saturday morning, but not terribly cold. I'd guess somewhere in the low 40s. I was in a long-sleeve technical (Ridge-To-Bridge '07) shirt and a very thin windbreaker that was waterproof for about five minutes or so. There was a slight drizzle at the start.

I've described the course before and the majority of it remains the same. I will note that some of the distances I mentioned between points in last year's entry were actually shorter than I thought. I guess I was just running slower.

There's something to be said for having run a course before if only that it means you know what lies ahead. While for some, that might be bad, in general, it seems to help you pace yourself when you know that there is a steep ascent just around the corner or gives you a burst of hope when you know there is a long, gradual downhill just beyond the bend. That said, the first miles, the paved ones, were very familiar and oddly easier than before. It might have been that this was the first year I ran with someone I knew so I had someone to chat with before the hills kicked in. Actually, there were a lot of chatty people--up until the seriously steep hill around mile three or so, in Montreat. You can kind of see it on the elevation chart in the previous post. Once we left the blacktop, the results of heavy pre-race rains were quickly evident. The trail was extremely muddy (much like what I posted about the Tsali 50K--only this was all uphill) and where there wasn't mud, it was because there were large rocks with water rushing down them like a creek. Honestly, at times, the trail felt like you were running up a good sized creek--one that had forty-degree water.

The aid stations were packed with dedicated volunteers who might have had it worse than the runners as they pretty much had to just stand around the entire time. Since I wasn't sure exactly where the aid stations were last year when I made this post, here is the list per the race website (note that it includes other landmarks:)

Mile 3 Single Track Trail starts
Mile 5 1st Aid Station
Mile 9 2nd Aid Station
Mile 14.5 3rd Aid Station and turnaround for Marathon
Mile 16 Buncombe Horse Trail
Mile 19 4th Aid Station (Commisary Ridge) it's steep and rugged here.
Mile 21 5th Aid Station and the Peak
Black Mountain Trail begins--steep, rugged descent
Mile 22 Onto gravel road for one mile climb
Mile 23 6th Aid Station (Steppes Gap) I think it's back to pavement here.
Long downhill
Mile 26 7th Aid Station (Parkway Marathon Turnaround)
Mile 31 8th Aid Station
Mile 35 9th and last Aid Station
Mile 38 Finish... Or is it Mile 40?

I ran fine and really didn't notice anyone else having particular trouble with the mud or water. At worst, they were probably just slowing down a bit. Once we cleared the marathon turnaround and reached the horse trail, it got even muddier as there are few rocks in this stretch. I should note that during the first hour of the race, they moved the Challenge cutoff at the marathon turnaround from 10:30 to 10:00 as the weather conditions on top of Mount Mitchell would make it difficult for anyone maintaining a slower pace to finish safely. The horse trail is actually pretty level and a good chance to catch your breath. On a dry day, you could make up a lot of time here.

Once you reach the next aid station, at mile 19, you begin a steep, technical climb to the peak of Mount Mitchell. You'll likely use your hands a lot here, even if it isn't icy, just to pull yourself up and over some large rocks. I imagine this section has ice almost every year. I believe it's on the north side of the mountain and doesn't see a lot of sun this time of year. This trail comes out on a paved road just below the observation tower--which has now reopened. The stretch of road is less than a 1/4 mile but was covered in slush from the snow that I forgot to mention had begun to fall. You are checked off by two volunteers who braved 50+ mph winds and the weather to stand there for hours awaiting runners and start back down. If you look at the profile map, you'll see that the first mile or so of the descent is steeper than the technical mile or so climb up to the top. There were some people who passed me moving pretty quickly through here, but my shoes just couldn't seem to get traction and I had to pick my way down this stretch.

And this is what got me. I've told everyone who's asked that on the uphill climb, I was working harder and keeping warm despite being soaked and battered by winds. Once I hit this downhill and slowed down to a near crawl, the wetness set in and I developed a chill. It wasn't hypothermia (or not totally, anyway,) but if you've ever been "bone cold" you know how difficult it can be to shake. I made my way down this stretch, teeth chattering all the way, and hit the gravel road uphill stretch that I figured would warm me back up. I remembered reaching this point last year and struggling because I had overrun the first half. Saturday, I ran it hard trying to warm myself back up. I felt strong, but couldn't shake the chill. There is an aid station at the top of this section and when they asked how I felt, I said "fine, but cold." They told me I could go into the ranger station/park office about fifty yards away to warm up. I took their advice, figuring I'd just stay a few minutes. I shed the soaked jacket and shirt and the park officials offered me a blanket. One other runner was already in here in my same predicament (I would later realize it was Jason Bryant.) It took longer than I expected to warm back up and my clothes refused to dry out. About ten minutes after being there, I called my wife to come get me here, rather than in Black Mountain, because I didn't think I was going to shake the chill. I finally did warm up before she arrived, but it was too late to call her back (or to reach her cell phone, anyway) and my clothes were still soaked. And that brought and end to 2009's Mount Mitchell Challenge.

Like I said, it's my first DNF and it really bites. Any other race wouldn't have bothered me, but I was looking forward to this one and was running as well as I could. But I knew this wasn't something I could run through or walk off and glory would have to wait another year.

It made me feel a little better to know that I wasn't alone. Of about 160 registered Challenge runners, only about 64 finished. I'm not sure how many were no-shows, but I know that some were turned around at the marathon turn-around and some succumbed to the same cold as myself. I now know that I'm going to have to find something that is waterproof, yet breatheable, should I ever find myself in conditions such as this again. I don't typically have a problem with cold, but wet cold seems to be my achilles' heel...

Congratulations to all the runners who survived and conqured Mount Mitchell 2009. See you in 2010!

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