Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Saturday, February 27, 2010

2010 Mount Mitchell Challenge

I know I've already posted twice on here about the Mount Mitchell Challenge so the only reason I am going to do it today is because the race was rerouted and to give credit to the efforts of the volunteers to remain cheerful during very adverse conditions.

Because of fallen trees and very deep drifts on some of the trails, the Challenge (usually 38-40 miles) was shortened to 33-34 miles. It still went to the summit of Mount Mitchell, but today, we ran up the paved (and scraped) road from the Parkway rather than along trails that paralleled the entrance road. This meant that while your traction was better, the 1400' climb had to be done in a bit over 4 miles rather than the usual 6 or 7 (I'm guessing on that number.) It meant they stuck a climb worse than The Bear at the end of the Challenge Ascent. If measured from the marathon turnaround, it probably mirrored The Bear very closely. The marathon, I should point out, was shortened to 23 miles. Part of the distance reduction came from a route change on the lower part of the course to where we essentially ran up the same road we would run down. This meant a steeper climb in and out of Montreat than usual. I'd like to say that The Challenge was a harder course this way (when you take into account the fewer miles) but the winning time of something like 4:30 may prove me wrong. For me, I was only about 23 minutes faster than the regular course and I walked much more.

Trail conditions also cut out some aid stations which likely impacted some runners. There was an aid station at about mile 4 and the next one was at the Marathon turnaround, which I guess was around mile 11 or 11.5. I was told there was a station halfway up the entrance road to the Summit, which would have been at the Ranger's Station, but I didn't see it. So, unless it was there, you went from 11.5 to the summit (17?) aidless. These aren't complaints, it was all dictated by the conditions. And we were aware of this going into the race.

Which brings me to my experience. I will never, ever, again wear a backpack while running--or at least while running hard. The pack I used did not have a waist strap so all the weight was borne by my shoulders--and probably lower back. I dealt with it all the way up--retightening the shoulder straps frequently and a few miles down and I was extremely uncomfortable after the first six or so miles. I did not have a true CamelBak pack--just the 48 oz. or so bladder that you put in a regular pack. So, I used what I had. Not only did the weight bother me, but at times, it would swing back and forth with my stride and throw my hips in directions I didn't want to go. Oh, and I should mention that the water froze solid by about mile eight or so... Thankfully, a friend had planned to be there and he found me as I was coming down from the Summit. He was about three miles up the entrance road. He was gracious enough to take the pack off my hands--after I took out what I thought I could carry and would need. I felt that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders--because it had. I owe Ray Burris a great deal of gratitude.

At one point leading up to the race, they were advising snowshoes and YakTrax. As race day approached, they backed down to strongly encouraging YakTrax. I carried them on my pack (and in my hand when I gave up my pack) but never used them. I probably could and should have, but having never worn them before, I just decided to wait until it REALLY got necessary. It never did. It's not hard running on ice uphill--I just find the crunchy stuff that offers traction. In fact, that was the best place (for me) to be running along the Toll Road trail. The no-snow/ice areas were covered with loose rocks and the snow areas were too soft. The crunchy ice provided a smoother surface that wasn't slippery. I saw some YakTrax runners continue wearing theirs up the paved roads to the Summit. I would never have thought that would be comfortable or beneficial. But hey, they beat me...

The entrance road looked much like footage of the National Parks out west in the harsh winters. I will try to post some pictures here. It was almost magical--until a biting wind came ripping through a gap, blowing ice dust on you. The parking lot at the Visitor's Center was also scraped but the trail leading from there to the summit was pretty deep with snow drifts. I kind of think they left it that way as an added challenge--but maybe not. I sank well above my knee a couple times. But, it's only about 100 yards to the summit. Speaking of the summit, when you round the last curve, they check your number and then a guy told me to go touch the Mount Mitchell sign and come back. That made sense, but we were right there at the tower so I touched the sign and then ran up the ramp to the tower. I got a quick picture and headed back down. It was very foggy and cold (of course) with that wind that comes from being on top of the highest point around and nothing to break it up. A quick stop at the aid station for some frozen water and some chips and a banana and I headed back down. The drifts were a little bit easier coming down--not a lot--but a little bit.

There's really not much else course-related to mention. I had periods of energy and no energy. My peanut butter sandwiches didn't go down easily since I had no water (though Ray did give me a bottle of Gatorade. I should note that I saw Lynne Evans on the way down but didn't acknowledge her by name. Lynne, I know you read these boards and I did realize who you were. Though I'm honestly surprised you recognized me. I caught up with a first-timer in Montreat and guided him along the trail section on the way back. I used a lot of energy barreling down from the last primary aid station on the Toll Road into Montreat and while I stayed with him for awhile, my energy waned quickly. I owe him an apology too, because somehow we took a turn that didn't exist and hit a dead end. It probably cost us 3-4 minutes at the worst possible time (when we're tired and the finish line is two miles away.

Jay Curwen did a great job of retaining the challenge of the race while working around the weather-related problems. I don't know if I'm happy with my time, but I am certainly happy I saw the finish line this year.

Will there be a Mount Mitchell Challenge report for 2011? Maybe, but I'm considering Uwaharrie and then running the marathon with a friend. We'll see...

Mount Mitchell Challenge

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