Pitchell is not really a race but an invitation-only fun run that starts at midnight on the summit of Mount Pisgah and follows the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to the summit of Mount Mitchell, roughly 67 (mostly single track) miles away. My friend Dennis Norris knew the organizer, Adam, and talked me into running the "race" this year. The numbers are small, there is no entry fee, just a requirement that you love running and can take care of yourself. It's really just a "group run" where the group doesn't stick together.
Oh, and it's extremely challenging.
After dropping the car at the halfway point, the Folk Arts Center in Asheville, we took arranged shuttles up to the parking lot on Mount Pisgah. Adam began a brief orientation session and explained all of the opportunities for bailing out until someone politely requested he put an end to the negative talk. As I halfway listened, I looked up and noted that it was a mild, cloudless, evening and the stars seemed to be multiplied tenfold compared to what I am used to seeing in my relatively dark back yard. As I tried to decide if I was seeing the arc of the Milky Way Galaxy, I saw a shooting star dart across the sky. I wasn't sure if it was a good or bad omen, or if I should be making a wish. Ultimately, those meteorites burn up. Would we? Before I could decide, I noticed the crowd had started moving. The talk had ended and we started up the steep one-mile climb to the summit of Mount Pisgah to begin our run.
There are the fleet of feet that dance swiftly along winding, boulder-laden forest trails, climbing and falling at painfully steep grades. We are not of that caliber. Dennis and I were the ones gutting it out, not zipping along as if it were a run on a local greenway. In a small bit of defense, this was our first time on the course and total unfamiliarity and the need to watch for the white dot tree blazes did slow us a little bit. For the first half of the course, boxes of water and ziplocs of your own provisions of choice were placed on the trail where it crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway. I elected to carry all my stuff rather than put it in the drop boxes because I couldn't think of what I would need when.
Dennis and I started in the back of the group of 15 or so runners. The finish was 67 miles ahead and there were some real speedsters among us. There was no need to be a first mile hero. From the outset, the descent was tricky as I adjusted to running with a headlamp on a technical trail. This was the section we had just hiked up and it seemed every bit as long coming back down. Ten or maybe fifteen minutes later, we were back at the parking lot. The shuttle cars were gone. We were thirty-three miles of Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Dennis's car and there was only one way to get there. Being that we weren't familiar with the trail, there wasn't much reason to look at our watches. There were no mile markers and even if they were, for all we knew the terrain of each mile could be vastly different than the last. Being on, ahead, or behind pace, means very little if you didn't know what's ahead. The only time we had a true idea of what mile we were running was when we'd reach the aid station boxes, so that's how we ran the course, one box at a time.
The group had soon stretched apart, the number of headlamps dancing ahead of us, slowly vanishing like the will-o-wisp into the distance. Within the first couple miles, we caught up to two runners, Lindsey and Wendy. Lindsey had twisted or sprained her ankle and was in obvious discomfort, if not pain. We stuck with them for a few miles, until we felt certain that they would be ok together. Roughly the first fifteen miles of the Pitchell course is on the Shut-In Trail, made especially popular by the annual Shut-In Ridge Run. Even though I had run that race the year before, with this run being in the dark and in the opposite direction, I recognized very little of the course. Dave, who was with us off and on throughout the run, would regularly point out beautiful views that we were missing because we chose to be here at night. Usually, when I'm running on a technical trail, catching a glimpse of the view leads to a fall, so it was probabaly best that there was no temptation to shift my attention away from the trail in front of me. Surprisingly, we never stumbled during the night, though our "we have 67 miles left and are running in the dark" pace probaby contributed heavily to our staying vertical. At the Sleepy Gap (mile 14) aid station drop box, Adam had placed a slightly creepy "sparkle pony" which was one of those glitter-speckled, pony-head-on-a-stick toys that made sounds when you squeezed its ears. The batteries were very weak and the sounds pretty eerie when you are in the woods at night. We later learned that there was no significance to its being there. He just thought it would be funny. I had taken the time to memorize what it did when you pressed each ear and its nose, just in case there was a prize for knowing that after the race--there was not. As the night wore on, it was down to just Dennis and me running together. We finally reached the arboretum and knew that the severe downhill would be over for a while and a lot of relatively flat trail around the French Broad River lay ahead. By this point, it was probably 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, so details are pretty fuzzy. For hours, we saw no one except an occassional passing car when the trail would pop out onto a highway or the Blue Ridge Parkway. It wasn't until after sunrise that we encountered our first non-running human along the trail. A friend of Wendy's was coming back along the trail to run with her to the Folk Arts Center, we knew then that we must be close to the halfway point. Sure enough, we finally arrived in the FAC parking lot at 7:30 a.m. for a roughly 7:30 34-mile run. The second half would be even slower.
At the Folk Arts Center, we were greeted by a few of Wendy's family members and some others who offered us biscuits. I had every intention of grabbing a biscuit but once my attention shifted toward getting my gear for the second half of the course from Dennis's car, I never went back for the biscuit. We also met Lindsey's parents, so we knew they were aware of her injury and that she had someone waiting for her. Dave was also here, getting stuff out of his car--we had parked beside each other. Dave had been with us some during the first half and went on ahead at a point that I can no longer remember. It was a pattern that would repeat the rest of the day--Dave runs ahead and we catch up at the aid station. We both changed socks and Dennis changed shoes. Dennis and I decided to wear our Camelbaks (just food and gear in them, no water bladders) and started on. Dennis's hip flexor had begun to bother him during the downhill running so we decided to hike for a while. Eventually, "a while" became "everything." This was only partly due to Dennis's injury. The trail became so rugged, you really had to be confident in your abilities and have a lot of energy to attempt to run much of this stretch. The sections we'd consider runnable were very short and, since our main goal was just to finish in under twenty hours, before Mount Mitchell State Park closed its gates. So, we hiked.
I guess it didn't occur to me that we were committing to hike 33 miles in roughly 12 hours across rugged terrain. When you think about it, that's a decent walking pace under normal conditions. But, off we went. The climbs and descents all blur together with the passing of time. The sky was clear and there were some spectacular views along the ridges and overlooks. The leaves had not yet peaked and there was the slight haziness that can occur on a cloudless day, but it was still incredible. With the pressure of a ticking clock and knowing there would likely be little or no running, we spared little time for taking in the views. On this half of the course, volunteers were at some of the aid stations and it was nice to encounter a real person rather than just a box. We had also begun to see more hikers along the trail as the day progressed. Some of this was due to going through more popular day hike areas, like Craggy Gardens, and some of the increase in hikers was due to the fact that it was now daytime. At one overlook, I noticed an elderly man sitting alone on a rock staring off into the valley below. He appeared deep in thought, but what topic he chose to ponder, I can only wonder. Perhaps he was reflecting on his life. Perhaps he wasn't thinking about anything at all.
It was during this stretch that the conversation between Dennis and me drifted from running, our fellow runners, and the trail, to simpler subjects such as "classic" television. Perhaps, we were seeking lighter topics of conversation because we didn't want to expend any extra energy in serious thought. While on the subject of television we discussed the best episodes of such standards as Gilligan's Island (I chose the one where they think the island is sinking because Gilligan keeps moving the lobster trap farther out in the lagoon, making it look like the water is rising) and WKRP ("I thought turkeys could fly!") Meaningful discussion, to be sure...It really does seem surprising that after so many hours, there are still topics to discuss. Granted, they move from lofty topics such as philosophy and quantum theory (actual topics, but on a different run) to some pretty inane material like "if you were a breakfast cereal, which one would you be?" Froot Loops seems to be the preferred answer, if you were curious.
Somewhat suprisingly, it was during daylight that we found ourselves straying from the trail. We'd be in a conversation and suddenly realize that we were no longer following the white dots and would have to retrace our steps to find where we made the wrong turn (or missed the turn.) This never cost us more than five or ten minutes, but it was extra distance and extra time that we hadn't budgeted for. Some of this was due to complacency as early on, the trail was pretty straightforward with no side-trails. But now, wildlife paths and other trails occassionally intersected the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. We especially had difficulty in the Craggy Gardens area. We had stopped seeing the dots and weren't sure we were still following the trail. Surprisingly (or perhaps not,) we ran into Dave again, coming back toward us on the path. He also wondered if he had lost the trail. We decided to head back the way we came to confirm our path when we saw Wendy coming toward us with her husband (whose name eludes me.) They knew the course better than us and knew that this stretched was notorious for being poorly marked. We let them lead and we suddenly had a small hiking group. It was a relief to hear that their conversation had degraded to the breakfast cereal level as well. It was around this point that the miles really began to lengthen. Somewhere after the next aid station, Wendy and her husband were ready to run and scooted on ahead. Dave also ran on, though we would, of course, continue our pattern of meeting him at the following aid station. To illustrate how the miles seemd to stretch, there was one section where the aid stations were only three miles apart, miles 55-58. After the mile 55 aid station, we hiked what seemed like forever and finally popped out into a parking area. Finally, we had reached the mile 58 aid station. Nope. We had only gone half way. That turned out to be the longest three miles either of ever experienced. Dennis checked his watch and informed me that those three miles were done at a 24-minute pace--and it felt even slower. Our hopes of finishing on time were diminishing.
Dennis's hip continued to bother him and neither of us had eaten enough as the day wore on. As we left the mile 58 aid station, we were pretty drained and Dennis felt somewhat certain that his hip would not allow us to reach the last aid station (mile 62 or 63--near the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park,) in time to make the final leg to the summit. We were prepared to DNF at that aid station, five miles from the end. By doing so, we would cover roughly a 100K, but it would still be a DNF. Dave had told us earlier that this section was pretty tough, but to our surprise it featured a lot of flat ridgeline. Even walking, we were able to increase our pace substantially. In hindsight, I realized Dave had simply said that this section was tougher than the final section. We got to the last aid station with 2:15 left on the clock and Dennis decided he wanted to go for the summit. The first several miles of this stretch were runnable, even with Dennis's sore hip flexor. It wasn't graceful or fast running, in fact to a bystander it probably looked pretty sad, but we were moving faster than a walk. We ran/shuffled up the Jeep trail, slowing down for "tricky" spots that under ordinary circumstances we would have plowed right through. The climb was moderate and steady and we finally reached the trail familiar to those who run the Mount Mitchell Challenge. It's the roughly .7 miles you descend after you reach the summit in the Challenge. Going up, it is very technical and a tough climb. Each time we saw daylight ahead on the trail, I was convinced we were about to emerge onto the pavement. Time after time, I was wrong. But, finally, after about 22 minutes, we found ourselves on the walkway to the summit.
Together, we walked up in silence, the sun having set, but still light enough to see. There were a number of photographers on the tower, hoping perhaps to capture a special moment. None seemed too interested in capturing two broken and beaten runners concluding a journey that started many hours and miles ago. Feeling a bit like Sam and Frodo having brought the "One Ring" through Mordor to Mt. Doom, we reached the center of the observation tower. We looked around, realized no one involved in the race was there, turned and headed back down to the parking lot. A few souls still remained waiting for us and let out a cheer. Dave was there. We had assumed he had dropped out at the second to last aid station since we never saw him again, but learned that he had taken an alternate route, fearing that he wouldn't have time to finish (when he saw us, he realized he would have had plenty of time.) Adam greeted us as enthusiastically as if we had finished hours earlier and he had not had to wait so long. I later learned that he is enthusiastic with everyone who gives an effort. Adam is the type who loves to run and loves to see others be a part of his sport. Brandon, whom I met only at the halfway point, when he had dropped out for an injury, was to be our chauffer back to the Folk Arts Center and we crammed five tired runners into his Toyota Corolla. There was plenty of talking on the way back. Adam asking us about sections whose names had already faded from my mind (if I ever knew them at all.) I mostly listened as the scope of the day's journey sank in. It was the type of run that afterwards you find yourself alternating between thinking, "I can't believe we did that" and "why didn't I do it faster?"
As we pulled into a McDonald's on the drive home, Dennis said something to the effect of "I am glad that's off my list and I don't have to ever do it again." The next day, he e-mailed me to say that he was already thinking about next year. That's the life of an ultrarunner. The rough moments dissipate quickly from our memory as we focus on the highlights of a run--the views, the people and the feeling when you finish that you had done something special. We leave all the baggage and bad memories on the trail, to be scattered or pressed into the earth by future runners and hikers. We are eternal optimists, forever believing that everything works out in the (ultra) long run.