Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Saturday, February 23, 2013

2013 Mount Mitchell Challenge

I was fortunate to land a spot in the 2013 Mount Mitchell Challenge. I say fortunate because the popularity of the event has led to a lottery process for registration and with more people entering the lottery, the odds of being selected drop.

This year was like 2010 in that after the marathon turnaround, we ran straight up the Park entrance road to the summit. In 2010, my time was 5:57 something. This year, I feel certain I walked less and ran stronger, but the end result (you'll have to wait for it) was not what I had expected.

2010, I believe, had a lot of snow along the toll road and while the parkway and park entrance road were cleared, there were knee deep drifts from the Mount Mitchell parking lot to the observation tower. There was a little ice and slush this year, mostly in the last mile or so of the toll road, before the marathon turnaround. Mostly, it was mud and puddles. An early rain let up by the time I had reached mile three and my just-purchased Gore-Tex jacket came off shortly after that. Much of the race was t-shirt weather. The jacket came back on for the run up the park entrance road since I was walking some and wind would gust from time to time. The jacket came back off for good about halfway back down the park entrance road.

The "interesting" part about running this course versus the traditional one, is you know exactly who is ahead of you as they pass you on their way down. You also know how far behind the leaders you are. It wasn't as far as I expected to be, though they certainly built on the margin on the descent. Ordinarily, with the loop at the top, you never see them. It was nice to get to see some of the faster guys I've gotten to know and try to say a few words in passing.

I don't wear a watch so I have no idea of my splits, etc... I counted marathoners as they came back toward me and figured there were about 15 or so ahead of me. The first female came into the marathon turnaround aid station just as I was leaving. I just saw that she went on to win the marathon. I think there were about 13 or 14 ahead of me to the summit also, though one guy I was right beside. I look forward to the results to see if I had a gain or loss of position on the descent--I'm not very speedy downhill and especially on the steep park entrance road. I lost track once we blended in with some of the marathoners back on the toll road.

A word of caution--do not eat olive oil coated pasta within two days of a race. Thankfully, there were porta-jons, but I skipped them when I shouldn't have and it made for a miserable run until I finally hit one on the way back down.

I think the mud probably sapped the strength of a lot of us in the mortal category of runner. I bet a few might even have lost a shoe to the deeper spots. My fairly new Brooks Cascadias don't even look like shoes anymore. They are closer in appearance to unbaked pottery.

In this race, the miles in Montreat are always the toughest. It's "only" three or four, but it really seems to stretch on. The new-for-last-year detour onto a greenway gets you off of Highway 9, which is nice, but I am so shot at this point that I am wanting to walk flat stretches--plus it's a tad longer than the old route. The best part is that it pops out onto Highway 9 just one block above where we turn off and head through the residential section toward Lake Tomahawk. This was the softest I've ever seen the trail around Lake Tomahawk, but by this point, I was so wanting to be done, I would have run across hot coals--with my shoes on, of course.

So, keeping in mind that I had no watch and no idea of the time, I approached the finish thinking maybe I was in the 5:30 ballpark. Like I said, I mostly felt better, I walked less, I had to be significantly ahead of that 5:57 a few years earlier, right? I crossed the bridge, got 20-30 yards from the finish and could finally see the clock. 5:53 and change. I wasn't upset, but really surprised. Now, the course is a tad longer with the greenway section and Jay did move the finish line back about 50 yards from earlier years, so MAYBE I could equate it to a 5:51 on the old course. A six minute improvement would mean about 10 seconds per mile, so put in that perspective, I guess it's not that bad.

As for the race organizers and volunteers--great job. Everything went smoothly and actually better than promised because there was a warning on Friday night that they may not be able to get aid to the Summit, but come race day, it was there. A special thanks for letting me get a women's fleece for my wife so she'll quit stealing mine. She wears them but if anyone asks, she assures them she got it from me and that she didn't run the race.

I have a feeling I'll be back in 2014 because February just doesn't feel the same without Mount Mitchell...

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