Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Sunday, October 20, 2013

2013 Pitchell

When I wrote the post about Bighorn, I started by noting how we (or I, anyway) will use the word "never," but not follow through. As in, I'd never try a 100-miler, yet there I was in Wyoming. Well, a funny thing happened on the way back from Pitchell 2012, both Dennis and I agreed that we had checked that one off the list and wouldn't have to try it again. Yet, there we were again in 2013, driving down to the Folk Art Center to drop off our car, the pains of 2012 long faded from memory and a goal of significantly improving on last year's time of 19:08. 17 hours certainly seemed within reason, if all went well.

It was a much larger crowd for 2013 with 28 starters for Pitchell and 13 for the Folk Art Center "50K," though I'm thinking there might have been a few no-shows. Many of the names were familiar, but I'd never met most of them. There were even a couple of guys from Indiana who'd heard about this group run and decided to come give it a shot, knowing that there were no finisher's awards and practically no support.

The 2013 edition was definitely warmer at the start, but there would be no stargazing from the Mount Pisgah parking lot as we were blanketed in a light fog. The full moon would provide little to no additional light for us this evening. Since the shuttles had arrived at the parking lot a bit later than last year, there was little time for chatting and we set out almost immediately up the trail to the summit of Mount Pisgah. This trail is 1.5 miles long and climbs 712', according to the sign posted at the trailheadd. This 1.5 mile hike does not factor in to the calculated 67 mile distance for Pitchell nor into its (I think conservative) 16000' of elevation gain.

Just after midnight, at precisely 12:01 Adam Time, the 2013 edition of Pitchell was underway. Like last year, I found myself near the back immediately since I was one of only a few who were actually on the overlook platform at the start. The trail back to (and from, of course) the parking lot is very rocky and steep, and no one wants to end their run so soon after it started, so caution was apparent with many of the people around me. Dennis had gotten caught up closer to the front of the group and took off with them. That was fine, I figured I have a while to catch up. For nearly everyone, 1.5 miles of trail will always take longer to cover than 1.5 miles of road and that certainly seemed the case coming back down to the parking lot. I don't know the actual time, but it seemed almost as long as it had going up. There was nervous chatter all around me, but I primarily focused on staying vertical. When we'd finally reached the parking lot, I immediately almost went onto the south-bound part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, headed for Clingman's Dome. Thankfully, I was quickly straightened out and set out on the north-bound trail.

I fell in behind a couple who was obviously being more cautious than me and moved at a slower pace. It really didn't bother me, but I didn't know how fast Dennis was going and didn't want to have to make up too much ground. Dave, who had run with us at Bighorn, was somewhere behind me, but I expected him to come up at any moment. After a mile or two of shadowing them, I wished the couple well, and slipped on ahead. This section is not quite as technical as we would face later and, combined with the fact that it was early and I was not yet tired, I could push a bit. I passed one other guy and then caught up with Dennis, probably around mile three or four. He said that he knew I started behind him, but thought I might have come by when he went back to the shuttle in the parking lot to drop off a shirt, so he didn't know if I was ahead or behind. Anyway, we fell into a rhythm pretty much like last year--a jog pace for any downhill and flat, and a fast walk up any uphills steeper than a 1-2% grade. As expected, Dave did catch up and, just like in 2012, joined us for this stretch of the Shut-In Trail section of the MST.

I commented to Dennis that either I or my headlamp had apparently developed cataracts because the light, even with fresh batteries, seemed weaker than it should have. The still-present fog likely was a bit responsible for this as he said his headlamp seemed to be affected as well. There was still enough light to see, but it wasn't ideal. This year, we agreed, the trail had more fallen leaves on it, which hid a lot of the roots and rocks that were easy to spot last year. At times, the leaves would be wet, and therefore slick, making what should be a routine rocky section, a bit more precarious.

The biggest benefit from having run it last year was familiarity. Not only did we have a rough idea how far we had gone, but we managed to avoid some of the wrong turns that plagued us in 2012. Despite the familiarity, however, I still forgot that there is quite a bit of uphill, despite the fact we are going down a mountain. We caught up to Wendy and the guys from Indiana at water station and chatted briefly. Dennis's stomach had begun to bother him and one of the Indiana guys offered him some sort of plant extract that was supposed to help. He tried it, but I don't know if it ultimately worked. Dennis and I maintained our run down and flat, walk up strategy fairly consistently, but his stomach grew worse which called for a few extra walks on non-uphill sections. Another big difference from last year was the number of times we fell or nearly fell. It was much higher this time. A jammed finger on Dennis and some scratches for both of us was the worst of the damage, but we seemed to either be out of focus or having a spell of bad luck.

By the time we reached the arboretum, Dennis was talking about dropping at the Folk Art Center. He seemed pretty certain about it, but I suggested he not decide until we actually got there. There were stretches in this section where we'd pop out and run along the highway, over the French Broad River, over I-26, under the highway, and even through a farmer's field. I was feeling pretty good, though I was either sweating a lot or the persistent fog was keeping me saturated. The Folk Art Center drew closer as dawn approached and we arrived at about 7:15, a tad earlier than in 2012. In the last few miles, Dennis had told me his dropping was definite so we made plans for him to take my car to Mt. Mitchell and he'd see about having his girlfriend pick him up. I tried to get my stuff for the second half of the course quickly and changed shirts. I removed my unused gloves, headband, and windbreaker vest from my Camelbak, having seen the weather report indicate a high near 70. I grabbed one of my PB&Js and began eating it as I left the FAC. Almost immediately upon leaving the parking lot, I ran into Mo, who had also done Bighorn with us. I knew he was at Pitchell, but hadn't seen him during the actual run. He was rearranging his stuff, so I headed on, figuring he would catch up soon enough.

A view of the valley from one of the rocky outcroppings. Other views had even more color.
I was feeling pretty good and the PB&J was going down easily, though it did seem to sit a bit heavily in my stomach. Sun was up and I had my phone out to call Leslie and let her know that Dennis would be moving my car and I would not need her to do so. It drizzled slightly, which I had not anticipated and I began to worry a little about having dropped my windbreaker. It wasn't thick at all, but it would have been an additional layer. Continuing the run-down, walk-up method, I took on the second half of Pitchell. This half is much hillier, but I didn't really mind. The sun was up and the fall colors (supposedly at their peak here) were in full display. Early on, most of the color was on the trees immediately around me, but as I climbed, I began to get views of valleys to either side and noted how much they looked like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles with reds, greens, and yellows peppering the rolling hills. Our original thought was that Dennis and I may do the first half a little faster than last year(which we did) but would do the second half about two hours faster since we wouldn't be walking the entire time. As I walked up one long stretch I started trying to figure out how many of the remaining miles I'd have to run to cut two hours from our 2012 time and came up with eight miles. I'm not sure if I was correct and have not gone back to recheck my math, but it was a little discouraging as I also remembered that many of the downhill stretches that I had planned to run were much more technical.

Except for one friend of Wendy's Dennis and I encountered several miles back, I had yet to see any non-Pitchell people on the trail. Then, about three miles after the Folk Art Center, I encountered a guy with a mountain bike. He was perhaps in his sixties and was smoking a cigarette. It was kind of a bizarre moment. Bikes are not allowed on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, but I was so overcome by the shock of seeing someone his age with the guts to even TRY to bike it, that I couldn't say anything besides "Good morning," to which he replied the same. When I finally popped back out onto the Parkway, I was surprised to find Dennis waiting. He said his girlfriend was picking him up around noon and that he'd just try to meet me at different spots along the course, assuming he could find them, until he had to be up at Mount Mitchell. I didn't need anything from the car, but thanked him for checking. I was feeling pretty good, but not getting to run as much as I had hoped. Still, it was so nice outside, I enjoyed just being out there.

The next time I came back out onto the Parkway and met Dennis, he said he'd try to find the next spot, but wasn't sure if he could. I told him that was fine. Everything seemed to be clicking along, despite a few monster hills I had forgotten about until I was part way up them. As Dennis drove on ahead, it was back into the woods and up yet another hill I went.

A ladder helps hikers up and down this rock.
So, it was somewhere in this leg that my tank suddenly seemed to go empty. I quickly went from feeling fairly good to being a tad lightheaded, with a general feeling of weakness. I had eaten pretty well and stayed hydrated, but my energy was completely drained. I still have not figured out what went wrong other than perhaps I did a few too many things on Friday rather than resting (and maybe taking a nap.) My stomach even felt fine, which had been a major concern after the prior week's New River issues. I knew that my run that was going so well, was suddenly in jeopardy. It was on one of the toughest hills along the entire course, Rich Knob, that I seriously began thinking about dropping. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that any time you see the word "Knob" when running, it's going to be brutal.

I pressed on but knew that I was walking at a much slower pace than we had in 2012. At this rate, I had little hope of besting last year's time, if I could even finish at all. I was not moving quickly and had to use extra care on some of the more precarious sections simply because my balance wasn't quite right. At any moment, I fully expected Wendy and/or Mo to come by, but for whatever reason, they never did. Had they dropped? Neither seemed to be experiencing any issues when I last saw them and both were quite capable of catching up.

I had another friend, Doug, was doing the FAC 50K and thought that if he started at 7:00 a.m., he'd have a twenty minute head start, but I might be able to catch him. I held onto that hope for a while, thinking the company might help me shake off the fogginess, but realized that I was not moving fast enough to catch up to anyone who wasn't struggling worse than myself. Then I started thinking that maybe he started at 6:00 and was far out of reach, or maybe he decided not to come at all...It was looking like I was going to have to continue to gut it out alone.

This section really seemed to stretch on forever, partly because I didn't remember it as well as other sections, and I wanted nothing more than to pop out at a water station and see Dennis waiting. I felt almost certain that if I saw him, I would drop. I finally emerged from the woods at the Parkway, but there was no Dennis and no water stop. My bottles had been empty for several miles and I was spent. I had no idea how far I had left to the next water drop--if indeed there was another one at all (I didn't read the e-mails all that closely...)

I started back into the woods and immediately found myself climbing up yet another hill. There is a clear difference in mentality between feeling beaten and that you should quit and knowing that you are done. I distinctly felt the latter. Not knowing exactly what lay immediately ahead, I decided it was time to call it a day. Pre-race, we were given a laminated sheet with contact numbers to use if we ran into trouble. I texted one of the contacts that I was dropping immediately after telling Dennis the same. As it was almost noon, Dennis was already at Mount Mitchell waiting for his ride, but offered to come get me. At the exact moment he offered, a truck pulled off the Parkway beside me. It was Clay, the husband of the lady I had texted. She had passed my message along to him and he was fortunately close by. I climbed into his Toyota Tacoma and he headed toward Mount Mitchell. Within a mile of where he had picked me up, we passed Craggy Gardens, the spot I was hoping to at least make it to and thought might have water. I did the math in my head and figured I would have had about 16 miles from Craggy Gardens to the finish, so about 17 from where I gave out. The way I had been moving, I really wasn't sure that the eight hours I had before the State Park closed would have been enough. It was possible that I could have sat down for an extended time, gathered myself, and then finished in better condition, but it was cool and I had nothing but a wet shirt. Stopping too long would be problematic and besides, this was now hindsight. I took some solace in the fact that I had most likely gotten a 50-miler for my efforts, if I include the initial hike up to the top of Mount Pisgah.

Ultimately, Clay would take me part way to Mount Mitchell and I would drive Adam's car to the top as it had the drop bags in it and apparently, they had no one to take it up to the Mount Mitchell parking lot. When I reached the summit, I climbed into my car, changed, and waited for Adam to finish (I had his key.) It was 48 degrees and breezy at the top and pretty busy. The views were nice and since I had time, I knocked out a couple Christmas presents at the gift shop. Adam finished a little before 2:00 (I later learned that he finished in 13:34, just six minutes off the record time) and I congratulated him. He's a great guy and I mentioned to him that all those people walking around have no idea what he had just accomplished, not only the run itself, but in under fourteen hours (his PR and the second fastest time ever for the course.) He looked very drained, but had a big smile. I told him I was sorry I couldn't stay for more finishers, but needed to get back home (I did not say why.) When we built our house, we put a whirlpool tub in the master bathroom. We seldom use it, but since we don't have a hot tub, all I could think about was just lying there and letting the pains of Pitchell melt away.

A view from a Parkway overlook near the entrance to Mount Mitchell.
The drive home was scenic, as should be expected along the Parkway. But, as I came down Highway 80 to Marion, I felt my slightly renewed energy draining away again. It's a steep and extremely curvy road and often smells of brakes, but it's a nice road to drive. Just above Marion, when the road had flattened out, I momentarily fell asleep. It was likely less than a second, but enough to where I wasn't just zoned out, I was completely out. I snapped up with a shock and felt my heart race. I had not swerved and hadn't even left the road, but it gave me a huge scare. For the next thirty miles home, I did everything I could--sing (thanks Toby Keith,) open the windows, etc... to stay awake.

I finally arrived home at about 3:30 and told the dogs they'd have to wait just a bit for dinner, that I had something important to do. As I settled into the tub of hotter-than-I-usually-like water and turned on the jets, I closed my eyes and one image came to mind...

So, do I feel a need to go back in 2014 for redemption. My wife will likely roll her eyes, but I have to say yes. Just like my DNF at Mount Mitchell several years earlier, I simply can't let the book of Pitchell end like this. I have no idea what I would do differently next time, aside from perhaps more rest leading up to the run, but I know it will call me back next October. It's not just about the finish, it's about the attempt to do something challenging that few others have ever done. What makes Pitchell even more special is the fact that it's not a real race, at least not by our general definition. You don't run Pitchell for the finisher's award or the t-shirt--there are none. Nor are there waves of supporters cheering you on or piles of food at aid stations. It's basically just you, maybe a buddy, and the trail. You do Pitchell for yourself.

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