Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Saturday, February 22, 2014

2014 Mount Mitchell Challenge

I'm not totally sure why I find myself drawn back to Mount Mitchell each year. I have plenty of fleece finisher's jackets--well, those that weren't repossessed by my wife. And, unless there is a massive case of wrong-ways in front of me, I have no chance of placing in any awards category. Plus, I could run pretty much the same event for free, in a self-supported group run. Yet, each year when registration opens, I am at my computer trying to get in the Challenge. RD Jay Curwen does a great job running this event. In fact, it was a major source of inspiration for Table Rock Ultras--most notably our finisher's hoodies as an alternative to Black Mountain's fleece jackets. The volunteers and paid help (like the State Park employees and rescue squad) are awesome. And the views, when available, are breathtaking. But I think what brings me back more than anything is that feeling that "this will be the year." When we register, we do not know if the regular Challenge course will be used or if weather conditions will necessitate a reroute. I have never broken six hours on the regular course and for the past several attempts, that has been my goal. I would have my chance. Jay posted on Friday that we'd be running the real course Saturday. How did this year's attempt go? Well...

There were 200 Challengers and about 250 marathoners registered. I'm not sure how many no-shows there were, but this was certainly the highest number of registrations I can recall--at least on the marathon side. What was kind of surprising was how many familiar faces were there. Some that is a factor of having run races for ten years and starting to see the same people, but many of these were people I have run with and gotten to know outside of races. Much, if not all, of the Bighorn crew was there. Dominique, whom I've known since meeting him at the Ridge to Bridge Marathon was a last minute addition to the marathon, having come from the Myrtle Beach Marathon the prior weekend. That meant he'd have run at sea level one week and almost a mile high (at the marathon turnaround) the next.

The morning was in the low 30s, with few or no clouds in the sky. The forecast was calling for temperatures in the 60s, which had me worried, but zero percent chance of precipitation. We lined up relatively close to the start--maybe about five rows back. Dennis was with me and was running the marathon. Ray was slightly behind, competing in his first Challenge (after three Black Mountain Marathons.) Everyone one else was scattered among the pack. I had moments leading up to the race where I really considered running with Ray, as a sort of guide. Ultimately, I decided to let him discover Mitchell for himself. The starter noted that because of snow, the schools were in session this Saturday and that while our police escort might have to stop for a school bus, the runners didn't. Visions of tiny elementary school kids being trampled by stampeding runners drifted through my head. Fortunately, the only (near) trampling was a cameraman who thought it would be cool to kneel down in the center of the road and expect the crowd to part and go around him. It didn't work as the girl in front of me half-plowed into him and half hurdled him. By then, he was stuck in the road, so I imagine he just kept taking pictures.

Expecting some water on the trails and possibly a lot of sections of slush and snow, I wore my Salomon's. They are comfortable and waterproof, but a bit heavy. As I have mentioned before, these shoes do a great job of keeping water out, unless you are in puddles/creeks/lakes that go over the ankle. Then, they keep the water in... More on that later. Besides the shoes, it was a belt pouch, my Pisgah Nation shirt from Bighorn, and my Freedom Park jacket and some lightweight gloves. And shorts, of course.

The run up to and through Montreat was me and Dennis, with Beth close behind, but worlds away as she was tuned into her MP3 player. Dennis said his goal for the marathon was to run it all without stopping, but also admitted to having piriformis issues. He abandoned his run-it-all goal on the big hill north of Montreat, just before the trail begins. Somewhere shortly after that, he disappeared behind me. I don't know if he was tying his shoe or just decided to run with Beth. I was now running alone. The early trail was in great shape and bone dry. It's always a long haul to the first aid station, but this year seemed to feel slightly quicker. I was in a group going exactly the speed I wanted to go, which is rare for me this early in this race. I really felt pretty good and thought that if the trail cooperated and I kept hydrated, this could be a PR year. I did not want to even think about sub-six hours right now...

Shrimp and Grits was the meal of choice Friday evening. We ate a bit later than I had hoped, but I figured it would go well for running. I had it the night before setting my then-PR marathon at Wrightsville Beach several years ago, so maybe it works. Plus, I was a bit pasta'd out. Today, I'm not sure it worked. Maybe it was eating it too late, but three full pit stops were necessary and there were long periods of uncomfortable running as I looked for a good pull-over spot. After 66 marathons and ultras, I think I've had only 2-3 no-pit races, so the shrimp and grits aren't all to blame. Apparently my biology is partially responsible.

Apologies for that TMI side note, but it was part of the story.

I passed about four people at the first aid station who all stopped longer than me. This would be a mostly-recurring theme at aid stations for the entire race. That's not to say some didn't catch right back up, from that point on I feel fairly certain I passed more than being passed. I know this is true for the uphill half of the course.

The crowds thinned a bit in the long haul between the first and second aid stations. For a while, the trail is easily runnable, but soon enough, I'm having to start watch where my foot lands--plan a few steps ahead. I'll note that I am the world's worst in picking the right track on a double track trail. Imagine if every time you picked a line at the grocery store, the person ahead of you has a problem and the line you should have chosen moves six people through in the time you spend waiting. That's me on double-track. This course, more than any other makes me aware of my poor choices. I will inevitably choose the one with more rocks, or more mud, or ice, or a coiled copperhead (not yet, but it wouldn't surprise me.) In one stretch along the Toll Road, to avoid a large section of mud, I chose to go dodge both tracks and go off the path altogether. I did so, only to find my feet sinking ankle deep into the waterlogged grass. The guy following closely behind me quickly learned not to trust my path...

The temperatures had warmed quite a bit (some due to my running uphill) and I shed my jacket. I kept my gloves on a little longer though as my hands stay cool a bit longer than the rest of me. Noticing that I was now sweating a bit, I also took an S-Cap electrolyte pill. My plan was to use those and water and avoid Gatorade. Gels and a Honey Stinger waffle were my other fuel sources, along with a banana slice at two aid stations. By the second aid station, my feet were soaked, but otherwise things were going pretty well. There were areas where we were truly running up temporary creek beds from the melting snow. Often, this water was more than ankle deep, leaving me to run with heavy, water-filled shoes until they would eventually dry themselves out. I ran, accompanied by a squishing sound for a good half mile after every deep puddle.

It's a shorter stretch to the third aid station/marathon turnaround and I knew to be watching for the Parkway to appear on my right to tell me I was almost there. Ironically, I ended up seeing the aid station before the Parkway. And, like last year, I saw a familiar volunteer--my friend, Dave, with whom I'd run portions of Pitchell and Bighorn. All I needed was my bottle refilled and a quick stop in the porta-jon and I'd be set. I got the first, but someone occupied the latter just before me, so I headed on, hoping to find a spot to pull over before too long.

I thought it a good sign that I ran all of the Park entrance road, up to the Horse Trail turnoff. It's not very far, but in years past, I've had walk breaks through here. I'm not sure how long it had been since I was on the Horse Trail section of the course, but it really made me wish that I had brought a camera. The rain Friday had pulled all of the moisture out of the air (and put it on the ground,) leaving views that truly looked "high definition." The clarity of the mountains and valleys below was stunning. It was almost certainly the clearest day I have ever had on Mount Mitchell (including hikes and drives to the top.) For all the beauty below, the trail was pretty messy. Lots of mud and more creek crossings that I remembered. It was also a longer stretch than I remember. I kept looking for the next aid station, knowing it meant that I'd begin the one mile "climb" up to the summit.  It came slowly, but when it did arrive, I was shocked to find three other runners there. I had seen only one person with me on this section of the trail. Then again, you can't see very far ahead of you on most sections of this course. Like before, I had a short stop and left them to the bananas and M&Ms. I was only on the trail a little bit before I let one guy around me. I think he expected to run to the top, but the conditions made sure he never got too far ahead. I knew this would be a slow section, so I used it to eat my Stinger Waffle. For some reason, I had gotten really hungry about this point and the waffle something a little more solid than a gel. This is a notoriously steep and technical stretch of trail. It's always a tough climb, but now there were some very difficult sections of ice in places. Many times, it required going off the trail, which isn't easy in this area with the banks on either side. Sometimes, you simply couldn't go around it and had to inch your way through as best you could. Soon, I really wished I had brought my YakTrax. Someone ahead of me wiped out twice in one downhill area near the top of the trail, but I managed to stay vertical, with only a few near-falls. I told a friend that much of it made me think of what it might be like to run up a bobsled course. I'm sure my pace was slower than normal, but I finally emerged on the walkway to the summit and headed up to be checked off. Or so I thought...

I found it strange that no race personnel were at the summit checking numbers, as they had been every other year--even in seriously bad conditions. The guys ahead of me ran on up the tower (which we've never been required to do in the past,) so I followed. I really didn't take the time to enjoy the view from the top, but just for good measure, I tapped the Geological Survey Marker with my foot. A "tourist" saw me do it and smiled. I headed back down, somewhat dreading having to pick my way along the one mile downhill trail that was sure to be as rough or rougher than the one I had just come up. Whether I missed the announcement or there was none, I was surprised to see that trailhead blocked by the yellow caution tape. It looked like we'd be running down the entrance road. Continuing down the walkway, my hunch was confirmed at the aid station set up adjacent to the gift shop. Here, they checked off my number and sent me on my way. As I left, I saw Mike, a friend from Burke County, who works at Lake James State Park. He was apparently helping out (as a State Park employee, not a race volunteer.)

The road from the summit down to the Parkway is long and steep. I'm not a fast downhill runner, but was not passed in this section. I don't particularly like running down the entrance road, but with the clarity of the views, it was easy to somewhat distract myself by enjoying the scenery. I knew my landmarks: the restaurant, the ranger's station, and where we turned off onto the horse trail earlier, and checked them off as I passed. This would be five miles of non-stop downhill running on steep pavement. It really can wear on you. Within the first 2-3 miles of the descent, I saw a familiar looking figure walking along the road. It was Jason! I knew instantly that something had happened because I don't pass Jason--he's the course record holder! He wasn't walking funny and I saw no blood. I asked him if he needed anything, but he didn't. Knowing he probably didn't want to chat, I told him I enjoyed being on the Trail Championships team with him last year and wished him well. (Note: I later learned that Jason sometimes has back issues and that was what pulled him from this year's race. He was in second place at the time that he dropped. Last time he dropped out of Mt. Mitchell, he won the following year.)

When I made it back to the marathon turnaround aid station, I found Dave had shed a layer of clothes and was wearing the Table Rock Ultras tech shirt from the inaugural year of our race. Dave ran the last several miles of that race with Dennis. They became friends, and that's how I got to know him. I thanked him for representing TRU and headed back down the Toll Road.

The next aid station came pretty quickly, despite my cautious pace in an effort to dodge rocks and mud. Of course, it's probably only 3-4 miles. On the website's map, it looks like these aid stations are farther apart than the next two, but it has never felt that way. The Fire/Rescue Squad crews this aid station and is always in good spirits (apparently, they also use the event as a training tool.) Here, I took my third S-cap (the second came at the summit of Mitchell) as I noticed I had begun to sweat once again. Somewhere through here, a young woman whom I had been behind earlier and then passed, passed me back. She was friendly, but clearly wanted no part of a long conversation. I noticed her jacket said La Sportiva and was very similar to Jason's. I imagine she is a sponsored runner, which makes me feel better about being passed (note: she'd go on to be third overall female.) I didn't catch any Challenge runners coming down the Toll Road and was passed by only two. I did go by quite a few marathoners who were methodically making their way down the trail. It's a nice distraction from the pain sometimes, to wish a fellow runner well.

FINALLY, after so many similar curves, I saw the final Toll Road aid station. There was my friend Paul, who was going to wait on Ray and follow him to the finish. I gave him my belt and headband (which I never used) and put my one remaining waffle in my back pocket, just in case. I knew there was some rough downhill coming up, so I headed on, ready to bring this race to a close. The last section of trail in the woods was familiar with its steep descent and then the switchbacks, but the pavement, if possible, seemed even steeper than in years past. I even saw one runner walking backwards down the last, especially steep, section, trying to save her knees, I imagine.

I skipped the last aid station, having plenty of water in my bottle and pressed onward. They told me it was a 5K to the finish. That may be true, but it feels like a long 5K. I got onto the nature trail in Montreat--a section that I've grown to enjoy more over the years--and managed to keep moving pretty well, though I was really starting to get overheated. I'd walk the steps (whether up or down) but ran everything else. I continued passing marathoners, but saw no Challenge runners anywhere. I knew I was slowing, but really didn't want to walk until I reached the upcoming short uphills.

All running down Flat Creek Road, which parallels the road into Montreat, was all done into a headwind. This served to slow me down more than offer any cooling. I finally had the bright idea to pour some water on my hand and wipe it on my face. This helped a lot--if only it had occurred to me earlier--though what got into my mouth tasted like I had just swallowed seawater. Anxious to finish, I kept looking ahead for the right turn that would lead me to the greenway. Two false-rights later, I made my turn. When I moved from the road to the greenway trail, a guy was in his backyard watching the runners go by. He told me I had 1.5 miles to go. I
Running my lap around Lake Tomahawk
began visualizing a 1.5 mile stretch of a weekday run route and it made it feel much shorter for my tired legs. When the greenway ended, I knew it was a short distance to Highway 9 and I'd only have about 1/2 mile to go. I took a quick walk break as there is a pretty good hill (for someone who has just run 37 miles) here. I crossed the highway and walked up the short hill into the residential neighborhood. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a Challenge runner right behind me. I had been monitoring who was behind me and have no idea where she came from, but there she was. I didn't really feel the desire (or ability, perhaps) to race to the finish, so I let her go on. It was more a case of her speeding up, rather than my slowing down. As I entered the park, I saw Dennis, Phyllis, and several other members of the gang cheering. I dropped my jacket and water bottle with them and headed for my loop around Lake Tomahawk. Leslie and Evelyn were waiting on a bench by the lake and took my picture. I asked Leslie to tell me if there were any red numbers (for Challenge runners) behind me and she said no. I didn't let up, but I did feel a sense of relief at not having to race someone the last 1/4 mile.

My finish shot, courtesy of Dominique
As I approached the finish, I wondered what my time would be. 6:16 is my PR for the regular course, but we did a modified version and one that I think had to be easier without that tough, technical downhill section. Overall, It felt like I ran stronger and had fewer walk breaks, but there were more sections than normal where mud slowed me down. And, I knew I had to have hiked the one-mile summit trail slower than in years past. So, what number would I see on the clock as I crossed the line?


I was a bit baffled how I had gotten my worst time ever (albeit only by five minutes.) It's a riddle I'll probably never solve, but there are several possible explanations:
  1. This was the first time I didn't taper any before the race and ran my normal Tuesday/Thursday runs.
  2. There were remnants of Freedom Park fatigue.
  3. I haven't been running fast races in quite a while (very few 5 & 10Ks) and haven't done speed work.
  4. The trail was tougher than I give it credit for.
  5. I'm getting older.

The finish area as seen across Lake Tomahawk
I'm sure it was a mix of all (and I think that I sub-consciously put them in order from least to most likely) but I won't complain. I had only one minor fall and no post-race stomach issues. It's a bit disheartening to learn that the winner ran the same course in 4:45, but that's just a different league. I guess next year, if I am to have any hope of going sub-6 hours, like ten people did this year, I'll need to actually train properly.

I'll note that this year, Leslie and I drove down to Thursday packet pickup at Black Dome. We were given a black, cotton t-shirt with the familiar birds/mountains scene and an unusual toboggan. It has a small visor on it and is fairly tall. I'm not sure what it's called, but it kind of reminded me of Elmer Fudd's hat. It was a much thicker material than the "beanie" type caps we've gotten in the past. They had steel blue male jackets and very hot pink (think late 1980s) female jackets. I tried to get Leslie a pink one after the finish, but they weren't sure they'd have enough. I understood. She'll probably be happy repossessing the blue one, anyway...

On a footnote, Ray came in at about 7:37, which I thought was pretty good for his first time, and under the conditions. He really seemed to enjoy it and I'm sure it will slowly sink in for him that he has done something special, as it did for me after my first Challenge. We made our usual post-race group trip to My Father's Pizza in Black Mountain and let Ray take the head of the table. It's easy to forget my slowest-ever-time when I'm listening to his excited recap of his first ever Mount Mitchell Challenge. When the results were posted, I found that I finished 23rd and Ray came in 74th (though it seemed like he was farther up than that.) Ray is the type where if he really enjoys something, he talks about it constantly. Though he was physically tired, you could still hear the enthusiasm in his voice during the drive home, as he relived his experiences on the mountain. 

So, will I be signing up next year? Probably.

Will Ray? I hope so...

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