Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Sunday, November 2, 2014

2014 Pitchell

After bowing out of the 2013 Pitchell around the 50-mile point due to a sudden loss of inertia, I found myself back for the 2014 edition. I had said that once was enough, yet this would be my third go of the 67 mile torture endurance run that would include roughly 18,000 of climbing and some challenging technical stretches.

I planned to run with Dennis again as this has worked well in the past--one of us pulling the other through low spots. If you read my 2012 recap, you may remember me seeing a shooting star in the Mount Pisgah parking lot? Well, this time I saw one as we drove down I-40 to the start. We finished in 2012, would the omen again be a good one???

The 2014 early starters.
Like always, the race starts with us backtracking a mile or so up to the summit of Mount Pisgah. It was a cool, clear, and pleasant night--very conducive to a good run. There was a large number of people running (maybe 20) but we were starting and finishing at different times. I was in the 10:00 start group, which had about eight runners, one of whom planned to finish at the midpoint, the Folk Art Center. That first mile down is pretty technical and you can't help but feel like you're either on top of the person in front of you or holding back the person behind you. In truth, with the exception of the very fast and the more deliberate runners, everyone happens to be going roughly the same speed. Once that mile is complete and we reach the parking lot, there is the usual litany of jokes about hopping in the shuttle car and calling it a night and then reality sets in. Next stop (if we are talking a complete stop) is Mount Mitchell. With the difficulty of the journey and the destination being a tall mountain far away, you can't help but feel like you should be carrying a magical ring to be destroyed in the mountain's firey core.

With each passing year, there are more areas of familiarity along this trail. I do, however, tend to forget how much uphill there is between Mount Pisgah and the Folk Art Center. The miles can stretch on until we finally reach the chain link fencing of the arboretum. Even though I know there are plenty of miles before the FAC, this fence is my first milestone and reassurance that at least a fair sized chunk of the course is behind me.

A view from later along the trail.
Once we reach the arboretum, there is a stretch of trail mixed with a little bit of highway and bridge crossing. I get really turned around in this stretch, but the trail markers are there and as long as we continue in the correct direction, we don't have issues. Embarrassingly, along this stretch, Adam Hill came chugging past us, despite our having gotten a two hour head start. I think we may have been around mile 20-26 here, so he had overtaken us pretty quickly. With three levels of headlights - head, chest, and waist, he looked like a train coming toward us on a dark stretch of road. We spoke briefly, but knew he had a course record in mind and we didn't want to detain him. Dennis and I had talked about when we'd be caught by the regular-time starters, but thought surely we'd get to the Folk Art Center before anyone passed us.

I'm writing this too far after the fact to remember exactly when we reached the FAC, but I do remember Dennis saying that it was later (running-time-wise) than in the past. It seemed like we had kept up a good pace, but I guess without the benefit of a little daylight toward the latter part of the run, and being on headlamps the entire first half, our pace could easily have been slower. I had said that if there was anyone offering biscuits like in an earlier year, I'd take them up on it, but this year, none were offered. We dropped some things in Dennis's car and picked up some things we'd need for the second half. Maybe ten minutes later, we resumed our trek toward Mount Mitchell.

Old rock fireplace.
As cliché as it sounds, Pitchell truly doesn't begin until the Folk Art Center. After that point, the trail gets much steeper and much more technical. Things went fairly well early on without the surprises of earlier years--meaning we knew what to expect with each hill. That's not to say it was any easier, just that it wasn't quite so discouraging. There were areas I had forgotten until we re-encountered them like the stone fireplace pictured here. Some areas seemed to pass by more quickly this time, like Craggy Gardens. While others felt longer.
A cool ladder.
In 2013, my wheels fell of pretty quickly just before mile 50. This year, it was going to happen around 55 or so. We were on a section I honestly could not even remember from 2012 with a long, rocky section that had a ton of switchbacks. Dennis went on ahead a bit, but did not take my advice to just go on his own. I had really bonked and was basically doing a zombie shuffle through this section. I have no idea how long a stretch it was, but it truly seemed to stretch out forever. I knew that at some point I'd descend to the paved road that leads up to Mount Mitchell, but even though I could hear cars below, I seemed to be winding along the side of the mountain rather than going down. After what felt like hours, the trail finally turned and began dropping toward the road. I could now hear voices ahead and realized Dennis had made it to the "aid station" and was talking with some of the crews. When I got there, I really didn't want anything other than to just be finished. Knowing he'd easily catch up, I continued on the trail while Dennis finished at the aid station. Here I really encouraged him to go on since I knew where I was going. He would get a bit ahead--maybe 50 yards, but never just went on. I felt kind of bad that I had slowed him down when it wasn't necessary for him to wait. I had just run out of steam and it was all I could do to continue in a forward direction.

Dennis at the summit.
Eventually, we reached the one mile trail to the summit that is part of the Mount Mitchell Challenge course. In 2012, this trail was painfully long. This year, perhaps because of memories of 2012, it actually went by a little quicker. I don't think we moved any quicker. I just think I had a more realistic outlook on how slow progress is going up this technical and steep section. When we finally emerged on the pavers that led up to the summit, I ironically found enough energy to run, well jog, up this relatively steep path. It may have been because there were a number of tourists walking up and down, but I think it was more due to me wanting to stick it to the mountain and show that I had survived it's challenge, albeit barely. Up the curved ramp to the tower we went and made it official by stepping on the emblem in the center. We were by far the least bundled people on the summit at the time, and having stopped, it cooled down quickly. We headed back to the parking area where the "Pitchell Bus" waited. I had neglected to send much in the way of a change of clothing, but the bus was warm inside and Adam loaned me a jacket while we waited for the remaining runners. I did make a quick visit to the concession stand and got Leslie some jellies as a souvenir.

Before the last runner arrived, Doug and his son Henry, showed up and let us ride back to the Folk Art Center with them. Henry had run some sections of the trail. Doug had pulled out before finishing, ending his shot at being the oldest Pitchell finisher. We thought Dennis would retain that crown with his latest finish, but someone older actually finished this year's event. Our time was practically the same as 2012. Officially, it went down as a 19:09 versus 19:08. I'd really like to have a year where neither of us have issues in the second half. I imagine I'll be there in 2015 to try again and if so, I'm sure I'll be hoping to have learned from past mistakes...

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