Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Thursday, October 22, 2015

2015 Misgah (the anti-Pitchell)

For the past four years, each time the autumn leaves begin to turn color, I've been drawn to the off-the-grid run known as Pitchell. The first year, it was for a new challenge. The second year it was to try to improve on the first year's performance (but I ended up bailing around mile 50.) Last year, I returned for redemption for having DNF'd the prior year--and ended up with almost the exact same time as the first year. What brought me back in 2015 for another try? To do the anti-Pitchell. To do Misgah.

You might think that Misgah means "MISery" + "GAH," the sound you may make when being punched in the gut. No, if you haven't already figured it out, it's "MItchell" and "PiSGAH." We'd be running the course in reverse. I can't remember the exact process of how Dennis and I decided to flip the course this year. We knew it would be challenging, though perhaps a tad easier than Mitchell since ultimately, Mount Pisgah is lower in elevation than Mount Mitchell. So, how did it go? Read on...

Doing Misgah during Pitchell requires a bit of logistics and extra work. For one thing, the water is usually not put out on the back half of the Pitchell course until Saturday, but since that was our early section, we'd need to put it out ourselves on the way to Mount Mitchell State Park. The biggest challenge here was that we weren't terribly familiar with the spots the water needed to be placed. Doing it at night made it even more challenging. Knowing that Adam was going for the FAC 50K fastest-known-time and Avery Collins (former TRU winner) was going for the Pitchell FKT added pressure that we get the water where it needed to be.
At 7:00 p.m., we met Pitchell runners Doug, Kate, and Dennet at the Folk Arts Center to swap cars. We'd be taking Doug's car to our start at Mount Mitchell and they'd be taking Dennis's car to our finish at Mount Pisgah. Kate's car would stay at the FAC as an "aid station" for all of us. Mount Mitchell State Park closes at 9:00 and it was about an hour drive up the Parkway, not counting the time we'd spend looking for the water drop locations. At about 8:30 p.m., we were making our way up Hwy 128 toward the summit of Mount Mitchell. The temperature was dropping quickly and it was much windier than I had anticipated. As we drove up the mountain, I began wondering if I'd brought enough clothing. There were only a couple cars at the summit and everything was shut down. We did not want to be in the area at 9:00 when the ranger came for a last check because we weren't sure if he would allow us to leave on foot. We had to fill out a parking form to let the rangers know who the car belonged to and where the occupants had gone. It was Doug's car, and we identified it as such. For "destination" we almost put Mount Pisgah, but knew that would probably confuse them, so we put Craggy Gardens, which was only about 26 miles away. As Dennis finalized the paperwork, I decided to add an additional shirt. The wind was probably blowing 20-30 mph and the temperature was surely in the low 30s if not the high 20s. I had two short-sleeve tech shirts and my lightweight running jacket from the Freedom Park 24-hour run. Shorts, Salomon XT Wings, lightweight gloves, and a headband. Oh, and my headlamp. My pack was stuffed with extra batteries, S-caps and Advil, gels, PB&J, PowerBars, a hand-warmer (just in case) and my Sawyer water purifier.
As we started the walk up the cobblestone pathway to the summit, we saw headlights coming up the road into the parking lot. Knowing it had to be the ranger coming up for a final check before heading out. We realized that any conversation with the ranger would at best lead to him questioning our sanity and at worst end in our being asked/told to get back in the car and drive out, we rushed to the top. By thee time we reached the tower at the summit, it was right at 9:00 p.m. and time for the park to close. Forgoing the howling at the moon ritual that Adam started, we elected to keep quiet and get off the mountain as quickly as possible. There were no ranger encounters coming down the cobblestones and once we were on the MST, we felt pretty confident that we were safe. Now all we had to do was finish this 67-mile run, knowing that the next ten hours would be in the dark.
The FKT for Misgah is held by Anne Riddle Lundblad with a time of 16:09. It is also the only known time. Her husband, Mark, crewed for her and we are fairly certain she did it with a daytime start. Under the best of circumstances (including a daytime start,) we had little hope of breaking her record. Our goals were to finish and then to finish faster than we had finished Pitchell, which was 19:08. The first mile down off the mountain is the same as it is for the Mount Mitchell Challenge race, a windy, technical trail with some very large rocks. After that, though, there is a stretch of maybe 3-4 miles where you can run pretty quickly as it is fairly wide and has good footing. We didn't record split times between aid stations, but this was certainly the fastest we'd be running during Misgah. The trail parallels the park entrance road here and we saw the ranger's headlights go by, heading toward the entrance to lock the gate. Our first aid stop was where we cross this road, about mile 4. After that, we knew we were in for a LOT of hiking.
Being on this five-mile section in the dark probably didn't slow us down a lot since it is so steep and technical. Some areas were familiar, others seemed foreign to us. We encountered a camper who said hello through the fabric walls of his tent. He seemed less surprised that we were coming through than we were to have stumbled up on his campsite. We quickly noticed a pattern that would repeat for most of the night. There was a windy side of the mountain and a calm side. When we'd get on a ridge, it was the worst and you'd hope the trail would go behind a boulder or something to offer a brief reprieve from the biting wind. The wind bothered my eyes more than anything and mostly the right one as that was the direction it hit us from. It was enough to make me wonder if I should have brought some goggles or something. On the positive side, the ridges brought views of cities lights below and billions and billions of stars above. We'd reach our next aid stop at mile 9 - Balsam Gap. As with the first stop, I'd only drunk about half of my 20 oz. handheld bottle, but I topped it off and we continued on.
This three-mile stretch to Greybeard Overlook is the most maddening section on the course. Every year, it has felt like it must be more than three miles. It simply drags on forever. It's not that it's boring and it's not any more difficult than other sections. There are even a few overlooks along the way. It just goes on and on and on... The only notable event on this section was we came upon another camper along a ridge. He had a roaring fire going, despite the heavy winds. We questioned his wisdom, but we were running from Mount Mitchell to Mount Pisgah, so who were we to comment on making wise choices...
Six more miles to the next water stop and it included another section that had felt so long in prior years, plus the rocky Craggy Gardens area. There were areas of familiarity and Dennis and I both noted that this stretch seemed to pass by far more quickly than in the past. Some of this might have been because we were only around mile 15 instead of 52, but whatever the reason, it was nice to have a six mile stretch pass more quickly (mentally, anyway) than the prior three miles had. 
So many of these miles blur together under the blanket of a near-moonless night. We occasionally encounter landmarks like the still-standing stone fireplace from the long-gone Rattlesnake Lodge out in the middle of the woods. When most of your attention is on the trail ahead of you and your peripheral vision catches nothing, there is very little to report on. Sometimes, it felt as if the trail had been rerouted because we didn't come across some spots we expected, but without the additional visual cues provided by full daylight, we could never know for certain if the trail had changed. We simply followed the white dot blazes, knowing that ultimately they would lead us to Mount Pisgah. Sometime earlier, probably on the non-windy side of the mountain, I had removed one of my tech shirts, but found myself occasionally putting it back on over my pack and jacket, just to add a layer and break up the wind, then removing it again when things calmed down.
It was shortly outside of the Folk Art Center (I skipped an aid stop in this report because it is one of those blurry points and not significant) that we finally encountered another participant. It was Avery Collins, motoring along in his chase for the FKT. He wasn't much for conversation (and may not have realized we were kind of part of the group) but he was certainly moving fast. Shortly after that, we came up on another camper and then Doug, who was now alone as Kate and Dennet had stopped at the FAC. Wondering if we were getting close to the mid-point, Doug said he had left it about thirty minutes ago, hiking. He was coming up hill and we were running down, so surely it wouldn't be much farther. Before we reached the FAC, though, we'd run into Jeremy and his dad, doing the FAC 50K as well as two other guys, just heading out. It occurred to us that if Kate had dropped out, our supplies were in her car and she might have driven off with them. That would have been trouble for both of us as we had quite a bit of food we had planned to take. Now, when we finally emerged in the FAC parking lot, it was feelings of anxiety and relief as we searched for her car. After moments of trying to remember what kind of SUV it was, we finally found it and got our supplies. Samantha, who had joined us some last year, came up from her car to say hello. She was running part of the FAC 50K course. Tim was also there, having just finished the first half of Pitchell.
We cut last year's 20-minute pit stop time down to 10 minutes. Dennis had soup and a Coke and I downed a PB&J. We still had another hour or so before sunrise, so I changed my batteries while we were here so I'd have the brightest light possible. The first stretch out of the FAC seemed to pass far quicker than it does coming the other way during Pitchell. We encountered a few Pitchell runners through here and then went through a long concrete tunnel. I've never been certain what the tunnel goes under, but have convinced myself it must be I-40. Emerging from the tunnel, I noticed a gate just ahead on the trail. Just as I started to say I think we messed up, a huge 100,000 watt spot light flashed on. It was not unlike those searchlights you see in prison movies, only this one wasn't moving. I half expected a Wizard of Oz-like voice to boom out from behind the gate, but it was all silence except for the electrical hum of the light. We looked around and saw that the trail had taken a sharp right just after the tunnel. We got back on course and continued on, wondering what could be behind that gate. The light went shortly after we had left the area.
Daylight breaks through the trees.
Daylight was soon upon us and with it, a little bit of renewed energy. It would be a while longer before we actually saw the sun itself, but there is something energizing about emerging from the darkness. We would have no overlooks for many miles, but would be running through a fair amount of color along the trail as we had traded darkness and evergreens for daylight and hardwoods. A few flowers grew along the trail and yellow and green, and a little red, surrounded us in all directions.

Things went pretty well for a while as we were actually able to run a lot of the trails here. We stuck to walking significant uphills even though they weren't terribly technical. The trail also comes out onto the Parkway in several spots, so there's even a little bit of paved road. It was weird being on this stretch in daytime because we were able to see a lot of stuff we missed when running it in the dark. It felt so different. There were huge houses being constructed just a few hundred feet from the trail that I had never seen before. We went under power lines that I had never seen. It was familiar yet at the same time totally foreign. The road sections that were normally dead quiet were bustling with traffic.

The French Broad River as seen from the Parkway

As the trail made its way across a bridge over the French Broad River, a sense of vertigo crept in when I looked out over the edge. In the dark, it was always difficult to tell how high it was, but in daylight, with traffic zooming by, it was a totally different experience. Usually, I'll run on the "curb" between the road and the bridge's railing, but it made me too dizzy and all I could picture was staggering to my left and going over the rail.

The Shut-In Trailhead
Eventually, we made our way to the Arboretum.  I saw a huge entrance sign for it that I had never seen in the dark hours of Pitchell. I also saw a sign for the Shut-In Trail, which we were about to start up. Dennis and I both did the Shut-In race in 2011. It took me 3:11 that year for the 18-mile trail. There was no hope of coming close to that time after a near 50-mile warmup, and we knew it would be a grind going up the steep trail.

We both felt pretty good until suddenly we didn't. I was developing what I thought was a bad blister on the bottom/side of my heel and was running only on what food I could eat, seeming to have no reserves. At one point, we realized that I was able to get up the hills much more quickly (power hiking) and he was moving down the hills better since the blisters (and slightly sore knees) made going down rocky terrain a bit difficult. So, we fell into a routine where I would go up as fast as I could and then start walking down the other side until he caught up and passed me. I'd try to run where I could, but it usually wasn't very fast. On one particularly long uphill, I got pretty far ahead and got to the point where I had to sit down and eat my last PB&J sandwich. I was sweating profusely (and it was in the 40s and I was down to short sleeves) and really light headed. I waited for what seemed like 10-minutes before Dennis showed up. Turned out he had done the same thing and had the exact same sweating and light headedness.

Just a footbridge.
I've never not packed enough food for one of these runs because by now, my appetite is usually shot. For whatever reason this year, I was famished for most of the run and I had to ration what I brought. When we emerged on the parkway, at the foot of the final 2-3 mile climb to the Mount Pisgah parking lot, I was really struggling. I had gotten a little bit ahead of Dennis and kept moving because I figured if I waited, he'd pull ahead and be way beyond me. If I kept going, he'd catch up closer to the end. In the four years since Shut-In, I had completely forgotten how difficult and steep this stretch of trail is. I was running really well in late 2011, so maybe my conditioning was better, but I couldn't figure out how I managed to run this trail at a roughly 6mph pace back then. It just kept going up, sometimes with no switchbacks. I could not for the life of me remember coming down something so long and steep near the start of Pitchell. I could see mountain peaks ahead to either side, but for the life of me couldnt' figure out where I was in relation to the Mount Pisgah parking lot. I knew the lot would be on the left so every time the trail veered to the right, I knew that it would not be just around the corner. I could remember a short downhill into the parking lot, but was continuing to go up.

Mount Pisgah parking lot - Just one more hill ahead.
Eventually, after what surely was an hour of suffering, zombie-walking, I found the downhill. And it kept going, and going, and going. This was not the "short" downhill I remembered from the Shut-In Trail Run. It wasn't until I passed a couple sitting on a rock, that I began to have some hope that the parking lot was near. I couldn't hear any traffic or voices, but eventually, before all hope had left me, the trail opened up and I emerged in the lot. Not knowing where Dennis was, I sat down to gather myself. I had no food left, so the best I could hope for was to just stabilize things and stop the world from spinning. It had taken me about 4:30 to run what took 3:11 during the Shut-In race.

It was only a couple minutes later that Dennis appeared and urged me on. Apparently, finishing sub-18 was in the realm of possibility and he had it in his mind to do so. We ran through the parking lot together, electing to not drop or take anything at his car. The trail was very crowded with tourists. I ran right behind Dennis for a bit, but then the wheels came off. I was back to zombie walking, barely acknowledging the passing tourists, running into the trailside brush on more than one occasion. I told Dennis to go ahead, but he hung close. He offered one of his Huma gels. I declined, figuring it wouldn't help in time to make sub-18 a reality. But then I decided I'd better do something and accepted a blueberry one. It was actually really good and I pulled every gram of it out of the packet, my body seemingly desperate for calories. Dennis began pulling ahead as I continued on in my own staggering fashion. Suddenly, after about 2-3 minutes, the gel kicked in. It was honestly as if a switch had been thrown on my system. While I was not going to run up the technical, boulder-strewn trail to the summit, I was now able to resume a very fast power-hike. The only problem was the trail was becoming increasingly congested...

I feel behind one six-person caravan after another. They either heard me or smelled me and would eventually let me by, but each time I hesitated to say anything when I first caught up. When I had open trail, I moved very quickly, eventually coming back into view of, and then catching back up to Dennis. We were nearing the summit as Dennis pointed out the tower ahead, but we were also running out of time. There was a young girl hiking up pretty quickly just ahead of us and she became our rabbit. Willing to leave it all out there, we pushed up and ahead until we rounded the final turn and saw the wooden observation platform. It was a minute or two before we even looked at the time when I finally glanced at my cell phone, pulling it out for a picture. It read 3:00 p.m. Given that I didn't immediately pull it out, we knew that we had come in just under 18 hours. We laughed that we looked so pitiful and the other people up there probably thought we had struggled just doing the 1.5 mile hike from the parking lot, not knowing that we'd had a 65 mile warmup before that.

At the summit of Mount Pisgah
We asked the young girl to take our picture with my cellphone and she agreed on the condition that we take hers (with her phone.) After taking the pictures, Dennis tried to impress her by saying that we had been trying to break "18 from Mitchell." The look on her face told us she didn't understand what he meant and that she likely thought we meant something more like 18 minutes from the parking lot. Oh, well. We know what we'd done, as does the Pisgah Nation. And, we became the first recorded male finishers of "Misgah." Anne's record was very safe, though that didn't stop us from (jokingly) coming up with a number of reasons she had an advantage when she ran 16:09.

Looking back, it was nice to finish mid-afternoon, though that did mean huge crowds on Mount Pisgah and more night-time running due to the earlier start. It was also great to see the Pisgah side of the trail in the daytime. We did, however, miss some great view from the Mitchell side of the course.

Ultimately, the decision for me to do Misgah (or even Pitchell) wasn't terribly wise. I had run 26 miles only once since May's Quest for the Crest 50K. With the responsibilities of TRU and losing a dog, my weekly mileage and weekend long runs had dropped off in recent months. While Dennis had gotten his weekly miles, he was coming off the TRU 50-miler and could have had some residual fatigue from that. Misgah is a unique challenge and it was great to see all the Pitchell runners coming toward us. But, it kind of felt like we were "outsiders" to the Pitchell tradition. I don't know what next year holds because it always looks different as it draws closer. We say things like "never again" but then the leaves begin to turn and with that, the siren song of Pitchell becomes more enticing.

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