Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, March 14, 2016

2016 Mount Mitchell Challengethon

Though I wasn't physically primed to tackle the Mount Mitchell Challenge this year, I was certainly mentally ready and was fervently hoping for a full-course experience as of my seven prior runnings, I think I have only completed the original course once or twice. Most years, the course was altered due to weather and of course I had my DNF one year when the full course was used. Sadly, this year would not be a full-course challenge either. In fact, it wouldn't be a Challenge at all. The exact reasons are a bit unclear, but either the USFS or the NPS would not allow the race to run into Mount Mitchell State Park due to weather concerns. No alternate routes were allowed. So every Challenge runner was dropped down to the marathon. We learned the news around 7:00 p.m., the night before the race. A silver lining to this would be that it meant getting to the post-race pizza quicker. The dark cloud was that it became a "race," rather than just a "run." 

The trail conditions promised to be pretty good for the marathon course. I did not bring Yak Trax, but did wear some new Salomon Speedcross 3s that I plan to take to the upcoming Georgia Death Race. This would be a breaking-in run and would allow me to decide if I like them enough to wear for 14+ hours in Georgia.

Caught talking with friends, I started much farther back than I might have otherwise and spent a lot of the first couple miles passing people. I wasn't passing just to pass them, but my pace just carried me by them. Still, no matter how many I passed, the line of runners ahead of me stretched far into the distance. As is usual, it remained a somewhat thick cluster of runners through Montreat and even up the hill to the trailhead. Things thinned out a little bit on the trail, but I found my spot and pretty much stayed in it until the first aid station, passing or being passed only a time or two.

After the first aid station, the trail opens up and is very runnable. It's a bit uphill, but dry and not at all rocky. I really didn't find myself talking to anyone (partly because the only people here that I knew were behind me somewhere.) One reason I like ultras, trail ultras, especially, is because I typically find myself alone for long stretches. It's quiet and I can just enjoy being in the woods. The out-and-back nature of the Mount Mitchell Challenge (and even more-so the marathon,) combined with the number of participants, means you don't find yourself alone much at all--rarely do you not see someone ahead or behind you. That's ok, but I find myself conflicted because it makes the event almost a hybrid between the "all business, push hard, marathon" and the "enjoy the view, smell the roses, ultra." I found myself giving it 80-90% on the outbound leg of the race. Trying to maintain a good pace that would last the entire race without having to talk a walk-break that didn't involve ice or a steep climb.

The second aid station came somewhat quickly, perhaps because I was still in a "38-miler" mindset, and I downed a gel, trashed it, refilled my bottle, and carried on. I usually get a banana piece at the aid stations but for some reason, the bananas were very green and I like mine on the "approaching-brown" end of their life cycle. With time, my familiarity of the Toll Road grows and I recognize more landmarks and can better gauge where I am in relation to the next aid station. It wouldn't sneak up on me as I checked off various points and when I saw the EMS guys at the top of a hill, I knew it was a brief, mostly-downhill stretch to the turnaround. Shortly before the EMS workers, I saw Anne Lundblad coming toward me. I thought her two back surgeries had limited her to road racing, but apparently she's doing well enough to be out on this rocky/icy/slushy course. Her surgeon needs to get a picture of her from the race to show how good a job he did.

After the turn, I knew it was only about 12 miles to the finish and I felt pretty good. I seemed to have more trouble with the ice heading back down than I had heading up. My only fall came from trying to lightly walk across a patch. It was a sideways fall and didn't do any damage other than a bruised ego.

On the way down, I still stayed in roughly the same spot, place-wise. I found that I really had to make a pit stop but with a steep hill up on the right and a steep drop down on the left, there was nowhere to go. I tried not to think about it, but that just made me think about it more. The discomfort would grow and subside, somewhat in correlation with the amount of bouncing I did. Having plenty of water, I skipped right through the next aid station, thanking them for volunteering as I did so. About a mile above the last "in-the-woods" aid station, I caught up to Rebecca, who was from Montana. Had I known she was from there, we might have talked about Glacier National Park, but I found out post-race when I saw the results. She and a friend had passed me on the way up when I had to pull over to fix my shoe.

I skipped this aid station, as did Rebecca, and a small group of us made our way down the steep dirt section of trail and then the steep paved road into Montreat. I slowly pulled away from my group. I don't know if they had faded some or if I was just anxious to be done and sped up. Even though it's broken up into little segments, I kind of like the nature trail part of the final few miles. The road and "greenway" at the end are made bearable only by a group of families who has a cookout/party in their back yards and cheers on the runners.

I could see a guy maybe 1/4 mile ahead of me and didn't want to look back to see if anyone was gaining. I tried to just listen for cheers or dogs barking to see how close someone might be, but didn't really have any luck. I wasn't about to peek back though. I somehow managed to run the short rises back toward the main road and then the last hump into the neighborhood that borders Lake Tomahawk. As I crested and came down the "hump," I saw Paul on his bike. I pressed on and began my loop around the lake. I might have gotten a little closer to the guy ahead of me, but I was really just using him to pull me rather than me actually trying to gain a spot here on our "victory lap." He kept looking back and as spent as I was, I laughed to myself that he thought he needed to worry about me. If I had actually caught up, I'd have just finished with him. We weren't battling for any sort of award, after all.

Friends and family were lined up near the finish but I didn't see them. It's funny how you get the tunnel vision at the end of a race. Had this been the Challenge, maybe I'd have been moving slower and been more observant. But, all I could focus on was the clock and the finish line. My time was OK, 3:50:34, especially considering I have done nothing speed related other than couple 5Ks/10Ks in the last year. My place was just inside the top 10% at 35th.

With Georgia Death Race coming up in a few weeks, I tried running back out onto the course to see Ray. Darlene accompanied me on foot and Paul on the bike. I had waited a bit too long after finishing, though, and it was really tough to get going again. We came up on him about 1-1.5 miles out on the course and once we turned around with him, I was too tight to keep up, though I didn't have to run around the lake at the end so I could cut through to see him finish.

Mount Mitchell was supposed to be a good training run for Georgia. Last year, I had the Nightmare and Mitchell in February, though I had a DNF at Weymouth that January. So, it will be interesting to see how my undertraining serves me in Georgia, especially since a tougher course has been promised for 2016.

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