Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Saturday, February 25, 2017

2017 Mount Mitchell Challenge

I entered this year's Challenge hoping to notch my tenth finish in either the Challenge (6 so far) or Marathon (3) for a nice, round, double-figure number. I believe as a Challenge registrant who got bumped down to the marathon last year, I had an improved chance of getting through the lottery. Whether this was true or not, I did get in and after several months of no races (and Grindstone was more of a survival challenge than a race,) I had to get back into that mindset.

I came into this year's event a little differently as I was trying to build up mileage for Bryce 100 this summer. So, Ray and I ran a brisk 21 miles the weekend before out on the trails at Lake James State Park, I did speed work on the Tuesday before the race, and ran pretty quick on Thursday. I wasn't coming in rested at all, but I really just wanted to do well and get out of my walk most of the hills mentality that came with training for Grindstone. I've found that that practice can become habit and begin to carry over to shorter distances. I see a hill and I immediately go into ultra-mindset and prepare to walk it. If you walk the "hills" at the Mitchell Challenge, you're pretty much walking miles 3 to the summit, or basically 18 or so miles!

It was an unusually warm and dry February morning. There would be a slight drizzle during the day and it was pretty windy at times, but pretty mild compared to years' past. With no ice or snow anywhere, we came in anticipating running the regular course, which I hadn't gotten to do in quite some time. But, a friend at the start told us that once again, we'd be running the paved entrance road up to and down from the summit of Mount Mitchell. That road has some nice views and is a great drive, but I really wanted to do the trail and not run up a bunch of asphalt. In anticipation of mud,I was even wearing my knobby Salomons which are kind of pointless on highway.

But still, this is Mount Mitchell and this race has become as much of a tradition as us going to The Bear and Grandfather Mountain Marathon in July. We run this and then go to My Father's Pizza in Black Mountain afterwards to celebrate our survival and compare notes. This year, of our local group, it was just Ray and I in the Challenge, with Lee, Clay, Mike, and Mitch running the marathon. Doug, Beth, Beth, and Rick were also out there, though I didn't see them at the start. Paul planned to come up later and catch us finishing.

From the start, I felt pretty good, seeming to feel no latent fatigue from training over the last week. I fell in with Greg Little for a while, not having realized he had signed up. It always amazes me how I can start maybe 10-15 feet behind the start line and yet so many people are ahead of me when we get out onto Highway 9 and head toward Montreat. It's not an issue as the road is wide and there's plenty of room, but I always wonder where all those people came from. I tried very hard to maintain a steady pace and not get caught up in the pull of the faster runners. I think I was somewhat successful--at least I didn't "over-rev" my heart rate. I walked the steep hill leading out of Montreat and up to the trailhead and then resumed a run.

The first miles on the trail are always a period of everyone getting into their position based on their pace. It's easy here to get caught up with someone faster pulling you into a pace you shouldn't be doing, so you really have to pay attention to yourself and your body and see if it's protesting. I think I passed a few people and I'm sure a couple must have passed me, but we sorted ourselves out pretty quickly and for the last couple miles leading to the Sourwood Gap aid station, I was in my own space, with no one fifty feet ahead or behind me. Like with so many other races, parts of the course have become familiar to me over the years and I kind of know when I'm getting close to the aid stations here, despite them not ringing cow bells, etc... that you can hear from a distance.

The first aid station was just a drive by since I still had plenty of water in my soft flasks. I grabbed a banana slice, pushed it down, and headed on. Except for a brief period with a guy from Asheville, I never really fell in with anyone and held a conversation. We caught up to the lead female Challenger but only talked briefly as we each took care to navigate the rockier sections of the Toll Road.

It was pretty uneventful between the first and third aid stations. The short-sleeve SmartWool t-shirt I was wearing, plus the pack on my back had kept me warm, and too warm at times, during the long steady climb. When I saw the lead marathoner heading back down toward me, I was substantially further up the course than when Morgan Elliot was tearing back down last year, on his way to crushing the course record by something like twelve minutes. I didn't look closely enough to realize it was Alex Garcia leading the way. I had met Alex a few weeks earlier during a run on the MST from Black Mountain to Marion. I didn't even realize he had registered so I wasn't looking for him.

The Toll Road miles go slowly for me as I always seem to have trouble picking the best lines. Reaching the "top" of the road and starting that gradual downhill to the Parkway was a relief as I was certainly tired of navigating the baseball to football sized rocks of the last few miles.

Coming down Parkway, I believe.
There wouldn't be any surprises for a while as I knew pretty much what to expect with the State Park entrance road. I don't know the stats in terms of elevation gain and distance, but I think it's roughly 4-4.5 miles each way and the summit is roughly 1400-1500' above the marathon turnaround, so I guess it's about like running The Bear after a fourteen mile warmup. I'll pause here to note that I felt like I ran more of the course to this point than in years past--meaning fewer walk breaks. I do not know if I ran as fast as I have before, but I was glad to be able to keep moving. As I've noted earlier, I've gotten in a bad habit of too many walk breaks and a recent 20ish mile run with Dennis and Beth showed me just how out of actual running shape I had gotten.

The Park entrance road is another stretch I've tended to walk too much. This year, despite the onset of some digestive issues, I forced myself into running more than usual. I still fast walked some sections where I felt like I was just using too much effort to run barely faster than I could walk and in periods when I hit a big headwind. A couple times, I was the beneficiary of a tail wind that motivated me to run a steeper incline that I might normally have walked.

I don't recall anyone passing me on the road, though the first female and another guy pulled a little away from me. After I finally came up to the parking area, I did commit to walking up the pavers to the summit. I was completely caught off guard to see an old friend "Mo" checking bibs just below the summit (and out of the wind.) I assumed we were expected to still go to the summit and did so. I hadn't seen Mo in quite a while and really wanted to catch up, but I was in a "race" and needed to keep moving. Back at the parking lot aid station, I thought about inquiring about whether the bathrooms were open but figured they were closed for the season. I got a banana and thanked everyone and headed on down.

I think I ran fairly well down the road, seeing LOTS of friends heading toward me. Beth Minnick was frighteningly close behind, apparently running me down as a proxy for Beth Frye, who was in the marathon this year. I can't seem to shake the Beths. Noticeable for his absence was Ray. I worried that he might have been going out too fast and might get to the marathon turnaround and decide to drop down and that's what he did. Maybe the fact that he knew we'd be running up the road didn't provide the motivation that running on the trails would have offered. Though I found myself looking for anywhere I could duck into woods off the road, I had no luck and just continued to run the best I could. I actually loosened up a bit and the running part was easier, but I was still fighting the need to hit the woods and unlike in some years, there was no porta-jon near the rangers' station nor did I see one at the Marathon turnaround. I'd have to find a spot in the woods somewhere and the sooner, the better.

I'd run the 4.5 miles back down to the Parkway and elected to walk some of the short rise that came after leaving the Park. Some of this was to settle my stomach/intestines and some just to calm myself down. Back at the aid station, I ran into a few marathoners making their turnaround and rejoined the Toll Road for what I expected to be a rough eight or so miles.

And it was. I really had to pull over but couldn't find a good opportunity and place to do so. This, combined with a bit of a bonk, slowed me down quite a bit on the more technical stuff because I couldn't focus as well on what I was doing. I shuffled past the occasional marathoner and had a Challenge runner or two come by me, surprised that more hadn't come by. The temperature had warmed considerably and at times my SmartWool shirt was too warm, but I didn't want to try the pack with no shirt and the occasional wind gust cooled things back down.

Down I went, through the "middle" aid station, running/moving landmark to landmark. The few uphills we hit on the way back were walked because the effort of an uphill run only aggravated my digestive issues. I made it back to Sourwood Gap, the last aid station before Montreat, and seriously thought about ducking into the woods there as I had on training runs, but there were way too many people. I continued through the aid station down the steep switchbacks. As I approached one, I saw a faint trail leading off from the turn and without a thought, took it far enough to not be seen from the course. I'll skip over describing the next few minutes but suffice it to say it helped quite a bit.

Rejoining the course, I didn't really have any new energy but I didn't have that distraction anymore. I was tiring--perhaps the aggressive week before the race had caught up to me--and I still had some discomfort, but I could shuffle onward. With maybe 2.5 miles to go, Paul appeared on his bike and followed me on the paved parts of the course. The parts that used to stretch on forever have gotten a bit shorter with familiarity but they are still not easy. When I reached the row of houses on the greenway, someone saw my number, looked at a sheet, and shouted "Good job, Mark...Greenwood, South Carolina!" I was already past them but it made me laugh. They got it half right. I had to walk the hill that leads back to Highway 9 and near the end of the hill, Paul commented that there was someone close behind. That was ok, I didn't really care. The person behind passed me just on the other side of the highway as we made our way into the little neighborhood beside Lake Tomahawk. I was able to run the downhill and stayed fairly close to him, but without any real intention of trying to catch him.

So glad to see the finish!
But I did catch him on the final straightaway around the lake. He said something to the effect of "go ahead," indicating that I shouldn't slow down for him, but I did. I told him that this was just the celebratory lap after a tough day. We came around the final corner together and I figured we'd cross the line together and high-five or something, but about 100-150' from the finish he took off. I tried to give chase but between the reaction time and my shorter, tired legs, I wasn't going to catch him. I wasn't mad, but it was a bit strange that suddenly it mattered to him. It later occurred to me that maybe he thought I had already finished based on my comment? Who knows. I saw the clock was just under six hours so there wasn't anything to be gained in killing myself over that last very short distance and I crossed at around 5:57.

My PR here is so confusing because of all the different course configurations. This was almost identical to my time a couple years earlier, but not my best time, which was a few minutes faster. After I caught my breath, I went to get the finisher's jacket--a zippered hoodie this year, rather than the fleece pull-overs of year's past--and then headed upstairs to look for all my marathoner friends.

They were all gathered around a circular table, sharing stories. Ray seemed a little embarrassed that he turned around early and said that he had gone out too fast. He said he was about to head out to watch for me to finish, but hadn't expected me in under six hours. I think I had been telling people to expect 6:30ish when I thought we were running the regular course, so I can see why he didn't think to be looking earlier. With so few interested in pizza right after the race, we just sat and talked for a while and then headed home. Paul and Evelyn would meet Leslie and me later that day at a Mexican restaurant in Morganton. As much as I like the social side of post-race pizza, I usually don't really have the stomach for it. Give me several hours to rest and recover, though, and I can clean my plate at any restaurant.

It was a weird day in that I felt like I ran the uphill better than usual, but the downhill didn't go so well. The fact that I believe I spent more time actually running is encouraging going forward and it will be interesting to see if I recover quickly enough for next week's Umstead Marathon. I've only done the two back to back once and had mixed success at Umstead that year, struggling toward the end on a pretty warm day.

So, I have my ten combined finishes now and I really need to consider whether to keep registering and possibly taking a spot that isn't necessarily easy to get or move on to other things for a while. I've already decided that I most likely won't register for the marathon anymore, but if the Challenge is going to use the road to the summit from now on, that will certainly factor into my thinking when next year's race registration opens up. Well, that's months away and there are other races on the horizon that I have to turn my attention toward now.

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