Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mount Mitchell Challenge

Things that I like in races:
  • Climbing mountains
  • Beautiful views
  • Technical terrain
  • Beer
Yeah, this event checked a lot of boxes.

Oooh! Aaah!
...Okay, this part wasn't so beautiful

Course and Goals

The Mount Mitchell Challenge is a 37 mile race in the Black Mountain range of eastern North Carolina. The concept is very simple: start in the town of Black Mountain (elevation 2,360'), climb the tallest peak in the eastern US (Mount Mitchell, elevation 6,684'), and then return. The accompanying Black Mountain Marathon follows the same route, but turns around at 5,200'.

Course Map

With the exception of the final two miles leading to the summit, the course mostly consists of double wide trail and pavement. Combined with the relatively moderate grade of the trails, this makes Mount Mitchell a real runner's course (note: I do not consider myself a "real runner").

Elevation Profile
Just one climb!

The difficulty of this race lies in two factors: the relentless nature of the climb and descent and the unpredictability of the weather. The initial climb - and essentially the only climb of the race - lasts anywhere from 2.5 hours to 6 hours depending on the runner. That's a long time spent using the same muscles. The descent then lasts another 2-4 hours, during which every runner's quads are turned into ground beef. The weather has also been a huge variable over the years, ranging from frigid with several feet of snow at the summit in 2016 to mid-70's and humid this year.

Picture from the course in a high snow year. Note the Stop sign on the left.
Photo from blackmountainmarathon.com

Following a pretty rough end of 2017, I decided to run my first few races of 2018 as long training runs and avoid burning out too early in the year. I decided not to taper before Mount Mitchell nor to take any time off afterwards. My race goals were:
  1. Maintain a "long run" effort level
  2. Don't get hurt
  3. Have fun
  4. Finish as fast as possible while following rules 1-3
So with that in mind, Alex and I made the ten hour drive from NJ to Black Mountain on Friday, grabbed our bibs and race swag, and met up with David White and Cindy Huang for some pre-race BBQ. Alex was nervous about running the marathon, since she hadn't trained much over the past few months, so I wasn't sure whether talking about the course would ease her mind or push her over the edge. I tried to convince her that she could walk the course and finish well under the ten hour cutoff but she wasn't convinced. Regardless, the southern BBQ did not disappoint, and I traded some NJ beer with David for some delicious Michigan microbrews, so the weekend was already a smashing success!

Of Nerves and Run Bums

Since our hotel was less than a mile from the start, we were able to "sleep in" until 5:30. Which sounds awful until you realize that we regularly wake up at 2:00-3:00am for races (and, on one occasion, at 11:45pm). We showed up to the starting line just a few minutes before the starting gun, which was perfect since Alex was a bundle of nerves by this point and she didn't want to mill around anxiously.

Alex looks cute, but she's trying really hard not to puke

The weather was a comfortable 50-something degrees as we started off through the paved streets of Black Mountain. A couple hundred yards into the race, I spotted a skinny ginger dude wearing a bedazzled trucker cap and recognized him as Sean "The Run Bum" Blanton, the infamous race director and loquacious host of the East Coast Trail and Ultra Podcast. We fist bumped and parted ways. He would go on to have a solo adventure, exploring miles of trails off course before finishing DFL and getting blackout drunk at the finish line. Legend.

So anyway, the first few miles of pavement were pretty easy going, and I settled into a 8:30/mi effort level while focusing on my breathing. Inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 3 steps. That was the plan for the next 6+ hours. Mile 3 was the start of the real climbing, and I allowed my pace to slow while maintaining a steady running cadence.

The course was blanketed in fog, so the early miles were uninspiring. However, I inquired about a  massive group of runners wearing matching yellow shirts and was told that they were members of the South Carolina Runners of Trail UltraMarathons (SCROTUM). I also learned that they award an annual "SCROTUM of the Year" to their highest performing member. Something to shoot for if I ever find myself living in South Carolina!

As the course grew steeper and rockier, my pace slowed further, but I reminded myself to hold back and save any heroic efforts for later in the year. The trail was wet from several inches of rain that had fallen over the past few weeks, and I plodded up the slippery rock strewn path, trying to maintain my footing. Occasionally, the clouds would part for a few seconds and reveal the surrounding landscape, but mostly the views consisted of rocks and moss.

A mossy section of trail
Photo by Alex

Mile 14 marked the marathon turnaround at the Blue Ridge Parkway around 5,280' elevation. The field thinned out as we began the paved douche grade climb of 1,000' over the next three miles. Having honed this climbing gear with hours of hill repeats over the past few weeks, I managed to run almost the entire climb. I was feeling pretty good about myself until I saw race leader Morgan Elliott careening downhill towards me at a 5:30 pace! He would go on to shatter the course record with a time of 4:20:48 (7:09/mi), faster than all but the top 28 marathon finishers. Whew!

Anyway, this is where the fun started.

The Fun Part

We departed the road at mile 17 and began our assault on the Old Mitchell Trail. New to the course in 2018, this section of trail felt like being transported 800 miles north to the Catskills. A narrow track over massive boulders led us through a dense primevil spruce-fir forest. Each step had to be carefully negotiated, as the camber of the trail constantly changed. After miles of pavement and fire roads, the slick boulder strewn path was a startling change of pace (literally).

Old Mitchell Trail, mile 18
Photo by David White

Between the altitude (hey, 6,000' is pretty high up when your home is at 200') and the technicality of the terrain, my heart was beating out of my chest as my pace slowed to 15:00/mi, then well over 20:00/mi. The verdant forest was a welcome distraction from the effort of the climb, but I could not afford to take my eyes off the trail for more than a split second. A brief downhill section even had a rope for runners to hold on to. The final pitch to the summit gained 600' in just 0.6 miles. Now this was ultrarunning!

Just shy of mile 19, we popped out of the woods again and onto the paved Mt. Mitchell Trail, which took us the remaining 100 feet up to the observation tower at 6,684'. I dug my phone out to snap a picture of the awe inspiring view, only to find that I couldn't see a damn thing in any direction! The summit was completely blanketed in a dense fog. Well, such is life. Instead I took a picture of the surveyor's mark and sweet talked volunteer Jordan Chang into taking my picture in front of the summit sign (see above).

I guess this will suffice as a summit picture

After a quick stop to refill on food and water, I hit the summit road and went into a free fall descent for the next few paved miles. It felt great to open up my stride again, and I hit splits of 7:43, 8:34, 7:51, and 7:47 as the course plummeted 1,400 feet back down the mountain. On the saddle between Mitchell and Hallback, the clouds parted and we were treated to a spectacular 360 degree panorama of the Black Mountains.

The Black Mountain Range through the mist
Photo by David White

Why is it so hot in February?!

Five miles and 40 minutes after leaving the summit, we were back on fire roads. It was now close to noon, and the weather was starting to heat up as we descended into increasingly thicker, more humid air. Weather records show that the high for the day was 74 degrees, but I'm reasonably sure it was more like 95. Having trained exclusively in frigid conditions for the past few months, my body was unable to shed the excess heat that I was generating as I barreled down the mountain. I thought about gritting my teeth and powering through final 10 miles, but then I remembered rules 1-3 and resigned myself to a more reasonably paced finish.

More beautiful scenery during the descent
Photo by Alex

I eased off the pace and drank in the scenery whenever possible. I also drank in some beer at the mile 31 aid station (Dale's Pale Ale if I remember correctly). After a final jarring descent of almost 900 feet in a mile, we reached the picturesque Flat Creek Greenway for the final few flat(ish) miles.

For the past few miles, I had expected to see Alex ahead of me at some point since she was anticipating a 7-8 hour finish, and we were just over 6 hours elapsed at this point. As the finish line got closer, I began to worry that she had gotten hurt or otherwise DNF'ed. Then, as I rounded the final turn, I saw her standing at the entrance to Lake Tomahawk Park, looking justifiably proud of her 6:25 finish! She crushed the race and had just enough time to see me make the final loop around the lake and under the finishing arch.

Photo by Mount Mitchell Challenge

I crossed the line in 6:35:25, good for 34th place of 158 finishers. Not bad for a "long run effort" race!

Official results (shout out to Morgan Elliot for destroying my Ultrasignup score!)


With the running portion of the day finished, we were able to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather, as we enjoyed the post race buffet and Michigan's finest beer while watching the rest of the finishers come in.

70 and sunny in mid-February. Thanks, global warming!

All in all a great trip and a fun little event to start the year! I would definitely recommend this race to anyone who is looking for an early season race that has a mix of every conceivable terrain.

Next up: Lenape 50K on 3/3 (report incoming) and NJ Marathon on 4/29.