Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Race Report: Mount Mitchell Challenge

As bucket-list races go, it may not be Boston, Western States, or UTMB, but for East Coast trail runners, the Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon is certainly on the list.  First run in 1998, the MMC is a 40-mile race to the top, and back, of the tallest mountain in the eastern United States.  The race starts in the small town of Black Mountain, about 10 miles east of Asheville, NC (aka Beer City USA), at an elevation of 2360', and climbs to the top of Mount Mitchell, at 6684'.  The companion race, or "fun run" as it's sometimes known, is the Black Mountain Marathon, which runs concurrently with the Challenge until reaching the Blue Ridge Parkway (5340') and then heading back down to the finish.

This was my second trip to Mount Mitchell.  In 2011, I had one of the best races of my life there, placing fifth in an elite field, running 5:18 for the rugged 40 miles.  Needless to say, the race carried some strong positive associations for me.  But it was not just the fact that I had run well there before that made me excited to return.  The course is about 80% trail, and has nearly twenty miles of climbing, but with very few exceptions, the trail is quite runnable, and the grade is gentle enough to be steadily climbed at a solid pace--right in my wheelhouse.

Me, Mike, and Alex at the start in 2011
Just like in 2011, I made the trip with my good friends Mike Halstead and Alex Sherwood, who had first attempted the Black Mountain Marathon in 2008 (Alex third, Mike eighth).  Mike had a fantastic race in 2011 as well, finishing second overall, but Alex started the race despite coming in with an injury and was forced to drop only five miles in.  That injury lingered for the next two years, and it's really only in the past six months that he's started running regularly again.  To say he was returning to the race with unfinished business in mind would be a hell of an understatement.  Also joining us was our frequent training partner Brian Hickey, who was recovering from an injury of his own but is a fantastic hill runner when healthy; two other local veteran ultra runners, Joe Brown and Charlie Gadol; and two friends and accomplished ultra guys from NYC, Glen Redpath and Brian Oestrike.

I came in to the race confident.  Training in the past couple of months has gone quite well.  I was able to get up to a peak of nearly 110 miles per week, with a four-week stretch before the taper of nearly 380 miles, and a ton of steady work on the local hills.  Unfortunately my legs were not quite 100% coming in due to our family's vacation plans.  Our itinerary initially called for us to ski in Park City, UT from the Friday through the Monday before the race (I know, tough life, right?) before traveling to Charlotte on Tuesday and making our way to the race later in the week. Five days to recover from skiing would have been perfect.  However, our flight west on Thursday got cancelled, and we were unable to fly out until Sunday, which meant we skied from Monday to Wednesday, three days before race day.  By Saturday morning, most of my ski-related soreness was gone, and my legs were feeling mostly normal, but pretty early in the day's climbing, I could tell I didn't have my usual pep, and the climb was not nearly as effortless as it had been in 2011.

RD Jay Curwen gives us last-minute advice

The race starts with 2-3 miles of flat to minimally uphill running on pavement, and I ran at the back of the lead pack with Alex, trying to stay as smooth and relaxed as possible.  Jason Bryant of La Sportiva, the 2008 Challenge winner and several times a member of the US team for the World Mountain Running Championship and the World Trail Championship races, set the early pace, followed by locals Shaun Pope and Paul Scouten, Pearl Izumi's Johnathan Allen, and Dane Mitchell from Colorado, who had been leading this race in 2011 when he fell and dislocated his shoulder near the summit.  Jason was pushing the pace, and by the time we hit the first steep climb and headed into the trails, we were strung out in single file, and I was losing ground quickly.  I struggled to find a comfortable rhythm and quickly found most of the pack pulling away from me.  Right around the 40-minute mark I caught a root and went down pretty hard, scraping up my elbows.  My handheld water bottle absorbed a lot of the impact, but the plastic strap fixing the cap atop the bottle was cracked in the fall, and for the remainder of the race I had to take the cap off the bottle with one hand and hold it while drinking with the other hand.

Just after I fell, Mike caught me from behind.  Not a great sign; while Mike is an awesome downhill runner, I am usually a stronger climber, and even though I was running 14 miles more than him this day, I still wasn't expecting to see him at any point on the uphill.  It was a blessing in disguise, though, as it allowed be to refocus mentally and finally find some kind of rhythm.  I wasn't feeling great by any means, but I was able to stick with him for the next twenty minutes or so, until he pulled away out of AS#2.

For the next hour or so I tried to climb as best I could.  The trails were wet, but at this point still mostly clear of snow and ice.  I stuck to what rhythm I could find and picked off a couple of marathoners, knowing now that only Alex, Mike, and the top 6 in the Challenge were ahead of me.  Then, about two miles from the Parkway, I started to catch brief glimpses of Paul Scouten up ahead of me by about a minute.  I hadn't seen any Challengers for nearly 90 minutes, so this was a bit of a lift, and I pressed on, trying to keep the tempo up.  I reached the Parkway only about 20 seconds behind Paul, and I got a huge mental boost seeing Mike and the Alex leaving the aid station at the marathon turnaround to head back down the mountain 1-2 overall.  Buoyed by their strong running, I put my head down and went after Paul.

I caught him about a mile later, just before we left the paved road of the Parkway and ducked onto the Buncombe Horse Trail, at 16.5 miles.  I was a bit distressed that my splits at both the Parkway at the BHT were nearly 10 minutes slower than my race from 2011.  But, there was nothing to do about that now, and I finally felt like I had some momentum.  At over 5500' of elevation, the BHT is a mostly gradual climb that still had significant snow and ice in between its numerous stream crossings, making for some slow going.  I felt like Paul was struggling to keep contact, though, so I tried to press my advantage and gain as much ground as I could.  It worked, a bit; I put about a minute on him over the next three miles.  But that gap disappeared almost immediately on the steep, extremely technical final 2K to the summit.  Paul blew by me and disappeared up the trail; I walked most of the final mile, jogging a few treacherous steps here and there and usually winding up flat on my back as a result.  Finally, after covering miles 19.5-21 in 30 minutes, I reached the summit in 3:18.  I was about eighteen minutes behind my 2011 pace at this point, but I was surprised to see Johnathan Allen leaving the summit shortly before I arrived, less than two minutes ahead, and I knew Paul would be just in front of him.  The knowledge that I was still within striking distance of them helped me attack the start of the long downhill as best as my tired legs would allow.  About a mile beyond the summit, I passed early leader Jason Bryant, moved into fifth, and pressed onward.

After 45 minutes of paved downhill, I made it back to the Parkway aid station at the marathon turnaround, now with twelve miles to go.  Brian Oestrike had dropped at this point due to a rib injury, so he led the volunteers in a bit of cheering and told me that I was only a couple of minutes behind Paul and Johnathan in third and fourth.  Hearing this excited me enough that I blew right through the AS without taking on any extra nutrition.  Probably not the smartest move, but I was finally feeling good and thought I might be able to reel them in.  Not to be, however.  I held a decent pace for the next four miles, holding about 7:00/mile despite some wet and nasty footing; but past that point I started to tire badly and moved into survival mode.  The amazing Aliza Lapierre blew by me with five miles to go on her way to a dominant victory in the women's race.

The incomparable Aliza Lapierre
I focused on sticking with my nutrition and just moving forward, limped down the insanely steep stretch from 36-37 with tears in my eyes, and filled by bottle with Coke at the last aid station for the final 5K.  About a minute further along, the pressure from the carbonation in the bottle built up enough to pop the cap off the bottle.  Unfortunately, the cap was no longer tethered to the bottle, so it flew up and smacked me in the face.  Cursing, I stumbled toward the finish, staggering past some of the marathoners and checking over my shoulder every few minutes to make sure no one was sneaking up behind me.  And then, as I reached the flat cinder loop around the pond, half a mile from the finish, someone was there.  He smiled at me when I looked over my shoulder and said, "Hey."  I thought, shit.  I couldn't believe that after five and a half hours of running I was going to have to sprint to defend my spot, but there it was.  I tossed my water bottle to Alex and took off.  It wasn't fast, and it certainly wasn't pretty, but it worked, and I held on to sixth overall, fifth male.
All in all, I was relatively pleased with my performance.  I wasn't with my time; my 5:44:57 was nearly a half hour slower than my breakthrough race in 2011, and nearly an hour behind Dane Mitchell's dominant CR performance for the win.  And I was disappointed to know that if I had run up to my ability, as demonstrated by that 2011 race (and I think my fitness level this year was, at the very least, comparable, if not better), I could have finished third against a very, very solid field of athletes. On the positive side, however, I felt like I was able to gut out a solid, satisfying result despite clearly not having my "A" game.  I felt like my ongoing experiments with nutrition--mostly relying on GU and Roctane, GU Brew, and S! caps--served me well on the day.  In terms of mental toughness, I gave myself a solid B+.  And I beat my good friend Glen for only the second time ever, and the first time on a trail course--a small victory perhaps, but Glen is one of the best 100-mile runners in the country, so I'll certainly take it.

Alex with Sara, our beer goddess.
The rest of our contingent had an excellent day, other than Brian O.'s DNF.  Mike, Alex, and Brian Hickey hit the marathon turnaround 1-2-4 overall, which was amazing.  Of all of us, Mike is really the only great downhill runner, and he had himself another great race to finish second overall again, for the second straight time.  Alex and Brian hung tough, despite each only having injury-limited buildups to the race and not getting a ton of long runs in training; there were some struggles over the final 10K, but they held on to finish 9th and 12th, respectively.  Joe and Charlie had good days out as well, and there was tons of good beer at the finish courtesy of Mike's friend Sara.  As usual, RD Jay Curwen and his team did an amazing job of putting on a top notch event that truly is a bucket list race in an incredibly beautiful part of the country.  Great race, friends, beer: what more could you ask for?  A song from North Carolina's best band?  OK, fine: