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|
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.
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|
|Alex with Sara, our beer goddess.|