Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Black Mountain Marathon and Mount Mitchell Challenge

I just got back from Black Mountain, NC, which is one of my favorite places.  It is a small town, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside of Asheville.  The streets are filled with unique stores offering organic food and lots of original art.  This past Saturday was the the Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon.  Both races start in downtown Black Mountain at an elevation of 2,360 feet and follow the road until the runners reach Montreat.  Once there, the course turns onto the trails and heads uphill.  Marathon and Challenge runners stay together until the course reaches the Blue Ridge Parkway, just outside Mount Mitchell State Park at 5,340 feet.  (That's a 2,800 foot elevation gain in 13.1 miles.)  Here the marathoners turn around and head back down into town.  Those fortunate enough to have gotten a slot for the Challenge continue on to the summit of Mount Mitchell, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet.  Once there they turn around and head back down to the finish line for a total of just under 40 miles.  The race website does its best to prepare entrants for what to expect on the course.  Potential runners are greeted with the following disclaimer:

This will be an extremely demanding course run over rugged mountain terrain under potentially life-threatening weather conditions. Participants must understand that their safety is paramount in the minds of the organizers and that while all reasonable precautions have been taken, it will be the competitor's ultimate responsibility to insure his or her own safety.

I ran the Challenge in 2010 when they had a first come first serve approach to registration. That year the race filled up in less than 20 minutes. The Challenge has become so popular that the Race Director instituted a lottery for entry this year.  Those who wanted to run to the summit put their names in a hat, crossed their fingers, and waited to hear.   I had hoped to run the Challenge this year but was not selected.  So I signed up for the Marathon, still excited to run a great race in a great setting.  My friend and long time training partner, Tim, managed to get a slot for the Challenge, his first.  Our plan was to start out together and see how we felt.  More on that later.  

I took of Friday afternoon and arrived in Black Mountain right after 5 and headed for packet pick up at the Monte Vista Hotel.  I asked the Race Director if there was any chance of getting a spot in the race to the summit.  Unfortunately, he said there had not been many cancellations and my fate was sealed.  26.2 it would be.  I spent the weekend with an old friend and her family.  We had dinner at a friend's house. As I have the palate of a 12 year old, I was able to eat enough to be polite, but not enough to store enough calories for the next day.  So with a quick phone call, I got my hands on a pizza from My Father's Pizza and Pasta. As I headed upstairs to bed, the wind was howling through the trees at what sounded like gale force.  I gathered my gear and settled in for a decent night's sleep . . . after setting 5 different alarms, between two cell phones and a watch.  I am always afraid that I'll oversleep and miss a race start.  

Special Thanks to Raleigh Running Outfittes for their continued support.
I woke up after the second alarm to a cold, windy morning.  I quietly got dressed and headed out in the dark.  I had decided to park at the race start in downtown and walk back to my car from the race finish instead of the other way around.  I figured I could enjoy the warmth of the car until the last minute this way and could use the walk back to the car after the race to help loosen up the legs.  I got a text from Tim who was at The Dripolator Coffee House for a dose of caffeine.  He soon met me in my car, where we waited until about 6:50 or so before venturing out into the cold morning.  The sun was starting to rise, and the temperature was about 30 degrees.  The crowd was milling around trying to stay warm and handle their nervous energy. The race started at 7:00 with a run through the streets of downtown and then on into Montreat.  The rabbits took off at a pace that prohibited me from seeing them until after they had turned around and were heading back. 

Moments before the start.

There are several things that make this race challenging beyond the elevation change.  One of them is the weather.  I was cold when I got up so I layered up with a pair of 2XU compression tights and top, a pair of running pants, a t-shirt, a running jacket, a skull cap and some thick fleece gloves.  I knew the weather could be challenging from my run in 2010.  About 45 minutes into the run I thought I had overdressed.  I unzipped my jacket and took off my gloves.  As we gained elevation, the temperature dropped.  The cold temperatures were compounded by the wind, which was still howling.  The drinks at the aid stations were freezing on the tables.  Needless to say, the jacket was zipped up and the gloves went back on.  Tim and I started off together at a comfortable 10 minute pace.  We slowed as the trail turned up, walking the steeper sections.  The final aspect of this race that makes it challenging is the terrain.  Running uphil in the cold would be a piece of cake on smooth, even ground.  That is not the case.  The course if full of rocks.  Big rocks, small rocks, medium sized rocks, loose rocks, wet rocks, slippery rocks, rocks with ice.  What I'm saying is that there are a lot of rocks on the course.  While the race leaders seemed to float effortlessly over them, I had forgotten to fill up with helium and found floating difficult.  On the way up I spoke with a woman who had a friend from Florida who had trained for the Challenge in a parking garage a couple of years ago.  No one told him about the rocks.  He made it into the Challenge, but missed the cut off for the summit and finished the marathon in seven hours.  At the finish he said he hadn't prepared for the rocks and they really slowed him down. 

I quickly realized that I was not going to have a great day, or set any sort of PR so I decided to enjoy the scenery and the experience.  The photograph below is an example of the trail.  This is actually one of the less rocky sections of the trail.  Here is a link to an awesome video by Tim Weed, who placed third overall in the challenge.  RACE VIDEO  This video does a good job of capturning some of the course conditions. 

Another video is available here that actually does a better job of showing off the rocky sections of the trail that both the marathoners and the Challenge runners faced. 

Tim and I continued to run together for the first one hour and forty three minutes of the race.  I know exactly how long it was because I remember looking at my watch when I stopped to walk on a steep section, and he kept going.  I then played catch up with him at the aid stations until we hit the turn around for the marathon.  In order for Challenge runners to be allowed to continue to the summit they had to reach that point in three hours or less.  Tim got there with about 10 minutes to spare, and I was a couple of minutes behind him.  By this point we were at 5,340 feet, and it was cold.  I don't know what the temperature was, but here is some evidence of the cold not far from the turn around. 

Let me just take a minute to say how incredible the volunteers are in this race.  They were standing out there in the freezing cold for hours.  (I heard later that the temperature at the summit was 9, with 30+ mph winds.)  All of them had smiles and words of encouragement for every one of the runners, even the back of the packers like me. 

Typical view along the trail. Looking out over Old Fort.

The fun thing about an out and back course is that you get to see people coming and going.  The bad thing about an out and back course is you get to see people coming and going.  Not only did I get confirmation that I was getting my ass handed to me in the marathon, I was even passed by the two lead challenge runners on the way back down the mountain.  Although I didn't have a great day on Saturday (I was 30 minutes slower to the turn around point than in 2010), I did get the chance to run a negative split.  If you want to run a marathon where you can be almost guaranteed to run the second half faster than the first, this is the one.  It took me about 2:53 for the first half and 2:26 for the second half.  The run down is fairly gradual until the 5 mile mark.  Right after the last aid station on the mountain the altitude plummets.  Imagine a hill as steep as a flight of stairs that keeps going down for 3/4 of a mile.  Now, run down that after you have already run either 21 or 35 miles.  That's good stuff.  My quads are still not happy with me.  Once runners make it off the mountain they find themselves in Montreat, where they run for a mile or so on a nice level trail that follows a beautiful mountain stream.  The last two miles run through some residential neighborhoods back into Black Mountain to the finish area at Lake Tomahawk.  Finishers approach the lake and can see the finish line but are told they have to run around the lake clockwise before crossing the finish line. 

Lake Tomahawk
After crossing the line, runners are sent inside to get their finisher's fleece and then upstairs for a meal. Hot dogs, chili, chips, cookies, water, coffee, and soda, are handed out to hungry runners by enthusiastic volunteers.  I crossed the line in a little under 5:20 and tried not to throw up, having pushed too hard across the line.  I got my fleece, ate a hot dog and some chips, chatted with a few runners, and then headed back to the car.  I had time to head back to the house, shower, change and make it back to the finish in plenty of time to see Tim finish the Challenge.  His wife and kids were there and he got to run across the line with his son, Lucas.  A great moment for any father.

Tim and Lucas crossing the finish line of the Challenge in 7:50
Here are the podium finishers:

Mount Mitchell Challenge:
  1. 1-  Scott Williams, 4:58:37, Jefferson, NC
  2. 2-  Paul Scouten, 5:03:05, Black Mountain, NC
  3. 3-  Timothy Weed, 5:30:27, Fletcher, NC
  4. 4-  Andrew Krueger, 5:45:11, Charlottesville, VA
  5. 5-  Drew Shelfer, 5:53:16, Asheville, NC
  1. 1-  Rory Bosio, 5:55:24, Soda Springs, CA
  2. 2-  Allie Hustead, 6:25:42, Fairview, NC
  3. 3-  Elizabeth Minnick, 7:01:05, Abingdon, VA
  4. 4-  Amanda Morris, 7:15:04, Tega Cay, SC
  5. 5-  Kathleen Cusick, 7:21:25, Knoxville, TN
  1. 1-  Robert Taylor, 5:50:45, Cary, NC
  2. 2-  Mark Ledyard, 5:51:22, Asheville, NC
  3. 3-  Cid Cardoso, 5:51:55, Cary, NC
  1. 1-  Diana Widdowson, 7:28:18, Conestoga, PA
  2. 2-  Julie Corey, 7:31:16, Asheville, NC
  3. 3-  Nicole Crane, 7:37:29, Asheville, NC 

Black Mountain Marathon:

  1. 1-  Jerad Crave, 3:09:26, Asheville, NC
  2. 2-  Kevin Lisska, 3:13:21, Tega Cay, SC
  3. 3-  Matt Manning, 3:25:58, Dayton, OH
  1. 1-  Keelin Schneider, 3:40:53, Black Mountain, NC
  2. 2-  Karen Ostergaard, 3:53:37, Asheville, NC
  3. 3-  Diane Wilson, 4:00:46, Asheville, NC
          1- David Workman, 3:18:43, Hendersonville, NC

          1- Annette Bednosky, 3:55:59, Boone, NC 

I won't lie, I was a little disappointed that I didn't run faster than I did.  It's been a few days and the disappointment has faded.  All that remains are the positive memories.  This is a fantastic race, in a beautiful setting, with amazing volunteers.  Registration for the 2013 race opens on September 1, 2012.  I've already got it on my calendar.  I'll be back. 

Finisher's Fleece

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