..or as I like to remember it as the best time I had running downhill for 20 miles!
A little background on the race; Mount Mitchelll was first run in 1998 and has been run every year since. The route begins 2,400 feet above sea level, in the small town of Black Mountain, NC, on what is typically a cold Saturday morning in the end of February. This year we were very lucky, the temperature at the starting line felt almost balmy at around 35+ degrees. The quaint town sits in the east end of the Swannanoa Valley, and is often covered in snow and freezing rain. Its the tallest peak on the east coast and has drawn many talented runners, such as Paul Dewitt, Annette Bednosky, Rory Bosio, Dave Mackey, Kristin Moehl, and this year Aliza Lapierre and Olga King. (just to name a few finishers.)
Eight of us, from Chapel Hill, met at the start in the chilly air. We chatted, took pictures, and tried to shake out the pre-race jitters. A bit after 7 am Jay Curwen, the race director, lined us up. I couldn’t hear everything he was saying, but I think the gist was to be careful on the ice, running through town, and crossing the parkway (for the 40 mile Challengers.) Then we were off. I had started with a friend, and training partner, (who goes by the trail name, Balto). I had said I was going to take it out easy, which I did..sort of, ok maybe not. I decided if my breathing was steady and slow, then a 7:30 pace, on the roads through town was easy. The race runs a handful of miles from the downtown, up some neighborhoods, and through Montreat College. You would think that early on a Saturday morning the streets would be empty, but not true! Many of the residents, and students were outside their homes and lining the streets cheering us on. It was a really nice treat, and I was happy to smile and wave to all those cheering. After some rolling hills on the road, the race takes a sharp uphill turn as we were herded onto some really pretty single track. The trail was quiet, and like all other trails out in western part of NC, was covered by a tunnel of rhododendron branches. Off to the right there was a majestic scene of mountains in the distance. I realized while enjoying the people and the scenery, I had dropped Balto.
By the first aid station, Balto, had caught back up to me (he’s a very strong climber) and we continued onto the rustic jeep road together. I know its called a jeep road, but I couldn’t imagine driving anything on that “road.” It wasn’t too terribly steep, and was mostly runnable, but was completely washed out from many years of spring ice melt, and was covered by loose rocks and boulders. As a matter of fact, one of my friends who was running the Marathon option, wrenched her knee so badly on this section and I later found out she had to drop and hitch a ride back.
This jeep road, covered in several inches of cold, ice melt, took us up and up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was at about mile 14. This is where the 40 mile time cut off is, or where the marathoners turn around…(due to the slow going up the very top, if you do not make it to the marathon turn around in 3 hours you must turn back…even if you are cut off and must turn around you are still awarded a marathon time and finisher’s award.)
Having gotten to this point in about 2 hours and 15 minutes I was well ahead of the cut off and continued on. My legs were starting to feel the continuous uphill, and I slowed and walked, ate and drank on this mile of pavement. As we turned back onto the single track up to the peak of Mitchell, it was Balto’s turn to drop me. This single track trail was covered in snow and ice and I was having a very hard time getting any traction. I felt like I was wasting energy trying to hop from dry spot to dry spot, so I slowed and shuffled my way across the ice to conserve energy. By the time I reached the next aid station, the woman behind me had caught up to me and as we turned up the very steep, very treacherously icy trail we took our time and chatted. I found out she has run the race 7 years now, and had won it in the past. We commiserated over this slippery section, each falling on the ice a few times. It was nice to have someone to sympathize with.
Finally after nearly 20 minutes of navigating the ice-slick rocks we came upon the last paved section to the summit! I felt so lucky to be there on a perfectly clear day, and paused to take in the 360 view! What an amazing half way point!
After a few seconds of looking around, I went back into race mode. I have struggled with down hill running and form in the past, so the weeks leading up to Mitchell I vigilantly practiced down hill running hoping it would benefit me at Mitchell. Because there was so much ice at the top, we had to take the road back down for about 7 miles. Game ON! All that training was coming in handy! Once I got into a rhythm I was just flying down that steep road! I passed runner, after runner, after runner, I felt like I had wings! The Altra Lone Peak’s that I was wearing were solid enough for the rocky trails, but flexiable and cushioned enough for the pounding of the pavement.
This race is basically 20 miles up and 20 miles down. 20 miles downhill is a long way to pound hard on your quads, and I kept waiting for the wheels to fall off and a hip or knee to lock up. It never happened. The road took us all the way back down to that same jeep road where the marathon turn around was. I worried that switching from fast, smooth road, back to that incredibly muddy, wet, rocky trail would take its toll on me, but somehow (all that down hill stadium plyometrics that I did) held my legs together. I continued to pass runners every few minutes all the way down to the final stretch of road. We popped out of the woods, not on the same road we came out on but a steeper more rural road, with about 4-5 miles to go. I hadn’t quite been able to keep track of my position up to this point, but I estimated that at mile 20 I was the 5th or 6th female runner, and I had passed 2 females on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so I only needed to pass one or two more women to be in the top three.
Once the road flattened out, I finally caught back up to Balto. With a few words of encouragement I yelled at him to get a move on, I had more women to pass! He sort of half smiled and grunted and we continued on.. It was at this moment I saw a familiar face. Much to my surprise, another TrailHead was waiting to let us know what position we were in. Lynx urged me on, letting me know that woman #3 was just up ahead, and with 3 more rolling miles to go I could surly catch her. I put my head down and kept going. By the time I got to her, she was not looking too comfortable, and was walking. We exchanged pleasantries, and I continued on.
Now this race has a bit of a cruel twist at the end, you run toward the finish line, only to be routed around the lake for another half mile. Realistically it was actually pretty cool though, a few other TrailHead friends who had come to watch, and had already finished the marathon were there cheering. My husband, his first time at one of my ultra races, joined me for this last lap. It was really great to share that moment with him.
I crossed the line at 6:18, third female. I felt great! Living where its terribly flat made me nervous about the sustained climb and decent, but I was so happy that all those miles of up and down hill running, all those squats and bridges, all those Monday night workouts had done their job and held me together. I was proud of myself, proud of my friends…we all did really well, and all seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day.
I do have to say, this race was beautiful, and the race so well organized. Jay Curwen et al really puts on a great race and the proof of that is all the people who return year after year, in snow and freezing rain to come and summit the tallest peak on the east coast. Also, I must mention, this race had some great schwag. Everyone who finishes receives a really nice half-zip from Patagonia, a race t-shirt, and nice winter cap. Also, the top 5 finishers (male/female) get awards and some money, and the top three masters also receive checks…another good reason to train hard and get yourself to this race!
What I wore:
Altra Lone Peak 1.5 (of course!)
CEP compression socks
Nike 3/4 pants
wool blend 1/2 zip shirt and vest
Nathan waist pack