Mount Mitchell

Race Report: Mount Mitchell Challenge: the Paralysis of Indecision

Long considered of the toughest races in the country, the Mount Mitchell Challenge presents runners with obstacles before even reaching the starting line--and I'm not referring to the September entry lottery, which fills the race to capacity on the day it opens.  The unpredictable and ever-changing course conditions tend to destroy the best laid pre-race plans.  Many of us associate North Carolina with Tobacco Road and year-round warmth, but western North Carolina is without a doubt mountain country, and February in Black Mountain can be as harsh as winter in the northeast.  Deciding what to wear and what to carry for a 40-mile mountain race with 9000' of elevation change in the heart of winter presents unique difficulties, even in a good year.

This was not a good year.

The ten days that preceded our trip down to NC this year--my third try at this race, after finishing fifth in 2011 and sixth (fifth male) in 2014--was filled with a whirlwind of texts between myself and the four friends I'd be heading down with, most of them variations on the theme "Do you believe this fucking weather?"  Reports from the course painted a picture of a mix of snow and ice, with high temps in the 20s-30s.  Race director Jay Curwen, who usually downplays any sort of reports as hyperbole, was warning us that traction devices would be necessary; coming from him, this was a shocking admission.  By Tuesday before the race, it became clear that the alternate "snow route" above the Blue Ridge Parkway would be utilized, shortening the course by about 2-3 miles and making the latter stages of the summit ascent a road race--albeit at a 7% uphill grade.  Thursday brought another 4-6" of snow to the course.  I packed two large duffel bags with clothing, four pairs of shoes, two different hydration vests, Nanospikes, and Microspikes.  I was about to pack a pair of Dion snowshoes before I decided that if it was going to turn into a 40-mile snowshoe race, I'd simply skip the race and drink a whole bunch of beer.

Decisions, decisions...
Upon reaching Black Mountain on Friday afternoon, I drove out to Montreat, where the course leaves the pavement after the first few miles and enters the trails.  After a short scouting run with different devices, I decided on the Microspikes, which would provide the most traction in the several inches of loose, unpacked snow that was covering the course; I planned to carry them until the trailhead, then to strip them off again after the trail for the run to the summit on the Parkway and the summit access road, and use them again for the descent back down to Montreat.  At the pre-race meeting that night, though, Jay reported black ice on the summit roadway.  Now worried that I'd need traction for the roads as well, I started to think Nanospikes might be the way to go; they'd be more versatile, I could run with them on pavement if necessary (unlike the Microspikes), and they would provide some help on the snowy trails as well.  The agonizing over this and many other gear decisions--long sleeve shirt or arm sleeves?  Cap or winter beanie?  Regular trail shoes or gaiters?  Handheld bottle or vest?--occupied our conversations, not only for several hours that evening, but even at breakfast on race morning.  We sounded like a bunch of fifteen-year-old girls getting ready for prom.  Having myriad options didn't help; in fact, it simply left me feeling much more vulnerable to second-guessing myself.

The weather seemed reasonable, though: high 20's at the start, little wind, no rain.  I was actually pretty comfortable as we gathered on Cherry Street for the start.  I had felt a little sluggish the day before, but our short jog to the start told me that I was primed and ready to go.  Training had gone very well.  I had a six-week, 600-mile block behind me, with tons of hills and several strong tempo workouts mixed in; after switching up my diet in early January, I was at my lightest weight in fifteen years.  I knew the field was as strong as I had ever faced at Mitchell, but I couldn't wait to get going.

Ready to go!
Photo: Mike Siudy
The opening pace was suicidally fast.  Several people fairly sprinted off the line, as if starting a 5K.  The marathon division has become more competitive in recent years, and this has contributed to some fairly insane starts for those of us in the 40-mile division.  In 2011, I ran in the lead pack for most of the first 15 miles; of the first ten people to reach the marathon turnaround on the Parkway that year, only one of them was actually a marathoner.  This year, however, several of the marathoners came to hammer, and they strung out the rest of the 40-milers as well.  I found myself exactly where I wanted to be pre-race: running with Shaun Pope (the Challenge runner-up in 2014 and this year's favorite) and Matt Roane (the 2014 marathon winner), though our small pack of about six runners was not at the front of the field but back in about seventh, over a minute behind the leaders by the time we reached the two-mile mark in Montreat.  Our pace was fairly aggressive, though, and we were banking on some carnage among the fast starters later in the race.  (We were right, kind of; five of the top eight finishers came out of our group, although Daniel Hamilton, the race winner, was one of the guys off the front who managed to hold on.)

After a very gradually uphill first couple of miles, the race climbs steeply for about 3/4 of a mile on pavement before entering the trail; I powered smoothly up this section, leading our group and feeling great.  I stopped at the trailhead to slip on my Nanospikes, losing about thirty seconds.  As soon as I stepped onto the trail I regretted my decision to leave the Microspikes back in my room.  The snow was mushy and loose; the Nanos offered minimal traction, and I was sliding all over the place.  I hemorrhaged time and places, giving up three additional spots within the first mile on trail.  I had already lost track of how many people were ahead of me--10?  15?  My legs felt great, but I was running in quicksand; it felt like every race anxiety dream I've ever had.

My man Brian, seventh in the marathon
Photo: Asheville Citizen-Times
By the time we reached the first aid station at Sourwood Gap, about an hour into the race, I had all but given up.  Beyond this point, the conditions improved a bit; the trail had been traversed by snowmobiles and ATVs at this point, and so was somewhat packed, allowing for stretches of decent running, but never for more than a few minutes at a time.  I stopped losing spots, but I wasn't making up any ground either; instead, I was in a back-and-forth with an unknown runner for a place in the mid-teens.  I was awash in negative self-talk, mostly directed at myself for, after all that agonizing, making the wrong decision on my traction device, which was clearly costing me minutes.  My only saving grace was that I still felt good, and that I knew an 11-mile stretch of pavement--when traction devices would hopefully be irrelevant--was approaching.

I reached the Parkway after a very frustrating 2 hours and 10 minutes--ten minutes slower than ideal conditions in 2014, when I had felt like shit; and nearly twenty minutes behind my opening pace in 2011.  I dug out a GU Roctane with my frozen fingers and gulped it down, vaguely registering that this was the first nutrition I had taken since breakfast.  I started up the access road with my Nanos still in place but ditched them after about a mile; the road was pristine, without an icy patch to be seen.  I was all alone, but periodically caught glimpses of Matt Roane about a quarter-mile ahead of me, locked in his own solo battle with the hill, and though it didn't look like I was making much headway, I tried to dig in and go after him.  About 1.5 miles from the summit, the road leveled out somewhat, and I pushed through the burn in my legs and started to finally gain some ground.  It took several minutes to reel him in, but finally I caught him with about 800 meters left in the climb.  Shortly afterwards the leaders started making their way down and we could see where we stood--we were sixth and seventh, about ten minutes off the lead but only about five minutes out of fourth and 2-3 minutes back from fifth.  The road remained clear until the final 400-meter push to the summit, which is a paved pedestrian path that in previous years has been plowed but this year had six inches of fresh powder on it, forcing a final hike to the top.  I paused momentarily to take in the view from the highest point east of the Mississippi, took a deep breath, and headed back down.

Matt is a wonderful downhill runner--he won last year's marathon with an amazing charge to overtake Mike Halstead in the final eight miles, himself no slouch of a descender--and I fully expected to get caught within minutes, but tried to push that out of my mind and instead tried to focus on the spots in front of me.  Cid Cardozo, an excellent masters runner and triathlete from North Carolina, held on to the fifth spot, and I set about employing my limited descending skills trying to catch him.  Which I did, somehow, and we ran in lockstep down the pavement for several miles, reaching the parkway aid station together where we stopped to re-apply our spikes one more time for the snow-covered trail.

Coming downhill, trying to find that rhythm
Photo: Asheville Citizen-Times
I was fairly certain Cid had left the aid station before me and started charging as hard as I could, but could not see him, so I settled into a solid, steady pace and focused on making my way to the next aid station.  The trail was now much more packed from having had hundreds of runners follow us up, and I was able to run the downhill at a nearly normal pace, avoiding marathoners all the way.  My energy levels still felt good; small cramps seemed to disappear after swallowing a couple of salt tablets.  Almost before I knew it, I was back on the pavement, hammering down the painful descent back into Montreat, not flying but moving better at this point than on any of my previous attempts at this race.  I left the spikes on for the last three paved miles back through Black Mountain, tiring but still moving well; I had given up hope of catching Cid, who I couldn't see anywhere; but I didn't see any Challengers closing behind me, and was fairly sure I had sixth place locked up.  I crossed the line in 5:22:26, about four minutes slower than 2011 and 22 minutes faster than 2014, on a shorter but infinitely more difficult course.  It was a nice surprise to find out a few minutes later that I was actually fifth and that Cid had been behind me the whole time!

In retrospect, I was quite pleased with the way the race turned out.  It was a frustrating day, made more difficult by my own second-guessing and ultimately wrong decisions on gear, and in the first half of the race I did a terrible job mentally, allowing my negative thoughts and frustrations to limit my performance.  But ultimately, I was as fit as I had hoped, and that fitness allowed me to regroup and salvage a satisfying performance.  Mount Mitchell is a difficult race on a good day, and given the conditions, I think this may have been the most difficult race I've ever run.  The second half of this race was very gratifying; outrunning a strong descender like Matt by several minutes was the sign of a strong performance for me.  It was a bit disappointing not to improve on my placing from previous years, but with the Microspikes, maybe that would have happened; overall, I had to take away mostly positives from this day.

In terms of the new diet, I have to report that unfortunately, it worked very, very well.  I took absolutely no nutrition for the first two hours of the race; I did the entire race on five gels and one bottle of GU Brew.  I did not stop once at an aid station except to put on or take off my spikes.  My energy levels were great; I rarely cramped and never bonked.  Whether I'm doing this whole LCHF thing correctly or not, I really have no idea, but for my first race as a purportedly "fat-adapted" athlete, it was an unqualified success.  Which is annoying; now I have to keep eating this way.  I took a little dietary vacation this week--impossible not to, in Beer City USA--but will be starting back on it tomorrow, so I'll have to crack open a few tonight.

Gear report: Orange Mud HydraQuiver Single Barrel (no bounce hydration, worked brilliantly) and trucker cap; Yard Owl race shirt from Verge; Pearl Izumi shorts; New Balance MT110 Winter shoes (the gaiters worked great).  Can't wait for the Salming Trail T1s to arrive.  Nutrition: GU Roctane and GU energy gels; GU Brew.

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: