Mount Mitchell Challenge Race Report

My run at the Mount Mitchell Challenge yesterday can be broken into four distinct sections. However, before I get any further into my race report, I need to cut to the chase – my sister beat me in our brother vs. sister challenge… and even handily bettering my prediction that she’s beat me by 28 minutes.

Mount Mitchell Challenge elevation profile

Part 1: Consistent Climb to the Clouds
The first 14+ miles of my run went more or less as planned and were solid. After cruising over the roads of Black Mountain and Montreat, I hit the trail head and climb steadily up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I generally maintained a heart rate a bit over 160 bpm, while allowing my HR to jump a bit higher on the infrequent steeper pitches. The climb was surprisingly gradual and was relatively non-technical with a few minor exceptions. This allowed for plenty of time to look around. Early on, the clouds to the east only presented their sillouettes, which perfectly resembled yet another set of spectacular mountain ridges in the distances. Later in the climb, more of the higher clouds burned off, but many remained in the draws and hollows. I distinctly remember pointing out a scene remarkably similar to the following picture which was also taken yesterday morning. Overall, I averaged right about 10 minutes per mile on the climb to the Parkway.

Cloud-filled hollows – photo by Steve Dixon for the Asheville Citizen-Times


Part 2: Painful Push to the Pinnacle

While my climb to the Parkway was fine, I fell apart as soon as I left the road a bit beyond the aid station. The trail was flat for a good long ways, but I wasn’t sure if I was on trail, the trail was very muddy/wet, and I was getting pretty cold. All this led to the wind quickly leaving my sails. The entirety of this section was also above a mile high, ranging from 5,400′ to 6,680′ … which may have some effect on me. Not long into this section folks started passing me en force. Just as I was about to finish the long flattish approach to the summit push, Greg Loomis caught me. This was a blessing, as I stuck with him on the climb to the summit.

The trail to the summit of Mount Mitchell was about a mile of steep single track up through pine forest. The foot was tricky with many rocks and roots as well as brown ice… which cause me to slip a bit once. The section was difficult and my will quickly faded. However, I stuck with Loomis and another runner to the summit. Greg snapped this picture just after we started headed back down from the top.



Me descending into the cloud from the top of Mount Mitchell.

Did I forget to mention that the ceiling was just above the parkway? Well, while most of the course featured great conditions, we were treated to thick clouds, cold temps, and occasionally fierce winds above 5,500′. It was fun watching the cloud eddies from just below… or in some cases above them.

After cresting, I hung with Greg a bit longer. I was being very tentative on the technical down hill, which featured more rocks, roots, and ice. I was even more tentative as I had wrapped both my freezing hands in my removable sleeves, which gave me reduced use of my hands. I certainly didn’t want to fall in that situation. Anyways, Greg took off towards the end of this technical section. Immediately, thereafter, we started a long steady climb on an old dirt road….. Greg quickly disappeared. I could not or would not get my heart rate above 135 bpm on this stretch. I started throwing a massive pitty party for myself and seriously considered dropping out when I got back to Blue Ridge Parkway aid station. The only thought that really kept me going was that I didn’t want my sister to beat me because I dropped out, I wanted her to beat me because she ran faster than me. While that kept me in the race, it didn’t make me run… and I walked much of the inclined road section. At the aid station during this stretch I downed two cups of cola…. a move that may have been crucial. I would never drink soda this early in a race unless I was in dire straights. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

When I hit the downhill road section on the parkway I could only manage 9 minute pace on a two and a half mile section that I should have run much more quickly as was shown by later sections of the race.


Part 3: Fickle Flying Flakes
From the Blue Ridge Parkway aid station where I had another cup of cola I slowly made my way to the trail head. Upon reaching the trail head, I walked the slight incline so I could pound a Clif Shot, as throw down a salt tab, two ibuprofen, and two caffeine pills. Magic.

Once I got back under 5,200′ the switch flipped. Game on. I went from averaging 142 and 147 bpm the two previous sections to not going below 160 bpm for any appreciable period the remainder of the race…. which is even more remarkable in that those final 12 miles were almost entirely down hill. I put my head down and started rolling. Immediately, I was hovering just above 8 minute pace – keeping closer to 7:45 pace on less technical stretches and still rolling at 8:30 pace on the rockiest of sections. Not only were my legs flying and my heart ready and will, but my mind locked into some zen-like state; I could clearly and immediately see the lines I needed to take. I needn’t find a path, the way was in front of me and I simply needed to follow it.

Folks were way stretched out 4 plus hours into the race, but I had no doubt that I was making up ground. I caught two runners in the first stretch and passed three more when I blew through the next aid station without stopping. This move was a bit risky as the day was getting quite warm for February, but I wanted to keep moving. Despite the fact that I was flying over somewhat gnarly trail, I managed to check out the scenery from time to time and caught sights like the following.

Cloud-filled hollows – photo by Steve Dixon for the Asheville Citizen-Times

I continued down the trail, now thinking about catching my buddy, Greg. He was nowhere in sight even though I continued to fly down the trail. It turns out that he had put almost 10 minutes on me by the time we finally left the parkway for good. On this penultimate section of the course, I averaged 8:01 per mile… not bad on rock trails after more than 30 miles of running! :-) Despite my effort, I only caught a few runners on this stretch.

Upon reaching the last aid station, the volunteers asked me if I new the Happy Trails runner who had just come through. I said probably and took off after Greg.

Just after the aid station I briefly went off course. I saw marking on a trail below me and none on trail in front of me. I started cutting down to the lower trail before I saw another marker up ahead. I climbed back up to the upper trail and started rolling.

Here the trail got really steep and was notorious among previous Challenge participants. However, with some turnover left, this down hill was a blast as I careened from side to side around the corners. Not long after I came out to the road. Knowing that I had little more than a 5k left, I started putting it all out there. After averaging 165 bpm on the previous section, I bumped my effort up over 170 bpm. There was a particularly fun bombed downhill on the road where I let go and hit 5 minutes flat per mile. That doesn’t happen very often at the end of an ultra – thank goodness for that sprinter turnover lurking in my history!

After miles and miles of rolling along I finally, saw Greg in the distance as we left the Montreat campus. It still took me a half mile to catch him. When I did catch him, Greg went with me. Not wanting Greg to pull away after I caught him, I keep pushing damn hard. Going around a sharp turn a beautifully groomed flat dirt trail in town I took my first and only really fall of the day. I simply took too much speed into the turn.

Part 4: Flying 5k Fun
After a mile of pounding one another, is appeared as if Greg and I would match one another unless one of us decided to go crazy. Our effort had my HR pegged at 174-75 bpm. With a mile to go we decided to catch two more runners who were up ahead before easing off. We caught the runners, but we didn’t slow down. We both agreed to finish together rather than leg out a finishing kick.

My friend to the end, Loomdog

After 37.8 miles, Greg and I finished together in 6:23 and change. (For the record, he and I finished together in 21st place.) Not exactly the 6:10-15 I had predicted, but awesome consider how ridiculously my 10 miles atop Mount Mitchell was. On the final 12 miles of descent I caught 12 Challenge runners! In the first 10 miles of that descent I made up 10 minutes on Greg who thought he was moving really well down the mountain (and he was). While I wish I had run better at the top, I had a very respectable climb to the Parkway and a killer final half marathon. I’ll take it. Oh, and my average pace for the final 4 and 2/3 miles, 7:21!

A graph of my HR vs. elevation tells the tale of my day – mediocrity above a mile.

After the race, I got to hang out with my sister who bettered her previous marathon PR of 6:08 with a 5:11(!?) on a much tougher course. Watch out next year, Annette! ;-) I also hung with Loomdog and Mike Mason at the finish. Here we all are together.

Loomis, me, Gretch, and Mason