I think it was mere minutes after my first ultra, the grueling Table Rock 50k in Morganton, NC, before the Harbison Trail Runners were already brainwashing me towards my next bad running-related decision. Since I was a newly minted ultramarathoner, it seemed only fitting that my next task would involve taking on one of the most sought after races on the East Coast, the Mount Mitchell Challenge. I was assured that it was a super fun weekend, with lots of craft beer drinking, camaraderie, and oh… a little 40 mile jaunt to the highest peak east of the Mississippi and back. In the twisted minds of HTR leaders Rick “Uncle Ricky” Stroud and Dean Schuster, they knew they only had to get a few pints in me before I was prone to an itchy trigger finger on the race registration button. Somehow along the way I said I was totally in for 40 miles of “fun”.
Of course, I had to get in first. The race has a lottery system and is more than just a little bit popular. Luckily the HTR have become legendary at this race, making it an annual tradition, so much that several of them have 10+ Mitchells under their belt. Hopefully my relation to this group and Uncle Ricky’s magic helped turn the odds in my favor.
Of course, since I now had a coveted Mitchell spot, I had better train for the damn thing . My weekly diet of 5ks and slog jogs were probably not going to cut it. Instead of having a clear training plan in place, I was mostly driven by anxiety. I loaded up my weekly mileage most of December (to around 50-60 mpw) then did the Harbison 50k. My 5:58 was not exactly Western States worthy but it was a big PR for me, especially if you subtract my mid race near-dropout and portapotty demolition. I followed that up with what I call my “tired 20 milers”, i.e. doing 20 mile long runs on Sundays after racing on Saturday. In my complete ultra-noob brain, doing 20 mile slog jogs on flat roads would somehow prepare me for a race double the distance with basically zero flat stretches on rocky trails. I should be ultra coach of the year for sure.
I did try to taper the final week before the race, which I basically followed, except playing tennis and tweaking my knee and causing intense anxiety I wouldn’t be able to run at all. Somehow it cleared up and I was ready to go.
Of course running is only a small part of the weekend for the HTR, with the rest of the time spent brewery hopping. Despite my regular training in the discipline of beer drinking, I was fearful I would be outclassed in this department as well. Despite my love of craft beer and the fact I am an almost 200 pound Irish blooded man , I have the tolerance of a first semester sorority girl. Get more than 4 beers in me and its a completely unpredictable fine line between pleasantly sloshed and hugging the toilet.
Sheila Bolin, the Yerg, Nance and I carpooled up to Black Mountain early Friday and we met Tracy and Julie McKinnon, Ken and Jill Hinely, Marion Hinson and Bill Siebers for lunch at Asheville Brewing company. They all made sure to stoke my ultra anxiety further which forced me to drink a couple hazy IPAs and half a pizza. Carb Loading, right? We followed that with a trip around the block to Hi-Wire brewing and met up with ex-Columbians Drew and Sarah Soltau. Only three hours in and I was going to have to pace myself with the beer already.
After our Asheville brewery mini-tour, we made our way to Black Mountain. Rick basically takes over the area near the finish with 3 rented houses. I think the HTR group was its largest ever, with over 30 people. We had an awesome house close to the finish line with Dean, the Soltaus, Shiela, Yerg and Nance. The pre-race dinner was huge with everyone converging on the biggest rental. There HTR’s from past and present, near and far, came to meet. I learned the lore of beasts like Kevin Frontz, Matt Stanek, and Jeff Radenbaugh , all of whom had done over 15 Mitchells. Other familiar faces were CIRC girls Soleil Black and Nikki Hernandez, Barefoot John Richards (dad Andy was also running), Columbian turned Seattleite Scott Hodukovich, One hundred mile machine Kenneth Ebener and wife Brooke, Randy Smith , Jay Hammond, Clifford Corley, and Ken Cobb. As is tradition amongst the HTR, their most coveted prize is awarded there – SCROTUM (South Carolina Runners of Trails and Ultra Marathons) OF THE YEAR. While many worthy nominations were made (Dean, Marion, Alfie Hipps), ultimately the balls stayed in the family with 2018 winner Julie McKinnon passing the sack to husband Tracy.
Well deserved, indeed. We followed the dinner with a quick walk up to the White Horse bar for the packet pickup and race briefing. There had been much consternation about the weather – icy conditions could shut down the summit and limit the event to the “undercard”, the Black Mountain marathon only. Fortunately (unfortunately?) the weather called for brutally cold rain and wind, but no ice, so the challenge was still a go. They did have to reroute the summit portion to the roads only, which would shorten the course slightly (i.e. 37ish rather than 40 miles). So I guess that was plus for me, if not for the trail purists of the bunch.
Although some opted to stay out, I was too afraid of getting sloppy like my legendary Sidetrack brewery visit pre-Table Rock, so I went back to the house and tried to prepare. It was supposed to be mid 30’s, windy and raining most of the race. This would not a huge deal for a road 5K, but I figured 7 hours plus for me out there. I had no idea what to wear. In another paradox, my 6’3″ “insulated” frame gets chilly like a 90 pound woman. And I hate being cold. So after a restless, lousy sleep, I woke up and came up with my very chic attire: long sleeve tech shirt, HTR short sleeve tech, covered up by not one but two tech running jackets, tights and shorts, thick winter gloves, a hat, and the piece de resistance..heavy blue poncho. I looked like a complete noob idiot, so I guess I was conveying an accurate message.
After a quick photo op with the entire HTR crew, we headed to the start line in downtown Black Mountain. At the start, the rain was barely a mist and it was probably 40 degrees, so not too bad. With the gun, we all lurched into the morning darkness. The first 2-3 miles are on the paved roads of Black Mountain and Montreat, so certainly my element. Given my fear of the distance, I went out in my “all day” pace of 9:30 or so. Even with the slog jog pace, I was already getting hot. I thought about just dumping the poncho, but I took it off and tied it to my backpack like a giant blue sail. I’m sure the others were impressed by my elite look. About a 5k in we get dropped into the Rainbow trail, which is a nice, soft single track that made for effortless running. Incline wasn’t too bad and I was all like, “this isn’t too bad at all!”. I managed to leapfrog a few guys and felt generally great. The weather was misty but not really too cold, not much wind. Somewhere in the 6-7 mile range is the first aid station, one of the biggest on course, Sourwood gap. The second I got there, it was clear things were going to change. The wind picked up, the trail appeared to widen significantly and it was suddenly a lot colder. I strode over to the aid station smorgasbord and realized my go-to ultra food, PB and J squares, wasn’t there. Ruh roh. Fortunately my stomach , while ready to revolt with alcohol, is cast iron when it comes to food. And sweet baby Jesus they had animal crackers. I have an embarrassing fetish for blando semi-sweet things and damned if I don’t love those little bits of animal shaped goodness. Seriously, my wife buys me the family size Barnum’s crackers sometimes, and by “family”, I mean me. I took down a couple of orange slices and stuffed a couple of handfuls of animal crackers into my mouth like an overzealous albino Cookie Monster. I’m sure the aid station ladies could barely control themselves.
With a gullet full of citrus and white flour, I headed out onto the next section, the Old Mitchell toll road. Things turned south in a hurry. Gone was the smooth singletrack of Rainbow, replaced with a wide swath of what can best be described as a rocky creek bed. With all the rain, some parts were actually flowing with water. To boot, the incline ratcheted up significantly, and between the high stepping and rock dodging, I had my first case of walksies. As a road racer, I hate walking more than anything, but I’ve tried to learn to embrace some strolling on ridiculously hard mountain races. This terrain went on for miles. The only break to the creek bed trail were a few hunt camps were apparently the quarry are bears. Great, as if I don’t have enough race anxiety already. In between those were a few apparently abandoned trailers that looked like they were last used in the Carter administration. Spooky. The next aid station was at Pot Cove and more crackers and oranges were shoved down with a few shots of coke. I was worried about trail code browns, but so far the belly was behaving. Continuing up the trail, a few other guys and I kept leapfrogging with our alternating walk/run. I usually do well on inclines, so I was making slow progress against the field. At some point amidst zoning out for miles, I looked down to check my progress. About 12.6 miles in, I saw I was registering a blazing 2 hrs and 40 minutes. As a 1:30 minute road half marathoner, this was humbling to see as it is, but then I remembered the 3 hour cutoff at about 14 miles. Oh hell, I’d better stop all this soccer mom mall walking and get my ass in gear. In this case “in gear” meant 10 minute miles, but at least I was constantly jogging. Gabe Hipps was crushing it in the marathon and he was already coming down so hopefully the cutoff point was close. After a tense few minutes, the blue ridge parkway/marathon turnaround came into view around 2 hrs 50 minutes. Dang, I came within 10 minutes of getting pulled from the challenge and dropped back to the marathon. Whether this was a good or bad thing remained to be seen.
Coming out to the open parkway it was considerably colder, windier and the rain had picked up. Between the animal crackers and oranges, out came the sexy blue poncho again. The next few miles sucked with a capital S. I was thrilled to get out of the rocky nightmare and back on to the roads, but the parkway was steep. I caught up with one dude, whom we will call “Mr. Beard”, a 28 yr old who was dropping more F bombs than me and doing walk/runs. He assured me he was a 17 min 5ker if he was training and that he was a running coach. Hey man, whatever makes you feel better about running with an ultra noob 43yo sasquatch in a giant blue Mary Poppins poncho. Instead of hitting the Buncombe horse trail this year, we got diverted straight up the Mt Mitchell park rd. After putting some distance on Mr. Beard, Marion Hinson catches up to me during one of my low points and gets me to start running again. After a while he started walking and I just kept going to see how far I could stand it. By this time the road was super steep and you couldn’t see more than a few hundred feet ahead. I’m sure the vistas are usually beautiful in this area, but when it’s 35 degrees, pelting sideways rain in 30 mph gusts… not so much. The whole scene was wrapped in an apocalyptic fog that seemed right out of a science fiction movie. You tend to question your life decisions when you’re leaning into a brutal torrential hellwind , yelling F bombs when the poncho flaps back in your face. Good times. But at least there was company to the misery. Tracy is the first to come down from the top proving that there was indeed a bright spot ahead. Kenneth was soon after, and then Rick was clearly having a good run as he was right on the heels of these ultra studs. Nance, Drew, Bill and Hinely followed in succession. My presence had been a voodoo curse to Hinely in previous races, so it was good to see him running well. With all these guys coming at me, it was encouragement to at least muster a jog, because who wants to get caught in the walksies while everyone else is crushing it downhill. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally approached the summit a little over 4 hours and 19 miles in. Legs were pretty cashed from all the climbing, but it felt great to make it to the whole point of the challenge. And I was definitely getting a damn picture at the sign. Problem is, my phone was locked and there was basically nothing dry to be had anywhere, much less on my person. After a tense few minutes and some desperate raisin fingered screen pushing, I managed to get my code in and get a surprisingly great pic. The girl at the top is a real trooper for indulging all of our grandiose picture needs.
Marion hit the summit soon after and he took off back towards home. We stopped briefly at the summit aid station, but he started flying down the mountain at a pace I couldn’t keep. Why? My legs felt like trash and the pounding hurt like hell with all the sudden downhill. For the next few miles I kept up a slow slog jog down all those miles of road, in between getting passed and cursing myself for not being able to take advantage of what should have been my absolute strength. A few miles down from the summit I hit the Steppes Gap aid station and it felt way too good to stop. I made myself lurch forward again and felt a touch of the wobblies, but managed to get back on the downbound train. With all the downhill and no more walking, the Blue Ridge parkway/marathon turnaround came up shockingly fast. I really thought there was a mile plus to go to the station when I saw it, so I guess my race brain delirium had set in. When I got there, I was greeted by HEY ITS PONCHO GUY by one of the kids there. I’m so proud. The volunteer woman, also known as the race director’s wife, was talking about how a few of the racers who missed the cut off weren’t so nice to her. I was a mumbly cold mess, but I assured her she was an absolute saint for standing out here in the brutal cold and rain for hours on end. She was tending a giant cauldron of Top Ramen that smelled like heaven. With no spoons to be had, I shoveled/slopped the soup into my mouth with reckless abandon. It was not my classiest moment. With a belly full of ramen and another dose of animal crackers, I was set for Old Mitchell Road again. A few lonely minutes on the trail made me a little nervous that I had somehow missed a turn, but soon people started showing up. First one, then two more , then another three. Yep, it was official, I was sucking. Between my less than agile frame, fear of falling on rocks from my near death experience in 2013, and the cinder block fatigue of 23+ miles, I was barely moving down the mountain. I tried to quicken my pace, take more rapid smaller steps, NOPE. What’s worse, here comes mr beard bounding down the mountain, “See, it’s good to learn downhills!” REALLY, DUDE?? Just then, I hear a beep on my Garmin. Wow, that must have been a quick mile! Checking my pace, all I see is LOW BATTERY.
MOTHER#@$#^&#$! Sure enough, just before 29 miles, the black screen of death pops up on my 5 year old garmin 620. DAMN IT. I’m a slave to the Garmin anyway, but especially in a long race, and this about killed me. A girl passed me about this time and I decide to pick it up the best I can to soldier through the rest of this. From the Pot Gap station all the way to Sourwood Gap, I’m unintentionally riding her back, but she’s not going any faster and I’m desperately trying to stay in motion. I’m cursing every damn rock by this time but at least a woman half my size is helping me now where to step. Hitting the Sourwood station is glorious because I know the way back is shorter and maybe 5 miles to the finish. One last blast of bland animal shaped goodness and a few orange slices and I’m good to go. I apologize to the poor woman for chasing her down like a depraved bear for the past few miles, and let her have a few seconds to have a rest from the trackdown. With the turn off the Old Mitchell Rd, the weather gets warmer and less rainy and thank the Lord less rocky. Before I know it I’m careening down a gravel road, and I meet up with a nice dude from Ohio who helps distract me for a couple of miles. He had done Western States in 23 hours, so I knew he was just out for a stroll with Poncho Boy. But I appreciated it nonetheless. Finally we break off the gravel and go flying down an even steeper ski slope of a paved road, dumping us back in Montreat. Being back on flat roads, and the euphoria of being close to the finish, makes me ramp it up. It feels like we are blazing, but I’m guessing its 8ish pace. Of course I can’t tell with my dead Garmin. There’s a few weird miles near town where we go in and out of some roadside trails, and I’m desperately just trying to follow the signs. Finally there’s the “unofficial” aid station with beer and whiskey apparently. Although sorely tempted, I have my eyes on that finisher fleece and a warm shower, so I blast through. My trail buddy succumbs to the alcohol and I’m alone for the last mile and a half. As I near Black Mountain, I see a guy in red that I take as Marion in his HTR shirt. I start really blasting it out then, thinking I can definitely catch him. And I do, but then I realize its not him. It looks like I’m definitely going to be DFL of the HTR challenge guys. The finish of the race is a half mile around Lake Tomahawk. After passing faux Marion and a couple other guys, I’m high on adrenaline. And then I see him. MR BEARD. OH HELLS YEAH. All of a sudden my 8 minute pace turns to 6 minute pace and BEARD starts walking. I manage to show self restraint and avoid a great chance at a snarky comment, but try to blast past as fast as I can. One more bridge and I come flying under the finish line arch like its a damn 5k, 7 hours and 32 minutes after I started. TOTAL EUPHORIA, PONCHO BOY WAS DONE. Rick and Cliff are at the finish line and I ask to be immediately directed to the fleece table. Never have I been so happy to get a jacket in my life. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t that fast, but it was done!
In the challenge, newly anointed SOTY Tracy Mckinnon harnessed the power of the sack in a 5:54, 3rd master finish. Kenneth Ebener wasn’t far behind in 6:05, and fearless HTR leader Rick Stroud ran an impressive 6:14. Bill Jordan ran 6:21, Mike Nance did 6:33, Soltau clocked a 6:44, Bill Seibers 6:51, Ken Hinely 6:52, Marion Hinson 7:18, Nikki Hernandez 8:03, Kenneth Johns 8:26.
Columbia/HTR finishers in the Black Mountain Marathon: Gabe Hipps 4:27, Luke Walden 4:33, Matt Stanek 4:53, Craig Burnworth 5:13, Cliff Corley 5:22, Jeff Radenbaugh 5:25, Kelley Fejes 5:35, Jim Cobb 5:37, Jill Hinely 5:46, Dean Schuster 5:46, Randy Smith 5:48 Julie McKinnon 5:49, John Bradley 6:06, Rob Yerger 6:13, Kenneth Johns 6:22, Eric Johns 6:22, Sarah Soltau 6:23, Eli Stewart 6:25, Kevin Frontz 6:35, Brooke Ebener 6:37, Matthew Quinton 6:49, Andy Richards 6:56 (at age 73!) , Tim Burke 7:43, Sheila Bolin 7:43.
And we can’t forget the most hallowed of HTR Mitchell traditions, the Dead Leg Lake Tomahawk relay. Done at night, and perhaps after a few adult beverages, teams of 5 challengers/marathoners circle the half mile Lake Tomahawk in an all out sprint for glory. Sadly my team of Soleil, Barefoot John, Randy Smith, Ebener and myself pulled off a next to last, with perhaps an illegal Blue shoe stiff arm of a sprinting Nikki in a desperate attempt to save pride. I’m not sure who won, though a shirtless, highly enthusiastic Michael Nance in the 30 degree night may have been the highlight.
Big kudos to race director Jay Curwen and all the amazing volunteers and sponsors for putting on a truly great event. I’ve never been so appreciative to the aid station crews who braved hours of miserable weather to keep us all alive and healthy out there. Another major shout out to Rick Stroud and all the HTR’s who showed this road racing ultra noob the kindest hospitality in a great weekend!