Black Mountain Marathon

Back to Back
While on the South Carolina coast for the Myrtle Beach Marathon, I got a call from a friend about running the Black Mountain Marathon the following week. I’d never done back-to-back marathons before. However, my experience with the North Pole Marathon contest opened my eyes. This sort of thing is certainly not unprecedented. Of course, I’m no Dean Karnazes (or Sam Thompson or Dane Rauschenberg for that matter) but the back-to-back idea appealed to me. Though it’s probably best for the words “mountain” and “marathon” to remain separate, why not go for it?

I heard the race was tough, and potentially very cold. Reports from the summit of Mount Mitchell a week before the race pegged the air temperature at 25 degrees with wind gusts of over 40 miles per hour. Sustained wind speed put the reported wind chill at -20. Brrrrrr.

Despite wise counsel to the contrary from my wife, I decided to run. The problem of course was recovery. It was a pretty cold start at Myrtle (25 degrees) and my legs felt stiff in the early miles. Afterwards, not even a lengthy massage helped and My legs were sore for most of the subsequent week. Three days before Black Mountain, I was popping Relafen, icing, stretching three times a day and religiously wearing icy/hot bandages. This did not bode well.

The Columbia Trail Contingent

Less than 1% of the general population runs marathons. There’s good reason for that. Even folks in great shape can be beaten down by its rugged demands. So what do you say about a group of people for whom the marathon is not enough? More to the point, what if that group is intent on running up a mountain?

I would be running Black Mountain with such people; a bunch of trail runners from Columbia, South Carolina. Correction, they’d be running the 40 mile Mount Mitchell Challenge while I merely enjoyed the marathon “fun run.” They run this race every year. It’s both ritual and vacation, as much vacation as a grueling 40 mile run up and down the tallest peak East of the Mississippi can be. I would be Junior Varsity on this trip. No matter how much I hurt after the race, I would be unable to complain in their presence.

The Columbia Trail Guys are a diverse lot. Professions represented include, Insurance sales, medicine, law, military, painting, and information Technology. Some are students. Some own their own businesses. Aside from running, I don’t know that this group would naturally associate. We’ve got a paragon of faith-based suburbia and blue collar workers. We’ve got liberals and conservatives (and folks in between). From the stereotypically bombastic Army Lt. Colonel to the soft-spoken Red Cross technician, it’s quite a cross-section of personalities.

One thing is certain. They’re great fun. Apart from the nagging anxiety about running two marathons in 8 days, I knew this would be a stellar trip.

On Location
We rented two houses. Eight of us ended up in a wonderful old house on Church Street in downtown Black Mountain, two blocks away from the start of the race and only about ½ mile from the finish. Picture your grandmother’s house if it was situated in the downtown neighborhood of a quaint mountain town. It came complete with pictures of Grandma. Really.

As soon as we arrived, the entire motley crew got right to work preparing the house and getting started on a pasta dinner. The homemade meal was perfect for the location. We ate a mountain of pasta.

Badwater Inspiration
After dinner, we relaxed, watching RUNNING ON THE SUN: THE BADWATER 135, an incredible documentary about the Badwater ultramarathon. This film engendered in us awe, revulsion, and incredulity. This storied race covers 135 miles from the depths of Death Valley to the base of Mount Whitney in California. It’s run in the dead of summer with temperatures reaching above 120 degrees. It’s targeted to extreme tastes. Perhaps some Medieval monks would have found it better than self flagellation to punish an inherently sinful soul. That’s the best reason to run, in my view.

The folks tackling Badwater put themselves through hell. HELL. At times the film seemed more like a medical documentary about sickening afflictions of the feet and toes than a story of a noble race. At the finish (or more likely the drop-out point) they looked less like humans and more like disoriented zombies. One could not help but admire the sheer determination required for such a feat; if you could get beyond the inherent stupidly of the thing. Of course one of the Columbia trail contingent has expressed sincere desire to run this race. Good thing he’s an insurance agent.

Of course this movie was excellent preparation for Mitchell. It would be difficult to complain about anything after having seen it.

Pre-Race Briefing
At 8pm, it was time to attend the pre-race briefing at The Manor House, a Montreat College facility built in 1920 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It was here that I realized this was to be an exceptionally well-run race. Every question I might have had was answered before I had a chance to ask. It was ideal. We got the run-down on ice and mud as well as the temperatures and wind conditions to expect. I must say, race check-in was well ordered, too. I’ve learned not to take this for granted.

If you’re into SWAG, this is the race for you. Runners received a get a nice pair of wool socks, a technically sophisticated, no-spill 750ml Camelback water jug, Race T-shirt, North Face gewgaw including a first aid kit and silver key chain, and various other items. We’d get even more later.

Then there’s the local paper. The Black Mountain News, which features a full section on the race including participant bios, photo essay and in-depth stories. I’d never seen anything like this before. The folks in Black Mountain are VERY passionate about this race.

The best part: Once you check in, you’re done. There’s nothing else to do but get up in the morning, get out to the starting line and run. I’ve done group training runs that felt more complex.

Military Schnapps
We returned to the house and everyone began their respective pre-race rituals. The most curious of which was the presentation of hot cocoa and Peppermint Schnapps. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s decidedly odd when the guy touting the beverage is the hardened, bad-ass Army Lt. Colonel. I wanted to laugh, but dared not.

Accommodations were comfortable. I slept in the living room (or parlor as your grandmother might say) on a comfy air mattress. I’m not sure if I was pro-rated for this, but at least I did not have to share a queen-sized bed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Graveyard Shift Gorging
Marathoners have elaborate pre-race rituals. I subscribe to the conventional wisdom of sleep, hydration and carbo-loading in the week prior to the race. Recently though, I’ve taken to a new fueling tactic. I’ve adopted McMillian’s more radical pre-race feasting.

Four hours prior to the race (2:30am), McMillian dictates that I should eat 1.5 to 2 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight. I’m a swarthy 170 lbs soaking wet, so that means I should consume 255-340 grams of carbs and wash it down with thirty-two ounces of water. Consider that the average granola bar contains only about 30 grams of carbs. This is a whole, heaping lot of food. McMillian calls it “your true pre-race meal.” It’s more like the carbohydrate apocalypse.

But it doesn’t stop there. Two hours before the race I’m supposed to eat .5 to 1 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. Let me tell you this. It took me forty-five minutes to consume the first round of carbs. I could not bring myself to finish the second. I was beaten. Oh yeah, and I visited the restroom countless times.

According to McMillian, this regimen makes you feel bloated and full. If by this he means just shy of vomiting, I’ll agree. But I have to say, the feeling goes away about an hour before race time. By the time you are in the starting queue, you’re ready to roll. In theory, you are fueled for the long haul.

We Begin
I woke up at about 6:15am. My left hamstring and calves felt pretty good. Maybe my elaborate recovery steps worked. The weather outside was a brisk twenty-five degrees, so it was a good thing we were only two blocks from the start. We literally left the house at 6:45am and arrived five minutes before the start. That’s the way to do things.

It’s an amazing thing to look at runners at the start of a race. Some are focused, some wild eyed; some scared. Clothed in multi-color running garb, they stretch, hop, and find restroom facilities in the least obvious places possible. Given the nature of the race, I’d wager this was the largest collection of mentally suspect people I’ve seen in one place at one time. I loved it.

The Early Miles
Anticlimactically, someone merely yells, “go!” and we’re off. Naturally, the course starts at the bottom of a hill, so the ascent to the mountain begins instantly.

Unfortunately for me, my left hamstring began to feel uncomfortable about thirty meters into the race. Readers who run marathons will know that this was an ill omen. You typically like to stave off soreness for another fifteen to eighteen miles. With no choice however, I continued on, but didn’t press the pace. I kept things comfortable and tried to establish a rhythm. A depressing number of Challenge runners were already passing me.

About 2.5 miles in to the race we arrived at the Montreat College campus. What a lovely place. It felt like something from the Scottish highlands. Highlands is the operative word here, because we hit the first real hill at Montreat, a steep incline that made everyone (at least that I could see) walk. No use wasting energy this early in the race.

Near the top of the slope, we turned off onto the trails. These were positively gorgeous, single track, technical trails winding ever upward alongside the mountain. If you must run up a mountain, do so on trails like these. It was a joy. Of course, it didn’t hurt that trail running requires an immediately focus on the path in front of your feet. You don’t look ahead as much at the daunting slope. This helped the run feel less like an arduous ascent, further proof than running is more in the brain than the legs.

Conditions were perfect and the weather excellent. Though cold, the sky was crystal clear and visibility was as good as it gets in the Appalachians.

Maximum Visibility
Just prior to the first water stop, the trail hit an enormously steep, rocky hundred-foot stretch. I began to walk up until I noticed a photographer stationed at the top. This of course ensured that I ran up the slope. Allow me to take this moment to thank the race organizers for confirmation that ego is more powerful than fatigue.

For those of you who complimented my shoes at this aid station, thank you. They are Brooks Cascadia Trail Shoes. They grab the trails excellently. One should always purchase the most garish trail shoes possible. If you get lost or (for the sake of argument) fall of the side of a mountain, you or your decaying carcass will be found much more easily.

After the aid station, the trail became wider. Not wide enough for a proper car, but wide enough for an ATV, or three runners side-by-side. The new terrain featured more than a few loose rocks. This would become more of an issue later in the race.

At this point, I began passing people. This wasn’t my intention, but my steady pace up the slope was allowing it. I’m a decent climber, so I wanted to take advantage of this while I had the chance. Soon, I was quite alone. When the coast was clear, I did what all trial runners do. I paused, looked out in awe across the beautiful vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains, drinking in nature’s splendor… and relieved myself off the side of the mountain.

Rocks & Incline
The ascent continued at an even keel until the switch-backs prior to the second water stop. Here the trail took a markedly steep upturn. It became laborious to keep pace, but I trudged on, passing a few more runners. I simply asked them to not make fun of me when they passed me later.

On the way up this incline, the meandering trail came across what I can only describe as a house. Goodness knows why this site was chosen, but there it was. I expect the owners lack cable tv, or quite likely running water.

After some fuel at the aid station, I began to feel quite lively. My Hamstring had ceased bothering me and I was officially in the meatiest part of the race. Only five more miles until the turnaround.

Here however, the trail became rockier. I made a mental note that I’d have to be careful on the descent. Again, the weather was pure perfection.

The Parkway & The Pain
At about mile 14, I began to experience a problem. My left calf began to ache rather pointedly. I longed for the Aid Station at the turn-around on the Blue Ridge Parkway (about mile ~fifteen). There, marathoners turn around and begin their descent, while Challenge runners continue on to the summit of Mount Mitchell.

When I arrived, I was already limping. I ate and drank my fill and took generous time to stretch my left calf, which was now causing great discomfort bordering on real pain. Once it felt a bit better, I refilled my Gatorade bottles for the return journey.

Unfortunately, the pain simply increased when I started up again. I walked all the way back to the point where the Parkway gives way to the trails, and was passed for the first time in the race, this time by two people. Once in the trails, I tried to run, but every left footfall was brutal. I paused again to stretch and saw a bunch of my friends coming up the trail toward the turnaround. They didn’t ask how I was doing. They simply asked how much I was hurting. Apparently it was obvious.

Nevertheless, I set out running again. Well, running is one way to describe it. It’s more like I dragged my left leg down the trail. The plethora of loose rocks didn’t make things easier. I would not have expected the descent down a mountain to be harder than the climb up. But it was. I was now in danger of being passed by a slew of runners.

First, a woman passed me. She was running quite strongly. I rationalized: There’s no shame being passed by a solid runner on top of their game. Minutes later I heard footsteps again. This time a fellow ambled up and offered some encouraging words. He was not scorching the trail, but seemed to have no problem catching me. We spoke for a while, then he too moved on ahead.

As this fellow got 50 feet ahead of me I questioned the race I was about to run. No offense to this runner, but he wasn’t exactly elite. He was making his way steadily but without great speed. If I let this guy continue on, he’d just be the first of an endless parade of runners to pass me on the way down the mountain. My discouragement would only grow, and it would do so inversely proportional to my pace. I felt as if I were headed for a 5:30 marathon, easily my worst. I didn’t like the sound of that one bit.

He was now about 100 feet ahead of me. Somehow, my legs began to carry me faster. I do not recall giving them the overt order. It just started happening. My resolve took command. I was going to catch this guy and no one else was going to pass me today. I shortened my stride to mask the pain in my calf, and I ran up to him. I told him that I couldn’t explain it, but rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated. Yeah, I really said that. Then I sped off.

Now here’s the best part. As I ran faster, the pain in my calf decreased an eventually went away. I passed two folks (not the ones who had passed me earlier). I moved quickly, literally hoping over rocks. Runners still on their way up the mountain most assuredly saw me smiling.

The Manic Descent
I continued running strongly down to about mile eighteenish. I was all alone. It was sublime running. I tired a bit on some rolling terrain, but made it to the Aid station. There, I looked back and noticed not one but three runners closing the gap. That was all I needed to solidify my resurgence. I slammed down some Gatorade and took off.

It was here that the trail became ludicrously steep. Speed was not a problem. The real issue here was balance. I stretched my arms out to lower my center of gravity, leaned back, and did everything I could do to avoid falling on my face.

Soon the trails gave way to paved road, but the steep descent continued. I echo the race director’s observation on this slope: I can’t comprehend how the pavement didn’t just slide down the mountain. My feet slapped the road with great force and sound. I could literally feel the stress on my knees with every footfall. I would not have been surprised if my Patella had exploded on the spot.

A crazy thing happens to your feet when you run an extreme downhill slope, particularly on pavement. They get hot. Jiffy Pop hot. I felt like I was running on two unstable frying pans. It just felt like my feet were in an oven. I earned my blisters on this stretch of the race.

Home Stretch
With no one in sight behind me, I mercifully reached the bottom of the hill (about mile twnety-three). The path then veered off onto a pleasant trail running by a creek. This was actually quite nice, especially after running on hard pavement in shoes meant for trails.

With about two miles left the trails emerged onto the road for the final push into the town of Black Mountain. Very tired now, I keep moving at a decent pace. Again, I was all alone except for the cars that strayed too close. It’s a bit difficult to be polite at mile twnety-four, I must say.

The finish circles Lake Tomahawk. When I approached I saw the two folks that had passed me near the turn-around point. Had I known how close I was to overtaking them, I could have eked out more speed. As it was, they finished about one minute ahead of me. If the race were one mile longer I certainly would have caught them.

I finished in 4:40:32, quite satisfied.

Post-Race Gluttony
The post race nourishment included soup, hot dogs, chips, fruit, cookies, sandwiches… you name it. This race was well-run down to the smallest details. I will never again look askance at Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. I now consider its salty perfection sustenance fit for a king.

Looking up from my steaming bowl of noodley goodness, I saw the winner of the Challenge come roaring around the lake. Ever see THE INCREDIBLES? Remember when Dash ran across the water and left a furious wake of garagntuan water spouts? (Older folk might better recall Clint Eastwood in FIREFOX.) Well, Will Harlan came flying around the lake like Dash out-running the Syndrome’s minions. He destroyed the course record, coming in at 4:54:21. I felt fortunate to have finished the marathon before his triumphant lap around the lake.

I had time to catch a shower at Grandma’s house before returning to the finish to welcome my friends in from the Challenge. Everyone ran a stellar race, with most folks earning a strong PR.

As I talked to the finishers, I saw that one of my buddies was injured. If you haven’t already read my post about his graphically banged up knee, find it here. He injured it at the summit and ran 20 miles down the mountain, bloodied but unbowed.

They say that any run you can walk away from must have been good. My friend could walk, albeit gingerly. Unlike Miniconjou Chief Big Foot, he has lived to tell of the massacre of wounded knee.

He basked in the glow of his flamboyantly injured status. A doctor who had run the challenge took one look at the leg and laconically said, “ER.” I asked him if he’d have to “Put my friend down.” The doctor humorlessly replied, “no.” So much for bedside manner.

We sped off to the ER in Asheville, 20 miles away. While the uninjured dined on Pizza and Beer in downtown Asheville, my friend enjoyed a pleasant 2 hours in treatment. There’s not much to say except that he continued to record his splits. They were:

Mount Mitchell Challenge: 6:37:32
Arrive at ER: 8:10:14
Doctor Finally Arrives: 9:07:36
Doctor Abruptly Leaves: 9:10:22
Doctor Arrives for a Second Cameo: 10:46:11
Doctor Leaves Again: 10:49:50
Complete X-Ray: 11:15:30
Depart ER: 11:32:01

The Bountiful banquet
We returned just in time for the post-race banquet. The word had spread about the knee injury and visit to the hospital. Our wounded friend was hailed on his return as he ambled in his largely superfluous leg brace. I still say he should have accepted the crutches for further dramatic effect.

On the way into the banquet, we picked up the last, most prized SWAG item: A North Face finishers fleece pull-over; a coveted item if I ever saw one. Did I mention this race was stellar?

Oh yeah, and the catered banquet was plentiful and superb; just heaps and heaps of delicious food, decedent desserts and great stories around the table. I was beginning to feel spoiled.

After the banquet, we returned to the house for more celebrating, including beer, more pizza, the inexplicable peppermint schnapps, and junk food of all sorts. I should point out here that the nicely bitter Dead Guy Ale from Rouge Brewery does not go well with Girl Scout cookies.

Grab Your Weapons, Citizens!
I’m not sure what could top such a weekend, at 6:00am the following morning, we all found out. It turns out the Lt. Colonel is an early riser, highly patriotic, and loves to sing in the shower. He began with a booming rendition of the STAR SPANGLED BANNER and continued on to the inevitable GOD BLESS AMERICA. After this I predicted to the house mates, dollars to donuts, that the next song would be the Army theme, CAISSONS. And sure enough, it was.

When he emerged from the shower, I told him I was about to request LA MARSEILLAISE. I should also advise you to not suggest the French National Anthem to patriotic army crooners. I’d tell you what he said to me (yelled really) but this is a family blog.

On the way out of Black Mountain we breakfasted at Denny’s, once again attempting to redress the calorie deficit caused by endurance running. Though some of us undoubtedly regretted the decision to choose the Meat Lovers Scramble.

You must run this race.
I had a stupendous time. All the hard work of training is well worth the reward if all races would be like this. I didn’t even run my strongest race here, but it has not diminished my regard. It was simply a near perfect race on a near perfect day. The weather was delightfully accommodating, the company jovial, the race challenging, the accomplishments hard earned, and the injuries theatrically entertaining. Who could ask for more?

I’ve got to thank my wife for being cool enough to sanction the back-to-back marathon thing. Those of you with two or more small children know that being away for one weekend, let alone two, puts a significant strain on your spouse.

If I must criticize something about the race, I’d go after the race T-shirt. It was a short sleeve cotton shirt with, in my opinion, a weak design. I always seek long-sleeves from winter races, and those who know me, know that I have strong opinions on the subject. However, this is a small complaint. Most race T-shirts are garish, and the stellar pull-over finisher’s fleece more than makes up for this shortcoming.

If you’ve run this race, I strongly encourage you to tell Jay Curwen (the race director) that he and his team did a remarkable job. The official website lists his number as (800) 678-2367.

If you are looking for a marathon or ultra that will challenge you mightily, this is it. If you prefer races that are extremely well-run with generous swag, Black Mountain is for you. It is a runner’s race, pure and simple.

I’ll be back next year, and I’m doing the 40 mile challenge.

– Dean