Our trip to Asheville was 3-fold:
- Visit Amy's Aunt Jane, Uncle Terry, Cousin Eric, and his kids Finnegan and Ansel
- Introduce Neil to the mountains of North Carolina and to more family
- Race the 16th annual Black Mountain Marathon
Needless to say, moving forward, I expect our trips are all going to look something like this for a while.
It all started about 2.5 years ago shortly after our last trip to visit the Asheville crowd when Jane sent a link to the Mount Mitchell Challenge / Black Mountain Marathon race website. At this point I was training for my 1st ultra, a 50K trail run near Tampa, FL. I was familiar with the Summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, having just ascended it with my bike during our recent trip. I thought to myself, the marathon looks doable, but the challenge looks really tough. Both courses are an out and back mountain climb. The challenge is a 40-mile race with a full ascent of Mount Mitchell. Now that I had a few ultras under my belt I signed up for the Black Mountain Marathon and booked a couple of flights.
Skip ahead a couple of months, a few hundred miles of training, a flight, and an 120-mile drive and we arrive in Asheville. After a pre-race dinner with our gracious hosts, Neil heads to bed and Amy and I drive over to Black Mountain for registration / pre-race briefing.
As the race director, Jay, sits on a stool on the stage and thanks us for coming, I think to myself, that maybe my true calling is to be a race director. As he smiles, all I can assume is that he is thinking, that for 16 years now he has convinced people (400+ this time around) to run up a mountain in the mud, snow, and whatever mother nature chooses to throw at them and they can't get enough of it. Anyways, at this point I am starting to get pretty psyched about the race and quickly loosing concern about any issues I may run into along the way.
Most of the next 3 miles were muddy, technical single track trails. The elevation gain was in the range of 300' per mile and I ran with two other guys who seemed to be enjoying the race. The rest of the way up was mostly fire road. While muddy, and rocky at times, I was able to keep moving pretty well until I hit mile 10. As the slope increased, I began to take some walking breaks in an effort to keep my heart rate in check and hopefully not completely destroy my legs before the half way point. As my watch beeped signaling the end of the 11th mile, I was starting to get pretty warn out and I still had another 2.7 miles of climbing to go.
I luckily found a 2nd wind at this point and was able to hit a new groove which I was able to hold on to until mile 13 when I encountered a .7 mile stretch of ice. This continued on until I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway (my turnaround). As I slipped and slid around both on my way out and then back again over this icy stretch for a 2nd time I couldn't help but start to smile knowing the worst of the race was now behind me. At the turn around my watch read 9:35 per mile and I knew I had some work to do if I was going to get to the finish in under 4 hours (my estimated finish time based on not really knowing the course or how hard mother nature was going to make it).
As I began my descent my pace quickened to low to mid 8 min per mile and I started to get to see a lot more of the runners. There isn't too much in running more motivating then running by a few hundred runners who all yell to you "Nice job, keep it up, looking great." From here it only got more interesting as one runner yelled "You're currently in 14th" and the next yelled "You are 30 seconds back. Go get him."
With a renewed sense of youth, I picked it up even more as I bounced down the trail like kid. As my watched beeped 19, I truly was feeling the best I had all day and was excited to see how I would finish. I was in 12th place at this point with a new goal of finishing in the top 10.
With 5 miles to go I popped out of the woods and down an extremely steep road that hurt like hell to run on. As I passed another runner, who happened to be running switch backs down the road, muttering "Ow ow ow ow." Garmin would later tell me that I had a dropped just over 800' in that mile.
As I hit the flats, I passed two more runners, one who I had run miles 3-6 with who told me that I was looking great and to keep on going. I had now moved into 9th place and wasn't about to relinquish it. Finally I arrived at the lake and began my final loop as they announced my name over the loud speaker. After one final pick up of the pace, and running straight through a puddle to avoid having to travel 3 additional feet, I arrived at the finish in 3:46:50 -- 9th of 203 finishers -- 8:42 / mile.
Soaked, tired, and covered from head to toe in mud, I had never been happier to see my crew: Neil, Amy, Aunt Jane, and Uncle Terry.
We took it easy, hung out with the family, and enjoyed the rest of our trip. The next day we did an afternoon brew pub crawl hitting three places and trying 22 different types of beer. By far the most interesting was a jalapeno pepper infused IPA.
From there we hung out with some cousins after 24 hour recovery we even went on a flat hike along the Swannanoa river.
All and all we had a great trip and I am looking forward to going back and doing the full challenge some day. Special thanks to our awesome hosts Jane and Terry for housing and feeding us and helping take care of Neil.