Two of the bucket lists I’m working on as I stumble through life are the 50 states marathon thing and the 49 state highpoints. I realize there are actually 50 state highpoints, but I read too much about folks losing fingers or feet or their life up in Alaska so I’ve decided to skip The Last Frontier. Anywho, a few years ago I read about a race called the Mt. Mitchell Challenge which would kill two birds with one stone. It’s a lottery event, and after missing out in 2012 I was lucky enough to get picked for the 2013 race.
The Mount Mitchell Challenge is a 40ish mile (it was actually only 36 miles this year due to parts of the trail being closed due to ice/snow) run from the town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, to the top of Mt. Mitchell and back down. Mitchell is the highest point in the USA east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet above sea level (about 400 feet higher than the much more well-known Mt. Washington in New Hampshire).
Our first order of business after landing in Knoxville, Tennessee, was to head straight to the Appalachian Trail. I had heard of a pub where you can get a great burger and a cold Yuengling that was actually on the AT - The Spring Creek Tavern in Hot Springs, NC. The bartender informed Katie and I that we were now officially section hikers, since we had hiked about 50 feet of the AT going from the parking lot to the bar. Maybe someday we’ll return to hike the remaining 99.999% of the trail.
Race morning greeted runners with a steady rain. I went into the race just hoping for a finish after a recent back injury due to wrestling a bear (OK, I actually jacked it up shoveling snow, which makes me sound 80 years old). After taking the first three or so flat road miles super easy, we hit the trail and began to climb. Quite the slopfest, living in Colorado makes one forget that in some places it can actually rain for more than ten minutes.
From mile three to mile 13 (which brings you to the Blue Ridge Parkway and is the turnaround for the Black Mountain Marathon, which runs along with the Challenge) you run a gentle slope up some beautiful east coast mountain trails. Lots of rocks, lots of mud. It was pretty foggy all day, but at times things would clear up and you’d get a great view of the surrounding Black Mountains.
For the 2013 event, Challenge runners hit the Parkway at mile 13 and just ran up the paved road another five miles to the top of Mount Mitchell. Very empty at the peak. No loudspeaker announcing your arrival, no Dave Sorenson to instantly post your time to the interweb, and no photographer to immortalize your accomplishment. When I got there, just under four hours after I started, I couldn’t see 20 feet in front of me due to the fog, so I just hit the top and turned around.
You went back down the same way you came up. I ran the five miles down the road pretty fast, but once I got to the trail I ran super conservatively. Lots of mud and uneven rocks, I didn’t want to risk hurting myself any more than I already was. On the one hand I accomplished my original goal – I had wanted to break seven hours for the Challenge, and I ended up finishing in 6:50. Of course, the course this year was four miles shorter and considerably faster due to all the asphalt in place of the technical trails. The most important thing for me is that I spent seven hours in motion with wet feet, and hopefully that pays off at Hardrock this July. The Challenge was my 17th state marathon and 15th state highpoint. Katie and I would hike Sassafras Mountain in South Carolina the next day to bag highpoint number 16.
The big question for the locals here is how this race compares to Pikes Peak. I didn’t exactly throw down a big race effort at the Challenge, but I don’t think it’s as hard of a course as the Pikes marathon. I guessed Mitchell to average about half the steepness of Barr Trail. Of course, if I or anyone says any race is easy, they didn’t run hard enough. But Mitchell could definitely prove a worthy adversary if someone really wanted to get after it on the course. I also have to point out that the 2013 event had great running weather, which I hear is pretty rare.
After the race Katie and I spent the day exploring the town of Black Mountain. After we found every joint that served Yuengling, we headed out to Pisgah Brewing. The next day we took a nice drive down to South Carolina for a bit, then explored Pisgah National Forest (pisgah seems to be a very popular word in Carolina) before heading to Asheville, NC. I have to admit that I was initially leery of Asheville being named “Beer City, USA,” but after spending some time there I gotta say I’m a believer. Oskar Blues and New Belgium agree with me, as both Front Range beer makers are opening new breweries there soon.
All in all, a great vacation to a great area of the country. Definitely something to consider if you’re one of those weirdos who loves running 40 miles up and down mountains in poor conditions and then drinking a ton of beer afterwards.