It's been 3 weeks since the 100 miler & my hip flexors have been hurting ever since. Achilles hurts a little. Neither pain would make running the Black Mountain Marathon a particularly good idea, but after some debate, I did it anyway.
I stayed with Kevin, whose son & daughter are on my cross country team. He was running the Mount Mitchell Challenge, which runs simultaneously with the marathon. This is a 40 mile race & when the marathoners turn around at the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Challenge runners keep going to the top of Mount Mitchell and back. It felt strange not doing the full Challenge because I usually do the longest distance offered, but I knew when I registered that a mountain trail marathon after Rocky Raccoon would be hard enough and 40 would be a real stretch. I don't feel too wimpy because the marathon wasn't "just" a marathon. It was a "challenge" itself.
The marathon (& lower part of the Challenge) course goes from town along paved roads for the first 2-3 miles & then follows singletrack trails for awhile, before connecting to some very rough jeep roads. The first half is all up the mountain & the last half is all back down (although not quite the same way you came in places). Kevin has done the Challenge twice before & assured me the mountain wasn't that steep- that it was a long grind, but not as bad as I thought. He was right. The marathon rises 3000' in the first half (getting you up to 5300' with a good view of Mt. Mitchell on a normal day), which is a big chunk of elevation, but I knew I could cruise on the way down. By the time I turned around, it felt like the race was over.
So the elevation gain was tough, but what made it much worse was the fact that it had rained for 24 hours prior to & during the race. What wasn't mud was flowing water or rock. Part of it was like running through a shallow creek. Kevin admitted he didn't remember how rocky it was. The jeep roads were extremely rocky. I didn't mind. Coming down was a breeze. I almost felt like I should be working harder for some reason because it was so easy. With the mud & rocks, you couldn't fly down, but the only effort I exerted was dodging the biggest rocks & puddles.
Despite the slop, I had a really good time! I knew I would hurt because of the 100 miler, so I took it easy & tried to enjoy it. I ran with Kevin for the first hour & then took a bathroom break. I talked to people around me for the next 2 hours before getting to the 14 mile turnaround in just over 3 hours. The conditions on Mount Mitchell were severe- around 30 degrees, 30-40 mph winds & heavy snow. If it hadn't poured on the Challenge runners all morning, I think they would've been fine to continue (soaking wet + 30 degrees + high winds = game over), but the park rangers made a decision to close it to runners who showed up after 3 hours to the marathon turnaround. The bad part is no one knew about this cutoff.
Kevin was the first one denied access to continue! I ran into him a minute after he left the turnaround & he went back with me and ran the rest of the way down the mountain with me. I'm sure he was disappointed, but I think he changed his mind when we got to the next aid station & heard an announcement on the EMT's radio, "We've already pulled 3 runners with hypothermia & we need more blankets & EMT workers because we're expecting more."
Here's what the race director sent out after the race, "...For those that missed the trip to the summit…either because you were a marathoner or because you fell victim to the modified cut-off time …The conditions at the top included heavy snow/sleet, temperatures hovering at or below freezing and winds gusting in excess of 50mph…Our fire/rescue crews have final say for where and when we can proceed on the mountain…The decision was made about an hour into the race to move the cut-off from 10:30am to 10am for the safety of both runners and volunteers at the summit…With upwards of 40 people huddled in the ranger’s shelter at times, and more than 20 runners needing to be evacuated in vehicles from the mountain, it was definitely a needed precaution..." Keep in mind this is 40 people hudled/20 people carried out out of less than 70 that were allowed to go to the top.
Most people were bundled with jackets, tights, gloves, hats, etc. I was fine (just a little on the chilly side sometimes) with shorts, a thin long sleeve shirt & a short sleeve shirt on. Of course, that wouldn't have cut it for the Challenge, but I felt fine where I was.
The hip flexors hurt (Achilles did not), but it never got any worse during the race. Otherwise felt pretty good. After the race, I noticed my big toe is killing me! Maybe from running on my toes going up the mountain. Had I not been a little banged up, I don't know that I would've gone much faster. I was working pretty hard for the first hour and then once on the jeep roads, it seemed to get a little easier. I kicked it in the last 2-3 miles and pushed it as hard as I could. I'm not sure why since I'd taken it easy most of the race, but I like to finish a race strong. I also wanted to finish under 5:30 & ended up 5:27. Kinda felt guilty leaving Kevin. He's a faster runner than me and I WAS NOT trying to race him. He'd kill me if we were really racing. I waited a couple of times for him but he told me to go ahead. I'm pacing for the last 20-40 miles in his first 100 at Umstead in about 6 weeks.
But yeah, this was one of my most enjoyable races ever maybe. I've never run the majority of a race with someone & had a good time chatting, making jokes & sharing the miserable conditions with someone. Had I been out there running by myself without talking to the people around me, I would've had a much less enjoyable experience. ...and that's what I'd call today- an experience, not really a race. People were really relaxed and knew it was better to laugh at the muck than to curse it.
Giveaways were good- cotton t-shirt, 'boggan & North Face finisher's fleece with embroidered race logo.
I plan on doing the Challenge next year and hope to encounter some snow on the ground or falling, but no rain & mud, please! Once was fun, but I wouldn't look forward to a repeat performance.