This is my 3rd time doing at least some of this race. In 2009, I was coming off a 100 miler and felt like "just" running the marathon would be the best option. In 2010, I signed up for the 40 miler, but the course was cut short due to terrible conditions. I was really nervous both of those years. I love running in the mountains, but I'm slow uphill. This time, I was very confident and excited about running it and finally seeing all of the trails. I wasn't disappointed. Had a great race!
7 AM start in the town of Black Mountain which is at 2405' in elevation. You go up to the top of Mt. Mitchell which is the highest peak east of the Mississippi at 6684' and then back to the town of Black Mountain. The first 2-3 miles is paved and slightly uphill until you get to Montreat College, go up a steep hill and hit the trails. I had planned on running as much of the race with a buddy of mine as I could. He's always faster than me but I thought I could hang onto him to the marathon turnaround. I lost him right at the start, waited a little for him, but ended up running ahead on my own. I had looked forward to the companionship. More and more, I really get lonely and start thinking negative thoughts on my own in long races, but get distracted when I'm with people. I did latch onto some strangers and acquaintances during the race though. I ran 15 miles on the way down by myself and enjoyed it.
I went slow for the first mile waiting, then picked it up a bit. Walked the steep road at mile 2-3 and enjoyed the narrow singletrack from about miles 3-6.5 more than I remembered. A good chunk of the race is on the Toll Road, which I believe was an old railroad line and then old road. It is a moderate grade. Very runnable and not the gruelling climb you'd expect "running up a mountain." Wide but very rocky. Muddy in places during the race. You run up the Toll Road until about mile 14. I felt great, chatted with some people, and stayed relaxed. Ran the whole way until mile 10. This guy started talking my ear off and asking me questions that required long answers. Friendly but as soon as he started talking he wanted to walk. We walked probably 70% of the next half mile together. I didn't want to but wanted to keep talking to him. Finally, I left him, but he kinda threw me off my game. I took four or five 30 second walk breaks in the next 2 miles even though I didn't really feel like I needed them. I got to the marathon turnaround at mile 14 (it doesn't go back exactly the same way) at 2:35. The cutoff was a little tight I thought at 3:00. But I got there in plenty of time, felt good and decided to celebrate the accomplishment (Last year in the deep snow, I was legitimately worried about making the cutoff.) with a more substantial break. I broke the race down into segments and kept looking forward to the next piece. "Can't wait for the Toll Road!" "Can't wait for the Parkway!" "Can't wait wait to get back to the Toll Road!" When you get off the Toll Road and to the Blue Ridge Parkway, everything opens up and for a half mile, you are surrounded with great views. I took them in, took a few pictures, ate, drank, situated stuff in my pack, soaked in the sun and walked for most of that 1/2 mile even though most if it's downhill. Just enjoyed myself. It was a good mental break. Worked hard up to that point. Knew I'd have to work hard on the steepest parts ahead, and just took it easy for a few minutes.
I had never been on the next part of the trails but I expected them to be rough. In actuality, they weren't bad at all at first. You're on the Buncombe Horse Trail which is flat in places, wide, not very technical, but pretty muddy with snow melting and rain the day before. There was patchy snow and ice in places here, but nothing more than a few steps at a time. I stayed with a few people for most of this 4-5 mile section and it was a lot of fun. I very easily could've picked it up here if I wanted to pick up 5 minutes. Felt good pushed at a decent pace, but was well within my limits. Took a few pictures and bathroom breaks and kept catching up to my group. Towards the end of this section, you come out into some clearings and the terrain was really rocky and dry. Didn't look like NC to me. The dead hemlocks and firs weren't as apparent to me as they were other times I've been to Mt. Mitchell. I was enjoying the views when SPLAT, I tripped on a rock and landed on my side in a giant puddle of melted snow. I was completely soaked. Would've been bad if it were cold, but the temp at the top was probably 38 and 60 at the bottom. Unbelievably PERFECT conditions.
The last 1.5 miles to the top is narrow singletrack that you have a hard time recognizing as a trail sometimes. It's straight up. Rooty and rocky too. Not very runnable. I could've scrambled a little faster and run 4-5 steps between rocks here and there, but I was content staying with another group I'd joined. The last half mile up was icy and very slippery. I put on the YakTrax which were helpful for that half mile + the first mile downhill. Made it to the top in 4:30. At the top, I took some pictures and talked to some people before heading back down. Beautiful clear day with 360 degree views from the observation tower. There are plenty more miles to go from the top, but you know the real work is done at that point. Good feeling.
I went down the first 1.5 miles very slowly talking to a guy I'd run with earlier. VERY slowly. Thick, slippery ice. Super steep. After this steep downhill singletrack, the trail dumps out to a gravel road. I knew this was a moderate uphill mile and decided to get serious and work hard from that point on. Ran almost all of that uphill section and then went as fast as I could go the next 15 miles or so. 2-3 miles pounding down the Mt. Mitchell entrance road made my stomach a little queasy. Still felt kinda bad the top mile of the Toll Road but kept running fast. Passed 15 people or so on the way down. No one passed me. Pushed as hard as I could go. Felt great.
Kept looking forward to the road, which means about 3 miles to go. Ran down the Toll Road with a grin on my face knowing that I would finish strong. When I saw the road for the first time, I think I may have literally laughed out loud. You hit Appalachian Way and fall out of the sky. The steepest paved road I may have ever seen. Always burns the feet. A lot of people walk down because it's rough on the quads, but I've never had a problem with it except for the feet. Flew down and then hit the flat last 3 miles and went as hard as I could. 8:00 miles. Seemed a lot faster than that, but after 35 miles, that's still pretty fast for me. Felt fantastic. Hit Lake Tomahawk 1/3 mile from the finish and felt like really kicking, but that seemed silly. I did finish strong but scaled it back more than I wanted to.
Finished in 7:43:05 in 74th place out of 179 people registered and 129 finishers. Not sure how many people didn't meet the marathon turnaround cut off and how many just chose to turn back there. With the number of people on the wait list, I wouldn't imagine many people registered just didn't show up.
I feel really good about this race. Everything was perfect. Couldn't imagine feeling any better. Felt very strong. Could've taken it a little harder on the way up, but I really enjoyed my day and was happy with how things went. Had fun, ran hard, got to spend 8 hours with beautiful scenery doing something I love to do and met people along the way. Couldn't beat this experience.