“Get out of your head”.
This phrase became my mantra during the 2013 Mount Mitchell Challenge. I said it to myself whenever it seemed that the suffering was about to overwhelm my ability to endure it, after each misstep that could have, and twice did result in tumbles, and I said it as I thought about the end and how I wish it would come sooner. Those words would trigger the realization that the mental angst caused by doubt and the desire for things to be other than what they were was far more painful than whatever hardship thirty-six miles of rugged trail and asphalt could deliver. Getting out of my head allowed me to get into the simple rhythm and pleasure of movement.
The days leading up to the 2013 Mount Mitchell Challenge were filled with uncertainty. Depending on what time of day and which source I checked, the weather forecast ranged from sunny skies and mild temperatures to heavy rain down low and snow and ice at higher elevations. Twenty-four hours prior to the event, Blue Ridge Parkway officials informed the race organizers that unlike in previous years, no vehicles would be allowed on the parkway since it would be closed due to forecasted wintry conditions. This meant that there would be limited support once the challenge participants finished running the trails leading up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and that from there forward, the course would have to be rerouted. In most years, the course follows a series of trails to the summit of the mountain and then returns via a combination of trails and pavement. This year, we would have to follow the State Park road five and a half miles up to the summit and then back again the same way. This alteration shortened the length of the challenge from forty to thirty-six miles.
As we gathered in downtown Black Mountain for the start, a steady drizzle was falling as the first light of the day was filtering through a thick layer of cloud. I left the starting line with my friend Corey in pretty good spirits, but apprehensive about what the weather might do as we gained elevation. We entered the woods at the Rainbow Trailhead in Montreat and soon were slowed by the train of people making their way up the single track en route to Sourwood Gap. We passed others when we could and were both feeling pretty strong at that point. My windbreaker was off and the drizzle halted before we made it the five miles to the first aid station at the gap.
After leaving Sourwood Gap, we enjoyed the added space provided by the double track of the Old Mitchell Toll Road and continued to make steady progress. As we reached the second aid station at the nine mile mark at Bill’s Knob, the drizzle began again but did not last long. The weather continued to improve as we made our way towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. Corey and I both struggled somewhat during this section. I caught my big toe on more than one rock and we both walked from time to time. I began to feel anxious about making the three hour cutoff time that the race requires of challenge participants in order to continue past the parkway to the mountain. This might have contributed somewhat to my sloppy running technique during this section, which culminated in my first fall of the day as we hit a snow and ice covered section of trail in the half mile before reaching the parkway. Corey was there to quickly pull me up and on we went.
We reached the Blue Ridge Parkway at 2:45 into the race. I said goodbye and thanks to Corey, who was turning back at this point to complete the Black Mountain Marathon, and began the eleven miles of road running required to summit Mount Mitchell and return to the trails for the descent to the finish back in town. As I left the aid station behind, I finally knew after months of training that, barring any unforeseen events, I was going to complete the Challenge. The act of breaking the barrier between the marathon route and the Mount Mitchell Challenge route was a big relief. At that point, the sun was blasting some holes between the clouds and the temperatures were quite comfortable. The gentle grade of the parkway and the slight downhill to the Mount Mitchell State Park road were welcome relief after the muddy uphill slog to the parkway. The good times quickly came to an end as I turned up the park road.
The climb up the road was less than enjoyable. I probably walked 80 percent of it and I’m guessing most mere mortals did the same as nobody passed me on the ascent. In fact, I passed someone who was foolish enough to attempt to keep a running gait up that wall. As the road climbed up and around to the north facing slope of the mountain, the wind picked up, the clouds closed in, and the temperatures dropped. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I arrived at the visitor’s center, where I was welcomed and told to go touch the sign at the 6,684 foot summit. The sidewalk here was iced over and treacherous so I made my way carefully, not wanting a mistake here to end my day. It was now 11 o’clock, four hours since we began down in Black Mountain. I spent a few minutes up top to take a picture and chat with others. The cell signal was strong, so off went the message: “On the summit. Headed down”.
Not so fast. I returned to the aid station at the visitor’s center to refill water and mix up some more Hammer Perpetuem (the only nutrition I consumed for the entire event). My now cold hands and the overabundance of stuff in my hydration pack made these chores take longer than they should have. Next time I will go lighter.
The descent down the park service road was uneventful. It began the pounding of my legs that would continue for the remainder of the race. The downhill on the parkway I had earlier enjoyed became an uphill that I happily walked. My time was not a concern at this point, just finishing was all that mattered. The upper half of the Toll Road trail is very rough and was a muddy mess by this point in the day when all of the marathon participants and many challenge participants had already tromped up and down it. Somewhere between the parkway and the Bill’s Knob Aid station, I fell again, this time covering myself with thick ocher mud. I was not hurt at all, but I must have looked pretty bad because for the remainder of the race, several people asked if I was ok.
In Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run, he states that “thinking is the ultra-marathoner’s worst enemy”. I found this to be true. The pain in my body was not nearly as insufferable as the anguish and anxiety produced by my mind. I would notice myself thinking about the pain in my legs or the distance left to travel and would think that I should stop, would question why was I doing this, would start to believe that maybe I wouldn’t make it. But then I would ask myself, “what’s really wrong?”. “Legs still working? Yes”. “Energy still to spare? Yes”. “Mind still functioning properly? Yup”.
After these little check-in’s, it would be clear to me, that the root of my discomfort was just my mind spinning out protestations. At this point I would remind myself again to “Get out of my head”, and would focus instead on the next place to put my feet, on the beauty and silence surrounding me, and the air coming in and out of my body. With this, the pain in my legs would cease to matter again for a while longer and I would sometimes even manage a smile.
A combination of running and walking brought me back to Sourwood Gap where I refilled water one last time before beginning the final five miles. I completed the remainder of the trail section as fast as my knees would allow before the real punishment of the steep paved downhill of Appalachian Way delivered me back to the town of Montreat. The flat, paved road back to Black Mountain seemed longer than the three miles it actually encompassed.
Finally, Lake Tomahawk was before me and the insult to injury portion of the event began as participants get to see the finish line, and then run another half mile around the lake before crossing it. Mary, and Corey and his family were there waiting for me as I managed to finish in a sprint for the last forty yards or so. Total time: 7:25. It had been a good day. Getting out of my head and fully engaged in where I was and what I was doing was the key to completing and enjoying the Challenge and is probably the antidote to many of my everyday discomforts as well.
The rain fell hard this evening, after the work day was done. I put on my shoes and out the door I sprang as the drops began pitter-pattering around and upon me. Plumeting back to earth they gathered steam and so did I, my pace quickening in the spreading dampness. Through the town my footsteps fell, large splashes interupting the patterns made by a hundred thousand beads of water exploding on the newly paved aspalt streching out before me. My shirt soaked through, water squishing out the mesh of my shoes and dripping off the tip of my nose, the world covered by a diaphanous sheen.
Could there be anything more exquisite than this?