Later this year, I’ll turn 40. To celebrate, I ran 40 miles Saturday. But not just any 40 miles: 40 miles of rocky, icy trail up and back down Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States at 6,684 feet. It was a long day of exercise, and it was very hard. Here are some thoughts for those who are considering doing this race in the future, or who, like my father, want to know “Why?!?”
The race itself, the Mount Mitchell Challenge, was wonderfully organized, and the volunteers were kind and enthusiastic, even—especially—at the higher elevations, where the wind was gusting and the drinks were freezing. This year, race organizers instituted a lottery system. My best friend and two of my former coaching clients all put their names in the lottery, and all four of us got in. Coincidence? Not sure, but it made for a fun group. We rented a cabin that was a little ways out of Black Mountain, where the race started and finished. I’d suggest staying in town if possible. It’s a lovely downtown with shops and restaurants, and the Monte Vista hotel, where packet pickup was held, was cozy and charming.
I trained by running lots, of course. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, I ran at least a mile a day. I spread out my long runs so they were at least nine days apart, and my longest run was 30 miles. (I ran those from home, accompanied almost the entire time by various compassionate friends, and felt good enough to put high-heeled boots on over my compression socks and go to a wine tasting that night.) Most of my running was on singletrack in the Carolina North forest, though I did a few runs at Umstead State Park, where the singletrack more closely mimicked the Mount Mitchell trails and the bridle paths simulate the up- and downhill grades of the Mount Mitchell Race.
While I was at Kripalu earlier this month, two of my students and I ran three miles up and down a mountain trail covered in ice. It was very tricky, and it shook my confidence about my ability to negotiate what I knew would be icy terrain up the mountain. Most troubling to me was the idea of breaking a wrist, which would hamper my typing, driving, and downward-dogging abilities for a month or more. As the race organizers let you downgrade to the marathon, run at the same time, at the marathon turnaround point, I remained open to the idea of not heading up the summit if the preceding trail was exhausting.
|Tara, Kika, Dave, and Guido|
Ultras are wonderful for their low-key starts. We gathered in downtown Black Mountain and headed out right on time. Here are my friends at the start: Tara, Kika, Dave, and Guido. Dave has run the marathon and the 40-mile challenge in previous years; Guido has run the 40 miler every year, and he ran with me to mile 16. That was a real blessing; he knew the ins and outs of the course intimately, and he told me which hills to walk and when to keep chugging.
The course is a string of various grades and terrains. The first few miles are on pavement through town, heading through the pretty campus of Montreat College, where a long, steep hill leads to a beautiful trail through the rhododendron. This was a lovely section, soft and lush, with reasonable footing and grades. Soon we entered the Toll Road, which is no longer a road but a long, double-wide trail with plenty of roots, a steep drop to one side, and lots and LOTS of rocks. Many, many, many rocks. This trail brings runners to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the marathoners turn around and the challengers continue up Mount Mitchell. By this point, the air is getting thinner. Entering the state park, we moved onto a relatively flat, smooth trail that traverses the mountain horizontally, crossing frozen streams along the way. The trail that leads to the summit, by contrast, is almost vertical, and I needed to use my arms to help as I picked my way around the ice floes that covered the boulders on the trail. The summit is worth the work, though—we emerged into the howling wind and spectacular views, and it was very exciting to have reached the peak.
There’s no time to linger at the top, and many more miles to run. After checking in at the one warm aid station in the ranger hut, I started back down the mountain, via a trail so steep and rooty I often stopped in my tracks to consider where to put my foot next. This tricky section then feeds into a gravel road that heads, cruelly, back uphill for a mile or so to the paved road. While pavement is a nice change of pace, the road is so canted that it’s tricky (plus, there was ice), and the wind was really roaring. The course reenters the trail at the Toll Road, which seemed to have grown some rocks over the last few hours, then emerges on a very, very steep downhill to run through Montreat and along a creek before finishing with a long loop of Lake Tomahawk, back in Black Mountain.
Equipment and Food
The weather was cold but dry, which worked out fine. When I arrived at the top of the mountain, it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit with 20 mph winds—tough, but manageable—and when I arrived at the finish, it was probably about 50 degrees and pleasantly sunny. There was less ice on the trail than I feared, and it was always on rocks, not the soil, which meant the Yaktrax I carried wouldn’t have helped. It was cold enough to keep on my warm jacket almost the whole time, as well as my insulated mittens. On my feet, I wore wool socks and Brooks Cascadias, which did a wonderful job on the trail and left me without a single blister.
I carried 70 ounces of Power Bar Endurance sport drink in my Nathan Intensity women’s-specific vest. (Big thanks to Nathan here: my original bladder for the pack sprung a hole, and they worked hard to get it replaced in time.) I drank it all on the way up and refilled with another two liters of water at the summit, which I drank completely just before the finish. At aid stations, I grazed on trail mix, chips, and graham crackers, as well as hot soup at the Parkway station. And I ate four Power Bar gels, each with caffeine.
|With Dave at the finish|
My intention for the race was to finish smiling, and I certainly did. My secondary intention was not to get hurt. To that end, I walked every time I felt like I was losing control, which meant I wound up walking a lot of the downhill. That was definitely not the fastest approach, but it kept my mood even and was a major factor in my feeling good at the end. While I stumbled a few times, I never fell, and my wrists made it out unscathed. While a brave runner could have a serious negative split in the race (there are 4,000 feet to descend in the second half!), I ran up in about 4:30 and finished in 8:26.
There was very little drama in my head. I got cranky about the rocks, but when I did, I’d eat a gel and walk till I felt my feet were back under me. A few times, I exclaimed in joy at the views and in wonder at the treat of being able to run all day. Generally, I remembered my intention (finish smiling), mustered up my best form, and breathed.
That said, the race demanded a very high level of focus. It was much harder than Ironman Coeur d’Alene, for example. In the Ironman, especially the swim and the bike, you’ve got to focus to be safe, but not in the moment-to-moment way you must when running technical trails. And the Ironman run looks like a cakewalk in comparison to barreling down icy rocks after 35 miles of running—compare the one-mile-apart aid stations with music, a buffet, and enthusiastic fans with running five miles alone on trail before coming upon a few kind hunters at a table with Tang and trail mix. I liked them both, but I found this run much more challenging, and more quietly rewarding.
Downhill running fries your quads. That’s what makes Boston such a challenging marathon—the 15 miles of descent from Hopkinton to Newton demand eccentric contractions in your quadriceps, which really tears them up. The soreness is quite bad, worse than post-Boston, worse than post-Ironman. But it’s a little better today than yesterday, typical of DOMS.
I’ve generally followed the guidelines I lay out in The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery. First, I ate and drank well before and during the race, so my stomach never bothered me, and I refueled well post race, too. (Hush puppies! Mocha pound cake!) After showering, I put on my compression socks, as well as some recovery tights 2XU sent me for review. We lounged in the cabin, watched Spinal Tap, and went to bed very early. It’s tough to sleep, though, when you’ve had to sustain such a level of focus for so many hours. And it’s tough to sleep when the pain in your muscles means you wake yourself up every time you roll over! The soreness is fading now and should be gone by the weekend. I expect a second wave of fatigue to hit around then, as it does post-Ironman.
|Sign in our cabin|
During those many hours on the trail, I thought about the appropriate amount of time off post–A priority long-distance race, and I developed a new rule of thumb to apply for recreational/age group runners like me. (Competitive/elite runners can shorten this, especially those with more experience at the ultra distances.) If X is the number of hours you’re running in the race, you should take at least X days without running post-race. That holds true for a three- or four-hour marathon, and I bet it’s true for an eight-hour trail run, too.
All these details, and no concrete answer to “Why?!?” Just because.