The MMC is one of the most prestigious ultra marathons on the east coast that attracts an elite level of runners something I certainly am not. The field for the Challenge is maxed out at 200 runners and the online registration filled in under two minutes. The MMC is a 40 mile race that climbs from the town of Black Mountain through Montreat and then all the way to the summit of Mount Mitchell. Mitchell is the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. Of course once you have reached the summit and you have to run 20 miles back down to Black Mountain. The race is always held in late February and it is expected that you will face harsh weather. Snow, sleet, 50+mph winds, and hypothermia are all on the minds of the runners and the medical personal on scene. I prepared myself mentally and physically for the worst of weather but we had received come race day was some of the best this race has experienced in 14 years. Understanding that weather conditions on Mitchell can change drastically at any time I dressed in several layers.
I drive the 1/2 mile from the hotel to the start of the race at the bottom of Cherry Street in Black Mountain. I say my good byes to my wife, Amy, and the kids and make my way into the crowd of runners. I look around and see the familiar faces of Stan Austin and Rick Spencer. I realize I will not see them after the start of the race. Rick has great endurance and and has been here before. Stan is way to speedy for me to keep up with. Running 40 miles by yourself seems lonely but it keeps me in the zone and focused on getting back to the finish line. I train alone and so racing alone seems more comfortable to me.
|Downtown Black Mountain pre-race|
And so the race begins promptly at 7AM and off we go running up Cherry Street the first hill of the day. The first few miles are uneventful and cover about 3 miles of paved road to Montreat. I despise road running and just want to hit the roots, rocks, and hills, as soon as possible. As I pass under the rock bridge leading into Montreat I wave to Amy for a picture. I can hear Mackenzie in the stroller yelling "that's my daddy".
|Passing under the rock bridge into Montreat|
We soon find ourselves on some very nice single track trails that are very easy going but jammed up with runners. A few miles tick by and I begin to worry about my largest concern of the day.... making the cut-off. The cut-off for the race is at the 3 hour point at the end of the Toll Road. I notice I've run the last few miles with the same two guys. I ask them if we are on pace to make the cut-off. They felt comfortable that we were so I hung with them for awhile. The pace was relaxed and I became concerned it was to much so. With a few miles left for the cut-off I trudge off picking up my pace. I made the cut-off with ten minutes to spare.
A short stretch run on some pavement and then I turn off onto the Buncombe Horse Trail. This trail was difficult for me and it cost me a good bit of time. The winter thaw had left this trail a mud bogging mess and at many times I was ankle deep. After this section comes Commissary Trail and the slow and technical hike up to the summit. This trail was gorgeous and felt like something out of a novel. The fragrance of the evergreen trees was overpowering. My progress on the trail was slow but steady. My breathing was a little labored probably a combination of fatigue and altitude. I reached a point where it began getting icy and considered getting out the Yaktrax for traction. I chose not to use them as I was fatigued enough that having more traction was not necessarily going to cause much improvement in pace. The ice and snow section was short lived and before I knew it I was viewing the summit observation point of Mount Mitchell. I touched the summit sign marker and got my race bib marked to signal completion up to this point in the race. It was optional to continue another 50 yards to the observation point. I chose to do so as I worked hard to get here I might as well enjoy a moment before the descent. The view here is 360 degrees of mountain glory. I was ticked at myself for not bringing a camera to capture the moment.
The descent begins on a very steep and technical trail that had a few icy spots left. This trail would have been fun after a few miles on the legs but after 20+ miles it was tough. This section opened up onto a gravel road that climbed back up for about a mile. I decided to walk this mile even though it was very runnable. I was very hot at this point and exposed to the sun. Why I did not shed my long sleeve shirt at this point I'm not sure. The next aid station arrived and I filled my bottles and grabbed a handful of salty chips. For the next several miles I ran downhill on a paved road. The angle of the road was tough and was killing my ankles and forced me to run on the grass shoulder when possible. This was one of my least favorite parts of the race. With that out of the way it was back onto to the Toll Road which is more like a very rocky logging road. The pounding over the last couple miles on the paved road caused my lower left leg to begin throbbing with pain. This was the all to familiar injury that I had an MRI on a few weeks before the race. Heading down the Toll Road I kept pace with this one runner. We switched lead over each other for a few miles. At some point he was must have hit a bad point in his race as he dropped off and I never seen him again. All day I had been looking forward to the mystery aid station that was said to have a keg of beer from Black Mountain's own Pisgah Brewery. Unfortunately I passed through that aid station without noticing an offering of beer... oh well there will be plenty after the race is over. I make my way down the absurdly steep paved Appalachian Way back into Montreat. Making a left the course puts you onto a nice town trail along the creek which sure beats running the road all the way into Black Mountain. I was very happy to be running these last miles and not having to walk. I passed a few runners heading back towards Lake Tomahawk. As I arrive at the Lake I pass Amy and the kids at the playground and she starts snapping photos while I pass. It is a half mile loop around the Lake with everybody watching so there is no walking here. I must finish with some sense of pride and dig deep to keep a decent pace building speed as the finish arrives. Crossing the line in 8:21:59. Mackenzie, my 2.5 year old daughter, runs to me with arms out stretched wanting me to pick her up. She has no idea what I have just went through and it does not matter. Being welcomed like that is so special and something I will cherish forever.
|A hug for daddy|
With about 200 starters there were only 129 to finish the challenge and I was proud to be one of them. I ran this race very conservatively based on my lack of training and knowledge of the course. Looking back I know now how runnable this course is and with better training and cooperation of the weather I'm confident I could shave around 45 minutes off my time.
Many things went well for me this time around. I suffered no significant nausea and zero gastric issues. I have been using Ultra for my electrolyte drink mix which I realize now is way to sweet for me. For this race I carried two bottles and consistently filled one with water and the other with Heed or Gatorade. Some stretches of the race my stomach was very thankful for just plain old water. I took about an S-Cap an hour. I consumed a handful of chips at each aid station and ate about 5 gels during the course of the day and a pack of Rock Blocks. I broke a cardinal rule in running ultras... never try anything for the first time on race day that you have not tested in training. I have a hard time during races consuming solid food and after a while I get nauseous with all the gels. I needed something to solve this issue and decided to try a product (on race day) called EFS Liquid Shot. The taste was a little sweet but it packs a ton of calories and electrolytes in one flask. I consumed this Shot around the half way point and it really helped me get over the hump. I need to experiment with this product some more but so far so good!
The race is over it is time to refuel and begin assessing the damage to my left leg that I'm now noticeably limping on. We finished the day off with some dinner at My Father's Pizza which is always a nice choice when in Black Mountain.
Will I run this race again? If I'm lucky enough to get a spot next year then I will surely be here!