Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pitchell !

What the heck is a Pitchell you might ask? Well, it is one of the toughest things I have ever done... and that is saying something I suppose. While not technically a real race, or even an official event, it is in fact, a bunch of insane ultra runners getting together and running the 67ish miles from the top of Mt Pisgah to the top of Mt Mitchell along the rugged Mountains to Sea trail in Western North Carolina.... starting at midnight and attempting to finish before sunset.

Why would a cyclist be doing such a thing? The lead up to this deserves a few posts of their own, but suffice to say, over the last 2 years I have been splitting time between cycling and trail running. I built from my first trail "ultra" ( a distance longer than a marathon) in January of 2012 to my first 100 mile trail run at the Mark Twain 100 in September 2013(this will get a separate post as well). I have really fallen in love with trail running. I am finding more and more that I enjoy being out on the trails for long periods of time... exploring and pushing myself. Not that I am giving up cycling anytime soon... for 2014 I have some big cycling AND running goals.

Back to the subject at hand. Ever since I heard that this challenge existed a couple years back I have wanted to do it. Since the date of the run was just 5 weeks after my 100 miler, I was not sure I would be recovered well enough to take part.... but when my recovery was feeling pretty good after a couple weeks I went ahead and committed.

The group of 30 or so odd deranged souls met at the Folk Art Center just East of Asheville at 10pm. This is approximately the half way point mileage wise of the run. We left cars there (where we could stop mid course and pick up any personal supplies) and carpooled up to the parking lot on the Blue Ridge Parkway, 1.6 miles below the summit of Mt Pisgah ( I call Mt Pisgah "Queen P"). Along the way we stashed water and food at a few points that we could pick up on the route back down.

11:45pm : we hiked up to the radio tower at the summit of Queen P. It was actually pretty warm, but cloudy and breezy. At just after midnight, with some whooping and hollering, we started the journey. There are some steep rocky downhill sections in the first few miles and the rocks were wet and slick. Even though I was being careful and not moving too fast I managed to fall pretty hard a couple of times. After the trail crosses the parkway for the first time and levels off a bit I was finally able to settle into a nice groove. Flowing along all by myself in the darkness... it was great. Not too much later though, fog descended and things got even more slippery and visibility diminished to just a few feet. I know this part of the trail really well, so i was not too concerned with going off course but there were a few moments where I honestly had no idea where i was... except that I had not gotten to the French Broad river crossing yet.

I hit the French Broad river bridge at about 3hours 45 mins in... approximately 20 minutes slower than I thought I would, but the visibility was definitely slowing me down. The section from the river crossing all the way to the Folk Art center is actually fairly flat (compared to the rest of the course), and I thought I could move across it quickly, but for whatever reason I was slowing down... not feeling good at all. I was paying close attention to caloric and fluid intake, but I was dragging. At one point I tripped over a root and fell like a sack of potatoes. I was not hurt, but instead of jumping back up I just lay there in the dark for a minute or two, feeling peaceful and sleepy.... but that was not the way to accomplish the up and off I went at a slow shuffle heading toward the halfway point. At about 5 hours in my headlamp started to blink. I was sure I had 6 hours + of light on this setting, why is it going out now with probably 2 hours of dark running to go before I got to the car?! (It turns out that in fact that headlamp is rated for 5 hours on the setting I was using... my bad). In the last mile before the Folk Art center parking lot another runner passed me, the first I had seen since about an hour in! I tried to keep pace, but just could not do it... so I slogged into the parking lot and opened up the car just as the first rays of light were coming over the horizon about 7 hours and 10 minutes into the journey.

I drank some coke, dropped off my light, changed my shirt, ate some food, downed a 5 hour energy and traded my hand held bottle for a hydration pack. The water drops from this point to the finish were to be few and far between...and water only it was imperative to carry enough calories for the rest of the day. I allowed myself about 10 minutes or so before heading off in the now nearly full morning light. While this was the half way point distance -wise, I knew I had a LONG day ahead with almost 11000 ft of climbing still to come and on trail that I have never run before...

It didn't take long before the food, caffeine and daylight brought my energy back.... I started moving at a solid pace on the now nearly all uphill terrain. I caught another runner and stayed near him for about an hour as we approached Bull Gap. From Bull gap on, the trail is absolutely AMAZING. OK, all of it is amazing, but above Bull Gap the rocks, roots, and climbs are stunning. In fact I found myself saying over and over "I can't believe I live here"! After Bull Gap (known to cyclists as the top of the OX Creek climb) the trail tilts toward the sky for possibly the hardest climb of the day to the top of Lane Pinnacle. Along the this part of the route the trail passes right through the remains of the "rattlesnake lodge". It was an interesting change of scenery to see the old stone foundations of the various buildings being reclaimed by the land. When you get to the top of Lane Pinnacle, after all the climbing (it took me over an hour of solid climbing) one might assume that there is a lot of downhill... or at least not too much more climbing... well, one would be wrong. The descents are fun, but don't last long before you are on another climb. Unbelievably at this point I was still feeling really good... good legs, good mind and the gut was fine with the amount of calories I was getting in.

When I got to a point on the trail where I could see the Craggy Visitors center, having ridden a bike to the top of Mitchell so many times, I thought I would have some solid downhill, then a big climb to the top and the finish. Again, I was wrong...... the folks who built the Mountains to Sea trail through this part of the mountains had the sadistic need to bring the trail up and down every possible high point on the map. Granted, every one of the high points had a beautiful view of the surroundings, but damn... when will the climbing end?!

FINALLY I reached the spot where the trail crosses back over the parkway and heads up to the top of Blackstock Knob. I knew this section would be tough, but it was even more difficult and steep than I had imagined. While I was still ok, I was feeling a lot of fatigue at this point and the uphill hike here was endless and slow.... 15 hours in and well over 50 miles travelled, but still no end in sight. This part was mentally draining....BUT the terrain here was so beautiful it was hard to feel too bad. Everything is moss covered on this section and it looks more like the Pacific Northwest than WNC. Finally the climb tops out and follows the ridge top before starting a wicked rocky descent. Somehow as soon as the trail started going down I got my legs back and I started flying... NOW i was finally sensing that I was, barring an injury, going to finish... and well before dark. I passed a hiker coming up and asked how far to the road crossing ahead expecting him to say about a half mile.... when he said about 1.7 miles I was a little taken aback, but after a couple seconds of silently cursing to myself I was flying down the rocks again. I passed another runner who was moving at a decent pace, but I kept on knowing I would take a quick break and he would catch up at the last water drop at the road crossing with less than 5 miles to go to the finish. At the water stop I checked my watch and my water supply and was pleased. I had a quick chat with the other runner and we started off on the last leg together. He mentioned that he was hoping to finish in under 18 hours. I looked at my watch again and had a surge of energy. While I had tentatively planned to stay with him, I could't help thinking it would be a good challenge to see if I could hit these last miles hard and make it in sub 17:30.

I have no idea how my legs had it in them, but I found myself running about 8:40 pace. Mind you, any runner will tell you that 8:40 pace on relatively flat ground is like... well... a turtle... slow. However, after nearly 16 hours on my feet I felt like I was flying. Doing some quick math, and knowing the last few miles of the course.. I thought I had a shot at that 17:30 if I could stay sub 9 min / mile on the flat section leading to the last steep uphill mile. I was able to hold pace... then I hit the Camp Alice trail that heads up to the summit. My only miscalculation was that I forgot exactly how crazy steep and rocky this last bit of trail is. I pulled out all the stops and went as hard as I could. With just a hundred meters to the top of the trail I blew up mentally and physically as my watch passed 17 hours 30 mins. I slowed a little but still kept some speed as I hit the paved last 100 meters up to the actual summit.

I was tired, but really happy with the effort. 17 hours and 36 minutes. Another runner's wife was up there waiting and was nice enough to snap a pic of me at the summit sign. It wasn't until I was stopped, then walking down to the parking lot, that I realized how cold it was up there... the wind was howling and there were even some snow flurries in the air. Thankfully a volunteer had driven our bags with extra clothing and food up for us. I quickly changed and chatted with some of the other runners. I caught a ride down the mountain with a great group of people. We stopped and picked up one of a group of runners who had made it to the road crossing with 4 miles to go, but it was getting dark so they had to bail on finishing. So close for them! But it was the right decision with the temps dropping and darkness coming on. Around 30 runners started the trek and only 8 were able to finish the full course on the day.

I got back to the car just after dark and headed home. Unfortunately my phone battery died and I could not call Cara to let her know I was safe and sound. Since I told her I would not be home until about 9 and it was just 7pm, I figured I was ok. She, after not hearing from me was concerned and drove up to the top of Mitchell looking for me. Hearing that everyone who started was safe and accounted for she headed back down. Note to self: borrow a phone and call home when appropriate. It was a beautiful evening in the mountains so at least her drive was scenic :)

Metrics for the day:
Time: 17 hours 36 minutes
distance: somewhere between 65 and 67 miles (I lost GPS signal for a few miles)
elevation gain: 13655 ft  !!!!!!
highest point: 6684ft
lowest point: 2077 ft
pace: ~17 min/ mile - slow !

What a great experience on a beautiful route. I had no major issues and was able to stay focused, injury free and I got to meet some really amazing people. Sure, I was exhausted and sore... and had that rough patch between miles 20 and 30 but that was nothing really. A HUGE thanks to everyone who made this possible... the volunteers who gave their time to shuttle us around and especially Adam H. for organizing everything. I can't wait to try to go a bit faster next year!


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