On Sunday I did a hard thing, and today I feel brave and empowered and energized and also very tired. Bone-tired. Happy tired.
I’ve had the Mount Mitchell Challenge on my radar for years, but the few times I’ve applied for the lottery, I missed getting a spot. It’s a 40 mile run from Black Mountain, NC to the summit of Mount Mitchell and back, in late February. I mean, anyone can see how this would be enticing, right?
In 2021, if you signed up for the virtual Black Mountain Marathon, you could run it anytime in February, submit your results, and you’d be guaranteed a spot in the Mitchell Challenge in 2022. Both races start in downtown Black Mountain, go through Montreat, then climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, mostly on the Old Mitchell Toll Rd. The Challenge course continues on, up the Buncombe Horse Trail and then a true slog from Commissary Ridge to the Mitchell summit. And back. Although the actual course was not required for the virtual marathon, I wanted to see what was in store for next year.
I left Raleigh at 5:25 am, parked my car at the finish, and walked a mile to the start on Cherry St. It was 9:30 am. I only had the course map pdf on my phone and the list of roads/trails written on an index card, plus snacks and water. I felt nervous and excited–worried I’d get lost, or I wouldn’t be off the mountain before dark. Bang, I’m off!
I ran through Montreat and found the Rainbow Rd Trail, but was surprised to come out on a road. I went up, then down, but didn’t see the trail continuation. I turned back and saw two women coming toward me. I asked and they said, “oh yes, you have to go down this driveway to continue.” I asked them about the rest of the course. “It’s next weekend. Wait—you’re doing it today? Like right now?” Sarah and her daughter Abby then offered to run with me up toward Sourwood Gap, and gave me instructions from there. It became a recurring theme that this race is beloved by locals and they are friendly and happy to share information.
At Sourwood Gap I came across a bearded hunter with a truck and a bunch of baying dogs. He confirmed that I was heading up the Old Mitchell Toll Rd. The Old Mitchell Toll Road was a wide path lined with large rocks, built in 1925. It was in decent condition and certainly drivable with an ATV, and it used to take adventurous tourists up to Camp Alice near the Mitchell summit for $1. The marathon course climbs nearly 3000 ft in the first half, but the grade was rarely too steep—what slowed me more was the loose rocks and trying to keep my feet dry and stay off the icy spots. Soon I came to what Sarah and Abby called the Crack Shack. Though apparently it is less of a drug spot than a gathering place for hunters whose shirts that don’t *quite* tuck into their pants.
I absorbed the forest around me as I climbed from acidic cove into beautiful and crooked chestnut oak forest. There was some northern hardwood forest with some Big Sug (large sugar maple), and one slope that was north-facing had a beautiful, mossy birch boulderfield. At one point the trail went out on a ridge and I spied pitch and Table Mountain pine and even some Carolina hemlock as I ate a mini pb&j. I watched the woods for my first red spruce. As I approached the Parkway, I came into high-elevation red oak forest, and finally nearly 100% red spruce (at which point I was probably at 5000 ft).
I recently finished Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass; her book spoke to me deeply as a forest ecologist and I have been thinking about land acknowledgment and ways to bring reciprocity into my life and teaching. I was inspired by the tradition of the Thanksgiving Address and have struggled a bit to cultivate personal tradition without cultural appropriation. A small starting place would be to express gratitude for the land whenever I travel, whether that’s Umstead Park on Saturday or a run like today. Water seems like a universal gift, one that I always have, precious and life-giving both to me and all living things. I planned to try this with this run–to share some of my water as I started up the trails. But I became caught up in finding my route and forgot. I was moving climbing the Toll Road when I saw it–Umbilicaria mammulata, growing on a boulder. There is a chapter in the book about this lichen, and I nearly laughed out loud at this synchronicity that reminded me of my intention. Gladly I paused and poured out some of my water over the peeling rock tripe, took in the view, and gave thanks in my heart for this beautiful place and the chance to be here. Perfection isn’t my goal; but I can work to be better than I was yesterday.
I saw just a few other people on my way up, finally coming to a gate at the Parkway. An older man was just closing the gate behind his pickup when I jogged up; he seemed surprised to see me. I tried to explain what I was doing in such a way that he wouldn’t think I was a weirdo, but failed miserably. His eyebrows shot up when he asked and I said I’d come from Black Mountain. Trying to connect, I told him that being outdoors on such a beautiful day was a way to appreciate God’s creation. “Well, that I can see,” he allowed.
The great thing about out-and-back runs up a mountain is that eventually you turn around and head down. Gravity felt great, even though my dogs were barkin’ at this point, running on rocks the whole way. The shadowy red spruce forest was getting that late-afternoon chill, the kind that seeps into your core, so I hurried down into the bare forest where the sun could still angle through. It was a pleasant trip though I was moving faster and had to be careful not to slip on icy spots.
Before I knew it, I was back at the Crack Shack. A young couple were there with their dogs and they cheered as I loped toward them. “Hey, are you doing the marathon today? Nice work! Need anything?” They offered me a pack of Cheese-Its, which were amazing in every way. They were also surprised I’d come up from Raleigh for the day. Both had done the race multiple times. Their names were Dan and Carrie, but I told them that we were officially The Cheese-It Friends and we made plans to see each other next year. I verified the instructions, thanked them again, and headed down toward Sourwood Gap. A very steep descent on Appalachian Way and then onto the greenway at Montreat, then eventually I decided not to chance getting lost in town and went back out to Montreat Rd., where I knew the way. I finished at the lake, changed clothes, and drove into town to grab a small pizza and root beer to go before heading home. First I promised myself that I would come back; this is a seriously wonderful town and I need to spend more time there.
It’s been awhile since I’ve spent a day like this on myself. I ate a package of M&Ms one at a time to stay awake as I drove and sang along with a radio station that claimed they play everything (I believe it; it was terrible), while my legs screamed louder than Bon Jovi.
It was deeply satisfying to feel wild again, and I felt like roaring.