Black Mountain Marathon, virtually.

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.

Sycamore today

Leaves whipping past my face
Rocks and roots, water and mud
Climbing uphill, careening down
Woods blurring around me
While I see only the next 10 feet.

My breath comes now in ragged gasps
Air goes in, every thought pushes out
Every worry, every doubt, every fear–
Until all I can hear is one voice
Urging, “forward, forward, forward!”

Slowing now, heart pounding, gulping air
Exhausted from the effort
To get out of my head.
This is the gift
That running brings me.

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LEAP!

give it a tryPssssst! I’ve been training for a big race this winter—the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. I’ll start at 6:00 am on April 2 and have 30 hours to finish the distance.

You better believe I’m nervous. This is twice the longest distance I’ve ever run!

Like any big goal, this one will be achieved in a Zen-like series of small steps. The run itself will be completed one mile at a time. There will be miles where I may have to focus on every step that takes me forward. As in: I can’t think about running 100 miles, but I can rock these next 100 feet, Yo.

I’m usually blasé about training. I’m Type B about most things. Through the Peeps, I’ve found that everyone seems to be on a training spectrum. At one end are people who really focus on their goal race. They have a training plan and they follow it to the letter, working hard all the way up to race day. Post-race, they relax and often take a break, sometimes feeling burned out. I’m closer to the other end of that spectrum. I rarely train hard or specifically. I’m usually at the low end of recommended weekly mileage. I sometimes make a plan but then never look at it.

The advantage is that I rarely burn out, because I don’t work that hard to begin with. WELL FOLKS, I’M WORKING HARD THIS TIME.

While I already had a qualifying race (Uwharrie 40), I knew I’d feel more confident if I could run 50 miles in the fall. The Old Glory Ultra was a perfect race, also with an 8-lap format, that helped me get my head around the distance. Maybe. I didn’t run into major problems that I had to troubleshoot, so rather than stressing about everything that went wrong, I agonized that nothing really went wrong (eye roll).

Somehow, I thought that running the additional training miles wasn’t going to be a big issue. I love to run and looked forward to logging extra miles. An aspect of ultras that I really like is the ability to go out any random day and run 15-20 miles if adventure calls.

In December I added yoga twice a week and in January I added strength training too. This is laughably inadequate to serious runners, but I never claimed I was serious, and these small additions were big steps for me. I hoped that they would help me stay healthy, and I do think they have helped.

Adding mileage has been a bit of an issue, as it turns out. I always undertrain the recommended mileage. The late Umstead 100 director, Blake Norwood, recommends 50-60 miles/week minimum. I will only have 2-3 weeks at that distance—my longest week was 67 miles. If you start surfing the web, you’ll very quickly psyche yourself out looking at training plans with 90-100 mile weeks. Of course, I’m not winning races, but for me, that kind of volume is unrealistic. Personally, I could not stay healthy, nor maintain the family/work balance that we need. In January, I ran 188 miles, and February is ending with a new record of 200+. That is a whole lot of miles for me.

With the added mileage, I have run into a few challenges:

  1. My left ankle has been bothering me since December, when I sprained it on a trail run. Of course I didn’t get it x-rayed. Don’t be ridiculous. It still hurts on trails and starts hurting about 3 hours into a fire road Umstead run. I’m sure it will feel great after another 24+ hours of running.
  2. My usually-sturdy calves have been really tight lately, feeling sore and bruised. This has kept me from doing the hill work I had planned.
  3. I’m pretty misaligned, with my entire left side tight from the hips down. This has probably caused most of the nagging hurts that I’ve experienced in the last 5 years: hip labral tear, ITB syndrome, etc.

As I told a friend, it’s always some damn thing. My friend Mimi is working hard to get me feeling good. I went in for what I described as “a little tune-up” and she laughed and told me to come back again next week.

I have had a lot of fun along the way. One Friday evening I took Stephen out to Umstead to run at dusk, and we finished a 12.5 mi Umstead loop just after 9 pm. It was exciting to be out there at night and we even heard coyotes.

I met a new friend, Megan, who is also training for the 100. As a big bonus, our pacing is similar. Not only that, but she was willing to meet me last weekend at 2:00 am for a training run! We ran two steady loops of the course, saw the sunrise, then picked it up the last 15 miles (!), finishing 39 miles just before 10:30 am. [Saturday night I slept for 13.5 hours straight.] It was Megan’s longest-ever run, so we cheered at miles 37, 38, and 39. What might have been a long solo slog turned into a pretty excellent adventure. In addition, my energy was great and I felt good the next day.

This coming weekend I will run my 4th Umstead Trail Marathon, as a “tune-up” race. My challenge will be to focus on running an easy pace and not try to place in the top 15 women to score a plaque (I’m 2 for 3, so the temptation is there). It’s a really fun hometown race and I can’t wait. After that, I’ll cut back my mileage until race day on April 2.

Some of the things I have in my favor are:

  1. I have an iron stomach. I can eat a variety of food when I run. On Saturday, for example, I ate a piece of leftover pizza and a carrot cake Clif bar on my [short!] 15 mile run. Honestly, the pizza was just to show off, but it was surprisingly good.
  2. I have no sense of elapsed time. I do feel sore, but I can run for hours and mentally feel like I’ve just started. I sometimes get unfocused, but I never get bored.
  3. I have a lot of positive energy and a good sense of humor that should help me past some lows. I possess a mental stubbornness that won’t let me quit.
  4. I have a wonderful, supportive family and a great pacing crew. My 15 year old son plans to pace a lap—I am looking forward to that as much as anything. Andrew’s support is rock-solid. Good friends will keep me positive and laughing through the night and steer me toward the finish. They give me confidence.

There’s plenty of uncertainty about how the next few weeks will go, how the race day will unfold, how I will feel, and how I will manage pain. I can’t predict what’s coming and what challenges I may encounter.

Eno

My favorite race photo. Trails = joy. Photo by Scott Lynch.

I’ve finished running my longest distances for training. I’ve done my best preparation. At this point, I can only hope that it’s enough.

It’s time to trust my training and see where the path takes me.

It’s time to close my eyes and stand at the edge of possibility.

It’s time to leap!

Ready for adventure.

My best girlfriend Ann has been working her tail off for months, training for her first half ironman triathlon, which was last Sunday. This feat had her swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles, and run a half marathon, all in blistering temperatures. She earned every mile of her 70.3 mile race. I’m so excited for her to have achieved her goal!

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This is Ann. She kicks butt in everything she does, including her half IM last weekend. Here, she’s paddleboarding after a 6.5 mile run. Did I mention she’s a cancer survivor? She rocks.

Ann’s had a lot of training on her plate, and fortunately, she has had many great training partners. But when we made time to spend together, I was not about to be left behind, even though my endurance lagged behind hers, and I knew I was in for a whuppin’.

Half ironman training is pretty fun when you don’t actually have to do it.

One Friday night about a month ago, I found myself in the middle of Falls Lake shivering and wondering why I wasn’t in a boat. Thirty minutes earlier, I had stood at the edge of the dock. Ann said, “you’re going to jump?” “Yeah, it’s pretty much the only way I’m getting in this lake.” My shrieks echoed around the quiet cove when I surfaced, and the turnaround point wasn’t even in sight. I hadn’t done an open water swim in at least a year and had to swallow some fear. Once we got going, it was okay. We swam along, cracking up because Ann was zigzagging all over the lake. It was more play than workout.

On Memorial Day weekend our families headed to the coast. I put on a pair of 20 year old cycling shorts and hopped on Andrew’s mountain bike–outfitted with road tires–and we rode from Beaufort to Harker’s Island and back, about 35 miles. I struggled to keep up on the return trip, and my butt was killing me.

But I couldn’t stop smiling. It was so much fun. It reminded me of the adventure rides I did in high school—pick a destination and go. Along the way we passed the Piggly Wiggly, bait shops with handmade signs, farm stands, an over-large statue of Blackbeard, and a small heart –shaped sign  that said Laura+Tree. Our nostrils were assaulted by the reek of dead fish strewn across the highway from a lost cooler and the rotten, organic earthiness of the salt marsh. Our reward was views of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse before turning around to head back to Beaufort.

We came back and slogged through a couple of miles of running on rubbery legs before heading to Bird Shoal with our families to play for the rest of the day. Ann paddled the kayak, telling Jeff that her legs needed a break and that he needed to take the paddleboard. I rode in the motorboat with Andrew and the kids, but took the paddleboard out to cruise the shallows once I’d rested a bit. From my vantage point above the water, I could see fish and the occasional ray cruising the shallows and the one million shades of blue of the estuary. Later, I flopped on the sand and passed out from happy exhaustion.

Ann and Jeff had to leave early on Memorial Day. I jokingly begged her to go home, because I was having so much fun, and she was killing me.

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Even the kids were pooped.

The evening of our lake swim, we passed a woman in her 70s, alone in her kayak. She cruised back to the dock and pulled out a stool so she could load her boat on top of her car all by herself. As we dried off and watched, she turned to us, beaming. “I know it’s late, but I have a new toy and I HAD to get out here to try it out!” We watched her in awe as she tied down her boat, loaded up her gear and took off. Then we looked at each other, thinking–then saying–the same thing. “I want to be THAT woman one day.” Once again, I’m reminded that the journey can be as rewarding as the destination. Sometimes even more so. I just hope I’m always ready for whatever adventure awaits.

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Training the next generation of adventure seekers.