It was getting dark, I was out of water, and I still had miles to go. My legs were cramped and bleeding.
I was toast.
I was trying to finish Pitchell, one of the all-time classics of Appalachian trail running: start at the top of Mount Pisgah and run 67 miles to the top of Mount Mitchell.
Pisgah is a 5,700-foot summit marred by a giant telecom tower, but it is still a dramatic place to start a 67-mile run. And 6,684-foot Mitchell—the highest peak in the East—is an even more dramatic spot to finish.
And in between are 67 miles of breathtaking beauty and wildness. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) connects the two mountains across some of the most rugged terrain in the region.
The elevation profile for Pitchell is essentially a giant U. From the Pisgah tower, the first 20 miles are mostly downhill. The 12-mile section through Asheville is relatively flat. But the final 35 miles are a long slog into the sky.
I started my run at 5am, and I hoped to reach Mitchell before sunset. The Mount Pisgah telecom tower’s red lights flashed silently above. I plunged down a rocky ribbon of trail into the darkness.
I knew better, but that morning, I couldn’t contain my excitement. As dawn broke, a chorus of birdsong filled the cool mountain morning, and I felt like I could fly. So I let it rip.
I soared down the mountain. For years, I had run up this stretch of trail in the iconic Shut-In Ridge Trail Run. Now I was gliding effortlessly down the tortuous climbs. I was giddy as the miles flew by.
But when I reached the bottom, I realized my mistake: my quads were fried from pounding down the long, steep downhill. I wasn’t even a third of the way through the run, and my legs were already shredded and cramping.
I had to get my mind off the pain, the heat, and the long miles ahead. So I distracted myself by counting the white dots marking the trail. They appeared every quarter-mile or so.
I tried not to think about the 47 mostly uphill miles ahead of me and just focused on making it to the next white blaze. One dot at a time, I began the long climb from the Asheville valley toward the Mount Mitchell summit.
After a while, I started dedicating each white dot to someone. The first few dots were predictable: spouse, kids, parents, friends. They got me all the way to the Rattlesnake Lodge ruins where cold, clean water trickled from a spring. I refilled my Camelbak and continued climbing.
On the ascent to Lane Pinnacle, I started naming white dots after runners and friends who had inspired me over the years: Scott Jurek, Jay Curwen, Norm Blair, Aaron Saft, Randy Ashley, and Adam Hill—the runner who first dreamed up the Pitchell challenge and has run it 12 times.
Then I named dots after runners I competed with, including a few whom I raced to the top of Mount Mitchell years ago: Mark Lundblad, Thomas Cason, Dane Mitchell, Dewayne Satterfield, Drew Shelfer, Bryan Dayton. Looking back, I wished that I had competed less and cherished my time with them more.
I dedicated four dots in the Craggies to Anne Riddle, my favorite running friend and Appalachia’s most accomplished ultrarunner. Anne is a fierce competitor who won several national championships and shattered course records. Off the trail, she is an incredibly kind, warm, and compassionate mom and social worker.
As I stumbled through ankle-twisting rock gardens near Balsam Gap, I dedicated dots to another running friend: Sam Evans. He’s the most badass all-around outdoor athlete I know—and also the humblest. And he’s a brilliant environmental attorney who fights to protect the places where he plays—including the mountains and forests I was running through.
I was holding it together until the long climb up Blackstock Knob, when the wheels finally came off. I ran out of water, and waves of nausea left me lurching on the side of the trail. I wobbled onward, but then I tripped and fell hard onto a jagged slab of granite.
The sun was starting to sink behind the mountains. I lay broken and bleeding on the sun-warmed rock. I was done.
Then I looked up and saw one more white dot. It was on the weathered trunk of a hawthorn tree, and it reminded me of my two Tarahumara running friends in Mexico’s Copper Canyons: Arnulfo Quimare and Silvino Cubesare. Wearing handmade sandals and carrying only a pouch of cornmeal, they regularly trekked much further distances than this—not for fun, but for survival. I suddenly felt a lot less sorry for myself. I got back on my feet.
I still had eight long and lonely miles to go. My blurry brain dedicated dots to anyone I could think of, including the Beastie Boys, Michael Stipe, Jay-Z, Bon Jovi, Huey Lewis, Bruce, Dylan. I’ll be honest: there might have also been some dots for Whitney Houston and Taylor Swift. In the dark, I sang my way to the summit.
I had passed 288 white blazes from Pisgah to Mitchell. I had conjured up hundreds of people who helped me along the way. I was grateful to have shared a few miles with each of them. And I hoped our paths would cross again.
My first and last dot were dedicated to the same person: my wife and best friend, Emily. She had been there all along, and as usual, I had taken her for granted. Over the years, she had crewed for me in countless races and adventures, and once again, she was waiting for me at the finish.
And she was pissed: it was dark and cold at the top of a 6,000-foot summit, and she was hungry and tired of waiting. But she was there for me, as always, to lift my crumpled body and carry me home.
Cover photo: The author during his tough 67-mile run. photo courtesy of the author