Drew Shelfer crosses the finish line of the Assault on Mount Mitchell atop the highest peak in the East
The inaugural Mount Mitchell Triple Crown was completed by its two creators and sole competitors, Mark Ledyard and Drew Shelfer.
Chances are you’ve never heard of the Triple Crown, but you may be familiar with its components: three endurance races that take place on the formidable 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain East of the Mississippi.
Each event is a staggering feat of athletic capability. The Mount Mitchell Challenge is a 40-mile ultra marathon from the town of Black Mountain to the summit of Mitchell and back down again in the dead of winter. The Assault on Mount Mitchell, a cycling race in the spring, climbs 103 miles to the summit via the relentlessly steep Blue Ridge Parkway. And then there’s the Off-Road Assault on Mount Mitchell (ORAMM), a 60-mile mountain bike race on forest roads and highly technical single track in mid-summer.
The Triple Crown challenges competitors to complete all three races in succession, thereby committing to a total of 203 grueling miles, 25,199 feet of climbing, and an unyielding onslaught of training, racing, and recovering between February and July.
Shelfer, 41, a social worker and father, initially conceived of the idea to tackle all three Mitchell races in one year, but it was Ledyard, a 49-year-old veterinarian, who pulled the trigger. “I said to Drew, you’ve been talking about this for three years now. I’m doing it. You can either join me, or you can keep talking about it.”
Both Asheville men are experienced ultra-marathoners, affable and filled with self-deprecating humor regarding their proclivity for the particular brand of suffering inherent to their pastime. Shelfer swears that his primary motivation to participate is “to be able to eat all the BBQ and drink all the beer I want.” Yet they both possess the hallmark intensity of extreme athletes, that sense that a depthless reservoir of energy is just barely being restrained.
By early 2015, having recovered from a collection of injuries and orthopedic surgeries, Shelfer and Ledyard were finally ready to attempt the endurance trifecta.
The friendly but fierce rivalry that has always existed between the two athletes became their main source of motivation. Says Ledyard, “We have a history of competition. We’ve gotten hurt trying to beat each other.”
In the end, Ledyard finished with an accumulate time of 18 hours and 48 minutes, claiming first place by 1 hour and 9 minutes. They held a brief celebration by “borrowing” the podium after the ORAMM finishing ceremony, wielding homemade trophies and mugging for a single photo, taken by a friend.
“You want to know what was going through my head at that moment?” asks Ledyard. “Thank God it’s over. This is one and done for me.” But judging by the emulous glint in his eye, it seems unlikely that he’ll let his title go undefended.
To the best of their knowledge, Ledyard and Shelfer are the first people to ever complete the three Mitchell races in one year. They hope their efforts may have inspired a few more challengers for future Triple Crowns—or, at the very least, a third-place finisher to round out the podium in 2016.
Mt. Mitchell Triple Crown
Mount Mitchell Challenge: 5:35
Assault on Mitchell: 6:31
Off-Road Assault: 6:42
“The absolute worst moment for me was the hour long slog up the Parkway on the Assault on Mount Mitchell. It took everything I had mentally to push through and not just sit on the side of the road for a while. Every race was hard, and long, and every one had times where I really had to reach deep to push myself to go, but none were as miserable as slog up the Parkway. The best part for me was just taking on this challenge with Drew. He’s one of the nicest guys, and it was fun training and hanging out with him.” —Mark Ledyard
Mount Mitchell Challenge: 5:48
Assault on Mitchell: 7:08
Off-Road Assault: 7:01
“There were too many low moments to count. But every adventure was amazing, especially bcause I was chasing Mark the whole time. He made this challenge a ton of fun.”—Drew Shelfer