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The Pitchell Challenge: A New Journey

Mark takes a load off after his 66 mile trail run.

Post-race relief.

I’ve never attempted to run a solo long distance speed record effort where it is just me, the trail, and my watch. No entry fee, no fancy aid stations, no finishers medal, no awards ceremony, no race t-shirt, no course markings, and not many folks to urge and cheer you onward; basically stepping way outside my comfort zone. In other words not much of a carrot was dangling in front of me as I hiked in the windy, cold dark of the night up to the tower on top on Mt.Pisgah. Once I got to the top, I was there all alone, no spectators, no competitors, no starting gun. So my challenge began at midnight with no hooplah that I’ve been accustomed to at race starting lines. My journey from here would take me approximately 66 miles with over 15k of climb along the Mountains-To-Sea Trail to the Mt. Mitchell observation deck.

This challenge was conjured up by WNC trailrunner, Adam Hill some 7 years ago and he has finished it an amazing 4 times with the fastest time of 15:06, so the bar was set very high. Admittedly I’ve run very few miles in the dark, as I have purposely cherry picked many ultra races to avoid the discomfort of certain stresses and running in the dark has been one of them. I would now be spending the next 7 hours running in the dark, down the Shut In section of the MST and onward until daylight beckoned. Starting at midnight, in the dark on top of Mt. Pisgah all by yourself is a very surreal experience. I had my “A crew” (wife, Anne) waiting down below in the car as she decided the comfort of the car was too much to pass up.

I wasted little time once I got to the observation deck. I checked out the amazing 360 degree views, bright stars and let out a howl and I started on my journey. Anne said she could see my headlamps on the summit (yes, I wore three lights- one on my head and two around my waist). I wonder if anybody else saw these lights bobbing their way down the trail, if so it probably made for some interesting discussion. The first few miles I settled into a nice rhythm and managed to run most of the time. Anne was there to greet me at our pre-arranged pit stops with my much needed fresh energy supplies throughout the night. After a couple hours I soon realized that running in the dark was not so bad. I started to forget about all my fears of not being able to run fast enough and all the scary creatures lurking in the night. Actually running in the dark forces you to keep a slower more consistent and deliberate pace, which is needed to control the temptation to start out too fast, something I’ve done more times than I care to remember. The only scary encounter that night was hurdling someone sleeping in a sleeping bag right in the middle of the trail at 2am. He was much more startled than I was as he never heard me coming. I guess he thought I was a bear looking for a late night snack.

The first few hours passed rather quickly and I was soon approaching the Biltmore section of the MST/BRP crossing. As Anne handed me fresh supplies she told me she had a “run in” with a park ranger. He had asked what she was doing parked along the side of the BRP at 3am. The ranger was not at all interested in Anne’s explanation of why she was there. However the ranger eventually went on his way but warned her of all the dangerous shenanigans that occur at night and made it a point to say it was really dangerous for a lady to be out this late.

I made it to the Folk Art Center around 6am and still had another hour to run in the dark. I knew the easier first half of the challenge was over and that I still had a good 9k of climb to get to Mt.Mitchell. I felt pretty good on the first climb up to Craven Gap but the long section from Ox Creek to Bee Tree Gap was where things got really ugly. I started to unravel quickly as my stomach which is usually never an issue for me started to not cooperate. I could not eat or drink very much. It did not take long for the dreaded bonk to hit me as I was not getting enough calories in my body. Just before Lane Pinnacle I was ready to call it a day, I was reduced to a slow hike and I had absolutely no energy. I was falling while walking uphill, a first for me and my mental state was in shambles. This all happened so quickly and I was concerned that Anne would start worrying, as I slowed quite a bit. My mental state was in shambles and I knew I had to try something to at least get me to my crew. This is where I had visions of dropping, going home and salvaging the day in front of a nice warm fire. As good as this sounded I knew I had to try something, so I choked down a double caffeine gel and took two S-caps. Within a few minutes I started to feel a little better and my mood began to brighten. I finally got to Anne, refueled and she urged my onward. I was still somewhat debating whether I could finish this monstrosity of a run as I had almost 18 miles left. Thankfully I took her advice to continue onward. I mumbled some choice words to myself and stumbled up the trail to Craggy Gardens.

Some fifteen minutes or so later the MST trail became much tougher to follow. Partly because the blazes were not as good and partly because I had just run almost 50 miles, so my sense of direction was not all there. I quickly lost the trail and was wandering around looking for that damn white blaze which is the marking for the MST trail. Every tree looked like they had a white dot and I felt like I was in some sort of horror movie. I eventually found the trail after bushwhacking all over the side of the mountain. I was ready to hang it up for the second time. I was in a state of panic and I was letting my negativity get the best of me. I’ve had highs and lows in ultra races before but this was on a different level. I was actually so mad at the situation that I unknowingly started to run pretty fast, relatively speaking. I was on a mission now. I’m going to finish this challenge no matter how long it takes me.

Just after getting past my second attempt at wanting to quit, Anne got her second run in with the park rangers. As I made my way down the trail into the Glassmine Falls Overlook, I saw two police cars surrounding Anne in our Subaru. I understood little at the time but I found out later that our dog Sadie was eating out of her bowl beside our car without a leash. The two rangers gave her quite a hard time and eventually wrote her a warning ticket. I quickly grabbed my fuel and got out of there not wanting to get involved especially the way I was feeling. She pleaded with the rangers to hurry up and write the ticket so she could keep crewing for me. Once again the explanation that I was running from Mt Pisgah to Mt Mitchell was met with looks of “should we just lock her up”?

The last few miles were extremely tough due to all the climbing but as I got closer to my finish I became even more driven. I was running and power hiking in almost a euphoric state. As I got closer to Mt.Mitchell I was running more and hiking less. The last mile is straight up and I was giving every ounce of energy I had left. My back ached from all the steep climbs, my legs burned from the overload of lactic acid, and my face was contorted into a very painful dead looking stare. I felt relieved that the end was nearing but the steepness of the trail was warranting all my attention. Once the tower was in sight just a few hundred feet ahead it felt like I was about to win some big ultra race but this was even more rewarding. The tourists walking to and from the tower looked at me like some alien just popped out the woods. I did not care at all as this felt like my own personal Olympics.

The moment I reached the observation deck it felt so good and I was proud of myself for not giving up. This challenge for me was so much more rewarding than a structured running event. This sixty six mile trek was about running for a different reason. It was a personal challenge on an entirely different level. It was a much less selfish running experience. I found out that I didn’t need that racing event carrot to test myself. All I needed was for my friend Adam Hill to decide back in 2004 that this was a worthy challenge. And so it was!

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