During one of his many long tours as the bassist for Grammy-winning North Carolina bluegrass outfit the Steep Canyon Rangers, Charles Humphrey III stumbled upon a copy of Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born to Run. After reading the book, he found out his sister-in-law was preparing to run a marathon, so, with no experience beyond a 5K, he went to a local running shop, Jus’ Running, in his hometown of Asheville, and asked for training advice.
He signed up for the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary, where he, uncertain about his preparation, assumed he would finish in about five hours. After running the 26.2-mile course in only three and a half, he ran another marathon with the goal of improving his time. He succeeded but bonked around mile 18, and an overall unpleasant experience changed Humphrey’s outlook on running.
“I immediately realized I didn’t want to have to run faster every time,” he said. “I wanted to see how far I could go.”
Ever since, ultrarunning has become Humphrey’s main hobby, and for the past five years he’s integrated training for hundred milers and other long-distance adventures into a busy life as a touring musician and married father of two. He’s now conquered some big races, including the Hallucination 100 Mile in Michigan and the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Run in Texas, where his time and some lottery luck qualified him to run the epic 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in California this June.
Being a working musician requires Humphrey to spend approximately half of each year on the road, so his training is often limited by the Steep Canyon Rangers’ hearty touring schedule. The band, which formed back in 2000 and won a Grammy in 2013 for Best Bluegrass Album, juggles its own headlining gigs with shows backing comedian and skilled banjo player Steve Martin. Waking up in different cities forces Humphrey to get creative with his running schedule, which can mean pounding pavement in the dark. Occasionally after the Rangers take a final bow, he’ll lace up his shoes and strap on a headlamp, using his post-show adrenaline to increase his daily mileage.
“At end of the night I usually have energy from the show, so instead of sitting around and drinking, I’ll get out and run another five or six miles,” Humphrey said.
Back at home he can be more selective about where he runs; Humphrey can often be found on some of his favorite western North Carolina trails, like Heartbreak Ridge and Kitsuma, near Black Mountain. He’s also become friends with some of the fixtures in Asheville’s ultrarunning scene, including Pete Ripmaster and Adam Hill. Humphrey has completed the latter’s signature running creation, the Pitchell 100K—a 67-mile slog on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Mt. Pisgah to Mt. Mitchell. He also recently ran the entire 115-mile Bartram Trail with his friend Brad Kee in an impressive 47 hours.
“I’ve made some of my best friends through running,” Humphrey added. “When you run with others, you struggle together and really see the good side of humanity.”
Humphrey rarely listens to music while running. If he’s alone, he’ll go with the occasional podcast or audio book (He completed Stephen King’s entire The Dark Tower series while running). But lately he’s mostly been enjoying the sounds of nature, which he said often inspire him to write new songs. “Running provides inspiration. You have time to think, and you’re experiencing a lot of highs and lows. That definitely carries over to songwriting.”
After running through California’s rugged Squaw Valley at Western States, Humphrey will focus on hosting the Steep Canyon 50K Ultramarathon & Relay Hullabaloo, the annual run he started with Ripmaster that will take place on September 7. The event, based between Hendersonville and Brevard, N.C., at Oskar Blues Brewery’s REEB Ranch, blends a low-key trail run with a music and camping festival. Designed to offer an accessible entry into ultrarunning, the run’s course is a 10-mile loop through the DuPont State Forest that can be completed solo or as part of team.
“It’s not supposed to be a competitive race,” Humphrey said. “I just love running and want to share it with as many people as I can.”