Jay CurwenThe Mount Mitchell Challenge was voted the region’s top ultra in this month’s Best of the Outdoors issue. The epic 40-mile race to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Rockies, is directed by Jay Curwen, a former race champion himself (he won the first-ever Challenge in 1999). With this year’s wet and cold winter weather patterns, runners can likely expect ice and deep snow atop Mount Mitchell on race day, February 27. BRO asked Curwen to share his thoughts on winter weather and the upcoming race:

How do you determine whether to alter the course due to weather conditions?

Course route change is completely dictated by the ability of rescue personnel to effectively cover the mountain. If they are not comfortable, we change course until they are. The athletes and the rescue folks have all gotten much more capable and talented over the past 13 years…It is not nearly such a crazy survivalist type event anymore…but, it is still the highest point in the East…in the dead of winter…it can be very remote and very dangerous…add the chances of winter weather and it can be life threatening quickly…This year is looking especially so.

What year were race conditions the worst?

2003 completely sucked…lots of rain and slushy conditions on the top. But we altered the course to keep from going out to Commissary Ridge that year. 2009 was clearly the toughest and most dangerous on the summit because of how quickly the conditions worsened. We had 40 degree rain at the start and the summit had 60mph gusts and 32 degree sleet/snow by the time Mark went over the top…Many of the runners simply were not prepared for that type of weather…The toughest running year was probably 1999, the first year of the 40 miler. It was a gorgeous day, but I post-holed the entire distance from the Parkway, over the top and down…most of the time, over my knees.

Who are the frontrunners this year?

Jason Bryant is returning after winning in 2008. Josh Wheeler and Natalie Sims, both from Chattanooga, will also be here and taking on the Challenge for the first time.