Man v. Mountain

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A mountain runner navigates a flooded trail of slippery rocks. Photo: Chris Brown.

“I was just a few feet from a bear,” recalls mountain runner Malcolm Campbell. “I was running up Cold Mountain in North Carolina, and all of a sudden, there it was. That’s what I like best about mountain running. It’s a completely different world up there.”

Campbell has been an elite road runner for two decades, but during 2010, he decided to focus primarily on mountain running events. Mountain running courses ascend a single mountain, with lengths ranging from 5K to marathon. Distances are typically short, and the climbs brutal. Some mountain runs are on burly singletrack trails; others are on roads. The only determining factor is elevation gain, which is often significant.

Mountain running is popular in Europe, but remains on the fringes in the U.S., even by trail running standards. There are only a dozen established races that could be considered true mountain runs in this country. The quintessential mountain run in the U.S. is the Mount Washington Road Race (N.H.), a 7.6-mile race that celebrated its 50th year in 2010. The race, which features 18 percent grades for much of the climb, served as the sole qualifying run for the U.S. Mountain Running Team in 2010.

While the mountain running discipline is still growing, last year was a banner year for U.S. mountain runners. The men’s national team earned a silver medal at the World Mountain Running Championships in Slovakia, and the women’s team placed fourth, led by Raleigh, N.C. runner Kristen Price. Meanwhile, the Mount Washington Road Race doubled its prize purse and attracted one of its strongest fields. And La Sportiva sponsors a nationwide mountain running race series that pits the best pro trail runners in the country against each other on some of the most technical courses available.

“It’s definitely getting more popular,” says Shiloh Mielke, a North Carolina native and one of the top mountain runners in the country, who has earned a spot on the U.S. Mountain Running Team twice. “It’s one of those disciplines that most runners will try at least once. For professional runners, it’s an extremely competitive sport. A lot of runners try it, but only 10 percent will be really good at it.”

What makes a good mountain runner? A combination of athleticism and willpower, says mountain runner Andrew Benford, a senior at the University of Richmond.

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