We were sitting in the restaurant, waiting on our Thai food, when Dan spoke up. “I’m going to have to drop out of the Challenge this year, my hamstring just won’t hold up for the big runs. Kills me.” My ears immediately perked up. The Challenge. A 40 mile eastern epic that climbs from Black Mountain, NC to Mt Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rockies. Last year I ran the accompanying marathon, which in comparison is treated like a 1 mile fun run. For 2012, I hadn’t gotten in to the race in time. When registration opened on October 2, I was 3 miles deep in to the StumpJump 50k. That probably didn’t even matter, because both races filled up in less than 15 minutes. Besides, at the end of the race I was so fed up with running ultras that I didn’t care. However, that feeling did not last. Between the end of StumpJump and the current scene, I had run less than 40 miles total. But when Dan said he was out, I immediately wanted in. I asked him to check with the race director and see if I could fill the space. The problem was, the Challenge was in 6 weeks.
I knew it would be an interesting training program. While I had run long distances before, I had not kept up my training during the past 3 months. I simply wanted to see if I could do it. What was the intrinsic desire that compelled me to even attempt this run? The course is notoriously treacherous, with sub-freezing temps, snow, and hurricane force winds. I knew I couldn’t possibly as prepared as I wanted to be, but I still wanted to try. Perhaps some of the desire was male machismo, but I also wanted to believe there was an ability and mental toughness inside me that could keep going.
I had no grand notions of doing well, simply to finish. In fact, I initially thought I would go out and run the marathon again, and spent the first 4 weeks training for that. I didn’t start thinking seriously about the Challenge until 2 weeks before race day, when training culminates with a big run. Mine was 22 miles, run in snow and freezing temps. When I finished, I thought “Heck, I just ran 22 miles, so I know I can run the marathon, and I already did that last year. Maybe I could finish the Challenge.” Being able to pull off a 22 mile run after 4 weeks of serious training had me thinking grand thoughts!
In Joseph Campbell’s masterwork, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he states that the adventure of the hero begins with a “Call to Adventure”, then follows 3 main phases:
At Rockmont, we have studied the hero’s journey, rites of passage, and community contribution, so I was able to apply these tenets while making sense of the desire to run. My call was undoubtably when Dan said he was having to drop out of the race. But why keep running? The marathon was achievable, within my grasp. The challenge was a risk, I could endanger myself and others. I believe that we all aspire to challenge ourselves in ways we know will require all of our abilities. Running 40 miles up and down a mountain would require all I had physically and mentally. Could I accomplish that task in such a short amount of time? I didn’t know, but I felt that I wanted to try. I trained diligently during those 6 weeks, consistently running, sticking to the training, and eating properly. The run itself was initiation.
I have to tell you that my final week of training and preparation did not go to plan. I was in Florida, traveling for work, and spending the majority of my time driving. I wasn’t able to stay loose, I stayed up late, and didn’t eat all that well, at least in comparison to the previous month. Then the day before the race, I drove from my Aunt and Uncle’s home in Port St Lucie, FL back to Black Mountain, NC. A cool 700 miles by my lonesome, with a stop in Jacksonville for lunch with my brother. My wife was able to go pick up my race packet, and our friends there said to kindly pass along the advice that I was crazy. Agreed. I got home at 9:30 pm, packed and prepared for the race, and was in bed by midnight.
Race day began at 5:30 am, and I began the ritual of coffee, breakfast, and stretching. I kissed my wife, “Be careful”, she said. Then I grabbed my bag and was out the door. I drove up to Dan’s house to borrow a pair of Yaktrax, and he handed them to me and said a prayer. I told him happy birthday. “Thanks, see you later!” he said.
Honestly, I still had not made up my mind. I was leaning towards the 40 mile Challenge, but didn’t know how my body would feel. I decided I would attempt to run to the parkway in time to make the challenge cut-off time, then make another decision. I had to make those 14 miles in 3 hours, not a crazy time, but averaging 12:51 min/mile. For the distance I was going, that was on pace for what I hoped would be on the faster end of my average. If I needed to poop during the run, it could spell disaster! The race begins at roughly 2000 ft, and even the cutoff point climbs drastically to 5000 ft, before the final push to 6684 ft. I met my friends Jay & Allie (Rockmont lifeguards) at the start. Jay and I planned to run together, he was even more undertrained than me, but he’s a better runner and I figured he would whip me anyway (he did). Allie was gunning for the win in the women’s challenge, after 3 straight years of victory in the marathon. We exchanged clever jokes about the silliness of what we were about to do, and soon the starter yelled “GO!”
So began a journey that took up my whole day. A long, beautiful, treacherous, sometimes painful day in the woods. I fell at mile 5, soaking my gloves in a creek. I clipped them to my pack waistbelt to dry, but 2 miles later they were frozen stiff. My water hose froze, cutting off water supply, so I stuck it in the pack. I didn’t shut the nozzle though, so when the water melted, it leaked through my pack and froze my butt (hint, close the nozzle and stick the hose in your shirt). I fell again less than a mile from the cut-off, rising in pain and panic that I would be too late. I wasn’t, coming in 4 minutes ahead of schedule. I rested, and made the decision to move on as I watched poor souls come in at 3:01, 3:02, and be turned around. I had made it, might as well keep going a little further.
The miles ticked off, and I hit the summit at noon. The temps hovered around 10 degrees, and winds gusted between 50-75 mph. I touched the sign, was marked with an “S” for summit, and stopped to look around. I took a short break to walk to the overlook, and stood on a bench to survey the mountains. I had made it to the top.
The feeling of making my way all the way up, on foot, was amazing. I shouted to the heavens, and smiled. I hopped off the bench, and made my way down to the summit aid station. I still had a long way to go, and the return would take several more hours. I thought about the hero’s journey; the ancient cycle of culminating the quest, and returning. We can’t stay on our mountaintops and stare wistfully at the scenery our whole lives, we must return to our communities, with a vision of how we can contribute and make other’s lives better. We have been given a gift, and the best course of action with a gift is to share it.
As I ran over to the station, the volunteer shouted to me,
“Runner! What’s your number?”
I smiled again, and shouted back,
Afterword: The rest of the race was just as tough, and I finished in 9 hrs, 46 minutes. My legs stopped caring around mile 30, and I couldn’t keep up my pace. I told myself the whole time that simply to finish was my goal, and I accomplished that. Fast? Not at all. I finished in the bottom 5, my worst athletic finish ever. But no one cared about that, myself included. Family and friends were incredibly supportive and encouraging, and I had a blast. Thanks to Jay Curwen and his team for putting on an amazing run.