Locals cheer the Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
A runner stops for a drink and thanks community members for supporting him, as he approaches the finish line of the Black Mountain Marathon on Feb. 23.

Every February hundreds of runners head north through town for the annual Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon. The grueling trip takes them up rugged mountain trails, often through snow, ice and other treacherous conditions.

As they make their way toward the finish line at Lake Tomahawk, often bloodied, exhausted and muddy, local residents along the Flat Creek Greenway are there to cheer them on.

Cotton Creek is a subdivision in Black Mountain, and for the last five years it has been a place to gather for an “unofficial aid station” for the annual races. The Challenge takes runners to the highest peak east of the Mississippi River while the Marathon route calls for participants to turn back at the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Cynthia Arnold, the top female finisher in the Black Mountain Marathon on Feb. 23, was the fourth runner to pass through the portion of the Flat Creek Greenway  where dozens of locals gathered to cheer.

Runners from both races finish with a lap around Lake Tomahawk, just over a mile from where Will Neville and more than a dozen friends and neighbors are set up. Neville has run the marathon himself 10 times, but he enjoys it in a different way now, with his home sitting along the route.

“It’s almost more fun being a part of it like this than running in it,” he said as the rain poured on Feb. 23. “This is a great way to show these runners that we support them.”

Chris Maloney has been part of the annual gathering since the beginning. He comes with a roster of the runners, which includes their ages and the cities they are from.

“Once I see them coming around that turn,” he motions to the intersection of Flat Creek Road and East Cotton Avenue. “I yell out ‘runner’ and then when I’m able to see the number on their bib I find them on this list and yell out their name and where they’re from. A lot of them get a real kick out of it. Some of them look confused like they wonder how I know their name.”

Chris Maloney hangs a sign for an "unofficial aid station" in the Cotton Creek community on Feb. 23, as dozens of locals gathered to cheer on runners in the Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon.

At 10:13 a.m., Maloney is the first to see Keith Harris, the winner of the 22nd Black Mountain Marathon. He shouts out the Cincinnati, Ohio runner's name as he passes by. 

“They’re a little slower on the pace this year,” he observes after the runner is out of sight. “It’s probably the weather.”

Rain made conditions for the races tough but as Neville and fellow Black Mountain resident Jonathan Williams set up a tent to protect the drinks they’ve set aside for the runners and the grills that will be cooking bratwursts later, a steady stream of observers trickled in.

Joining the group was a runner out for a morning jog on the greenway, who was shocked to learn that hundreds of runners were on the trails with temperatures in the low 40s and a steady rain.

“They run this every February?” he asked, after telling the crowd his band, Kentucky-based C2 & The Brothers Reed, played at Pisgah Brewing Co. the previous evening. “That is wild.”

A Black Mountain Marathon runner makes his way past the "unofficial aid station" in a neighborhood along the Flat Creek Greenway.

The top female finisher in the marathon was the fourth runner to blow through the crowd.

“Cynthia Arnold, out of, Polson Montana,” Maloney announced.

“That’s our Montana runner,” Neville responds.

“Every year we look through the list of runners beforehand and identify the youngest, oldest, different places the runners are from, local people, people we know,” he said. “We also have some guys from the Watershed (Soccer Club) who are running.”

Several members of the Swannanoa Valley-based soccer organization are gathered with Neville to cheer on their fellow players.

“Luke Walden of Columbia, South Carolina,” Maloney announced at 11:20 a.m., four hours and 20 minutes after the start of the race. “He’s only 16 years old.”

Walden finished in 4:33:25

Andy Richards, also of Columbia, South Carolina, was the oldest of the 229 runners to complete the Marathon, with a time of 6:56:04. 

One hundred runners completed the Mount Mitchell Challenge, which was won by Luke Paulson of Asheville. He finished in 4:29:00. Amanda Morris, of Charlotte, finished the race in 5:27:48. 

A 2019 Black Mountain Marathon runner makes his way along the Flat Creek Greenway on Feb. 23.

The event has brought thousands of visitors to the area each year since it began in the late 1998. Williams learned about the race two years ago when he was out for a walk with his wife. 

"We saw everyone out here and they told us about the race and how they came out here every year," he said. "The next year we were out here. It's a lot of fun and this race is a big deal here, so it's important we support these runners and make them feel welcome."

Ron and Jane Marcello moved into their house overlooking the greenway a little over a month ago. They were walking out of their house as the first runner made his way down the trail. 

"It's not the best weather," Ron said. "But we were excited to see the runners come by, it's a nice part of living here."

Guido Ferrari, of Durham, completed the Challenge for the 22nd year. The 58-year-old finished in 7:53:10. 

Black Mountain resident Kenny Capps, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2015 before running across the state last year to raise awareness for the blood cancer, completed the marathon in 6:21:37. He was set to participate in Dancing with the Local Stars at the Diana Wortham Theater on Feb. 24.