Challenge runners rely on mental toughness

Paul Clark

Hard as it is to imagine, the more difficult part of the Mount Mitchell Challenge, a 40-mile race up the fabled peak on Saturday, is coming back down.

So say veterans of the 20-year-old race. By the time they’ve reached the summit of the 6,684-foot mountain, they’re tired, having climbed 4,324 feet in elevation from downtown Black Mountain. And they’ve got a long way to go to get back where they started from.

Runners of the 26.2-mile Black Mountain Marathon run alongside Challenge runners until they climb to 5,340-foot Black Mountain Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There the marathon runners turn around and retrace their steps.

Backpacker Magazine named the Challenge and Marathon among the top 10 toughest races in the nation. The Challenge is so popular with runners throughout the U.S. that competitors are chosen by lottery.

“It’s an ultra race, so it definitely puts a toll on the body,” said Shaun Pope, a Black Mountain resident who came in second in 2014 with a time of 4:57:33 hours – the ninth-best time posted for the event (he also came in second in 2015).

“You’d think the easy part is coming down,” Pope said of the Challenge. “But being able to lift your feet is hard because you’re so exhausted. You have to fight quitting.”

“You start to feel it when the (starting) gun goes off,” Matt Roane, a Weaverville resident who does home improvements, said.

Josh Drexler, a 40-year-old Black Mountain resident who raced in the Challenge in 2014, runs a lot of long distance races. He tends to hurt most during the last few miles – and the first few miles – of those races.

“Before I loosen up, those first few miles are kind of hard,” Drexler said. He’s thinking about the miles ahead. “I’m thinking about how hard it’s going to be,” he said. “Then the endorphins kick in and you start to get in a groove where you’re not thinking as much.”

The Mount Mitchell Challenge is never easy, Pope said, even if you’ve run it before and trained on it between races, which he has done. He doesn’t recommend running the 40 miles up and back if you’re not actually running the race. “It’s too much time on your feet,” he said. “Thirty miles is sufficient, as long as you’re training on the terrain of the Challenge.”

People who park in the nearest space to the gym might roll their eyes at the idea of running 30 miles at a stretch. But for the type of runner running the Mount Mitchell Challenge, that’s no big deal. Mile 30 is really no different from Mile 7 or Mile 40, Pope said. The runners are in good shape, and they’ve learned to put physical discomfort out of their minds.

“The goal is to make this just another run, just a little longer,” Roane, 45, said. He completed his first Challenge in seven hours. Now he does them in the four-to-five-hour range.

“The more you expose yourself to those type situations, the better you can handle it,” Pope said of extreme running. That’s what makes running with other elite athletes so fun, he said – you’re among high achievers who, locally at least, are supportive of one another. It’s fun to race with and against them, Pope said.

“The ultra-running community, you get to know each other,” Roane said. During the Challenge, they talk to each other and encourage each other. “It’s a friendly rivalry,” he said.

Drexler remembers seeing Challenge and Marathon runners stop to check on others who were resting to make sure they were all right. He remembers sharing space with other Challenge runners who ran at his pace and who he would see every few miles as each passed the other. Though they rarely spoke, they supported each other by going through an exacting ordeal together, he said. They helped each other get to the top if only by being on the same difficult trail at the same difficult time.

And then, there’s the turnaround, on Mount Mitchell.

“It’s absolutely beautiful at the turnaround,” Roane said. “I just stand there and look around a minute or so. I have run that far that I want to a take in the view.”

“You’re standing on the tallest mountain” east of the Mississippi, Pope said. “If you don’t find that an accomplishment, I don’t know what is.”

Some runners linger for a while, basking in the sun (if it’s not snowing). Some take photos, Pope touches something near the top, “and then you’re running back down,” he said.

And that’s when it gets hard, he said. “You’re constantly looking where your feet are going,” Pope said. “Every aspect of the race is difficult, but the mental part is exhausting. I don’t think the body was ever supposed to run a race like this. No matter what shape you’re in, you’re going to be pushing yourself. I wouldn’t be out there if it were easy.”

The Challenge isn’t the steepest local race that Roane runs.

“With this one, the ‘cumulative’ gets you,” he said. “Nothing is ever really bad, but it just keeps going. Once you get down to Montreat, the last few miles from Lake Tomahawk to the finish are very hard. You’ve been coming downhill for 15 miles or so, and when you get to the flats, your legs are so beat up from all those miles of pounding downhill. I’ve got nothing left on the flats. My legs feel pretty wooden. Three miles of flats feel like 20.”

Helping are the hundreds of people who cheer the runners as they come off the mountain back to the starting line.

“It’s a thrill,” Pope said of the Challenge. “And it being in our backyard makes it that much more fun. It’s enjoyable to have people come from all over the country to enjoy the trails that you train on.

“It’s also enjoyable to see all our locals push themselves and train hard from November to February. That makes this town a ‘running town.’ No other small town can match us for athleticism and mental toughness. It’s quite obvious that this town is really into outdoor activities.”


Want to watch? The runners leave at 7 a.m.

Saturday on Cherry Street, Black Mountain.