An almost palpable energy radiated from Alex Garcia as he stood shirtless on Cherry Street before the start of the Black Mountain Marathon Feb. 25. Had they tuned in, the hundreds of other runners might have deduced Garcia was running his first marathon.
Many runners carried gear to help with nutrition and hydration on the run. But Garcia ran the race like he’s lived his life for the past several years - through sheer determination. He came in third.
The Morganton resident was shopping in Black Mountain one day a few years ago when he first learned about the Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon.
“I was in a different position, physically,” he said. “I weighed about 215 (pounds), and I was just getting into cycling at the time.” That was about three years ago, when running a quarter of a mile left him winded.
“It started with a challenge,” Garcia said recently. “Someone said the (Off-Road Assault on Mt. Mitchell) was the toughest mountain bike race on the East Coast. I signed up for the race and got in.”
The only problem was he didn’t own a bike.
“So I got on Craigslist and bought like an old rusted up GT mountain bike,” Garcia said. "It was all I could afford. So I started riding my bike. I had no idea what I had signed up for.”
He trained for three months and learned after the race that people often train for years. He did the entire 60-mile, 10,500-foot climb from Old Fort to Mount Mitchell without equipment many feel would be appropriate for the challenge.
“These guys all have the clip-in mountain biking shoes, and I didn’t even know what those were,” he said.
It took him nine hours to finish the race, but the most important lesson he learned was that people are capable of more than they realize.
“I felt great,” he said. “That was the catalyst for everything with me. I found out I could do anything.”
Last April he rode a 5.5-mile stretch of N.C. 80 a total of 22 times to bring awareness to the suicide rate of military veterans. The ride was in response to a report released by the Veterans Administration that stated that 22 veterans commit suicide daily.
Garcia started running after he broke his hand training for his second Mount Mitchell bike race. He set his sights on the race he had learned about when he first began pushing his physical limits.
“I wanted to sign up for the Mount Mitchell Challenge,” he said. “It was a lottery system, and I didn’t get in.”
The Black Mountain Marathon is no easy task, however, especially for a first-time marathon runner.
“I had never run that distance before the race,” Garcia said. “I had never run a race over a half-marathon."
Despite the Black Mountain Marathon being his first, he led it until the final two miles. It was then that his inexperience, as well as other runners, caught up to him.
"It was a big climb," Garcia said of the marathon overall, which takes runners up to the Black Mountain Gap overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, an elevation of 5,340 feet. "I went in with the mentality of trying to do it with no nutrition at all, I was just going to go through and do it. Coming back, around mile 18, I felt my body kind of give up on me a little."
Mark Sharafinski, Michael Riley and Cameron Holman posted sub-3:30-hour finishes. Garcia finished the race in 3:30.54. The experience offered him a look into the world of trail running.
"That community is great," he said. "Up until the final miles, before (the marathon) turned around, I was running up there with the guy who ended up winning the Challenge. We got to the top and he was like 'do you need anything?' Here he is about to keep running up to the top of Mount Mitchell and he's offering me help.
"Also, I don't think there was one person on that entire descent who didn't say 'good job,' or 'keep it up,' or offer some sort of support," Garcia continued. "And that encouragement and support was just so cool to experience."