What's it like to run the Black Mountain Monster?

Ultramarathon is a frightening race against time

Fred McCormick

The Black Mountain Monster is perhaps one of the most aptly named ultramarathons.

The festival-like atmosphere of the 6-, 12-, and 24-hour races makes it a little less menacing, but there are times, in the dark of night on the cross country trails of Montreat College’s Black Mountain campus, that can intimidate even the most seasoned runner.

Even if a racer's race last a mere 6 hours, the Monster race is still a monster, as this photo from last year shows.

On Saturday, May 6, the Black Mountain Monster 6, 12 and 24 Hour Ultramarathon returns for its ninth year. The event puts runners on a U.S.A. Track & Field-certified 5K course that takes runners through open fields; grassy, wide trails; narrow, root-covered trails; and even half-mile of asphalt.

More than 150 runners will take to the trails at 10 a.m. May 6, according to the event’s organizer Mike Guyer, of Relentless Running Events, while an estimated 200 spectators enjoy live music throughout the day.

At least 60 of those running will be on the course for the duration of the longest race.

Two years ago Doug Hay, a Black Mountain resident and Rock Creek Runner blogger and podcast host,  slayed the Monster by running more than 102 miles in 24 hours.

“Twenty-four hours is a long time to be moving on your feet,” Hay said. “You face challenges with delirium, nutrition, the late night, early morning stuff. It’s really difficult.”

The race was Hay’s first 24-hour ultramarathon.

“The appeal for me was I really wanted to run over 100 miles in 24 hours,” he said. “This seemed like a good course to do that because there’s not a lot of elevation gain and it’s a pretty straight-forward course.”

Hay used a pace chart to know where he would need to be at various points in the race to reach 100 miles. The excitement was high early in the race, but waned around the fourth or fifth hour.

"Once it started to get hot, the focus kind of shifted away from being chatty and having fun, more to being serious about what you're doing," Hay said. "You have to make sure you're staying on top of everything you need to. You lock in your pace."

With around 19 or 20 hours to go, it only got harder.

"The toughest part for me is in the middle of the night," Hay said. "That midnight to 4 or 5 a.m., after you've been out there for over 12 hours, it's dark, the runners are spread out and you feel very much alone."

The experience for Chip Craig, who ran either the Black Mountain Marathon or the Mount Mitchell Challenge every year for 18 years until an injury kept him from participating this year, was different than Hay's, primarily because he was running the six-hour race. But like Hay he won his event, albeit with a slightly different strategy.

"I was feeling good at the time, I had been running a lot and I thought it would be fun to see how long I could run," Craig said. "I originally signed up for the 12-hour run but in the couple of months leading up to the race so I decided to run for six (hours)."

Craig's experience running the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge, which he said has taken him anywhere from six-and-a-half to seven hours to complete, made him confident he could compete in the Monster.

He was concerned that running the 5K loop for six hours could be boring. But after a few laps he realized he was leading and knew he could keep the pace.

"It really wasn't boring at all," he said. "The course has a lot of variety, even though it's kind of short. You're in trees, out of trees, you run the creek, it's pretty. Then you run into the camp where everyone is in tents and it's a really cool environment where everyone is cheering for you."

Hay also found comfort when the course brought him past "tent city," which opens at 5 p.m. the Friday before the race and serves as the center of the action for runners who have already finished and spectators.

But in the dark of night, tent city is dark and many people are asleep, leaving runners at their "most vulnerable," according to Hay.

"At that point, it's really just your survival instincts kicking in," he said.

It's the light of day that rescues the runners from the Black Mountain Monster.

"When the sun comes up you're within reach of the finish and energy kind of comes back to tent city," he said. "For me, that's when I knew I was on track to reach my goal."

Want to see a monster of a race?

Gates open for the Black Mountain Monster at 5 p.m. May 5. Race begins 10 a.m. May 6. Registration, open until April 30, at Event is free for spectators. 

Camping, racing and live music happen on the Montreat College Black Mountain campus, 191 Vance Ave.