The silence in the woods can be deafening in the winter, seemingly echoing throughout the valley at times. Anyone braving the freezing temperatures on or off the trails that wind up the sides of the mountains must have a good reason to be there.
For some it’s the opportunity to hunt black bears during the season that ended when the new year began. Others, like Black Mountain residents Doug Hay and Kenny Capps, are chasing an an arguably tougher beast.
The Mount Mitchell Challenge, 40-mile ultra-marathon to the summit of the mountain from which it borrows its name, returns to Black Mountain for the 20th year on Saturday, Feb. 24. Hay and Capps are among a dozen or so local residents preparing for a race so popular that its roughly 250 participants are selected by a lottery system each year.
Another 250 runners (30 from the Swannanoa Valley) will participate in the Black Mountain Marathon, which runs concurrently with the Challenge before turning back at the Blue Ridge Parkway. Last year Hay was among that group of runners.
This year, he’s spent the last few months preparing for the race to the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, something he did in 2014 when he participated in his first and only Mount Mitchell Challenge.
For many of the runners, who come from all over the country to participate, the challenge can be intimidating. For Hay, whose blog and podcast “Rock Creek Runner” (rockcreekrunner.com) focuses on “trail and ultra running made easy,” the course is almost literally a run in his backyard.
“I feel at home on the trails here,” said Hay, who moved to Black Mountain from Washington, D.C. in 2014. “The first portion of the race - the Trestle Trail and the Rainbow Mountain Trail - those are all places I run every single week.”
Hay ran his first ultra-marathon in 2011 and typically runs in around seven events each year. That experience has helped him fine-tune his training regimen as he prepares for the upcoming challenge.
“I’ve learned how to prioritize and focus on the type of running that will serve me best in that race,” he said. “That way I’m not just going out and running for a couple of hours every day, I’m doing more strategic workouts that are giving me better results and taking up less time.”
Time is especially valuable to Capps, a Black Mountain native who began running at the age of 14.
Diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer known as multiple myeloma in 2015, Capps has used his passion for trail running to raise money and awareness to combat the disease through Throwing Bones, his 1,000-mile run from Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks along the Mountain To Sea Trail to Clingman's Dome on the North Carolina-Tennessee line. His journey begins in April.
"There are three basic things Throwing Bones is trying to accomplish," Capps said. "One is we're trying to raise funds for Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. We're also trying to encourage multiple myeloma (sufferers to) be active and stay active. We're also trying to establish funds to grant awards to myeloma patients and their caregivers to assist with bills and to help with transportation and treatments."
Capps, like Hay, was among the runners in the 2017 Black Mountain Marathon. He attempted the Challenge in 2012, but turned back at the parkway and finishing the marathon instead. This year, however, he sees an opportunity.
"It's sort of like a comeback for me," said Capps, who was unable to run during 2015 after his diagnosis and subsequent treatment. "It gives me a chance to show myself that I can do it, that I've built up enough strength to do it."
Not only does getting ready for a race that takes runners over frozen springs and creeks take strength, it also requires uncommon determination. Capps and Hay have braved temperatures in the teens this winter as they've prepared for the Challenge.
"I think that a lot of runners who run in the Challenge are excited about the prospect of snow or really cold conditions. If you're running in the mountains in February, then there's something attractive about that to you," Hay said. "When we got the heavy snow a few weeks ago I couldn't wait to get out on the trails and run."
On Jan. 4, Capps hit the snow-covered Rainbow Mountain Trail in Montreat as the temperature hovered around 18 degrees.
"The weather makes (the Challenge) a tough race," he said. "Just going up Appalachian Way in Montreat, if you come out on that backside in the Sourwood Gap, the temperature difference from your car can be as much 10 degrees less."
Capps faces limitations due to nagging injuries and his battle with myeloma, he said, but those limitations have led to a change in his approach to trail running.
"I don't have a time I have to hit, necessarily," he said. "There are time limitations with the race because people are helping out, but I don't have a (personal record) or anything I'm trying to hit. If anything, the reverse is kind of true, and now I kind of enjoy being out there longer."
For Hay, who shares his experiences preparing for grueling races like the Challenge with what he calls "the Rock Creek Runner Pack," his second crack at the race can't get here quick enough.
"When I ran it in 2014 it was probably my third or fourth ultra, so it was all new to me," he said. "I'm excited to go out there this year and have fun and embrace it. And since many of us are local runners, it's so nice to see faces you know out there on the trails."