Marathon, Challenge racers head for the hills

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

The serenity of a pre-dawn Cherry Street will be shattered on Feb. 24 when hundreds of runners gather to kick off the 21st Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon.

Nearly 500 runners from around the country, including the Swannanoa Valley, are set to participate in the two races this year. Many come into the event with experience. Many more do not.

Some 500 runners receive final instructions from race director Jay Curwen in the seconds before the 20th annual Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon last year.

The Mount Mitchell Challenge is a 40-mile trek from the center of Black Mountain to the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. The ultramarathon begins at 7 a.m. with a wave of people rushing north on Cherry Street on the way to Montreat.

Marathon runners run with the Challenge racers through the first two aid stations - Sourwood Gap and Bill’s Knob. The two groups separate about 14.5 miles into the race, at the Blue Ridge Parkway. Challenge runners keep going up, and Marathon runners turn around.

Perhaps nobody in the race is as familiar with the course as Chip Craig. A vast majority of the race takes place in the Montreat resident’s backyard. He's participated in the Marathon or the Challenge every year since the event started.

“I started trail running up in Montreat on my own and ended up loving it," he said last week. "Then I found out there was going to be this race, like two months from that time, and that was the first one. I was too late to get in that year."

Craig signed up for the Black Mountain Marathon the following year, in 1999. He ran a couple of marathons that year to prepare. 

"I had done long-distance bike rides prior to that," he said. "After we had kids, I didn't have time to do long bike rides, so I started to squeeze in hour runs." 

Charla Greene is preparing for her Black Mountain Marathon. Greene, who ran in the Boston Marathon last year, had plenty of road running experience when she moved to the area in spring 2017.

She participated in her first trail race last August when she ran the 10K of the Gateway 5K & 10K at Camp Grier in Old Fort. That race  gave Greene a taste of the trails, but it did little to prepare her for the 24 weeks of grueling training she's done for the Black Mountain Marathon. 

"It's been quite a leap," Greene said. "I don't think anything I did getting ready for the 10K really prepared me for the time commitment and just overall toughness of the race."

Her experience has shown her that the terrain is manageable. But slow, steep climbs can make a mile feel much longer. 

"The Boston Marathon is known for one hill - Heartbreak Hill - and it's very short; once you crest it, you're done," Greene said. "I was just telling a friend how long it takes me to get one mile in on parts of the (Black Mountain Marathon) course when I'm training because it's so steep."

Craig ran the marathon seven consecutive times, training in a simple, effective way. 

"I run year-round, five to seven miles at a time," he said. "But in September, to start getting ready, I start increasing mileage of my longer runs. If you run seven, you can run 12. So I start going up a couple of miles of two weeks on those runs."

That's the same strategy he continued to employ when he ran his first Mount Mitchell Challenge, in 2006. He was always at ease going into the Marathon, but his first Challenge was intimidating. The night before, he couldn't sleep. The next day he ran to the top of the mountain.

"I remember running with a guy that first year, and he ran like five or six ultramarathons a year," Craig said. "After you get to the top of Mount Mitchell you go down this gravel road and come back up to Stepps Gap. And when I got there I said 'I'm going to make it.' (The ultramarathoner) was like, 'of course you're going to make it.' At that point, it's only like 15 miles more and all downhill, so I felt confident I could do that."

It's the feeling of knowing it can be done that keeps many runners coming back. 

William Neville lives off of the Flat Creek Greenway in Black Mountain, which has served as the final stretch of the race for the past few years. He invites friends over to cheer on runners as they close in on the finish line, which is at nearby Lake Tomahawk. 

"It's a great atmosphere," he said. "Fans of the race will gather right there near the entrance to the greenway and encourage the runners in the final few miles."

Neville participated in the Black Mountain Marathon years ago, so he understands what the runners have been through as they approach the end. The first wave is  typically laser-focused on finishing, while those toward the back will sometimes stop and chat. 

"We ask them where they're from, and the answers range from all over the country," Neville said. "A lot of them take that time to compliment Black Mountain and talk about what a great place it is to visit."

The event, Neville said, keeps people coming back.

"It's very cool to see some of the same faces that you recognize from years past," he said. "You may just see that person once a year running that race, and you don't know them, but you know they're here from somewhere else just to take part in that race."

Among those faces will be Craig and Greene, who despite their varied experience in the event have similar goals. 

"I don't have a time goal for the Marathon," Greene said. "I just want to feel good about it; just finish it and enjoy myself."

For Craig, it's like a stroll through the yard. 

"I know I won't win, but I know I can do it," he said. "Some years I'm in better shape than others, and this year I know I'll be able to run the whole thing. But my time may not be as good as it has in other years."