Local runners triumph on the trails

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky to block the sun at Camp Grier in Old Fort on Sept. 3, creating a heat that radiated off of everything, including the gravel pathways along which around 60 runners were trekking.

The conditions for the second annual Gateway 5K & 10K were challenging, but among those undeterred were a group of local runners who have been overcoming challenges in anticipation of this very moment.  

Jill Perry wasn’t sure what to expect heading into her first 5K. It had been only a few months since she met Shaun Pope, owner of Vertical Runner Black Mountain, who told her about a program offered through his store that introduces participants to trail running.

Jill Perry crosses the finish line of the Gateway 5K at Camp Grier on Sept. 3 as Mindy Smith cheers her on.

Perry, who had never run before, was one of around 20 people to sign up for the 11-week Gateway to the 5K training group, which teaches beginners the basics of trail running. The program gets runners like Perry ready for the Old Fort race from which it takes its name. 

She was making good progress until she injured her foot at home a little more than a month into her training regimen.

“I ran for the first time in seven weeks on Saturday,” Perry said minutes before running the 5K on Labor Day. “My foot still isn’t healed, so that’s been a little disappointing. To be honest I probably would’ve quit if I hadn’t had the accountability.”

But Perry was encouraged by the sight of her fellow group members under a pavilion feet away from the starting line.

“I’m going to put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “I’ll get to see my running buddies along the way and they’ve all been so encouraging.”

Perhaps nobody was as supportive of Perry, and the rest of the group, as Mindy Smith, who led the Gateway to the 5K program for Vertical Runner. Smith assigned individualized workouts to members between their weekly Saturday morning runs, and was there to cheer Perry on during the final stretch of the race.

Mindy Smith, who worked with a group of local runners to prepare them for the Gateway 5K in Old Fort, celebrates her finish as the top female and second overall finisher in the race.

It was a proud moment for Smith, who placed first among female runners in the Gateway 5K and second overall. The group was running about an hour every Saturday leading into the race, according to Smith.

“They’re very prepared,” she said before the race began. “They have been running in the heat and humidity so the temperature shouldn’t be an issue for them and throughout the training we talked about what kind of nutrition was needed to be ready for a race.”

Dennis Gregory, a firefighter for Swannanoa Fire Rescue and a volunteer at the Black Mountain Fire Department, had done some running before signing up for the group. What he learned about properly fueling his body before going on a run was a game-changer, he said before the race.

Dennis Gregory crosses the finish line of the Gateway 5K at Camp Grier in Old Fort on Sept. 3. Gregory was one of a group of runners who participated in an 11-week training program for people interested in trail running.

"I think the things that I learned that were most helpful to me were what to eat before running and what to eat after I run," Gregory said. "Hearing about how important proper nutrition is for runners made me want to do my own research and eat healthier."

Gregory used to not eat before going on a run and noticed he would begin to wear down near the end. 

"Now I make sure I eat something that will provide me with the nutrition I need before I go out," he said. "That helps me feel stronger towards the end."

Even as Gregory prepared to run the course around Camp Grier, he was already planning to participate in the group next year. 

"They really helped me set realistic goals and not push myself too hard," he said. "That helped me enjoy running, instead of looking at it as something I had to do."

As he crossed the finish line, Gregory was clearly pleased with his performance. 

"It was hot out there," he said, smiling. "It was a little more difficult than I thought it would be; there were a few tough climbs. But I feel really good."

Perry was "totally excited" after crossing the finish line.

"The last half-mile was the biggest challenge," she said. "But I started thinking to myself 'I can do this.'"

Overcoming an injury and completing the race elevated Perry's confidence, she said, and she plans to take on the Asheville Half Marathon in March at Biltmore Estate. 

Gregory is already preparing for his next race as well. 

"I'm going to run the Cherokee Harvest Half Marathon in October," he said. "Now that this run is over I'm just going to keep doing the work."

Linda Arthur signed up for the running group last year, but was unable to finish the program due to personal reasons. Having experience as a runner in years past, she hoped the training program would help hold her accountable. 

"It feels great to get back into running," the cancer survivor said following the race. "When you run you eat better and all of that helps you feel better."

Returning to the sport has inspired her to get in better shape, she said. 

"Getting out there and doing it gives you the encouragement to go out there and do it again," she said. "It makes you want to do more, and I plan on doing even better the next time I run."