The 22nd Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon will get underway from the town’s Cherry Street at 7 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23. The Challenge ascends from downtown to the summit of Mount Mitchell, and by its conclusion at Lake Tomahawk runners have raced some 40 miles.
The marathon initially runs concurrently with the Challenge but breaks off prior to the summit and returns to town at the standard 26.2-mile marathon distance.
Race director Jay Curwen’s job is filled with the hurdles that are built into the fabric of holding an ultra-marathon to the highest peak in the East in the dead of winter. Curwen, 52, won the original two incarnations of the current event, capturing the then-marathon distance race in 1998 and 1999.
In an effort to ease some of the logistical challenges of those early stagings – including transporting runners in school buses to a starting point well out of town – Curwen offered a solution that at first glance appeared to be anything but.
“I suggested running a race from downtown Black Mountain to the top of Mitchell and back,” said Curwen. “Everybody turned and looked at me like I was an idiot, and said ‘no one can do that, it’s like 40 miles’.”
Instead the addition of the challenge made the race even more popular and the move to downtown has helped it become an integral part of the community.
“It’s been an amazing event. The Town of Black Mountain rallies around it, and always has. Wendell Begley (one of the race’s co-founders) has just been a force in town and we’ve worked with the fire department, the chamber of commerce, and a ton of folks in town who have been really great with it,” Curwen said.
Begley, Curwen, and Trent Thomas of Asheville’s Black Dome Mountain Sports founded the race as a successor to a 1980s cross-country ski race that was designed to highlight the usage of trails in Mount Mitchell State Park in winter.
The Challenge’s course has morphed with time, and last year a leg of trail called, fittingly, “The Black Mountain Trail” was added.
“It’s a brutal rough trail,” said Curwen of the addition. “You run up that and it’s the last several miles to get to the summit. It’s a challenging, challenging trail.”
Adding a more difficult leg to an incredibly taxing race is in keep with the ethos of the event: the harder, the better.
Will Harlan is the editor-in-chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors and won the Challenge four times (2003, 2004, 2006, and 2007) and summates its appeal for trail runners.
“Road runners often look for the easiest, flattest races. Trail runners seek the toughest and most difficult course,” said Harlan. “Mitchell is on every trail runner’s bucket list. It’s a classic – run icy, snowy trails to the highest summit in the East in the dead of winter. It’s still my all-time favorite trail race.”
Curwen spends race day at the finish line at Lake Tomahawk, keeping in constant communication with safety officials throughout the course. They include the Black Mountain Fire Department, which uses the event as an valuable training tool in preparing its first responders for encountering emergencies in the dead of winter.
“They use this as a way to train their new folks, to set up a search and rescue plan, and refine their processes so that everybody is safer for the rest of the year,” Curwen said.
Shaun Pope, the owner of Vertical Runner Black Mountain, has run the Challenge twice, placing second in both 2014 and 2015. His downtown shop is a short walk from the starting line and he opens his store early on race day to let runners use the rest room, or pick up last-second supplies.
“On race weekend all you hear is about the Challenge and the ‘fun run,’” said Pope, laughing at the euphemistic reference to the marathon. This year, Pope will be tasked with shuttling volunteers up to locations along the course.
The Challenge has given Black Mountain national exposure and has been covered in Outside and Backpacker magazines and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
Pope has a front row seat for the economic impact it brings to the town, and the community that it fosters. “All the Italian places get booked the night before, and everybody has a lot of fun afterwards.”
For information on the race, see blackmountainmarathon.com.