Weather puts ‘challenge’ in Mount Mitchell Challenge

Fred McCormick

Access to the Blue Ridge Parkway has put continuation of the Mount Mitchell Challenge as a winter event in jeopardy, its organizer says. The Challenge, which brings hundreds of people to the Black Mountain area each winter, has become challenged itself because of this year’s race, held Feb. 27.

For the first time in 19 years, the 40-mile Challenge to and from Mount Mitchell couldn’t be held. Snow on top of the mountain and the Parkway’s being closed to traffic meant instead that the nearly 500 Challenge athletes ran the 26.2-mile Black Mountain Marathon along with the marathon’s registered runners. Both sets of runners started on Cherry Street in Black Mountain in the early morning hours.

Black Mountain runner Morgan Elliott was this year’s winner of the abbreviated Challenge with a time of 2:49:03. Longtime race director Jay Curwen would have loved to have seen what the 23-year-old runner could have done on the full route.

“It’s really hard to say what he (Elliott) would have done in the full 40 miles,” Curwen said. “He was running so strong I tend to think he would have crushed that race as well.”

Elliott, who moved to Black Mountain less than a year ago, is a relative newcomer to the world of trail running.

“I’ve only ever done one real mountain race, the Quest for the Crest (near Burnsville) last May,” Elliott said “That was my first 50K, and I was pretty successful.

Elliott was actually more successful than any other runner in the Quest for the Crest, which features more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain in the first 26 miles. The race takes runners to the top of the Black Mountain Crest Trail three times.

Elliott’s performance in that race inspired him to try to set a new record in the Mount Mitchell Challenge. He trained on many of the trails that make up the Challenge’s route and felt confident going into the race.

Elliott did register a record-breaking performance, but it was in the Black Mountain Marathon. He is not the first local runner to parlay the advantage of living near the Challenge trails into a victory.

“We’ve had some amazing local runners win the Challenge,” Curwen said. “Morgan was definitely one of the favorites going in.”

Like his fellow Challenge runners, Elliott was disappointed that the race was rerouted, but he understood the decision.

Curwen said that the closure of the Blue Ridge Parkway prevented race organizers from getting aid crews in place between Mount Mitchell State Park and the scenic road.

“In years past, prior to the race we could get access beyond the gate when the Parkway was closed,” Curwen said. “We were able to stage our people and have everyone in place. The Parkway has tightened their regulations on access beyond those gates. Combine that with the snow that fell the day before the race, and it was just too much for rescue personnel to feel like they could keep the runners safe.”

Blue Ridge Parkway Chief Ranger Neal Labrie said that in years past, race officials were able to bypass the gate with a key given to provide access for property owners.

“Really, that is not what those keys are for, and we can’t allow that kind of access for one event and not others,” he said. “The Parkway wasn’t closed for use, it was closed for vehicle traffic. If they had been able to pack up their aid station and hike it up there, then that wouldn’t be a problem. But when the road is closed to vehicle traffic, then it’s closed to vehicle traffic.”

With access to the Parkway in the unpredictable weather of late-February now in jeopardy, the Challenge’s traditional winter setting may now be in jeopardy as well. That could have a significant impact on Black Mountain.

“The race was started as a way to kind of breathe a little life into the area towards the end of a long winter, while tying the mountain (Mount Mitchell) to the town,” Curwen said. “It brings almost 500 athletes and their families each year. And not only that, but you get a lot of folks that come in through December and January to train on the course every year. I personally ran with four or five groups of 20 or more people that were up training for it.”

Elliott, who was drawn to the race after hearing about it from fellow runners, said that much of the Challenge’s appeal is that it is held in the winter.

“People want that. They want it to be cold, and they want to get up there on the trails and see the ice and snow,” he said.

The loss of access to Parkway when closed will almost certainly complicate things logistically in the future, according to Curwen.

“Since we had been able to get access and get our volunteers in place in years past and (because) the Parkway is now curtailing our access, we really have to decide if a winter race is feasible,” Curwen said. Keeping the Challenge as it is - a winter race - will require a different strategy for getting ready for the event.

“I plan on sitting down with the officials and everyone involved with the Challenge within the next month or so to look at this year’s event,” Curwen said. “The race itself was fantastic, but we really need to figure out if there is a way to get access beyond those gates for a few people in the coming years.”