Mount Mitchell Challenge: North Carolina's Most Grueling Ultra Marathon

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Some have described the course as running from North Carolina to Canada, topography wise. Starting in downtown Black Mountain the course of the Mount Mitchell Challenge ultramarathon climbs from 2,400 to 6, 684 feet, with an up to 12-degree temperature drop, 85-mile views and some of the last natural stands of Fraser firs in the South. From the top, there’s nowhere to go but down, so runners repeat the course from there back into Black Mountain for a total of 40 miles. The 17th annual Challenge will take place this Saturday, February 22.

Rock/Creek Race Team Member Josh Wheeler runs past the Mount Mitchell State Park sign. The elevation ranges from 2,400 to 6,684 feet.
Rock/Creek Race Team Member Josh Wheeler runs past the Mount Mitchell State Park sign. The elevation ranges from 2,400 to 6,684 feet. Rock/Creek

The race was originally designed in 1998 as a way to get people into the always-open Mount Mitchell State Park during the winter months. Declining snowfall amounts put an end to the annual cross-country race. It was one of the first ultramarathons on the East Coast. Since its start, the race has grown from 60 handpicked participants to 200 athletes from 39 states and five countries.

What makes the Mount Mitchell Challenge different from other ultra events? For one, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak east of the Rockies. Then there’s the weather, which adds a man vs. nature element, says race founder and director Jay Curwen, also the winner of the first two Mount Mitchell Challenges. The trail to the peak of Mount Mitchell is single track and often covered in snow. Sleet, icy trails and 50-mile-per-hour winds and rain have confronted runners in past years. There’s 2 feet of snow on the ground right now, two days before the race, says Curwen. Bad weather impacts not only the runners, but also the volunteers, who need to be able to access the peak, too. This Saturday’s forecast calls for some rain, but it the forecast is relatively warm. Warm days present a different challenge, though. “That last three or four miles into town is flat, but at that point, you’re ready to be done. If it’s warm out, you can really suffer,” says Curwen.

Along with the Challenge, the Black Mountain Marathon is run simultaneously, sharing the course for part of the way before veering off onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Curwen jokingly refers to this 26.2 mile-course as the event’s fun run. Both races are capped at 200 participants and those for ultramarathon are picked from a lottery. This year there were 3,000 in the drawing. The marathon sold out in minutes. Mark Lundblad, a local ultramarathoner, holds the course record. In 2011 Lundblad finished the course in 4 hours, 52 minutes. The race is capped at 10 hours, but the average finish time is six or seven hours.

The Mount Mitchell Challenge participants wait at the starting line in the early morning.
The Mount Mitchell Challenge participants wait at the starting line in the early morning.

The Challenge attracts elite women ultrarunners, this year including Aliza Lapierre of Williston, Vermont, who has placed in the top three of the Western States 100 and won the Vermont 50. But despite the quality of women competing, the race is still about 60 percent men, with the highest concentration in the over 40 category.

Mount Mitchell State Park
Mount Mitchell State Park Kolin Toney

So what makes the grueling Mount Mitchell challenge worth it? “We’ve got a tremendous level of volunteer support and sponsorship,” says Curwen. For the initial $150 investment, even runners who finish at the back of the pack will come away with goodies including a fleece jacket and a great post-race dinner. No one exactly calls the Challenge “fun,” but for many the element of surprise added in by the weather means it’s never the same race twice. And those who reach the peak can add “summiting the highest mountain in the Eastern US” to their lists of accomplishments.

Find out more at Mount Mitchell Challenge and Black Mountain Marathon on Facebook

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