2009 Mt. Mitchell Challenge

Paul at about mile 13. Very wet, very cold, yet still able to pose for the photographer.

Race: 12th Mt. Mitchell Challenge

Location: Black Mountain (Start and Finish) and Mt. Mitchell (Mid-way Point), NC

Distance: 40 miles

Elevation Gain: 4,324′

Elevation at the Top of Mt. Mitchell: 6,684′ (the highest peak East of the Mississippi)

Place: 5th

Time: 5:52:46

Pace: 8:49 minutes/mile

Website: blackmountainmarathon.com


This will be an extremely demanding course run over rugged mountain terrain under potentially life-threatening weather conditions. Participants must understand that their safety is paramount in the minds of the organizers and that while all reasonable precautions have been taken, it will be the competitor’s ultimate responsibility to insure his or her own safety.

It rained and/or snowed the entire race. The course was rocky, with many exposed roots, twists and turns, and was exceedingly wet and suck-the-shoes-off-of-your-feet muddy. Icy in patches, too…

I awoke at 4:45, and completed my typical routine. At the suggestion of the Race Director, I parked at the Finish (and very happy that I did!). At about 25 minutes until 7, the runners who had parked at the Finish began the 10-minute trek to the Start. The man parked beside me, Rob, asked if I knew how to get there. Me? Directionally-challenged, Paul? Ha! I was putting on a throw-away rain coat, as it was already raining steadily, and Rob mentioned that he wished he had brought one. Given my strong belief in Karma, I gave him my extra. We chatted on our way to the start, and I discovered that he’s from Raleigh, and runs many ultras, including the Umstead 100. We talked about local runners we might know in common, races we had both run, etc. We finally got to the Start, and sought shelter along with the other races. Rob then asked, “What’s your last name, Paul?” I replied, “Potorti,” and he said, “Oh, you’re that Paul. You’re one of the fast guys.” Nice compliment! Just before the start, I saw my friend Scott P., a 2008 Blue Ridge Relay teammate, and we talked briefly.

The runners gathered at the start, and my strategy, starting slow and finishing fast, began. Instead of starting near the Start line, as I typically would, I placed myself about a third of the way back in the pack. I was certain that if I started with the leading pack, I’d run their pace and not my own. It worked! In fact, the first few miles (all on pavement) were very easy, and I did nonetheless begin to pass groups of runners and then individual runners. All were friendly. Most runners are. We finally starting running on the fire roads, and at the time there were about five of us running together. I passed one young man, Jeff (easy name to remember!), who let me know that we ran Groundhog Gallop together, and he finished behind me. We talked and ran together for quite some time. I then began to pass runners, including my friend and 2008 Blue Ridge Relay teammate, Gregg D. He, like me, was wearing calf and arm compression sleeves. We talked momentarily. I could see Cid C., a local master runner, ahead of me, and set a goal to catch him by mile 10.

Big Mistake Number One: Carrying too much in my pack, and wearing a waist instead of a shoulder pack. Okay, this may count as two mistakes. Nonetheless, I spent far too much time and energy adjusting the straps.

Big Mistake Number Two: Wearing gloves instead of mittens. At about mile 7 or so, my hands got painfully cold, so I stopped to take my gloves off, put them in my pack, take out my mittens, unwrap hand warmers, place the hand warmers in the mittens, put on the mittens, and be on my way. How frustrating! As my hands were still wet, the mittens wouldn’t slide on. Since my fingers were frozen, I couldn’t grasp the mittens. I eventually had to use my teeth to pull on the mittens… (While the hand warmers helped, my fingers never did thaw, and remained frozen and practically immobile the rest of the race.) Meanwhile, the four runners that I passed all passed me! By the time I once again began running, there were all out of sight. I was swearing to myself, but not at them, but about my own stupidity. (I wasted at least four minutes accomplishing this task.) I promised myself to nonetheless not run too fast in my attempt to catch them.

And catch them all I once again did. Mile 10 came and went, and I didn’t catch Cid. I set a new goal to catch him by the top of the mountain. We then ran on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and just past an aide station I took a slightly wrong turn, as I went straight instead of turning right. I didn’t go far, though, and really didn’t lose much time. Now the fun began… We began running on a single—and I do mean single—trail. By this time I was running solo. It was very muddy, with many too-large-to-jump water crossings. The water was ice cold. In fact, there were many patches of ice, most small enough to avoid. At one point, I thought that the patch was unavoidable, and began to cross. And I fell. Hard. I have the large cut on my leg to prove it! I soon discovered an alternate route, and was smart enough to take it instead. Sometimes the best path is the path of least resistance. The treacherous trail running continued until about mile 19.

Here’s where things got very interesting—and far more treacherous! Mile 19 to the top of Mt. Mitchell was exceedingly challenging, and most parts were impossible to run let alone attempt to walk. The trail was very steep, with kiss-your-own-ass turns, many icy patches, deep pools of icy cold water, and steep steps. And it started to snow. I caught up with a runner, and then Gregg caught up with us. I said, “Gregg, you’re kicking my ass!” He said, “There’s still twenty mile to go, and they’re all downhill.” He knows me all too well.

Paul just about to turn left into 40+ miles/hour headwind. Notice look of desperation on his face.

We finally reached the top, which consisted of a sharp left turn and about 100 meters on the pavement. The snow was coming down strong, and there was a very, very strong headwind estimated at 40-50 miles.hour. I truly thought that I was not moving at all. When I finally did reach the top, one volunteer marked my bib (to prove I had made it to the top), while the other was kind enough to open my zip lock bag of Bee Stinger gels. My mittened hands were incapable of doing so. I asked how many runners were in front of me, and was told eight. My goal was to finish in the top 10 in 6 hours or less, if the weather conditions permitted. This gave me a boost of confidence. I hadn’t, however, caught Cid.

Big Mistake Number Three: Not storing gels in a sliding zip lock bag. I nearly bonked!

Mile 20 to 21 was almost as bad. I also had gotten chilled, and began to shiver, so I stopped to put on my jacket. It was almost impossible to zip, but I somehow managed to do so. While there weren’t nearly as many twists and turns, there were large boulders that had to be traversed. I took my time, and was caught, but not passed, near the end of this section. “Downhill the rest of the way!” I thought. I was wrong. The next mile or so was a grinding uphill on another fire road. Fortunately, the fire road was in good condition. We were once again on the Parkway, and I had dropped the other runner by this time. It felt wonderful to run downhill, even if it was on pavement. I then saw another runner ahead of me, who was a member of Team Inov-8. I quickly caught up with and passed him, and he was very gracious and wished me luck. Once past the aide station, which was the turn-around for the marathon, I began passing quite a few marathoners, and did so for the rest of the race. Most (those not wearing headphones) were encouraging, and were usually kind enough to make way for me.

I’ve already mentioned how challenging the course was. I didn’t mention how many times I rolled my ankles. It was painful. Nonetheless, I made up some lost time during the second half of the race.

I don’t know if I had gotten colder or if the temperature had indeed dropped, but I remained cold and left my jacket on for the remainder of the race. It was very misty, and I could often see my breath.

I kept running and kept passing people. While I could tell that most were marathoners, I really wasn’t paying close enough attention to know if I had passed any Challengers. Also, I had resigned myself that Cid was going to take home the Master’s award. Finally, at about mile 34 or so, I saw Cid in front of me. I was going to wait until I caught up with him before saying anything, but he must have sensed my presence, for he turned around and said, “Oh, Paul.” I said, “It took me this freaking long to catch you!” Fortunately for me, we began a steep downhill descent, and I took off. The fire road ended, and the pavement began, with the steepest of the downhill sections of the race. I flew. A short section of the race then took place on a trail, and then it was back on the roads. As much as I tried to avoid the temptation, I did occasionally look back to see if Cid was in my sights. At the last aide station, a volunteer was kind enough to retie my right shoe lace, which had come untied 10 or so minutes earlier, and let me know there was a little over 3 miles left. I was exhausted, and was getting very, very hungry.

Big (HUGE) Mistake Number Four: While I did grab a little food at the aide stations, I consumed only three gels and one packet of gels. I also drank only one bottle (18 oz.) of fluids. All things considered, I’m truly surprised that I did as well as I did.

The last two miles were perhaps the most grueling, as we ran on the shoulder of a main road or on the sidewalk. To keep focused, I attempted to catch and pass as many marathon racers as I could. Again, everyone was very encouraging.

I could finally first hear and then see the Finish, which involved a lap around a lake. I was barely managing to put one foot in front of the other, but somehow managed to do so, and managed to pass a few more marathoners as well. I was quite surprised when I was told that I had come in 5th place, as I thought for sure it was 6th or 7th.

I had a chance to talk with Cid after the race, and he offered his congratulations. I did the same. Again, runners are wonderful people: competitive, yet encouraging. I also asked him about his shoulder pack, and plan on purchasing my own.

Mt. Mitchell “Challenge” is understatement. This was bar far the most challenging race I have ever run. I will go on the record as saying it was also one of the most fun races I’ve ever run. I certainly had the opportunity to determine just how tough I am, and how dig I can deep. After this race, every other race I’ve run seems quite easy in comparison.

My heartfelt thanks to the Race Director and the volunteers! This race was exceptionally well managed, and the perks were great: hat, socks, shirt, fleece jacket, hot food after the race, etc. If you’re in for a “challenge,” I encourage you to run (walk, crawl) this race.

March 1 Update

From the Race Director, Jay Curwen’s, recap: For those that missed the trip to the summit…either because you were a marathoner or because you fell victim to the modified cut-off time …The conditions at the top included heavy snow/sleet, temperatures hovering at or below freezing and winds gusting in excess of 50mph…Our fire/rescue crews have final say for where and when we can proceed on the mountain…The decision was made about an hour into the race to move the cut-off from 10:30am to 10am for the safety of both runners and volunteers at the summit…With upwards of 40 people huddled in the ranger’s shelter at times, and more than 20 runners needing to be evacuated in vehicles from the mountain, it was definitely a needed precaution.

The brutal conditions on Mitchell made Mark Lundblad’s winning time of 5:10:40 that much more impressive…After a close second in 2007 and a bout with the flu last year, Mark took control of this race from the gun and lead from wire to wire…winning with a 10 minute cushion. The conditions forced the smallest Challenge finisher rate in the races history as well…with only 64 official finishers…The female results took the worst beating as only 4 managed to record finishes for the full course…Cynthia Lauren Arnold from Lexington KY didn’t seem to mind the tough conditions as she powered to an impressive 6:05:06 win.

Official Results are posted at blackmountainmarathon.com. Be sure to click Results link at the bottom of the page.

Groundhog Gallop 21k Trail Race

Gibsonville, NC
February 14, 2009
1:24:51 (6:47 mpm pace)
4th Place Overall; 1st Male 45-50

This was a somewhat challenging race for a variety of reasons:
1. The 8k began 15 minutes prior to the start of the 21k, and the front group of runners (including yours truly) had to pass many 8k runners, many of whom were running while wearing headphones, didn’t give way, etc. In fact, I got elbowed in the chest while attempting to pass. It hurt.
2. It was a loop course; thus we ran the same course twice. I get bored when I know what’s coming ahead. 
3. The first mile of the loop was on pavement. I wore my new Inov-8s, and they were too much shoe for pavement. In fact, there were too much shoe for this course. I was expecting mud, but instead ran on frozen ground. I got a serious bruise on the little piggy on my right foot who didn’t have roast beef.
4. There was a river crossing; thus, we crossed the river two times in both directions for a total of four times. Very large boulders formed a makeshift bridge, but you had to be very careful when choosing your step. You could bound from one rock to the next or take two steps on each rock. I tried both ways, but nonetheless found that my pace slowed considerably. Given that there was a steep incline regardless of which direction you were crossing, you had to get your timing and footing just right. The second time I crossed, I had to wait for runners crossing the first time. Thus, I had to come to a complete stop. 

Some days you have it, and some days you don’t. I didn’t really have it on this particular day. I started the race strong, and in face led part of the first loop. There were a group of four of us, and I ended up being dropped, by one runner at a time, by the remaining three runners. Ouch. I had a pretty strong first loop, but then lost some of my zip. I can’t help but obsess over the upcoming Mt. Mitchell Challenge, and until that race is over, I’ve resolved myself to take whatever comes my way. Given that I’ve been running very long and somewhat slow, I’ve lost some of my speed. Yes, the course was challenging. No, I didn’t taper. Yes, I wore the wrong shoes. Nothing but excuses… I could have (and should have) run a much better race.

As with most races, I learned a valuable lesson. My lesson this race? Humility.

On the bright side, the folks at Off ‘n Running Sports, as always, did a great job! I also like the hat I won.

“We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” — George Bernard Shaw