Initially, I didn’t want to sign up for the 2015 Black Mountain Marathon. I wanted to put some distance between my January and March 50k races and thought a marathon in the middle (plus a smattering of other races) might be pushing my luck. Of course, as race day got closer and closer and I saw how excited everyone around me was to run the race, I started to regret my opt out. So, I did what anyone in my situation would do. I emailed the race director multiple times and begged my way in the Thursday before race day.
I hadn’t completely expected to get into the race, but I had planned out my week before the race as though I would get to run (e.g., I bought a pair of Yaktrax Run , washed the outfit I wanted to wear, and bought all my favorite race foods). It wasn’t until we starting moving after the race director yelled “Go!” that it truly hit me: I’m running a MOUNTAIN trail marathon today. And not just any mountain, but the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. Oh, and thanks to an arctic blast the temps on race day were in the twenties and the course was covered in multiple inches of snow. Gulp.
After a three mile warm-up on the roads of Black Mountain - which were lined with cheering fans/neighbors - we weaved our way through the gorgeous Montreat College campus up to the trailhead. There, dozens of runners were spread out along the road snapping on their chosen brand of crampon. As I took my tentative first step onto the snow-packed trail and didn’t slide even an inch I thought “This is going to be cake!” Famous last words, indeed.
Even though Yaktrax Run stick like velcro to ice and packed down snow, NOTHING can keep a foot from losing traction in piles of dry, powdery, freshly fallen snow during an uphill climb. Imagine running up a sand dune in the desert, only this sand dune is 11 miles long with a relentless elevation gain of 3,000ft and is so cold that the any water you’re carrying freezes. That’s the first half of the Black Mountain Marathon in a nutshell.
I climbed/slid/cursed my way up and up, my calves and hamstrings on fire. I sucked down my Coke since my water had frozen solid in my reservoir tube by mile 4. I jogged when I could, but was intensely frustrated at my inability to run stretches of trail that I could run on a normal day, but didn’t bother with the effort on this day because the snow made it feel like trying to run with two toddlers clinging to my ankles. Having your first experience running in snow being during a marathon up a mountain is a serious reality check.
I was so thankful to all of the volunteers who came out to cheer us on, keep us safe, give us food and water, and assure me that I was not, in fact, dying. To be clear, I was nowhere near dying; that’s one of my well known exaggerations. I was in a lot of pain. The atrocious body angle I had to keep to maintain my relentless forward progress up the mountain taxed my back and I started to experience some serious and disturbing pain; pain that would last the duration of the race. Once I let the fear of the pain seep into my psyche, I was done. I let my negative thoughts and emotions snowball (no pun intended) until I was eventually crying frozen tears around mile 12. Oh, woe was me. It makes me angry to think of that weakness now that i’m warm and dry, but I guess we feel what we feel in a race, and at that point I had let myself become mentally defeated.
The second most beautiful thing I saw at the race (the first being the finish line) was the Blue Ridge Parkway aid station that marked the turnaround point and the second, downhill, half of the marathon. I ate a small cup of hot Ramen noodles, filled my empty Coke bottle with water, and stretched out my back before heading out to start my way back down the mountain. As cranky, in pain, wet, and cold as I was, just knowing that there were no more real hills to climb lit a fire under me.
I careened down that mountain, passing a dozen people who had passed me on the way up. I ran really hard, scared of making my back hurt more, but determined to get the race over with so I could assess my damage. Snow is a lot less of a pain in the ass when you’re running downhill, and I slowly began to forgive this course of its first 14 miles.
With less than four miles to go, the course spit us out onto a paved road again, so the Yaktrax came off. But then, a half mile or so later, I hit snowy icy trail again. I didn’t want to waste time putting my trax back on, so I slipped and slid my way along at half the speed I would have preferred. There went my original time goal.
What seemed like an eternity later, I finally entered the grounds of Lake Tomahawk park to begin the final half mile loop to the finish line. For all of you who say that I always run with a smile on my face, I can assure you that had there been a photo of my finish, there wouldn’t have even been a trace of a smile on my face...though there was one on my heart. I stumbled across the finish, let the woman take my timing strip, then collapsed into a pain ball at the feet of my beloved Posse members. But I had done it! I had made it through one of my longest dark periods in a race, completed my first trail marathon, and my fourth marathon overall. Orah!
Being the masochist I am, sometimes I enjoy doing things that are so difficult and at the time rather uncomfortable because so far, I always come out the other end a better and stronger person. And that’s what this marathon was for me, an experience of personal growth. It was a time where I desperately wanted to quit but would not let myself. After all, it isn’t a true test unless there is the real possibility of failure. One day I will fail, but until then, I plan to fight on and on. So, here’s to those races that are perfectly brutal!