A passion for trail running, ultras, mountaineering, snowshoeing, hiking, and other outdoor adventures

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mt. Mitchell fiasco (er, race report), Feb. 28, 2009

Would you believe an "extreme" winter trail run that gets shortenedby...winter weather?! Well, that's what happened at yesterday's Mt.Mitchell Challenge 40 miler, if you can believe it. And I'm fit tobe tied! That's three wevents in the space of a year that weatherhas prevented me from making to the start line, or has shortened byweather, including two Mitchells. But our friend Mason was one ofthe lucky, swift few who go to got to go to the top and do the fullchallenge, so hats off! (I hope you made it back today through therare winter snow that got at lower elevations in NC today, dude!Fortunately, I flew home last night and the rain didn't stop flightsgetting out from Charlotte.) Needless to say, Mitchell is seriouslyoff my list now, and I think given the poor planning of raceorganizers and those who help put this one on, I would urge others tothink twice about making the trek down for this race, too.Here is my saga, and the rationale for my critique of race organizers:It was already a steady rain when I got up shortly after 4 in myhotel, and we started in a steady, light rain three hours later. Theconditions were quite muddy, and in some spots it was windy, but nottoo bad. Temps in the 40s. But as we got higher, climbing from around2,200' at the start up to the turnaround for the marathon event ataround 5,300, it got noticeably cooler, definitely 30s with maybewind chills lower. When I took off my Seal Skinz waterproof glovesto grab bottles or gels and put them back on, my hands got chilledand the gloves felt wet (on the inside only?). So I switched to mythinner but slightly water resistant (seeming?) Injinji gloves ataround mile 10 or 11. And switched to alternating carrying myhandheld bottle in one hand and rolling down the sleeves of my jacketover my other hand to warm the hand, which helped. The feet managedto stay dry, protected by GTX Montrails, Outdoor Research gaiters,and Marmot precip pants (yes, pants, Mason--some folks actually runin them in winter conditions!).As we approached the aid station on the highway that marks the race'sentrance into Mt. Mitchell State Park, I noticed some of the runnersrunning past me on the way down with the same black-colored numbersof the rest of us Challenge runners (the marathoners had rednumbers). But I thought maybe they had turned around voluntarily...only to be told by an AS volunteer when I got there that we had toturn around and go back and settle for the marathon distance. Thepark service had closed the Park due to snow and wind, he said, andthose who had continued upward had been stopped by rangers/officialsand told to head back down.It was depressing news. You've been conserving your energy on theclimb, and are starting to brace for the most challenging section ofthe race, which is the last 1,200' of climb or so, covering around 7miles, up to the summit of the highest peak east of the Mississippi.Not to mention flown down to North Carolina and plunked down yourrace fee and hotel. And given up a race in Arizona the next weekendyou were registered for so you could could do this one right, and haptapered for a little over a week. All this after getting snowed infor this same race last year when we got ten inches in NYC, andhaving the R.D. blow off your questions about their deferral policy(never replied to a couple queries). Plus it's planned as yourlongest run of the year so far, heading toward 50 milers in lateMarch and late April, so you need the time on your feet and test ofyour fitness.Plus, you're well under the cutoff and maybe somewhere in the middleof the pack, and on pace to run something like the 7:46 you did twoyears ago on the same course, compared to a finish cutoff of like10:30 or 11:00 Being able to make the finish in the cutoff timeisn't an issue. And you've carried the extra pound or so of yourMicrospikes up the mountain, calculating that rain on the bottomequals snow and ice at the top (duh!), and they'll come in handy(after all, Kahtoola which makes Microspikes and other snow tractiondevices is actually one of the RACE SPONSORS of this year's event andis promoted by the RD on the race forum, for crying out loud!).All that, and it all comes down to...a few inches of snow and highwinds (I heard 50mph), which leads the park service to "shut it down"and the race director to relent. All this, mind you, in an eventthat features runners moving through snow on its home page, and linksto articles and race reports from various publicatons and individualswho talk about the appeal of its "extreme elements" and the unknownof the weather up top that makes it so different every year! We camejust for this kind of challenge, but they wouldn't let us experienceit!So, I filled my bottle, and entertained a brief fantasy of "whatwould happen if I continued on up?", until I remembered I hadn'tcarried a map, and remembered how obedient I am to authority (asometimes unfortunate trait)! A few hundreds yard back down theroad, I remembered to put on the Marmot windbreaker I'd carried up asmy third layer for the approach to the summit, which gave me a nicelayer to keep the wind from getting through my other two wet layers.I was so deflated on the way down I decided to treat it asa "marathon-distance training run." No point going for a decenttime, as I'd never run a trail marathon and never felt much interestin doing so, and hadn't pushed it on the way up to conserve energyfor the summit section. At that point the foul conditions just addedto my foul mood, and it really wasn't much fun anymore. All the windhad been taken out of my racing sails, you might say! So it become awet training slog, really.What re-energized me (a little) and got me out of the slow downhillstupor/funk I was in was finally getting to the super steep but lessrocky but quite muddy) dirt road and then road road, over the last 4-5 miles. The Vivarin I had just taken kicked in, and it's so steepthat it hurts to try to brake, so you just let the turnover increaseas if you were doing 100m reps or something. That gave me enoughmomentum, and got the HR going enough, to keep going at a good clipon the relatively flat final section of nature-trail-type footing andthen small town roads on into the finish. Passed a few people (aftermany had passed me on the way down), and only one guy passed me, whoturned out to be on the guys who had been all the way to the top.My "marathon" ended up being 5:41, for whatever that's worth.We heard various reports on the way down of how many had actuallygotten through to the summit (nine at one point? up to 30 atanother? maybe 15?). When I reached him by cell after the race,Mason told me he thought it was about 30, and that with his 6:25finish he was somewhere toward the middle to back of that group.About 160 were signed up for the Challenge (40 miler) alone, so youcan do the math of how many people, like me, they forcibly turnedback and made drop down to the marathon. Clearly the vast majorityof the Challenge participants.DID THEY NEED TO PULL THE PLUG?As I read now an account of the race in today's Asheville newspaper(http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090301/OUTDOORS/903010340), I see that apparently I missed thepoint where they started turning folks around by maybe 5, 10 minutes(!). And that they drove some runners down from up top withhypothermia, and that the RD said afterwards that all the Challengefinishers looked like they needed hypothermia treatment afterwards.Serious stuff, but alas that does occur often in winter enduranceevents, not to mention high mountain ultras, if you read the accounts.But I do think there's a lot of hyperbole in that. And if you lookat the photo on the newspaper site and check out the dude in shortsand singlet, you wonder how much of that hypothermia was self-inducedfrom poor individual planning of runners! Heck, I've been out thereon the trail or in Central Park a half dozen times this winteralready in 5 inches or more of snow, not to mention the Nor'easterjust about to dump the biggest winter storm on us. Yaks, Microspikes,snowshoes. Nothing that went down on Mt. Mitchell seems any worsethan any of those conditions.So, were the conditions at the top "life threatening" as was impliedor "blizzard-like" as I heard the RD say at the finish area to oneother runner? No, according to Mason. Cold and blowing and slippery.But not a blizzard by any stretch. His hands were cold, he said, andhe slipped and fell a few times on the way down (pretty much standardfare on the steep single track down off the summit, whatever theweather). Couple inches of snow. And Mason (like many speedy folkswho rely on body heat to get them through!) was wearing a singlelayer (I had forewarned him at the number pickup the day before tocarry another layer, but he's a tough Navy dude, what can I say!)!Most of the mid to back packers like me were dressed much morewarmly, not to mention the Microspikes I could have made good use of!We, more than the fast guys and gals at the front of the pack, werePREPARED for the long haul!So, the R.D. has to defer to the park service, right? Here's where Idon't get it. You sign all sorts of waivers, and the site is full ofwarnings about extreme hazards and difficulties, and how this isthe "opportunity to test oneself against the often-uncooperativeforces of nature" (end quote). You read the RD's words about howraces have been decided by which contender was wise enough to carryYak Traks and which didn't. And then this! Doesn't a race thatbrings tourism dollars and business to the area in the middle ofwinter, in a park that gets 20 INCHES OF SNOW on average eachFebruary, have some clout to let them keep the race going? And ifthe park service makes the calls, then why not be upfront in the raceliterature that "extreme weather" can alter the course and cause itto be shortened? Of course, that would demand "truth inadvertising," which is precisely what is truly lacking in terms ofhow the race portrays itself. Anybody reading this from theNortheast or most of the West would/should probably be laughing rightnow!Ok, so the volunteers and race officials at the aid station at thetop may need to be pulled?, the skeptic may say. Ok, granted, so youtell the runners that you will "proceed at your own risk" andthat "there will be no aid at the top," so they can stock up at thenext to last AS below the summit or the one at the marathonturnaround. Sound reasonable?If you have to pull the officials themselves for safety reasons andcan't verify who made it to the top, then tell folks you will treatit as a fun run and that you won't issue official times and thatcutoff times for a safe finish by dusk must be respected. Fine! Iwould have proceeded upward under those guidelines and conditions.But don't just shut it down over what would be a fairly severe butnot extreme winter weather event (at least not in the Northeast whereI live now or Midwest where I'm from). And one which isn't atall "extreme" by the standards of a peak that gets some 50 inches ofsnow per winter, apparently. You calculate the likelihood this willtype of weather event will occur every so often in an annual racethis time of year! That's why you decide to have a race up the peakin winter in the first place--HEL-OOOOOOOOOO!!You want mild temps andsunshine--hold it in the summer!ON TO A REAL WINTER SUMMIT!To add insult to injury, I'm sitting there at a Wendy's after therace, and see Mason is wearing a North Face fleece pullover like theone I had gotten at the race two years yearlier, only with "Mt.Mitchell Challenge '09" emblazoned. "Where do you get that?" "Oh,you had to go over to the little house by the finish." Of course,the finish line volunteers had neglected to tell me this, and we weretoo far away by then and it was hours later, so..... Or maybe theywere only for those who they let go up, so they weren't giving themout to the extra 130 or so Challenge wannabe's like me? Since minefrom '07 was a little tight, could have used an '09 in a larger size(but probably would have ripped off the logo right away!).Well--as the fates would have it--I'm going this weekend to NewHampshire for a mountaineering course and ascent up a mountain whichI PROMISE you won't be shut down over a few inches of snow and somewinds--Mt. Washington! It may be a few hundred feet below Mt.Mitchell in elevation, but the park officials and others there knowhow not to panick over a little white stuff and cold temps and wind!Gotta bag me a winter summit, by hook or crook! Even if it's not arace this time. And most of all, gotta wash the horribly badaftertaste of this race out of my mouth!Cheers,Scott

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