Pitchell is the most fun I’ve had on a run. Ever. So many elements played a role, but the two main factors were the people I was with and my lack of usually meticulous expectations.
This report is not a traditional race report with a blow by blow account. It focuses more on the lessons I learned and why this run was an all time day.
- Start atop Mount Pisgah then take the Mountains to Sea Trail to Mount Mitchell (highest peak east of the Mississippi).
- 63 miles and 16k feet of climbing.
- The route was conceived by Asheville runner, Adam Hill, in the early 2000s. A group of runners annually attempt the run every October.
- Starting at midnight is tradition.
- Crew spots are frequent as the trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway multiple times. You can essentially receive support every 5 miles. More frequently than that if you desire.
The day was primarily uneventful in terms of overcoming adversity and dealing with unforeseen drama. The weather was absolutely perfect, and we moved at a good pace all day. Kyle provided crew support every 5-7 miles. The frequent checkpoints were nice, but we definitely became less efficient at these stops as the day went on.
We did take the wrong trail before reaching the Folk Art Center (halfway point) and added an extra three quarters of a mile. We remedied our error to be sure we did the route in its entirety and handled it with a, “Whoops, oh well,” attitude.
Nearing the end, we had a shot to go under 15 hours as we crossed Highway 128 and began the last 4.5 miles to the top of Mount Mitchell. We were feeling the previous 14 hours of running, and it was warming up on the exposed trail as we tried to increase our effort level to see if we could break 15 hours. Alondra was needing to take walk breaks and dig deep, while Brian’s neuroma flared up on the steep and rocky climb to Mount Mitchell. To alleviate the pain, he finished the last half mile barefoot.
We finished in 15:04:30, which was good enough for Alondra to have lowered the women’s supported FKT by 90 minutes.
Experience Versus Outcome
I will always remember this run for the pure joy that lasted from start to finish. Running Pitchell with Brian and Alondra taught me the importance of focusing on the experience rather than the outcome. It’s a concept I’ve always been aware of and aimed for, but it was fully realized and achieved during this run.
Running with Others
I have never been one to actively seek out a group run or plan to meet up with people for a run. Running has always been my outlet to disconnect, sort through my thoughts, and recharge. I don’t like feeling burdened to be at a trailhead by a certain time. I don’t want to run at a pace that is faster or slower than I want to go that day. I don’t want to spend the entire run overanalyzing what I’m about to say or have already said.
Regular Trains of Thought while Running with Others
“Have I already referenced this article, story, or podcast before? I need to appear intelligent, cultured, and witty, but will fail to do so if I continually use the same material.”
“Why did you say that, Ryne? You totally butchered that story/joke and made yourself look like an idiot.”
“Oh my gosh, this is the fifth time that _____ has told this story. Do they not remember telling me? Am I just another runner friend to them? I thought what we had was special.”
On the other hand, running with others can create unforgettable memories. Sharing a glorious run with someone else can amplify the awesomeness of the day. Grinding it out in grueling conditions with your friends can allow each of you to share in the hardships and thus experience the discomfort on a lesser level. A stronger bond is formed that leads to some hilarious memories that you can reminisce on in the future (just make sure you don’t repeat that same story over and over to the same person).
I’ve run hundreds of miles with Brian and Alondra this summer, and each run has been a blast. Our running abilities match up well in that we stay mostly together throughout the run. There is no concern or pressure about having to wait for someone. Brian destroys the uphills as if he is running up an escalator, while Alondra and myself can barrel down the descents and catch back up. Our conversations range from the occasionally serious philosophical ruminations to mostly uninhibited and unsophisticated humor. We keep each other upbeat and share the load in keeping the mood positive.
So for Pitchell, running with Brian and Alondra took away my usual angst I have when running with others, and their company kept me cheerful all day. I did have two brief low patches. The first was leaving the Folk Art Center and dwelling on the fact that we still had another 30 miles and lots of climbing left. The second low spell was during the steep and technical climb to Potato Field Gap. I was by myself for a bit after needing a second bathroom break and started thinking too much about the remaining miles. Each low was quickly mended once I got out of my own head and engaged with Brian and Alondra.
Expectations and Lack Thereof
The second element that attributed to Pitchell being the best day of running was my lack of methodical and obsessive planning. In the weeks leading up to any race or adventure, I scour Strava for data from other runners and then make a spreadsheet for nutrition and pacing purposes. It’s good to have an idea of how long certain sections will take in terms of planning out calories and hydration, but I usually hem myself into a certain pace that ultimately detracts from the experience. I become too concerned and focused on the numbers and don’t relish the beauty of where I am or bask in the simple act of propelling myself from point A to point B.
I had been so busy with work that I did not have the time or energy to dedicate my usual fastidiousness towards planning. Yes, there was a spreadsheet with projected times, but that was more for Kyle’s sake in meeting us at crew locations and less for me in providing a gauge on our effort for the day.
The lead up to this adventure had the appropriate amount of planning, rather than an unhealthy and compulsive amount of preparation.
Funnest Known Time
I made a social media post about our run the day before that said we were going for the FKT (funnest known time). I was trying to be funny and was very proud of my clever joke, but that phrase stuck in my head for the entire run and was an effective mantra that guided my mindset the entire day. However, we were also attempting an FKT (fastest known time). We were fairly confident that whatever time we finished in would allow Alondra to claim the women’s supported FKT for Pitchell. We were aware of this goal throughout the day, but it never defined or altered the tone of the day.
For me, the most fascinating aspect about ultrarunning is the role that the mind plays. The expectations before the run and then subsequent reactions to the course, personal performance, weather, competition, and unplanned surprises throughout the run play a fundamental role in how the day will be experienced and remembered. I’ve had several races and long runs in which I get sad and whiny towards the end due to falling off of a preconceived goal pace or when the fatigue becomes overwhelming. I’m not naive enough to think that every run will go perfectly. I acknowledge beforehand that at some point I will not be having fun, and I can actively break myself out of that funk by eating, drinking, or changing my mindset. Yet I still have those instances where adversity hits, my mood goes south, and I choose inaction rather than problem solving.
All this rambling is serving a purpose. That purpose is this; I learned an invaluable lesson in that measuring the value of the day in regards to the experience I have is the ultimate way to enjoy this silly hobby. Dedicating my energy and effort to meet a time goal that allows me to quantify my worth and success in comparison to my running peers is not fulfilling and will always leave me somewhat empty. Yes, I will continue to have time based and competitive goals. It is fun to train and strive for big goals, compete with yourself and others, and see improvement over time. But I will put more of a concerted effort into making my primary goals and objectives being built around the experience I am creating and having for myself, rather than arbitrary time goals.
Big shout and thank you to Kyle and Mark. Kyle graciously gave up a day away from his family and a night of sleep to crew for us. Mark drove up early to Mount Mitchell and left his car there to assure we would have a way back down rather than hitching a ride or running an extra 6 miles. This also allowed Kyle to leave the crew vehicle at Walker Knob Overlook and run the last 10 miles with us. Thanks, Kyle and Mark!
I highly recommend Pitchell. It’s a classic route that perfectly highlights the beauty of the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains.