Like most other runners, my big challenge of 2020, the Hellbender 100, was first postponed and finally canceled. Rather than allowing the hours of @mrrunningpains training go to waste, I planned to run from Grandfather Mountain to Mount Mitchell in October. These two peaks are the namesake of this run, Gritchell. To my knowledge, I’m the only person (or one of a very few) who’ve tried to link the two mountains as quickly as possible. Right now, it sits as an OKT and FKT, which I’m sure will soon become an SKT! We have some speedy people in WNC!
The majority of the run, which finally happened on 10/9-10/10, primarily followed the @mountainstoseatrail. It also included Profile trail and Cragway on Grandfather, and the Mount Mitchell trail. The route, per Friends of the MST, is rated as, “moderate to strenuous”. It includes several Forest Service roads, steep climbs, very technical sections, and a notable number of creek crossings. For the hell of it, with impeccable timing, Mother Nature incorporated the remnants of a hurricane Delta when I was most tired; on the most technical part of the route. The mid point of the run takes you through the Linville Gorge which required crossing the Linville River at night. Ultimately the route is about 97.3 miles (some wrong turns and a couple loops around the parking lot at the end got me 100) with nearly 24,000ft of gain and 46,000ft of change.
It’s taken about a week for my mind and body to comprehend and recover enough for me to want to write a brief report of everything that happened. If you’re hoping for tales of grisly injuries, close calls with wildlife and Mother Nature, or moments where I summoned prodigious strength to conquer my mind and push through the pain, you’re out of luck. While there were moments that were incredibly abhorrent and I wanted nothing more than a stiff drink and warm; dry clothes, I never had a desire to quit or was in a position where I was forced to quit. Thankfully, most everything went to plan and my success would not have been possible without my crew and family.
I started the run with Aaron at the profile trail head, on Grandfather Mountain, around 4:30AM on 10/9. Thanks to great conversation, cool temps, and some early adrenaline from the anticipation of the pending adventure, we made it to the top of Calloway’s peak in about 1hr. Soon after, about 10miles into the run, I saw my crew, Andrew and Mike, for the first time. We talked for a couple of minutes and they checked on my status. I gave them my water bladder to fill and drop off a few miles down the trail before we got back to running. When we arrived at Rough Ridge, about 4 miles before Beacon Heights, we were greeted with stunning fall colors and felt it would have been sacrilege to not stop, admire, and take pictures before we completed the remaining distance to my first official aid at Beacon Heights.
The crew was not at Beacon Heights, when Aaron and I arrived. On top of this, I had not found my water bladder that was supposed to have been filled and dropped off along the trail for me. “What a start”, I cheerfully thought. Thankfully, my team showed up a few minutes later, but received a well disposed ribbing for their tardiness. I could do nothing but laugh because I knew that this would be the least of the challenges that the day would present.
Aaron completed the remaining 10 miles of the first 24. Before leaving, though, he shared some key lacing knowledge that alleviated some early swelling related foot pain, which may well have saved my run. Every step after, was notably more comfortable physically, and by extension a great mental relief. While at this aid station I also learned that my next pacer would not be able to join me on this leg due to a misunderstanding of the start date. Hiccup number 2. What was even more surprising, and really uplifting, was when my crew told me he’d be joining me for the leg after this 12 mile section that I’d be running alone. After thinking about it for some time I realized that he’d be with me through 7 miles that I originally planned to run alone; just before dusk. I knew I’d be thinking about the subsequent challenging Gorge miles, so having him there would help relieve the associated anxiety. After some food, drink, and a refill of the necessary running-pack sundries, I departed Hunt Fish Falls trail head and kept myself company for the next 12 miles.
When I arrived at the 181 intersection after my solo 12, my parents were waiting with cookies and signs they’d made to cheer me into the night. It was great seeing them, but I didn’t spend much time socializing. Mike and Andrew were also there with chips and salsa, and a single tortilla shell that they unselfishly saved for me from their dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. I did not partake, but did snag a cookie from my folks, fully lubed my body, got new socks, and shirt before posing for some pictures and heading into the early evening hours with Matt.
Through this section, Matt and I shared good conversation about how I was doing, what lay ahead and what beers we’ve been partial to in the recent months. This, as I predicted, was a big mental distraction before what I felt would be the hardest part of the first 50 miles. As we neared the next aid station, just shy of the turn to go up to The Table Rock parking area, night had fallen and I was beginning to slow down and bit. The first drops of rain from the remnants of hurricane Delta had started to fall and the vegetation was starting to shine from the lights of our headlamps.
This aid station was by far the best for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe it was the broth and ramen noodles, or peanut M&Ms, or the really bright string of LEDs hanging from the Subi that gave the stop a warm party feeling. Regardless, this feeling was actually in conflict with the frustration that we shared with Josh, my next runner, who’d arrived a few minutes earlier only to find that he had a flat tire when he stepped out of his car! Hiccup number 3. This one was tough because I wanted to empathize with him and help solve the problem but knew that my mental strength couldn’t be divided between too many other areas outside of the run. After understanding and realizing that this was not a big deal and that a solution was in the works, I was able to collect myself and Josh, and move into the Gorge.
The Gorge miles passed quickly even though the vegetation had consumed a lot of the trail and resisted our progress in many areas. The conversations through this section were personal and a lot of compassion was shared as is often the case when you’re on the trail; suffering with another person. These are the quiet miles that somehow divide the spirit of a person from the body. It’s as though the soul couples with time and becomes the vehicle that carries the body. There is a prescience in this new spiritual form that is able to safely guide, relieve physical pain, and make you forget everything except the present. These are the healing miles that, at the time, I did not realize would be so necessary. Soon after we crossed the Linville River, my body quickly resumed the role of primary vehicle and we made our way over 2 miles of the steepest terrain that I would see. A lot of suffering and cussing ensued in these two miles. The spiritual moments were clearly over. Thanks to the constant reminders to drink and eat, and the great company provided by Josh, we made it through the Gorge with fewer challenges than I had anticipated.
When we arrived, about 30minutes behind plan, at the pinnacle aid station, we were met with warm regards, hot mocha pot coffee and some pancakes. The name of this stop was apt for this part of the run as everything after would present the greatest setbacks and challenges of the entire route. I ran the next 40 mile section about 4 weeks prior to scout the trails because 90% of them were new to me. In retrospect, this was only good to understand where critical turns were. Remembering something you’ve done when you’re mindset and physical state were different can prove frustrating if you’ve not considered how you might feel when you’re less mentally and physically fresh. Visualization is incredibly powerful, and is something I try to do before most long runs to better prepare myself for different scenarios that might develop. While I had mentally run this section in prep for the 100 mile attempt, and tried to do so in an imagined state of physical and mental duress, I was still incredibly stunned by what was to come.
With smiles, a warm belly, new socks, my new pacer Andrew, and a full pack of essentials, we left the Gorge area and headed for 221 via Dobson’s knob. Like segments before, we started out with a lot of good conversation, but this time, the talk decline precipitously as our focus turned to finding the white, circular MST trail blazes that were obscured by the fog of tired minds trying to navigate the most technical terrain, and the fog induced by the now heavier rains of hurricane Delta. All of this coming together at 2AM. It was a punishing slog that included wet rocks precisely placed to preclude anything that was more than a clumsy walk, incessant switch backs, over growth and heavier winds. I’d been punished enough in training and this was becoming more of a mental burden than I felt I had the capacity to manage or deserve. Silence, focus, and several mid trail breaks, where I truly sat and drifted off to sleep, served as the central method for completing this leg. I knew this segment and the following 24 miles would be tough, so I reserved this work for the two friends who’ve been with me through some incredibly foul weather and terrible mental moments. Andrew finished his duties and brought me safely to Mike and the last 24 miles that lay ahead of the next aid station at HWY 221.
The low became lower as I sauntered into the aid station and prepared for the next 12 miles. I was now struggling to figure out what my stomach would not reject, the provisions I’d need for the next leg, and what I could do to motivate myself to get going. After allowing myself to mope for a few minutes, I asked Andrew to boil some water for some apple spiced oatmeal. While the water was being prepared, I grabbed some fresh clothes, a lot of lubrication for the feet and began to haul myself out of the woeful state of frustration and confusion. A solid dance party was needed. With, ‘House of Pain’ (very apropos) and ‘Cypress Hill’ blasting in the early morning hours, a resurgence commenced. Thanks to the music, dance, and warm food and drink I was ready to begin moving.
From this point forward, the ratio of power hiking to running became much greater, while the ratio of happiness to suffering decreased. Many parts of this route, between 221 and the intersection of 80 and the Blue Ridge Parkway, were long climbs that I somehow managed to remember differently. The true crux of the run. They were not as easy or as short as I thought they were going to be after the biggest climb was complete. My frustration got the better of me on these unrelenting ascents and Mike was sitting first row to see a side of Kevin that not many get to see. It’s sufficient to say that I was truly unhappy at this point. The run only got more difficult as the rains got worse and my jacket failed me. I don’t recall how far we were from the next stop when the chill started penetrating into my body, but I remember thinking that some action was needed to combat the chill from the worsening conditions. As we came into the next aid station, we were greeted by Andrew and my parents, but were too cold and miserable to reciprocate their warm regards.
At the car, Andrew prepped some warm food for us and refilled water bottles. Mike and I both stripped out of our rain sodden gear and hastily replaced everything with dryer; warmer versions of everything just removed. This felt like it took hours to complete, but I was in no rush to leave behind warm food and drink. There is a sublime feeling that only new dry clothes, massaged and lubricated feet, and a satiated belly can generate after 88 miles of running and exposure to abhorrent weather. The one missing item was a heavily peated scotch and a camp blanket. Thankfully, neither of those were available. Otherwise, I would have been tempted to throw in the towel and pass out.
Mustering the energy to embark on the next leg was akin to the mental struggle that one faces when trying to commit to jumping into cold water; knowing they don’t have much strength to swim to the side of the pool. It felt like this because I knew I’d have to don my wet jacket once we were ready to leave. I made the decision to wear it again because I was now wearing a merino wool base (which keeps you warm even when wet) and it did offer some additional protection. After a brief mental struggle, I pulled the jacket around me, grabbed Mike, my trekking poles, some well wishes, and slogged on to Black Mountain Campground. I don’t remember much from this leg. It rained nearly the entire time, only to let up as we approach the next stop. There was a sense of disappointment and lack of accomplishment that I do remember. I attributed this to the amount of time it was taking to finish. I had planned on 33h, but was already there with what would be about 4 to go. The stops and weather had slowed me down considerably and by the time we reached Black Mountain Campground, I wasn’t feeling well mentally and my physical strength was very low. The only thing left to burn was the tank.
I had imagined arriving and departing the last aid station with a lot of excitement and joy. After all, I had just traveled about 94 miles under my own power for an entire day and through the night. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The end was within sight and I knew there wasn’t much that could keep me from finishing the run, which had become nothing more than a power hike. As we hiked the rest of the route, overheating because we over dressed to combat the rain that never fell again, I decided to find happiness in what I had just done and what I was in the process of finishing. The greatest joy came from knowing that, regardless of time, this might be a once in a lifetime accomplishment. One that I trained so hard for and one that would not have been possible without my family and their sacrifices and the sacrifices made by my friends and their families. I imagined my daughters reflecting on this accomplishment; hoping that they might draw inspiration from it when they feel the weight of the impossible. There was a lot to be thankful for in those final miles and I embraced the misery and suffering, and transformed it into joy.
Coming through the hedgerow of trees that line the final path to the summit of Mitchell, Mike and I were greeted by Andrew, my wife, daughters, mom, dad, and sisters. There was a brief pause as we all celebrated before I made the final push. I ended up running to the top thanks to a last bit of adrenaline. My daughters, my final pacers I suppose, ran with me to the end! Following pictures at the top, we trotted to the parking area where I knocked out a few loops around the parking lot to ensure my watch rolled over to the 100 mile mark. ks, Kevin