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Tom Sell & the Mount Mitchell Challenge: the Good, the Bad and the Really Really Ugly

Rock/Creek Race Team member Tom Sell wrote this article.

The Good

The Mount Mitchell Challenge is arguably one of the toughest races in the southeast area. The following is an excerpt taken directly from the Mount Mitchell Challenge’s website:

The Challenge is this: Begin at dawn in Black Mountain, the quaint “front porch of Western North Carolina”, and follow trails to the “rooftop” of Western North Carolina, the 6,684′ summit of Mount Mitchell – eastern America’s highest point – then return to the start/finish area! With a starting altitude of 2,360′, the elevation gain for this 40-mile run will be 4,324′ – in the first 20 miles!

Race founders Wendell Begley of Black Mountain Savings and Trent Thomas from Black Dome Mountain Sports saw a need for this kind of event for both the elite athlete and the weekend warrior. Their goal was to design a race that was attainable physically while offering the opportunity to test oneself against the often-uncooperative forces of nature!

The Marathon runners start side-by-side with the Challengers and duplicate their course to the Black Mountain Gap overlook on the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. Here, at an elevation of 5,340′ and with an extraordinary view of Mount Mitchell as a backdrop, Marathoners will turn and retrace their course to the Start/Finish area in Black Mountain.

Jay Curwen, the General Merchandising Manager for the Nantahala Outdoor Center (think buyer of the toys) is the Challenge and marathon race director. Jay himself is a badass in the world of endurance athletics and former Challenge and marathon winner himself. Jay, being a former pro triathlete and endurance junkie, knows exactly how to organize a race as an event-not just a race. Racers are treated to a pre-race meeting at packet pick-up, killer swag, immediate post-race food and drinks and a post-race dinner and awards ceremony hours after the racers have showered and changed.

I have participated in too many races that want your overpriced entry fee and in exchange they give you a poorly marked course, a 50-50 t-shirt, and they kick you out the door as soon as you finish. Jay’s attention to detail is what has forced this race to turn into a lottery style entry.

On September 1st, 2012 the lottery entry went live. You could enter the race but were not guaranteed to be in the race unless you were picked in the lottery. The selections are made within ten days and then the marathon opens for registration. The marathon will subsequently close very quickly. People wanting in the Challenge are placed on a wait list but historically there is very little turnover of people backing out.

I was checking out Facebook in late August last year and I saw the post regarding the lottery going live September 1st. I had done the Mount Mitchell Challenge twice before, but not since 2004. I had fond memories of the grueling event and epic weather and was ready to do it again. I signed up, crossed my fingers and hoped I would be on the starting line come the third week of February. A week later, I received my official notice I was in the race. Now… time to train!

My first Mount Mitchell experience came with very little build up-I literally found out the previous Tuesday that I was in the 40 mile race. My good friend Matt Sims had signed up for the race but injured a knee just a week prior to the race. He asked me if I wanted his spot if the race director would let him transfer it. I said sure and he let me know shortly thereafter I was in.

The beauty of the Challenge is of course the distance but also the crazy weather that accompanies it. You will gain over four thousand feet during the course of the race and may experience a thirty degree change in temperature during the race not to mention the possibility of forty to sixty mile an hour wind gusts. The temperature in 2003 was thirty three degrees and pouring down rain at the start of the race.

My first Challenge went pretty well, with a thirteenth place overall. I decided I needed to do this race again and I signed up for the 2004 race. The epic weather did not disappoint as we had no rain but tons of snow that altered the course at the top. I remember freezing temperatures and lots of knee deep snow that year. I improved several spots getting seventh overall but short of a top five spot that would have me finish on the podium.

My thought this year was to hopefully get on the podium for Masters which I knew would require an awesome effort.


The Bad

Being an older athlete, I know I needed to pay special attention to my training-I needed to train smarter not harder and pick and choose my hard efforts.

I am well aware of the considerations of an aging body!

(Ed. note: read the article Tom wrote on this very subject here!)

Rock/Creek Race Team member Tom Sell on training, racing and physically surviving past age 40

In my mind, the long run is the cornerstone of ultra-training. At five feet nine inches and one hundred and eighty pounds I am not exactly a thin stick of a runner, and anything around twenty miles tends to batter my body. I decided I wanted three quality long runs of at least twenty miles. My first effort was a twenty mile run on Raccoon Mountain on December 29th. I ran twenty miles in three hours and one minute.

I was pretty pleased and scheduled my next long run for January twenty sixth. This time I was joined by fellow challenger Ryan Meulemans. We knocked out a twenty one mile run in two hours fifty nine minutes. I felt good and was looking forward to my final effort of a twenty seven miler on February 10th. I did the first lap solo and was joined by my dog Linus on the second lap. It started pouring rain for our second lap but we managed to only slow on our second loop by seven minutes and ended up with a time of three hours and fifty three minutes for the twenty seven miles. I felt quite confident as I only stopped once to refill my two hand helds at my truck on the start of the second loop. I had thirteen days to recover and was feeling pretty good about my training.

My post twenty seven mile run training was going to consist of a series of short six mile runs up until race time. The following Saturday, one week before the Challenge, I awoke on my first day of winter break with swollen lymph nodes and quite a bit of congestion in my head. I was not really worried because I had six days to get over this cold before I headed to North Carolina.

I spent the next six days watching Magnum PI reruns on Netflix, ingesting cold medications, and doing nasal rinses every day — not the winter break I envisioned, but I knew I had to be completely healthy for the Challenge. Mount Mitchell is not someplace that you want to run if you are sub-par. Friday got here pretty quick and my cold was still firmly in place.


The Ugly

Friday morning, GF Angie and I departed for Mount Mitchell. I was feeling better but not great. I had tons of drainage and was coughing intermittently. Following check-in, we met up with a group from Chattanooga that was racing as well. Michael Scott and Greg Arwood were doing the marathon while Ryan Meulemans, Michael Schrezer and I were doing the forty miler. Following dinner, we headed over to packet pick up and the pre-race meeting at the White Horse. In our packet we received our t-shirt, an embroidered Mount Mitchell Wigwam stocking hat, a 40 Mount Mitchell Decal and a course map.

The slide show was running a loop showing various videos from the course. The actual pre-race meeting was led by Jay, and he described how the course had been altered and shortened due to the parkway being closed. He also told us we were going to have a stretch of about eleven miles with limited aid. He fielded a couple questions and we were done. I said goodbye to my friends and headed back to the hotel, not feeling quite right. I barely made it back before my body revolted and purged everything in my digestive system. It was at this point that I started to doubt being one hundred percent for the race.

I spent a good portion of the night eating and drinking electrolytes, desperately trying to get my body back normal. When we got to the race I actually felt pretty good. I thought hopefully I could hold it together. That feeling was short- lived, as three miles into the race I was forced to walk, with severe abdominal cramping and a tightening in my chest.

It was at this point that the bargaining and the reckoning begin to take place within my mind. To drop or not to drop …that is the question. I held a debate in my mind for several miles trying to decide what was the best course of action.

I have dropped out of two races in my life, and both times were due to heat-related issues that I deemed dangerous at the time. Both times, my body had shut down and I had quit sweating. After much internal conflict and knowing I was not facing a life-or-death situation I chose to trudge onward. I just settled in for a long day of suffering knowing somehow, some way, I would come out the stronger person as a result of my pressing forward.

I have done two Ironman triathlons, a few twenty-four-hour adventure races as well as tons of long distance endurance events –I know how to suffer as that is the key to succeeding at endurance racing. The difference here was I have never ever suffered so early in a race. I settled in to a run-walk pattern necessitated by my need not to cough and my need to breathe. The course was brutal with icy patches and steep inclines to the top and killer descents that pulverize your quads coming down the mountain.

I guess the only thing I can say good about my race is that I finished. I guess I hate the thought of not finishing more than suffering and having a humiliating slow time on the Mountain. I do know a couple of things: I was able to suffer longer than I have ever suffered in a race before and I know I will be back to attack Mount Mitchell at some point in the future. My experience on race day was definitely a lesson in humility.

Two days after getting back to Chattanooga I went to the doctor as I knew something was not right with my body; blood work and tests revealed that I did indeed have the flu as well as a sinus infection. Two weeks of rest and ten days on a strong antibiotic have me back on the trails.

I am just hoping my miserable experience on the trail will translate into mental toughness in future races.

Rock Creek race team member Tom Sell is a two time Ironman finisher and a three time Mount Mitchell Challenge Finisher. Tom has a BS.,M.Ed. from UTC and is currently working an Educational Specialist degree and will graduate in December.

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