Taken from the course this December
Taken during a training run on the course this December

It’s the week before my first race of the year, which also happens to be one of my biggest races of the year.

Friday morning I’ll be boarding a plane with the future Mrs. RCR to make our way down to Black Mountain, North Carolina for the Mount Mitchell Challenge, a 40 mile mountain race that runs from downtown Black Mountain (just outside Asheville) to the top of Mount Mitchell and back.

If you are unfamiliar with Mount Mitchell, it is the highest point east of the Mississippi, topping out at 6,683 feet.

The reason I view this race as one of the year’s biggest isn’t because of the distance, but because of where it is and what I’ll be climbing.

See, I grew up going to summer camp at a retreat center called Montreat, located in Black Mountain.  My grandmother lives in the heart of the town, and this small slice of Western North Carolina has been one of the few constant locations throughout my life.

We grew up looking at the ridge I’ll be climbing, playing on some of the trails I’ll be running, and listening to stories from my grandparents about the history of those mountains I’ll be enjoying.

It means a lot for me to be racing in that location and to have the opportunity to celebrate the finish with my grandmother and other family members throughout the weekend.

For many of us runners, we reconnect with memories and locations by running and racing through them.

Running is such an intimate act that it is only natural to grow an attachment to the location.  When the attachment is already exists, it is a way to celebrate that connection and build new memories through it.

The Nerves

My typical “Week Before” is filled with nerves, worries, phantom pains, and little sleep.  I mean, what’s worse than working, suffering, and torturing yourself for months on end, all without knowing what the big day will bring?  Will I get sick?  Will it rain the whole time?

I remember before my first 50k I actually quit running on trails 2 weeks before the race because I thought I’d be less likely to twist an ankle or get injured on the road.

Or even before that, the 3 weeks leading up to my first marathon, I quit drinking alcohol entirely!  I was certain I would get sick, so I put myself on a strict high vitamin-C/no alcohol regimen.

This time around, something is different.  For the first time, I’m sitting here only a few days from my biggest race of the year, enjoying a delicious stout, free of my typical worries.

Pretty great, right?  Here is why I think this time is different:

1) Confidence:  This is easier said than done, but I can sit here today and say that I am confident in my training.  I have put in the miles, run up the hills, and prepared for this distance in the best way that my time and ability has allowed.  In retrospect there is always another mile to run or hill to climb, but I am confident that what I’ve done has more than adequately prepared myself for this race.

I could have probably said that before most races, but this time I’m allowing myself to know it.  Not doubt it.  Having confidence in how I have prepared is making a huge difference.

2) Embracing the Day:  I’ve never raced an ultra.  Sure, I’ve always tried to do my best, but finishing has always been a much bigger concern than time.  Yet still, I was always worried about having a flop of a day and moving much slower than expected.

This time I’m much more at peace at just letting the day unfold.  It is in part because I’m running in one of my favorite places, but it is also because I want to experience everything that comes my way this Saturday.  Not bog my mind down with concerns of the unknown.

Over the past week, the course got another 8 inches of snow.  I haven’t run in real snow all year.  Over the next few days they are predicting a lot of rain.  I’ve had a relatively mud free winter.

I have no idea what the course is going to look like on Saturday, and that is OK.

Remember to Enjoy Your Runs

Let’s face it, most of us aren’t in the 2% of elite runners winning the big races.  Pushing ourselves to personal bests, and seeing where our limits take us is incredibly important, but after so much time and effort going into the training, we need to remember to enjoy our races.

What’s the point of all the pain if there is no fun reward at the end?

That is what this weekend is going to be about.  That is what I’ll be running for.  I’m sure that at times it will be tough.  I’m sure that times will come when I want to quit.  Hell, who knows, maybe I will end up quitting.

But I also know that I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my day running up and down Mount Mitchell.

As race season starts to begin for many of us, I hope that you can calm those nerves and enjoy the run as much as I will.

What has helped you calm “week before” nerves?  What was the most fun you had running a race?

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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