welcomerunnersLast week’s Mount Mitchell Challenge was full of new experiences, each of which taught me a little lesson.  Lessons I know will help me in the future, and ones I believe you can learn a bit from as well.

As a good way for me to work through each of the, what I’m calling, mini-lessons, I’ve decided to share 37 of them with you here.  One for every mile.

Wait!  Before you write this off and move on to a different website, I already know what you’re thinking. “You expect me to read 37 lessons?!”  It’s a valid question.

If you make it through all 37, I give you major props, but these were just too good not to share.  Besides, they are mini-lessons, remember?

Why 37 when this was a 40 mile race?  Well, I’ll get to that in mini-lesson #1.

1)  Trail races are their own beast, and you never know what you will find until you get started. 

The Story:  Katie and I were sitting in the airport waiting on our flight when I saw on Facebook that due to weather, the course would be altered at the top.  We were forced to follow the road for the final 4 miles to the summit instead of trail, which dropped the length down to somewhere between 36 and 37 miles.

2)  Having a connection to the race is the way to go. 

The Story:  This was the first race I’ve ever run with a bigger connection to the course and location.  Thinking about childhood memories on those trails and passing directly in front of my grandmother’s house just half a mile before the finish, were some of the best moments of the race.

3)  When a little kid hands you a pretzel, take it, but don’t always eat it. 

The Story: I took it, said thanks, and tried to eat it.  My mouth immediately dried up and without much water left in my pack, it took a few miles to really wash it all out.  This very well could have been a race strategy for some father.  If it was, it worked.

4)  Potty humor norms go out the window during an ultra marathon. 

The Story:  About 16 miles into the climb up Mount Mitchell, I came up behind two runners swapping fart stories.  A few minutes later when one dropped back I jokingly asked the other if they knew each other (certain they did).  “Nope, we just started talking after he farted in front of me.  Don’t even know his name!” she said.

5)  Sentimental gestures are much more sentimental after 35 miles. 

The Story:  My cousin joined me for a few miles at the end of the race and handed me a buckeye, my grandfather’s old good-luck charm.  It meant so much to me I got more than a little emotional.  I love that she did that.

6)  That guy you passed and wrote off 5 miles ago, will come back and pass you. 

The Story: During an ultra it is common to pass someone looking rough and safely assume you just moved up one place in the ranking.  But don’t be so sure.  You’ll hit that same rough spot and he’ll come barreling past, winking as he flies by. 

7)  Don’t post a video of the race on youtube unless you want everyone racing to know you. 

The Story: Last year a guy made a little video of himself running the Challenge.  I know that I, and nearly every racer out there, knew exactly who he was every time we saw him. (he later went on to pass and beat me, btw.)

8)  Drink Coke.

The Story: I always kind of scoffed at the popular thought that drinking soda from an aid station at an ultra was a good idea.  Let me tell you, I just couldn’t get enough during this race.  A few Dixie cups at each aid station after the 14th mile left me feeling good moving forward!

733768_10100605680149218_816158372_n9)  Rocks know how to multiply. 

The Story: At least that is what I believe after the rocks on the trail seemed to triple between going up and coming down.

10)  Consistency Works.

The Story:  I ate a Gu every 45 minutes religiously, whether I thought I needed it or not.  I credit that big-time for keeping me from any major bonks.

11)  Running downhill for a long time hurts your knees. 

The Story:  I haven’t had knee trouble while running in a long time, but man on man did my knees start to scream after running down steep hills for so long.  Yelping in pain was not uncommon…by any of the runners.

12)  Running downhill on a severely slanted road, really hurts your knees. 

The Story:  I’ve never ran a mountain road like the one at the top of Mount Mitchell before, and the way it was banked on such steep downhill was killer.  There was no avoiding the pain, though people were trying just about everything, including running backwards.  

13)  Brush your teeth. 

The Story: I forgot to brush mine before the race.  It bothered me the whole time.

14)  A run streak leading up to an ultra helps. 

The Story:  As mentioned above, consistency works, and coming into the race more than 250 days into a running streak definitely helped.  Even though I had greater weekly mileage leading up to my 50 last year, I felt much better throughout this entire race, I believe in part because of the consistent miles in training.

15)  Continuing a run streak after an ultra hurts… 

The Story:  Going on my run Sunday evening to keep the streak alive was miserable.  After wobbling just over a mile, my legs (and toes!) were screaming at me to stop.

16)  It’s OK to overdress. 

The Story: The weather predictions kept changing: rain, sun, 30s, 40s, wind, I had no idea what to wear.  I was in much better shape with a few extra layers than the poor runners shivering down the mountain with too few, even if I did have to shed and carry them the last few miles.

17)  It’s OK to bring too much gear. 

The Story:  They warned of lots of snow and ice on top, so I, and probably half the other runners, brought along YakTraxs as we left the starting line.  Even though I never really considered using them, the peace of mind for the first several hours of climbing was worth the added weight. 

18)  Don’t use something just because you brought it. 

The Story:  There was probably only a 1 mile stretch when YakTraxs would have been helpful, but for some reason, a good 2-3 miles after that section, I saw a dude running up the road in his Yaks.  Dude, let it go…it isn’t icy. (But major props for giving it your all!)

19)  You can fly down a steep road if you want to.

The Story:  I never knew I could run so fast that late in an ultra.  4 hours in and I ran a sub 8 minute mile.  A little leaning forward and falling with the momentum can get you moving.

20)  Wear Band-aids on your nipples. 

The Story: I feel sorry for that fella with crazy amounts of blood streaming down his shirt at mile 22.  Ouch.

21)  Chat up the older (than you) people. 

The Story:  A few miles from the top I ran up next to someone at least 25 years older than me.  We chatted for a minute before I found out this was his 11th challenge.  The next few miles running together were some of the most memorable, as he talked about the history of the race and the mountain, and told of adventures during previous races.

22)  Loosen your shoulders.

The Story:  The knots on my shoulders have been just as painful as my legs!  Even on a 7 hour run, I should have been paying attention to my upper body form. 

23)  Put lube between your butt cheeks. 

The Story:  ‘nuf said.

24)  Bring nutrition. 

The Story: I was under the impression certain things would be provided at the aid stations that weren’t.  Thankfully I was mostly prepared.

25)  I can do anything for 10 minutes. 

The Story:  That is a mantra I’ve been using for a few years now, and it was a life savor during this race.  When terrain, temperature, and elevation gain/loss can change so rapidly, those simple words have never been more powerful.

26)  When you have to pee during a winter trail race, try to avoid the snow. 

The Story:  During a stretch near the top of Mount Mitchell, you could see where people stepped off for a bathroom break.  Maybe next time go behind the tree…

27)  “Find your all day pace.” 

The Story:  In a recent NMA Radio interview with Bryon Powell of iRunFar.com, Bryon told Matt and I to “find your all day pace.”  That pace you feel like you can keep running all day.  Even though that pace varied throughout the race, focusing on finding the speed that felt right kept me from bonking, and I think helped me finish faster.

28)  Have fun with the volunteers.

The Story:  I always try to thank volunteers as I pass by the aid stations, but on my way down I took the time to joke around with a few.  It helped lift my spirits and I’m sure helped them pass the time.

29)  Marry someone willing to pop your blisters. 

The Story: When I was half-passed-out after the race, the wonderful future Mrs. RCR was kind enough to take care of my nasty feet.  True love.

30)  82 year olds are beasts.

The Story:  An 82 year old finished the marathon long after I finished the ultra.  I passed him about 4 hours in, and he was moving along well.  What a beast.

31)  Cutoffs are no joke. 

The Story:  I had never been anywhere near a cutoff before, but with MMC, I was really worried a few times.  I ended up being fine, but many of my fellow runners were not.  Only 111 finishers out of nearly 190 who started.


32)  Don’t trust anyone with ‘distance to go’ numbers.

The Story: I must have heard 8 different distances in the final miles of the race, each of which were completely different from the last, and most of which ended up being several miles off.  If you don’t know how far you have left to go, don’t assume anyone else does either.

33)  37 miles is a lot shorter than 40. 

The Story: With just a few miles left, it sure was sweet knowing I didn’t have to travel the extra 3.

34)  Pinto Beans don’t make the best post-race meal.

The Story: Apparently if I had run faster I would have had more options, but the hot food options left for me to refuel with post race were hotdogs or pinto beans.  Hotdogs are out, so I grabbed a bowl of beans.  Can’t say it really hit the spot.

35)  Family is the best.

The Story: The way the course was set up, I was only able to see my family at the beginning and end of the race.  Having them greet me right out of the trail with just a few miles to go was such a spirit lifter.  It is amazing what just a little support can do for mood.

36)  Losing to the best feels pretty damn good. 

The Story: I didn’t realize this until I saw Dave Mackey coming down the mountain well ahead of me, but crossing the finish line more than 2 hours after the winner doesn’t feel so bad when you know it is one of UltraRunning Magazine’s Ultrarunner of the year!

Mount Mitchell Summit
Mount Mitchell Summit

37)  Summiting a mountain with no view is better than not summiting at all. 

The Story:  Reaching the top was a real challenge.  The last few miles were the steepest and, even though they were on road, the toughest mentally.  But when I reached the summit with a few other runners up there already celebrating, it didn’t matter that cloud coverage kept me from seeing more than a few hundred feet in front of me.  The view was just as sweet as it would have been on a clear day.  Summiting was more about the journey than the place. 

Whew! Congrats on making it through!

This race was one of my favorite to-date.  It would have been a super-fun race on its own, but being in Black Mountain, with so much personal history, and doing it all with such great family and friends out there supporting me, made it much more than just, super-fun.

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.

Support Rock Creek Runner by shopping at:


5 thoughts on “37 Mini-Lessons of the Mount Mitchell Challenge: Told Through 37 Mini-Stories

  1. Great way to do a race report Doug, enjoyed reading it, and congrats on a terrific accomplishment!

  2. loved reading this! i’m a relatively new runner and just coming up on my first 10 mile race (the cherry blossom). an ultra seems WAY out of the question, but your lessons are great! i really enjoy your blog. thanks for passing along so much wisdom.

    1. Thanks Helen! I think most of the lessons are useful no matter what distance you are running. Good luck at the Cherry Blossom 10 miler! Such a fun race.

Leave a Reply