Just shy of the Mount Mitchell summit flows a small mountain spring.

Even though it’s only few hundred feet away from a parking lot visited by over 500,000 tourists annually, it’s easy to see how this unassuming spring is overlooked by most.

Mount Mitchell sits in the Black Mountains, and on one of the oldest and most majestic ridges in the world. But come to think of it, the summit itself is rather unassuming. At 6,699 feet, it’s the highest point in the Eastern United States, but claims this superlative in an undramatic fashion. The summit has no major defined peak, and from a distance looks shorter than many other high peaks along the same ridge.

A fitting tribute to the humble beauty of the Appalachian Mountains.

In 1835, Elisha Mitchell first explored the Black Mountains, and determined they peak higher than New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, which until then had been thought to be the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Today Elisha Mitchell’s tomb rests on the summit of the mountain.

And right there, a short stroll down from the summit and Elisha’s tomb, at the top of the highest mountain on the highest range, is the highest mountain spring in the East.

Slowly trickling fresh water at a constant 37 degree temperature.

My First Training Run

I buy a new pair of running shorts from Target before my first scheduled marathon training run. It’s not only my first pair of real running shorts (built in underwear and all!), but also my first training plan since high school cross country 6 years prior.

The shorts are basic — plain grey and cheap — and the run only 3 miles.

I finish the route feeling satisfied and throw the shorts in my hamper. Tomorrow I’ll remember they’re my only pair, and put them back on for another jog around the block.

This is the beginning of my journey as a runner.

It’s not my first run, I played tag and chased a soccer ball like every other kid, but this is the beginning. The beginning of something I’m proud to start. Something I’m willing to fight for.

It doesn’t begin with a bang or big announcement. But rather at Target buying a pair of shorts.

The Formation of a Spring

A spring forms when groundwater swells and breaks through the Earth’s surface.

On top of Mount Mitchell, water works its way through cracks in the bedrock until surfacing near the summit. The water that emerges becomes the headwaters to the aptly named Rock Creek. During the summer, it’s little more than a trickle.

But it’s still the headwaters.

Rock Creek works its way down the east side of Mitchell, and joins other springs to grow in size until ultimately flowing into the South Toe River.

Making Progress as a Runner

Fast-forward two years and I’ve run two marathons and am training in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park for my first trail 50k.

Things are different now:

  • I no longer cringe at the thought of a 15 mile run,
  • I know how to survive an emergency poo in the woods, and
  • I subscribe to Runner’s World.

But still, even as a proud owner of 3-4 pairs of running shorts, I rely heavily on the worn out grey shorts from Target.

For the first time in my life I start caring about my health. I go vegetarian, start this blog, awkwardly chat about pace with more experienced runners, and through the ups and downs of training, learn that I’m a lot tougher than I once thought.

That first marathon was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but it fired me up to keep pushing.

Picking Up Momentum

The South Toe River flows into the North Toe River, and the North Toe into the Nolichucky.

The Nolichucky is a large river, with class 4 rapids that send water (and rafters) aggressively over rocks with great force. Eventually, it joins the French Broad, Tennessee, and Ohio Rivers.

Finally the Ohio flows into the great Mississippi River, where it makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico.

A journey of more than 600 miles (as the crow flies), through 9 bodies of water.

The Spring and My Journey as a Runner

Yeah, that’s right, we’re going to metaphor the crap out of this story.

My journey as a runner has been much like that of the spring. It started as nothing more than a trickle, but over time, the momentum has grown.

A simple trip to Target was the first step towards running over 100 miles in under 24 hours, helping others run their first ultramarathons, and shifting the course of not just my career, but my life.

On that first training run, I had no idea what I was capable of, or who and what running would introduce me to.

And as I sit at that spring, drinking fresh mountain water from the headwaters of North Carolina’s Rock Creek, I couldn’t help but feel the power of where this running journey has taken me. From timidly trying out trail running on the city trails of Rock Creek Park and starting a little blog about it, to exploring the mountain trails alongside Rock Creek on the grand Mount Mitchell, and having that blog turn into something much bigger.

That’s the beauty. What starts as just a trickle can turn into an ocean.

You Must Start With a Mountain Spring

This story isn’t unique to me. It’s happening with runners of all levels, from all walks of life, and taking shape in a variety of different ways.

And if it hasn’t already, it can happen to you too.

Step 1: Start small

You may have a big running goal in mind already, that’s great. But don’t get so caught up in the big goal that you forget to take that first step. It might just be a trip to Target or a 3 mile run around the block. It may be even smaller than that.

To reach the massive goal you must first lay down the foundation through small actions.

Step 2: Flow towards something bigger

Just like Rock Creek flowing towards the South Toe River, you too should keep pushing towards something bigger. It’s a gradual process, but never settle with where you are.

Take the next steps forward, expanding your limits and reach out of your comfort zone.

Step 3: Ride out the waves

No matter where your journey takes you, or what the end goal may be, there’s guaranteed to be rocks standing in the way of your river. Throw on a (metaphorical) helmet and ride them out.

Ups and downs are part of doing anything worthwhile, and running is certainly no exception. Running exposes us to all kinds of potential rapids:

  • Injuries
  • Disappointing races
  • Mental setbacks
  • An absurd amount of shoes

Whatever the obstacle may be, accept it, and continue moving forward.

Step 4: Never fully reach your destination

For the spring, the Gulf of Mexico was the final body of water. But even there, it never stops moving. It continues to flow with each passing tide.

Don’t let your first big goal be your final destination. Don’t be the person who completes their first half marathon and never runs again.

Continue to move. Continue to search for the next great thing.

Ready to Take a Trip to Target?

It’s easy to think something small, like a pair of running shorts, means nothing. I’m sure people think that of the Mount Mitchell spring all the time.

But you and I both know that’s not true. Or at least I hope you do.

It’s time for you to take your trip to Target. It’s time for you to become the mountain spring that turns into an ocean.

You might not know now where it’s going to take you, or how big an affect it will have, but you’ll never find out until you break through that bedrock and get started.

Are you ready to let that spring flow?

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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9 thoughts on “The Runner and the Mountain Spring

  1. Doug, this is a really well written post. I think what hit home with me the most was the impact/influence of the “little things” and how profound they can be. The decision to get up early, the decision to get off the sofa, the decision to push a bit harder / or go a bit easier, the decision to run your first 5k, 1/2 or Full Marathon or Ultra. Small, but very conscious and impactful decisions, that can have a multiplying effect.

    I’m glad you were able to bring your story full circle, appreciate what you offer and look forward to the great stuff you’ll create in the future.

  2. well said, Doug.
    success is not “instantly achieved” but rather the result of small daily determinations to improve…that lead to staggering long term results. For myself, I thank God almost every day for my “awakening” to my own bad habits and the desire to change them for the 2nd half of my life! (still working toward my first anything over 15k)

    1. Thanks for reading, John, and keep working. If you want it, those longer races will come. Congrats on the 15k! That’s something to be very proud of.

  3. Beautifully written Doug.
    Each week I really look forward to a new post and podcast, they have become an important part of my journey to Cambodia and my first full marathon in 3 weeks time. Keep up the great work.

  4. I really like this blog, Doug. I’ve been a runner for nearly 20 years, but now I’m “riding out a wave” having had knee surgery 2 weeks ago. Hopefully in a few (ok 4-6) weeks I’ll be starting all over again. Thanks for the continued inspiration.

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