Feeling the Burn

Feeling the Burn : Three friends take on the arduous challenge of running the highest mountain range in the East in a single day
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Our ambitious journey had all the signs of a fool’s errand—and it hadn’t even begun. The three of us cowered in a two-man tent while buckets of rainwater made easy work of penetrating the old nylon. Jonathan StClair, the long and lanky member of our team, was a knot of bent legs and Therm-A-Rest padding. He was the first to notice the growing bubble under the tent floor. Jason Taft, our new recruit, clutched his own wet tent, which he failed to pitch before the deluge hit us.

Nervous laughter and the flicker of headlamps bounced around our sodden dome while I, the mastermind of this adventure, quietly wondered if our friends and families—who thought we were crazy—just might be right. In a few hours, we would be lacing up soggy shoes to run atop the spine of an entire mountain range—the highest east of the Mississippi, no less. The map told us it would be almost 40 miles long with too many elevation changes to count. Never mind the fact that two of us had never run marathon distances.

Situated just east of Asheville, the Black Mountains have a small footprint but pack a mighty punch. If Mt. Mitchell is the crowning jewel of the range at 6,684 feet, then the 11.5-mile Black Mountain Crest Trail is the strand of pearls. Five of the top 10 highest peaks in the East adorn this lofty ridge. A quick web search reveals the trail’s superlatives—most describe pain and difficulty, but I honed in on the comments about the great views. I also began to wonder, why stop with a trail that takes you just halfway across this great mountain range? Why not link up the whole range in one giant loop?

I christened this grand traverse “The BlackBurn,” started pitching it to my friends, and quickly found two willing recruits. Jonathan is a pastor in California who had found a nearby mountain cabin to call home during a summer sabbatical. Jason, who works for an international relief organization, had moved from Colorado to North Carolina and was looking to rev up his outdoor life. With only five weeks to go from 10K runner to ultra runner, Jason brought the most chutzpah to our group. What he lacked in training, he made up for with pent-up desire.

Fortunately for us, the rain that night eventually slackened, and we drifted off to a few hours of damp sleep. At 3:45 a.m., we were up again and woofed down hearty breakfast burritos before hitting the trail.

The Black Mountain Crest Trail rises steeply from Bolens Creek in a 3,200-foot leap until it reaches the first 6,000-foot peak, Celo Knob, four miles into the journey. Thankfully, the trail proved to be more forgiving than we expected, and within a few miles, we found ourselves giddy. Subdued, pre-dawn light now gave hints that we were very high, as grand and distant peaks emerged from their fog banks.

We were now on the actual Black Mountain Crest, and mile eight brought us to Deep Gap. From there, a steep climb had us gasping for air until we crested Potato Hill, at 6,440 feet. The high summits now passed quickly: Cattail Peak, Balsam Cone, Big Tom, Mt. Craig. Some have plaques atop their summits with stories of the Appalachian explorers whose names they bear, and they all belong to the small club of eastern peaks topping 6,000 feet.

After nearly 11 miles of wilderness running, the sight of picnic tables was an abrupt announcement that tourist-friendly Mt. Mitchell was near, and our wilderness trail turned into crushed gravel. We had decided to use Mitchell’s concession stand as a hydration and resupply point, but it wouldn’t be open for another 45 minutes. The wait proved worth it, though, as Gatorade and energy bars were in plentiful supply. We gulped down electrolytes and took our obligatory photo on the summit proper.

Our arrival at Mitchell’s summit also signaled the end of the Black Mountain Crest Trail. What most hikers cover over the span of two days, we had completed by 9 a.m. Buoyed by the accomplishment, we raced down our next leg, a stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Much of the mountain section of the MST hugs the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor like a backcountry cousin. For hikers, it’s a superhighway of possibilities, with one direction leading to the Outer Banks and the other ending in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For our BlackBurn trio, the only destination that mattered was Balsam Gap and the start of our last trail, the Big Butt.

After a knee-knocking descent from 6,330-foot Blackstock Knob, we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. From here, the MST would continue on with the Parkway toward the Great Craggies and onward to Asheville. This intersection meant that we were over 20 miles into our journey. The six-mile-long Big Butt, a spectacular ridgeline trail, now beckoned. Where the Crest Trail provides an endless Stairmaster workout via countless boulder steps, Big Butt gives its ascent by way of wooden stairs—hundreds of them.

We took our last nutrition stop on the summit of Big Butt. Fearing leg cramps, we jogged in place while sucking down shots of energy. The initial descent into our final valley proved to be the low point of the day. Until now, every trail we had run was masterfully built, but without warning, our route deteriorated into an overgrown billy goat path lined with waist-high stinging nettles that were unavoidable. We screamed and hollered like little boys through a mile’s worth of thickets.

Swimming with jellyfish would have been more pleasant—but it occurred to me that we chose to run the BlackBurn precisely because we wanted to burn.

And then, after 10 hours on the run, there was no more trail. Our shuttle wouldn’t arrive to take us back to camp for a few hours. Looking at Jonathan and Jason, I motioned toward the road in front of us, and then we did the most natural thing possible: We started to run again. Newton was right. The body in motion tends to stay in motion. Five or six miles passed, but nobody was counting anymore. We were lost in laughter reliving moments from the day. Nothing felt foolish about our journey now.