March 29, 2021
Chris was the first to pass me, halfway up the Black Rock trail. Kirk and Paul followed. Bruce and Kevin were farther ahead, but they started earlier. Bruce and Kevin and I were in the first wave, jumping off in darkness to march up that first ascent, the first of many, many ascents on the “Assault on Black Rock” course.
It was Paul’s idea to converge on Sylva, in western North Carolina last weekend, the point being more the reunion of the old THuG running group than the Black Rock mountain climb event. He splits his time between Asheville and Wilmington, near Kirk’s new home. Kevin came up from Florida, Bruce from South Carolina’s Low Country, and I made the leisurely drive up from Greenville. We all registered, along with 125 others. Paul forwarded the course map. I studied it. Looks hard, I thought.
I got to Waynesville, 30 miles west of Asheville on Friday, the day before the run, driving through chilly drizzle with the clouds low over the Smokies. I found the hotel then, with the afternoon free, drove the 15 miles to the start just outside Sylva. I walked a quarter-mile up the trail. This will be very hard, I thought.
That night we got together for dinner and a chance to catch up. All of us but Chris had moved away from northern Virginia, first Paul, then Bruce, Kevin, me, then Kirk. Chris talked about seeing bears on Virginia trials, Paul had his colorful anecdotes. I’ve seen lots of bears, the last now three years ago. I’ve been away from the mountains that long.
In the 6:00 AM darkness at the hotel, the mountain chill penetrated; in the low 30s, I guessed. I pulled on my thermal jacket, but it stretched the straps of my hydration pack. For a seven-mile course most runners would carry a single water bottle, but the docs tell me to drink three liters every day. I needed the pack. I shucked the jacket.
As I gained elevation the cold closed in. My fingers felt numb through my gloves. I remembered my practice of wearing mittens in cold weather so you can pull you fingers together to warm them. No mittens today.
Chris hoofed it past me then turned up another switchback and started running. He’s our greyhound, always has been. He won’t be out here very long, I thought. My philosophy for trails is the old guy’s philosophy: if you can’t see the top, hike. Even the hiking was tough, up, up, tapdancing around the rocks. Other runners passed me, Kirk and Paul scrambled by. “Keep moving,” Paul yelled. No other choice.
The Black Rock trail elevates nearly 3,000 feet in 3.5 miles, the last quarter-mile about a 70-degree slope—almost vertical. Many runners staggered to the summit, took a deep breath and a photo, then hightailed it down in a joyful descent to the start, the fastest guys and gals got a belt buckle, maybe some adult refreshment.
On the steeper switchbacks I paused and drank. Close to the top the trail leveled off for a half-mile. After another turn two Rescue Squad volunteers, in yellow vests, stood near their ATV, apparently waiting for Black Rock victims. One of the team, I learned shortly later, was Josh. I stared at what looked like a gash in the mountain. “Is that the trail?” I asked. “That’s it,” he said, not smiling.
I grabbed a root, then another, and pulled myself up. Runners descended from above, some leaping in a flying descent. Kirk and Paul slid past on their way down. “Lookin’ good,” Kirk yelled. “Keep it up,” Paul breathed. A few minutes later Bruce and Kevin shimmied down. “Take plenty of breaks,” Kevin warned.
I moved forward, foot by foot, pulling at roots and branches, planting each footfall, the cold taking over. I stopped and breathed, once, twice, pushed on, stopped, stepped forward. Then I could see the last turn up to the summit. A runner swung down. “You’re shivering. I wouldn’t try it,” he said. He was right, my legs were numb. He and a woman runner helped me down, the Rescue Squad guys put me in their ATV. Josh talked about his experiences in the mountains as we careened down the trail I had just climbed. At the race finish two EMTs led me to their ambulance and checked my vitals. By then I was OK. They let me go.
I was right about Chris. He brought home a buckle for finishing close to the top of the field.
So that was that. We drove into Sylva for lunch then headed for Asheville, a cute town made famous by breweries and, in recent years, “green” political activism. It had not warmed up. We checked into hotels, got naps, then reconvened for beers and dinner, quads stiffening. The walking helped, but our backs and legs would feel Black Rock in the morning.
We looked back, the way middle-aged and older-than-middle-age guys will do, to reprise life at that rich, happy moment. We got up to date on family, work, new communities, plans for down the road. We talked about the longtime friends who, like us, had scattered for careers, retirement, other things. As always, we invented schemes for the next reunion: back to Virginia for some running event—or maybe somewhere warm. Kevin, our Florida rep, is on board for a beach junket.
We joked a bit about the run, it never was the main event, and the weekend got better as we detached from Black Rock. We showed up, after all, got some fresh air and a mountain adventure, the fitness experience that reminded us of the things we did when we started doing this ten or more years ago. We were younger and stronger and life was simpler, and health problems were only a bad dream. We all get tired more easily now. We all know it. But there we were, together.