March 28, 2022
It was time to go back to Black Rock. Late March can be bonechilling cold in western North Carolina. Mountains are pretty much all you find out there. The old Virginia running group, Paul, Chris, Kevin, Kirk, Archie, and I heard conflicting forecasts in the days before the run. I hoped for better conditions than last year, when I failed just below the 5,800-foot summit, my arms and legs stiffening and shivering.
That day in mid-March a fast young man named Mike gave up his place in the field to help me stumble back down from the spot where I stopped moving to meet a volunteer, who packed me in an ATV and drove me to the finish. Mike had returned for his fourth go-round here.
Black Rock, between Waynesville and Sylva, is one high point in the jagged western end of the state, and not the highest. Mount Mitchell, just north of Asheville, is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, at 6,684 feet. The Blue Ridge then stretches west to the Plott Balsam range near Sylva and counts four 6,000-foot-plus peaks, Waterrock Knob at 6,292, then Lyn Lowry, Browning Knob, and Yellow Face. The Great Smokies loom over Plott Balsam to the north and west. Just south are the Great Balsams, with nine peaks above 6,000 feet.
The Black Rock course starts at around 3,000 feet and builds in 2,700 feet of elevation gain over a winding three and one-half-mile ever-climbing rock-strewn double-track trail. Nearly 100 runners gathered near a warming fire at the start. I looked up at the trail as it fades into thick forest, recalling hours on the Foothills, Table Rock, and Paris Mountain trails. I wondered if all that pain would make any difference.
The race director sounded a horn and we bolted through the gate. Some of us bolted. Not my style anymore. The field quickly stretched out, the young greyhounds and some not so young sprinting up the first climb. The middle of the pack pushed forward, mostly leaving me as I leaned into the trail, getting my breathing sorted out.
I maneuvered along the edges of the trail, left-right then right-left, avoiding the rocky center, watching my steps then looking forward, measuring the trail as it curled higher, then higher. The pack was now out of sight around the first bend and probably the second. The trail snaked around and up one steep ridge, then another, then another. Two runners labored along a hundred or so yards ahead. I closed on them, they moved ahead, I drew closer, they moved on again.
I gripped the straps of my hydration pack and leaned into long strides then short ones, then long ones. I felt stronger, warmed to the pace. I knew the trail well from my “did not finish” (DNF) last year. I got through it a month later with Mike, who returned to haul me to the top (posts May 17 and March 29, 2021).
I sipped water, recalling the doc’s warning about hydration and kidney stress, a bit more critical since my high creatine reading two weeks ago. Creatine, the enzyme that powers muscle tissue, collects in the kidneys to be flushed from the body. Not enough water risks kidney injury. I recall, always, an unlucky run of February 25, 2018, my birthday, when I ran short of water during a trail event then ended up in the hospital for three days. I recovered to run a couple of ultras, but disease showed up that summer. Fourteen months later I lost the kidney.
So I guzzled, pushing forward. The folks in front of me slowed and I hoofed past them at the two-mile point. To the south the peaks of the Great Balsam stretched into the haze of the Blue Ridge that stretches for 100 miles. The surrounding vistas lift the runners’ spirits to the indefinable, exhilarating sense of living, simply being, surrounded by God’s sharp, rough beauty.
Around two-point-five miles the trail levels out, as if the mountain is tired of climbing. Mike flashed by on his return, we bumped fists. Chris was well ahead. Paul then steamed by. “Staying upright,” he yelled and disappeared down the trail. I passed the intersection with the descent, a volunteer smiled and offered water, as the fast people already down from the summit raced past and turned onto the descending trail to the finish. “One mile to the top,” the volunteer yelled.
I picked up my pace. Minutes later I saw the turn onto the final one-third-mile, a tight 30-degree grade single-track to the base of the summit. I stepped up, balancing by grabbing rocks and branches. Kirk, Kevin, and Archie were maneuvering down, done with Black Rock.
As I slogged in “granny gear,” the folks whom I had passed ten minutes ago lumbered past me. I stayed with them then paused, caught my breath, and drank. The trail, heavy with mud, twisted left then right, obscured above by gnarled underbrush. I measured my progress in yards, then feet across the thick roots and over the boulders. One more rock climb, then another, and I was in the clearing below the summit, where I turned back last year. I lurched forward.
The forest thinned a bit and the trail wound sharply down into shadows around house-sized rock formations. The wind howled and rushed through my two thermal shirts. Last year the hypothermic chill paralyzed me. Now I moved up, then down, around the massive boulders.
Sunlight broke through suddenly and I was at the summit. I crawled up onto the surface and took a deep breath and looked out at the pale horizon, the mystical, intoxicating spectacle of endless mountaintops. The Smokies stretched to the west, the Great Balsams to the south. I gripped the rock for a quiet moment, then turned and slipped back to the trail and headed to the finish.