I had planned on joining the wnctrailrunner group for a Mount Mitchell Marathon last Saturday but the snow the week before led to potentially dangerous road conditions driving into the Toe River Valley so the decision was made to do a marathon variation of the Rattle My Heart 50k route instead. The drive would be shorter and safer and while the run would be on lower mountains and involve some roads the snow promised we were in for a fun day.
I made it to the Kitsuma trail head first and sat in my truck as a cold ferocious wind whipped all around and entertained thoughts of what I would do if nobody else showed up. Attempt the route alone, or maybe just do Kistuma out and back? Those thoughts didn't last long as Matt K. pulled up right on time. He had the Pisgah Nation flag and I felt honored to finally be heading out on my first real run with the Nation.
A few minutes later David 4trunks pulled in ready to run and the three of us headed down the road into Ridgecrest to begin the journey. After all the running I've been doing this winter I should have had my gear dialed in but floundered it at the last minute. My run in Montreat with Joe earlier in the week had been snowy, wet, cold and had me changing to mountaineering gloves midrun to try and get life back into my mangled hands. So, when it was cold at the start of this undertaking I way overdressed, over packed and feeling like a rookie. But we had a long way to go in a lot of snow and I knew there was a chance things could get interesting and I would be glad to have a pack full of extra stuff.
I encouraged the others to go ahead and drop me but Matt assured me he was in no hurry so we headed up the trails into Ridgecrest together. Our route immediately had us on some trails I had never been on before, which is always nice, and the snow was actually really good for running. Perfect traction, perfect weather, perfect company.
Photo by Matt K.
We worked our way up and down through Ridgecrest and then up again to Rattlesnake before popping out onto the Old Toll Rd.
Photo by Matt K.
Out on the Old Toll Rd. we fell into a comfortable pace in the snow and chatted as we slowly but steadily gained elevation. Shortly after passing by the spring I stopped to dig some food out of my pack and David and Matt pulled ahead a little while I played mind games with myself. This was going to be my longest 'run' to date and as the snow continued to increase I started to question whether I should do the out and back to the top of Pinnacle or not. I knew exactly what it would entail if I did: deep snow drifts, strong winds and lots of fun, but it would also add significant precious time and I felt like I was already moving slow enough. With that in mind and not wanting to hold up Matt and David for whom this was just a Saturday afternoon jog I decided to skip Pinnacle and head on down Heartbreak Ridge instead. I figured the others would catch up to me well before I hit Star Gap.
Immediately after making the turn at the trailers what had been six inches of snow with mid-calf drifts turned into twelve inches of snow with drifts pushing waist deep. Earlier I had been simply following in the others' footsteps but now I was breaking trail and moving slowly. After the turn onto the ridge the deep drifts let up and I was back to more reasonable knee deep post holing.
I took it nice and slow on the way down Heartbreak as I was waiting for Matt and David to catch up to me. If I stopped to wait I would get too cold so I just kept moving down the mountain assuming that at any moment they would appear behind me, but by the time I got to Star Gap they still weren't there and down the trail I went.
The lower section of Heartbreak Ridge was a different world. Instead of snow there was dirt and I was actually running. When I hit the railroad tracks there was still no sign of anyone behind me and I resolved to stop and wait once I got out to the road. After crossing the tracks I somehow made a series of wrong turns that took me in a circle around the group camp. I've been on the trail many times and still don't fully understand just how I missed the trail. It wasn't a big detour and didn't take me too long out of my way but it did mean that I had left the route and there was a chance Matt and David had passed by in those minutes. That meant it would be foolish to wait and I had no choice but to keep running on.
I wanted to take Mill Creek Rd. back instead of going up Kitsuma to finish but Yuri had scoffed at the idea when I proposed it on the phone the night before as I attempted to convince him to join me. Of course he hadn't come and that meant his scoffing was meaningless but it was still enough motivation for me to take the left towards Kitsuma instead of the right back on the road.
Normally I loath running on roads but this time running on a flat, dry surface didn't seem too bad. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone would appear but knew there was a chance they were headed up Mill Creek Rd. instead.
I made the turn onto Kitsuma and the end was so close I was bound to grasp it. I'd never run Kitsuma before and had never even gone up it but know that the fast guys do it out and back in just over and hour. I thought it would take me at least that to go up it and I was right. It started nice and dry but soon the snow and slush (first of the day) started and then it just became all snow again. My mind was playing games with me and the trail decided to join in on the fun. What should have been a simply climb and descent turned into a long climb followed by a seemingly endless series of false summits. I would top a knob, drop a few switchbacks and assume it was the start of the final descent only to discover yet another knob in front of me to climb. This went on for a ridiculously long time and had me questioning if I was even still on the right trail. Of course I was and I crested the final knob just as the sun was starting to set over Ridgecrest.
I ran down the final series of switchbacks and was back at the parking lot eight hours after we had started. I was relieved to see that only my truck remained and the others hadn't stuck around to wait on me to slog out the finish to my first marathon run.
Rattle my heart indeed!