At 7 a.m. on Saturday, February 24, hundreds of the country’s most dedicated marathon runners will descend upon Black Mountain for the 21st annual Black Mountain Marathon and Mt. Mitchell Challenge. The Challenge is a 40-mile race from the town of Black Mountain to the 6,684-foot summit of Mt. Mitchell and back to town. Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern US, almost 400 feet higher than New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. For the marathon section, runners start and end at the same location, turning around at Black Mountain Gap Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a total length of just over 26 miles. “We have had competitors from every state and a dozen different countries over the years,” says race director Jay Curwen. “This year is no exception. More than 25 states will be represented, with racers coming from as far as Washington state and California.”
The race was born in the late 1990s when Rusty Bradley, a Mt. Mitchell ranger, approached Wendell Begley, president of Black Mountain Savings Bank, with the concept. Begley then approached the team at Black Mountain Sports, where Curwen worked at the time. The first year’s race was point-to-point: racers were bused to the peak of Mt. Mitchell and ran back to the town of Black Mountain. The following year, the ambitious founders extended the race to its current 40-mile length, requiring runners to run from town to summit and return.
The Black Mountain Marathon and Mt. Mitchell Challenge has become a southern classic with a nationwide reputation. “We open the lottery registration on September 1 and usually get about 1,500 registering for 200 Challenge spots,” Curwen says. “Then, the firstcome, first-served Marathon registration opens up and fills in minutes. The allure of running to the highest point in the East is strong. And I like to think we give a good ROYP (Return On Your Pain). Finishers get fleece jackets, t-shirts, pint glasses, coffee mugs, hats, whatever swag we can come up with each year.” A portion of race proceeds will be donated to several nonprofit groups that support land conservancy, wilderness safety and mountain heritage, including the Black Mountain Fire/Rescue Team, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
Last year’s Challenge winner, Nathan Holland of Tennessee, completed the 40-mile route in just over four hours and 49 minutes. Marathon winner Mark Sharafinski of Virginia had a finishing time of three hours and 27 minutes. For those interested in watching the runners complete the Marathon and Challenge, the finish line will be located at Black Mountain’s Lake Tomahawk. “That is really the best place to see the runners,” Curwen says. “Most of the course is in the backcountry and inaccessible except by foot.”
For more information, visit blackmountainmarathon.com.