Race always the First Saturday in November in Asheville, NC
Let me just say right up front that I love the Shut-In Trail race so much more than it loves me. It’s almost not fair. This race is truly a committed relationship for me. The race starts in late July when I start stalking my email and the race website to see when registration opens. They send out a few teaser notifications that registration will be opening “shortly.” Every time you get one of the emails you feel like you just saw the boy you liked in high school pass in the halls.
During this time runners are preparing for the challenge this course poses. This historic race course follows the same ridgeline trail that George Vanderbilt blazed over 100 years ago to connect his house, The Biltmore Estate, to his hunting lodge located at the top of Mt. Pisgah 18 miles away. Located in the Nantahala National Forest this has to be the most beautiful and scenic course I’ve ever run. It rivals anything out west. The race starts at the North Carolina Arboretum right off the Blue Ridge Park way in Asheville. The race starts at 10am and runs a few miles through the Arboretum and the Bent Creek Trails to reach the Shut-In Trail. You will climb over 5,000 ft during the 18 miles. Enjoy those first miles as they are the easiest! Once you hit the Shut-In Trail the true fun begins. The Shut-In trail is mostly single track. They built the Blue Ridge Parkway in this area to follow along the trail to the summit of Mt. Pisgah. The trail then comes off the ridge line every 4 or 5 miles to meet the Blue Ridge at the scenic overlooks. They place the aid stations in these overlook parking lots. Of course descending off the ridgeline to the aid station means that you get to climb back up to the ridge line to continue on with the trail. The trail sections between overlooks are amazing. The trail is extremely narrow in places. And many parts of the trail have Mountain Laurel (Rhododendron) growing along both sides of the trail. It gets very tall and makes a tunnel of Laurel. Often you will reach the summit of a hill and you get a view of the rolling Smoky Mountains. For that moment you forget how much your quads and calves are killing you from the climbing.
Once you get to Mile 16 you are already quite fatigued. The final two miles are straight up. It’s all switch backs and vertical climb. Of course no mountain would be complete without a few false summits. You get to a little plateau and a little decline and you think the agony is over. And then the trail turns back up for one last hurrah! Once the descent really begins it is a quick steep jaunt to the finish line. You finish at 5,721 feet!
After mailing in my registration I spent the next 8 weeks remembering these details of the course. I wondered if I would be seeing the trail again this year. Then in early October it arrived. My Draft Notice arrived written on pink paper (no joke). The 200 spots filled in 12 days and they had 50 people on the waiting list. I felt like I had been asked to prom.
Vinnie and I had already schedule vacation for that weekend to spend in Asheville. We headed down a few days before the race. Asheville is our favorite place to spend time. The food, art, and music scenes are amazing. We spent Friday getting ready for the race. We received a few notices that the Blue Ridge Parkway was going to be closed to traffic between miles 6 and 16 of the race. They were doing rockslide repairs. Since this race is a point to point this changed what I needed to carry with me. This is bare bones race at the aid stations. They have water at all the stops. There was Gatorade at a couple stations. And one station had a big bag of Pretzels. After grazing on the buffets laid out at our NEO ultras this felt old school. So Vinnie and I spent Friday driving the course and detour so he would know exactly where to go.
Race morning was fun. I ran this race in 2007 and the weather was sunny and in the 60s. No such luck this year. Forecast had been calling for AM snow showers and freezing temps. When we got to the race the officials weren’t sure if the last two miles of the Blue Ridge were going to be open to Mt. Pisgah’s summit. There was ice on the road and the park service doesn’t salt. They just close the road.
They started the race at 10:00 still not knowing for certain if we would be running the last two miles. From experience I knew to take it easy the first 3 miles. They are easy miles and it’s so easy to get sucked into speeding out. But I kept reminding myself this race doesn’t start until mile 16. I felt pretty good through mile 6. This would be the last spot that I’d see my crew. Vinnie had been joined by my Aunt Sue and Uncle Alex. I’d see them in 10 miles. I have to say that the next five miles I was just enjoying the scenery and laughing inside about the snow that was falling. I drove 8 hours south of Cleveland to race my first snowy race of the season. Not what I was expecting. The weather was definitely a challenge. You would run on one side of a hill in the sun and be hot. Then the trail would turn and you’d be on the backside in the shade and wind and be freezing. It never really warmed up at all. And as you climbed higher it became more windy. Around mile 14 I wish I had my lip balm. But the snow covering the mountain laurel was just beautiful you soon forgot the cold and the ache of the legs.
I arrived at Mile 16 definitely moving slower but feeling ok. My family was there cheering on all the runners. I did a quick gear change adding a layer on top and retrieving my gloves. We were getting close to 4,800 ft and it was much colder. The snow had begun to fall again too. I pushed on to finish the last two miles. These two miles are brutal. Switch backs and vertical climbing the entire way. My hip flexors and calves were screaming. The climb this year though felt a bit easier than when I did it in 2007. My ultra training must be helping. I reached the summit and it felt good! I savored the quick downhill to the finish. Despite the weather I ran it over ½ hour faster than last time. The runners down here are amazingly fast climbers. So I’m always in the bottom of the finishers. After finishing I collected my Finishers shirt. The shirts are always a long sleeve cotton shirt. But they have a local artist design the front. And it’s always a cool depiction of trails and mountains.
I said running this race is a committed relationship. As in any relationship during those 18 miles your strength and perseverance are tested to the brink. During every climb to a summit you question your ability and your dedication. But then you get to the summit and you feel the love all over again. And when you finish you know come mid-July you’ll be waiting for registration to open so you can experience it all over again.