Last year, while I was squashed in a car for hours on end with five other smelly people having crazy fun running the 208 mile Blue Ridge Relay, my friend Ashley was joining some Western North Carolina trail runners for a time trial on the Kitsuma/Youngs Ridge trail near Black Mountain, NC. I believe that day she and Gail Leedy were the first ladies to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Adam Hill and Matt Kirk and have their times recorded on the group wiki wall. Ashley’s recount of her run with the big boys was enthralling and I knew we just had to go back and run it together. We made plans to try to give the ladies even more backbone on the challenge board. A plan was hatched to gather a group to take on the roller coaster-esque trail and attempt to join the ranks of the Kitsuma Kids with an elusive time of sub 1:30.
“Start your watches with both feet on the parking lot pavement of the trailhead on the Ridgecrest side, then hit the dirt…take a split at the water faucet that is on your left when just entering the Old Fort Picnic Area, then turn around for the return! Stop your watches for a finish time when feet hit the parking lot pavement again!” – Adam Hill wnctrailrunner
Doesn’t sound like too hard a feat to accomplish over eight miles, but apparently the pretty wooden trail sign tells porkies. The actual mileage is said to be more like ten grueling miles of single track bike trail, with 2,613 ft of elevation gain and loss to tackle and curse over along the way.
We settled on Valentine’s Day weekend as perfect timing for our trip North. Hopefully February would bestow comfortable running weather and the trials of winter snow in the mountains would be behind us. As the idea of an all girls assault on Kitsuma was the catalyst for our run I told fellow trail compadre and usual conspirator, Sideshow Jesus, that he would be welcome to join us, caveat being he could only run if he wore a skirt.
By the time February rolled around though our long awaited run was almost scuppered. Ashley was out injured, as was Phyllis who had also been game for the challenge. I was also still reeling with the sudden news that my husband had a new job in Seattle and I was supposed to be moving to the Pacific NorthWest the following week. Would I possibly have the time to go when I ought to be packing?
Jesus still wanted to run, in his specially acquired skirt. While we had later opened the run up to all Charlotte runners, male and female, I failed to update our fine friend. Shame. There was no way I could miss this run. Ashley and Phyllis were in for the ride. Then the night before I learned that we would also be joined by wnctrailrunner Adam Hill himself, and that Mohammed “Sultan” Idibli would be tossing his hat into the ring too. I was super excited.
Saturday morning saw Ashley and I driving up into the mountains together. As always I could not fail to be inspired as the Appalachians rose into view ahead of us.
The towering figure of Jesus was already there and looking quite stunning in a lovely cosmic pink running skirt paired horribly with his florescent yellow 2009 Umstead Trail Marathon tech tee. It was a sight to behold.
Parked up next to him was Joshua James (and a large box of doughnuts). A surprise phone call announced that another friend, Christine, would be coming to enjoy a hike and join us for lunch afterwards. Word had got out that I would be moving across the country and the gathering became a farewell run in the mountains.
After an obligatory photo shoot moment it was time to get going. MadA led the way and was soon out of sight. Sultan, Jesus and I hit the trail together, with Josh bringing up the rear. I was especially curious to see what Josh was going to make of this pain train as although his running credentials are strong, and he’s always one to try and best at the P-Stone run, I was pretty sure the trail and elevation to come was going to be a bit of a shock.
The first steps on the trail also took me to unfamiliar territory. The ground beneath my feet was solid and frozen. A scattering of snow and frost accented the crisp brown of fallen leaves. Adjusting to the feel of running on this added an extra challenge.
As ever, Jesus and I had a little friendly competition going. The run was a personal time trial with the added pressure of an ongoing war between the man in the skirt and I. With this in mind while we hiked the steeper ascents and ran as much of the hill as we could, I tried to start to put as much distance between us as I could. I was leading as we hit the long downhill to the turn around and didn’t look back to see which of the guys was so close on my tail. Skittering down the trail was exhilarating and so much fun, despite needing utmost concentration to avoid falling off the side of the mountain.
I would start to pull away hiking up the steep climbs and make good headway racing down, but the footsteps behind me were relentless, like demons on the downhill, and always a breath away. I finally started to increase my lead and create some space as we neared the turn around, eventually daring to check behind me to see an empty trail when I sensed an absence of steps echoing mine.
Adam got a yell and we exchanged high fives and encouragement as he came charging back up the trail on his homeward journey. He must have been a good couple of miles in front by that point.
I finally made it to the bottom and hit the campground water faucet that marks the split point at 42:11. Not a lot of room to play with on the hard toil back, but hopes of sub 1:30 were alive.
It was cold. About -4c but I still should have known better than to wear my capris. Shivering in the car park got the better of me and I elected to keep them on. Bad move. I was pretty much pulling and yanking at them the entire run to the turn around. Aggravating to say the least. As soon as I reached the campground I had had enough and quickly started to strip. I was tugging them off in full view as the next runner came hauling down the trail.
It wasn’t Jesus.
Sultan didn’t linger long and was probably scared back off up the trail. I was still sorting myself out as Jesus came blasting into the lot. (Oh spit!) Relief spread as he decided to use the bathroom. I was tempted to find a branch and wedge the door shut, but instead I knotted my capris around my neck and made haste. Too much valuable time lost.
Encouragingly it didn’t take too long to catch back up to Sultan. We exchanged pleasantries for a while as we power hiked back up, until he gently reminded me of time passing and challenged me to make it home in 1:35. Oh cripes! Yes, my goal was slipping. Legs screaming I forced them back up a gear and charged onwards, leaving Sultan behind me.
The return was a hard slog with few gentler stretches for recovery. I still held back some and did a fair bit of power walking when I ought to, and could have, run though. This was out of fear of the unknown course and not knowing how much gas to reserve in the tank to ensure getting back to the start without bonking.
To make matters worse the ascent back up was made even more difficult by the pale winter sun’s rays gently warming the ground. I was surprised by how much the trail changed in so little time. As I climbed my feet were starting to slip and slop around in thawing mud laying thickly on still frozen earth below. One patch of hill took several attempts to traverse as I slid around trying to gain traction.
Back at the apex of the run the view would have been pretty nice if I’d stopped to take it in. Instead I hammered on down knowing time was ticking and the trailhead was near.
Rounding the corner to the final stretch a little cheer party consisting of Ashley, Phyllis and MadA was waiting. Brilliant! I tried my best to hurtle on down and Adam jumped back onto the trail to join me in my race to the finish. Tired but spurred on with the finish in reach I pulled out a kick and took the last half mile at what felt like exhilarating break neck speed with my Garmin registering an incredible sustained sub 5:30 pace for the final 400 metres.
1:39:56 was the time on my Garmin as I hit the trailhead sign.
I was disappointed to not attain Kitsuma Kid status, but felt very much accomplished regardless. I stood there at the end feeling confident that if I could run that course again I would absolutely be able to shave those minutes from my time. Accounting for the wardrobe change, actual moving time was 1:35:42, and I definitely dilly dallied in places where prior knowledge of the course would have had me push through. I was sad that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try again, but elated that my last mountain run in NC would leave me on such a high.
Sultan rolled in a little after me with a 1:43:26, and Jesus took a 1:54:11. Of course, both fellas have come up with excuses for their performances (Sultan with perhaps validity in recovery mode from his HURT100 attempt), and Jesus even blames me by saying I held him back and caused his blisters.
And when he made it home, what was Josh’s verdict?
“Kitsuma Klimb with Kay (KKwK)
1. Suspect you are in good shape and a strong trail runner.
2. Attempt Kitsuma Klimb
Adam Hill- 33:47 | 44:04 1:17:51
Kay “Tasty Pie” Allen – 42:11 | 57:45 1:39:56
Sultan – 42:30 | 1:01:04 1:43:26
Michael Vance – 43:02 | 1:11:09 1:54:11
Joshua James – 1:00:12 | 58:45 1:58:57
Afterwards Ashley, Jesus, Josh and I met up with Christine and headed to a local Mexican restaurant for much needed nourishment and a sit down.
The morning could not have been better. Many thanks to everyone who joined me for the fun on the trails, and Jesus for looking so pretty in defeat.