Event: The Bear 5-Mile Run
Where & When:7 p.m. Thursday, July 10, Linville NC
Results: 57:05 (watch)/57:14 (official), 445 of 819 finishers
Last spring, my boyfriend Lloyd invited me to spend time at a friend’s family cabin in Western NC during the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, which mixes feats of mountain endurance athleticism along with traditional Scottish games. Living a cultural and topographic world away on the other side of the state, I excitedly accepted. He mentioned a five-mile race called The Bear. “You’re doing it,” he said. A 5-miler? No sweat. Cool. In the middle of training for the Boston Marathon, I gave a measly five miles little thought.
A few months later, I had time to realize and think about the exact location of those five little miles:
Grandfather Mountain, Elevation 5,964 feet
By now Boston and its rigorous Newton Hills were behind me, and this life-long flatlander started to realize what I was up against. Five miles straight of Heartbreak Hill, but steeper and at higher elevation. Normally I look forward to races. After all, I voluntarily sign up, pay money, and train to do them. But now I began to profoundly, earnestly, dread The Bear. I had no doubt that I could complete the run, but also harbored no delusions about the pain and suffering involved in reaching the finish.
We arrived in beautiful Boone the day before the race. Friends offered to drive us to Grandfather Mountain. “No thanks, I’d rather not see it,” I said. When I did catch a glimpse of its peak, which resembles the profile of a bearded old man, it seemed unfathomable that any human could actually run up it. Yet the race’s winners do in 30 minutes and change.
As Thursday dawned, I grew more apprehensive and nervous. “I’d rather do a 100 mile run than The Bear,” I moaned. “I feel like I’m headed off to the guillotine.”I jokingly warned Lloyd that I would be looking for him at the finish, with a few choice words. OK, occasionally my dramatic streak comes out.
We loaded up and headed to the Start, arriving with plenty of time to contemplate our sorry fates, er, warm up. Lloyd dashed off to do just that. Rather than loosen my legs, I jogged to a nearby convenience store with Lloyd’s equally nervous running buddy Denine. We proceeded to interrogate our restroom line-mates who were Bear veterans, getting a good preview and a little reassurance in the process.
The weather was cooperative, at least. It had rained all day, but precipitation ceased and the sun shone brightly upon the crowd of 800+ fools, er, runners poised at base camp. The starting gun fired. It missed me, so I had no choice but to amble forward.
My entire “race” plan was to minimize misery. Normally I do not race with a heart-rate monitor, but I wore one this evening so I could try to keep my heart rate below red line. My other cue to watch was breathing. I wanted to feel like I could breathe the whole time. Almost immediately after starting, my heart rate climbed into Tempo pace (8:00-8:15 min/miles) zone as my feet trudged at slower than recovery pace. The first mile was a controlled 11:20. It is actually difficult for me to run at this pace, but it allowed me to breathe and feel as relaxed as possible.
“Pant, pant, pant,” all the otherwise silent runners huffed and puffed their way up. There was no usual joking or chatter. At one point someone exclaimed, “How the hell would anyone actually prepare for this?!,” but otherwise we saved our precious breath.
Miles 2 and 3 nearly matched my first in pace, although my heart rate now equaled my mile repeat heart-rate zone (7:30-7:40 min/mile) of about 170 BPM. Since I was controlling my effort somewhat, I was able to appreciate the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain vistas that met our eyes when we exited a wooded dirt road in the second mile. We were definitely climbing a mountain! Every so often, road signs ordered “No Walking.” “I’ll try not to,” I said to myself.
Mid-way, the course all too briefly flattens out as runners pass through the decked-out Highland Games campsite and competition field. We were greeted by tartan-clad clapping spectators, Scottish family crest flags, and bagpipe music as we were pampered with half a lap on the track. I took advantage of the fleeting flatness and picked up my pace to actual 5-mile race pace for the 200 yards, passing about 10 runners. Maybe that wasn’t too sportsmanlike, but it was a welcome break from trudging.
Immediately after the track, a steep grassy hill continues the course. I walked for the first time, but back on the road continued slowly running even as the course grew steeper and more winding. Now I was bargaining with myself. Just run to the turn and then decide if you want to walk. OK, now run to the next turn, then you can walk if you want.
Like an evil, venomous serpent, the road uncoiled upward. When my run became an involuntary march, I turned on my speed walking muscles and walked for intervals. I found I was actually faster and could easily pass people while walking. I wasn’t running The Bear competitively, but made it a game to try to “catch” the person in front of me whenever I walked. To my surprise, it worked very well. Like everyone else around me, I alternated walking and running through the fourth mile (12:30).
“No Walking,” the sign said again. “‘F— you!” I thought now.
After several minutes of begging, I approached the Mile 4 sign. From here, the switchbacks grow tighter and course steepens even more to the summit. I looked at runners still zig-zagging high above and thought “that is just F—ing sick!”
At this point I spotted Lloyd standing on a rock mid-way up the switchbacks. He had finished the race and was now cheering runners on and taking photos. From below, I pointed at him and shook my fist, pretending to be furious. Really I was happy to see him, especially since he willingly re-traced the final ascent for a second time when he began running by my side.
We climbed together and I finally pushed beyond the red line as I ran harder and breathed harder, encouraged by the spectators now lining the course. It was an unforgettable sight to look up and see people yelling and clapping along the final steep incline to the summit. Funny how a clicking camera, crowd, and company work. My last mile to the finish was run in 9:49, the fastest by far.
Immediately after finishing, discomfort turned to relief. The dreaded Bear was done, with no higher ground to cover. I had survived and met my goal of avoiding self-induced misery. Clouds rolled back in, so there was a strange sensation of being in the sky. We lingered at the top, crossing an unstable feeling swinging bridge, comparing Bear tales, and exploring a bit before catching a shuttle back to base camp.
The mile-high swinging bridge on the mountain's peak is the closest I've been to skywalking.