The 31-mile Art Loeb Trail: A nice day’s run

It wasn’t so much the five hours of rain they endured, nor the nearly 3,000 foot of vertical climbing in three miles to start the day (there would be 17,000 total feet of up-and-down during their 11 hour and 10 minute ordeal). It wasn’t getting lost at Butler Gap, nor the “quad-shredding” descent down Pilot Mountain. Rather, it was the need for a good sugar fix after running 27 miles straight on the Art Loeb Trail, which runs 31 miles through the rugged Pisgah National Forest (including the Shining Rock Wilderness) in western North Carolina.

“I wasn’t weepy or mopey or sad,” recalls Charles West of his bonk near the end of the epic trail run he did September 11 with Mike Walsh and Mike Day. “I just didn’t feel well.” Unwell enough that he couldn’t figure out how to operate his CamelBak for a simple drink of water. Unwell enough that Day, the senior runner of the three, immediately identified West’s problem and prescribed the ultimate horror of any parent of a 3-year-old: Do as much sugar as you can in the next hour. Enough sugar to hopefully get him to the finish four miles down the ridgeline in the Davidson River Campground.

Invoking the philosophy of the founder and director of the Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run, West notes, “As Blake Norwood says, ultra running is a series of problems to solve.”

* * *

From left: Mike Day, Charles West, Mike Walsh.

At lunch with Mike Walsh this summer we were talking about a backpacking book I was wrapping up when the topic turned to a popular trip in the book: the 31-mile Art Loeb. I mentioned that I had half-heartedly toyed with the idea of hiking the entire trail in one day.

“That’s funny,” Walsh replied. “I’ve thought about running the whole thing at once.” Less than two months later, he did.

Running the Art Loeb in a day would strike anyone familiar with the trail, respected as much for its elevation as its duration, as daft. Anyone familiar with Mike Walsh would hear the plan and simply say, “Yeah, I can see that.”

Walsh, who is 43 and lives in Apex, is a past president of the North Carolina Road Runners Club and boasts a running resume a marathon long. Make that a double marathon, closer to the length of the trail races he logs regularly, from the nighttime Boogie 50 Mile Run to the Landsford Canal 50K to the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic to the upcoming Mountain Masochist (part of The Beast Series). Since 2001, Walsh has run 47 races of marathon length (26.2 miles) or longer. Comparatively, the 31-mile Art Loeb, even though it’s in the mountainous Pisgah National Forest (including a long stretch in the Shining Rock Wilderness) and the trail’s elevation ranges from 2,200 feet to over 6,000 feet, is a stroll in the park.

Shortly after our lunch, Walsh began looking for runners to share the experience. (Of running, he says, “I love the social side, and have membership in NCRC, Godiva, Mangum Track Club, Runner From Hell and Team Slug.”) Initially, nearly everyone he asked was game. As the September 11 run date neared, only two remained committed: Charles West, 42 of Cary, and Mike Day. West is a relative newcomer to running, taking his first steps in 2006 to lose weight (he has since dropped 60 pounds). The habit stuck: Among his race credits are the Midnight Boogie Marathon and a 35-mile FatAss race. Day is the veteran of the group.

Over the next two months — but mostly over the week leading up to September 11 (there was no scheduling significance to the date) — the team worked on logistics. At 6:20 a.m. on the 11th, from a surreptitious campsite near the north end of the Art Loeb, Walsh, West and Day began their 31-mile day with a stout three-mile, nearly 3,000-vertical-foot climb to the spine of the Shining Rock ledge.

“We were running sort of a pitter-patter,” says Walsh. “It was more of a power hike.”

It was a planned strategy, to not burn out on those first three, challenging miles. The climb took about an hour and 15 minutes, a 25-minute-per-mile pace. The three were content with the pace and confident they could work it down to about 15 minutes per mile once the trail leveled some. In fact, says Walsh, once on the ridgeline the three settled into a pace that ranged from 20- to 22-minute miles.

The six miles across the ledge to Shining Rock passed uneventfully. West’s lone observation: “You have to wear eye protection. I kept getting hit with branches.” Adds Walsh: “I’m short. I go under the branches.”

The lull would end as the three exited the Shining Rock Wilderness and neared Ivestor Gap. Between the Shining Rock Wilderness and the Blue Ridge Parkway, a distance of roughly four miles, is an area unique in North Carolina’s high country. Severe fires in 1925 and again in 1942 burned so deep into the soil that plant life has been slow to return. As a result, the area surrounding Ivestor Gap is one of the few exposed mountaintops in the state. As such, the views are great. But in the summer, the exposure also leaves hikers (and trail runners) exposed to afternoon thunderstorms. On September 11, those storms would come early.

Saturday: Running through the rain, running through low blood sugar, running for a Mountain Dew and a Moon Pie.

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