Highlands? Asheville, North Carolina is a high land.
At over 2,100 feet above sea level, it’s no easy task to find a place to run quickly because no matter how short the distance, you’re going to be both heading up and down hills. Now, this isn’t a call to boycott racing in Western North Carolina, because, if you did, you’d be missing out on some of the finer things in life. Craft beer, active and friendly people, kilts, healthy food and music and you’ve got a happy Tony.
Having recently raced the inaugural Night Flight four-mile race at the Highland Brewing Co., you bet your short shorts I can’t wait to go back.
When my wife and I were pulling into Highland, it immediately struck us that the massive hill leading up to the brewery would somehow be included in the race course. Not good. Luckily, when the race started at 8 p.m. on the dot, the leaders flew in the direction of that dastardly hill. I followed, hoping I’d tied my racing flats on tightly enough because we were running at what felt like the rate of a dropped bowling ball from a skyscraper.
Quickly settling into third, it was nice to have completed nearly the first mile of the race without expending much energy. But every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and as is the case with most hilly races, the start is directly located near the finish and at some point, I’d have to fight my way back up a hill to finish.
This course was a roller coaster and probably more fun than any roller coaster I’ve ever been strapped to. Saturday night, I wasn’t strapped to a ride, I was strapped into my shoes and hoping to have just as much fun. After the first mile, which was hit in about five minutes and 19 seconds, I was fighting to hold second place with a rabbit well out front. Up a massive hill we went in a setting that felt similar to that felt by Tour De France riders as they climb into the mountains with cheering, exciting fans lining each side of the road.
As is the case with my horrible form and generally awful posture, I crouched over to try to work my way up the hill in the Beverly Hills neighborhood of East Asheville. Keeping my eyes on the rabbit out front, when we crested the first nasty hill, we hit the rolling section of the course which brought us around the municipal golf course and some of the most friendly spectators I’ve groaned in agony by. Whipping around down hill corners through many positive messages written on the sidewalk in sidewalk chalk, somehow, I was feeling quite spritely.
With every uphill, the rabbit got closer and so close that I decided on making a strong move to hopefully break him and the North Carolinian who was battling with me. Hey, it worked and I sped out to the lead.
Now, I was in the lead cart of the roller coaster, all by myself, quickly winding through the hilly neighborhood streets following a police SUV just ahead to show me the way. My mind was turned off and I was cruising until mile three.
Knowing I had to get back atop that hill sat in the back of my mind as I finally crossed a bridge and saw a massive swimming pool on the side — a place I would much rather be — just before that last massive hill. My low running self-esteem at the time had me feeling like I was walking up the hill, checking too frequently to see how close the road racing predators behind me were, but I pressed up with all the lactic acid in the world collecting in my thighs.
Reaching the top was triumphant for me, as it was for all who I discussed the race with after it ended, and I cruised along the ridge all the way to the brewery, crossing the line first in a brutal but exciting 24:28.
“Here,” one person said, as they handed my disoriented zombie-like corpse a blinking beer glass. “Over here,” said another as I tried my best to smile for a photo.
It had just started to cool down and the mood was right, so I bypassed the Earthfare table with bottles of water and banana chunks so I could move toward the bar where I greatly enjoyed an icy cool Saison. To the victor went the ales.
Soon after my wife came in, we took advantage of replenishing our used carbohydrates by patronizing the on-site Little Bee Thai food truck as well as the Tin Can pizza eatery. Cashew Beef and a Fancy Pig pizza with salty prosciutto never tasted so good.
Leading up to the awards ceremony, over 550 participants and their supporters filled the lot behind the brewery to fill up on beer and food, experience some of the nifty people and try out hammocks provided by the sponsors of the event.
My prize was a specialized beer bottle, produced solely as a trophy to the winner of the race — something I’ll keep with me wherever I go. Quite a way to remember one of my favorite brewery’s 20th Anniversary.
I’d trade a fast time every day for the adventure of racing around one of Asheville’s premier breweries.
Though nowhere near a personal-best course, personally, it was one of the best race experiences I’ve ever had.
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