Twenty-five years, 867 runners, five miles long, one mile high.
The Bear returned to Grandfather Mountain for its 25th year, opening the 64th Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in a foot race that pits runners against the steep switchbacks of Grandfather Mountain, climbing 1,568 feet in five miles from the town of Linville to the iconic mountaintop.
“It was a perfect day for running,” race director Jim Deni said, “and this is a popular race.”
So popular, in fact, that registration reached its cap in only six minutes. One of those who helped was Johnny Crain, 27, of ZAP Fitness in Blowing Rock, N.C., who came in first overall with a time of 30:58.7 — 40.3 seconds shy of his previous attempt in 2017, in which he set a historic course record.
“My fitness is not quite where it was two years ago,” Crain said. “I’m coming back from a little injury — plantar fasciitis, and I’ve been off and on running for about nine months now. Two days ago, one of my coaches was like, ‘Come on, why not use this as one of your first efforts back?’”
Crain couldn’t pass it up.
“It’s just so cool running through the Highland Games,” he said. “There are just so many people there … and they get so excited about it for us, and that really helps.”
Joe Stilin, 29, also of ZAP Fitness in Blowing Rock, came in second overall with a time of 31.01.1, followed by Jeff Case, 25, of Fort Mill, S.C., who finished with a time of 32:10.8.
While Crain was able to use previous experience of the course to some advantage, that wasn’t the case for first-place women’s finisher Joanna Thompson, 26, of Knoxville, Tenn., and ZAP Fitness in Blowing Rock. 2019 marked Thompson’s first time on the course, and she finished 13th overall, with a time of 36:13.1.
Also a professional runner, Thompson prepared by running a marathon three weeks ago, followed by two weeks of rest. Her favorite part of The Bear?
“The hills, man,” she said. “It’s not every day you get to run up a mountain like this. So, that’s pretty cool.”
Thompson, however, isn’t a stranger to Grandfather Mountain.
“I’ve hiked it before, but this was definitely my first time running up it,” she said. “I figured since I’m kind of taking a little break right now without any major races coming up for a while that this was the best window I’d have to do this. It was a really an honor and pretty cool, because I know how big a deal this race is around here.”
Jonna Strange, 18, of Taylorsville, N.C., was the second women’s finisher, 30th overall, with a time of 39.25.6, followed by Anne Wheatly, 34, of Asheville, N.C., who finished 35th overall with a time of 39:51.4.
Although the top finishers hailed from the southeast, Deni noted that runners came from across the country to challenge The Bear.
“We have runners here from 26 states,” he said. “And after only six minutes of registration being open, we had a waiting list that just kept going. So, literally, to fill up that fast and have that many runners on their computers at one time, constantly refreshing their browsers, we had to keep monitoring our servers, because two years ago they crashed it.”
Fortunately, for the race’s 25th anniversary, they were able to bear it.
The 64th Grandfather Mountain Highland Games run July 11-14 at Grandfather Mountain’s MacRae Meadows. For tickets and more information, visit the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games website at www.gmhg.org.
The not-for-profit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call (800) 468-7325.