Pictured: The 26th annual running of The Bear, a five-mile uphill foot-race to the top of Grandfather Mountain, saw 653 runners reach the finish line near the mountain’s Mile High Swinging Bridge. Photo by Jim Magruder | Magruder Photography
During the 26th annual running of The Bear, Grandfather Mountain’s breathtaking views took on a literal meaning as more than 800 runners ascended 1,568 feet over the span of five miles to mark the return of the iconic race, following a hiatus due to COVID-19.
Yet, first-place finisher Josh Izewski appeared to breathe easy shortly after finishing the endeavor with a time of 31:50.7.
“It’s an awesome race,” Izewski said. “It’s great that they were able to put it on. They do a great job, and I’m excited to be able to come out here.”
Izewski, a professional runner who lives in Blowing Rock, carried on the tradition of endurance athletes with ZAP Fitness finishing the race among the top competitors. Izewski said that it was his first time running The Bear and that he trained for the mountain’s steep grade by running the hills up to the Moses Cone Manor at the Bass Lake just 10 and a half miles away.
“We’re accustomed to climbing, but it’s always different when you’re out here racing versus when you’re practicing,” Izewski said.
Izewski noted that it was his first time running the race after having participated as a spectator in years past, but for Amanda Sorrow, who claimed first place in the women’s category with a time 40:58.2, the mountain’s dramatic incline felt a bit more familiar.
“I’ve been running (The Bear) since 1999, give or take a few years,” Sorrow said.
A local Banner Elk resident, Sorrow said that the mountain’s iconic scenery, the challenge of the race and the festive atmosphere surrounding the Highland Games keeps bringing her back year after year.
Second-place finisher in the men’s category, Sandy Roberts of Raleigh, N.C., also emphasized the Games when elaborating on his love for the race that marks start of the annual gathering of Scottish clans and societies.
“This is my favorite race, hands down,” Roberts said. “It’s challenging, and halfway through you go through the crowds at the Highland Games and hear the bagpipes. That’s why I come. It still gets my heart thumping.”
The runners also commented on the day’s weather, which provided a dramatic finish for the athletes after a daunting forecast of heavy rain and thunderstorms dissipated just two hours before they took off from the starting line in Linville, providing a picturesque setting as they headed toward MacRae Meadows under sunny skies.
However, rain clouds returned and gently doused the runners as they climbed up the series of steep switchbacks to the top.
Wake Forest University track and field athlete Caroline Garrett of Oakland, Calif., who finished second in the women’s category with a time 41:19.2, said the cool weather provided some relief upon crossing the finish line below the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
“The wind at the finish was a little strong,” she said. “It was a little humid. It was a tough race. I’m considering this my hill workout of the week without a doubt.”
Garrett, who first ran the race in 2019, shared a general feeling of excitement among the multitude of runners after triumphantly reaching the top after a year in which the event was canceled altogether.
The feeling of gratitude and accomplishment was certainly not lost on race organizer Jim Deni.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Deni said. “Everyone was excited. The runners were excited just to be able to do it. (The race) was filled to capacity.”
The 2021 Grandfather Mountain Highland Games run July 8-11 at Grandfather Mountain’s MacRae Meadows. Tickets are available at the Games gate in MacRae Meadows. For more information on the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, call 828-733-1333 or visit at www.gmhg.org.
The nonprofit 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, or visit www.grandfather.com to plan a trip.