The only mountain runner I have encountered in my life was the one sprinting past me up a rock face in the Scottish Highlands in 2010. Turns out the sport isn’t just some European thing. More than 80 people are into this mountain running concept and identify as members of the Charlotte-based Ridgeline Run Group.
Rich Abernathy, 34, grew up in the greater Charlotte area and spent a lot of time “out in the boons” running on trails near Highway 16. He created the Ridgeline Run Group last fall so he could have some company along his long mountain runs, which he undertakes to release stress. “Life can get to you so hard … when you’re out in nature you can find peace,” he said.
I think he’s running far enough to find it — Abernathy is an ultra runner who just completed his first 100-mile run in April at the Blind Pig 100. It took him 28 hours, 21 minutes.
Right now he’s training for the Uwharrie 100 race in October, with a mountainous course set in the Uwharrie National Forest. It includes rock climbs nicknamed “The Soul Crusher” and “Hallucination Hill.” (No thanks.)
“The only thing that you could do in this area that would even come close to that is Crowders Mountain,” Abernathy said.
To be an ultra runner, you need to run more than the 26.2 miles that make up a marathon distance. Nathan Leehman, co-owner at Ultra Running Company at Myers Park Shopping Center, claims ultra running is more accessible than it sounds — he joked that if you run a marathon, and then stumble a little more distance back to your car, you’ve pretty much become an ultra runner.
Leehman is an ultra runner himself — he completed the Uwharrie 100 last October (in 25 hours, 31 minutes) and is a member of the Ridgeline Run Group. He said people of every shape and size can participate in ultra races with proper physical preparation. “It doesn’t require you to be superhuman,” he said.
But don’t worry, if you feel like dabbling in mountain running with with the Ridgeline Run Group, whose members are generally in their 30s and 40s, you’re not obligated to crank out a 100-mile route. The group, which meets about every Sunday at Crowders, selects a four-mile, 12-mile or 16-mile route that starts at the Sparrow Springs visitors center.
Pro tip from Leehman: “When you get on a mountain it’s never the same step twice… the biggest secret to running efficiently in a healthy manner is taking shorter steps.”
Ultra running isn’t so much about the competition, either. “The mental portion is where I see the most satisfaction from folks,” Leehman said. “They get to go out on a trail and step away from all the things that have been distracting them from the rest of the week.”
Same with the Ridgeline Run Group. From ultra races to mountain trails, Abernathy said, running is about the community that grows around the sport.
“It’s not really about who finishes,” he said. “It’s about meeting whatever goal you have and being out there in the wilderness. If you don’t hear anybody cheering, it’s fine. You’re out there and you see things. You let your mind travel.”
Photos: Rich Abernathy, Ridgeline Run Group