The bad ass cult-like 17.8-mile “Shut In”

A 35-Year Tradition

On November 1, 2014, residents of Asheville, N.C., awoke to a chilly surprise: snow. For about 200 hardier souls, it was race day. The weather conditions were just another obstacle these runners would need to overcome in climbing 3,000 feet up a narrow, rugged 18-mile trail. Welcome to the Shut In Ridge Trail Run.

The origins of the Shut In date back to December 13, 1980, when some 64 intrepid men and women assembled to clamor over rocks, roots, and fallen leaves as they followed the trail of the same name originally blazed by George Vanderbilt that led from his home, Biltmore, to his hunting lodge up on Mount Pisgah.

People tend to learn about the race purely by word of mouth. Capped at 225 runners registration filled up in just four days in 2014, which is saying something because would-be runners need to fill in applications by hand and snail-mail them in, along with a check and a self-addressed envelope. Bibs are then awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis (though return runners are given priority)

There’s also the perception that completing the race is something like undertaking a Herculean task.

Tim Epley, the former girl’s basketball coach at TC Roberson high school, was the one who originally dreamed up the idea of racing up Vanderbilt’s mountain path.  After the Blue Ridge Parkway was built, park rangers were interested in adding trails that hikers could access via the new scenic byway. Epley’s crew’s job was to restore the Shut In Trail, which was named for the abundant rhododendron and mountain laurel shrubs that encase many sections of the trail.

Runners climb steadily higher as the course hugs the ridgelines, doing their best to hop over sole-stabbing rocks and to maintain their balance as they skid over fallen leaves. Runners also crisscross the parkway several times, where they can meet up with support crews and enjoy spectacular vistas. While there are dips and downhills here and there, especially a steep spiraling descent that follows the apex of Ferrin Knob, which stands at 4,010 feet high, runners find the air becomes steadily thinner as they make their way up to the finish line at the base of Mount Pisgah, which sits at a cool 5,000 feet.

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Aside from knee scrapes, twisted ankles, and a few cases of mild hypothermia, Shut In runners over the years have avoided any major injuries.

“You have to train for it,” says Norman Blair, the owner of Jus’ Running in Asheville and the race director for the past seven years. “Anybody can come off the couch and run a 5K. . It’s a lot longer and harder. If you can finish Shut In, it’s an achievement.”

Shut In runners also need to beat two time cut-offs along the route or face getting their race number pulled. “We can’t stop someone from running,” says Blair, “but we also don’t want to be waiting until midnight for someone to finish.” It’s very accessible to the average person,” he says. “It’s held at a good time of year to run a long race. And because of how steep the trail is at points, you can actually walk faster than you can run. That’s why it’s an everyman and everywoman kind of race.”

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There’s Something Addictive About It

One of the race’s distinctive characteristics is the fact that so many people run it more than once. David Culp, for example, ran it 15 times—including once, in 1985, when he also served as race director.

Michael Byer Jr. ran the race 10 times, five of them alongside his father, Mike Byer Sr., who owns an eponymous auto and truck repair shop in Asheville. “I lived for the challenge,” says Byer, Jr. “It was a way to keep your fitness in check.

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But the current record holder for most Shut-In finishes is Chris Campbell, 50, who, if all goes well, will toe the starting line for his 30th stab at the Shut In in 2015.

Campbell, who makes the 6.5-hour trek down from his home in Virginia to run Shut In, says he never intended to run the race as many times as he has. But it’s become something of a holiday for him, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, an event he looks forward to all year long.

“It’s a chance to see if I’m still up for the challenge,” says Campbell. Campbell drove down to Asheville to run his first Shut In in 1984 while a student at Virginia Tech and a member of its track team.

Indeed, that final climb up to Mount Pisgah, which is as challenging mentally as it is physically, has always played a key role in the finish to the race. “I’ve won the race walking those final two miles and I have been beaten running them,” says Jay Curwen.

Last year, with the entire parkway closed due to the snow and ice encrusting it, race director Norman Blair had every reason to postpone the race. But this was Shut In. So Blair made the decision to press on with the race, only with a wrinkle: once runners reached Route 151, they would head downhill from there for four miles, for a total of about 20 miles, rather than finishing up on Mount Pisgah at the traditional 17.8 mile marker.

While the downhill miles on the pavement were icy and steep—punishing the quads of the 184 runners who completed the race—it was still easier than finishing the traditional two-mile uphill climb, says Campbell. “We were lucky we got the race in at all,” he says.

You have to Try harder if you Want to Run Shut In

If there is a word that best describes Shut In it might be “tradition.” For as much as Asheville has changed over the past 35 years, so much of Shut In has stayed the same. The top finishers each year receive stained-glass trophies similar to those that were handed out back in 1980. As a nod to history, and unlike just about every other race out there, only those who finish the race receive (cotton) long-sleeve t-shirts.

And there’s that archaic registration system—something Norman Blair admits he gets complaints about. Sure he could put everything online, says Blair. He’s even thought about advertising the race in national publications like Runners’ World like they did in the early years. But then registration would fill up in 10 minutes like other races in the area do. “I like the way we do it now,” says Blair. “You have to try harder if you want to run Shut In.”

Another thing that won’t change about Shut In is the size of the field—which will always be limited due to the permits issued by the parkway and forest services. That means that, as long as the permits get issued, running the Shut In each year will remain a special and unique accomplishment.

This years Asheville’s Shut In is on Nov 07, 2015 at 11:00 AM

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