Asheville, N.C.: An Off-Road Playground

Ashville boasts miles and miles of trails just begging you to run them. Photo: Mark Driscoll

If you’re a trail runner, Asheville is a small slice of heaven on earth; if you’re not a trail runner, it’s a good place to convert.

It’s been called the “Boulder of the East,” but the bustling city of Asheville, N.C., has been staking its own reputation as a go-to mountain getaway for runners and other free spirits for more than two decades.

Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of the state, Asheville has a population of around 85,000 residents, many of whom have found their way to the 2,000-foot environs, shadowing their attraction to the city’s natural beauty, eclectic art and music culture, simple way of living and emerging craft-beer scene.

With its seemingly endless network of trails, open roads and clean mountain air, this something-for-everyone environment has a magnetic appeal for endurance athletes. The enthusiastic running community has created a welcoming scene that has no trouble combining fitness and fun, embracing weekly group runs that start and end at any number of Asheville’s craft breweries. As Aaron Saft, co-owner of Foot RX Asheville, puts it, “From Pisgah Forest to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Asheville is Appalachia at its finest. Go as far as your legs and lungs can carry you, then sit down and enjoy some local brews — we’ve got plenty of options! You’ll be treated to views, water crossings and lots of wildlife along the way.”

Asheville was crowned “Beer City USA” from 2009 through 2012, thanks to several new and established breweries, many of which have helped add a social element to the local running scene with informal weekly runs and race sponsorships. Runners who prefer solo time can enjoy miles of soft terrain and a smorgasbord of spectacular mountain views that set Asheville apart from many other East Coast destinations.

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“On any given day, I can hop over to numerous trails within 10 minutes from my house and go for miles in sweet solitude and enjoy the natural beauty around me. I love that,” says Asheville resident Kate Gwyther, a former All-American cross country runner at Quinnipiac University.

One of the most popular area races is the 208-mile Blue Ridge Relay, which starts in Grayson County, Va., and finishes in downtown Asheville. The scenic, hilly course traverses the breathtaking Blue Ridge Parkway, climbs over Grandfather Mountain and tackles 6,683-foot Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.

“Asheville has it all and more. Drive any direction and you’ll find trails — lots of them!” says Saft, who won the USA Marathon Trail Championships in 2007 when it was held down the road in Brevard, N.C. “We’ve become a destination location for those seeking an East Coast adventure. If you visit, I guarantee you’ll be back.”

If you’re a trail runner, Asheville is a small slice of heaven on earth; if you’re not a trail runner, it’s a good place to convert.

Where To Run

With an array of off-road options, ranging from open fire roads to technical singletrack routes, a variety of loops ranging from 3 to 20 or more miles are within 20 minutes of downtown. Pisgah National Forest contains a massive network of trails, reachable from any number of well-marked trailheads. Bent Creek is a popular destination for locals and features a number of marked loops with plenty of tree cover and trustworthy footing.

The Appalachian Trail is located 30 minutes outside of town off Interstate 26. Asheville Track Club hosts multiple group runs throughout the week that cater to all levels. For visiting folks looking for a faster workout, Norm Blair, owner of Jus’ Running, hosts his long-running Tuesday night “Maggot” workout at 6:30 p.m., open to all abilities. On Thursday nights, an informal group of 10 to 30 runners meets at the Wedge Brewery (125B Roberts St.) at 6:15 p.m. for a flat 8.5-mile progression run.

Where To Race

One of the biggest race weekends includes the Asheville Citizen-Times City Marathon (Sept. 28; blogs2.citizen-times.com/marathon), which features a half marathon and 5K, as well as a full marathon for the first time. Both the half and full marathons are USATF certified. Races start and finish downtown, showcasing the entire city.

For an off-road challenge this fall, check out the cross country Grand Prix Series (multiple dates; wncracing.com), with five races ranging from 5K to 8K, between Sept. 12 and Nov. 8. The 13th Asheville Turkey Trot 5K (Nov. 28; ashevilleturkeytrot.com) celebrates with a flat, fast course for competitive and recreational runners. The Shut-In Ridge Trail Run (Nov. 2; jusrunning.com) is a local favorite and has been “destroying quads for almost 30 years.” The race begins at the North Carolina Arboretum and gains 3,000 feet of elevation over 18 miles and finishes at the trailhead for the Mt. Pisgah Summit.

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Where To Eat & Drink

Foodies will love Asheville for its wide array of culinary offerings, which cater to a full spectrum of ethnic preferences and dietary needs. And beer fans will love the multitude of craft breweries that call Asheville home, including Wicked Weed Brewing (91 Biltmore Ave.) and Wedge Brewing (125B Roberts St.). After a morning run, make your way over to Sunny Point Café (626 Haywood Rd.) for an endless offering of sweet and savory breakfast options. Don’t get there too late, however, as seating fills up quickly.

Tupelo Honey (12 College St.) serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and its menu pleases all palates with options such as Garden of Goodness Gracious Tacos, Misse’s Asheville Veggie Melt and Sunburst Mountain Trout. To satisfy your sweet tooth at the end of the day, head over to French Broad Chocolates (10 S. Lexington Ave.). The name says it all — you can enjoy various chocolates and other treats, as well as coffee and beer with your preferred dessert. Combine all of this in a lounge-like atmosphere, and you’ll never want to leave!

Where To Shop

Asheville is a tiny town but boasts two great specialty running shops: Foot RX (1979-A Hendersonville Rd.), which features an on-site pedorthist who modifies shoes and orthotics to prevent or alleviate foot trouble; and Jus’ Running (523 Merrimon Ave.), which has been in business for 15 years and prides itself on addressing the needs of beginners and experienced runners alike. Both shops are great resources for visiting runners and can provide the inside scoop on the best local running routes in addition to top-notch customer service and products. REI (31 Schenck Pkwy.) has all the gear you will need for roughing it outside instead of reserving a hotel stay.

Weather

Unlike the almost-year-round hot and humid temperatures in eastern North Carolina, Asheville is situated at altitude, which means it stays relatively cool. Average temperatures in the autumn months range between the mid-40s at night and the mid-70s during the day. Rarely does the thermometer dip below freezing in the winter, with average highs ranging between 50 and 55 degrees. Snow is not uncommon in December and January, but rarely more than a couple of inches. More often it’s icy, but the trails are generally runnable year-round.

Etc.

Asheville Running Tours (ashevillerunningtours.com) offer several year-round options for running adventures (including themed excursions, such as beer runs and wine waddles) with experienced guides who can educate you on everything you need to know about the city — from the best local breweries to the history of the Biltmore Estate. Both personalized and group options are available, and you receive a photo and a goody bag as part of your tour package.

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This piece first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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