Asheville runner sets female record for 60-mile race from Mt. Pisgah to Mt. Mitchell – Citizen Times

Asheville runner sets female record for 60-mile race from Mt. Pisgah to Mt. Mitchell  Citizen Times

Tory Grieves stood at the top of Mount Pisgah in a skirt and Hoka running shoes on a magical, starlit midnight in November.

She looked up at the Milky Way, down to the distant, twinkling lights of Asheville, and with best friends at her side, started tearing down the mountain, unleashing pent-up pandemic fury in the pitch-black forest on a quest for a FKT.

Amid extreme nausea and retching, a slip or two on icy rocks and slight delirium, the 30-year-old Asheville runner arrived 14 hours, 52 minutes and 19 seconds later at the summit of Mount Mitchell, setting what is known as the “Fastest Known Time” for a woman to run the 62-mile “Pitchell,” the tortuous trail between two of Western North Carolina’s most famous peaks, with a cumulative elevation gain of 14,000 feet..

It was also the farthest distance Grieves had ever run.


“I think if the pandemic weren’t going on, I might not have done it. My natural inclination is to do an organized event with aid stations on a marked course so you can’t get lost, and with more spectators cheering you on,” Grieves said after recovering from her epic run on Nov. 7.

“But I was so grateful that something like FKT existed. I was looking for something during the pandemic to serve as my personal BMAG – big, meaningful, audacious goal. It’s the thing that gets everyone up in the morning.”

Grieves, a climate change risk analyst, said she learned that term from colleagues working to combat climate change, and applies it to her everyday life as a high-energy runner who has been without her usual dose of races during the pandemic.

Ultra-running roots in the Himalayas

Grieves grew up in Connecticut, where she ran track and cross country in high school, then also competed at Hamilton College in Upstate New York, where she earned a degree in environmental studies.

After college, she ran one marathon – a 26.2-mile race in Vermont – and then headed to the other side of the Earth for an environmental fellowship in Kathmandu, Nepal.

“Everyone trail runs in the Kathmandu Valley, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s an absolutely stunning landscape,” Grieves said.

“Running is very different there. It’s not about time or the pace. It was really just about having fun with friends, taking in the scenery and enjoying being out in nature,” she said.

It is also about building up major lung capacity in the super thin air.


Grieves’ “fun runs” consisted of 15 to 18 miles in the Himalayan “hills,” otherwise known as mountains in the U.S., starting at about 4,500 feet in elevation (for comparison, Asheville is at 2,200 feet) and climbing upwards of 12,000 feet in altitude.

Grieves signed up for her first “ultrarun,” which is a distance longer than a marathon, in Nepal. It was a 50K, in which she climbed 12,000 feet of elevation over 31 miles.

“Despite any kind of feelings of pain or tiredness, when I was finished, I was amazed by what your body can achieve if you just kind of don’t allow yourself to give up, like some of the climbs in that race,” she said.

“I never thought I would ever run that long but I’m still intact and it was kind of an amazing journey. After I revived and recovered, it seemed like a good idea to do another one.”

Grieves continued long-distance races while getting a master’s degree in environmental management at Yale University, where she met her partner, Nick Biemiller, who had graduated from Warren Wilson College.

Finding running friends and FKTs

In 2018, the two moved to Asheville, which Grieves said reminded her of the Kathmandu Valley. She started working for the climate risk analytics startup, the Climate Service, joined the North Carolina Mountain Trail Runners, a group of runners and trail maintainers, and competed in local races like the 18-mile Shut-In Ridge Trail Run along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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She also wanted to rejuvenate her running, which she said had gotten a little “flat” during the pandemic, and started working with coach and running champion Aaron Saft.

Her goal was to complete a 100-mile run, but Saft talked Grieves into a 100K, or 62-mile run, as a stepping stone. Since there were no organized races, Grieves set her sights on the FKT – a subculture of runners and cyclists who put their intention out into the universe – or post it on the FKT website – and then take on a set route in a naturally socially-distanced race against the clock.


Finish times are recorded on the site, then other racers try to beat them. FKTs exist around the world. Other local races include the South Beyond 6000 – a 300-mile run linking 40 of WNC’s peaks above 6,000 feet – and SCAR, a 70-mile run on the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains trail to Mount Le Conte reopens

The Pitchell route was created by local running legend Adam Hill, who completed it six times.

Grieves said she was drawn to Pitchell because it takes place entirely on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which crisscrosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and presents accessible points where friends could take turns running with her – known as pacers – and bring her food, drinks and other supplies – known as her crew.

Grieves followed Saft’s training plan of quad- and calf-killing hill repeats in Bent Creek in Pisgah National Forest and on the trail from Craggy Gardens to the summit of Mountain Mitchell – at 6,684 feet the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

Related: Overcrowding: Mt. Mitchell, Gorges, NC State Parks just saying ‘no’

The male record of 12:19.22 was set by Shaun Pope in 2019. Grieves’ goal was to beat Alondra Moody’s time of 15:04.31.

She studied Moody’s split times over each section, so she knew how fast she had to run.


The tradition is to start Pitchell at midnight. Grieves said the first 1.5-mile hike to the Pisgah summit of 5,721 feet doesn’t count toward the Pitchell mileage. But after that climb, she felt “energized and excited” on the clear night with a comfortable temperature in the upper 40s.

She wore a waist light of 600 lumens, rather than a headlamp, which she said “created an orb of daylight in front of me on the trail.”

Related: Spectators restricted at Green River Race due to COVID-19

RelatedShut-In Ridge Trail Run on Blue Ridge Parkway goes virtual due to COVID

But just after starting, she felt inexplicable waves of nausea that never let up over the next 15 hours. At some points she couldn’t even eat the mashed potatoes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches her friends brought for her and was afraid her 5-foot-6, 120-pound body wasn’t getting enough calories.

The only thing Grieves could keep down were her GU gels, packets of baby food and water with electrolytes.

Related: Hiker suffers nail puncture wounds on Pisgah National Forest trail

“I did get a little delusional at the end, but my legs were still working,” said Grieves, who barreled down the MST, hitting the Folk Art Center in Asheville before dawn, then began the icy climb from Craggy Gardens, topping out just shy of 3 p.m. on a sunny Saturday on Mount Mitchell, breaking the female record by 12 minutes.

“I think it had a lot had to do with stating this as a goal, putting it out there, and having put in months of training leading up to it. I tend to be really goal-oriented as a person,” she said.

“Having so many friends out there supporting me as pacers and crew, their energy was so motivating to me, and wanting to accomplish this as a team.”

“The way Tory’s training had gone, I wondered how far under the FKT she would go. She has an amazing support network around her that made the FKT extra special. I’m obviously so proud of her,” Saft said.


Grieves’ support team included: Biemiller, Tara Jordan, Jon Ibach, Tom Sharkey, Sophie Beckham, Rachel Veale, Barbara Green, Sara Molskness, Ellie Johnston, Luke Paulson, Shawn Bagley and Robin Mehler.

Some friends ran in sections with Grieves but no one ran the entire distance.

Johnston, 33, of Asheville, helped pace Grieves on the 6-mile segment from Craggy Gardens Picnic Area to the Glassmine Overlook on the parkway, after Grieves has already run 50 miles.


“This year has been tough and so it was great to focus on supporting such a big positive goal. Tory ran strong and everything came together just right for a very long but successful run,” Johnston said.

“May we all be lucky enough to know people who can dream big like Tory and actually achieve their big meaningful audacious goals, or BMAGs as Tory calls them. It’s quite inspiring.”

Grieves said she was back home and in her pajamas by 5 p.m. that night. Her stomach recovered and she has been eating like a Hobbit ever since. For the super-human accomplishment, she simply earned her name on the FKT website.

She said she might attempt a 100-miler in 2021 if races start up again, or a different FKT. But for now, she is cherishing memories of the race of her life, and hoping it lit a spark.

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“I really hope this will encourage more women to attempt this route and try to beat my time, as I was encouraged by several other women this year who ran this route and set fastest known times. It’s just been lowered and lowered,” Grieves said.

“It’s really about seeing what you can accomplish if you set your mind to a goal and go after it. It takes a unique group of friends to run with you at midnight. I’m so moved by all their generosity with their time and energy to achieve this goal,” she said.

Karen Chávez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.

Reach me: KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or on Twitter @KarenChavezACT

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