Oct 17, 2022 - Sports

Ultrarunning gains momentum in Charlotte

Ribbonwalk Greenway

Axios archives

Charlotte’s running scene was smaller when Mike Mason moved to Charlotte from Washington, D.C., 22 years ago. And ultrarunning certainly wasn’t popular back then.

It’s a sport that often goes unnoticed, and maybe you’ve never heard of it.

By the numbers: A marathon is 26.2 miles, and an ultramarathon is anything longer than that. Races typically range from 50 kilometers, which is just over 31 miles, to 50-milers and 100-milers. Ultramarathons are often run on trails.

  • Just over 34,000 people ran ultramarathons annually in the 1990s, and more than 600,000 ran one in 2018, the New York Times reported.

Context: Mason, who is 51 years old and leads the mergers and acquisitions team for Regions Bank, is a Charlotte veteran who has been running ultras since 1998 and has run all of the big 100-mile races in the United States. He ran 228 miles through the Swiss Alps in the SwissPeaks Trail in September. It took him more than five days to complete.

  • North Carolina’s mountains are his training ground.
  • “Our proximity in Charlotte to really big and meaningful mountains is is a great resource,” Mason told me. “I absolutely love that and it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m able to go over to the Alps and finish these races.”
Mike Mason at the summit of Mount Blanc in the Alps. Photo courtesy of Mike Mason

Why it matters: Sports previously considered obscure, like ultrarunning and pickleball, are gaining popularity in Charlotte and beyond. While you won’t find a restaurant where you can eat, drink and run for six hours the way you will with places where you can play putt putt or pickleball, there are people training for ultramarathons all over town.

  • “It’s here, a lot of people just don’t know about it,” runner Russell Daniel told me.

Russell and his wife Natalie Hensley Daniel, who are 49 and 45 respectively, have been running together for years. It started as a way to stay in shape, and they found they preferred trail running to road running.

  • Natalie, who is a running coach and works at Ultra Running Company in Myers Park, has been running ultras around the country since 2015. If you can run a marathon, you can definitely run an ultramarathon, she told me.
  • The price of each race varies. Running the New York City Marathon, for instance, costs $295, while running the Uwharrie Mountain Run 40-miler costs $90. The aid station snacks are also better, Natalie says. “I’m pretty food driven,” she told me with a laugh.
  • Trail running isn’t about how fast you can go — it’s about can you do it, Russell told me. Russell, who manages Ed’s Tavern and is a member of Black Men Run Charlotte, completed his first 50K this year to celebrate his upcoming 50th birthday.

You can find a run club at several breweries across Charlotte, but in the heart of the city, the same couldn’t be said for trail runners. So the Daniels created the Trail Runners of Greater Charlotte Facebook group, which currently has 897 members.

  • You’ll find group members on the trails at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in west Charlotte, Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill, Crowders Mountain and other nearby trails.
Russell Daniel (left) and Natalie Hensley Daniel at Lookout Mountain. Photo courtesy of Russell Daniel and Natalie Hensley Daniel

Zoom out: 4,149 people total people, myself included, participated in Charlotte Marathon races in 2021, which includes the marathon, half marathon and 5K. Charlotte Marathon organizers tell Axios they’re on pace for a record-setting year, and are on pace to surpass the 8,580 participants they had in 2010.

  • Of note: These are road races.

What’s next: Natalie will run the Rim to River 100-miler in West Virginia on Nov. 5. It’s her first time running this race, and her goal is to finish in the top 10 and and to complete the race in under 24 hours.

  • Mason signed up for a 330-kilomometer race called Tor de Geants in the Italian Alps next year, and he’ll make his first trip to Nepal in April for the Three Passes Trek, which is about 103 miles.
  • The Lake Norman State Park 30K and 50K Trail Race is Dec. 3 at 8am in Troutman, North Carolina if you’re looking for something close by to try.

Tips: If you’re looking to try ultrarunning, trail running or running period, here are five tips from Mason, Natalie and Russell to get you started.

1. Ease into trail running with a 5K. -Russell

2. You can alternate between walking and running. There’s no shame in it. -Russell

3. Don’t over train. Rest is just as important as the miles you put in. -Natalie

4. Make sure you strength train, especially your core. You’ll need it the further you get into the race. -Natalie

5. Focus on the miles. Don’t focus on how fast you’re going. -Mason

6. On race day: Run within your ability and try to have a good time. -Mason

The bottom line: “[Ultrarunning] is out there, in a good and meaningful way for people who are looking for it,” Mason says.


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