Trail race in Pinnacle Park growing in popularity

This story was written by Jason Farmer, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Assault on Black Rock trail race. Photo from The Sylva Herald.

Despite crashing his mountain bike two weeks ago and injuring his knee, Chris Lee of Bryson City still intends to run the 7-mile race Assault on Black Rock Saturday, March 18.

This seventh-annual trail race is held in Sylva’s rugged Pinnacle Park, with 2,770 feet of elevation gain.

Runners who compete climb a winding rocky trail to Black Rock, at 5,810 feet and run – or walk or crawl – down to another summit.

“It kind of beats you down into walking, whether you like it or not,” Lee said. “It’s just so steep and rugged, which is what’s fun about it. It’s certainly not a traditional foot race by any means.”

This year marks the 42-year-old’s fourth time participating.

“The race draws a certain crowd of people. They see it as a challenge,” organizer Brian Barwatt said. “To the average person it seems doable, but once you get out there, it’s a whole different story.”

Runners earn a special belt buckle if they finish the race within 101 minutes. “It’s like the Black Rock 101 challenge. You pass or fail,” Barwatt said.

Philip Wilcheck, 28, of Buford, Montana, has won two belt buckles. Wilcheck said he isn’t an avid racer, but the steepness of the track reeled him in.

“It’s a heck of a challenge, physically and mentally. If you’re a serious runner, it’s definitely a test of your ability and endurance,” he said. “It’s also a good place to compete with some other very good runners and to test your skills and your desire to win.”

Jared Houghton, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, said the race is perfect, too, for training purposes.

“It’s definitely not a super-long race, but it’s a very intense, highly technical, and has a lot of elevation gain,” the 29-year-old said. “I think it’s a really good training piece for a marathon trail race.”

More than 80 runners participated in last year’s race. Barwatt is expecting to have more runners this year, he said, despite the recent discovery of spikes hammered into roots along trails in the park.

A runner, on Feb. 11, and a walker, on Feb. 18, stepped on 16-penny nails on the trail. The heads had been clipped or cut off leaving sharp, angled points. The runner’s foot was impaled; the walker wasn’t injured, with the nail going through the shoe but missing his foot.

When police and volunteers swept Pinnacle Park’s 18-mile trail system, they discovered an additional 50 or more spikes.

Barwatt said the trails will be scouted again a day or two before the race. The morning of the event, a volunteer plans to use a metal detector to sweep the race path in front of the runners.

All proceeds will be donated to a nonprofit organization. This year, Barwatt said, he plans to donate the money to Sylva’s Clean Slate Coalition.

The coalition is a transitional housing program for women in Sylva.

Hikers are also encouraged to participate in the race, Barwatt said, adding that the event, after all, is to ultimately encourage more park use.

Members of the Jackson County Rescue Squad will be on the scene during the race.


Want to participate?

Race pre-registration is $25; $30 on the day of the race. To register, visit