When most kids return home to see their parents for Christmas, couch lounging and hot cocoa are typically in order.
But not for Kyle Curtin. The 34-year-old Army veteran helicopter electrician and long-distance runner thought a holiday trip to Asheville, North Carolina, to see his folks would be nicely wrapped with a 62-mile run on treacherous ice- and snow-covered single-track trails to the highest peak in the Eastern United States.
On Dec. 21, aka the winter solstice, Curtin not only ran Pitchell — the ultra-trail marathon from the summits of Mount Pisgah to Mount Mitchell along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail — but he smashed the Fastest Known Time for the route, finishing in 11 hours, 47 minutes and 18 seconds.
This was more than 32 minutes faster than the time set by Black Mountain runner Shaun Pope in March 2019. And it was the first time someone finished in under 12 hours.
Curtin, who lives in Durango, Colorado, has been visiting Alison and Paul Curtin for the past few years, always helping his father, a Carolina Mountain Club trail maintainer, with trail work or getting in a trail run.
But he had never run the Pitchell route, which climbs a cumulative 14,000 feet, in its entirety.
“I didn’t know it as well as I thought. I’d been on Mount Pisgah (elevation 5,721 feet) before and I’ve been up Mitchell (6,684 feet) before and I’ve done a couple small segments around the Folk Art Center,” Curtin said. “But a lot of it was newer to me than I thought.”
Using his Suunto runner’s watch, which has a digital download of the route, his Army logistical prowess and mountaineering skills, Curtin mapped out a detailed plan, with the help of his one-man support crew — Dad — and studied Pope’s split times.
The two already knew they were a great team, having hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail together in 2015.
Reaching an FKT with a few falls
Tradition for Pitchell, which is typically done solo or with just a few runners at a time, is to start at midnight, following the lead of another Black Mountain runner, Adam Hill, who founded Pitchell and ran it six times.
FKTs are a subculture of runners and cyclists who put their intention out to the world by posting it on the FKT website, and then take on a set route in a race against the clock. FKTs have become more popular and times kept dropping during 2020 when COVID-19 closed down most mass races and marathons.
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.
In November, Asheville runner Tory Grieves set the female FKT for Pitchell in 14:52:19.
There is no prize money, no medal, no T-shirt, and in Curtin’s case, not a single spectator cheering at the finish line. So what’s the attraction?
“The challenge is the big draw. It’s kind of a just a cool route to start out. It’s on some pretty fun trails to run, and it’s just like a natural kind of route, from one mountain peak to another,” Curtin said. “Some other pretty fast people have ran it before and so it’s kind of built up a reputation, for sure.”
Curtin wanted to run on the winter solstice and wanted to optimize daylight and so began from the top of Mountain Pisgah, about 25 miles southwest of Asheville off the Blue Ridge Parkway, at 5 a.m.
His father drove him up to Elk Pasture Gap on N.C. 151 and dropped him off there about 4 a.m. Since the parkway — and direct driving access to the Mount Pisgah trailhead — was closed, Kyle had to first hike 4 miles (that didn’t count) to get to the starting point at the summit, where it was about 25 degrees with high winds.
Kyle wore Altra Lone Peak trail running shoes, a headlamp and a Kogalla waist light for maximum luminescence in the deep forest, filled with lurking dangers such as rocks, roots, low-hanging branches and black bears.
Paul was also on a race – to beat his son by car to each accessible crossing to hand him food, water and supplies.
“When I saw him at Elk Pasture Gap to give him supplies he needed to reach the French Broad River he was looking good, the sun was out, and he was exactly on the same pace as Shaun Pope,” Paul said.
Kyle said he had to get up at 2:30 a.m. that morning and didn’t sleep well the night before. He said he felt like he was “still waking up” and fell on the steep downhill three times in the first 3 miles. He wasn’t hurt but said the falls definitely woke him up.
He fueled his 5-foot-7-inch, 140-pound frame mostly with liquid-like Ensure and energy gels, because “it’s easier to drink calories vs. something more solid.
Getting faster toward the finish
Curtin is a sponsored runner with other FKTs under his belt, including the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in California and Nevada on July 4, which he ran unsupported in 1 day, 17 hours and 9 minutes.
“I wasn’t real optimistic at the start, but once I got down to the (French Broad) river, that was the first time I checked my splits against Shaun Pope’s record from March of 2019. Strava (a running app) said I was 20 seconds away from his time,” Kyle said.
“I was pretty much right on pace at the bottom of the river. From there, things got a lot smoother and just kept getting better.”
With only one headphone in so he could hear music but still listen for bears crunching in the woods, Kyle said, “I kept telling myself it’s a long day, there’s time to recover and just keep moving efficiently.”
At the Folk Art Center in Asheville, Kyle was a few minutes ahead of the record pace. The last time he saw his father before the Mitchell summit was just north of Asheville at Ox Creek Road, where the parkway was closed for the rest of the way to Mount Mitchell State Park.
Paul gave him supplies and trekking poles for the next 7 miles to Potato Field Gap.
“I took the backpack he needed for the final 17 miles from Potato Field to the summit and rode it up there on his mountain bike,” Paul said. “Little did I realize I had to go up 1,500 feet in elevation! I rode as hard as I could and only beat him up there by about 10 minutes.”
Kyle said his forte is hill climbing, and he gained more momentum as the trail began to ascend from Ox Creek Road and built on Pope’s split times. At Potato Field Gap he was 17 minutes ahead of pace.
“At that point, I was pretty confident that as long as I didn’t really blow up, there’s a lot more climbing to go, so I could probably get it,” he said.
And he did, topping out on the highest peak in East, to a crowd of no one, at about 4:40 p.m. He took some quick selfies, and then had to hike down a veritable riverbed of ice for 6 miles to reach the Black Mountain Campground, where his very proud father was waiting.
“I definitely appreciate all the help from my dad, not only during the day, but that he’s a super knowledgeable person about the whole route and was just a critical part of doing the run,” Kyle said.
“My dad maintains the Mountains-to-Sea Trail between the two mountains, so it was kind of cool to be able to run something that he takes care of.”