Approximately 300,000 people visit Grandfather Mountain each year to see the bears. About 930 people visit Grandfather Mountain each year to run The Bear. The five-mile foot race, which serves as a prelude to the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, pits runners against an intimidating foe — the mountain itself. The race, which took place Thursday, July 12, runs uphill from the stoplight in nearby Linville, N.C., and up U.S. 221, before veering into the Grandfather Mountain nature park and there up to the topmost parking lot near the Mile High Swinging Bridge — an elevation gain of some 1,600 feet.
However, first-place men’s finisher Michael Holland, of Beech Mountain, N.C., is no stranger to the course. Holland, 21, who finished with a time of 33:13.1, has run The Bear 10 times. “It’s the only race I’ve done every single year I’ve been running, and I grew up as a mountain runner, so here I am,” Holland said. Holland, a Watauga High School graduate and rising senior at Clemson University in Greenville, S.C., is working toward a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, but could well earn a master’s on Grandfather Mountain, having finished first in The Bear two years ago. “It’s great to get all the way to the top,” he said. “It was more like a competition out there this year, with a lot of good people. They definitely pushed me up the hill. You get to know a lot of the people running every year, though, and it’s super cool.”
One of those people was second-place men’s finisher Matthew Borneman, 27, of Madison, Wis., who finished with a time of 33:34.9. Sandy Roberts, 30, of Raleigh, N.C., came in third with a time of 34:37.5.
For her second year in a row, Amanda LoPiccolo, 35, of Boone, N.C., was the first-place women’s finisher, this year at 37:24.5, beating her 2017 time — 38:34.4 — by well more than a minute.
This marks LoPiccolo’s second time running The Bear. A little more than a year ago, she and her family moved from Cary, N.C., to Boone, where she works as a chiropractor. Her husband, Matt, works for Blowing Rock-based ZAP Fitness, a nonprofit training center focused on post-collegiate, Olympic-hopeful distance runners.
“He kind of convinces me to do it — but it doesn’t take a lot of convincing,” she said. “We’ve got a big group out here, so it’s a lot of fun.”
Her favorite part of the course?
“The finish,” LoPiccolo said. “Having it done. Getting to the top and just looking out and seeing what you accomplished is pretty amazing. Plus, we had a bunch of people out here that I knew from last year. We had a big contingent out.”
That includes second-place women’s finisher Sophia Ritter, 16, of Boone, N.C., who finished with a time of 38:33.1. Ritter came in third last year with a time of 41:42. Anne Wheatly, 33, of Asheville, N.C., came in third with a time of 39:10.6.
LoPiccolo also enjoyed the change in weather.
Although the race started in humid mid-70s, the race brought runners up to Grandfather Mountain’s lofty peaks with breezy temperatures in the upper 60s, comfortable cloud cover and light drizzle.
According to race director Jim Deni, the weather is part of the mystique that surrounds The Bear.
“We had 930-some runners registered in less than 10 minutes … and we had people coming from 20 different states to run in this year’s Bear, so that’s pretty astounding, to think that we have people from all over the country coming to run this mountain,” he said. “I think it’s the mystique of the mountain and the challenge itself. And what everybody tells me is that it’s one of the best organized races they’ve ever been to.”
Some runners have summited The Bear 22 times.
“It’s amazing,” Deni said. “There are people who run this who are obviously older, but they don’t want to give up. One of the runners who ran 22 times told me at registration, ‘You know, if I can run that mountain, I know I’m still alive.’ That’s his gauge. ‘I can still do this. I’m slower, but I can get there.’”
You just grin and bear it.