By David Rogers. July 11, 2019. GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN, NC — Just 40.3 seconds short of his previous course record, Johnny Crain, 27, of the Blowing Rock-based ZAP Endurance running team captured the overall and men’s division win Thursday, in the 25th running of “The Bear,” a grueling five-mile road race that climbs from the Town of Linville some 1,568 feet in elevation, up the steep switchbacks to the top of the iconic Grandfather mountaintop. Crain’s winning time was 30:58.7. He set the course record in 2017 with a time of 30:18.4.
COVER IMAGE: Johnny Crain of ZAP Endurance is first up the mountain in winning the 25th running of The Bear on Thursday as part of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. All photographic images by Skip Sickler.
The Bear is run annually as an opening event for the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, reputed to be the biggest celebration of Scottish culture in the United States.
Race organizers reported that 867 runners took on The Bear this year.
“There were only 867 entry spots,” explained Grandfather Mountain Director of Marketing & Communications, Frank Ruggiero to Blowing Rock News Thursday evening. “They filled up through online entries in just six minutes from the time the portal opened.”
ZAP Endurance had a big day. In addition to Crain’s first place performance, ZAP teammate Joe Stilin finished second in the Men’s Division (31:01.1), just under three seconds behind Crain. On the distaff side, ZAP professional Joanna Thompson made her first trip up the mountain running The Bear in championship fashion, 13th overall and first in the Women’s Division with a mark of 36:13.1.
In explaining his “slowness” this year compared to his record-setting pace in 2019, Crain told the media afterward, “My fitness is not quite where it was two years ago. I’m coming back from a little injury, plantar fasciitis, and I’ve been off and on running for about nine months now. Two days ago, one of my coaches was like, ‘Come on, why not use this as one of one of your first efforts back?'”
Thompson, who ran a marathon three weeks ago followed by two weeks of rest, had a surprising answer when asked about her favorite part of The Bear.
“The hills, man,” she said. “It’s not every day you get to run up a mountain like this. So, that’s pretty cool.
“I have hiked it (Grandfather Mountain) before,” she added, but this was definitely my first time running up it. I figured since I’m kind of taking a little break right now without any major races coming up for awhile that this was the best window I’d have to do this. It was really an honor and pretty cool because I know how big a deal this race is around here.”
Jonna Strange, 18, of Taylorsville, N.C., was the second women’s finisher, 30th overall, with a time of 39.25.6, followed by Anne Wheatly, 34, of Asheville, N.C., who finished 35th overall with a time of 39:51.4.
Although the top finishers hailed from the southeast, race director Jim Deni noted that runners came from across the country to challenge The Bear.
“We have runners here from 26 states,” he said. “And after only six minutes of registration being open, we had a waiting list that just kept going. So, literally, to fill up that fast and have that many runners on their computers at one time, constantly refreshing their browsers, we had to keep monitoring our servers, because two years ago they crashed it.”
“Fortunately,” quipped Ruggiero, “for the race’s 25th anniversary they were able to bear it.”