A winding road follows the Pigeon River and weaves through valleys near the Smokies and the town of Canton in western North Carolina. Nestled in one of these remote areas is the Cold Mountain Game Land.
While primarily a hunting area, runners and volunteers fill the trails one weekend every year for the Cold Mountain 50K and 25K. Due to the remote and precarious location of the event, the United States Forest Service requires racers to carry a space blanket, a whistle, and headlamp. Both the 25k and 50K boast high-elevation gains and descents, risky mountain weather, and a quest for tokens.
Now a staple of western Carolina trail running, the Cold Mountain race was started by Corey Alexander, a 39-year-old living in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2020. Corey is known in running circles as a proud father, adventurous ultra runner, and up-and-coming race director.
Corey grew up in Asheville and had the surrounding mountains and forests as hisplayground. His father was a horticulturist and forester who also loved backpacking, trout fishing, and the wilderness in general. He began taking Corey on trips into Shining Rock and the Middle Prong Wilderness nearby, 30 minutes to an hour outside of Asheville, at a very young age. Corey grew to love and respect Cold Mountain as the epicenter of his father’s favorite places. Corey’s been to the summit of Cold Mountain more than any other mountain. To this day, he said, he considers it his“home” mountain.
Corey purchased a house in Canton, 20 minutes from Asheville and lived there for 13 years. He could see Cold Mountain from his backyard and often ran to the peak as a training run. While in Canton, he formed a running group called the Milltown Milers—it is thriving after 3 years. He built ties with runners, city councils, and local businesses owners
, such as BearWaters Brewing, as he became a running leader there. He also worked with the city to create a charity 5K event.
When Corey lived in Canton, he began exploring the old logging trails in a little-known area called the Cold Mountain Game Lands. He quickly realized how beautiful it was and noticed that he never saw other runners there.
“On one of my many evening runs there, I stopped to enjoy the sunset looking over the Lake Logan valley and a light bulb just popped on in my head,” he said. “Why was I the only runner that knew about this place? Why wasn’t there a trail race here?”
It was on that day Corey decided to bring a challenging trail event to Haywood County, North Carolina. He was the first race director in the county to apply for a trail running race permit. “At first they (local officials) seemed very surprised about what I was trying to do, but have embraced it with open arms,” Corey said.
When the lightbulb went off, Corey had already volunteered and competed in trail races. But organizing a race for the first time was challenging. “Navigating and learning what the US Forest Service requires for these events is not easy,” he said. “I made connections and developed relationships with land managers, local search and rescue squads, fire departments and medical teams.” He looked to Aaron Saft, a coach, director, and respected local trail runner, for mentorship.
Over time, he found the right fit of trails and abandoned fire roads for the race which he launched for the first time in 2020.
When the first race happened in 2020, it attracted 79 runners. One aspect that makes the race unique is the quest for tokens: During the race, runners must collect three tokens at various vista points. He added the token component of the race to add a special tradition of his own, inspired by the book pages from the Barkley Marathon, a venerable race among ultra runners in Tennessee.
Organizing a race shifted his perspective as a runner. “Before I became a race director, when I ran a race, it was all about me,” he said. “The community was great but it still felt very individual. As a race director, I get to experience the triumphs, and disappointments of every runner at my event.”
Participant statistics. Via Ultra Signup & Corey Alexander.
Luckily for the race and Haywood County, the race happened in March before COVID-19 shutdowns happened. In March 2021, as cases declined in North Carolina, 142 participants showed up for the second run, almost double the turnout of the first year.
Kelly Garrett, an Asheville trail runner and Trail Sisters leader, volunteered at the Cold Mountain race in 2021, her first time volunteering. “Race day was filled with so much excitement and you could tell Corey really has a passion for being a race director,” Garrett said.
Carrie Baris, a Run 828 Foundation board member and trail runner, ran the Cold Mountain 50k. It’s a very runnable course with two steady, long climbs. It isn’t super technical,” Baris said. “The course is pretty, [with] lovely tree coverage throughout…The trail running community in WNC is supportive and fun. I love this race, especially because the end is a technical, two-mile descent, and that’s my kind of trail running.”
The Cold Mountain Race will not be Corey’s only legacy in Haywood County—he hopes to start other races in the expansive wilderness.
“Immerse yourself in the trail community,” he said. “Learn what you like and what you don’t like about those races. Make the local connections, and build those important relationships. Give back and be a good steward of the land. Design a race that you would want to run!”
Corey’s path as a race director inspiration for blossoming or curious runners across Appalachia who want to transform local parks and build local connections. The decentralized nature of trail races means that almost any rural area can organize one and bring people together who may not otherwise meet.
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Alena Klimas is a trail enthusiast based in Asheville, North Carolina. Klimas is an avid mountain biker and trail runner. She’s a board member of North Carolina Mountain Trail Runners and cofounder of expatalachians. Klimas ran the Cold Mountain 25K in 2021 (traditional post-race beer pictured).