Grandfather Mountain Highland Games kick off with The Bear run

GRANDFATHER’S MOUNTAIN – Don’t be put off by the misty fields and hovering rain clouds. It’s all part of the appeal of the 63rd Annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.

One of the Scottish Highlands’ biggest games this side of the pond, the four-day all things Scottish kicked off on Thursday with the grueling 5-mile The Bear run, and continues through Sunday with traditional Scottish Highland music, culinary, dancing and athletics competitions.

“It’s been nice so far. It’s a misty morning and perfect for games. It makes you feel like you could be in the Scottish Highlands,” said Frank Ruggiero of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, who manages the private park where The Bear took place.

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The Games attract between 20,000 and 30,000 people from across the country and around the world, said Thomas Taylor Jr., assistant general manager of the Highland Games.

About 930 people came from across the country for the torturous fun, including Anne Wheatly, 33, of Asheville, who took third place in the women’s race.

The race started in Linville and headed out to US 221, before veering into Grandfather Mountain Nature Park and there to the highest parking lot near the Mile High Swing Bridge – an elevation gain of about 1,600 feet.

Overall winner Michael Holland, 21, of Beech Mountain, finished with a time of 33 minutes, 13.1 seconds. Holland has raced The Bear 10 times and also won the race two years ago.

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Holland, a graduate of Watauga High School and a senior at Clemson University in Greenville, South Carolina, is working toward earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

“It’s great to have made it to the top,” he said. “It was more like a competition this year, with a lot of good people. They definitely pushed me up the hill. You get to know a lot of people racing every year, though, and that’s super cool.

Matthew Borneman, 27, of Madison, Wis., was second in 33:34.9. Sandy Roberts, 30, of Raleigh was third in 34:37.5.

For her second straight year, Amanda LoPiccolo, 35, of Boone, finished first in the women’s this year at 37:24.5, beating her 2017 time – 38:34.4 – by well over a minute .

This is LoPiccolo’s second time directing The Bear. Last year, she and her family moved from Cary to Boone, where she works as a chiropractor. Her husband, Matt, works for Blowing Rock-based ZAP Fitness, a nonprofit training facility focused on post-college and Olympic distance runners.

“He kind of convinces me to do it – but it doesn’t take a lot of convincing,” she said. “We have a big group here, so it’s a lot of fun.”

Her favorite part of the course?

“The finish,” LoPiccolo said. “Having done it. To get to the top and just watch and see what you’ve accomplished is pretty amazing.”

Sophia Ritter, 16, of Boone, was second in 38:33.1. Ritter came in third last year with a time of 41:42. Wheatly was third in 39:10.6.

Although the race started in the wet mid 70s, the race took runners to the high peaks of Grandfather Mountain with windy temperatures in the upper 60s, comfortable cloud cover and light drizzle.

Race director Jim Deni said the weather is part of the mystique that surrounds The Bear.

“We had 930 runners signed up in less than 10 minutes…and we had people from 20 different states running in this year’s bear. So it’s pretty amazing 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.”

The fierce competition continues with the ultra torturous Grandfather Mountain Marathon on Saturday starting in Boone and ending on the MacRae Meadows track.

The 26.2 mile race is known as “America’s Toughest Marathon”. Riders gain 1,000 feet of elevation gain, but over the course of the course they climb more than 3,000 feet cumulatively. The last half of the race, 13 miles, is almost entirely uphill.

Tickets are still available for weekend competitions, dancing, music and other events at the Highland Games.

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are packed with competition at traditional Scottish heavyweight sporting events, Highland dancing competitions, piper, piper, drummer and harp parades, border collie herding demonstrations and concerts, featuring a colorful tapestry of Celtic music.

The country’s best Scottish athletes compete on Saturday in traditional heavyweight events, such as ‘Turning the Caber’ and ‘Tossing the Sheaf’.

“Until you see it, it’s hard to explain,” Taylor said of the Games. “You have to see it, smell it and hear it yourself. learn more about their ancestry.

“But you don’t have to be Scottish. Just come to the mountains, listen to music, meet interesting people. It makes you part of something bigger.”

If you are going to

The 63rd Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, which began July 12, ran until July 15 at MacRae Meadows in Grandfather Mountain. For tickets and more information, visit

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Jennifer R. Strohm