This race is called “America’s Toughest Road Marathon” – and INDEED IT IS! It is every bit as tough as they say it is. Even so, I was not sure exactly what to expect, despite studying the elevation chart and learning about the 7,234 feet of elevation change. After all, despite my 24 years of living in relatively flat Florida, I have proudly completed numerous marathons and ultras with very hilly courses. In fact, I much prefer a rolling terrain to a perfectly flat course (just read about my shin splints from doing pancake flat Operation Endurance at the end of last month) so hills and elevation don’t really scare me. However, it’s good I didn’t know what to expect before beginning the Blue Ridge Marathon or I might have reconsidered. Forget hills; these are MOUNTAINS and they are big and steep and long and beautiful.
I signed up for this race because Marathon Maniacs were offered a half price entry fee. Since it cost $80 to register for the full, that meant it would be a definite bargain for only $40. I couldn’t resist. I ignored the part about the hills because, as I mentioned above, hills don’t frighten me. The only thing that had me a bit concerned was the warning in the FAQ on the website that walkers were permitted to enter the half marathon but not the full. I emailed the race contact to ask why the discriminatory policy against walkers. I received a very quick response from a race representative who said the race director was concerned that walkers might not be able to finish the course, despite the generous 8 hour time limit. I was welcome to enter the full if I thought I could manage to complete the race. I noticed that the website was later changed and the wording about walkers was eliminated. They did put in a cutoff time for both runners and walkers at the 22 mile marker (7 hours) and that seemed more than fair. I congratulate the race administrators for being so flexible.
I bought my airline tickets to Roanoke and made a reservation at Hyatt Place. There were several host hotels that were closer to the downtown start and finish lines, but the Hyatt offered a shuttle to the expo and back as well as to the start and finish plus they offered an airport shuttle, so I opted to stay there. It was a good decision; the hotel was clean, quiet, and pleasant and the staff were extremely accommodating. In addition to being near the airport and several restaurants, the hotel was also close to a big mall. However, I also had occasion to visit the classic Hotel Roanoke and think it might have been an even better choice in terms of location. Good to know for next time!
About a week and a half before marathon weekend, the race director sent out an informative email with course maps, event schedules, and all kinds of useful things to know. I had studied the course map for the marathon carefully and tried hard to figure out and remember all the twists and turns, but it was confusing so I decided to relax and hope that the volunteers (called ‘sherpas’) and signage would be sufficient to keep me from getting lost.
I left home early on Friday morning to take the two short flights to Roanoke via Atlanta. After checking into my hotel, I had a light snack in my room and then headed downtown via the hotel shuttle. The expo did not open until 3 pm but since it was held inside the Taubman Museum of Art, I decided to go a bit early and have a look around the museum beforehand. There were several intriguing displays, including one about the Friendship Dolls of America and Japan in the 1920’s. The permanent collection had paintings of several famous American artists including Norman Rockwell. Entry fee was reasonable (especially for senior citizens). I wandered around the museum until the expo opened and then lined up to get my bib, disposable chip, and tee shirt (a short sleeve white cotton shirt with a neat design on the front). I was able to change my size from medium to small when I saw that the sizes ran large and was very glad about that since it is a shirt I will definitely wear.
After picking up my packet, I returned to my hotel room and got everything ready for race morning. Both the full, the half, and the relay began at the same time, 7:30 in the morning, and the Hyatt had a shuttle leaving at 6:15 am. I signed up and then turned in early to get a good night’s rest (or as good as I could expect, given that I am usually a nervous Nellie the night before a race). I rose early, before my 4 am alarm, had my bread and coffee, dressed, and then paced the room until 6 am when I headed downstairs to the shuttle. There I met some of the other racers. Many were doing the half and some the full and quite a few were from the DC area (it was a short 4 hour drive to Roanoke from the District). Since there was a late check-in and a bag drop-off at the museum, we were allowed to enter and stay warm inside the museum. Although the temperature was in the fairly pleasant mid-50’s, I was chilly and welcomed the chance to stay inside a warm building until the very last moment.
At about 7:10 I headed to the start line a few blocks north of the museum. Bill Rodgers (who had spoken at the pasta dinner the night before) said a few words, as did several local politicians, then a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner was played, and we were off! Warned that the first ‘hill’ was at mile 1, I planned to start taking my S-caps early and often. The ascents began as soon as we crossed the starting line, the heck with waiting until the first mile. The entire course was up, up, up, and up and then down (and down and down, but mostly UP). It was the UP sections that nearly did me in. These were NOT hills, these were MOUNTAINS. MOUNTAINS WITH A VENGEANCE. Around mile 5 or 6, as we were climbing Roanoke Mountain, a young man came up to me and said he was one of those crazy people doing the double. Yes, there were about 6 people (I think 5 men and 1 woman) who began at 2:30 that morning to do the marathon in the dead of night and then do it all over again. This man was going along at a good clip, walking part of the way (the part he was talking to me) but running mostly. He soon took off and was way ahead of me on his second marathon of the day. That early in the race I couldn’t really appreciate the fortitude and persistance and athletic ability it must have taken to complete 2 of these daunting races, one right after the other.
Especially during the first half of the race the scenery was absolutely stunning. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway, surrounded by beautiful greenery and picturesque vistas. It was a highway but there was minimal traffic. This is a relatively small race (although I have a feeling it will become popular and larger in size as word spreads) and so there were some wonderful peaceful moments of tranquility. I could keep my eyes on a runner or two ahead of me and a few behind me. No worries about getting lost. EVERY turn or crossing was either marked with arrows on the street, signs on posts, or volunteers in bright shirts, sometimes all 3. Each race was color coded. There were only a few actual street crossings and at those we had the aid of friendly and supportive police officers to help us cross. I’ve experienced many races where the police – while helpful – just stand around looking bored or talking either to each other or on their cell phones. Not in Roanoke. Here the police cheered on the runners and walkers and actually looked like they were getting a kick out of us crazy people doing these races.
Since much of the race course is in a rural area, there were not many spectators early on (except for birds and squirrels) but the volunteers more than made up for a lack of cheering crowds. The latter half of the course took us through many attractive neighborhoods and there we had people give us thumbs up signs and words of encouragement from their porches and windows. Aid stations were about every 1 ½ miles or so, with GU Brew and water. Some had gels and pretzels and other goodies. Volunteers stayed at their posts throughout the race, bless them, so even those of us at the back of the pack had sustenance and positive comments. I really appreciate those volunteers!
How did I do? Not too bad considering, but it was HARD, VERY VERY HARD. I don’t think this race is for the casual walker or the person who wants to try a first marathon. I found myself bent almost perpendicular to the ground while walking up some of those mountains. And even though the highest mountains are in the first half of the race, the hills never stopped until mile 25. The only time I usually run is on the downhills and there were some wonderful portions of this race with lovely downhills that made me feel like I was flying. At the later stages of a race, I often get cramps when I run downhill, especially when I am fatigued. That’s usually a sign to me that my running is over and I must walk from that point on. At this marathon I experienced cramps several times while WALKING up the hills. That was a first for me. I had to stretch out my hamstrings and walk a little slower to ease the pain. Fortunately, that would help and I could continue on. Taking S-caps was a given but didn’t seem to have much effect after mile 18 or so. I was so happy to see that finish line – and even though I had some cramping in that last ½ mile – I did not stop but continued on until I made it through. The announcer called out my name and home town and my finishing time. A volunteer congratulated me and put an attractive silver medal on a blue lanyard around my neck. It was no surprise that I didn’t finish in under 6 hours, but I managed to complete the race in 6:07. Considering how tough that race was, I was ecstatic! And it turns out I won first place in my age group!
For food at the finish line, there was bottled water, chocolate milk, bagels and peanut butter, and probably some other food that I didn’t notice because I was not very hungry. I walked back to the museum to wash my face and hands (it turned out to be a very warm and humid day and I was encrusted with salt). Since the awards ceremony was to be held at 2 pm and I finished close to that time, I decided to stay. Bill Rodgers gave out the awards and posed for photos with each winner. It really made my day to win my age group and shake hands with such a running icon. The awards were unique. Made out of railroad ties into the shape of a runner, each one had a little medal hung on a blue ribbon and labeled with the age group and place. My only concern was how to get this heavy item through airport security; it could easily be used as a weapon! I finally decided to pack it carefully in my suitcase and check the suitcase before going through security. It arrived home safely as did I.
Other things to note about this race: results were up later that day and every finisher of the full and half marathons were listed in the Roanoke Times the next morning. We had perfect weather this year, starting in the mid-50’s and ending in the mid-70’s. Rain was predicted for the afternoon, and some of the late finishers did have some raindrops falling on them, but it cleared up later in the day. The evening and the following day were cold and rainy, so we were very lucky. It was no surprise to me that most of the winners were from the local area. They were used to training on mountains.
When I returned home, my husband said Roanoke sounded like a pretty nice place and maybe he would come with me next year if I decide to do this race again. I agreed that Roanoke was a great place to visit but once was enough for me and the Blue Ridge Marathon. That was yesterday. But today I’m thinking that I sure had a great time and maybe I could do much better now that I know what to expect. Maybe I WILL do this race again.