National College Blue Ridge Marathon (Roanoke, VA) – April 21, 2012

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.

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First, The Storm – Operation Endurance 24 Hour Run, March 31-April 1, 2012

For my birthday race this year, I decided to do this timed race on the grounds of the Fort Benning. I was fairly familiar with Columbus, GA, since I had completed the Soldier Marathon there in 2010 and 2011 and because it is only a 5 hour drive from my home, it seemed like a reasonable way to celebrate my 65th birthday. Indeed it was!

It was sunny and bright on Friday morning as I drove up interstate 75 toward Tifton and then crossed over towards Dawson and on up to Columbus. I arrived at my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, around 2:30 pm, hoping to grab a late lunch in the hotel’s dining room. It was a bit disappointing to find out that the hotel’s restaurant was closed until 5 pm but I had brought quite a few snacks with me, so no problem – I settled into my quiet and pleasant room, made some tea, and nibbled on peanut butter crackers and granola. I rested, made my pre-race preparations (clothes to wear on Saturday, extra shoes, socks, and warm stuff for my drop back, reviewed the directions to the main army base, etc.), and then settled in to read and watch some mindless television programs. I had my usual dinner meal of homemade bread and peanut butter and ice water and tried to sleep. That was not easy despite my fatigue from the drive – I was too excited about this race.

One thing I had neglected to do before leaving Florida was check the weather for northwest Georgia. Big mistake, that – as soon as I arrived at the hotel, a rainstorm developed and, while I was thankful that I didn’t have to drive in the rain, I did begin to wonder about the weekend weather. After checking the local forecast on the television (which called for thunderstorms that evening and into Saturday), I realized that I had neglected to bring my yellow rain slicker that fits like a jacket and has lots of zippered pockets for things like tissues, Ipod, food, and such. All I had was a big loose one-size-fits-all poncho that had no pockets at all. Oh, well, I could tough it out.

Woke up around 4 am, had my bread and coffee, dressed in my usual racing gear, put on my relatively new pair of Saucony racers (with my latest version of Brooks Cascadia trail shoes and extra socks in my drop bag just in case), and headed out to the base. Packet pickup was to begin at 7 am but I was there by 6:30. Well, hey, I was excited and eager to start. However, the weather was not very accommodating. It began to rain – HARD – with thunder and lightening all around us. This race is run on a one mile running track, partly shaded with tall trees, and a large expanse of open space in the center and along one half of the track. The lightening was the scariest part of the storm and, although the race director earlier said that we would start on time, she quickly rethought that and realized it was safer to wait another half hour. That gave us a chance to talk to other participants and the time passed very quickly. I chatted with several people, including Joyce and her husband (he was there to crew for her but he kindly cheered all runners on as they passed by on each loop- that always gave me a much needed boost).

At 8:30 we were given some last minute instructions and we all took off – with rain still pouring down and the occasional clap of thunder, but with a minimum of lightening. Of course, the level field was now awash with water. There were huge puddles everywhere and mud everywhere else. It only took a few minutes before I was completely drenched, with water dripping from my glasses, my clothes, and my cap. Oh, well, I thought, I might as well just relax and enjoy it. I began to feel like a little kid again, splashing through mud puddles and watching the rain come down in sheets all around me.

I don’t like being wet and I don’t care for being cold, so it was not the perfect start to the day. However, I would much rather get the rain over with early in the morning rather than have rain at night with never a chance for sun and heat to warm me up and dry my clothes. The rain continued for another 3 hours or so, until finally, in the early afternoon, it stopped. Hooray!
This race also had a 12 hour and a 6 hour option, so for those people who were starting at 8 pm instead of 8 am, the weather was not an issue.

Well, nothing can be done about the weather, so everyone just pushed on through, although I met one Maniac, Ed, who told me he spent the first 4 hours of the race in his car waiting for the rain to stop. That wasn’t such a bad idea, but for a walker like myself, it would have dimished my chances of getting a good bit of mileage in so I am glad I just toughed it out.

Enough about the weather, on to the logistics. There was one aid station located just after the start/finish line. It had a full array of food and drink, one of the best ultra ‘buffets’ I have experienced (although I must admit that most ultras have a tantalizing selection of delicacies). I never went hungry and managed to down an amazing variety and quantity of goodies, including pb & j quarters, cheese quesadillas, humongous chocolate chip cookies, potato chips (okay, those were a bit soggy because of the damp but still), pizza, pasta, hot chocolate, soda, gatorade, coffee, and on and on.

The race was chip timed with rectangular chips attached to paper bibs that had our names and numbers on them. Unfortunately, the bibs were not water-resistant and the constant downpour made the printing run and the paper begin to disintegrate. I ended up having to hold the chip up to the sensor every time I passed through the chute. This was not a problem at all, just a bit different, and knowing my tendency to lose chips, I had to concentrate on its whereabouts throughout the race. It was actually pretty funny, come to think about it.

There were 4 portapotties on the course itself plus real bathrooms in the Smith Gym a short walk away. The gym was only open from 9 am to 5 pm so I made sure to visit there at least twice during those hours so I could have access to hot and cold running water and dry warm toilets. There were also real bathrooms in the bowling alley, available until 9 pm, but that was set a bit more off the course and I never saw any runners use those.

As for the course itself, there were two things I had a problem with. The first was the flat, VERY FLAT, track; I began to get shin splints after only 2 laps and these continued to be a problem with every successive lap I did. One runner I met had intended to do 50 miles in her 12 hour race but had to stop after 17 laps because she also had a major problem with shin splints. Me, I just pushed on through, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I am exceedingly stubborn (and perhaps not all that smart, either). I tend to do much better on courses with some rolling hills or at least some variation in terrain and elevation. I am not sure how I could have prepared for this or prevented it. Most runners, I think, would find a very flat course to be a real boon but for me it just turned out to be a problem.

The other thing which bothered me about the course was the gravel. It got into my shoes and my socks and was a real irritant. I wore my regular running shoes and Injinji socks for 18 hours and then changed into my Cascadia and Thorlos just for the chance to have clean stuff to wear. I had no problem, thank goodness, with blisters or any other issues with my feet, just the gravel. This could be prevented by wearing gaitors, and I plan to get some (and remember to pack them) for next time.

Now that I have complained about the things that went wrong, I have to emphasize that there were a tremendous number of good things about this race. First, it was held in a beautiful area in a safe and secure environment. The course is well-lit and I never had to use my flashlight or headlamp during the evening hours. But the very best thing about this race is the people. The race is put on by the Georgia Ultrarunning & Trailrunning Society (GUTS), Kena Yutz is the Race Director, and Perry Sebastian is the Keeper of the Timeclock. They were superb (Perry patiently told me which number loop I was on every time I passed by, thank you so much for that, Perry, it was a big help to me) as were all the volunteers who manned the aid station and helped with other tasks. A special thank you to the wonderful lady who gave me a bagel in the wee morning hours to help settle my queasy stomach. While I’ve found ultrarunners to be a friendly group (especially to walkers), the participants in this race were exceptionally so. Despite the rain, and the pebbles, and the shin splints, I had a terrific time.

At first I wanted to try to get 100 miles during this race; that would be a great birthday present for me. I soon realized that I would need to drastically revise that goal. I first hoped to get to 27 loops (so it would be an actual ultramarathon), then 50 k, then 50 miles (I managed to do that in 13 hours), then 100 k, and anything over that would be gravy. I think I probably would have stopped soon after reaching 100 k if not for the enthusiastic cheering from Perry and Kena and the other GUTS members and Joyce’s husband and other people along the course every time I passed by. I managed to complete 79 loops, probably just under 79 miles (final results are not yet posted), in 23 hours and 45 minutes. I was very satisfied with that finish.  Since I discussed goals here (and goals tend to be a major focus of most of my races), I want to mention a comment that Heather, one of the 12 hour runners, made to me.  When I asked what her goal was for this race, she replied that she had 2 goals: the first was to have fun and the second was to ‘not die.’  I think those are both admirable goals to have and from now on I intend to adopt those two goals as primary with any mileage goals I might have as of lesser importance.

As we crossed the finish line for the last time, we were given a dogtag medal with the name of the race and the date on it on a metal chain.  How appropriate for a race on a military base!  It was similar to the medals from the Soldier Marathon (also held at Ft. Benning in November every year) but not as big or as heavy.  As I noted in my reply to Dan below, we also received a good quality short-sleeved cotton tee shirt with the name of the race emblazoned on the front.

There was a breakfast after the race but I was stuffed from all the munchies I had over the past 24 hours, so how could I eat anything? At my car, I took off my shoes and socks and dumped as much sand and dirt out of them as I could, then changed into clean socks and sandals and managed to drive myself back to my hotel (that was a challenge). After a shower and a nap and a call to my husband to fill him in on all the details, I felt much better – sore but refreshed. I spent the afternoon and evening dozing, watching reruns of Mary Tyler Moore on tv, and snacking and rehydrating. After a good night’s sleep, I drove home and intend to spend the next week taking it easy. At least that’s the plan! Operation Endurance turned out to be a great adventure and I highly recommend it. But next time I will be sure to bring gaitors with me. And if anyone has some good ideas on how to prevent and deal with shin splints, I sure would be interested.