Last year I returned from this race tremendously overwhelmed with the beauty of the mountain scenery and the gracious hospitality of the town of Roanoke. The unending mountainous terrain, however, made me decide that this was one race I was glad to do once but a second time? – Not on your life! Then, as a few months went by, my quads and hamstrings stopped hurting and those mountains didn’t seem quite so high anymore. I began to miss the pristine air and glorious views along the Blue Ridge Parkway. My husband suggested that he might want to come with me if I decided to do this race again. When registration opened for 2013, I decided the pull of Roanoke was just too strong to resist and I signed up. I became a Blue Ridge Blogger, encouraging others to sign up for this race – and I was even able to offer a free entry via this blog.
For a number of reasons, my hill training this year was completely absent. Every race I did from December through April was either pancake flat or had only slight elevations and miniscule hills. In 2012, at least I had the Georgia Marathon in Atlanta as preparation a month before, and while the hills of Atlanta are definitely not the mountains of Roanoke, they at least prepared me for a roller coaster onslaught of elevation changes. Not so this year. The races I did in 2013 had other challenges, to be sure, but there were no steep mountains or heart pounding elevations. As a result, I knew going into this race that I would have to take it slow and easy to avoid leg cramps and fatigue. I also expected to watch every step to avoid stumbling or falling, since I was still nursing my recently-repaired broken arm. Thank goodness this race was all on asphalt!
Two short plane rides on Thursday morning brought us to the small but convenient Roanoke airport. The race was not until Saturday so we had a day and a half to explore the town. Last year I stayed at Hyatt Place near the airport. It was a great hotel but its location was several miles from downtown so I had to rely on the hotel’s shuttle to get to and from all race activities and didn’t get to do any sightseeing (although I did enjoy its close proximity to a local shopping mall). This year I was determined to stay in the heart of the city, so we made reservations at the historic Hotel Roanoke. Originally built in 1882 by the Norfork and Western Railroad, this hotel is now a Hilton property and has undergone major renovations, including the addition of a conference center. Despite the updating, the hotel still retains much of the flavor of the original edifice.
Since we arrived before noon, our room wasn’t ready yet, so we left our luggage and went exploring. First stop was lunch at Corned Beef & Company on Jefferson Street, where I had the corned beef sandwich (what else?) and a locally-brewed beer and Darcy indulged in a huge hamburger and fries (and a beer as well). We walked around a bit more to get our bearings and then returned to the hotel to check in. Luckily for us, we were given a room on the executive floor which also allowed us access to the lounge and hot and cold snacks and soft drinks in the morning and evening.
Packet pickup was on Friday but since it didn’t begin until 3 pm, we had most of the day to roam around town. The hotel is connected via a covered walkway and escalators/stairs to the downtown central area and just about everything is within easy walking distance. Our first stop was the nearby Virginia Museum of Transportation; this museum has a model train layout, an automotive and truck gallery with lots of neat old cars, and an aviation room, but its crowning glory is the array of railroad exhibits. While we were browsing, we enjoyed watching excited children from several local kindergartens clamber aboard the trains while they listened to the docents explain about how trains operate. Outside the museum is a rail yard with many locomotives, flat cars, dining cars, Pullmans, cabooses, and baggage cars as well as buses and fire trucks.
Our next stop was lunch at Sidewinders Steakhouse and Saloon. I had a burger with mushrooms and fries while Darcy indulged in a healthy lunch at the all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar. We decided to visit one more museum before getting my race packet, so we wandered over toward the Taubman Museum of Art. On our way, however, we passed a shop called Chocolate Paper and felt the pull of dessert calling to us. We just had to stop and purchase several pieces of decadent dark chocolate. A couple of chocolates we ate right away but we did manage to save a couple of pieces for after the race.
The Taubman Museum is light and airy and attractive, with several permanent exhibits and the occasional traveling display. I am drawn to more representational artwork so I most enjoyed the traditional paintings gallery but we wandered through the entire museum until 3 pm, packet pickup time. In 2012, packet pickup for the race was held here at the Taubman but this year it was moved to the nearby City Market Building in the Historic Market District area. When we entered, there was already a long line assembled for the half marathon. The marathon line was much shorter and moved very quickly. There is no expo as such, although some local vendors like race sponsors Fleet Feet and Foot Levelers had booths. After getting my bib and chip (the old-fashioned kind to be attached to one’s shoe), we walked over to the table with Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Bart Yasso, to pay my respects. These three renowned runners were to speak at the pasta dinner Friday evening. The tee shirt this year was exceptional; full marathoners received a dark blue short sleeve tech tee that said “America’s Toughest Road Marathon” on the front and on the back gave the name of the race, the date, and all the sponsors. The shirts were gender specific and my ladies medium fit me perfectly.
Now for the race itself – the full, half, and relay all began on time at 7:35 Saturday morning. Although it was difficult to hear the announcer, I was later told there was a moment of silence to commemorate the tragedy at the Boston Marathon last week followed by the national anthem. Although I was wearing a light jacket and mittens (it was about 40 degrees at the start), I had purposely worn my Boston Marathon 2011 shirt out of respect for the Boston participants this year. I saw quite a few other racers also wearing their blue and yellow as a show of solidarity.
I had positioned myself at the very back of the runners to avoid getting squished by eager and faster racers (I was still nursing my recently broken arm and this was my first race without wearing my splint). Immediately we began going uphill, past scores of spectators who lined the streets of Roanoke for the first mile or so. I kept an eye out for my friend Dan from the Walking Site but never did meet up with him. Since he is much faster than I am, he was probably closer to the middle of the pack (it turns out he finished with a great time of just over 5 hours – amazing on this very difficult course).
This race can be described succinctly: awe-inspiring, breathtaking, tough, VERY tough. Especially for this flatlander, the 7, 234 feet of elevation change (plus more this year since flooding along the Roanoke River increased the number of feet by an additional 200) made the course exceptionally difficult. The mountains are steep but the views outstanding. After a mile or two downtown, the course follows the Blue Ridge Parkway, winding around Mill Mountain park and the zoo, up and around the daunting Roanoke Mountain, up Mill Mountain and Peakwood, through several attractive but hilly neighborhoods, and finally back to downtown. It is not a race for the faint of heart but well-worth the effort. I loved it. Still, I was overjoyed to see the finish line and receive my attractive medal on a colorful lanyard.
After a bottle of water and a slice of pizza, I was ready to check on the age group awards. Once again, the awards were railroad tie sculptures of runners and I really wanted one. My time this year was not as good as last year (6:14 compared to 6:07) but I still managed to come in first in my age group (doesn’t matter that I was the only woman in my age group). This race has a comfortable 8 hour time limit and there were at least 30 people who finished after me, so I was grateful for the extra time allotted. It is a race that can certainly be accomplished by walkers who maintain a consistent 15 minute pace up and down the mountains.
Neat town, well-organized event, pleasant people, beautiful area of the country – what more could a marathoner ask for?