America’s Toughest Road Marathon Revisited: Foot Leveler’s Blue Ridge Marathon: Roanoke, Virginia – April 20, 2013

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?

Boston . . . .

BostonMy heart goes out to all the runners and their families and all the spectators and race authorities and police and EMTs and doctors – well, you get the idea. I’m finding it hard to express exactly how deeply the bombings yesterday have affected me – as a racer and a human being. Far from being intimidated by this cowardly act of terrorism, I find myself determined to participate even more fervently in races, high profile or not, because to not do so would be to let the bad guys win.

The Pickled Feet Ultra, 12 Hour Version – March 30, 2013 (Boise, ID)

The attraction of the Pickled Feet panoply of races (besides the intriguing name) was the chance to try for 100 miles on a relatively level 2.5 loop with a generous time limit of 32 hours. Surely I could manage that. After all, I had finished 100 miles at UltraCentric in 30.5 hours. What I had not bargained for, though, was the trail aspect of this race. I began to get concerned when I looked more closely at the photos of the trail on the race website. It looked to me like there were quite a few rocks and possibly some roots as well. Perusing the text more closely made me even more cautious. Those who signed up for the 100 miler but did not actually complete 100 miles would get a DNF, or Did Not Finish. So far, I have been able to complete all the races I have started so I wanted to avoid a DNF if I could.

I began to consider some of the other options available. The 24 hour race appealed to me. It cost the same as the 100 miler but there was no requisite number of miles to accumulate; as long as I completed at least one of the 2.5 mile loops, I would get a finishing time. I emailed Emily, the race director, and asked if I could transfer to the 24 hour race from the 100 miler and she responded promptly saying there would be no problem at all.

With that settled, I began to look forward to our trip to Idaho. I packed a drop bag with several changes of clothes, expecting it to be relatively cold (it was) and possibly rainy (it wasn’t). My husband and I left early on Thursday for the JAX airport so we could travel the three legs to Boise via Atlanta and Salt Lake City, arriving around 3 pm mountain time. After we retrieved our checked bags and our rental car, we headed straight to The Pulse Sporting Goods Store, site of packet pickup and right on the route to our hotel. It took only minutes to get the cute little orange bag with some race flyers, a hot pink short sleeve female specific tech tee shirt, and some Hammer gels as well as a parking pass to allow us to enter Eagle Island State Park, the race venue, without paying an admission fee.

Then it was on to the host hotel, a clean and convenient Marriott Springhill Suites located just outside Boise proper. I was able to change our reservation from the more expensive AAA rate to the race event rate of $88 per night, thanks to the kind desk agent. We headed out to a nearby Red Robin for our first real meal of the day. Up to that point we had subsisted on airline snacks and Sky Club offerings but no actual meal, so both of us were famished. Although I usually refrain from meat, I indulged in a burger with mushrooms, cheddar, and onions with a side of sweet potato fries. Yum! Those Red Robin commercials are spot on. After we returned to our hotel room, satiated and exhausted, it took about 30 minutes for us both to fall into a deep sleep.

As usual I awoke early and had my first cup of coffee and a granola bar down in the lobby area so my husband could get a few more hours of sleep. Around 7 am or so, I woke him up to begin our day. Readers of this blog already know that our trips, while centered on good races for walkers, also focus heavily on food and restaurants, at least whenever my husband comes along. That was true on this trip for sure. My husband did his research well. He found a neat place to eat breakfast called The Egg Factory where we indulged ourselves with corned beef hash and eggs (Darcy) and oatmeal raisin nut pancakes (me).

After this generous repast, I began to focus my thoughts on the upcoming race. It was now Friday and the 100 mile participants had started their race at 10 am, so Darcy and I headed out to Eagle Island State Park to scout out the trail, check on the aid station/porta-potty situation, and see how everyone was doing. This turned out to be an excellent idea. Since the 24 hour race was to begin at 6 pm, the first 12 hours would essentially be in the dark. Headlamps or hand-held lights were essential. I had brought 3 with me, plus extra batteries, but I was still concerned that I might trip and fall, so I wanted to see exactly what I was up against. I’m a morning person so just staying awake until a nighttime start would be difficult.

There was one central aid station to the side of the start/finish line and two indoor toilets for women and the same (I am guessing) for men. Food was plentiful and consisted of the usual ultra staples: a variety of sandwich quarters, potato chips and other salty stuff, cookies, candy (including chocolates), trail mix, sports drink, water, soda, and S-caps. At some point during the 32 hours of the race, there were thin slices of pizza and cheese quesadillas. A number of picnic tables under a covered area allowed for people to put their drop bags. The medical tent was situated across from the aid station. It was good to know it was there but I really didn’t want to know about it first-hand.

Darcy and I walked the entire 2.5 mile course which consisted of an elongated loop with a lollypop stick out and back. Once the short ‘stick’ section was done, participants could continue either clockwise or counter-clockwise around the course; the distance was the same in either direction. There were strategically placed signs with arrows at every turn, along with colored streamers. The trail wrapped around Eagle Island Pond and a section of the Boise River. Terrain was wide and non-technical, sandy in parts, hard-packed dirt in others, with only a few roots, but strewn with numerous rocks of various sizes. The rocks were a problem for me. Many were rounded and potentially slippery, while others were thicker and wider – excellent tripping hazards for a self-proclaimed klutz like me.

Although the course was essentially flat, with only one minor hill, there were lots of swales and holes (probably made by horses, moles, or other animals) so the land wasn’t perfectly level. After we completed our tour of the course, both Darcy and I concluded that even the 24 hour race might be treacherous for me. As a result, I decided to opt for the 12 hour day option. Once again, switching races turned out to be a simple matter. I was also able to pick up my race bib with chip attached right then instead of having to wait until later that day or the next morning.

Now I had an extra evening to ‘relax’ and obsess about the race. Still, I was relieved that I would not be starting a long trail race in the dark and cold. I had misgivings about my ability to manage even a 50K on this course but that was the goal I set for myself. I also wanted to complete the race in an upright position. After a pleasant early dinner on the patio at Willowcreek Grill, we returned to our hotel where I packed my drop bag with extra shoes and socks and warm clothes, laid out my clothes for the morning, and tried to sleep.

I set my alarm for 3 am but woke up just before it went off. After one cup of coffee and some bread, I was up and dressed and ready to go. Temps were in the 40’s but since it was expected to be sunny and warm, I dressed in layers and was prepared to shed clothes as necessary. Darcy drove me to the Park and we found a good spot for my drop bag. We watched as the 100 milers and 24 hour racers passed through the finish line and aid station on their way around the circuit. Most of them looked tired but still in good spirits. Some of the people who had signed up for the 12 hour race decided to start at 6 pm and end at 6 am Saturday morning, just as we, the day-shift 12 hour racers would be starting. I began to get more nervous and excited as additional racers in my group began to arrive. Our pre-race briefing was set for 5:45; we listened to Emily go over the rules and then, at 6 am sharp, we took off in the darkness. The first loop was extremely difficult. I shone my headlight over the trail, trying to be careful and watch for tripping hazards. While I was last in this group, one other lady, Roz, kept my pace and we helped each other around the loop, chatting and pointing out rocks and holes to each other.

As I approached the timing clock at the end of the first loop, I saw that it had taken me 50 minutes; since I had expected that each loop would take about an hour, I was very pleased. Roz stopped to use the bathroom while I continued on. A few minutes past 7 am, dawn began to break and I could put away my light. Each successive loop became easier as I learned how to navigate the roots and rocks and hillocks. I was averaging about 40 minutes to do the 2.5 miles. There was a sign about a mile into the loop that stated ‘If you are on loop 13, this is 50K’ so my goal was to do at least 14 loops.

By 1 pm, I had 10 loops under my belt and felt fairly confident that I would reach my 50K goal. The weather had turned warm and sunny so I shed my 2 jackets and my 2 long-sleeved shirts and was now wearing just my short-sleeved tech shirt and my mesh vest and crops. My husband came by to see how I was doing and was pleased that I was still smiling and still walking upright with no falls. My feet, however, were starting to feel the effect of walking on rocks. My right foot, handicapped with a bunion that usually troubles me, was hurting, and so were both soles of my feet. I slowed down considerably as a result but was still managing to move forward.

At 4 pm, I took a break, sitting down at the aid station to have a bite to eat. While I was sitting there, the RD announced that a 3/10 mile section of asphalt would open for runners who wanted a change from trail. This was supposed to happen at 5 pm, so people could take advantage of wracking up as many miles as they could if a full loop wasn’t possible during that last hour of the race. For me, the early opening of the road section was very good news. I changed into my road shoes, let the timekeeper know I was switching to the shorter course, and headed out. It was a treat to be able to look up and around at the scenery instead of keeping my eyes on my feet all the time. Of course, 3/10 of a mile is very short but still – it was a relief to be on road rather than trail.

One neat thing that happened on this short course: as I passed by the start/finish line and the timekeeper announced my name and mileage, a runner in front of me turned around and asked me if I was the same Marsha White he had given a ride to in Cleveland at the North Coast 24 Hour last year. Indeed I was! It turned out this was Leon who had been so very kind to me at that Ohio race; I had forgotten that he lived in Boise. What a small world of ultrarunners!

I managed to stay on the course for essentially all of the 12 hours, wracking up a final total of 41.6 miles. Since my usual 12 hour road results are in the ballpark of 43-45 miles, this was excellent for me on trail. Post-race, all the racers, volunteers, and family members were treated to a huge array of Chinese food as we applauded the accomplishments of finishers and were awarded our pickled feet medals.

Good things about this race:
• It was exceptionally well-organized and efficient, from the information on the website to packet pickup to last minute details
• There were great people here – the race director was extremely helpful, all of the volunteers were wonderful, and the other runners and walkers were amazingly supportive and friendly
• The wide selection of race options meant there was something for everyone; there was even a 6 hour option for people who only wanted to spend a short time on the trail
• The course was well-marked and fairly flat (but watch out for those rocks!)
• Food and drink were plentiful
• Indoor restrooms were a blessing
• the host hotel was convenient and inexpensive
Bad things about this race: Nothing, really.

If you enjoy trail races, this is a great one to do. If you are hesitant about trails, this is a good one to test yourself on. I’m glad I decided to do the 12 hour day version and I would recommend that option for other walkers who prefer road racing but have a habit (like me) of signing up for trails.
A note about Idaho: I think there must be a test for cheerfulness in order to move into this state, or at least into Boise. Everyone we met – at the hotel, in stores and restaurants, at the airport, and at the race itself – was polite, helpful, and gracious. Maybe it is the beautiful setting or something in the water, but it sure was great to be surrounded by such terrific people. I hope to return to Idaho to race here again.