When I originally signed up for three marathons in the five marathon Appalachian series, I thought it would be the proverbial ‘piece of cake’ – all we had to do was drive up to North Carolina, then on to South Carolina, and then to Georgia on successive days. The only wrinkle in this plan was the late starting time for the Gator-LSU game. If my husband went to the game we would end up driving to North Carolina very late at night, arriving in the wee hours on Sunday. Our other option was to rise up early on Sunday and drive all the way to NC after only a few hours of sleep. Instead, Darcy decided to forego attending the game entirely; this meant we could leave on Saturday afternoon, spend a restful night in Savannah, and then leave refreshed for NC. I felt guilty that he missed the game but I certainly did appreciate the sacrifice. He probably figured wisely that keeping his Maniac wife happy and content was worth it.
The Appalachian Series of five races in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia is put on by Mainly Marathons, the brainchild of Clint and Hanne Burleson. They put on half and full marathons in various states all over the country. Last fall, I did one of the Day of the Dead series in New Mexico. The races usually range from 4 to 5 in number and cover neighboring states, so 50 Staters and Marathon Maniacs who want to knock out several states in a week or increase their mileage and race count can do so relatively easily. It’s a great idea as long as you don’t mind jumping in a car immediately after completing a race and driving to the next venue. Chuck Savage’s series of races in New England and Florida is very similar although not so wide-ranging.
We left early Saturday afternoon and had an uneventful drive to Savannah. Our hotel was the DoubleTree at the airport, a new hotel with all-suite rooms. It was very clean and attractive, all the more so because I was able to combine points and cash for a room that ended up costing us only $45, a real bargain. We had dinner at a nearby Olive Garden and then relaxed.
Early the next morning we took off for Morganton, NC, about a 6 hour drive from Savannah. We checked into the local Hampton Inn and set off to find the next day’s race site along the Catawba River Greenway. This course was a paved out-and-back with a few turns, a bridge that crossed the Catawba River, and a couple of small rolling hills. We had a late lunch at Judge’s Riverside Restaurant, adjoining the race course. Packet pickup was not until morning so we spent a relatively restful night (yes, even though this was the night before a race, I was fairly relaxed; these races tend to be fairly low-key with ‘no worries’).
Monday morning we set out for the Greenway about an hour before the 7:30 am race start. I picked up my bib, the same one I would use for all 3 races. In addition, I received a short-sleeve blue cotton tee shirt and a packet of information with a small poster and a large round medal with lanyard and a metal 2014 date that would hook onto the bottom of each state’s medal. Then, after every day’s race, I received a medal in the shape of that particular state. Each state hooked onto the previous one to make one long bell pull-like arrangement. Very unique. Races are not chip-timed; instead they use the rubber-band method – every time a participant completes a lap, he or she picks up a rubber band. It is a workable and low-cost way to keep track of laps.
The Southeast had been experiencing tornados and rain storms for several days. I felt fortunate that on Wednesday only a light drizzle was expected. Still, the preceding day’s storm had left a few large puddles on the course that we had to skirt. North Carolina’s race turned out to be the easiest and prettiest of the three races I finished in this series. Just a short period of light rain, a shaded course, 14 laps, and temps in the low 70’s – it all added up to a very good day. My finishing time was 6:40:19. After a few minutes spent stretching and the requisite cup of chocolate mile, we were off to Seneca, SC.
It took about 3 hours to get to Seneca on windy twisting back roads. We found our hotel, another Hampton Inn, and had a late lunch at JPeters Grill where I had a Caesar salad with grilled chicken and sweet potato fries. After checking out the soccer complex area where the next day’s race was to be held, it was time to go to bed.
I rose early on Tuesday and we headed out to the race site. The course was a hiking/cycling path around the soccer fields and, while not very scenic, it was paved and had only a couple of short steep inclines. The problem today was RAIN. It rained ALL day and came down very hard at times. There were amazingly deep puddles that completely covered the asphalt and soaked the grass along the path’s edges. It was impossible to skirt the puddles (I know, I tried) so my shoes and socks got wet and stayed wet. At least it was not freezing cold. Temperatures stayed in the 60’s; otherwise, I would have dropped to the half marathon distance. In fact, I did consider dropping when my clothes got completely soaked during the first 2 ½ hours and I was miserable. I called my husband to let him know what I was thinking but he didn’t answer his cell. When he arrived I told him my thoughts and he said ‘you’d better continue on or you will regret it later.’ He was probably right. I hung in there, finishing in an abysmal 7:01:01. Immediately after getting my South Carolina medal I went into the rest room to change into warm DRY clothes and felt 100% better.
Next, we were off to Georgia. This drive was considerably shorter and more direct. We were staying in Helen, a small German-inspired town in the hills of the northern part of the state. Unfortunately, our hotel here was a disaster. There are very few brand-name hotels in Helen so, after checking Trip Advisor, I had selected one that had been given very high ratings. Those high ratings were completely misleading, a fact we discovered when the manager – after our stay – said that if we gave the hotel 5 stars on Trip Advisor, he would enter us in a drawing for a free night. Not very ethical, we thought, but it probably explains the positive remarks we read on the site. The hotel was called Riverbend Motel – and back in the 1950’s it might have been a good place to stay (it may have been the only place) but for travelers in 2014 it barely rates one star. Our meal was somewhat better; we ate at a German restaurant, the Bodensee Restaurant, and we both enjoyed the imported beer.
We returned to our shabby accommodations and I spent a sleepless night. The room had a funky odor that was hard for me to ignore and I could hardly wait to dress and get to the race. I skipped my morning meal and coffee, opting to get something to eat at the aid station. Today’s race was in Unicoi State Park. No rain was predicted and that was mostly accurate. The sun disappeared late in the afternoon but only a few drops of rain actually fell. However, today’s course was the most difficult of all to complete. It was supposed to be gravel but because of the recent wet weather, Clint had to alter the course somewhat. It turned out to be much like a cross-country course, on rolling grass and meadow with uneven footing (easy for me to turn an ankle) with 2 short but very slippery bridges and lots of mud puddles, also slippery. I had to watch my footing on the course so I couldn’t really appreciate the scenery but I do know there were lots of tall trees, with leaves changing into a fall palette of yellows and reds. It took me a very long time to finish the race; the 16 required laps took me 7:45:19, a personal worst. Despite this, I enjoyed myself. I was especially pleased that I did not fall, not once, though I slipped a few times. I also had a good time talking with other runners and walkers who had also slowed down a lot.
After this third race, we left for Madison, GA, so we could get a head start on the drive home. We stayed at another Hampton Inn, and it seemed like a luxurious palace compared to Riverbend. My thoughts after completing these three marathons in three days is how amazingly good I feel. Of course, my legs are tired and achy, my feet are sore, and I am very tired, but otherwise I feel pretty good. I think that I could handle doing five marathons in five days – and someday I hope to try.
Like all races, there are pros and cons. The positive things about the Appalachian series and others like it include:
- No time limits! Clint has a policy of ‘no runner (or walker) left behind’ so time-challenged racers can confidently sign up for these races without worrying about time. There is even a caboose award for the last runner
- The courses are all loop or out-and-back so it is almost impossible to get lost. Even if you did, the chances are great that someone would find you fairly soon and bring you back on the right track. The laps vary from 1 to 2 miles in length, so marathoners might have to do 12 or more laps
- Because of the nature of the course, it is easy to set up a drop bag or to use one of the many tents or benches to place belongings on
- There is one aid station at the start/finish that has plenty of food and drink. In fact, the quantity and quality of the food provided is more representative of an ultra than a marathon. I especially enjoyed the thick raisin bread peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Monday and Tuesday. And I really liked having chocolate milk available after the race
- People are friendly and supportive, even (and sometimes especially) the elite runners. There is no grumbling about walkers getting in the way. Almost everyone is either a Maniac or 50 Stater or a ‘wanna-be’ and so there is a strong feeling of camaraderie
- The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. The courses are not certified so people don’t obsess about qualifying for Boston; although people always like to aim for a personal best or, for some, a finish in under 3 or 4 hours, the stress that usually accompanies these desires is absent (unless after the last race, there is a plane to catch)
In my opinion, the positive elements of these races far outweigh the negative ones. The only things that might be considered somewhat problematic include:
- Because the courses are not certified, they sometimes seem a bit longer than marathon distance. That might be one explanation why my results in loop courses are always somewhat disappointing. While I can usually finish a marathon in around 6 hours plus or minus 15 minutes, these courses usually take me much longer
- It is hard to know the exact nature of the course until the day of the race. If the course is supposed to be paved, it often is, but there are times when last minute changes must be made (as happened in day 5 of this series). Since I dislike trails of any sort, I might need to make adjustments in my expectations
- Getting in a car and driving/riding for several hours immediately after completing a race is exhausting. By the time I arrive at the new destination, there is barely time to check out the next day’s location, take a shower, grab a bite to eat, and get some rest. It can be a daunting but worthwhile challenge
Overall, these are pretty small complaints. These races are highly recommended for walkers who want to cover a lot of ground in a short span of time.