Sunday, April 22, 2012

Race Recap: The Blue Ridge Marathon

What does it mean to run a race that advertises itself as "the nation's toughest road marathon"? What does it mean to run a marathon that has 3,600 feet of both climbing and descending?

At the pasta dinner on Friday night before the race, an organizer for the Blue Ridge Marathon took us all through the course. The real difficulty with the course, he said, was on the downhill sections. Does it make more sense to slow down and save your legs for later, or just roll with the hills and run as fast as you can? The downhills are so steep that it's pretty much impossible to avoid pounding your legs no matter what the pace, so why not just run them fast? Your quads are going to be hurting at the end regardless.

It's an enigma.

My plan was to try to have fun while running the race. I'd stop and take pictures, and walk whenever the hills got too steep. I'd walk through the water stations, and I'd play the downhill sections by ear. But I still wanted to finish faster than I did at Steamboat, where I pretty much collapsed in the second half and ran a 4:08.

I had driven up to Roanoke for the race with Bobby Aswell, who would be going quite a bit faster than me, and Mike MacIntyre, whose goal was just to finish it, after being pulled off the course due to weather last year.

After the pasta dinner, we all lined up to get our picture taken with the great marathoner Bill Rodgers, who had been brought in as a speaker for the event. Here's my picture:

Bill is no idiot!

Rodgers is a great guy and was infinitely patient getting his photo taken with the hordes of admiring marathoners.

Our hotel was rather "well-worn" but after we settled in for the night the room was fine and we got up at 5:30 to get ready for the race. Although rain was in the forecast, it looked like it wouldn't hit until after Bobby and I had finished, so I decided to run in my usual race-day attire: A DART singlet, shorts, and calf sleeves. We drove to the start, where it was a comfortable 60 degrees — a little warm, but nothing to complain about given what our friends had had to deal with in Boston 6 days earlier. Here I am at the start:

We'll see how long that smile lasts...

Before I knew it, we were off -- a minute early, by my watch. That is something that simply never happens! The first mile was flat, but afforded us views of the second mountain we'd be climbing today, Mill Mountain, with a giant star on the top:

You may have to click the picture to find the star
I tried to take my first self-portrait here, with the star in the background. Unfortunately the star is obscured by a streetlight.

If you look closely, you can see our first hill in the background

At the end of Mile 1, we arrived at the first hill. It really didn't feel too bad.

Everyone is looking much better than they will in a couple hours

I have a new GPS watch that allows me to get instantaneous readings of both the current elevation and the current grade of the hill I'm climbing (or descending, as the case may be). I gave myself permission to walk whenever the grade was above 15 percent. This hill was probably closer to 10 percent, but I knew they'd be getting much steeper.

We climbed over 600 feet in two miles, reaching the first hill-top at Mile 3. In any other marathon, this would be a devastating hill, but it was just a prelude to what was coming. I took a brief walk-break at the water station, then continued on. We were now on a scenic two-lane backroad, with no houses in sight and only the occasional spectator to cheer us on. The half-marathon splits off at Mile 3, so suddenly there were very few runners around. Around Mile 6, we headed up the first really significant hill. A highway sign offered some good advice for runners looking for an enjoyable marathon:

Not even to use the porta-john?

The road was dramatically steeper here, with several sections exceeding 15% and some getting very close to a 20 percent grade. In Mile 6 and 7 the total climb was over 800 feet, and I slowed to a 10:30 pace (that's counting stopping for photo ops and walk breaks). I reached a false summit at an aid station and got one of the volunteers to take my photo.

Not quite there yet....

For the last half-mile of the climb, runners were streaming by in the opposite direction, and I saw Bobby in time enough to give him a high-five (but not to get a photo). Finally at Mile 7 I summited Roanoke Mountain, where the aid-station volunteers gave us all a rousing ovation.

The volunteers were enthusiastic throughout the course

By this point I had started taking two waters at every aid station. After getting my water, I walked to make sure I drank every drop, then headed back down the mountain. I didn't have a good sense of how to take these sustained downhills, so I just ran by feel, trying to pick a pace that took advantage of the grade, without completely destroying my quads. It ended up being a little slower than I thought; my pace hovered around 7:30, which isn't much faster than my pace for the entire Richmond Marathon. It was steep, but fortunately there weren't any sections where it felt like I couldn't run at all.

Despite the blur, I think this road sign captures what I was dealing with on the downhills

Every half-mile or so, even on these isolated rural routes, there'd be a couple fans cheering runners on. Here's a pair at a bridge at the start of the third major climb:

That's the spirit!

Soon after this at around Mile 11, someone yelled "You're almost finished!," causing the runner behind me to laugh uncontrollably. I said, "I think what he meant was that you're almost to the point when saying 'you're almost finished' doesn't evoke laughter," thus evoking even more laughter....

Next we'd be climbing Mill Mountain, with the star at the summit. The slope wasn't quite as steep as Roanoke, and I only took a couple of walk breaks. Every once in a while this runner with a strong German accent would pass by and ask if I knew how far it was to the top. Since I had a GPS and knew the elevations of all the major summits, I'd tell him in feet how much more climbing was left. Then I wondered whether I should really be giving him measurements in meters. He didn't seem to have any trouble with the numbers, no matter how I reported them. Soon, we arrived at the star:


Then we wound around the star and ran past it again, at an aid station. For some reason there was a person in a raccoon suit standing there, so I said "I've got to get my picture with the raccoon." I meant that I wanted to have one of the aid workers take my photo using my camera, but there was an official photographer there and he took the picture instead...which means, you don't get to see it because it's not available as I write this (and most likely I won't be willing to pay what they are charging for it when it is available). Oh well. Here's a self-portrait with the star in the background. It'll have to do.

This is the biggest illuminated star in the world!

Now it was down, down, down, 800 feet of descending to the valley floor. Once again the road was very steep, but not so steep that it wasn't runnable. Despite that I only managed about an 8-minute pace.  Oh well, it was a pretty, fun descent. The jostling and bumping from the downhill run made it very uncomfortable to keep my camera in my belt, so I decided to just carry it. This meant I took a lot more pictures in this section.

Here I am running downhill

Catching up with the last-place half-marathoners

Passing through the historic Mill Mountain toll booth (no charge for marathoners)

Heading into a very swanky neighborhood. Nice house!

The swanky homes all had fantastic views

Finally I made it to the bottom and put the camera away. I was at Mile 16, a "flat" mile with just 91 feet of climbing (AKA more than Boston's "Heartbreak Hill). One last big climb remained. As I started up the hill, the local residents were outside their homes cheering me (and all those other runners) on. "This is the last hill," they'd tell us. I knew there was actually one more hill after this one, but they were right that this was the last really big one. I ran past more beautiful homes, and I walked a lot. Other runners seemed more determined to keep running all the way up, but they weren't gaining any ground on me, so I felt like I probably was taking the right approach here. For the final stretch, we ran up a cul-de-sac and got to see the other runners coming down. I didn't see Bobby, so I knew he was well ahead of me. Then it was down, down, down, to Mile 20, where the route took one last cruel turn up another steep hill, probably another 200 feet of climbing over a half-mile. When we finally reached the top, we were greeted with this sign:

The problem is, downhill was now just as painful as uphill

In the above picture you can see a guy in a rust-colored shirt, who was about 50 yards ahead of me. Whenever the locals would cheer him on, he'd raise both arms and whoop, much to their amusement. I gradually caught up to him on the downhill, and we chatted a bit, picking up the pace to around 8:20 per mile. But I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep this up for long, and on Mile 22, he dropped me. We were winding through city streets, and near Mile 23, we passed our hotel:

It was probably a good thing that I didn't have a room key on me.

It was turning into a very warm day -- around 70 degrees, so not Boston 2012-warm, but still warm enough in the sun to cause massive sweating. My shorts were drenched. Now it was just a battle of will. The course was basically flat, and ideally I'd be running it at around an 8:00 pace. 9:00 was more realistic, but the temptation to take walk-breaks was strong. I tried to wait for water stations, but sometimes I just gave in and walked mid-mile. Here I am in one of my more determined moments:

I'm smiling outside, but feeling truly lousy inside

On and on I ran. Despite having climbed the "last hill", there was yet another hill, about a 70-foot climb, in Mile 24. It was a gradual incline across a footbridge, but I could definitely feel it. I walked the bridge. I was now running through an industrial area, hoping that I'd get a bit of an adrenaline surge for the final two miles, but it wasn't forthcoming. About a mile from the finish, I passed this:

The Red Cross? Seriously? I think the race director is toying with us.

And on and on... Finally I could actually see the finish line. Unfortunately it was about a half-mile away. I tried to pick up the pace. I figured Bobby would probably be there to take a picture at the end, so I got ready to assume a triumphant pose. Unfortunately just as I arrived, a trio of half-marathoners was also crossing the line, hand-in-hand. I slowed down to a walk as Bobby snapped the shutter, so here's what he got. It's probably a pretty accurate rendering of my condition at the time:

I made it!

Then I got my medal, shook the race director's hand, and posed for a finish-line shot with Bobby. Once again, how I look is a good approximation of how I was feeling at the moment:


I knew I should have some food, but none of the finish-line fare looked particularly appetizing. I grabbed a couple bananas and managed to choke them down. Even more impressively, I managed to keep them down. After resting for 30 minutes or so, Bobby and I headed back to the hotel for a shower before returning to watch Mike finish in a thunderstorm. He had finally finished the race, after three years of trying, but not before the finish line was practically demolished by the weather! Here's the shot Bobby got of Mike crossing the line:

Mike (left) had cramped up in Mile 8 and walked the rest of the race

Overall, I'm pleased with my race. I finished in 4:02:45, which was actually fourth place in my age group, despite all my stops and walk-breaks. If I had finished just 3 minutes faster, I would have been in third and won a trophy, presented by Bill Rodgers. Bobby won our age group and got to do just that. And all three of us can now say we've finished what is arguably the nation's most technically difficult road marathon. According to my Garmin, we climbed and descended 3,953 feet. Compare that to Grandfather Mountain, with 2,800 feet of climbing and only 1,800 feet of descending.

On any given day, the racing conditions can make a race more difficult. There is no doubt in my mind that the competitors in the Boston Marathon had a tougher challenge this year, facing an official high temperature of 89 degrees, and likely temperatures much higher than that, running most of the race on blacktop with no shade. Nonetheless, it really did feel great to complete such a challenging course. I'm glad to have been a part of it.

My Garmin plot of the event is below.


  1. Awesome recap. Congrats!!

  2. Enjoyed the race report and pictures. I carried my camera for Mt. Desert in Oct. but decide not to for B.R. great finishing time. Congrats!

  3. Great recap!! I'm impressed that you ran that race so fast and still took all of those great pictures!!

  4. thanks for the recap!!