Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Race Strategy: Blue Ridge Marathon

I signed up for the Blue Ridge Marathon because I wanted a challenge, and because I wanted to run a marathon where I wasn't constantly worrying about my overall pace and finishing time. You might say I'm running it for "fun," but I'm not sure that's the appropriate term when you're talking about a race that bills itself as "America's toughest road marathon."

This is a race that has incorporated its elevation profile into the race logo -- check this out:

(I'm pretty sure the runner is not to scale)
The Blue Ridge Marathon brags about its cumulative elevation gain: 3,620 feet. It also brags about its cumulative descent -- 3,614 feet. The combined toll of the climbs and quad-pounding descents means this will be a serious challenge.

Just how serious? Let's compare it to the other two "hilly" marathons I've run:

Elevation profiles, normalized for vertical scale
To make this graph, I compressed the vertical scale on my Garmin plots of Big Sur and Steamboat to match the scale of the Blue Ridge profile. Big Sur is unquestionably a hilly marathon, with about 1,800 feet of climbing and descending according to Garmin. But its hills barely register when you place it next to the Blue Rige profile. Even Steamboat, with its massive descent from 8,200 feet to 6,700 feet, doesn't look very imposing next to the Blue Ridge marathon.

Blue Ridge has three massive descents of over 500 vertical feet, along with a half-dozen others that would count as major hills on any other course. The 500-foot climb in the first three miles would be devastating in most other races, but here it's just a prelude to three tougher climbs in Miles 5-7, 12-13, and 15-19. The final five miles look to be relatively flat, but at that point I expect my legs to feel floppier than a limp rag.

My primary goal in this race is just to have fun. It's tempting not to even bring a Garmin, but I'm too much of a data junkie to leave it at home. I want to follow along as I climb the hills, to see just how steep that last climb is, and how much I slow down for the climbs and speed up on the descents.

I also have a vague goal of finishing faster than I did at Steamboat. As tough as Blue Ridge is on paper, I still think I should be able to complete it faster than 4:08. I count roughly 9 miles worth of climbing in this race, so even if I only climb at an average pace of 11 minutes per mile, if I run the rest of the race at a relatively easy 8 minutes / mile, that gives me a total of 3:56.

I plan on walking through all the water stops to ensure I get plenty to drink, and I'm also planning on bringing a camera. But even if I stop to take a few pictures, there's no way those breaks will add more than 12 minutes to my time. Unless this race is a lot harder than it looks.

The only other strategy I plan on employing is a strategy of knowledge. Knowing the course makes it easier to handle, so I'm going to memorize the location of the major peaks in the race beforehand: Mile 3.1 (1483 feet), Mile 7.4 (2125 feet), Mile 13 (1735 feet), Mile 19 (1604 feet), and one last tough hill at Mile 20.5 (1167 feet).

I won't be carrying water -- there are 18 water stops in the event, so that should be plenty. I will be carrying a couple extra gel packs. I don't want to repeat the experience I had at Richmond where I thought I had one last gel for Mile 24, and it wasn't there. I'll need 9 gels for this race: One at the start, 6 for my regular 4-mile intervals, and 2 extras.

I do expect that I will be walking at times on some of these hills. The gradient on the hills is as high as 18 percent, and that's not something I can just run straight up with no breaks. Not all the hills are that steep -- 10 percent is more common than 18 -- but that's still a serious grade that's going to require breaks on longer stretches. I asked my friend and veteran ultra-runner Jeff McGonnell how to manage the hills, and he said that if I had to walk, I should "walk with purpose," swinging the arms and making as much progress as possible. Makes sense, and I'll try to follow that advice as I go.

I'll be heading up to Roanoke on Friday afternoon, enjoying a pasta dinner with legendary marathoner Bill Rodgers (and a couple hundred of our friends), and then racing on Saturday. I can't wait!

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