Monday, July 15, 2013

Race Recap: The Grandfather Mountain Marathon

The most striking image I can give you of the Grandfather Mountain Marathon is probably this one:

It's the elevation profile. As you can see, it involves a whole heck of a lot of uphill. The race starts at the football stadium for Applachian State University in Boone, NC, at an elevation of 3,300 feet, then climbs about 1,000 feet to McRae Meadows at the base of Grandfather Mountain, where there is another sports venue -- it's the site of the annual Scottish Highland Games. But there's more than just 1,000 feet of climbing in this race, because there's also about 1,600 feet of descending -- so the total ascent is over 2,600 feet.

Since a typical "hilly" marathon might involve 500 to 1,000 feet of climbing (Boston, for example, has 783 feet of climbing), this is indeed a very hilly race. Naturally, that's what attracted me to it -- that and the fact that it is practically in my own back yard. My running buddy Chad Randolph has run it 10 times, and his friend Ricky Reeves (who introduced Chad to running) has run it 20 times. Ricky's wife Betty drives them to the start and picks them up at the finish every year, and was happy to bring me along for the ride.

For this year's July 13 marathon, I'd be running it for the first time. Chad and I showed up at Ricky and Betty's place at 5:00 a.m. in Miller's Creek, NC, and about 45 minutes later, we were parking at the ASU stadium, where hundreds of runners nervously awaited the start. Here's a shot of me and Ricky getting ready to run:

Double bonus points if you can guess the year of Ricky's awesome Boston jacket!
This was an old-school marathon, with no chip timing, no flashy bands or fireworks, and a real starting gun to send us off with a bang. Before the start I ran into another running buddy, Sam Mishler, who asked if I had a plan for the race. Did I have a plan? That's like asking if one might expect to see explosions in the latest "Die Hard" movie. Of course I had a plan. I pulled this laminated slip of paper from my pocket:

I had carefully charted out the elevation gain and loss for each mile of the race, plotting out my planned paces for each. If I hit my targets, I'd finish in 3:41:36. If I beat them by just a bit, I'd do better than I did in the comparatively-flat Boston Marathon this year, 3:39:26. That was my "stretch" goal, with a backup goal of finishing sub-4-hours.

The plan was to run downhill / flat miles at an 8:00 pace, uphill miles at a 9:00 pace, and mixed miles at an 8:30 pace. Chad's bit of advice was this: If you make it up the steep gravel hill in Mile 17 and still feel like you've got something left, you're going to have a good day. Sam, meanwhile, was hoping to run the race a bit faster than me -- he was shooting for a 3:30 finish.

We started by running two laps around the App State track. It was a bit crowded here and Sam and I had placed ourselves rather far back from the starting line, so I spent those laps dodging runners, trying to get closer to the front. When we finally hit the roads, things opened up considerably -- as I knew they would -- there would only be 381 finishers in the race (due to a hard limit placed on the event by the US Forest Service). For the first several miles I was comfortably under my target pace.

The first big hills started at Mile 3, and my 9-minute pace was still quite comfortable. But I knew I needed to reserve energy for later, so I resisted the urge to go faster. At Mile 6 I saw Sam stopped at his wife's car and wondered if he was all right; he had had a muscle strain during our 8-mile run the previous Sunday, and I guessed that's what was bothering him.

About a mile later, he caught up with me, and said he was thinking about dropping out at Mile 10. At Mile 8, he pulled up, limping, and I figured that would be the end of the race for Sam. Too bad, because he had been running very well up until a week ago.

Mile 8 was the first major downhill, and again I resisted the urge to go fast -- I wanted to make sure I had plenty of legs left for the hills to come. A couple folks passed me here, but I passed them back on the uphill Miles 10 and 11. Now the field was really starting to thin out. It was a damp, misty morning, and the air was so thick that my glasses kept fogging up. Finally I just took them off completely and put them on top of my hat. My vision is about 20:300 (-5 diopters), but I could still see better without the glasses than with them on. The only problem came when I was approaching a sign telling the runners where to go -- I could see there was a sign there but couldn't see which way the arrow was pointing. I had to run up until I was nearly right on top of it, then finally figured out where to go.

Around Mile 11, we hopped on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we could really cruise on some downhill miles. Betty was there to ask if I needed anything, but I was doing just fine. I had started with four vanilla GUs and two lemon-limes, so I had all the fuel I needed, and there were plenty of water stops along the way, so hydration wasn't an issue either.

Runners were now few and far between. Every once in a while I spotted a runner ahead, and this spurred me on to keep up the pace. I probably passed someone every half mile or so on this stretch. There were some lovely lakes and a campground, really gorgeous scenery. We had also been explicitly warned not to run tangents on this part of the course, so I did my part and stayed left. I saw several rangers on the road, and apparently they can kick you out of the race if you don't follow the rules, so I was glad I did!

At Mile 15 the route left the Parkway and headed up the rough gravel road Chad had told me about. But it wasn't a hill, it was flat. Would the hill come later? I passed a runner and kept on moving. Finally just after Mile 16, the road headed steeply uphill. Four runners were walking on this stretch, but I felt good so I decided to keep running. I passed all four by the time I got to the top. But when we reached pavement, I saw that the hill kept going up! I gritted my teeth and kept running. Fortunately things did level out around the Mile 17 marker. Mile 17 was my slowest of the day, 9:39, but I had climbed 289 feet -- the single biggest climb on the course.

I looked at my pace card and saw that for Miles 18 to 22, a five-mile stretch, I was supposed to run 8:30 or 8:00 for each mile. That meant it was relatively flat, but I was now really starting to feel worn out. I managed to keep up that pace through Mile 18, but by Mile 19 I decided to give myself an extra 30 seconds per mile. If I did that for the last six miles, I'd only be 3 minutes slower than my original plan. Plus, I had banked some time earlier on, so I felt like I should easily break 3:45 for the marathon.

Well, not exactly easily. Everything seemed to come harder at this point. My legs ached, I was breathing heavily, and the elevation (or just my exhaustion) was starting to get to me.

I told myself I could walk when I reached Mile 22. But as I passed the marker, I could hear cheering and I figured there was an aid station just ahead, so I toughed it out another third of a mile, then walked through the aid station as I downed two cups of water. There was another aid station around Mile 23, and they told me there'd be another one at Mile 25. I decided to take a walk-break halfway through 25, which was the last big uphill mile. Then I saw the aid station -- it was actually at the halfway point of the hill, not the top. I had passed a couple runners on this stretch, but I stopped and walked again when I got my water, and they passed me again. When I started running I passed them back.

Soon I was running the final, flat Mile 26. I heard footsteps behind me and figured it was one of the runners I had just passed. I couldn't summon up any more strength and decided to let him pass me. But it wasn't a him, it was a her, my friend Phyllis Neriah. She's a solid ultrarunner and must have just been getting warmed up about this point! She chugged on by and I hoped she would be the last person to pass me.

Soon I could hear the familiar whine of bagpipes and I knew the finish was near. We passed by the main entrance to Grandfather Mountain and were directed onto a rough gravel road. Then we had to run down a steep, very rough road for about 100 yards. As the pain seared through my quads, another runner passed me -- a fellow I hadn't seen since I passed him in Mile 10. Once again I didn't have any strength to pass him so I let him go.

Then we ran back up another steep gravel road towards the track, and the noise got louder. Soon we were on the track, which was like no scene I had ever seen -- the track was lined by hundreds of tents, each festooned with the regalia of a different Scottish clan. There was a large grandstand with hundreds of fans sitting there, clapping politely. I decided to see if I could egg them on, so I raised my arms and pumped my fists, and they responded with hearty cheers. Sam's wife Steph was there to capture the moment:

Soon I was across the finish line with a respectable time of 3:42:45. That was not quite as fast as I had run Boston, but it was a much more solid, even effort. I guarantee you that everything else being equal, it's much harder to run a 3:42 at Grandfather than it is to run a 3:39 at Boston!

My time was good for 48th overall, 7th in age group, out of a pool of 381 finishers. I'll take it! Here are the official results.

After accepting congratulations from Phyllis and Scott Salger, the two runners who had passed me in the final mile, I achingly made my way down to the hospitality tent to get some refreshments and watch for Chad and Sam.

As it turned out, Chad finished in 3:48:05, just after I left the finish area, so I didn't see him until he popped in to the hospitality tent. We chatted for a while and I asked him if he had seen Sam. He said he caught up with him on the hill at Mile 17, on the gravel road, and walked with him for a while. Apparently he hadn't been able to get in touch with Steph, so he had just kept on going. Chad let him borrow his phone to try to call Steph, but he wasn't able to get a hold of her. Then, Chad said, he ran on, so we figured Sam had probably finally dropped out around Mile 20.

The next thing we saw was Sam running by us. "SAM!" we both yelled. I struggled to my feet and limped towards the finish line, but he had already finished and was heading gingerly down the road to the hospitality tent when I caught up with him.

"What happened?" I asked. "I thought you were dropping out at Mile 10!"

"I was," he replied, "But I never saw Steph, so all I could do was keep going." He walk-ran the entire last 16 miles of the race, and finished in a very respectable 4:02, in 104th place, ahead of 277 other runners. As it turned out, Steph took his instructions at mile 6 to "go ahead and meet me" to mean she should go all the way to the finish line. He meant for her to just drive a few miles ahead to see how he was doing. Oops.

Then we all sat in a group on a blanket provided by Betty, eating Betty's Fig Newtons, and watched the rest of the field run by up the gravel road towards the stadium. Ricky finished in 4:10, and after that Chad and Ricky called out to many of the other runners in the field because they've both done the race so many times. Here are some of us near the finish:

From left: Don Alexander (who met Chad during the race), Chad, Ricky, me, Sam
After that, all that was left was to grab some gigantic sandwiches in Boone, and head home. A very satisfying race -- and a special thanks to Betty and Ricky for making it all so easy!

If you're interested in my detailed race info, splits, etc., see below.


  1. Fantastic race! To have your GMM time that close to your Boston time is amazing. I had PR'd at the Tobacco Road Marathon in March at 3:33, but could only manage a 3:57 at GMM. You also are the only other person I've heard who also ran up that beastly gravel road! Here is what I wrote about my race:

  2. Thanks, and congratulations on your finish as well! My time may not be as impressive relative to Boston as it sounds -- I completely bonked in Boston. That said, I was less than 20 minutes slower than my PR, so I think that's pretty good for this course.