2011 Blue Ridge Marathon

(Originally posted to FB April 16, 2011)

Following the Richmond Marathon last fall, I decided I wanted to try a new race and opted for the challenging Blue Ridge Marathon the following spring. It would be marathon #4 and I was so excited to train for the hills...no...mountains of Roanoke!

The race claims it is "America's Toughest Road Marathon" and for 2011, the race's second running, they made it even harder by adding an additional major climb at mile 17. The new course would have 3,620 feet of climbing and 7,234 feet of total elevation change.

I had finished Richmond still feeling strong, so I figured I was capable of finishing the Blue Ridge Marathon if I started really hitting the hills. Training for this race turned out to be a BLAST. Rather than my training for previous races, which had all been done right in C-ville from my front door, I sought out as many hills as I could this time around. For my in-town runs, rather than avoiding the Belmont area like The Plague, I purposely planned routes through it. I could also be seen frequently trudging my way up to Carter Mountain Orchard. My long runs were completed outside of town, each turning into its own adventure as I hopped in the car and drove out into the countryside to find some hills. I soon discovered Jarmans Gap Rd, and it turned out to be probably my best training tool in getting ready for the Blue Ridge Marathon. Jarmans Gap climbs from Chile's Peach Orchard in Crozet, up to Skyline Drive. The climb is just over 2 miles and rises about 1500 feet. Ouch, that road will hurt you!

April soon arrived and I felt like I was prepared to take on the race. It would be slow, but I could do it. In the week before the race, I heard that rain was in the forecast for the weekend. Sure enough, Saturday was looking like a high chance of raining, turning into thunderstorms in the afternoon. Whatever. I was ready. BRING IT, Mother Nature!

Race morning started at 3:30am. Logistics of the weekend didn't allow me to head down Friday, but with Roanoke only about 2 hours away, I figured I could leave home morning-of. No rain in C-ville when I woke up, but I was prepared to meet it in Roanoke. Armed with several changes of clothes and a trusty rain coat, I was on the road by about 4:15.

Sure enough, I started hitting rain less than 10 minutes after leaving home. Luckily, it looked like the day wouldn't be cold, just wet and rainy. I made it down to Roanoke by about 6:15 and was able to collect my number and timing chip with plenty of time before the 7:30 race start. With the horrible weather predictions, I was actually surprised at the number of people who had showed up to run. (And actually, per post-race reports, they really didn't have many no-shows. I guess runners are a hardy bunch!).

About 800 of us gathered inside Taubman Museum anxiously waiting for the race to start, many actually looking forward to what Mother Nature was going to throw us. As 7:30 approached, race officials hurried us all out the door and to the start line, where we then waited...and waited...and waited. The rain was coming down HARD at this point. We probably didn't wait all that long, but in the pouring down rain, it felt like it took FOREVER for them to finally send us off. At least we were all drenched before we event started.

They gave the countdown and the second running of the Blue Ridge Marathon was off! I knew and felt prepared for the challenge ahead. The good thing about running is all you have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and sooner or later you'd get where you were going. I was hoping to come in under 6 hours. Most marathons have a 6 hour limit, but this one is extended out to 8 hours due to how challenging it is. In a pre-race email, the organizer had said "you will, and probably should be walking some of these hills." My plan was to keep it slow, stay fueled and hydrated, and still be running by the end of the race.

We met the first climb of the race at mile 1.5 on J.P. Fishburne Parkway. Many racers opted to walk the 1.5 miles up Fishburne...maybe they had the right idea! I had found during training that it was better for me to shorten my stride and keep running...very slowly...than come all the way down to a walk. My "climbing pace" kept my momentum going, and I easily chugged out the first climb. As we hit the aid station at the top of Fishburne at mile 3, I couldn't believe how well I had just climbed! We rolled up and down along Mill Mountain Parkway for a few miles before hitting the Blue Ridge Parkway and the predicted hardest part of the race, the climb up Roanoke Mountain.

Again, most racers backed down to a walk for the 2mi climb up Roanoke Mountain. I settled into my climbing pace and told myself I'd keep jogging as long as I felt good and my heart rate stayed relatively low. I would walk if I needed to...we still had a lot of race ahead of us! Amazingly, I felt GREAT and kept slowly pushing up the mountain. Before I realized it, we had reached the heavily fogged mountain top, and I was still running! Hardest part of race = DONE. A handful of gummie bears at the aid station at the top, and then it was time for a nice downhill break. The long downhills felt like give-away miles, but I would soon learn that they would catch back up to us the next time we had to climb!

An update on the weather...it was STILL raining, and all of us were absolutely soaked to the bone. Once you reach the point of being absolutely drenched, you really don't even notice it anymore. I had on a rain coat, but there is definitely a difference between waterproof and water resistant. Mine definitely wasn't water proof. However, it did keep the heavy rain from stinging as it fell. I think the rain may have actually helped us all out there running since it kept us cool.

We hit the bottom of Roanoke Mountain after a 2 mile decent and turned left on to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The rain was coming down in buckets. The ditches on the sides of the road had turned into small rivers and there were waterfalls coming down the side of the mountain. The course made a right back onto Mill Mountain Parkway and we followed our tracks back to Prospect Rd, climbing up to the Star and the halfway point at mile 13.1. My watch read 2:30 and I was thrilled with that time! Painfully slow by normal standards, but with now three climbs behind me, and still running strong, I couldn't be happier. I am normally a 10-11 min/mi marathon runner, so to be at an 11:45 pace through some significant mountain climbs, I was stoked!

We ran down Mill Mountain on Prospect Rd and had a few miles of flat terrain ahead of us down in the city before the last hard climb on Peakwood. I stayed slow but steady on the flat. I had promised that I would stop and drink and refuel at every aid stations, which were plentiful and well stocked throughout the race. I don't think we went any more than 1.5 miles without hitting an aid station, and all of them had plenty of water and HEED. Also, many had oranges, bananas and gummie bears as well.

Mile 17 we hit the dreaded Peakwood. People at the start of the race had been jokingly calling it "Puke-wood" which was pretty close to accurate. I'm not going to lie, I walked pretty much all of Peakwood. My climbing tank was empty, and even if I could dig down and attack this next 2 mile climb, I still had 7 miles left to finish. Definitely a good time to walk.

Most everyone who ran was friendly and up for conversation, so I'd made several acquaintances along the way. All the racers cheered and encouraged each other, and we co-miserated on the challenging sections such as Peakwood. I also can't say enough about the wonderful volunteers who maned the aid stations, stood at corners giving direction, or who just stood out in the pouring rain to cheer. As we all walked up Peakwood, there were tons of local residents out there cheering us on. Us racers joked that it must be pretty boring for them to be standing out there watching us walk up a hill, probably thinking this "marathon" thing was really no big deal.

Finally that last awful climb was over at mile 19. I was happy to welcome a 1 mile downhill stretch, but I would soon regret that relief. The downhill was no walk in the park. It was steep and it HURT. I have never in my life wished for flat ground over a downhill, but during that mile decent, as every turn approached, I prayed that flat ground would meet me around the corner. FINALLY, past Roanoke Memorial Hospital and over the bridge to mile 22, the ups and downs should be over and it would be relatively flat into the finish.

As on par for the rest of the morning, it was STILL raining, but really not very hard. The weather was definitely acceptable. Since I was soaked anyway, I actually looked for puddles that I could splash through. Not only was it fun and made me feel like a little kid, the cooler splash of water on my feet actually felt good. I happily splashed my way through mile 22, still smiling and still slowly plodding along.

A short little uphill burst to mile 23 and I heard the first clap of thunder in the distance. By mile 24, the thunder claps were starting to get a little louder and more frequent. About mile 24.5 we turned to cross a bridge on Main/Elm and it was as if someone had flipped a switch on the weather. The rain started coming down in buckets once again, the sky turned grey, and the wind started ripping. I had to keep my hand on my head to keep my hat from flying off and keep my face tucked in to keep the wind and rain from stinging. It was as I crossed that bride I thought to myself "this is brutal, this is miserable, this is absolutely insane." I had just been running in the rain, sometimes very hard rain, for the past 5 hours. The thought of it being "miserable" hadn't crossed my mind until that point. We had just crossed the line into miserable, and by most accounts, probably dangerous and stupid.

I made it across the bridge, waving and cheering to one of my new fellow racing buddies as he passed going the other direction. The route was took us across the bridge in kind of a clover-shaped loop. We were to turn left, loop UNDER the same bridge, come out on the other side, and continue turning left until we were ultimately running back across the same bridge in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. Once we made it across the bridge, we would hit mile 25 and be just over 1 mile from home. ONE MILE. The finish was so close.

I made the first left hand turn and headed to the last aid station which was located under the bridge I'd just run across. As I approached, I saw a few racers who were several yards ahead of me get stopped by a race official with radio in hand, holding his arms up in the air. I had a sinking feeling that I knew what this meant. As I made it under the bridge, I was approached by the same official who said the race was shut down due to weather and that we needed to stop. Mile 25 was in sight, and they were telling us to stop. Unbelievable. The tears began falling. Everyone that came through experienced similar disbelief.

Those first few minutes under the bridge were difficult. A few people ignored the official and kept running. He yelled after them that the clock HAD stopped and that they WOULD be picked up before they made it to the finish. He insured us that the race was OVER and that none of us would have an official finishing time. I was heartbroken. I wanted to take off after the few people who had decided to press on, but the feeling of hopelessness and letdown had crushed me. What was the point?

I stood under the bridge soaked and shivering with a handful of other runners around me. Thunder rumbled around us and the sky lit up with lightening. The rain was coming down so hard we couldn't see more than a block away. The volunteers manning the aid stations had to move vehicles due to rising water levels and flooding. At this point, it WAS dangerous to be out in that weather.

They eventually sent a bus that carried us that last solitary mile back to the finish line. The tears were still falling as I collected my bag and changed into something dry. I sat reflecting on the race that had just taken place. I, as well as many other runners, had just climbed and pushed through 5 hours in steady, sometimes torrent rain, only to be told to stop and collected up 1 mile from finishing. We weren't the fast runners, but a marathon is about beating goals you set for yourself, not about beating the field. This was our race too, and it had been taken away from us. I wasn't mad at the race officials. They did what they had to in order to keep people safe. I'm sure it is a logistical nightmare to call off a race before everyone has finished. I was mad and frustrated at the situation. Utter and complete disappointment describes it well.

Those of us who were stopped were still given finisher's medals, which was an appreciated gesture, but no one runs a marathon for the medal. We run it to say that we did it, to say that we completed 26.2 miles, and for this race, to say we did it on one of the toughest courses in the country and in absolutely punishing weather conditions. For 26.2 miles, you run with one thing on your mind...crossing that finish line and saying "I did it." Many of us didn't get that chance. I'm not faulting any person or official involved with the race. It was no one's "fault", just the conditions that arose on this particular day.

I can't say that I "finished" the Blue Ridge Marathon. I have the token, I have a wild 25 mile experience, and I have a good story to tell. But I don't have that finishing time next to my name. The memories and the pain of those brutal miles are still fresh in my mind. But as I sit here 24 hours out from that experience, the desire to try again is overwhelming. I guess that's why I'm a runner. I guess that's why I'm a marathon runner.

The official race results were posted last night. As I scrolled through them, I saw that those people who pressed on even after we were told to stop, actually DID get official times. Yesterday under that bridge the official told us we WOULD NOT have finishing times. He said the clock had stopped, finish line had been pulled, and anyone that choose not to stop right then would be picked up along the course. Those words had drained the fight out of me. Looking back now, I should have pressed on. I'm still not mad at him or anyone else involved in the race. There was simply a breakdown in communication during stressful and dangerous conditions. I wish I had been one of the stronger ones who ignored official ruling and pressed on to finish the marathon they had come to complete. It was a fine line between being bold and being stupid. We later learned that one of the buildings we had run past just a few minutes earlier had been struck by lightening. Streets of downtown Roanoke were flooded. Yet, many people pressed on, and for that I have nothing but respect and admiration.

As with any experience in life, I am taking the race in general and what happened at the finish yesterday as a learning experience. I learned that I am stronger than I give myself credit for. I pushed through three major climbs and actually kept running segments of the race that many opted to walk. Despite the tough course and challenging conditions, I was STILL running at mile 24. Sure, it hurt, but I hadn't hit "the wall" and doubt I would have. Had I finished, I likely would have been somewhere between 5:20-5:30. For this course in those conditions, that thrills me! In watching those who did press on when told to stop, I learned that sometimes reaching your goals means ignoring those who try to stop you. That if you want something bad enough, NOTHING will stop you. I also learned to accept race disappointment. I ran my first race in 2005 and up to this point, have completed each one I set my mind to. The Blue Ridge Marathon will be my first "Did Not Finish" (DNF) entry to my name. I guess similar to eliminations in the riding world, anyone who races and doesn't have a scratch or DNF simply hasn't been racing long enough. I'm sure this will not be my only one.

Overall, I give this race nothing but wonderful remarks. The course was awesome, spectators and volunteers were WONDERFUL, and support along the course was plentiful. Fellow racers were friendly and I met so many new people along the way. We were all in it together, and I really felt that camaraderie during this race. This is still a new event, but it appears the race organizers have wonderful support and encouragement from the city of Roanoke. I hope they continue to have the race, although hopefully stopping the trend of making it harder each year! Watch out Roanoke, I'll be back next year! This is a race in which I HAVE to be able to say "I DID IT."