I had really been struggling to get my long runs in as I got ready for this marathon. My last really long run was on May 30, which was an 18.5 mile run, but I actually walked the last 10k of that one, so the longest training runs I did for this race were half marathons – Pittsburgh half marathon (May 1) and two training runs (May 21 & 30). Most of my runs were in the 3-5 mile range, though I typically planned for much longer than that, I ran into a lot of digestive issues in this training cycle. To say it’s been hot and humid in Charlotte over the last few months would be an understatement. So, even though I would start my training runs before 6:00 am, I was still struggling with temperatures hitting the 80’s before 8:00 am and the humidity hovering around 90% most of the time. I got a boost from the American 4-miler the Monday before the race, but I knew it was too late in the game to change anything other than my mindset going into the race. The good news was that I had done the Asheville half & full marathon back in March, along with a sprinkling of other races afterwards, so I was hopeful I could lean on that training base to carry me into this race.
One of the great things about this race is that as a runner you can stay in one of the dorm rooms on campus at Appalachian State University on Friday night before the race, so I was really close to the race start line. Since this race is part of the Highland Games, places to stay are not cheap and sell out really quickly, so I was excited to get a dorm room for $50 and be so close to the start line. I had a roommate for the night and we found out quickly that we had “met” each other before – she had run the USNWC New South Marathon in March and I was manning one of the water stations that the runners actually hit 4 times. She remembered me for the ridiculously bright shorts I was wearing and I remembered her because she was running with in a group of people that I knew. It’s such a small world sometimes.
Packet pickup was Friday night (and Saturday morning) at Kidd Brewer Stadium and I ran into a few more people I knew from my days in grad school at App and it was clear that it was going to be a small race where a lot of people knew each other. The weather leading up to the race was calling for anything from nasty thunderstorms to bright sunny skies, which is to be expected in the mountains, and we got a little bit of everything. Luckily, the nasty storms came Friday night and cleared out before Saturday morning.
The race started at 6:30 am and it’s a very informal start, with the race director coming over a microphone and telling people to head to a specific section of the track. There’s no big start line or chip timing – the group lined up near the “Welcome to The Rock” sign and when the gun went off, we all did a lap and a half around the track and then headed out into Boone. It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 years since I graduated, but in wandering around the town on Friday night and then the beginning of the race Saturday morning, it’s easy to see how much has changed – there is new construction everywhere!
I wasn’t able to find any official elevation maps for this course, just the generic one that is on the website, so I was expecting some downhill in the first half, including a good two-mile section to start off the race and then the second half of the race looked to be all uphill! What I wasn’t expecting was the steepness of some of the downhill sections – my quads were burning before I even got to the halfway point, so I knew it was going to be a rough race. I had originally started my watch to do an official walk / run, but after the first few miles I realized that was fairly pointless – I wanted to take advantage of the downhill and flat sections where I could and some of the hills were steep enough that I was walking all of them, even from the beginning.
Around the 11 mile mark, you go onto the Blue Ridge- Parkway, and the views on the Parkway are always beautiful.
The weather was a little humid and threatening to rain for awhile in the morning, but luckily that meant that the sun stayed behind the clouds for most of my race. I did the first half of the race at right around 2 hours, 45 minutes. I figured this would give me plenty of time to finish the second half within the time limit, even with the inevitable slow-down I expected to come as I hit the real hills of the race.
I surprised myself and didn’t break out the headphones for any of this race. Part of me didn’t want to because we were on open roads and drivers aren’t necessarily the most attentive people, but I also never really felt the need to distract myself with music. I did spend a lot of time doing math to figure out what my pace was compared to the cutoff and how fast or slow I was going, but some of that came into play because I had it in my head that it was a 5 hour cutoff to go around the track at McRae Meadows, but it was actually 5.5 hours for that and then 6.5 hours for the official marathon close.
There weren’t too many specifics that stuck with me for this race:
- Somewhere near mile 16, there was a woman outside her house with her dog offering to shower anyone who was interested with her garden hose – that felt amazing!
- I got some rocks in my left shoe around mile 18 and when I stopped to take off my shoe, my left calf cramped up so bad I could barely stand up. I knew if I sat down I had a very slim chance of getting back up again, so I just tried to use the grade of the road to stretch it out and left my shoes in place until I got to the finish line
- I drank a lot of water during the race, refilling each of my hydration bottles at least 3 times and grabbing gatorade at the stops they offered them, but my fingers had started to swell by the halfway point of the race and I didn’t have to pee at any point during the race, so I kept up my salt intake and tried to make sure it didn’t get any worse.
- I met several people who were doing this as their first marathon ever – one guy had convinced two of his friends to do it as their first after having done it himself the year before – I told him he was a mean friend.
- My roommate ended up placing third in her age group and beat me by almost a full hour
- At one point I was doing math and figured if I could keep at least a 20-minute per mile pace, I would still be able to officially finish… I was okay with this. I did a lot of walking in the last 10k+ – the hills were threatening to beat me and I was doing whatever I could to keep moving.
- I got passed by some guys in their 60’s in the last 4 miles or so. One of them asked if it was my first time doing this race and said he had been doing this race since before I was born (yes, by a year!) – I tried to keep up with them, but their power walking was way better than mine and I stayed behind them until the very end when we were passing the entrance to Grandfather Mountain, I started jogging again and managed to catch up to them as we came up to the marathon tent.
When I came up the finish and approached the marathon tent, they told me to keep going – I was going to be allowed to go around the track! The two guys I had been trying to keep up with apparently stopped at the tent (old hat to them, I’m sure), but I was excited to be able to go around the track. The Highland Games were about to be in full swing, so there were thousands of people around the track, at the tents and keeping an eye out for anyone coming around the track. After some confusion about where I was supposed to go and running into a woman who was trying to get out of my way (sorry!), I made it onto the track. It was really cool to be able to go around the track. I got lots of cheers and did my best to make it look like I didn’t feel like just laying down right there to take a nap. I made it about 3/4 around the track before I found the sweepers who were handing out the medals. They had left the official finish line tent and started backwards around the track to catch folks as they came around before heading down to the marathon tent where the new official finish would be. My official time was 5:41:01 and technically I beat those two guys because they stayed at the tent. After the race, I took my time grabbing some more gatorade and some food at the finish line, changed clothes and wandered around to get my obligatory post-race medal picture.
After that, I wandered around to find the bus to take me back to Caldwell College. It took awhile before a bus arrived and it filled up quickly with other runners and spectators heading back to the college. About halfway through the bus ride, all that water I was drinking caught up to me and I felt every bump and turn along those country roads. Luckily for me, there were porta potties at the college and I was able to make a quick pit stop before getting on another shuttle back to the stadium. After I got back to the stadium, I had a ton of steps to go up and yet another hill before I made it back to my dorm room and was able to take a short nap. The rest of my evening was spent eating pizza at Capone’s and resting at the KOA in Boone. I had initial thoughts of heading out to the Celtic Rock Concert in Linville Saturday night, but sleep won out and I got a solid 12 hours of sleep – the perfect way to finish up a tough weekend.