Saturday, April 24, 2010

Blue Ridge Marathon

I'm staying at the amazing Rose Hill Bed & Breakfast in Roanoke, VA. The owner, Wendy, was so kind to serve fruit, muffins and tea/coffee at 5:30 a.m., earlier than the normal breakfast schedule, to accomodate the guests that were running the race. The B&B has three guest rooms, all of which are occupied by runners: me, a newlywed couple (wife is running the half), and another charming couple (wife is running the half).

After eating a small muffin, some fruit and drinking a cup of tea, I drove down to the packet pick-up location. I picked up my bag and race chip and returned to the car. Somehow, I made a wrong turn and the walk to the car took much longer than it should have. It was a good thing because I realized I would be way too warm in this rain jacket, so I decided to just leave it in the car. The weather forecast was 55-65 degrees with 50% chance of rain. Back at the car, I put on my chip and number and then realized that I had left my iPod earphones back at the B&B. Oh no! But rather than get upset, I decided that I would just enjoy the sounds of nature instead. I can do this!

Just before the race started, the announcer said this is one of the most challenging marathon courses in the country. Uh oh... He said at mile 6 would be the steepest climb (15% slope). He said runner's goals shouldn't be for a specific finishing time, but to simply enjoy the scenery and finish. He emphasized that walking would be advisable during portions of the race. It's funny, but before I got there, my goal was not based on time, but simply to enjoy the scenery.

The race began at 7:30 a.m. The first mile was easy and I clicked it off in 10:45. And then the challenge began... We began our ascent to the TOP of Roanoke Mountain (I took this picture the next day). A few miles into it, I caught up with someone and we walked/jogged together and chatted for a while. He's an ultra runner and feels no guilt in walking up the steeper sections. I enjoyed listening to the birds and really soaking in the gorgeous views of nature. My goal for today is to just totally enjoy this experience, even if it takes me all day.

And up, up, up, up we continued to climb. I walked up a lot of the hills, but knew I couldn't walk up all and finish within the 7 hour cut-off time limit, so I picked markers to run to (fallen tree, sign, light post, cone, etc.), then walk a little and repeat. The announcer at the start of the race wasn't kidding. Mile 6 was STEEP uphill. I knew the highest elevation of the marathon was at about mile 7.5. As I approached that point, I noticed runners coming down with smiles on their faces and encouraging us that we were truly almost to the top. A volunteer was at the top and as soon as I was within his sight, he encouragingly yelled that I only had about 300 feet to go. I was walking. I said, "really?" He said "yes", so I laughed and started sprinting a few yards. We both laughed. It was fun. This is my day to have fun.

I took a moment at the top overlook aid station to admire the view. I asked if this was the mountain with the star on it that I had seen when driving into town last night. The volunteer said no, that mountain will be the second one we climb, and she just heard that the leading male just arrived at the top of that mountain (Mill mountain). WHAT? There are TWO MOUNTAINS in this marathon? You're kidding, right? Guess I should have done a little more homework before registering for this event... Not going to let it bother me, though, because I'm feeling good and enjoying the views.

The descent was steep. I ran as fast as I felt I could safely; I could imagine tripping and rolling down the mountain. I passed an Asian man running barefoot and carrying flip flops in his hands. Wow! My feet hurt in shoes... I can't imagine... Another woman and I passed each other back and forth. I passed her on downhills, she passed me on uphills. Ultimately, I finished before her.

After coming down Roanoke Mountain the course went back down Blue Ridge Parkway then up for several miles to the top of Mill Mountain. (I took this photo of Mill Mountain the following day.) Roanoke Mountain was steep, but the climb up Mill Mountain seemed longer. In hindsight, I don't really think it was longer, I was just tired. For those that ran the half-marathon, Mill Mountain was the only mountain they had to climb. A few miles after the marathon began, half-marathoners were sent up Mill Mountain while marathoners were directed to conquer Roanoke Mountain.

I enjoyed the view from the Star overlook, then sped as fast as I thought I could safely do back down the steep road down the mountain.

Now I'm at 16 miles. This marathon is kicking my butt, but I'm loving every minute of it!!! The rest of the course meandered through neighborhoods, greenway, parks, Hwy 220, etc. The worst stretch for me was along Hwy 220. I was tired, the road was busy, and there weren't many volunteers/spectators/other runners here. I was tired of going up hill. Then I focused again on mini-goals: run to the next fire hydrant, mailbox, cone, etc. At about mile 18 the fun had worn off. Why did I sign up for this??? I'm never going to run another marathon again!!! I can't do another hill... I recognized this as a mental low, ate a Clif Shot block and focused on one foot in front of the other. Before I'd overcome this mental funk, a volunteer said: "just past that speed limit sign is a downhill." I can't remember what I said, but he must have sensed that I wasn't at the top of my game. He said he would walk with me to it. We chatted about random things and after we made it to the speed limit sign, I started running downhill in a happier mood. THANK YOU, MR. AWESOME VOLUNTEER!!!

This simple gesture made such a huge impact on my outlook and got me through the rest of the marathon. The ENTIRE course was either mountainous or hilly. At mile 19 I looked at my watch and thought: I can walk 7 miles in 2.5 hours (course closing); I can do this. I ran/walked. Mostly walking up hills and running down. At mile 23 the course passed the B&B that I'm staying in. I waved to the newlywed husband whose wife ran the half. He was on the porch. I asked how she did and he said good. They're getting ready to go to lunch. If I didn't want this medal so bad, I could have quit at the B&B and enjoyed a nice bath. But I kept going. 3 more miles... 3 miles is easy. Anyone can go 3 miles...

I fought back tears as I neared the finish. I can't believe I did this! I'm SO HAPPY!!! Official chip time: 6 hours, 16 minutes, 29 seconds. This was my slowest marathon, but who cares? I don't. It was the hardest, most challenging run that I have ever done, which makes it the most rewarding. Every muscle in my body is sore. Not injured, just sore/tired from the hard effort. Life is good! Feeling proud! I hung around the finish area for a while, hoping to see a few people finish that I had passed along the way. I cheered for each person that crossed the line, knowing what an amazing accomplishment this was.

I exceeded my goals for this race: finish within the 7 hour time-limit and enjoy the scenery. And you may be asking how did I exceed the goal? Well, because I didn't listen to my iPod by a fluke mistake of forgetting my headphones, so I was forced to enjoy the sounds of nature and interact with fellow runners and volunteers. MUCH better entertainment!!! MUCH more elevating! And I think I observed more by focusing on the next target to run to. Pretty flowers, lovely views, fallen trees, steep grades, sweet birds, old bridges... I didn't finish last, and I passed a barefoot runner who was wearing socks and flip-flops on his hands (plus a few more people) in the later miles. It was my slowest marathon, but one I can honestly say I'm most proud of completing. WHAT A CHALLENGE!!! TWO MOUNTAINS plus rolling hills for the entire race! Good thing I didn't drive the course before the marathon or I would have been totally freaked out before the race. Those roads were STEEP!

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