We had signed up for the Blue Ridge Half Marathon in the dead of winter. The days when the temperatures were in single digits, the outdoor runs were slim to none and signing up for something that was advertised as the “worlds hardest half marathon’ seemed like a way out of the winter doldrums. We live at sea level in Maryland. Our altitude of 300′ with hills that might reach 1/4 mile at most is plenty challenging. Yet, we were drawn to an event that claimed to reach the stars. Words that touted 2 mountain climbs with nearly 4000′ of elevation change drew blank stares. Fixated by the claim of the worlds hardest half marathon – well, I had to see it to believe it. In that blissfully unaware cold winter day, sitting at my computer with a hot cup of Joe – I clicked on the “Register” button. Now, all I had to do was to convince my running partner to do the same. Fortunately she didn’t read the fine print.
As winter eased into spring – Jill and I trained by running the steepest hills we could find in Maryland. Ellicott City fit the bill. Quarter mile climbs, with level patches to catch your breath followed by another quarter mile climb. The grade seemed severe – but what do we know? It took months of training to get to the point where we could run our big Maryland hills without stopping.
On Friday, April 17 with temperatures in the 70’s and a picturesque spring blooming proudly, we departed our happy place at 300′ elevation in Maryland to travel south to Roanoke Virginia. The place that touts the world’s hardest half marathon. How hard could it be?
The scenic drive along I-81 is a showcase of the Appalachian Mountains. West of I-81 it’s easy to become mesmerized by the mountain lines. The Appalachians are the is east coast version of the Rocky Mountains. While the Appalachian Mountains don’t reach the elevation heights of the Rockies – we do have the “Worlds Hardest Half Marathon”. Just sayin.
Nearing the Roanoke city limits – it is hard to miss two large mountains plunked center stage. These two mountains lost their way and have strayed from their Appalachian buddies just west of the City. Reality was sinking in. What have we done? What are we about to do? Roads went straight up, and switchbacks were needed to return you back to the base. I remained blissfully ignorant and optimistic for the rest of the day. After all, we have mastered the hills in Ellicott City Maryland.
We spent the rest of the day listening to the southern drawl of the Roanoke locals, shopping in the downtown Market area, and exploring Elmwood Park. Elmwood Park would be the host start and finish stage for the Blue Ridge Marathon and Half Marathon. At packet-pickup we couldn’t help but to notice the TOP fitness level of the other runners. There were no slackers in this crowd. Only the fittest of the fit were here. We approached an uber fit running local at the Fleet Feet store and asked for some “insider tips”. The conversation went like this:
Jane: So, do you have any tips you can share for running the half marathon?
Fit Lady: Ohhh….(her voice lowers)….you haven’t run this before?
Jane: No, we are from Maryland where the terrain is flat
Fit Lady: Not good. You must pace yourself because you’ll burn out from the climb of the first mountain, and destroy your quads on the descent. It’s hard. You have 2 mountains to climb.
There you have it. An uber fit local who likely runs the Blue Ridge mountains for breakfast said it was “hard”. And with that, we each proceeded to purchase massage rollers for the running aftermath.
It is time to meet up with our very own dose of local knowledge and see what this Blue Ridge Mountain is all about. Cousin Greg offered to drive the course for us. While riding in a car is not the same as experiencing the terrain on foot, you couldn’t help but to notice that the angle of the car was pointed upwards, the V-something engine was downshifting, the grade is steep enough to warrant switchbacks and your ears are popping. Jill is growing a deep frown in her forehead. We reach the summit of the first mountain, and I feel winded from the elevation. We are way above our comfort zone of 300′.
Greg tells us that the downhill road used for running is closed to traffic. I should have inquired “why” – but this slipped my thinking. We return to the base of the mountain following our tracks, and proceed to investigate by car – mountain #2. Mountain #2 is not only a longer ascent, but steeper than Mountain #1. That’s enough of previewing.
Saturday morning arrives. 2000 runners congregate at the start to run one of 3 distances (marathon, half marathon and 10K). Standing next to us, is a zero-body fat man, who is not from this planet. He ran the marathon once 5 hours earlier on the same day (started at 2AM), and is about to run it again (7:30AM). A full marathon, twice. A full marathon twice covering 15,000′ feet of elevation change. There is moonshine in the water system at Roanoke. And we need some.
The first mile of the run is in downtown Roanoke and the runner vibe is friendly. We are still in the “talk zone” terrain. That quickly changes. Mountain 1 – Mill Mountain, appears out of nowhere. The road goes vertical. Just like that. The masses of runners have stopped talking, the pace immediately slows to a collective runner crawl. You have likely reached your max heart rate, and heart rate monitors are beeping out of control. With oxygen deficit occurring at the base of the mountain, you make the mistake of looking more than 20′ ahead. It is a pure climb. No breathers. No flat areas to catch your breath. We’re not in Kansas (Ellicott City) anymore.
You soon realize you can brisk walk faster than you can run. We, along with our runner comrades were reduced to a walk. The 2.5 mile climb seemed to last forever. At the top of Mill Mountain is a huge man-made star. We have reached the summit. Feeling light headed, for the next 1/2 mile we ran along a gravel path, with stones trying to trip you. The race organizers painted each one of these stones bright yellow to help you avoid tripping. A very nice touch. Suddenly the road dropped from under our feet.
Downhill should be a good thing, but this was no easy downhill. You use your quads to control the rate of the descent. The road was so steep, that switchbacks are needed. We ran with our leg brakes on for the 2 mile descent, and my hip flexors were already complaining. Pace yourself. You still have another mountain. That was our mantra.
Reaching the base of the mountain was a high five moment. High fives were short lived. The Roanoke River flats section is designed to re-acquaint you with whatever body part isn’t yet fatigued. Fluffy was feeling noise from her calves and fatigue was setting in, and I wasn’t feeling my best. There were subtle sounds of the Q (uit) word. Exhausted at this point, it’s time for a goo.
Goo is 911 nutrition for runners. Goo is a runner term for sugar designed to metabolize quickly. It replenishes your glycogen stores when you are getting close to running out. Re-energized, we begin the ascent of mountain #2. It can’t be worse than mountain #1 right?
Mountain #2 has a special flavor in store for us. The first of a 2-part mountain cap region is called Peakwood. The residents are so proud of this “peak” that they have erected a gateway that welcomes you to their version of Mt. Everest. The first two-thirds of the this 2.5 mile ascent were brutal. It made mountain #1 seem easy. Reduced to the runner crawl, we did the best we could to keep climbing. Every switchback seemed to operate on a steeper grade.
With lungs bursting, we reached the summit of Peakwood, and started a much welcomed descent. But the descent was short-lived, as Peakwood’s twin sister times 2 was waiting for us. The steepest climb stared us down, and my feet were in a permanent dorsi-flex angle for one more mile. The temperatures were rising. The first mountain (Mill Mountain) we reached the STAR. At the second peak on Mountain #2, we have reached the SUN.
Just under 10 miles completed, we landed at the highest point of the mountain and a descent back into downtown Roanoke is calling our names. But not so fast. Just because we are descending does not translate into easy street. Your legs are juice. They wobble. They don’t want to descend. They want to sit down. But sitting is not an option, so you need to find braking power to control the descent.
With quads begging for mercy, we descended 1500′ and the descent gods had us convinced that there were no more mountains to climb. The race organizers had other plans. The course veered right and we were in for more climbing. As runners around us turned the same corner their dejection was visible. Bodies slumped at the sight of the next mountain climb as if to say “are you freakin kidding me???!!” And as quickly as despair set in, resignation for another climb took over. We are too close now. Let’s just get this over with.
Miles 11 to the finish were mostly rolling with a few flat sections. We were closing in on the finish line. We had just accomplished something we never dreamed was necessary.
An elevated Blue Ridge runner’s high was settling in. We had pushed the limits of our collective ‘can do’. Sweet.