The third time is a charm. At least, that’s how I feel with marathons. My first two I bombed so hard that as soon as I crossed the finish I swore to never do it again. Yet, somehow I still found myself training for America’s Toughest Road Marathon, as an ambassador. I was given my choice of distance and something pulled me to the marathon. This third marathon of mine is the one that it took to fall in love with the distance. Despite the pain and suffering, I can’t wait to toe the line of another full marathon in November.
Going into the race, I felt better than the last two. I think I had mentally reached a point where 26.2 miles didn’t seem so scary and daunting. I had trained better than before and knew I could do it if I took it one mile at a time. Also, this time I was planning to run with my friend Matt, and it made all the difference tackling this tough course.
The week of the race, the weather wasn’t looking good. I checked it obsessively every day, and the chance of rain during the race just kept going up. By Thursday there was a 100% chance of storms. This gave me a nagging worry of the race getting cancelled if the storms were bad enough. However, I love running in the rain and was looking forward to it if it happened.
Friday, my mom and I drove to Roanoke to spend the night and get my packet. Packet pickup was a breeze. The bib lines were organized, they had shirt pickup and exchange down pat, and I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. At first I was a little disappointed in this year’s shirt because it’s not something I would run in (I’m not sure if it’s cotton or one of those cotton tech blends), but I love the design and it’s super comfy so I quickly changed my mind! I also love the free socks we got with our race entry!
After picking up my shirt we got dinner and went back to the hotel. I went to bed really early knowing that I wasn’t going to get much sleep. I guessed right and woke up almost every hour to make sure I hadn’t slept through my alarm! Finally, it was actually time to wake up, get ready, and check the weather. Overnight, it had changed to no rain until around 1, which was super exciting.
We stayed at Hotel Roanoke, which was the perfect walking distance from the start. I was able to get there with plenty of time to spare. I easily found Matt, and before I knew it, it was time to line up. For a few seconds I had this dread of, “Oh no what have I gotten into?” But as soon as the start cannon (yes, cannon) went off it quickly disappeared.
Our plan was to just run the race. We had no time goal, but wanted to run as much as possible. We knew we would be walking some.
Miles 1-5 flew by (chatting helps so much). For the marathoners, this meant a climb toward the Roanoke Star and then splitting from the half marathoners and 10K runners and going down a little until climbing back up Roanoke Mountain, the highest point of the course. Around mile 6, it started raining. I wasn’t even mad, it felt amazing. Plus, I felt super hardcore running the Toughest Road Marathon in the rain. At mile 7, we hit the top. At this point I felt good. Really good. Better than I should have after that elevation gain. At that point, I knew my training was paying off. I had done the half course in 2016 and I didn’t feel half that good at mile 7 of the half.
After taking a moment to soak in the “view” from the top and grab some Gu and snacks (seriously the best mid-race snack I have ever had was here, composed of a chocolate Gu and a third of a banana. I swear it gave me super human strength), we had to go back down the mountain. The descent was gorgeous, and with the rain it felt like we were in the Pacific Northwest and not Roanoke, VA. Toward the beginning of the descent, we heard a rustle in the woods, and turned to see a deer charging full speed right toward us. I screamed, and he crossed the road about 5 feet in front of us, jumping over the guardrail. I was convinced that he was going to barrel headfirst into either us or a tree, but somehow he made it out of our view without crashing. By far one of the weirdest things to happen in a race.
The next few miles were easy, and we chatted a lot, and before we knew it we were beginning the climb to the halfway point, the Roanoke Star. Somewhere on the climb it stopped raining, which was actually kind of disappointing because the rain was doing a lot to keep us cool. The descent from here is my favorite part of the course due to the scenery and the twisting downhill roads that make you feel like you’re flying. Plus, on the way down there was a “moo-mosa” stop! I’m not a big fan of champagne, but in the moment this was the best drink I think I’ve ever had. Why is citrus so good during a marathon?
For the next few miles, I knew the course from the previous year, and I knew the hardest climb was coming, Peakwood. Where Roanoke Mountain is the highest and longest climb, Peakwood is steep and unrelenting. Just when you think you’ve reached the top, you have to keep going. Your legs are tired and screaming and you just want to be done. This is where I would have had a hard time if I was alone. But, Matt and I kept each other going up (and up and up and up), knowing it was our last big climb.
After what seemed like way too long, we were greeted at the top by people bearing lots of snacks, water, and champagne and strawberries. At this point champagne was not sounding great, but the strawberries seemed like a fantastic idea. I was not disappointed.
Just when my hamstrings couldn’t take any more uphill, we got several miles of beautiful downhills out of the Peakwood neighborhood. However, by this point my legs were just plain tired and and weren’t really appreciating the downhills anymore.
Before I knew it, we were at mile 20. And boy, this is where things got really interesting. Around this point the full marathon course diverts from the half. The worst part of this is you can practically see the finish, but are forced to turn left and go another 10K. I have no doubt in my mind that I would have fallen apart here if I had been solo. The last 6 miles were full of hills. Not steep ones, I could have easily run up them on a normal day, but I was starting to get tired. I wanted to be done. But being able to chat about things (I think at this point it was about what we wanted to eat after we finished) made it more tolerable.
Also, around mile 21 it started to rain again. Light at first, but the sky was getting darker by the minute. Miles 22 and 23 take you through a park, and when we came out we had, you guessed it, another hill. When we made it to the top, a police officer told us, “I don’t know if you’ve heard or not, but they’re closing the course due to lightning. The bus may come and pick you up.” Lightning? What lightning? It was barely raining.
And that is the motivation I needed to crank out the last two miles. The sheer panic of being so close and running so well on the toughest marathon course. At this point, a few choice words were said and we picked up the pace. At that point, I had a come to Jesus moment. I, a self professed “bling whore” didn’t even care if we didn’t make it to the end in time to get my medal. I didn’t even care if the finish line was still up and running. I just knew I needed to get to the end or I would never forgive myself.
As we were booking it, we lightened the mood by going over some scenarios of what would happen if they tried to put us on a bus. Could we outrun them? Would they have to physically lift me off the course? Were we going to have a Katherine Switzer moment with Matt playing bodyguard? With a half a mile to go, a YMCA bus pulled up to us. I was freaking out. Was he going to make us stop?
“Course is closed due to lightning,” he said.
“Yeah, we know. We’re not stopping. No way,” we said.
“Well, then you better haul ass to the finish,” he said. And that was that. I knew we would make it.
Never in my life have I been happier to see a hill than the baby one that meant we were turning onto the finishing street. I could hear the crowd, and the finish announcer, and it was that moment that I fell in love with the marathon. No longer was it a distance that would chew me up and spit me back out. Through months and months of training, I had come back to the distance better than before. Both of my previous marathons were finished in 5:58. I crossed the finish line of Blue Ridge with a chip time of 5:18.
This was the first time I didn’t cry my way through the last 13 miles out of frustration. The first time I beat the wall. The first time I had a mid race mimosa. The first time I didn’t swear up and down to never touch a marathon again. The first time I ran a marathon with a running partner, who got me through the rough patches. The first time I felt like I ran a marathon and didn’t just finish one. The first time running anything longer than 13 miles in the rain. The first time having a race get cancelled in the middle. The first time I have loved all 26.2 painful, beautiful miles.
I found out afterwards the course closed at 4 hours. Apparently there was a miscommunication between race officials and the police officers about how sweeping was working that may have caused a little unnecessary panic. But it’s okay, they were just trying to keep us safe. I’m not mad. I think the race went exactly the way I needed it to.
Blue Ridge, I loved your insanity, and I hope you’ll have me back in 2018.
Disclaimer: As an ambassador, I received free entry into the race. However, all opinions expressed are my true feelings.
Swag: 5/5 Shirt, belt buckle medal, and socks! Oh, and FREE photo downloads!
Course Support: 5/5 every station had Skratch and water, and a lot of them had snacks. Aid stations were perfectly spaced, and if the weather had been hotter I would have needed every single one. They were not about to let you go hungry or get dehydrated! Also, this is the only race I have ever run where mimosas, iced coffee, and champagne were offered during the race!
Spectators: 4/5 A lot of the spectators left the course before the full marathoners were done. However, those that stayed were very supportive!
Course: 5/5 There’s a reason this course was ranked one of the most scenic in the U.S. Even with the fog and rain, it was a gorgeous course that took us up three mountains and never had a boring moment.
Overall Experience: 5/5 I’ll be back again next year, Blue Ridge. In one way or another.