Blue Ridge Marathon – 2017

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Roanoke Mountain

2nd fastest marathon yet (rofl)
April 22nd, 2017, my 3rd Blue Ridge Marathon. For those of you reading, this was my very first marathon I did back in 2015, it was hot (85°F) and humid and sunny, and things did not go well at all. I managed to finish in 6:12 and felt like death. Fast forward to 2016, when it was chilly (topping out at about 56°F), but sunny! I was not prepared or trained at all for this run, still managed a 5:26 finish and felt like death but was intact. So here we are in 2017, marathon #5 for me and every year I keep coming back. This year it would be about 64-70°F and rain/clouds

As some of you know already I headed back to the Blue Rigde Mountains March 27th. My plan was to prepare for the marathon with my first Ultra Marathon, the Smith Mountain Lake Dam 50k April 1st (a trail race for the most part), which climbed two mountains on course. It was rough, but I kept things slow, and finished, with THE hardest climb I’ve every done, hiking/walking/running, 1000 ft in just a mile.

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Afterwards, I thought I went so slow that it probably didn’t help me much. Of course looking back now, I’d like to do it again. I also signed up for my first 10k, Mill Mountain Mayhem (a trail race), ironically, which was a week later, April 8th. This went horribly, mainly because the first half of the race was a bottleneck where I got stuck going at a slower pace than I wanted, and tried to catch up the latter half, which was impossible due to the mountain climb (this race went up and down one mountain). Legs were ok, but how I felt rather discouraged me from feeling good about the marathon two weeks out. The next week, I practiced climbing the same mountain I did in the 10k on my bike for ironman training. The first 20 miles felt terrible, and I hit what I felt was my lactate threshold several times up the climb. The last 13ish miles were fine though. I attempted a final 2 hour 30 min run a week before the marathon. I had plans to climb Mill Mountain again but I couldn’t even make my legs get that far into my run. I made about 10 miles in that run and had a terrible pace, struggling with my heart rate, and finally just quit. Per usual before a long endurance event, I did a speed test (I usually just do a fast 5k race) for a mile and busted out my fastest mile to date since starting running at 6:49. I feel like this knocks whatever is left in my legs out and my average pace during the distance event feels faster than my training runs. Maybe I’m crazy for this, but it has worked.

Race Day. I was discouraged by the rain, of course, as probably many of the runners were. With a little luck, the start of the race wasn’t rain-filled. The race time was moved from 7:20am to 7:35am from last years’ start time, I guess I did notice a few changes with the shift of the race director. Regardless, I was determined to run my heart out (well, somewhat literally). I had a plan to run-walk the first mountain so I was not to overdo it from the start, then run as fast as I could downhills, and run-walk uphills with 4 mins running, 1 min walk, and do that for the 3 mountains and run a nice consistent pace for the remaining 10k that’s much flatter. I knew the course like the back of my hand…

None of this was true haha.

The gun went off, and I placed myself further in the front in a faster pace group to start off. Every other year I started further back and was always locked in until mile 2.5 with people. I guess I didn’t place myself far enough ahead AGAIN. I was still locked with people not running my pace (and this is still an issue with self-seeding in races anyway), and was frustrated trying to get ahead and find empty space. The first mile is always the warmup. 3/4 of the mile is somewhat inclined, and then the last 1/4 mile is straight up Walnut Ave, where the first real climb begins. 9:16 for the first mile, not bad, basically where I wanted to be before I slowed WAY down for the climb. The 2nd mile had 278 feet of climb, on your way up Mill Mountain, I was doing well with the 4-1 run-walk, until I decided to keep running through one of them, then got tired, and blew that plan out. After that it just became a game with juggling my heart rate trying to keep it from skyrocketing too early. That also didn’t go well, hitting a high of 189 bpm for miles 2 and 3 even with being conservative. Oh well. Mile 2.7, the top of the first climb where the race splits off from Marathon and half and 10k, was the first timing mat. Average pace was 10:49 min/mi. My calves were screaming, but I knew they’d calm down later. Marathon runners split off and kept going off to a section of large rolling hills leading to Roanoke Mountain. 1,785 feet of elevation gain from mile 2 to mile 7. These rolling hills were probably one of the hardest sections and then delivering the final blow having to climb Roanoke Mountain at the end. I realized how lonely I was at this point. I missed having a running buddy to just complain to or waste time talking with, making crude jokes or commenting on other runners saying “how in the world can you still be running up this thing?! Make me feel better and walk too!” It started raining at mile 4.5, bleh. In addition I noticed that my hands had swelled up. I did something wrong in my nutrition plan, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. So through the next aid stations I played around with not taking in salt and adding more water. For the rest of the race, I never got it right. They began to hurt about half way through, but whatever.

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Roanoke Mountain

I was averaging some slow 11 min/mi paces here until the super climb hit me in the face taking me down to a 15:18 mile for mile 6 and 13:32 mile for mile 7, my calves stopped screaming as much at least. At the top, my breath was taken away from the scenery, all the dense fog up there settling on the mountains, just reminded me of where I lived. I whipped out my camera and took the only pictures from the race there, of course this added time which is probably why my pace was so bad at mile 6. Worth. I was so excited to have reached the top. Not. There are technically two peaks on Roanoke Mountain, and I had only reached the first haha, I knew this though. Upon reaching the crest of the mountain, I knew it was time to buckle down, engage the abs and run hard downhill. 805 feet of loss in two miles heading down Roanoke Mountain! I won’t lie, it’s a ton of fun flying down. I could feel my quads firing, and they were on it. I had complete control. I averaged about 8:15 min/mi on the downhill, very close to my 5k pace! Coming back to Mill Mountain via the large rolling hills (I really dislike these…especially now), I settled back into a slower pace and conserved, doing about 1 min/mi better pace than I did the first go-around earlier on miles 4-5. Now one of the most dreaded climbs, the short 1.5 miles up to the peak of Mill Mountain, very very steep.
I knew this peak would take me up to the half way point, 13 miles into the race. I was glad to be done and clocked my half time at 2 hours and 26 minutes, not bad at all!! However, I knew even if I maintained my pace for the last half of the race, I would AT BEST be able to finish in 4:52. *sigh* My goal this whole time was sub 5 hours. I knew I’d have to fight for that.

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I locked and loaded my quads for the next large descent. I blasted down at managed a 7:35 mile at mile 14! I was elated with this. Stopped at an aid station and mile 15 was 9:10 along the greenway. Here was where I started having more so mental difficulties. My legs did NOT want to run flats. It was fairly flat on miles 16 and 17, with just 242 feet of gain and 62 feet of loss. Then mile 18. I knew this was the hardest of the climbs being the steepest and last climb. 3 miles of climbing now…my only goal was to crush my time climbing it from last year, 43:24 for that 5k. This year it was 39:13!! Good enough for me! I pumped my arms hard pushing myself up. Now the final large descend. Only about 400 feet in 1.5 miles, but I took what I could get. At this point, mile 20.5, I met a very interesting runner that I started to talk with, Justin. He was great and my spirits really lifted. I realized descending the final mountain that my feet had taken the brunt of my run so far and I could feel the blisters under my metatarsals much like I did after my feet got wet during the 50k. If this was the only pain I was in, I was fine with it (although right now sitting here I will tell you very differently not being able to walk with these open blisters). I was glad to have had someone push me through the final 10k or so, which are the most mentally draining miles. The next 10k are the flattest of the race, with just 310 feet of gain, but you want to walk so badly. Granted there are some steep sections left, including bridges and short, steep hills, but in general, the rise and fall of the course is over.
My pace dropped a lot. I still had my eye on the sub 5 hour finish. I ran through puddles and I was soaked. Under my arms were chafed from lack of body glide I neglected to apply prior to the race (missed those spots :/). My heart rate was in control again, keeping it around 165 mostly. I continued to push hard the last 2 miles (c’mon, it’s TWO MILES). My legs were tired, but mostly felt fine.

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I busted into a sprint the last 0.2 (which was technically the last 0.4…this course is always 0.2 LONGER, clocking 26.45 miles last year and 26.40 miles this year). This threw off my time obviously. I turned the corner, the final short climb before the downhill finish chute, and I saw the clock: 4 hours 55 minutes 33 seconds…I had to make it there before 4:57! I was totally focus on beating whatever last minute clock time I had in my mind. I finished at 4 hours and 56 minutes and 23 seconds. I tried to make my finish picture look good at least, I have failed to do this years prior, the first year trying not to pass out, and last year stopping my garmin (classic!).

 

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I waltz over to get my medal, and my legs felt surprisingly good. I got my chocolate milk and headed over to the free massage tent.

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Final Results

I climbed up onto the table and realized as soon as the therapist started on my legs that I was really NOT in bad condition whatsoever! I hardly had any soreness or pain. While I was laying there, I overheard some people saying the race had been cancelled due to storms. I heard thunder off in the distance. Well, at least I finished before the worst of it hit! I later found out they called the race at 4 hours and 52 minutes into the race, before I had crossed the finish line…that my time may not be official. It turned out, I recently found out, that my time was official, and at 4:52, they started taking down the timing mats, and if you hadn’t crossed all the timing mats before the finish, your time was not official. Those on the course were notified and given the option to finish at their own risk and would be given an unofficial time. A few minutes later, it poured down hard rain and stormed pretty bad to the point of flooding. I felt a pit in my heart and stomach for those out there doing the double marathon.
I will say in conclusion that this was the best I’ve felt post race for either a half OR a full marathon as far as my conditioning and muscles go. I thought I would honestly regret doing the 50k (which ended up being like 52k lol), but in reality it helped fuel my sprints downhill and prevented my legs from getting totally messed up during the marathon. For the first time after a marathon, I could stand up, sit down, squat, move, all without assistance. I am pretty burnt out on running at the moment, and am glad there are no more races.

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Elevation Profile from Garmin

However, there are some burning questions I will need to answer in the future here…
– Will I decide to go back and do the 50k again? I did have a lot of fun with it.
– Will I return to do the Blue Ridge Marathon again? If I do, will I choose to do the marathon or the double? Is it worth my 2018 running and athletic season to do something that daunting and SO early in the season when I know training through the winter in Wisconsin probably will not get me ready in time. Is that worth it?
– Will I decide to do more than a 50k next year in general? What lies ahead? Would I prefer to work on speed and make my marathon times faster, is potentially qualifying for Boston one day even a possibility with my body and skills? Or would I just want to go further?
I enjoy getting faster, and I enjoy testing my limits. In the documentary, The Barkley Marathons, Laz says that race appeals to the smarter crowds because they are used to succeeding, and this is appealing because they could and probably will fail. What am I looking for?

Stats from the race:
– First marathon in the rain
– Cut exactly 30 minutes from my race time from last year
– Elevation Gain: 3918 feet
– Average Pace: 11:14 min/mi
– Distance: 26.40 miles
– Average Heart rate: 170 bpm
– Best pace: 6:42 min/mi
– Calories burned: ~2,715
– Clothes were all Inknburn, 6″ shorts and cami top
– Shoes were Altra Escalentes size 7.5
– Socks were Feetures Compression
– Nutrition: Honey Stingers (  ) + Skratch on course electrolytes (  )

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Smith Mountain Lake Dam 50k Ultra Run

Event in Penhook, VA at the Smith Mountain Lake Dam. 50k that was really 32.25 miles…Horton Miles they called it.
This was my first ultra marathon, and well, it was a doozy:

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Well this was more impromptu race than planned. The plan was to use this race as a training run for the Blue Ridge Marathon (coming up April 22nd, Roanoke, VA, ~4000 ft elevation gain), because living in Wisconsin, there was nothing to prepare me enough for my goal marathon. Looking at previous years’ garmin data from three other people, I saw:
1. It was 32ish miles, not 31
2. There were two mountains, the first one less steep at the start, the second one looked like a 90° wall at mile 21
3. No one ran up the second mountain no matter what pace they displayed
4. Roughly 5000 ft elevation gain
5. The “hills” between the two mountains looked rolling
My initial plan was to run-walk up to the 5k mark (where the first mountain ended) until the 21 mile mark (where the 2nd mountain began), get to the top and take it easy until the finish. Let’s say that plan was thrown in the trash after about 8 minutes in of the 7 hours and 40 minutes I was out there.

I had driven to Virginia (home) two days before, and prepped the way I knew best, bringing down my sitting swelling I got while driving for 17 hours, and hydrating the best I could. I had my protein bar before the race, along with some sweet tea. I decided to bring along my hydration pack, as annoying and heavy as it is with 2L of water/nuun inside, along with my honey stingers and phone. So let’s get on with how the race went…

Started off on the bridge in front of the Smith Mountain Lake Dam, a place I never got to visit before as close to it as I lived my whole life (to be fair, I never saw Natural Bridge either…). It was windy, and at a starting temperature of about 57°F, it was chilly. I ditched my jacket at the start, don’t regret doing that, because the first mountain heated me up fast. There were about 30 some people doing the 50k, a very small gathering, but EVERY SINGLE PERSON seemed to be an experienced ultra runner, even by appearance, they just looked like seasoned runners.

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Smith Mountain Lake Dam wedged between two Mountains

Apparently I was the only one who hadn’t done an ultra before, as many had done 50+ miles before. Gun start, no chip time, which isn’t a problem when you are inches away from the starting line. The course went directly upwards from the start up the first mountain. My plan, was run four minutes, walk one. I was successful in two cycles of that before I had to just walk. My calves were already crying and aching. Not a good sign in mile ONE out of 30+. I had done some warm up exercises before starting, but it wasn’t enough. Everyone was walking. Finally reached mile two after 18 minutes. Great start? Reached the top a bit after and started to run again. From what the elevation profile looked like, it would just be rolling hills from there to mile 21. Wrong again. The course soon became pavement by mile 4 or 5 and was paved until mile 20.

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The course rose and fell, but the rises were a LOT steeper than the profile led on. I did my best to run the more level bits and downhills and the starting of every uphill. My feet were bothering me a lot actually with the swelling. I knew it would eventually go away (turns out that was mile 6 when it dissipated), so I fought through and ignored it. I figured out by mile 4 that this would not be my race, not feeling my best. I kept on going. I finally got a few sub 10:30 min/mi splits along the way, but I said I would take this race easy. I really took it as easy as I possibly could, not feeling guilty about my average time constantly displayed on my garmin. I occasionally stopped to check my directions for the course to make sure I wasn’t lost. I had had three nightmares the night before, and one of those was getting lost. The course WAS marked really well, but I can’t help my anxiety about getting lost. My legs actually felt better by mile 9, they actually felt warmed up (my calves weren’t screaming anymore). I hit the half marathon mark by 2:47 and some change. Possibly my slowest half marathon ever. This was 5 minutes SLOWER than my half at Ironman Los Cabos 70.3, and that was at 97°F and 65% humidity! I thought THAT was a struggle! Granite I was taking this much slower on purpose. I still didn’t feel good at this point, just sluggish and not at my potential. No injuries or nagging pains though.

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I honestly don’t remember much after that, I refilled my water at the aid station at mile 16. There was an aid station every 4-5 miles, which I found pretty often from what I’ve heard about ultra marathons/trail races. I was thankful for that. There was tailwind at every other aid station which I was also thankful for. Around mile 19.5, I was passed by two guys a few minutes apart. I figured out later that was first and second place. They looked unphased by the course! Little did I know, that the first place finisher was attacked by 3 dogs about a mile back! These were also the first people I’ve seen since everyone separated by mile 2. I came into the finisher area (the finish of the first loop), I panicked for a hot minute thinking I cut the course. I was assured by the race directors I was fine. I took a quick bathroom break and refilled my water again before making the trek up the second mountain…the death climb. I may not remember much of the first 20 some miles, but I sure remembered everything from that point on.

So I left for the rest of the race. It wasn’t straight up at first, there was some climbing, but it was sloped and steady. There were 8 stream crossings, and no way around them except to go straight through them, too far to jump across, besides jumping at this point was probably not a good idea with the chances of falling pretty high. This was a trail race, and they stuffed it into this section. I was already soaked from the first two stream crossings, so I decided to quickly cross the other. The third one was the one that got me. I’m used to running in the woods, no problem, but not really streams. The 3rd one I sank knee deep into mud, getting all into my shoes and socks. I had to stop to remove from pebbles which would have caused me grief later. At this point, I knew I was doing well at conserving because I could still bend over. But trying to hold my foot up off the ground, I got a sudden charly horse in my foot and thigh. I broke out the emergency salt sticks I had brought with me. Never had another cramp! I went on my way, now dirty and trying to clean myself off while going through the remaining stream crossings. The steeper climb began. I took some pictures of it, but little did I know that was not the true start of the climb…

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Half way up the Death Climb

It started getting too steep to even walk around mile 21.64 (I remember distinctly because I needed to know when the climbing stopped). I was getting out of breath after just one minute of climbing…WALKING! I don’t know if you can call what I did walking even as you could not set your foot full on the ground, the slope was too steep, you were forced on your toes. I’m glad I run on my toes to midfoot, my calves were prepared but burning. When I got too out of breath to continue, I would stop at a larger tree to hold on to and turn my feet sideways so I would not fall. When I caught my breath, I would push myself off the trees to continue on and look for the next tree then the next tree, making small goals. I remember looking down at my garmin and seeing 22.18, I hadn’t gone anywhere. My heart sank, it was so hard. The path was washed out from the heavy rain the day before and loose rocks everywhere. This made footing VERY difficult. I spent the time going up looking at pretty rocks and admiring the geology. This mile climb took me 33 minutes. I can run an easy EASY 5k sub 30 minutes! I could not possibly go any faster here. There was only one effort level: go or not go. What seemed like (and probably was) forever, I reached the top. Stopped for a quick pic and to catch my breath. Had some soda at mile 23. I continued on my way for the rolling hills on washed out gravel roads.

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Mile 24, I passed my first person, she was from Richmond, and was gunning for a 50 miler this summer. After a quick chat, I wished her well, and continued on. I hit the marathon mark (26.2) around six hours and 17 minutes in. Hit the aid station up there. I soon caught up to a nice runner Robin. She seemed very nice and we had some nice chats and I felt like we pushed each other the rest of the way. It was nice having someone to talk to and run beside, especially after the aid station at mile 29 (they told us about the dogs). I felt a LOT better after the marathon mark than I had previously in the race. I have no idea why. I stopped taking nutrition though, it mainly slipped my mind. Despite being told to “go on” by Robin, it was more worthwhile to stick it out with her, and a lot more fun. The course didn’t seem as hard, and the final section was a repeat of the end of the first loop, and I think I ran a lot more in the latter part of the race. I actually was feeling good at this point, with the only hold up the space right under my metatarsals. Turns out the skin was being pushed too much on the death climb after getting my skin soaked by the stream crossings and caused some blistering and a small raw strip of skin that developed on the bottom of my foot. I guess I’m lucky that was my only real injury, if you want to even call it that. It was nice coming into the finish. Although I didn’t come NEAR the finish time interval I was aiming for or predicted, I am happy I even finished and was able to push/not push through certain obstacles.

Post race, my legs are not as bad off as they were after the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon about a month ago (hard to imagine since it feels a lot longer than that). My arms ache the most probably, and probably due to using trees and propelling myself up steep hills. My back and shoulders are sore probably because I’m not used to carrying so much weight on my back (but it was worth it in the long run with the daytime high ending up being 68°F with full sun. Speaking of sun, I am sunburnt, which I wasn’t worried about because I thought there would be enough tree cover to not get burned. However, just because there were a ton of trees, doesn’t mean those trees have leaves yet! Looking back, I don’t think there was anything I could have done differently. My quads ache, but far less sore than they have been and my calves are suspiciously doing ok for the most part. If there was a time and place for calf sleeves, this was it. I attribute my calf wellness to them this time.

17632439_1268585806528845_5903544910115254943_oI found out, as a neat tid-bit, that David Horton, the race director, was the 2nd person to finish the Barkely Marathons. If you haven’t seen the documentary or heard of the Barkley, look it up…it certain is interesting!

Right now I am busy recovering for my next race next weekend, my first 10k! (Ironic), which I don’t know if I will be truly racing, depending on my recovery this week. After that, I have a week of further recovery to get ready for the Blue Ridge Marathon. I am hoping to break the 5 hour mark on that marathon this year, the 3rd year I’ll be participating in it. Once again, if you have made it to the end of this, CONGRATULATIONS!! Thanks for reading, I’ll eventually get a real blog page up and running, but I’m lazy and busy running (literally). Lastly I’d like to say, if Ironman is easier than this was, I will 1. be surprised, 2. probably cry…I’ll probably be emotional anyways. Big thanks to my mom for making it out and being patient as I mulled through this course. Peace out!

Post race thoughts: Yeah I probably will go back and do this again. It’s addicting.