The Blue Ridge Marathon, which I have run 3 times and was my first ever marathon distance race, is a fabulous and stunning course in more than one way. The Blue Ridge Marathon (BRM) is a USAT certified course and is a Boston Qualifying event (which is usually not something people shoot for here). The course has 3,700+ feet of vertical gain and loss (7,400+ total), which traverses over three peaks throughout the course. But, it’s not always about how much elevation change occurs, but where it occurs, and this is where training strategy comes in. A course where you run steady climbs and falls is much different from a course that has fewer larger climbs and longer downhill sections, and will eventually take a toll on the hamstrings and quads later on in the event. Some people say that it’s harder going down at the end than it is ever going up! I heard it on course myself several times! The BRM has the most elevation change in any road marathon in the US, which gives it its Toughest Road Marathon title. Sure there are loads of newly forming downhill marathon courses cropping up these days, but going downhill all the time is boring. The BRM offers so much more and the locals make sure it’s special.
A little more about the course. The course is all road with the exception at the top of Mill Mountain near the City of Roanoke Star, where there is a very short section of dirt/gravel path as you make your way around the front. The course runs a large majority of its miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s most visited National Park. Something useful to note, because it does run along the Parkway, the roads are slanted usually according to the slopes of the hills they run along, meaning your hips can be unaligned tilting left or right (where one leg is shorter than the other because of the slope of the road). A lot of people are not prepared to deal with that over that many miles, and something I experienced the 2nd time I did the marathon after not being able to train on the course. I would suggest doing some hip strengthening exercises and cross training as part of your regular regime. I am an RRCA certified coach, so I know a thing or two when it comes to these things 😉 Feel free to reach out to me!
Now I’m going to walk you through the course from my perspective. This is definitely the most beautiful and scenic road marathon I’ve ever done. And if you haven’t read my blog, I’ve been to quite a few places, as that is what I love doing.
The Blue Ridge Marathon Course
The BRM starts out in downtown Roanoke, giving you a small city vibe, surrounded by tall building and full of a hype crowd. You immediately head towards Mill Mountain first (that’s the one with the Star on top!) taking a left onto Walnut. Oh Walnut. You start out getting in a bunch of gain after your one mile warmup. Walnut is no joke and my suggestion is to take it slow, take in what’s around you even though you may be surrounded by hundreds of people! One of my favorite things is being able to look up Walnut at all the people in front of me in the morning sun. Walnut takes you to the entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds up the side of Mill Mountain. You are still climbing here, seeing the sun peak through the trees on your left. At almost 5k in, you reach the top of this climb where the crowd will thin out as the half marathoners head up to the peak of Mill Mountain and you get to shake out a bit as you move onto the rolling hills that lay between where you are now and the climb to Roanoke Mountain.
A few spectators make their way out here typically every year to cheer everyone on. Upon arrive at the base of the Roanoke Mountain climb around mile 5, there are usually a few spectacle surprises, I won’t spoil them here! I consider the climb up Roanoke Mountain to be the hardest of the three big climbs, maybe because it’s the longest at nearly 2.25 miles. You will likely meet a lot of fellow runners under the same struggle, doing a walk-run or walking as fast as possible! Don’t be discouraged by pace, as what goes up must come down, always a rule of thumb with the Blue Ridge Marathon that I love. There are two overlooks for Roanoke Mountain and the first ones on course you come to. More than likely if you want, you can get someone to take your picture up there, or just shoot a quick selfie. There is a great aid station up there as well! I typically lose a bit of time here taking it all in 🙂
Don’t let the first overlook fool you, there is a bit more climbing to do before the very tip top of Roanoke Mountain where another aid station awaits you and more beautiful views! Now get ready for the first real downhill section of the race!! With about 2.5 miles of screaming downhill, brace your quads and try not to burn them out too soon. It’s a hecka’ lotta fun, as it’s one of my favorite sections. Not too scenic, just trees around you, so you can really focus on what’s in front of you and go as fast as gravity will lead you. Remember, on long downhills try not to heel strike too much as this braking motion might do more harm than good. Lean forward a little and engage your core here for more control. Back at the base of Roanoke Mountain, the spectators usually return for a quick jaunt down the Blue Ridge Parkway road to return you back to those lovely rolling hills taking you back to where you left the half marathoners heading up Mill Mountain, this is almost mile 12 here, half way there almost!!
The climb up Mill Mountain at this point is very short, but also very steep. Keep your eye on the prize, for at the top here you will get to see the Roanoke Star and a view of the entire Star City (Roanoke) and beyond on a clear day. There is an aid station up there to keep you going (I haven’t mentioned every aid station, as they are fairly often, generally every 1-1.5 miles from my experience and well stocked, and I’ve never had to carry my own water). If you miss any of the great views, you can always see them after race day on your own, celebrate with some pictures if you’re into that 😉
And get ready for the reward again, and head down Mill Mountain, past the zoo there, and view some lovely properties along the way as you see Roanoke to your left on your way down. Somewhere in this section you may find Moomosas (and orange juice for the nonalcoholic people like me, which is really tasty). This path leads you down to the Roanoke River Greenway, a pretty flat section of the course, as you are able to look back to where you came from atop Mill Mountain from here. Usually you will find the local Fleet Feet aid station ready to welcome you with their own flair here. Now get ready to be greeted by more locals as you head into their neighborhoods and prep the legs for the final climb: Peakwood.
Peakwood is usually considered by most to be the hardest climb, probably because of where it is located along the course, around mile 17, usually when people start hitting “the wall”, and how steep it is in sections. Be prepared for several families to have their own makeshift aid stations for you in the neighborhood and maybe even some people playing music for you as you make your way up this hard section. I remember my first year doing this is was hot, in the 80s, and there was a little girl who was giving out watermelon on sticks…it was the best moment and the tastiest watermelon I’ve had. Now, the peak of Peakwood, get ready for (usually) the Fink’s aid station! Sometimes you find sprinkler showers, champagne, fruit, sunblock, so much stuff! This is it! This is the final peak! Treat yourself, you’ve earned all of it 😉
Now the descend. The final big one. By this time, you are generally very tired of going up and down so much. You quads may be talking back right about now. But never fear, the end is near as you make it to 20, then 21! Along this path, if the sun is out, be prepared for the sun to beat down your back, take note if you think you need sunblock, remember to take the aid station up on that reapplication! The bridges you cross will radiate some heat back at you as you begin to re-enter the city, Mill Mountain passing on your right.
Hey, this looks familiar? You might hear some crowds off in the distance. You’re not going crazy, the finish line is ahead of you now, and no, you didn’t get lost, but you will come very close to the finish line area around mile 22. It’s just a teaser.
Back to the greenway. From here, things have calmed down, there are a few smaller and rolling hills left, nothing you can’t handle. You head into Wasena Park and out past Black Dog Salvage. Just a few more turns around downtown and the race is yours. You might be thinking at this point, “another hill?” But I assure you they aren’t as bad as what you just did, it’s all perspective! Be on the lookout for the sign “Jesus Saves”, and you’re almost there. Luck Ave. will have you traveling back to the finish in no time. Hit mile 26, you got this. It’s all downhill from here. Literally, the finish is downhill! The crowd is waiting for you as you make your way down into Elmwood Park off of Bullet Street, almost like a red carpet finish with the red bricks lining your way! And that’s the Blue Ridge Marathon!
Now, what are the best methods to tackle this seemingly daunting course? Hills and more Hills. I would say it is important to get in a hill workout once a week. Practice what you want to perform. If you plan on run-walking the hills, set an interval for that. If you plan on walking fast, practice walking fast and get a pace goal for that. Going up never gets easier, you only get better at it. Going down can get easier. I talked a lot about your quads, and the best practice to getting your quads in shape is to literally practice bombing downhills, meaning try and run them hard and fast putting pressure on the quads, and engaging that core. Remain upright. Posture as though you are being held up by a string attached to your head. A lot of people practice and prepare for the climbing but not the descending. And yes, it’s easier to prepare for climbing, for even if you reside somewhere flat, you can get some good quality climbing even without the stairmaster at the gym (or treadmill) by finding a tall building, like a hospital or stadium with bleachers, and do stair climbs there.
For training downhills, find the longest and steepest you can in your area to practice with and become good buddies with it. Road or trail, although road is preferred because you can more so mimic the marathon course. Sometimes trails can provide more climbing and descending than local roads or are in safer areas. For downhill specifically, you can do a lot of body weight exercises in lieu of a missing hill.
I mentioned the slope of the roads. They are a factor and nontrivial. Make sure you get in a crosstraining day for that specifically! Get those hips working! Otherwise, you probably can follow any traditional marathon plan to get you nice and ready. You have 7.5 hours for the marathon, that’s a minimum pace of 17:10 min/mi.
Blue Ridge Half Marathon Course
And the BRM doesn’t only offer the marathon distance, no, they also have a freaking hard half marathon! Here’s the difference the half marathon course takes…
Follow the above to mile 2.5 where the marathon splits from the other distances on Mill Mountain. The half marathon continues the climb from the start up to the top of Mill Mountain where the Star is! And this is brutal, just after the 5k mark you reach the top! And right after the amazing view over the Roanoke valley, you head down your first of two descends right down to the greenway to head right on over to Peakwood. The Half course never seems to catch a break. It continues the marathon course from the top of Mill Mountain to Peakwood and back down that to Jefferson. The difference here is instead of that little teaser of the finish line the marathoners have, the half marathoners get to head straight for the finish area down Jefferson. Huzzah!! Two mountains for the half marathon, skipping Roanoke mountain and the tour through the downtown area and Wasena Park.
The half has almost 2000 feet of gain! The minimum pace for the half is 27:30 min/mi, that’s a 6 hour cut off time.
The Star City 10k Course
Everyone starts the course at the same place, and finishes in the same place. Not ready to tackle the half or full? The Star 10k gives you the Roanoke Valley overlook, the same way the half and full do and comes right back down the switchbacks of Mill Mountain, fast fast fast! At the intersection at mile 5 with Walnut, oh how we all love Walnut!, you head back in the final mile to the finish the same way you came up. And Voila, you’re there!
You get 861 feet of gain on the 10k course alone. Take all the time you need, and even walkers are encouraged to join in on the fun 🙂
I am personally signed up and doing the Blue Ridge Double Marathon. It was a low key unofficial event back in the day, and is now official with finish times and everything! What is it? Do it twice. You start at 1am and do the course without much aid (aid stations are closed), a headlamp, and safety gear, to get back around by the time race starts officially for everyone else and then meet all the time cutoffs. The first cut off is 7:30 when the race starts for everyone else, and the same time cut off as everyone else for the second lap. 16:20 min/mi is the minimum pace. There are a lot more rules associated with this distance if you are interested, please see the official site for details (Double Marathon).
I highly recommend this course as challenging as it is, it brings forth great reward for your efforts, and Roanoke is a very friendly city with many things to do and see. Some of my favorite things are within driving distance are listed below:
Homestead Creamery (locally sourced food and ice cream), located at 7254 Booker T Washington Hwy, Wirtz, Virginia: Homestead Creamery
Sharp Top Hiking and Picnic area and Lodge (Peaks of Otter in Bedford, VA): 85554 Blue Ridge Pkwy, Bedford, VA 24523: Peaks of Otter Info
Grandin Roanoke area Pop’s Ice Cream Shoppe: Pop’s Ice Cream
Tanglewood and Valley View Malls, Roanoke, VA
Mill Mountain Zoo, Mill Mountain Spur, Roanoke, VA 24014: Zoo
McAfee Knob Hike, Mcafee Knob TrailHead, Catawba Valley Dr, Catawba, VA 24070: McAfee Knob
National D-Day Memorial, 3 OVERLORD CIRCLE, BEDFORD, VA 24523: D-Day Memorial
And loads of wineries and farms to look up and visit! I will update this list as I think of more. For any questions about anything in this or if I need to be more clear on certain things, please contact me! I have a discount code for any of the race distances 🙂