The finisher’s medal doubles as a belt buckle.
The sign read “I’m sure this seemed like a good idea 4 months ago.” I nodded at the truth of that statement. Of course, 24 miles into the 2014 Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon and having gone up my 9th hill (a rough estimate), I would have agreed with almost anything that I could read. I was two miles from the finish, about a mile from my home, and was ready for this adventure to end. But I had prepared four years for this race, and knew I had to finish.
Course change and the weather
The two headlines from this year’s race were the course changes and the weather. Because April rains had forced organizers in past years to re-route the race at the last minute, the course was changed for 2014 to reduce the reliance on the low-land greenway areas that had been prone to flooding. That meant more hills (woot!), especially later in the race. The most significant was the hill at mile 24 near Black Dog Salvage on Memorial Avenue. As hills go, and compared to Peakwood, Mill Mountain, and Roanoke Mountain, this hill is relatively small. But having already climbed and descended those, this hill felt like an added dose of misery.
But it wasn’t all bad. The course changes also accommodated the new starting area and finish line, Roanoke’s newly renovated Elmwood Park. The finish was actually on a slight, downhill grade (much better than the plunge that runners take at the Richmond Marathon) and put runners right in the middle of the postr-race party and Down by Downtown music festival.
The weather was the other big news of the day. After a week of chilly and windy weather – not uncommon for Roanoke in April – race day on Saturday was warm and sunny. That made for a great start, but taxed most of the runners still on the course after 9:30 a.m. or so. I drained the bottles on my hydration belt and sought refills at most water stops. By the end of the race, I just wanted something cold to drink. That complimentary finish-line beer, courtesy of Parkway Brewing, was downright tasty and perfectly chilled.
The first half of the race followed the same course as before, a downhill start on Jefferson before taking a left turn onto Walnut for the climb up Mill Mountain. A friend of mine lives on Walnut Avenue and was amazed at the sight of thousands of runners (organizers estimated that 1,885 participated in the three races), coming up his street. Walnut eventually turns into Fishburn Parkway as it ascends Mill Mountain.
The half marathoners and 10k runners turned onto the access road that led to the Mill Mountain Star, a signature Roanoke landmark, while the marathoners stayed on the parkway spur to reach Roanoke Mountain, about 3 miles away. I spent this time talking to other runners who had participated in the marathon before. I also met a few runners who were, like me, doing the marathon for the first time.
After climbing for six miles, I finally reached the top of Roanoke Mountain. A bagpiper played tunes as we ran by the water stop. It was great to reach the top, but a long descent awaited. This was the hill that, a year earlier, had dashed my plans for running the 2013 marathon after my knee gave out. I had done a few training runs since and had managed to go easier on the downhill to save my legs for later.
I made it back to Mill Mountain and began that descent at just about 2:27 into the race, not my best half distance, but I wanted to run conservatively in the first half, knowing that the notorious Peakwood climb remained.
The course flattened out after coming down Mill Mountain, a nice change from the long descent, as we followed the greenway through River’s Edge park into the South Roanoke neighborhood. I attend church with a lot of folks who live in that neighborhood. It was great to see so many friends out cheering all of the runners on. Even though the climb up Peakwood was long and twisted with several switchbacks, the neighborhood support was great. Residents had yard signs, handed out snacks and drinks, and even hooked up a few sprinklers for runners to pass through. After reaching the top of Ridge Road, the highest point just off Peakwood, residents and sponsors were handing out champagne. A nice touch, but I think bad things would have happened if I accepted the offer.
After going up Peakwood, which I was walking by then, I just wanted to reach the finish line. I had 6 miles to go and kept telling myself it was only a 10k. I hit the wall coming down Jefferson. For a moment, I didn’t think I could make it, but then I caught a glimpse of my family cheering me on. That helped me pick up the pace and tackle the last 6 miles. I finished at just over 5 hours. I was hoping to finish just under five, but given the heat and the hills, I’m glad to have finished.
Every aspect of this race was well planned and executed. Perhaps the best part, though, were the volunteers. At every water stop and turn, course volunteers offered encouragement and good cheer. They all wore bright orange t-shirts that read “You run mountains and I help …” a take-off on the unofficial race motto “You run hills, I run mountains.” At mile 23, I ran by a neighbor, who is also a U.S. District Judge and a fellow runner, who volunteered to marshal the race. He offered the right words of encouragement at a key time for me. That was very cool.
As a Roanoke resident, I think the marathon is one of the best things to happen to our region. Everyone involved in the race – organizers, volunteers, police, fire, rescue personnel, the park service, and the local media – came together to show what a great place Roanoke is. Even folks stuck in traffic honked horns and offered encouragement.
It was a great race and I’m already planning for 2015.