Cold. Windy. Occasional snow flurries.
I think it is actually comedic how opposite my race conditions were yesterday for the Inaugural Asheville Marathon at the Biltmore Estate compared to conditions for the 2012 Boston Marathon just under 11 months ago. (Read my race recap of the 90 degree Boston Marathon here.) And again it was the spectators and the volunteers that made this race in conditions like this possible so let me start this (really long) recap with some major shout outs and thank yous!
Huge shout out to the Girls on the Run water station with their signs, crazy costumes, and words of encouragement that gave an awesome jolt of energy to tired and cold bodies running past! I am so happy to be a part of the Girls on the Run community as a coach surrounded by such awesome fellow coaches!
Thank you to all the other water stations and volunteers along the course who were sometimes all alone in the cold and wind cheering us on and making sure that on the long stretches of the course without spectators, we were encouraged!
Another shout out to Daphne Kirkwood and Idaph events for putting on a fantastic expo (although I am a little biased since I helped out with the setup) and an extremely well organized inaugural race, even without the ability to predict the weather!
And finally, thank you to my parents, who along with other spectators, cheered the around 1,000 runners through this gorgeous but difficult course in these severe conditions!
I promised my parents that I will try to pick a ‘normal’ weather race for my next one, maybe in a consistently moderate climate, but then a friend suggested that extreme weather marathons become my thing… and I might be just crazy enough to take his half-joking suggestion.
Race morning started with me brushing a layer of snow off my car windshield at 5:45am before driving to the Biltmore Estate and waiting in a line of cars to get in. The temperature readout on my car said it was 25 degrees out and occasional flurries of snow got caught sparkling in headlights. Really the only organizational flaw was the getting into the estate process that I think was sped up when the Biltmore staff (who I am thankful for their early morning work!) started just letting runners in without checking individual tickets of everyone in the cars. Race organizers immediately adjusted to the problem by delaying the start for 15 minutes while everyone got parked and shuttled to the start line, as those of us already at the start crammed into the tents for protection from the wind.
When the horn went off to start the race we all cheered, partly I think because we were getting moving and warming up, and partly because it was pretty cool to get to take part in an inaugural race!
The first ten miles of the race were on the “front” side of the Biltmore Estate, which is accessible to all visitors and takes you past the house, the gardens and Antler Hill Village which is where the shops and winery are. The first 7-8 miles of the course were on paved but hilly roads, and I really felt good on those. All of those miles up and down mountain roads really paid off and I was feeling really strong for all of those miles even with the cold, wind and snow flurries!
A funny thing happened at the first water station which was about 5 miles into the race. I picked up a cup and got a mouth full of ice. I thought to myself “why the heck would they give us ice water,” until a second later my slightly slowed mind caught on to the fact that the water had turned into ice in the time since they had poured it into the cups! From then on I squeezed the water cups to break up the top layer of ice before trying to drink from it. A more enlightened moment happened on the descent from the house. I crossed over a little brick bridge and the emerging sun caught a few errant snowflakes that looked like tiny crystals suspended in mid-air and I couldn’t help but have a giant smile on my face, it was one of those magical moments in time that you wish you had a picture of, but the memory will have to do!
At about 7.5 miles we turned onto a dirt road parallel to the French Broad River that divides the “front” from the backside of the estate, and turned directly into a headwind. I mean blow your hair back and pull your cheeks back wind. My legs still felt great though and my wind blocking vest and Mizuno breath thermo tights were doing a fantastic job of keeping my core and legs warm! When I got to my parents and the rest of the spectators at mile 10 before crossing the bridge to the back side, I had a smile on my face (although I did joke to my parents that my smile was probably exaggerated by the wind blowing back my cheeks!)
Then we got to turn away from the headwind (although somehow we never got a tailwind, still trying to figure out how that happened since part of the race was out and back…) and headed toward the hardest part of the race – miles 12 through 16. This was the section of the race that no one was allowed to run on prior to the event as it was on the backside of the estate, across the French Broad River, and where normal visitors to the Biltmore are not allowed. The entire backside was on unpaved road, and runners were told that 2/3 of this marathon were going to be on dirt and gravel roads, but it wasn’t until this stretch that I realized that “gravel” can be a loose term for “giant rocks and pebbles that can and will roll your ankle.” The best part of the roads to run on were the narrow parallel tracks worn down by car tires a little bit more than the rest of the gravel. On an out and back stretch about a mile and a half long (plus the mile and a half back) these tracks created an interesting scenario – the race essentially turned into a single-track trail race. Once you got directly behind someone you had to follow them carefully until there was a safe opportunity to pass them up on the bigger rocks and grass.
I am not an experienced trail racer, I am not even a very experienced trail runner, really only sprinkling in trail runs occasionally and not for very long distances – that was my only major training mistake. Because it was an inaugural race and this section was not normally accessible, I didn’t know to prepare myself for what was essentially a partly trail marathon, maybe not as technical as a normal trail race, but certainly utilizing the same stabilizer muscles in the core, hips, knees and ankles. My inexperience running trails slowed me down, but I think this part of the course slowed even the elite runners down since only five of the elite men finished in less than 3 hours. The hills didn’t get me, as I frequently passed people who were forced to walk up the hills, but the rocks and “gravel” caused me to slow down and keep my eyes on the ground identifying the placement of my next step while also looking at the runners in front of me and listening for runners possibly coming up behind me. This definitely meant that for me this was the most energy draining part of the race.
That was the hardest part though, and I sensed it and my body pushed through, I knew my legs were strong from the hill work and could take the punishment of the last 10 miles, especially since I had essentially already run the last 5 or 6 miles of the course, back on the other side of the river. For some reason, the weather really wanted to keep punishing us even if the dirt road got easier to run on. The sun never fully emerged and I was thankful for wearing headphones (I had debated it) because it lessened the whistling of the wind in my ears. Random flurries of snow would cling to my sunglasses and I apparently didn’t really learn my lesson about what freezing temperatures can do to liquids because I grabbed an orange slice and had to tear out the popsicle like orange flesh from the rind with my teeth – not the most pleasant experience when you aren’t expecting it!
My legs kept churning though and the only times I ever walked were for a few steps at the water stations, I didn’t really want to slosh ice-cold water all over me. Crossing back over the bridge toward mile 21 I got to see my parents again with all the other incredible spectators! One of them held up a sign saying “Hurry up already we’re cold!” and I shouted out “we’re trying, we’re trying!” and got some nice laughter in response. Oh another shout out to the free high-five guy, he made sure that my hands weren’t numb within my gloves! I passed by the Girls on the Run water station again, inspired by their signs of encouragement. There was also a moment passing the stables where a couple of horses ran alongside me on the other side of the fence that divided us. I let their easy gait inspire my legs to as graceful as possible with about a 5k left to go. I was on the home stretch, but now headed directly into the wind! I looked ahead of me and picked off some runners, willing my legs to get me to the next runner ahead of me. This last section was pretty flat and had a view of the finish area which was both inspiring and frustrating as I was sure I should be getting there faster than I was! I finally got there and made my turn into the chute to the finish, elongating my stride till I crossed the timing mats, smiled widely, received my race blanket and woodallion and found my parents! On a very difficult course, in less than ideal conditions, I had succeeded in my goal of running this race in under four and a half hours – 4:26:20.
Originally I had hoped to be able to push for under 4:15 if I liked how I was feeling at the half marathon mark, but the trail conditions that slowed me down, meant that I was going to be more than happy with an under 4:30 finish! (It is after all, almost an hour PR from my time at Boston, where I was under-trained from a stress fracture and the heat actually sapped my water/bodyweight!) This is all a progression toward my current “end goal” of running an under four hour marathon before embarking on training for a full Ironman. Although, it would be interesting to know how I would do at a flatter marathon under more normal weather conditions… but this was only my second marathon of what I assume to be a rather lifelong pursuit. All I can say is that from 90 degrees to 23 degrees in 11 months, I’m excited for my next marathon adventure, although I think I’ll take a few days to rest now!