My first marathon is still the hardest thing I have ever physically done- my greatest physical and possibly mental feat. I will always respect the distance and never overestimate it. I remember how absolutely wrecked my body was after the heat, distance, and time on my feet took it’s toll.
With that in mind, I am absolutely amazed at how my body recovers from long distance races now. This was my fifth marathon or longer distance race and my 7th race longer than 20 miles, in the less than four years I’ve been distance running.
As my distance running increases I’m surprised to find that once daunting distances are easier to visualize. I find myself 17 miles into a race feeling better than I did when I was 6 miles into it. I tend to go for difficult trail races (as many have noticed from reading this blog,) in fact, the gnarlier the trail or course, the more I tend to love it. I’m by no means an accomplished ultra runner or even marathoner. The title of “runner” doesn’t come easy for me. I’m not fast- pretty much exactly middle of the pack, probably towards the first third of women- but I am getting faster. Mostly I just love being out on trails.
I like the casual encounters with like-minded runners, the ease with which we share where we are from and our favorite races. I like that I’m gaining strength as a downhill runner, a skill I once thought my ankles were too weak to pick up. I love the aid stations of trail races, the wonderful, friendly volunteers who hike or camp to provide you salty and/or sweet goodness in the middle of the woods. I love the lack of mileage signs and how I don’t wear a GPS watch – simply estimating the amount of the course I’ve covered between aid stations. I like out and back courses where I see the top runners fly past and get to cheer them on, and how they very often say something nice back to me.
Well here is my race recap for the 2016 Black Mountain Marathon:
I worked at a health conference the day before the race, accumulating extra time on my feet and then having to sit in a car for nearly 4 hours (since there were two accidents I got caught behind on the way.) The entire week before the race wasn’t very stress free and I didn’t get my best sleep. By the time I got to my friend’s place in Asheville it was basically time for me to get ready for bed. I woke her up early the next morning and our friend Mark came over so we could ride to the race together. Chatting in her kitchen before 6am made me realize just how tired I felt, my legs and my mind.
It was a cold but clear morning. After parking in downtown Black Mountain we encountered a few other people we knew (fast people I wouldn’t see during the race.) I tried to get out of my tired brain fog but I knew it would be a slow start this morning. Soon it was 7am and we all set out of a casual mountain marathon.
I use the term “casual” because almost half of the runners had been planning to run the Mt. Mitchell Challenge but due to a decision by the state park officials, the challengers would not be allowed to go for the Mt. Mitchell summit on all the ice and snow. Everyone was still in pretty good spirits despite this hiccup, it also meant that the marathon field was much stronger (going from 250 marathoners to 450.)
The race started and I felt super sluggish running through the streets of Black Mountain, incrementally going uphill towards the mountains. My body was sleep deprived, not well rested or fresh at all, but I decided that even if it was just a slow day I was still going to complete this marathon. In no hurry after this decision, I walked/power hiked up the big hill around mile 3 right before we finally got onto the trails. Once on the trails I thought I would start to feel more in my element and find a groove, but it really took until mile 6, the first aid station, before I found that rhythm. There was ice and snow on portions of the course till this point, but soon there was much more of it.
After a couple more miles I figured it was yak trax time. They made a huge difference. More confident in my stride, I covered the icy terrain with ease. Soon I saw some familiar faces coming down the mountain (aka my fast friends like Mark, plus Doug, of the blog Rock Creek Runner.) Before I knew it I was hitting the turn around at the Blue Ridge Parkway after just over 3 hours of uphill running.
On the way up I had traded spots a few time with a couple running as bride and groom, at the turn around point I discovered that they were supposed to have a friend meet them at the top of Mt. Mitchell to officiate their marriage! Instead, the emergency workers who were working the aid station convinced them to exchange their rings at the parkway at least for some photos. I snapped a pic and then we threw rice chex mix and crumbled ramen noodles on them as they kissed. Thinking about how neat it was that I got to sort of be part of a mock wedding, I headed down the mountain feeling extra happy.
On the way down I talked with a woman who runs with the trail running group near where I currently live. We recognized each other from the Uwharrie race! Her long legs carried her downhill a little more swiftly but I was doing a great downhill pace. I tried to remember the best place to take off my yak trax, then I carried them to the next aid station where I stripped off a couple of layers as the sun warmed up the lower elevation. When I hit the steepest part of the downhill I was feeling great and even passed some people! The hardest downhill was actually probably once the course turns back into the paved roads of Montreat, I tried not to trash my legs too much since there were still a few miles to go. Winding through the town I saw that they put up some mileage signs – I swear the mile between “3 miles to go” and “2 miles to go” was the longest mile I’ve ever run! (Next time, skip the mileage signs or at least have them super accurate!)
My quads were burning pretty good now even though it was mostly flat left (although there was one sneaky last little hill thrown in there.) I finally heard some of the finish line festivities and approached the little lake I had to run around. At the lake I saw my friends Mindy and Julie who cheered me on. Those cheers were a needed lift to up my pace around the lake to the finish. Exhausted and beaming I high fived a few people at the finish and hugged Julie. I had run the downhill in a little over 2 hours for a total time of 5:16 at my debut trail marathon.
Considering the sluggish start I am extremely happy with how the rest of the race went. I picked up my bright pink North Face finishers fleece and loaded up on all the junk food (for those that think I only eat healthy, I had mostly chips and oreos with peanut butter at the finish!) After resting that afternoon Mark, Julie and I celebrated with dinner at the Sierra Nevada Brewery. All in all a pretty great day of running in the woods in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains!
Coda: The next morning I went to a post-marathon yoga session with gourmet donuts (because its Asheville) at the Lululemon store near the Biltmore. I looked over at a couple who walked in and put down mats next to me and realized it was the bride and groom! It turns out that they have also been Girls on the Run Solemates and that one of my friends is also their friend, in fact the friend that was supposed to officiate their marriage on Mt. Mitchell! Instead they got married on Leap Day and were planning all sorts of epic adventures to go along with it. An inspiring couple!