Race recap: Virginia Creeper Marathon (pics at the end!)

Marathon #3 is in the books! And let me tell you, third time is the charm – this was the marathon I felt most prepared for, best about PRing in, and ready to completely kick all sorts of butt…

…which is why it’s funny when you look at my splits and realize exactly what I did at mile 10: Oh man, she went out too fast. I had two goals for this race: an A goal of 4:20, and a B goal of 4:30 – basically, anything faster than the 4:40 I ran at Marine Corps back in October.

Here are said splits (they’re at odd intervals because the timer was at the start/finish, which we passed at miles 9 and 18, which I’ll explain later):

First 9 miles: 1:27 (9:40/mile pace) (I’ve never before in my life run 9 miles at this pace, ha!)

I hit 18 miles at 2:58 (9:53/mile pace) (I’ve definitely never run 18 miles in less than 3 hours ever in my life, haha!)

Finish: 4:27:52, last last 8.2 in about 1:30 (10:58/mile pace) (yeeouch! I had to stop to walk a few times…)

HOO BOY. Look at that dropoff: THAT, friends, is what happens when you go out too fast and have to dial it back into survival mode for the last 8 miles. I’ve run races before, and I’ve done a great job at slowing down my start; why was this time different? I’m not entirely sure: it could have been the cool, snowy, sleety weather (my brain subconsciously telling my legs “move through this faster so we can get to a warm place with hot food, please”?), or it could have been the mostly flat terrain (although the first two miles of the race were out-and-back and a bit hilly, and the first ‘out’ of the first out-and-back on the actual trail was uphill, though I didn’t realize it until later), or it could have been the coffee I drank Sunday morning when I woke up (which I never, ever do before a long run, because I’m afraid it might cause a pit stop- but then, every run I’ve ever had after breaking that rule has been a really excellent and speedy one). Or it could have been adrenaline, or euphoria, or some odd combination of all of the above.

But, you know what? When I ran my first marathon in November 2012, after it was over, I thought, man, there is no way I’d ever be able to sustain anywhere near a 10:00/mile pace for an entire marathon, which is what I knew I’d have to do to ever get down to a 4:20 from a 5:00, which is about where I finished that first marathon. Even going down from 5:00 to 4:40 was hard as hell. And yet, I finished this one at a 10:13/mile pace, which – all things considered – is pretty frickin’ awesome, for me, because I never once thought I could do it. Sustain that pace for 5 miles, sure. Maybe even 7 or 8? In training, I was regularly clocking right about 10:00/mile paces for more and more runs, and longer and longer runs, yet I still didn’t think I could really do it (or anything close to it, or really anything under 10:30/mile) for the entire marathon. In fact, it wasn’t until my last 20-miler – which was a 21-miler – that I started to think that 4:20ish might be remotely possible.

So! Let me tell you about this marathon. It is a small-town marathon in lovely Abingdon, Virginia, which is near the southwest corner of the state where it meets Tennessee and Kentucky. (Bristol, TN, is the closest major city, and the date of this race changes every year based on when Bristol’s NASCAR race is scheduled, which I freaking love.) It costs $10 to enter, partially because the date is not decided on until a few months before it happens, but mostly because it’s a very low-frills race: no shirt, no medal, no fancy webpage or regular emails, no expo, no huge post-race party at the finish line. Only 100 entrants are allowed because everything is on the smaller side, and when the weather is bad like it was this year (well, I loved it, but I’m a little nuts and sort of enjoyed training through this ridiculous winter), more like 70 runners actually show up, which I think is what happened on Sunday. All entrants receive a bib with no chip and generally time themselves, and are responsible for bringing food or drink requirements beyond the water and Gatorade they have along the course, and everyone who shows up to the race receives a paperweight memento with the race’s emblem, name, date, etc. on it. At the finish, volunteers bring boxes of bananas, Fig Newtons, homemade cookies, etc. with them to give to finishers, and – I didn’t realize this until it happened to me – they take turns being on foil-wrapping duty for the finishers, because as soon as I crossed the line and was shepherded across the road, I was nearly tackled by two women with a foil sheet who insisted on giving me what I called the “leftovers!” treatment. Make no mistake, I was so happy to have that, because it was warm as hell, and I was not. 🙂 In sum, it’s the polar opposite of every race experience I’ve had thus far, and I absolutely LOVED every second of it, even the stretches of the race when I was completely alone for several minutes, maybe even a few miles, at a time.

The course itself was run mostly – with the exception of the first two miles – on the Virginia Creeper Trail, which is a 34-mile trail that runs from Abingdon to Damascus to Whitetop, and is a fantastic biking, hiking, running, horseback-riding, dog-walking trail that crosses through farms and over and under rivers and across the road and through the woods. Saint and I spent New Year’s Eve weekend in 2012 (into 2013) in Damascus, where we biked a good portion (about 17 miles) of the trail, and it was that trip – plus his story from childhood that if he ever ran a marathon, it would be the Virginia Creeper marathon – that convinced me to sign up for this race. Anyway, after those first two miles that cover a road to the south of the start/finish, the runners go east on the trail for about 3.5 miles, turn around, return to the start/finish area, head west on the trail for about 4.5 miles, turn around, return to the start/finish area, head east again for 3.5 miles, turn around, return to the start/finish area, and then head wast for 0.6 miles, turn around, and return to the start/finish area. So you end up traversing the same path several times, which can get a little tedious but is awesome for a couple of reasons: 1) when there’s snow on the ground – and on the trestles you have to cross on this trail – your first pass over the path can be used to gauge the condition of the footing, freeing you to use the second (and third) passes to gawk at the absolutely gorgeous scenery; 2) you get to pass the start/finish area several times, so if you have support waiting there (as Saint was), you get to see them more than you might during a different race. (Apparently he bonded with some of the other support folks, so at least he wasn’t alone in being cold and wet and probably miserable, as much as he wouldn’t let on about that third adjective.) Also, because this is small-town wonderfulness, you get to park about a mile away and get shuttled to the start/finish area, and at most you have to wait maybe 10 minutes for a shuttle (a trolley car, hee hee!) to come pick you up. AND, you feel awesome when you go to cross the road that links the two parts of the trail through the start/finish area and they stop traffic for you. (Can you tell I loved this marathon?)

Did I mention the course is gorgeous, by the way? Because so much of it is run through the woods, we got snowy-woods for a backdrop, which opened up onto snowy fields, which sat under snowy mountains, under a snowy, sleety, gray sky. Those fields contained, at any point, dogs, llamas, horses with thick fuzzy coats, a golf course, or cows, some of which were mooing loudly at us as we passed. I didn’t think I would enjoy being mooed at by a cow during a marathon, but it was strangely hilarious and comforting, if that makes any sense. Once the runners spread out, if you get left alone (like I was for most of the last 5 miles) with nature and the trail, and while it can be rather trying on a tired brain, it’s also really relaxing, and for me at least it was a nice chance to reflect on what had already happened in the race and what my strategy was going to be for the end – not to mention feel some pride at what I was about to accomplish. I learned an important lesson on this course: I don’t need cheering crowds to get me through a race; as nice as they are, it was kind of awesome to be left alone in my own headspace for a while, like I am on my long runs.

Now for the race itself! I started out towards the back of the pack, and generally stuck around the same 5-7 people, though I did buddy up with a guy from North Carolina who was running his third iteration of this race for several miles from, I think, mile 4 to mile 12 or so? We chatted for a while about a lot of things, which helped take my mind off the initial slog through the first 9 miles, and then after he dropped back I was more or less on my own, though I kept passing the same few people who would, in turn, pass me when I stopped for water or a snack. One woman, Pat, was running in a Boston Marathon jacket from 2011, which isn’t anything new for most runners, but I was sort of in awe of her – not to mention following that unicorn emblem was for some reason inspiring, and kept me going. She passed me for good with about 4 miles to go, and she was really the person who got me through to the finish – since we would all see one another at the turnarounds, we had several chances to encourage one another and urge each other on, and that spirit was out in full force at this race, let me tell you. There’s something special about bonding over a marathon, run in crappy weather, with several dozen complete strangers who realize they’re in this together, and we all had to look out for one another. Pat, and many others, were quick with words of support every time, but it wasn’t just us middle-of-the-pack folks doing it – the front-runners were, too, quick to tell us that we were looking good and strong, and doing a good job. I’ve never experienced that at any other race, not even the smaller races in my small-city hometown. At every turn, we had high-fives, pats on the back, checks to make sure we were all ok, shouts of “you got this!” and so, so many kind words – and that was just from the runners. I haven’t even mentioned the volunteers, who did the same, and were cheerful even 4+ hours in when they had to have been standing out in the cold, wet, windy (did I mention the 25+ MPH gusts? No, well, they were there, too!) weather for a very long time. They were the most outstanding volunteers I’ve ever seen at a race, by far, and they really made things easier, especially when they got hard.

Anyway, after the first suicidal 9 miles, I was feeling perfectly good and strong, and even told Saint the first time I saw him “today’s the day! I got this!”, and was pretty stoked when I saw that first clock-time at 1:27. Yet within a half-mile, I knew it was going to be trouble holding that pace, and when we got to the loose-gravel path that replaced the trestle that was being rebuilt after having been blown out by a tornado a couple of years back, I knew I was going to have to really work for 4:20. I kept bargaining with myself, telling myself that I’d be OK coming into 18 miles at 3:10, or even 3:20, but knowing that I’d have to do some hard work to get to 4:20 at that point. This was my brain talking, but my legs were not listening, as I continued to pound out the sub-10:00 miles in the eastern portion of the trail run. When I got to mile 18, before I saw that clock, I knew two things: 1) these last 8.2 miles would probably be some of the hardest I would ever run because I was now running on legs that had gone out too fast; 2) I’d be okay, and get through them, because all of my 20-milers done during training were done the day after hard, fast 10-mile pace runs, so running on exhausted legs was not something new to me. And, in fact, only one of those 20-milers was a 20-miler; the other two were 23 and 21 miles, and if I had done those on wiped legs, I could certainly do this, too.

When I saw the clock read 2:58 at 18 miles, I immediately realized that in order to hit 4:20, I’d have to maintain what was now an essentially unsustainable pace, but I also realized that I could make it through if I took a page out of Pat’s book, because all the times I passed her were when she stopped to walk. I figured if she could run Boston and still do run-walk breaks, why the hell couldn’t I? I used to be one of those people who thought you couldn’t say that you ran a marathon unless you ran the whole damn thing and never stopped to walk once, but now, I am decidedly not of that camp, because let me tell you, stopping to walk saved my legs, my lungs, and my sanity. Oh man. So, I got as far as I could running slower, and then took walk breaks on the uphill portions of miles 19-21, reminding myself that I could do this, thinking about it one, two miles at a time. My mantra became “I can do anything for 20 minutes” (which isn’t true – I can’t gargle salt water for 20 minutes – but you have to tell yourself a certain number of lies to get through a marathon, so there you go). When I got to the turnaround at mile 21.5, the volunteer there told me “welcome to the top!” and I had no idea what he meant – and as soon as I started heading towards mile 22, I got it: oh my God, this is so much easier than the way up here! No wonder I’d had such a hard time from miles 19-21: they were uphill, but so deceptively barely uphill that you don’t realize it until you’re heading back down. So I coasted for the next two miles, letting gravity do its work, stopping to walk only when I took one last gel at mile 24 to push me through, and then I got back to the start area at mile 25.

The clock read 4:16 as I passed, and since I’m not capable of 4-minute miles under any circumstances, I knew my A goal was out the window. Okay, time to shoot for the B goal, I thought. I had to stop to walk not long after, but then I thought “this is stupid, you’re so close to the end, just GO!”, and I did, and I really thought that turnaround cone at the 0.6-mile mark was never going to come, but then it did. Then it did! And then I was finally going to the finish line! And out of nowhere, my legs – which, bless them, had mostly remained pain-free and gotten me this far even after all I’d already asked of them – found a little extra pep and kicked up as I approached the 26-mile sign. Oh my God, I thought, I’m going to break 4:30. I am actually fucking DOING THIS. And in what seemed like a blur, in five steps I was barreling towards the finish line, taking every last bit that my legs would give me, and then – and then it was over! 4:27:52. (I know my legs were spent because I could barely hold myself up for a couple of minutes, though once I got foil-wrapped and scarfed down some snacks and started walking it out, I felt much better)

As soon as I was done snacking and getting water and thanking and congratulating Pat and the other runners in our little group and thanking the volunteers and race director, we hopped on the trolley car back to the parking area, and busted butt back to the bed & breakfast where we were staying because Brunch Was Nigh, and we were both freezing and wet, and oh. Oh, what a spread – the owner of the B&B lives there, on her horse farm, and she made us the most ridiculously awesome spread that was the epitome of comfort food. Of course, half an hour after we sat down, the damn sun came out and the temperature started rising, and of course it’s in the low 70s today and will be for the rest of the week – of course. Old man Winter had to have the last say for that marathon! But oh, that food was magical (and I practically inhaled two heaping plates and was hungry about two hours later, haha), and after a long shower and some good relaxing, we got back on the road. Upon arriving home I unpacked, cleaned up some stuff, and sat down to relax with my celebratory beer before turning in for the night. Monday I woke up around 9am and felt refreshed, rested, only a little sore in my hips (which is normal), and gleefully renewed and not the least bit guilty for having slept in so late. Divine! And now I take a week off, and then… Then comes the break. I don’t have any races scheduled for the rest of the year, so I’m going to run when I want to, for however long I feel like it, and maybe enter a 5k or 10k here or there, but I don’t plan to sign up for anything for a good, long while. And I am TOTALLY okay with that.

So, assessing the aftermath: What went right? Training, for one: running more miles – averaging 35 miles a week, on Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 2 marathon plan – was a great idea, and helped me a lot, especially in those last few miles when it got hard. Knowing I had the training to finish on tired legs was a HUGE mental boost. Fueling, for two: I drank more water during the race than my previous two marathons, and took more gels, and thanks to that, I think, never really felt totally fatigued like I was going to die. Getting enough sleep in the week prior to the race and carb-loading, for three and four: I got a solid 8 hours the night before the race, and averaged 6-7 hours per night the week before the race (5-6 is normal for me, since I don’t need that much sleep to function well). I consciously carb-loaded for the three days before the race, dialing it back a bit on Saturday night, and I felt like I had plenty of energy to last me throughout the race. I also didn’t have any GI issues save a weird stomach cramp around mile 23, so that was nice. (I got lucky with the coffee experiment, since I did not have to stop once to use the facilities during the race. After? Oh yes, but not during.) Finally, sticking out training through all of the crappy snow and sleet and wind that we had for most of the winter toughened me up nicely and prepared me to run in crappy race-day conditions.

What went wrong? Well, going out too fast, for one. Having that coffee probably wasn’t a good idea, for two, even though it turned out fine. Since the race was mostly flat, I should probably have trained on more flat surfaces (like the tracks in town) to get used to using all of my muscle groups at once, which may have helped me feel less fatigued towards the end. But, overall, the good DEFINITELY and FAR, FAR outweighs the bad in this race, and it’s an experience I will never forget, and cherish for years to come. I hope to be able to run this race more than once in the future, because it’s just so, so awesome.

So, you want pictures, you say? Here you are!

This is the group making its way to the start, heading down the road south of the start/finish area. Pretty, if cold and wet.
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Me, making my way back from the first out-and-back (and feeling like a rockstar for being mobbed by the two guys taking pictures, haha)
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Me again, getting closer to the start/finish area to make the first turn onto the Creeper trail after mile 2. I love the snowy field in the background!
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This is me and my “race buddy”, the guy from North Carolina with whom I chatted for a good chunk of the first part of the race; here, we’re coming off the first out-and-back, and passing the start/finish area for the second time. And yes, that trestle was a bit slippery…
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Here’s a fantastic one of me that Saint took the first time I saw him at the start/finish area; he wanted to get me against the snowy mountains in the background, and I was trying to finish chewing a gel so I could grab my water and move on.
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Finally, here’s me flying into the finish line. That smile is partly adrenaline, partly euphoria, partly gratitude, and mostly joy because I really did love everything about this race. 🙂
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Thanks for reading, and cheers!

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4 Responses to Race recap: Virginia Creeper Marathon (pics at the end!)

  1. piratebobcat says:

    Looks like a great little race! Congrats on your time! All marathons get tough around mile 18-20. Way to fight through!

  2. Snow on the ground? You can’t beat that price, that’s better than most 5Ks.
    I would love to find a way to stage more marathons where the fee can be under $50 and not be 100 times around a track. A lot of trail runs are cheap because they are off road and don’t require police details.
    Sounds like you had a good time.

    • kmt4n says:

      Yep, snow on the ground- and no, you don’t find that price very often, for sure.

      I think it’s really hard to balance keeping race costs low but still giving people what they want – as long as you’re OK with paying a higher or lower price for more or less ‘stuff’, then I think most folks are fine. Seems to me that most race crowds are somewhat self-selecting anyway. But, you’re right, it would be great to have a $50 marathon that was still able to cater to a wide variety of people without being on a track or, for some, on a trail. Good idea with the trails, though, and probably a nice change of pace for most.

      I did have a good time! Thanks for your thoughts.

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