Sometimes, You Have to Finish What You Started
Disclosure: I returned to the Blue Ridge Marathon races in 2019 as one of the official race ambassador-bloggers. Race ambassadors receive free entry, swag, and the VIP experience in exchange for assistance in promoting this race. Speaking of the race, you can register for 2020 RIGHT HERE. See you then?
Funny story, I distinctly remember getting to mile 19, but all of my notes from 2017 say I stopped at mile 17… If you missed Part 1, I recommend you start there.
Avenging a DNF Begins With…
When registration opened for 2018, I signed up to run. In the interim I changed jobs and moved back to Oregon, so the 2018 race didn’t happen for me. In 2019, I signed up again. I also applied to join the ambassador team again, to help spread the word about how much I love this race. I also signed up for the training program again. I also did not finish the training program again….yeah, so life happens sometimes, and you have to put o your grownup-pants and decide what to do. Undertrained, a little fatter, but basically eager to return to Roanoke and give it another try anyway, I decided to go for it. Jackie also planned to return and run the double, but unfortunately she injured herself and had to drop out. I ended up rooming with Jessica, which was perfect (though I’m bummed Jessica and Jackie didn’t get to meet, as I’m sure they’d get along famously!). This year I flew into Raleigh, met friends for dinner, and spent the night before the drive up to Roanoke. The drive is pretty and green, and not very stressful even though it took me about three hours; Google maps sent me up largely on state highways that I would not have guessed were highways, and I saw lots of both North Carolina and Virginia. (At one point I pulled off the road to make sure I was still getting directions!)
Expo 2019 at the Patrick Henry
In 2017 the Expo was in a different location, so it was a bit like going to a new race. On the way into the hotel, representatives from Foot Levelers greeted each runner with a cinch-backpack and stickers for the appropriate distance. Packet pickup was upstairs, and the traffic flow was pretty much perfect to get your packet, walk past some tables for local races, and then head back down the stairs. One thing I love about this expo is that the race-specific merchandise is all high-quality, with a smaller (but awesome!) selection. Since I have sweet ambassador swag to rock, this year I bought one of the Deneen pottery 10th anniversary ceramic mugs. There is always a tasting for the hydration on course (Skratch fluid, as well as the gummies) and the local Fleet Feet had a selection of race-day essentials on hand. I snagged a Squirrel Nut Butter (that stuff is the best!). This year, Get 2 Know Noke sponsored a happy hour lounge, with one free beer or flavored non-alcoholic seltzer for everyone who signed up for their mailing list. The Roanoke area is right next to the Blue Ridge Parkway (you know, the race goes there?) which is managed by the National Park Service, and the hiking, biking, and running are all high-quality. Jessica introduced me to some of the other BibRave Pros running the event, and we took a break before heading over to dinner.
Pasta Dinner & Galloway Running School
I knew from the 2017 event that I wanted a ticket for the pasta dinner. Not only was it the easiest pre-race dinner, it also meant seating for the Friday night concert, and shelter from the rain (it rained a little bit, but it wasn’t a big deal—no more than sprinkles). This year, Jeff Galloway came to run the Blue Ridge Marathon for the first time and as part of his appearances he was offering “Jeff Galloway’s Running School.” I signed up because I wasn’t sure when I’d have the opportunity to attend again, and as a certified run coach I figured it would be neat to hear from an Olympian.
Running School was not what I expected. First, there were no handouts or outlines. I took plenty of notes though, so here are the highlights (at least as I saw them). Jeff is very big on some material I’m not familiar with yet, a book called Spark that is supposed to recap research showing running promotes brain health, and another book called The Story of the Human Body that emphasizes that running was a short distance activity for most of human history. That led to an explanation of how and why to use “walk breaks,” which are key to what has come to be called the Galloway method. He explained how he lays out his training plans, as well as his observations—most of which are based on his experience coaching, as opposed to data from weekend-warrior types runners—which include using a long run that is longer than the distance of the goal race. (On the theory that people tend to hit the wall within a mile of the long run they did in the three weeks prior to the race.) This is the opposite theory of the Hanson’s Method, which also seems to be producing fine runners.
Jeff Galloway is now in his 70s, and has run six days per week, every week, since he was 16 years old. This turned out to be both an advantage and a disadvantage, as some of his advice on injuries and performance nutrition haven’t kept pace with the most current research. For example, he doesn’t recommend ANY type of warm-up prior to running, and instead uses the first mile as his warm-up. This might be great for someone who has run six days a week for several decades, but it doesn’t seem like great advice for those of us who drive a desk five days a week and don’t run as often. (He’s right that pre-run static stretching is a terrible idea though—the research tends to show stretching before stressing the muscle decreases performance and increases the risk of injuries). He’s also still a fan of ice, which I agree has its place but shouldn’t be used on joints or after every run—inflammation is a result of the healing process, and is necessary for muscles to repair themselves. I disagree with some of his very broad-brushstroke nutrition advice, including what to eat the morning of the race (he says nothing, unless you need it for “gastric motility;” I’d pass out if I ran without eating some carbs and a wee bit of protein an hour or 90 minutes before the race) and salt (he says avoid salty food on the grounds that it takes plasma from the blood and makes it harder for the body to replace lost fluids; I notice that I need salty foods to replace the electrolytes I lose through sweat—I could be a DIY salt facial after a race). He’s down on cross-training (which makes sense if you’ve been running all your life) and only does weight training for postural muscles (useful trick, even if I disagree with his conclusion on the grounds that it doesn’t work on my body).
After running school, I met up with Jessica and we went back to the hotel. I had a glass of wine while we set up our flat runners. Neither of us slept much that night, because Jessica had to be at the starting line for the Double Marathon at some ungodly hour like 3 a.m., and because I always have a hard time sleeping the night before a race—this one more than any other, because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen the next day: Just like 2017, I arrived at the starting line in 2019 underprepared. I hadn’t stuck to the training plan (for all new reasons, sigh). I had gained some extra weight. In the interim I had learned I have exercise-induced asthma.
If Only The Days Started Later…
The alarm went off after what seemed like ten minutes of sleep, and I dragged myself out of bed to suit up and drive over to the start. There was plenty of nearby parking, so I arrived with plenty of time to head to the VIP breakfast in the library and on the patio. While there was a fantastic spread with plenty of coffee, I chose my snacks conservatively and packed a “to go” waffle (the Honey Stinger kind). One last use of the indoor plumbing, and it was down to the starting line.
As in 2017, the corrals were self-sorting. Friendly runners were mingling, taking selfies, and shaking out the pre-race jitters. I found Jessica, who looked fresh after having run the whole marathon, and was ready for her second loop. She was hanging out with the 6:30 pacer, and I decided to join them. It wasn’t long before we were off. Our pacers chose a “steady effort” method, which makes sense on a super hilly course. The idea is that instead of aiming for a specific time per mile, the time per mile would vary (uphill and very steep downhill are both difficult; flat and gentle downhill are easier) but the amount of effort would stay as even as possible.
I stuck with the pacers up to the first mile? Maybe second mile? I can’t remember. It was fun running with a group for a bit, but as we started to take a relatively easy jog up the first gentle climb, I couldn’t catch enough air to keep running and busted out the inhaler. I passed the turnaround for the half, and ran into the national forest section. I remembered the rolling hills, and then crossing the highway to the first serious climb, up Mt. Roanoke. In my head it was a hard climb in 2017, but this year it was even harder in my body. Abut 1/3 from the top of the climb, I had to start taking breaks to catch my breath that included stopping completely. Step, step, step, step, stop. Over and over. I felt very wimpy. I must have looked equally awful because at several points as I was climbing up, runners passing me on the way back down asked if I was okay instead of cheering for me.
I have never had my lungs act up so obnoxiously as they did going up Roanoke Mountain. After my 2017 DNF I learned I have exercise-induced asthma. I had my inhaler with me. (I have never had any serious complications, and I had both my phone with extra battery and my RoadID with me. I promise that even if I am crazy, I take health and safety VERY seriously.) After that, I couldn’t run at all—my legs were willing, but my lungs not so much. But since I took a DNF the last time I tried this, I was determined to finish. Even if it didn’t happen until Monday.
At the very top I took just a moment to pause and admire the hard-earned view. Then it was time to head back down, down, down Mt. Roanoke. I tried to make some runs, as I’m usually pretty good at downhill, but my lungs couldn’t suck in enough air to make it happen. At that point I began to suspect there was no way I was going to make the race’s 7-hour cut-off. You know how runners talk about distance being a mental game? This was that, exactly. There were a few others in front of me, and I think one or two behind, so it was pretty quiet as I continued on my way back towards Roanoke and Mill Mountain.
Suddenly, It Was Just Me.
As I approached the aid station at the turn to Mill Mountain, all of the volunteers cheered and offered me water, Skratch, and snacks. The aid station is right at the split, after you descend Roanoke but before you go up Mill, a very nice race official/volunteer said, “You know you missed the cut-off, right?” Inside, I cried and thought, “damn, I hope that is not a problem…” Outside, I said, “Well, I do now…” Mr. Race Official asked if I needed anything, or if they could do anything for me. I should have said “please save me a medal, because I WILL finish.” Instead, I said, “no, thank you, I have plenty of fuel and fluid.” Mr. Race Official did not tell me that I had to stop. (I'm also not a jerk. If a race official tells me I must do something, 99 times out of 100 I will do it. I will always seriously evaluate a black flag on the course, an EMT or similar who is looking at me like I might die.) So I kept going, up to the top of Mill Mountain. Another race person stopped as they drove past and asked if I was okay, and when I explained that all I wanted to do was finish, I ugly cried a little bit but promised I’d be okay.
Atop Mill Mountain I took the world’s lamest selfie with the Star. The aid station was all packed up neatly. For a minute I thought seriously about taking a bag of pretzels, but they were big bags and I wasn’t sure how I’d carry one once I opened it. Besides, I did have plenty of snacks. So it was down Mill Mountain, where I saw a really sweet looking dog who I assumed belonged to the moo-mosa house, but didn’t (I asked when I went by). The moo-mosas were gone by the time I got there, which I expected. It looked like a good time was had by all!
Every volunteer I saw asked if I needed anything (I had packed nutrition and hydration, but did take some water and chips). One woman, who appeared to be the head of a stop on the way up Peakwood, apologized that the aid station was closed! I assured here it was supposed to be closed, and she had nothing to apologize for, since I knew I was late and expected the aid stations to be closed. she still offered me one of everything in her car, and when I accidentally left my tube of Tailwind in her van, one of the younger kids (teenager) ran to catch me to deliver it!
Sure, I missed out on the moo-mosas (I had one in 2017, so that's okay) and the champagne on Peakwood (I had some later, so that's okay too). But I kept rolling. Every time a volunteer drove by, they waved and cheered. The guys taking down the course cones and signs all asked if I was sure I was okay. (Clearly I'm a head case, but yeah, I was fine.) When I hit the point where the cones had been picked up and traffic was back to normal, I side-walked myself. I wanted a DNS–Did Not Stop.
The app was great for the map, though I took a minor re-route on (Jefferson?) as there was a bridge/flyover with no apparent sidewalk. Unfortunately I got off course after the loop in south Roanoke and when I realized it, I was 2 miles away from the finish line (but my watch already said 25.xx). I ended up taking the shortest route back from wherever i was, which still had me over 26.2. I saw some yellow birds with a pretty song that I've never seen before. I saw a billion cardinals, and some dogs, and the easter bunny.
At several points I thought I might be going crazy, because only a crazy lady decides to finish a marathon on her own, right? But again, phone with extra battery (I was prepared to call a Lyft at the first sign of lightning) and plenty of fuel and fluid. Two different cars stopped on my way down Peakwood, asking if I needed a ride. (Roanoke-ians are so nice!) The one thought I was nuts to be walking in the rain, I'm sure. Then I passed a cooler that still had extra water pods and one bottle of cold beer inside. The crews dismantling the course's directional signs, cones, and road barriers were all surprised I was still out there–asked if I needed anything (including a ride back to the start) and wished me good luck.
Here's The Theme: Persevere
At almost 9 hours, and over 27 miles, I trudged into Elmwood Park. One of the guys dismantling the rest of the chute recognized me and said, “Hey! You finished!” Hell yes, I DID! But…not within the official posted time limits. When I crossed where the finish line used to be, I cried. (Wouldn't you?) As I was climbing up Roanoke Mountain and my lungs were screaming, I thought, “I'm glad I'm here this year, I can't do this again.” But…now I feel like I have to go and finish within the time limits.
I posted my story and asked the race officials if they would send me a medal. I know not everyone would agree with me receiving a medal–I finished, but not within the time–but I'm not posting it on social media or sharing photos. At least not until I make it a special little “Finisher & DNF” sash.
Seriously, if you're looking for a challenge you should try one of the Blue Ridge Marathon Races. If you're not up for a full marathon get a team together for the relay, or run the half or the 10k. For a fairly chill race-cation, volunteer at the race and join the runners for the Slow K on Sunday.
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