Disclosure: As a member of the official Blue Ridge Marathon blogger-ambassador team, I received a free entry to the Slow K. As always, all opinions are my own.
Everyone knows you shouldn’t go straight from being very active, or running long miles, to couch-potato-worthy zero. Yet that’s what most of us do the day after a race. Worse, for destination marathons that fall on a Sunday, many runners hop an airplane back home the same day. Yikes!
Another problem avid runners face is the non-running-significant-other. It’s fun to have your spouse or boyfriend or whatever come along on race weekend, but I’m not sure how much fun it is for them when the entire weekend revolves around an event they aren’t participating in.
This year, the Blue Ridge Marathon races brilliantly solved both problems with The Slow K: an untimed 5k-ish event. It was brilliant.
The Slow K started across the street from our hotel, so we thought we’d walk over. Minor issue, part of the path was shut-off by a chain-link fence, so we had a little pre-5K parkour event. Upon our arrival, we found a super chill pre-brunch scene.
Upon checking in each not-runner received their number on a flower lei (not a bib), and a coffee mug. Pre-“race” there was plenty of coffee and hot cocoa, as well as some donuts to snack on. (Don’t judge. Most of us had just done a mountainous race!) The event was fairly small–this was the first year–and there was plenty of space to mill around, chat, and meet other runners.
It was fun to see runners just as stiff and sore as I was hobbling around and trying to get the juices flowing again, while non-runner husbands and girlfriends who were not walking like zombies filled coffee mugs. There were a few strollers and plenty of walking kiddos as well. That’s the great thing about a “Slow K,” it is literally for everyone. Exactly zero people were there to race, or even run!
Off to one side was a mimosa bar where, for a small donation, you could DIY your own combo with sparkling wine, juice, and fresh fruit. I’m pretty sure the idea was to grab one after the Slow K, but the mimosa cups fit inside the coffee mugs so perfectly that some of us just couldn’t help ourselves! They also had fancier coffee (in case the more pedestrian coffee that came with the donuts wasn’t up to your standards). Through the magic of square, I made my donation (I should have taken notes, I want to say this was for an arts or music program), selected some pineapple juice, made a little more room in the cup, and added fresh strawberries. Not a bad way to start a “run” (quotes intentional, as no one was running).
The added bonus of a slow event where you’re trying to get people to move but not run, and where you hand out coffee mugs instead of medals: it’s really, really hard to run with a coffee mug in your hand and not spill all over the place. At least as the event started, most of us still had full or semi-full mugs in our hands.
The weather was slightly soggy, but not really rainy–sort of a continuation of the weekend’s theme. The loop course wound along the river, through some park areas, and back to the start. There were a bunch of cute signs close to the start/finish to cheer on the “runners” too.
The Slow K was so much fun that I’m a bit confused as to how every race isn’t doing this. It’s a brilliant way to end a weekend and celebrate everyone’s accomplishments.
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.
According to WordPress, I started this post in August 2017…four months after the race. Sometimes, you have to go back and finish what you started. Buckle up and grab a glass of wine, as this is going to be a looooong post. Actually, I think I’ll make it two posts. Let’s call this “Part I.”
My 2017 DNF Was Amazing!
Disclosure: after registering for the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon, I was accepted to the Official Blogger contingent! Blog team members receive a free race entry as a thank you for helping to spread the word about the race. As I had already registered, the race team graciously allowed me to give my entry to another runner–the one who originally suggested I apply to the blog team. Per usual, all opinions in this post are mine (and you KNOW I have plenty of them to go around).
A few years ago when some friends of mine registered for Goofy’s Race-and-a-Half Challenge (the Disney World combo where you run a half marathon on Saturday and a full marathon on Sunday) I thought that was the dumbest idea ever. A year later, I registered to run The Dopey Challenge (the Disney World combo where you run a 5k, 10k, half marathon, and marathon on consecutive days). That actually turned out to be fun–“fun,” says the woman who once said, “run? only if I’m being chased by something with big teeth.”
It was probably 2015 when I was poking around the Marathon Maniacs facebook group–as a newly-minted Double Agent who had just sworn “no more marathons, except maybe Disney”–that I first heard about the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon. This is a race that bills itself as “America’s toughest road race” due to the changes in elevation and has added MORE elevation to the original course! This did not sound like The Race for Bain.
Since I inevitably do everything I swear I won’t–be careful! this is what happens when you say, “I’ll NEVER run a marathon”–I signed up to run the marathon. (Actually, my friend Jackie saw that the race was looking for bloggers and encouraged me to apply. Which I did…and I’m honestly not sure if that was before or after I registered to run.) I’m going to blame the fact that I was at a race expo at the time, and not only was the price at a great discount but they also gave me last year’s race shirt and a pair of Farm to Feet socks. (Yes, it appears I will run for socks.)
As a flat-lander living at something like 8′ above sea level, and as a runner whose lungs are still royally pissed that I decided to run the Sedona Marathon, naturally I was terrified! Fortunately there is a solid remote training program, complete with a flat-lander modification option. (There was also an in-person training program, but it was a little inconvenient to travel from Oakland to Roanoke several times a week.) The training plan included the big-picture overview (like a chart of every week’s workouts), weekly emails with each week’s training plus race news and helpful tips, and a private Facebook group. Between when I signed up to run and the actual race date, life took some complicated turns (that’s why I’ve been so prolific on the blog, right?) and I didn’t get it nearly the amount of training I had planned. I didn’t stick to the training plan.
I DID try to get in some hill training–but trust me, I wish I’d had more! In my dream-plan I would have driven to Tiburon to train on the hills. In my reality-calendar I conquered Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco, took all of my “all out” treadmill intervals at OrangeTheory at a 15% incline, and worked with my sports medicine people to build my glutes, keep my IT band happy, and add strength to my hamstrings. If you’re considering this race, which I hope you are, the flat-lander training plan includes some faux-hill options such as using the treadmill and taking your downhill practices down the hills in parking garages (with obvious safety precautions!).
Aside from training, Blue Ridge takes a little more planning in the travel department than most races I have run. Generally, I hop on the Southwest website and my race travel is plug-and-play. Not for this race. For one, Southwest doesn’t fly to Roanoke (which they definitely should fix before the race next year). So I met up with my friend Jackie in the Phoenix airport, and we flew to DC together and then took a road trip through parts of Virginia. Jackie took care of the hotel arrangements, we signed up for the pre-race pasta party to make that easier, and an epic road adventure began!
When we arrived in Roanoke, the hotel had a cute little welcome sign for the runners as well as goody bags! Our hotel was within walking distance of the starting line, and also had a special early-hours breakfast available, all of which were bonuses.
After checking into the hotel, the first order of business was packet pickup. Roanoke isn’t a gigantic town, so we were able to walk over (dodging a few raindrops here and there). It seemed like the locals took advantage of early pickup as there was quite literally no line when we arrived. (There was, however, a big rent-a-tent to provide shade from the sun/shelter from the raindrops.) After we collected our bibs we moved inside to pick up our shirts and check out the expo. Personally I LOVED all the colors for the shirts, and am also a fan of the soft technical fabric. (I’ve already worn mine several times since the race.)
2017 was the first year I went to Roanoke, Virginia for the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon, I had high hopes. Sure, the race has 7,430 feet of elevation change and goes up and down three mountains, but I was in relatively good shape even though I hadn’t finished the training program. At that point I was running about a half marathon a week, and I’d tackled really hilly races like the Tiburon Half Marathon (which has one hill that literally made me stop and laugh before I went up).
2019, Looking Back at 2017
One of the funniest things–at least to other people–is that this was a total DNF, but I raved to everyone about how great the race was. Everything was pretty much perfect, I had zero complaints. The pasta dinner had both vegetarian and gluten-free options–the first time I’d been to a pre-race feed with a gluten-free choice–and was followed by a course overview by the race director and some long-time runners. The starting line had corrals markers, and runners properly self-sorted themselves without any inadvertent walker roadblocks. The volunteers on the course were THE BEST. Aid stations had tons of people, all cheering, offering genuine warmth and support. Unlike an ordinary race, aid stations were more like trail races or ultras, with a variety of snacks salty and sweet, plus water and electrolytes. There are also plenty of “unofficial aid stations” offering everything from “moo-mosas” to beer to bottled water pods and orange slices.
Looking back, I remember the first climb up Roanoke Mountain was tough, but I felt great as I turned to go up Mill Mountain; I had just barely made the cut-off. I adored the view from beneath the big star, and the “moo-mosa” on the way down the other side of Mill Mountain. By mile 17 or so I wasn’t feeling so great. It was warm and humid, the two things my body dislikes most, and I was having trouble breathing. (I later learned that I have exercise-induced asthma. Go figure.) By mile 18, I was “wogging” with my own personal bicycle escort under some seriously black clouds. About halfway to the mile 19 aid station, my escort got word that the course had been black-flagged (that means the course is closed/race is officially off) due to lightning in the area. While a race cannot actually force you to stop running, they do have to make sure every runner is safe. Since I didn’t know the course, and wasn’t carrying enough to get through the next 7 miles, I boarded the bus back to the start. After all, I’m sure there are better ways to die than being hit by lightning on the other side of the country. Along the way we passed Jackie, my race weekend roommate, who was much closer to the finish. I think she only had three miles to go, and she refused to get on the bus.
A DNF Still Means I Had The Sads
Back at the hotel, I was seriously sad I had not finished the course, and even sadder after Jackie came back with her medal (even though I was also very proud of her for finishing). I took a hot bath and a nap, and after the storm passed we went out to dinner. I can’t remember where we went or what we ate, but it was delicious–as was breakfast the next morning before we left town.
Even though I hadn’t finished the course, I had one of THE BEST race experiences of my life. (The Blue Ridge Marathon isn’t just a race, it’s a weekend EVENT. More on that in another post.) The shirt was cute, the swag was great, the volunteers on the course were the best…the only thing “wrong” is that I hadn’t finished the race. So I signed up for the 2018 race. In between I changed jobs and moved to a different city, so I wasn’t able to make the race. It didn’t bother me though, as I know the money stays in the Roanoke area his event is owned and operated by the Roanoke Outside Foundation whose mission to make outdoor activity and environmental stewardship a core component of our community’s lifestyle by promoting a “conservation through recreation” philosophy. I’m good with that.
Funny story, I distinctly remember getting to mile 19, but all of my notes from 2017 say I stopped at mile 17…