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April 22 2012 / Emily

Race Report: Blue Ridge Marathon

I made it through the Blue Ridge Marathon.  Short story: it was definitely very challenging but overall not quite as bad as I had expected.  But if you’re reading my blog, I think you’re willing to read the long (long) version, so here goes.

I headed up to Roanoke on Friday evening with my fellow marathoners Billy and Humberto.  Billy’s girlfriend Sara also joined us, and she ran the half marathon.  Billy’s mom lives in Roanoke and we were so lucky to be able to stay with her.  It really helps take away lots of the stress of a race weekend when dinner and lodging and knowing where to go are all taken care of.  All I had to do was show up and be able to run the darn thing (easier said than done, but still, logistics are the part I stress over once I’m there – I know I can run a marathon).  We stopped by the small expo to pick up our bibs, chips and shirts.  Not much else there, just a small table of flyers.  Then on to home base, where dinner was plentiful amounts of bow tie pasta with vodka sauce & shredded parmesan, garlic bread, and a delicious cold layered salad.

Saturday morning, I woke around 5:30 to get ready.  Went downstairs for breakfast and was in the kitchen when I saw one of the dogs (big golden-doodle) carrying what suspiciously looked like my blue Feetures! socks around in her mouth.  Wait a second – drop those, Sam!  They were a little damp but no damage.  Having only a cat at home, I am not accustomed to the concern of a pet carrying your things away if left on the floor.  It would have been okay as I’d brought 4 pair of running socks (why do I always overpack?!) but it was a funny moment.

Had half a banana and a Clif Bar for breakfast (my favorite – chocolate chip peanut crunch) and we all dressed, packed bags for afterwards and were dropped off at the start area around 7:10 for the 7:30 race start.  Enough time for one more trip through the port-a-jon lines (fortunately the supply and demand was balanced here, and the lines weren’t bad) before making our way into the crowd at the start line.

Weather was overcast and about 60 degrees, with temperatures forecast to get to about 70° before the end of the race.  Rains in the forecast were pushing later into the day so we expected to stay dry.  The forecast on the previous day had me thinking I’d be chasing 5 hours just to dodge the incoming storms.  I dressed in my ever-reliable RaceReady shorts, Umstead marathon shirt, aforementioned socks, Brooks Ravenna 3 shoes, Underarmour sports bra (while I’m listing everything else) and my Garmin watch.  I’d brought my old watch on the trip just in case of another Garmin mishap, but it worked out fine.  Stuck 4 strawberry Clif Shots in my pockets along with my iPod shuffle and headphones in case I wanted them later.  I’d toyed with the idea of wearing my CEP compression calf sleeves but decided not to try something new during the marathon.  But I was extra tempted when Billy wore his CEP compression calf-high socks!  We could’ve matched.

A recording of the National Anthem played and then it was 7:30, the gun was fired (okay I actually don’t remember if there was a gun) and we were off!  The first climb began just a mile in and it was on – we ran up the hills slowly.  Billy, Humberto, Sara and I ran together for the first 3 miles until the half split off (bye Sara!) and the full had our first bit of downhill.  Billy launched ahead on the decline and I ran with Humberto for another mile until he had some more oomph and pushed ahead as well.

I approached the Blue Ridge Parkway and toyed with rolling hills until the turn into Roanoke Mountain where the first major climb began after mile marker 5.  I took my first gel about 55:00 and we turned onto the Roanoke Mountain road, a single lane 4-mile loop with a number of switchbacks.  It started getting steep enough that I began walking; setting goals of “run to this tree, then you can walk until that rock, then run again” which would end up being my m.o. for much of the rest of the race.  While the climbs were steep, there were flatter bits to run on and enough turns that it wasn’t just staring up one giant hill.  I made sure to keep my walking pace brisk, not relaxed, pumping my arms to help.  I passed other people walking now and then, so I guess I had a good speedwalk going.  At times my walk and my run were pretty much the same pace, which is when it really makes sense to just walk.

There were plenty of water stops along the route, with Gu Brew (Gu brand’s electrolyte drink) and water.  I was particularly impressed with the (great!!) volunteers for not calling it “Gatorade” which I hear so often when a less familiar brand is being used.  For example, the Rock n Roll race series uses a brand called Cytomax, but when I ran their races in 2011, at least half of the people called it Gatorade.  I can’t imagine how much the sponsors (would) hate to know that.  I usually have a strong enough stomach, but decided not to try the Gu Brew during the race, so it was just water for me.  I had a cup of water at all but one or two of the ~21 water stops along the way.

So, back to the Roanoke Mountain climb.  I thought I’d reached the top when we passed through a parking lot with a water station set up, who had decorated with “Over The Hill” balloons, banners and other accessories.  Great use of those party supplies!  However, we still had plenty of UP left.  Continue grinding up the hill until reaching the real top.  The view was fantastic.  I had been concerned the clouds might obscure the view but I was wrong.  I wished I had a camera or that the race had thought to put an official photographer up there.  But, even the great view didn’t keep me there long – I knew I had some downhills ahead as a reward for that climbing!

I rounded a corner to the decline and I saw a road sign there for the vehicle traffic “Steep Grade Ahead: Use Lower Gear.”  I called out to those around me “if I had a lower gear I’d use it!” (thankfully got a laugh) before letting gravity help my descent and passing a handful of runners taking the downhill a bit more carefully.  I tried to control the speed to save my legs for the rest of the race.  We were only about 8 miles in!  I love running downhill but holding back while running is less fun.  My legs felt good.  Downhill splits of 9:47 and 9:15.  Partway through I remembered the pre-race warning of moss on the road, so I made sure to watch my footing.  Got to almost mile 10 and took a pit stop.  All of the water stations also had a couple port-a-jons which was very convenient.  Some races scatter them less often.

A couple of miles of familiar rolling hills passed the time as we went back the way we came to where the half marathon route had split off earlier, and that meant it was around mile 12 and time to tackle the second major climb: Mill Mountain.  I ate another gel at the base, around 2:10:00.  The roadway approaching this looks to be more heavily traveled, as it’s 2 lanes and there is a park (and zoo!) on top of the mountain.  But this also meant the road was straighter, so I could look up at the hill to come, instead of the curving road of the Roanoke Mountain approach, which was a little mentally challenging.  Kept on hoofing up the hill, walk breaks interspersed, chatting with some folks around me.  Then we were at the top, and a volunteer with a parrot on his shoulder (I think it was fake) directed me onto a gravel path where we circled around to the giant star that sits atop Mill Mountain and shines over the city.  Roanoke is known as Star City and this is a tribute to that.  Stars are one of my favorite things so I wished I could dilly-dally there for a while, but I just had another cup of water and again wished the race had thought to station a photographer up here.  There is some sort of Star Cam that shows an overlook below the star.  The race had set up a number of cell phones there, with the intention of letting you call your family/friends and tell them they could see you on the Star Cam right then.  I decided not to take the time, but that’s a neat thing.  (I’d still prefer a race photographer… or carrying my own camera.)

Next was two full miles of incredible downhill.  Now, I love running downhill and the hills usually don’t last long enough.  This was all the downhill I could ask for!  We were past the halfway point (about 2:22:00) and I let ‘er rip a bit more on these declines, but still held back a little.  My downhill splits here were 8:19 and 8:26.  I have absolutely no business knocking out splits like that past the midway point of a marathon, and I’ll likely never see the likes of those splits again in a marathon, but it was great fun to see those numbers on my watch.  Sadly, the decline had to end and the route flattened out and took us along the Roanoke River for a while.  I’m told last year they had to reroute this part of the course due to torrential rains during the race which flooded the river and the path.  We passed through a park with some sports being played on the fields, and a water station set up as an “Altitude Recovery Point” (Mt. Everest style) with tents and a guy dressed like a sherpa.  It was funny.  We were done with the windy mountain roads and nature feel, and it was time to head into neighborhoods.  I was a bit disappointed at first, as the scenery was just lovely in the mountains, but the neighborhoods were beautiful and the support was great.

But getting into the residential part of town meant it was time for the third and final major climb: Peakwood.  Yes, just the name of the neighborhood, but it might as well be Mount Peakwood.  I found this climb to be the most difficult of the course.  We were running on tired legs and this one just seemed to keep going and going.  I think the difficult climb was spread out over more distance than Roanoke Mountain or Mill Mountain, and the neighborhood nature means more weaving roads to keep things appealing for residents.  It is clearly a very well-to-do part of town with a variety of beautiful homes in all sorts of architectural styles.  Lots of people sitting in their front yards cheering us on.  Some had written on on the roads in chalk, and many had set up their own little aid stations in front of their homes, with orange slices, m&ms, pretzels and Gatorade.  That’s right – Gatorade!  I know my stomach handles that just fine, so I was pleased to take a cup of the yellow and enjoy some extra electrolytes outside of my Clif Shots.

Climb, climb, climb.  The sun was out by now and I was getting hot.  I really hadn’t anticipated the clouds breaking, so I had no hat or sunscreen.  I doubt the temps got much past 70° but when there are no clouds to speak of and you’ve been running for 3 hours, it’s plenty warm.  I saw an aid station ahead and took my third Clif Shot around 3:03:00.  Sucked it down as I approached the water and then I saw it… a massive bin of gummy bears.  I’m talking gallons of gummy bears, if one can measure gummies in gallons.  I love gummy bears.  The aid station workers laughed at me as I bypassed the bins of pretzels and bananas and other treats.  “Oh she saw those from a mile away, making a bee-line right for them.”  I took a handful and added to my sugar rush, since I’d just had my gel!  I’ve enjoyed gummy bears often enough during marathons to know they are safe for my stomach.  Later on I thought about how potentially gross it was to reach my hand into that bin.  I don’t want to think much about the hundred other grubby hands that had been in there.  Whatever, gummy bears are worth it.

Climb, climb, climb.  I’m taking my walk breaks and leap frogging back and forth with a couple other runners who are walking and running at different times than me.  That always gets awkward, especially when they don’t look interested in talking and are wearing headphones, so it’s harder to acknowledge the inherent humor.  I never ended up putting on my headphones or iPod.  We get to a point in the course where there is two-way runner traffic and I was surprised to see Humberto coming down the hill.  We high-fived and he kept on down while I kept on up, but not before telling me there were Bloody Marys at the top.  Not my drink choice, but hilarious!  Just a little longer to the cul-de-sac marking the last peak of the course, mile marker 19, a pitcher of Bloody Marys, a water station (so I just had water) and the start of my reward: a mile of screaming downhill.  Per Garmin, a drop of 435 feet in that mile, which I knocked out in 8:34.  Stopped holding back then and just let it fly, except for a moment where a group of really eager little Cub Scouts really wanted high fives.  I was passing people again at this point, and getting lots of positive feedback from the fans and volunteers.  I can nearly always produce a winning smile during a marathon and I kept one of those pasted on as I flew.

The hill bottomed out and just ahead I saw Humberto and Billy walking through a water station.  I called out to them and right at mile marker 20 joined them.  We would stick together for the rest of the race.  Around the corner (another hill?  I thought we were through!), someone had put a sprinkler out in the road.  We stopped and splashed in it, rinsing our hands and faces.  A cyclist came by and told us we were having too much fun.  Impossible!   More neighborhood streets ahead before weaving through another park and back to the path along the Roanoke River.  It was hot and the river looked so refreshing.  Humberto really wanted to jump in!  We kept on running along the flat path, chatting a little bit but mostly just keeping each other company and pushing each other along.  We were all wishing for cloud cover at that point, and that thunderstorm we were so hoping to avoid earlier sounded really refreshing now.  We walked through each water stop, and I ate my last gel at about 4:03:00.  Empty pockets – I was so streamlined now, haha.

While it was mostly flat from there, a few little rollers did appear on and off, and even the slightest incline seemed monumental by that point.  It was really nice to have the guys there to run with, as I know there are times I would have slowed more, or walked longer, without their company – instead we sped up together around mile 24, where I realized we had a chance to come in under 4:40.  We decided together to skip the last aid station around mile 25 and just push it for that last mile of the marathon.  I gave it what I could and we sped up for the final push.  I saw mile marker 26 and was confused at how the finish line was so far away.  Never did 0.2 miles look longer.  The cheers started as we approached – have to love a finish line – and Billy’s sister, mom and girlfriend Sara were all there to snap photos and cheer us in.

I was so thrilled to see my finish time of 4:38:42 (official chip time!).  As you probably gleaned from my earlier posts, my goal was to avoid a new personal worst, so I just wanted to keep it under 4:57, or for a little more cushion, just under 5 hours.  Instead, it turns out to be my best marathon since December 2010 (there were 6 slower marathons in between).  So my eleventh full marathon is complete!

Smile! It's over!

At the finish I received my medal and a bottle of ice cold water, then moved along to see children’s wading pools full of ice and cold drinks: Vitamin Water, water, sodas and chocolate milk.  I really wanted the chocolate milk, but I’m a bit lactose intolerant so I was going to have to either take it and suffer (really thought about it) or just go without.   So I grabbed some Vitamin Water and a pouch of salty crackers and was about to sit and stretch when I saw Billy’s mom holding my “after the race” bag, which contained my Lactaid pills – so I got my bag, my pill, and a bottle of chocolate milk.  Bliss!

I also saw a friend of mine who I ran the Blue Ridge Relay with last fall, Phyllis, who blogs over at Go The Distance.  She had a great race, coming in under 4 hours and (we later found out) winning her age group!  Congrats to “Phast” Phyllis.  Glad I was able to see her for a while.

Billy, Humberto and I sat and stretched for a while, taking in fluids and enjoying being still.  We took some post-race photos and I’m hoping to see them in the next few days – they weren’t on my camera.  My legs were tightening up already, but all in all I felt really good.  I didn’t have much left in terms of running energy, but I was so happy with how my race went.  All the walk breaks were definitely the ticket.  They let me reserve my energy and kept me going strong through the end of the race, so I was actually able to be strong for the last couple miles.  Per Garmin, my pace was 9:48 and 9:10 for the last two miles.

Here is my Garmin split output.  I’m so amused by the incredible variation in the splits, though it would of course be nearly impossible to run even pace on this course.  I also must have been very efficient in running the tangents, since I only measured 25.97 miles.  It’s not Boston Qualifier certified, so I hope it’s not short – usually marathons end up measuring long on a Garmin, not short.  Oh well, not really my concern at this point.


After hanging out downtown for a little while (mostly sitting on the curb, stretching, and updating our facebook/twitter followers and friends, and I emailed my parents), we all headed back to home base where warm showers and a big meal was waiting for us.  What a great shower that was.  I should have named my blog run. eat. shower. drink., because sometimes showers are way more refreshing than naps.  And they happen far more often!  Late afternoon lunch was a tender roast with potatoes and carrots and green beans, and a crazy delicious pudding/whipped cream/graham cracker dessert we’d watched her make the night before.  I think my entire marathon worth of calories-burned was replenished by the end of that meal.

I think the medal is really pretty.  It’s simple but in a nice way, and the ribbon has enough pizazz for the both of them combined.

Blue Ridge Marathon medal

But to finish: the Blue Ridge Marathon was a beautiful, challenging course.  Allowing myself to take the walk breaks on the hills is absolutely why I was able to finish strong.  Is it deserving of the trademarked phrase “America’s Toughest Road Marathon?”  I’m not sure, I haven’t run them all.  But really, it’s a difficult yet rewarding course.  The scenery was fantastic, the volunteers along the route providing direction and encouragement were top-notch.  The aid stations were plentiful and incredibly friendly.  The medal is quite nice.  The shirt is a handsome enough design but I wouldn’t have complained about a women’s cut option.  The city of Roanoke was a great place to visit and to run through.  I could see myself running this again, and seeing if I can shave some time off now that I know a little more what to expect (and that I can let loose downhill a little more), though I sort of hope they don’t go adding more hills like they are threatening discussing on their facebook page.

There were 292 marathon finishers and 511 half marathon finishers.  I was 4th of 13 in my age group (W25-29) by less than 3 minutes.  I got my first-ever negative split marathon, by about 6 minutes!  The course is certainly conducive to that.

Well it took me almost as long to write the recap as to run the marathon, so I think it’s about supper time.  I’ll pretend I didn’t already replace all those marathon calories and treat myself to some semi-homemade pizza.



Leave a Comment
  1. hinsone / Apr 22 2012 8:49 PM

    Fantastic recap and sounds like a wonderful race! And no, I didn’t mind reading the long version at all. Congratulations on your great personal finish and also 4th in the age group very nice! That’s a gorgeous medal, I don’t think it’s plain at all, the mountain relief is very fitting. I don’t know if I’ll add this one to my “Must Run Races list” (the half) but it sounds like it was good times.

    • Emily / Apr 24 2012 9:30 AM

      Thanks! Yes, the medal is very appropriate. My friend said it was the same medal as last year though, just a different ribbon (which has the date listed on the ribbon), which is unfortunate.

      • hinsone / Apr 24 2012 5:02 PM

        Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, the Mercede’s marathon medals are always the same, but they are pretty epically awesome. I’m looking to add that one into my collection in Feburary. (the half).

  2. Deepa / Apr 22 2012 9:01 PM

    Nice Job Emily! Love the recap – you are such an inspiration to us newbies!

    • Emily / Apr 24 2012 9:31 AM

      thanks Deepa 🙂

  3. Darrel Wells / Apr 23 2012 8:39 AM

    Great report, Emily! I really like the way you write, and enjoy reading about your latest adventures!

    How do you get your mile splits from your Garmin? Do you set it up for automatic splits?

    • Emily / Apr 24 2012 9:32 AM

      Thank you Darrel! I’m glad others enjoy my ramblings.

      I have my Garmin set up for 1 mile automatic splits, so it records each one, then once I’m home, there’s a USB sensor on my computer that picks it all back up and loads into the Garmin dashboard website. I just took a screen shot from there to post here.

  4. laurenquartz / Apr 24 2012 3:27 PM

    The medal is super pretty! And amazing job! Check out those mid-8 splits in there. Amazing! Can’t wait to hear about it in person soon. 🙂

    • Emily / May 1 2012 11:59 AM

      thanks! those speedy splits were definitely all thanks to the downhill – and I didn’t even need roller skates! 😉

  5. Kim / Apr 25 2012 5:03 PM

    Great race recap! Hopefully I will handle my hilly marathon as well this weekend, although my hills aren’t going to be anywhere as bad 🙂

    • Emily / May 1 2012 11:59 AM

      thank you – I read your Gettysburg recap today. Fantastic race! I am definitely going for less uphill at my next marathon. Maybe more downhill if I’m lucky.

  6. trailrunningchick / Apr 28 2012 12:01 AM

    Nice recap. You definitely paid a lot more attention to the details than I did! I forgot where most of the snack stations were and pretty much missed them.
    I did hear some volunteers calling out gatorade, but you’re right must of them called it right. It actually confused me a few times, wondering if they had gatorade at some station. 🙂
    I’d agree with you too. I kind of wish I ran with a camera. I would have loved to take a picture of the “Base Camp to Peakwood” it cracked me up. Nice thorough recap. And congratulations on 11 marathons!!!

    • Emily / May 1 2012 12:02 PM

      Thank you! I spent half the race thinking about writing the blog post, so I kept a “running” list (zing!). I think I heard “gatorade” a couple times, but for a non-standard drink, they did a darn good job of being specific. Agree with the base camp signs! Thank you on the congratulations – I’m heading to your blog to read your thoughts now.

      • trailrunningchick / May 1 2012 12:39 PM

        I tend to do a “blogging list” in life, less for running though, that’s when I just check out and breathe. But I know the feeling the rest of the time. Of course this was my first marathon, I may change mindset in the next ones….

  7. Audrey J. / May 2 2012 2:28 PM

    I also did the full (my first ever and WAY slower than you!) and brought along my camera. You can see my recapture with pictures at If you like any of the photos I would be happy to email a copy to you!

    • Emily / May 8 2012 12:52 PM

      I just read through your accounts of the race – thanks so much for sharing! Great job.

  8. Audrey J. / May 2 2012 2:30 PM

    Recap. Auto correct does that to me every time! Not “recapture”. 🙂

  9. David H / May 2 2012 9:01 PM

    Emily, great work on an extremely tough course. Enjoyed the recap, and thanks for reminding us to soak in the details of the day. I sometimes get way too focused on the splits and miss everything around me. Also, funny that you mention the “downhill” preference of your next marathon. I just signed up for a 5/20 running of the Pocano Mtn race in PA. Sounds daunting, but elevation chart is crazy downhill. Maybe too much of a good thing, we’ll see. Keep running (eating, sleeping and drinking!)

    • Emily / May 8 2012 12:54 PM

      Thank you! I looked up the chart for the Pocono Mtn Marathon – plenty of downhill there! It looks comparable to a half marathon recently signed up for in the NC Mountains, called The Scream. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the Pocano Mtn race once you’ve run it.

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