“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” -David McCullough, Jr.
My journey to Roanoke started last summer, over a burger and pint with some Peeps, including my friends Amy and Matt. Matt was wearing a shirt that said “You run hills. I run mountains.” I knew that they went to Roanoke every year to run the half marathon. Matt said he was going to tackle the marathon in 2014, to celebrate his 40th birthday.
My friend Matt is a rational guy, and the course looked beautiful. When the race advertised free race entries for “official bloggers,” I sent in an entry and promptly forgot about it. So I was completely surprised to learn that I had been chosen. I looked up the other bloggers, who either were real bloggers or people who had won the race previously. I re-read my entry and was dismayed by how lame it was. Maybe I was chosen for “color.” Anyway, I was both baffled and honored to be chosen.
Races are more fun when you can coerce your friends into going. Soon a small cadre of Peeps had signed up, but I was still without a roommate. Every time I posted something about the race, my friend Lorraine would comment or “like” it. Three weeks before the race, I sent her a note to see if she wanted to go. Another new Peep, Juliet, took my friend Jean’s race bib, and the three of us set off for Roanoke together. I’d only spent a small amount of time with either of them, so I was both nervous and excited for the weekend.
Lorraine is super-duper-speedy, and Juliet is an ultra-runner who had just run the Umstead 50, so I figured I could learn a thing or two from these stellar athletes. We talked non-stop about the mountains, training, the mountains, food, and the mountains. How tough would these mountains be?
Joined Matt and Amy and their boys, and Doug and Sheree, for a fun Peeps dinner. I had a great veggie pasta and embarrassed myself when I told the boys that the desserts on the dessert tray were made of plastic. Amy picked up a cannoli to prove it, only to find out that it was real. OOPS! We grabbed stuff for breakfast at a grocery store and headed back to the hotel, joking about the Mill Mountain Star taunting us wayyyy up there.
Morning came early with a 5:15 am wake-up call. The race didn’t start until 7:35 so I was a little clueless about why we were up so early. But, I tried to take notes they ate breakfast, foam rolled, stretched, etc. while I drank too much coffee and surfed the web.
We headed downstairs, met up with the rest of the Peeps, and headed for the start. We wished Lorraine well and Matt, Doug, Ann and I headed to a spot mid-corral for the start. Ann and I took in the views as we headed out of town and immediately up the first mountain. We alternated walking and running, because it was already steep and I knew I’d need to manage my energy. Truthfully I was worried about my preparation, since I’d only done one 18-mi run and it was two weeks ago, when I should have been tapering. How long does the “base training” of a 40 mi ultramarathon last? Since Uwharrie was February 1st, I had a sinking feeling that the answer was “not that long.”
After 2.5 miles the half marathon course split off, so we posed for a photo, then I watched Ann turn and head up Mill Mountain to the star. I would be there much later, after the first ascent up Roanoke Mountain.
The course leveled out before climbing again, so I picked up the pace a little. Around mile 6 I saw Matt ahead of me and promised myself that I could take a walk break as soon as I caught up with Matt. That proved easier said than done since Matt was making good time. It seemed like ages before I finally caught up with him. We ran together for a bit and split up just below the summit of Roanoke Mountain, accompanied by the plaintive wail of bagpipes. Awesome!
I wasn’t worried about the steep climbs, because I knew that I’d be walking them, especially any that were a 10% grade or more. But I was concerned about the equally steep downhill stretches, given past problems with my IT band. Even so, my legs cheered as we crested the summit of Roanoke Mountain and we headed downhill. I tried to run conservatively and not trash my quads. I did that by keeping my speed in check and taking very short steps with a high turnover—picture a hamster in a wheel.
The course descended for at least a mile or two before reaching the saddle and heading up Mill Mountain. The climb was relentless, but I was thoroughly enjoying the views as well as the wildflowers that lined the road. Toward the top we started seeing signs for Moomosas, and sure enough, there were a couple of women serving them up alongside a cow statue. Unfortunately I couldn’t partake, but I waved as I went by.
The descent back into Roanoke was a couple of miles, but quite runnable. I enjoyed the break as the course descended, and even clocked an 8:17 split on my way down. I had expected the views from the top to be worth all the climbing, but was thrilled to discover that the whole course was incredibly beautiful. After running back into Roanoke, we ran on a greenway along the Roanoke River. I crossed over a bridge to see Amy cheering, while Ben and Will gave me a blast on their vuvuzelas.
The flat stretch ended, and we began climbing the last mountain, through a beautiful neighborhood called Peakwood. Many families were out on their lawns with signs and high-fives, cheering us on. The number of marathoners—about 700—was perfect to me; there were always people around, but there was plenty of space between runners. We had another long, beautiful descent into town and my hip started talking, though I worked hard to run tall and keep my stride short, rather than sinking into my hips as I tired.
Back in town, the course became rolling. The hills suddenly seemed like a lot of effort and I was glad to have fewer than 5 miles to go. Turning the very last corner, it was a fast descent to the finish. This time I stretched my legs and ran hard, finishing in 4:32. Amy, Ann, Jeff, and Ann’s family were there and it felt great hear my name!
I grabbed water and a slice of pizza and learned that Lorraine had placed 1st for women and second overall female, setting a new course record of 3:13! Our Peep half marathoners all had a good but challenging runs. I walked up the street to hang out with Amy and watch Matt finish, then grabbed a quick shower before meeting Lorraine and Juliet at the awards ceremony so Lorraine collect her loot. So awesome! We then stretched our legs by wandering fun the open air market for awhile before loading up and heading out. I LOVED Roanoke and hope to spend more time there on my next visit.
I’m afraid of many things. But I am not afraid of running mountains. Was it hard? Sure was—it was by far the hardest course I’ve run. It made Umstead’s Turkey Creek look like gently rolling, bucolic countryside. But by taking my time and enjoying the views, the race was achievable. Would I go back? Absolutely!
Here’s what I think: Sign up for a race because you want to do it. Marathons are hard. And life can have its ups and downs. Don’t miss out on the views because you think that you can only handle the flats.