A year ago, my friend Drew told me he was interested in running his first half marathon—the Blue Ridge Half Marathon—in Roanoke, Virginia, where he and his wife (my sister from another mother) live. As previously stated, I love Roanoke and visiting Danielle and Drew, so why not? His Lordship and I signed up last summer, and with that, the trip had been set in stone.
As the date drew nearer, I started receiving emails from the race director. It stated things like, “America’s toughest road marathon” and “mountains,” and yet, I didn’t really pay much attention to it. My heart and mind were set on the mountains of Connemara that I had to tackle a mere two weeks before.
The Connemarathon came and went. There was much glee and rejoicing as our entire team tackled the bitter winds, ups, downs, and Hell of the West over 13.1, 26.2, or 39.3 miles. A week later, we returned home and got reacclimated with workflows and personal activities, and tried to wrap our head around the seemingly never-ending tragedy in Boston.
During this, I received more Blue Ridge Marathon related emails. I decided to look at the course map.
Miles 2-4 went straight up a mountain. I compared it to the Connemarathon course map. And just as I suspected, Mill Mountain was three times the elevation of Connemara’s Hell of the West.
When I completed Connemara, I texted Danielle to let her know that the victory lap in Roanoke was going to commence. Shooting straight up a mountain after crossing the first mile? Some victory lap. My Blue Ridge Half Marathon thoughts became simple: be smart, don’t walk, enjoy the run.”
For the first time ever, I woke up without the tummy tumble normalcy, and enjoyed my cup of French press and oatmeal. We even had time for photo ops.
Since my hosts live close to the start, Drew and I decided to warm-up with a mile jaunt through the crisp Virginia air. The race day weather was perfect: 40˚F, sunny, and a light breeze. When we arrived at the starting line, runners were huddled together chatting, shivering, and being the typical race day nervous. As I looked around I realized I was one of the few not bundled up in throw-away clothes and wasn’t particularly chilly—the perks of training in the longest winter ever, I suppose.
We lined up, listened to words from the race director, Bart Yasso, and Frank Shorter, had a moment of silence for Boston victims, and listened to the National anthem.
Then we were off.
Drew and I’s plan was to take it easy through the first mile—no getting over excited where couldn’t push ourselves up the mountain. Our cheer squad (Danielle and His Lordship) was situated on the bridge just before said marker. We reached them in 7:58.
“Whoops, we may have gone a little too fast,” I said.
And then the mountain trudge began.
For 2.5 miles, we climbed. Some of this was steeper than the rest, some had a slanted, slippery slope, and most of it was winding. Drew went ahead of me, and I tried my best to keep my heart rate at 150 bpm or lower. People started running past me. ‘Don’t push it too hard,’ I thought.
When I passed the point where Danielle and Drew got married, I knew it was only a short matter of time before I reached the Mill Mountain Star, also the beginning of a nice downhill off the mountain.
As I reached the Star parking lot, I saw that glorious beacon of hope that the city of Roanoke bears it’s nickname after. A huge group of volunteers greeted me shouting, “YOU DID IT! WELCOME TO THE STAR!!”
Elated, I thought to myself, ‘game on’ and started picking up my pace. Just like the uphill, I didn’t want to overdo it on the downhill and tire myself out before the back half of the course. I coasted down and smiled with glee. The views from the mountain were stunning—it was as if we were running through a postcard.
When I reached the bottom, I noticed more people out cheering with signs suggesting that “we made Mill Mountain our bitch” and the like. Thanks, spectators, we love you, too.
Miles 1-6 splits: 7:59, 9:04, 10:18, 10:05, 7:49, 7:45
I approached the familiar Roanoke River Greenway—a path running along the Roanoke River that I had run training runs on before. I knew the Cheer Squad was somewhere along this path. I kept my eyes peeled for Boston colors, and noticed a sign that said, “FART” in giant letters (well played).
That’s when I heard shouting.
“ABBE LEWIS. I LOVE ABBE LEWIS.”
It was Danielle in her bright blue and yellow attire, snapping photos and jumping up and down.
“THIS IS SO. FUN.”
It was. For the first 7 miles I was smiling. The scenery was breathtaking, and the community was more than supportive. Neighborhood kids dished out Twizzlers and pretzels, while others volunteered at aid stations.
We reached another bridge at mile 8.5, and my quads started to burn; an all too familiar sensation I felt in the mountains of Connemara. I kept my pace steady so not to burn out in the final miles. Our course had been changed a few days prior to the race due to flooding in the Roanoke River. I saw Drew on part of the new turnaround—he looked great charging up the bridge on Franklin.
It was on that bridge where I started feeling a pull in my groin; another all too familiar sensation from my injury two years ago. I slowed but managed, and decided to run smart the final miles.
I saw the Cheer Squad at mile 10, and told them it was the final countdown. Little did they know, I was actually listening to the one hit wonder by Europe and channeling my inner Gob Bluth.
Another bridge at mile 11.5. And at a low incline. My quads were on fire and my groin started to pull. ‘Just keep going, you can manage for the next 15 minutes,’ I thought to myself.
As we descended into downtown Roanoke, I reached another short hill.
“Last hill, I swear,” shouted a spectator.
He giggled when I responded in kind with a very loud thank you.
We turned right on Norfolk Avenue next to the train tracks. I heard more shouting. The Cheer Squad had booked it from mile 10 to the finish. His Lordship asked how I was doing; I told him Mill Mountain kicks Hell of the West’s ass. He seemed surprised.
I crossed the finish line with my fist up in the air donning my #BostonStrong friendship bracelet. The race director greeted me with a huge smile and congratulations. I grabbed my medal, a bagel, and an orange. The finisher’s area was quite grand with a beer tent, musicians, and huge spread of pizza, shrimp cocktail (yes, I’m serious), water, and Gatorade.
I found my friends at our meet-up point and celebrated. My mountainous spring races finally came to a close.
Miles 7-13.1 Splits: 9:05, 8:30, 8:28, 8:51, 8:53, 8:57, 8:27
Blue Ridge Half Marathon: 1:54:30 (8:45 pace), 11th AG
Would I do this race again? In a heartbeat. Besides the near-perfect weather, the race itself was everything I would want out of one. It was challenging, beautiful, and had an incredibly helpful staff and good spectators, given the size of the city itself.
Also, huge congratulations to Drew on his spectacular first half marathon (he finished in 1:44:54)! Beers and cheese all around!
Next up, my Ireland wrap-up and Connemarathon race report. Just as soon as I find the words to put on paper.