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When a marathon turns into a DIY project

By Henry Howard

I’d planned the Blue Ridge Marathon, billed as “America’s Toughest Road Marathon,” as my first road race of that distance since Boston four years ago.

Thanks to RunChat guru David Hylton, who I met at the race, I won a race entry during last winter’s #RunChatHunt. I modified my race schedule to take advantage of the entry and try a challenging marathon.

Training for a marathon with 7,400 feet of elevation change (4,800 up and 2,600 down) is definitely a challenge when you live in a remarkably flat area. But the race would be a good test of my fitness and a good lead-in to my 100-miler, Burning River, just over three months later. (I’m raising donations for the trails at Burning River. Please consider a donation to support the trail system.)

Going into the Blue Ridge race, I was confident my training prepared me well, my nutrition was dialed in and I got more sleep than usual the night before. I was ready.

But nature had other ideas.

An ominous warning

Storms were predicted for several days ahead of the race. It looked like there would be a 100% chance the runners would get wet at some point. But, as I tell my athletes, “once you’re wet, you’re wet.”

I wore my Patagonia Houdini jacket, which is masterful and keeping me dry and my body temperature regulated.

It definitely felt warm as the race started in temperatures right around 60. But I took a long view of the race: better to have a good jacket when the skies open up. And during the pre-race announcements, the race director not only reiterated the gloomy forecast but issued a warning.

“We don’t want to cancel the race. But if severe weather hits, we may be forced too.”

Soon after that, we began the race. The crowds were lively. The hearts and legs were pumping. The storms were approaching.

Two of the three major hills in the race are in the first eight miles. I kept a solid effort and kept running, regardless of how steep the grade was. While I wasn’t cruising at top speed, things were looking up and I was feeling good.

That is, until I descended the second long hill. When I reached the mile 9 aid station at the bottom, volunteers were announcing that the race had been cancelled and a gentleman was playing taps.

The rain was pretty strong — so strong that my shirt under the Houdini jacket was soaked — but it was the lightning that of course was the concern. I kept going until stopping at the aid station at 10.75 miles where other runners were gathered under a tent.

Another volunteer reiterated the cancellation announcement. I asked him when they were expecting the shuttles to come pick us up. “I don’t know, it’s a shit show, man.”

After waiting for 20 minutes or so, I checked my phone and saw that the parking garage was only three miles away. I toyed with the idea of running to it but fortunately decided to wait it out. A few minutes later, one of the volunteers wondered aloud, "All of our cars are here. Why don't we just drive the runners back?" About three or four of us immediately, said we'd go and so we packed into his Honda Civic. (Many thanks to Matt, the awesome volunteer who brought us back.)

Marathon, part two

On the way down the mountain into town, one of the other runners started trying to figure out what marathon he could jump into next weekend. That wasn’t an option for me. That’s when it dawned on me:

They can cancel THE marathon but they can't cancel MY marathon.

I figured I would get back to the hotel, change into dry running clothes and hit the treadmill for the final 15.45 miles.

Fortunately, the storm blew over so quickly that by the time I was ready to roll, it was safe to run outside. So I headed out. I cruised around Roanoke, mostly sticking to residential areas, and completed my marathon.

Total miles: 26.2

Total time: 4:18:23

Total elevation gain: 2,861 feet

Final thoughts

I agree 100% with the decision made by the race directors. They had no choice but to call it, due to the lightning coming through. Having hundreds of runners at various points on mountain ranges during a severe storm could mean trouble.

While I didn’t have the opportunity to finish the course, cross the finish line or get a medal, I still had a positive experience. (Note: As I finished writing this, the RD sent an email saying that runners who transition to the virtual race at no cost can receive a medal. A reasonable solution and one worth pursuing, as long as they accept my DIY marathon.)

During the race, I smiled deep when it got challenging, thanked the volunteers and cheered on other runners during the out-and-backs. Plus I had a really solid training run to finish this block.

Now, on to the big goal race for the year: Burning River. Lighting, you are not welcome at this one.


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