For the second time in my life, I have run the Blue Ridge Marathon. I ran the marathon that is trademarked as “America’s Toughest Road Marathon” TWICE. Holy cannoli, I ran over 7,430 feet of elevation change two times in two years.
Sometimes I still don’t believe it. Then I ran 6 miles on Saturday, one week after the BRM, and my glutes and hamstrings reminded me what I had just done. My body is taking longer to recover than it did last year, but I think it’s for a number of reasons. My training this time around was very different than it has been before. I actually incorporated cross-training one to two times in a week in the form of yoga. As much as I still don’t love yoga, I see the drastic benefits of getting limber after a particularly difficult run. I fueled differently. I purposely ate more protein the day before my long run to fuel my muscles better. I have not always been so good about this since I am not a big meat eater. My protein came in the form of chicken and eggs; sometimes to the point of me not wanting to ever look at a chicken again. I trained on the various bridges in the area once a week, and I did NOT slack off at all on the bridge repeats.
As the days got closer to the race day of April 18, 2015, my anxiety slowly began to increase. The more I was asked about the race, the more my anxiety levels rose. I couldn’t put my finger on the why. About two days before race day, I had already arrived in Roanoke to visit with family, and as I was talking about the race, the truth came out. The reason for my anxiety was because this race wasn’t for anyone else. This race was for ME. As selfish as that may sound, it literally shook me to the core. This race was about how well I could do. It wasn’t about making a goal for someone else. It wasn’t about coming full circle in a journey home, like last year’s first time running the Blue Ridge Marathon, when I ran it for my Mom. It wasn’t to impress anyone. It was to not disappoint. It was to not fail. It was to successfully complete this flippin’ hard marathon by kicking my time from last year’s race to the freakin’ curb!
Surprisingly, I slept well both Thursday and Friday nights. This never happens. I am usually a bundle of nerves the night before the race. I did manage to wake up exactly 15 minutes before my alarm clock was to go off. I wasn’t jolted awake by any horrible marathon dreams, but rather the peaceful thought that it was go time. I didn’t rush around like I normally do to get ready. I had set out everything I needed in one spot the night before. I got up, made my oatmeal, set it on the counter to cool, and went to wash my face and brush my teeth. It was go time. I got into my gear, donned my bright pink headband that my stepdad had chosen out of my collection for me to wear, tied a purple ribbon in my hair, pinned my bib on, and double knotted my shoes. I let Murphy outside one more time before I grabbed my fuel belt, and headed out the door onto the silent, early morning lit roads.
I drove with my mind on what was ahead of me in just a short hour. I parked around 6:30a.m., turned the radio on, and put in a cd I had made a few years ago with some of my favorite music. I cranked it loud, and let it play. I was jamming in my car at 6:30am, on a Saturday, in downtown Roanoke. Some older guy, around my stepdad’s age, pulled up behind me and parked. I saw the look. He was watching me. He kinda shook his head, and then grinned when I looked at him. Maybe he got it. Maybe he didn’t. It didn’t matter. I needed that moment to just chill out before I got out of the car. I finally turned the car off, and got out. I put on my fuel belt, unhooked my car key from my other keys, tucked it safely in my pocket, took out my trusty “lucky” inhaler and used what was required by the doc. It wasn’t chilly out, more of a balmy 56 degrees and super muggy, but I shivered anyways. As I got closer and closer to the start line, I knew the shivering wasn’t at all from the cold. My anxiety was starting to get to me. It was a lot of pressure on me to do well. A LOT. It was a lot of pressure on me to succeed, even from my stepdad who jokingly told me to not fall flat on my face. I felt the old shallow breathing begin, and quickly texted a few friends. I took a shaky picture of an even shakier smile and eyes that reflected how I terrified I was to be toeing the line at this race. I posted it on facebook to ease the anxiety, to show that I was attempting to be brave, and to get the support I so desperately needed to calm the palpitations in my heart. This was my freakin’ sixth marathon. Why was I so incredibly anxious? Why was I ready to burst into tears?
Obviously, I had it written all over my face. A lady turned to me in the bathroom line and asked if I was okay. She put her hand on my arm, and I felt the tears ready to spill over. I just shook my head as little as possible so they wouldn’t go spilling down my face. The messages started pouring in via texts and facebook. My running buddies were awake and at it. They knew today was a big day. THE DAY. They understood my fears. Some gave me permission to cry. Some told me to be strong. Some said to just breathe and take it one step at a time. Some sent love and good running vibes. Some just sent love and hugs. God, I have such amazing friends and support. I am SO thankful for it. After four trips to the porta-potty, mostly to sit in solitude for just another second, I found some of my running buddies who I knew were also running today. One of my friends went to college with me at Lynchburg, and we frequent a lot of the same races in Virginia. He gave me a hug, and I started to feel a bit better. I saw some other familiar faces, and some of the anxiety started to let go. We all wished each other a good race, and found our spots in our honor system corrals.
I put in my ear phones, got my watch ready, and sucked in several deep breaths. This race is for me. It’s ok to be nervous. Trust your training. TRUST it. The corrals started to move, and finally corral C was off, and heading under the start line. The first thing we encounter? A hill. Was I gasping for air or fighting to go over it? No. My training had prepared me for these hills, these mountains, I was about to tackle. I kept a consistent pace, tried not to obsessively look at my watch, turned my music up, and smiled as I got going. This was MY race, and I was going to go it MY way. I could hear the words of wisdom in my head as I ran. “Run strong. Trust your training. Put your heart into it. Stay steady. Be strong.” As I stood in line at the porta-potties early, I quickly realized that Siri could read me text messages, and that I could respond all via voice command. I didn’t care that anyone thought I was talking to myself. It was useful.
I didn’t care to listen to any of the messages I heard pinging in my ear as they arrived. I wanted to save them until the race got tough and I needed/wanted the motivation to keep going. We quickly reached the base of Roanoke Mountain, the steepest mountain of the whole race, and started our way to the top. I was determined to run as much of this race as I possibly could, knowing that some of the steepness of the mountain may force me to take walk breaks and then continue to run up it. I made it to two miles up the mountain until I had to take a walk break to catch my breath. We had run nearly straight up for two miles, and the air wasn’t as easy to come by as usual, and my glutes were burning already. I was trying to not get too down on myself for walking already, but I also knew I had another 24 miles ahead of me, and I certainly didn’t need to burn out this soon. I walked until my ragged breathing got back under control, and I continued run/walk intervals as needed til we got to the top of that mountain.
When we finally reached the highest peak, we were met with trays of oranges, gummy bears, pretzels, and other treats. I was so thankful to be at the top, I smiled, and sucked in huge breaths as I walked through grabbing a few orange slices. I snuck a quick selfie of me with the Roanoke Valley wayyyyyy behind me. I had tackled the first side of the first mountain. What goes up must come down. I walkie talkie messaged my brother and his girlfriend, who were patiently waiting to hear my progress while they were snuggled inside in cold, upstate New York. My brother reminded me to stay hydrated, as I had mentioned to him earlier that it was going to be a hotter than expected race temperature wise. I let him know I had just downed two cups of water at the aid station and eaten a few orange slices. My family’s support of my running endeavors means the world to me. My brother’s unfailing words of wisdom at the absolute perfect moment, every single time, remind me of how grateful I am he is my brother, and how much he not only supports my running, but just me. I got a message back from his girlfriend and I could hear him laughing in the background as she reminded him to not just stare at the phone but to say something. We seriously have our British grandparents’ sense of humor. I didn’t have to hear any words, his laughter was enough to make me grin. I felt my steps starting to get faster as I made my way back down Roanoke Mountain. Going down is the hardest part because you try so hard to not kill your quads when you know you have so many more miles to go, but at the same time you just want to let your body fly back down the mountain, taking advantage of the momentum of your body weight and gravity propelling you forward.
I got about a third of the way down the mountain to the next aid station, and stopped for my only visit to the porta-potty. I seriously don’t know how people go an entire race without stopping. They must be dehydrated the whole way. I think running down the mountain shook everything out of my bladder on the way down. As I left the porta-potty, and started up the next incline that led to the next downhill, I noticed a pair of guys who had been running about the same pace as me. I caught up to them, and asked how they could let a girl pass them, especially after I had stopped at the porta-potty. Who knows why I felt so brazen to taunt… Maybe it was my way of getting out of my head and pushing forward. At this point, we were nine miles in, and I was feeling strong. I felt like I had found the group of marathoners I would stick with throughout the race as we moved along, but was surprised at how much the group fluctuated. Some people fell way back, and then eventually caught up. Some stayed ahead, just within my line of vision, and were whom I concentrated on as I kept moving forward. Others fell back, and I fear the rising temperatures and humidity really got to them. As we moved along, that balmy 56 degrees quickly escalated into the hottest day of the spring that Roanoke had seen so far this year. The sun was shining so brightly that I felt the sunscreen I had so carefully applied was melting away.
As we made our way up to Mill Mountain, I was so focused at getting to the top and keeping salt tabs in my system, that I totally missed seeing the Roanoke Star and enjoying the overlook. I was focused on keeping moving, and by this point, I was listening and responding to text messages on my walk intervals. I tried my best to keep the walk intervals to a minimum, but I felt they were necessary as I moved along so that my body temperature wouldn’t spike to the point of heat exhaustion, and my breathing wouldn’t get so ragged to cause me to need my “lucky” inhaler. I kept ingesting a steady flow of orange slices along the course at each aid station, and taking my shotbloks as needed in-between. I am so thankful that I remembered salt tabs this year. I swear I went through 7-8 of them. I saw so many people stopping and sitting down from the cramping and dizziness. I knew it was from the heat, dehydration, and depletion of salt and magnesium in their bodies. I offered salt tabs, but many just wanted water. I haven’t run much with music over the winter because I usually had someone to talk to during my training runs, and didn’t really feel it was necessary. I found it refreshing to be able to respond to and listen to text messages and walkie talkie messages via Siri, as well as, going back and forth to music by simple voice commands.
As we came down Mill Mountain, I knew the last mountain would be the toughest one. It wasn’t the highest, but it had so many switchbacks, and such steep curves that if you continued to run each one, you were bound to knee yourself in the nose. I made my run/walk intervals shorter in time, and continued to press on. There were some points where not a single marathoner was running. We were doing our best just to get to the top of Peakwood. Pressing forward with one foot at a time, we were determined to get to the top, where each volunteer’s sign kept claiming was “just a little ways away.” We reached the flattest part of Peakwood, and I ran into one of my childhood friends who was volunteering. I know Serena was cheering for me. I could see her and hear her, and I asked her for a hug. I don’t know if I was delirious from the heat, or just fighting too hard to get up to the top, but she didn’t hear me. She kept cheering though and told me that I got this. I was going to finish strong. She can’t even begin to grasp how much I needed that encouragement right then. She was so right. Her words and smile gave me the pep I needed to press on as I ran down the other side of Peakwood, leaning forward to the point of being fearful of literally falling on my face. When they say the elevation change is steep and that there are switchbacks on this part of the course, they are NOT joking. I had to back peddle my feet at one point because I seriously thought I was going to fall. I slowed my steps to walk to gain my footing, and then started running again, allowing the momentum to carry me back down the mountain.
As we finally came out of the Peakwood neighborhood, and popped out onto a less dizzying, more straight road, I ran into my 7th grade English teacher who I have not seen in YEARS! I could see her as I came down the road, and instead of turning the corner, I made a wide arc and opened my arms as I literally ran into her. She hugged me tight, and kicked off her shoes, as she ran with me down her road. She promised to be in touch as soon as the race was done, hugged me again, and I was off for the last 5ish miles of the race. Mrs. Mary Ellen Stokes- you so rock! You helped make my day by running with me! I’ve missed your smiling face and sweet words!
I flew on words of encouragement, text messages in my ears, lyrics to amazing songs I actually was tuned into, and the waves, high fives, and shouts of the volunteers and spectators for the last five miles. I imagined that T-Rex was chasing me, swearing that his arms weren’t long enough, but that he was going to get me anyways. I feared if my legs quit moving, I wouldn’t be able to finish. Every time I wanted to walk, I pushed myself to go a bit further before I allowed a few seconds of walking. I reminded myself the worst was over. It was only rolling hills from here on out. I had completed the three worst parts: Roanoke Mountain, Mill Mountain, and Peakwood. I ticked off the miles, and looked for the awesome signs the race put out about each mile. I waved at the other marathoners and reminded them we only had a few miles to go. They encouraged me as they passed too. We realized we were in this together as we looped around an area and back before hitting the final three miles. That’s when I really began to notice how far spread out this group of marathoners was, and how close one of those guys I had taunted earlier had stayed to me throughout the race.
The sun was really beating down on us, and every time I got a cup of water, I got a second one to pour over my head and down my back. I tried a cup of Gu Brew about half way through the race, and spit it out because it was so sickeningly sweet. I opted to continue with my salt tabs as planned. As I continued along the course, I felt a sense of comfort knowing how much further I had to go since I was familiar with the course for having run it last year. I knew I needed to text my stepdad and let him know I was only a few miles out from the finish, and would be off from the original estimated finish time a bit due to the heat. I swear he read my mind because he texted me first. It’s funny to hear Siri say things that are being read from a dude’s text. I reminded him I needed Gatorade or something at the end of the race because it was so hot.
As I made my way along the last three-ish miles, I refused to let myself stop and walk. I knew how close I was to the finish, I knew how hot I was, and I knew I could find shade, chocolate milk, and ice when I was done. I kept pushing. I don’t know if it’s a runner’s instinct or not, but it seems every time I slowed down, those near me did. Every time I picked it up again, they did too. I think the sense of the end is near was hitting us all and we were expending all that was left in the tank. I knew that there were several turns on the last 2.2 miles, and I was ready for them. These were the rolling hills that I was determined would not beat me. These hills were like the Rudee’s Inlet Bridge, and I pushed through each one, and glided down the other side. (I may have been gallivanting like an elephant, but let me fantasize here…) With each police officer in the middle of each intersection allowing traffic to go, and stopping it as a runner came near, I waved and smiled and said, “thank you.” Each one had words of encouragement. Somehow I sensed they knew how tough this marathon was, particularly on a hot day like today. I was grateful for their words and their willingness to be out there with us.
I saw the mile 25 marker, and texted my stepdad to let him know I was close, and to be on the lookout for me at the finish line. Somehow, someway, I managed to really push my pace through the last 1.2 miles. They were my fastest miles over the entire race. I think it was pure adrenaline pushing me through to that finish line. I could have easily stopped and walked, but I didn’t. I was hungry for that big “FINISH” sign, and to be flying under it. I didn’t even want water at the last water stop. I knew I had pizza and chocolate milk on the other side. It helped that the last 1.2 miles were through a street with fairly decent sized buildings that provided some shade from the sweltering sun. It helped provide some relief as I pressed forward. I approached the 26 mile marker, and before I even could read it, I was picking up my pace more. I knew I had one more little uphill before I could go flying as fast as my feet could carry me downhill to go. Anxiety, determination, drive, fierceness, whatever you want to call it, was all over my face because despite my music in my ears, the yells from the volunteers got louder, the “Go, Erica, Go”s got louder and more frequent, and they kept telling me I had this, that I needed to keep pushing hard like I was up that last hill. I rounded that last corner, saw that big old FINISH in .2 miles away, and I gave it all I had left. My watch paced me at a 6 something ish mile for that last .2. Somehow the announcer saw me coming. I heard him tell the crowd to “Look at her finish strong!” There is nothing like coming into a finishing chute knowing you have given it your absolute best try, to the VERY LAST STEP. I came across the finish chute so fast my stepdad couldn’t even get a picture. I nearly missed knocking over John Carlin from the News Channel, who was standing there trying to high five me for finishing this amazing marathon. I finished America’s Toughest Road Marathon a second time. I kicked my time from last year to the curb by 17 minutes and 9 seconds. I finished it in 5:52:39 in 2014. I finished the Blue Ridge Marathon in 5:35:30 in 2015. I did it! I didn’t disappoint. I was successful in kicking my time to the curb from last year with a HUGE PR!
I can’t say enough about the crowd and volunteer support for this race. This race is so phenomenally supported, and it makes a world of difference when you are tackling one of the toughest races out there. This was a phenomenal race, and I am sure I will do it again. I don’t know if it will be next year, or in the future. Time will tell. I am just floating in the sparkle of a new, shiny PR (and the fact that I out ran T-Rex yet again!)! Marathon #6 is DONE!
Live. Love. Run. Passionately!