Monday, July 13, 2015

Mostly Uphill But Really Pretty and Perfect Weather -- Grandfather Mountain Marathon Race Report

I've been excited about two marathons this year -- Nashville and Deadwood. I was not excited about Trailbreaker, Shires of Vermont, or this one, Grandfather Mountain (North Carolina), even though I registered for it a long time ago. The more I heard about it, the less I looked forward to it. Reports were mostly in agreement that it was 1) hot, 2) humid, 3) difficult, 4) not exactly runner-friendly. I hadn't trained on hills at all (because we don't have any in Michigan) and had only done one post-work run in high temps and humidity, and that one did not go well. So it was a nice surprise that I ended up really enjoying the race.

The start line is at 3300' and the course goes up to almost 4300'. Originally I had thought that 1000 feet over 26 miles wasn't that bad, but then I looked at the elevation profile for the first time (morning of the race) and realized that the course wasn't exactly straight up. There was quite a bit of downhill mixed in there with the uphill: down 200' here, up 500' there, switching from down to up every few miles. This changed it from a steady slog into something a little more interesting, although it is admittedly hard to appreciate the downhills quite as much when you know they are just losing you elevation that you had already gained once and now would have to gain again. On the other hand, at least now I would know that no uphill would last forever. (Except the last three miles at the end of the race, which did last forever, or at least till the finish line.)

We got so, so lucky with the weather. I was planning on this being a 4.5-5-hour race, and only the perfect weather allowed me to get a slightly better time than I had hoped for. The marathon started in Boone, North Carolina, in the stadium of the GOOD A.S.U. (Appalachian State University) as opposed to the NO-GOOD A.S.U.; we all know which one I'm talking about. Stadium start = lots of real bathrooms, about the best thing you can hope for at a marathon start line. It was also a small race, 320 runners, so there were no bathroom lines. Humidity was 96% but temperature was only 66, so it was wet but not steamy. One more good thing -- the race started at 6:30 a.m. Shires of Vermont, Deadwood, take note! 6:30 is the correct start time for a summer marathon.

The gun went off and we did two laps around Kidd Brewer Stadium before leaving campus and running a little over 2 miles downhill through the town of Boone. Then we turned onto a residential road that went up, up, up into the hills. It was a beautiful road, narrow and winding and sort of hidden in a tunnel of trees. Every time we passed a small clearing in the trees, we were rewarded with grand views of the Appalachians and mist rising from the hollows. The running was moderately difficult but it just made me miss living near mountains more. Even though these are green, wet mountains that could not be more different from Tucson's brown, dry mountains, the point is that the difficulty of slogging up them is rewarded with 1) the feeling of looking down on everything else, and 2) the feeling that you are a badass. Man, I would have to run a hundred miles in Michigan before I ever even began to get that feeling.

We topped out and then got to a screaming downhill, so steep I was worried about falling on my face. It didn't last long before we got to another long, steep climb, a few miles. It still wasn't hot, though. There was a nice, cool breeze that kept us from being absolutely miserable despite the slog. Then downhill again, then up, up, up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I was excited about the part of the course that was on the Parkway. That is a great American road that I have never seen or driven on. But it turned out to be one of the few disappointments on the whole course. The views weren't that great, mostly grass and trees on either side of the road with occasional glimpses of the mountains in the distance. Kind of like Stony Creek plus mountains, pleasant but nothing to get excited about. It was also a really, really long downhill, over two miles. My toes, shins, and stomach were all starting to bother me, and I was relieved when it finally leveled out and we turned off the Parkway onto some other road and started climbing again.

Let me mention my foot problem du jour. I had one dead toenail from Deadwood that was almost, but not quite, ready to come off. It was hanging on by a flap and the other night I had caught it on the blanket and woken up from the sharp pain. The only thing to do was tape it down for the marathon and deal with it afterwards. So I did, with a Bandaid, and that was fine except that the Bandaid was now rubbing up against my big toe and causing a blister. I had totally anticipated this but figured a blister was something I could just deal with. Most of the time I could, but sometimes I would step on the foot the wrong way and get that feeling like I was scraping a cheese grater along the side of my foot. While this was not debilitating, it was very demoralizing. It got worse when I left the paved road for what the website said was three miles of gravel road. The uneven gravel surface meant that my feet rolled around a lot more, so my blister hurt a lot more. I started looking ahead to pick out places where I could stop and remove my sock and shoe and Bandaid and... I wasn't sure what I would do once it was off -- the original nail would still be painful. So instead I just kept going instead of sitting down on a fencepost or a flat rock or the open tailgate of someone's pickup truck. This was really the only place where I walked for more than a short distance. To my relief, the gravel road ended after barely a mile, and the blister hurt a lot less once I got back on asphalt again.

Here, at Mile 17 or so, began the most beautiful part of the course. According to the elevation profile, it was a steady climb up to the finish, but the elevation gain was so gradual I barely noticed it. It felt flat. The road was winding and shaded, a cool breeze was blowing, there was light cloud cover but also plenty of bright blue sky, and there was a more beautiful mountain view around every curve. The Mile 18 aid station had banana halves and a jar of salt to dip the banana into, only the second marathon I have ever seen this at (the first was Pikes Peak). I was thrilled to see the bananas and salt. I was just beginning to feel like I maybe needed a little more electrolytes than what I had in me, because of how much I was sweating, but the thought of GU made my stomach roll over. I swear, just when I think I have the perfect water-GU equation down, my system changes again. Today I was chugging Gatorade at almost every station, when for years I could barely drink it at all because it made me so nauseous. Anyway, the salty banana recharged me and I was okay running for a few more miles to the next aid station.

Somewhere in here I caught up to a guy wearing a shirt with the acronym SCROTUM on the back (South Carolina Runners Of Trails and Ultra Marathons, of course). I laughed and said, "Nice shirt! That's just what I need at this point in the race." Then I realized how that sounded and so did some other much older guy running right ahead of me who had also just passed the SCROTUM guy. This guy started laughing and said, "You need a scrotum?" I thought about explaining but decided I didn't have the breath to spare, so I kept on going, but I was still laughing.

This marathon ends at the top of Grandfather Mountain, where the Highland Games (second largest Highland Games in the world) are taking place. You can hear the bagpipes from a mile or two away. It was a very cool finish, if a little overwhelming. After miles and miles of peace and beauty, you leave the mountain road for a dirt and gravel track, and there are volunteers every few steps pointing the way through the parking lot and people wandering around, and you go up a short but incredibly steep little hill, and suddenly you are smack in the middle of a gigantic crowd and roar of noise. All the different clans have their family tents set up, and there are bleachers full of spectators all around the field. There is a track running around the field, and you run a lap around it past all the cheering spectators. Man, that track feels reeeeaaaaaallllly long but there is no way I could've walked, not with the crowd. I finished with a time of 4:22, moderately crappy but better than I had expected considering my total lack of mountain training. The medal is really cheap-looking, flimsy with nothing specific to Grandfather Mountain except the name. It's one of the worst medals I have ever gotten from any race, not even worth putting a picture on Facebook.

The funniest thing about this marathon is what was on the refreshments table. There were bananas and oranges and bread and peanut butter, but there was also an entire table full of Little Debbie cakes of all different kinds. Probably 1/3 of the available finish line food was Little Debbie, which I found absolutely hilarious. I mean, I am not by any means a strictly healthy eater or anything, but seeing that spread of Nutty Bars and Swiss Rolls and Zebra Cakes simultaneously cracked me up and made my stomach turn. I am trying so hard not to blame that display of junk food on the fact that this marathon was in the South, but it's really difficult.

That Bandaid did a nice job of shredding off a good-sized flap of skin on the side of my big toe, but other than that I didn't feel too bad. I wasn't sick, my legs didn't hurt, and I even felt all right the day after, good enough to run five miles after getting back to Michigan. I now have 27 states done, with three more planned for this year to bring me to a total of 30 by October. This was also my fifth marathon this year, which is the most marathons I've ever done in a year. (I had lots of years where I did four, but never did five until now.) I am really enjoying this one-marathon-a-month schedule; it is making it totally unnecessary to ever do any other long runs besides marathons.

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