Monday, April 28, 2014

2014 Blue Ridge Half Marathon

2014 Blue Ridge Half Marathon
 2014 Blue Ridge Half Marathon
Time: 1:44:51 (chip) 1:44:52 (gun), Pace 8:00/M, Place 25/752 overall, 3/51 in my age group, 22/330 among men

Garmin Data HERE

In each of the 5 years that the Blue Ridge Half Marathon has been in existence the course has been tweaked so that the route has never been the same twice. For the most part the changes have been modest and comparing year-to-year stats would still be a roughly acceptable measurement for performance.
Typical Elevation Profile from Years Past.

This year was different though.

New for 2014 was the addition of a second massive hill climb called "Peakwood". Full marathoners have encountered Peakwood since 2012(?), but us half marathoners have so far only had to contend with the one massive hill (mountain) climb up Mill Mountain to the star.
New Elevation Profile. Hopefully they can stop making changes now.

The addition of Peakwood changes the character of the course to the point where year over year statistics are virtually meaningless. Still, I support the decision because it does bring the half closer to alignment with the full in so far as being marketed as "America's Toughest Road Marathon". Will the Blue Ridge Marathon now market the Half as being "America's Toughest Road Half Marathon" too? Time will tell..., but after having ran it I can certainly say it was the toughest road half marathon I've ran to date.
2014 Blue Ridge Half Marathon Course Map.

I have to stress...I did not train for this years event. For me training involves a much more complex running schedule than anything I've done leading up to this years race day. Instead, I merely "prepared" for the event by running mostly 8 and 12 milers at an easy, but not too easy pace, and usually just ran twice a week at that.

I did, however, do massive cross training with swimming, cycling, elliptical and some free weights. My experiment was to see if cross training could be just as effective as following a standard half marathon training schedule in reaching a race day peak. Preliminarily, I'd have to say it did.

The Race

Didn't have any trouble finding room at the front line.
At the start line I look around and notice a familiar set of braided pony tails. It was the same girl who back at the 2012 Blue Ridge Half had stayed right on my heels and pushed me to what is still my fastest road half marathon time. I said hello and made it a point to express what a profound race that was for me. I had a lot of drive that year and was both willing and able to fight for every spot. Finished 8th of  515 overall that year and with a 2nd place Master award and a time of 1:35:29!

I haven't quite been able to recapture that same drive, but I always approach the Blue Ridge Half with a high expectation for myself. As the starting horn blasted and the race got under way I was mildly shocked to see that I was holding my own with the top 10 for the first 1/4 to 1/2 mile. I didn't put much stock in being able to hold such an elite spot because I knew faster and more experienced runners were back there just waiting for the crowd to thin out a little before establishing their paces, but it was still a nice little ego trip to get things started.
Thank you Gameface Media for the complementary use of raceday photography!

By the time the first mile was done and the climb up the JP Fishburn Parkway to the Mill Mountain Star began I figured I had roughly 20-25 in front of me. It was way to early to be thinking about position since there was no way to determine who was doing the full, the half or the 10k. I kept my mind on my own pace and was content to let the chips fall where they may. I still kept mental notes of how much passing was going on, but it was more for my own amusement than for calculating a strategy at this point.

Turning off the parkway and heading to the Mill Mtn Star the race field thins out as the full marathoners continue up Roanoke Mountain and 10k and half racers head to the Star. I calculated about 30-40 in front of me by the time I hit the turn, but had no way to know how many had continued up the mountain. I knew my Garmin was showing some solid stats with a low 7 for the easy first mile, a low 8 for the gut-check second mile and a low 9 for the steep, torturous 3rd mile. 

Mile 4 is the transition mile. It starts shortly after the turn off the Parkway, picks up a short, yet substantial climb to the Star, then grants a welcoming transition to a lengthy section of downhill terrain. It would be easy to indulge in some relief at this point having just conquered an ascent up Mill Mountain...maybe relax the effort a little and let gravity do some of the work ...?

No. The key to the Blue Ridge Half is equality. No matter how hard you punish your calves and hamstrings on the ascents, you have to be willing to punish your quads equally on the descents. I seem to recall my pace for the 4th mile dropping into the 10's by the time I hit the star and I knew it was time to chase it down to something more respectable. It took me 1/10 of a mile or so to get my legs transitioned, but when I did I was rewarded with watching my current mile pace drop from 10 to 9 to 8 to finishing at a high 7.

I had no reason to expect that the next mile, a stand alone downhill mile, would be anything but a low to mid 6. I hadn't done any tempo training for this race so I just took a mid 6 for granted and didn't look at Garmin at all...till curiosity got the best of me about 8/10ths into it. I glanced down and saw I was holding a sub 6...a 5:58 actually. I like to indulge my ego and log at least one sub 6 each year and if it happens during a race that's all the better. I threw caution to the wind and just poured it all out there, not even caring if I was compromising my energy levels for later in the race, I wrapped up mile 5 with a 5:53 and as far as I was concerned the day was a success at this point!

But I was still in the middle of a race and no way was I going to give anything less than everything I had. 

Finishing the descent off Mill Mountain, hitting the greenway for a brief section and crossing the soccer fields to get into the old southwest neighborhood was to be the only notable sections of relatively flat surface to run for the entire race. Shortly after getting into the old southwest neighborhood the course consists of a steady incline up Avenham Ave. I could only estimate I was in the top 20, but I had no clear sense of position and it seemed like the only passing going on was really just me leap frogging with the same 2 or 3 people.

Then the surprise!


I didn't know or care what Peakwood would be enough to bother myself to run it or even drive it before the race. Really, I had seen the elevation profile and took it to be just another hill. As the truth of the matter displayed itself before me, I quickly began to appreciate all the hype. This was a serious steep and prolonged incline!

Wrapping up mile 8 in the high 8's, I looked at Garmin shortly into mile 9 and saw that I was holding a low 11. Many people were alternating between walk and run intervals and I considered doing the same. My general rule of thumb in these matters is to only walk if my average pace for a given mile drops into the 12's because I can speed walk a 12-13 min/mile and conserve my energy and emerge from the hill more refreshed. 

I never did drop the pace to where walking would have seemed wise, but it was absolutely brutal what I had to pull out of my psyche to stay sub 12. Fortunately, almost 3/4 of the way up Peakwood, a brief 1/3rd mile of downhill gave me the opportunity to chase my pace for mile 9 from a mid 11 back down to a high 9. I didn't know the downhill section would be so brief and had to dig deep to not become disheartened by the sudden emergence of yet another steep incline. I don't recall even looking at Garmin during this mile, but just kept running and focused on holding my spot. 

The final ascent finally peaked out and from that point on I wanted to hold my spot. Pace and finish time had lost all meaning, I only knew it was time for the passing to stop. I hardly looked at Garmin at all after mile 10. I wasn't close enough to anyone in front of me to warrant an effort to overtake the spot, so I just listened for footsteps behind me. 

By mile 11 I could hear 1 or 2 sets of feet getting closer, but I wasn't going to look back. Better to try and just slowly pick up the pace and see if the sound of any tailing footsteps diminished. I thought I had created a significant distance when somewhere shortly before mile 12 I could hear a rapid assault coming from behind. I wanted to hold it off, but had nothing for it...the spot was gone...fortunately it was just me getting chicked by the 4th place overall female so I wasn't losing any spots in my age group or among the mens standings.

Shortly thereafter I heard another candidate for my spot approaching from the rear. The female who had recently passed me had pulled away by about 1/10th mile, but the gap seemed to be holding steady. I cut the distance between us by about half and couldn't hear anyone behind me anymore, so I figured they must have gotten secure in their spot and decided to hold off on any passing unless I dropped my pace.

As the final hill on Jefferson reached its crest and the finish line area came into view I had lost some ground on the 4th place female, but I still couldn't hear any steps behind me. The crowd was loud and I might have been missing what I was listening for though. I was trashed...quads, calves, hammies, lungs...all of it...if I could have been certain of my spot I'd have slowed down, but something in my psyche wouldn't let me look back. Instead I imagined I was being gamed by someone who just wanted to mount a finish line assault on my spot and I found just enough energy to mount a very weak sprint to the finish line. Probably a high 6, but Garmin will show a low 7 since I didn't turn it off promptly after finishing.

Crazed expression here as I get caught up on my oxygen .

Turns out my imagination wasn't far off.

Finishers Medal
I did manage a 3rd place Age Group award, but it was by a very slim margin. The nearest runner back was just 17 seconds behind and just 2 runners back, at 23 seconds behind, was a guy in my Age Group who potentially could have mounted a challenge for my podium spot! As far as the Age Group awards for 40-44 year old men goes it could have worked out any number of ways with just under 2 minutes separating 1st from 5th.

Content with the final results, I was incredibly pleased by the post race venue! Roanoke's new Elmwood Park Amphitheater was an excellent place to unwind after a brutal race. Lots of shade, plenty of food and drink, comfortable spots surrounding the stage to sit or lay back in the grass, and cool sounds to groove to as some musicians entertained with their live performances. The race directors have definitely, without a doubt, made all the right changes to the event this year to transform it into a first rate class act race!
Would you just look at this venue! What a great place to stage an awards ceremony! We had live music for entertainment between the awards ceremony including a memorable Motley Crue tribute from local singer Chris Shelton.

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  1. Congrats on your age group award! They have such neat age group trophies at Blue Ridge. No matter who you are, you really have to dig deep to run this whole course. So way to go! I hope they keep the course the same next year. I think they are already marketing the half as 'America's Toughest Road Half Marathon' with the addition of Peakwood this year. I noticed it's on the medal, and appears to be trademarked.

    Loved the finish at Elmwood Park this year, too! Great place to reunite with family/friends and hang out.

    1. Good eye! I had completely missed that "America's Toughest Road Half Marathon" on the medal!