Saturday, July 14th was the 45th running of the Grandfather Mountain Marathon, and I was there for my first attempt. This is a small race (cap at 500) that starts in the Kid Brewer stadium at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. The course runs around the track for a lap and a half and then through campus before heading out of town and eventually up to Linville, NC, where it finishes on the track of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. It is run entirely on public roads, which are not closed to traffic and are typical windy, two lane mountain roads, with lots and lots of blind curves.
I arrived Friday afternoon and picked up my packet and housing information quickly and efficiently. I had opted to stay in one of the dorm rooms on campus offered by the race. This worked out nicely as it was close to the start, and I didn’t have to check out until 5pm the next day, allowing plenty of time for a shower before my drive back to Raleigh.
My neighbor, Rob, ran GMM in 2010 and suggested I drive the course. I tend to listen to his advice as he has completed multiple 100 mile events and running with him is a lot like running with the Energizer Bunny. He just keeps going and going . . . you get my point. Anyway, his advice sounded good to me so, after I got settled, I poured over the course directions and headed out to drive the course. I had studied the course profile and read many blogs about it but wanted to see firsthand what I was in for. Almost immediately, I missed a turn and got lost. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to back track and figure out where I was and where I had gone wrong. Back on course I began to drive up the mountain.
The scenery was absolutely beautiful - lush green mountains, large rock outcroppings, waterfalls, stone walls, cozy homes carved into the side of the mountain. It was a fairly constant upward grade, with a few downhill sections. As I followed the curving ribbon of black top, I began to reevaluate my goals for the race. I finally made it to the finish area in Linville, NC, just past the entrance to Grandfather Mountain. It seemed like it had taken me forever to get there, and I was really starting to worry about how I would feel running all that way.
I had set a goal of breaking 4:30 going in, with a super secret goal of getting as close to 4 hours as I could. Doubt began to creep into my mind as I processed the course. On the way back to the dorm, I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza and then settled into my room with a book. As I lay there, staring at the institutional dorm furniture, I began to really worry about how I would do on the course.
The alarm went off at 5am for the 6:30 start time. I got up, dressed, ate and headed down to the stadium for the start. I told myself to just take it easy and run my own race. At this point I was hoping to finish in less than 5 hours. It had rained the night before, and the morning air was cool and very humid. I’ll take humid as long as it isn’t 100 degrees. (My last long run had been on a day with a record setting high of well over 100, with 90% humidity.) This weather felt great. I started near the back and made a conscious effort to take it easy. I have gone out too fast at the start of races time and time again. Not this time I told myself, and, for once, I actually listened. I didn’t pay much attention to my watch as we passed the first couple of mile markers. I just made a concerted effort to run well within myself and listen to my body. I stayed light on my feet and focused on keeping my leg turnover nice and high, while my breathing stayed steady and slow. I ran like this for a while, making polite conversation with some of the people around me. I met and ran for several miles with John Sugg, who is doing his graduate work at ASU. I had run behind him for a while and noticed the ease of his stride and how he looked like he wasn’t working hard at all. He served as an excellent pacer until we finally ended up running side by side. This was his first marathon, and he was hoping to finish in around 4 hours. (He finished in 4:11) We ran and talked about the Western States 100 and Bad Water and other sources of inspiration. At some point while running and chatting I realized that I had been running consistent 9 minute miles and some even faster than that. I also noticed that I still felt really fresh and that I wasn’t breathing hard as I ran up hills. I started to become encouraged for a 4:30 finish after all.
John and I eventually separated, and I pressed on alone. There were several familiar faces in the crowd, including a large contingent of runners from Raleigh Running Outfitters, and, for once, I wasn’t the last one in the race. At mile 12 I looked at my watch and saw that I was at 1 hour and 50 minutes. The problem was that I misread the mile marker and thought I was at mile 13. I began to get really excited. I still felt great, I had plenty of energy, I wasn’t too hot, and I was starting to pass lots of people. I began to think I was going to go under 4 hours and maybe even set an all time PR, besting my Thunder Road Road 3:51 from a couple of years ago. I ran on in oblivious euphoria for the next eight and a half minutes until I saw the 13 mile marker. 1 hour 58 minutes. Oh…well, yeah, that made a lot more sense. I allowed myself a minute to be disappointed and then another to feel like an idiot and then let it go.
I was still making great time and feeling fresh. It was super humid, like running through a cloud. The sweat wouldn’t evaporate and my clothes were drenched. By mile 22 I could both hear and feel my shoes squishing with each step.
It was turning into one of the best running days I’ve had in a really long time. I concentrated on the gentle rocking of my shoulders back and forth with each stride and kept my breathing in check. As I would start to get out of breath I would back off the pace just enough to recover and then gradually pick my tempo up again. The hills were long but gradual, and I was able to run up them without redlining. There were nice little breaks of flat stretches and even some downhill sections nicely spaced to allow for recovery and a stretching of the legs.
The last 3 miles on 221 to Linville are pretty much just up. This is where I could tell I had been running at a decent clip for the last three and a half hours. I kept looking at my watch and doing the math over and over. I knew I was going to be right on the bubble for 4 hours. On one hand I was over the moon that I had run this well and felt this good. On the other, I REALLY wanted to have a number 3 at the beginning of my finish time. Each time I did the math, I came out with a different answer. It wasn’t until I hit mile 25 at 3:52 that I began to realize I wasn’t going to break the four hour barrier. I was starting to get more tired and my breathing wasn’t as free and effortless as it had been. I passed the sign that said “GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN 200 YARDS” and knew I was home free. The road leveled out at this point, and I could catch my breath. I high fived a couple of little girls on the side of the road cheering for runners just before making the right hand turn off the road and into the Highland Games. I ran down through the mud and up a short, but what seemed very steep, hill to the cinder track that circled the stadium that was the heart of the games. As I popped out onto the track, I realized that I had pushed just a little too hard on that last hill, and my heart rate had spiked, and I felt like I was going to throw up. “Not now,” I told myself. “Not in front of all these people, not after you felt so good all day.” I was able to slow my pace and allow my heart rate to recover as I circled the track. Bagpipes were playing, crowds were cheering (not all for me), big men in kilts were competing in the Sheaf Toss in the infield, and I began to feel a little like Eric Liddell. I crossed the line in 4:02 and change by my watch and 4:03 by the race’s clock. I’m going with mine because I like the way 4:02 sounds better.
I wandered to the Marathon Tent set up for the runners and had a few cups of Gatorade and an oatmeal cream pie as I chatted with Sam Brown from Raleigh Running, who had finished 7th overall in a time of 3:09. I stayed for a while and cheered for runners entering the stadium. Within 10 minutes of the finish, I felt great. My legs weren’t tired, and I still felt remarkably fresh. I took the shuttle back to my car, hit the dorm for a quick shower, and jumped in the car to head home. I got home and hopped out of the car on legs that still felt fresh and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in Dad mode. Sunday I ran 12 on the treadmill to avoid the heat and felt awesome.
Although I didn’t break 4 hours, I am as pleased with this race as I have been with any race in recent years. I ran faster than I ever thought I would and did so while feeling really good the entire time. It was just the confidence boost I needed as I make my final preparations for the Leadville Trail 100 run next month.
A special thanks to my family for supporting and encouraging me, as always, and to Raleigh Running Outfitters for their continued support.