Saturday, August 3, 2013

Watauga County and Caldwell County - Grandfather Mountain Marathon - July 13, 2013

 Grandfather Mountain Marathon – it sounds daunting right from the start.  It’s a marathon.  Up a mountain.  With only a certain amount of time to finish.  But many of the runners I look up to have done GMM, some of them had done it many times, so it kind of had the status of a marathon I had to run eventually.  Call it a “bucket list” item, say it’s “because it’s there”, maybe because I would feel like I’m in a special fraternity of runners if I made it – but there I was, on the Appalachian State University Track in Watauga County, ready for the start, feeling very, very nervous.

I knew I’d be able to complete the distance, but the time worried me.  The marathon starts at 6:30 a.m., and the finish line is on the track at Grandfather Mountain, in the midst of the Highland Games.  The marathon gets to use the track until noon, at which time the Highland Games take precedence on the track.  That means runners have to finish in 5 hours, 30 minutes or less to finish on the track in front of the grandstands and spectators; after that, runners are stopped before the track for a less-ceremonious finish.  I really wanted to finish on the track, and after my first sub-5:00 marathon back in March at the Tobacco Road Marathon, I hoped it was going to be within me.  It would also help that the course starts in Watauga County and passes through Caldwell County, getting me two counties in one race, but that gain was secondary to my concerns about finishing.  (The race finishes in Avery County, but I was fortunate enough to visit it a few years ago for the Wooly Worm Woad Wace.) 

Just before the start of the marathon, two runners pledged to cover another distance together as they were married on the track infield in front of a crowd of encouraging spectators.  Then, with “Just” and “Married” signs on their backs, the newlyweds took their places among all the other starters.

The marathon began with two laps on the ASU track under a very overcast, foggy, even misty sky.  It was a little foreboding, but at least it meant the temperatures would stay cool and we wouldn’t have to worry about getting sunburned during our trip up the mountain.  Once leaving the track, we made a short trip through the campus and the main drag of Boone before turning onto one of the roads out of town.  The first couple of miles were overall downhill, and in my excitement to get going (and maybe put some minutes in the bank) I forgot the advice past GMM champion and NCRC runner Tim Meigs gave to me about just finding a nice even pace even at the start.  

About four miles in, the hills really began.  You can tell from the course profile that there are many, many ups in the course, but less remembered are some of the really steep downhills, especially in the first ten miles or so.  The scenery, though, was very pretty, even with some of the low-hanging clouds cutting off the distant views.  Every couple of miles there would be a very enthusiastic aid station with lots of encouragement and drinks for the runners, which was very helpful to a rookie runner thinking about the hills to come.  There were several sharp curves in the mountain roads, but the runners helped each other out the whole way, calling out “car up” or “car back” when one of the few vehicles would pass.  

About eleven miles in we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and were treated to some very pretty miles through the park and by streams and Price Lake – the plentiful rain the previous week had turned some of the mountain creeks into much bigger rapids and created some pretty waterfalls down the ridge.  Even the drivers were encouraging to the runners, waving and shouting as they passed us.  Although I was trying not to focus on time, about the halfway point I saw 2:20 on my Garmin, so at least I felt like I had a shot at beating the track cutoff time, even with the hardest half of the course ahead.

Once we left the Blue Ridge Parkway about mile fifteen, we made a turn onto a gravel road for the next three miles or so.  This stretch included one of the toughest hills on the course – most of the folks I had been running with for miles joined me in the decision to walk it.  It was steep, but fortunately not very long, and after a few minutes we emerged in a small neighborhood and were able to start plodding along again.  The runners in my group all had good spirits remaining, and we encouraged each other as we would leapfrog past, clicking the miles away one after another. 

Most of the remaining seven miles or so were majority uphill, along the winding curves of Blowing Rock Highway as we got nearer and nearer to the top of the mountain.  The aid stations in the last section of the race were very much appreciated as they encouraged us along.  Almost 25 miles in we tackled the last steep hill as we went through an underpass below the BRP.  They say when you can hear the bagpipes at the Highland Games you’re about a mile from the finish, and I kept listening and listening for them, but it was well past 25 miles before I heard those first notes.  We made a couple more turns and then we could see the main Grandfather Mountain entrance ahead, but we passed it and turned instead on a service road that took us to the base of the hill the track is on. 

Surprisingly, I had run much better than I had hoped – even Joey Anderson seemed surprised to see me as he went back along the course – and I had plenty of time to savor the entrance to the track and the circuit around the cinders in front of Highland dancers, border collies herding sheep, bagpipers, weight tossers, tents celebrating each family clan, and grandstands full of cheering people in tartans.  It was a great way to finish the race, getting to hear the cheers for the runners and wave to all the folks ringing the track, until I finally reached the finish line in a great time of 5:00:23 – well within the cutoff and with plenty of time to make pictures on the track. 

I probably had an ear-to-ear grin the rest of the afternoon as the NCRC and Mangum Track Club folks congregated on the approach hill to watch the remaining runners finish.  My trip up Grandfather Mountain had been challenging, but it felt great to be able to meet the goal and even surprise myself with a better finish than I had expected.  Sure enough, it was fun to be a Grandfather Mountain Marathon finisher!

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