Even if every marathon is the same distance, no two are identical. And that's a good thing. If not, marathon running could be reduced to running 26.2 miles around a track. Besides, if variety is the spice of life, then a few unique twists and turns and climbs and descents in marathon course are the spice of running, right?
That was the adventurous intent behind the second annual National College Blue Ridge Marathon on April 16 in Roanoke, Va. The point-to-point route is a legitimate 26.2-mile course, but it zigs and zags and rises and falls in the hilly terrain outside of the city as if it was laid out by an over-caffeinated hummingbird.
The genius (or sadist) behind the course is Ronny Angell, who knows a thing or two about getting through a challenging course. Angell, an accomplished endurance athlete, coach and trainer, has loads of experience in developing challenging courses in trail running, adventure racing and triathlons.
About two years ago, Angell and race cohorts John Carlin and Pete Eshelman wanted to present a marathon course that would really test runners' limits while providing great reward - namely the satisfaction of running fast over hilly topography, as well as enjoying some of the local scenery.
"When we started, we knew that Roanoke needed a marathon and it had to be something special," Angell says. "We worked together with the city to create a marathon that would not only be uniquely challenging but also integrate the great scenery and history of Roanoke. We wanted to create a course that runners would remember and feel proud of completing."
Tim Sykes, a 29-year-old 2:34 marathoner from nearby Lexington, Va., won the inaugural race last year in 2:42:17, outdistancing runner-up George Probst by more than 2 minutes. But for the second annual race, Angell made the course even more challenging with more hills. This year's race would give runners a cumulative 3,620 feet of climbing, and, perhaps just as challenging, the same amount in descending. It's the pounding from the downhills that hurt the most in a race like this, Angell knows, which means a runner has to be especially strong during the final miles.
That's part of what prompted Angell to add the tagline of "America's Toughest Road Marathon" to this year's race. It's something he truly believes, but it was also a bit of a promotional gesture and a good-natured jab at a race staking an even greater claim. Last year's inaugural Mount Lemmon Marathon, which sends runners up a 6,000 foot climb on a mountain on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz., called itself "The World's Toughest Road Marathon" when it debuted its uphill race last October. But more on that shortly.
There was another new challenging element this year - one that Angell had nothing to do with - a torrent rainstorm that swept through the Roanoke Valley in the early hours of the morning.
As if marathoners weren't going to have enough to contend with on the rugged course, a heavy, cold rainfall greeted them on race morning. After keeping tucked away in the lobby of Taubman Museum of Art, about 700 hearty souls lined the streets near Roanoke's trendy City Market area. (More than half of the runners opted for the marathon relay or the half marathon, the latter of which is held on a fairly standard rolling course except for the major climb and descent precariously perched between miles 1 and 6.)
Once on their way, marathoners weaved through downtown streets for a mile until heading out of town, then uphill for the next 3 miles en route to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Runners ascended about 800 feet during that 2-mile section of the course to the summit of 2,171-foot Roanoke Mountain, where everyone was treated to a panoramic view of the Roanoke Valley. It was just a tease, though, as the first of several hard downhills followed immediately thereafter.
The downward trend continued for 4 miles before runners encountered a 500-foot climb over 1.5 miles to the halfway point at Mill Mountain. At that point, runners passed by the iconic 100-foot tall Roanoke star, a manmade symbol representing the progressive spirit of the city of about 100,000 people. If only it could have somehow infused more energy into everyone's fading legs.
After a bomber descent (about 1,000 feet in 2 miles), runners climbed gradually as they traced the greenway along the river to the South Roanoke district and the final major hill at mile 19 (the new addition to this year's course). Those who weren't too blurry-eyed from the rigorous course were treated to stately old homes and beautifully landscaped streets, but there was no time to stop and smell the flowers as another steep descent, one last short but meaningful climb followed by a rolling, net downhill final 10K to the finish. With dead legs from all of the descents, runners ran the final 3 miles followed the river back into downtown finishing alongside the rail walk, an interactive walkway showcasing the rich heritage of this historic 19th century railroad town.
Hard course or not, the 2011 Blue Ridge Marathon was competitive at the front. Both the men's and women's races experienced lead changes in the final 10K. Sykes had been out front most of the way while trying to defend his title. But 28-year-old Michael Dixon, of Fanwood, New Jersey, who entered with a 2:27 PR, pushed ahead leaving South Roanoke's Peakwood neighborhood, never looking back. He charged to the finish on the wet streets of the city and set a new course record of 2:41:26.
Sykes (still leading in the photo above) didn't die off, closing strong in 2:42:56 - just 39 seconds slower than the previous year's course with fewer hills - while Probst was third in 2:54:22.
"I mostly stayed conservative until mile 20. I was a little unsure what to expect with the hills, mostly the downhills," says Dixon, who ran for Ramapo College in New Jersey and last year finished second in New Jersey's Atlantic City Marathon. "I felt really good and was able to really increase the pace heading into the last few miles. The only problem I had was blurry vision as my contacts from all the rain."
In the women's race, 26-year-old Nicki Terry of Arlington, Va., overtook Emily McGregor, who had led for most of the first 18 miles, and stretched her lead to 5 minutes to finish in 3:19:27. Terry, a frequent trail runner who ran 3:06 at last fall's Richmond Marathon, was ready for the rugged terrain, but admits it was still a difficult course.
"This was my ninth marathon so I understood pacing and being patient," she says. "I also really love hills and am very used to training in Virginia and just really appreciate the topography."
In all, the Blue Ridge Marathon had 227 finishers, but only the top 12 broke 3:30.
Kevin Green, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., J.P. Preston, of Cleveland, and Ryan Miller of Warren, Mich., used the event as a long-distance training day for a summer of ultrarunning races. The trio started the first time at 2:30 a.m. and then joined the rest of the field in time for the official race start at 7:30 a.m. Green (4:39:06) was the first of the threesome to finish, but Preston (4:54:32) and Miller (4:57:28) also completed the 52.4-mile training endeavor.
After enduring the rain and the hills, many runners agreed it was the toughest marathon they'd experienced. If there's anyone qualified to talk about how it compares to the Mount Lemmon Marathon, it has got to be McGregor, the 26-year-old Tucson resident who won the women's division of the Mount Lemmon race last fall in 3:59:13.
Instead of duking it out about their sensational claims, race organizers of each event decided to make light of the rivalry and even create promotional partnership around it. Each year, the top 20 finishers in the Blue Ridge and Mount Lemmon marathons will be offered free entry to the other event and the male and female winners of each will be invited to participate via an all-expenses paid trip.
Apparently itching to run another hard marathon - and keep in mind the Mount Lemmon race was her only previous marathon - McGregor decided take the offer. Although she admits the terrain got the best of her over the final 10K or so, she still ran a new PR of 3:25:40.
"It was actually more challenging in certain aspects than Mount Lemmon, considering all of the long downhills," McGregor says. "It is really tough on the legs going up and down and feeling the impact downhills have over time. The course was equally beautiful however."
By the numbers, the uphill Mount Lemmon race touts the most dramatic elevation gain with more than 6,000 feet of climbing, while Blue Ridge is tops with elevation change at 7,234 feet. The bottom line is neither race is for the faint of heart, or, more importantly, faint of legs or lungs, and for now, maybe the verdict is still out as to which one is the toughest.