Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Half Marathon Recap

April 16, 2019

Disclaimer: I’m promoting the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Race Series as part of being a BibRave Pro. Learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro (ambassador), and check out BibRave.com to find and write race reviews!

A couple of months before my goal race, the Antelope Canyon 50 miler, a new, local, half marathon was announced to replace the Rock N Roll Raleigh half that celebrated it’s final year in 2018. “One month after AC… there’s no way I’d do another race that soon!”

Well wouldn’t you know but maybe a week later, while participating in the BibRave weekly BibChat (check out the BibRave Twitter every Tuesday night!), I would win an entry for any distance in the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Race Series. So much for that resolve.

I wasn’t yet a BibRave Pro, and was excited by the prospect of both a free race and checking out Roanoke, Virginia. I had never been and my husband and I mistakenly thought it was the site of the lost colony. We were quickly corrected by a Twitter running friend who knew I was training for AC and was quickly in hysterics that I was about to take on ‘the Toughest Road Race in America!’ Yes, that’s their tagline. I wasn’t sure if that was something to be proud of, especially as I was considering what my legs would feel like post-ultra. As much FOMO as I knew I’d have in the preparation, I knew my legs would thank me if I stuck to a shorter distance. They offered a 10k, half marathon, full marathon, and a double. Yes, a double. Marathon. You read that right. The double participants started at 1am, ran the full marathon course completing it before the start time of the races the next morning… and then did it all over again! You think it sounds bananas? Well, it sells out every year! So apparently a considerably amount of people were thinking this was a good idea. I knew I would not be one of them.

I decided on the half marathon, especially with it’s generous cutoff time of 6 hours. I gave a nervous laugh as I read that as it means an average pace of 27:30 min/mile. I had never heard of that much time for a half, but I was wondering ‘wait, what am I getting myself into that it would be so hilly that they are offering that cut-off time.’ It sounded perfect though given the undetermined state of my legs, and the thought of just making this a ‘fun run’… no set time goal, just enjoy a new-to-me city, some beautiful views, and a nice workout in the process. The half marathon had a total elevation gain of 1897 feet, and a grand total elevation gain/loss of 3790 feet. My quads were already crying.

So as you know, Antelope Canyon came and went. It was an amazing experience and my training prepared me as well as it could for recovering from a 50 mile race. A week after the race, I started to gently ease back in to running. Knowing my upcoming schedule, I knew the longest run I would get in before Blue Ridge would be 6, maybe 8 miles, but I wasn’t worried. This race was just for the experience. And how hard could it be rolling into a half marathon after having just completed a 50?

I waited too close to the race to reserve a hotel room and was left with slim pickings. There were a few options, but nothing particularly close to the festival area. I also knew that with all of my race travel this year, I was going to have to be selective on my days off from work. I would have to drive to Roanoke after work on Friday, and due to previously purchased concert tickets on Saturday night, drive back to Raleigh after the race. James and I decided that I would just go solo and since Roanoke was just two and a half hours away, and we’d book a trip to return as a family some other time. I booked a room at a Hilton brand hotel about 10 minutes from the start line. I also confirmed that they would offer race morning packet pick-up. Thankfully they did so I was all set.

Leading up to race day, the weather in Raleigh was just plain gross. It ranged from sunny and humid to heavy downpours. Friends that were getting ready to participate in our big, local races (Tar Heel 10 miler and the Sir Walter Raleigh Half Marathon) were nervous because of the forecast. I was eyeing the Roanoke forecast with the same concern. Lightning bolts kept popping up and disappearing, but I knew how finicky Southern weather could be. Regardless, though it would be rainy, the temps were looking like running shorts weather, so I generally had my gear ready to go!

I left work on Friday and set out on the road in the midst of a crummy weather, with rain pelting the windshield for a solid two hours of my drive. Traffic was slow as a result so what should have been two and a half hours took a bit over three. I arrived in Roanoke tired and ready to call it a night. I laid out Flat Christine, prepped my gear: filled up my new Orange Mud Gear Vest Pro with water, fuel, laid out my KT tape and made sure my AfterShokz headphones had their full charge.

After a rough night of sleep (my hotel was noisy with thin walls, combined with pre-race jitters), I was up shortly after 5am to begin getting ready. I grabbed a bagel on the way out the door and drove to the start line.

Hanging out with the BibRave Pros representing at the race!

The race started and finished at Elmwood Park, and arriving by 6:30am gave me plenty of time to pull in to a parking lot right across the street. I found signs for the packet pickup and within minutes had my race shirt and bib. I was meeting my BibRave Pro team at a nearby hotel where one of our team members would be headed after the first loop of the Double challenge. We start to collect together and ultimately we had a quick gathering of our group. It was great to have my first BibRave race include so many team members; I loved meeting everyone in person as we had been chatting for a few weeks leading up to this event. We were all doing different distances with a couple pacing, some doing the full marathon, etc. But soon enough, we heard the announcer start to let us know the race was starting soon. We jumped into our respective corrals and got ready for the starting gun.

There were plenty of pacers scattered within the starting area which made it pretty easy to find my starting point. I was unsure of my overall pace given the hilliness of the course, but I played it safe hanging out with the 2:30s. Once the gun went off, I felt good and started making my way towards the mountain in the distance. There was a giant star on top (similar to the Hollywood sign) and given the lack of prep I put into knowing the course, I made a guess that we were heading that way. Sure enough, we were following signs to the Mill Mountain Star Trail! The rolling hills gave way to a straight up incline. I managed a slow run for the first two miles and then I gave in to the surrounding runners who had a steady hike to the top. But soon enough, we were at the overlook!

First bridge crossing and making our way to the star in the distance (top right corner of the picture).

I was taking in the beautiful view of Roanoke when I saw the 2:30 pacer trying to take a selfie. I offered to take it for him and he turns and jumps on a bench. “But the view is over there…” I started to say, only to look up behind him and see the giant star. Duh. I got a good laugh at that, but followed suit, grabbing a pic with the giant backdrop.

Overlook from the Star trail.

We had a brief respite from the road on the trail, but from here it was all downhill! We had a solid descent and I felt like I was flying! My legs loved the break from the hiking, but I made sure not to go too nuts. I’d heard many horror stories about the damage running downhill could do, so I worked on keeping my stride short and light. I’ve run hills before, but none quite so long as this!

Moo-Mosas at Mile 4

I was thrilled to see a quick break approaching: mile 4 Moo-Mosas! It was an awesome treat and is apparently an annual tradition on the course. I downed mine and continued on with my downhill trek. Soon enough, we were back in the town with lots of local spectators and support. I loved admiring the beautiful homes and enjoyed the residents coming out with their homemade signs and mini aid stations.

Was handed a Jello shot somewhere en route.

Speaking of aid stations, I was feeling spoiled at Antelope Canyon at the luxuries of ultra aid stations, but Blue Ridge Marathon brought their A game! All of the aid stations had water and electrolytes (much needed on this warm day), but a couple also had sweet and salty snacks and I even saw one with pickle juice. It was the resident support that really made it though. People set up their own tables with bananas, oranges, donuts, and even champagne and jello shots. The residents were fully into this local race!

Resident aid station setup.

After a bit of a downhill stretch, and some flat roads, it was time to climb again. We started up Peakwood and if I thought the first hill was tough, this one seemed even harder. Maybe it was the second half of the race and the fact that it was getting warmer out, but it was a doozy. Thankfully at the top there was a turnaround point complete with a little block party aid station. Cool towels, champagne shots, and cold water were handed out. Another downhill lay ahead and I let my legs run free. I was gonna hurt tomorrow! But just a couple of miles left and I was ready to see a finish line. There were tons of race photographers on the course and I seriously felt like I was all smiles, even on a couple of the hill climbs (we’ll let the final photos be the proof of that). It was proving to be such a fun race, and the other runners that you would pass in either direction were cheering everyone else on.

You run hills… I run mountains.

Best Ever Race Merchandise Quote from the BRM

I knew we had at least one more bridge to cross (turns out it was two, apparently I had blocked one of them out from memory), but they were short and sweet, and soon enough, I was going through the finisher’s chute. I was handed a beautiful medal and directed to a table filled with cupcakes. Don’t mind if I do! I walked out in a daze and into a line for photos with the Blue Ridge logo. I chatted with a few other runners in line and it really sounded like everyone had a blast at the race. I visited a few vendors, picked up a sweatshirt, and made my way to grab some food. There was a main food tent for runners wearing their bibs, complete with bagels, pizza, granola bars, bananas, and a few other options, but I headed over to the VIP area where I hung out with fellow Bib Rave Pro, Ben, munched on some avocado fries from the food truck Wake & Bacon, and regrouped before I set off for the drive home. Some music had started and I loved listening in and watching the runners come and and families playing out on the lawn area. This was a totally idyllic moment, enjoying some hard-earned relaxation. But soon enough, reality set in and it was time to get on the road to head home. I had a concert back in Raleigh in the evening and wanted some downtime with the kids before we headed off to that event.

Festival Tunes and Views

Overall, it was a fantastic experience. For as much as I complain about running hills in Raleigh, this put our puny inclines to shame! And yet, I still had a fantastic time. I didn’t break any records, but I had a ton of fun, and chatted with some great people along the way. I would definitely do this race again, next time hopefully making a full visit out of it and bringing the family along.

Made it to the Star! Blink and you’ll miss it (but only if you’re me and looking in the wrong direction).

Favorite perks from the race: Free photos! That’s always a winner in my book. They gave a disclaimer that the turnaround could be 5 business days, but by Monday I found a good amount of mine already up. There were a TON of photographers on the course, so a lot of opportunities to catch an action shot.

Favorite Race Experience: This one is tied. The glorious downhill after the Mill Mountain Start Trail was so beautiful and not so steep that you couldn’t enjoy running down it. The mimosas also helped. But I also really enjoyed chatting with other runners on some of the big inclines. I had a really nice experience chatting with a new mom on the way up Peakwood. It was her first half marathon and we just talked about the town of Roanoke itself and the beautiful views. We briefly saw each other again at the end of the race. I just love little moments like that.

Recovery Zone

After Party Features: Massage tent (foam rollers and massages!), beer garden with a couple of food trucks, live music, local vendors.

I didn’t make it to the expo as I came in late on Friday night, but everyone I spoke to said the expo is small, but they put out all the stops for the festival. It didn’t disappoint and looked like a really fun, post-race party.

There is also a Sunday Slow-k which I unfortunately wasn’t around for but heard was pretty awesome. Essentially, you show up at 9am for an untimed ‘race’ where you receive a coffee mug, coffee, and donuts while you leisurely make your way along the 5k route.

Running towards the finish line!

I cannot recommend this race weekend enough. I fully advise taking the full weekend for the experience so that you can enjoy all of the pre and post race festivities, but even my quick trip for the half marathon was a blast. I would love to do this race again in the future with my family or even as a girl’s trip for a quick getaway. Three days post-race and I’m still sore from all of the hills, but it’s a great feeling knowing I took on that course and had a great time in the process.

What’s your favorite way to celebrate after a challenging race?

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