"And springtime brought me the frightful laugh of an idiot." - Arthur Rimbaud
It was sometime in the spring, probably in the midst of an endorphin high, when I signed up for this race. Never mind that the words "Grandfather" and "Mountain" are rarely used with the term marathon. "One of America's toughest marathons" the website proudly boasted. You finish on top of a mountain! Right in the middle of the Highland Games! Bagpipes! I had just recently purchased my Sportkilt, and even though I had no real grasp of my Scottish ancestry, it all seemed logical at the time.
So, at 6:30am on July 14th, in godforsaken humidity and with thunder rolling off in the distance, I toed the start line at the track inside Kidd Brewer Stadium at Appalachian State University. We were to do two laps around the track, then head out on the roads through Boone, NC, and slowly wind our way up the hills to McRae Meadows, at the top of Grandfather Mountain, 26.2 miles later.
We started, and were quickly off the track and onto the streets. You had to complete the marathon in 5 hours and 30 minutes or less to finish inside the stadium at the Highland Games. After that, you got to finish at the "Marathon" tent just outside. I really wanted to finish on the track inside the stadium, but in the days prior to the race I had doubts on whether I could get there in time or not. With that in mind, I ran with a purpose through the flat miles in town, trying to deposit as many minutes in the "Time Bank" as I could before the hills began. First mile was 8:43, followed by mile 2 at 9:13.
It was around mile two that I hooked up with local ultra legend Joey Anderson and ran with him for the next six miles or so. Normally I would not have the pleasure of Joey's company, as he is swift afoot, but he had been recovering from a rather nasty dog bite attack, and a 100K run several weeks prior. The hills began around mile three, and with the high humidity, we were already drenched! I was questioning my kilt decision already.
We walked some of the steeper sections of the hills early, in an effort to conserve energy. This was Joey's 7th time at GMM, as opposed to my first, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the course really helped me out those first several miles.
At the aid station at mile 8, I stopped to refill my hand held, and Joey went on his way. I was now running by myself, as my two partners in crime, Mo and Lauren, has opted not to join in the fun this time around.
Now my ever increasingly soggy kilt and I settled in for some hilly miles ahead. I was trying to come up with some Scottish mantra at this point to keep me focused, but all that came to my head was the intro to Steve Earle's "Copper Head Road", so I had to go with what I had!
It was also right around this point a car slowed as it crested up to me. The driver, who I would see along the course several more times that day, noticed my kilt, rolled down his window and shouted "If it's not Scottish, it's crap!!" a reference to an old Mike Meyers sketch from Saturday Night Live. That got me back into the spirit of things quickly!
The miles began to tick off. I now entered onto the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile 11, where we would run for 4 miles. I passed mile 13 and suddenly began to feel tired, even though I was on a relatively flat section. Here it was, the dreaded "low point". Having been through this several times during ultras, I knew I would run my way through it. But for now, I walked my way through it. I had hit the halfway point in around 2:25, making a track finish very possible, but that still did not lift my spirits.
I finally exited off the Parkway, crossed underneath it, and now entered onto Clarence Newton Road, which was gravel. Whatever emotional boost I had gotten from getting off the Parkway was now drained from me as I slowed once again and scraped my way along the gravel. I ran briefly with another guy and we chatted a bit. ( HE chatted, I just kinda grunted) I then began to notice his exhales sounded like those of a horse, and he was making quite a respiratory racket. This inspired me to pick up the pace slightly, just as we were about to start the monster climb at mile 17.
I power walked up the hill, putting some distance between myself and my equestrian friend.
Having been spoiled by ultra marathon aid stations, and not having raced a traditional marathon in a while, I completely forgot that marathon AS's generally only carry water and electrolyte drinks and not food. I had taken the first of my two Vega Sport endurance gels back somewhere in the single digit miles, so now it was time to pop the next one. Two gels and Gatorade were gonna have to get me through this one!
Slowly, the tide began to turn. The big hill was behind me, and I began to get in a good rhythm on the downhill sections. I started to pass a few folks as well. Around mile 19, I came up on a runner going up a hill section. It was a friend from Raleigh, Lisa, who I was really surprised to see. (another very strong runner with tons of races under her belt) I asked her if she was okay. She said she was having problems catching her breath and thought the combination of humidity and whatever funky pollen or mold was growing in the area might be causing her breathing difficulties. I walked with her a bit, gave her some encouragement, and headed on my way. She is a cagey veteran, and she accepted the fact that today was not her day. (She would go on to finish and it was great to see her post race, feeling better!)
Cresting the top of another hill at mile 20, I saw some kids hanging out at the side of the road. As I got closer to them, I realized they were handing out ice pops! This was too good to be true! I took one, thanked them endlessly and went to work on that puppy. Cold and sugary, just what I needed. To my knowledge, this was not an "official" rest stop, just some local folks helping runners out! I don't recall at what mile, but there was a man who was handing out cold sponges to wipe yourself off with as well!
The ice pop, in combination with reaching the 20 mile mark, really helped to lift my spirits. 10K to go. My Scottish brogue buddy passed me one last time and shouted, "Aye Laddie, you'll be hearin' the bagpipes soon!" A quick look at the Garmin told me unless there was some catastrophe between now and the finish, I would make it into the stadium in time! I was back into a solid pace again, and I was able to pass a few more folks. My poor kilt was now a soggy mess, slapping my rear end in perfect cadence with my pace. I didn't care.
Of course, my exuberance was thwarted briefly as I began to ascend the final hill back up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway and the entrance to Grandfather Mountain. Mile 24. There was the sign, big and beautiful: Grandfather Mountain - 2 miles ahead. Mile 25 seemed to take forever, then the last mile. It then seemed I would never reach the track inside the stadium where we were to run 3/4 of a lap to the finish chute!
I saw the volunteers at the turn you took to get onto the field which lead into the arena. You had to run a little bit across a muddy field, then up a tiny hill which then lead you onto the track. The sun, which had thankfully been hidden behind clouds and fog for most of the morning, seemed to suddenly burst out around mile 24, bringing my now rather heavy feeling kilt to a state of super saturation. It mattered not. Because now I was on the track, bagpipe music filling my ears, and robust applause surrounding me. I went into my kick, passed one more person on the track, and finished in 5:07:44, well ahead of the cut off I had worried so much about.
I had made it, and had done a lot better than I thought I would. A soggy, yet satisfying race indeed!
On the track, heading to the finish line!