You’re out on a run. Your nose is getting stuffy, so you lean to the side for a quick farmer’s blow. It’s cold out, but you didn’t realize how cold until you go to wipe your nose with the back of your glove to clear off any additional moisture — only to find that it’s already frozen around the edge of your nostril in mere seconds.
Welcome to the inaugural Asheville Marathon, held on the grounds of the beautiful Biltmore estate. “Well,” I thought dramatically at around mile 20, “At least I’ll die somewhere majestic.”
Rewind a bit. I’d chosen the Asheville Marathon back in December for many reasons. I wanted my first marathon to be in North Carolina because I consider this state my true home. I wanted it to be somewhere beautiful; preferably in or around the mountains without the course itself being too awful. The race should be a good size but not too big. I also preferred that both the race and most of my training take place during colder weather. Asheville seemed to line up perfectly with all these things.
A wee bit chilly.
But there was a lot that I got wrong — temperature being the biggest. We’ve had a mild winter this year (relatively speaking), which has been perfect for training. But we’ve also had some brief and seemingly-out-of-nowhere plummets in temperature that only last a day or so sandwiched in between stretches of fairly nice days. The marathon was on March 3, 2013, so I was expecting the weather that day to tend more towards mild. Instead we got the coldest day in which I’ve ever run.
I watched the weather forecasts for several days prior and brought way too much gear with me to prepare for any situation. Ideally I wanted to run in a long sleeve tech shirt, shorts, and my original Luna Sandals (the original Lunas are soon to be known as the Venado). But on the morning of it took only a brief step outside to clarify that I would also need a hat and hoodie (both disposable — just in case), gloves, and tights under the shorts. If I stubbornly insisted on running in huaraches on such a day, the tabi socks would also need to make an appearance.
Most runners know that any inaugural race can be expected to have some hiccups. This one seemed to have a few more than usual, not the least of which because of the logistics required to hold an event of around 1300 runners on an expansive and historic property like Biltmore. The expo was tiny and crowded, the instructions for spectators were strange and often conflicting (or when they were straightforward and consistent they often turned out to be entirely incorrect), and the “heated tents” by the start/finish line were heated by nothing more than the runners’ cumulative fears.
Gentle snow flurries were blown around by a biting wind, chilling the long line of runners waiting for too-few port-o-johns. I kept a couple of charcoal hand warmers wedged between my toes and the Luna foot bed, wondering if it was a particularly good idea to run one’s first marathon in sandals. Fortunately my saint of a girlfriend — who got up before 5 AM with me to see come out in the terrible weather to see me start — kept me distracted with positive thoughts. As did the hilarious guys who came in with a sign that said “Free Bacon” and “You’ll thank me at mile 20.” Obviously I had to get a couple of pieces.
The race started 15 minutes late to accommodate the lines at the johns and a late shuttle, but it still felt too soon. Then we were off. The first six miles were nice, mostly following along some flat gravel and clean road up to the Biltmore House itself. Light inclines and reasonable downhills. Ten miles in we turned onto the seldom-seen western side of the estate, and that’s when things began to get interesting.
The sun had briefly shown signs of rising and warming the land in those first miles, but by mile 10 the clouds had covered the sky and it began getting colder. From then until the end of the race it would feel progressively colder by the minute. Much like my experience at the Frosty Fifty 25k that I ran, my Lunas and tabi socks were holding up amazingly. The chill in my toes that had worried me before the start was completely gone, and they continued to cut the tough winds just enough that my feet never felt cold for the entire race. (Which is quite a feat considering that the winner of this marathon would ultimately be taken to the hospital for hypothermia.) My Mizuno gloves with “Breath Thermo” technology again let me down a bit, and I needed to keep hand warmers stuffed inside to keep my hands anywhere near as comfortable as my feet when it came to temperature.
It wasn’t all good, though. Though the race website and organizers had promised gravel for much of the western portion of the race, they’d severely understated the size and amount. Several portions of the trails were littered with fist-sized rocks. Add to that the fact that it was an out-and-back portion of the course and I found myself dodging (and likely making others dodge) those bigger rocks as they were accidentally kicked. My toes took quite a beating. The thought crossed my mind that the Leadville model Luna might’ve fared better here, but honestly the original held its own. I’d never run on such rough trails with the originals and found myself being impressed all over again.
The only tough part for the huaraches was an issue that most minimalist runners are familiar with whatever their shoe of preference: steep downhills. Tough on the knees and hills. Fortunately there were only four short, sharp downhills, so it wasn’t too terrible.
We crossed the bridge back to the east side of the estate at around mile 20. I did a quick assessment. My legs were a little crampy from the cold, but my feet were holding up well. The hat and hoodie I’d intended to wear for only the first few miles had instead stayed on for the entire race so far. I wasn’t exactly warm, but I needed a boost. As I approached the spot where I knew I’d have some friends waiting, I stripped off the hat and hoodie. My best friend held a sign that I read but didn’t comprehend at first. It would be a good half mile further down the road before my delirious brain processed what it said and chuckled.
Those last 6 miles …
One of my other friends joined in to help get me through those last 6 miles. I hadn’t hit the wall, but I was close. I alternated a run/walk to play it a little safe. At one of the last aid stations I noticed small cups full of Coca-Cola and gave it a try. And I must admit, that was the best damn Coke I have ever had in my whole life.
By this time the race had taken on a crazy sort of rhythm. The field was stretched out enough that it seemed never-ending in each direction. The ground around each aid station was littered with clear disks of ice from water freezing at the bottoms of the cups. Tourists were entering the estate to go explore the Biltmore, slowing down to stare at all us maniacs who came here to RUN like the bunch of stubborn masochists we are.
And that’s when I found myself winding around the path towards the parking lot. Spectators were all over the place. I could hear music and see the white tops of the tents. My GPS watch beeped for 26 miles and I growled incredulously at the obviously-more-than-0.2 miles I had left.
I crossed the finish line and gladly let a volunteer wrap me in a blanket. Right away I started shivering. I would later learn that the wind chill during the race often went as low as 8 degrees. Cold enough that I hadn’t noticed till the latter part of the race that one of my band-aids had fallen off hours ago. Ouch. My friends found me and we staggered towards the food tent. (Well, I staggered. They walked.) I got a couple of comments on the huaraches along the way, none of which rivaled the one I heard around mile 19 that went something like, “Did you see that tall sonofagun running in flip flops? What’s wrong with that fella?” I laughed as I recalled it.
A hunger inside (at the finish line)…
I promptly devoured a bagel, a banana, a donut, and polished off a beer before we headed to a nearby restaurant to get me a nice big sandwich full of meat.
My friends stayed behind to drink some wine at the estate while I went back to the hotel to shower. They found themselves chatting with a nice older lady who had run 1-2 marathons a month for 25 years, totaling around 280 (!!!!). She remarked that this Asheville race was one of the top 2-3 hardest she’d ever run. When they told me that story later in the day I felt much better about how brutal the run had felt.
I jotted down most of these recollections pretty soon after the race, so needless to say they’re a strange mix of grouchiness and utter elation. It was a tough race, yes — and there were some bumps along the road, both figuratively (some of the race information) and literally (@#%$ing rocks!) — but on the whole it was an amazing run with an interesting and very challenging course. I was glad I did it, and in huaraches. I know I’m rambling. And that all of this is overlong and excessively dramatic. But I don’t even care, because the little fat kid inside me is proud that I got myself to this point — and that’s good enough for me.