Race Recap: Race 13.1 Roanoke Half-Marathon

Ever climb up almost 4,000 feet after running 13.1 miles?

After pacing the Coastal Delaware Half-Marathon in April (for which I did not write a review because it didn’t seem fair since I did not run as a paying customer), I decided that I wanted at least one more half-marathon for the spring. I’ve been focusing on building strength and keeping mileage under 20 miles each week, so I needed a way to test whether I was strong enough to start marathon-training. I know I am, but I needed to prove that I am. Coming back from an injury is a major mental mind block and it’s really hard to push past it when you’re finally able to return to running. Even though I had run numerous times and quite successfully, I needed something to show that I was back.

Going into this race, even though I wanted to beat my PR of 1:57, I knew that I just wasn’t there yet. I have been focusing on building strength and just cooling my heels when I run. I don’t need to prove anything right now; what is the rush? Especially when I haven’t had much of a break. I was just grateful to be running again and I knew the goals would come later. Right now, I just wanted to run with the gratitude that I can and know that I am a fighter. So I did not have a time goal for this race and I also had no real concept of when I would finish.

Why Run the Race 13.1 Roanoke Half-Marathon?

Race 13.1 Roanoke Half-Marathon Finishers Medal 2016 Photo Courtesy: Race 13.1 Roanoke

I decided to run the Roanoke Half-Marathon because it’s one of the last ones I could possibly run before the summer off-season starts. I’ve also never been to Southwest Virginia, even though it is on my list of places I want to visit, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to see the Blue Ridge Mountains and all the area has to offer. Also, I like the train on the finisher’s medal. It looks friendly, and it reminds me of that kids’ book where the train says, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” How appropriate that she’s saying that as she runs up a hill. Roanoke has a monster hill at mile 8. They offer a video preview of the course, and it looks like it goes on for a lifetime. I may or may not already know what my race mantra will be. Regardless, it will be good practice for the elevation roller coaster of Hood to Coast. The hills of the Baltimore Marathon did me in, but I needed to see that hills would not defeat me and keep me benched again.

Photo Courtesy: NPR.org, July 8, 2014

Race 13.1 is a relatively new race series (to me anyway, or at least I’d never heard of it), with events in the South and Mid-Atlantic, and the Roanoke 5K, 10K, and Half-Marathon is in its second year. Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t run the inaugural race in March 2015: apparently, there was snow and it was “slightly chilly,” which I’m taking to understand from the race director’s perspective as, “It was such a cold and miserable experience that we realize if we don’t move this thing to a balmy June morning, it ends here.” Smart thinking! The weather at start on a mid-June morning in the mountains was a balmy 57 degrees with around mid-70’s for the finish and sunny with little wind. They made the right call.

The race sponsor is Friendship Health, which is an area retirement and long-term care living facility. The course itself winds through some of the prettiest areas in the “Star City,” and along the Roanoke Greenway and the Roanoke River. I guarantee some of the website photos of running surrounded by the lush green of the Blue Ridge Mountains in summer will make you want to sign up. That’s what did it for me, and it’s good to know I got what I paid for. The course was stunning! The size of the race field is about 1,500 runners, so a decent spread. Since I was coming in from out of town, packet pick-up was available at Fleet Feet Roanoke on Friday evening and on race day morning. Race day registration is also an option, though you may not get a race shirt. The entry fee also seems comparable. By the time I signed up, I paid around $73 for the half-marathon. Also, if you are from the area, you can run this race as part of three to earn the Roanoke Triple Crown. We runners do love our extra medals!

Packet pick-up is held at Fleet Feet Roanoke.
Packet pick-up is held at Fleet Feet Roanoke.

Logistics-wise, this race was very well managed. Prior to the race, runners received several emails containing information on parking, packet pickup, post-race amenities, spectator spots, and almost anything else we needed to know. Parking was ample, so there was no bag check. There were plenty of port-a-johns at the start line with hand-washing stations available, and the Race 13.1 staff was very friendly and did a great job of pumping up the runners. And the volunteers were so friendly and helpful. When approaching an aid station and saying thank you, I got a, “Yes ma’am!” from the jovial volunteer. I mean, you’re in the South. There’s a reason why Southern hospitality is a thing! I feel like I was never out of the “know,” which I appreciate. Nothing to me is worse than not know what the heck is going on. And I felt very appreciated by all the volunteers who thanked us for running and cheered us on.

I mentioned this earlier, but I have to reiterate: the race organizers made an extremely good call deciding to move this race to mid-June. Perfect PR weather. They couldn’t have been more lucky and neither could we runners! Even in the places along the course where there was very little to no shade, I didn’t feel hot. Once or twice, running along the Roanoke River, you hit a muggy hot patch, but it wasn’t enough to slow me down. Major props on moving this race to a balmy summer day.

Usually it's just me and the medal celebrating a half-marathon finish!
Usually it’s just me and the medal celebrating a half-marathon finish!

The DJ also did a good job of pumping all of us up for the run, and post-race amenities were ample and delicious: halved bananas and quartered oranges, bottles of water, granola bars, and my favorite: lots and lots of Pizza Hut pizza! I couldn’t help but grab a post-race photo with a slice of pepperoni. I have to constantly discipline myself not to get Pizza Hut all the time, so this was definitely my kind of post-race reward. There was also a burger and beer truck at the finish line, but I didn’t see them as they were located in a field behind some trees next to the parking lot. I might have grabbed a burger and brew from them if I had remembered they were there, but also I had to get back to my hotel room for a shower before the 11AM checkout time. I’d maybe recommend the organizers situate them in the parking lot for next year so we remember they are there. Also, if you want your medal engraved with your results that come up almost immediately after you finish via text message, they have it on-site for $10. Also, as I mentioned earlier, parking is ample in a garage across the street, so if you bring your family to this event, you’ll likely have no problem dropping off your runner and getting access to your car with any little ones while you wait for them to finish.

The Race

The race started just after 7AM. My legs were feeling a little stiff and tired, so I knew I was not going to achieve a PR. I had also fallen asleep just after 3:30 that morning with a 5AM wake-up call so the fact that I did not DNF this race to get some extra sleep is in itself an accomplishment. There was a pretty heavy bottleneck of runners starting out, which is natural, but I was interested in setting a race pace early because I knew if I started out slow, I’d run the whole thing slow. The race is too small to have time corrals, and there were pacers available but I only saw them a few times. Early on in the race, the 2:00 pacer sprinted past me with no runners in tow and his sign was not held up for people behind him to see. I found that annoying.

The first 3 miles were flat and ran along the Roanoke River and the Roanoke Greenway, which is likely the local running and biking trail because there were bikers and other runners out using it for their own exercise. It’s also pure eye candy with beautiful June sunlight streaming through emerald leaves. Drink that in!

The fourth mile was when it started to get hilly, which I expected; however, there was one hill right away that so steep that it felt like my knees were going to hit my chest as I ran up it. It’s easy to let this hill kill your race since it’s early on, but it actually felt like my legs had woken up once I had reached the top. From there, the next couple of miles were mostly on a very steep downhill so you will make up your pace if you charge them, but I recommend using caution. They are so steep you might lose control. There is especially a very, very long and winding downhill around mile 5 and into mile 6. Take it easy on the downhills– it’s easy to charge down them but on this hill, you need to keep your bearings since there are multiple tight twists and you run over wooden bridges. The downhill also goes on for at least a half mile, so if you run this course, be prepared to use your core for stability. I’m writing this three days later and my abs and hip flexors are still hurting. I’m not taking it as a good sign.

For me personally, I tried not to look at my Garmin at my pace. I wasn’t running this for time and was instead focusing on staying mentally strong and keeping my form intact. However, I did clock a few splits around the 9:00 mark and it did make me proud. I felt very strong and was a little surprised that my breathing didn’t feel labored. I wondered if I could possibly push a little harder, but decided to keep my pace and rhythm instead and just stay consistent. I knew the downhills I had just run were going to come back and haunt me as massive hills so I needed to conserve my energy.

Around mile 7 was the turn-around, making it an out-and-back course. Remember that hill around mile 5? This time, you get to run up. And let me tell you: not a single soul was running up that hill. It was terribly, terribly steep. I did run it in a few places since I had known it was coming and trained accordingly, but it was so steep and tall that my pace barely took a hit from walking. That says something. But like other hills in life, it’s all in your mind and I can definitely say that I’ve climbed much, much worse hills before. It was a tough hill on a cool sunny morning, and it was hard but I felt like I never once lost my control over it. I was encouraged by that.

From miles 9 and onward, which were mainly flat again, I focused on staying consistent with my pace. I knew I was tired, I knew it felt hard, but my mental game was on point and I just settled into the moment and ran. I didn’t think about the finish. I thought abut stopping but knew I would likely not be able to hold my pace again. I just ran and tried to zone out, even though I knew I was fighting. I also had no idea what my pace or time was. I didn’t look because I didn’t want to panic if it was either really fast or too slow. In my mind, I was thinking I would finish somewhere around the same finish time I had for the March New York City Half-Marathon (2:03), but maybe a few minutes slower. I guessed a 2:06-2:08 finish.

My course splits
My course splits

Crossing the finish line, I was actually kind of stunned to see that I had finished in 2:12:59, or an average 9:43 pace. I felt as though I had run stronger than that. Maybe it was in my mind, since I generally ran based on how I felt and not by time. Granted, it was a hilly course that I ran on only an hour of sleep. Looking at my stats, however, I admit that I am a mix of proud and disappointed. Each of my splits were below 10:00 pace, except for mile 9 which was a wicked downhill that I ended up walking because I didn’t want to injure myself. Overall, I ran a very consistent half-marathon, so I can be proud of that part but I’m disappointed in my time because I felt like I was running faster than that. And that time is one of my slower halfs. Even when I say I’m not running it for time, deep down, I always want a good time that I can be proud of. But I wanted an assessment of my endurance and fitness going into training for the New York City Marathon and Hood to Coast, so I need to keep my perspective here. I’m in good shape for a good fall racing season.

Final thoughts on this race: Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It was a beautiful course, challenging but not impossible, fantastic volunteers and staff, great amenities, comparable in price, and located in a region of Virginia where there is no shortage of things to do. Consider putting this one on your calendar for next summer!

Read on for some of my suggestions on how to make the Race 13.1 Roanoke Half-Marathon, 10K, and 5K a weekend trip as well as my recommendations for accommodations and good eats. For a more comprehensive list, check out the Visit Roanoke website.

Make It a Trip

What I love most about out-of-town races is that I get to make it a mini-vacation. As I mentioned, I had never been to Southwest Virginia before so I had quite a bit on my plate that I wanted to see. If you’re the kind of runner who drags his or her family along to your races and makes a weekend of it, there is plenty to offer in this area and with this race. Check out my very non-comprehensive list:

What to Do When You’re Not Running:

  • The Natural Bridge in Virginia: Over time, a small creek cut through limestone rock to form a gorge that stands 90 feet high. The entire area has a lot of history, from the Native Americans who lived in the area and future U.S. Presidents who claimed the land and surveyed it. There is also a zoo, safari park, caverns, and and museums and it’s an easy hike through the woods to view Lace Falls. It’s easy to spend a day in this area as there are picnic locations and plenty to learn.
  • Mill Mountain and the Roanoke Star: Mill Mountain is home of the Roanoke Star which is lit at night and visible for 60 miles. From here, you get great views of the city and the valley in which it sits. You can also visit the Mill Mountain Zoo and picnic or walk around Star Park as well as explore some of the trails on top of the mountain.
  • Mountain Lake Lodge: I love the movie “Dirty Dancing,” and wanted to go visit Pembroke, Virginia to see where it was filmed. I didn’t actually get around to this, but it’s close enough to Roanoke to make it happen if you have the time.
  • Carvin’s Cove: I wanted to go here because it has 4 miles of the Appalachian Trail. You can also rent boats or ride horses as well as go for a bike ride, picnic, and fish. It’s also very close to the city of Roanoke, making it an easy and fun half-day trip.
  • McAfee Knob: If I had a Virginia bucket list, this would likely be within the top 2. It’s one of the most photographed and thus recognizable places along the Appalachian Trail with a cliff that juts out over the Catawba Mountains. Perfect for selfies. I’m glad I didn’t actually go on this hike as it is 4.4 miles to the ridge and a steep incline. My 1.5-mile hike up Sharp Mountain in trail running shoes was hard enough. I definitely plan to go back at some point, hopefully this summer.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway: Driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains is like a dessert bar. There is so much to take in that you don’t know where to start, but you know it’s going to be delicious. The views are unbeatable. I absolutely recommend taking this route. Bonus: I even spotted a black bear crossing the road!
  • Sharp Mountain and Buzzards Roost : On my way back to DC, by way of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I spotted a parking lot in front of a path leading up one of the mountains. Curious, I pulled over and realized that getting to the top of the mountain was about 1.5 miles of hiking and 90 minutes round trip. So, yes, I climbed and was rewarded with spectacular views of the Peaks of Otter and the entire Blue Ridge valley. Well worth it, but definitely have hiking gear on hand. It was a stiff and steep climb up as well as coming down.
  • Smith Mountain Lake: About an hour south and east of Roanoke is this gorgeous lake where you can camp, hike, boat, swim, and relax. Perfect way to relax after running a half-marathon. And I couldn’t get over the water and how clear and blue it was. I almost felt like I was on a tropical lagoon!

Where to Foam Roll:

  • Somewhere to hang your hat: There’s really no shortage of hotels in Roanoke and its surrounding cities. I stayed in Troutsville, just north and west of Roanoke, and it only took me about 20 minutes to get to the race start.
  • If you want an experience: Peaks of Otter Lodge, the Natural Bridge Hotel
  • If you would rather rough it: I can’t even begin to list all the places near here where you can rent cabins or go camping! Just know that you can.

Where to Carb Load:

  • For a lively atmosphere: Blue 5 Restaurant in downtown Roanoke. I ate their Garden Pasta with shrimp and had a side of mashed potatoes and corn muffins.
  • For a quiet, refined atmosphere: Leonore Restaurant
  • If you prefer to carb-load with beer and bar food: Big Lick Brewing Company
  • Local, Southern fare: Thelma’s Chicken and Waffles
  • Where to caffeinate: Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea
  • When you get a PR: Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint

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