Blue Ridge Marathon Tests Runner’s Endurance

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Runners Fred and Vanessa Wall stride side-by-side as they complete the Blue Ridge Marathon Saturday morning.
Runners Fred and Vanessa Wall stride side-by-side as they complete the Blue Ridge Marathon Saturday morning.

by Gene Marrano

Blue Ridge Marathon co-chair John Carlin may have had it about right the night before the Blue Ridge Marathon, when he emceed a program for runners who paid $19 to eat spaghetti and listen to racing legend Bill Rodgers. “You have signed up for a brutal, brutal marathon,” said Carlin, who used to run 26.2-mile races himself. “This is a bucket list marathon.”

Indeed, some might have felt like they were ready to draw up a bucket list after finishing the course – billed as “America’s Toughest Road Marathon” – which took runners over three summits, on Mill Mountain, Roanoke Mountain and in the South Roanoke neighborhood around Peakwood Drive. The Peakwood climb came late in the race, around mile 18, by which time many of the more novice runners were exhausted or were moving on rubbery legs.

“A very difficult beast of a course,” advised Carlin – more elevation gain than any other marathon in the United States. More than 7000 feet in total elevation gain to be exact.  In the end the overall winner was Karsten Brown, who drove down from Front Royal that morning for the 7:30am start. Brown’s time was 3:01.2 – almost an hour more than the record marathon times set elsewhere. But this was not the type of course where speed records are set. Only 215 men finished the race.

For the women, Lauren Bosshardt of Atlanta finished first in 3:32.46. The top runners in both the men’s and women’s races had an out of town flavor; the top area male runner (Dylan Turner, Daleville) was 8th, while the top female from the region – former Roanoke Star-Sentinel Editor Pam Rickard of Rocky Mount– was 11th.

“I’ve done about 25 marathons but this is probably my favorite,” said Rickard afterwards. She finished in 4:21.44, slowed up slightly by the few times she stopped to make a phone call or post a message to Facebook during the race. She’s in training now for an ultra run in the Gobi Desert of China that will benefit charity.

A day that started off fairly cool for the 7:30am start turned warm and more humid by 10, making the finish that much more difficult for runners. Before the race started a handful of ultra marathoners that had already run the course beginning at 2:30am finished it a first time to a round of applause, before lining up again to run the official race.

The more genteel half marathon, which scaled Mill Mountain but avoided Roanoke Mountain and Peakwood, was won by Andrew Kirk of Richmond (1:22.46) and by Sarah Glenn of Roanoke (1:29.52).

The night before, race director Ronnie Angell elicited some nervous laughter as he warned runners about what they were up against. “Your pain is our pleasure…we love that,” said Angell, who runs a business in Salem (Odyssey Adventures) that specializes in extreme sporting events.

Both Angell and Carlin had advice for the majority of runners that had no chance of winning the Blue Ridge Marathon, which was in its third year: “Enjoy yourself out there,” said Angell. “Take your time and enjoy the view,” added Carlin. That view, especially from the top of Roanoke Mountain, was spectacular at times for those runners who weren’t totally focused on just trying to make it up the hill.

Dr. Tim Maggs, a chiropractor who has consulted with the New York Giants football team in the past, was even blunter in his assessment of the course, which he toured by car before the spaghetti dinner. “It is sick,” said Maggs, a runner himself. Nevertheless he promised, “you’re going to be creating stories this weekend.” Success was all about getting to the starting line said Maggs: “you’ll figure out how to get to the finish line.” Almost 300 runners in all managed to do just that.

Rodgers, the winner of four Boston Marathons, four New York Marathons and a U.S. Olympic team member in 1976, admitted that he “had never run a course like this. I admire every runner – not just the winners of the race.” Rodgers, who signed autographs at the racing expo and packet pickup held at the Taubman Museum earlier in the day, said he no longer runs marathons himself.

“I wonder if I could do it,” asked Rodgers, pondering the Blue Ridge Marathon course. At the end of 26.2 miles those who had completed the course, many of whom were laying in the shade of the Taubman building, waiting for their legs to come back, knew the answer – they could do it…they just had. (Note: Star-Sentinel editor Gene Marrano finished America’s Toughest Road Marathon in 4:36:35, good for 113th out of 215 male runners overall. He agrees with Jon Carlin’s assessment of the course – brutal!)