Many years ago, when I first started running, there was a full-page Nike ad that I clipped from a late 1970s-era Runners World. It showed a lone runner on a beautiful stretch of road, somewhere in the heavy forest of the Cascades. That photo spoke volumes to me, about the beauty and the solitude of running, of the connection with the great outdoors. That photo was how I saw myself as a runner – or the runner that I wanted to be – and it has long been my model of the perfect run. Sometimes, today, I run on roads like that one, in my adopted state of Colorado, and I’ve grown so accustomed to the scenery that I often don’t even notice it. But it’s different when I travel. The scenery is new again, and sometimes – when it’s a really good run – I take the time to look around. This past weekend, in North Carolina, I took the time to look around. And I know that if Nike had been born in North Carolina rather than in Oregon, the photo in that ad would have been taken on the twisty, windy, heavily forested roads of Highway 181, just south of a wide spot in the road called Jonas Ridge.
Lucky for me, David Lee, a member of the local North Carolina Brown Mountain Running Club, recognized the allure of this road; last year he organized the first Ridge to Bridge Marathon, all along the Highway 181 route from Jonas Ridge to Morganton. Lucky for me, a fellow Taper posted reports of the race on this forum, and I took the time to click on the “Photos” link on the event website. What I saw there was a pictorial description of a perfect run. Lucky for me, the marathon was such a success in its inaugural year that it was back again this year, accepting an even larger field – nearly 150 runners. Lucky for me, I am one of those runners.
When I arrive in Morganton, the host town for the marathon, late Thursday night it’s cold, foggy, and raining. Friday morning brings more of the same. But I’m determined to drive this course, because one of the most notable features of this race route – other than the spectacular scenery – is the huge drop in elevation. I’ve seen the elevation diagram on paper, but I want to see it in person before I set off early Saturday morning. Finding the race route is easy – with the exception of the final 1.5 miles, this race all takes place on Highway 181 – and I make the drive through the drizzly weather out to Jonas Ridge early Friday afternoon.
Even with the dreary weather, I know this is going to be a beautiful run. When I get to Jonas Ridge and turn around to drive the course in proper order, I adjust the radio station in my rental car. I’ve settled on a classical music station, and they’ve been playing pleasant stuff on my outward drive. As I start the drive back to Morganton, tracing the steps I will take in the morning, the station starts to play a new recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This symphony is long, and they are playing only the final movement: Ode to Joy. I’m not sure that a better piece of music exists. I know immediately that this will be a great race. I try to take note of each twist in the road, each big drop, each uphill, but it doesn’t really matter. I just know that this will be a beautiful run. The music swells on the car radio as I drive back into Morganton, and the rain lets up, and the sun emerges. This is really all I need to know to prepare for the morning.
Saturday morning wakeup call is an early 4:15, to allow time for breakfast and the bus ride out to the start. I’m staying at the Holiday Inn – the host hotel for the event – and, like pretty much everything else associated with this race, this morning’s breakfast is top-notch. The hotel has laid out a 4:30 a.m. buffet of bagels, cream cheese, pastries, fruit, juice, cereal, coffee: anything a marathoner might want. Fellow Taper Chuck joins me for the drive over to the finish area, where we’ll catch the bus to the start line. Chuck and his wife Allison invited me to join them for a pasta dinner Friday night, and already it feels like we are old friends.
Did I say everything associated with this race is top-notch? Just checking, because I can’t say it too often. The buses that take us from Morganton out to Jonas Ridge are not yellow school buses, but luxury liners with comfortable seats. The bus driver enjoys entertaining us, and between the banter and the chatter with new running friends, we are at Jonas Ridge in no time at all. At Jonas Ridge, there is a convenience store that has just changed hands, and the grand opening is today. The new proprietor has gamely agreed to host this small band of runners while we wait for the race start time. This is a real treat, as it is quite cold and dark outside, and quite warm and bright inside. And did I mention the flush toilets?
As I wait inside, I start to get into my pre-race zone. But then I notice Katie (“bit” on Taper Madness) prepping for the race. Katie was my inspiration for this race – not only did she run it last year, but she won the darn thing! I met Katie in Boston earlier this year, and when she sees me, she recognizes me, too. Funny how small the world is, and how comforting that can be. A bit later, I find Chuck, wandering around the cool and dark parking lot outside, getting into his own zone. It’s nearly race time.
Just before 7 a.m., David Lee leads us, Pied Piper-style, across the cold parking lot, across the road, and to the barely visible start line that has been spray-painted on the road in front of the Jonas Ridge Post Office. It’s still completely dark out, except for the bright light cast by the nearly full moon. Instead of the national anthem this morning, we get a prayer; somehow, it seems much more fitting. And then, just moments later, the start is sounded, and we are running.
It’s only a few steps until we’ve left what little light there is in Jonas Ridge, and we’re completely reliant on the moonlight – and the white lines demarking the shoulder of the road – to guide us. The race director has outfitted all of us with glow-stick bracelets, and with bright hand-held LEDs to keep us safe in these early miles. We’ve been instructed to run on runner’s left – facing traffic. We’re a very small field – especially when you take into account that a number of runners have availed themselves of an early start – so it’s no time at all before we are spreading out.
This is magical running. We are going (mostly) downhill, with a few small rollers up here at the start of the course just to keep us honest and to help us warm up. The moon is bright in the cloudless sky, and it’s a perfect temperature for running – high 40’s, I’d guess. I’m running with a long-sleeved shirt that I intend to ditch along the way, but for now it feels pretty darn good. The wind – what little there is – is at our backs. Who could ask for more?
These first miles feel effortless. I think “Ode to Joy”, and I know it was the perfect omen for today. I watch carefully for the mile markers, and there they are. I have to flash my LED at them for the first few miles, but once I know what I’m looking for, they are easy to spot. I can’t help but wonder why a tiny marathon can get the mile markers right, but some of the big marathons just don’t get it?
In the pre-race instructions, David Lee told us that the course has been measured using the “shortest distance” method, which means that if you stick on the side of the road (facing traffic, which he has asked us to do), you will be running more than the standard 26.2 miles. While running the tangents would be more efficient, it’s also more dangerous, since this public road is not closed to traffic during the race. I choose to go the extra distance – it’s just simpler, and doesn’t involve the risk of working the tangents. But early on, I get behind a few runners who insist on running the tangents. Only thing is, I don’t think that they really get the concept – that the straightest line through these curves will be the shortest. Instead, several people in front of me dart from side to side of the road. It’s more zigzag than tangent running, and it makes me very nervous on their behalf. At this early hour, there is not a ton of traffic, but there is enough. It’s a very dangerous strategy.
I run behind one couple for mile after mile after mile. He looks quite a bit older, with salt-and-pepper hair; she has some serious blonde hair and very flouncy pink shorts. They run side by side, and they dart back and forth across the road. They must think they are running tangents, but what they are really doing is running a zigzag version of the race course. I think that they are, in all probability, adding distance rather than subtracting it. I’m very nervous for them every time that they cross the road.
The early miles are all still in darkness, but the dark quickly gives way to daybreak. The first aid station – at mile 3 – comes while it’s still dark, but soon after that it’s getting light enough to see without our little LED lights. We’re in the country, and other than a few friends and family who follow runners down the road, there is really no fan support in this race. I’m happy with that – to me, this is running at its purest, its most joyful. Just a beautiful mountain road and my running shoes and a few friends. I don’t need much more to be in rapture.
On this race course, there are aid stations every three miles in the first half, and then every two miles after that. I’ve grown accustomed to aid stations every mile or two for the length of a marathon, so today I carry a bottle of water with me for the first half of the race. It’s cool enough today that I’m not so sure I really need it, but the biggest benefit is that it allows me to take gels when I want, not where the aid stations are located. It stays cool and humid for a long, long time, so dehydration is not a threat. When I come to the aid stations, I take water, even though I don’t really need it, and I end up spilling more of it on me than I consume. At the first aid station, David Lee is there, offering water, Gatorade, and encouragement. It’s clear that this race is a labor of love for him.
It gradually becomes light, in an early-Saturday-morning kind of way. There’s not a lot of traffic on this road, but a surprise is the amount of big rig truck traffic that passes us early on. It’s slightly disturbing, but then it’s gone. There is enough of a shoulder that we can run safely. The highway patrol keeps things under control by driving slowly up and down our stretch of road. Even the cops are friendly here – waving and smiling when they go by.
The road twists and turns, and somewhere around mile 7 or 8, a turn in the road has us running directly into the rising sun. Hello, sunshine! I reach up to my hat, and pull my sunglasses down. It’s still cool, but the sun is full-on. What a spectacular day!
The road is mostly downhill – and serious downhill in places – but it occasionally takes time to level off or head uphill a bit. On one of these short uphills, I pass Miss Pink Shorts and her white-haired mate. Pink Shorts seems very young, and is laboring way too hard going up this minor incline. I have a feeling that she is going to have a tough second half in this race. When we start back downhill, though, both she and White Hair blow by me like I’m standing still. But they dart back and forth across the road again, and I marvel at this strategy. For a while I lose them in the distance ahead.
Around mile 10, I ditch my long-sleeved shirt, and the temperature is perfect for my singlet and gloves. The race director’s wife is patrolling this stretch of road, and she drives by just as I take off the outer shirt. “I’ll take that for you”, she yells at me from an open BMW window. I toss the shirt in her general direction, but miss the window by about an inch. Lucky for me, somebody behind me grabs the shirt off the road and tosses it into the car, yelling ahead that I’ll owe him a fee later.
Just after I’ve abandoned the long-sleeves, our beautiful, full-sun autumn day takes a dive into a cloud bank. We round a corner in the road, and run directly into fog. Off go the sunglasses. It is wonderfully cool.
Through the halfway point, we run down, down, down. More than once, I think “this is pure joy”. There is no work in this running, only perpetual motion, fueled by gravity. Then abruptly, at mile 13, the road flattens out. It feels like it we’ve headed directly uphill. Even though I know this is not the case, and I’ve known that this upturn is coming, it changes everything. The work starts now.
My pace falls off considerably. I’ve passed the halfway point of this race in 1:51:47, the fastest that I’ve ever run a half marathon (later I’ll figure that it was just a second faster than my first half in Tucson last December). That’s an average of 8:32 per mile, and it has felt effortless. But now, mile 14 comes in at 9:29, and that will be my fastest mile until I hit mile 21. It’s a wake-up call.
The road remains beautiful: heavy forest on both sides of the road, changing leaves, low hanging fog. The field of racers has spread out considerably, and there are stretches where I see nobody else at all. I’ve left Pink Shorts behind as soon as the road turns upward just a little bit, and I’ve lost track of White Hair. Now Miss Purple Shorts decides to play hop-scotch. This woman passes me at a good clip, and then within ten minutes, I pass her back, as she stops to walk. This happens over and over again. Finally, around mile 15 or so, she goes by me one last time before I overtake her again. “You’ve been pulling me for many miles”, she says to me. “And you’ve been humiliating me for all those miles, blowing by me like that”, I return. “Well”, says she, “that’s about to end”, and truer words were never spoken. Her day is nearly done, and she does not pass me again.
My water bottle is nearly empty at the half, but I discover that it serves a purpose in addition to just supplying me with water. Now that I’m getting a bit tired, the sloshing in the water bottle tells me that my form is going off, and that I’m doing an imitation of a washing machine. I almost drop the bottle at the aid station at mile 12, but figure that this visual and audio feedback is worth the effort of holding onto the bottle. Finally, around mile 14, I drop it at an aid station. Running free!
Somehow, though, while I am running mostly on my own along this stretch, the next few aid stations come with crowding issues. At both miles 16 and 18, I am just getting set to make a pass when I reach the aid station, and in both cases, another runner stops directly in front of me. Ack! Don’t these people know that the last thing I need right now is to alter my stride. I show some restraint and I don’t swear out loud, but this annoys me all the same. There are too few people out here running to have crowding issues at aid stations!
The one Big Uphill of the day starts at about 16 ½ miles. I have started to hum the “Ode to Joy” theme to myself in these tough miles, and it propels me forward. How can you not be inspired by this music? The Big Uphill climbs about 300 feet over a mile and a half, with a false flat in the middle. I pass several people who choose to walk the hill. I take it slow – the only way that I can – but it’s not nearly as bad as I’ve been anticipating. Still, at 11:02 for the mile, it’s by far my slowest mile of the day.
After the Big Uphill, the course becomes a straight, rolling road again. Why does it feel like we go uphill far more than we go downhill, even though the uphills don’t look that long? Leading up to mile 20, a couple of guys pass me. It’s disheartening, even though I know that my pace has dropped off dramatically. Still, they are moving away fast enough that I know I need to let them go. As I approach the mile 20 aid station, I think, at least I won’t have anyone stopping directly in front of me. But one of the guys, who has passed the aid station long before I arrive, has a change of heart, and turns around. He runs back to the aid station and stops directly in my path. “Can I get a second cup of water?” he asks the volunteers, while forcing me to come to almost a dead standstill while reaching for the same cup of water. Sheesh – what is it with these aid stations?!?
The mile 20 aid station incident and a check of my watch both serve to spur me to pick it up. I’ve been working in these hills, but my splits have been slower and slower. At mile 20, I realize that there’s a good chance that I might not break four hours today if I don’t get my butt in gear. So I kick it up a notch.
I pull out every trick in the book to pick it up now. I hear “Ode to Joy” in my head, and I will the metronome there to increase the tempo. I count steps. I watch my heart rate climb. And I choose people to pick off. I wish I could say that this is all pure joy, but what it is is pure work. On a beautiful race course late in October, I remember how to work in the last miles of a race, something I was starting to lose after several slow-finish outings. Once my split times start to come down, that is pure joy!
The sun is shining now, and the air temperature has inched up. But we have a treat at mile 23 or so, with another nice stretch of downhill. I’m passing people now, finally, and it feels good. Near mile 24, we cross the road for the first and only time today, in order to make a right-hand turn off highway 181. Traffic has gotten fairly heavy (this is a beautiful race course, but maybe not one for people who are not comfortable running into heavy traffic), and the road crossing is scary, but – as it turns out – well protected by the local police force.
We run a few steps on a side road, and then are directed onto the greenway. What a welcome change! This is an asphalt bike path that parallels a river, and it is completely shaded. The huge canopy almost completely obliterates the sun, and the coolness is very welcome. I think “oh what joy!” This portion on the greenway does not last for long, and then we cross the bridge (remember, this is the Ridge to Bridge Marathon, right?) before heading past some soccer fields to the finish. Now there are a few fans, and there are people offering encouragement. Just before I turn the last corner to cross the finish line, I see Chuck and Allison, and they are cheering me on. I glimpse Chuck’s medal as I rush past, and I know that he has had a good day.
My own finish line comes at a time of 3:55:41, which I chalk up as a pretty darn good day. David Lee is there to shake my hand, but then he gives me a hug as I thank him for a well run race. Only a race director could welcome the chance to hug one sweaty body after another. The symphony in my head continues, over and over, while I take in the finish. Katie is the women’s winner again this year (setting a new PR and a new course record as well), and Chuck has turned in a pretty substantial PR. My time is not a PR, but it is good for a win in my age group, and a nice bit of hardware to take home. Happiness comes when you have a good day in a marathon, but true joy comes when everyone you know has an equally good day. At the Ridge to Bridge Marathon, it’s nothing but joy.