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Virginia Creeper Marathon 2021 Race Report!

26.2 Mile Race in Abingdon, Virginia on the Virginia Creeper Trail Race day weather: 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16C), 89% humidity, 9.6 mile winds, &heavy rain

Rewind back to early November 2020 when my two great Catfish teammates Stephanie, Allyssa, and I were discussing our frustration with the uncertainty of events and potential cancellations of big races we’d have to train hard for. Allyssa brought up that she really wanted to finish a marathon feeling good and at a decent pace before jumping into full Ironman training. I knew just the race! In the Blue Ridge Mountains, with parts of the Appalachian Trail running on it, lies an incredibly beautiful rail-to-trail project called the Virginia Creeper Trail. This rail line was once part of the Norfolk & Western Railway and was nicknamed the “Virginia Creeper” due to the slow speeds it traveled up and down the steep mountain grade to the mountain town of White Top.

*This was the day after the race - of course it was sunny*

We have an amazing running community in the Northeast Tennessee/ Southwest Virginia region of the USA, and the State of Franklin Track Club provides many great resources & races to runners. After casually talking both of my friends into driving 8 hours to meet up with me in my “neck of the woods” and a $15 race entry fee later, we were all 3 set to run the 2021 Virginia Creeper Marathon!

This is a very special race. It’s promoted as a “no frills” event, but you don’t get that feel when you hear all the volunteers cheering and supporting you along the way. There’s no t-shirt and no finisher’s medal, but you do get a cool paperweight! They limit the field of runners to 100 due to the remote nature and low key approach, which makes you feel like every other runner out there is your friend for the day. With the small field, remote location, and experience of the club for successfully hosting races throughout COVID in 2020, I was confident this race would not be cancelled. I used all of these are the pro’s to convince my friends to do this race… and I may have left out its reputation for being difficult (haha)

No accomplishment is as enjoyable when you take the easy route, and the Creeper Marathon carries a strong reputation for spitting out tough conditions on race day. Some years it’s snow, others it’s freezing temps, and this year turned out to be historic flooding with heavy rain most of the day. The race appears seemingly innocent, with a nice, smooth trail surface and a small elevation gain of around 1,000ft total. It’s a certified course and a Boston Qualifying time can be run on it. However, none of the past finishers would describe this race as “easy.”

As race day kept getting closer, we started getting more and more excited at the chance for a social weekend with our friends. A few months before the race, Stephanie found out she was expecting a little one and decided to be our support crew rather than taking a chance on a trail run. Race weekend came and we realized how much we missed hanging out with friends! Stephanie has a self-proclaimed reputation for bringing race day rain, so we blamed the weather on her.

All night long on the night before the race, we had thunder, lightning, and heavy rain. Just a few hours before race start, the thunderstorm seemed to pass and left us with just the rain, which thankfully was the case the whole race. We left our AirBnb around 7am and headed to the participant parking lot. Plenty of volunteers were helping to shuttle runners to the race start.

Around the race start were plenty of portable toilets and tents set up to shield tables, gear, and people from the rain. Frank Kibler, the Race Director, began his pre-race briefing around 7:50am, emphasizing what to expect along the course, turn-arounds, etc (and I couldn’t stop laughing at Joe Bainbridge’s sign during the briefing)

The race began with 2 miles on the road in an out and back format. Once reaching the central aid station area, the rest of the race was all trail, beginning with the long bridge on the way up to the Abingdon Old Railroad “Y”.

We tried to keep the pace a little slower on this 3.5 mile gradual uphill climb since we knew it would be easier to maintain a slightly faster pace on the downhill. It also helped to keep the pace easy to get a feel for footing on the trail.

There was another aid station on the way up that was very helpful! We were very thankful to reach the 5.5 mile turn around and start our downhill trek. There were several volunteers manning this turn around and recording runner’s bib numbers to ensure course credibility.

This pacing strategy ended up working well and we made in back into the central aid station at mile 9 right on our target pace with big smiles!

The downhill stretch from mile 9 to mile 13.5 is some of the most beautiful on the trail in my opinion. There’s so much diversity, with wooded areas near the river, vast farmland with cows, and so many beautiful bridges.

There was an additional aid station around mile 11 that came in super handy to refill my bottle and down a bit of Gatorade.

It always lifts your mood when you get a surprise and see your friends on the course!

It was a party at the 13.5 mile turn around! Richard Tyner was manning the aid station and taking the photos that all of us always enjoy seeing.

Bob Townsend along with a few others were manning the turn around at 13.5 and recording all the runner’s bibs here as well.

The feeling of being over halfway was fantastic, but the next 8 uphill miles was daunting. Allyssa had a very solid pacing strategy with a goal to maintain around a 9:10/ mile pace (I think!) on this stretch. The first few uphill miles ticked by easier than expected and we were ahead of goal pace feeling good.

We made a brief stop at the aid station at mile 18 to grab some nutrition gels and kept on moving! Both of us were keeping our nutrition strategies in check as this point in the race can be a make or break.

We continued on that slightly faster than planned pace through mile 19, having a great time with plenty of laughs.

The hill finally caught up to us around mile 20. This is when things got hard. We kept putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that the downhill would come in less than 2 miles. The feeling of hitting the 21.5 mile turn around was amazing though. It was at this point we realized we were on track to hit our sub 4 hour goal, and even had several minutes of wiggle room by just maintaining our uphill pace going downhill now.

Lots of trail sections looked similar to this. There was so much standing water and slippery mud, with rocks and sticks hidden in the dark soupy mess.

Seeing the final bridge leading to the central aid station at mile 25 was amazing! Our bodies were feeling the miles but knowing we only had 1.2 miles left and were minutes ahead of our goal brought a smile and thumbs up from both of us!

Mile 25.6… the final turnaround! Switching back to a slight uphill for the last 0.6 miles seemed harder than one would think. There was no chance of walking here – one foot in front of the other and the finish line was in sight!

Official finish time: 3 hours, 57 minutes, and 35 seconds for us both! Garmin recorded distance of 26.28 miles – we did well on running the tangents!

That finish line feeling was amazing! We managed our goal of sub 4 hours and almost 30 minute marathon PR!

So thankful to see our wonderful support crew bringing warm jackets to put on post-race.

I was suprised at the end to look down at my legs and see them so clean. I was quickly told that my backside didn't look as clean haha

I was super proud of my friends Chris and Annie for completing this crazy adventure. They’re training for a 50k in a month and had planned on an easy 24 mile training run this weekend. I convinced them a few days before the race that it would be more fun to run the Creeper Marathon in place of their training run. It probably took a few days but I think they agreed? Apparently being convinced to do these types of things is to be expected if you are friends with me haha

Last but not least, I need to again mention how much we appreciated the work of all the volunteers, race director, and State of Franklin Track Club in making this event happen every year. There are some really fine folks who put a lot of time and effort into seeing those smiling faces at the finish line.

Summary: Total “Great job!” given & received: too many to count

Total Gu’s consumed: 5

Total cups of Gatorade: 20 oz

Total water: around 20 oz

Total blisters: Zero!!

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