Race: Asheville Marathon
Location: Biltmore Estate, Asheville, in the hills of western North Carolina
Time of Year and Weather: Sunday in March. Weather on Saturday was perfect for walking around — in the 70s and sunny. Weather on Sunday for the race was a bit cooler (but still warm) and raining — hard, at times. I wore a tanktop, shorts, and a hat.
Size: This is a small race, with 500 marathoners. The half marathon, held on Saturday (love that it wasn’t on the same day!!!), had 1288 registrants.
Getting There and Where to Stay: We drove down 7 hrs. from DC on Friday, two days before the Sunday race. If doing this route, there are a few nice towns to stop in to stretch the legs and get some food: Harrisonburg, VA; Roanoke, VA; Abingdon, VA (home of the VA Creeper Marathon); Bristol, VA/TN. If you need to fly, there is an Asheville airport and four other regional airports relatively nearby. Larger airports in Atlanta and Charlotte are a bit of a drive but might make sense logistically.
My mom and I rented a basement apartment on AirBnB, which was great because it had a little kitchen and was less expensive than the race hotel. Also, we got to choose the location! The race hotel, the Doubletree, was very convenient to the Biltmore, but not so close to downtown Asheville, River Arts, or West Asheville, all places we wanted to check out. I’ve used AirBnB several times and have always been pleased.
Expo and Swag: The expo was surprisingly big, although the flow of traffic was a bit confusing. I think we made it to all the appropriate stops, and we even got free tubs of hummus from local food purveyors Roots. The samples tasted great, and the ladies reppin’ at the expo were so friendly. There was other good swag in the bags and at the expo, including long sleeved tech tees, headphones, gloves, chapstick, and some Tide pods.
After the race, finishers get a neat wooden medal and a fleece blanket, which was a really nice touch. Post-race snacks included crackers, bagels, bananas, Moon Pies, and trail mix. And there was no line for food! There was apparently something called a “finisher bag” but I didn’t get one and don’t know what was in it. (Like at the expo and pre-race, the proper flow at the finish area was unclear.) UPDATE: The race organizers clarified that the “finisher bag” was just the clear bag we got at the expo, which could be used for bag check. WHEW! Glad I didn’t miss any swag.
Race Morning Logistics: This race was the morning after Daylight Savings Time began (i.e., we lost an hour of sleep). I got up at 5:35, had a piece of homemade bread, Justin’s honey peanut butter, and a banana. I also had a coffee and some last sips of water and Nuun. We left the house around 5:55 am. There was a $10 shuttle from the hotel available, but since we weren’t staying at the hotel and had a car, we drove ourselves about 15 minutes to the entrance gate. We showed our tickets (spectators must purchase a $23 spectator ticket; entrance into the house is an additional $29) and were within the Biltmore walls well within the 6:30 deadline. From the entrance, the parking and start area are about another 15 minutes. All said and done, we arrived with plenty of time. If I did this race again, I would probably leave home a few minutes later and not arrive quite so early, but either way, morning logistics were easy for this one.
Once at the parking area, we were a little confused about where the start was and where we should be hanging out. We found an information tent so my mom could get a map and then we ended up walking the short distance to the “village.” At the village, we found a good number of people hanging out, drinking coffee and having snacks from the cafe, and using REAL restrooms. There were seven or eight different bathroom options, at least two of which were real bathrooms (!!!). Lines were mostly short. Do not wait in line at the porta potties down by the start! I tried out all the bathrooms, as I desperately tried to fully empty my bladder before the start (success!). A few minutes before the race start, we were called to line up (easy for this small of a race). I liked that there weren’t a million announcements before the race. Just the national anthem, and then we were off!
Terrain: Rolling hills split between “gravel” paths and pavement. There were way more gravel miles than I expected. Also, I had expected the gravel to be finely crushed and pressed, but it was actually really rough gravel with lots of bigger pieces that I could feel underfoot and that disrupted my stride. Needless to say, that wasn’t my favorite. And then there was the mud… Rain was sprinkling by the start and turned to a full on downpour for much of the race. I didn’t mind the rain, but it resulted in mud-run conditions on the paths. Yikes. There is nothing so disheartening as to be on mile 14 of a marathon and to feel your feet sinking into mud with every step. Plus trying to dodge the puddles. I tried to not focus on all the energy I was wasting or how wet my feet were, but to be honest, I was nervous about whether my legs would last the whole race because of the footing challenges. Most of the mud was just goopy and wet, but some spots were slippery and I had to move over into the grass. There were also some hills on course, but they were mostly in the first few miles and were balanced with some nice flats and downhills (unlike the Mississippi Blues Marathon which just felt like hill after hill after hill).
Course: Setting aside the footing issues, this course was probably the prettiest I have run so far. Most races, even if pretty in for most of the course, have inevitable ugly sections through industrial or commercial areas. Not at the Biltmore! This was like running in a big park the whole time. Turns were well-marked and manned with friendly volunteers (thanks!). There were plenty of water stops with an array of beverages and some snacks (Gu, oranges, bananas). I had my own salted caramel Gu around the halfway mark (yup, just one the whole race…), an orange segment near the end of the race, and Nuun at most of the water stops. Although spectators congregated at a few key spots (such as the bridge), this is not a race with a ton of signs and bands along the route. That is fine for me but I know others like that crowd support. The mile markers were off according to my watch, starting with the first one, which was about 0.2 miles long. When I finished the race, my watch was at 26.5. Not sure if others also showed the course long.
How It Went: I finished in 3:53:49, good enough for third in my age group (yay small races!). I didn’t hit my A goal (3:45), or my B goal (3:51), but given the conditions, I was happy with being well within my C goal (4:00). Once we hit the first gravel section, I knew the A goal was unlikely, and once we hit the mud, I felt OK letting go of the B goal, even if it was a little disappointing. I ran a good portion of the race hovering around the 3:50 pace group but not explicitly running with them. (True confessions: one of the 3:50 pacers was my pacer from the Mississippi Blues Marathon, and although he is super nice and really energetic — which is great for a pacer — I just really didn’t feel like running with someone with that much enthusiasm this time — maybe it was the peaceful surroundings — so I tried to stay a little ahead of or behind the pace group.) I slowed down a little toward the end, once I knew my legs just didn’t have enough to get in under the B goal. (Maybe I should have run longer on those training runs?) Throughout the race, I tried to remember what I learned at the UVA Speed Clinic and worked on keeping my ribs and stomach in, allowing my shoulders to come more forward.
Here are my splits:
Overall Impressions: Beautiful course, cool town (see below), pretty easy race logistics, friendly volunteers, and above-average swag. A few negatives (footing, confusing expo), but if you are just looking for a nice run and aren’t trying to hit a specific time goal, this one is a Love It.
Things to Do and Places to Eat in Asheville: Asheville is a GREAT city and I highly recommend visiting whether you’re running or not. I’d been there twice before but got to see even more on this trip. Our first stop was Wicked Weed for some food. Asheville has a huge beer culture, and this place shows off some of the craft beers of the region, but of course I didn’t have any. I got the black bean burger with pimento cheese and picked okra for $9. (I love the South.)
Next, we headed over to AWESOME music venue The Orange Peel to see one of my favorite bands, The Steeldrivers, who just happened to be in town. Tickets were sold out but we got them online about a week beforehand with a hefty markup. Still worth it! The Orange Peel is a mostly-standing venue so expect to be on your feet. That said, there isn’t a bad standing spot in the house. And beers are $3.50. (No, I didn’t have any.) At this point in the trip, I texted my husband to tell him we should move to Asheville.
The next morning, we headed out on a walk to downtown. On our way, we stopped at Biscuit Head, a VERY cool breakfast spot hidden near the hospital. My mom and I each got a Classic — egg and cheese biscuit sandwich with a choice of side. I got the veggie chorizo, which was a bit too salty for me, but the biscuit sandwich filled me up anyway. I also got a giant orange juice to make sure I was covering all my carby bases. My mom chose the coconut collards for her side, and they were really good. The staff here was really friendly.
Next, we stopped at Lexington Glassworks, which sells lovely blown glass objects and does demonstrations. After that, we walked around downtown, where shops feature arty things and outdoorsy things and hippy things. Oh, and lots of food, but we had just eaten biscuits.
After all that walking, I really needed a break, so we headed back to the apartment for some rest and a snack. I ended up taking a nap while my mom checked out the super-cool River Arts District, where you can stop in to working artists’ studios and shop for finished pieces.
For dinner, we went to also super-cool West Asheville and hit up King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffles. Despite the name, there were lots of veggie options!
When we got home, I decided to ice my ankle, which was a little irritated by all the walking (especially in my new zero drop shoes, which I will write about soon). We watched the ACC Championship and went to bed. (Luckily the ankle was fine in the morning.)
During the race, my mom checked out the Biltmore (again, entry to the house is not included in a spectator ticket) and really enjoyed it. She said that there was a lot to see, and she had a tough time balancing her desire to look at all the ornate ceilings vs watching me run. There was a lovely winter garden on display but the full outdoor gardens were not yet in bloom. After the race, I got cleaned up and we headed back home, with a stop at the Bristol Taco Bell for some vegetarian bean burritos on the way.
Has anyone else run the Asheville Marathon? If so, what did you think? Have you ever run a race where the scenery made up for some other negatives of the race? Oh, and what I should I be running next???