Back in August I was on the plane from the UK heading to North Carolina when I spotted a woman in an Asheville Marathon race t-shirt. I made a note to look into it when I arrived, just in case I changed my mind about never doing a marathon again. As it happened, the 2017 race coincided with my Dad’s birthday – a significant one, at that – and by January we’d signed up for the race and were planning a Great Smoky Mountains road trip, finishing in Asheville and, all being well, a little run around the Biltmore Estate.
I did what I’d consider to be the minimal amount of training for this race. I kept my weekly mileage low, trained over three months rather than the typical four, and didn’t even set myself a training plan. Having fallen out of love with running over the past year, I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself either mentally or physically. I didn’t even tell anyone – except my parents, my husband, and I guess also my four Strava followers – that I was planning to do a marathon. I thought of the long weekend runs as adventures aimed at exploring Durham, and did mid-week runs as and when I felt like it. As the weeks passed I steadily began to enjoy running again; with the pressure off, it became a pleasure to get out there in the sunshine and do something positive for myself. I had only two goals for the marathon: the first and most important was to enjoy it, the same way that I’d been able to enjoy the majority of my long Saturday runs. The second was to finish in under five hours, knowing that spending any longer than that on the course would probably mean that I hadn’t ticked the box for goal number one.
Fast-forward to March, we set off towards Tennessee in blazing sunshine. This is the first year that I’ve ever acquired clear tan lines by mid-February, and in fact I’d come to enjoy running in the heat (and by heat, I mean between 20 and 25C, with accompanying humidity – nothing too serious at this point). I felt ready-ish, and excited for the adventure ahead. As we were checking in to our hotel in the Smokies that evening, a weather warning came up showing heavy snow over the weekend, with 3-6 inches due to fall on Saturday night. It seemed inconceivable at that point; the next day I foolishly managed to get sunburn while hiking on the Appalachian Trail – the prospect of snow seemed very faint.
But indeed, we arrived in Asheville on the Saturday morning to extremely chilly weather, and by lunchtime the snow had begun. We settled in to our rather glorious hotel on the Biltmore Estate and tried to forget about the weather – I convinced myself that it was getting warmer and the threat of snow had surely passed. We tucked in to a concatenation of the few vegetarian options on the menu that night – bean burgers, potato wedges and asparagus – and I was a little nervous of the lack of simple pasta, and the fact that I’d been unable to resist the toasted croissant bun that came with my burger. Experimenting with new food during a pre-race meal is surely the first big no-no of marathon running. I was extremely nervous, and all intentions of a relaxed race felt impossible to summon. Despite the Egyptian cotton sheets and comfy bed, sleep failed me that night, too.
As promised, we woke that morning to a thick covering of snow. Luckily, though, the air temperature felt more bearable than the previous day, so I didn’t have to resort to wearing tights (which is good, since I didn’t bring any). The snow was still falling fast at the start line, and as we set off in the early morning light I wasn’t sure what to expect underfoot. It was a little slippy but the organizers had clearly gone to every effort to make the course safe. There weren’t as many runners as I expected, despite two races – the full marathon and the half – running together for the first 10 miles. But oh, it was magical. The estate is private, so it felt like a true winter wonderland, with untouched snow, no cars, and acres and acres of snow-covered woodland and rolling fields. It was a quiet first few miles, with many people stopping to take photos – you could see the delight on everyone’s faces: weather that had threatened to make this event horrendously uncomfortable had in fact made it truly special.
The first 10 miles passed like a breeze. I was running very comfortably, and slightly ahead of the 4;45 pacers which filled me with confidence. At one point I even entertained the thought of an unexpected PB. At mile 10 the marathon course veered off as the half marathoners headed back to the finish, and from here the course was on rather muddy trails. Nothing too serious compared to what I’m used to, but more ‘trail-like’ than I had expected. It wasn’t long after this point that the slipping around led to some serious aching in my hips. The aching in my hips then led to some negative thoughts. I stopped to walk. I considered turning back and finishing the half marathon instead. I almost did turn back and do the half marathon instead. I ummed and ahhhhed. The 4;45 pacers passed me. The negativity continued. I looked at my watch: zero. I had forgotten to start it! The pacers were long gone, I had no idea of my time, I was in pain, the half marathon finish was just there. I was in a very bad place for a couple of miles, until I reached an aid station. I had some water and the marshall said something kind enough to make my eyes well up with tears. I ran on, feeling revived and saw a sign by the side of the trail: ‘don’t wake up tomorrow wondering what more you could have done today’. Not normally a sentiment I’d be on board with, but I figured that I’d rather pull out at mile 16 than give up on my intended goal before it was truly over, and so I ran on.
As is always the case with marathon running, the low didn’t last long. We were soon in open country again, and the miles were passing quicker than I could count them. I was having a Really Good Time. A field of beautiful black cows watched on as we ran past – I greeted them, full of joy. The same went for the pigs basking in mud a couple of miles down the road. The Smoky Mountains framed the horizon, the sky was turning brilliant blue, and I no longer had any regard for the time. It turns out that running a marathon without any concern for time is so much better than any momentary happiness that a PB brings. Five hours of joyful running in a beautiful landscape: who could ask for more?
Shortly after I hit mile 20, I noticed that the finish line was only 100 meters or so away. It turned out that the last six miles were absolutely torturous, route-wise: an out-and-back, taking us three-ish miles away from the finish before we turned around to run back towards it again. At this point I passed my Dad, who looked about as awful as it is possible to look while still being alive. He was only 100 meters from the finish line, and I found out later that he was feeling very sick at that point. Pushing hard for 26.2 miles will do that to you, I guess. Shortly after this point I had what I think might be my biggest running achievement yet: I held a reasonably coherent conversation in French, 21 miles in to a marathon. We switched to English when I couldn’t remember the word for ‘uphill’ ( en montée, FYI), and spent the next mile or so laughing, joking, and wailing in despair. It really was torturous, but for me this is where the really amazing memories lie. As runners passed each other, they called out ‘Good job!’ to those heading in the other direction. Every single person smiled at me as we passed. One person shouted ‘Hey! Nice accent!’. It was a parade of the best that the USA has to offer: the friendliest, most encouraging, and most enthusiastic people around. It was infectious, and I could not stop smiling for a second.
I crossed the finish line with a huge grin, seemingly etched on my face for the previous 8 miles or so. With a time of 4;56 I’d achieved both of my goals, but really the sub-5 was only meaningful in that I was back in time for lunch and well ahead of the beer tent closing. This was my eighth marathon, but I don’t think I’ve experienced such an extreme level of joy and pride at finishing the distance before. The first thing I said to my Dad was ‘Oh wow, i’m so pleased with myself!’, and four days later the feeling remains. I smile when I remember the day. I think it felt so good because of the goal I’d set for myself: I proved to myself that marathon running can be about so much more than physical achievement and measurable goals. It can be about getting out there and having a good time, celebrating the goodness of people and sharing something amazing with other runners from all over the world. It also meant that I got to share something really great with my Dad, independent (for me, anyway) of the stresses of training and internal pressure.
We were awarded with the most wonderful wooden medals and a can of locally-brewed beer, which I drank in the ladies’ loos while waiting in line for the shower. I met some awesome women there, too: awesome people are everywhere, as it happens. I then tucked in to a PBJ toastie and the most delicious chunk of Biltmore banana bread with a cup of real English ‘hot tea’ while waiting for my Dad to stretch off. All of it feels so potent and important. It was perhaps the most important day in my American experience so far: a day when I really got to see the best of what North Carolina has to offer, and I got to say out loud to people ‘You guys are amazing!’ (which I did, numerous times). This race will say with me for a very long time. One of the most enjoyable races I’ve done, in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. If North Carolina lets me back one day I’m pretty sure I’ll be returning to the Biltmore Estate for this race.