Boone, North Carolina, USA
BLT #32 for Calendar Year 2019
Strava Link | Garmin Link
Short version: All the beauty (and climbing) of a mountain trail race, but lots of blind corners on mountain switchbacks.
After landing in the Charlotte airport there’s a 2 hour drive to Boone. Named for pioneer/explorer Daniel Boone, the city is the hub of what is known as High Country in Western North Carolina. The surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains kept making me think I was in West Virginia, but a lack of sleep probably didn’t help either. Boone is also home to ASU, Appalachian State University, whose Kidd Brewer Stadium marked the beginning of our race.
Due to construction the stadium parking structure was closed, but nearby parking was easy enough to find. Of course what passes for nearby before the marathon often feels impossibly far away after. Race day packet pickup was available so I retrieved my shirt and bib. Of note is that there is a $5 shuttle bus ticket required to return to the start for this point-to-point race. It was sold separately on the registration page, but it seems I had the presence of mind at registration to buy it. I suppose there is a certain number of people whose family are going to pick them up at the finish, but I just don’t get why you wouldn’t roll this into the registration. Note to race directors: I don’t think I’m being a prima donna here when I say if you run a point-to-point race it’s your responsibility to get me back to where I started.
We start on the track of Kidd Brewer stadium for a loop and a half before exiting the complex and heading immediately out of Boone, and into the mountains. The city portion of this road race would last perhaps a mile and a half. After that mile and a half I started chatting with a man named Kevin Townsend and quickly learned that he is the Race Director for the Iron Mountain Trail Run in Damascus, Virginia. We would spend the remainder of the race together talking everything from vaccines, to races, to parents, to politics. I seldom spend so much time with one person on a course, but when I do I find the miles go by like nothing.
I must mention the road on which we are running is open to traffic, and while many of the people driving by were careful and switched lanes, or if there was another car waited until it passed to swich lanes, this race has the potential to be very dangerous. Runners enchanted by pretty surroundings, or crossing the road for a few aid stations that are on the other side or careless drivers coming around blind corners could cause the a serious accident. We were instructed very clearly to run opposing traffic in single file on the extreme of the road, but it could still be a little tricky. Fortunately most drivers on the Blue Ridge Parkway, of which this race uses several miles, are accustomed to a slower paced, relaxed drive.
At about mile 13 there begins a 3 mile climb of about 600 ft, probably the most significant climb of the whole race. This stretch is on a rocky dirt road that I could have done without, but it was only for a few miles. Everything else was paved, though as the day wore on it began to get warm. Fortunately the aid stations were well stocked with ice cold Gatorade, water, smiling faces, and watermelon with mint—seriously, with mint. Who does that? Volunteers are awesome! Far and away though the best aid station was the western themed one at about mile 21. Cardboard cutouts of Clint Eastwood, a cardboard cutout of a horse, a mannequin “sheriff” guarding a cardboard “jail,” and volunteers in cowboy hats handing out their wares.
Finally we approached the finish, at MacRae Meadows near Linville, we can hear bagpipes. The finish is at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, where local Scotsmen and women get together under tents representing their respective clans. So many kilts, sporrans, tam o’ shanters , and bagpipes it was a bit of a blur, but the timing officials on the track got us a medal and hustled us off the track to that the official opening of the Highland games could begin with a march of bagpipers from North Carolina State University.
I hung around the finish to see a few cabers tossed and hammers thrown, but the sun was rather relentless and I wanted to beat a hasty retreat to somewhere I could get a shower. That meant taking the $5 shuttle from the highland games back to a parking lot meant for attendees to the games, and then another shuttle for the marathoners from that parking lot, back to the university lots where our cars were parked. If I needed to make an early flight out of Charlotte I would be somewhat concerned about this arrangement, and Uber and Lyft aren’t really much of a thing in this section of hill country, so keep that in mind if you’re planning on doubling with something.
This race bills itself as “one of America’s toughest marathons.” It is challenging, but I wouldn’t necessarily place it even in my top 10 most challenging marathons. There is 2500 feet of total elevation gain, but only about 900 from start to finish. Volunteers were great, and the course is beautiful, but I am concerned about safety with the blind corners. I doubt I would return to this race again, but I’d give it a B-. I am getting a bit tired of the mountain climbing genre of marathons. Unfortunately I have at least 2 more to come in Montana.
Fun fact: Nearby Mount Mitchell in the Pisgah National Forest, about 50 miles Southwest of the finish in Linville, is the highest point East of the Mississippi at just shy of 6,700 feet.