State #6: Kentucky (Running Through Feudin’ Country)

The Hatfield-McCoy reunion marathon was by far one of my favorite races I have ever run to this day; the race director, David Hatfield, was a direct descendant of one of the feuding families. The History Channel miniseries had made it more popular than ever that spring, and the race had more runners from all over the country than it ever had in years past.  The race motto was “No Feudin’, Just Runnin’”, and the crossed shotgun logo made it very clear that this event was going to be one for the books!
The Weather Channel listed it was one of the World’s 15 Toughest Marathons, so I had zero aspirations to run this one fast. As you can see from the elevation chart, it’s not exactly flat or fast, and the hills are far from gentle:
That enormous spike in elevation is when the runners get to climb Blackberry Mountain, and sites of the famous Hatfield McCoy feud are all along the course. Not only was the course scenic, but you ran through small pieces of history!  They even assign you a “family” and divide the runners into two teams: Hatfields and McCoys. Whichever team had the best overall finish times would win the feud that year. It looked like a total blast.It took place within two gorgeous states, West Virginia and Kentucky; the runner could decide which state this counted as if they were a fifty-stater. I decided this would count as my Kentucky state, and while I am really wanting to return to West Virginia to run Freedom’s Run, I am fairly certain I will be returning to run Hatfield-McCoy in 2014 since I have a few friends that are dying to see this course for themselves, so it may just become my West Virginia state medal as well.After some research I realized there was zero chance of me finding food in the remote area of West Virginia where we stayed. I packed an enormous cooler with tons of gluten free fare, was assured by the hotel they could accommodate my needs for a fridge and microwave, and we were on our way. There was zero chance of a glutening before this event!

The day before the race Chris and I did a self-guided Hatfield-McCoy driving tour and stopped at various sites of the feud. Since the course followed much of this same route, I saw what I was in for: massive hills to climb, and very steep drops to hold the brakes as I crested the top.  The course was marked with spray painted blue “hill-billy footprints” (their words, not mine) on the pavement so you wouldn’t get lost on the course. It was that remote.

The Race: First Half
This was by far the smallest marathon I had ever run. The race had about 510 runners, mainly 2/3 being full marathoners.  There was very little in terms of glitz and fanfare, and it was exactly my kind of race.  The race started on a cool foggy June morning in the parking lot of a grocery store; after the race director said a prayer  he let off a shotgun to start the race.It was a great start to the morning.  The air was really cool and crisp, lower humidity than I expected, and the temps were maybe in the low 60s.  Not ideal race temps but still very pleasant, it was almost like a training run.I resolved to start off slow and hold back, and overall I think I did a good job.  My first mile was 8:38 and the second was more like 8:20, and soon I kept that pace for a good portion of the first half.  I met some folks from Indiana and we chatted amiably; there was a great group of runners around us, everyone was friendly and chatty, no PR pressure since a BQ time wasn’t even possible because the course was not certified. Everyone wanted to ask where the other was from, runners were smiling, laughing and having a great time.  Lots of Marathon Maniacs and 50 State Club members were on the course, and those kind of participants mean that this is truly a race to run simply for the love of running.

The friendly folks from Indiana passed me eventually, as I was trying to stay slow.  The course was pretty uneventful in the beginning, you run on Route 119 where cars are passing, the course was never really closed off to traffic entirely, and eventually you get off the road to a more rural setting.  Lots of people sitting on their porches cheering us on with dogs barking in unison to our footfalls. We were TRULY in the South, but it was GREAT.  So many friendly people!  Beautiful scenery, lots of sparkling brooks and rivers, lots of hills, rocky cliffs and fields, just absolutely gorgeous.  You really did feel like this was God’s country. The air was so fresh and clean, it was such a nice respite from big city races.

The waterstops were plentiful to the point where I couldn’t drink at every stop or my stomach would have burst, but it was wonderful.  They always had water, ice and gatorade, and there was one stop for every single mile.  Some stops were even themed for the Hatfield and McCoy feud, which really brought out a laugh or two.  EVERYONE was encouraging, sweet and couldn’t be friendlier.  I grew to love the south REAL fast!

By the time I got to the Blackberry Mountain hill, I knew it was serious.  I pretty much just kept quiet and marched up it, never once walking, and I even passed the people from Indiana.  Being from hilly Pennsylvania has its advantages!   I got to the top and managed to hit Mile 7 in maybe an hour and change.  It was tough but definitely not impossible.  Once you get to the top there is a 900 foot elevation drop and it is SCARY steep.  You really, really need to put the brakes on your speed or risk toppling on your face.  And it was LONG.  I felt like we went downhill forever!

I ended up running the rest of the half portion with a nice first-timer from Kentucky.  He did well, and marveled at how anyone could run 26.2 miles.  He was really friendly and made me feel “fast”, LOL.  I showed him some points along the course that my husband and I drove on the day before, you pass many points that marked the feud between the two families.  I also got to see several Shetland ponies that people put out alongside the course for us.  It was really neat, just so rural and pretty, and unlike any race I ever ran.

The finish line for the half was in a very small historic mining town in Matewan, West Va.  This town is somewhat small, and there were just a handful of spectators, but ALL of them had smiles and cheers for us.  This race was nothing like anything I had ever run, expect maybe Harrisburg (that course was just as sparse, but could not even compare in beauty).  I said goodbye and congrats to my running friend from Kentucky as he ran through the finish chute for the half marathoners and I moved on.

The Second Half

I am not kidding when I say I pretty much ran the rest of the race alone.  It was like a training run.  I passed several people and we sort of nodded and cheered eachother on, but it was starting to get warm and the sun had burned away any of the lingering humidity.  The shade was sparser and it got a little tougher, but I felt like I still had some fuel in the tank.

This race had a lot of firsts: I actually ran into several dogs just sort of wandering the road.  That was a little scary, as I had been bitten by an unleashed dog several years ago and it sort of spooked me whenever I saw them roaming alone.  But they just looked at me curiously and I ran past without even a bark from them.  The course then ran into probably some of the rockiest trail I had ever run, which was a point of dismay and complaint for a lot of runners, but not me!  I absolutely love trails!  I see it as a dance with the terrain, you have to know exactly where to put your feet in order to keep the right pace.  You really, really need to watch it or risk tripping on a root or rock and falling on your face.  It was great though, and lasted several miles.  I loved that part, but I read in years past that it could get VERY muddy.  Luckily it was a dry summer so the course wasn’t very muddy at all.

The trail course in the woods suddenly ended and popped me out onto…a golf course!  I was literally ON the green!  I missed my sharp right hand turn and, laughing, ran on the green until I could safely get down the hilly terrain to the pavement.  Luckily there were no golfers or I could have easily ruined their game.  Then you get to cross a wooden swinging bridge, straight out of Indiana Jones.  It would have been fun running alone across it, but there were two other guys with me and we really had to watch our step, it was like running on a wooden trampoline.  We whooped and hollered like little kids and had a blast getting across, but I won’t lie that it was a little scary!  Especially at Mile 18 when you are JUST starting to wear out.

The remainder of the course was pretty uneventful.  I passed the McCoy house where a lot of the elderly descendants were on their rockers cheering us on from the porch.  One little old lady saw me and yelled at the top of her lungs “You GO BABY!” It really made me smile. The water stops came just at the right times by this point.  One stop had kids handing out full bottles of water and powerade, so I grabbed a water bottle and ran with it for several miles so I didn’t have to stop.

At the tail end of the race, there was ONE last steep hill around Mile 23…in full sun.  I audibly complained with a laugh “You have GOT to be kidding me!” and started trudging up it.  I suddenly realized there was NO way I could run this, I was just too worn out.  I walked it.  And I wasn’t the least bit ashamed.  I still had a sub-4 time within my grasp and felt OK with it.  Getting to the top of the hill there was a spray painted message to the runners on the road “Last hill, we promise”.  Ha ha.  Gotta love a sense of humor this late in the game.

The walk actually rejuvenated me a bit and I continued on.  I knew once I hit Route 119 I would be home free, and by Mile 25 I saw I had around 15 minutes left to make sub-4.  I was going to make it!  It actually made me feel better and I sped up and encouraged the people I passed that were forced to a walk.  Trust me, I don’t blame them, the conditions, while not horrible, were not great.  No shame in walking as long as you can finish.

Finally the finish was approaching, I was back on 119 and passed fast food joints, strip malls and lots of cops directing traffic to ensure our safety.  I crossed the state line from KY back to West Va. and entered the final stretch.  My husband Chris saw me and took pictures.  I was all alone and I saw him motioning enthusiastically for me to RUN!  I was very close to a sub-4 and I think he really wanted me to hit that goal.  I crossed the finish line jubilantly, getting to high five actual Hatfield and McCoy descendants (holding their shotguns and wearing 1880’s era attire), the crowd was cheering, and I got an ice cold towel draped around my neck, a medal, and a bottle of water all within 20 seconds.  The finish line spread had so much fresh fruit, as a celiac I was thrilled to see I could actually enjoy the food!  I grabbed a slice of watermelon and basked in the fact that I was DONE, and in the shade.

We had to wait a bit for our awards, each finisher gets a Mason jar with their place number on it, so we had to wait for the guy with the laptop to come and let us know how we placed.  I talked with several other runners to pass the time, and it was amazing how many of them saw me, and told me I looked strong.  It was encouraging!

Finally I got my place, 43 out of 261.  Ehhh, not bad I guess? I came in 13th out of 117 women, which was really a morale boost!  The girl who came first for my age group was from Colorado.  Ha!  I knew there was a trick to it, made sense.  High altitude training obviously makes you faster and more resilient at sea level.  They announced that I placed  third out of 13 women in my age group! I got an award and it was the first time I ever won ANYTHING and I was grinning ear to ear as they handed me my plaque.

So who won the feud that year? I was made an honorary McCoy for this race, and even with my finish time, sadly the Hatfields took it by storm; I am hoping I can someday return to be an honorary Hatfield…after all, with a guy like Devil Anse on your side, how can anything go wrong?

My Results

Finish Time: 3:58:37
Overall Place: 43/261
Sex Place: 13/117
Division Place: 3/13

What I Learned from this Race

  • Never sell yourself short! I had pretty low expectations for this race, since it was so hilly, and in Kentucky and West Virginia in JUNE, a lot of things should have gone wrong for me that day after I fell apart in DC, but instead I exceeded ALL of my expectations. The ones where I assume I will PR oftentimes end less favorably, and then the ones that appear so difficult sometimes end up being the best races. You just NEVER can tell.
  • Walk breaks can sometimes really give you a little break that you need to keep the stamina going; I oftentimes walk through water stops for just a few seconds to give myself a break, and that might be all I need to recharge my battery. I don’t like to walk up hills, I usually attempt to run up them and give it my all, but this race I had to walk it or break down, and in the end it was just what I needed for that final push.
  • This small town race was by far one of my all-time favorites, and I am really drawn to smaller races of this caliper. There is so much heart and enthusiasm, and we felt so welcome (in fact, we were invited inside the historic McCoy home where the log cabin walls still stood inside the structure) and really, truly enjoyed the visit. Definitely looking forward to my next visit, where hopefully I will see my name on one of the welcome back signs along the racecourse!
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