To cross state number 7 off the list, Aaron tackled his most challenging marathon to date, the very hilly and tough Morgantown, WV Marathon.
Race Background and Training
On our way home and while still feeling the post-run high from the 2017 Run for the Ranch Marathon in Springfield, Missouri, I registered for the Morgantown Marathon on January 1, 2018 when registration first opened. With Morgantown, WV only being 2.5 hours from our home, this would be a quick easy one-night trip to cross a state off the list for my 50 marathons in 50 states challenge.
Throughout the next few months I would occasionally see posts from the race’s Facebook page containing the hashtags #runmotown and #yesitshilly. I did not think much of it being as I train in the rolling back mountain roads of Winchester, VA and everyone seems to have their own perception of what is hilly and what is not. Coming off of the Lake Placid 2018 Marathon in June 2018 which had 800ft or so of elevation gain, I figured I would be looking a course similar to that one. As I began planning out my training for Morgantown I realized the course would have close to 1,800 feet in elevation gain…twice that of Lake Placid! Gulp.
Finishing the marathon is never a concern for me. It is deciding wether to try and PR or not that I strategize around. With the sub 4-hour marathon goal still eluding me, I figured I could give it a shot with this course and see what happens. My training plan for the next three months consisted of speed workouts, marathon-paced tempo workouts, many easy runs, and of course long runs (3 of which were 20 miles or more). Nearly all of these workouts I would do on the hills of my home mountain course…aside from my speed workouts which I did indoors on a treadmill. As the marathon date grew closer and closer I felt more confident about being able to hit the sub-4 hour mark.
When I sat down to really research and look at the Morgantown Marathon course I saw that they give it the #yesitshilly tag for a reason. Check out the course elevation map:
Looking back now I can tell you this chart does not do the inclines justice. The course is indeed very hilly, as it runs through the 7 wards of Morgantown giving you a tour of the college town.
I read a few race recaps from other blogs and even watched a YouTube run through of the course from a few years ago. I took seriously the warning about the hills, but believed my training in the mountains would give me no reason to worry. In fact my biggest run in training was a 22 mile run with an elevation gain of 1,000 ft.
As race week rolled around I felt fully prepared and ready to give the sub-4 hour marathon goal another shot.
For my family there wasn’t much to this road trip. A 2.5 hour drive out highway 68 to the west put us right on the outskirts of Morgantown right by our hotel. The drive was quite pleasant…hardly any traffic and scenic mountains along the whole route. One of the coolest things to see as you drive out that way is Sideling Hill in Western Maryland. It is basically a large mountain ridge that was cut through to create a space highway 68. Caitlin’s 5th grade class had just talked about this landmark during science class, so it was quite a timely visit to pass through it!
Packet pickup was a breeze. We arrived at the race expo prior to checking in to our hotel. There was plenty of parking, I obtained my race bib and swag within minutes, and we traveled over to our hotel to check in. We had a pre-race dinner at the Beanery American Grille which was literally right next to our hotel…taking us a whole one minute to walk to. Aside from one other older couple, we were the only family in there. I believe the rest of Morgantown was either attending or at home watching the West Virginia football game.
Race Day Morning
With a race start time of 7 a.m., I got up early at 4 a.m. for my usual pre-race breakfast (banana, whole wheat bagel with almond butter, and coffee). Being unable to park right by the race start per the race director, I would have to drive to another stadium parking lot, and take a school bus shuttle from there to the race starting point (the West Virginia University Coliseum).
Parking was plentiful when I arrived to the shuttle area around 5:45 a.m., and after a short bus ride, I was at the race starting point with an hour to go. I did my usual pre-race mobility warm-up routine and then got my mind set with 20 minutes to go. The weather was perfect at the start…overcast, mid-60s, with a slight breeze (much better than the rain they were calling for early in the week due to potential Hurricane Florence remnants). There was a pacing team present at the race too, so I took my place near the 4 hour pacer, planning to stay with him as long as I could.
As the sun just started to come up, the national anthem was played, the West Virginia University Mountaineer mascot fired off his starter musket / pistol, and the start of this #yesitshilly course had begun.
For the first 5-6 miles the race was easy going with some minor rolling hills. The 4 hour pacer made conversation with those around him. One younger participant (and by younger I mean early 20s) was running his first marathon, and another participant (Luke) with an Australian accent was running this course for a second time.
As we approached the first big hill around mile 7-8, the 4 hour pacer seemed to increase his pace. I believe his strategy was a to try and bank some time in the early stages to allow for a slow down at the end of the race with a major hill at mile 25. Not wanting to go too fast (learning my lesson from the Run for the Red 2018 Marathon in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania), I tailed back a bit to keep around a 9 minute / mile pace. Luke also eased up and for the next 6 miles we spent some time conversing to take our minds off the major inclines we started to hit. He also was aiming for a sub-4 hour marathon and we both hoped that maybe we could pull it off today. Originally from Australia, he now lived in the area and in fact did most of his training along the course we were now running. He told me that the last few miles of the course would be a along a nice flat trail portion, prior to hitting the major hill to end the race at mile 25…so something to look forward to.
As we approached the mile 17-18 mark with another major climb up a steep incline, the 4 hour pacer was now well out of sight. Luke had also pulled ahead of me and I wished him good luck as I did not want to slow him down. Around this time the sun also started to come out and I could feel the humidity starting to rise. The race was taking it’s toll on my body, and with another marathon scheduled in Bar Harbor, Maine only 4 weeks away, I made the decision to abandon the goal for a sub-4 hour marathon and just finish safely with no injuries or major incidents.
The humidity became even worse as I passed the 20 mile marker, and by now I was alternating between a very slow trot, and speed walking up the hills. The 4:15 pacer eventually passed me, but I constantly reminded myself that just finishing would be an accomplishment…and there would be other marathons to tackle in the near future. I made conversation with a member of the Marathon Maniacs club for roughly a mile of the course (this was his 99th marathon!) until he pulled ahead as well.
Coming to the last few miles of the course along the flat trail, I passed a runner who had been sitting down on the course and was now trying to regain his composure to finish. With 3 miles to go I did not want him to give up, so I gave him my remaining energy gels. He was very appreciative and I said “They taste like crap, but they will help you get to the end.”
With some more slow running and walking, I arrived at the final hill at mile 25 and yes…it was a steep one. However I felt stronger at this final hill than I did with the others. Maybe it was the adrenaline knowing the race end was in sight, but I trotted up the hill most of the way feeling good. At this time who happened to pass me but none other than Luke! It appears he hit a major wall around mile 23…and then was able to regain his composure and finish the race two places ahead of me.
Rounding the finish I saw Christie and the girls cheering me on at the finish line. I did “The Floss” dance to act like a goofy Dad for the girls, and crossed the finish line with a final time of 4:29:09. My body felt tired and my legs cramped up a bit, but otherwise I felt pretty good. I was rewarded with a really nice medal, and Christie bought me a snow cone to enjoy along the shuttle bus ride back to the parking area.
Post Race Reflections and Lessons Learned
Obviously this race did not pan out the way I wanted it to. This hills were much tougher than I thought. If it would have been a completely flat course, I think I was in the right shape to beat a time of 4 hours. But with inclines like these along with humidity that was pretty bad by the races’ end, I was just happy to finish healthy and safely to cross another state off the list.
I also want to add a final word of thanks to all the police officers that were present along the course to direct traffic and keep all the runners safe. They were out in full force, and I made sure to thank each of them when I passed by.
Official Race Results
Overall: 78 out of 174
Male: 67 out of 118
Male 30-39: 21 of 35
Photos from Race Day
This race is part of Aaron’s 50 Marathons in 50 States Challenge:
Click on a state to see a recap of that marathon.