There were only two rules from the race director:
1. Try to finish before dark because that’s when most of the shootings and hangings occur.
2. If you see a pig, look the other way.
Such is the legacy of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Well, at least the way the feud has morphed in history and created some tourism opportunities for the small communities on the West Virginia-Kentucky border. And the small communities present and celebrate that history with a bit of humor and lot of Appalachian southern flair.
What does this have to do with my marathon race report?
The Hatfield-McCoy Marathon is an experience. It is a race which allowed me to fall back in love with the process, to see endurance sport for its best — a challenge that’s intensely personal while supported by a community. That cliche about the journey? You better cling tight to it.
The Weather Channel ranked the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon as one of the 15 toughest marathons in the world largley because of the hills, heat and humidity. And if you didn’t have much humility when you started, you found it in spades along the course.
The marathon begins in Kentucky and finishes in West Virigina, crossing the Tug River five times. I know we crossed over the state line a number of times as well, making me think of the “Dukes of Hazzard” television show where they would cross the county line and the law coudn’t touch them. (Hey there is lots of time to think about lots of things over 26.2 miles with more than 1,200 feet of climbing.)
Friday night’s pasta dinner ended with a talk from the race director, Dave Hatfield, who told us that there were 700 volunteers to support the 1,000 runners. I already had a sense that this community embraced the race. I now had numeric proof. I had asked around at packet pick-up about the water stops and if they closed up late in the race. Hell no. These people were proud of supporting every last runner on the course. They wanted you to succeed.
How can you not be excited to get on the course?
The highlight of the pasta dinner was the skit put on showcasing Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy explaining the origins and major points of the feud. They posed for pictures afterward and while most people posed with their bib numbers, mine was already back at the hotel. So Devil Anse reached into his coat pocket and without missing a beat in a slow, southern drawl asked me “You wanna gun?” Yes please.
The only truly anxious moment I had on race morning was waiting for the shuttle, which took forever and tried my patience (if you’ve met me, you understand) but it came and we piled on and soon enough were lined up at the starting line.
A shotgun got us underway.
It was 7 a.m., already approaching 80 degrees and the humidity was already clinging to my body.
Easy and steady. That’s all I thought about at the start of the race. That’s all I thought about most of the race. The first question people asked when you started chatting was “Where are you from?” followed closely by “How did you hear about the race?” Much later in the conversation you might find out about goals for the race, but nobody was talking about their average pace or hitting a Boston qualifiying time. It was incredibly refreshing and life affirming.
I started chatting with a guy who was running his first marathon. In the Army, he was stationed about 90 minutes away and came in that morning to run, figuring he wanted to just try and keep running, no matter how slow, at all times. We chatted for maybe about two miles, talking about the Buffalo Bills quarterback situation after I told him I was from Buffalo and a sportswriter.
“Wait, is it OK if we talk sports? That’s your job so maybe you don’t want to talk about it when you’re not working,” he asked.
I seriously could have stopped and hugged him right there. Because no one in the history of history has ever understood that his hobby is my job and that sometimes you just don’t want to talk about your job. No worries, we talked about EJ Manuel for a while. Then I lost him at a water stop. I hope he finished strong and enjoyed his first marathon.
Blackberry Mountain is the portion of the course everyone talks about. “The hill at Mile 7” isn’t really a hill. It’s a mountain. At first I was running. Fairly strong but slow and steady. Then I wondered where the mountain climbing gear was. Shouldn’t there be an exchange of “belay on – on belay” to get up this mile? You gain 500 feet in one mile. And it sucks.
Then you make it to the top and rejoice before realzing you have to now go down, which in theory souinds wonderful but the steepness is on the other side as well and my toes started jamming into the front of my sneaker negating any free speed.
It was at this point I spent the most time with daughter-father duo of Megan and Troy from Louisville (and I was bound and determined to pronounce Louisville like a native by the end of the race). Megan was using a run-walk race plan and we leap-frogged each other several times early on before spending a few miles together. We chatted about all sorts of things and stopped at one point to take our pictures someone’s front yard because they had mini-horses.
Yes. We stopped and took photos. Because there were MINI HORSES ON THE COURSE. And as a certified obssessed fan of Amy Poehler and the television show “Parks and Recreation” you can bet your bottom dollar I was singing “5,000 Candles in the Wind” in my head for the next mile.
The halfway point of the race was in Matewan, West Virigina. It looked like a cute town, but I didn’t linger. Emotionally this is a difficult point. The people who ran the half marathon were done. Why can’t I be done?
No. Banish the thought. Must press on.
The second half began on a trail that followed the river. Actually I think it’s a road, but it’s narrow and small. My mental capacities were starting to fade and an ambulance was now following me. It’s getting hot and suddenly we’re not running in the shade of the mountains anymore. We’re in bright sun and swimming in the river sounds like a perfectly plausible plan.
The road does turn to trail and for a while the course becomes gravel. I heard that some people complained. I found it a nice change of pace.
It was around Mile 16 when I started to get hungry. Like hella hungry. An energy gel was not gonna cut it. And just like a miracle there was a water stop. I continued my hydration plan which was to take Gatorade and water each time it was offered. This stop however also had grapes. GRAPES! Never was I so happy to see a dixie cup filled with fruit. I also asked to stick my hands into their pool of ice. One of the volunteers suggested I shove ice down the back of my shorts. Brilliant! By the time I finished the race I had ice cubes and sponges shoved into all kinds of places on my person.
Did I mention at this point it was about 127 degrees with 200 percent humidity?
That’s when the struggle with the heat and hills became real.
The final eight miles or so are fairly wide open. There isn’t much shade. There were few clouds. There was no wind. The heat starated to get to me and I slowed down. Considerably. I was expecting this. My legs were tired, but felt good. My lungs were OK. So why can’t I run more? Waves of frustration would come, but quickly pass, usually as I came to a water stop filled with friendly folks or chatted with another runner.
One fellow runner asked if I saw the moonshine at the last water stop. Nope. I missed it. He didn’t. He saw it and asked about it. Then he had a shot. Then a guy brought out Strawberry Shine and he had another shot. “I had about three shots of moonshine back there,” the guy said. “I may be drunk by the end of the race.”
At Mile 22 I started talking with a woman who was power walking. She wished the water stops had salt tablets. “Hey, I’ve got one salt tablet left!” I said. “Do you want it?”
“It’s your last one, are you sure?” she asked. Indeed I was. I had brought salt tablets with me and took them at Miles 10 and 20. I wasn’t going to take another one before the end. It was all hers. I hope it helped.
With all the talk of Blackberry Mountain it was easy to forget about Mile 23. Not as steep, but still a struggle it was the cruelest hill of them all. And yet in my head I knew that meant the end was near.
“Is this the last water stop?” I asked shortly after leaving the last hill behind.
“No,” said the woman who handed me my 23rd cup of Gatorade that day. “You have one more. And then there’s the Dairy Queen.”
The last mile of the course turns onto the highway (or the four-lane as the locals call it) and passes a bunch of fast-food chaines, including DQ. Many people go in and buy an ice cream cone for that last mile. While I rarely give up the opportunity for ice cream, I was too close to the finish line.
Two turns later I was on Second Avenue in Downtown Williamson, W. Va. The finish line was in sight. I ran, fairly strong, to the end, greeted back home by Devil Anse and Randall McCoy.
I had a huge smile on my face.
The “goal time” I had set for myself was slighlty conservative and attainable. I wasn’t sure how the hills and heat would impact me, so my performance expectations were tempered, even though I had been running well in the weeks before the race and felt strong both physically and mentally. I crushed my goal time by 50 minutes.
Of course that felt great.
But that wasn’t what made this race amazing.
It was the people I met, from the race staff to the volunteers to the other runners. It was the beauty of the region. It was being emersed in the history. It was facing the challenge with the best I had that day.
It was about falling in love with the ups and downs, the triumphs and the struggles and remembering what it is I love about being an endurance athlete.