Hills Schmills

I’d never done the Asheville Half Marathon, but decided to come back from the Isle of Man to do it with Lisa this time. I have to say I was nervous – Asheville’s hills are notorious runner-busters, but after training on the Isle of Man’s hills, I thought I shouldn’t give up more than maybe 30 seconds per mile.

For reasons known only to the race organizers (traffic?), the race started at 6:00 this morning. Here on the western edge of the eastern time zone, it doesn’t get properly light until about 7:30, so Lisa and I walked toward the race start (a 1.2 mile warm-up) in complete darkness. As we got out of our neighborhood and toward downtown, more racers began to appear out of the gloom – I found myself humming the “Woodstock” song.

We got to the race area and it was lit up like noon in the actual race start area. Looked like this:

Run 13.1 from hereThat number (5:44:27) is actually the “wall clock” time – essentially 5:45 in the blessed A.M. But at 6:00 A.M. on the dot, they turned loose the elite runners. We were in the back two corrals, but unlike the bigger races, there were just nine corrals, so we got started relatively soon. At 6:20, as part of group H, I trotted off into the dark. The weather was in the low 50′s and stayed there pretty much the whole race – a perfect running temperature.

First tune on the headphones: Rubberband Man.

How much more of this do he think we can stand?

We better be able to stand about 13.1 miles more of it.

We ran through some posh neighborhoods of northern Asheville in essentially complete darkness, with relatively gently rolling hills and the first 3-4 miles just flew by.

Before we began the descent to Merrimon Avenue, the sun was beginning to rise and we got a beautiful vista across the northern mountains. We dropped down and across Merrimon Avenue and I took the headphones off, pausing Skateaway so I could listen to the bagpipe player. He was in full kilt regalia (as you do), and his music was bouncing off the hills above him and serenading runners for a couple hundred meters in either direction.

Sign near Woodfin: “Of course it’s hard; if it were easy, it would be your mamma”

That was also the first truly gnarly climb of the run, but I made it up okay. Then we turned the corner, left the Asheville city limits and headed into Woodfin (Woodfin:Asheville :: Daly City:San Francisco, if Daly City were full of double wides). Crossing over I-26, I glanced to my left and whoa – what a view. It was a postcard quality view out over Mt. Pisgah and its surrounds, the exact colors that give the Blue Ridge Mountains its name. Two women were right next to me chatting away. I pulled off my headphones, leaving “Sing a Simple Song” running and said, “Ladies! Look left!” They glanced over and did the same double take. “OMG so beautiful!”

[I'm writing this post in an Asheville coffee shop while downtown Asheville grooves on a perfect Saturday afternoon. There's an electric guitarist accompanying himself on a Telecaster, via the magic of digital recording and playback. He just fired into a very sweet reading of Little Wing. And some random guy wearing a men's suit and a Rastafarian hat just walked up to his mic and started singing along. It's very Asheville, but I was enjoying the instrumental version, frankly.]

Along there in Woodfin, around Elkwood Road, I took a quick break to stretch my legs. Thinking of Tommy Angelo, I pulled the headphones off and just took in the sounds – runners, the highway, the view to the mountains, all of it. Tommy always tells me, “Take the damn headphones off, look around, listen, and tell us about that.” So Tommy, it was cool having the headphones off and just being in the moment; thank you.

From Woodfin we dropped down onto Riverside Drive and headed back toward Asheville. I think it was along in there that Galway Girl came on and I played that 2-3 times, just enjoying the music and the French Broad River running along beside us. Because after that, it was

The Hill.

250 vertical feet of Bad

I was aware of The Hill – it kinda stands out in the race profile and in runners’ minds. They passed out water and orange slices at the bottom – I took advantage of both, despite having eaten a Gu gel not too long prior. Anything that looked like it would help get me up the back side of the UNC Asheville campus, I was interested in it.

I honestly don’t remember what music was on, I don’t remember much of anything. Rather than my usual “run three minutes, walk one minute” pattern, I switched to maybe 2/2. Whatever – I just put my head down and sent my feet up. I really think this is one of the times when age provides a psychological edge (it certainly doesn’t provide a physical edge). There is a toughness that comes from being on the planet a while and you just think to yourself, “Sure, I’m tired and my legs want to cramp. But people I know push through far more than this on a daily basis. I am out here running for the sheer ‘joy’ of it, and could just decide to walk away any time I wish. Lotta people don’t have that option.” So you put one foot before the other and up you go.

Sign at top of Lookout: “Hills Schmills”

Finally, it was the top of the hill, looking down into UNC Asheville. I kinda hoped the school would turn out in force to cheer us on, but I guess most of them were still recovering from Friday night. Then it was onto Broadway, past the site of the mental institution in which Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire, and on towards town. It made me tired to think about climbing Broadway all the way back up into town, but they zigged us through our neighborhood (Montford) which gave us a brief change of scenery, if nothing else.

Coming back into downtown and passing the 12-mile marker, I realized I was in good shape to break 2:30. I didn’t think I had a prayer of doing that on this course and that was quite a treat – it gave me a real kick in the pants. Something else gave me a kick in the pants. Right around 12.5 miles, Teardrop, by Massive Attack, came on. I wasn’t even sure why I put this on my “13.1″ playlist. But I must have known something, because as soon as it came on during a run, I knew why I’d added it:

Listen to that song, and you will hear my perfect running rhythm. It fits me so perfectly that I can half-close my eyes and simply become one with the beat. The runners around me become a blur of color that I follow for direction. Liz Fraser (the singer on this song) takes care of the rest. I took that song all the way back in, pulling off the headphones only to lock in on the drum corps that was kicking up a righteous groove as runners entered the final 0.1 mile corral.

I crossed the sensor at 2:28:25 by my GPS (the official race record would give me 2:28:20). Honestly, I’d never expected to beat 2:30 on this course, so I was delighted. Then I hung around to see Lisa into the finish line. She had hit some serious cramp problems around mile 10 and had to walk the rest of the way in. But she finished right around 3:00. Anybody who finishes the Asheville half-marathon (or dear god the full) has my respect. Even the winning runners commented on the hills. There were three wheelchair racers. In an interview afterwards, one of them (with arms like bulldozer pistons) said “I’ve done 50 marathons in 34 states; this might have been the toughest hills yet.” Yike.

But actually, I think I know what got my time under 2:30. Two wonderful friends of mine sent me the most awesome shoelaces ever. They’re teal with black musical notes on them. Laced onto my black Brooks shoes, they look like a million bucks and I am sure they bought me three minutes on the run.

Just a few meters to go

Don’t ever underestimate the value of good shoelace karma when you’re trying to get up a hill in Asheville.



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