“The Blue Ridge Marathon is known to be one of the hardest road marathons in the U.S. because you are either constantly climbing or dropping, a total 7,430 feet in elevation change during the entire race.”
– Runner’s World
April 17, 2021
Every April, Roanoke Virginia prepares to host thousands of runners for The Blue Ridge Marathon. All of the runners take on a feat that few desire to do in the first place – run the most difficult paved marathon in America.
When I found out about this race, I was not searching for “toughest race” or “marathons near me”. I was looking for something fun and unusual to do on my 23rd birthday. I never intended to push myself to my limit as much as I did with this race.
Our Road-Trip South
Before the race, we had to make the long drive down to Virginia from Central Massachusetts. Leaving our house in the middle of a blizzard, and twelve hours later arriving in sunny and warm Roanoke was the first amazing part of this trip.
We drove straight to the packet pick up expo, at the Berglund Center. There were probably ten vendors set up around the perimeter of the room, to allow for social distancing. We got in line for our bibs, and were given shirts, free goodies, a backpack and our sweatshirts that we ordered ahead of time. By the way, the sweatshirts are amazing and you have to order them! With loud music bumping and tons of other excited runners, we couldn’t help but get excited ourselves.
After browsing through the vendor area, we made our way over to the photo background. We posed with the 26.2 sign, under the title “America’s Toughest Road Races”, smiling ear to ear.
After packet pickup, we drove 45 minutes into the rural surrounding mountains, to our Air BnB for the night. When we arrived, we were welcomed by the nicest hosts I have met so far on my travels – they left adorable notes around the tiny carriage house we rented, and recommended some great local joints for dinner.
This tiny house was perfect. It was one room with a bed, kitchenette and an attached bathroom. It didn’t feel tiny at all, and it was cleaner than any hotel room I have ever stayed in. The personal touches made it, and the huge picture type window was stunning to watch the sunset from. There was even a tiny electric fireplace that we used at night!
For dinner, we drove into the town of Rocky Mount, Virginia, to eat at Rocky Mount Burger Company. For a truly local experience, I would 100% recommend eating here – there were not many travelers around (honestly I think we were the only ones), and we really got to experience the southern hospitality of Virginia. The food was very local as well; I got the Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwich, which was something I had never heard of before. It was essentially a grilled cheese with a homemade cheese, similar to a spicy cream cheese. Matt got a burger, which he said was wicked good. Overall, this is a must for a truly authentic local experience before heading back into the city!
After rolling out of bed at 4am to make our packets of oatmeal in the microwave, we left the carriage house in Ferrum, VA at 5am. This allowed us to get to the race with plenty of time to park and get acclimated.
After a drive through the foggy mountainside, we finally arrived at the parking lot for the race at 6am. Our start wasn’t until 7:35am, due to COVID making the race into a staggered start. We hung out in a great parking spot, only about a 2 minute walk to the start line.
Eventually around 7am we hopped out of the car and walked over to our marked position at the start. There was music playing, hundreds of people warming up and stretching, and a ton of volunteers. We were in wave G, with one wave going off every minute. When each wave went off, we would move up and onto the next corral.
When the sound went off for our corral to begin the race, I was feeling both very nervous and excited. I had never run a marathon with this much elevation (7,430 feet) but was ready to take on the challenge. And knowing there were aid stations every one and a half miles, it made me feel better about conquering such a difficult race.
Our race began by running down the main street in Roanoke. We ran through tall city buildings, over bridges, and through massive crowds. This was also our first event after COVID, making it even more nerve wracking since Matt was not vaccinated yet.
Around mile four, we made our way into the woods. This was the start of our first big climb, halfway up Mill Mountain. This climb lasted at least two miles straight, with no downhill. Most people were doing a walk run method, but I did see some who ran the entire length of the mountain.
Eventually we entered The Blue Ridge Parkway, which is considered America’s Favorite Drive. The stunning views of mountains all around us overlooking Roanoke Valley made our climb up Roanoke Mountain SO worth it. This was the second huge climb, but don’t worry, there were of course more mountains to be taken on.
After four more miles, we began our climb to the top of Mill Mountain, which we didn’t do the first time. This is our last massive climb, but there were still a ton of hills to be run. We reached the top and were pointed to run through a trail. At this point I thought to myself “Trail Running on a famous road marathon??”, but it was only for about a quarter of a mile, and then we were rewarded with the best view of the race: The Mill Mountain Star. It is the largest free standing and man made star in the world, making it very famous. I was in awe of just how large this star is. I had seen so many photos of it in my research, but I had never expected it to be this spectacular in real life. It overlooks the Roanoke River, and the city itself. For me, this made all the climbing worth it.
Once we were done admiring the view, we began our long and difficult descent back down towards the city. We spent the last 10 miles or so of the race weaving through the suburbs, getting cheered on my people in front of their houses, and admiring the many views.
The last three miles were tough, as with any marathon. Within the last 30 minutes, I realized that if I ran a 10 minute mile for 3 more miles, I was going to get my marathon personal best! So Matt and I pushed it into gear and thankfully the last few miles were relatively flat. This allowed us to cruise into the finish line with confidence and awe that we really both just got a PR, when we weren’t even thinking about it.
The finish line was bumping with music, a sea of spectators, and vibrant energy. When we approached the finish, the announcer called out our names and congratulated us.
We were greeted by volunteers who put our metals on us, and gave us water and food. They had bagged lunches (due to COVID) but we could essentially take whatever we wanted. We then found a shady spot in the park to lay down and relax for a bit.
After people watching and talking about how much we love the medals, we decided to take a walk to the amphitheater area, where they had free beer, a free recovery zone (with massages!) and an ice cream truck. As we made our way over there, we heard someone announcing that they are starting age group awards. To be honest, we never normally place in these since we are 23 years old and 25 years old, but we decided to watch and eat our ice cream anyways.
When they announced Matt’s age group, he of course didn’t place because a lot of the men his age are Boston Qualifiers. But for my age group, I got second place out of 8 people! Our official time was 4:46:50, beating my PR by 10 minutes (see our Strava map and info here. It was surreal getting to walk up to that stage and get my award in front of a cheering audience. This made my 23rd Birthday one that I will never forget – I pushed myself harder than I thought I could, and the reward was incredible.
After the race, we drove back to our tiny carriage house to shower and get changed. We took a bunch more photos near the stunning fields, then sat for a while on the bench for birdwatching.
Eventually we made our way back to Roanoke for dinner. Since it was my birthday, Matt wanted to take me somewhere special and authentic to the area. My favorite part about traveling is getting to try all the new foods, and Roanoke did not disappoint.
While we were waiting for our reservation, we walked around and stopped in a couple local shops. One of them was She’s International Boutique, and since I love traveling so much, I just had to stop in. The owner, Diane Speaks, was there and we got to talking about how she started her business. She was an international flight attendant for years, and always loved collecting jewelry and various items from her travels. She decided that she wanted to share this with others, even if they were not able to travel themselves. So, she opened a store front with items from all over the world – particularly her favorite places. One item that is really important to her are the star earrings, similar to The Mill Mountain Star. All the proceeds from these earrings go directly to the homeless youth of Roanoke, and they are only $18. I bought a pair and put them on to wear to dinner.
Matt decided on Billy’s, which is an American style restaurant but with a focus on southern seafood. I got lobster grits, which was mind-blowing, and also got lobster mac and cheese (also amazing). This place was a straight 10/10 for me, and I am a wicked food critic. When you run this marathon, go to Billy’s after for a delicious meal!
After dinner, we headed back to our cottage home for one more night, and passed out as soon as our heads hit the pillow. The next morning at 4am, we woke up and began our 12 hour drive home to Central Massachusetts.
Overall, this race was incredible and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to run any distance. The memories I made here were incredible and I feel very lucky to have been able to have such a wonderful 23rd birthday weekend.