Let’s face it, race reports are more entertaining when they’re dramatic. Fall and break a leg, go off course, or run for more than 30 hours? Now that will make for an exciting report, and usually, each dramatic mishap turns in to a teachable moment for both the runner and the reader.

But not all races are dramatic.

They don’t all blow up with half the miles left to run, or push you in to that deep pain zone that causes you to swear off running entirely.

Sometimes…well, sometimes they actually turn out just as you had envisioned.

And it’s magical.

That was my experience at this year’s Black Mountain Marathon. It turns out you can learn just as much from a well executed race as you can from a dramatic disaster.

The Short, Not-So-Dramatic Report of My Race

This being my first year living in Black Mountain, NC, I couldn’t not apply for a spot in the Mt. Mitchell Challenge (40 miler). The course runs on my daily trails, and it’s a race I’ve been eager to tackle again. Unfortunately, my name wasn’t selected, so I registered for the marathon instead.

With the Thomas Jefferson 100k in just a few weeks, the Black Mountain Marathon was slated to be a fun race with my local trail running community, and to provide the perfect opportunity for an early season tune-up.

But during the last few days leading up to the start, I had my doubts. With 10 days to go, we had an ice storm and two snow storms. On top of that, the weather gods threw in several days with highs in the upper 30s or low 40s, changing much of the snow to slush during the day and ice at night.

The big questions on everyone’s mind had to do with shoes:

  • To screw or not to screw?
  • To Yak or not to Yak?

After much debate, I decided late Friday evening that screws were the way to go, but I went to bed that night with this sinking feeling that I was making a huge mistake. (And the drama builds!)

Saturday morning nearly 400 runners took off with cleated shoes, tap dancing our way up the quiet streets of Black Mountain.

To my surprise, the first 3 miles of trail were covered with several inches of powder. Somehow this snow hadn’t gone through the thaw-refreeze cycle, and remained soft and slick. With each step forward, my screwed shoes took half a step backwards, and the burning sensation in my stability muscles had me concerned.

Were the screws a terrible decision? Should I have gone with the YakTraxs? Possibly. (The dramatic build-up continues!)

But once we reached the Toll Road, an old fire road that leads runners for several miles up to the marathon turnaround point, things got easier. The trail continued to be covered in snow and ice, but was hard enough to move forward without the traction issues of the earlier singletrack. (Waa Waa, the drama is resolved.)

The rest of the morning went just as I had hoped. I ran steady up the mountain to the turnaround point, and efficiently back down to Black Mountain.

It was a day full of mini-wins, but that lack of dramatic blow-up still gave me plenty to take away.


What Went Right During Training

1) Training on the course

For the first time, I was able to spend significant time training on the actual race course. But of course, not everyone has this luxury.

What’s important is training with the race course in mind, and studying it as much as possible. Make sure training miles are spent on trails or conditions that will mimic what you’ll experience on race day, and study maps and reports ahead of time to familiarize yourself with all the major course changes.

2) Training for this (particular) race

This is only half true. The Black Mountain Marathon wasn’t my #1 priority this spring (the TJ100k and a 24 hour race in May take that title), but I still wanted to run well. Over the past few weeks I focused heavily on building my extended climbing and descending legs, both necessary for this race.

3) A proper taper

I hate tapering for a race. I get antsy, which makes me frustrated and lazy. To combat that feeling, I usually either don’t taper enough, or over taper.

This time I held myself accountable, and logged the proper mileage, making sure each run had a focus. Come race day, my legs were ready to rumble.

What Went Right on Race Day

1) Following a nutrition strategy

I always go in to a race with a nutrition strategy, but after a few hours, that usually goes out the window.

Knowing that I could keep this race under 5 hours, I set out for the whole-energy approach, and made myself stick to it. No mini-sandwiches at the aid station buffet, no delicious warm soup at the turnaround. Just food that would give me instant energy.

Here’s what I consumed:

  • Water: Roughly 1 bottle every 6 miles
  • Cliff Gels: 1 gel every 45 minutes, starting at the very beginning
  • Coke: 1 Dixie Cup per aid station, starting at mile 18

That was the plan: Pure energy. And I stuck to it…mostly.

Full disclosure here, I did take in a few other goodies:

  • Orange slice at the turnaround to get a nasty taste out of my mouth
  • 4 potato chips around mile 18 for the salt, fat, and deliciousness
  • A big swig of beer as a Coke chaser, with about 4 miles to go. I was feeling good, it was time to celebrate

With this kind of race, that strategy worked well. I didn’t suffer through any stomach issues, and stayed ahead of any bonks.

2) Pushing, but not too hard

The goal of this race was to

  1. Stay healthy
  2. Run well

I wanted to push, but not kill myself in the process. In the end, I’m sure I could have shaved off a little time, but that balanced approach was probably just what I needed to continue moving well.

An approach I plan to continue using in future races.

3) A positive attitude

By far my favorite takeaway from this race.

It pays to stay positive.

It’s easy for me to go deep in to race-mode, where I focus only on myself, but that usually leaves me too zeroed-in on the pain and suffering. It turns out that the power of a little outward positivity is massive.

I made a point to encourage and cheer on just about every runner I passed after the turnaround, and to thank and smile for each volunteer. My outward positivity invited others to encourage and support me back. In a way it was selfish, but the kind of selfishness that helps everyone involved.

4) Keeping it simple

Gadgets! Gear! With all the fancy new trail running toys coming out these days, it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla and over complicate your set-up. The original plan was just a handheld, but with all the snow, I threw on the Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest containing a few extra layers just in case.

Even then, I only carried one bottle and forced myself not to fill the pockets just because I had them. Keeping things simple payed off and made passing through an aid station easy and efficient.

Applying These Takeaways to The Next Race

After a successful race, it’s easy to pat yourself on the back and call it a day.

Now is the perfect opportunity to think back critically on your training and race, and note what went right for the next time.

Having a race go as planned might not be as dramatic or exciting to write about, but it’s just as important to learn from. Honor your hard work and successes by making sure you take away those lessons for the future.

Photo Credits: Laura Emma and Megan Bannerman

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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