Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Race Report: Freedom's Run

My search for a West Virginia race involved finding one that not only fit into my already filling schedule, but also for a race that would allow me to sing the national anthem.  I reached out to the race director in March, about six months before the race, and was able to secure not only the national anthem, but also accommodations for the race!

Maniacs gathering for a photo
(Photo by Jose Maria Gabriel)
With a Saturday morning race, I got the earliest flight I could out of New York City after work, out of JFK at 6:15, arriving at Washington's Dulles Airport a little before 8pm; I headed over to the Budget rental counter and grabbed my car, getting myself out and on the road to Harpers Ferry as soon as I could.  The sun had been long gone, and it was an hour long drive to Harpers Ferry in the dark of night; for about 20 miles, I had my brights on for fear of running into wildlife in the wilds of rural Virginia.  I arrived in Harpers Ferry, and its small main street shrouded in darkness.  I found my way to my pre-arranged accommodations, the quaint Towns Inn, a historic residence built in 1840 turned into a bed and breakfast, where a meal from the just shuttered restaurant next door was waiting for me. After finding my room, I settled in for the night, sleeping soundly with nary a sound outside.

Announcements from race
director Mark Cucuzella.
Early the next morning well before the sun was up, I drove over to the start area.  On my way over, which was only a ten minute drive to the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I saw a fox and a deer bounding in the grass next to the road. I reached the visitors center and was parked in no time, with quite a bit of time before the race start. I picked up my race bib; and socialized a bit with other Marathon Maniac friends Heather, Gaby, Sam, Karen and Glen, before meeting the race director, Mark Cucuzella, himself a prolific distance runner with an impressive streak of having run at least one sub-3 hour marathon a year in thirty continuous years, and counting.

Singing the anthem
(Photo by Jose M. Gabriel)
Fittingly, John Denver's signature song "Take Me Home, Country Roads," an iconic tribute to the state of West Virginia, was playing over the speakers, as a few of us endearingly sang along to the recognizable chorus as we waited for the race to start:

"Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia
Mountain mama,
Take me home, country roads."

After a few announcements, Mark called me over to sing the national anthem to check off my 37th state.  The morning light blanketing the hills surrounding Harpers Ferry provided a beautiful backdrop of as I sang the Star Spangled Banner:

Murphy Farm Overlook
Soon, we were off, circling the visitors center parking lot out toward the entrance gate at Shoreline Drive. We veered left, and took Campground Road out toward the park's campground area, eventually turning left along a gravelly Murphy Road, into an open pastureland.  This area is known as Murphy Farm, a 99 acre piece of land along the banks of the Shenandoah River where Union troops once surrendered to Confederate forces in 1862, concluding in the siege of Harpers Ferry.  The farm is part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and includes an impressive overlook to the river below.

Early miles running through Murphy Farm

The park's entrance sign
Running toward Lower Town
These early first couple miles were an out and back along the lone road cutting through the pasture, before heading right back to the entrance gate of the park after about 2.5 miles.  This time, we continued right, around the parking lot taking Shoreline Drive over to the old town part of Harpers Ferry.  Passing through the heavily forested area, with massive cliff faces surrounding us, we ran down Shenandoah Road downhill into the town's historic "center," known as Lower Town.  After passing some of the old historic buildings that I was seeing for the first time in the daylight (including a modern reproduction of John Brown's Fort, where the abolitionist John Brown led a revolt that was considered one of the major events leading to the Civil War, sitting 150 feet from its original site), we came up to the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and the impressive B&O Railroad Bridge, a steel Pratt truss and plate girder bridge built in 1894 to carry the B&O Valley line, connecting West Virginia into Maryland along the Appalachian Trail.

Running through Harpers Ferry's Lower Town area
We're almost equidistant from Maine as we are from Georgia!
The bridge crossing over the Potomac
We crossed the river, taking in the beautiful views as we crossed over state lines into Maryland, just after 5 mile mark.  As we came off of the footbridge, we encountered a spiral metal staircase to take us down to the ground level, which would mark the first time I've ever had to take actual stairs during a marathon.  We were then running north on the Chesapeake and Ohio Towpath Canal trail, a trail that followed the old towpath that ran up against the old C&O Canal, a nearly 185 mile canal primarily used to transport coal form the Allegheny Mountains which operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., all the way to to Cumberland, Maryland. The trail is part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, established first as a National Monument by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961, then ten years later as a National Historical Park by President Richard Nixon.

Here's a first... a spiral staircase to run down during a marathon! (Photo by Patrick Hartzell)

The Towpath Trail
The nicely shaded trail is unpaved and composed of clay and crushed stone, and was generally in pretty good condition, usually "dual-track" with grass or loose debris filling the center between the two tracks. I couldn't help but think how much of America's early history, in particular during the Civil War, happened along this very stretch of land, only a few meters away from the Potomac River. We would continue up along this trail for nine miles; I unfortunately began to have pretty debilitating stomach problems around the 6 mile mark, causing me to walk for what seemed like half a mile.  It would still be a little while before a port-a-potty finally materialized along the trail.  All of the walking to calm my stomach down (and an eventual bathroom break) slowed me down to a nearly 17 minute long sixth mile.  I regained some time as my miles hovered near 10 minute pace, and I eventually began to overtake several people who had passed me earlier during my... "episode."  The trail wasn't always so monotonous; in some places, it was interrupted occasionally by an organized camping site, where campers waking up as we ran by were probably perplexed to see so many runners making their way down the Towpath.

Miles of undulating road
At the mile 15 mark, we finally came off of the trail, and after nine miles, we went from unpaved terrain to asphalt.  Almost immediately, as we ran along Millers Sawmill Road, we were greeted with the first significant hills of the race. This road undulated upward and downward as we progressed deeper into Maryland, closer to Antietam National Battlefield. And we were definitely in the rural south; we passed a few confederate flags up on flagpoles in front of some houses.  At mile 17, I encountered the most interesting once-in-a-lifetime road hazard, as the road became blocked by a wide load truck carrying a HOUSE.  We could barely get around it, and had to stop for a quick moment before we were finally able to pass.

More ups and downs... it never ends!  And we hadn't even reached the battlefield yet.

Split-rail fences line the road
Eventually, we entered Antietam National Battlefield, site of the single bloodiest day in American military history, where nearly 23,000 lives were lost in Confederate General Robert E. Lee's attempt to invade the north during the Civil War.  The Battle of Antietam is considered a turning point of the war, since it kept the Confederacy from winning a needed victory on Northern soil, which might have gained it European recognition. Lee's retreat gave US President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity he needed to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves residing in rebelling Confederate territory against the federal government, to be free. This act made it even more unlikely that Europe would grant diplomatic recognition to the South.  The battlefield is also notoriously hilly, and we would no doubt be encountering some of the steepest and most repetitive of the entire race, yet we would only be running through the battlefield for roughly four miles.  I did a hell of a lot of walking as we followed Branch Avenue into the hilly landscape, passing by monuments and markers commemorating different infantry regiments during the battle, and following the split-rail fence lined Rodman Avenue.  This area was the final line of defense for the confederate troops, and where the confederate line began to break as Union forces began to advance across the fields from the east to the west; during the last days of the Battle of Antietam, the confederates were eventually forced to retreat back across the Potomac River back to Virginia. Not far from here was "Burnside's Bridge," a three-span stone bridge that was the southernmost crossing of Antietam Creek, and where Union forces were able to advance after three attempts to seize the bridge - a pivotal moment in the ending of the Civil War.

Cannons in the battlefield
Running by monuments
We proceeded northward, as Rodman Avenue turned into Richardson Avenue.  The road steeply rose nearly 100 feet over the course of less than half a mile, and at the top of the hill, we reached an 85 foot tall observation tower that was constructed in 1897, as part of the War Department's effort to document the battle, mark the lines and place information tablets around the field, creating an open air classroom of the battle. It allowed visitors to get a better overall view of the mostly low, rolling battlefield, much of which was private land at the time.  The road turned slightly left onto what was once known as the "Sunken Road," a well-worn dirt farm lane which was used by local farmers to bypass Sharpsburg.  During the war, Sunken Road had been used by the Confederates to position some 2,300 men to wait for the advance of the Union army. Nearly double the amount of forces from the Union side dug down as they veered toward this road, where in three hours of combat, some 5,500 men were killed or wounded, giving the road its new name - Bloody Lane.  We then turned northward along Mumma Lane, making our way along the road behind the Visitors Center area, toward the mile 20 mark along Smoketown Road.  This area was open pastureland, and you could definitely, tell with the strong manure smell in the air.  It didn't help that the wind gusts were strong at this point, so not only were we battling tough hilly terrain, but also headwinds. We also were able to get to an aid station at this point, the first one in a little while, and one we probably could've used a mile earlier.

Exiting the battlefield
We followed Smoketown Road northeastward, curving its way around to The Cornfield Avenue.  After 20.5 miles in, we eventually emerged onto public roads (Dunker Church Road), a section of the course that was more downhill, and my pace improved from 13-14 minute miles through the hilly battlefield to 10-11 minute miles.  The road would pass along the road in front of the circle drive for the Visitors Center, eventually turning left onto Sharpsburg Pike.  We exited the battlefield (passing by the official sign along the road) and entered the historic town of Sharpsburg, passing through a residential section of the town along Chapline Street (named after the founder of the town, Joseph Chapline), and eventually along its Main Street.

Main Street gradually gave way to Shepherdstown Pike, and open farmland once again.  We began to run along the shoulder of the highway, as it headed straight toward the Potomac River.  Somewhere along the way, I tried to adjust my "famous" rainbow colored sunglasses, and accidentally snapped one of the plastic temple pieces into two.  The downhill here felt great, as my mile 24 pace was a 10:39 - my fastest mile since mile 12 on the Towpath trail! We crossed the Potomac River across the Shepherdstown Bridge and once again, were in West Virginia.

Crossing the finish!
(Photo by Karen Murray)
We were now in the town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Almost immediately, we turned left into the campus of Shepherd University, a NCAA Division II state school with a student population of over 4,000.  At the outset, we were greeted by a super steep hill; we then curved around the school's quad, then made our way into the Rams Stadium, where we got to finish our 26.2 mile voyage on the 50 yard line.  I crossed in just over 5 hours, with my friends Karen and Glen right there ready to take photos of me as I finished.

This would mark my third finish inside a stadium, after the Lincoln Half Marathon in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Knoxville Marathon in Knoxville, Tennessee (others, including the Green Bay Marathon included Lambeau Field during the race).  So, naturally, I decided to get my headstand photo in the stadium.  I even had one with Karen, as both of us were hitting some nearly notable milestones - my 49th lifetime marathon and Karen, her 99th lifetime marathon. I recovered with a calf and foot massage from Pivot Physical Therapy, who thankfully set up shop in the stadium, then eventually headed over, practically across campus at the university's Wellness Center, for a much needed shower.

Headstand with my fellow, "almost milestone" finisher!

Victory Headstand!
Finisher medal!
(Photo by Jose M. Gabriel)
After getting cleaned up, I headed back toward where we had entered campus at the end of the race, since across the street, The Bavarian Inn was having somewhat of a post-race party, so I decided to partake and grab a quick beer before catching a scheduled shuttle bus back to Harpers Ferry. With a decent amount of time before my flight, I made way back down to Dulles Airport with a stop for gas... only $3 worth (or roughly 1.25 gallons!)... then dropped my rental. After breezing through security, I took the PeopleMover over to Concourse A, and then made it to my gate with some 15 minutes to spare before we even started boarding.  The flight was a quick and uneventful 40 minutes long, and we were back in New York before I knew it, having slept almost the entire way. We thankfully landed early, as I wasn't done... I had a performing gig on Saturday evening with my a cappella group!  From LaGuardia, I cabbed over to Long Island City and did a short concert with my group Restated, featuring a Boston-area group visiting for the weekend, Collective Measures, all for our milestone 10 year anniversary concert.  And yet, I was still not done... I ran the Grete's Great Gallop 10k in Central Park the next morning!  Despite sore legs, I managed a fairly fast (for me) 59:43 - a 9:37 pace!

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