Friday, April 23, 2010
About a year ago, Pat Bateman decided it was time to get back in shape.
"I just started walking and jogging," said Bateman, a 48-year-old from Roanoke. "I was only going to do one 5K, but it went really well."
So Batemen kept going.
And then came the announcement of the Blue Ridge Marathon on the Parkway.
"The race appeared on the radar and I tried to come up with a legitimate reason not to do it," said Bateman, who was a professional triathlete for a few years in the late 1980s and now is an associate director at the Kirk Family YMCA. "I couldn't."
Neither could 384 other runners.
Saturday morning they will toe a starting line near the Taubman Museum of Art and embark on the first marathon Roanoke has hosted since 1986, a race organizers hopes showcases the Roanoke Valley as the beautiful and rugged outdoor playground they believe it is.
An additional 480 runners are signed up for the half marathon, itself a difficult test.
The day's long option is no ordinary marathon.
The 26.2-mile course includes two ascents up Mill Mountain, a two-mile climb up the fantastically steep Roanoke Mountain loop road, and several other hills.
In all, marathon runners will face more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain -- and just as much joint-jarring downhill running.
Assistant race director Molly Bullington said organizers won't be able to categorize the event until after they hear from participants, but they have high hopes.
"It might be the toughest marathon in the country," Bullington said. "We want it to have that mystique."
Word has already spread.
The race has drawn entrants from 28 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and even London.
More than half of the entrants -- 237 total -- are from Virginia.
Roanoke alone has 90 runners in the race, with 12 more from Salem and four from Vinton.
Though he has run 42 marathons, Roanoker Tom Johnson said at first he had no intention of tackling this one.
"At first I said it was crazy," said Johnson, a 69-year-old retiree.
But then early this winter he took a training run up the hardest stretch, the Roanoke Mountain climb, and managed to run the whole way.
He signed up.
While Johnson kind of knows what to expect from a race this long, Dylan Turner doesn't.
This will be the first marathon for the 16-year-old Lord Botetourt High School sophomore.
"I kind of set a goal that I wanted to run a marathon before I got out of high school," said Turner, who runs cross-country and track for the Cavaliers. "This seemed like a perfect one."
His coach, Peter Walton, didn't think so.
"He told me it wasn't good for a first marathon," said Turner, who added that he gained his coach's support as he trained. "Now he's been helping me."
Turner is assured of being the race's youngest entrant, even though sign-ups will be allowed through this evening.
"We set a minimum age of 18," Bullington said. "But he signed up before we did that."
So he'll just need to have his parents sign a waiver.
"When I tell my friends I'm running a marathon they ask, 'How far is that?' " Turner said. "When I tell them 26.2 miles, they can't even comprehend it."
Runners aren't the only ones who'll have it tough.
Putting on the event requires a small army.
Among those working the race will be 300 volunteers, dozens of local police and emergency personnel, and the core race committee that has been coordinating the event for months.
Gretchen Weinnig has been charged with recruiting volunteers.
"Four to seven hours is a big commitment when all you're getting is a T-shirt," said Weinnig, who is still seeking help and promises to put to good use anyone who shows up at the Taubman Museum at 7 a.m. Saturday. "But when you let people know that it's their chance to show off their city in the best possible light, they'll step up.
"This gives us a real chance to show what an amazing place this is, but if we don't support it, it's going to go away."
In fact, the difficulty finding enough volunteer support was part of what killed the Star City Marathon, which was run in 1983, 1984 and 1986.
About 150 volunteers will man 21 aid stations on the route. An additional 122 will be stationed around the course to help with tasks such as blocking traffic and making sure runners aren't in medical trouble.
Weinnig said 16 police cruisers will be stationed at busy intersections, while five ambulances will be staged along the course.
"I can't stress enough how helpful the police and EMS have been," Bullington said.
Race co-chairman Pete Eshelman said the race has also gotten great support from the region's businesses.
"I'm really pleased with the amount of community support," he said. "If we needed something, we just asked."
Despite the length of the course, complete road closures will be minimal during the event.
From the time the starting gun goes off at 7:30 until about 8 a.m., the mass of runners moving up Jefferson Street toward South Roanoke and the base of Mill Mountain will make for tough vehicle travel in that area.
The most significant closures will be on Fishburn Parkway, which becomes Mill Mountain Parkway on its way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. That road, as well as the Roanoke Mountain loop, will be closed to vehicles until all runners have cleared the road.