The Greenbrier River Trail is a rail trail, mostly double track, that extends about 77 miles from Cass, WV to North Caldwell, WV along, you guessed it, the Greenbrier River. Much of its length is contained in the Monongahela National Forest. The Greenbrier River Trail Marathon is a USATF-certified race on the River Trail that starts in Cass, WV. The funds raised by this race benefit the maintenance of this lengthy recreational throughway via the non-profit Greenbrier River Trail Association. West Virginia only has a handful of marathons and this one will certainly put many marathons, even national events, to shame when it comes to beautiful surroundings. The course layout should produce times similar to a road race but those ugly and annoying buildings, cars, and streets are replaced with crushed limestone gravel, trees, fly fisherman, and a meandering river.
But dang, I’m sore. Quaking quads. Cantankerous calves. Hurtin’ hammies. My severe soreness shall, in no way, bias this race recap. See, flat running is a significant departure from my typical racing and training. I love vertical change. Up, down, up, down, wash, rinse, repeat. This marathon has about as little up and down variation as you will find in this region. It drops approximately 300 feet across its entire length. So yes, it’s averaging a downhill grade but there are definitely short sections where it’s flat or will have just a very slight uptick in grade. But I’m accustomed to climbing and descending 300 foot changes in as little as a half mile!
Years of triathlon training and racing have taught me that you can’t underestimate the toll that flat and downhill courses take on your legs. The movement pattern doesn’t vary much the entire time, making it a unique demand compared to rolling or mountainous courses. Floridians would do well here.
If you have the chance to ride the Cass Scenic Railroad, it’s a great family outing. On the day prior to the race, we rode the train from Cass to Whittaker Station. The leaves weren’t quite at the peak of their color change yet, but it was still very much worth the trip. The lack of running during the taper week made me want to race the train up the mountain as it held a steady distance-run-esque pace.
After the train ride, I was able to get a preview shakeout run on the Greenbrier River Trail, pick up my packet, and enjoy the pre-race pasta dinner. Cass is a small town so everything is within walking distance.
Race morning it’s still nearly dark when we arrive. The fog, forest, and terrain keep this valley darker a few minutes longer than expected. An off-pitch Cass Railroad whistle echoed through the otherwise silent mountains during my warm up as I climbed Back Mountain Road, giving an almost eerie sense to the foggy surroundings. Cue the banjo.
Our weather was almost ideal at the 8:00 AM start. A touch of humidity hung in the air and it would likely have been warmer than the mid-60s already if not for the heavy fog blanketing the hills and hollers. We could tell it would eventually become hotter as the day progressed, much as the day prior had done. And it did.
Though I didn’t warm up as much as I wanted, it wasn’t much of an issue since I like to start easy and build on long races. I don’t need a reminder that a marathon will take hours to complete and I have no issue with delaying the onset of suffering a bit.
At the starting line one of the other racers mentioned going for the 2:40s. I was hoping for 2:50s but all of that prediction stuff is guesswork when no one has raced the course before. We line up at the Cass Community Center,and the train whistle signals the start (a nice touch). We make a quick loop through a gravel street in Cass, and then we are onto the Greenbrier River Trail. I trotted along in 4th place as the first three pulled away. Would be a nice day to get top three though.
I wanted to take in my surroundings but tried not to lose focus. It’s difficult to ride the line of observing nature, working hard, and not falling on your face. The Monongahela National Forest is one of my favorite places, so I hate not to admire the views.
Despite the current beautiful weather, it had unfortunately and abnormally rained much of the prior week. The River Trail generally drains well, but being in a winding, tree covered valley, there were places along the path that were just a smidge wet. There was never any nasty, heavy, sticky, tacky mud but there was definitely squishiness in a few places where the trail becomes more grass and dirt than the primarily crushed limestone surface. A couple of the wooden bridge crossings were slick but not dangerous.
The aid station folks were super supportive. It helps when volunteers give time splits and say things like “you’re looking strong.” I stayed within sight of the second and third runners for several miles but had lost sight of the first runner by mile 5 or 6 because of the curviness of the course. I think it was somewhere around mile 6 when I caught the two guys in front of me in relatively rapid succession. I felt decent and the splits were consistently where I wanted them. The aid station volunteers at mile 10 informed me the time gap to first place was two minutes. Really? After taking off that quickly? That’s not much at that point, depending on how things shake out, but I wondered if that wasn’t a rough estimate and more like four minutes.
At some point, there was a very long straightaway in the trail that allowed me to see the lead cyclist and the first place runner. Perhaps I’ve made up time? Perhaps the gap really is just a couple minutes? Though they were just little specks on the horizon, it was enough information to keep me excited for the possibility of a better finish.
Many of the miles at this point were flying by, which is good for racing but bad for taking in scenery. My legs would actually do what I wanted. Speed up, slow down, square dance, hokey pokey, it didn’t matter. I occasionally had this feeling that my head was just mounted on a set of legs that were not my own. I’M INSIDE A ROBOT!!!! GUYS, I’M INSIDE OF A ROBOT!!!
As I rounded a sharp rightward curve around mile 15 I suspect my blood glucose was dropping and I broke my brain for a second as I glanced upward to the entrance of a giant space portal that was about to transport me into another dimension. Oh crap, that’s Sharp’s Tunnel. Doofus. Entering the portal, I quickly learned the tunnel is curved so you can’t see the other end and it is amazingly dark. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. Don’t trip, space boy. It was actually very smooth soil. Pretty darn cool feature and certainly the first time I’ve raced through such a long tunnel.
An aid station awaits at the end of the tunnel. A volunteer yelled for me to get a banana and told me something like “you’ve got to catch the next guy.” Fantastic idea. I...chomp...will... chomp...win... chomp...this...chomp...eating...chomp...contest!
More running ensued. (Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that.) By mile 19 I could consistently see first place and could tell I was gaining rapidly. Maybe gradually ease up to him and hit the pace hard? By mile 20 I had drifted up behind Andrew. He knew I was there, probably from my periodic grunting, said he had blown up but was very encouraging to me pushing onward past him. Thank goodness I didn’t have to do a hard surge because those hurt.
Taking the lead becomes a different beast because you are now the chased instead of doing the highly distracting and motivating chasing. I had no idea if there would be someone capable of hitting negative splits in the closing miles. A couple of miles clicked off where I was happy just to see splits under 7:00/mile. I had briefly listened to music for a few miles but now it was just irritating. I gained a new friend in lead cyclist Ray Adams who probably grew tired of my heaving and groaning.
The final couple miles through Marlinton transitioned to pavement. My legs were reminding me with each step that they were indeed my own painful masses of contractile proteins instead of the Terminator’s as they seemed to want to piston more up and down than swinging forward and backward. I couldn’t get up onto my forefoot for any additional robot power because I could sense both calf muscles were one aberrant neuromuscular synapse away from cramping. Going to need an oil change and 15-point inspection after this.
The street crossings in Marlinton were staffed with more great volunteers. They rhythmically chanted “ROBOT SPACE BOY! ROBOT SPACE BOY!” with astonishing volume. (Not true). I spied with my two tired eyes an iron bridge that I recognized from a video of the finishing section. Must...aggggghhh….be...uggggghhhh...close. And then I see my favorite volunteers ever dancing while dressed in neon orange Japanese kimonos (or simply just waving orange flags) indicating a right turn into Stillwell Park. A glance at my watch tells me all I need to know...start kicking. Inflatable finish line arch, I love you. Wow, I’m glad that’s over.
Seltzer, post-race snacks, pizza, sandwiches, finisher medals, pint glass age group awards, and custom pottery overall awards occupy our minds afterward. Great event Kellyn! Now, who wants to run back the other direction?
The local paper wrote a nice article about the race: