State Number 42 – Hatfield-McCoy Marathon v2.0
South Williamson, KY
9 June 2018
“No feudin’, just runnin’” Yup, Version 2.0 complete and still one of my favorites! No gunfights, no hangings, no pigs – just running.
The Hatfield-McCoy feud was a violent, long-running battle between two clans who lived in what is now coal mining country along the Tug River on the West Virginia/Kentucky state line during the late nineteenth century. While few may know all the details, in the USA the term “Hatfield's & McCoy's” is a familiar metaphor between feuding neighbors, families, or even the successful lives of “Waylon, Willie and the boys” in Luckenbach, TX. It ended long ago and today it’s the theme of an annual festival in the Williamson/Matewan area, of which this marathon plays an integral part. For the second time, I feel honored to play a small role in this yearly commemoration.
I’m going to attempt to spare you from excessive dramatic expressions of how much I enjoy this marathon, but based on the title of this review, it might not work.
I can say with most marathons, it’s usually a “one and done” event – glad to get in and glad to get out. But I cannot say that with Hatfield-McCoy. There’s something about it – the scenery, the friendliness, the challenge, the volunteers, the history – that draws me to repeat this marathon. If it just wasn’t so difficult to get there.
|"Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains..."|
I had two main objectives for this race. First, I wanted to run up the entire length of Blackberry Mountain without breaking my stride, a hill 1.25 miles long with a rather steep, but steady, incline, and from what I hear and experienced, a lot of people walk it. On my previous attempt, I made it to the top without walking, but barely. The notorious hill is longer than what it seems.
Second, I wanted to finish this tough and demanding race faster than my 2014 time – 4:59:30. I desired to challenge my time goal while simultaneously having fun during the race, taking some photos I failed to do the first time around, and just enjoying the setting. The way I see it, the earlier I finish, the more likely there will be food and drink left at the finish line. Priorities are priorities.
Let’s back up for a moment. This review should not be construed as a déjà vu moment. I’m not attempting to rewrite, amend, clarify, modify or change anything about my original marathon review of H&M.
According to the rules and guidelines of the 50-States Marathon Club (in their own words):
“If a race starts in one state and ends in another, it may be counted once for either the state where it started or where it ended. If the same event is run on a subsequent year, the race may be counted for the other state.”
As mentioned, I ran this race in June 2014 (State No. 10, simultaneously becoming an official member of the 50-States Club), but I was caught up in a dilemma, deciding which state to count, West Virginia or Kentucky? The decision to count West Virginia hinged on the fact that marathons in that state are not very plentiful – compared to Kentucky. Moreover, traveling and trekking in and around “God’s Country” can be a little time consuming and problematic. Thirty-two states and four years later, I can finally count this marathon towards the commonwealth of Kentucky. Who knew I would ever come back to run this marathon a second time.
So, why am I doing this marathon again? Perhaps the best answer, it WAS to be combined with Indoor Insanity Marathon (Winston-Salem, NC), paving the way for an exhausting double marathon weekend. But when the indoor facility’s air conditioning system became defective, the race organizers decided to ultimately cancel the event. What a disappointment! Besides, I had no doubts or misgivings about running H&M a second time.
After an agonizing six-hour delay due in part to a faulty engine part (I guess the pilots noticed an illuminated “check engine” light during their pre-flight check) and shuttling back and forth from gate to gate, terminal to terminal, we finally departed LAX on a replacement plane for the long direct flight to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), arriving shortly after 2315 EDT.
If our carry-on bag hadn’t been gate checked, we would’ve packed up and driven back home, forfeiting our trip. The infuriating and frustrating Delta Airlines experience was enough to piss-off the good humor man, to put it lightly. Enough said on that experience.
The beautiful four-hour drive to Pikeville took us through Mt. Airy, NC, Wytheville, VA and through the heavily forested scenic backroads of Appalachia into the coal region of Pike County in eastern Kentucky. What immediately grabbed my attention are the massive highway and railroad excavations revealing precipitous cliffs exposing ancient horizontal layers of interbedded limestones, sandstones and shales. What fascinating engineering and geology.
We arrived at our destination hotel in Pikeville in time for a cool and refreshing swim in their sparkling pool. The weather was sunny, quite warm and muggy with a tropical clammy feel. The warm weather had me concerned and uneasy about marathon day – I don’t do well with heat, humidity and hills.
We arrived at the Belfry gymnasium around 1630 for packet pick-up and to partake in their complimentary pre-race pasta dinner held in the Belfry High School cafeteria for all marathon and half marathon participants. I had a choice between marinara or meat sauce. Remembering what had happened at the pasta dinner at First Light Mobile (State No. 9), it wasn’t a hard decision to make – I opted for the plain marinara sauce. Superstitious? Maybe, but I didn’t want to chance it.
The pre-race dinners are always fun. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with anyone about what else – running. Those in the running community always have an interesting story to tell.
Following our dining experience, runners enjoyed the attention-grabbing and informative H&M skit featuring “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Ran’l McCoy. It’s an annual tradition for these actors, recounting the tale of the notorious feud. In a cafeteria setting, the acoustics were less than ideal and there was too much annoying feedback with the microphone system. However, I do appreciate the enlightening experience and education. Four years ago, we watched the skit in the comfort and acoustically friendly setting of the school’s auditorium.
This great event features a full marathon and two half marathons. One half is the “Blackberry” half and the other is the “River Road” half. The Blackberry begins with the full and ends in Matewan while the other begins in Matewan and ends in Williamson. Runners may do the full, one of the halves or both of the halves, earning a special double medal.
The marathon ends in the small enclave of Williamson, WV, so runners are encouraged to park in Williamson and ride the event’s shuttle bus from Williamson to the start line in the Food City parking lot in Belfry, KY, a quick two-mile ride. Food City is also the title sponsor of the marathon.
The kind folks at Food City are awesome and welcoming people. Not only does Food City provide spreads of water, bagels, bananas, cantaloupe, watermelon, strawberries and grapes for the runners, they also allow runners inside the store to socialize in air conditioned comfort, use the restrooms or just to get out of the elements before the start of the race.
June weather in this part of the state is typically hot and humid, like a wet blanket with just a touch of a mist. Coupled with the course’s unrelenting hills, runners can quickly fatigue, dehydrate or simply run out of energy. But fear not, there are aid stations every mile to placate anyone’s thirst or nutritional needs.
My concerns for the day grew by the minute as I wandered the parking lot, but I found that talking with fellow runners temporarily eased my mind from the anxiety. At first, my goal was to break five hours; then, just to finish in under six hours. With the temperatures expected to hover around ninety degrees, I reassessed my goals and decided just finishing will make me happy.
About ten minutes before seven o’clock, the race director summoned runners to begin lining up at the start line for some pre-race announcements and the singing of our National Anthem. Devil Anse and Ran’l stood ready at the start line each clutching their double barrel 12-guage shotguns waiting for race director Alexis to signal the shotgun start (literally).
It was time, Devil Anse and ol’ Ran’l raised their guns pointing into the foggy steamy sky each simultaneously firing off a round, and the race was underway.
The first half: (9:03, 9:01, 9:44, 10:13, 10:16, 10:18, 12:37 [stopped to pet the dwarf horses], 11:37, 9:14, 11:10, 10:07, 12:56, 12:53)
One of the awesome things about the H&M Marathon is that the race organizers craft “Welcome Back” signs for all the returning runners and place them at various locations along the course route, which I think is a real cool and clever way to honor and recognize returning runners. Knowing this ahead of time, I become attentive once on the course keeping a sharp eye in order to locate my “welcome back” sign. Would I see mine?
The first aid station was located at Marathon Mile 2 and was well-stocked and well-run by super friendly volunteers. I was already drenched in sweat and looked forward to drinking several cups of water and Gatorade.
The next four miles consisted of varied rolling terrain, but nothing too difficult, but I relaxed my pace and huddled in with the ten-minute pace group (4:22 finish time). I knew that time goal would be unattainable, but I wanted to hang on as much as possible to conserve some energy for the upcoming hill climb.
|Profile of Blackberry Mountain|
As happy as I was to not be running up the mountain
anymore, the run down the steep gradient on the back side was actually harder for
me and I’ve accepted the fact that I'm not a great descender. I know the mechanics of descending a hill and
letting gravity do its job, but that's a hard thing to do when you're literally
running down a steep grade. Anytime I
got some decent speed, I felt like I was going to blow out my ankles, a knee or
go careening down the steep mountainside due to loss of balance. Fortunately, neither happened, but I felt that
the descent hammered my quads a little too much.
|Road up Blackberry grade|
|On my way.|
|Blossom on the left|
I continued on down Highway 1056 passing by several markers commemorating the feud or some other major incidence. As the heat kept rising, it gave me a reason to stop and read the historical plaques. Damaging my health over a marathon is not in my set of playing cards, so a brief respite every so often was something I needed to do.
The next three or so miles consisted of gently rolling sections of two-lane roadway with irritating cambers in some areas, then through a narrow one-lane roadway and across the Michael Justice Memorial Bridge spanning the Tug River into Hatfield territory, Matewan, WV and the site of the Matewan Massacre brought on by a dispute between the coal miners and union organizers in the 1920s.
The course led runners on Matewan’s Main Street hooking around to Hatfield Street, thence onto McCoy Alley leading to the half marathon split (also the end of the Blackberry half and start of the River Road half). As runners approach the split, one has the option of passing through the finish line and ending it with an official half marathon to your credit or continue on to the end in Williamson. With the blazing sun, heat and the stifling humidity, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if some marathoners chose to end it in Matewan.
I crossed the half split in a time of 2:19:29, hoping for a sub-five marathon, but as time passed, my hopes for such a time continued to dim and fade away.
The second half: (14:04, 15:18, 16:39, 13:05, 14:23, 16:43, 17:35, 17:17, 17:14, 17:08, 16:17, 17:21, 15:07, 13:36 projected pace [final 0.38 mi])
Marathoners continued on through the streets of Matewan, through the floodwall and back over the river into Kentucky’s McCoy territory and down a one-lane asphalt road (River Road). The journey along River Road was a very quiet five miles with practically zero traffic with a few houses or dilapidated trailers visible from the road. Runners were thin and spread out now that the half marathoners were fortunate enough to conclude their race.
Lots of folks took the time to sit out in front of their homes or along the roadway watching and cheering all that pass by. Shade was plentiful along this part of the course and the cool air radiating from the Tug River provided somewhat pleasant running conditions. Knowing what was ahead of me, I relished my time in the shade and it delivered me with the energy needed to keep plugging along, albeit a slow pace.
The continuous rolling hills caused my legs and ankles to begin feeling fatigued. I took a couple of acetaminophen tablets to take the edge off my current pain levels and to give me a little boost. Over the course of the day, I consumed enough fluids and electrolytes to prevent the discomfort of cramping.
|The swinging bridge|
As a “veteran” of this marathon, I knew what was in store along this section of roadway. After about a mile of this gravelly and muddy section, the road ended spitting out runners through a hole in a fence entering the Tug Valley Country Club golf course at Marathon Mile 18. Runners then paralleled one of the par four fairways along a rough but paved golf cart path leading up to the legendary swinging bridge over the Tug back into West Virginia, a signature part of the course. Not surprisingly, the course seemed void of golfers – likely because of the weather. The moisture levels of the fairways caused the dew point and humidity levels to rise considerably. Along with the exposed sun, the intense heat index felt was enough to pierce my soul.
Personally, I believe the wood-plank decking of the swinging bridge makes for serious tripping hazards, especially up and down the two steep approaches. Once off the bridge, I stopped at the aid station to munch on some delicious fruits and goodies and to restock my gas tank with ice water and Gatorade. The staffers were so nice and friendly and were impressed I traveled all the way from California. I wanted to stay and talk with them, but I needed to move along.
With a sense of revitalization and renewed energy from my nutrition stop, I hit the cart path once again, passing down a steep hill, under a pair of railroad trestles and back up a similarly steep hill that wrapped around a course maintenance building onto a local roadway.
Near Marathon Mile 19, runners approached another bridge leading back into Kentucky one last time. I again stopped at the aid station for some water and fruit. As I crossed the bridge, I seriously wanted to throw myself over the bridge railings into the cool waters of the Tug to end the misery! I felt exhausted and the thought of seven more miles squashed my morale.
By now, at the Marathon Mile 20 mark, the sun was out in full force, it was really hot, and the shade vanished as quickly as it came. I’ve been steadily losing time and I soon realized that a sub-five marathon was likely not in the books.
|I'd call them design demarcations of geometrical characteristics between two or more entities, not flaws.|
In the meantime, I dreaded for what lied ahead – the “McCoy Hill” at Marathon Mile 23. This hill is touted as the last major incline of the course and seems to come at the worst possible time. It goes without saying, I slowly walked up the hill while baking in the sun at the same time. For me, it was a miserable experience and when I reached the summit, it was rejoice time. I could “relax” and “enjoy” the final 5 km.
|The two men runners cannot wait to see.|
I finished with a time of 5:52:30. Much slower that what I had hoped for, but at least I beat my six-hour time goal I had made for myself soon after the half split. I finished the second half with an unbelievable time of 3:33:01 – but I’m OK with it.
Distance: Marathon (26.2 mi) – my Garmin clocked it at 26.38 mi
Date: June 9, 2018
Bib No.: 4
Weather at start: 61°F, cloudy, muggy, no breeze
Gun time: 5:52:33
Chip time: 5:52:30
Average cadence: 137 steps per minute
Average pace: 13:22 per mile
Overall rank: 148 of 228
Gender rank: 85 of 113
Division rank: 15 of 20
Elevation: 1,201 ft gain / 1,165 ft loss
Half split: 2:19:29 (10:39 pace)
Average finish time: 5:34:39
Standard deviation: 1:22:44
Age graded score: 40.72%
Age graded time: 5:11:29
Garmin splits (unbelievable): 9:03, 9:01, 9:44, 10:13, 10:16, 10:18, 12:37, 11:37, 9:14, 11:10, 10:07, 12:56, 12:53, 14:04, 15:18, 16:39, 13:05, 14:23, 16:43, 17:35, 17:17, 17:14, 17:08, 16:17, 17:21, 15:07, 13:36 projected pace [final 0.38 mi]
I was immediately handed a towel soaked in ice water which I immediately wrung out over my pounding head and face to cool my internal furnace while I sat down for a few minutes to gather my thoughts before receiving my finisher medal. A medic asked me if I needed assistance, but I told him I just need a minute to take a load off while a few other runners needed to be carted off to awaiting ambulances for medical treatment. It was definitely super-hot, with a nearby bank marquee displaying a temperature of 96°F.
|Note the temperature! 98 degrees!!|
I was pleased to meet my so-called time goal, and even more excited that I had plenty of time to relax, grab my Mason jar finisher’s award and chowing down on a delicious BBQ pulled pork sandwich, sweet juicy watermelon and drinks. Just too bad the Mason jar wasn’t filled with some locally produced moonshine – I could have used a drink.
The H&M Marathon is a fantastic race, but can be very difficult and challenging. Runners really are made to feel welcome by the locals as well as the organizers and volunteers. It has just about everything you could need (unless you thrive on big expos, massive crowds and big entry fees). The only drawback is that it takes some effort to get there, but well worth it. You even get a great history lesson thrown in at no extra charge! Booking a room early is usually a must, as lodging in the Williamson/Belfry area is limited and the nearest hotels are thirty minutes away. If you like to sleep on cots, runners are even permitted to camp out at the Belfry fire station for a nominal charge.
We flew into RDU for one main reason – to complete a double marathon weekend with North Carolina. But, that was not to be, so we had to supplement one activity for another. Our supplemental activity? How about some whitewater rafting on the New River! Sure, it may be not as strenuous as a marathon, but it’s a much cooler strenuous activity in another way.
My wife and I stumbled upon “Adventures on the Gorge” during our marathon visit in 2014. We decided to partake in the gravity zip line adventure which was an awe-inspiring and exhilarating experience. But, as we drove down the narrow canyon roads of the New River Gorge to swim in the New River, we witnessed several rafts full of thrill seeking individuals wrapping up their whitewater adventure. We second guessed ourselves and wondered if we should have done that instead of zip lining.
Fast forward to 2018. Now with a second chance, we were armed with the perfect opportunity to indulge ourselves with a whitewater rafting trip.
|Note the words "Hanks Last Stop" on sign|
|View of the gorge. New River Bridge in background.|
|Fayetteville. Had to stop here again for some pizza pies.|
Vickie, the bus driver, dropped us off near the hamlet of Thurmond, an old mining and railroad town, on the banks of the New River, about sixteen river miles upstream from the take-out base area. The road to Thurmond passes by the Skyline Drive-in just outside of Oak Hill, WV, the place where Hank Williams was found deceased in his car on New Year’s Day 1953.
After our six-hour whitewater adventure complete with a delicious lunch, including an unplanned rain and thunderstorm thrown in for good measure, it was off to a rather cool destination in rural North Carolina, Mt. Airy.
|With Andy and Opie.|
Mt. Airy? What’s so cool about that place? I believe most know, whether they admit it or not, happens to be the birthplace and home to the late Andy Griffith, and the setting and inspiration for Mayberry in the classic 60s TV sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show. Yes, you may call me a square, and I’m not embarrassed to admit, that sitcom is one my favorite classic syndicated television programs.
It takes me back to a simpler time in life, a time during my childhood days of living in a small town.
Our final day included walking around “Mayberry” seeing Floyd’s Barbershop (I even planned for a haircut, but “Floyd” was out on vacation), Opie’s Candy Store, Snappy Lunch and the Andy Griffith Museum. I even hopped into the motorcycle sidecar Barney acquired for the department.
It’s not hard to create a scene in my mind watching Barney yelling, wielding the “Big Iron” attached to his hip, absent one bullet, of course, at the town drunk, Otis, as he is once again arrested for public intoxication.
We left Mayberry in the early afternoon for a two-hour drive to Raleigh to catch our Delta flight back to LAX. This time, no delays at RDU; however, our early arrival into LAX was met with a thirty-minute delay sitting on a taxiway, sweating in that stuffy aircraft air waiting for a gate to open. Just our luck. I learned one thing, arriving early doesn’t pay off.
LIKES / WHAT WORKED:
- Great course throughout Eastern Kentucky coal country and surrounding communities.
- The two men depicting Devil Anse and Ran’l and enduring the sun and heat near the finish line high-fiving runners as they cross the timing mats.
- Very well organized event from the expo (even though it is small) to the multiple aid stations along the course.
- Super friendly volunteer support and residents, some using their hoses to spray runners with cold water.
- Medical support along the course and at the finish line.
- Thank you to the medical professionals concerned about my well-being at the finish line.
- Hats off to the great spectators displaying their support!
- Mostly shady course for the first sixteen miles or so.
- Easy parking in Williamson.
- Nice event shirt and a finisher’s keepsake Mason jar to store moonshine.
- The finish line food, BBQ sandwiches, drinks, watermelon, bananas, cantaloupe and water.
- The race organizers not cancelling the marathon due to heat indexes and black flag warnings.
DISLIKES / WHAT DIDN’T WORK:
- No, I did not see my “Welcome Back” sign 😩, but my wife found hers 😊.
- The heat and the humidity. I know, those are some elements that cannot be controlled.
- Hot and exposed for most of the second half of the course.
- Street pavement conditions – abrupt edges and muddy gravel sections of River Road over the second half.
I love visiting God’s Country and the Williamson area. I can argue that this race is still one of the best races ever and I’ve run some spectacular marathons. Of all the marathons under my belt, there is literally no competition in my mind. I’m glad I came back again this year because it firmly cemented my feelings that this is undeniably one my favorite marathons by far. There are a lot of good races out there, but in my personal view, this is probably the most fun you’ll have running 26.2 miles – putting aside those extreme meteorological conditions.
It is evident there’s history between the two families, and that alone is enough to lure history fans interested in seeing the places the feud made famous. Running this marathon is a great way to do just that since the course leads runners into regions where some of the feuding incidences happened. For history fans like myself, this is an unrivaled quality because you’re getting a personal look at the setting where some of the most famous Kentucky/West Virginia events transpired. I think of this marathon as a quick-paced history tour.
The H&M Marathon is a small low-key “hidden treasure” and is a spot-on description the race director Alexis and his dedicated team of volunteers do in the heart of Hatfield-McCoy feud country – except that no feuding takes place, just running. I am blown away by generosity of all the people who came out to cheer or volunteer to hand out course-side treats like watermelon, grapes, oranges, bananas, candy, sponges and rags dipped in ice water, ice water/chips, pickles and even fried chicken.
I don’t know what it is about the course, but you’re just surrounded by mountains, and everything is so green, and at the start, there’s typically this kind of early morning fog that appears like it’s shrouding the mountains in a clandestine manner.
Usually, June weather in the Tug Valley is hot and humid. With the area’s unrelenting hills, there are water stops every mile either to cool or nourish your inner self. Even though my finish time certainly reflected the heat related struggles I had throughout the second half of the marathon, somehow I savored each and every mile. There is no time limit to complete the marathon and the course remains open until the final runner high-fives “Devil Anse” Hatfield or Ran’l McCoy.
Yes, getting to Williamson does take some effort, but once you arrive, you’ll be in for a treat – a diamond in the rough, so to speak. The race organizers and all the volunteers are incredible. The course is both beautiful and interesting, and you get a lot of really unique special touches that you just don’t get at the bigger marathon events. Whether you’re a Maniac, Fanatic or a Fifty-Stater or just want to do something different, run this race. It's worth the trip and see how far you can run with a stolen pig.
I think hillbillies are actually pretty smart, because they live in a setting way more scenic than I do. Just saying.
One must remember, be in by dark and if you see a pig, look the other way.