Thursday, September 27, 2012

Charleston Distance Run 15 miler - Capitol Punishment

The Charleston Distance Run celebrated its 40th birthday this year on the banks of the Kanawha River in West Virginia.  I celebrated my 37th a few days prior to the race.  Twenty years ago, near my 17th birthday, I emerged from the Kanawha River after competing in the 1.5-mile Charleston Distance Swim and watched the start of the Charleston Distance Run 15-mile race.  Back then, the events were part of weeklong Charleston Sternwheel Regatta festivities that brought hundreds of thousands of revelers to the Kanawha Valley and downtown Charleston.  In 1992, watching the start of the race, I was in awe of the throngs of mostly men as they chugged past me, running towards the mountain looming in the distance, as they tested themselves on a challenging 15 mile race.  Even though I had just swam over a mile, the thought of running 15 miles in our hilly valley astounded me.

Beautiful Capitol of West Virginia
Fast forward to 20 years later, and I am sprinting from the parking lot to the starting line, barely reaching the crowd of participants before the cannon goes off.  I step in, we lurch forward, and the race has begun before I even have the chance to process the fact that I was actually amongst the runners attempting to run the 15 mile race.  The night before, we arrived from South Carolina to my parents' house in my West Virginia hometown, just downriver from Charleston.  In a flurry of activity, we got the kids to bed, our running gear gathered, our packets inspected, and bib numbers distributed.  I ate my traditional night-before-race-day giant bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios as I mentally went through my running gear checklist.  My entire family was to participate in Charleston Distance Run events:  my mom and dad would do the 5k walk with our 3 year old, my 7 year old son would run the 5k with my brother, and my husband and sister-in-law would be running the 15 miler.
Bro & Sis-in-law before the start

All of these logistics made for a frenzied getting-ready process the morning of the race.  I am usually extremely organized, with sharpie-labeled baggies of nutrition and gear.  This morning I just grabbed my dedicated running duffle bag and hit the door.  We arrived at the Laidley Field parking lot with only minutes to get ready and hit the bathroom.  We ran to the start in the already-hot and muggy morning, with temps in the upper 70s and 100% humidity.  I was immediately slicked in sweat.  Eww.

Bro & my 7yo son running 5k
The Charleston Sternwheel Regatta is sadly no longer, but the Distance Run has survived despite the festival's demise.  At this 40th running, it has maintained its draw: America's 15 miler.  The race directors have been pressured in the past to make the run a 13.1 half marathon, or to take the Hill of Death out of the course, both strategies in order to attract more participants.  But, I am glad the race organizers have stuck to their guns: the 15 mile race is unique, and The Hill makes for a tremendous challenge and a breathtakingly beautiful ride down the other side.  Those of us who have participated in Half Marys in the past welcome the challenge to race "just two more miles," and will find that those last two miles will be some of the hardest in the race.  Marathoners love the shorter distance, and the challenge of The Hill is a great test of even the strongest marathon legs.

Hubs looking strong at mile 11
Photo by Dan Todd
Speaking of marathons, many folks I talked to prior to the race were using this race as "a training run" for an upcoming marathon.  Hubs and I also took this strategy as we train for our first marathon this winter.  My goal was to run an actual race, at marathon pace, testing hydration and nutrition strategies, as well as clothing and gear.  I learned a whole lot on this race, and despite the heat and humidity, posted a pace that was close to my goal marathon pace.  I also learned that my long slow distances are making me a long slow runner.  I even had a wise friend tell me so, which was very helpful.  I learned that in order to not lose my speed during marathon training, that I need to work more speedwork into my training, and register for some shorter distance races in the meantime.  I also got the chance to test out the saltsticks during this race, as the high humidity made the hydration very tricky.  In longer endurance events, I have a tendency to cramp in my legs, causing what my brother and I jokingly call the "fainting goat" cramps...our legs stiffen and we literally almost fall over, with straight legs.  The saltstick strategy worked, and I had no cramps during the race.  My nutrition and hydration strategy was:

  • Honey Nut Cheerios and coffee at 5:30am
  • Ensure at 6:30am
  • Gatorade and water on the way to the race
  • Clif Shot Double Expresso 10 mins before the start
  • Saltstick at 40 mins
  • Clif Shot Strawberry at about 50 mins
  • Saltstick at 1:30
  • Clif Shot Strawberry at 1:45
  • Saltstick at 2:00
  • Alternated Gatorade and Water at each relief station
  • Saltstick and Gatorade after finish

My hurried start to the race caused me to forget several items, but running without them turned out to be fine, and was a good test as to what I really needed on a long race.  I forgot my calf sleeves, sunscreen (thankfully it was cloudy), patellar strap, and sunglasses (again, not needed).  The rest of my gear consisted of:
  • Headsweats visor (which I ditched at mile 11)
  • iPod shuffle (used intermittently during the race when I needed a music boost) 
  • Under Armor tank, Champion sports bra (my favorite from Target)
  • Under Armor compression shorts
  • North Face shorts
  • Hippie Runner expandable pouch belt
  • 3 Clif Shots, Strawberry and Double Expresso
  • 4 Saltstick caplets
  • iPhone
  • Thorlo Experia socks
  • Asics Gel Nimbus 13
Me at mile 11ish
Photo by Dan Todd
I was not happy with my expandable pouch belt and shirt combination.  The shirt was billowy, and the belt had to go under the shirt, and it bounced and irritated my bare skin.  Everything else worked great, even when soaking wet with sweat.  My shoes squished as sweat ran in rivulets down me into my socks.  The Experia socks are by far my favorite, they have not let me down yet!

The Course
The race course is a beautiful representation of the city of Charleston WV.  Runners start at the stunning capitol building, one of the prettiest in the nation.  

The Boulevard
The first few miles are along the flat Kanawha Boulevard, a favorite route of local runners.  The view from the Boulevard is breathtaking: stately homes and buildings to the right, the Kanawha River to the left, and the mountains rising from the riverbank on the other side.  Then runners cross the South Side Bridge, and run downriver on the Old Kanawha Turnpike until turning up The Hill.  

The Hill
The Hill (affectionately known locally as the Hill of Death, or HOD for short) is a long straight uphill along a main thoroughfare, Corridor G.  Nothing scenic about this part of the run at all.  Just a good two miles of uphill chug, staring at the pavement in front of you.  Then the hill breaks, and turns left into South Hills, an established affluent neighborhood with an eclectic assortment of creatively-built hillside homes.  The hill continues on for another mile or so, and just before the summit, the George Washington High School band plays, encouraging runners up that last steep section.  

The Downhill
Then, finally, runners start their cruise downhill, along a beautiful shady road.  Spectators line the route in their driveways, cheering them on.  The last section of downhill reveals a spectacular view of the river, capitol, and city skyline with the mountains behind it.  Back across the South Side bridge, the run takes you through the flat East End, among Charleston's largest and oldest homes.  Residents were standing in front of their homes and on their porches, cheering on the runners, and a few lovely souls had their garden hoses out, spraying us off as we ran by.

The Capitol and Boulevard (again)
The East End section ended and the Capitol grounds began.  A scenic but quick run through the capitol complex, a turn right, and by mile 9 we were back on the Boulevard where we started.  Fortunately the aid station here offered cups of ice, which reenergized me for the last 10k.  A long run along the Boulevard, and runners turn right into downtown, past the mall, and a final turn right toward the finish.

Final 2 miles
Probably the hardest section of the race, the final two miles was demoralizing and tough.  Again, I have run several 13.1s, but these last two miles proved to be tougher than I anticipated.  Spectators dropped off, runners were spread out, and the scenery turned into the warehouse district, which is not exactly a scenic area to run through.  The buildings blocked any hint of wind that may have been stirring in the valley.  Runners can hear Laidley Field (the finish line) from this part of the run, the announcer calling the finishers' names as they make their way around the track in the stadium, with spectators cheering from the bleachers.  Knowing I had to run that last 300 meters in front of a large crowd, I found myself taking frequent walk breaks in those last two miles, mainly to make sure I could finish strong.  I also was starting to experience chill bumps, an indication that I was getting too hot and had to slow down.  Boo.  By this time, in these conditions, runners had been sweating profusely for over two hours, the sun was high (but luckily it was cloudy), temperatures were heating up, and gumption was running out.  

However, my final two miles were probably less ugly than others', because my brother showed up to ride with me on his bike, having finished the 5k, offering funny stories and a much-needed towel.  His comic relief helped me forget my aches and pains and trudge on.  And yes, at this point, it was a trudge.  

My friend Tracey and me cooling off at the finish
Photo by Dan Todd
I was so happy to finally enter Laidley Field.  The place where I ran my track meets as a high schooler, this track has many memories embedded in it for me.  I watched my brother play high school football here, and spent many hours here myself, running the 400, 800, relays, and 200 and 300 hurdles in my super awesome racing spikes.  The good ole days.  I rounded the last turn for the finish line, where the finish line was for track meets as well.  A flashback to the early 90s hit me as I crossed that line.  A volunteer handed me a cold wet towel, and I was glad to finally have the Charleston Distance Run behind me.  And guess what?  I immediately thought, "I cannot wait to do it again."  Ok, I can WAIT to do it again, but I definitely WANT to do it again. 

I was proud to finish the race, and I was very proud of those who also finished that day.  My husband finished with a strong time, my sister-in-law finished speedily, as always, and my long-distance running friend Tracey finished well, topping off just over a year of running.  My parents and 3yo finished the 5k walk, and my brother and 7yo son finished the 5k race.  Race medals were earned all around.  The volume of folks out being physical that Saturday morning made me proud for my family and proud for West Virginia.  

Overall the race was a great experience.  Yes, the conditions were miserable.  The humidity was stifling and to be sweating for that long is agonizing.  The mental challenge of running up The Hill is a significant test of will and toughness.  Training for such a race throughout the hot South Carolina summer is not easy.  I learned that many trials await those who take on this race, and those who finish come through stronger and more confident for their future races.

It took me 20 years to work up the guts to run the Distance Run.  Now I hope I'll still be running it in another 20 years.  New goal.

7yo & 3yo show off their muscles and medals after finishing 5k


  1. Great recap, Shannon! Sounds like an awesome and challenging race! :)

  2. someday, some year, I'm gonna run that sucker! I keep "wimping" out and end up running the 5k instead because I'm afraid of the hill!