On Saturday May 14th I ran the Harpers Ferry Half Marathon in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
My dad and I drove to West Virginia on Friday afternoon and headed right to packet pickup in a hotel conference room. It was small, but everyone was super friendly. From there we grabbed dinner at a local Italian restaurant and went back to the hotel to relax. My dad had decided not to run this half marathon because his knee is still healing from a previous injury. I had read the course was very hilly, and there would be a mix of terrain. It was both of these things so he absolutely made the right decision. I would not recommend this race to anyone with an injury but if you are going in healthy and with the right expectations you can have a great time like I did!
The start and finish line was located at River Riders in Harpers Ferry (they offer ziplining, tubing, biking, and general adventuring). It was easy to find parking when we got there around 7:15 or so (we left the hotel around 7). There was day of race packet pickup and plenty of port-a-poties. My dad and I just hung out as I tried to calm my nerves for what I expected to be a ruthless course.
The finish line is behind me, luckily we started going down this hill and ended coming down it too.
Around 7:45 they asked all the runners to gather together we took a short walk down the hill to the “official” start line (there was no chip reader or anything). There were probably about 300 runners or so. It was large enough that I knew I’d never feel alone but small enough that I knew I wouldn’t feel crowded.
Since I wasn’t completely sure what to expect (and was a bit freaked out about the hills) I planned to turn off my run/walk intervals and just run when I wanted to and walk up any hills that I couldn’t see the top of. I knew that keeping my intervals on would just frustrate me when I inevitably hit a walk on a downhill or a run on an uphill. I was just going to go by my body felt.
Right at 8am they sounded a horn and we were off. The first mile was gradual downhill. I was super careful to take my time, there was no point in wasting energy. Once we got to the bottom of the hill we turned right and entered into Harpers Ferry National Park and made a loop through what I can only assume was a battle field. We ran on some dirt paths that were mowed into the ground. It was really scenic though there was a portion that was uphill. I kept running but took my time. Everyone around me seemed to have the same strategy. There was very little passing or jockeying for position going on. The weather turned out to be perfect – mid 50s and a few clouds and some sun!
After leaving the battlefield we turned left to head up the way we came from. This meant we had to head uphill towards our eventual finish line. This would typically be a tough on me mentally but this time around it really wasn’t. Almost everyone around me slowed to a walk up the hill, grabbed water at the water station half way up, and we were cheered on by the runners waiting to start the 5k. It was not bad at all. We hit mile 3 at the top of the hill.
From there we headed onto a dirt trail with a few switchbacks. I took my time, watched my footing and was fine.
After leaving the trail we crossed through a campground before heading on a small out and back stretch on what I think was another part of another battlefield. I didn’t mind the out and backs on this race at all because they were short and the scenery was so interesting it didn’t feel boring. I was averaging around a 12:15 pace at this point.
After the out and back we hit another little trail area before coming out at the top of a hill. I grabbed some water at the water station and saw my dad who had decided to drive around to try to find me.
Now, I love downhills, a lot. I enjoy “letting gravity do the work” and getting down them quickly, but this one was a killer. Never in my life have my knees ached on a downhill. I did stop to walk at one point because the impact was getting to me. It felt like it was just straight down.
You can see the hill there around an hour into the race.
I did catch up and pass a few people on the downhill, but that really wasn’t my goal. One runner told me “this is the one we have to go up at mile 11 and 12”. I realized how much that was going to suck but just pushed it out of my head and tried to enjoy myself. The leader passed on the other side of the road when I was around mile 5.5 and he was around 12. Crazy.
At the bottom of the hill we turned onto a rail trail next to the Shenandoah River. Looking at the map now I realize that we went under an Appalachian Trail crossing. Pretty cool.
It was gorgeous. I had to stop and take a photo, especially since my dad wasn’t running the race.
Around mile 6.5 we could see Harpers Ferry in the distance. So pretty. Then we left the rail trail and entered the “Historic Town of Harpers Ferry” and were greeted with an uphill that I can only call epic.
It was long and STEEP. This portion of the race was also an out and back but again it didn’t bother me at all. I was focused on power walking up the hill. We passed historic shops, bed and breakfasts and between the buildings I caught glimpses of the Potomac river. I power walked up that hill as quickly and as strongly as I could, but it was not easy being 8-9 miles in at this point. It eventually flattened out a bit so I could actually run. I saw my dad near the turn around point so I was able to see him once on the way there and once on the way back.
He said I looked strong and honestly I felt REALLY strong given the course. My strategy of walking the tough up hills was working out really well. We turned around at mile 9.5
We got to run some glorious downhill (with a few ups thrown in, of course).
We turned by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Visitor Center and made a loop where we passed the Park Headquarters.
I had to get a photo – what a unique race opportunity! From there we got back on the main road in Historic Harpers Ferry and got to take a nice down hill. Then around mile 11 the uphill began and it was not easy. The hill (the steep one we had gone down around mile 5) was tough. I often put my hands on my back to give myself the feeling of pushing myself up. Everyone around me had slowed to a walk and was doing the same thing I was – trying to keep powering up. I tried to talk to people, take in the nature around me and not wish the time to go faster despite the fact that my legs were pretty tired at this point. This was easily my slowest mile of the race.
I was SO glad when I got to the water stop at the top of the hill (around mile 12). I told the volunteers that I was so happy to see them. From there we looped back through the trails, which felt much harder this time around. I took my time and watched my footing to avoid tripping since I was tired. There were a few tiny uphills (that felt huge at this point) and then we had a short, glorious downhill to the finish. I tried to give it a final kick since I felt I definitely had some energy left despite what I had been through.
I finished in 2:49:45 and have absolutely no complaints.
My first PR of 2015 was almost a year ago and I finished that race in 2:50 on a downhill course, so despite my time not being super fast for me I know that I am so much stronger than I was at this time last year.
The Harpers Ferry Half Marathon is a tough course, and I doubt many people PRed. This is a race where it is important to set your expectations and not be bummed out if you don’t hit a time goal. BUT it is completely 100% worth it because the course, scenery, organization and volunteers are amazing. You do not got bored at this race. I felt the miles ticked by very quickly (except maybe from 11 to 12, ha)! I found a video a fellow runner took and you can view it here. There’s actually a few cameos by me in a few of the shots – she was right behind me and I had no idea! I hope I am fortunate enough to get to run this one again and if you are looking for a race in West Virginia I 10000% recommend it.