Putting ‘America’s Toughest’ Marathon To The Test

Jeff Powers breaks the tape for the second year in a row.

Runners flocked to the April 26 Blue Ridge Marathon for the climb of their lives.

Jeff Powers didn’t think he’d be coming back to the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon this year. After all, the 31-year-old had already conquered those hills—no, mountains—in 2013 and figured he’d ticked that box on his running bucket list.

But as the year crept on, Powers once again set his sights on Blue Ridge, a four-year-old race run throughout Roanoke, Va. Not just for the sake of defending his title—he also saw it as a chance to bring together his parents with those of his fiancé, Jeannine, whose father would be running in the coinciding 10K. A “Meet the Parents” moment at a marathon, which bills itself as America’s Toughest 26.2-miler. No pressure, right?

A cool-headed Powers prevailed, easily winning the race on a bluebird, 60-degree morning in 2:52:24. It was far off his 2:34 PR, but finishing time is irrelevant on this course, which includes a relentless route that takes runners through 7,430 feet of total elevation change. Powers ran entirely alone from the gun, eventually building a 20-minute lead over the 483 other competitors, which included women’s winner and second-place overall finisher Lorraine Young, 40, of Raleigh, N.C. (3:13:46, a new course record). With his arms raised in victory, Powers finished into a throng of awaiting local media who clamored for his attention like he was an A-Lister on the red carpet.

PHOTOS: Virginia’s Blue Ridge Marathon

“This is somewhat of a hometown race for me,” the bushy-bearded doctoral student at Temple University said after his race. “I live in Philly now, but I love coming back to the area. There’s nothing like it.”

Indeed, the race’s punishing terrain is unique among almost every other marathon out there, causing the runners we informally polled to unanimously agree that it is, in fact, “America’s Toughest Road Race.”  Aside from the trio of major climbs in the marathon—including a half-mile slog up Roanoke Mountain along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then there are the descents. Which, at first, appear to be a welcome break to the climbs, but the ensuing pavement pounding can be severe enough to wrench your back and trash your quads. The course is so challenging that the race officials suggest that runners add at least a minute per mile to their standard race pace.

“No one’s here to PR,” said Eli Clegg, a 39-year-old Richmond-area runner who finished the half-marathon in 1:59:16. “I usually run 20 minutes faster. These hills are just brutal, but hey, you can’t beat the scenery.”

That scenery serves as a sort of consolation prize for the runner’s herculean, hill-climbing efforts. Expansive swaths of Roanoke Valley appear at the peak of nearly every brutal climb, the trees ripe with budding blooms and emerald-hued leaves. Stately homes dot the neighborhoods in Peakwood as residents sit in their grassy lawns ringing cowbells, waving signs, and rooting on the hundreds of runners streaming by.

“The whole town comes out for this. It’s a big deal,” says Roanoke resident Mike Johnson, 50, who ran the 10K in 1:02:01. “It’s the perfect time of year here, the mountains are just gorgeous and we’ve got great weather.”

Later, runners—their silver medals draped around their necks—filled outdoor cafes in downtown Roanoke, sipping beers while tie dyed-clad, dreadlocked locals swayed to a Grateful Dead cover band, and artisans hocked homemade soaps and hand carved dulcimers on Market Street. It was Roanoke at its finest: An eclectic mix of colorful hippie vibe and sweet, southern charm. Later that night, alt hip-hop group G-Love & the Special Sauce headlined the Down by Downtown Music Festival  in the city’s newly refurbished amphitheater at Elmwood Park (admission came free with race registration). Visibly stiff runners grooved as the famed Roanoke Star sparkled from Mill Mountain 1,045 feet above, a shining reminder of just how far—and how high—they’d traveled.

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