Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon – Race Recap

Another weekend has come and gone, and another race was run. This one however, was unique and special in so many ways.  An inaugural event put on by Vacation Races (@VacationRaces), the Great Smoky event on September 20, 2014 was a pure joy to run in.

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My weekend in the mountains began fairly early this past Friday morning.  Living in central North Carolina, I had a long drive in front of me.  About a 360 mile drive across the state, and into Tennessee.  If you’ve never been in the mountains of NC, or the Great Smoky Mountains, the drive through them is really beautiful.  Luckily the weather was absolutely perfect for a drive, and the mountain views along the way did not disappoint.

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I had actually signed up for same day packet pickup for this race because I wasn’t sure if I could get out there with enough time left on Friday before the expo closed.  A good plan, and easy (but long) drive, got me into Townsend, Tennessee in about six and a half hours.  Plenty of time to head to the cabin I rented first, unload my bags and freshen up, and still make it to the expo with about an hour and a half to spare.  The expo was only about a four minute drive from my cabin!  Townsend is a small mountain town, with only one stop light.  I loved it.

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The expo was quite small, but very well organized.  This race wins the GRAND PRIZE for the most beautiful expo views.  Outdoor expo?  Yes, and huge bonus points because of it.  Just visiting the small expo got the juices flowing for a beautiful run the following day.  A beautiful setting, super friendly race staff and volunteers, happy runners all around.

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After the expo I set out to find a grocery store in town.  About a half mile away, I found a small store, and grabbed a few necessary items and headed back to my cabin.  Let me just say that I looked for quite sometime online for a nice place to stay, and I found the perfect spot.  I love spending time in the mountains, and have rented homes and cabins many times.  Due to the short nature of this trip I thought about getting a hotel room to keep the trip super cheap, but decided against it.  I found a very affordable cabin right in Townsend, so it was nice and quiet, and felt like a little slice of heaven with most of the comforts of home.  I think the bed was probably one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in.

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A nice quiet evening to myself, I went to bed around 10pm.  This allowed me a nice rest, even with my early race day wake up call.  This race is a point to point race, starting in Maryville, Tennessee.  Because of this, I needed to be at the race finish area (about three miles from my cabin) at 5:30am, to board a bus to Maryville.  Race morning went off without a hitch.  So easy.  Parking was plentiful at the race finish, and a huge line of school buses came rolling down the street right on schedule.  After boarding the bus, we made the 20 minute trip to the race starting area.

It was still dark when we arrived, but amenities and runner facilities were perfect for the number of runners that day.  There was music going, raffle give aways every 5-10 minutes, tables set up with hot coffee and hot chocolate, and plenty of port o potties.  I found that most runners spent the hour before the race chilling out, stretching and snapping pictures of the sunrise over the beautiful Smokies in distance.  For an inaugural event, everything was going very well.  About fifteen minutes before the start of the race, the National Anthem was played while a flag was flown.  Right after that, pacers got into place, the chute was prepared and at 7:30 sharp we were off.

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When looking at the course elevation chart online, I noticed that this race is mainly uphill.  The net elevation gain is 364 feet, but is seemingly spread out over the distance very evenly.  I do have to say that some of the uphills really surprised me.  The whole time running I kept thinking “I don’t remember this hill on the elevation chart”.  So, needless to say, I found the course much more of a challenge than the chart displayed.  I just don’t think I was ready for how tough it was.  After my calves took a huge beating at my marathon one week prior, they gave me fits on this course.  Luckily I never cramped, but was on the verge almost the entire race.  As a result, I never really felt like I could just go for it.  I was always holding back even the slightest bit, to avoid locking up.

Vacation Races, began in 2012 with the Zion Half Marathon.  Since then, they have added 5-6 races that are all centered around our National Parks here in the U.S..  This was my first, as this is the only event within driving distance from my house.  Because this race series revolves around nature and our National Park system, they practice a unique and innovative cup-less race policy.  You either bring your own hydration system, carry a water bottle or partake in their system.  Runners are given the option.  I chose to participate in their plan, as I don’t like carrying a water bottle.  They are dead set against unnecessary waste and trash at their events, which is a great thing.  I was given a hydrapouch at the expo, and had a quick demo on how to use their self-serve water stations.  The pouch is practically weightless, clips to a race belt, and you just fill and go at stations.  Nuun hydration was also available in large spigoted coolers so you had a choice.  I found it to be very easy, and wish more races would do this.  Think Green!  I had to point this out, as I never once saw not even one cup, bottle or Gu packet on the race course that had been thrown to the ground.  It definitely added to the beauty of the race.

My race was tough, I’m not going to lie.  I started ok, but just never really got into a good groove because of my calves.  Plus I think I was just so focused on the breathtaking surroundings that my focus was never on running a spectacularly fast race. I find that the older I get, my speed has become less of a focus.  This race was more about the location, sights and sounds for me.  And that’s ok.  Much of the race was run parallel to the Little River, including many ups and downs and just spectacular countryside views.  There were not a lot of spectators along the course, so if you run this one day, please just be in it for yourself.  You have to be your own cheering section.  Again, not an issue for me, it just added to the quiet and serenity of race morning.

My pace was all over the place on race day.  Up and down with the hills.  I made my way.  Because the marathon distance has been my focus this year (six Full’s so far in 2014), this race was only my second Half of the year.  Another reason my pace was all over the place.  The race did go by much quicker.  :). I had almost forgotten what it was like to run just 13.1 miles.  Did I just say that?  By no means do I mean anything negative about the distance, as last year it was my race distance of choice.  In 2013 I ran nine halves, and loved every minute.  It was so nice to be able to just run for the fun of it, and enjoy the environment, without worrying about time pressures like last week in Utah.

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As I neared the finish, it was very obvious by the time ticking away on my Garmin that this was not a race for my record books.  Hey, no problem, that was not why I was there.  I was there for a much needed mountain getaway, and a beautiful run.  The finish line in view, spectators now everywhere to push you to the finish line.  I crossed the line in 1:51:48, for an overall pace of 8:32.  Pleased, given my calf issues.  We were in the mountains after all, so there were a few issues with timing and chips, which I didn’t know until after the race was over.  Results were not easy to get, I suppose a result of GPS or cell coverage.  Whatever the issue was, complete results are still not posted as the race is making sure all runner times are correct before Spring final results.  At this point the best I can figure is that I came in 6th out of 28 in my age group, and about 68th out of 643 overall.

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As I made my way through the finisher area, runners were treated to bananas, snack boxes and chocolate milk.  The weather was perfect for just relaxing on the hillside and enjoying watching other runners finish.  As I sat on the ground stretching, I could see my calf muscles twitching uncontrollably.  I almost took a video of it, as it was quite entertaining.  The young woman sitting next to me was intrigued by it, too.  So my calves were part of the post race entertainment!  Lol.

The town of Townsend opened its arms to welcome us.  We had a beautiful day to run, and the rest of the weekend to enjoy the Great Smoky Mountains.  I have to say it was the perfect getaway.  After milling around a bit after I finished, it was a quick ride back to my cabin where I showered and changed.  I relaxed a bit on the deck, ate a sandwich and then decided to go out for a drive.  Two minutes later I was in the Park, driving on a long and winding road toward Gatlinburg.  I stopped many times for pictures.  Driving through Gatlinburg on the main drag is not easy.  Bumper to bumper traffic.  Not something I was in the mood for, so I never even stopped to look around.  Once I got through town I drove on to Pigeon Forge (Dolly Parton’s stomping ground) and stopped to eat again.  Yep, post race hunger pangs.  Then I drove back to the cabin, to enjoy the rest of the day in quiet, just listening to the Little River flow by down below the deck.  I was so relaxed I almost fell asleep around 9pm.

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It was a great trip to the Smokies!  If you’ve never been at this National Park, I urge you to go.  It is beautiful.  Rent a cabin, go alone or take family and friends.  Sign up for next years race, and enjoy a scenic run.  I, for one, am going to try to figure out how to get myself to one of their other races in the coming year.  The Vacation Races motto is “Run where you play”, and I have to agree.  Other races they put on in our National Parks are all Half Marathons, and include Zion, Grand Canyon, a Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Lake Powell.  If I was retired, I think I’d hop in the car and attend each event next year.  Now doesn’t that sound like fun?  Road trip!

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9 thoughts on “Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon – Race Recap

  1. Congrats… Sounds like a fun and scenic race. Something to be said for doing a race not worrying about your time, but just taking in the sights and enjoying it. What’s next on your race list?

    • Thank you! Next up? I am pacing the 2:00 group at a local Half on October 5th, then Chicago Marathon on the 12th. Another one to just enjoy. 1.7 million spectators should be thrilling, right? No time expectations except for going under four hours at that one. How about you?

  2. This looks like a great race. My friend was at the expo but I don’t know that he ran the race (he works for Charleston Marathon and sometimes when he goes to expos he will do the half marathons the next day). I like how you rented a cabin, and how it’s even called Vacation Races. It’s a great reason to get out for a weekend and visit a National Park. Plus the hydration/cup less system is a good thing to prevent litter.

  3. Sounds like a great race! I have seen the Vacation Races ads in Runners World and thought about adding them to my ‘race bucket list’. I’m really impressed they have a cupless policy! I’ve visited Gatlinburg once before – not my kind of town but the Smoky Mountains are gorgeous. If I ever visit there again I’ll take your advice and rent a cabin.

    • Yeah, Gatlinburg is too touristy for me. Too busy. That is not why I visit the mountains. I think you would be very impressed with Vacation Races, they are a great group of folks and really put on a top notch event. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. Great review, thanks! Thinking about running The Great Smokey Mt Half this year, and this is the best review I’ve found. Where/how did you find your cabin?

    My wife and I are thinking about pushing our 3 yr old and 1ur old in running strollers since this is one of few stroller friendly courses. We’re both about 1:45 half pace without strollers. Obviously the rolling hills will be a challenge, but other than that do you think the terrain and roads would be ok?

    Thanks- Paul

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