Unplugged in Ashe County – A New River Marathon Recap

The New River Marathon has been on my radar for a few years, and finally I was able to run it!  Tucked into the northwestern corner of North Carolina in Ashe County, the New River Marathon is a small, yet wonderful event.

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I packed up the car and drove up into the mountains on Friday afternoon.  I decided to stay in a nearby town about a twenty five minute drive away.  In the small town of Jefferson there really isn’t a whole lot to see, except for the views.  I have never been north of Boone, so this was a nice treat.  It’s about a three and a half hour drive from home.

I spent a few hours just relaxing before studying the map, and figuring out my drive down to the town of Todd where the packet pick up, and race location is.  Because this area is unfamiliar to me, I decided that even though they offered race morning packet pick up, I wanted to know where I was going.  Plus, I was in the mountains on a beautiful day, and I wanted to see the sights.

The drive was beautiful.  Mt. Jefferson towers above the first portion of the trip.  Standing about 1,600 feet above my car, I knew that on the way back I wanted to check out this mountain from the top!  Making the turn onto route 194, the road becomes very twisty and turny.  Fantastic views abound!  First up about four miles through beautiful landscapes, there were farmhouses, horses and cows at every turn.  Beautiful long range views, I even stopped on the road to take a few photos.  (Luckily no one was behind me)

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Once at the top, it’s about a three to four mile descent into the historic town of Todd.  I did some reading about this little town, and it really is fascinating.  The community was originally called Elk Cross Roads and was settled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a rural outpost in the Blue Ridge Mountains that was populated mostly by farmers.  The community was first noted on North Carolina maps in the 1850’s.  There were several dry goods stores operating there before the Civil War.  It’s hard to believe that in the 1890’s Todd was larger than Boone.

The Virginia-Carolina railroad came to Todd because of the vast tracts of timber in the area, but by 1934 most of the mountains in the valley had been stripped of trees, and during the Great Depression the the railroad tracks were pulled up, the Bank of Todd was liquidated and the town’s commerce all but vanished in just a few short years.  A devastating flood in 1940 washed away most of the town.  By WWII there were only a handful of businesses remaining in the town.  I took a picture of the Todd General Store (which is for sale), as its’ one of the oldest continuously operating general stores in the state of North Carolina.  Someone needs to buy it and keep it going!

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Just a quick history of the town, as it will pack in some interesting thoughts of its history as you run this race.  In such a small crevice tucked into the valley, they had quite a nice setup for us runners.  There’s a church, the general store, a post office, a rafting business, a mercantile and bakery, and just a few other buildings tucked in there.  The park where the race starts and finishes is small, but boasts green grass, a bandstand and enough room to camp out the night before the race if that’s your thing.

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A quick 20 minutes to park, pick up my shirt and bib, snap a few photos, and I was on my way.  I was so excited to have the chance to run this race in the morning.  Now that I was confident with how to get there in the morning I could relax, take in some sights and kick my feet up at the hotel.

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On my return trip to the hotel, I stopped off at the Mount Jefferson Natural Area for a few photos.  Not surprising to me was that at the top, there were still no leaves on the trees at all.  I live in Wake county, where Spring is much further along than in the mountains.  Dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom up there, whereas that season here has already passed.  You see where this race is located in Ashe County, right on the border of Watauga County.  From atop Mt. Jefferson, you get views of North Carolina, Tennessee to the west, and Virginia to the north.

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It was such a beautiful day, I just couldn’t get over the views!

I called it an early night, got my race day gear together and hit the hay about 10pm.  I slept horribly, fearful of oversleeping.  Marathon morning went off without a hitch though, and soon enough I was back in the car heading down to Todd.

I passed a beautiful sunrise over the mountains while driving there!  This time I couldn’t stop in the middle of the road to snap a picture because there was race morning traffic on the undulating country roads.  I arrived in Todd to a very well coordinated parking effort by volunteers.  It was a chilly morning at 43 degrees, but I knew it was going to be just perfect.  Highs for the day were supposed to be around 63.

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I packed a quick drop bag in the car before heading to the start line about a quarter mile away.  You can see from this picture that the race location is tucked into this valley.  I just knew that the views on this race course were going to be amazingly beautiful.

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This big guy was wandering around greeting runners as we made our way into the park!  That kid was fascinated!  So was I!  Not something I will probably ever see again as I get ready to run a marathon.

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I guess by now you can probably get a really good feel for the atmosphere of this race.  The New River Marathon has a very small town, country feel.  Lots of super nice people everywhere.  It is a great break from a large city event, or big race in general.

The race began promptly at 7:45am, a 15 minute delay, making sure that everyone got to the line in time.  The race course winds out of the town of Todd, and along the banks of the New River.  I was fairly close to the front of the pack over the first mile or so.  I knew with a few extremely difficult hills on this course, that I didn’t want to overdo it in the beginning.  The marathon had less than 200 participants, I figured I was somewhere in the top 50 heading out.

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Let me tell you something.  This is not the easiest course you will ever find, heck, it’s in the mountains of North Carolina, but you will be hard pressed to find one that outmatches its beauty!  There are amazing views of the mountains, the river, horse farms, old barns, wildlife, Christmas tree farms and so much more.  Because the race is small, you won’t hear much of anything other than the sound of your breathing, or the steps from other runners if one happens to be nearby.  There were times when I had no one in front of me, and no one behind me.

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The whole time I was running I feared that my Garmin would lose GPS because of the location of this race.  It actually never happened.  What I found unique about this race for me was the way that I really wasn’t hardly ever looking at it.  I was just content to run and enjoy the scenery.  The only other race I’ve run that can compete with the beauty of this one is Big Cottonwood in Utah.  This race is all kinds of eye candy, and it was so good for my soul!  The quiet serenity of this marathon course will almost lull you into thinking that you aren’t even running a marathon.  It was that special!

Water stops were just about perfect on this course, I never once was yearning for water.  Each stop was staffed with smiling faces, and some stops even had gels, bananas, chocolate candies, etc..  They did a great job.  Even after a couple of the tougher steep-grade hills, there were nice downhills to give you a break.  It really was the perfect course to challenge the runner, and yet give an awesome sense of nature and beautiful surroundings.

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I knew I was having a good race.  Like I said before, I wasn’t trying to set any land speed records, but I did want to perform well.  I few times I felt calf cramps coming on, but nothing major.  I did see plenty of folks in the later miles of the run having issues though.  I just plodded along, enjoying the views.  Every now and then I would pick off a runner who was starting to lag a bit, and we would exchange kind words of encouragement.  It was just that kind of race.

This is a race for anyone who loves nature.  Anyone who loves small town races, and is best run “unplugged”.  Enjoy the sights and sounds.  Leave that IPod at home.  The sounds of the flowing New River, and occasional mooing cow and chirping bird are all you need.

Nearing the end of my race I just couldn’t believe that I had just covered that many miles without really realizing it.  I made the final push back into the town of Todd, where family members and runners alike were cheering.  Then the final quarter mile, with a turn onto the grass into the park to finish.  My race was over.

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A finish time of 3:50:13, placed me 32nd overall.  With a unique medallion placed around my neck, I just basked in the glow of what I had just achieved.  It was a run for the record books, and I’m not referring to anything close to a personal best.  Record books meaning one of the best races I’ve run.  Best places, best atmosphere.  It truly was a devine experience for my soul.

It was an incredible, unique, beautiful, quiet, serene, cozy type of event.  Not a lot of fanfare, or bells and whistles.  If you choose to run this event one day, it will truly be you and nature only, running together in perfect harmony.

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8 thoughts on “Unplugged in Ashe County – A New River Marathon Recap

  1. I went to Appalachian State and this race has been on my radar for a while now, too. After reading your recap, I want to do it even more. I love that there was a pig hanging out with you beforehand. Sounds amazing.
    Congrats on a great race, too!

    • It made quite an impact on me Angie! The course was never once boring, and the people were fantastic. I could have taken a million more photos, the course is so scenic.

  2. What a gorgeous run to have relatively close to home! It really reminds me of one I did in VT, the Shires of VT Marathon. Right down to the medal. Great job on your race! I never sleep well the night before for the same reason – fear of oversleeping!

    • I still have an awesome afterglow from this race. There’s nothing worse than a boring race course, especially when you’re out there for 26.2 miles. This course was beautiful from beginning to end.

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