Race: The Hatfield McCoy Marathon – Blackberry Mountain Course (First Half)
City: Started in South Williamson (Goody) KY, Finished in Matewan, WV Date: 06/14/2014
Distance: Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
Weather: Mid-50s at start, just over 60 at finish; partly sunny and mildly humid
Course: ha – Blackberry Mountain… it beat the Presidio from the San Francisco Marathon First Half terms of climb (though… those images do not do it justice), so I’m gonna go with Hilly – haha
Summary: Awesome race, great town and I won Age Group!?!?!
One of the many things I love about where I live in Central NC is that I am close to both the beach and the mountains. As a kid, I was lucky enough to have parents who also loved both and they took me to each part of the state many times. Even now, many years later, I still gasp a little at the first sight of the beach or of the mountains – in awe of the beauty of it all. Recently, however, I’ve only really made it to the beach. Outside of a work trip out west, I had not seen mountains in a few years – and I’ve been missing the NC mountains, so I was looking forward to this trip. Yes, I realize this trip is outside of NC, but it is the same chain (Appalachians), and the beauty of it extends beyond the borders of my own state.
I drove through some of the mountains of West Virginia on my way to the Indy 500 Mini Marathon a couple of years ago – and because I was traveling with my Dad (who loves to sight see as much as I do… a fitting story considering this is Father’s day weekend) we decided to stop at the New River Gorge and I could not get over how beautiful the mountains were in West Virgina. Needless to say, I was excited about seeing it again.
Plus: I have never officially been to Kentucky.
This race was recommended by a friend I routinely run with at the nOg club. She was planning to do the full and had a lot of nice things to say about the event as a whole. I had been looking at doing this race for a while, but this was the first year I could make it fit into my schedule. When she and I talked about it during one of our runs, she recommended staying in the local fire station – a small donation was all they were asking. It was a drivable (therefore ninja-tripable) distances and, because I was taking this trip solo, I didn’t really want to spend a lot on it.
I was intrigued by the theme of it, though: the Hatfield-McCoy feud. I grew up in the south and I, of course, heard of the feud, but admittedly, I had no idea what it was about or any of the details of it. Until I got there, I thought it was over disputed land, which was an assumption I made because in history, that’s a common cause of a dispute that lasts years like this. A quick trip to Wikipedia, however, could have given me a better insight to the race and the weekend before I got there.
The whole thing was about a pig.
Actually, there was a kerfuffle a few years earlier when one of the McCoys joined the Union Army in the Civil War and a Hatfield uncle of the major players in the primary feud was pissed about it, and Union supporter was murdered. The Hatfield Uncle was suspected of murdering him but was never convicted and, as such, this incident is not considered to be related to the giant feud started by the pig incident. Apparently, a Hatfield (who were supposedly more wealthy and had more political pull in the area) took a McCoy pig and that’s what started all of this.
Dude just wanted his pig back.
When the accused were told to bring the pig to the trial (there were markings on the animal that the McCoy family claimed were theirs), it turned out the pig had already been slaughtered and eaten… that pissed off the McCoys, and there you go. There were all kinds of things that happened as a result of it: jilted romantic involvements, double-crossing, houses being burned and folks shot while sleeping, and many heated physical battles ending in injury and death – in all about 12 people were murdered as a result and one ended up getting hanged for crimes. There is even a supreme court ruling because of these guys that says even illegal return of fugitive from an asylum state does not prevent trial of the person under federal law. It wasn’t until 2003 that the feud “officially” ended, though, the violence ceased about 100 years before that. According to Wikipedia, since 2000, they have held a reunion festival which includes this race, re-enactments, history, ATV tours and fair-like making and exchanging of food, usually held around the official reunion day, June 14. This year, the race was separated from the reunion weekend (now to be held on the 21st) because it is supposedly the 15th anniversary (all of the stuff I got from the race had 15th anniversary printed all over it) so I assume they held one unofficially in 1999.
This event – at least the first half – was spread out over a few very small towns separated by the Tug Fork River: Williamson, West Virginia and Matewan, West Virginia. Williamson actually crosses the Tug Fork River, so part of it is in West Virginia, and part of it is in Kentucky, though, the Kentucky side has the name “South” Williamson and is about 3-times bigger. You can see the Kentucky side from the hills on the West Virginia side. The West Virginia side of town is home to the Coal House – and yes, it is actually made of coal. It was a public works project from the 1930s and has stood since, though, it was severely burned several years ago. The burned portion was restored and now service as the Tug Valley chamber of commerce. I didn’t get a chance to go inside it – I’m not even sure you can go inside it.
The finish of the First Half (called the Blackberry Mountain course) ends in the tiny town of Matewan, West Virginia. And, yes, the same as the film about the “battle of Matewan” unionizing incident from the 1920s. I remember that film coming out, but I didn’t know what it was about until today, so I really want to see it now. And, I was informed, that the town was, in fact, named after the town in New York with a similar spelling, but the locals decided to change the spelling and the pronunciation from “matta-whan” to “mate-wan”, unlike the NY town it was named after) on the WV side of the river and South Williamson (containing the unincorporated communities of Belfry and Goody) on the KY side. So, as small as I thought my home town is, it is a giant compared to these towns.
And, I’ll bring you back to the intro of this piece: it is the mountains. I tried to capture some of the beauty via photo, but it does not do the scene justice – the camera cannot capture the entirety of the beauty there. It remote. It is quiet. It is small.
It was a very pleasant place to visit, for me.
I decided to stay in the Williamson Fire Department (on the WV side of the river) during my trip there. Primarily because of the price, but secondarily because I thought it would be cool to meet other runners. The friend that recommended this race is part of the Marathon Maniacs group and said a large contingent of that group would be at the fire house and suggested I stay there. I also noticed that the Hatfield McCoy Marathon website listed a 50-States Marathon Club event, which meant a large number of those folks were likely to be there, as well. These are my people – how could I not stay there? Even if I wasn’t a member, I was likely to meet a few cool folks, maybe learn something, maybe hear about a cool race to do… all of which happened.
I left my house mid-morning on Friday before the race. It had been a busy week at work and I joined a high school friend for an impromptu concert (Vampire Weekend – great show!!) and I was behind on laundry and packing. I got all my stuff together, threw it all in the car and was on my way by about 10:30. I decided to bring snacks to eat on the way up so I didn’t have to stop often. The drive was uneventful but very, very pretty, especially once I entered VA. I’m not sure what it is about VA and GA, but you all have the prettiest states and I can always tell once I cross the border that I’m in your state.
I went straight to the packet pick up in Belfry High School, South Williamson, KY. I got there at the perfect time – around 5:15, so I didn’t have to wait in line for too long. I got my bib, the bag (a zip bag with the logo which was pretty nice!) of stuff which included some fliers and a plastic cup (which my boys will love), and picked up my shirt. I got my ticket for the pasta dinner and turned the corner to see a set of tables with people selling stuff ranging from candles to jewelry to previous years’ shirts. They were all very friendly and welcoming as I passed by their tables. I made my way into the high school cafeteria where I got my pasta dinner.
Yes, I know I’m gluten free, but I felt it to be a bit rude not to take anything. I went through the line and took a plate of pasta, passed on the bread and took the salad, carrot cake and a bottle of water. One of the high school kids offered to take my tray – I said “oh, that’s OK, I can take it – thank you, though” she replied “well… that’s my job – that’s what I’m here for – to take your tray!” OK, then. I let her take the tray. She placed me at a big, empty table, and I took a seat. I ate the meat sauce off the pasta and the salad, and, although it contained gluten, some of the carrot cake (I hate to admit it, but I LOVE carrot cake). A woman ended up sitting at the other side of my table, but neither of us spoke to each other – I thought to myself, “should I say something? try to be friendly?” she didn’t seem to be in a chatty mood, so I just went back to looking at my phone and tried to send text messages to friends while I still had that one bar of a signal. When I finished, I threw my stuff away and set off to find the Williamson WV fire station.
The Williamson Fire Station was just on the other side of the Tug Fork River – in fact, because Williamson is situated on the side of the mountain and up higher than Belfry, you can actually see the high school from some parts of the town. I drove around to find a place to park and ended up meeting a man in the parking lot from Atlanta. He was an older man who was a part of the 50-States Marathon Club and decided on a whim to stay in the fire station because he’d “never done anything like this before and, well, if nothing else, it’ll be an adventure”. Exactly my sentiment! He and I talked and chatted like old friends in the first 20 minutes of meeting, so we ended up hanging around and getting cots near each other. We brought our stuff in and set up and decided to go outside and explore (this man is *exactly* like me and my dad so he was a great companion!). We went out front and were deciding where to go when we ran into the woman from Kentucky who decided to do the race at the last minute and was asking questions about where to go and shuttles. We told her we were planning to walk around the town to explore and asked her if she’d like to join us for the walk – she graciously accepted, so the three of us set off to explore the town of Williamson, WV… and a little bit of KY.
We walked around for about an hour, snapping photos of the towns, the signs, picking up rocks and they convinced me to have photos taken of myself in these places (something I don’t usually do), so now I have photos of myself at the KY and WV signs as well as at the Coal House (made of real coal!) and in front of the Williamson WV Fire House. We also ran into the race director for the Loonies Midnight Marathon in Livngston, TN and he described the race for us. Turns out, Atlanta was planning to do the race (in July – 5 weeks from this weekend). It sounded like a pretty awesome race and the RD was a great guy! Around 8, we decided to head back. I took a phone call from my kids, and then tried to locate a way to heat up the gluten free pasta I brought with me. Once I had my pasta, I changed into my sleeping clothes and got all my run gear out. Around then, most of the other runners started to filter in, including a friend (in the Maniacs as well) of my friend from MO came to Raleigh for the Tobacco Road Marathon in March! It was great to see an unexpected familiar face! He is such a friendly guy – introducing me to all his travel buddies. I then saw my friend who recommended the race – she and I talked for a bit, and then I got my extra water and settled in for the night. I was out by around 9:30.
The Fire Station had set up about 60 cots for all of us on the second floor in a couple of large, empty rooms. The cot wasn’t the most comfortable sleeping I’ve had, but it was not as uncomfortable as I expected and I was grateful for a place to sleep. In fact, I slept pretty well, all things considered. I didn’t get woken up in the middle of the night by others making noise or using electronics. The only thing that woke me up was how cold I was. I left a blanket and pillow my son brought to school the day before in my car, and thank God. I woke up because I was shivering. I put my socks on and that helped a bit, but I couldn’t find the fleece I brought so I sucked it up and ended up falling back to sleep at some point. I did hear a guy snoring, but I didn’t realize it was snoring until I woke up the next morning – all that time I thought it was someone zipping and unzipping their bag! haha.
The great thing about camping out with a whole bunch of runners is that you all get up around the same time. I set an alarm because I was worried that I *might* sleep through it (it has happened before), but I honestly didn’t think I would. It was a precaution more than anything. I heard others rustling and milling about around 4:30 or so, and I finally got up around 5 AM (7 am start time) and headed to the bathroom to get ready. Even at that early hour, there was a line, but it moved quickly as we were all pretty efficient at getting dressed and suiting up, as it were. I saw the Kentucky woman that I walked around with the day before and told her I’d gather her and the Atlanta guy so we could walk down to the shuttles to the start line together. I ate my cereal, drank my water and Gatorade, and pinned, re-pinned, and checked and rechecked all my stuff. I was ready to go, but I wanted to put all my stuff in my car so I was ready to roll out when I got back. I ran into Atlanta and told him I was taking my stuff to my car and he decided to do the same, so I waited for him to pack up and we walked out together, gathering Kentucky on our way down.
The three of us walked to the shuttles (following the crowd) and got on the bus together just before 6 am. The buses they used were small ones, likely used for an elementary school, as there were these complicated harnesses and even a car seat in them. All the seats had little bubbles above them with the kids’ names – they were actually very cute. We took our seats and chatted about the upcoming race. We were dropped off in the Food City (a local grocery store chain) parking lot at 6 am on the dot. I like to get there early, but we had an hour and this was a much smaller race than I am accustomed to, so the hour might have been a bit long. We hung around in the parking lot, chatting, goofing off, and photo bombing people in the 50-States Marathon and Marathon Maniacs clubs, thanks to Atlanta. He is a super friendly guy with a goofy sense of humor, so it made for a fun hour (and now the three of us are included in the Marathon Maniacs group photo for posterity as proof). He ended up striking up a conversation with a man I thought he knew (because of the way he talked to him), but it turned out he had never met him before. The guy was a veteran of the Hatfield-McCoy marathon and, as it turned out, also from Kentucky – from the same town as Kentucky – so they started chatting about the running groups and races as a whole. He then asked us if we had done this race before. We all smiled and said no, and he chuckled and said “ok, then… let me give you some advice.” He proceeded to describe the course, some of the locals who come out to watch us (one I missed) and said that, when it came to Blackberry Mountain: walk up and down – that sucker is steeper than it looks. We thanked him for the advice and chatted about running stuff. It was cold, though, mid-50s, so I was shivering and anxious for it to start.
At around 6:50, they moved the starting line into position (you read that right – it is literally a banner they had off to the side and moved it onto the official start line they had spray painted on the parking lot) and told everyone to line up. Atlanta was doing the full and does these things for fun, not time, so he lined up toward the back. We wished him luck and told him we’d see him later, though, neither of us got his contact information. It turned out Kentucky and I were about the same pace (she a bit faster than me), and I think she really wanted a run buddy, so we decided to run together, which meant I wasn’t going to listen to music – or audio cues – for this race. I wasn’t planning on it anyway because the roads weren’t totally closed, but this gave me someone to talk to so I didn’t think about it. I didn’t have a goal other than to not hurt myself and I told her I was totally ok with over 2 hours, but my standing goal of two hours or better is a target. She agreed and we lined up at the back end of the first third of the group.
There were a couple of guys dressed as old mountain men (I assume they were dressed up) holding shot guns who were responsible for starting the race. At 7 am (or a bit after), they shot the guns to start the race… more than once. I expected the shot gun start because the website had it as a “shot gun start”, but I didn’t expect multiple shots! Kentucky and I started out on the route. I am a chatty runner, usually. I like to run my mouth as much as my feet – this is a trick my mentor taught me to make sure I didn’t go out too fast. Usually, he got me started on a topic he knew I’d go on and on about, and let me go, occasionally asking questions to keep me going. I tried a few conversation starters, but, I have to remember not everyone is as chatty as me. It didn’t seem like she was very chatty, so I decided to just run without talking. I had a lot going through my mind about work, and kids, and stuff like that, but ultimately landed on: damn. These mountains are pretty. I remarked about how beautiful the mountains were, especially in the morning with the sun rising above them, and through the fog, and eventually, she started to point out scenery too. She later admitted that she never really looked around during a race and, from habits learned in high school cross country, kept her head down focused on the run itself, and that, for the first time, she looked around. The air was nice and cool and the fog meant it was mostly overcast at the beginning, which was fine with me! Although it took a couple of miles, I finally started to warm up. By then, we were at the three mile mark and I started thinking “we are already at 3 miles?”
The first 5 miles or so were rolling hills – and, that time of morning, the light was golden and pretty above the treeline. The other benefit of a mountain race: a lot of it was in the shade. We were in and out of the shade so it never really felt all that hot (though, the temperature wasn’t all that hot, either, so that certainly helped). The roads took us by several small houses: one guy was sitting in his garden in a beach chair with his back to us (the road made kind of a backward S shape and he as facing the woods) with some garden tool in his hand. He didn’t wave or anything, just sat there. A few miles later, we went through a section that had a nice, big new building that I thought was a house or a set of apartments but turned out to be a funeral home. Oddly enough, I seemed to notice quite a few funeral homes in the area, and recalled a story about how the fire station we stayed in was once located in a funeral home while the “new” building was being built. Across from that building were several row homes and the folks were sitting out on their porches with their coffees and cheering for us. I always said “good morning! Thanks for coming out for us today!” and they always responded “have a good run!” or “whoo hoo” or something similar. It was very sparse, but very nice.
Around mile 4, I really had to pee again. I tried holding it, but I figured that I wouldn’t make it up Blackberry Mountain without some measure of embarrassment if I didn’t take care of things, so I decided to stop. I told Kentucky she could go ahead without me and that I’d try to catch up to her, but she said she’d wait for me. Unfortunately, there was a line… and someone playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on an accordion over and over and the wait was, oh, about 5 minutes. gah. To distract myself from the fact that I was about to explode, I struck up a conversation with the guy in front of me waiting to go who had on a Virginia Tech hat. Once I was finished, I had to wait for traffic (these are literally the only roads in the area, so they could only close one lane, so yet another reason for me not to wear headphones this run), and then, finally, we were on our way again… just in time for Blackberry Mountain! Though… I must say, that damn version of the Accordion “When the Saints Go Marching In” kept circling in my mind over and over again… dang!
The adviser we met in the parking lot told us Blackberry Mountain started at mile 6. The part he left out was the climb to get to the base of the mountain – or, rather, the part of the run when the incline changed from “ughh” to “God, please help me”. That was a good 3/4 mile or so before we got to the mountain – and then the climb of the mountain itself was a little over a mile – maybe even a mile and a half. Kentucky and I ran the “uggghhh” portion of the climb but about 1/4 of a mile into the “God, Please Help Me” portion, we decided it was prudent to follow the advice we received in the Food City parking lot and walk the remainder of the climb. Walking it wasn’t necessarily easy, mind you. We were walking at a pretty good clip – around a 14 minute pace or just under that – the times for both of these miles were just over a 10 minute mile! During the walk portion, Kentucky asked me where we were on pace – the first time I even thought to look at it. It was at mile 6.8 or so, and we were over an hour already. I said “well… we are not on track for a sub-2 hour finish…” she said, “but, don’t you think we can make up the difference on the way down?” hmmm…. you know… maybe we can… so that’s what we decided to do.
Once we got to the top, which was approximately 4 feet of flat – haha – we started our run down the other side. I looked at the elevation chart after I signed up for this race and I promise you: it did NOT look like this. That peak in the middle of this chart I’ve attached is much more accurate. The other side of the mountain – the side we ran down – was much steeper than the side we went up. It was awesomely scary. Kentucky and I were flying down the mountain – passing people right and left who passed us on the way up. There wasn’t a thing conservative about that portion of the run and one misstep could have really hurt me, but I kept it together and loved every adrenaline inducing moment of it. It reminded me of the wild abandon I used to have as a little kid running down hills and it made me happy. This, I think, was the highlight of my race.
That mile was a whopping 7:34 average, and part of that mile, I was walking. I have NEVER run that fast for an entire mile. so… yeah, we made up the time, haha.
The remainder of the race had some rolling hills, but certainly nothing at all like Blackberry Mountain, and were relatively uneventful. Kentucky and I maintained a healthy 8:30-8:40 pace for the rest of the run, though, we did stop at the site of the McCoy Pig Farm (which is still in operation, and the site of the original crime that started the whole thing) so Kentucky could take a photo, as she is a history teacher. From that point, though, I was starting to feel stronger and get a bit faster and I was wondering how I got to mile 11 already. Just like in marathon training, the first five sucked, miles 6-9 were better and miles 10-13 felt great. gah. At mile 9, Kentucky asked about pace – we were 33 minutes from the 2 hour mark, so it was still possible. At mile 10: “where are we on time?”, Kentucky asked: now, we are just under 27 minutes from the 2 hour mark and that’s much easier… we can definitely make 2 hours now, I think. We never checked pace again after that because we were both sure we could do it. Because I wasn’t checking pace, though, I was totally looking around at the scenery and wondering what it might be like to live there. There was even a little shack – I think – that someone who might have been homeless lived in… it was tiny chain-link fence that enclosed a space that was maybe 5 x 5 and about 6 feet tall. There was even a door on it that was locked. There was a piece of wood on top of it – like plywood or something similar – that covered it from the elements and there were some blankets and a pillow inside of it. It didn’t look like it was being currently used – maybe that stuff had been there a while. And, I don’t even know if that is what it was used for – but I was very curious about it and I really wanted to stop to investigate it.
We finally got to downtown Matewan, which is a charming little town that looks like they’ve had a recent revitalization, but tried to preserve a lot of the history. The downtown area has about 2 blocks north to south and about 4 east to west. That’s it. And the blocks are maybe .2 a mile each? So, you round the corner on the western side, run the whole town on the northern block, and then turn the corner and run half of the southern block to the finish. I loved it! I was so busy looking at the town, I didn’t even pay attention to time or anything and apparently was flying through there because my last mile was just under an 8:00 pace. I turned the corner and saw that the clock had not hit 1:59 yet, so I sped up and crossed the finish line at 1:59:10. I was delighted that we finished in under 2 hours and Kentucky and I congratulated each other on an awesome run! She thanked me for pulling her through the last few miles and I thanked her for running with me.
We got some fruit and some water and looked at the mason jars they were giving to finishers and thought about asking how to get one when one of the volunteers came to the table and started calling out names for the top finishers of the half marathon I just finished. Like 2 minutes ago. Kentucky and I decided to stay to watch the folks getting prizes because it is always fun (to me at least) to cheer for other runners who win stuff. The jars were all lined up and there were black metal plates they had to go on top of the jars that had the race name, the placement and the division. The volunteer called out the overall winners, female, first. Each one she called approached the table tentatively, saying their name and looking somewhat surprised to have won the award. Next, she called the men, all equally as surprised to have won the award they were given.
At this point I started tuning out, trying to get a signal so I could report to my friends that I finished the half marathon and in under 2 hours, no less, and, man, that mountain was a bitch, and… what? did I hear my name? Kentucky poked me – I got what? “You won age group, Darlin'” the volunteer said to me as she smiled and handed me my mason jar. My response was “wwwwhhhhaaattttt?” She smiled and offered me the jar again, urging me to take it because she had other names to call. As soon as I took it, Kentucky approached the table because she and I finished together and we knew she’d get the second one. The volunteer proceeded to call out Kentucky’s name and I cheered for her. WOO HOO!! We were so humbled, but excited at the same time. I have placed 2nd and 3rd in age group for a 10k and for an 8k, but never even came close to placing at any of the 17 half marathons I’ve done. I realize this is a very small race, but I was excited none the less.
Kentucky and I waited until Atlanta came through – he stopped and chatted with us and congratulated us on our prizes and we got his number so we could keep in touch. We then saw my friend who recommended the race – she was pacing a friend of hers from the Maniacs. I wished her luck for the rest of the race, and then Kentucky and I took the shuttle back to Williamson (which was a surprisingly long ride). We walked through the finish festival and I got a cup of coffee I was desperate for, and then we said good bye. I went back to the fire station and cleaned off with wet wipes (no showers in the fire station and I wanted to get back in time to make a movie I ended up not going to because I was sleepy at that point) and I headed home.
I loved this race, and I enjoyed it tremendously. Although there weren’t a lot of people out cheering, there was a lot of community support and I would like to thank the towns of Williamson (both the WV and KY sides) and Matewan for your hospitality. I highly recommend this race, not only for the beauty and challenge of it, but for the adventure of it, as Atlanta called it.