This past weekend Barry and I headed over to Tazewell for the 21st Annual Varmint 1/2 Marathon in Burkes Garden. It was our third time running this race, and I was excited. I like going back to races I have run before, because I know the course and all of the logistics (where to park, restrooms, etc.).
This year they had packet pickup on Friday night at a local restaurant in town. I’m not sure if it was the first year this was offered, but it was the first time Barry and I have taken advantage of it. The restaurant was also offering a pasta buffet for runners, so we decided to take them up on that as well.
On Saturday morning we were up bright and early to make 25 minute drive from our campground into Burkes Garden. The race has grown significantly since we first ran it in 2012, so there was a bit more traffic getting there (there’s only one main road going into Burkes Garden and it’s curvy and goes over a mountain). Parking was tight, but luckily we arrived about 10 minutes before they were full. Once there, we did the typical pre-race stuff: pinned on bibs, used the porta potties, etc. We also checked out this year’s black sheep, which were ready and waiting for their new owners. Every 7th year the race has black sheep instead of white for the overall and age group awards.
Barry’s parents had also driven up to cheer us on and hang out in Burkes Garden. We hung out with them, and then made our way to the starting line just before the 8 AM start.
The race ended up starting about 10 minutes late, but before we knew it we were off! Barry’s mom snapped this picture of us with her cell phone as we ran by. She’s quite the photographer! (I think Barry was coughing…?)
Burkes Garden is a unique place for a road race. It definitely doesn’t look like what you’d typically picture for a road race. It’s on the smaller side (about 370 runners total between the half and 5K), and it’s a very rural area with beautiful scenery. The half marathoners get to run a full loop around the Garden.
The first mile starts out slightly downhill on the main road, with one heart pounding climb. Then runners hang a left onto East End Road and encounter another serious climb before mile 2. There’s plenty of shade during this section, though.
I was feeling alright during the first two miles. The hills definitely got my heart pounding and my calves burning, but that’s the way this race is. You can’t panic when your legs already feel like lead as you pass the mile 2 marker. You just have to keep chipping away and try to make up time and catch your breath on the down hills. And that’s what I tried to do, until I hit mile 3.
There was another mean climb between miles 3 and 4 that I had to really fight to get up. But once I got to the top, I took my first walk break of the day. I felt like I had just done a 400m sprint around a track instead of slowly climbing a big hill. Once I caught my breath, I tried to get my head back in the game as I began running again on the rolling hills through miles 4 and 5.
Sometime before mile 6, we hung a left on Banks Mill Road to run the backside of the loop around the Garden. This section isn’t as hilly as the first, but it’s never flat either. There is also very little shade during this stretch from miles 6 through 9. Luckily, it was only in the mid-60’s with about 75% humidity. But as you can see from the pictures, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That makes for a gorgeous view, but it also gets hot with the sun beating down on you.
Since this race is a small race in a rural community, there are very few spectators. A few of the residents of the Garden will sit at the end of their driveways and cheer on runners. It’s always fun to see them and I always smile and wave. Other than that, your only spectators are people manning the water stops and these critters:
So with curious cows looking on, I worked on covering the stretch along Banks Mill and Gose Mill roads. We were nearly to mile 10 when we crossed the bridge and turned left back onto Burkes Garden Road, which we had started on.
This part of the race is always really tough for me. There is a long gradual hill that curves so you can’t see the top. Plus if you’re familiar with the race course, you know you still have an out and back on Litz Lane before you can continue on to the finish. But you do get to run past things like the Burkes Garden Directory, as I refer to it.
Just before mile 11, I made the right turn on Litz Lane for the out and back portion that is a little over a mile. This section is very mentally tough, as you watch all of the people headed back up the road and towards the finish.
All you want to do is get to the turnaround so you can head for home. But here’s the thing – as much as you want to get to the turn around, it’s also mostly down hill to the turn around. You know what that means. When you do finally turn around you’ll have to climb to get back to the main road. It’s tough, but finally I found myself approaching mile 12 and about to make the turn back onto the main road where the start and finish line are located.
The Varmint doesn’t let off during the final mile, with two more hills (including an uphill finish) that will try to break your spirit. Despite having a tough time that day, I was not going to walk in that final mile.
As I approached the first of the final two hills, I saw Barry sitting at the top of it waiting for me. I fought my way up the hill, where he joined me to run me in the last half mile or so. I had my iPod on and I was in a world of hurt, so I didn’t hear him asking me for my camera so he could get a picture of me. Oops. I climbed the last hill and ran towards the finish line, which seemed to keep moving away from me. Finally, I crossed it!
My official time was 2:31:16, which is my third slowest time at this race in as many years. It’s kind of strange though, because I felt better this year than I did last year when I ran 2:24. I think I could have fought harder on the hills during the middle of the race, but at the time I really felt like I was doing the best I could.
Every single hill made my calves feel like they were on fire during this race. Maybe my legs haven’t fully recovered from Carvin’s Cove two weeks ago, which was a really tough race. Nevertheless, I’m proud to have finished The Varmint for the third time.
I grabbed some post-race food (bananas and oranges) and got some ice cold Gatorade, and hung out with Barry and his parents at the picnic shelter. There was a live band there playing everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd to “oldie but goodies” songs. I caught up with Barry and got the scoop on how his day went. He had a solid race, and exceeded his own expectations by running 1:45:44, good for fifth in his age group. Unfortunately, neither of us got to take home a black sheep.
After hanging out for a bit and watching the awards, we stopped by the Burkes Garden General Store. I know the owner, and she had a strawberry pie waiting for me. Yum! Then we had to hurry back to the campground so that I could grab a quick shower and make it to my friend Jessie’s wedding in Appomattox. But we got held up, because they had the road closed going out of the Garden! It turns out there was a tractor trailer hauling cattle coming over the mountain, and they had the road closed until he made it. That set us back about 20 minutes. I took the world’s fastest shower, and hit the road for the 3 1/2 hour drive to Appomattox. I made it to the church just after the bride made it down the aisle, and was able to quietly slip in the back.
The rest of the evening was spent at Jessie’s wedding reception with some good food and good friends. It was great catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for awhile, and seeing Jessie so happy and so pretty! (she’s the one I met up with before the start of Conquer the Cove)
Once the party wrapped up, it was time to hit the road home. Barry stayed at the campground with the dogs, since we already had the reservation before we got the wedding invitation. So I was home alone for the night Saturday night. It was about a 2.5 hour drive home, and I got home just before midnight. After such a long day that started with a race and ended with a wedding, I pretty much collapsed in bed. Sleep never felt so good 🙂
What’s the most scenic race you have ever run?
Do you prefer loop courses, out and backs, or point to points?