New River Marathon Review: An Elevated Race

new river marathon review

On May 4th 2013, my friend Bob and I got the great opportunity to participate in the New River Marathon.  If I were to describe the New River Marathon in three words:  scenic, elevated, and elevated (the last two deserve mentioning twice).  This beautiful course is located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Ashe County, NC.  The rolling hills along the New River offer spectacular views as you traverse along the countryside.  As you run along the rugged 26.2 miles, you are calmed by the sight and sounds of flowers, the roaring New River, old cabins, farmland, and natural streams trickling off of the mountain. 

As I read in another review, it is like running through a dream.  The New River Marathon seems to be a place where running and visual art meet.  Around each turn, I witnessed a new piece of God’s artwork displayed before me, making time stand still.  Let me give you a run-down of the race day logistics, as well as the run itself in this review.


The first thing that I will mention,  is that this may not be the easiest course for someone new to marathoning, but a beginner can get along just fine with the proper training.  This was my first full-marathon and I did really well due to my dedicated training.  I would suggest that you find some hills to work on prior to the race.  The New River Marathon is demanding and unforgiving; don’t let it catch you unprepared.  If you live somewhere where hills are limited, find some!  I used the trails along Hanging Rock StatePark(an hour away) as part of my training, and I’m very glad that I did.  Hanging Rock has an 11 mile trail that extends across Moore’s Knob, Hanging Rock, and Cook’s Wall.  It provides an elevation gain of 2,150 ft. which is the kind of hill work that you will need. 

Hanging Rock State Park is located just 40 minutes southwest of Martinsville, VA in the Sauratown Mountains.   I met a few people during the New River Marathon who said that they didn’t have much elevation where they lived, so they just trained for the distance.  They were walking the hills as I jogged around past them.Pre-RaceHonestly, I wasn’t too impressed with the pre-race festivities (or lack of).  As we arrived, the staff directed us to park our car in a field of mud.  We stepped out into the mud to be confronted by freezing cold winds and mist.  [I understand that this was not the race staff’s fault, just Mother Nature’s way of saying hello.]  I thought to myself, “This will just make us stronger.”

 We went to pick up our packets and were pleased to find that there wasn’t a line.  Within a few minutes, we were ready to race.  But, we were about 45 minutes early.  There weren’t any heated areas to stand, stretch, and converse with other participants, so we had to head back to the car and wait.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to warm up your legs in a car, but it’s not the most efficient approach.  We did get out before the race and stretch a bit.Just before the start of the race, we had a moment of silence for those afflicted by the senseless bombings in Boston. 

I thought that it was very admirable of them to include this in the pre-race agenda.  At 7:20, we made our last minute bathroom breaks and headed for the Start line.  There were only 234 of us, but you could feel the energy pouring out of each and every shivering soul.  Many of us had no idea of the challenges that we would face over the next 3-4 hours.7:30am – The RaceThe start line is located on Cranberry Springs Rd., just before the bridge, facing the Riverside Restaurant.   

As you make your way across the bridge, cheers from onlookers feel the air.  This excitement is short-lived, but is enough to give a positive vibe heading into this race of menacing mountains.  The first 1.5 miles are relatively easy, allowing for a good warm up period.  Taking in the scenery of the flowers along the New River, you will approach your first hill.  At 1.5miles, this first hill is 1 mile long with an ascent of 280 ft. 

On the other side of it, you will suddenly descend 220 ft.  The next 3 miles offer more flatland.  By the end of the three miles, your legs will be warmed up.  At 5.28 miles, there will be another short hill, lasting only 3/4 of a mile with an elevation climb of about 85 ft.  This will be the last big hill that you will see for another 7 miles.

new river marathon route

Around the 13mile marker, the real fun begins.  These are the hills that you may have heard about.  These hills (or mountains) will make you or break you!  Between mile 13 and 14 you will endure a climb of 171 ft., followed by a quick descent back down about 90 ft.  Don’t get too comfortable when you reach the bottom. 

new river marathon elevation

You should be prepared to put yourself back into low gear to battle the next hill, which is a long one. From 14.29 miles to 15.7 is a climb of 145 ft.  You’ll take a quick dip back down a few feet and upon you will be the “mother of all mountains.”  You will not be able to see the top of it.  My advice: keep your eyes on the road at your feet, say a little prayer, and dig. 

For the next 9/10 of a mile is an excruciating 325 feet of straight up elevation!  That’s a grade of 6.8%.  Unfortunately, the fun isn’t over yet.  You will quickly head back down the mountain about 150 ft. and start to climb once again.  This last hill (at mile 17.23) lasts about 4/10 of a mile and climbs around 160 ft. with a grade of 7.5%.

new river marathon finish line
Bob and I post-race

It is literally downhill from there.  Your hard work is over, and not a minute too soon.  Descending 600 ft. over the next 4 miles, your quads will be begging for a break.  From 20.5 miles to the end is mostly flat. If you saved any energy, this would be the time to exert it.  For me, I had just enough energy to keep my pace around 8:15 and head on in for the finish.  I noticed that many of the elite runners used this last stretch to put in some speed.

My friend Bob gained 3 minutes in the last stretch, taking advantage of the level roadway.  Bob finished with a time of 3:37, while I trotted in at 3:40.ConclusionThe New River Marathon offers some great challenges, testing your ability and dedication.  The scenery around you makes every bit of it worth the while.  There was a lot of alone time out there on the mountain.  Unless you are running with someone, be prepared to battle your inner voices.  

The biggest gripe that I have with this race was the issue of traffic.  The entire race was a battle against cars and trucks for space on the roadway.  Unfortunately, the race is not large enough to justify blocking traffic.  At least, that is the reason I came up with.  Besides, there may not be alternate routes for vehicles to travel around the mountains.  The race could have used a little more pre-race excitement, but this too may be due to the limited number of participants. 

I have to say that they did an excellent job of providing water, Gatorade, and Hammer Gels along the route.  They had stations set up every couple of miles with friendly staff.  They also had staff directing the way at every intersection.  Fire & EMT personnel were also on hand “just in case.”  The medals that we received at the finish line were very cheap.  They looked more like a plastic badge/i.d. holder than a medal.  I believe that I will be racing the New River Marathon again in the near future. 

The beautiful scenery, challenging hills, and the feeling you get coming away from this race, make it worth experiencing again.  I would suggest anyone looking for a challenge, to get prepared and give The New River Marathon a shot.  You can find more information on their site here.  They also offer a half marathon, 5k, and 1 mile fun run.  If you aren’t quite ready for a marathon, check out these tips to help you train for a half marathon.  If you have any other questions regarding the New River Marathon, please comment below and I will be sure to get back to you.  Thanks for checking out my review.  Happy Running!

- - -

One Response