It’s funny how things work out. Last Sunday I ran the Outer Banks Half Marathon in North Carolina. I finished with my best half marathon time since 2011 (and also 16 minutes faster than my finishing time in the same race a year earlier). Which is great… but what’s funny is that six weeks earlier I was in Aspen, CO fighting through pain and shortness of breath during the Golden Leaf Half Marathon and questioning my abilities as a runner.
To be fair, it’s not really an apples to apples comparison between these two races. The Golden Leaf Half is an extremely technical trail run at 10,000 foot elevation. It also has a 950 foot elevation gain within the first mile and a half and the first seven miles of the course literally take runners over the top of a mountain. The majority of the Outer Banks course is at sea level and mostly flat (with the exception of the stretch that crosses over the Washington Baum Bridge, which I’ll get to in a minute). That said though, both courses are the same distance and I can’t get over how much different I felt when I crossed the two finish lines. In Aspen, it was a feeling of relief that I was finally done. In the Outer Banks, I felt triumphant.
Here’s a little background on the Outer Banks in case you’re not familiar with the area: There’s no one city or town called “The Outer Banks”. The term actually refers to a set of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. To the east of the islands is the Atlantic Ocean and to the west is a set of sounds that divide them from the mainland.
The Outer Banks Marathon course is point to point and goes through the towns of Kitty Hawk (where the Wright Brothers took their first flight), Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Manteo. The Half Marathon starts in Nags Head and follows the second half of the marathon course. There’s also a race called the Southern Six, which covers the final six miles. The times of the three races are staggered so that friends and family members who are doing different races will cross the finish line at roughly the same time and in some cases might even be able to meet up and run the last few miles together.
All of the courses are beautiful. I wrote a chapter about the Outer Banks Marathon in Southern Fried Running, so you can take a look at that for some additional details if you want. Here’s a list of some of the things you’ll see on the courses though:
- Wright Brothers Monument (Marathon)
- Town of Kitty Hawk / Kitty Hawk Bay (Marathon)
- Town of Kill Devil Hills / Wright Brothers National Park (Marathon)
- Nature Conservancy / Nags Head Woods (Marathon)
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park (Marathon)
- Town of Nags Head (Marathon and Half Marathon)
- Old Sound Side Area with historic architecture (Marathon and Half Marathon)
- Washington Baum Bridge (Marathon, Half Marathon, Southern 6)
- Village of Manteo (Marathon, Half Marathon, Southern 6)
- The finish line for all three races is in downtown Manteo
Like I mentioned earlier, the course is mostly fast and flat. The Washington Baum Bridge is the toughest part. The bridge is a mile long and 82 feet high with a 650 foot climb to the top at about a 4% grade. The climb starts at about mile 9 1/2 for the Half Marathon (22 1/2 for the Marathon) and the hardest part of crossing the bridge isn’t the climb itself as much as the cross winds coming off of Roanoke Sound that runners have to deal with as they get close to the top…. but when you do make it all the way up, the view is amazing.
Race day this year was particularly windy. Windy enough to make the ocean look like this:
This actually wan’t a bad thing though because the wind was at the runners backs for most of the course. The cross winds on the bridge were still tough (tougher than last year in fact), but something else that I was particularly proud of this year was that I was able to make it across the entire bridge without walking. Last year I had to take a short break close to the top and walk for a couple minutes. As tough as Aspen was, running it turned out to be a blessing because it helped me to be better prepared for the bridge this time around.
The temperature stayed in the mid 50’s throughout almost the entire race and the the sky was slightly overcast, creating almost perfect running conditions. I looked at my watch after I crossed the bridge and realized that I only had two miles to go and was on pace to have one of my strongest finishes in a long time. This was enough to motivate me to kick hard through the last couple miles to the finish line and I couldn’t have been happier with my effort.
The Outer Banks race directors always do a great job with their finisher’s medal designs. They’re good sized, heavy, have colorful neckbands, and always feature something Outer Banks related. In 2014, the medals featured the Bodie Island Lighthouse and this year they featured the Washington-Baum bridge. This year’s medals also have a Roman Numeral X on them to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the race. Besides my half marathon finisher’s medal, I also got a cool looking bonus medal with a shark on it for doing the Outer Banks 8K the day before.
After the race, there’s a post race party Festival Park and along the streets of downtown Manteo. There’s plenty of food, beer, and live music at the party along with shuttle buses that bring runners back to the start lines (since the courses are point-to-point).
Aside from the race itself, the Outer Banks is a great area to visit in general. It’s technically part of North Carolina, but because it’s separated from the mainland, the area seems to have its own unique personality that even changes a little bit from island to island. There are hundreds of miles of beaches in the Outer Banks along with opportunities to swim, surf, fish, go off-roading, view wildlife and check out the various lighthouses along the coast. Another bonus is that the islands aren’t very wide. In most areas you can walk from the East Side to the West side in a matter of minutes, which will give you the opportunity to watch the sun come up over the Atlantic Ocean in the morning and then watch it set over the sounds in the evening.
If you are planning a trip to the Outer Banks, I would recommend planning to stay for at least four days… and plan on doing some driving to get there. There are a few small airports on the islands but the easiest way to get there is to either fly into Raleigh, NC or Norfolk, VA and drive. The drive from Raleigh takes about 3 1/2 hours and the drive from Norfolk takes about an hour and is a little more scenic.
There are a lot of great restaurants in the Outer Banks. Most of the seafood places feature fresh, locally caught fish, which tastes so much better than frozen fish that it isn’t even in the same league. If you’re looking for a few suggestions for places to eat, depending on what you’re in the mood for, check out Pamlico Jack’s, Duck Donuts, or Sooey’s BBQ Shack.
There are also plenty of great places to stay in the Outer Banks. This year I stayed at the Sea Ranch Resort, which is a beautiful hotel on the beach. There area a number of other hotels near the start line of the race, and there are also hundreds of beach houses and bed and breakfasts throughout the islands.
One of the nice things about race weekend is that there aren’t as many tourists in the Outer Banks in November as there are during the summer months. This means that hotel rooms are easier to find (and less expensive), restaurant lines are short, there aren’t any big crowds at the beaches, and most of the people you’ll run into during race weekend are either going to be locals or other runners.
In Southern Fried Running, I listed my favorite race in every state in the Southeast, but I didn’t really pick an overall favorite. I think that if I did have to pick one, the Outer Banks would be tough to beat. I’m already looking forward to the next time I have a chance to go back.
If you’re interested in doing one of the Outer Banks races in 2016, you can register here.