2014 was an amazing year for me race-wise. From November of 2013 through March of 2014, I went through my longest stretch without doing a race in at least the last 5 years, but I was able to use that time to focus on strength training and speed work so that once I was ready to start racing again, I had built up a nice foundation for myself and I felt really strong while I was running throughout the entire rest of the year. And I did some awesome races throughout the year too: I got to run past monuments and historical sites in Washington, DC and Philadelphia, past the Oklahoma City Memorial (a trip which also included a visit to Fort Worth Texas and a crazy drive southbound on I-35 to make it back to the airport on time), through the Alaskan Wilderness, and along the oceanfront at Virginia Beach, along with several races throughout the various neighborhoods in Chicago mixed in…. So while I had been looking forward to the Outer Banks Half Marathon in North Carolina for several months, I was fully expecting the experience to be bittersweet since it was also the last race I had planned for the year….
For anyone that’s never been to the Outer Banks before, here’s a little background on the area: There’s no one city or town called “The Outer Banks”, the term is actually used to describe a series of barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina. To the East of the islands is the Atlantic Ocean and to the West are a set of sounds (Currituck, Albemarle, Roanoke, and Pamlico). And then to the West of the sounds is mainland North Carolina. There are a number of towns on these islands like Kitty Hawk, Nags Head and Manteo and in a lot of places, the islands are so narrow that a walking from the ocean on one side to the sound on the other side would only take a matter of minutes.
The Outer Banks are also full of beautiful beaches along with a number of lighthouses, spots to camp or stop and look at wildlife and a host of other maritime related attractions (not to mention some amazing seafood). The town of Kitty Hawk is also known for being where the Wright Brothers took their first flight (the specific spot where it happened is now known as Kill Devil Hills, but at the time it was part of Kitty Hawk) and there’s a memorial at the spot where they took off from. There’s a lot to see and do here, particularly in the summer, so if you’re thinking about doing this race and you don’t live in the area, make sure you plan to stay for a few days.
Another reason that you’ll probably need to plan for a slightly longer trip is that if you’re planning on flying in, there really aren’t any direct flights into any of the Outer Banks towns. There’s a small airport near the Wright Brothers memorial in Kill Devil Hills but the only planes that fly in and out of it are propeller planes that make local trips to the surrounding areas, so your best bet is probably to fly into Norfolk, VA, rent a car and drive about 2 hours or so down the coast. I’ve done a few races where I’ve flown in on Saturday morning, picked up my race number in the afternoon, done the race on Sunday morning and then flown back home right after the race. Because of where the Outer Banks are located, it would be a stretch to be able to do something like this, but honestly there’s so much to see and do there that you really wouldn’t want to do something like that anyway.
The other piece of advice that I’ll give anyone that’s planning on doing this race is this: before you book a hotel, check out some of the houses in the area that are available to rent for the weekend. I paid about $300 to stay at a hotel on the beach (which wasn’t bad for four days especially considering that I could literally walk out the back door of the hotel and be standing on the sand – no complaints there at all), but while I was there, I also met some people who said that they rented a house with six bedrooms and a hot tub for the same length of time for $400 and it was less than 5 minutes away from where I was staying. Houses like that are a lot more expensive during the summer months but since the race is in November during the off season, everything is ridiculously cheap.
So onto the race itself – the Outer Banks Marathon is part of a series of athletic events that are held throughout the year at different locations around the islands. This particular event offers a marathon, a half marathon, and a 6 mile run on Sunday morning and also a 5K, a 10K, and a family fun run on Saturday. I did the half marathon and I was a little bit bummed that I didn’t realize that there were races on Saturday too or I probably would have signed up for one of them (especially since I got in Friday evening), but after I did find out about the Saturday races, I looked through some of my old emails and at the race website and noticed that they were mentioned all over the place, so I’ll have to blame myself for not paying closer attention…. I’m planning on going back and doing this one again at some point (or maybe doing the Flying Pirate Marathon that’s held in May) so next time I’ll know better.
The race was pretty well organized – there was a fitness expo that was a little bit bigger than I was expecting for a race this size (about 2500 participants for the half marathon) and runners got goody bags that contained t-shirts, OBX Marathon Cups and a few other things (sunblock, etc..). I should also mention that the race organizers really went out of the way to make sure that they had everyone’s transportation needs covered too. Most of the point-to-point races I’ve done in the past have always required runners to either park near the start line and take a shuttle bus back after finishing the race or park near the finish line at the beginning and take a shuttle to the start, and it’s usually one or the other, not both…. but this race had shuttles going back and forth all morning, so you could pretty much park anywhere that was convenient and hop on the next available shuttle to get to wherever you needed to go from there. There were also special shuttle buses for spectators who wanted to watch their friends and family at both the start and finish lines. So the process of getting to where you needed to go on race day was definitely one of the easiest I’ve ever seen.
The half marathon course was beautiful. It was point-to-point and started in Nags Head and went up along the coast and finished in Manteo. The full marathon course was similar and it just started further back in Kitty Hawk, and the 6 mile course started closer to the finish line. The course offered some really nice views of the coastline, sand dunes, and the sounds and it also seemed to have the perfect mixture of hills and flats along with one huge hill around mile 10 where the course crosses over the Washington Baum Bridge to get to Roanoke Island. I think that the last time I ran up an incline that steep to cross over a bridge during a race was when I ran across the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco marathon… honestly though, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds and it was totally worth it because the view of Roanoke Island and Roanoke Sound from the top of the bridge is breathtaking. There were volunteers on either side of the bridge – at the beginning, people were welcoming runners to it and on the other side there was a water table…. and there was also a photographer at the top taking peoples’ pictures once they made it all the way up. It made for a great experience. After crossing over the bridge, the rest of the course goes pretty fast – the last couple miles are nice and flat and the finish line is in Roanoke Island Festival Park in Manteo.
The race medals are really nice – this year’s medal had a picture of the Bodie Island Lighthouse on it… and the post race party was good too: great food, beer (of course) and some really good music. The setting for the post race party on downtown Roanoke Island was perfect too. The only real complaint that I had about this race (and this is pretty minor) is that some of the mile markers were off….. not all of them, but the ones that were off were off by almost half a mile in some cases (like for example, when I passed the marker for mile 11, my GPS said 10.6…. but the marker for mile 12 was exactly where it was supposed to be so anyone who ran the race without a GPS probably thought that mile 11 was the longest mile they ever ran in their lives). So hopefully that will get straightened out at some point but like I said, this is a small detail compared to how great everything else was with this race so the only thing I’ll really say about it is that if you ever run this one, pay closer attention to what your GPS says than what the mile markers say since it’s probably more accurate.
In the end, finishing the race was somewhat of a bittersweet experience like I was expecting because other than a few local 5Ks, I don’t have any other big races planned until next March, but I also don’t think I could have picked a better race to be my the grand finale for an amazing 2014.