Last weekend I “ran” the Hatfield McCoy Marathon at the Kentucky & West Virginia border. I went into it injured in multiple ways & totally out of shape, and ultimately earned my PW (Personal Worst) time by almost an hour on the hot and hilly course. I hit the wall at a ridiculously early mile 14 and felt more sore and tired than I’ve ever felt during a race. It was also my favorite marathon yet.
What is it about the Hatfield McCoy Marathon? After reading review after positive review about this race, I started to wonder how it could possibly be as good as everyone said. I mean, some mini horses and a swinging bridge is not enough to make a marathon good or interesting. Plus it’s in the
mountains hills of West Virginia in the middle of June, and I’m not a fan of heat, humidity, or hills. And overrated races tend to disappoint me even if I try to keep my expectations in check. So how did this little race earn my “new favorite race” designation?
It comes down to what David Hatfield, the race director, said on Friday night during his (emotional) speech at the expo. Two things make a great race – the runners and the volunteers. I kinda sorta agreed when he said it, but after running his race I fully understand what he meant and wholeheartedly agree.
First, the runners – this is a race made for 50 Staters and Maniacs, and they dominate on the course. This is actually fantastic because they know race etiquette (sounds minor but even in a small race courtesies can make a big difference) and they are chatty. Mr. Hatfield told us that one of the great things about his race was that you’d find yourself completely alone on the course – no one in sight ahead of you, no one in sight behind you – and this isolation would make you draw on personal reserves you didn’t know you had. Luckily (or unluckily?) that never happened to me. In fact, my race experience was the total opposite – I’ve never chatted with so many other runners for so long (I’d say I spent more than half of the race chatting). Now, it was also my absolute slowest marathon and I entirely walked the last 10 miles of the race, so that definitely had something to do with all my jibber-jabber, but even when I was actually running (during the first half) I spoke to more runners than ever, and was always greeted in a friendly manner (instead of the common mid-marathon response – a blank stare or a curt reply). This is a super social race, and I learned I like super social races.
Next, the volunteers – the aid stations always had water, ice, and multiple flavors of Gatorade (and oftentimes cold watermelon and grapes), and they usually had on-theme entertainment or decorations, like accordion music or jugs of (fake?) moonshine. The on-course EMTs were super excellent, continually leapfrogging and checking on us pokey-slows, especially during the second half of the race. I heard and saw them so much on the course that I feel like I know those guys now. And finally the race organizers behind-the-scenes really hit it out of the park. The website has drastically improved (with a lot of information about the course and local accommodations), the expo dinner and entertainment was great, the shuttles from downtown to the start worked well, and overall the weekend was a very smooth experience.
I think another reason this race was so great is that their “no time limit” claim is real. They had the finish line area all set up for over 9 hours to allow the last runners to finish and enjoy the finish experience just like the speedsters. The costumed actors playing Devil Hatfield and Randall McCoy were even waiting at the finish line the whole time, giving high fives to all the runners. (BTW, a 50-Stater had a very good tip about seeing if a race sticks to its cut-off claims – check the time results from the year before for the slowest finishing times to see how long they actually kept the finish line open. Hatfield McCoy lives up to its promise.) This “no time limit” guarantee helped take any time-finishing pressure off and allowed me to baby my injuries and enjoy the race instead of worrying about outrunning a sag wagon.
Ok, so, I’ve already written a lot about why I loved this race but not that much about my actual experience during the race. In a nutshell, it was kinda tough but a lot better than I expected. As you know, I gave myself a 40% chance of a DNF and an ETA of 6:15-6:30 finishing time if I did finish.* When I woke up that morning and pressed along my shin splint, it was the first time in weeks that I didn’t feel pain (and today I still feel no pain when I press there, so maybe I’m temporarily healed?). So I was feeling pretty good and even though I hadn’t run for 3 weeks, at mile 3 of the marathon I decided I was going to finish.
That was a ridiculously early time in the race to decide that, but I kept checking my body and nothing was screaming in pain, so I kept going. I walked up Blackberry Mountain (not as bad as I anticipated, but I did walk it) and down the backside (much steeper than I expected), but generally jogged the first half. Then suddenly around mile 14 I hit a wall. I can’t call it The Wall since it was so early in the race, but basically I wanted to stop and call it a day. A guy I met in the first half blew past me at this point saying “I was only signed up for the half but I’m having so much fun I don’t want to stop, so I’m doing the full!” I wanted to stop him and drink his blood, but he was gone before I got the chance.
So, I walked. I tried to walk quickly but real marathon walkers started blowing past me. The most painful part was, oddly, the bottom of my feet. I also knew I was developing some sort of blister on my left foot but I didn’t realize the horror of that situation until I got home (and I will spare you any photos of that disaster). Walking as fast as I could made me realize how much slower my fast walking is even compared to my slow running. Four miles took over an hour, which means even when I was hitting those high marathons numbers like mile 19, 20, 21, I still had almost 2 more hours to go. It was also so hot I was dropping ice cubes into the front and back of my sports bra and not even flinching at the cold.
At some point I decided I was going to stop at the Dairy Queen around mile 25. At first I wasn’t sure I was really going to do it, but after such a slow second half and several hours of dreaming of a soft serve vanilla cone, once I saw the DQ I didn’t even hesitate crossing the parking lot and heading into the shop. Unfortunately there was a line of other runners doing the same thing, but after several minutes (and my watch beeping angrily at me for losing satellite reception but not actually stopping the time), I emerged into the sunlight with my ice cream cone and new shame upon my sport.
I ate most of my ice cream until I realized I was only .3 miles from the finish, at which point I started jogging so I could carry the cone over the finish line like an Olympic torch. I pressed my weary legs into service all for this gag, and it was worth it. I high-fived Hatfield at the finish line but couldn’t high-five McCoy because I was holding the cone, so I had to stop and do an awkward right-to-left high five, but it was worth it because I was a McCoy that day.**
I’m leaving out a ton of stuff about the course itself because you probably already know about it, or can look at my pictures below. I was wrong about chip timing – they DO have chip timing and even have a mat at the start, so if it takes you a few minutes to cross the start they have you covered. The literal shotgun start was not as loud as I expected, but I was maybe standing too far back to really get that shotgun sensation. I also foolishly missed grabbing the free meal at the finish line but I did get my medal and moonshine jar (someone must have drunk all my moonshine, because it was empty – probably a Hatfield did it). And apparently I missed a lot of roadkill along the route, because I only saw a deer, a squirrel, and a hummingbird, but others said they saw 8 different species.
This was lucky number 13 on my 50 States quest, and I’m counting it for Kentucky since I already did Marshall in West Virginia (ironically my least favorite race so far). Next up is the Missoula Marathon on July 13th, only 4 weeks away, but if I finish Missoula I’ll be eligible for Maniacs!
Thinking of Running Hatfield McCoy?
Do it! I won’t repeat all the stuff I said above, but it’s a great race and you should totally do it.
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 6/10 – As the race website says, there are no nearby airports. I flew into Charleston, WV (CRW airport, via ATL on Delta), rented a car, and drove the 1.5 hours to Williamson. The drive was the easiest part – the flights are harder because there aren’t that many flights and they can sometimes be expensive (although mine wasn’t bad at $274 purchased months in advance). I got delayed on the way home so it was almost 12 hours of travel just to go from WV to NYC. That’s 4 hours longer than it would have taken to drive! If I ever do go again, I’d seriously consider renting a car and driving the whole way.
- Staying There – 8/10 – I booked a room at the Mountaineer Hotel the moment they started taking reservations in January. The hotel is located downtown exactly at the finish so it’s ideal (and race shuttle buses will take you from downtown to the start at Food City). I reserved a larger 2-person room for $70/night because I heard the single-bed rooms were really small. It is an old hotel but the room was clean, quite large, and had a mini-fridge, but the soap they provide is razor thin and the shampoo/conditioner supplied is in foil packets instead of bottles. They offer free wifi (a godsend since my phone didn’t work anywhere there – I heard Verizon was the only carrier that worked in the area), free parking in a garage across the street, free coffee in the morning, and generally were very hospitable and kind. I definitely recommend staying there, or you can stay for very cheap (like $20) at the local firehouses (check the race’s website and emails for more info on that). Either way, book early, as the good nearby options fill up quickly.
- Cost & Registration – 10/10 – For the $50 early registration fee you get a chip-timed race, on-course support (water, Gatorade, and cups of ice every mile, with many stations offering watermelon or grapes), a short-sleeved tech shirt (this year was white, my least favorite color because it’s always see-through, although it’s not as bad as Flying Pig’s shirt), finisher medal (this year’s was pretty nice with a colorful USA flag background), and a moonshine jar (a large mason jar with a Hatfield McCoy sticker on it), plus the pasta dinner the night before (spaghetti with marinara or meat sauce plus a roll, small side salad, soda/water, and cake), and a meal at the finish line (looked like a wrap of some kind with maybe some chips? I forgot to grab one, doh!). The free meals really push the value of this race over the top.
- Organization – 8/10 – It was well-organized even if it wasn’t always spelled out clearly – e.g. they said shuttle buses would take you from your hotel to the start, but they didn’t list hotels or exact pickup times, and since the road in front of our hotel was closed the shuttles couldn’t go there anyway, so a group of us walked to a random corner and flagged a bus down which then stopped for us. So it ultimately worked well even if it wasn’t precisely explained.
- Course – 8/10 – I thought it was a beautiful course. It’s a little hilly, but there was more shade than I was expecting (although there were long stretches at the end with no shade), and while the roads aren’t closed to traffic, the traffic was very light and always drove very nicely (not the breakneck speed of the cars during the MDI Marathon, for example). One car was even passing out Twizzlers, and yes, I took candy from a stranger. Because the roads were mostly empty, I didn’t have any problem with the anticipated camber of the roads, although I heard one person mention he stayed near the center to avoid it. There are quite a lot of random animals along the course (dead and alive) and several historical Hatfield McCoy sites, so I’m glad I carried my phone with me to take pictures.
- Crowd – 3/10 – Basically there are no spectators during this race. A few locals will sit on their porch and watch silently and wave, but don’t expect a cheer section. However, the race organizers post signs along the course with the names of repeat runners with motivational phrases below, so the signs help cheer you on. And of course the other runners and volunteers were great!
- Other Factors – 9/10 – It was a 50 State Club reunion race so that might have brought even more 50 Staters out, but I also think the small field (552 marathon & double-half runners, 341 half) makes it a friendly and social race. Plus it’s a rare race that has more full-runners than halfers!
- Overall Rating – 10/10 – Gotta give my new favorite a 10! It’s also the first race I’d really like to repeat, although with sooooo many states left I can’t afford to start repeating yet.
General Travel Reviews/Notes:
There isn’t much to do in the area except for Hatfield McCoy-related sightseeing. I missed out on the air boat tour partially because my phone didn’t work so I wasn’t making any calls/reservations, and partially because I was simply tired.
There’s one restaurant in town (Starters) that multiple locals described as a “real nice, sit-down type” restaurant, and it was only a couple blocks down the main street from the hotel, so I ate an early dinner there after the race. It is not a fancy restaurant so don’t be put-off by the description (I noticed that every place in West Virginia gives you metal utensils wrapped in plastic, which makes me think it’s some sort of weird health code requirement). I had a Diet Coke (Pepsi ok?), meatball platter with marinara and cheese, a baked potato with sour cream, and a giant slice of homemade butter pecan cake all for under $15 before tip. I’d definitely recommend that place over driving down the street to the Wendy’s or DQ (again).
Also worth mentioning – there is a Walmart Supercenter just outside of downtown (it’s between downtown Williamson and the high school with the packet pickup, all of which are only minutes apart), so if you forget anything you can find it there (including giant 24-bottle packages of water for under $3). There’s also the race sponsor Food City (large grocery store) as well as a CVS nearby. Finally, I keep calling it “downtown” but it’s like 6 buildings and two streets, so don’t expect a big town in which to sightsee.
* – which I nailed, btw – do I get a prize for accurately predicting my finishing time? Without the DQ stop I would have finished a little closer to 6:15 but still well within that window. It’s almost like I know what my body can do…
Are you planning on running Hatfield McCoy? Do you know the deal with the plastic wrapped silverware at WV restaurants? Have you ever ridden a mini horse? Share in the comments! Email subscribers, there are many more photos on the site than included in the email – click the link to view.