“We’re Habit-Forming!” – Hatfield-McCoy Half Marathon Race Report 2016

It’s no secret that I love the Hatfield McCoy Marathon and Half Marathon. Back in the day, when I almost never repeated marathons (it’s not cost-effective when you’re trying to run a race in all 50 states), I ran Hatfield McCoy in 2012 and 2013. This obscure little race in “hill country” on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky wormed its way into my stone-cold heart, and it quickly became one of my absolute favorite events for the following reasons:

  1. It has an excellent theme. The race is based around the Hatfield-McCoy family feud, which occurred around the end of the 19th century, and runs past many of the sights of the actual feud – kidnappings, illegitimate children, murder, and all.
  2. It offers unique opportunities to the runners, including a pre-race skit that tells the story of the feud, tours of the feud sites, and moonshine.
  3. It’s one of the friendliest races out there. Every volunteer and spectator in this tiny town wants to know where you’re from and thank you for running!
  4. It’s a peek into a totally different way of life – more on that in a minute.

Although back in 2013 I swore I’d run this race every year, life had different plans. I missed 2014 because I had recently had back surgery, and in 2015, I had run the Casper Marathon in Wyoming the weekend before and knew my back wasn’t strong enough to do two big weekends in a row. So here it is, 2016, and I was thrilled to finally be back!

I did make sort of a last minute decision to do this race, but I’ve been feeling really good lately and half marathons have been comfortable. I reached out to my friend Carrie, a reader of this blog who I met and ran with at the Mayor’s Marathon in Alaska a few years ago, because I knew she was running the race, and she kindly offered to let me stay with her and her mom in the cabin they had rented in Williamson! I arrived at packet pick-up the night before the race and was surprised to see how much has changed. Years ago, there was no expo to speak of – just race bibs and t-shirts and the free pasta party and skits. Now, the expo has moved out to the high school gym (from the hallway in years past!) and has a t-shirt company there making custom shirts, a running store selling all of the essentials, and some homemade local baked goods. I grabbed my stuff and headed to the cabin to meet up with Carrie and her mom – we had a lot of catching up to do in a short amount of time, because the race started at 7 am and we needed to get to bed!

Ah, “getting to bed.” If only it was that easy. See, I was set to “take over” Women’s Running magazine’s (which I write a monthly print column and bi-weekly online blogs for) Instagram account during the race and post pictures and updates live from the event. It was the first time I was going to be doing so, and I was really excited! I had received the login information and planned to just sign in bright and early in the morning, but around 10pm, I thought “Maybe I should try it, just in case.” WELL. Because the account has so many different users (different editors, professional athletes, and bloggers “take over” at different times) and the account is based in San Diego, Instagram thought I was trying to hack into the account and wanted me to enter a confirmation code sent to the email associated with the account. Well, it’s 7 pm California time (10 pm my time) on a Friday night, and I’m now royally screwed. I was sending my editors frantic emails, and by the time one responded to me about an hour later, the code had timed out. I was freaking out thinking how badly I had messed up and was so stressed that we weren’t going to be able to get it to work, but finally, about 12:15 am my time, we did. By that point, I was basically a big sweaty ball of panic and convinced my editors hated me (they don’t) and suffice to say, I barely slept at all that night. Thank goodness I wasn’t running the marathon!

Speaking of being glad I wasn’t running the marathon, did I mention that it was slated to be 98 degrees for the high that day? Um, yeah. Fortunately, the weather was nice and cool in the morning as Carrie and I rolled up to the start about 15 minutes before the race was set to begin. I had just enough time to meet lots of readers (thank you ALL for saying hi!!) and grab a photo with Hatfield and McCoy themselves (or their bearded descendants) before the race got underway.

img_5872-1024x1024-1 These guys are out there every year and I feel like it’s the sweatiest job in the world.

Carrie and I were excited to run the race together after not having seen each other in a while! One of the great things about the race, in my opinion, is that the half marathon and the marathon run together the entire first half of the marathon. There’s no turn off – marathon participants run right past the half marathon finish line, which is different from the marathon finish line. It should be noted that there are lots of different options for this race – the 5k, the Blackberry Half Marathon (first half of the marathon course – runs from Kentucky to West Virginia and can count as either state), the River Road Half Marathon (second half of the marathon course, starts and ends in West Virginia), the double half marathon (exactly what it sounds like, with specific start times for each race so that you can get both states), or the marathon.

Carrie knew that I needed to take a lot of pictures for Instagram (my account is here, by the way!), but she had no time goals because it was going to be so hot. I knew she would love the race, but I was still a little nervous since she had come all the way there on my recommendation. As it turns out, a lot of you have! Many people I talked to told me that they had read my previous race reports about the race and come because of it. I hope you loved it as much as I do! It’s kind of hard not to love a course this beautiful, though.

img_5875-1024x1024-1 Around mile two, as the sun was beginning to peek over the mountains.

Because this race gets hot every year, they are pros at handling the weather. There are water and gatorade stops every single mile along the course beginning at mile 2, and some stations also have ice, fruit, fuel, and medical supplies. The volunteers couldn’t be friendlier, either! The area is economically depressed since many of the coal mines have shut down or slowed production, so the race provides a wonderful economic boost. Pretty much everyone is excited that the runners are in town, and it’s rare to get a welcome like this! The race really goes out of its way to make sure runners have a special and unique experience in a lot of ways, but my favorite is probably the signs they make for returning runners. There are hundreds of these signs all along the course! I was as excited as I always am to find mine.

img_5880-1024x1024-1 Fun fact: I have now run this race with three different last names thanks to my first marriage, my maiden name, and my second marriage. Awkward! Thanks for keeping up with my ridiculous life, Hatfield McCoy Marathon. You guys are the best.

“Run and be happy” was the theme of this race, as seems to be the case a lot lately. Yes, it’s pretty much always hot and somewhat (or a lot) humid at this race – it’s southern West Virginia in mid June, after all. And yes, if you are from somewhere flat, it is noticeably hilly in places. But that really pales in comparison to the rest of the experience, at least for me. It’s just so much fun. The race really takes the “hillbilly” stereotype and runs with it, with themed water stops and fun signs along the way.

img_5893-1024x1024-1 This water stop (one of my favorites along the course) feature barefoot children, moonshine, a “barefoot and pregnant” woman, a fake pig, and a mock graveyard!

Carrie and I were chatting the whole way (swapping life stories, like always) and she kept saying how much she loved the race, which was a huge relief. She understood why I come back every year! As we started to approach the famed Blackberry Mountain (a one-mile long hill that begins around mile 6.5), we both shut up for a second and took in the beauty and the challenge in front of us. Although I’ve run up that hill without stopping several times before, this race was not one of those days. Sorry, not sorry. The downhill is just as dramatic, if not more so – it kind of hurts heading back down! That’s mountain running for you, I suppose.

img_5885-e1466380930703-1024x1024-1 It’s so disappointing how pictures never do hills any justice. Just trust me, it was a steep decline.

We were running at a conversational pace and walking through all the water stops (and of course taking a ton of pictures), so it definitely wasn’t a fast race – hey, I’ll get to that later in the summer. It also seemed like everywhere I turned, I met another reader or saw an old friend! My friend Meghan about fell off her bike when she realized she was riding next to me (doing some on-course support) and of course, there are tons of sites to see along the way. Remember all that feudin’ I mentioned? Well, the second half of the half marathon course is full of historic sites. It’s one of the most special and unique parts about the race – as if there aren’t already 1000.

img_5887-1024x1024-1 With Carrie at one of the historic stops along the course!

Another thing that is really fun about this race is the attitude most of the participants have going into it. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of people going out there who are looking to run fast, win, or PR. But for the most part, this is a race that people come to because they want to experience how wonderfully weird it is, in all its glory, and that laid-back attitude means everyone is happy to talk, stop and take a picture, and laugh about how wonderful the day is. It’s just an all around good time, and I think that really contributes to the positive experience.

As we ran up to one of the water stops around mile 9, the volunteers asked where we were from. I answered that I am from South Carolina, and Carrie said she’s from Ohio. “WONDERFUL!” the woman shrieked. “Y’all make sure you come back next year!” “This is my third year!” I said. “I’ll definitely be back again.” “Well of course you will,” she replied. “We’re habit-forming!” She’s right. This race is habit-forming. So is meth. So I’ll take my chances with the Hatfield McCoy Marathon and Half Marathon.

img_5886-1024x1024-1 Site of the Election Day Massacre – habit-forming, indeed!

Now, I had been telling Carrie all about one of my favorite sights along the course – Sparky, the “World’s Smallest Horse,” who I seemed to remember being at mile 4. Well, not only has Sparky apparently died (RIP) but he apparently was never at mile 4. That’s marathon brain, for you! The good news is that some of Sparky’s comrades made their appearance around Mile 10, so Carrie and I immediately ran over to take a picture because LOOK AT THEIR TINY SADDLES.

img_5894-1024x1024-1 It was imperative that we sit on the ground to demonstrate how tiny they actually are. Also, fun fact: the saddles are actually made for purses.

As we ran towards Matewan, West Virginia – the tiny town where the half marathon finishes, I actually felt really sad. So did Carrie! We both wished I was running the whole thing, and although I knew I could probably handle 18 miles fine, a marathon is just not in the cards anymore. There’s a few races where I want to keep running, and this will always be one of them. Carrie’s mom caught us at the half marathon finish!

img_5963-e1466382407881-768x1024-1 Looking pretty chipper at mile 13!

I crossed the finish line feeling great and smiling. I was sad to leave Carrie, but she had another 13.1 miles to run! I grabbed my mason jar (just some of the fantastic race swag) and my medal and stood around talking to longtime reader, Art! Art has left tons of comments on the blog and was one of the very first people ever to read here. It was wonderful to finally meet him in person after 4.5 years! It was starting to get hot, so I think we were both sort of glad to be done.

img_5903-1024x1024-1 Loved the medal this year! Playing off the famous moonshine mason jar.

Although my race was over, Carrie’s wasn’t! Her mom and I headed out from the half marathon finish line and went to mile 19, near one of the BEST aid stations on the course (I vividly remember it from years gone by) and we waited for Carrie for a while. Although everyone else looked absolutely miserable in the heat by that point in the race, Carrie was all smiles when we saw her. “I LOVE THIS RACE!” she exclaimed as she got close. We grabbed some freeze pops and started walking along with her for a little while. She was doing amazingly well and was well on the way to the finish. Carrie’s mom kindly drove me back to the cabin so I could take a shower before I headed back home – I had about a 5 hour drive ahead of me. Before I headed out, I headed to downtown Williamson to check out the finish line that I love so much.

img_5912-e1466386063643-1024x1024-1 Hatfield and McCoy greet every finisher, no matter how hot it gets!

I definitely had a bit of nostalgia when I headed downtown and saw the finish of the full marathon, which I love. But I can’t knock my experience – I had an absolutely perfect time doing the half marathon. I felt great, my back never hurt, and I was able to drive home right after the race with no problems. This is a truly special event, and with all the friendly faces that head back year after year, I know this won’t be my last time in hill country. After all, it’s habit forming!

LEAVE A COMMENT: What super unique races are on your bucket list?