Freedom’s Run Marathon: A literal uphill battle among beautiful battlefields

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Here I am against a backdrop featuring the Freedom’s Run elevation graph.

Disclaimer: I received free entry to Freedom’s Run as part of being a BibRave Pro. Learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro (ambassador), and check out BibRave.com to review, find and write race reviews!

I was running up a hill at Murphy Farm in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, early in the Freedom’s Run Marathon when I soon realized — probably about the time I hit one mile — it was unlikely I’d break five hours in this race.

And that wasn’t a bad thing. It was just something I noticed.

I had trained well and hoped to come in between 4:45 and 4:59:59 — or, of course, under that, but I figured that range was reasonable for my current fitness level and the course.

But I was going up a hill, and I wasn’t even on the hilly part of the course.

The Start

I arrived in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on Friday evening shortly after 6:30 p.m. Freedom’s Run Co-Founder Dr. Mark Cucuzzella had started a talk relating to his new book, “Run For Your Life.” The expo, at Shepherd University, was very small, which was fine with me. I picked up my bib and shirt with no line and no problems. I then took a seat and listened to Cucuzzella.

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Here I am with race director, race co-founder and author Dr. Mark Cucuzzella.

He signed my book and included the words “Go BibRave” after seeing the BibRave shirt I was wearing, which I thought was cool. I talked to a guy who helps out with the race’s Twitter account, Mick, and he took a photo of me with Cucuzzella. Mick recommended a dinner spot, Blue Moon Cafe, so I headed there.

 

I really enjoyed my meal of a white pizza and peanut butter mousse pie. I sat at the bar since I was by myself, but as I left, I noticed how expansive and cool the outside area was.

I then headed to the school bus I’d booked on Airbnb. Yes, you read that right! I stayed in a school bus that had been transformed into a home — follow @Willbillys on Instagram to see more. (Side note: If you’d like to help me fund my travel and also save $40 on your first trip of $75 or more on Airbnb, use my referral link.)

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Here’s Mark Cucuzzella’s note in my book.

The bus was an awesome place to stay, and I got a good night’s sleep before getting up at about 4:45 a.m. Saturday morning — race day. I arrived at Shepherd University, just a several-minute drive away, to catch the bus to Harpers Ferry, around 5:30 a.m. It was so easy to park that I could have wondered about being in the wrong spot, but I did see other runners waiting by the Wellness Center, so I went up to join them. I had a couple UnTapped waffles and drank some water.

 

Once we arrived in Harpers Ferry, it was still dark. Mick, from the day before, was walking around the area with a microphone asking people where they were from and what number marathon this was for people. I thought that was a cool touch. There were also plenty of portable toilets, and I went twice — I didn’t even have to wait in line.

I listened to tips from Cucuzzella and decided to follow them in the race — after all, he knows the course. I am not used to running on serious hills. I was so glad to hear that he suggested walking some. Sometimes, it seems that runners look down on walking, but I actually think it can be very useful in a race. But here was a race director suggesting that we walk!

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Here’s my unique medal, made by Joy Bridy Pottery, against the backdrop of the Antietam National Battlefield. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

In particular, Cucuzzella suggested that we walk the big hill that would come after we got off the C&O Canal Towpath around Mile 15 — Millers Sawmill Road. He also suggested walking for 30 seconds when we hit each of the mile markers on the towpath, to preserve some energy. He also mentioned not going down the steep downhill near the beginning of the race too fast.

 

I assume there were people who did not follow the walking tips and probably had much faster times than I did. However, I figure the tips were geared toward someone like me — a regular, normally mid-pack sort of runner, and I was thankful for the advice.

Once it was time to start, we all got into a parking lot at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. We were behind a line of duct tape.

I didn’t get the exact quote — it’s not like I had a notebook with me at the start — but Cucuzzella said something like, “This is West Virginia,” referring to the duct tape, and joked that since it wouldn’t be chip timed, if someone wanted to subtract the five seconds it would take to cross the line from their results to let him know. I overheard another runner talk about this later, so it sounded like he may have said the same thing at the half.

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Here I am with my race bib after getting it at the small expo at Shepherd University. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I probably should have started my watch when the race started, but I did end up starting it when I crossed the duct tape line. I wasn’t really near the front, and my watch time was still only 10 seconds off from my official time.

 

We turned around in the parking lot and followed a road to Murphy Farm, where we ran a beautiful out-and-back. I decided not to take photos along the way because I wanted to try to see what kind of time I could get, and I also just wanted to soak in the scenery. I figured if I stopped to take a photo, I would keep stopping. I figured I could go back to most spots on the course if I wanted to get a photo for the blog. I wanted this to be different than a training run.

I didn’t want to go too fast in the beginning, because I knew of the hills that were to come. But usually, I have some extra adrenaline in the first mile. I saw on my watch that I’d run the first mile in 11:00. But the problem was that it wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t say it was super difficult, either — but it wasn’t a Salisbury 11:00 mile. It was a hilly 11:00 mile.

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Here I am with fellow BibRave Pros Ben and Brenda before we started the Freedom’s Run Marathon.

I was originally thinking maybe I could run some of the earlier miles around 10:40 or so — not too fast, but fast enough to save some extra time for the hills. I realized that would not really work.

 

We made our way down a huge hill — the race has a net downhill, and I guess this is where that must come from, because most of it certainly didn’t feel downhill. We ran into Lower Town Harpers Ferry. We’d just passed an aid station, and I had to go to the bathroom.

Since there were supposed to be portable toilets at each aid station, I looked for one. But even better, there was a real bathroom in the Lower Town. I headed in there and got to use a real bathroom and wash my hands (something that I particularly hate about portable toilets is not getting to wash your hands). There were other runners in there as well, but I didn’t have to wait.

My miles had been relatively consistent until then — 11:00, 11:17, 11:34 and 11:14 — and that mile came in at 13:31. I thought that was a fine mile time for including a bathroom stop.

We headed across a bridge and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. I headed down a spiral staircase — at least, it was spiral at the beginning and then turned more into a regular staircase — to the C&O Canal, where we would be for about 10 miles.

The Canal

I hadn’t been on the C&O Canal in years. I remembered being there as a child, and I ran my first 10-mile race, The Revenge of the Penguins, on a different section of the C&O Canal in 2009. That may have been the last time I’d been on the C&O Canal. I figured it would be like the NCR Trail in Baltimore County, or the Great Allegheny Passage, which I’d just run while visiting the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania.

Maybe it was the season, but this part of the trail did not seem like that to me. It wasn’t necessarily a problem, but I do think it affected my pace. The trail was covered with leaves, and there were some rocks. It seemed like I was consistently around an 11:30-11:40ish pace, including the 30-second walk at each mile post. There were not mile markers on the Canal, and I actually kind of liked that my walk breaks didn’t line up with my watch — it made it more interesting.

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I don’t have photos from the earlier part of the course, but here’s a shot from Antietam National Battlefield. During the race, we ran the opposite way as the one way signs. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

At one point during Mile 8, I tripped on a rock, or something like that, and fell straight down. A nearby runner, who I saw later in the race, asked if I was OK. I told her I was fine and to go on, and I was fine. But I did walk for a little bit to reset. I started running again and not long after twisted my ankle on another rock. It wasn’t anything too intense, and after another walk, I was back on my run.

 

I was expecting an aid station around the Mile 8 marker, but I didn’t end up seeing one until about the Mile 9 marker. I had seen that there were fewer aid stations than a marathon normally has, but I figured I’d be OK with the aid stations every three to four miles. I was fine, but I was certainly ready for this aid station. I’d been waiting on water to take the fuel I’d brought — UnTapped syrup — and at this point it had been nearly two hours.

After a few more miles, I heard some enthusiastic cheering, which was something I had not encountered the whole race. It kept me motivated, and it turned out to be some high school students. I would see the only signs of the whole day — I think there were two signs. They were just ahead of another aid station.

At Mile 13.1 on my watch, I checked it to see what time I had run the first half of the race in. I knew this was not a negative split course, and my first half had come in at 2:35.

I enjoyed running on the Canal, which was right along the Potomac River. There were times that I went back and forth with other runners, but there were other times that I could not see anyone ahead of me. There were only 285 full marathoners, and none of the other distances traveled this area of the course.

I looked behind myself a few times to make sure there were still people behind me, and there were. At one point, I came to an aqueduct and since I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, I wasn’t sure whether to go above it or through it. I ended up going through it, while others went above it. Hopefully either option worked — it was about the same distance.

I stopped at an aid station at the end of the Canal and would cross the street to the Millers Sawmill hill — the one that you can really see on the race elevation map.

The massive Millers Sawmill hill

This hill kept going and going. I’d think I was nearing the top only to have a slight downhill and another uphill.

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I got this photo of my medal in the battlefield. In the background, you can see one of the hills I climbed — the hill pictured in the following photo. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Where I was in the pack, everyone seemed to be walking the uphills. I followed Cucuzzella’s advice and walked the uphills as well, running the downhills and flatter stretches. At one point, I ended up stopping to walk right next to another runner, but I’d already picked a driveway I could walk at. I let him know that was the reason.

 

Did I mention that we hardly have any hills in Salisbury? I’d trained on a few hills in town, but the hill we have is less than a quarter-mile long. It shows up as 0.1 on a Strava segment. This hill showed up as a Strava segment as well — “The Full Sawmill” — about 1.6-1.7 miles with 201 feet of gain. The segment says there was a 2.2 percent grade, but I guess that averages in the downhills as well. There was also a place to zoom in on different grades along the segment — and among the ones I found were 12.6 percent, 11 percent and 9 percent.

A shorter Strava segment titled “Millers Sawmill Rd Climb” tracked 173 feet of gain in 0.6 miles — a 5.2 percent grade. I know this is a lot of talk about Strava segments, but it’s tough to explain just how crazy this hill is — at least for someone who lives on the pancake-flat Eastern Shore.

The other runners and I made it up the hill, but the hills were far from over. Another segment not far after, called “Isengard,” tracks 89 feet of gain — a 6.1 percent grade — in 0.2 miles.

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We turned a corner, and here was a huge uphill. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

In long races like marathons, I tend to end up seeing some of the same people throughout the course. Our speeds are close, but slightly different, so we pass each other during the race.

 

One of these people was a guy wearing a blue and orange singlet. We talked briefly about how tough the hills were. He mentioned, I believe, that it was his toughest marathon, so I asked how many he had done. And I think he said 67.

This was my ninth marathon, and I was trying to recall which felt harder — this or the Big Sur Marathon that I’d run in 2015. I looked it up afterward and the Big Sur Marathon did have more elevation gain, but I think much of it was all in one incline. Either way, both Big Sur and Freedom’s Run were tough. And when Freedom’s Run became my slowest marathon time (not something I’m disappointed by, given how tough it was), it took that spot from Big Sur.

Antietam National Battlefield

I saw there was a note on how to run Freedom’s Run in my email, and I had opened it on my phone the day before the race. There was a lot of text to read on my phone, and I admit I didn’t read the whole thing. But this part did jump out at me, which Cucuzzella wrote after mentioning the tough hills: “But remember you are in Antietam Battlefield and nothing you experience will be remotely as severe as what the soldiers suffered through 150 years ago.”

Worse things could be happening in a battlefield than running some crazy hills that I signed up to run for fun.

I continued to walk the steep hills and run the downhill or flatter sections. I might have even run a few small inclines. For the really steep hills, though, I didn’t think it would be helpful to attempt to run the hills when it would probably hardly be faster than a walk, anyway. I thought it would be better to try to do a quick walk and conserve some energy.

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Here’s an example of some of the crazy-steep hills I faced. (Screenshot from Strava)

One more Strava segment: A portion of one of those battlefield hills clocked in at at 22.7 percent grade. This was a portion of a total segment that was 0.2 miles with 70 feet of elevation gain and an average 3.7 percent grade. But even heading up that steep of a hill for a second or two is pretty crazy.

 

While on one of the steep hills, I commented something to the guy I mentioned above that I didn’t think I’d be doing myself any favors by running up those steepest hills, and he agreed. I told him I’d originally been hoping for a sub-5:00 finish, and he was as well. It turned out that among his 67 marathons, he’d run the Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon, which was my first and second marathon, and a half marathon race I’ve continued to run since then. We ended up finishing this race not far from each other.

The battlefield provided beautiful scenery, and although the hills were definitely a challenge, I felt amazing cardio-wise. Maybe this was because I was walking up the worst of the hills. I never ended up hitting a wall.

I stopped at the aid stations along the way. They weren’t always where I expected them, but they did become more frequent in the last several miles. There were also students — they appeared to be high schoolers — who were along the course in the battlefield, I guess to keep people on the right course. Some provided encouragement.

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The Antietam National Battlefield scenery was beautiful. This photo was taken the opposite direction from what I ran, so it’s looking down at hills I ran up. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

It was toward the end of the battlefield that one of them said something like “Good job, ma’am.” As someone who isn’t that much older than the students — although I guess I’d be about 14 years older than a freshman, which does seem kind of weird now that I think about it — I didn’t really think of myself as “ma’am.” But later, another student in the town of Sharpsburg called me “ma’am,” as well.

 

The Finish

Once we headed out of the battlefield, I knew the worst of the hills were behind us. But they were not quite over. We definitely climbed a steep hill in the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Remembering that the last three or so miles were described as downhill to flat, I picked up the pace for those last few miles, and was able to get back to the kind of paces I was logging in the beginning. Although I remember it felt like my legs were going to fall off — I knew they weren’t going to, but that’s kind of how they felt — I still felt great cardio-wise. There were still some hills, but not like what we’d just experienced.

Even though I realized this was going to be my slowest marathon — my time at Big Sur was 5:18:04 — the time was actually passing somewhat quickly. I think it was because I didn’t feel like I was going to die. Other than the scenery to look at, I didn’t have many distractions otherwise. There were hardly any spectators, there weren’t signs to read other than the couple I’d seen in the first half, and I don’t run races with music or podcasts, so I wasn’t listening to anything.

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Here’s another photo from Antietam National Battlefield the day after the race. I ran toward where this photo was taken from — if I were running the race in this photo, you would have been able to see my face. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

At some point, I decided to try to come in under 5:30 — probably once I realized that I wouldn’t beat my time from Big Sur. As I got closer to the finish and ticked off each mile, I kept doing the math to see how much time I had left to meet that goal. As I got closer, that revised goal of breaking 5:30 seemed more realistic, and then it seemed almost certain.

 

I crossed another bridge to return to West Virginia for the last bit of the course. A couple kids welcomed me to West Virginia and they said things like “You’re almost in West Virginia” and “Welcome to West Virginia,” and it reminded me of when my sister and I would be driving with our parents, sitting in the back seat, and would say things like “You’re-in-Maryland-We’re-in-Maryland,” as they crossed the state line a second or two before we did.

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West Virginia was the seventh state I’ve run a marathon in. I took a photo with this welcome state cutout that was in the school bus I stayed in. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

After I got into West Virginia, there was a short but steep hill to climb. Someone walking down the hill said that this was the last hill. This hill came at about Mile 26, so there couldn’t be too many hills left!

 

This hill was on the Shepherd University campus, and again, I couldn’t see any other runners in front of me.  There was a little bit of running on campus before I ran in between two sets of pennant flags — the kind that we use for our Eastern Shore Running Club finish chutes, but a lot of them — and finished on the football field at the university.

We were all pretty spread out at this point, and as far as I remember, I was the only person even running on the field when I finished — there was a short stretch on the field before crossing the finish line at the 50-yard line. An announcer said that Vanessa from Salisbury was coming into the finish, or something like that — I remember hearing “Vanessa from Salisbury.”

I received my handmade medal — created by Joy Bridy Pottery — and a reusable water bottle. There was also a member of the medical staff who asked how I was feeling. I told her I was fine, because I was. Of course, I was sore, but I felt good, given that I’d just run a marathon, and I didn’t need any medical attention. It was nice that she was attentive and there to look out for anyone who might need assistance, though.

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Here I am with my finisher medal after finishing the Freedom’s Run Marathon on Shepherd University’s football field. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I talked to the guy in the blue and orange singlet after he finished, and after taking some photos with my medal, I decided to head to the post-race party, which was across the street at the Bavarian Inn  — and up a hill! I saw fellow BibRave Pro Brenda, and I realized I’d missed the pizza. I wanted pizza, so I headed back down the hill to near the stadium, where the volunteers actually gave me a whole pizza because there were so many pizzas left.

 

I finished 221st of 285 people in the full marathon, and it had been more than four hours for the half marathon, so I only saw maybe three half marathoners on the course. There were also a 5K and 10K.

After the race, someone also said she liked my shirt — my BibRave shirt — and that she liked the podcast, which was cool!

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Here’s the school bus I stayed in from the outside! (Vanessa Junkin photo)

After heading back for a shower and a nap, I enjoyed dinner at The Green Pineapple. The following day, I went back to Antietam National Battlefield for the driving tour, taking photos along the way. I also thought Shepherdstown was a really cool town, with a fun downtown area.

 

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Here’s the inside of the school bus I stayed in. It was awesome! (Vanessa Junkin photo)

The results should show up soon on Athlinks, and I’ll be sure to claim them. Freedom’s Run can be found on Athlinks here.

Check out my BibRave review here.

In my splits below, you’ll certainly be able to tell where the worst of the hills began!

Mile 1: 11:00

Mile 2: 11:17

Mile 3: 11:34

Mile 4: 11:14

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I love the color of the race shirt, and I can’t wait to wear it now that it’s finally starting to get cool out. Along with my medal, I also received a reusable water bottle and pint glass after finishing the race. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Mile 5: 13:31 (includes bathroom stop)

 

Mile 6: 11:40

Mile 7: 11:32

Mile 8: 12:02

Mile 9: 11:17

Mile 10: 12:57 (first aid station stop)

Mile 11: 11:30

Mile 12: 12:12

Mile 13: 11:43

Mile 14: 12:06

Mile 15: 11:45

Mile 16: 15:07

Mile 17: 13:23

Mile 18: 13:21

Mile 19: 14:38

Mile 20: 13:11

Mile 21: 14:23

Mile 22: 13:17

Mile 23: 13:49

Mile 24: 11:59

Mile 25: 11:25

Mile 26: 11:10

Last part (watch had 0.3): 3:11 (10:33 pace)

Total: Watch Time: 5:26:24 (12:25/mile pace); Official Time: 5:26:34 (12:27/mile pace).

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7 thoughts on “Freedom’s Run Marathon: A literal uphill battle among beautiful battlefields

  1. I loved reading your recap and congrats on a great race! My cousin ran the marathon and finished about thirty minutes behind you. I’d considered joining him and running the half, but the logistics seemed too difficult and I would have had to wait quite some time for him after the half started so I skipped it. My husband and I ran Big Sur many years ago and loved it! We ran it to enjoy it and didn’t worry about our time. I remember the incline of running up Hurricane Point well!

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