Saturday, April 2, 2016

2016 Biltmore Backyard to Vineyard Challenge

March 12th and 13th was the first ever Biltmore Backyard to Vineyard Challenge.  Being a huge fan of the Biltmore Estate, and having run the Half Marathon in 2015 (last years post), I had to sign up.  This was the first time that the Half and Full Marathons were run on different days, and this gave us the opportunity to run both races back to back for the first time.  One hundred runners were given this opportunity for 2016 (yes, I signed up again for 2017 already).

Since I only live about 8 hours away my wife and I drove down on Thursday.  This gave us time to enjoy the Antler Hill Village, have dinner at Cedric's Tavern and relax.  The race expo and packet pick-up would start at Noon on Friday at the host hotel, the Double Tree hotel in the Biltmore Village area.  Several area hotels, including the host hotel, have special rates during the race weekend and offer shuttle services to/from the starting area on the Biltmore Estate.  Signing up for the race will get you on the grounds for the event, but spectators have to purchase Estate tickets, and if you want to visit the house on race day you will need to purchase a separate ticket as well.

Personally I love to stay at the Inn on Biltmore Estate.  It is a short downhill walk to the starting area the morning of the events, so there is no worry about catching a shuttle, and you can sleep in longer than anyone else on race morning; advantage yours!  Another option is to stay at the new Village Hotel which is right next to the Biltmore Winery and a very short walk to the start/finish area.

While the Village Hotel is nice, the luxury and amenities of the Inn are my favorite. Nothing like having a glass of wine or a martini on the patio overlooking Antler Hill Village and the French Broad River.  Service is always impeccable, and given the age of the hotel it still looks new.  A real credit to the staff that maintains the facilities and grounds.

The Expo isn't large, but there are some good venders offering clothing, shoes, nutrition, local artisanal items, equipment and other stuff.  I don't spend a lot of time in this expo, but instead get my bib, look around quickly and head back to the Inn to drop everything off and take advantage of the grounds and the Biltmore House.

Waiting for the Half Marathon to Start

The race is well organized and always starts on time.  Both the Half Marathon and Full Marathon started and ended at the same spot, and both races start promptly at 7:30am.  Weather for the Half Marathon was perfect.  Knowing I would be running the full marathon the next day, I started off with an easy pace, and tried to stay steady the entire time.  I planned on getting water at each of the stops and walking through them to make sure I didn't get carried away.

Strava Map of the Biltmore Half Marathon

As you can see from the Strava map, the first 6 or so miles are relatively uphill.  After leaving the Antler Hill Village area, you work your way uphill to the Deer Park Inn and Horse Barn.  The first water stop is here as well, at approximately mile 2.  After this you get a nice downhill break for just over a mile before turning right and heading up the famous Approach Road to the Biltmore House.  George Vanderbilt designed this road to take his guests on a windy, custom planted grove of trees and shrubs to build anticipation and to start the relaxation process.  Additionally, this gave time for their luggage and servants to take a more direct route to the house.  In this way the guests would be unpacked even before they arrived at the house.

Even as a runner, you are building anticipation. Maybe not at seeing the house just yet, but certainly all about getting to the top of this 2 mile climb.  If you have visited the house before, just as you know you are about to come into the view of the house, you take a turn to the right into the parking lot area.  Sure it's downhill, and that feel great and all, but you also know you will have to come back up again to get to the house.  The parking lot is where the next water stop is situated around mile 5.  The distance between the first two stops is the longest of the race and with the hill can be a challenge depending on the humidity and temperature on race day.

All that climbing is worth it as you turn right at around mile 6 to see the Biltmore House.  Depending on your pace you are most likely seeing it as the sun comes up from the East hitting the front of the house.  A beautiful site for sure.  Of course this is also your first photo opportunity as there are usually cameras positioned close to the house and again as you turn right into the gardens, so make sure you are smiling.

Close to the House

Leaving Biltmore House about to turn right into Gardens
As you turn to the gardens you get a downhill break for just short of a mile and a half.  Since you are able to catch your breath be sure to look around you.  Even though the spring flowers haven't all started to bloom yet, there is still a lot to see, including the Conservatory on your left.  As you head out of the gardens you will go around the Bass Pond, over the brick bridge used in the film "The Last of the Mohicans" and then past the water fall.

After passing by a sheep farm around mile marker 7.6 you will find another water stop with food items before heading into the Equestrian Center for a quick out and back on gravel.  Last year this wasn't an out and back, but there was some construction along the French Broad river this time, so the route was slightly different.  The nice thing was getting to hit the water station again after only a half mile.

At this point we were back on pavement heading towards the winery again.  We took a left to go around the Lagoon where there is another photo opportunity with the back of the house over your right shoulder.  This part is trail again but turns to pavement after a relatively short distance.

Lagoon view of the Biltmore House

There are plenty of water/food stops at this point on the course which is great since you are more than half way through the journey.  At approximately mile 9.7 you get back on trails for the majority of the remaining run.  You maintain your trek along the French Broad river before doing a 180 degree turn around mile 11.8 to head back to Antler Hill Village.

At mile 12.6 you turn left and climb up a shallow hill, and eventually end back on pavement, before turning right for a short downhill run over the finish line where it all began just a short while ago.  You will find volunteers waiting to give you a cozy blanket, water and your coveted woodallion.   Yes, that isn't a typo.  Instead of a medal, the Biltmore Marathon event presents you with a wooden medallion with a medal inlay.  The wood is reclaimed from the estate, so you get to take some of the Biltmore home with you.

Crossing the Finish Line
I managed to stay in control of pace, not over do it, and still came in at just under 2 hours.  My PR for a Half Marathon is right around 1:44:00 so I was happy with this outcome.  All in all, the total elevation gain according to my TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio and Strava was about 540 feet.

All three medals from the Backyard to Vineyard Challenge
The nice thing about staying at the Inn during the event, and the fact that the race starts at 7:30am is that you can make it back to the hotel quickly to change and then hit the breakfast buffet at the restaurant.  Nothing like a fresh made to order omelette and coffee after a run,

I made sure I ate a reasonable lunch even though I wasn't really hungry yet, because I knew I had the Marathon the next morning.  I also had Salmon at Cedric's for dinner in preparation.

Weather on marathon day wasn't going to cooperate as it did for the Half Marathon.  The temperature was great, but it was drizzling already at the starting line with hard rain predicted off and on during the race.

The race started on time again, promptly at 7:30am.  I wasn't really sore, but I was tight, so made sure I started off with a reasonable pace.  I figured I should try and stay slightly slower than the half marathon pace I maintained given I had to do twice the distance.

Strava Map of the Biltmore Marathon
As you can see from the Strava Marathon map, the first 10.2 miles are identical to the Half Marathon.  Everything is exactly the same, so you know what to expect.  As you can see from the photos of me pulling away from the Biltmore House, it was raining.

Close to the Biltmore House

Leaving the Biltmore House

As with the Half Marathon, getting the mile and a half downhill break through the gardens was welcome after the 2+ mile climb.  I crossed the 10k timing mat just 10 minutes slower than the prior day, so far so good at controlling my pace  As I turned left into the Equestrian center I got my first look into what the trail portions of this event were going to be like in the rain.  At this point it was pouring and puddles were forming everywhere.  While I had never run the Marathon at the Biltmore Estate before I knew that the "back half" was all trail.

Lagoon View on Marathon Day

After going the first 10.2 miles on the same course, we turn left, over the new service bridge to the West side of the estate.  This is an area that most visitors don't get to see unless you do one of the extra outdoor activities like skeet shooting, Segway tour, or other activities. This side of the estate is primarily where all of the cattle are raised, and also contain the local North Carolina vineyards for their wine production.

As expected this was extremely muddy.  While the trails on the East side of the estate had a fair amount of what I would call medium sized gravel, this side was mostly clay, and therefore mostly bright red mud.  After the water stop at mile 11, we turned right and headed up the second large climb on the run, for a total gain of about 220 feet.  This is in addition to the over 400 feet we already did on the first half.  If you haven't done a lot of trail running (especially in the mud), or perhaps on the beech, your calves really start to feel it.

At the top of the climb was another water stop with some food options, and then we did a quick out and back and crossed over a 13.1 timing mat.  At this point we got a downhill break for about a mile or so, before doing a short but steep climb near the vineyards.  This was an amazing view.  I don't normally run with a phone, but I had mine with me in case I could capture a shot of the vineyards around the lake, but since it was raining so hard I didn't take it out of the zip lock bag.

The last water/food stop on the West side of the estate was after the top of the climb just around mile 15.8 or so.  We then went the last mile and a half on the muddy trails making our way back to the service bridge before turn left along the French Broad river just as we had run for the Half Marathon.

After doing the out and back along the river like the Half Marathon we worked our way on pavement back to the Equestrian Center where we had been at mile 7.6.  These last 6 miles are two way running paths, so you get the opportunity to encourage fellow runners for the last 25% of the event.  We did the out and back on the gravel section of the Equestrian Center, and then made our way back towards Antler Hill Village, and the last 3 miles.

This time you finish slightly uphill across the finish line in the opposite direction that you started.  Again, volunteers are waiting for you with warm blankets, water, and your woodallion.  Since I had done the backyard to vineyard challenge I then made my way over to the gazebo in Antler Hill Village to pickup my jacket and third medal.

Crossing the Marathon Finish Line

All in all, according to my TomTom and Strava, the total elevation gain for the Marathon was 794 feet.  Not the most I have done in a Marathon (the Baltimore Marathon holds that record for me and my Marathon PR), but certainly not trivial.  Especially with all the rain and mud.

What a fun event, rain and all.  As I mentioned at the start of this post, I already signed up for this challenge again in 2017, and highly recommend it.  Not sure if it will be limited to 100 runners again, but encourage runners of all abilities to sign up for at least the Half or Full Marathon.

Side Note: During the first 4 or 5 miles of the run I had the honor of running near a blind runner (and his partner).  Turns out that he qualified for the Boston Marathon at this event.  I can't even imagine what it was like for him running without sight, in all the rain and mud.  Here is his story:

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