BRO Athletes: Maria Bocanegra Recaps Back to Back Mountain Races

Last year, in 2014, I ran the Blue Ridge Marathon as my first marathon, almost one year after my second child was born. I trained strategically and had realistic expectations. It was as hard as I anticipated, and I loved the experience. I did well, but not astonishingly so. Regardless, after the race, I had to temper my desire to immediately sign up for another marathon. With two kids and a full time job, I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to commit to the training it would take to really tackle another marathon, and take it to the next level.

So, when Blue Ridge Marathon sent out an enticing discount to sign up for the 2015 races one month after the 2014 marathon was over, I took a deep breath and signed up for the 10k instead. It was tough not to jump in head first again, especially while still riding on the high of the race and feeling a little bit of the “post-race blues” at the same time. The practical side of me won out.

Fast forward nearly a year, and I’m knee deep in the Mountain Junkies RNUT series. It just so happens that the RNUT version of the masochistic run up Mill Mountain was scheduled to take place one week before the Blue Ridge Marathon Star 10k.

I was committed on both fronts, so I decided to partake. On April 11th, I towed the line on Fishburn Parkway to take on Mill Mountain Mayhem. This race takes you uphill—or up-mountain, I should say—along a paved road for about 1 mile before transitioning to the Mill Mountain trails for the rest of the race. There are a lot of steep grades for the first 4.5 miles, with slight reprieves every now and then.


It’s a tough course, but occasionally you get a view of the city and the mountains through the early spring growth on the trees that takes your breath away. We wound through the trails relentlessly, and just when I felt like I couldn’t maintain the same pace going up any longer, I reached the Roanoke Star and began the descent to the finish line. Most of the time “descent” is something runners welcome. But, Mill Mountain Mayhem is known as the best “bloody” race of the series for a reason. It’s common to see bloody knees and legs at the post-race festivities, since runners have to run down the mountain on a rocky, rooty trail trying to make up time. I evoked all of my technical trail running experience, and had a very good downhill run, passing some runners and improving my average pace quite a bit. The effort was good for second place.

The week between Mill Mountain Mayhem and the Star 10k consisted of yoga and a few shakeout runs ranging between 3-4 miles. It made me nervous to cut down my mileage so drastically, but I also knew my legs needed the rest. Plus my husband was traveling for work most of the week so I was flying solo with the kids, meaning my opportunity to do much more was limited.

The Friday before the Star 10k my legs were still heavy and stiff, but I hoped the adrenaline of such an exciting race would get me through. My husband had to take my daughter to ballet the morning of the race, which meant I had to go it alone without my cheering squad. I woke up, ate, and left before anyone in the house even stirred, since gun time was at 7:35 a.m. My strategy for the race, if you can call it that, was to go out as hard as I could and keep it up for as long as I could. Basic, but it seemed the best way to test my limits yet again on this goliath of a mountain. I went out hard with the front marathon runners, and let them pace me up the mountain.

I led the women’s race from the start. The challenging part of the Star 10k is that after the first mile, it’s all uphill (er, up-mountain) for nearly 2.5 miles without a break. I paced well on the first two miles, but then the heaviness of my legs took a toll on the third mile, and my pace suffered. I focused on maintaining the lead while cresting the mountain at the famed Star. Once the ascent ended, I allowed my legs to relax for a few steps and then settled into my downhill stride. This type of downhill running is no easy feat either, but at this point my legs were happy for the change.

I made up a lot of time on the downhill, then the last mile was mostly flat. I pushed hard through to the finish, and finished first female and 9th overall. Breaking top ten overall was a nice surprise, and the reception at the finish line at that caliber of race is always so amazing and a bit overwhelming.

My kids and I always joke that we can see the Star from wherever we are in Roanoke; it’s such an iconic and pervasive landmark. After the past two weekends, I have a slightly different feeling when I look up and see the Star; a more intimate knowing, you might say, and a sense of respect for the way this piece of Roanoke has tied the running community together in the past couple of weeks. We live in a beautiful region, and even though the races were tough, I am so glad I took on the challenge of racing up (and down) Mill Mountain two weekends in a row.


Places to Go, Things to See: