COLUMBIA — A post on Marathon Guide’s online message board by a runner from St. Peters once described Columbia’s Heart of America Marathon as the “three H’s — heat, humidity and hills.”
Marathonguide.com provides a forum for runners to share their comments on marathons they have participated in. The majority of runners who left comments about the marathon shared the same sentiments but went on to say the overall experience was worth it and they would be back for the next one.
Since 1960, the Heart of America Marathon has been a Labor Day tradition. Runners from all over the country travel here each year to experience what Joe Duncan, the marathon’s race director for the past 38 years, says is “one of the top five marathons in degree of difficulty.”
“It’s considered to be one of the most challenging courses in the country because of the hills and the heat with it being on Labor Day,” Duncan said.
Luckily, Columbia runners have the advantage of being able to train on the same hills that cause headaches for other runners on race day.
Andy Emerson recognized this opportunity and worked with friend Dan Sitar to organize a Heart of America training run.
“Dan and I were planning on running the course, so we thought we would ask others to join us,” Emerson said. “I think it’s best to train on the course that you’re going to run on if at all possible, or at least under the same conditions. Since we live in Columbia, we are able to do that and anyone else who lives in Columbia can do the same.”
Anyone interested in preparing for the marathon can participate in the training run, which begins at 6 a.m. Saturday. The run will start and finish at Rock Bridge Elementary, covering the 17-mile loop in the course from approximately Mile 3.5 to Mile 20.5.
Emerson, 39, will be competing in his fifth Heart of America Marathon this fall. He has finished in the top eight the past three years in the race. His goal is to improve each year by taking a few minutes off his time, which he has successfully done since his first Heart of America Marathon in 2004.
The training run could help others improve their times and be more prepared for the race as well. Emerson added that it would be especially beneficial to those who have not run in the marathon before but are planning to this year, by improving their confidence.
“There are several hills on the course, but they’re not really as bad as people say the are,” he said. “Some people are scared to do it because of the hills, but I think if they just got out there and did the training run, they would see they could do it.”
Emerson said the first half of the marathon is mostly downhill toward the Missouri River, until Easley Hill at Miles 12 and 13, which many consider to be the worst hill.
“Since it’s the first one, it really isn’t the hardest to me,” he said. “I find the most difficult hills are at Mile 20 right before Rock Bridge Elementary and Mile 24 on Providence toward Stadium.”
As far as road marathons go, Emerson admitted that the Heart of America is the hardest course he has encountered. But before getting ready and set at the starting line on Labor Day, Emerson said the plan is to have a couple more training runs, one in July and one in August, so Columbia runners will get additional chances to conquer the hills.