Moonshine Water Stop: The Hatfield-McCoy Marathon

Williamson, WV: June, 2015

At one water stop late in the Hatfield McCoy Marathon I hobbled up to three middle aged folks – two women in lawn chairs and a colossus of a man with a walrus mustache standing behind the water table.  The man told me I needed to try the cups in the back corner if I really wanted to feel good for the remainder.

“Moonshine” he said with a laugh when I asked for specifics.  Warily I took a sip and was greeted with crisp Mountain Dew – the sugary soda that is.  He laughed again and I took it good-naturedly, unsure whether or not I was hoping it was actually moonshine; neither on my list of go to beverages, mid-marathon or otherwise.  He flashed an incomplete smile and we chatted a bit about the hills (tall) and the weather (steamy), and then one of the women complimented my stride and told me the hills will only get taller and the weather steamier if I don’t get a move on.  I would’ve been pleasantly surprised by the good natured demeanor of these folks but by this point in the race it had become commonplace.  I can’t say what it would be like to visit southern West Virginia any other of the 51 weeks in the year, but for one Saturday in early June it was quite pleasant indeed.

My reason for being in West Virginia precluded my fifty state running goal.  I had signed up for the Hatfield-McCoy marathon upon reading an article on the most memorable races in the country or something to that effect.  The course actually crosses two states, but considering I’d already run in Kentucky it retroactively became my West Virginia race. 

The packet pickup was in a school cafeteria where we also had a chance to meet descendants of the feuding families and the opportunity to eat a pasta dinner.  Not one for carb loading, I passed on the noodles but not on the history.  Part of the marketing for the Hatfield McCoy festival is a skit that the community puts on, acting out the story of the families and explaining why they didn’t like each other very much.

The first hint of disdain between the two clans began during the Civil War.  The wealthier Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork River, and the middle class McCoys on the Kentucky side, and despite neither of their home states seceding, and neither family owning slaves, both fought for the Confederacy.  All but Asa Harmon McCoy, that is.  His time in the Union Army was cut short in 1864 when he was killed by a Confederate guerilla group that called themselves “The Wildcats,” and despite being on the same side during the war, the McCoys quietly blamed the uncle of Hatfield patriarch who went by the auspicious name of Devil Anse.

All was relatively quiet between the families for about a decade and a half until Roseanna McCoy was courted by Devil Anse’s son Johnse.  Not thinking too kindly of this, the McCoys had Johnse arrested on charges of moonshining as soon as he entered Kentucky.  Roseanna informed Devil Anse what her family was up to and Johnse’s transfer to custody in Pikeville, Kentucky was intercepted by a band of Hatfields. 

The early 1880s were the peak of the feud, during which the families would trade blows, including the killing of Devil Anse’s brother by those of Roseanna McCoy.  Retaliating, of course, was the Hatfields, who captured all three of the McCoy brothers, tied them to trees and fired fifty shots in their direction.

On New Year’s Day 1888 a few Hatfields set Randolph McCoy’s cabin ablaze, firing at him and his family as they sprinted for the woods.  For nearly a decade more the families fought, crossing the Tug Fork River in either offense or vengeance for one of their fallen brothers.  At one point the fighting got so over the top that Kentucky and West Virginia threatened to use state troops to fight it out alongside the feuding families.  There were a few arrests made, but most went on living their lives after the violence died down, and the last trial for a feud related crime occurred shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. 

It wasn’t until two McCoy descendants organized a joint family reunion almost 100 years later that the families officially declared a truce.  This coincided with the early years of the Hatfield McCoy Festival, and it has been growing since to include running events like the full marathon, two different half marathons (front and back) and something called a “double half” which differs from a full marathon but I’m not exactly sure how. One event I unfortunately missed was a tug of war in which half the competitors stand in Kentucky and the others in West Virginia, and whomever pulls the other splashing into the Tug Fork is declared the winner.

Williamson, West Virginia serves as the hub of activity for the Hatfield-McCoy region but also has a distinct personality of its own.  Like many of its contemporaries in the region, Williamson grew up around coal.  As an important stop on the Norfolk and Western Railway the town thrived, its population increasing tenfold during the first two decades of the twentieth century.  The prosperity was so great that in 1933 the railway erected a building constructed out of 65 tons of coal, basically just to show everyone that they had 65 tons of coal to spare.  We stopped by the building on our evening self-guided tour of the sleepy town.  The Coal Housemnow contains the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce.  It’s an interesting photo op and not far at all from anything else you may be doing in Williamson.

                Next door was the Mingo County Courthouse.  A man was out front watering the gardens with an enormous German Shephard.  After asking if we were there for the race weekend and getting an affirmative answer, he thanked us profusely, and was not the first nor the last to do so. 

“I don’t know if you can tell, but this is a busy weekend for Williamson” he said as he gestured broadly at the main street.  There were a handful of people out wandering around on a rather pleasant if slightly humid June evening, all outwardly looked like runners in Underarmour tops and brand name shoes. 

                “It’s not normally like this.  This race has done more for this town than anything in the last twenty years.  I’d know.”  He introduced himself as the County Commissioner for Mingo County, and that he waters the plants in front of the courthouse every night because it’s a small town, and somebody’s got to.  Williamson fell on hard times in the latter half of the century due to massive job and population loss.  It is now home to just a third as many people as it was when the Coal House was built.  To make matters worse, a series of floods tore through the town in the 70s and 80s, finally curtailed in 1991 by a floodwall which nearly surrounds the town.

In 2000, a few locals decided to take advantage of their two recession-proof assets, peculiar history and stunning topography, and created the marathon.  It has since become renowned in the running universe as one of the friendliest, most organized, most difficult full marathons in the country.  More than one Williamson local told us that the economic benefit the little town gets from this weekend is actually noticeable. 

Without many accommodation choices, runners rent out a space in the fire station for pennies, sleeping hostel style en masse before their early morning wakeup.  Part of me wishes I had opted to stay there for the experience.  That part of me, however, is not my back, and I would certainly curse the idea at the beginning of the run. Another place that is filled with runners during race weekend, our Commissioner friend informs us, is the historic Mountaineer Hotel.  “Go in and check it out” he tells us “and if they give you any trouble tell ‘em I sent you.”

Well there was nobody to whom we could tell that the commissioner sent us, as the lobby was empty, and rather dark.  Unassuming on the outside, built in fairly common 1920s style architecture, the interior looked as if it hadn’t changed since Eleanor Roosevelt stayed here during the town’s heyday.  French doors, wood framing, old style key cubbies, and several dangling chandeliers watch over a mini-museum created to honor the town’s history.  It is here we learned about Eleanor Roosevelt’s stay, as well as those of John F. Kennedy, Henry Ford and Johnny Cash. 

Unfortunately the Mountaineer Hotel wasn’t immune to Williamson’s downturn, and had closed along with much of the town after the floods.  It hadn’t reopened until 2014, just a year before our visit, by a local attorney who, like the creators of the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, saw tourism as an opportunity to bring the town back.  From the looks of the interior, and the sounds of the runners milling about the common area, for this weekend at least, he was right.

We finished our self-guided tour of the town with a fantastic meal at a café that wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy district of a much larger city.  By 2015, I suppose these places can be anywhere.  However, I realized almost too late that we had in fact crossed the Great American Tea/Sweet Tea Latitude, and was forced to catch the waitress and specify that I meant to order an unsweetened iced tea.  That was close.

The fog swirled through the valleys on our way to the starting line the next morning, indicating a steamy day ahead.  It’s for this reason, as well as the altitude, that this has been rated one of the fifteen toughest marathons in the country.  My parents and Lauren dropped me off in a parking lot of a generic looking grocery store on the Kentucky side of the river and I stood in poor spirits, jaded from running two marathons in the prior two months and looking forward to a break.

As the race began, we ran southeast into a valley in Kentucky, and I settled in next to a graying gentleman, probably around 60, who introduced himself as Walter.  Walter was a local member of the Tug Valley Road Runners Club who had lived in the area his whole life.  His sons had recently moved to Lexington and Pittsburgh and while he couldn’t deal with city life, there was one thing he relished when he went and visited them.

“In the city, you can run anywhere” Walter said, huffing alongside me around mile 3.  “Here, with the turns and the hills, there are only so many places you can go without risking your limbs.” 

“I’d imagine there are a lot of good trails around here though” I countered.  But no, they’re all on private property.  Not a whole lot of public land.  Glancing at the surrounding mountains, tops covered in fog, one could picture the potential technical trails weaving up and down the crags and valleys.  But until then, according to Walter, you have to stick to the streets unless you blaze your own acres.

“I was one of the founding members of this running community.  And you couldn’t imagine what it was like, how tough it was to run.”  We slowed a bit, as Walter, who had suffered a heart attack just five years ago, told me he was taking it easy and was jogging the half as a recovery. 

“I might as well’ve been the devil himself skipping around town, the way people looked at me.  Jaws dropping, drapes being pulled shut.  This was back in the eighties, and no one had seen anything like it.”  Among the obstacles to running in rural Appalachia pre-current running boom were drunk drivers, sober yet careless drivers, and drivers who carefully and intentionally guided their vehicle in the runner’s direction, knocking him off of the shoulder and having a good chuckle about it as they sped off.  “The worst,” said Walter, “and this still happens sometimes, are kids who drive by in pickups and conduct target practice on me with beer bottles and whatever else they can find.”  Runners are still a rare breed in these parts.

Except one weekend out of the year – during the Hatfield McCoy races, the community support per capita is unrivaled.  Every intersection, every water stop is filled with some of the friendliest supporters and volunteers I’ve met while running, crossing a high bar as these aren’t typically a surly sort.  Especially as the race went on, I stopped and chatted with nearly every volunteer table, which were frequent, becoming even more so during the second half.  Where am I from?  Do I enjoy the hills?  How many times have I run the H&M Marathon?  These were always followed by a words of appreciation for coming to their slice of hillbilly heaven, as one volunteer put it. 

I didn’t mind stopping and chatting with the volunteers, or slowing down with Walter, who by this point was walking the rest of the way, because as anyone will tell you, you don’t race the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, you run it.  And even then only you’re having a particularly good day.  It’s a draw for the Marathon Maniacs club for that reason.  The experience is more important than the time.  You can forget about PRing – just crossing the finish line and high fiving Messrs. Hatfield and McCoy is victory enough.  If you try to push it at best you’ll have to drop out, and worst case you’ll miss all that the course has to offer, human and natural.

Even if one is attempting to ‘race’ the race, miles six and seven will likely be a crux on that effort.  Beginning gradually, the road skirting the edge of Blackberry Mountain rises almost seven hundred feet in a mile and a half, appearing on the elevation chart like a sudden spike on a polygraph test.  Partly due to its position within the race, I found Blackberry Mountain to be relatively conquerable.  I ran the entire incline, and only took a rest at the aid station at the top, which greeted us with popsicles as advertised by signs halfway up the hill.  The sun had begun to peek out from behind the fog, but not enough to afford a view atop Blackberry Mountain.  Though, as was pointed out by multiple racers around me, if the sun stays away on this soon to be 90 degree day, we’ll be the last to complain.

The first half remains entirely within Kentucky, McCoy country.  The site of the Randolph McCoy home that was destroyed during the New Year’s Day Massacre is on runners’ left before Blackberry Mountain, near the family gravesite.  Past the mountain, as the course nears the Tug Fork River and the Wet Virginia border, we passed a site where three McCoys were tied to Paw Paw Trees and shot in retaliation for the killing of Devil Anse Hatfield’s brother Ellison.  We also pass several present day paw paw trees, which are native to much of the eastern half of the country, but are most common in Appalachia.  The custard-like fruit is related to Cherimoya and is the northernmost growing tropical fruit in the country.  I became familiar with the fruit due to a yearly festival in Ohiodedicated to the fruit, at which local farmers and local hippies create any confection possible using paw paws, from beer to waffles on a stick.

The marathon’s first half also contains some of the more kitschy local culture.  I come across a tent with animatronic skeletons swigging moonshine, one of which held a sign informing us that death duznt stop a gud feud. Another house claimed to have the world’s smallest horses, believable as two of them, roughly golden retriever sized, munched cheerfully on the grass inside a pen not much larger than a playpen.  I ran this section with a Marathon Maniac from New York named Arun.  It was his 30th full marathon, and he had never repeated, until now.  He had such a remarkable experience running Hatfield McCoy that he made the trek just two years after finishing it the first time.  Arun saved his best and sped off around mile 12 as someone who has run 30 marathons is apt to do.

At the halfway point, the course finally crosses into West Virginia, into the three block town of Matewan, which like Williamson, is protected from the Tug Fork River by a large levee wall.  Dusty and hardscrabble, I hesitate to imagine Matewan looking much different than it did during the height of the feud.  The exception, of course, is the crowd of a hundred or more cheering on runners as a bluegrass band plays the fast paced folk style ubiquitous to the region.  The banjo, fiddle, and washboard player were strumming and gyrating so quickly it wouldn’t shock me if they burned more calories than the runners they were entertaining.  The scene was pure excitement, and several salt of the earth looking fellows sat out front of a hotel that resembled a frontier saloon, watching the action.  The first half marathon ended here, adding to the crowds and the bedlam that I’m certain the town hadn’t seen in years. 

Matewan today looks as if it is ready to be reclaimed by the forested mountains from which it was born, but for a town of about 500 there is a lot of history here.  Perhaps the most notable is a battle in 1920 between striking coal miners and the private detective agency hired by their company which was sent in to evict them.  The local police chief, who of course was named Hatfield, sided with the miners, escalating tensions and causing the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation to hire their own enforcement agency.  Union organizers attempted to peacefully settle on behalf of the union, including Mary Harris Jones, the namesake for the progressive investigative reporting publication Mother Jones.   Stone Mountain was having none of the discussions, and the detectives descended on Matewan. The “thugs” as the miners dubbed them, forged an arrest warrant for Sheriff Hatfield, who organized a meeting with them on the porch of a hardware store.  The meeting went poorly, and a western style gunfight ensued.  Some mystery surrounds who fired the first shot, but the incident ended with several wounded on both sides, including several bystanders and Matewan’s mayor, who died as a result.

Well Hatfield tracked down the head detective and shot him inside the town’s post office, where he had taken refuge.  A year later, in a move reminiscent of the feud decades earlier, the detective’s brother avenged the killing by gunning down Hatfield at the courthouse of an adjacent county.  Also in true feud style, no one on either side was ever convicted for any of the shootings during the battle or in its aftermath.

I was through the town in minutes, and looped back over the bridge to continue the second half of the race, leaving what was probably my favorite part of the run behind me.  I wish you the best, Matewan.

The next stretch continued along the river, winding and unexpectedly hilly.  Considering we were running near the river, and that the elevation chart looked harmless, I had assumed that this section was going to be flatter.  The relativity of Blackberry Mountain swindled me as there was no extended flat portion of the entire race.  After a few miles of this, suddenly the road disappeared completely and became a dirt path clutching the hillside – not single track, but the undulations and sloped sides looked like a dirt bike or four wheeler trail.

Even this disappeared and we ran cross country style over a grassy field.  For the first time that day I was thankful for the sun, as this area certainly had some severe mud potential.  One woman informed me that last year at this point some particularly aggressive chickens chased and pecked at the runners.  This year, however, the birds and mud were nowhere to be found, and I made it to the next bridge with shoes clean and legs unpecked. 

The swinging bridge between miles 18 and 19 is advertised as one of the highlights of the course.  With metal suspensions, wooden plank flooring, and rope netting along either side, the bridge crosses a river and gives runners a very excusable walk break.  After trading photographs with the woman who told me about the chickens, I tried to jog a bit across it.  The bridge tilted and swayed with each footfall, allowing me the strange sensation of running a trampoline that was dangling from a chandelier. I slowed back to a saunter and welcomed the break.

By mile 20 it was hot – a real, sticky southern heat.  The sun was inching higher after rising over the mountains several miles ago, and the humidity was ramping up like a steam machine.  The hills didn’t relent either, rolling at us in succession, dashing dreams of a flat river valley around each turn.  This is where the organization of the Hatfield McCoy Marathon truly shined.  The water stops increased in frequency to multiple per mile, and I began to stop at each one, as opposed to walking through them.  The benefits were twofold, the first of which was hydration.  I would drink one water cup and stash another, as well as one sports drink, into my new hydration belt that I bought specifically for this race.  I’m not normally an overhydrater, and almost never bring water with me, but I’m not sure I would’ve finished without it this time.  Stopping at the station also allowed me to converse with the locals, all of which truly made the race for me.  They cheered me on when they’d see me take a walk break, taking interest in where I was from.  One guy running near me had to stop due to knee pain, and a man in the crowd was keen to help.

“If you need something for the pain, Bud over there has a prescription” he said, pointing to a heavy man in a periwinkle polo sitting at a card table.  “That’s why we call him that.  He used to be Steve.”

Bud stirred, and reached for his back pocket.  “It’s true.  All yours if you need it.”  The ailing man opted instead for a rest and a Gatorade, but it was nice to know the option was there.

At last the hills were behind me, but they were traded for an unobstructed midday sun for the final mile and a half along the river.  By this point it was absolutely sweltering (I had checked afterward, and the heat index was in the high 90s.)  The crowds grew as we neared the bridge into downtown Williamson, and despite the encouragement I had to take a long walk break, telling myself as soon as I hit the bridge I’d run it in.  Despite the elements, this was nowhere near as bad as I have felt at the end of a marathon, something I’d attribute to my relaxing and hoping to finish as opposed to an attempt at a time goal. 

The town streets were lined with people as I made a final push to the finish, where I crossed, exhausted, but not enough so that I couldn’t high five Mr. Hatfield and Mr. McCoy on the way through.  They deserve a medal also, as they stand in the heat at the finish congratulating racers until the last person has crossed the line, no exceptions.  Some years this can mean over nine hours.

I rejoined my family, tired but ecstatic, having just finished what was the toughest and probably my single favorite marathon to date.  As it turned out, despite my personal slowest time, I placed third in my age group, which netted me a small plaque and a mason jar.  We quickly put the mountains behind us as I lounged in the passenger seat, watching the earth flatten and feeling my pulse slow. I didn’t run a marathon for a while.

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