Heidi finish

All race day photography provided courtesy WRAL.com

Heidi Bretscher’s personal-best marathon day literally got lost in the woods Sunday at the second annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh Marathon.

Somehow, despite all of the frustrations — including waiting for more than 20 minutes after running off the course while owning a nearly 30-minute lead — the Durham runner came out a winner for the second consecutive year. Like Rosie Ruiz at the 1980 Boston Marathon, she got a ride along the way. The reason for their rides are vastly different and Bretscher is a much more talented runner.

“I am very frustrated and upset now as I was running a very good race and was going to end up with a good time,” Bretscher said via email. “However, I am starting to be able to see the humor of the whole situation. I am trying to laugh about it. Others find the story hysterical and I totally understand why.”


In the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh Marathon in 2014, she clocked an impressive time of 2 hours, 49 minutes, 45 seconds to win the women’s race by more than 15 minutes and finish third overall. After Sunday’s adventures, she had to settle for a 3:06:50, which still was fourth overall and good enough to win the women’s race. In an incredible story of perseverance, she still won by nearly 9 minutes despite needing police help to get back on the course.

She was in third place overall and on pace for a 2:46 finish, and a PR, on mile 18 when the course turned onto a trail that goes around Lake Johnson. She couldn’t see the two men in front of her, so she depended on the lead cyclists assigned to help her maneuver the course.

Slower, more middle-of-the-pack runners like me have plenty of others runners in front of us and never have this sort of problem.

“There weren’t really any markings on the course that I saw so I just followed the trail,” said Bretscher, who missed a left turn that would have soon taken her off the trail.

lake johnson

“After a while I realized I should definitely have hit (mile) 19 and that I must have gone off of the course, and I heard one of the bikers comment that we must have gone off course,” she said. “I kept asking the bikers what I should do but they said they didn’t know. I could not think clearly so I just kept running as fast as I could thinking that if I got out of the woods, I could find the course.”

Eventually, she ran around Lake Johnson, then up a road to a police officer. She stopped there because there was a lot of traffic, and asked the police officer what to do.

“No one knew what to do and it was a nightmare,” she said. “I was so upset because I knew that I had been winning the race by a lot.”

She waited for about 15 minutes while officers decided what to do. She tried to keep running to stay loose in the meantime. The officer eventually drove her back to the course where she entered the wooded area just before the 18-mile mark on Avent Ferry Road.

“I had already run 21 miles and waited for a long time so I didn’t want to start over again at mile 17,” she said. “I really wanted to try to finish the race, though, because I really wanted to win again this year.”
An officer eventually gave her a ride to the part of the course as it comes out of the Lake Johnson area at Lake Dam Road.

“It was incredibly hard to start running again and finish the race,” she said. “However, I managed to catch several other runners and finish the race.”

Her race finally ended, but the confusion didn’t. She spent quite a bit of time talking with public relations folks with the for-profit Competitor Group Inc. that put on the Rock ‘n’ Roll series. She says she also talked on the phone with a director of the series.

heidi flag

“They were absolutely amazing and very kind to me and definitely did not blame me,” she said. “After quite some time and lots of questions, it was ruled that I still won the race because I had been leading by 20–30 minutes when I ran off course.”

Dan Cruz, CGI’s public relations director, said via Twitter that it was “pretty embarrassing for us.” He added that the mistake was fixed immediately and no other runners were affected.

“Nothing like this has ever happened to me before,” Bretscher said. “This should not have happened.  Someone should have known where we were going.”

As compensation for the frustrating experience, Bretscher can choose any marathon, even it if it isn’t a Rock ‘n’ Roll series race, and get free entry, travel and lodging.

“This does make me nervous about other races,” said Bretscher, who called the compensation CGI offered very kind. “Maybe I should choose one with a simple course or a very large one so that I can’t possibly get lost!”

The incredible part of her story is that the media either missed it, ignored it or didn’t recognize its significance. WTVD shows a sound bite of its interview with her as almost an aside during this story and doesn’t make much of the fact that she said she went 3 miles off the course.

Give WTVD credit for reporting her situation, though. I didn’t see any other media outlet even mention her plight.

If you’re a runner, this is a huge deal. I went a block off course during the Darlington Marathon last September and was very frustrated … and I wasn’t running a good time at that point. And it was only a block.

Never mind that few media outlets got the name of the race correct.

Some good stories

The good news on race day, other than the fact that thousands of runners were running race, was that there was no tragedy like the year before when two half-marathoners died.

Also excellent was the news that, according to The News & Observer, more money was raised this year for the V Foundation for Cancer Research by runners than the previous year. All of that, of course, came from runner fundraising since CGI donates none if its profits to the V Foundation. People who don’t know that might assume it donates money since its full official name is the Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh Marathon & ½ Marathon presented by WRAL benefiting The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

There were heart-warming stories. Race-sponsor WRAL, which has some nice slideshows from the race (including this one of the finish-line area), had the interesting story of a brother honoring his brother’s 40th birthday by having a different friend or family member greet him at every mile.

N.C. State alum and Raleigh resident Bobby Mack gave the race another nice local story with his victory in the half-marathon.

Numbers down

As was expected leading up to race day, the numbers dropped for the second year. The number of marathon finishers was down 41 percent, and there were 36 percent fewer half-marathoners than last year. There were 3,693 fewer combine finishers this year.

As I wrote earlier this month, race officials expected a drop.

The Tobacco Road Marathon actually had more marathoners than RnR Raleigh (1,423–952.) RnR Raleigh had many more half-marathoner finishers (5,599–2,439). But Tobacco Road’s half-marathon sold out weeks before race day and could easily have attracted more if its course had the capacity.

Finishing times also indicate that the other two Wake County marathons that also stage half-marathons are attracting faster marathoners.

Tobacco Road’s course is clearly much flatter than RnR Raleigh’s course. But that can’t fully explain why RnR Raleigh only had 2 sub-3-hour marathoners and Tobacco Road had 21. On a very hilly course last November, the Raleigh City of Oaks Marathon had 14 sub-3-hour finishers. RnR Raleigh easily had the slowest winning time (2:42) compared to City of Oaks (2:29) and Tobacco Road (2:32 by Bryan Morseman, who was running a marathon for the second consecutive day).

The Raleigh race also isn’t doing well in comparison to other Rock ‘n’ Roll series events that include a marathon and half-marathon. Of all those events staged since the first running of RnR Raleigh, Raleigh had the fewest marathon finishers (952; the next fewest was 1,207 in St. Louis) and fewest half-marathon finishers (5,599; the next fewest was Denver with 8,147).

Factors in the low turnouts in St. Louis and Denver might include the fact that those events are both run on the same October weekend, thus diluting support from people who love Rock ‘n’ Roll races.

The closest other such Rock ‘n’ Roll events to Raleigh each got substantially better numbers in their last race days: Washington, D.C., on March 12 (2,521 marathon finishers and 15,325 half-marathon finishers) and Savannah, Ga., on Nov. 8 (2,799 and 10,640).

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