If you’ve never heard of the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, you’re not alone. Run on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky in a part of the U.S. lovingly called “hill country,” the race hosts about 1,000 people each year between its 5K, two half marathons, double-half marathon (more on that in a second) and marathon events. The race embraces the unique heritage of the area; the legendary Hatfield-McCoy family feud (read more here) took place on alternating sides of the Tug River in the late 19th century and featured kidnappings, murders, marriages, court battles and more between the warring clans.
Although there’s no feudin’ anymore in this part of the country, there is plenty of running! The race started in 2000 with just 13 runners, with the hope of bringing some economic activity to the area, which has seen a sharp decline in prosperity as the coal industry has diminished over the years. The race has grown ever since, and by the time I heard about it in 2010, I put it quickly onto my bucket list. As a big history nerd and lover of local races with a unique flair, the Hatfield McCoy Marathon was one I couldn’t miss.
I’ve now participated in the event three times: I ran the marathon in 2012 and 2013 and the Blackberry Half Marathon (the first half of the marathon course) in 2016. For those runners who are trying to run a race in every state, this event is perfect! The marathon, Blackberry Half Marathon, and double-half marathon start in Kentucky and end in West Virginia, so you can choose to count the race for either state! But that’s just one of many special things about this race. I mean, how many other races have you been to that host a free pasta party for all participants and perform a skit with actors in full costume that act out the history of what you’ll be running past on the course? Yes, “Devil Anse” Hatfield and “Ol’ Ran’l” McCoy come to visit the night before the race and greet all runners at the start and finish lines of the race. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss!
And then there’s the course itself. The race is held in mid-June in West Virginia and Kentucky, so you can expect three things: heat, hills and humidity! Sounds like quite the winning combination, right? Well, believe it. As I started the race this year, I was once again swept away by the beauty surrounding me. Rounded tree-covered mountains rose up around me as the road wound its way through shorn rock face. A mist rose over the mountains as the sun fought to peek its way out and I was immediately taken back to all of the wonderful memories I’ve had in races past here. I was running with my friend Carrie, who was doing the race at my recommendation and was blown away by the beauty of the course in just the first couple of miles. “If the rest of the race looks like this, I don’t care how hot it gets!” she said.
As we ran along the Tug River past quiet country homes and chatted away, I started to keep a lookout for my sign. The Hatfield McCoy Marathon volunteers makes an individual personalized sign for every returning runner and put it out somewhere along the course that the person will be running! Since it was my third year, I knew there would be one out there for me again, and it wasn’t long before I spotted it! There’s nothing like a hill country welcome to make you feel right at home.
In addition to the picturesque scenery along the course, there were plenty of other sights to keep us entertained along the way. Laughing along with the “hillbilly” stereotype that sometimes accompanies life in Appalachia, you can expect to find “hillbilly” themed water stops, complete with babies in overalls, “barefoot and pregnant” women serving you water and Gatorade, and a jar or two of “moonshine.” You can’t help but appreciate the way the area laughs at itself and invites you in on the joke, too!
Many of the sites from the historic feud are found in the first half of the marathon course (which is also the Blackberry Half Marathon course), so the vast majority of runners will get to experience a bit of the local history! You’ll run past the site of the famous “Paw Paw Tree Incident,” where three McCoys were executed, and the Election Day massacre, where Ellison Hatfield was stabbed 27 times and shot. Sobering, to be sure, but a fascinating part of Americana nonetheless! Besides, who doesn’t love an excuse to stop and read a historic marker during a marathon?
Of course, amidst all this somber history, there is plenty of joy, too. The local volunteers at the amply stocked water and Gatorade stations are sure to ask you where you’re from and tell you to come back next year. When I told one volunteer that this was my third year doing the race because I love it so much, she replied, “Well, of course! We’re habit-forming!” Habit-forming, indeed. There’s a reason people come back to run this race again and again, and it isn’t just the personalized signs!
Around mile 10, you might just be lucky enough to see the “World’s Smallest Horses,” who are out in the front yard of a local home grazing while wearing teeny tiny saddles. The owners sit out front and wave you over to come take a picture with the horses, which is another totally unique race experience that you’ll only find at the Hatfield McCoy Marathon.
As my friend and I made our way into Matewan, West Virginia towards the finish line of the half marathon, I found myself sad to know that I wasn’t doing the full marathon this year. It’s not very often that I wish I could run longer in hot, humid and hilly conditions, but this race is so much fun that I just never want it to end! The awesome medals and moonshine mason jars at the finish line don’t hurt, either.
The race might not exactly be the easiest to get to, and it definitely is a challenging course, but I’ve found that the experience is more than worth the effort. It’s one of the most unique events I’ve ever run and the “hillbilly hospitality” that envelops every single second of the weekend is what has me coming back again and again. I’m already planning my trip back for 2017!