(Spoiler alert: there is SERIOUS bling involved!)
Now that I’m a couple days removed from the Little Rock Marathon, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience, and the one word that keeps popping into my head is community. This race was embraced wholeheartedly by the entire community, and it showed. Runners were treated to a really fabulous experience (except at the post race event, which I’ll touch on below) before an during the race. From signs hung to welcome runners to the area to discounts in the downtown stores, to the support along the course, I was extremely impressed with the overall presentation by the community. I mean, the event itself was extremely well organized, too (kudos to the race organizers!), but I really loved the small touches that came about from a community that accepts and enjoys this event.
I stayed within walking distance of the start/finish line and packet pick up (after not being close to the action in Louisiana, I made this a priority for my race experiences). The host hotel, the Marriott, was a bit more than I wanted to spend (but I found out they have a Starbucks inside, so I made a trip or two over there), so I looked around for other options. I settled on the DoubleTree just a couple ‘doors’ down from the Statehouse Convention Centre (packet pick up), and I was very happy with my choice. Not only do they have free cookies for guests, but they set out free coffee and granola bars each morning for the runners. Again, a nice touch. Apparently, they also have a free airport shuttle, which I didn’t know when I arrived, but I certainly will be taking back to the airport when I leave today.
I had a short walk to the Statehouse Convention Centre (attached to the Marriott) to get my packet. I arrived before the doors opened, and there were already a good number of people waiting. The actual pick up was in the back of the room, so everyone rushed past the vendors to get to the pick up area. It was separated out by 5K and Half Marathon on one side, with the 10K and the Marathon pick up on the other. Since I was running the 5K and marathon, I had to walk the length of the pick up zone, which ran pretty efficiently given I was one of the first people to get there. I’m sure they had their system down pat in no time, and those who came after me had a seamless experience. Overall, it was a good expo, with lots of booths, a station to make a cheer sign, free beer (thanks Michelob), free 10-min massages (tips accepted) and taping by a professional (also tips accepted). I spent almost two hours with my friend Ashley enjoying the experience. It’s always a bit of a rush to go to the expo and soak in the energy and enthusiasm of runners who are eager to get to the start line.
5K (Saturday, March 5, 2016)
The 5K/10K race had a respectable 7:30 start, with several thousand runners participating. It was cold at the start, but quickly warmed up, and the long sleeve shirt I had on was actually too warm. We mostly hit the downtown area, which I would again see in the marathon. There were a few small uphills, but nothing crazy. Those were reserved for the 26.2. Lots of pre-race fun at the start, including Bart Yasso getting the runners ready for the event (and he called them in before dashing out at 9am to do a shakeout run), lots of great music and even blow up dice being tossed back through the crowd like you might see a beach ball at a concert. The theme of race weekend in Little Rock was ‘Game On’ so they really played on this theme of games throughout. The dice fit the bill perfectly.
My 5K was not a great one, but I attribute that more to drinking a bit too much wine at dinner the night before. I wasn’t really enjoying the run very much, but it did help calm my nerves a bit to get out there after not running much during the week due to my lingering back (and now leg) soreness. There were actually a lot of people along the way for support, cheering on the runners. It was nice to see.
Heading towards the finish area, there was another great party with music and the sounds of Bart calling out people as they crossed the line. The reward for this race? A solid medal that is the normal half or marathon medal size at most races.I was pretty happy with it. I headed to the hotel with my medal and ran into Bart Yasso, so we had to do a selfie. In the end, I think the course measured a bit long, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Several others felt like it was a longer course than a 5K. My Garmin said 3.25, which is a bit longer than it should be even taking into account me not running the tangents. Side note: they also had a Little Rockers 1 mile run for kids ages 6-12 that afternoon. Apparently 3600 kids participated! Holy smokes! Talk about organized chaos!
Marathon (Sunday, March 6, 2016)
From what I have heard, the Little Rock Marathon is notorious for its bad weather on race day – freezing cold, rain, wind. However, this year, I brought the Cayman sunshine with me, and we were expecting temps in the 70’s that afternoon! So what a nice surprise to have things swing the other direction when I am not used to running in the cold, winter weather. Start temp was perfect – about 47 degrees F. Virtually no wind and a clear, sunny sky greeted runners that morning. Ashley came to the hotel at 6am, so we could stay warm as needed and have access to a bathroom for as long as possible. Around 6:30, we headed out the door along with a few other runners and made our way to the start line. Approximately 8,000 people were lining up for the half marathon and another 3000 for the full, if I remember the numbers correctly. As with every race, you get there, line yourself in your corrals and then hop around until it is go time. Some great music kept us moving and then the gun went off, with the mass of humanity moving toward the impressively designed, game-themed arch that indicated the start line. I knew this would be a challenge because of the hills, and with my back and right leg not being ‘right’, I was not expecting a great performance. I was hoping for around a 4:20-4:30 finish, but secretly I hoped that I could do better.
We started running and immediately crossed the Arkansas River, heading into North Little Rock. Our path there took us around a few neighborhoods, by a local brewing company (who had a table with beer at it – keep in mind this was mile 1.5 or so!) and around the ball field where the minor league team plays. As a baseball fan, I thought the park looked beautiful from the outside and I wish that it was baseball season so I could have caught a game while in town. We eventually crossed back over the river, heading through downtown Little Rock, past the Clinton Presidential Centre, by the international Headquarters of Heifer International (the 5K race sponsor) and through some of the back parts of the area. Some neighborhoods were a bit run down, but we also saw some really beautiful houses and enjoyed a nice run before heading back into town.
It was around mile 10 I heard someone say that last year a priest was out on the course, blessing the runners. Within another couple minutes, we ran by an Episcopalian church, and there was the priest, throwing holy water on the runners and saying ‘God bless you!’ as we ran by. I was touched by this gesture. And while this was the one I remember the most, there were many other churches along the course who set up their own aid stations to provide everything from water to orange slices and bananas and more to the runners. This is what I felt when I said the community was there. It was everywhere.
Everywhere…including the next area after we ran by the priest. I was so excited by the blessing I just received that I was in my own thoughts before I realized we were running by the governor’s mansion. The gate was open, and I saw a crowd of people standing outside the gate cheering on the runners. Not being from Arkansas, I don’t know who the governor is (or what he looks like), but apparently, I saw him. He was even giving high-5s to runners as they went past! Talk about a really cool experience. I love that even the governor gets into the race. Yes. community is the right word indeed.
It was shortly after this that a guy dressed in a giant rabbit suit stood on the corner and reminded all marathoners to stay hydrated because of the heat. Shortly after, the signs directing half marathoners to their finish line appeared, and along with it, crowds of supporters. I glanced over to see the ‘couch potato mile’ that apparently had tater tots for runners (it was on the half marathoner’s side of the road) and couches for anyone to sit on. I have never seen that before. So I made the turn with the other marathoners and headed to my 26.2 mi destiny in the other direction.
At the half way point for us, there was a balloon arch (and timing mat) that helped us to feel a part of the 13.1 mi festivities. No cheerleaders along this lonely stretch that then turned into a big hill. It was not fun. I knew if I kept pushing along, I would make it to where my friends that I know from Cayman, Charlie and Ruth, would be. They live in Little Rock, and the race goes right by they house. I knew where to look for them, and at about mile 14.5 (and at the top of the biggest hill), I saw them! It gave me a chance to take a short break, chat for a second and grab a couple pictures. It was so nice to have my own cheering squad on the course. I felt the love and the hospitality from them this weekend!
Aid stations were on average about every two miles, but for marathoners, they started coming closer together in the second half. I loved that the local Parrot Head club sponsored an aid station; they were all decked in their Jimmy Buffett shirts, grass skirts and parrot head hats! I think they had margaritas there, but I didn’t stop to find out. After hitting this stop, we had this stupidly long out and back that never. seemed. to. end. Never. It went more than two miles before you hit the turn around. Ugh. As if I wasn’t already tired enough, watching the pace groups that were 40-60 min ahead of me made the mind games that much worse. The area itself was pretty (we ran next to a golf course), but the constant reminder of how far we still had to run was so challenging.
Luckily, there was entertainment along the way to help ease the pain. I loved the group of acrobats that set up and were doing their thing. One musician playing a guitar really stuck out to me. I also enjoyed the mile 20 water stop where I got to sign the wall instead of hitting it! At this point, we were on the way back into town, and I just kept reminding myself to put one foot in front of the other. My pace had definitely fallen at this point, and I had to take more walk breaks.
I started out strong and felt pretty good overall. There weren’t any major hills in the first half, but I knew they were there in the second half. I was able to maintain a fairly steady 9:30 pace in the first 13.5 miles without too much trouble. Of course, that changed, and not just because of the hills. It was very obvious to me around mile 18 that I was running on different terrain than I am used to. My shins and the top of my ankle/foot started to hurt, and the pain continued to get worse as I ran towards the finish. In fact, here I am two days later and it is still a problem. I have iced my shins a few times to help. It wasn’t so much that I was tired towards the end; I still had pretty decent energy left. It was that I hurt so much in new places and I physically was unable to make the legs function how I wanted them to without just intense hurt everywhere. The hills were challenging, but I think for me, the terrain (possibly concrete?) really was the hardest part to overcome.
With about two miles to go, I walked next to a guy in a Batman shirt, and said it must be fate for us to finish this together because he was Batman and I was Robyn. (At this point of the race, we both thought it was pretty funny. Shows you what happens to your mind when you are really out of it.) We had a nice chat talking about other marathons we’ve each done. how his wife is sidelined due to an injury right now and offered each other encouragement to finish strong. A quick ‘shot’ of beer at mile 25 was a nice treat (and the first beer I’d had the whole race). The guy dressed as a bunny was here, too. It was funny to see because you are already unsure that what you are seeing is real at that point in a marathon. So hey! Why not throw a guy in a bunny suit out there to really make it interesting???
As we neared the finish line, the crowds grew and people were cheering us in. Heading into the final stretch, I remembered about the L’Oreal lipstick stop, and I had to grab a tube and apply so I looked good for my finisher photos. Task quickly completed, I sprinted to catch up to Batman and we made the final turn and saw the finish line in the distance. I have yet to cry at my own finish, and this was no exception. I think the cheering crowds, the distraction of having a finish partner and the relief of being done all keep me on the happy side. I love putting my hands in the air, crossing the line! Again, I was lucky enough to have Bart Yasso call my name and welcome me home. My time: 4:35:54. Not my best, but not my worst. I’m not exactly ‘happy’ with the result, but I’m not going to be too hard on myself because I know I came into the race battling some injuries.
I headed through the chute to get my stupidly large medal. It is what this race is known for: the biggest marathon medal in the world. This one weighs three pounds! And it made the experience worth it.
Because I ran both the 5K and marathon, I was eligible for their inaugural Challengers medal, which I happily picked up. I then unhappily realized that I had about four pounds of medals around my neck. The struggle was real at this point.
The total elevation gain on this course was 648 ft (according to my Garmin), which for me is a huge gain. Here is my elevation profile. You can see where the challenges were:The hill at mile 14-15.5 was a doozy, then there were two kick in the pants right at the end that didn’t do me any favours! Ugh!
I was very blessed to have someone I never met, Tony from the MegsMiles online running group, drive to Little Rock to catch my finish. He saw me come in, videotaped me, cheered for me, then chased me down the chute to say hi since I didn’t hear him yell my name. It was nice to have a chance to say hi and learn a little bit about him. He was unable to participate in the race because of an injury, so he opted to ‘be the good’ and be a cheerleader for both myself and Ashley in our marathons.
After heading to the post race area (see below), showering, changing and getting a little something to eat, I headed back to the finish line (yes, the big medal was around my neck, which was not my smartest idea, by the way) to cheer in the runners who were finishing their marathons 6.5+ hours. I was sad to see that very few people were around to offer that final support to these ‘back of the packers.’ Ashley was projected to finish in a bit over eight hours (course limit is eight hours, but they still time everyone and give a medal to all who cross that finish line). With my clapper and cowbell in hand, I cheered everyone on as they headed into the final 300 yards of the course. I was the only one for most of the hour and a half I stood there. So I had to yell extra loud, trying to read people’s names on their bib so I could say their name. A few people looked at me and wave. Some teared up. Some just looked relived that it was over. I had tears in my eyes a few times. At one point, an elderly gentleman stood next to me and said he was waiting for his daughter to finish her first marathon. I offered him my cowbell so he could really make some noise for her. And the two of us welcomed her to the finish line like she had won the race! The man had a tear in his eye and the look of pride was so obvious. He thanked me for letting him use that bell. I think next time, I will bring a few and hand them out to others to really get the cheer squad going.
One of the photographers that snapped pictures right before the finish line came over to me at one point and thanked me to coming back to cheer on the final runners. I watched her and her partner; they, along with the two finish line announcers, were high-5ing everyone crossing at this point. It was a great way to make these people feel special as they finished.
Sadly, the crews started tearing down the course, the finish area and the sound system. Music was still playing, but for those runners who finished after the eight hour limit, Bart Yasso wasn’t going to call their name as a marathoner. Ashley was still out there, and I didn’t see Tony anywhere. I struck up a conversation with Bart Yasso and another gentleman who was there to have Bart sign his book. Bart had to go and wrap things up, but this other person stayed with me as I waited for Ashley. He wanted to help cheer her in. Finally, I saw her coming down the home stretch, with Tony (in jeans) running by her side! I started my video to capture her finish and her reaction to finishing her first marathon. Tears were obvious and she was amazed she did it. But that is a testament to hard work, dedication and a passion. I was so happy to have been able to see her finish and be part of the team to welcome her to the finish line.
**One note on this. Even if you finish a race, if you have time and energy, please go back to the finish line to cheer on the final finishers. They often have no one to cheer them in, and your voice can be one of the highlights of their race. Not to mention how many warm fuzzies you will feel. There were many occasions when my eyes were not dry as I watched people reach their marathon goal. Try it just once. You will not be disappointed.
Post race festivities
Out of all the races I have been to, this was probably the least impressive post race festival of them all. It was held in the Statehouse Convention Centre, where we had packet pick-up. I headed there as I came out of the finishers chute, going inside through the double doors and immediately saw stairs. I mean really?? What cruel joke is this? I know there were escalators somewhere, but it was a toss up between walking further to find them or navigating the steps in front of me. I watch someone go down backward, and as I started down, a guy stood at the top with his hand on his chin for about 30 seconds, contemplating whether he should attempt to go down. In the end he did. I hope he was OK.
The set up for this area was confusing – you had to walk as far as possible to get to the chocolate milk, bananas, chips and beer. I mean really? Why not have that right when you walk in the door? Two food trucks were set up inside the convention area, too, in case people wanted to buy food. I thought it was a great idea, but I didn’t have money with me – so I couldn’t enjoy the delicious smelling items that were being served.
There were a few life-size board games on the floor (Battleship, checkers and the like) to keep in the theme of Game On. I think the family members were more keen to play than any runner.
Race merchandise was also available at 50% off AND they had all race tees for $1!!! Yes, the tech shirts you got in your race packet were available for a buck! I was super excited and realized that I definitely needed to get money and head back for a shirt. But other than that, I was disappointed in the post race event. With such a great build up and effort taken to provide an exceptional race experience on the course, this fell flat and definitely left me wanting more.
Bill Clinton is a favourite here in Arkansas, and everything (pretty much everything) is named after him – the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport, Clinton Street, etc. So it comes as no surprise that the Clinton Presidental Centre/Library is located in Little Rock. For $10 admission, you can visit the Centre and enjoy two floors of exhibits, which are nicely done. The building itself is meant to resemble the ‘bridge to the 21st century’ but it comes off as looking more like a double wide trailer. Definitely worth a couple hours and the $10.
Another great discovery here is the craft beer scene. Microbrews are rather popular and I found a couple nice ones in my wanderings around town. My favourite was at DamnGood Pies – their house brewed Amber Ale. Stop in and have a pint. I had a few as my post-run reward!
If you like fish and good southern-style cooking, another place I loved was Flying Fish. The decor is a bit odd (remember the singing fish toys?), but the food is delish! Make it snappy if you want it a bit on the spicy side.