Latest reviews by Sarah

(2016)
"Well Organized and Worth the Trip to Aggieland!"
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I ran the Nutrabolt Oktoberfest Half Marathon this past weekend, and it was one of the better races I've ever been to!

Held in the small city of College Station, Texas, this race is centrally located in the state, and offers a chance to visit the wonderful college town that's home to the Fightin' Texas Aggies. We may not have beat Bama this year, but we sure know how to put together a race! To start, the pre-race process was a breeze. The race did a great job of communicating updates leading up to the race, through emails and social media. In terms of the expo, I'm not sure I'd call it that - there were only 4 booths in total, including Nutrabolt's area and the race packet pickup. BUT it went smoothly and that's always a plus.

Race day morning, the race starts at 7, but it's a good idea to aim to be at the start line by 6:30, if you are meeting people, no later than 6:45 if you are riding solo. Parking and walking takes an extra 10ish minutes - not too shabby. You must pass through the underground tunnel leading to the start line before 6:45 to make it on time (it's part of the race course). Definitely get there earlier if you want to chat or use the bathroom... lines are not super long but they are there as usual.

My journey through the course was a pleasant one. The course starts going through campus (bonus if the sunrise is beautiful that day), then winds through one of the residential neighborhoods with a lot of students, the mall area, then another historical/residential district. It's a nice view! The course itself was fairly flat, with mild hills. As an Austinite, the course wasn't particularly challenging.

I also enjoyed the size of the race! It wasn't too crowded, and there were no aid station collisions. Friendly volunteers staffed the course, stocking the aid stations well with Gu's, bananas, oranges, Gatorade and water. I didn't have the greatest time overall because it turned out to be a hot day, but the smiling faces and excellent course made it worth the trip. The finish line was also inside Kyle Field, which was really neat. I didn't stay in there long though, because I was ready to get out of the sun and into the post race party.

Then we get to the post race party. Especially for a smaller race, this stands out! Karbach beer was on tap (4 different types). For runners, they also had pretzels and bratwurst, complementing the Oktoberfest theme, in addition to the other runner food staples of bananas, muffins, etc. There was only a line for beer, which also made it easy to enjoy the party!

Swag, though it wasn't super technical, was on point. We received the following: a finisher's medal, a tri-blend finisher's shirt, beer stein, Nutrabolt bag, beach towel and some goodies inside our bag. I'll take all of those things that I'll actually use over a cheap tech shirt that doesn't fit right any day.

I'm looking forward to coming back in the future - hopefully next time, we'll receive a cold front the week before. Texas fall is not a predictable season, and if the race director could have controlled the weather, this race would have been flawless for me.

Read a more in-depth look at the race on my blog: http://wp.me/p74Lch-lJ

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(2016)
"Delicious 9.3 Miles and Fun Along the Way! "
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I had a fantastic time at the Hot Chocolate 15K in Dallas. This was my first time racing a 15K distance, and it was the shortest distance I've done. This 15K would be a great one to tackle if you're trying to move up to longer distances from a 10K or 5K.

Signing up was easy, and I found Ram Racing to be pretty good about communicating via social media and email. You can opt in to a training plan, which I thought was reasonable (even though I was using the 15K as part of a different training plan).

The morning of the race, we got there at about 7:15 and made it to the start line by about 7:45, which included a porta potty break. The porta potties were plentiful, by the way, and the lines moved very fast. We moved on to the corral area, which was not super strict, but it was pretty easy to find my corral and appropriate pacer.

Overall, the race was a blast. Aid stations with enthusiastic volunteers were spaced out every 2 miles or so, and the chocolate was delicious (let's be honest, chocolate on the course was a huge reason why I signed up, haha). I enjoyed the nuun on the course; usually, Gatorade is offered, but this can be a bit too sweet for me when I'm already using Gu, so the nuun was PERFECT. The course scenery was not bad. Not overly scenic for about 6 of 9 of the miles, but the middle of the race runs through some beautiful neighborhoods, and there is a nice view of the skyline and Fair Park near the end. I will say that it isn't totally flat... there are some small rolling hills in the middle of the course, and a couple of larger ones toward the end. I live in Austin, so I didn't have issues with these, but people who are used to flatter courses might find them challenging.

The post-race party was fun! The finisher mug was delicious and the hot cocoa was actually really good; trust me, I am a hot chocolate aficionado. Vendors were spaced out around the finisher area. I recommend taking your snacks to the bag check area, which is warm and toasty, so you can enjoy your fondue without worrying about it solidifying in the cold.

The issues I ran into were pre-race, mainly resulting from the expo times. Long story short, I had to travel the night before the race. Because the expo wasn't open late, I had to pay $15 to have my packet shipped to me. The jacket I received was too big, and I did not have a reasonable way to switch it out. My options were to either ship it to a friend who could make it to the expo to switch it out (since I didn't have any friends attending from my area), or pay for shipping back to Ram Racing and then pay another fee to have the new jacked shipped to me. The quality of the jacket was not worth the expense to me, but really the whole situation could be avoided with more reasonable expo times. So, not a problem if you are not traveling, but a could be bit inconvenient if you are.

Traffic was also kinda difficult to get to the parking lots. Then, from the parking lots, there was a long walk to the starting line... I would recommend aiming to park at least an hour before your start time. Again, this wouldn't be a reason not to sign up, but it should be something to keep in mind.

Overall, I would highly recommend this race to friends. I shattered my goal of 1:42:00 with a time of 1:37:18, and had a great time doing so. The race had a great vibe and met almost all of my expectations, even though the parts I mentioned above could use some tweaking, in my opinion. I will definitely make a point to make it back next year if I can!

Check out the extended review on my blog here: http://freetorunblog.com/hot-chocolate-15k-recap-and-review/

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(2016)
"Tough (and Fun) Tour of Everything Uniquely Austin "
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I think the Austin Half Marathon was my favorite race to date, as of March 2016! It was certainly the toughest, too. My second official half marathon race (technically my third, but my second half was a virtual race), it totally surpassed my expectations.

A well-organized race, the Austin Half provides many of the benefits of a race in a larger city, such as the professionalism, large crowd, and sweet swag (a backpack and moisture-wicking shirt), with the feel of a smaller race, because Austin is a smaller city than many others. They have a great expo with many prominent vendors - local running stores, Clif Bar, Nuun, SpiBelt, to name a few. You can pick up your packet at the expo, and they have pretty good weekend hours. An efficient pick-up area means you can stay at the expo for as short or long of a time as you want. Another nice touch was the heart-shaped bib... the race was on Valentine's Day this year, and it was a quirky nod to the holiday.

The day of the race, my husband and I arrived an hour early. I recommend this because you have to walk a bit to the start line. This isn't too long of a walk, but it is in the city and might be easy for some out-of-towners to get lost. We were able to park in a free garage that was specified in a pamphlet that came with my swag. I'm sure there is also street parking available all over the place; Sundays are usually free.

The starting line seemed packed, and there were no strict corrals. Pacers are available, holding up signs of the finish time they are pacing. The half and full start at the same time, so the marathon pacers are also the half pacers. The gun went off on time and everyone filtered on to the course. Though the start line was a bit crowded, everyone dispersed gradually enough that the course was fine.

There is an encouraging crowd throughout and lots of scenery, like live music on the side of the road, which add personality to this race and help you to keep moving. You'll also see a lot of the unique sides of Austin, such as South Congress, the skyline, the Capitol, and Lake Austin. One word of caution though - this race is totally worth it, but you definitely need to train on hills! The first few miles were a gradual incline, then a steady decline. After around mile 8 or 9, you'll see a lot of rolling, steep hills. These are tough because you're tired!

My one complaint was there were not nearly enough porta potties. I’ve been to races with far more on the course… and I had to result to drastic measures as a result of my over-hydration (oops).

Overall, I didn't hit the goal I hoped to hit, but I did earn quite the PR by almost 10 minutes, so if you prepare, you can be successful with this challenging course.

As far as the post-race party went, there were amenities like a photo area, some typical runner food (but no water bottles though, so bring your own). There were food trucks lined up down the road, but other than that, I wouldn't call it a huge party. It's in the middle of the city, so that presents a challenge anyway. Race managment told me they are planning a bigger party for 2017 though, and it definitely wouldn't stop me from returning to begin with. After the race, you can head on over to 6th street for a beer, or many of the other local Austin establishments.

Again, I highly recommend this race and I do think it is worth the travel. It's a nice taste of the city with a supportive crowd. But I've warned you: make sure you run some hills beforehand!

Be sure to check out my full review of the Austin Half over on my blog: http://freetorunblog.com/austin-half-marathon-recap-and-review/

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(2015)
"Awesome first race!"
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The Houston Half Marathon was a great experience for me! This is not to be confused with the Aramco Houston Half Marathon, which takes place around January of each year. It's part of the "warm up series" for people training for the Chevron Houston Marathon.

The course was well mapped out, with a portion going through downtown, Allen Parkway and even Memorial Park. There were a few mild hills, which I think is kind of nice; other than that, the course is pretty flat.

The atmosphere was awesome, with people cheering everywhere. The race itself was just large enough that there was a palpable excitement, but small enough that runners weren't tripping over one another.

Water/aid stations and bathrooms were plentiful and well-staffed. Power Bar product was also available on the course near mile 7, which was a nice touch even though I didn't use it. If I had one recommendation about this, it would be to have the product on the course a little bit earlier, since it can take a while to take effect.

Parking is downtown, which can be pricey and kinda tricky. If you have friends or family trying to meet you/cheer you on during the race, they may have to park a little far away from the course itself because the roads are blocked off pretty well. That's pretty normal for Houston, though.

I loved the Asics race shirt, and the medal was pretty cool.

The weather near the end of October is usually in the 60's, which is also nice for Texas.

Currently, registration is only $65. It has gone up from last year, but it's still a pretty low entry fee considering all the perks they have. Proceeds benefit local organizations.

Overall it was an awesome race, and I'm looking forward to running it again this year.

I would recommend this race to both first-time and experienced runners... if you want to run a 13.1 race or 10K in Houston, sign up for this one!

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(2015)
"Great for experienced runners; Course is best for 5k, 10k and 13.1 runners"
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The Irving Marathon was a generally positive experience for me because it was my first marathon and I finished.

The race itself is fairly new, however, and while I think has a lot of potential, some areas were lacking that prevented me from giving the race a higher rating.

The first half of the race was on point. I really have no complaints about it. There were frequent aid stations (almost at every mile), cheering families and volunteers and lots of signs to pump you up. The scenery was also fabulous and breathtaking.

However, after about mile 13, the aid stations became far less frequent and there was nobody out there to cheer other than the police directing traffic. As a first time marathoner, hitting my first real wall, this was very discouraging and made the race feel like it drug on. It really didn't feel like a race at all, just me running through a neighborhood on the road instead of the sidewalk.

I think this is fine if you're an experienced marathoner, trying to get a PR or Boston Qualifying time. It's not at all crowded, which is great if you're trying to be speedy. However, when you feel like you're completely alone, water stops are less and less frequent as the day becomes hotter, and volunteers are getting bored/annoyed at the point where your physical stamina is depleted, all of these factors become somewhat negative rather than positive.

I would suggest changing the marathon course so that the last half was broken up a bit more rather than 10 bleak, hilly miles through a suburban neighborhood. More importantly, I would also add more aid stations for the last half. Also, if the volunteers were all adults, that would be extremely helpful (it's great to have kids help out, but I'm concerned that it could be a safety issue if there's not many adults, which there weren't at several stations).

I still finished and relied on the support of other runners I found along the way, which was definitely cool, but I wouldn't recommend it to others for their first marathon until the race irons out some of the kinks and attracts a larger field of marathon runners.

It just felt like the race wasn't organized to take great care of the marathoners, who were out there the longest and paid the most money to be there (not that it's about money, but cost is certainly important). I'd still recommend it to marathoners who are pretty experienced as well, because a race is a race, and for the most part the volunteers/staff were really nice and the pricing was fair. Experienced runners know you can't always expect amenities, but if you've never raced a marathon before and don't know what to expect, these amenities might become important.

I would also recommend it to friends who were racing shorter distances, because of the enthusiasm and course support.

Overall, I wouldn't be opposed to running this race again; however, I will be planning to run a larger marathon before I come back because I'd like to have a different experience.

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