Latest reviews by Stacia Brink-Koutroumpis
Being a summer weather loving girl, I love when my favorite spring races arrive, announcing the end of winter. The Tar Heel Ten Miler is one of my favorites.
Centered in the pretty university town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, amidst beautiful Southern homes and brilliantly blooming azaleas, you can’t ask for a more beautiful background for a spring race. This year, however, the weather did not cooperate. Not present was the Carolina blue sky that has been over this race for the past five years that I’ve run it. Instead, it was gray, drizzly, and humid. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .
The race website:
The Race Expo
The Expo took place Friday, the day before the race, from 11 am to 7 pm at University Place Mall in Chapel Hill. The mall is very small, and parking is ample, so it’s an easy in and out to get your race items. The traffic to and from the mall can be heavy, especially during rush hour on a Friday evening. I arrived easily around 4:30, but there was quite a bit of traffic when I left 30 minutes later. Bib pick up is easy, efficient, and quick. There are a few vendors, including a merchandise table where you can purchase race branded items like different t-shirts, pint glasses, hats, water bottles, etc. I picked up a reasonably priced hoodie from the 2018 race (there was no date on the shirt, just the race logo). The actual race shirts are at the other end of the mall. The race shirt is a cotton shirt that I wear for leisure, not for running. It’s always been various shades of blue, mostly Carolina blue. The women’s sizes also tend to run very small. While I generally wear a medium women’s t-shirt, I usually request a women’s extra large for this race. However, this year I went with a unisex small, and I’m happy with that choice.
Crash the Party
This race has a unique aspect to it. When you register, you can choose to ‘crash the party,’ and instead of the standard Carolina blue bib and race tee, you can receive them in red (for North Carolina State University), in a darker blue (for Duke), or in purple and gold (for East Carolina University). This year (and all others), I feel that red is the color I see the most, after the Carolina blue.
The race start line is next to UNC’s football stadium, which is right next to the big UNC hospital complex. Because there is a shift change around 7:00 am, you want to be out of traffic by that time (and especially since the first race begins at 7:15). The rain began pouring down as I made my way to Chapel Hill, the kind of rain that is so hard that you can’t say while driving in the dark and you have to slow way, way down. I finally arrived on campus and chose a parking spot in a garage to be out of the rain. (I realized how smart this was after the race when I was soaked. I had brought a change of clothes, and my parking spot was in a remote corner. I was easily able to change into dry clothes for the 40 minute drive home.)
Some of my running friends met for a group picture, huddled under the shelter of the bell tower out of the rain. The first race, the Four Miler, started at 7:15.
This race offers you three options: a four mile race that begins at 7:15, a ten mile race that begins at 7:45 (what I have always run), and the Double Down Challenge, where you run both for a total of 14. If you do the double down, you receive all three medals.
I warmed up a little after the group picture, and then I found my friend Stacy in the start corral around 7:35. During the second singing of the national anthem (the first for the four miler and the second for the ten miler), you could hear the cheers as the first of the four milers were finishing (the finish line is 100 yards or less from the start), and many of them were continuing through the “express lane” to continue on into the ten mile race.
The rain slowed way down to a drizzle then to just high humidity under an overcast sky as we started off. During the first couple of miles, you run down the main street of Chapel Hill, Franklin Street. As you move in one direction, the race leaders are on there way back up the street. I kept my eye out for and found one of my former students, Jay, who is now a junior at UNC. He is a strong runner on the UNC Marathon Club Team, and he was in the lead twenty racers of the ten miler (my estimation). I shouted and he waved back with a big smile.
A few minutes later, a streak of orange passed me with a thumbs up: BibRave pro Tedrick (TK). I would see him again later on in the race, during another looped area where you run against racers going in the opposite direction. He had moved quite a bit ahead of me at this point in his Double Down Challenge race.
This race provides many aid stations with water, Honey Stinger gels, and my favorite sports drink, nuun. The on course crowd support is right up there with big races I’ve done, such as the Marine Corps Marathon and the Pittsburgh Marathon. The course is very challenging as far as elevation gain and loss. And speaking of elevation gain . . .
The Laurel Hill Challenge
The climb up Laurel Hill Road begins around mile 8.5 and ends around 9.2. It is so famous that there is a timing mat at the bottom and top so that you get a split for that section. As you make the sharp right turn onto the road, you are serenaded by a group of Swiss Alpenhorn players. One of my friends sweetly refers to this music as the “Laurel Hill Death March”. It is pretty accurate, as a good portion of runners will choose to power walk this section instead of run. There have been years where I’ve run the entire section, but for the past few years, I have power walked the steep inclines and run the less steep portions. My times have been better when I have walked, so I think that’s a good strategy for me, especially since there is another up hill for the last few tenths of a mile to the finish line.
Finish Line Party
As the finish line is on campus, there is no finish line beer at this race (although you are steps away from Franklin Street, where you might find a beer at this time of day). There are plenty of bananas, Kind bars, Panera Bread bagels, however. The true party at this finish line is the fact that you just finished a challenging race.
Tar Heel Ten Miler, I’ll be back in 2020!
I have run the Tobacco Road Half Marathon every year since 2016, making this my fourth race on the American Tobacco Trail.
I picked up my bib at the expo at the Embassy Suites in Cary on Saturday, and I made my way around the various booths and vendors. I was happy to see that the tech shirts were back this year (last year, they had gone to a cotton t-shirt that is cool for athleisure wear but not for hard workouts). Because I had asked for a bigger size, thinking it was a cotton t-shirt, I needed to size back down to my running wear size. The woman in charge of shirts was there, and she assured me I could most likely exchange for the right size after the race.
For the first time this year, the shoe brand Altra sponsored the race. We received an Altra buff branded specifically for the race when we picked up our bibs. I liked this extra gift, although I did miss last year’s Feetures socks or the race branded water bottle from the year before.
I also made sure to pick up my parking pass. I register early for this race every year for two specific reasons: it sells out usually a month before the race, and the parking passes sell out months before that. The baseball complex that serves as the start/finish base has limited parking; if you don’t get a pass, you have to park at a business several miles away and shuttle in and out. This business is further away from my house, and I do not like to have to ride a shuttle bus.
I left my house around 5:00 a.m. and arrived at the baseball park about twenty minutes later. The parking lot was already pretty full at this time. I stayed in my warm car, avoiding the 30 degree temps and rolling the muscles in my legs.
At 6:00 a.m., I headed up the hill in the dark toward the start line. I stood in a quick porta-pot line and then found some friends for some pictures.
Finally, at 6:35, I checked in my bag to gear check, and I headed over to the VIP parking area to get in a nice, comprehensive warm up and to get my head in the game.
The lines for the porta-pots were super long as I passed them to get to the start line, and I’m talking less than five minutes from go time. If there’s one area to improve, they could use more of these at this race.
The gun went off at 7:00, and the day was just beginning to lighten. It was about 40 degrees for the entire race, just about perfect for me for races.
The course goes down then uphill in the first half mile as you leave the baseball park. Then, you have about two miles of road, and most of it is downhill. When you get to the American Tobacco Trail, the full marathoners to north on the trail while those doing the half go left, so things get a little less crowded.
Around mile five, you hit some uphill on the trail, and that’s where my work began. The heart rate got a little higher, and it was more work to keep the pace. Even on some downhill spots, it was still more difficult than I felt it should have been at that stage. I tried to stay in the moment, processing each mile as I was in it, doing the best I could at that time without thinking about the end result. I passed friends both who were racing (this out and back is great for that) and who were spectating, and it was hard to capitalize on that good energy, although I kept practicing my smile to make things feel better. The final three miles on the trail were the most difficult for me, as they have been in the past. Soft, sandy surface with an uphill grade combined with the fatigue that I was having made those miles slow and difficult. Once I hit the road again with two-ish miles left to the finish line, I found a new energy.
Those miles back to the park can be some of the most difficult, especially with the hills at the end. However, I was able to find some new energy stores and had some of my better splits in those miles. I didn’t have a lot of kick in final 400 meters, but I felt pretty accomplished when I crossed the line.
At the finish line, the race director as always was there shaking each finisher’s hand. I love that he does this, and I look forward to it each year. The medal, as always, is large and well done. I made my way back up the hill to the finishers’ area where I was able to quickly get my gear back and cuddle into my thick hoodie again. I was also easily able to exchange the race shirt for the right size.
In the finishers' tent, there was coffee, bananas, oranges, chocolate milk, the Great Harvest Bread Company’s fresh bread with butter and honey, hot Papa John’s pizza, and unlimited pours of Appalachian Brewing Company’s beer. The finish area is a football field sized tent with low and high tables, all this food, and a band playing 80s covers. It’s one of my favorite finish line parties, and I look forward to this whole race experience each year.
I’m already looking forward to Tobacco Road 2020.
This was the 3rd annual running of this race. It takes place in the town where I live, with the start/finish line less than 2 miles from my home. I didn’t run it the first year, but during its second year, I volunteered to work at a water stop during this race. This year, I had the opportunity to run it and to volunteer as a Pacer for the 3:00 time slot. I’ve always wanted to try pacing a half marathon, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Leading up to the race, there were lots of opportunities for training runs, training group programs, and run clinics. They were sponsored by both the race and various local gyms and trainers.
The race expo was held in the minor league baseball stadium that also served as the start/finish line. It took place both Thursday and Friday night before the race. Various vendors as well as the tents passing out bibs and t-shirts were set up on the concourse of the stadium, above the seats where you would watch a game. It was small and easy to maneuver about to get your race items, and they strategically set up bibs and t-shirts at opposite ends so that you’d have to walk past all the vendors (including physical therapists and chiropractors, food trucks and breweries) to obtain your items.
The race took place Saturday morning, and since I was pacing, I had a VIP pass for the day. As I arrived at the ballpark, the line to park was starting to grow. I showed my VIP parking pass on my phone, and it allowed me to bypass the long line, drive around the stadium, and park right at the entrance to the stadium. [Even without a VIP pass, there is ample parking for all participants in the many lots of the facility.] The temperature was in the mid 30s, with a forecast to rise into the 40s by the end of the race. With the chill, it was nice to be able to tuck into the VIP area, which took place in the visiting team’s locker area. We had indoor restrooms, coffee, bananas, Kind Bars, water, and Huma gel to load up on before we went out to the start line. There were even showers available to us post race, if we wanted to use them. I loved being able to wait out of the chill until five minutes before go time!
As 7:15 neared, we headed out and found our spots in the corral. We met some people who had found us, people who would be running along with us, having 3:00 as their time goal for the race. A young girl sang the national anthem, and a helicopter hovered over us, taking pictures.
At 7:10, Ainsley’s Angels (the wheelchair racers) took off, and we were right behind them at 7:15. We left from the front of the stadium near where I had parked and made a big loop around the facility. By the time we finished the loop, we were already a little pack of 3:00 runners, about six of us, having introduced ourselves to each other and chatting about this and that.
The first mile took us through a hilly neighborhood across the street from the park and onto a short greenway into another neighborhood. That greenway had a wooden bridge that was really slippery. We had to gingerly walk across it, and we were still sliding all over it. The first waterstop was in the cul-de-sac that we popped out on from the greenway. This is a regular running route of mine with pretty houses lining the streets. We were then back on another short greenway with some hills through Veterans’ Park. Back onto a street for a few seconds, and then the greenway picked up again through yet another park, this time through a wooded area and a disc golf course.
Mile 3 took us through downtown Holly Springs, and mile 4 took us into yet another park, Womble Park, which was full of people. I saw friends at several spots in the park, and as we came out the back of the park, the leaders of the race were making their way back to the finish line, giving us about a mile of overlap where we could cheer on these fasties. We turned into another neighborhood and entered yet another greenway. This greenway was paved and downhill until we entered the Bass Lake complex. We turned right to run counterclockwise around the lake. The trail around the lake is wide and mulch covered, and the surface is very soft, almost like running in sand in some spots. There was also a lot of mud, as it had rained a lot during the week, and the trail is just feet away from the water’s edge. Most of the lake trail is flat, but there is a section, maybe a quarter mile long, where there are some steep uphills and the trail becomes single track. Even though we were weaving around trees and switchbacks, the trail was fairly smooth with few tree roots or stones to interfere with your footing. There was a water stop at the top of this hill, then we ran back down to the water’s edge to finish the lake loop. At this point, we picked up some more runners to join our group. They were chatty and brought even more energy to the pack.
Leaving the lake, the course takes you up the steepest hill of the race, also on single track, into Sugg Farm, a former farm now owned by the town and used as park land. It’s a beautiful place to run, but the lake and the farm are also the most challenging parts of this race. I was happy to finally be back on a road surface as we reached the top of the farm.
From that point, we retraced our steps back to the start/finish line. We came upon several people in the Ruck Division of the race. I really admire these men and women who get out and participate with a heavy pack on their back, especially the small women! The rules for the Ruck Division are that you must carry 25 pounds on your back, no matter your size or gender. That race began at 6:45 so that those racers could finish around the same time as other participants.
As we re-entered the ballpark, we urged our runners to go on and get in under 3:00. All but one of them did; she chose to ride it out and stick with us. We walked slowly for much of the last quarter mile, picking it up to a slow jog as we entered the uphill finishing chute. Our finish time: a stellar 2:59:18.
At the finish area, I had a pint of my favorite beer, an IPA made by one of my favorite breweries right here in my town, Bombshell Brewery (owned by three women). They did have a special beer for the race, which they named “Runner’s High.” It was pinkish in color, brewed with raspberries, but as they were changing kegs, I was able to substitute the IPA. I walked around the concourse, filled with tents of various vendors and health professionals. I stopped for a free massage and stretch by a chiropractor, which felt awesome. I picked up my free pancakes and sausage breakfast, feeling awesome, drinking an IPA with sausage and maple syrup after running an exact time as a volunteer.
As Doug, my co-pacer, said during our race, this is a “race created for runners by runners.” It really gives you a little of everything: road, paved greenway, mulched trail, and hilly single track. Neighborhoods and parks. Noisy spectators and quiet sections. A little overlap so you can see people running in the opposite direction. For a small race, they provide you with a nice expo, great on-course fuel (Huma gel, Skratch electrolyte drink, water), good post race food, awesome craft beer, a nice medal and a comfy cotton t-shirt. Also of great value are the free race photos! A few of them get attached to your results online, but there are many more available if you look through the upwards of 5800 pictures posted online (www.fireeyestudiosphotography.com). The Holly Springs Run Club founded this race, quite a large and active group for a relatively still small town. The price is definitely worth the value. Right now, to sign up for the November 23, 2018 race, it costs only $50 for the half marathon (and $30 for the 5K). The VIP cost was $25 in 2018. The race website tells that they have donated $45,000 back to the community, including various recreational facilities and opportunities.
The race directors offer the chance to participate in the “Run the Springs Series,” which includes a 5K and a 10K earlier in the year. If you run all three, you receive an exclusive 4th medal in addition to the medals for the individual races.
I definitely look forward to running (and pacing!) this race again in 2019.
I chose to run this race because I wanted a BIG race experience, and I wanted one that was close enough to home that we could drive rather than fly to get there. Plus, I had many friends recommend this to me as an AWESOME race, and they weren't wrong!
The race is fairly expensive but on par with other big city races with this number of participants. Washington, DC/Northern Virginia is also pretty expensive for hotel room prices, and getting to the Expo and the Start/Finish Lines required public transportation. It was fairly easy, but it did require some time researching for someone who is used to getting in her car and going.
The Race Expo was full of great merchandise and vendors. It was also in a nice location, in spite of the metro/shuttle ride to get there, and we were able to have a great lunch 24 hours out from race time. The weather was rainy and chilly pre-race, but the skies cleared, and it was a nice 48-55 degrees with a blue sky for race time.
Course support from the spectators, music, and especially the Marines was fantastic! Views on course were great, ranging from city to forest to national monuments to crewers on the river to the Blue Mile. There were a few out-and-back sections where you could see and interact with other racers face-to-face. The course itself was fairly flat, but, for me, it was challenging due to a constantly cambered road surface riddled with potholes. I'm having my longest marathon recovery ever, and I blame it on the slanted roads.
As a 'mid-to-back of the pack' runner, this was the first marathon I've run that didn't feel slightly desolate in the later miles. Every mile of this race was packed with people and spectators and noise. With no half marathon splitting off, we were all out there for the long haul. The race does feature a 10K (my husband ran it) that overlaps some of the same course, but that race's Start Line if far from the marathon's, and they start at the same time.
The ending of this race is challenging, 0.2 miles up a steep hill. However, what makes up for it is the cheering Marines lining the finish chute and the sweet medal!
I would race the Marine Corps Marathon again without hesitation! If interested in a much longer recount of my race, see my blog, "The Running French Prof," at this link: https://therunningfrenchprof.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/marine-corps-marathon-sunday-october-28-2018/#more-4063.
I first learned about this race from my friends’ Facebook posts, a few friends who had done it the past couple of years. I asked one of them in person about it, and she highly recommended it. She explained that there were two races, one for men and one for women, that the field was small, and that there would be many fast runners. But she also said there were runners of all paces, and that her strategy was just to start in the middle/back of the starting pack, to stay out of the leaders’ way, and to enjoy a one mile PR.
My husband and I decided to sign up for it. I had a previous one mile PR, and I thought it would be fun to see how much faster I could go on a smooth, straight, downhill course.
I registered us about a week ahead of the race for $20 each. Race entry included a Sir Walter Running / Raleigh RunDown coozie that we would receive at bib pick-up.
The women’s race took place at 7:00 pm, and the men’s, at 7:25 pm. At the bib pick-up tent, we got our bibs, coozies, and (a nice surprise) some free t-shirts that were left over from other Sir Walter Running events. We pinned our bibs on and walked back to the car to deposit the swag (we were able to find free parking easily both near the start and the finish line; we chose the finish). Then we walked back to the start line. Our warm up consisted of walking to and from the car, and then we did some skips, high knees, and other running drills to further warm up before the start.
About ten minutes of seven, they announced for all the women racers to gather in the start ‘corral.’ We had timing chips on our shoes, but there was no electronic device at the start to clock our actual chip time (the only device to clock us was at the finish). With such a small field, (fifty-eight women), times would be recorded as gun times only.
At seven, we were off. The race directors had marked each quarter mile with a paint line across the road, and I clicked them off painfully but happily as I crossed each one. I was so glad to see the finish line: a PR for me!
At the finish, they cut the timing chip off our shoes (apparently for future use), I received a bottle of water, and I tried to walk a little to cool down and to stretch. During these few minutes, the sky was turning black, the sun was going away, and a cool breeze was picking up. They decided to move the men’s race up five minutes, in order to hopefully complete it before any storm started.
We were told the men were off at the top of the hill, and I moved to a spot in front of the finish line so I could see my husband’s finish and also his time on the clock. The weather was quickly worsening. The four minute milers started to come into view and then crossed the line. There were 102 men in the field, and I cheered on many of them as they approached the finish line. My husband came into view eventually, and a glance at the clock showed me he was going to also have a nice PR. When he was about thirty feet from crossing the finish line, there was a loud crack of thunder and lightning simultaneously; the timing clock blanked out and displayed 88:88:88:88. He crossed the line, and we booked it to our car in the pouring rain.
The finish line party and rewards ceremony took place at Trophy Brewing, which is located not far from the finish line. This was a fun, summer Friday night and a well organized, small race, at a distance that is not common in this neck of the woods. The downhill elevation loss is an attractive feature. I will do this one again, and I hope more of my friends will join me next year. I’d like to see more runners of all paces come out and participate. While I was initially intimidated by the thought of running in a field composed of so many younger, faster runners, the actual event and the people running it were professional, open, and friendly. It felt as welcoming as any other running event I’ve ever participated in, accommodating of people of all paces and depths of running experience.
The event website can be found at this link: http://sirwalterrunning.com/raleighrundown/.
The link of the organizing group, Sir Walter Running, can be found here: http://sirwalterrunning.com/.
For more race reviews and other running posts, visit my blog, therunningfrenchprof.wordpress.com.