Latest reviews by Stacia Brink-Koutroumpis

(2020)
"The Spinx Runfest Certified Virtual Marathon, October 31, 2020: Greenville, South Carolina: an in-person race during the Pandemic"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

What does ‘certified virtual’ mean, anyway?

‘Standard virtual,’ which I did not run, is your every day virtual race: sign up online, run the distance wherever you want between such-and-such dates, upload your results, receive your medal and race shirt in the mail. This race did provide this option. However, I chose it for the ‘certified virtual’ option.

‘Certified virtual’ means you could run the race in person with a small amount of support. When you signed up online, you had a choice of October 3, 4, 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, 25, 31, November 1, 7, or 8 to run your race. You had a choice of 5k, 10k, half marathon, or full marathon (the distance I completed). You had a choice of when to race it (anytime between 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.). I chose 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 31, but I actually started an hour later, letting the sun come up higher and the temperature warm up slightly. Even though it was an in-person race, you still had some of the benefits of a virtual race, like choosing your start time. In fact, if it had been pouring rain, for example, I could have switched to a different day (space allowing). Your timing for the race would be measure not by a chip but by photos that would be taken at your start, finish, and one point in between.

I say space allowing, as spots were limited to 100 runners per day. With the small number of runners and staggered start times, we were very much socially distanced in this race.

We arrived in Greenville the night before the race, staying in an Airbnb less than a mile from the start/finish line.

We arrived at the start at 8:00 a.m. We stood in a distanced line behind three other runners to get our bibs from three volunteers on a turf soccer field. In total, there were about 15 people in the start area when we started (my friend and training partner ran the half marathon at the same time that I ran the full marathon). We received our bibs and a swag bag with the race shirt and medal; we pinned the bibs on at the car, 100 yards from the start line, and left the bags in the car where we would put the medals on ourselves after each of us crossed the finish line.

Number of porta potties at start line: 1.

At the start line, we were given directions by the race director on how to stand before the camera. She sent us off with a ‘go!’ at 8:30, just the two of us, with one or two spectators cheering us (their runner friends were out there, somewhere, already on course).

We turned south onto the trail to start. It’s a railway converted to a trail, paved surface the entire way. My friend and I ran the first eleven miles together before we came to the turn-around for her to go back to the start line. We did come upon road crossings where we had to wait for cars to pass before we could cross (I had more of those later when I was running by myself that we did in the first eleven miles). The first half consisted of several loops that could have been confusing for non-locals like us, but they were pretty well marked with white taped arrows on the ground and arrowed signs in the grass. There were no course marshals, and there few race spectators. There were many non-race runners, cyclists, and walkers on the trail with us. It felt more like a training run than a race, with the exception being that our pace was more intense than a training run. You could recognize the other racers by their bibs, and there was a lot of passing back and forth on these loops and out-and-backs. The atmosphere was great, with everyone encouraging each other with a ‘good job’ as they passed when they saw you, too, were wearing a bib.

There were about seven water stops along the whole marathon route, and most of them you passed twice, so about 14 opportunities to get what you needed. The race had dropped off cases of 8 oz sealed bottles, and you served yourself what you needed. I was wearing a 20 oz bottle and carrying a concentrated mix of electrolytes and fuel; I was able to quickly stop and empty two bottles of water into my own bottle three different times, with no one else around while I did so. Perfect for the pandemic.

We passed by the start line on what would have been about mile 9, where there was the one porta potty. My friend left for her finish line at mile 11, so from there I was on my own. Really on my own! There were no other racers to be seen going in my direction either in front or behind me. I did pass some way in front of me, on their way back to the start after the turnaround in the village of Traveller’s Rest. Unlike in a normal race, where you see the race LEADERS in this type of situation, you were seeing ANY racer. The only thing you knew was that they had started at some point that morning, but you didn’t know if it had been 7:00 or 8:00 or any other time. You didn’t know if they were running a 7:00 pace or a 10:00 pace, other than what it looked like they were running during the few seconds as you were passing each other.

Speaking of others on the trail, keep in mind the date: October 31st. There were so many people out walking or on bikes in Halloween costumes. Especially on bikes. Many young people in costume on bikes with big orange pumpkin candy buckets attached to their handlebars like a bike panier. Between the trick or treaters, the fall temperatures, and the faint smell of burning leaves in the air, it truly held the feel of an Octoberfest type of day. I was feeling good, and I was holding the paces I wanted; hence, the smile that was plastered on my face through most of this race! Again, a real race! The feeling was so good.

Very much like the trail I run at home, this trail has sections that are full miles of a steady uphill climb; not a very steep grade, but just enough that your heart rate shoots up and your rate of perceived effort becomes much higher as you try to sustain the same pace. My effort increased around mile 15, and I started to really feel it around mile 20. Added to that was the fact that I missed the furthest turnaround and overshot it by about a quarter of a mile before I turned back and righted course. There was a loop in a church parking lot that I missed the first time through; I caught it on the way back. There was a timer with a camera, like the one at the start. There was no one around, just the cases of water and the second and only other porta potty on course.

It felt great to be running a race, and at this point, it felt great to be in the last miles. I passed alongside the campus of Furman University for the second time, making my way back to Greenville from Traveller’s Rest.

I knew that I would hit 26.2 before I hit the finish line, thanks to missing the turnaround. Well, this was a virtual race, even if it was certified, so I made up my mind that I would hit my watch button to finish the 26.2 at 26.2.

There was a race photographer at the finish, and they also had a table with a few masked volunteers where you could help yourself to bananas, cookies, water, juice, etc. We made sure to thank everyone working for an event that was both professional and safe as well as a lot of fun.

My result: a new 26.2 PR! A smile that has not left my face even now, two days later. A great memory from such a weird time, this year 2020. Pride in the accomplishment. And a desire for life to move back to normal as 2020 comes to a close and hopefully we get closer to this virus being held in check.

Swag: Long sleeved, cotton, hooded t-shirt; race medal in the shape of a bottle opener; dog tags with the race logo on it. Free race photos.

Race website: https://runsignup.com/Race/SC/Greenville/SpinxRunFest

Race organizers: Greenville Track Club

Parking: Right at the start/finish line, staged at a fitness complex. The line and bib pick up area was on the edge of a large turf soccer field complex.

Elevation Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

Terrain: Paved greenway (rail trail).

Race Management: Excellent.

Course scenery: Downtown views of Greenville, SC for the first ten miles: parks, river walk, water fall, store fronts. Forest (tall pine trees) views for the second sixteen miles, with small town views of Traveller’s Rest, SC (quaint small town Main Street of mom & pop restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops). Trail was open to general public and full of cyclists, runners, and walkers.

Overall rating: Great! I would do this race again, especially if I lived closer than four hours. Since I have a very limited number of marathon attempts I want to do in a year, chances are small that I will repeat it with all the other options out there. However, with the current situation and no idea what 2021 holds, it’s great to have options like this.

Attached photo provided by the race; your certified time comes from the clocks in your start & finish photos.

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(2020)
"The Run the Valley Half Marathon: A real race during the Covid 19 Pandemic! "
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

Race time: 7:30 a.m.

Weather: 45 degrees, with full sun once it was up, temperature topping out in the low 60s. Perfect!

Bib pick up: On race morning an hour before the start, at a card table on the corner by the start line. 10-15 participants and race volunteers milling around, socially distant, wearing masks.

Parking: Ample street parking right at the start/finish line. Picturesque small town with a classic Main Street.

Porta potties: None! You could use the local fire station, gas station, or Dollar General. Or a tree in the woods.

Number of people in the half marathon: less than 50. (There was also a 5K and an 8K, with start times staggered 15 and 30 minutes after the half.)

Start line: most people in masks. A timing clock was set up. The race director had a megaphone, gave the course directions, and then released us with an “on your mark, get set, go!”

I took my mask off in the first 400 meters and tried to find my pace as the sun was coming up in our first mile.

The course: The first three miles on rolling hills along the valley floor (hence, Run the Valley Half Marathon!). Beautiful scenery, light fog lifting over fields of horses and cows. Farm houses, fences, tall trees. A short out and back; then, at the Moonset General Store (get your ice cream and locally harvested honey!), a right turn onto a road on which the rolling hills turned into steeper and steeper hills. At mile seven, you were no longer running up a hill, but up a mountain: Morrow Mountain, to be exact, over the Pee Dee River and part of the Uwharrie National Forest. Although the climb was difficult, the views were SPECTACULAR. AND WE WERE RUNNING A REAL RACE!!

Can you tell from my words that this was a fantastic day?!?!

At the peak of the mountain, you had the valley below you, as you ran around a small circle and then had the treat of running down the mountain (and trying to save your quads while doing so).

From there, you just had to retrace your steps back to the start line, enjoying the trees and the views as you descended back down.

Once back on the rolling valley road with two miles left to the finish line, my true work began. This is where the hard miles took over, and I had to fight to keep a pace.

Swag: long sleeve black tech running shirt with bright green and yellow race logo + other various ‘gifts’ from local businesses (shoe bag, manicure kit, ear buds, pen, etc.)--these were in bag received with bib before race start; at race finish you received a race branded sweat towel and a medal. Awards were given as runners crossed the finish line; I received a 9th place woman medal along with my regular race medal.

Water stops: three (that you passed six times) with volunteers and water bottles on a table for you to grab (no passing of objects). Course marshals: the local radio club provided volunteers at various spots to point you in the correct direction. Race Director: owner of a running shoe/vacuum cleaner store (?!) called "Vac & Dash."

Elevation Difficulty: Very difficult! 1,043 ft of gain and loss total over the 13.1 miles.

Overall Rating: Top Notch! I would definitely run this race again.

Attached photo: Before driving home, we drove back to the top of the mountain where we had run earlier. The views, again, were spectacular!

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(2020)
"The DC Wonder Woman Virtual 10K & 5K: What’s the deal with virtual racing, anyway?"
Overall
Race Management
SWAG
Virtual Support

When I got the opportunity to run the DC Wonder Woman Run Series Virtual Run, I was excited to take part in it.

The SWAG that you receive is awesome, definitely a great way to reward yourself for your training and your efforts.

Why else would you run a virtual race?
If I haven’t convinced you enough with my half marathon tale, let me make a list for you here:

*Motivation to get out the door

*Something to put on your calendar and look forward to

*You pick the course!

*You pick the distance!

*You pick the time of day!

*You pick the weather!

*You pick the aid station hydration and nutrition

*You get to decide where the aid stations are

*You get to pick the post-race snacks

*You can recruit your friends and family to cheer for you and to support you

*You can make it into a party

*You can make it into a hard challenge–keep it on the down low, give it your all, see what you’ve got. You’ve got nothing to lose and no one has to know if it doesn’t turn out the way you want it.

*You choose whether or not to upload your results

*You can pick a race that supports a charity you believe in--The DC Wonder Woman Virtual Race supports St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
*You can pick a local race that you love and want to support–they are quite possibly struggling financially right now

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(2019)
"Tar Heel Ten Miler, April 13, 2019"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

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:
https://capstoneraces.com/tar-heel-10-miler/

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.

Race Morning
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.

Race Options
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 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!

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(2019)
"Tobacco Road Half Marathon, March 17, 2019"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

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.

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