Latest reviews by Lynnelle Morgan
This was my second race with the Vacation Race series (and not my last!!) and it was exactly what was needed during the pandemic for a mental health break and for things to feel somewhat normal again with a live, in-person race. I ended up signing up for the Black Bear Double (5k & 13.1) and love every minute of our weekend trip. (Even my non-running husband decided to sign up for the 5k!)
BIB PICK-UP: We arrived Friday afternoon (after an overnight stay in Knoxville-- which is only an hour away from Townsend). The bib pick-up was drive thru and went seamless. They had two lines of cars to expedite the process and had volunteers at the beginning passing out the race guide to folks while they waited. The other element that we loved of the drive-thru (and wished more races would do it), is that they had a radio channel you could turn to while you waited to listen to a curated playlist and the race announcements they were making. Colleen and the rest of the team were talking about the race and giving updates, in real time, and chatting with racers while they waited in their cars. It really helped added to the excitement of the race. As we got closer to the pick-up station, two volunteers came over and asked the name of the runner, so as one was checking off names, the other went ahead to grab the bib. While they did that, my husband decided to sign up for the 5k & was able to register and pay right there (it went quickly and didn't hold up the line). As we moved up, they handed us the bib and we moved to the next station-- t'shirt pick up. After getting our shirts, we moved to the hydration pick up and then finally the swag station for the Black Bear Double. We weren't in line very long.
EXPO: There were essentially two Expo's for this race-- virtual and in-person:
- In Person: After picking up our stuff, we parked and walked through the scaled down Expo. Unlike previous years, the different vendors/sponsors weren't on hand at the Expo to ensure safety protocols and social distancing. The Vacation Race team was there and set up with merch for this race... and it didn't disappoint. From posters to hats to sweatshirts-- you could find it all there. The only other vendors that we saw were Goodr and the Wander Project.
- Virtual: A few days before the race, the Vacation Race team hosted a Facebook Live Race Expo. This was executed really well and allowed all the vendors/sponsors to talk about and showcase their products. The VR team kept things fun and entertaining with fun facts, questions and trivia throughout. Folks watching were even able to win goodies throughout the Facebook event from the sponsors. (I snagged a pair of Goodr sunglasses that I was able to pick up at the in-person expo!)
5K (FRIDAY NIGHT): Friday evening was the 5k and I think I heard that about 750-800 people participated. This is a fun idea because we saw so many couples and families running. It gave the folks who weren't running the half marathon a way to participate during the weekend and receive their own medals. They broke people up into waves that went off at different times & reminded everyone to wear their masks while staying socially distant. While they had assigned waves, they did allow runners to move to different waves if they needed.
COURSE :The 5k started across the street from the Tally Ho Inn, where the race was headquartered for the weekend. It was an easy out and back that crossed a few streets, ran through a neighborhood with families cheering on the runners (one even created their own aide station!), went through a tunnel and finished at the Tally Ho Inn. The only hiccup (if you can call it that) was that the waves were delayed because they had to close down a major intersection that we ran through. This intersection was one of the only roads that connected Townsend to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, so there were a lot of vehicles waiting for the first wave of runners to cross & the police had to let the vehicles pass before letting the next wave begin. Oops...lol! But an easy course that finished where the half marathon finished the next day.
HALF MARATHON (SATURDAY MORNING): We got up early on Saturday morning to drive up to Maryville where the race was starting at a local high school. They VR team did have shuttle buses available, but my husband dropped me off before he grabbed some breakfast. Again, VR did have assigned waves for the runners but you could jump in another wave to begin the race. One thing that I thought was really sweet is that they had the runners/walkers who were in the last wave begin with the first wave to ensure that they had the maximum amount of time to finish the course. The morning views from the start line did not disappoint! The smoky fog was rolling over the mountains like a waterfall & made for some incredible pictures before jumping on the course. They had music playing and the race announcing team was there cheering everyone on. I jumped in an earlier wave and walked down to the start line with everyone. Once we got down there, it was a rolling start so you could begin when you were ready.
COURSE: The course is relatively flat with a few hills even though we were running uphill. It didn't feel like a huge elevation gain (at least for anyone who lives and runs in areas of the country with lots of hills). The course was along an old highway that had relatively little car traffic and followed the Little River for the majority of the race. It was shaded until about mile 9 when we crossed the river and ran along the main road into Townsend. There were aide stations every few miles and even a few residents (and cyclists) out cheering on the runners. I loved seeing all the fun cabins and camping spots along the river (something we'll check out in the future as a possible place to stay). After mile 9 and turning towards Townsend, be prepared for no shade coverage so make sure to have sunscreen because it was very sunny!
FINISH LINE: The VR finish lines are always a party! As I made my way towards the finish line, there is a tiny hill (which at mile 13.09 feels like a mountain. lol!) you have to head up to cross the finish line. They announced each runners name & a fun fact that we submitted during registration. After crossing the finish, the volunteers were there to give you your medal and direct you to the snack boxes and water stations. For folks who did the Black Bear Double we headed to a tent to pick up our additional medal for running 16.2 miles within 24 hours.
OVERALL: This is one of the closest Vacation Races to where I live so I will definitely be running this again in the future... and hopefully bringing some of my running crew along. Every element of the race logistics was thought through, especially during the pandemic. It was a fun weekend filled with great memories from exploring Townsend on Friday to driving through the Smoky Mountains after the race on Saturday from Cades Cove to the top of Clingman's Dome (note: during the race, my husband drove the Foothills Parkway & said the views were incredible). Also, we were able to stay at a motel a few doors down from the Tally Ho Inn, so we were able to cheer on the folks still on the course from our motel & hear the finish line fun.
- For some underground (and cool) fun, check out Tuckaleechee Caverns
- Culinary delights: Apple Valley Mountain Village; Snoring Bear Diner; Pawpaw's Catfish Kitchen
- Be sure to stop in the Townsend Visitor Center -- they have National Parks merchandise & maps (which is helpful since there is no cell service within the park) and an art gallery featuring local artists (one was on hand doing a demonstration)
This half marathon had been on my bucket list for several years, so when I realized I was going to be in Vegas for a conference that was the week after the race, I knew it was kismit! The coolest thing about this race is that it was in the desert (read: lots of sand) and at night-- talk about a memorable and incredible experience, but also incredibly hard experience since there isn't a whole lot of sand to train on in Kentucky. This is part of a race series hosted by Vacation Races that takes place outside of the National Parks in order to encourage folks to go visit the National Parks after the race-- "The world is INCREDIBLY beautiful. Discover its hidden corners"-- with hikes in the Parks to earn additional "bling." Additionally, Vacations Races hosts races throughout the year for all types of distances-- half marathons to ultras to trail races. Plus, some races have an additional race, like a 5k, the day before the big race.
I registered about a month before Joshua Tree a month before the race, and I was very happy with the communication leading up to, and even after the race. The race guide was very comprehensive with everything a runner could need from an event schedule, expo map, some of the types of different merchandise you can get for the race, elevation map... even the different color shirts designating staff and volunteers. Also, since this was a night race, there were reminders about making sure to have headlights and such to wear. What I thought was one of the coolest things about all the Vacation Races is that the races are cup-free races, so you either have to bring your own hydration (backpack, handheld, belt, etc.) or you can opt to get one of their special flasks/cups that are lightweight and can clip onto your waistband. They are also big believers in recycling. Of all the races I've ever done, this race was by far the cleanest race I've ever done. I did not see any trash anywhere... and usually at races you're having to dodge cups on the ground at the aid stations.
Day Before the Race:
I arrived in Joshua Tree the day before the race. If you fly into Vegas and drive down, I recommend it because it was an easy drive through the Mojave Desert and the views were just amazing! You'll drive past some unique places like the Kelso Depot, a National Preserve Visitor Center in the middle of the desert-- great place for a stamp in your National Parks Passport if you're a #NationalParksGeek). This was a great halfway stop to stretch your legs and learn about the area. Travel Note: this is also a great place to check out your trip map because the further you drive into/through the Mojave, you may lose GPS (learned that quickly). After Kelso Depot, you'll pass Kelso Dunes-- 650 feet of sand dunes in the middle of the Mojave. If you have time be sure to stop and climb to the top of the dunes because visitors are encouraged to sled down the dunes to make them "sing." As I exited the Mojave and moved closer to Joshua Tree, the road dead ends at Route 66 and takes you through Amboy, California. This is another great photo opportunity as the buildings like Roy's Cafe & Motel have been featured as sets in movies, music videos, and photoshoots.
Three hours later, I arrived in Twentynine Palms, California. Joshua Tree National Park and the half marathon are situated between the town of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms in Sunfair. There are a few hotels, boutique hotels and lots of gorgeous AirBnB's in the area to choose from. I'm pretty sure my entire hotel was full of racers and their families. Arriving the day before allowed me to explore the towns, hit up the grocery store for some post-race snacks, check out the hotel where U2 stayed while working on the Joshua Tree album, and drive the race route to acquaint myself somewhat before running it in the dark, which I ended up not being the only one with that same idea. There were about 5 other cars in front of me with the same idea. As the sunset the day I arrived, I found one of the amazing restaurants in Twentynine Palms to enjoy a delicious dinner & then I headed into Joshua Tree, since there is an entrance in Twentynine Palms. Travel Tip: Joshua Tree has free entrance after dark for folks to go photograph the night sky and check out the Milky Way.
Day of the Race:
The race expo opened at 10 am the morning of the race, so I headed over there to pick up my bib and shop for some race swag. The expo was located in the Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground. I loved the vibe of the campground-- kind of a mixture of Burning Man and Bonnaroo with art installations throughout the campgrounds. For folks who like to camp before a race, there is an option to camp there. The expo included booths from other organizations like National Parks Rangers letting folks know about the hikes the day after the race, a place to make your own tote bag out of old race shirts (in case racers forgot to bring their own tote bag to the pick-up), a s'more making station, a place to purchase races needs like gels/gu's/etc.-- which was wonderful since I could only find one sports store in Joshua Tree but it had limited selection of items. After the expo it was time to explore the park! Yay! I drove through Joshua Tree on the way back to the hotel... and there is nothing that can compare. Joshua Tree is truly a magical experience & cannot wait to return one day!
With this being a night race that began right after sunset, the organizers suggested getting to the expo/start line early for parking and such. I arrived about an hour and a half before the race to hang out, stretch, and mentally prepare myself since this was the first time I had raced a half marathon alone without my husband there to be my sherpa. The race organizers were doing drawings during this time to the lead up to the race start, so racers have the opportunity to win items from socks to free race registration. On our bibs, we had color markers that told us what wave we were in so that is how we lined up. After the National Anthem and watching the sunset, it was time to run. Each wave went off about 15-20 minutes after the wave in front of it, as to make sure the race route wasn't totally packed with people since the first part of the race route up the hill was narrower than the rest of the race.
As my wave took off, we were running on the road for about half a mile or so, then we turned and started our journey in the sand-- Holy Sand!! I began to understand why there were some folks at the start line with face masks on because you will inhale some fine sand. I had read other reviews of this race that suggested running along the edge of the path because the sand was a little more packed. I tried that method and it did seem to work for the most part. As soon as we turned onto the sand, we began a slow, steady incline to the top of the mesa. The total elevation gain for this race is 561 feet but it didn't seem bad-- we may not have sand in Kentucky, but we have hills so that probably helped prepare for this run. The race website does a great job of letting racers know what to expect almost mile-by-mile in terms of sand, hill, and roads. Once we reached the top, we ran along the mesa before heading back down the hill towards the campground/finish line. As we ran past homes in the area, several residents were at the end of their driveways playing music and cheering on the runners! The race also had perfectly spaced aid stations - miles 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 & 12 - that were well staffed and supported.
I was cruising along and making great time for me, which I was super excited about. It was around mile 10 that my body started turning on me. I think running on the sand began to make some injuries "angry" but I wasn't going to let that stop me. Unfortunately I did end up walking the last few miles, running when I could, but I was still happy with my finish time! I was expecting it to be closer to the 4 hour cut-off time because of the lack of sand training. As I got closer to the finish line, we are routed around the outside of the campground so you had finishers inside the grounds cheering on all the runners. The last 100-200 yards of the race takes you to the finish line and the lights/sounds/cheers were very motivating to bring everyone across the line. As I was crossing the finish line, I heard the announcer say my name and the fun fact they asked us when we registered. The magic of the desert and the electricity of this race made me excited that Joshua Tree was 10th Half Marathon that I've raced.
After crossing the finish line, I was handed my medal-- which glows in the dark! What?!? On the back of the medal was a stamp design that mimicked a National Parks stamp with the race location and the date. I was also handed a snack box for the race. This is the best idea ever! It helps keep the trash down (in line with part of their race mission) and doesn't require tons of tables piled high with food that people may or may not eat. I was unable to stick around for any after race activities since I had to get back to the hotel and pack up to drive back to Vegas the next morning, but there was mention in the race guide that the Joshua Tree Astronomy Club was going to be on-site for racers to check out the night sky.
As I mentioned, this race was my 10th Half Marathon so it will always have a special place in my heart, but even if it wasn't-- it would still be magical! The entire journey from start to finish was something that is so much more than just what words could express. There is something incredible about running in the desert under the stars with people from all over the country. All along the route you heard people asking others if they were okay if they were walking or standing/sitting on the side of the road so I felt like everyone was in this together and cheering each other along.
A few top tips:
- You can run in regular running shoes, but trail shoes may be a better choice to help with grip on the sand. (I saw both on the course and I ran in my trail shoes)
- Headlamp (super helpful)
- Noxgear (optional) There were some folks with these on but not totally necessary since we passed maybe 5 cars the entire time
- Gaiters on your shoes to help keep out the sand. They didn't keep the sand out 100% but definitely helped as I did see some folks having to stop to empty out their shoes after running through some of the deeper sand sections
- Hydration - if not using their race cup/flask
- Phone to take some photos/selfies
- Long sleeve shirt - to put on during the race since it does get chilly in the desert after the sun goes down
I signed up for this race during a 24-hour super discounted day that the race management held. Apparently 100 ladies from my local running chapter did as well, so the weekend of the race became an Ladies Weekend.
The expo definitely wasn’t the smallest expo I’ve attended at a race. There is plenty of parking nearby and under the museum, and they did offer a discounted parking rate for the racers. Outside of the bib pick-up there was the usual race vendors— running clothing, last minute nutrition/gear needs, other regional races being promoted by race ambassadors, medical, etc. While well organized in the lobby of the lobby of the Indiana State Museum, one could easily get through the expo quickly.
Several us were staying at one of the host hotels that ended up being about a half mile away from the start/finish line. (When we originally booked our rooms, we could have sworn the start/finish line was closer to the host hotel.) The walk was good for a pre-race warm up with the only downside being the 100% humidity so a sweat was worked up at 6:30 in the morning. :-) The race kicked off with hundreds of women running and walking. There were pace groups for each distance so it was easy to find a group to run with. The scenery on the course wasn’t anything spectacular as we ran through industrial sections, a few neighborhoods, past the VA Hospital, through the IUPUI campus, and back to the finish line at the Military Park. Note: some of the roads aren’t in the best of shape so runners should keep an eye on the road so they don’t twist anything. The on course support was good with medics riding the course on bikes, which was great to see since people could easily dehydrate/overheat in the humidity. There were aid stations every few miles— one even took the water hose to crest a “rain shower” to help cool off the runners. I know weather can be a crapshoot sometimes but it would have been nice to have ice and/or soaked sponges at some of the stations to provide some cooling for the racers. After crossing the finish line and receiving the butterfly medal & a rose, it was time to enjoy the nice finish line party atmosphere with pancakes, mimosa’s, White Claw, and more. Luckily the party area was shaded and along the finish chute so we were able to cheer on both the ladies in our running club and the other runners.
If you’re looking for a small, boutique race or a Gals Race-cation... this may be one to check out. The race management did a great job of communicating with the racers. And while they don’t have any control over the road conditions, with all the other half marathons in the city, maybe they can talk to the city about improving the roads?