Latest reviews by Andy Allen

(2021)
"Allstate Atlanta 2021 Virtual Hot Chocolate Race "
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

Running an Allstate Hot Chocolate race has been on my running list for quite some time and, while sad I wasn't able to travel to Atlanta and do the race in person, this was a really exciting virtual run to participate in.

The swag for this event is unmatched! I am a sucker for a good hoodie. If your race is offering a pullover or zip-up, there's a 99% chance I'm going to register. The quality of the material is great, and it is so super soft and warm! The hood is removable via zipper, and there are deep pockets on both sides at the waist, plus an additional pocket on the left breast next to the logo, so lots of places to stash things.

I got some great feedback from my followers on instagram about this year's medal as well. Almost like a racing locket, the medal was in the shape of a wrapped chocolate bar, with the center of the medal being able to open up revealing a delicious piece of dark chocolate to enjoy post-race! Also included were two additional pieces of chocolate, two packets of the signature hot chocolate mix, as well as a Honey Stinger waffle, Nuun tablet, and bib.

I ran this race in loops around my neighborhood as I was just getting over being ill and didn't feel like driving to my normal training route on The Greenway in North Augusta, SC. I actually preferred the neighborhood for this race, as I used the tailgate of my truck parked in my driveway as an aid station, and just stopped by every other loop (roughly two miles) for a quick drink of Tailwind or a Huma gel. Maybe the best part was, while nature didn't call this particular race, it was most comforting to know that if I had to take a quick restroom break, I could go in the comfort of my very own home vs a bright orange beacon of light (portapotty).

The most heartbreaking thing during this pandemic has been thinking we're going to get to race in-person only to have your live race switched to a virtual option shortly before race day. We're all incredibly anxious to get back to in-person racing, and of course a virtual option isn't quite the same, but I really love the Allstate Hot Chocolate series for being proactive, getting out in front of this pandemic, and protecting their participants, volunteers, and staff by switching all of their races to a virtual option for the foreseeable future. You know up front that you're signing up for a virtual event, and there is peace of mind with that. With the virtual option we can still treat ourselves to some amazing swag, represent our favorite cities, and keep motivated with a race on the calendar.

If you've been on the fence about participating in this race series, I can't recommend it enough. Check out their website and find the city you want to rep from the list of upcoming available dates, put some miles under your feet, and enjoy some of the best race swag out there. We'll be back to sharing a cup of hot chocolate at the finish line of an in-person race again soon!

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(2020)
"Live Racing in the Time of COVID"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

Who would have thought back in March when live racing came to a grinding halt due to the pandemic that we’d get to see a live race before 2020 closed? I can’t quite articulate how great it felt to be able to say “It’s Race Week!” on social media the Monday before this event, but if you’re a runner who thrives on the live racing environment, then you know exactly the emotion, anticipation, and excitement I felt right up through the finish line.

Expo & Packet Pick-Up:

Due to the pandemic and some safety measures that were put in place to limit exposure, there was no pre-race expo this year. I still scored this five stars, however, because I was really impressed with the design, organization, and safety of the packet pick-up process.

The day prior to the race, there was a large window of time from noon to 6 pm when you were able to pick up your race day packet in a drive-thru format in front of SRP Park, the venue where the race would start and finish. Prior to the day of packet pick-up, runners received an email with their BIB #.

Once you got to the front of the drive-thru line, you simply called out your BIB # to a volunteer and they radioed ahead to another group of volunteers who grabbed a bag with all of your race gear already inside and ready to go. Once you got your bag, the last step of the drive-thru was to hold your BIB up for the sensor to ensure your chip worked and showed the correct name on a monitor. I went around 1 pm and the whole pick-up process took less than 5 minutes, including the wait in line.

All volunteers wore a mask, and they asked participants to wear a mask as well while interacting with volunteers and staff in the drive-thru. It was a great experience and I felt safe throughout the process.

Swag:

The race struggled here a bit this year, but let’s be honest, COVID should get most of the blame. I imagine it took a ton of hard work and back-and-forth with city councils, safety boards, etc, to be able to get a permit to hold an in-person event, and by the time those items were secured it probably didn’t allow for the time needed to order the shirts and hoodies we’ve grown accustomed to.

However, typically there is a different piece of swag depending on the distance you run (for example, tee shirt for 5K participants, hoodie for half marathon participants), but this year all runners received the same item; a visor from HeadSweats with the race logo and date on the front. There was also one pack of GU and one tablet of Nuun in the bag received at packet pick-up.

The medal was nice as always, but in years past there has been a different size depending on the distance you ran (half marathoners got the larger medal). This year, everyone got the same medal.

Having the same swag and the same size medal across the board was slightly irritating only because the half-marathon runners paid a higher registration fee and covered more distance, but for the same tangible reward as those who paid less and covered less distance. If swag is what motivates you, it simply didn’t seem like much incentive this year. Again, I’m sure a lot of this was due to delays with COVID, and having some unified items was just logistically easier in 2020. After all, we got to run a live race, so that in and of itself was a huge reward.

Parking on Race Day:

There are a couple different options for parking the morning of the race. You can pay to park in the decks just up from the venue (I believe the cost was $5, and you also have the option to pay this in advance prior to Race Day), or if you’re cheap like me, there is also ample parking in downtown North Augusta about a half mile walk (or warm-up run) away from the starting line.

Either option, the parking decks or the downtown parking, are convenient and hassle-free when leaving the race, as you may only have a couple thousand runners participating overall, and leaving at various times so traffic is a non-issue.

The Race:

First, can I just again say how amazing it was to run an in-person race with other runners (socially distanced, of course)? This route is my favorite and the same route I do most of my long runs on.

The route starts just outside of SRP Park, home to minor league baseball team The Augusta Greenjackets. The route cuts just inside the upscale Hammond’s Ferry residential neighborhood before taking a turn and running along the Savannah River before moving up onto the North Augusta Greenway.

Runners travel on the greenway for about four miles before turning into the Hammond Hills neighborhood, where you are immediately faced with a couple steep hills. Most of the hard work here is done up front, and there is a nice, long downhill reward for the remainder of your time in the subdivision.

As you exit Hammond Hills, you have the task of navigating the Martintown Rd hill, which is not too terribly steep, but a gradual incline for about 0.70 miles. Again, what goes up must come down, and when you reach the top here, you get another nice, long downhill reward of about a mile and a half before bearing slight right, then left onto Georgia Ave, where you leave South Carolina and enter Georgia via bridge over the Savannah River.

The bridge is a great spot to stop and take a selfie before turning left onto Reynolds St and traveling a little over a mile through downtown Augusta, before snaking back toward the bridge via the Augusta Riverwalk. As you cross back into South Carolina, just before the mile 12 marker, you meet your last hill, about a quarter of a mile stretch back up Georgia Ave.

When you reach the top, you travel briefly through a downtown neighborhood before getting back on the greenway, passing a beautiful butterfly garden, and spilling out onto the warning track of SRP Park. That’s right, you finish your race on the field!

On-Course Assistance:

There were several aid stations on the route, though they felt like they were spaced fairly far apart. I self-supported with a hydration vest and my own gels that I train with, but this may have been an issue for other runners.

Aid stations were equipped with individual bottles of water due to the pandemic, and a port-a-potty or two. It felt like these may have been every four miles or so.

The Finish:

I’m not entirely sure if there was a rule against spectators being present, but there were very little friends and family waiting at the finish. However, I was encouraged to see many of the runners who finished early had stayed behind to cheer for other runners who were middle/back of the pack (like myself).

Snacks were presented in a “grab and go” fashion, with your options being a bottle of water, an individual bag of Ritz peanut butter crackers, and an orange. You were also handed your medal by a volunteer wearing a mask.

There was a post-race beverage option, either a beer or a soda. This was another area where I think COVID affected the swag, as last year runners received their beverage in an actual pint glass with the event logo and name, and this year the beverage came in a small plastic cup with event logo/name.

Overall:

Out of all the races I’ve been fortunate enough to run, this one is still one of my two favorites. The volunteers are always amazing and so friendly, people come out on their porches to cheer as you run past their homes, and the route is gorgeous, albeit challenging due to the hills.

The swag took a hit this year with the pandemic, but I will always recommend this race, and will run it every year I’m able.

Out-of-Town Guests:

If you’re traveling from out of town, below are some recommendations for good eats, places to stay, and things to do while you’re in the area.

Eats:

The Whiskey Bar & Kitchen - 1048 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
The Boll Weevil Cafe (for dessert) - 10 James Brown Blvd, Augusta, GA 30901
Soy Noodle House - 1032 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
Sole Augusta - 1033 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
The Pizza Joint - 1245 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
Manuel's Bread Cafe - 505 Railroad Ave #100, North Augusta, SC 29841
Rio Cantina - At SRP Park where the start/finish line are, 187 Railroad Ave, North Augusta, SC 29841

Hotel Accommodations:

Crowne Plaza (directly across the street from SRP Park) - 1060 Center St., North Augusta, SC 29841.

Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center (about a mile away) - Two 10th St., Augusta, GA 30901

Hyatt House Augusta/Downtown - 1268 Broad Street, Augusta, GA 30901

Things to Do:

Augusta Museum of History - 560 Reynolds St, Augusta, GA 30901

Augusta Canal Discovery Center & Tours - Blome Lane, Augusta, GA 30901

TopGolf - 437 TopGolf Way, Augusta, GA 30909

Meadow Garden (George Walton Home) - 1320 Independence Dr, Augusta, GA 30901

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(2020)
"Augusta University Half Marathon, or, The Battle of "The Hill""
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

Outside of the Ironman Augusta 70.3, there are two other big races in our town of Augusta, GA. One is the Palmetto Peach. The other is this, the Augusta University Half Marathon. This course presented some unique challenges, had a fairly attractive route, and is one I would most definitely run again.

The Expo & Packet Pick-Up:

The expo and packet pick-up was held this year at the Salvation Army Kroc Center down on Broad St. There were some great local vendors with table swag, and it was nice to see the community support. The Augusta Sports Council does a great job with this event each and every year, and this was no exception. The pick-up was very well organized with a fun little bingo-style card incentivizing participants to visit each of the vendor tables for a free prize if you completed your card, if you wished to partake.

The swag was a really nice tech style long sleeve shirt with some other odds & ends in the bag. Publix supermarket happened to be one of the community vendors in attendance and I have to say, the avocado slicer they had as a freebie on their table was one of the cooler things I've picked up at an event.

Parking on Race Day:

Tons of optimal parking for the event, most notably the parking deck on Reynolds about a block up from the start/finish area. The cost is pretty minimal, just a few dollars, and the lot is safe and in a high traffic area attached to the Augusta Convention Center.

The Race:

This race takes place in early February so the morning wind was a biting, but it had warmed up around the halfway point. I would recommend a running beanie or something for your ears for sure when you start. There weren't a ton of participants at this event, which was actually kind of nice, although it would be great to see it turned into a destination event for runners who like to travel and explore new places. We started on Reynolds St and ran up alongside the Savannah River for a brief moment, before circling back and heading off into the historic "Olde Towne" area for a bit. This area, while full of character, is a bit run down and not anywhere you'd run on your own outside of this race. I'd love to see them utilize more of Broad St, Green St, or Telfair for this event.

The race was relatively flat for the first few miles, but just before the halfway point comes the biggest challenge in the Augusta area . . . the "Hill."

Side Note: The Hill is a beautiful residential area with huge old homes, and also the location of the historic Summerville campus of Augusta University. The campus was originally an arsenal for the United States Army, moving from downtown to the Summerville campus in 1826. It was used for various tasks from small arms and rifle repair to equipment manufacturing from the Spanish-American War right up through WW2. I had the opportunity to do my undergrad here and it has a lot of charm.

The Hill in this race, however, is about a mile or two stretch at a fairly gradual yet aggressive incline up one street over from Central Ave. The reward for completing the uphill is a really sweet one or two mile stretch downhill through the backside of the Summerville area and into historic the historic Frog Hollow area. Once you make it downhill, you're back on flat land again for the remainder of the race.

Mile 11 was a really nice treat, as the organizers had set it up as a "Blue Mile" of sorts. There were photos every 5-10 feet for an entire mile memorializing individual service men and women from the Augusta area, and it was a cause for great pride and patriotic tears to see the sacrifices so many from our town have made.

Coming into the last couple miles on Broad Street back into the Augusta Common to cross the finish line was open and empty, and almost no crowd support until the very end, but it was a nice stretch to get a final kick in and really push hard to finish strong.

I self-support with a hydration pack and my own nutrition so I don't really pay close attention to the aide stations, but they seemed appropriately placed every 2-3 miles w/a port-a-potty or two at each station. The volunteers at the stations were kind and offered encouragement as you ran through.

The Finish Area:

Once you crossed the finish line and grabbed your medal, that was pretty much it for this race. There was a small snack tent handing out the usual suspects (Bananas, oranges, trailmix, water, etc), and a couple food trucks off to the far side of the Augusta Common. There was also an area to redeem your beer ticket for a post-race beverage, but not a lot of pomp & circumstance.

Overall:

This is a fun race to do if you have the opportunity, but I'll probably only do this one once. If you're looking for a race with a more scenic route in the Augusta area, I'd recommend checking out the Palmetto Peach in November.

Happy Running!

If you're traveling into the area, my recommendations for good eats are:

The Whiskey Bar & Kitchen - 1048 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
The Boll Weevil Cafe (for dessert) - 10 James Brown Blvd, Augusta, GA 30901
Soy Noodle House - 1032 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
Sole Augusta - 1033 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
The Pizza Joint - 1245 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
TakoSushi - 437 Highland Ave, Augusta, GA 30909 (Surrey Center)
Oliviana - 399 Highland Ave, Augusta, GA 30909 (Surrey Center)
Sheehan's Irish Pub - 2571 Central Ave, Augusta, GA 30909

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(2019)
"The Palmetto Peach - My First Half-Marathon!"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

I know, I know, I did this whole marathon/half-marathon thing completely backwards. I guess maybe there is logic in the universe that tells us we should do things in a progressive format, like, oh I don't know, running a half-marathon before running a full. I ignored that logic and ran this race, my first half-marathon, three weeks after my first full. You know what? It was still magical.

Packet Pick-Up:

Nothing super big or fancy like you'd find at an event like the Rock 'n' Roll series, but extremely well-organized, clean, and friendly! The packet pick-up was held on "Race Day Eve" at the local Fleet Feet in Augusta, GA. The process was very quick, which I appreciated as I had swung by on my lunch break from work and needed to get in and out.

The pre-race swag was incredible. A very nice hoodie for the half-marathon participants and I believe other distances got a tee shirt. There was also a Palmetto Peach PopSocket for your phone, which I thought was a unique piece of swag to have. Some other coupons and offers from various area businesses were included.

The Race:

The starting line started directly outside the front gate of SRP Park, home to minor league baseball team, the Augusta GreenJackets. The organization at the starting line was a little chaotic but not unmanageable, as there weren't that many runners participating (a few hundred). The race traveled from the baseball park up the North Augusta Greeneway, which is a beautiful walking/running/bike riding trail in our community. After about 3 or 4 miles on the Greeneway, we took a left into a neighborhood with hills that rolled and did not stop until you exited the neighborhood a few miles later. Once you exited, you had a large incline of about .70 miles that traveled up Martintown Rd, before turning right onto West Ave and traveling downhill for a little over a mile.

Once you reached the North Augusta courthouse at the bottom of the hill, you prepared to travel over a bridge from Georgia Ave. in South Carolina and onto Reynolds St in downtown Augusta, GA. This was a quick route down Reynolds St. (where my wife's office is located so she got to come out for a bit and cheer me on as I ran by), back up the Augusta Riverwalk, and over the bridge into South Carolina again before snaking around toward the ballpark. The finish was memorable, as you actually cross the finish line on the baseball field. It was incredibly memorable for me, as I got to carry my 3-year-old son on my shoulders as I ran over the finish with my parents cheering me on.

The course is a beautiful track, although I wish there was less mileage in the neighborhood with the rolling hills and more emphasis placed on running through downtown Augusta. There are some really great murals and statues (James Brown, most notably) in the downtown area, and I think it would offer visiting runners a cooler aesthetic to the race. Also, the aide stations seemed to be few and far between with not many options for a potty break, but don't quote me on that because I self-supported with a hydration vest and my own nutrition, and never had to use one of those giant orange beacons of light (aka port-a-potty).

The Finish Area:

The medal for the half was amazing, being rather large with a spinning center. You also had a beer ticket included in your registration, and runners were given their own commemorative Palmetto Peach pint glass to drink from and keep. There were also the usual post-run snacks (bananas, oranges, water, etc).

Overall:

The volunteers were great, the swag was amazing, and the course is one I run almost every weekend on my long runs and it's just beautiful. I would for sure recommend this race. The elevation with the hills make it a little challenging, but nothing that a first timer couldn't handle, and certainly fun for more experienced runners. This race is local to me, and I will be running it every year I'm able.

If you are traveling from outside of Augusta/North Augusta to run this race, my picks for meals while you visit are:

The Whiskey Bar & Kitchen - 1048 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
The Boll Weevil Cafe (for dessert) - 10 James Brown Blvd, Augusta, GA 30901
Soy Noodle House - 1032 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
Sole Augusta - 1033 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
The Pizza Joint - 1245 Broad St, Augusta, GA 30901
Manuel's Bread Cafe - 505 Railroad Ave #100, North Augusta, SC 29841
Rio Cantina - At SRP Park where the start/finish line are, 187 Railroad Ave, North Augusta, SC 29841

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(2019)
"Rock 'n' Roll Savannah - My First Full Marathon! "
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

In my mind, running a full marathon was something only elite athletes did. Or masochists. Both of which I was not. However, after returning from vacation in May of 2019, I started a journey that would forever change my life; training for the Rock 'n' Roll Savannah Full Marathon. I'd never gone beyond 3.1 at the time and that had been years ago, so what was I, a 39-year-old with no baseline for running, even doing signing up for this, this, thing!? Peer Pressure from co-workers also training for the race was a great incentive.

The Expo:

I will never forget the feeling of walking into the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center on "Race Day Eve." The size of the expo, the thumping music, the energy. I had never felt anything like that and I was immediately pumped to be a participant. The environment couldn't help but scream, "race weekend is here!"

Navigating the check-in and packet pick-up was extremely easy. There were kiosks set up were you could retrieve your bib number, and then take that to get your swag. The volunteers provided a welcomed dose of southern hospitality and were incredibly kind and friendly. There was a cool photo op setup at the end of packet pick-up before emptying out into the Rock 'n' Roll/Brooks store, where my credit card immediately started to sweat. You have to commemorate your first full marathon with souvenirs, and I bought all of them. The selection of mementos was incredible, and the price point for most things wasn't terrible. Besides, there was no way I was going to pass on a 26.2 mile shirt and hoodie with my name on them!

From here, you emptied out into a well-organized fair of vendors. Everything from Goodr sunglasses, to various nutrition options, to apparel and local running flair, it was all right here and prime for exploring. I particularly enjoyed the Rock 'n' Roll booth where you could sign up for other races and see all of the amazing bling from the "tour."

Getting to the Race:

An early start on race morning, I caught an Uber with a couple other participants staying at my hotel into downtown Savannah to the corrals on Bay Street (parking your own vehicle on race day, or any "busy" day, in downtown Savannah is a bit of a headache). The hotel where I stayed was about four miles out of the downtown area, and that was a financial move to get a cheaper rate. However, downtown is really where you want to be for all things food and entertainment, both pre and post-race, and the money I spent on Ubering back and forth basically equaled any cost I would have spent on a more expensive hotel rate downtown.

The Race:

I am not a morning person, but the energy on the morning of Nov. 2nd, 2019, was absolutely electric. I had never seen so many people in one place before outside of an event like a concert, and that's precisely what this felt like! It was a bit chilly starting off, so I'd recommend arriving with something long sleeved (you'll probably shed it soon after the start of the race as, well, it's Savannah and it warms up quick, even in November). I actually heard that any clothing discarded along the way is picked up and donated to the homeless shelters, so I went to Walmart the night before and bought a $10 sweatshirt to wear to the starting line and didn't have a second thought about tossing it when I warmed up.

When you first come out of the corral and cross the starting line, there is a slight hill over a bridge and then you are pretty much on flat terrain for the remainder of the half. The full, which I ran, runs into one or two more slight inclines with "on-ramps" but there was never anything that felt difficult or hard as far as elevation. The aide stations were appropriately spaced, and there were plenty of port-a-potties (most were clean, some had been destroyed by faster runners by the time I got to them). The volunteers at the aide stations were incredibly encouraging, cheering you on at each station you passed. The bands were also fun and encouraging, and cheered as well in-between songs as you passed them. Going down the chute toward the finish was awesome! Strangers lining both sides waiting on their own family members and friends to cross also cheered for everyone else, calling them out by name on the bib or according to what the announcer said as he called the runners in.

The Finish:

First, allow yourself to cry all the tears as they hang a well-earned medal around your neck because of the amazing thing you just accomplished! Then dry your eyes and keep it moving, because there are snacks galore! Bananas, Gatorade Endurance, and Chocolate Milk, oh my!! Tons of other snacks as well, and it was literally all you could carry. Volunteers just kept giving me things and I wasn't saying no. There were also some stations for photo ops at the finish, as well as an area to have your medal engraved with your finish time (which I did to commemorate the first full). The live music at the finish was great, and you end the race at the Fountain at Forsyth Park, which was a beautiful place to separate from the crowd and quietly sit and reflect on the amazing thing I had just accomplished.

Overall:

This race is perfect for all experience levels. With a 7 hour course limit and almost no significant elevation change, this is a great race for those looking to cut their teeth on running a marathon. The scenery along the route and the vibe that is Savannah, GA, is special enough to make it fun for veterans as well. I would for sure do this race again!

As an aside, there are some fantastic places to eat in the city if you've never been. Corleone's is a great spot to grab some pasta the night before, but get there early and expect a wait. The Double Tree on Bay Street also offered a pasta bar for it's guests. This is where I ate with friends who stayed at this hotel the night before, and the pasta bar was delicious and full of options! Vinnie Van GoGo's is in the square right behind the Double-Tree and has some of the best pizza! It's cash only, so be prepared for that. Of course, Paula Dean's Lady & Sons is a Savannah landmark, and not to far down the path from Vinnie's on W. Congress St. One of my absolute favorites in Savannah, however, is a place called Zunzi's. It's this unbelievable mix of South African, Dutch, Italian cuisine, and it does not disappoint. It's one of those places where you can close your eyes, point at anything on the menu, and you're going to enjoy it.

Happy Running!

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