Latest reviews by Tom Leddy
It's been over a week since I finished the Run Crazy Horse Half Marathon. I still can't stop thinking about what an awesome experience it was. In fact, I have so many good things to say about this race that I'm not even sure where to start.
How about with a quick history lesson:
Crazy Horse was a Native American Chief of the Oglala Lakota. He led battles against the United States government for encroaching on the territories and way of life of his people. Among his most famous victories is the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Unfortunately, after that battle, a rough cold winter weakened his army. Crazy Horse decided to surrender in 1877 to protect his people. He turned himself over to US troops and lived in local village for about four months. There, he was stabbed in the back and killed by a US Soldier.
Crazy Horse is commemorated by the Crazy Horse Memorial. This large mountain carving is located about 10 miles Southwest of Hill City, SD in Black Hills National Forest. Construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial began in 1948. A Lakota Elder named Henry Standing Bear asked a sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski to build a sculpture to commemorate Native American heroes the way that Mt. Rushmore commemorates white American heroes. The Memorial is still a work in progress, with no definite end date. However, it's funded entirely through private donations, and when complete, it will be the largest sculpture in the world.
The half marathon consists of a point to point course, which starts on the Crazy Horse Memorial grounds and finishes in downtown Hill City. Between the elevation and rolling hills during the first three miles, I thought I was going to be in for a rough morning. If you run this race, you'll likely feel the same. The beginning of the course is challenging. That said though, the hills really aren't as bad as they seem. The elevation gain between the start line and the highest point is only 171 feet. Being 6000 feet above sea level is what makes them feel a lot tougher than they really are. But there are two excellent reasons to ignore them and keep pushing forward:
First, this part of the course loops through the memorial grounds. Just past the first mile marker, you'll get an up close view of the memorial. In fact, the you'll get even closer than the paid tours go. Look up and take in the natural beauty of the area and you'll forget about the hills.
Next, starting just after mile 3, the rest of the course is downhill. End to end, the course has a net elevation loss of almost 1000 feet. Even better, the decline happens gradually over the entire remaining 10 miles. So if we do the math, that's only an average of about a 100 foot drop per mile. This means that instead of the knee pounding ultra steep downhills I've seen on other courses, this is a nice slow gradual decline. I felt like I could keep on running forever.
The net downhill isn't the only good thing about this course. After leaving the memorial grounds, most of the remainder of the race on the George S. Mickelson Trail. The Mickelson Trail is a 108 mile long converted rail trail that runs from Edgemont to Deadwood, SD. The section the race covers is a nice wide packed dirt trail with plenty of shade. It also offers beautiful views of spruce and aspen trees (which are bright yellow this time of year). Runners also get to see streams, horses, farms, bridges and a variety of other beautiful sights.
At the end of the course there's a finish line festival with beer and refreshments in downtown Hill City. Weather in South Dakota can be hit or miss in October but this year it was perfect for running. This was the first time I'd ever finished a half marathon wishing I had registered for the full. I could have easily run another 13 miles surrounded by that scenery.
In addition to the beautiful course, the race is also well organized. Packet pickup is a straightforward process at the Boys & Girls Club of Hill City. On race day, runners have plenty of options as far as logistics go:
- Park at the finish line early and take a shuttle bus to the start line.
- Park at the start line and take a bus to the finish line after the race.
- Shuttle service is also available from some of the hotels and campgrounds in the area.
I parked at the finish line. The only downside was that I had to wait about 10 minutes for the bus to bring me back after the race. The upside was that after I got back to my car, I was able to take some pics with my medal in front of the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Getting There / Where to Stay
If you don't live in the area, the easiest way to get there is to fly into Rapid City. Hill City is about a 45 minute drive from the Rapid City Regional Airport.
When it comes to hotels, there are a few nearby towns in the area that you can stay in:
- Hill City
- You can also stay in Rapid City, which is the biggest city in the area, but if you do, you'll have a long drive to get to the start line on race morning.
For as small as the towns in the area are, they have a surprisingly large number of hotels. This is mainly because of their proximity to the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore and some of the other local attractions. It's also because the area is close to Sturgis. Hotels for miles around sell out during Bike Week.
Things to do on Race Weekend
You won't have a hard time finding things to do in the area during race weekend. I was there for four days and easily could have stayed another week. Here are a few options:
The Crazy Horse Memorial. Something important to note is that there's much more here than just the monument itself. There's also a Native American History museum, a restaurant and other attractions.
Mt. Rushmore is less than 20 miles away from the Crazy Horse memorial. The drive between the two is also beautiful and has plenty of places to stop and hike, take pictures or go rock climbing.
Custer State Park offers plenty of opportunities to see the wildlife that the Western United States is known for. During an hour drive through the park's Wildlife Loop, I saw Wild Turkeys, Mule Deer, White Tail Deer, Buffalo, Antelope and Donkeys.
Iron Mountain Road runs between Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park. It climbs 17 miles through stacked loops of wooden bridges and one lane tunnels. It also offers amazing scenic views.
Wind Cave National Park is just South of Custer State Park and is known for its 140+ mile underground wind cave and impressive calcite formations.
Badlands National Park is a little bit further out but well worth the trip as it contains amazing canyons, spires and towering rock formations.
There are also a number of museums and other attractions in the surrounding cities (Presidential Wax Museum, Reptile Gardens, Dinosaur Museum, etc.).
The Run Crazy Horse Half was my 55th Half Marathon. I've traveled all over the world for races and seen some amazing areas. There are a number of places I'd like to run in again, but since I still have so many more places to run, I'm pretty selective about where I go back to. This is definitely one that I'll be running again though. In fact, I think next time I'll be running the full marathon so I can spend more time enjoying this beautiful course.
I've run this race a number of times and thought that this year's course was the best one so far.
- Started at Monroe Harbor
- Headed south on the Lakefront Trail
- Did a loop through Grant Park
- Headed back North alongside the lake
- Finished back at Monroe Harbor
This year's course:
- Started in Grant Park
- Headed North on Columbus Drive
- Turned left on Randolph and headed towards the lakefront
- Headed south on the lakefront path (Mile 2 was the same as Mile 1 from the old course)
- Crossed under the bridge at Roosevelt Road and headed back North along Lake Shore Drive past Buckingham Fountain
- Finished back in Grant Park
While parts of the two courses are almost identical, one of the key differences is that this year's course provided a lot more shade for runners. This came in handy since temperatures warmed up significantly between the start and finish. Also, with the finish line being in Grant Park, runners didn't have to cross Lake Shore Drive get to the post race party like they did in previous years. The finisher's medals had a nice Chicago Theatre theme.
Most importantly, the 2015 Rock n Roll Chicago 5K was the first race my daughter Sara and I ran together. We ran this one together too. It was a nice way to celebrate our running anniversary.
I was expecting to finish the day in pain. I looked at the elevation chart for the Mad Half Marathon and saw two giant hills. Not only that, but less than 24 hours earlier, I ran the Old Port Half Marathon in Portland, ME. The prospect of all the hills and running combined with a 3 1/2 hour drive between the two cities led to visions of searing quads and throbbing calf muscles dancing in my head.
But somehow, I felt fine on race morning. Maybe it was the break between the two races. It could have also been that the beautiful Vermont scenery was so motivational that I didn't think about anything else. Or maybe I just trained really well and was better prepared than I thought. Maybe it was a combination of all of those things. In any case, I ended up leaving the Mad Half Marathon feeling better than I have in a long time.
The Mad Marathon (and half marathon) is in Vermont's mad river valley (hence the name of the race). A lot of 50 states marathoners and half marathoners travel from all over the US to do this course. Many of them are attracted to the natural beauty of the area. Runners of both the half and full marathon courses get to see:
Parts of the Appalachian Mountains.
This course is a bit challenging for someone who is used to running in a nice flat city like Chicago but I wouldn't want that to discourage anyone from running it. It's a stunningly beautiful course.
The first mile is mostly downhill, but the entire second mile is a steep uphill climb. I found myself chatting with some other runners and making the best of it during this point. Nobody seemed to mind the climb very much.
For as steep as the climb was at mile 2, mile 3 was almost straight downhill. Running it made me feel like superman with the wind at my back. I also made back most of the time I had lost during the previous mile. Mile 4 was fairly flat. It went through a covered bridge and then to a turnaround point for half marathoners about a half mile down the road. Full marathoners kept going straight at this point.
Even though the course turned around and went back towards the start line at this point, I was happy to not have to climb all the way back up to the top of the big hill. About halfway up, there's a turnoff with another small out and back, followed by another turnoff that brings half marathoners into mile 7 and marathoners into mile 10. There's a nice decline at this point followed by another incline which is a lot more gradual than the first one.
At mile 10 of the half marathon and 12 of the full, the runners split off again. Marathoners head to the left to do a bigger loop while half marathoners head to the right and towards the finish line. This part of the course is nothing short of amazing. Not only is the scenery stunning (mountains, round barns, horses and more), but from about mile 9.8 to mile 12.2, the course is almost entirely downhill.
I found myself in a bit of a dilemma at this point. Downhill running is nice and fast... but isn't necessarily better than uphill running. Especially at steep angles. Running steep uphills pushes your cardiovascular system to its limits. Running steep downhills pounds your quads, calves and knees.
I debated holding back to save my legs but then something occurred to me: I had just over three miles left to go in the second of back to back half marathons. And not only was I not worn out but I was actually feeling great. I still had plenty of energy to spare and even if the steep downhill destroyed my legs, I knew I would have enough gas left in the tank to power through the rest of the course. I decided to go for it. I flew down the hill like a lightning bolt.
The second half of mile 12 is slightly uphill but this hill is nowhere near as rough as the ones on some other parts of the course. Knowing at the finish line is waiting for you at the top is a nice motivation to push hard to the end. The finisher's corral is designed to look like a miniature covered bridge and race director Dori Ingalls waits at the other side and gives each runner a hug after they get their covered bridge themed medals.
I felt great when I crossed the finish line and I couldn't have been happier with my finishing time. I loved having the opportunity to run on such a beautiful course. I also loved doing back to back half marathons and not feeling like I was going to die at the end of the second one.
The post race party was nice too. Runners get treated to locally made apple cider, donuts, fruit, beer and a variety of other snacks. I had to get back to Boston to catch my flight so I didn't stick around as long as I could have but I enjoyed the time I got to spend there. As a note, if you're planning to travel to Vermont for this race there are a few options. You can fly into one of the regional airports in the area but your best bet will probably be to fly into Manchester, NH (a little more than an hour away) or Boston (about 2 1/2 hours away but probably more flight options).
Overall, this was an excellent race. I'd love to go back to Vermont and run it again. In fact, I'd love to go back to Vermont and do some more exploring in general. Thanks to Dori and her crew for putting together such a great event.
I needed a race like this. It was chilly. It was overcast. It was rainy. My shoes and clothes were completely soaked by the time I crossed the finish line. And I loved every minute of it.
If running a half marathon in chilly and rainy conditions sounds like a miserable experience, let's compare that to some of my other races over the last several months:
<li>Honolulu Marathon: 100 degrees, infrequent water stops and I saw dozens of runners passing out and being whisked away by medical personnel during the second half of the course.
<li>Garmin Half Marathon: Unseasonably warm, humid temperatures and full sun. This wasn't terrible (I think the high was in the upper 70's) but the conditions were enough to make for an uncomfortable race. Especially for someone who ran it dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
<li>Buffalo Marathon: springtime highs in Buffalo, NY average in the 60's. On race day, the temperature got up to 96.
<li>Grandma's Marathon: sometimes Duluth still has snow on the ground in June. This year the heat index on race day was 105. The race was black flagged and over 2000 runners didn't finish.
By the second half of Grandma's, I began wondering to myself if I would ever have a chance to run another race that didn't turn into a scorching hot death march.
And to be fair, race directors never have any control over the weather. The best they can do is hope for the best and do what they can to mitigate weather related risks on race day. Despite the mild temperatures on race day, the Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon race directors had to do this as well. They moved their post race party indoors to avoid the rain. As far as the race itself went though, running on a slightly rainy, overcast day felt positively refreshing.
The Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon has two course options: a half marathon and a 5K. It's located in Portland, Maine, which Maine's largest city (and whose metropolitan area makes up almost 1/3 of the entire population of the state. Portland is just over 100 miles north of Boston and is known for its scenic coastline and islands. It's also the home to Shipyard Brewing company, which sponsors the race.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the Old Port Half Marathon is that its organizers rely heavily on runner feedback to plan their event. Everything from the music played at the start and finish lines to the post race festivities to the free race photos are all based on survey results and website selections.
The most notable runner request is that race T-Shirts aren't included in registration fees. You can opt to pay extra for a shirt when you sign up for the race, or you can buy one at the expo but you won't automatically get one if you don't request it. This is genius. I do so many races that even though I donate a couple dozen t-shirts to charity every year, I still have more than I know what to do with. So I skipped the t-shirt and bought a poster at the race expo instead. Since I didn't have to pay for a t-shirt, this race had one of the least expensive half marathon registration fees I've ever paid.
Another cool thing the race directors offered is the RaceJoy mobile app. This app is available for Android and iOS devices and also works with multiple races. I'm guessing the creators just charge a fee to race directors to have their races listed in it... It's probably the most useful race tracking app I've seen so far. It offers live tracking, course information, updates from race directors and integrated messaging. I kept it on my phone after the race because I found out that a few other races that I'm planning on doing this year are also using it.
The course itself was beautiful. It's a looped course that starts alongside the water at Portland's Ocean Gateway Terminal. The course brings runners along the waterfront, through parts of downtown Portland, past Shipyard Brewery, alongside Casco Bay and past lobster boats, sailboats, islands, parks and trails.
The course is mostly flat, but it contains two steep inclines. The first one starts at mile 2, where the course not only heads uphill, but changes direction several times by rounding a series of corners that almost feel like steep switchbacks on a hiking trail. The second is at mile 6, where the incline is about the same but the course is straight so it's easier to see the top. These are the two most challenging parts of the course. The rest is either downhill or flat other than a really short incline around mile 10.
There are plenty of water stations alongside the course and the crowd support is pretty good as well. There are a lot of spectators in the downtown sections of the course and after about mile 11, the crowds get thicker and thicker as runners approach the finish line. The final half mile of the course goes past the Portland Train Museum where spectators pack into old commuter trains to cheer on the runners. The race finishes back at Ocean Gateway Terminal.
The medal is decent sized, round, and has a nice design of a sailboat on it. Since the race is sponsored by a brewing company, the medal also doubles as a bottle opener.
The Post Race Party was a fun filled pizza, beer and music fest. The only downside to this year's race was that the weather forecast originally called for storms so the race directors moved it inside where things a little bit cramped at times. It did rain off and on throughout the morning, but it wasn't as bad as the forecasts said it would be and the party probably could have stayed outside. It's better to be safe than sorry with stuff like that though and it was still a lot of fun either way.
So overall, this was a fun race with a scenic course and great temperatures in a really nice city. It's been a while since I could say that I genuinely enjoyed a race as much as I enjoyed this one. When I crossed the finish line, I felt like I could have easily run a few more miles.
I opted to run the Rock n Roll Chicago 10K course instead of the Half Marathon. Last year I wrote a review for the half marathon where I called out the race organizers for putting together a shoddy event that didn't consider runner safety in the hot weather. I didn't want to run the half again and I figured a 10K would be a nice compromise. That way I'd still be able to do the race while also avoiding heatstroke.
Interestingly, a lot has changed over the past year. Competitor Group was recently taken over by its lenders after struggling to repay its loans. The company's financial issues stem from years of flat or declining attendance at its events. So management is attempting to rebuild the connections it used to have with its participants. This (hopefully) means finally starting to listen to the concerns that we've been voicing.
I'm happy to say that this year's event was much better overall. The race organizers unveiled improved courses and clearly took weather into consideration throughout the entire weekend. They also provided better entertainment.
Race weekend kicked off with a health and fitness expo at McCormick Place on Friday and Saturday. The expo was laid out the same as it has been in previous years:
- Race Number and Packet Pickup at the entrance
- A Rock n Roll Marathon / Brooks Merchandise area
- Four aisles with about 50 vendors selling gear and advertising other races
Saturday morning there was a 5K in Grant Park (which I've written a separate review for).
On Sunday morning, the Half Marathon and 10K races start together. Both courses start in Grant Park and head north on Columbus Drive for about a half mile before taking a right turn and heading towards the lake. The two courses split just before the one mile marker. The 10K course heads south on the Lakefront Path while the Half Marathon course heads North. From there:
- The 10K course continues south past the Museum Campus, Soldier Field and McCormick Place.
- Just past mile 3, the course has a turnaround point and heads back North.
- The two courses join back together around mile 4 (10K) / 11 (Half).
- Both courses head through the Lakeside Center tunnel and then head back towards Columbus
- Both finish lines are in Grant Park
This was a fun course. And since it started at 6:30am (to avoid the heat), I was across the finish line and drinking beer with my friends by 8. A thunderstorm interrupted our celebration for a short time but we didn't let it stop us from enjoying the rest of the morning.
The storm also postponed the race for people who were still out running. Race officials directed anyone still on the course to seek shelter for about 25 minutes until the storm passed. I'm not sure if the race organizers stopped the clock or if peoples finishing times suffered. That said though, I got the impression that despite the weather, everyone had a good time.
The 10K and Half Marathon medals are almost identical. They both have an image of the new Navy Pier Ferris Wheel and are the same size and color. The only difference is that the name of the race is etched on the front. Anyone who runs both the 5K on Saturday and either race on Sunday also gets a bonus medal.
Cheers to Competitor Group for making so many improvements. I thought all of the changes were great and I enjoyed this year's race more than I was expecting to. I'll be back next year for sure.