Latest reviews by Tom

(2013)
"A Great Race Through a Historic City"
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T-Shirts/SWAG
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Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

Savannah is a beautiful little city on the east coast of Georgia that also happens to be very historically significant to the US as well as being the gateway to Tybee Island and Georgia's only beach. I had heard a lot of great things about Savannah (including the fact that in addition to Las Vegas and New Orleans, it's the only other city in the US that allows people to drink alcohol openly while walking around downtown). I didn't want to miss out on an opportunity to check it out.

Getting There / Where to Stay

Savannah Hilton Head Airport is about 20 minutes away from downtown Savannah so if you can find a flight into it, that will probably be your most convenient option. Flights into Hilton Head tend to be a bit pricey though and there's a limited number of airlines that fly there so scheduling might be a problem as well. If you're looking to save some money and have a few more flight options, check the flights into Jacksonville, Florida. It's about a 2 hour drive from Jacksonville to Savannah straight north along coast. Flying into Atlanta and taking an Amtrak train to Savannah is another option although trying to combine flight and rail schedules can also be a bit complicated.

Regardless of which airport you fly into, you'll probably need to rent a car to get around Savannah. Some of the race's host hotels have shuttles on race day but the expo is several miles away from the start and finish lines and there are a lot of attractions around the city that aren't walking distance from one another so driving is simply a more convenient way to get around.

As far as places to stay go, there are a number of bed and breakfasts in Savannah, some of which are close to historical areas like Forsyth Park, and others which are Antebellum and Victorian Style mansions and quite comfortable to stay in. The race is in November, which is a time of year when Savannah doesn't see a lot of tourism, so some of these may be worth looking into since the owners may be more open to negotiating lower prices. Otherwise, just like any other city, there are also a number of hotels around Savannah with varying price ranges. I found the host hotels for this race to be a bit expensive and while some of them are within a few blocks of the start line, the race doesn't start and finish in the same place, so there aren't as many benefits to staying at them as there are at some other races.

Race Expo and Organization

The race expo is at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center and is a little bit bigger than I would have expected for a race the size of Rock n Roll Savannah (which was a nice surprise - after I got my goodie bag I spent over an hour there checking out the various vendors and displays). The convention center is easy to find but it's a few miles away from downtown Savannah (and also on the other side of the Savannah river). If you have enough time afterwards, you can go for a walk along the river and check out some of the tall ships or have dinner on a riverboat cruise.

The start line of the course is pretty well organized. Runners are separated into corrals that start about a minute apart, and gear check, porta potties, medical tents and snacks are all easy to find both at the start line and along the course itself. My tip for race morning is to make sure to get there early and give yourself more time to find parking than you think you might need, especially if you aren't from Savannah. The streets get blocked off early on race morning and there are a limited number of parking lots and garages near the start line that are easily accessible. Most of the streets that remain open are one way streets too, so between the street closings and limited ability to go in the direction you want to go in, if you aren't familiar with the area, a single wrong turn could end up costing you a half hour delay while you try to find your way back to where you were originally intending on going.

Course

The course starts on Bay Street in front of the Savannah City Hall. It heads northwest down Bay Street, which runs alongside the Savannah River and through downtown Savannah before heading underneath the Talmadge Memorial Bridge and towards Bartow park where it takes a turn and heads south past a number of churches and through some residential areas. This part of the course isn't particularly scenic, but a lot of people come out of their houses to cheer for the runners, which makes it enjoyable.

The course eventually ends up back in downtown Savannah, passing by Pulaski Square, Lafyette Square, Troup Square, and Colonial Park Cemetery. Over the next few miles, runners pass a number of other historic buildings and parks until about mile 11 when the marathon and half marathon courses split. Runners doing the half head straight towards the finish line while the marathon runners do another loop which passes through Daffin Park, Hederman Park and the University of Savannah Campus. Both courses finish in Forsyth Park.

Savannah has a few rolling hills but the overall elevation gain for both courses is only in the double digits so neither one is particularly challenging. There's plenty of crowd support along both courses as well, particularly in the residential areas, and there are also plenty of local bands playing at various spots along the course to help runners stay motivated.

After the race, there's a big party in Forsyth Park where runners can get snacks and beer and listen to music.... although I actually thought it was more fun to walk around the park and check out all of the monuments. The park is beautiful, so no matter what you're interested in, the race organizers couldn't have picked a better spot to end the race.

Bling

I like the Rock n Roll Savannah race medal, although to be honest, it isn't one of my favorites. Being a Rock n Roll race, the medal is heavy and well constructed and definitely nicer than a lot of my other medals, but given Savannah's rich history and the number of historical locations around the city, I thought the design could have been a little bit more creative. The organizers of the Rock n Roll Marathon series tend to change their race medals from year to year though, so there's a good chance that 2013 was just an off year and Savannah is such a fun city to visit and run in that I wouldn't let the medal keep me from doing this race again. Interestingly enough, even though I wasn't a big fan of the medal, the technical shirt that came in my goodie bag is one of my favorite running shirts.

Overall, I thought that this was a great race in an awesome city. I was kinda bummed when it was time to leave Savannah and I ended up wishing that I had planned to spend more time there so I'll definitely have to go back at some point. Tybee Island is known for being a favorite spot for sea turtles to come up on the beach and lay their eggs in the spring so besides going back to do the race again, I may have to plan a spring trip to Savannah at some point as well.

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(2013)
"Tough Course.... Huge Finisher's Medal"
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Have you ever seen a race medal that's bigger around than a dinner plate and so heavy that wearing it around your neck for any extended period of time would most likely result in a visit to your local chiropractor? Would you like to add one to your collection? Well, if you're willing to head down to Little Rock, Arkansas and tough it out through one of the most challenging hilliest courses in the United States, you can have a medal like that for yourself. And while Little Rock isn't necessarily known for being a major tourist destination, there are a few hidden gems around the city that history buffs or anyone who grew up during Bill Clinton's presidency will find interesting along with a riverfront that has a number of good bars and restaurants, all of which will make spending a weekend there for a race an enjoyable experience.

The race expo is fairly typical for a race this size - it's held at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock (near the river front) and has around 70 vendors. The race has a different theme each year and the expo, race bibs, medals, course markers, and t-shirts are all decorated accordingly. The theme when I did it was "Get Lucky in Little Rock" and the race had a Southwestern theme with horseshoe shaped medals.

One other notable thing about this race is that it has an early start option. The race starts at 8:00 am and has a 6 hour time limit, but anyone who doesn't think they can finish it within the six hours can get a special pass at the expo to start at 6:00 am instead. I've never seen a race that did this before and I thought it was a pretty cool idea. Not everyone is a fast runner (and this is a tough course even for experienced runners), so allowing the early start gives anyone an opportunity to participate without having to make everyone get to the start line by 6:00 am.
Course

I don't know when (or even if) I'm ever going learn this, but signing up to run a race in a state that normally has warmer weather during the winter is no guarantee that race weekend won't be unseasonably cold. The exact same thing that happened to me during Rock n Roll Arizona in Phoenix and The Mercedes Half in Birmingham happened again in Little Rock: I was expecting temperatures to be in the mid to high 50's (which is typical for Little Rock in March) but they were in the low 30's on race day. I had thrown a long sleeve running shirt in my bag so at least I had that.... but judging by what all of the other runners were wearing as we all huddled together inside of the one restaurant along the riverfront that was open so early on race morning, I could tell that I wasn't the only person who had been expecting warmer weather. So just another reminder to runners: if you travel for a race, I don't care how warm it's supposed to be wherever it is that you're going, if it's winter, make sure you pack a set of warm running clothes just in case.

If I had to pick one word to describe the course itself, that word would be "hilly". The Little Rock Half Marathon course is probably the hilliest course I've ever done in my life (and my list of races includes Anchorage, Sedona, Seattle and San Francisco), and from what I've heard, the full marathon course is even hillier. So if you live in a place like Chicago that's fairly flat and you're planning on doing either of these races, make sure to work a lot of hill repeats into your training or else your quads and calves are going to feel like they're about to explode by the time you finish running.

Hills aside though, this is not a bad course. It starts out by heading down the river front towards the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and then zigzags through downtown Little Rock and past the Arkansas State Capitol Building before heading through some residential areas. Eventually it heads back towards downtown Little Rock and the finish line is about half a mile away from the start line.

Here's another thing to pay attention for on this course (besides the hills): around mile 11 the course heads up a hill and at the top of the hill is a giant house. When I did the race, I noticed that there was a guy standing outside of the front gates of this house giving some runners high fives and taking pictures with others who wanted to stop for a minute. It didn't dawn on me until after I had already run past that the guy I saw was the Governor of Arkansas (and the big house that I had just run past was the Governor's Mansion). I'm sure that people who live in Arkansas knew who he was (and I'm sure I would have figured it out sooner if I wasn't feeling loopy from having just run 11 miles) but my point here is that regardless of what your political beliefs are, stopping to take a picture or just say a quick hello to a governor on a race course is always a cool thing to do because you never know if somewhere down the line that person might go on to be elected to a higher office. So if you do the Little Rock Marathon or Half Marathon, remember to look for the Governor's mansion around mile 11 and if you don't want to stop for a picture at least run close enough to get a high five.

There's a big post race party at the finish line with plenty of music, food and beer, and I spent a few minutes checking it out, but I honestly didn't stick around very long. Not because it wasn't a good party but because not long after I finished running, it occurred to me that it was still pretty cold outside and that I wanted to get out of my cold, sweaty running clothes ASAP. This actually turned out to be ok though because I headed back to my hotel, showered, changed, and then headed back downtown... where a lot of the restaurants along the riverfront have food and drink specials for anyone wearing a race medal. So after the race I was happy to kick back and enjoy a burger and a beer while I watched a hockey game on TV inside of a nice warm restaurant.

While you're in town for the race, make sure you also stop by the Bill Clinton Presidential Library. It's only about a half mile walk from the convention center and well worth checking out, especially if you grew up in the 90's. It's only $7 to get in and you'll get a chance to relive some of the great historical moments from when Bill Clinton was the president (there were some that I had even forgotten about myself) and you'll also get to see the presidential limo and some items that were kept in the Oval Office and various other rooms at the White House as well as a lot of other information about Bill and Hillary Clinton from their college days so that you can get a better understanding of some of the events that helped to shape their political views. If you're looking for a way to spend the rest of your afternoon after picking up your race packet, this would be my choice for sure.

So overall - tough course.... huge medal.... I would say that that pretty much sums up my thoughts on Little Rock and the Marathon and Half Marathon. This is a race that's definitely not for beginners but if you're an experienced runner and you're looking for a challenge, you should add it to your bucket list (especially if your goal is to do a race in all 50 states). There are also some interesting historical things to see around Little Rock and did I mention that the finisher's medal is huge? I don't typically travel to the same places to do races more than once (mainly because the list of races I still have left to do is so long and seems to keep getting longer), but despite the tough hilly course and colder than average temperatures on race day, I'm still considering going back to Little Rock to do the full marathon just so I can get a dinner plate sized medal. Plus, even though my trip to Little Rock was short, I definitely enjoyed the couple days that I spent there.

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(2013)
"Great Race With Some Great Swag"
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I have to admit that I felt a little out of place the first time I went to Jackson, Mississippi. It was back in 2003 and my wife and I were visiting Memphis and decided to take a road trip down I-55 to see another city after we noticed that Jackson was only a couple hours away. I'm not really sure what I was expecting but I hadn't done very much traveling at that point and Jackson was different from a lot of the cities in northern states that I had been used to visiting. I don't mean that in a bad way - it's just that confederate flags, antebellum structures, statues of civil war generals and markers signifying historical moments in the civil rights movement aren't really common sights around Chicago. After that trip, I wasn't sure if I would ever go back to Jackson again or not, but when I heard about the Mississippi Blues Marathon almost 10 years later, I knew I was going to have to go run it just based on my love of blues music alone. I ended up being really happy that I did.

Good or bad, Jackson has a pretty lush history. A lot of what the city is known for is related to the civil war and ensuing civil rights movements (Jackson was home to a number of issues and struggles related to segregation), but what a lot of people might not be aware of, and what the Mississippi Blues Council has been working to shed more light on over the last several years, is that an extremely large number of blues musicians were either born in, died in, or can somehow trace various career highlights back to Jackson and other areas of Mississippi. In fact, more blues singers in the Blues Hall of Fame have come from Mississippi than from any other state (a few examples: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and Ike Turner).

The purpose of the Mississippi Blues Marathon is to highlight some of the rich blues history in and around Jackson and the course is specifically laid out to bring runners past a number of historical markers along the Mississippi Blues Trail. While this is not a huge race as far as the number of participants go, because of its uniqueness and reputation for being well organized and interesting, it's continuing to increase in popularity and seems to be getting bigger every year. In 2013, there were about 2000 runners total and there was a full or a half marathon course available to choose from. Since then a quarter marathon course has been added as well and there's also a relay and a kids race available.

As far as travel goes, Jackson has an international airport, so flying there is fairly easy. The one piece of advice I would give though is that if you're planning on flying, make sure you also rent a car. I didn't think I was going to need to when I went because Jackson is not a very big city (the population is around 175,000, which not only makes it a fraction of the size of a city like Chicago, but there are even a few Chicago suburbs (Aurora, Naperville, Joliet) that are close to the same size as downtown Jackson).... and while it's true that as long as you stay at one of the downtown hotels, you'll probably be able to walk to the expo, start line, finish line, and most of the other places you'll need to get to around the city, the airport is not very close to downtown. It was about a 40 minute ride from the airport to my hotel and I spent more money in cab fare getting to and from the airport than I would have spent on a rental car.

The race expo is in the Jackson Convention center and while it isn't very big, I would say that the size is appropriate for the number of runners (aside from the t-shirt and bib pickup tables, there were maybe 5 or 6 other tables with running gear, information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and a few more historical attractions around Jackson along with some other assorted types of merchandise).

There are two things that make the Mississippi Blues expo unique compared to any of the others I've been to though:

Just outside of the expo was an indoor stage where local bands were playing blues songs (both originals and covers of older ones) all day and once runners finished picking up their bibs and t-shirts, there were spots to sit and watch. There were some really talented musicians there so make sure you give yourself some extra time after the expo to check them out.
This race has the best goody bag I've ever received. In addition to the standard technical running shirt (which by itself was really cool looking), samples and brochures about other races and local attractions, the bag also contained a harmonica, guitar picks, and a compilation CD with songs from a bunch of local up and coming blues bands.
If you're looking for a good place to have a pre-race meal, there are a number of restaurants around downtown Jackson that offer discounts for runners the day before the race. Since I didn't have a car, my options were a little more limited, but after a quick stroll down some of the streets near the convention center, I was able to find a couple different options that looked pretty good. The only piece of advice I would give here is to make sure that you plan to go out for dinner early. A lot of the best restaurants in Jackson are smaller family owned places that don't have a lot of seating and will fill up pretty quickly. The wait at these places is definitely worth it, but if you're planning on going to bed early to get up for the race the next morning, you're going to want to make sure to give yourself enough time.

Getting around on race morning is pretty easy. The start and finish lines are both in downtown Jackson near the Mississippi Museum of Art, and it's fairly easy to find parking nearby (or like I said, if you stay at any of the downtown hotels, it's just a short walk). Another note - while the national anthem is played at the beginning of most races, you'll definitely want to make sure you get to your corral in time to hear this one - a local blues musician plays it on a guitar Jimi Hendrix style and the only word I can use to describe it is 'amazing'.

The course is a bit hilly - there's not much of an elevation gain between the start and finish lines but there are a lot of small rolling hills throughout pretty much the entire course. The course goes through Downtown Jackson, past some historical markers and buildings (like the Mississippi Capitol Building), and through the Jackson State University campus, and just like a lot of other races, the full and half marathon courses start and finish together and split apart and merge back together at various points. Like I mentioned earlier, the most interesting points along the course are all of the various historical markers and sites tied to blues music and musicians. There are also a number of blues bands at various points along the course as well. Some of them are selling CDs and if I had known that earlier I would have brought some cash with me on race day because most of the bands were really good.

The finisher's medal is also easily the coolest medal in my collection (and I suspect that anyone else that's done this race would say the same thing). The full and half marathon medals are slightly different and the design changes a little bit each year but basically the medals are all some form of a big blue guitar. Between the medal and the stuff in the goody bags, you'll be hard pressed to find a race with better swag.

The post race party features more blues music on an outdoor stage along with a big tent that runners can walk through with plates and fill them up with excellent southern cooking (mostly soul food). And then after the post race party, there's a Blues Crawl that runners and their friends and families can do later in the evening - this is basically a tour of about a half dozen or so blues bars around Jackson with free shuttle service to and from the hotels until midnight. Runners get wristbands that will get them into all of the bars for free and spectators can purchase extras for themselves.

If you like blues, this is definitely a race that you will not want to miss. Even if you're not a huge blues fan though, it's still a great course and I would also challenge anyone to not develop a deeper appreciation for blues music after running it. Besides that though, going back also gave me a deeper appreciation of the city of Jackson and its history. I would definitely be happy to go back and run this one again.

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(2012)
"Fun Race in a Fun City"
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I've always wanted to do a race on my birthday, so when I saw that the 2012 Rock n Roll New Orleans Half Marathon was scheduled to be held on March 4th, I signed up immediately. The chance to run on my birthday and have the race be in New Orleans? Yes please.

Rock n Roll New Orleans is actually an older race than a lot of people outside of New Orleans might realize. It was originally an independent race called the Mardi Gras Marathon that was hosted by the New Orleans Track team until Competitor Group took it over in 2010 and added it to their Rock n Roll Marathon series. Competitor group helped to make the race a lot more popular and brought in a few changes as far as the organization goes, but the overall theme of the original race is still the same. The race is scheduled to coincide roughly with Mardi Gras each year (it's held two weekends before Fat Tuesday - holding it a week later would be tough for street closures since that would be right in the middle of all the Mardi Gras celebrations), and the entire race is Mardi Gras themed and gives runners a pretty good feel for New Orleans.

Getting there / Where to Stay

Here's a travel tip in case you're ever planning on flying into New Orleans (anytime, not just for the race): Before you book your flight, check to see how much it would cost to fly into Baton Rouge instead. Baton Rouge is a little over an hour north of New Orleans and renting a car and commuting between the two cities is really easy (it's a straight shot down I-10 which includes a pretty long stretch across Lake Pontchartrain so the drive is nice and scenic too).

Flights in and out of Baton Rouge are typically hundreds of dollars cheaper than flights into New Orleans. In fact, to give you an idea of exactly how much cheaper: after the race I was driving behind a truck on my way back to the airport and a rock flew up and cracked the windshield on my rental car. This was unfortunate, but even with the extra 200 bucks I had to shell out to get the windshield fixed, I still ended up spending less money on travel expenses than I would have spent if I had flown directly into New Orleans. So do yourself a favor and take a look at the fare differences when you're ready to start planning your trip.

As far as hotels go, it's fairly easy to find a place to stay in New Orleans. The Mississippi River runs through the city and hotels to the west of the river tend to be a little bit cheaper than the ones on the East Side but they aren't as close to all of the attractions within the city and getting across the bridge that goes over the river can take some time when traffic builds up during rush hour (and on race morning as well - something to keep in mind). I stayed at the Holiday Inn New Orleans West Bank Tower in Gretna which is on the west side of the river and I was happy with the hotel overall. I thought that the building and the rooms were really nice for the price I paid. I've also stayed at hotels that are right along Bourbon Street in the past too though, and even though they were a bit pricey, they were also walking distance from a lot of the restaurants and bars in the city. So where you stay really is a matter of preference - less money vs more convenient.

Race Expo and Organization

The expo is fairly typical for a Rock n Roll race - big with a lot of vendors offering free samples of sports drinks, info about other races, gear for sale, etc.... The process is almost always the same: sign your waiver, find your name among the thousands of participant names that are listed out on several sheets of paper and stapled to a big board outside the expo entrance to figure out your race number, walk inside and get in line to pick up your bib, and then grab a goodie bag (which also doubles as a gear check bag), a t-shirt, and help yourself to some free samples of sun block and biofreeze before walking through the merchandise area and then heading out to check out the other vendors.

The start line is divided up into several corrals that leave about 90 seconds apart. There were plenty of signs at the start line to let runners know where to go for gear check, porta-potties, and how to find their corrals. The mile markers along the course were easily visible, and there wasn't any difficulty figuring out when to turn and where the full marathon course split off. The finisher's corral was also pretty typical: cross the finish line, get your medal, take an official race photo and grab some snacks before heading out of the corral to pick up your gear, meet up with your friends and family and grab a beer or a bite to eat.

Everything seemed to go off without a hitch - a lot of Rock n Roll Marathons can seem a bit cookie cutter at times, but the folks at Competitor Group do tend to do a pretty good job when it comes to organizing their races.

Course

If you take a quick glance at the elevation chart for this course, you might think that it's super hilly... until you look at the scale and realize that the total net gain of about is only about 10 feet. All the up and down lines in the elevation chart are more like bumps than hills - this course is extremely flat and fast. The biggest hill is between mile 7 and 9 when the elevation goes from three feet above sea level to eleven.

The course has kind of an odd shape. It starts near Lafyette Square in downtown New Orleans, heads down Poydras Street, turns a couple times and then hits the first mile marker right around Lee Circle. From there mile 2 through 8 are pretty much an out and back course with a turnaround at Audobon Park in between miles 4 and 5. This part of the course goes through some of the older neighborhoods in New Orleans and runners get to see a few historical markers along with a number of old Antebellum style homes. After mile 8, the course heads back past the starting area and veers off towards the Mississippi River. The next couple miles go along the river and through part of the French Quarter before making a sharp turn at Mile 10 and finishing with a 3.1 mile run down Esplanade Avenue towards the finish line which is in front of the Museum of Art in the New Orleans City Park.

This race has a good amount of crowd support, especially in the residential areas. Typical of New Orleans, a lot of spectators toss beads to the runners or hand them out. A funny thing that I noticed while I was running were the number of beads hanging from tree branches in peoples' front yards. Since this race is held before Fat Tuesday, there haven't been any Mardi Gras parades yet so any beads that were there at the time had to have been left over from the parades of previous years. I guess some strands of beads get thrown so high up that they end up getting stuck on the higher tree branches forever (or at least until the tree gets pruned). Anyway, that was just one of those little things I noticed that kept me amused while I was running.

Aside from the spectators, there's also plenty of live music along the course - all local bands, and a nice variety of different genres. Even in the spots where there weren't a lot of spectators, there always seemed to be music to keep the runners pumped.

Rock n Roll Marathons tend to have pretty nice finishers medals that are decent sized, sold, and have some type of design on them that represents the city where the race is being held. This one is no different. Even though the race isn't officially called the Mardi Gras Marathon anymore, it still has a Mardi Gras theme which the medals are always made to coincide with. In 2012, the medal was round with a fleur de lis in the middle and traditional Mardi Gras Colors (Purple, Green, and Gold). It was also hung on a strand of beads as opposed to the traditional neckband that most race medals have. It's definitely one of my cooler looking race medals.

The finish line of the race is in New Orleans City Park, which is quite large so it's also home to a fairly big post race party. There's plenty of food, water, and beer available and some good live music as well.

The start and finish lines are in different locations so runners park at the start line and then take shuttle buses back to the start line after the race. There were plenty of shuttle buses available and there wasn't a very long wait to get on them but the only thing that I would probably change about the way the post race festivities were organized is that the buses were pretty far from the actual finish line and the path to get to them wasn't very well marked (that also could have just been a case of me not paying close enough attention too though). Once I finally made it to the shuttle bus though, it was a pretty short ride back to my car.

Overall Thoughts

This is a fun race in a beautiful city. New Orleans does still have some lingering issues since Hurricane Katrina hit, but for the most part the city has come back nicely and it's a great place to visit. The race is well organized too and with the Mardi Gras theme, great food, and great music, I'm really having trouble thinking of any downsides to doing this one. If you're looking for a good race to do in Louisiana, you should definitely add it to your bucket list.

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(2012)
"Great Southern Race"
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The Mercedes Marathon is a pretty popular race. A lot of people are familiar with it because of its ultra cool looking Mercedes logo medal, but there's actually a lot more than just the bling that makes it worth running. It's a genuinely enjoyable race that's well organized and held in a city that's easy to get around in (you really don't even need to rent a car - more on that below). It's also run by a group of people who exemplify the southern charm that visitors from from other areas often hear about.

The race website lists two host hotels - the Sheraton and the Westin. These hotels are next door to one another and they're both about a five minute walk from the race expo, start line, finish line, and post race party (so there's really no need to rent a car if you stay at one of these hotels). I stayed at the Sheraton and I really enjoyed it, but I'm sure either hotel is fine - they both offer pretty significant discounts for runners when you book your room, make sure you mention that you're planning on being in town for the race.

The Sheraton has a sports bar in the lobby, which was where a lot of runners ate dinner the night before the race and they also offered fruit and bagels to the runners in the lobby on race morning. Another benefit of the hotel being so close to the start line is that in 2012 the temperatures on race day were a little cooler than average (the normal highs are in the 40's and 50's but this particular year the high was only in the mid 20's), so most of the runners stayed inside the hotel lobby, ate breakfast, stretched, and waited until about 10 minutes before the start of the race to head over to the start line. We all made it with plenty of time to spare.

This is probably one of the most well organized races I've done and all of the volunteers were amazingly friendly (southern hospitality). Even though I didn't drive, there was plenty of parking available for anyone who did, and there are also more than enough taxis and public transportation options for anyone who doesn't stay at one of the two host hotels.

The expo is at Boutwell Auditorium and it's medium sized with an average number of vendors. Aside from all of the running gear and sports drink vendors, the Birmingham Track Club also had a big table where they were selling running shirts for $5 or less. I bought a long sleeve one because I needed something to wear over my regular running shirt at the start line. I originally planned on throwing it away after the start of the race but I liked it so much that I ended up keeping it.

My recommendation for this race would be to skip the full marathon and stick with the half. And the reason for that is because the full marathon course is a double loop where you essentially just do the half marathon twice. The race is a Boston qualifier though and the full marathon medals are a little bit bigger than the ones for the half (and they're gold instead of silver) so there are some benefits to doing the full, but unless you're specifically trying to qualify for Boston, I'm not sure if those benefits are really enough to make it worth re-running the same 13.1 mile loop twice. The half marathon course is nice though - it passes by most of the biggest attractions in Birmingham like the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Institute, the Alabama Theater, the Five Points South District, and it also runs through the campus of UAB, and passes a number of parks with a lot of open spaces. The course is pretty hilly and there are also a couple fairly big hills - one from mile 6-8 and another from mile 9-10 (so if you do the full marathon course you have to do these twice).

Crowd support is decent. There are a lot of people who come out to the start and finish lines to cheer for the runners and there are also various spots along the course that have pretty good sized crowds as well. The parts of the course that go through some of the local neighborhoods have a number of people who come out of their houses to cheer on the runners. That being said though, there are also some "lonely" areas where you'll run for a while without really seeing any spectators. I have a feeling that the cooler temps may have caused a few potential spectators to stay indoors the year I ran it too though.

I know that the finisher's medal is one of the main reasons that people (myself included) sign up for the Mercedes Marathon. But one of the things I've been trying to do in this review is describe all of the other things that are good about the race besides just the finisher's medal. And there are a lot of them.... but truth be told, it is a really cool looking medal. The race is sponsored by Mercedes (there's a big Mercedes plant just outside of Birmingham) and the medal is a big Mercedes logo (gold for full marathoners and silver for half marathoners). Besides the guitar medal I got for doing the Mississippi Blues Half Marathon, this is probably the one that elicits the most comments when people look at my medal collection and it's definitely one of my favorites.

Normally I'm not a big fan of post race parties. I don't mind sticking around for a few minutes after a race to find my friends and grab a beer or a quick bite to eat from one of the food tents with them, but for the most part, after I cross the finish line, the next thing I want to do is get outta there so I can go take a shower and change into some dry clothes. In this case though, I'd recommend not skipping the post race party. Not only is the food excellent (the party is catered by Jim N' Nick's BBQ) but there's good music, a southern belle competition, and some awesome giveaways for overall winners and age group winners. For everyone else, there's a big raffle based on race numbers (so make sure you bring your number to the party) with a big enough prize to attendee ratio that your chances of winning are going to be pretty high. I won a Kindle Fire in the raffle and that was actually one of the smaller things that they were giving away.

Like I mentioned earlier, with the course being a double loop, you'll probably just want to stick with the half marathon for this one, but the overall experience was great. If you're looking for a nice laid back race to do where everything is conveniently located and doesn't require a lot of pre-race running around along with a great post-race party, you should definitely consider this one..... and of course you can't beat the bling.

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