Latest reviews by Tom
For anyone that's wondering what a Mini Marathon is: it's a half marathon. The only two races I've done that were called mini marathons were in Louisville and Indianapolis so I'm not sure if the name is a regional thing or where it actually originated. I've heard that there are a few other half marathons that are occasionally referred to as "minis" as well though, so if you ever see one of them advertised, keep in mind that the distance is still the standard 13.1 miles and the race is the same as any other half.
Louisville is not a big city, but it is pretty easy to get to. It has an international airport that's conveniently located, and if you live in the midwest, a drive from Chicago, Nashville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, or Cincinnati will only take a few hours. The biggest tip that I can give you if you're traveling to Louisville for this race is to book your hotel room as early as you can. The race is a week before the actual Kentucky Derby but since it's part of the overall Kentucky Derby Festival, there are a lot of other events in and around Louisville besides the race throughout the week, so hotel rooms are at a premium and tend to fill up way in advance.
The race expo is at the Kentucky International convention center on the Thursday and Friday before the race. It has about 50 vendors, which is a good number for a race of this size. In addition to the standard race t-shirt and other giveaways, the goodie bag also includes two tickets to the Kentucky Oaks, which is a race for thoroughbred fillies held on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby each year. So if you're planning on staying for the entire week or going back for the Derby the following weekend, you and a guest can get into that event for free.
The course is a loop that starts and finishes near the South Great Lawns on the Louisville Riverfront. The course is a bit hilly, but not terrible - a beginner could still do this one with the right amount of training. It's also scenic and offers views of some of the best attractions around Louisville along with a mixture of downtown and suburban areas which have really nice Victorian architecture and some amazing looking historic churches. The course passes by Louisville Slugger Field fairly early on and miles 6, 7, 9, and 10 for the Mini go through the University of Louisville Campus. The biggest attraction of the race is probably mile 8, which is a loop through the infield at Churchill Downs. After leaving Churchill Downs the full and mini courses split. The mini heads back north towards the finish line while the full heads south and does a loop around Iroquois Park before heading back north towards the finish.
This course is also pretty well known for having a lot of crowd support. The majority of the crowds can be found in the downtown areas near the start and finish lines but there are a number of spectators and volunteers who line the streets throughout the course. There's also a big party at the finish line along with an big carnival with games and rides, which is one of the things that makes race weekend really kid friendly.
For obvious reasons, the medal for this race always has a theme that's related to the Kentucky Derby. In the past, it's been shaped like a horse, a horseshoe, the Churchill Downs facade or something similar. In 2011, the medal was all silver with a winged horse on it. Even though it isn't the most colorful medal I own, it still has a really classy look and I like it a lot.
A nice thing about Louisville is that even for its size, it's still a fairly compact city that's easy to get around in without a car if you stay downtown. Even though my hotel was on the other side of the city, it was only about a 15 minute walk from the start and finish lines on race day. Churchill Downs and the Convention Center where the expo were close by too and I never had problems finding places to eat that were within walking distance either. That being said though, there are a lot of good attractions to check out on the outskirts of the city too, so depending on what your plans for the weekend are, you might still want to rent a car.
Overall, there's a really good reason that the Kentucky Derby Mini Marathon is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 100 races by USA Track and Field. The course is a bit hilly and challenging, but it's also scenic and has a ton of crowd support and the overall event is organized really well. Plus. with so much going on during the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, there's no doubt that any runners who travel to Louisville for race weekend will have an awesome time finding things to do in and around the city during race weekend (Louisville Slugger Bat Museum, Kentucky Derby Museum, Kentucky Bourbon Trail Tours, etc...). I would definitely recommend this race to anyone that's interested in checking it out, and my other piece of advice would be to not plan on going to Louisville just for the race, but to make sure you take a few extra days to enjoy the atmosphere and some of the other attractions that the city has to offer leading up to the Derby.
Myrtle Beach is a city on the northeastern coast of South Carolina and is a fairly popular tourist destination during the spring and summer months, mainly because of it's 60 miles of uninterrupted coastline. Summers are typically hot and humid, but in February, with an average temperature of 58 degrees and low humidity, conditions are perfect for hosting a marathon.
The Myrtle Beach Marathon is a medium sized race (about 5000 runners total divided up between the full and half marathons and a marathon relay), and there's also an interesting benefit to the time of year that it's held - February is considered to be the off season in Myrtle Beach, so there really aren't very many tourists visiting during race weekend. Most of the people you'll see in the hotels, restaurants, and shops around town will be people who are also in town for the race - it's almost like having a big group of runners taking over the entire town for themselves.
As far as getting to Myrtle Beach goes, there is a small airport there, but it's mostly for propeller planes and smaller private planes which will limit your options as far as flying in directly. If you don't live in the area, your best bet is probably to fly into Charleston, SC and rent a car. The drive from Charleston to Myrtle Beach is about 2 hours and it's fairly scenic so the time will go by pretty quickly.
As long as you book your room early enough, places to stay will be easy to find and also pretty inexpensive (mainly because of it being February - I'm sure that hotel rooms are a lot more expensive during the summer months but I was able to get a room with a full kitchen and a sliding glass door that opened onto the beach for about $100 per night). There's a line of hotels alongside the beach and a number of shuttle stops on the boulevard that connects them all where runners can pick up buses that will transport them to and from the start line on race day so you can pretty much pick any hotel on the beach and not go wrong.
Since tourist season hasn't started yet, it's easy to stand outside in the mornings and watch the sunrise over the ocean in the or walk up and down the beach collecting sea shells without really being disturbed by anyone. It's a really peaceful thing to do. The only downside is that even though it's South Carolina, it's still February, so the temperatures can be a bit chilly. In general it's warm enough to hang out on the beach during the day but you probably won't want to go in the water. At night you'll probably need long pants and a light jacket. You really won't be able to ask for better conditions on race day though.
The race expo was kinda small, but the race itself isn't that big so I wouldn't have really expected the expo to be any bigger than it was. The race was pretty well organized too - the shuttle stops were well marked and there were more than enough buses available both before and after the race and finding my way around the start and finish lines was pretty straightforward.
The course was nice and flat for the most part - it went through the town of Myrtle Beach which is about a mile or so inland and then it heads towards the coast just in time for runners to be able to watch the sun coming up over the ocean as they're running past the beach. The only downside of the course is that Myrtle Beach doesn't really have a boardwalk to run alongside the ocean on the way some of the other cities along the east coast do (Atlantic City, Virginia Beach, etc...), so while you do get some pretty nice views of the ocean during the race, a lot of times you're running between the hotels and and the beach so your line of sight can be a little obscured.
Crowd support is always pretty sparse in races like this, mainly because there aren't really that many permanent year round residents who live along the course.... So while some of the people who do live there come out along with the runners' friends and family, there are still some long stretches of the course where there aren't any crowds. Honestly though, the scenery is nice enough that you don't really need a big crowd of people lining the course to stay motivated.
The finisher's medal was excellent - I'm not sure if it changes every year but in 2011 it was shaped like a pair of silver flip flops for the half marathon and a pair of gold flip flops for the full. It's one of my favorite medals in my collection.
The town of Myrtle Beach itself is really nice too. It's a smaller touristy town with a lot of restaurants and shops selling crafts and other knickknacks. There's also a Kiss themed coffeehouse that everyone should make sure to check out even if you're not a big coffee drinker. On Friday and Saturday there are a lot of different places to eat in downtown Myrtle Beach (a lot of the restaurants are big chains that are designed to attract tourists but if you look around a little bit you can find some decent local places to eat at too).
The only difficult thing is finding a place to eat on Sunday night. Like I mentioned earlier, it really isn't easy to fly directly into Myrtle Beach, and usually the last flights out of Charlotte on Sunday are pretty early in the afternoon so unless you're planning on leaving right after the race and making the two hour trek back to the airport, your best bet is probably going to be to spend one more night in Myrtle Beach and then fly home on Monday. The problem there is that most of the restaurants close early on Sundays during the off season (if they're even open at all), so besides fast food, you really won't have a lot of choices. In my case, our hotel room had a full kitchen so we improvised by out and buying some food at the grocery store, cooking it in the room, and then sitting outside and eating by the beach... which actually turned out to be pretty nice, so I guess that my other suggestion is that if you're planning on staying until Monday, try to book a hotel room with a kitchen.
I really wouldn't change anything about this race.... other than the fact that I had the flu while I was running it. I started to notice that my throat was getting sore a couple days before the race and on the day before race day I woke up with a full blown cough, fever, and stuffy nose. I felt completely miserable for the rest of the weekend (and got a terrible finishing time that had nothing to do with the course itself and everything to do with me being sick and not able to push myself too hard), but honestly even with having to stop every half mile or so to cough and catch my breath though and fight through fever and chills while I was running, I still loved every minute of this race. Not only are the town and the beach pretty quiet and not overrun with tourists, but if you live in a northern state, you probably already know that the middle of February is usually right around the time that you've about had it with the winter and are ready to go someplace warmer. Heading to Myrtle Beach for a few days is a perfect way to fill this need. In fact, as much as I'm not really big on traveling to do the same races more than once, I'd actually like to go back and run this again myself when I'm hopefully not as sick.
I usually don't make a habit of traveling to run the same race more than once. There's a simple reason for that - with all of the goals I have for different combinations of places I want to run in, there's a lot of traveling that I need to do, so even if I really love a race or its location, unless it happens to be in or around the Chicago area, it's hard for me to justify paying for a flight, rental car, hotel, meals, etc., to do a race in a place that's already been checked off of my list. I have a number of races that I'd like to go back and do again after I finish all of the others, but Arizona is probably the one place that I'll make an exception for. I don't mind going back to do races there (especially when they're held between January and March) even though I've already done a number of them. The people, the desert scenery, the chance to get away from Chicago winters and go someplace warm for a few days, and the chance that I might even get to catch a hockey game while I'm there all make it an ideal place to go.
I wrote a separate review of the 2007 race that you can read if you're interested. The race in 2010 was a lot warmer and was more like what I would expect Phoenix to be like in January. The course was exactly the same though and when I look back on it now, I can say that this was one of the biggest reasons I decided to start looking at other races in different locations that I hadn't been to before. I realized that even if it's a really good race, running the exact same course over and over again can get old. But I did have a great time and it was nice to go back and run the race again without feeling like my legs were going to turn into ice cubes. I also took some time to do a few other things while I was there the second time too, so if you do this race and you're looking for some things to do around Phoenix during the rest of the weekend, here are a few suggestions:
Climb to the top of the "A" mountain in Tempe. This is a small mountain next to the ASU campus with a 60 foot steel A attached to the side. There's a trail that goes to the top of the mountain and it's not really steep or long - it takes less than a half hour to get from the base all the way to the top and you'll get some spectacular views of the Phoenix skyline on one side and the desert and mountains on the other.
The race is in January, which is right in the middle of hockey season.... so if the Coyotes are at home, check out game. Being a Blackhawks fan, I'm used to tickets being expensive and selling out quickly so I was kinda surprised to find $20 seats available on game day that were in a pretty decent section of the stadium.
Or take a drive up to Sedona, which is quite possibly one of the most beautiful towns in the United States. It's only about 2 1/2 hours away and you won't be disappointed.
As far as parking and picking a hotel to stay at goes: the start line is in Phoenix and the finish line is in Tempe, and there are shuttle buses that will take you from the finish line to the start line before the race, but not the other way around. The way it works is that runners park near ASU in the morning, take the shuttle to the start line and then their cars are waiting for them after the race. If you park near the start line, you’re on your own as far as finding a way back. So in 2007, I stayed in Phoenix and had to navigate around the road closures to get to Tempe on race morning, but in 2010, I stayed in Tempe and getting to the start line was much easier. So my suggestion would be to ignore the suggested hotels in Phoenix that are on the race website and find a place to stay in Tempe. There are tons of nice hotels that are close to ASU and some are even walking distance from the campus, which is ideal because if you stay in one of them you won’t need to worry about driving anywhere on race morning.
The course itself was nice and flat and fast. There are a few miles in the middle that go through part of Scottsdale that aren’t particularly scenic but the rest of the course is beautiful – you’re surrounded by mountains and desert scenery almost the entire time. After the race, there’s a big party at ASU and with Tempe being a college town, a lot of the local bars have food and drink specials for runners who bring in their medals.
As far as the other details like the expo, race medals, etc...., I can't complain about any of it - the Rock n Roll marathons have always been pretty well organized and have offered some pretty nice bling and if anything, they've only gotten bigger and better since I did these races. So if you're looking for a good race to do in January, definitely check this one out.
In 2009, I had done a few full and half marathons and was starting to get fairly decent finishing times and I decided to take a crack at running a race overseas. At the time I was working for a global company that had offices in Africa and I had gotten to be friends with a couple of my co-workers who lived there. I had heard plenty of interesting stories about the people, different cultures, wildlife, etc., and figured that running a marathon would be a perfect excuse to take a trip there and see some of these things for myself. So I did some research and decided on the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon, which is held in Moshi, Tanzania each year and has a course that offers a great view of Mt. Kilimanjaro along with a chance to see some wildlife and run with some locals from Tanzania and Kenya (which is right across the border).
What surprised me the most when I first started putting my travel plans together was how easy it was to work with the race director, Marie Frances. She sent me a big packet of information about the area, gave helped me apply for my travel visa, worked with the airlines to book my flight and took care of my hotel reservations too - it was like having a personal travel agent who also happened to be in charge of the race I was about to run. Anytime I had a question, I would send her an email and she would usually reply within 24 hours.... the reason I'm mentioning all of that here is because she's one of the main reasons that I would recommend this race to anyone that's up for an overseas adventure.
Well... that and the fact that the scenery is stunning, the wildlife is amazing, the locals are super friendly, and the entire experience will be something that you'll never forget....
The most important thing to note about signing up for this race is that it isn't the same as signing up for any other race (another reason I was so thankful to Ms. Frances for all of her help). Instead of doing the trip piecemeal, you sign up for an entire package that includes the race entry, hotel fees, airfare, transportation, meals, and whatever other activities you decide you want to do ahead of time (besides the race, you can also go on a safari and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro). The only things I had to pay for while I was there were beer and souvenirs.
I decided on a package that included the safari and the race. The one piece of advice I would give anyone that's interested in doing this race is to sign up for the full package that includes all of the activities. Whenever I think about that trip, I regret not doing it - it is more expensive and will extend the length of the trip by about a week.... but the reasons I skipped climbing the mountain at the time were because I didn't want to take too much time off of work and didn't want to spend the extra $750 (or whatever it was at the time). First of all, I don't work at that company anymore and when I look back, taking an extra few days off really wouldn't have made any difference at all, and besides that, I've spent a lot more than $750 on junk that I don't even remember buying since then. I've learned over the years that living life to the fullest is more about having amazing experiences than owning a bunch of stuff, and this could have been my chance to have had the experience of going on a safari, running a marathon, and climbing one of the most famous mountains in the world all within two weeks of each other. That being said though, the parts that I did get to experience will be etched in my mind forever.
There are no direct flights from Chicago to Moshi - in fact, there are hardly any direct flights from anywhere to Moshi, and because of the timing of the race and when I needed to be there for all of the various activities, etc., my travel plans were even more complex than usual - I was glad I didn't have to figure this all out myself: in order to get there, I flew from Chicago to Detroit (1 hour), then changed planes and flew to Amsterdam (8 hours), changed planes again after a short layover, and then flew to Dar Es Salaam (7 hours), and then finally changed planes one last time and flew to Moshi (1 hour). After traveling for almost 24 hours straight, changing planes four times and crossing eight time zones, I was exhausted and wasn't even really sure what day it was anymore. Another benefit of paying for the entire trip as a package was that as soon as I walked off the plane and picked up my luggage, there was a driver waiting to take me to the hotel.
For as late as it was and for exhausted as I was, I had so much adrenaline pumping through my veins that there was no way I was going to be sleeping anytime soon. I was glad that I flew out almost 5 days before the race so that my body would have a chance to adjust. Everything about Africa is different from anything I had experienced before - even subtle things like the sounds you hear and the stars you see at night are like nothing you'll see or hear in the states.
The drive from the airport to the Mountain Inn Hotel takes about 45 minutes and while I was in the van I met another runner (another key difference from other races is that everyone who does this race stays at the same hotel, eats together, and travels around Moshi together as a group). She and I passed the time by talking about races we had done and places we had traveled to. One of my favorite things about running besides the actual act itself is that no matter where I am in the world, whenever I meet another runner, I know that I can have a new friend within minutes because there's always so much to talk about. Before we knew it, the van was pulling into the hotel driveway.
The Mountain Inn is one of the most high class hotels in Moshi. It still manages to provide a great African experience though - it's definitely not the Hilton. The hotel sits on the outskirts of town, just at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the majority of people who stay there are climbers who just need a place to leave their stuff while they're out on the mountain... My room came complete with mosquito nets and some cool looking traditional African art.
By the time I got to my room, it was pretty late and the exhaustion of all the traveling was finally starting to set in so I pretty much just flopped in my bed and fell asleep. Over the next few days, I got to do a little more exploring around the hotel and meet the staff and some of the other runners in my group.
Runners traveling in from the states or other places for this race all stay together at the Mountain View Hotel and local transportation is provided for everyone, etc.... Packet pickup is combined with a pre-race party that's held at the hotel the night before the race and we had a bus waiting to take us to the start line on race morning and we were all able to leave our gear on the bus instead of having to check it somewhere, which was nice and convenient.
When we first got there, it was raining.... not a big deal - I actually really like running in the rain. The only downside was that the first quarter mile or so of the race was on a dirt road that had turned to mud overnight so within the first couple minutes, my feet felt soaked and heavy from all of the mud that was sticking to my shoes. Once I got onto the pavement though, I was able to knock most of it off and carry on. Other than that, the course was pretty decent and the weather did eventually clear up.
Here are a few of my memories of this race that stand out the most -
When I tell people that I ran a marathon in Africa at the end of June, one of the most common questions I get asked is how hot it was. Actually it was quite mild. Tanzania is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means that the middle of June is actually the middle of winter. Being so close to the equator, it obviously never gets as cold as it does in the states, but the average temperatures during my entire trip ranged from the high 60's to the mid 70's F.
The streets in Moshi are not as well kept up as they are in the states. Even though we were running on major roads throughout most of the race, there was still quite a bit of dodging cracks and potholes that needed to be done. That being said though, there weren't very many runners doing this race so it really wasn't a big deal. Within the first half mile or so, we had pretty much all separated out and were running our own pace (more on that in a little bit).
It's not easy to block off 26.2 miles worth of roads in Moshi because there wouldn't be enough alternate routes for traffic, so the race was actually a loop that was roughly 10K long and we ran it four times. I was good with this too because there was some interesting scenery along the course, including a lot of leftover bridges and other various relics from back when Tanzania was still a colony. Tanzania was first colonized by Germany in the late 1800s, taken over by Great Britain in 1919 and then became an independent country in 1961. It was the Germans and British who built a lot of the infrastructure, which means that a lot of the roads, buildings, etc... are over 50 years old (hence the cracks and potholes).
Instead of traditional water tables, the race director and some of her assistants drove up and down the course in a van handing out water and orange slices to anyone who wanted them. I actually really liked this - on a normal race course, there's a water table about every two miles or so, and unless you carry your own water with you, if you start to feel thirsty, you have to wait until you get to the next table for a drink. By comparison, this was like having a personalized water delivery service available.
About a mile into the race though something crazy happened that I'm not sure will ever happen to me again in another race..... First a little background: the Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon is the original marathon in Moshi that offers views of Mt. Kilimanjaro and tour packages that include safaris and options to climb the mountain, etc.... Once the race started to get popular, a rival group created their own race and called it the Kilimanjaro Marathon (similar name, held about 6 weeks earlier, and run by a completely different group of people). The directors of the Kilimanjaro Marathon have a lot of local connections, not only in Tanzania, but in a lot of the surrounding countries as well and they've used their connections to try and attract runners away from the original Mt. Kilimanjaro Marathon. In this particular case, there was a police officer directing traffic at one of the busier intersections.... who we later found out had been paid off by the directors of the rival race... and he sent a fairly large group of runners (myself included) off in the wrong direction. Even though we had seen the course the previous day, none of us were familiar with the area, so we followed the directions and didn't realize that we were going the wrong way until about 3 miles later when we realized that nothing around us looked familiar. To make things worse though, by this point we had split off into two groups and it was the group that was further back who actually made the realization about the course so a few of us had to pick up our pace and run ahead a little more quickly to let the others know.... and then of course we had to turn around and run back to the actual course. At the time I wasn't very happy about this but when I look back now, I honestly have nothing but fond memories of this race and trip and I would still go back and do it again in a heartbeat. Not every race is perfect and something that I've come to learn is that the most challenging ones are the ones that I come away from with the best memories and stories.
To circle back to my thoughts about pace.... this race is open to both overseas runners from the states and other continents and also to local runners from Tanzania and other surrounding countries like Kenya. Two things about this - 1. A lot of the local runners ran the entire race barefoot.... potholes, cracks, mud and all..... and 2. The slowest Tanzanian runner finished the race almost an hour ahead of the fastest American runner.... even with bare feet....
After the race, there was a big post race party where awards were given out by the mayor of Moshi. Because of the huge differences in finishing times, there are actually two sets of awards - one set for local runners and a second set for people who traveled in for the race. I thought that was kind of funny.... but my favorite memory from after the race was meeting my friend Nelson. Nelson is from Tanzania and finished in second place overall in the race. He was also one of the people I mentioned above who ran the entire race barefoot. The reason we started talking was because we noticed that we had the same sized feet and he mentioned that he liked my shoes. So I gave them to him. I had brought another pair and I figured that he could use those a lot more than I could. Nelson showed me an invitation that he had gotten from Elite Racing to come and run marathons in the United States and he's been here a few times since then. We've never gotten a chance to see each other again in person but we do stay in touch via email - English isn't Nelson's first language (and I don't speak Swahili) but we've always been able to find ways to communicate with each other and this is a perfect example of why I love running so much. Runners all share a common bond that reaches across cultural barriers and all it takes is a pair of shoes and a good run with someone to make a new friend for life.
After the race, we had another day to head into downtown Moshi and we all had one last lunch together before everyone started heading to the airport to catch their flights back home. As I was heading to the airport to catch my flight, I was able to watch the sun setting over the African plains and I thought it was a perfect end to an amazing trip.
Mentioning the word "Disney" to a runner can evoke some interesting reactions - there are some people who absolutely love the runDisney series races and will go out of their way to do as many as they can, while there are others who want nothing to do with these races and avoid them like the plague.
Runners who love the Disney races will typically list the experience of running through the parks, photo opportunities with Disney characters at various points along the courses, cool looking collectible race medals and the general experience of participating in an athletic event associated with Disney as reasons to love these races. On the flipside, some of the cons I've heard are that the races are super expensive and disorganized, and that there are a number of people who sign up for the races just to get the medals and don't actually take the running part seriously (sometimes even purposely dropping out after the first couple miles and getting a ride to the finish line), along a general dislike of "gimicky" themed races where runners dress up in costumes.
When I ran the Disney Marathon in Orlando in 2009, I found my experience to be.... somewhere in the middle to be honest. It wasn't necessarily an amazing magical running experience, but it also wasn't a terrible one either. It was a fun race, and while I would agree that things could have maybe gone a little more smoothly at the start line, I enjoyed having the opportunity to run through the Disney Parks and get some behind the scenes views that aren't necessarily available to the general public, the expo was great, and I also really like the finisher's medal.
I'm also going to add something else that I view as a pro: I know a lot of beginning runners who had never thought about training for a marathon before hearing about the Disney races. And then after signing up for one, going through the training and running it, they fell in love with running, found other races to do and ultimately became a lot healthier as a result. I honestly don't know of any other running event or series that has inspired that many beginners to take up running for the first time (the Rock n Roll Marathons might be a close second but Disney still holds the advantage since it's so well known even outside of the running community).
When I did this race, there was one set of races at Disney World in Orlando in January and another at Disneyland in California in the fall but since then the series has grown into quite a long list of events. There were also a couple multiple race challenges where you would get an extra medal for doing both races (Half Marathon on Saturday + Full Marathon on Sunday at Disney World = Goofy Challenge... and anyone who did races in both Disney World and Disney Land in the same year would also get something extra). Those are still available but there are a number of new multiple race challenges available now, with the most well known one arguably being the Dopey Challenge (5K on Thursday, 10K on Friday, Half Marathon on Saturday, Full Marathon on Sunday).
I didn't do any fancy race combos - I did a 5K fun run through Animal Kingdom on Friday morning (with no official timing and a rubber medal - not sure if this race is even available anymore) and my daughter Sara did a kid's race on Saturday, but the main event that I went for was the full marathon on Sunday Morning. As much as the series has expanded since 2009, I don't think that very many changes have been made to the full marathon itself. The course starts at Epcot Center underneath the big ball and heads through part of Epcot. Most of this is in the dark because the race starts really early and then by the time it starts to get lighter out, runners are heading towards the Magic Kingdom where spectators are starting to line up along the course (all of the parks are open during the race and the course is roped off so people can come cheer for the runners or walk around the parks without everyone running into each other). The Magic Kingdom section of the course is probably the most memorable because runners get to go through the middle of the big Cinderella Castle. Right on the other side of the castle is a race photographer, so if you want, you can purchase a picture of yourself running out of the castle. Then the course heads over to Animal Kindgom where runners do a lap around the giant Tree of Life before heading over to Hollywood Disney where the course goes past the giant Fantasia Wizard Hat and through some of the trailers where all of the costumes are kept. After Hollywood Disney, the course heads back through Epcot and finishes back in front of the giant ball.
A few of my observations -
1. The expo is really good and has a lot of interesting vendors. It's at the Wide World of Sports Complex and is probably one of the biggest race expos I've been to. It also has a lot of freebies and discounts on merchandise so make sure you give yourself enough time to walk around and check everything out.
2. I think that the complaints about the races not being well organized are a bit overblown. I did have to wake up a little earlier than I thought I would for this race and there was a lot of milling around at the starting village before I actually got to go to my corral and start running but that was really the only issue I had, and honestly for the number of participants, I don't really know what the race organizers could have changed to make things any better.
3. Besides going through the parks themselves, the course goes through a number of back roads that connect the parks together. These are mostly service roads and not particularly exciting but it is kinda cool to be able to access parts of the parks that aren't available to the general public.
4. One of the side effects of running on the back roads though is that crowd support in this race is kinda weird. Inside of the parks there are a ton of people lining the course and cheering the runners on, there are also characters taking pictures with the runners and a few other surprises like animals and their trainers standing at the entrance to Animal kingdom..... but there are no spectators on the back roads because they aren't open to the public. So prepare yourself for periods of cheering and a big party like atmosphere followed by periods of almost complete silence.
5. This is not a hilly course but there are a few overpasses with inclines that can be a bit surprising if you aren't ready for them. That being said though, this definitely isn't as bad as other races I've done so it's barely even worth mentioning.
6. Watch out for the characters standing alongside the course taking pictures with runners. This is a really cool perk of the whole Run Disney experience but it can also be annoying - on more than one occasion I was cut off by runners on one side of me wanting to take pictures with a character who was standing on the other side. So make sure to be alert for these sorts of things (and on the flipside, if you're a runner who wants to take a picture with a character on the course, you're more than welcome to do so, but please don't run in the middle of a pack of runners and then cut people off on your way over to get your picture taken).
7. The weather in Orlando is beautiful at this time of year. After the race I went back to my hotel and sat in a hot tub outside and remember thinking that there was no way I would be doing this back home. If you travel from a northern state with colder weather down to Orlando in January, make sure you take some time after the race to relax and enjoy it.
8. Prepare to spend a lot of money - this is definitely a 'con' of doing any of the Disney races, but honestly as long as you know what you're in for up front and prepare yourself for it, it's fine. Also as a side note, I didn't stay at a hotel in the park because I thought it would save me some money. Don't bother with this - the hotel itself was cheaper but by the time I rented a car, paid for parking, gas, etc... it was a wash at best, and at worst I probably ended up spending more than I would have if I had just stayed at the park. Unless you're planning on going someplace else besides Disney on your trip, if you stay at one of the hotels at the actual park, you can catch a free bus from the airport and then a free shuttle bus to the race expo, start line, and from the finish line back to your hotel (along with shuttles to and from the various parks any time you want) so there's no need to rent a car or worry about transportation which will more than cancel out the extra money you spent on the hotel.
9. If you're going to sign up for this race, go all out and sign up for the Dopey Challenge (or at least the Goofy Challenge) - you'll kick yourself if you don't. One of my biggest memories of this race is from the post race party, which is at Downtown Disney a few hours after the marathon: runners who do the half marathon get a Donald Duck Medal, runners who do the full marathon get a Mickey Mouse Medal, and runners who do both races get both medals plus an extra Goofy Medal. I remember walking around the post race party with my Mickey Mouse medal, looking at all the Goofy medals and wishing I would have done the half on Saturday too. It was the only time I ever ran a full marathon and felt like I didn't put in enough miles. At the time I set a goal for myself to go back and do the Goofy Challenge at some point but now that the Dopey Challenge is available, I might need to do that instead.
10. As far as people signing up for the race just to get the medals and then purposefully dropping out after a couple miles because they never intended to run the entire course anyway.... I didn't see anyone doing this when I ran it (although I'm assuming that anyone who did this probably started at the back of the pack) and didn't even really know it was an issue until someone else recently told me about it.... I get that the medals are all collectible - they change every year and Disney only has enough made for the number of participants in the race, so they're pretty rare. I personally wouldn't feel comfortable taking a race medal if I didn't actually train for the race at all and knew ahead of time that I was going to drop out but hey to each his own I guess - I try not to concern myself with what other people are doing and like I said earlier, the fact that so many new runners really do train for these races and push themselves hard to earn their medals more than cancels out the others who are only in it for the bling.
Overall, I don't think I would ever necessarily go out of my way to do all of the races in the runDisney series (not because I have any specific complaints as much the thought of having a goal like that isn't something that gets me really fired up), but I would definitely go back and do this race again. In fact, I'm going to have to at some point so I can do the Dopey Challenge lol. In a few months I'm going to be doing the Zion Canyon Half Marathon in Utah, followed by the Grand Teton Half in Wyoming a couple months later and I'm looking forward to the natural beauty and being able to run through some U.S. National Parks a lot more than I would be looking forward to running through the Disney Parks again, but the race was not a bad experience at all. Love 'em or hate 'em, the Run Disney races are some of the biggest races around and have inspired countless numbers of people to take up running over the years, so in that sense, I think that the race organizers deserve a lot of respect.