Latest reviews by Tom

(2016)
"A Nice 26.2 Mile Romp Through the North Woods"
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Ten years ago I ran my first marathon (Chicago, 2006). When I finished, I told a friend that I couldn't wait to run another one. She suggested Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. Unfortunately, the 2007 race was on a day that I already had other plans. Over the next ten years, at least a dozen other friends told me that Grandma's a must-run. Each June, I see hundreds of pictures and comments on social media that talk about what a great race it is. I've always wanted to run Grandma's, but I've always seemed to have something else going on during race weekend that prevented me from signing up.

So I've literally been looking forward to running Grandma's Marathon for a decade. This year, the stars finally aligned and I had an open calendar on race weekend. So after waiting all these years, did Grandma's live up to my expectations? Absolutely.

Grandma's is the only marathon I've ever run where a single course combines all of the elements that make different types of marathons great.

If you like scenic races in a peaceful, natural setting, you're in luck. The first 18 miles of the course go through the North Woods. You'll hear birds and other nature sounds. You'll see tree lined roads, wildlife and great views of Lake Superior. It's almost like a paved trail run.

If you like big city races with tons of cheering spectators, you're also in luck. The last 8 miles of the course go through Downtown Duluth and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. Duluth isn't as big as Chicago or New York, but Grandma's is a huge event in the area and the crowd support during this part of the course is amazing.

You're also in luck if you like quirky races with local spectators who do unique things to encourage the runners. A few examples:
The course is point to point. You park at the finish line and take a train to the start line. Grandma's is the only marathon in the world that transports runners to the start line by train.

- At mile 9 two guys were sitting on a porch playing a modified version of When You're Smiling, the World Smiles With You on a guitar (instead of smiling, it was When You're Running...) on a guitar.
- At mile 20, a guy had set up a bacon stand in front of his house.
- At mile 21, college kids hung out in front of their frat houses to cheer for the runners. Guys offered beer while girls asked male runners to show their boobs.

There are a ton of spectators at the finish line. After the race, there's a big post race party near the lake with food, beer, music and all kinds of other fun stuff. The Grandma's finisher's medals are awesome. They were extra special this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the race, but the ones I've seen from previous years were pretty sweet too.

I absolutely loved this course. In fact, it was one of the best full marathon courses I've ever run. At the same time, I don't think I've ever been happier to cross a finish line in my life.

I have a few tips for anyone planning on running Grandma's:

Grandma's also has a half marathon. The half is so popular that runners have to register via a lottery system. The marathon is first come, first served but it still sells out pretty quickly. So don't wait too long to register.

If you want a Guaranteed Entry, you can sign up for the Great Grandma's challenge. This consists of running a 5K on Friday evening and then either the marathon or half marathon on Saturday morning. This option is only open to 500 people though.

Book your hotel EARLY. As in the second you get done registering for the race. I'm not kidding about this. I registered in October but waited until December to book my hotel room. Even though it was still 6 months before the race, all of the hotels in downtown Duluth and Superior, WI (the next town over) were full. I ended up staying almost 40 miles away.
Duluth has a small airport but it's hard to find flights to it. If you're planning on flying, your best bet might be to fly into Minneapolis and drive from there. It's about 2 hours by car.

Expect the expo to be crowded. This is probably the only negative thing I have to say about race weekend. (I'm not counting the heat as a negative because it's outside of the race organizers' control). When I went to pick up my race number, the expo, crowds were so thick that I could barely walk down the aisles. I didn't bother to stop and check out any of the exhibitor booths because the lines were too long. I don't know if a bigger venue is needed or if a simple layout change in the existing venue would work but this definitely needs to be adjusted.
Get up early on race morning. With the course being point-to-point, you have to park at the finish and get a ride to the start line either on the train (marathon runners) or a shuttle bus (half marathon runners and marathon runners who miss the train). The parking lots fill up fast and the lines for the train and buses get long. You'll want to arrive early to avoid standing around waiting to board.

If you're running the marathon for the first time, take the train to the start line. Marathon runners can also take one of the shuttle buses, and the buses actually get to the start line faster than the trains. But you can take a bus anytime. Hanging out on a train full of runners during a nice scenic ride through the North Woods is a unique experience. The only drawback to the train is that since the buses arrive first, the lines for the port-a-potties at the start will be long when you get there. But whatever. It's still worth it.
At some point during race weekend, stop by Grandma's Saloon & Grill. They were the original race sponsors (which is how the race got its name) and have an excellent food and beer menu.

Overall, despite the unseasonably warm temperatures, this was still one of my favorite Marathons. At some point, I'll probably go back and run it again. In the meantime, I'll be recommending it to my friends who are looking for a June race. Grandma's definitely lived up to the hype. Now that I've done it, I understand why runners speak so highly of it.

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(2016)
"HOT But Awesome"
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Sometimes Mother Nature doesn't like to cooperate with race directors. It's unfortunate when this happens, but when it does, it presents an opportunity for them to either make adjustments to their course and help runners finish successfully or do nothing and deal with a string of heat related casualties and the bad press that goes along with them. I was happy to see that the 2016 Buffalo Marathon race directors chose to do exactly what they were supposed to do in this situation.

Normally, the high in Buffalo, NY at the end of May is in the mid 60's. On Sunday morning, it was almost 90 with high humidity and mostly sunny skies. It made for a brutally challenging marathon. To the race directors' credit though, they had been watching the weather for weeks and sent out several email updates to all of the participants with tips for running in warm weather when it became clear that conditions were going to be less than favorable. They also took a number of additional steps to help make the course more heat friendly, including:

- Doubling the number of water stations in the second half.
- Adding 6000 lbs of additional ice, damp sponges and washcloths to the water stations.
- Having volunteers on bikes ride up and down the course with extra water for runners who needed hydration but weren't close to a water station.
- Opening fire hydrants to create misting areas for runners to run through.
- Asking local residents to help out by bringing out their hoses and sprinklers (and a lot of residents went even further than that by setting up their own water tables alongside the streets in front of their houses).

In the thank you email that race director Greg Weber sent out the next morning, he mentioned that the medical tents were no busier this year than in previous years. This is partly because the majority of the runners took the necessary precautions, but it's also a sign of a well organized race run by people who aren't afraid to be flexible with their course when they need to.

I know I've spent a pretty big chunk of this review talking about this stuff, but I think it's important. In the past, I've written about race organizers who set up their courses according to a strict formula that helps them maximize their profits and then refuse to deviate from it regardless of any unforeseen conditions that arise (I won't say who it is, but let's just say that the name of the race series rhymes with "Crock n Stroll"). In the case of the Buffalo Marathon, the weather this year was an unfortunate anomaly, but the crew and the participants all rose to the occasion to make it a success. This is an example of how every race should be run.

Now, onto the course itself:

The Buffalo Marathon course is beautiful and mostly flat (there are a few rolling hills at various points - nothing major though). The course starts in downtown Buffalo in front of the convention center and heads southwest through some beautiful local neighborhoods, which feature tree lined streets (which helped provide shade) and nice architecture, including a number of houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. From there, it heads a little further West and runs through La Salle Park and along Lake Erie. This is five mile stretch was one of the most scenic parts of the course. The breeze coming off the lake also provided some relief from the heat. Around mile 12, the course heads back towards downtown Buffalo and passes a number of historic buildings and structures. At mile 13, runners head towards the convention center, where the full and half marathon courses split. Half marathoners head straight to the convention center while full marathoners take a right turn and continue on.

The second half of the course had some interesting sights to help keep runners motivated. Miles 14 through 16 went through some more neighborhoods (which meant more tree lined streets and some shade). Mile 16 headed past Buffalo's historic Forest Lawn Cemetery and then mile 17 through 20 through Delaware Park and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. Mile 21 through 23 went through part of the Buffalo State University campus. At mile 24, there's a party put on by local residents on both sides of the street with decorations and huge crowds cheering on the runners and motivating them to push through the last two miles (I should also note that crowd support is excellent throughout the course).

Mile 25 heads back towards downtown Buffalo. One note about this part of the race - on Saturday morning, my daughter Sara and I had run the John Beishline Memorial 5K, which is part of the Buffalo Marathon race weekend and honors the original race director who passed away a couple years ago. The 5K course starts and finishes at the convention center and runs through some of the same neighborhoods that the marathon course goes through. The nice thing about that layout is that the last mile and a half of the two courses are almost identical. Knowing exactly where I was going because I had just run the same route the day before helped me stay focused on where I was going towards the end of the marathon when my body was screaming out in pain. After the Mile 26 marker, the last 0.2 miles of the course loop around the William McKinley Monument in Niagara Square. The race finishes in front of the convention center where there's a nice post race party with pizza and beer both inside and outside.

The Buffalo Marathon race medals are pretty sweet looking. They're well constructed and have a nice graphic of a buffalo on them. The 5K medals are also nice - in fact, my 5K medal is probably one of the nicest ones I've gotten for a race of that distance. Runners who do both the 5K and the Marathon also get something extra in the mail. I'm not sure what that is yet, but I'll be looking forward to checking it out when it arrives.

Overall, even with the harsh weather conditions, I thought that the Buffalo Marathon was a great race. It's extremely well organized, has excellent crowd support, great bling and a nice course that takes runners past some interesting scenery in and around the city. I would definitely sign up for this race again and if you're looking for a fun marathon to do in upstate New York, you should add it to your list.

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(2016)
"John Bieshline Memorial 5K"
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This was a nice shakeout run before the Buffalo Marathon on Saturday morning. It's also a nice gesture to honor the original Buffalo Marathon race director who passed away a couple years ago.

The 5K course starts behind the Buffalo Convention Center and heads Southwest through some of the historic neighborhoods in Buffalo. Runners get to see some interesting architecture along the course, including some houses that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and some old gothic style churches from the 1800s. The last mile of the race heads back into downtown Buffalo, past the William McKinley Memorial Monument and then to the finish line, which is in front of the convention center. The course is mostly flat with just a couple really small hills in the beginning.

For runners who sign up for both the 5K and the marathon, the course layout has another nice benefit that won't be apparent until Sunday: the last mile and a half of the 5K and Marathon courses are almost identical. I thought that knowing exactly where I was going at the end of the marathon because I had just run the same route the day before helped me stay focused at a time when my body was screaming out in pain.

The race finishes in front of the convention center and is immediately followed by the race expo, so runners who are signed up for the Marathon or Half marathon can go inside and pick up their bibs for Sunday morning after crossing the finish line on Saturday.

The medal is extremely nice too - it's well constructed in the shape of a buffalo and has the race name on the neck strap. It's probably one of the nicest 5K medals I've gotten.

There's only one thing that I would have changed about this course. My 11 year old daughter Sara and I ran it together and were expecting to see a water table around mile 1.5. The water table was actually right at the two mile marker which is a little later than most 5Ks. This normally wouldn't be a big deal but the unseasonably warm weather made it stand out a little bit (my guess would be that if we had done this race any other year, we wouldn't have even noticed it). So my only suggestion here would be to either move the water table back a little bit so that it's closer to the halfway point of the race or add another one at the one mile marker. This is pretty minor though - everything else about the course was great.

If you're local to the area and looking to do a 5K or planning on doing the marathon or half marathon and looking for a good way to do a shakeout run the day before, you should definitely give this race a look!

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(2015)
"Nice Holiday Race for a Great Cause"
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The Santa Hustle Race Series offers races of varying distances in seven different cities, along with a virtual race. So pretty much anyone anywhere can participate.

The concept of the race is pretty straightforward: the race organizers provide runners with a red running shirt, a Santa Claus hat and a beard. Then the runners all dress up like Santa and run together on race morning. It’s silly; it’s fun; and best of all, all of proceeds from the series go to the American Cancer Society.

A few other good things about the Santa Hustle:
<ul>
<li>Besides water tables, the course has Christmas Cookie and Candy tables.
</li><li>The half marathon courses have ten music stations that play Christmas music.
</li><li>Half Marathon finishers get medals.
</li><li>There’s Hot Chocolate and Candy Canes at the finish line.
</li><li>There are live reindeer and a variety of other giant inflatable Christmas decorations and other props that make for great photo opportunities along the course and at the finish line.
</li><li>There’s an awesome holiday themed post race party.
</li></ul>

Santa Hustle races are held in different cities on different dates throughout the month of December. So you can do more than one if you like the concept and want to travel. The Chicago and Milwaukee races are on the same day and include about 8000 Santa Runners between the two cities.

The Chicago event only has a 5K course. It starts in front of Soldier Field, heads south down the Lakefront path for about a mile and a half and then turns north and heads back towards the city. Runners get a nice view of the Chicago skyline during the second half of the race. There’s a cookie table at Mile 1, a water table at mile 1.5, and a candy table at mile 2. All of the tables have Christmas music playing and friendly volunteers dressed like elves.

The finish line for the Chicago Santa Hustle course is back in front of Soldier Field. There’s a small post race party with refreshments at the finish line and trolleys that bring runners to Navy Pier for a massive indoor post race party that includes hot hard cider and a few other holiday themed drinks.

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(2015)
"Running in Paradise"
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The Honolulu Marathon starts at 5am at Ala Moana Beach Park, which is a local recreation area consisting of over 100 acres of park, beaches, swimming and surfing spots. Instead of a traditional air horn or gunshot to start the race, this one starts with fireworks. I'm not just talking one or two little pops. This is a 20 minute full fledged colorful display that rivals some of the best Fourth of July fireworks shows I've seen. Runners cross the start line with fireworks going off on their left side and Miss Hawaii waving to them on the right.

From there the course runs through downtown Honolulu along Honolulu Harbor and through Chinatown into a historic district, which includes:

<ul><li>Iolani Palace, which was the royal residence of the rulers of the Kingdom of Hawaii and is the only royal palace on American soil
</li><li>The statue of King Kamehameha
</li><li>Kawaiahao Church
</li><li>Honolulu City Hall
</li><li>The Mission Houses Museum
</li><li>'Iolani Palace
</li></ul>

After that, the course crosses the bridge spanning the Ala Wai Canal, which marks the entrance to Waikiki. Runners pass by U.S. Army Fort DeRussy and head down streets lined with shops offering everything from tacky souvenirs and t-shirts to high- priced designer merchandise. This stretch offers views of Waikiki Beach and the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, a renowned surfer and Olympic gold medalist.

At mile 6, the course forks to the left and heads around the Honolulu Zoo and past the Waikiki Shell. At mile 8, the course passes by Diamond Head, which is an extinct 760 foot high volcanic crater. At this point, the course gets a bit hilly but it also offers breathtaking views of Oahu’s east coastline.

At mile 10, the courses passes through some residential and commercial areas along a coastal route which continues for four miles through the communities of Waialae Iki, Aina Haina, and Niu Valley. At mile 16, runners turn left and head into Kalama Valley. This section of the course loops around an inland waterway and offers views of Koko Head, a volcanic crater eroded on one side by the ocean into Hanauma Bay. The course then turns right and passes by Maunalua Bay Beach Park, which is a popular spot for parasailing and outrigger canoes.

For the next four miles, runners double back along Kalanianaole Highway and pass Kawaikui and Wailupe beach parks. At mile 22, the course turns and passes the Waialae Country Club, which is where the Hawaiian Open PGA Golf Tournament is held. At the road’s end, the route turns right and heads past a neighborhood of luxury homes fronting Kahala Beach and Black Point.

At mile 24, runners circle back around Diamond Head crater. An important note here is that mile 24 is almost all uphill, but mile 25 is almost all downhill.

As the last mile of the course curves around Diamond Head toward the finish in Waikiki, the route passes the Diamond Head Lighthouse. The last stretch of the race runs along Kapiolani park past Sans Souci Beach and the Waikiki Aquarium to the Finish Line near the Kapiolani Park Bandstand. After the race, there's food and entertainment at the Honolulu Zoo. You can also get your picture taken with a hula dancer.

There is not a single mile of the Honolulu Marathon course that doesn't have something beautiful to look at. The course is mostly flat with the only two noticeable hills (at mile 8 and mile 24). The race is also well organized and has an nice expo and post race party. Other than the weather, I have nothing but great things to say about it.

The hot and humid weather is no joke though. The temperature on race day was in the mid 80's and the humidity was close to 100%. I counted at least half a dozen ambulances picking up runners and bringing them to local hospitals. I also saw runners on the side of the course being helped by police and medical personnel while they bent over and threw up or passed out. So make sure to wear a hat, sunscreen and light clothing, hydrate properly, and pace yourself. Also, since the race starts at 5am, try to get as many miles in as you can before the sun comes up at 7.

With all that said, don't let the heat scare you. This course is amazing, the race is well organized and Honolulu is the perfect getaway destination during December. Finishing it was a great accomplishment and within a few hours those "man I'm so glad I'm done" thoughts were already starting to dissipate. The next morning I went for another short run along Waikiki beach and felt great. I'd run this race again in a heartbeat and I'd recommend it to anyone else too.

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