Latest reviews by Tom

(2015)
"Rock n Roll McMarathon"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

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I'm going to make kind of an odd comparison here. Stay with me until the end though and hopefully this will make sense by the time you're done reading this review....

There's a restaurant in Ohio called <a href="http://bspotburgers.com/">B-Spot Burgers</a>, which has been voted to be the top burger place in the United States for the last four years in a row. It's run by a gourmet chef named Michael Symon and features the highest quality meats, hundreds of different combinations of ingredients that can be used to create custom burgers and an excellent selection of craft beers. And then on the other hand.... there's McDonald's....

So let's say you finish a race and you want to go out for a post-race burger and a beer. Which of those two places sounds more appealing to you?

If you think that sounds like a dumb question, you're right. But there's actually a deeper question here that's not so dumb: McDonald's is a multi-billion dollar global corporation with more than enough money to hire an army of top notch gourmet chefs that easily could create mind-blowingly delicious meals if they wanted to. So why can't McDonald's produce a decent burger? The answer is simple, but it's probably not what you would think: the reason you'll never see gourmet chefs at McDonald's is because hiring them would be in direct conflict with the company's business plan, which is to produce consistent food at every location. Have you ever noticed that if you eat a McDonald's cheeseburger in Chicago it tastes exactly the same as one you would eat in Dallas? Or Singapore for that matter? That's intentional and McDonald's has gone to great lengths to ensure that that's the case.

From a business point of view, this makes perfect sense. Standardized processes are cost effective and easy to manage and enforce. The problem is that as you have to standardize processes across more and more locations, it usually comes at the expense of quality. All of the food that gets produced at McDonalds uses specific types of ingredients that can be found anywhere in the world, regardless of whether or not there might be better ones available in certain areas. The workers follow a strict set of processes to cook, clean, take out the garbage, etc.... These might not be the best processes but they are the easiest ones to standardize. Have you ever stood in line inside of a McDonald's and noticed all of the bells and buzzers going off in the kitchen to let people know when to pull the fries out of the oil or flip the burgers over? That's all part of the plan. If the McDonald's rulebook says that a Big Mac patty has to be cooked for 47 seconds on each side in Los Angeles, it will also be cooked for 47 seconds on each side in London. Not 46... not 48.... A gourmet chef would want to use locally sourced ingredients and improvise on the recipes based on what's in season. If we want to keep things consistent across all of our locations globally, well we can't have that now, can we?

This brings me to the <a href="http://www.runrocknroll.com/">Rock n Roll Marathon Series</a> from Competitor Group. When I ran my first Rock n Roll Marathon in Nashville in 2006 (which was called the Country Music Marathon at the time), it was a unique experience. I ran Rock n Roll Arizona a few months later and it was a totally different experience. At the time, there were only four races in the Rock n Roll Marathon Series and while San Diego based Competitor Group was the overall headquarters for the series, the individual races were organized locally. Over the last several years, the Rock n Roll Marathon Series has expanded to more than 30 different cities across the globe and as part of that expansion, Competitor Group has had to centralize its operations and standardize a lot of its processes, which in some cases has affected the quality of the races.

Did I just compare one of the biggest race series in the world to a horrible fast food chain? Yes, yes I did....

Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy the Rock n Roll Marathon series races. And I'm not saying that you shouldn't like them. In fact, I specifically picked the Rock n Roll Chicago 5K to be my daughter Sara's first race because I knew she would enjoy the experience.

What I'm saying though is that in a lot of cases, Rock n Roll Marathon races are pretty much just cookie cutter races that are exactly the same regardless of where you do them. I noticed when I was writing <a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00ZS53PE0">my book</a> about marathons and half marathons in the Southeastern United States that the chapters about Rock n Roll Nashville, Rock n Roll Savannah, Rock n Roll New Orleans, and Rock n Roll Virginia Beach all seemed to kind of overlap with each other and say a lot of the same things. The only real difference between any of the Rock n Roll series races is that they happen to be in different cities and have different designs on their finisher's medals. Otherwise, the expo layout, schedule of events, starting corrals, water table locations, number of runners, etc... are pretty much all the same. I don't have much to specifically say about the 2015 Rock n Roll Chicago Half Marathon because if you want to know my thoughts on it, you can just go back and read my review of the 2014 race. Or any of the other Rock n Roll races that I've reviewed for that matter.

This is something that's been going through my mind for a while now but the reason I'm pointing this out in this particular review is because I also noticed something during last Sunday's half marathon: In 2015, the heat and humidity were awful during race weekend. The forecast predicted a 105 heat index. I'm not sure if it ever got up that high, but temperatures were definitely in the 90's with high humidity and running this race was extremely uncomfortable. There were more than a dozen runners who had to be taken to the hospital because of heat related issues. I'm not blaming the race organizers for this. Like I said in my review of the 5K, if you're going to run in Chicago, you should be prepared for extreme weather.

Here's the thing though: in 2014, Chicago saw a near record cold front come through during race weekend and the temperature only got into the high 70's on race day (still not ideal for running, but a lot better than 2015). Yet the services that were available for runners to use to cool down were exactly the same in both races: an open fire hydrant spraying water on the course around mile 6, bags of ice at the medical tents, some wet sponges at mile 10, a misting tunnel at mile 11, and another open fire hydrant across the street from the finisher's corral. Why didn't anyone at Competitor Group say "Hey, since there's a heat advisory during race weekend this year, we should maybe look into setting up some cooling centers along the course like we do in Virginia Beach"? The reason is because everyone involved with planning the race was simply following the standard set of directions sent from the corporate headquarters that told them exactly how to set up the Rock n Roll Chicago course.

Standardized processes typically only work well when conditions are ideal. If this had been a truly local race that was run by a local group of Chicago running enthusiasts as opposed to some big corporation based in San Diego, I have no doubt that there are a lot of things that would have been handled differently on race day.

If you have read any of my other race reviews, you probably want to call me out at this point because I typically write about what an innovate company Compeitor Group is for coming up with the idea to combine the experiences of running a marathon with the experience of going to a rock concert. And I still believe that. In that particular area, they've done a great job. But along those same lines, McDonald's is also a very innovative company (or at least they used to be anyway). McDonald's got to be as big as it is by managing to successfully combine the restaurant industry with the real estate industry. That's no secret. <a href="http://seekingalpha.com/article/73533-mcdonalds-is-a-real-estate-company">Ray Kroc even said that himself when he was still alive.</a> That doesn't mean that McDonald's makes the best burgers you'll ever eat in your life though. Innovation and quality are two different things.

So, like I said, there's nothing wrong with the Rock n Roll Marathon Series races. The races are fun and you'll pretty much always know what to expect whenever and wherever you decide to run one. I'll probably even do this one again next year. I'm not trying to rip on Competitor Group either. Every business eventually comes to a point where it has to try to standardize its processes if it wants to continue to grow and in many ways, the folks at Competitor Group are just trying to do what's best for their organization as a whole even if it means that the quality of some of the individual races has to suffer a little bit. The only thing I'm really saying here is that if someone were to ask me what the best half marathon is to do in Chicago, I would have a very hard time recommending Rock n Roll Chicago when there are so many <a href="http://www.chicagohalfmarathon.com/">other half marathons</a> around the city that have more of a uniquely local feel to them.

Now that I'm done writing this review, I think I'll go grab a burger....

<img src="http://www.runsandplaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/20150719_113515.jpg" width="442" height="249">

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(2015)
"My Daughter's First 5K"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

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This was my fifth time doing Rock n Roll Chicago and my second time doing the Saturday morning 5K (last year was the inaugural one). I've already written multiple reviews about this race. I'll write a separate review for the half marathon, but as far as 5K goes, the expo, parking, course, organization, and overall experience were about the same as last year so I really don't have a lot of new information about those things to add to this review that I didn't already mention in <a target="_blank" href="http://www.bibrave.com/races/rock-n-roll-chicago-half-marathon/1111#.Va2_bPlViko">the last one that I posted</a>....

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There are a couple key things that I would like to point out about this year's race though:

<ul>
<li>It was <b>brutally hot</b> outside. All summer long, the temperatures in Chicago have been on the mild side, and going for a run on most days was a pretty pleasant experience. But of course the weekend of Rock n Roll Chicago happened to be when mother nature decided to crank the ol' heat index up to 105&deg;F. The race started at 7:30 am and the temperature was already almost 80&deg; F. This isn't the race directors fault, and anyone who lives in Chicago will tell you that the weather here is <i>always</i> unpredictable. So I'm only mentioning it as a reminder that if you're planning to do a race here, you should be prepared for the possibility of having to deal with extreme weather conditions on race day, no matter what time of year the race is held.</li>
<li><a target="_blank" href="https://marathonmeb.com/">Meb Keflezighi</a> ran the race this year and hung out afterwards taking pictures and signing autographs for runners. Last year it was <a target="_blank" href="http://shalaneflanagan.com/">Shalane Flanagan</a>. I'd like to give props to Competitor Group for inviting world class runners like this to their events. <a target="_blank" href="http://www.runsandplaces.com/2015/06/race-recap-grand-teton-half-marathon/">I've mentioned before</a> that the formula for creating a truly innovative business is to take two seemingly unrelated ideas and combine them together. Competitor Group has managed to become one of the most popular racing series in the world by doing exactly this: combining the experience of running marathons with the experience of going to rock concerts. Giving participants the opportunity to meet runners like Meb is the equivalent of record label sponsored fan clubs giving their members meet & greet opportunities with rock stars.</li>
<li>Probably the most important thing that I can say about this year's race (to me anyway) has nothing to do with the course or the race organization - it's that this was my 10 year old daughter Sara's first 5K. Earlier this year she told me that she wanted to try running a 5K and we spent several weeks training for it together. We picked this one specifically because Competitor Group does such a good job of organizing their events, and because their races have a lot of little perks that aren't always common at other races. One of those perks is that all 5K participants get finisher's medals that are nice enough to rival some of the marathon and half marathon medals I've gotten in other races. I wanted Sara to be excited about doing her first race and it's tough to beat the experience of running along the Chicago lakefront with beautiful views of the skyline, Buckingham Fountain, the Museum Campus, Grant Park, and Monroe Harbor while listening to live rock bands playing alongside the course and then getting a really cool medal when you cross the finish line. We hadn't even left the finisher's corral yet and Sara already told me that she wanted to do the race again next year.</li></ul>

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In fact, Sara is actually helping me write this review. We picked the number of stars for each category together and the things she told me about what she thought of the race are included in what I typed above. And at this point, I'm going to stop writing here and let Sara finish this review in her own words:

<i>This was my first 5k and it was good. I ran it with my dad. It was really really hot, but it was by the lake so it was awesome. We saw a lot of people walking it. I finished in 28 minutes, 29 seconds and we got the medal engraved. It's really cool looking.</i>

Sara also posted a video review on <a target="_blank" href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0n_qM0kk1-M">her youtube channel</a> if you'd like to check it out...

<p align="center"><img src="http://www.runsandplaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/20150718_090035-01.jpeg" height=249 width=442></p>

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(2015)
"Running, Music, and Beer"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

In 1995, the Grateful Dead played their final show of the season at Soldier Field in Chicago. A week later, my friend Greg and I went to a Pearl Jam concert at Soldier Field with our girlfriends. We showed up early because we wanted to tailgate, and when we got there, we were surprised at the number of deadheads that were still there a week later because.... well because the tour was over and they really didn't have anywhere else to go.

There were tents and pop-up trailers scattered around the Soldier Field parking lot with some people just kinda hanging out and others selling food and artwork. We met a few new friends that night. We ate and drank with some people, hung out and chatted with a few others, bought a trippy looking psychedelic painting from a guy in a camper, repeatedly said no to some people in robes who wanted sell us literature about the cult that they belonged to, and topped the night off by drinking beer with a group of cops as the concert was letting out.

Greg and I figured that if hanging out in the Soldier Field parking lot a week after a Grateful Dead concert was that much fun, actually going to a show had to be incredible. So we decided that we would go see the Dead when they came to Chicago the following year. Unfortunately, that never happened. Exactly one month after the final Grateful Dead show in Chicago, Jerry Garcia passed away and the band broke up.

After that, most of the deadheads went their separate ways. Some started following other bands like Phish or The Dave Matthews Band. Others went out and got regular ol' 9 to 5 jobs or figured out other ways to spend their time.... Things were never the same for deadheads again, and whenever I think back to that evening, it always kind of feels like even though we didn't know it at the time, Greg and I were actually witnessing the waning moments of an entire subculture.

Until this year.

In 2015, 20 years after their final tour and 50 years after their first, the Grateful Dead announced that they would do one final tour, which would start in Santa Clara, California and end in Chicago, which was the location of Jerry's final show. To coincide with the Dead's Fare Thee Well tour, Running Away Multisport Racing also announced that for 2015 only, they were resurrecting their old Grateful Dead themed Terrapin 5K Race and Music Festival.

The Terrapin 5K used to be a popular nighttime race in Chicago that started and ended in the Soldier Field parking lot and had an out and back course that went along the lakefront path. Afterwards, there was a big post-race party that featured live music for several more hours. The problem was that RAM also had a similar event called the Rock the Night 5K, which was held in Grant Park and also featured live music. The two races seemed to compete with each other for participants even though they were run by the same organization, so RAM ultimately made the decision to combine them into one big event. This year was different though. Not only did RAM bring back the Terrapin 5K, but they timed it perfectly. It was held on the Thursday night before the final Dead shows in Chicago.

Aside from the theme and the great timing, there were a lot of other things to love about this race. The original course headed south on the lakefront trail and then turned around and headed back north.... just like about 20 other races in Chicago. I've said this before - running the same course over and over again gets boring after a while (not to mention the fact that it's pointless since people who live in Chicago can run on the lakefront trail for free anytime we want). This year though, the race organizers changed things up a little bit. The course started in Grant Park, headed under Lake Shore Drive towards the Museum Campus and then north towards downtown. Runners turned around at Monroe Harbor (which was about the one mile mark), headed south towards the Museum Campus, and then back into Grant Park where they did a half circle shaped loop through the area where the softball fields were and finished alongside Lake Shore Drive. This was a refreshing change that made this race a lot of fun to run.

The course had one water table that was right at the halfway point. Normally the weather in Chicago at the beginning of July is pretty hot and muggy, so any other time I would have said that they should have had two. Race day was unseasonably cool this year though and with the race only being a 5K, I think one was just fine. For being a smaller race, there was also a lot of crowd support.... and anyone who has ever done the Terrapin 5K knows that the best part of the event has always been the post-race party. There was plenty of live music, craft beer, Lou Malnatti's Pizza and the opportunity to mingle with a few deadheads who showed up for the concerts a little early. I also got to hang out and have a couple beers with some friends for a little while after the race, which is really what the overall theme of the event was about. I had a great time.

There's no finisher's medal for the Terrapin 5K, which is not uncommon for 5Ks. The original race didn't have finishers medals either. Runners got a tie-dyed technical shirts and hats. I had requested that mine be mailed to me ahead of time so that I wouldn't have to deal with packet pickup and when it arrived, my daughter Sara promptly stole the shirt and made it into a nightgown. It looks pretty comfy.

I always kind of missed the Terrapin 5K. I know that bringing it back was just a one time thing to coincide with the Grateful Dead shows, but if the folks over at RAM were to ever announce that they were bringing it back permanently, I would not be sad.

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(2015)
"A Marathon Runs Through It"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
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Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

When it comes to places to travel to see pure natural beauty and amazing scenery, it's hard to beat the Western United States. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of other beautiful areas around the world. The thing is that very few of them are so expansive (hundreds of miles of mountains and valleys in every direction). And even fewer are home to such laid back, friendly people. This year, I'm fortunate enough to be able to do four races out west, one of which was the Missoula Half Marathon.

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The Missoula Marathon weekend consists of three races:
<ul>
<li>A Beer Run on Friday night
</li><li>A 5K on Saturday morning
</li><li>A Marathon and Half Marathon on Sunday morning.
</li></ul>

Olympian Runner Jeff Galloway has had a partnership with the race organizers for several years. He's involved in a number of different events throughout the weekend. This year he hosted a hike up to the M on Mount Sentinel on Friday morning, had a meet and greet / book signing and running clinic at the race expo on Saturday, ran the marathon on Sunday morning, and celebrated his 70th birthday and 200th marathon on Sunday evening. There were plenty of opportunities for runners to talk to him and get autographs and photos.

On Friday night, runners gathered at the Holiday Inn at 6:00 pm to kick off the weekend with the Missoula Beer Run. The Beer Run is a fun run through part of downtown Missoula, along the Clark Fork River and through part of the University of Montana campus. Runners have the option of doing either a three mile or five mile loop.

This is truly a fun run - there's no registration, no official timing, no race numbers, and no finisher's medals. If you want to do the run, you simply show up and join in. There are about a dozen tour guides who do the run as well. They're ready to answer any questions that runners from out of town have about local plants and animals, historic landmarks and university buildings.

The Beer Run was a lot of fun and it also had a great turnout. Runners who finished it got bottle openers. There were also Missoula Beer Run shirts and beer glasses for sale at a merchandise table inside of the Holiday Inn lobby. After the run, there's a party where runners can get food and locally brewed craft beer from Big Sky Brewing Company. Anyone that's planning on participating in the 5K on Saturday morning can also pick up their shirt and race number at the post run party.

The 5K starts at 8:00 am in downtown Missoula on Saturday morning. Runners who weren't able to pick up their race packets at the Beer Run the night before can pick them up on race morning. The start line is right outside of the Wilma Theater. The course starts on a bridge that crosses over the Clark Fork River. Most of the first mile goes through some local neighborhoods and the rest of the course runs alongside the river. The finish line is in Caras Park, which is a city park in downtown Missoula.

As far as 5Ks go, I have to say that this is probably the most scenic one I've ever done. The riverside trail is a lot of fun to run on and the views are spectacular. It rained a little bit during race morning but that wasn't enough to ruin the fun. The 5K finisher's medals are also amazing. This medal is actually nicer than some of the half marathon medals that I've gotten in other cities.

The race expo is also in Caras Park, so runners who do the 5K can pick up their marathon or half marathon packet right after crossing the finish line. I have to say that as far as race organization goes, this is one of the most convenient systems I've seen - for three days in a row, you can do a race and then get everything you need for the next one on your way out. The expo is all day on Saturday, so runners who aren't able to do all three events (or don't want to) have plenty of other packet pickup options. There's even an option to email the race organizers and ask to pick up your marathon or half marathon packet at the airport if your flight isn't going to arrive in time for you to make it to the race expo.

Both the marathon and half marathon courses are out-and-back courses that start near the base of the mountains and head towards the city, finishing downtown. The two courses start in separate locations but meet up around mile 16 (marathon) / mile 3 (half) and go the rest of the way to the finish line together.

The logistics for out and back courses are always a lot more difficult than they are for looped courses but the Missoula Marathon Race Organizers have a pretty good system set up for this one. On race morning, there's no parking at the start lines, but that's fine since it really makes more sense to park closer to the finish line anyway. The university parking lot is open and has plenty of parking spots available. There are shuttle buses that will take runners from there to the start lines. The university is about a mile from the finish line though, so another option is for runners to park along the streets or in the parking garages in downtown Missoula to avoid having to walk so far to get hack to their cars after the race. Honestly though, my suggestion is to stay in one of the downtown Missoula hotels. If you do that you might not need to worry about driving or parking at all for the entire weekend.

As far as the shuttle buses go, there were plenty of them and while the lines appeared to be long when I got there, I only actually stood in line for about 15 minutes before I was able to get on a bus. That said though, the race organizers did recommend getting there as early as possible to make sure you get to the start line in time.

The marathon and half marathon both start at 6:00 am. The reason for the early start is because it's usually really hot in Missoula in July. The race organizers want to make sure as many runners as possible make it across the finish line before the sun comes out and the temperature starts to warm up too much.

This year the weather was fine. Better than fine, in fact - it was as perfect as it could be for a race out West in the middle of July. When I got to Missoula on Friday, the temperature was in the 90's, but after a few storms passed through the area on Saturday, it had dropped to the mid 60's by race morning. There was still some rain in the area on race day along with a little bit of drizzle during the race but the rain actually felt refreshing. I heard a couple people say that it was humid... but compared to Chicago, the humidity in Missoula was barely noticeable to me.

Both courses are mostly flat although the marathon does have a hill around the halfway point. The half marathon starts uphill but the course goes downhill pretty quickly and the hills on the rest of the course are negligible. The elevation is mildly challenging (3600 feet), but compared to Zion Canyon (5000 feet) and Grand Teton (6000 feet), I didn't think it was that bad.

A few other course highlights:

<ul><li>A cannon fires to start both races.
</li><li>The Marathon starts further back at the Clark Valley Fork Bank and most of the first half runs alongside the river and through some of the local forests.
</li><li>The Half Marathon starts at the Maclay Bridge and runs alongside the river for several miles and offers spectacular views of the mountains.
Parts of the course go through Lolo National Forest. I saw a pair of deer around mile 7. I've heard that it's not uncommon to also see moose and elk from time to time as well.
</li><li>Other parts of the course go through farmland so runners will also see a lot of open areas along with other animals like horses and cows.
</li><li>Around mile 4/16, a man in a tuxedo plays Chariots of Fire on a Grand Piano in his front lawn for runners passing by.
</li><li>There isn't a lot of crowd support at the beginning of the race... but that's perfect since that part of the course mainly runs through the forest alongside the river. Runners can enjoy the scenery and the zen feeling that comes with running through an area like that. As the course gets closer to downtown Missoula, the crowds get continually larger and by the end of the race, the are hundreds of spectators waiting near the finish line to cheer everyone on.
</li><li>After the race, there's a big post race party in Caras Park. There's free food, free beer, results, and race merchandise. Anyone who participated in all three running events throughout the weekend can also get a commemorative race poster.
</li></ul>

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I tried to come up with some cons about this race, but I really couldn't come up with anything. The race is a lot of fun, the courses are beautiful, the medals are awesome, and Missoula is a great location for a run. If you ever have an opportunity to do this race, don't pass it up.

If you'd like more information about this race or about other things to do in Missoula, you can find some additional details <a href="http://www.runsandplaces.com/2015/07/race-recap-missoula-half-marathon/">here</a>.

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(2015)
"Breathtakingly Beautiful"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
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Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

For anyone not familiar with Grand Teton National Park, it’s a United States National Park that’s located in Northwestern Wyoming, about 10 miles South of Yellowstone National Park. It includes the Teton Range, which is the youngest range of the Rocky Mountains and parts of the valley known as Jackson Hole.

Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone, and a number of surrounding National Forests make up one of the largest intact mid-latitude temperate ecosystems in the world. Many of the species of plants and animals that existed in the area during prehistoric times can still be found there today. I honestly can’t think of a better place to run a half marathon.

The Grand Teton Half Marathon is held on a Saturday morning. This is intentional because the race directors want people who are only going to be in town for the weekend to be able to do the race on Saturday morning and then spend Saturday afternoon and Sunday exploring the park. They even have special offers for people who send in pictures of themselves doing various activities in the park within 72 hours of the race:

Hike to the top of table mountain (12 miles / 8 hours round trip) and send in a picture of yourself and your race bib and medal at the top and you’ll get 50% off of the next year’s race entry.

Hike to Amphitheater Lake (10 miles round trip) and send a picture of yourself there to get 50% off of the next year’s race entry.

Take the Jenny Lake Shuttle Boat across the lake to Cascade Canyon, hike to the Snake River Overlook, take the Jackson Hole Tram to Rendezvous Point and send in a picture of yourself in all three places and you’ll get 20% off of the next year’s race entry.
Grand Teton National Park - Signal Mountain

Runners who arrive on Friday can pick up their packets at the race expo, which is at the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club. Vacation Races also offers race day packet pickup for anyone who isn’t able to make it to the expo. This is a good thing because depending on where you’re coming from, Jackson Hole might not be the easiest place to travel to (more on that in a little bit).

The expo is a decent size for this race. The biggest thing to make a note of is that the Grand Teton Half Marathon is a cup free race. What this means is that there are no paper cups at the water tables on the courses. Vacation Races does this with all of their races because of their proximity to the National Parks. Runners throwing cups all over the place after taking a sip of water increases the amount of trash and litter in the area, which is a bad thing anywhere, but it’s even worse at a National Park. So instead, runners have two options:

Bring your own water bottle.
Pick up a free hydrapouch when you get your bib and t-shirt at the race expo.

A hydrapouch is a small collapsible plastic container that’s roughly the size of a water cup. It has a clip that you can use to attach it to your hip, but I honestly thought it was easier to just carry mine with me. Regardless of whether you use a hydrapouch or bring your own water bottle, the water tables on the course all have coolers full of water with spouts on the bottom. If you need to stop for a drink, you simply go to one of the coolers, fill up your container, drink, and head back out. This sounds like it would be cumbersome or take a long time, but it really doesn’t take any longer than it takes to stop at a regular water table at any other race. There were enough coolers at each water table that I never had to stand in line. In a lot of ways I like this method better than grabbing a cup. You hold onto your hydrapouch after you finish drinking so you really don’t feel the need to drink all the water right away.

Another note about the expo is that gear check bags are not freely handed out like they are at other races. This is another way to reduce waste. Runners can bring their own gear check bags, or they can also purchase a bag at the expo if they really need one. I love this because I recently threw out a pile of old gear check bags that were sitting in my closet for years. I don’t need any more bags.

The race starts at 8am on Saturday morning and depending on where you’re staying, there are a few options for how to get there. I stayed in downtown Jackson Hole, so I was able to walk to the Recreation Center and take a shuttle bus to the start line. People can also park at the start line if they want, or they can park nearby in Teton Village and take a shuttle. The only downside to taking the shuttle is that the last one leaves at 6:15am so you’ll have to plan to get up a little early. It was still easier than driving though.

Since shuttle riders get to the start line so early, the race organizers have raffles while everyone is waiting for the race to start. Raffles are free (there’s a ticket attached to your race bib) and the prizes are all really good. They range from running gear to free race photos all the way up to a free entry to a future race. There are also plenty of restrooms, snacks and a warming tent at the start line.

The Grand Teton Half Marathon course starts at Beckley Park Bay, does a small loop through the town of Wilson, WY and then heads over the snake river and up through the mountains towards the National Park. The views are breathtaking. The course finishes in front of the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club.

This is not the easiest course I’ve ever done, but it’s also not the most difficult either (Wheeling West Virginia holds that honor). There’s a gradual incline that starts around mile six and continues for most of the rest of the course. I wouldn’t really call this a “hilly” course though because there’s not a lot of up and down and at some points the inclines are barely noticeable. There’s also only a 583 foot elevation gain between the start and finish lines.

What makes this course tough is the elevation. At just over 6000 feet, this was the highest altitude I’ve ever run at. The two closest races I’ve done were Sedona, AZ, which is about 4500 feet and Zion Canyon, which is about 5000. I just did the Zion Canyon half a few months ago and the altitude didn’t seem to affect me in that race as much as it did in this one. I didn’t realize how much thinner the air would be a thousand feet higher up (when you live in Chicago, you really don’t think about these things).

Altitude aside though, this was a beautiful course. There was never a time when I wasn’t looking at mountains, rivers or valleys. In fact the course scenery helped to take my mind off of how challenging the run was. By about mile 10, I started to feel like I was running out of gas but one look up at the Teton Range was all the inspiration I needed to keep going.

There’s not a lot of crowd support during this race, but honestly a course like this is better without it. There are a lot of spectators at the beginning and end of the race because a shuttle bus drives back and forth between the start and finish lines continuously. There aren’t as many people watching along the course, but that contributes to the overall atmosphere. Big crowds are fine for big city races, but when you’re looking up at a mountain range during your run, there’s nothing better than having the opportunity to be alone with nature. I really can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this race.

All of Vacation Races finisher’s medals are really nice and this one is no different. They’re large, heavy, and in the shape of a national park logo with the name of the race and a picture of one of the main sights from the national park that it’s associated with. This one had a picture of the Teton Range.

If you’re planning to travel to Jackson Hole for this race, you’ll have a couple options. There is a local airport that you can fly into called the Jackson Hole Airport. The interesting thing about this airport is that it’s the only one that’s completely located inside of a National Park. Planes literally land right at the base of the Teton Mountain Range so it’s definitely a cool place to fly into. The downside to flying in is that there are a very limited number of flights and airlines that fly into Jackson Hole. Unless you’re flying in from a major city (Chicago, Denver, etc…), you’ll most likely have a layover somewhere. Flights are also expensive. The cheapest round trip flight from Chicago to Jackson Hole that I could find was close to $800.

Your other option is to fly into Salt Lake City, Utah, which is the closest major city. This was what I decided to do and my flight into Salt Lake City was over $500 cheaper than it would have cost me to fly directly into Jackson Hole. I also had plenty of options for flight times. The only “downside” is that Salt Lake City is about a 4 1/2 hour drive from Jackson Hole. I use the word downside lightly though because even though it’s a long drive, it’s also a beautiful drive that takes you North through Utah, into Idaho, and then into Wyoming. Along the way you pass by the Great Salt Lake and drive through two National Forests (Caribou National Forest and Targhee National Forest). I was happy that I decided to fly into Salt Lake City. My flight home wasn’t until later in the evening, so I was able to take my time getting back to the airport and stop at some of those places.

There are plenty of hotels around Jackson Hole. They’re also very expensive. The cheapest hotel I could find was $150 per night and it was a one star hotel that I had never heard of. I met up with my friend Michelle at the race and she and her husband paid $230 per night for their hotel room at the Snake River Inn. They said that it was a good hotel, but if you’re traveling on a budget, my recommendation is to check out Airbnb. There are a ton of really nice houses in Jackson Hole and in a lot of cases their owners are happy to rent them out for a weekend. I was able to get the entire bottom floor of a split level house that was less than a 5 minute walk away from one of the race day shuttle stops for $70 per night. I had such a great experience that I’m going to write a separate post specifically to talk about all the things I loved about Airbnb after I finish this one so stay tuned for some more details in a couple days….

There’s a lot to do on race weekend. Jackson Hole itself is a modernized frontier town that has some great shops and restaurants. You’ll find a lot of art galleries and craft shops around town and you’ll also have the opportunity to learn a little bit about Wyoming History or have a drink at one of the local bars.

If you’re looking for places to eat, the Wort Hotel is a historical hotel in downtown Jackson Hole and its Silver Dollar Saloon restaurant has excellent food and live music. Down the street is the Snake River Brew Pub, which has some tasty award winning locally brewed beer and delicious buffalo burgers. The Snake River Grill is also in downtown Jackson Hole and is an upscale restaurant that serves what many people consider to be among the best meals in the country.

All that said though, the biggest reason to go to Jackson Hole is to visit Grand Teton National Park. From Jenny Lake at the base of Cascade Canyon to the Snake River Overlook to Rendezvous Point, you’ll lose count of the number of sights that take your breath away.

You can buy a 7 day pass to the park for $30 per car. This is nice if you have a group of people with you since it’s still only $30. If you’re planning on doing more than two Vacation Races events within a year of each other, I would recommend buying the $80 pass that gets you into any National Park anytime for a year.

The main road that goes through the park is about 50 miles long and there are a number of places to pull off if you want to stop and take pictures. There are also some side roads where you can go on short scenic drives and miles of trails to hike on. If you look around, you also might see deer, elk, moose, buffalo, mountain goats, bears (be careful) and a variety of other animals.

My only regret about this race was that I didn’t sign up for the Grizzly Double challenge. Vacation Races has another half Marathon in Yellowstone National Park the following week and any runner who does both gets a third medal… but they also get a chance to spend an extra week checking out both parks. The south entrance to Yellowstone is less than 10 miles away from the north exit of Grand Teton National Park. I could have easily spent another week checking out the area. So now I have a good excuse to go back again in the future.

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