Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Best (And Worst) Race Experiences

I recently came across Eventbrite, the world’s largest self-service ticketing platform, which helps people find and plan events. It inspired me to share a blog post about my Best (or Worst) Running Experiences. Hopefully, this post will help you when planning for your next race. You might want to add a few of these races to your bucket list.

My love for running began in the Spring of 2012. Since then, I've ran 36 5K's, eight 10K's, two 15K's,  two 4 Milers, one 10 Miler, 13 Half Marathons, and two Full Marathons. Most of my races are local, but I have traveled to races in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Florida. I don't have a 50 states goal in mind, but I would love to run all of the Southern states.

I've had so many wonderful race experiences that I couldn't narrow this post down to just one race. Instead, I've decided to rank my race experiences into 10 categories.

Best Charity Race

Hands down, the best charity race is St.Jude Memphis Marathon. I've participated in St.Jude Memphis Marathon weekend the past three years. After a disappointing race cancellation in 2013, I returned in 2014 and 2015 to run my 1st and 2nd full marathons. This event attracts 20,000 runners for the Family Fun Run, 5K, Half Marathon, Marathon Relay, and Full Marathon. Participants can register as St.Jude Heroes and raise funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Over $8 million dollars was raised in previous years.

Some course highlights include the Riverfront, Beale Street, Bass Pro Pyramid, Memphis Zoo, Rhodes College, Sun Studios, and the historic Cooper Young community. My favorite part of the course is running through the campus of St. Jude where runners are cheered on by the true heroes: the children of St. Jude and their families.

I think everyone should experience this race at least once in their lifetime. I would highly recommend it to first time half or full marathoners.

Best Race Series

My opinion is a bit biased because I've only participated in one race series. However, the Gulf Coast Half Marathon Series is top notch. If you love running beach towns, this is the race series for you. There are three races in the series: Gulf Shores, AL (late Feb/early March), Pensacola Beach, FL (April), and Mandeville, LA (October).

This series is always well organized. Local organizations show great support at these races volunteering at water stops. The water stops are awesome! The best water stations receive a cash prize for their organization. The parrot heads were in Gulf Shores and cute guys in speedos were in Mandeville.  The pre/post race venues offer great views of the water with live music, plenty of food, and drinks. I absolutely love the soft blend cotton t-shirts with cute designs and the medals which double as bottle openers. Last year was my first year to participate in all three races in the series. I received a special medal for running all three races.

Best Inaugural Race

The Big Beach Marathon and Half Marathon in Gulf Shores, AL was a well organized, fun inaugural race. The full marathon course was a certified Boston Qualifier. I debated running the full, but I eventually settled on the half marathon. The only disappointment of this race was that the half marathon course wasn't certified and it was long. The course map on the official website confirms that the course was 13.47 miles.

The race started at the Hangout and ran down 59 towards Fort Morgan Road then along the paved Backcountry Trails. The final miles ran on Perdido Beach Blvd back towards the Hangout. There were plenty of water stops on the course. There were not many spectators along the trail system, but it didn't affect me. I enjoyed the peacefulness of the trails. The volunteers did a great job directing traffic on the busy portion of Perdido Beach Blvd.

I loved the design of the t-shirt and medals. The Hangout provided boxed lunches with sandwiches, chips, fruits, and cookies at the post race party.

Flattest/Fastest Course

Louisiana is known for being pancake flat. My first half marathon was Rock n' Roll New Orleans. I ran a conservative race. My main goal was to finish under 2:30. I would love to run this race again to see how I could improve my time on this flat, fast course.

I ran my first and only sub 2:00 half marathon at the Gulf Coast Half in Mandeville, LA. This course runs along the paved trails of  Fontainebleau Park, through downtown Mandeville and back. This course is perfect for a PR.

My second fastest half marathon time is currently from the Gulf Coast Half in Pensacola Beach, FL. This down and back course runs along Casino Beach Blvd with views of beach cottages and the gulf. This course is also flat and fast if you can endure a little headwind in the first half.

Hilliest Course

I am not a fan of hills, so I tend to avoid hilly courses. I like to support the Montgomery Half Marathon because it is so close to home and it raises money for local charities.  This is a great event for the city of Montgomery. This was the second year they offered the Boston Qualifying full marathon course in addition to the half marathon and 5K. This race attracts over 1,000 people to the city of Montgomery.

The Air Force does a fantastic job volunteering on the course and directing traffic at busy intersections along with the MPD.  The course runs through many historical sites and neighborhoods. There's plenty of support on course with well stocked aid stations. The finish line is located in the Riverwalk Stadium home of the Montgomery Biscuits baseball team. The mayor of Montgomery, Todd Strange is there to congratulate the runners as they cross the finish. After the race, there's plenty of food and entertainment and post race massages.

If you want to check Alabama's historic capitol city of Montgomery off your list, this is the race for you. I just wouldn't expect a PR, unless you train on hills.

Best Weekend Experience

I've ran the Shrimp Festival 10K the past three years. This race is a scorcher year after year. As much as I dread the heat, I keep coming back for the total weekend experience. This race is held each year during the National Shrimp Festival weekend.

The National Shrimp Festival is an annual event in October on the white, sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, AL. The festival offers live music, seafood, arts and crafts exhibits, sand sculpture contests, a golf tournament, and a 5K/10K run. Everyone should attend the festival at least once in their lifetime. There's plenty to see and do, and it's great fun for all.

The Shrimp Festival 5K/10K starts at the Orange Beach Sports Complex and runs through the paved Backcountry Trails. There are several hundred participants. All net proceeds of the run are donated to Coastal Baldwin Education Enrichment Foundation, benefiting the local Gulf Shores & Orange Beach public schools.

The t-shirt design is the same each year, but it's cute and colorful. I've been fortunate to place in my age group the past two years. The medal is the same cute design that's on the t-shirt. The post race offers live music and plenty of food including pizza, pasta, and drinks.

Most Scenic Course

The Gulf Coast Half Marathon in Mandeville, LA was by far the most scenic of the three races in the Gulf Coast Series. I love the charm of Mandeville. The homes are beautiful. The shops and restaurants are small and quaint. I loved running Fontainebleau Park with the oak trees covered in Spanish moss and the views of Lake Pontchartrain on the course were breathtaking.

I also enjoyed the scenery at the Tuscaloosa Half Marathon in Tuscaloosa, AL. I loved running along the riverfront and on the campus of the University of Alabama. The down and back route of miles 5-8 allowed runners to pass the course highlights of the President's Mansion, Denny Chimes, and Bryant Denny Stadium twice. This is a must do race if you are an Alabama fan. Roll Tide!

Best Start Line

The Blue Angel Rock n' Fly Half Marathon has an awesome start line atmosphere. Rock music selected by the participants was played on the huge jumbotron. The color guard performed and the National Anthem was electrifying on the electric guitar. Confetti cannons shot confetti in the air as we took off to more rock music. There was supposed to be a fly over, but they were unable to do it this year due to the weather.

This race did not disappoint. I loved the course on the NAS Pensacola. There were 10 well stocked water stations on course along with music stations to keep runners motivated. The t-shirt design and medal was awesome! There was plenty of food including pizza and Jimmy Johns sandwiches and live music at the post race party.

Most Emotional/Memorable Finish

I'll never forget my first marathon that I ran at St.Jude Memphis Marathon in memory of my brother Raymond who lost his battle to two types of cancer both diagnosed in the last year of his life. My family was cheering for me as I made the final turn into Autozone Park. On my iPod, Pharrell Williams "Happy" was playing. I always thought Raymond would love that song. Tears filled my eyes as I looked up to the Heavens and said, "This one's for you." I could feel his presence with me throughout the race, but especially at the finish. I will continue to run full marathons in hopes to improve my time, but none will ever compare to my first experience.

Another emotional/memorable finish was at the Gulf Coast Half in Mandeville. I dreamed of running a sub 2:00 half marathon for quite some time. I reached mile 12 right at 1:50. I had less than 10 minutes to run just over a mile. I pushed hard that last mile. My heart was beating out of my chest. When I crossed the finish, the clock read 2:00:13. I knew my chip time would be faster, but by how much I wondered. It took me a while to get up the courage to check my official result. I didn't think I made it. When they printed my result, the paper read 1:59:57. I was thrilled!

A favorite local 5K, Ryan's Run, partnered with Ainsley's Angels this past year. Ainsley's Angels is an organization that ensures everyone can experience endurance events. My mom and I got to run with an assisted athlete, Kylie. This was my most rewarding race experience. I'll never forget how Kylie's face lit up when we approached the finish line. She sat up in her stroller and threw her hands in the air with the biggest smile on her face. This wasn't Kylie's first race. She knew how to embrace the finish line.

Most Disappointing Finish

My most disappointing finish was at the Sea Turtle Half Marathon in Gulf Shores, AL. This is another course that I would consider to be flat and fast. Many runners PR'd on this course. I wasn't feeling well on race day, my knees started bugging me during the race, and I walked most of the second half. This is my slowest half marathon to date.

This was a nice half marathon despite my disappointing time. I loved the down and back route along West Beach. The long sleeved tech shirt and medal were cute. The Hangout was the perfect pre/post race venue. They provided boxed lunches at the finish with sandwiches, chips, fruit salad, and a cookie.

I could go on and on about my race experiences. These are only a few. What do you look forward to the most at running events? What are some of your best or worst race experiences?

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Blue Angels Rock n' Fly Half Marathon Race Recap

March 19th, 2016

I've wanted to run the Blue Angel Rock n' Fly Half Marathon for the past two years. It finally worked out for me to run it this year. This race is capped at 3,000 participants. Proceeds from this run go to the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society.

We arrived late Friday afternoon and went straight to Seville Quarter in downtown Pensacola to pick up my race packet. Packet pick-up was quick and easy. There wasn't much to it, no expo or merchandise for sale that I noticed.

It was pouring rain and thundering all Friday afternoon and night, and it showed no signs of stopping. The race directors did an awesome job of communicating with us about their plans for race day. As of late Friday night, the race was a go. They stated they would make a final decision early the next morning. I prayed the race wouldn't cancel due to severe weather, but I was prepared to get wet if it went on.

God answers prayers. The rain cleared out completely and the sun was shining on race morning. It was a beautiful day for a race.

The race started at 8:00. I was worried about traffic getting on the Naval Air Base and parking, so we left the condo in Orange Beach early. We got to the base around 6:40. We had no trouble getting on the base, but we noticed a few cars being pulled over in the lane beside us. They warned us that we would be subject to random searches.

There was plenty of parking across from the Radford Gymnasium, a short walk from the start line. I went in the gym to use the restroom. It was packed. Several runners were getting their race packets, but most of them were in line for the restroom. I stood in line for what felt like forever, but I was finally able to go. As I was walking out of the restroom, I heard them announce that they were closing them down due to back up. There were some porta potties near the start line. I went one last time before lining up at the start line. The lines were long and I'm sure all the runners weren't able to go before the race started.

I ran into my friend Valerie at the start of the race. We chatted while we waited to start. The start line was awesome. We watched the color guard perform on the huge Jumbotron. There was supposed to be a fly over, but unfortunately they had to cancel due to the weather. They made a few announcements, performed the National Anthem on the electric guitar, and then we were off.

I wore my Half Fanatics singlet because this would be my last of 4 half's in 28 days. After this race, I would moon up to Saturn. I remembered why I love being a Half Fanatic during this race. I received lots of support and cheers from fellow fanatics on the course. "Go Half Fanatic" they cheered.

I had no real time goal for this race. Like the other races in my streak, I planned to take it easy and run by feel. I wanted to take plenty of pictures on the course. There would be lots of photo opportunities.

The first two miles ran past the National Barrancas Cemetery. The crowd spread out and I was settling into a comfortable pace.

  Mile 1- 10:00
Mile 2- 9:38

Miles 3 through 8 were a down and back route along Blue Angel Parkway. We ran past the Naval Air Museum, the Pensacola Lighthouse, and Sherman Cove. I saw a group of motor cycles bringing in the lead runner across the street when I reached mile 4. That was probably the best lead vehicle I've seen.

Mile 3- 9:31
Mile 4- 9:28
I caught up to Valerie just past mile 4. I liked her pace and I wanted to try to stick with her as long as I could. We didn't talk much on the course because we both said we were digging deep to maintain that speed. She helped me push myself until we got separated at a water stop around mile 8.

Mile 5- 9:39
Mile 6- 9:51
  Mile 7- 10:02
Around Mile 8, we ran past the Officer's Club with a Blue Angel plane out front. The biggest crowd of spectators cheered for us around Mile 9 in front of Radford Gym. We were back to where we started with music playing on the large Jumbotron. I caught a glimpse of the finish line to the left. The temperature was rising and all I could think about was how badly I wished I was crossing that finish line.

Mile 8- 9:40
  Mile 9- 10:17

Miles 10-13 were down, around, and back. We ran past the Navy Chapel and the US Naval Aviation School then along Murray Road. We circled around a marina before heading back out on Murray Road, passing the same sights before making the final turn towards the finish.

Mile 10- 9:44
  Mile 11- 10:14
  Mile 12- 10:56
Mile 13- 9:14

I looked at my Garmin and figured if I could make one final push to the finish I could come in under 2:10. I was so thrilled when I crossed the finish line in 2:09:01, my best half marathon time of the year. Michael gave me a high five at the finish. Then, I received my medal from a group of Marines.

I chatted with Valerie more at the finish. I also got to meet some IG/ blogger friends Jodi (My Kind of Fit), Rick (My Life on the Run), and Esmeralda (Mrs.Incredible). I love how I've connected with new running friends through blogging. I also chatted with some half fanatics while waiting in line for my official results.

Rick, Valerie, Me, and Jodi

 Me and Esmeralda

They had plenty of post race food including pizza and Jimmy John sandwiches. The group Not Quite Fab  peformed at the post race party. I snapped a few pictures with the beautiful water views in the background. Then, we headed back to Orange Beach. I begged Michael to take me by the Pensacola Lighthouse, but he said some other time. It was probably for the best. I don't know if I could climb 177 steps to the top after running a half.

I love the t-shirt and medal!