At least that’s true in Little Rock, where the race directors concentrate their efforts on making a bigger, heavier, and more impressive medal every year as the highlight of their well-organized series of races. This is the third year I have traveled to the city of Little Rock to do the marathon and I am always impressed with the care and coordination that is taken to put on a great show.
I flew from Jacksonville early Saturday and arrived in time to check in to my hotel, the Marriott Courtyard, right next to the starting line. Each year I can look out my window and check on the weather and watch the people gathering for the early start. I head downstairs about quarter to 6 am so I too can begin early. The race directors make sure that the early start is not an optional start but a chance for people who need at least 6 hours or as many as 8 hours will be able to finish the course. This includes people like myself, who finish very close to 6 hours. We like the reassurance of knowing we won’t be left on the course to fend for ourselves.
The Expo is good-sized and held at the Statehouse Convention Center, a short walk from my hotel. Packet pick-up is easy and quick – got my tech tee, bib, chip (the square kind that ties on your shoe and must be returned), and then walked around the booths, stopping to purchase some injinji socks (I buy some everytime I see them because they are impossible to find in my town) and check out a few upcoming races. The mandatory meeting for early starters was held at 3 pm and lasted about 45 minutes; it’s an informal Q and A session with some brief discussion of the course and race etiquette (move out of the way of elite runners when they pass, for example). We are cautioned to stay behind the lead vehicle so we do not lose our way or get to aid stations before they are set up – ostensibly at a 15 minute pace (but it turned out to be more like a 13-14 minute pace).
Race day began with temps of 37 degrees with a wind chill of 27 but it did not seem that cold. Maybe that was because I did not have to stand outside in the freezing cold for more than 15 minutes, but in any case it was a nice change from Dallas and other corral type races. I met up with Viktor, another Darkside Club member, and we chatted until the countdown began. Then Viktor took off quickly and I never saw him again. At some point I must have passed him because results showed that he finished an hour after me; perhaps he stopped at a portapotty or took a break. Anyhow, it was good to see him again at the start.
The LR course is varied – we pass through neighborhoods both fancy and plain, by the stately capitol building twice, in front of Little Rock Central High School made famous (or infamous) for its 1957 battle over integration, and a long out-and-back in a pleasant park before heading back towards downtown and the finish line. There are some hills around miles 14 – 18 but they are relatively mild. The slight inclines at miles 24 and 25, while gentle, are definitely harder to manage, coming as they do at the end of the race. Lots of people come out of their houses with children and pets to cheer on the racers. Near the final mile is the Lipstick Aid Station – with volunteers handing out lipstick so we women can look beautiful as we cross the finish line. I’m usually concentrating so hard on my pace at that point I quickly pass by, thank them but waving off the lipstick. At that point it would take a LOT more than lipstick to make me look presentable! Finally, I can see the finish line and I head directly for it, the announcer calls my name, and I breathe a sigh of relief. A volunteer removes my chip and another puts a 3 + pound medal around my neck – and I wear it proudly, as do the other finishers. Some junk food and fruit followed by some nutritious stuff, too – yogurt and chocolate milk.
Back to the hotel for a shower and nap and by 4 pm I am ready to head out to the Clinton Library for the post-race BBQ. My experience this year was not as good as it had been in the past. The food was at least 30 minutes late, the salad was so-so, and dessert was candy and oreo cookies. While the Clinton Library is a great setting, there is no space big enough to hold everyone so participants are forced to choose one of several equally crowded rooms. Music is always way too loud for conversation and outside it was too cold to sit comfortably. I ate quickly and returned to my hotel to pack and fall into a deep sleep.
Bottom line: This is a great race for first-timers. Every detail is attended to, the course is well-marked, and there are plenty of aid stations with water, Gatorade, and fruit. The early start makes it a race that really welcomes walkers and slower runners, with 8 full hours to complete the course. For new visitors to Little Rock, I recommend coming a day or two earlier (or staying a few days after the race) to tour the Clinton Library, the Old State House Museum, and the Arkansas History Museum, all within walking distance of downtown. On my first trip to LR, I did all those things plus visited the public library and tasted my first deep dish Chicago-style pizza and Memphis BBQ (I know, this is Little Rock, but everything was delicious). Plus, there is that great MEDAL!