This past weekend my husband and I traveled south a couple of hours to Celebration, an attractive planned community close to Orlando and Disney World. Since I am always eager to take part in races that are reasonably priced and walker-friendly, this new marathon held a lot of appeal. It turned out to be pretty close to perfect. With a few tweaks to fix a couple of issues, Celebration may become a destination for runners and walkers looking for a winter race.
We left on Saturday for the easy drive down south, arriving at the host hotel, the Bohemian, around 12:30 pm. Although the hotel has valet parking, we preferred to self-park, and the valet mentioned that some of the city lots still had some spaces available for free. We snagged one and left our car there for the entire weekend. Everything we needed was within easy walking distance: the expo, start and finish of both races, and several very good eating places. The Bohemian is a Marriott hotel, so we picked up some rewards points for our stay, and – although we had to change our room because of some loud ventilation noise – the room we eventually moved to was fairly quiet, clean, and had a small balcony with view of a scenic lake. Even with the marathon rate, it was still kind of pricey but its location made it definitely worthwhile.
We walked to the small expo where several local vendors were selling gels, shoes, and clothing; Publix had a booth and were handing out small covered plastic snack bowls. Packet pickup took a few minutes – bibs for the marathon and half marathon had different color stripes to distinguish each race and chips were attached to the back. Shirts were short-sleeve technical, white and green, and gender-specific; however, they ran large and I later exchanged mine for a ladies small after the race. We also were given a green tote bag with some ads, a sample of Bio-freeze, and running calendar in it.
After leaving the expo, my husband and I headed a couple of blocks over to Celebration Town Tavern, a seafood and burger restaurant with generous portions of hearty food and a casual atmosphere. The Tavern prided itself on New England/Boston specialties so I indulged in a mug of delicious clam chowder and a lobster roll while my husband had an enormous meat loaf sandwich. Once we ate our fill, we strolled over to the start and finish lines where officials were beginning to set up portapotties and pylons. Then it was back to the room to get my gear ready for the next morning and then try to relax.
Only one thing worried me about this marathon; since it was a double loop course, I was concerned about getting lost on the second loop once all the half marathoners left us. Second loops often find me alone and bemused, trying to keep up with faster people way ahead of me (and not always succeeding). I had asked the race director about signage on the course and was assured that there would be green taped arrows at every turn and signs and volunteers to help direct us. That indeed turned out to be the case, although I did have to keep my head down to make sure I could spot and follow the arrows.
Both the half and full marathons began at 7 am on Sunday morning. Weather was perfect – high 50’s to start, 70 degrees by 1 pm, and cloudy. I was cold at the start but a light jacket was all I needed to keep my arms warm. No mittens or handwarmers were necessary. During the day, it never got too hot or humid and the sun never appeared at all. I had carried my sunglasses in my vest pocket but never put them on. I didn’t think I would see anyone I knew here but it turned out that I did indeed see a lot of my friends, including several Savage Seven runners like Liz, Frank, and Harry plus a lot of Maniacs and 50 Staters (Deb, Jim, Dave and many others).
The course is very flat and follows along the downtown streets of Celebration, through extremely attractive neighborhoods, and along several major roads that were open to traffic but coned, except in one area right after the full split off from the half. In that section, we were moving along a major thoroughfare with cars parked to our left and moving vehicles heading towards us on the right. We had to edge close to the parked cars to keep from being hit. This was the only section that appeared to be dangerous and definitely needs some improvement. The best parts of the course were along wooden boardwalks that wove through woods and alongside lakes. It would have been great to have the course entirely on these boardwalks – I loved the springy feeling of my feet on the wooden planks.
Mile markers appeared at every mile without fail – and so did aid stations. It was wonderful to have so many well-equipped and organized aid stations, with so many great volunteers who stayed throughout both loops. I must mention that these volunteers, young and old, were exceptionally well-trained. All of them knew how to offer beverages, holding the cup in the palm of their hand instead of by the rim (one of my pet peeves). There was water, Gatorade, and Clif gels at the aid stations, but I also appreciated the impromptu neighborhood aid stations set up by some gracious homeowners who handed out licorice sticks, candy, and grape juice (and vodka, but that’s another story).
It was hard to watch the half marathoners peel off towards the finish line as I turned to head out on my second time around, but I discovered that my husband was able to find me and cheer me on a couple of times along the course as I wove through the downtown streets. The hardest miles for me were 13 through 18, but once I hit the 20 mile marker I felt a resurgence of energy, especially since I was once again on boardwalks for a while. I crossed the finish line in 5:54, exactly my finishing time at Baton Rouge last week.
A volunteer placed a finisher medal (attractive with a colorful lanyard) around my neck and gave me a bottle of water. Darcy found me and took a few photos and then I looked for some refreshments. We had been promised an array of goodies (more than ‘bagels and bananas’) from area restaurants, and there had been an assurance on the website that these treats would be available for all finishers, regardless of speed. Unfortunately, that was not the case. They did bring in some pizzas and that was very welcome, but it would have been great to have tried some of the restaurant specialties.
My only quibbles are with the lack of cones on a short busy segment of the second loop (a safety issue) and the unfulfilled promise of restaurant treats for back-of-the-packers. The first could be addressed by altering that section of the course or by moving us to the sidewalk for that portion (though there should be a volunteer there to give us instructions). As for the food issue – just don’t get our hopes up. I would have been perfectly satisfied with pizza or bagels if I hadn’t been aware that there were more tempting goodies earlier. With a generous 7 hour time limit, this race is a good choice for walkers and slower runners. It is a perfect choice for walkers who wish to do a half marathon.