Kind of a corny title, I know, but it’s in keeping with the overall ambience of this weekend – relaxed, family-oriented, and fun. In fact it was the humorous slant taken by the race director on the race website that attracted me to this race in the first place. I liked the idea of the early start for ‘velocity-challenged’ runners and walkers giving even slow-pokes like myself a full 7 hours (in reality, the finish line is open until the last person crosses, and this year 2 people finished in just over 8 hours). I also enjoyed reading the amusing but never disparaging answers to the FAQs. Take a look here http://grandrapidsmarathon.com/information/faq/ and see what I mean.
Surprisingly, there is not much written up in the review section of Marathonguide.com so I had to rely on website information almost exclusively, but I found the info there to be fairly complete and instructive. Darcy decided to come on this trip with me because he had never been to Michigan before so this was a good opportunity while this would be my third marathon in the state (I have done Detroit and Marquette and enjoyed them both).
We left Florida on Saturday morning and arrived in Grand Rapids (GR) around 10:30 am. Yes, only 2 short flights and both were on time. We didn’t even have to adjust to a time change either because GR is in the eastern time zone (a nice change for me after dealing with jet lag from Scotland, Pacific, and Central time zones).
Our hotel was J. W. Marriott, the host hotel and just a few short blocks from the YMCA, site of packet pickup and the start and finish lines. We were lucky because our room was ready when we arrived well before the check-in time of 4 pm. That gave us a chance to settle in before walking over to the Y for the expo and packet pickup. The expo was relatively small, with about 30-35 booths set up around a large activity and conference room, some selling race paraphernalia and services, others advertising local races, and several enlisting runners for their charity programs. The Grand Rapids Marathon supports numerous local organizations, with money from race events staying in the community.
I followed the signs to look up my race number and get my bib and backpack with long-sleeve tech shirt, a pair of socks, poster, and race instruction booklet. There was a small snafu when I realized my name was misspelled (Martha instead of Marsha) but a volunteer quickly made the change on a ‘solutions’ sheet and everything was corrected by the time I finished the race.
We had worked up quite an appetite by this time so Darcy and I were ready for some local cuisine. Grand Rapids is noted for its fine beer and numerous local breweries. We decided to try Founders Brewery several streets away because of its reputation. When we arrived we saw that it was crowded with people, even though it was still early Saturday afternoon. The reason? It was a Harvest Party and there was a cover charge, which got us one beer and a souvenir glass. We were tired and hungry so we decided to stay, pay the cover, and order some food. I had a delicious Reuben while Darcy worked his way through an enormous roast beef sandwich; we both enjoyed the microbrew. We sat outside on the patio with heated fire pits all around us and watched the locals as they watched the Michigan/Michigan State game on the outdoor television.
That was fun but it was soon time to get back to our hotel so I could get some rest. The early start was set for 7:00 am and the weather report called for freezing temperatures overnight. I was not happy about the cold but I was prepared. I wore long Injinji socks, long pants, 3 layers of thermal tops, buff, mittens with hand warmers, warm hat, cap with visor, and a jacket. As the day ‘warmed’ up, I took off the mittens (but put them back on several times), tied the jacket around my waist, put the buff in my pocket, and pinned the hat to the inside of my jacket. But I was never really warm so I was glad I had on so many layers.
In addition to the marathon, there is a marathon relay, a half marathon, and a wheelchair marathon which includes the West Michigan chapter of Team Triumph, a group that helps aa participants with disabilities complete a race, similar to Achilles. I saw at least a dozen or more of these teams with their ‘angels’ in red shirts, as they zoomed past me.
There were about 150 people joining me at 7:00 and the race director joked and talked encouragingly to all of us as we counted down to the start. It was still dark at that time so I couldn’t see too much for the first several miles but we were mostly on city streets for those early stages. Around mile 5 we began a long stretch through an industrial area and around the Butterworth Park landfill site. This was my least favorite part of the course; it was unattractive and had a pervasive unpleasant odor. Because the course is an elongated loop, we had to repeat these miles once again during the final stretch. In-between these two sections were many attractive and pleasant miles on wide paved mostly flat bike paths.
Aid stations began appearing every two miles after mile 2 and they were stocked with water, Gatorade, and occasionally pretzels, gummi bears, fruit, and gels. At one of the last aid stations, there was even pickle juice! I grabbed a cup since pickle juice is great at warding off leg cramps (at least according to anecdotal evidence). At almost every aid station there was medical help as well as several portapotties. Maybe it was because of the cold, but I had to stop 3 times to use the latter.
I crossed the finish line in 6:15:59, not too shabby considering this was my 4th marathon in 4 weeks. I received my medal gratefully and accepted a bottle of chocolate milk, bagel, apple, and chips, and then was gently encouraged to enter the post-race party area where Darcy and I could select from a quartet of microbrews from Holland (MI) Brewing Company and some chili and crackers from Wendy’s. Yes, family members were encouraged to join finishers partaking of food and beverages. Instead of everyone leaving as soon as they finished the race, many people spent some time eating, drinking, and chatting while they cheered latecomers in. It was a true party atmosphere and extremely enjoyable.
After a while I could feel my muscles start to stiffen up, so it was time to return to the hotel for a shower and nap. Our evening meal was at HopCat Brewery, another fine eating place. We had a very early flight in the morning so we quickly went to sleep afterwards.
This is a fine race for walkers who want the amenities of a big city with the feel of a friendly Midwestern town. Be sure to take the early start, and then relax and enjoy.