Definitely Peachy! The Georgia Peach Jam Half Marathon – April 16, 2016 (Cumming, GA)

In keeping with my intention to do more half marathons, I signed up for this race in Cumming, an attractive community about 40 miles north of Atlanta. I’ve done other races in Cumming and nearby Suwanee so I was familiar with the general area; still, I was surprised at how appealing I found the race venue to be. The location is the Big Creek Greenway in Fowler Park, a pristine nature site with a track, soccer fields, baseball diamond, basketball courts, and a skateboard park. Most importantly, there are several clean restrooms close to the track.

Darcy and I drove up on Friday morning and decided to check out the park before we went to our hotel. With a map of the course in hand, we walked the beginning portion, guessing (correctly as it turned out) as to where we would turn north for the first out-and-back section that led to the 3.9-mile turnaround. The course then continues south to another turnaround at mile 10 and then finishes the final 5k with a return to the track. It all seemed very straightforward and ‘easy’ – the course is either cement or boardwalk, with no rocks or roots or any tripping impediments.

Our hotel was the Hampton Inn on Ronald Reagan Boulevard. We’ve stayed there before when I raced A Stroll in Central Park in previous years and we enjoy the Southern hospitality of the staff as well as the cleanliness of the rooms. The hotel is also just a short drive to the park. After checking in, we had a filling meal at Rick Tanner’s Grille & Bar. The menu has an array of tasty dishes so it was hard to choose but I finally decided on the grilled bourbon salmon and cole slaw with a flight of seasonal Cherry Street Brewing beers. Darcy had pulled chicken and rice and an imported cider. We found the lack of loud background music to be a real plus at this restaurant and plan to make it a regular stop on our trips to north Georgia.

After a restful night’s sleep, I arose at 4 am to get ready for the 7:30 am start. Packet pickup is on race day from 5:30 am to 7:00. We left the hotel around 6, made our way to the Greenway, found a parking space (there is plenty of free parking all around the park), and walked up to the tables set up along the track. I was handed my bib with chip on the back and a short-sleeve light blue and orange technical tee shirt. With those Gator colors, I really wanted to wear the shirt, despite the polyester fabric. After the race, I pulled it on over my turtleneck and the women’s cut in medium fit just fine. I will probably save it to wear over my cotton shirts.

In addition to the real bathrooms, there were also half a dozen portapotties set up outside the track. The cool 50 degree temperatures made me eager to stay in our warm car and people watch until 7 am. At that point, I joined the throngs of other participants making their way to the race start at the fire station just up the road. I never did see an actual starting line, no timing mat, not even a line drawn on the ground. I took it on faith that someone knew where the actual start line began. At the final call to line up by pace, I moved to the very back of the crowd with the other slower folks. At 7:30 on the dot everyone began to move and we were off. I never did see any timing mats on the course, not even at the turnarounds or the halfway point. There was, however, a finish line with a timing mat. It kind of reminded me of Hatfield McCoy – a very casual and relaxed, not certified, just for fun race.

There is a 5k as well as the half marathon. Both start at the fire station, but the 5k begins 5 minutes after the half. At the start of the actual path, the people doing the shorter race turn left instead of right. That means there is absolutely no confusion or congestion among the two groups of racers. I found the boardwalks to be very easy on my feet and legs (and as long as the weather was dry, there was little chance of slipping). There are 2 street crossings, one at each end of the course, but police hold up traffic for runners. Although there are several turns along the path, it would be hard, even for me, to get lost, as long as I stayed on the path. I was feeling fairly strong during the entire race but once I made it to the 10-mile turnaround, I really pushed it, passing a very strong walker and several runners who were tiring. The very last segment leading from the trail to the track was a long slight uphill. That was the hardest part of the whole race! I crossed the finish line in 2: 51, under my goal of 3 hours. As I was handed my medal, I could hear the announcer reading the names of the first two winners in my age group. A kind volunteer handed me another medal and said to climb up on the podium with the first two finishers for a photo – turns out I was in third place for women 65-69!

Our post-race meal was at Taco Mac, a local chain restaurant close to our hotel and one we stop at when we are in Cumming. We had another good round of food and drink, flatbread pizza for me and a burger and salad for Darcy, along with another flight of local beers.

I always wonder if I will see someone I know at these out-of-town races, especially the smaller ones. As the race began, I thought it unlikely here. Most of the Darksiders I knew were doing the Walking Dead Ultra in Senoia, also on April 16.   So imagine my surprise when I was hugged at the beginning of the race by Winston Davis, one of my earliest racing pals. We had met at the Tallahassee Ultra about 9 years ago and I had occasionally seen him at races in subsequent years; however, our paths hadn’t crossed at all recently. It was so great to see him again! Although he used to be a runner, today he was walking at a pace a little slower than mine, so Darcy and I waited at the finish line for him. Seeing him was a real treat!

There are so many neat things to like about this race – beautiful tree-lined course, great organization, laid-back atmosphere, and those real bathrooms (but note, they are only at the beginning and at the 3.9-mile turnaround, so plan carefully). My only disappointment was that I never tasted any peach jam; apparently only the very top finishers received jars of that sweet treat.   But never fear – on the ride home, we stopped at The Nut House and I bought some homemade peach preserves to satisfy that itch.

This race is highly recommended for walkers. Everyone who can maintain at least a 16 minute per mile pace will get an official time.

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