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Monday, April 6, 2015

Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon - Race Recap

Well, it's been over a week since the race, but I'm finally sitting down to recap my amazing experience at the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon in Lexington, Kentucky.  Just in case you don't make it to the end of the post, I want to make it clear right off the bat - I recommend the heck out of this race.  The race itself was on the most stunning, rural course, the expo was well-organized and held and the beautiful Keeneland racetrack, and the race weekend was filled with unique experiences highlighting Lexington's rich bourbon, farming, and thoroughbred traditions.  I loved this race weekend!

Post-race, all smiles!

The City of Lexington

My weekend started on Thursday, when I completed the 6-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Lexington and checked into my Airbnb accommodations.  For those unfamiliar, Airbnb gives private homeowners the ability to rent out rooms and properties directly to travelers.  I found and was immediately drawn to a woman renting out her Amish-built art studio which resided in her backyard garden, complete with chickens, dogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs milling about!  I chose this location for it's uniqueness, and I immediately felt drawn into the specialness of the Lexington community.

The view outside of my door!  Hey, chickie chickie!

After dinner and drinks on Thursday night (in a University of Kentucky bar during a Wildcats-WVU March Madness game!) I turned in for the night knowing I'd have a full day ahead of me.

The Expo and the Day Before

Friday morning, I woke up and went straight to the expo.  This race weekend was somewhat unique in that the race was Saturday morning, so the expo took place on Thursday night and all day Friday.  Run the Bluegrass has an overarching theme of thoroughbred horse racing, and the Expo was held at the Keeneland racetrack, a stunning property full of stately buildings and rolling, green fields.  The Expo was not to big, not too small, and seemed well organized.  I got my bib, my shirt, and bought a good amount of swag including special race-branded Bourbon!

First thing Friday morning at the Run the Bluegrass Expo.

The official race shirt, a lightweight cotton hoodie, and my purchase of race-branded Bourbon!

Another cool thing about this race is that organizers offered unique experiences during the days before the race, including Bourbon tastings, farm tours, trips to meet award-winning horses, and meals from noted local chefs and restaurants.  I did not end up participating in any of the official tours.  I ended up doing my own visits to a couple of the distilleries.  I'm guessing that their organized distillery tours are pretty similar to the tours I found.  I made my own visits to 2 Lexington distilleries -  Woodford Reserve (lots of cool old distilling methods and historical buildings) and Town Branch (up-and-coming distillery/brewery with a variety of beers and spirits).  If I come back to run, however, I will definitely partake in the opportunity to meet one of the horses, or go to one of the special meals.

Tasting Kentucky Bourbon at Woodford Reserve Distillery.

The Race!

Here's the first thing you should know about the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon: it's hilly.  It's CONSTANTLY hilly.  I come from Pittsburgh, where we boast the steepest hill in the United States (Canton Ave in Beechview, 2 miles from my apt).  The thing about Run the Bluegrass is that no one hill is super long or super steep, at least not by my Pittsburgh standards, but you are going up and down hills from the start to the end.  Literally.  There is no respite.  If you come from a flat training environment, I honestly don't know how you would like this course in terms of its challenge.  For those coming from flat areas, the race does publish a treadmill training guide with grade equivalencies.  I personally prefer training outdoors, but I think the treadmill guide is such a cool training feature.  It also gives outdoor trainers an idea of what they're getting into!

In addition to the challenge of the hills, race morning greeted runners with a "feels like" temperature of 17 degrees Fahrenheit.  Super cold for waiting in the corrals, but honestly pretty perfect for the race.  It was sunny, clear, and not windy at all.  I could handle 17 degrees, especially once I started moving.  Pre-race, runners were definitely bundled up in the corrals!

So cold and sunny waiting for the race to start!

The race started at 9 am, which was great because it gave the sun plenty of time to rise despite the chilly temperatures.  I started in corral 4 of 7, and experienced only a short wait as the corrals started 2 minutes after one another.  With a medium-sized race field of approximately 4,000 runners, the course wouldn't ever be too crowded.

I embraced the beautiful scenery and the hills, running and walking conservatively up, and using my momentum to race quickly down.  The course was stunning to view, running through countless horse farms, with thoroughbreds exercising or grazing in the fields along the road.  The horses and the farms were both breathtaking, and I even saw some cows, chickens, and dogs along the course as well.

 Honestly, it was a very even race for me.  Opposite to the Urban and Disney races I normally run, there weren't a lot of landmarks or marked changes in the course.  Just steady hills and reliably stunning scenery.  I kept an even pace as well, averaging 11:54 in the first half and 11:28 in the second.  (Which adds up to be my second-fastest official half marathon time!) The course felt smooth, calm, and peaceful throughout.  I didn't have a particular time goal, and, I honestly never thought too much about my running.  I just enjoyed the scenery and the sunshine, and let myself run! 

The pictures do nothing justice.  Not the challenge of the hills, and not the beauty of the course.  There were hardly any spectators, which seemed a bit odd coming from the city/Disney race background, but it made for a zen-like, lovely experience.  In the end, I kept faster-than-marathon pace, which is great because I used the race as a training run for the Pittsburgh Marathon, and I had an amazing time.

Another special feature of the race was that a guest of honor was Scott Menzies, widower of Meg Menzies, a runner tragically killed by a drunk driver last year while out for a morning run near her Virginia home.  Scott was a speaker at some race weekend events, and mile 9 of the race was dedicated to Meg's legacy.

Mile 9 was dubbed "Meg's Mile."  As it turns out, Mile 9 also boasted the steepest uphill grades on course.  Dedicating the mile to Meg and her family helped me remember to be strong, and enjoy the run I was in, regardless of it's challenge.

After Meg's Mile, I rose up and coasted down through three more, and made my way to the finish!

To me, the thing that makes this race so worthwhile is the absolute celebration of Kentucky culture - the rolling bluegrass hills, the thoroughbreds, the bourbon, and the hospitality!  I would recommend it to any runner without reservation - they even have a 7-mile run the same morning, and kids races the night before.  Oh, and the races allow runners to bring along leashed dogs, push strollers, and they had their first wheelchair athletes this year.  It's truly a welcoming and joyful race experience.

And, in case the race didn't seem happy enough, runners get free Kentucky Ale beer, and free Papa John's pizza at the end.  Yep.  10/10 would run again.

*All un-watermarked photos are my own.  All watermarked photos are purchased from Run the Bluegrass as part of their $10 for unlimited downloads package!  Yet another reason to love Run the Bluegrass!*

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