Yeah, we left Utah three weeks ago and settled in to Mesquite, NV for the winter.  But then the organizers of the Provo Halloween Half Marathon started a big push of Facebook ads1, which, coupled with a rude awakening of the cost of a weekend of Vegas parties for Halloween weekend, looked like an awesome idea for a weekend away for Halloween.

We love us some Halloween.  And have been trying for the last couple of years to find good Halloween races where we could put together some fun costumes to run in.  We registered for Run Like Hell in Bend last year, but ended up having to pull out 2.  So with the Provo Half hanging out there teasing us, we couldn’t resist cashing in a few Marriott points and making it our Halloween event.  Very glad we did.  This may become a habit3.

Since it’s only 13 days after Ceridwen ran the Nike Women’s Marathon and 21 since I ran Layton, we decided early on to pick out a matched costume idea and make it a fun run together rather than each doing our own thing.  We settled on Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa costumes, although we played fast and loose with the space time continuum4.  I stuffed a Deuter hydration sac in my Yoda backpack to complete the look and keep water for two available at all times5.  Overall, for our first attempt at run-friendly costumes, I think we did pretty well.  We were certainly easily recognizable to spectators and fellow runners, though Leia more immediately than Luke.  When we passed people, there was usually a three pace lag before we heard “look, Yoda!” behind us6.

So anyway, that’s how we ended up driving almost 300 miles for a half marathon.  Definitely the furthest I’ve traveled for a race, and way in excess of the drive time vs run time ratio I like to maintain.  But hey, it’s my rule and I can break it.  For the most part, I’m very pleased with the race.

The Good Stuff

This race is only three years old.  It’s gaining in popularity every year and for good reason.  It’s all downhill.  It promotes the Halloween costume factor to the point that gets a majority of people to wear costumes or at least dress up in some manner7.  And it starts on the side of Mount Timpanogos, cruises down State Route 92, a.k.a. the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, which, as you might imagine is a fairly scenic run, then hooks on to the Provo and Jordon River Parkway for nearly nine miles of riverside trail through Provo Canyon in to a finish at Ron Last Park in the outskirts of Provo.    Pretty frickin’ awesome scenery.  Even the quarter mile in the shoulder of US-189 was up against the river and cliffs of Provo Canyon.

The weather for the race was absolutely awesome.  Although it was about 28° when we were dropped off at the start line, there was a large heated tent that fit most of the runners and things warmed up a bit when the sun came up.  By the time the rather late start time (9:00) rolled around it was about 35°, finishing up in the mid 40°s at the finish in town.  Granted, a little chilly for those of us who chose a costume with no sleeves, but at least I was warmer than the people who went with body paint as a costume.

Since the start line is only accessible via the road we run down and there’s not really any room to park up there, running this sucker requires a bright and early morning to catch a bus from the Provo mall up to the mountain.  We got there right when they started running the buses (technically a few minutes before the scheduled 5:30 start, since there were already so many people waiting out in the cold) and hopped on the second one to leave.  Which was also, unfortunately, the second one to pass the start line due to bad instructions and lack of signs or volunteers, so we got a pre-dawn tour of a few more miles of Scenic Byway until there was a spot wide enough to turn a few buses around.  There was a little bit of frustration amongst our fellow passengers, but most of us were happy as pie to enjoy the extra time in the heated bus before waiting around for 9:00.

To balance out the fact that the sun’s not up and we’re on top of a mountain in northern Utah in late October, they set up a huge heated tent for people to congregate in.  Though vast, it’s not really large enough for the 4000 person turnout, but this was well publicized beforehand and those with a need for warmth were advised to take the first batch of buses to ensure “inside” time.

Crappy photo. Great costume.

Inside the tent was also the costume contest, which wasn’t very well organized, but fun nonetheless.  A chaotic attempt at putting people on a stage and gauging applause was used to award prizes three deep in the solo and duo/group categories.  We seemed to get a good response for the only husband and wife dressed as twin brother and sister, but weren’t called up for the filtered-down round of “voting.”  Things were running late and the m.c. was trying to hurry things along.

Also denied was the best running-themed costume idea ever: a Garmin Forerunner 305!  At least he made it in to the final round for the solo costumes.  Things were a little less insane before groups of 20 people piled on the stage to do their rehearsed performances.

Due to the increased size of the race from past years, the State Police required a break so that they could let traffic through on I-189.  Solution; split the start up in to two waves, broken off after the 2:10 pacer.  Once the pacer crossed the road, stragglers were held up for traffic until the second start at 9:20.  We started in this second wave, based on Ceridwen’s P.R. of 2:32, figuring even if her coming off of marathon training puts her in an amazing cruising speed, we’re not going to get to the highway before they stop traffic again.

Once things thinned out with the first wave getting in to the corral, we headed out in to the sunshine to enjoy the views from the port-a-potty lines.  (Personally, lining three dozen toilets along the top edge of a steep hill seems like a bad idea, but, well, as far as we know there were no poopalanches, so who am I to criticize?)  Any race that can be described as having beautiful views from the port-a-potty lines is bound to go well.  Right?

And then, exactly 20 minutes after the first wave8, we were off.  Although it’s a mountain road, UT-92 is a pretty wide road, and once we cleared the start line people thinned out pretty quickly.  There was the usual shifting back and forth until everyone sort of fell in line with others going the same pace, but nobody fell off a cliff or got trampled, which is very important when considering your start line.

Since the scenic drive is the only way up and over the mountain, traffic couldn’t be fully stopped, so after a half mile or so they tried to remind us to stay in the left lane so traffic could pass.  There were only a few cars on the road anyway, and with the exception of one woman cluelessly running in the middle of the right lane with a pickup truck patiently tailgating her9, this didn’t seem to cause any problems.  I’ve done several races where the roads aren’t completely closed and was a bit concerned about the lack of constant traffic cones, but it was a non-issue.

The views were magnificent the whole way down and we were both enjoying a comfortable pace on the downhill.  With the exception of a couple of quick stops to adjust shoelaces or intergalactic pleather shin protectors, we stayed ahead of the 2:30 pacer without a whole lot of intent, which was great news for Ceridwen’s P.R.

No, when I ran to catch up with her after adjusting my pleather I was not able to resist shouting “Wait, Leia!

Crossing the highway, we ran alongside the motorists that were patiently waiting to be allowed through again. Some were cheering, some were pointing at the different costumes, some where showing off their awesome stereo system. The key is that nobody seemed to mind at all that the race was holding up their ability to get where they were going. A refreshing change from some events.

The remainder of the race was on the Provo/Jordan River Parkway trail, which I believe continues all the way up through SLC to North Salt Lake where we stayed for the weekand leading up to Layton. As one might surmise from it’s name, it follows the Provo, and later the Jordan, River. We enjoyed fantastic views of the mountains, the river, the waterfalls, and the fantastic fall foliage as the spectator density slowly increased for the remainder of the miles before hooking a right turn to the finish line where we had a solid tunnel of screaming people with blonde children cheering. Blonde children really like them some Princess Leia.

Finish line; water, fruit, Hawaiian brand potato chips and onion rings, an awesome finisher’s medal, and frivolity. Works for me. We plonked ourselves down on the lawn for a while and cheered on those finishing after us.  Since we really only saw the costumes of those near us in the pre-race tent or running around our pace, it was nice to be able to check out some others, both finishing up after us and recovering nearby.

The race actually has a “mascot” hearse which they put out for photo ops. The Hearse’s trailer doubles as the race director’s podium, putting both him and the speakers up high for a better view of the finishers and better projection, respectively. It also provided a nice surface to post preliminary results on, but for whatever reason we couldn’t find ourselves10.  When we confirmed with the official results posted on Monday, it turns out that Ceridwen did indeed PR by more than five minutes.  Because she’s that damn awesome.  Or maybe it was the Jedi in her.  Somehow, she’s always known.

We stuck around for the overall awards – winners got a glass vase/bowl full of candy and their photo on the blood stained podium with fake limbs hanging out – then gathered up out things and caught the shuttle bus back to our car11. Overall, an absolutely awesome and enjoyable day.

The Problems

But all was not perfect. Frankly, for lack of a better term, some people are raging douchebags and got all bent out of shape due to some minor mishaps. However, I can understand the frustration of a series of mishaps all adding up. But lack of planning on a participant’s part is not the race director’s fault. Other things are.

In the spirit of constructive criticism…

  1. The big issue that got things off on the wrong foot was packet pickup. From my understanding, there was a mixup with the transfer of data from the registration software to the timing company, so many packets were simply not there for people. Those that were there were not exactly in order. Between these two issues, people waited in line for upwards of two hours to get their packet. The director posted an explanation/apology on their Facebook page, promising not to use that software again, but if he reads this I’d advise against that. There was a reason they changed software this year. Don’t doubt that decision. They now know the issues with it and can plan accordingly. If they use something else new next year, the pitfalls are unknown. From conversations with others, last year’s chips were picked up the morning of the race; it was a good change to switch to on-bib timing and try for packet pickup the day before. If they change software again, they need to vet the process better. That’s all. All things considered, they adapted to the problem fairly well. But…
  2. Communication. Leading up to race day they had a really good variety of communication via the race web site, e-mail, and Facebook. But when they started running in to packet pickup issues, there was nothing. Understandably, they were focusing efforts on fixing the problem and moving people through packet pickup quickly, but the open communication forum of Facebook was flooded with people bitching and moaning and spreading misinformation. The mechanism is there; they need to take a moment and step back from things and let those not yet at packet pickup know what’s going on.
  3. Packet pickup part 2; they used an unoccupied storefront in the mall for pickup, which was probably a low cost option, but not practical. Only about 20 feet wide, we entered the storefront lengthwise, with volunteers spread across the side wall by last name. This meant that the long line spreading across the mall entered perpendicular to the 20ish short lines for each volunteer, creating a bottleneck and mass confusion as to what line people were in when we branched out. With that many separate lines, there needs to be better coordination and logistics feeding in to those lines. (E.g. a different configuration to avoid the perpendicular approach and/or a “wait here” point with a volunteer feeding the shorter lines.)
  4. Packet pickup, part 312; 3600 some-odd registrants in a six hour window is going to be rough, even if all the packets are present and in order and the layout flows smoothly. The event is growing; time to grow the packet pickup. (Might I recommend soliciting a high school for the use of their auditorium?)
  5. Race day morning, the first half dozen buses overshot the start line due to a lack of clear instructions or volunteers/signs telling them where to stop. The same thing happened in Layton. Maybe it’s a Utah thing? We weren’t really complaining about the extra half hour on the heated bus, but the people waiting for our bus to get back for a second run weren’t too happy. Should be an easy thing to fix; just needs to be on someone’s race day checklist.
  6. Tent space? There was fair warning about the limited space in the heated tent, but if registration numbers grow again next year they should really try to get a second one. Or cap registration to what they can reasonably handle for bus, tent, and road capacities.
  7. Water! This wasn’t an issue for us, because I had a Jedi master full of two liters of crisp Utah aquatic goodness on my back, but slower runners and walkers who were depending on the water stops ran in to problems with volunteers running out of water. One team noticed they were near a water fountain and took the initiative to refill their jugs as quickly as they could, but others had no resources nearby and had to shut down before the midpack of the second start wave came through.
  8. Terminology.  This is really the only item that I am strongly disappointed in.  Everything else I’m willing to chalk up to growing pains, lessons learned for the organizers, and mistakes they couldn’t have foreseen (but certainly could have handled better).  But the release of this year’s logo drives me mad.  This is the Provo Halloween Half Marathon.  That’s the name on their web site, their Facebook, the race results, all the advertising, etc.  And it makes sense, because, well, it’s in Provo, near Halloween, and a Half Marathon.  Why then, my friends, did you suddenly rebrand it as the “Halloween Marathon Provo 13.1″ when creating a logo?  Did your graphic designer screw up and nobody caught it?  Did you think that dropping the word “Half” would make it somehow cooler?  Is someone religiously opposed to alliteration?  What the hell?  I’m all for the efforts of finding and popularizing a better name for half marathon13 to break the perception that it’s a lesser event in some way, but no matter what you want to call it, 13.1 miles is not a marathon.  If you drop the word “half,” you’ve got to drop the word “marathon.”  Now, there’s nothing wrong with branding an event as a marathon but also having a 13.1 distance 14, but this event has one distance – 13.1 miles (assuming you don’t fall and hurt yourself) – and calling it a marathon is just lying.  Plus it loses the alliteration of “Halloween Half.”  Dudes.  There was no reason to screw up the logo like that.

Still, all things considered, far more went right than went wrong.  Participants and spectators all appeared to be having a good time – we certainly did.  Sometimes it’s easy to get all stressed out when something goes wrong, but if you’re bound and determined to have a miserable time only you can control that.  We went in to it to enjoy the event and enjoyed it through and through, save maybe for realizing that someone forgot to take a hit of her inhaler before we started.

Run! Yes. A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger...fear...aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice.

Show 14 footnotes

  1. Either that, or Facebook’s craptastic targeted advertising algorithm picked up on the fact that we were in the Provo area, or an hour north of it, a few days after we left.
  2. …and I think they actually ended up canceling it.  They certainly only did a Portland version this year.
  3. Well, not necessarily this specific race, but Halloween races in general.
  4. For those of you who somehow don’t see the issue, Ceridwen’s Leia costume is from A New Hope, sans hood and sleeves which proved too unwieldy to run 13.1 miles in, and mine is from Empire Strikes Back, set two years after the Battle of Yavin that closes ANH.  We’d totally get kicked out of any CosPlay group.
  5. I’m normally not a hydration-carrier, but Ceridwen’s Nathan pack would ruin the look, so we went with the camo approach
  6. Plus one “Look, he’s got an Ewok on his back!” . . . Don’t worry lady, we don’t judge.
  7. You know, those lazy teenager “this is my costume” t-shirts, cartoon character shirts with matching hats, and fun orange and black outfits that you might wear to the office in late October.
  8. Which I believe started just a few minutes late.
  9. The race details not only told us to stay in the left lane of 92, but asked runners who use headphones to keep the music off until they reach the Parkway trail.  Maybe she couldn’t read?
  10. One page was missing names and bib numbers, so maybe we were there.
  11. This was apparently an issue they corrected from last year, when there were huge lines for too few buses.  Quadrupling the number of shuttles coupled probably with some people who assumed it would be a cock-up again and arranged a two-car car pool solution resulting in a zero-wait-time boarding process.  Score.
  12. Yes, really.
  13. Halfathon, 21k, Pikermi, a ten miler plus a 5k, or just a good ol’ 13.1 mile race.
  14. Recent case in point, the Nike Women’s Marathon.