To be honest, yes, this Rock ‘n’ Roll event was significantly better organized and enjoyable than Las Vegas was. Neither was an absolute disaster, and neither was perfect, but they were both enjoyable races and of course I can’t help but draw comparisons. That said, I think I’m done with the Rock ‘n’ Roll brand1 unless it’s wicked convenient and I have a $50 discount code again. Mostly because at heart I am a Country Mouse and prefer the more scenic rural courses and smaller crowds, but also because I’m underwhelmed with the “Rock” hype and would much rather support a race that puts more effort and less logoeering in supporting bands along their race course.
Anyway, that’s me. Onwards to the race!
Overall, this was well run. There were a few minor disappointments, but nothing that I personally felt soiled my experience. The expo was the usual labyrinth of vendors giving out coupons and junk, but had a few unique vendors I haven’t crossed paths with before. Okay, one. EONI (Earth’s Own Natural Ingredients). And they make wicked tasty cakes and granola cookies that they pretend are healthy for you. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between the low-cal and full-cal cinnamon cakes. They don’t seem to have much of a web presence yet, but I’m nagging them for more info and might just buy some treats next time I’m at Sprout’s2. I was hoping for some sort of cool giveaway from P.F. Chang’s sporting the cute running dragon logo they came up with, but it was not to be. They were giving out fortune cookies, paceTats, and samples of a delicious cocktail involving Sriracha, melon vodka, and Singha, but no dragons.
Post-expo, we killed some time wandering around, getting a feel for where the Friday night concert was, determining how best to avoid Suns3 crowds, ate dinner we’d brought with us, then caught some of the opening band and explored the “CitiScape” plaza that is only marginally better than the shell of a city downtown Phoenix was a few years ago. After wasting some money on a round at the Tilted Kilt4 event bars, we discovered a cafe/grocer on the house right where we could buy a bottle of wine and enjoy it on the patio. Deal. We settled in and enjoyed the opening act and random promotional DJ rambling during the set change, then mozied on down to the main floor for Fitz and the Tantrums, which, simply put, are an amazingly awesome band, even more so live. Though I suspect that race organizers had nothing to do with booking them other than saying “yeah, sure” when CitiScape asked if they could promote the show through the race, it was an excellent choice and a great Friday night. Meaning plenty of type to recover and rehydrate on Saturday before the playoffs.
Race morning, my wife agreed to drop me off at the start line and meet me at the finish line after a non-race run of her own somewhere near Tempe Town Lake. It’s amazing what a little Kate Pierson can do. I met up with some Marathon Maniacs for a quick group picture, joined the port-a-potty lines, then headed over to the corrals to wait. And wait. And wait. And then run!
The course isn’t exactly a scenic one, but it was a perfect day for running. The course starts in downtown Phoenix, near where the Expo and concert was, so probably very convenient for folks who were visiting and staying in downtown hotels. The course quickly turns up 7th Avenue, which is essentially office and industrial parks mixed with some apartments and stores, but was somewhat more enjoyable than my arbitrarily chosen long run a couple of weeks ago that started by heading up 19th Avenue5. Most of the spectators along this part seemed to be people who discovered they were locked in to their parking lot for a few hours, so they figured they’d watch the fools run by. Plus a few folks who looks like they were waiting for the bus.
Around mile 5, we turned right on to Missouri, where things turned more residential. There were still people watching from their front yards, but also clusters of spectators looking for specific friends. We meandered from neighborhood to neighborhood before joining up with the Arizona Canal around the half way point. When I went on my long run January 2, I actually ran along a big portion of the footpath6 which, as far as I know, runs the full length of the valley. The marathon course stayed on Indian School Road alongside it, though, as there were plenty of locals out for their regular, Saturday morning, non-marathon run or bike ride.
This section of the course was apparently changed from last year. In the past, I’m told we would have blown through Scottsdale and south, coming to to the finish line in Tempe from the east. This year, however, they made miles 13ish-19ish an out and back, looping around the center square of Scottsdale, which I think is a good thing for big races to do. Normally, I think I’m pretty anti-out-and-back. I like one big ol’ loop or point to point. But when you’ve got a race big enough to draw elites and sub-elites, it’s pretty awesome to see how fast they’re roaring down the road in the opposite lane.
Once we cut down south in to Scottsdale, the course links back up with the half marathon. But unlike Vegas where we shared one side of the road for 13 miles, here we paralleled for just the final two miles, but in separate lanes. We actually came in on an overpass that the half runners were running under, then while they had the southbound side of Mill Ave, we had one or two lanes of the northbound side, allowing vehicular traffic to use the remainder. I don’t know how this worked out for the half, but the section I saw seemed to be managing pretty well, and for the full it was more than enough room. Missing, however, was the 24 mile marker and the clock for the 25 mile marker, which may or may not have had an impact on my mental well being.
Also much better than Vegas, all the water stations seemed to have relatively happy, intelligent, and friendly volunteers who stuck to their posts. Because the desert can be a sneaky bitch and I didn’t carry my own hydration, I grabbed water at every stop but the first one. No collisions, no soaking of any volunteers, and no soaking of me!
In addition to the bands, it seems that every high school we came anywhere near sent their cheerleaders or pep squad out to add support. Some where just there with signs, some in uniforms or with pom-poms, but three went above and beyond – and I wish I could remember what schools did this so I could tell them specifically how much they rocked.
- One school is apparently the Cougars7, and I don’t know if they tried to get cougar costumes and came up short or just decided from the get go that they should dress up as assorted animals, but there were three or four girls in tiger costumes, one as a penguin, one as an elephant, and I think maybe a lion and a few others. Full costumes. Head to toe. I high fived (or high pawed?) them all and let them know how confused but appreciative I was.
- Another was out there with one of those big banners that football players jump through as they enter the field at the top of the game, but the girls were all decked out in vaguely “metal” looking outfits in their school colors (black and purple) sporting Paul Stanley Starchild makeup.
- My third favorite was a school that decided to forgo the cheerleading and put some disco on the PA, got decked out in tacky disco outfits, and hung a disco ball over the road via a giant helium balloon arch. While not particularly rockin’, they were one of the more enthusiastic groups, which is always fun. Also, the disco reminded me of my wife’s realization as to why punk happened. Which in turn reminded me to go faster. Funny how the brain works.
Post-race was very well executed. We looped in to Arizona State’s parking lot, where the half and the full each had their own finish line and separate post-finish corrals. Both of which were bigger than the single corral we shared in Vegas, where there were about 10,000 additional people. It was so smooth that the volunteers handling the food tables were grabbing handfuls and bringing them out to hobbling runners. Concierge banana service! Your choice of flavors from the nice Jamba Juice man over here. Fancy! I actually even stopped and let them take my photo in front of the silly logoed backdrop holding up my medal and grinning like an idiot. Which I never do. There was room for me to talk to a Maniac who finished ahead of me by about three minutes without getting in anyone else’s way. There was room for roaming photographers to stop people and get extra photos (of me holding up my medal and grinning like an idiot). Huzzah!
What there was not was a clear indication that there were two points of no return. It was clear when we left the “finisher’s only” corral, though there was no automated announcement as there was in Vegas. But I was chatting with Dana, a guy I’d met in the start corral who had the same target pace as me (but came a few minutes closer than I did) and we both breezed right by the line for the Desert Double Down medals, assuming we could come back later when the line was shorter, only to learn that the family meet-up area was past another point of no return and we’d have to loop all the way around ASU stadium to return to the finish area. At least we could get back in.
On the other hand, the family meet-up area was the ASU track, which was where the awards and post-race concert stage was, so family (i.e. my wife), could enjoy the show while waiting for their loved ones to finish. I managed to finish before the show started, and even caught some of the awards as I looped around to get my Double Down medal. There was plenty of room on the infield of the track for everyone to stretch, relax, stand, sit, etc, and still have a pretty good view of the show. Plus, the B-52s are a hellabetter band than Cheap Trick, so it’s the kind of show you actually want to stick around for.
As we left, my wife spied a likely explanation of how the post-finish experience could be so well executed here and such a mess in Vegas; outsourcing. All over the place we saw employees of Pro-EM, a local (and appropriately named), Professional Event Management company. I don’t know if ASU required Competitor to hire Pro-EM in order to use ASU facilities, if it was a last minute change after the problems in Vegas, or if it’s just a random decision, but it was a very good thing and should be standard operating procedure for any race series of this magnitude.
Overall, awesomeness. My minor disappointments, however, are easy to sum up:
- “Discount” Fitz tickets – When I registered, runners are offered the chance to buy “discount” tickets to the pre-race Fitz and the Tantrums concert for $13.10 (so clever) instead of $19. Which is fine, cool; a great price for a great band8 either way. But there was no information about where to pick up the tickets until well after the “final info” e-mail. And when we got to the Expo, the map conflicted with the information provided, which led us to an unattended table, and then finally to the info booth, who were not only unapologetic for the wild goose chase, but offered us as many tickets as we wanted. Um, yeah, if the show is free I want my $26.20 back, punk. And at the show itself, the “runners at the door” price was lowered from $15 to $5. While I’m all for trying to get encourage more people to get to the show, that’s just a series of slaps in the face to those who paid “early.” Maybe promoting the “rock” aspect of the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” series would be a better approach?
- Delayed start due to traffic – Once again, while the organizers and volunteers may be able to handle the volume of people they want to lure to these events, that does not mean the physical area they’re having them can handle it. We lucked out by choosing the marathon start line as a drop-off point, as when my wife passed the half/finish drop-off exit, there were cars backed up on the freeway at least two miles in each direction. Which not only delayed the half start, but delayed the marathon start because these people needed to park and get to the light rail to get to the marathon start. To their credit, they communicated this fairly well at the marathon start line, and had the planning to know that they needed to delay an extra nine minutes to avoid having the race collide with the light rail9, so kudos for that!
- Lack of pace groups – Apparently, the fastest pace group was 3:30, and that guy happened to get injured and had to drop out with a few miles to go. I really hate the “I paid $so-and-so for this event and I expect X, Y, and Z” attitude, but I think I have it a bit on this issue. One of the perks of a large race is, in my opinion, pace group leaders who know what they’re doing and cover all finishing times from course sweep to open men BQ. In fact, in my first two marathons (or maybe first and third?), pace groups had two leaders, just in case someone had to hit the port-a-potty or got hurt, and I assumed this was standard practice. This is not so. Definitely need to read my FAQs more closely next time I have a specific time target!
- Lack of corral segregation and/or enforcement – I was a little worried that I was in Corral 1. I’m never in Corral 1. But even people who had entered slower estimated times were in Corral 1. The 3:30 pacer was in Corral 1. And I think the 4:00 pacer may have been as well. That’s a big corral. Plus, once again, nobody was checking whether people were in the right corral. There were people that were beside me in the corral that I didn’t see the whole race – even on the other side of the road during the out and back. That’s some crazy mis-corraling. The purpose of a corral isn’t to put X number of people together, but to help people get in the right order before the start. Without pace group leaders or even pace estimate signs along side, we were all grouped together, thinking we were within maybe 15-20 minute finish times of one another, but in reality there were over 90 minutes of discrepancy all within one corral. Sloppy.
- Lack of “rock” bands – Not to dis the bands, but there were only maybe two rock bands on this course. The rest were blues, motown, and jam bands. And they get tiny little 8.5×11″ signs taped to one post of their tent to promote them10, but that’s it. Unlike Vegas, I did find a full list of the bands on their website11, but that’s all the promotion these guys get. Maybe if there was more focus on the bands and less on the brands they might be able to pull in bands that match the genre label on the event. After all, Miami is apparently Latin Music and Nashville is apparently Country Music, so they’re clearly willing to bend genres as appropriate. If Phoenix is Blues, that’s fine. Call it that. The tow truck company with a PA near the start bustin’ out Michael Jackson rocked more than most of the bands.
- Lack of communication – From the lack of info on the Fitz tickets, to the lack of info on the pace groups, to lack of info on the Desert Double Down there was a whole lot of lack of communication. Of information that was certainly known internally or at least in the process of being decided with a specific date of decision/communication that could be shared. Competitor group sends a lot of e-mails with a lot of info, but most of this is also on their web site. It’s the holes in this info that are infuriating. They’re pretty responsive to intelligent questions on their event Facebook pages, but usually via links to the web site or mentions of forthcoming e-mails that don’t really answer the questions. And the info people at the expo don’t have any answers either. I don’t know if they’re volunteers or employees, but they need to know every detail of what’s happening or how to find it out if they’re going to be put in charge of answering questions. Argh.
Anyway, that’s enough griping. Despite my ramblings, they were very minor disappointments.
When I learned that there were no pace groups faster than 3:30, I was very happy I grabbed the paceTats at the expo. I generally think of paceTats as a rather stupid product, but as I didn’t make a pace band ahead of time, I slapped 3:10 on one arm and 3:20 on the other and went with the plan of trying to stay between them in order to hit my 3:15 target. I also bumped in to one other guy near me in the giant corral, Dana, who was targeting a 3:15, whom in hindsight I should have stuck closer to at the beginning.
But no, I settled in to pace that turned out to be too fast, burning up those first two miles (I couldn’t see the clock on the one mile sign) in less than 14 minutes. Awesome if I was targeting a 3:03 marathon, but I don’t think I’m at that level of training yet12. Lacking a watch with an instant estimate of my current pace, I tried to adjust pace at the end of each mile, checking the race clock and listening for the splits from my phone that were more off than usual due to the start line amidst big shiny buildings downtowm.
All day Saturday, for reasons unknown, I was unusually anxious about this race. Not nervous or worried; just randomly anxious. This resulted in less than stellar sleep and, apparently, some poor choices at the get go. Which were only multiplied due to the half hour delayed start.
Eventually, around mile 8, I slowed closer to my target 7:20 pace and held it steady for a few miles. By then, the field had thinned considerably, but because I had started so fast, people who were running steady paces in between my initial pace and intended pace were now passing me left and right. I tried not to let it get the better of me, but apparently got a bit too chill. I was still in my happy zone around the 12-and-a-bit mile mark (right after the previously mentioned KISSesque cheerleaders) when a spectator who was counting runners told me that I was 194th. All things considered, that was pretty awesome. I was spurred on to try and hold that sub-200 position, thinking I was “among my own” by then, more or less running with people in the right pace range.
Shortly after the half, as we cheered the elites on in the oncoming lane, the paceTats on my arms 13 and mile marker clocks informed me that I was losing about 15 seconds per mile. My overzealous start had built me a solid buffer, but I was eating away at it. I tried to block out the urge to do the math as to how long it would take me to fall below my goal finish time and just focus on picking up the pace. I had some faster miles and I had some slower miles, but I never got back under my target pace after mile 15 or so. In those last miles the excessive start pace really hit me and I clocked those last three miles at 8+ minutes each.
Just when I needed it, there was no mile 24 marker. And mile 25 had no clock. cool. I had tried picking up the pace as much as I could as I saw the half marathoners pass below us, but I didn’t know exactly where on the course that was. As usual, the crowd gets bigger and louder the closer you get to the finish, and even though this particular course had a series of turns where you think the finish might be right around the next corner, they did have a mile 26 marker, which was awesome.
But, alas, it was also confirmation: I had blown my 3:15 plan big time, but there might still be hope for a PR. My wife got a nice high-viz spot right near the start of the corrals and was waving a sign she made using the P.F. Chang’s dragon I adore so much. Seeing her, hearing her14, and knowing that the finish line had to be close I gave it everything I had left, which was apparently more than expected, as I’d sort of been in recovery mode for the last few miles. I picked off a couple of other runners in that final push, and managed to finish just after the clock clicked in to the 3:20 range.
One of the finish line photographers even caught the look of anguish on my face as that happened. I both love and hate that person.
When the final numbers came back later that night, it turns out I did manage not only a 33 second PR, but my chip time was just under the 3:20 mark.
Not what I set out to do, but considering how much I’d sabotaged myself, a very satisfying finish. I frankly signed up for this race to give the Rock ‘n’ Roll brand a second chance and squeeze in one more marathon before building myself a “real” training plan for a solid goal at New York City in November15, focusing on speed and PRs at shorter distances in the meantime. The sign my wife made, by the way, said “This is your year!!”, tying in with the P.F. Chang running dragon for the Chinese Year of the Dragon (which starts on January 23) and referencing that I was born in 1976 and thus am “a dragon” . . . so that’s my motto for this year. This is my year. Apparently, in Chinese, I’m now four.
So, yeah, as to today, I could have prepared better and likely performed better, but I had a good time, set a PR, and really enjoyed the day. Especially the B-52s and lunch with my wife at Rúla Búla16 afterwards.
That aforementioned 3:19:51, by the way, was good enough for placing 222 overall (out of 3863), 34 out of 376 in my age group (35-39), and 186 out of 2215 guys. Which, as a friend on dailymile pointed out to me, is top 10% in all three. So, pretty snazzy. I can live with that.
And the moral of the story, boys and girls?
Postscript; My wife seems to think I’d look good with forearm tattoos. Maybe I should get my target pace permanently tattooed? But then what happens if and when I reach that goal? Something I must ponder.
- …unless I find myself in Portugal at the right time of year… ↩
- Once I’m back in training mode, of course. ↩
- Did you know Phoenix has a basketball team? Did you know that people outside of Los Angeles, New York, and Boston actually go to basketball games? Crazy talk. ↩
- The same idea as Hooters and Twin Peaks, but vaguely Celticer. ↩
- Though the Mexican, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants on 19th made that run smell a lot better! The lack of metal recycling centers on 7th wins out for “scenery.” ↩
- Maybe it was a bike path? It looked multi-use and there were both runners and cyclists. ↩
- According to the chalk writing on the course I tried to read without tripping. ↩
- Especially a national act. ↩
- Which was just enough time for a last minute pre-race pee break! ↩
- Some had brought their own extra sign, others had a girlfriend or roadie wave the little sign at runners. ↩
- And once finding this, I did track down the Vegas list, so mea culpa on that critique from last time. ↩
- Despite Greg McMillan telling me I’m capable of a 3:05:14 based on my 5k PR, I’m not there yet. ↩
- The paceTats held up remarkably well considering I wore arm warmers over them for the first several miles. I may just need to break my promise to not do product reviews on this site… ↩
- For once; usually I just see her mouth move and wave back. ↩
- Yeah, that’s right. I bit the bullet and gave NYRR three month’s worth of my race budget. I’m doing another big city marathon. And I’m going to run the largest marathon in the United States. With the intent of setting a PR and specific goal. What am I thinking? ↩
- The post-race Irish Pub tradition we’ve come to enjoy is harder to follow through on after small, rural marathons than these big city races I poo-poo so much. Conundrums abound. ↩