Race Review: Tobacco Road Marathon

IMG_3288The well-organized race is great value to runners — nice tech shirt, strong communication, PR bell to ring and a great post-race party.

By Henry Howard

The Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary, N.C., offers runners a flat and fast course, using much of the American Tobacco Trail.

Marathoners run more than 20 miles along the trail, which is mostly what I would call packed sand or dirt. No need for trail shoes, the surface is smooth and easier on the body than a typical road marathon.

Race Review: Tobacco Road Marathon

The course has very few hills and finishes with a nice downhill slope. And once the 4,500 runners — marathoners and half marathoners — crossed the finish line, an abundance of perks awaited them.

Good communication and swag

But before we get to the post-race party, we need to start with the expo. Packet pickup was held at the host hotel, an Embassy Suites, about 15 minutes from the starting line.

The Tobacco Road Marathon expo was easy to navigate and picking up my packet only took a few minutes. There were a variety of vendor booths — Ucan, a local running store, a bread company, a local brewery and other races. I picked up a couple of samples of Ucan and cannot wait to try out some new-to-me flavors.

The race shirts are well designed, comfortable and fit well. Also included in the entry fees were a nice water bottle and printed out instructions on everything from parking to bag check to the lost and found. The race director kept everyone updated on parking, the weather (this was huge as a thunderstorm had been predicted until about 48 hours before the race) and other crucial information via email and the aforementioned sheets handed out at packet pickup.

Marathon Training Academy podcast listener Stacia Brink-Koutroumpis, who lives in nearby Raleigh, also praised the race’s organization.

“This was my first time running in this event,” she says. “I thought it was very well organized and run. It had a nice local feel — small expo for bib pickup (easy in and out if you were in a hurry), free parking, yet big enough to do some shopping/look at other races/talk to medical professionals, etc. if you wanted to spend time.”

For out-of-towners like myself, the directions about parking before the race were excellent. The race sold some on-site parking passes but the vast majority of runners had to park at a nearby office park and take a shuttle bus to (and later, from) the start-finish area. The parking and shuttle aspect was absolutely flawless.

Smooth start to race day

The instructions requested all runners to arrive by 6:30, which was 90 minutes before the start time. It seemed early and there was plenty of time to stretch, inhale some nutrition and use one (or more) of the vast number of porta-potties on hand.

Runners could drop off their bags at gear check. This race offered a wonderful idea for tagging the bags. The race director had available at the expo — and at the bag check station — tags where runners could write their bib number and attach it directly to their bag.

The one thing the race director could not control — the weather — became an issue, but not for the reason I had anticipated as I began monitoring the forecast 10 days before the race. The thunder and lightning storms that had been predicted in the long-range forecast had held off. However, unusual heat and humidity played a role in the outcome of the race for many runners. By noon, it was already 74 degrees.

The course did have plenty of aid stations, complete with both water and Gatorade. One aid station, which runners passed twice, also offered bananas and orange slices. And at least one aid station offered ice to runners, which was welcome, given the weather.

The course itself was shaped similar to a “T,” but with the top of the T much longer than the stem. Both full and half marathoners started at the bottom of the T and ran about 2.5 miles straight until they reached the trail. Then the full marathoners turned right before crossing back and heading toward the left side of the T. Half marathoners did an out-and-back, turning left at the T, and eventually retracing their steps back toward the start.

I enjoyed the course, given that there was plenty of room, even for pace groups. The paved trail was gentler on the legs that roads. And the sandy section was even better than the paved part of the trail.

Neither Brink-Koutroumpis, who did the half, nor I saw any issues with the way the marathoners and half marathoners joined up again. “I was on the way back north when I passed the first marathoners running south (I think I was on mile 8 or so, although I could be off a mile or two),” she says. “The race did a good job with officials on bikes who made sure runners kept to their side of the trail, especially as the marathoners came through, and even when half marathon traffic was going in two different directions. I really enjoy watching the fast long-distance runners.”

Bells, beers and bananas

IMG_3284After crossing the finish line, runners receive a large medal. For those who are really fast — fast enough for a PR or a BQ, there is a bell to ring to signify their accomplishments.

And there are plenty of treats for all finishers: pizza, beer, bread, bananas, chocolate milk and water. “I loved the beer garden afterwards: local craft beer (generous pours with no limits), hot pizza from a food truck, and fresh bread slices from a local bakery,” says Brink-Koutroumpis.

The post-race party was held under a tent, which was originally added to shield runners from the predicted rain. Instead, it kept the heat off us, at least somewhat. The party also featured a local band playing mostly 1980s hits.

You should run this race if you . . .

  1. Are seeking a well-organized, fast spring race.
  2. Demand good value for your race entry fees.
  3. Want to cross North Carolina off your 50-state list and don’t like hills. (Charlotte has a fairly hill course.)

You should not run this race if . . .

  1. Have a severe fear of snakes. On my return loop, around mile 20, I noticed a half marathoner who had stopped in his tracks. I looked down and saw the obstacle — a hissing garden snake — that he wanted no part of. I didn’t stick around to see how this turned out.
  2. Seek races with lots of hills or challenging terrain.
  3. Need lots of crowd support. The aid stations were full of cheering volunteers but there were long stretches along the trail without volunteers or onlookers.

One last word

Most runners know and abide by the sage advice of “don’t do anything different on race day.” Well, a late issue in my Achilles gave me an interesting test. I started feeling some discomfort a few days before the race and wasn’t sure how best to proceed.

I certainly did not want to create a significant injury by going 26.2 miles hard. But I figured that using some KT tape would soften the blow literally of the pounding my Achilles would take. So, I headed back to the expo an hour before it closed and bought the last roll of KT tape.

The instructions were simple and the YouTube videos explained just how to apply it for various injuries. I applied the tape the next morning before the race and it worked really well. I had zero discomfort during the race and it has not been an issue during recovery.

So as you go about your endurance events, be wise to stick to what works but don’t be afraid to use something as a preventative measure for injury.

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