March 16, 2013

Race Report: 2013 Rock 'n' Roll USA Half Marathon

The 2013 running of the Rock 'n' Roll USA half marathon was the second year for this race in DC; prior to RnR purchasing the race, it was the National Half Marathon, which I ran in 2011. The previous race had time requirements for entry and was much less crowded, so I was interested to see how RnR and the course handled 30,000 runners. I figured a for-profit running company like Competitor would put on very effective and efficient race, especially since they run about 30 RnR events a year. I was wrong.

The Expo

Following the same script as the Army Ten Miler and Marine Corps Marathon expo, packet pick-up was at the DC Armory on Thursday and Friday. Parking in Lot 8 was a bit of a hike over to the expo, but I went on Thursday morning and didn't experience a bad wait to get through security and inside. The organization inside was good, with lines by corral/bib number and shirt lines by size. Thankfully corral 2 and the mens small shirt line were the shortest in the building. But the lines for mens large stretched for 40 yards, and this was on Thursday morning; so whereas the organization was good, the staffing levels and placement of them was lacking if you needed a common shirt size. I rushed through the Brooks store, picking up a 'See Daddy Run' onesie for my little one - best deal in the store at $12. Again the staffing level seemed low, as I didn't expect a long checkout line only an hour into the expo being open.

Brooks "Smile Machine"
The rest of the expo contained the usual DC companies, national sponsors, and booths you see at other major events. CEP compression had a nice set-up in the middle with a rainbow of colors, but I wasn't in the market for socks. So I picked up a bunch of free samples, stopped by the Marine Corps event booth, and chatted with a few other event booths that are on my long-term calendar including Ragnar Relay and Bike for MS.

It was just your standard expo, and I lucked into short packet and shirt lines, but the efficiency of the overall pick-up area was pretty bad for many other runners. This was the first glimpse that RnR's significant event experience may not translate into an efficient race day.

The Course

(click to enlarge)
Starting along the National Mall near the Washington Monument, the course runs over Memorial bridge and back to mile 3, then turning and running a lonely, but scenic, stretch of Rock Creek Parkway through mile 6. That's where the elevation turns up, with a steep final climb to Calvert Street. It then cruises along some rollers, to the McMillan Reservoir, and down past Howard University. The final stretch along North Capitol Street, K Street, H Street, and 13th Street is pretty much just DC city running; some scenic spots, some general neighborhoods, and some dips under highways.

Race Day

I think I played the race day morning game as well as I could. There were horror stories of bag check lines, bathroom lines,  and corral chaos, but I cruised through the morning with a little advanced planning. The starting line was at the National Museum of American History, and the website mentioned Federal Triangle Metro stop; in researching beforehand, I noticed the bag check buses were on the Mall, so I got off instead at the Smithsonian Metro station. This saved me from walking with the masses through the starting area, to the bag check, and back. I arrived about an hour before the race and made my way directly to my bag check bus, dropping my bag without a line. Then I just loitered on the Mall and tried to keep warm. The bathrooms near Federal Triangle Metro, the starting line, and the main street to the bag checks were completely overwhelmed; the lines stretched across the Mall for the bathroom bank at 12th street. But if you just walked down the bag check bus line to the very end, there were about a dozen bathrooms and the lines were never more than 3-4 people long, even 15 minutes before the race. A few volunteers pointing people down in that direction would've really alleviated lines elsewhere and led to a better experience for a lot of runners; Pacers has bathroom spotters ("Follow me to pee!" shirts) at the Parkway Classic, and that's a big need at RnR.

My start corral was basically at the front, so I just stood around, stretched a bit, and waited to see when local running legend Michael Wardian showed up to defend his title. They cranked a bit of rock 'n' roll, the few wheelchair participants took to the streets, and moment later the first corrals were barreling into the DC morning.

The course had some familiar stretches I'd run during the 2011 National Half and 2012 Navy/AF half, so I knew to expect some sharp turns and hills, and I was waiting for the Rock Creek Parkway downhill straightaway. The first few miles clicked by quickly, and as we doubled back on Memorial Bridge I kept my eye out for Wardian and others up front. Coming off the bridge and onto Rock Creek Parkway started a slow incline that peaks with the Calvert Street turn. I felt pretty dialed in at that point and started to adjust my race goal from running 7:00 miles to something a bit quicker. The early water stops were manned by only two or three volunteers, which was shocking, but the pack had stretched out at that point and I lucked into getting a cup. The hill up to Calvert was all it was advertised to be, a grueling climb that was thankfully lined with cheering spectators and a group from Ragnar. The climbing portion of the day mercifully ended at mile 7; the impact on my pace was evident, as I was running 6:44/mi pace through 5k and only 6:49 at the 10k mark.

Running down along the Reservoir and past Howard University was a welcome change in elevation, and it's also one of my favorite parts of the course. It's a bit more scenic than the neighborhoods that proceed it, and the crowds at Howard can be fun. The breeze coming off the Reservoir wasn't too bad in the morning, and as I came up on the 10 mile timing mat I'd managed to maintain a steady 6:48/mi pace. The final few miles aren't too memorable, just going through some neighborhoods, up and down some small dips (darn you sunken underpasses!), and they were probably highlighted by me being heckled at mile 11. Some folks were standing in line for a food service and evidently didn't think much of the runners choice that morning. Coming up the small climb at mile 12 was the final challenge, and that's when my legs remembered they were in uncharted PR territory and started to question if we were there yet. But in the end, my final miles were a slightly negative split and dropped my final pace to 6:47/mile, a much better day than my planned 7:00s.

I grabbed the standard post-race food and a few other pleasant options, chocolate milk FTW!  The gear pick-up buses were waiting, but completely disorganized. When I showed up, they said they were still organizing the bags into numbers, so they had to search the entire bus for my bag. There were only two of us waiting at that moment, and it still took about 10 minutes to locate my gear. It was a welcome feeling to add some warm, dry layers and head to Metro; no Cowboy Mouth concert for me, I had a little girl to get home to.

Ultimately, I think I was lucky to "out-run" the problems of this race. I arrived early to check my gear and found bathrooms, but there were horror stories online of 20-minute waits to drop off bags and 1-hour bathroom lines. When the main pack hit the water stops on course, many of them basically became self-service; there were simply not enough volunteers to handle pouring water and handing out cups. Later runners found post-race food gone, frozen chocolate milk, and a chaotic finishing chute. Worst of all, later runners encountered hour-long waits to get their gear. By keeping a fast pace, I managed to avoid a lot of these problems, but it's really shocking how many people had negative experiences with simple logistics that RnR should be on top of considering their price and their experience.

The Results

5k :           20:51  |  6:44/mile
10k :         42:13  |  6:49/mile
10 mi:    1:07:55  |  6:48/mile
Final:   1:28:54  |  6:47/mile 

The Swag

The Brooks tech shirt had a colorful design, wasn't plastered with sponsors, and is a nice change from the usual white shirt. The medal was nice and an upgrade from the DC Half days; it was attached to a cheap generic red ribbon.

The Verdict

The course was familiar and the race went fairly smoothly for me, but overall I wasn't too impressed with Rock 'n' Roll given the higher price and heightened expectations when running with a for-profit company. They seemed to skimp on a lot of runner needs, especially at the expo in the other corral/shirt lines and on race day staff. On top of that, they charged for a lot of extras that most races offer free - like $5 for runner tracking...what? I had big expectations of entertainment on course, it's RnR after all, but was again disappointed. When I think rock 'n' roll, I don't think a couple guys with an acoustic guitar, I don't think acapella, or vocalists, or a drum line. I heard the final concert was good though.

Overall, between the price and missed expectations, and the subsequent horror stories online, I'll probably skip it in 2014 and head down to Virginia Beach to run the Shamrock Half Marathon, a race known for taking care of runners with tons of amenities, extras, and premiums.