Monday, November 09, 2015

2015 Race #13 - Great Smoky Mountains half marathon

After returning from my second amazing road trip of the year, I had only a few days to get ready for my next half marathon. I had bought a three-pack from the Vacation Races series and decided to pick up the Great Smoky Mountains half marathon as my third race since it was only a few hours away in Townsend, TN. 
I drove up late on Friday and went directly to packet pickup. I drove through Sevierville and got caught up in the car show traffic - 45 minutes to go a few miles - before getting onto a windy road to get into Townsend. Packet pickup was a little odd. There was a sign at the end of the road indicating I was at the right spot, but then there were just cars parked in a field with no other signage. Luckily, I saw a guy walking down the hill holding a race shirt and bib, so I wandered up the hill to find a few vendors set up and was able to get my bib, shirt and check in for my volunteer position for after the race. I also got to talk to a woman from the Backyard to Vineyard Challenge that I'll be running next year (more to come soon).

After the race expo, I had to make my way back through the mess of traffic to get to my hotel in Sevierville - for anyone who runs this race, make sure you get a hotel in Townsend instead and save yourself the hassle. I drove past several hotels and I'm not sure why I chose to stay in Sevierville, but there were a lot of options that would have been closer. 

Saturday morning, it took me 45 minutes to get to the start line, even without the car show traffic at 5:45am, mostly because it's a windy country road. As I got closer to the finish line, there was a long backup of cars trying to get into the parking lot. Since this was a point-to-point race, participants were bussed from the finish to the start. The buses were lined up along the right side of the road, so part of the time we were on the left side of them, and then we had to cross between the buses and drive on their right side before turning into the parking lot. I felt bad for the volunteers who were out there directing traffic - they had one small flashlight and a barely reflective vest - and they were having to direct the buses, cars and random participants who were walking in between everything.

Eventually I got parked and hopped onto a bus to the start line. The pre-race staging area was pretty good, there was music and giveaways every 5 minutes and we were in a huge school parking lot so there was a ton of space for everyone to spread out. It was a little chilly, so I kept my jacket on until right before the race started and then I used the free gear check to send my stuff to the finish line. 

The race itself was pretty uneventful. I didn't go into this race with any expectations and put virtually no thought into the race itself as I had spent most of my summer planning other trips. Initially I was going to make this race part of a longer run to kick-off my marathon training, but the morning of, I just didn't have it in me. The race was crowded at the beginning and it wasn't a closed road, so runners were instructed to stay on our side of the road or risk being disqualified. Unfortunately, the first road we were on was small and there were so many runners that the threat quickly went in one ear and out the other for a lot of runners - there simply wasn't space to run just in our lane. Eventually, the race thinned out a bit, but the roads continued to be a challenge - there were several miles that were on highly banked roads which meant you were running at an angle most of the time. I could definitely feel it in my knee and tried to stay as close to the level sections as I could, but sometimes it was inevitable as the whole road looked like the banked Nascar turns. The course went past a lot of really pretty houses that were right on the water.

This race had it's very own 1 mile to go sign - a giant billboard directing people to the TalleyHo Inn which was where the race finished.

  • Mile 1 - 10:26
  • Mile 2 - 11:06
  • Mile 3 - 10:37
  • Mile 4 - 10:55
  • Mile 5 -  11:09
  • Mile 6 - 10:16
  • Mile 7 -  10:48
  • Mile 8 - 11:01
  • Mile 9 -  11:26
  • Mile 10 -  10:32
  • Mile 11 -  10:18
  • Mile 12 - 10:29
  • Mile 13 - 9:42

Official time: 2:20:59
Overall pace: 10:46

This ended up being my fastest half marathon so far this year which was pretty amazing since I didn't go into the race with any plans. Overall, this race was not my favorite - it was fine for what it was, but given the races I did in Wyoming and Montana, this one doesn't even come close. I know I'm spoiled because I can go hang out in these mountains whenever I want, so someone coming from another part of the country may have a different opinion, but I don't think I'll do this one again.

I'm also just not overly impressed with the organization of the Vacation Races team. As I mentioned earlier, I volunteered for this race (like I did at Yellowstone) because the week of the race, they were desperately looking for people to help. They even offered a free entry to one of their 2016 races for anyone who was willing to help clean up after the race. Since I was planning to stay in Tennessee for the night anyway, I volunteered and I was told at packet pickup that we wouldn't be able to start clean up until the awards were given out and then the major clean up would be after the official race cut off. It was a tale of two extremes - either there was absolutely nothing the volunteers could do, so we just stood around waiting or the volunteers were the only ones moving boxes / cleaning up things and at least 3 staff members were just sitting watching us. 

I really do understand that it takes an amazing amount of time and effort to put on an event like this, and there were some extenuating circumstances with this particular race (the gear truck broke down on their drive to the race, so they had a rental), but they do not understand how to utilize volunteers and yet continually seem to "need" them in the days leading up to their races. Overall, I'm just really disappointed in the way this series is run - from the misleading advertisement videos (they all show people running through the national parks which none of their races actually do) to the mismanagement of volunteers to the overcrowded courses, this is not a series I would recommend you go out of your way to attend. If you need an excuse to make a vacation to a national park, this is a great way to add a run to that vacation, but it's probably not going to be worth traveling just to go to one of these races.

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